David Lambert

David Lambert is currently an assistant professor of Religious Studies in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he teaches Hebrew Bible and its history of interpretation. He previously taught at the University of Texas at Austin and was a post-doctoral fellow at Yale. He received an A.B. and Ph.D. from Harvard University in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. He is completing work on a manuscript, "How We Read Repentance into the Bible: Toward a Critical History of Interpretive Tendencies."

Knowledge as Performance in the Hebrew Bible

James Barr’s criticisms of theology’s use of philology in his The Semantics of Biblical Language sets a standard for anyone thinking about the nature of knowledge in the Hebrew Bible today. It has left biblical studies justifiably skittish about employing aspects of biblical language to any significant effect in the attempt to differentiate between biblical and modern worldviews. Barr’s criticism may be responsible, in part, for the failure of philology—with the exclusion of a number of recent, intriguing studies—to develop apace over the past fifty years and, in particular, to address any matters of serious theological import. The newer generation’s supposedly inferior knowledge of the original biblical languages is likely to be the result of neither laziness nor haziness but of the fact that, in a post-Barr world, there would seem to be less that one can do with philology that is of interest for theology, or the sorts of questions that actually motivate biblical research today. Philology is now a sub-field, a stigmatized one at that, and not, as it once was, the very basis of scholarship itself. This specialization of linguistic study paves the way, in turn, for decidedly unsophisticated appropriations of language on the part of non-specialists.

A recent work on the topic makes a good case in point and represents modest progress. Michael Carasik, in his rich study, Theologies of the Mind in Biblical Israel, gives us more than sufficient reason to take words seriously again. Cognizant of Barr, Carasik rejects using “phrases and passages” to “reveal how their authors thought” but still finds a use for them in “telling us what those authors thought” about the process of thinking. (9) Carasik denies that the hardwiring of the Israelite mind was fundamentally different from our own, leaving open the possibility that their construction of the mind might differ. But, for him, it doesn’t really. Carasik, in the shadow of Barr, seems unwilling to use suggestive “phrases and passages” to construct alternative ancient theories of the mind. Ultimately, his exposition does not present any serious challenge to the modern Western world’s thoroughgoing construction of thought as interior.

For example, Carasik maintains that the Hebrew verb ידע corresponds closely to the range of meanings evinced by the English verb “to know.” (17-32) This assertion is very difficult to assess, but evidence of some problem with it may be seen in his dismissal of Walther Zimmerli’s radical claim that ידע in Ezekiel, found in the formula “know that I am YHWH,” does not depict a deep psychological process, but rather a concrete moment of recognition in the face of dramatic divine intervention.

I think Zimmerli’s thesis may have something to it. In this paper, I would like to use a philological approach to reexamine the contexts of passages concerning “knowledge” in the Hebrew Bible in order to build a basis from which to distinguish between modern and ancient notions of knowledge. In particular, I will argue that “knowledge” seems to reside in ongoing performative processes rather than in a notion of a stable “mind” in continuous possession of knowledge.

To offer one example, we might consider the following passage from Leviticus: “You must dwell in booths for seven days…in order that future generations may know that I provided the children of Israel with booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the LORD your God.” (Lev 23:42-43) What relationship between ritual and knowledge is intended here? One possibility, the standard suggestion, is that the annual performance of the booth ritual ensures that a steady awareness of God’s salvific act is preserved. But that scarcely seems necessary and suggests that any given yearly performance of the act would bear little significance at all. Another option entails a subtly distinct theory of knowledge, one which understands ידע first and foremost as an act of recognition (whose effect lingers)—a sort of punctuated or refreshed knowledge—rather than as a continuous state of knowing, and which grants the ritual a role beyond the mere depiction of past events. Each year, dwelling in booths calls to mind the fact of God’s salvific act and makes manifest his revealed power, “I the LORD your God.” In this account, the people’s response, ידע, moves much closer to Zimmerli/Ezekiel’s notion of “recognition” and away from anything that can be represented adequately with English “know.” This distinction will be developed and explored further through a variety of instances from narrative, prophecy, and wisdom literature, as well as a few examples from rabbinic literature.