Monday, October 29, 2012

Gunkel: The Legends of Genesis (1901)

If I understand this correctly, the origin of this text is the following: In 1901, Hermann Gunkel had published a book simply entitled Genesis, and often referred to as a his "commentary" on the Book of Genesis.

However, as far as I could tell from a quick skip through the German original, it is in fact a translation rather than a commentary. I don't know if Gunkel produced the translation himself.

It is, however, a very heavily annotated translation. Almost every single line of the book is equipped with a footnote, and the footnotes frequently take up more than half of the page. So perhaps it isn't entirely unfair to consider it a work of interpretation in its own right after all.

At any rate, this new annotated translation was prefaced by a quite substantial essay, and this essay was translated into English as The Legends of Genesis. Unlike the German original, this text could be checked out of the library here in Amsterdam, and I've read most of it by now.

The Framing of Text Genres

Gunkel is one of those dead white men which everybody seems to cite, but no one seems to read (a bit like Durkheim in sociology). In Hebrew Bible scholarship, his name is strongly connected with the concept of "Sitz im Leben," the situation in which a particular genre of poem or narrative was recited.

Actually, I think he only used the exact phrase "Sitz im Leben" two or three times in his life, but it is not entirely inaccurate to say that his interest in the topic went much, much beyond that. His preface to the translation of Genesis is rife with observations about the possible real-life uses and contexts of the various genres we find in the Hebrew scriptures.

This gets most obvious in the chapter on "the literary form of the legends" (pp. 37-87). This is the part of the essay in which he most intensely speculates about the social function that the stories must have had in the everyday life of the ancient Hebrews:
Accordingly, we should attempt in considering Genesis to realise first of all the form of its contents when they existed as oral tradition. This point of view has been ignored altogether too much hitherto, and investigators have instead treated the legendary books too much as "books." If we desire to understand the legends better we must recall to view the situations in which the legends were recited. […] But the common situation which we have to suppose is this: In the leisure of a winter evening the family sits about the hearth; the grown people, but more especially the children, listen intently to the beautiful old stories of the dawn of the world, which they have heard so often yet never tire of hearing repeated. (pp. 40-41)
An interesting piece of advice on exegesis, and incidentally also the clearest possible illustration of 19th century family norms that one could imagine.

Nevertheless, Gunkel's formal and contextual approach to the scriptures must have stood in a quite stark contrast to the alternatives at the time. In a sense, his insistence on seeing meaning in context can be seen as a precursor of archaeology of knowledge and other strongly textual techniques from later in the 20th century.

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