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Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible
     

Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible

by Carolyn J. Sharp
 

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Was God being ironic in commanding Eve not to eat fruit from the tree of wisdom? Carolyn J. Sharp suggests that many stories in the Hebrew Scriptures may be ironically intended. Deftly interweaving literary theory and exegesis, Sharp illumines the power of the unspoken in a wide variety of texts from the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Writings. She argues that

Overview

Was God being ironic in commanding Eve not to eat fruit from the tree of wisdom? Carolyn J. Sharp suggests that many stories in the Hebrew Scriptures may be ironically intended. Deftly interweaving literary theory and exegesis, Sharp illumines the power of the unspoken in a wide variety of texts from the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Writings. She argues that reading with irony in mind creates a charged and open rhetorical space in the texts that allows character, narration, and authorial voice to develop in unexpected ways. Main themes explored here include the ironizing of foreign rulers, the prostitute as icon of the ironic gaze, indeterminacy and dramatic irony in prophetic performance, and irony in ancient Israel's wisdom traditions. Sharp devotes special attention to how irony destabilizes dominant ways in which the Bible is read today, especially when it touches on questions of conflict, gender, and the Other.

Editorial Reviews

AJL Newsletter
"'Universes hang in the balance with every act of reading an ironic sacred text'—this first line of the first chapter is the book’s 'White Rabbit,' which instantly seduces the reader to follow the author into a newly-charted wonderland of biblical rhetoric. Highly recommended...." —Dr. Yaffa Weisman, Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles, CA, AJL NWSLTR (ASSN JEWISH LIB), Sept./Oct. 2009

— Dr. Yaffa Weisman, Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles, CA

Shofar

Carolyn J. Sharp suggests that many stories in the Hebrew Scriptures may be ironically intended. Interweaving literary theory and exegesis, Sharp argues that reading with irony in mind creates a charged and open rhetorical space in the texts that allows character, narration, and authorial voice to develop in unexpected ways. Main themes explored here include the ironizing of foreign rulers, the prostitute as icon of the ironic gaze,
indeterminacy and dramatic irony in prophetic performance, and irony in ancient Israel’s wisdom traditions. Sharp devotes special attention to how irony destabilizes dominant ways in which the Bible is read today, especially when it touches on questions of conflict, gender, and the Other.Shofar, Vol. 28.1 Fall 2009

Review And Expositor: Quarterly Baptist Theo Journal
[This book] offers a fascinating exploration of the the presence and the power of irony in the Hebrew bible.—Tony Cartledge, Campbell University Divinity School, REVIEW and EXPOSITOR :Qtly Baptist Theo Jrnl, Summer 2009

— Tony Cartledge, Campbell University Divinity School

Review And Expositor:A Quarterly Baptist Theological Journal
"[This book] offers a fascinating exploration of the the presence and the power of irony in the Hebrew bible." —Tony Cartledge, Campbell University Divinity School, REVIEW and EXPOSITOR :Quarterly Baptist Theo Jrnl, Summer 2009

— Tony Cartledge, Campbell University Divinity School

Timothy K. Beal

"Engaging, erudite, and rich with insight, Sharp's book invites us to dwell between the said and the unsaid, to 'hear word and silence together' in a way that reveals irony at the very core of biblical tradition. This is a must-read for anyone interested in literary criticism, theory, and the Hebrew Bible." —Timothy K. Beal, Case Western Reserve University

Walter Brueggemann

"Carolyn Sharp has offered a magnificent exhibit of the thickness of the Hebrew Bible. Her work is a profound and exquisite invitation to reflect on prophetic imagination in its subtle subversion." —Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary

Steven Weitzman

"[Sharp] negotiates between a modernist and post—modernist understanding of the biblical text, taking authorial intent seriously while attending to textual self—subversion." —Steven Weitzman, Indiana University

Mark Minster

"Careful readers must be especially attentive to the possibilities [that] the biblical texts mean otherwise than what they say." —Mark Minster, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

