The Book of J
translated from the hebrew by david rosenberg
interpreted by harold bloom
grove weidenfeld, 340 pages, $21.95
The J of the title was discovered in 1711 by Henning Bernhard Witter, an obscure Lutheran pastor of Hildesheim, so obscure, in fact, that his role in the naming of this source of the Pentateuch was only rediscovered in the present century by the French biblical scholar Adolphe Lods. In the writings of Witter and the host of others after him who held that the Pentateuch resulted from the combination of several continuous narrative sources, J and its somewhat nebulous Doppelganger E never emerged as individual authors in their own right. More often than not, in fact, these and the other narrative strands were thought of as the products of an anonymous committee or school.
In the period between the world wars, however, and especially in the writings of another Lutheran theologian, the Heidelberg professor Gerhard von Rad invoked by Bloom, J began to emerge as an individual, a theologian of surpassing originality, the finest product of what von Rad called the Solomonic enlightenment. Theologies of J began to be written, and attempts were made by the more adventurous to break the barrier of anonymity. The French scholar Henri Cazelles, for example, thought it might have been Ahimaaz, son of Zadok the priest and Davidic loyalist, while others looked elsewhere among the rich cast of characters in the annals of David and Solomon.
Harold Bloom’s proposal, perhaps suggested by a rather casual remark in Richard Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? (1981), is that J was written by a woman of high social standing, probably of the blood royal, at the court of Rehoboam, inept successor to Solomon. The translator, David Rosenberg, goes out further along the same limb by revealing her age: she was a woman in her early forties, old enough to be experienced in the ways of the world and the whims of a wayward deity, but not too old to have lost her appetite for life.
Bloom depends for his identification of the female voice in J on the description of the creation of the woman in Genesis; so much more detailed and technically advanced than that of the man (Yahweh, he says, got it right the second time around), on the rendering of heroine figures in the story, the Kafkaesque subtleties and ironies, and most of all on his own intuition after a lifetime of Bible reading. One is reminded of Robert Graves’ Homer’s Daughter, published in 1955, in which, following a suggestion of Samuel Butler, he presented Nausicaa as the author of the Odyssey in an engaging fictional autobiography.
Bloom is more circumspect than Graves in not, for example, looking for mistakes a woman would be likely to make (e.g., putting a rudder at the prow of a ship) or reconstructing the feminine subculture of a male-dominated society. He is aware of the dangers of gender stereotyping involved in his proposal, and puts up some defensive outworks against anticipated feminist criticism. He is also prepared to admit that this is his fiction, but one to which he is as entitled as the scholars are to their historical-critical fictions.
The fact remains, however, that the whole point of translating and material and no other—even down to the splitting of verses between J and another source, generally E or P—is postulated on this particular critical theory being correct. In this respect, his approach is very different from that of another distinguished literary critic, Robert Alter, author of The Art of Biblical Narrative, who deprecates what he calls the excavative techniques of professional biblical scholarship and works with the text as it is, in its final form.
It is somewhat ironic that the authors should set out to rescue from neglect this highly placed and vastly talented lady, versed in the ways of the world, entre deux ages, at a time when the documentary hypothesis can no longer be taken for granted, when the extent, the date, and even the existence of J as an independent, continuous narrative are being widely questioned. And even for those who still work within the documentary paradigm, the identification of J becomes very problematic when we move out of Genesis. With respect to the Sinai narrative, for example, where the authors follow one of several options, a contemporary scholar, Lothar Perlitt, has stated that source division might as well be done by drawing straws.
Bloom, who, as he himself informs us, is neither a believer nor a historian, is convinced that he is restoring a text covered over by centuries of institutionalized misreading. One result is that the character of J’s deity, a male deity rather less mature and sophisticated than J herself, has been suppressed or transformed by the established religions. The believer who accords these texts a privileged religious status is, therefore, no longer in a position to understand what they are really saying for, as Bloom puts it, “when script becomes Scripture, reading is numbed by taboo and inhibition.”
Curiously, this position is similar to that of the great Julius Wellhausen, whose Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, published over a century ago, put the documentary hypothesis on a firm footing and set the agenda of Old Testament studies down to the present. Wellhausen lamented the Judaizing of the past by the official historians and the “denaturing” (Denaturierung) of early Israelite religion by the priestly and scribal representatives of the post-exilic theocracy. Something like this typically late-nineteenth-century theory of development, no longer in favor, seems to have inspired Bloom’s attempt to rescue J from oblivion.
