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Reading Biblical Narrative with Its Ancient Audience

Cultures similar to, but certainly not the same as, those of ancient Israel and sharing all of these features have existed around the Mediterranean until very recent times and have been studied closely by anthropologists,... By applying this material to biblical narratives we can wash away our modern, Northern Atlantic understandings of what they meant and find something very different and very exciting underneath.

For further details of this research and for references to the secondary authors referred to, please see Philip F. Esler, Sex, Wives, and Warriors: Reading Biblical Narrative With Its Ancient Audience (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011).

By Philip F. Esler
Principal and Professor of Biblical Interpretation
St Mary’s University College,
Twickenham, London
December 2011

Restorers of old paintings sometimes find unknown masterpieces lurking beneath the blackened varnish. The original image of the artist erupts from a canvas or a wall in a blaze of color and a clarity of line. Getting behind the patina of the obvious in which generations of readers of the Bible have encrusted its narratives can produce a similar explosion of unexpected form and color, plot and characterization. It is like reading the great narratives of the Bible, such as those of King Saul, David and Goliath, David and Bathsheba, for the very first time.

How can this feat be achieved? Readers of the Bible from North Atlantic cultures—such as in Britain, Northern Europe, North America or in former colonial countries like Australia and New Zealand—have been raised within individualistic cultures very different from those of the ancient Israelites who wrote the stories in the Hebrew Bible or in apocryphal biblical texts like the Book of Judith. We need to try to shed our understanding of how society and social relations work and think ourselves into the society of Israel five hundred to a thousand years before Jesus and the Common Era. This was a strongly group-oriented culture where life meaning came from being embedded in a group, not from breaking away from it; where honor was the dominant value; where all goods were thought to exist in finite quantities; where patron-client relations were common; where property passed down the male line; where a man’s ideal wife was the daughter of his father’s brother and his father’s home the place in which they would live; and where a man could have more than one wife.

Cultures similar to, but certainly not the same as, those of ancient Israel and sharing all of these features have existed around the Mediterranean until very recent times and have been studied closely by anthropologists, like Hilma Granqvist in the 1930s, Julian Pitt-Rivers and Pierre Bourdieu in the 1950s and 1960s, and many more since. By applying this material to biblical narratives we can wash away our modern, Northern Atlantic understandings of what they meant and find something very different and very exciting underneath.

This is one aspect of the wider project of social-scientific interpretation of the Bible that began in the mid to late 1970s and flourishes still. Social-scientific research, from anthropology, sociology, and social psychology, for example, can be used to open up the historical meaning of biblical texts in two ways. Firstly, use of the social sciences allows us to put new questions to the texts, to which the textual data provides fresh answers: this is the heuristic aspect. Secondly, the social sciences allow us organize the results of our examination in new ways that make more sense in the light of social-scientific ideas than do those based on implicit, unexamined, and often entirely inappropriate assumptions about how societies operate: this aspect involves more persuasive “drawing lines between the dots.”

One aspect of Mediterranean culture that provides both a (heuristic) method for putting new questions to biblical texts and a means of organizing the results in a more satisfying way is the pattern of challenge-and-response first identified by Pierre Bourdieu while researching the Kabyle tribe of North Africa in 1965 and later schematized for use in biblical research by Bruce Malina in 1981. In essence, many social interactions involve a challenge that is a claim to enter the social space of another of roughly equal status (either individual or group), either negative, by insult or attack, or positive, by praise or gift. This requires the other party to weigh up what action is now necessary to meet the challenge effectively and so avoid dishonor.

A biblical text that is usefully interpreted in the light of this pattern is the story of the clash between Israel and the Philistines in 1 Samuel 17. We have the version in the Massoretic text (the Hebrew Bible) and also the much shorter Greek ( the Septuagint) version that omits vv. 12-31 and is probably earlier. Here the initial challenge is the Philistine invasion that elicits an appropriate response from Israel (v. 1- 2), with the symmetry of their positions on opposite sides of the valley of Elah (vv. 2-3) constituting a visual token of their equal status. So far so good. But then Goliath comes forward with another challenge, to single combat. He wants a warrior (ish; aner) to fight him (vv. 4-10), someone like him. But not a single Israelite accepts the challenge; they are too frightened (v. 11). This means they are all buried in shame, especially Saul, who was taller than the rest of Israel by head and shoulders (1 Sam 9:2) and had been chosen as king, after all, to lead Israel in war (1 Sam 8:19-20). Now David enters the scene. First he must convince Saul of his credentials to fight. Next he must endure the droll comedy of Saul trying to have him wear his own no doubt huge armor, which merely underlines the failure of Saul himself to take on Goliath (vv. 32-39). Finally David responds properly to Goliath’s challenge by moving out to face him (v. 40). After some verbal challenge and response between the two, which David wins, Goliath challenges again by approaching David, and David responds and kills him (48-51). The shock and, we must insist the shame of this, caused the Philistines to flee, pursued by the Israelites as far as Gath and the gates of Ekron, with the Israelites then returning to plunder their camp, meaning material loss and further deep dishonor.

