Review of R. Gilmour, Representing the Past

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Gilmour, Rachelle, Representing the Past: A Literary Analysis of Narrative Historiography in the Book of Samuel (VTSup, 143; Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2011). Pp. xii + 333. Hardback. €121.00. $166.00. ISBN 978-90-04-20340-2.

Representing the Past comprises a revision of Rachelle Gilmour's dissertation presented to the University of Sydney in 2010. Written under the supervision of Ian Young and Noel Weeks, the express intent of the work is to investigate “how to read the text of Samuel as ancient historiography” (p. 4) through an approach that is attentive to “literary devices that convey the characteristics of history writing” (p. 3) within the Masoretic Text of the ancient book. Accordingly, the aim of Gilmour's study is not to enter into debates surrounding the historicity of those events recorded in Samuel, but rather to provide a literary analysis of the work that is sensitive to its techniques for depicting the past and communicating its significance. Gilmour's investigation runs six chapters, with an introduction, conclusion, and four chapters devoted to certain aspects of Samuel's narrative that, Gilmour contends, parallel important features of modern history writing: the attribution of causation in history, discussion of the past's meaning and significance, the ideological evaluation of events by the storyteller, and the coherence of a work. Along with a bibliography, Gilmour's study is concluded by helpful author, scripture, and subject indices.

The introductory chapter to Gilmour's investigation provides the theoretical foundation for her subsequent literary analysis. Announcing a prominent theme that will run throughout her investigation, Gilmour argues that the book of Samuel provides a form of narrative historiography that is both similar and dissimilar to “modern” efforts at history writing. Though Samuel's historiography contains “literary devices and embellishments unimaginable in a modern work” (p. 1), Samuel's utilization of narrative to portray, analyze, and explain a past finds accord, Gilmour notes, with the turn among historical theorists in the last decades of the twentieth century toward the significance of narrative for historical analysis. This emphasis on narrative storytelling among contemporary historians compels Gilmour to offer her own “poetics of narrative” in Samuel that builds on the work of Robert Alter, Meir Sternberg, and Adele Berlin—among many other more recent contributions—in order to understand better the sophisticated narrative devices exploited by the author(s) of Samuel for their portrayal of Israel and Judah's past. The payoff for this manner of literary analysis, Gilmour contends, is a more nuanced appreciation of the “‘rules’ of representing and interpreting the past” at work in Samuel that are closely wed to its “conception of the characteristics of history and its use of literary devices” (p. 7).

A key question at the outset of Gilmour's analysis is her understanding of what constitutes historiography and how the book of Samuel relates to it.[1] For the author, historiography is any written “representation of the past” (p. 9, italics original), a definition that Gilmour places in contrast to “the common idea that historiography must be an objective account of what happened and the criticism that texts with overt ideological intentions do not fit this category” (p. 9). Citing “postmodern” theorists at odds with a positivistic, scientific understanding of history,[2] Gilmour asserts that a broader understanding of historiography as a “representation of the past” embraces the ideological and subjective character of all history writing, ancient and modern. As such, this definition “points to the fundamental similarity between texts from both modern and ancient cultures: these texts represent an interpretation of people, places and events in the past” (p. 24). A genre of historiography, Gilmour further argues, should thus be defined by its “function” rather than by its “form” so as to avoid excluding “all pre-enlightenment cultures from engaging in fully-fledged historiography” (p. 21). Since a definition of historiography dependent on formal characteristics “gives priority” to Western, contemporary methods of historiography that “may soon become outdated,” the reader is cautioned to resist any “definitively correct set of conventions” (p. 21) for an understanding of what may or may not be history writing. The function of historiography is simply to represent the past; a formal distinction between “historical fiction and historiography is not necessary” (p. 24) for distinguishing the historiographical enterprise. Neither is the historian's quest for accuracy regarding what once occurred, as the very notion of accuracy implies “impossible and subjective ideals” dependent on “arbitrary and changing cultural conventions” (p. 24). Historiography is, in the end, a “subjective discipline in which different people will value different methods of interpretation based on their ideology” (p. 21).

