The JPS Bible Commentary on Exodus: Sarna Does it Again

JPS Torah ExodusI’ve come to Nahum Sarna’s JPS Torah Commentary on Exodus with high expectations. His Genesis volume in that series is one of the best commentaries I’ve read (on any book of the Bible).

So far, after spending long periods of my last Sabbath with the book, it’s lived up to expectations.

While I work on a review of the full volume, here are a couple compelling sections of Sarna’s commentary on the 10 plagues:

The present narrative is a sophisticated and symmetric literary structure with a pattern of three groups each comprising three plagues. The climactic tenth plague possesses a character all its own. The first two afflictions in each triad are forewarned; the last always strikes suddenly, unannounced. Furthermore, in the case of the first, fourth, and seventh plagues Pharaoh is informed in the morning and Moses is told to “station” himself before the king, whereas in the second of each series Moses is told to “come in before Pharaoh,” that is, to confront him in the palace. Finally, in the first triad of plagues it is always Aaron who is the effective agent; in the third, it is always Moses.

Having this literary outline in mind made me really appreciate the narrative artistry of Exodus in a way I might have otherwise missed.

Not only does Sarna offer expert literary analysis, his writing itself is lucid and reads more like a compelling novel than what you might expect from a technical commentary. That Chaim Potok is the literary editor of the JPS Torah Commentary does not hurt, either! It shows.

Sarna strikes an interesting balance between (a) reading the plagues as God’s using natural events and (b) reading the plagues as purely supernatural. Regardless of how the reader understands the text in this regard, Sarna highlights the theological import of the plagues:

The controlling purpose behind this literary architecture is to emphasize the idea that the nine plagues are not random vicissitudes of nature; although they are natural disasters, they are the deliberate and purposeful acts of divine will–their intent being retributive, coercive, and educative. As God’s judgments on Egypt for the enslavement of the Israelites, they are meant to crush Pharaoh’s resistance to their liberation. They are to demonstrate to Egypt the impotence of its gods and, by contrast, the incomparability of YHVH, God of Israel, as the one supreme sovereign God of Creation, who uses the phenomena of the natural order for His own purposes.

Plague by plague Sarna returns to this theme and draws it out.

I’m 12 chapters in (out of 40) and am appreciating Sarna’s wisdom on Exodus as much as his excellent work on Genesis. More to follow.

 


Many thanks to the folks at University of Nebraska Press/Jewish Publication Society for sending me the copy of the Exodus commentary for review. The book’s JPS product page is here; you can order it through Nebraska Press here. Find it on Amazon here.

Prefer an electronic edition? Accordance has the JPS Torah Commentary here.

Debate: The Lifeblood of Judaism, a “Holy Act”

Phenomenology of SpiritEver since reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in my undergrad days, I’ve often considered the world through the lens of Hegel’s dialectic. Plus, I always thought (and still think, if my sermon yesterday is an indication) it sounded really cool to talk about the “Hegelian dialectic” at work in the world. Yes, a little pretentious, too.

Dialecticophile that I am, I resonate with Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz’s idea that in Judaism, debate (thesis/antithesis) is “more than a valued intellectual exercise…. it is a holy act.”

What a refreshing outlook for anyone who grew up in religious settings that discouraged asking questions!

Schwartz’s Judaism’s Great Debates: Timeless Controversies from Abraham to Herzl (Jewish Publication Society, 2012) considers 10 debates in Judaism. He splits the book into three sections: Biblical Judaism, Rabbinic Judaism, and Modern Judaism. The 10 debates he considers are far-ranging: theological, ethical, legal, spiritual, and sociopolitical.

Here’s the publisher’s description of the book:

Ever since Abraham’s famous argument with God, Judaism has been full of debate. Moses and Korah, David and Nathan, Hillel and Shammai, the Vilna Gaon and the Ba’al Shem Tov, Spinoza and the Amsterdam Rabbis . . . the list goes on. Jews debate justice, authority, inclusion, spirituality, resistance, evolution, Zionism, and more. No wonder that Judaism cherishes the expression machloket l’shem shamayim, “an argument for the sake of heaven.”

