Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 14 (2014) - Review
In this ambitious volume Stuart Lasine examines a number of issues swirling around characters and ethics in the Hebrew Bible. Lasine sets out to integrate several methodologies in his approach to the evaluation of characters: social-psychological theories, literary theories, as well as theories related to moral philosophy. Taking up just one of these methodologies in relation to ethics and character in the Hebrew Bible would be a significant project, so the integration of all of these is monumental indeed. Yet Lasine has been actively working and writing in the area of character and ethics for many years, and is in many ways well-suited to the task.
Overall, Lasine demonstrates broad knowledge of the relevant fields as they pertain to character and ethics, and asks penetrating methodological questions about how they might be integrated. The book divides into five parts. The three chapters in Part I ask methodological questions; Part II turns to texts, as chapters 4 and 5 examine the characters of some narrative prophets in 1 Kings; Part III (chs. 6 and 7) looks at Jeroboam, Jehoram, and Ahab, the latter in comparison to Herodotus's Periander and Homer's Agamemnon; Part IV (chs. 8 and 9) takes up the self-evaluations of Job and David, and then an examination of David and of ourselves as readers. This last chapter on David and us, the readers, is the heart of the book.
In chapter 2 Lasine asks to what extent the ancients were like us moderns. In other words, how fair is it to use modern standards to judge character when reading biblical characters? Lasine examines ancient and modern conceptions of selfhood, consciousness, and mental space. The secondary literature is reviewed here, as well as many significant biblical texts, including Gen 4, Ps 55, and Job's speeches, to see how they represent the self, including inner conflict and deliberation. In the end, the answer seems to be a qualified yes; it is fair to see the biblical characters as close enough to ourselves to employ some modern standards in taking up ethical questions.
Chapter 3 addresses the methodological questions that arise when looking at texts that appear heavily redacted. How does one talk about the coherence of character in such cases? Lasine examines the prologue to the book of Job, and then narratives involving Moses, Elijah, David, and Zedekiah. Lasine's point here is that overall narrative coherence often includes inconsistencies of character, and redaction critics also have their assumptions of coherence which need to be examined. The point has been made before, but Lasine makes a good case for his larger argument.
Two obscure prophets are the subject of chapter 4, the man of God from Judah in 1 Kgs 13, and the prophet who asks another prophet to hit him in 1 Kgs 20. Having looked at prophets apparently devoid of character, Lasine turns to the powerful figure of Elijah in chapter 5. For Lasine, Elijah shows clear signs of narcissistic personality disorder: he shows excessive self-concern and [a] desire to be unique and superior (p. 119). Lasine is evidently dismayed by the extent to which readers are biased in their view of Elijah by the opinions of other characters, including Israel's deity, and by the bracketing of other narratives about unreliable and untruthful prophets of Yahweh (p. 122) around Elijah's stories that may influence readers into taking a positive view of the prophet. In addition to this difference of opinion, it is also possible to account for some of the same features that Lasine sees as symptoms of narcissism as difficulties of the prophetic lifethere is a certain torment in being a prophet of YHWH. It seems akin to saying that Jeremiah was clinically depressed; maybe, but it rather misses the point. There is no room at all, in Lasine's account, for the prophet's religious vocation, so important according to the narrative; in a sense, it is all just psychologized away.
In Part III, Lasine turns to kings, looking at Jeroboam and Jehoram in chapter 6; then Ahab and Periander by comparison, and Ahab and Agamemnon, in chapter 7. Part IV pushes toward the heart of the book: an examination of King David, and an examination of ourselves, biblical scholars, as readers of the biblical narratives. Who are we as readers? What does the way we read biblical characters and their ethics say about the kind of readers we are? Here Lasine lifts a mirror to us, biblical scholars, that is illuminating in some ways. Through a detailed exploration of David Copperfield and Kafka's Josef K., Lasine explores the character of King Davidas leader, as adulterer, as murderer. He finds King David severely wantinghe, like Elijah, is a narcissist!he is not all-too-human (p. 252) as he has often been depicted by biblical scholars, but is to be roundly condemned for his crimes. Yet Lasine's ultimate goal is not to condemn David as much as to hold up the character of biblical scholars as readers to fierce scrutiny: why do we let David off the hook?
Lasine pushes readers to think carefully about the assumptions behind our ethical judgments; the book is useful and engaging for this reason. Do we let David off lightly just because he is in the Bible and was a man after God's own heart? Furthermore, Lasine integrates material from many disciplines into his work, and the wide range of his research yields numerous insights. Yet, the style of writing does not lend itself to absorption in the argument. Lasine often drops brief quotations into too many sentences, and strings them together. The result in some chapters is a choppy, almost hyperactive style that leaves the uneasy impression that depth has sometimes been sacrificed for breadth, or in some cases, that that which is abundantly clear in the author's mind has been too quickly committed to the page. It would have served the reader better, perhaps, to paraphrase the views of many of these theorists, thus improving the flow of the prose. But the main difficulty for his analysis, to which allusion was already made in the discussion of the chapter on Elijah, arises in the way Lasine dismisses the religious sensibility and passions animating the authors, and by extension, the characters, of the biblical narratives. There is a power and complexity in these characters that does not come across in this bookthe stirring music of the biblical narrative comes across as so many notes on the page.