Off the Shelf: Exploring the Biblical Text

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

“Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.” These words by Ben Bag Bag in Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) refer to the Torah. The study of Torah is never ending because there is always something new to learn, at least for those who are open to novel interpretations. Generations of Jews have found interesting ways to study the text – some of which might have come as a surprise to those living in ancient times. However, these different approaches can make for fascinating reading. 

“Dress and Clothing in the Hebrew Bible”

As Antonios Finitsis, editor of “Dress and Clothing in the Hebrew Bible: ‘For All Her Household Are Clothed in Crimson’” (T & T Clark), notes in his introduction, dress studies is a relatively new and developing field. This collection of scholarly essays focuses on the meaning of clothing in the Hebrew Bible.

The writers of the eight essays believe clothing can be symbolic of more than a special garment, especially in the Bible, which contains little description of dress. That suggests that if a garment is mentioned or described, it’s done for a specific purpose. My favorite essay – “Tamar and Tamar: Clothing as Deception and Defiance” by Sara M. Koenig – looks at how two different Tamars in the Bible used clothing as a way to change people’s perception. For example, the Tamar who was the daughter-in-law of Judah (Genesis) uses clothing to disguise herself and take the action she needs to have children. The second Tamar is a daughter of King David, who is raped by her half brother, Amnon (2 Samuel). When her father ignores what happened to her, Tamar ripped her garments so all could know the horror that had been done to her. Koenig notes that “the Tamars used their clothing to respond – in defiance and protest – to the patriarchal system that abused them.” 

Another essay – “Were YHWH’s Clothing Worth Remembering and Thinking About Among the Literati of the Late Persian/Early Hellenistic Judah/Yehud? Observations and Consideration” by Ehud Ben Zvi – ponders a fascinating question: Does God wear clothing? The Bible clearly treats God in an anthropomorphic way, but most of the texts from the period Zvi studied do not speak to the issue of Divine clothing. There is mention of God’s clothing in biblical texts so it’s clear that God is not naked. It’s also clear that some clothing is considered important – for example, the clothing the priests had to wear is described in great detail – but why this is so needs more study.

Other discussions include a study of priestly clothing; a comparison of the tzitzit (tassles) worn by ordinary Jews to the rosette worn by the high priest; a look at how the story of King David dancing before the ark changed from its first telling in the book of Samuel (when David’s clothing did not completely cover him as he danced) to the second telling in the book of Chronicles, which portrays him as fully clothed; and several other studies. 

The writing in “Dress and Clothing in the Hebrew Bible” is scholarly and not aimed at the casual reader. However, this new field promises a unique and interesting way to understand the stories and laws found in the Hebrew Bible. 

“Why Abraham Murdered Isaac”

Many people know about the Documentary Hypothesis, which posits that the first five books of the Bible came from four different sources. Many scholars agree with this theory, although they argue about which section came from which source. I was, however, unaware of a different biblical theory, one called the Supplementary Hypothesis, which is the basis of Tzemah Yoreh’s fascinating “Why Abraham Murdered Isaac: The First Stories of the Bible Revealed” (Modern Scripture). According to Yoreh, the Supplementary Hypothesis “contends that the Five Books of Moses (and many other parts of the Bible) were composed through a process of successive additions to one original text, a natural process for a culture in which the written word was respected and revelation revered.” His work is an attempt to isolate those original stories. 

Why were there additions to the original work? Yoreh believes the first collection of biblical stories was composed in northern Israel. After the northern kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians, scribes brought these stories with them to the southern kingdom, which had its own version of the tales. The author notes this original work was “full of sex and violence, of humans who contended with God and sometimes lost.” His method of isolating the stories includes focusing on the different names for God and the different way of referring to Jacob (using that name or Israel), among other textural changes. He does note that almost all of the legal material was added later, something he feels turned an exciting story into a sometimes boring work. 

