Archive for the ‘Specific verses or texts’ Category

Samuel/Saul at Shiloh

November 10, 2014

(Some Thoughts on the Structure of the Book of Samuel)

I begin my Intermediate Biblical Hebrew 1 course at Penn (HEBR 153 for those of you who are thinking of signing up) by having the students read 1 Samuel 1. We read slowly and carefully, and I give them the option of using the 40-page workbook for this chapter that starts off the Readings in Biblical Hebrew textbook by Ben-Zvi et al. that once served as the textbook for this course. It’s a story that’s intrinsically interesting, but also gives me the opportunity (1) to see how the students’ grammar chops are; (2) to introduce them to the reference tools—dictionaries, concordances, and grammars—hat they should be using to read the Bible carefully; and (3) to advance my secret agenda: The Bible’s more complicated than they told you in Sunday School. One of the complications, as I show them clearly by the time we read Hannah’s conversation with Eli in vv. 14­­–18, is that this particular chapter is not straight history. It is the beginning of a work of what my teacher Moses Shulvass (ז״ל) used to call belles-lettres. Nowadays, we call it literature.

But I keep things simpler to start with. The very first thing I show them is how different the beginning of 1 Samuel is from the books that precede and follow it. I first noticed this while preparing the essay that became “Three Biblical Beginnings,” which serendipitously found its way into a book edited by my friends Aryeh Cohen and Shaul Magid with the unfortunately deconstructive name Beginning/Again. The book of Joshua begins with the words “After the death of Moses”; Judges begins with the words “After the death of Joshua”; and 2 Samuel begins with the words “After the death of Saul.” 1 Samuel, by contrast, begins with the words, “Once upon a time there was a man….”

I don’t say anything further about this until we get to Hannah’s promise that, if she is given a child, “No razor shall touch his head.” This is one facet of the rule of the Nazirite found in Numbers 6, and—together with the “once upon a time” beginning of the book—it provides a clear link to the story of Samson in Judges 13. Perhaps this seems to the students like the “answer” to the unusual beginning of the book. At any rate, no one has ever asked the obvious question. But I have sometimes wondered about it myself: Why doesn’t 1 Kings begin with the words “After the death of David”? Instead, David does not die until the end of chapter 2 of that book, the famous “Godfather” scene.

One might have thought that scene would make a fine ending to the book of Samuel. Instead, the book ends with a series of apparently disconnected appendices that clearly do not proceed in any kind of chronological order. (Their arrangement, however, is so obviously chiastic—see the commentaries for more—that it could hardly be a coincidence.) It is a traditional truism that אין מוקדם או מאוחר בתורה (one should not assume that the Bible tells events in chronological order), and the Book of Judges has clearly rearranged things to show a deterioration in Israel’s political system, culminating with the announcement in Jud 21:25 that “in those days there was no king in Israel, so everyone did whatever he wanted.”

Samuel, of course (the book and the man) provides the transition the Deuteronomic History needs between the period of the judges and that of the kings—or more precisely, between the period of the book of Judges and the beginning of the reign of Solomon. For the transitional period includes the reigns of Saul and David, each of whom has a kind of claim to be Israel’s first king. (Like so many readers and historians before me, I’m ignoring here Abimelech of Judges 9, who is actually the first Israelite king mentioned in the Bible.) But why aren’t the last two chapters of David’s life placed at the end of the book of Samuel so that 1 Kings could begin—a la Joshua, Judges, and 2 Samuel—with the words “After the death of David”?

There’s one more feature of 1 Samuel 1 that generally surprises my students, but this is a feature that doesn’t become clear until the very end of the chapter. The first hint comes in the more than usually unsatisfying explanation Hannah gives for naming the boy Samuel:

Because I requested him from the Lord [me-YHWH sheiltiv] (1 Sam 1:20).

The word sheiltiv (“requested”) in this phrase is just one of seven occurrences in the chapter of the root שאל, which in various guises can mean “ask, lend, request, borrow.” The culmination comes in v. 28, where Hannah declares, “As long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord.”

