LITERARY STUDY OF BIBLICAL NARRATIVE
By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman
Lecture #02: Introduction (II):
On the Legitimacy of a
Literary Reading of the Bible
A large part of the Bible is
written as narrative – not just marginal or insignificant biblical passages, but
passages that are foundational to our nation and its culture, including the
exodus from Egypt and the covenant at Sinai. This
means that the reader and commentator must use methods of literary analysis in
order to understand the full meaning of these narratives and others. Even though this may seem obvious,
for many years it was not clearly delineated.
Medieval commentators pointed out literary attributes of the Bible once
in a while, and even identified different literary elements that make up a
narrative (as we will see later), but they had no systematic approach. Even in modern academic study of the
Bible, a literary reading only began to take shape in the last generation.
One can point to many different reasons for this, but for the purposes of
our discussion I will examine two fundamental approaches that effectively reject
literary analysis of the Bible.
One approach says that
the purpose of Bible is to teach Jewish history and belief in the God of Israel,
so it was not written as literature.
Therefore, one should not employ methods of literary analysis to interpret the
Bible. Instead, one should use
methods for analyzing historical documents and theological literature. This approach is sometimes expressed
more generally in a lack of appreciation for all literary texts from the ancient
world, the Bible among them.
Another approach says
that the Bible’s holiness means we cannot use the same methods of literary
analysis for the Bible as we would for secular literature.
Bible and Literature
The first approach is
often expressed in the halls of academia (especially several generations ago),
but it is also heard among traditional students of Bible, and even medieval
commentators. I don’t think that Ibn
Ezra believes in principle that one shouldn’t use methods of literary analysis
for the Bible (we will see that he himself points out several literary
attributes of the Bible), but sometimes he effectively pulls the rug out from
under literary analysis with statements such as the one below. When he approaches the phenomenon of
repetition in biblical narrative, he claims that the exact word the Torah
chooses doesn’t matter – what is important is that it gets across the main idea. So, for instance, Ibn Ezra says the
following regarding the differences between the Ten Commandments in Parashat
Yitro and in Parashat Vaetchanan:
Biblical language sometimes includes lengthy explanations, and sometimes makes
do with brief words that the listener can understand. Know that the words are like the body
and the meaning is like the soul, and the body is a vessel for the soul. So, too, all scholars of any language
try to maintain the meaning, and they don’t care which words they use as long as
they communicate the same meaning.
Ibn Ezra’s underlying assumption is that the Torah is interested in
content (“meaning,” “soul”), not form (“body,” “vessel”). The parallel, slightly different way
of saying this is that the main purpose of the text is the conceptual content,
not how things are expressed. This
assumption is enough to undermine many of the underlying premises of literary
analysis, according to which the form directly shapes the content. This severance of content from form
is precisely the problem with Ibn Ezra’s claim.
Is it really possible to separate content from how it is written?
In the Middle Ages they believed it was possible to adopt this division,
leaning heavily on the distinction that began with Plato (the eternal Idea) and,
in a different way which is even more challenging in our context, on Aristotle’s
distinction between matter and form.
According to this approach, an idea can be actualized in several ways, but in
fact, all of these actualize the same idea. For
example, there are many horses, each with different colors and different
personalities, but they all actualize in some way the “Idea” of the horse, or
the “Form” of the horse. Someone who
is studying zoology does not talk about particular horses, but the abstract form
of the horse. This approach is
expressed in Ibn Ezra’s principled approach that the important thing in the
Torah is the content – which can be expressed with different language. It isn’t important whether the
content is expressed with the words “Remember the Shabbat” or “Keep the
Shabbat.” It doesn’t make a
difference whether the word “and” connects the different prohibitions in the Ten
Commandments – “And do not steal” – or whether the prohibition is written
without an “and,” as “Do not steal.”
In contrast, one of the
underlying assumptions of literary analysis is that one cannot distinguish
between content and the words used to express it – or, in Aristotelian terms,
one cannot distinguish between the “form” of the idea and its “matter” (i.e.,
the words used to concretize the idea).
For example, even if the dictionary definitions of ze’aka and
tze’aka are very similar (both would be translated as “a cry”), their
overall effect (our associations, emotions, and the sound of the words) is
different, and each word expresses a different kind of distress. Similarly, it is possible that
chama and shemesh are synonyms (both mean “sun”), but in literary
writing each can create a different impression.
