What Does Eve Do to Help? And Other Readerly Questions to the Old Testament
Readerly questions are raised when readers are explicitly and programmatically brought into the process of interpreting texts. Traditionally, the reader and readerly interests and identities have been screened out when we have set about interpreting texts, and we have set our sights on attaining an interpretation that should be as ‘objective’ as possible. We have long recognized that all interpretations are interfered with to a greater or lesser degree by the person of the interpreter, but in the past we have endeavored to minimize that interference. Things are rather different now. Not only is the quest for an objective interpretation seen as a chimaera, but the rewards of unabashed ‘readerly’ interpretations that foreground the process of reading and the context of the reader have now been shown to be well worth seeking. As the culture of those who read and interpret the Bible becomes more pluralist, it becomes less and less plausible to lay claim to determinate interpretations and more valuable to read the Bible afresh from the perspectives of different readers. And as we become increasingly alert to readers’ contribution to the creation of meaning, it is more than ever essential to raise readerly questions.
What has happened in Biblical studies, as likewise in many branches of literary studies in the last three decades, can be represented, rather simply, as a shift in focus that has moved from author to text to reader. The traditional questions, which were still in Old Testament studies at least, the only scholarly questions that were being asked in the 1960s, were questions of philology and history, questions which put the author in the centre of the picture They asked, What did he (it was always he) mean, when did he live, what did he know, what sources did he use, what was his intention? The meaning of the text was always and exclusively what it meant, what it meant to the ‘original author’. These were the questions I as a student was trained to ask, and these are the questions which the introductions and commentaries and theologies of that time all took for granted, Eissfeldt, Eichrodt, and von Rad.
Some, it is true, like Krister Stendahl in a famous article, distinguished between what the text meant and what it means, between exegesis and application.1 But what it means was always the poor relation, always subject to the scornful stern finger pointing to the door by the haughty lord of the manor, Sir What It Meant. There were many, and they seemed to be in the positions of power, who maintained that ‘what it means’ is not actually a scholarly question; it could be left to second-rate intellects to consider the application of pure, basic, fundamental research on ‘what it meant’.
There were two things wrong with this author-centred approach. First, it could always be protested that the historical-critical method systematically regarded the biblical text as a window through which to scrutinize something other than the text, namely historical actuality. There was nothing wicked about this, unless perhaps it was being claimed that this was all there was to studying the Bible. But certainly it was sad, because the text was being crowded out, in favour of another subject of study, historical actuality. Secondly, a wave of uncertainty, from the late 1960s onward, was sweeping the scholarly world about all sorts of historical-critical conclusions (the sources of the Pentateuch, the Israelite amphictyony, the Solomonic Enlightenment, and so on), and one needed strong nerves to go on insisting there was no problem. The obvious move was to shift the focus from the author to the text. Now the subject of study tended to become, not what the author meant, but what the text means. After all, the text, like the poor, was always with us. We could get on with the text and its meaning, while leaving historical questions for antiquarians. This was a very 1970s thing to do in Biblical studies. It was immensely rewarding, and there still remain vast areas of the biblical text to be explored by this approach. It involves the study of themes, images, character, plot, style, metaphor, point of view, narrators, readers implied and real, and so on.
Among the principal concerns of a text-oriented approach were these: 1. It aimed to establish the meaning of a text by reading the text rather than by asking what the author intended. 2. It emphasized the work as a whole, which involved the elucidation of the whole in relation to its parts and of the parts in relation to the whole. 3. It resisted a romantic view of texts as essentially the ‘expression’ of an author, or as affording an insight into the psychology of a great thinker or artist. It recognizes that texts are entities existing in the world, and deserving of study in their own right, regardless of the circumstances of their composition.
There were faults in this approach too. Among them may be noted: 1. A certain lack of’ engagement with real life’. If we concentrate upon the text, it is all too easy for the text to be severed from the past, to be idealized, to be regarded as a free floating object. And, what is more serious, under cover of this professed preoccupation with the text itself, the critic was still able to slip in any number of his or her own prejudices, especially concerning which texts were worth studying. In English literature, New Criticism, from which the text-oriented approach in Biblical studies drew much of its inspiration, often hid right-wing values, while in Biblical studies, canonical criticism, for example, which might be seen as a kind of New Criticism, brought with it implicit messages about the authority of the Church. 2. Even more serious, focus on the text left out the reader. In the making of meaning, readers have a vital part. For we cannot say, This text is meaningful, but it means nothing to me or you or anyone. No doubt, readers do not make up meanings, or, if we do, we say they are bad readers.
