Dialogue in and among Genres

Martin J. Buss


One of the most prominent features of biblical literature is dialogue, especially if this is taken to include speech by one person to another even if no immediate response by the addressee is recorded. To what extent biblical dialogue is different in character or frequency from that of other traditions is an interesting question, but one that will be touched on here only briefly. The primary present focus is on the phenomenon of dialogue within the Hebrew Bible.


1. The first point to be made is that a genre, or speech type, can be identified on the basis of address form; this includes an implicit or explicit dialogue. Since the word “genre” is used in this statement, a word is in order about what I mean by “genre.” First of all, negatively (contra Gunkel), I reject the notion that genres have “essences,” that is, the idea that there are right or wrong ways to categorize genres. Instead, together with other relational theorists, I accept the view that genres are more or less useful ways of treating together similar literary phenomena. In positive terms, I adopt Gunkel’s three criteria for the identification of a genre: life situation

(I prefer to say “life process”), ideational content, and verbal form.[1] Any one of these three criteria can be sufficient to constitute a genre. For instance, if greeting

someone is a life process, then “greeting” represents a genre, no matter what content appears and no matter what form of expression is used. Furthermore, one can group together discussions of a certain kind of content, such as theology or conversation about the weather, despite differences in formulation or role. In fact, as a survey of German genres found, most speech classifications (such as recipe, weather report, or death notice) are based on content, although each have characteristic styles. Thirdly, narratives—that is, temporally sequenced accounts—are often treated as a genre on the basis of their literary form, although they may have various kinds of content and can play different roles in life. The three criteria mentioned—life process, content, and verbal form—correlate with each other to a certain extent, but not as rigidly as Gunkel implied. The correlations are not simply arbitrary but make a certain sense. For instance, in a condition of distress, it is understandable that the content of an expression is a complaint and that the verbal form for this employs the first person. Yet other content and other verbal forms are possible and may be preferred in another culture.[2]


In the present context, I will deal with patterns as they appear in the sphere of the Hebrew Bible. In doing so, I will begin with verbal structure, specifically with address form, but I will move from verbal patterning to a view of its correlation with content and life process.


My first example will be a type of speech that in biblical studies is often called “law.” Laws are formulated as pronouncements by an authoritative source that are directed to a generalized public. Within this large category, several variations can be regarded as subtypes, which themselves have further subdivisions.


In one subtype, the public is addressed in the second person in the individual laws (not merely in their introductory frame). Although no response may be recorded, this style represents an implied dialogue, in that speaker and addressee are involved in an ongoing relationship.


In a subdivision of this form which appears in the Decalogue, God speaks to Israel in the first person, although Moses is indicated as God’s mouthpiece (Exod 20:1-14; Deut. 5:4-5). In the biblical text, these commandments—most of which employ second-person address, although the positive ones among them use the infinitive absolute—are called God’s “words” (debarim). In regard to how their style correlates with content and process, Philo pointed out that it highlights the personal character of biblical law as one that involves a relation between people and God and not merely a mechanical obedience to a set of rules (Dec. 36-39). In fact, the decalogic “words” are quite general and leave much open in regard to specific application. One can ask: What does it mean to have no other god “before” me? Are images permitted if one does not “worship” them? What constitutes “work” that is prohibited on the Sabbath? How does one “honor” parents? Furthermore, murder, theft, adultery, and false witness are wrong by definition. They constitute unjustified killing, unjustified taking, etc., without spelling out what makes an act unjustified (for instance, in both Jewish and Catholic traditions, a hungry person’s taking needed bread is not theft). Thus, attention is drawn to several aspects of social life, while details are left undetermined in this context. The tenth commandment forbids property accumulation and competitive bidding for employees, but it does not specify a maximum for permitted holdings and centers instead on attitude.


