Archive for the ‘Who Wrote the Bible?’ Category

Jean Ritchie, R.I.P.

June 3, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Exilic Biblical Writing?

November 25, 2012

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

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

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

Now for a responsible opposing viewpoint.

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

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

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

And here’s what happened next:

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

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

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

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

What circumstances permitted Abarbanel to write his commentary on Kings?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sacred or Secular—or Both?

November 7, 2010

The Jewish Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania just presented a program on the question “Can the Bible be read both Critically and Religiously?” “Critically” here of course does not mean “criticizing” it, but applying critical thinking to one’s reading of the Bible. The real question being asked was:

Can the Bible be treated like a human document (as it is in a university setting) and still be read as if it were sacred?

You can listen to the event yourself here. [It’s a link to iTunes U, which opens in iTunes if you have it; don’t know what it does if you don’t have iTunes.] Like any number of classic jokes, this program featured a Catholic, a Protestant, and a Jew.

The Jew was Marc Brettler of Brandeis University, my teacher, dissertation adviser, and friend. He concluded that the Bible was an entirely human document, but that he could continue to read it as sacred literature because that is what Jews do.

The Catholic was Daniel Harrington. His name was vaguely familiar to me; he’s a professor at Boston College and a Jesuit priest. His conclusion was that the Bible is sacred literature, but that the tools of academic study may be used to understand the Bible—because the Pope said it was okay.

The most interesting of the panelists (to me) was the Protestant, Peter Enns, of whom I had not heard. One my students told me later, “I read his book.” So I guess he is a known quantity in the conservative Protestant world. He focused on the existential difficulty that critical study of the Bible presents for Protestants, whose identity (he explained) is formed by their reliance on the Bible as the word of God.

I’d like to add a little something of my own to the discussion. I have four points to make:

• When Jews read the Bible—even Jews who take a “fundamentalist” approach to the text—we are also reading our family album: stories about, and sometimes by, our Uncle Louie and the other guys with whom he played pinochle. In other words, it’s our story and we’re sticking to it.

• Study of the Bible is an essential element of Jewish religious practice. But study that puts certain questions off limits is intellectually crippling. I find it perfectly possible, even preferable, to set aside certain historical questions when I’m discussing the Torah during a synagogue service. But existentially, those questions have to be faced. A combination of these two points is more or less the Brettler position.

• In my own case, academic study of the Bible was a major part of the larger process that has drawn me closer and closer to Jewish observance. My friend (and fellow Brettler student) Ben Sommer, now of the Jewish Theological Seminary, describes the same phenomenon in an aside in his recent review essay on James Kugel’s book How to Read the Bible. I would add that I find academic study of the Bible intellectually important for my Jewish religious life as well. Ben provides a lovely example of this in his article, which I’ll describe more fully in my next post.

• Finally, there is the spiritual aspect of things. For some people, spirituality involves chanting, movement, incense, drugs, meditation—with apologies for the shorthand, it is “New Age-y.” But for me, the only possible approach to spirituality is through text study. Fortunately, this too is an ancient Jewish tradition and (as I noted in my first point) even a commandment. Pursuing the truth of the text, as I can best ascertain it, is also my only path to religious experience. Anything else—whether it’s leyning, davening, or just eating cholent—is merely anthropology. I’ll write more about this, too, in a later post. But the bottom line is that “critical” (that is, free intellectual) study of the Bible is for me an essential aspect of the path to connect with revelation—whatever that means, whatever revelation may have been.