The words “he is lent” translate the Hebrew phrase הוא שאול, and usually when I press the students for another translation they grope for a more felicitous English phrase. When I taught at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I often found it easy to perform a magic trick. I would open the classroom door, find someone passing by, and ask then for help translating the Hebrew phrase הוא שאול. They would always innocently oblige with the most obvious translation of those words: “He is Saul.”  (See my previous post, שאל in 1 Samuel 1.)

There are many gifts for the literary-minded reader in this chapter, but one can understand the surface facts of the story without getting any of them. As Mozart once wrote to his father about his piano concertos, “There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.” But here at the end of 1 Samuel 1, our author demands that even the least learned readers recognize that the name of Saul resounds while the story of Samuel’s birth is being told. Anyone who wants to understand how the Bible is telling the story of Israelite history must grapple with this literary demand.

There’s another question that the story of Hannah raises, though it probably strikes most academic scholars of the Bible less as a question and more as a datum for understanding the prehistory of the book of Samuel. That is the location of the action in 1 Samuel 1, the scene of Elkanah’s annual pilgrimage: “the House of the LORD at Shiloh.” It’s well known that when David decides to build a Temple, the Lord responds indignantly (via Nathan’s dream):

From the day that I brought the people of Israel out of Egypt to this day I have not dwelt in a house, but have moved about in Tent and Tabernacle. (NJPS, 2 Sam 7:6)

Unless the Lord was trying to hide His house at Shiloh from the tax authorities, this is a clear contradiction. Is “the house of the Lord” in 1 Samuel 1 simply a reference that some clumsy later editor neglected to fix? The author of 1 Samuel 1 is anything but clumsy. It would have been easy to continue in the vein of 1 Sam 1:3, where we are told that Elkanah would go up every year “to offer sacrifice to the LORD of Hosts at Shiloh.” No need to mention a house. But our author does so, not once but twice (vv. 7 and 24).

This contradiction—it has only now occurred to me—is not (merely) a discrepancy in stitching together two sources.  It is a literary datum that explains to me why David’s death occurs at the beginning of the book of Kings and not at the end of the book of Samuel. Samuel is a story of transition, perhaps even usurpation. Just as Samuel, the last of the judges, will be replaced by Saul, the man whose name echoes in the story of his birth; just as Saul will be invisible in Israelite history the way he is here in 1 Samuel 1, being replaced by David, the eventual founder of the Israelite dynasty; so too Shiloh will be replaced. And that is exactly what the end of the book of Samuel shows us:

Gad came to David the same day and said to him, “Go and set up an altar to the LORD on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” David went up, following Gad’s instructions, as the LORD had commanded. Araunah looked out and saw the king and his courtiers approaching him. So Araunah went out and bowed low to the king, with his face to the ground. And Araunah asked, “Why has my lord the king come to his servant?” David replied, “To buy the threshing floor from you, that I may build an altar to the LORD and that the plague against the people may be checked.” And Araunah said to David, “Let my lord the king take it and offer up whatever he sees fit. Here are oxen for a burnt offering, and the threshing boards and the gear of the oxen for wood. All this, O king, Araunah gives to Your Majesty. And may the LORD your God,” Araunah added, “respond to you with favor!”  But the king replied to Araunah, “No, I will buy them from you at a price. I cannot sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that have cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver. And David built there an altar to the LORD and sacrificed burnt offerings and offerings of well-being. The LORD responded to the plea for the land, and the plague against Israel was checked. (NJPS, 2 Sam 24:18-25)

And this is not just a temporary location for emergency sacrifice:

  Then Solomon began to build the House of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where [the LORD] had appeared to his father David, at the place which David had designated, at the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. (NJPS, 2 Chr 3:1)

It is the location on which the Jerusalem Temple would be built—the Temple to which (according to Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History) all legitimate Israelite sacrifices must be brought. This is the Davidic Temple, the Temple that would replace Shiloh as David replaced Saul. I’m convinced that the book of Samuel ends with this episode to indicate just that. It is as if the fate of Shiloh is linked to that of Saul in 1 Samuel 1.  Saul will die in 1 Samuel 31, the middle of the book of Samuel, but Shiloh—implicitly—will be made invisible in 2 Samuel 24, the final chapter, just as Saul was in the first chapter. If only Shiloh were spelled with an א as שאול (Saul) is, I’d be absolutely certain.

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.

