L. Gärtner-Brereton, The Ontology of Space in Biblical Hebrew Narrative: The Determinate Function of Narrative "Space" within the Biblical Hebrew Aesthetic

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

Gärtner-Brereton, Luke, The Ontology of Space in Biblical Hebrew Narrative: The Determinate Function of Narrative “Space” within the Biblical Hebrew Aesthetic (BibleWorld; Oakville, CT; Equinox, 2008). Pp. 128. Paperback. US$28.95. ISBN 9781845533144.

The reader of The Ontology of Space in Biblical Hebrew Narrative will no doubt find its author, Luke Gärtner-Brereton, conflating his knowledge and insight of philosophy, literary studies, biblical studies, and kindred disciplines into this one book. With that said, if the goal of this work is to prove, as the subtitle suggests, that “‘space’ itself acts as a ‘determining’ factor within the Hebrew aesthetic,” then the book will ultimately disappoint (p. 25). Let that not deter the reader, however, for Gärtner-Brereton has offered to us a very suggestive work which contributes to the area of narratology in refreshing and unique ways.

In the Introduction and Chapter 1, Gärtner-Brereton begins by suggesting that in the world of “narratological” and “literary” approaches to the Hebrew Bible, the “dominant presumption [is] that the mode of character representation in the HB is highly sophisticated” (pp. 1–2). Such a presumption in many ways anticipates our own aesthetic/cinematic tastes and thus is an anachronistic enterprise (pp. 1–2; contra Robert Alter et al.; emphasis mine).[1] Moreover, recent literary approaches fixate on “the technique behind Hebrew narrative; the interrelations and functions of the rhetorical, authorial devices which give the text its depth and colour” (p. 2). But what of those literary elements outside of the rhetorical authorial devices? Here Gärtner-Brereton turns to Vladimir Propp, who “offers a particularly cogent counterpoint” to modern scholars (p. 2). Specifically, Propp “granted primacy to structure rather than content as such” (p. 3), an approach which on the surface seems to offer promise (emphasis mine). Gärtner-Brereton quickly notes, however, the deficiencies in applying Propp's method to the Hebrew Bible, namely, that Propp based his theory upon Slavic fairy tales—it too then, with other modern literary approaches to the Bible in its focus on the characters of the story, is an anachronistic enterprise and “doomed to failure” (p. 3).[2] One either applies Propp's model to the Hebrew Bible with no regard for the lack of transferability, or misconstrues “the aesthetic texture of the narrative in question (forcing a particular biblical narrative to fit within the folktale/fairy tale genre)” (p. 3; unpacked in more detail on pp. 6–24). Realizing these potential pit-falls, Gärtner-Brereton turns to an alternative approach, which applies Propp's method to the Hebrew Bible in order to see where the method is deficient. That is, since the Hebrew Bible is qualitatively different than Slavic fairy tale, an application of Propp's method to the Hebrew Bible will force the reader to “recognize the unique nature of the Hebrew aesthetic itself” (p. 4; italics original). Specifically, one observes that whereas the integral factor of Propp's method focused on a hero's “journeying,” something “typified in modern cinema,” the Hebrew Bible is structured into “smaller episodic narrative units,” thereby granting “primacy to space…[operating] under similar mechanical constraints to those of a traditional stage-play—where space is central, characters are fluid, and objects tend to take on deep significance”—an overlooked dimension in modern biblical studies (p. 4–5).