Judaism's Great DebatesEach of the 10 debates comes to a head with a question that Schwartz considers. For example, the conflict between David and Nathan in chapter 4 considers the question, “Does Might Make Right? The Debate over Accountability and Morality.”

Schwartz helps the debates come alive by blending direct quotes from the Hebrew Bible or other primary source (in italics) with his own “added dialogue” (in regular print). As reluctant as a Bible-lover like myself might be to see words added to a biblical story, Schwartz does this with great reverence and care, in a way that really draws out the characters.

David, in Schwartz’s rendition of Nathan’s calling him out in 2 Samuel 11-12, for example, says, “What are you talking about? I am the king!”

That same chapter refers to prophets as those who “speak truth to power.” Schwartz puts it well:

The prophets were equal-opportunity gadflies; they clashed with kings and countrymen alike.

Issues for modern-day Judaism are included here, too–whether full inclusion of women (as in the Reform movement) or whether holiness is individually ascribed or somehow taken on by osmosis as member of a community. Each debate includes coverage of its original context (“the basic historical backdrop”), content (with emphasis on primary sources), and continuity (“how they echo throughout Jewish history”).

Judaism’s Great Debates would be great for a class or small group setting. Its reflection and discussion questions on p. 99 and following are thought-provoking and much better-written than most discussion questions at the back of a short book like this. (Any Palestinian Jews or Christians reading this book will probably be put off by what come across as pointed questions like, “Are civilians who aid terrorists innocent and deserving of noncombatant immunity?” and, “Should Israel negotiate with sworn terrorist organizations?”)

One other drawback (and the drawbacks are few) is the appearance of typos and some errant punctuation marks every few pages or so. This does not detract, though, from the overall high quality of the writing.

Anyone who wants to know more about Judaism–or anyone with a religious background of any type–will appreciate Schwartz’s boldness, even if it’s alarming:

Abraham’s bold challenge of God for the sake of justice was the first Jewish debate. Generations would look back at the founder of the Jewish people and follow his example. If Abraham argued, so should we. If Abraham had the courage to challenge God, so should we. If Abraham stood up for justice, so should we.

I would love to hear Rabbi Schwartz treat how we hold that reality in tension with the story of Job, whom God does not seem to appreciate being challenged by. That would be an interesting debate to have!

Here‘s an excerpt from the book. I found myself making a lot of pencil notes in the margins, which is a good sign of a book’s ability to engage its readers! It’s a book well worth reading and thinking through.

Thanks to the Jewish Publication Society for the review copy of the book! You can find Judaism’s Great Debates here at the publisher’s page or here at Amazon. See also my book note on the JPS Torah Commentary volume on Genesis, and my review of the JPS Commentary on Jonah.

The JPS Bible Commentary on Jonah

Jonah JPS CommentaryNahum Sarna’s JPS Torah Commentary on Genesis is easily one of the best three commentaries I’ve read on any book of the Bible. I’d put it up there with R.T. France’s Mark commentary, a technical and detailed commentary of which I read every word–France is that good, and so is Sarna.

So as I geared up to preach on Jonah during Advent (see some of the results of that unlikely pairing here), I wanted the JPS Bible Commentary in hand. It’s by Uriel Simon, professor emeritus at Bar Ilan University in Israel, where he also directed the school’s Institute for the History of Jewish Research. Dr. Simon aims for a similar approach to the one that made me appreciate Sarna’s Genesis commentary so much. In the Preface Simon writes:

The present commentary has been written under the sign of a dual commitment: academic rigor, which aims at uncovering the original meaning of the Book of Jonah; and a Jewish commitment to Scripture as the taproot of our national existence and wellspring of our religious life.

