The Ryken Library/The Bible as Literature in the Seminary and Pulpit

The Bible as Literature in the Seminary and Pulpit

Thursday, August 10, 2023


    1.     The Rule of Authentic and Universal Human Experience
    2.     Doing Justice to the Specificity of the Text
    3.     ​​The Self-Containedness of the Text
    4.     ​​The Book of Judges as a Test Case
    5.     ​​Literary Criticism and Biblical Scholarship

I have been invited to make the case for a literary approach to the Bible, and I want to do so with an appropriate humility but also with an appropriate confidence that what I have to say is important. The fact that I as a literary critic see things in a certain light does not make my viewpoint automatically correct, and I know that, but the fact that my literary angle differs from what is familiar to biblical scholars does not make it automatically wrong, either.

I have arranged my material into a series of hermeneutical principles that I myself follow as a literary critic, whether of the Bible or Shakespeare or Hawthorne. Some of the hermeneutical labels that I will use are not entirely conventional ones, but I found that it was great fun to make up my own names for hermeneutical principles. After I have stated my hermeneutical principles, I will illustrate them by positive and negative examples, ending with an excursion into the Old Testament book of Judges.

The Rule of Authentic and Universal Human Experience

My first hermeneutical principle is the “rule of authentic and universal human experience,” by which I simply mean that the subject of literature is human experience and that if a text is truly literary an important part of its interpretation is to identify and enter into or relive the human experiences that are placed in front of us. This is basic. The oldest aesthetic theory asserted that literature is an imitation of reality and human experience.

The Romantic movement of the nineteenth century dethroned classical notions of art as an imitation and replaced them with a theory of the imagination as the key to what literature and the arts are about, but the Romantic theory did not abandon the notion that the subject of literature is human experience concretely rendered. The word image simply replaced imitation as the way of expressing this idea. “Poetry is the image of man and nature,” wrote William Wordsworth. “A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth,” wrote the English poet Shelley. “Suppose,” Dorothy Sayers wrote a century and a half later, “having rejected the words ‘copy’ [and] ‘imitation’ . . . as inadequate, we substitute the word ‘image’ and say that what the artist is doing is to image forth something or the other.”

The implication of this is that one type of truth that literature conveys is truthfulness to human experience and reality. Ideational truth is one type of truth, but not the only type, literary critics want to proclaim. We experience and assimilate truth with the right side of the brain as well as the left—concretely as well as abstractly.

Now what I find a lot of in some circles, including what I will call theological circles, is a reduction of the Bible to a set of ideas, until the Bible emerges as something that it is not–a theological outline with proof texts attached. I was ecstatic when biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey expressed the principle as follows in his latest book on the parables [The Cross and the Prodigal]: “A parable [and by extension, I would say, any literary text] is not a delivery system for an idea. It is not a shell casing that can be discarded once the idea (the shell) is fired. Rather [it] is a house in which the reader or listener is invited to take up residence. The reader is encouraged to look out on the world from the point of view of the story” (p. 87). What I find regularly in the circles in which I move is the impulse to quickly reduce a biblical passage to a set of ideas and in the process substitute those ideas for the passage—the shell casing syndrome, to use Bailey’s metaphor.

But this impulse toward abstraction is only the beginning of woes. Not only is the Bible reduced to a set of ideas, but the set of ideas to which it is reduced are what I will call narrowly theological or salvific ones. Every text becomes a chapter in salvation history, and that is all that is allowed in some circles. I reject this as a form of reductionism, so to my opening rule of “authentic human experience” let me add a related one, which I will call “the rule of all of life.” That is, I believe that the Bible speaks to all of life and tells us the truth about many subjects in addition to the way of salvation and the nature of God.

At this point I take my stand squarely with the Puritans. I agree with the Puritan who claimed that “there is not a condition into which a child of God can fall, but there is a direction and rule in the Word, in some measure suitable thereunto.” [Thomas Gouge] Richard Sibbes wrote, “There is not anything or any condition that befalls a Christian in this life but there is a general rule in the Scripture for it, and this rule is quickened by example, because it is a practical knowledge.” A phrase that I would use to encapsulate my view of the Bible is found in 2 Peter 1:3, which claims that God has “granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” The subject of that passage is not specifically the Bible, but I am borrowing the phrase to describe what I find in the Bible: “all things that pertain to life and godliness.” When I look at the Bible inductively, I find that it covers the whole of human life in this world. That is a way of saying that it deals with a great deal more than the way of salvation and forgiveness in Christ.

Once we start to stare at Bible passages, the Bible emerges as a very human book, filled with life situations as we know them. There is no good reason to be afraid of the human element in the Bible, though in the circles in which I move it is as though there is a conspiracy to squeeze the humanity out of the Bible and the Christian faith. Jesus in his incarnation was fully immersed in the human condition. Erich Auerbach, in his classic essay that compares storytelling technique in Homer’s Odyssey and the book of Genesis, claimed that in the Bible “the sublime influence of God . . . reaches so deeply into the everyday that the two realms of the sublime and the everyday are not only actually unseparated but basically inseparable.” The Bible, wrote Auerbach, “engenders a new elevated style, which does not scorn everyday life and which is ready to absorb the sensorily realistic, even the ugly, the undignified, the physically base.”