Chapter two of Gilmour's study takes up the manner in which historical causation is portrayed within the narrative of Samuel. Though Samuel “is often thought to contain very limited variation in causation” (p. 41), Gilmour proposes that the ancient authors behind the work explored multiple types of causation linked not only to the workings of the divine, but also to the spheres of the social and the political. Whether in the story of Samuel's birth (1 Sam 1), Saul's rise to kingship (1 Sam 9–11), or the absence of temple-building during David's reign (2 Sam 7), the book of Samuel “contains a complex web of causation” surrounding these events that “encourages the reader to draw his/her own connections based on the evidence presented” (p. 47). Though YHWH may be the primum movens behind the events of history, the book of Samuel weaves personal and public motivations behind these events as well. The result is a narrative that “exploits discontinuity” between possible historical agents in order to “create complexity in the situations” portrayed (p. 89). Eschewing explicit causal explanations common to modern historiography, the narrative historiography of Samuel invites its audience to make these causal connections themselves.

Since the works of Herodotus and Thucydides an important facet of composing narratives about the past has been an author's assessment of this past's meaning and significance.[3] Yet with the anonymity of the biblical scribes who composed Samuel and their reticence to expound explicitly on the meaning of a story told,[4] frank statements guiding the audience's understanding of the significance of certain events are, Gilmour maintains, muted and mostly absent from Samuel's narrative. The focus of Gilmour's third chapter is therefore to explore Samuel's “greater reliance on narrative techniques than on explicit statements for conveying meaning and significance” (p. 92). Gilmour traces two primary literary devices used for this purpose: the repetition of prominent themes (e.g. the anointing of a leader by YHWH) and the creation of “structures of meaning” (p. 98). The latter technique is the focus of the great majority of the chapter, with these structures of meaning appearing in the connections Gilmour highlights between the beginning and end of the book of Samuel (pp. 99–116), the similar patterns present within stories depicting the rise and fall of various leaders (pp. 116–30), and comparative analogies between the character of particular individuals (pp. 130–50).

Gilmour's fourth and fifth chapters are devoted to the book of Samuel's techniques of evaluating the past and the coherence of that past represented within the work. Regarding the former, Gilmour adapts fifteen different methods of evaluation developed by M. Sternberg[5] and applies these evaluative modes to the narratives of 1 Sam 8–12 (pp. 168–98) and 2 Sam 13–19 (pp. 198–221). The result of Samuel's various means of evaluation, Gilmour concludes, is a complex narrative perspective that is able to voice moral, theological, and political viewpoints that, because of the tension and contradictions between them, “achieves complexity and sophistication” (p. 222) regarding the book's appraisal of the past. Despite the plurality of voices present in the narrative, Gilmour observes that “only the viewpoint of the narrator, and not of the characters, has authority.” Consequently, the task of the reader is to be “sensitive to the narrator's explicit and implicit promptings” regarding the value of each viewpoint (p. 222).

The question of coherence, or rather “the conventions of accuracy, coherence and contradiction in the historiography of Samuel” (p. 227), poses the greatest sense of disjunction, according to Gilmour, between the narrative historiography of Samuel and that of modern works of history. In order to assess the potential inconsistencies and contradictions within the historiography of Samuel, Gilmour explores the MT and LXX versions of 1 Sam 17. The conclusions reached from this analysis touch on a number of important points. First, descriptive details in these versions of the David-Goliath story—such as time designations or the location of events—contain “a high level of fluidity” in comparison to modern works of historiography and were “unlikely to have been considered important for their own sake; rather they are significant for the effect they produce” (p. 288). Second, a consistent chronology of events is absent from both versions of the tale. The authors of the MT and LXX were thus “indifferent to, and possibly even free to invent the chronology of events” (p. 293). Such observations suggest to Gilmour that among these ancient narratives there was a “very different attitude from modern historiography towards ‘facts.’” Whereas modern historians employ facts “to prove a particular interpretation, in the historiography of Samuel they are used to express the interpretation” (p. 299, italics original). In consideration of what Gilmour deems a significant divide between the authors of Samuel (both MT and LXX) and modern historians, she concludes that the ancient writers at the center of her study “were free to use literary techniques that invented or altered facts provided they conveyed coherent causation, critical evaluation and meaning.” The reason for this was straightforward: these ancient authors “were aware of the complexity of the past and understood that contradictions could arise where sufficient context was either not known or otherwise irrelevant” (p. 299).

