J. Schipper, Parables and Conflict in the Hebrew Bible

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Schipper, Jeremy, Parables and Conflict in the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). Pp. 184. Paperback. US$44.95. ISBN 978-1-10740-754-1.

Jeremy Schipper's Parables and Conflict in the Hebrew Bible examines the use of parables in the Former Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Beginning with the observation that parables in the prose section of the Hebrew Bible always appear in contexts of heightened conflict, Schipper argues against the common view that parables aim to change behaviors or mindsets as a means to resolve disagreement. Instead, “parables help create, intensify, and justify judgments and hostile actions against their addressee” (p. 4). Schipper pays particular attention to genre, claiming that while parables should be defined by their function (i.e., comparison), the texts that make up parables participate in various genres, such as curses, taunts, and petitionary narratives. Understanding how parables intensify conflict within a given narrative requires analysis of the particular genres used in the parable and the rhetorical force they lend each text. For example, in order to understand Jotham's parable in Judg 9, readers must recognize that Jotham builds his parable around a curse, rather than any of the other genres evoked in the story. Significantly, none of the narrative genres turned parable in the prose section of the Hebrew Bible are primarily didactic in rhetorical orientation.

The structure of the book is as follows: chapter 1 lays out the methodological groundwork, chapters 2–6 offer exegesis of Judg 9; 2 Sam 11–12; 2 Sam 14; 1 Kgs 20, and 2 Kgs 14/2 Chr 25 respectively, and chapter 7 provides conclusions and implications for the study of parables in the Latter Prophets. The book also includes subject and scripture indices. Schipper's overall thesis is convincing and illuminating; his treatments of Jotham's parable in Judg 9 and Nathan's parable in 2 Sam 11–12 are particularly elegant. The exegesis of Judg 9 is helpful in part because, among the stories discussed in the book, it most obviously supports Schipper's argument. Jotham's parable cannot be didactic since it does not permit for a change in behavior in Abimelech or the Shechemites. Even Jotham's conditional statements (see Judg 9:16, 19) refer to actions already taken by the addressees. Furthermore, Schipper illustrates why a parable, rather than plain speech, serves to heighten the judgment on Abimelech, the Shechemites, and the house of Millo by outlining how the narrative following Jotham's curse echoes the parable's arboreal imagery, thus adding rhetorical force to the fulfillment of the curse.

It is less obvious that Nathan's parable in 2 Sam 12:1–4 should be non-didactic. Schipper argues that Nathan's parable does not, as is commonly argued, seek to trick David into accidental self-condemnation by pronouncing judgment on the rich man of the parable. Instead, Nathan's parable is a fable that tests David's interpretive abilities. The purpose is to highlight David's shortcomings as a ruler through displaying his inability to correctly understand Nathan's words. Schipper compares this use of a fable to dream interpretation in Genesis and Daniel, in which the inability of rulers to understand their own dreams suggest their inability to handle the complex situations of their rule. Furthermore, Nathan's use of familial language in his parable “create[s] a rhetorical correspondence between David's actions and the judgment [Nathan] announces against David's family” (p. 56). The parable thus highlights David's lack of discernment, heightening and justifying the judgment against him, rather than providing David with new insight.

The weakness of Schipper's book lies not in his overall point, but in exegetical details. For example, Schipper describes Jehoash's parable in 2 Kgs 14//2 Chr 25 as a taunt meant to escalate military conflict between Israel and Judah. The purpose of the parable, which uses language reminiscent of Near Eastern disputation texts, is not to dissuade Amaziah from military confrontation, but rather to instigate such war. Thus far, Schipper's argument is convincing, but his treatment of the account in 2 Chronicles muddies the water. Schipper explains the comment in 2 Chr 25:20 that “Amaziah did not listen” to Jehoash's parable as a parallel to Amaziah's failure to listen to God, thus providing theological justification for Jehoash's defeat of Amaziah in battle. This focus on the failure to listen and understand the parable suggests that Amaziah should have been able to gather wisdom from the fable. If the parable is a taunt, listening to it would result precisely in what we have in the narrative, namely escalated conflict. This example illustrates the occasional inconsistencies of Schipper's argument, which do not fatally undermine his overall thesis, but rather suggest the need, in places, for more careful exegesis.

The book should appeal to a wide audience. In terms of methodology, the first chapter provides a helpful overview on the state of biblical research on parables and genre, including a comparison of the term “parables” (meshalim) with related terms such as taunts, fables, allegories and riddles. Furthermore, the book will be useful to anyone with a more general interest in the Deuteronomistic History. Though Schipper draws on the theory and methodology of the first chapter, close readings of the texts in question dominate the exegetical chapters (2–6), and the discussion of the function of each parable illuminates the narratives within which they are found. Finally, the book will be interesting to anyone looking at the topic of conflict in the Hebrew Bible, in particular conflict as it relates to dialogue in prose.

Mari Jørstad, Duke University