Translator Rosenberg, a poet and former editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society, sets out to break with the smooth cliches, awkward idioms, and undistinguished style that he finds in other modern translations. While there are numerous points of disagreement in detail among source critics as to what is or is not J, he follows a fairly standard breakdown, such as can be found in any of the critical Introductions to the Old Testament, with a few modifications of his own, especially in the Joseph story. His is certainly different from other recent versions, the closest to it perhaps being Everett Fox’s translation of Genesis and Exodus. Abandoning the standard chapter and verse divisions, he sets out J’s narrative in continuous prose, redividing it into 178 paragraphs according to what he takes to be the natural breaks in the story. While several, perhaps most, of the source critics trace the J source down to the occupation of the land, understood as the honoring of a commitment made to the ancestors, Rosenberg ends with the death of Moses and his burial in an unmarked grave.
Theories of translation vary from the very literal to the very paraphrastic. Rosenberg is clearly at the paraphrastic end of the band, freeing himself from what he calls “literal word for word slavery” in order to render the syntactical and contextual nuances, the assonance and word play, that characterize J’s narrative style. He has the advantage over many other translators of familiarity with creative writing in modern Hebrew, and therefore of a certain feel for the language. The approach he has adopted is clearly not without risks, and the result reads more like an updated midrash or targum than a translation in any generally accepted sense. I suspect also that some readers will find the determination to be different rather too obtrusive, the language at times too contrived and artful.
In the first section, for example, corresponding to the Garden of Eden story (Genesis 2:4b-3:24) and to Rosenberg’s first ten paragraphs, associative links are established by word repetition requiring a paraphrastic rendering of the original. In the original, only the woman speaks of touching the tree, but there is a lot of touching in Rosenberg’s translation: Yahweh cautions that if they touch the tree death will touch them; before eating, the man and woman are untouched by shame; and the snake assures them that if they eat, death will not touch them.
Another word full of resonance for Rosenberg is “smooth.” The man and woman are naked, untouched by shame, but later the man hides from Yahweh because he knew he was smooth-skinned, while the snake is smoother-tongued than any wild creature that Yahweh made. Instead of Eve becoming the mother of all the living, we read that “she would have all who live, smooth the way, mother.” Later, and somewhat perversely, where the Hebrew word “smooth” (halaq) actually occurs, when Jacob describes himself as a smooth man in contrast to the hirsute Esau, Rosenberg has him protest that his skin is bare. This is a pity, because the narrator surely intended to remind the reader that, in addition to being hairless, Jacob was also a slippery character at that point of the story.
As we would expect. Bloom’s commentary on Rosenberg’s text is full of striking and provocative insights, sometimes playful, sometimes perverse, but at any rate rarely boring. After restoring J’s missing creation account, suppressed in favor of the Priestly version in Genesis 1, Bloom turns his attention to the Garden of Eden story, reading it not as a story of sin and punishment, not even as, in Paul Ricoeur’s phrase, a myth of deviation, but as a lovingly and playfully ironic account of the unsatisfactory state of affairs in which we find ourselves and, more specifically, in which the author found herself in the twilight days of the post-Solomonic era. There is therefore for Bloom no original sin—a misinterpretation scandalously prominent in Christian theology—but only a statement of the reality principle: this is the way it is. There is also no stigma attaching to the woman; on the contrary, she is the author’s favorite character and the only one of the dramatis personae, including Yahweh, who comes out of the story looking good.
All of this is very interesting, but one cannot help suspecting that the author has missed something of the symbolic force and gravity of the narrative as a whole. Comparison with Gilgamesh, which the author of Genesis 2-3 may have had in mind in writing, would perhaps have given a deeper resonance to the reality principle, including the limitations of human capacities and the acceptance of death. We can be thankful, nevertheless, for a fresh and highly original demonstration of the power of these texts to challenge and subvert.
Joseph Blenkinsopp is John A. O’Brien Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent publications are novels Abraham: The Story of a Life (2015) and David Remembered: Kingship and National Identity in Ancient Israel (2013).