ALF Law and Literature Reading Group: The Old Testament as both Law and Literature (Session 2, May 19, 2015)

In the first session of the reading group, we discussed the possibilities of law and literature, starting with one basic question: Why engage with this school of thought at all? What is the value of taking two seemingly disparate disciplines and forcing them into conversation with each other?

A number of answers emerged. Some said that reading literature with law can make the law more human; others that it could re-imagine the possibilities of law, make it more accessible, more narratively engaging. Further, the enterprise has the potential of enriching our understanding of how the two disciplines approach the question of human interaction.

As that first discussion went on, one question came to the fore – why wasn’t the law more like literature in the first place? At one point did the idea of legal jargon truly emerge, and how do we make sense of the law being necessarily steeped in legalese?

Perhaps an answer lies in history. Ian Ward says that in light of the controversy over the political ambitions of law and literature, perhaps the least controversial area in which it can be suggested that literature is of value in legal studies is that of legal history. And so, what we decided to do, while not quite hewing to legal history, was to take out law and literature reading chronologically, and start from the very beginning. The beginning in particular, of one particular tradition, a piece of writing that constitutes one of our foundational civilizational documents, a text that is at once a piece of law as well as literature – the Bible.

In particular, we decided to discuss sections from the Old Testament. The notable legal connections arise from its very title: “testament” is a Latin translation of the Greek word for covenant. The Old Testament by its very title narrates a testament of the Israelite’s response to God’s authority, often by way of a varying covenant.

We picked four narratives that spoke of different kinds of covenants: the one established in the story of Adam and Eve; then with Noah; followed by the story of Abraham and his son Isaac; and concluding with Moses and the Commandments. The discussion leaned more strongly towards the narrative in the Garden of Eden, and that of Abraham’s sacrifice.

With the Adam and Eve narrative we began with discussing the nature of a covenant – a legal instrument in which there are mutual obligations and expectations. This mutuality is crucial to our tradition of justice: Authority of law has no legitimate power if it ignores its obligation to promote the well being of those over whom it passes judgment. As Susan Heinzelman discusses, there are a number of markers of what constitutes “well-being” at the start of the Book of Genesis. The way the initial chapters are described, with light being created to separate itself from the dark, heaven created in contrast to earth, man in contrast to animal, the idea of order becomes an important function of well-being. As does the idea of hierarchy, given the clear demarcations present here.

Eve’s creation complicates matters. The origin story differs: first, she is created simultaneously with Adam, then later it is from Adam’s rib as he sleeps. This instability in the narrative, Heinzelman notes, echoes the instability of all myths, of all laws. We noted in our discussion how it constitutes a kind of textual amendment, a literary equivalent to amendments in the US constitution that allow former provisions to remain in the text as a matter of historical record even as newer narratives are annexed in the form of numbered amendments at the end. We discussed further how the covenant in this case is clearly an unequal one, and more importantly one without clear terms. The invocation upon Adam and Eve is that they will die if they eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. This then opens up a choice before them. Of course, the fact that they make that choice and still live brings the covenant into further question, though as one person noted, the fact that they are rendered mortal in their banishment from Eden as opposed to the immortality that they enjoyed prior is a form of death.

With respect to Abraham, members of the group brought forward ideas from Kierkegaard’s discussions in Fear and Trembling concerning this narrative. The iconic story begins with Abraham receiving God’s assurance that will father a nation, as well as a son, with the reciprocal obligation being Abraham’s own search for the promised land. Abraham’s faith must be constantly tested however, and one of the tests placed before him is the sacrifice of his son Isaac. After an internal struggle, Abraham obliges, only to have his son restored and returned to him. Kierkegaard was invoked to discuss two points: First, what does it mean for Abraham to have harmed one of God’s subjects, created after all in his own image, even to further a command by God? Second, how do we understand the nature of Abraham’s inner struggle before ultimately succumbing to his obligations? Is this examination of the struggle as weighed on reason and love, as a contradictory ideal to the sovereign command of God, one that is importing natural law into this ancient text? The other question of note is the very form of this narrative – here is a legal text that is in perfect accord with literary forms, whether it be the perfectly structured narrative or the inflections of irony that come in when Isaac, the lamb himself, asks his father where the sacrificial lamb for the offering is. There are literary forms and images that permeate the text, and yet it is as the same time a narrative representing the exact nature of God’s legal relationship with Abraham.

In marking the progression of these different covenants, another point was raised. While the earlier covenants involved direct interactions between God and the individuals concerned, the later ones tend to put the God-as-first-person-speaker further and further away. Each successive covenant in this way marks itself closer to the modern covenant.

Towards the end of the discussion, we focused on the question of authority. From where does this particular religious text derive its authority – does it come from the painstaking, almost administrative detailing of age and descent notable in its early chapters? If not, then how do religious individuals today locate authority in a text? From this, we extrapolated the question: why is it that causes certain texts in general to become authoritative, for some stories to be told over and over? How does one contrast this kind of literary precedent to legal precedent, and how do we understand the manner in which cases become authoritative.

Written by: Danish Sheikh
Published on: 20 May 2015

If you are interested in joining us for the next session on Tuesday, 26 May, 6PM, just walk in! 🙂 You can join our mailing list here. Meanwhile our Reading Group is also on Facebook here!