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Reviewed by:
  • Elijah and the Rabbis: Story and Theology
  • Jeffrey L. Rubenstein
Elijah and the Rabbis: Story and Theology, by Kristen H. Lindbeck. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. 241 pp.

Kristen H. Lindbeck's Elijah and the Rabbis: Story and Theology is a study of the corpus of thirty-eight stories of the Babylonian Talmud that feature Elijah. Rabbinic traditions transform the biblical prophet Elijah into a semidivine angelic figure who plays various roles: rabbinic master, savior, ethical teacher, miracle worker, and divine messenger. Lindbeck collects, categorizes, and discusses these traditions and attempts to understand their function and meanings within rabbinic society and the culture of the Bavli.

The book includes five chapters. Chapter 1, "The Study of Rabbinic Narrative," reviews prior studies of Elijah and then discusses methodological [End Page 154] issues. Lindbeck proposes to employ methods drawn from folklore studies, oral-formulaic studies, and form criticism, following in the paths of Dan Ben-Amos and Eli Yassif. By "folklore" Lindbeck, consistent with recent theory, does not mean oral literature of the folk as opposed to literate elites, but any and all oral literature circulated within a given social group. Linbeck also draws on the form-critical studies of Jacob Neusner and Catherine Heszer, and claims that the Elijah stories of the Bavli can be divided into six form-critical categories: two moral exempla, seven legal or moral precedent stories, eight pronouncement stories, three "extended pronouncement stories," and thirteen legends. In addition, one story is sui generis, and a few others share characteristics of pronouncements stories and legends.

Chapter 2 continues the discussion of methodology, especially the role of orality in rabbinic culture and the implications of this phenomenon for analyzing the literary texts that have come down to us. Here, Lindbeck also attempts to articulate her own methodology with more precision. She invokes John Foley's theory of metonymy in oral-formulaic studies, in which "one thing potentially stands for a related one," and consequently "phrases and structures are supercharged with meaning" (34). This is important because it allows Lindbeck to expand the corpus of texts relevant to her project to include other sources that share phrases, motifs, or plot structures with the Elijah stories themselves, even if they do not mention Elijah specifically. It also provides a mechanism to relate Elijah stories to one another, which makes for a more unified corpus of tradition. But Lindbeck is certainly a methodological pluralist, drawing also on ethnopoetics and anthropological theory, on Daniel Boyarin's "new historicism" (though for some reason she does not mention that term), and on other scholars of folklore and morality.

Chapters 3 and 4 are the heart of the book. In chapter 3 Lindbeck tries to understand how Elijah differs from angels, the angel of death, and the bat qol, which also are sent on divine errands or disclose the divine will.

She argues that, despite some overlap, these figures or devices are not interchangeable but have discrete roles and functions. Elijah, for example, brings God's message to individuals whereas the bat qol relays God's words to groups of people; Elijah often appears in disguise to help people whereas angels generally do not (a useful table of similarities and differences is provided on pages 58-59). Elijah also shares more in common with the sages than do angels or the bat qols, as he seems to have more free will and is depicted as a holy man or ideal teacher himself. Indeed, that Elijah "often [End Page 155] interacts with the Sages as a senior sage" distinguishes him from other supernatural mediators and helps explain his religious function, namely, to provide "a greater connection to God without impairing God's authority." The chapter concludes with a longish section comparing stories of Elijah with traditions of the Greek god Hermes (74-94). Like Elijah, Hermes is portrayed as a divine messenger, traveler, and trickster and "master of clever stratagems of all kinds." The correspondences Lindbeck presents are impressive, but her claim that certain Elijah legends in the Bavli were "created under the influence of, or in competition with, attributes of the Greek god Hermes" fails to persuade me. Much more evidence is needed...


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