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Toward a Grammar of Biblical Poetics: Tales of the Prophets.


Toward a Grammar of Biblical Poetics: Tales of the Prophets. By Herbert C. Brichto. New York: Oxford University, 1922. Pp. XVI + 298. $35.

Brichto chooses his title carefully. "Toward" hints at the beginnings of a project, and he does not claim to have analyzed, synthesized, and evaluated all the literary-critical elements that go into the creation of biblical narratives. Because many biblical scholars still think that a literary analysis of texts is a search for documentary sources, he calls his analytical gathering of poetic techniques and authorial strategies a grammar of poetics, suggesting, as he says, a "set of rules that will, when uncovered, show that the Hebrew Scriptures, as a whole and in their constitute units, constitute a unitary design and a single authorial voice." Since no one denies that the biblical stories he analyzes come from many different centuries, he is concerned to show that stories build upon one another and share a common outlook that works from the basic faith of Israel and expresses its ideological convictions about God and the nation in a coherent manner throughout. This can be shown only by cataloguing the impressive array of compositional techniques and rhetorical devices found in story after story, and at the same time identifying the kerygma of each narrative that is revealed by the poetic analysis.

B. lists five characteristics of his approach that sets this study off from other literary analyses: (1) he formulates the intended kerygma of each text in a synthetic conclusion; (2) he often reconsiders the metaliterary assumptions that underlie traditional interpretations of a text's kerygma; (3) he makes use of halakhic texts to help elucidate Scripture's mindset about elements behind its kerygma; (4) he posits the assumption of a unitary nature of Scripture (one authorial voice behind formulations by many different writers); (5) he gives the Hebrew text and its Masoretic mediators the benefit of the doubt in most cases.

B. analyzes nineteen tales. One of these is Exodus 32-34 and another Deuteronomy 6. The rest are all from the Elijah and Elisha cycles in 1 Kings 17-2 Kings 9, except for examples from Jeremiah 26 and the Book of Jonah. This explains the subtitle's emphases on the prophetic literature. The strength of the book is in these analyses, which give a sensitive reading of nuances and point out the frequent use of what B. calls "synoptic-resumptive" techniques. These techniques involve treating a theme twice: first in a brief account; and then returning to the main point in a second, more expansive version that will highlight the kerygmatic point. After each close reading of the text, B. provides a poetical review, in which he outlines all the techniques and devices employed in the foregoing passage. In a final chapter, he concludes that metaphorical language prevails over literal language in these tales, and warns us against the metaliterary concern of too many theologians over the historical nature of accounts. He also expresses significant doubts about the gains of source criticism, especially in Pentateuch studies, since it fails to reconcile the problems of coherence and consistency with a unified purpose in the overall text. One might logically expect the book to have ended with a detailed description of how the literary devices and strategies it has uncovered actually functioned for the totality of tales. But that chapter had to be placed first as a long introduction, since readers would otherwise not be prepared to see the techniques at work in the text as B. understands them. This is actually helpful, but it contributes to the conviction by the end of the book that we are still searching for the "why" behind many of the techniques and devices that enabled them to the vehicles for expressing the proposed unitary authorical voice.

If there is a major weakness in the enterprise, it is in the three preliminary assumptions: of the unitary nature of the authorical voice, the help from (late) halakhic sources, and the predisposition to the masoretic text's understanding. It leads B. to very shaky analyses at times, e.g. his interpretation of Solomon or his strained efforts to devalue etiological concerns in Genesis 1-11. He also has a tendency to glorify approaches of English literary criticism as though modern insights into our language hold univocally for ancient languages. But on the positive side, B. develops excellent insights into the role of character, point of view, and metaphor, and has effective critiques of those who rely too much on genre identification and historicizing interpretations. In the balance scale, the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses. We can all learn much about reading texts from B, and we look forward to hearing more from this seminal thinker.

Washington Theological Union Lawrence Boadt, C.S.P.
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Author:Boadt, Lawrence
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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