Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Green, Deborah A. and Laura S. Lieber (eds.), Scriptural Exegesis: The Shapes of Culture and the Religious Imagination, Essays in Honour of Michael Fishbane (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). Pp. xiv+324. Hardcover. US$120.00. ISBN 978-0-19-920657-5.

Scriptural Exegesis: The Shapes of Culture and the Religious Imagination, Essays in Honour of Michael Fishbane honors the forty years Michael Fishbane has spent researching and teaching Jewish religious texts. Professor Fishbane taught at Brandeis University from 1969 to 1990, where he was Samuel Lane Professor of Jewish Religious History and Social Ethics. In 1990 he moved to the University of Chicago where he remains the Nathan Cummings Professor of Jewish Studies in the Divinity School and Professor of Biblical and Jewish Law in the University of Chicago Law School.

With the publication of Michael Fishbane's Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel in 1985, inner-biblical interpretation became an essential part of the education of students and academics of the Hebrew Bible.[1] In this award-winning volume, Fishbane examined instances of intentional embellishment, reapplication, revision, or reinterpretation of antecedent biblical sources by later biblical texts. He showed that the (re)interpretation of tradition was not just a post-biblical or post-canonical phenomenon, it was an inner-biblical phenomenon as well, widely practiced within the pages of the Hebrew Bible. Fishbane's work was grounded in comparative scribal practices in other ancient Near Eastern cultures and in early Judaism, revealing continuities in form and technique which span two millennia. Moreover, his examination of reuse was focused not just on exegetical practice but on the cultural mechanisms that permitted such reuse.[2] In his words, inner-biblical interpretation must pay particular attention to “how the texts that comprise [HB] were revised and even reauthorized during the course of many centuries, and how older traditions fostered new insights which, in turn, thickened the intertextual matrix of the culture and conditioned its imagination.”[3]

In his more recent work Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking, Fishbane widened his focus to examine the traditional and intellectual culture that not only permitted but encouraged the recreation of its textual heritage.[4] His attention shifted from specific texts to the traditions and motifs that are central to the Jewish religious imagination. In this work, Fishbane focused on two mythic motifs—God as Creator and the Divine Warrior—tracing their development from their origins in ancient Near Eastern myths, through the Hebrew Bible, the Rabbinic literature, and into Medieval Jewish literature, especially the Zohar. Fishbane's attention was not focused on the developmental arcs that these motifs took, so much as the cultural mechanisms by which they were constantly adapted and reconceptualized.

The essays in this volume, which build upon many of the trajectories in Fishbane's research and writing, are grouped into four units: “Part I. The Ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible: The Shape of the Text,” “Part II. Intertestamental, Postbiblical, and Rabbinic Literature: Reimagining the Text,” “Part III. The Medieval Period: A New Textual Imagination,” and “Part IV. The Modern Period: The Human and Divine in the Text.” I will summarize the argument and contribution of each of the first ten chapters (Parts I and II), which are of greatest relevance to the study of Hebrew Bible, and provide brief comments on the eight chapters that make up Parts III and IV.

The first section “Ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible” includes five chapters, which mainly take up methods and issues raised by Fishbane in Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel.

In the first essay, “Myth as historia divina and historia sacra” (pp. 13–24), Jan Assmann applies Fishbane's distinction between the “historia sacra of the people (the keynote of Scripture)” and the “historia divina of myth (the keynote of Midrash)”[5] to non-Israelite historical and mythological texts. He finds that historia sacra is not unique to Mosaic Judaism. Rather, the foundational myths of other peoples do serve as “representations of their specific normative past based upon: (a) a concept of connective justice or morality; (b) a notion of sacrality…and (c) and idea of promise” (p. 22). It is an appropriate essay to open the book. It signals that the collection will reach beyond the corpus of biblical literature, even beyond Jewish literature, just as Fishbane's work has implications that reach far beyond the worlds of biblical and Judaic studies.

Chapter 2, “The Neo-Assyrian Origins of the Canon Formula in Deuteronomy 13:1,” by Bernard M. Levinson (pp. 25–45) focuses on the so-called canon formula in Deut 13:1, “The entire word that I command, you shall take care to perform; you must neither add to it nor take away from it.” Levinson argues, compellingly, that there are previously unobserved parallels to Deut 13:1 in Neo-Assyrian literature. The uses of these parallel formulae argue against the position, popular among scholars of Deuteronomy, that 13:1 is a late gloss. Rather, Levinson argues that the verse is original to the chapter. He further demonstrates that Deut 4:2, which is often viewed as the source of 13:1, is actually an adaptation based upon the formula in 13:1.

In chapter 3, “Traditum and Traditio: The Case of Deuteronomy 17:14–20” (pp. 46–61), Ernst Nicholson argues that Deut 17:14–20, the kingship law, reflects the sentiments of a later glossator. This redactor placed an ominous prediction, couched as ordinance, on Moses' lips. This strategic gloss signalled the ‘keynote’ of the entire Deuteronomistic history. In the terminology of Michael Fishbane, “the text is evidence of a process of traditio at work on an inherited traditum that was now [in the exilic and post-exilic periods] in crisis” (p. 57).

