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Inner-Biblical Exegesis in the Holiness Code

April 27, 2015

All I originally intended to do was to tell my podcast listeners about “bullimong” — a unique English word that might be used to translate the Hebrew word kilayim.  But things got a little bit out of hand.  Let me explain.

Biblical scholars have long identified one of the priestly voices in the book of Leviticus as “the Holiness Code” — H, for short.  It’s a topic that well deserves its own “Beginners’ Guide” post, but I’m mentioning it now because it’s timely.  This week Jews on the Diaspora calendar are reading Leviticus 16-20, which includes the beginning of the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26).

It’s no coincidence that the second of the two parshiyot that are being read this week is called Kedoshim (“holy ones”).  That is indeed the theme of the Holiness Code and the source of its name:

קדושים תהיו כי קדוש אני י-הוה אלהיכם

“Be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy”

(Lev 19:2)

As I explain on this week’s episode of my “Torah Talk” podcast (posted Tuesdays at 1 PM Eastern Time), Christian scholars used to think (as perhaps some still do) that H was the earlier, more spiritual priestly voice, eventually supplanted by the technical, anti-spiritual voice that provides the instructions about how to offer sacrifice and maintain or restore ritual purity.

Jewish scholars, on the other hand, mostly subscribe to the view of Israel Knohl in his landmark book The Sanctuary of Silence.  Knohl demonstrated that what he calls “the Holiness School” was the creator of the Torah as a whole.

One of the things that this means is that, even though Leviticus comes before Deuteronomy in a Torah scroll or in our book-form Bibles, H had already read it.  I am convinced that H was a priestly writer who absorbed the Deuteronomic perspective and wanted to integrate it into his own priestly world view.  (Those who are willing to put up with a bit of technical language can read some more about this in the printed version of my dissertation, Theologies of the Mind in Biblical Israel.)

This week’s parashah presents a fascinating example of how this may have worked.  In fact, it is an example of what scholars call “inner-biblical exegesis.” One biblical writer reads a text which is also found in the Bible as we have it today and responds to it.  Sometimes the new writer understands the original text in a way different from the way it was originally meant; sometimes the change is a deliberate revision of the original meaning.  The book that convinced biblical scholars about this is Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel.  (Warning:  It’s a difficult read.  You will find some examples of inner-biblical exegesis explained more clearly in my book The Bible’s Many Voices; if you’re patient enough, I’ll get to them eventually in the book’s companion podcast.)

The verse I want to look at is Lev 19:19:

Observe My laws!

Your cattle you shall not breed in mixed pairs;

your field you shall not sow with mixed pairs of seed;

and mixed pairs of fabric — shaatnez — shall not be put on you.

The word I’m translating as “mixed pairs” in each of these phrases is כלאים (kilayim), a word with a dual ending (like פעמיים, “twice,” or מאתיים, “two hundred”).  It refers to “two of” something, and our verse describes three examples of things that are not supposed to be paired.  Why that’s true is a topic for a different occasion.

One might think that there would not be a word for this concept in any language other than the Hebrew where it is a technical term.  Remarkably, William Germano (who was not thinking at all about Leviticus) presented an English word for exactly this concept.  I read about it a year or so ago in a “Lingua Franca” column he wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Poking around in Perry Miller’s classic anthology, The American Puritans, one might come upon many a tasty morsel of linguistic innovation.

To take just one example, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony one Nathaniel Ward (1578-1652), minister of Ipswich, turned to the  rather un-Puritanical subject of women’s fashions. When he did so he found new language in a new land.

In a work called The Simple Cobbler of Agawam  (Agawam was the indigenous name for Ipswich), Ward writes: “If any man mislikes a bullimong drassock more than I, let him take her for his labor,” for he only feels contempt when he hears “a nugiperous gentledame inquire what dress the Queen is in this week, what the nudiustertian fashion of the court” may be. This means something like “I can’t have much respect for a woman who decks herself  out in a confused, eye-popping outfit that panders to Court tastes.”

Bullimong, drassock, nugiperous, and nudiustertian are words unaccountably out of fashion today. The Oxford English Dictionary gives us as much help as it can with these terms; Mr Ward seems to be the inventor, or perhaps the perpetrator, of some of them.

bullimong: a mixture of grains sown together (as oats, pease, and vetches) for feeding cattle. Think of those little packets of mixed garden flower seeds. Now think that you’re feeding livestock.

If you check the Oxford English Dictionary, you’ll see that Mr. Ward did not invent “bullimong” at all.  The earliest usage of it comes from 1313.  As for the etymology of the word, the OED describes it as “of obscure composition.”  (I’ll say.)  It was used, too:  See vol. 10 of “The East Anglian.”

