Frauen Friday: Adele Berlin

After a short hiatus I am very excited to dive back into the world of blogging and especially excited to pick up our Frauen Friday series! If you are new to the blog, Frauen Friday was started with the hopes of providing more exposure to the amazing female scholars, authors, academics, pastors, laypersons, and so on. Thus far I have featured Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Beverly Gaventa, and Elsa Tamez. I am hoping to pick up the pace a bit and have a Frauen Friday post every Friday this summer–I’ll try my best to do so!

Today’s Frauen Friday feature is biblical scholar Adele Berlin. If you are a student of Biblical Hebrew you are likely familiar with some of her work. Here is an abridged bio from her faculty page at University of Maryland:

“Adele Berlin, now professor emerita, was the Robert H. Smith Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Maryland. She taught at Maryland since 1979 in the Jewish Studies Program, the Hebrew Program, and the English Department. Her main interests are biblical narrative and poetry, and the interpretation of the Bible. While at Maryland, Professor Berlin served as Director of the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies (1988-91), held the position of Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs (1994-97), and was Chair of the University Senate for the 2005-2006 academic year.

Professor Berlin has received numerous awards and honors. She is a Fellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research. In 2000 she served as President of the Society of Biblical Literature. She has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation,  the American Council of Learned Societies, the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Institute of Advanced Studies of the Hebrew University (Jerusalem).” (For the full bio go here)

I was first introduced to Berlin’s work during my undergraduate studies in Hebrew when we got to reading poetry. In The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, Berlin seeks to “provide a linguistic framework for the study of parallelism,” (xvii). The majority of the book focuses on a number of different linguistic categories (the grammatical aspect, the lexical and semantic aspects, and so on) and concludes with a look at parallelism within the biblical texts. This book is incredibly helpful and if you are a reader of Biblical Hebrew you should definitely own this book.

I later picked up a copy of Berlin’s Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative when I began studying participant reference in Susanna. In the preface Berlin writes,

“It is ironic that, although telling is so important in the biblical tradition, there is no word for story. There are words for songs and oracles, hymns and parables… other than a term like תולדות (‘genealogy, history’) applied to a few narrative sections, there is nothing to designate narrative per se. Yet the Bible abounds with narrative–vibrant and vivid narrative that has an ongoing power to affect those who hear or read it. Its power comes not only from the authority of scripture, but from the inner dynamics of the stories themselves. This book will explore some of those inner dynamics, some of the inner workings of biblical narrative,” (11).

I found chapter two, “Character and Characterization,” particularly interesting and extremely helpful. In it she suggests classifying character types in the biblical narratives into three main categories: the full-fledged character or round character; the type or flat character; and the agent or functionary character (23). Berlin does note that these are not clear cut categories but rather points along a spectrum within which a character might fall and to varying degrees throughout the narrative (32). To demonstrate how these categories work, Berlin looks at the stories about David and the women in his life, namely, Michal, Bathsheba, Abishag, and Abigail. From her analysis Berlin concludes that

“the result in all of these cases is an indirect presentation of David, in which various aspects of his character emerge naturally, outside of the glare of direct scrutiny. These episodes are then combined, in the mind of the reader, with the episodes in which David is the main character,” (33).

Further along, Berlin delves into the importance of description in characterization. For instance, she notes that the Bible does not often provide physical descriptions of its characters. When a biblical author does intentionally include a physical descriptor (e.g., that Esau was hairy) the reader is alerted to important information for the narrative’s plot (34).  Additionally, Berling argues,

“the purpose of character description in the BIble is not to enable to the reader to visualize the character, but to enable him to situate the character in terms of his place in society, his own particular situation, and his outstanding traits–in other words, to tell what kind of a person he is,” (36).

Descriptive terms help the reader see a character the way the author intends him or her to be seen and understood. The book also covers other topics such as point of view as well as how poetic interpretation relates to historical-critical methods of interpretation. Again, I highly recommend this book as I have found it very helpful in my own reading of scripture.

Update: A Festschrift in honor of Adele Berlin was published last year and is available here: Built by Wisdom, Established by Understanding: Essays on Biblical and Near Eastern Literature in Honor of Adele Berlin (2013)

 

 

 

For further reading…

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One thought on “Frauen Friday: Adele Berlin

  1. Thank you for this wonderful profile of the work of Adele Berlin! I first discovered her in preparing to speak on the Book of Ruth and her insights into Ruth as story were eye-opening to me.

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