Commentary Magazine

Interpreting the Bible

It is a revealing symptom of our cultural malaise that for two decades our academic institutions have been shaken by spasms of radical reevaluation of what we do with texts, ranging from uneasy self-doubt to incipient panic to the exhilaration of an intellectual witches’ sabbath. At this moment, even as the star of deconstruction begins to fade in the constellations of academic fashions, there is a lingering consensus that texts are highly unstable objects of knowledge, covertly asserting something other than what they seem to be saying, and that interpreters ineluctably betray texts by translating them as they always must into their own conceptual frame-works, epistemological assumptions, and implicit ideological aims. An instructive sign of the times was a major symposium on textual glosses held at the University of California Humanities Research Institute at Irvine in 1988. There was virtual agreement among participants—leading classicists, medievalists, and Renaissance scholars, with Jacques Derrida as de rigueur respondent—that no comment on a text is ever innocent, that every act of exegesis or even ostensibly simple glossing is a means of intervening in the text, asserting power over it and over those who would use it.

Against this background, the publication of the first three volumes of an ambitious new commentary on the Pentateuch, sponsored by the Jewish Publication Society of America (JPS),1 is a monument to the age of innocence of modern textual interpretation, which could be said to extend from the later 18th century until the mid-1960’s. Innocence, however, does produce a kind of enabling procedural confidence in the act of explication, and all three commentaries actually demonstrate that there are aspects of the text which are susceptible to what we may still unblushingly call scientific investigation. At the same time, the commentaries raise a cluster of intriguing questions about what we can know about a text, especially an ancient text; about what it is useful to know, which may be quite another matter; and about the appropriate methods for undertaking the quest for knowledge.

Especially because I will later express some misgivings, let me say clearly at the outset that The JPS Torah Commentary is a scholarly achievement of a high order. It is probably the equal of the best volumes of the Anchor Bible that have appeared, and exceeds that series in the balance of perspectives and the fullness of elucidation it provides. (Two of the contributors, it should be noted, Baruch A. Levine and Jacob Milgrom, have also been working on volumes that will appear in the Anchor series.) Altogether, The JPS Torah Commentary should long remain an invaluable tool for anyone seeking to come to grips with the Pentateuch in all its knotty philological and historical particularities.

This is neither a denominational commentary nor one especially suitable for synagogue use, in contrast to Gunther Plaut’s admirable The Torah: A Modern Commentary published a number of years ago by the Reform movement.2 It is a synthesis of the best of serious modern biblical scholarship, which has come more and more to transcend the theological or didactic assumptions of its denominational origins. The Jewish character of the JPS commentary is most visible in its abundant incorporation of insights from the Midrash and the medieval Hebrew exegetes (a topic to which we shall return), but pride of place is still accorded to the revelations of archeology, comparative Semitic philology, ancient Near Eastern religions, and anthropology—all those trends in biblical research that I once designated as “excavative.” In any case, the Jewish Publication Society clearly was impelled by a sense of forging a strong new link in the great chain of Jewish exegesis stretching back to late antiquity, as Nahum Sarna, general editor of the series, and Chaim Potok, its literary editor, stress in their manifesto.

In keeping with that perception of high purpose, the volumes have been sumptuously produced. The Hebrew text of the Leningrad Codex (the oldest dated manuscript of the entire Hebrew Bible), in handsome type, is printed in a parallel column alongside the text of the 1962 JPS translation of the Torah. The commentary, in smaller type below, stands in a ratio of roughly 5 or 6 to 1 to the Pentateuchal text. It includes not only glosses of terms and elucidations of difficulties but also observations on religious concepts, historical issues, compositional patterns, literary motifs, and much else. The biblical text is also broken down into small literary units with prefatory remarks about each unit often running to several paragraphs. Each book of the Torah is presented with an introductory essay, and the body of the commentary is followed by a section called “Excursuses”—that is, extended notes, typically a page or two in length, on topics that could not be dealt with adequately within he confines of the commentary proper.

