Takeaways from the Jewish scriptures

Here’s what I see as the Big Picture in the Hebrew Bible and the accompanying Apocrypha.

The centrality of the Covenant: In this revolutionary social ordering, the descendants of Jacob are (1) an entire people (2) bound by a code of conduct and ethics (3) in relationship with a supreme deity that evolves from the foremost of many lesser gods into a monotheistic faith, and (4) even the rulers are subject to this authority and its conditions.

Unending hostilities: In establishing and maintaining a society where they may openly uphold this Covenant relationship, they face armed invasion from rival tribes and neighboring sheiks and monarchs. Even in rare periods of external peace, internal opposition arises. Ultimately, they cannot match the military might of empire armies and are defeated.

The cohesive kingdom of the twelve tribes is of much briefer duration/reality than it appears in the Jewish mindset: According to Scripture, the united monarchy spans the reigns of only King David and King Solomon, roughly seven decades or so. The identity as Jews comes after its collapse, into Judah, to the south, and the less observant but larger Israel, to the north. Yet the restoration of the nation in its full glory remains the hope of Zion.

The Babylonian exile looms larger in the Jewish experience than I had suspected: My impression had been that the exile was a blip in the larger Biblical tome. The captivity of Judah occupies roughly the same span as the glory years of the united monarchy, yet gives rise to the captivity. While Daniel and Esther are devoted exclusively to exile, the thrust of the Biblical arch from Kings into Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel and the Twelve also engage this catastrophe, as do the Maccabees in their later, parallel oppression. The history of their Egyptian slavery and Exodus also no doubt plays out in relation to this. More centrally, the Babylonian captivity lays the foundation for the survival of Judaism in the eventual two millennia of Diaspora.

Historical accuracy fades to mythological truth: Archaeological evidence and factual discrepancies support a reading of these texts based on their underlying drama and psychological realities, rather than historical and geographical precision. Poetic license is expected.

Women are largely excluded from the dialogue: It’s the missing dimension.

The work is left unfinished:  The Holocaust, especially, looms large over the canon.

Sistine Chapel ceiling 1508: The Expulsion of Adam And Eve from the Garden of Eden, painting by Michelangelo Buonarroti

Prostitution and the missing voice of suitable helpmeet

In her essay in Congregation, Francine Prose notes, “God and his Prophet seem to take for granted an audience of men. It is only the men He chastises for marrying outside the tribe, for ‘putting away’ their spouses; the priests He addresses for much of the book were also, it hardly needs pointing out, male.”

She’s discussing the Book of Malachi, but her plaint can run the entire length of the Bible.

Once more I hear Daphne Merkin’s reflection on Ecclesiastes echoing loudly: “As a daughter in an Orthodox household, I had no text to call my own. In contrast to Jewish sons … Jewish daughters have at best an oblique connection to the sacred volumes of their heritage.”

Women seem marginal to this epic, even though they are the ones who instruct the young boys in the faith — why else would there be the condemnation of marrying foreign wives or, especially, queens?

While the Hebrew Bible names 48 male prophets, it has only seven prophetesses, the last one being Esther, a curious choice considering that God is not even mentioned in her story — does the Holy One even speak to her? Does she even pray to her God? Apart from Esther, none of the women have their own book.

At best, women are taken for granted. Do they even have their own communal spiritual teachings, practices, and alliances?

The text is of little help here.

Of course, it doesn’t help to have the Prophets repeatedly referring to God as a male presence. There’s little counterbalance.

 

There is, though, a sense of the new moon worship as a feminine expression, though we’re given no guidelines for its observance, certainly not along the lines of the Tabernacle or later Temple or the elaborate priesthood and their functions. I’m left wondering what happens to the sacred marking of each new month, once mandated, but then what? Did it take on forbidden practices, including human sacrifice? New moon worship would have been more frequent than the annual journey to sacrifice at the Temple, and thus, more ingrained in the regular household routine.

Or did it continue as a sabbath — a day of family, friends, and rest — shorn of elaborate ritual?

Once again, the text is of little help.

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Repeatedly, the foreign woman is presented as more appealing, even more exciting, than the Jewish women presumably constrained under the Law.

Yes, we have Esther and Judith as seductive exceptions, but their sexual allure is to powerful goys rather than potential Jewish spouses.

As femme fatales go, consider the contrast between Delilah and Judith.