Another, apocryphal biblical text also gives a central place to challenge and response: the Book of Judith. Judith is, indeed, very much a female David, as Medieval artists who depicted them side by side well realized. The initial challenge is the size of the fortifications with which Arphaxad, the king of the Medes, surrounds his capital Ecbatana. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, responds by taking the city, but then must deal with another challenge to him, the fact that the peoples of the west, including Judea, refused his invitation to send him troops for the campaign. Their failure to do so is expressly said to involve the disgrace of his ambassadors that he must avenge (Jud 1:11-12). Eventually the Babylonians under Holofernes besiege the Israelite town of Bethulia, threatening death by starvation and thirst. By this time, Holofernes has made the dreadful mistake of suggesting that the god of the Israelites is Nebuchadnezzar (Jud 6:2). With the honor of Israel and of Israel’s God thus besmirched, it is Judith who provides the appropriate response. She fools Holofernes into falling dead drunk and then, like David, cuts off his head with his own sword.

Sometimes the application of the pattern of challenge-and-response allows us to see important literary features in biblical texts hitherto unnoticed. Thus it is rarely, if ever, observed that 2 Sam 10:1 to 12:31 form a sharply differentiated narrative. Modern interpreters have not tended to recognize this narrative chunk in 2 Samuel because they are unfamiliar with honor/shame cultures and challenge-and-response. The narrative focuses on the Ammonite War, beginning with a major challenge to David entailed in the grotesque insult the Ammonites inflict on his ambassadors (2 Sam 10:1-5) and ending only, and at long last, when David leads his army in the capture and sacking of the Ammonite capital Rabah and other Ammonite towns (2 Sam 12:29-31).

I say “at long last” because the narrative is shaped entirely by the failure of David himself to attack Ammon when his ambassadors are insulted (unlike Holofernes in a similar situation). The Ammonites were expecting David to attack them. They knew they had incurred his enmity and gathered their forces (2 Sam 10:6). After all, they must have reasoned, a king so dishonored will soon be on the warpath against us. But what does David do? He sends Joab to command his army against Ammon instead (2 Sam 10:7). That is no way for an honorable king to behave. The author underlines the point at the start of 2 Samuel 11 when he says, “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel; and they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.” It is because he is in Jerusalem, when he should be at the head of his army investing Rabah, that he sees and falls for Bathsheba, has her husband Uriah killed, and is told by the prophet Nathan how he will be punished for his sin and that the sword will thereafter never leave his house (2 Sam 12:10).

Yet even after all this, David still has Joab taking the fight to the Ammonites. Joab’s mounting frustration at the unseemly behavior of his king bursts to the surface of the text when he writes to David along these lines, “And Joab sent messengers to David, and said, ‘I have fought against Rabbah; moreover, I have taken the city of waters. Now, then, gather the rest of the people together, and encamp against the city, and take it; lest I take the city, and it be called by my name’” (2 Sam 12:27-28; RSV). Only then does David act, as he should have at the outset, to reply to the challenge, by crushing Ammon and ending his shame.

Or consider two further narratives concerning women. These are Tamar and Judah in Genesis 38 and Hannah in 1 Samuel 1-2. In Northern European and North American cultures, many women now choose, for various reasons, not to have children in the belief that they will be able to have a happy life without them. In some Mediterranean societies in the modern period, on the other hand, the honor of women has been closely tied up with their sexuality and role in procreation. For such women, childlessness and happiness are inconsistent.

One aspect of some Mediterranean approaches to sexuality is the cultural emphasis on female chastity as an indicator of social worth for individuals and their respective kin groups. Consistent with this pattern is male control over female sexuality since men are usually responsible for protecting the chastity of their female relatives (as Maureen Giovannini and others have pointed out). For ancient Israelite women, like such modern women, their happiness in life dependent on marriage and then the production of children, sons especially.