The commentary is not very long. The Preface and thorough Introduction make up 38 pages. The commentary itself has 46 pages, followed by a four-page bibliography. Each page in the commentary includes the Hebrew text, an author-modified version of the New JPS translation, and Simon’s comment on passages, verses, and individual words and phrases.

 

Simon’s Introduction to Jonah

 

The Introduction begins with a treatment of the book’s theme(s), as well as its history of interpretation. Simon realizes that he “stands on the shoulders of his predecessors,” and gives the reader a nice lay of the land of Jewish/rabinnical exegesis up to the current day. (You can read a good summary version of Simon’s treatments of potential themes in Jonah here.)

I disagree with Simon’s dismissal of “Universalism versus Particularism” as a possible uniting theme for Jonah. He does not think Jonah symbolizes Israel, “and Nineveh does not symbolize the gentile world.” Of course, it is my being a Christian (as Simon would expect) that contributes to this read, but neither did I think Simon’s case against the gentiles as anything more than just “supporting characters” was compelling. I don’t think Jonah has to symbolize Israel–and the book doesn’t even have to be an indictment against God’s chosen–for the text to still have “panhumanist connotations” of the extension of God’s mercy to all people (even vile oppressors of the innocent!).

I do find the author compelling, though, when he speaks of the “Compassion: Justice versus Mercy” motif as one that is “compatible with the entire narrative from beginning to end and encompasses most of its elements.” Simon explains:

Jonah foresaw both the submission of the evildoers of Nineveh, terrified by their impending destruction, and the acceptance of their repentance by the merciful God; but he was totally wrong to believe that he would be allowed to escape to Tarshish. Subsequent surprises undermine his pretense to knowledge‑-the fish that saves him from death but imprisons him in its belly until he gives up his flight and begins to pray; and the plant that saves him from his distress but vanishes as suddenly as it appeared, so that he can feel the pain of loss and open his heart to understand the Creator’s love for His creatures. Only when the proponent of strict justice realizes his own humanity can he understand the fundamental dependence of mortals on human and divine mercy.

The Introduction also treats Jonah’s place in the canon, its literary genre and features, structure (it’s got “seven scenes”), style, links to other biblical books, vocabulary, date of writing, textual history (there is an “excellent state of preservation of the text”), and a section on the unity of the book and its prayer/psalm in Jonah 2. I’m not totally opposed (in theory) to Simon’s idea that the prayer of that chapter was a later addition, but its absence of “confession and an appeal for forgiveness” don’t have to make it an interpolation–it could just point more to the character of Jonah, in all its complexities and with all his foibles.

Regarding the historicity of Jonah and the large fish (which is “really external to the [meaning of the] story” itself), Simon has a great insight:

The repentance of the Ninevites, from a psychological standpoint, is less plausible than the physical possibility of the miracles that happened to Jonah. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the Bible. What is more, their repentance, unlike miracles, cannot be ascribed to divine intervention, because it is emphatically described as a human action (3:10).

 

 The Commentary Proper

 

The questions that arise as one reads the text (reprinted in the commentary in Hebrew and English) so often seem to be the ones that Simon answers. Regarding “Nineveh, that great city” in Jonah 1:2, Simon gives historical background, but only insofar as it serves Jonah’s literary purposes:

Nineveh’s size is mentioned, not to emphasize the difficulty of the task, but to highlight its importance–as is the size of the city, so is the magnitude of its wickedness….

The reader, in other words, will find just about anything needed to profitably make her or his way through Jonah.

Like Sarna does for Genesis, Simon goes in depth with Hebrew word meanings in a way that even a non-Hebrew reader will (usually) be able to understand. For example, when the king of Nineveh calls that city to repentance in Jonah 3:7, Simon comments:

In the hif’il (causative), z-‘-q generally means “call to an assembly, muster” (e.g., Judg 4:10; 2 Sam 20:5). Here, though, it means to “proclaim or spread a message”…. The narrator probably selected this verb to reinforce the formal linkage with what took place on the ship–in view of the danger of foundering the sailors cried out to their gods (1:5), while the king of Nineveh had the criers (cf. Dan 3:4) cry out the message of repentance for his subjects to hear.

