The Hebrew Bible | Reflections and Notes

Robert Alter. The Hebrew Bible: A Translation and Commentary. W. W. Norton & Company, 2019. (Volume 1: The Torah, 744 pages; Volume 2: The Prophets, 1394 pages; Volume 3: The Writings, 994 pages).


Simply breathtaking.

Alter brings together the culmination of a life’s work in “one” (in “three”) place. But to understand why this tome is so important, we have to understand this is not merely “a translation with commentary.” What Alter does in these volumes is an exposé, a revealing and uncovering of multiple layers that exist in the world of the Bible, the world of English, and the world where those two intersect.

First, Alter’s explication of the “heresy of explanation” is fantastic, and very much commensurate with my experience of English translations, a disappointment that now has a salve. To be fair, it is not a complete remedy, as Alter shyly admits throughout his introductions (below), but the mere fact of stating so and detailing the rationales underneath his translation choices is sufficiently helpful in navigating through the morass of the standard “dynamic” or “formal” equivalencies most frequently touted in English translations. To expose the underlying motivations and aims of most translation works is vital to understanding biblical translations, nd how they affect our reading and comprehension.

Second, in accordance with the “heresy of explanation,” Alter shows how the very nature of the Hebrew language is part and parcel to what the texts are communicating. I have frequently said that when I “learned Hebrew” in seminary, I actually learned “English in the Hebrew language.” Alter articulates why this is a problem and how to produce an English translation that preserves much of the originating syntax and structure of the Hebrew. Where many translations unnecessarily hide Hebrew idiosyncracies, Alter seeks to keep them exposed through the translation.

Third, and most definitely ignored by others, is Alter’s mastery of the English language. This is perhaps one of the most fascinating elements of this work that I found deeply profound. When the translator’s native language is English, there is very little interrogation of the nuances of English that may be leveraged for translation work. Alter brings equal scrutiny to the receptor language as he does to the source. This is a refreshing approach. It allows the text to be accessible by native English speakers, yet just distant enough to retain the dynamical mystique that is embedded in the Hebrew. This final exposé is of the dynamics of English that are avoided when attempting to produce an “accessible” translation.

By all means, translation is an imperfect enterprise, and there ought to be no idolization of Alter’s translation, as I’m sure he would unequivocally purport. But the poetic and prosaic offering in these volumes is still magnificent, beautiful, and captivating. Add Alter’s historical, cultural, and theological acumen, and we get a marvelous read which has the potential of even greater results in the final exposé, that of the human condition.


Introduction to the Hebrew Bible


Why, after so many English versions, a new translation of the Hebrew Bible? There is, as I shall explain in detail, something seriously wrong with all the familiar English translations. …the problem is a shaky sense of English and in the case of the King James Version, a shaky sense of Hebrew. (xiii)

…the modern English versions–especially in their treatment of Hebrew narrative prose–have placed readers at a grotesque distance from the distinctive literary experience of the Bible in its original language. As a consequence, the King James Version, as Gerald Hammond, an eminent British authority on Bible translations, has convincingly argued, remains the closest approach for English readers to the original–despite its frequent and at times embarrassing inaccuracies, despite its archaisms, and despite its insistent substitution of Renaissance English tonalities and rhythms for biblical ones. (xiv)

Literature in general, and the narrative prose of the Hebrew Bible in particular, cultivates certain profound and haunting enigmas, delights in leaving its audiences guessing about motives and connections, and, above all, loves to set ambiguities of word choice an image against one another in an endless interplay that resists neat resolution. In polar contrast, the impulse of the philologist is–here a barbarous term nicely catches the tenor of the activity–“to disambiguate” the terms of the text. The general result when applied to translation is to reduce, simplify, and denature the Bible. (xv)

The unacknowledged heresy underlying most modern English versions of the Bible is the use of translation as a vehicle for explaining the Bible instead of representing it in another language, and in the most egregious instances this amounts to explaining away the Bible. (xv)

Modern translators, in their zeal to uncover the meanings of the biblical text for the instruction of a modern readership, frequently lose sight of how the text intimates its meanings–the distinctive, artfully deployed features of ancient Hebrew prose and poetry that are the instruments for the articulation of all meaning, message, insight, and vision. … Dead metaphors, however, are the one persuasive instance of the resurrection of the dead–for at least the ghosts of the old concrete meanings float over the supposedly abstract acceptations of the terms, and this is something the philologically driven translators do not appear to understand. (xvi)

The invocation of “hand” in chapters 37 and 39–the story of Judah and Tamar lies between them–forms an elegant A B A B pattern: in chapter 37 hands are laid Joseph, an action carried forward in the resumptive repetition at the very beginning of chapter 39 when he is bought “from the hands of the Ishmaelites”; then we have the supremely competent hand, or hands, of Joseph, into which everything is placed, or left, and by which everything succeeds; then again a violent hand is laid on Joseph, involving the stripping of his garment, as in the episode with the brothers; and at the end of the chapter, Joseph in prison again has everything entrusted to his dependable hands, with this key term twice stated in the three and a half verses of the closing frame. A kind of dialectic is created in the thematic unfolding of the story between hand as the agency of violent impulse and hand as the instrument of scrupulous management. Although the concrete term is probably used with more formal precision in this particular sequence than is usually the case elsewhere, the hands of Joseph and the hands upon Joseph provide a fine object lesson about how biblical narrative is misrepresented when translators tamper with the purposeful and insistent physicality of its language, as here when “hand” is transmuted into “trust” or “care.” Such substitutions offer explanations or interpretations instead of translations and thus betray the original. (xix)

Biblical Hebrewhas only two aspects [Instead of a clear-cut expression of the temporal frame in which actions occur–past, present, future, past perfect, and so forth–aspects indicate chiefly whether the action has been completed or is to be completed.] (they are probably not tenses in our sense) of verbs, together ith one indication of a jussive mode–when a verb is used to express a desire or exhortation to perform the action in question–and a modest number of subordinate conjunctions. (xx)

The biblical writers generally chose not to order these events in ramified networks of causal, conceptual, or temporal subordination, not because hypotaxis was an unavailable option, as the opening verses of the second Creation story (Genesis 2:4-5) clearly demonstrate. The continuing appeal, moreover, for writers in our own age of this syntax dominated by “and,” which highlights the discrete event, suggests that parallel syntax may still be a perfectly viable way to represent in English the studied parallelism of verbs and clauses of ancient Hebrew narrative. (xxi)

…we must keep constantly in mind that these narratives were composed to be heard, not merely to be decoded by a reader’s eye. The reiterated “and,” then, plays an important role in creating the rhythm of the story, in phonetically punctuating the forward-driving movement of the prose. The elimination of the “and” in the Revised English Bible and in all its modern cousins produces–certainly to my ear–an abrupt, awkward effect in the sound pattern of the language, or to put it more strictly, a kind of narrative arrhythmia. (xxiii)

…in the compressions, syntactical reorderings, and stop-and-start movements of the modernizing version, the encounter at the well and Rebekah’s actions are made to seem rather matter-of-fact, however exemplary her impulse of hospitality. This tends to obscure what the Hebrew highlights, which is that she is doing something quite extraordinary. Rebekah at the well presents one of the rare biblical instances of the performance of an act of “homeric” heroism. The servant begins by asking modestly to “sip a bit of water,” as though all he wanted were to wet his lips. But we need to remember, as the ancient audience surely did, that a camel after a long desert journey can drink as much as twenty-five gallons of water, and there are ten camels here whom Rebekah offers to water “until they drink their fill.” The chain of verbs tightly linked by all the “and’s” does an admirable job in conveying this sense of the young woman’s hurling herself with prodigious speed into the sequence of required actions. (xxiii) … The parallel syntax and the barrage of “and’s,” far from being the reflex of a “primitive” language, are as artfully effective in furthering the ends of the narrative as any device one could find in a sophisticated modern novelist. (xxiv)

What level, or perhaps levels, of style is represented in biblical Hebrew? … As a matter of fact, all the modern translators–from Speiser to Fox to the sundry ecclesiastical committees in both American and England–have shown a deaf ear to diction, acting as though the only important considerations in rendering a literary text were lexical values and grammatical structures, while the English terms chosen could be promiscuously borrowed from boardroom or bedroom or scholar’s word hoard, with little regard to the tonality and connotation the words carried with them from their native linguistic habitat. (xxiv)

Although there is no proof, my guess it that vernacular syntax and grammar probably differed in some ways from their literary counterparts. In regard to vocabulary, there is evidence that what we see in the canonical books would not have been identical with everyday usage. First, there is the problem of the relative paucity of vocabulary in biblical literature. As the Spanish Hebrew scholar Angel Sáenz-Badillos has observed in his History of the Hebrew Language (1993), the biblical lexicon is so restricted that it is hard to believe it could have served all the purposes of quotidian existence in a highly developed society. The instance of the poetry of Job, with its unusual number of words not found elsewhere in Scripture, is instructive in this regard: the Job-poet, in his powerful impulse to forge a poetic imagery that would represent humankind, God, and nature in a new and even startling light, draws on highly specific lan-(xxiv)guage from manufacturing processes, food preparation, commercial and legal institutions, which would never be used in biblical narrative. The plausible conclusion is that the Hebrew of the Bible is a conventionally delimited language, …it was understood by writers and their audiences, at least in the case of narrative, that only certain words were appropriate for the literary rendering of events. (xxv)

cf. Abba ben David The Langauge of the Bible and the Langauge of the Sages [available only in Hebrew]

Ben David, observing, as have others before him, that there are incipient signs of an emergent rabbinic Hebrew in late biblical books like Jonah and the Song of Songs, makes the bold and, to my mind, convincing proposal that rabbinic Hebrew was built upon an ancient vernacular that for the most part had been excluded from the literary langauge used for the canonical texts. (xxv)

All this strongly suggests that the language of biblical narrative in its own time was stylized, decorous, dignified, and readily identified by its audiences as a language of literature in certain ways distinct from the language of quotidian reality. The tricky complication, however, is that in most respects it also was not a lofty style, and was certainly neither ornate (xxvi) nor euphemistic. … Biblical prose, then, is a formal literary language but also, paradoxically, a plainspoken one, and, moreover, a language that evinces a strong commitment to using a limited set of terms again and again, making an aesthetic virtue out of the repetition. (xxvii)

An adequate English version should be able to indicate the small but significant modulations in diction in the biblical language–something the stylistically uniform King James Version, however, entirely fails to do. A suitable English version should avoid at all costs the modern abomination of elegant synonymous variation, for the literary prose of the Bible turns everywhere on significant repetition, not variation. Similarly, the translation of terms on the basis of immediate context–except when it becomes grotesque to do otherwise–is to be resisted as another instance of the heresy of explanation. (xxvii)

“Lie with” is a literal equivalent of the Hebrew, though in English it is vaguely euphemistic, whereas in Hebrew it is a more brutally direct or carnally explicit idiom for sexual intercourse, without, however, any suggestion of obscenity. (xxxi)

| The most intractable of the three expressions is “to come into” or “to enter.” In nonsexual contexts, this is the ordinary biblical verb for entering, or arriving. “To enter,” or “to come into,” however, is a misleading translation because the term clearly refers not merely to sexual penetration but to the whole act of sexual consummation. … The underlying spatial imagery of the term, I think, is of the man’s entering the woman’s sphere for the first time through a series of concentric circles: her tent or chamber, her bed, her body. (xxxi)

When Hagar and Ishmael use up their supply of water in the wilderness, the despairing mother “flung the child under one of the bushes” (Genesis 21:15). The verb here, hishlikh, always means “to throw,” usually abruptly or violently. (xxxiii)

No previous English translation has made a serious effort to represent the elevated and archaic nature of the poetic language in contradistinction to the prose, though that is clearly part of the intended literary effect of biblical narrative. The present translation tries to suggest this contrast in levels of style–through a more liberal use of syntactic inversion in the poetry, through a selective invocation of slightly archaic terms, and through the occasional deployment of rhetorical gestures broadly associated with older English poetry (like the ejaculation “O”). I wish I could have gone further in this direction, but there is a manifest danger in sounding merely quaint instead of eloquently archaic, and so the stylistic baggage of “anent” and “forsooth” had to be firmly excluded. (xxxv)

The most pervasive aspect of the magic of biblical style that has been neglected by English translators is its beautiful rhythms. An important reason for the magnetic appeal of these stories when you read them in the Hebrew is the Rhythmic power of the words that convey the story. … I know of no modern English translation of the Bible that is not blotted by constant patches of arrhythmia,… (xxxvi)

Biblical Hebrew, in sum, has a distinctive music, a lovely precision of lexical choice, a meaningful concreteness, and a suppleness of expressive syntax that by and large have been given short shrift by translators with their eyes on other goals. The present translation, whatever its imperfections, seeks to do fuller justice to all these aspects of biblical style in the hope of making the rich literary experience of the Hebrew more accessible to readers of English. (xxix)


Admittedly, any of the choices I have described may be debatable, but in all of them my aim has been to name the deity in English in ways that would be in keeping with the overall concert of literary effects that the translation strives to create. (xl)


Where are there detectible shifts of stylistic level in the Hebrew, and why do they occur? What are the reasons for the small poetic insets in the prose narratives? What are the principles on which dialogue is organized, and how are the speakers differentiated? Where and why are there shifts from the narrator’s point of view to that of one of the characters? What are the devices of analogy, recurrent motifs, and key words that invite us to link and contrast one episode with another? (xli) How is the poetry formally constructed? And do these books, granted their composite origins, exhibit overarching thematic and structural unities or lines of development? (xlii)

…the exploration of the Bible as literary expression is the central focus of this commentary, and I would hope it would be of interest to everyone, from reader at large to scholar, who is drawn to the imaginative liveliness, the complexities, the stylistic vigor, and the sheer inventiveness of these splendid ancient stories and poems and legal and moral discourses. (xlii)


Introduction to the Five Books

…”And it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day.” (The definite article is not used for the preceding five days.) …”to teach us that the Holy One made a condition with all created things, saying to them, ‘If Israel accepts the Torah, you will continue to exist. If not, I shall return you to welter and waste'” (Babylonian Talmud: Shabbat 88A). This is surely an extraordinary notion to entertain about the cosmic status of a book, imagining that the very existence of the world depends on it and on Israel’s embrace of it. (xliii)

What is it about this text that led to such a vision of its unique standing? Are the five literary units it comprises in fact one book or five? How were they brought together? What are we to call them? (xliii)

Torah means “teaching,” or in biblical contexts involving specific laws, something like “regulation” or “protocol,” i.e., that which is to be taught as proper procedure for a given topic. (xliv)

…the Hebrew language visibly evolves over the nine centuries of biblical literary activity, with many demonstrable differences between the language current in the First Commonwealth–approximately 1000 B.C.E. to 586 B.C.E.–and the language as it was written in the Persian and Hellenistic periods. There is very little in the Hebrew of the Torah that could have been written in this later era. (xliv)

These sundry literary sources were probably edited and fashioned into a single book–the first properly canonical book with binding authority on the national community–sometime in the sixth century B.C.E., in the Babylonian exile. It has been proposed–not without challenge–that Ezra the Scribe, who instituted public readings of the Torah for the Judahites returned from the Babylonian exile, perhaps soon after 458 B.C.E., may have overseen the final redaction of the Torah. (xlv)

Genesis is the only one of the Five Books that is more or less continuous narrative from beginning to end, the only recurrent but limited exception being the genealogies (the “begats”), which, as I shall try to indicate in the commentary, have a function as structural and thematic markers. If this were the work of a single writer, one would say he begins at the top of his form, not slowly and circuitously,…but with a tour de force… (xlvi)

This imposing narrative [Exodus] has been shaped to show forth God’s overwhelming power in history, exerted against one of the great ancient kingdoms, and the forging of the nation through a spectacular chain of divine interventions that culminates in the spectacle of the revelation on the mountain of God’s imperatives to Israel. (xlviii)

Structurally, Leviticus is the capstone of the Five Books, balancing Genesis and Exodus on one side and Numbers and Deuteronomy on the other. (xlvii)

…if these Five Books are chiefly an account of the origins and definition of the nation from its first forebears who accepted a covenant with God to the moment when the people stands on the brink of entering the Promised Land, the ancient writers conceived three major constituents of national identity and cohesion. The first, and the one that we can most readily understand, is the trajectory of the collective and of its principal figures through the medium of history. In the tracing of this trajectory, the narrative shows us how historical events shape the people, how the people achieves a sense of its identity and purpose through the pressure of events. (xlvii) … But the biblical writers assumed that Israel’s covenant with God had to be realized through institutional arrangements as well as through historical acts;… (xlviii)

The Book of Numbers… The excitements, the grave dangers, and the grand hopes of swimming in the tide of history are all powerfully at play here, and these are vividly brought forth in the evocative poetry of Balaam’s oracles that take up chapters 23 and 24. (xlviii)

Deuteronomy…comes to serve as a grand summary of the themes and story we have read up to this point. To be sure, this last book was intended as a fundamental revision of much earlier law, with the emphasis on one exclusive national sanctuary the principal item of revision. Nevertheless, read in sequence with the other four books, it comes across as a strong recapitulation and conclusion. (xlviii)

The Torah is manifestly a composite construction, but there is abundant evidence throughout the Hebrew Bible that composite work was fundamental to the very conception of that literature was, that a process akin to collage was assumed to be one of the chief ways in which literary texts were put together. What we have, then, in the Five Books is a work assembled by many hands, reflecting several different viewpoints, and representing literary activity that spanned several centuries. The redacted whole nevertheless creates some sense of continuity and development, and it allows itself to be read as a forward-moving process through time and theme from book to book, yielding an overarching literary structure we can call, in the singular version of the title, the Torah. The Torah exhibits seams, fissures, and inner tensions that cannot be ignored, but it has also been artfully assembled through the ancient process to cohere strongly as the foundational text of Israelite life and the cornerstone of the biblical canon. (xlix)



…two centuries of biblical scholarship have generally assumed that Genesis–and indeed each of the Five Books of Moses as well as most other biblical texts–is not strictly speaking a book but rather an accretion of sundry traditions, shot through with disjunctions and contradictions, and accumulated in an uneven editorial process over several centuries. …I do think that the historical and textual criticism of the Bible is not so damaging to a literary reading of the text as is often assumed. (3)

The biblical term that comes closest to “book” is sefer [ספר]. Etymologically, it means “something recounted,” but its primary sense is “scroll,” and it can refer to anything written on a scroll–a letter, a relatively brief unit within a longer composition, or a book more or less in our sense. (3)

It is small wonder that the Documentary Hypothesis, whatever its general validity, has begun to look as though it has reached a point of diminishing returns, and many younger scholars, showing signs of restlessness with source criticism, have been exploring other approaches–literary, anthropological, sociological, and so forth–to the Bible. (4)

| The informing assumption of my translation and commentary is that the edited version of Genesis–the so-called redacted text–which has come down to us, though not without certain limited contradictions and disparate elements, has powerful coherence as a literary work, and that this coherence is above all what we need to address as readers. … What seems quite clear, however, is that the redactors had a strong and often subtle sense of thematic and narrative purposefulness in the way they wove together the inherited literary strands, and the notion of some scholars that they were actuated by a mechanical compulsion to incorporate old traditions at all costs is not sustained by a scrutiny of the text, with only a few marginal exceptions. (5)

I am deeply convinced that conventional biblical scholarship has been trigger-happy in using the arsenal of text-critical categories, proclaiming contradiction wherever there is the slightest internal tension in the text, seeing every repetition as evidence of a duplication of sources, everywhere tuning in to the static of transmission, not to the complex music of the redacted story. (5)

Some critics have plausibly imagined this whole large process of biblical literature as a divine experiment with the quirky and unpredictable stuff of human freedom, an experiment plagued by repeated failure and dedicated to renewed attempts: first Adam and Eve, then the generation of Noah, then the builders of the Tower of Babel, and finally Abraham and his seed. (6)

Although the Patriarchal  Tales are in one obvious way also the story of a chain of fathers–Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–the horizon these tales constantly invoke is the future, not the past. (7)