To limit the Bible only to specifically salvific issues, and to make Christ the primary subject of every passage, is in my view reductionistic. Let me anticipate a rejoinder by indicating how I interpret the statement in Luke 24:27 that Jesus, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, . . . interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” Note that it does not say that Jesus interpreted all the scriptures, nor that the only message of the scriptures was himself. The English text claims that in all the scriptures Jesus interpreted the things concerning himself—in other words, one dimension of the various parts of the Old Testament.

I do believe that there are messianic passages and repercussions in all of the traditional sections of the Bible, and that every section can be related to the way of salvation in Christ. I do not believe that this means that Jesus is the central subject of every single passage. In every section of the Bible there are overtly messianic passages, and big themes that relate to salvation, and I believe that Jesus in his exposition of the Old Testament to the disciples on the way to Emmaus focused on these dimensions. We know that Jesus did not have time to go through the entire Old Testament on the way to Emmaus. And even if we agree that the entire Bible can be related in some way to the work of Christ, this is not to say that he is the chief or only subject of every individual passage.

Speaking in purely pragmatic terms, if every sermon turns out to be a restatement of the way of salvation in Christ, a law of diminishing returns sets in. Hebrews 6:1 enjoins, “Let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God. I interpret that to mean that we need to move beyond the basic message of salvation, even though we grant that it is the most important message that people need to hear and to be reminded of.

Alternately, we might say that when God saves us, he saves us as whole people, and that he expects all of life to be redeemed. Again, therefore, I conclude that we need to preach and teach what the Bible says about every topic that it covers. If one looks at the teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, it is evident, surely, that Jesus taught about many topics in addition to the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of one’s soul. I not infrequently encounter the belief that only God matters in the Bible and in theology, and that humanity apparently doesn’t count for much.

While my concern in this address is with literary hermeneutics, this particular issue is a theological issue as well, and in recent years I have had increasingly to handle objections to my proposed literary approach to the Bible by quoting the opening of Calvin’s Institutes, which as you know begins with the statement, “True and substantial wisdom principally consists of two parts, the knowledge of God, and the knowledge of ourselves,” that is, of humankind. I remember a student who objected in class to my literary principle that the literary parts of the Bible embody human experience on the ground that the Bible is solely a book about God. The crucial question for my combatant was why I would even wish to make the claim that the subject of much of the Bible is human experience. That I might be correct was not even regarded as a possibility; the pressing question was why I was so perverse as to wish to make the claim. I wish to make the claim because I believe that by its very content and literary form the Bible advertises the degree to which it takes human experience as its subject.

“God is the hero of [a] story–if it is in the Bible,” writes Douglas Stuart in his book How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth. It is not totally clear how the word hero is being used here, but if it means protagonist or leading character, it is an untrue statement. God is always the supreme being, but in terms of narrative content or strategy he is the protagonist only in a minority of biblical stories. He is not even a named character in some stories, and in others he receives less space and performs fewer actions than the human characters in the story.

Doing Justice to the Specificity of the Text

I plan eventually to provide illustrations and anecdotes to support my generalizations, but since several interpretive principles converge in my illustrations, I want to get two more hermeneutic principles on the table before I turn to some case studies. Half a century ago, a literary scholar [R. W. B. Lewis] published an influential and sometimes reprinted essay in which the key idea was that literary critics need to “hold on hard to the huckleberry bushes.” To this day I do not know what that metaphor itself means, seeing as how the author did not bother to explicate its meaning. But the point of the essay remains valid–and in my recent experience is increasingly needed as a corrective. It is that an interpreter needs to do justice to the specificity of a text, to let the details have as much independent importance as they require, to allow a text itself to set the agenda for what it says, and to resist the impulse to disregard the details of a text in the interests of seeing only a simple pattern or idea in the text.

I myself have no desire to render texts more complex than they really are, and I believe that in the world of secular or non-evangelical biblical scholarship there is today an unhealthy devotion to the myth of the complexity of the biblical text. In literary criticism, this syndrome is part of the premise that texts convey no definite or determinative meaning—the indeterminacy of the text, as it is called. I will phrase the “huckleberry bushes” point as “the rule of textual specificity,” by which I mean that an interpreter needs to resist the impulse to sacrifice details in a text, especially resistant details, to an overriding pattern or formula.

One aspect of this may seem too slight to mention, but it turns out to be very important.

I myself have coined the phrase “the rule of proportionate space,” by which I mean that as interpreters we need to pay attention to the amount of space that something receives in a text. It is possible for a detail that is mentioned only once in a text to become a major player in the drama of that particular text, but that is the exception rather than the rule. The general principle is that texts can be trusted to signal what is primary and secondary and tertiary by the space that authors allot to a given aspect of the text, or by authorial assertion or commentary if something that receives small space is intended to be a major part of the meaning.

Preaching and Bible exposition should respect the proportions that the text itself lays down. If I may be blunt, there is an approach to Scripture on the current scene where any passing reference to salvation history or the theophany at Mt. Sinai becomes the proverbial tail that wags the text. The result is that every sermon becomes a rerun of the previous one, being another chapter in God’s salvation history. Let me say again that I believe that the Bible answers more questions than what I must do to be saved. It answers the question how I am to conduct my life in all areas, including personal relations, my use of time, money, family, sex, education, work, leisure, and many another area of life.

