Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible
Carolyn J. Sharp, Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008. 356 pages. $39.95 ISBN: 978-0-2533-5244-6
In accordance with the postmodern world in which we now live, many new literary theories abound, heralding attention to otherwise minority opinions. This wave of change is moving us closer to the biblical world of the holy text upon which we meditate, as well as the difficult readings we surely encounter. Less homogenous readings such as those offered by Carolyn J. Sharp allow for greater clarity of otherwise blandly interpreted texts. This book examines the concept of ironic Hebrew Scriptures and the author skillfully shows the literary masterpiece of our First Testament.
There are two highlights I wish to share from the book. Her take on the “other” figure that is often incongruous with the traditionally ascribed righteousness of a patriarch shows that maybe our traditional approach in lauding and modeling the historical patriarchs is faulty at best and dangerous at worst, especially considering their misogyny and often self-indulgent behavior. Abraham’s (and Isaac’s) self-protecting lies in the sister-wives passages show that we find a more righteous foreigner in Pharaoh and Abimelech than the set-apart patriarch figure. And the sexually charged Judah and Tamar passage reveals the begrudging tribal leader whose self-righteous charge on his daughter-in-law shows his depth of depravity and self-centeredness even when caught in his own manipulative deceit. This “other” figure abounds in the Hebrew Scriptures and shows her (mainly female) face as the more righteous and commendable example of faith (Rahab, Jael [in certain readings], Ruth, etc). It is a shame that the writer of Hebrews (in chapter 11) chose so few female examples from which he drew, especially in light of the vast corpus of females in the Old Testament who were wiser and definitively of a higher morality than most of the male “heroes of faith.”
The second highlight is that of the irony of wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures. A remarkably female near-deity in the Hebrew Bible, wisdom is praised and to be desired more than any other gift or characteristic. Yet it is those who are most wise who are also the most fallible. The creation story of Genesis 2-3 shows that the divinely appointed couple, who sought wisdom-bearing fruit and to be like gods, are now powerless before the wise God to choose their path. Sharp wrote it best when she said, “God speaks us into being in Genesis 1, and we respond in Genesis 2-3, ‘Watch us live.’” Similarly, the story of Job contains three sages who visit Job in the midst of suffering and bring only chaos and confusion. It is as if the sage figures (e.g., Solomon, Serpent of the Garden, Job’s three friends) of most Hebrew Scripture stories, as if in some divine comedy, bring about only foolishness with their wisdom.
These are only a few examples of irony that Sharp shows in the Hebrew Scriptures. There abound a myriad of other examples. This book will help both pastor and academic alike to show the magnificence and wonder of the authoritative Word of God. It is written so that both lay and pastor/academic can glean truths from the pages of wisdom that Sharp delivers to us, not in a nice simple bow and gift like we desire from our Holy Bible, but in the complex and multi-faceted approach of Scripture mirroring the very nature of God.
Micah R. Brewster, MA