Gender Discord in the Book of Ruth

November 20, 2013

This time I’m writing in response to an article that just appeared in the latest issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature, the flagship journal of the Society of Biblical Literature, the organization of academic biblical scholars.

The article, by Andrew R. Davis, is called “The Literary Effect of Gender Discord in the Book of Ruth.” Here’s what the author writes in his abstract summarizing the article:

In the book of Ruth there are numerous instances of disagreement in gender between a pronoun and its antecedent. Without discounting the various philological explanations that have been given for this disagreement, this article argues that the gender discord is also a literary device that makes an important contribution to the book’s narrative design and its development of characters. The laconic style of Hebrew narrative usually offers no glimpse of characters’ inner lives, but by recognizing the concentration of discordant forms in Naomi’s speech, we can appreciate how they characterize her grief and her ambivalence toward Ruth. The discord also highlights the theme of gender reversal in the book of Ruth. However the examples of gender discord might be explained grammatically, they also play an integral role in the characterization of Naomi and her relationship with Ruth.

Ordinarily this is the kind of explanation I love: A grammatical difficulty in the text, of the kind usually explained linguistically or simply written off as an error, is shown to be a deliberate choice by an author of literary skill. And if anyone in the Bible has demonstrated that skill, it’s the author of Ruth.

But I can’t accept this one. Here’s why. As Davis explains:

A survey of gender discord in the book of Ruth reveals two striking aspects of its distribution: first, nine of the ten instances of gender discord occur in ch. 1, and, second, the first seven instances are words spoken by Naomi.

If all the occurrences of gender discord were in Naomi’s own speech, it would be possible, even necessary, to explain them as a literary effect. But since two of them — Ruth 1:19 and 1:22 — suddenly appear in the words of the narrator, and the last (long after we have forgotten this issue) only in Ruth 4:11 (in the words of the townspeople and the elders), Davis is forced to make these latter three examples “work” in ad hoc fashion. This is midrash, not something that can be explained as a deliberate choice by a writer.

Moreover, there is an example of “gender discord” that Davis does not mention. In Ruth 2:1 the narrator informs us,

Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a man of substance, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz.

“Kinsman” is מודע (according to the Qere, or reading version; the word is מידע according to the Ketiv or written version). Whichever version of the word we follow, this is clearly masculine. Yet in 3:2, when we read,

Now there is our kinsman Boaz

“kinsman” is מודעתנו, where the ת clearly marks the word as a feminine form. This is Naomi speaking to Ruth; it would certainly not be hard to write another “gender midrash” to explain why she altered the form. But the nature of midrash is that one starts with a preconceived notion and demonstrates how a peculiarity in the text provides an opening for it. It does not work in the larger context; that’s what makes it midrash. Davis’s examples, like this unusual form, fall into this pattern.

There are some examples of a very deliberate gender reversals that do match the overall literary pattern of the book. The most obvious is this one:

Ruth 1:8
  But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Turn back, each of you to her mother’s house.”

Naomi’s two sons have died, and she is returning alone to Bethlehem. Ruth and Orpah have started out to accompany her, but she wants them to go back. In the Bible, the “natural” place for a woman to go when she is widowed is back to her father’s house; Naomi reverses this (one of several things in the book that suggest it was written by a woman).

There’s another, more complicated case of gender reversal in the book that also has a literary purpose. It works this way. Just as Boaz arrives in the field, Ruth is on her way off; the boys who are working as harvesters have been harassing her. (I’ve discussed this in three different articles, none of which are available online; but the third should appear when the Bible Odyssey web site launches next spring. I’ll link to it here when that happens.) Here’s what happens next (in the NJPS translation but with my emphasis):

Ruth 2:8
  Boaz said to Ruth, “Listen to me, daughter. Don’t go to glean in another field. Don’t go elsewhere, but stay here close to my girls. 9 Keep your eyes on the field they are reaping, and follow them. I have ordered the men not to molest you. And when you are thirsty, go to the jars and drink some of [the water] that the men have drawn.”

Boaz uses the word נערותי, “my girls.” When Ruth gets home to Naomi, however, she tells her (in 2:21):

He even told me, “Stay close by my workers [הנערים אשר לי] until all my harvest is finished.”

