Dissertation Julius Steinberg, September 2004, published 2006.


To what extent is it possible to combine the various contents of the Old Testament into a conclusive overall presentation so that each theme or aspect receives its appropriate place in the total structure?

This study, which is in line with present-day developments in the areas of OT Theology and canonical criticism, seeks the answer to this question not by using a systematic or historical-genetic approach, but from a literary starting point. The approach taken is called “structural-canonical”.

Canonical here means that the biblical texts are interpreted synchronically, in their final forms and with regard to the real or intended community of faith.

Structural means that the biblical books are seen as literary wholes (rather than as mere collections of theological material) carrying a certain overall message which can be understood by carefully following the total development of the text and by examining the relationship between form and content.

Finally, the combination structural-canonical stands for the view that the structure of the Hebrew Canon is hermeneutically significant to the extent that the place of each book in the literary macro-structure determines its place in the overall theological structure.

In this study, the structural-canonical approach is developed methodically and applied to the canonical Ketuvim section of the Hebrew Bible. This includes a structural-canonical interpretation of the eleven books and an overall interpretation of the Ketuvim section, seen as a literary-theological macro-unit of the Hebrew Bible.


Starting-point and statement of the problem (Chap. 1.1)

The present inquiry raises the question of the theological unity of the OT as its starting-point: To what extent do the many voices of the OT combine to form an organic whole? In what way is it possible to develop a total presentation of the OT message, an “OT Theology,” in which the material is categorized and ordered so that each theme or aspect receives its appropriate place in the total structure?

Survey of current research (Chap. 1.2)

To structure my survey I ask which methods or which organizing principles are used by the different approaches to obtain and present the totality of the OT material, and to what extent has each approach been successful.

It appears that basically there are three dimensions of structuring the material: the systematic, the historical and the literary. OT Theologies can be classified according to the dimension that is used as the basic axis of the “theological coordinate system.” In many cases, an additional second, or sometimes even all three dimensions are used.

  1. Approaches structured in a systematic manner struggle with the problem of not being able to achieve logical completeness and the inclusion of all OT material at the same time. A recurrent difficulty is that of integrating the wisdom and the cult into their system. This applies to approaches that propose a structure from the outside, e.g., Theology – Anthropology – Soteriology, as well as to approaches that want to take their structure from the OT itself, e.g. by defining a center, a Mitte, of the OT. When the theology is presented in the form of a series of loosely related themes, that problem does not arise. But then, as regards the method used, the choice of themes is often somewhat arbitrary.
  2. Approaches structured historically can either be developed along the lines of the biblical presentation of history or a version of history reconstructed by means of the historical-critical method. If the second path is taken, complex hermeneutical questions arise as to the relationship between faith and history. Behind this stands the basic problem that the historical-critical method is not able to deal adequately with God acting in history. For approaches that follow the Bible’s own presentation of history, the non-historiographical books pose a problem. To complete the structure, these books have to be classified historically, though this does not enhance the understanding of the respective books.
  3. To attend to the literary dimension basically means making OT literary units the object of inquiry and interpreting them using the appropriate methods of literary science.

According to M. Sternberg, the biblical texts are regulated by three principles: ideological, historiographical and aesthetic. Many biblical texts, for example, present history in the form of a story leading to a message relevant for faith. It follows from this that in exploring biblical texts all three of the above mentioned dimensions have to be taken into consideration, and in examining the message the relationship between the content and literary form of the books is especially important.

But how can the messages of the individual books be combined into an overall presentation? Some indicators that the OT is not a mere collection of literary units but can be seen as a literary unit in itself come from new research done in the area of ca­no­ni­cal criticism: Different scholars observe in the canon, especially in the form it takes in the Hebrew Bible (TNK-structure), macro-structural phenomena like canon-conscious redactions (“kanonische Abschlussphänomene”) or the literary-theo­lo­gi­cal unity of groups of books and canon parts.

Method (Chap. 1.3.1, 1.3.3, 1.3.6)

The approach which I take, and which, with H. Koorevaar, I call “structural-canonical,” is in line with the above mentioned current developments in the areas of OT Theology and canonical criticism. It is based on the assumption that the structure of the Hebrew Bible is hermeneutically significant. This means that the theological place of each book can be derived from its literary place in the canon; the structure of the canon becomes the key for developing an organic overall presentation of the OT message. Thus the structural-canonical approach offers a new perspective for accomplishing the task of a total presentation of the OT theology.

