Methods in Old Testament Study
On the Way to the Postmodern: Old Testament Essays 1967-1998, Volume 1
(JSOTSup, 292; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), pp. 23-45
Methods are a means to an end; so before we speak of methods in academic Old Testament study, we must speak of goals in Old Testament study. Many, perhaps most, people come to the study of the Bible with religious goals in mind: they want to know more about the Bible because they believe it will deepen their faith, communicate God's will to them, and so on. They have a preconception about the nature of the Bible; perhaps it is for them the word of God, the Žnal authority in matters of faith and practice; or else perhaps they see it rather as the deposit of the religious experiences of ancient Jews and Christians, a valuable resource book for religious believers of today. Nevertheless, those who have religious goals as their aim need to realize that biblical study of itself will not reach those goals, though it would be surprising if it did not have a great deal of religious pay-off (to put it crudely). The academic study of the Bible has been, and must be, one in which people of any religious faith, or of none, can engage, and can co-operate. The immediate goal of academic biblical study must be one that allows but does not require religious preconceptions; for many, the immediate goal may be only a stage on the way to an ultimate (religious) goal, but for others it may be a sufŽcient goal in itself.
When I Žrst wrote this chapter, I suggested that the primary goal in biblical study should be understanding. Other goals people have in studying the Old Testament, like learning Hebrew, or discovering the facts about the history of Israel or passing examinations, even life goals like deepening one's religious faith or becoming a wiser person, can best be regarded as secondary goals in the academic study of the Old Testament. For only some goal like 'understanding the texts' can be in tune with the nature of academic study. Given that there is an Old Testament (or as we should perhaps rather call it, Hebrew Bible), what else can be done about it in an institution of higher education? It cannot be preached, and it cannot be 'taught'-as doctrine, that is, as what one ought to believe; for a university or college is not the place for that. But neither can it be used simply as a textbook for ancient history or as a source for illustrating social customs in the ancient Near East; for it was self-evidently not for these purposes that the Hebrew Bible was brought together in the form that it has and it does not as a whole have the character of a history or a manual of social customs. Only some description like 'the Scriptures of the Hebrew people', or 'the sacred writings of the Jews which now also form part of the Christian Bible', can do justice to its essence. It is a strange combination of history and religion and literature, and the most appropriate way of handling such a document in an academic setting would seem to be to attempt to understand it.
Now that I come to prepare a revision of this chapter for the second edition of the book, I have to say that I am not so sure that understanding should necessarily be the primary goal in biblical study. One might well go on to ask what the purpose of such understanding is, what one is going to do with one's understanding, what difference it may make to you if you understand it, how understanding it may change you. Once we ask questions of this kind we imply that there are goals beyond understanding. A Marxist formulation has it is that the point is not to understand the world but to change it-which means to say that if you already regard the world as unjust, oppressive and the like, merely going on understanding how unjust it is would be rather a waste of time; what an unjust world needs is to be changed into something better. Or if we think of ills and evils like cancer or poverty, we might also agree that to rest content with understanding them, their causes and their nature, would be a rather inhuman thing to do; what we really want is to prevent them or alleviate them. And if we think of goods and beneŽts like happiness or job satisfaction, who would be satisŽed with merely understanding them and how they come about when it might be possible to enhance people's lives by creating more of them?
So, when it comes to the Old Testament, what goals in the study of it could there be beyond understanding? My answer is: evaluation or critique (on the basis of understanding, of course). I would not want the academic study of the Bible to be an opportunity for people to express their prejudices either for or against the Bible, but I would like to see biblical scholars throw off some of their traditional reserve and their stance of 'objectivity' and frankly say what it is about the Bible they want to afŽrm (if anything) and what it is they cannot adhere to (if anything)-that is, to express their own personal evaluation of the material they are doing their best to understand. Otherwise I do not see that we are being honest with ourselves and fair to our students.
It happens that the last Žfteen years, the period since the Žrst edition of this book was published, have seen an upsurge of biblical study of kinds that can be called critique or evaluation. I am referring to the methods in criticism that go under the heading of 'poststructuralism', of which feminist, ideological and materialist criticisms are perhaps the most notable. I shall be dealing with them in the second section of this chapter, as 'second-order methods' of Old Testament study. All that needs to be said at this moment is that none of them can dispense with understanding. Though understanding the Old Testament may not be the only worthwhile thing to do with it, there is nothing academic we can do with it at all if we do not make the utmost attempts at understanding it, the parts and the whole, in its own terms and for its own sake.
There are other academic goals we can have in the study of the Old Testament that are neither understanding or evaluation, properly speaking. These are goals we might have when our intention is to use the Old Testament for some other academic purpose, such as, for example, to reconstruct the history of ancient Israel, to establish what daily life in ancient Israel was like, or to learn the classical Hebrew language. These are all proper academic goals, and all of them will have something to contribute to our understanding of the Hebrew Bible. But they are not in themselves attempts at understanding or evaluation of the Old Testament, and so I will be referring to them in the third section of this chapter as 'third-order methods' of Old Testament study. They too require understanding of the Hebrew Bible itself, and so modes of understanding will be the 'Žrst-order methods' of biblical study and the Žrst section of this chapter.
