Ask a question &mdash any question &mdash about the Bible

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Let’s make that 132,069. The newly published “Ask the Bible” by Morry Sofer is the first in a series of books about various Holy Scriptures, including Tanach (the Hebrew Bible), the Christian Bible and the Koran.

The chapters of “Ask the Bible” follow in sequence the 38 books of Tanach — Torah, Prophets and Writings — giving some books shorter shrift than others (Joel rates two pages). The Q&A style covers specific incidents, stories, statutes and big-picture issues mentioned in the text, aiming to clarify and interpret.

An ordained rabbi and renowned biblical scholar, Sofer would seem to be the right person to compile a Tanach FAQ. Unfortunately, the book will probably frustrate many readers wherever they are on the learning spectrum. Those who know Torah will gain only marginal insight from Sofer’s brief responses. Those who don’t know Torah will remain nearly as clueless as before.

That’s because “Ask the Bible” presupposes too much knowledge on the part of the reader. A question like “Why did Gideon only select those men who did not crouch while drinking from the brook?” wouldn’t occur to someone who had never read the Book of Judges. On the other hand, anyone who could frame such a question probably knows the answer already. (Gideon viewed crouchers as idol worshippers, according to Rashi. Now you know.)

Similarly disconcerting are skimpy answers to very deep spiritual questions. Sofer’s response to “What is the meaning of the Ten Commandments?” takes up one page. One. That’s it. Got it, thanks.

To be fair, Sofer is a lucid writer, and some of the questions he addresses merit concise responses. For example, to the query “Was Jonah swallowed by a whale?” the author doesn’t need more than his allotted seven lines to answer “no.”

The book is also illustrated with lavish El Greco-era paintings of biblical scenes. Though they look like canvases that should be hanging in the Vatican, the pictures add to the narrative aspects of Tanach and serve a Jewish audience just fine.

Moreover, for those who love delving into Torah, encountering any new facets of interpretation can be enlightening. For example, Sofer’s section on the Book of Psalms gives not only a taut history of the beloved songs of praise, but also offers individual analyses of the 150 collected psalms. Sofer even throws in his own pretty darn good translation of the beloved 23rd Psalm.

Sofer’s proficiency in biblical Hebrew sheds light on meaning. In the above-mentioned psalm, the famous concluding line reads in the best-known translation “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” but the Hebrew actually translates “for a long time.” Chew on that.

In writing this book, the author probably expected readers would keep a copy of the Tanach handy as they go through “Ask the Bible,” pingponging back and forth. Perhaps he hoped his book would inspire more readers to get up to speed with Torah on their own. No doubt, a very worthy goal, but it’s not likely this book will swell the ranks of yeshiva bochers. Still, it’s petty to complain. Since all of Torah’s ways are ways of gladness, “Ask the Bible” must be a way of gladness too.

“Ask the Bible: The 400 Most Commonly Asked Questions About the Old Testament” by Morry Sofer (352 pages, Schreiber Publishing, $21.95).

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.