Commentary Magazine


Scripture and Culture

A great deal has changed in this country since that distant era of origins when the Pilgrim founders habitually thought of America as the New Israel. But even at this late date in the process of secularization, many of the ambiguities of our cultural predicament are still linked to the long aftermath of a culture centered on the Bible.

In order to do any justice to this historical phenomenon, we have to shuttle back and forth between two different, if overlapping, meanings of the term “culture”—the prestige sense of the word, which involves serious literature, music, art, philosophy; and the anthropological sense, which addresses itself to the characteristic patterns of behavior of ordinary people in quotidian and ritual situations. With regard to the persisting cultural presence of the Bible, there is often a causal connection between culture in the anthropological and culture in the prestige sense: the novels of Melville are a repeated argument with and recasting of the Bible, but that could scarcely have come about had not Bible reading and Bible quoting been so pervasive in the American home of the earlier 19th century.

It is sometimes claimed that the historical criticism of the Bible, an enterprise that can be taken back as far as Spinoza but that first reached full momentum in 19th-century Germany, is responsible for the erosion of the authority of the Bible. The facts of the matter seem to me more complicated than that. Many of the major figures in biblical criticism have been believers and even clerics, and their project has been not to deny the truth of the Bible, but to change the terms in which that truth is conceived. This general point has been argued cogently by Hans W. Frei in his seminal study, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (1974):

In effect, the realistic or history-like quality of biblical narratives, acknowledged by all, instead of being examined for the bearing it had in its own right on meaning and interpretation, was immediately transposed into the quite different issue of whether or not the realistic narrative was historical.

Before the dawn of modernity, the biblical text, in both Christian and Jewish traditions, was variously but vigorously construed as revealed truth—divinely underwritten in every detail, every particle and letter. When the emergence of a new historical perspective in the understanding of the past made this view of the Bible increasingly difficult to maintain, there came about what Frei calls a “simple transposition and logical confusion between two categories or contexts of meaning and interpretation”—that is, between what is history-like and what is actually historical in the Bible. As part of the project, moreover, of penetrating to the historical kernel, scholars adopted the new tools of philology to question the integrity of the sundry biblical texts. Where for the imagination of the believer there had been one Bible, majestically unfolding step by step from “In the beginning God created . . .” onward, there was now a welter of E-, J-, P-, and D- documents, scribal glosses, editorial bridges, redactional revisions, shards and fragments pasted together from a hundred conjectured ancient sources.

It may seem self-evident that this whole enterprise should undercut the possibility of belief in Scripture as the word of the living God, and in fact the 19th century in particular offers numerous instances of intellectuals who suffered an irreversible loss of faith through the corrosive effect of biblical criticism. It should be stressed, however, that biblical criticism, however skeptical, however revisionist, however atomistic in its approach to the text, has also represented an effort to get at the truth behind the text. In many respects this resembles any modern scholarly investigation of a corpus of ancient documents—but not, I would argue, in one respect. It is as though the biblical scholar were saying: in all good intellectual conscience, I must concede that these words, in the order and form that have been passed down to us, are not literally the words of the eternal God, but if only I could analyze them finely enough, match them with enough archeological evidence and extra-biblical documents, perhaps I could begin to glimpse the originating truth, the hidden historical core of those epoch-making doctrines and values that have determined the lives of so many millions these past two thousand years. In this regard, modern biblical scholarship is the particularly urgent turn given by revealed religion to the quest for origins initiated by European romanticism.

Let me offer a contemporary American instance of how this attitude percolates down from the high culture of esoteric scholarship to more popular strata. A few years ago, an enterprising editor named Hershel Shanks created a glossy, stylish, illustrated bimonthly magazine called Biblical Archeology Review. The magazine runs brief, informative articles, accompanied with sumptuous color photographs, by reputable archeologists and biblical scholars on particular excavations, on newly discovered inscriptions or documents, on ancient Near Eastern cultic practices, and so forth. The Biblical Archeology Review claims close to 115,000 subscribers, a figure I find astounding. To judge by the letters to the editor and by the advertisements, many if not most of this group are believing Christians—though not, it is safe to assume, unswerving fundamentalists.

