Archive for the ‘History of the Biblical Text’ Category

Pinchas 5775

July 7, 2015

Where does Numbers 25 end and Numbers 26 begin?
And why is there so much confusion about it?

This week’s handout:  41 Pinchas 5775


Jean Ritchie, R.I.P.

June 3, 2015

The singer Jean Ritchie died on Monday.  When I was still regularly playing guitar and singing, her song “The L & N Don’t Stop Here Any More” was one of my favorites.

But what does she have to do with the study of the Bible?  Something she wrote about the culture in which she grew up struck me, and still strikes me, as important for Bible scholars to keep in mind.  The Cumberland Mountains, where she was from, bear a certain resemblance — at least stratigraphically — to the central highlands of Canaan/Israel/Palestine, where Israelite culture took form.  Here’s what Ritchie wrote, and what I cited in my doctoral dissertation and my book Theologies of the Mind:

It was always a wonder to me how families living close to one another could sing the same song and sing it so different. Or how one family would sing a song among themselves for years, and their neighbor family never know that song at all. Most curious of all was how one member of a family living in a certain community could have almost a completely different set of songs than his cousins living a few miles away.

[Jean Ritchie, Singing Family of the Cumberlands (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955; repr. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988), 128]

It’s worth remembering that much of what we have from ancient Israel is just the way that particular text was preserved in the “holler” where one small group lived.  It might have been quite different one holler over.

Beha’alotcha 5775

June 2, 2015

The separate book inside the Torah — and the Torah inside the separate book.

inverted nuns

This week’s handout:  36 Beha’alotcha 5775



Virtual Cantor:


“The Inverted Nuns at Numbers 10:35-36 and the Book of Eldad and Medad,” Sid Z. Leiman

Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 93, No. 3 (Sep., 1974), pp. 348-355

Stable URL:


“More on the Inverted Nuns of Num 10:35-36,” Baruch A. Levine

Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 95, No. 1 (Mar., 1976), pp. 122-124

Stable URL:



Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5775

April 28, 2015

The link between Lev 19:19 and Deut 22:9-11 … and the discrepancy that tells us which writer read the other.

29-30 Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5775



Vayikra 5775

March 17, 2015

How do you perform a bird sacrifice—and why?
(Jacob Milgrom reveals all.)

This week’s handout:  24 Vayikra 5775


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Vayakhel-Pekudei 5775

March 10, 2015

Is Exodus 36:1 in the voice of Moses? The chapter division says one thing; modern translations say another.

This week’s handout:  22-23 Vayakhel-Pekudei 5775

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V’zot ha-Bracha 5774-75

September 30, 2014

Is this the end of the Pentateuch?  Or is it just the end of Book Five of the Hexateuch?

This episode’s handout:  54 V’zot ha-Bracha 5774-75

Marc Brettler [on Parshat Va-yechi]:


Pre-order the Deuteronomy volume of the Commentators’ Bible:,676069.aspx

The 1st episode of “Torah Talk” for the new cycle, Bereshit 5775, will be posted on October 14th.


Ha’azinu 5774-75

September 23, 2014

Is the real text of Deut 32:43 in the Dead Sea Scrolls?

This week’s handout:  53 Ha’azinu 5774-75


Pre-order the Deuteronomy volume of the Commentators’ Bible:,676069.aspx

Hezekiah and Isaiah

June 29, 2014

On the long Saturday afternoons during the summer, I invite friends to come over to my house at 5 PM and spend a couple of hours reading the Bible with me. We have snacks and drinks; it’s our version of the traditional “Third Meal” (סעודה שלישית or, in Yiddish, shalishides) eaten toward the end of the Sabbath. We’re getting toward the end of 2 Kings this summer, and our reading yesterday, in 2 Kings 19, helped me start to think about the book of Isaiah. Let me explain.

The situation in 2 Kings 19 is that Jerusalem is under siege by the Assyrians. A representative of King Sennacherib has threatened the people inside the city that they will have to eat their own excrement and drink their own urine if they don’t surrender. (See The Bible’s Many Voices, p. 42, for more on this threat.)

