Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Boer, Roland, Political Myth: On the Use and Abuse of Biblical Themes (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009). Pp. x+254. Softcover. US$22.95, ISBN 978-0-8223-4369-1.

In congruence with his previous publications, Boer constructs a methodological approach for the political Left to engage and critique the political Right while also forming something on its own (a project which, Boer contends, is necessary, but the Left has either been unwilling or unable to do in the past). Though each of the first six chapters more-or-less stand independently, the final seventh chapter serves as the place of coalescence and construction. Boer's essential claim is that the political Right has used the “metanarrative” of the first six books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis–Joshua) to create an approach to domestic and foreign policies promoting capitalism and resulting in exploitation. Out of this concern, he seeks to put such readings of the biblical text in dialogue with political theory and to identify what he sees as abuses of the biblical story in recent and contemporary speeches by the leaders of the Australian and American governments, particularly how these leaders connect the biblical tradition to what he calls “the contemporary Israeli political fantasy.”

Boer begins with political theory, as manifested in authors such as Alain Badiou, Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno, Sigmund Freud, and Slavoj Žižek. With my own educational background, which includes coursework in literary theory and a graduate course on Walter Benjamin, it was refreshing to read Boer's very brief but positive treatment of Benjamin, who is often overlooked in such discussions, but who provides a helpful way of moving the conversation forward (pp. 20–23). The second chapter moves to feminism and its relationship to “mode of production” analysis, focusing on brief episodes from the Hexateuch. The third chapter provides a close reading of three narratives: the Garden of Eden in Gen 2:2–3, the Deluge in Genesis 6–9, and the rebellion of Korah in Numbers 16. Reading these narratives from a political, and particularly utopian, view, Boer contends that the text exerts control over the marginalized (in this case, women) by not only depicting exclusion but presenting an original primal context which stands in an irrecoverable position compared to the current situation. Thus, the inaccessible past only reinforces the domination of the present. This theme is continued into chapter four on political structures, which Boer concludes with the claim that the system would collapse if the theocentric system it envisions were ever actually implemented. Thus, the political, social, and economic construct of the Hexateuch is a fantasy beyond realization.

Chapters five and six move from the biblical text to what Boer terms “the fantasy of Israel” in the political rhetoric of contemporary Australian and American politics. He examines the speeches of leaders in both contexts for how they refer to or use the image of Israel and the accompanying political connection between the God of Israel and the God of these two nations. Readers interested in this type of interpretative analysis will relish the discussion and insights. Two of the major speeches he cites as examples in the Australian chapter are provided in full in an appendix.

The seventh chapter begins with Boer's contention that, as with the Hexateuch, the Right promotes a political myth which it then consistently moves to subvert, and thereby never relinquishes control over meaning and over the system's status quo. Boer then proceeds to call the political Left to speculate on what a capitalist system would actually look like if it were allowed to exist unfettered and to critique such a system from the perspective of the Left.

Boer uses a mixture of theory and examples, with an articulate and direct style that invites readers into a conversation. If one is looking for a sustained argument from a single point of view, Boer's work will not provide such a perspective. However, Boer's eclectic, reasoned, and variegated approach brings new voices into the arena. Readers will benefit from the range of topics covered and the clarity of thought while those who are familiar with Boer's previous writings will not find many surprises.

Steven J. Schweitzer, Bethany Theological Seminary