Indiana University Research & Creative Activity April 1998 Volume XXI Number 1


by Judi Hetrick

Students come to Steven Weitzman's classes on the Hebrew scriptures with an unusual attribute -they already know the text, or at least they know something about it.

"They've encountered the Bible before if only as an idea, if not as an actual text. So they know who Adam is, they know who Abraham is. They've heard of Moses, they've heard of David. It's embedded in our culture," explains Weitzman, an assistant professor of religious studies at Indiana University Bloomington.

But the students often don't understand that they also bring with them traditions of biblical interpretation. And to Weitzman, interpretation is critical. "What I often do at the beginning of my Introduction to the Hebrew Bible class is have the students retell the Garden of Eden story, just from memory. And they can do it. They know the story; it's part of our collective imagination," he says. "But when they retell it they add to the story. They will identify the serpent as Satan. They will identify the fruit that Adam and Eve eat of as an apple. These are not elements of the story itself. These are interpretive traditions. They have a history. That helps them to realize that the way they think about the Bible presupposes a history of interpretation. In a variety of ways I am constantly trying to get them to confront the difference between the Bible that they are familiar with and the Bible that is before us on the page."

Steven Weitzman, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Indiana University Bloomington --credit

That dual focus on the biblical text itself and its interpretation carries through to Weitzman's research, which looks at how early Jews read the Bible and how the book came to be regarded as sacred scripture. "I'm interested in both what the Bible was written to mean but also what it's come to mean--and it's come to mean many different things to different kinds of people," he says. Weitzman asks both his students and those who read his scholarly work to look at scripture from different perspectives: "I try to get them to look at the Bible in a way they are not expecting to look at it."

Weitzman began his study of the Hebrew scriptures and the history of civilization as an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley as an attempt to understand the act of interpretation. What followed was a doctoral degree from Harvard University with distinction in Near Eastern languages and civilizations, an academic journey that included a visiting research fellowship at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

His book Song and Story in Biblical Narrative: The History of a Literary Convention in Ancient Israel (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1997) is adapted from his doctoral dissertation. "The book is about a very puzzling feature of biblical literature--its mixing of song and story," he says. To understand that literary practice, he did his best to look at the text from the perspective of the early Jews. He used the comparative method--placing the biblical literature alongside other ancient Near Eastern works such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish-Hellenistic literature, and rabbinic midrash (texts to biblical exposition)--and he worked with different versions of the biblical texts themselves. What he discovered was that early Jews added songs to stories to meet their expectations of what sacred scripture should be. Those people wanted their scriptures to live up to certain artistic standards as well as to serve as "an authoritative guide for conduct and belief." Songs and "last words" are both examples of literary genres with their own power, aesthetics, and pedagogical roles. They are also genres deemed appropriate for scriptures.

"The last song that Moses sings," Weitzman says, "is a teaching, and it's very critical, just as the convention of 'last words' were. In ancient worlds, 'last words' were opportunities to learn. In Greece, people were interested in the last words of Socrates; in Egypt, they were interested in the words of kings and sages; in Israel, the words of Jacob and Moses and David." When the texts they received did not use the genres as expected, the biblical compilers changed the texts to meet their expectations.

The Old Testament in Hebrew. Venice: Daniel Bomberg, 1524-1525. Four volumes, bound in two. In 1516, Daniel Bomberg, a Christian printer who set up shop in Venice, began publication of the Rabbinical Bible, a Hebrew Bible that contained the learned commentaries of well-known rabbinical scholars. Bomberg and his editor, Felix Pratensis, a Jewish convert to Christianity, received a ten-year licence that prohibited any other printer from issuing a Bible with these commentaries. Near the end of his monopoly, this second edition of the Rabbinical Bible was issued. This edition included, for the first time, the extensive and traditional Masoretic textual apparatus edited by the scholar Jacob ben Chayim. This page contains the first page of the Book of Genesis surrounded by commentaries. --credit

Just as ancient Jews imposed their standards on scripture, modern readers "inevitably impose upon (the Bible) literary categories that emerged long after ancient Israel was only a memory," he writes. But Weitzman has learned to juxtapose familiar twentieth-century categories in ways to help his students better understand ancient texts such as prophetic literature, which he describes as an extremely difficult and perplexing part of Hebrew scripture. "When we begin to discuss prophecy we compare it to stand-up comedy," he says. "I ask them what are the characteristics of this kind of expression. They will know that it's an oral mode . . . that it consists of individual units that we call jokes that are strung together, that comedians will add mimicry and imitation and sarcasm and stereotypes. So they can see stand-up comedy as a particular mode of expression with particular characteristics. It's connected to a specific context and it serves a certain purpose."

"Then we go from that to the book of Amos, who is minor prophet in the Hebrew Bible, and what they discover--and what they are surprised to discover--is that it has many of the same characteristics as a stand-up comedy routine. It relies on sarcasm and mimicry, it consists of individual units strung together, it is believed to have been originally presented orally," Weitzman explains. "That gets them to see prophecy in a way they're not accustomed to seeing prophecy."

Seeing scripture in more that one light has a long history in Jewish tradition, where scripture is seen as both written in stone and living in conversation. "Jews believe that God revealed to Moses two Torahs, a written one and an oral one," Weitzman explains. "Both are necessary. Oral Torah was transmitted from generation to generation, but eventually was organized and written down. What is known as the Talmud is actually part of oral Torah. To read the Bible Jewishly is to know both the written and oral Torah, not just the Hebrew Bible, but this amazing accumulation of traditions and materials that constitute oral Torah." Written Torah is the stable thing, Weitzman explains, while the oral Torah is more fluid, can change and grow. Attitudes toward oral Torah distinguish Orthodox Judaism from Reform Judaism. Each has different ideas about the authority of oral Torah and the freedom of the individual to accept, reject, or reinterpret oral Torah.

