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Notes from Ancient Non-Greek Rhetorics

Chapter 3: “The Gendering of Prophetic Discourse: Women and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East.” (Roberta Brinkley)

Calcite disk of Enheduanna

Calcite disk of Enheduanna

In this chapter, Brinkley discusses the tradition of prophetic discourse by women in the ancient near east, largely overlooked by scholars because of “the stigma of superstition” within current Western culture that privileges the rational/logos and thus may discount the validity of prophecies and omens as rhetorical. It is important to recover these prophecies and oratorical performances of ancient women because, according to Brinkley, “reading the tradition of prophecy diachronically through a critical rhetorical lens, documenting women who spoke and performed as orators, shows the ‘evolution’ of prophecy as a rhetoric of power in the Western cultural and spiritual traditions” (88). To this end, Brinkley highlights specific instances of women’s prophetic discourse, as well as offering an overview of how/why these traditions were eventually suppressed.

The opposition between mythos/logos discussed here reminds me of earlier treatments of this split mentioned in both Hall and Ames and Kennedy, though at times in different terms. This is something that I have repeatedly noted in Western epistemic, philosophic, and rhetorical traditions and which I see as problematic in Western ways of thinking. I’m likewise seeing this separation of binaries represented here (and elsewhere) as congruent or corollary with the privileging of male discourses over female ones. Though Brinkley doesn’t directly call upon or locate herself within feminist historiography, by bringing these discourses to the fore and highlighting their relationship within larger structures of power, she situates herself within this tradition of other feminist scholars.

This chapter, as well as the one by Katz, is of specific interest to me in its

Head of Goddess Ishtar

Head of Goddess Ishtar

relationshipto the research project that I hope to do for this class. These prophecies, like the text I hope to explore for my project, examine works by women in the ancient near east where women speak with authority through “inspired speech at the initiative of a divine power” (71). I appreciated the analysis in this chapter of these prophesies as performative acts meant to be heard by an audience, as well as the connection of female prophets as orators. As with many other feminist historiographers, Brinkley has had to search beyond the traditional canons of rhetorical texts to recover these works by women, and in doing so she aids in the project to situate works and words by women as an integral part of the formation of culture. Additionally, she notes how, where, and why these voices may have been silenced within larger projects of power and domination within Western society.

When I critique Western binary thinking, I can’t help but wonder what might have been possible outside of that framework for women and other non-privileged groups – this question is relevant, I think, within the questions set up by Brinkley and her analysis of women prophets within what became male-dominated religious and rhetorical traditions.  Though she kind of skips from the Oracle of Delphi to Paul, her points about the suppression of female voices in what became conventional Christianity are well taken. It seems that in some other offshoots of Christianity (e.g. the Gnostics) women speakers were still included for some time, though eventually conventional forms Christianity dominated other sects. How did religion during this time and in these places work to silence or authorize women in different times and places? Did different cultures interpret women prophets in different ways? Are/were there cultures where these practices did not die out? As someone who practices and studies feminist historiography, these questions are of interest to me in some areas of my ongoing research.

Chapter 5: “The Hebrew Bible as Another, Jewish Sophistic: A Genesis of Absence and Desire in Ancient Rhetoric.” (Steven B. Katz)

Katz argues that the nature of the Hebrew language, culture, and epistemology leads to a “philosophy [where] language and the endless interpretation of language become the ontological basis of reality itself” (125). Through the presentation and elucidation of four traditional assumptions, Katz puts forth the idea of the Hebrew Bible as both a theory of rhetoric and an example of such. Naming this a “Jewish Sophistic,” Katz highlights the contradictions and tensions in the text where “God is absence — and perhaps in part because of absence — is both doubted and loved, feared and revered. God becomes not only the source of absence and despair, but also of a source of longing and hope. God is the obscure object of desire” (131). These tensions and their interpretations, according to Katz, “characterizes Jewish religion and culture” and offer insight into this particular rhetorical approach (144).

