Andrew Perrin on Devorah Dimant and Reinhard G. Kratz (eds.) Rewriting and Interpreting the Hebrew Bible
Among the many lessons the Dead Sea Scrolls have taught us — and the many we are still learning — is that the words and books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament evolved through overlapping processes of composition, transmission, and interpretation. Scripture grew over time. Words like redacted, revised, rewritten, and received may refer to checkpoints along the lifespan of the biblical texts but, on a basic level, the ancient scribes who participated in these phases are unified by their ability to engage, explain, and extend their inherited traditions with openness and ingenuity. If we rewind to 1947 and consider the initial manuscript finds that emerged from the first cave off the northwest corner of the Dead Sea, it is evident that this lesson was waiting to be learned for more than two thousand years. A stray goat and a Bedouin boy just had to toss a stone into the right cave.
The Qumran caves yielded a wide diversity of manuscript types that raised both problems and prospects for understanding early scribal interpretations of scripture. 1QIsaiahb hews terribly close to medieval witnesses to the Masoretic text, such as the Aleppo codex. But its counterpart, 1QIsaiaha, is at once our most ancient, complete manuscript of any biblical book, and riddled with differences from other known texts and traditions. Not unlike many of today’s biblical commentaries, Pesher Habakkuk alternates between quotes and comments on individual passages. The Aramaic Genesis Apocryphon retells select patriarchal episodes, infusing them with entertaining turns and twists in response to interpretive hooks in the book of Genesis. Even this small cross-section of writings from Cave 1 indicates that the boundaries between scripture and interpretation, scribe and interpreter, were porous. The studies collected by Devorah Dimant and Reinhard Kratz in Rewriting and Interpreting the Hebrew Bible: The Biblical Patriarchs in the Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls explore this phenomenon from a number of angles, texts, and issues.
One of the central currents running through the volume is the interest in finding continuity between the ancient Jewish scribal-exegetes of the Second Temple period and their forebears who inscribed Israel’s traditions in the books that would eventually constitute the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. As Michael Segal writes in his essay, “[t]he Bible’s earliest interpreters are the direct descendants of the biblical authors, and it is therefore not surprising to be able to trace a trajectory from the latest stages of the composition of the Bible to these early exegetes.” To put it another way, there is something of a confluence of ideas from Julius Wellhausen’s contribution to the documentary hypothesis, to Michael Fishbane’s observations on inner-biblical exegesis, to Geza Vermes’s formulation of the rewritten Bible phenomenon.
The lead essays by Moshe Bar-Asher and Emanuel Tov focus on compositional strategies within some traditions of the Hebrew Bible. Bar-Asher details how parallel forms and structures in Genesis (and in some cases beyond) were used to explain ambiguous or rare passages elsewhere in the book. Tov describes anew how scribes or translators of our primary witnesses to Genesis (the Septuagint, the Masoretic text, and the Samaritan Pentateuch) harmonized repetitious details in the patriarchal narratives by drawing upon immediate and remote contexts. These studies reveal that recovering the text of Genesis is as important for contemporary textual criticism as understanding the scribal processes that resulted in the manuscript traditions that have come down to us from antiquity.
The following clusters of studies focus less on the text of Genesis and more on the interpretive dynamics of patriarchal sagas and vignettes. Moshe Bernstein observes that, save for the elaborate Abraham section of the Genesis Apocryphon, the adventures of the classical trio Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were of limited interpretive interest to the writers of the scrolls we would now call “non-biblical.” Michael Segal winds the clock back to the original patriarch and offers a fresh reading of the (re-)combination of law and narrative in the Edenic tradition in Jubilees: through his actions and acquisition of knowledge, Adam is animated both as the first human and the first priest, mimicking the duties of the angelic priesthood.
Not only the characters of the patriarchs provided exegetical grist for ancient scribes. The cataclysmic events that seemed to follow them also opened interpretive vistas. Devorah Dimant’s and Reinhard Kratz’s essays detail the interpretive dynamics and direction of the flood in the Qumran Hebrew texts and prophetic writings of the Hebrew Bible, respectively. To use Kratz’s words, writing and rewriting the flood in these collections is a prime example of the “absorption,” “transformation,” “reception,” and “interpretation” of a literary topos of wider cultural currency in the ancient Near East. Roman Vielhaurer traces a more subtle tradition-historical line from the Hebrew Bible to the Scrolls, the Sodom and Gomorrah disaster of Genesis 18-19. Relaxing the lines between redaction and reception, Vielhaurer finds that Abraham’s dialogue with God on the fate of the righteous among the wicked in the latest stratum of the tradition unanimously provided the point of departure for Qumran interpretation.
Even a casual perusal of the patriarchal traditions of the Qumran Scrolls reveals that many of Israel’s ancestral heroes enjoyed vivid literary afterlives. In a sense, they became more than their scriptural selves. The pair of essays by George Brooke and Atar Livneh illustrate how Jacob’s association with the priesthood/cult as well as his role in securing the land are accentuated in a sizable cross-section of sectarian and non-sectarian literature found at Qumran. Perhaps the most active component of the patriarchs’ literary afterlives pertains to their enacting Jewish law (halakhah) prior to its utterance and endorsement on Sinai. The studies by Harald Samuel, Liora Goldman, Lawrence Schiffman, and Aharon Shemesh explore the burst of this type of literary-exegetical activity in a host of writings among the Scrolls. These essays collectively impress upon the reader that halakhic interpretation and speculation was not only the stuff of the earliest biblical scribes and rabbinic sages. Authors and exegetes of Second Temple period Judaism were active participants and contributors to this time-honored craft.
The book of Genesis has inspired, entertained, and confounded readers for millennia. In one of the final scenes of the canonical book, Jacob gathers his sons before him for his deathbed speech. The New Revised Standard Version marks this section out as “Jacob’s Last Words to His Sons.” While this may be true of the form of the book known from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Rewriting and Interpreting the Hebrew Bible contends that the authors of many works among the Scrolls saw to it that the words of their ancestors were not faint or relegated to the past. Genesis was not a closed book. As far as many ancient Jewish scribal-exegetes were concerned, its cast of characters had more to say and more to do.
Also Recommended from MRB:
- Coffee Table Talk with Charlotte Hempel
- Literary Criticism and the Composition of the Hebrew Bible – By Juha Pakkala
- The Essenes and the Qumran Settlement – By Jodi Magness