I believe that some passages of the Bible simply tell me what I am supposed to believe about certain topics and intellectual issues, such as the origin of the world and the nature of the physical creation and the nature of people. From one point of view the Bible is a book for intellectuals in the sense that it provides answers to the questions that are being discussed in the marketplace of ideas at any point in history. God is the God of truth, and the book he gave to us gives the truth on many philosophic and moral issues beyond the way of salvation.

I also believe that there is a big difference between seeing an additional salvific or Christological dimension in stories of the Bible and making that the main point of every passage and every sermon. Having dug a spacious hole for myself, let me continue to live dangerously by adducing some illustrations. As a transition, let me just note with you that a lot of what I have been saying has as its common denominator my dislike of certain forms of reductionism.

I think that in principle you dislike reductionism, too, so more consensus might emerge than appears at this point in my address.

I have arranged my examples in somewhat random order, and I begin with a big-name biblical scholar who wrote a chapter for a book of which I was editor. This person’s specialty is what I consider a form of structuralism, and perhaps I should conduct a side skirmish here. I am happy about a theoretic endorsement of literary approaches to the Bible by some biblical scholars. However, I think that some of the alleged literary approaches by biblical scholars have simply been a rechristening of traditional methods. And even where this is not the case, I believe that biblical scholarship that claims to be literary in approach has been fixated for a long time with the approach called structuralism. Structuralists are interested in patterns and structures of texts as virtually the main thing to discuss.

An example is to list parallel actions in the story of the creation account and the flood account, or the stories of the fall and of Noah’s drunkenness, or between Abraham’s sojourn in Egypt in Genesis 12 and Israel’s sojourn in Egypt in Genesis 41 [examples from John Sailhamer.] Now as a literary scholar who relishes the artistic dimension of literature, I love to see patterns in stories and poems, but regarding structuralism let me say that (a) this is only one type of pattern that it is possible to find in a text, and (b) a literary approach involves a lot more than seeing certain kinds of repetition or parallelism in texts. With a lot of structuralist analysis I find it hard to see that the text being discussed is about anything at all. There seems to be a preoccupation with structure for the sake of structure.

And before I return to my illustration of the troubled and troublesome contributor to my book, let me shoot myself in the foot one more time. Do I dare to say it?—I not share the current mania for finding chiasm everywhere in the Bible. In 90 percent of the cases I find that the formula that is claimed is tidier than the details of the text really support, and often the scheme is primarily a tribute to the scholar’s verbal ingenuity in phrasing things in such a way as to make it appear that the text retreads familiar territory in reverse order in the second half. In other words, the chiastic structure does not do justice to the specificity of the text. And even when it does, aren’t there more important literary dimensions to the text than the chiastic structure?

Back to the trials of my contributor: his essay was at impasse for a year as I asked him, in view of the literary approach that his essay was supposed to represent, to say something about recognizable and universal human experience in the book of the Bible on which he was writing, namely, Genesis. No book that I teach is more dense with recognizable human experience than the book of Genesis. My contributor could not move beyond his preoccupation with echoes and parallels and structural schemes to see recognizable human experience in the book. I learned later that during the year of this impasse the person bared his soul to his seminary classes about the impossible task that had been laid upon him by an English professor named Leland Ryken. I finally wrote ten paragraphs about Genesis as a monument to our common humanity and asked if the biblical scholar could own what I had written. He signed off on what I had written, and the book went to press.

We should not minimize the importance of what happened here: a biblical scholar was so caught up in what I regard as esoteric structural parallels that he lacked the ability, apparently, to see that the text was about sibling rivalry and temptation and thirst and lying and sheep and such like. A literary critic has written in regard to reading literature from the past that “we are still parents, sons and daughters; we feel pain, hardship and weariness; we exercise power and submit to it; we know about preparations for conflict, about responsibility, about uncertainty, terrors of the night, violence, cruelty, guilt, and the upsurge of joy as dangers are passed. . . .” [John Russell Brown on Shakespeare’s universality.] If this is true, as I believe it is, when we deal with a biblical text we should give expression to what I call the voice of authentic human experience.

I believe, in fact, that a major task of the Bible expositor is to explicate the recognizable human experience in a text. Truthfulness to reality and to human experience is in my view the kind of truth that literature particularly exists to convey. I recall an occasion when I conducted a day-long workshop on the Bible as literature for preachers and Bible teachers, and afterwards one of the pastors in attendance told me that the main new idea that he would carry away from the workshop was the idea that the Bible portrays human experience. It had never occurred to him, he told me, that the Bible is a book of human experience.

For Exhibit B, let me turn to the book of Ruth. I recall team-teaching the book for a Sunday school class with a biblical scholar. We did one chapter per week and went into the degree of detail that an hour-long scrutiny of a chapter entails, which is considerable. We talked about family tragedy, death, romantic love, harvest, nature, the commonplace, threshing and threshing floor, family relations, marriage, birth. I had waxed eloquent, I thought, about both the artistry of the book and its truthfulness to a range of human experience.

On the wrap-up day on which we talked about themes of the book—its instruction for life—I had a long list of areas of life to which I think the book speaks. The only theme that my Bible scholar colleague was certain was in the text was that it told us about one link in salvation history. The question I would ask of such an approach is what all the excess baggage is doing in the story. Why all this other material if all that we are supposed to carry away from the story is a knowledge about one link in messianic lineage? To say that the story of Ruth likely made its way into the Bible because it recounts a chapter in messianic history should not lead us to regard as extraneous the human life story of the people who are characters in the story.