What nevertheless strongly binds the two large units of the Book of Genesis is both outlook and theme. The unfolding history of the family that is to become the people of Israel is seen, as I have suggested, as the crucial focus of a larger, universal history. The very peregrinations of the family back and forth between Mesopotamia and Canaan and down to Egypt intimate that its scope involves not just the land Israel has been promised but the wider reach of known cultures. National existence, moreover, is emphatically imagined as a strenuous effort to renew the act of creation. The Creation story repeatedly highlights the injunction to be fruitful and multiply, while the Patriarchal Tales, in the very process of frequently echoing this language of fertility from the opening chapters, make clear that procreation, far from being an automatic biological process, is fraught with dangers, is constantly under the threat of being deflected or cut off. (8)



The rapid enumeration here of the sons of Jacob is concluded by a notation of the formulaic number of seventy said to constitute the Hebrew migration from Canaan to Egypt, and this is followed by a restatement of the death of Joseph–a device that biblical scholars call “resumptive repetition,” whereby, after an interruption of narrative continuity, a phrase is repeated from the point at which the narrative broke off (the phrase here is “And Joseph died”) in order to mark the resumption of the story. … Instead of the sharply etched individuals who constituted a family in all its explosive dynamics in Genesis, we now have teeming multitudes of Israelites whose spectacular prolificness introduces to the story the perspective of the whole wide world of creation announced at the beginning of Genesis: “And the sons of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and multiplied and grew very vast, and the land [the Hebrew word also means “earth,” as in Genesis] was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7). (205)

At the beginning of the story, Pharaoh is referred to several times as “the king of Egypt” rather than by his Egyptian title, which was used in Genesis and will become his set designation as the story goes on. This has the effect of casting him as the archetypal evil king (one who kills babies) in a folktale confrontation between the forces of good and of evil. (206)

The general rule in Exodus, and again in Numbers when the story continues, is that what is of interest about the character of Moses is what bears on his qualities as a leader–his impassioned sense of justice, his easily ignited temper, his selfless compassion, his feelings of personal inadequacy. (206)

There is a certain correlation between the distancing of the central character and the distancing of the figure of God in Exodus (a procedure that, again, is continued into Numbers). God in Genesis…walks about the earth looking very much like a man. … God in Exodus has become essentially unseeable, overpowering, and awesomely refulgent. Barriers to access accompany Him everywhere, just as they will be instituted architecturally in the tripartite structure of the sanctuary that He orders the Israelites to build. The first manifestation of God’s presence to Moses is in the anomaly of the fire burning in a bush without consuming it, and then the divine voice enjoins Moses, “Come no closer here,” and proceeds to speak to him without being in any way visible to him. Fire, which betokens potent energy and which is something one cannot touch without being hurt or destroyed, is the protective perimeter out of which God addresses Moses and the Israelites throughout the story: all of Mount Sinai will be smoking like a firebrand, with celestial fireworks of lightning and thunder crackling round its peak, when God reveals the Ten Commandments to Moses. … God in Exodus has become more of an ungraspable mystery than He seems in Genesis; and as He moves here from the sphere of the clan that is the context of the Patriarchal Tales to the arena of history, His sheer power as supreme deity and His implacability against those who would thwart His purposes emerge as the most salient aspects of the divine character. (207)

The climax of this whole story is a set of lapidary legal injunctions, but they are in no way anticlimactic for being that. Framed as a series of imperatives in the second-person singular and thus addressing every man and woman of the Israelite nation, they express the keenest sense of urgency, much like the urgency in dialogue between human characters that marks many of the dramatic high points of biblical narrative elsewhere. Later, in the episode of the Golden Calf, we learn that God has incised the ten imperative utterances on two tablets of stone (32:15-16), but here no mention is made of writing. The omission is dictated, I think, by a desire to convey the potent immediacy of God’s speech to (208) Israel through Moses: “And God spoke these words, saying” is the formula pointedly used to introduce the Decalogue. (209)

| Finally, beyond well-watered Egypt and the burning desert where uncanny fires flare, the new Israelite nation is repeatedly told of a third space, a land flowing not with water but, hyperbolically, with milk and honey. This utopian space will be beyond reach for forty years, and in a sense it can never be fully attained. (209)

After the riveting narrative of liberation and revelation, the second half of the book, with the exception fo the Golden Calf story (chapters 32-34), is devoted to legal material–first a code of criminal and tort law, with some ritual injunctions at the end (chapters 21-23), which is often referred to by scholars as the Book of the Covenant, and then the elaborate instructions for the building of the Tabernacle (chapters 25-31), instructions that will be carried out, more or less word for word, just as one would expect, after the resolution of the confrontation over the Golden Calf (chapters 35-40). (209)

And so, before the first human male shaped out of clay and Eve built from his rib and the seduction by the serpent, the Priestly writer placed his own magisterial version of creation, in which the world is called into being through a succession of divine speech-acts and in which everything proceeds in harmonious order, registered int eh balanced cadences of the stately prose, from the first day to the seventh, coming to a formal conclusion in the primordial sabbath. The first half of Exodus is a compelling story, punctuated, as some scholars have proposed, by certain epic gestures, that moves from enslavement to liberation to epiphany. It is also a story marked by danger, doubt, and what looks like a national destiny of endless trouble. Moses the future leader barely escapes being murdered as an infant; kills a man, an act that compels him to flee Egypt; harbors grave doubts about his capacity for the daunting mission God imposes on him; and on occasion is angry, impatient, almost despairing in his leadership. The Israelites on their part can scarcely bring themselves to trust Moses and Aaron when the two brothers come to lead them out of slavery, and once in the wilderness, the people will repeatedly prove to be recalcitrant in a long series of backslidings or “murmurings,” both in Exodus and in Numbers. The crowning instance of these episodes of rebellion is the incident of the Golden Calf, carefully introduced between the instructions for the building of the Tabernacle and the carrying out of the instructions. (210)

| The Tabernacle, I would suggest, was imagined by these writers as a vision of perfectly orchestrated harmony, enacted through the meticulous crafts of architecture, weaving, dyeing, wood carving, and metalwork–an implementation by human artisans, following divine directives, of the sort of comprehensive harmony figured in the Priestly account of creation. After the tense story of rupture and recrimination of national experience in history, the Priestly writers, themselves intimately associated with a realm of ordered ritual, provide an elaborately imagined representation of the beautiful ordering of sacred space, a zone of choreographed repetition set off against the unsettled peregrinations of the Wilderness generation. The satisfaction of this material gives its audience is not story but pageantry: the splendor of the many-colored textiles displayed along the walls of the Tabernacle, the bronze loops on which they are hung, the wrought precious (210) metals and inlaid gems of the various ritual implements. When at the end of all the building we are told, “And Moses completed the task” (40:33), we hear a significant echo of “And God completed on the seventh day the task He had done) (Genesis 2:2). Human labor, scrupulously following a divine plan, creates an ordered space that mirrors the harmony of God’s creation. (211)



If the Torah was assembled from its sundry literary sources by Priestly (371) writers, as scholarly consensus holds, sometime during the sixth century B.C.E., in the decades following the fall of Judah in 586, it is understandable that these editors should want to make the concerns of their own sacerdotal guild the keystone of the literary structure they were establishing. The emphasis, moreover, on the regimen of sacrifices must have had a kind of historical poignancy and an ideological urgency for them: the Temple with all its splendid furnishings and accoutrements had been reduced to rubble by the Babylonian invaders, with much of the Judahite population driven into exile, and these intricate legal instructions about ritual conduct within the sacred space of the Tabernacle were a means of reinstating the vanished temple as a fact of the imagination and a blueprint for future restoration. (372)

cf. Mary Douglas, Leviticus as Literature (1999). Purity and Danger. … Her basic argument is that the book represents an extremely intricate and subtle deployment of a mode of thought that she calls “analogical,” which, she contends, should not be deemed more primitive than the analytic thinking on which modern Western culture is largely based but rather seen as a different way of conceptually ordering the world, one that is exhibited in many cultures and to which we should not condescend. Reality is conceived as an elaborate system of correspondences–correspondences between Sinai and the cosmos, on the one hand, and the Tabernacle, on the other, and between all three of these and the body segments of the sacrifical animal. (372)

There is a single verb that focuses the major themes of Leviticus–“divide” (Hebrew, hivdil). [הבדיל] … In this vision of cosmogony, the condition before the world was called into being was a chaotic interfusion of disparate elements, “welter and waste.” What enables existence and provides a framework for the development of human nature, conceived in God’s image, and of human civilization is a process of division and insulation–light from darkness, day from night, the upper waters from the lower waters, and dry land from the latter. That same process is repeatedly manifested in the ritual, sexual, and dietary laws of Leviticus. Thus, the summarizing statement at the end of the list of living creatures respectively permitted an prohibited for eating: “This is the teaching about beast and bird and every l giving creature that stirs in the water and every swarming thing that swarms on earth [a whole string of phrases harking back to the Priestly story of Creation], to divide between the unclean and the clean and between the animal that is eaten and the animal that shall not be eaten” (11:46-47). Or again, right after the catalogue of forbidden sexual unions: “I am the LORD your God Who set you apart from all the peoples. And you shall set apart the clean from the unclean beast, and the unclean bird from the clean, and you shall not make yourselves despicable through beast and bird and all that crawls on the ground, which I set apart for you as unclean. And you shall be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy” (20:24-26). (The same key Hebrew verb, hivdil, is used here, but because “divided you from all the peoples” sounds a little awkward, and might actually introduce (373) an unintended idea of divisiveness, I have reluctantly abandoned consistency in this instance and represented it in English as “set apart.”) (374)

| The verses just cited appear to straddle between the sexual prohibitions that precede them and the dietary prohibitions mentioned immediately aftwarward. Just as one has to set apart permissible sexual partners from forbidden ones–mothers, aunts, sisters, daughters, daughters-in-law, and every kind of animal–one must set apart what may be eaten in the great pullulation of living creatures from what may not be eatn–reptiles, amphibians, birds of prey, pigs, bats, rats. Israel, in its turn, by accepting these categorical divisions int he realm of appetite, sets itself apart from other peoples and becomes holy, like God. This last element of imitation dei suggests that God’s holiness, whatever else it may involve and however ultimately unfathomable the idea may be, implies an ontological division or chasm between the Creator and the created world, a concept that sets off biblical monotheism from the worldview of antecedent polytheism, where at least the king could serve as mediator between human and divine. (374)

| Dividing, setting apart, the erection of barriers to access, are notions that suffuse al the regulations here about the Tabernacle (mishkan, more literally, God’s terrestrial “dwelling place”). … What goes along with this rigorous setting apart of sacred space is an anxious concern about contamination from the sphere of the profane. Various body fluids; discharges and deformations of the skin and body caused by disease; mildew and other blights in fabrics, utensils, and buildings; violations of moral as well as ritual prohibitions–all these are lumped together in one large general category, according to the hierarchical division of the cosmos imagined here, of profane pollutants. These are thought of as an invisible cloud of contamination, or as some have proposed, a kind of miasma, that has the capacity to inflitrate into sacred space and compromise its holy character, which by definition involves a careful insulation from the realm of the profane. (374)

The chief instruments for protecting the separation of ontological spheres are fire, blood, oil, and water. These are all, of course, substances associated with the sacrificial cult that long antedate biblical monotheism,… Fire, as we have seen abundantly in Exodus and will see even more emphatically in Deuteronomy, is associated with the deity: God reveals His commandments in an awesome pyrotechnic display, manifests His presence before the people in a pillar of fire by night and of cloud by day, and is appropriately words through buhrnt offerings, entirely consumed by fire, and by other sacrifices that are “turned to smoke” (hiqtir) by the officiant. The heart of the sacred zone is a dangerous place from which divine fire may leap forth to protect the holy from contamination. Blood, as Leviticus emphatically reminds us, is the very life (nefesh) of the living animal. As such, it categorically must not be consumed as food, but in ritual procedure it has a purgative virtue and is to be sprinkled, cast, or smeared in designated ways during the sanctuary rite in order to effect purgation. Oil (it is specifically olive oil) has, by contrast, an association with the quotidian and with the social and political realms in ancient culture. A traveler, for example, after washing away the dust of the road, would rub himself with oil; and, of course, oil is the substance of dedication, poured on the head, for kings as well as for priests. It is chiefly the dedicatory function of oil that is carried over into its various stipulated (375) uses here in the cult. Finally, the efficacy of water as a purifying agent is self-evident and universal. One should note that these four substances are drawn from four different realms of existence: fire is linked, as we have seen, with the divine; blood courses through the veins of living creatures, animal and human; olive oil is a product of agriculture, of the land, which sets it over against water, a manifestation of nature without human intervention (it is fresh running water that must be used for purification), recalling the primordial realm that must be set apart from dry land so that the world may come into existence. (376)

This ritual implementation of the monotheistic vision was a battle against he inchoate. Holiness could be achieved, and had to be protected, only by a constant confirmation of hierarchical distinction, by laying out reality in distinct realms and categories separated by barricades of prohibitions. (376)



The Book of Numbers is in some respects the most miscellaneous of the five books of the Torah, but it also includes a series of uniquely fascinating episodes that exhibit distinctive literary features. The first ten chapters are, by scholarly consensus, the work of Priestly writers and in a certain sense constitute a continuation of Leviticus. (469)

But if Israel is on th remove from chapter 11 to the end, it must be said that this text associates movement with trouble. After the initial choreographed procession of the teeming tribes, each arrayed in orderly fashion around its own banner, we get repeated representations of a motley crew of mal-contents–the Hebrew pejorative ‘asafsuf, [אספסף] “riffraff” (11:4), is aptly invoked to characterize them–a mob churning with complaints and frustrated desires, restive under Moses’s leadership, fed up with the hardships of life in the wilderness, and nostalgic for the material comforts of life in Egypt. (470)

One suspects that all these repetitions of the scene of (470) murmuring are introduced because the writers conceived it as a paradigm for the subsequent history of Israel: recurrent resentment of God’s rule and of the authority of His legitimate leaders, chronic attraction to objects of base material desire, fearefulness, divisiveness, and the consequences of national disaster brought about, in the view of the biblical writers, by this whole pattern of constant backsliding. (471)

| For all the prominence of these scenes of rebellion, Numbers offers a kind of dialectical counterimage to the representation of Israel as an obstinate and refractory mob. This generation that cannot free itself from the slave mentality it brought with it from Egypt also constitutes the beginnings of a people meant to realize a grand historical destiny. Imagery and acts of martial prowess, reinforced by sheer numbers that daunt the other nations of the region, and more pacific images of well-watered vegetation luxuriantly burgeoning, are associated with the assembled tribes of Israel. Many of these terms are introduced in poetry, and it is the striking poetic insets in Numbers that account for much of its distinctive quality among books of the BIble. The more typical convention of biblical literature is to insert a relatively long poem at the end of a book, as happens with the Blessing of Jacob at the end of Genesis and with the Song of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy, or after a climactic narrative event, as in the instance of the Song of the Sea in Exodus. Here, however, we are given snippets of what look like very ancient Hebrew poems at unpredictable points in the narrative, together with one relatively extended sequence of poems (it is not really a single continuous poem), Balaam’s oracles, a series of prophecies about Israel’s future that is pronounced, unlike any other biblical poetry, by a non-Israelite soothsayer. (471)

cf. 12:6-8; 21:14-15

No one has offered a convincing explanation of what this is all about, and it is an interesting question why such scraps of old verse should have been incorporated in the Book of Numbers. (471) … I would like to propose that these fragments of old poems are introduced into the narrative of Numbers at least in part in order to produce an “antiquity effect.” … The point, in any case, of the fragmentary quotation, triggered in context by the geographical references, would have been to evoke a distant moment in early Israelite history, suffused with the aura of the historical era of the story’s setting in the thirtieth century B.C.E. One may surmise that the Book of the Battles of YHWH was deemed too anthropomorphic or too mythological in character to be included in the canon that was evolving, perhaps (to judge by the title) featuring a warrior-god wielding lightning as his weapon, as in some of the Psalms and in Ugaritic poetry, leading the assault against Israel’s enemies. The enigmatic lines cited from this ancient text conjure up an era of fierce martial energies when Israel first established itself among the peoples of Canaan as a conquering nation (The early-twentieth-century Hebrew poet Saul Tchernikhovsky would capture something of the spirit of this era by referring to the primordial deity of the Hebrews in a programmatically Nietzschean poem as “El, god of the conquerors of Canaan in a whirlwind.”)  The Song of the Well might possibly recall a particular incident of discovering water in the wilderness, but, more prominently, it evokes a whole nomadic way of life int he desert, and in its extreme brevity, it looks more like the refrain of an old song than the complete text. (472)

The brilliant centerpiece among these citations of archaic poetry is the oracles of Balaam (chapters 23 and 24), which follow the story of Balaam and his she-ass, tracing a cunning network of analogies to it. That story has often been characterized as a folktale, and there are no other instances of talking animals in the historical narratives of the Bible (the only other candidate, the serpent in the Garden story, belongs to the primeval and hence more mythological phase of biblical literature). Especially because, according to prevalent preconceptions, there is no humor in the BIble, it should be noted that this story is quite funny. The humor serves the purposes of a monotheistic satire of pagan notions of the professional seer with independent powers to curse or bless: Balaam the celebrated visionary cannot see the sword-wielding divine messenger who is plainly visible to his ass, and he is reduced to spluttering frustration, finally engaging in an angry argument with his beast of burden. Balaam then plays the role of the ass whose eyes, and mouth, are opened by God vis-à-vis the thrice frustrated, and understandably fuming, Moabite king Balak, to whom Balaam’s previous role as imperceptive satiric butt is assigned in this second story. (473)

| The very figure of Balaam is part of the antiquity effect cultivated in this narrative. This selfsame soothsayer is the principal character in an inscription discovered in Jordan in 1967, written in a language that is a close relative of Hebrew, with Aramaic elements, and dating from the eighth century B.C.E.; and so we may infer that he was known as a seer of fabled powers int he traditions of this region, perhaps going back to tales told centuries earlier. (473)

The archaic coloration of Balaam’s oracles is nicely conveyed through the names he uses for the deity. Balaam in the poems refers to God once, near the beginning of the first oracle, as YHWH, but then God is variously invoked as El, Shaddai, and Elyon, all names of deities from the Canaanite pantheon that have been, one might say, co-opted by the Hebrew monotheists. Balaam expresses his own identity as a seer schooled int he lore of West Semitic polytheists by using animal imagery for God (as the Psalms do), representing Him charging against Israel’s enemies with “wild ox’s antlers.” And yet, this pagan prophet, both through the ingenious turns of the story and through the poetry that is put in his mouth, has been enlisted i nthe monotheistic cause. All prophetic utterance, all curses and blessings, come from YHWH alone: “What can I hex that El has not hexed, / and what can I doom that the LORD has not doomed?” (23:8). (474)



The Book of Deuteronomy is the most sustained deployment of rhetoric in the Bible. …though one function of the surrounding rhetoric is to underwrite the authority of the laws here promulgated, reminding the people again and again that their very lives and their collective survival on the land depend upon the punctilious observance of “this teaching” (hatorah hazo’t). (609)

| If one tries to imagine, however, the actual audience for which Deuteronomy was firs framed, It will begin to be evident that its impressive deployment of rhetoric serves another purpose. Rhetoric is an art of persuasion, and the rhetoric of Deuteronomy is meant to persuade audiences in the late First Commonwealth and exilic period of the palpable and authoritative reality of an event that never occurred, or at any rate surely did not occur as it is represented in this text–the national assembly in trans-Jordan that was a second covenant after the covenant at Sinai, in which Moses reviewed the whole code of law, rapidly rehearsed the story of the Wilderness wanderings, and exhorted the people to be loyal to God, with repeated predictions of the dire consequences if they should fail in their loyalty. There are, in fact, two equivalences that the language of Moses’s address is devised to establish: an equivalence between this solemn convocation and the defining experience at Sinai, which is repeatedly referred to as yom haqahal, “the day of assembly,” in order to line it up with this new assembly in the trans-Jordan; and an equivalence between the experience o this audience physically present to receive Moses’s last words and that of the seventh-(609)century B.C.E. audience and its prospective heirs listening to the Book of Deuteronomy and assenting to its authority. The resources of rhetoric are marshaled to create through a written text the memory of a foundational national event, so that the latter-day Israelites listening to “this book of teaching,” sefer ha torah hazeh, will feel that they themselves are reenacting that event. (610)

| The role of stylistic indicators of temporal and spatial location and orientation–those “pointing words” that linguists refer to as deictics–is essential to the creation of this general effect. … This seemingly minor deictic gesture, “at that time,” ba’et hahai’, reflects an important , and recurring, rhetorical strategy in the book. There is no bliblcal text more generous than Deuteronomy in its use of demonstrative pronouns. “At that time” temporally positions both Moses and his audience in relation to the legal injunction he is delivering: you heard it then, the phrase tells us, or at any rate your parents, now died out, heard it, and its imperative force is exactly the same now as I repeat this injunction–and, again, it will be the same when these words of Moses are read out to their audience in the seventh century or later. (610)

The demonstrative pronoun “that” which is attached to “wilderness” is both a temporal and an emotional deictic. … Again and again, the audience of this national assembly is reminded that they have seen–or in a frequent variation, that their very eyes have seen, ‘eyneikhem haro’ot–the portentous events that Moses is rehearsing. At one remove, the members of the historical audience of the book of Deuteronomy are implicitly invited to imagine what their forebears actually saw, to see it vicariously. (611)

There is, I would say, a slide of identification between one generation and another. Most of those listening to Moses’s words could not literally have seen the things of which he speaks, but the people is imagined as a continuous entity, bearing responsibility through historical time as a collective moral agent. It is this assumption that underwites the hortatory flourish, repeated in several variations, “Not with our fathers did the LORD seal this covenant but with us–we who are here today, all of us alive” (5:3).