Nathaniel Ward, however, unlike William Germano, was indeed thinking of Leviticus, and (in fact) of our verse, Lev 19:19.  He uses bullimong not in its original meaning as a mixture of seeds, but metaphorically, for a woman, and apparently based on what she wears.  That is, he has transferred “bullimong” from its literal meaning — kilayim of seeds — to a figurative one: kilayim of clothing.

And this is exactly what H itself did with the original Hebrew word.  We can see this by looking at Deut 22:9-11, the only other place in the entire Bible where the word kilayim is found — and, by no coincidence, also the only other place in the Bible where the word sha’atnez is found:

9  You shall not plant your vineyard kilayim, lest you “sanctify” the growth of the seed you sow and the produce of the vineyard.

10  You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together.

11  You shall not wear sha’atnez (wool and linen combined).

The word I translated as “sanctify” in v. 9 is a difficult one; see the commentators.  Everett Fox, in his unique Torah translation, renders the phrase as “lest you forfeit-as-holy the full-yield from the seed that you sow.”  That’s worthy of a post as well, but again it is one for a different occasion.

Deuteronomy has used the word kilayim only once, and apparently in the sense of “bullimong”: planting two kinds of seed together.  But H has decided that what Deuteronomy calls sha’atnez — our American “linsey-woolsey” — is also a case of kilayim, and he gives it that name.

There’s a third instance of kilayim in our Leviticus verse, and it matches Deut 22:10, the verse in between the two that we’ve talked about so far.  Both are about illicit combinations of two animals, and again H has decided that this too deserves the name of kilayim, a “mixed pair.”  But he has switched vv. 9 and 10 of Deuteronomy 22 around in conformity with Seidel’s law, which says that biblical writers marked quotation by exactly this kind of switching.  (Read more about it in n. 51 here.)

Since this is not the kind of common phrase (like “silver and gold”) where we could identify the original and the copy, Seidel’s law does not tell us which of these writers was reading the other.  But now, (at last!) we can tell that this is a case of H reading D and not vice versa.  The clue is these two kinds of mixtures, unlike those in vv. 9 and 11 of Deuteronomy, are not the same.

It’s clear that Lev 19:19 and Deut 22:9-11 fit together somehow.  But Deuteronomy prohibits plowing with an ox and an ass together; H prohibits breeding them (or any other mixed pair of animals) together.  What is the relationship between these two verses?

Nahmanides, the 13th-century Spanish-Jewish biblical commentator, explains (in his comment to Lev 19:19):

You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind. The prohibition of plowing “with an ox and an ass together” (Deut. 22:10) is based on the same logic, since farmers keep their team together in the barn and might end up letting them mate.

He says essentially the same thing in his comment to Deut 22:10:

You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together. Or any other two species of animals. What makes this an elaboration of “You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind” (Lev. 19:19) is that farmers bring their team into a single barn and breed them together.

Nahmanides, of course, was sure that Deuteronomy was an elaboration of Leviticus.  But whether or not you find Nahmanides’ explanation convincing, one thing he does not explain is why Deuteronomy would have specified these two particular animals.  From my perspective, the fact that H uses kilayim of Deuteronomy (originally just a case of “bullimong”)  for two other comparable situations in itself shows us that it is H who has read D.  But that demands that an explanation for why H changed the Deuteronomic  law about plowing to one about  breeding.

There is an explanation, and one that (in my view) absolutely clinches the question of who read whom.  Is there ever a case anywhere else in the Bible where “plowing” and “mating” are connected?  Yes!

It is in the story of Samson.  He is interested in a woman from the Philistine town of Timnah (not Delilah, who will show up only in Judges 16, but an earlier girlfriend), and on his way there he kills a lion.  Passing by the carcass later, he finds a beehive in it, full of honey.  At the wedding festivities, he propounds a riddle (translations of this chapter are taken from NJPS):

Out of the eater came something to eat,

Out of the strong came something sweet.

(Jud 14:14)

Only Samson could possibly know the answer to this.  It is something that actually happened to him.  But at the end of the wedding week, the Philistines tell him the answer.  He responds this way:

Had you not plowed with my heifer,

You would not have guessed my riddle!

(Jud 14:18)

He thinks one of them  has slept with his wife, who had indeed, under pressure from her townsmen, persuaded him to tell her the answer.  There’s no other possible way anyone could have known it.

The author of the Holiness Code has read Deut 22:10, “You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together,” and decided two things:

1)  This is another example of kilayim.

2)  I can’t let this euphemism mislead people — I must express what Deuteronomy means in plain Hebrew, so no one is confused.  “Plowing” really means “breeding.”  The euphemism made Deuteronomy choose two plow animals, but of course they really meant any two different species.

