Off the Shelf: Scholars go off script to find rich subtext in biblical stories

My very religious grandmother could often be found in the kitchen immersed in her prayerbook. One time my cousin Debra, then 5, walked up to her and interrupted her prayers to inquire, “Haven’t you finished that book yet?”

As we reach the last words of Deuteronomy next week, and then rewind the scroll to Genesis to begin again, I’m reminded of Debra’s question. It is a testament, both to the biblical text and to the tradition that emerges from its pages, that we have been reading and interpreting these words for thousands of years but seem to be in no danger of running out of novel insights.

In this column, I want to mention several new books on the Hebrew Bible that are worthy of attention.

Published posthumously, “Sinning in the Hebrew Bible: How the Worst Stories Speak for Its Truth” is the final work of Alan Segal, a well-loved Barnard College professor who died last year. Segal takes on some of the horrific incidents in the Hebrew Bible, asking why anybody would populate their holy book with stories of rape, murder, adultery, incest and other terrible acts.

Far from sensationalistic, his book attempts to answer that question by showing how these stories assume different functions over the course of the Bible’s evolution. In particular, Segal demonstrates how ancient stories — “myths” that likely had been in circulation long before the days of the Temple — were sometimes used by biblical editors of a later period to relate to real events that transpired in the era recorded in the books of Judges, Samuel and Kings.

As an example, Segal asserts that some of the ancient tales of Genesis are employed as commentaries on the Davidic dynasty. The Cain and Abel narrative relates to the fratricidal relationship of King David’s children. And Jacob’s acquisition of Esau’s birthright and blessing provides support to Solomon’s ascent to the throne over the heir-apparent, Adonijah (with Rebecca’s efforts on behalf of Jacob corresponding to Bathsheba’s similarly shifty role championing Solomon’s cause).

While Segal’s close readings are brilliant, they serve his greater intention to illuminate the stages of composition of the Bible, and to understand the social, religious and political context of ancient Israel. The portions of the book given to this endeavor may be a bit much for those who are interested strictly in the “text itself.” For such readers, I would commend Judy Klitsner’s 2009 book “Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other,” which also expertly demonstrates the close relationship of disparate biblical texts.

Yoram Hazony’s “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture” is a particularly ambitious book. Hazony, a prominent Israeli scholar and founder of the Shalem Center, posits that our reading of the Bible has been improperly limited by seeing it as a book of revelation and not considering it seriously as a work of philosophy. As he puts it, “we should read these texts much as we read the writings of Plato or Hobbes.” He holds that people have failed to do so because the Bible’s arguments are embedded in the language of metaphor and stories, and in the historical narrative of a small nation.

I don’t consider myself qualified to make claims about whether Hazony succeeds in gaining the Bible admission through the doors of philosophy. What I did find rewarding was how he makes his argument through ingenious interpretation of biblical texts.

Hazony’s argument cannot be summarized fairly here. However, one of his propositions is that a natural law — one that precedes God’s covenant with Israel — can be discerned through the “ethics of the shepherd.” For Hazony, it’s no coincidence that many of the characters viewed most favorably (including Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David) put in time tending sheep, for the Bible favors the ethical position of the shepherd, who embodies autonomy and the “vantage point of an outsider.”

Hazony’s contention that the Bible favors the outsider helps bolster the case that Rabbi Maurice Harris makes in “Moses: A Stranger Among Us.” Harris notes that the tradition often plays down parts of Moses’ biography that conflict with community standards, including the facts that he was adopted and raised by a gentile family; that he killed another man; and that he was married to a non-Jew.

Writing in an accessible prose that makes frequent references to challenges facing Jewish life today, Harris — who will give a talk Dec. 20 at the BJE Jewish Community Library — concentrates on these dimensions of Moses’ character to create a surprisingly complex and modern portrait.

One factor that contributed to Moses’ status as an outsider was his speech impediment, which receives a full chapter in Ora Horn Prouser’s “Esau’s Blessing: How the Bible Embraces Those with Special Needs.” Prouser, executive vice president and academic dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic rabbinical school, notes that the genesis of the book was her realization that Esau’s behaviors matched the affects of someone with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Regardless of whether this is actually the case, we approach Esau’s actions with a different perspective if we consider the possibility. And the compassion that Prouser directs toward figures in the Bible extends also to our own lives — we may become more welcoming and understanding toward people with special needs around us if we recall that some of our spiritual forbearers faced similar challenges.

Howard Freedman is the director of the BJE Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All of the books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

“Moses: A Stranger among Us”

by Maurice D. Harris (164 pages, Cascade Books, $19)

“The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture”

by Yoram Hazony (392 pages, Cambridge University Press, $24.99)

“Esau’s Blessing: How the Bible embraces those with Special Needs”

by Ora Horn Prouser (148 pages, Ben Yehuda Press, $17.50)

“Sinning in the Hebrew Bible: How the Worst Stories Speak for Its Truth”

by Alan F. Segal (296 pages, Columbia University Press, $29.50)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.