Sex, Wives, and Warriors: Reading Biblical Narrative with its Ancient Audience

September 29, 2011

Although the Bible is recognised globally as a fundamentally formative part of our culture, many people are increasingly unfamiliar with its stories. This refreshing rereading of some of the Bible's most dramatic narratives goes some way to rectifying this anomaly.

Philip Esler's book seeks to probe the mindset of ancient Israelite readers, to uncover their cultural presuppositions and to reveal the patriarchal, patrilocal and patrilinear structures in which their narratives make sense. In pitting his social scientific method against traditional historical approaches to biblical texts, Esler seeks to fill the narrative gaps in the stories, and successfully illuminates some tricky passages using this anthropological/cultural approach.

To these stories, Esler applies the insights of Mediterranean cultural anthropology relating to the biblical period, as well as anthropological data gathered from both modern primitive groups and Palestinians. He shows how ripping yarns such as the David and Goliath story are products of their own culture and yet also serve to subvert its norms. He highlights the seven basic plots common to all world literature isolated by Christopher Booker in 2004 - "overcoming the monster", "rags to riches", "the quest", "voyage and return", "comedy", "tragedy" and "rebirth" - to show how ancient narratives fit into these slots.

The David and Goliath story belongs to the "overcoming the monster" plot, as the fresh-faced shepherd boy, the youngest and lowliest of eight brothers, uses just a slingshot to defeat the strapping Canaanite. It represents a flouting of the hierarchical "priority of the first-born son" convention and shows how God is not bound by such rules.

Esler compares two biblical wives, Hannah and Tamar, both of whom were barren and childless but hoping for a reversal of the greatest stigma a woman in that culture had to endure. Hannah is the more passive example, conceiving after prayer to God, but Tamar uses the trickery of posing as a prostitute to conceive by her father-in-law, so as to reverse her inability to do so by two of his sons.

As for warriors, in a fascinating study of Saul's madness, Esler reveals the "tragedy" of a man beset by an anxiety disorder that was, then, understood as spirit possession.

We encounter David first as the victim of Saul's jealousy, but later as the hero who overcomes Goliath, and finally as a bandit on the run. Here, Esler illuminatingly explores anthropological studies of banditry in ancient and modern cultures to illustrate this scenario.

The only female warrior on Esler's list is Judith. He draws out the essentially collective culture of the time in which wider familial bonds were strong and tribal loyalties absolute, with a corresponding lack of the individualism we now take for granted. Modern societies hold universal moral norms that apply to everyone, whereas, in a collective culture, moral codes apply only within tribes and it is fair game to break them to overcome your opponent. Judith is a good example of this, appearing deceitful to the modern reader, but praised as a heroine in accordance with the dictates of clan ethics.

When it comes to sex, two narratives come to life in the context of the honour/shame code of the time. These are David's seduction of Bathsheba and Ammon's rape of his half-sister Tamar, both stories of male sexual desire leading to catastrophe, with David sleeping with and then stealing the wife of his faithful army commander and Ammon destroying his sister's virginity by raping her and then refusing to marry her. Who says that biblical narratives are not just as gripping as any modern soap opera? Esler proves these narratives to be as powerful and meaningful today as they ever were.

Sex, Wives, and Warriors: Reading Biblical Narrative with its Ancient Audience

By Philip F. Esler. Cascade Books, 420pp, £29.00. ISBN 9781608998296. Published 9 June 2011

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