This entire format obviously has been carefully conceived, and I have only two quibbles. Because the volumes run from right to left, with the Hebrew text, the double columns of endnote references to the commentary are a little confusing to follow, and I often had to look at least twice before locating the right notes for the right chapter. And though each contributor, as the editors inform us, was allowed the liberty of his own perspective, in Milgrom’s use of excursuses the disproportion is bizarre—178 large, closely printed pages in comparison to 36 by Sarna and 40 by Levine. The result is that well over a third of Milgrom’s volume is made up of what amounts to a small encyclopedia of biblical institutions and concepts. Much instructive matter is thereby conveyed, but one senses a palpable transgression of the strict purpose of commentary in the series as a whole.

It may be a coincidence that all three contributors have had an association with the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the training institution of Conservative Judaism. Sarna taught there early in his career, and both Levine and Milgrom, though long based at universities, hold rabbinical degrees from JTS. (Sarna will also do Exodus for the series, while Deuteronomy has been assigned to Jeffrey Tigay of the University of Pennsylvania, a scholar with a background of expertise in ancient Near Eastern law and literature.) Levine and Milgrom were both students at JTS of the late H.L. Ginsberg, the great biblical philologist, and the productive traces of his work can be detected in both their commentaries.



Each of the commentators has his own forte, and each seems nicely matched with the text he expounds. Milgrom on Numbers exhibits a special mastery of cultic intricacies, though he also intelligently addresses a wide variety of other issues, and the reader will learn from him all he is likely to want to know about how and why sacrificial blood is sprinkled on the altar, which orders of impurity are neutralized by which ritual gestures and substances, what numbers and kinds of animals are deemed appropriate for the sundry categories of offering. Levine on Leviticus is an accomplished Semitic philologist, and the discriminations he makes in the meanings of terms, their technical application, the semantic fields from which they have been drawn, turn his commentary into a sustained lesson in the precise understanding of biblical Hebrew. All three commentators exhibit an impressive ability to bring together a broad range of learning pertinent to the Bible, but Sarna on Genesis is the aptest synthesizer among them, and that gift, happily brought to bear on the richest narrative material in the Torah, makes his volume the outstanding one of the three. Much of this understanding may not be new to scholarly eyes, but Sarna performs a valuable service to the non-specialist in deftly bringing it all together. He offers a wealth of archeological and comparative-historical information on the place-names, the genealogies, the various indications of migration and conquest and cult-location in Genesis, and at the same time he has a keen eye for the unifying compositional strategies, the recurring motifs, even some of the nuances of psychological motivation of the narratives. He also exhibits a good deal of exegetical tact, that fine sense of knowing when to be expansive and when to be terse, or not to comment at all. There are occasional exceptions, though: the genealogies in Genesis, which have exerted immeasurably greater fascination on historians than on ordinary readers, are accorded a good deal more space, with patient cross-referencing to cuneiform literature and archeological digs, than the most humanly complex dramatic encounters in the Joseph story. The results of such inquiry are not illuminations but delectable curiosities, as when we are informed that the enigmatic Ashkenaz of Genesis 10:3, after which Central European Jewry took its name, is “doubtless identical with the Ashkuzai or Ishkuza of Assyrian texts” and designates the same Indo-European people that the Greeks called the Scythians.

There is no unanimity among the three JPS commentators (any more than there was among the various medieval Hebrew exegetes). Sarna and Milgrom, following the precedent of E.A. Speiser a generation ago, are inclined to find evidence of the antiquity of the traditions embodied in their texts, while Levine stresses certain manifestly late accretions in Leviticus. Milgrom and Levine explicitly invoke the different strands or sources postulated by the Documentary Hypothesis, especially those sources designated P and D, while Sarna announces at the outset that “the Book of Genesis came down to us, not as a composite of disparate elements but as a unified document with a life, coherence, and integrity of its own.” He then proceeds to write a commentary that makes an occasional discreet reference to an evident discontinuity in the text but prefers to invoke a unifying agency called “the Narrator,” and—this surely constitutes a landmark in modern biblical scholarship—manages to dispense entirely with the source-designations E, J, and P without seeming apologetic. In other differences, for Milgrom the category of sacrifice known as shelamim is “a well-being offering,” while Levine is confident in identifying it as a “gift of greeting,” intended to be offered to the deity when the celebrant first enters the sanctuary. Sarna follows a modern scholarly consensus in interpreting kedeshah as a cult prostitute, whereas Milgrom is convinced that she provided cultic but not sexual services and that there was no cultic prostitution in the ancient Near East.

