Reading Prophetic Narratives
A review of Uriel Simon's, "Reading Prophetic Narratives," by Dr. M. Daniel Carroll R.
Simon, Uriel. Reading Prophetic Narratives. Translated from the Hebrew by L.J. Schramm. Indiana Studies in Biblical Literature. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997. xx + 363 pp. $49.95 hb. ISBN 0-253-33227-3.
The author is Professor of Bible and Director of the Institute for the History of Jewish Bible Research at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. The last book he published was a commentary on Jonah, which (like this volume) is sensitive to literary issues (Jonah. The JPS Commentary. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999. See a review in Denver Journal, volume 3- 2000 ). In his preface (pp. xiii-xviii) Simon announces to his readers that this volume offers close literary readings of several prophetic narratives. He explains that the focus of his approach is not diachronic—that is, his goal is not to venture some hypothetical reconstruction of the composition of these texts or of their historical background. Instead, Simon desires to demonstrate the values of a method he labels “rhetorical criticism,” by paying close attention to literary details and possible contributions from form criticism and structural analysis. Although he does not claim that the ancient readers consciously were aware of all that he will propose, Simon does say that the results of his analysis are not an unfair and inappropriate external imposition of foreign criteria. All of the eight essays of this volume have appeared elsewhere (in publications that date from 1967 to 1990), save one (chapter 7) and part of another (chapter 6).
The essays generally are divided into three component parts (sometimes two can be combined): a comprehensive structural analysis [often accompanied by charts], a discussion of the passage’s literary genre, and comments on its modern theological significance. As an example of Simon’s work, I summarize his work on the story of Saul’s encounter with the witch at Endor in 1 Sam. 28 (chapter 3).
Simon develops his reading around the contrast between the characters of the witch and Samuel. Like in the other chapters, he begins by specifying the limits of the passage as a whole and of its various scenes. Literary markers, structural observations, and textual quotes from each are placed within charts, which facilitate comparing the scenes and visualizing the unfolding of the narrative. In addition, the textual details of 1 Sam. 28 are contrasted with those of two other passages of similar genre (which he labels “royal attempts to manipulate prophecy, which lead to the revelation of a divine decree of dynastic extinction”): 1 Sam. 2:27-36 (the house of Eli) and 1 Kgs. 14:1-18 (the house of Jeroboam). These similarities and differences are also summarized in a chart. What follows in the second part of this essay is a close reading of each of the three scenes. Simon’s comments are a veritable gold mine of all sorts of literary observations, such as word plays, inclusios, irony, and characterization. He also points out the many (and apparently conscious) connections with earlier narratives in 1 Sam. to underscore how these deliberate echoes and inversions give the tale greater power. The third and final part reflects on how the harshness of the prophet and the compassion of the witch (each in their own way a response to the agony of the desperate king) are used to make the narrative much more subtle than most realize. In the end, one can follow the Law and condemn necromancy, while appreciating the woman’s sensitivity and humanity, and accept the definitive and fatal divine decree as just, even as Saul gains the pity of the reader. Thus, 1 Samuel 28 through its characterizations offers a balance of justice and mercy. A theme that is also evident here, and in all the other narratives, according to Simon, is that the prophet (here Samuel) cannot be God’s representative, only his messenger. By that he means that the person of the prophet cannot reflect the breadth of the divine truth; hence, the importance of presenting multiple characters. Indeed, the reader achieves a more comprehensive understanding of divine view than does the prophet within the story.
This volume contains six other detailed studies and a short appendix on the role of minor characters within biblical stories. In addition, he provides extensive footnotes (which present more textual details and interact with both modern and rabbinic commentators; pp. 271-330), a bibliography (pp. 331-38), and three indices (pp. 339-63).
Simon’s work will richly reward anyone interested in probing the depths of biblical narrative with a true master as a guide. The chapters can be long and sometimes tedious, but the reader never comes away without new insights into the inner workings of the text. One might not always agree with Simon’s conclusions (for instance, in the cited example from 1 Sam. 28, I am not as sanguine about the text’s view of the witch as he is). Nevertheless, those committed to the teaching of the text, as Simon is, will glean from these literary readings a fresh light on how narrative can serve to communicate theology and mold moral life. The challenge for us who live in a visually oriented culture, that is losing its ability to comprehend the printed word, is to learn how to read. In the case of the Bible, our life before God and others, in a sense, depends on it!
M. Daniel Carroll R.
Professor of Old Testament