I remember my surprise when a student of mine wrote a paper about the book of Job, and referred to the author throughout as “he or she.” Perhaps such even-handedness is now standard in North America, but it certainly isn’t in Oxford. But I realized that I had simply assumed the author was male, without examining the reasons. Nonreligious feminist critics become angry at the patriarchal attitudes in much of the Bible, while Jewish and Christian feminists often argue that, within the assumptions of an admittedly patriarchal society, the Bible scores quite highly for its treatment of women. But until now no critic known to me has argued that any substantial part of the Bible had a woman as its author.
Professional scribes in the ancient world were men: so much we know or think we do. But was every book in the Bible written by a professional scribe? Probably not. Were women literate? Some, perhaps. By arguing that a singularly important section of the Hebrew Bible may have been written by a woman, Harold Bloom enlarges our ideas about ancient Hebrew literature. The balance of probability is against him, but the idea is intriguing and must not be dismissed.
Bloom thinks an important strand in the early part of the Bible, designated by many scholars as “J,” was written by a princess of the line of King David, probably in the early years of David’s successor but one, Rehoboam (922–915 BCE). She had lived through the golden age of Solomon (961-922 BCE), David’s son and heir, and then had seen Solomon’s achievements squandered by the ineptitude of the new king. The detailed history of this period can be found in the latter part of the Second Book of Samuel and in 1 Kings 1–12. Most of 2 Samuel was written by her contemporary, the so-called “Court Historian”: Bloom thinks they used to compare notes. Be that as it may, the existence of the Court Historian is accepted by most biblical scholars, though they do not always agree about how close he was to the events he chronicled. Bloom here builds on a theory of the German biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad, still widely influential among students of the Hebrew Bible, that the age of Solomon was a period of cultural “enlightenment,” worthy to be compared with the European Enlightenment: a somewhat secularized era, in which many old beliefs were questioned. It is from this age that many of the best narratives in the Bible come: works with as much power as the Homeric poems, yet even earlier in date.
But where in the Bible is the work of “J”? “J” belongs to a hypothesis about the composition of the Five Books of Moses (the Pentateuch, or Torah as the Hebrew Bible calls them). Even if one reads the Pentateuch in the sonorous King James version, one soon becomes aware that it is a very strange work to have been written by Moses or indeed by any single author. Versions of the same story appear more than once (compare Genesis 12:14–20 with Genesis 20), and some passages are so convoluted that any attempt to reduce them to a single narrative thread is soon defeated. In the story of the Flood, for example (Genesis 6–8), incidents are repeated needlessly, and the duration of the flood is virtually impossible to calculate even though many explicit figures are provided, because so many of the figures are mutually incompatible.
Detailed studies of such problems led, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to a widely accepted solution, given its definitive shape by Julius Well-hausen (1844–1918). This hypothesis used textual analysis to argue that there were four separate documents or sources of widely differing dates: “J,” the earliest; “E,” a fragmentary, alternative, and bowdlerized version of “J”; “D,” mainly found in the book of Deuteronomy, and written not long before the Jewish exile to Babylon (587 BCE); and finally “P,” the work of priests in the Second Temple period (around 450 BCE). Add to this the “redactor” (or a whole series of redactors) who spliced and edited the four “sources,” and you have the Wellhausen hypothesis. Wellhausen himself thought that “J” came from the ninth century, the age of Elijah and Elisha, but some scholars—notably von Rad—have argued for a tenth-century date, and Bloom has based his work on the tenth-century hypothesis.
Identifying “J” sections of the Pentateuch is not hard. They comprise almost all the best stories, beginning with the creation of human beings in Genesis 2, and ending with the death of Moses. Bloom thus draws on a long tradition of biblical criticism, without weighing the detailed objections that the Wellhausen hypothesis has been subjected to, though he is plainly aware of them. But traditional criticism has tended to see “J” as a collector of older stories, and not so creative a writer as Bloom would have us believe. The great charm of Bloom’s book is the way he proceeds, by a close reading of the text, to establish “J” as an author in her own right—the earliest but also the best of all Hebrew writers.
