Should people just take off and study the Bible on their own? A lot of people are doing just that, of course. You seem to have had success working independently.
There's the idea that you don't really need an intermediary to interpret the Bible for you, you can do it yourself. It's a Protestant idea, and I think it's true in many cases, if you read very carefully.
Your book indicates that modern biblical scholars don't always take into account the psychology of Bible characters.
Absolutely, especially if the Bible characters are women. I found it almost shocking, certainly annoying, to see how ignored women are by the majority of Bible scholars. It's true that the men are far more important in the Bible than women are. They're the heroes of the situation, but women are nevertheless involved. It seemed to me that women were ignored except as a partner for the men, a foil for the men.
Latterly, there have been women Bible scholars and they do pay attention to the biblical women. But I don't like their work, because in it, women were without fault. Every woman that the scholars looked at was just better than the next. I said, "This can't be." The men in the Bible are shown to be sly, conniving, lying, cheating, but the women are without fault? I don't think so!In your readings, you work out that women are often behaving very shrewdly, for their own ends--sometimes meritorious ends, sometimes not so meritorious.
I wanted to paint both men and women as having warts. I consider myself a feminist, but not the kind who says the men are always wrong and the women are always right. Otherwise, they're just too good to be true, and If they're not true, they're not there. Let's have life the way it is.You spend a lot of time trying to think like the characters, trying to get into their head space.
Exactly. I try to drop the 21st century. I try to think, "How would a person feel if that happened to them?" And then I try to feel that way, and when I do, I can better understand the characters, men and women.
In my book there's a chapter called "Take my wife, please." Three times in the Bible, twice with Abraham, once with Isaac, it happens that they're in a country where they fear the ruler will kill them because the ruler desires their beautiful wife. To save their own lives, they say to their wives, "If anyone asks about you, say that you're my sister." They do this so that if the ruler wants the woman, he doesn't have to kill the man to get her. She can be taken for a payoff.
I thought about it. It's true that no ruler has ever desired me (laughs). But twice it's happened that my husband and I have been dining out, and a man at a different winked at me repeatedly. Such that I had to say to my husband, "there's a man over there winking at me." I don't know what I expected my husband to do, and I'm sure his life didn't feel threatened. But I do know that I did not expect him to walk over to the man and say "You want her? You can have her."
Or "She's my sister."
Right. Once you're married, there's some possessorship, some obligation that develops. When Abraham said yeah, you can have her, she's my sister, and the king gave him a lot of oxen or whatever, I think those women felt bad. So when I realized that, I thought "I wonder how they made their husbands pay." Because in the economy of marriage, you don't just forget about things like this.
When I looked at the text from that point of view, I could see not only how the women made them pay, but how the people they tricked made them pay--in one case, the Egyptians, in another, the Philistines. I could see how that trick worked out on the domestic level and national level. Also, I could see how it worked on the literary level. I understood why all three stories were necessary., It's very difficult to make people believe that this incident happened three times.
When you're just reading the Bible you do think, along with the source critics, that "uh oh, there must have been just several sources, and they were all put together. The redactor didn't feel competent to privilege any one over the other, so he threw in all three of these stories." But I worked it out that all three stories were necessary. It's like a game of 3-D chess: how players move on the top chess board also affects how they move on the second and third board. The three stories work together as a device. And I could understand why source critics were at a loss to explain why three different, but so similar, stories were included. The Bible's author has such a brilliant and subtle mind
You give the author a great deal of credit. In some places, you take issue with the notion that the Bible's author was just a bumpkin incapable of sophisticated stylistic devices like foreshadowing.
Absolutely. The more people look at the Bible, the more they see. It's just so brilliant. I'm in love with it.
Are there passages where you haven't been able to explain what seems like very crude writing, where you say "that must be a scribal error"?
I never say that. I say "I must be such a cluck."
There are passages where I say "I don't understand this but I don't really care so much"--a war scene or whatever. And there are passages where I say "I don't understand this yet, but maybe someday something will happen in my life that will resonate, and I'll say 'Oh, that's what that meant.'"
I do think my explanations cover more of the ground without relying on scribal errors or saying, "this must be by a different author. "
No. Repetition is one of the Bible's favorite devices. So I'll stick with a text until I see an answer. I just don't feel that this author can be brilliant 99.44% of the time and yet speak gobblydegook the other 0.56%.
So you never blame problems on dual authorship?
I never do. I agree that the entire Bible was not written by the same author. But whoever did it was super-attentive. So if there are passages that look difficult, they're difficult! Let's figure 'em out. It's too easy a way out to dismiss the problem and say "oh, it must be a different author." If you're going to say that, then there are no problems in the Bible.
You fill in plot gaps by suggesting motives for biblical characters. For example, you say that Joseph's brothers may have disobediently gone to a "town of ill repute"--an ancient equivalent of Las Vegas--and then tried to get rid of Joseph so Joseph wouldn't tell on them. Do any critics say you are relying too much on your imagination to fill in the gaps?