I don’t see a better way to explain the obvious relationship between these two Torah passages.  But this explanation makes sense.  From my perspective, it is yet one more piece of evidence that H was a priestly writer who was determined to incorporate a Deuteronomic perspective into the priestly point of view.





thanks …

August 21, 2014

… to R. David Krishef for catching the problem with this week’s handout — which has now been fixed.


May I add:  If you like the podcast, please say something nice in the iTunes store, “like” the Torah Talk Facebook page, and/or share the podcast with others.  It is not about my ego but about the hope of once again being able to earn a living.  Thanks for that, too.

The Ten Commandments

April 20, 2014

The national edition of Salt Lake City’s Deseret News has a new series on the Ten Commandments. So I thought it would be a good time to post the section on the Ten Commandments (lightly edited for this post) from my new book, The Bible’s Many Voices, for those who’d like to explore the subject further.

Note that the commandments are divided into ten in different ways by Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. For this reason, I refer in what follows to “the Sabbath commandment,” not to the “third” or “fourth” or “fifth” commandment.

The Ten Commandments

According to the storyline of the Pentateuch God only spoke the Ten Commandments once, in Exodus 20. But the book of Deuteronomy, which is essentially presented as a long farewell speech by Moses, gives him the opportunity to recap the entire story of the exodus and the wilderness wanderings. In the course of this recap, he retells the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments and, in Deuteronomy 5, recites them again. In Moses’ repetition of the commandments, they are (naturally) essentially the same as in the Exodus 20 version, but not exactly so. The most obvious difference, and the most telling one, comes in the commandment about the Sabbath:

Exodus 20

8 Remember the Sabbath day, to sanctify it.

9 Six days shall you labor and do all of your work.

10 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to YHWH your God. [YHWH represents the four Hebrew letters that spell God’s name, usually “translated” into English as “the Lord.”] You shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your animal, or the stranger who lives in your town.

11 For in six days YHWH made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day. Therefore YHWH blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.

And in the repetition:

Deuteronomy 5

12 Keep the Sabbath day, to sanctify it, as YHWH your God commanded you.

13 Six days shall you labor and do all of your work.

14 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to YHWH your God. You shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your ox, your ass, or any of your animals, or the stranger who lives in your town, so that your slaves may rest as you do.

15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that YHWH your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore YHWH commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

There are a few minor differences here in the Deuteronomy version, of the kind that are found in the other commandments as well. For example, the words “As YHWH your God commanded you” are added after the very first sentence, and a couple of specific animals are added to the general rule that even animals should not be forced to work on the Sabbath. The more telling differences are a tiny but crucial one right at the beginning, a small addition in the middle, and then the large difference at the end. Let’s take the differences in order.

The first difference between the two versions of the commandment is that in Exodus the Israelites are instructed to “remember” the Sabbath day, while in Deuteronomy they are instructed to “keep” it. The change is made because the word “remember” serves a special purpose in Deuteronomy. It is always used only with historical events. In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are frequently told to remember what happened to them, but they are never told to remember what God has told them. They “remember” events, but “keep” God’s commandments. Apparently the distinction was made in order to distinguish two different kinds of knowledge, things that were seen and those that were heard. Most of the Bible is not interested in this distinction, which depends upon a fairly sophisticated understanding of the human mind, but Deuteronomy is. Hence “remember” of the Exodus text was changed in the repetition to match Deuteronomic psychological terminology.

The second quite significant change is the addition to the long list of those who must be permitted to rest on the Sabbath of a clause emphasizing that, on this day, rest is not just for the masters but for the slaves as well. Since the Exodus version of the commandment already makes this entirely clear, the addition seems to serve as a kind of rhetorical emphasis, insisting that the commandment involves not just a day of rest, but a day when all people revert to their original equal status. Moreover, the emphasis that slaves must rest provides the justification for the rest of the verse, the Deuteronomic explanation of why the Israelites must observe the Sabbath.

The Exodus version of the Ten Commandments indicates that the special status of the seventh day of the week comes from the blessing God granted it when He finished the work of creation:

Gen. 2:3 God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for on it He sabbathed from all His work that God created by making.

I have deliberately translated the verb “rested” here as “sabbathed” in accordance with its sound and its etymology, to show how the link with the Sabbath is all but explicit in this verse.

Though the explanation that the Israelites must observe the Sabbath because God blessed that day does not say so explicitly, it also implies something more: that observance of the Sabbath is an aspect of what theologians call imitatio Dei, “imitation of God.” By imitating divine behavior, the human beings who (according to Genesis 1) were created in God’s image can conform more closely to the divine model. In this case, since the process of creation involved not merely six days of labor but a seventh day of rest, they, like God, must work for six days but then rest on the seventh. Moreover, it would seem that according to this explanation the world was actually constructed in such a way that resting on the seventh day keeps one “in tune with the universe.”