Simon highlights little nuances readers might miss: the “great fish” of Jonah 2:1 echoes the “great city” (1:2), “great wind” (1:4), and the sailors’ “great fear” (1:10). Everything in Jonah is big–and therefore important–it seems.

There’s more in this well-written and carefully-prepared commentary that deserves further engagement, but this review is already long enough. Don’t be fooled by the commentary’s low page count–its stated 52 pages do not include the nearly 40-page introduction. That may still feel short for a commentary on four chapters of Scripture, but it’s as substantive as most readers will need. If you’re working your way through Jonah, Simon’s JPS commentary is one of three or four you should make sure to use.

 

Many thanks to the folks at University of Nebraska Press/Jewish Publication Society for sending me the copy of the Jonah commentary for review. The book’s JPS product page is here; you can order it through Nebraska Press here. Find it on Amazon here.

Göttingen Septuagint (Genesis): Lexus of the LXX

 

The Wire Season 4

 

Man say if you wanna shoot nails, this here the Cadillac, man.
He mean Lexus, but he ain’t know it.

–Snoop to Chris, Season 4, Episode 1, The Wire

 

Having recently re-watched the fourth season of the best television show in history, I need now to amend my assessment two years ago that the Göttingen Septuagint is the Cadillac of Septuagint editions. It’s the Lexus of the LXX.

 

The Göttingen Septuagint

 

Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht in Göttingen, Germany publishes the Göttingen Septuagint, more formally known as Septuaginta: Vetus Testamentum Graecum Auctoritate Academiae Scientiarum Gottingensis editum.

The series of critical texts with apparatus spans more than 20 volumes and covers some 40 biblical books (counting the minor prophets as 12), with more continuing to appear.

But, as I remarked two years ago when I confused Cadillacs and Lexuses, the Göttingen Septuagint is not for the faint of heart, or for the reader who is unwilling to put some serious work in to understanding the layout of the edition and its critical apparatuses.

 

The Contributions of John William Wevers

 

Enter John William Wevers. If Göttingen is the Lexus of LXX editions, Wevers is its chief mechanic. His Notes on the Greek texts of the Pentateuch–though provisional in nature, Wevers intimated–remain some of the best resources for carefully studying the Septuagint. And his Text Histories on those same books (now free online, thanks to the Göttingen Septuaginta-Unternehmen) guide the reader through the transmission of the Greek text in its various manuscripts.

Better yet, before his passing Wevers translated much of his own Göttingen-Pentateuch introductions from German into English. That enduring gift can be found here.

 

Göttingen-Genesis

 

 

Published in 1974, Wevers’s Genesis includes a 70+-page introduction, Wevers’s reconstructed Greek text of Genesis, and two critical apparatuses at the bottom of each page that highlight readings from various manuscripts.

The introduction includes these sections:

  1. The Textual Witnesses (Greek and other versions)
  2. The Text History (“Here only information necessary for the use of this edition is given”)
  3. Re: This Edition
  4. Signs and Abbreviations

A challenge to using the Genesis volume is the scarcity of material available about the Göttingen project in general. Further, the introduction is in German and the critical apparatuses contain Greek, abbreviated Greek, and abbreviated Latin. A few things come in handy:

  • Wevers’s Genesis introduction is here in English.
  • As for deciphering the apparatus and abbreviations, Wevers offers such a key in the introduction, and the print edition comes with a handy insert (in German and Latin, but not unusable to those without command of those languages)
  • Miles Van Pelt has made available his own two-page summary of sigla and abbreviations (here as PDF).
  • Seeing the need, I wrote a two-part primer (here and here, two of my most-visited posts on this blog) to reading and understanding the Göttingen Septuagint–the focus was largely on Genesis, and I draw on those posts for what follows

So equipped, the reader (whether she or he knows German or not) is ready to work through the Greek text itself.