Moses’s valedictory transmission of God’s commands to Israel is a second Sinai, and the written text that records his final discourses is in turn understood to be the permanent vehicle through which an approximation of the Sinai experience can be reenacted (thus laying the ground, (612) one might observe, for the pervasive textualization of Jewish culture that would evolve in later centuries). (613)

The conjuring up of the Sinai experience through the powerful language of this oratory is brilliantly linked with the Deuteronomic polemic against the worship of images. Moses takes pains to remind his audience that the revelation they were vouchsafed was auditory, and in no way visual (another contrast to Exodus, where after the Decalogue is given, the elders of Israel come partway up the mountain and “beheld God” [Exodus 24:11]). … (4:11-12). This is a moment of mystery, compounded of impenetrable obscurity–“darkness, cloud, and dense fog”–and blinding effulgence. The eye, which has seen so much from Egypt until this moment, can see nothing; the ear alone can receive the commanding divine words. (614)

There are few biblical instances of this sort of sentence length [4:13-20] outside of Deuteronomy, where the grand sentence is devised to catch up the listener in its sheer momentum of insistence. Let us try to follow the stages of the effort of persuasion inscribed in the language. God writes the text of the Ten Words in stone, then designates Moses, the continuing intermediary, as the leader and expounder of the laws, what in Exodus is the so-called Book of the Covenant, and to its counterpart in the code of laws in Deuteronomy. The narrative report of the Sinai experience in Exodus also emphasizes sound and speech, excluding any direct visual image of God, with the limited exception of the post-epiphanic vision on the mountain by the elders of Israel. Here, however, the imageless character of the revelation at Sinai is moved to the thematic center. The defining memory of the people of Israel is at once an overwhelming revelation of God and a memory of the absence of any image. That memory of an absence then becomes the warrant for an enduring imperative to avoid all worship of images, never to confuse the representation of any living thing in the created world with the exclusive divinity of the Creator. … The catalogue of images of things not to be worshipped also pointedly harks back to the Creation story, leading one to infer that the writer was familiar with the Priestly version of creation or some textual ancestor of it. … The injunction not to raise one’s eyes to the heavens and worship the celestial bodies probably had special urgency in the late First Commonwealth period when, particularly through Assyrian influence, the cult of astral deities had become widespread in the Israelite populace, at least according to one prevalent historical inference. Here, too, the language of the Priestly account of creation has special resonance: the eyes that have beheld God’s portentous presence in history–but not His image–should avoid the temptation to see “the sun and the moon and the stars, all the array of the heavens…and bow down to them,” for in the (615) authoritative story all these celestial entities were ordained by God to exist in cosmic orderliness, with the process culminating when “the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their array” (Genesis 2:1). … It is not the image of God but His incandescent presence that the people of Israel experience through their history, and the powerful rhetoric of the book is the means that evokes this presence. (616)


Introduction to Prophets

This middle unit of the traditional tripartite division of the Hebrew canon, which is the largest of the three, comprises two very different sets of materials. The first, designated the Former Prophets for somewhat confusing reasons that will be explained below, is in fact a set of narratives, purportedly historical (Joshua, Judges, and the early chapters of Samuel) or substantially historical (much of Samuel and Kings). (xliii)

| The second large set of texts is a collection of prophecies in the proper sense of the term. These Prophetic books, although they incorporate some narrative materials, are by and large hortatory, much of them cast in poetry. (xliii)


The conventional English title is a literal translation fo the Hebrew nevi’im ri’shonim. [נביאים ראשונים] (xliii) … More plausible grounds for calling this sequence of narratives the Former Prophets is that, from Samuel onward, figures identified as prophets keep popping up, for the most part to frame the narrative with prophecies of dom. (This is not true for Joshua and Judges). The sole exception is Deborah in Judges 4, who is called a “prophet-woman,” ‘ishah nevi’ah, but she is not shown exercising that vocation).) (xliv)

| Biblical scholars…have adopted a more precise though less unpronounceable designation for the large narrative from Joshua and Judges to Samuel and Kings: the Deuteronoistic History. In the late seventh century B.C.E., a major revolution int he religion of ancient Israel was effected when, in the course of renovation work on the Temple in the reign of King Josiah, a long scroll was purportedly discovered (see 2 Kings 22-23); it was referred to as “this book of teaching,” sefer hatorah hazeh. [ספר התורה הזה] Most scholars since the early nineteenth century have concluded that it was a version of Deuteronomy and surmise that it was actually composed around this time by reformers in Josiah’s court. It put forth a new insistence on the exclusivity of the cult in the Jerusalem temple, vehemently polemicized against the use of any image or icon in worship, and proposed a system of historical causation in which the survival of a given king and of the covenanted people was strictly dependent on their loyalty–above all, cultic loyalty–to their God. All this was cast in language that highlighted certain formulaic phrases–“to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your might,” “to keep His statutes, His commands and His dictates”–and in a distinctive rhetoric that, unlike other biblical prose, favored long period sentences and the oratorical insistence of anaphora, that is, emphatic repetition. (xliv)

| At the same time that Deuteronomy proper (which would acquire some additional layers when it was edited in the Babylonian exile only a few decades after its initial promulgation in 621 B.C.E.) was exhorting the people to follow what it deemed to be the right path, writers in this same circle sought to make sense of the history of the nation in the revelatory light of the new reforming book. A religious intellectual–it may actually have been a whole group, but for convenience’s sake, scholarship refers to him schematically as the Deuteronomist–who was swept up in Josiah’s reforms set out to assemble a more or less continuous version of the national history from the conquest of the land to his own time, covering roughly five centu-(xliv)ries. This first Deteronomistic historian does not envisage the destruction of the southern kingdom (the northern kingdom of Israel had disappeared a century earlier, in 721 B.C.E., at the hands of the Assyrians) or of the cutting off of the Davidic dynasty, so it is plausible to date him to the late seventh century B.C.E. Then, in the view of most scholars, a second and more or less final edition of the Deuteornomistic History was executed in the Babylonian exile after 586 B.C.E., probably just a few decades later (it contains as yet no vision of a return to Zion), incorporating an account of the devastation of the kingdom of Judah and the humiliation, mutilation, and exile of its last king. (xlv)

The Deuteronomist clearly drew on a wide variety of preexisting texts, some of them probably preserved in royal archives, from annals to folktales and legends to the most artfully articulated historical narratives. He punctuated these disparate materials, especially in the Book of Kings, with formulaic assertions, often reminiscent of the language of Deuteronomy, of his own interpretation as to why particular historic events happened as they did. But there is abundant evidence that the old stories resisted the pressure of his insistent interpretation, showing their own view of things, and that for the most part he did not feel at liberty to tamper with the literary documents he had inherited. (xlv)

Nearly a third of the Former Prophets is devoted to the story of Saul and David (1 Samuel 8 through 2 Kings 2). As a literary composition, this story manifestly antedates the Deuteronomist, perhaps even by as much as three centuries. It also happens to be one of the greatest pieces of narrative in all of Western literature. … Although David is clearly represented as divinely elected king in this narrative, he is also seen quite strikingly in all his human weakness, in his relentlessness, and in his moral ambiguity–hardly a figure of royal propaganda. And in regard to the issue of historic causation, events here are the consequence of human actions–in the preponderance of these stories, there is nothing miraculous and no divine intervention. (xlv)

What results from this amalgam is a richly overflowing miscellany. It incorporates folk memories or fantasies about ideal and magically powerful figures; historical accounts of deadly court intrigues; representations of the intricate and dangerous complexities of life in the political realm; and reports of the great powers surrounding the small kingdoms of Israel and Judah and of their military campaigns in the land of Canaan. Over it all hovers the sober awareness of the Deuteronomist that these two nation-states, located at the crossroads of aggressive empires to the east and to the (xlvi) south, lived under constant threat and in the end might not endure. What did endure, embodied in the stories themselves, was the people’s memories, their vision of God and history and national purpose. All these, preserved in their Hebrew texts, they would one day bring back from exile as the potent instrument of an unprecedented national revival. (xlvii)


…in the middle decades of the eighth century B.C.E., a new phenomenon emerged–prophets who, while retaining a good deal of the predictive function of their earlier counterparts, assumed the role of the conscience of the people, carrying out missions of moral castigation directed not just at rulers–as, say, in the case of Elijah in the Book of Kings–but at the general populace. They delivered their message in a form of elevated speech that was often, though not always, framed as poetry, a procedure encouraged by the fact that they typically claimed to be quoting God’s very words… Some of the prophets were poets of the first rank… Elsewhere in the Bible, with the exception of Ezra-Nehemiah, the authors remain cloaked in anonymity, but the work of the prophets is, one might say, signed. We know who most of these writers were (even if the production of different prophets is often editorially inserted in the books that bear their name), and we are even given a certain amount of biographical information, some of it quite arresting, about a few of them. (xlvii)

| This untypical highlighting of authors reflects a shared sense on the part of the prophets themselves that the vocation of mediating the word of God is a challenging and even anguishing undertaking–Jeremiah is the prime example–in which the imperative of a divine mission in an individual life draws simultaneous attention to the content of God’s message and to the particular human bearer of the message. (xlvii)

There are indications that the prophets, or at least many of them, may have delivered their words in some sort of ecstatic state. It is quite conceivable that they felt that they had heard God speaking to them in the precise words of Hebrew poetry–sometimes sublime poetry–or visionary prose that they conveyed to their audiences. But perhaps what they heard from God was the content of the message about Israel’s abominations, the destiny of disaster that awaited the people if it did not change its ways, as well as the luminous hope of national restoration after the disaster had fallen; they then proceeded to fashion this content in language, exercising their own human mastery of poetry and rhetoric. (xlviii)



The prevailing sense, however, of the first half of the book is ruthlessness, and the general effect of the second half is tedium. Nowhere in the Bible is there a more palpable discrepancy between the values and expectations of the ancient NEar Eastern era in which the book was written and those of twenty-first-century readers. (3)

| Joshua is really two books, symmetrically divided into twelve chapters each. The first of these we may call the Book of Conquests. … The second half of Joshua can be given the rubric the Book of Apportionments. (3)

This book as a whole is offered as a historical account of the conquest of the land and the division of its territories, but the connection with history of both its large components is tenuous. … Jericho, the gateway town in the Jordan Valley and the one whose conquest has become etched in collective memory, was an important forti-(3)fied city in the Middle Bronze Age (two or three centuries before the putative time of Joshua), but in the late thirteenth century it was an abandoned site or at most not much more than a large village without walls. Lachish, another important town said to have been taken by Joshua’s forces, fell under Israelite domination only during the period of the monarchy. (4)

| The fact that this narrative does not correspond to what we can reconstruct of the actual history of Canaan offers one great consolation: the bloodcurdling report of the massacre of the entire population of Canaanite towns–men, women, children, and in some cases livestock as well–never happened. … The ḥerem [חרם], the practice of total destruction that scholars call “the ban” (a usage adopted in the present translation), was not unique to ancient Israel, and there is some evidence that it was occasionally carried out in warfare by other peoples of the region. The question is why the Hebrew writers, largely under the ideological influence of Deuteronomy, felt impelled to invent a narrative of the conquest of the land in which a genocidal onslaught on its indigenous population is repeatedly stressed. (4)

| Deuteronomy…articulates an agenda of uncompromising monotheism that insists on two principal points: the exclusive centralization of the cult in Jerusalem and the absolute separation of the Israelites from the Canaanite population. (4)

This gruesome story is intended as an explanation of a circumstance observed by audiences of the book in the seventh century and later–that by then a non-Israelite Canaanite population was only vestigially in evi-(4)dence. Where, one might wonder, did all these peoples–seven in the traditional enumeration repeatedly invoked here–go? Joshua’s answer is that they were wiped out in the conquest, as Deuteronomy had enjoined. But the narrative of the ḥerem is a cover-up as well as an explanation. If the Canaanites seem to have disappeared, it was not because they were extirpated but because they had been assimilated by the Israelites, who had come to exercise political dominion over large portions of the land. (5)

This story, then, of the annihilation of the indigenous population of Canaan belongs not to historical memory but rather to cultural memory,… That is to say, what is reported as the national past is grounded not in the factual historical experience of the nation but in the image of the nation that the guardians of the national literary legacy seek to fix for their audiences and for future generations. (5)

What should also be observed about the story of the conquest in Joshua is that it is a vision of overwhelming military triumph. It is a triumph that is repeatedly attributed to God’s power, not to Israel’s martial prowess… (5) … What must have been in the minds of a good many Judahites after 721 B.C.E. was that national existence itself was a highly contingent affair, that the people which had come to think of itself as chosen by God for a grand destiny, as the Patriarchal narratives in Genesis repeatedly asserted, could easily suffer disastrous defeat, bitter exile, perhaps even extinction. Whatever the rousing promises and consolations of theology, it would have been difficult to dismiss the awareness of imperial powers that could bring to bear overwhelming force on the tiny Israelite nation. The story of the conquest, then, served as a countermove in the work of cultural memory: Israel had entered its land in a stirring triumphal drive as a power before which no man could stand. The theological warrant for this vision, antithetical as it was to the historical facts, was that as long as Israel remained faithful to all that its God had enjoined upon it, the people would be invincible. (6)

If the transgression of a single person [Achan] can have such dire widespread effects, how much more so when large numbers of the people backslide. This is the prospect raised by Joshua in his two valedictory addresses (chapters 23 and 24). The emphasis (6) of both these speeches is heavily Deuteronomistic: Joshua fears that the Israelites will intermarry with the surrounding peoples and worship their gods; he expresses doubt as to whether Israel will be up to the challenge of faithfulness to this demanding God… (24:19) … In this fashion, there is a tension between the first twelve chapters of Joshua and the conclusion of the book, a contradiction between the vision of a grand conquest and the threat of national disaster. (7)

The Book of Joshua thus registers a double awareness of Israel’s historical predicament. The people had been promised the land by God, and its success in establishing an autonomous state,… The fulfillment is inscribed in the first half of the book. The conquest, however, was not total, and its permanency was menaced by a series of foreign powers. The book translates this contradiction into theological terms: Israel in the flush of its military triumph is imagined as (7) staunchly loyal to its God, with the single exception of Achan; Israel, having taken possession of the land and drawn its boundaries, is seen as teetering on the brink of future disloyalties that will entail disastrous consequences. Though the tension between the two halves of the book is arguably an artifact of the redactional process that joined two different sources, the effect is to produce a dialectical perspective on the history of the nation. (8)



Like so many biblical books, Judges reflects an editorial splicing together of disparate narrative materials. Some of these materials, at least in their oral origins, could conceivably go back to the last century of the second millennium B.C.E., incorporating memories, or rather legendary elaborations, of actual historical figures. In any case, the redaction and final literary formulation of these stories are much later–perhaps, as some scholars have inferred, toward the end of the eighth century B.C.E., some years after the destruction of the northern kingdom in 721 B.C.E. and before the reforms of King Josiah a century later. (77)

| The word shofet [שפט], traditionally translated as “judge,” has two different meanings–“judge” in the judicial sens and “leader” or “chieftain.” The latter sense is obviously the relevant one for this book, though the sole female judge, Deborah, in fact also acts as a judicial authority, sitting under the palm tree named after her. The narrative contexts make perfectly clear that these judges are ad hoc military leaders–in several instances, guerilla commanders–but it would have been a gratuitous confusion to readers to call this text the Book of Chieftains or even to designate these figures in the text proper as chieftains or leaders rather than judges. (77)

From the latter part of chapter 3 to the end of chapter 12, there is a formulaic rhythm of events: Israel’s disloyalty to its God, its oppression by enemies as punishment for the dereliction, the crying out to God by the Israelites, God’s raising up a judge to rescue them. (77)

Only Samson is a figure announced by prenatal prophecy, with the full panoply of an annunciation type-scene. Only in the case of Samson is the first advent of the spirit of the LORD indicated not by a verb of descent (tsalaḥ) or investment (labash) but of violent pounding (pa’am). Unlike the other judges, Samson acts entirely alone, and his motive for devastating the Philistines is personal vengeance, not an effort of national liberation. Most strikingly, only Samson among all the Judges exercises supernatural power. …the Samson stories, editorially placed as the last in the series of Judge narratives, exemplify the breakdown of the whole system of charismatic leadership. Samson, battling alone with unconventional weapons or with his bare hands, more drawn to the sexual arena than to national struggle, hostilely confronted by fellow Israelites, sowing destruction all around hi to the very end, like the fire with which he is associated fro before his conception, is a figure of anarchic impulse: the name in whom the spirit of the LORD pounds down enemies but offers no leadership at all for his people, which may be a final verdict on the whole system of governance by charismatic warriors represented in the preceding episodes of the book. (78)

What follows the Samson cycle is the bizarre story of Micah’s idol (chapters 17-18) and then the grisly tale of the concubine at Gibeah who is gang-raped to death by the local Benjaminites, leading to a costly civil war between Benjamin and the other tribes (chapters 19-21). (78) … Divisiveness in the Israelite community, adumbrated in Samson’s confrontation with the men of Judah, is vividly manifested both int he story of Micah and that of the concubine. Micah’s narrative begins with his stealing eleven hundred shekels (the exact amount that the Philistines offer to Delilah) from his mother. Part of this purloined fortune, returned to his mother, is used to create a molten image of dubious monotheistic provenance, which will then become an object of contention. (79)

The morality exhibited in the books’ concluding narrative is even worse. Another Levite, considerably more egregious than the one engaged by Micah, ends up reenacting the story of Sodom with a bitter reversal. … Unbridled lust, implacable hostility, and mutual mayhem provide ample warrant for the implicitly monarchist refrain of these chapters: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Every man did what was right in his own eyes.” (79)

| Anarchy and lust link these two stories directly with the Samson narrative. (79) … Judges represents, one might say, the Wild West era of the biblical story. Men are a law unto themselves–“eery man did what was right in his eyes.” There are warriors who can toss a stone from a slingshot at a hair and not miss; a bold left-handed assassin who deftly pulls out a short sword strapped to his right thigh to stab the Moabite king in the soft underbelly; another warrior-chieftain who panics the enemy camp in the middle of the night with the shock and awe of piercing ram’s horn blasts and smashed pitchers. (80)