The Deuteronomic explanation is quite different. As we’ve seen, Deuteronomy adds an extra clause to the commandment, emphasizing that slaves rest equally with their masters, which makes the subsequent explanation of the commandment much more logical in context. The subsidiary “commandment” (not counted as one of the Ten) to “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” amounts almost literally to the insistence that each individual Israelite have a social conscience. This explanation presents the Sabbath commandment as inextricably tied up with the Israelites’ experience in Egypt. Implicitly, God’s redeeming them from slavery provides the justification for His issuance of commands to them, as their new Master. Moreover, they are instructed to renew this awareness of their own experience as slaves every seven days. Seen in the perspective of Exodus 20, the Sabbath is an inherently cosmic phenomenon. In Deuteronomy 5, it is very much a social and historical one — a worldly one.

Let’s continue our tour by looking at one more set of “ten commandments.” This one is not a repetition of the commandments that were proclaimed in Exodus 20, as Deuteronomy 5 was, but a different sets of commandments that, nonetheless, seems to have a special status. It is one version of what is called “the ritual Decalogue.” (There is a second we will not get to today.) “Decalogue” comes from the Greek for “ten words,” which is how this text is described in the Bible.

The reason it makes sense to think of this set of commandments as a second kind of Decalogue is the way it is woven into the story. Everyone is familiar with the image, made famous in art and so much a part of how we think of the Bible that it is used in movies and cartoons, of Moses coming down the mountains with two stone tablets that have the Ten Commandments engraved on them. But not everyone remembers that, when Moses finally did come down the mountain, he saw the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf, lost his temper, and broke the stone tablets. (See Exod. 32:19.) Moses then goes back up the mountain and (after forty days) returns with a second set of tablets. In fact, it is here that they are first identified as the “Ten” Commandments; in Exodus 20, the number is not mentioned. Yet the commandments in Exodus 34, presented (like the earlier ones) as the basis of God’s covenant with Israel, are quite different:

Exodus 34

17 You shall not make molten gods for yourself.

18 You shall keep the Festival of Unleavened Bread. For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you on the occasion of the month of Abib; for in Abib you went forth from Egypt.

19 Everything that first breaches the womb is Mine, among all of your animals that bear a male, whether ox or sheep. 20 But an ass that first breaches the womb you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. Every first-born of your sons you shall redeem. No one shall appear before Me empty-handed.

21 Six days shall you labor, and on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing-time and harvest-time, you shall rest.

22 You shall make for yourself a Festival of Weeks, the first-fruits of the wheat harvest , and a Festival of Ingathering at the turn of the year.

23 Three times a year, every one of your males shall appear before the Lord YHWH, God of Israel. 24 When I dispossess nations before you and expand your territory, no one will covet your land when you go up to appear before YHWH your God three times a year.

25 You shall not slaughter My sacrificial blood with anything leavened, nor shall the sacrifice of the Festival of Passover remain overnight until morning.

26 You shall bring the best of the first-fruits of your soil to the House of YHWH your God.

You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

27 YHWH said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words do I make a covenant with you, and with Israel.” 28 He was there with YHWH forty days and forty nights. He ate no food and drank no water. He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Words.

It is after coming down the mountain with this set of tablets that Moses’s face acquires the radiance that is associated with God’s Presence; that story is therefore assumed to be part of the Priestly source. Nevertheless, scholars have long considered the preceding passage, the one we have just seen, to be the otherwise missing J version of the Ten Commandments, woven into the story at this point. (It is difficult to figure out how to divide them into ten, suggesting that even the identification as a Decalogue is not original.) But because of the content of the section, they often note that this version must have a “cultic” origin. In biblical scholarship, “cult” is not a pejorative word; it simply refers to the technical aspects of any form of worship — how the rituals of that religion are performed. The technical aspects of the worship of YHWH, of course, were in the hands of the priests. Since our object here is not to categorize texts according to the Documentary Hypothesis but simply to recognize the different biblical voices, we can safely say that this version of the Ten Commandments is priestly, albeit with a lower-case “p.”

Looking back at what is covered in this set of commandments, it is easy to see why scholars have given it the “ritual” label. By contrast with the famous Decalogue of Exodus 20, this one has no rules against murder, adultery, theft, testifying falsely, or covetousness, and no injunction to honor one’s father and mother. Certainly the voice that is speaking here was not in favor of murder and so forth. Their absence from the Decalogue should not mislead us into thinking that such horrendous crimes were of no consequence for this author. But we must assume that such things were taken for granted as the basis of any society. The Ritual Decalogue says that the special basis of the covenant between God and the Israelites involves their obligations to Him — to offer sacrifices to Him according to certain particular rules and at certain particular times and, most importantly, to come on pilgrimage to His Temple three times a year with offerings of the bounty of the land to which He was bringing them.

