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Bible v. Bible

The intricacies of textual interplay

In her study Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other ( JPS, $35), Judy Klitsner revisits familiar stories in Genesis, and pairs them, sometimes surprisingly, with other, related stories in Genesis and elsewhere in the Bible.

Klitsner’s method is to read the Hebrew text very closely, looking for parallels, analogies, and similarities in structure and character between her paired episodes. She mixes midrashic readings with the plain meaning of the biblical words, in an approach that will be familiar to students of traditional rabbinic exegesis. Klitsner writes in her introduction: “How is a modern sensibility to relate to a text in which God responds to a sinful world by destroying it wholesale?…What are we to make of a narrative…that has God and man marginalizing the female characters within its pages?” In response, she proposes “a particular type of textual analysis, literary in nature, that at the very least reframes the questions themselves.”

In spite of the well-known rabbinic principle that “there is no early or late in the Bible,” Klitsner begins with the premise that stories appearing earlier in the Hebrew Bible are to be read as chronologically preceding those episodes appearing later, which allows her to suggest progression, even improvement, in the underlying messages and cultural values she finds in the later episodes. She explains, “a later passage may revisit those questions…I call these reworkings ‘subversive sequels’. Like all sequels, they continue and complete earlier stories. But they do so in ways that often undermine the very assumptions upon which the earlier stories have been built.”

Readers who enjoy midrashic interpretation will delight in the combination of contemporary and traditional methods. Those who prefer a historical approach to Bible study, or who seek more reliance on contemporary scholarship, may be disappointed, as may those seeking to ease the sting of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 or the wife-swapping stories of Genesis 12, 20, and 26. Klitsner is concerned here with the larger challenge of exploring two major themes as they develop within the Bible. The first is the evolution of the self and its relationship to others both within and without the community. The second is the thorny question of gender relations in the Bible, and God’s role in their evolution. Some of her insights are startling. She compares the stories of Noah and Jonah, and concludes from her analysis that God is more willing to change and adapt than human beings are. And she compares the builders of the Tower of Babel, in Genesis 11, with the Israelite midwives of Exodus 1. Her sensitivity to language and structure in this story enables her to compare and contrast two episodes that on initial reading bear no relationship to one another, but which, on deeper analysis, yield important insights into the human capacity to change and grow.

Diane M. Sharon, on the Bible faculty at the Academy for Jewish Religion, has published on the Hebrew Bible in its ancient Near Eastern context, comparative religion, literary analysis, and women’s studies.