That the Hebrew Bible is more episodic rather than focused on a hero's journey is illustrated in Chapter 2 which compares two of Alfred Hitchcock's movies, Rope and North by Northwest, with the Hebrew aesthetic only to conclude that Rope is much more like Hebrew narrative as both exhibit a sort of “stage-play… a fact which is most apparent in the primacy biblical Hebrew narrative typically grants to ‘space’” (p. 25). Indeed, the Hebrew Bible is not entirely without a journeying vector—the editor of the Hebrew texts piecing together the smaller episodes to communicate a grander narrative—but for Gärtner-Brereton such a journey is not integral to the story itself (p. 26). It is within these smaller units that one can discern the presence and function of space. The typical pattern observed for these episodes is that (1) the location in which the episode takes place is announced (e.g. Luz/Bethel in Gen 35.6), (2) a character arrives at this location (e.g. “Jacob came to Luz…that is Bethel” [Gen 35.6]), (3) the act occurs, and (4) the character leaves the location when the smaller episode is finished (e.g., “They set out from Bethel” [Gen 35.16]; see pp. 29–30).

Chapters 4–5 provide a construct for spatial prominence throughout the Hebrew narratives, building on but modifying a theory of “scarcity.” This theory suggests that the narratives exhibit a common theme of exclusion, whereby there is never enough substance to go around. There can only be one God, one chosen nation, one person who receives the blessing (Abel not Cain; Jacob not Esau), etc. Identifying such as the theme for Hebrew narrative, Gärtner-Brereton proposes that space is what dictates who is in and who is out: “It is in their capacity as either ‘in’ or ‘out,’ so to speak, that such spaces influence characters and objects within a given narrative.” Justification for this spatial reading of the text comes from Genesis 1–4. Gärtner-Brereton focuses on these chapters not for diachronic reasons, but for their location as front matter in the Tanak. Here, the argument is made that YHWH, when ordering the primordial chaos, created a place which is “in,” i.e. the “legal” and safe space of the Garden, and that which is “out,” namely, the “field” which is outside of the garden. Gärtner-Brereton then traces this idea of the “field” in Genesis, particularly highlighting Genesis 4 and 25, in order to demonstrate that space anticipates the actions and outcome of characters. Cain and Esau being those of the “field”—an “illegal” space—naturally arrive at a corresponding consequence, whereas Abel and Jacob, being those inhabiting “legal” space, arrive at blessing. Gärtner-Brereton here anticipates the objection that many spaces in the HB are merely “neutral” and concedes this point (p. 73), but in turn seems to ignore such a concession and pushes the thesis too far: “If then we take the function of narrative space seriously, in terms of its influence upon characters (whether individual or an entire nation), objects and plot movement within a given narrative; we are presented with a fresh way of reading biblical narratives, which focuses specifically on the underlying structures of the text” (p. 83). Positively, though, Gärtner-Brereton has shown that these particular spaces are theologically significant (at least in the texts discussed), and thus one would be remiss not to ask the spatial question in discourse analysis.

In an attempt to provide a grander test case, Chapter 6 turns to the book of Ruth (Chapter 3 also offers a short test case of Gen 28.10–22, but length restrictions allow only an assessment of the larger example). Here, Gärtner-Brereton offers a construct where the book of Ruth moves structurally from illegality to legality, the impetus behind this movement being the spatial function of the story, amongst other factors. Contra the typical offstage role the field plays in Genesis, however, the book of Ruth relegates such illegal space to onstage. This is seen in two prominent places in Ruth chapters 2–3, namely, Boaz's “field” and the threshing floor (cf. Hos 9.1 for the threshing floor's illegal ontological value). It is here where Boaz and Ruth develop what results in a seemingly “illegal” marital relationship, by any normal standard of Deuteronomic law. Bethlehem on the contrary, albeit offstage, serves as the spatial norm—this is where Naomi ought to be, and so also Ruth (after all without Ruth, there is no David [cf. the genealogy in Ruth 4]). The problem in the book of Ruth thus becomes spatially driven, moving illegal Ruth “the Moabite” to the status of a legal resident in Bethlehem. The space of the “city gate” is where such transformation occurs. The gate itself is neither illegal nor legal, but it “determines what is ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’…[a] spatial go-between for ‘the field(s)’ and ‘Bethlehem,’ a means of moving from an illegal space, to a legal space” (p. 96).