But, on the other hand, texts themselves do not have meanings which readers then proceed to discover. In some way or other, the creation of meaning arises at the intersection between text and reader.
So, in the 1980s, the focus in literary studies has come to be on the reader. All readers of texts, including Biblical texts, bring their own interests, prejudices and presuppositions with them. While they would be wrong to insist that the Bible should say what they want it to say, they would be equally wrong to think that it does not matter, in reading the Bible, what they themselves already believe? For the combination of the reader’s own interests, values and commitments is what makes him or her a person with identity and integrity; in no activity of life, and certainly not in reading the Bible, can one hide or abandon one’s values without doing violence to one’s own integrity. If one is, for example, a feminist pacifist vegetarian— which are quite serious things to be, even if they happen to be modish (so is believing in God and being against slavery, but we don’t snigger)—, it will be important to oneself to ask what the text has to say, or fails to say, about these issues; one will recognize that the text may have little concern with such matters, but if they are a serious concern to the reader they may be legitimately put on the agenda for interpretation, that is, the mutual activity that goes on between text and reader. And what usually happens, when we bring our questions to the text instead of insisting always that the text set the agenda, is that the text becomes illuminated in unpredictable ways.
What particular characteristics, then, of the manner of reading by this reader will be presented in this volume? I need to say that although I am interested in literary theory and the theory of reading, I do not usually proceed from a theoretical position when I set about the business of reading. To be sure, I learn from others what kind of things I might be looking for when I am reading, and with the help of other writers sharpen my perception of my own positions and commitments; but when I read I am on my own. Certainly, I play off other people’s readings, and find other readings mostly helpful when I can distinguish mine from them; I especially like insensitive and wooden commentators, because they quite often stumble conspicuously over facets of a text that are really there but which they do not know how to deal with; more sophisticated commentators know how to slide over things they find difficult. All the same, I do not like to stay on my own for too long, but, like most of us, crave the approval of some reputable scholarly circle. So I like to check out from time to time what I have been doing against what more philosophically and systematically inclined theorists have been saying about the business of interpretation. And it is especially those who have paid attention to readers and reading whom I have found congenial; I must therefore, I tell myself, have been adopting a readerly orientation.
The first thing that a readerly orientation will concern itself with is the process of reading. Traditionally, reading has been a quite transparent activity, like breathing, which we either do not think about or, if we do, believe we understand it quite well. A readerly concern, by contrast, problematizes reading— which is to say, wonders what it is that is going on, and how whatever it is actually works.
So one of my interests in this volume is what happens to us as readers when we try to match in our reading the linear shape of a book. Books are usually designed by authors, publishers and social conventions to be read from beginning to end, and that is how most readers approach them, especially if they are narrative works and not, say, encyclopedias. A readerly interest therefore takes seriously the fact that a typical reader will read any particular book in a linear fashion, and will not, for example, know on page 1 how the story will have developed by page 200. The reader may indeed return to the book, and read it again from cover to cover in the knowledge of how it will turn out in the end, or may, after a first reading, dip into the book at odd places, secure in a knowledge of the overall plot and structure of the book and confident of how the page before the eyes fits in to the total pattern. But it is a more common feature of our readerly experience to be first-time readers, who know nothing of what is in the book except what we have read so far. Even second-time reading itself can in fact often be quite like first-time reading, for we may have forgotten how the book is going to develop, or we may have failed to notice significant details on our first reading, or we may be deliberately suppressing our knowledge of what lies ahead of us for the pleasure of re-living our first experience of excitement, involvement or absorption in the book. So first-time reading is not a fixed moment in our experience of a book; it can be a kind of paradisal encounter that we attempt, or manage accidentally, to recreate.
There is a little more to the philosophy of first-time reading than a mere description of what actually happens to readers, however. Readers who pretend to be first-time readers sometimes justify that pretence by appealing to a certain sense of fitness they feel about adapting themselves to the linear nature of the book, which necessarily proceeds by increments and not with hindsight. First-time reading, they suspect, is truly respectful of the sequentiality of the book; and at the same time they often feel that they will be more receptive to the promises the book holds out before them, if they will screen off much of the knowledge they already have, including knowledge of the book as a whole, and content themselves with what they have learnt from the book so far. If they feel that, they are responding to the book’s invitation to enter its world.