1. First-Order Methods
Since we are speaking of understanding as the Žrst of our goals in Old Testament study, let us be clear about the terms we should use. When we come to formulate any understanding we gain, whether of part or of the whole of the Old Testament, we call that formulation or putting into words an interpretation. Now, since it is probably impossible to understand anything without putting it into words, at least in one's own mind, one might as well say perhaps that 'interpretation' should be the chief aim of Old Testament study. I prefer, however, to say 'understanding', since that focuses on the processes by which one comes to understand, rather than 'interpretation', which focuses on the crystallization of that understanding. Nevertheless, using the term 'interpretation' is a useful reminder of what kind of writing about the Old Testament is most appropriate to its nature. Those works that illuminate the text by offering an interpretation, whether of a phrase or a book, the meaning of a verse or the structure of a biblical author's thought, are the most suited to its character. While not all commentaries are illuminating, the commentary form is the quintessential mode of biblical interpretation; but the essay on character, plot, or theology can be equally valuable for the interpretation of larger passages.
One other term, frequently encountered in biblical studies, needs to be introduced at this point, namely exegesis. 'Exegesis' is in fact nothing but interpretation, but the term is usually reserved for the kind of interpretation that explains phrase by phrase or verse by verse the biblical passage; 'interpretation' may refer to a more discursive treatment of longer stretches of biblical text.
Biblical interpretation has been going on for a long time (see Chapter 1), ever since any part of the Bible was composed, in fact, for every hearer or reader is an interpreter of what he or she hears or reads-otherwise we do not understand what we hear or read. Certain methods that have been successful in biblical interpretation have acquired names familiar to biblical scholars-though they may be unfamiliar to many experts in the interpretation of other literary texts. I will Žrst discuss three of these methods traditional in biblical scholarship, and then three other methods more familiar to students of other literatures. None of the methods discussed in this chapter is wholly distinct from other methods; some have fairly clear procedures, while others are more an approach or an attitude to the text; there is no predetermined sequence in which these methods can most fruitfully be applied, and no way of telling in advance which will yield the best results; and in many cases a method is not very different from common sense, so that one is not always aware of using a particular method.
a. Traditional Methods in Biblical Scholarship
i. Historical-grammatical exegesis. This is in fact not so much a method, but more a way of life to most biblical scholars. The term refers to the endeavour to interpret any passage according to the natural sense of the words ('grammatical') and according to the probable meaning of the author in his own time ('historical'). As a method, it functions Žrst as a warning against arbitrary or fanciful interpretations, such as were often (but not invariably) to be encountered in pre-Reformation interpretation. Thus, while an allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament often saw in the name Jerusalem a veiled reference to the pious Christian soul or to the heavenly city, the historical-grammatical method insists that 'Jerusalem' in the Old Testament always refers to the ancient city of that name, unless there is good evidence to the contrary. Or, whereas the commentary on the prophecy of Habakkuk composed by members of the Dead Sea scrolls community at Qumran apparently interpreted the 'righteous' and 'wicked' referred to by Habakkuk (in the late seventh century bce) as persons contemporary with the Qumran community, in the Žrst century bce, the historical-grammatical method insists that these words should refer to those persons intended by the prophet. (In this case, it is clear that Hab. 1.4 refers to 'righteous' and 'wicked' men of Habakkuk's own time.)
Such an approach may seem obvious enough to us, but we may note that it may lead to apparent loss of understanding rather than gain. Thus, the statement of God in Gen. 1.26, 'Let us make humanity in our image', was readily interpreted by early Christian scholars as an address by God the Father to the other persons of the Trinity, since God is speaking of 'us' in the plural. As exegetes of the historical-grammatical school, we ourselves would deny that the author of Genesis 1 knew anything of the doctrine of the Trinity, since Genesis was written well before the advent of Christianity and the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity; so we would deny that such can be the meaning. Nonetheless, we seem to be no better off than the early Christian scholars, for though many suggestions have been made, no entirely convincing interpretation of the plural can be offered. In such cases, we can only plead that to understand less is not necessarily to understand worse. Again, the historical-grammatical method can create problems which do not exist if its rigours are not applied. So references in the Psalms to the king, especially to the king as God's son (Ps. 2.7), were traditionally interpreted by Christian scholars as references to the Messiah, Christ. If the historical-grammatical method is followed, however, the king must be seen as the contemporary Israelite king, and some explanation must be found for references to him as God's son and for the address to him as 'God' (Ps. 45.6-if that is what the Hebrew actually says).
Despite such problems, the historical-grammatical approach is universally accepted, principally because it offers a criterion for judging between rival interpretations. It is not so clear to all scholars today, however, as it was even a few decades ago, that the meaning of a passage should be restricted to 'the meaning intended by the author'. This doubt arises partly because authors (especially poets) do not always intend one meaning and one meaning only, and partly because re-applications of a prophet's words (for example) to later situations-a process that was going on already in the Old Testament period and that is clearly evident in the New Testament-can be argued to draw out fresh, legitimate, meanings from those words which the prophet himself never intended. Even more important, it is also commonly argued today that the meaning of words is whatever they mean to readers and that authors have no control over what their words are taken to mean. This is an truly radical issue; but it is doubtful whether the historical-grammatical approach can ever be dispensed with, and the meaning we presume the author intended will always be an important constituent, though not the sum total, no doubt, of our interpretation of a passage.
ii. Textual criticism. Historical-grammatical exegesis interprets the texts; but what is the text? We do not have the original manuscripts of any biblical book. The oldest Hebrew manuscripts come from the second century bce, but they are mostly fragmentary; the oldest datable complete Hebrew Bible is from the eleventh century ce. While all the evidence shows that on the whole the original texts of the biblical writings have been copied faithfully down through the centuries, in the exact wording there are thousands of variations. It is impossible to know with complete precision what the books of Amos or Job, for example, originally said; but it is possible to reconstruct a 'better' text than exists in any surviving manuscript-that is, a text that is more likely to be near the original text.