This is an interesting proposal, but some objections may be raised. For example, should one accept a priori that Boaz's field is illegal because field elsewhere can be theologically negative? Indeed, such a place could be dangerous for Ruth (the very command of Boaz not to touch Ruth to his servants implies this), but to assign “illegality” is dubious at best. Further, what evidence is there to suggest that the value of the city-gate is a “judicial space” in any “ontological” sense? Is not the cultural context here key? The city gate was a highly populated area, the place where Boaz might encounter the kinsman redeemer first in line and also legalize any marriage with Ruth (whether with him or with Ploni Almoni). In addition, the public scene of chapter 4 may simply find its significance by contrasting with the private encounter of chapter 3.[3] At most it seems this larger test case as a whole really only extends the discussion of the ontological value of “field” in Genesis (see discussion of chapters 4–5 above) to other parts of the Hebrew Bible, and highlights Bethlehem as an additional theologically significant place (this of course is not surprising given its central status in the Tanak). Space is not found “determinate” but can be important and sometimes even possess ontological value. Again Gärtner-Brereton himself appears to concede this point: “My contention here is not that ‘space’ itself functions as the sole determinate within the Hebrew aesthetic, but rather that key ‘spaces’ act as determinate factors (among other factors) within Hebrew narratives such as the book of Ruth” (p. 104; emphasis mine). The problem though is that Gärtner-Brereton seems to belie such concessions throughout with statements that take the thesis too far (an example is provided above in the discussion of chapters 4–5, but readers will find more).

In short, I recommend Gärtner-Brereton's work to all those interested in narratology and kindred disciplines, for he has successfully shown through a negative use of Propp that the Hebrew Bible is quite different than our modern cinematic tastes (which includes a focus on the “journeying vector” amongst other things) and any such anachronistic assessment should be avoided. Yet the journeying vector is still important and must not be ignored, for the Hebrew Bible as edited possesses plots which transcend episodes. The resolution of one episode's problem may not find resolution until several episodes later (e.g., Ruth 1 not finding ultimate resolution until Ruth 4). Still, it is an ancient text and should be studied according to the rules of ancient narrative and rhetoric. For this reason, however, one might wonder: why apply Propp at all rather than improving discourse analysis of the Hebrew narratives descriptively through scientific investigation of how ancient texts worked? Further, insofar as Gärtner-Brereton concedes that space is not always determinative—something contrary to the book's title, but a point conceded within by Gärtner-Brereton himself—then his work is suggestive and a helpful contribution. Space is not always (nor mostly?) central, but can possess “ontological” value. Such value is highlighted explicitly upon a character's recognition of such (e.g. Jacob's eventual realization: “How awesome is this place” in Gen 28, for example), and/or as the reader of the text becomes attuned to a location's theological significance in the reading and re-reading of the biblical narrative in its final form. A more proper subtitle for what this work accomplishes would perhaps be “theologies of space in the Hebrew aesthetic,” an endeavor within narratology which seeks to discover if spaces within plots and scenes are of any biblical theological (ontological) value. Here one would not be locked in to any “law of scarcity,” opening up spatial discussions to those who are not convinced by such a construct. More work needs to be done, specifically an exhaustive theology of space in the Hebrew Bible which identifies all those places which seemingly exhibit some ontological value (e.g. “the sea,” “east,” “west,” “Babel” or “Babylon,” “the watch tower,” to name a few).

Robert C. Kashow, Dallas Theological Seminary

[1] Gärtner-Brereton is arguing against and has in mind Robert Alter and kindred authors. See for example, Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981). reference

[2] See V. Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, (1st English Edition; ed. S. Pirkova-Jakobson; trans. L. Scott; Indiana University Research Centre in Anthropology, Folklore, and Linguistics, Publication 10; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968). reference

[3] On this see, e.g., E. F. Campbell, Ruth (ABC; Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1975), 154–57. reference