Finally, it should be noted that the commentators not only disagree sometimes with each other but also, quite often, with the 1962 JPS translation that was conceived as the cornerstone of their joint enterprise. With a heavy heart, I am compelled to say after reading them that it will soon be time for a completely new translation. Few readers have been tempted to defend the JPS version on grounds of stylistic felicity, and I can at test that it repeatedly obscures or distorts features of the literary art of the original. Its great claims to authority were clarity and painstaking philological precision, but in the light of The JPS Torah Commentary, even that begins to look shaky. Sarna occasionally rejects a decision of the translation; Milgrom and, even more, Levine differ with the JPS translators repeatedly, sometimes quite emphatically. At certain points, the divergences are grotesque. Thus, the JPS translation renders the mysterious term ‘orot tehashim, a material used as an outer covering of the wilderness tabernacle, as “dolphin skins”—where would they have gotten hold of those in the Sinai?—while Milgrom, citing proposed cognates in Sumerian and Hurrian, reads it as “orange-yellow skins.” The JPS translates Leviticus 10:2 as follows: “And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord.” The last phrase purports to represent the Hebrew lifnei YHWH and reflects the JPS mania for translating literal utterances as special idioms or abstractions. Levine justly notes that the phrase means here what it generally means elsewhere, “before the Lord”: especially since the subsequent verses are concerned with the removal of the bodies from the sanctuary, what we have is a simple indication of place, not some fancy-footwork reference to agency.



Against the challenge of “the hermeneutics of suspicion” (Paul Ricoeur’s phrase) prevalent in the humanities today, is it conceivable that a commentary can ever enlarge our understanding of a text, as opposed simply to providing another understanding? Texts, to begin with, are made up of words, and any attempt to come to grips with the range of possible meanings of the text must begin by registering the precise nuances of the words used. Recovering lexical nuances becomes a task for any text written more than a generation ago, and it obviously has special urgency for an ancient text. In the field of biblical research, where from the 19th century to the present such a wealth of inscriptions, continuous texts, and precious fragments in previously unknown languages has been uncovered, the semantic insights of comparative philology have been particularly valuable, as The JPS Torah Commentary repeatedly demonstrates. There are always many feasible readings for any text, and the biblical text itself often makes dizzying use of the ambiguities of certain terms, but we can carry out our many readings more responsibly now because we understand much more clearly the meanings of the Hebrew words. Let me add that I do not have the competence to judge how accurate and how up-to-date is the comparative philological scholarship of these commentaries, though it is worth noting that of the three contributors only Levine has an authoritative first-hand control of the extra-biblical languages.

In many instances, it turns out that seemingly general terms refer precisely to specific ancient Near Eastern institutions or legal practices. Thus, the “liberty” proclaimed to all the inhabitants of the land in the jubilee year (Leviticus 25:10), and duly inscribed in that embracing sense on the Liberty Bell, is rendered “release” in the 1962 JPS translation, with good reason, as Baruch Levine explains: “Hebrew deror is cognate with Akkadian andärdru, which designates an edict of release issued by the Old Babylonian kings and some of their successors.” This edict was part of a general “moratorium declared on debts and indenture.” In Genesis 21, when Abimelech resolves a dispute over wells by making Abraham swear that the Hebrew pastoralist will not “deal falsely” (tishkor) with him, he is doing more than making a plea for honest treatment. As Sarna observes, this verb, which appears biblically only here in this particular conjugation, “occurs repeatedly in the 8th-century B.C.E. Sfire treaty with the specific technical sense of being guilty of a breach of contractual obligation.” The term, then, is not merely an exhortation but what linguists call a performative utterance, ratifying through the act of enunciation, as Sarna concludes, “a pact of mutual nonaggression.”