In concluding her study, Gilmour reviews the similarities and differences she has highlighted between the narrative historiography of Samuel and that of modern historical works. The implications of this research, Gilmour claims, bear directly on the use of Samuel as a source for writing the history of Israel (p. 304). On the one hand, “the nature of its [Samuel's] historiography dictates that use of this text alone will be insufficient for a satisfactory modern historiography” (p. 304). At the same time, however, the “significant overlap and other similarities … point to the indispensability of the book of Samuel as a source” (pp. 304-5). Lastly, the value of Samuel's historiography is that it can “persuade us to broaden our own conception of history in the modern day" by challenging "modern conventions for straightforward explanation” (p. 307).

A strength of Gilmour's study is her close readings of a number of important stories within Samuel that are particularly attuned to sophisticated features of narrative storytelling within the ancient work. Perceptive observations pertaining to the multiple narrative perspectives of the rise of Saul (pp. 63–73) or disparate evaluations of David's character during his reign in Jerusalem (pp. 198–221) provide nuanced, subtle commentary on Samuel indebted to the rise of literary approaches in biblical studies that began to flourish in the last decades of the twentieth century. Indeed, Gilmour's most important conversation partners throughout her analysis of Samuel are R. Alter, S. Bar-Efrat, J.P. Fokkelman, and R. Polzin. Also noteworthy about Gilmour's study is her endeavor to bring literary approaches to bear on questions all too often restricted to the domain of historians. The very attempt to place literary methods of biblical interpretation in service to larger historical questions is one of the most significant contributions of Gilmour's work.[6]

While Gilmour's commitment to engage both literary and historical questions is most welcome, some difficulties emerge in the precision of her analysis and the depth of her conclusions. My misgivings stem in part from an absence of rigorous engagement with key terms and topics in her discussion. Asserting that—to cite a few examples—there is a “perceived conflict between the use of narrative in historiography and the goal of ‘what actually happened’” (p. 16), that “‘[s]cientific history’ is valued by our modern Western society …” (p. 26), or that recent efforts at writing history have benefited from “feminist historiographies” (p. 12) without any citations of the vast historical scholarship or contemporary discussions surrounding these critical issues leave such observations underdeveloped. The persistent reference in Gilmour's work to “modern historiography” without discussion of the manifold differences in epistemology and methodology undergirding very different approaches toward historiography among contemporary historians further exacerbated a tendency toward simplistic reduction of important theoretical debates. And, while a handful of historical theorists are cited in Gilmour's analysis, engagement with a number of literary theorists outside the domain of biblical studies might have strengthened her investigation further, particularly given its explicit commitment to a literary analysis of Samuel. The importance of Alter, Berlin, or Sternberg for an understanding of the poetics of biblical narrative could have been enhanced, for example, by turning to the works Mieke Bal, Gérard Gennette, Roland Barthes, or Northrop Frye on narrative theory more broadly. Paul Ricoeur's substantial publications devoted precisely to the relationship between the poetics of narrative and the writing of history—including his magisterial three volume Time and Narrative[7]—does not receive a single citation in Gilmour's investigation.

