Primary Blog/What Biblical Scholarship Needs to Learn from Literary Criticism of the Bible

What Biblical Scholarship Needs to Learn from Literary Criticism of the Bible

Saturday, January 21, 2023


  • ​The Rule of Authentic Human Experience
  • ​The Rule of All of Life
  • ​The Rule of Textual Specificity
  • ​What Literary Criticism Can Add to Biblical Scholarship

My aim in this address is to make the case that literary criticism can make significant contributions to how biblical scholars handle the Bible. The context in which I make this case is the nearly total exclusion of literary expertise from biblical scholarship.

I have molded my address as a series of four answers to my general question, What can a literary approach to the Bible contribute or perhaps add to the conventional, traditional methods of biblical scholarship?

My first suggestion: a literary approach can add a few helpful hermeneutical principles to the familiar list of such principles. As a literary critic I do not disagree with any of the usual hermeneutical principles advocated by evangelical biblical scholarship, though it is also the case that I have my own literary version of some of these principles. What I propose is not subtracting but adding a few ingredients that I find so helpful when I interpret the Bible for myself and even more when I teach it to others. I have no doubt that my additional hermeneutical principles will sound really odd to some of you, but they are well attested as being very important to literary scholars as these worthy souls ply their trade.

The Rule of Authentic Human Experience

Hermeneutical principle #1: the rule of authentic and universal human experience. That doesn’t sound like a hermeneutical principle, you are thinking. No, it doesn’t, but it is valid nonetheless. By authentic and universal human experience 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 before us by the text. For a literary critic, 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.

What I find a lot of in the circles in which I move 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 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.

Let me illustrate by taking an excursion into the story of Cain as narrated in Genesis 4:1-16. I frequently use this story, even in my regular literature courses, to illustrate that the subject of literature is human experience. I stand at the board and challenge my class to come up with a list of at least twenty recognizable human experiences that are embodied in this brief story from primeval history. The list includes such things as the following:

  • ​violence, and specifically domestic violence
  • ​sibling rivalry, including the spectacle of siblings who are temperamental opposites
  • ​the model child and the problem child
  • ​the guilty child
  • ​lying to a parent
  • ​the domineering older sibling and the put-upon younger sibling
  • ​lack of self-control
  • ​envy
  • ​self-pity
  • ​harboring a grudge
  • ​temptation
  • ​giving in to an evil impulse
  • ​the futile attempt to conceal a crime
  • ​anger at having gotten caught
  • ​the attempt to evade responsibility (“am I my brother’s keeper?”)
  • ​moral indifference
  • ​the criminal without regret
  • ​the judge
  • ​arrest, trial, and sentencing
  • ​the appeal of a sentence and modification of it
  • ​making a bad decision and having to live with the consequences

American fiction writer John Steinbeck was so impressed by the universal human experience in the story of Cain that he called it “the symbol story of the human soul.”

He elaborated as follows: “I think this is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody’s story. . . . [It] is the story of mankind. . . . It is a chart of the soul—the secret, rejected, guilty soul.”

I will contrast that with an experience I had with a big-name biblical scholar whom I asked to write the chapter on Genesis for a literary guide to the Bible that I was editing. This person’s specialty is what I consider a form of structuralism, and let me say in passing, for whatever explanatory value it might hold for you, that it seems to me that biblical scholars who catch a vision for literary analysis have been fixated for three decades on a single approach called structuralism. Structuralists are interested in patterns in texts as virtually the main thing to discuss, and this was emphatically true for the biblical scholar who wrote the chapter on Genesis.

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.]

My contributor’s 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 Genesis. No book that I teach is more dense with universal 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. 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 of Genesis was about sibling rivalry and temptation and traveling 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.

Once after I had conducted a workshop on teaching the Bible a preacher told me that the important new idea that he would carry away from the workshop was that the Bible embodies human experience. He had never, he told me, viewed the Bible as a book of human experience. I would say that this is approximately the impression that I get when I read Bible commentaries.

The Rule of All of Life

Hermeneutical principle #2 is the rule of all of life. 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. To limit the Bible only to specifically salvific issues, and to make Christ the primary subject of every passage, is in my view reductionistic. 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.”

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 of the Bible 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 by quoting the opening of Calvin’s Institutes, which 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.

For my illustration of what I think is a disagreement between biblical scholars and literary critics on the issue of salvation history vs. all of life as the subject of the Bible, I will reach back a long way to an occasion when I team-taught a Sunday school class on the story of Ruth with a member of the Bible Department at Wheaton College. 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? And why had we spent four weeks exploring things that in the final analysis were declared not to be part of the text after all?