I do have plenty of people who don't agree with me, but if they say "You imagined this," I always feel I have enough logical evidence in any particular essay to back it up what I've said. For example, in Joseph story, Joseph is introduced with the words that he's a tattletale. Then, if you don't agree with my conclusion, you wouldn't see any tattling involved [later in the story]. The author tells us he's a tattletale and then drops it.
But if you agree that the brothers were afraid that Joseph would tell where he found them, and that the father was not expecting them to be there because it was a different place than where the father sent them, then the tattling is part and parcel of the story. The tattling is important because it shows the brothers' motivation.
Another proof--what I consider a proof--that makes me think I'm right about the Las Vegas notion is, why else have the brothers be where they're not supposed to be? When an author tells a story, he wants it to be a good story. And if the author moves the brothers from Shechem to Dotham for no reason, and introduces a whole new character in order to effect that (whoever that unnamed man is who tells Joseph "your brothers aren't here, they're someplace else") -why would you even need to bring in somebody unless the location of the brothers is an important plot device?
The medieval Jewish interpretation, Midrash, often relies on very fanciful explanations. They're darling, but I don't like to use them. I don't like to do that. I like to have backup in the text. I like to feel that I am truly reading the lines, not between the lines, not my own fancy or predilections. I want to stick to what the author says or what he omits, because sometimes the author omits things on purpose and we're meant to notice that.
When Abraham takes Isaac to the mountain to sacrifice him. Abraham takes wood, a knife, and fire to light the wood. Isaac says, "Daddy, how come you've taken wood and fire, but there's no animal to sacrifice?" Note that Isaac says "the wood and the fire," and he omits the word 'knife.' The professor presenting this to me--this wasn't my idea--says Isaac is already scared and can't bring himself to say 'knife.'
That's very psychologically intense.
This author, you know he's good. You know he doesn't leave out anything by mistake. If the word 'knife' is left out on purpose, why is it left out? And when you realize why, the story becomes so much more poignant. When you know that Isaac knows why they're going up that hill and what's going to be sacrificed, and his father knows that he knows. His father also hears him leave out the word 'knife.' It's just so sad.
What are other stylistic devices that most people aren't aware of?
Again, repetition. A lot of translations--not the KJV, fortunately--try to get away from repetition, because in English you don't want to use "he said, he said" over and over. You want to say "he sputtered," "he shouted," to make it interesting.
But when the modern translations do that, it obscures what the Bible is doing. The Bible will say "he said, he said, he said" and then something like "he nodded." When you get that change after so many "he said"s, you sit up and pay attention. So that's one of the uses of repetition.
In the Witch of Endor story (read Reis' exegesis), the witch tells King Saul "if you will set your life in my hands, I will 'set' a morsel of food before you." Later, in the same cooking context, there's the word 'set' again. It appears about three times. Then, when she actually has the food all ready, she doesn't "set" it before them, she "offers" it to them.
You mention that the word "offers" is the same verb used with sacrifices.
Yes, you "offer" a sacrifice. It's also the same Hebrew word when women offer themselves. It has a sexual connotation, like prostitution. I'm not saying she did that. I'm just saying here we have "set, set, set," and then a very loaded word.
As an example of omission in that same story: there are three verbs used to describe the witch preparing the bread, and no words used to describe her preparing the meat, and I point out that the meat was probably raw.
Which was, of course, not allowed.
Certainly not kosher. You're not allowed to eat blood. I point out an earlier example of Abraham and Sarah--three strange men come to them, and the meat and bread are prepared using the same amount of verbs for each. To me, that absence just sings out. But to other Bible scholars--and I don't consider myself a real Bible scholar--it just seems to slip by. One very famous one, John Fokkelman, says "the witch busies herself with roasting the meat." And I think to myself, where did he get that "roasting"? Because it's just not there at all in the original Hebrew.
Right. I think both of those things.
What advice do you have for Americans who are not scholars, and won't be learning Hebrew any time soon, but want to understand the Bible?
My advice is to choose your translation very carefully. I prefer the King James Version.
You're going to be very popular with some Beliefnet members.
And unpopular with others (laughs). The Jewish Publication Society came out fairly recently (1985) with a new version that gets rid of all the repetition, and I don't like it at all. But the old JPS version, which was printed in 1917, is almost exactly like the KJV. It's not 100% perfect, but so much better than any other. Every translation is an interpretation, but this one doesn't overinterpret the Bible. My book talks about the supposed rape of Tamar--that story has been very poorly translated.
Anything else Bible readers should keep in mind?
Read slowly. Really slowly. It's hard to notice what's not there if you're zipping through. If you read slowly, over and over, you notice little tiny changes. Different things pop out at you. It's like reading a poem: the most possible meaning in the fewest possible words. Every word is packed and important.