…there is an implicit sense, which becomes explicit at the end of the book, that survival through violence, without a coherent and stable political framework, cannot be sustained and runs the danger of turning into sheer destruction. In the first chapter of the book, before any of the Judges are introduced, we are presented with the image of the conquered Canaanite king, Adonai-Bezek, whose thumbs and big toes are chopped off by his Judahite captors. This barbaric act of dismemberment, presumably intended to disable the king from any capacity for combat, presages a whole series of episodes in which body parts are hacked, mutilated, crushed. King Eglon’s death by Ehud’s hidden short sword is particularly grisly: his killer thrusts the weapon into his belly all the way up to the top of the hilt, and his death spasm grotesquely triggers the malodorous release of the anal sphincter. Women are also adept at this bloody work: there is a vividly concrete report of how Jael drives the tent peg through the temple of Sisera the Canaanite general and into the ground; another woman, this one anonymous, smashes the head of the nefarious Abimelech with a millstone she drops on him from her perch in a besieged tower. Samson’s slaughter of a thousand Philistines with a donkey’s jawbone is surely a messy business of smashing and mashing–no neat spear’s thrust here–though descriptive details are not offered. The grand finale of Samson’s story, in which thousands of Philistine men and women, together with the Israelite hero, are crushed by the toppling temple, is an even more extensive crushing and mangling of bodies. (80)

[via: Yeah, this is a lot!]

| Against this background, one can see a line of imagistic and thematic continuity from the maiming of Adoni-Bezek at the very beginning of the book to the dismembering of the concubine at the end. The act of chopping a body into pieces, of course, is intended as a means to unite the tribes against Benjamin and its murderous rapists, but there is a paradoxical tension between the project of unity–unity, however, for a violent purpose–(80)and the butchering of the body, the violation of its integrity, which in the biblical world as in ours was supposed to be respected through burial. (81)

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed. …

– Yeats



The major sequence that runs, according to the conventional book and chapter divisions of later editorial traditions, from 1 Samuel 1 to 1 Kings 2 is one of the most astounding pieces of narrative that has come down to us from the ancient world. The story of David is probably the greatest single narrative representation in Antiquity of a human life evolving by slow stages through time, shaped and altered by the pressure of political life, public institutions, family, the impulses of body and spirit, the eventual sad decay of the flesh. It also provides the most unflinching insight into the cruel processes of history and into human behavior warped by the pursuit of power. And nowhere is the Bible’s astringent narrative economy, its ability to define characters and etch revelatory dialogue in a few telling stories, more brilliantly deployed. (163)

Readers should not be confused by the conventional division into books. The entities 1 and 2 Samuel are purely an artifact of ancient manuscript production. Scrolls used by scribes were roughly the same length, and when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in the third century B.C.E., a single scroll was not long enough to encompass the whole book, so it was divided into two parts in no way intrinsic to the original composition. (The Talmud speaks of a single Book of Samuel.) It is also demonstrable that the first two chapters of 1 Kings, as I shall try to show in my commentary, are the real conclusion of the book, subtly echoing earlier moments in the story and evincing the same distinctive literary mastery. Later redactors placed these two episodes at the beginning of Kings so that they could serve as a preface to the story of Solomon. (164)

…what are we to make of its composite nature? Two fundamental issues are involved: the presence of the so-called Deuteronomist in the book, and the introduction of purportedly independent narratives. (164)

The compelling conclusion is that the Deuteronomistic editors did no more with the inherited narrative than to provide some minimal editorial framing and transition (far less than in the Book of Judges) and to interpolate a few brief passages. (166)

I am going on the way of all the earth. And you must be strong, and be a man. And keep what the LORD your God enjoined, to walk in His ways, to keep HIs statues, His commands, and His dictates and His admonitions, as it is written in the Teaching of Moses, so that you may prosper in everything you do and in everything to which you turn. So that the LORD may fulfill His word that He spoke unto me, saying, “If your sons keep their way to walk before Me in truth with their whole heart and with their whole being, no man of yours will be cut off from the throne of Israel.” And, what’s more, you yourself know what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me, what he did to the two commanders of the armies of Israel, Abner son of Ner and Amasa son of Jether–he killed them, and shed the blood of war in peace, and put the blood of war on his belt that was round his waist and on his sandals that were on his feet. And you must act in your wisdom, and do not let his gray head go down in peace to Sheol. (1 Kings 2:2-6)

Every word in the italicized section of the passage shows the fingerprints of the Deuteronomist. (166)

The dialectic complication of national ideology is a phenomenon worth explaining, for it brings us to the heart of the greatness of the David story. (167)

In all this, one could claim that the story is confirming a prophetic ideology by reinforcing the notion of the indispensability of prophetic authority to Israelite national life. (168)

| Yet as in the case of Saul, David, and all the principal figures around them, Samuel is a densely imagined character, and, it must be said, in many respects a rather unattractive one. … The prophet Samuel may have God on his side, but he is also an implacable, irascible man, and often a palpably self-interested one as well. His resistance to the establishment of the monarchy may express a commitment to the noble ideal of the direct kingship of God over Israel, but it is also motivated by resentment that he must surrender authority, and the second of his two antimonarchic speeches is informed by belligerent self-defensiveness about his own career as national leader. (168)

Samuel is invested with prophetic power by an act of God. but the writer understands that he is also a man, all too human, and that any kind of power, including spiritual power, can lead to abuse. … The story of Samuel, then, far from being a simple promotion of prophetic ideology, enormously complicates the notion of prophecy by concretely imagining what may become of the imperfect stuff of humanity when the mantle of prophecy is cast over it. (169)

This narrative nevertheless has many signs of what we would call fictional shaping–interior monologues, dialogues between the historical personages in circumstances where there could have been no witness to what was said, pointed allusions in the turns of the dialogue as well as in the narrative details to Genesis, Joshua, and Judges. What we have in this great story, as I have proposed elsewhere, is not merely a report of history but an imagining of history that is analogous to what Shakespeare did with historical figures and events in his history plays. That is, the known general contours of the historical events and of the principal players are not tampered with, but the writer brings to bear the resources of his literary art in order to imagine deeply, and critically, the concrete moral and emotional predicaments of living in history, in the political realm. To this end, the writer feels free to invent an inner language for the characters, to give their dialogues revelatory shape, to weave together episodes and characters with a fine mesh of recurrent motifs and phrases and analogies of incident, and to define the meaning of the events through allusion, metaphor, and symbol. The writer does all this not to fabricate history but in order to understand it. (170)

He is, in sum, the first full-length portrait of a Machiavellian prince in Western literature. The Book of Samuel is one of those rare masterworks that, like Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma, evinces an unblinking and abidingly instructive knowingness about man as a political animal in all his contradictions and venality and in all his susceptibility to the brutalization and the seductions of exercising power. (171)

The story of David, in turn, cannot be separated from the story of the man he displaces, Saul. … As a number of observers have proposed–…Saul is the closest approximation of a tragic hero in the Hebrew Bible. (171) … Ambivalence and oscillation are the hallmarks of the story of Saul, and the writer may have been led to mirror this condition in his abundant use of paired or even tripled episodes: three different coronation scenes are required for the reluctant Saul; two tales of Saul among the prophets, the first elevating him at the beginning of his career and the second devastating him at the end; two incidents of Saul’s hurling his spear at David; two encounters with the fugitive David, who spares his life and receives a pledge of love and a kind of endorsement from Saul, still not to be trusted by David as the older man veers wildly between opposed feelings. (172)

| The stories of Saul and David interlock antithetically on the theme of knowledge. Saul, from first to last, is a man deprived of the knowledge he desperately seeks. (172)

David, on the other hand, at first seems peculiarly favored with knowledge. (172)

The one school or movement for which a very strong case can be made is the Deuteronomistic movement. In this instance, a comprehensive, uncompromising reform of cultic practice, theology, and law was instituted during the reign of Josiah, around 621 B.C.E. The Book of Deuteronomy was composed, with abundant satellite literature to come after it, as a forceful literary instrument of the reform. In the great speeches of Deuteronomy, literature has patently been marshaled to inculcate an ideological program. (173)

My guess is that the author of the David story thought of himself as a historian. But even if he frequented the court in Jerusalem, a plausible but not at all necessary supposition, he was by no means a writer of court annals or chronicles of the kings of Judah, and, as I have argued, he was far from being an apologist for the Davidic dynasty. I would imagine that he (173) was impelled to write out of a desire to convey to his contemporaries and to posterity a true account of the significant events involved in the founding of the monarchy that governed the nation. … His conception of history writing involved not merely registering what had happened and who had been the principal actors but also reflecting on the shifting interplay between character and historical act, on the way social and political institutions shape and distort individual lives, on the human cost of particular political choices. (174)

| The author of the David story was in all likelihood firmly committed to the legitimacy of the Davidic line. (174)

Like most of the great masters of narrative art, the author of the David story is constantly asking himself what it must be like concretely–emotionally, psychologically, morally, even physically–to be one or another of these characters in a particular predicament, and it is this salutary imaginative habit that generates many of the dialectic complications of the historical account. (175)

If history, in the hackneyed aphorism, is the story told by the victors, this narrative achieves something closer to the aim that Walter Benjamin defined as the task of the historical materialist, “to brush history against the grain.” Lacking all but the scantiest extrahistorical evidence, we shall probably never know precisely what happened in Jerusalem and Judah and the high country of Benjamin around the turn of the first millennium B.C.E., when the Davidic dynasty was established. What matters is that the anonymous Hebrew writer, drawing on what he knew or thought he knew of the portentous historical events, has created this most searching story of men and women in the rapid and dangerous current of history that still speaks to us, floundering in history and the dilemmas of political life, three thousand years later. (176)



The Book of Kings, like the Book of Samuel, as Josephus and early rabbinic sources indicate, was originally one book, not two. Its first two chapters, moreover, are clearly a completion of the story of David, showing the masterly hand of the great writer who fashioned the long narrative of Israel’s founding king. (427)

Kings proves to be the most miscellaneous of the books assembled as the Former Prophets,… The measure of every king is whether he did evil in the eyes of the LORD, and doing evil, with only a few limited exceptions, is conceived in cultic terms. The Deuteronomistic compiler repeatedly invokes the stipulation that there can be only one legitimate place of worship, which is the temple in Jerusalem–an idea that became firmly entrenched only with King Josiah’s reforms around 621 B.C.E., scant decades before the Babylonian exile. Through most of these stories, the editor holds clearly in view the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C.E. and evidently also the destruction o the southern kingdom of Judah in 586 B.C.E. Since there is no hint, even at the end of the narrative, of any return to Zion after the exile, scholars have plausibly inferred that the book as a whole was put together in the early decades after the destruction of Judah. (427)

| It was put together, however, from a variety of widely disparate sources, which is why it is best to think of the person or persons responsible for its final form as a compiler or compilers. (427)

More than any other narrative book of the Bible, the stories in Kings are repeatedly and insistently framed by formulaic declarations. Wayward monarchs being preponderant, one king after another is said to serve from the ways of the LORD, and in the case of the northern kingdom, to follow the dire path of its founder, Jeroboam son of Nebat, who offended and led Israel to offend.

cf. the Book of the Acts of Solomon (1 Kings 11:42); the Book of the Acts of the Kings of Judah; the Book of the Acts of the Kings of Israel.

The reasonable inference from this editorial procedure is that much of the factual material of the Book of Kings was drawn from these two annalistic sources, one for the Kingdom of Judah and the other for the Kingdom of Israel. (429)

But we should not think of the Book of Kings merely as a series of extracts from two sets of royal annals. The Deuteronomistic editor provides a good deal of interpretation of the events, especially in his repeated insistence that cultic disloyalty to YHWH brought about the national catastrophes, and in all likelihood he also introduces some of his own narrative invention in order to support his interpretation of the history he conveys. (429)

In all this, as in the Samson stories and elsewhere in the Bible, the folktale fondness for wondrous acts is interfused with a subtle narrative art in which dialogue, cunning patterns of repetition, and intimations of the character’s inwardness are impressively deployed. (431)

The compiler who put Kings together for posterity above all sought to provide an account of the nation’s history and an explanation of why that history took the course it finally did. (431)



The Book of Isaiah may well be the greatest challenge that modern readers will find in the biblical corpus to their notions of what constitutes a book. Isaiah son of Amoz, a Jerusalemite, began his career as prophet in the 730s B.C.E. … Like the other biblical prophets, he claimed, and very likely believed, that his pronouncements came to him on the direct authority of God. These included vehement castigations of social and economic injustices in Judahite society and of a corrupt and drunken ruling class, as well as the excoriation of paganizing practices. Isaiah also took political stances, objecting in particular to policies that favored an alliance with Egypt against Assyria. (617)

| The bewildering fact is that the prophecies of Isaiah son of Amoz have been editorially mingled with a welter of prophecies by other hands and from later periods. In an era millennia before printing and the concept of authorial claim to texts, all the books of the Bible are open-ended affairs, scrolls in which could be inserted, whether for ideological purposes or simply through editorial predilection, writings that came from other sources–as, for example, the Book of Job includes the Hymn to Wisdom (chapter 28) and the Elihu speeches (chapters 32-37), each exhibiting a different viewpoint and a different kind of poetry from the original book. But Isaiah is an extreme case of this phenomenon. One may surmise that texts of individual prophecies, or all clusters of his prophecies, circulated in scrolls during Isaiah’s lifetime and afterward, whether in the hands of his followers or of private collectors of prophetic revelation. Chapters 1-39 in the book that has come down to us incorporate the prophecies of Isaiah but also include much disparate material that is clearly later, some of it reflecting the imminent or actual fall of the Babylonian empire to the Persians in 539 B.C.E. Nothing from chapter 40 to the end of the book is the work of Isaiah son of Amoz. The strong scholarly consensus is that chapters 40-55 were composed by a prophet of the Babylonian exile, whose name is beyond recovery, prophesying a triumphant return of the exiles to Zion through the (617) agency of the Persian emperor Cyrus (mentioned by name), who was poised to overwhelm the Babylonians. (618)

While there are occasional brief prose passages, the bulk of the prophecies are cast in poetry. There are two reasons for the use of poetry, one theological and the other pragmatic. In most of these texts, the prophet represents himself as the mouthpiece for God’s words–“thus said the LORD” is the frequently invoked “messenger-formula” of introduction–and it is perfectly fitting that God should address Israel not in prose, which is closer to the language of everyday human intercourse, but in the elevated and impressive diction of poetry. The more pragmatic reason for the use of verse is that, as in all poetic systems, poetry is memorable in the technical sense: its formal devices facilitate committing the words to memory. … And as usually is the case in lines of biblical poetry, the idea articulated in the first verset is driven home through a concretization of it in the second verset: the “offending nation” is realized physically as a “people weighed down with crime” (in the Hebrew, just three words, five syllables, ‘am keved ‘awon). (618)

…this collection exhibits the work of at least three poets of the first order of originality, perhaps even more, depending on how one attributes authorship to certain individual poems. (619)

| Thus, the pounding rhythms and the powerful images of the book’s opening poem (1:2-9) convey a riveting vision of Judah devastated by Assyrian incursion as divine punishment for its collective crimes. … Second Isaiah preserves the memory of these glowing prophecies, but his poetry recasts the vision of a grand future in more national and historical terms, conjuring up a landscape in which a highway is cleared in the wilderness for the triumphant passage of the exiles back to their land. He is the most tender of biblical poets, tracing images of nursing mothers and handled babes (upon which Third Isaiah will elaborate) and appropriately beginning his prophecies with the words “Comfort, O comfort My people.” (619)

Surely these prophecies continue to speak to us because of the ethical imperatives they embody, their cries for social justice, their hopeful visions of a future of harmony after all the anguish inflicted through historical violence. But they also engage us through the power and splendor of the poetry. Perhaps the Israelites who clung to the parchment records of these sundry prophecies in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. cherished them not only because they saw in them the urgent word of God but also because they somehow sensed that these were great poems. (620)



Of all the prophets, Jeremiah is the one who conveys to us the most vivid sense of the man behind the words. …Jeremiah, a priest from the town of Anathoth near Jerusalem who was active from the 620s B.C.E. until after the destruction of the kingdom of Judah in 586, tells us a good deal about himself because of his continual anguish over his prophetic calling. Many episodes of his life, moreover, are reported in narrative detail, for the most part probably by his amanuensis Baruch son of Neriah. (849)

A century before the beginning of Jeremiah’s mission, the northern kingdom of Israel had been overwhelmed by Assyrian invaders. A large part of the population was deported to sundry locations elsewhere in the Assyrian empire–this was when the so-called ten lost tribes were “lost”–and all vestiges of national sovereignty in the area once governed by the northern kingdom were eradicated. The extirpation of the northern kingdom was a national catastrophe that haunted its southern counterpart throughout the century and more that followed, since–given powerful military threats from foreign powers (for the first part of this period, the principal threat continued to be Assyria, then superseded by Babylonia)–the fate that had overtaken Israel could easily overtake Judah as well. In some of his prophecies, Jeremiah harbors the hope of a restored Israel reunited with a restored Judah, but one may justly describe this as a utopian fantasy, because by the late seventh century B.C.E. and early in the next century there were no visible remnants of the kingdom of Israel that could serve as the ground for such a restoration. (849)

| The other major event that stamped a strong mark on Jeremiah’s prophecies was the sweeping religious reforms instigated by King Josiah beginning around 622 B.C.E. The playbook for these reforms was the text purportedly discovered during Josiah’s renovation of the Temple and referred to in the account of its discovery in Kings as “the book of teaching [torah],” which is to say, the Book of Deuteronomy. The virtually unanimous scholarly (849) consensus is that the book in question, or at least its core, was actually composed at this time to provide a textual warrant for the Josianic reforms. Its agenda incorporated two main points, one cultic and the other a theologically driven theory of historical causation. … Deuteronomy now insisted that the cult could be practiced only “in the place that I will choose,” which clearly meant Jerusalem. Sacrifice to YHWH on the “high places,” the rural shrines, was excoriated as sheer paganism. (850)

All this is translated into Jeremiah’s central message. …his most repeated concern is with Judah’s whoring after strange gods (the sexual metaphor is often flaunted) and the devastation of the nation that it will inevitably bring about. The English language aptly coined the noun “jeremiad”–a complaining tirade,” in the definition of the Oxford English Dictionary–because so often Jeremiah’s prophecies are bitter denunciations of the people’s wayward behavior accompanied by dire predictions that this will lead to scorched earth for the kingdom of Judah and exile for its inhabitants. (850)

…one readily understands that Jeremiah saw his prophetic mission as a source of unending personal torment. (850)

Alas, O Master, LORD, / for, look, I know not how to speak, / for I am but a lad. (1:6)

The reasonable inference is that Jeremiah was quite young when he first received the call, but in contrast to other prophets, tormented reluctance persists throughout (850) his career. If at first he felt unworthy for the task, as he goes on to carry it out, subjected to vilification, death threats, and imprisonment, he repeatedly wishes he could free himself from the burden of prophecy; nevertheless, the searing consciousness that God demands it of him will not allow him to relinquish the prophetic role. (851)

You have noticed me, O LORD, and I was enticed. /
You are stronger than I, and You prevailed.