Consider, for example, the sentence, “Cham the son of Noach lay
down to rest under the tree to protect him from the chama” (both
the name Cham and the word chama have the same root). Similarly, it would not be
coincidental if a sentence were formulated, “Shimshon walked in the
shemesh and used (hishtamesh) his name (shem) for the sake (le-shem)
of Heaven (shamayim)” (where the words Shimshon, shemesh,
hishtamesh, shem, and shamayim all have the same two or three
letters). Here too, with regard to
the semantic meaning, the functions of chama in the first sentence and
shemesh in the second sentence are similar, but, if one considers a broader
perspective of how these sentences are read or heard, using one word or the
other gives a different meaning. In
effect, when we think about the reader’s emotional reaction to every word and
every sound, it is hard to talk about interchangeable synonyms in literary
writing (or in any verbal communication).
In light of this insight, I would like to return to the issue at hand: is
it possible to recount history while ignoring the narrative’s literary layers? The moment the narrator opens his
mouth and begins his narrative he is using literary elements, whether he intends
to or not, whether his purpose is literary or to recount history. He has no choice but to select one
word out of several words with different connotations, he has no choice but to
build his story in a certain order and to decide when he will reveal to his
listeners a particular fact, he has no choice but to skip certain episodes and
hide certain incidental background information, and so forth. In other words: all verbal
communication, and certainly written communication, is subject to literary
analysis, whether the narrator wants it to be or not.
If that was our whole argument, one could still claim that we are only
talking about insignificant literature, literature without vision or
sophistication, in which case it is not worthy to devote much time to discussing
how it was put together. However, I
feel strongly that biblical narrative is characterized by a unique and
sophisticated literary sense, so it isn’t right to say that “the biblical text
has no choice but to use literary elements.” We are talking about a deliberate
choice, not something that happens unintentionally. In the introduction I already said
that there are many narratives in the Bible, including some at turning points
that shape the course of Jewish history. These stories are majestic; the
literary style is poetic and sublime.
In other words, reading the Bible creates the impression that even if it
is true that the content is the most important, the sublime literary writing
still stands out, and includes different literary elements conveying the
content. Thus one can turn the argument
on its head, and say that especially according to the approach that the Bible’s
main purpose is to convey a message (theological and ethical) to its readers,
the reader must be an expert in literary style in order to figure out the
message of the biblical narrative.
If the reader remains insensitive to issues of style, he will miss the message,
which is the main point of the narrative.
The Holiness of the Bible and Literary Analysis
The second approach we mentioned, that rejects literary analysis because
the Bible is holy and has a prophetic source, is a relatively new approach, and
it is difficult to determine its scope.
Sometimes it seems like those who take this approach see a literary
reading as akin to source criticism and that is why they think it is heretical. This claim derives from ignorance, so
I don’t want to devote much time to it.
The claim that is worthy of more extensive discussion is one sometimes
heard in yeshivas, and its basic gist is: how can we analyze God’s words with
human methods of literary analysis?
Is it possible for the Holy Writings to be limited by methods of literary
analysis that apply to human works?
Furthermore, according to this approach, because the Torah is defined as the
words of God, one cannot figure out the narrative’s purpose by using the usual
human methods. One should look for
bigger glasses when standing before the Holy Writings. The Rabbis of the Midrash provide
these glasses, and the student should subordinate his own interpretations to the
Rabbis’ interpretations, while ignoring literary elements uncovered through
methods of literary analysis. Rabbi
Tzvi Tau wrote about this in a larger context:
Some people think we can approach the Bible with our human intellect, removed
from all holiness and faith, with a dry, secular, academic approach where the
scholar stands above the material he is studying.
The scholar determines what should be brought close and what should be
pushed away... Rav Kook compares
this to the distant past, when they would look at the moon without a telescope.
The moon is very far from us, and because it is so far, people who looked at it
with the naked eye thought that the moon is smiling or winking, that it has a
person’s face, etc. They would
worship the moon, sacrifice to it, speak to it, and why would they do all of
this? Because of the great distance… So too regarding the Holy Writings: We are so far away from prophecy,
that when we look at it we just read ourselves into it – our intellect, our
opinions, our petty concerns. It is
like looking at the moon without a telescope!
Rav Kook says, what is our “telescope?” What
will allow us to bridge the great distance?
It is faith… Even though we are not prophets, we are privileged to have
Chazal, who were closer to prophecy…This is crucial to know, that via
Chazal we can see more deeply…When you look at the Bible with your own two
eyes, it is like looking at the moon without a telescope – you don’t see the
moon at all, just yourself and your own imagination.
