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

van Wolde, Ellen, Reframing Biblical Studies: When Language and Text Meet Culture, Cognition, and Context (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2009). Pp. xiv + 402. Hardcover, US$ 44.50. ISBN 978-1-57506-182-5.

Ellen van Wolde has been contributing to Biblical Hebrew linguistics for over twenty years, beginning at least as far back as her Semiotic Analysis of Genesis 2–3 (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1989). Among many notable works are her edited volume on Narrative Syntax and the Hebrew Bible (Boston; Leiden: Brill Academic, 2002) and especially her numerous books and articles using cognitive linguistics. This later work in cognitive linguistics comes to a climax in her recent monograph Reframing Biblical Studies.

The book consists of ten chapters, followed by a bibliography and indices of modern authors and Scripture citations. A helpful addition would have been a glossary of Cognitive Grammar terminology, though most of the technical vocabulary is defined along the way.

In the first chapter van Wolde discusses the fragmented nature of biblical studies, “governed by experts who are confined within their own distinct discipline's methodology and way of thinking” (p. 1). She argues that the time has come for a new, integrated approach: “research that is aimed at the entities in their intrinsic relations” (p. 2). She surveys the various approaches to the Hebrew Bible employed in the 20th Century, expressing varying levels of dissatisfaction with each. The answer she proposes is a new method that takes advantage of theories of cognition to integrate the insights of other investigations with the thinking processes of ancient peoples.

Chapters two through five are extremely technical as van Wolde begins to elucidate the cognitive model. The essence of the cognitive model lies in the ability of an analyst to uncover the patterns and categories operating in a speaker's (or author's) use of language. Her approach is built on the work of Ronald Langacker, a linguist whose specialty is called Cognitive Grammar. This approach utilizes the notions of symbolization, where “[a] linguistic unit is…a symbolic structure in which two components, a semantic structure and a phonological structure, are related to each other, and this structure has become established through the frequency of successful use,” and coding, in which “someone takes the correspondence between the conventional type and the specific instance as a point of departure” (p. 35). Langacker's own work has largely been limited to the level of the sentence; van Wolde believes, however, that it lends itself to application to larger chunks of text and can be very fruitful for illuminating “cultural differences between the mental processes of the modern Western world and of ancient Mesopotamia, and of linguistic/conceptual differences between modern English and Biblical Hebrew” (p. 43).

New terminology appears on nearly every page, together with abstract charts to help the reader comprehend the concepts. Certain forms of notation familiar to linguists (but not necessarily to Hebraists) are also introduced, e.g. the use of small caps to denote semantic structures and lower case for phonological structures. Most of them are explained in footnotes. One notable exception is the author's employment of the International Phonetic Alphabet to represent the phonological component of the English symbolic unit “tree” (p. 35).

Chapter two, “Mental Processing or Cognition,” can be summed up by the five mental processes which provide the base for human cognition: 1) a “culture-based process of schematization and categorization” where particular cultures have built their own schemata or categories in the light of which particular items are understood; 2) a process of “symbolization” where a language will define “symbolic relations between phonological sounds and semantic concepts that function as schemata”; 3) a process of “coding” (that is, an instance of a schema employed in a language event or text); 4) a process of “grounding” which “locates an entity with respect to the part of the communicative context that is construed as its ground”; and 5) “integration,” that is, the combination of meaningful units into a discourse (pp. 42–43). Three examples are appended to demonstrate different conceptualizations in the ANE vs. the Western world.

Chapter three, “Words as Tips of Encyclopedic Icebergs,” presents a lengthy discussion of how words mean. The author takes an encyclopedic rather than a dictionary approach. That is, words bring to the table a vast amount of networked information that is related to an entire system of knowledge. A word invokes an iceberg of knowledge, only part of which will be visible above the water of the text. The meaning is not dependent on the selection of one of two or five or fifteen definitions, but is “dependent on construal” (p. 54).

Chapters four, five, and six each discuss various aspects of “Grammar as Cognition”: nominal profiles, atemporal relations, and temporal relations. Specific topics include the grounding of nominals, the differences between stative and dynamic verbs, and simple vs. complex atemporal relations (such as prepositions describing static positions and prepositions implying motion). Chapter seven sums up and provides both an expanded and an abbreviated outline of the steps a scholar should take in applying a cognitive method of analysis. The outlines are provided on pp. 204–05, and involve three primary considerations: cultural categories, the use of words, and the analysis of texts. (More on the analytical model below.)

