Major Book Reviews -- Gender, Power, and Promise: The Subject of the Bible's First Story by Danna Nolan Fewell and David M. Gunn / Narrative in the Hebrew Bible by David M. Gunn and Danna Nolan Fewell
Ackerman, James S., Interpretation
Gender, Power, and Promise: The Subject of the Bible's First Story, by Danna Nolan Fewell and David M. Gunn. Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1993. 208 pp. $14.95 (paper). ISBN 0-687-14042-0.
Narrative in the Hebrew Bible, by David M. Gunn and Danna Nolan Fewell. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 1993. 263 pp. $55.00 ISNB 0-19-213244-X.
IF SOMEONE were to ask me for a book that introduces literary criticism of biblical narrative, showing how it relates to and contrasts with traditional historical criticism, Narrative in the Hebrew Bible would be my top recommendation. Conforming to the editorial standards laid out by P. R. Ackroyd and G. N. Stanton for the Oxford Bible Series, Gunn and Fewell have given us a book that is comprehensive yet concise, clear yet interesting and insightful. The first book on the poetics of biblical narrative that is obviously written with undergraduate students and laypersons primarily in mind, it has three major parts--devoted respectively to characterization, plot, and the use of language. Each part describes literary techniques used by the biblical writers, illustrated by a range of examples from the biblical text. Then comes a chapter showing how the interpretive principles described in that part can be applied in a more sustained way to a given biblical passage (Gen. 12--25 for characterization; Jonah for plot; Dan. 3 for language-use).
The authors distance themselves from the historical-critical methodologies that have dominated biblical studies for more than a century, describing literary criticism as an approach to the biblical text which perceives language as multivalent and often unstable; which focuses on the text in its final form rather than on its theoretically constructed sources; which pays more attention to the world of the text than to the ancient world in which the text was produced; which assigns interpreters a major role in giving meaning to the text in their dialogical engagements with it; and which, so long as we realize that our interpretations are not definitive, enriches our reading experience by enhancing understanding of the characters who are so elusively depicted by the biblical narrator. In some quarters this return to the unified text smacks of a neo-fundamentalism that dodges the critical issues inherent in the Bible's exceedingly complex literary development, and the strong emphasis on characterization recalls Sunday school days of extolling and emulating the great figures of the Bible. But this book--with its attentiveness to irony, ambiguity, artful repetition, and structuring devices, and with its focus on God as a character in the story--demonstrates the potential of literary analysis to stand as the antithesis to the flat, reductionist readings of the biblical text found in most forms of fundamentalism.
Gender, Power, and Promise is a very interesting and successful application of the principles laid out in Narrative in the Hebrew Bible. Stating their primary concern with gender bias, but also with the text's understanding of ethnicity and various forms of "strangeness," Fewell and Gunn ask what the biblical story might look like to those who have been largely excluded from major roles, as well as from a part in the text's production or interpretation throughout the ages. They read Genesis--Second Kings, asking who is the governing consciousness and whose interests the text serves. The authors are on the lookout for women in the story even when they are missing, giving primary attention to women's viewpoint. Insisting that identifying the literary-character God of the biblical story with the God worshipped by Jews and Christians is a form of idolatry, they consistently note the manifold ways in which God as character is a manifestation of the male consciousness of the narrator and his community.
This is certainly not the first major piece of feminist scholarship on the Bible. Other scholars (though very few!) approach the skills of Fewell and Gunn in sensitively reading the biblical text. …