Controversy over the "fathers" of Israel

The Rhetoric of Remembrance

* The following was originally published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53, no. 1 (2013), 149-152.


The Rhetoric of Remembrance: An Investigation of the “Fathers” in Deuteronomy. By Jerry Hwang. Siphrut: Literature and Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures 8. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2012, xiv + 290 pp., $39.50.

“SIPHRUT,” Eisenbrauns’ series devoted to Old Testament Literature and Theology, has thus far generated a number of remarkably insightful monographs. In its most recent release, The Rhetoric of Remembrance, Jerry Hwang offers an analysis of Deuteronomy’s “nearly fifty references to the אָבוֹת, the ‘fathers’ of Israel” (3). By studying the uses of the word “fathers,” Hwang endeavors to pave new ground for understanding the complex narrative chronology and theology in Deuteronomy.

As Hwang outlines it in his introduction, the more recent controversy over the word “fathers” has divided scholars into basically two camps, represented by Thomas Römer and Norbert Lohfink, respectively. Römer provided the catalyst for the debate in his published dissertation of 1990, where he attempted to parse out the redactional layers of “fathers” in Deuteronomy. Römer concluded that the term basically referred to the Exodus generation, and that references to the patriarchs were later additions. The following year, Lohfink penned a volume in direct response to Römer where he argued that the first use of “fathers” in Deuteronomy (1:8), which explicitly refers to the patriarchs, must govern our interpretation of all subsequent uses. As is so often the case, the first voices set the sides for the subsequent debate.

Hwang takes a markedly different tack in Rhetoric. As his title indicates, he is interested not in the fruit of redactional investigations, but in asking questions of the text as it stands. In other words, Hwang examines the different uses of “fathers” not in order to correct one use or another, but to assess them as the panoply of variegated forces from the pen of Deuteronomy’s final redactor.

In his investigation, Hwang gives significant space to redactional analyses before offering his own. This approach raises the stakes because if Hwang can demonstrate the superior interpretation of rhetorical analysis over redactional criticism, he is poised not only to redirect this particular debate, but also to cast a significant vote in favor of rhetorical hermeneutics.

The investigation divides the occurrences of “fathers” into three categories, which reflect three distinct critical conversations. The first looks at “fathers” in the context of land promises; the second examines the “God of the fathers” and the divine promises; and the last looks at the “fathers” and the divine-human covenant. All three parts converge in his conclusion: Hwang finds that Deuteronomy depicts “Israel in all its generations as a corporate entity that is bound with a single covenant that YHWH made with the ‘fathers,’” and it is the rightful heir to the promised land (232).

Rhetoric is a minimally revised PhD thesis, and as such it is heavy sledding for the ordinary reader. But having tasted the power of rhetoric, Hwang clearly offers a discussion that is stimulating by anyone’s perspective. His lucid style and punchy quips render a rather dense subject palatable for most readers, though still on the heavy side.

Hwang’s analysis is thorough. He introduces each section at the level of Deuteronomy’s multifarious uses of significant words and phrases. From here, he follows the most relevant voices in the critical conversation, and he demonstrates how their analyses, which are ubiquitously diachronic, portray the final redactor as a sloppy and not particularly effective pundit of legalism. Then, Hwang guides the reader through the same sections of Deuteronomy and points out the intended effect of each nuance upon its audience.

For example, in chapter 7, after reviewing the critical conversation surrounding the divine-human covenant in Deuteronomy, Hwang writes: “Although Perlitt argues that Deuteronomy 4 is primarily an exposition of covenant stipulations, closer examination reveals that this chapter contains far more imaginative speech-acts about Yhwh’s gracious relationship with the ‘fathers’ and the present generation than actual commands” (183).

On the one hand, Hwang demonstrates the chronological arrogance and ignorance of his dialogue partner who has reduced Deuteronomy 4 to a law code. On the other hand, Hwang introduces a far more nuanced lens for reading the text, which reveals a sophisticated perlocutionary utterance that transcends the level of pure information (or stipulation) in order to form a specific ethos and telos driven by a narrative appropriation on the part of its audience.

By tipping his hat toward speech-act theory in the above quote and in a few other places, Hwang reveals the philosophy of language that undergirds his entire study. He does not argue for the theory explicitly, and he only refers to it here because the conversation of scholarship has already treaded in those waters. However, Hwang’s delicate readings resemble those of the finest speech-act philosophers down to the very jots and tittles of their style. Even in his fine blend of smooth sentences, unassuming jabs at opponents, and fastidiously sensitive analyses, one hears regular echoes of J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. Furthermore, Hwang’s initial question could be easily restated in speech-act terms as: What is the author of Deuteronomy doing with his various uses of the word “fathers”?

The fact that Hwang conceals the enormity of his debt to speech-act theory is significant for at least two reasons. First, he does not wed himself to a particular philosophy of language, and he thereby is not constrained to demonstrate its veracity at the outset. As such, Hwang is allowed to interact freely with the text of Deuteronomy, rather than through an overtly ideological lens, thus demonstrating the power of speech-act analysis on the basis of its results.

Second, by showing the superiority of speech-act in comparison with other methods of textual investigation, Hwang invites readers from both conservative and critical camps to rally around his rhetorical analysis without giving them any extra baggage. On the one hand, Hwang allows conservatives, who have historically viewed speech-act with some degree of suspicion, to find in it an ally against other critical analyses that question basic conservative assumptions. On the other hand, Hwang’s critical readership can also appreciate the superiority of rhetorical criticism over competing methods without assenting to conservative accounts of biblical authorship.

In short, Hwang serves up a delectably amicable meal for all of his readers, and the net result is indeed the seminal work for which he aims. Hwang successfully reveals earlier analyses to be reductionistic and overall jejune readings of the text as it has come down to us. As he demonstrates, previous readings assume a highly legalistic backdrop for Deuteronomy’s composition, combined with a careless redactor who has placed little value on the consistency or coherence of his final product. As the old adage goes, “You get out what you put in”––that is, if we assume that Deuteronomy was composed by a primitive Pharisee, our results will likely confirm that assumption.

Probably the greatest virtue of Hwang’s new monograph is its exemplary sophisticated reading of Deuteronomy. By asking what the author is doing with his choice of words, Hwang unveils a document that dynamically calls each generation of the people of God to appropriate the sitz im leben of Israel on the plains of Moab as its own. The conflation and evolution of the word “fathers” within Deuteronomy takes its place among the equally fluid use of words like “today” and “you/us” as the rhetoric through which the past becomes present for each new audience.

Every Pentateuchal scholar would benefit from this volume. The bibliography alone would warrant its purchase, but the hypothesis and execution are equally (if not more) impressive. My only reservation about Rhetoric is that Hwang overstates the impact of his conclusion. While the book paves the way for rethinking the theological and narrative aims of Deuteronomy, Hwang’s debates with other scholarship limit his ability to develop these thoughts fully. Vast questions remain unanswered. For example, does Deuteronomy implicitly retain its dynamic authority over Christians? Furthermore, is Deuteronomy’s trans-temporal rhetoric to be taken as a model or as an irreproducible and unique style? And, what are the hermeneutical ramifications of Deuteronomy’s ontology-defying use of language upon common assumptions about a coherent biblical metaphysic? These are just a few of the many questions raised by Hwang’s insightful volume. Hopefully, there will be many more such works in the future.

Michael Littell Bethlehem College and Seminary, Minneapolis, MN