Chapter 4 by Marc Zvi Brettler takes up the highly problematic Psalm 111 (“The Riddle of Psalm 111,” pp. 62–73). He argues against the majority view which sees the Psalm as a poetic précis of Israel's history, recited in a ritual context. Brettler contends, on literary and inner-biblical grounds, that the psalm should be understood as a “riddle psalm,” a type of previously unclassified Torah psalm. For example, Brettler sees in the phrase יראת יהוה in v 10 as an alliterative allusion to תורה. He further argues that its proper context was in education, used in schools to teach students (see בסוד ישׁרים ועדה in v 1), not in the Israelite cult. These considerations date the psalm well into the Second Temple period.

William M. Schniedewind's chapter, “Calling God Names: An Inner-biblical Approach to the Tetragrammaton” (chapter 5, pp. 74–86), reexamines the enigmatic etymologies of the Tetragrammaton suggested in Exod 3:15 and 6:3. “The social and intellectual history of the Jewish people,” he contends, “rather than a source-critical or etymological analysis, will provide the key to understanding the inner-biblical interpretation of the divine name” (p. 74). Schniedewind claims that the meaning of the name changed with the loss of the First Temple where God's “name” dwelt. When the temple was rebuilt, it was increasingly believed that God's physical presence inhabited the temple. The explanation of the name, אהיה אשׁר אהיה, then, was an interpretation of the Tetragrammaton that was intended to reassure the people of God's continuing presence.

The Second Section, “Intertestamental, Postbiblical, and Rabbinic Literature,” is also composed of five chapters. These offerings explore some of the ways that post-biblical texts reveal cultural and social ideologies and also transform long-held ideologies for new generations of religious Judaism. These essays build, in particular, upon proposals that Fishbane put forward in Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking.

In the first of these chapters, chapter 6, Israel Knohl examines different conceptions of the suffering servant figure in Isaiah, Daniel, and the Dead Sea Scrolls (“The Suffering Servant: From Isaiah to the Dead Sea Scrolls,” pp. 89–104). He argues that beginning in Isaiah we can observe a slackening in the rigid distinction between the living and the dead. The Servant rather than being cut off from God after death is divinely rewarded. Daniel predicts the same fate for the righteous (the “knowledgeable ones”), who are identified with the servant. The Hodayot go further, asserting the superiority of the servant—understood as an individual—over the angelic host and promising him divine exaltation after death. He concludes: “the idea of a heavenly suffering figure—unheard of in the Hebrew Bible—seems to have surfaced during the Intertestamental period at Qumran and, of course, became essential to the later figure of Jesus in the New Testament” (p. 100).

In chapter 7, Yehuda Liebes explores Ezekiel 1, 10 and Genesis 1 within the writings of Philo of Alexandria (“The Work of the Chariot and the Work of Creation as Mystical Teachings in Philo of Alexandria,” pp. 105–120). According to Liebes, Philo conceived of these texts as mystical deposits of esoteric knowledge, which should be concealed. Liebes's purpose is to draw lines of dependence and development between Philo's antecedents (e.g., Ben Sira) and the Hellenistic Jewish and Rabbinic authors who followed him, extending all the way to Kabalistic writers of the medieval period. This is a notable achievement, provided Liebes's arguments endure, inasmuch as Philo never mentions Ezekiel.

Chapter 8, by Joanna Weinberg, is entitled “A Rabbinic Disquisition of Leviticus 26:3–13: A Utopian Vision between Jews and Christians” (pp. 121–134). Weinberg searches for clues to an underlying social situation within the midrash Sifra on Leviticus. She detects within its contours the fruits of a Jewish-Christian debate on the corporality of God and the nature of the eschaton. The utopian future that emerges from the rabbinic interpretation of Leviticus 26 contains allusions to Christian themes, which affirm certain affinities between the eschatological hope of Jews and Christians, but which also suggest different notions of the divine. In addition, she observes that Christian thinkers noted these allusions, as evidenced by appeals to Sifra by medieval Christian interpreters like Pablo Christiani and Ramón Martí.

Building upon prior research, Marc Hirshman focuses his attention on the connection between the temple and the festal calendar in Pesikta dʾRav Kahana (chapter 9, “Yearning for Intimacy: Pesikta dʾRav Kahana and the Temple,” pp. 135–145).[6] Hirshman makes a compelling case that Rav Kahana was strategically designed to infuse the calendar with an appreciation of the temple and its rituals. As he says, Rav Kahana “is a remarkable effort to re-present the calendar of Jewish holidays and special Sabbaths as a testimony to the special intimacy enjoyed when sacred time is observed in the sacred space” (p. 141). Not only does this reading illumine the internal life the authors and readers of Rav Kahana, but it also throws considerable doubt upon current thinking about the historical context in which Pesikta dʾRav Kahana arose.

