D.A. Bosworth, The Story within a Story in Biblical Hebrew Narrative

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Bosworth, David A., The Story within a Story in Biblical Hebrew Narrative (CBQMS, 45; Washington D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2008). Pp. viii+200. Softcover. US$12.50. ISBN 0-915170-44-2.

The Story within a Story in Biblical Hebrew Narrative is divided into four main chapters: (1) The Mise-en-Abyme, (2) Genesis 38, (3) 1 Samuel 25, and (4) 1 Kings 13. In the first chapter, Bosworth provides an in-depth description of a mise-en-abyme by defining and describing this literary device (in which a story “reduplicates the whole” [p. 1]), its characteristics, parameters, as well as devices such an allegory, exemplum, fable, and a parable which would not constitute a mise-en-abyme. He provides four practical examples from modern and classic literature where this literary device was employed: (1) Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie, (2) Hamlet by Shakespeare, (3) Iliad by Homer, and (4) Golden Ass by Apuleius.

This introductory chapter establishes a good foundation for understanding a mise-en-abyme even for the reader who is not familiar with this literary device. The explanations are clear and concise, with the appropriate amount of information being provided so the reader is not overwhelmed or inundated with exhaustive details. Bosworth also incorporates helpful and brief descriptions of the types of mise-en-abymes contained in scripture, namely Genesis 38, 1 Samuel 25, and 1 Kings 13 which provides a good orientation for the reader for the subsequent analyses in chapters 2–4.

The chapters which follow examine the three Scripture passages which Bosworth identifies as mise-en-abymes operating within the larger surrounding narratives. He provides an overview of some of the research on the passages and illustrates that even when similarities or parallels between the stories have been identified, these observations are not adequate enough to explain the presence of the smaller narrative within its larger context. He then proceeds to describe how the passage fits into the mise-en-abyme category and duplicates the larger narrative where it is situated, and he offers a convincing proposal of unity where previously in research the passage was deemed to be disjunctive or irrelevant to its larger context. At the end of each of the three chapters, the author provides a conclusion which helps not only to summarize the material discussed but also presents some brief insights gleaned from the analysis of the mise-en-abyme and the larger narrative.

Chapter 2 focuses on Genesis 38, the story of Judah and Tamar which is contained within the larger story of the Jacob Line/Joseph Story in chapters 37–50 in which the character Judah is also present. Bosworth begins his analysis of Genesis 38 with a useful chart on pp. 49–50 which illustrates the parallel plots and developments of the mise-en-abyme and the larger story. He identifies the problem in the Judah and Tamar story as Judah refusing to let his last remaining son marry Tamar because the previous ones had died in the marriage, implying that Tamar was somehow responsible for their deaths. In the larger Jacob Line/Joseph Story, the problem was the hate and jealousy that Joseph's brothers had for him because he was their father's favourite son. Joseph also revealed a dream to his brothers in which he would be exalted above them. Bosworth then proceeds in the chart to identify in both the mise-en-abyme and the larger narrative the crime committed along with the deception employed by the victim of the crime, the recognition of the deception by the offender which led to his confession, and finally, the reconciliation which occurs between the victim and the offender. Throughout the remainder of the chapter, the author then provides an examination of each of these main points as they pertain to Genesis 38 and Genesis 37–50.

In the three and a half page conclusion to the chapter, the author not only highlights the relationship between the Genesis 38 and Genesis 37–50 but also identifies their differences: (1) Joseph's power over his brothers in Egypt in contrast to Tamar's lack of power over Judah (2) Joseph's status as a male in a patriarchal-based society in contrast to Tamar's relative weakness as a female; (3) Joseph's partial responsibility for his brothers' actions in contrast to Tamar's blamelessness and undeserving treatment at the hands of Judah.. He believes that the presence of these differences help to “illuminate the texts” and further illustrate that the two stories are not the same, thus supporting his rather convincing claim that Genesis 38 exists as a mise-en-abyme.