I thought, ‘I will not recall Him, /
nor will I speak anymore in His name.’ /
But it was in my heart like burning fire /
shut up in my bones. (ch.20)

Jeremiah figures as a kind of prisoner of conscience: he is acutely aware that conveying his message of scathing castigation and impending doom at the very moment the Babylonian army is descending on Jerusalem will bring him nothing but humiliation and angry rejection, yet he feels he has no alternative other than to tell his people the bitter truth. (851)

…by and large, one comes away from the collection of Jeremiah’s prophecies not with a sense of deftly wrought verbal artifacts but rather with the existential and historical urgency of this particular prophet. Dark clouds of disaster lower over the kingdom of Judah. In Jeremiah’s understanding, the disaster cannot be averted, for it is the ineluctable consequence of the people’s violation of its covenant with God, it reckless infatuation with the gods and goddesses of a pagan cult, and the commission of acts of promiscuity and even human sacrifice entailed by that cult. (851)



Ezekiel is surely the strangest of all the prophets. … Prophets were sometimes perceived as altogether transgressing the borders of sanity. “The prophet is witless, / the man of spirit crazed,” Hosea proclaims, having in mind the way Israel’s waywardness had driven the prophet to wild distraction. Yet even against this background, Ezekiel is an extreme case. (1049)

| He was a Jerusalem priest, in all likelihood part of the group of an exiled elite that was deported to Babylonia with King Jehoiachin in 597 B.C.E., a decade before the destruction of Jerusalem and the more general exile. His entire activity as a prophet took place in Babylonia, with many of the prophecies introduced by a careful notation of day, month, and year. …Ezekiel often exhibits distinctively priestly concerns–with purity and impurity, with the Temple and its architectural configurations, and with the regimen of sacrifices. But what most distinguishes Ezekiel is that so much of the prophesying is conducted in a condition that looks like God-intoxicated derangement. He is by no means a master of literary craft, like Isaiah, and most of his prophecies are composed in prose that exhibits a weakness for repetition. His power as a prophet stems from the hallucinatory vividness and utter originality of his visions. (1049)

Wen Moses asks God to show him His glory, God tells him that he cannot look upon it head-on but, hidden in the crevice of a rock, may glimpse only its afterglow as it passes by. Ezekiel, by contrast, is vouchsafed a full and detailed vision of the divine apparatus, which he calls “the glory of the LORD.” There is nothing quite like this elsewhere in the Bible, and Ezekiel’s first chapter would accordingly become the inspiration for the development of Jewish mysticism in Late Antiquity. (1050)

This was a man whose mind swarmed with potent images, many of them cast as figures in allegories, which are the most effective vehicle of his prophecies. One senses that these images were not contrived or invented but manifested themselves imperatively in the imagination of the prophet. While the idea of the spirit descending on an elected person is common in biblical literature, including many of the narratives, again and again in this book the prophet attests to being seized, something violently, by the spirit. In Hebrew, as in several other languages, the same word means both “spirit” and “wind,” but for Ezekiel the latter meaning is often salient, even if the former sense may also be implied: repeatedly, he is “borne off” by the wind to a place of vision (often Jerusalem), or, in tandem with this idea, the heavy “hand of the LORD” comes down on him, as in the beginning of the vision of the Dry Bones, “The hand of the LORD was upon me, and He took me out by the wind of the LORD and set me down in the valley.” (1050)

It is fairly (1050) plausible that Ezekiel actually did this, and lying on one side for more than a year in “bonds,” he says,” imposed by God looks very much like an extreme symptom of hysterical paralysis. (1051)

| Among the themes of Ezekiel’s prophecies, the most striking expression of neurosis is his troubled relation to the female body. (1051)

All this concern with female promiscuity is correlative with Ezekiel’s general preoccupation with purity and impurity. (1051)

| It is of course possible to l ink each of these sexual details with the allegory of an idolatrous nation betraying its faith. But such explicitness and such vehemence about sex are unique in the Bible. The compelling inference is that this was a prophet morbidly fixated on the female body and seething with fervid misogyny.Ezekiel clearly was not a stable person. (1051)



“Minor,” then, has nothing to do with the resonance or power of these Prophets,… (1201)

There is no indication that any of these early figures used writing as a medium for their prophecies. Then, probably in the 760s B.C.E., a cattle herder and arborist from a small village near Jerusalem makes his way from the kingdom of Judah to the northern kingdom of Israel and begins to inveigh, in powerful poetry, against the moral and economic crimes of its inhabitants. While some of the other prophets come from a priestly background, it is noteworthy that the first among (1201) them is of peasant stock, and yet literate, which might offer a clue about the dissemination of literacy in this culture. He evinces a mastery of the parallelistic form of Hebrew verse, which lends itself to strong emphasis through interechoing utterances; and he uses this form, among other purposes, to convey to his audience the urgent imperative of the prophetic calling:

Do two walk together
if they have not first agreed?
Doe the lion roar in the forest
unless it has taken prey?
Does the maned beast put forth its voice from its lair
if it has not made a catch?…
A lion roars,
who does not fear?
The Master, the LORD, speaks.
Who cannot prophesy? (Amos 3:3-4 and 8)

Amos provides a bit of autobiographical information in responding to a challenge from a northern priest. About others of the Twelve Minor Prophets we know less, or nothing at all. Hosea,…is definitely from the northern kingdom,… He is enjoined to marry a whore, but whether this is an actual biographical fact or merely a symbolic gesture is not entirely certain. About Joel nothing is known, and the dating of his four chapters is elusive. Of Obadiah,…all that is inferable is that because of his angry doomsaying against Edom, he probably wrote during the last years of the kingdom of Judah, when the Edomites were active collaborators with he Babylonians in their onslaught against Jerusalem. … Micah,…would have been active after the destruction o the northern kingdom in 721 B.C.E. and also after the incursion of Sennacherib into Judah in 701 B.C.E.,… One famous passage, 4:1-5, the exalted vision of teaching going out from Zion and the nations grinding their swords into plowshares, is nearly identical with Isaiah 2:2-4,… (1202) … Micah’s noble vision of the LORD requiring justice and humility more than spates of animal sacrifice puts him early in the line of prophets that set ethical behavior above the Temple cult as Israel’s primary responsibility. (1203)

| Nahum…precious little is known. … Habbakuk. … The information of a threat from the Chaldean army suggests a date not long before the destruction of the kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.,… Zephaniah,…has a superscription reporting that he was active during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 B.C.E.). Some have inferred that he wrote before Josiah’s sweeping reforms in 622 B.C.E. He fulminates about the imminent Day of the LORD, which is also a motif in other Prophets, and which is imagined to be realized when Jerusalem will be destroyed. Haggai and Zechariah are the latest of the Twelve who can be confidently dated. They prophesied in the later decades of the fifth century B.C.E. and were part of the early community of those who had returned to Jerusalem from Babylonian exile after the enabling edict of the Persian emperor Cyrus issued in 538 B.C.E. Both Haggai and Zechariah are concerned with the project of rebuilding the Temple and establishing safeguards for its ritual purity. Both ally themselves with Zerubbabel, the Persian-appointed governor of the province of Yehud (formerly the kingdom of Judah) and Joshua the high priest. (1203)

Malachi,…the Hebrew means “my messenger,”… This text also appears to be post-exilic, but, even in its brevity, it is uncertain whether it is the work of a single writer. In any case, it does provide an apt conclusion to the collection of all the prophets by invoking Elijah, the iconic prophet of the preliterary era, in a promise of a restorative, not destructive, Day of the LORD. (1203)

…these little books incorporate moments of soaring poetry and visionary illumination that still speak to the heart and to the religious imagination. (1204)



We know nothing about the author of the Book of Jonah or his geographic location, and only a rough approximation can be made of the time of the book’s composition. The main evidence for dating is linguistic: there are quite a few turns of phrase that indicate this is Late Biblical prose, a kind of Hebrew not written until after the return from the Babylonian exile in the fifth century B.C.E. The book’s universalist theology probably also argues for a relatively late date because one does not find this sort of rigorously world-embracing monotheism until Secon Isaiah, the anonymous sixth-century prophet of the Babylonian exile. (1285)

The name Jonah son of Amittai is drawn from a passing reference in 2 Kings 14:25 to a prophet so designated who delivered God’s word during the reign of Jeroboam II… The writer may have adopted the name because the patronym amittai suggests ’emet, “truth,” in Hebrew. The first name, yonah, means “dove,” which could have an ironic application here because this Jonah is an unwilling agent who ends up averting a punitive cataclysm, in approximate analogy to Noah’s dove, which signals the restoration of life after a punitive cataclysm. (1285)

Perhaps the most distinctive hallmark of Jonah’s relatively late composition is that it tells a story altogether unlike those of earlier biblical literature. The recalcitrance of the prophet is a recurring feature of the classic call narratives of the prophets, as with Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Moses himself, but nowhere else do we have a person summoned to prophecy who actually tries to flee to the other end of the known world. (1286)

The narratives originating in the First Temple period, despite exhibiting some miraculous events and some spectacular episodes of divine intervention, are by and large “history-like,” as Hans Frei has aptly called them, from the Patriarchal Tales to the stories of David and the later kings. Jonah, on the other hand is a manifestly fabulous tale. Though earlier Hebrew narrative offers one anomalous instance of a talking animal, Balaam’s she-ass, that is the exception that proves the rule, an invention introduced to sharpen the satire on the pagan soothsayer who is blind to what his visionary beast can plainly see. (1286)

I would see Jonah as its own kind of ad hoc innovative narrative. It aims to recast traditional Israelite notions of prophecy in a radically universalist framework. … The God with whom he has such difficulties because of his Israelite nationalist mind-set is not chiefly the God of Israel but the God of the whole world, of all creatures large and small. He is not a God you can pin down to national settings. … God exercises magisterial control over storm winds, fish, livestock, and plants, as well as over human beings of all tribes and nations, and He asks the recalcitrant prophet why he should “have pity” for an ephemeral plant but not for a vast city of clueless human beings and their beasts. It is beautifully appropriate that the story ends with the beasts, and with a question. It is in no way clear how Jonah will respond to this ques-(1287)tion. Will God’s challenge lead him to a transformative insight about God’s dominion over all things and all peoples, or will it prove to be a challenge that is quite beyond the myopia of his ingrained prejudices? The trembling balance of this concluding ambiguity perfectly focuses the achievement of the Book of Jonah both as an enchanting story and as the shaking up of an entire theological world. (1288)


Introduction to The Writings

If the Torah is relatively unified in regard to genre and if Nevi’im is a composite of two different blocks of material, the first narrative and the second properly prophetic, Ketuvim is manifestly a miscellany. (xliii)

| Two of the longer books in this unit, Psalms and Proverbs, are anthological. This means that each encompasses both early and late texts. …all of the other books in The Writings belong to what scholars call the Late Biblical period–that is, after the destruction of the kingdom of Judah in 586 B.C.E. (xliii)

A telltale sign of the lateness is the language. Biblical Hebrew, like other languages, evolved through the centuries, and this intrinsic dynamic was reinforced by the influence of the cognate language Aramaic, which began to have some currency as early as the sixth century B.C.E. and by the very end of the biblical period was replacing Hebrew as the vernacular. … (xliii) The consciously archaizing author of the Book of Ruth, seeking to make his writing sound as though it were produced in the period of the Judges, resists most of these changes–nonetheless, despite his intentions, a dozen or so Late Biblical usages leak through in his text. The language of Esther, by contrast, is unabashedly Late BIblical,… (xliv)

What is more broadly fascinating about the texts pulled together in Ketuvim is the efflorescence of literary genres they exhibit. The Hebrew writers of the Late Biblical period no longer felt constrained to tell a story in a particular traditional way, to embrace a well-established set of narrative conventions. Nor did they feel limited to a particular kind of writing or a particular range of subjects. The literature of the First Temple period essentially encompasses five genres: narrative, law, prophecy, psalms, and proverbs. The literature collected in The Writings includes a poetic argument on divine justice (Job), a meditation in prose poetry about the nature of human existence that is as close to philosophy as we find in the Bible (Qohelet), an assemblage of richly sensual love poems with no mention of God (the Song of Songs), a memoir (Nehemiah,) and much more. (xliv)

The plausible inference is that the social base of literary activity expanded considerably in this period, perhaps in tandem with an expansion of literacy itself. Thus, one cannot ascribe books such as Job or Qohelet to a school or to a broad trend: both works–each emphatically dissenting from the biblical consensus in a different way–are the products of boldly independent writers. Similarly, the author of the Book of Ruth, polemicizing against the separatist nationalism of Ezra and Nehemiah that would in the end prevail in the community of returning exiles, manifestly articulates his own dissenting perspective, and does so with the panache of a gifted writer. The Book of Esther, with its essentially secular outlook, may have been framed to justify the new carnivalesque holiday of Purim, but it conveys a strong impression that it was also written to serve as entertainment. The Song of Songs might well reflect a long folk tradition of Hebrew love (xliv) poetry, but if it does have some sort of collective background, it is scarcely that of the nationally and theologically driven new that dominates the Hebrew Bible. (xlv)

These sundry short books offer perspectives and provide insights and satisfactions beyond the purview of the Hebrew literature created in the First Temple period. And they vividly remind us that the biblical world was far from monolithic, that it tolerated and perhaps even sometimes encouraged a bracing variety of value systems expressed through a wide spectrum of styles and literary modes. (xlv)




…they are in their origins intricately rooted in an ancient Near Eastern world that goes back to the Late Bronze Age (1600-1200 B.C.E.) and that in certain respects is quite alien to modern people. (3)

…it is arguable that at least as a set of techniques and conventions, they constitute the most original literary creation of the biblical writers. Psalms, on the other hand, or psalmlike cultic hymns and celebrations of the gods, were common in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and in Syro-Canaanite literature. We know this literature chiefly through the trove of texts found at the site of Ugarit, on the Mediterranean coast of present-day Syria, dating roughly from 1400 to 1200 B.C.E.–several centuries earlier than the main body of biblical writings. As previously unknown texts in the various ancient Near Eastern languages have been unearthed and deciphered over the past century, it has become clear that the psalmists not only adopted the formal system of poetry (about which more is said later) from the antecedent literature of the region but also tapped their predecessors for verbal formulas, imagery, elements of mythology, and even entire sequences of lines of poetry. Some scholars (3) have gone so far as to claim that a few psalms are essentially Hebrew translations of pagan poems, though a comparison with the proposed originals suggests rather that what the psalmist did was to adapt, briefly cite, or even polemically transform the polytheistic poems, which is, after all, what poets everywhere do with their predecessors–both building on them and emphatically making something new out of them. (4)

Although God is often entreated in Psalms as a compassionate God, healer of broken hearts, and sustainer of the lowly, a good many of these poems represent the deity as a warrior-god on the model of the Canaanite Baal riding through the skies with clouds as his chariot, brandishing lightning bolts as his weapons. Famously, a triadic line in one of the Ugaritic texts is virtually replicated in Psalm 92:10, with little more than the name of the god changed: “Look, your enemies, O Baal, / look, your enemies you will smash, / look, you will destroy your foes.” (4)

| The council of the gods, a regular feature of Canaanite mythology, makes an appearance in a number of Psalms and with it the notion of either lesser gods over whom YHWH the God of Israel presides, or of a celestial entourage (“the sons of God”) that serves Him. At the great temporal remove from which we read these texts, it is hard to know to what extent such residues of polytheism were literally embraced as items of beliefs or were simply used as vivid poetic resources. Some of the psalms seem to reflect an ambiguous oscillation between those two possibilities. Another theme drawn from Canaanite mythology that recurs frequently in Psalms, the cosmogonic conquest of a monstrous sea god–intimating chaos–by a warrior-god–associated with order–is on the whole more firmly assimilated into a monotheistic outlook. Although the various names of the primordial sea monster–Leviathan, Rahab, Yamm, Tanin–conquered by Gd do appear here, the originally mythological conflict is characteristically figured in more naturalistic terms as God’s subduing the breakers of the sea. In Psalm 104 the fearsome Leviathan is actually reduced to an aquatic pet with whom YHWH can play. (4)

The dating of individual psalms has long been a region of treacherous scholarly quicksand. The one safe conclusion is that the writing of psalms was a persistent activity over many centuries. (5)

These poems, then, were produced by many different poets over more than half a millennium, probably beginning during or even before the tenth century B.C.E.,… By the late first century C.E., the Book of Psalms was considered such a cornerstone of the scriptural canon that in Luke 24:44 it is mentioned together with the Torah and the Prophets as one of the three primary categories of the sacred writings. (6)

| Many but by no means all the psalms were composed for use in the Temple cult,… What should be resisted is the inclination of many scholars, beginning in the early twentieth century, to turn as many psalms as possible into the liturgy of conjectured Temple rites–to recover what in biblical studies is called the “life-setting” of the psalms. (6)

Some spalms nevertheless offer strong evidence of their use as liturgical texts. … Many of the psalms, however, have an individual rather than a collective focus… (6) … It is conceivable, though not entirely demonstrable, that there were professional psalm poets in the vicinity of the Temple from whom a worshipper coming to Jerusalem could have purchased a psalm that he would recite to express his own particular need. … Still other psalms have a political or public subject that has no obvious link with worship,… (7)

From all this, one may reasonably infer that the psalm was conceived in the ancient period as a fairly flexible poetic form. (7) … What can be concluded form all this variegated evidence is that the psalm was a multifaceted poetic form serving many different purposes, some cultic and others not, and that it played a vital role in the life of the Israelite community and of individuals within that community throughout the biblical period. (8)


The anthology that became the Book of Psalms was put together in the Second Temple period, perhaps in the fifth century B.C.E. but probably no later than the fourth century B.C.E. The decision to assemble the disparate psalms in a book may have been motivated by the redaction of the Torah in the fifth century B.C.E. as a canonical book intended for public reading. We have no precise knowledge about the identity of the editors, though the usual suspects—priestly circles in Jerusalem—seem plausible candidates, because they would have had a particular interest in making the psalms authoritatively available for use in worship. (8)

| The canonical collection is divided into five books, 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, 107-The [sic] end of each book is marked by a brief prose doxology praising God that is not part of the psalm after which it is inserted. The fifth book lacks this doxological coda, perhaps because Psalm 150 as a whole, a string of exhortations to praise God in song, was thought to serve that purpose. The first three books seem to have originally been independent collections of psalms, and in all likelihood what is now the fourth and fifth books was at first a single additional book. Psalms 1 and 2 are usually considered to be a prologue to the Book of Psalms as a whole and not part of the collection that constitutes the first book of Psalms. Two duplications of psalms (Psalms 14 and 53, Psalm 40:14-18 and Psalm 70) in different books of the collection offer evidence that these were originally separate anthologies that evolved independently. Further evidence for the independence of the precanonical collections is the conclusion of the second book with the words, “the prayers of David son of Jesse are ended,” a formula that is then contradicted by psalms in the next three books, many of which are in fact ascribed to David. The division into five books was clearly in emulation of the Five Books of Moses. Perhaps this division was merely a formal device to help confer canonical status on Psalms, following the precedent of the recently canonized Torah. (8)

The Hebrew term for “psalm” is mizmor, which means “something sung,” cognate with the verb zamer, “to sing” or “to hymn.” It is possible but by no means certain that this verb designates singing accompanied by a musical instrument. It is definitely singing associated with praise or jubilation;… The noun mizmor, whether or not attached to the name David, appears in the heading of a large number of the psalms. And yet the book as a whole has never been called Mizmorim, “Psalms,” but Tehilim, “Praises”… …the idea of calling the book Tehilim, “Praises,” reflects an insight into what is going on in most though not all of the poems. Again and again, the psalmists tell us that man’s ultimate calling is to use the resources of human language to celebrate God’s greatness and to express gratitude for His beneficent acts. (9)


It has been generally understood since the eighteenth century, and among some Jewish scholars still earlier, that biblical poetry is based on a parallelism of meaning between the two halves of the line (or, in the minority of lines that are triadic, among the three parts of the line). …much of the force of ancient Hebrew poetry derives from its rhythmic compactness, something one could scarcely guess from the existing English versions. A typical line of biblical poetry has three beats in each verset. … Some lines exhibit a three-beat four-beat pattern; sometimes a verset may have only two beats. (10)

The oldest stratum of biblical p poetry, as evidenced in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), shows a fondness for patterns of incremental repetition. These occur in Psalms as well, whether because the poem is old or because the poet has chosen to use an archaizing device. … “For, look, You enemies, O LORD, / for, look, Your enemies perish…” (92:10). The increment in the repetition is italicized. The archaic poetic style here can be attributed to the adoption by the psalmist, as we noted, of a line from an old Canaanite poem. At the other end of the historical spectrum, in the Second Temple period semantic parallelism is somewhat weakened. Many lines show no parallelism of meaning between versets; in numerous instances, this lack is compensated for by a semantic parallelism between two whole lines in sequence, but this is not invariably the case. (11)

Though a camp is marshaled against me,
my heart shall not fear.
though battle is roused against me,
nonetheless do I trust. (Psalm 27:3)

