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

Susan E. Gillingham, The Image, the Depths and the Surface: Multivalent Approaches to Biblical Study (JSOTS 354. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), Pp.  xi + 147 pp. Hardcover. ISBN 1-84127-297-3. $ 105.

 This engaging book aims to demonstrate two points: first, that historical-critical readings are based as much on speculation about context as they are on objective analyses of historical evidence; and second, that the significance of a text will change, subtly or more dramatically, when the boundaries of its literary context are expanded to include contiguous passages, whole Biblical books, or entire corpora such as the Pentateuch or the New Testament. The book is offered as one response to the postmodern assertion of radical textual indeterminacy, the readings here charting a via media between the poles of wholly reader-oriented interpretation and naïve historicist determinism.

Urging that postmodernism’s validation of a plurality of readings can be instructive for readers of many interpretive temperaments, Gillingham seeks to demonstrate the diverse ways in which historical and literary analyses can illumine Genesis 2-3, Psalm 23, and Amos 5:18-27. For each text, Gillingham sketches a variety of possible historical settings, implied audiences, and salient literary features in order to illustrate ways in which divergent conjectures about sociopolitical context and choices about literary emphasis can yield competing readings. Thus the Garden of Eden story may be read historically as a tenth- or ninth-century Deuteronomistic polemic against King Solomon’s exogamy and polity of religious syncretism (p. 16) or as an exilic allegory lamenting the displacement of Judahites from the land; literarily, as a “myth concerning human mortality” (p. 32), as a veiled apologia for the character of God and God’s justice (p. 37), or as a critique of autonomous sapiential tradition as conceived apart from the halakhic obedience commanded at Sinai (p. 39). Psalm 23 may be historically situated as a post-exilic expression of individualistic Levitical piety (p. 56) or as a Maccabean-era messianic composition addressing communal strife (p. 61). Amos 5 may present a scathing polemic against the Israelite cult in the 8th or 7th century, or it may function rhetorically as a hortatory ideal during Second Temple times (p. 101). Many other historical and literary readings are supplied in addition to these.

Gillingham’s literary analyses are gracefully performed, with careful attention to key words, themes, parallelism, chiastic structures, and semantic ambiguities. Her proposed historical contexts are painted with rather more of a broad brush: she generally identifies a main theme in each text based on key words or images, and then attempts to discern what the theme might have meant in various periods of Israelite history. She stresses repeatedly that there is no one “right” reading of a text and usually does not adjudicate among the historical and literary possibilities she suggests, offering a word of critique only occasionally. Her strongest criticism is reserved for those who privilege Christological readings of Biblical texts in a way that she finds unwarranted.

Well suited for introductory pedagogical purposes, Gillingham’s book will guide novice interpreters in the valuable exercise of acknowledging that the historical-critical enterprise is imaginative at its heart and that there are many intelligent ways in which a text may be understood. But in her bid to make the book accessible, Gillingham may have done a disservice to her own methodological discussion by modeling overly simplistic examples of “historical” thinking in a large number of cursory treatments. Further, the degree to which her methodological approaches are truly multivalent is open to question. Gillingham does not allow radically different sets of questions to interrogate each other as regards their formative methodological assumptions. Instead, she employs pretty much the same historically informed, literarily sensitive approach throughout her exegeses, placing readings in friendly juxtaposition with one another without much debate of their merits. Readers may see significant missed opportunities here for edgier and more sophisticated engagement of the ways in which different hermeneutics challenge each other. Indeed, it often seems that Gillingham is simply changing the variables in a single hermeneutical equation rather than writing different types of equations as descriptors of profoundly different reading practices.

There are fascinating questions one can pose when exploring more truly multivalent methodological approaches. How might a sociologically oriented feminist analysis of gender roles in Genesis 2-3 differ from formalist discourse analysis, or from a subtle deconstructionist critique focused on narratological trajectory? What debates might arise concerning the “table” in Psalm 23 among a Marxist political analyst interested in the economic exploitation required to subsidize monarchical banqueting in ancient Israel, a New Historicist intrigued by idiosyncratic details discernible in the representations of ancient Israelite culture, and a Levinasian philosopher musing on the presence of the enemies standing as silent “Other” in the psalm; and why might those debates be important? Gillingham does not pose these sorts of questions, contenting herself instead with a panoramic sweep over more standard options construed in relatively simple terms. Readers may find disappointing her choice not to probe more deeply the ways in which moments of hermeneutical distance and tension among different interpretive perspectives can serve to complicate our reading practices as we encounter the Biblical text. Gillingham’s implicit call to dialogue is evocative, and many readers may want to reflect on the points of intersection and dispute among contemporary methodologies in more depth than her treatments allow.

The question of the book’s overall usefulness will hinge on the problem of intended audience. Advanced doctoral students and seasoned Biblical scholars will likely have nuanced questions and pointed objections at many junctures throughout the analyses presented here. The brevity and simplicity of Gillingham’s arguments make the book more appropriate as a readable introduction for undergraduates with little previous training in Biblical interpretation. Yet the book may not be entirely accessible for beginning students: there are several untranslated quotes in German, a dense cluster of references to scholarly positions in Chapter 3 that might bewilder the non-specialist, and use of Biblical Hebrew throughout, which, though translated, might nevertheless daunt students who have no knowledge of the language. The ideal audience, therefore, may comprise a rather curious group: students who know Hebrew and German, but who have had little exposure to Biblical criticism and who would benefit from a broad overview of traditional Biblical studies positions. For such readers, this lucid volume will extend a compelling invitation to reflect on ways in which interpretive choices can yield a wealth of possibilities for understanding Biblical texts.  

Carolyn J. Sharp,
Yale Divinity School