We all know we are supposed to read the Bible “in community.”
In that endeavor, it helps to have a community that includes really good readers. Reading in community gets better when we can listen to what these close, careful, informed readers, who themselves draw on the readings of an even larger community of scholars and other careful readers, have to say. We’re helped even more when those readers are attentive to some of those readings “from the margins” that we hear so much about these days, like readings that are particularly attentive to the voices and often-overlooked contributions of women to the text. It helps when those readers are explicit about their readerly background, and how that contributes to their understanding of what they read, perhaps preparing them to notice things that not all readers would; and when they share their reading practices with us, guiding us through the text and pointing out “landmarks” or signs: look at that; notice this; what about those.
All that is why, if we are setting out to read “the Former Prophets” or “the History Books” of the Hebrew Bible, or “the Deuteronomistic History,” or whatever we call that Biblical work that is Joshua – Judges – 1&2 Samuel – 1&2 Kings, it will be helpful for our community reading to include the three volumes of A People and a Land (Vol. I The End of the Beginning; Vol. II The Road to Kingship; Vol. III The Land and Its Kings; 2019 & 2020, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company). Having Johanna van Wijk-Bos as a member of our community of readers will make our reading better. Also, more enjoyable.
Technically, A People and a Land presumably belongs in the “commentary” section of the library – whether seminary or church or home, because it could be at home in any of those. But it’s no ordinary commentary. Van Wijk-Bos announces in the preface to each volume that
One purpose of this writing is to offer a close reading of the Hebrew text in translation to reacquaint us with the path taken by the people called Israel as they cross the Jordan into the land of the promise, live there … and finally lose the land and go into exile. (ix)
That purpose is met beautifully. Reading A People and A Land is a journey through these texts alongside an accomplished and loving reader at the height of her powers. Her companions, most of all, get to see the text through van Wijk-Bos’s sharp and very clear eyes.
And, get to hear the text through her ears. Bos shares selected verses of her own translation of the Hebrew text at key points, and reminds her readers that the underlying Hebrew text has its own irreducible literary values. More than once she calls our attention to the word order, the compressed expressiveness, or the alliteration or assonance of the original language, noting the effect of the language itself on the meaning of the passage under consideration.
What we’ll notice on this journey, in particular, will be the concerns, conclusions, and persistent questions of the human authors, who brought these stories together and told them in these particular ways in the aftermath of the trauma of devastating warfare, exile, and only partial restoration.
We’ll notice, over and over again, the many voices present in the text – and will come to appreciate this feature of the text. This is not a reading that has any patience with efforts to deny the text its multiple voices for the sake of simplifying our theology, or making claims about the Bible that don’t hold up well in conversation with the text. As the author points out in the extended introduction to Volume I, which serves as an introduction to the larger work, the text’s multivocality is itself a political reality: no one voice has been granted exclusive privilege. This in itself tells us something vital about the community and the commitments that produced this text that is so central to its inheritors.
We’ll notice, over and over again, the complexity of the “heroes” of these stories, including their moral complexity. In places – as for instance in the book of Judges – we’ll notice that
We look in vain for words of condemnation of what appears to us to be unjust or immoral behavior. The narrators and writers let the tale tell its own truth, leaving judgment up to the listener (I.26).
In others, we’ll be reminded that the text may leave us uncomfortable with its proffered conclusions. Of Saul, for instance, we’re warned that “the traditions concerning Saul are not unanimous and the editors let this matter-of-fact description stand side by side with two tales of a condemnation of his rule” (II.97), making it “a priori impossible for the reader to remain locked in the naïve position of a condemnatory attitude to Saul” (Fokkelman, 86, cited in Bos, II.97).
And we will notice, with deep appreciation, the constant operation of the text’s literary features: the movement or stasis of characters; the pace of the unfolding event, speeded up in narration or slowed down in dialogue; the revelation or concealment of character in action, word, occasionally thought; the impact of specific words, and specific places, and specific genres (like those lists …).
Along the way, too, we have the benefit of van Wikj-Bos’s reflections on the questions embedded in these stories, or in us readers. When we are “reading in community” about Saul, for instance, it helps to have someone in the room who will say “It may be useful to approach the question about God’s rejection of Saul from the point of view of post-exilic anxiety concerning divine rejection” (II.118). Indeed. And who will point out that the flaws in Saul’s character highlighted by this text – not listening to God, consulting diviners, trying to manipulate divine approval – echo those charged to the people by the pre-exilic prophets. The Saul rejected as king takes on the role of an emblem. A head-and-shoulders larger than life poster of what the people should have rejected, to prevent their own ejection from the land.
On these reflective lines, I am particularly partial to Bos’s suggestion that royal daughter Tamar could well have been the author of the Court History of David (II.337-341). It is perfectly plausible, as Bos makes the argument. This work of literary genius needed the insider knowledge of a member of court, the clear sight of someone not blinded by hero worship of David, and the literary training that would have been available to a daughter of the court. Perfectly plausible, and perfectly poetically just.
Finally, however, A People and a Land offers something in addition to a beautiful and instructive close reading of this long text. Bos also advances, and exemplifies, a vision of the text’s relationship to this people, and this land. This is a vision of a people who, in telling and retelling the story of their dislocation and loss, find themselves, still in the presence of what ultimately constitutes this people and still drawn to the promise of life together in that presence, still to be found now in this remarkable text. This is a vision that reminds us that reading in community is not optional for the community that makes and is made by this text, but is rather the very ongoing life of that community.
All in all, A People and a Land is reading that discourages over-simplification, and encourages careful consideration of the text, with “patience, attention and openness,” “before letting our questions interact meaningfully with those of the writers and their perspectives” (II.10). This is especially good training for people who are preparing to read the Bible professionally – like seminary students – and people who are looking for welcome reading partners in their ongoing professional reading – like seminary graduates. Those motivated lay readers who are willing to lay aside the pious platitudes of devotional literature for something weightier and more demanding – as well as rewarding – would also appreciate A People and a Land.
At a minimum, Bos’s readings are good to have on the shelves of the library, for when one’s local outpost of the community comes around, once again, to the Former Prophets – as it surely must.
Fokkelman, J.P. The Crossing Fates. Volume 2, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel. Van Gorcum, 1986.
van-Wijk-Bos, Johanna W.H., The End of the Beginning, Volume I, A People and a Land, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019.
__________. The Road to Kingship, Volume II, A People and a Land, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020.
__________. The Land and Its Kings, Volume III, A People and a Land, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020.