It is also easy to see why this Decalogue makes sense from a priestly point of view. From a strictly practical perspective, the offerings brought to the Temple provided the priests their subsistence. Reading more generously, it makes sense that the priests would see the obligations of the Israelites toward God — for which they were ultimately responsible — as the essential basis of society. Neglect of these obligations would, presumably, place the Israelites as a whole, not just the priests, at risk. If the purpose of a decalogue was to distill the essence of law, the constitutional core (so to speak) that defined this particular culture, it makes sense that a version of this in a priestly voice would be of a ritual nature.

Scholars gave this group of laws the name Ritual Decalogue at a time when “ritual” was something of a pejorative word. Ritual was considered to consist of a series of formal actions which could be carried out by someone who was actually thinking of evil or, perhaps worse, of nothing at all. The realm of ritual behavior, in this sense, was thought of as the enemy of what was “spiritual,” an attitude of love and awe towards God. But to think of the Ritual Decalogue like this is to hear the priestly voice in a distorted way. We would do better to take a hint from the contrast between the two versions of the Sabbath commandment in the Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 decalogues, one linking Sabbath observance to divine concerns and one to human concerns. The P decalogue of Exodus 34 shows us that the priestly writers gave pride of place to the Israelites’ obligations toward God. A later version of the priestly voice, the Holiness Code, would integrate both ritual and social concerns within the Israelites’ religious obligations.

[Copyright 2014 by Michael Carasik]

Read a sample from The Bible’s Many Voices at this link.

Convergence and Divergence in Pentateuchal Theory

December 5, 2013

The Monday before Thanksgiving in Baltimore, at the Society for Biblical Literature’s annual conference, the rest of us had a great opportunity to listen in on a scholarly colloquium that went on for most of the 2012-2013 academic year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It was a group of scholars — or, rather, two groups — that spent the year discussing “Convergence and Divergence in Pentateuchal Theory.” To put it on a more basic level, it was a gathering of “documentarians” (those who believe the Pentateuch was assembled from the earlier documents long ago labeled J, E, D, and P) and “non-documentarians” (those who believe the process of creating the Pentateuch was more complicated and its predecessor texts were more widely varied).

If “non-documentarians” strikes you as an awkward label, most of the participants in the group would agree with you. But that is one of the few things they would agree on. (There are a couple of others; see Konrad Schmid’s remarks.) With Bernard Levinson of the University of Minnesota presiding, the group presented their differences to a large audience. Here is what I heard:

Baruch Schwartz, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Schwartz was the “captain” of the documentarians in this presentation. He described the challenges faced by the Documentary Hypothesis these days and tried to lay out the differences between those who follow his approach and those who contest it.

The challenges:

(1) Some who disagree with the Documentary Hypothesis are arguing with Wellhausen rather than current scholarship.

(2) Some find current scholars too simplistic.

(3) Some rally to false claims: e.g. that the covenant of H [the Holiness Code, Leviticus 17-26] actually belongs to the nonpriestly materials.

(4) Some opponents hold to positions that have been refuted; see Biblica a year ago. (More on this in Schmid’s remarks.)

And the scholarly distinctions between the documentarians and their opponents:

(1) Documentarians are not following an approach but trying to solve a problem. Those who disagree with them say that there must have been a complex process no matter what — that is, they start from an ideological perspective.

(2) Opponents of the documentary approach find refashioning and reshaping to be essential to the creation of the Pentateuch; documentarians distinguish this from compilation.

(3) The opponents claim that the Pentateuch began with original textual kernels that must have once existed. Documentarians, by contrast, think the original impulse for the writing of each of the documents was to provide Israel’s laws along with an account of how they came about. The non-documentarians think that the primary literary activity was at the level of the individual tale (Bible stories) and that the redactors operated at this same level.

Konrad Schmid, University of Zurich
– Schmid led the opponents of the documentarians in the morning’s session. He introduced his remarks by recalling the classical saying made famous in the modern age by Isaiah Berlin, “The fox knows many [small] things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” If I understood him correctly, he took Schwartz to be calling himself a hedgehog and Schmid a fox, to which he responded that both sides had aspects of the fox as well as of the hedgehog. He also responded to Schwartz’s point #4 by noting that the articles by himself and Joel Baden in Biblica last year represented an exchange of views, not a refutation of his view by another. More importantly, he began by focusing on the convergences of the two groups rather than their divergences.

