Texts of Terror

or Silencing the Higher Critics


Yet more on literary analysis of the Bible as a ‘terrible marvel‘; a review of two books. As Warren Gage has commented, we are on the verge of a tremendously creative time in Biblical theology. But this to me seems also to be an element of scholarship returning home, older and wiser, from a wilderness of unbelief.

Genesis: The Story We Haven’t Heard
by Paul Borgman. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2001. 252 pages.

The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi
by David A. Dorsey. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999. 330 pages.

Reviewed by Timothy Paul Erdel, Ph.D., Archivist and Assistant Professor of Religion and Philosophy, Bethel College, Mishawaka, IN.

“I have been fascinated by the primal power of Old Testament stories for as long as I can remember. From my perspective, there is no clearer window on human character, no greater storehouse of hard and holy truths. Yet some tales are deeply disturbing. Phyllis Trible calls them ‘texts of terror.’ Even the most familiar passages may seem strangely distant. So I relish each time a preacher or teacher sheds new light on these ancient Hebrew narratives.

The greatest of all great books, the Bible has been the focus of far more sustained and intensive scholarly scrutiny than any other work. Since the modern era, this critical dissection sometimes threatens to destroy everything precious to traditional readers: the religious message, the historical reliability, the underlying drama, and the unity of the writings. Nevertheless, despite two centuries of critical assaults, Bible stories continue to illumine for many of us believers both the will of God and the meta-narratives of our own lives.

Is it too much to hope that serious Old Testament monographs might acknowledge what seems so obvious to the ordinary religious reader, the spellbinding attraction of biblical stories? Could such studies simultaneously help us to see in those same stories all sorts of literary devices we might otherwise gloss over-even though once pointed out the devices seem so patently clear as to be undeniable? Could these newly manifest literary structures in turn underscore moral and religious truths we might also all too readily overlook? And could it possibly be the case, mirabile dictu, that these ever so subtle and tightly woven literary structures would in turn, once recognized, expose some favorite modern critical (i.e., skeptical) theories about the sequence of and motivations for biblical compositions as hopelessly implausible? Could it be that the sorts of generic doubts raised by C. S. Lewis (no mean literary critic himself) about standard biblical criticisms have now found their mundane confirmation in the work of two very patient and observant scholars working out of the limelight at relatively small evangelical schools?

The great good news is that the two books under review provide us with all the foregoing and much more. It is hard for me to describe how refreshing I find their approaches; but since this is to be a relatively brief review, I will restrict myself to a basic example or two from each work.

The story of Abraham offering Isaac on the altar is a powerful one on almost any reading. It has a long history of Rabbinic interpretation, and in the modern era has served as a favorite text for philosophers of religion as well, especially since Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, though Kant took up the story before him.

Critical studies in Genesis have often added to the notion that the story is both bizarre and extreme, and that the God revealed therein is both primitive and arbitrary, unworthy of enlightened religious sensibilities. What Paul Borgman (at Gordon College) does magnificently, though not without a hint or two from Martin Buber, is not only call attention to various details we might otherwise overlook, but stress the literary and moral and religious interconnectedness between this story and nearly everything else that has occurred in Genesis up to this point. Throughout his life Abraham has been tried and tested by some of the same temptations that already seduced Eve, Cain, Lamech, and the builders of the Tower of Babel. He has, repeatedly and to an astonishing degree, failed, as Borgman’s close reading of the text makes clear. But God has not given up on Abraham, and there has been at least some definite progress in each of the previous six visits God has made with Abraham. Now in this seventh visit, the chiasm (symmetry) is complete and virtually every detail of the story ties together dangling threads, not just from Abraham’s own life and experience, but from the whole of Genesis up to this point. You will simply have to read the book to find out why all this is so.

David Dorsey (Evangelical School of Theology) offers an unparalleled tour de force, the systematic laying out of the literary structure of every book in the Old Testament. Scholars have long recognized that repetition, parallelism, chiasm, sevenfold patterns, and similar devices permeate the ancient Hebrew Scriptures. Dorsey merely sets about identifying their occurrences and then seeing what the patterns in each book might tell us about it. What he often finds is, in retrospect, almost embarrassingly simple, but as elegant and powerful as a cleanly constructed mathematical proof. For example, even Old Testament scholars on the theological far right, such as R. K. Harrison and Gleason Archer, have admitted that Jeremiah apparently defies attempts to find an overarching orderly structure. Nevertheless, Dorsey sets out what he has discovered, and once presented, the book’s sevenfold structure seems quite sensible. Or again, given the all but universal tendency among modern scholars to divide Isaiah into separate writings, how would such scholars now explain the literary unity of Isaiah as a giant yet intricately crafted chiasm?

I trust I have not over stressed the polemical aspects in this review, which are more implicit than explicit in these two studies. For Borgman and Dorsey are both deeply indebted to other scholars of very different stripes. Furthermore, both Borgman and Dorsey, though committed evangelical biblicists, offer some striking reinterpretations and emphases that could offend evangelicals, such as Borgman’s stress on the depth and frequency of Abraham’s failures. But the genius of their approaches is that they are so directly tied to the text itself, not to highly speculative critical theories, therefore inviting correction from that same text. Nor does one need to agree uniformly with them to stand in awe of what they have achieved.”

PDF found here.

As an aside, Jordan’s book Primeval Saints takes the opposite position on the faithfulness of Abraham and the other patriarchs.

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