Ancient Hebrew tablet

Ancient Hebrew tablet

While I appreciated this discussion and the idea of the contradictions in Jewish sacred writings, I was a bit disappointed in the manner in which these contradictions as they pertain to authorship was handled. While he mentions the three positions that are usually taken regarding authorship of the Torah, two require divine inspiration and a belief that one individual (Moses) wrote them all down and one, supported by science (in the words of Katz) and most archeological evidence, concludes that it was written by multiple authors. Though Katz briefly cites these different “authors” “(J, E, P, and D)” (139) he gives no further explanation of this. Even this is not wholly accurate, as these letters (J, E, P, and D) do not stand for individual authors, but rather totally different texts, each one of which may have had several authors and multiple revisions at different times.

Further, in that discussion (had it occurred) there would have had to be some mention of the idea that these multiple texts – specifically the J and E texts – reference different gods and that the Hebrew tribal religions at the time of these writings was not strictly monotheistic. While modern scholarly Bibles typically reference this in a footnote at the beginning of Genesis, Katz does not reference it at all – the E text refers to a god named El/Ela whereas the J text refers to Jehovah. Given that he specifically discusses the contradictions in the Torah, including the first and one of the most obvious (i.e. the inclusion of two different stories of creation in Genesis, the “mud story” and the “rib story”) the fact that these contradictions are likely to have arisen because they are utterly separate stories from different tribal traditions is something that I think would be important to his overall argument. He seems to almost purposely elide this issue of authorship through phrases such as “But no matter which position we grant” and “regardless of who wrote the Hebrew Bible,” whereas I think that the ambiguity and outright contradictions (which Katz does address) found in these texts could be more thoroughly informed by a discussion of this multiple authorship and consequent redactions.

While this was an oversight I found difficult to get past, I did really appreciate his discussion about an epistemology rooted in ambiguity, absence, and tension between contradictions fascinating, and could see this as related to what we consider sophistic ideas about the world. The idea that language is material reality is fascinating and I can see its relationship to sophistic thinking as well as post-structural ideas of language and signification. The word is God in this sense, and there is nothing outside of discourse and its myriad interpretations.

I wonder, too, about this chapter being “comparative rhetoric” versus “cultural rhetoric,” as I think that Katz attempts to both situate this work within the culture from which it arose as well as using a comparative model that relates this to Greek sophistic thinking. I would have perhaps liked to see more “close attention to the cultural and particular historical settings for each of the rhetorics” (Lipson 24) than Katz provided, as this analysis seems to arise more from the later Rabbinical traditions and interpretations rather than from the much older pre-Rabbinical ways of life in the ancient Hebrew tribes. However, if Katz is sticking just with the text and offering a way of reading the Jewish Bible in a new, rhetorically informed way, then I think he has succeeded.

I have a very close friend who is Israeli, retired from military service, and also a scholar who teaches courses about ancient Hebrew texts and culture and grew up in a remote part of Israel where older pre-Rabbinical Hebrew tribal religions are still practiced. I am curious to get her input about this chapter, as I think she would likewise be a bit surprised that more attention was not paid to the question of authorship in explaining the ambiguities in the text(s) when Katz is clearly aware of this view of authorship. I’m also curious to get input from her about the Brinkley chapter, as female prophesy is still practiced and heeded in the area where she grew up and she herself was called upon in that capacity at times as part of the military. These views and practices are, in a way, even more different from “Western” ways of thinking than those outlined by Katz and are still currently extant.

How might the ways of thinking discussed by Katz inform practices still occurring today in these cultures? How do these ways of thinking manifest differently within the Jewish tradition based upon where those traditions happen and how they are informed by other cultural influences? How does “sophistic” thinking alter or expand possibilities for integrating tensions and paradox compared to more traditional Western ways of thinking? And how does this inform theories and practices of rhetoric cross-culturally?


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