Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Levinson, Bernard M., Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). Pp. xxvi+206. Hardcover. US$75.00. ISBN 978-0-521-51344-9.

This is a much-expanded English version of the author's 2005 L'Herméneutique de l'innovation: Canon et exégèse dans l'Israël biblique (Editions Lessius, 2005). Its theme is the workings and theoretical implications for biblical studies (in the wider context of the intellectual history of the humanities) of “inner-biblical exegesis.” It concludes, as did the French original, with a substantial (nearly half the book) bibliographical essay on this scholarly trend—liberally interpreted so as to stress the continuities with second commonwealth interpretation.[1]

The volume begins with two short theoretical essays. The first, “Biblical Studies at the Meeting Point of the Humanities,” includes a healthy riposte to the postmodernist (but not here so described) trend to romanticise rabbinic hermeneutics “as championing radical indeterminacy.” The second, “Rethinking the Relation between ‘Canon’ and ‘Exegesis,’” considers the historical background and history of use of the so-called canon formula (“You must not add anything … nor take anything away” Deut 4:2; 13:1), stressing that it did not inhibit even Deuteronomy itself from the exercise of inner-biblical exegesis. Levinson summarises his position in the following four propositions (pp. 20–21): “(1) exegesis provides a strategy for religious renewal; (2) renewal and innovation are almost always covert rather than explicit in ancient Israel; (3) in many cases exegesis involves not the passive explication but the radical subversion of prior authoritative texts; and (4) these phenomena are found in the literature of ancient Israel before the closure of the canon.”

The major exemplifications of Levinson's argument are found in chapters 3 and 4. The latter, “The Reworking of the Principle of Transgenerational Punishment: Four Case Studies,” is of particular interest and importance. The issue is often discussed in terms of the tension between individual and collective responsibility. Within Deuteronomy that tension is represented by the threat of transgenerational punishment in the Decalogue (“visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me,” 5:9, JPS) as against the legal principle in 24:16: “Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor shall children be put to death for parents: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime.” This tension appears to reflect a distinction between the standards applicable, respectively, to divine and human justice. Elsewhere, however, and notably in Ezekiel 18, the principle of individual responsibility is strongly asserted even for divine justice. Levinson persuasively argues that Ezekiel's viewpoint is reflected also in Deuteronomy itself, which at 7:9–10 uses the language of the Decalogue while insisting that the sinner is requited “to his face” (אֶל־פָּנָיו) without mention of subsequent generations.

Chapter 3, “The Problem of Innovation within the Formative Canon,” includes a study of Ruth, which prompts a more critical, albeit marginal, comment. Levinson accepts the view, argued on both linguistic and substantive grounds, that the story is postexilic, and should be seen as reflecting “liberal” opposition to Ezra's ban on mixed marriages and demand for the divorce of foreign wives. It does so by a story which culminates in a genealogy of David as descended from a Moabitess, despite the ban in Deut 23:4 on the entry of a Moabite into the congregation of the Lord. The narrator of Ruth does not address that ban directly, but rather, Levinson argues, offers a fictional legal history to show that in another respect an ancient rule has indeed become obsolete. This relates to the law of the levirate, and in particular the observation in Ruth 4:7: “Thus formerly it was done in Israel in cases of redemption and exchange: to validate any transaction, one man would take off his sandal and hand it to the other. This was the practice in Israel.” Levinson argues that “the ritual in Ruth bears no direct analogue to anything in the Pentateuch. In the levirate law of Deut 25:5–10 it is the widow who removes the shoe of her brother-in-law who has refused his duty … here, it is the man himself who removes his shoe” (p. 43). He also notes the use of different verbs for removal and the absence of spitting in the Ruth narrative.

I would suggest that the two sources are in fact complementary. If indeed there was an ancient custom of validation of transactions by taking off a sandal, then if the levir had indeed performed what in Deuteronomy is presented as his duty, he would have done just that; when he refuses to do so, he is liable (according Deuteronomy) to be subjected to a humiliation ceremony which we now see from Ruth 4:7 includes a talionic element: the sandal he ought to have removed himself is removed from him by the person he has injured. We may note that the levirate law appears in Deuteronomy immediately before an explicitly talionic rule in Deut 25:11–12. This understanding has a further consequence. The subject of the second clause in Ruth 4:8 is not the (rejecting) “redeemer” but rather Boaz, for it is he who, in terms of the previous verse, is performing the redemption which requires validation. (JPS mistranslates as: “So when the redeemer said to Boaz, ‘Acquire for yourself,’ he drew off his sandal” — but וַיֹּאמֶר הַגֹּאֵל is not a subordinate clause; it records the go’el's speech act, transferring his right to Boaz, which may well have been regarded as satisfying the levirate law so as not to require the Deuteronomic humiliation ceremony.) Thus Ruth 4:7 need not be a fictional legal history, even though it may indicate that a Mosaic law had indeed been rendered obsolete by later practice.

Levinson maintains that Ruth 4:7 is the “single explicit acknowledgement in the Bible of a legal modification” (p. 44). I would offer the case of the daughters of Zelophehad (Num 27:1–11) as another, despite Levinson's claim (pp. 32–33) that the “four cases within the Pentateuch of new divine oracles” (I would add Numbers 36, the issue of the marriage restrictions of the daughters of Zelophehad, as a fifth) merely “supplement the existing provisions of covenantal law … the earlier law is not revoked.” Interestingly, this issue, like that in Ruth, also involves claims regarding devolution of a tribal portion of the promised land as shown by its proximity to the census in Numbers 26, which already mentions Zelophehad's “dysfunctional” family situation. Moreover, the language of the daughters' plea in Num 27:4 is remarkable: “Why should the name of our father be taken away from his family (inheritance),” using the very same verb (גרע) as in the Deuteronomic “canon formula”: “…nor take anything away from it.” For sure, this appears at best to be an allusion to the canon formula, but it supports the understanding that the daughters were protesting against an established norm; they were neither seeking clarification of a gap in the law nor objecting to a mere social custom.

These marginal issues prompt a more general question regarding the overall status that Levinson claims for inner-biblical exegesis. Though acknowledging that it appears in a variety of forms, he appears to want to privilege it as the unique strategy for legal revision in the Hebrew Bible. Numbers 27 would appear to argue against that. Nor is the distance between Biblical and ancient Near Eastern techniques quite as radical as Levinson suggests. Levinson maintains (pp. 26–27) that the royal voice apparent in the Prologue and Epilogue of Hammurabi was wiped clean in the Bible by “transforming the royal speaker from a human monarch into their divine king.” Yet a Mosaic first person voice is prominent in Deuteronomy (4:1, 40; 6:2; 8:11; 13:19; 27:10; 28:1, 15; 30:8).[2]

The volume concludes with short reflections on “The Canon as Sponsor of Innovation” (before the Bibliographic Essay). There is much in this volume both to stimulate and inform students and researchers alike.

Bernard S. Jackson, Liverpool Hope University

[1]Levinson’s account of the work of Simon Rawidowicz (pp. 98-102) is particularly interesting in this respect for its ideological location in relation to both Wellhausen’s Spätjudentum and that form of Zionist historiography often associated with Ahad Ha‘am.reference

[2]See further B.S. Jackson, Studies in the Semiotics of Biblical Law (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 159-61.reference