New Title from JPS: Justice for All

 

Readers of this blog (yes, it’s alive!) may recall my immense appreciation for commentaries and other works published by The Jewish Publication Society. You can find a host of JPS reviews and book notes I’ve written here.

JPS has just released Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics, by Jeremiah Unterman.

Biblical justice has been a recurring theme in our congregation this past school year–both in my preaching and in our adult Sunday school classes. I’m eager to dig in to this volume.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

Justice for All demonstrates that the Jewish Bible, by radically changing the course of ethical thought, came to exercise enormous influence on Jewish thought and law and also laid the basis for Christian ethics and the broader development of modern Western civilization.

Jeremiah Unterman shows us persuasively that the ethics of the Jewish Bible represent a significant moral advance over Ancient Near East cultures. Moreover, he elucidates how the Bible’s unique conception of ethical monotheism, innovative understanding of covenantal law, and revolutionary messages from the prophets form the foundation of many Western civilization ideals. Justice for All connects these timeless biblical texts to the persistent themes of our times: immigration policy, forgiveness and reconciliation, care for the less privileged, and attaining hope for the future despite destruction and exile in this world.

You can read a .pdf excerpt here. The book’s product page is here, and is also available through Amazon.

New JPS Commentary Volumes, Now in Accordance

Jonah JPS CommentaryOne of the best biblical commentaries is the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) Bible Commentary. Previously at Words on the Word I’ve reviewed JPS Jonah, Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus.

Now Accordance Bible Software has announced the release of every JPS Bible Commentary volume that currently exists in print, including Michael Fishbane’s Song of Songs and Michael V. Fox’s Ecclesiastes.

(Fun aside: I was leading an Accordance Webinar on building Workspaces when I realized the “Michael Fox” in attendance was THAT Michael V. Fox.)

Accordance has a number of purchase and even upgrade options available, all of which are explained in detail here.

Outside the Bible (JPS): 3,000+ Pages in Accordance

Outside the Bible

I’ve made no secret of my love of Jewish Publication Society’s works. The JPS Torah Commentaries have greatly enhanced my reading of the first five books of the Bible. I have particularly appreciated the seamless blend of critical scholarship and devotional posture that series offers.

In 2013 JPS published a massive, three-volume set, Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture. The print edition has 3,302 pages. Accordance is the only Bible software program to have made the electronic edition available; it releases today.

Outside the Bible (hereafter referred to as OTB) covers an impressive array of Jewish extrabiblical texts from the 6th century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D. The texts in OTB are ones that were “for various reasons, taken off the official Jewish bookshelf.”

 

************

 

The editors of Outside the Bible are Louis H. Feldman, James L. Kugel, and Lawrence H. Schiffman. The skilled lineup of contributors includes: Harold W. Attridge, David E. Aune, John J. Collins, David A. deSilva, Michael V. Fox, Emanuel Tov, Benjamin G. Wright III, and many others.

Broadly speaking, the editors and contributors treat writings from the following groupings:

  • The Septuagint
  • The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha
  • Philo
  • Josephus
  • Dead Sea Scrolls

OTB begins with some of the best, most succinct introductory material you can find on each corpus. Emanuel Tov, for example, gets right to the heart (using few words) of the potentially vexing concept of LXX translation technique:

When trying to analyze the Hebrew and Aramaic words, the translators could not resort to tools such as dictionaries or other sources of lexical information; they had to rely on their living knowledge of these languages and on exegetic traditions relating to words and contexts. … By the same token, the identification of difficult words was often guided by the context. Such a procedure frequently was little more than guesswork, especially in the case of rare and unique Hebrew words.

Practically speaking the reader finds explanatory comments like this one (from 1 Samuel 2) throughout OTB:

*there is none holy besides you Cf. the MT: “There is no rock like our God.” As elsewhere in the LXX, the translator avoids the description of God as a “rock,” possibly because he did not like the comparison of God to a stone, and instead stresses his holiness as in the first part of the verse.

When it comes to the texts themselves, here is how OTB is organized:

Each text in Outside the Bible is preceded by a brief introduction that gives a summary of its contents, a history of its composition and transmission, its significance for Jewish (and sometimes Christian) history and biblical interpretation, and a guide to reading that highlights specific issues for understanding the text. A short list of additional readings points the interested reader to more detailed or focused treatments of the text.

