Language and Imagery in the Old Testament
A review of J.C.L. Gibson's, "Language and Imagery in the Old Testament," by Dr. Richard Hess.
Gibson, J. C. L. Language and Imagery in the Old Testament. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998. ix + 166 pp. Paperback. ISBN 1565630904
This small volume is a useful introduction to the subject of its title. It is not systematic but that may be an advantage as such a presentation is always in danger of pretending to have the last word on the subject. Gibson does not. His topics include discussions of the language about and images of God as well as people. Other chapters deal with Hebrew prose and poetry. What some may have ventured to put in chapters with different headings, Gibson collects under these subjects. Thus in the first chapter, dealing with the energy of the Hebrew language, the reader encounters discussions on the lack of abstract terms in Hebrew, coordination (rather than subordination) in Hebrew syntax, the fact that ancient Israelites thought with their heart and felt with their bowels, and the use of hyperbole, personification, and irony. The discussion of God begins with evidence in the Old Testament that God creates evil and moves to observations about (other) texts, that they use metaphor to describe God. In the chapter on prose writing one is reminded of the classical liberal position with its commitment to oral tradition that is written into literary sources that are then combined into our books of the Bible by redactors. Judgment, comfort, praise, and lament all constitutes elements of the varied content of the poetry. Gibson makes helpful remarks about Job’s use of psalms of lament in his discussions. However, does Job recover his faith (so Gibson) or is it maintained all the time with various responses reflecting the mood of the suffering speaker. Clearly, the second opition remains a possibility, if not a probability. Gibson is eager to use the term, myth, and to apply to the opening chapters of Genesis. Is it helpful to use such a term that has so many connotations? Yet Gibson is eager to point out that a snake talking and a box-shaped ark containing a pair of every animal must be mythical. Yet, we have talking animals in Numbers 21-25. Is this mythical? If so, where does myth end and truth begin? Clearly, the text itself provides no clues, claiming silently that the “fantastic” should sit along side the historical. Much that Gibson writes on myth must be examined in light of the actual evidence. Too easily so much of the Bible is casually dismissed as myth. This needs to be revaluated. The final chapters on the image of God and of people involves a principle of stewardship on behalf of the Western Front. Though permeated with uncritical presuppositions about critical approaches, this work represents a fine introduction and discussion of the field of imagery in the Hebrew Bible.
Richard S. Hess
Professor of Old Testament