Let me say that this principle of “excess baggage” is at the heart of a literary approach to texts. I propose that literary texts do not simply communicate ideas. They embody human experiences and are self-consciously artistic. Literary texts always contain an abundance of “excess baggage” in addition to the propositions that we might deduce from the text. The impulse of literature is show rather than tell, we in my profession say to our classes. If this is true, a main part of interpretation is to relive the text in its experiential fullness and to do justice to the range–the “thickness” or density–that is usually present in the text. It is the literary impulse to answer the question not only what happened but also how it happened, and a lot of the meaning of a literary text resides in this “how.” Literary authors communicate what they know by getting readers to share an experience, and this living-through of the experience is a main part of what a work of literature exists to communicate.

To bring into focus the difference between a literary approach to the Bible and at least one dominant approach of biblical scholarship, consider the following two versions of the book of Ruth. Exhibit A: “When the narrative ‘trimming’ is stripped away, the story of Ruth takes its place as simply one more bit of Heilsgeschichte” (Ronald Hals, The Theology of the Book of Ruth). Exhibit B: “I hold up a picture of the author of Ruth as an artist in full command of a complex and subtle art, which art is exhibited in almost every word of the story” (D. F. Rauber, “Literary Values in the Book of Ruth”). Considered in terms of literary artistry, the book of Ruth is unsurpassed within biblical narrative. To see all that richness of both form and human experience discarded as “narrative trimming,” and to see this multiple text reduced to “one more bit” of messianic history, are to me the worst possible type of reductionism.

One question I would like to ask people who reduce every text in the Bible to salvation history is where, then, I am expected to receive God’s instruction for the rest of life. One summer I spent three hours with two associate pastors at my church talking at their request about some of the issues I am addressing today as they related to two psalms on which my pastors were scheduled to preach in ensuing weeks. I have decided to shoot myself in the other foot as well and say that one dimension of my discontent is the selectivity of passages for sermons made by seminary-trained preachers. Most preachers gravitate seemingly inevitably toward the most theological parts of the Bible, chiefly the epistles, to the neglect of the literary parts of the Bible. And when they do preach on literary parts of the Bible, one could easily get the impression that these preachers are preaching on theological essays rather than poems and stories. In fact, the text itself often disappears from view and is replaced by a series of generalizations and abstractions.

Let me say that these preachers are seminary educated and that their basic orientation was codified in the seminary classroom. I recall an occasion when I presented a literary introduction to the Psalms in a church setting, and the pastor, educated at a seminary and sympathetic to my literary approach to the Psalms, remarked that to do what I proposed would require him to unlearn all that he had been encouraged to do by his seminary professors, who had told their charges to preach on parts of the Bible that have the most “meat,” that is, the most overt theology.

My pastoral staff chose to preach a series on one of the five books of the Psalter. What could be more plausible and commendable than this? But they chose the fourth book–Psalms 90-106. Now as you know this is a section of the Psalter that focuses on the character of God and consists heavily of the genre of the praise psalm. Just consider how different a scenario would have unfolded if an earlier section of the Psalter had been chosen, with an abundance of lament psalms, for example. One pattern that emerged strongly in the sermon series was the impulse of preachers, influenced directly by Bible commentaries and seminary instruction, to see allusions to salvation history and the exodus deliverance wherever possible, in consistent preference to more commonplace and universal interpretations. A question I would ask is why a reference to God’s looking on the earth and it trembles (Psalm 104:32) must be a reference to the Sinai theophany and not to an earthquake at any point in history. Why must a reference to God’s touching the mountains and they smoke (Psalm 104:32) be an allusion to Old Testament history and not to a volcanic eruption or even mist-shrouded hills and mountains such as ones with which we are familiar? Why can’t the picture of God’s making the light his garment (Psalm 104:2) and making the clouds his chariot (vs. 3) and making the fire and flame his ministers (vs. 4) be pictures of nature such as we know it in our home state, rather than allusions to Old Testament theophanies?

I am not saying that the interpretation of Psalm 104 as a tissue of allusions to salvation history is not possible or legitimate. I am talking about an almost automatic propensity of biblical scholars and preachers to whisk us away to some ancient world of salvation history and a timeless world of theological abstraction. As you very well know, we live in a concrete world of physical reality and human relations, and the Bible overwhelmingly asks us to believe that it is in this world that the great spiritual issues are lived out. My intuitions as a literary scholar tell me that Psalm 104 is a nature poem.

Let me just pause on this issue of listening to the intuitions of literary scholars. I teach nature poetry virtually every week—that’s how prominent it is in literature. Shouldn’t my intuitions in regard to Psalm 104 carry a certain weight? I tried to push my pastor to slant his sermon in the direction of nature poetry. I even took time to show him the carousel of nature slides that I use as visual commentary on the nature psalms. The sermon, when it came, said virtually nothing about nature. Let me say again that I am not saying that Psalm 104 cannot yield a sermon on the attributes of God or that it cannot be viewed as a chapter in salvation history. But my question is this: if I do not get a sermon on nature when Psalm 104 is the text, when am I going to get a sermon on nature?

