King and Kin: Political Allegory in the Hebrew Bible

Written by Joel Rosenberg Reviewed By Kenneth M. Craig, Jr

Joel Rosenberg’s recent book provides a significant and stimulating discussion of political allegory in the Hebrew Bible. Rosenberg refers to the Bible’s ‘political import’, a phrase which he explains in detail. The many biblical writers were of course concerned with advancing particular views of God, of morality, and of religious practices in general, and they were also great story-tellers (as for example the books of Genesis, Esther, and Jonah testify). But Rosenberg’s point is that the biblical writers were also deeply concerned with describing Israel’s political community and existence. For this reason, topics such as leadership, justice, crime, political stability and instability, and relationships between the rich and poor were of primary concern to the writers. Thus Rosenberg offers a needed balance to any who might describe the Hebrew Bible only in terms of its ‘literary’ merit or exclusively in terms of ‘spiritual’ categories.

By focusing on the styles, themes, and structures that are found from Genesis to 2 Kings (particularly the Garden Story (Gn. 2–3), the Abraham narrative (Gn. 12–25), and the history of David (1 Sa. 16–2 Ki. 2)), Rosenberg is able to call attention to their interrelation. Genesis is described as a companion work to 2 Samuel, a kind of ‘midrash’ or commentary on the Davidic history. Within the book of Genesis itself, an overall pattern may be discerned. At the end of each of the patriarchal stories, certain aspects of the Garden Story (Gn. 2–3) reappear. In these narrative units, a main character (a) leaves a homeland and/or kin, (b) allows one son to be preferred, (c) suffers exile from the adopted home, (d) experiences the downfall of the favoured son, and (e) witnesses a son in exile.

When discussing each of these stories or story cycles, Rosenberg does not supply commentary in the traditional manner. His approach, like the biblical material itself, is episodic. He offers ‘a series of short, interlocking essays, each seeking to pinpoint some moment in the institutional history of ancient Israel brought to bear in the narrative action or dialogue’ (p. 111). The series of essays are illuminating (particularly those related to the Davidic history), but the reader is not always sure how they relate to each other and to the thesis of the book. Although disjointed, certain ideas are, however, particularly significant. For example, in place of simple one-for-one encodement (an interpretative practice which has justifiably given allegory a bad name), Rosenberg suggests that allegory is best understood not as a mode of something outside of the biblical text but rather in something textual. In his words, ‘allegory is that which shows—or hints of—the relation between signs, words, and texts, a relation only fully fused in the experiences of reading, and fused in a manner that induces or encourages further reading. The allegorical sign thus always points away from itself toward an “other” ’ (p. 202).

The lack of lists and intricate diagrams in this book often enhances the argument. Students of the Bible should consider this fine book.

Kenneth M. Craig, Jr

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary