Archive for the ‘Biblicist’s Holiday’ Category

One Chapter a Day

December 31, 2014

For those who have not yet seen it, there’s a new Israeli project to get people to read one chapter of the Bible a day (five days a week).

You can find it at

It’s an all-Hebrew site, but there’s also an icon you can click to hear the chapter read in Hebrew — useful for those who know (or can learn) to read the Hebrew alphabet.

Once you create a log-in, you can click the קראתי button to say you’ve read that day’s chapter (though you can’t “stay signed in” when you visit next).  [That’s been fixed and you can now stay signed in.]  If you sign in and click the button, the site will keep track of what you’ve read.  This is the end of the 2nd week of the project, so they are on Genesis 10.  It should not be too hard to catch up if you are just starting.

If you read Hebrew fluently, there are a lot of interesting-looking articles on the site, and some fine graphics.

You can read more about it in this article from the Jerusalem Post.  The co-head of the project is Binyamin Lau, who is somewhat well-known.  (The other co-head is a woman named Gal Gabbai whom I’ve not heard of.)

Take the article with a grain of salt, however:

Professors Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitz who engaged in a demonstration of Biblical polemics demonstrated another Biblical connection with Hanukka in that the first night of Hanukka falls on the 25th of Kislev and there are 25 words in the Hebrew version of the first verse of Genesis.

The reporter screwed up; Shinan and Zakovitz certainly did not make this elementary mistake.  (See my review of their book here.)  It’s sad even that an Israeli newspaper could print something so egregiously wrong.  I guess this project is desperately needed…

As I mentioned in my Biblicist’s Holiday post, for a while I read the Bible every day, finishing it from cover to cover 6 or 8 times.  I started doing so again a year or so ago, but dropped off the pace.  Now I will add this daily chapter to my two mishnayot a day (from the Blackman Hebrew-English edition, available online in PDF format—h/t Ricky Hidary) and my short slice of Talmud.

If you can figure out how the “25 words” mistake happened, please leave a comment (or e-mail the Bible Guy).


Update from Menahem Mendel.  Apparently reading the Bible has already started to spur controversy…

Update from Tablet.


Shamgar the Mysterious (Biblicist’s Holiday)

October 24, 2013

Today I’m going to take a look at one of the mysterious minor characters in the Bible — Shamgar ben Anat.

We first meet him in the last verse of Judges 3. That chapter begins by explaining that the non-Israelites who remained in Canaan had deliberately been left there by God, who wanted to keep the Jews on their toes militarily (and also wanted to have some enemies of theirs around when it became necessary to punish them).

The first part of Judges 3 tells how Israel was rescued from King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram-naharaim (you could call him King Shame-on-ya from Mesopotamia) by Othniel the Kenizzite, the first “judge.”

Time out here for a word or two about the “judges” (שופטים, shoftim) that the book of Judges is named after. Do not think of someone wearing a wig or holding a gavel. The word might better be translated as “magistrates” — that is, people who were not in any sense “royal” but who ruled whatever area of the country they could control and who issued “rulings” (משפטים, mishpatim) as a way of governing. NJPS calls them “chieftains,” which is more anthropological but otherwise pretty much the same thing.

Othniel was the first of these chieftains, and his story is followed in Judges 3 by that of Ehud, who because he was left-handed was able to surprise King Eglon of Moab, the oppressor of Israel in those days, and kill him. He became the next chieftain of Israel. Judges 4 and 5 tell at great length of Deborah, who was both a prophet and also a chieftain of Israel. But after Ehud’s story and before Deborah’s comes this one verse:

Judg. 3:31
  After him came Shamgar son of Anath, who slew six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad. He too was a champion of Israel.

Shamgar is not specifically described here as a “judge,” but two things tell us that he was one. First, he came “after” Ehud — that is, ruled after him. Second, he “was a champion of Israel” (in the NJPS translation); more precisely, he “saved” or “delivered” Israel: ויושע גם הוא את ישראל. This is the verb that the “judges” of the book of Judges do:

Judg. 2:16
  Then the LORD raised up judges, who delivered [ויושיעום] them out of the power of those who plundered them.

To “deliver” (hoshia) makes you a מושיע, a moshia or “savior.”