  1. The approach is canonical insofar as it interprets the text with regard to the group of its transmitters, who are the post-exilic or early Jewish community of faith as the real or intended reader group. The building blocks of the theology are formed not by historical-genetic reconstructions, but by the messages derived from the canonical form of the individual books using a synchronic approach.
  2. Structural[1] means that the biblical books are not considered to be collections of theological material which have to be scanned in order to obtain statements of faith, but are seen as literary wholes which carry certain theological intentions that can be recognized by carefully following the overall development of the text. In other words: In order to grasp the total message of a book, it is important to understand its structure. To understand that structure means to understand how the different aspects of a text relate to each other and form a unified whole.
  3. Finally, the combination structural-canonical points to the importance of the canonical macro-structure as the hermeneutical key to integrating the messages of the individual books into an overall structure of the OT message.

The structural-canonical approach can be supplemented by studies that follow individual themes through books and groups of books in a longitudinal manner.

On the question of the selected order of books (Chap. 1.3.2)

That the order of books in the canon is of relevance can already be seen from the reception perspective: Context, of whatever kind, influences the understanding of a text. A literary context awakens certain expectations, channels perception, prepares certain trains of thoughts.

From the production perspective it is indisputable that the Bible contains intended literary and thematic connections spanning several books, e.g. the group from Genesis through Kings. This phenomenon can also be seen in other areas, like the books of the writing prophets, the wisdom books and the Book of Chronicles, closing the whole OT canon. It is justified, therefore, to expect to also find macro-structural connections in the remaining areas.

The structural-canonical approach requires a fixed order of books as its starting point. It is necessary to reflect upon which of the historically-transmitted orders is appropriate for the task. I have chosen the order of the Ketuvim according to the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate bab. Baba Bathra 14b). I do not claim to have thus selected the only possible order. Rather, the approach can be justified from three different levels: The order of bBB 14b is worth while being examined for its hermeneutical implications …

  1. … because it influences the reception of the text, as any order would;
  2. … because it is authorized by the Jewish Rabbanan and is old, because it is in agreement with early evidence about the structure of the canon (Prologue to Ben Sira; Megillot are not grouped yet), and because it is in agreement with what is to be expected from the internal evidence of the Hebrew Bible (for example, end-position of Chronicles);
  3. … because if an order was originally intended for the Ketuvim, then in any case bBB 14b would be one of the most promising candidates.

Methodical considerations on handling literary structures (Chap. 1.3.4)

It is of particular importance for the structural-canonical approach to consider literary structures and their effects in bringing contours to the textual surface. At the same time, structure analyses are not always handled in a satisfying manner in scholarly research. Therefore I discuss some methodological aspects in a separate chapter. I start from the assumption that an Author, if he wants to make himself understandable for his readers, cannot shape a text entirely arbitrarily but is, to a certain extent, bound to literary and cultural conventions and to certain principles of human rationality. On this basis, it is possible to develop criteria with which one can evaluate and assess structural proposals made by recipients of a given text. I formulate six “touchstones” for validating structure proposals:

  1. The proposed structure should be hermeneutically significant.
  2. Criteria for defining a structure should be intelligible, relevant with regard to the text, consistent and conclusive.
  3. The literary structure of a book should be developed from the top down, that is, starting at the overarching structural levels and going down to the subordinate levels.
  4. All sections of the texts should be included in the interpretation.
  5. The proposed structure should be in accordance with the expectations and capabilities of the intended reader.
  6. The proposed structure should explain the text better than possible alternatives.

The order of the books of the Ketuvim according to bBB 14b: its meaning in comparison to other orders (Chap. 2)

In Chap. 2, I present arguments to further support the importance of the order of bBB 14b. By comparing the “Hebrew” structure of the canon to the “Greek,” I show that preference has to be given to the first. Within the Jewish tradition – despite the rather high number of varying orders of the Ketuvim – the bBB 14b order is of paramount importance. It can also be used as a good basis for understanding the other orders. Furthermore, the assumption that the canon was open until the beginning of the Christian era or even later is refuted, and a possible closure of the canon in the Maccabean or the Persian era is discussed.

