Literary Approaches to Biblical Literature
General Observations and a Case Study of Genesis 34
Literary approaches to the Bible go back to ancient times, although many people have the impression that they are a modern invention. One need only think of early Christian allegorical readings or rabbinic Midrash to realize that the use of literary strategies to interpret the Bible has a very long history. Ancient and medieval exegetes regularly developed their exegesis (interpretation) around what we would consider literary phenomena, like the repetition of words and phrases, the sequencing of narratives, plot symmetries, and the portrayal and development of characters. And I expect that literary approaches, in one form or another, will be with us as long as the Bible is read, for they are part and parcel of biblical interpretation.
New and ever-changing, though, is the mode of the literary inquiry. As assumptions change about the nature of a text and how its meaning may be discerned, so do the questions posed and the analytic tools used to answer them. The territory subsumed under “literary approaches to the Bible” is vast, even if confined to the contemporary scene, and it resists easy categorization. This chapter will therefore offer a selective view of this enterprise, highlighting what I see as its more significant recent trends. The discussion will be structured around three rubrics: (1) comparative literature, (2) the influence of literary theory and criticism, and (3) from interpretation to the history of interpretation. These rubrics should not be construed as a chronological progression, and they are not entirely separable; they simply provide a convenient way to divide up the territory.
Before we proceed, let me offer a broad definition of what literary approaches are and what they are trying to accomplish. The overarching purpose of a literary inquiry is a better understanding of the text—its