The discipline that strives to reach behind the mediaeval manuscripts to the probable precise wording of the biblical books is known as textual criticism. In many respects it is a rigorously objective discipline, with elaborate rules for the evaluation of any piece of textual evidence. From another point of view, however, it is a form of interpretation, since the ultimate arbiter of any textual evidence is the scholar's (or scholars') judgment about its intelligibility. So the fact that all the manuscripts and the ancient versions (in some cases centuries older than our Hebrew manuscripts) agree on the wording of a verse does not necessarily mean that the verse makes sense or that it reproduces what the author originally wrote. In Amos 6.12, for example, the Hebrew and the versions have 'Does one plough with oxen?' in a sequence of rhetorical questions that are meant to be answered 'No!' There seems to be some mistake in the Hebrew, since this particular question is one that we would answer with 'Yes!' An emendation (i.e. proposed correction) of the Hebrew yields the sense 'Does one plough the sea with oxen?' ('No!')-which is just the absurd kind of question required by the context; rsv, neb and most modern versions translate accordingly, convinced that this is more probably what Amos said. (What is involved is dividing one Hebrew word into two and supplying different vowels, bbqr ym, pronounced babbåqår yåm, instead of bbqrym, pronounced babbeqårīm.) Another situation arises when the ancient versions agree in differing from the Hebrew text. A well-known example occurs in Gen. 4.8, where the Hebrew manuscripts have 'Cain said to Abel his brother' but do not tell us what he said (the Hebrew verb does mean 'said' rather than 'spoke'). Several of the ancient versions of the Bible, namely the Samaritan text of the Pentateuch, the Greek Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate, and two of the three Aramaic Targums (paraphrasing translations), have Cain say to Abel something like 'Let us go into the Želds' (where Cain is intending to kill Abel). Here the only rule a textual critic can offer by way of advice is not very helpful: he or she will say, judiciously, that the Samaritan and the Greek when agreeing against the Hebrew of Genesis are not necessarily preferable. So in the end scholars must decide whether they think the ancient versions have preserved a phrase accidentally omitted from the Hebrew, or whether the ancient versions have made an addition to the Hebrew because they were as puzzled by the Hebrew as we are. Among modern translations, the rsv inserts the addition, explaining in a footnote that the addition is based on the ancient versions, while the neb inserts it without explaining that it is an addition; the rv fudged the issue by translating 'Cain told Abel his brother' (though the Hebrew cannot mean 'told' rather than 'said'!).
It is often thought that textual criticism provides a foundation upon which exegesis builds; the examples above show that while most of the business of textual criticism (collecting evidence, generalizing about the tendencies of a version or the relationship of manuscripts) is not exegesis and could be regarded as preparatory to it, the point of decision in a matter of textual criticism belongs to the work of interpretation. Establishing the text and interpreting the text are enterprises that go hand in hand.
iii. Redaction criticism. A 'redactor' is the jargon in biblical studies for what is usually called in other literary studies an 'editor'. The term comes from the stage in biblical criticism when the authors of biblical books (e.g. the Gospels) were regarded as essentially compilers or editors of sources rather than as authors in their own right. But today, when authors of biblical books are increasingly seen as more than merely editors, the rather misleading term 'redaction criticism' is still applied to the search for the distinctive viewpoint, or intention, of the biblical author that is expressed in the shape and organization of his work, its contents, its principle of selection and omission, as well as in express statements of intention by the author. English-speaking scholars have not adopted the German word sometimes used for such study, Tendenz or 'tendency' criticism, though this is a more appropriate term.
An example of where 'redaction' or 'tendency' criticism can be applied to good effect is the history work running from Joshua to 2 Kings, known as the 'Deuteronomistic History' because the style and outlook of the author have much in common with the book of Deuteronomy. A careful reader of this history will not imagine that it was written simply to record the past, but will Žnd in it clues to the author's intention, purpose, or bias. Some of the evidence is explicit, as in his famous judgments upon the kings of Israel and Judah that they 'did evil [or occasionally, 'good'] in the eyes of the Lord'. Some of the evidence is implicit, as in the fact that he included many narratives of prophetic Žgures (e.g. Elijah and Elisha) and that he began his work with Joshua and the judges and ended it with the fall of Jerusalem. Putting all the evidence together, we may say that the author's purpose was to establish that the monarchy was an institution fatal for Israel, or that the destruction of Israel and Judah came about because they gave too little heed to the prophets or because the worship of foreign gods was tolerated in Israel-or some more subtle blending of such statements. However we deŽne the intention or 'tendency' of the work, in doing so we are fashioning a major interpretative tool for the understanding of the whole work and each of its parts.
Redaction criticism in the strictest sense is a study of how the author used his sources. In the case of the Deuteronomistic History, the sources are mostly hypothetical, though it is entirely reasonable to suppose that some parts were drawn from royal annals, some from a collection of stories, whether written or oral, about heroes ('judges'), some from a series of tales about prophets. If the sources can be reconstructed with any degree of certainty and if the author's own shaping of them (addition, deletion, compression, etc.) can be detected, we have further evidence to put toward our comprehensive picture of his 'tendency'. In the study of the Gospels, if we can be sure that Matthew used Mark as a written source, redaction criticism can be very Žnely tuned to take into account minute deviations by the author from his source. But more often than not, the same results can be obtained by focusing upon the work itself and upon the interrelationship of its parts.
