Is the Bible History?

Image: a small section of the Merneptah Stele, translated: “Israel is laid waste, its seed is not.” Public domain.

The quick answer: no, and yes. The Creation stories are not history (and they are definitely not science.) They convey values: that all created beings are essentially good, that order is preferred to chaos, that human beings are responsible for the care of the world. They convey a religious world-view, not a scientific explanation of anything.

Some of the Bible, especially Genesis, is prehistory. None of the folks in Genesis were writing those stories down, as far as we know. The stories have survived because they were oral traditions. Oral traditions are tricky: at their best, it’s amazing what checks out, but at their worst they are like a game of “telephone” in which every detail is changed as the story travels. However, again, what the book gives us is an account of our people’s understanding of who they are, and of the vision of a particular (very dysfunctional) family.

Exodus is a puzzle. There is no corroborating account in the Egyptian archives, and no archaeological evidence of a vast multitude of people crossing the Sinai wilderness. We are not even sure which pharaoh is the Pharaoh of the story. At the same time, there are some tantalizing connections. One of the pharaohs thought to be a possibility for the Yul Brynner role is Merneptah (1213-1203 BCE), who celebrated his victory over some Libyan immigrants by commissioning the Merneptah Victory Stele and placing it in a temple in Thebes. The 7.5 foot stone slab has an inscription which provides the first mention of Israel outside the Bible:

The princes are prostrate saying: “Shalom!” Not one of the Nine Bows lifts his head: Tjehenu is vanquished, Khatti at peace, Canaan is captive with all woe. Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is laid waste, its seed is not, Khor is become a widow for Egypt. All who roamed have been subdued. By the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Banere-meramun, Son of Re, Merneptah, Content with Maat, Given life like Re every day.

This part of the inscription mentions places inside of Egypt, but also places in Canaan: Canaan, Ashkelon, and Gezer. Many (but not all) scholars agree that the Israel mentioned here is indeed connected to the Israel of the Bible. Of course, there’s the little problem that Israel’s “seed” [descendants] were hale and hearty – perhaps Merneptah was just engaging in some ancient Egyptian PR – or was he covering up a successful rebellion? We’ll never know.

Likewise, we have no corroborating evidence for the rest of the journey back to Canaan, but how likely is it that we would have much evidence? Egypt wasn’t writing about it, since it was an embarrassment to Egypt. No one else much cared. (“Escaping slaves? Big deal!”)The stories survived as oral history until the Jews wrote them down, probably during or immediately before the Babylonian Exile (586-538 BCE).

It’s only when we get to the period of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah that we get much outside evidence for the stories in the Bible, by now the stories in the Books of Kings, 930-586 BCE. For that era, we have a number of inscriptions and quite a bit of archaeological evidence, as the kings of Israel and Judea became involved in geopolitics, often against the advice of the prophets. As it is now, the Holy Land was at the fulcrum of world politics. The superpowers of Egypt in the south and Mesopotamia (Babylon and Assyria) in the east jockeyed for advantage, and little Israel and Judah were in the middle. As a result, we have inscriptions and depictions of kings, none of them very flattering but all very much there.

So in summary: No, the Bible isn’t a history book. It is more of a journal, an account a nation gives of itself. Many of the things in it actually happened, but whether an “objective viewer” would agree on exactly how things happened is another question. By the time we get into the later books, Kings and beyond, it is remarkable how much of it does bear out, which is why I also say: Yes, there’s history in there.

For me, the Bible’s worth does not depend on outside inscriptions, or its value as history. Its worth lies in the fact that for thousands of years and millions of people, this collection of books has been a source of inspiration, learning, and solace. Whether the Exodus included 600,000 refugees or 50, its message of freedom remains. Torah is divinely inspired, for me,  because in my struggles with its words, I encounter God.



A Visit to the Dead Sea Scrolls

The California Science Center in Los Angeles has an exhibit titled The Dead Sea Scrolls now through Sept 7, 2015, and yesterday my friend Rabbi Sabine Meyer and I went to see it. If you live in L.A., or will visit there anytime soon, it’s well worth the admission fee.