These are the five things that (according to Schmid) both groups agree on:

(1) The Pentateuch is pre-Hellenistic and dates (as a complete work) from the 1st-millenium BCE.

(2) It is a composite work.

(3) There is general agreement that the writing down of oral texts, assembly of written documents, and redaction all played some role in its composition.

(4) Everyone essentially believes in the “documents” posited by Wellhausen; we should give up using such terms as “supplementarians” and “fragmentarians.”

(5) We all agree on P [the priestly document] as independent and primary.

But, said Schmid, there are seven aspects need more attention:

(1) What is the value of our historical reconstruction?

(2) How complete can a literary explanation of the Pentateuch be?

(3) How biased are we in our assignment of texts by our approaches? Both groups have accused each other of circular reasoning. [I can recall a presentation at an earlier conference when Schwartz said one approach used “special pleading” to bridge a logical gap in its explanation; but a few minutes later he used what I took to be some special pleading of his own.] Again (said Schmid), we need more courage to leave blank spots and to indicate when things are clear and less clear.

(4) Do we apply the same level of scrutiny to diachronic and synchronic levels? [The “diachronic level” is the creation of each of the earlier texts that were assembled into the Pentateuch; the synchronic level refers to the compilation of the Pentateuch as a unified whole from those earlier texts.]

(5) What is the significance of ideological/theological perspectives [in the text] for scholarship?

(6) How exceptional is the literary situation in the Pentateuch? Do the sources extend to other parts of the Bible?

(7) There is no way around a thorough discussion of dating; we need considerably more interaction with linguists.

Joel Baden, Yale
– Baden is a documentarian, author of the book J, E, and the Redaction of the Pentateuch. His task at the session was to discuss the source analysis of Genesis 12. He said this:

• Genesis 12 is easily divided, as all agree:

– vv. 10-20 are a wife-sister episode

– vv. 6-9 are Abraham’s itinerary

– vv. 4b-5 are the notice of Abraham’s departure from Haran

– vv. 1-4a the promise and fulfillment of the command
[“a” and “b” mean “the first half of the verse” and “the second half of the verse”]

• Everyone agrees that only 4b-5 are P. After that:

(1) everything but 4b-5 could be consistent

(2) if you assume the wife-sister stories are related or that the descent to Egypt foreshadows the exodus, then this episode was added and the beginning of Genesis 13 was inserted redactionally.

(3) if the patriarchal stories were not originally related, or all promise texts must belong together, then 1-4a separates out.

(4) [He made a 4th point that I didn’t get.]

His conclusion: A myriad of different understandings are logical, based on the presuppositions of the interpreter. It is the presuppositions, not the analysis, that must be evaluated. We must say not just what we think but why we think it.

Shimon Gesundheit, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
I don’t know Gesundheit or his work; by the logic of this session’s lineup, he must be a “non-documentarian.” His overview of Exodus 12 followed a very different path from that of Baden for Genesis 12. He pointed out that פסח in Exod 12 is not “pass over” but “protect” and then went on to discuss vv. 24-25, which clearly refer to home-based sacrifice in perpetuity, despite the fact that elsewhere in the Pentateuch sacrifices are restricted to the single “place that the Lord will choose.” Gesundheit noted a number of sources from the 2nd Temple period and later that portray “official” sources as having no objection to animal sacrifice outside Jerusalem: Elephantine Papyrus A4.1, m. Men. 13:10 (referring to the Temple of Onias), and b. Meg. 10a (also accepting sacrifice in the Temple of Onias). He concluded by saying that the powers that be in those days were less dogmatic than biblical scholars today.

Benjamin Sommer, Jewish Theological Seminary
Sommer, the first respondent to the panel, has been a friend of mine since we met as grad students at Brandeis in 1987. He underscored that opposition to the Documentary Hypothesis does not either return the situation to a pre-modern view or amount to abandoning the attempt to explain the text historically: “We must not let fundamentalists or postmodernists think they can be right.… we must discuss why this debate matters.”

Jan Gertz, Ruprecht-Karls-Universitat Heidelberg
I don’t know Gertz or his work, but he struck a tone of sweet reasonableness. Even Wellhausen, he said, agreed to “supplementing” the documents. I very much agree with his remark (echoing the 4th of Schmid’s 7 points) that the compiler must have had a unifying idea just as the authors of the sources did. He concluded by saying that at some point one of the two following responses will be called for — either: “Well done! Now let’s talk about the composition of the other books” or “Well done! Now let’s talk about the contents.”

