Book review: The many, many voices of the Bible

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Scholarly works rarely make me laugh, but that was my reaction to a line in the introductory section of “The Bible’s Many Voices” by Michael Carasik (The Jewish Publication Society). He presents an idea that is simple and obvious, except we tend to forget it when reading American versions of the biblical text: the Bible “was not written in English.” Many of us grow so attached to the English version of the Bible we use, we forget that each word was chosen over other possibilities. To add to the problem, the translator’s voice can mask the differences in language and tone found in the original, something Carasik discusses in his look at the multiple voices found in the text.

Carasik opens with a general discussion of the Bible, for example, noting the differences between Jewish, Catholic and Protestant versions. He includes a brief description not only of the different order of the individual books in each canon, but information about other writings (known as the “Apocrypha”), which are only found in the Catholic version. However, Carasik’s main focus is outlining the variety of voices featured in the Bible, including historical voices, theological voices, legal voices, women’s voices, foreign voices and more. Within each of these categories, he notes how different ideas compete to explain the nature of God and humanity.

One excellent example of competing voices is featured in his discussion of theological voices. Carasik notes two different approaches to the nature of God, both of which are found in the biblical text. According to Carasik, some sections of the Bible suggest that God is “immanent, that is, present in some almost tangible way in the physical world, and to be thanked and propitiated by the manipulations of physical objects.” Others treat God as “transcendent, that is, existent somehow only outside the realm of the material universe and accessible only in a spiritual way.” Carasik suggests that these ideas represent “two ancient streams of Israelite religion,” which the Bible manages to include without specifically discussing their differences, or asking readers to choose between the two.

Some parts of the biblical text treat the same subject in different ways. For example, Carasik explores the laws of slavery, comparing the verses found in Exodus and Deuteronomy, which explains the procedure of owning a Hebrew slave. The differences include whether the slave leaves his master empty handed (Exodus) or must receive a gift from his former owner (Deuteronomy). The slave in Exodus is assumed to be male since the text concerns itself with what happens if he marries before or during his time as a slave. The verses in Deuteronomy explicitly mention that the procedures for release apply to male and female slaves.

In his discussion of prophetic voices, Carasik notes that prophets were not fortune-tellers, but rather served as messengers of God. For example, Jonah fails as a fortune-teller: his prediction that Ninevah would be destroyed never occurs. Yet, he is a success as a prophet: because of his words, the people of Ninevah repented and changed their evil ways. Not every prophet has a book of his or her own. Although Moses, Aaron and Miriam are called prophets, their words are integrated into the tale of the Exodus from Egypt. The story of Elijah also appears in the historical writing: the text seems to consider his actions far more important than his words.

Although in the past some scholars have treated the biblical text as if it appeared in a vacuum, Carasik shows how it was influenced by surrounding civilizations. For example, he compares selections from the book of Gilgamesh to those in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), suggesting that the author of Kohelet would have been familiar with works from other cultures. Similarities can also be found in other sections of the Bible. For instance, the law of a goring ox in Exodus strongly resembles those of the Laws of Eshnunna: in each, if an ox gores and kills another ox, the owners of both oxen split the value of the live and dead one.

Carasik provides an excellent introduction to the biblical text; readers need little prior knowledge to understand the material. His prose is easy to read and he has no political or theological agenda other than to help readers appreciate the richness and depth of the biblical material. “The Bible’s Many Voices” would be perfect for an adult education class or a multi-month discussion at a book club, although anyone interested in the Bible might want to add this work to their shelves.