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. Literary texts always contain an abundance of “excess baggage” in addition to the propositions that we might deduce from the text, including an artistic dimension that deserves our attention and enjoyment. The impulse of literature is to 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 this into focus, just consider the following two versions of the book of Ruth. Exhibit A, from a monograph written by a biblical scholar: “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, written by a literary critic: “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 to me 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. To reach closure on my “all of life” principle, if every passage in the Bible is primarily a chapter in salvation history is where am I expected to receive God’s instruction for the rest of life?

The Rule of Textual Specificity

Hermeneutical principle #3 is the rule of textual specificity. By this I mean that interpretation must do justice to the particulars—the details—in a text. The counterpart of this is that an interpreter should resist an impulse to be reductionistic when dealing with a text. Additionally, we need to be inductive and not deductive when we interact with a text.

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, inasmuch 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, non-evangelical biblical scholarship there is today an unhealthy devotion to the myth of the complexity and indeterminacy 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 have phrased 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. A lot of what I have said has touched upon this matter of reductionistic approaches to the Bible. I encounter it regularly in sermons, in Bible teaching settings, in published biblical scholarship, in addresses at theological conferences. I know that in principle you dislike reductionism, too, but are you sufficiently aware of how prevalent it is in some of our circles.

For my illustration about being inductive and doing justice to resistant details as opposed to being deductive and reducing a text to overriding patterns, I am going to take an excursion into recent interpretation of the Old Testament book of Judges. I realize that I am treading on potentially controversial territory here, so if you disagree with me, I think that both of us agree that we are bound in conscience to hold onto what we believe to be the truth, and I am fully ready to grant that freedom to you as needed.

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. 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 re-enactment 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 everywhere. 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 application of the cycle motif. 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 crying to God and deliverance through 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 read an equal number of times that “the spirit of the Lord” came upon a heroic leader. Three of the judges are named in the roll call of faith in Hebrews 11, and others are implicitly included in the categories of those who “were made strong out of weakness” and “became mighty in war” and “put foreign armies to flight.”

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]. Wait a minute, I want to say. 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 refer to as using the story of salvation history as the proverbial tail that wags the dog with every text.

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. 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.

What Literary Criticism Can Add to Biblical Scholarship

Let me take stock of where we are in this address. My overall framework is to raise and answer the question of whether and in what ways a literary approach to the Bible might provide a helpful supplement to traditional methods practiced by biblical scholars. My first answer to the question was that a literary approach can provide additional interpretive principles that are in my view necessary whenever one interacts with a literary text. I proposed three principles, which I labeled the rule of universal human experience, the rule of “all of life,” and the rule of textual specificity.

When I sketched out my address in its planning stages, it did not occur to me that I would devote three-fourths of my address to the topic of traditional biblical hermeneutics as pracices b biblical scholars, but it did happen that way. So let me be suggestive rather than exhaustive with my three remaining points.

What can a literary approach potentially add? I believe that a literary approach is an approach for the common person. Way back in 1944 a literary scholar named Mary Ellen Chase wrote on book on the literary nature of the Bible that she entitled The Bible and the Common Reader. I agree with the implied claim that a literary approach is one that the common person can grasp and practice. At the level of a work’s content, a literary approach to the Bible is an approach that speaks to the common person. A group of lay people can do magnificently, in my experience, with ferreting out the recognizable human experiences in a biblical text. They can also do well with such staples as plot, setting, and characterization in a story. They need a little coaching with imagery and metaphor in biblical poetry, but in my experience they catch the spark pretty quickly.

Furthermore, literary analysis is a methodology that I can teach and pass on to my students and Sunday school classes and attendees at my Bible teaching workshops. After all, my methodology is what is inculcated in high school and college English courses. When I stand before a Sunday school class or lead a small group Bible study, the carryover between what I do there and what I do as a literary critic of the Bible is total. I add a little by way of application, but the methodology is transferable.

What about the methods of biblical scholarship? I do not intend a spirit of criticism as I raise an alarm about how specialized and esoteric the discipline of biblical scholarship has become. The things that you do with the biblical text for the most part belong to a small group of very specially educated people. This is not bad in itself, but I worry about how cut off this specialized knowledge has become from the common person.

Lay people pretty much have to take the word of preachers and biblical scholars, because laypeople lack the knowledge to engage in that type of analysis themselves. I remember an occasion when it fell to a colleague from my college to lead the small-group Bible study from church in which my wife and I were members. My colleague is a biblical scholar, and for our study of a chapter of the book of Ruth he had typed up the text and underlined the details that constituted the problems in the text. That was a Bible study in my colleague’s mind—a study of the lexical, historical, and archaeological problems in the biblical text.