You can see the Table of Contents here, via Accordance Mobile:

 

OTB iPad TOC

 

Included in OTB is an entire commentary on 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees, among other texts. Here is David A. deSilva, offering the reader of OTB guidance for working through 4 Maccabees:

The author gives two important cues concerning how to read his work. First, he asks us to read it as an essay that offers both argumentation and exemplary evidence for the proposition that the religiously trained mind can gain the upper hand over all the contrary forces within us and outside us that drag us away from doing what we know to be best before God. Second, he invites us to join him in admiring the outstanding achievements of nine Jewish martyrs, whose courageous and praiseworthy example rivals that of the heroes of any other culture or tradition and can encourage us to hold fast to virtue in our lesser contests.

I could multiply examples of how OTB strikes an excellent balance of brevity and substance. One could open the pages of OTB, having never heard of the Damascus Document–or any of more than 150 other texts–and walk away with a solid understanding of that writing’s legal and theological teachings.

OTB has a nice focus not only on the extrabiblical texts as such; it also addresses their import for biblical interpretation. Further, the editors and contributors are careful to point out how these non-canonical texts function as windows into the culture and beliefs of Judaism in the Second Temple period.

And the interplay OTB highlights between Judaism and Christianity is fascinating:

Philo’s writings had practically no influence on Judaism as it developed after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the disastrous Jewish revolt in Egypt in 115–117 CE. … On the other hand his writings were warmly embraced by early Christian thinkers, who saw in him a kindred spirit. They were attracted to his use of the Greek Bible and the allegorical method, as well as to doctrines such as the transcendence of God, the creation of the cosmos, the Logos, and providence.

Anyone wanting to further chase down what OTB has to say about Christianity can perform a search to instantaneously pull up all the instances of “Christian,” “Christianity,” or even, “Christ.” (The search to use is simply Christ* in the English Content search field in Accordance.)

…which leads to why Outside the Bible is a resource especially suited for the Accordance format.

 

************

 

One obvious reason a person would want to consider the Accordance module (and not just the print edition) is the portability factor. JPS books tend to be bound beautifully and constructed well, so there’s nothing to complain about in their aesthetics. But you can’t really take 3,300 pages of awesomeness to the library, coffee shop, or office with you, at least not easily. Keeping OTB on a laptop, iPad, and/or iPhone is appealing.

Another benefit to OTB on Accordance is the extensive system of tagging and hyperlinking the developers have used. For one, you can adjust the search field to search OTB in all of the following ways:

 

Search Fields

 

For another, where there is commentary on the texts, the Accordance module allows you to view it simply by hovering over a hyperlink. Causing my mouse to rest on an asterisk shown in the text of the Prayer of Manasseh calls up the corresponding commentary in the Instant Details at the bottom of the screen:

 

Prayer of Manasseh
(click to enlarge image)

 

Hyperlinked content is, of course, just a tap away on the iPad:

 

FN on iPad

 

You can search just certain sections of OTB for a given word. You can highlight, take notes, and even share text via the share sheets in iOS–maybe you want to send some selected wording to Evernote or Drafts as part of your research. Just a few taps get me from 11QMelch (Melchizedek) into Drafts, a primary hub for my iOS research:

 

OTB Share 1

 

OTB Share 2

 

OTB Share 3

 

Using the share sheet, one could email information to oneself or others, or even share on social media. (And what says “rewritten Bible” better than Facebook and Twitter, amirite?)

 

************

 

Treat yourself to a perusal of the Table of Contents and some material on Jubilees (which interacts with Genesis) by following this link to a PDF excerpt. And, by all means, do go check out this majestic resource in Accordance here. Students, professors, and pastors… Jews, Christians, and agnostics–all who can access Outside the Bible are indebted to its editors and contributors for a thorough and engaging resource.

 


 

Thanks to Accordance for the review copy of Outside the Bible in Accordance 11. See my other Accordance posts (there are many) gathered here.

Va-yikra’: A JPS Companion for Reading Leviticus

I think I am actually on pace to finish my Bible-in-a-Year reading plan in two years–but, as I’ve said before, as much as I value getting a good overview of all of Scripture in a short time, it’s so deep and rich (and sometimes surprising and/or befuddling) that I keep wanting to go slow. This is not, of course, a bad thing. The reading plan can wait.

