Melville's Bibles

Melville's Bibles

by Ilana Pardes

Paperback(First Edition)

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Many writers in antebellum America sought to reinvent the Bible, but no one, Ilana Pardes argues, was as insistent as Melville on redefining biblical exegesis while doing so. In Moby-Dick he not only ventured to fashion a grand new inverted Bible in which biblical rebels and outcasts assume center stage, but also aspired to comment on every imaginable mode of biblical interpretation, calling for a radical reconsideration of the politics of biblical reception. In Melville's Bibles, Pardes traces Melville's response to a whole array of nineteenth-century exegetical writings—literary scriptures, biblical scholarship, Holy Land travel narratives, political sermons, and women's bibles. She shows how Melville raised with unparalleled verve the question of what counts as Bible and what counts as interpretation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520254558
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/05/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 206
Sales rank: 1,099,543
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Ilana Pardes is Professor of Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. She is the author of Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach and The Biography of Ancient Israel: National Narratives in the Bible (UC Press).

Read an Excerpt

Melville's Bibles

By Ilana Pardes
Copyright © 2008 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-25455-8

Chapter One
Playing with Leviathan

Job and the Aesthetic Turn in Biblical Exegesis

But if, in the face of all this, you still declare that whaling has no aesthetically noble associations connected with it, then am I ready to shiver fifty lances with you there, and unhorse you with a split helmet every time. The whale has no famous author, and whaling no famous chronicler, you will say. The whale no famous author, and whaling no famous chronicler? Who wrote the first account of our Leviathan? Who but mighty Job! "The Advocate" (111)

In regarding Job as an admirable founding author whose representation of Leviathan proves beyond doubt the "aesthetically noble" heritage of whales, Ishmael not only extols whaling with the passion of a hot-tempered, stubborn advocate but also endorses the new, ever-growing perception of the Bible as a whole and the Book of Job in particular as the grand aesthetic touchstone for all times. Ishmael, indeed, strives throughout the text to model his obsessive whale meditations on Job's Leviathan. But as the above passage from "The Advocate" indicates, persuading readers that the chronicle of whales should be treated with the same kind of aesthetic veneration one would feel for the book of "mighty Job" is not a simple task. Rhetoric, as Ishmael playfully suggests, may need to be supplemented (as it all too often is) by the threat of physical might.

Of the various biblical texts Melville evokes in Moby-Dick, Job is the one text that received considerable attention in the heyday of New Criticism. Lawrence Thompson chooses to open his classic reading of Moby-Dick in Melville's Quarrel with God with Job. In his quest to liberate himself from the tyrannies of Calvinism and God, writes Thompson, Melville "turned to the Bible for inspiration, particularly to the book of Job. Without any difficulty he could identify himself with the suffering Job, and could join Job in blaming God for the sorrows, woes, and evils which distressed and perplexed him." Though, he hastens to add, Melville could not take part "in the final tableau of abject submission and acceptance of God's inscrutable ways." Other critics-C. Hugh Holman and Janis Stout-attempted to determine whether the defiant Ahab or the reflective Ishmael who ruminates about the wonders of Leviathan should be regarded as the primary Joban character in the text. What remains beyond the scope of these New Critical studies is the aesthetic-exegetical shift that looms behind Melville's evocation of "mighty Job."

If the New Critics ignored Melville's part in advancing the literary Bible, the Americanists, who did consider his exegetical milieu, ignored Job. Speaking of "literary scripturism" as the hallmark of New England's culture, Lawrence Buell regards Melville, along with Emerson, Dickinson, Stowe, Whitman, and Thoreau, as a primary advocate of the new redefinition of boundaries between sacred writing and belles lettres in antebellum America. And yet his influential discussion of the ways in which antebellum writers construe Scripture as "a form of poesis" and see themselves as the ultimate interpreters of such an inspired vision remains panoramic. Job is not mentioned at all.

To begin to fathom Melville's grand homage to Job in Moby-Dick, I want to argue, requires a consideration of Melville's response to the aesthetic turn in biblical exegesis. More specifically, I read Melville's Job in relation to a whole genealogy of continental scholars and writers who regarded the Book of Job as an exemplary code of art within the great work of art. Melville is as committed as his New England contemporaries to fashioning a new, quintessentially American, literary Bible that would rekindle the poetic power of the ancient text in unknown ways. But his commitment to such "literary independence" does not preclude the passion with which he aligns himself with continental genealogies. Melville oscillates between European and American traditions, deeply committed to both, shunning any mode of parochialism. Melville's Job, accordingly, is a work of translation that hovers between the two continents as it introduces the European preoccupation with Job's aesthetic heritage-above all, with Joban perceptions of sublimity-into American landscapes and inscapes.