From one point of view he was doing what I have commended, namely, carrying over the methodology of his discipline to a Bible study. But his doing it points up the problem that I see, namely, reducing the biblical text to a set of specialized problems that only the experts can understand. I am a loyal member of the Evangelical Theological Society and feel privileged to attend its annual meeting as a full-fledged member. But when I look at the esoterica represented by the articles in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, I am grieved. I do not put my copy of JETS out in the English Department where we put journals for students to read while they wait for their appointments. Might a literary approach such as I have sketched out serve as a curb on the pretty extreme specialization that has come to dominate biblical scholarship?

If we look at the degree to which the lay public has handed over the task of biblical interpretation to the guild of biblical scholars, it might look like a success story for you, but if we look at how little the lay public understands and pays attention to your methods and conclusions, it is not in my view a success story. I do not mean to imply that there are easy answers to this situation, but in turn I would hope for a listening ear from you this afternoon.

What potentially can a literary approach to the Bible add to the discipline of biblical scholarship? It can provide some helpful hermeneutical methods, and it can provide a way of interacting with the Bible that the common person can understand and practice.

My third answer, already implied: a literary approach can provide an improved methodology for interacting with the biblical text and experiencing it in a new and refreshing way. Way back in the thirteenth century, someone named Roger Bacon claimed that the church had done a good job of communicating the theological content of the Bible but had failed to make the literal level of the Bible come alive in people’s imaginations. I feel that all around me in my evangelical subculture I see a propensity of people to turn the biblical text into a series of theological ideas as quickly as possible. To use Kenneth Bailey’s metaphor, in our circles—and in biblical scholarship—the tendency is to regard a biblical text as the delivery system for an idea.

Part of what I have called an improved methodology of interacting with the Bible is attentiveness to the genres of the Bible. May I cite with approval the view of C. S. Lewis 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.” The “different sorts” are of course what we call literary genres.

Now I know that most of you will protest that you do believe in genre criticism, but by my taste I don’t see much of it in biblical scholarship and Bible commentaries. I certainly do not see much reference to the genres with which I deal day in and day out as a teacher of English literature.

Maybe I need to say something about using modern terms. The proof is in the pudding. People who are introduced to genre criticism as practiced by literary critics tend overwhelmingly to see its usefulness. One of numerous communiqués I have received from satisfied customers is from the dean of an international correspondence school for which I have written two courses as part of their hermeneutics track. This dean spoke of returning home from the mission field, of a friend’s wanting to buy him a book to mark the occasion, of his eye falling my book How to Read the Bible as Literature in a bookstore, and of how “it turned out to be a gift that changed my entire perspective on interpreting the Scriptures.”

But that’s not all. After becoming dean of the graduate school, this person leads two-week teaching modules that have gradually encompassed “hundreds of ministers from over thirty nations.” Further, “I have watched [these ministers] respond … with awe and smiles. The phrase I hear from them again and again is: ‘I will never read the Bible the same way again.'”

My final answer to my question of what a literary approach might potentially contribute is that it can provide a voice from beyond your own discipline. Not every voice from beyond your discipline has a strong claim on your time and allegiance, and I know that, but if the Bible is at least 80 percent literary, then surely the voice of literary scholarship is a worthy voice from beyond your discipline. In my view, literary scholarship is second in line behind your own discipline.

But no matter how strong the case might be, I am pessimistic that any progress will be forthcoming unless the biblical scholarly guild embraces the vision. I know that none of you before me would assert that seminary professors and their graduates, or professors with graduate degrees in biblical studies, are the only ones who bring anything significant to the table of biblical exposition. You would not say that, but in practice this is what prevails. The unstated premise in evangelical circles is that all necessary hermeneutical methodology lies with the guild of biblical scholars and their students.

From one point of view, this is a tribute to you. 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, even flying in 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, even though the topics are tailor-made for me to address.

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—get them out of here.” 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 as a speaker. 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.

There is a sense in which all that I am asking of you is to apply a long-accepted hermeneutical principle of authorial intention. Doesn’t it stand to reason that when a biblical author casts his utterance in a literary form he intends us to experience and understand his utterance in keeping with the standard conventions of his chosen literary form? Then if we ask who is most adept at explicating literary texts, isn’t it plausible to answer, “High school and college English teachers who teach literature in the classroom day in and day out?

Martin Luther answered the question that way, and I have chosen to end my address with a statement by Martin Luther that is well known among literary scholars but I infer little known 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 [meaning the Bible] and for handling it skillfully and happily.”

Surely Luther was overly enthusiastic for what “English major types” can contribute to biblical exposition, but in our circles the assumption has wrongly been that English major types have little or nothing to contribute to the exposition of the Bible.

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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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