Author presents clear Bible “Firsts”

By Elaine K. Alexander, Special to the Jewish Light

Meir Shalev is a prize-winning, Israeli novelist who has now written the second of two books on the Hebrew Bible. “Beginnings: The First Love, the First Hate, the First Dream, Reflections on the Bible’s Intriguing Firsts” translated by Stuart Schoffman (Harmony Books, $25, 304 pages) is plain-spoken-kudos to author and translator for the simple clarity of every sentence, humorous, and surprisingly candid.

Shalev’s work has been translated into over 20 languages. His very first novel “The Blue Mountain,” is among Israel’s, five, all-time bestsellers. Schoffman, the translator, has collaborated on other English translations with celebrated, Israeli authors David Grossman and A. B. Yehoshua.

For centuries, authority on the Hebrew Bible was given to a group whom James Kugel (a popular, Jewish lecturer from 1983-2003 at Harvard University) calls the “ancient interpreters.” These commentators, from a 500-year period ending about 200 CE, found hidden meanings and wrote midrashim / supplemental stories which were used to overcome problems and better fit the Bible for moral instruction. For instance, a classic interpreter might praise Abraham’s concern for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and meanwhile overlook our patriarch’s disturbing obedience to wife and God-which leads him to cast out one son and bind another for a burnt offering.

Kugel dates a sea-change in Biblical interpretation to about 150 years ago, when universities and divinity schools began reading the Bible more “scientifically” and consistent with archaeological discoveries. The new order included a radical shift regarding the Torah. Traditionally, theTorah had been read as the literal, divine word spoken to Moses. Meanwhile, the Documentary Hypothesis of modern biblical scholarship understands the Torah as an anthology of manuscripts from four or five main human sources-partly identified by the names given in the texts to God.

Shalev commentary is oblivious to the ancient interpreters and iconic readings. About Abraham, the author wryly observes: the father of the Jewish people fails as the father of his two sons; to save himself, makes a habit of giving his wife to foreign kings; is the kind of compliant believer for which any god would wish; proves that “blind obedience leads down the darkest alleys”; and demonstrates how children and families of revolutionaries and other leaders may suffer a special brand of unhappiness.

On the other hand, despite his modern skepticism, Meir Shalev does not quote chapter and verse as proof text for the Documentary Hypothesis or any other. Shalev learned the Bible-of course, as a native Israeli, in the original Hebrew-by tramping about Israel with his father, who read out the stories where the Bible says they happened. He is a literate realist more than a scholar. That said, Shalev does allude to the perspective of individual biblical authors. He compares competing accounts of the same events and concludes that King David is sanitized in Chronicles. Or most irreverent, in the chapter about First Spies, he complains that a particular narrator has characterized God as a “serial offense taker.” 

One reviewer complained that, in some chapters, the reader has to tolerate whimsical and unpredictable connections. But, overall, “Firsts” turns out to be a creative lens, which captures new insights about the Bible. The first kiss is used by a suspicious father to sniff out the truth. Among first tears are those of a man overcome by a woman’s beauty. The first love is not the love between a man and a woman. “[A] terrible surprise,” love is first mentioned in connection with the “worst act” of the entire Bible: Take your son, your favored one Isaac, whom you love and offer him as a burnt offering. 

On the road to biblical “Firsts,” the author takes us to lesser known corners and byways. Among these are the intertwined biographies, in Samuel I and II, of Kings Saul and David. Their story rivals any Shakespearean drama for intrigue, unrequited love, deceit, lust, and murder-upon which Shalev comments, as freely as if it were Shakespeare. 

“Beginnings…” includes many sharp observations about personality and human psyche, most memorably: On his wedding night, every man is Jacob; he lies down with Rachel, the “beloved” and wakes up next to Leah, “[the wife] who will bear children and raise a family.” As readers may already be aware: God is not spared from commentary-as when, Shalev demands, “[When He told Samuel to crown Saul as King], where was God’s penetrating insight?”

After 11 chapters about characters, events, method and intent of biblical authors, the last one about the first law, unexpectedly wends to this final philosophical sentence about the Judeo-Christian tradition-Or…some places are best left for the traveler to discover for him/herself on the journey. Nessiah tovah (have a good trip).