Off the Shelf: Biblical commentary by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

What makes studying the Bible so endlessly fascinating is that there’s always something new to learn – an interpretation that takes you by surprise or a close study that offers new insights. When authors approach the text from different angles, they illuminate aspects of the verses that might have previously been overlooked. This is true of two recent works: “Genesis: A Parasha Companion” by Rabbi David Fohrman (Maggid Books) offers insights into the first book of the Bible, while Israel Drazin focuses closely on one biblical character in “Who Really Was the Biblical Elijah?” (Geffen Publishing House). 

Fohrman wants readers to start by going back to the basics: carefully reading the original text without commentary or midrash (rabbinic stories). It’s not that he ultimately ignores these; he quotes from commentary throughout the book. However, he wants readers to study the text itself – the actual words used – before trying to interpret them. This also means trying to read the text as if they don’t know what is going to happen next – something that can be hard to do. But not assuming something had to happen in a particular way changes one’s interpretation of what the character was trying to accomplish. 

Readers don’t have to agree with Fohrman’s interpretations to enjoy his wonderful ideas about the text. For example, he looks at Rebecca and Jacob’s deception of Isaac – when Jacob receives the blessing intended for Esau by pretending to be his brother. Yet, is that really what happened? Not according to Fohrman. He looks closely at the text to show that at no time does Rebecca suggest that Jacob pretend to be his brother. That was not part of her plan, but rather something Jacob did on his own. It’s not possible to do justice to the verse-by-verse interpretation Fohrman offers, but it’s fascinating to read.

The author also features a technique called an atbash pattern or chiasm to analyze several parashot. He notes that, in this pattern, “the first element of the text is a kind of mirror for its last element; the second element of the text mirrors the second-to-last element, the third the third-to-last, and so forth.” Using graphics and color coding, he shows what occurred after God told Abram to circumcise himself and his family. The center of the chiasm points to the message offered by this section: that God not only entered into the covenant with Abram, but with all the children of Abraham (as he was now called) throughout the ages.

It’s impossible to do justice to “Genesis” in a short review because understanding Fohrman’s interpretation often depends on analyzing all the details offered by the text. That doesn’t mean his work is difficult to understand. On the contrary, he writes as if he is talking to his readers and gives step-by-step explanations for his reasoning. This includes his interesting idea of how the Noah story shows the Earth moving from a God-based world to a human-based one, and an intriguing discussion of what actually happened to Joseph after his brothers threw him into a pit. Readers can enjoy this work on their own, but they may find themselves eager to share the insights it offers with others in Bible study groups, classes and discussions.

While Fohrman covers a wider sweep, Drazin concentrates on one character: the prophet Elijah. He notes that, in contemporary times, people think of Elijah as the wonderful and kind person who appears at a bris and visits homes during the Passover seder. However, this is far from the portrayal of Elijah offered in the biblical book of Kings. Drazin looks at Elijah’s story verse by verse to present a far less positive view of the prophet, including what he sees as God’s criticism of Elijah’s behavior.

In fact, Drazin posits that Elijah may have been unfamiliar with the Torah: “[Elijah] never mentions [the Torah]. He never castigates the people for violating Torah law and... he violated the law concerning sacrifices” by offering sacrifices at an inappropriate place. The author also suggests that King Ahab was not as evil a person as he is often portrayed – even noting the time the king and prophet were not at odds. Drazin shows how it was Jezebel and Elijah who had something in common – they both performed a mass murder of priests, although those priests served different gods. 

The author notes that little is actually known about Elijah, including what the word Tishbite (used as part of Elijah’s name) actually means. For Drazin, the Torah portrays Elijah “as a loner, an elusive wanderer, appearing and disappearing at a moment’s notice.” He is only called a prophet twice: once in the book of Kings (1 Kings 18:36) and another time in the book of 2 Chronicles (21:12). The author questions how Elijah can be considered a prophet when he never performed the task that defines a prophet: Elijah never predicts the future. Drazin also believes that the Torah does not see Elijah of the book of Kings as being associated with the concept of a messiah, something that is wrongly attributed to him from the mention of an Elijah in the biblical book of Malachi. The author sees no connection between Malachi’s Elijah and the Elijah who appears in the book of Kings. The legends many people know of Elijah are post-biblical and have little to do with the person presented in the biblical text. 

“Who Really Was the Biblical Elijah?” is well done, but a little dry. Drazin sticks closely to the text, although he does offer some personal commentary on zealotry, of which he disapproves. Those who are only familiar with the legendary Elijah will be surprised to learn about the Elijah who appears in the book of Kings. Anyone interested in exploring Elijah or debating whether or not Elijah will be the forerunner of the messiah will find much to debate in Drazin’s work.