"There's a famous story about how two rabbis were disagreeing on an issue and they appealed to God to settle the matter," Weitzman recounts. "God said both these words--and these words--are the words of God. So there is a sense that you can have different points of view and both sides can reflect part of God's revelation to Israel. Oral Torah has always grown, always changed, developed in response to changing circumstances. It's the flexible part of revelation in scripture. What is built in is room for disagreement, for diversity of opinion, a room for many voices. The Talmud is literally debates between rabbis. Almost never does the Talmud tell you who won or who lost; it's the debate itself. That is the point of the tradition."

The question of biblical authorship naturally arises. Are the Hebrew scriptures the word of God, the word of God through humans, or an entirely human creation? Truth is in the eye of the reader. "For many people in the world, obviously, the Bible is the word of God," Weitzman says. "For many secular scholars, the Bible is an ancient Near Eastern document composed in a very small, out-of-the-way country 3,000 years ago. For many people struggling with these two diametrically different points of view, they find an answer somewhere in between. I'm interested in why people can come to such very different conclusions about this text."

Weitzman teaches a special course on the Bible and Its Interpreters as part of the College of Arts and Sciences' Topics program, designed to introduce first-year students to critical thinking. In that class, he adapts the idea of differing interpretations as a teaching tool. "We read several novels in that class that in some way react to the Bible," he says, "and so we read Frankenstein, which is a retelling of the Creation story, and we read East of Eden, which is really a retelling of the Cain and Abel story, and several other novels that are really in a way readings of the Bible."

The students have the opportunity to see biblical interpretations in action. They break into small groups and each group visits one of two dozen different religious communities in Bloomington to see how those groups interpret the Bible. The students themselves become interpreters. "I have two different kinds of exercises," Weitzman says. "One asks them to interpret the text from their own perspective and the other exercise asks them to interpret the text from somebody else's perspective . . . which is always interesting to have them read the Bible as a rabbi, or as a feminist, which may be very different from the way they were accustomed to reading it."

But interpretation is more than a classroom exercise. "What's amazing about the history of biblical interpretation is the many different roles the Bible has played over the course of the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam," he says. "The Bible has served to justify oppression on the one hand, but it has also motivated social change. Some of the great reform movements of European and American history have been licensed by the Bible, have drawn their energy from how the Bible has been understood." The most famous example in American history, Weitzman says, is the Civil War. The dichotomy of biblical interpretation is literally carved in stone on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. In his second inaugural address, President Abraham Lincoln pointed out that both slave owner and abolitionist used the Bible to justify their positions.

Similarly, Jews and Christians, throughout their history, have used the story of Adam and Eve to justify second-class status for women. Paul and other early Christians looked to the Adam and Eve story to put the blame for the Fall on Eve and derived from that the conclusion that women should not be allowed to hold positions of authority or to teach. Fast forward to the nineteenth and twentieth century and the rise of feminism: The Bible has been reinterpreted to support the idea that women are in every way the equal of man, each created in the image of God. "If you look at Genesis Chapter 1, where God says, 'Let there be light,' you see at the end of the chapter that the creation of woman is different from the story of how woman is created in the Garden of Eden, where Eve is the helpmate to man, created to serve. In Genesis, Chapter 1, man and woman are both created equally in the image of God. Recent feminist biblical scholars have looked at Genesis 1 as a kind of countertext to the Garden of Eden story. It shows how complex the Bible's attitude toward women is."

It's also one example of how the act of interpretation can have social consequences. Weitzman's current research looks at some historic consequences of interpretation; he is exploring early Jewish ritual and how people used ritual to make sense of their world--and to change it. Ritual was used to deal with the Roman occupation, both to cope with it and to protest it. Festivals often became riots. But little writing deals directly with these early rituals, so Weitzman has to "tease out" their details from what has been written. But people did record their beliefs about the origins of their rituals--and they saw those origins as biblical.

Adam and Eve, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), 1504, Germany, Engraving --credit

Ritual is one way that people encounter written scripture--and an interpretation of it--even if they do not read. "Historically . . . although Judaism and Christianity are both scripture-centered religions, the majority of people in both religions, their encounter with the text was not necessarily reading the text," Weitzman points out. "The Bible is encountered through sermons, it's encountered through songs, it's encountered through art, and so you can argue that biblical interpretation is the central religious act."

Reading is also critical to the Judeo-Christian tradition. "What these traditions share in common is that reading is on some fundamental level the way people relate to God. The act of reading is an intellectual act, a social act, an act with profound religious and political consequences. Jews and Christians don't talk to God directly anymore, they don't sacrifice. They read texts," Weitzman notes. "When we read scripture, we are attached to the author, we are attached to other readers in some ways, and to read is to connect ourselves to others in our community, to connect ourselves to the past and to try to understand the present. You cannot be alone in reading. Reading is really a way to let others in."

Through his research, writing, and his teaching, Weitzman is sharing ways to let others in--ways to begin with a text and perhaps change the world. "As a college professor, as a teacher, I do see it as my central task to help students learn how to read and to complicate that act and to expose students to different ways of reading and the power that reading can have to transform reality." dingbat

Return to the Table of Contents