There is clearly something in all this beyond a mere fad of archeology. If I try to imagine what tens of thousands of believing Christians (and Jews as well) are up to reading a magazine like Biblical Archeology Review, I am led to conclude that they are impelled by a motive similar to that of classical biblical scholarship: to know, for example, exactly how Jesus’s cross was really constructed, what was the design of King Hezekiah’s fortifications, what precisely were the scope and function of the practice of child sacrifice against which the Bible inveighed—in general, how did all these things look (hence the importance of the photographs); and through all this material knowledge, to get back to the core of historical truth from which the Bible issued. What is involved here, as I have suggested, is more than a fascination with the archaic: one does not find magazines on pre-Columbian or Greco-Roman archeology with this many subscribers, and it is hard to imagine how the investigation of other regions could have the peculiar spiritual urgency that these inquiries into biblical antiquity have for Jewish and Christian readers.

I have dwelled on this example because it strongly suggests that the historical criticism of the Bible, though it is often thought of as a secularization of Scripture, might better be described as an attempt to recover the religious truth of the Bible through means of investigation compatible with secular categories. Since this is hardly an activity for fundamentalists, it is by no means a question of trying to “prove” the validity of the Bible through secular means, but rather of adducing visual evidence for the concrete realities of biblical experience, even when they are camouflaged, distorted, or at best barely glimpsed in the verbal formulations of the received text. What I would contend is not that biblical criticism has been bent on unseating the Bible from its authoritative role but rather that its effort to get at the truth of the Bible has been directed by what A.N. Whitehead, in a different but related context of intellectual history, called “misplaced concreteness.” It is, I would grant, intriguing to see in an Assyrian bas-relief the exact design of the siege weapons used against the Judean city of Lachish, and perhaps this may clarify an obscure phrase in Isaiah or a biblical account of a military campaign. But bridging the gap between our material world and that of ancient Israel does not close the existential distance between modern people and ancient text, does not provide access to the complex spiritual truths of the texts.

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Since we live in the aftermath of a biblically centered culture, attitudes toward the Bible are often still an index of more general ideological positions. But before I try to sketch out any of these correlations, I would observe that when we move from culture in the prestige sense to popular culture, the decentering of the Bible may have much less to do with conscious attitude than with a simple erosion of connection. In the broad movement of secularization, which biblical criticism intersects at a somewhat oblique angle, people in large numbers long ago stopped reading the Bible; for millions, the peripherality of the Bible is not a matter of skepticism but of ignorance. Any teacher of literature will be familiar with the problem Northrop Frye touches on in the preface to his recent book, The Great Code—that many manifestations of the Western literary tradition, because they are formulated in terms of biblical imagery, biblical plots, specific verses from the Bible, have become unintelligible to contemporary readers.

My impression is that the Bible has fared worse in this regard than the Greek and Latin classics that constitute the other matrix of Western literature. It is true that very few secondary-school students actually learn Greek any more, but most of those who go on to college have read the Odyssey in translation, or at any rate encounter it in the first couple of years at college; as a result, they are likely to have some context for the allusions to Homer in Joyce’s Ulysses, but none at all for the allusions to the Elijah story in the same novel, the Book of Kings by this time having become the kind of text most people have heard of but never glanced at. It may be that this endemic illiteracy in relation to the Bible is by now beyond remedy, though perhaps the catastrophe might at least be mitigated by trying to learn in an academic setting how to read the Bible as a body of compelling literary texts instead of merely investigating Scripture. This is a point to which I will return.

Given the twin erosion of plain knowledge of the Bible and of belief in the Bible as divinely revealed truth, the notion that the Bible has real prescriptive authority in governing our moral and political lives would seem to be restricted to fundamentalist groups. There are, of course, substantial numbers of non-fundamentalist Christians and Jews who try to take the Bible seriously, but in most instances they would ultimately fail the test of according prescriptive authority to Scripture. One readily sees this whenever there is an unambiguous conflict between contemporary mores, especially those deemed progressive, and explicitly stated biblical values. Thus, the biblical view of homosexuality leaves little latitude for interpretation: it is an abomination to the Lord, a practice associated with the hateful corruption, both sexual and cultic, of the surrounding pagan world from which Israel must distance itself. Christian fundamentalists have been vocal in responding to the prescriptive force of biblical statements on this issue; in more “advanced” Christian and Jewish circles, however, where homosexual clergymen and congregations have gained acceptance, it is clear that the real prescriptive force comes from contemporary attitude rather than from Scripture.

