Old Testament Story and Christian Ethics: The Rape of Dinah as a Case Study
A review of Robin Parry's, "Old Testament Story and Christian Ethics," by A.J. Culp.
Robin Parry, Old Testament Story and Christian Ethics: The Rape of Dinah as a Case Study. Paternoster Biblical Monographs. Bletchly:Paternoster, 2004. xx + 350 pp. Paperback, $29.99. ISBN 1-84227-210-1.
Lately there has been a growing discussion on the role of narrative in Old Testament ethics, and this book takes a unique place in that discussion. If previous works framed the main issues, then Parry's pushes them to wider limits and pulls together other issues important to the study.
The first portion of this book aims to answer the question of why stories are valuable to ethics in general. Here Parry draws from the work of Paul Ricoeur and argues that the value of stories is in their power for shaping human identity. In brief, the argument goes like this. Human identity is itself made up of stories; that is, when someone thinks of himself he does so in story form. Because of this, identity seems to have a natural attraction to being shaped and molded by interaction with other stories, which can come in both oral and written form. So the very act of reading or listening to stories shapes one's personal identity. The upshot is that the process of human formation relies heavily on stories, and as such, the kinds of stories we are familiar with will largely determine the kind of people we are.
With this said, Parry goes on to develop his ideas on exactly how stories shape readers. Basically, he offers two ways in which this works. Firstly, there is the traditional way of model morality, in which characters model particular behavior that the reader is expected to imitate it. This is prescriptive ethics, where the reader is shown how to act. Secondly, beyond prescribing behavior stories can also contribute to ethics in another way: by developing a readerÃ¯Â¿Â½s moral capacities, that is, a personÃ¯Â¿Â½s ability to discern and make judgments about circumstances. Because of storyÃ¯Â¿Â½s unique nature, it causes readers to interact with situations that like real life are complicated and defy simple judgment. As such, it hones readersÃ¯Â¿Â½ abilities to understand the nature of circumstances and make proper decisions. So it seems that stories can shape readers morally by both showing them how to act and by refining their ability to navigate situations.
For the time being Parry sets aside the previous discussion and moves into areas directly related to the biblical text. He begins with the place of story in Old Testament ethics, asserting that stories are not just an arbitrary piece, but are in fact foundational and necessary to it as a whole. To argue this point he uses the work of John Barton (a major work in the field). Barton proposes three main strands of ethical models in the Old TestamentÃ¯Â¿Â½imitation of God, natural law, and obedience to the declared will of God. What Parry does, then, is works to show that story is necessary to these three models and, in fact, acts as both a foundation and constituent element of each. The significance of this is that stories, long treated lightly in the field, are really a vital piece of Old Testament ethics, without which any model is incomplete.
Next he considers the difficult issue of hermeneutics and ethics. The question of how Christians should use the Old Testament ethically is ever vexing, but Parry handles it well. His main proposal is that the biblical metanarrative can serve as a hermeneutical tool. That is, by understanding the overarching story of the Bible we are able to set boundaries and give direction to our ethical interpretations. How might this work? There are two main ways. Firstly, the metanarrative sets boundaries by locating the places of the reader and the passage being read in the larger story. This is significant because it preserves the unique context surrounding each one. But at the same time, and this is our second point, the metanarrative also provides a bridge between the contexts by showing how each fits into the trajectory of GodÃ¯Â¿Â½s movement in history. This is what gives theological direction and guidance to our interpretations. What this means, then, is that in understanding the biblical metanarrative we are able to interpret Old Testament passages in a way faithful to their context but still with relevance for Christians today.
The fruit of ParryÃ¯Â¿Â½s theory is in his reading of Genesis 34, where his many strands of thinking are brought to bear upon the difficult story of DinahÃ¯Â¿Â½s rape. Most noteworthy here is the discussion of characters, which he names as the primary shapers of a passageÃ¯Â¿Â½s ethical message. These characters are no simple actors, for each is a complex mixture of passions and motivations that are rarely wholly right or wrong. With this said, though, Parry argues that ethical evaluation is not hopeless, and he shows how a close reading of the text can reveal the narratorÃ¯Â¿Â½s evaluations of each character. Not surprisingly, the evaluations are just as nuanced and particular as the characters themselves. For example, characters like Simeon and Levi can at some level be right in their anger over the rape but wrong in their handling of it. Parry then moves on to the overall thrust of the text to show how Christians might use it ethically. Taking one of the textÃ¯Â¿Â½s central ideas (a kind of Promised Land conquest ideal), he shows how it is transformed in the New Testament. Thus the original ideal takes on new shape. The idea of resistance to the physical enemies of God, for example, becomes resistance to spiritual enemies. What this suggests is that a passage like Genesis 34 could, among other things, be used to inform a Christian response to evil.
To round out the book Parry considers the feminist charge that biblical stories can actually be harmful to readers. These stories, feminists claim, are androcentric (male-centered) and patriarchical (assume a hierarchy of males over females) and so taint readers with their ideas. To guard from this tainting they suggest we read stories with suspicion, questioning them at every turn. Parry grants that the feminist concerns are legitimate, but he suggests there are better ways of handling them. Whereas feminists tend to place themselves above the text and use secular theories to evaluate it, Parry prefers another approach, one that maintains biblical authority and seeks answers from within the text itself. He again uses metanarrative as an interpretive tool, arguing that it helps explain the presence of patriarchy and moderate that of androcentrism. For example, the biblical story presents patriarchy as a result of the fall. So though it existed in the lives of biblical people, patriarchy was never meant as an ideal, and in fact will be rectified at the redemption of all things. Concerning androcentrism, though it is true that much of the Bible is male-centered, there do exist books and passages that are female-centered. These, says Parry, are meant to moderate androcentrism by both providing a female perspective and by giving us license to consider the perspective of females who are silent in other passages. Therefore, we need not reject biblical narrative on feminist grounds, for it does itself provide a gridwork for understanding these issues.
To conclude, ParryÃ¯Â¿Â½s work is a good and needed contribution to biblical ethics. It considers with honesty and tenacity the true role of narrative in Old Testament ethics and it proposes helpful ways in which Christian readers can begin to use even difficult stories to inform their own moral lives. Though some of the discussions are technical, a handy reader will get the jist of the arguments and gain much insight into the value of stories for Christian ethics.