Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

“Many Voices” excerpt

June 18, 2017

There’s now an updated link if you’d like to read an excerpt of my book The Bible’s Many Voices:

Sorry for the broken links I’ve just found out about.

A Hebrew Bible for reading

February 15, 2015

I’m always encouraging my students (and other friends who are interested in learning) to get a Bible that’s readable.  My hope is that they’ll go on what I used to call “The Ten-Minute-a-Day Plan” — just reading Bible, in the original Hebrew, for at least 10 minutes a day, not stopping to look anything up or figure anything out, but just reading.

One great way to do that now is via the new Israel-based 929 project, which I discussed in a previous post.  That’s certainly a good idea, but it doesn’t help you understand what you’re reading.  I’ve been recommending one of two Bibles for regular daily reading:

(1) One choice is the deservedly popular Koren edition, using the much-praised and beautifully readable typeface designed by Eliahu Koren.  Since it’s an all-Hebrew text, the thing to do is keep an English Bible handy (or use Koren’s own Hebrew-English edition).  There’s a Hebrew-English edition of the JPS Tanakh as well, but I find the JPS Hebrew typeface not as reader-friendly as I wish it were.  And the English translation, though very well done, is too free to be useful as a “pony” for students.

(2) Another choice is the Reader’s Hebrew Bible produced by Zondervan.  The benefit here (as you can see by looking at the sample) is that you simply glance down to the bottom of the page when you encounter a word you don’t know.  Proper names are grayed out to keep innocent readers from a pointless chase after the meaning of something that isn’t actually a word to begin with.  This option — also quite readable despite the interfering numbers pointing you to the glosses — falls in between the Koren Bible by itself and the Koren with translation.  It assumes you already know or will quickly learn the most common Hebrew words plus basic morphology.  It’s strictly a vocabulary aid.

Now there’s a third choice: BHS: A Reader’s Edition, edited by Donald A. VanceGeorge Athas, and Yael Avrahami.  (That link is the only place I was able to find a picture of what it looks like inside; find it here on Amazon.)  I don’t know anything about Vance or Athas, but I’m friendly with Yael Avrahami, who cited some of my work in her book The Senses of Scripture.  So I wish I were happier with this book than I am.

The font is beautifully readable, and the marks indicating that there’s a note are much less intrusive than in the Zondervan book.  But some other, basic aspects of the book are extremely disappointing:

•  One has to go to the notes at the bottom to find out that a word is a GN (geographical name), PN (personal name), or DN (deity name).  Perhaps they thought it would be cheating to adopt the same “grayed-out” feature as the Zondervan edition.  This does give the reader more information, but at a cost of speed.

•  A great many words — all words that occur fewer than 70 times, plus every occurrence of a weak verb, no matter how common — are parsed at the bottom of the page.  There are over 10,000 of these parsings (according to the introduction), so to save space they all, most unfortunately, are given in code.  E.g., tDr25, which means “Hitpael converted perfect/perfect consecutive 3rd common plural.”  These codes “work,” but they are completely unintuitive, and they go a long way to making the notes at the bottom of the page so much harder to read that it almost defeats the purpose.  I’d rather my students understood the parsing on their own.  It’s not that hard to learn, especially if (as in the Zondervan RHB) the root and binyan of difficult words are given.

•  The notes of BHS are missing!  Students most certainly don’t need the Masoretic marginal notes that clutter the BHS page, but — at least after their very first year of Hebrew at the most — they do need the notes at the bottom of the page that point to difficulties in the text.  What exactly makes this Bible a “BHS” if those notes are missing?  The differences in the Hebrew text between BHS and other editions are not really important for beginning students.

•  This sucker is big.  It is ¾” fatter and half a pound heavier than the Zondervan book.  And trust me, that’s one heavy half a pound.

I ask my Penn students to buy BHS, since they will certainly want it at least for the second year of Biblical Hebrew.  I also encourage them to buy a more readable Bible to train themselves how to read comfortably, which one or two of them do.  I was hoping this “Reader’s Edition” of BHS would let me offer my students both features in a single package, but as it is I can’t really recommend it to them.  Please, friends …

– keep the beautiful font and the unobtrusive note markers;

– junk the ugly parsing;

– use “Bible paper” if you have to;

– and put back the BHS notes!

See now this review.

The Semites at War

August 31, 2014

Civil war in Iraq is dominating the headlines, the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I has just passed, and the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II (in Europe) — is tomorrow, as I write.   Naturally, I’ve been thinking about the Sumerians and the Akkadians.


Who were the Sumerians and the Akkadians, you ask? Well, they were the Mesopotamians, the ancient inhabitants of the country we now call Iraq. As many people know, that modern political entity was created in the aftermath of World War I. T. E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) played a role, albeit a somewhat ambiguous one, in the British campaign that ultimately led to Iraq’s creation. As Lawrence writes:


I meant to make a new nation, to restore a lost influence, to give twenty millions of Semites the foundations on which to build an inspired dream-palace of their national thoughts. So high an aim called out the inherent nobility of their minds, and made them play a generous part in events: but when we won, it was charged against me that the British petrol royalties in Mesopotamia were become dubious, and French Colonial policy ruined in the Levant.


There’s a new book out about Lawrence, and an interview on Fresh Air with its author and (especially) a review of it in the Jewish Review of Books by Hillel Halkin led me to Lawrence’s memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I found it very strange, not least because of its constant discussion of the racial characteristics of “the Semites”:


If tribesman and townsman in Arabic-speaking Asia were not different races, but just men in different social and economic stages, a family resemblance might be expected in the working of their minds, and so it was only reasonable that common elements should appear in the product of all these peoples. In the very outset, at the first meeting with them, was found a universal clearness or hardness of belief, almost mathematical in its limitation, and repellent in its unsympathetic form. Semites had no half-tones in their register of vision. They were a people of primary colours, or rather of black and white, who saw the world always in contour. They were a dogmatic people, despising doubt, our modern crown of thorns. They did not understand our metaphysical difficulties, our introspective questionings. They knew only truth and untruth, belief and unbelief, without our hesitating retinue of finer shades.