A lack of precision also surrounds Gilmour's understanding of historiography. Defining historiography as a “representation of the past” is not necessarily problematic, but such a broad understanding of the term—as Gilmour herself notes (p. 22, 25)—is problematized by the awareness “that any text that has even the slightest connection to the past can be considered historiography” (p. 22). While Gilmour cites postmodern influences for her refusal to provide a more meticulous understanding of historiography beyond her definition above, the dilemma opened up through Gilmour's definition is that the very different literature of “modern historiography, many modern works of historical fiction, ancient propaganda, and ancient Greek historiography” (p. 27) are collapsed beneath this single definition of “historiography.” The difficulty with this interpretive approach, in part, is that it struggles to register the very different obligations of the historian and the novelist[8] and the very different relationship toward the past that separates modernity from the historical works of antiquity.[9] On Gilmour's definition of historiography, there would reside no formal distinctions between the work of a Theodor Mommsen and Berossus, or a Fernand Braudel and Xenophon, making the significant developments toward writing about the past in modernity—both epistemologically and methodologically—mostly inconsequential. D. Edelman's attempt, in contrast, to maintain a division between “ancient” and “modern” historiography is, in this sense, crucial.[10] The question that remains open, and one that must be pursued, is if the narrative of Samuel should be grouped with the “ancient historiography” of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Arrian. That Gilmour does not provide a comparative discussion of the poetics of Samuel with any other ancient work of literature leaves this question unaddressed.

Gilmour's study remains focused on a synchronic literary analysis of the poetics of Samuel's narrative, and this is where its contribution can be found. This focus is unfortunately more limited than the stated purpose of “how to read the text of Samuel as ancient historiography,” an aim that necessarily includes the requirement of a thoughtful and careful reflection on what, in the end, constitutes historiography—whether ancient or modern. To suggest that it is “problematic to include … a modern idea of ‘historical accuracy’” (p. 13) within a definition of historiography because it is “ideological” and shortly thereafter to propose that “there are still texts that represent the past with greater or lesser accuracy” and that the former need to be “identified” (p. 25) for the historian's purposes creates more confusion than it dispels. Similarly, stating that modern historians are guided by the impulse to prove a particular interpretation through facts while the authors of Samuel used facts to express their ideas (p. 299) only raises the question as to what constitutes historical “facts” for Gilmour and what distinction resides between proving a point and expressing it. Troubling about these observations are not necessarily their imprecision, but rather the lack of attentiveness toward the motivations present in the historian's quest for representing the past authentically in spite of the profound epistemological problems that work against such efforts. Perhaps the desire for accuracy and rigorous attention to evidence in historical research is a modern, Western convention. Yet a few moments turning through the works of Holocaust historiography and the arguments surrounding the Historikerstreit in late 1980s Germany illustrates that the quest for accuracy, authenticity, and judiciousness toward what once was cannot be dismissed as easily as Gilmour proposes for a contemporary understanding of what is and what is not historiography.

In the end, Gilmour's reflection on these points appear to be connected to her manifest desire to emphasize the similarities between the narrative of Samuel and modern works of history in order to preserve an understanding of Samuel's narrative as “ancient historiography.” The return to the value of narrative within contemporary historical theory, of the recognition of the importance of shedding light on the past by reciting a story about it, prevents the narrative of Samuel and historiography from ever being fully uncoupled. That ideological influences, fictional discourse, and the utilization of literary tropes contribute toward both the composition of biblical narrative and the richest works of historiography only further buttresses Gilmour's connection between the two. Yet important differences remain between the historiography of modernity and antiquity, particularly regarding access to and knowledge of the past. Gilmour's analysis would benefit by addressing these differences more thoroughly.

The question that remains unaddressed in the absence of such a discussion is precisely the relationship between the narrative of Samuel and the efforts of modern critical historiography. Citing similarities between the two along the lines of a poetics of narrative only illustrates that both Samuel's narratives about the past and contemporary historiography remain dependent on the formal strictures of narrative storytelling; it does not confirm that Samuel has any concern with what we today understand as history.

