LEGAL FRICTION, LAW, NARRATIVE, AND IDENTITY POLITICS
IN BIBLICAL ISRAEL.
NamedWork: Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in
Biblical Israel (Nonfiction work)
Studies in Biblical Literature 78
New York: Peter Lang, 2010.1110 + xx pp., cloth. $149.95.
Gershon Hepner is a prolific poet and independent scholar whose
special interest is Studies in the Hebrew Bible. In June of this year
Peter Lang brought out Hepner's massive tome, bound in an
attractive yellow cover with black lettering and passages from the
Hebrew text of Genesis screened subtly in cream color as background.
This is a volume of comprehensive scholarship by a persistent and
humorous scholar who was born in Leipzig, Germany, and who emigrated
with his parents at the outbreak of World War II to England and
eventually to the United States. Hepner is an assiduous Bible student
and when he is not deep into the original Hebrew or Rabbinic texts he
writes esoteric poetry, which you can find published on the Web.
This volume sniffs out the mystery of the biblical stories in
relationship to the central body of the Sinai laws, the Torah. His
special methodology is to flush out of the brush and swamps of the
biblical and rabbinic texts the intertextual allusions suggested by
verbal resonances. You may not always agree with what he finds or
imagines, but you will always be entertained and instructed. Every page
of this large work is decked with surprises--insights you never thought
of and associations you never considered possible.
Hepner has divided his work into four parts with a total of
forty-one chapters. Each chapter is numbered separately, starting over
with number one at the beginning of each part. Each chapter is built out
of and around a specific individual biblical narrative. Many of these
are familiar and until the reader gets deeply into each chapter he or
she may feel that the material does not need another digestion. Then
Hepner surprises us with a mind-boggling and unexpected turn of thought
or nuance in perspective. This author has a panoply of new ideas on
every biblical subject or story, and at least half of them are not only
good but urgently necessary.
The book's theme is stated clearly in the title. What you see
is what you get. This is a book about Legal Friction between the
unfolding story of the ancient Israelite experiment in religious and
political sociology, on the one hand, and the dominant tradition of
Torah on the other. The biblical narratives tell the stories of
Israel's quest, within this tense psychospiritual matrix, to find a
clear sense of individual and communal identity. All of us who know the
Bible well and study it devotedly know what a tortuous quest that became
for ancient Israel, and what a typical paradigm of our universal human
struggle with grief and pain it proved to be.
Hepner examines each narrative he treats to discover connections,
usually verbal, with some aspect of the Torah. For example he begins at
the beginning of the Israelite story, as crafted in the exilic
redaction, with the separation of Abraham from Lot. He is sure that this
narrative expresses the tension in the Deuteronomic prohibition of
intermarriage with the Ammonites and Moabites. He finds not only
conceptual allusions but verbal usage that urges his conclusion.
Similarly he sees the language employed in Sarah's expulsion of
Hagar as reflecting a violation of Sinai prohibitions and draws the
conclusion that this leads directly to the Israelite Exile in Egypt. He
finds in Jacob's rejection of Reuben's offer to guarantee
Benjamin's life with the life of two of his sons a reflection of
Jacob's obedience to the Deuteronomic proscription of vicarious
punishment. The upshot of Hepner's scholarship is a reading of the
entire "historic" narrative of Israelite tradition and
mythology as a report crafted by the exilic and post-exilic editors in
their attempt to bring its details in line with Torah.
There are those who will challenge this perspective on the grounds
that the exilic and particularly the post-exilic redactors reflected a
variety of dispositions toward Torah, ranging all the way from rigid
imposition of it to thoroughly ignoring it. Some held to a Mosaic
tradition and other entire movements in Second Temple Judaism rewrote
the early traditions without reference to the Torah--indeed, clearly
intending to suppress it. On the other hand, Hepner's attempt to
employ his unique lens for reading the entire early tradition offers a
new hermeneutic that is consistent in its methodology, interesting in
its productivity, and entertaining in the author's inimitable style
of wry humor at nearly every possible turn in the road.
One good indicator of the responsible and diligently detailed
nature of Hepner's scholarship is the fact that his weighty volume
closes with one hundred pages of index: subject, scripture references,
and authors; and fifty pages of bibliography. Each chapter has detailed
notes to elaborate upon knotty questions raised in the author's
argumentation. This is a book one cannot and must not overlook. It makes
an imaginative and illuminating contribution to Hebrew Bible Studies.