Later he writes:


Its birth in Galilee had saved it from being just one more of the innumerable revelations of the Semite. Galilee was Syria’s non-Semitic province, contact with which was almost uncleanness for the perfect Jew. Like Whitechapel to London, it lay alien to Jerusalem.


And there is this gem:


The Jew in the Metropole at Brighton, the miser, the worshipper of Adonis, the lecher in the stews of Damascus were alike signs of the Semitic capacity for enjoyment, and expressions of the same nerve which gave us at the other pole the self-denial of the Essenes, or the early Christians, or the first Khalifas, finding the way to heaven fairest for the poor in spirit. The Semite hovered between lust and self-denial.


Human nature doesn’t change over the years, but a book like this is a good reminder that the superficial trappings of thought can change radically. The history of human conflict can be summarized in the slogan “them and us,” and one hundred years ago—not just for Lawrence—the Semites were very definitely “them.”


And that’s where World War II comes in. From the German perspective, of course, that war was to be the culmination of a great racial struggle between the Semites and the Aryans. But I’m a scholar of Bible and the ancient Near East. Just a couple of weeks ago subscribers to Jack Sasson’s Agade e-mail list—which once inspired a Facebook group called “Jack Sasson is filling up my inbox”—received an e-mail announcing that the Netherlands Institute for the Near East was celebrating the 75th anniversary of its founding, on August 17th, 1939, just two weeks before the war broke out. But there’s a more significant scholarly 75th anniversary this year as well, that of a remarkably timely article published by a young Danish scholar who would become one of the most famous Assyriologists of the 20th century: Thorkild Jacobsen.


In the final issue of the Journal of the American Oriental Society, dated December 1939, Jacobsen published an article called “The Assumed Conflict between Sumerians and Semites in Early Mesopotamian History.” As my teacher Tzvi Abusch wrote in his appreciation of Jacobsen, written for a volume published in his memory, this was a time not merely “when the Nazi threat hung over Europe” but also “when racist categories were normal in the academy.” As Jacobsen wrote:


According to accepted views the early history of Mesopotamia is essentially the history of a racial conflict; its events represent stages in a deadly struggle between two inimical racial groups, Sumerians and Semites. In that struggle the Semites, who could draw on racial reserves in Syria and Arabia, came out victorious.


He notes that in Breasted’s Ancient Times of 1935 (then, of course, a recent book) every phase of Mesopotamian history is “presented in terms of racial conflict.” He writes of a war between the Sumerian (and thus non-Semitic) King Lugalzagesi of Uruk (now Warka; biblical Erech) and the Semitic King Sargon of Agade, and asks:


Does this war represent a long-brewing decisive clash between the two races which formed the population of Babylonia, Sumerians and Semites, or is it merely a fight between purely political units, two city-states vying with each other for power and influence?


The short answer is that Lugalzagesi’s statue has an inscription in Semitic, and Sargon’s own inscriptions attribute his victories not to Semitic gods but to Sumerian ones.   Moreover, the later history of the conflict shows “no vestige” of racial feelings. After the Semitic kings had fallen in their turn, a Sumerian writer recording the details shows


no animosity, not even indications that the Agade kings were considered strangers, their hegemony different from the previous hegemonies of Kish and Uruk. And indeed, this total lack of hatred or even animosity is shared by all other Sumerian texts known to us and is obviously incompatible with the idea of a racial struggle.


Jacobsen’s article directly confronted not just the racist categories of contemporary culture, but the anti-Semitism was setting Europe on fire as he wrote.


According to Bendt Alster, in the same memorial volume, Jacobsen “always considered himself—with his own words—a scholar working ‘in the Danish tradition.’ He talked of the University of Copenhagen at the time when he studied there, around 1920, as ranking among the finest universities in the world. Today there is no commonly recognized ‘Danish tradition’…” The sad denouement of the story is that there is indeed a Danish academic tradition today, one called “the Copenhagen School,” whose focus on denying that the Bible is a historical document sometimes bubbles up into antagonism to modern Israel. I can still remember my shock—widely shared, if my recollections are right—when a biblical scholar named Keith Whitelam (from the University of Sheffield, the English fellow-travelers of this school) came out with a book explaining “that the Jewish version of the Old Testament is a fiction designed to legitimise Israel and that the history of the Palestinian people has been silenced.” It is the reverse of anything Jacobsen would have thought of as “the Danish tradition.”


Meanwhile, the millennia-old series of wars in the Near East is still continuing. These days, with the possible exception of the Kurds, it is all-Semitic all the time. (The Gaza war is particularly internecine, especially if — as my teacher Moses Shulvass once said to me — “The Ten Lost Tribes? They are the Palestinians.”) And we no longer think of international political conflict as racial, unless you want to interpret the North-South divide in that fashion. The struggle between the races was succeeded by the battle between the economic systems of “capitalism” and “communism,” a picture which has now given way to a paradigm of religious conflict or, more starkly, a clash of civilizations. This too will, no doubt, be followed by still another us-vs.-them distinction, equally obvious and equally transitory. But the ancient Near East will continue to resonate as the historical and also the imaginative background to today’s news. Unhappy with the government? The ancients felt your pain long ago.