IU News Room, Book Marks - Steve Hinnefeld

Author Carolyn J. Sharp, an associate professor of Hebrew Scriptures at Yale Divinity School, suggests that many stories in the Hebrew Scriptures may be ironically intended. In her new IU Press book, Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible, she deftly interweaves literary theory and exegesis, while illuminating the power of the unspoken in a wide variety of texts from the Pentateuch, the Prophets and the Writings. She argues that reading with irony in mind creates a charged and open rhetorical space in the texts that allows character, narration and authorial voice to develop in unexpected ways. Main themes explored include the ironizing of foreign rulers, the prostitute as an icon of the ironic gaze, indeterminacy and dramatic irony in prophetic performance, and irony in ancient Israel's wisdom traditions. Sharp focuses on how irony destabilizes dominant ways in which the Bible is read today, especially when it touches on questions of conflict, gender and the Other. She is also the author of Prophecy and Ideology in Jeremiah: Struggles for Authority in the Deutero-Jeremianic Prose and Old Testament Prophets for Today.Steve Hinnefeld, Media Contact, IU News Room, Book Marks, March 9, 2009

A. W. Klink

Sharp (Yale Divinity School) blends theoretically dense literary criticism with careful exegesis to explore the Hebrew Bible's use of irony. The first chapter focuses on defining irony in dialogue with literary scholarship. Subsequent chapters offer exegesis of selected texts, arguing why ironic readings seem more apt to textual features then do literal or 'straight' readings that take the texts at face value. Sharp's exegeses, done in conversation with other scholarship, are a good model for exegetes in training. Commentators often pronounce the 'best reading' of a text, but Sharp admits she might find irony where none is intended. She challenges those advocating non-ironic readings to give textual clues, rather than notions of biblical authority read theologically into a literary text, to prove her wrong. This sophisticated work might be too dense for those not versed in biblical studies, but those willing to wade through its dense theoretical argumentation will be rewarded with an example of Hebrew Bible scholarship at its finest. This rich, dense work of literary scholarship is a must for serious collections of biblical studies. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-level undergraduates and above. -- ChoiceA. W. Klink, Duke University, August 2009

AJL NWSLTR (ASSN JEWISH LIB) - Dr. Yaffa Weisman

"'Universes hang in the balance with every act of reading an ironic sacred text'—this first line of the first chapter is the book’s 'White Rabbit,' which instantly seduces the reader to follow the author into a newly-charted wonderland of biblical rhetoric. Highly recommended...." —Dr. Yaffa Weisman, Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles, CA, AJL NWSLTR (ASSN JEWISH LIB), Sept./Oct. 2009

REVIEW and EXPOSITOR :Qtly Baptist Theo Jrnl - Tony Cartledge

"[This book] offers a fascinating exploration of the the presence and the power of irony in the Hebrew bible." —Tony Cartledge, Campbell University Divinity School, REVIEW and EXPOSITOR :Qtly Baptist Theo Jrnl, Summer 2009

From the Publisher
"'Universes hang in the balance with every act of reading an ironic sacred text'—this first line of the first chapter is the book’s 'White Rabbit,' which instantly seduces the reader to follow the author into a newly-charted wonderland of biblical rhetoric. Highly recommended...." —Dr. Yaffa Weisman, Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles, CA, AJL NWSLTR (ASSN JEWISH LIB), Sept./Oct. 2009

Sharp (Yale Divinity School) blends theoretically dense literary criticism with careful exegesis to explore the Hebrew Bible's use of irony. The first chapter focuses on defining irony in dialogue with literary scholarship. Subsequent chapters offer exegesis of selected texts, arguing why ironic readings seem more apt to textual features then do literal or 'straight' readings that take the texts at face value. Sharp's exegeses, done in conversation with other scholarship, are a good model for exegetes in training. Commentators often pronounce the 'best reading' of a text, but Sharp admits she might find irony where none is intended. She challenges those advocating non-ironic readings to give textual clues, rather than notions of biblical authority read theologically into a literary text, to prove her wrong. This sophisticated work might be too dense for those not versed in biblical studies, but those willing to wade through its dense theoretical argumentation will be rewarded with an example of Hebrew Bible scholarship at its finest. This rich, dense work of literary scholarship is a must for serious collections of biblical studies. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-level undergraduates and above. — ChoiceA. W. Klink, Duke University, August 2009

"Careful readers must be especially attentive to the possibilities [that] the biblical texts mean otherwise than what they say." —Mark Minster, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780253003447
Publisher:
Indiana University Press
Publication date:
12/23/2008
Series:
Indiana Series in Biblical Literature
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
376
File size:
574 KB

