Reading the Bible

December 1, 2005
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Benjamin D. Sommer

Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible . Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005. 283 pp $35

As a professor of biblical studies, I am frequently sent textbooks in biblical studies, and I often consult academic introductions to the field as well. None of them is as clear, sophisticated, and readable as this book. For Jewish and non-Jewish readers, Brettler provides an entry point not only into the “what” of modern biblical scholarship, but also the “why”: he summarizes its key methods and conclusions and shows how they matter to modern religious people.

Brettler’s goal is twofold. First, he wants to explain how modern scholars attempt to understand biblical texts as ancient Israelites would have understood them. This involves realizing how different biblical culture is from our own and attempting to recreate the methods of reading the ancients employed. This goal is hardly new, but Brettler explains with greater clarity than any other author (with the possible exception of John Barton, whose book, Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Studies , Brettler identifies as a crucial influence) why recovering the literary competence of an ancient Israelite is important. As he shows how we can go about this difficult but not impossible task, he uses straightforward and amusing modern analogies and makes constant reference to ancient Near Eastern texts. Some students find this ancient material boring, and one literary critic has referred to it as “the cholesterol” of modern biblical scholarship. Brettler’s deft touch renders it clearly nutritious to our understanding of scripture.

The second goal is to provide a Jewishly-sensitive introduction to the historical-critical approach to the Bible. Law and ritual, for example, make up roughly half of the Torah; the ancient Israelites clearly thought these topics were fascinating and crucial, and Brettler gives them their due. Further, whether as a result of conscious or (quite frequently) unconscious bias, many introductions endeavor to show how religion progressed from the Old Testament to the New. This aim colors the portrayal of ancient Israel in subtle ways. No such goal appears here, and thus this work succeeds especially well in putting ancient Israelite literature in its own cultural context — not that of the second-century Greco-Roman world or sixteenth-century Geneva. Finally, Brettler discusses the relationships between biblical and rabbinic thought in his final chapter, showing how modern methods of study disclose commonalities between the Bible and rabbinic literature. This aspect of the work might have been even stronger had Brettler compared biblical ideas with counterparts in later Jewish theology throughout the book.

Brettler revels in the apparent tension — which he shows needs not be a tension at all — between his identities as biblical critic and religiously-observant Jew. At times, this may lead him to overstate some critical conclusions. He maintains that neither Joshua nor Judges provide real information about the process through which Canaan came under Israelite control, noting contradictions between these two books and within each of them. He does not point out how the core of Joshua not only contradicts Joshua’s thesis of a swift conquest of all of Canaan by the twelve tribes, but also matches the picture we find in Judges. This may lend some credence to the evidence preserved in Joshua, even as it helps overturn that book’s overall thesis. Brettler argues that “much of the Bible is [a secular work], for it was influenced by (secular) ideology as much as by religion.” This is hardly the case. The Bible was influenced by a range of ancient religions, most of them pagan. But a truly secular outlook did not exist in the ancient world. The ancients knew many varieties of theism and perhaps even something resembling deism, but atheism and agnosticism were all but unheard of. Here, and in a few other places, a hankering to surprise religious readers may have gotten the better of Brettler.

The book’s accomplishments remain stellar. Any modern Jew who wants to delve further into a contemporary and Jewishly-relevant understanding of scripture needs to buy this book. Whether readers make their way through all of this surprisingly readable book or they read just the introduction and the chapters dealing with biblical books that most interest them, they will find the effort a pleasure that is amply repaid.

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Benjamin D. Sommer is Director of the Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies at Northwestern University, where he also serves as Associate Professor of Religion. His forthcoming book is God's Bodies, God's Selves: Perceptions of Divinity in Ancient Israel and Its Environment.

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