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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 50, 2002

F. C. Black, R. Boer & E. Runions (eds), The Labour of Reading: Desire, Alienation and Biblical Interpretation (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999)

The Labour of Reading is a collection of essays in honour of Robert C. Culley on his retirement. Referring to the work (rather than the bringing to birth) of an interpretation, the notion of ‘labour’ forms a broad umbrella under which a variety of readings and reading practices are gathered. The introduction includes a helpful biography and bibliography for those unfamiliar with Culley and his work. In a variety of ways, the essays in this volume successfully exemplify Culley’s interest in the ways “theory works in the reading of texts” and his concern for “the production of plausible new angles on the biblical text in question” (p. 7).

Under the heading “Pleasurable Labour/Laborious Pleasure”, Part 1 begins with Francis Landy’s “Seraphim and Poetic Process”, an intertextual encounter with the occurrences of ‘seraphim’ in Isa. 6:1–7; 14:28–32; 30:6 and Num. 21:4–9. Fiona C. Black, “What Is My Beloved? On Erotic Reading and the Song of Songs”, and J. Cheryl Exum ”In the Eye of the Beholder: Wishing, Dreams and Double Entendre in the Song of Songs” stand as companion pieces concerned with ‘readerly relationships to the Song of Songs’ (p. 36). These essays frame Adele Reinhartz, “To Love the Lord: An Intertextual Reading of John 20”, focusing on the figure of Mary Magdalene in a reading that labours pleasurably with intertexts from Genesis 3 and 16 and from the Song of Songs. Reinhartz argues for an alternative authority structure in John 20 to that ‘which plays upon the text’s surface’ (p. 67). Robert R. Robinson, “Sing Us One of the Songs of Zion: Poetry and Theology in the Hebrew Bible” helpfully considers the theological effects of biblical poetry, but his conclusion that ‘poetry simplifies?by bringing order to experience’ (p. 105) is both unsatisfying and unconvincing.

The final three essays of Part 1 turn to intersections between the Bible and relationship to ‘place’. Susan Slater, “Imagining Arrival: Rhetoric, Reader, and Word of God in Deuteronomy 1–3” describes how in the act of reading the dream of coming home is repeatedly evoked while the ‘homecoming’ itself is simultaneously deferred. What happens when the ‘homecoming’ is enacted? David M. Gunn’s “Yearning for Jerusalem: Reading Myth on the Web” offers an important analysis of the way in which the use of biblical (proof) texts on the Israel Foreign Ministry Home Page is symptomatic of an imaginative framework of romance, ‘which may indeed empower, yet blind the yearning subject to an Other subject’s “country”’ (p. 138). In a different way, Burke O. Long, ”Reading the Land: Holy Land as Text of Witness” looks at how in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries biblical texts formed a lens through which European and North American Christians constructed Palestine as an object of desire.

Where the essays of Part 1 moved from the pleasure of reading and the reading of pleasure to a focus on the ways in which certain readings are implicated in readers’ material relationships to lands, the heading of Part 2, “Writers, Power and the Alienation of Labour” signals a stronger focus on oppression and justice. Roland Boer’s “David is a Thing” and David Jobling’s “A Bettered Woman: Elisha and the Shunammite in the Deuteronomic Work” represent different approaches to the trope of Davidic kingship. While Boer’s reading focuses on the symbolic operation of monarchy, Jobling considers the narrative treatment of the Shunammite woman as a key moment in the textual repression of the ideal of egalitarian Israel. Susan Niditch, “Reading Story in Judges 1” reads the multifaceted character of Judges 1 in relation to the ambivalent nature of ancient Israelite identity. Norman K. Gottwald, “Icelandic and Israelite Beginnings: A Comparative Probe” offers an inter-reading of Icelandic and Israelite beginnings. John Van Seters, “On Reading the Story of the Man of God from Judah in 1 Kings 13” argues that at times readerly difficulties with a particular text may reflect a “lack of literary skill by the author” (p. 233). John Dominic Crossan, “The Labour of Sharing” reads comparatively between Matthew, Luke, the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas to suggest an ethic of distributive justice that “has its roots in the Jewish God” (p. 235).

In different contexts, Gary A. Phillips, “The Killing Fields of Matthew’s Gospel” and Pamela J. Milne, “Labouring with Abusive Biblical Texts: Tracing Trajectories of Misogyny” consider the ongoing legacies of violence in the reading of the biblical text. Both Phillips’ evocation of the Holocaust and Milne’s response to feminist labours of reading raise significant questions for an ethics of reading. Erin Runions, “Playing it Again: Utopia, Contradiction, Hybrid Space and the Bright Future in Micah” engages Bhabha to confront and “revision” the colonising potential of the text.

Finally, Edward Greenstein, “In Job’s Face/Facing Job”, presents parallel readings of Job in two columns, visually confronting the reader with the choice of how to read Job in reading Job. Thus the selection concludes with this destabilising of the reader. More than a focus on the work of interpretation, what holds together this eclectic mix of essays is a sensitivity to the ways in which texts work on readers, a taste for intertextuality, and a feeling for the material effects of biblical interpretation. Of particular note are those essays, such as Gunn’s, which emphasise the ways in which the text, its interpretations and its interpreters have material effects on the bodies and lands of others.

Review by
Dr Anne Elvey
Centre for Women’s Studies
School of Political and Social Inquiry
Monash University