Reading Law: The Rhetorical Shape of the Pentateuch

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Reading Law: The Rhetorical Shape of the Pentateuch, by James W. Watts. The Biblical Seminar 59. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999. Pp. 189. $19.95 (paper).

The baffling arrangement of literary genres in the Pentateuch has elicited many attempts to understand its significance. This monograph by James Watts (associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Syracuse University, New York) is notable among recent applications of rhetorical methodologies to the pentateuchal legal texts. Watts, who has also written several articles on this subject, argues that the key to the puzzle is found in the ancient convention of public readings of the law, suggesting that "public reading established the literary forms of Israel's law in the monarchic period and those forms remained unchanged long after public reading had become a rarity and perhaps an anachronism" (p. 31). The primary indication of this convention's influence on the Pentateuch, in Watts's view, is the Torah's characteristic juxtaposition of narratives, lists, and divine sanctions (that is, blessings and curses). Although the Pentateuch did not reach its final form until the Persian period, its final redactors shaped the text in conformity with conventions arising from more ancient customs. Most scholars have treated pentateuchal narratives and law in isolation, not appreciating the rhetorical effect of their union. Watts proposes to remedy these weaknesses by applying a select portion of ancient rhetorical theory to the problem.

He begins by noting that pentateuchal law, by virtue of the narrative framework in which it appears, is apparently to be read sequentially, rather than in the piecemeal approach that best suits most legal codes. In his first chapter, Watts surveys the accounts of public law readings in the times of Moses, Joshua, Josiah,and Ezra. He concludes that the biblical witness ought to be taken seriously as a testament to ancient practice and finds supporting evidence in similar customs in ancient Greece and medieval Iceland. Modern assumptions about speaking and reading are no reliable guide to ancient customs. Having established this foundation, he concludes that one may profitably examine the Pentateuch with a view to seeing how its present structure (on small and large scales alike) may have been shaped by the conventions of public reading.

In the second chapter, he brings ancient rhetorical theory to bear on the pentateuchal combinations of list, story, and divine sanctions. Watts notes that stories and lists are commonly combined in ancient literature, as has been demonstrated by J. D. O'Banion, who drew upon Cicero and Quintilian. A text is most persuasive when both elements are present, and there is no shortage of ancient Near Eastern examples: Hittite legal codes, commemorative inscriptions, narratives with appended lists of divine names, and the like. This persuasive combination is further buttressed when divine sanctions are also present. Watts then considers the form of pentateuchal legal codes, which he divides into three major sections: the Sinai covenant, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. In each case he finds the rhetorical pattern described above.The same pattern is also discerned in the Pentateuch as a whole: a narrative introduction (Genesis-Exodus 19) is followed by a legislative list (Exodus 20-Numbers) and sanctions (Deuteronomy).

The remainder of the book is devoted to exploring the Pentateuch's didactic and persuasive goals in light of this rhetorical principle. The third chapter explores the formal and persuasive effect of this rhetorical form on the pentateuchal instruction of its hearer or reader, with particular interest in address in the second person, motivational clauses, repetition, and variation. Of these sections, Watts's treatment of variation is perhaps the most interesting; it examines several ways of handling occasional legal contradictions, including the novel proposal of self-contradiction as a deliberate political strategy (cf. …