Introduction (II) On the Legitimacy of a Literary Reading of the Bible

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman



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.[1]


a)    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  Instead, one should use methods for analyzing historical documents and theological literature.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.[2]


b)    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.[3]


            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).[4]    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.[5]


            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?[6]


            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.[7]  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.[8]  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 this world.[9]  


            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 biblical literature.”[10]


            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 impossible. 


For 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.


(Translated by Rachael Gelfman Schultz)

[1] I am ignoring the approach that rejects exact literary analysis because of the claim (widespread among biblical critics) that in the beginning, biblical narrative was communicated verbally, and it was written down only later.  This approach was prevalent in the Scandinavian school in the second half of the last century. They saw biblical narrative as popular folklore that was written down at some point (if you want to learn more about this, see E. Nielsen, Oral Tradition, London 1954).  I am ignoring this approach for two reasons.  First, even if this assumption is true regarding some biblical narratives, such as Ruth and others, the assumption that biblical narrative was written with Divine inspiration gives new significance to the writing itself that makes it different from a collection of folklore.  Second, even if one were to grant their assumption, “the oral traditions were not written down in order to entertain the reader or even to preserve these traditions in a time of crisis when we feared that otherwise we would lose them… They were written down in order to give them the proper status from an ideological-religious perspective, to place God on an ‘esteemed and exalted throne’” (Y. Zakovitch, “Mi-sipur she-be’al peh le-sipur she-bikhtav ba-Mikra,” Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Folklore I (1980/1981), pp. 16-17).  In any case, even if some stories were oral in their beginning stages, and then were written down, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seriously study what was written down.

[2] A summary of this problem can be found in D. Robertson, "Literature, the Bible as," IDBS, Nashville 1976, p. 549.

[3] Ibn Ezra’s commentary on Shemot 20.  A similar approach is found in Radak.

[4] It has been shown that in biblical narrative the name of a character is sometimes expounded in light of his name’s synonyms (Y. Zakovitch, “Ma’amadam shel ha-mila ha-nirdefet ve-shem nirdaf be-yetzirat midrashe shemo,” Shenaton Le-Mikra U-leheker Ha-mizrach Ha-kadum II (1976/1977), pp. 101-115; M. Garsiel, Midrashei Shemot Ba-Mikra, Ramat Gan 1987, pp. 67-84). For example, Gideon’s name, which derives from the root gada (to cut off), is also associated with to the synonymous verb “karat” (Garsiel, p. 72).  These hidden exegeses are quite sophisticated, but the basic claim I made above stands.

[5] Rabbi Tzvi Tau, Tzaddik Be-emunato Yichyeh, Jerusalem 2001/2002, pp. 12-14.

[6] As we will see later, the Sages actually often interpreted the Bible using literary analysis, but for the purposes of describing this fundamental argument I will accept R. Tau’s assumption that literary analysis is connected with academic biblical study that began only in recent generations.

[7] Actually, even this would not be good enough, because the Midrash of the Sages includes different schools of thought, and there are many disagreements among the Sages.  At the end of the day, even someone who wants to learn only through the Sages’ glasses will find himself choosing between midrashim and choosing where to focus: David sinned with Batsheva (according to the anonymous position) or did not sin (according to Rebbi); our forefather Jacob violated many severe prohibitions because he put off fulfilling his vow (Bereishit Rabba, Theodor-Albeck, 81:1) or that is just a minority opinion; and so forth.

[8] See more about this in the monograph by my father and teacher, Prof. Avraham Grossman, Rashi (Gedolei Ha-ruach Ve-ha-yetsira Ba-am Ha-Yehudi), Jerusalem 2005/2006, pp. 60-69.

[9] R. Tzadok ha-Kohen of Lublin, Machshavot Charutz, 15, Bene Berak 1966/1967.

[10] Y. Amit, Galui U-nistar Ba-Mikra: Pulmusim Geluyim, Akifim, U-ve’ikar Semuyim, Tel Aviv 2003, p. 116.