Chapter 10, “If the Text Had Not Been Written, It Could Not be Said” (pp. 146–161), by Moshe Halbertal explores the meaning and implicature of the locution “if the text had not been written, it could not be said,” which precedes a limited number of drashot (exegeses) in rabbinic literature.[7] Halbertal observes that this formula, though making a direct appeal to textual authority to defend the subsequent exegesis, is followed in every case by an exegesis that is highly creative and moves far beyond the simple meaning of the text. Halbertal detects within the exegeses offered under this formula a powerful evocation of Israel's yearning for God, which is expressed in unexpected images of powerlessness—as slave, wife, and victim. Halbertal's chapter is itself a moving articulation of the deep seated longing for God and temple that pervades rabbinic exegesis.

The third section, “The Medieval Period” contains six essays that investigate how Fishbane's work on myth and culture can bear fruit in the study of medieval philosophy, mysticism, and biblical exegesis. Kalman P. Bland, in “Cain, Abel, and Brutism” (chapter 11, pp. 165–85), explores the ways that Maimonides used Genesis 4 as a vehicle for expounding upon the bestial nature of humanity. In a highly suggestive essay, Elliot Wolfson shows that the authors of Zohar not only viewed their interpretations as revelatory (as did the rabbis before them), but they believed that their mystical experiences and interpretations were more elevated than comparable prophetic experiences (chapter 12, “‘Sage is Preferable to Prophet’: Revisioning Midrashic Imagination,” pp. 186–210). Always brilliant, Moshe Idel introduces readers to an unappreciated collection of thirteenth-century Ashkenazi biblical commentaries that are quite discernibly developed from Hekhalot (ascent) literature. Idel characterizes their phenomenological exegesis as “angelomagical” (“On Angels and Biblical Exegesis in Thirteenth-Century Ashkenaz,” chap. 13, pp. 211–244). Eli Yassif turns our attention to a fourteenth century magical-erotic novella contained within Eleazer ben-Asher ben-Levi's Sefer ha-Zikhronot (“Book of Memory”). Yassif derives the tropes and themes of the, seemingly original, novella from traditional literature of Jewish antiquity (chapter 14, “‘Virgil in the Basket’: Narrative as Hermeneutics in Hebrew Literature of the Middle Ages,” pp. 245–67). Gilbert Dahan's chapter examines the fate of the “fable” (a literary form that he contends is coextensive with “myth” and “aggadah”) within medieval Christianity. Christians, he asserts, adopted the mashal, “parable,” but rejected midrash, “fable” (chapter 15, “Fabula between μυθος and אגדה: Concerning Christian Exegesis during the Middle Ages,” pp. 268–280). Finally, in chapter 16, Bernard McGinn takes Fishbane's work on the reception history of the Song of Songs as his starting point to examine how Christian women read and received the Song in the twelfth century. He finds, on occasion, remarkable parallels to Jewish interpretation that can hardly be attributed to coincidence (“Women Reading the Song of Songs in the Christian Tradition,” pp. 281–296).

The fourth and final section, “The Modern Period,” includes two chapters. Both chapters further develop themes taken up in earlier essays (especially those of Liebes, Wolfson, Idel, and McGinn). Chapter 17, by Naftali Loewenthal, is entitled “Finding the Radiance in the Text: A Habad Hasidic Interpretation of the Exodus” (pp. 299–309). By means of one modern interpretation of the Exodus, Loewenthal, illustrates how Hasidic teachers experience the biblical text as a gateway to the mystical radiance. Paul Mendes-Flohr's essay, “Between Sensual and Heavenly Love: Franz Rosenzweig's reading of the Song of Songs” (chapter 18, pp. 310–318) then describes how one modern Jewish philosopher received and reflected upon the Song's union of themes of love and death, embodied in the refrain “love is strong as death.”

This is a remarkably rich and textured collection of essays. The breadth of their reach, from ancient near eastern scribal culture to modern Jewish mysticism, mirrors the interests and achievements of Michael Fishbane, whose erudition and research have touched all periods of biblical exegesis and Jewish culture. Biblical scholars will find implications and significances for their own work throughout these essays, no matter how far removed from the classical biblical disciplines. This volume is a fitting tribute to the genius of professor Fishbane—שיחיה לאורך ימים טובים ארוכים ושמחים.

William A. Tooman, University of St. Andrews

[1] Michael Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

[2] Michael Fishbane, “The Hebrew Bible and Exegetical Tradition,” in Intertextuality in Ugarit and Israel (ed. Johannes C. de Moor; Leiden: Brill, 1998), 15–30.

[3] Michael Fishbane, “Inner-biblical Exegesis: Types and Strategies of Interpretation in Ancient Israel,” in The Garments of Torah: Essays in Biblical Hermeneutics (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), 4.

[4] Michael Fishbane, Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[5] Fishbane, Biblical Myth, 134.

[6] Marc Hirschman, “Paidea and the Pesikta dʾRav Kahana,” in Higayon leYona J. Fraenkel Festschrift (ed. J. Levinson, J. Elbaum, and G. Hasan-Rokem; Jerusalem: Magnes, 2006), 165–78 [Hebrew].

[7] Halbertal's chapter complements Fishbane's own work on the formulae kivyakhol and ilmale, on which he wrote a lengthy appendix in his Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking (pp. 325–401; see also The Garments of Torah, 19–32).