Monday, March 30, 2009

Review: Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel

Levinson, Bernard M. Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel. Cambridge University Press, 2008. For sale by Amazon.

This just might be the best book I've read in a long time. It's challenged my assumptions about the development of the Hebrew Bible and the role of innovation alongside preservation. I don't think I really understood inner-biblical exegesis before reading this book. The larger issue addressed by the book is the interplay between continuity and change within the biblical text itself. This was a familiar issue to me from the vantage point of classical rabbinic Judaism's innovative re-creation of Judaism post-70 CE, but I had never considered it's role in the development of the text I study primarily - the Hebrew Bible. Basically, later texts subtly undermine the plain sense of earlier texts and adapt the community's thinking in such a way that the new innovative meaning is presented as the meaning that was there all along. Their exegesis changes the text, but they claim to have made no change. On this issue, Levinson says:
Although it is a profound instrument of cultural renewal, exegesis is often also profoundly a study in the false consciousness of the interpreter, who disclaims the very historical agency that . . . makes exegesis worthy of study! (p. 17)
Previous models (including my own thinking) have focused on the idea that a closed canon was the catalyst for innovative and covert reworkings of an authoritative text. Levinson engages with the concept of canon throughout the book. Of the six chapters, three focus on issues surrounding the canon - Ch. 2 "Rethinking the Relation between 'Canon' and 'Exegesis"; Ch. 3 "The Problem of Innovation within the Formative Canon"; Ch. 5 "The Canon as Sponsor of Innovation."

Chapter 2 provided me with the most food for thought, introducing the four major theses that are developed throughout the book (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.
Here are some brief quotes from Ch. 2 that I found particularly thought-provoking:
With such fixity and textual sufficiency as its [the canon's] hallmarks, how can a canon be made to address the varying needs of later generations of religious communities? These later generations face the conflicting imperatives of subsuming their lives to the authority of the canon while adapting that unchangeable canon to realities of social, economic, political, and intellectual life never contemplated at the time of its composition. . . . If the closed literary canon as the repository of revelation or insight is the source of stability for a religious tradition, exegesis provides vitality. . . . By means of exegesis, the textually finite canon becomes infinite in its application. One of the chief means, therefore, by which a religious tradition demonstrates its creativity is the variety of ways it finds to accommodate itself to and overcome an authoritative yet textually delimited canon. (pp. 14-15)

It is essential to understand that the ingenuity of the interpreter operates even in the formative period of the canon, while those texts that will subsequently win authoritative status are still being composed and collected. . . . [The] ancient writers sought to explain, respond to, and challenge older texts that had already won cultural prestige. (pp. 18-19)
The centerpiece of Levinson's analysis is his demonstration in Ch. 4 of the reworkings of the principle of transgenerational punishment from in Exod 20:5-6. Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Deuteronomy all present subtle moves toward the idea of individual retribution. He also examines the way the Targum deals with the issue to show how the trajectory begun in the biblical reworking is continued in later exegesis.

Finally, chapter 6 (nearly half the book alone) provides a thorough bibliographic survey of the history of inner-biblical exegesis. The bibliography there is essential for anyone interested in the methodology of inner-biblical exegesis and early biblical interpretation.

All in all, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the issues of early biblical interpretation and the formation of the biblical canon. Specialists across the board in religious studies and biblical studies would profit from a closer look at Levinson's book. I'm recommending it to everyone I know - NT students, rabbinics experts, early Christian studies people, Hebrew Bible colleagues - you know who you are - read this book!


  1. Levinson writes well and clearly. Here is a link to an online interview, and a brief bibliography, now in need of an update:

  2. I'll be picking up this book because of your review. It looks too good to not read.