Beyond Orality

Biblical Poetry on Its Own Terms

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Jacqueline Vayntrub
The Ancient World
  • New York, NY: 
    , March
     309 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What follows the colon in Jacqueline Vayntrub's Beyond Orality: Biblical Poetry on its own Terms, is both witty and apt, for it contains two ideas for the price of one. The first is philological, Vayntrub’s book closely compares words in the Hebrew bible which refer to units of texts—mashalshir, and qinah, to name a few. However, another reading of on its Own Terms, represents the tremendous theoretical work Vayntrub is engaged in, which goes beyond every instance of a handful of terms to query, more broadly, how the Hebrew Bible holistically theorizes its own textuality. By studying biblical poetry on its own terms, Vayntrub invites us to abandon the unfalsifiable assumption that text is a universal category rather than, like any other objects of intellectual history, emergent from its particular time and place.

It is difficulty to know what a mashal was to biblical authors, considering that modernity has been burdened by a long history of conceiving of Israelite poetry in every way but how it conceives of itself. Vayntrub shows us that early biblical textuality was conceived through the same apparatus that the Renaissance thinkers conceived of Greek and Roman poetry. Bishop Robert Lowth (30) declared the parallelism embedded in the mashal to be the nucleus of poetry, which would find fuller expression in the psalter. This allowed Lowth to define biblical texts as essentially poetic, even though they lacked the key formalism that defines Greek and Roman poetry: meter. It becomes apparent through Vayntrub’s study that when early modern thinkers wanted to justify that something belonged to the category of “poetry,” they did so through a variety of disconnected strategies. In their work, the essence of poetry seems to be ever shifting. Sometimes it is the “folk genius,” the collective soul of a people, rather than an individual poet, or the experience of the sublime effected in its intended audience. In addition to the evolutionary models of proverb leading to poetry and poetry to prose, which arose during the 17th and 18th centuries, the 20th century has seen the emergence of a new way of dividing up text: oral and written. In short, what I think Vayntrub is really showing us is that there has never been a simple, precise, and unitary “etic” definition of poetry; it has always been a nebulous cascade of justifications. The danger in the assumption of universal categories of “poetry” and “oral,” is that they come with the assumption that these categories legitimately wield explanatory force. 

Instead, Vayntrub examines the ways the Hebrew bible explains itself. A keen observation on her part is that these terms are used differently depending on if they are inside or outside of narration. In narration, the mashal is presented as a speech act. See here the careful but substantive difference between characterizing the mashal as “oral,” that is belonging to a vast body of unwritten literature utterly disconnected from the written narrative, and what Vayntrub observes, that the mashal is not oral, it is written. Yet alongside this written mashal is a second written text, the biblical narrative, which has framed it as an authoritative speech act. It is biblical narration which depicts this mashal as being spoken by a certain character in a certain scene, and it is biblical narrative which casts a certain hermeneutic shadow on the contents of that mashal. In excavating a biblical speech act theory, Vayntrub opens up new lines of inquiry into the systems of aesthetics and authority native to the Hebrew bible. She also exposes how the text constructs an ideal audience in anticipation of a real one, for whose benefit these speech acts are being presented. 

True to her title, Vayntrub goes beyond the literary, by offering us insight into the historical development of the Hebrew bible. Vayntrub establishes a typology of attribution by examining the speech acts of Balaam, Isaiah, and David, which are embedded in narrative. From there, she is able to look at a phenomenon that seems very different on the surface, but participates in the same rhetorical agendum: the titles of Proverbs. These titles attribute the texts of Proverbs to various speakers: sometimes a king, a father, or “the wise.” Vayntrub recognizes that “it is not the reputation of a single individual whose performance authorizes the speech,” as is the case in biblical narrative, but rather “the generic category of an individual—the father—who is the named speaker” (204). This is a marked departure from the mashal as something authorized by a particular character. Vayntrub sees this as a sign of the changing conceptualization of textuality due to the influence of writing. A written experience of text admits to the possibility of disembodied wisdom, and thus no longer depends upon a “fictional moment of speech performance” (205). For Proverbs, titles can do the work that narrative does elsewhere in the Hebrew bible, but more succinctly. Vayntrub concludes that “the book of Proverbs is not a series of mashal performances framed in a narrated context. Rather, this work comes to the reader in its present form as a collection of collections, framed by a titular legendary character—Solomon—who never actually speaks these collected utterances” (218). To me, this seems like a shift in authority from the figure of an ideal speaker to an ideal scribe. Perhaps this change in the experience of text is what makes the anthology possible.

Beyond Orality is an indispensable work on aesthetics, hermeneutics, and book history for the biblical philologist. As a work of methodology, however, it is even more important given the idea it represents. Vayntrub demonstrates that even our most basic modern literary categories, such as “prose” and “poetry”, are not probative universals but the accidents of history. In a sense, Vayntrub has found a way to make her sources do criticism, a development that philology has awaited since the colonial critique. Beyond Orality reintegrates theory and philology in an enviable but imitable way, giving scholars of ancient literary traditions—be it Akkadian, Sanskrit, Chinese or Kʼicheʼ—all the tools they need to adapt her approach to other ancient textualities.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Caley Charles Smith is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Young Harris College.

Date of Review: 
July 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jacqueline Vayntrub is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School.


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