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Delving back to ancient Israel

12 July 2013

What did the first hearers of the OT stories make of them, asks John Rogerson


Sex, Wives, and Warriors: Reading Old Testament narrative with its ancient audience
Philip F. Esler
James Clarke & Co. £27.50

IS IT possible to read and understand an Old Testament narrative "with its original audience in ancient Israel"? This is what Philip Esler sets out to do; but is it possible?

It may be granted that ancient Israelite readers/hearers of narratives brought to the narratives shared assumptions and conventions that differed from those of modern readers, and that one of the tasks of biblical scholarship is to elucidate these assumptions and conventions. But can scholarship go further than this?

The claim that it can raises many questions. Are we dealing with one original audience (and what does "original" mean here?) as opposed to many audiences; and can it be true, as the author maintains, that this audience would not have varied substantially between 950 and 250 BC?

The main part of the book is eight studies of biblical narratives: Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38), Hannah (1 Samuel 1-2), the madness of Saul (1 Samuel 8-31), David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17-18), David as bandit and king (1 Samuel 19-2 Samuel 5), Judith (in the book of Judith), David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 10-12), and Amnon, Tamar and Absalom (2 Samuel 13).

Four of the essays have been previously published, and this leads to a certain amount of repetition of details of the underlying methodology, which firmer editorial control could have eliminated. Two preliminary chapters include a comprehensive overview of recent work in cultural anthropology, with special attention to Mediterranean ethnography, and to the question of shame and honour as determining cultural values in Mediterranean societies.

This is the justification for the claim that biblical narratives can be understood as they would have been understood by the "original audience".

What the expositions of the biblical passages actually show is that Esler is doing what OT scholarship has been doing for at least 250 years - interpreting the Bible in the light of what can be surmised about the customs and social background of the pre- sumed biblical writers - but doing it in a much more informed way than was possible for earlier scholars.

Canon Rogerson is Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield.

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