Off the shelf | From Abraham to Jonah, new books offer fresh Bible insights

As we have just begun the annual Torah cycle anew, I thought it fitting to share some new books that bring forth fresh and valuable insights into the Bible.

“Reading Genesis: Beginnings” is a collection of essays assembled by Beth Kissileff with startling breadth, emerging from writers reflecting a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines. Even a few prominent cultural figures, including Ruth Westheimer, Joan Nathan and Alan Dershowitz, make an appearance, as well as poet Alicia Ostriker and novelist Dara Horn. The short essays have a distinctly contemporary bent, with some incorporating teachings drawn from software development and game theory.

Because the episode of Abraham’s binding of Isaac hits home for me (it will be read at my daughter’s bat mitzvah this month, and I have a son named Isaac, which has heightened my struggle with this text), I will mention the book’s two essays on this incident as examples.

Ronald Krebs, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, writes of his disappointment that the same Abraham who argued with God on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah appears complacent when he is instructed to sacrifice his own son, and that he is often praised in traditional commentary for this obedience.

Krebs offers a different reading that draws largely from Abraham’s silence. He holds that Abraham may be employing what political scientist James Scott termed the “weapons of the weak” — a limited arsenal available to those whose low status obviates the possibility of outright refusal or rebellion. Knowing that he is unable to refuse a divine order, Abraham essentially opts for silence and foot-dragging as a means of expressing resistance. It’s a stretch, perhaps, but a provocative one.

Multifaceted scholar Sander Gilman of Emory University assumes an altogether different focus, moving the spotlight away from Abraham and Isaac and onto the two nameless servants who accompany them on the journey to Mount Moriah and back.

Gilman holds that these servants — whose primary achievement is simply waiting, unaware of the theological drama that is unfolding — reflect the essential experience of the Jewish people, who also exist on the margins and wait. He writes of how “waiting for Godot, waiting for the Messiah, is the state that enables Jews to deal with the minutiae of daily existence as that which is important to defining our lives as human beings.”

Alan Levenson’s book “Joseph: Portraits through the Ages” is an excellent companion to the Joseph story, substituting admirably for the college class you likely never had. Moving chronologically through the text, Levenson’s interpretation draws from traditional and modern Jewish commentary, from literature (including, most prominently, Thomas Mann’s novel “Joseph and His Brothers”), and, unusually for a Jewish book, occasionally from Christian sources. Levenson also explains passages where grasping the meaning is contingent on understanding what is happening in the original Hebrew text.

Levenson notes Rabbi Roger Klein’s assertion that the Joseph saga works at four levels: individual, familial, national and theological. As someone with an interest in literature and psychology, I inevitably find the tale’s individual and familial dimensions, with a surfeit of interpersonal tension and drama, especially resonant and satisfying. I therefore appreciated Levenson’s elucidation of those strains that would not ordinarily arouse my curiosity.

An example is the chapter he devotes to a strangely placed mention of Rachel’s death in Genesis 48:7, long after her death has occurred. Levenson offers numerous interpretations, the most interesting of which is to connect it to passages in the Book of Jeremiah, in which Rachel is newly elevated as a sort of divine intercessor, and the restoration of her descendant Ephraim becomes a source of hope for redemption.

Just as the Joseph saga, by far the longest segment in Genesis, stands out as a fully realized narrative, the Book of Jonah reads like a novella — consisting entirely of third-person narrative, without the preaching found in the other books of the Prophets. Read aloud on Yom Kippur, the Book of Jonah won’t be reappearing in synagogue for nearly a year. But Rabbi Steven Bob, who recently retired from a congregation in the Chicago area, has written a very thoughtful volume, “Jonah and the Meaning of Our Lives,” that merits reading at any time.

Bob moves through the Book of Jonah line by line, electing five prominent commentators to serve as tour guides: Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Kimchi (also known as Radak), Abarbanel and the Malbim. Writing in a very approachable manner, he marries the interpretations of these traditional commentators with lessons drawn from his own experiences and observations, along with wisdom gleaned from a wide variety of modern sources ranging from the film “Casablanca” to the blues singer Mississippi John Hurt. In the end, he helps us to experience the Book of Jonah as simultaneously ancient and contemporary — and certainly relevant for 21st-century lives.

“Reading Genesis: Beginnings” edited by Beth Kissileff (304 pages, Bloomsbury)

“Joseph: Portraits Through the Ages” by Alan T. Levenson (312 pages, Jewish Publication Society)

“Jonah and the Meaning of Our Lives: A Verse-by-Verse Contemporary Commentary” by Rabbi Steven Bob (252 pages, Jewish Publication Society)

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

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.