But who was this Shamgar? His name is not Semitic (too many consonants, for one thing), and he is described as “son of Anat” — a Canaanite goddess! Walter Maier, in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, explains:

Shamgar, a mighty fighter in Judges (3:31; 5:6), is designated ben anat, “the son of Anath.” The name “Shamgar” is non-Israelite (best seen as Hurrian in origin). Scholarly opinion varies as to understanding “the son of Anath.” For example, this designation is seen as indicating Shamgar’s community; Shamgar was from Beth-anath (IDB 4: 306). Another interpretation, seeing in the designation mention of the war divinity Anath, is that it is a military title or epithet (Craigie 1972: 239–40). However, Cross (1980: 7) thinks that ben anat may be a simple personal name. After comparing inscriptions on two arrowheads dating to the late 12th and late 11th centuries B.C., he suggests that the designation be understood as “the (son of) Son of Anath.” Ben Anath (“Son of Anath”) was Shamgar’s father, who was named after the goddess. Extrabiblical onomastic data indicate that personal names often consisted of “Son of” plus the name of a deity. Since Ben Anath was named after the warrior goddess Anath it is quite possible that he came from a military family.

My question is, what’s he doing here? I can understand that someone with a non-Israelite name, even someone (Israelite or otherwise) who was a worshipper of Anat, might have established himself as a champion of the Israelites and ruler of the land in this period. But if you are going to go so far as to tell me that he “slew six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad,” why not tell me the whole story?

My suspicion is that the writer who assembled the book of Judges from earlier sources (written and legendary) actually knew nothing about Shamgar except for this, from the Song of Deborah:

Judg. 5:6
In the days of Shamgar son of Anath,
In the days of Jael,
Caravans ceased,
And wayfarers went
By roundabout paths.

This song is probably the most ancient text in the Bible (see my earlier post on it here). Some scholars think that Judges 4 is simply a prose retelling based on the well-known poem in Judges 5; if that’s true, it would be natural to add a note leading up to the story of Deborah implying that Shamgar had ruled just before her. (Jael, of course, has a featured role in the poem, so she can have one in the story too.) As for the 600 Philistines, either that was also somehow an attribution of Shamgar’s that was floating around (like George Washington and the cherry tree), or our author made it up to give him something to do.

The two verses I quote in this post are the only biblical mentions of Shamgar. His name, and the two “facts” we know about him — that marauders were plentiful in his days, and that he killed 600 Philistines with an oxgoad — open a tantalizing window on an early moment in the history of the Israelites. The only biblical heroes who killed more Philistines than that are Samson, Saul, and David. Pretty good company.

But unless one day we dig up an inscription that tells us more about his story, we will never know anything else about this once famous ruler of the Israelites.

Making the Sun Stand Still

August 30, 2013

As I said a few days ago, I’m going to start using this space for my “Biblicist’s Holiday” posts, reporting on things that strike me as interesting while I’m reading through the Bible from beginning to end.

Everyone knows that “Joshua made the sun stand still.” But the actual story is a bit more complicated than that. Here is the background (in the NJPS translation):

Josh. 10:5
  The five Amorite kings — the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon, with all their armies — joined forces and marched on Gibeon, and encamped against it and attacked it. 6 The people of Gibeon thereupon sent this message to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal: “Do not fail your servants; come up quickly and aid us and deliver us, for all the Amorite kings of the hill country have gathered against us.” 7 So Joshua marched up from Gilgal with his whole fighting force, all the trained warriors.

The reason Joshua is involved in the attack on Gibeon is that the Gibeonites have fooled Joshua into agreeing to make peace with them (see Joshua 9). It would be interesting to know the relationship between the two stories. In any case, here is how the battle went:

Josh. 10:8
  The LORD said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid of them, for I will deliver them into your hands; not one of them shall withstand you.” 9 Joshua took them by surprise, marching all night from Gilgal. 10 The LORD threw them into a panic before Israel: [Joshua] inflicted a crushing defeat on them at Gibeon, pursued them in the direction of the Beth-horon ascent, and harried them all the way to Azekah and Makkedah. 11 While they were fleeing before Israel down the descent from Beth-horon, the LORD hurled huge stones on them from the sky, all the way to Azekah, and they perished; more perished from the hailstones than were killed by the Israelite weapons.