Thus, with no analysis of the relationship between Samuel's narrative and actual historical evidence it is difficult for this reviewer to perceive on what grounds Gilmour can make the claim for Samuel to be “indispensable” as a source for Israel's history (p. 305). Though I do find Samuel to be an important, but difficult, historical source, this assessment can only be made, I would contend, through a comparison of Samuel's narrative with features of an Iron Age past known through other evidence.

The misgivings noted here are centered primarily along historical concerns, and such observations do not take away from the close reading of Samuel that Gilmour often provides in her discussion of the ancient work's “poetics of narrative.” In bringing to the fore Samuel's rich array of sophisticated literary devices, the historian benefits not only from Gilmour's care toward the text of Samuel itself, but can also utilize her significant insights into the poetics at work within ancient Hebrew narrative to think further about that scribal culture in ancient Israel that produced such a complex, narrative prose account of the past so uncommon to the eastern Mediterranean world of its time.

Dan Pioske, Princeton Theological Seminary

[1] Gilmour resists an understanding of historiography as a literary genre. Instead, historiography “is better considered a description that can be applied to many different genres of texts, rather than constituting a genre of its own. For example, it incorporates modern historiography, many modern works of historical fiction, ancient propaganda texts and ancient Greek historiography” (p. 27). How these different historical genres or sub-genres may and or may not appertain to one another is not discussed. reference

[2] Gilmour appears particularly indebted to two works in this section: D. Lowenthal's The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); and R. F. Berkhofer, Beyond the Great Story: History as Text and Discourse (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995). reference

[3] In a manner utterly distinct from the biblical scribes, both Herodotus and Thucydides begin their histories with the use of the first person, and through this authoritative “I” provide explicit statements on the meaning and significance of events throughout their works. See, e.g., the introductory sections of Herodotus, Histories, 1.1–1.2.; and Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.1. reference

[4] On the differences between Greek and biblical writers regarding authorial voice, see especially P. Machinist, “The Voice of the Historian in the Ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean World,” Interpretation 57 (2003), 117–37. reference

[5] M. Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1985). reference

[6] On this point, Gilmour follows the important admonitions of J. Barton, “Historical Criticism and Literary Interpretation: Is There Any Common Ground?” in Crossing the Boundaries: Essays in Biblical Studies in Honour of Michael D. Goulder (ed. S.E. Porter et al.; Leiden: Brill, 1994), 3–15. reference

[7] P. Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, Vols. I–III (trans. K. McLaughlin and D. Pellauer; Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1984–88). reference

[8] So Ricoeur remarks: “A novel, even a realist novel, is something other than a history book. They are distinguished from each other by the nature of the implicit contract between the writer and the reader. Even when not clearly stated, this contract sets up different expectations on the side of the reader and different promises on that of the author. In opening a novel, the reader is prepared to enter an unreal universe concerning which the question where and when these things took place is incongruous … In opening a history book, the reader expects, under the guidance of a mass of archives, to reenter a world of events that actually occurred. What is more, in crossing the threshold of what is written, he stands on guard, casts a critical eye, and demands if not a true discourse comparable to that of a physics text, at least a plausible one, one that is admissible, probable, and in any case honest and truthful. Having been taught to look out for falsehoods, he does not want to have to deal with a liar” (Memory, History, Forgetting [trans. K. Blamey and D. Pellauer; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004], 261). reference

[9] On this points, see especially the philosophical reflection in R. Kosselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (trans. K. Tribe; Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985); and the methodological analysis by A. Grafton, What Was the Past? The Art of History in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). reference

[10] D. Edelman, “Clio's Dilemma: The Changing Face of Historiography,” in Congress Volume, 1998 (ed. A Lemaire and M. Saebo; VTSup, 80; Leiden: Brill, 1999), 247–55. reference