Redaction criticism, however it is understood, is an aspect of the historical-grammatical approach, and not really another method to be ranked alongside it. Its concern, however, is more with the meaning of the writing as a whole than with the small parts that exegesis is devoted to. And its prominence in recent decades is symptomatic of current interest in larger wholes rather than verse-by-verse details- but both the wholes and the parts have to be studied in careful balance.
b. Methods in Literary Criticism
i. Rhetorical Criticism. Rhetorical criticism concerns itself with the way the language of texts is deployed to convey meaning. Its interests are in the devices of writing, in metaphor and parallelism, in narrative and poetic structures, in stylistic Žgures. In principle, it is also interested in the original situation of the composition and promulgation of ancient texts and in their intended effect upon their audience. But its primary focus is upon the texts and the way they hang together and the way they work rather then upon their historical setting. In English literature studies, what biblical critics call 'rhetorical criticism' is often known as 'close reading', a minute attention to the words and images of the text.
Poetry is often a more immediately rewarding subject for rhetorical criticism or close reading than is prose. A biblical example that lends itself well to close reading is Hosea's Žne poem about Yahweh and his adulterous wife Israel (Hos. 2.2-23). If we concentrate upon the primary image of the poem, that of the relationship, we sense the dominance of indicators of belonging: my wife, her husband, her children, their mother, my lovers, my wool, my žax, my oil, my drink, and many other such phrases. If we see that this is a poem about belonging, we have not tamed it or pigeonholed it, but we have sharpened our perception of it. We can go on to consider what kinds of belonging exist in the poem: there is right belonging ('my husband', v. 16), and negation of belonging ('not my wife', v. 2) and wrong belonging ('my lovers', v. 5). The whole poem, it turns out, explores this triple possibility in belonging. The acts of movement (coming, going, returning), of gift (giving, withholding, taking), of thought (remembering, forgetting, remembering wrongly), and of speech (responding, not responding, responding wrongly) are all developments of the fundamental three-way division in the primary image. The more these connections and resemblances are dwelt on and savoured, the more the poem manifests its unity of conception, and the deeper, consequently, the reader's understanding of it.
The rhetorical criticism of a passage (a poem perhaps, or a whole book), while it requires wholehearted concentration upon that text, does not demand that all other texts should be expunged from one's mind (if that were possible!), though some critics of 'close reading' have supposed that it does. For obviously one's general knowledge of life and particular knowledge of other works of the same author, or in the case of the Old Testament, other Old Testament books, contribute-often unconsciously-to one's understanding of a passage; the commentaries draw explicit attention to all kinds of such extraneous data. There is another type of extraneous knowledge, however, that can be very valuable even though it may be knowledge of what may not exist (!). That is to say, every text has a countertext, or rather, many countertexts, things that could have been said but weren't. What is actually spoken or written is always selected, consciously or not, from the countless possibilities inherent in the language known to the speaker or writer. Every sentence spoken or written has unexpressed and rejected counterparts lurking in the background. By conjuring up some of these countertexts, the reality, individuality, and lack of inevitability of the text before us can be reinforced. We call up such a countertext when we read in Isa. 53.2 that the servant of Yahweh 'grew up before him like a young plant, like a plant rooted in dry ground', and remark that the last phrase is hardly what we would expect; for the righteous in the Old Testament are generally not weedy and underdeveloped, and if they are like plants, they are like plants by streams of water whose leaf does not wither (Ps. 1.3). To the servant of Yahweh is attributed a history contrary to expectation (hence the astonishment of onlookers, Isa. 52.15), and the countertext, which in this case exists in the background and which we are at least vaguely aware of, focuses our attention on something peculiar and unique about Isaiah 53 and so enriches our understanding.
ii. The idea of the 'literary work of art'. Whatever else the Old Testament is, it is beyond question a literary work. There are some parts of it, indeed, that could hardly be called 'literature' (e.g. the genealogies at the beginning of 1 Chronicles), except perhaps on a minimalist deŽnition of literature as merely 'something written'. But the great majority is literature-chiežy of the types story and poem-of varying degrees of quality. The best-suited approaches in studying it are therefore not surprisingly those that are effective in literature studies more generally. One such approach is the stress in literature studies of the last half-century especially on the idea of the 'literary work of art'. This phrase stands for two distinct emphases: (i) that the literary work should be primarily considered as a whole; (ii) that the literary work should be studied for what it is in itself, with relatively minor concentration on the historical circumstances of its composition.
(i) The Žrst emphasis is one that has emerged in biblical studies in the development of redaction criticism (see above). In literary criticism, it balances the stress on close reading, which without the constraint of the total view can easily lead to atomistic interpretation. The holistic, total view, while always open to revision in the light of the merest detail, must have the last word in interpretation. In the quest for the historical-grammatical meaning, the essence, message, function, purpose (some terms are at times more appropriate than others) of the work as a whole is our ultimate ambition. We shall ask how the parts Žt together, how the parts succeed in producing the whole, and whether the whole is supported by the parts. But at the end of the day it is the whole (whether a psalm or the book of Job or the Pentateuch), in the articulation of its parts, and in its manifold variety, that should be the object of our quest.
This principle has been frequently neglected or positively negated in much biblical criticism. It is still hailed as something of a tour de force, for example, if a scholar offers an interpretation of the book of Job that takes into account all its parts. So many chapters of the book (the poem on wisdom, ch. 28; the Elihu speeches, chs. 3237; the Žrst or second divine speeches, chs. 3841; the epilogue, 42.7-17) have been regarded by one scholar or another as secondary (i.e. not part of the original book), that the majority of interpretations of the book ignore the doubtful chapters or, indeed, interpret them in a sense at variance with the remainder of the book. The principle of the 'literary work of art', however, operates upon the fact that the book of Job, in all its 42 chapters, is the book that exists, and must therefore be the primary object of our interpretative scrutiny. If some parts seem hard to reconcile with other parts, we need not jump to the conclusion that the book is fundamentally at cross purposes with itself (though that is a possible conclusion, to be reached only at the end of a long and tiring road), but must seek to understand what a book so seemingly at variance with itself could possibly signify when taken as a whole.