 

Tour of a Page

 

Instead of using a text based on an actual manuscript (as BHS, based on the Leningrad Codex, does), the Göttingen Septuagint utilizes a reconstructed text based on a thorough examination of evidence from manuscripts and translations.

Because it is an editio maior and not an editio minor like Rahlfs, any page can have just a few lines of actual biblical text, with the rest being taken up by the apparatuses. Here’s a sample page from Genesis 1 (image used by permission).

Note the #s 1-4 that I’ve added to highlight the different parts of a page.

 

Page reproduction by permission of publisher (annotations are mine)

 

1. The reconstructed Greek critical text (“Der kritische Text”)

With verse references in both the margin and in the body of the text, the top portion of each page of the Göttingen Septuagint is the editorially reconstructed text of each biblical book. In the page from Genesis 1 above, you’ll notice that the text includes punctuation, accents, and breathing marks.

Regarding the critical text itself, Wevers writes in the Genesis introduction:

Since it must be presupposed that this text will be standard for a long time, the stance taken by the editor over against the critical text was intentionally conservative. In general conjectures were avoided, even though it might be expected that future recognition would possibly confirm such conjectures.

 

2. The Source List (“Kopfleiste”)

 

The Kopfleiste comes just below the text and above the apparatuses in Genesis. Wevers notes it as a list of all manuscripts and versions used, listed in the order that they appear in the apparatus on that page. A fragmentary textual witness is enclosed in parenthesis.

 

3. and 4. Critical Apparatuses (“Apparat I” and “Apparat II”)

The critical apparatuses are where the user of Göttingen can see other readings as they compare with the critically reconstructed text. Because the Göttingen editions are critical/eclectic texts, no single manuscript will match the text of the Göttingen Septuagint.

The first critical apparatus will be familiar in its aims to readers of BHS. Regarding the second apparatus, Wevers writes:

In view of the fact that the materials presented in the second apparatus [are] not at least in theory a collection of variants within the LXX tradition, but rather one such of readings from other traditions, especially from the “three”, which have influenced the LXX tradition, these readings are given in full.

“The three,” sometimes referred to in Greek as οι γ’, are the texts of Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion.

In other words–there is virtually no stone unturned here in the quest to reconstruct a Greek text of Genesis.

 

Concluding Evaluation

 

Serious work in Septuagint studies uses the Göttingen text, where available, as a base. Wevers’s scholarship and care for the text is clear as one makes her or his way through the Genesis volume. It’s the starting place for studying the Greek text of Genesis.

Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht’s production of the book is stellar, too. It’s got a sewn binding and is beautifully constructed–built to last and look good on the shelf, or in your hands:

 

Goettingen Genesis

 

You can find the volume here at V & R’s site, and here at Amazon. ISD distributes the book, as well, and carries it here.

 

Many thanks to V & R for the review copy of this fine work, given to me with no expectation as to the content of my review. Find more V & R blog posts here.

New Hebrew Reader’s Bible: 50% Off at ETS, SBL/AAR

BHS Reader's Edition

 

Hendrickson has published a new Hebrew Reader’s Bible. (See more here.) They’ve also posted a sample pdf online, which features the book of Obadiah (good choice!).

You order now through CBD or Amazon… OR… if you want it at 50% off, you can go to Hendrickson’s booth at the upcoming ETS (booth 222) and SBL/AAR (booth 718) conferences, and find it in its two different bindings, priced at $29.97 (from $59.95 retail) and $39.97 (from $79.95).

Conference Prices on Some Hebrew Language Gems from Eisenbrauns

This month Eisenbrauns has a sale on my favorite series of theirs: Linguistic Studies in Ancient West Semitic (LSAWS). These titles are not often on sale, and you can rarely (if ever) find a cheaper copy of anything here, even if used via Amazon.