Among current literary critics of the Bible Bloom is heretical in commenting on a reconstructed “source” rather than on the finished text as it lies before us. It is something of a dogma now that traditional biblical criticism has been, as the University of California critic Robert Alter puts it, “excavative”: it has always been looking “beneath” or “behind” the biblical text for hypothetical earlier, underlying sources or fragments. Alter himself has insisted on the present form of the text to such an extent that he considers even textual emendations of the most obvious kind doctrinally impure, and to be eschewed. Since the various sources were fused in the text we now have, Alter believes that the text should not be pulled apart. The injunction to “read what is put before you” is the motto of most articles in The Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by Alter and by Frank Kermode. This literary dogma joins hands easily with a traditional Jewish or Christian belief that the books of the Bible just as they stand are divinely inspired, and that it is a form of impiety to probe behind them. Thus a highly secular and a highly religious response to scripture produce, strangely enough, the same effect.
Bloom will have none of this. He maintains that the composite nature of the Pentateuchal narratives is obvious to any sensitive “literary” reader. “J” would eventually have been discovered by such readers even if it had not been reconstructed by (largely Christian) biblical scholars. The author of “J” was a literary genius, whereas the other sources are quite pale and bland: the difference, for Bloom, leaps out of the page. Biblical scholars who have recently tried to defend their traditional “excavative” craft against Jewish or Christian fundamentalists, and their more sophisticated recent descendants, have constantly had the ground pulled out from under their feet by an appeal to the style of current “secular” (hence, it is implied, religiously unbiased) literary criticism. For if critics of the stature of Kermode and Alter find no reason to base their work on analyses of different “sources,” who are these philistine biblical scholars to cut beautifully constructed texts up into little bits?
Bloom’s work comes as a shaft of sun-light into this murky debate, showing us how worthwhile “fragmentation” can be if it gives us access to a writer as inventive and remarkable as “J.” The final chapter, “The Greatness of J,” argues for placing “her” in the same class as Shakespeare. Like Shakespeare, Bloom’s J is a pioneer who is uniquely aware of her characters’ psychological complexity, and whose genius is not bound by the genres available in her culture. She welds together all the available genres to make a prose poem, neither epic nor romance nor tragedy nor comedy yet all these at once. She stands at the beginning of the Hebrew narrative tradition, but like Homer she is greater than all who come after her.
The use of the letter “J” in biblical exegesis derives from the German “Jahwe,” spelled “Yahweh” in English. The earliest of the Pentateuchal sources is called after “Yahweh” because in it God has been invoked by this name since very soon after the creation of humankind (Genesis 4:26). Later sources, especially “P,” maintain that the name was first revealed to Moses (Exodus 3:13–15, compare also 6:2–3), and hold (probably mistakenly) that it had something to do with the verb “to be”—hence the paraphrase of the name as I AM THAT I AM in Exodus 3:14. The foundations of what we now recognize as Judaism were laid in the period when “P” was writing, some time in the fifth century BCE, and within Jewish tradition it came to be thought blasphemous to utter the name. When a reader was confronted with its four consonants (YHVH) in a biblical scroll, he said instead “Adonai,” which means “Lord.” English Bibles with rare exceptions have followed this custom, but print LORD in capitals to indicate that it stands for the sacred Tetragrammaton (or four sacred consonants) and not for the actual Hebrew word Adonai. (A much later custom of writing the consonants of Yahweh with the vowels of Adonai produced the strange hybrid form “Jehovah,” but this is a word that never existed in antiquity.) When J was writing, none of these taboos yet existed. For the people of the tenth century BCE “Yahweh” was simply the name of Israel’s God, freely used both in invocation and in narration.
Now this shift from directness to reverence in the use of the divine name is a representative example of a much wider development. The Yahweh of J, Bloom argues, is not the holy, utterly transcendent, totally good God of later Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He is a character in J’s story, and his main characteristic is not holiness or morality but exuberance (or zeal or zest, as he sometimes puts it). J’s Yahweh is an imp, unpredictable and tricky—not unlike Jacob, the patriarch who was to inherit the blessing of his father Isaac but did so mainly by deceit. J does not worship Yahweh; she takes a detached view of him as one of her best characters. In a sense Yahweh is the “hero” of J’s narrative, if by “hero” we mean “central character.” But in another sense J has no heroes, only heroines.
