Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 6 (2006) - Review

Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005). Pp. xiv + 384. Cloth, US$35.00. ISBN 0-8276-0775-X.

The current work represents a fine addition to the growing number of introductions to the Hebrew Bible. Three primary objectives for this volume are outlined by the author. Foremost, it is intended as an introduction to the historical-critical method of studying the Hebrew Bible. As such, this book is both a general introduction to the contents of the Hebrew Bible and a guide for the reader into the way that it would have been understood by its ancient writers and readers. Second, this book is written for a lay audience, either for a general reader or college student. Third, this work is intended to be a “Jewishly sensitive” study of the Hebrew Bible. In this sense, Brettler is attempting to alleviate much of the consternation demonstrated by traditional Judaism toward critical biblical studies. In delineating these three objectives, Brettler has outlined an ambitious task, which, as he notes, has no predecessors.

As an introduction to the Hebrew Bible, this work is exceptional in its method and lucid in its presentation. Brettler consciously does not attempt to write a comprehensive survey of all the issues involved in the critical study of the various books of the Hebrew Bible. Thus, for example, one does not find a full discussion of source critical analysis of each biblical book as one normally encounters in an introductory textbook. Although the book claims at the outset not to cover the entire Hebrew Bible, the overwhelming majority of the biblical books are treated to some degree (only Numbers, most of the Twelve Minor Prophets and Lamentations are missing). To be sure, some books are treated in greater detail, with more attention to details commonly found in introductory textbooks. For example, Chapter 5 contains a general introduction to source criticism of Genesis and the Torah, yet the chapter on Daniel (Chapter 21) contains very little treatment of its compositional layers.

Brettler is primarily interested in providing his reader with a guide to understanding the Hebrew Bible in its original historical and cultural context. In order to appreciate the Hebrew Bible both as its authors intended and as would an ancient Israelite, one must be able to decipher its culturally-bound ideas and institutions. This book is intended as a statement on Brettler's methodology for doing so, where each chapter serves as an illustrative example.

Let us look at one such example—the two creation stories in Genesis 1-3, which are treated in Chapter 6. Most modern readers without any sensitivity to the original cultural context of Genesis 1-3 would assume that these chapters constitute a scientific statement on the origins of the world. Brettler, however, asserts that Genesis 1-3 was never intended as science, but should rather be understood as myth, in the sense that it is a story that transmits “something of collective importance” to the culture that produced it. After identifying the correct context and genre for Genesis 1-3, Brettler proceeds to decipher its meaning by careful analysis of the literary structure, poetic elements, vocabulary, and the divergent presentations of humans and God in Gen 1-2:4a and 2:4b-3:24. All of these elements, Brettler argues, were deliberately constructed in order to present a specific understanding of God, humanity, and the world. The remainder of the book contains a series of similar close readings of specific biblical texts. Throughout, modest space is afforded to insight gained from comparative ancient Near Eastern literature (I find it curious, however, why Enuma Elish is never mentioned in the discussion of Genesis 1-3).

Brettler certainly knows his target audience well. This book works well for either the curious lay reader or as an undergraduate textbook (with much to offer the scholar as well). Text is provided in translation, though sometimes together with Hebrew and transliteration if grammatical points are discussed. Endnotes are kept to a minimum and a bibliography of English works cited and subject index are included. Instructors who are hesitant to assign this book for introductory Hebrew Bible courses on account of the presumed limitation in scope are advised that Brettler has for the most part struck a good balance in dedicating a reasonable amount of space to the discussion of general critical issues for each biblical book.

It is more difficult to assess how well this work fulfils Brettler's goal to write a “Jewishly sensitive” book. This is primarily because Brettler never outlines what he means by this rubric. To be sure, there are numerous elements in the presentation that are directed toward a Jewish audience. For example, the canonical order of the Tanakh is followed (with the exception of Chronicles), the New Jewish Publication Society translation is the default translation, traditional Jewish terminology is commonly employed (i.e., Torah rather than Pentateuch, Bible = Hebrew Bible), discussion of biblical law and cult (Chapters 8-10) is fuller than in most similar textbooks and reference to rabbinic interpretations and medieval Jewish exegesis is common. In addition, Brettler displays a heightened sensitivity to the fact that most readers will likely possess certain traditional assumptions about the Hebrew Bible. These features make the book very approachable to a Jewish audience, who would find them familiar and comfortable. Yet, such a reader must already possess a sympathetic attitude toward critical biblical studies. Many more traditional Jews would not share Brettler's claim that such an approach is compatible with traditional Judaism, let alone is “religiously constructive” (p. 5). This book is highly recommended for both of these potential readers, though I am afraid it might not find much of an audience in the second group. Brettler is at the forefront of providing a forum for Jewish exposition of the Hebrew Bible intended for a Jewish audience (see the Jewish Study Bible [Jewish Publication Society: 2004]). The present works represents another successful venture, while simultaneously offering a carefully crafted introductory textbook that will be accessible to all readers.

Alex Jassen, University of Minnesota