Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review
Can the diversity of the entire OT be integrated into a comprehensive whole so that each book receives an appropriate place within an OT theology? Julius Steinberg's ambitious work on the structure and message of the Ketuvim provides an answer to this question for the third portion of the canon. The project creatively re-imagines the structure of OT theology by examining the Ketuvim from a canonical-structural approach, which brings together the diversity of the Ketuvim into an organic whole. In this respect the book challenges long held and firmly embedded assumptions about the miscellaneous nature of the collection. Yet while being provocative and fresh, the work is carefully grounded in scholarship, a rigorous methodology, and comes to well-reasoned conclusions. Hendrik Koorevaar, who supervised the thesis, largely inspires the approach, but this does not prevent Steinberg from coming to different conclusions at some points in the work. The meticulous structure of the book makes it easy to navigate all 544 pages and breaks the impressive breadth of the project into manageable pieces. The book is divided into four main sections: the first section is a review of OT theology followed by a careful methodological section where Steinberg defines his own canonical-structural approach (pages 19106); the second section justifies the importance and use of the book order of the Ketuvim found in Baba Bathra 14b in relation to other orders for the third section of the canon and then examines some historical issues surrounding the closure of the canon (10796); the third section adumbrates the structure and summarizes the message of each book in the Ketuvim according to the order of the books found in Baba Bathra 14b, which organically flows into the structure and message of the Ketuvim as a whole (197462); the fourth section relates his findings for the Ketuvim to the rest of the OT and its implications for a Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (46388). This review will follow the book's four-part structure by describing the foundational arguments of each section followed at the end by an evaluation.
Section one includes a review of OT theology and Steinberg's definition of a canonical-structural approach. It is essential to note that the project begins and takes shape directly as an answer to the question of how to do a theology of the OT that can overcome the mistakes of previous efforts. The overview of past research brings out the usual suspects and examines the systematic, historical, and literary approaches they employ in forming an OT theology. The standard issues are discussed: the problem of imposing a theological grid that is foreign to the material, the difficulty of finding a meaningful center, large disagreements among those who chose a multi-theme approach, the failure to factor in the wisdom literature, the different foci of diachronic and synchronic approaches, the inability to reconcile historical reconstructions of Israel's history with the presentation of it in the biblical text, the inadequacy of treating the OT merely as literature, and so forth. One particular problem is the move from the message of each book to the interrelationship between books (58). This is a key concern for Steinberg and one with which he begins his review of canonical approaches to OT theology.
For Steinberg, James Sanders and Brevard Childs are the main proponents of a canonical approach, but the greatest influence comes from literary readings. There is some danger that Steinberg confuses Childs' focus on the final form of the text with exclusively synchronic readings, which Steinberg considers to be very similar to modern literary methods practiced by scholars like Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg. Even though this is John Barton's reading of Childs' approach, Childs has forcefully contested it. Steinberg, however, does mention Childs' concern for the editorial processes that rendered the text authoritative for future generations (61). Moving within the trajectory of Childs' approach, Steinberg probes the issue of canonical intertextuality, or what Norbert Lohfink terms contoured intertextuality, which takes into account the hermeneutical significance of a book's place among other books and within larger collections like the Torah and Former Prophets (64). The flourishing work on the unity of the Twelve Minor prophets and the argument advocated by Georg Steins among others, that Chronicles was written to close and seal the canon, are two illustrations of this canonically-shaped intertextuality (6669). Although there are several canonical OT theologies (Rolf Rendorff's seems promising according to Steinberg), the question of how to move organically from a book-by-book presentation to the overall theological picture has not been satisfactory resolved. Steinberg brings his review of OT theology to a close by quoting James Barr's observation in The Concept of Biblical Theology (in Concept on page 54) that the most serious problems lie in the interrelations between books not in the content of each one (74). With the concept of contoured intertextuality that takes its starting point from the macro-structural composition of the canon, Steinberg hopes to offer his study as a test case for the unity of OT theology from the final literary presentation of the collection of the Ketuvim.