Read an Excerpt

Writing the Black Revolutionary Diva

Women's Subjectivity and the Decolonizing Text


By Kimberly Nichele Brown

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2010 Kimberly Nichele Brown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35244-6



CHAPTER 1

FROM SOUL CLEAVAGE TO SOUL SURVIVAL

Double-Consciousness and the Emergence of the Decolonized Text/Subject


I still think today as yesterday that the color line is a great problem of this century. But today I see more clearly than yesterday that in back of the problem of race and color, lies a greater problem which both obscures and implements it: and that is the fact that so many civilized persons are willing to live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance and disease of the majority of their fellow men; that to maintain this privilege men have waged war until today war tends to become universal and continuous, and the excuse for this continues largely to be color and race. — W. E. B. DU BOIS


In 2005, the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston showcased an exhibition titled "Double-Consciousness: Black Conceptual Art Since 1970," which featured the multigenerational work of artists Terry Adkins, Edgar Arceneaux, Sanford Biggers, Charles Gaines, Ellen Gallagher, David Hammons, Lyle Ashton Harris, Maren Hassinger, Jennie C. Jones, Senga Nengudi, Howardena Pindell, Gary Simmons, Lorna Simpson, Adrian Piper, Nari Ward, and Fred Wilson. This exhibition is specifically appealing to me because its contributors approached Du Bois's theory in much the same way that I do in this project. Not only does its period selection suggest a shift in black artistic expression since the 1970s, the publisher's review of the corresponding art book explains that "[t]he exhibition's concept is an aesthetic contribution to the rethinking of Du Bois's 'double consciousness' theory that asserts that African-Americans are no longer relegated to looking at themselves through the eyes of others, but rather through their own gaze." In general the museum is an appropriate metaphoric site to describe my own ambivalence concerning the continued applicability of double-consciousness in describing postmodern blackness — is it a concept to be memorialized as a remnant of modernity, or is it still a significant component of black postmodernity? These questions should also be read through the context of the epigraph; what Du Bois wrote in 1953 was true in 1903 and remains true today. Therefore, if the parameters of the color line have remained fairly stable, what about our strategies to deal with these divisions, do they remain unchanged as well?

Given that 2003 marked the centennial anniversary of the publication of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, the same questions I pose have been asked and answered in various ways in both academic and popular books, conference panels, and commemorative ceremonies that explore the text's millennial significance. Du Bois has even found a home in the annals of hip-hop culture, the 2004 release of Double Consciousness by Ghanian-born, yet U.S.-university-educated rapper Blitz is one such example. The cover art on the compact disc features a slave woman spinning turntables in the middle of a cotton field while her fellow/sister workers pick cotton in the background. This image suggests a link between slavery's past and the future while it begs the question: How far have we come as a people?

Written in 1903, The Souls of Black Folk has been extolled as the definitive text on black modernity. Not only does Souls articulate the psychological ramifications of racist discrimination on the black psyche, it also expresses Du Bois's aspirations for the turn of that century — that newly freed African Americans would one day rise above the stigma of blackness and be accorded the privileges of U.S. citizenship. Using the metaphor of a cathartic journey through America's racist terrain, Du Bois conceived of the development of a new consciousness that would change the "child of Emancipation" into the "youth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self-respect" (The Souls of Black Folk 14).

Souls was bicultural in its structure and in Du Bois's perception of audience. Structurally, each chapter is headed by an epigraph by a white poet and an excerpt of a "sorrow song," or rather a Negro spiritual. In addressing his text to both blacks and whites, Du Bois was strategic in that he hoped to persuade his audience to mimic his literary integration in the real space of the nation. By focusing on the souls of American blacks, Du Bois emphasized their humanity to his white readers in an attempt to counter negative stereotypes. The text also held a particular significance for his black readers. Saunders Redding states that the publication of Souls "may be seen as fixing that moment in history when the American Negro began to reject the idea of the world's belonging to white people only, and to think of himself, in concert, as a potential force in the organization of society" (Introduction vii). Redding further acknowledges that Souls also served to validate the experiences of "Negroes of training and intelligence, who had hitherto pretended to regard the race problem as of strictly personal concern and who sought individual salvation in a creed of detachment and silence"; in Souls they "found a bond in their common grievances and a language through which to express them" (viii). Indeed, Souls articulates what I have oftentimes experienced — the feeling of being Othered. While I agree that double-consciousness is a condition through which every U.S.-born black must eventually encounter and come to terms, I object to its use as the principal measure of postmodern African American subjectivity and question the extent to which it dominated black subjectivity during the modern era.

