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Reading Law as Narrative: A Study in the Casuistic Laws of the Pentateuch, by Assnat Bartor. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010.  219 pp.  $27.95.


The relationship between law and narrative in the Hebrew Bible has become a popular, multi-faceted area of study in recent decades, and the present book, which originates in a Tel-Aviv doctorate, makes a distinctive and valuable contribution (albeit one rather narrower in scope than the publisher’s description on the back cover).

              The author is both a Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Tel-Aviv University and a criminal attorney; she takes her inspiration from the “Law and Literature” movement in modern jurisprudence. But her focus is relatively narrow: not every law is susceptible to a narrative reading; rather she seeks to survey the “miniature stories” represented by the “casuistic laws” of the Pentateuch (broadly defined), where (typically) the “if” clause indicates “an event … that results in damage to another person and [better: or?] changes the prevailing state of affairs,” while the “then” clause prescribes “an action . . . that is designed to restore equilibrium, as far as possible.” This suggests that the narrative elements reside in the content of the laws. However, the author’s primary contribution resides elsewhere.

              Chapter One distinguishes “frame stories” from “embedded stories”. The frame stories are those of the anonymous narrator, who may embed stories of the (legal activity of) named characters (including God and Moses as legislators), which may themselves tell (legal) stories regarding characters. As Bartor observes, this structure stems from the theological outlook of the authors, and though she makes little attempt to engage with biblical theology, many of her analyses are of considerable theological interest.

              Chapter Two considers the Lawgiver as (embedded) Narrator. The object here is not so much to analyze the respective roles of God and Moses (a task particularly important for Deuteronomy) but rather to discover the literary characteristics which distinguish the narrators of the “Book of the Covenant” (Exodus 20:19–23:19), Deuteronomy, and the Priestly legislation (distinguishing for some purposes the “Holiness Code” of Leviticus 17–26).  The characteristics Bartor studies are “participation” in the content of the laws narrated and the “perceptibility” of the legislator through signs of his own attitudes to the laws described (e.g., through the use of motive clauses and emotive language). The incidence of such “perceptibility,” she maintains, is in fact so pervasive that she has to restrict herself to examples.

              In discussing “participation,” the author adopts different criteria in her account of the different sources. In the Book of the Covenant participation is manifest through the (occasional) use of first and second person forms, though this conclusion is perhaps debatable, given the relatively small length of the Book of the Covenant. When the author turns to Deuteronomy, she looks at the incidence of “the intensive and varied modes of integration of the addressee [including the “external addressee,” the reader], and the repeated reference to the act of legislation” (p. 35, emphasis in original). This integration serves to emphasize the relationship between lawgiver and addressee.

              In her analysis of “perceptibility” (pp. 59–84), Bartor is more systematic, comparing the same features over the different corpora. Her manifestations of perceptibility include motive clauses and the use of emotive language (such as the aswn of Exod. 21:22–23), both found already in the Book of the Covenant but greatly magnified in Deuteronomy (e.g., in the use of to‘evah, p. 81), which is essentially hortatory. By contrast, the Priestly lawgiver is characterized by “a guiding hand that organizes, defines, categorizes, or summarizes contents”; like Deuteronomy, the approach is didactic, but directed to a “professional-academic” rather than a popular audience (pp. 77–78). None of these general depictions of the major corpora are entirely new, but the author’s examples are well taken.

              Chapter Three is devoted to Representations of Speech in the laws. Examples of direct speech are classified as “(1) verba solemnia, a formal declaration accompanied by a ceremonial action with legal implications [e.g. Exod. 21:5; Deut. 15:16a]; (2) a statement made during a legal confrontation or  procedure [e.g. Exod. 22:8, Deut. 18:20]; or (3) an oath.” But the author also considers examples of “interior speech” (Deut. 12:20, 30; 15:9) and (most interesting) an intermediate category of “combined discourse,” where the voice of a character in the legal narrative is incorporated into the lawgiver’s discourse, or vice versa. For example, what in Exod. 22:26 may grammatically be regarded as the lawgiver’s motive clause (“for that is his only covering, it is his mantle for his body, in what else shall he sleep?”) in fact reflects the viewpoint, the voice, of the poor borrower (p.126).

              Chapter Four, subtitled “The Lawgiver as Psychologist,” addresses “Representations of Inner Life.” It commences somewhat defensively with a discussion of traditional questions of mens rea in homicide “even though the discussion is not narrative by nature but rather legalistic” (p. 134). This indicates a narrow definition of “narrative”: for this reviewer, the language of the law evokes “narrative typifications of action” which imply a form of reading very different from that of modern legalism, even though the underlying concepts may be expressed by terms like “premeditation” (an important issue for biblical homicide law, which Bartor barely addresses). Most of the chapter, however, is devoted to areas not generally addressed by law, “the world of the psyche as such … a person’s emotional turmoil or mental processes … an individual’s interiority,” with stimulating sections on “Heart and Soul” (vengeance and the cities of refuge), gender identity and gender relations (including the laws of the amah and sotah), motive (Deut. 25:11–12), and the command to rejoice (under the evocative heading: “The Lawgiver Colonizes the Psyche”).

              Chapter Five discusses “Point of View” or “focalization,” as in laws enjoining compassion for animals, laws of warfare, the priestly diagnosis of “leprosy”, and the designation of characters (including the levirate) and places. Here as elsewhere, the author rightly stresses that biblical law is not presented in a neutral fashion, but rather by a combination of perspectives designed to lead the reader to an experiential appreciation of the events and characters.

              The short, final chapter of Conclusions commences with a claim which may prove controversial even to those, like the present reviewer, who find the overall treatment stimulating and valuable. We are told that (this) narrative reading of the casuistic laws “is of very little use (if it is of any use at all) for understanding their normative dimension”; it is directed rather at the “human meaning” embodied in the situations. But that is arguable only if one adopts narrow (and sometimes modern) conceptions of both law (and the normative) and narrative. It is almost as if Bartor the literary scholar is here at odds with Bartor the criminal attorney.

              Bartor’s study makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the poetics of the different biblical legal collections. She claims, in fact, to deal with “all of the casuistic laws of the Torah” (supported to a substantial degree by the Index of Sources); clearly, however, she cannot within the relatively short compass of this book deal with all the major issues of content which biblical scholars have identified in these laws. Nevertheless, her examples frequently do add illumination to them. Of course, in a book surveying so large a range of material in such small compass, there are some inaccuracies and problematic claims which are not fully argued. However, Bartor has made a valuable and distinctive contribution to the study of biblical law, and one which should be widely consulted for its readings of particular texts, even by those who do not share all its theoretical positions.


Bernard S. Jackson

Liverpool Hope University