Among the papers in this collection, ‘What Happens in Genesis’ takes this approach most programmatically, asking what we are led, on a first-time reading of the book, to expect will happen, and asking thereafter whether our expectations have been met or have been disappointed by the time we reach the end of the book. Perhaps the way the story develops will lead us to re-adjust or re-evaluate the expectations we originally formed, or perhaps it will confirm us in our original understanding; but either way, in this particular case at least, the outcome appears to justify the method, because it brings to the surface a range of issues that have not usually been addressed in the scholarly literature.
In The Ancestor in Danger’ the accent is equally on ‘the story so far’, but the angle of approach is different. Rather than survey the whole of the literary work from beginning to end, I begin with three isolated segments of it, the tales of the ancestral couple in danger in foreign lands. Here my aim is to show that we can best understand these tales, not by considering them first in connection with one another (as their similarity has persuaded most scholars to do), but by locating each at its distinctive point in the developing plot of Genesis, and establishing the function of each by tracking the threads that link it to what has already been told in the narrative. And in ‘What Does Eve Do to Help?’ I fasten again upon the data of the preceding narrative as the essential and primary clue to the meaning of a disputed text.
A second concern of a readerly orientation is a reflex of the first, namely a heightened interest in the process of writing. For in order to appreciate well how readers read, it is important to understand how writers write, and what writerly guiles they can employ to make readers read in one way rather than another. This is not a particularly novel interest, of course, for Old Testament scholars of every stripe have long been interested in the mechanics of composition of the texts they study. Nevertheless, there is evidently a lot more attention being paid these days to the ‘poetics’ or art of writing, and very much more elaborated theoretical analyses of what actually goes on in the writing process. It is now part of the critical vocabulary of the Old Testament scholar, though it was not even as recently as two decades ago, to distinguish between author and narrator, narratee and implied reader, ideal reader and actual reader, and so on. And there is no question in my mind but that such conceptualizations as are represented by this terminology give us a much closer control over the processes of both writing and reading.
Such interests come to the fore especially in the essay on Nehemiah and the ‘Perils of Autobiography. In it I try to discover what difference it makes to our reading of the ‘Nehemiah Memoir’ that is embedded in our Book of Nehemiah if we distinguish systematically between Nehemiah the author and Nehemiah the narrator. The results of such a readerly investigation turn out to be not only literary in character—which is no more than one would expect—but, perhaps surprisingly, to have useful historical implications. I argue that in the case of the Nehemiah Memoir the narrator claims the kind of knowledge that we usually grant to an omniscient narrator, but that, since the narrator of the autobiography is nothing but the flesh and blood author, he has no right to make such claims. The history of scholarship evidences an uncritical confusion between author and narrator, with consequent misjudgments about the probable course of historical actuality. Here is one case, then, where readerly concerns impinge constructively upon quite different scholarly interests.
The third concern of a readerly orientation is the social location of the reader. Up to this point I have been discussing the activity of reading as a essentially private and personal undertaking, and have been wondering about what goes on in the lone reader’s head during the process, and how that reading activity is determined by the writerly activity that preceded it. But there is of course another dimension to the reading process, which consists of the constraints and opportunities afforded individual readers by the social context in which they find themselves. These social contexts may be very much broader than the activity of reading itself, of course. For example, a feminist location commits a person to a wide range of activities that have nothing to do with reading; and one could easily be a feminist and take little interest in reading. In this context, however, I am naturally concerned only with the implications of such social locations for the way readers read. And there are other locations which may have little existence outside the activity of reading, such as that of the collective of scholarly interpreters of the text, who may or may not have any institutional or personal connections with one another but may communicate solely through writing and on the subject of reading and how they read. So what I mean by ‘social location’ is very like what people mean by ‘interpretative community’, except that I am giving an explicit recognition to the fact that many such communities exist primarily for purposes other than interpreting, and it would be wrong to think of them as being defined by their interest in interpreting.
One such location or interpretative community in which I am interested, and within which the present papers were written, is the scholarly community of Old Testament specialists. These people differ from other readers of the Old Testament in that they do not on principle read just for themselves and their own understanding, enlightenment, or benefit, but are committed to dialogue with other readers of the same community with a view to persuading others, or being persuaded by them, to read in one way rather than another.
When they are reading novels or poetry they probably do not have any such commitment, and then they behave like most readers of most writing. Perhaps sometimes they may be reading the Old Testament without regard for the community of Old Testament specialists; they may be reading for their own personal edification or with some intention directed toward some religious community, and perhaps they will not always know exactly when they are reading as scholars and when they are not; for they will, in many cases, unavoidably remain scholars even when they are not reading as scholars. Nevertheless, I would maintain that there is such a thing as scholarly reading, and that those who engage in it thereby constitute an interpretative community.