None of J’s male personages, Yahweh included, ever surmount their childlike and also childish qualities. The only grown-ups in J are women: Sarai, Rebecca, Rachel, Tamar. Isaac is always a baby, Abram and Judah easily fall into childishness, and the two men of acute sensibility—Jacob and Joseph, father and true son—remain wonderfully spoiled and gifted temperaments, childlike in the extreme, until they die.
The formation of the Pentateuch, for Bloom, is one long tale of backpedaling from this daring and exuberant vision of the national god. It is rather as if the skeptical Euripides had been the first great Greek tragedian instead of the last. The normative religious tradition in Judaism became nervous of the god of J, as well it might, and ensconced Yahweh firmly in the holy of holies in the temple, safe from prying and mischievous eyes such as hers. Yahweh became remote, dwelling in unapproachable light. Contact with him could be established only through the approved rituals overseen by the official priesthood. Already in Ezekiel, perhaps an older contemporary of P (mid–sixth century), we find a vision of God which describes what the prophet saw as “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD” (see Ezekiel 1:28). Later writers would not even venture so far, and Saint John’s Gospel reminds Christians that “no one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18).
J’s Yahweh walks in the garden of Eden to enjoy the evening breeze, and comes down to have a picnic with Abram; and he shuts the door of Noah’s ark with his own kindly hands. But he is not to be trusted, and this is the other and blacker side of J’s vision. He attacks Moses himself for no good reason; and he blesses the trickster Jacob instead of his elder and more honest brother, Esau. Yahweh in J’s narrative, is not nice to know: he is a fascinating character, but he is not the God that Jews or Christians worship, he just happens to share the same name. “I am afraid,” Bloom writes.
this means that Judaism is just as far away from the Yahwist as Christianity is. The great rabbis, say Hillel and Akiba, are in the service of a God who is very different from J’s Yahweh. Like every other religion, Judaism asserts more continuities in its history than actually exist…. What is totally unassailable is the vast gulf between the Yahweh of the Book of J and the God of Judaism.
Jewish and Christian commentators on J thus stand both accused of reading back their own spiritual and theological interests into the Hebrew Bible. Even those who have recognized that there is change and progression from J to P—from the Yahwist’s Yahweh to the priestly writers’ LORD—have usually made the mistake of seeing progression as progress. “Anthropomorphism,” correctly used to describe J’s homely yet at times sinister (unheimlich) Yahweh, has become a derogatory term for a belief in God which has not yet attained to full monotheism, a belief without the subtleties of the Judaeo-Christian exaltation of the supreme Creator.
The long history of what is called “the problem of anthropomorphism” brought about by J’s depictions of Yahweh constitutes one of the curious cultural comedies of Western religious tradition. Embarrassment caused by the impishness of J’s Yahweh presumably began with the early revisionists, attaining a first culmination with the work of the Redactor,…and became far more overt…during the last two centuries before the common era. Greek philosophy demanded a dehumanized deity, and Jewish Hellenists rather desperately sought to oblige, by allegorizing away a Yahweh who walked and who argued, who ate and who rested, who possessed arms and hands, face and legs.
But Bloom also suggests that the nineteenth-century German scholarship that gave us back J was, unfortunately, tainted with this same opposition to anthropomorphism in portraying the deity, which it saw as something crude and unsophisticated.
The crucial nineteenth-century biblical scholars were the triad Karl Heinrich Graf, Wilhelm Vatke, and Wellhausen…. Unfortunately, these grand savants were all Hegelians, and like Hegel, they saw Israelite faith as a primitive preparation for the sublimities of the true religion, high-minded Christianity…. The idealist anti-Semitism of this biblical Hegelianism is almost enough to explain the strong resistance of normative Jewish scholars to the Documentary Hypothesis.
