Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

Nahum M. Sarna, Studies in Biblical Interpretation (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2000), xxvi + 452 pp., ISBN: 0-8276-06893, $ 39.95.

There is no need to establish the important contribution Nahum Sarna has made to biblical scholarship, and therefore no need to justify the publication of this collection of essays. Indeed, there is no more to do than offer thanks to the Jewish Publication Society for including this volume in its JPS Scholar of Distinction Series, an honor well-suited for Sarna. As Sarna himself notes in the preface, "it is in the nature of the enterprise that a scholar's life work is mostly dispersed in learned journals and is, in the main, not accessible to the intelligent and interested non-scholar" (p. xxii). JPS has done a service for scholars and lay people alike by making available this fine collection.

Jeffrey Tigay's concise yet illuminating forward aptly situates Sarna in the context of twentieth century biblical studies, and in particular demonstrates his leadership in modern Jewish biblical scholarship. Tigay will help the unfamiliar reader understand the creative school of Jewish scholarship that skillfully combines ancient Near Eastern studies with the rich history of Jewish exegesis to produce a thoroughly modern (or perhaps postmodern) hermeneutical tradition that despite its solid grounding in modernity is nonetheless indebted to the work of so-called "pre-critical" exegetes. Sarna is one of the greatest Jewish American scholars in the tradition, as this volume aptly demonstrates.

Depending on one's familiarity with Sarna's work, the reader will either discover or revisit many seminal insights that have become standard knowledge in biblical studies. For example, in "Paganism and Biblical Judaism" (1977) Sarna demonstrates that the biblical writers were well acquainted with ancient Near Eastern literature from beyond the land of Israel and were in fact engaged in a polemic discourse against these other traditions, a point taken up splendidly in Sarna's masterful Understanding Genesis. Such examples abound in this collection of essays spanning four decades of influential scholarship.

The title of this book, Studies in Biblical Interpretation, is appropriately vague and at the same time comprehensive. Collected here are essays on a wide range of topics of biblical studies from fine examples of biblical exegesis, reflections on the art of interpretation itself and the rich history of this practice in the Jewish tradition, textual criticism, biblical history, and comparative ancient Near Eastern studies. These essays also reveal Sarna as a pioneering biblical theologian, though he--like many Jews of his time--did not refer to himself as such. Divided into four sections--a section of general essays, and three sections of essays devoted to the three divisions of the canon--this volume will be a valuable resource for a variety of readers.

In light of the wide array of essays included in this anthology, it will suffice to note the primary highlights. I have already mentioned the fine essay on "Paganism and Biblical Judaism." In "The Biblical Sources for the History of the Monarchy" (1979), we have an early discussion of the highly contentious issue of First Temple period historiography, in which Sarna points out that the paucity of information from this period is due to selective editing, not lack of available sources. Historiography such as this is a theological act, interpreting history as the realm of God's divine revelation. "The Authority and Interpretation of Scripture in Jewish Tradition" (1987), a concise introduction to the basic contours and principles of Jewish exegesis, is particularly insightful regarding problematic issues posed by modern critical scholarship and the ways these were anticipated and uniquely engaged by the Sages. "Hebrew and Bible Studies in Medieval Spain" (1964; 1971) is a helpful guide through this important chapter of Jewish history and a lucid discussion of medieval hermeneutics. Included also are short introductions to Rashi and ibn Ezra, and also the non-medieval Abraham Geiger. There is a fascinating article co-authored with Sarna's son on "Jewish Bible Scholarship and Translations in the United States" (1988). As much a part of this subject as a commentator on it, "Writing a Commentary on the Torah" (1990) provides some interesting reflections on Sarna's experience with the JPS Commentary. Beyond these essays, there are several more specific exegetical works on a variety of texts including Genesis, 1 Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Psalms, and Job.

The editorial supplements to this collection are exceptional and should serve as a standard for other volumes of this type. Included at the end of the book are a bibliography of Sarna's publications, a list of biblical passages cited, and a topical index. These last two indices are rarities in collected works such as this and the editors deserve special recognition for the inclusion.

Like all of Sarna's writing, this volume is highly accessible. Although he writes in a popular style, the erudition of his scholarship is evident on every page. The seasoned scholar, the new student, and the interested lay person will all find something of value in this collection. Snapshots of the history of contemporary biblical studies which will continue to have lasting significance, this book is a testament to a truly great figure in the field. It is also an inspiration for those interested in the creative combination of critical philology, ancient Near Eastern studies, the history of exegesis, and biblical theology into a coherent, accessible, and practical biblical hermeneutic.

John W. Vest
University of Chicago