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Approaches to the Hebrew Bible

As I mentioned in my past few posts, I am in the process of reading as many as I can of Western Civilization’s Great Books as part of a project to improve my own writing. For the moment, I am trying to read the books in the order they were written–the idea being that, since later works build on the ideas of earlier works, the books will make more sense in order. Having just finished the works of Homer, I am now moving into the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament or the Tanakh. Although parts of the Hebrew Bible are based on oral traditions going back to the dawn of Mesopotamian civilization, scribes probably began editing the Hebrew Bible into its present form around the time of the Babylonian Captivity, which began in 597 BCE. Thus, it is newer than Homer, but older than any of the writing of Classical Greece. The reason that I will refer to it as the Hebrew Bible is because, while at least four major world religions accept it as inspired scripture, they all have their own names for it. The Hebrew Bible is a neutral term because everyone agrees that it was written in Hebrew.

By Bejinhan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Hebrew Sefer Torah.  [Wikimedia Commons.  User: Bejinhan (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 ]

There are several different approaches that we can take when we read a sacred text like the Bible, based on what we seek to gain from the experience and how that text fits into our own belief system. I think it’s appropriate to use this post to give a brief overview. I should mention that I am not a Bible scholar myself. Furthermore, this whole series of articles is about how different books fit into the Western literary tradition and how they are relevant for modern writers, not about theology or comparative religion, so my perspective will naturally be different someone blogging about bible study or spirituality.

The first way to read the Bible is literally. Many people all over the world consider the bible to be the literal word of God, as dictated to various prophets. These people are likely to take a very topical approach to reading the bible. For instance, if they had a question about “marriage” they would probably look up several passages that mentioned marriage and see what the bible says on the subject. From a literary or philosophic point of view, this is a rather shallow level of reading and analysis, but for many people, that is not the point.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must mention that I am a member of the Episcopalian church. Like all Anglicans, we believe that the bible is divinely inspired and that it is the ultimate source of all of church doctrine. We do not believe, however, that it should necessarily be taken literally. The majority of us, for example, accept the theory of evolution and interpret the creation stories in Genesis in a metaphorical sense. My church also teaches that each individual needs to rely on his or her own powers of reason and the inspiration of the holy spirit to come to a personal understanding of scripture, and that scripture should be viewed in the context of the writings of the early church fathers and the liturgical traditions of the church. I do not, however, wish to disparage biblical literalists or imply that there view not valid.

This viewpoint goes hand in hand with the next major approach to reading sacred texts, which tries to go beyond what the words literally say and find out what they mean.  This requires study and analysis of the historical context and the use of figurative language, allegory, and symbolic imagery. While this approach is mainstream today, it is actually fairly new. It was first articulated by Baruch Spinoza in his Theologico-Political Treatise. When the book was first published, in 1670, it was so revolutionary that it provoked a firestorm of reactionary criticism. Today it is barely read because many of Spinoza’s points seem like such commonplaces. Needless to say, we will be talking about Spinoza more in the future.

Theological-Political Treatise [Public Domain via Wikimedia]

Theological-Political Treatise [Public Domain via Wikimedia]

The next major approach is scholarly analysis of the text itself. Word choices and writing styles of the texts are analyzed in the original language and used to theorize about how the texts have been edited or combined over time. Thus, we now believe that that Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers were compiled from at least three earlier sources by an anonymous editor, usually referred to as “J”. Interestingly, at least some experts believe that “J” was a woman.. If this is true, then J was probably the most influential female editor in the history of the world. This field has exploded in the past century as archeology discovered several very early biblical manuscripts. The best known of these finds is the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The last approach to reading the Bible, and the one of most interest to us as writers, is to study it as a work of literature, using the tools of literary criticism. A brilliant example of this in action is the book God: A Biography, which won Jack Miles a Pulitzer prize in 1996. In this book, which I am currently reading, Miles, a literary critic, analyzes God as the main character in a story which follows the traditional Jewish order for the books in the Hebrew Bible.  While his his major analysis is literary, Miles introduces many fascinating insights from the first three approaches along the way. He argues that the main theme of the bible is that God created mankind in his own image and that mankind becomes more like god over time. God, however, is also a character who changes and develops over time and seems affected by his relationship with mankind.

God: A Biography Cover Image

Now that this introduction is out of the way, I will be back in a few days to write about particular sections of the Hebrew Bible, starting with the first five books, known to Christians as the Pentateuch and Jews as the Torah.