Commentary Magazine


The Bible & Its Readers

To the Editor:

In “Responding to the Bible” [January], . . . Fernanda Eberstadt has a very special bone to pick with contemporary maulers of Scripture. She notes the fact that the “historical-critical” approach to the study of the Bible . . . has generated contradictions between biblical scholars and the devout. “On the whole, they have been working at cross purposes,” she says. Miss Eberstadt is particularly exercised by Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, edited by David Rosenberg, a new product of the historical-critical approach that only exacerbates these cross purposes. . . . She notes sadly: “With the exception of a half-dozen insightful chapters, . . . this collection would seem to bear a sad message—that the Bible no longer speaks to ‘contemporary writers,’ at least if they are secular American Jews, that they do not know its stories and evidently cannot bear to hear its melodies.”

Unfortunately, this . . . is a universal phenomenon among contemporary intellectuals—a fact that soon rubs off on impressionable college students when they enter the closed-minded environment of the contemporary campus. Miss Eberstadt is right when she observes that the “loss of the Bible as an essential part of the Western artist’s genetic code applies widely to writers today [and] may help . . . to account for the frailty [good word—ALW] of our literary culture.”

But as she probes into a second anthology, The Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, some may raise objections to the drift of her analysis. After aptly observing that the Bible is an ideal “quarry” . . . for literary criticism, Miss Eberstadt makes the same labored distinction . . . between the “Old” and “New” Testaments for which she excoriates certain Bible readers and critics, those with “. . . conventional preconceptions about the difference between the Christian and the ‘Old Testament’ ethic.” . . . For the kinship between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is as close as the fingers of one’s hand or the hairs on one’s head. Yet Miss Eberstadt, it seems to me, allows herself to fall into the same trap as the critics whom she chastises.

For instance, she contrasts the “abiding command of the Jewish God [to] ‘be fruitful and multiply’” with Jesus’s prescriptions, in Miss Eberstadt’s words, to “leave your mother and father and children . . . hate the world, [and] worship God not in a likeminded community but secretly in your closet.”

Not only is this alleged contrast . . . unconvincing on its own merits, it ill serves the integrity of both Judaism and Christianity, and their close kinship with each other. . . .

The much misquoted and misinterpreted injunction of Jesus—to “set man at variance against his father, and daughter against her mother . . .” (Matthew 10:34) or a similar passage in Luke (12:53)—was not intended to cancel other Scriptural injunctions related to family cohesion, as, for example, to “cleave” to one’s wife (Matthew 19:5; see also Genesis 2:24), to “honor thy father and thy mother” (Mark 7:10), and similar maxims in Proverbs and other books of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. These words of Jesus simply recognized the facts of the time: that households were divided by their contrasting religious or pagan loyalties under the same roof; that as far as Jesus was concerned, his followers must make a firm commitment to his teachings if they wished to be disciples—a pledge of loyalty transcending the “many mansions” in one’s father’s house. Such language stemmed from the actual discord common in families at the time of the spread of Christianity.

Second, Miss Eberstadt’s reading of the New Testament to mean that Jesus, Paul, or any of the disciples taught their flock to “hate the world” betrays, in my opinion, a lamentable misunderstanding of Scripture, both Jewish and Christian. No less than the Hebrew Bible, the message of the New Testament is clearly life-affirming, life-sustaining, and by no means life-denying. . . .

As the late Lewis Mumford . . . once observed: “Every word and act of Jesus can be interpreted as an attempt to disinter the corpse of man: to ‘raise the dead.’ . . . Nothing was good for Jesus unless it furthered life in its perpetual process of self-transcendence and self-liberation.” Or, as Emerson put it: “Life only avails, not the having lived. So the Child, with its multiple potentialities for growth, is the true symbol of this doctrine. . . . Death in all its forms—vice, disease, ignorance, paralysis—was used as a condition for a fuller and richer life.”

Yes, the vision of Jesus was one of health, life, renewal in this world, not hatred of or detachment from this world. To wit: “The kingdom has come” (Mark 1:5); “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21); “the field is the world” (Matthew 13:38), etc.

Third, Miss Eberstadt’s criticism of Christianity for its alleged closet worship of God seems at best more a criticism of a certain species of fringe Protestantism or “Judeo-Christian humanism” of the Christian or Jewish existentialist sort than it is of any thrust or sense that could be located in Scripture itself.

