Stories in Scripture and Inscriptions
A review of Simon Parker's, "Stories in Scripture and Inscriptions: Comparative Studies on Narratives in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions and the Hebrew Bible," by Dr. Richard Hess.
Parker, Simon B. Stories in Scripture and Inscriptions: Comparative Studies on Narratives in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions and the Hebrew Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. ix + 195 pp. Hardback, $39.95. ISBN 0-19-511620-8.
This is a useful and important discussion of types of literature as found in the Northwest Semitic world. Formal and structural correspondences lead Parker to group together petitionary narratives, military campaign accounts, appeals for military intervention, and stories of miraculous deliverance from a siege. In a separate chapter Parker also considers the accounts of the construction of the Siloam tunnel. In many cases, this is the first collection and study of the particular accounts in terms of their purpose. The study and comparison of narratives of the Bible and its immediate context are crucial for understanding the meaning and purpose of the biblical text itself as well as the significance of the extrabiblical literature.
There is much in Parker’s book that allows for reflection and consideration. Indeed, there are some issues that arise at the beginning and of the book and threaten the work in terms of its methodology. For example, the concern to compare like with like is laudable and surely correct. Yet the distinction of poetic and prose narratives may be forced and artificial. Clearly, this was not the view of the contributors to J. C. de Moor and W. G. E. Watson (eds.) Verse in Ancient Near Eastern Prose (AOAT 42; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1993), and others who have refused to draw an absolute line between poetry and prose. These are later categories and their presence or absence in ancient Northwest Semitic literature is more often one of degree than of certainty.
A second area of concern also arises in the introduction. This has to do with the question of oral tradition. Parker uses the meager epigraphic evidence from ancient Israel and Judah to argue that most people could not read or write and therefore the biblical stories must have originated and been passed along orally (pp. 8-10). However, this assumes that because little written material has been found there was therefore little writing going on. The climate, the destruction of conquest, and the perishable nature of papyrus all argue against the preservation of many written materials. The theory of oral literature and tradition is one that is virtually impossible to falsify. That alone should make it suspect. However, its use by Parker seems to be one of arguing against the historicity of a narrative because it must have originated orally and therefore could not have withstood considerable alteration and embellishment. An example of this is Parker’s treatment of the Joshua 10 narrative regarding the conquest of the cities of the southern coalition. For Parker, this is “formulaic” “monotony” not encountered in other written sources and evidence of an oral story behind the text. However, he does not deal with all the relevant texts, omitting for example the Amarna letters of Mayarzana, EA 185 and EA 186. Nor does he consider Lawson Younger’s discussion of Joshua 10 as possessing a form and structure that parallels many of the ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts (not only the Neo-Assyrian ones).
Although these objections deal with presuppositions that carry through the whole of Parker’s study, fortunately they do not significantly alter the value of the comparative analyses of the various biblical and extrabiblical narratives studied. The book may therefore be commended as a useful supplement to commentaries for the exegesis of a variety of biblical narratives.
Richard S. Hess
Professor of Old Testament