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Untamable Texts: Literary Studies and Narrative Theory in the Books of Samuel (review)

From: Hebrew Studies
Volume 53, 2012
pp. 377-385 | 10.1353/hbr.2012.0015

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Greger Andersson proposes to undertake "a critical examination of so-called literary or narrative readings of the historical books in the Old Testament, mainly the books of Samuel" (p. 1). His thesis is initially formulated in the negative as "biblical literary critics do not read biblical narratives as literature" (p. 2). The work is organized into an introduction where the author lays out his own perspective and approach followed by five chapters (chap. 1: "Poetics and Interpretation"; chap. 2: "The Sense-Governing Intent of Biblical Narratives"; chap. 3: "Storytelling: Sense and Reference"; chap. 4: "Two Nodes: Narrators and Perspective"; chap. 5: "Interpreters, Theories, and Texts"). Among the biblical literary critics whom Andersson subjects to trenchant analysis are Robert Polzin, Walter Brueggemann, J. P. Fokkelman, Adele Berlin, Robert Alter, Georg Fohrer, Joel Rosenberg, Meir Sternberg, Shimon Bar-Efrat, Yairah Amit, and David M. Gunn. The noted theorists Paul Ricoeur, Gérard Genette, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Roland Barthes also come in for some analysis. Among the biblical narrative texts which Andersson focuses on are Genesis 37; 1 Samuel 1, 4, 8-10; 2 Samuel 1, 5, 12, 13, 18, 21; and 2 Kings 4. Andersson is quick to explain that his primary purpose is not only to analyze and evaluate these supposed literary interpretations but "to discuss theoretical issues or groups of theoretical problems that emerge in a tripartite dialogue between the biblical texts, their interpreters, and theories of literature and narrative assumed to be guiding the readings considered in this study" (p. 1). While Andersson's discussion touches on a lot of theoretical territory, his interests center particularly on and around narratology.

It is important to note several features which relate to Andersson's methodology. First, Andersson is keen to use examples from what he considers to be well-known studies and books that aspire to be introductions to a literary or narrative method of biblical interpretation. He selects what he considers to be "mainstream commentaries" and some "'literary' or historical studies" of these texts (p. 4). Second, Andersson states that his own understanding of the nature of the issues he discusses leads him to "believe that the only possible argumentation concerning these matters is to point to certain features in the readings of the biblical critics, compare them with more conventional understandings of these texts, and assume that readers will recognize and identify the alternatives and critical options" (p. 3). One is left to wonder whether this group of "conventional understandings," which Andersson seems to construe as coterminous with his own, actually represent a fourth party in his "dialogue." Andersson goes on to explicitly state that his own reasoning is "thus based on the assumption that readers share the same basic intuitions of how narrative literature works as I have" (p. 3). This assumption indeed runs throughout Andersson's critiques of biblical literary critics and ultimately determines his conclusions. Third, Andersson also thinks it necessary for literary theories to be discussed in relation to the texts they aspire to describe and in relation to readers' understandings of these texts. The risk is otherwise, according to Andersson, "that theoretical discussions become an internal affair in which new suggestions solve only problems the theory itself has created and are evaluated only in relation to the theory as such" (p. 3). This he says is in line with his own "basic assumption" that "theories as narratology can become too 'logical' (or rather refer to the wrong kind of logic) to be suitable means in the analysis of literature" (p. 3). His point "is that certain suggestions can be presented as necessary conclusions according to a 'closed' system, but that literature, or readers' understanding of literature, might not adhere to this system" (p. 3). Fourth, Andersson does consider some problems and possibilities with his interdisciplinary approach. For instance, he thinks the possibility of constructing dialogues as he does is an obvious benefit, while how to introduce readers to areas that might not be their area of expertise he considers as a problem. Andersson also recognizes that the relationship between biblical literary criticism and narratology is a problem for his approach, because biblical literary criticism is a multifaceted phenomenon that relates to literary studies in...

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