Poets in any language are rarely content simply to repeat the same thing in different words. If the more common or general term for a concept appears in the first verset, as is usually the case, the “synonym” in the second verset is often a more unusual term, a stronger word, some sort of specification of the first term, or a metaphorical substitution for it that carries with it the vividness or heightening involved in figurative language. (12)

This building of semantic momentum from verset to verset is one of the sources of the distinctive power of biblical poetry. (12)

Although some psalms are laden with stereotypical language in which both the parallelism within the line and the poem as a whole are relatively static, the strong forward thrust in many of these lines of poetry as well as from line to line means that this is by and large a highly dynamic poetic system in which ideas and images are progressively pushed to extremes and themes brought to a crisis and a turning point. It is a formal aspect of the poetry of Psalms that helps make it an abiding resource for readers, whether they are in the grip of stark despair or on the crest of elation. (13)

Poetically effective sequencing may be combined with the semantic dynamics to which lines of parallelistic verse lend themselves. (15)

Finally, although much of the figurative language is manifestly taken from a traditional repertoire, there are moments of striking metaphoric inventiveness. (16)

…light, archetypally, means safety and rescue to those plunged in fearful darkness, but also because radiance is a mythological property of deities and monarchs. (17)


It is a constant challenge to turn ancient Hebrew poetry into English verse that is reasonably faithful to the original and yet readable as poetry. Perhaps the most pervasive problem is the intrinsic structural compactness of biblical Hebrew, a feature that the poets constantly exploit musically and otherwise. Biblical Hebrew is what linguists call a synthetic language, as opposed to analytic languages such as English. Pronominal objects of verbs are usually indicated by an accusative suffix attached to the verb. The pronominal subject of verbs is usually indicated by the way the verb is conjugated, without the need to introduce the pronoun, unless it is added for emphasis. Thus, “He will guard you” is a single word, yishmorkha. Instead of using possessive pronouns, nouns are declined with possessive suffixes. And the verb “to be” has no present tense, instead being merely implied by the juxtaposition of a subject noun and a predicate noun (hence the King (17) James Version constantly italicizes is because there is no literal equivalent in the Hebrew text). Thus, “The LORD is my shepherd” is only two words, four syllables, in the Hebrew: YHWH ro’i. (18)

Biblical syntax is more flexible than English syntax, often adjusting the order of terms for emphasis or for other expressive purposes. (18)

This preoccupation with rhythm, which will be self-evidently justified to any serious reader of poetry and probably seem odd to anyone else, is inseparable from the underlying aspiration of this translation. … What I have aimed at in this translation–inevitably, with imperfect success–is to represent Psalms in a kind of English verse that is readable as poetry yet sounds something like the Hebrew–emulating its rhythms wherever feasible, reproducing many of the effects of its expressive poetic syntax, seeking equivalents for the combination of homespun directness and archaizing in the original hewing to the lexical concreteness of the Hebrew, and making more palpable the force of parallelism that is at the heart of biblical poetry. (19)

Biblical Hebrew uses few abstractions. In most instances a term anchored in physical existence, some metonymy or synecdoche, serves in place of an abstraction. There is no real biblical word for “progeny” or “posterity”; poets and prose writers as well prefer to say “seed,” which also means “semen” and, by metonymy, the product of semen. … Wherever possible, the translation resists substituting an abstraction for the concrete term in the Hebrew. I have tried to avoid ponderous Latinate terms such as “iniquity” and “transgression,” which misrepresent the tone and sound of the Hebrew equivalents if not their denotations; I have preferred instead more everyday terms such as “wrongdoing” and “crime.” What is at stake in this preference is not just a matter of phonetics or aesthetics but a worldview that informs these poems. … The psalmists are constantly concerned with the relationship between man and God, or Israel and God, which is more than sufficient to qualify their poetry as religious. But this relationship is often imagined in social, political, and even physical terms rather than in the framework of what Protestant theology calls “salvation history.” “Crime” is frequently a more apt English equivalent for the Hebrew ‘awen [עוון] than “iniquity” because what triggers the indignation of the supplicant is the bribing of judges, defamation, theft, conspiracy to murder, and other violations of the law. Another Hebrew term, ḥet’ [חטא], which repeatedly figures in both older and modern English versions as “sin,” is translated here as “offense.” I do not mean to say that there is no notion of sin in Psalms, but the fraught theological connotations of the English term are not quite right. Etymologically, ḥet’ comes from a verb that means “to miss the mark.” (20) … Nefesh, as I observed above, has a core meaning of “life-breath,” but the Vulgate generally rendered it as anima, and that in turn predisposed the King James translators to represent it as “soul.” … “soul” is a word that has to be avoided if we are not to get a misleading idea of what the psalmists are saying. (21)

| As previously noted, nefesh often occurs in Psalms as an anatomical term for the part of the body between the head and the shoulders. (21)

“Salvation” is the term that the translators in 1611 chose to represent the Hebrew yeshu’ah [ישוע], and it has shown more than a little persistence in the various modern versions. … But in Psalms this noun and its cognate verb hoshi’a [הושיע] are strictly directed to the here and now. Hosi’a means to get somebody out of a tight fix, to rescue him. When the tight fix involves the threat of enemies on the battlefield, yeshu’ah can mean “victory,” and hoshi’a “to make victorious”; more commonly, both the noun and the verb indicate “rescue.” It will no doubt take getting used to for some readers to feel comfortable with “the God of my rescue” instead of “the God of my salvation,” but that is precisely the sort of readjustment of mind-set that this translation aims to effect. … The speakers in these poems, however, do not seek some transport to a different spiritual realm, some radical transformation of their inward self. Instead, they implore God to extricate them from terrible straits, confound their enemies, restore them to wholeness and safety. … This translation is an effort to reground Psalms in the order of reality in which it was conceived, where the spiritual was realized through the physical, and divine purposes were implemented in social, political, and even military realms. (22)


It is a nettlesome truth about scribal transmis-(22)sion that any text copied by scribes from century to century accumulates errors over time. A copyist’s eye can easily skip over a letter, a word, even a whole phrase. He may inadvertently duplicate a letter occurring a the end of one word at the beginning of the next word in the text (what is called “dittography”), or, alternately, he may mistakenly drop a letter that actually belongs because he has just copied the same letter in a preceding word (what is called “haplography”). Consonants can get reversed, or even words and phrases. (23)

Textual errors cluster far more heavily in biblical poetry than in the prose. … Biblical poetry uses a specialized poetic vocabulary incorporating many words that never occur in prose and in some instances are rare or archaic. When a copyist is confronted with an unfamiliar word or idiom, he runs the risk of scrambling it or substituting a more familiar term. (23)

There is abundant evidence that slips or blunders of this sort occurred again and again in the copying of the psalms, rendering some phrases or whole lines or even sequences of lines almost unintelligible. I don’t mean to exaggerate. Many psalms, including some of the most famous, such as the first, the twenty-third, and the last psalm in the collection, are beautifully transparent in the original from beginning to end, inspiring considerable confidence that there was no slip between the pen of the poet and the pens of the long line of scribes. But there are also many instances in which the meaning of the text as it stands is quite opaque, with no easy path of reconstruction back to what the poet might have originally written. (24)

| Psalms 9 and 10 are a striking illustration of these textual problems. In the Septuagint, these appear as a single psalm. Internal evidence for their unity is the fact that together they form an alphabetic acrostic. (24)

A note on Wisdom Literature

Abundant evidence has been uncovered, in Egypt and in Mesopotamia as well, that Wisdom writing was a fairly widespread practice in the ancient Near East. The perspective of Wisdom literature is international and, in many instances, one might say, universalist. It raises questions of value and moral behavior, of the meaning of human life, and especially of the right conduct of life. (339) … In one clear instance, Proverbs 22:17-24:22, there is extensive borrowing, possibly through the intermediary of an Aramaic translation, of a second-millennium B.C.E. Egyptian Wisdom text. (340)

In keeping with this international background, there is little in the three biblical Wisdom books that is specifically Israelite. … God, occasionally referred to at the margins of the book, is always ‘elohim, the generic term, and not YHWH, the Israelite proper noun for God; and, as I argue later, the term ‘elohim itself may carry a somewhat different semantic freight from the one it bears in earlier biblical texts. … If Job culminates in the Voice from the Whirlwind, which could be construed as a kind of revelation, that vision of a teeming and contradictory nature in which beauty and violence are intertwined has very little in common with the Sinai epiphany, which conveyed ethical and cultic instruction to Israel. (340)

| Wisdom writing continued toward the end of the biblical period in some of the texts included in the Apocrypha, and signs of the Wisdom tradition are still detectable in rabbinic literature in the early centuries of the Christian era. (340)

It is only, however, in Job, Proverbs, and Qohelet that we have books in the (340) Hebrew canon that are Wisdom from end to end. There is no confident way of knowing where or how they originated. One hypothesis that has enjoyed a certain currency among scholars is that there were Wisdom schools in which such texts were both composed and taught. There is some evidence for the existence of Wisdom schools in the surrounding cultures but little direct proof of their existence in ancient Israel. (341)

One passing reference in Proverbs (17:16) would seem to indicate that people paid teachers a fee for instruction in Wisdom, but it is hard to know whether this was a general practice. (341)

cf. Karel van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible

Proverbs is the only one of the three canonical Wisdom books that might conceivably reflect the activities of some sort of academy. Composed in verse from beginning to end, it often seems to utilize the mnemonic function of poetry to inscribe in memory principles of right and wrong, and one can plausibly imagine a teacher imparting instruction of this sort to his disciples. … Job, apart from the prose frame-story of the first two chapters and the last one, is composed entirely as poetry, and it often proves to be poetry of a highly innovative and sometimes deliberately disturbing (341) kind. Qohelet uses strongly cadenced, evocative prose, perhaps qualifying as prose-poetry, which in two extended passages moves into formal verse. All three books, then, deploy manifestly literary means to shape their visions of human life. (342)

| Wisdom literature is as close as the ancient Near East came to Greek philosophy, which was nearly contemporaneous with the latest Wisdom texts of the Hebrew Bible. it shares with Greek philosophy an inquiry into values and a disposition to reflect on the human condition, but it lacks both the purely theoretical and the systematic impulses of the Greek thinkers. Ethical issues are raised, but there is no real ontology, epistemology, anthropology, or metaphysics, and much of the thrust of Near Eastern Wisdom is pragmatic and even explicitly didactic. Job, for all its profundity, is a theological rather than a philosophic text. Its author is God-obsessed and never wonders or speculates about God’s existence but rather expresses his outrage at the spectacular injustice of a world governed by a purportedly just God. Qohelet, concerned as it is with the structure of reality and how ephemeral human life is locked into that structure, is close to a genuinely philosophic work, though it articulates its philosophy through incantatory language and haunting imagery rather than through systematic thought. (342)

Proverbs founds its admonitions and observations in what it conceives to be the assured wisdom of tradition and colelctive knowledge. Precisely that assurance is frontally challenged in Job. Qohelet does not so much challenge traditional wisdom as subvert it, sometimes in the form of sly antiproverbs that have the ring of conventional maxims but express a bleak skepticism antithetical to what one encounters in the Book of Proverbs. These strong disparities among the three Wisdom books vividly illustrate how the Hebrew Bible, contrary to popular preconceptions, is not a book but an anthology spanning almost a millennium and incorporating widely different views of human nature, God, history, and even the natural world. (342)



Although Proverbs, in contrast to Job and Qohelet, strikes certain recurrent notes of traditional piety and evinces great confidence in a rational moral order that dependably produces concrete rewards for virtue and wisdom, it is in some ways like Job and Qohelet, not altogether a likely book for inclusion in the canon. The Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 30B) in fact brackets Proverbs with Qohelet as a text that perhaps might have been excluded from the canon–in particular because it contains contradictory assertions. The sequence of verses 4 and 5 in chapter 26 is a vivid case in point: “Do not answer a dolt by his folly / lest you, too, be like him. /Answer the dolt by his folly, / lest he seem wise in his own eyes.” … It is probably misguided to argue for a dialectic or subtly complementary relationship between these two admonitions. The contradiction between them stems from the anthological character of the book: the two sayings have been culled either from folk-tradition or from the verbal repertory of Wisdom schools and have been set in immediate sequence by the anthologist because of the identical wording–first in the negative and then in the positive–of the initial clause of each saying. (345)

| The Book of Proverbs is not merely an anthology but an anthology of anthologies. It is made up of six discrete units, each marked editorially as such at the beginning, with notable differences of emphasis and style among the units. Chapters 1-9 form a kind of general prologue to the subject of the instruction of wisdom. (345)

The second grouping, introduced like the first with the phrase “the proverbs of Solomon,” runs from the beginning of chapter 10 to 22:Many [sic] (346)

[via: I’m pretty sure the reference is “22:16”]

…”the words of the wise” evidently serving as a kind of title. This grouping provides the most vivid evidence of the international character of Wisdom literature because a large part of it, as scholars have long recognized, is a recasting of the Instruction of Amenemope, a second-millennium B.C.E. Egyptian text, which may have reached the Hebrew writer through the mediation of an Aramaic version. After this, 24:23 begins with the declaration, “These, two, are from the wise,” which indicates a new source, of which perhaps only a fragment is included because it ends or breaks off after eleven verses. (346)

The verb “transcribed,” he’etiqu, does not imply original composition but rather an activity such as collating and copying or transferring from another source, which means that the original formulation of at least some of these proverbs might have occurred generations, perhaps even quite a few generations, before the time of Hezekiah, however unlikely the ascription to Solomon. (346)

| Finally, chapters 30 and 31 comprise, as Fox aptly calls them, a series of four “appendices” to the book proper. (346) …there is no confident way of concluding whether they are later sources or just exotic ones. The first appendix, 30:1-14, is “The words of Agur, son of Yaqeh,” a figure about whom nothing is known. The style is vatic, and the idea that God alone possesses wisdom as a teachable craft. The second appendix (30:15-33) is made up of a series of riddling epigrams cast in a three-four numerical pattern (“Three things are there that are not sated, / four that do not say, ‘Enough!’ “) occasionally found elsewhere in biblical poetry and ultimately going back to Canaanite poetic style. The third appendix, 31:1-9, “The words of Lemuel, king of Massa,” is a set of instructions of a queen mother to her royal son. At the very end of the book (31:10-31), we have an alphabetic acrostic poem celebrating the ideal wife–an interesting editorial choice for the conclusion of a book that has featured male mentors instructing young men and has repeatedly warned against seductresses and complained of shrewish wives. (347)

| The Book of Proverbs, then, is by no means cut from whole cloth, and consequently generalizations about its outlook and literary character will not hold for all parts of the anthology. By and large, the underlying conception of wisdom is thoroughly pragmatic, and, in keeping with the characterstic direction of Wisdom literature, it does not reflect particular Israelite interests. The recurring term torah does not refer to any divinely inspired text but simply means “teaching” or “instruction” and is closely coordinated with the constantly reiterated musar, “reproof” or “discipline.” (347)

Poetry in all cultures serves a mnemonic function–in systems that have rhyme, the rhyme helps you remember the line that comes after its rhyming counterpart. In the semantic parallelism of biblical poetry, the match in meaning (and often in rhythm and syntax) helps you remember the second verset after the first. … “Cheating scales are the LORD’s loathing, / and a true weight-stone His pleasure” (11:1) occurs several times with minor variations. Unlike the sundry claims about the righteous and the wicked, it is unassailable as an ethical principle. One would hardly call it great poetry, but the poetic parallelism does serve to inscribe the saying in memory with the aim of being a kind of ethical prophylaxis: should you ever be tempted to enhance your profits in a sale of goods by using a crooked scale or an underweight marked stone, this saying is meant to come to mind and dissuade you. (348)

| Many other proverbs are grounded not in ethics but in purely prudential considerations, … (348) … The least interesting of the proverbs, as the one just cited may suggest, amount to poetic formulations of truisms. (349)

Within the tight formal constraints of the one-line aphorism, dynamic and revelatory relationships emerge between the two halves of the line, generating what I have elsewhere called a poetry of wit. … Very often in biblical poetry, the second verset does not simply echo the first verset, as it does in the three lines quoted above, but instead introduces some sort of heightening or focusing development of it, which in Proverbs frequently is a small surprise or discovery. “A door turns on its hinge, / and a sluggard on his bed” (26:14). Here, as in many other proverbs, the relation between the first verset and the second is that of a riddle to its solution. (349)

Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, / thus the sluggard to those who send him (10:26)

he won’t even bring it up to his mouth (19:24)

This is, of course, an extravagant and amusing (349) satiric hyperbole: the man is so lazy that, having plunged his hand into the dish, he is incapable of exerting the effort required to bring the food to his mouth. Thus, the fantastically exaggerated image becomes a representation of how laziness leads to a failure to provide for one’s own basic needs, a notion couched in more realistic terms, such as having nothing to harvest when crops are not planted, in other proverbs. (350)

| The satiric perspective, to round out this sampling of proverbs on the sluggard, is not limited to riddling but can be brought to bear through a technique of miniaturist caricature: “The sluggard said, ‘A lion’s outside / in the square. I shall be murdered!’ ” (22:13). These words, of course, are a trumped-up excuse for his not leaving his house (or, perhaps, his bed): in the wonderful extravagance of the dialogue that the poet puts in the mouth of the sluggard, he fears that the fictitious lion prowling in the streets threatens not to devour but to murder him, as though it were a malevolent assassin and not merely a beast of prey. (350)

| Many of the proverbs set out an antithesis between the first verset and the second, and the gith confines of the one-line aphorism often generate a powerful energy or assertion in the antithesis. Thus: “A worthy woman is her husband’s crown, / but like rot in his bones a shameful wife” (12:4). … This whole effect is strongly reinforced by the antithetical chiasm: worthy woman (a), crown (b), bone-rot (b’), shaming woman (a’). Sometimes, the contrasting second verset takes on a surprising vividness against the foil of the first verset: “Drawn-out longing sickens the heart, / but desire come true is a tree of life” (13:12). By itself, the second clause might seem a bland truism, but after the sickening of the heart of unfulfilled desire, it conveys a stong sense of how sustaining it is to have one’s longings consummated. In some antithetical proverbs, there is also narrative development from the first verset to the second: “Bread got through fraud may be sweet to a man, / but in the end it fills his mouth with gravel” (20:17). The idea that pleasures reaped through wrongful acts will eventually be followed by a comeuppance for the wrongdoer is a cliché of Wisdom literature. (350)

A traditional proverb pattern that occurs with some frequency in the collection is “better x” (first verset) “than y” (second verset). (350) … The book as a whole, after all, works on the assumption that knowledge and experience are eminently transmissible and teachable and that everyone draws on the same fund of set moral principles. In this instance, however, the anthologists have included a very different perception–that each person’s experience is ultimately incommensurable, that one’s inward sorrows and delights have no adequate reflection in the lexicon of the social realm. Occasionally, despite the general adherence of the collection to moral certitude, one encounters a proverb that registers the stubborn ambiguity of human experience, as in this densely packed line: “Like water face to face / thus the heart of man to man” (27:19). The first verset evidently means to say that water gives back a person his own reflected image, and so the second verset would seem to assert that a man may know the heart of another by pondering what is in his own heart. But water, after all, is an unstable mirror, its surface liable to be troubled by wind or tide, its chromatic layers darkening or transforming the image, and hence the reflection of heart to heart may be a tricky or undependable business. (351)

The more pervasive challenge to the translator of Proverbs is that the expressive vigor of these sayings depends to such a large degree on their wonderful compactness, an effect reinforced by sound-play (alliteration, assonance, an occasional ad hoc internal rhyme). … Because of the fundamental structural difference between biblical Hebrew an modern English, it often takes eight to ten words to say in English what is expressed in four Hebrew words. There is no escape from this linguistic quandary, but I have sought to narrow the gap between the two languages by avoiding (with just a few exceptions) polysyllabic words, by traying wherever possible to keep the number of accents–typically, three per verset–close to that in the Hebrew, and by reproducing something of the compression of formulation of the Hebrew without resort to explanatory or paraphrastic maneuvers in the translation. … The speed, the occasional abruptness, the gnomic character of the original seem worth emulating–hence renderings such as “like water face to face / so the heart of man to man.” (352)