Structure and message of the individual books of the Ketuvim (Chap. 3.3)

In the main chapter of the study, I analyze the Ketuvim book by book, developing the message by considering and bringing together the form and content of each book. As it is not possible to give a full survey of that here, I provide the following short statements on each of the eleven books:

  • That the kindness of God is implemented by the actions of human beings can be seen in the Book of Ruth in the juxtaposition between the central verses of the two inner structural units (2 12 and 3 9, connected by @n“K‘ wing). The beginning and the end of the book, which are otherwise often downgraded as secondary additions, contrast the time of the Judges and the time of David, indicating that the theme of redemption expands from the family level to the national level.
  • The Book of Psalms is not a mere collection of songs, but rather a well-structured book of divine instruction, through which the worshipping reader can understand the history of the kingdom of God, from the appointment of David to the eschatological worldwide dominion of God, and can apply this to his own individual life.
  • The answer to the problem of the Book of Job is to be sought and found in the speeches of God (not in the heavenly council of the prologue).
  • In the Book of Proverbs the rhetorically elaborate section Chap. 1-9 provides the theological basis on which the other six main parts of the book are to be understood.
  • The Book of Qohelet is not a collection of statements (“Sentenzen”), but a literary whole made up of three structural units 1 3 – 3 9, 3 10 – 8 17 and 9 1 – 12 7, each of which is structured in a concentric pattern.
  • The Song of Songs is not a collection of literary fragments, but an elaborate composition of five cycles structured in a parallel way according to the pattern: “she longs for him – she sees him coming and praises him – he praises her beauty and longs for her – she invites him.”
  • The central third chapter of Lamentations opens the book in such a way that to the community of faith it means more than just the remembrance of the historical destruction of Jerusalem.
  • In the Book of Daniel the chapters 2 to 7 and 7 to 12 are formed in a concentric pattern, respectively. Chap. 7 has the function of a hinge between the two parts.
  • The theme of the Book of Esther, “the lot changes”, is underlined by the concentric structure of the main middle part, with a consistent antithetic juxtaposition of the sections. The only exception is the Esther – Mordechai dialogue in 4 1-17, which in itself describes a reversal (and which contains the theological key verse 4 14), but is not affected by the reversal of fortunes occurring in the Persian empire.
  • In the Book of Ezra-Nehemiah the missions of Serubbabel (Ezr 1-6), Ezra (Ezr 7-10) and Nehemiah (Neh 1-6) are first presented separate from one another, whereas in Neh 7-12 elements of all three missions are combined into a total picture arranged concentrically in order to show that the different historical endeavors are part of a larger whole, which is the restoration of Judah brought about by God.
  • The Book of Chronicles describes the time of David and Solomon, emphasizing the two main themes of the house of David and the house of God ( “Gottesherrschaft und Got­tes­ge­mein­schaft”, rule of God and grace of God). The era is presented as a normative model for those who have returned to the land in keeping with the decree of Cyrus.

Structure and message of the canonical section Ketuvim according to the order of bBB 14b (Chap. 3.4)

In order to obtain the total structure of the canonical section, I looked for relationships between the central messages formulated for each of the books in the previous chapter. I found a wisdom series Job–Prov–Qoh–Sol, in which Job can be seen as preparation, Prov as foundation, Qoh as extension and Sol as climax, and a national-historical series Lam–Dan–Est–EzrNeh, where a line is drawn from the beginning of the exile through the life under foreign rule to the restoration. Both series start in sorrow and end in joy. The series are framed by the books Ps and Chr, which, as regards history and theology, are the two most comprehensive books of the Ketuvim. The main themes of these two books are very similar to each other. In front of this frame stands the book of Ruth which is an appropriate introduction to the group, mainly because it leads to David.

  • Introduction: Ruth
  • Main message I: Ps
  • Wisdom series from sorrow to joy: Job–Prov–Qoh–Sol
  • National-historical series from sorrow to joy: Lam–Dan–Est–EzrNeh
  • Main message II: Chr

The main message of the Ketuvim can be derived from Ps and Chr and succinctly formulated as “two houses” and “two ways”:

The action of God symbolized in two houses

  • The house of the dominion of God: house of David (kingdom) – “Gottes Herrschaftsanspruch”
  • The house of communion with God: house of God (temple) –
    “Gottes Gemeinschaftszuspruch”

The reaction of human beings symbolized in two ways

  • The way of the faithful to God
  • The way of the wicked away from God

The wisdom series describes the way of the individual together with God as a development from sorrow to joy, the national-historical series describes the way of the people, again as a development from sorrow to joy.

The Ketuvim and the viewpoint of the wise / scribes (Chap. 4.3)

To characterize the three canon parts some scholars point to the three groups: priests, prophets and the wise. I subscribe to the opinion that the Ketuvim can indeed be seen as written from the viewpoint of the wise / scribes. The most obvious feature is an indirect approach to knowledge of God (through observation of nature and society, through scriptural reference), which clearly distinguishes it from the other two canon parts. Other aspects of the wisdom phenomenon also recur frequently in the Ketuvim.

[1]     In German I use the word “strukturell” instead of “struktural” in order to differentiate the approach from the philosophical system of structuralism.