Sex, Wives, and
Warriors: Reading Old Testament narrative with its ancient
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
Canon Rogerson is Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at
the University of Sheffield.