Indeed, Jesus’s emphasis is upon a community of worshippers, not self-righteous and/or eccentric ostriches. His appeal is constantly to group effort, communal spirit, and worship of God together. Needless to say, in most cases establishment church worship by Catholics and Protestants down through the centuries exhibits the strongest possible adherence to the idea of group worship . . .

Anyone with even the most casual acquaintance with Scripture . . . would surely know that Jesus was no advocate, nor were his followers, of a church . . . consisting of one individual or of isolated individual worshippers. . . .

Albert L. Weeks
New York City

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To the Editor:

When Fernanda Eberstadt writes that the “reader of the King James Version turns the page from Malachi to Matthew without any sensation of a leap into the new or the unknown,” implying that such a leap takes place, or when she writes that “the gospel revealed in the life of Jesus is a gospel of individualism and inwardness . . .” where you should “. . . worship God not in a likeminded community but secretly in your closet,” she gives us a minority view of the meaning of the New Testament.

A protestant view, to be precise. Protestants remain the protesters the holders of the minority viewpoint among Christians. According to the Britannica Book of the Year, 1986, out of an estimated worldwide Christian population of 1,061 million, there are 628 million Catholics, 373 million Protestants, and 58 million Orthodox—that means that all the Protestant sects put together constitute 35 percent of the world’s Christians. Even in the United States, where in 1986 57 percent of the population told the Gallup poll that they were Protestant and 28 percent said they were Catholic, the idea that Christ practiced a kind of “lone wolf” spirituality is not that common. . . .

Consider Miss Eberstadt’s leap from Malachi to Matthew: this leaves out the Apocrypha, that collection of books that were not included in the Hebrew Scriptures yet are considered part of the Christian “Old Testament.” Protestants doubt their authenticity, and so they stopped including them in their Bibles in the early 19th century. (When the American Bible Society was founded in 1816, it printed the King James Version complete with the Apocrypha, but dropped the practice twelve years later.) If there is a chasm between Malachi and Matthew, it is bridged by the Apocrypha. The New Testament endorsement of chastity, for instance, does not seem that radical after you have read Wisdom of Solomon 3:13-4:6.

The Jesus of the Gospels does spend time in contemplative prayer, but he also worships God as part of the Israelite community. (“He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah,” Luke 4:16f). He founds a Church and invests its leader with the authority to teach in his name (cf. Matthew 16:13-19). After his death, this Church continues to worship together “every day . . . meeting together in the temple area and . . . breaking bread in their homes” (Acts 2:46). . . .

If the Gospel is individualistic, it is also a matter of community: of devotion to “the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

Don Schenk
Allentown, Pennsylvania

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To the Editor:

Fernanda Eberstadt, in her fine article, “Responding to the Bible,” quotes the critic Harold Bloom on the sacrifice of Isaac and justly takes him to task. The question of an Abraham who can plead with God for cities having nothing to do with him, while protesting not a word to God for the life of Isaac, his son, who is everything he loves and the link to God’s promise for his future, needs to be examined from several angles, none of them having to do with “J” sources.

What may seem totally contradictory in Abraham’s character is actually not so. As Miss Eberstadt points out, “like all biblical heroes he is also self-denying in the crunch.” In the situation of Sodom and Gomorrah . . . he pleads passionately not only for the cities’ inhabitants, but for God’s reputation: “Shall not the Lord of all the earth do justly?” as if to say, “What will people think of You, God, if You do this?” This is not an average response but one of cosmic social, moral, and religious concerns. This same profound mixture of concerns, brought to an exalted climax, animates the Akedah, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, his unquestioning obedience to God’s direct command when it concerns the most important fact of his own existence. . . .

Two other elements, language and history, should be considered in order to understand why the recitation of this story is so central to Jewish worship. First, the language pattern. The few short narrative passages of the Akedah are the most intimate and tender in all Scripture. The reader is privy to an almost whispered dialogue among Abraham, his son Isaac, and God as the three walk together. The same language pattern is used by God when He calls Abraham at the beginning of the story. . . . This particular pattern is found nowhere else in the Bible; . . . not even to Moses does God speak in such a soft, gently-falling-rain kind of word pattern. And then, suddenly, when Abraham has finished, the tone changes abruptly. Not God now, but His angel appears, and speaks in formal, public, and majestic tones. . . .