The remainder of the first section sets forth the principles of Steinberg's structural-canonical approach. Building off of developments in the canonical approach, Steinberg claims that there is hermeneutical significance to the placement of every book in the canon. The location of each book determines its place in the construction of a theology of the OT. This means that the structure of the canon is the hermeneutical key to an organic presentation of the OT message or theology. As Steinberg defines it, canonical means the overall message of the Hebrew Bible should unfold synchronically from the presentation of the final form of the individual books, as it corresponds to the hermeneutics of the postexilic, early Jewish religious community, as the real or intended audience (75, my translation throughout). This faith community sees the canon as a unified and closed collection of Scripture (78). One implication is that the text should not be interpreted from a Christian perspective at the outset, which is why Steinberg prefers the title Hebrew Bible, even though it is open to future generations of readers.
The second aspect of his approach is structural, by which he means careful attention to the structure of the text and how it combines different aspects into a conceptual whole in order to understand the overall message of a text (78). In the book Steinberg spells it strukturell instead of structural in order to differentiate his approach from structuralism (80). He is not interested in the philosophical system of structuralism, but rather literary structures within texts. This applies not only to individual books, but also to the structure of the canon as whole so that the structure of large blocks of books is significant for interpretation (82). Like the block of books from Genesis to Kings, the Twelve Minor prophets, and wisdom literature, there are links across books that form major literary and thematic connections. Steinberg contends that there is evidence that a significant hermeneutical macro-structure exists for the Ketuvim so that the individual books merge into a conceptual whole.
Steinberg realizes that his approach is open to criticism because, according to some, the history of interpretation shows that book order never played a role. Those who object also contend that there was no concern with the order of the books until the rise of the codex and that there are a great variety of orders for the Ketuvim. In response he attempts to counter each of these objections. First, a concern for the order could add a level of interpretation, and besides there is evidence that questions about order arose because the order did play a role in interpreting the texts (85). Second, the codex argument assumes that an overarching conceptual association cannot exist without some kind of physical unity. Based on evidence from Qumran and Mesopotamia, there were ways to link books even though they were not physically connected. In addition, Steinberg claims that there were lists of canonical books long before the Hebrew Bible could be placed in one codex. Third, Steinberg does not assume that only one order is correct, yet this does not lead to a relativistic attitude toward the importance of book order. Instead, one weighs the importance of an order by criteria such as age, claim to authority, diffusion rate, and internal textual connections with other books (87).
Based on these kinds of criteria (see pages 878) Steinberg chooses the arrangement of Baba Bathra 14b as a starting point, which orders the books: Ruth, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra/Nehemiah, and Chronicles. Section two examines this order in great detail. With this order in view Steinberg explains how he will approach the task. First, the structure and message of each book will be determined by itself. Second, the message of each book will be merged with those around it. Once a book group has been determined, the structure and message of these sub-collections within the whole will be identified. Third, the message of the collections is combined into an overall canonical message (89). The section concludes with an examination of methodological considerations for working with structures, in which he investigates various kinds of structures and how to move from structure to meaning.
Section two explores the importance of the order of the books in the Ketuvim according to Baba Bathra 14b compared to other possible orders and larger historical issues surrounding the canon and the collection of the Ketuvim. Steinberg argues that the structure of the Hebrew Bible as a whole makes sense based on the character of the books themselves (10816). For instance, Genesis to Kings forms a natural, linear story of Israel from inception to exile. The prophetic section, with the possible exception of Jonah also can be naturally grouped together. This leaves one with the books that make up the Ketuvim, where one can discern several kinds of groups, not least the wisdom literature. By contrast, the Greek arrangements, while they vary considerably, predominately arrange the material according historical, prophetic and poetics genres (112). External criteria, like grouping books according to genre and a concern to arrange the material chronologically, often explains the structure of the Greek tradition, while the same cannot be said for the Hebrew Bible. In particular, Chronicles appears to function in such a way as to close and seal the canon, which is supported by its place at the end of the Hebrew canon (11922). In addition, the order Ezra-Nehemiah followed by Chronicles cuts directly against a chronological grain (124). Almost as an afterthought Steinberg notes that even if Chronicles were the first book in the Ketuvim, as it is in some manuscripts, then its connection to Ezra-Nehemiah still cannot be explained chronologically (124). Ruth is another case in point since it presupposes some familiarity with king David in Samuel and thus it is unlikely that Ruth was originally part of the historical works that make up the Joshua-Kings complex (128). Due to these and other reasons, Steinberg gives a preference to the Hebrew structure of the canon over the Greek.