My conclusion is–and I hope that I am wrong–that I’m not going to get a sermon on nature from an evangelical pulpit. At least the likelihood that I will get such is statistically insignificant. At every point in history, but especially at our present moment in history, I cannot think of many issues more important for Christians than to have a well-thought-out Christian position on nature and the physical universe. Francis Schaeffer thought it important enough to write a book on it. Possibly it is important enough to warrant a series of sermons. Most seminary-trained preachers do not think it important. They are too busy thinking about salvation history and fascinated with the Bible as an intricate network of references to that history and about abstract theological designs.

I would have predicted that Psalm 102, with its picture of a suffering and isolated speaker, would be an exception to the trend to see every psalm as dealing with salvation history. No such luck: the sufferer of Psalm 102 turned out to be Christ only. As with my previous examples, I am not saying that such an interpretation is not possible, though it does not strike me as the most plausible one. My broader question is this: if Psalm 102 becomes just another chapter in salvation history, when I am going to get a sermon on the forms of suffering that I experience living in suburban America?

Doing justice to the specificity of a text means placing it into its specific genre and interpreting it in keeping with generic conventions. Failure to do so can take subtle forms.

Let me cite as an example the sermon on Psalm 91 in the series from which I have taken some of my examples this morning. Psalm 91, as you know, is a great psalm of deliverance that makes extravagant claims for God’s protection of the person who trusts in him. In the sermon, the punch line, as it were, came not from the psalm but from Proverbs 14:32, with its assertion that “even in death the righteous have a refuge.” Why did the preacher go beyond the psalm to find his key text? Let me theorize: sensing that Psalm 91 makes greater claims for the deliverance of God than we find true in life much of the time, the speaker in a sense had to “correct” or complete the text to make it more commensurate with our real-life experiences. I’m sure he did not think of himself as doing such, but it is a fact that he went beyond the text. I myself would have preferred his staying within Psalm 91 and dealing with the discrepancy between the psalm’s extravagant claims for deliverance and the absence of such deliverance in our own lives much of the time in terms of its lyric genre.

Lyric poems are statements of heightened feeling. They do not cover all of the territory, nor do they represent a reasoned or complete theological position on a topic. Being heightened speech, they often and regularly employ hyperbole, which as you know expresses not literal truth but emotional truth. Isn’t it obvious that biblical writers did not share most Christians’ skittishness over the standard figure of speech known as hyperbole?

The Self-Containedness of the Text

Having mentioned the practice of going beyond the text, let me introduce another hermeneutical principle that has long characterized traditional literary criticism, namely, the self-containedness of a text. This self-containedness is always relative rather than absolute, but it is nonetheless important. It means that compositions are whole and complete. Aristotle gave the classic formula by which to understand this feature of discourse when he spoke of a narrative action being complete if it had a beginning, a middle, and an end. The loyalty of any detail in a text or discourse is first of all to its immediate context.

What I do not understand is why many biblical scholars are so anxious to move at once beyond the text in front of them. Theologians and seminary students are so fascinated by the interwoven pattern of imagery and salvation history in the Bible that they sometimes find it hard to see anything else in the Bible. When you find yourself in the pulpit, I would caution you against what I believe to be a common practice of people trained in theology to preach and teach a system extracted from the Bible instead of specific Bible passages. Just on pragmatic grounds, the person in the pew isn’t as familiar with the grand fabric as you are, and your excursions through the cross references are not infrequently more bewildering than edifying.

In regard to my point about the relative self-containedness of texts, I do not deny that encircling an individual text is a series of concentric rings. In the Bible, the first of these concentric rings is the book in which a passage appears. But in my view this is not what we should pay first attention to.

I would even take exception to the primacy that some biblical scholars give to the specific book of the Bible in which a passage occurs. If anything, individual units in the Bible are more self-contained than is true of the literature I usually teach, partly because many of these units may have existed first as independent units in an oral cycle. In a Shakespearean play or in a novel or a collection of poems, what a word means can ordinarily be construed by looking at the immediate context. In the next scene of a play–or even in the next speech–or in the next chapter of a novel, there is no assurance that the same word will have the same meaning as it did previously. I am not saying that comparison of word usages in a composition never helps determine its meaning, but in my view this process is usually either unnecessary or may actually be misleading.

The Book of Judges as a Test Case

I come, finally, to my promised excursion into the book of Judges as a test case of what I claim is a continuing difference between literary criticism of the Bible and biblical scholarship. By my taste as a literary critic, a lot of what I see biblical scholars doing with the book of Judges is reductionistic. As you know, the customary way that biblical scholars view the book of Judges is to see it as a cycle in which a common pattern gets repeated. That pattern is this: apostasy, servitude, supplication to God, deliverance or rescue. Now biblical scholars are quick to call that the literary pattern of the book of Judges, but I’m not so sure that it is a literary pattern. It looks rather thematic to me. I’m not saying that it can’t yield a literary approach; my point is rather that it can as well become a statement of the religious message or theme of the book.

If I were to identify the distinctively literary form of the book of Judges, I would use such terms as hero story, rescue story, and tragedy. But this is not my main concern. As I listen to popularized versions of the cycle theory of the book of Judges, and to some degree as I see published scholarship on it, what emerges is reductionistic. Every episode is viewed as a reenactment of the common pattern, with the individual episodes viewed as almost superfluous. What matters is the main pattern. I am not saying that there are not more nuanced versions of the interpretation, but only that I usually encounter simplistic ones in which the book of Judges exists mainly to make a single point–that if people do evil God will hand them over into bondage and that if they repent God will deliver them. What dominates is the single recurrent pattern.