In another subtype of second-person directive, God addresses Moses, who is to speak either to the people in general or to Aaron as the representative of the priests. The directives thus formulated are fairly specific. Quite a few of them do not use second-person address in the laws themselves and can thus be treated as a separate subgenre of law. I have analyzed correlations between linguistic form, content, and social role for them elsewhere.[3]


In Deuteronomy, differently again, the immediate verbal source of regulations is not God, but Moses, who speaks to the people on behalf of God. Moses can quote the Ten Commandments as God’s direct words to Israel, but otherwise he gives instructions that often have an expository and hortatory character, like that of a sermon.[4] Many of the exhortations are humanitarian in their character, but Moses also directs the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites (Deut. 7:1-5). Thus, in being more expansive than strictly divine words, this kind of speech, too, shows some correlation of style with content and process.[5]


We can now turn from address patterns in law to those in nonlegal genres, which differ in ways that are appropriate for their specific type of speech. To give just a few examples: Proverbs in the book by that name sometimes address an individual person. When they do so, they use the so-called “imperative” form of the verb, which in generalized directives has the flavor of strong advice. At other times, proverbs are worded impersonally, especially in order to describe consequences of behavior which should be taken into account by the hearer. Both forms appeal primarily to an individual’s material or idealistic well-being, including self-respect, just as ancient and modern philosophy often do. They do not inculcate a sense of one’s having a place within a large-scale divine movement or employ gratitude as a motive. When the speaker of a proverb is identified, it is a parent, who is represented either by Solomon (1:1) or by a king’s mother (31:1). Nevertheless, personified wisdom, perhaps as a daughter of God, is cited (8:4-36). Thus there is indeed a connection with deity, although it is less pronounced than in laws.


In contrast to Proverbs, Qoheleth emphasizes the reflective first-person “I,” with its experience. This “I” is probably not simply that of an individual writer but represents a certain reflective way of looking at reality.[6] It is indeed misleading to compare Qoheleth with Proverbs in a way that assumes that they have a common purpose. The book of Proverbs often gives direction that is moral or useful for operation in society. In content and purpose as well as in address form, Qoheleth represents a different genre, one that is also observable world-wide in both written and oral cultures.[7] Occasionally, Qoheleth gives advice, but that advice is a recommendation that one enjoy life, in contrast to seeking ephemeral or meaningless achievements (2:24, etc.). Basic moral standards and a belief in some degree of divine justice are accepted,[8] but the reader or hearer is advised that adherence to righteousness should be moderate (7:16-18; 8:11-14; 11:9). In regard to the question of how Qoheleth fits into the Hebrew Bible as a whole, it should be recognized that although the Hebrew Bible generally is quite strongly ethical in its orientation, it leaves a good part of human life open for the pursuit of happiness. Such a pursuit is part of the design of the Creator, as is implied in Genesis 1 and 2 and in Qoheleth (12:1). Furthermore, Qoheleth’s advice to enjoy life is stated as a complement to the Tenth Commandment against accumulating wealth (2:26), so that, in this respect at least, Qoheleth does not contradict the legal structure of the Hebrew Bible. More definitely moral, to be sure, is the ending of the book, which stands outside of Qoheleth’s first-person speech (12:13-14). In other words, Qoheleth is not strongly other-centered but rather I-centered, as its style indicates. Yet is seems to represent a legitimate aspect of life.


Differently again, the Song of Songs, like much of love poetry cross-culturally, features a dialogue between lovers, who enjoy each other. The book is similar to Qoheleth in that no divine revelation is assumed. In fact, God is not even spoken of in the third person. In content and thrust, the Song resembles Qoheleth in that its interest lies in enjoyment, not ethics. However, it reaches this point via a positive rather than a negative route. In terms of an implied setting, the Song presupposes youth and perhaps ordinary people (with the “king” taken in a metaphoric sense), while Qoheleth represents a mature urban intelligentsia (with a heritage that goes back to pre-Israelite Jerusalem).[9] Yet, despite this difference, scribes may have been trained to work with both of these genres, under a wisdom umbrella that is symbolized by Solomon.[10]


The rest of the Hebrew Bible can be analyzed similarly in terms of address structures. In connection with such a view, it is important to note that a given genre, with its peculiar conversational structure, can incorporate other genres. Such an incorporation is true especially for narratives. These third-person accounts include various kinds of interactive dialogue or else first-person statements that represent thoughts by a character or presuppose a real or fictive diary.


To repeat my first point, then: address form is a basis on which a genre can be identified, at least in part.


2. My second point is that the Hebrew Bible is largely arranged according to what appear to be culturally significant genres, which each represent a dimension of life and which engage metaphorically in a dialogue with each other. Indeed, the organization of the Hebrew Bible gives an indication of how Israelite culture categorized texts, for the fact that certain texts are placed together probably reflects their being viewed as similar to each other. For instance, most of what we call “hymns” or “psalms of lament” stand together in one book. Similarly, all authoritative directives stand together in one place. Proverbs, critical reflections, and ordinary love songs are each grouped together. Stories about the origin of the world, of humanity, and of Israel’s immediate antecedents (one can call them “narratives of orientation”) are almost completely limited to Genesis and Exodus.


