On Overinterpreting the Bible
In David Carr’s meticulously argued and methodologically sensitive new book The Formation of the Hebrew Bible (see Angela Roskop’s positive and constructive review), he draws attention to an important observation that has significant interpretive implications—particularly for those interested in literary borrowing, whether construed inner-biblically or more broadly within the ancient Near Eastern literary world.
Carr observes that the transmission and growth of the Hebrew Bible is not entirely a literary phenomenon. Nor is it accurate to speak of an oral stage of transmission followed by a literary stage of transmission. Rather, what we have is “a mix of oral and written dynamics” (17) with writing-supported memorization. Carr argues that memorization during the formative stages of the Hebrew Bible was neither exhaustive nor aimed at word-for-word reproduction, that “memory varients” preserved in the text are a clue to the oral dynamics involved in textual expansion and transmission.
What are the interpretive implications of this observation? Carr writes,
I maintain that it would be a mistake to try to explain most or all of the above variations [e.g., Prov6:10-11~24:33-34; 16:2a~21:2a~12:15a; 16:2b~21:2b; 12:11b~28:19b; 19:24b~26:15b; 19:5~19:9] as part of a conscious process. There is a temptation to attempt this, particularly because so many biblical scholars work in religious contexts where the goal is to find meaning in every aspect of the text no matter how seemingly insignificant. Indeed, there is a certain magic attached in scriptureal contexts to finding meaning in every non-understood variation of a line or saying. That is part of what biblical scholars, particularly those working in traditions that view the Bible as Scripture, do: find new meanings in initially obscure ancient texts, often under the (ancient) preconception that every aspect of the canonical text is significant. Set enough such scholars loose on variations such as those discussed above, and it is only a matter of time before many are explained as a result of either error or specific sorts of exegetical/theological modification. (33)
Whether or not Carr’s characterization of religiously interested scholars is fair, his critique is worthy of consideration. In reading the book of Amos, I noticed what I believe are likely “memory variants” in the text
- Amos 1:4 - So I will send (שׁלח) a fire on the house (בית) of Hazael, and it shall devour the strongholds of Ben-hadad.
- Amos 1:7 – So I will send (שׁלח) a fire on the wall (חומה) of Gaza, fire that shall devour its strongholds.
- Amos 1:10 – So I will send (שׁלח) a fire on the wall (חומה) of Tyre, fire that shall devour its strongholds.
- Amos 1:12 – So I will send (שׁלח) a fire on Teman, and it shall devour the strongholds of Bozrah.
- Amos 1:14a – So I will kindle (יצת) a fire against the wall (חומה) of Rabbah, fire that shall devour its strongholds.
- Amos 2:2a – So I will send (שׁלח) a fire on Moab, and it shall devour the strongholds of Kerioth.
- Amos 2:5 – So I will send (שׁלח) a fire on Judah, and it shall devour the strongholds of Jerusalem.
If Carr is right—and I am inclined to believe that he is—variations like this that occur across a number of verses are best explained as memory variants, different ways in which someone at some point remembered and transmitted these oracles against the nations. This is the same line, despite the differences in terminology (שׁלח verses יצת and בית versus חומה) or variations in sentence construction. Of course, examples like this can be multiplied many times over. Carr is bringing us to a more “methodologically modest” (4) place in which to engage the Hebrew Bible.