Depth and possibility

Critical review for a textbook used in class. Formatted for Snowbunny.


Kariel Tejai
TH503E-A: Survey of the Hebrew Scriptures
October 29, 2017

With an attention-grabbing title, Marc Zvi Brettler’s How to Read the Jewish Bible [1] demands a potential reader’s sympathy to a form of literary analytical process described as the historical-critical method when engaging the Bible. [2] As an organized approach, [3] this method was subject to unfavourable discourse over the course of its development. [4] Brettler appeals to readers with a vivid testimonial, [5] underscoring his appreciation for the method in his understanding of the Bible. As a work composed for a non-specialist readership, [6] Brettler attempts to articulate an introductory testimony for the historical-critical method’s inherent asset for contemporary audience. [7] I present my assessment of Brettler’s design by sketching and commenting upon three examples drawn from this book. I chose these examples to illustrate three issues that may be of interest for my proximal context.

[1] Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Jewish Bible. (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[2] See Brettler, 7-8. Here is an overview of what the author denotes as “the Bible.”

[3] See Brettler, 1. This contains a differential description between approach and method. A method is an approach with defined and set tenets with rules.

[4] See Brettler, 4. One reaction to the historical-critical method was that it would deemed inappropriate, violation, and encroaching. This viewpoint arose from the observation that an outside body weighted on biased superiority developed this method.

[5] See Brettler, 1. The opinion presented is that the historical-critical method was helpful for his understanding of the Bible.

[6] See Brettler, xi. Here is a precursor to the author’s testimonial in note 5 above.

[7] See Brettler, 6. The author could be placing the historical-critical method here as a witness to note 6 above. He states that his work is for readers unfamiliar with historical-critical method.

Brettler uses masculine terms for God throughout, and asserts the validity of his choice for God’s subject-reference [8] by appealing to the historical-critical method. [9] “God” is rendered as male in the setting of the written Bible, and Brettler sought to emphasize the importance of sociocultural normative practices in a time before my own. Despite reasons and views to gender or non-gender “God” in post-biblical discourse, the method is stringent in its requirements for biblical exegesis. [10]

[8] “Subject-reference” here illustrates how God as the subject and noun is referenced without enquiring after the subject noun in question (i.e., “God”).

[9] Brettler., 294.

[10] Brettler., 3.

For the issue of discussing historicity, Brettler addresses a topic important to readers of The Book of Joshua. Biblical scholarship held that the Bible is for a literal and contemporary interpretation. This proves problematic when encountering Joshua and archaeological efforts to establish biblical historicity. [11] By effective wielding of his method, Brettler presents both parts of the historical-critical method to establish a synthesis. While Joshua cannot read for current knowledge as factual and accurate, the accounts inscribed within are important resources for examining how the powerful influence of tradition can shape and present new life for contemporary audiences. [12] The synthesis offered by the historical-critical method is that revision is not necessarily a detriment for understanding cultures and events beyond our ken, but rather an opportunity to examine growth rooted in change as renewal.

[11] Brettler., 96.

[12] See Brettler, 105. An argument here is that revision is a form of creativity permissible for Judaism to continue living.

The final example I propose for Brettler’s contention for his method of choice delineates his summarizing of The Song of Songs as interpreted down the passage of time. [13] Earlier, he related The Song to similar poetry in surrounding ancient cultures by brief examination of the poem’s ascribed genre. [14] Brettler details how The Song was popularized into an allegorical interpretation rather than aligned to the conventions of its day. This too, is an enthusiastic testament by him for the flexibility and depth of the historical-critical method.

[13] Brettler., 262-263.

[14] Brettler., 260-261.

This class intends to serve an introduction into the Hebrew Scriptures. Given that few of my cohort claimed intimacy with the Jewish Bible, the historical-critical method is a valuable tool and lens for reading and interpreting biblical texts that appear familiar and yet evidently were not for our mainline understanding. This book is, in my regard, an effective and thorough survey of a reading approach not ordinarily [15] employed by laypeople and non-specialists.

[15] See note 7 above.

For myself, I encountered this form of literary analysis by virtue of my undergraduate education and interest in psycholinguistics. I appreciated Brettler’s angle to tackling this method, and found his approach relatable and a building block for further inquiry.

My own approach to reading the Bible may be comparable to Brettler’s case for this book. As a female who rejects several notions of popular feminism, I am empathic to the rendering of God in the masculine. Such terminology does not deter my faith; holding respect for writers’ ideas passed down for my exploration enriches me. Brettler’s discussion maintains a view of mine to historicity – I do not take issue with reason as detrimental to faith. I am firmly entrenched in the ideal that these are complementary in duality, not in dualism. [16] An instance where I do differ from Brettler is his weighting of style. I read the Bible as a meditative experience when not engaged in a scholarly pursuit, and so retaining such depth in linguistic analysis overwhelms my enjoyment of the text. Likewise, if for my own purposes, being constantly mindful of how the Bible confluences for discourse and change in contemporary societies is exhausting. While I agree it is important, my approach to reading beyond academia is to engage the work as and for myself.

[16] Dualism, for me, relies on dichotomy that takes an “us versus them” stance. Duality, I perceive as holistic and not confrontational by approach.

This book is recommended by me for this class, and I strongly agree that Brettler’s discussion and summation of the historical-critical method is an asset, tool, and invaluable for this class. It carries a potential to reach past the course expectations by challenging perceptions and beliefs regarding cultures intra/interrelated to and/or beyond us. This is an important reflexive skill to carry forward into our relationships, studies, and being in worlds known and unknown to us.


  • Brettler, Marc Zvi. How to Read the Jewish Bible. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Jewish Publication Society. The Jewish Study Bible. 2nd Edition. Edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.