If the Bible, then, has ceased to be literally authoritative for the majority of Americans, it nevertheless remains associated with the idea of authority. America has never been an authoritarian society, but it has by and large respected the idea of authority. Its leaders, for better or for worse, have often been reassuring father figures; it has honored written traditions, religious and secular, as well as traditional institutions; even in its most extravagant expressions of individualism, it has assumed that there is a fundamental difference between freedom and anarchy. The turmoil of the late 60’s created an alternative to this set of assumptions by introducing into American political consciousness, without the support of an articulated ideology of anarchism, the idea that authority as such was the real enemy. The one political bumper-sticker that (in California, at least) has survived twenty years of ideological changes is the two-word injunction: QUESTION AUTHORITY.

In our culture, whether we call it Judeo-Christian or post-Judeo-Christian, the first textual association with the idea of authority is the Bible. You can bet that the man or woman at the wheel of the car whose bumper enjoins us to question all authority will be among the first to consign Deuteronomy and Matthew to the dust heap of discarded instruments of oppression. The new fundamentalisms can be seen as an equal and opposite response to this impulse of rejection, the allure of authority turning into a flirtation with authoritarianism and the idea of authoritative Scripture transformed into a literalist attribution of absolute authority to every jot and tittle of the biblical text.

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Some of the current controversies in literary studies in this country vividly illustrate how certain lines of relation to the Bible readily extend into other areas and help determine underlying political attitudes. Of late, a great deal has been said, by feminists, Marxists, deconstructionists in particular, about the “canon” of literary works and how it is inevitably determined by suspect ideological considerations. Canon, of course, is a concept drawn from the history of the institutional reception of the Bible, and it can be applied to a large and highly heterogeneous body of poetic, fictional, and dramatic texts only by way of loose analogy. Its current use, then, involves a degree of polemical distortion, suggesting that there is in literary tradition a kind of hidden equivalent of the formal councils of ecclesiastical authorities who decide on principles of inclusion and exclusion, and that the status of the non-canonical literary text is fixed and absolute, like an apocryphal work excluded by the rabbis or church fathers and deemed forever outside the scriptural pale.

American literary scholars touched by the doctrines of deconstruction have been particularly vocal in raising suspicions about existing canons and arguing for the unsettling of canons. With their notion that all hierarchical oppositions in texts are reversible, that the peripheral can become central, outside can become inside (or, as one would say more biblically, that the last will be first), the supplanting of the literary canon has been very much a political slogan. One of the most prominent advocates of this program of deconstruction in the last few years has been Jonathan Culler. Politically, Culler is a product of the SDS of the 60’s, who has settled in comfortably as a successful member of the academy at an Ivy League institution, carrying the banner of deconstruction as his own equivalent of the QUESTION AUTHORITY bumper-sticker, and of late channeling the revolutionary impulse of his early years into a particularly strident version of feminism.

It is instructive, then, that Culler, whose own work is limited to the 19th and 20th centuries and, except for an early book on Flaubert, deals with theoretical rather than with literary works, should have expressed outrage over the fact that the September 1984 meeting of the English Institute chose to devote a whole set of papers to the literature of the Hebrew Bible. One might have thought that such a programming decision would have been a matter of indifference to a scholar of Culler’s interests, but instead he construed it as a kind of betrayal of the trust of literary studies. The sense of betrayal for Culler was no doubt sharpened by the fact that the organizer of the English Institute session on the Bible was none other than Geoffrey Hartman, the senior figure in the small group of prominent scholars at Yale who have been responsible for putting deconstruction on the American academic map.