That’s the masculine form. Naomi — no fool — replies this way in v. 22, using the feminine form again:

It is best, daughter, that you go out with his girls [נערותיו], and not be annoyed in some other field.

And indeed v. 23 tells us:

So she stayed close to the maidservants [נערות] of Boaz, and gleaned until the barley harvest and the wheat harvest were finished.

Naomi’s remark in v. 22 is subtler than the NJPS English translation implies. The Hebrew has her enthusiastically agreeing with Ruth — but changing the gender of the word Ruth uses. Ruth may have used the masculine form casually; in Hebrew it can also imply both sexes. But one of the themes of the book is the many moments when history could have taken a different turn and prevented King David (Ruth’s great-grandson) from being born. In this case, we are wondering whether working all summer with the same group of guys might lead Ruth to a relationship with one of them instead of with Boaz. Naomi sets things straight right away, and both Ruth and the narrative follow the path she has laid out.

These are the kinds of gender reversal one finds in the book of Ruth. They fit the overall literary patterning of the book. I read the book of Ruth with my 2nd-year students at Penn every year, and often one of them thinks s/he has found “the pattern” that explains the grammatical gender discrepancies. But then another one shows up and the pattern is broken. I have to think that Andrew Davis, though his article is a worthy effort, hasn’t found it either.

The Koren Edition (A Biblicist Reads the Talmud)

December 31, 2012

Today, for a change, “the Bible Guy” becomes a Talmud guy.

This is my first post in what may become an occasional series, “A Biblicist Reads the Talmud.”

Last August I completed the 12th cycle of the page-a-day “Daf Yomi” program for learning Talmud. (I hope to write more — much more — about this elsewhere.) I resolved that I’d continue at a much slower pace. As of today I’m about 140 pages behind the page-a-day pace; I’m still working through the page they were on last August 14th.

For my first go-round, though I read every word of the Mishnah and Gemara in Hebrew and Aramaic, I relied heavily on the Artscroll edition. It’s excellent as a pony, but takes an ultra-Orthodox perspective on things.

The Koren edition is an English reworking of the highly-regarded Modern Hebrew “Steinsaltz” edition. It is aimed at a Modern Orthodox, rather than ultra-Orthodox, market, though when I heard R. Steinsaltz speak at Penn a few years ago it seemed to me that he too falls into the latter category rather than the former. In today’s post, I’m going to point out some problems demonstrating that this edition needs a careful going-over by an editor who can question R. Steinsaltz. I’m leaving aside some infelicitous English, which can be corrected rather easily in the next printing if Koren will take the trouble to do so.

My examples are coming from the page I’m currently on, vol. 1, p. 94 (a section of Ber.13b).

The Hebrew word perakdan (פרקדן) is translated as “one who is lying on his back.” This, I discovered on turning back to 13b in the Vilna-edition section at the other end of the book, follows the commentary of Rashi. But the language note on p. 94, to which readers are pointed by a superscript “L” in the English translation, says that it can mean “either lying on one’s back, or on one’s stomach.”

The note adds an explanation “in addition to Rashi’s,” which (however) the English reader is never given. (The “additional” explanation is that this position “may lead to inappropriate sexual thoughts”; Rashi says merely that if someone in this position has an erection while sleeping, it would be publicly visible and he would be embarrassed.)

In addition to the discrepancy between the note and the translation, what I want from a language note is to tell me why the unusual word means what it does. What’s the origin of this word? It seems to have 4 significant consonants, not the normal three. A linguistic note in a commentary on a biblical book would try to explain the form and derivation of the word, but that’s not part of this commentary.

Secondly, there’s a verb גנא (or perhaps גני) in this passage which seems to be used here in two different meanings: (1) to sleep; (2) to lie on one’s side. This ambiguity seems to be integral to the text rather than an artifact of the translation, but there’s no discussion of it. The Talmud translation I’m looking for would help me through this difficulty in the text.

I’ve been told that some years back the Jewish Publication Society received a suggestion to issue a modern English commentary on the Talmud that would be comparable to their excellent Bible commentary series (so far encompassing only the Torah, the Megillot, and Jonah). The reply was that there was no (non-Orthodox) market for such a thing.

