Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative

Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative
Sheffield, England: Almond Press, 1983.

Reviewed by Peter J. Leithart

This volume is the ninth in the “Bible and Literature Series” under the general editorship of David M. Gunn. According to its author, who teaches Hebrew at the University of Maryland, the book is an effort to describe “how biblical narrative constructs its representations—i.e. how it tells its stories.” This involves the discipline of “poetics,” which “describes the basic components of literature and the rules governing their use. Poetics strives to write a grammar, as it were, of literature” (p. 15). The book examines the Bible’s techniques of characterization and point of view, and then applies its findings to the book of Ruth. The final chapter of the book assesses the value of historical critical scholarship from the viewpoint of poetics.

E. M. Forster first categorized characters as “flat” (incompletely developed) or “round” (fully developed); Forster said that a “round” character is a one who can surprise us without losing credibility. Berlin, however, proposes a threefold classification: full-fledged characters, types, and agents. She fills in this classification by examining the characterization of David’s wives in 1-2 Samuel. Michal, she argues, is a full-fledged character, with feelings, motivations, and opinions of her own. In 1 Samuel 11-12, Bathsheba appears as an “agent,” a character necessary to the plot but whose thoughts, feelings, and personality are almost completely ignored; as Berlin notes, 1 Samuel 11:26-27a present in “one and a half cold, terse verses . . . the condition of a woman who has had an adulterous affair, become pregnant, lost her husband, married her lover, the king of Israel, and borne his child!” (p. 26). In 1 Kings 1-2, however, Bathsheba appears as a full-fledged character involved in the furious political maneuverings that dominate the court as David lies dying. Abigail, Berlin argues, is a “type” who represents the archetypal wise woman.

Characterization is accomplished in biblical narrative through a number of techniques. Unlike modern novelists, the biblical writers are reticent in their physical descriptions of human beings, though, as Berlin points out, the Bible is full of detailed descriptions of objects and events. Physical descriptions of persons are, however, insufficiently detailed for the reader to form a picture of the character; Bathsheba is beautiful, but there is no hint whether she is blonde or dark, whether she has blue eyes or brown. When physical traits are revealed, they serve as indicators of the quality of the character; Esau is hairy because he is bestial. More frequently, character is developed by relating inner thoughts or speech. Alternatively, character might be clarified through the use of contrast, whether with another character or with the earlier actions of the same character.

Berlin helps to explain point of view by comparing narrative to film; the point of view is the camera angle on a scene. While biblical narrative is often written from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, Berlin shows that the Bible actually employs multiple viewpoints. This, she argues, is part of what gives biblical narrative its profound realism. Through most of Genesis 22, for example, the story’s viewpoint is that of Abraham; Berlin notes that “we see the designated place for the sacrifice only when Abraham glimpses it from afar.” For one brief moment, however, the camera shifts: Verse 6 tells us that “the two of them [Abraham and Isaac] walked away,” as if the reader were left behind with the servants. These camera movements, however, takes place in the wider context set by the narrator at the beginning of the chapter. From the beginning, the reader knows something that Abraham does not, namely, that the Lord is testing him (v. 1). This combination of the omniscient narrator’s viewpoint and the limited knowledge of the characters is used to comic effect in the book of Esther.

Berlin explores especially what she calls, following Boris Uspensky, the “phraseological level” of point of view. By this she means linguistic features that indicate that point of view is being expressed. Her discussion of the particle hinneh, which she develops at length in the chapter on Ruth, must serve to represent her overall approach. This particle, often translated as “behold,” is frequently used as a kind of stage direction in biblical stories. It may, for instance, indicate a shift in the camera angle. 1 Samuel 19:16 says, “The messengers came and hinneh the teraphim were on the bed.” At the beginning of verse 16, we are viewing the messengers as they enter Michal’s room, but with the hinneh, the scene changes and we are now looking through their eyes. The reader already knows that the teraphim are in the bed; the hinneh serves to indicate that now the messengers know it. The same particle is used to introduce new characters (cf. Ruth 2:4).

One of the values of Berlin’s work is apologetic. In the final chapter, Berlin examines source criticism (which attempts to discover evidence of earlier forms of the text) and form criticism (which attempts to discover the original, independent units of the text and to trace their development) and finds that both make unwarranted assumptions and use methods that are tone-deaf to the poetics of biblical narrative. She provides some especially damning examples of critical scholarship’s illogical and arbitrary approach. K. Koch argues, apparently in all seriousness, that “the fact that the Church uses the Beatitudes out of context proves that they are self-sufficient,” to which Berlin replies, “According to Koch, the fact that I have excerpted segments of his book would indicate that these segments once existed independently from that book” (p. 122-23).

In this context, Berlin provides an interpretation of Genesis 37:18-30, a passage dissected into bits by critical scholars, and shows that “not only is the plot integrated and devoid of major inconsistencies, but we have shown a number of linguistic or rhetorical bonds between what have traditionally been considered different sources” (p. 121). On this last point, she disputes the critical notion that Reuben’s and Judah’s speeches derive from separate sources by pointing out the ways that Judah echoes Reuben’s earlier speech (references to “laying hands” and “blood”).

Another beneficial effect of Berlin’s book is the way it encourages close and sympathetic reading of the Bible. It forces the believer to wrestle with God’s revelation as it is actually written, not as we might wish it were written. And it increases our wonder at the beauty and profundity of God’s Word.

Peter Leithart is the president of Theopolis Institute. This post originally appeared on Biblical Horizons