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How to Read the Bible

Authored by Marc Zvi Brettler PhD

Publication Year: 2005

Master Bible scholar and teacher Marc Brettler argues that today's contemporary readers can only understand the ancient Hebrew Scripture by knowing more about the culture that produced it. And so Brettler unpacks the literary conventions, ideological assumptions, and historical conditions that inform the biblical text and demonstrates how modern critical scholarship and archaeological discoveries shed light on this fascinating and complex literature. Brettler surveys representative biblical texts from different genres to illustrate how modern scholars have taught us to "read" these texts. Using the "historical-critical method" long popular in academia, he guides us in reading the Bible as it was read in the biblical period, independent of later religious norms and interpretive traditions. Understanding the Bible this way lets us appreciate it as an interesting text that speaks in multiple voices on profound issues. This book is the first "Jewishly sensitive" introduction to the historical-critical method. Unlike other introductory texts, the Bible that this book speaks about is the Jewish one -- with the three-part TaNaKH arrangement, the sequence of books found in modern printed Hebrew editions, and the chapter and verse enumerations used in most modern Jewish versions of the Bible. In an afterword, the author discusses how the historical-critical method can help contemporary Jews relate to the Bible as a religious text in a more meaningful way.

Published by: Jewish Publication Society


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

Several years ago, I mentioned to an acquaintance that I was writing a book called How to Read the Bible. He said: “What’s so hard about reading the Hebrew Bible? You read it top to bottom, left to right.” We had a good laugh after I pointed out that (1) Hebrew is read from right to left, and (2) my book was about reading the Bible, not reading Hebrew. As I then explained, this book is about the special “rules” for understanding texts from a different culture. ...


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pp. xiii-xiv

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1. Reading as a Jew and as a Scholar

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pp. 1-6

If “reading” is the act of making sense of a text, then each of us reads differently. Further, we each have a different conception of what the Bible is. Not surprisingly, then, we each interpret biblical texts in our own way. Of the many approaches, we can describe as a “method” only those that are rigorous and systematic. This book presents a method of reading the Bible. It is often called “the historical-critical approach.” By highlighting this method, I do not mean that it...

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2. What Is the Bible, Anyway?

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pp. 7-12

The Bible can be an intimidating book. Its size alone is overwhelming—1574 pages in the Hebrew edition that is standard among Bible scholars (Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia), 1624 pages in The Jewish Publication Society’s translation (see below), 2023 pages in the JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, and 2181 pages in The Jewish Study Bible (including notes and essays). A significant amount of the biblical text is poetry, which is daunting to many, and certainly does not make...

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3. The Art of Reading the Bible

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pp. 13-17

Reading is a complicated, multifaceted process.1 I am not referring to the technical aspect of sounding out words, what is called “decoding”—this is relatively simple, especially in Hebrew. Nor am I referring to resolving the types of ambiguities that exist in any dead, or literary, language. These ambiguities can be quite significant in translating the Bible. For example, should the first sentence of the Bible be rendered “In the beginning God created heaven and earth”...

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4. A Brief History of Israel

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pp. 19-28

This book attempts to understand the Bible as it was understood in the periods in which its books were first written and read, from approximately the twelfth century B.C.E. (the Song of Deborah in Judges 5) through the second century B.C.E. (the Book of Daniel).1 Thus, we need to know some basic facts about history before exploring biblical texts.2 But we would run a strong risk of being misled if we simply opened a history book and believed everything we read there. Because of relatively recent...

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5. With Scissors and Paste: The Sources of Genesis

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pp. 29-36

We are used to works of fiction and nonfiction being divided into chapters. Each chapter is supposed to be, in some sense, a self-enclosed unity. The divisions between chapters offer the ideal time to take a break—to reflect on the meaning as a whole of the unit you have just completed reading, a chance to get a drink or a snack, etc. Taking a break between Genesis 1 and 2 would seem natural for any of these purposes—but anyone who did this would be misreading...

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6. Creation vs. Creationism: Genesis 1–3 as Myth

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pp. 37-47

Defining the boundaries between different biblical units, and thus understanding where one story ends and another begins, is a means toward an end, rather than an end in itself. The next stage, interpreting the story, or in this case, independently interpreting the two creation stories embedded in Genesis1–3, is a more difficult and a more subjective task than determining that two stories have been combined. Interpretation depends on genre. Thus, as we begin to...

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7. The Ancestors as Heroes

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pp. 49-59

The Book of Genesis is often divided into two parts: chapters 1–11, Universal Myth; and chapters 12–50, Patriarchal History. To the extent that names help us shape how we read units, these names (as well as these divisions) are both problematic. The appellation “Universal Myth” is the less problematic of the two. By and large, the first eleven chapters of Genesis should be viewed as myths in the sense I described in chapter 6. They are stories dealing with issues of collective...