Delilah at least toys with Samson, warns him, pushes him away, yet he keeps coming back. There’s a chemistry. He’s a willing victim. And yet, by tradition, we blame her — unfairly, I’d say.

Judith, on the other hand, is a one-night stand, a cold hit man (is there even a gender-neutral word for this kind of executioner?). Holofernes is depicted as a powerless victim — “The heart of Holofernes was ravished at the sight; his very soul was stirred. He was seized with a violent desire to sleep with her” (Judith 12:16 NJB).

Oh, poor males, unable to control our lusts! So we blame the woman, do we?

Well, it apparently comes at a price. For him, it’s more serious than castration.

Oh, and there’s the insistence in the story that only her face seduced him, suggesting he never even saw her naked much less had intercourse — “He committed no sin with me to shame me or disgrace me” (13:16). How pure.

Could it be that in spite of all of the verses of military might running through the Bible, the men are secretly afraid women are the stronger sex?

Just look at all of the warnings given to young men, especially in books like Proverbs.

It puts the battle of the sexes in another light.

Nowhere does the conflict become more apparent than in the repeated injections against prostitution — more commonly using the loaded words “harlot” or “whore” than “prostitute” in the King James verses. These arise in half of the books of the Hebrew Bible.

How much is this an injunction against impurity — physical, societal, or spiritual? To what extent, if any, were sexually transmitted diseases a factor in ancient times?

Men in a patriarchy needed reassurance that their offspring were indeed theirs, which would explain their desire to keep their wives and concubines sequestered. But that wouldn’t, by itself, prevent them from pleasuring themselves with hired women, would it? Or were men in polygamous marriages constrained by vows of exclusivity?

Considering the frequency of the prohibitions, we can assume that prostitution was commonplace. You don’t repeatedly make rules against things that don’t happen.

We can wonder about the economic dimensions here. If husbands were spending for sexual pleasures elsewhere, was it depriving wives of what was (or should have been) rightfully theirs?

On the other hand, did sexual service give a woman uncommon independence and wealth, thus presenting a threat to the home? Or was she herself a victim, perhaps even a slave?

Leviticus 19:29 offers this warning, presumably directed at fathers rather than mothers: “Do not prostitute thy daughter, to cause her to be a whore.”

So pimping was one possible objection.

Another was the existence of temple prostitutes, female and male, working in fertility rites associated with pagan deities. They were likely a source of income for the upkeep of the temples and priesthood — presumably forced prostitution.

The practice, as we read in Kings, even extended to the Temple in Jerusalem at times between repeated purging.

Read closely, and passages often cited as prohibiting male homosexuality can be seen as prohibitions of male temple prostitution.

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Feeling like a guest in the epic

Whichever way we conclude reading through what I’ll reluctantly call the Old Testament, whether it be with Malachi or Chronicles, and whether we include the Apocrypha of the Vulgate editions or limit ourselves to those of the standard Hebrew Bible, a pause is needed before plunging ahead into the New Testament.

My straight-through reading took place four years ago now — occupying a bit under three months, as I recall.

My plan to go back through to collect my marginal notes and scattered thoughts, however, got ambushed. A near heart attack, for one thing, intervened, as did a new novel and a host of revisions on the earlier ones.

Since launching this series, it’s already taken us a year to get through my posts on the Old Testament. (I am somewhat relieved that many of the Jewish authors in Congregation refer to that collection as such.)

I started out looking for the Big Picture. As if there were one.

What I’ve encountered is a startling range of encounters that ask, ultimately, how do we experience the Other, the Holy One, the I AM? And then, how do we respond?

As if the Other is a thing, or even a person, rather than existing totally beyond (or outside of) physical matter or energy. Something like that.

 

Collecting my notes and considerations led to another surprise, a book I picked up at a remaindered (that is, sharply discounted) price in a bookstore. A gem, at that, even if it took me more than two decades before delving into its riches: Congregation, Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, edited by David Rosenberg.

His introduction, by the way, I’d love to quote verbatim. The ambitious volume itself, unfortunately, seems to be long out of print BUT you can find copies online. Grab one, if you wish.

One thing Rosenberg’s assembly of authors and Everett Fox’s notes for the Five Books of Moses gave me was a perception of how much I and, for that matter, most Christians, do not, even cannot, appreciate in these texts.

It’s not just the dirty jokes we’re missing, though there appear to be many earthy asides we don’t catch.