All credit to Bloom that he does not do so. But in taking over the common accusation that Wellhausen, like Vatke, was a Hegelian, he deprives himself of the chance to call the most valuable possible witness in favor of his own reading of J. Like Bloom, Wellhausen thought J’s picture of Yahweh anthropomorphic and therefore more admirable than the pale priestly religion which eventually overlaid and concealed it. For Wellhausen was decidedly not a Hegelian; he regarded Hegalianism as long-outmoded nonsense (see L. Perlitt’s study Vatke und Wellhausen,* which refuted the charge of Hegelianism definitively as long ago as 1965). So far from endorsing the Hegelian view that Judaism had slowly advanced from the crudities of J, Wellhausen saw even simple philosophical monotheism, let alone “priestly” religion, as a sign that Hebrew faith was becoming ossified and rigid. J was anthropomorphic, according to Wellhausen, because it came from a period of direct spontaneity in religious response, a “natural” religion that had not yet been handed over to the theologians. Certainly, one does not find in Wellhausen that J is a sly and sophisticated author, as one does in Bloom’s interpretation; but nor does one find any appreciation for the dry and bookish religion of the priestly writers who came after. Bloom should look at Wellhausen again, and would find a man much more after his own heart than he has realized.
The Book of J has a complicated structure, and divides into five parts—it is pentateuchal, in fact, unsurprisingly. The first part establishes the identity of the J material, and goes on to reconstruct the author, or to “imagine” the author, as Bloom puts it. One can never be sure how far his proposals about the author’s sex and identity are meant seriously, and how far they may be a way of playing the reader like a fish with sparkling ideas that are in part pure whimsy. Sometimes Bloom is a sober literary historian; at others he is playing a kind of “reader response” game with us, telling us that it will be more fun to pretend that J was a princess of the Davidic line than a boring man of letters.
The second part consists of a new translation of the J material by David Rosenberg. Then Bloom provides a section-by-section commentary on almost this text. I say “almost,” because there are a few incidents which Bloom regards as by J but which Rosenberg does not translate. For example, Bloom draws out the humor in the story of Jacob and the striped and spotted goats (Genesis 30) but unfortunately the story cannot be found in Rosenberg’s text—or perhaps this is a meta-joke. There follows an “After Commentary” arranged thematically, on such matters as the representation and the psychology of Yahweh in J, and the way J has been woven into the finished Pentateuch. Lastly Rosenberg provides a commentary on his own interpretative choices in the translation.
This is a translation people will either love or loathe. It reminds me a little of Tony Harrison’s version of Aeschylus, with a spare, sinewy strength and no frills of any kind. Since the message of Bloom’s work is that we should recapture the original J by stripping away all later accretions and interpretations, this style is a good vehicle for the commentary. It does not sound anything like what we think of as “biblical English.” It is deliberately alien and unfamiliar. For example:
When the youths are grown, look: Esau is a man with knowledge of the hunt, the outdoors; Jacob is quiet, keeping to the tents. Isaac loved Esau, whose game tasted sumptuous in his mouth. But Rebecca loved Jacob.
One day Jacob was cooking a stew of beans; Esau came back from the fields exhausted. “Please, pour me some mouthfuls from that reddish stuff,” Esau asked Jacob. “I can barely speak.” That’s why he was called “Red,” Edom.
“Sell me your birthright,” said Jacob, “right now.”
For my taste the mixture of high-toned and colloquial language in this translation does not work very well, and I would not use it apart from Bloom’s commentary. But what is a modern Bible translator to do? Almost all possible styles have already been tried, and so will not do the job of presenting the reader with the sense of an ancient, alien text. Some of Rosenberg’s attempts to render wordplay produce rather excruciating puns: “‘May this son enjoy safety from Yahweh,’ said Rachel. So it was: Rachel had Joseph.” (joy/safe = Joseph). But the alternative would be a footnote, and then we should be into a commentary by Rosenberg as well as by Bloom.
Some features I found merely irritating: “Now look,” which is used many times for “behold” (hinneh in Hebrew), conveys too much meaning; it sounds admonitory, even critical, in a way that the Hebrew does not. Modern English, unlike French (voilà), has no word of this kind, so more subtle strategies are needed to convey the necessary degree of surprise, delight, or emphasis.
But taken together with Bloom’s commentary, the translation is acceptable and useful. Now look: The Book of J should be read by students of general literature and of the Bible alike. It may be brilliant, or it may be wildly anachronistic—I suspect it is both—but it is not a book one can ignore.
November 22, 1990