R. Tau’s arguments against academic Bible study are broad and include
many different aspects that are combined together in R. Tau’s booklet, but are
not actually always connected to each other.
For the purposes of our discussion, I will focus on R. Tau’s rejection of
literary analysis because of the Bible’s holiness and its prophetic source, and
the practical implications of this rejection – that a person cannot understand
and analyze the Bible independently using his human intellect. This argument is not directed
exclusively at literary analysis, but at the very fact that the student wants to
use his intellect to derive a new insight.
Still, the practical implication of this argument is that a literary
reading, which is often defined as part of modern academic biblical study, is
for all intents and purposes a “secular” reading that secularizes the Holy
Writings and can never comprehend the true meaning of the narrative. In our context, we cannot
delineate all the points of disagreement between R. Tau’s approach and its
alternative, in which the reader analyzes the Bible independently based
exclusively on the text itself and its structure.
In the context of our discussion, I want to focus on the basic question:
from a religious perspective, is a person capable of (and perhaps even commanded
to) interpret the Bible in light of his own encounter with its literary
structure, or should he not do so because the Sages did not, and in any case
people can only understand the Torah through the Sages’ lenses?
Despite the gulf that separates the Ibn Ezra’s approach described earlier
and that of R. Tau, the argument made there also applies in this case: the
biblical narrative’s literary structure influences the reader even if he does
not consciously choose to be influenced.
Every reader responds to a story in light of its structure, whether he
chooses to do so or not. The text’s
choice of one verb over another shapes the reading process, as do the order and
organization of the facts, and so forth.
The difference between readers lies in the question: is the reader aware
of the process of reading that he is going through or not?
Someone who actually wants to interpret a
narrative only through the eyes of the Sages must skip reading the actual text,
and just read the Midrash. But of course no one would even
consider not reading the text. In
any case, one who analyzes the text using literary methods describes what any
sensitive reader experiences when reading the text.
Furthermore – and it could be that this claim is subject to theological
or at least educational disagreement – it seems that the Torah was given to
humanity so that we can study it and understand it. Throughout the generations, Jews
studied the Written Torah as well and attempted to interpret it “according to
the new explanations that are innovated each day” (in the words of the Rashbam). Rashi encouraged his students to
create their own interpretations of the Torah, according to their own
understanding, approach, and unique encounter with the text. This approach depends largely on a
strong trust in the student, and the belief that when the student brings to the
encounter with the text his own particular personality and understanding, as
well as his individual sensitivities, he can uncover the messages lying hidden
behind the text. Of course, one can
argue that what was permitted to the medieval rabbis (to disagree with the Sages
and to offer original interpretations of the text) is forbidden to Jews today,
but, as I said, this is an educational question, not a question that is relevant
to how the Bible communicates its messages and how the student receives these
messages. I have difficulty with the
assumption that the meaning of the Torah was sealed in the period of the Sages,
and we cannot find new meanings in the Torah that were not already said by the
Sages. I seek to uphold an approach
taken by Rabbi Tzadok Ha-Kohen of Lublin, among others (in this case he is
encouraging Torah students to write down their new insights):
Even though there are already many books in the world, and books continue to be
written endlessly, nevertheless every experienced student has a new insight that
only he can bring. This newness is higher than the sun and also brings about
renewal under the sun, since every day creation is constantly being renewed… Not
a day goes by without an experienced student of our generation bringing a new
insight, and this new insight which is everlasting life must remain constant in
But as I said, this question is relevant to how one approaches Torah,
history, and historical progress, and this is not the place to discuss it at
length. Still, R. Tau is correct in
claiming that biblical narrative is clearly and deeply differentiated from
secular literature. Besides the
holiness of the Bible, which clearly influences the student’s approach to the
text, we have to remember that biblical narrative has an educational aim
expressed in its theological, ethical, and spiritual messages. The narrative is not focused on the
aesthetic enjoyment of reading the text itself. We must find out how the
literary structure contributes to the larger goals of the narrative, remembering
that the educational goals are the most important!
Assumptions from Outside the Text
Thus we come to one of the most difficult and nuanced principles of reading:
literary analysis, like all methods of study, brings assumptions from outside
the text. This is not necessarily a
religious claim, but it is centrally connected to R. Tau’s position. It is very difficult to approach the
Bible without any underlying assumptions, and in practice it is almost
impossible. I will bring an example from Yaira Amit’s analysis of the story of
Mikha’s idol. She writes regarding
the characterizations in the story: “The culmination of this negative structure
comes with the description of Mikha.
