Book Review: Biblical Literacy

Biblical Literacy:  The Most Important People, Events, And Ideas Of The Hebrew Bible, by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

On the one hand, this sizable book of about 600 pages or so of core material does include material from the Hebrew Bible, so it does live up to at least part of its claims in the title.  However, this book is evidence that all too many conservative (and orthodox) Jews see the Hebrew Bible through the perspective of the Talmud, and so while this book is ostensibly about understanding the Bible, in reality the book presents interpretations of the Bible text that often come from less than authoritative sources, at least for those who take a dim view of the supposed “oral law” that the Pharisees and their successors have fraudulently used to reinterpret and contradict the scriptures.  Even so, this book does offer at least some insights, especially concerning the frequent tension that exists between the legal and narrative portions of the Bible, and the way that the permissiveness of the law is countered by the unsparing details of the narrative that demonstrate, among other things, that eldest children are not necessarily the best suited for serving as heirs of the family and that polygamy never ends up happily for all of the people involved.

This book is divided into two large parts with a lot of chapters and sections within them.  The first part of the book, which takes up most of the material (almost two thirds), looks at the people and events within the narrative sections of scripture.  The author looks at chronological order within the Hebrew scriptures, spending a lot of time on the Torah (56 of the lessons), and then less time on the former and latter prophets and the writings.  For example, there is only one discussion of the Proverbs, only six on the psalms, and none on the books of 1st and 2nd Chronicles because the author doesn’t like its pious approach.  The author then moves on to laws and ideas in the second part of the book with chapters on the five books of the law and then a third part on the 613 laws of the Torah by appearance, in which the author attempts to state all of the laws of the Bible that the Talmud stated (but did not elaborate) were present in the Torah.  After this there are two appendices that show the Books of the Hebrew Bible in order of their appearance in the book as well as a somewhat late chronology of major biblical events and characters that assumes an Exodus within the reign of Ramses II.

Like any good book (and a many a bad book) about the Bible, and despite its flaws this is a good book, it says a lot more about its author and his perspective than it does about the Bible itself.  Yet the book finds the author at least wrestling mightily with aspects that the author does not like about the scriptures, like some of its laws relating to the marriage of seduces to those they seduce or the declaration that the inhabitants of the promised land were under the ban, or laws regarding bastardy.  Sometimes the author quotes Talmudic passages that seek to contradict the laws stated, demonstrating that he views the Talmud as a higher law than the written scripture, and a few times a sense of self-criticism and self-awareness comes in, as when he views the law in the Torah that forbids either taking away or adding to what the law says, something he admits is a problem for the writers of the Talmud and their later followers (like himself).  To be sure, this book would have been vastly better with more self-awareness and self-criticism and far less of the dodgy use of human reasoning that we find in the Talmud, but if you are Jewish or have a high degree of sympathy for it, this is certainly a worthwhile book to read, despite the author’s profound ignorance of and hostility to the New Testament.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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