The consequence of this arrangement is that every biblical book, or sometimes group of books, deals with a specific aspect of Israelite life. In observing this phenomenon, one should recognize that human life requires, or at least makes possible, a variety of processes. Almost every human being participates in all of them, although most individuals will not emphasize them equally. In societies that are sufficiently large, different aspects of life come to be assigned to specialists for their cultivation on behalf of others. Thus, different biblical genres were cultivated respectively by singers, priests, prophets, and so-called “wise”—religiously “lay”—persons, although the “wise” probably included many who were not highly specialized. The organization of the canon reflects such a division of tasks, so that several priestly genres stand together in one part, several prophetic genres appear in another, and a variety of genres belonging to the spheres of either laity or lower clergy (specifically, singers) in a third one, with lesser sanctity.[11]


To some extent, the various processes of life compete with one another, since they cannot all be carried out simultaneously. For instance, I recently heard someone who is heavily involved in idealistic pursuits say that each day he faces the question to what extent he will pursue his idealism and to what extent he will simply enjoy life. To be sure, some processes can be combined. Nevertheless, one can think of human life as metaphorically embodying a huge dialogue between these different aspects of life and thus between the genres in which they are expressed. Such a dialogue does not have to be altogether harmonious, of course.


One way in which this dialogue between genres appears in the Hebrew Bible is that words from God to human beings, highlighted in some parts of the Bible, find a complement in words directed toward God in other parts. God and human beings, so-to-say, converse with each other. Neither of these two sides of the conversation is necessarily prior to the other, although the organization of the canon privileges divine revelation.[12] In fact, each of the major literary structures includes within it instances of what is typical of another structure. Specifically, the Pentateuch, devoted primarily to revelation, includes some arguments with God and prayers—including the perhaps unspoken cry of the Hebrews in Egypt—and the book of Psalms includes some oracles.


An important question now is whether it is possible to date these dialogue structures and the aspects of life they represent. At a very basic level, the different life processes are well-nigh universally human. However, the specific dialogical formulations that appear in each aspect may well vary from culture to culture. One can then ask how old the biblical patterns within Israel are. For better or worse, we do not know the answer to this question, since it is hard to date biblical writings. Even if it is true that these writings were not constructed in roughly their current form until after the destruction of the First Temple, it is possible and even likely that their generic patterns were older. It would be nice to know the history of these genres, but our inability to be certain about their micro-history virtually forces us to pay attention to the sociopsychological processes that entered into them irrespective of their precise circumstances.


Among these processes is a duality of receptivity and activity. In order to recognize this dual dynamic, it is helpful to see that speech is a kind of action. If A speaks to B, A acts on B. In contrast, listening to someone represents a kind of receptivity. This is not a purely passive process, of course, for there is the important phenomenon of “active listening,” of giving attention to, and even prodding, the other.


Stated in terms of a human process, divine words in the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and elsewhere presuppose and express receptivity on the part of humans. Again, this does not involve pure passivity; rather, laws and prophecies present spurs to activity, such as to engage in ethical action or ritual. However—in my judgment and in that of quite a few others—the first step and even the heart of ethics involves being open, metaphorically listening to the other.


In contrast, prayers and reflections represent a kind of human activity, specifically, efforts to obtain welfare and to grasp the meaning of life even without extensive divine revelation. Yet the three books in which such efforts appear—Psalms, Job, and Qoheleth—also express a sense of dependence on God. Psalms seek and applaud God’s aid. Job and Qoheleth give voice to a sense of being exposed to divine capriciousness, as they declare the limits of human efforts to understand or to achieve success. Thus, receptivity and activity are interwoven in virtually all biblical books, although in different ways.[13]


One book, the Song of Songs, contains a dialogue that comes close to full mutuality between partners. The woman’s voice is somewhat more extensive. It also both opens and concludes the Song, so that the intervening portions may even represent a dream or fantasy by the woman. Yet Solomon’s name appears in the title, and the man’s voice is almost equal in extent to the woman’s.[14] Especially important, perhaps, is the fact that the approaches of the two to each other are comparable. In fact, it appears that a high degree of mutuality and even of equality is characteristic—although, to be sure, not universally true—of love poetry. This phenomenon would indicate that the love relation tends toward equality or at least mutuality, even when societal patterns are hierarchical.


