HOW TO READ THE BIBLE
By Marc Zvi Brettler
Jewish Publication Society, 2005
Reviewed by Rabbi Raymond Apple
Marc Brettler has written what he calls a “Jewishly-sensitive” introduction to the Tanach. Indeed the very fact that it is Tanach that he writes about will already appeal to Jewish readers. Many works on the Bible fail to resonate with Judaism because for us the Tanach cannot be treated coldly and antiseptically or reduced to a mere antechamber to Christianity. Brettler writes as a Jew, though he encourages readers to listen to the Bible text with the aid of modern critical scholarship which attempts to place the Scriptures in a historical, cultural, ideological and linguistic context. Brettler is a “critical” scholar, not in the sense of being antagonistic but of critiquing the material.
His concern is how to read the Bible, not as a product of 21st century idioms and conventions but as an ancient Israelite might have read it. He asks his question through the medium of a study of major Biblical units; he warns against using chapter numbers to define where a passage begins or ends but prefers its “compositional units”. Amongst those that he examines are the Creation sections of Geneis. It has long been accepted that there are two Creation stories; for Brettler they are independent myths (“myth” does not mean “false” but “a traditional tale”) which underwent later redaction. Each story must have its own reason for being Biblical, and make its own contribution to Israelite self-understanding. It is not a new problem, but others, pre-eminently Rav Soloveitchik, find ways of explaining the stories without needing to see them as competing independent units from different times and places. Brettler, however, implies that he supports the request made by Spinoza who asked readers to abandon the thought that the Bible is a “seamless whole”.
The book explains itself lucidly and facilitates our understanding of many aspects of Biblical scholarship, whether or not we go along with Brettler in every particular. The really crucial question is, however, that of the Afterword, sub-titled, “Reading the Bible as a Committed Jew”. This is how Brettler puts it: “I have made the following claims: the beginning of Genesis is a ‘myth’; the Exodus did not happen; and Joshua did not fight the battle of Jericho and make the walls come tumbling down. Further, I have stated that much of the material in the Bible’s historical texts is not historical…; and that David composed none of the Psalms… (Yet) I am, in fact, an observant Jew. I take the Bible quite seriously in my personal life… It stands at the core of who I am as a person, and as a Jew.”
So how does Brettler handle the apparent paradox? His answer: “The Bible is a sourcebook that I – within my community – make into a textbook. I do so by selecting, revaluing, and interpreting the texts that I call sacred.” A sourcebook comes from many places and times; if one makes it into a textbook one chooses amongst its options those which seem more meaningful and turns them into an authoritative path. It is a difficult approach: it all seems too individualistic and subjective. The traditionalist prefers a more objective criterion. If this means that the text remains difficult in some ways there is at least the advantage of patient hope that answers will be found that do not require the overall sanctity of the text to be weighed and deemed wanting.
With all this, the book is a major achievement and it deserves to be read.