Chapter 3 focuses on 1 Samuel 25, the story of David and Nabal, which is set in the larger narrative of David and Saul in 1 Sam 13:12–2 Sam 5:3. As in Genesis 38 and 37–50, where Judah was present in both the mise-en-abyme and the larger narrative, so David is present in the smaller and larger narratives within the book of Samuel. Bosworth begins this chapter with a helpful review of scholarship on 1 Samuel 25 to determine how it has been understood and interpreted within the wider narrative context. Observable parallels between Nabal and Saul indicate that both characters exhibited an anti-Davidic sentiment and inflicted harm on David. Bosworth provides another helpful chart illustrating the similarities between the mise-en-abyme and the larger story. In both stories, even though David's good deeds toward Nabal and Saul are reciprocated with injustice, David does not seek vengeance and instead is vindicated by God's actions toward Nabal and Saul. David chooses to spare Saul's life on two occasions, but in the case of Nabal it is Abigail who directly intervenes and dissuades David from seeking revenge.

Overall, Bosworth provides a convincing argument that 1 Samuel 25 is a mise-en-abyme, duplicating many components of the larger narrative of Saul and David. Though the conclusion provides a good summary of the chapter, reinforcing the author's argument for 1 Samuel 25 as a mise-en-abyme, it is somewhat lengthy and redundant, unnecessarily repeating material which has already been presented.

In chapter 4 Bosworth identifies 1 Kgs 13:11–32, the story of the man of God and the prophet, and 2 Kgs 23:15–20, where Josiah decided not to destroy the monument identifying the man of God's grave in Bethel, as one complete mise-en-abyme operating within the larger narrative of the history of the divided kingdom. The author identifies the following elements in the mise-en-abyme: (1) hostility between characters, (2) the existence of friendship, (3) a reversal of roles between the characters, (4) the return of hostility between the characters, and (5) a character from the south saving one from the north. Bosworth discerns that these elements are not only present within the larger story but that the mise-en-abyme is representative of or duplicates the relationship between Judah and Israel in the larger story.

In the concluding chapter of The Story within a Story in Biblical Hebrew Narrative, the author introduces five criteria from Lucien Dällenbach's description of a mise-en-abyme and applies them to the three biblical narratives analyzed in the previous chapters.[1] He illustrates how these narratives meet one or more of Dällenbach's criterion. Bosworth further demonstrates how the biblical narratives fit into Moshe Ron's description of a mise-en-abyme which is based on the duplication of the whole, its “isolatability,” “orientation,” “extent,” “general function,” and “motivation.”[2]

One important issue which is not addressed in Bosworth's work is whether the biblical author was familiar with a mise-en-abyme and intentionally employed it. Though Bosworth presents two classic examples of this literary device in the introductory chapter, he does not explore whether it would have existed during the time when Genesis 38, 1 Samuel 25, and 1 Kgs 13:11–32 and 2 Kgs 23:15–20 were composed. Further research in this area may strengthen or weaken Bosworth's theory that mise-en-abymes were used in the development of these Old Testament narratives.

Overall, the book is well-written and structured, and the author's argumentation is clear and easy to follow from the beginning to the end. Bosworth displays his thorough research in his extensive footnotes and the 21 page bibliography at the end of the book. He presents a unique and original thesis which, even if leaving the reader not entirely convinced, at least offers the opportunity to reflect further on the smaller stories contained in Genesis, Samuel, and Kings and their relationship to the larger contexts in which they are situated. This book is a worthwhile read.

Shannon Baines, McMaster Divinity College

[1] Lucien Dällenbach, Le récit spéculaire: essai sur la mise-en-abyme (Paris: Seuil, 1977). Translated by Jeremy Whiteley with Emma Hughes as The Mirror of the Text (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1989). reference

[2] Moshe Ron, “The Restricted Abyss: Nine Problems in the Theory of the Mise en Abyme,” Poetics Today 8 (1987): 417–38. reference