Now, Culler formulated his objections as a kind of intellectual church-state issue, arguing that the enterprise of literary studies was fundamentally secular, committed to the critical spirit of secularly, and that therefore it had no business dealing with texts and topics that were the domain of benighted creedal interests. This definition of the literary in contradistinction to the scriptural as an opposition between secular and religious will not stand much scrutiny. It hardly needs to be said that many of the major works of the Western literary tradition, even if we refrain from calling it a canon, are profoundly religious in character, from Dante to Milton to Dostoevsky to T.S. Eliot, and many writers, like John Donne and W.H. Auden, have produced both secular and religious texts linked by complex affinities. To suggest that the religious dimension of such works is not the concern of literary scholars makes no more sense than proposing that the psychological dimension of literary texts should be left solely to the psychologist. I would add that on the scriptural side, there are elements of the biblical texts that are intrinsically secular—witness the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and much of the Book of Proverbs—however later tradition reinterprets them religiously, and so here, too, the secular-religious opposition collapses.

The real reason, it seems to me, that the introduction of the Bible into the literary precincts of the academy should be anathema to the radical deconstructionist is the specter of authority that the Bible evokes. Here is the very source and fount of the concept of binding canon smuggled into the realm where progressive spirits are fighting the good fight to break down the barriers of canon, displace major with minor, and let in the excluded from below and beyond.

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To insist, as I have done, on an association of ideas in our culture between Scripture and authority is to beg the more essential question of whether Scripture still has any authority. One obvious answer would be a kind of tautology: that Scripture has authority for those who continue to believe, whether as fundamentalists or in some revisionist fashion, that it is the revealed word of God. Such belief, for many Americans, may be translated into political motives as diverse as a dedication to pursue justice and mercy in social policy or an opposition to the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools; in any case, the authority of the biblical text is strong enough to compel action.

This self-evident answer to the question of the authority of Scripture is worth mentioning because it suggests that, however skeptical a secular observer may choose to be, the imperative presence of the Bible remains something serious to conjure with in contemporary American life. Nevertheless, there is a very large group of Americans who are not inclined to attribute a divine source to Scripture; some of these are conscious secularists, others what could be called casual non-religionists, and still others adherents to some post-traditional form of Judaism or Christianity. At first thought, it might appear that for this sizable group the answer to the question about the continuing authority of Scripture should be an unequivocal no. In fact, I think our cultural situation vis-à-vis the Bible is more interestingly ambiguous than would be allowed for by a neat division into believers and non-believers.

Let me try to illustrate this ambiguity by describing the double-edged thrust of an activity in which I have been personally involved over the past ten years, the attempt to fashion a new literary approach to the Bible. When I wrote my first essay on this subject in 1975,1 decrying the concentration of a century of biblical scholarship on purely excavative issues and calling for intellectually rigorous literary perspectives, I fancied, rather ignorantly, that I was a voice crying out in the wilderness. As I soon discovered, a whole new generation of biblical scholars in this country was beginning to turn, perhaps a little falteringly, from the search for Ugaritic loan-words and the determination of the historicity of the texts to considerations of literary art. Since the mid-70’s there has been a spate of articles and books on the Bible with literary emphases, and in the last few years, predictably, even a few signs of backlash, which, however, by no means impedes the continuing forward rush of the literary trend in biblical studies.

All this is clearly beginning to make a difference in how the Bible is thought about and taught in American seminaries, colleges, and universities, There are intriguing methodological issues involved in this shift, but beyond methodology, what is at stake is a pursuit in the Bible of a different order of truth—to invoke again Hans Frei’s terms, it is a turning from the truth of history to the truth of realism, that is, to what may not be a factual account of events but is coherently history-like.

What effect does this adoption of literary perspectives have on the authority of Scripture? In my view, the effect is, necessarily, a paradoxical one. To read the Bible with literary eyes would seem to complete a long process of secularizing Scripture, and hence of undercutting any claim it might have to authority. On another level (or perhaps one should say, for other minds), the literary reading of the Bible provides a means of getting in touch again with the religious power of Scripture, and so reinstates scriptural authority in new terms. The undercutting of authority is obvious enough; the way in which it is reinstated may need more detailed explanation.