If the thrust of the 'literary work of art' is toward 'whole' meanings rather than meanings of the parts, the dangers of the verse-by-verse interpretation, such as is followed in many commentaries and much classroom teaching, become all too clear. Unless one moves constantly between the part and the whole, the particular and the general, what appears to be a worthily thorough and detailed interpretation may in fact be a steadfast and systematic refusal to confront the primary questions of meaning.
(ii) The second emphasis of the 'literary work of art' approach, that the work should be studied primarily for what it is in itself, is common ground for a majority of critics of English literature, for example, but fairly revolutionary in biblical studies. More commonly Old Testament scholars have insisted that an Old Testament writing can only be interpreted in the light of history, and have gone on from there to demand the most minute historical reconstruction as a prerequisite of interpretation. Some literary critics have gone to the opposite extreme, and argued for the complete 'autonomy' of the literary work of art, which is to say that external information about the authors, their historical and social setting, their sources and the inžuences upon them are all irrelevant to meaning. But a moderate statement of the issue would be more widely accepted, that while as interpreters we need all the help we can get from the historian, the text has to be read for itself and in itself.
While every scrap of external information is potentially valuable for interpretation of the Old Testament, the surprising thing is how little is in reality signiŽcant. To understand Amos or Micah well, a paragraph or two of historical and social background probably sufŽces (and much more is largely guesswork); to interpret Jonah or Job it can hardly be necessary to learn about the historical origin of these books (valid though such an enquiry may be in itself), since we have no kind of certainty about such matters. To seek the 'author's intention', indeed, can lead us no deeper into the meaning of these works than to ask directly about meaning, disregarding almost entirely questions of date and authorship except on the broadest scale. The vast bulk of the data we need for interpretation is contained in the works themselves.
iii. Engagement. The best interpreters of literary works are not usually those who lay claim to cool passionless detachment (which often means only the suppression of their more superŽcial prejudices) but those who care about the signiŽcance their interpretative work may have. Such engagement with the text does not imply any particular belief about whether the text is 'true' (whatever that may mean from time to time), but it implies concern with the question of its truth and a willingness and endeavour to reach a personal judgment. Students of Shakespeare, even at an elementary level, are called upon to discuss the character of Falstaff, the freedom or otherwise of Macbeth, the sincerity of Mark Antony, and in so doing they engage with the content of the text and with its 'truth'. And just as we may say, in engaging with a Žctional narrative, that it is 'true' or 'false' (or something in between), the same kind of judgments may be made of the biblical text-not indeed, with the claim of making a deŽnitive assessment of the reality of the matter, but mainly in order to express one's own judgment of what is true or false. Genuine understanding requires evaluation; the interpreter's subjectivity is a proper element in the process of understanding, provided it does not dominate the process, and provided it allows itself to be open to correction or adjustment by the reality of the text.
The function of engagement and the process of developing understanding can be seen in any discussion of the ethics of the book of Proverbs. Suppose the question to be put is, whether the proverbs are fundamentally prudential or fundamentally religious-that is to say, are the readers of the book encouraged to follow its advice because they will beneŽt from it, or because its advice is God's will? It is not necessary to believe in the existence of God to engage with the question-indeed it is possible that a non-believer will argue the 'religious' interpretation while a believer will argue the 'prudential' interpretation (for, from a Christian point of view, for example, the religious element in Proverbs may seem decidedly weak). Engagement means that it matters to the interpreter how the issue is resolved in that he or she has a personal stake in the issue. Prejudice would mean that we are concerned that the work be interpreted to suit the opinion we held before our work of interpretation began; engagement means that we are personally concerned with the content of the work and for that reason are concerned for its proper interpretation-at the very least, to know whether the work is a friend or a foe. Academic 'objectivity', as sometimes portrayed, would require rejection or suppression of one's legitimate interests and beliefs, and demand a concern only that the academic task be done well; engagement, which is no less steadfastly opposed to pure subjectivity and prejudice than is 'objectivity', takes seriously the human interpreter as part of the interpreting process and sets up the business of understanding as a humanizing enterprise.
2. Second-Order Methods
In this section of the chapter I will be considering a set of methods in Old Testament study that focus not upon texts in themselves but upon texts in relation to another intellectual or political issues; their concern is not so much with understanding the biblical texts as with evaluating them from the standpoint of another commitment. Such an interest seems in principle to be perfectly legitimate; those with strong ethical views, for example about the equality of men and women, should be entitled to ask of the biblical texts how they measure up to the standards and values of our own age.
i. Feminist Criticism. Feminist criticism can be seen as a paradigm for or exemplar of these evaluative criticisms. The starting point of feminist biblical criticism is of course not the biblical texts themselves but the issues and concerns of feminism as a worldview and as a political enterprise. We may describe feminism in general as the recognition that in the history of civilization women have been marginalized by men and have been denied access both to social positions of authority and inžuence and to symbolic production (the creation of symbol systems, such as the making of texts, that inžuence ideas and behaviour). A feminist biblical criticism will therefore be concerned with exposing means or strategies by which women's subordination has been inscribed in and justiŽed by those texts.