Jacobsen concluded his paradigm-shifting article this way:


We must accordingly abandon the idea of a racial war. The Semitic population was very likely to a large extent formed through constant filtering in of single families from the desert. It is obvious that such single families, settling and adapting themselves to life in the city or on the farm, would very soon feel as citizens of the city-state to which they had happened to immigrate and where they had become established. They would not constitute a common group, united across existing political boundaries. Semites and Sumerians lived thus, according to all the texts teach us, peacefully side by side in Mesopotamia. The wars which shook that country and the aims for which its rulers fought had nothing to do with differences of race; the issues were purely political and were determined solely by social and economic forces.


It bears repeating that Jacobsen’s article was scholarship, not politics. I saw Jacobsen in person only once, when he came back to Harvard from his retirement home in New Hampshire to give a talk. As I saw him then, he was an old fellow with a tie as wide almost wider than it was long. But he himself was a man of great and warm vision. Jacobsen was an Aryan in the categories of his own day. But while he was working on this article he was also working to bring Jewish Assyriologists who had to flee Nazi Europe to his then academic home at the University of Chicago. As Tzvi Abusch writes about him, Jacobsen “saw an alien and distant human life as something that not only existed in its own terms but also mattered very deeply for our own cultural, spiritual, and personal lives, indeed, for the enduring human spirit.” And he saw the same in his own time. It’s a worthy example to follow.


2016 update:  See now, similarly …

“Inside the Sausage Factory”

July 3, 2014

The Bible Guy blog was started as a way for me to continue writing and teaching about the Bible, though I must spend much of my time doing other things. The main task that’s been occupying me for the last 13 years — outside of my podcast and the part-time teaching I do to try and earn a living — has been the Commentators’ Bible, an English-language version of the traditional Hebrew page with the biblical text in the middle, translation along or near the top, and various commentators on the other three sides.

Recently on Facebook a friend asked the following question: “I’ve often wondered about your workflow. Who is responsible for laying out the pages and what tool do they/you use to keep everything in sync?” The answer to those two questions will end up being somewhat longer than it makes sense to post on Facebook, so I’ll discuss them here and post a link on the Commentators’ Bible Facebook page.

My friend’s a computer guy and (I believe) is interested in doing some Hebrew-English publication of his own, so I’d better answer the second question right away: I have no idea what tool is used to format the pages of the Commentators’ Bible. That’s all done — beautifully — by a company in Tel Aviv called El Ot. I was very happy last December to receive an e-mail from Koren Publishers in Jerusalem asking how we’d achieved the remarkable page flow that the Commentators’ Bible uses. But it’s all transparent to me, thanks to El Ot. I would add that the changes I suggest at the page-proof stage are quite minor. In general, everything’s right on the page where you want it to be. I have no idea how much human intervention is required in this process.

With all respect to El Ot, however, it’s not merely their skill that makes the Commentators’ Bible so remarkable. The basis for everything is the amazing page design by Adrianne Onderdonk Dudden of blessed memory. My wife spoke to her daughter at the afternoon of learning that the Center City (Philadelphia) Kehillah held when the Exodus volume first came out, and (if I understand correctly) this was the last project she worked on before dying of lung cancer. She had done a lot of work for JPS — I remember being struck by the cover of a book about Salonica and discovering it was hers — but she wasn’t Jewish and had no previous familiarity with the traditional Miqra’ot Gedolot kind of book page. I explained to her what I wanted and gave her some Hebrew pages as an example.

The result is what you see: a page that’s absolutely crammed with information, but feels open and welcoming to the reader. It’s very easy on the eyes. Without calling attention to itself, the design clearly distinguishes the two translations on top of the page from the commentaries on the sides and below. The (subordinate) “Additional Comments” have their own area at the bottom of the page.

Now on to my “workflow” (hoping that I actually do understand what this term means). It’s summertime right now, so I try to work on the project more or less a full day every day from Monday through Thursday. Toward the end of the day, I start to run out of gas (and in the winter it’s dark), so I devote that time as well as Fridays and Sundays to other projects and to various chores and errands. (At the moment I’m also trying to start each day by reading a chapter or article of the kind I’m too wiped to read after a day’s work.) During the school year, I’ve been teaching all day on Mondays and Wednesdays so I could have Tuesdays and Thursdays free for the Commentators’ Bible. Now that I’ve been laid off from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I’ll have Monday and Wednesday mornings to work on it too, unless I manage to find something else part-time to fill those hours.

For the actual translation, everything starts out as a Microsoft Word file. There are other options nowadays, but that was the obvious thing to do back in 2001 when I started on the project. It’s single-spaced while I type, space-and-a-half when I’m ready to edit.

Most Jewish editions of the Torah are made so that they can be used in a synagogue setting, which means that the crucial division is not between chapters but between one parashah and the next— the English term of art, I believe, would be “lectionary.” That’s the section of the Torah that is read in synagogues during any particular week (leaving holidays and other special occasions aside). So I work on the Commentators’ Bible in the same way, doing one parashah at a time. That means my Word docs are organized into numbered folders for each parashah in the book I’m working on at the time. Right now, that means
• 01 Bereshit
• 02 Noach
and so on up to
• 12 Vayechi.

I first create a Word doc with the Old Jewish Publication Society translation, which I grab off the web. JPS has electronic files they can use for the current (“New”) JPS version, but apparently not of the original 1917 one. I do some light editing to change British spellings to American ones, double-hyphens to dashes, single quotes to double, and the like.

Next, I go through the commentary of Abarbanel and create a doc that contains his questions about the parashah. I want the questions to appear in chapter and verse order, so (as with all the commentators) once in a while I need to move things around a bit. Abarbanel wrote an entire commentary on each book of the Torah, but he framed it as answer to a series of questions, which he places at the beginning of each parashah. So (though even his questions need some editing) I needn’t read through his entire commentary to get the questions. Reading them serves the same purpose for me that I hope it will serve for my readers: getting me prepared for the kinds of things that prompted the commentators to do their work.