Over against that I offer the following interpretation of the book of Judges by a literary critic:

[What the judges] have in common . . . is their rich diversity. The book of Judges delights in surprises, in diversity of character and situation, in reversals of expectations. The hand of the Lord falls where it will, often in unexpected places–on a southpaw, on two women, on the youngest son of a poor farmer in a weak clan, on the son of a prostitute, on the son of a barren woman. . . . There is delight here in the diversity of being, in the fullness of being, in the range of those chosen by God to save the people he loves. These are old-fashioned country people–Deborah under her palm, Gideon on his farm…, Samson the county fair bell ringer. There is wonder here at the variety of man, at the value of every kind of man. Implicit in Judges is a conviction of the worth of every kind of human gift and human characteristic, a vast democracy of spirit, once this weak and worthless cast is transformed by God’s spirit. [Kenneth Gros Louis]

I myself have more confidence in the literary critic’s version of the book of Judges, but it is quite at odds with a certain strand in biblical scholarship that reduces the book to a monochrome story of human failure. I encountered this approach in a popularized form–but seminary induced—when a minister claimed that “the meaning of the book of Judges is that people ultimately fail.” As I thought about the comment later, it became obvious that much depends on how the word ultimately is being used. If it means how the book ends, it is a true statement: the history of Israel in the book of Judges is not just cyclic but a downward spiral in which the spiritual state of the nation degenerates.

But even here I have a quibble with the interpretation that sees only human failure in the book of Judges, inasmuch as the progressive decline of a nation does not cancel out acts of heroism and godliness that occur within that sordid history. As you know, our age is a debunking age, and I find that many of my students have drunk a little too deeply at a fountain known as “the hermeneutic of suspicion, which looks for negativism everwhere.

I got a fuller picture of the “human failure” interpretation of the book of Judges when I encountered it in printed form. The article that crossed my path correctly identified the motif of the cycle as the “central image that organizes . . . the entire book.” The cycle, according to this author, consists of the phases of disobedience, punishment in the form of political oppression, repentance, cry to God, deliverance, and a time of peace. That paradigm was stated early in the essay, but what immediately came to dominate the essay was a wholly negative and in my view unbalanced interpretation on the cycle. The author spoke of “a cycle of disobedience and punishment” and “a recurring cycle of self destruction.”

This is half of the pattern, but not the whole pattern. The cycle underlying the book includes good as well as bad. It is the same paradigm that exists throughout the Bible, including [1] the book of Genesis, [2] the exodus wanderings, and [3] the historical chronicles. The cycle of the book of Judges is the paradigm of human experience generally, and we should not cast everything that happens in the book of Judges in a negative light. The author of the article, though, reduced the book to a formula of human failure. The author spoke of “the cycle of disobedience and punishment … brought on by chosen blindness to the Deuteronomic law.” One could as accurately speak of the cycle of repentance and deliverance brought on by exemplary penitence and God-inspired heroism.

“Throughout the book,” writes the author, “the people do evil in the sight of the Lord.”

That is true, but throughout the book they also cry to God, are delivered, and do heroic deeds. If we read seven times that the people did “what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” we also read seven times that “the spirit of the Lord” came upon a heroic leader. The book of Judges strikes the balance that Milton did in the vision of future history narrated in the last two books of Paradise Lost, where Michael tells Adam at the outset of the vision that he must expect to hear “good with bad, . . . supernal grace contending with sinfulness of men.”

Armed with the pattern that people in the book of Judges are a uniformly bad lot, the author of the article proceeded to see all that happens through this lens.

Regarding Gideon, for example, he states that “the blindness of the leaders [starts] with Gideon. . . . Gideon is the first judge who loses a vision of God and thus inaugurates the cycle. The Gideon narrative commences with an anonymous prophet openly retelling the story of the exodus (6:7-10). Gideon, in contrast, is hiding in a wine press threshing wheat. The famous account of Gideon’s fleece is symbolic [of Gideon’s lack of faith].” Now let’s hold our horses for a minute, if I may invoke a proverb from my rural Iowa background.

To begin, Gideon does not lose a vision of God. He is precisely the person whom God repeatedly singles out to receive a vision of himself. Gideon is God’s chosen hero with whom he continuously converses during the first half of the story. It is true that Gideon begins the story as a clinical case of inferiority complex. So what? The important thing is that Gideon overcomes his innate sense of inferiority as God uses a variety of means to bolster Gideon’s low self confidence. During the second half of the story the dominant motif is Gideon’s sheer mastery of every situation that he confronts.

Let me also say in passing that while God initiates the action in the first half of the story, he drops out of sight almost totally as a named character in the second half of the story, which is a story of human achievement. One of the best sermon series I have heard was a series on the story of Gideon in which Gideon emerged as a richly human representative with whom everyone can identify–a figure of frail humanity, to be sure, but a figure of hope whose progress demonstrates that God does not demand that a person possess superiority as a prerequisite for service.

I also wish to express my disagreement with how the article in question handled the detail of the anonymous prophet’s retelling the story of the exodus early in the story. The author of the article implies that the people who listen to the prophet are the norm for getting a vision of God, while Gideon is ignominious for threshing wheat in secret. May I observe that the narrator includes no device of disclosure that would push us to interpret the action in this way. Making so much of the retelling of the story of the exodus is what I referred to earlier as using the story of salvation history as the tail that wags the dog.