Hezekiah’s advisers turn to the prophet Isaiah for advice:

2Kings 19:5
  When King Hezekiah’s ministers came to Isaiah, 6 Isaiah said to them, “Tell your master as follows: Thus said the LORD: Do not be frightened by the words of blasphemy against Me that you have heard from the minions of the king of Assyria. 7 I will delude him; he will hear a rumor and return to his land, and I will make him fall by the sword in his land.”

Isaiah reassures the king that God will not let Jerusalem fall into the hands of the Assyrians. But King Sennacherib sends a further message, which boils down to this: “Do not let your God, on whom you are relying, mislead you into thinking that Jerusalem will not be delivered into the hands of the king of Assyria” (2 Kgs 19:10). King Hezekiah brings the Assyrian threat to the Temple and prays to God to save the city. Immediately, Isaiah sends a message of his own to Hezekiah, with this oracle — primarily in God’s own voice — directed against Sennacherib:

21 “Fair Maiden Zion despises you,
She mocks at you;
Fair Jerusalem shakes
Her head at you.
22  Whom have you blasphemed and reviled?
Against whom made loud your voice
And haughtily raised your eyes?
Against the Holy One of Israel!
23  Through your envoys you have blasphemed my Lord.
Because you thought,
‘Thanks to my vast chariotry,
It is I who have climbed the highest mountains,
To the remotest parts of the Lebanon,
And have cut down its loftiest cedars,
Its choicest cypresses,
And have reached its remotest lodge,
Its densest forest.
24  It is I who have drawn and drunk the waters of strangers;
I have dried up with the soles of my feet
All the streams of Egypt.’
25  Have you not heard?
Of old I planned that very thing,
I designed it long ago,
And now have fulfilled it.
And it has come to pass,
Laying waste fortified towns
In desolate heaps.
26  Their inhabitants are helpless,
Dismayed and shamed.
They were but grass of the field
And green herbage,
Grass of the roofs that is blasted
Before the standing grain.
27  I know your stayings
And your goings and comings,
And how you have raged against Me.
28  Because you have raged against Me,
And your tumult has reached My ears,
I will place My hook in your nose
And My bit between your jaws;
And I will make you go back by the road
By which you came.
(New Jewish Publication Society translation)

As one of the group said, that passage has some phrases (especially vv. 25 and 28) that are very reminiscent of God’s speeches at the end of the book of Job. But — as I knew — that also means it’s reminiscent of Second Isaiah (see pp. 209 and 313 of The Bible’s Many Voices). I’ll do a Beginners’ Guide post on Second Isaiah in the future, but for now (as I told my friends yesterday) you should know that chapters 40 and following of the book of Isaiah are NOT in the voice of Isaiah of Jerusalem, but of an anonymous prophet from the time of the return to Jerusalem during the Persian period. See, for example, Isa 45:1, “Thus said the LORD to Cyrus, His anointed one.” The book of the original prophet of Isaiah closes with Isaiah 35. The intervening chapters, 36-39, are a kind of appendix to that book — another version, more-or-less exactly the same, of the material that is also found in the historical telling of 2 Kgs 18:13-20:19.

One of the bigger questions that biblical scholarship has left on its plate is the question of how the quite different voice of Second Isaiah was put together with the prophecies of Isaiah of Jerusalem in a single book, without there being any indication that the two prophets were separated by 200 years of history. The facts that
• Isaiah of Jerusalem is quoted in the book of Kings, but in a voice that reminds us of Second Isaiah, and
• precisely this material is found in the book of Isaiah linking the two prophets
must be a clue that will lead us to the answer to this question.

Since — as I also say in The Bible’s Many Voices (see p. 12) — it is quite probable that it was Isaiah’s successful prediction that led the Israelites to begin collecting the material that now makes up our Bible, the forging of the complete book of Isaiah from these two powerful voices is most likely an integral part of the story of why the Bible exists at all.

Thanks, friends. I’m eager to see what we’ll learn together next Saturday.

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.


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