At times, comparative philology provides an almost microscopic clarity of definition for hitherto poorly understood terms, as when Levine instructs us that the rare Hebrew noun peder, “suet,” which occurs only twice in the Bible, both times in Leviticus, “is cognate with the Akkadian pitru, a term used in cuneiform texts, where it refers to the loose covering of fat over the liver.” Elsewhere, linguistic comparison yields a nuance of implication for a familiar word. Ne’arim, which generally means “lads” or “servants,” also has a military sense, as is clear in its usage in the battle scenes in 1 and 2 Samuel. Sarna proposes that in its occurrence in Genesis 14, at the end of Abram’s campaign against the alliance of four kings, the meaning is “warriors,” noting that “The word is found in Egyptian as ne’arin, a borrowing from the Canaanite in the specialized sense of ‘elite corps.’ ” Or again, mela’khah, one of several biblical terms for “work,” is shown by Levine to have the nuance of “assigned tasks, what one is sent to do,” because it can be linked with the verbal root l-‘-k, “to send, dispatch, assign,” not found in the Bible but occurring in Ugaritic texts. This throws into sharper focus the cognate noun mal’akh, “messenger” or “angel”—as, for example, the mal’akhim, surely no angels, that Saul dispatches as hit-men to murder David in 1 Samuel 18.

Beyond such purely lexical considerations, the abundant recourse of the commentaries to excavative scholarship often helps us recover a sense of the concrete historical contexts in which these stories were enacted and these laws pronounced. Thus, in connection with the episode of the copper serpent in Numbers 21, Milgrom notes that a 5-inch-long copper serpent has actually been found at Timna, the copper mine near the Gulf of Aqaba and apparently the region in which the biblical tale is set, dating from about the same period. The indications are that such serpents were used as cult objects by nomadic tribes in this area. Sarna elucidates the mysterious hacking in two of animals in the covenant between God and Abram in Genesis 15 by again citing the Sfire treaty, in which the cutting up of animals is explicitly named as “a form of self-imprecation”—what will be the fate of the signatories if they betray the terms of the treaty. In other instances, the invocation of ancient Near Eastern backgrounds involves more of a leap of inference, but even then it has the effect of opening up possibilities for interpretive consideration, as when Sarna proposes that the shame over nakedness in Genesis 3 obliquely reflects a protest “against pagan fertility cults and a reaction against a Near Eastern practice of priests, as in Sumer, where the cultic ritual was performed in the nude.”

In all these respects, the JPS commentary reads like any other scholarly exegesis of the Bible, though a case could be made that it is an unusual synthesis of such scholarship. Its one distinguishing trait is the frequent use of traditional Jewish commentaries, from the Midrashim of late antiquity through the great medieval exegetes, beginning with Saadia in the 10th century, down to Samuel David Luzzato in 19th-century Italy. (Most biblical scholars would not have access to the majority of these commentaries because they would have great difficulty reading post-biblical Hebrew.) The invocation of these sundry sources is more than a gesture of Jewish patriotism, though it also makes an implicit ideological affirmation: the Jews have been one continuous people, from biblical origins to modernity, cherishing a special relation to these great texts of their origins. It is noteworthy in this regard that Levine appends to his commentary a 21-page essay on “Leviticus in the Ongoing Jewish Tradition.”

Beyond such linking of the Torah to the subsequent historical experience of the Jewish people, one of the contributors, Jacob Milgrom, after affirming his intention to be “critical, unapologetic, and objective,” makes the astonishing theological claim that his commentary “offers reliable support to those who believe that this book and the Torah at large were divinely revealed.” It is hard to imagine what in his commentary, including the citation of Jewish sources, he conceives might confirm this claim. In fact, his painstaking accounts of trial by ordeal, ritual contamination by corpses and menstruants, hovering miasmas of impurity, the rite of the scapegoat, and much else, bring us almost uncomfortably close to a thoroughly alien world in which pagan and magical notions have undergone no more than a first phase of monotheistic transformation. But quite apart from such odd gestures to the faithful, the central Jewish feature of the JPS commentary—referring to the traditional exegetes—has an intrinsic justification in the enterprise of understanding the text. Indeed, it raises the question of whether there is such a thing as cumulative knowledge in the study of texts, and the JPS commentary offers a good deal of support for an affirmative answer.



The Bible—and, of course, the Pentateuch in particular—as the text of our culture most intimately associated with moral, theological, and even historical authority, has through the centuries been our most heavily studied book, by Jews and Christian s alike. I would contend, however, that until modern times the Hebrew Bible was scrutinized with a different order of attention by Jews than it was by Christians. The reasons for the difference were both theological and linguistic. Jews always conceived this corpus as a textual object complete in itself, addressing the life of a people in real historical time, and not as a typological forerunner to another group of books composed in a different language, pointing through figure s and parables to a post-historical end-time. Jews also always investigated the Bible in its original language, and in sharp contrast to the occasional manifestations of Christian Hebraism, they preserved Hebrew as a living language of study and inner experience even when it was no longer a vernacular.