Take Tamar in Genesis 38. Judah chooses her as a wife for his first-born son Er, no doubt by agreement with her father. In this culture, women are usually subject to the will of the dominant men in their lives, fathers especially, but also, with its patrilocal marriage arrangements, fathers-in-law too. God causes Er’s death, so Judah then marries Tamar off to his second son, Onan. To avoid giving Tamar a child who would actually perpetuate the line and inheritance of his brother, Onan practices coitus interruptus, so God kills him off too. To protect his surviving son, Shelah, from suffering the same fate as Er and Onan, Judah sends Tamar back to her father’s home as a widow, on the pretext she can marry Shelah when he is over. This puts Tamar in a very difficult and dishonorable position; she has been sent back home, and she has neither husband nor child, nor apparently can marry anyone else. We must recognize what a potentially catastrophic result this is for her in this culture. The potential becomes actual when Judah makes clear he will not be calling her back to marry Shelah. But now Tamar acts, and the magnitude of her act can only be appreciated against this particular context. Not only does she steal a child from Judah by pretending to be a prostitute plying her trade at the roadside, but she also outsmarts him by obtaining personal effects that she will later use to prove he is the father of her child. She brings shame upon Judah by taking in pledge for a lamb, the price of her service, personal possessions that are of far greater value. These she will later produce to save her life when Judah seeks to have her burned to death because she is pregnant, which means dishonor for him. Thus Tamar, initially the passive object of typical male arrangements, becomes the decisive and effective agent of this story, especially over the previously dominant male. The use of comparative material from Mediterranean anthropology brings out the impact of this story on its original audience at every point.

Hannah in the story in 1 Samuel 1-2 is also childless, not like Tamar because she lacks a semen-supplier, but because she is barren. Although she is the much loved wife of Elkanah, she must cope with the fact that he has a second and child-bearing wife, Penninah. Each year when the family goes to Shiloh for the festival of Yahweh, Penninah uses the occasion publicly to taunt her co-wife for her barrenness. This activity is comprehensible in terms of challenge and response. Penninah, who is probably under Hannah’s direction at home even though she has children, a shameful situation for her, turns the tables on Hannah in the honor stakes during the family’s annual visit to Shiloh. Hannah is rescued from this nightmare of barrenness and shame not by cunning and decisive enterprise like Tamar’s but by God, who answers her prayer and gives her a child, Samuel. This causes her to proclaim that “my mouth derides my foes”(1 Sam 2:1), who must include Penninah. Hannah is jubilant that she has shamed her co-wife!

However, can we comprehend what is going on in this extraordinary story? How can modern readers from Western cultures know what it means to be a co-wife or what are the probable dynamics between them? Not easily. But by spending years with Arab women, many of whom were co-wives, in Palestine in the 1930s, Finnish anthropologist Hilma Granqvist came to understand just what such a situation could be like for these women. Very often there was bitter animosity between co-wives, just as we see between Hannah and Penninah. The Palestinian comparison gives us a purchase on the plot and characterization of the Hebrew Bible that would be virtually impossible without it, as can be seen in the ethnocentric and anachronistic interpretations of Hannah that flourish in much biblical scholarship.

But if these are the sorts of meaning you get from reading a biblical narrative with its ancient audience, it is still worthwhile to ask why read these stories in the first place? The answer to this question will depend on what sort of reader we are. Imagine a pair of axes on a page, with the vertical axis running from readers for religious reasons at the top to readers for non-religious reasons at the bottom, while the horizontal axis runs from professional readers on the left and non-professional readers on the right. We then have four quadrants. The one on the top-right (with hundreds of millions of possible readers) has practicing Christian and Jewish lay people; the one on the top left contains believing Christian and Jewish biblical critics and students, and priests/ministers and rabbis; the bottom right quadrant has one-time Christians and Jews, together with curious people and searchers; and, finally, the bottom left quadrant contains atheist and agnostic artists, critics, film-makers, etc. interested in biblical narrative. These different audiences will get different things from their reading: if religious, they will refresh the memories that link us with pivotal stories that shape their Christian or Jewish identities. But for all readers, if read for their original meaning, these narratives disclose more ample opportunities for being human, foster our capacity for intercultural understanding, and provide aesthetic pleasure by embodying plots of great imaginative power.

In conclusion, for whatever reason you read biblical narrative, if you try to read it like its ancient audience did, you will find your interest amply rewarded, as these stories burst forth to fill your heart and mind and soul.