Even if you don’t agree with Supplementary Hypothesis, Yoreh offers thought-provoking comments about biblical stories. For example, his discussion of the Akedah (the binding of Isaac) has changed the way I view the story. The event was a test of Abraham, but a very different one than normally suggested and one that originally ended with the death of Isaac. (The idea that Isaac may have died is not new to Yorah, but can be found in ancient rabbinic stories.) Yorah believes Abraham sinned against God by pretending that Sarah was his sister and allowing her to be taken into Abimelech’s house: “His sin may (or may not – we readers are not privy) have led to Sarah’s impregnation and the birth of Isaac. With Abraham not having trusted in God once, God demands from him a far higher level of trust. The vehicle of Abraham’s renewed devotion and fear is a consequence of his previous lack of devotion. It doesn’t matter that Isaac is innocent. In this text Isaac is no more than God’s chattel, just as Sarah was Abraham’s. His life is inconsequential when God’s purpose is to teach humans proper respect.”

Yoreh also discusses the stories of Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Balaam. He offers excellent insights that may change the way readers view the stories. Yorah’s prose is casual and easy to read, although some readers might be disturbed by his periodic sarcastic comments about the text, something that did not bother me. In fact, his sense of humor was one of the reasons “Why Abraham Murdered Isaac” was great fun to read.

“Mouth of the Donkey”

Although the Hebrew Bible may be filled with animals, most commentaries generally pay little attention to them. Laura Duhan-Kaplan tries to rectify that in “Mouth of the Donkey: Re-imaging Biblical Animals (Cascade Books), looking at the stories from spiritual, personal and metaphorical angles.

When exploring the Garden of Eden story, Duhan-Kaplan offers an interesting interpretation that shows the snake in a more positive light. When the woman (Eve) mentions that she’s not supposed to touch one of the trees in the garden, the snake is puzzled. What she says can’t be correct, at least according to his experience: “He [the snake] realizes the woman has not heard well. Maybe she is preparing to shed her skin. So, she might have a little fluid in her ears. Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: she does not know the good way to live.” So, the snake, trying to be kind, offers her advice: eat from the tree. As Duhan-Kaplan notes, the snake is really suggesting, “let the tree help you. Start your shed, free up your eyes, and let your body grow. Then you’ll understand how your species should live.” After God’s initial anger, God realizes that the snake tried to offer its wisdom, but that’s not appropriate for humans. Each punishment reflects that: Men and women learn not to copy the snake’s behavior. 

Some of Duhan-Kaplan’s interpretations are not completely convincing, although they are still interesting to ponder. For example, she makes the case that Aaron’s two sons (Nadab and Abihu) are killed after offering a strange sacrifice to God because it is not an animal sacrifice. She posits that “Nadab and Abihu are opposed to eating animal offerings,” commenting that the sacrifice might have even been a vegan offering. This leads to the new annual ritual for Yom Kippur, one with two goats, one of which is sacrificed, while the other is let free in the wilderness. According to Duhan-Kaplan, “With this ritual, Aaron acknowledges the two views that tore his family apart. There’s the view of his brother Moses, who promotes animal offerings. And the view of his sons Nadab and Abihu, who protest them. Ultimately, Aaron sides with Moses, and implements his program. But with this ceremony, Aaron keeps the dissenting voice alive.”

Duhan-Kaplan also looks at sheep, donkeys, ravens, eagles and locusts, in addition to comparing people to “the wolf and the lamb” mentioned in Isaiah to show us that a path to “peace is possible.” Her work gives a different view of the text, one that asks us to look at parts of the story to which we often pay less attention. After reading this short 80-plus page book, you may never look at biblical animals the same way.

“The JPS Jewish Heritage Torah Commentary”

Yet another Torah commentary, you might ask: there are so many of them. But each author offers something different. In the case of Rabbi Eli L. Garfinkel’s “The JPS Jewish Heritage Torah Commentary” (The Jewish Publication Society), each parasha (Torah portion) is looked at through four different lenses: “Torat Yisrael commentaries focus on traditional interpretations. Eretz Yisrael commentaries explain a connection between a verse and a concrete, geographical location in Israel. Am Yisrael commentaries demonstrate the link between a verse and the Jewish people as an ethnoreligious group. Finally, Mashevet Yisrael commentaries project ideas and puzzles through the lens of a Jewish philosopher, a classical text or a modern speaker.” 

