If you’re following the course of study I’ve been outlining in these posts, you’ve now read (1) the Bible in English translation; (2) a book that reads (as a student once told me) like a detective story, describing how scholarly work has discovered that the Five Books of Moses were assembled from earlier sources;* and (3) a book that describes the religious world of ancient Israel, as we learn of it through the Bible.
Levenson, in his introduction to Sinai and Zion (book #3), discussed how to integrate the results of modern scholarship with traditional Jewish beliefs. Brettler’s book, in addition to everything else, argues that an understanding of what the biblical texts meant to the ancient Israelites who first created and experienced them makes an essential contribution to the religious life of the contemporary Jew. (For a discussion aimed specifically at this point, see Uriel Simon’s article, “The Religious Significance of the Peshat,” in the Orthodox journal Tradition, Winter 1988. Simon is a professor emeritus of Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.)
I can certainly say—surprising as it might sound to some—that my own study of the Bible as a historical document played a large role in drawing me closer to Jewish observance.**
Brettler calls his book “a Jewishly sensitive introduction to the historical-critical method,” but the literature of the Hebrew Bible is Jewish, after all. As they used to say about rye bread, you don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate this book. What Brettler has done is written a book that walks through the Bible more or less in order, explaining the various genres of biblical writing (history, law, etc.), and focusing in greater depth on particular texts that demonstrate his point. Four background chapters get things rolling. 12 of the 26 chapters end with a subtitle like “Reading Joshua,” and most of the others similarly focus on particular books or groups of books. A final chapter discusses how this huge collection of literature became “the Bible.”
In the course of study my list of 10 books is designed to take you through, this book is meant to integrate what you’ve gotten from the first three. It should deepen the knowledge of individual books you get from reading the introductions and comments in the Jewish Study Bible; take you further into the scholarly world of analyzing texts; and begin to fill in your picture of the world of ancient Israel in which the biblical books were created.
I have a book of my own meant to do something similar, called The Bible’s Many Voices. Though much of it was written a dozen years ago, it hasn’t been published. (Publishers, I have operators standing by to take your call!) I don’t recall ever mentioning it to Brettler—who was my dissertation adviser at Brandeis, though he’s a couple of years younger than I am—but in any case his book is that of the solid teacher he actually is. (Translation: When you read my book, you’ll learn less but enjoy it more.) If you’re looking for a thorough guide to the Bible by one of today’s leading Jewish biblical scholars, this is your book.
Next week, a different book with the same title (and I do mean different).
*In a later post I’ll discuss how rabbinic literature hints at this same idea.
**That, too, might be a topic for another post.