While I am convinced that the problem of the twenty-first century, as Du Bois said of the twentieth century, continues to be the color line, I am less persuaded that double-consciousness is as persistent as a disabling feature of African American identity formation. For example, Henry Louis Gates proclaims:

Today, talk about the fragmentation of culture and consciousness is a commonplace. We know all about the vigorous intermixing of black culture and white, high culture and low — from the Jazz Age freneticism of what Ann Douglas calls "mongrel Manhattan" to hip-hop's hegemony over America [I would say the world's] youth. ... Today, the idea of wholeness has largely been retired. And cultural multiplicity is no longer seen as the problem, but as a solution — a solution of the confines of identity itself. Double consciousness, once a disorder, is now the cure. ("Both Sides Now" 31)


Although Gates seems a bit overly optimistic in pronouncing double-consciousness as the cure, surely one needs to take into account that the globalization of African American culture has intensified. And although such visibility has yet to be translated into real power, such integration into the global market has done much to boost the self-esteem of darker people and marginal cultures the world over. It is not my intention, however, to argue that racism has been eradicated or plays no part in the development of contemporary African American psyches; quite the contrary, racism is often more subtle and therefore arguably more lethal.

Arnold Rampersad writes that "[a]mong black intellectuals, above all, The Souls of Black Folk became a kind of sacred book, the central text for the interpretation of the Afro-American experience" ("Slavery and the Literary Imagination" 296). Dolan Hubbard concurs when he proclaims the text to be "the Old Testament of twentieth-century African American letters" (1). Adolph L. Reed, Jr., speculates that it is Du Bois's articulation of double-consciousness that accounts for the text's endurance. According to Reed, the paragraph in which Du Bois first defines double-consciousness is not only the most widely known in his "entire corpus," but may also be the "most familiar in all of Afro-American letters" (W. E. B. Du Bois and American Political Thought 91). The passage reads as follows:

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (The Souls of Black Folk 10)


Reed surmises, "The passage's enduring resonance derives from its verisimilitude in expressing a core lament of the Afro-American condition" and as such has served as a "distinctly attractive template for the articulation of both interpretive and substantive, academic and hortatory arguments concerning the race's status" (W. E. B. Du Bois and American Political Thought 91).

Scholars from various disciplines — such as Harold Cruse, Shanette M. Harris, Adolph L. Reed, Jr., and Shamoon Zamir — offer alternate readings of double-consciousness that counter its reign as a universal signifier of African American identity. While Harris characterizes Du Bois as a "filtering agent through which whites could learn what it means to be black," rather than just offering a treatise on life "beyond the veil," she contends that the text should also be read as Du Bois's personal attempt to come to grips with U.S. racism ("Constructing a Psychological Perspective" 218). Harris explains that while his mission was to promote "sociobehavioral change" among his black audience and empathy among his white audience, "[Du Bois's] own understanding of and empathy toward 'black folk' was rather limited because of his few experiences with other African Americans until college" (218).

While Harris commends Du Bois for being courageous enough to bare his own soul (so to speak) and show his vulnerability by personalizing his text, Harold Cruse uses this same argument, that Du Bois had little contact with blacks prior to attending Fisk, to condemn Du Bois. In an interview conducted by Van Grosse, Harold Cruse charges that the centrality that Du Bois continues to enjoy in African American studies, largely due to his concept of double-consciousness, is a "manufactured" one: "Du Bois is a philosophical phony. That double-consciousness thing is a phony. It's his double-consciousness. It's philosophical romanticism" ("Interview with Harold Cruse" 297). Although he concedes that Du Bois is an important intellectual figure, Cruse believes it is problematic to overidealize Du Bois given that he was a northern and a "near-white mulatto" (297). Perhaps because he was light-complected and was accorded privileges based on his appearance, Cruse explains that "blackness" was Du Bois's choice, but he maintains that for Du Bois to make that choice he had to recreate blackness over in his own image and according to his own experiences with racial discord. It is the combination of Du Bois's father's lineage and his own northern upbringing that serves as an indicator for Cruse of Du Bois's detachment from black southerners and reveals his fashioning of double-consciousness to be one of "egotistical idealism." While Cruse views double-consciousness as the reflection of Du Bois's own racial anxieties, he also zealously discredits double-consciousness as an accurate portrayal of the black elite Du Bois met when he attended Fisk University: "[Double-consciousness has] been handed down as a verity, and it's not. It had nothing to do with those blacks he met when he went to Fisk University, nothing. They had no goddamn double-consciousness, they knew who they were" (297).