Steinberg then narrows his inquiry to the structure of the Ketuvim in the Jewish tradition and addresses the many different orders for the collection. He first eliminates those orders that group the Megilloth since the practice of grouping them, according to common wisdom on the subject (I disagree), only began sometime after the sixth century c.e. (132). The remaining orders for the Ketuvim, which date from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, are helpfully summarized on a chart (133) and then classified by their relationship or lack thereof to the order of Baba Bathra 14b. Of the many orders for the Ketuvim that differ from Baba Bathra 14b, most are very similar and can be explained as deriving from it. Moreover, the order of Baba Bathra 14b cannot be exclusively explained by the date of the book, the genre, the author, decreasing length, or liturgical use (13444). This leaves open the possibility that the content and arrangement of the books is due in part to a theological criterion (144, cf. 151).
From his analysis of the order of Baba Bathra 14b, Steinberg shifts to discuss when the third part of the canon was closed (158). In his discussion of the Prologue to Sirach, Steinberg insightfully observes that the lack of a terminus technicus for the third group of texts could be due to the fact that Ben Sira's grandson was translating the work from Hebrew to Greek. So even if the third section of the canon were technically called the Writings he would still be faced with how to translate the word into Greek. Steinberg notes that he faces the same problem today in German, which is why he uses a transliteration of the Hebrew, Ketuvim, in order to avoid confusion (160). Sirach testifies to a three-part canon, whose designations for each section correspond to later Jewish tradition. Even though the terminology is not exact and contents of the third section cannot be derived from Sirach, it is likely that the Ketuvim is a closed group of books at this time (162). During the NT period, there is use of bi- and tri-part formula to refer to the same group of texts. Also, because the Psalter is the most comprehensive book of the Ketuvim, it represents the third section of the canon in Luke 24 (175). By contrast, Josephus in Against Apion, divides the books in a manner that is useful for his own historical presentation (182).
The completion of the canon in the Persian and Maccabean periods are then considered. With a discussion of the ideological issues surrounding the late or early date for Daniel, Steinberg concludes that it is not possible to reach a definite judgment, but argues it fits the overall picture for the canon to be closed during the Persian period (191). The notion that the concept of canon is anachronistic in the pre-Christian period disappears if one recognizes that authority was not conferred on this text from the outside at the moment when the canon was closed, but rather derives from the text themselves as is evident by a canon-consciousness in the canonical process that gradually led to the closure of the Hebrew Bible (192).
Section three sets out the structure and message of the individual books and the Ketuvim as a whole according to the order of Baba Bathra 14b. Most of the third section, which examines the individual books, is given to the structural concerns, but due to space and the complexity of the analysis, the structure, though undergirding the message of each book, will only be referred to in passing.
In Ruth the kindness of God is made manifest in the world by the deeds of humans as can be seen by the structural juxtaposition of the two central verses 2:12 and 3:9. These deeds of kindness lead to redemption that expands to include God's redemptive work in David for the nation (222).
The book of Psalms is not a mere collection of disparate texts but a well-structured whole that moves from exile to the eschatological kingdom of God. God governs the world through justice and mercy. He rejects those who turn away from him, but those who seek refuge in him and walk in his ways find life, which should lead to prayer and praise of God (26568).
