D.A. Bergen, Dischronology and Dialogic in the Bible's Primary Narrative

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

Bergen, David A., Dischronology and Dialogic in the Bible's Primary Narrative (BI, 2; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2009). Pp. xi + 226. Hardcover. US$131.25. ISBN 978-1-60724-105-8.

This work, a revision of Bergen's doctoral dissertation, follows in the tradition of Robert Polzin's Moses and the Deuteronomist and Jean-Pierre Sonnet's The Book within the Book.[1] As such, the study pursues a literary examination of Deuteronomy and its role within the larger “Primary Narrative” (Genesis–2 Kings). What makes Bergen's study unique is that it seeks to address a classic issue of text versus context—“the book of Deuteronomy and its relationship to [the historical] Josiah” (2 Kgs 22–23)—in purely literary fashion instead (p. 14). The center of Bergen's argument is that Deuteronomy itself provides the interpretive key for understanding how the canonical Deuteronomy relates to the “book of the law” mentioned in the text. It should be noted, though, that Bergen describes his work as being intended for scholars and therefore “burdened with scholarly jargon and technological terminology” (p. vii). This is not an overstatement; even readers familiar with the textual issues addressed in that book will find it challenging.

Bergen begins by setting out his narratological methodology, which, though somewhat unique, has a rather Polzinesque feel. In particular, Bergen roots his study in the so-called two voices of Deuteronomy (that of Moses and that of the narrator), which, like Polzin, he sees as competing and so establishing a dialogic. Where Bergen differs from Polzin is in the nature of his dialogic. In place of Polzin's “authoritative dogmatism” (Moses' voice) versus “critical traditionalism” (narrator's voice), Bergen puts forward a different dialogic: Moses' positive assessment of Israel's possibilities (found in the book of the law) versus Yahweh's negative one (found more broadly in Deuteronomy and the previous Pentateuchal material). The result, he argues, is that beneath “the surface [of what] appears to affirm traditional confessionalist claims for Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomic law…lies a skeptical reading of the law and its efficacy within the paramount religious economy within the Bible's storyworld” (p. 16). That is, Deuteronomy subverts Moses' claim that he speaks for Yahweh and that his words, found in the book of the law, are a reliable guide to pleasing Yahweh and turning back his judgments. For Bergen this explains why Josiah's reform is ultimately unsuccessful in saving Israel: the book-of-the-law blueprint that Josiah followed was a farce promoted by Moses, a farce that dupes characters of the storyworld, but that we as readers ought to recognize.

Bergen seeks to substantiate his claim by employing three literary tools in particular: Mikhail Bakhtin's “dialogic voicing,” Sonnet's “embedded structuration,” and Meir Sternberg's “chronological deformation” (p. 22). Bakhtin and Sonnet's notions are employed first in order to demarcate the different voices and to articulate how they interact. As already indicated, Bergen demarcates the voices according to narrator and characters. His results are somewhat unique, as he argues for an intricate pattern of concentric frames in Deuteronomy, with the narrator's voice (“discourse”) framing Moses' voice (“story”). Bergen sees the narrator's comments as forming an outer and inner narratorial frame:

1:1–5

4:41–5:1

28:69–29:1

31:9–34:12

In the outer frame, much attention is paid to the narrator's description of Moses' communicative act at Moab. Bergen especially tries to link Moses' “explaining” (באר) of Yahweh's words in 1:5 with the writing of the book of the law in 31:9, 24. He does so in order to show that the “explaining” and the “writing” are the same act, and that this act is meant to be seen negatively. This move is important to his thesis, for he uses it then to argue that the narrator has framed Moses' rendition of the law as negative. Seen in this way, the narratorial framework serves as the reader's interpretive lens for viewing Moses' book of the law (whose substance, Bergen suggests, is Deut 4–30).

