Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Theodore A. Perry, God's Twilight Zone: Wisdom in the Hebrew Bible (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008). Pp. xxi+200. Paper, US$19.95. ISBN 978-1-59856-227-9.

Theodore A. Perry's most recent book offers an interesting mix of historical and rabbinic exegesis, unconventional readings, brilliant suggestions, and prose that often requires multiple readings in order to be understood. Perry defines the “twilight zone” as those biblical passages which are ambiguous oracles, signs, dreams or riddles (xi). Furthermore, Perry reminds the reader that there are, in fact, two twilights – one in the evening and one in the morning – and that both “express the dynamism, the changing fortunes of human existence, perpetually shifting from happiness to misery; ignorance to clarity” (xi). Throughout the book Perry advocates readings of the biblical texts that are in the “middle” of these human experiences so that the ambiguity and dynamism of the text is highlighted. Simple and straightforward interpretations are dismissed.

The book is composed of nine essays, each one dealing with a different wisdom text or biblical story in the Hebrew Bible. Perry has grouped the first three essays under the subtitle “Creating and Maintaining a Righteous World.” These three essays define biblical righteousness (in the Hebrew Bible), Joseph's righteousness, and Pharaoh's lack of righteousness and are intermittently frustrating and fascinating. For example, Perry's first and second chapters weave in and out of a fascinatingly, although not always convincing, close reading of the singular and plural word dream in the Joseph story. However, in the same chapters he unconvincingly argues that the Tamar and Judah episode found in the middle of the Joseph story teaches the biblical reader that Judah's qualification for leadership is demonstrated by his acknowledgement of Tamar's superior righteousness in spite of his impregnating and condemning her to death (16).

The next four chapters, creating the second part of Perry's book entitled “Interpreting in the Twilight Zone,” are by far the best of the book and perhaps worth reading before the first three chapters. Thematically they also seem to have the closest connection to Perry's definition of the “twilight zone.” In these chapters Perry examines, with great insight, four notoriously difficult texts. Perry discusses Samson's riddles in the book of Judges, the proverbial questions about Saul being among the prophets in Samuel, the story of Solomon's wise decision about splitting the baby in Kings and the prologue to the book of Psalms in Psalm 1. In each of these chapters Perry offers insightful interpretations that may best be considered as alternate readings to these texts. Those looking for traditional historical-critical exegesis will most likely be disappointed, but those interested in experimental readings will likely find that these essays have much to offer. For example, Perry argues that the tradition which described Saul as being among the prophets was not describing Saul's kingly leadership qualities but rather his “base identity [which] arises when these [kingly manifestations] are stripped away, when Saul, in the nakedness of his trances [as a prophet], recovers his original self” (90). In similar fashion, Perry argues that the story about Solomon's attempt to reveal a baby's mother by threatening to cut it in half does not actually demonstrate Solomon's wisdom, but rather demonstrates the mother's.

The last part of Perry's book, entitled “The Rebirth of Vulnerability and Wonder,” tackles two wisdom texts: Qohelet 12 and Proverbs 30. Conscientiously suggesting a different path from conventional allegorical readings of Qoh 12, Perry argues for a literal reading of the last chapter of Qohelet. He argues that reading the text literally prepares one for the inevitability of death contrary to the allegorical readings that Perry believes encourage the dread of death.

Throughout the book Perry's strength is his close textual readings that highlight possible interpretations that are unique and interesting in their own right. Perry's incorporation of Jewish sources is also refreshing and helpful. Perry's motif of the “Twilight Zone” is at times strained and seems unnecessarily difficult. It might have been better if Perry had let each essay stand on its own rather than for him to artificially connect them with this motif. Further, at times Perry's main point for his chapters was difficult to ascertain. Of course, this may have been by design to enhance his motif of the “twilight zone.” Overall, this book is worth reading for those interested in alternate ways of interpreting some repeatedly discussed texts in the Hebrew Bible. Those looking for new historical insights or thorough treatments of these texts will not find them here, but those looking for new insights, perhaps during the twilight of the day, will find Perry's book entertaining and worthy of some consideration.

Timothy Senapatiratne, Bethel Seminary and University