Call me a dreamer, but I am ready for one — from JPS or anyone else — and I think others will join me. The Artscroll Talmud paved the way for the Koren edition; now the Koren edition is paving the way for a third version, even if this is merely an updated second edition of itself. One way or another, we moderns are going to bring the Talmud into our orbit.

A baseball version of Psalm 23

July 24, 2011

“The Summer Psalm” by Isaac Moreson

The Lord is my backstop,
I shall not get behind the hitters.

He keeps them grounding out to the infield,
He walks me to the dugout cooler.

He throws a new ball back,
He lifts low pitches up to the strike zone.

Yes, even when the bases are loaded,
I don’t worry about runs,
For he’ll block the plate.
His mitt and his pads reassure me.

He has the book on power hitters.
He showers me with champagne at the World Series.

Surely bonuses and endorsements will follow my career,
And I will dwell in the Hall of Fame forever.

[Thanks to Avi Winokur of Society Hill Synagogue in Philadelphia.]

What Did Hannah Ask For?

June 23, 2011

The Journal of Biblical Literature, which published my note about the phrase זרע אנשים (zera anashim; see my earlier post here) in 1 Sam 1:11, has now published an even shorter note responding to it — by none other than Shalom Paul of the Hebrew University. After Mayer Gruber, now of Ben-Gurion University, he is probably the person second-most responsible for my becoming a scholar and teacher of Bible.

Paul’s note, which sounds critical of my view, in fact confirms it. He emphasizes that the phrase in question is not at all “absurd” (as I characterized it) but is found in Akkadian, Hebrew, and Aramaic with the meaning “human offspring.”

I did not, of course, mean that the phrase was linguistically absurd, but that it was absurd for Hannah to ask for a human child. (As opposed to what, Rosemary’s baby?) The bottom line is that the phrase does not mean “a male child,” as the commentators like to take it, and therefore requires explanation.

It is a great thrill for me to engage in scholarly exchange with the remarkable scholars whose student I once was. And I am glad to remind the scholarly world that — despite the fact that my main focus for the last decade has been my Commentators’ Bible series — I am still primarily a scholar of Bible at heart.

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.)

Zera Anashim

September 6, 2010

For those who have always wondered what this strange phrase in 1 Sam 1:11 means, I have just uploaded my new article in JBL that solves the mystery (if you accept my explanation).

You’ll find it on my new page at

I intend to begin posting some entries soon on the topic of Standard Biblical Hebrew vs. Late Biblical Hebrew.

1,000 Years of Biblical Literature (pt. 3): … to Daniel

July 16, 2010

I’ve said that the Bible is an anthology of literature that was written over the course of 1,000 years—and that (paradoxically) it’s the middle part of that literature that we understand the best, not the latest part. Last time, I discussed what’s believed to be the earliest text in the Bible, Judges 5; this time, we’ll turn to the Book of Daniel, which contains the latest texts in the Bible.

It’s not surprising that a text more than 3,000 years old should have some difficulties. But by the time of the book of Daniel, “history” is in full swing. Alexander the Great has come and gone, as have the great playwrights and philosophers of ancient Greece. “Rome” is getting ready to happen. Much of the life of the Near East is happening in cities now, and it is connected with the wider world, commercially and intellectually, in a way that we would recognize. So what’s the difficulty in understanding this book?

The answer is provided here by Lawrence Wills, courtesy of the Jewish Study Bible:

Chs 7–12 are made up of four apocalyptic visions, told in the first person, that are revelations of the events that lead to the cataclysmic end and transformation of history.… Chs 7-12 are most likely written compositions, datable to the last year of the Maccabean revolt (164 BCE).

To find a text in the Bible dated to a particular year—rather than to a century or even a “period”—is absolutely amazing. In fact, it’s the obscurity of the book of Daniel that gives us the date. Wills explains:

Because of the detailed nature of apocalyptic timetables, the dating of at least the last chs of Daniel can be established precisely. Scholars consider the predictions in this book, as in other apocalypses, to be prophecies after the fact, purportedly written down centuries earlier and kept secret in order to give credence to other predictions about the end of history. The recounting of history, then, though symbolic, can be matched quite easily with the history of the ancient Near East in the Greek period. The predictions are detailed and accurate until the end of the Maccabean revolt in 164. At that point, however, they veer dramatically from what we know of the actions of the Seleucid king (see annotations to ch 11), and scholars assume that the author lived and wrote at the precise time when the predictions become inaccurate.

