Hebrews between Cultures: Group Portraits and National Literature

By Cohn, Robert L. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Hebrews between Cultures: Group Portraits and National Literature


Cohn, Robert L., Journal of Biblical Literature


Hebrews Between Cultures: Group Portraits and National Literature, by Meir Sternberg. Indiana Studies in Biblical Literature. Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998. Pp. xxiii + 730. $59.95 (cloth).

Having gratefully grappled years ago with Meir Sternberg's magisterial The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), the length of which matched the scope of its subject, I could barely imagine how the inquiry of the book under review, the referent of the thirty-odd appearances of the term "Hebrews" in the Hebrew Bible, could generate a tome of seventy pages, much less seven hundred. I ought to have known better. After working through this difficult volume twice (made more difficult by its prose style), I can testify that the seeming narrowness of the subject affords Sternberg the opportunity not only for engaging in even deeper analysis than in The Poetics but also for exploring the wide-ranging implications of the subject for biblical poetics and comparative cultural studies.

The heart of this study is the workings of the "Hebrewgram," Sternberg's shorthand for the grammar, or poetics, of the biblical deployment of the ethnicon "Hebrew." Neither a synonym for "Israelite" (what Sternberg terms the "unicultural" explanation) nor the biblical form of the extrabiblical sociopolitical designation Hab/piru (the "crosscultural" solution), the word "Hebrew" signals foreign or foreign-like discourse about Israelites. This ironclad truth is expressed as the "Law of Intercultural (De)nomination," a complex of four patterns into one of which each appearance of the term falls: (1) "Hebrew" in the voice of a foreign speaker to express his superiority to and derision of an Israelite; (2) "Hebrew" used by an Israelite conversing with a foreigner in order to be perceived as sharing the foreigner's derisive perspective and thus assuming the role of an underdog; (3) "Hebrew" used by the narrator quoting the hidden, unarticulated perspective of foreigners; and (4) "Hebrew" used both in narrative and slave law as a "rhetoric of deterrence" against Israelites who would assume a foreign-like superiority or Hebrew-like inferiority with respect to their fellow Israelites.

So stated, the Hebrewgram appears straightforward enough. But through the demonstration and analysis of these patterns Sternberg develops a poetics of intercultural rhetoric that runs canon-long and distinguishes biblical from extrabiblical discourses of cultural identity. Cracking the code governing the seemingly nonstandard and limited deployment of "Hebrew" turns out to be the linchpin for understanding the Bible's uniquely sophisticated rendering of national consciousness.

Critical to Sternberg's argument is the identification of the "Hebrewers," those foreigners who employ the term against Israelites or in whose presence Israelites do, such as Hamites (Egyptians and Philistines mainly but also Jonah's sailors, for instance). The opposition between Shem and Ham set in Genesis 9 works itself out in the sexual predation of Ham's descendants from Pharaoh and Abimelech toward Sarah and Rebekah to Potiphar's wife, and in the slaver mentality attributed to both main groups. On linguistic ("Hebrew," "uncircumcised"), sociopolitical (sexual assault to enslavement), ethnological (Egyptians as a master race), and geographical (Hebrews as unwelcome settlers in Hamland) axes, the aforementioned law governs the representation of the relationship between Israelites and Hamites but does not apply to other foreigners. On the contrary, Sternberg argues that the non-Hamite nokhri ("foreigner") in general cannot be stereotyped as Other, because the Bible paints foreigners in many shades and gives even Hamites their own voices and consciousness. Sander Gilman's "high-level theorizing" about stereotypes comes in for especial attack (pp. 171-81) as an example of "package-dealing," opposed to the "Proteus Principle" that characterizes biblical representation in Sternberg's view. …

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