The Book of Job is in several ways the most mysterious book of the Hebrew Bible. Formally, as a sustained debate in poetry, it resembles no other text in the canon. Theologically, as a radical challenge to the doctrine of reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked, it dissents from a consensus view of biblical writers–a dissent compounded by its equally radical rejection of the anthropocentric conception of creation that is expressed in biblical texts from Genesis onward. (457)

As is the case with so many other biblical books, we know nothing about the author of Job… (457)

The Book of Job belongs to the international movement of ancient Near Eastern Wisdom literature in its universalist perspective–there are no Israelite characters in the text, though all the speakers are monotheists, and there is no reference to covenantal history or to the nation of Israel–and it is equally linked with Wisdom literature in its investigation of the problem of theodicy. The troubling phenomenon of the suffering of the just is addressed in roughly analogous texts both in Mesopotamia and Egypt, but any direct influence of these on the Job poet is questionable. (457) … It is hard to imagine that the Job poet could have been part of any such institutional setting [Wisdom schools in ancient Israel], given the radical nature of his views. One should probably think of him, then, as a writer working alone–a bold dissenting thinker and a poet of genius who produced a book of such power that Hebrew readers soon came to feel they couldn’t do without it, however vehement its swerve from the views of the biblical majority. (458)

The frame-story (chapters 1 and 2, concluded in chapter 42) is in all likelihood a folktale that had been in circulation for centuries, probably through oral transmission. … A passing mention in Ezekiel 14:14 and 19 of Job, together with Noah and Daniel (not the Daniel of the biblical book), as one of three righteous men saved from disaster, reflects the presence of a Job figure–perhaps featuring in the same plot as that of the frame-story–in earlier folk-tradition. The author of the Book of Job, however, has either reworked an old text or formulated his own text on the basis of oral tradition, using archaizing language. There is an obvious effort in the frame-story to evoke the patriarchal age, though in a foreign land with non-Israelites, but the neat symmetries of formulaic numbers and the use of prose refrains resemble nothing in the Patriarchal narrative in Genesis. The style of the frame-story gives the general impression of early First Commonwealth Hebrew prose, but hee and there a trait of Late Biblical Hebrew shows through–for example, the use of the verb qabel [קבל] in 2:10 for “accept,” a verb that occurs in late texts such as Esther and Chronicles but not in earlier biblical writing. (458)

The poetry incorporates a noticeably higher proportion of terms borrowed from the Aramaic than does other biblical poetry. (458) … (To cite one recurrent example: the Aramaic milin, “words,” which would replace early biblical devarim in later Hebrew, appears thirty-four times in Job out of a total of thirty-eight biblical occurrences, and the Aramaic plural ending -in, instead of the Hebrew -im, is used several times.) All this suggests a historical moment when Aramaic was in the process of beginning to replace Hebrew as the vernacular of the Judahite population. That would place the Job poet in the fifth century or perhaps as early as the later sixth century B.C.E., though it is impossible to be more precise, and one cannot exclude an early fourth-century setting. (459)

There is a palpable discrepancy between the simple folktale world of the frame-story and the poetic heart of the book. God’s quick acquiescence in the Adversary’s perverse proposal is hard to justify in terms of any serious monotheistic theology, and when the LORD speaks from the whirlwind at the end, He makes no reference whatever either to the wager with the Adversary or to any celestial meeting of “the sons of God,” a notion of a council of the gods that ultimately goes back to Canaanite mythology. The old folktale, then, about the suffering of the righteous Job is merely a pretext, a narrative excuse, and a pre-text, a way of introducing the text proper, and what happens in it provides little help for thinking through the problem of theodicy. The two major interpolations are the Hymn to Wisdom (chapter 28), a fine poem in its own right but one that expresses a pious view of wisdom as fear of the LORD that could scarcely be that of the Job poet, and the Eliju speeches (chapters 32-37), which could not have bene part of the original book both because Elihu is never mentioned in the frame-story, either at the beginning or at the end, and because the bombastic, repetitious, and highly stereotypical poetry he speaks is vastly inferior to anything written by the Job poet. (459)

There are then three rounds of debate between JHob and his three reprovers,… The third round of the debate was somehow (459) damaged in scribal transmission. Bildad is given only a truncated speech, and the third contribution of Zophar to the debate seems to have disappeared entirely. (460)

The Book of Job is, of course, a theological argument, but it is a theological argument conducted in poetry, and careful attention to the role that poetry plays in the argument may put what is said in a somewhat different light from the one in which it is generally viewed. The debate between Job and his three adversarial friends and then God’s climactic speech to Job exhibit three purposefully deployed levels of poetry. The bottom level is manifested in the language of reproof of the three companions. In keeping with the conventional moral views that they complacently defend, the poetry they speak abounds in familiar formulations closely analogous to what one encounters in many passages in Psalms and Proverbs. What this means is that much of their poetry verges on cliché. The Job poet, however, is too subtle an artist merely to assign bad verse to them, which would have the effect of setting them up too crudely as straw men in the debate. Thus, there are moments when their poetry catches fire, conveying to us a sense that even the spokesmen for wrongheaded ideas may exercise a certain power of vision. One might also surmise that this writer was too good a poet to be able to resist the temptation of creating for the three companions some lines and even whole passages of fine poetry. (460)

In any case, the stubborn authenticity of Job’s perception of moral reality is firmly manifested in the power of the poetry he speaks, which clearly transcends the poetry of his reprovers. The death-wish poem that initiates his discourse is a brilliantly apt prelude to all that follows. Biblical poetry in general works through a system of intensifications, heightening or focusing or concretizing the utterance of the first verset of a line in the approximate semantic parallelism of the second verset (and in triadic lines, this process of intensification often moves on from the second verset to the third). When Job takes up his complaint in poetry in chapter 3, he exploits this inherent dynamic of biblical verse to burrow progressively deeper into the aching core of his suffering. Anguish has rarely been given more power-(460)full expression. … All this begins in the very first line he speaks, a pounding in the initial verset, yo’vad yom ’iwaled bo, “Annul the day that I was born,” followed by the second verset, “and the night that said, ‘A man is conceived.’ ” In the pattern of intensification evident here, Job, longing for relief from pain through nonexistence, wants to wipe out not just the event of his birth, in the first verset, but going back nine months and moving from day to night, his very conception, evoked in the second verset. The mention of night then triggers a long chain of images of night and darkness, each deepening the effect of the ones that precede it. (461)

It should be said that almost all biblical poetry, because it is formally based in part on semantic parallelism, is driven to search for synonyms. No other biblical poet, however, exhibits the virtuosity in the command of rich synonymity that is displayed by the Job poet. He compounds the primary term hoshekh, “darkness,” with tsalmawet, “death’s shadow,” ‘ananah, “cloud-mass,” the unique kimrirey yom, “day-gloom” (or, perhaps, “eclipse”), ‘ofel, “murk,” and a series of verbs that indicate a befouling, obscuring, or shutting down of light. (461)

The English reader should be warned that this dazzling lexical abundance has created problems first for the ancient scribes and then for all who have attempted to translate this book. Scribes in general are uneasy about transcribing words with which they are unfamiliar, and as a result they tend to substitute terms they know or otherwise to introduce some graphic stutter in copying the text. This is at least one principal reason that the text of Job has come down to us at many points quite garbled, making interpretation a matter of guesswork and repeatedly inviting emendation. But when a whole line or sequence of lines of poetry has been completely mangled in transmission, efforts to recover the original formulation through emendation are bound to be highly conjectural. The present translation therefore for the most part limits itself to relatively minor emendations of (461) the received text–changes of single letters, reversals of consonants, alterations of the vowel-points that indicate the vocalization of words–and these changes are undertaken with a somewhat greater measure of confidence when they are warranted by a variant Hebrew manuscript or by one of the ancient translations. (462)

The other chief resource deployed in the poetry that Job speaks is its extraordinary metaphoric inventiveness. (462)

Still another source of metaphor tapped by the Job poet, beyond quotidian reality and nature, is mythology. … Leviathan,…(462) …is the fearsome sea monster of Canaanite mythology (in some versions, he has seven heads) who had to be subdued by the weather god whose realm is the dry land. … The poetry of Job, then, at least in its metaphors, reaches deep into the chaotic sea, up to the stars where celestial beings dwell, and down into the kingdom of death, that shadowy underworld bordered by a Current that can be crossed only in one direction. In this poem where intensification is the key to so much, mythology serves as the ultimate intensifier. (463)

The third–and, ultimately, decisive–level of poetry in the book is manifested when the Lord addresses Job out of the whirlwind. … The wide-ranging panorama of creation int he Voice from the Whirlwind shows a sublimity of expression, a plasticity of description, an ability to evoke the complex and dynamic interplay of beauty and violence in the natural world, and even an originality of metaphoric inventiveness that surpasses all the poetry, great as it is, that Job has spoken. … But God’s thundering challenge to Job is not bullying. Rather, it rousingly introduces a comprehensive overview of the nature of reality that exposes the limits of Job’s human perspective, anchored as it is in the restricted compass of human knowledge and the inevitable egoism of suffering. The vehicle of that overview is an order of poetry created to match the grandeur–or perhaps the omniscience–of God. The visionary experience that this poetry enables for Job is of a vast creation shot through with unfathomable paradoxes, such as the conjoining of the nurturing instinct with cruelty, where in place of the sufferer’s (463) longing for absolute darkness the morning stars sing together and there is a rhythmic interplay between light and darkness. (464)



…the Song of Songs stands out in its striking distinctiveness–a distinctiveness that deserves to be called wondrous. The delicate yet frank sensuality of this celebration of young love, without reference to God or covenant or Torah, has lost nothing of its immediate freshness over the centuries: these are among the most beautiful love poems that have come down to us from the whole ancient world. Famously, the erotic nature of the Song constituted a challenge for the framers of the canon, both Jewish and Christian, and their response was to read the poems allegorically–… Both religious traditions, however fervently they clung to this allegorical vision, never succeeded in entirely blocking the erotic power of the text. (583)

Little is known about the origins of these poems. … The book as a whole has an anthological look, though a case might be made for certain recurrent configurations constituting a kind of unity. It is conceivable that embryonic versions of some of these poems were in oral or perhaps written circulation for centuries, but there is no way of proving that hypothesis. The evidence of the language of the poems–some of the vocabulary and certain grammatical forms–clearly indicates a relatively late date of com-(583)position; the fourth century B.C.E. seems a reasonable guess, though some would put it a little later. It may be that one or two of the poems were in fact written as wedding poems, but the content of mos of them leads one to conclude that the free enjoyment of ht pleasures of love and not marriage is what th epoets had in view. Several of the poems have an urban setting, with the young woman addressing “the daughters of Jerusalem” or confronted by the town watchmen, but the predominant background of the poems is bucolic or sylvan–luscious gardens, verdant forests, vineyards, rolling hills, and mountains. Solomon is mentioned more than once, but the intention seems to be to draw a contrast between the two young lovers delighting in each other in the vernal lushness of nature and the luxuries of the royal court. (584)

The general fraternal relationship marked by “brother” becomes something biological and intimately physical: the beloved fantasizes her lover sucking the same breasts that she has sucked. This fantasy of shared physical closeness in infancy then becomes a vivid anticipation of another kind of physical closeness in adulthood. (585)

Much of the enchantment and the sensual richness of the celebration of love in the Song inhere in its metaphoric language. … What is remarkable is how consistently the figurative language of these poems evokes the experience of physical love with a delicacy of expression that manifests the poet’s constant delight in likening one thing to another. (The Hebrew verb damah, “to be like,” is repeatedly flaunted.) There is a recurrent shuttling between the metaphor and its referent, in some instances creating a sense of virtual interchangeability between the two that enables the poet to speak candidly of sexual gratification without seeming to do so. (585) … Reading the lines, we of course realize what the lover, playfully miniatruized as a sachet, is doing in that place, but the realization is nuanced in felling by the charming metaphor. And the concluding verset, “in the vineyards of Ein-Gedi,” leaves us pleasantly hovering between possibilities: has the henna of the metaphor been grown at the Ein-Gedi oasis overlooking the Dead Sea, or rather, in a slide through the metaphoric to the literal, are the lovers actually enjoying their love in the vineyards of Ein-Gedi, as elsewhere vineyards or gardens become their bower? (586)

These ambiguities, always evocative, never arch, between figure and referent are most brilliantly deployed in the relatively long poem that starts at 4:8 and runs to 5:1. The flourishing natural landscape, beginning with the wild and distant mountains of Lebanon, is the apt background for the young lovers, who are themselves vernal, like the world though [sic] which they move. But there is a fine transition inaugurated at 4:12 from the literal realm of green things to a figurative one. Now the beloved’s body is a “locked garden” filled with luscious fruit and fragrant plants, and she invites her lover to enter the garden and enjoy its fruits. The audience of these lines is of course expected to know exactly what she is talking about, but the delicacy of expression is sustained by the harmonious continuity between outside and inside. This distinctive use of metaphor does not explain everything, but it is surely one of the features of the Song of Songs that makes it among the most beautiful collections of love poetry in the Western tradition. (586)



Is Ruth in fact a Labe Biblical book? … Some of the dissenters evoke the pure classical style of Ruth that in many ways sounds like the Hebrew of the early first millennium B.C.E. (621)

| But style is actually the clearest evidence of the lateness of Ruth. The writer took pains to create a narrative prose redolent of the early centuries of Israelite history, but it is very difficult to execute such a project of archaizing without occasional telltale slips, as one can see in the Hebrew of the frame-story of Job. Here, there are at least a dozen terms that reflect distinctive Late biblical usage–as, for example, the verbs used for taking a wife (1:4), for wait or hope (1:13), and for removing a sandal (4:7), and another ten idiomatic collocations occur that never appear in earlier biblical texts. (621)

| The other strong sign of Ruth’s composition in the period after the return from Babylonian exile in the fifth century B.C.E. is its genre. The book is still another manifestation of the veritable explosion of new narrative genres that characterizes the Late Biblical period. For all the polemic thrust of this text (to which we will turn momentarily), it is basically an idyll, quite unlike any of the narratives written during the First Temple period. The setting is bucolic–Bethlehem is a small town, scarcely a city, and the action of the two central chapters takes place outside the town, in the fields and on the threshing floor. Harvesting and agriculture are a palpable presence in the story. Unlike the narratives from Genesis to Kings, where even pastoral settings are riven with tensions and often punctuated by violence, the world of Ruth is a placid bucolic world, where landowner and workers greet each other decorously with blessings in the name of the LORD, and where traditional practices such as the levirate marriage and leaving unpicked ears of grain for the poor are punctiliously observed. (621)

In Ruth, by contrast, there are no bad people. … In sum, this idyllic narrative is one of the few truly successful stories in any literature that concentrates almost exclusively on good people. (622)

| Ruth’s Moabite origins have led many interpreters–convincingly, in my view–to see this story as a quiet polemic against the opposition of Ezra and Nehemiah to intermarriage with the surrounding peoples when the Judahites returned to their land in the fifth century B.C.E. … Readers should note that for biblical Israel, Moab is an extreme negative case of a foreign people. … Ruth is a perfectly virtuous Moabite–‘eshet ḥayil, a “worthy woman”–who becomes the progenitrix of the royal line of the Judahite kingdom. It is hard not to see in the boldly iconoclastic invention of this plot an argument against the exclusionary policy on foreign wives propagated by Ezra and Nehemiah. This would also make the fifth century B.C.E. at the moment when intermarriage was an urgent issue, a plausible time for the composition of the book. (622)

| It is remarkable that a story in all likelihood framed for a polemic purpose should be so beguiling. Charm is not a characteristic that one normally associates with biblical narrative, but this idyll is charming from beginning to end,… (622)

Another recurrent device of classical biblical narratives is the use of the first piece of dialogue assigned to a character to define the distinctive nature of the character. (623)

The balance, the rhythmic poise, the stately symmetries of the language are an apt manifestation of the harmonious world of the Book of Ruth: the characters express a kind of moral confidence ultimately (623) stemming from a sense of the rightness of the traditional values of loyalty, love, and charity and of the sustaining force of providence even in the face of adversity. (624)



The only reasonably safe conclusion one can draw about the origins of the Book of Lamentations is the likelihood that it was composed in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the kingdom of Judah in 586 B.C.E. … Jeremiah’s authorship has not been accepted by modern scholars, and the poetry of these laments over the fate of Zion is altogether different stylistically and formally from the poetry one finds in Jeremiah. (643)

| Lamentations is unique among books of the Bible in that four of its five chapters are composed as alphabetic acrostics, with the third chapter being a triple acrostic, showing three lines that begin with each of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet in their conventional sequence. Even the fifth chapter, which is not an acrostic, comprises twenty-two lines of poetry, the number of letters in the alphabet. … Could it be that the progress from aleph to taw was felt to imply a comprehensive listing of all the disasters that had befallen the people? Might it reflect the presence of a single elegist who simply was drawn to alphabetic acrostics? Might it be a mnemonic to facilitate public recitation? (643)

Some of the language definitely echoes phraseology and imagery of the poetry of doom in the Prophets–the ways of Zion mourning and desolate, the implacable enemy gloating in his triumph, virgins ravished, babes wasting away in the famine. Yet, as the poems drive inexorably from the first letter of the alphabet to the last, they accumulate many powerful images of devastation. (644)

Against this panorama of horror, the elegist, not limiting himself to keening over the destruction, repeatedly affirms his faith in a just God Who has punished Israel for its transgressions but Who in the end will redeem it and exact retribution from its enemies for their cruel excesses. (644) Lamentations, like most good literature, is a strong response to the historical circumstances for which it was framed while at the same time speaking to analogous situations in other times and places. Its catalogue of horrors is something that, alas, we continue to see reenacted in various guises across the globe. Its faith in the prospect of a restored order of justice is a sustaining belief that humankind may always need in the face of massive devastation and the traumatic displacement of exile. One readily understands why it is that Jewish tradition fixed the recitation of these five laments as an annual ritual, not merely in commemoration of the destruction o the First Temple or the Second but also as a way of fathoming the ghastly recurrent violence that has darkened two millennia of history. (645)



Qohelet is in some ways the most peculiar book of the Hebrew Bible. … The Septuagint translators chose [“Ecclesiastes”] because it means “the one who assembles,” and the Hebrew root q-h-l does mean “to assemble.” Some have claimed that what it refers to is the assembling of sayings, but this Hebrew verb always takes people, not words or things, as it sobject, so it may reflect the assembling of audiences or disciples for these discourses. The grammatical form of the word is also odd because one would expect maqhil (causative), not qohelet, and, in any case, qohel (masculine), not qohelet (ostensibly feminine). There are at least two instances in Lae Biblical Hebrew of the –et ending to indicate–apparently–the term for a vocation, and that may be the use of the form here, though some doubt still remains. So, we are not entirely sure what Qohelet means, and whether it is a title (at one point in our text, it is preceded by the definite article) or perhaps a proper name. All this uncertainty, and possibly also the ponderousness of “Ecclesiastes,” has led most modern scholars to use the untranslated Hebrew name, a practice I follow here. (673)