Although the category of literature, as I have said, cuts across both religious and secular experience, our cultural operating assumption is that the source of literary works, however profound or intricate they may seem, is human. In Anglo-American culture, certain attempts have been made, beginning with Matthew Arnold, to instate literature as a kind of substitute religion in reaction to a general waning of faith. But these have not fared well, and their ultimate devolution is reflected in the tendency of many literary theorists today to deny the privileged status and the very distinctiveness of literary discourse, leveling the plays of Shakespeare with menus, graffiti, and bureaucratic directives. We need not accede to such polemical simplifications, but the fact remains that when we analyze, say, exalted poetry like Keats’s odes, we are quite conscious that it is a particular human mind, working through a complex interplay of linguistic phenomena, semiotic codes, and literary conventions, that is responsible for the beauty of the poems. When these same instruments of analysis are directed toward Psalms or the Song of Songs or the poetry of Isaiah, it would seem inevitable that texts defined by tradition as sacred Scripture will be seen as human productions.

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Literary appreciation does not automatically contradict belief in the inspired character of the text, but it can manage quite comfortably without reference to such belief. Recently, after a lecture I delivered on biblical narrative, a young man wearing the small knit skullcap and trimmed beard of modern Jewish Orthodoxy asked me whether the complexities of moral motivation in the story I had discussed were not evidence of the divine inspiration that had produced the story. I was obliged to respond that, unfortunately, no literary analysis could confirm faith in this way, and that certain gifted writers, including thorough secularists like Henry James and Joseph Conrad as well as intent monotheists like the authors of Genesis and the David story manifested this ability to imagine moral dilemmas and ambiguities of motivation with an uncanny complexity.

But if it is true that a literary approach to Scripture in no way implies that the biblical text has a uniquely privileged status, my Orthodox questioner was right in one respect. The historical criticism of the Bible is rooted in a view of truth associated with 19th-century positivism that does not sit well with any sense of the moral or spiritual authority of Scripture. In this view, what counts is what really happened once in the coordinates of earthly time and space, what can be uncovered with the archeologist’s spade, measured by carbon dating, or at least inferentially determined as the actual material cause behind the elaborate layers of verbal mediation that constitute the biblical text. Literary analysis, on the other hand, brackets the question of history, not necessarily out of indifference to history but because it assumes that factual history is not the primary concern of the text and that it is in any case largely indeterminable, given the scant data we have to work with at a remove of two to three millennia from the originating events to which the text refers.

A literary approach, instead, directs attention to the moral, psychological, political, and spiritual realism of the biblical texts, which is a way of opening ourselves to something that deserves to be called their authority, whether we attribute that authority solely to the power of the human imagination or to a transcendent source of illumination that kindled the imagination of the writers to express itself through these particular literary means. The oft-quoted rabbinical dictum, dibra torah kilshon benei ‘adam, “the Torah spoke in human language,” must be applied not merely to the idioms of Scripture but to the adoption by the biblical writers of an elaborate set of literary instruments for the articulation—perhaps, indeed, for the discovery—of their religious vision. Ethical monotheism was not delivered to the world as a series of abstract principles but in cunningly wrought narratives, poetry, parables, orations, in an intricate patterning of symbolic language and rhetoric that extends even to the genealogical tables and the laws. We will scarcely feel the forceful modulations with which the texts address us unless we somehow attend to the literary forms of the address.

The difference between the project of the new literary criticism of the Bible and that of modern historical criticism may be usefully conceived as a closing of distance between reader and text versus an interposition of distance between reader and text. Although the historical critic may regard the religious character of the text with the utmost seriousness, his method implies an underlying view of the text as an inert object of investigation—the stratified verbal deposits of the life of ancient Israel that need to be carefully gauged, discriminated, classified so that we can build hypotheses about both the evolution of the text and the life behind the text. What is tacitly assumed, though rarely admitted, is a vantage point of cognitive superiority from which the modern investigator overviews the ancient text, and that assumption of superiority entails a sense of existential distance from the text.