More than that, though, is a recognition of how much Christians miss in their unawareness of midrash — the fleshing out of these amazingly barebone, minimalist texts — often assembled in the accompanying Talmud and more. My, how the rabbis over the ages have reimagined and given body to these spare lines! They’ve lived with them, dreamed of them, reinterpreted them. None of this comes through in any of the Protestant commentaries I’ve encountered, where, I suspect, many of the assertions would come as an embarrassment or appear even as borderline heresy. Oh, yes, it seems fair in this practice to actually challenge and confront the text, rather than accept it at face value. There’s no way a fundamentalist would accept irony, for example, or perhaps even humor. As for poetry? Metaphor compresses experiences, emphasizes the subjective over quantifiable objectivity.

 

Another thing that came through strongly, in essay after essay, was how much these books are family stories for Jews, reflections of their very identity and roots, even among non-observant families. I appreciate the authors’ childhood memories and idiosyncratic relatives woven through these essays. For the rest of us, we might be able to say so-and-so was “like” as Biblical figure, but we’d never think of these ancient characters as our ancestry and original household.

As for that Big Picture? Oh, my. My reading left me feeling it’s more like a huge art museum, with gallery after gallery to explore. And that’s before adding the New Testament.

 

Choosing from three different orderings

As I’ve noted, we have three different selections of the books of the Bible, and even their order of appearance can differ. Here they are for comparison:

Open Gutenberg Bible

HEBREW BIBLE, 24 books

  1. Genesis
  2. Exodus
  3. Leviticus
  4. Numbers
  5. Deuteronomy
  6. Joshua
  7. Judges
  8. Samuel
  9. Kings
  10. Isaiah
  11. Jeremiah
  12. Ezekiel
  13. The Twelve (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obediah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zepaniah, Haggai, Zachariah, Malachi)
  14. Psalms
  15. Proverbs
  16. Job
  17. Song of Songs
  18. Ruth
  19. Lamentations
  20. Ecclesiastes
  21. Esther
  22. Daniel
  23. Ezra / Nehemiah
  24. Chronicles
  25. No Maccabees! And, of course, no New Testament.
Gutenberg Bible page

 

VULGATE/ROMAN CATHOLIC, 46 books in Old Testament.

Also, with slight variation, used by EASTERN ORTHODOX.

  1. Genesis
  2. Exodus
  3. Leviticus
  4. Numbers
  5. Deuteronomy
  6. Joshua
  7. Judges
  8. Ruth
  9. First Samuel
  10. Second Samuel
  11. First Kings
  12. Second Kings
  13. First Chronicles
  14. Second Chronicles
  15. Ezra
  16. Nehemiah
  17. Tobit
  18. Judith
  19. Esther
  20. First Maccabees
  21. Second Maccabees
  22. Job
  23. The Psalms
  24. The Proverbs
  25. Ecclesiastes
  26. The Song of Songs
  27. The Book of Wisdom
  28. Ecclesiasticus
  29. Isaiah
  30. Jeremiah
  31. Lamentations
  32. Baruch
  33. Ezekiel
  34. Daniel
  35. Hosea
  36. Joel
  37. Amos
  38. Obediah
  39. Jonah
  40. Micah
  41. Nahum
  42. Habakkuk
  43. Zepaniah
  44. Haggai
  45. Zachariah
  46. Malachi

Plus New Testament

And, for further complications, the books of the Apocrypha are sometimes placed between the Old Testament and the New Testaments. The order above is the one I followed in my straight-through reading.

Johann Gutenberg

 

PROTESTANT, 36 books in Old Testament.

  1. Genesis
  2. Exodus
  3. Leviticus
  4. Numbers
  5. Deuteronomy
  6. Joshua
  7. Judges
  8. Ruth
  9. First and Second Samuel
  10. First and Second Kings
  11. First and Second Chronicles
  12. Ezra
  13. Nehemiah
  14. Esther
  15. Job
  16. Psalms
  17. Proverbs
  18. Ecclesiastes
  19. Song of Songs
  20. Isaiah
  21. Jeremiah
  22. Lamentations
  23. Ezekiel
  24. Daniel
  25. Hosea
  26. Joel
  27. Amos
  28. Obediah
  29. Jonah
  30. Micah
  31. Nahum
  32. Habakkuk
  33. Zepaniah
  34. Haggai
  35. Zachariah
  36. Malachi

Plus New Testament

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Hope this helps.