It is best to think of Qohelet as the literary persona of a radical philosopher articulating, in an evocative rhythmic prose that occasionally scans as poetry, a powerful dissent from the mainline Wisdom outlook that is the background of his thought. It has long been recognized that this is one of the later books of the Hebrew Bible. Some scholars have been tempted to see it in an influence of Greek philosophy, but C. L. Seow argues convincingly on linguistic grounds that the text was probably written a few decades before the conquest of Palestine by Alexander the Great in (673) 333 B.C.E. There are two Persian loanwords and certain turns of language that belong to the late Persian period but no Greek loanwords. … On the whole, however, his unblinking, provocative reflections on the ephemerality of life, the flimsiness of human value, and the ineluctable fate of death read like the work of a stubborn and prickly original–one who in all likelihood wrote in the early or middle decades of the fourth century B.C.E. His frequent invocation of terms drawn from bookkeeping reflect the mercantile economy of the period. His class identity is uncertain, though his politics are conservative. (674)

| The way he wrote in some respects resembles traditional Wisdom literature but in others sharply departs from it. The stringing together of moral maxims in concise symmetrical or antithetical formulations, sometimes with rather tenuous connections between one maxim and the next, is clearly reminiscent of the Book of Proverbs. Often, however, Qohelet’s maxims are subversive in content, or seem to be citations of traditional maxims that are challenged or undermined by the new context in which they are set. In a few passages, Qohelet offers entirely pragmatic counsel of a sort one might expect to find in Proverbs. For the most part, however, his observations are properly philosophic, inviting us to contemplate the cyclical nature of reality and of human experience, the fleeting duration of all that we cherish, the brevity of life, and the inexorability of death, which levels all things. Of the propositions he insists on most urgently, only the notions of life’s brevity and of mortality accord with the consensus of biblical belief that had developed by the fourth century B.C.E. The central enigma, then, of the Book of Qohelet is how this text of radical dissent, in which time, history, politics, and human nature are seen in such a bleak light, became part of the canon. Perhaps the ostensible ascription to Solomon shoehorned the book into the canon, but that is hard to judge. (674)

…”vanity,” … “futility,” … “absurdity.” The problem is that all of these English equivalents are more or less right, and abstractions being what they are, each one has the effect of excluding the others and thus limiting the scope of the Hebrew metaphor. The Hebrew hevel [הבל] probably indicates the flimsy vapor that is exhaled in breathing, invisible except on a cold winter day and in any case immediately dissipating in the air. It is the opposite of ruaḥ [רוח], “life-breath,” which is the animating force in a living creature, because it is the waste product of breathing. If, then, one wanted to line up the abstractions implied by hevel, it would include not only futility, absurdity, and vanity but at least insubstantiality, ephemerality, and elusiveness as well. …this translation has chosen to reproduce the concrete image of the Hebrew, rendering hevel as “mere breath” (“breath” alone doesn’t quite work in English) and representing the Hebrew superlative form have havalim as “merest breath.” Altogether, Qohelet is preoccupied with entities that exhibit movement but can’t be seen or grasped. Ruaḥ in its other sense of “wind” plays a prominent role in the opening lines of the book, (675) and the metaphor for futility and pointless effort that is often paired with “mere breath” is “herding the wind,” re’ut ruaḥ. (676)

The rather slippery phrase I have just used, “seems inclined to conclude,” is in fact in keeping with the to-and-fro movement of Qohelet’s philosophic discourse. He is a serious thinker who is constantly in motion–another way in which the language of turning and turning back is appropriate to his enterprise. He has an interest in weighing antithetical propositions and moving dialectally among them. Absolute consistency is not his purpose, and so Michael Fox’s title, Qohelet and His Contradictions, is perfectly apt. God appears with some frequency in his reflections on life, and while it is the same term, ‘elohim, used by the Elohist as well as by the Priestly writer at the beginning of Genesis (Qohelet never uses YHWH), this is clearly not the same deity as the one imagined in the dominant currents of biblical theology. The cosmic vista of the prose-poem with which the book begins (1:2-10) makes no mention of God. When the term ‘elohim [אלהים] is finally introduced in 1:13, the context is odd and unsettling: “all that is done under the sun–it is an evil business that God gave to the sons of man to busy themselves with.” … here God seems almost perverse in keeping the sons of man busy with an evil business–evil, as the larger context makes clear, not in a moral sense but because it is miserable and pointless, herding the wind. Qohelet has enough of a connection with tradition that he never absolutely denies the (676) idea of a personal god, but his ‘elohim often seems to be a stand-in for the cosmic powers-that-be, for fate or the overarching dynamic of reality that is beyond human control. (It is worth noting that even in earlier texts ‘elohim sometimes has this sense, as in Abraham’s words to Abimelech in Genesis 20:13, “when the gods [‘elohim, here exceptionally treated grammatically as a plural] made me a wanderer,” or when Joseph’s brothers, scarcely inclined to pious locations, discover the silver in their packs and say “What is this that God has done to us?” [Genesis 42:28].) On this issue as on others, Qohelet’s position may fluctuate. He is not at all impelled to reject theism, but his sense of life is often readily translatable into posttheistic terms: the world is a theater of continuing frustration and illusion; that is the way that God/fate/the intrinsic constitution of reality has determined that it should be. (677)

…it is hard to find architectonic design in the book; on the contrary, the relative looseness of form admirably suits the mobility of Qohelet’s thought. … The vision of futility begins his book, and the vision of decay and death ends it. All along, Qohelet has thought much about the inescapability of death because it is the prime instance of how everything is mere breath: we dream and hope and lust and love, grasp for power and prestige, but the end that awaits everyone is the ineluctable condition of moldering in the grave. Thus the same words that initiated the prose-poem at the beginning aptly conclude the poem at the end: “Merest breath, said Qohelet. All is mere breath.” (677)

| How, then, did such a book come to be included in the canon? (677) …fragments of Qohelet found at Qumran indicate that it was already part of the library of Scripture there only a century or two after its composition. … It has long been the scholarly consensus that the epilogue is the addition of an editor seeking to domesticate Qohelet’s doctrinal wildness, though a couple of recent commentators have tried to argue–unpersuasively, in my view–that the epilogue is consistent with the body of the book and may be the work of the same writer. In any case, it is surely attributing far too much naïveté to the ancient readers to imagine that a few dozen words of piety at the end would defect them from seeing the subversive skepticism emphatically reiterated throughout the text. … In regard to its literary power and the uncompromising rigor of its observation of the human condition, this was clearly one of the most original texts produced in the biblical period, early or late. … What continues to engage the moral and philosophic imagination, as it surely must have done in Late Antiquity, is the writer who unblinkingly saw all human enterprise as herein the wind, who envisaged the same grim fate for rich and poor, for the righteous and the wicked, and who was led to question whether wisdom itself in the end had any advantage over foolishness. (678)



Of the several biblical books that test the limits of the canon, Esther may well be the most anomalous. It is the only scriptural text of which no scrap has been uncovered at Qumran. The pious Dead Sea sectarians might well have looked askance at it not merely because it never mentions the name of God but also because its narrative world is fundamentally secular. The Jews of the Persian empire are said here to have different “rules” from their neighbors, but these rules–the Persian loanword dat is used, which means “regulation” or “governing decree”–are in no way identified as divine commandments, and issues of faith or covenant are not at all part of this story. Nor, quite notably is the Land of Israel. The likely date of the book’s composition would be sometime late in the fifth century B.C.E. or perhaps slightly later: any date after the demise of the Persian empire in the fourth century is highly improbable because by then the fictional activities of a Persian court would have been of little interest to Hebrew audiences, and the abundant borrowings of Persian words would have been unintelligible. In all likelihood, then, the book was written not long after the return to Zion authorized by the Persian emperor Artaxerxes and led by Ezra and Nehemiah in the middle of the fifth century, but this momentous event doe snot exist for the author of Esther, who envisages life in the diaspora as a normal and even permanent condition. (713)

| The most unusual aspect of Esther, for a book that made it into the biblical canon, is that it offers strong evidence of having been written primarily for entertainment. It has variously been described as a farce, a burlesque, a satire, a fairy tale, and a carnivalesque narrative, and it is often quite funny, with sly sexual comedy playing a significant role. The portrait of King Ahasuerus and the Persian court makes no pretense of serious correspondence to historical reality, as the original audience surely must have known. The Persian emperors were famous for their tolerance toward ethnic minorities–a policy clearly enunciated in the Cyrus Cylinder–and so Ahasuerus’s accepting Haman’s plan to massacre all the Jews of the realm is a manifest fantasy. (713)

Ahasuerus, although he consents to a genocidal scheme, is basically a well-meaning, often obtuse, figure of fun. … The writer even introduces a couple of arch hints that may lead us to wonder about his virility as well as about his intelligence. (714)

| What could have motivated this sort of narrative invention? (714)

Reverasl is the key to the plot of Esther. In the first verse of chapter 9, this pattern is actually spelled out in two Hebrew words, wenahafokh hu’, “on the contrary” or “it was the opposite.” Instead of Haman’s minions killing the Jews, it is the Jews who kill them. Instead of Mordecai’s being impaled on the stake that Haman has erected for him, it is Haman and then his sons who are executed and impaled. Instead of Haman parading in regal grandeur on the king’s own horse, it is Mordecai who is accorded that signal honor. And at the end, it is Mordecai, not Haman, who exercises power of the realm as vice-regent, adorned in regal finery. The carnivalesque character of the story is evident in all this. In the carnival, hierarchies are (temporarily) reversed; the lowly get to play the roles of those above them, typically through masks and costumes, as Mordecai, having donned (714) sackcloth in the hour of impending disaster, appears at the end in indigo and white, a golden diadem, and a wrap of crimson linen. The penultimate chapter of the book is largely devoted to fixing the date and practice of the carnivalesque holiday of Purim (which generally falls in March, around the same time as Mardi Gras). While this chapter is often seen as an epilogue, i tis quite possible that the entire story was invented in order to provide an as-if historical justification for a day of feasting and drinking and merrymaking, already embraced by the Jews, that has no warrant among the festival s stipulated in the Torah. (715)

| The peculiarities of the Book of Esther’s narrative world are matched by the peculiarities of its Hebrew style. …in contrast to other Late Biblical books, Esther exhibits a noticeable degree of stylistic looseness. Infinitives are often used where conjugated forms of the verb seem to be required, a procedure not evidenced elsewhere in Late Biblical Hebrew. Agreement between subject and verb is often ignored. The careful tense distinction of classical Hebrew between perfect and imperfect forms of the verb is entirely relaxed, and at some points the writer appears to be a little uncertain as to how to handle Hebrew verb tenses. And from time to time there are run-on sentences that sprawl over several verses without a great deal of syntactic coherence. (715)

…even apart from the holiday [of Purim], as a story it was for it early audiences, as it would continue to be, both highly amusing and gratifying, at once vivid satire and a tale of national triumph that offered to diaspora Jews a pleasing vision of safety from imagined enemies and a grand entrée to the corridors of power. (716)



Daniel is surely the most peculiar book in the Hebrew Bible. It is also clearly the latest. …it is almost certain that the second laf of Daniel was written between 167 and 165 B.C.E. because it refers in detail to the persecutions initiated by Antiochus IV Epiphanes and his suppression of the Temple cult in those years and to no subsequent events. Given this late date, it is not surprising that Daniel more closely resembles the apocalyptic texts of the Apocrypha and of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written around the same time or a little afterward, and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, which draws on Daniel, than any similarity to earlier biblical books. (747)

…these prophecies, however extravagant, were ultimately dystopian or utopian visions of some actual historical future, cast in vivid poetic hyperbole. The writer of Daniel, on the other hand, seems to be pushing toward a notion of an era that will come at the end of familiar historical process, something he thought to be imminent after the intolerable violations by Antiochus IV that his people were then suffering. The prospect of the resurrection of the dead, certainly new to biblical writing in such a literal form, is an intrinsic element in this end-time, when all things would radically change. (747)

Pharaoh’s dreams, like Nebuchadnezzar’s here, are a communication from God about what will befall his kingdom, and Joseph then proposes that certain measures can be taken to avert the disastrous consequence of what is about to unfold. In Daniel, no such human intervention is possible because the dreams and the visions are part of an inexorable deterministic system–a hallmark of the apocalyptic view. Daniel seems less an interpreter than a decipherer of divine codes, which sometimes have a numeric aspect, in which the details of God’s plans for humankind are encrypted. It is no wonder that both Christians and Jews used the Book of Daniel as their point of departure for intricate calculations about the end of days. (748)

The other unusual feature of the book is that it is written in two languages. The opening is in Hebrew–the first chapter and the four initial verses of chapter 2. At this point, the text switches to Aramaic, the language in which it continues uninterrupted until the end of chapter 7. The rest of the book is in Hebrew. By this late date, Aramaic had for the most part replaced Hebrew as the Jewish vernacular. It was by then the established language of international diplomacy in the Near East, and the Aramaic used here is the so-called imperial Aramaic, somewhat more formal and different in certain usages from the rabbinic Aramaic that was emerging, in which the Talmud and much of the Midrash would be written over the next few centuries. Aramaic is a Semitic language closely cognate with Hebrew, the distance between the two languages being something like the distance between French and Italian. (748)

The Hebrew of this book is in fact even stranger than its quasi-narrative form and its apocalyptic character. This Hebrew writer (there might have been more than one) was clearly quite familiar with the Pentateuch and the Prophets, but it is hard to say what else he might have known of earlier Hebrew Scripture. He manifestly sought to make his own Hebrew sound Prophetic (though perhaps “vatic” might be a more appropriate term), and that is probably why, for the most part, he resisted Aramaic usages and other conspicuous features of Late Biblical Hebrew. The impulse to sound Prophetic led to some deliberate obscurity in expression. This obscurity was probably compounded by scrambled scribal transmission at a good many points. But I would like to propose that this author, though he knew earlier Hebrew writings, was fully comfortable in Aramaic and not in Hebrew. Much of what he produced can be fairly characterized as bad Hebrew prose. The syntax is often slack, at points unintelligible; parts of speech are sometimes inappropriate; the idioms not infrequently sound odd or perhaps are simply wrong. The writer overworks certain Hebrew terms, as if he did not have other more apt ones available; the verbs, for example, ‘amad, “stand,” and heḥeziq, “hold” or “make strong,” are awkwardly used over and over, in quick sequence, in a number of different senses, some of them unwarranted by earlier Hebrew. (749)

| The Book of Daniel, then, is an imperfect composition. In style, its Hebrew sections are seriously flawed. Its narrative is primarily a vehicle for laying out tales of miraculous aid that demonstrate God’s power, or for setting the circumstances for elaborately coded revelations of the future course of history that require deciphering. … As the latest text of the Hebrew canon, it is a hinge work between the Hebrew Bible proper an the intertestamental period as well as the New Testament. Earlier Hebrew writers had assumed an essential element of contingency in historical process: human action, for better or for worse, would determine the future course of events. Daniel sees things differently: some people are written in the Book of Life and some are not; a plan dictated from on high is unfolding step by (749) step, replete with precise numerical indications and mystifying symbolic prefigurations. Daniel points the way forward to many aspects of the New Testament, to a series of Jewish false messiahs from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century, to the Christian chiliastic sects of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as well as earlier, and to much else. Daniel imposes a heavy burden on both Jewish and Christian history that in some ways we may still be carrying. Its strange and enigmatic visions are something with which we continue to grapple.  (750)



There is a tradition going back to Late Antiquity that sees Ezra and Nehemiah as a single book, often simply referred to as “Ezra.” The two books, however, differ in form and are certainly not the work of a single writer. Ezra is a third-person narrative reporting historical–at least possibly historical–events affecting the returned exiles in the fifth century B.C.E. It includes the only extended passage (chapters 4-6) in the Bible outside of Daniel written in Aramaic, the language that by this time was in the process of becoming the vernacular of the people of Israel. In all likelihood, it was composed at the very end of the fifth century or perhaps during the early decades of the fourth century B.C.E. Nehemiah was probably written a little earlier, in the last quarter of the fifth century. A good portion of it consists of Nehemiah’s memoirs, written in the first person, a there is no equivalent to this form elsewhere in the Bible. It also incorporates Persian imperial documents, and these are probably authentic, even if they may have undergone a certain amount of reworking in the process of being translated into Hebrew. … In the writing produced during the First Temple period, there was basically one kind of narrative, variously inflected from Genesis to Judges to Samnuel to Kings, showing a good deal of stylistic uniformity and adhereing by and large to the same literary conventions. In the prose produced in the period after the destruction of the kingdom of Judah in 586 B.C.E., one encounters diversity and what may be thought of from a modern point of view as formal experimentation, as the generically and stylistically different Esther, Ruth, and Jonah vividly illustrate. In Ezra and Nehemiah, we have historical narrative, memoir, collages of historical documents, and a few passages that may well be drawn from folktales. (803)

…political power is divided between two figures working complementary fashion–Ezra the scribe and priest, who is (803) concerned with the all-important project of the restoration fo the cult and the canonization fo the newly redacted Torah through the institution of its public reading, and Nehemiah, coming to Jerusalem from a high position in the Persian court, the political leader who addresses security issues of rebuilding the walls fo the city and confronting armed enemies. Their joint concerns–reestablishing the Temple and the cult within it, authorizing a legal and historical national text, and creating a security apparatus–are conceived as the essential activities for the renewal of the life of the nation in its homeland after the long decades of exile. (804)

…the ideology promoted by both Ezra and Nehemiah was stringently separatist. Those who had remained in the land and claimed to be part of the people of Israel–in particular, the Samaritans–were regarded as inauthentic claimants to membership in the nation and were to have no role int he project of rebuilding. This rejection led to resentment, armed attacks, and denunciations to the Persian court of the group led by Ezra and Nehemiah. The machinations of their adversaries and Nehemiah’s countermeasures are recorded in detail here. (804)

| Another policy dictated by Ezra and Nehemiah’s separatist view was the sweeping resistance to intermarriage. (804)

It should be noted that there was a strong anitthetical view on this issue within the community of returned exiles that is reflected in the Book of Ruth,… The Book of Ruth is a luminous testimony to the tolerance and universalism that were a part of the biblical heritage. But the separatist (804) view embodied in Ezra and Nehemiah is the one that seems to have prevailed in its time: no foreign wives, no Samaritans or others of uncertain ethnic and religious background, were tolerated in the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem and the renewal of the Temple. For better or for worse, this is he approach that gained momentum and would predominate in the many centuries that followed. (805)



…the most peculiar book of the Hebrew Bible…was composed sometime in the late decades of the fifth century B.C.E., after the Return to Zion and after the mission of Ezra and Nehemiah in the middle of that century to renew the Temple cult and establish the canonical authority of the Torah. … The Hebrew Bible in general is much attached to genealogies because in this patriarchal and patrilineal society, following lines from father to son through a series of generations was conceived as a way of establishing origins and confirming the legitimacy of the descendants who could trace their descent from these origins. … The first nine chapters of 1 Chronciels…constitute the least readable extended passage in the Bible. (865)

| The main focus of the book is on th ekings of Judah. …there are ample borrowings from Samuel and Kings, often showing a replication of entire passages with only minor changes. Linguistically, because Chronicels hews so closely to the Deuteronomistic History, it does not exhibit a great many features of Late BIblical Hebrew, as one might expect,… (865) … Mmost prominently, this is a historical account that is intended to highlight the eternal legitimacy of the Davdic dynasty and its firm integration with the preistly hierarchy, which traces its own origins back to Aaron. Consequently, the portrait of David has been, one might say, airbrushed. There is no report ofh is acting as a vassal for the Philistine king Agag. The vivid scene in Samuel when David plays the madman and rolls on the ground drooling in order to save himself from the PHilistines is eliminated. The representation of David as a canny political player is gone. David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband are stricken from the record. David’s demise is reported tersely, with no trace of the dense machinations before his death invovleing Nathan and Bathsheba that brought Solomon to the throne and no mention of his deathbed exhortation to Solomn to pay off scores against his enemies. Instead, David conveys the throne to Solomon and then proceeds to divide the preists and LEvites into diverse orders, which occasions still another long list of names that runs on for some chapters. (866)

This is, in sum, a representation of David as an exemplary establishment figure, unswervingly virtuous, providing precedents and a model for the political and cultic tradition that he is seen as having founded.  (866)

| It should also be noted that Chronicles incorporates a variety of narrative details that appear nowhere in the Deuteronomistic History. (866)

In the end, Chronciles offers an object lesson in how as a tradition evolves it may be prone to domesticate the unruly and challenging traits of its own origins. The tales of the Patriarchs and the story of the troubled founding of the Israelite monarchy in their early formulation are full of human contradictions, moral ambiguities, psychological probings, and sometimes the intimation of dark and destructive impulses. It is this complexity of imagination that produces some of the greatest narratives that have come out of the whole ancient world. The Chronciler is impelled to rewrite these stories in order to make them yield a picture of divinely ordained political and cultic practice. … The national history is painted in black and white, and the haunting shaodws, the chiaroscuro, the sudden illuminations of classical Hebrew narrative, vanish in this work. (867)


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