Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

At Wisdom's Table: How Narrative Shapes the Biblical Food Laws and Their Social Function

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

At Wisdom's Table: How Narrative Shapes the Biblical Food Laws and Their Social Function

Article excerpt

The food laws of Lev 11:3-23 and Deut 14:3-20 are among the great enigmas of biblical law. Prodigious efforts have been made since at least Philo's time to identify rationales that might provide the basis for the choice of calling some creatures clean and others unclean.1 Yet despite these efforts, no conclusive explanation has so far emerged.2 To aid our understanding of the mode by which the laws are expressed I propose that we approach the food laws as a series of narrative paradigms.3 I argue that this reanalysis helps us to understand both the compositional strategy of the food laws and their social function.4 I contend that the biblical food laws identify typical or paradigmatic cases in a high-context society where information is shared and internalized.5 This shared social knowledge raises the question of how the common environment of ancient Israel would make the categories of clean and unclean intuitively clear. I argue that the very construction of the categories clean and unclean-and hence the structure and presentation of the laws themselves-is shaped by practical wisdom, parallels to which can be found elsewhere in biblical law.6

I. A Narrative Approach to Biblical Law

I am building on the work of Bernard S. Jackson, who has argued, persuasively in my view, that biblical law is best understood in narrative rather than semantic terms.7 The dominant paradigm of conventional meaning today is literal meaning, which is closely tied, as its name suggests, to writing.8 A literal or semantic reading of any rule sees it as covering all cases that may be subsumed under the meaning of its words.

There is another way of thinking about language and legal rules, however, and this is to adopt a narrative approach. Narrative meaning consists of typical stories or images that are evoked by the use of words. It arises in the context of a group that shares the social knowledge necessary to evoke those images, without needing to spell them out.9 Whereas a semantic interpretation asks, What is the literal meaning of the words?, a narrative approach asks, What typical situations do the words of this rule evoke? This means that the narrative image represents the core of the message: thus, the further one departs from the typical case, the less sure one can be that the message is intended to apply to a different fact situation or would be regarded as applicable by the audience.10 Although Jackson himself does not make this claim, the advantage of his approach is that it takes seriously the fact that the biblical laws function in a high-context society where "most of the information [or message] is either in the physical context or internalized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message."11 Jackson's theory has been developed in relation to a specific part of the biblical legal collections, namely, the Covenant Code; whether it applies more widely must be addressed in relation to individual laws. This raises the question of whether the biblical food laws should be regarded as narrative paradigms or paradigm cases. It is not an idle question. One of the most difficult aspects of the food laws has traditionally been the formulation of Deut 14:19-20:

And all winged insects are unclean for you; they shall not be eaten.

All clean winged things you may eat.

Might the historical difficulties with reading this text have something to do with the projection of an anachronistic semantic reading? If so, might a narrative reading be more fruitful? It is certainly the case that verses 19-20 are problematic from a semantic perspective; thus, Jacob Milgrom describes them as a "cryptic generalization."12 Worse, as many have noted, the verses seem to contradict each other. Verse 19 apparently makes a blanket statement banning all winged insects, without qualification, as being unclean. Verse 20, however, goes straight on to say that there are winged things that are clean, which is not what verse 19 explicitly says. …

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