3. We have thus seen that one can speak of a dialogue between genres. Furthermore—this is my third point—one can say that dialogues exist metaphorically within genres, for they are not internally homogeneous.


This way of looking at the biblical text has an important practical implication for exegesis. In recent decades, there have been many efforts to treat individual books of the Bible or certain parts within these books as coherent unities. In my opinion, these efforts are largely misplaced. When we look at a book or passage, we can indeed take it as it is, without attempting to reconstruct sources that lie behind this book or that passage. In this sense, one can engage in “final-form” exegesis. Yet, it is doubtful that it is regularly useful to treat a book or extended passage as a coherent whole. It is usually more appropriate to recognize divergences within the text and to place the divergent parts into a dialogue with each other. That is, we should view a given body of material as one that furnishes examples of a certain genre and then see that different perspectives can be expressed within that genre.


The prophetic book of Hosea can illustrate this situation. It has been recognized for some time that chapters 1-3 constitute a complex that is somewhat different from chapters 4-14. One can explain this phenomenon in at least three different ways: (1) two major authors are involved; (2) the two parts emanate from different periods in Hosea’s life; (3) the two parts were transmitted by different circles. However, even if we were able to determine which of these alternatives—or perhaps still another one—is correct, such knowledge would not add much to our understanding of the book, except by removing a temptation to view one part in terms of the other. Furthermore, perhaps more importantly, neither of the two major complexes appears to be internally homogeneous. To impose a rigid unity on them would probably mean that one fails to grasp the nuances of various parts. The same situation appears to me to be true in the book of Job, taken as a whole, including the Elihu speeches.


Did editors of such texts have in mind a unified vision that brought the divergent elements together? I rather doubt it. I suspect that they were too respectful of the materials they received to disturb them sharply, although they did make some adjustments. In other words, biblical texts lack coherence since their antecedents were already semicanonical. After all, in theory the canon was to preserve old revelations and insights. A canonical qua canonical approach should thus envision partial incoherence instead of strict unity, just as we would not expect an anthology of high-quality poetry to be unified.


This analysis may stand close to Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnival-like interpretation in Rabelais and His World.[15] It does not, however, imply sheer chaos. Rather, the structure of genres presents a pattern that furnishes a degree of order, together with which there can be a degree of disorder. The genres can do this since they represent a kind of “speech act” in which people can be engaged in their various involvements in life.


I have, then, set forth three propositions: (1) Address form, which may be at least implicitly dialogical, is a basis on which a genre can be identified, at least in part. (2) The Hebrew Bible is largely arranged according to genres, which can be said to enter into dialogue with each other. (3) Within each genre, there are divergences that, in effect, constitute a dialogue.


4. A fourth point that I want to set forth briefly is as follows: The Hebrew Bible enters or can enter into a dialogue with other literary complexes. This dialogue is meaningful primarily if it proceeds by genres. When such a dialogue is carried out, it will be seen that the list of genres that appear in the Hebrew Bible is close to, but not quite identical with, the list of genres that are prominent in other traditions. In addition to the comparisons that have already been made for understanding Qoheleth and the Song of Songs, let me give just one example.


The Hindu canon shares with the Jewish Bible most of the major genres and also a gradation of sacredness. However, the Hindu canon privileges hymns over laws by placing hymns in the more strongly revelatory part of the canon, while the reverse is true in the Jewish canon. This fact may well reflect the greater importance that Hinduism assigns to mystical devotion. Thus, there is difference along with similarity.


In making such comparisons, it is often tempting to downgrade another tradition precisely because it differs from one’s own. A difference, however, does not in itself indicate which is to be preferred. Rather, one can listen to a tradition other than one’s own in order to see whether there is something to be learned. Alternatively, one might simply grant legitimacy to both variations. Furthermore, if a comparison—shall we say, dialogue—is carried out with sensitivity, one often learns to understand better one’s own orientation.


Indeed, the comparison of the genres of the Hebrew Bible with those of other ancient cultures is only part of a transhistorical approach. Biblical genres can also be placed in conversation with present-day life and speech. Undoubtedly, a major reason why Gunkel’s analysis of biblical genres became widely popular is that he described the genres in a way that highlighted processes that resonate with our own existence.