I highlight two volumes:

Word Order in the Biblical Hebrew Finite Clause, by Adina Moshavi

 

Moshavi Hebrew Word OrderMany of Moshavi’s examples come from Genesis, which make them easy to understand, as she is mostly using a narrative/historical text for purposes of illustration. I’ve read 75 pages (closely) and found the book both substantive and easy to understand.

Here is the publisher’s description:

Over the last 40 years, the study of word-order variation has become a prominent and fruitful field of research. Researchers of linguistic typology have found that every language permits a variety of word-order constructions, with subject, verb, and objects occupying varying positions relative to each other. It is frequently possible to classify one of the word orders as the basic or unmarked order and the others as marked.

Moshavi’s study investigates word order in the finite nonsubordinate clause in classical Biblical Hebrew. A common marked construction in this type of clause is the preposing construction, in which a subject, object, or adverbial is placed before the verb. In this work, Moshavi formally distinguishes preposing from other marked and unmarked constructions and explores the distribution of these constructions in Biblical Hebrew. She carries out a contextual analysis of a sample (the book of Genesis) of preposed clauses in order to determine the pragmatic functions that preposing may express. Moshavi’s thesis is that the majority of preposed clauses can be classified as one of two syntactic-pragmatic constructions: focusing or topicalization.

This meticulous yet approachable study will be useful both to students of Biblical Hebrew and to persons doing general study of syntax, especially those interested in the connection between linguistic form and pragmatic meaning.

 

Phonology and Morphology of Biblical Hebrew, by Joshua Blau

 

Blau Phonology and MorphologyI haven’t read as much of this one, but is it ever detailed! It’s an excellent reference tool to look up and learn why Hebrew words are formed the way they are, and how each little part (morpheme) of a word comes into being and functions. Easily worth the $39 sale price.

From the publisher:

More than 80 years have passed since Bauer and Leander’s historical grammar of Biblical Hebrew was published, and many advances in comparative historical grammar have been made during the interim. Joshua Blau, who has for much of his life been associated with the Academy of the Hebrew Language in Jerusalem, has during the past half century studied, collected data, and written frequently on various aspects of the Hebrew language.

Phonology and Morphology of Biblical Hebrew had its origins in an introduction to Biblical Hebrew first written some 40 years ago; it has now been translated from Modern Hebrew, thoroughly revised and updated, and it distills a lifetime of knowledge of the topic. The book begins with a 60-page introduction that locates Biblical Hebrew in the Semitic family of languages. It then discusses various approaches to categorization and classification, introduces and discusses various linguistic approaches and features that are necessary to the discussion, and provides a background to the way that linguists approach a language such as Biblical Hebrew—all of which will be useful to students who have taken first-year Hebrew as well those who have studied Biblical Hebrew extensively but have not been introduced to linguistic study of the topic.

After a brief discussion of phonetics, the main portion of the book is devoted to phonology and to morphology. In the section on phonology, Blau provides complete coverage of the consonant and vowel systems of Biblical Hebrew and of the factors that have affected both systems. In the section on morphology, he discusses the parts of speech (pronouns, verbs, nouns, numerals) and includes brief comments on the prepositions and waw. The historical processes affecting each feature are explained as Blau progresses through the various sections. The book concludes with a complete set of paradigms and extensive indexes.

Blau’s recognized preeminence as a Hebraist and Arabist as well as his understanding of language change have converged in the production of this volume to provide an invaluable tool for the comparative and historical study of Biblical Hebrew phonology and morphology.

 

Access the sale here. The two volumes above–and some other really good titles–are available at the best discounts you’re likely to find.

From Scratch and Sniff Chip ‘N’ Dale to Jacob’s Travels

Scratch and Sniff feature available in iOS 9 only
Scratch and Sniff feature available in iOS 9 only

 

I had a “scratch and sniff” Chip ‘N’ Dale Rescue Rangers Spanish-language comic book when I first learned Spanish in high school.

