Reviews of

John Barton, “Law and Narrative in the Pentateuch”

In Edinburgh, HB/OT, John BARTON, Kerry Lee, Pentateuch, SEMINAR REPORTS on October 15, 2011 at 11:20 pm

A report on a paper given by Professor John Barton (Oriel College, Oxford University) at the Biblical Studies Seminar at New College, the University of Edinburgh, 14 October 2011.

The list of forthcoming papers in the Biblical Studies Seminars at Edinburgh can be downloaded from here. You can find RBECS on facebook, here.

Professor Barton’s paper was an exploration of the problem of the relationship between the legal and narrative texts of the Pentateuch. The paper consisted of six points/sections: (1) an introduction of the problem, (2) a review of the Jewish interpretive tradition which has foregrounded the legal texts, (3) a review of the Christian tradition which, in contrast, foregrounded the narrative texts but in a prophetic light, (4) an exploration of two broad purposes for narrative with a national scope (such as, but not limited to, royals annals), one positive and one negative, which would provide a rubric by which to foreground the narrative texts, (5) a third suggestion for the purpose of narratives which integrates the legal texts for the modern reader, and finally (6) a look ahead to some work which is breaking down the generic barriers between narrative and law, perhaps providing yet another solution to the problem.

One of the most significant characteristics of the Pentateuch is that it combines texts of several different genres together into some kind of whole. Of these genres, the two most prominent are narrative and law. But how should the two be related? The question, more specifically, is whether the Pentateuch is best understood as a series of legal texts interrupted by narrative units, or a large narrative text interrupted by legal texts. Here, Professor Barton introduced the term foregrounding to distinguish the genre which holds the primary place in a given view. If the legal texts are foregrounded (in other words, the Pentateuch is essentially a legal text which is broken up by narrative units), the stories function as laws themselves, in a way, providing examples of behaviour to be emulated or avoided.

Such is the historical Jewish approach, which Barton dealt with under the rubric of “Torah.” Using examples from Rabbinic literature, Josephus and Philo, the book of Jubilees and Ezra, Barton showed a consistency in the Jewish hermeneutical approach which foregrounds law rather than narrative. Stories are used for the purpose of halakhah. There are problems, however, as many rabbis have pointed out, perhaps most basically, if the whole of the Torah is fundamentally law, why does Genesis begin with story rather than the first commandment?

Ancient Christian interpretation has gone a different way, foregrounding narrative, but in a prophetic light. The laws, then, function to illuminate the surrounding narrative and explain the relationship between Yahweh and Israel – more of a haggadic approach (conveniently recalling the rabbinic dichotomy to contrast this hermeneutic with the Jewish one). This resulted (or at least coincided) with a mitigation of the present relevance of the legal texts as legal texts. Professor Barton suggested that this hermeneutical difference could offer insight into the Judaising controversy of the early Church. Another side effect of this hermeneutic would be a tendency to remove the barrier between Pentateuch and historical books, as can be seen perhaps in the canonical order of the Septuagint.

In order to move toward a solution that foregrounds the narrative texts but attempts to understand what this would mean for the creators of the Pentateuch, Barton asks a different question: what is the purpose of narrative? More specifically, what is the purpose of narrative with national historical scope in the ancient near east? Here, Barton sees two trajectories: a positive one, celebrating the history of the nation that has led up of its present glories, and a negative one, mourning the history of the nation that has led to its present disaster. Of the two, Barton finds the latter to be most compelling, though it depends on where one draws the boundaries. A Hexateuch which includes Joshua would end positively, while Barton asserts that a Pentateuch ends more negatively, with the Israelites not yet in the land. Stretching the boundaries to the end of Kings (to include the extent of the Deuteronomistic History), the negative trajectory becomes clearer, as does the role of law within this larger narrative: it explains in what way Israel failed. Thus law finds its purpose as theodicy.

Following this, Barton explored the use of narrative more generally, and his purpose shifted from a historical explanation of the construction of the Pentateuch to the question of how can modern readers read the Pentateuch as a whole, foregrounding the narratives while paying attention to the legal texts. Here Barton uses some existentialist language in saying that generally stories help us to live authentically by giving us situations and examples to ponder. The laws, in this case, show the moral/practical options available to the characters in the related narratives. Finally, Barton briefly mentioned some work, notably a monograph by Asnat Bartor of Tel Aviv University, which may be breaking down the generic boundary between law and narrative and offer a new way forward.

The discussion which followed ranged from questions about other genres in the Pentateuch to the impact of his study on New Testament interpretation. The paper was overall very well received.

In retrospect, a few questions remain concerning Barton’s fourth and fifth points. As regards the compositional intent of the Pentateuch, law as theodicy fits very well into a theory of the Deuteronomistic History, and is in fact the primary purpose understood in DtrH theories for the book of Deuteronomy. However, it is difficult to see that this is equally appropriate for the rest of the Pentateuch, or for the Pentateuch as a unit itself. Barton depends upon a very pessimistic narrator’s attitude in the Pentateuch, one which emphasises all the promises which have not been fulfilled. One wonders, however, how defensible the Pentateuch is as a set of literary boundaries. From a compositional perspective (as opposed to a reception-history perspective), a Tetrateuch or Hexateuch seems far more likely. In the former case, there is no grand national failure at the end, but in the middle (the failure to believe Caleb and Joshua and take the Promised Land early on). In the latter case, Joshua would end the Hexateuch on a rather positive, if cautionary note.

Secondly, while Barton expands his view of the possible purposes of narrative texts in point five, which concerns modern readers, one wonders if his limitation of such purposes in point four skewed his results. When dealing with the historical purpose of integrating narrative and legal texts, Barton only dealt with grand national narratives of glory or disaster, but surely there are more than two possible reasons why an editor would put the Pentateuch together. Even with these two questions remaining, Barton’s paper was thought-provoking, enjoyable, and well-presented.

Kerry Lee
University of Edinburgh


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