I see in my students and others an impulse to immediately seize upon the most overtly theological statement in a text as being the important matter, to the virtual exclusion of other details of the text. In the story of Ehud, for example, students and biblical scholars tend to highlight the statement that “when the people of Israel cried to the Lord, the Lord raised up for them a deliverer.” The main idea of the story is thus that if people repent, God will deliver them. If that is the big idea, what is the rest of the story doing there? The preliminary point that God delivers gives way to an extended account of how he delivers, which I believe focuses on human giftedness. I remind you of my claim that literary texts always contain a lot of “excess baggage” in addition to any theological proposition that we might deduce from the text.

May I also evoke my rule of proportionate space. If something receives only minor mention in a text, it is not the central narrative business of a story, though it may be an interpretive framework for viewing the central action. I do not believe that Gideon is blameworthy for missing the address of the prophet. I believe that the function of the visit by the anonymous prophet early in the story is to foreshadow the action that is about to occur, namely, a new cycle of deliverance that is ready to unfold. I would also offer as a hermeneutical principle that the brief stories of the Bible regularly unfold in three stages–exposition or background information, central action, denouement or tying up of loose ends. It is my belief that the main point of a story will never occur in the exposition, and that it will always be in the middle or conclusion.

I return to the article, which states that “Gideon forgets the story of the exodus told by the anonymous prophet and leads the Israelites into idolatry.” I would say, on the contrary, that Gideon’s deliverance of Israel repeats the paradigm of the exodus. The detail of Gideon’s making an ephod, of Israel’s playing the harlot after it, and its becoming a snare to Gideon, gets a single verse. That does not make it unimportant, but it means that it is not the main point of the story. What is noteworthy about Gideon’s failing late in his life is the biblical writer’s reticence–his refusal to exploit it. We all know what the contemporary media would do with the hero’s flaw, but the biblical writer refuses to do so.

We see the same principle in reverse in the story of Samson. The author of Judges uses selectivity to cast Samson’s life into the prevailing pattern of literary and spiritual tragedy. Twice the writer tells us that Samson judged Israel for 20 years. Obviously Samson did not spend all of his time in such ignominious behavior as we read about in Judges 14-16. But if the author did not do anything with the other side of Samson’s life, neither am I entitled to do anything with it. I am bound by the text, by the author’s selectivity of material, and by the proportions inherent in that selectivity.

Let me cite one more example of the syndrome of substituting a theological formula for the richness of the biblical text. As the author of the article on Judges pursued his thesis that the book of Judges is governed by a theological vision of human depravity, he wrote, “This same image of blindness is carried out with the father of Samson, Manoah, and his refusal to see the Lord.” I do not see it this way. To begin, I find nothing in the text to indicate that Manoah is blameworthy for not being present when the angel paid his initial visit to Manoah’s wife.

Furthermore, when Manoah’s wife recounted what had happened, we read that “Manoah entreated the Lord, and said, ‘O Lord, I pray thee, let the man of God whom thou didst send come again to us, and teach us what we are to do with the boy that will be born.’ And God listened to the voice of Manoah” (13:8-9). I think all of that idealizes Manoah.

The author of the article is critical of Manoah for carrying on a conversation with the angel without recognizing that the visitor was an angel, to which I reply, We can credit Manoah with normal intelligence and conclude that if he did not recognize that the visitor was an angel, apparently the angel had no distinguishing appearance to mark him as an angel. Now I do believe that Manoah is overshadowed by the spiritual sharpness of his wife, compared with whom he does seem a bit slow on the draw. But this does not get the author of the article off the hook, because in his singleminded pursuit of the motif of spiritual blindness in the book of Judges he ignores what is positive about Manoah’s spiritual sensitivity.

The article from which I have quoted is no doubt unnuanced in the hermeneutical strategies that it adopts, but I chose it because it illustrates in heightened form tendencies that I encounter regularly in biblical scholarship, whether in published form in journals, or in the form of addresses at professional meetings, or in more popularized versions such as sermons. Those tendencies include a devaluing of the human element in the biblical text in deference to the divine element, a preference for theological formula over the specificity and multiplicity and ambiguity represented by the details of a text, a tendency to narrow the focus of biblical content to specifically salvific issues, and an impatience with remaining within a text accompanied by a quickness to move beyond it into broader patterns of the Bible.

Literary Criticism and Biblical Scholarship

As I move toward closure, let me propose that the approaches of literary criticism and biblical scholarship both deserve their place on the playing field of biblical exposition. I do not wish people to see only what I as a literary critic see in a text. Conversely, let me guard against leaving a wrong impression by saying that I not only learn continuously from biblical scholarship but am corrected by it. Left to my own designs, I would have done nothing whatever with the detail of the anonymous prophet who recounts the story of the exodus early in the story of Gideon. This would have been an obvious oversight, and it took a commentator with the intuitions of a biblical scholar to pick up on that particular detail. Left to my own designs, my tendency is to be overly impressed by the heroism of the early stories in the book of Judges, and not give adequate weight to the downward spiral that the book traces.