Thus, the sundry Midrashim composed between the 4th and the 9th centuries C.E., though they often propose readings that may seem fanciful to the modern eye, exhibit the most remarkable acuteness in identifying connotations and nuances of difference in Hebrew terms. I would suggest that this repeated demonstration of insight into the language is not a consequence of happy intuition but of active participation in a continuous tradition that carried over finely shaded knowledge of biblical Hebrew into the era of changed rabbinic usage. That tradition, variously refracted but also reinvigorated by the invention of philology and the poetic revival begun in medieval Andalusia, is still palpable in the fine linguistic discriminations of Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th-century Spain, Italy, and France), David Kimhi (12th and13th-century France), and Rashi (11th-century France). These were all brilliant readers, but also readers with a deep and ramified rootage in a historically continuous Hebrew culture.

All three of the JPS commentaries provide abundant instances in which the traditional exegetes anticipated specific conclusions of modern scholarship. At least in the effort to understand the plain meaning of the words of the text, they did not belong to a remote, benighted world of naive believers but were joined in the same enterprise, without benefit of Akkadian and Ugaritic, as the latter-day sages of Göttingen and Harvard and Johns Hopkins. Thus, Milgrom comments on a difficult term, dalyav, in an enigmatic image that appears in Balaam’s oracular poem (Numbers 24:7). Both Ibn Ezra and Luzzato construe it as a variant form of daliyotav, “its boughs,” whereas “Rashi says that the form of the word is dual and can mean buckets’ [that is, deriving the term from deli, bucket].” He goes on to quote Rashi’s elucidation of the image in the poem: a man with two full buckets, the water splashing over the rims as he walks back from the well. To which Milgrom adds, making medieval exegete and modern Semiticist join hands, “In support, Akkadian dalûl means ‘irrigate with water drawn from a well.’”



The JPS Torah Commentary, then, offers a wealth of resources to the serious student of the Bible, but at least intermittently, it suffers from an inclination to perpetuate the legacy of positivism of modern biblical scholarship going back to 19th-century Germany (one might recall here Milgrom’s confidence in the possibility of an “objective” commentary). The cognitive model here is, I think, the textual crux. One encounters a difficult place in the text, something that doesn’t make sense. With great patience and a little luck—perhaps something unearthed by the archeologist’s spade or a phonetic connection suddenly grasped between an obscure biblical word and a term in a Sumerian text—the crux may be solved. characteristically, all three commentators often invoke t he formula that in the present state of knowledge, the text in question cannot yet be understood. The Bible as a whole is conceived as an intricate edifice of puzzlements—philological, compositional, historical—that one by one require solutions and with a combination of ingenuity and serendipity will get them. What these commentators do not readily imagine is that much biblical writing—I am of course not speaking of what scribes may have inadvertently interposed—might have been devised precisely not to yield a solution, or to yield multiple and contradictory solutions, and that this might be the very hallmark of its greatness. Let me cite an example from Sarna, precisely because in most respects he is the most subtle and the most resourceful of the three commentators.

In a 1,300-word excursus on “Jacob’s Struggle with the Angel,” Sarna first usefully associates the story with the widespread folk tale of the inimical river spirit who opposes a traveler seeking to cross over into his territory, duly noting how the biblical writer has transformed this common material for his own mo notheistic purposes. He then cites the venerable Midrash that sees the nameless adversary as “the celestial patron of Esau” (saro shel Esav) and argues for the plausibility of that identification. “In summation, the mysterious creature who assails Jacob as he is about to cross the future border of Israel is none other than the celestial patron of Esau-Edom, who is the inveterate enemy of Israel.” This conclusion is not so much wrong as wrongly put. The story of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, one of the most haunting in all of ancient literature, is conceived as a puzzle awaiting a solution, like some poorly understood Hebrew term, peder or deror. Most readers will share the sense that Jacob’s grappling in the night with a mysterious “man” by the ford of the Jabbok, before the morning when he will see his estranged brother after twenty-years’ separation, is an adumbration of the imminent encounter between the twins. But is that adumbration a political allegory, as the Midrash has it, or a night world expression of Jacob’s psychology, or an experience of the dangerous, inscrutable ambiguity of the divine that touches on yet also transcends the story of fraternal conflict? By proclaiming that the angel is “none other than” Esau’s celestial patron, the commentary reduces the biblical tale to a simple linearity that impoverishes it.