Focusing upon the scholarly community of interpreters is a particular interest in the chapter on the Nehemiah Memoir. There I try to show how what counts as an acceptable reading of the Nehemiah material is very largely conditioned by the habits and preferences of previous commentators and biblical scholars. That is not very surprising, and it is a common feature of scholarly writing that it observes lines of relationship and dependence between literary works, both those of modern interpreters as well as the primary texts themselves. What is perhaps a little different about my treatment of the Nehemiah text is that I approach the habits of the interpretative community with a question about the responsibility of the author for the readings sanctioned by the community of his interpreters.
That question is, What has the author Nehemiah done in his writing to ensure that modern readers, even critical scholarly readers, will accept, in large measure, his presentation of events and his inevitably one-sided perspective on their significance? So the issue becomes one of the complicity o the readers with the author, an often unspoken agreement, for example, to give him the benefit of the doubt. Being able to name these readers as a distinct ‘community’ relativizes the value of their interpretations, and gives permission to fresh interpretations to breathe, while being alerted to the tricks of the authorial trade enables us to create some readerly defences against writerly wiles.
The scholarly community is of course not one undifferentiated whole. Within it are many interest groups. One of those, deconstructionism, provides a context for the chapter on Job, where the question is put whether the book of Job does not open itself to a deconstruction. In two major areas I believe I have shown that it does, undermining in some manner views that it also affirms. Where I hope in this essay to have served the interest of the wider scholarly community, and not just of deconstructionists, is in having asked the question, What happens after a text has been deconstructed?, and to have answered that in a way that respects the actual experience of readers.
An interpretative community of a different kind whose interests are evident in these essays is Christianity. While it is possible on certain issues in Old Testament studies, such as philology or historical reconstruction, to avoid any impact of the reader’s religious commitment or lack of it upon what we write, in strictly interpretational matters, especially large scale ones, it seems to be impossible. In The Old Testament Histories’ I discuss the most striking of the constraints the reader’s religious affiliation imposes upon interpretation, namely, the determination of the very identity and contents of the subject matter of our study. Is it the ‘Old Testament’ that we are concerned with, or the ‘Tanakh’? If it is the ‘Old Testament’, is it the Catholic or the Protestant Old Testament? If it is the Hebrew Bible, why is it not the Greek Bible? If it is the ‘Bible’, which community’s Bible is it? There is no neutral or religiously uncommitted term for the primary texts of our discipline; every time I open my mouth about the subject of my professional competence I proclaim willy-nilly my religious identity. Even if I profess no religious commitment whatsoever I am compelled to adopt someone else’s even in order to name my subject.
What is to be done about this state of affairs? We could deplore it, and determine to paper over the cracks between the religious communities by settling on a name that disguised the realities. But our interpretational praxis itself, such as whether we include the New Testament in our frame of reference when we are reading the ‘Old’, or the degree to which we cite parallels from the ‘Apocryphal’ books, will immediately give the game away. It is very much more in keeping with what we are recognizing these days about the social locations of interpreters that we should acknowledge the religious contexts in which we find ourselves by choice or accident, and not apologize for them but capitalize on them. How far I set out deliberately to serve the interests of the interpretative community in which I am located is up to me, and I may decide differently at different times; and in any case what is actually in the interests of my Christian interpretative community is itself a highly problematic matter, and hardly to be settled on the criterion of what is familiar or comfortable to that community. But I certainly resist the idea that one’s context is essentially some kind of constraint that inevitably limits one’s interpretative vision and the interpretative possibilities open to oneself as a reader. There are indeed constraints, but a imagination that is sympathetic to the particularities of other people’s contexts can to a large extent compensate for them. Much rather I would regard the context of an interpretative community as offering a series of interpretative opportunities. Just as the reading of the Old Testament in the early Christian church gave rise to the varied and creative Christological interpretations of it by the Church Fathers, so also the reading of the Old Testament in feminist and Marxist interpretative communities, to name no others, creates fresh opportunities for meaning in our own time.
In accord with this readerly recognition of the constraints and challenges of a religiously determined location, Clines have addressed his-self in the chapter on ‘The Old Testament Histories’ to the question of what it can mean for Christians to have within their scriptures two so fundamentally different memories of the past as are enshrined within the Primary and the Secondary Histories. I do not have much of an answer to the question, but I think that the posing of it could in itself be creative for a Christian notion of what a ‘scripture’ can be, as well as for the less religiously-oriented question of how we readers, as individuals or as members of a community, can evaluate our own personal past. In the chapter on ‘What Does Eve Do to Help?‘ The Author have likewise raised the question of how a feminist reading of the early chapters of Genesis can be accommodated within a Christian view of the Bible; again the issue of the nature of the Bible in the Christian church, and especially the matter of ‘authority’, comes to the fore. These Christian opportunities are not the primary purpose of these essays; but they may serve as examples of how a legitimate focus on the reader (this reader, in this case) may affect the interpretative process.
