Benjamin Harshav and Literature

Benjamin Harshav is a splendid theorist for considering literary texts, especially as it relates to reading Biblical texts. In what follows, I will briefly note and discuss a few of his ideas which stood out to me.

First, in his essay “The Structure of Non-Narrative Fiction,” he distinguishes between two levels of textual organization: the Text Continuum and the Reconstructed Level. The former describes the organization of the object as a linear text, one which unfolds as the audience reads the text. It is only in the Text Continuum that one can see a high degree of organization through the structure of the text. By contrast, the Reconstructed Level describes things like the characters, plots, ideas, etc. Instead of being a continual, linear unfolding, the Reconstructed Level is “built by the reader from discontinuous elements in the text and are reorganized according to their inherent principles”, such as how “time elements are reorganized in their chronological order” (179). With this distinction, Harshav comments that “in many theories and interpretations it is not always clear whether the scholar discusses something given in the text or something constructed or understood by himself as a reader” (179).

This comment is apt for Biblical Studies because it is true: scholars tend to not be explicit about whether their discussion addresses how a text unfolds or how they can reconstruct a certain aspects about the text based on the linking of certain discontinuous elements. As such, Harshav’s comment is a welcome methodological guide for approaching literary texts.

Second, in his article “”Literariness” Revisted,” Harshav outlines a few key aspects which qualify a text as literature (as distinguished from other types of texts. Listed briefly are a few key aspects for literature: a chain of speakers and positions within the text, complex meanings and references, a text formation (i.e. framing, segmentation, meter, etc.), an Internal Field of References connected to an External Field of Reference, a fixed and isolated textual object which is transferable to new reading contexts, use of various norms, conventions, and devices that are specific to a particular culture and time period, and concreteness in the sense of anchoring abstract ideas, and individuation. Though I won’t go into detail for each of these, suffice it to say that Biblical texts qualify as literature. As such, though I know I am beating a dead horse, scholars should be careful to distinguish when they are reading a Biblical text as literature as opposed to a historical text. That is to say, one may be able to derive historical things out of something like Kings; however, it should first be approached as a literary text.

Of course, this is not necessarily how an ancient reader approached Kings. Rather, an ancient reader more likely approach Kings as simultaneously a historical text and literature, not distinguishing between the two. In light of literary criticism and developments in historiography, though, we must distinguish between literature and historical texts in our analysis if we wish to makes helpful observations about the object/text in either respect.

Third, overall I greatly appreciate Harshav’s description of literary texts. Undoubtedly, his framework for approaching texts will serve as a guide for my reading and description of texts in the future.

“Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual” by Yitzhaq Feder

Yitzhaq Feder’s monograph seeks to clarify and more firmly establish the socio-historical context of the origins of blood expiation within the Pentateuch. In part one, he clearly demonstrates that the zurki and uzi Hittite blood rituals are from the same tradition as the Levitical sin offerings. Part two continues by exploring the finer facets of the Israelite and Hittite blood ritual in order to explain the symbolism and meaning encompassing blood ritual’s expiatory nature. In doing so, Feder establishes a solid framework by which future scholars may approach critical theories of the Priestly biblical source, explore ancient Israel’s context, or better understand the role of sin offering in Jewish and Christian theological developments.

First, Feder’s established framework is one of the most commendable aspects of the monograph. He operates on the basis that rituals are not arbitrary gestures akin to magic, but rather they are actions within a socio-historical context where the ritual affects the world from the inside. His approach, unlike some anthropologists who consider ritual action to be arbitrary, honorably respects the depth and life within the Israelite and Hittite rituals. Such respect is not merely a product of his context within Israel. Genuine respect is also a product of his well-explained and well-reasoned methodological approach to the subject of ritual.

Additionally, relating to methodology, Feder provides an important key to prove the historical connection between Hittite and Israelite blood ritual. Feder utilizes Meir Malul’s Comparative Method to provide evidence for the historical connection, testing for “coincidence versus uniqueness, and corroboration to prove the flow of ideas between the two cultures” (115). Presentation and explanation through this framework provides and supports the remaining portions of his argument quite significantly by his clear justification of why his cross-cultural study is valid. In response to his proof of the historical connection, especially in light of the unique nature of blood ritual for Hittites and ancient Israel, I wonder what other connections may be drawn between the two cultures regarding other aspects of ritual.

In conclusion, Feder contributes a new, relevant, and important analysis of biblical and Hittite ritual to propel discussion surrounding biblical history, traditions, and interpretation. Though focused on proving his argument through concrete evidence, he never loses sight of the significance his work holds for 21st century Jews and Christians. In truth, “Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual” is more than a socio-historical study of raw facts and data. It is an explanation for human behavior, especially as it relates to theology.

Click here to purchase “Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual” by Yitzhaq Feder.