Off the shelf | Book reviews: unfamiliar tales of Bibles heroes

Every year when we return to reading Genesis, I like to revisit not only the Bible itself, but the continuing flow of insightful literature expounding on it. The following sampling of new books reflects the many ways of approaching this material, ranging from close reading of familiar text to venturing beyond the Bible we know.

In “David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory,” Jacob Wright offers provocative suggestions about the composition of the Bible and the history of ancient Israel. Wright, who teaches at Emory University, posits that the Books of Samuel reflect two narrative strands composed at different times — one telling the story of Saul’s rise and one relating David’s — that were sewn together many years later. As these two stories were merged, much of the best-known material from David’s life — such as his battle with Goliath or his relationship with Jonathan — was added in order to bridge them.

The reason for synthesizing the two disparate accounts is a political one — Wright holds that the original Davidic narrative had David ruling the southern territory of Judah, but not the northern lands of Israel. Generations later, it would behoove David’s descendants ruling in Jerusalem if they could call for a return to a unified Davidic kingdom of Israel and Judah — even if it may never have existed outside the text.

What interests me especially is the role that collective memory plays. Wright emphasizes the particular importance of war commemoration, with the many tales of battle during the reigns of Saul and David providing an opportunity to record different clans’ contributions and lack thereof.

Special attention is awarded to the connection between the figures of David and Caleb. Caleb, who plays a significant role in the Book of Joshua, is best known as the lone spy in the Book of Numbers who returned from the Promised Land with a positive report (and whose advice, if heeded, could have saved the Israelites decades of wandering in the desert). Wright demonstrates how the Calebites, a clan governing key territory in southern Judah, stood to benefit by having their ancestor remembered thus.

Rabbi David Wolpe’s new book, “David: The Divided Heart,” is a deeply felt exploration of why the story of David matters so much to us, regardless of its historical truth. As he explores David’s relationships with Samuel, Saul, the women in his life, his children and with God, Wolpe conveys how psychologically rich the figure of David is.

It’s an often unflattering picture, with much emphasis on sins and their consequences, as well as David’s penchant for using others to settle his scores. But Wolpe sees these very defects as what makes David apt for his religious role: “There is no character that begins to approach David for the plenitude of human expression and emotion. David fits as the ancestor of the Messiah precisely because of his weaknesses, his transgressions, his artifice, his divided heart. He is great because of his complexity, not in spite of it.”

If David is the Bible’s most fully realized characters, then Leah is one of the least so. Despite being mother to half the tribes of Israel, she has but two lines of spoken dialogue. In “The Lost Matriarch,” Jerry Rabow looks beyond the biblical text to the classical midrash to offer a detailed account of Leah and how she is viewed in the larger Jewish tradition.

This tour of midrash is rewarding (although I would have preferred more direct citations and less summarizing) and occasionally disturbing. An example of the latter occurs in association with the rape of Dinah by Shechem. Although Leah plays no role in this episode, the rabbis, many of whom problematically hold Dinah accountable for the sexual violation she experiences, latch onto the introductory words “Dinah the daughter of Leah … went out …” and cast aspersions on Leah by association.

Finally, in “The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor,” Joel Hoffman argues that the texts that did not make the cut for inclusion in the canonical Bible merit greater study and recognition than they receive.

Hoffman compares Jewish sacred literature to a museum in which some items get displayed prominently near the entrance, some are little seen in the back rooms and some are consigned to the archives, where they are forgotten. Such has been the fate of most of the texts Hoffman addresses.

Hoffman offers a good deal of context about the Bible’s development, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint (the first rendering of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, which also includes substantial variations). The most compelling portion for me is the more detailed introduction to a handful of pseudepigraphic texts — The Life of Adam and Eve, The Apocalypse of Abraham, and 1 Enoch — making a case that these books have much to say, and we should know them.

It’s a presentation for laypeople, and Hoffman’s engaging writing fits the task. The book is also a great complement to the monumental compendium “Outside the Bible,” published earlier this year, which makes accessible a huge array of Jewish texts from the biblical era that tend to receive little attention.

 

“The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor: The Holy Scriptures Missing From Your Bible” by Joel M. Hoffman (304 pages, St. Martin’s Press, $25.99)

“The Lost Matriarch: Finding Leah in the Bible and Midrash” by Jerry Rabow (264 pages, Jewish Publication Society, $22.95)

“David: The Divided Heart” by David Wolpe (176 pages, Yale University Press, $25)

“David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory” by Jacob L. Wright (284 pages, Cambridge University Press, $29.99)

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a project of LearningWorks, in San Francisco.  All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

 

 

Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.