Winter 1994, Wolume 11.1
Reviewed by Mark S. LeTourneau, Dept.of English, Weber State University
Dialogues of the Word: The Bible as Literature According to Bakhtin by Walter L. Reed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, 223 pp., $39.95 (cloth)
The intriguing premise of Reed's book is one that some will initially find implausible: that Michael Bakhtin's theory of dialogism illuminates the literary organization of the Bible. As Reed contends, "it is the dialogue between stories rather than any narrative structure in which they are embedded, that is the most prominent formal feature of the text" (13).
Fittingly, in a book based on Bakhtin, Dialogues of the Word exhibits a dialogic structure of its own. In Chapter 1, Reed illustrates the method he proposes by pairing the book of Genesis and the Gospel of Mark. Chapters 2 and 3 pair as discussions of how the dialogue between God and his people is carried on in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament, respectively. (Surprisingly, the logos doctrine of John's Gospel is not discussed in Chapter 3.) Chapters 4 and 5 stand in a similarly dialogic relation: the former chapter argues that the book of Job enacts a dialogue between a discourse of justice and a discourse of providence; the latter chapter argues that worship and judgment are dialogic principles of organization in Revelation, a book whose structure has proved elusive. These dialogues between Old and New Testament texts give what originated as separate essays a comfortable measure of unity.
To say that the book is unified by its dialogic structure is not to say that all of its dialogic analyses are equally persuasive. Certain of the textual macrostructures that Reed discerns are more ingenious than convincing. For example, from the parallels between the structure of Deuteronomy and the organization of suzertainty treaties between rulers and the ruled of the second millennium BCE, Reed extrapolates a similar treaty structure for the Pentateuch as a whole (50-51). Apart from the question of how Numbers fits into this pattern, the analysis ignores the covenant made with Abraham and renewed with Isaac and Jacob, which occurs in the section Reed frames as the historical prologue of the treaty.
In Chapter 3, Reed suggests that the shift from a tripartite division of the Hebrew Scriptures as law, prophecy, and wisdom to a tetrapartite division into law, history, prophecy, and wisdom in the Christian Old Testament occurred under the influence of the four genres that appear in the New Testament: gospel, history (Acts), epistle, and apocalypse (111). Even if we grant that the tetrapartite division of the Old Testament did not derive from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), as Reed argues (109), the division of the prophetic books in the Hebrew canon into the Former Prophets (Joshua through Kings) and Latter Prophets (Isaiah through Malachi) would have also been available as a tetrapartite system of genres before the New Testament canon was formed.
Moreover, the parallels Reed draws between Old and New Testament genres are questionable-for example, pairing the wisdom literature (Psalms through Chronicles) of the Hebrew Scriptures with the epistles of the New Testament because both refer to the present, or of the latter prophets with Revelation because both refer to the future (I 11). Reed's own strong case that apocalypse is the genre which the New Testament, as a whole, employs in its dialogue with the genres of the Hebrew Scriptures (84) dubiates the first of these pairings; Jesus' command to John in Revelation to write of things past, present, and future (1.19) vitiates the second.
One might ask how consistently Reed's concept of dialogism coincides with Bakhtin's. As the above chapter outline suggests, dialogism for Reed is often nearly synonymous with intertextuality (or intratextuality within a single book). This conception is exploited adroitly in the discussion of Genesis, in which Reed shows how the three types of divine-human encounter presented in Chapters I - I I are answered in 1250 (18-30). But the notion of dialogism implied is more static than Bakhtin's. In his essay "Discourse in the Novel," on which Reed relies heavily, Bakhtin describes internal dialogism (in contrast to the dialogic structure of conversation) as "a property of any discourse" whereby the meaning of a word is modifed by the orientation of all utterance toward its recipient [The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas P, 1981), 279-821. This rhetorical understanding of dialogism, more dynamic than the intratextuality of Genesis, is penetratingly deployed in Reed's reading of job. Here, the dialogue is not between events or characters but between speakers, or, as Reed puts it, between discourses, yielding a depthful, satisfying interpretation (one which addresses several longstanding problems, such as why God restores Job's wealth in the book's epilogue).
In an Afterword, Reed perceptively situates the literary study of the Bible between historical criticism and theology in approaching the Bible neither as a miscellany of documents in a larger corpus of ancient texts, as the historian does, nor as a closed canon of Scripture, as the theologian does, but as an anthology, with its own internal coherence (168-69). By displaying how the diversity of the Bible can be synthesized through dialogic relations among its parts, Reed furnishes a method by which both Biblical and literary scholars can greatly profit.