What It Means to Read the Bible as Nothing More than Great Literature https://mosaicmagazine.com/response/uncategorized/2019/02/what-it-means-to-read-the-bible-as-nothing-more-than-great-literature/

Like all of the other methods that have been devised for approaching the Bible, the literary method has its inevitable limitations.

February 11, 2019 | Jon D. Levenson
About the author: Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University and the author of Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Library of Jewish Ideas; Princeton University Press).
This is a response to How to Judge Robert Alter's Landmark Translation of the Hebrew Bible, originally published in Mosaic in February 2019

A detail from Tsadi Pe, a tapestry designed by the Israeli artist Mordecai Ardon and now used for the cover of one of the volumes of Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible. 

In his enlightening essay on Robert Alter’s new translation of the Hebrew Bible, Hillel Halkin identifies Alter as “a leading advocate of the view, rarely voiced before the mid-20th century, that the Bible needs to be read as great literature and not just for its religious or historical content.” As he goes on immediately to note, Alter has now also “sought to bring this perspective to bear on [the Bible’s] translation.”

But what exactly does it mean to read any collection of compositions as “great literature” divorced from “its religious or historical content”? That is far from clear. Surely, the greatness of any piece of literature is partly a function of its worldview and of the particular moment in cultural history that made the literature possible. At the very end of his essay, Halkin hints at something like this when he observes that the practice of “reading the Bible as literature—if that is all we read it as—remains an act of rebellion . . . against the Bible itself, which does not wish to be read in this way.”

Another difficult point, however, is in what sense the Bible can be said to wish or not to wish something. Does a book have will or desire? Is there any reason to take any voice within a book, however insistent it may be, as normative for interpretation?

One reason that Alter’s view was rare before a generation or two ago was that, over the millennia, readers generally approached the Bible not as deracinated individuals asking questions of this kind but rather as members of communities committed to certain truths and certain practices to which they believed the Bible attested, and did so with authority. It is not that the Bible on its own wished to be read this or that way, but rather that the God who was its ultimate author wished to communicate those truths and practices to the community to whom He chose to reveal Himself.

Given those premodern presuppositions—which are probably also the presuppositions even of most modern individuals who are highly invested in reading the Bible—what dictates the norm of interpretation is the author’s intention, except that the Author, though He makes use (by whatever mysterious means) of language and history, transcends them both.

Within such traditionally religious communities of interpretation, God cannot be adequately understood as another figure in the story, as can Homer’s Zeus and Hera, or Virgil’s Venus and Juno. And even human figures like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob cannot be interpreted as if they were characters in a modern novel but must, instead or in addition, be viewed as foundational and as prefiguring the travails and the triumphs of their literal or spiritual descendants, the people Israel or the Church as the case may be.


The proposition that “the Bible needs to be read as great literature,” then, is in large part a product of modern secularity, with its skepticism of religious claims and authorities and its high evaluation of the supposedly independent judgment of the objective and self-governing individual. This is not to say that the insights of those who read the Bible as literature cannot be of value to those who read it with fidelity to religious tradition, and vice versa; after all, more than a few of those insights were actually anticipated in ancient midrash. But it is to say that, within the traditional framework, reading the Bible solely as literature is, if not an act of rebellion, then at least one of spiritually impoverishing self-limitation.

Even more than is the case with other volumes in the curricula of the world’s “great books,” classifying the Bible as “great literature” represents an effort to generate a successor to Scripture for the modern secular world. And yet, in my experience, a telltale religious connection still lies in the background of most who pursue such a secular approach to the Bible. Should we be surprised that the parameters of the Bible-seen-as-literature approach tend to correspond with the religious identity of the supposedly non-confessional interpreter?

Take, for example, The Great Code (1981), by the literary scholar Northrop Frye. A minister of the United Church of Canada, Frye provided a secular variant of the classic Christian typological reading of the Bible, by which he meant the two-testament Scripture of the Church. “I know that Jewish and Islamic conceptions of the Bible are very different,” he conceded, “but that is practically all that I do know about them, and it is the Christian Bible that is important for English literature and the Western cultural tradition.”