They have done a nice job of putting the Scrolls in their historical context, explaining how they relate to other documents (the Hebrew Bible, Christian Bibles, and the Quran) and to the history of the Middle East. They also explained some of the science involved in their restoration. I could have used a bit more of the science: without it, the scrolls would have been nothing more than a curiosity, because we would not have been able to read them.

There’s a nice archaeological exhibit included as well, with a huge stone from the Temple Mount, pottery and building stones, figurines and inscriptions. Those who wish to read scripture as history, or who wish to read the Bible as infallible will be uncomfortable with it, but I liked the forthright approach to the science of the scrolls.

The scroll fragments come at the end of the exhibit, in a display that echoes the display at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. It is always a shock to see how tiny the fragments are, and how difficult it is to make out anything on them. I wish there had been more to explain how the scientists who reclaimed the scrolls made it possible for scholars to read them. When I looked at the blown-up images of the scroll fragments, enhanced for legibility, the calligraphy on them is beautiful and in fact easy to read – but the little flakes of actual scroll are hard to see, much less read. (If you’d like to see the scrolls for yourself, you can also take a look at them at the Digital Dead Sea Scrolls site maintained by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.)

So if you get a chance, go! But if Los Angeles is far away, let me give you a brief primer on the scrolls:

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered accidentally by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947. They include most of the books of the Hebrew Bible, with the exception of the Book of Esther. They also include some other texts which seem to have been exclusive to the Jews who lived together at Qumran in the first century CE.

The people who owned and hid the scrolls may have been Essenes, a sect of Judaism mentioned by Josephus in his history of the Jews. However, this is by no means certain. What we do know is that about the time of the failed revolt against Rome, the owners of this library of scrolls sealed it up in jars, stashed it in hard-to-reach caves above the Dead Sea, and there they stayed until the 20th century.

For more about the history and significance of the scrolls, the Virtual Jewish Library has an excellent set of articles.

What’s a Parashah?

Photo of Torah at Parashat Yitro in Exodus. Photo by Susan Krauss, all rights reserved.

Jews have a whole vocabulary for talking about the Torah. One of the words that puzzles newcomers is parashah.

For starters, we say it a lot of different ways: pah-rah-SHAH, PAR-shah and sometimes par-SHAHT in front of another incomprehensible word. So here’s the deal:

The Torah is a huge scroll, and without divisions, it would be hard to locate anything in it. First, the Torah is divided into 5 books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Those are sometimes referred to as the Five Books of Moses. Those are their Greek names, by the way. The Hebrew names are Bereshit (buh-ray-SHEET), Shemot (sh’MOTE), Vayikra (vah-yee-KRAH), Bemidbar (b’meed-BAHR) and Devarim (d’vahr-EEM.)

Next, each of those books is divided into parshiot (pahr-shee-OAT.) Genesis has the most parshiot, at 12, Exodus and Deuteronomy have 11, and Leviticus and Numbers have 10. In the whole Torah, there are 54 Torah portions, or parshiot.

Torah portions are not the same as chapters in the Bible! Sometimes they begin or end with a chapter, but sometimes not. Chapters were actually the divisions made by Christian scholars, although they are so useful for finding things in the text that Jews use them today, too. Parshiot tend to be much longer than chapters, too.

If you are interested in how the Jewish Bible is different from the Christian Bible, I have an article, Beginner’s Guide to the Jewish Bible, which will explain some of it. (Clue: it isn’t just that the Christian Bible has the New Testament.) For a chart comparing the Jewish Bible, the Catholic Bible, the Christian Orthodox Bible, and the Christian Protestant Bible, there’s a good chart at

In general, Jews read one Torah portion aloud every week in synagogue. ]However, the Jewish year is on a lunar calendar, so every few years we double up some of the portions, reading two in a given week. The schedule by which this is done is complicated. Most Jews just look it up on a calendar. If you’d like to see a list of all the Torah portions and their names, there is a good one at, a good online Jewish calendar.