Then, I launch into the main commentators on the page—in chronological order: Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Kimhi (special guest star for Genesis only), and Nahmanides. The Word docs I create for them have whatever notes I’ve made during earlier volumes to remind me that (for example) Nahmanides will refer to a particular comment in another book. For Genesis, as you can imagine, I have a fairly extensive list of these.

At this stage, I translate each of the commentators fairly quickly, not worrying if there’s something I don’t catch, a reference I can’t confirm, or a word choice that I know is wrong. A double star (**) will serve as a reminder that there’s something here I know must be fixed. All of these translations are done from the Etz Hayyim edition, simply because it’s clearly printed, easy to read, and supplied with some basic notes. These four (now, five) files comprise what I think of as the “first draft” of each parashah. By the time I’m translating Nahmanides I will often go back to make corrections or add notes to Rashi and Ibn Ezra, since they have to match what he says about them.

Then I go back to do a second draft of each of the main commentators. This time, the base text I’m using for each commentator is the best available text of the commentator (as summarized in the Back Matter of each volume). Sorry to disappoint those who expected that, by Genesis at least, the Commentators’ Bible would be based on the versions in the new Ha-Keter edition published by Bar-Ilan University Press. They wouldn’t respond to our calls and e-mails.

I do the first draft by typing directly into my computer — most definitely not the way I was ever able to write anything before 2001. (In fact, it was the Commentators’ Bible that enabled me to write my first drafts by typing, something I was never able to do before.) But the final version still has to flow from my hand through a pen onto a page. So I print out the first drafts, highlighting each ** in yellow (as pictured below) …


… and get to work. I don’t just focus on the highlights, but read the entire commentary again, from the base text, and check it against my translation. At this stage I’ll use all the available research tools, including previous English translations and their notes. I sometimes catch egregious errors in my work at this stage, but I also sometimes discover that the available commentaries are not necessarily authoritative. Once in a rare while they are actually following a mistake made by an earlier commentator (or his publisher). As I explain in the “Principles of the Translation,” following the most precise text doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be able to reconstruct that text from my translation.

When all this is done, I turn to the “Additional Commentators,” again in chronological order. Since I now own copies of almost all of these, I mark in yellow highlighter pencil (these stopped being available, but not before I acquired a lifetime supply) the texts I intend to include. I don’t wait until I’ve done them all, but finish each commentator and then enter his comments into a single Word doc that contains material from all of them. I sometimes decide at this stage that one of the comments I’ve marked is too complicated or too repetitive to include, so I mark it with an “x” (because I’ll come back to check these texts at the end of the process). When this file is complete, I’m done (for now) with the parashah and begin a new one.

When, finally, I’ve finished each parashah, I go back to the very beginning. At this stage — again working parashah by parashah — I print out all the files and simply read them, to see:
• Does what I’ve written make sense?
• Is it in good English, spelled and punctuated as I want it to be?
• Will it be comprehensible?
• Does it sound like the commentator whom I’m impersonating in that particular section? (Early in the process, I once had Ibn Ezra say “Admittedly…” But then I realized that Ibn Ezra would never “admit” anything.)
At this stage, I only consult the original text if I’ve written something I can no longer understand or that gives me pause in some other way.

Finally, I make sure the Front and Back Matter for the book is the way I want it. I’ve made sure while working on the translation that glossary entries and other explanatory notes are updated as I find them called for. The acknowledgments and dedication are finalized at this stage too.

When everything’s done, I transfer the MS to JPS. For Exodus, if memory serves, I printed out the whole thing and rode it over to 21st and Arch on my bicycle; for Deuteronomy, I just dragged all the files onto Dropbox. So far, I’ve managed to turn in each volume in August of the year it was due (I made all the deadlines Dec. 31st). We’ll see whether I can still do that for Genesis.

Now that JPS books are published by the professionals at University of Nebraska Press, everything is on a strict schedule, so turning the MS in early doesn’t advance the publication date. (Deuteronomy will be out next year, in 2015, though I turned it in during the summer of 2013.) Copyediting gives me another chance to read through the entire book; again the copy-editor works with me parashah-by-parashah. We’ve just finished that process, for Deuteronomy. At some point I’ll get page proofs, and again I’ll read every word (though only slight changes can be made at this stage).

Finally the book’s published and in the subsequent August I’ll get my first royalties. I started the Exodus volume in 2001 and it came out in 2005. It was still under JPS at the time, and they paid royalties in April (or, if they felt like it, May), so I worked on the project for the first 5 years, till 2006, without seeing a dime from it. But that first dime sure was nice to get…

From Gods to God

November 14, 2013

As promised in my earlier post on Joshua 10, the story of the sun standing still, I’m now posting my review of Zakovitch & Shinan’s From Gods to God.

Here’s a link to the nicely formatted PDF of the review, courtesy of H-Net, the humanities network. But I’ve also included it in plain text below. Bottom line: It’s interesting and readable.

Yair Zakovitch, Avigdor Shinʼan. From Gods to God: How the Bible Debunked, Suppressed, or Changed Ancient Myths and Legends. Translated by Valerie Zakovitch. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012. xi + 301 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8276-0908-2.

Reviewed by Michael Carasik (University of Pennsylvania – NELC)
Published on H-Judaic (November, 2013)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman

What the Bible Says—and What It Didn’t Want to Say

It has long been understood by scholars, if not necessarily by the wider public, that biblical stories are not journalism, attempting to report on events detail by detail as they happened and conversations word for word as they actually took place. But this, of course, implies that the biblical stories were shaped with particular purposes in mind.

