A. Bartor, Reading Law as Narrative: A Study in the Casuistic Laws of the Pentateuch

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

Bartor, Assnat, Reading Law as Narrative: A Study in the Casuistic Laws of the Pentateuch (SBLAIL, 5; Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature; Leiden: Brill, 2010). Pp. 219. Hardcover. US$138.00. ISBN 978-9-004-17800-7. Paperback. US$27.96. ISBN 978-1-5893-480-4.

This volume, written by a biblical scholar who is also a criminal attorney, presents a novel method for reading the Pentateuch's legal texts. Although one might expect Assnat Bartor to offer a more legal approach, as other legally trained scholars like Bernard Jackson, Raymond Westbrook, or David Daube have done, this is not the case. Rather, Bartor offers a literary reading that demonstrates the “poetics of biblical law” (pp. 5, 14). Although her approach finds its roots in the “law as literature” trend in legal scholarship (a branch of the more broad “law and literature” school), legal theorists tend to be interested in literary theory only to the extent that it illuminates the role of hermeneutics (deriving meaning from the language of a text) for legal methodology.[1] Bartor's narrative method, on the other hand, is concerned with the “nonlegal terrain in the margins of the laws” (p. 183). By treating the casuistic laws of the Pentateuch as “miniature stories” (pp. 7–9), which are embedded in a larger narrative (ch. 1), she is able to apply categories from the field of narrative criticism to biblical law. In the end, her approach is much more in line with studies on the poetics of biblical narrative than it is with any legal methodology: “Many earlier studies have been devoted to the poetics of biblical narrative and poetry. It is now time to deal thoroughly and systematically with the poetics of biblical law” (p. 14). Bartor provides an effective approach for accomplishing this goal.

After she lays out her methodology in the introduction and first chapter, the bulk of the book identifies various narrative and rhetorical features employed in a selection of laws among the Pentateuch's legal corpora. In chapter two, she views the law-giver (of each law she examines) as a narrator by examining them according to two categories that are often applied to narrators. The first category is the law-giver/narrator's participation in the events described in each law. For example, whenever the law-giver uses a first or second person reference (such as “you shall take him from my altar, that he may die” [Exod 21:14]), he is participating in the “narrative” events being prescribed. The second category is the law-giver/narrator's perceptibility in the law. This refers to instances when the law-giver reveals his own thoughts or responses to the law's contents. For example, the law-giver is perceptible in the concluding statements in the Priestly laws on skin infections (Lev 14:54–57) because it reveals “a guiding hand that teaches us how to process the material” (p. 79). Bartor concludes that all the instances in which the narrator/law-giver is present and perceptible “permit the addressees to experience the presence and engagement of the lawgivers” (p. 84).

In the third chapter Bartor focuses on another feature that pentateuchal laws share with narratives: mimesis. Specifically, she examines the manner in which reality is reflected in the depiction of characters' speeches. For example, in the case of the spurned wife (Deut 22:13–19), Bartor highlights the speeches of the husband (v. 14) and the spurned woman's father (vv. 16–17). She reasons that since these speeches are not necessary for the legal content of the law (the law-giver could have simply described the situation rather than put words in the characters' mouths) it can be concluded that their “purpose is to evoke the presence of the reader within the events—to allow the reader to take part in the perspectival colloquium, to hear the different voices, and to become exposed to the different points of view” (p. 105).

In the fourth chapter Bartor examines the ways in which the law-givers depict the inner psychic life of the characters, which “is one of the central tools of literary characterization and, as such, plays an important role in the poetics of narrative” (p. 134). For example, in Deuteronomy's homicide law (Deut 19:4–13), Bartor notes the significance of the fact that the law-giver includes the blood avenger's emotional state: he pursues the unintentional manslayer in “hot anger” (pp. 138–9). Finally, in chapter five Bartor highlights another narrative feature of the Pentateuch's casuistic laws: point of view. Here, she notes instances where the law reflects multiple perspectives. For example, in the law of the scorned woman, the narrator took pains to identify her according to the point of view of each character's “angle of vision.” The husband refers to her as “this woman” (v. 14) and the narrator refers to her as a “woman/wife” in relation to the husband (v. 13). Similarly, the father refers to her as “my daughter” (vv. 16–17) and the narrator refers to her as “young woman” (v. 15, 16, 19, 21) in relation to the father. Additionally, the narrator refers to her as a “virgin of Israel” in relation to the elders who are accorded the responsibility of punishing the accusing husband (v. 19). Bartor describes such instances of changes in point of view as “a rhetorical device that allows the narrator to paint human experience in different and variable colors” (p. 164).

There is much to commend in this book. Bartor effectively highlights many unnoticed (or at least under-noticed) poetic features of pentateuchal law that are important for our understanding of these complicated texts. However, it should be noted that at times Bartor seems over-zealous in her search for “non-legal” poetic features in the laws. For example, she regards a husband's use of the word “hate” (שנא) towards his wife in Deuteronomy's family laws (Deut 21:15; 22:13; 24:3) as a reflection of the characters' inner psychic life (pp. 142–3). As reflected in the (non-literary) marriage contracts from Elephantine, however, there is good reason to believe that שנא was a technical term for divorce, not a poetic means of reflecting a character's emotional state.[2] Similarly, she identifies “analogical extensions” (notably discussed by Michael Fishbane)[3] as instances where the law-giver/narrator's response and intervention in the law is perceptible. For example, the law of lost property (Deut 22:1–4) initially applies to sheep and oxen (v. 1), but is “analogically” extended to include donkeys, cloaks, and any lost thing (v. 3). She argues that this extension is an instance when the law-giver responds to a deficiency in the original law, and thus reveals his response to the material (p. 75). One of the essential features of legal language, however, is its need to be both broad on the one hand and precise on the other; legal literature is necessarily filled with broad/vague terms as well as lists of specific items.[4] It thus seems more likely that such analogical extensions serve a legal, rather than a poetic function. In fact, generally speaking, since Bartor consistently sought to distinguish the poetic features of the law from its legal content, the book would have benefitted from a discussion on the nature of legal language.[5]

Despite any over-zeal in finding poetic features in pentateuchal law, however, much of what Bartor discusses is spot-on and very illuminating. The book offers an insightful and innovative approach to these difficult texts, an approach which is very productive and will surely continue to be so in future studies on the poetics of biblical literature.

Jonathan Vroom, University of Toronto

[1] See Thomas Morawetz, “Law and Literature,” in Dennis M. Patterson (ed.), A Companion to Philosophy of Law and Legal Theory (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 446–56 (448). reference

[2] See, for example, Bob Becking, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Construction of Early Jewish Identity (FAT, 80; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 136. reference

[3] Michael A. Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988), 170–98. reference

[4] See, for example, Vijay K. Bhatia et al., “Introduction,” in Vijay K. Bhatia et al. (eds.), Vagueness in Normative Texts (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2005), 9–21 (10); and Peter M. Tiersma, “Categorial Lists in the Law,” in ibid., 109–30 (112–13). reference

[5] The work of Peter Tiersma would have provided a good starting point (Legal Language [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999]). reference