But my goal is not merely to show that Melville's commentary and metacommentary are embedded in each other. I spell out Melville's unparalleled exegetical imagination as it is revealed in the details of his aesthetic-hermeneutic project. I explore Melville's all-encompassing response to the textures, rhetoric, cries, and metaphors of the Book of Job alongside his obsessive juggling of previous literary readings of Job. To understand why the encounter with Melville's Job changes our perception of the biblical Job as it changes our perception of the aesthetic, requires, I believe, plunging precisely into such details.


The Bible, Jonathan Sheehan reminds us, was not always venerated as a founding text of Western literature. The literary Bible emerges in the eighteenth century both in England and in Germany as the invention of scholars and literati who tried to rejuvenate the Bible by transforming it from a book justified by theology into one justified by culture. The aim of this posttheological project was not quite to secularize the Bible-though it was now construed as the product of human imagination-but rather to reconstitute its authority in aesthetic terms. The Book of Job had a vital role in enhancing this transformation. Sheehan goes so far as to trace what he calls a "Job revival" in the context of the English and German Enlightenment, a revival that included numerous new translations and scholarly studies of the text. Among the leading scholars of this trend was Robert Lowth, a prominent forerunner of the literary approach to the Bible, whose book on biblical poetry, De Poesi Sacrae Hebraeorum (1753)-known primarily for its groundbreaking study of biblical parallelism-includes a substantive comparison of the poetic form of Job with that of Greek tragedy. Indeed, the Book of Job acquired so prominent a position as an aesthetic touchstone that it was evoked in Edmund Burke's Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) as an exemplary text for the exploration of the sublime experience in its relation to power and terror.

But the aesthetic revival of Job continues beyond the age of Enlightenment. It becomes even more prominent in Romantic thought and literature, though its poetic grandeur is now colored by Romantic aesthetic ideals. J. G. Herder, another important forerunner of the literary approach to the Bible, devotes an entire section of his renowned Spirit of Hebrew Poetry (1782-83, translated into English by 1833) to Job. Setting his work against the dry technical study of Lowth, he transfers Job into the realms of the heart, vision, and vivid Oriental imagination. God's whirlwind poem is the poetic epitome of Job, for like the Oriental descriptions of nature "it awakens a love, an interest, and a sympathy for all that lives":

What wretch, in the greatest tumult of his passions, in walking under a starry heaven, would not experience imperceptibly and even against his will a soothing influence from the elevating contemplation of its silent, unchangeable, and everlasting splendors. Suppose at such a moment there occurs to his thoughts the simple language of God, "Canst thou bind together the bands of the Pleiades," etc.-is it not as if God Himself addressed the words to him from the starry firmament? Such an effect has the true poetry of nature, the fair interpreter of the nature of God. A hint, a single word, in the spirit of such poetry often suggests to the mind extended scenes; nor does it merely bring their quiet pictures before the eye in their outward lineaments, but brings them home to the sympathies of the heart.

For Herder, God's rhetorical questions, the aesthetic hallmark of the divine response from the whirlwind-"Canst thou bind together the bands of the Pleiades?" (Job 38:31)-hold the power of an irresistible address that no one can ignore. He marvels at the sublimity of God's depiction of nature, at the power of the "simple language of God," with its minute hints, to interpret the starry firmament so that it becomes tangible to the observing eye. The experience of this vision is even richer: the external natural sights do not remain animate only "in their outward lineaments," but rather seep inward, bringing heavenly scenes into the inmost spheres, to the "sympathies of the heart." "It is as effect, then, that theodicy is redeemed. Not through knowledge of, nor through insight into, the workings of God, but rather in the power that these workings exert over our imaginations."

The impact of Herder's reading is evident in Thomas Carlyle's evocation of the Oriental sublimity of Job's visionary rendition of natural sights in his discussion of Islamic culture in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1840). Carlyle may not have been a prominent advocate of the literary Bible, but his brief comment on the Book of Job (he too focuses on the divine rhetorical questions) succinctly captures the Romantic adoration for the text as one of exceptional literary merit whose nature descriptions have an unparalleled impact on the eye and the heart. Job, he declares, is

A noble Book ... our first oldest statement of the never-ending Problem,-man's Destiny, and God's ways with him here in this earth. And all with such free fl owing outlines; grand in its sincerity, in its simplicity; in its epic melody, and repose of reconcilement. There is the seeing eye, the mildly understanding heart. So true everyway; true eyesight and vision for all things; material things no less than spiritual: the Horse,-'hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?'-he 'laughs at the shaking of the spear!' Such living likenesses were never since drawn. Sublime sorrow, sublime reconciliation; oldest choral melody as of the heart of mankind;-so soft, and great; as the summer midnight, as the world with its seas and stars! There is nothing written I think, in the Bible or out of it, of equal literary merit.

