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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776

How to Read the Jewish Bible

By Marc Zvi Brettler

How to Read the Jewish Bible
By Marc Zvi Brettler
Oxford University Press

Discussion Guide by Steven Steinbock, RJE


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    How to Read the Jewish Bible discusses the major sections, genres, and themes of the Hebrew Bible using an historical-critical approach, which means, according to author Marc Brettler, “[r]eading the text independently of religious or interpretative traditions” (such as Rabbinic or Christian interpretations). Instead, Brettler suggests approaching a text from the historical context in which it was written. He also proposes to consider biblical themes from a “Jewishly sensitive” perspective, avoiding terminology and interpretations that do not put forward a Jewish understanding.

    About the Author
    Marc Zvi Brettler teaches at Brandeis University, where he is the Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies and chair of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. His main areas of specialization include religious metaphors and the Bible, biblical historical texts and women and the Bible. He is the author of The Book of Judges: Old Testament Readings (2001), Biblical Hebrew for Students of Modern Hebrew (2001), The Creation of History in Ancient Israel (1995), and God is King: Understanding an Israelite Metaphor (1989).

    Overview of Book
    The twenty-seven chapters of How to Read the Jewish Bible are organized into sub-headings listed below, as are the discussion questions that follow.

    I. Overview Preface Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4
    II. Interpreting Genesis Chapters 5, 6, 7
    III. Law and the Establishment of Israel in Canaan Chapters 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14
    IV. Prophecy Chapters 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21
    V. Wisdom and Poetry Chapters 22, 23, 24, 25, 26
    VI. Conclusions Chapter 27, Afterword

    Discussion Topics and Questions


    1. What is the historical-critical approach that Brettler espouses? How does it differ from the classic Rabbinic method of reading the Bible?

    2. Brettler explains, “This book attempts to understand the Bible as it was understood in the periods in which its books were first written and read...” (page 19). To what extent do you think Brettler was successful in achieving this goal?

    3. How far back does Jewish history go? Brettler suggests that “there is no Egyptian evidence” that Israelite tribes ever lived in that country. Explore other opinions as put forward by Brettler. An interesting debate on this topic can be found on the Biblical Archeology Review website.

    Interpreting Genesis

    1. Read Brettler’s explanation of the concept and role of myth (pages 38-40). Brettler also discussed this subject in his 2006 interview with Terri Gross on the NPR radio program “Fresh Air.” He explained, “Myth is a very problematic word. I really wish that I could find a better term to use. But when I read the Bible as myth I don’t read it as myth in the sense that many Americans think of a myth as silly story or something that should not be believed in, but rather as a story that is attempting to charter fundamental values of a society. I try to understand what these values are.” What do you consider a myth? In your opinion, what is the difference between a myth and a falsehood?

    2. Brettler contends that most Western readings of biblical stories are based on misconceptions of the text. Discuss the “dearly held views” of the Garden of Eden story, Genesis 2:4b-3:24, as an example (pages 45-47). What themes and ideas about the standard interpretations of this story does Brettler reject? What meaning can we draw from the story?

    Law and the Establishment of Israel in Canaan

    1. What did biblical law mean to biblical Israelites? (pages 61-63). How does this compare to the role and meaning of modern civil law in the twenty-first century? What, then, is the role of biblical law for twenty-first century Jews?

    2. Look closely at the Decalogue on page 64. How would you rewrite these thirteen verses into ten “utterances”? Discuss the options, and then compare the traditional Jewish Ten Commandments with the Christian Decalogue.

    3. Read the two versions of the Shabbat mitzvah on page 65. Copy the page and highlight the differences between the versions. How do you account for the differences? Do the two versions seem to represent two different approaches to the mitzvah of Shabbat? Do the two complement each other?

    4. Brettler points out that the conquest stories in the Books of Joshua and Judges are problematic for modern readers because of their militaristic content. Yet as Brettler suggests, if the “complete, total, and swift” military conquest of Canaan was exaggerated, and the so-called conquest was largely peaceful and gradual, why did biblical writers “modify history”? How might our reading of and attitude toward stories of military strength differ from those who lived in biblical times?


    1. Chapters 15 through 21 of How to Read the Jewish Bible explore biblical prophecy. Brettler points out that the prophetic books are “often read as a predictive text—a work intended to foretell the future” (page 149). In today’s common usage, the word “prophesy” is usually a synonym for “predict” or “foretell.” According to Brettler, how did the ancient Israelites understand these texts?

    2. In Brettler’s view, how did the concepts of the terms “Messiah” and “apocalypse” evolve, as reflected in the prophetic tradition? Identify the characteristics of these terms in the Books of Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.

    3. How did the threat, experience, or memory of exile shape the prophetic writers? What social, cultural, political or theological insights did they bring from these experiences?

    Wisdom and Poetry

    1. How is the concept of “Wisdom” approached in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes? What central messages are the biblical authors trying to convey in the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job?

    2. How do the Books of Ruth and Esther portray women and foreigners and their roles in ancient Israelite society? Are the attitudes toward women and foreigners in these books consistent with the attitudes expressed in other books of the Bible?

    Further Reading and Resources:

    Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, Michael Fishbine, The Jewish Study Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003)

    Marc Zvi Brettler, The Book of Judges: Old Testament Readings . (London: Routledge, 2001)

    ------- The Creation of History in Ancient Israel . (London: Routledge Press, 1995)

    ------- God is King: Understanding an Israelite Metaphor, Supplement to the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 76. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989)

    Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York: Schocken Books, 1970)

    ------- Exploring Exodus (New York: Schocken Books, 1986)

    ------- On the Book of Psalms (New York: Schocken Books, 1993)

    Brettler's website contains links to many tools, books, and lists.

    In January 2006, Terry Gross interviewed Brettler for the National Public Radio and WHYY program, “Fresh Air.” At the Fresh Air website you can find an excerpt from the book, as well as a link to hear the interview.

    Steven Steinbock, a graduate of the HUC-JIR Rhea Hirsch School of Education, is the author of several books published by the URJ Press, the most recent being These Words Upon My Heart, A Lexicon of Judaism and World Religions.

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