G. K. Oeste, Legitimacy, Illegitimacy, and the Right to Rule: Windows on Abimelech's Rise and Demise in Judges 9

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

Oeste, Gordon, K., Legitimacy, Illegitimacy, and the Right to Rule: Windows on Abimelech's Rise and Demise in Judges 9 (LHBOTS, 546; New York: T&T Clark, 2011). Pp. 288. Hardcover. US $140.00. ISBN 978-0-567-23783-5.

This volume in the LHBOT series is a revision of Dr. Gordon Oeste's 2008 doctoral dissertation for the University of St. Michael's College. In it, Oeste applies multi-disciplinary approaches to Judges 9 and argues that, although the narrative delegitimizes Abimelech's regional rule, it works within the overall strategy of the book of Judges to legitimize centralized monarchy. He argues his thesis, largely convincingly, through five chapters and a summation. In addition to an extensive bibliography, the volume provides indexes of references and authors cited.

In his first chapter, Oeste introduces the “multiple sight lines” (p. 2) he applies which, when combined, provide a fuller appreciation of the narrative's thrust and rhetorical power. These sight lines include narrative, rhetorical, and social-scientific methodologies; in this chapter, Oeste interacts with the literature to delineate their application. He explores the complementary relationship of rhetoric to narrative form (p. 10), and in the core chapters of his monograph consistently demonstrates this relationship. Furthermore, arguing that rhetoric works best within a social world shared by the implied author and audience, he selects two primary social-scientific models (applied in chapter five) as a means to reveal that world. He argues that the three methodologies build upon one another to reveal the narrative's shape and persuasive power, and suggests that the social location that best supports such a narrative is the early monarchic period (pp. 29–30).

In his second chapter, Oeste engages several studies concerned with two types of tension within the narrative. The first tension arises from narrative “bumpiness” (pp. 4, 31) produced by abrupt transitions, variant descriptions, and chronological discrepancies. Rather than working through diachronic models to address this “bumpiness,” he argues for the application of narrative methods. The second tension concerns how to read the negative portrayal of kingship in Judg 9 with the more positive portrayal of kingship in the rest of the book of Judges. From a review of key redactional, social-scientific, ideological, and literary-holistic studies, Oeste notes areas of continuing debate around the issues; these become the subject of his own study. These areas are particularly “the articulation between issues of kinship and monarchic interests,” and “the question of the role of political ideology in the shaping of Judg 9 and the book of Judges” (p. 52). Throughout the remainder of his argument, kinship, kingship, and political ideology form connective tissues as the three “sight lines” are applied.

The core of Oeste's argument is contained in chapters three through five. Each chapter applies one of the three sight lines to Judg 9. In applying the narrative method, Oeste first investigates Judg 9 within the context of the Gideon narrative, querying the different attitudes to kingship forwarded in each and uncovering a motif of retribution which resurfaces through the narrative study. Then, after outlining the narrative structure (Exposition [9:1–6], Complication [9:7–15], Change [9:23–24], Unraveling [9:22–55], and Ending [9:56–57]), he explores the chapter's narrative art. He interacts well with relevant literature through the notes, and is particularly cognisant of the need to illuminate the story-world of the implied audience through extra-textual resources (for instance, pp. 74–75 regarding the import of Baal Berith; p. 83 on the value of olive trees). This diachronic attention to the social world of the implied audience is shown as being both compatible with a synchronic reading, and necessary toward an attempt to hear the text with that implied audience (pp. 5–9). The narrative study repeatedly notes themes of retribution, kinship, and kingship, each of which reappears in the exploration of rhetoric and social-scientific structures. The chapter's summation draws together the various themes and notes that Abimelech's portrayal is not exclusively critical, nor leads to a “facile anti-monarchicalism” (p. 117). Suggesting that such a complex depiction arises from calculated intentions, Oeste thus opens the door to the exploration of rhetoric to discern those intentions.

Chapter four works with the New Rhetoric developed by Chaim Perelman and others that was introduced in chapter one (pp. 12–15).[1] Oeste works a second time through the narrative structure in order to show how the rhetoric builds upon the narrative art. Generally, although not always, repetition of narrative material is avoided by referencing the prior discussion through notes. Oeste again makes judicious use of secondary material to support his rhetorical conclusions; for instance, having noted a three-and-four part structure in the narrative analysis, he now cites Yairah Amit's[2] work showing the structure used as a persuasive rhetorical literary device (p. 139). A particular strength of this chapter is its collation of analogies (summarized in a chart on pp. 171–72), many dealing with figures from the early monarchy, by which the implied narrator subtly compares Abimelech's kingship to other leaders within the history. Criteria (introduced in chapter one, pp. 14–15) are applied to measure the likely intentionality of such analogies: according to these criteria, some of these analogies are allowed, while others are not. Together, the various rhetorical devices explored reveal a complex characterization of Abimelech; and returning to themes of retribution, kingship, and kinship, Oeste shows the rhetoric supporting his thesis. In a final section that bridges to the chapter on social-scientific models and methods, Oeste summarizes the assumptions, shared by the implied author and audience, which enable the narrative's rhetoric and posits the social world in which such assumptions best fit. As noted above, that world is the early monarchic period, when the institution of divinely appointed kingship is familiar, yet local election of leaders remains a real possibility. The narrative's rhetoric thus warns against such “choices at a local level [that] could have a detrimental impact at the national level” (p. 173).

Testing the social world construed from the rhetoric, chapter five applies two sociological models extensively, relying in a more passing manner on several others. The narrative is examined once more, now through the dual lens of Max Weber's model of patrimonialism and David Beetham's model of power legitimation.[3] This third review enlivens the previously explored narrative and rhetorical worlds and provides an ideological context for the threads of kingship, kinship, and retribution previously noted.

As Oeste sums up his work in the concluding chapter, he returns again to the benefit of combining the three sight lines. In the use of kinship language, the narrative structure that stresses the culpability of Abimelech and Shechem, the narrative's delegitimation of Abimelech's rule, and the negative portrayal of his kingship, Oeste illustrates key ways in which the findings of each sight line support and reinforce themselves mutually. From the discussion of these examples, Oeste shows how the narrative, delegitimizing wrongly acquired and localized kingship, fits well with the book of Judges' legitimation of centralized, divinely appointed monarchy.

Oeste's work is a careful application of multi-disciplinary approaches. He selects methods that have an inherent complementarity, and applies them thoughtfully while demonstrating a good grounding in the secondary literature in each. Whether one agrees with the social location of the narrative for which Oeste argues, he cogently wrestles with the tensions of the text. His conclusions attend to the narrative's placement in the book of Judges and the larger history, and also provide a plausible setting against which to place the implied audience and author.

Lissa M. Wray Beal, Providence Theological Seminary

[1] Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation (trans. J. Wilkinson and P. Weaver; Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969); Chaim Perelman, The Realm of Rhetoric (trans. W. Kluback; Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982). reference

[2] Yairah Amit, Reading Biblical Narratives: Literary Criticism and the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001). reference

[3] Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (ed. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich; trans. Ephraim Fischoff et al.; 2 vols.; Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978); David Beetham, The Legitimation of Power (London: Macmillan, 1991). reference