The next two chapters (chapters eight and nine) contain applications of the model to a specific problem: the word טמא in general in chapter eight and in chapter nine a case study of the use of טמא in Genesis 34. Chapter ten sums up the discussion and calls on others to join van Wolde in reframing biblical studies in terms of her cognitive model.

The numerous examples appended to the technical chapters, as well as chapters eight and nine, are at once the work's greatest strength and its most telling weakness. These examples are both more interesting and more controversial than the chapters' content, and most appear to represent refinements of previous work. It is here that the cognitive model, with all of its burdensome jargon, shines best. It is also here where selective engagement with the evidence casts serious doubt on the conclusions drawn. Such things are, of course, no fault of the model. Let us consider a few of these examples.

In a discussion of the Hebrew concept of love (אהב) in chapter two the author concludes “Whenever the man-woman relationship is expressed by the verb ʾāhēb, the perspective of this verb's action is male, its direction is oriented toward the female as an object of his love, and the sequence of actions indicates that love usually does not precede sexual intercourse but follows it” (p. 47). Her conclusions are immediately suspect, however, when one sees that not only are they contradicted in 1 Sam 18:20, 28 (which she attempts to deal with) but also in the Song of Songs (which she expressly avoids).

In a later example in chapter 3 van Wolde presents an extended investigation of anger in English, Japanese, and Biblical Hebrew, concluding that “in contrast to both American English and Japanese scenarios, the emotion of anger in the Hebrew Bible is positively evaluated” (p. 72). This conclusion is only possible through an extremely limited engagement with the concept of anger in Proverbs. Left out of consideration are Prov 14:29; 15:18; 16:32; 19:11; 22:24; 27:4; and 29:22, all of which evaluate anger or a propensity to action based on anger negatively.

Chapter three also includes an integration of archaeological data with an extensive “Cognitive linguistic analysis of the word שׁער šaʾar” (pp. 72–103). The archaeological data show that there is a significant change in the size (and hence probably the function) of the city gate after the time of the respective exiles of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. The word study corroborates the archaeological evidence by demonstrating the lack of association of administrative and judicial functions with the city gate in later Biblical Hebrew, and even the near lack of its application to city gates other than those of Jerusalem in the Latter Prophets and the Writings. Even with the author's qualification of First Isaiah, Amos, Ruth, Job, and a synoptic passage in 2 Chron 18:9, however, she glosses over the import of the gate in Prov 31:23.

These examples, though fraught with difficulties, are indeed the strength of the work. As for the method, one immediately wonders whether beginning with an “integrative” cognitive linguistics approach is in the end so very different from beginning with one's own methodology and integrating results with other fields of research. Do we not have, in response to the ostensibly fragmented and over-specialized state of the art, one more specialist calling for everyone to follow a particular model? The author certainly is able to integrate textual data with archaeological data, but does not seem especially dependent on cognitive linguistics to do so (cf. the extended discussion of city gates mentioned above). Furthermore, if one strips the idiosyncratic terminology from the charts of pages 204–05, the steps for this new method do not appear unique in comparison to, for instance, the analytical table of contents to Douglas Stuart's Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors (now in a fourth edition; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), xv–xxi. The unique emphasis of the model is that words have meaning in context, a context that includes historical setting, cultural categories, construal in discourse, etc. This is a helpful emphasis to be sure, but hardly a new insight.

The most significant weakness of the model, however, lies in its eccentric jargon and convoluted explication of context. One last example will suffice. On pp. 122–23 van Wolde uses two involved paragraphs to show how the “profile determinant” for האבן in Gen. 28:18, 22 enables us to “create a mental configuration.” Without the definite article “[i]ts schematic, ungrounded meaning designates a [STONE] thing-type. In order to construe a proper mental image of this type, the reader must know what it profiles and in which cognitive domain it could possibly stand.” The definite article “gives the stone its grounding properties.” In other words, the referent of the noun phrase “the stone” is the stone Jacob picked up in v 11, something that most people would communicate in a single sentence.

The work provides a summary collection of positions taken by van Wolde in previous articles and conference papers, and contains helpful explanations of the terms and approach of Langacker's Cognitive Grammar. The work also is a good demonstration of the reasons biblical studies is not likely to be reframed according to the proposed analytical method.

Anthony R. Pyles, McMaster Divinity College