The book of Job deals with the question of righteous suffering. In suffering one should not draw hasty spiritual explanations, but rather one should respect the greatness and inscrutable wisdom of God. Like Job, one can offer complaints to God while also knowing that suffering has a meaning and purpose in the plan of God even if it remains unfathomable. In the end God is just (29091).
In Proverbs chapters 19 lay down the theological foundation of the fear of God and that the divine order is founded on wisdom. One's path on the way of wisdom or folly determines if one succeeds. The following chapters provide many practical examples of wisdom to live by. The final acrostic in Proverbs 31:1031 brings the book to a conclusion through a comprehensive review of the main themes of the book (318).
In Ecclesiastes there is no lasting profit under the sun, in deeds or wisdom or in enjoyment, nor can one find out the work of God, nevertheless one should enjoy life, fear God and keep his commandments (33940).
Song of Songs is a celebration of love, in respect to its power and right timing (36773).
Lamentations is carefully structured and presents chapter three as the hermeneutic key to understand the whole book. The grief at the fall of Jerusalem is connected to the general situation of suffering in chapter three. This provides the key for one to apply the greatest possible rejection at the fall of Jerusalem to one's own painful situation. Therefore, one should know that the steadfast love of God never comes to an end. In times of sorrow one can put his hope in God, who does not like to punish, but will not overlook sin (382).
Daniel is fundamentally about the rule of God over all the kingdoms of the world and his faithfulness to believers who are committed to him during times of heathen rule. God controls the course of world history and in the end will set up his eternal kingdom (39698).
The lot turns for the Jews around the chiastic center in chapter six of Esther (403). In the Diaspora, where despotic and foolish rulers appear to be in control, Jews can trust in divine providence combined with human wisdom and initiative to reverse and strengthen the plight of the Jews. The annual feast of Purim keeps this experience alive in the memory of the Jews (417).
In Ezra-Nehemiah, against opposition from within and without, the people, the temple and the city are restored in accordance with Israel's past as part of God redemptive plan for the nation even though the restoration falls well short of expectations. The Torah forms the foundation of the new community yet their inability to keep it highlights the need for further work (42325).
Two central themes in Chronicles are the monarchy and the temple cult, or in more theological terminology: the rule of God and fellowship with God (434). In contrast to book of Kings, in Chronicles the kings often receive the reward of their actions whether good or bad during their rule (435). God has chosen David to rule and the period of David and Solomon are a formative time in Israels history. The monarchy of Judah is evaluated by its obedience to the Torah and preservation of the temple cult (43637). As a compilation of OT history that also refers to many other texts in the OT, Chronicles functions as a kind of forerunner to an OT theology (438).
After establishing the structure and message of each book in the Ketuvim, Steinberg then moves to the core of his thesis where he explains the structure and message of the Ketuvim as a whole. Ruth serves as an introduction to the collection because it functions as a prelude to the kingship of David in the Psalter. Ruth juxtaposes the two ways before God as exemplified, for instance, by Ruth (righteous) and Orpah (wicked). It also shares the vocabulary of refuge in God that is common to the Psalter (444).
Besides sharing many themes in common, Palms and Chronicles are the largest and most theologically far-reaching books in the Ketuvim. They both share an encyclopedic summary of Israel's relationship to God. Therefore, they form an inclusio around the rest of the books in the Ketuvim. Shared themes include the rule of God, which is primarily expressed through the rule of David and his descendants; communion with God, especially in terms of prayer, worship, and forgiveness; and rewards of the fruit of one's ways depending on whether one is on the path of the righteous or the wicked, which is determined in relationship to one's obedience to Torah (44546).
Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs form a wisdom series that leads from sorrow to joy. Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are thematically linked as wisdom books and by their shared focus on the fear of the Lord. The optimism of Proverbs is bracketed on both sides by the more pessimistic books of Job and Ecclesiastes. The juxtaposition of Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs may indicate that the call to enjoy life by Qohelet is heeded in Song of Songs (44649).
Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, and Ezra-Nehemiah form a national-historical series that leads from sorrow to joy. These four books are different in character, but they nevertheless make up a historical and thematically linked sequence, which covers the exile of the nation to its restoration. In particular, the request for restoration in Lamentations 5:21 receives an answer in Ezra-Nehemiah. Daniel and Esther deal with the time in exile and in different ways illustrates the sovereignty of God over heathen kings and faithfulness to the Jews (449-50).
Both the wisdom series and the national-historical series can be described as a path that begins in suffering in order to uproot people from their self-assured ways into a learning process that, if completed, leads to joy (451).
Psalms and Chronicles sum up the message of the Ketuvim, which can be construed symbolically as two houses and two ways. Ruth introduces the Ketuvim. Psalms and Chronicles emphasize that God has chosen David and his seed to rule. After the fall of David's kingdom God continues to rule over the kings of the earth because he alone is the king of all the earth. In the end he will set up his Messianic kingdom. The temple has also been chosen by God to be a place of forgiveness, prayer, and praise to God for his power and goodness so that he can bless all the people of the earth. Finally, the postexilic community should model itself after the display of God's dealings in the community during the period of David and Solomon. Thus the message of the Ketuvim as a whole can be succinctly summarized symbolically as two houses and two ways. The first house (Gottes Herrschaftsanspruch) is the house of God's dominion: house of David (kingship). The second house (Gottes Gemeinschaftszuspruch) is the house of communion with God: house of God (temple). The two ways are the way of the faithful before God and the way of the wicked away from God (45354). The wisdom and the national-historical series take one on the path to God, a path that leads from sorrow to joy.
Before moving to the last section of the project, Steinberg notes Koorevaar's typological interpretation of the relationship between Song of Song and Lamentations since they are juxtaposed. The daughters of Jerusalem have disregarded the warnings to deal carefully with love, which is so celebrated in the Song of Songs and subsequently in Lamentations Israel mourns her unfaithfulness to the Lord and its tragic consequences (455). Steinberg prefers Song of Songs as the climax of the wisdom series and Lamentations as the beginning of the national-historical series.
Section four discusses the Ketuvim in the canon of the Bible. The book winds down with a discussion of the three modes of revelation for the three divisions of the Tanak: Torah, Prophets, and Wisdom/Scribes. While one should be careful not to over-generalize, these three categories form the three different perspectives of the tripartite canon (46368). In addition, even though wisdom elements can be seen in all three parts of the canon, they are most significantly found in the Ketuvim. Indirect access to divine knowledge characterizes the mode of revelation in the Ketuvim, which stands in contrast to the first two parts of the canon (484). A short discussion of the importance of the order of the books in the NT follows. The book closes with a helpful summary of Steinberg's main conclusions where he stresses again that theological reasons stand behind the arrangement of the Ketuvim so that groups of books and their order affect their interpretation. Following the literary structure of the canon one can organically combine the diversity of the Ketuvim into a conceptual whole (48991).
Now a few evaluative comments are in order. First, I want to applaud this creative, comprehensive, and insightful project that breaks new ground in a very difficult and under-examined area. The extremely broad scope of the work impressively brings together a wealth of research with the goal of achieving a global synthesis of the Ketuvim in the context of a discipline where such grand acts are seldom even attempted. The breadth of the work, which is to some degree its greatest strength, will inevitably leave many readers unhappy with one section or another.
Second, the analysis of the different orders of the Ketuvim rightly shows that amongst the great diversity of orders, most can be understood in relation to the order of Baba Bathra 14b. Scholars bluntly wielding statistical summarizations of the diversity of the Ketuvim too often obscure this point. Nevertheless, if the order of the books in Baba Bathra 14b is so vital, why does the tradition not contain a fixed sequence for the collection like the Torah? Why does the order disintegrate over time? Explaining the superiority of Baba Bathra 14b over other orders is one thing; explaining the existence of other orders is another. One aspect that may help negotiate this issue is greater attention to diachronic issues, which have been fruitfully explored in work on the formation of the Twelve Minor prophets and the Psalms, and greater attention to the signs of canon-consciousness within the Ketuvim, like the ending of Ecclesiastes.