English and German Romantic literary and artistic exegesis followed suit. Blake and Goethe carved out their respective Jobs-Blake in his Illustrations of the Book of Job (1825) and Goethe in Faust (1832)-but in contradistinction to the scholarly studies of Lowth, Burke, and Herder, they defined the book's sublimity as inseparable from its predominant antitheodician character. To modern readers, Job's acute protest against the arbitrariness of divine conduct is the thrust of the book, but until the Romantic period the prevailing interpretive tendency was to read the Book of Job as theodicy and to prefer the patient pious Job of the folkloric Prologue to the rebellious Job of the poetic Dialogues. Romantic writers and artists were, in fact, the first to put forth the radical possibility of reading both God and Job as imperfect. Instead of seeing the book as a confirmation of normative faith, they treated it as an inspiring point of departure for a critique of institutional modes of religion.

In Blake's Illustrations the patient Job of the Prologue lives in a mode of error under the auspices of institutional churches. His erroneous mode of being is poignantly conveyed by the first illustration, in which musical instruments hang, unused, on the tree under which Job sits, all too drowsy, with his family. It takes a crisis to free him from clinging to the false God of conventional faith and find the way to the true God of imagination, the mirror image of his poetic self. In shaping the contours of the spiritual transformation Job undergoes, Blake relies on Burke, but his notion of "fearful symmetry" modifies the latter's definition of sublime experience by combining horror with wonder, mystery, and the infinite power of imagination.

Goethe, who was the first to superimpose a Joban dimension upon the drama of Faust, offers yet another version of an imperfect Job and an imperfect God. Faust is not a righteous Job who knows no evil. He roams about with Mephistopheles, taking advantage of the latter's devilish powers. Similarly, the Lord's ways are rather dubious. The wager between God and the Adversary in the Prologue is turned into a parody of divine vigilance in Faust. Indifferent to the potential suffering that may be inflicted upon Faust, the Lord readily allows Mephistopheles (a court jester of sorts) to lure the doctor without restricting his moves.

In contradistinction to the central position of Job in European Romanticism, it had but little resonance in the American Romantic milieu. Job did not lend itself to the optimism of leading literary figures such as Emerson or Whitman. But even Hawthorne and Dickinson-whose biblical poetics were of a darker hue-offered only dim echoes of Job rather than elaborate interpretations of the text. Melville filled this lacuna in American literary biblicism with a splash. While joining the above distinguished genealogy of continental advocates of Job he carved out a Job no European could have imagined.

If Melville were asked to single out the most sublime moment in Job he undoubtedly would have pointed to the whirlwind poem, as do Herder and Carlyle. Neither the starry sky nor the wild horse, however, would have led him to do so. The ultimate source of inspiration for Melville is located in the climactic closing lines of the poem, where Leviathan is presented as the inscrutable, ungraspable epitome of creation:

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? Or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put an hook into his nose? Or bore his jaw through with a thorn? Will he make many supplications unto thee? Will he speak soft words unto thee? Will he make a covenant with thee? Wilt thou take him for a servant for ever? Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? ... Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? Or his head with fish spears? ... Behold, the hope of him is in vain.... Who can open the doors of his face? His teeth are terrible round about. His scales are his pride, shut up together as with a close seal.... By his neesings a light doth shine, And his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. Out of his mouth go burning lamps, And sparks of fire leap out. Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, As out of a seething pot or caldron.... He maketh the deep to boil like a pot: He maketh the sea like a pot of ointment. He maketh a path to shine after him; One would think the deep to be hoary. Upon earth there is not his like, Who is made without fear. He beholdeth all high things: He is a king over all the children of pride (Job 41:1-34)

Nothing is more exhilaratingly sublime within the framework of Melvillean aesthetics than exploring the seething path of the wondrous monster who can make the deep boil. Nor is it accidental that this path is evoked already in the opening "Extracts." But Melville's distinct exegetical brilliance does not lie in foregrounding Leviathan's sublimity (a distinct poetic feat in itself) but in the unexpected projection of this poem onto the world of American whaling. Leviathan in Moby-Dick is at once an imaginary demonic-divine phantom-"the overwhelming idea of the great whale"-and a concrete marine mammal, caught, dissected, and sold as a commodity in one of America's largest industries. With unique Romantic irony and humor (rather dark at times), Melville situates Joban sublimity between the metaphysical and the physical in ways that offer a decisive departure from his continental precursors. If the Bible can count as "aesthetically noble" (to return to "The Advocate"), so can the supposedly "unpoetic" business of whaling, with its infamous butchering. The refreshing redefinition of the boundaries between sacred writing and belles lettres that the aesthetic turn in biblical exegesis brought about should, Melville proposes, lead to an even more radical opening of concepts such as aesthetic and sublime.


Excerpted from Melville's Bibles by Ilana Pardes Copyright © 2008 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. Playing with Leviathan: Job and the Aesthetic Turn in Biblical Exegesis
2. "Jonah Historically Regarded": Improvisations on Kitto's Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature
3. "Call Me Ishmael": The Bible and the Orient
4. Ahab, Idolatry, and the Question of Possession: Biblical Politics
5. Rachel's Inconsolable Cry: The Rise of Women's Bibles


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