Even though he becomes the victim of theft, the Bible’s description of him leads
us to ridicule rather than identify or sympathize with him (Shoftim
18:24-26). This is because he cries
out that the god he made was stolen from him.
With this cry, he elicits more disdain than pity in the reader of
What does Professor Amit mean when she says that Mikha’s cry elicits “in
the reader of biblical literature” more disdain than pity? She means that there
are certain codes that all Bible readers share. A sensitive reading will embrace
these codes and use them to analyze the text, rather than reject them because
they “impose on the narrative something that is not found in the text.” The Bible is so full of scorn and
disdain for man-made gods that the sensitive reader will sense that while
perhaps Mikha is crying out because he really was robbed, it is good for him to
take a hard look at his own actions.
In fact, maybe it was good for him that his gods were stolen!
Indeed, in this example – and many others like it – we are talking about
codes that come from the Bible itself, and which we must consider when analyzing
a single biblical passage, even if that particular passage does not explicitly
refer to them. In this context, we
can see these implicit codes as emerging out of the text itself. But are there underlying assumptions
with which the student approaches the text, that do not come out of the Bible
itself, but which are necessary to fully understand the Bible? This is a profound question. It would be best to draw all of our
underlying assumptions from within the text, and thus neutralize – as much as
possible – our own subjective underlying assumptions that come from the modern
personal world of the student, rather than from within the Bible. But that is
example, the question of whether or not God has a body is one that every child
today can answer, but before Maimonides many debated this question. The problem is that there are
physical descriptions of God’s body and the reader has to determine whether or
not they are just allegories. The
most obvious example of this is when Moshe is standing in the cleft of the rock:
“He said ‘You cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.’ And the Lord
said, ‘See, there is a place near Me.
Station yourself on the rock and, as My presence passes by, I will put
you in a cleft of a rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you
will see My back; but My face must not be seen’” (Shemot 33:20-23, New
JPS translation). According to
this description, God has a “face” and a “back,” and Moshe merited revelation
after God passed by, so that he did not see God’s “face” but only His “back.” Because the Bible contains many
figures of speech and allegories, it is certainly justifiable to interpret this
passage as such, but what is the motivation for doing so? How can we prove that the text really
intended to compare God’s attributes to a face and back, and not to give actual
physical descriptions? Here the
reader relies on assumptions from outside of the text, some of which he
consciously imposes on the text, and some of which are connected to hidden
layers of his soul that shape his reading process and his understanding of the
text. In this context, R. Tau is
correct in arguing that there are different underlying assumptions which shape
how we find meaning in the text.
My conclusion is that we must use all of the means that we have at our
disposal to deeply understand the meaning of the Bible: historical, literary,
linguistic, and others, all in order to arrive at the hidden meaning of the
text. But the Bible is given to a
specific “addressee.” Even though
the “addressee” is not any particular person, we can describe his prototype:
someone who is both a believer, who sees prophecy as real, and an ethical person
who always strives to be good and constantly improve his behavior. Obviously, it is enough to describe a
certain character as someone who killed his brother in order to make clear to
the “biblical reader” that he is judged negatively, and it is enough to write
about another person that he hid an idol in his house for the “biblical reader”
to feel uncomfortable. This does not
require proofs from within the narrative itself, but relies for the most part on
assumptions that the reader brings to the narrative. In this sense, R. Tau is correct that
many academic discussions are meaningless because their authors do not accept
prophecy as something that actually occurs in real life, and clearly the
discussions that arise from them are not relevant to understanding the narrative
or prophecy that is based on different underlying assumptions. Still, the rejection of any
particular academic scholar is not about rejecting the person but about
rejecting his interpretation. What I
am trying to say is that I think that the task of an interpreter who boldly
attempts to interpret the Bible is not to judge other interpreters but other
interpretations. Sometimes, as we
shall see, academics who are not Jewish uncover deep and profound meanings of
the Bible. This fact does not add to
or detract from the contribution that their interpretations and readings make,
that must be tested according to the literary structure itself and in light of
the underlying assumptions of the “addressee” reader who we described earlier.
In the next lessons, with God’s help, we will examine various literary
elements and attempt to clarify how they contribute to the purpose of narrative
and its meaning.
Rachael Gelfman Schultz)