In their new book, biblicist Yair Zakovitch and his Hebrew University colleague Avigdor Shinan, a scholar of rabbinic literature, attempt to reveal the stories behind the stories–not the historical events (if any) that may lie behind a particular biblical tale, but the stories that were originally told about these events before the Bible froze them into one particular version. Their position is that many biblical stories are framed as they are in an attempt to eliminate or confute earlier, “unwanted” traditions. Their method for doing this is “literary archaeology” (p. 7), employing three strategies: identifying duplicate traditions within the Bible, considering traditions from the “pagan” world, and examining a story’s subsequent renditions in post-biblical literature. (It is interesting that this procedure closely matches Avi Hurvitz’ methodology for identifying Late Biblical Hebrew; perhaps it is simply a matter of parallel evolution.)

The book is divided into four sections, “The World of Myth,” “Cult and Sacred Geography,” “Biblical Heroes and Their Biographies” (the longest of them), and “Relations between Men and Women,” but it really consists of thirty more or less independent chapters that have been grouped under these headings. In the original Hebrew publication, That’s Not What the Good Book Says (2004), each chapter’s heading is actually a question, e.g., “What Happened to the Sun at Gibeon?” The extremely readable translation by Valerie Zakovitch sometimes echoes these question-titles but sensibly does not insist on doing so; in this case, the title reads “The Hero Who Stopped the Sun.” I looked in the original volume in vain for information about where in the popular press these chapters were originally published; they very much give the impression of magazine or more high-brow newspaper columns that have been collected here in a single volume.

But this structure should not be considered a flaw. The overall message of the book does not depend on a sustained argument, but rather on the treatment that the authors give it, building a mosaic that uses the details of each, or any, particular story to create the overall impression that “[b]eneath the biblical narrator’s words … it seems that we still hear the rush of older currents, of more ancient belief systems” (p. 25). Nor should the book’s readability and popular character keep it out of the hands of scholars, even biblical scholars, who will find details worth considering in almost every chapter.

It is all too easy to think of “Bible stories” rather than of the stories as they are actually told in the Bible. A case in point is chapter 5, already mentioned, about the sun stopping over Gibeon in Joshua 10. Zakovitch and Shinan’s discussion of this story takes us through Ps 77:17-19 and a parallel text, Hab 3:10-11, on through Ben Sira and 4QapocrJosha, to the Babylonian Talmud and Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, with a stop along the way in Judges 14. The argument of the chapter is that the original story of Joshua stopping the sun “was stifled in the book of Joshua because of its mythical character: the attribution of divine powers to a mortal being” (p. 62).

The reader benefits from this sort of closer look at a story in two ways. First, though some of the authors’ side trips will be obvious to the knowledgeable reader, not all will be. I, for one, had not made a connection between Timnah of the Samson story in Judges 14 and Timnath-heres, where Joshua is buried in Jud 2:9. Yet Samson is of course Shimshon, “Sunman,” and in Jud 14:18 the Philistines answer Samson’s riddle just before “sunset,” where “sun” is not shemesh but heres. Moreover, in chapter 21 Zakovitch and Shinan will remind us that Samson lived between Zorah and Eshtaol, where Beit Shemesh is located, though the stories never mention that name. This is just one example of how each chapter of the book magnetically aligns various biblical texts (here about the sun, elsewhere about snakes or some other topic) toward a particular story in ways that can offer a fresh perspective.

Secondly, with thirty opportunities, it is likely that everyone will find places in this book where the overall discussion of a biblical text will lead to a new understanding of it, or at the very least to new questions. Sticking with the story of Joshua 10, I found myself asking for the first time not only whether it was Joshua or God who had stopped the sun (the primary subject of Zakovitch and Shinan’s chapter) but also how to understand the mention of the moon in Josh 10:13 and (most significantly) why the sun had to stop at all in this version of the story.

The overall message of the book–that some of the texts in the Bible are responding polemically to earlier versions of the same stories that were well known in Israelite times, and that rabbinic and other later texts sometimes move those earlier versions back into public view–has been presented elsewhere in the scholarly literature, notably in Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking (2005). But it is still not generally realized among those who are not biblical scholars, and this book can potentially remedy that.

The reader who is so inclined will find plenty here to disagree with. Were the story of David and Bathsheba and the details of Esther’s relationship with Ahasuerus really modeled on the three stories somewhat misleadingly known as “the matriarch of Israel in danger” in Genesis 12, 20, and 26, as chapter 25 of the book claims? And the larger perspectives of the various biblical books considered individually receive no attention here. Saying that “An early story about David and Abigail, a story about a passionate meeting between an impulsive warrior and a married, unfaithful woman, became transformed in the Bible into a story about a wise woman and a hero who conquers his impulsive passions” (p. 258) does not, to my mind, really come to grips with why 1 Samuel 25 is presenting the future founder of the Judahite royal dynasty as the head of an outlaw gang that runs a rural protection racket.

The overall perspective, too–at least as the authors sum it up in the epilogue–does not convince me. Their claim that the traditions that existed before the Bible came into being “needed to be adapted and refined in order to make them suit the lofty ideals of monotheism, to elevate them to the morals and value system that the Bible sought to instill in its readers” (p. 267), or that the “loftier aim” of the biblical writers was “to educate a nation, purify its beliefs, cleanse it of the dust of idolatry and myth, and wash it of vulgar expressions and faulty morality” (p. 268) describes just a small part of the Bible that I know. Perhaps this kind of moralistic overstatement is the spoonful of sugar that will make it palatable to the more religious lay readers of the book.

But the book’s value does not, after all, lie in the accumulation of such claims, but rather in the places where Shinan the midrashist and Zakovitch the pashtan, chapter after chapter, deploy their intelligence and erudition to focus our attention on the details in every biblical story that demand further study. If you have never paid serious attention to the seemingly minor family drama in 1 Chr 7:20-24, this book will convince you that you must do so: “Anecdotes such as this one are proof that readers must listen not only to the forceful, central current of the biblical narrative but also to the smaller rivulets of traditions that ripple more quietly: it is these traditions that preserve divergent and even disparate points of view that escaped the stronger current’s sweeping flood” (p. 162).