By contrast, the literary analyst, though he should certainly be aware of the differences of ancient mind-set and ancient literary procedures, presupposes a deep continuity of human experience that makes the concerns of the ancient text directly accessible to him. These millennia-old expressions of fear, anguish, passion, perplexity, exultation speak to us because they issue from human predicaments quite like our own and are cast in the molds of plot, character, dialogue, scene, imagery, word-play, and sound play that are recognizable analogues to the modalities of literary texts more easily familiar to us, closer to us in time and space.

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Let me try to bring the argument into sharper focus through an illustration of how historical and literary criticism respectively read a biblical text. Genesis 33 reports the reunion of Jacob and Esau after twenty years. Jacob, one recalls, has fled to his uncle Laban in Mesopotamia in fear for his life after having deceived his blind father by stealing the blessing meant for Esau. When he returns, loaded with wives and concubines and sons and cattle, he is still fearful of what Esau might do. On the night before the meeting, he wrestles in the dark with the mysterious stranger who at daybreak confers on him the numinous name of Israel. When the brothers finally meet, Esau rushes up to Jacob and embraces him, and the two at last are reconciled.

What ought to be attended to in such a text? For the late E.A. Speiser, whose commentary on Genesis in the Anchor Bible series is one of the American monuments to the documentary approach to the Pentateuch, there is scarcely any hesitation about emphasis. Given only a page to devote to the episode, he makes a couple of brief and very general remarks about the “affectionate reunion” of the brothers and then proceeds to more serious business:

The sympathetic portrayal of Esau accords well with the picture that J drew of him in ch. xxvii. The present account of the meeting is largely from the same hand, perhaps even entirely. To be sure, vss. 5, 10, and 11 use the term Elohim, hence many critics would assign all or most of 4-11 to E. Actually, however, the argument is far from conclusive.

And with this Speiser goes on to consider in detail why the passage is not necessarily a composite but may be plausibly attributed to J, with a little appendix from P in the last four verses of the chapter.

I am not concerned here with whether Speiser is right or wrong or with the methodological problems in making these discriminations about different sources in the biblical text, but rather with the relation to the text in which this kind of analysis places us. The encounter between Jacob and Esau, which is surely one of the great surprising climaxes of the patriarchal narratives, is dismissed with a perfunctory gesture of appreciation. The force and significance of the imagined scene are assumed to be self-evident, hardly requiring any minute analysis—though in fact what this meeting means to each of the brothers is far from obvious, and the theme of lordship and subservience that has followed the story of the brothers from the womb is reasserted here with fascinating ironic complications. For the documentary critic, however, the real concern is not the imaginative coherence of the narrative invention—Frei’s “realism”—but the historical mediation of the text. Thus, in Speiser’s commentary it is not Jacob and Esau but E, J, and P that become the subject of investigation. In this way the text is held at a distance for inspection, and any voice that might speak from its imagined situation to our actual one is in effect suppressed.

This is not the place to launch a close reading of the whole complex episode, but I would like to comment briefly on two features of the reunion in order to suggest the kind of questions a literary analysis might raise and what that might have to do with a perception of the authority of the text. From the beginning of the tale of the twins, as I have intimated, what has been explicitly at stake is who will be lord (‘adon) and who will be servant (‘eved). The opposition is first set out in the oracle to the pregnant Rebekah: “One nation will be stronger than the other,/and the elder will serve [ya’avod] the younger” (Genesis 25:23). The reversal of primogeniture announced in the oracle is certainly unambiguous, and this reversal would seem to be irrevocably confirmed first in the selling of the birthright to Jacob and then, still more clearly, when Jacob steals their father’s blessing and Isaac must tell the outraged Esau, “Look, I have made him master over you, and all his brothers I have given him as servants . . .” (Genesis 27:37).

What is curious about the reunion of the brothers in Genesis 33, which is, by the way, also the last reported meeting between them in the biblical record, is that it has a look of disconfirming what has been so abundantly confirmed. Esau repeatedly addresses Jacob directly in a fraternal second-person singular, but only once, in the middle of the dialogue (verses 10-11), does Jacob use the second-person form—and this immediately after Esau has called him “my brother.” Otherwise, Jacob, after having approached Esau by prostrating himself seven times, maintains the deferential third-person form of address, again and again referring to himself as “your servant” (‘avdekha) and to Esau as “my lord” (‘adoni), “my lord” being the very last word he says to Esau when they part.

