Question Authority: Who Rewrote the Bible?

The Dialogue Between Tamar and Judah, With Scribal Commentary Marked

Last year, I chanted the story of Judah and Tamar; my partner Sarah chanted the preceding chapter. The Tamar story interrupts the larger Joseph narrative, splitting the brothers’ betrayal from Joseph’s experience in Egypt. Though the narratives are independent – and indeed the Tamar story appears as a bizarre interpolation – Sarah noticed a neat link. When Tamar confronts Judah with “the signet, and the cords, and the staff” – his guarantees of payment for their sex – she says “recognize please” (haker-na) (Gen. 38:25); Joseph’s brothers use that exact phrase that when presenting his bloody cloak to Jacob (Gen. 37:32). To emphasize the repetition, I chanted my haker-na loudly and slowly, as did she.

At the time, we did not recognize the repeated haker-na’s role in a contemporary debate over how to read the Bible. Writing in Commentary in 1975, Robert Alter had used the Tamar story to exemplify a “literary approach” to the Bible. He notes other similarities between the two narratives – in language, plot, character, and theme. At the start of the Tamar story, Judah “goes down” (an odd locution, perhaps), paralleling Joseph’s being “brought down” to Egypt in 39:1. Thematically, Joseph’s future eclipse of his older brothers mirrors the death of Judah’s first-born sons; Jacob’s emotional reaction to his son’s ostensible death registers ironically against Judah’s stoicism on recognizing Tamar’s claim, and so on. When read together, the stories’ protagonists become full human figures, with complex psychological motivations.

But may we use these parallels to read the Tamar and Joseph stories together? Responding in 2007, James Kugel argued that we may not. According to Kugel, most scholars think, the Judah story is “an etiological tale [for the Perezites and Zerahites] that circulated on its own before being inserted in its present location,” with a narrative logic entirely distinct from the Joseph story. Because the narratives are independent (and thus overlap chronologically and contradict each other), the redactor, confronted with both stories, was forced to insert the Tamar story into the middle of the Joseph saga. The verbal repetitions are therefore coincidence, and we should read the interruption as the redactor’s attempt to create a smooth chronology – not as a subversive, pseudo-Shakespearian subplot. Kugel sees literary methods as an attempt to ignore modern scholarship and maintain the Bible’s traditional religious value; critics like Alter want to “have their Bible and criticize it too.”

Alter, though writing thirty years earlier, anticipates Kugel’s position and criticizes it, claiming to show “the limitations of conventional biblical scholarship even at its best.” He quietly concedes that the Tamar and Joseph stories come from different sources; indeed, he chastises Meir Sternberg – his “strong predecessor” as a literary reader of the Bible – for treating the text “as though it were a unitary production just like a modern novel that is entirely conceived and executed by a single independent writer… [ignoring] what historical scholarship has taught us about the… development of the biblical text and about its frequently composite nature.” For Alter, what the original authors intended is irrelevant; his reading shows that the redactor, who combined the sources, paid careful attention to the various literary subtleties. Reading Genesis for literary effects leads us to see the Bible’s compilation not as “some automatic mechanism of interpolating traditional materials but of careful splicing of sources by a brilliant literary artist.”

Indeed, the redactor is the central figure for both Alter and Kugel; he authorizes their interpretations. Alter’s redactor is an artist: therefore, we must read the Bible as art. Kugel’s redactor’s “highest priority was to preserve all surviving traditions about Israel’s ancestors and organize them into a single, chronologically ordered history” – which is to say, he was a dispassionate scholar – and thus we must read the Bible as a work of scholarship.

These two visions of authorship encode subtle and distinct conservatisms. Alter’s analysis of the Bible as a single compiled narrative doesn’t necessarily imply a unitary, artist redactor. Texts from the same cultural context – even those whose authors do not know each other – often use the same word, theme, character, or plot. When read against each other, these uses seem ironic, playful, and more interesting than each source on its own. There is no hermeneutic reason why the complex character of Judah cannot be the result of two conflicting political pressures: the J narrative, being pro-Southern, glorifies Judah, while the interruption, which may be Northern, shames him. Read together, the two stories show different sides of a shared communal myth; different polities contending over a shared narrative.

