Monday, November 7, 2016

Cringe-worthy Reviews of My Book

It is rather disappointing to read reviews of one's own work when the reviewers don't seem to agree. It is, however, absolutely frustrating when it seems they don't agree because they haven't seemed to have read the book carefully.

Such is the case with a couple of reviews I've recently read of it, one of which in RBL by Jeffery Leonard. Leonard's review is one big strawman of my book. His review was then quoted by Peter Leithart, who also seems to have not read the book, in a blogpost with a further strawman objection. Here is what Leonard concludes:

“While the author does a workmanlike job of demonstrating how various numbers in Gen 1–11 could be interpreted symbolically, it is not at all clear to me that the biblical authors necessarily intended that these numbers should be interpreted in this fashion. It seems just as likely to me, for example, that the ancient Yahwist believed there was a flood and that the rains of that flood lasted for forty days as it does that he intended only to symbolize the trials Noah faced in the ark by supplying the number forty for the days of diluvian rain. Hodge attempts to sidestep this issue in part by arguing that we cannot divine from these texts the biblical authors’ beliefs about history and cosmology because the authors did not intend to teach these subjects; their purposes were theological. Simply asserting this to be the case, though, is not the same as demonstrating that the biblical authors did not place historiographic concerns alongside their theological concerns. A symbolic reading of the text may ease the interpretive task by marginalizing questions of what the biblical authors believed about the actual past. Were it the case, though, that the biblical authors intended their numbers to be understood literally, the comfort of a symbolic reading would be a false comfort that only obscures the real issues involved in understanding the thought world of the biblical authors.”

Leonard does this throughout his review. He continually makes this strawman that I am arguing that because the author could be using numbers symbolically, he, therefore, is using them symbolically. 

This, of course, is complete rubbish. I argue no such thing. The entire book is meant to show that the language of the Primeval History is symbolic, and therefore, the numbers should be taken as symbolic as well. To do the opposite of this, and take them as literal, not only creates unnecessary contradictions in the text, but it contradicts the symbolic nature of this genre of literature. 

Leonard gets past the contradictions by critiquing that I don't take the lazy route of most of scholarship and blame contradictions on the sources used. I say up front that I have no problem with conflicting sources, but argue that this is not what is happening with Genesis. It is simply a superficial view of the text that retreats back into this idea. The author has crafted a text out of sources that coheres to the message he wishes to convey. To argue otherwise is to stubbornly remain a fossil in the outdated relic that is nineteenth and twentieth century scholarship. 

Leonard has also completely misunderstood my argument. At no time did I pit the symbolic description of history as either historical or symbolic. In fact, I spend a lot of time in the opening chapters explaining that the author believes all of this to be history but still describes it symbolically. Leonard wants to create some false distinction between the two that I explain at lengths are not opposed to one another.

Indeed, Leithart's objection in his blogpost is that the ideas of "literal" and "symbolic" are not opposed, as though he is arguing against something I said in my book. In fact, he is arguing against Leonard, not me. My point is that there is a dichotomy between literal and symbolic description. I am not arguing that if the language is symbolic, the event is as well. This is nonsense.

But what of Leonard's argument? Instead of actually refuting anything I argue, what Leonard has done is show the weakness of his position. I have argued that since the language used is symbolic and filled with ancient Near Eastern symbolism evidenced in other texts that also vary in their descriptions (as texts that are not attempting to describe something literal would) that the numbers, which are often used symbolically both in the Bible and the ancient Near East, should be understood in context as symbolic as well. 

However, it is at this point that Leonard's argument turns on him. Leonard is arguing that since one can take these numbers as literal, one should take them as literal. Leonard would have to show that there is not ancient Near Eastern symbolism in these chapters, that the numbers are not used symbolically in the Bible and ancient Near East, and that the author's mindset is one of plain historical facts laid out in literal speech. Since he has not produced a work that has done this, nor could he, and has not refuted my book's real argument, his review just muddies the waters with logical fallacies.

The reviews done by fundamentalists like Andrew Kulikovsky are equally bad. In fact, they share some of the same objections but for different reasons. Kulikovsky's review is so riddled with logical and exegetical fallacies I cannot address them all here, but he, as well as his liberal counterparts, are committed to reading Genesis within their own modern context and concepts of historiography rather than attempt to understand how the text would have been read in an ancient Near Eastern context. The book attempts to show this, but alas, if one is dead set against the idea to begin with, there is really no evidence that would prove otherwise.

I'm still waiting for someone to address my actual argument, but it seems the desire to maintain one's quota for writing or to just be published outweighs the desire to understand an argument. The problem is that scholars tend to read reviews more than books, so their view of my work will be based on these strawmen; but this also causes me to wonder how much literature is misunderstood because of poorly thought out reviews.


  1. I'll have to get my hands on a copy. Sounds fascinating!

  2. Thanks Nick. John Day also did a review of my book that does not sound like he agreed at all with it, but I haven't been able to read the whole thing because I stopped subscribing to JTS awhile ago. Let me know if you come across a copy of that review.