I know–I can’t believe I just started a post with that sentence, either.

Silly as it was, the comic was an enjoyable way for me to practice reading a new language. I kept it for way too long and only in the last couple years threw it out. (The “sniff” of the front cover had long since stopped working.)

I’ve tried to step up my efforts lately in improving my biblical Hebrew reading, especially as I preach through Genesis in church. My now seven-year-old son has at times joined me in our Hebrew-learning adventures, always at his request. Most recently we worked together to review EKS Publishing’s enjoyable and accessible First Hebrew Primer.

Og the Terrible may be the more apt Hebrew-learning comparison to my Spanish-language Chip ‘N’ Dale comic. Og appears in a series of adventures featuring Prayerbook Hebrew and a dragon. (Might the Jewish/Christian apostle Paul have said Og helped the Scripture to be fire-breathed?)

JacobsTravelsCoverI’ve not read Og (yet!), but EKS Publishing has a series of Hebrew and English children’s books revolving around biblical characters.

The one at left–Jacob’s Travels–has been on our bookshelf for some time. We return to it on a fairly regular basis, sometimes reading the Hebrew text slowly, sometimes just reading the book in its English translation.

The back cover describes the book:

Jacob’s Travels begins and ends with Jacob encountering the Divine. This retelling of the story from Genesis, told in Hebrew and English, is a reminder of God’s constant presence in our lives. At a time when he feels most alone, this realization brings Jacob great comfort, inspiring one of the most memorable lines in the Bible: “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!”

The translation is smooth and readable, with a more “literal” translation in the back of the book for those learning Hebrew. There’s also a glossary at the back for those who want to steer clear of the English and see how well they can do with just the Hebrew.

The book is probably better geared toward older children or even Hebrew-learning adults, as there is a high text-to-picture ratio.

It’s fun to read, though, and certainly more edifying than (no offense) the Rescue Rangers.

You can find the book here (Amazon) or here (EKS Publishing). EKS’s other children’s books are here.

2 Exceptional Jewish Commentaries on Genesis, Part 2: The Torah: A Modern Commentary

This fall I’m preaching through Genesis. Two Jewish commentaries have been exceedingly helpful and illuminating as I prepare each week. Yesterday I praised Nahum M. Sarna’s Genesis (JPS Torah Commentary). Here I highlight another commentary I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading.

 

2. The Torah: A Modern Commentary

 

Torah Modern CommentaryLike the JPS Torah Commentary, the Modern Commentary includes the Hebrew text (with pointed vowels and cantillation marks) and English translation. Most of the Torah is in the new Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation (with updates for gender-sensitivity), but the English translation of Genesis is the work of the late Rabbi Chaim Stern.

Most noticeable in Stern’s translation is his use of “the Eternal” to translate the tetragrammaton (YHVH). The Preface to the Revised Edition explains:

The root meaning of the divine name in Hebrew is “to be,” and the name “Eternal” renders that name according to its meaning rather than its sound. That is, it conveys the overtones that an ancient Israelite would have heard when encountering YHVH as a name.

Between introductions, verse-by-verse Commentary, Essays, and Gleanings (insights from rabbinic commentaries and modern-day interpreters), there’s a wealth of useful information here.

For example, last Sunday I began to wonder whether the story of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) was, among other things, an anti-empire polemic. Moving through the “Gleanings” in the Modern Commentary, I found the following early sources:

As the tower grew in height it took one year to get bricks from the base to the upper stories. Thus, bricks became more precious than human life. When a brick slipped and fell the people wept, but when a worker fell and died no one paid attention.
MIDRASH

And:

They drove forth multitudes of both men and women to make bricks; among whom, a woman making bricks was not allowed to be released in the hour of childbirth, but brought forth while she was making bricks, and carried her child in her apron, and continued to make bricks.
BARUCH

The commentary nicely blends cultural background, sensitivity to the history of Jewish interpretation, and application-ready insights, as here in the comment on Genesis 12:1-9:

For while Abram’s story must be read as the biography of an individual, he (and this applies to the other patriarchs as well) is more than an individual. The Torah sees the patriarch as the archetype who represents his descendants and their fate.

