Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

Jerome T. Walsh, Style and Structure in Biblical Hebrew Narrative (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001), Pp. xiv + 205. $19.95. ISBN 0-8146-5897

Unlike Ugaritic or Mesopotamian (i.e. Sumerian or Akkadian) narrative, which is in verse, almost all classical Hebrew narrative is in prose. Nevertheless, certain patterns of harmony and disharmony, of combination and separation are apparent in prose narrative, and these are charted in the book under review which is "intended primarily for people who read the Hebrew Bible in translation" (p. 1). The book is therefore in three parts, dealing with various forms of symmetry and asymmetry and of alternating repetition (structures of organization), narrative components, repetition and narrative sequence (structures of disjunction) and patterns crossing narrative boundaries (structures of conjunction). Put in this way, the approach seems somewhat arid, but when applied to the texts, it makes the reader more aware of repetition, structural patterns and the like. However, the temptation is always to see more than perhaps is actually intended, and caution is always required. Having said that, time and again one is confronted with acute observations, such as the comments on transposition in Exod 6:10-13.26-30 (pp. 110-111), in the section on asymmetry. In the author's own words (p. 111):

He adds:

This type of observation gives some idea of the author's approach, though he is not always so convincing. Overall, in fact, a crucial distinction needs to be made between word patterns within one line and patterns extending over several lines, and both types are on a different level from patterns involving content. So, for example, the pattern in Num 12:13 (p. 15) cannot be put on a par with the pattern in Lev 24:13-23 (pp. 16-18). Furthermore, patterns found over an entire book, for example the book of Ruth (pp. 88-89) are rather less convincing and in any case, we cannot be sure how much was due to later editing.

Some additions can be made to the rather short bibliography. To begin with, my own contribution (on chiasmus in Hebrew poetry) to the collective work Chiasmus in Antiquity, edited by John Welch (listed by Walsh, p. 198) was re-issued with many revisions and corrections in my Traditional Techniques in Classical Hebrew Verse (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994) pp. 328-389. Note also G. Wenham, "The Coherence of the Flood Narrative," VT 28 (1978), 336-348, and Jack R. Lundbom, Jeremiah: A Study in Ancient Hebrew Rhetoric (SBLDS, 18; Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1975).

This book is not to be followed slavishly, then, but instead should be considered as providing helpful indications on how to read an ancient text, although the unanswered question remains: Was it always possible for the listeners of such texts to appreciate all these patterns without the written text in front of them? Finally, as there appear to be no comparisons with ancient Near Eastern material, the impression given is that biblical Hebrew narrative techniques evolved in isolation from neighbouring cultures.

Wilfred G. E. Watson
University of Newcastle upon Tyne