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8. Biblical Law: Codes and Collections

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pp. 61-72

Law should be the easiest genre to “read” and understand. We do not have an everyday acquaintance with prophecy, and historical texts play only a minor role in the contemporary United States, but we all encounter laws on adaily basis. Legal battles are often the subject of news headlines. We deal with laws when we are served with tickets for parking or traffic violations, when we buy houses or rent apartments, when we write our wills. Because law is a basic...

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9. Incense Is Offensive to Me: The Cult in Ancient Israel

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pp. 73-83

Religious ritual has an ambiguous place within modern life.1 It is often critiqued as an archaic remnant of earlier practices, which should be replaced by more abstract forms of religion.2 This antipathy toward ritual is reflected in the work of many biblical scholars, especially those influenced by the work of the great German scholar Julius Wellhausen, who systematized much of biblical scholarship toward the end of...

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10. “In the Fortieth Year . . . Moses Addressed the Israelites”: Deuteronomy

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pp. 85-94

Deuteronomy contains the longest introductory sentence of any biblica lbook:(1) These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the otherside of the Jordan—through the wilderness, in the Arabah near Suph,between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab, (2) it is eleven days from Horeb to Kadesh-barnea by the Mount Seir route—...

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11. “The Walls Came Tumbling Down”: Reading Joshua

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pp. 95-105

Joshua is a difficult book for us to read, for a number of reasons. First, its main theme is the conquest of the land of Israel. Few of us care to read stories of conquest, because war evokes great ambivalence. It isn’t pretty. During the recounted battles, Israel practiced cheirem, a ban or proscription against conquered places—“exterminat[ing] everything in the city with the sword: man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and ass” (6:21). Furthermore, almost...

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12. “May My Lord King David Live Forever”: Royal Ideology in Samuel and Judges

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pp. 107-115

Everyone knows that David killed Goliath—the story of 1 Samuel 17 is among the best known in the Bible; a variety of famous paintings have depicted in gory detail the scene of David delivering Goliath’s head to Saul.1 Yetin an appendix added to the book of Samuel, we read: “Again there was fighting with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim the Bethlehemite killed Goliath the Gittite, whose spear had a shaft like a weaver’s bar” (2 Sam....

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13. “For Israel Tore Away from the House of David”: Reading Kings

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pp. 117-127

Thus far I have emphasized that much of what looks like history in the Bible is really mythological. That is, biblical texts are interested in expressing or promoting particular views about issues of collective importance (see “Genesis 1–3 as Myth” in chapter 6). The issues that these texts explore are sometimes political and sometimes theological; often they are a combination of both. At times, these stories incorporate earlier historical traditions, but rarely, if ever, are...

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14. Revisionist History: Reading Chronicles

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pp. 129-136

The Book of Chronicles opens with the dullest material imaginable, useful if you are ever having trouble falling asleep: “(1:1) Adam, Seth, Enosh; (2) Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared; (3) Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech; (4) Noah, Shem,Ham, and Japheth.”1 Most of the first nine chapters read similarly, sometimes containing short interesting notes, but mostly just one genealogy after the next. Someone must have found this interesting, or at least important. Indeed, we...

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15. Introduction to Prophecy

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pp. 137-147

By “prophecy” I mean the “transmission of allegedly divine messages by a human intermediary to a third party.”1 As a literary genre, prophecy is extremely difficult to read and to understand. Prophets are quite alien to contemporary culture. When we see someone dressed oddly in public, proclaiming that the end of the world is near, we typically keep our distance—or perhaps listen but laugh. Most people in our society no longer share the view that God...

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16. “Let Justice Well Up like Water”: Reading Amos

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pp. 149-160

The writings of Amos provide a good starting point for understanding books attributed to the classical prophets. (Amos is structured as a book, although ultimately a later editor incorporated it into a larger biblical book, The Twelve [Minor] Prophets. See “Name and Structure” in chapter 2.) As a relatively short text, Amos gives us a workable opportunity to outline the structure, function, and style of prophetic books. ...

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17. “They Shall Beat Their Swords into Plowshares”: Reading (First) Isaiah

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pp. 161-171

The book’s history is complex: it embodies the work not of a single prophet, but of at least two prophets and more likely three—or more. The earliest of these poets, prophesying during the eighth century, is Isaiah son of Amoz (not to be confused with the earlier Amos). Scholars sometimes refer to him as First Isaiah; his work comprises much of chapters 1–39. The second prophet, whom scholars call Deutero-Isaiah (Second Isaiah), prophesied in Babylonia hundreds of years later, during the Babylonian exile. ...

