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

Gorospe, Athena E., Narrative and Identity: An Ethical Reading of Exodus (BINS, 86; Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2007). Pp. xvi+380, Hardcover, US$170.00. ISBN 9789004158559.

In Narrative and Identity: An Ethical Reading of Exodus 4, Athena E. Gorospe applies insights from Paul Ricoeur's narrative theory to her reading of the most puzzling texts in the First Testament, Exod 4:24–26. The result is a fascinating interdisciplinary experiment.

Gorospe states her goal explicitly. She wants to find out how First Testament narratives, which are often ethically ambiguous, can be appropriated for ethical purposes. However, beyond the goal of solving the particular problem that the text of Exod 4:24–26 poses, she also explores the ethical possibilities the text opens for migrant Filipinos and their families (p. 6). As it turns out, the experience of migrant Filipinos not only serves as the reason for the study, but it also informs the reading that Gorospe offers of the text under consideration.

In the first chapter, which is the introductory chapter, Gorospe starts out with a brief consideration of the ethically puzzling nature of Exod 4:24–26. This brief consideration is followed by an overview of various ways in which the ethical significance of the First Testament has been construed. After showing the strengths and weaknesses of each of these approaches, she chooses Ricoeur as her conversation partner (p. 6).

The second chapter, which reads like a more extended introduction, gives an overview of Ricoeur's narrative theory. Here she deals with the main tenets of his theory: symbolic, metaphoric, and narrative innovation; narrative emplotment, with its three mimetic moments (prefiguration, configuration, and refiguration); personal identity, narrative identity, ethical identity; and the relation between narrative and memory, on the one hand, and history and fiction, on the other. Given her interest in narrative, Gorospe spends most her time in this chapter dealing with the three mimetic moments in Ricoeur's narrative theory, with some forays into Ricoeur's more recent work on memory, which she brilliantly integrates into Ricoeur's narrative theory. Her penetrating reading of Ricoeur pays off. The chapter is one of the best summary presentations of Ricoeur's narrative theory by a Christian theologian.

If one considers the author's thesis statement, chapters three to five constitute the body of her book. Here she reads her text, Exod 4: 24–26, following Ricoeur's three mimetic moments: prefiguration, configuration, and refiguration. Hence, chapter three, which is entitled “Prefiguration: Setting the Stage,” sets up what Gorospe considers to be the “rudiments needed for a conversation between the biblical text and Ricoeur's narrative theory” (p. 93). To do so, she uses a multi-layered approach to analyze the larger narrative in which Exod 4:18–26 is situated. Keeping this larger unit in mind, she asks herself which actions are prefigured in Exod 4:18–26. She asks this question, first from her own perspective as “real, contemporary reader of the text,” and second “from the perspective of the First Testament world” (p. 93). In a section entitled, “The Prefiguration of Action,” Gorospe demonstrates her wide reach by grappling with Ricoeur's theory of action, as developed in his Time and Narrative. Here she deals with the three features of action (structural network, symbolic mediation, and temporality) before dealing with the relevance of the notion of prefiguration in relation to the narrative under consideration (p. 104). In dealing with the actual prefiguration in the narrative of Exod 4:18–26 and in her own life, she identifies four significant actions (events): farewell and leave-taking, migration, attack on a traveler, and circumcision. To these she adds some speech-acts as prefigured actions. In this overwhelming theoretical treatment, she manages to keep her focus on just those elements that will become important in her reading of the text.

The title of the fourth chapter deals with the moment of configuration, the second moment in Ricoeur's mimetic arc. However, the title that Gorospe chose for this chapter, “Configuration: Mediating the Narrative World,” is somewhat misleading in that, as she puts it herself, what the moment of configuration mediates is not the narrative world, as the title has us believe, but lived time with cosmic time. Through emplotment, narrative mediates between “individual incidents and the whole story,” “discordant and diverse particulars and the concordant whole,” and “time as a chronological sequence of events and time as a configured reality” (p. 151). So, in keeping with the narrative theory of Ricoeur, Gorospe does well in exploring different mediation within the narrative of Exod 4:18–26. More specifically, she first looks “into how different incidents in Exod 4:18–26, particularly the episode in 4:24–26, fit into the broader narrative unit of Exod 2:23–4:31” (p. 151). Then she identifies “the discordant elements of the narrative, including its temporal discontinuities” in order to show “how the configuration of the narrative achieves a synthesis of these heterogeneous factors, without completely overcoming the discordance” (p. 151). On the basis of this “concordance-discordance,” which is inspired by Ricoeur's theory of narrative, she examines how the narrative opens up “different possibilities for Moses, the main character in the story, and for the self in response to the narrative world” (p. 151).

