Tod Linafelt, Ruth, and Timothy K. Beal, Esther.
(Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry; Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1999). Ruth, xxv, 90 pp.; Esther, xxii, 130 pp. Hardcover. ISBN 0-8146-5045-7. $34.95
Reviewed by Athalya Brenner
University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Brite Divinity School, Fort Worth, TX

Berit Olam is a series belonging to the “commentary” genre. Its general editor is David W. Cotter, O. S. B.; associate editors are Jerome T. Walsh and Chris Franke. Since the “commentaries” for two biblical books are joined here into one volume, and since the volume belongs to a series, it seems reasonable to refer to both and each in these three contexts of (1) series, (2) commentary, and (3) by analogy, as well as to read each on its own.

This is how the series is advertised on the publishers’ relevant Internet page.

For centuries people have turned to the Hebrew Bible to hear the life-giving words of God’s everlasting covenant. Berit Olam (The Everlasting Covenant): Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry shares the riches of this message with all who “incline their ear” to hear it: lay people, professional biblical scholars, preachers, students, and religious educators. This multi-volume commentary series reflects the latest developments in a relatively new method of biblical study: literary criticism. The authors approach the books of the Hebrew Bible as literary works, recognizing that the stories and poetry can be better appreciated if one is acquainted with the techniques whereby the ancient Hebrew authors told stories and wrote poems, as well as the strategies that modern readers use to understand them … The authors comment on the text of the Hebrew Bible but they refer primarily to the New Revised Standard Version when referring to a modern translation. The volumes in Berit Olam contain commentary only; the complete biblical text is not included.

The two commentaries indeed share the basic premises of “literary criticism”: that is, reading and analysis of the biblical text as it is, that is, the end product of a long history of transmission and reception, although issues of historicity, dating, text criticism and so on are briefly discussed. Both Linafelt and Beal share the wish to “problematize” ‘ the biblical text, to do close readings, to try and appropriate it to the best of their ability, working from the Hebrew text but using the NRSV (why? This is not explained!) throughout—all in keeping with the series’ stated aim. [In parenthesis, let me add that I doubt whether their efforts would speak much to “lay people,” although the Hebrew words are given in transcript—a good choice for the stated purpose.] The authors attempt to renew the recently maligned genre of “commentary”—see for instance Beal’s remarks in Esther (pp. x-xiv), or Linafelt’s choice of discussion (mainly structural) in his “Introduction” to Ruth. They both have an enviable grasp of Hebrew; and their ability to read the Hebrew Bible and comment on it, is formidable. Also, I must confess that I find the brevity and density of their work, much like other works in the series, refreshing—indeed, both manage to get a lot of worthy discussion into a very limited space. This series policy is a great plus, as far as this reader is concerned.

But here the authors part ways; and the existence of both “commentaries,” emanating from similar methodological premises and professional convictions, under the same cover affords a wonderful view of the potential plurality of practitioners who, roughly speaking, belong to the same context. Most of Linafelt’s “Introduction” deals with general matters, such as is customary in traditional “commentaries” ’ (although shorter): characterization, purpose, structure, the divine. He then analyzes each Ruth chapter as an act/literary entity, possibly subdivided, under a heading he gives in his own Chapters (“1. The Bond Between Ruth and Naomi,” “2. Finding Favor,” “3. An Ambiguous Encounter in the Night,” “4. Making it All Legal”). The titles are informative and descriptive. Footnotes are sparingly used, references to previous scholarship are paired down and highly selective, and occasional use only is made of traditional Jewish exegesis. Linafelt states very early on that he wants to problematize the book, that he does not regard it as an idyllic or simplistic story, that he wants to raise questions but doesn’t always feel compelled to supply a definitive answer to them. This approach is exemplified by his discussion of chapter 3, where he refuses to firmly decide on the important matter of what in fact happened on the threshing floor. Quite rightly so, I think: this is intelligent treatment, why should we clarify what the author (whoever s/he was) left (deliberately or otherwise, who knows?) vague? So although I can quarrel with Linafelt’s choice of secondary literature at times, or with items of his discussion of chapter 4, I find his work readable, lucid, unburdened by too much scholarship, suitable to all categories of readers, and respectful. Moreover, without overtly referring to it, Linafelt manages to convey his sense of enjoyment, of wonder, of pleasure, at the text’s complexities, ambiguities, difficulties, sometimes humor, sometimes beauty … And for me, at the end of a task on the balance well done within the accepted series’ confines, this is what should remain or return: the aesthetic and emotional, the lightness, as well as the intellectual pleasure of “solving” a biblical text.

Beal’s treatment of Esther is in many ways different and, I feel, more ambitious. In his “Introduction” he states clearly that he uses rhetorical criticism as his main methodological tool and that “by describing my approach as emphasizing the particular over the general, and the tensive over the continuous, I am not altogether missing the importance of broader, overall interpretations of the book of Esther, especially those focusing on narrative structure,” although—ostensibly like Linafelt—“without glossing over those particularities that introduce tension, anomaly, and blurring” (p. xiii). But, in my view, this is not what happens. Beal’s commitment, nay, drive, to understand everything about the Hebrew text through the analysis of everything as of equal importance, together with his relative ignoring of general matters, detract from the value of his “commentary” (“Method: Commentary is Pointless” writes Beal, p. x). A pertinent example. A peculiar feature of Esther’s style is the author or authors’ tendency to repeat, and duplicate, on all levels: of words, of phrases, of synonyms, of events in the plot. Why this method of unfolding a story is chosen can’t be easily answered, perhaps not at all, and its aesthetic appreciation is a matter of taste and context. At any rate, a recognition of this feature would have saved Beal questions such as why does Esther ask to give two drinking parties rather than one (p. 72), or why kill Haman’s son’s twice, or is the king really “farcical” all the way (p. 11)?, or the problem with explaining Esth 8:16 (p. 103). There’s no denying Beal’s erudition: see his treatment of chapter 1, the Vashti story and its importance for the whole plot. Also, the many footnotes will bear witness to that, although they might hinder the less professional reader. Also, a conscious attempt to use ancient Jewish sources is much in evidence and reminds the reader many times, which is a good thing, that Esther is perhaps the most Jewish book in the Hebrew Bible. But the tendency to privilege the particular over the general, without then returning to the general (structure and aim) to round the picture off, is less successful than it may be.

Reviewing is a matter of taste, let us remember that. This reviewer noticed that the titles by Beal given to blocks of narrative (that do not necessarily correspond to biblical chapter divisions, as rightly dictated by the narrative situation at times) were witty: “Beginning with the End of Vashti,” “Remembering to Forget,” “Sleep Deserts,” “Going Out Party” are a selection. They are witty, but are they descriptive? I’m not sure about Beal’s discussion of God’s place in the story. On the other hand, I like his serious treatment of otherness (the Jew as woman, see also Daniel Boyarin), ethnicity, anti-Judaism—but find him too apologetic perhaps on behalf of the Scroll’s Jews. A good thing, you may say, in this day and age. Yes it is. Finally, does Beal really enjoy the story, does he allow himself a wild laugh like the laugh of Rav that he quotes, “until he doesn’t know”? Or has this admittedly learned discussion of particulars, in high seriousness, taken the edge of the politically incorrect fun that the Esther Scroll, and Purim, offer?