Verses are an even smaller division of the Jewish Bible (and they are usually the same as in the Christian Bible.) In very old rabbinic literature, bits of Torah are not referred to by “portion and verse” but by a word or two of the verse. The ancient rabbis had the entire Torah memorized, so when they heard a few words of a verse, they knew exactly what was up for discussion! Today in a Torah study, we refer to chapter and verse, don’t worry!

Now, as for those words for portion that I mentioned earlier: pah-rah-SHAH is the Sephardic or Modern Israeli pronunciation. PAHR-shah is the Ashkenazi pronunciation (these are different ways of pronouncing Hebrew.) And pahr-SHAHT is a form meaning “The Portion of” which is always followed by the name of the portion. For example, I might say, “This week we are reading from Parshaht Devarim, which is the first parashah in Devarim (Deuteronomy.) Parshaht Devarim translates literally to “the portion of Devarim.”

Are there words or phrases you have heard people use at Torah Study that confused you? Don’t worry about the spelling – all transliterations of Hebrew are approximations. I’d like to help demystify the words – words should illuminate, not get in the way!

Ask the Rabbi: Is Jewish Law Based on the Bible?

Ask the RabbiVM asked: “Does the Rabbinical Courts based their decisions predominantly from the Torah/Tanach? Especially when it comes to Sin & Judgment?!”

This isn’t a simple question, although it might seem like one.  It’s especially pertinent at this season of the year, as we begin a six-week period of self-examination and teshuvah [repentance.]

The Nature of Scripture

Let’s look at the nature of scripture for a moment. Any sacred scripture, be it Tanakh, or the New Testament, or the Koran, is a body of work that is interpreted by the people who use it. An outsider reading it may have any number of impressions about it, but she is unlikely to automatically stumble upon its meaning as understood by insiders. Try this experiment:

Go to the Internet Sacred Text Archive. Choose a text completely unfamiliar to you. If you are not Hindu, you might choose the Rig-Veda. Read the First Hymn, Agni and see what you make of it.

My point is that scripture doesn’t make sense without interpretation, precisely because it is scripture. It is sacred text and that means that is not like the newspaper. For an insider to Hinduism, Agni is meaningful. It rests within a body of understanding and a body of interpretation that render it meaningful. Outside of those contexts, not so much.


The same is true for Torah. In fact, this is easier to see with Torah and Tanakh [the Jewish Bible, including Torah, Prophets, and Writings] because in fact many different faiths use them as scripture and read them quite differently. Rabbinic Judaism has its ways of looking at them. Roman Catholicism has its ways of looking at them. The Southern Baptist Convention has its ways of looking at them, and so on. Islam recognizes it as a significant text and also looks at Tanakh in its own ways. I’ve written about this in regard to the prophets in “Blood Moons” and the Meaning of Prophecy.

Yet the words are all the same, with a few small variations, depending on whether you’re working from the Masoretic Text, the Septuagint, the Vulgate, the King James Bible… you see, it gets complicated quickly when we include translations. Christians tend to work with their scriptures via translation, which is why I included the Vulgate and KJV. Scholars might work primarily on Torah texts in Hebrew, but they’ll also consider the Leningrad Codex and other similar sources.

Rabbinic Judaism works primarily from the Masoretic Text. We’re aware of and refer to the Septuagint and the Targum Onkelos (1st c. Aramaic translation), etc, but we learn and work in the Hebrew handed down to us by the Masoretes.

Interpretation of Commandments

But then we get into the matter of interpretation. For instance:

 :זָכוֹר אֶת-יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, לְקַדְּשׁוֹ

Remember the Day of the Sabbath, to keep it holy. (Exodus 20:7)

The verse offers us a verb in command form, “remember” – OK, it’s a commandment, a mitzvah. It even offers us a goal, “to keep it holy.”