The battle is over. The LORD panicked the enemy forces and then pelted them with enormous hailstones as they fled. Joshua essentially had nothing to do but chase them. That’s when we read:

Josh. 10:12
  On that occasion, when the LORD routed the Amorites before the Israelites, Joshua addressed the LORD; he said in the presence of the Israelites:
“Stand still, O sun, at Gibeon,
O moon, in the Valley of Aijalon!”
  And the sun stood still
And the moon halted,
While a nation wreaked judgment on its foes

 — as is written in the Book of Jashar. Thus the sun halted in midheaven, and did not press on to set, for a whole day; 14 for the LORD fought for Israel. Neither before nor since has there ever been such a day, when the LORD acted on words spoken by a man. 15 Then Joshua together with all Israel returned to the camp at Gilgal.
Josh. 10:16
  Meanwhile, those five kings fled and hid in a cave at Makkedah.

(You’ll have to keep reading that chapter to find out what happens to them.)

The words “Joshua addressed the LORD” are actually the first words of v. 12, and in Hebrew they read this way:

אז ידבר יהושע לי-ה [az yedabber yehoshua ladonai]

עז + the imperfect (used, as it anciently was, for the past tense) is the same way that the Song of Moses (Exodus 15) begins. That is how you introduce a long poem about victory in ancient Hebrew. But here, unlike the Moses example, just the first line or two of the poem is given, quoted from “The Book of Jashar.” (Was the Song of Moses — and perhaps the Song of Deborah, Judges 5 — found in that book as well?)

Exodus 15 fits nicely — if not perfectly — into its context. Here in Joshua 10, though, we haven’t been told anything about the sun standing still, and the editorial note after the poem is quoted doesn’t really tell us about that either. Is it possible that the sun stood still in a completely different episode, which we no longer have, and that this miracle was so famous it had to be stuck somewhere into the story of Joshua? There’s no reason Joshua would have needed the sun to stand still in this episode, especially since the Lord was doing all the heavy lifting.

And puzzle #2: How can the text possibly claim (v. 14) that “Neither before nor since has there ever been such a day, when the LORD acted on words spoken by a man”?

I’ll just add, for the serendipity files, that on the same day I read this text I also read Chapter Five, “The Hero Who Stopped the Sun,” in Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch’s new book From Gods to God (click on the link for the arm-length subtitle and more about this book). They ask two further questions of extreme interest: (1) Was it God or Joshua who stopped the sun? (2) What’s the moon doing in this miracle?

I’m reviewing the book for H-Judaic and will post a link to my review (and link to it from here) when it appears. Till then, stay tuned for more of what’s on my mind while I take my “Biblicist’s Holiday” tour through the Bible.

Biblicist’s Holiday

August 28, 2013

With this post I’m starting a new series that I call “Biblicist’s Holiday.”

When I first went to graduate school, my teacher Moses Shulvass (a professor of Jewish history) was somewhat disappointed that I wasn’t following him into his own field. But he respected my choice to study Bible and encouraged me to read the Bible in Hebrew every day rather than be the kind of scholar who studies a Bible translation.

He died toward the end of my first year at Brandeis, and in his memory I finally took his advice and began to read the Bible in Hebrew daily. The eminently readable Koren edition of the Bible is marked into sections (with Hebrew letter-numerals in the outside margin) that supposedly divide the Bible up into exactly 364 daily readings, and that’s the schedule that I followed.

I went through this yearly cycle 6 or 8 times before abandoning it for other things. But (as I mentioned in an earlier post) a few years ago circumstances led me to learn my way through the Talmud on the daf yomi cycle. I am continuing to study Talmud, though at a much slower pace, and (somewhat after the nick of time) have also started working systematically through the Mishnah with the commentary of Maimonides. But it seemed appropriate to resume my daily Bible reading practice again, too.

Since my reading is not tracking along with anyone else, I don’t follow this schedule as “religiously” as I did the somewhat grueling daf yomi schedule. (I’m already a year behind everyone else on that this time.) In the Bible, I’ve just recently finished reading through the Pentateuch.

In the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy, each page I read was crammed with book darts to remind me of possible subjects for my weekly “Torah Talk” podcast. (Click on it in the right margin or subscribe via the iTunes Store.) But now I have begun reading נ”ך — the Prophets and Writings — and my mind is a bit freer. Hence, the “Biblicist’s Holiday.”

Since my podcast follows the weekly synagogue Torah reading schedule, there’s little opportunity there to discuss other parts of the Bible for their own sake. Most of the things that interest me either wouldn’t make a scholarly article or will not become one for lack of time. So I intend to use the “Biblicist’s Holiday” rubric to point out the things I find as I read along — interesting, fun, or just curious.

I found when I was doing this during my graduate studies that moving through the Bible at a steady pace always led to interesting intersections with the more purposeful work that took me to the biblical text. That has already happened this time as well, as I’ll discuss in my next post.