Law and Liminality in the Bible (JSOTSS 202)

Written by Nanette Stahl Reviewed By J.M. Sprinkle

This brief work by the Judaica Curator of Yale University focused on the much neglected interrelationship between law and narrative in the Pentateuch. She selects for analysis a number of passages considered to be times of new beginnings and transition in the divine-human relationship. These occasions she labels ‘liminal moments.’ Her thesis is that the inclusion of law within these liminal narratives is especially significant and enlightening.

This study is synchronic in orientation, with an almost exclusive interest in the final form of the text rather than its prehistory—the labels J. E. D and P are not used. Nor is she especially interested in comparing her analysis with the conclusions of mainstream critical scholarship. Instead she concentrates, with the help of Russian formalist literary theory (M.M. Bakhtin), on the way the text as it stands conveys meaning.

In this regard she is not without insight. For example, Stahl brings out clearly the dialectical, polyphonic nature of biblical law. Statements that in formal logic are contradictory work together to make a meaningful, but much more complex, whole. For instance, the statement ‘of every tree of the garden you are free to eat’ is contradicted (though in fact only qualified) by the statement ‘but as for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you must not eat of it …’ (Gn. 2:16–17). Likewise, the prohibition of murder is in contrast with cases where Israelites are commanded to kill. These are but more obvious examples of what operates covertly everywhere else. Where law enters the narrative, that law serves not only to affirm the narrative, but often also as an agent of disruption that destabilizes it. It often serves both a positive and negative role, combining permissiveness and restraint. The laws thereby lend to the narrative greater profundity.

Stahl sees a polyphonic tension between the blessing of Genesis 9:1 and 9:7 (‘Be fruitful and multiply’), which brackets and thereby tempers the grim reality that there will be ‘fear and dread’ among the animals for man, and that animal slaughter and the murder of humans will exist in God’s creation (9:2–6). The same is true of Noah’s description as the only man righteous enough to be saved through the flood, and his fallibly human drunkenness afterwards. In the Sinai narrative, law is both a token of intimacy related to the offer of a covenant relationship, and at the same time a source of alienation from God, as in the commands not to come too close, and later when the law is violated by the making of the Golden Calf. The law, then, shows the flawed nature of even these exalted moments. Examples of this sort could be multiplied.

Although this work is creative and thought-provoking, not all of Stahl’s conclusions are persuasive. Stahl’s view that Jacob’s wrestling with the angel has homoerotic overtones is without merit. Stahl questionably argues from silence when Genesis 9:1 does not repeat from Genesis 1, ‘and God blessed them’, before repeating the command ‘be fruitful and multiply’. Stahl also argues unconvincingly that because the word for ‘tool’ (Hebrew ḥereb) in Exodus 20:22 (25) is more often translated ‘sword’, the reason why wielding a ‘tool’ against a stone intended for an altar profanes it is because of the association of ḥerebwith violence and death. More likely, this is simply a less frequent meaning of ḥereb’s semantic range, and Stahl has fallen into midrash.

Despite the tendency to over-interpret, Stahl does have genuine insights into the relationship of law and narrative. She thus makes a creative and much needed contribution to a neglected area of biblical research.

J.M. Sprinkle

Toccoa Falls College, Georgia, USA