Historically, human sacrifice was public and formal, not the private act of an Abraham who leaves even his servants behind. After all, how does one distinguish . . . sacrifice from plain murder if not by great public display? Secondly, unlike in the Akedah story, there was never a question of intimacy between the sacrifice and the sacrificer (see, for example, the story of Jethro, who hardens himself to his daughter before slaying her). A third distinguishing historical element is that the Akedah contains no promise of a reward, or release. Ancient people normally did not perform their human sacrifices without hope of specific preordained rewards.

Abraham’s silent obedience, his intimacy with the son he is about to slay . . . and with the God for Whom his son is to be sacrificed; the tender and intimate nature of the dialogue among God, father, and son, who speak to one another as equals in rank; the clean historical break with the pagan understanding of human sacrifice; then the majestic proclamation, the public affirmation of God’s pleasure and Abraham’s reward, mentioned only at the end of the episode; and, not least, the fact that Isaac is spared—all these elements add up to a profound concept of the deity, of the order of the universe, and to a most exalted state of human possibility.

Maurice Schmidt
Texas A&I University
Kingsville, Texas

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To the Editor:

Fernanda Eberstadt’s article, “Responding to the Bible,” brings to mind an area in which some useful dialogue could go on between devout Christians and Jews. Howard Singer’s article and the resulting onslaught of letters [“The Rise and Fall of Interfaith Dialogue,” May 1987; Letters from Readers, September 1987] pointed out once again the futility (and indeed the undesirability) of attempts at theological reconciliation. Ordinary orthodox Christians like me have always known that there exists no common ground for such reconciliation short of conversion or the gutting of our respective bodies of faith. I would presume that our “hardline conservative” counterparts in the Jewish community share this opinion. Quite logically, we therefore do not bother with the tedious process.

But while disparaging theological dialogue, conservative Christians are acutely aware of our debts to the Hebrew Scriptures and know that we cannot understand the Christian faith without understanding them and whence they came. We love the Hebrew Bible, as inspired and revealed truth from God; herein lies our common ground with devout Jews. We love the beauty of the poetry, the wisdom of the laws, and the eternal truths in the stories of living, breathing, and very real human beings. We love it as history, we love it as literature, we love it as symbolism, and we love it as law. Indeed, those of us who grew up in devout Christian homes tend as adults to carry with us much more of Genesis then we do of Galatians. We interpret “New” in light of the “Old” much more often than Miss Eberstadt might give us credit for doing, and certainly do not view the Hebrew Scriptures as “fodder for our religion,” as she accuses Paul of doing. . . .

Bradley W. Anderson
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

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To the Editor:

In Fernanda Eberstadt’s discussion of Harold Bloom’s essay on Genesis, I was struck by Bloom’s description of God. Bloom states that “God likes to sit under the terebinths at Mamre, devouring roast calf and curds.” Now, curds is a dairy product; calf, or veal as it is called, is meat. If God does not believe in kashrut, what are we to do? . . .

Abe Breslauer
Bay Harbor Island, Florida

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Fernanda Eberstadt writes:

Albert L. Weeks in his very interesting letter stresses the indivisible kinship between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and objects to the dichotomy he says I draw between God’s command in Genesis (“be fruitful and multiply”) and Jesus’s insistence that his disciples forsake their families and follow him, an injunction Mr. Weeks interprets not as an assault on family unity but merely as a request for “firm commitment.” In fact, I contrasted the Hebrew Bible’s commandment with something slightly different—that is, the New Testament exaltation of chastity.

Jesus and Paul’s teachings on marriage and family are two-pronged, stating on the one hand an ideal which only a chosen few can realize and on the other hand offering strictures to improve the conduct of ordinary mortals.

In Matthew 19:10-12, when his disciples infer from Jesus’s preaching that “it is not good to marry,” Jesus concedes, “All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given,” and goes on to single out as a kind of elect those who “have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.”

So, too, Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians writes, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife and let every woman have her own husband” (I Corinthians 7:1-2). The letter goes on, however, to reassert periodically Paul’s wistful desire that “all men were even as I myself,” that is, chaste. “But every man doth have his proper gift of God” (I Corinthians 7:7).

