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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 59, 2011

BERNARD M. LEVINSON, “The Right Chorale,” in Studies in Biblical Law and Interpretation (Forschungen zum Alten Testament 54; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008). Pp. xxii + 432. Hardback. $US187.50.

This collection of essays, published contemporaneously with the author’s Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel (New York: Cambridge University, 2008), presents twelve previously published articles dealing with aspects of biblical law and its interpretation. In his preface, Bernard M. Levinson expresses surprise at the “honor” of being invited to prepare such a volume at a time mid-point in his career; in fact, this is a rich compendium of work that at once represents a comprehensive response to the issues it addresses and anticipates Levinson’s future contribution to the endeavor of biblical interpretation.

The book’s title, “The Right Chorale,” is also the title of the first essay, and Levinson acknowledges as its source Wallace Stevens’ poem, Esthétique du Mal. The title reflects something of the creative breadth of the work represented, which engages the poetic no less than the semantic dimensions of hermeneutics and which more than once adopts musical metaphor. If the twelve essays are connected by a common theme, it is the idea that the biblical authors themselves were self-conscious readers and exegetes, and Levinson sets out to show how they read, reread and interpreted the texts that were for them authoritative, and how those same processes continued through the post-biblical and modern periods.

The twelve essays, which have been extensively revised, are organised into three sections of four essays, each section prefaced by a brief introduction.

The first part is titled “Setting the Agenda: Why Biblical Law Matters.” The four essays in this part explore the dichotomies of synchronic and diachronic method, higher and lower criticism, biblical and ANE contexts, and narrative and law. Levinson’s stated goal here is to explore the interplays within and between these dichotomies while at the same time preserving categories of distinction. Chapter 1 engages with Meir Sternberg’s The Poetics of Biblical Narrative and with the work of Spinoza. Levinson addresses in particular Sternberg’s bifurcation of method of reading (synchronic versus diachronic), arguing that the exclusive use of synchronic method “"tends to underemphasize the extent to which the text’s own claims of authority reflect an ongoing process of redactional reformulation” (38). Chapter 2, “The Seductions of the Garden and the Genesis of Hermeneutics as Critique,” comprises a reading of Genesis 2–3. The brief third chapter, “The Sinai Covenant: the Argument of Revelation,” considers the textual reformulation and reshaping of Israel’s relationship with God through covenant, here with particular reference to Exod 19:3–6. Finally, in Chapter 4, “Deuteronomy’s Conception of Law as an ‘Ideal Type’: A Missing Chapter in the History of Constitutional Law,” Levinson considers Deuteronomy’s model of “Torah Monarchy” as influential for the later development of the Western concept of a constitutional monarchy.

The essays in Part Two of the book comprise case studies in issues of interpretation of Biblical Law. Chapter 5, “The ‘Effected Object’ in Contractual Legal Language,” traces the development of the Manumission Laws through Covenant Code, Deuteronomy and Holiness Code texts. The remaining three chapters in the section treat single verses within Deuteronomy 13: Chapter 6 addresses Deut 13:7a; Chapter 7, Deut 13:9; Chapter 8, Deut 13:10. These chapters together comprise a sustained case study, drawing on questions of textual criticism, grammar, Neo-Assyrian parallels and other matters of interpretation. In their original guise, these articles were influential for both the interpretation of Deuteronomy 13 and text critical questions concerning the verses treated.

In the third section, “Debate and Dialogue: The Question of Method,” Levinson returns to the methodological issues canvassed in Section 1 by means of papers responding to the work of four scholars: Raymond Westbrook in Chapter 9, “The Case for Revision and Interpolation within the Biblical Legal Corpora,” Calum M. Carmichael in Chapter 10, “Calum M. Carmichael’s Approach to the Laws of Deuteronomy,” J. G. McConville in Chapter 11, “The Hermeneutics of Tradition in Deuteronomy” and John Van Seters in Chapter 12, “Is the Covenant Code an Exilic Composition?” Here, Levinson focuses particularly on the shortcomings of methodological approaches that favour uncritical application of synchronic method or make unwarranted claims for the immanence of a particular reading of a biblical text. Levinson’s thematic question for this section is “How do we develop criteria to distinguish more and less powerful ways of reading the text?” (197).

This collection of published articles goes a significant way toward offering an answer to that last question, and it is to be hoped that Levinson’s future work will take us yet further along the way.

Review by
Megan Warner
Melbourne College of Divinity
Kew VIC 3101