The Hebrew version has a sequel, Once Again: That’s Not What the Good Book Says (2009), in which the authors turn their attention more fully to the afterlife of biblical stories. Here the most comparable volumes would most likely be James Kugel’s The Bible As It Was (1999) and Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible As It Was at the Start of the Common Era (1999). The evidence of the volume we now have makes me eager to see this new volume in an English translation too. It will be a welcome reminder that you can get more out of the Bible when you read between the lines.

In the Valley of the Shadow

February 27, 2011

I’m interrupting our somewhat leisurely discussion of Late Biblical Hebrew for some comments on a current book—James Kugel’s In the Valley of the Shadow. I don’t intend to write a full review of the book (though I’ll summarize my thoughts in a paragraph or two), but I want to record my surprise at a couple of the things he says about the Bible.

The first one is his discussion of the phrase “the fear of God,” from p. 137 of the book:

It may not seem like it, but this expression is altogether different from a similar-sounding one, “the fear of the LORD.” The latter actually has nothing to do with what we call “fear”: it might best be translated as “the practice of Israel’s religion” or “the proper worship of Israel’s God.”… By contrast, there is nothing Israelite about “the fear of God.”

Kugel goes on to point out (correctly) that “the fear of God” might also be translated as “the fear of the gods.” He cites Gen 42:18, where Joseph tells his brothers “I fear the gods,” and Gen 20:11, where Abraham tells Abimelech that he was afraid there was “no fear of the gods in this place.”:

From both these examples it should further be clear what “fearing the gods” really means: respecting fairness and common decency.

Indeed, that clearly is the meaning in the two examples that Kugel gives. But he omits another example—one he certainly knows—which demonstrates both that “fear” can mean real fear and that “fear of the LORD” need not have a different meaning than “fear of God.” The example I’m thinking of comes from Genesis 22, the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. In the NJPS translation:

9 They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. 11 Then an angel of the LORD called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.” 12 And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.”

This is the Lord speaking (through His angel), and He is certainly not saying, “Now I know that you are a decent sort of fellow.” He is saying, “Now I know that you are so afraid of Me that you will even attempt to kill your son if I ask you to.”

The second place I must dissent from Kugel’s biblical discussion is in the same context, in the immediately following discussion of Psalm 82, on p. 139 of the book:

In Psalm 82, it is the God of Israel who presides over the council, just as the god Anu presided over a similar assembly in Mesopotamia and the god El held court in the mythology of ancient Ugarit. Normally, the council would deliberate and, when a course of action was determined, one or more of its members would be dispatched to carry it out. But in Psalm 82, God has apparently convened the other gods in order to decree their deaths.

Indeed, Kugel has translated the first line of the psalm this way, on p. 138:

God stands in the divine assembly, among the gods He passes judgment.

But (as Kugel of course knows) this psalm is part of the Elohistic Psalter. That’s a worthy candidate for a future post, but in the meantime I’ll just briefly say that many psalms in this section of the book of Psalms (chs. 42-83) have substituted the word “God” for the name YHWH. In Ps 82:1, the word elohim in “among the gods” is undoubtedly original, but the instance of elohim that Kugel translates as “God” was originally most likely a reference to the specific God of Israel by His proper name, YHWH.

More crucially, “the divine assembly” is really a mistranslation of the Hebrew עדת אל. What that really means is “the assembly of El”—exactly the same as the Ugaritic divine assembly in which “the god El held court.” Psalm 82 is not about the God of Israel convening the other gods, but about His challenging them, in front of El, and being given the assignment—by the poet, by us the listeners, or perhaps by El himself—to replace them and start doing things right.

Kugel’s book has a subtitle: “On the Foundations of Religious Belief.” And the subtitle has a subtitle: (and their connection to a certain, fleeting state of mind). (The italics, the parentheses, and the lower-case writing are his.) It is really that state of mind that is the subject of Kugel’s book. His notion that our modern concept of “the individual” has managed to interfere with that state of mind is disproven by his admission that there is actually nothing modern about the concept; see p. 181. The disappearance of the “fleeting state of mind” that one regains when given a diagnosis of fatal cancer is not really explainable as a phenomenon in history; it is one of human psychology. I would add that the book of Ecclesiastes is a brilliant description of the loud “music” (as Kugel calls it) that blocks one from having this state of mind. There is nothing modern about it.

So why read this book? For one of three reasons:

1) Read it if you are interested in James Kugel—which I, as a colleague of his (in a very minor way) am, and which some of you, as regular readers of his, may also be.

2) Kugel is always extremely readable. If you enjoy his writing voice, you will enjoy this book even when you disagree with him. (I do not call him the most readable of biblical scholars only because that would sound like I was damning him with faint praise.)

3) The book is full of Kugel’s own translations of biblical texts. I have disputed some of them in this post, and others are quite idiosyncratic (his Job has an almost W. S. Gilbert patter-song rhythm to it)—but you can learn from the idiosyncracies of a great scholar like Kugel in a way that you never will from the bland, committee-driven words of the standard English translations.

Here’s hoping that Kugel’s cancer is as gone as it seems to be, and that he lives on to give us many more books. In the words of the old Yiddish joke, “Till 120 and two weeks!” (Why “and two weeks”? Because God forbid you should die on your birthday.)

A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew by C. L. Seow (2nd ed.)

December 13, 2009

Have I mentioned that if you are interested in the Bible, you have to learn Hebrew? (Greek, too, if you are interested in the Christian Bible.) There’s a bit of Aramaic in the Bible as well, but we’ll leave that aside for now.