JPS Torah LeviticusThe JPS Torah Commentary has been my go-to companion for reading through the first five books of the Bible. I’m three volumes in, and each one has been excellent. See what I say about the Genesis volume here, and the Exodus volume here and here. Now I’ve found myself similarly aided by Baruch A. Levine’s JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus as I’ve made my way through that dense book of the Bible.

Levine’s commentary is more difficult to sit down and read through than Nahum Sarna’s Genesis or Exodus volumes, but this is less because of Levine and more because Leviticus does not have the same narrative flow of Genesis and Exodus. Its descriptions of laws and rituals are difficult for the uninitiated (um… and for the initiated) to wade through. It’s dense.

But Levine matches the density of the text with detail of his own, drawing also on rabbinical traditions to help the reader understand the world of the text. Levine addresses historical background and theology, as well as exegetical detail at the word level. But even his detailed exegesis highlights the larger literary context, so you can see the interrelations of Scripture as you read this commentary.

Allow me to share a specific example.

Here is the Hebrew text (nicely included in this commentary) of the admittedly harsh-sounding Leviticus 26:21:

 

Hebrew text of Leviticus

 

Here’s the verse in the Jewish Publication Society’s New JPS translation–also included in this edition:

And if you remain hostile toward Me and refuse to obey Me, I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins.

Levine’s comment for the verse focuses on the phrase, “And if you remain hostile toward Me.” Note how he balances lexical analysis with both extrabiblical and biblical references (the Hebrew in the commentary is transliterated throughout):

 

Here, again, is a transition, where the conditions for God’s forgiveness are stated.

Hebrew keri, “hostility,” and the idiom halakh ʿim. . . be-keri, “to walk with. . . in hostility,” are unique to this chapter. Targum Onkelos translates be-kashyu, “with hardness, obstinacy,” deriving keri from the root k-r-r, “to be cold.” Compare the noun form karah, “cold wave,” in Nahum 3:17, and mekerah, “cool chamber,” in Judges 3:24. The reverse of “walking in hostility” is “agreeing to obey” (ʾavah li-shmoʿa) suggesting that keri is synonymous with meri, “rebelliousness.” Note the contrast in Isaiah 1:19–20: “If, then, you agree and give heed, / You will eat the good things of the earth; / But if you refuse and disobey (u-meritem), / You will be devoured by the sword.” The notion of meri as “rebelliousness” is a major theme in the prophecies of Ezekiel, but the term keri occurs nowhere else in the Bible; hence its meaning remains uncertain.

 

There is one other portion I need to quote at length, since it comes in Levine’s opening explanation of the sacrificial system in Leviticus 1. Maybe I’m obtuse or just not familiar enough with Leviticus, but I had somehow missed until now that one could not sacrifice to expiate for intentional sins:

It should be emphasized here, as the workings of the sacrificial system are introduced to the reader, that the laws of the Torah did not permit Israelites to expiate intentional or premeditated offenses by means of sacrifice. There was no vicarious, ritual remedy—substitution of one’s property or wealth—for such violations, whether they were perpetrated against other individuals or against God Himself. In those cases, the law dealt directly with the offender, imposing real punishments and acting to prevent recurrences. The entire expiatory system ordained in the Torah must be understood in this light. Ritual expiation was restricted to situations where a reasonable doubt existed as to the willfulness of the offense. Even then, restitution was always required where loss or injury to another person had occurred. The mistaken notion that ritual worship could atone for criminality or intentional religious desecration was persistently attacked by the prophets of Israel, who considered it a major threat to the entire covenantal relationship between Israel and God.

Is this why David in Psalm 51 says,” For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased”?

Levine comes back to this theme as Leviticus introduces the various offering types. He also explains the difference between sin and impurity, in a way that is really helpful for more fully engaging Leviticus.

The Introduction is some 30 pages, addressing both “The Leviticus Text” (which summarizes the book, highlights its structure, discusses its formation, and compares early versions) and “The Context” (Levine spells out how this commentary supports “the realism of Leviticus”). The 11 Excursuses (spanning some 40 pages) are utterly fascinating, covering topics like dietary laws, the scapegoat ritual, the festivals, and more.

