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

Andersson, Greger, Untamable Texts: Literary Studies and Narrative Theory in the Books of Samuel (LHBOTS, 514; New York: T&T Clark, 2009). Pp. xii+279. Hardcover. US$130.00. ISBN 978-0-5675-2051-7.

In Untamable Texts: Literary Studies and Narrative Theory in the Books of Samuel, Andersson offers readers critical reflection on what has been termed “literary analysis” and particularly “narratology” in the study of the Hebrew Bible. He selects the book of Samuel for his illustrative material for two reasons: (1) it naturally lends itself to narrative readings, and (2) it has been the focus of multiple scholarly assessments which use various types of literary methods (pp. 3–5). Andersson attempts to demonstrate that the multiple and often conflicting ways in which a single text is read “from a literary perspective” reveal that the interpreters are “simply disturbed by the moral [sic] and ideology of these texts and hence try to tame them” (p. 265). To reach this conclusion, Andersson presents several case studies from Samuel and contemporary scholars who have proffered literary readings.

Andersson begins with brief introductory comments on the state of literary approaches within Hebrew Bible studies (pp. 8–22) and then illustrates his concerns with three selections: Robert Polzin's reading of 1 Samuel 1, Walter Brueggemann's ironic reading of 2 Samuel 21, and J. P. Fokkelman's approach to 2 Kings 4 (pp. 22–58). It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that Andersson used the text from 2 Kings 4 in his analysis of Samuel as his starting point, and without much clarification of why this odd text was selected when others in Samuel would fit the same criteria (p. 22), since all of his other examples come from Samuel with one brief side comparison to Adele Berlin's reading of Genesis 37 (pp. 166–69) and one to Fokkelman's reading of the Gideon narrative in Judges 6–8 (pp. 170–72). Nonetheless, Andersson proceeds to contrast these three examples with the theory of narratology put forward by various theorists who are not (also) biblical scholars (pp. 58–71). These pages were particularly helpful in clarifying the critique that Andersson is trying to offer, but it might have been more valuable to present these insights prior to the examples drawn from Polzin, Brueggemann, and Fokkelman—I found myself needing to re-read those pages after this new information was provided.

The second chapter is perhaps the most disjointed section of this book. The structure and argument is not altogether clear. Andersson offers some reflections on the unity and origin of the book of Samuel, particularly focusing on the “Succession Narrative.” He comments on issues of interpretation in 2 Samuel 5 and 2 Samuel 11, and similarities and differences between 2 Samuel 1 and 12. He concludes with helpful criticisms of the function of historicity and fiction in the interpretation of narrative texts (pp. 118–28).

Chapter three addresses the issue of “gap-filling” and the apparent need by literary scholars to create new readings of difficult texts. Andersson uses examples from Shimon Bar-Efrat on the Absalom stories in 2 Samuel 13–18, Yairah Amit on David and Nabal in 1 Samuel 25 and Saul in 1 Samuel 13, and Fokkelman on 1 Samuel 8–10. With these setting the stage, Andersson turns to an extended analysis of the Amalekite messenger in 2 Samuel 1 (pp. 179–96). These pages are worth careful consideration. Andersson raises several appropriate questions about how this complicated narrative should be read and understood—although many will not agree with his conclusions.

Andersson then shifts in chapter four to a lengthy discussion of authorship and storytelling followed by an examination of “perspective” or “point-of-view,” with limited references or examples from the biblical text (pp. 199–239). Scholars interested in the current discussions about “implied authors” and the “rhetorical function of the narrator” will benefit from this analysis. Andersson then offers two examples of how this relates to reading Samuel: the narrative concerning Eli in 1 Samuel 4 and the episode involving Tamar, Amnon, and Absalom in 2 Samuel 13 (with references to 2 Samuel 18). It should be noted that the structure of Andersson's presentation is, again, not easy to follow in this section.

Chapter five serves as the summary and conclusion to the book. Andersson helpfully rehearses where the reader has journeyed and what should have been gleaned (from an analysis that is not linear in his progression). A good reading strategy for approaching Andersson's book is to read chapter five first, as a map to guide one through the material in the first four chapters.

While I appreciated Andersson's careful presentation of the work of others who have read narratives in Samuel from various literary perspectives, I am not convinced that he presented it in the most accessible way. The analysis is often abrupt; the length or depth of each example is inconsistent and without reasons for such a disparate presentation. I certainly do agree with Andersson that all which claims to be literary analysis is not literary analysis (or, at least, is not a methodologically-consistent approach). However, his argument fails to convince in its details, in my opinion.

Scholars who are pursuing literary approaches to biblical narratives and those working on Samuel in particular will be served well by considering Andersson's critiques on the methodologies being employed. However, his work does little to suggest a constructive methodology that should be used instead.

Steven J. Schweitzer, Academic Dean and Associate Professor, Bethany Theological Seminary, Richmond, Indiana