The reading doesn’t require an author; Alter requires an author, for reasons of his own. In another Commentary essay, “Scripture and Culture,” Alter attacks “feminists, Marxists, [and] deconstructionists,” who can be distinguished by their “Question Authority” bumper stickers (this was, after all, Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary), and their shrill insistence upon the role of politics and ideology in forming literary canon. Alter prefers to see literature as a distinct, autonomous sphere of culture, whose timeless concerns are above political influence. Their attacks threaten the canon “from Dante to Milton to Dostoevsky to T.S. Eliot,” not only – not even primarily – the Bible: “progressive spirits are fighting the good fight to break down the barriers of canon, displace major with minor, and let in the excluded from below and beyond.”

Rescuing the Bible is a central project of Alter’s kulturekampf. The “leftist” criticism is sticky for a “literary” Bible, because the Bible explicitly announces commitments to various political and ideological systems and because the history of its interpretation is the most ideologically charged in Western literature. If the Bible’s authority can be rescued, John Donne’s will be no trouble.

Alter’s solution? Replacing God’s authority with human authorship, he short-changes the specifically normative parts of the Bible. Alter’s serious scholarship on the Pentateuch focuses on Genesis; his insights on Deuteronomy and Leviticus are both rarer and weaker. “The literary analyst,” he writes, “though he should certainly be aware of the differences of ancient mind-set and ancient literary procedures, presupposes a deep continuity of human experience that makes the concerns of the ancient text directly accessible to him.” Tell that to the author of an elaborate code on menstrual purity or injunctions to kill Canaanites.

Alter’s Bible, to be sure, “addresses itself to our political, moral, and religious predicaments,” but it is under no pressure from those predicaments. It is ontologically prior, and is best interpreted without reference to them : “Literary analysis,” he explains, “brackets the question of history.” Emphasizing the Bible’s ironies and ambivalences distracts from its ideological messages; the more a text hems and haws, the harder it is to pin it to a single agenda. Claiming that the redactor is interested mainly in character renders the text psychological and emotional – not social or political; and demanding its meaning (as opposed to its sources) be the product of a single redactor reinstates its authority over its readers.

In his analysis of Tamar, Alter argues that the literary parallels show “a complex moral and psychological realism” on the part of the redactor. He doesn’t need that claim to read the Tamar and Joseph stories as powerful intertexts; he does need it for his larger cultural project.

Kugel also wants to parry pluralistic, socially-conscious readings of the Bible, but he does so by claiming that the historical Bible has no relevance to our lives. Insisting upon authorial intention, he rejects the attempt to “connect all that modern scholarship knows about the putative original meaning of the text with [scholars’] own religious practice or ideas … ecology and global warming, gay rights, and a good deal more.” Modern Biblical scholarship, like “today’s Homeric scholarship, or Shakespearean scholarship, or all sorts of other pursuits in the humanities,” aims to understand the text in its historical context, which has no bearing on its meaning today. Unsurprisingly, Kugel is especially fond of “etiological narratives,” which give the origin of various features of the Biblical world. His hermeneutic always points backwards.

Of course, many Shakespeare scholars do not work this way, and why should they? Kugel historicizes the Bible, and suggests that “apologists” who want both historical and contemporary meaning have ulterior motives. He derives meaning from these motives; the Bible has a particular political agenda with reference to its historical context, the “apologists” with reference to theirs. Only the academic “will to truth” remains unanalyzed, a still, small voice amidst the thunder of polemic: it is taken for granted as an objective way of reading. Kugel criticizes the New Criticism’s claim that interpretation is independent of authorial intent by noting that to interpret without context requires a belief in “just one standard way of approaching a text, one set of assumptions that all readers brought to the act of reading.” True, but this argument applies not only to the New Criticism, but to Kugel’s hermeneutics. If we may choose from many methods for interpreting a text, why should we choose the academic method?

Not just a motivational problem, this lacuna in Kugel’s argument threatens its success on its own hermeneutic terms. To support his claim that the redactor did not “not care very much about the resulting subtle or not-so-subtle resemblances between one episode and the next in this history,” Kugel lists repetitions or inconsistencies in Bereishit’s narrative logic, for instance “Abraham passing off Sarah as his sister twice in quite separate, but oddly similar, episodes (Genesis 12 and 20) and Isaac acting likewise in yet a third.” But Alter claims that the redactor reads sources together in terms of character, language and theme, not – or not exclusively – to create logical coherency. Kugel assumes that if the redactor is not concerned that the achoti-at (you are my sister) narrative repeats, it follows that he is not concerned with the subtle links between those stories. But if the redactor worked from pre-existing sources, much of his innovation was in juxtaposing multiple versions of a single story. Wouldn’t such a redactor often be interested in literary meaning precisely at the expense of narrative sequence? Kugel’s inference holds for the diligent archival scholar, primarily concerned with the integrity and reliability of the text he reads and the coherence and careful logic of the papers he writes. But a two-thousand year old redactor?