In The Genesis of Secrecy, the literary critic Frank Kermode suggestively juxtaposes the enigmatic young man in the white shirt in the Gospel according to Mark with the elusive man in the brown mackintosh in Joyce’s Ulysses in order to argue that a certain kind of narrative works its art by withholding some of its own key meanings. Historical exegesis of the Bible tends to presuppose “solutions,” but a literary exegesis, which Sarna himself also practices, and at times quite ably, must be able to respect the secrecy of the Bible—not by enjoining silence but by articulating an order of commentary that will help readers tune into the multiple reverberations of the secrets.



Both Sarna and Milgrom devote considerable attention, often literary in character, to the microscopic level of word choices and isolable motifs and to the macroscopic level of compositional patterns through which smaller narrative segments are woven together. (I leave Levine out of this consideration because there is such limited narrative material in Leviticus.) What is neglected is the crucial middle ground in which literary analysis might consider the stylistic realization and the technical narrative options employed, as motifs are fleshed out and patterns translated into particular acts and speeches and gestures. What happens on this middle ground makes all the difference in the kinds of meanings suggested by the text. Thus, on the first of the three occasions when the story of the sister-bride is told in Genesis (Chapter 12), Sarna comments, “According to the literary concepts and norms of the ancient world, reiteration is a desirable and characteristic feature of the epic tradition. To the biblical Narrator, repetition of the experience serves to emphasize and reinforce his didactic purposes.” This is not altogether wrong, but it is too general and a little fuzzy, especially in the vague invocation of “the epic tradition” in relation to Genesis, and in its assumption that these stories are didactic. (Meir Sternberg, one of several recent literary critics of the Bible whom Sarna repeatedly cites in his notes, has made the persuasive distinction that biblical narrative has ideological aims but is never merely didactic.) If one looks carefully at the narrative articulation of the three sister-bride stories, it becomes clear that instead of simple repetition for emphasis, each version is worked out in consonance with its own context to achieve different thematic ends. This procedure of significant variation in seeming repetition is itself one of the distinctive features of the Bible’s narrative art.

The first version, set at the very beginning of the sequence of Patriarchal tales, is the most succinct of the three and does everything possible to maximize the force of the story as a foreshadowing of the sojourn in Egypt that will be the fate of Abraham’s progeny (an idea already noted in the Midrash). Abram and Sarna go down to Egypt because there is a “heavy famine” in the land. Abram is afraid that the Egyptians will kill him while her “they will let live,” just as Pharaoh in Exodus decrees that all the males born will be thrown into the Nile while all the female babies “you will let live.” When Pharaoh in Genesis 12 takes Sarai into his harem, God intervenes by afflicting him with plagues, and Pharaoh then peremptorily “sends away” Abram and Sarai, the same verb of dismissal or release repeatedly used in the Exodus narrative.

The second version of the sister-bride story in Genesis 20 does not take place in Egypt but in Gerar, in the northwestern Negev, and it is in no way aligned with the sojourn in Egypt. This time there is no mention of a famine. Abimelech is most unpharaonic in appearing as a man of conscience, more sinned against than sinning, whose castigation of Abraham for deceiving him about Sarah’s identity momentarily puts the patriarch at a loss for words (see the significant silence between verses 9 and 10). He is vouchsafed a night-vision colloquy with God, and the odd phrase he uses in challenging God, “Will you also slay a righteous people?,” pointedly makes a link between this story and the immediately preceding one, the destruction of Sodom. In this version, Abraham imagines Gerar is another Sodom—a place where if two strangers appear (in this instance, one male and one female) at least one of them is likely to be subject to sexual assault and the other to murder. In the event, he is quite wrong about the moral character of Gerar, and one of the purposes of this episode seems to be a desire to unsettle any simple Hebrew/Gentile polarity. Finally, the remission of the plague of sterility—rereading, we realize it is probably a plague of impotence, hinted in God’s words to Abimelech, “Therefore I did not let you touch her”—about which we learn only at the very end of the story, connects the whole episode both with the concern about procreation that dominates Chapter 18 and the second half of Chapter 19, and with Sarah’s long-deferred conception, which is announced in the next verse (the beginning of Chapter 21).