But if my task is partly to learn from biblical scholarship so as to correct what my literary training prompts me to see in the Bible, my task is also to stake a claim for literary intuitions as something that biblical scholars need to hear. My point to you is this: if 80 percent or more of the Bible is literary in nature, then the interpretations and hermeneutical methods of literary critics deserve a serious consideration in your circles. May I also quote in passing the statement of preacher R. Kent Hughes that “all genuine biblical exposition is literary analysis.” I have attempted to make the case for the necessity of incorporating literary analysis into biblical exposition, whether in the seminary classroom, the scholarly essay, or the sermon.

But no matter how strong the case might be, I am pessimistic that any progress will be forthcoming unless the biblical scholarly guild, and above all seminary professors, embrace the vision. I know that none of you before me would assert that seminary professors and their graduates are the only ones who bring anything significant to the table of biblical exposition, but in practice this is what prevails. The unstated premise in evangelical circles is that all necessary hermeneutical methodology lies with the guild of seminary professors and their students. From one point of view, this is a tribute to you: the Christian laity trusts you in your handling of the Bible. The problem is that necessary angles on reading and understanding the Bible are being ignored. Let me cite some random examples.

The church that I attend and love is a sophisticated church with very high loyalty to the Bible and high standards for its exposition. The pastoral staff regularly brings in members of the biblical scholarly guild, including seminary professors, to lecture to them about the book of the Bible that will form the next preaching series. As I have observed this at close range through the years, it has been obvious that my pastors have never asked a literary scholar to speak to them. It’s just an unstated premise that a literary scholar has nothing to contribute.

The Simeon Trust of Chicago has a thriving and wonderful network of annual regional workshops on expository preaching. The workshop speakers are the best of the best, but the roster never includes literary scholars. A 2005 InterVarsity book entitled Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches found a place for virtually everything except a literary approach—the Psalms and distress, the Psalms and praise, the Psalms and the king, the Psalms and the cult, the Psalms and cult symbolism, the teaching of the Psalms, the ethics of the Psalms, Torah-meditation and the Psalms—but not the psalms as lyric poems. When the ESV Study Bible was being formulated, I was belatedly asked—belatedly, please note, and at my own urging—to add a brief literary unit to all of the introductions to the books of the Bible. This means that my literary tips for reading were a new ingredient when the introductions were returned to their original authors. As reported to me informally by the editor of the project, several of the authors said to him, in effect, “Hey, we don’t use those terms.” In other words, the only terminology and methodology that can legitimately be brought to the table of biblical exposition are those that belong to the biblical scholarly guild.

This is why it is important that I have been placed before you, a seminary audience, as a speaker. The Christian world has handed over to seminary professors and their graduates the task of interpreting the Bible. The only realistic hope for the literary approach to take its deserved place at the table of biblical exposition is if biblical scholars make room for literary analysis. You who are biblical scholars do not yourselves need to provide the literary analysis, though I am all in favor of it if you are willing to do so. All you need to do is open up a place at the table for literary scholars.

Now let me think this through with you one more time. C. S. Lewis famously wrote that “there is a sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are.” Surely there can be no doubt that when considered in terms of the form in which it comes to us the Bible is predominantly a literary anthology.

Well, then, who is most expert at analyzing literature? My answer is unapologetically, High school and college English teachers who teach the literary classics day in and day out in the classroom. I recall reading an interview with Bruce Lockerbie, then headmaster at Stony Brook School. In response to the question, “What is the problem with the way the Bible is being taught today?” Lockerbie made the following statement: “We have found that our best teachers [of the Bible] are rarely seminarians as such. Our best teachers are people who were educated to teach Shakespeare or Hawthorne, to teach literature, and . . . can transfer what they know about teaching literature to what they know about Scripture, and let the Scripture speak for itself.” Is that impossible to believe?

I am not asking for anything more than an acceptance of long-accepted hermeneutical principles. One of these is authorial intention. Doesn’t it stand to reason that when a biblical author decides to cast his utterance in a literary form he intends us to experience and understand his utterance in keeping with the standard conventions of that literary form? I have observed over the years that all disciplines have something distinctive to bring to the table of biblical interpretation. When I attend a Sunday class in which the Bible is taught by a scientist or psychologist or archaeologist or theologian or mother or musician, I am led to see things that probably only someone in that sphere is likely to have seen in the biblical text.

I have chosen to end my address with a statement by Martin Luther that is well known among literary scholars but probably unknown among biblical scholars: “I am persuaded that without knowledge of literature pure theology cannot at all endure, just as heretofore, when letters [the old name for literature] have declined and lain prostrate, theology, too, has wretchedly fallen and lain prostrate; nay, I see that there has never been a great revelation of the Word of God unless He has first prepared the way by the rise and prosperity of languages and letters, as though they were John the Baptists…. Certainly it is my desire that there shall be as many poets and rhetoricians as possible, because I see that by these studies, as by no other means, people are wonderfully fitted for the grasping of sacred truth and for handling it skillfully and happily.” Surely Luther was overly enthusiastic for what “English major types” can contribute to biblical exposition, but for as long as most of us can remember, the assumption has wrongly been that English major types have little or nothing to contribute to the exposition of the Bible.

Black and white profile picture of Dr Leland Ryken

Dr. Leland Ryken

Author and Professor

Leland wants to see people growing and reading the Bible as literature. He has been a college teacher of literature for over half a century, authored some sixty books, and now continues to bless the Church through his resources made freely available on this site.

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