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

William John Lyons, Canon and Exegesis: Canonical Praxis and the Sodom Narrative (JSOTS 352; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), Pp. x, 317. Hardcover. ISBN: 1841272957. $ 115.

Canon and Exegesis combines methodological discussion with interpretive practice. The central question of the book is how the canonical criticism of Brevard Childs can accommodate the sort of non-foundationalism articulated by Stanley Fish and others. Lyons' book divides into two roughly equal halves, with the first three chapters devoted to Childs and the final three to an exegesis of the Sodom narrative of Genesis 18-19.

Lyons helpfully begins by placing Childs in the context of a survey of biblical theology. Two notable observations from this section are Childs' attention to the reader's standpoint (against objectivist claims), and his support for Karl Barth's position in a debate with Childs' teacher Gerhard von Rad. Recognizing the need to balance theological claims against historical-critical methods, Childs manages at least to identify the need for alternatives to the mid-twentieth century crises of biblical studies and biblical theology.

The crucial question, of course, is how. How will the concept of canon resolve problems of historical and theological method? Lyons rightly notes that "canon" means several things for Childs, sometimes indicating a process, at others indicating the communities and texts surrounding that process. Lyons regards these ambiguities as problems for Childs; he is also too quick to dismiss Mark Brett's suggested revision of canon along the lines of Gadamer's notion of "classic." Yet the appeal of "canon" certainly operates most strongly on the level of interpretive practice, in which the final form of the text is the primary object of study, if only because of its widespread cultural influence and availability. What exactly "canon" means is less vexing in Childs than what he means by reference to perspective and objectivity. Lyons convincingly dismisses objectivist readings of Childs in favor of a "perspectivist" version based on the work of Fish, Grice, Hauerwas, and others.

Lyons's central concerns with Genesis 18-19 are appropriately ethical. Do Abraham and YHWH observe individualistic or collective notions of justice? Is Lot's offer of his daughters wicked or coerced? Do the so-called sins of Sodom have to do with hospitality, fairness, forced sex, or specific sex acts? Lyons produces few new readings, but his survey of the debates is fair and helpful, suggesting a kind of canonical practice in which scholars serve the needs of many communities of faith. By the end of his analysis, Lyons demonstrates that several competing notions of justice operate in the Hebrew Bible, a problem for which he sketchily offers the biblical notions of messianism and resurrection as a solution. With this gesture, Lyons brings his own theological perspective to bear on his exegesis, making clear his affinities with Barth and Hauerwas.

At every point, Lyons provides painstaking reviews of the scholarly literature, reporting faithfully at least two sides of many interpretive and conceptual issues. From the puzzling inconsistencies of singular and plural forms in Genesis 18 to the fact that there are at least four competing models of justice in the narrative overall, Lyons' canonical approach compels him to seek coherence amidst textual complexity. Along the way, he surveys contemporary historical critical scholarship, with its limited interest in the canonical text, as well as traditional Jewish exegesis, Gunkel's form criticism, and contemporary literary readings. These surveys of secondary materials sometimes create the impression that Lyons trusts other scholarly voices more than his own encounter with the text; the overall effect, though, is of a scrupulous scholar attempting to read a "canonical" text in the company of a scholarly community.

Wading through Lyons' richly-annotated survey will excite readers eager for a complete bibliography on canonical criticism and scholarship on Genesis 18-19. This thoroughness can also diminish the impact of the discussion. Buried in his detailed exegesis of the Lot's wife episode, for instance, is the statement that the main point of the narrative is to ask "What does it mean to be just?" (p. 248). An observation as fundamental as this should be more forcefully and prominently developed. But in the spirit of the biblical redactor who preserved multiple viewpoints, Lyons prefers an approach that captures the many voices of the text and its readers, even when they stand in conflict. Canon and Exegesis may be no more complete or theoretically precise than Childs' canonical criticism, but it does represent a balanced example of non-foundationalist, scholarly, and theological exegesis. In light of Lyons' survey of canonical criticism and the Sodom narrative, one may ask whether greater precision is possible or even desirable.

Brian Britt
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University