The book and its narratives : a critical examination of some synchronic studies of the book of Judges

Abstract: During recent decades, there has been a trend among biblical scholars towards applying methods borrowed from literary studies to the familiar texts of the Old and New Testaments. A major reason for this reorientation is the search for a meaningful and interpretable text; hence, it can be seen as a protest against the historical-critical school and its ambition to reconstruct an authentic text by means of a diachronic analysis. Synchronic scholars argue for a new understanding of the biblical text, claiming that the object of interpretation is the text in its present form, regarded as a literary production. Consequently, they can study texts that are commonly considered to be patchworks or conglomerations as meaningful literary works regardless of their pre-history or authorship. In this thesis I do not focus on studies that concern individual narratives or poems but on those that apply a synchronic approach to large units of texts such as books or collections of books. My example is the book of Judges, and the fundamental issue is whether the synchronists’ description of its structure and of the relationship between the individual narratives and the larger text is sustainable. Through analyses of the book’s introduction and the stories about Ehud, Deborah, Jephthah and Samson, I argue that the scholars under consideration are often compelled to form interpretations that are in conflict with a “natural” or “intuitive” reading. I hence claim that they are not reading these stories in accordance with the conventions that are generally applied to narratives. The arguments in which they refer to implicit devices, allusions and the structure of the larger text are assessed as unconvincing.I argue that that these scholars make two common theoretical mistakes. Firstly, they do not consider the specific restrictions that apply to “the literary point of view”. Secondly, they disregard the fact that narratives are autonomous and hence resistant to reworking. If several independent narratives are put together, they are not thereby transformed into a larger single narrative even though they may contain common patterns and motifs. Hence, the individual story represents the primary level of meaning and discrete elements are understood as motifs within aliterary construction. The stories of the book of Judges are therefore texts within a text. This explains why the book lacks a coherent ideology or morality. The tensions and ambiguities in the book cannot be resolved by classifying it as a literary production and studying it synchronically: on the contrary, doing this confirms and explains the difficulties in the book – that is, the inconsistent character of both the book and its narratives and the bizarre events that are recounted therein – and its polyphonic character.