Having established his governing framework for the larger book, Bergen moves to examine an especially important piece of the outer narratorial frame: ch. 31. He does so particularly by leveraging Sternberg's view of chronological deformities, which makes good sense considering interpreters' long-standing difficulties with the chronology of the events in this chapter. Fundamental to his approach is the view that innovations in Deuteronomy's law and in its retelling of Israel's story, as compared to the rest of the Pentateuch, are meant to raise questions in the reader's mind. These questions accumulate as Deuteronomy unfolds until finally, in ch. 31, the necessary information is given in order to reinterpret the preceding narrative.

That information, in Bergen's view, is as follows. In Deut 31:9, ויכתב משה should, be taken as the pluperfect “when Moses had written,” thus making this writing of the law an event prior to the Moab address. On this point Bergen follows Lohfink and Sonnet. Unlike them, however, Bergen goes further and suggests that the bulk of the chapter, namely vv. 9–29, should also be taken as part of the same event. Indeed, such a position makes for a simpler reading of the chronology, avoiding the need to assign different times to verses. Especially important to Bergen's view is how the theophany in vv. 14–21 relates to the two references about giving and promulgating of the law (vv. 9–13 and 24–29). Rather than placing Yahweh's theophany after Moses' Moab address (Lohfink, Sonnet), Bergen proposes that it should be viewed just as it appears in the text: between the two law writings.

In this understanding, Yahweh's theophany occurs in response to the first law writing (vv. 9–13), the work of the hand of Moses, in order to correct its overly optimistic and mechanistic covenantal theology. The revised version (vv. 24–29), which includes the witness song (32:1–43), is Yahweh's more realistic and somber view of the covenantal relationship. It is this information, therefore, that allows the reader to fill in the gaps. The reason that Moses' book of the law (Deut 4–30; 31:9–13) is so different from the previous pentateuchal versions is because it is just that—namely, Moses's book. It is not Yahweh's. Yahweh's version is what we as readers find in the broader Pentateuch and in Deuteronomy as it currently is framed by the witness song in ch. 32. When readers come to ch. 31, therefore, it becomes apparent that this dialogic between Moses and Yahweh is what governs Deuteronomy.

Bergen pursues an enduring question in a fresh way, and he identifies and applies apt literary tools for the task. Furthermore, he carries out his arguments in great detail and develops them carefully. Despite all of this, however, I was left unconvinced. I frequently found myself thinking that while this or that idea was theoretically tenable, it was also rather unlikely. It was difficult at times, too, to ascertain what significant gains Bergen had made over previous scholars of similar views (e.g. Polzin's dialogic, Talstra's reading of the theophany in Deut 31, etc.).[2] In the end, the larger proposal of Bergen's work—the governing dialogic between Moses and Yahweh—seems to me to run opposite of the likely purpose of Deuteronomy. That purpose was to fuse Israel's generational horizons: that is, to fuse—not juxtapose—Yahweh's voice with Moses's (Sonnet), so that each new generation could hear the words of Horeb/Moab for itself (von Rad et al).[3]

Aaron Culp, Denver Seminary

[1] Robert Polzin, Moses and the Deuteronomist: A Literary Study of the Deuteronomic History. Part 1: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges (New York: Seabury, 1980); Jean-Pierre Sonnet, The Book within the Book: Writing in Deuteronomy (BIS 14; Leiden: Brill, 1997). reference

[2] Eep Talstra, “Texts for Recitation: Deuteronomy 6:7; 11:19,” in J. W. Dyk (ed.), Unless Someone Guide Me: Festschrift for Karel A. (Amsterdamse cahiers voor exegese van de Bijbel en zijn tradities Supplement Series, 2; Maastricht: Shaker, 2001), 67–76. reference

[3] Gerhard von Rad, The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays (trans. E.W. Trueman Dicken; New York: McGraw Hill, 1966), 28–30. Scholarship has tended to follow von Rad on this, with some studies seeking to elucidate particular aspects. E.g., J. G. Millar, “Living at the Place of Decision: Time and Place in the Framework of Deuteronomy,” in J. G. McConville and J. G. Millar (eds.), Time and Place in Deuteronomy (JSOTSup 179; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1994), 15–88. reference