But what behavior is actually commanded here? How shall we “remember” and how do we know if our remembering is working to “keep it holy?” And that is where Rabbinic Judaism goes many different places at once. The Talmud records discussions on this and the myriad of other discussions about mitzvot, as do other bodies of work we call “Oral Torah.” Those discussions continue today in the form of responsa literature and informal discussions, not only among rabbis but in every Jewish household. There are orthodox interpretations of what it means to keep Shabbat, and there are many other legitimate Jewish interpretations of it. The phrase “Jewish Law,” in English refers to halakhah, a traditional orthodox set of choices about interpretation with roots in the medieval codes. Most Jews in the United States today are not halakhic in their approach to lived Judaism: they see those codes as important sources of tradition but not binding upon them.

Picking and Choosing?

Some will see this as “picking and choosing,” and in fact that is exactly what it is. I am choosing to read the text in a certain way. We always do that with sacred texts: we make choices as we read them. We live in a conversation with the text, whether we choose to abide by the choices of a particular group with whom we have affiliated, or whether we make our own individual choices as well.

Final point in answering your question: I’m a little curious as to whom you refer when you say “Rabbinical Courts.” As I pointed out in Is There a Jewish Vatican? there is no central office in Judaism. There are batei din, rabbinical courts, but they generally form for an occasion like a conversion – there isn’t much call for them in most of the Diaspora, where we are bound to follow the law of the land unless it creates a big oy vey situation calling for civil disobedience, etc. In Israel, there are rabbinical courts that run by orthodox, these days mostly haredi, understandings of the texts. Those are text-based, but filtered through the traditional understandings of Talmud and codes, with a considerable mis-use of those texts, if you ask me. (As the saying goes, “two Jews, three opinions.”)

Short Answer, at last

So my answer to you is: Yes, in that everything goes back to Torah. And No, in that everything is also considered within the web of understanding and interpretation of the texts.

And here’s another question for you: Why do you ask?

Who was the Prophetess Huldah?

Part of the Book of Deuteronomy, from the Dead Sea Scrolls
Part of the Book of Deuteronomy, from the Dead Sea Scrolls

Josiah, King of Judah, wanted to do the right thing. He was aware that the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been wiped out by the Assyrians, its ten tribes scattered to the four winds. Judah was smaller and weaker. The king believed its best hope for survival lay in its covenant with God.

So he ordered that his officials would audit the funds at the Temple, and then use them to put everything there into perfect order. It had fallen into serious disarray over the 300 years since his ancestor Solomon built it. Hilkiah, the High Priest, was in charge of the work.

Hilkiah found a scroll stashed away in the Temple. He read the scroll, and realized immediately that it might be important. He gave it to Shaphan, the king’s secretary, who took to King Josiah and read it to him.

Josiah was horrified by what he heard in the scroll. He stood, and tore his clothing, and ordered Shaphan to take the scroll immediately to the prophetess Huldah to see if she thought it was genuine. If it was indeed the scroll of the law, the kingdom was in worse trouble than he had known. They were doing everything wrong. Shaphan and Hilkiah took it to her, and this is what she said:

This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read.  Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and aroused my anger by all the idols their hands have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched.’  Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says concerning the words you heard: Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people—that they would become a curse and be laid waste—and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I also have heard you, declares the Lord.  Therefore I will gather you to your ancestors, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.”

So they took her answer back to the king. (2 Kings 22: 15-20)

Scholars today believe that that scroll was the Book of Deuteronomy. King Josiah used it for a blueprint for his reforms, and the Kingdom of Judah survived for the rest of his reign. Unfortunately his heirs were not good kings. In 586 BCE, the Babylonians conquered Judah, destroyed Solomon’s Temple, and carried the best and the brightest of the people off to exile.
The Temples are long gone, but the Book of Deuteronomy, or Devarim, is with us to this day. When we read it, let’s remember Huldah: prophet, scholar, and advisor to a king.

