In this fresh reading of the characters of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 2, Angeline Song offers new insights for this often-studied passage with the help of some intriguing methodologies. By using the “optic” of postcolonial criticism, focalization, and an emphatic reading strategy, Song gives voice to “additional insights” that other readings on the passage “may not highlight” (174). Armed with the observations gained from her methods, as well as her personal story as an adoptee within a postcolonial context, her reading is interesting and provocative in equal measure.
A Postcolonial Woman’s Encounter with Moses and Miriam is divided into six chapters, each focusing on a particular aspect of Song’s thesis. In the first chapter, Song describes of her “life story as a female adoptee growing up in a patriarchal, postcolonial Southeast Asian society” (3). This is an especially fascinating chapter that challenges what is often thought of as a desirable quality of “objectivity” in academic research. However, as Song’s work reminds us, our life experiences affect us as people, readers, and interpreters;. To hear her story in such a light gives unique insight into her chosen reading strategies.
In the next three chapters, Song provides a detailed analysis of her hermeneutical methods: empathy, postcolonialism, and focalization. Of these, her chapter on empathic reading strategies is especially intriguing, since emphatic reading is a relative newcomer to the field of biblical studies. First, Song studies the history and use of the term “empathy,” defining it as “the ability to feel what the other feels and to understand the perspective of the other due to an affective and cognitive connection… at times, the resonance of feelings expresses itself in outward imitation of the experiential state of the empathized” (58-59).
In other words, empathy is the ability to feel another person’s inner state while still retaining one’s own sense of self. This is made possible by both our (similar) experiences and biology. In fact, Song uses recent studies in neuroscience to illustrate how our ability to empathize is in fact pre-wired in our being, helping us not only to feel what the other person is feeling but also to discern reasons for their feelings and actions. Since the narrative in Exodus 2 is written in a somewhat terse manner, a reading strategy based on empathy is well-suited for filling in some of the gaps left by that author and revealing fresh insight into the story-world of the characters.
Having thus established an emphatic reading strategy, Song devotes the next two chapters to a study of postcolonialism, as well as Mieke Bal’s method of focalization. Chapter 5 is especially helpful regarding focalization, as Song gives a step-by-step analysis of Exodus 2 with full explanations as to how she is using Bal’s method, which helps those of us unfamiliar with said strategy to follow her argument.
It is in the final chapter that Song draws all of the elements of her thesis together to give us a distinctive reading of Exodus 2. Drawing on her personal experiences and reading methods, Song gives keen insight into the characters, especially those of Moses and Miriam. She praises Miriam’s resourcefulness in using the tactics of the colonial game to save her brother’s life. These include, among others, Miriam’s use of the (possibly derogatory) term “Hebrew” as used by the princess in Exodus 2:6 in her speech. In addition, Miriam’s use of the term “for you” in Exodus 2:7 might imply subordination or even possibly self-deprecation vis-à-vis the princess. However, amidst the praise of Miriam’s shrewdness, Song also questions the price of playing this game: Miriam might well use her speech and position to her advantage, but at what cost to her own self?
Moses is viewed by Song as a multi-faceted character who has undergone severe trauma in his life. Beginning as a “nowhere boy” (202), Moses is wrenched from his family twice and adopted by the colonial masters, and then undergoes several moments of identity crisis, followed by conflicting loyalties. Exodus 2:11 ends with the sad outcome of this process: Moses names his son Gershom (“I have become a foreigner in a foreign land,” Exodus 2:22, NIV), which Song claims may illustrate that Moses has given up on his attempts to fit in. He finishes as he has started: as a boy (now man) who does not quite belong anywhere.
Song’s reading of Exodus 2 is novel, and would serve well as a textbook on how to appropriate various analytical methodologies—especially Bal’s focalization strategy and empathy—on other biblical texts. Since a lot of the monograph focuses on analyzing the various reading strategies, the book does at times feel quite unbalanced. It would have been wonderful to see Song tackle more aspects of the Exodus story as well as engage a bit more with some of the more recent literary critical work done on Exodus 2. Overall, A Postcolonial Woman’s Encounter with Moses and Miriam is a fresh and engaging read that any student or scholar of the book of Exodus, or the aforementioned reading strategies, would do well to consider.
Kirsi Cobb is Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Cliff College in the United Kingdom.
Date Of Review:
August 19, 2018
Angeline M.G. Song is a former newspaper journalist turned biblical scholar. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Otago, New Zealand, and is an Honorary Research Associate of Laidlaw College in Auckland, New Zealand. She also works with students with disability issues in tertiary education in Auckland. Her research interests include Empathy studies, Postcolonial studies, Focalization Narratology, and biblical contextual interpretation.
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