Prescriptive/Proscriptive or Descriptive

What follows is a rather disconnected, not real well thought out, string of speculations. Among several obvious failings, I am not all that clear on what I mean by “descriptive” and perhaps “prescriptive/proscriptive” also. I hope that my usage is not so muddled that you can’t figure out what I’m getting at. On the one hand, no one should take all this very seriously. On the other hand, I would like some feedback, if nothing more than to help me clean up my language. I’d also like to know if anyone else may have entertained such ideas. Yes, I should do my own literature search but any help will be appreciated.
Our predominantly western culture has conditioned us to take nearly every biblical passage as ethically or theologically prescriptive or proscriptive: what we should or should not do; what we should or should not believe. But does every word need to be understood as element of prescription or proscription? Take Exodus 20:4-6 (// Deuteronomy 5:8-10), the second (or first) commandment, as an example. I’m thinking specifically of Exodus 20:5bii as defined below but let’s look at the whole thing.
(4a) You should not make for yourself an image,
      (4b) or any likeness
            of what is in the heavens above,
            or on the earth below,
            or in the waters under the earth.
      (5a) You shall not bow down to them or serve them.
      (5bi) For I YHWH your god am an impassioned god,
            (5bii) visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children,
                  upon the third and upon the fourth generations
                  of those who reject me,
            (6) but showing kindness to the thousandth generation
                  of those who love me
                  and keep my commandments.
[JPS with minor modifications]
It’s been a while since I studied this in detail but I think the general view is that the first clause (4a), “You should not make for yourself a פֶסֶל (‘image’),” is the oldest part which itself may well show signs of development. The remainder of verse 4 further defines פֶסֶל. Verse 5a then expands the prohibition from making to worshiping. But something else begins with 5b. Verses 5b-6 are in their final form a twofold motivation – stated negatively and positively.
But what if we understand 5bii, “visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject me,” as in some way descriptive of a fact of the matter? Perhaps it is descriptive of folks who appear to be outside of the sphere of blessing from their god through no fault of their own. I don’t mean that a description can’t be motivational. But I am thinking along a somewhat different line. Might we have in Exodus 20:5bii an explanation for unjustified bad fortune? Is Exodus 20:5bii in some way the theodicy?
Of course, even if one answers this last question in the affirmative, (the addition of?) Exodus 20:6 drives our understanding 5b in the direction of motivation and therefore proscription.
I raise this question not because I’m all that worried about making or worshiping images or even what might become of the grandchildren or great grandchildren. Rather, I continue to think about divination. How all this ties into divination will need to wait for another ramble post? Suffice it to say, that a literature that purports to reflect or is purported to reflect the will and the mind of god or gods is an instrument of divination (at least broadly speaking).

5 thoughts on “Prescriptive/Proscriptive or Descriptive”

  1. I think that in any culture, such as the cultures in which this biblical text was produced, which have a strong sense of natural theology – including divine retribution, natural justice, ma’at, etc – that the divine pre/proscriptive is at once the descriptive, and vice-versa.
    Deuteronomistic theology makes an especially strong connection between the two.
    I would still maintain the distinction from an etic analytical perspective, but that does not mean that I would read any of the Hebrew Bible as itself maintaining such a distinction.
    J.-F. Lyotard makes a joke about the confusion between different “phrase regimens”: reasoning, knowing, describing, recounting, questioning, showing, ordering/prescribing, etc. He mentions the rule that there is “no ought from an is” (the naturalistic fallacy) as an example of the confusion of cognitive and prescriptive regimes. “Simply because a referent is established as real it does not follow that one ought to say or do something in regard to it.” He then quotes Wittgenstein (Ph U para 459) as an example of the different ways one may respond to an order, “We say, ‘The order orders this -‘ and do it; but also: ‘The order orders this: I am to …’ We translate it at one time into a proposition, at another into a demonstration, and at another into action.” And then Lyotard tells his joke. “Or [the order could be translated] into an evaluation: the officer cries Avanti! [Charge!] and leaps up out of the trench; moved, the soldiers cry Bravo! but don’t budge.”
    It’s Pythonesque, but I suppose that almost all of Monty Python’s humour involved the deliberately inappropriate jarring of “phrase regimens”.

  2. Deane,
    Thanks for the comment. The distinction I am trying to make is certainly a construct. I do think that such constructs can be useful. My real question is it useful when one considers divination in the broad sense I tried to use here.

  3. I don’t think the two modes, descriptive and prescriptive, can be so easily separated for ancient Near Eastern and biblical texts. There may be an emphasis on one or the other in a particular text, but I doubt that there would be many examples of clear exclusively descriptive or prescriptive senses, for the reason I offered in my first sentence above.
    What do you reckon?

  4. Deane,
    I agree. Thanks for introducing the word “mode” into this discussion. The possibility that a passage may have a descriptive mode, however well integrated with its prescriptive mode, is often overlooked. I suppose that is all I was trying to point out.

  5. I think 5b(i) is a rationale: why should you not make idols? Because he is an impassioned god! Then along come 5b(ii) and 6 as glosses: in what relevant way is he impassioned? Why, he visits guilt of the parents upon the children &c. So don’t worship other gods, the text implies, because your children and grandchildren may suffer for it. But do be virtuous and worship him, because the reward for that will last even longer!
    The suggestion that this reflects theodicy is interesting, but it would be a stretch to say that this is the reason for the passage. That purpose seems out of place here, especially since the passage fits so well as a rationale. Once you have the text in front of you, of course, it can be pointed to for an explanation for the success of evildoers and the suffering of those who appear blameless; it works for theodicy but I don’t think it works as theodicy.

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