Book Review

J. P. Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative: An Introductory Guide. Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 1999. 216 pp. paperback. ISBN: 0-664-22263-3. $22.95.

I purchased this book with great expectations. Jan P. Fokkelman of the University of Leiden (the Netherlands) has produced stunning work on the narratives of 1 and 2 Samuel. His monumental four volume set, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel (Van Gorcum, 1981-1993), is a tour de force of the Hebrew text of these two central Biblical books. In addition, Fokkelman has contributed innovative narrative and structural analyses of portions of Genesis (Narrative Art in Genesis, 1975) and select Biblical poetry (Major Poems of the Hebrew Bible, 1998). As a central figure in the "narrative revolution," Fokkelman has confirmed the integrity of the received Hebrew text while penetrating profoundly the various threads of meaning woven by the Biblical storytellers and poets. If he is unimpressed with dogmatic categories such as divine inspiration, we are not surprised. He is a modern critical Bible scholar for whom such categories are, unfortunately, passé. Nevertheless, he is a master of the Hebrew idiom and refreshing new insights spring from his capable analysis of the text. Nor do we expect biblical-theological reflections from his myopic horizon. He is immersed in the immediate Hebrew text and rarely lifts his eye to the redemptive-historical, let alone the eschatological horizon. Still his work is stimulating, powerful, challenging—and even a back door apology for several orthodox readings and positions (i.e., the integrity of the Hebrew text; a hesitation—often outright ridicule—of form critical and source critical readings; the dramatic or affective power of the Biblical narratives to arrest the attentive reader).

The work under review takes its place within the genre of recent narrative approaches to the Bible. The mainstay of the movement has been Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981). Yet the magnum opus of the genre has been, in this writer's opinion, Shimon Bar-Efrat's Narrative Art in the Bible (1989). Fokkelman's new volume (first published in Dutch in 1995) will not replace Bar-Efrat. The latter's volume remains more accessible, better organized and more adaptable to Old and New Testament text alike. Fokkelman has written "An Introductory Guide" which, in fact, requires more narrative expertise (and exposure) than the beginning student/reader normally possesses. But more significantly, the present volume is not as theologically suggestive as Fokkelman's other major works. I do not mean to imply that Fokkelman unpacks the theological meaning of Hebrew passages—he eschews theological interpretation. Yet his careful discussion of the Hebrew text normally opens up avenues of theological consideration to the eager biblical theologian. In using his commentaries and detailed studies, I have been personally stimulated to "go beyond" Fokkelman, biblical-theologically speaking, precisely because he has so carefully explained the structure and meaning of the Hebrew text. In this respect, he remains immensely helpful to the preacher and student of the Word of God.

But this present offering is disappointing. First, it regurgitates much of Fokkelman's previous work. Scholars (as well as preachers) need not reinvent the wheel every time they compose or deliver; however Fokkelman's reuse of his previous work is less detailed, redundant (he frequently repeats pericopes and comments), often little more than a re-telling of the story and presumptuous (assuming a knowledge of literary vocabulary and technique which belongs to adepts, not novices). As a beginning introduction to the narrative method in Biblical study, Bar-Efrat remains the standard.

Even more crucial to the readers of this journal is Fokkelman's argument (pp. 22-23) that the text of Scripture has no final or absolutely objective reading; that is, reading the text of the Bible is ever-changing with the reader himself. This position is, of course, currently de rigueur in reader-response theory together with the latter's deconstructionist and post-modernist aftermath. If the meaning of a text of scripture shifts with the ages, then no final reading is possible. Notice carefully that Fokkelman is not discussing deeper or more profound insights into the text as objective; he is rather intimating that subjectivity is the only way in which to read Biblical texts and those readings will change as presuppositions and perceptions (not to mention the cultural conditions) of the subjective reader change. In fine, Fokkelman cannot perceive Scripture as divine revelation; it is human story, only human story, nothing but human story. It does not seem to occur to him (can it ever truly occur to a post-Enlightenment fundamentalist of the left?) that the story is given by God himself. Indeed, there is an Eschatological Reader who is at once the Author and Finisher of the story. But this would transport us to the noumenal arena of the chasm and Fokkelman is content with phenomena this side of the ditch. Tragically, our author can only read the Biblical story horizontally.

There are occasional nuggets in this volume (and hence it is worthy of purchase for the serious student of narrative). Noting the seemingly "harsh juxtaposition" of Genesis 16:16 with 17:1 (Abram at 86 and 90 years of age respectively), Fokkelman comments: "[this] functions as the first demarcation of the central panel of life and death" (p. 43). Indeed! Abram drawn into the transition of life from the dead (even as his transition to "Abraham" implies). He would experience this again on Moriah (Gen. 22) in the "resurrection" of his only-beloved son—this son who was conceived as life from death! Fokkelman has unwittingly reinforced the interpretation of Abram's eschatological faith as recorded by the writer to the Hebrews (11:17-19) and the apostle Paul (Rom. 4:19-25).

On page 78, Fokkelman observes that the narrator of the Joseph story (especially the section in which he searches for his brothers, is sold into slavery and ostensibly eliminated) combines both horizontal and vertical arrangements of the tale. By the horizontal, Fokkelman means those events which are embedded in the axis of time—the linear dimension. By the vertical, he means the "writer's vision" above the line of time and chronology. But in truth, the Writer/Revealer is the eschatological son, despised and rejected by his brothers, humiliated and apparently eliminated, only to be exalted as the savior of his people. A genuine biblical-theological horizontal/vertical interface centers Joseph's story in his eschatological counterpart; and, in fact, displays the counterpart in and through the story of Joseph. From a purely narrative point of view, Fokkelman has perceived what the biblical theologian has already perceived—the intimate conjunction of the horizontal and the vertical in Biblical revelation.

Fokkelman's explanation of Elisha's desire to receive a double portion of Elijah's spirit (2 Kgs. 2) deserves quoting in full. "This request reveals that Elisha . . . assumes the role of Elijah's son, and wants to inherit a firstborn's portion: under the law of succession, the eldest son receives a double share. No wonder Elisha should cry out at the moment supreme: 'Oh father, father! Israel's chariots and horseman!'"(p. 93)

Fokkelman ventures beyond the Hebrew Old Testament (for the first time, if I am not mistaken). He provides some remarks on the narrative art of the New Testament (pp. 188-205). Particularly useful is his introduction and overview of the literary and narrative character of the gospel of Luke. This is a superb literary introduction to the third gospel and an excellent starting point for the preacher seeking to preach through Luke's story of Jesus. My only caveat is his reductionism with regard to the phrase "Son of God" (p. 204). Fokkelman regards the title as "a clear metaphor," thus vitiating any supernatural or ontic character to Jesus' self-designation. We are accustomed to this liberal "Christology from below" in which Jesus himself (even when designated "Son of God") can never rise above critical-fundamentalist functionalism. But though we are accustomed to it, we remain committed to the supernatural Jesus whom we confess to be God the Son, ontological and incarnate second person of the eternal Godhead. The "hero" of the biblical tale is God himself soterically revealed in the incarnation of his theanthropic (God-man) Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Fokkelman has not been well-served by his publishers, Dutch or American. At this juncture in Biblical studies, a book—especially a book about Biblical narrative—which lacks a Scripture index is an incomplete book. Fokkelman discusses numerous texts, but the reader must hunt them up virtually page by page. In this day of computers, word processors (with indexing features, no less) and scanners, this omission is unconscionable. Professor Fokkelman will continue to make contributions to the study of Biblical narratives. In the future, he should contract with his publisher(s) to insure that an index of passages cited be appended.