I add here a brief summary of some of the comments and responses from the question period that struck me as most important or interesting.
David Carr (Union Theological Seminary), discussing a possible name for the “non-documentarian” group: How about “documentarians” vs. “sources and supplements”?
Sommer: We should read and interpret first, and not let questions of dating force our interpretations.
Schmid: One should let every possible 1st-m. BCE influence have its possible role.
Schwartz: I’m looking for literary context rather than historical context.
Dalit Rom-Shiloni (Tel Aviv University): Why must we think that there is only one way that the Pentateuch came about?
Rainer Albertz (Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität): What do you mean by source or document?
Schwartz: In fact the two groups use those words differently.
Schmid: “Source” denotes a formally distinct earlier work; my disagreement with Baruch is how we distinguish continuity in any source. Different standards are applied to the sources and the work as a whole.”
Schwartz: JEDP’s innovation was the assembly of stories into a continuous text with a purpose. In the humanities, unlike the hard sciences, a century of scholarship means nothing; everything always starts with the text.

A couple of notes of my own.

• I was interested in Schwartz’s comment that the innovation of (each of) the four sources was the assembly of stories into a continuous text with a purpose. Schwartz is an observant Jew (see the interview with him on a relatively new web site called, which I’ll discuss in a future post), and this description very well matches the achievement of Rashi, the greatest of the medieval Jewish Bible commentators, who managed to create a brilliant and long-lasting synthesis of traditional Bible commentary while adding rather little of his own original work.

• Finally, I must wonder whether there really only just these two groups among serious scholars of the origin of the Pentateuch. Because if these are the contenders, it is still (almost) the Germans versus the Jews.

Frank Moore Cross … and his place in the history of Bible scholarship

December 2, 2013

On Sunday afternoon a week ago in Baltimore, at the annual convention of the Society of Biblical Literature, there was a two and a half hour session dedicated to the memory of Frank Moore Cross, longtime professor of “Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages” at Harvard University, director of the Harvard Semitic Museum, and one of the first and longest-lasting interpreters of the Dead Sea Scrolls. His final work was published in the year of his death, 2012.

It was a family affair. Not only was his daughter present (along with other members of the family), but the event featured eight of his doctoral students, all of whom evidently regarded him as what the Germans call their “Doktorvater,” their father in an academic sense. This, of course, implies that they owe him more than simply the respect that any human being owes to another — they are obligated under the responsibility to “honor your father and your mother.” These eight certainly did that.

I’ve been at other events like this, for scholars of a slightly earlier generation than Cross, who were the teachers of my teachers. (Cross was the teacher of some who are more or less my colleagues.) There is always an element of humor, poking gentle fun at the beloved idiosyncrasies of the scholar — some of them (not Cross) extraordinarily idiosyncratic to go along with their outrageously vast knowledge of ancient languages. In Cross’ case the humor was gentle. He seems to have been beloved by his students.

The eight scholars represented eight different specialties within biblical studies: archaeology, paleography, text criticism, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and more. Yet, as one of the more irreverent scholars pointed out, “Cross did all this [stuff].” Though Harvard represents just one of the streams of biblical scholarship in the academy, it is a major one. And through his friendship with David Noel Freedman — the two of them famously co-wrote two dissertations in order to earn their degrees — his influence spread through another chain of scholarship as well.

Yet one word kept floating through my mind as I listened to the panel: “Aristotle.” Many of Cross’ particular readings of Dead Sea Scroll texts, his interpretations of biblical words, and his paleographic work will stand the test of time. (Paleography is the study of how scripts change over time, permitting documents to be dated by the letter forms used in them; when the Dead Sea Scrolls were carbon-dated, Cross remarked that he was delighted that his paleographical work had confirmed the accuracy of carbon-dating.) But somehow his most famous more general book, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, has a slightly musty smell about it now. Perhaps it is simply that I myself read it so long ago in my own studies. Nonetheless, my impression is that Cross’ work channeled the field for too long in a direction that it needed to break out of.

A few minutes after the talk, I ran into a senior scholar who does not come from the Cross academic lineage. He remarked to me, in a way that was clearly intended to be a corrective to the session we’d just attended, “Cross was a Mozart — not a Beethoven. He made everything more elegant. But he did not start anything new.”

“Then he was Mozart to Albright’s Haydn?” I asked. “That’s right,” he replied.

William Foxwell Albright can indeed be said to be the Haydn of 20th-century biblical studies. He was based in Baltimore, at Johns Hopkins University, and trained a generation of scholars in his own right, Cross among them. His great scholarship has an even mustier smell than does that of Cross. (Albright was extremely forthright about rethinking his earlier work and pointing out where he’d been wrong, so he might well agree with that assessment if he were alive today.)

And it is hardly an insult to call someone a Mozart. But if biblical scholarship needed a Beethoven, someone to forge a “new path,” Cross was not the man. My interlocutor with the musical metaphor unpacks it for us: “Even as it was published, his Canaanite Myths synthesized Albrightian verities, without, however, reaching for newer horizons.”