Beginner’s Guide to the Jewish Bible

You'd be surprised how many of these books are Bibles.
You’d be surprised how many of these books are Bibles.

If you grew up in a Christian context, you may have learned that the Jewish Bible is “the same as the Old Testament.” That’s not quite accurate.

I want to be clear about one thing: when you are working with a scripture, anyone’s scripture, the safest thing is to use the version recognized for the community. So I recommend that Christians doing Christian study use the appropriate version of their Bible, and I recommend that someone doing Jewish study use a Jewish Bible.

The Jewish Bible differs from the Christian bibles in several important ways. To wit:

ARRANGEMENT: The Jewish Bible is arranged into three parts: TORAH, NEVI’IM, and KETUVIM, meaning “Torah,” “Prophets” and “Writings.” Torah is the five familiar books of Moses. Nevi’im is the books of the Prophets, starting with Joshua and ending with the post-exilic prophets. Some of the books are named after prophets, some have names like “Kings.” “Writings” is everything else, including Psalms, Wisdom Literature, the 5 Scrolls, and Chronicles. This is to some extent a ranking according to the honor the tradition gives to the books. Christian Bibles are arranged quite differently.

Because of this arrangement, one name for the Jewish Bible is Tanakh, a Hebrew acronym for Torah/Prophets/Writings.

CONTENT: Some Christian Bibles, notably the “Catholic” Bible, include some books that are not in the Jewish Bible. Those books are not in Protestant bibles like the King James Version, but may appear in a separate section labeled Apocrypha. These books didn’t make it into the Jewish canon: Judith, Baruch, Maccabees, Tobit, and others. However, since they were part of an earlier Jewish collection of sacred books, the Septuagint, they were included in some versions of the Christian canon.  (“Canon” means those books accepted as scripture by a community.)

SOURCES: Jewish Bibles are based on the Masoretic Text of the Bible. Early Biblical texts lacked vowels and punctuation, just as the Torah scroll in a synagogue does today. The Masoretes were a group of Jewish scholars who added versification and vowels to the text between 500 and 900 CE. They examined the multiple versions of texts floating around in their time and put together a standard version of the text for the community. This is still the standard Jewish text, which is mostly in Hebrew; a few of the Writings contain a bit of Aramaic.

Christian Bibles draw on a variety of sources: the Vulgate translation in Latin (405) by the Christian scholar Jerome, the Septuagint in Greek (200 BCE), as well as others. Notice that while these texts are older than the Masoretic text, they “pass through” a third language on their way to English. In the case of the Vulgate, that translation includes Jerome’s Christian interpretive filter.

TRANSLATION: Rabbi Leo Baeck wrote in his essay, “The Pharisees,” “All translation is commentary.” When a translator chooses one possible translation of a phrase over another, it limits the text in a way it was not limited in the original language. For instance, a famous example, Isaiah 7:14:

לָכֵן יִתֵּן אֲדֹנָי הוּא, לָכֶם–אוֹת:  הִנֵּה הָעַלְמָה, הָרָה וְיֹלֶדֶת בֵּן, וְקָרָאת שְׁמוֹ, עִמָּנוּ אֵל.

Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign: behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Jewish Publication Society, 1917)

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (King James Version, 1611)

I’ve highlighted the biggest difference between the two: “HaAlmah” in the KJV is “a virgin” and in the JPS it is translated “the young woman.” Now, when I translate it, I go a little further, still a legitimate translation:

Therefore the Lord (God) will give to you a sign: Behold, the young woman will conceive and she will give birth to a son, and she will name him, “God is With Us.” (Adar, 2014)

Granted, these are not huge differences, but you can see that it might color one’s interpretation of the book. Consider the considerable difference between Jewish and Christian notions of prophecy. Add to that Christianity’s doctrine of the virgin birth, alongside Judaism’s belief that the baby mentioned here is King Hezekiah. Notice, too, that “Emanu-El” or “God is With Us” was not a name given to either Jesus of Nazareth or to little Hezekiah by their respective youthful mothers!  And this is just a single example – the translations are full of them.

