Primeval Saints: Studies in the Patriarchs of Genesis by James B. Jordan
(Canon Press, 2001, 160 pages)
I recently reread this fascinating little book by James Jordan. As a biblical scholar, Jordan’s work is unique, insightful, and often frustrating. He refers to his interpretive approach as “hermeneutic maximalism.” This means that he looks not simply at the historical-grammatical context of a passage, but that he draws out all sorts of other literary and allegorical resonances as well. Jordan’s approach has much in common with the interpretive methods of the early church fathers who consistently looked for allegory within the biblical texts. As rewarding as this approach is, it can also result in interpretive claims that seem far-fetched and virtually impossible to verify. This can be frustrating, but I also suspect that it suggests that Jordan may be more in tune with the symbolic nature of ancient texts than most modern exegetes.
In this particular book, Jordan takes up, among other things, the issue of the sins of the patriarchs (Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc.) in the book of Genesis. He takes issue with the common portrayal (from both liberal and conservative scholars) of these figures as weak, deceitful, and cowardly. According to Jordan, this conclusion comes from a misunderstanding of how heroes are portrayed in ancient texts. What looks to modern eyes like excess (Noah’s “drunkenness” in Gen. 9) or dishonesty (Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac in order to obtain his brother’s birthright in Gen. 27) actually have a much different significance within their respective stories. In fact, the portrayals of these figures are meant to invert many of the assumptions about heroism in ancient literature in order to show that Israel is established as a people not through their own virtues, but through the support of YHWH (the Hebrew name for God).
Jordan is a fascinating and original scholar, even while there is much in his work to disagree with. His task in this book be viewed either as revisionary or pioneering – but either way, it is ingenious. This book would be of use to anyone who is interested in Old Testament studies.