Review of Klaus-Peter Adam, Friedrich Avemarie and Nili Wazana, eds., Law and Narrative in the Bible and in Neighboring Ancient Cultures (Forschungen zum Alten Testament 2. Reihe 54). Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012. 414 pages.

By Shalom Holtz

sholtz@yu.edu

The volume under review brings together eighteen articles, all but one of which originate at a conference held in Marburg in September, 2009.  As the title indicates, most of the articles pertain to biblical literature (Jewish and Christian): six articles treat the Hebrew Bible, three address the Apocrypha, and four focus on Luke-Acts.  The remaining five articles address extra-biblical Jewish or non-Jewish sources: two articles on classical Greco-Roman literature, and one each on Neo-Babylonian legal documents, the Babatha archive from the Judean desert, and rabbinic legal narratives.  Overall, then, the volume offers a culturally and historically broad inquiry into various questions pertaining to the main topic of “law and narrative.”

One can characterize this volume’s overarching theoretical agenda as an investigation of the implications of the “and” that joins “law” and “narrative” in the title.  In one way or another, all of the essays in the book address this subject. Many take up the question based on texts that are best classified as “narratives.” The editors remark in their preface:

[R]eferences to legal norms in literary texts are most tangible when in the background of a narrative an institutional legal system is operative by which the demeanour and concerns of the acting persons are directly shaped. (p. vi)

From this perspective, the “and” juxtaposes two separate entities; “law”– legal norms known from stories themselves or otherwise– stands in the background of the “narrative.” Western literature provides numerous examples of this kind of relationship, in which fictional narratives are anchored in legal situations and institutions.   A number of contributions in this volume expose some of the earliest examples of rooting narrative in law.  Rachel Magdalene shows how the Book of Job uses trial law to create a fictional, yet plausible, legal narrative.  Similarly, Beate Ego explores the Book of Tobit in light of laws in the Torah and other Jewish practices, and Cana Werman reads two episodes in the Book of Jubilees in light of developments in rabbinic halakha.

If, as in the examples just enumerated, the law informs the narrative explicitly, at times, pursuing a narrative’s background in the law exposes a more dynamic relationship hiding behind the “and” in “law and narrative.” Nili Wazana reads the narratives of the impalement of the Canaanite kings (Joshua 8:29, 10:16-27) together with Deuteronomy’s legislation on the treatment of the impaled corpse (Deuteronomy 21:22-23), but notes that the narratives make no explicit connection to the law.  According to her, law and narrative both react against a third element (again unnamed in the Bible):  unabashedly violent Assyrian warfare practice and propaganda.  Instead of a law-based narrative, or a narrative in service of a law, Wazana argues that each genre, independently, makes a similar ethical statement about the humane treatment of the dead.

The “and” between “law” and “narrative” need not, however, privilege narrative and relegate law to serving as background.  Instead, narratives can serve legal and broader moral-ethical purposes by shaping their audiences’ attitudes.  Douglas Hume applies ideas from Adam Zachary Newton’s Narrative Ethics to probe exactly how the descriptions of the early Christian community in Acts 2:41-47 and 4:32-35 served (and may still serve) as examples for believing readers.  Non-Christians might balk at Hume’s quest for “how contemporary readers may see their moral imaginations evoked and shaped by these passages” (p. 329; see pp. 342-345). Nevertheless, Hume’s historical insights and close readings, which occupy most of his article, merit the attention of anyone interested in understanding early Christianity and its literature.

Klaus-Peter Adam takes a comparable approach to the Hebrew story of David and Saul in 1 Samuel 26.  According to him, the very purpose of this narrative is, in fact, to teach the law.  Thus, Adam reads the story of David and Saul as a “didactic case narrative,” comparable to later rabbinic haggada, designed to promote “discursive public dispute settlement when private enmity could potentially have resulted in homicide” (p. 118).  Adam’s argument stands on firmest ground when he invokes inner-biblical evidence to buttress his legal readings (see pp. 112-116).  Less convincing (although not critical to his overall point) is the suggestion, based on superficial comparisons with the ancient Greek drama Rhesus and with the Iliad, that “the authors of Samuel were familiar with some form of the Greek [espionage] plot” which they adapted to compose the biblical story (pp. 109-110).

By interpreting law as narratives’ goal, studies like those of Hume and Adam reverse the usual implications of the “and” between law and narrative.  However, any assertion of a narrative’s purpose, be that purpose legal or otherwise, requires an argument to support it.  This volume demonstrates the very need for and value of argument because it includes two articles with nearly conflicting views of the same text: the Apostolic Decree in Acts 15.  Eyal Regev interprets the decree as legislation of sorts, whose four main requirements (renouncing idolatry, fornication, eating strangled animals and eating blood) break open a legal path towards widespread conversion of pagan Gentiles by conferring legal status upon practices already customary among early “God fearers.” Friedrich Avemarie, in contrast, argues that, from the narrative’s perspective, “the focus of Luke’s interest in the decree lies neither in the moral betterment of Gentile converts nor, for that matter, on the traditional observances of Jewish Christians” (p. 389). Accordingly, the decree (if one can even call it that) is more a literary device than legislation.

If, indeed, law can be narrative’s purpose, then one must also ask, more broadly: Can narrative inform our understanding of law? Historians of ancient law regularly grapple with this problem when, because of an absence of legislation, they must rely on non-legislative sources to reconstruct legal institutions.  Joachim Hengstl’s contribution to the volume is a fine theoretical investigation of the subject as it pertains to the Torah, where law and narrative are thoroughly intertwined.  The questions Hengstl raises, especially those regarding the origins and purpose of this inter-generic combination, are as relevant to the Talmudic and later Rabbinic legal corpora as they are to the Torah.  Therefore, Hengstl’s article is a “must read” for anyone studying Jewish law.

For most of the articles in this volume, “narrative” exists in a text, which can be compared to more overt “law” or from which one can derive “law.”  Two articles, however, consider the reverse scenario, when one can read “law” but must imagine the “narrative.”  Cornelia Wunsch provides an expert account of how one can tease legal narrative out of Neo-Babylonian court records.   Wunsch’s approach to the Neo-Babylonian texts resembles Tal Ilan’s review of the Babatha archive, specifically Babatha’s litigation against her late husband’s family who refused to meet the terms of her marriage contract. Ilan seeks the reason for the family’s refusal to pay, and finds it in “the killer-wife topos” (p. 266). The idea that Babatha’s husband’s family thought of her as a killer wife may be fanciful and, in the end, impossible to prove from the texts themselves.  Nevertheless, Ilan’s article is valuable for its survey of the killer-wife against “the sort of social-cultural atmosphere . . . and the sort of beliefs, superstitious or otherwise” contemporary with the Babatha archive (p. 265).

Scholars working on any of the particular bodies of literature that the volume addresses will obviously begin by turning to the contributions in their area of specialty. To judge from the articles in this reviewer’s area, specialists will find useful, current studies that advance the field in interesting ways.  To derive the most benefit from the volume, however, specialists must overcome the temptation to remain within the “comfort zone” of their research area.  Doing so will provide them with meaningful cross-cultural and cross-historical perspectives on the relationships between law and narrative.

 

 

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