Third, the heart of the thesis is very intriguing, but remains underdeveloped. The proportion of the project is out of balance with the thesis of the work. The structural sections insightfully contribute to debates over each book's structure in the Ketuvim, but their payoff for the message of each book and for the thesis of the project is often meager compared to the expense. The discussion of the structure of Proverbs, for instance, spans twenty-seven pages while the explanation for the core of the thesisthe organic synthesis of the Ketuvimis a scant eleven pages, much of it merely summarizing the messages of the individual books. The main problem highlighted in discussions of OT theology at the beginning of the work was the interrelationship between the books and while some significant headway is made in this regard the problem remains. The ideas and observations on these eleven pages are very interesting, but they remain only a brief sketch.
For instance, the movement from sorrow to joy in the wisdom series faces a number of problems because while Job ends with joy and Song of Songs is joyful, it is not clear that Song of Songs should be directly connected to the other three wisdom books. According to Steinberg's own interpretation of the book it relates to the theme of wisdom only as a celebration of love and its proper timing. In this regard it seems to be a very poor climax to the wisdom books.
On the other hand, Steinberg's observation that the prayer for Israel's restoration in Lamentations 5 receives a response in Ezra-Nehemiah is tantalizing and deserves further exploration. Here again, labelling the national-historical series a movement from sorrow to joy leaves the issues undefined and is open to criticism because the ending of Nehemiah may be many things, but joyful is probably not one of them. Within Steinberg's own literary and structural analysis, however, the third main part of Ezra-Nehemiah is one of joy. Yet, even if one grants this two-fold movement from sorrow to joy, what is the meaning of it? It needs some kind of grounding to get enough traction to contribute something meaningful to the discussion. Is there any indication, other than thematic convenience, that reveal that the two series lead one on a path to the Lord from sorrow to joy? Is this movement connected to Israel's exilic experience, which is a constant subject in the Ketuvim, or does it have some other function? It should be noted that in conversations and subsequent publications, however, Steinberg has presented a more nuanced and more convincing account of many of these issues.
Fourth, is the synthesis of the two houses and the two ways illuminating? Does the broader summary organically incorporate all the books of the Ketuvim in their proper place? The fact that the main themes of the collection can be summarized from Psalms and Chronicles alone is an indication of the problem. Beyond these two very important books what do the other books contribute to the message of the Ketuvim? Again, this was a problem that was highlighted in the discussion of the dangers common in OT theologies. Indeed, what does the wisdom series and the national-historical series contribute to the message of the Ketuvim, so as to necessitate a concern with order at all? Could one not arrive at the same conclusions without any recourse to the order of the books if one examined the collection strictly from a thematic perspective?
Fifth, the procedure that Steinberg uses first explores the individual structure and message of each book and then and only then moves to the interrelationship between them. This is a clear and straightforward method; nevertheless, if the Ketuvim have an intentional relationship among the various books, then would this relationship notat least in some casesaffect the message of individual books as it has for the Former Prophets, the Twelve Minor Prophets, and the Psalms? In other words, I doubt if the actual investigation of the Ketuvim as a collection can neatly fit into this well-reasoned methodology. One, in my judgment, should allow room to move from the individual book to the collection and from the collection back to the individual book.
Finally, with these questions and reservations clearly in view, I applaud the creative audacity of this project. In my judgment, it has laid a foundation for investigation of the Ketuvim as a collection and provided some very intriguing, if not fully developed, insights into the structure and message of the collection. Considering that a work of this kind has never been attempted on the Ketuvim, the contribution and progress of the project is to be highly commended. Also, the scholarly opposition towards such an endeavour, which is considerable, has been brought into serious doubt. Steinberg's work surely will not cause a sea change in the way OT theologies are done, but it provides a compelling and potentially fruitful alternative to other models.