It is characteristic of feminist criticism to use a variety of approaches to literary texts and to encourage multiple readings. The idea that there is a 'proper' way to read texts is seen as a typical expression of traditional male control of texts and traditional male control of reading. Feminist biblical criticism sometimes concentrates on analysing from the evidence of the biblical texts how women's lives and voices in ancient Israel have in fact been suppressed by the texts, noticing how even women who are named in the Old Testament are so rarely allowed to speak. At other times, feminist biblical criticism searches for traces of female interests in the biblical texts, which are on the whole, if not totally, androcentric. Some feminist biblical scholars think it is possible to discover within the Old Testament texts, male-authored and male-centred as they are, much writing that is in fact pro-women and serviceable for feminists of today. Others are much less sanguine and think it their duty to expose the deep-seated sexism of the texts in the hope that women and men of our time may not automatically adopt the outlook of the Bible on gender issues even if they are otherwise favourably disposed to the teachings of the Bible in general.
It can hardly be denied that the Old Testament gives many messages to women, often subliminally, about what their ideals should be and how they should behave. Typically, the Old Testament recognizes only two kinds of women, the good mother and the wicked seducer. Women exist principally to produce children, especially male children; they are for the most part entirely subordinate to their menfolk. Even though they may have real power within the family context, they owe whatever authority they exercise to their fathers and husbands, and their place is Žrmly within the home. Women of today, if they read the Bible, have to be on their guard, so a feminist criticism claims, against adopting the women of the Bible as their role models.
In short, feminist biblical criticism, in whatever form it takes, adopts a stance toward the biblical texts that goes beyond mere understanding. While it is of course deeply concerned to understand what it is the Bible says about women and how in fact they are portrayed, its interest is rather more in evaluating, from a general feminist perspective, the biblical texts.
ii. Materialist or Political Criticism. In materialist criticism, texts are viewed not primarily as expressions of ideas but principally as productions, as objects created, like other physical products, at a certain historical moment and within a particular social and economic setting. What is more, the biblical texts we read today are not just fortunate survivors from the past that happen to be still available; rather, they have been kept alive by certain speciŽc readerships, whether religious or literary, as well as by a publishing industry that Žnds it proŽtable to promote the book that is, after all, the world's best seller.
When it comes to the analysis of the biblical texts, what materialist criticism is interested in is the ways the texts served in the past and still serve today as vehicles for the use of power and in the interests of certain class or sectional groups. In ancient societies like Israel, as also in our own, there were rich and poor, people with power and those without; and materialist criticism seeks to identify whose interests a text served.
An example that can be taken of a materialist interpretation of a biblical text is that of the Ten Commandments. This text has usually been understood purely theologically, that is, as representing the will of God for human behaviour. A materialist criticism says that, whether or not that is the case, the Ten Commandments must have been promoted by some group in ancient Israelite society, for their own interests, and tries to identify who that group would have been. It is clear that those who need a law against theft are those with property to steal, and so on; and in fact, once we ask the question, Who is addressed in the commandments?, it is not at all difŽcult to answer it in terms of class and gender. The Ten Commandments are evidently addressed to males, who are old enough to have sons and daughters and young enough to have living parents, who are men of property with houses and oxen and asses, who are men of standing in their community who can give true or false testimony in a law court, and so on. Other persons in the society, such as the young, the disabled, the foreign residents and women, are referred to but are not the subject of the laws; though some of the laws may beneŽt them, it is not for their sake that the laws have been created, but to sustain those who framed the laws in the positions of power they have become accustomed to.
Like feminist criticism, materialist criticism cannot do without a thorough understanding of the Hebrew Bible, but understanding is not its purpose. Its tendency or intention is to show that the biblical texts represent sectional interests and are not equally beneŽcial to all segments of Hebrew society. In so doing, materialist criticism tends to relativize the authority and continuing validity of the biblical texts, in stressing their human, and often, all too human, origins.
iii. Reader-Response Criticism. The outlook of this method or approach in biblical study is that it is the reader who is the creator of, or at the very least, an important contributor to, the meaning of texts. Reader-response critics do not think of 'meaning' as something that texts 'have', whether put there by an author (as in traditional historical criticism) or somehow existing intrinsically in the shape, structure and wording of the texts (as in rhetorical criticism). Rather, reader-response criticism regards meaning as coming into being at the meeting point of text and reader-or, in a more extreme form, as being actually created by readers in the act of reading.
It follows from this position that reader-response critics cannot speak of a text as having a meaning, a single, determinate meaning that we should as interpreters of the text be seeking to discover. 'Meaning' is what readers Žnd in texts, what comes into readers' heads when they are reading texts. A text means whatever it means to its readers, no matter how strange or unacceptable some meanings may seem to other readers.
And if there is no single 'right' meaning of a text, no determinate meaning, it follows also that there are no intrinsically right or wrong interpretations. If the author cannot give validation to meanings and if the text itself is mute, the only source for validity in interpretation has to lie in 'interpretative communities'-groups that authorize certain meanings and disallow others. Such a group may be an academic community, which establishes norms by which it will allow certain interpretations and disallow others. Or it may be a church community, which will decide on what kinds of interpretations are suitable for its own purposes. Validity in interpretation is then recognized as relative to the group that authorizes it.
