A meticulously researched primer on the Hebrew Bible’s role as part of an evolving theological and political discourse.
Although the Bible is often read as if it exists in isolation, the import of its stories cannot be fully grasped without an understanding of the pre-biblical literature and traditions that held sway at the time of its creation. The transition from paganism to a monotheistic, recognizably Jewish belief system played out over centuries, and the biblical canon encompasses dozens of individual campaigns to reinforce, suppress or transform pagan views and philosophies that were common in the ancient Middle East. Biblical scholars Shinan and Zakovitch (both of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) argue that many passages can be read as miniature polemics aimed at reinterpreting pre-existing legends in order to make them more compatible with a monotheistic theology. In closely argued and densely footnoted academic prose, the authors present 30 examples, from the reasons for eating matzah to the proper etiquette for relationships between men and women. In demonstrating how the Bible “actively argues against ancient traditions that were deemed unsuitable to the biblical writers for inclusion in their great work,” Shinan and Zakovitch paint a richly nuanced portrait of the biblical literature as an interlocutor in the debates of its day, but their language may alienate nonspecialist readers. Many points rely on a close reading of the Hebrew and Aramaic texts as well a familiarity with multiple modes of exegesis, and although capably translated, the book can be occasionally bewildering to those without the requisite background.
Not for general readers, but an illuminating, challenging look at the original significance of many of the Bible’s stories.