For his part, Robert Alter, who as an undergraduate in New York had also taken courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary, similarly allowed in his The Art of Biblical Narrative, published the same year as Frye’s The Great Code, that “there are of course certain literary as well as theological continuities between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.” But he quickly went on to deny “that these two bodies of ancient literature can be comfortably set in the same critical framework.”

The question thus remains open of whether a non-religious method of biblical study can sustain itself over the generations in significant numbers and not depend upon practitioners who were themselves formed in religious communities. And no less open is the question of whether it makes sense to identify any particular set of books as the Bible without acknowledging that the forces that have brought those books within the same covers are primarily theological, not literary.

If we bear this in mind, we shall not be surprised to find in the Bible passages in which, as Halkin puts it, “one would be hard-pressed to find literary merit.” We shall also not be surprised to find that treating the Bible primarily as “great literature” will cause us to neglect or minimize much that has been taken as essential to it, not only by the faithful but also by scholars of history, religion, and anthropology.


Modern skepticism toward traditional religious claims and authorities has had a major role in producing still another approach to the Bible: one that so far, in fact, has proved much more influential than the literary approach.

This is the historical-critical method, which interprets the biblical texts with an eye primarily, if not to their (very human) authors’ intentions, then to their authors’ cultural world and the literary techniques and conventions characteristic of it. Here, the principal threat to intellectual integrity is anachronism: the temptation to retroject post-biblical ideas, institutions, and traditions into the interpretation (and sometime even the translation) of the Bible, or the kindred temptation to harmonize the various and often contradictory biblical texts into one putatively consistent and seamless entity, at whatever cost in plausibility and in defiance of the complicated compositional processes that historical critics themselves set about meticulously to reconstruct.

Enormously aiding these scholars in their task has been the discovery over the past two centuries or so of troves upon troves of ancient Near Eastern texts. Many of those texts have shed unexpected light on the history, culture, and religion of ancient Israel, and some of them bear striking similarities to biblical compositions.

Within the strictures of the historical-critical method, it will not do to assume a uniform and unchanging culture or religion against which to interpret the variegated texts that were eventually brought together in the Hebrew Bible. Rather, any interpretation, even a literary one, must be accountable to the historical period in which the text was produced.


To indicate briefly the interpretive difference these assumptions make, let’s take the two passages dealing with child sacrifice that Halkin mentions in his Mosaic essay.

Commenting on Alter’s decision to translate the word ma’akhelet in the story of the Binding of Isaac as a “cleaver” instead of the usual “knife” (Genesis 22:6, 10), Halkin asks what might have prompted so seemingly strange a choice. He then broaches—without endorsing—the possibility that we are meant by Alter to conceive of an Abraham “about to go berserk” from the insupportable ordeal imposed on him by God. “Will he,” Halkin wonders, “having saddled his donkey, and split wood for an offering, and gone to Mount Moriah, and sacrificed Isaac on the altar he builds . . . chop him into pieces? Will all his terrible resolve, now that Isaac is dead, erupt in an orgiastic fury?”

In fact, such a re-conception of Abraham as a (typically) violent father has become common, not to mention ideologically useful, in some circles. Needless to say, it stands in stark contrast to the way the story has usually been taken in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam alike. The scenario that Halkin evokes differs in one respect, in that it does not postulate sacrifice itself as an act of sheer violence but rather places Abraham’s “orgiastic fury” after the offering has already been made. If ma’akhelet here refers to a meat cleaver rather than a knife used in sacrifice, this reading would suggest that Abraham had planned for his orgiastic eruption but forgot to bring along (or the author thought it unimportant to mention) the instrument he planned to use in the sacrificial slaying of his beloved son itself.

That is indeed a very odd possibility, and one that Halkin wisely rejects. As he points out, “In all likelihood, ma’akhelet does not mean ‘cleaver,’ or else sometimes means ‘cleaver’ and sometimes means ‘knife.’”

The truth is, we just don’t know what the biblical words were for the knives used in sacrifice. Ma’akhelet, which occurs only four times in the Hebrew Bible (half of them in the Binding of Isaac) may well have been one of them. But there is no reason to take its sole attestation in the story of a gruesome dismemberment in Judges 19:29 as determinative for the meaning of the noun, thus implying an equally gruesome act in Genesis 22 rather than an exalted act of self-surrender before an exceedingly demanding divine command.

