Archive for the ‘History of the Biblical Text’ Category

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.


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.

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.

Exilic Biblical Writing?

November 25, 2012

Last week, I attended the 2012 conference of the Society for Biblical Literature (held in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion), this year at Chicago’s McCormick Place. This isn’t meant to be any kind of comprehensive report; those who’ve been to the SBL will know that’s impossible, since dozens of sessions are running concurrently at any one time. But there’s also no forum for reacting to conference presentations once they’re over. So I’m using this post to present a reaction to something I heard there.

The remark that caught my attention was a comment made by Thomas Römer of the Université de Lausanne. I know his work only from hearing him speak at previous conferences, where he has always sounded sensible and thoughtful. But this time I think his good sense has steered him wrong.

It was in a session on “How to Reconstruct the Literary History of the Hebrew Bible.” The discussion touched on the question of how much of the Bible was put together during the period of the Babylonian exile, following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. Römer asked the rhetorical question, “When the Israelites went into exile, was their immediate reaction to start writing books?” The question drew a laugh, and a subsequent speaker also alluded to it, as if acknowledging that they obviously did not.

Now for a responsible opposing viewpoint.

We have an empirical model—more on this term in a later post—suggesting that the immediate reaction to exile might indeed be writing books that consolidate the knowledge of the exiled community.

The exile to Babylonia was not the first exile suffered by the Jews (that was in 722, when inhabitants of the northern kingdom of Israel were exiled to other lands by their Assyrian conquerors), and it was far from the last. The exile I want to discuss in this post is the exile from Spain in 1492, and the writer is Isaac Abarbanel.

Abarbanel (often given the courtesy title “Don” Isaac) is identified by the Encyclopedia Judaica as a “statesman, biblical exegete, and theologian,” but I would call him a politician and financier as well as a writer on religious topics. He was forced to leave Spain with the rest of the remaining Jews in 1492, but according to the EJ he was allowed to take 1000 gold ducats out of the country with him.

And here’s what happened next:

After the 1492 expulsion, Abrabanel* passed two years in Naples. Here he completed his commentary on Kings (fall 1493).

*Since the name appears most often in Hebrew characters, which do not make the pronunciation explicit, it appears in transliteration in a number of different ways. I follow the explanation by Sid Leiman (JJS 19 [1968]:49 n. 1) explaining that Don Isaac’s son Judah used the pronunciation “Abarbanel.”

Though Abarbanel was eventually able to resume political and financial activities, he also continued to write. His Bible commentaries are still used, not just read by scholars. (His Torah commentary, somewhat long-winded, is not translated into English, but you will find selections from it in my Commentators’ Bible series.)

Could some of Israel’s biblical literature have been written not only in, but early in, the Babylonian exile? The example of Abarbanel—whose commentary on Kings was finished in 1493, the year after the exile—says that it could.

What circumstances permitted Abarbanel to write his commentary on Kings?

1) He had the means, having left Spain with a bit of money.

2) He had the opportunity, since unlike a baker, tailor, carpenter or the like he could not immediately resume his financial and political occupations, but he could continue to write.

3) He had the motive, partly the same motives that had moved him to write commentaries and other religious works earlier in his career, and partly the desire to reassure himself and his Jewish contemporaries that their tradition was secure and that their ultimate fate was a hopeful one.

Could these same circumstances have existed—for someone—even during the very first months of the Babylonian exile? It would be surprising if they did not. The exilic community certainly included richer and more well-connected members (we know of a Jewish banking family in Babylonia not long after this period) and there were undoubtedly also many learned people among the exiles.

The important thing to remember is that it would only take one such person to produce a biblical book. Contemporary scholars speak of “the Deuteronomistic school,” “the priestly traditions,” and so on, but books are not written by committee—not good books, anyway. They are written by single authors, even if they subsequently change as they are transmitted through the centuries.

Römer’s question, “When the Israelites went into exile, was their immediate reaction to start writing books?” makes the very idea sound absurd. And posed in this general way, it certainly is. But there is nothing absurd about the idea that writing a book might have been the immediate reaction of a few individuals—individuals like Thomas Römer himself, and (not to put myself on the same level) like me.

So the idea that some of the biblical books were composed or compiled during the Babylonian exile is a quite reasonable one.