Yet another interpretative community whose interests are represented to some extent in this volume is that of feminism. The first of the essays addresses feminist readers of the Old Testament in an attempt to ground feminist interpretation more securely. It argues that the programme of ‘redeeming the text’ for feminism by exposing its latent egalitarian tendencies is not really successful in the case of Genesis 1-3 (though it may well be elsewhere), and that a mature feminist criticism will find these chapters to be irredeemably androcentric. In the essay on ‘The Ancestor in Danger’ there is likewise a feminist orientation to a set of tales which have perhaps been too readily viewed from a male perspective. Here again, the identification of an interpretative community with its own recognizable interests proves to offer a fruitful line of approach to the text.
Many other interpretative communities, at different moments in history from our own, have of course been interested in our texts. So it is a matter of interest to readerly critics to discover and understand how such communities, including those now defunct, have read. Accordingly, in the essay on ‘The Old Testament Histories’ there are some reflections on how the historiographical books of the Old Testament have been read in the past by the Jewish and Christian religious communities, and in the chapter on ‘What Does Eve Do to Help?’ I have found myself more in accord with the interpretation of Genesis by some of the fathers of the Christian church than with those of some feminist critics of our own day, with whom I am on most other matters much more in sympathy.
Such an interest in other interpretative communities beside the ones to which one belongs oneself is usually subsumed under the heading of ‘reception history’ or ‘the history of interpretation’. I for my part, however, would prefer to label this subject ‘comparative interpretation’. For although interpreters and their communities can indeed be distinguished from one another in a historical dimension and have always been affected by their historical circumstances, the interesting questions that can be asked of their interpretations from a readerly point of view are not historical questions at all, like causes, effects and influences, but strictly interpretational ones. Arranging the material of an intellectual discourse on simple historical lines is often the laziest way of organizing it; and identifying who influenced whom to say what when is not a very deep form of enquiry. The harder and more valuable question, at least from the reader’s point of view, is whether there is any mileage left in the interpretations of others, and whether our own reading can be facilitated or improved by recourse to those of others, even others from alien historical circumstances. I foresee the emergence of a new lease of life for so-called ‘pre-critical’ interpretations when they are removed from the dominating historical paradigm, with its implicit allegiance to the myth of progress that puts us at the apex and our predecessors at the foot of the pyramid of learning.
Those readers of these essays who have some acquaintance with modern literary theory will have little difficulty in typifying this book as an example of ‘reader-response criticism’. I have avoided referring to this critical approach up to this point because I wanted to say in my own words what it is I think I have been doing in these essays without necessarily subscribing to anyone else’s theoretical programme. But I may as well confess now that, in their various ways, the present collection of essays belongs to that rather amorphous body of writing that goes under the name of reader-response criticism.
Among the practitioners of reader-response I find Stanley Fish one of the most congenial. He defined his programme as ‘the rigorous and disinterested asking of the question, what does this word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, chapter, novel, play, poem, do?’, and the execution involves an analysis of the developing response of the reader in relation to the words as they succeed one another in time’. Literature is a kinetic art, he says, even though the physical reality of books sitting on shelves may suggest otherwise; our experience of reading books is in fact one of movement, from beginning to end. Fish is also the originator of the notion of the ‘interpretive community’.
And these two ideas are obviously very important to my own approach. For the sake of the reader who wishes to pursue further the critical theory, I may say that among surveys of the progress and characteristics of reader-response criticism, I know of nothing more perceptive and lucid than that of Jane P. Tompkins in the introduction to her anthology. As for the other works that I have used for orientation, stimulus, and reflection, I limit myself here to listing them in a note.
David J.A. Clines Wrestles with the apparent sexism of the Genesis text and reasons that the equality of the sexes is a cause explicitly promoted by the Christian teaching that ‘in Christ … there is neither male nor female’ (Gal. 3.28) It is not a principle that I for my part can give up, not even for the Bible’s sake, if that is what it is, without a loss of personal integrity. What shall I do with Genesis, then? One of my options is to ascribe the sexism of the text to the primitive world of the Old Testament, and sigh my relief that in New Testament Christianity we do these things much better.
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