All that is already more than enough to help the reader or teacher in her/his quest to better enter the world of Leviticus. But then the icing on the cake is the section called, “Leviticus in the Ongoing Jewish Tradition.” Here Levine hopes that “the reader of the Commentary may catch a glimpse of continuity and change and focus attention on the lasting relevance of Leviticus.”

And here’s some icing to go on that other icing: the binding is sewn and the book is beautifully bound. I’m quite sure I’ll be returning to this commentary again, but first–I’ve got more of the Torah to read through.

 

Tolle, lege.

 


 

Many thanks to the folks at University of Nebraska Press/Jewish Publication Society for sending me a copy of the 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.

This is Why I’m Behind on my 2015 Bible-in-a-Year Reading Plan

JPS Torah ExodusThe reason I’m so far behind on my Bible in a Year reading plan is that I’ve been reading Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus via the JPS Torah Commentary volumes. No, I’m not reading the Hebrew alongside the English–it’s just that the introductions, essays, and verse-by-verse notes are so gripping and elucidating, that I am moving more slowly through the Torah than my plan dictates. (I’m still on track for Bible in Two Years–maybe.)

With the exception of a few chapters, my recent reading of Exodus was all from Nahum Sarna’s volume, which, like other JPS Torah volumes, has all of the following:

  • the full Hebrew text of Exodus, with vowel points and cantillation marks,
  • an English translation (the Jewish Publication Society’s New JPS translation)
  • commentary that addresses the text and its background at the section-by-section, phrase-by-phrase, and word-by-word level
  • an introduction and excursuses
  • sewn binding and beautiful construction

Sarna begins with just a 5-page (!) introduction. Leviticus in the same series, by contrast, has a 30-page introduction. Sarna discusses the book’s title, the division of Torah readings, the book’s setting and events, and it’s “contents and character.” Broadly speaking, Sarna divides Exodus like this:

  1. Exodus 1:1-15:21–oppression and liberation
  2. Exodus 15:22-18:27–toward Sinai
  3. Exodus 19-40–at Sinai

He notes that Exodus’s “influence is due to the special orientation and perspective of Exodus. It is a document of faith, not a dispassionate, secular report of the freeing of an oppressed people.” (Again–I love this guy’s writing style.)

Sarna blends what I experienced as a faith-filled and a critical approach to understanding Scripture. He understands God in the book as “the sole actor, the only initiator of events.” In addition to verse-by-verse and phrase-by-phrase commentary (sometimes down to the word level), Sarna sets up each chapter with a short introduction, which is always good and always useful.

The glossary, which takes up almost as many pages as the introduction, gives a really helpful orientation to readers like me, who keep needing reminders on the distinctions between Talmud and Targum, Mishnah and Mekhilta, Rambam and Ramban.

Sarna’s Exodus commentary does not initially seem to be as thorough as his Genesis volume. (Here there are six as opposed to 30 excursuses at the back of the commentary.) On the other hand that short introduction allows the reader to get into the text right away with Sarna, who makes up for the initial brevity of his work along the way. In the end I found that the comments really did seem to be just the right amount of detail for the kind of reading I was doing of the text–Sarna had addressed nearly all my questions by the time I made it through Exodus 40.

And Sarna’s comments are delivered beautifully. On Israel’s response of faith to the LORD’s “wondrous power” in Exodus 14:31, Sarna writes:

“Faith” in the Hebrew Bible is not belief in a doctrine or subscription to a creed. Rather, it refers to trust and loyalty that finds expression in obedience and commitment.

The commentary on the following chapter of Exodus 15–the one with the “Song at the Sea”–is one of the most moving, incisive, and compelling commentary sections I’ve ever read… and why I’m so far behind on that reading plan!

By way of critique, I only offer two things: (1) a few places could have benefited from more exegetical or grammatical-historical detail and (2) having Sarna’s detailed outline of Exodus all in one place–beyond what’s in the Table of Contents and section headings throughout the book–would have enhanced the introduction. His passage divisions are clear enough throughout the book, but I found myself wanting a summary sketch of Exodus all in one place for quick reference.

When I preach or teach on Exodus (or when I just want to remember what I sensed God speaking to me when reading through Exodus this spring), I will reach first for this exceptional volume.

If you want to look more in-depth with me at the body of the commentary, I interacted a bit with Sarna’s take on the 10 plagues here.

 


 

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.

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.