Each parasha begins with a short summary followed by essays offering a view of the portion using each method of interpretation. At the conclusion of each essay are questions to stimulate discussion. The work offers some interesting historical lessons, such as the one found in the “Farming and the Jews” Am Yisrael commentary on Bereshit: the author offers research that shows how the number of Jewish farmers began decreasing during the rabbinic period due to a conflict between the hard labor required by farming and the time needed for the communal study of Torah. In parashat Noah, the Mashevet Yisrael essay ponders whether the story of Noah really occurred or if it should serve as a metaphor for the human condition. In addition to noting flood stories found in several cultures, Garfinkel writes that “reading certain stories in the Torah as metaphors for the human condition allows many modern Jews to the take the Torah seriously, without having to take it literally.” In this case, “just as God gave the people of the world a second chance, we too can try to forgive others whenever possible.”

Garfinkel also uses the text to teach lessons. In the essay on Torat Israel of parashat Beshallah, he discusses personal responses to a crisis, ones that still occur today. He notes that different occasions call for different actions, for example, a courageous act, prayer, fear or fighting. What is appropriate behavior at one time may not be appropriate at another. In another example, in parashat Terumah, he looks at volunteering through the lense of Am Israel. Garfinkel writes that, “My opinion is that all voluntary service for a worthy cause is well and good. What Jews do for the Jewish people, however, should not be called voluntary service. What Jews do for Jews is a mitzvah (commandment). In a sense, all of our voluntary service should be for non-Jews. What we do for our people is mandatory, not voluntary.” 

While individual readers will gain much from “The JPS Jewish Heritage Torah Commentary,” the work would also make an excellent text for Torah study and Bible study classes. Whether one reads all four commentaries for each parasha or just focuses on one or two each year, this book offers ideas for years of study.

“The Koren Tanakh”

I always read or deeply skim every book that I review in the paper. However, I’ve made an exception for the 2,057-page “The Koren Tanakh: The Magerman Edition,” published in a Hebrew-English edition by the Koren Publishers, Jerusalem. Turning down the offer for a review copy would have been very difficult. Looking through this new work shows why anyone who collects editions of the Tanakh (the complete Bible with the Torah, Prophets and Writing) will want to have this on their shelf. It contains a new translation, along with interesting reference materials (maps, excellent genealogy charts, information about textual variants, etc.). It also includes a list of haftarah readings used in Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Yemenite synagogues. The thumb tabs with the names of the books (the names are in Hebrew) make it much easier to find a particular book; I’m surprised that no one has thought of this before.
Most readers will be interested in the new translation. It simplifies people’s names following contemporary Hebrew transliterations into English: Yaakov instead of Ya’aqov; and Rivka instead of Rivqa. While I don’t own a copy of the original “Koren Tanakh,” I do have a copy of “The Jerusalem Bible,” which was published by Koren Publishers in 1989, and found some interesting differences:

“Jerusalem Bible” (JB): “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the world was without form and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And a wind from God moved over the surface of the water.” (Genesis 1:1-2)

“Koren Tanakh” (KT): “When God began creating heaven and earth, the earth was void and desolate, there was darkness on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God moved over the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2)

JB: “Now these are the names of the children of Yisra’el who came into Mizrayim, with Ya’aqov; each man came with his household.” (Exodus 1:1)

KT: “And these are the names of the sons of Yisrael who came to Egypt with Yaakov, each with his household” (Exodus 1:1)

JB: “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scorners. But his delight is in the Tora of the LORD; and in his Tora he meditates day and night:” (Psalms 1:1-2)

KT: “Happy is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, who does not stand in the path of sinners, who does not sit among the jeering cynics – instead, the LORD’s teaching is all his desire, and he contemplates that teaching day and night.” (Psalms 1:1-2)

JB: “My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and do not forsake the Tora of thy mother; for they shall be a graceful garland for thy head and chains for thy neck” (Proverbs 1:8-9)

KT: “Heed, my son, your father’s instructions, and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. For they are like decorative ribbons for your head, and like necklaces for your throat.” (Proverbs 1:8-9)

While some of these differences are merely stylistic, others offer food for thought. For example, did God create the world in the past, as the Jerusalem Bible suggests, or is God still doing the work of creation, which is what the new Koren Tanakh suggests. Also, comparing Torah lessons to necklaces rather than chains is intriguing: The latter has a negative connotation in contemporary times, while the former is more positive. Lovers of Torah study will enjoy exploring this new work.