Desert And Shepherd In Our Biblical Heritage, by Nogah Hareuveni
This is almost the most Jewish book that I have read, and I read a lot of books that could be considered Jewish books , and that is both good and bad. I would like to state at the outset that this book considers not only the Mishnah and Talmud but even material outside of Talmud to be worthy of respect, which is far more credit than I am willing to give them. This would be the negative side of this book, and I will have more to say about the ironies this leads to as far as this book and its theme are concerned. On the positive side, though, the author does lead through his text and photographs the reader to think about what the Bible has to say about the desert and wilderness first and foremost, and to a much lesser extent what it says about shepherds. All in all, this is a great approach, and this book is well worth being recommended, so long as you are willing to overlook the book’s laudatory references to the bogus decisions of obscure rabbis. Not all readers are likely to be this generous, but for those who are this book has a lot to offer.
The book, quite inventively, is organized around the first four verses of Psalm 23, and at least have contents that roughly match the concerns of those verses. The chapters include a great many discussions about various Hebrew words and their translations–the book itself is a most excellent translation from the original Hebrew–and beautiful photos of the Negev. The pages are organized so that a large column contains the main text and a smaller column on the far left or right of the page contains various other comments of interest that are at least minor digressions. Those digressions help this be a much better book than it would be like on its own. The author, himself a veteran of Israel’s military and one of the nation’s foremost experts on desert survival, clearly knows his material here and is able to share his own experiences from wilderness hikes and various other training efforts. Likewise, where the author is talking about the biblical prophets he has a lot to say that is of great value, and comes to some conclusions about Jeremiah’s knowledge of the wilderness country that is worthy of deep reflection.
Even though I dislike the author’s high regard for the large body of Jewish human traditions that presumptuously and erroneously calls itself the oral law and places on an equal level with the laws given by God, the book’s wrestling with this tradition gives a thoughtful picture of the tension between shepherd and elite in Jewish life in the second temple period and beyond. God’s law requires a high degree of respect for shepherds, and both David and Jesus Christ (among many others) used shepherd imagery to discuss themselves and their own efforts. Yet shepherds were hated in the second temple period, with rabbinical decisions considering shepherds automatic liars and thieves because the elite landowners were continually trying to increase the area under cultivation and banish shepherds to ever more marginal areas in the wilderness and thickets. The religious leaders of the period did no better when it came to recognizing their own shepherd when He came either, it should be noted. This book has enough thoughtful material that I may write at more length about what it has to say about shepherds and the desert, and any book that can provoke such thoughtful reflection and writing is worthy of a high recommendation. At around 150 pages, it is not an overwhelmingly difficult read either.
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