The third version of the story, in Genesis 26, involving Isaac and Rebekah, is sandwiched between Esau’s selling of the birthright to Jacob and Jacob’s theft of the paternal blessing. It is not surprising that much of the articulation of the sister-bride tale here is attuned to the themes of inheritance and blessing. Although famine is again the motive for migration, the place of refuge is Gerar, not Egypt, and it is stressed that the area is part of the promised land of inheritance. Only here is a reiteration of the covenantal promise of blessing and great progeny inserted in the story (verses 3-5), and here the patriarch with his wife is not sent out or driven away but, on the contrary, proceeds to plant crops and tend flocks in territory contiguous with or overlapping the kingdom of Gerar. In this version, Abimelech learns of the matriarch’s status as wife not through divine intervention in plague or night vision but by peering out the window and seeing Isaac “fondling” Rebekah—metsahek, the word-motif that has been following Isaac, Yitshak, from before his conception. This matriarch is never actually taken into the harem, but is only in danger of being appropriated by the king-perhaps a reflection of Rebekah’s powerful and active character in contradistinction to the more passive Sarah. Here, the wealth that accrues to the patriarch is not a gift from the king—as in the Exodus story, when the fleeing Hebrews “despoil” the Egyptians—but the result of his activity as agriculturalist and pastoralist, an anticipation of the precise terms of the blessing Isaac will confer on Jacob, and which Jacob will realize later in his dealings with Laban. Finally, despite Sarna’s claim that the story “temporarily diverts attention from the ongoing rivalry between Jacob and Esau,” this version, in contrast to the two earlier ones, actually concludes with an episode that ties in firmly with the overarching theme of fraternal strife and the struggle for the inheritance: the shepherds of Abimelech quarrel with Isaac’s shepherds over wells; and Abimelech is impelled to tell Isaac that he must move off “for you have become far too big for us,” just as the reconciled Jacob and Esau later will separate because the great camp of Jacob’s family and possessions requires its own space.



The lack of adequate attention to this middle ground of the literary articulation of the narratives is sometimes detrimentally combined with a positivist faith in the invocation of a legal, social, or cultic institution as in itself sufficient reason for a proposed reading. It is, of course, essential to understand what are the ancient institutions that play various roles in the narratives, and in this regard the JPS commentators give readers much useful guidance, but it is quite another thing to assume that recognition of the institution provides an automatic key to the meaning of the story. Let me illustrate this pitfall with a final example, which as it happens takes us beyond the frame of the Pentateuch.

Milgrom, at the end of an excursus explaining the ritual conditions of ?erem, the biblical ban of general destruction, cites the story of the conflict between Samuel and Saul in 1 Samuel 15 over the ban Samuel had enjoined against the Amalekites. Milgrom contends that in fact Saul, after defeating the Amalekites, was punctiliously observing the conditions of the ?erem, bringing back only unblemished animals eligible for sacrifice and in all likelihood intending to slaughter the Amalekite king Agag “before the Lord” as Samuel proceeded to do at the end of the story. According to Milgrom, the fact that Saul is said to lose his kingship without further appeal because of his behavior here must be attributed to the Tendenz of “a Davidide (that is, anti-Saulide) author.” Such pseudo-historical, quasi-scientific labeling has been a bane of biblical scholarship for over a century. Is there any plausible evidence that there was ever such an animal as a “Davidide author”? It has been comforting to biblical scholars to hypothesize the existence of ideologically definite, politically demarcated “schools” of writers, and it takes no more than the smallest hint of a political viewpoint to justify such conjectural constructs. In fact, the attitudes throughout 1 and 2 Samuel toward David are so complex, and David himself is represented as such a multifaceted, calculating, devious, and at times morally dubious figure, though also on occasion an appealing one, that any hypothesis of “Davidide” authorship looks questionable in the extreme.

But what about the nicely discriminated narrative data, the revelatory movement of dialogue, in the story itself as it is worked out in 1 Samuel 15? The rounds of query and response between prophet and king, as Meir Sternberg has demonstrated in The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, show a Saul painfully floundering, at first greeting Samuel with a bald-faced lie, then progressively qualifying his statements as Samuel verbally corners him, and finally confessing his transgression, begging Samuel at least to help him save face before his assembled troops. This is hardly the performance of a man confident that he has scrupulously observed the institutional requirements of the ban.

