Reading the Lines: A Fresh Look at the Hebrew Bible

Pamela Tamarkin Reis Hendrickson Pub, Peabody, MA August 1, 2002
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This volume is a collection of articles published in various scholarly journals between 1991 and 2002. Reis, who is described on the book jacket as “an independent student of the Bible” writes in a casual, personal style that mixes anecdotes with scholarly argumentation. The approach is refreshing and makes the reader feel as if he is sitting across from Reis in a coffee shop.

After an introduction in which the author explains her approach eleven essays are included: “Rashomon and the Biblical Creation Narratives,” “What Cain Said: A Note on Genesis 4:8,” “Take My Wife, Please: On the Utility of the Wife/Sister Motif,” “Hagar Requited,” “Dead Men Tell No Tales: On the Motivation of Joseph’s Brothers,” “The Bridegroom of Blood: A New Reading,” “Spoiled Child: A Fresh Look at Jephthah’s Daughter,” “Collusion at Nob: A New Reading of 1 Samuel 21–22,” “Eating the Blood: Saul and the Witch of Endor,” “Cupidity and Stupidity: Woman’s Agency and the ‘Rape’ of Tamar,” and “Vindicating God: Another Look at 1 Kings 13.”

Reis does indeed take a “fresh look” at several texts. In the final sentence of her introduction she addresses the reader as follows: “I hope that you are persuaded, or at least provoked, by the arguments I present here” (p. 14). The volume certainly fulfills her wish. Her analyses are sometimes persuasive, but always creative and provocative. Some readers will label them radical and in some cases farfetched.

In the first essay, on Genesis 1–2, Reis challenges and even rejects the traditional source critical approach to the Creation accounts. At the same time, she discards the traditional conservative approach that seeks to harmonize the accounts. Reflecting a dialogical hermeneutic that is becoming increasingly popular in studies on biblical narratives, Reis argues that the accounts are purposely conflicting. She cites parallels from modern literature and film and then writes that “an author can speak in many voices, vary vocabulary, tell essentially the same story in conflicting ways, and keep his audience engaged for millennia” (p. 26). As if anticipating the criticism that she is imposing modern genre categories on ancient texts, she appeals to Ecclesiastes 1:9.

Reis’s study of Saul’s visit to the witch of Endor is engaging and insightful in many ways. Scholars have struggled to explain why the witch responded as she did when Samuel appeared. Why did she recognize Saul as her client at this point, but not earlier when he requested that she conjure up Samuel? Reis offers a reasonable explanation: “As an effective prophet of God and a celebrity in life, Samuel’s ghost must have been frequently sought in vain by an anxious populace on the brink of war. He would allow himself to be raised only by those to whom he had strong emotional ties” (p. 155). After showing that Samuel was strongly attached to Saul at the emotional level, she concludes, “The witch of Endor, amazed to see Samuel actually rise to [her] summons, knows that her tall client is Samuel’s beloved king” (p. 156).

In her study of Jephthah’s vow Reis proposes that Jephthah vowed to offer the first servant who met him as if he or she were a burnt offering. In other words the language is metaphorical (p. 114). In her view Jephthah was trying to motivate the men of Gilead to support him in the upcoming battle. He promised to dedicate a servant to the Lord in the sense that he would pay a redemption price for the person, releasing him or her from the ordinary responsibilities of work. (For a woman this would include the “work” of bearing children.) By showing his willingness to absorb such a financial loss, Jephthah was demonstrating to the Gileadites that he was a generous man, willing to share the spoils of victory with his men, and he was also suggesting that the victory would prove to be lucrative. There would be plenty of servants among the spoil, making it easy to replace the one dedicated (pp. 114–15). According to Reis Jephthah's daughter knew about the vow and purposely greeted him first. Why? Reis suggests that Jephthah’s daughter may have acted in order “to defy convention and continue to be the one and only love of an extremely indulgent father than become some man’s first wife” (p. 126).

When her father responded in anger, she decided to undo the consequences. She made a foray into the mountains to appeal to local pagan gods to intervene on her behalf, but to no avail. In this scenario Israelite women do not mourn what happened to Jephthah’s daughter (Judg. 11:40); they celebrate “her choice of independence and self-determination” and triumph in “one young woman’s achievement of autonomy” and “her success in shaping her own life” (p. 127). Reis’s proposed explanation for Jephthah’s daughter’s motivation transforms a typical ancient Israelite girl into a very modern, Westernized-looking spoiled brat who manages to escape the responsibilities of work and childbearing and in so doing becomes the poster child for her fellow feminists! Reis’s radical interpretation is fresh, but to this reviewer it is farfetched.

—Robert B. Chisholm Jr.

October 1, 2004
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2004 vol. 161 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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