Zamir, however, challenges Du Bois's claim that he had little contact with blacks while growing up in Massachusetts. He writes, "Du Bois's silences about his own experience of poverty in his childhood, about living on Railroad Street, a particularly wretched part of town, or about his having had a broader knowledge of black life in his childhood than he admits in later life are, in Souls at least, aids to an unmasking rather than a masking of certain aspects of his politics" (Dark Voices 138). Zamir argues that these silences "highlight" the differences between Du Bois and the black southern majority "rather than disguise it," and therefore Du Bois consciously "problematizes his own status as guide to the black world for the white reader" by making the motif of a journey into life behind the veil a "central theme" of the work from the very beginning (139).

Zamir does, however, concur with Cruse that double-consciousness's centrality in African American studies is manufactured. He believes that while double-consciousness is widely "accepted as a universally and transhistorically true analysis of a tragic aspect of African-American self-consciousness," it should more accurately be considered as both class-specific and historically specific (116). He writes, "The account of 'double-consciousness' ... represents the black middle-class elite facing the failure of its own progressive ideals in the late nineteenth century, in the aftermath of failed Reconstruction and under the gaze of a white America." Therefore, according to Zamir, "'Of Our Spiritual Strivings' [the first chapter of Souls and the one in which Du Bois defines doubleconsciousness] is intended as a psychology of the Talented Tenth in crisis, not of the 'black folk' as a homogenized collectivity" (116).

Adolph Reed also charges that the double-consciousness motif has been used transhistorically in that scholars from various disciplines appropriate the concept for their own usages. Because these appropriations seem to exist irrespective of Du Bois's own desire to see double-consciousness eradicated by the full integration of blacks into the U.S. socioeconomic strata, Reed laments that the resolution of double-consciousness does not seem to be an urgent objective anymore; instead "double-consciousness tends to be seen naturalistically, as an essential fact of Afro-American existence in the here and now" (W. E. B. Du Bois and American Political Thought 94). In the preface of the 1953 edition of Souls, Du Bois apparently views the text as a document circumscribed by history when he explains how he resisted the urge to revise it: "Several times I planned to revise the book and bring it abreast of my own thought and to answer criticism. But I hesitated and finally decided to leave the book as first printed, as a monument to what I thought and felt in 1903" (Souls [Blue Heron Press] x). Additionally, what is often forgotten in contemporary discussions concerning double-consciousness is that even in Du Bois's first use of the term he simultaneously envisioned a future time in which black psyches would not be solely predicated on white definitions of blackness.

Saunders Redding explains that The Souls of Black Folk differs from The Philadelphia Negro (1899) in that its publication marked a "revolution" in Du Bois's thinking regarding his belief that scientific inquiry alone would be adequate in effecting social reform. By the time Souls was published, Du Bois could be said to have experienced another revolution of thought; he had already begun to rethink the original strategy he employed in the text — lifting the "veil" to demonstrate to whites how racism impeded black progress in the hopes that whites would feel morally compelled to curtail racist behavior. I would also like to believe that Du Bois had also begun to rethink the effectiveness of employing double-consciousness as a strategy against racism at the expense of the so-called black psyche.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Writing the Black Revolutionary Diva by Kimberly Nichele Brown. Copyright © 2010 Kimberly Nichele Brown. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Carolyn J. Sharp is Associate Professor of Hebrew Scriptures at Yale Divinity School. She is author of Prophecy and Ideology in Jeremiah: Struggles for Authority in the Deutero-Jeremianic Prose; and Old Testament Prophets for Today.

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