Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Whose historical setting?

Continuing with Sailhamer, he notes in chapter two of part one of his book, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, that evangelical interpreters of the Bible who desire to inform their understanding of the text by referencing the historical setting or context in which the text is set often make a rather unfortunate blunder in their assumptions about whose historical setting is appropriate for comparison.

Sailhamer's example is the historical setting of Genesis, and in particular, the narrative of the tower of Babel. Evangelicals agree that Moses is the author of the Genesis narratives, and that Abraham was a third millennium B.C. historical figure. Therefore, in interpreting the text concerning Babel in its historical context, they trace the tower of Babel back to structures found in third millennium Ancient Near Eastern culture, the Sumerian ziggurat to be precise. What Sailhamer points out is that this attempt at interpreting the text through its historical context is actually conflating two different historical settings: that of Abraham, the character in the text, and that of Moses, the author writing the narrative. Whose historical setting ought to be prominent in understanding the elements of the story and the point of the story? For Sailhamer, as we might expect for most Evangelicals, is that it is the author's setting that matters, for it is the author's meaning for the author's audience that is the first concern of interpretation. But if that is the case, then third millennium Sumerian ziggurats are probably not the image that Moses is desirous to conjure, since little or no awareness of these structures would be known to him or his audience, and even if such awareness was had, the significance of these structures would be only anecdotal. The question to ask, according to Sailhamer, is not "what is the historical setting of the characters in the story," but "what is the historical setting of the author of the narrative."

A simple point, but one of profound implications when it is abandoned or ignored.

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