Reviewing Friedmann’s book is an unusual task in that he is not a biblical scholar, though he writes on a topic of vital interest to biblical critics. He is a law professor in Israel who has noticed that the implied legal strictures in many of the biblical narratives do not agree with the correlative Torah and post-biblical legislation. For example, he points out that David’s ability to marry the woman with whom he had committed adultery with is out of the question for Torah legislation. Another example is Michal’s marriage to Palti, when she had not been divorced by David. His interpretation is evolutionary, assuming that the narrative legal assumptions are earlier than the Pentateuchal legislation. And from a biblical-critical perspective, this is generally true.
While the book is divided into three parts, each part is only loosely cohesive; the book is essentially a loose compilation of short chapters on various biblical, legal issues and particular narratives.
For the biblical scholar, Friedmann’s thesis on the development of the changing legal settings reflected in Scripture is quite illuminating. It begins with the sin in the garden and Cain’s murder of Abel. God is described as having to serve as investigator, prosecutor, and judge in these cases. Afterwards, judgment is passed on to human authorities. In the story of Achan we see represented divine investigation by the casting of lots when no specific suspect is in view. Divine ordeal is the procedure used when a suspect is available, as in the bitter water ordeal for a suspected adulteress in Num. 5. These methods helped supply social stability for primitive societies until Medieval times, when belief in their reliability began to wane. Eventually an alternative was found: the modern jury system. In ancient Israel, an alternative to the ordeal is found in Solomon’s famous judgment regarding the two prostitutes, where there was no evidence except the testimony of the parties involved. Solomon’s use of a psychological test was truly seminal: it “employed only human device in order to reach a decision” (p. 25). This signifies the passing of judgment to human beings or judges. Another tactic was the use of oaths, so that the one who swore would fear perjury in view of divine retribution, which has similarities to the ordeal. There is also trial by combat, where the deity intervenes to deliver the innocent, as exemplified by the story of David and Goliath.
Also illuminating is Friedmann’s treatment of the issue of deception in narratives. He notes how the prohibition against fraud in the Pentateuchal legislation is not assumed in the stories of the Law and Prophets. Basically, guile, Friedmann argues, is valued by early Israelite society, where the powerless need a mechanism for “leveling the playing field.” Friedmann points out that Abraham is never sanctioned for lying to Pharaoh about his wife. Actually, things for Abraham turn out rather well in spite of the deceit. Friedmann provides insight here that should be pursued by biblical scholars. Literary critics often see the voice of the narrator represented by the Pharaoh who they see as essentially scolding Abraham for his deception. However, it may be more to the point that Pharaoh is shamed by having to “whine” before Abraham, before whose deity he was powerless. Modern biblical scholars need to be careful not to read later biblical and modern values (deception is wrong) back into the biblical stories. Friedmann adds an interesting postscript about the necessity of extensive use of oaths and vows in ancient Israel as compensation for the frequency of societal deceit. A mechanism was necessary for reassuring a hearer that the truth was being told.
Another interesting interpretation involves the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter. Friedmann rightly believes the story represents an early period in Israel when human sacrifice was allowable in contrast to later biblical laws and post-biblical Judaism. Friedmann points out that there is no punishment and that the deed was “perhaps even worthy of merit” (p. 137). However, in criticism, the story is not so much about the virtue or vice of human sacrifice as it is about making vows. A close literary reading of this story in its Deuteronomistic context reveals that the story might be a negative model for making rash vows, prohibited by the D code. The real hero of the story then is not Jephthah, but the faithful daughter, who realizes that it did no good to resist the obvious conclusion that she must be sacrificed—she, in turn, represents dutiful Deuteronomistic obedience. Jephthah has to endure tragically the loss of posterity, due to an unnecessary and rash vow.
In spite of Friedmann’s lack of knowledge about the compositional layering in the narratives, of literary-critical skills, and his naive assumption of the historicity of most of the narratives, the book has many bursts of illumination that make it worth the read for biblical scholars interested in sociological, ideological, or narrative criticism.