Saul’s self-incrimination can be illustrated with one small strategic point not touched on by Sternberg. When Saul triumphs over the Amalekites, the narrator reports his actions in the following words: “And Saul and the people [or, troops] spared Agag and the best of the flock and the cattle and the second born and the lambs and all that was good, and they did not want to put them to the ban” (my translation). A nicety of biblical grammar here should be noted. The verb “spared” is in the singular in the Hebrew, despite the plural subject, in conformity with a general biblical usage that allows a singular verb when one of the elements of a compound subject is considered the primary actor, the others somehow subsidiary. The grammar thus informs us that it is Saul who did the sparing, with the people merely following his lead. When, however, Saul responds to Samuel’s demand that he explain the bleating of sheep and the braying of oxen behind him, these are the words he uses: “From the Amalekites they brought them, for the people spared the best of the flock and the cattle in order to sacrifice to the Lord your God, and the rest we put to the ban.”

The little dance from third person plural to third person singular to first person plural is the desperate movement of a guilty liar stumbling over his own feet. First, it is an impersonal “they” who are responsible for bringing the sheep and oxen from the Amalekites. Then, it is the people who “spared” the flocks: the singular verb used before by the narrator is now in perfect accord with its collective subject, but Saul’s report entirely suppresses the narrator’s firm indication that the king, not the people, was the primary instigator of the sparing. Finally, it is only when Saul speaks of putting the other, more meager animals to the ban that he switches to “we.” The narrator’s account had said nothing of setting aside the choice animals for the express purpose of sacrifice. At the very least, we are entitled to question the honesty of this purportedly pious motive now introduced by Saul. It is noteworthy that he speaks uneasily of sacrifice “to the Lord your God,” not quite the tone that would be taken by a man sure he has been performing his solemn obligations before his own God and the God of his people.

Let me hasten to add that this cunning choreography of language in the passage does not provide a “solution” to the episode, as the legal stipulations of the institution of ?erem are purported to do. Milgrom feels free to speak of “Saul’s true intention,” but a scrutiny of the literary articulation of the story leads instead to the perception of a complex of plausible motives, not to a bedrock of truth which in fact the story is devised to avoid. Saul himself, like most of the major biblical characters, remains elusive, a politically and psychologically persuasive conjunction of suggestive contradictions: inept, foolishly impulsive, self-doubting, pathetically unfit for kingship, and also a heroic and poignant figure, equally victimized by Samuel and by circumstances, sustained by a kind of lumbering integrity even as he entangles himself in a net of falsehood and self destructive acts. The greatness of the story resides in this rich tension of internal oppositions in the characterization, and the last thing a commentary should do is to dissolve the tension by invoking the simplifying hypothesis of an “anti-Saulide author.”

In all this, I do not mean to suggest that the historical-philological and the literary approaches to the Bible are mutually contradictory undertakings. On the contrary, the exacting deployment of broad learning in the JPS commentaries demonstrates how much literary students of the Bible can refine their own analysis by attending to what the cumulative enterprise of scholarship has discovered about the meanings of biblical words, the nature of biblical institutions, the intricate tapestry of ancient historical contexts, and the possibilities of sedimentation and sutures in the texts. What many of the historical scholars for their part still need to understand better is that a literary text—even an ancient and canonical one—is more than the broken pieces of a potsherd in an archeological find to be fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. At least to the extent that the redacted text forms a coherent continuity, and that is usually the case in the Bible, it is artfully contrived, as are literary texts from other times and places, to open up a dense swarm of variously compelling possibilities, leading us to ponder the imponderables of individual character, human nature, historical causation, revelation, election, and man’s encounters with the divine. If all literary texts are open-ended, the Bible, certainly in its narrative aspect, is willfully, provocatively open-ended: that, indeed, is why there is always room for more commentary.


1 The JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis: Commentary by Nahum M. Sarna, 414 pp., $47.50; Leviticus: Commentary by Baruch A. Levine, 284 pp., $47.50; Numbers: Commentary by Jacob Milgrom, 520 pp., $47.50.

2 On the Plaut volume, see my article in these pages, “Reform Judaism and the Bible,” February 1982.

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