The irony of this reversal of a reversal, this transposition of the terms of Isaac’s blessing, is a rich one because there is no simple way to resolve it. Jacob’s great show of subservience is of course a matter of prudence, as he is afraid of what Esau may do to him. Is there a moral or even political theme here, suggesting that in the ambiguous play of events true lordship is sometimes achieved by ignoring the outward trappings of superiority, perhaps by a willingness to suffer self-abasement? Or is Jacob’s case for lordship somehow undercut by this behavior vis-à-vis the generous and lordly Esau? Might this final encounter between the brothers, where Jacob is servant and Esau is lord, intimate that in the uncertain medium of history there could be an element of permanent instability, unpredictability, in the seemingly clear-cut terms of the oracle and the blessing?

The irony of the scene is brought to a sharp point by Jacob’s use of a single brief phrase that echoes an exchange at which he was not present, the dialogue between Isaac and the frustrated Esau in Genesis 27. For when Jacob here finally brings himself to address his brother in the second person, he says, “Please take my blessing that has been brought for you” (verse 11). Now, the term for blessing, berakhah, also means gift, and that is obviously the sense in which Jacob is using it here. The writer chooses this particular term (there are at least three other common biblical words that mean gift) because through it Jacob is made to reverse what Isaac said twenty years earlier to Esau, “Your brother came in deceit and he took your blessing” (Genesis 32:35) and what Esau bitterly confirmed, “And look, now he has taken my blessing” (Genesis 37:36).

As with the surrounding irony of the terms lord and servant, this irony leaves us poised between competing possibilities of interpretation. Are we to perceive an act of symmetrical restitution when Jacob asks Esau to take his berakhah just as he has taken Esau’s berakhah? Or is this meager compensation on Jacob’s part a mere material gift (berakhah) offered in exchange for a stolen blessing (berakhah) whose benefits are permanent and untransferable? Does the pun make Jacob the unwitting target of authorial irony, perhaps suggesting that he has achieved his victory by dubious means, or is he himself aware that his choice of words reflects a reversal of his own earlier act as he now seeks to right the old wrong?

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The terms of analysis I have proposed do not differ essentially from those that would be used to define the complex mimetic art of a scene from The Red and the Black, Anna Karenina, or Ulysses. The difference is not a matter of method but of context. The biblical text, that is, carries after it a wake of canonicity, not only for the believer but for the half-believer and the non-believer as well. One recent critic of the new wave of literary interest in the Bible has protested that, after all, Jacob and Joseph are not fictional characters but are rather our forefathers, the founding figures of God’s covenanted people. The real point, I think, is that they are both at once, and that double identity is the source of their special authority, even for the reader who is not prepared to refer them to the category of revelation.

Jacob is not merely a fictional construct, an imaginative hypothesis with the suasive force of verisimilitude. He is abundantly that, but he is also the eponymous founder of Israel, which both as physical entity and theological concept has had and continues to have enormous consequences in countless lives. The fine complexity, then, with which he is rendered in this initiating text addresses itself to our political, moral, and religious predicaments with an urgency not entirely shared by more secular fictions. The authority of the fictional imagination, as it speaks from the canonical text, assumes a cultural and a spiritual force.

The case of literary approaches to Scripture strikes me as an instructive one because it exposes so vividly the uncertain zone of aftermath in which our culture stands vis-à-vis the Bible. It may be only for a minority that Scripture remains unambiguously authoritative, yet most of us continue to feel the pressure of authority exerted by this extraordinary collection of ancient writings. From the humanist perspective, and, indeed, from many religious perspectives as well, Scripture no longer speaks in one clearly prescriptive voice, but its resonances still carry into the recesses of our spiritual and political imagination. The Bible has been a central force of coherence and continuity in our culture, and so it may not be, after all, surprising that many are now impelled to discover how they might close the gap interposed by modernity between themselves and the biblical texts.

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Footnotes

1 “A Literary Approach to the Bible,” COMMENTARY, December 1975.

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