In short, we have seen four ways in which the notions of dialogue and genre can be usefully joined for an understanding of the Hebrew Bible. Together, they show relations between dialogue and genres on a large scale. Barbara Green has, in a very interesting way, provided a fine-grained analysis of relations between genre and dialogue in I and II Samuel.[16] Perhaps, through cooperation, a dialogic analysis of genres—or a generic analysis of dialogue—can be extended to the whole of the Hebrew Bible.

[1] Gunkel always listed content before verbal form and came to list Sitz im Leben first in terms of importance; however, verbal form provided for him a convenient


entry point (see Buss, Biblical Form Criticism in its Context, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999: 247).


[2] For the sake of those who are not familiar with my conception of genre (or speech type), which I have presented repeatedly, it can be summarized as follows:


(1) Genres can be usefully identified on the basis of different criteria, so that they cut across, and can be combined with, each other. (2) Genres are probabilistic, not


rigid structures. (3) The life-situation of genres is best treated in terms of human processes rather than in terms of organizational arrangements, although attention to


these add an element of concreteness as long as they are not taken rigidly. (4) Generic patterns are neither strictly necessary (contra essentialism) nor purely


arbitrary (contra one-sided particularism) but are to some degree appropriate and to some degree contingent.


[3] For instance, in “The Distinction Between Civil and Criminal Law in Ancient Israel,” in Proceedings of the Sixth World Congress of Jewish Studies


(Jerusalem Academic Press, 1977), I, 51-62.


[4] Cf. the convenient summary of this phenomenon in Gerhard von Rad, “Deuteronomy,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press,


1962), I, 835.


[5] Within the book of Hosea, similarly, speech by God is less specific than speech not so identified. See my The Prophetic Word of Hosea (Berlin: Töpelmann,


1969), 60-69.


[6] This point is supported by the fact that “I” refers to a “king” in 1:12 (thus, rightly, Annette Schellenberg, Erkenntnis als Problem [Freiburg, Schweiz:


Universitätsverlag, 2002], 165). According to Mary E. Mills, the “I” presented “offers a mode for readers to explore their selfhood” (Reading Ecclesiastes


[Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), 107).


[7] Cf. Paul Radin, Primitive Man as Philosopher (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1927). That Qoheleth’s genre may also be old within Israel can perhaps be


supported by the echoes of its themes in Ps. 39:5-7, 12; 62:10; 73:2-12; 90:5-6; 94:11; 144:4; Prov. 5:18, within a more religious/moral frame (although these


texts are hard to date); and by the observation that a number of Qoheleth’s forms are similar to those of the “old” Israelite wisdom (Alexander A. Fischer, Skepsis


oder Furcht Gottes? [Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1977], 37-39).


[8] Cf. Michael V. Fox, Qoheleth and his Contradictions (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1989), 123-131.


[9] The phrase “all who were before me” was a stock phrase for kings (C. L. Seow, Ecclesiastes [New York: Doubleday, 1997], 124), but it is likely that a


reference to pre-Israelite “Jerusalem,” expressly mentioned, is partly in view (cf. Gen. 14:18-20).


[10] Abraham ibn Ezra later produced both synagogal and drinking poetry, with an even greater divergence in assumptions.


[11] The placement of the book of Daniel in the third division can be due to either (or both) of two reasons: (1) The prophetic canon was already closed; (2) dream


interpretation and angelic revelation have a status lower than direct divine revelation.


[12] For earlier discussions of this issue by Israel Abrahams, H. W. Robinson, Walther Zimmerli, Claus Westermann, and Gerhard von Rad, see Biblical Form


Criticism in Its Context, 375-379.


[13] Most purely oriented toward human action is the story of Esther, in which the word “God” does not even appear in the third person, although God presumably


stands in the background.


[14] In one example of partial balance, the male is placed in the role of king, but he is crowned by his mother (3:11).


[15] See Carol A. Newsom, “Bakhtin,” in Handbook of Postmodern Biblical Interpretation (ed. A.K.M. Adam, St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2000), 26.


A dialogue in my view is more open still than a polyphony, which does create a certain kind of “unity,” according to Bakhtin (Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics,


Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984, 6) and Newsom (The Book of Job, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, 261).


[16] “The Engaging Nuances of Genre: Reading Saul and Michal Afresh,” in Relating to the Text (eds. Timothy Sandoval and Carleen Mandolfo; London: T&T


Clark, 2003), 141-159.


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