Interestingly enough, both these singlings-out of chastity as a perfect and blessed if almost inaccessible state occur in chapters sanctifying marriage and inveighing against divorce. The Christian Gospel’s attitude toward husbands and wives may thus be likened to the Hebrew Bible’s attitude toward kings, namely, mistrust of an institution whose power threatens to infringe on God’s, combined with a certain awe at its potential majesty, mystery, and beauty. In both cases, the conclusion is that it would be better not to have an earthly king/spouse at all, but since people are going to go ahead anyway, they should know how to do it properly.

In any event, this preference for chastity as the condition in which we can most fully worship God is quite foreign to the Hebrew patriarchs and their progeny, who were sustained through slavery and exile by God’s animating promise of seed more numerous than the stars in the sky. As Don Schenk rightly suggests in his letter, the shift in attitude over the course of a millennium is no doubt in part historically conditioned: celibacy is a luxury that only an advanced and settled culture can afford. Another such historical shift in attitude is represented in Jesus and Paul’s transformation of marriage from a business contract to a sacred and eternal bond; justified by Genesis, this notion is most fully articulated in the Hebrew Bible in the very late Book of Malachi, in which God declares through the Prophet that “divorce is hateful” and condemns the “treachery” of putting away “thy companion and the wife of thy covenant.”

As for Jesus’s recurrent insistence that all who follow him must leave their families, this particular injunction is merely one inseparable aspect of a larger vision of total self-renunciation. To cite but one assertion of this imperative: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Leaving behind sisters and brothers is the least of it!

Mr. Weeks takes issue with my claim that Jesus’s call for radical self-conquest and self-denial in any way entails “hating the world.” On the contrary, he writes, Jesus’s vision is one of “health, life, renewal in this world, not hatred of or detachment from this world.” And yet all the scriptural quotations he marshals as evidence in fact describe “the kingdom of God,” a phrase which refers to the glories of the coming messianic age, heralded in the person and the message of Jesus. That life, which is life everlasting, that world, which is world without end, is constantly contrasted in the Gospels to the world of darkness, sin, ignorance, evil from which we must be redeemed, and to which a proper attitude is the one idealized in the term contemptus mundi.

Jesus again and again reminds his followers that neither he nor they have any part of this world: “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you” (John 15:18-19). A chapter later, he reassures his disciples, “Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

True, this conception is quite different from the sweet, strong, passionate diplomacy of Paul, who in his mission to win converts to Jesus’s teachings seeks to “please all men in all things.” It is no less integral a part of Scripture for that.

Finally, Mr. Weeks and Mr. Schenk question my assertion that Jesus urges his followers to “worship God secretly . . . in your closet.” Secret worship, Mr. Weeks maintains, may be a fit pastime for “self-righteous . . . ostriches” but finds no friend in Scripture itself. But here is what Jesus says to his disciples in the Gospel according to St. Matthew (and elsewhere): “And when thou prayest, thou shall not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. . . . But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly” (Matthew 6:5-6).

To sum up: Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels do indeed stress an ethic of individualism, inwardness, withdrawal, self-conquest. At the same time this ethic is entwined with and modified by the differing imperatives of a universal church seeking to join multitudes in “the fellowship of Christ” and the common worship of one God; it continues to lie at the very heart of Christianity.

I would like to thank Bradley W. Anderson for his beautiful and inspiring reminder of what Christian love of the Hebrew Bible can be, and Maurice Schmidt for his kind words and his observations on the Binding of Isaac.

Now to Abe Breslauer: God’s taste for calf and curds Harold Bloom infers from Genesis 18, in which Abraham serves a meal of butter and milk and a calf (in that order) to “three men” sent by God, and stands under an oak watching them eat. Let me point out, first, that Abraham’s guests are angels in human form, not the Almighty Himself; second, that in the Bible (as opposed to the Oral Law), the prohibition against the mixing of milk and meat refers only to cooking; third (and nevertheless), that the angels, being angels, would surely have acted in accordance with their foreknowledge of the Oral Law, which permits the eating of meat after milk, so long as one rinses one’s mouth and partakes of a neutral substance like bread (which, as it happens, Abraham has asked his wife Sarah to prepare for their guests); and, lastly, that angels don’t eat, anyway; these particular angels, as the great medieval commentator Rashi reminds us, only appeared to be doing so, thus teaching us the importance of politeness to a host.

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