There are many reasons for this; here are a few of the most obvious ones:

1) Many words, including the simplest and most common, cannot be exactly replicated in other languages. If I need to translate “refrigerator” into another language, I can be pretty sure that the other word conveys precisely what the original meant—though even here, the ideas associated with a refrigerator will be slightly different in some languages. But words like “man’ or “big” or “go,” although they exist in every language, will cover very different areas of meaning. A refrigerator is a refrigerator is a refrigerator … but חסד is (to choose just the definitions I found in a Biblical Hebrew dictionary entry) “joint obligation, faithfulness, goodness, graciousness,” not to mention the commonly used “love” and “lovingkindness” and the English word I myself would use to explain this term: “loyalty.”

2) There are at least two basic translation strategies: translation by word and translation by sense. These have the potential to create two quite different texts out of the same original. If someone tells me that he is “happy as a clam,” I have the choice of translating the words literally or using the equivalent expression in the new language. (Something tells me that in most languages, clams will not be involved.) That is why my Commentators’ Bible series provides two English translations along with the Hebrew text. One, the 1917 JPS translation, tends toward translation by word; the other, the “new” JPS translation (which is moving rapidly into middle age), more often translates by sense.

3) Translation inevitably “smudges” the original. When you read Lev 15:2, “When any man has a discharge issuing from his member,” in an English translation, the last thing on your mind is the famous phrase “a land flowing with milk and honey,” which occurs 15 times in the Bible. (Puzzler: Only 3 of these are foiund outside the Torah—can you guess where?) Yet both phrases use exactly the same Hebrew verb, זוב, which means something like “ooze.”

So if you are interested in the Bible, sooner or later you must learn Biblical Hebrew. You don’t necessarily need to use Seow‘s book. I chose to list it because that’s the book I use in my courses at the University of Pennsylvania and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. It’s technically very good, and was specifically written to replace a book by Thomas Lambdin, Seow’s teacher at Harvard, that (strangely) created its own examples rather than using actual verses from the Bible.

One good source for books if you are learning Hebrew on your own is EKS publishing. My students in Boston used to supplement Lambdin with “The Desert Book” from EKS. That’s not its real name—but you will recognize it when you see the cover. (Alas, I get no kickback if you buy anything from them.) There is also a free PDF download of a textbook by John Cook and Robert Holmstedt—and there are many, many other books to choose from.

I hope to come back to translation issues often in future posts. Meanwhile, in the words of Hillel … זיל גמור! (“Go and learn!”)

Job by Raymond Scheindlin

November 10, 2009

With book #9, we turn to the next step in learning the Bible—studying an individual book.  I’ve picked one out of very many possibilities for this stage of learning:  Raymond Scheindlin’s translation and commentary on the book of Job.
You have to remember that the Bible is not a book but a library.  The books that make up the Bible were written over the course of 1,000 years, by different authors with different purposes.  You may start out by being more interested in the prophets, the psalms, or the histories, so you’ll begin your more concentrated study with one of those books.  I’m particularly interested in what’s called “wisdom literature” (more on this in a later post), so I’ve selected Scheindlin’s Job as my example.
And it’s a great one.  Scheindlin is not a biblical scholar, but he worked closely with Stephen Geller (one of my teachers), who is a top scholar.  That means his book is informed by the best scholarship but is written for a general readership.  What Scheindlin himself brings to the project is that he’s a world-class translator of poetry—and the poetry of Job is not only amazing, it’s essential to understanding the book.
For a sample of Scheindlin’s work, compare these translations of Job 28:4:


The flood breaketh out from the inhabitant; even the waters forgotten of the foot: they are dried up, they are gone away from men.  (KJV)

They open up a shaft far from where men live,
In places forgotten by wayfarers,
Destitute of men, far removed.  (NJPS)

He bursts a channel from his dwelling
to places footfall-forgotten,
folk-thinned, wandered from.  (Scheindlin)

“Folk-thinned” conveys the intensity of this poetic language far better than “destitute of men.”  And “footfall-forgotten” is an inspired coinage.

Job is the original Jewish meditation on the question of “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People,” or as it is traditionally expressed, צדיק ורע לו (tzaddik v’ra lo, a righteous man who has it bad).  The book will repay a lifetime of study.  In addition to a wonderful poetic translation, Scheindlin’s version will guide you through the book, showing you its structure and explaining the major questions that the book raises.
The individual books in the Jewish Study Bible begin this process on a small scale, but you’ll want to continue your study of a biblical book with an entire volume devoted to the book you’ve chosen.  Job is particularly difficult to study on your own, but you’ll discover that every biblical book will repay the same kind of closer look.  So choose a book, find a commentary, and begin to learn.

Update 2020: For more on Job, and another important translation, see here.

The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism by Adele Berlin

October 27, 2009

Book #8 on my curriculum of 10 is The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism by Adele Berlin. And consider this post itself a mini-“Beginners’ Guide” to parallelism.

“Parallelism” is the basic element of biblical poetry. It plays a role something like what rhyme did for so long in English-language poetry, creating a rhythm that matches two different lines. For a quick introduction, consult “Reading Biblical Poetry,” 2097-2104 in The Jewish Study Bible, book #1 on my list. Here’s a quick example to demonstrate:

Deut 32:1

O heavens, | give ear | and let me speak;
Let the earth | hear | the sayings of my mouth.

The first line takes three words in Hebrew; the second line “matches” each one of them:
1 “Earth” matches “heavens” because they are an obvious (biblical) pair.
2 “Hear” matches “give ear” because the two verbs mean (more or less) the same thing.
3 “The sayings of my mouth” matches “let me speak” because both phrases refer to what the poet is going to say.