The argument depends, then, upon reading Kugel’s present back into the text – the very thing against which he protests, for interpretation can never – as he argues – be freed from a particular historical context. But it’s not fair to historicize every theory except for historicism. In the end, one cannot escape the question: what authorizes Kugel’s readings?

Let me tell a better story, starting, as do Kugel and Alter, with the redactor.  Since he was neither an artist nor a scholar – nor necessarily an individual – I will call them scribes. There is an important distinction between scribes and authors: as scholars of early modern English literature have argued, the fixed, unitary relationship between authorial intent and meaning which Kugel and Alter assume seems more natural in a culture of print than in one of manuscripts. When you receive a print book, you receive a finished product, which you consume passively – though you may scribble in the margins or excise passages, you basically cannot alter the text, which comes into being before you read it.

Not so in manuscript cultures. Because copies are always scarce, scribes are always recopying – rewriting – the texts that they read. The text is not final or fixed; your handwritten copy does not look any less finished than mine. Because the tradition is uncertain, scribes learn to read critically and carefully, and their reading and writing are wholly intertwined. They constantly balanced the received textual tradition against what their reason suggested that original must have been, weighing past tradition against the logic of the present.

Scribes empower us to think of our relationship to sacred texts as dialogical. Take the story of Tamar’s trope, which evolved over roughly a millennium, and was fixed – a thousand years after the text was supposedly completed – by the tenth- and eleventh-century Masoretic scribes. Trope sometimes subtly comments on the portion: the commentary on the Tamar story is quite striking. Paired tropes (pashta, zakef gadol, and revii) mark each of three vayomer/vatomer (he said/she said) pairs. The Masoretes are plainly emphasizing the dialogue between Judah and Tamar. Why? Perhaps to showcase the Pentateuch’s richest exchange between a man and a woman.

In any case, the Masoretes offered a good model for Sarah and me. We were reading in a “partnership” minyan (prayer service), which has a mechitza, a barrier between men and woman, but strives to “maximize the participation of women and men all in accordance with a traditional halakhic framework.” Many of its members come from communities in which only men chant from the Torah. Thus we were chanting in a place in which the relationship between men and women is an obvious, central issue. Also, we were partners, learning our readings together.

Sarah and I did not discover meaning; we created meaning. Not out of whole cloth – had we, say, pronounced words incorrectly to pun anew, we would have been corrected. Every interpretive encounter takes place in a community and thus has norms. Still, we had choices within those rules. Our interpretation was itself a dialogue between our choices and the text as fixed by communal norms. Neither autonomous speakers nor subservient hearers, we were at once reading and rewriting our text.

Faulkner, in Absalom, Absalom, writes of a yearned-for “marriage of speaking and hearing,” a moment of pure, revelatory, unmediated communication. If biblical criticism is to be theologically useful, it must be in stressing that our text is a “partnership of writing and reading,” freed both of the implicit gender binary (male active speaker/female passive hearer), and of the idea of revelation as a single speech act. At the end of Genesis 38, Tamar bears two sons:

And it came to pass, when she travailed, that one put out a hand; and the midwife took and bound upon his hand a scarlet thread, saying: ‘This came out first.’ And it came to pass, as he drew back his hand, that, behold his brother came out; and she said: ‘Wherefore hast thou made a breach for thyself?’ Therefore his name was called Perez. And afterward came out his brother, that had the scarlet thread upon his hand; and his name was called Zerah.

We can afford neither to obsess over textual origins nor to fetishize their final form. The honest reading will not only make a breach for itself in the text, but also recognize the repressed thread when it returns from the past.

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4 Responses to Question Authority: Who Rewrote the Bible?

  1. Sarah says:

    Aw, you took out the silly joke about the crossroads. (See what a careful/self-centered reader I am!)

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Question Authority: Who Rewrote the Bible? | Like Them that Dream -- Topsy.com

  3. Pingback: The Alter of Beowulf | Raphael Magarik

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