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18. “I Will Make This House like Shiloh”: Reading Jeremiah

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pp. 173-183

The Book of Jeremiah opens with the longest superscription of any prophetic book: (1:1) The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. (2) The word of the LORD came to him in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, in the...

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19. “I Will Be for Them a Mini-Temple”: Reading Ezekiel

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pp. 185-197

Ezekiel opens with a superscription that tells us exactly where and when he received his prophecy: (1) In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, when I opened and I saw visions of God. (2) On the fifth day of the month—it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin—(3) the word of the LORD came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi, by the Chebar Canal, in the...

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20. “Comfort, Oh Comfort My People”: The Exile and Beyond

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pp. 199-208

Nabunaid, or Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon, reigned from 556–539B.C.E.; he directed that the moon god, Sin, be elevated over Marduk, the traditional high god of the Babylonians. Probably this action struck many of his subjects as odd; surely it offended the priests of Marduk. When the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, attacked Babylon in October 539, he was able to conquer the...

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21. “Those That Sleep in the Dust . . . Will Awake”: Zechariah, Apocalyptic Literature, and Daniel

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pp. 209-218

The first part of Zechariah (chaps. 1–8) forms a literary unit composed a little more than 2500 years ago, in the late sixth century B.C.E. The rest of the book seems unrelated to this first part; on those grounds, it seems that a later editor added the latter part (just as someone affixed Isaiah 40–66 to oracles bythe earlier prophet Isaiah son of Amoz; see “Out of Many, One” in chapter 17).1...

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22. Prayer of Many Hearts: Reading Psalms

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pp. 219-229

The English title “Psalms” comes to us from the Septuagint, the venerable Jewish translation of the Bible into Greek. It rendered the word mizmor, which features in many superscriptions (chapter titles) in this book, as psalmos. Both the Hebrew and Greek words mean “a song sung to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument.” In other words, this book consists of song...

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23. “Acquire Wisdom”: Reading Proverbs and Ecclesiastes

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pp. 231-241

Even a cursory glance at the books of Proverbs and of Ecclesiastes suggests that they are unlike anything we have encountered so far. They are not instruction in the same way that Torah is—Proverbs, for example, is largely composed of pithy sayings that are not marked as having divine origin. Nor are they Israelite historical texts—while Proverbs and Ecclesiastes do mention King...

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24. “Being But Dust and Ashes”: Reading Job

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pp. 243-255

In chapter 23, I treated Job as one of three exemplars of biblical “wisdom literature.” I highlighted how challenging are the other two books, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes: their history of composition is obscure, and their diverse parts do not fit neatly into a meaningful whole. Yet Job is more difficult than both of those books combined.1 First of all, the language in this book is extremely hard to understand. Job employs a large number of hapax words (see “Words Without Peer”; see chapter...

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25. “Drink Deep of Love!”: Reading Song of Songs

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pp. 257-266

The Song of Songs (sometimes called “the Song” for short) is the most exquisite book of the Bible.1 In trying to guide readers, I do not want to paraphrase it—it is simply too beautiful and too multilayered. No paraphrase can do it justice. The Song of Songs deserves to be read and reread; it cannot be confined to a single meaning.2 What I can best offer are some signposts that will...

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26. “Why Are You So Kind . . . When I Am a Foreigner?”: Reading Ruth vs. Esther

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pp. 267-272

Ruth and Esther are two of the best-known books of the Hebrew Bible. At first glance they seem quite similar. Both are short stories named for female figures. In each one, women and foreigners play a prominent role. This chapter will compare these two similar works. This comparison will raise explicitly a central issue that has until now been largely implicit: how the Bible functions as a collection that expresses a diversity of views. ...

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27. The Creation of the Bible

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pp. 273-278

We know little about the Bible’s origin—how so many books comprising so many diverse ideas became “the Bible.”1 Clearly, the process happened in stages, over a long time. Nobody woke up one morning, decided to create the Bible, and arranged the next day for all Jews to adopt it as such. The process was at least as much “down-up” as “up-down.” That is, the wider population helped to determine what the Bible included; it was not primarily...

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Afterword: Reading the Bible as a Committed Jew

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pp. 279-283

Thus far I have written this book in my “scholarly” mode, emphasizing what the Bible meant in its time and place. I have emphasized the importance of the historical-critical method, which encourages me to present facts about antiquity as I understand them. In so doing, I have attempted to mask my personal beliefs. These beliefs should not matter—one’s own religion (or lack thereof) should not decisively impact how one understands the Hebrew Bible in its...


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pp. 285-338

Sources Cited

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pp. 339-360

Index of Subjects

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pp. 361-371

Index of Biblical Passages and Other References

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pp. 372-384

E-ISBN-13: 9780827610019
Print-ISBN-13: 9780827607750

Page Count: 400
Publication Year: 2005