The “matching” effect is so strong that this phenomenon sometimes used to be called “thought-rhyme.”

We owe our English expression “a voice crying in the wilderness” to Matt 3:3, which misread Isa 40:3.

Matt 3:3

This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
(NRSV translation)

But parallelism shows that “in the wilderness” should be inside the quotation marks:

Isa 40:3

  A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
(also NRSV)

Again, line B “matches” line A (though not in exactly the same order):
1 “In the desert” matches “in the wilderness.”
2 “Make straight” matches “prepare.”
3 “A highway” matches “the way.”
4 “Our God” matches “the LORD.”

Note that even the quotation in Matthew reads the Isaiah verse with poetic parallelism—but moving “in the wilderness” outside the quotation marks led Matthew to drop “in the desert” from line 2 of the Isaiah verse.

Berlin’s book describes the manifold ways in which this technique is used to create poetry in the Bible. She’s a good writer, but if the technical language or the Hebrew there is too much for you, you might want to have a look at James Kugel’s The Idea of Biblical Poetry. The book is about the history of how biblical poetry has been understood, but the first chapter is another description of parallelism.

I hope eventually to present some biblical poems myself; watch this space!

The Art of Biblical Narrative (Alter)

September 18, 2009

Having gone through the Bible, talked about how to read it, and moved our point of view back out to the history of the biblical period, you might like to focus in once again on a few biblical texts of more limited size. If you are interested in the reading the Bible as literature, Robert Alter is a worthy guide. (Stayed tuned for the “but.”)

Alter is a scholar of literature who knows Hebrew well and wrote two books on the Bible for a general readership: The Art of Biblical Narrative and its more-or-less sequel, The Art of Biblical Poetry. His intent was to show how (some parts of) the Bible can be read as literature, a claim that is by no means universally accepted. See Brettler, The Creation of History in Ancient Israel, 14-17, and James Kugel, “Apologetics and ‘Biblical Criticism Lite'” (available in PDF format on his How to Read the Bible web site).

Alter’s somewhat snide attitude toward biblical scholars of the historical-philological school can be irritating, and I will have something to say about his more recent publications in a moment. But I must agree with him that there are parts of the Bible, both prose and poetry, that were written (as near as I can judge) by writers who took pleasure in using words esthetically. More than this: In some cases, understanding how a text works from a literary (that is, esthetic) perspective is crucial to understanding the historical context in which it was written or the message it is trying to convey.

1 Samuel 1 — which I am about to begin teaching later this afternoon — is a fine example. If you read this chapter in Hebrew, it is clear that the theme root that is being used is שאל — the root not of Samuel’s name, but of Saul’s. This is the beginning of the story of the transition from the period of the Judges to that of David’s dynasty. What can the author mean by hinting so broadly at Saul’s name in the story of Samuel’s birth? With that technique in hand, this chapter simply cannot be solely informational. It must (contra Brettler and Kugel) be literary as well. If it has a religious or political purpose, one must understand the literary aspect of the text to understand the “spin.”

Alter is not merely a world-class scholar of literature; he is also, unlike many scholars, a fine writer. The Art of Biblical Narrative is a wonderful way to begin thinking about biblical texts as literature. Kugel points out — correctly — that there has been a major turn to literary study of the Bible by those who are trying to avoid the historical and linguistic discoveries about the Bible that conflict with some traditional religious beliefs. So I emphasize again, a literary approach to some biblical texts is crucial to understanding them correctly in their ancient context.

If you enjoy The Art of Biblical Narrative, you will find the sequel, The Art of Biblical Poetry, also of interest. (In my next “book” post, however, I’m going to suggest some difference resources for studying biblical poetry.) Since then, Alter has turned his biblical attention to translation and commentary — with less success. It works best, I think in The David Story, Alter’s translation of 1 and 2 Samuel. Most people, I believe, think they are relatively familiar with these stories — David & Goliath, David & Bathsheba — but they are rarely familiar with the actual biblical texts in which the stories occur. Alter is a fine guide to these books.

In The Five Books of Moses the same technique works reasonably well for the narrative portions (though most people will already be more familiar with these sections than with 1 and 2 Samuel). For other parts of the Torah, I would say you will learn more from something like the JPS Torah Commentary series. A good Torah commentary must balance a unified reading of the text with an understanding of how the text came to be — but Alter follows the model scoffed at by Kugel, an analysis that ignores the prehistory of the text:

The reader will … discover that this commentary refers only occasionally and obliquely to the source analysis of Genesis. For even where such analysis may be convincing, it seems to me a good deal less interesting than the subtle workings of the literary whole represented by the redacted text.

Alter says in his introduction (which is definitely worth reading) that he felt compelled to make a new translation because there is

something seriously wrong with all the familiar English translations, traditional and recent, of the Hebrew Bible.

But — though I was eager to read his translation of Genesis when it first appeared — my eagerness was quenched rather quickly. Despite Alter’s claims, I found it to be just another attempt at the impossible. The real solution is still to get several translations and read them in conjunction with each other: a free translation (say, the NJPS) that reads easily; a less free translation (say the OJPS or, even better, the King James version) that conveys some of the non-English flavor of the original; and supplement these with Everett Fox’s translations (where available) into a bizarre pseudo-English that will bring you as close as you can get to the Hebrew without actually going there.

I was most disappointed with Alter’s Book of Psalms — not because I was disappointed with the translation (I had no great hopes for it by then), but because Alter’s readings of some of the psalms I know well don’t really tell you what you need to know about them as poems. Kugel, too, has a Great Poems of the Bible with new translations, and this too does not do justice to the ones I have studied and taught.

The bottom line: Read The Art of Biblical Narrative and then turn to The David Story if you are attracted to Alter’s kind of reading.