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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 59, 2011

BERNARD M. LEVINSON, Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel (New York: Cambridge University, 2008). Pp. xxvi + 206. Hardback: $US80.00. Paperback: $US27.99.

Jean Louis Ska opens his foreword to Bernard M. Levinson’s Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel by describing it as “a little masterpiece of exegesis.” The accolade is deserved. This short book (or extended essay) has at its heart a case study (or group of case studies) on the reworking of the principal of transgenerational punishment in the Hebrew Bible. Building on the insights of his 1997 book, Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation, Levinson here offers a more general exploration of the pedigree and the principles of the hermeneutical method that has come to be known as inner-biblical exegesis.

The scope of the book, however, is larger, and its aspiration greater, than this description would suggest. The opening chapter, entitled ‘Meeting Point of the Humanities,’ opens with an offering of the concept of ‘canon’ as a meeting point between biblical studies and other disciplines within the humanities. Levinson objects that although, in recent years, biblical scholars have embraced contemporary theory, contemporary theory has failed to embrace biblical studies. “This absence of dialogue with Biblical Studies,” Levinson argues, “impoverishes contemporary theory in disciplines across the humanities and deprives it of intellectual models that would actually advance its own project” (5–6). Levinson’s stated goal for this book is to “open the conversation” between biblical studies and the humanities (11).

A further element of the book is an extended bibliographic essay on the topic of inner-biblical exegesis in the history of scholarship. Here, Levinson offers the reader brief introductions to the work of a comprehensive selection of scholars who have either made significant contributions to the development of the principles of inner-biblical exegesis, or employed them in significant ways. One of the most valuable aspects of this ‘annotated bibliography’ is that it provides a helpful bridge for English speakers to the work of European scholars, particularly that which appears only in the German language.

The heart of the book, however, is found in Levinson’s masterly introduction to the development and application of inner-biblical exegesis, and its implication for “a broader theory of canon” (20). The discussion is directed toward four theses, which are stated early in the book:
  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 (20–21).
These theses are explored primarily by means of a case study of inner-biblical revision of the principle of transgenerational punishment found in Exod 20:5–6 (= Deut 5:9–10). Treatments of this principle in Lamentations, Ezekiel and Deuteronomy are explored (along with others in the Targumim), with particular focus on the methods adopted by revisers of biblical law to circumvent the strictures imposed by the idea of divine revelation. Here, Levinson’s discussion is invaluable both for those interested in inner-biblical exegesis and biblical legal revision in general, and those with a more particular interest in the area of transgenerational punishment.

Although Levinson’s treatment of this topic richly deserves the plaudits it has received since the book’s publication, it does suffer from some limitations. First, the book’s discussion is limited almost entirely to legal revision within specifically legal texts. Although Levinson does engage in a discussion of the treatment of legal themes in the book of Ruth, the broader topic of legal revision and innovation within biblical narrative deserves further discussion. Second, Levinson’s particular interest in the work of the Deuteronomist may have led him to overlook later developments in biblical law. Although Levinson includes in his bibliographical essay the work of Christophe Nihan and Jeffrey Stackert, each of whom has argued that a post-Priestly Holiness School engaged in legal revision of biblical law analogous to that observed by Levinson in the book of Deuteronomy, Levinson does not extend his own study of legal revision of the doctrine of transgenerational punishment to consider a possible contribution by the Holiness School. This is an unfortunate gap in Levinson’s otherwise splendid case study, which hopefully an enterprising scholar or student, if not Levinson himself, will endeavour to plug!

These points aside, Levinson’s book is a gem and deserves a wide readership.

Review by
Melbourne College of Divinity
Kew VIC 3101