Taken Out of Context


How to Read the Bible
By Marc Zvi Brettler
384 pages. Jewish Publication Society of America $35.00

You probably need this book.

Let me explain. Just about any kind of literature you can imagine, highbrow or lowbrow, fiction or nonfiction, has a body of scholarship associated with it. Missionary tracts of the 1800s, detective fiction of the 1950s, the mythology of ancient Sumer, and the biology of Stalinist Russia: if somebody wrote them, there’s a good chance that somebody else wrote about them. This is no less true for Judaica.

Take, as a case in point, the Bible. Just about everybody has had some encounter with the Bible, especially the first five books, the Torah. Those who haven’t read all of it have read parts of it, or stories from it. And there is an enormous body of secondary material on the Bible. To be sure, Jews have been writing biblical commentary for as long as there have been Jews, but more to the point is the explosion of modern scholarship on the Bible. The problem is, when scholars read the Bible, they read it in a way that is virtually unrecognizable to a lay person.

Most of us read the Bible the way we did when we were children. It’s a pretty straightforward book, and includes both boring stuff—laws—and less boring stuff—stories, which tell about things that happened long ago.

But that’s not the book that scholars read. They take for granted that to understand a work written in an ancient language, even a language that still exists today, you have to know how the various words were used in antiquity. Contemporary scholars understand that the texts themselves had contexts, and that to know how a text was understood, one has to know how the text was used. Marc Brettler gives a modern example—the words “Slow Children.” What do they signify? He says it depends: Are they written on a yellow traffic sign, or the cover of a manila school folder? Context is everything.

We can gauge the gap between lay reader and specialist when we consider the notion of biblical authorship. While some people may have heard the term documentary hypothesis, or JEPD, or may know that virtually all modern Biblicists believe the Torah to be composed of four major strands, or “documents,” woven together in different ways, few understand what that concept really signifies. While some may have a sense of its religious implications, fewer realize how much of a difference it can make in one’s reading. Are you troubled by fundamentalists’ insistence on reading the creation story as natural history? Scholars instead see two different and radically conflicting accounts of the beginning. They know that there is no definitive confirmation of anything that is described in the Bible before the time of the Kings—not enslavement in Egypt, not the Exodus, not the wanderings, not the conquest of the Promised Land—and that there are, on the other hand, in many cases clear parallels between passages in the Bible and texts from various cultures in the ancient Near East.

To help span the gap between lay reader and specialist, Marc Brettler has written an extraordinarily accessible book, How to Read the Bible. Though its underlying scholarship is in many cases familiar, the book itself is strikingly original in concept. Brettler has given us neither a textbook, nor a history of ancient Israel, nor even a passage-by-passage commentary. What we have instead is an introductory class on the Bible, conducted by a master teacher who, though fluent in the techniques and assumptions of modern scholarship, is at the same time aware of, and even sympathetic to, the concerns of the religious Jewish reader for whom the Bible is personally important.

The book is comprised of 27 chapters, and if you were to compress the first few into a single chapter, it would work nicely as the introduction to a college course. Each chapter is based on a specific book, or two or three in some cases, and Brettler even gives reading assignments. Rather than give an overview of the entire Bible, he narrows his focus to a specific passage or topic: the Creation account in Genesis, for instance, or the atonement ritual in Leviticus. Each of these, in turn, becomes an entry to a particular issue in biblical scholarship. This approach has two striking pedagogical advantages. For one thing, the reader comes away from each chapter with a new understanding of what in many cases will have been a familiar part of the Bible, an understanding so compelling that it will be impossible to think of that passage naively again. More important, perhaps, is that the various scholarly approaches seem to arise organically in response to a puzzle or difficulty raised by the text. Rather than appearing as esoteric ideas or arbitrary constructs, the disciplines of modern Biblicists are seen as logical, sensible, even exciting. They are useful because they give sensible answers to real questions.

As a scholar, and as a teacher of scholarship, Brettler is clearly a master, and his book should be a first choice for any non-specialist interested in the field. Where How to Read the Bible feels less than satisfying is in its attempt to negotiate the tension between modern scholarship and religious commitment. Brettler describes himself as an observant Jew for whom the Bible “stands at the core of who I am as a person, and as a Jew.” How, then, does he relate to a text that he knows was not written at one time by a single author, is frequently inaccurate in its history, and owes much to the cultures in which it arose? He does this through his choice of particular texts and sources within the Bible, and through a revaluation, even a radical reinterpretation (itself an old rabbinic approach), of problematic texts. While these may be valuable techniques, they do not really address how it is that the Bible can be seen as sacred at all, given that Brettler’s entire book is dedicated to exploring its human and historically conditioned nature. Perhaps it is simply too difficult a question to address outright, too much based on one’s own sense of the sacred, or the experience of one’s personal Jewish identity. Or perhaps a book entitled How to Read the Bible is not the place for such a discussion, and what the modern reader still needs is a new, yet-unwritten book, Why to Read the Bible. If Marc Brettler chooses to write it, and if it combines the same levels of erudition and pedagogical wisdom that are found in this work, I will be the first in line to read it.