See Dan 11:36-45, where things begin to go out of kilter. The apocalyptic vision is no longer constrained by reality, and it begins to predict this writer’s personal vision of the “end-time.” The New Testament book of Revelation follows a similar path and (I believe) is to some extent based on Daniel.

The Daniel character of the first 6 chapters of the book lives during the Babylonian exile, and his name may have been taken from that of a much earlier, pre-Israelite hero (see Ezekiel 14). For the Hebrew Bible, history more or less ends with the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem; I’ll have more to say about this in a future post. So these last chapters of the book of Daniel must first recount later history in symbolic rather than straightforward fashion and eventually turn to sheer fantasy. So it is not the beginning or the end of the Bible that is the most “normal” and easiest for us to cope with. It’s the big chunk of Bible written smack dab in the middle of the biblical period—the books from Genesis to Kings.

1,000 Years of Biblical Literature (pt. 2): From Deborah …

July 13, 2010

In my last post, I discussed some of the implications of the Bible’s having been written over the course of 1,000 years. Now, let’s look at the bookends of that millennium—Deborah and Daniel.

The way we ordinarily read—in fact, the chronological way in which we experience life—predisposes us to assume that Judges 4 tells us the story of Deborah’s victory and Judges 5, following it, is a song celebrating the outcome of the story we’ve just read. But the language of the two chapters paints a different picture.

Judges 4 is written in Standard Biblical Hebrew, the language in which most of the material in the books of Genesis through Kings is written—the language of the kingdom of Judah. (I’ll have much more on the varieties of Biblical Hebrew in a later post.) What’s more, the chapter includes material from the period when the Book of Judges itself was put together, added by the editor of what scholars call the Deuteronomistic History—the books of Joshua through Kings. (I’ll go into more detail about this in future Beginner’s Guides to Judges and to the Deuteronomistic History.)

Chapter 5, by contrast, is not in Standard Biblical Hebrew at all, and not even in prose, but in poetry. In fact, it is one of the three passages that traditional Hebrew Bibles set in poetic lines rather than prosaic paragraphs. (Eventually—patience!—I’ll have a Beginner’s Guide to Biblical Poetry, and will link to it from here. Ideally that will pave the way for a whole series of posts on poems from the Bible. My ultimate goal is to publish a book one day teaching biblical poetry.)

You’ll note, if you look carefully, that the fit between Judges 4 and Judges 5 is loose rather than snug. In Judges 5, Deborah and Barak are a team (see vv. 1, 12, and 15); in Judges 4, Deborah must shame Barak into fighting (see vv. 8-9). In Judges 5, Sisera is standing when Jael kills him (see v. 27); in Judges 4, he is sleeping (see v. 21). The scene with Sisera’s mother (Jud 5:28-30) and the intra-Israelite squabbling (Jud 5:15-17) are missing from Judges 4.

But the chapter’s fit with the overall story of the Israelites is also less than perfect. The most glaring discrepancy is the tribe of Machir. We recognize the names of the other tribes—they are named after Jacob’s sons, just as we expect. But Ephraim’s co-tribe is not Manasseh, but Machir. He is the son of Manasseh according to Gen 50:23 and elsewhere. The 12 tribes will eventually settle down into the lineup that’s familiar to us—all right, the two lineups familiar to us, with either Joseph and Levi or Ephraim and Manasseh; more on this in a future post—but at this early stage it is Machir who is mentioned with the others, not Manasseh.

In short, Judges 5 is likely to be the earliest Israelite text we have. At a rough guess, let’s date it to the early 12th century BCE. It most likely survived (despite its difficulties) first, through its memorability; second, because it retained its meaning for Deborah’s people (the tribe of Ephraim); and third, because Judges 4 “explained” it in a way that integrated it into the “big picture” story of the Israelites. Yet it remains a little island of mystery within that story.

In my next post, I’ll look at the mystery at the far (chronological) end of our Bible anthology—the Book of Daniel.