The Construction of Exodus Identity in Ancient Israel

A Social Identity Approach

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Linda M. Stargel
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , May
     2018.
     226 pages.
     $27.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532640988.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In her book, The Construction of Exodus Identity in Ancient Israel: A Social Identity Approach, Linda M. Stargel examines “how specific examples of narrative collective memory in the Hebrew Bible may have functioned to construct and reinforce identity for hearers” (xvii). In this revision of her doctoral thesis, Stargel develops a new methodological tool based on principles of the social identity approach (SIA) and then applies it to nineteen discrete exodus stories, beginning with the primary narrative (Exodus 1:1-15:21). Her goal is to assess how their rhetorical and literary design may have contributed to the establishment and ongoing renegotiation of Israel’s identity over time rather than when, or to what historical effect, such an identity might have been constructed. 

For those unfamiliar with the term, social identity refers to that aspect of an individual’s self-concept, which is taken from their knowledge of membership in a social group, and the emotional significance of that membership (1). Theorists originally posited three components to social identity: cognitive (the awareness that one belongs to a group), evaluative (the positive or negative valuation given to a group and its membership), and emotional (the responses of a group’s members to themselves and others) (2-10). Two additional components, behavioral (the range of acceptable attitudes and behaviors for members of a group) and temporal (how a group maintains “usness” over time), have now been included. The work of two social identity theorists are central to Stargel’s development of her methodological tool: Henri Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior, which deals with interactions that take place between groups, and J.C. Turner’s Self-Categorization Theory, which deals with how groups emerge and the processes that occur within those groups (2). Such theories—Stargel’s tool included—are descriptive rather than prescriptive. 

Stargel’s primary contribution to the ongoing scholarly conversation surrounding social identity and collective memory is the demonstration of her multidimensional heuristic tool in chapters three through six. The tool (upon which she never bestows a name) subdivides the five components of the SIA into its constitutive elements—the emotional component contains four elements: inter-group conflict, attachment and belonging, interdependence, and a sense of shared fate. Beginning with the primary exodus narrative and proceeding through eighteen additional retellings, Stargel painstakingly applies each element of the tool to exodus accounts found throughout the Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings. These chapters are clear and easy to follow, though at times tedious to read, as the patterns the tool was designed to uncover begin to emerge. Stargel also includes methodological worksheets for each of the nineteen narratives in an appendix (160-192), which present the data she explains in chapters three through six in the form of a chart, matching each of the components and their elements with examples from the biblical text. A similar chart is included that breaks down the tool itself, providing each element with a concise definition.

Stargel’s work reminds readers of what might be gained by treating biblical texts first and foremost as narratives—as cultural products. She observes that, “Although narrative analysis does not provide unambiguous clues as to how a text should be read, characteristics of narratives show how they tend to be read and the effect they are apt to have on their interpretive audiences” (144). Stargel’s work demonstrates, regardless of the original authors’ intention, that the artistry and design of these recurring exodus narratives highlights their potential as identity resources. Her argument, and the data uncovered by the tool itself, rests on the notion of an unresisting hearer/reader. Therefore, while it helpfully unearths the narrative construction of identity, it cannot demonstrate the subjective perception of identity on the part of hearers/readers—nor can it show that any such constructions were intentional. Stargel is thorough in her assessment of the limits of her tool but could have been more attentive to her assignment of gendered pronouns—Israel (always she/her/hers) and God (always he/him/his)—given the careful consideration she gives to the ways in which texts create and perpetuate identity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kelsey Erin Wallace is a doctoral student in the Bible and Cultures Program at Drew Theological School.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Linda M. Stargel is an Ordained Elder in the Church of the Nazarene. She received her PhD in Old Testament from the University of Manchester and is joining the faculty of the Nazarene Theological College (Brisbane, Australia) as a Lecturer in Old Testament.

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