What is impressive in chapter two and, to a degree, chapter three is, on the one hand, the breadth of Gorospe's scholastic reach and, on the other, the scholarly care and patience that she displays in handling her sources. Chapter four shows her ability to put to creative use the insights she has gleaned from her sources. It reads with particular freshness, in part because she already sounds all the postcolonial notes that will form the structure for the appropriation of the narrative she has chosen to study. Hence, she deals elegantly with such notions as “in-between places,” “rites of passage,” “liminal experience,” “discordance-concordance,” “location-dislocation,” and “continuity-discontinuity.”

The fifth chapter, which is entitled “Refiguration: Transforming the Reader” is an illustration of the seriousness of Gorospe's work. It corresponds to the third mimetic moment in Ricoeur's narrative theory. However, instead of the immediate appropriation that one would expect, Gorospe takes a detour. This brilliant move is itself typical of Ricoeur, the dialogue partner she has chosen. The detour takes her into the consideration of ways in which the narrative she studies has been appropriated throughout history. Here she looks into the ways in which the narrative is translated in the LXX, and the ways in which it is treated in the Targums and early rabbinic literature, before turning to the Church fathers. Among the latter, she looks into Origen in the third century, and Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and Ephrem the Syrian in the fourth century. Gorospe's interest in the interpretive history of the narrative she studies is not merely historical but also heuristic. In fact, her historical investigation serves as a heuristic strategy that opens new interpretive possibilities for her narrative.

The interpretive possibilities that Gorospe's configuration of the narrative in chapter four opens up, and the new interpretive possibilities that her own historical investigation uncovers, allow her to appropriate (refigure) the text in a creative manner. This appropriation occurs in the last two sections of chapter five. Taking a cue from her own life as a migrant student, and from the lives of other Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), she demonstrates how the experience of Filipino migrants and that of Moses and his family can be mutually enriching.

As a story of migration, the story of Moses becomes particularly significant for Filipino migrants in that “it opens up new possibilities by which they can construe their experiences, shape their identities, and orient their future actions” (p. 297). She, for instance, points out that unlike most Filipino migrants, Moses' passage “from marginality to liminality” is initiated by the call of God. Likewise, “Moses started out with a confused identity and conflicted self.” As a result, “he needed a renewed identity to fit his calling.” Yet, “the new identity could not come about without the effacement of the (old) self” (p. 302). As if the effacement of identity was not sufficient, the “return of Moses, the migrant, was abruptly interrupted by a death encounter that threatened not only him but also the well-being and continuity of his family” (p. 303). The significance of this death experience for Gorospe is the fact that the “return required him to enter a timeless, ambiguous, and vulnerable zone where past and present certainties no longer applied” (p. 304). Finally, Gorospe points out that the story of Moses the migrant also shows that migration is not just an issue for Moses, but an issue for his whole family, as can be seen in the critical role that Zipporah plays in the narrative. Gorospe appropriates these particularities in a way that opens up new possibilities for migrant Filipinos.

The book, which is an excellent appropriation of Ricoeur's narrative theory in biblical and Christian theological studies, is a good illustration of the promises of an interdisciplinary approach to Christian theology. The ease with which she moves from patient and careful exegesis to Christian theological constructions, from literary theory to philosophical argumentation, and from philosophical argumentation back to exegetical analyses, positions Gorospe as an important voice from the majority world. Her forays into postcolonial critique are particularly insightful.

Gorospe has managed to produce a book that is at once challenging and delightful. However, I would have to say that the weakness of her work is that she overplays her strength. It appears to this reader that in her desire to set a theoretical foundation for her work, she overextends herself. If reading her interpretation of Ricoeur is particularly delightful and, at times, insightful, one is a bit disappointed by her appropriation of the wealth she has unearthed, as she only seems to be interested in some aspects of Ricoeur's narrative theory. The unevenness between her interpretation of Ricoeur and her appropriation of his insights appears early in the book. Going from chapter two to chapter three, one gets the impression of reading two related but different works. Here she is certainly paying the price for an unresolved tension between her desire to follow Ricoeur in the meanders of his complex argument and the pragmatic need to present selectively useful and, indeed, usable insights from this sophisticated French philosopher. With the amount of interest she shows in exegetical issues, one wonders, for instance, why she did not consider Ricoeur's interpretation theory (with its three hermeneutical moments of preunderstanding-explanation-understanding), which predates the three mimetic moments of his narrative theory. Her superficial treatment of Ricoeur's theories of symbolism and metaphor in chapter one raises a similar question, given the place of symbolism in the text she has studied so thoroughly. Yet, despite these shortcomings, the book remains a significant contribution to both Christian theology and biblical studies.

Mabiala Justin-Robert Kenzo, Ambrose Seminary, Calgary