There are number of different Jewish Bibles on the market. The Jewish Publication Society’s  1985 translation is used in most American liberal congregations.

Now, having said all that, if you are serious about Jewish study, I recommend you learn a little Hebrew, because then you will no longer be at the mercy of translators. For more about that, check out “Why Study Hebrew.”

Happy learning!


Hearing Voices in the Bible


Vanity of vanities, all is vanity… Ecclesiastes 1:2

Tonight I had the pleasure of attending a class led by Rabbi Steve Chester at Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley. He explored the resonances between the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible and Tony Kushner‘s new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.

There is no direct connection between the two: Kushner’s play is not “about” Ecclesiastes. But the lecture set me to thinking about the many and varied voices in the Tanach (Jewish Bible).

There are very few pretty stories in the Bible, if you think about it.  Ruth is a sweet story, I admit. But most of the rest of our Bible stories involve carnage or trickery or dysfunctional families. Abraham tried to pass Sarah off as his sister several times, with the result that she wound up in other men’s harems. Isaac, the gentlest of the patriarchs, was deceived by his son Jacob. Jacob cheerfully manipulates and steals from his brother. It goes on and on; the Book of Judges is one long nightmare.

Some people ask, quite reasonably, why all this stuff is there in a supposedly holy book. Ecclesiastes, in particular, is written in a bitter and cynical voice. What possible edification can anyone get from that?

The answer to that will depend on your orientation to scripture. I am a modern Reform rabbi, and I approach these books both as the product of divine inspiration as well as as the product of human hands. The books are holy because they have been recognized as holy for thousands of years, and because the faithful have continued to find something they need in them.

The genius of these books is that they are not a collection of nice easy stories in which everyone gets what they deserve. They are, instead, a collection of voices and experiences from the full range of the human experience. Some voices in Scripture insist that God is fair and wise and indeed, everyone gets their just desserts (that voice is named Deuteronomy.) Some voices in Scripture remind us that life is not fair, and even go so far as to question whether God is fair (Job.) Some voices are angry at God (parts of Lamentations) and some are young and not much concerned with God, reveling instead in physicality (Song of Songs). Kohelet, the voice in Ecclesiastes, is old and cynical. He’s seen it all, and it all disappoints.

When I am sitting with someone who is having a hard time, I do not usually have words to offer that are going to make everything “all better.” Face it, sometimes there is nothing on earth that will truly console those in deep suffering: the man who has lost his child to a senseless crime, the woman who has lost the love of her life, the person who has seen their life’s work go for nothing. What I can offer that person is evidence that they are not alone in their suffering. I don’t know “exactly how they feel” but there are voices in the Tanach that come pretty close. Those voices can help put words to feelings, and rebuild the connections between a suffering person and the rest of the world.

I think one can make a good case that Hannah was suffering from depression in the book of 1 Samuel , and that King Saul suffered from bipolar disorder. Ruth was a poor foreign woman in an unfriendly land. Jeremiah was persecuted by the authorities despite the fact that he was a messenger from God. David’s children were a terrible disappointment, except for Solomon, whose children were also a terrible disappointment. Families are mostly dysfunctional.

The people and the voices in the Bible are not goody-two-shoes. They make awful mistakes, they do dreadful things, and terrible things happen to them. And that is the point: they are us.

At the end of the Book of Genesis, Jacob dies, and Joseph’s brothers fear that he is finally going to take revenge on them for selling him into slavery many years before:

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.

His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. – Genesis 50:15-21

That’s the message: we human beings are fallible and frail. We make tragic mistakes, we are selfish, we are vengeful, we are vulnerable to bad luck. However, we can also be agents of good in the world. We can make small differences. We can forgive and cherish and do good deeds. And sometimes things do work out well. Most of all, we are not alone in our experience. As Kohelet says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

That is not always a bad thing.

Image by Sonny Abesamis, some rights reserved.