As an example of reader-response criticism we may take the story of the Flood. If we are reading it within the context of a community of religious belief, we may well want to regard it as a story of God's deliverance of the human race from a universal disaster-that is, as one of the mighty acts of God. But in another context, we might be able to read the story as a critique of God, whose creation of humans has apparently been so misguided that before very long he feels it necessary to wipe out the whole of humanity. Very few readers belong to just one reading community, of course, and what is most interesting about reader-response criticism is the interplay between different reading positions we can take up in the course of our study of the biblical texts.
iv. Deconstruction. The 'common sense' assumption about texts and their meanings is that texts have more or less clear meanings and manage more or less successfully to convey those meanings to readers. That is, after all, the basis on which we read newspapers and novels and examination papers. But the philosophy of deconstruction is that, however true that may be in a practical sense, words and texts are ultimately inadequate for the tasks we put upon them, and inevitably undermine themselves, usually in a way that calls into question the ideas that the texts apparently exist to express. A text typically has a thesis to defend or a point of view to espouse; but inevitably texts falter and let slip evidence against their own cause. A text typically sets forth or takes for granted some set of oppositions, one term being privileged over its partner; but in so doing it cannot help allowing glimpses of the impossibility of sustaining those oppositions.
Here is an example of a self-deconstructing text. In Genesis 9, after the Flood is over, God gives to Noah a new set of commands for the age that will follow. Among them is the sentence, 'Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person's blood be shed' (v. 6). At its face value, this is an authorization of capital punishment for the crime of murder and it is no doubt, at the same time, the severest of warnings against committing the crime of murder. But in permitting or authorizing or demanding (whatever it is precisely that the verse does) that an act of murder be followed by an act of capital punishment, the command allows what it also prohibits: shedding the blood of another human. The text deconstructs itself by setting up an opposition between murder (bad) and capital punishment (good) and then undermining that distinction by giving the same name to the two acts: 'shedding the blood of a human'. If the two acts are the same, why should one be good and one be bad? The very way the text is formulated makes us wonder whether we would want to uphold the distinction between murder and capital punishment or whether we would want to call them both acts of murder, differing perhaps only in the fact that one is illegal (socially disapproved) and the other is legal (socially approved).
Deconstruction, according to its practitioners, is not so much a method that can be applied to texts but an observation we can make about texts. Though a scholar may write a deconstructive essay about a text, it would be more correct to say that the scholar is showing how the text deconstructs itself than that the scholar has performed a deconstruction of the text. Deconstruction is an especially powerful tool in biblical study, in that it relativizes the authority attributed to biblical texts, and makes it evident that much of the power that is felt to lie in the texts is really the power of the community that supports them and sanctions them.
3. Third-Order Methods
The three methods to be discussed under this heading are usually put on the same footing as those I have called 'Žrst-order' methods. But the way I would distinguish the two groups is that the third-order methods principally use the biblical text for purposes beyond the text. This does not mean (i) that they do not incidentally shed valuable light on the text and so assist our interpretation of it, or (ii) that they are not legitimate subjects of study in their own right.
i. Historical criticism. A good deal of the Old Testament is narrative of events; it is therefore a natural undertaking to examine how the narrated events correspond to what actually happened in history. Especially because much of the narrative concerns a nation and not just individuals, historians rightly regard the books of Samuel and Kings, for example, as providing the raw material for a reconstruction of Israel's history. And since the scholars best equipped to pursue such investigations are usually those who have been trained in biblical study and in Old Testament interpretation, the impression is often given that historical study is a primary form of Old Testament interpretation.
The term 'historical criticism' refers to this enterprise of reconstructing the events lying behind the biblical narratives. But precisely because its focus is events and historical processes, its focus is not the biblical text and its goal cannot be the interpretation of the biblical text. Of course, everyone with an historical bent would like to know as well as possible what actually happened and would like to understand the factors behind the movements of history. But in that quest the Old Testament becomes a source-book for the history; it is used as a tool, sometimes the best and sometimes only one among several, for reconstructing the past. In so far as historical criticism uses the biblical text, it is of course biblical study; but its contribution to biblical interpretation is usually indirect.
This is not to say that indirect contributions may not be very valuable. For example, every student of the Old Testament who visits Israel and Jordan and travels through the land of the Bible Žnds that he or she has acquired an almost indelible perspective from which to read the Old Testament. The gain is not quantiŽable, and one's Žrst-hand knowledge of topography is not likely to alter any Old Testament interpretations (though it may help to preserve one from some errors). Historical reconstruction and synthesis will have a similar type of value. No doubt the story of the conžict between twelve young warriors of David and twelve of Ishbosheth at the pool in Gibeon (2 Sam. 2.12-17) is illuminated if one knows that such a pool existed, and more so if one has stood by it oneself; but the meaning of the story is hardly touched by the historical reality. Or, to take a more signiŽcant example: suppose that historical research can show, as some contemporary historians believe, that the conquest of Canaan by the Israelite tribes was really an uprising of Canaanite peasants (perhaps incited by a small band of incoming Hebrews); what difference would that make to the understanding and interpretation of the biblical narratives of the 'conquest'? In one sense, a fundamental difference, in that these narratives would be shown to be only loosely connected with historical events; in other senses, none at all, since these narratives would continue to be tales about Israel's success when obedient to God, about Israel's unity, about leadership, about conžicts within and without a group, about religious war, and so on.
So while the results of historical criticism can be fed back into biblical study and determine one dimension of the biblical texts (their relationship to what happened), they do not generally have a decisive weight in their interpretation.
ii. Source criticism. This method seeks to reconstruct, not the events that lie behind the Old Testament texts, but the sources that lie behind their contents. Such sources were both written and oral, but the term 'source criticism' generally refers to the reconstruction of written sources. There can be no doubt that many of the biblical texts, especially narratives and laws, were derived or adapted from previously existing sources. Biblical writings very occasionally acknowledge their sources, as when a short poem on the 'standing still' of the sun in Joshua's time is followed by the comment, 'Is this not written in the Book of Jashar?' (Josh. 10.12-13; cf. Num. 21.14). More frequently, especially in Kings, reference is made to older books, now lost, where fuller detail was given (e.g. 1 Kings 11.41, 'Now the rest of the acts of Solomon . . . are they not written in the book of the acts of Solomon?'); it is a fair presumption that this was the source from which the author of Kings drew his material on Solomon. In the case of the Pentateuch, though there is no speciŽc allusion to any of its major sources, it seems necessary to suppose a complicated history of older and younger sources from which the highly variegated complex of narrative, law and poetry was drawn.