Next on “The Bible Guy” — a report on the group of Pentateuch scholars who spent last year at the Hebrew University discussing the Documentary Hypothesis.

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.

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.

The Bible and Spirituality (Sacred or Secular, Part 3)

November 23, 2010

This is Part 3 of the series I began with my post “Sacred or Secular—or Both?” I wrote in that first post:

For some people, spirituality involves chanting, movement, incense, drugs, meditation—but for me, the only possible approach to spirituality is through text study … The bottom line is that “critical” (that is, academic) study of the Bible is for me an essential aspect of the path to connect with revelation.

I realize now that this was a bit of an overstatement. The two “peak” experiences that drew me to this conclusion did not directly involve Bible at all, but “Torah” in its more general sense. In both cases—once, studying with friends; the other, in a public setting—I had a very powerful sense of being connected to a source of mental/spiritual energy. Engaging with biblical texts, and with the later Jewish texts that grew out of them, gives me something of that same feeling, albeit in an earthly, not transcendent, way.

Exod 24:17 tells us:

Now the Presence of the LORD appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain.

Deut 5:4 explains that this was not just an external phenomenon, but a moment of communication:

Face to face the LORD spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire.

I understand esh (“fire”) to be the Biblical Hebrew equivalent for the modern English word “energy.” My ancestors had an encounter with this energy source that is “beyond time and space”—speaking not in New Age terms, here, but in the language of cosmology—and we’ve been talking about it ever since and trying to make sense of that experience. The Bible grew from that spark, and, for some of us, it remains the best, perhaps the only, way to connect to that source of spiritual energy.

Next time, I intend to return to the 1,000-year history of the creation of the biblical books, and to look at that history through the prism of changes in the Hebrew language.

1,000 Years of Biblical Literature

July 2, 2010

Hello again! I am hoping to resume posting more regularly.

In an earlier post, I discussed at length the fact that, though “the Bible” is a book, it is not one book, but three: a Jewish Bible, a Catholic Bible, or a Protestant Bible. I also pointed out that omitting the Apocrypha from the Protestant Bible leaves a gap of two centuries between the (originally) Hebrew books of the Old Testament and the (originally) Greek books of the New Testament.

That last comment is based on an assumption that was obvious to me but may not have been so to all of my readers—the Bible is an anthology. To speak only of “my” Bible, the Jewish one, it’s an anthology of literature created over a period of 1,000 years.

One reason it’s easy to forget this is because most of us read the Bible in English translation, and each translation is made in the space of a relatively few years, in more or less the same English “voice.” The various books may be translated by different individuals, but there is generally someone (or more usually, I believe, a committee) responsible for smoothing out inadvertent differences in the language of the various books.

They are not always completely successful—more on this, perhaps, in a future post—but in general our translated Bibles all sound as if they were written at more or less the same time (which indeed they were).

The real Bible, though, doesn’t sound like this. Take a moment to remember what 1,000 years of literature looks like. Subtract 1,000 years from 2010 and you get the year 1010—well before The Canterbury Tales (1390s?) and most of the way back to Beowulf (sometime before 1000). The Middle English of Chaucer is quite a struggle for most of us, and the Old English of Beowulf is simply impossible. We can’t read these great works of English literature until they are translated into English for us.

The situation is a little more complicated once we get to Shakespeare. Though some of us first learned these stories from the later, prose versions in Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, the plays themselves are still widely available and regularly performed in their original wording. Shakespeare’s English is close enough to our language that we understand it quite well (or think we do). We no longer say “whether ‘tis nobler in the mind”—we say “whether it’s nobler” or “whether it is nobler” or “whether it would be nobler”—but we adjust our ears to the slight difference. We all understand what it means to be “hoist by your own petard,” even though most people don’t know what a petard is. (The phrase literally means “blown up by your own bomb.”) But how many of us can hear the phrase “caviar to the general” without thinking—mistakenly—of someone in a military uniform? And only specialists (and Jacques Barzun, specialist in everything) know that Hamlet’s “buzz, buzz” means “You’re telling me stale news.”

We would expect the 1,000 years separating the earliest and latest biblical texts to exhibit a similar range—from the most recent and (relatively) easiest to understand back 1,000 years to a text that is more or less incomprehensible. But this expectation is wrong in two ways: (1) The oldest and newest texts are linguistically much closer to each other than Beowulf is to us; and (2) the biblical texts that are easiest to read fall in the middle of the time range, not at its end.

We’ll eventually get to a discussion of the history of Biblical Hebrew, a fascinating and contentious topic. But first—next time—let’s take a look at the oldest extended text in the Bible, the Song of Deborah.