I especially appreciate how Accordance Bible Software lays out the commentary and all its sections; I’ve been using it in that medium (click to enlarge).

 

Torah Modern Commentary

 

The publisher offers quite a generous (70 or so pages) .pdf sample of the Torah Modern Commentary, which you can read here.

You can find The Torah: A Modern Commentary here at the publisher’s page or here at Amazon.

2 Exceptional Jewish Commentaries on Genesis, Part 1: The JPS Torah Commentary

This fall I’m preaching through Genesis. Two Jewish commentaries have been exceedingly helpful and illuminating as I prepare each week. In a short series of two brief posts, I highlight each.

 

1. The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis

 

JPS Torah GenesisI’m a sucker for beautifully constructed books, and this is one. Nahum M. Sarna’s Genesis has the full Hebrew text of Genesis (with vowel points and cantillation marks), an English translation (the Jewish Publication Society’s New JPS translation), incisive commentary, and 30 Excursuses at the back of the book.

Already at Genesis 1:2 I found the commentary quoteworthy enough to cite it in a sermon. It notes that the Hebrew term create is used only of God:

It signifies that the product is absolutely novel and unexampled, depends solely on God for its coming into existence, and is beyond the human capacity to reproduce.

There’s this gem on Cain and Abel, where Cain’s sacrifice points to “a recurrent theme in the Bible–namely, the corruption of religion.” Sarna tersely (yet effectively) comments:

An act of piety can degenerate into bloodshed.

And in Genesis 6, where the reader struggles to understand how a loving God could all but eradicate his creation, the introductory essay to “Noah and the Flood” reads:

The moral pollution is so great that the limits of divine tolerance have been breached. The world must be purged of its corruption.

He goes on:

The totality of the evil in which the world has engulfed itself makes the totality of the catastrophe inevitable.

Every passage of the commentary I read is like this–the perfect blend of lexical analysis and devotional implication. Sarna makes good use of ancient Jewish sources, so the reader gets the sense that she or he is really being exposed to thousands of years of Jewish interpretation.

This has often been the first commentary to which I turn after reading the text.

You can find it here at the publisher’s page or here at Amazon. I waited a long time to purchase this volume, since it’s not cheap. This summer I found it on ebay, and have been grateful to own it since!

 

Next post, I’ll highlight the second of two Jewish commentaries on Genesis that I’ve been enjoying–The Torah: A Modern Commentary. UPDATE 10/16/14: See that review (part 2) here.

New Hebrew Reader’s Bible This Fall

BHS Reader's EditionThis fall Hendrickson will publish a new Hebrew Reader’s Bible.

Hendrickson says it is:

A helpful language reference tool for students, pastors, and scholars. The BHS Reader’s Edition is for those who have a basic understanding of Biblical Hebrew and desire to read and study the Hebrew Bible. With this book alone (and a year’s study of Hebrew), students are able to read the Hebrew Bible in its entirety.

Zondervan already has such a Bible, which is the first Hebrew Bible from which I ever read (cue strings). But BHS Reader’s Edition has vocabulary helps for even more words, as well as verb parsings.

Here are the main features, in the words of the publisher:

  • Complete text of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, checked against the Leningrad Codex
  • All words that occur fewer than 70 times are parsed and contextually defined in the apparatus
  • Glossary listing of all other words
  • Improved layout of poetic text
  • All weak verb forms are parsed
  • High quality paper does not bleed through

UPDATE: One of the authors (not Moses, though) notes that it includes full Hebrew paradigms, too. Looks like it will really be a one-stop shop for Hebrew Bible reading!

You can pre-order now through CBD or Amazon (affiliate link that helps support Words on the Word).

Once I get a look, I’ll report back!