JOSEPH'S BONES: Understanding the Struggle Between God and Mankind in the Bible
By Jerome M. Segal
352 pages. Riverhead Hardcover. $2495.
Judaism is the world’s oldest and strangest book club. Essentially we Jews have one book, and when we finish reading it, we turn back to the beginning and read it again, and again and again. We do this throughout our book club’s thousands and thousands of chapters, and we’ve been doing so for over 2,000 years.
Through the Bar and Bat Mitzvot, we make the ability to read from our book and comment on it in public the central rite of passage to adulthood. And over the centuries, the highest esteem in the community has gone to those people whose understanding of this book was the most profound and to those most familiar with what others have had to say about it.
There exists, of course, a multiplicity of ways of reading the Torah, particularly in the United States, where Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist approaches to Judaism compete with Orthodoxy. At one end of the sectarian spectrum, the Torah is read as a revealed text, inerrant, issued directly from God. At the other end, the Torah appears as a human product which evolved over centuries, and which serves as a valuable tool and connective tissue in our collective effort to wrestle with the human condition. And here our practice of Torah interpretation is often freewheeling, as we attempt to mine the Torah for whatever riches of wisdom can be read-from or read-into its passages.
For the last ten years, I’ve been teaching Torah, to children and young people, as literature. More specifically, I’ve approached Genesis through Joshua, the Hexateuch as opposed to the Pentateuch, as something of an existential novel. I’ve asked my students to read it without any preconceptions about what it must mean, and without any pre-determined expectation that we will find it to be either God’s word, or true, or a source of wisdom, or even consistent with the central tenets of Judaism.
To read the Bible in this way is far more difficult than one might suppose. It may in fact be easier for children, who carry far less baggage, than it is for adults.
During this same period I’ve worked on my book, Joseph’s Bones: Understanding the Struggle Between God and Mankind in the Bible, and clearly these two projects, the teaching and the writing, have interacted and enriched each other. What I’ve found as a teacher is that approached in this manner, the Torah has an astonishing power to engage young readers. For most of my students, this is their first experience with a truly close reading of a written text. Many class periods, we focused on a single paragraph, exploring its ramifications for the larger story. Some of our classroom excitement comes from an awareness that our approach allows us to make discoveries that, while not necessarily original, can be personally startling, and run contrary to the ways in which the larger adult community thinks of the Torah.
In this short space, let me offer at least a taste of what occurs when we read the Torah as freely as we might read a novel that we stumbled upon in a bookstore.
The central plot in Genesis-Joshua, as in most stories, turns around the interactions between the central characters. Starting in Exodus, there are three central characters: Yahweh, Moses, and the Israelites as a whole.
Early on we come to see that God has a particular project, the exact meaning of which remains to be understood, but can be termed “being known.” Repeatedly he affirms that the Israelite shall “know that I am Yahweh.” And at one key point he explains to Moses that the entire point of the plagues is to create the story of Passover so that the Israelites through the generations shall “know that I am Yahweh.”
But if God’s great project is to have the Israelites come to know him, how does Moses fit into all this? Does he, too, understand his role in such terms? The idea that God and Moses may not be on the same page is suggested early on in the story. In Exodus 5, Moses has his first encounter with the Pharaoh, telling him that Yahweh, the God of Israel, says, “Let my people go.” Pharaoh responds, “Who is Yahweh that I should heed him and let Israel go?” And then Pharaoh increases the burdens of the Israelites, requiring them to find their own straw for making bricks. Moses returns to God and puts forward this remarkable accusation: “O Lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, it has gone worse with this people; yet You have not delivered Your people at all.”
In this we see the beginnings of Moses’ role as a protector of the Israelites, not from Pharaoh, but from God himself. In the episodes which follow, a familiar pattern is repeated. The Israelites, or some group of them, commit an infraction. God is incensed, and he communicates to Moses his intention to destroy the entire people. Moses intervenes using all of his rhetorical wiles, and God relents, typically killing only those who have actually violated his commandments.
While God’s project, to be known, is not the same as Moses’, it would be a mistake to imagine that they are incongruent. God’s repeated statements of intent to destroy the Israelites have to be understood in terms of God’s reaction to his own violence, following the Flood. At that time, once God regains his composure, he promises to never again level such destruction and he creates the rainbow as the sign that will remind him of that promise. We never again hear of the rainbow, but it is no great stretch to think of Moses, whose name means “taken from the water,” as that very rainbow. God chooses Moses, not primarily for the mission of representing himself to Pharaoh, but for the far more critical mission of keeping God from destroying the Israelites, and thus undermining his own project.
The God-character that is presented in the Bible story is not offered as the source of all morality. He is not all-knowing, nor is he presented as just or even beneficent. All of this is, of course, at variance with how Judaism came to understand God. But given that these texts were written many centuries before the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism, it should not be surprising that there is a gap between scripture and religion.
A Bible-as-literature reading, of the sort offered above, is not inherently threatening to Judaism. Though it does challenge traditional beliefs, there are many who will find the idea of an imperfect God, who needs mankind to evolve, an exhilarating concept, rich with spiritual potential.