Book Journal #1: Hebrew Bible

So one of the things about graduate school is that you read a lot of books. Reading tons of books is pretty awesome, except that it’s hard to keep track of reading–and it’s even harder to remember what you actually read when you are reading hundreds of pages a week. So in order to do this, I figure that it’s essential to make a “book journal” that describes books that I’m working with these days.

The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press, 2004

This is the Biblical translation that we are using in our Hebrew Bible course. A Bible is a Bible–essentially, but not always. This translation has a lot of differences in it, and I am really enjoying reading this translation simultaneously with my NOAB. For instance, there’s a lot more frequent mention of cattle (?), and some pretty intriguing notations, which of course do not take the New Testament into account.

Jon D. Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible, 1987

“Mount Sinai is the intersection of love and law, of gift and demand, the ink between a past together and a future together” (87).

This is a book of literary criticism. Levenson is discussing the ways in which the Biblical stories function to define a people in light of an in response to the other literary genres of their day. A lot has been said about how the Bible corresponds to other literature–how the Noah flood story can also be found in Gilgamesh, how the Sumerian creation is also similar to the Genesis creation story. Levenson takes into account all of these similarities, and then picks out what is unique about the Biblical literature. He takes a literary critical approach while still managing to find wonder in the texts, because his primary concern is the relationship  that appears to have been initiated at Sinai and carried out with David and Zion.  For him, the Sinai covenant is a way in which God “called Israel into being”, by creating history through a non-cyclical event in the Exodus, and established himself as suzerain of the Israelite people. But, in many ways that experience is lost to the people as having occured in ‘mythic’ time, and so the Davidic covenant was given to establish a symbol and a point of access to the time when God would have communicated directly with the people. He uses a lot of symbolism and discussion of the two divine mountains in conjunction with the two covenants, and what it means to discuss the dwelling place of God as a historically located place. This is a great read for anyone who is interested in literary development and the expression of theophany and how the relationship between God and the people is imagined through literature.

Michael Fishbane, Biblical Text and Texture: A Literary Reading of Selected Texts, 1979

“eternal subjects of the Bible [are] the creature before, in search of, and in response to his creator, and the creator before, in search of, and in response to his creatures” (xi).

I confess I didn’t read as much of this book as I wanted to. I was on a couple of airplanes and at a couple of important events, but when I did get a chance to sit down and read, I was impressed with this book. I read Fishbane’s treatment of what he calls the “primeval cycle”, which is essentially Adam to Abraham. He is seeking “literary realities” in the text, and he sees cycles of stories that are linked linguistically to one another. He is intriguingly occupied with the act of naming, seeking names, and being given a name, and I would be interested to know more about how those themes appear in later parts of the book, in addition to other scholars’ work. I may also note that Fishbane is a professor here at the Divinity School, so were I ever to read the book more thoroughly, and then have questions… well I could just approach the man himself. (And isn’t that cool?)

J. Maxwell Miller and John H. Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah (2nd Edition), 2006

“The sense of “Israelite” kinship and solidarity probably emerged gradually, remained somewhat vague, and did not apply to everyone settled in “Israelite” areas. [But] three other factors would have contributed to the sense of mutual identity among the Israelite tribes: ancestry and social status; common enemies and occasions of warfare; and identification with Yahweh” (115).

So on the syllabus now, we have taken a pretty serious departure from our first two books. We are no longer looking at the literature of the Bible as literature, but we’re trying to piece together what can be used in a historical reconstruction. This is quite a long book, and for the purposes of class we only read 118 pages, more or less the sections that deal with the Patriarchs, the Exodus, and the Conquest of Canaan. Miller and Hayes mostly ignore the issues of the Patriarchs and the Exodus, telling us that the genealogies and the patriarch stories (Abraham, Noah, Jacob/Israel) are actually tools of legitimating and unifying a people that were not necessarily unified at the time. When they take a look at the Judges period, they do not, however, see this as pure fantasy. Based on archeological evidence, and the first appearance of the name “Israel” on an outside inscription (the Merneptah Inscription, roughly 1200BCE), the authors conclude that Israel was a group of tribes (not twelve, as that was a construction–as is the superiority of the Levite priests; you can see this in some of the arguments that Aaron, Miriam, and Moses get into) that came from a lower, non-urban social class in the Palestinian highlands during the dark period between the Bronze and Iron Ages. What I found most interesting about their assessment of “Yahwism” was that it was not centralized (as many of the Pentateuchal texts will deny–“God told us to worship in this way” in the P and D texts–but not in the J texts, you may notice…) and that Yahweh was the name of the god most often invoked during times of war. The Warrior God Yahweh was able to unite the people under one banner unlike the other gods that were often worshiped in Canaan (El and Baal). In addition to this, the authors stress a linguistic connection between the word Hebrew and the word Apiru (Hibiru) in Akkadian, which means “outcast or outsider”. These may have been the equivalent of the “rural, nomadic poor”–or essentially “that riffraff.” The authors are seeming to say (though they don’t outright state it) that the Exodus and Patriarch stories emerged as ways to explain the outsider-ness of the people, and why all of a sudden they were gaining power in their land. When you take a look at it like that, the Bible has a lot of really intriguing class-distinction, class-mobility, urban-rural, centralization-clan struggles going on it: the authors are obviously attempting to turn a huge shift in their identity and role in the bigger world into a cohesive, AND legitimating narrative.

WHAT? Yeah. It’s pretty mind-blowing. And very interesting.

(Note that the first edition of this book, which is essentially the same text–as stated by the authors–was first published in 1986.)

My knowledge of the Bible is really being tested in this class and with these books. I’m finding this to be really phenomenal, but I’m always behind and never one hundred percent sure that I’m reading the books correctly. Many of these books assume that people have already read through all the books of the Bible, and all their notations, and–well, that’s just not the level of smart that I am on right now. ^.~ But we’re getting there. I’m rushing, but these days it doesn’t seem like I’m rushing to catch up as much as I am just rushing on for the fun of it.

2 thoughts on “Book Journal #1: Hebrew Bible”

  1. This is fascinating stuff, isn’t it? The first time I came across the argument that the twelve tribes was a construction to give a common past to people who basically only had in common the fact that they were outcasts — yeah, it was kind of mind-blowing. But it made so much sense out of verses like “then you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” And it gives us an impression for today of how solidarity in communities can be built on something other than cultural or ethnic pre-given identities. Good reading.

  2. Yes! I find it almost more compelling… but honestly I do want to believe in the “mythic” part of the history, so it’s kind of a bummer. But I do love some ancient Mediterranean history…. Good fun, good fun.

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