It is sometimes supposed that the purpose of source criticism is to illuminate the Žnal author's purpose by examining how he used his sources, what he omitted and what he retained, what he expanded or abbreviated, how he arranged the material available to him. But such studies, which we would today call redaction criticism, are rather rare compared with studies of the sources for their own sake, that is, in order to discover what the sources were, and to arrange them in some sort of historical sequence, deciding which was the oldest and which drew upon which. And studies of the author's use of his sources can only be effective to the extent with which we have sure knowledge of the contents of his sources. Thus within biblical studies generally the most successful application of source criticism to interpretation has been in the Synoptic Gospels-so long, that is, as it has been widely accepted that Mark was a source of Matthew and Luke. In the Old Testament, the postulated four major sources of the Pentateuch, J E D P, are (unlike Mark) not extant, though to many scholars' satisfaction they can be reconstructed with detailed accuracy. Surprisingly, however, very few scholars have used this reconstruction of the sources as a means for interpreting the text that now stands. Generally speaking, the goal of source criticism has been the sources themselves, their contents, historical settings, purposes and interrelationships.
If we imagine the direction of source criticism changing, or of source criticism being absorbed into redaction criticism, we can conceive how source criticism could be deployed in the service of interpreting the literary works we now have. But even so, it needs to be said that many of the certainties among former generations of source critics are now increasingly called into question; and if we cannot now Žnd agreement on the proŽles of J E D and P, we are so much further from using them to interpret the Pentateuch in its Žnal form.
Perhaps the most satisfying application of source criticism in Old Testament studies has been in the discrimination between source material and editorial material in the Deuteronomistic History. Here it is not so much the detection of the historian's sources that is valuable for interpreting his work, but the isolation of those passages in which he is not following any source but freely composing and therefore expressing his own ideas and theological outlook.
iii. Form criticism. While historical criticism attempts to reach behind the biblical text to reconstruct the history of Israel, form criticism reaches back to the oral folk literature of Israel. Its principles are these: that embedded in the written literature of a people are samples of their earlier oral literature, and that many literary forms (legends, hymns, laments, and so on) had in the oral stage a particular function in the life of the people (a life-setting; German Sitz im Leben). In gospel studies, form criticism sought to recover the early Christian preaching in which the narratives of Jesus' sayings and acts were recounted and took on Žxed shapes. In Old Testament studies, form criticism was fruitfully applied to the Psalms, each type of psalm (thanksgiving by an individual, hymn of praise, appeal by the community, etc.) being shown to belong to a certain type of occasion in Israelite worship. Narratives were also designated as 'aetiological saga' (a tale purporting to account for the origins of a custom or a place), 'legend' (a tale about a holy man, holy place or sacred custom that points a moral), and so on.
Form criticism performs a valuable service in its concern with classifying types of literature within the biblical texts (e.g. prose and poetry and their subdivisions). By enquiring after the typical it highlights what is individual in any piece of literature, and by identifying the type or genre of the passage in question (as hymn, prophetic speech, instruction, family saga, for example) it offers a major interpretative key to the passage. (We would be hard pressed to interpret the story in Judg. 9.8-15 about the trees' attempt to anoint a king over them until we recognized that it was a 'fable'!) But in that it attempts to reconstruct the roles the Old Testament literature played in the life of Israel, its goal is not the interpretation as such of the biblical text.
It is as well to bear in mind also the provisional (not to say speculative) nature of much form criticism, as well as of much source criticism. This is no objection to these disciplines as such, but merely a reminder that in the Želd of the humanities knowledge does not have the precision that some scholars give the air of having achieved. In part our lack of precision is a defect due largely to the rather fragmentary nature of our subject matter; in part, however, it is a blessing, in that it gives room for individual perception, accords insight a higher value than labour, and engages the interpreter, whether novice or expert, as a person in the process of interpretation.
Throughout, this chapter has not been purely descriptive of the methods employed in Old Testament studies but has attempted also to be partly prescriptive. The arrangement of the chapter, and especially the division into 'Žrst-order', 'second-order' and 'third-order' methods, režects a deliberate re-evaluation of current methods. Students, beginning and more advanced, may Žnd it of interest to consider to what extent their own courses of study appear to režect the hierarchy of methods outlined in this chapter.
John Barton, Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Study (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1984).
Terence J. Keegan, Interpreting the Bible: A Popular Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics (New York: Paulist Press, 1985).
J. Cheryl Exum and David J.A. Clines (eds.), The New Literary Criticism and the Hebrew Bible (JSOTSup, 143; ShefŽeld: JSOT Press, 1993).
Norman C. Habel, Literary Criticism of the Old Testament (Guides to Biblical Scholarship; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971).
J. Cheryl Exum, Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives (JSOTSup, 163; ShefŽeld, JSOT Press, 1993).
David J.A. Clines, What Does Eve Do to Help? and Other Readerly Questions to the Old Testament (JSOTSup, 94; ShefŽeld: JSOT Press, 1990).
-Interested Parties: The Ideology of Writers and Readers of the Hebrew Bible (JSOTSup, 205; GCT, 1; ShefŽeld: ShefŽeld Academic Press, 1995).