Alter compounds the misdirection of rendering ma’akhelet as “cleaver” here by also asserting that the verb lishḥoṭ (“to slaughter”) in Genesis 22:10 is drawn “from butchering, rather than sacrifice.” Butchering can be part of the sequence of acts in an animal sacrifice, and the majority of biblical occurrences of the verb in question appear in unambiguously sacrificial contexts. Most likely, Alter was misled by the related noun sh’ḥiṭah, common in later Hebrew but with only one occurrence in the Bible, a term that, sacrifice having disappeared with the destruction of the Temple, now denotes kosher butchering.


The same point about the danger of anachronism can be made with respect to the other narrative of child sacrifice that Halkin raises: the story of the “judge” Jephthah’s actual offering of his daughter in Judges 11. Here, in another thought experiment, Halkin heuristically lays out two opposing lines of interpretation. In the first, Jephthah can be viewed as a “monstrously self-centered person” who blames his daughter for the catastrophe that his own poorly formulated vow has brought upon him, responds to her request for “a two-month stay of her sentence” with nothing but “a gruff ‘Go!’,” fails to visit her while she is away, and in the end “murders his daughter.” In the other, Jephthah “is a tragic victim of fate . . . emotionally unable to say” more than “Go!” in answer to his daughter’s heart-wrenching request, hopes “that she will flee and not return,” and, in the end, honors his vow.

Of these two lines of interpretation, I think the second is much to be preferred, but with qualifications. It cannot be gainsaid that Jephthah is devastated upon realizing that his vow has obligated him to sacrifice his daughter (and only child); his despair is keenly sensed in the verse that Alter renders, “Alas, my daughter, you have indeed laid me low and you have joined ranks with my troublers, for I myself have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot turn back” (Judges 11:35). But the notion that he secretly hopes to desecrate his vow by allowing her to escape strikes me as lacking warrant in the text and in the religious culture it reflects. As Halkin acknowledges, “she is her father’s daughter and thinks like him that a vow is a vow.” In fact, Jephthah knew this before she asked for a brief reprieve in which to bewail her virginity (or, as Alter translates, “keen for my maidenhood”), for she had already insisted that Jephthah had no defensible alternative to fulfilling his vow (Judges 11:36–37).

Thus, whatever we may think of his actions (or hers), the author of the text seems to have thought that Jephthah added to his stature in proving faithful to the God who allowed him to deliver Israel from its enemies. He is indeed “a tragic victim of fate,” as Halkin observes, a fate partly produced by his own verbal sloppiness. But, like other tragic victims, he is also a hero precisely because he accepted his fate and kept faith with his God despite the unspeakable cost.

If I understand correctly, part of Jephthah’s tragedy, as Halkin sees it, is that he is compelled to choose between two conflicting commandments: the requirement to carry out a solemn vow, on the one hand, and the prohibition of murder, on the other. “And so he obeys the first,” Halkin writes, “and murders his daughter.” This assumes that texts like Judges 11 and, for that matter, the Binding of Isaac in Genesis 22, equate child sacrifice with murder.

There is, however, nothing internal to either chapter to suggest that it does so. In the case of Genesis 22, it is especially hard to believe that Abraham would be abundantly rewarded for his willingness to commit a murder. That some biblical texts present child sacrifice as the epitome of false worship does not allow us to assume that it was uniformly and always so viewed or that the prohibition was thought to have always applied without exception, even to larger-than-life figures of the distant past like Abraham and Jephthah. Here again, harmonization comes at a steep cost.


That parts of the Bible can be classified as “great literature,” as that term is understood in literature departments (or used to be), is certainly true. And Robert Alter is among the handful of scholars who have most helped us understand how that is the case. But, like all the methods for approaching the Bible that have been devised over the millennia, and like all the biblical translations that have been produced, the literary method has its inevitable limitations. As Hillel Halkin reminds us, it is wise to keep both the strengths and the limitations in mind. The Bible (in parts) is great literature—and more.