BOOK REVIEW : ‘Book of J’ Lacks Nerve to Name ‘J’ : THE BOOK OF J. Translated from the Hebrew <i> by David Rosenberg</i> ; <i> Interpreted by Harold Bloom</i> . Grove Weidenfeld. $21.95; 340 pages
Harold Bloom has a lot of nerve, but then again he may not have quite enough. “The Book of J,” his commentary on David Rosenberg’s punning, experimental translation of portions of the Old Testament books of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers, is both less and more than it seems.
It is less than it seems when the distinguished Yale literary critic writes, at the end of his introduction: “I am aware that it may be vain labor, up Sinai all the way, as it were, to seek a reversal of twenty-five hundred years of institutionalized misreading. . . . Yet the Book of J, though fragmentary, is hardly Mr. David Rosenberg’s creation or my own. All I have done is to remove the Book of J from its context in the Redactor’s Torah and then to read what remains. . . .”
The lay reader may be excused if he takes away from that paragraph the mistaken impression that “The Book of J,” though not Bloom’s creation, is at least his discovery. The inconvenient truth is that nothing in biblical interpretation is more thoroughly “institutionalized” than the notion that the Bible--and in particular the Pentateuch--is an edited work.
The use of the letter J as the scholarly tag for the oldest of the four documents that after editing became the Pentateuch, is itself a century old. The letter stands for Jahve, the German spelling of the name later re-spelled in English as Yahweh. Not even the separate publication of the Yahwist document is a new idea. In 1968, Peter Ellis published the Jerusalem Bible translation of J, with commentary, as “The Yahwist: The Bible’s First Theologian” (Fides).
Bloom does not deny any of this. But to put it kindly, he is not, as we say these days, “up front” about it. Among those who seem to have been misled we must count his publisher.
Bloom’s major claim to originality, however, is not the isolation of J but the discovery or invention of “The Author J,” to whom he devotes the first 60 pages of this book. “As we read any literary work,” he writes, “we necessarily create a fiction or metaphor of its author. That author is perhaps our myth, but the experience of literature partly depends on that myth. For J, we have a choice of myths, and I boisterously prefer mine to that of the biblical scholars. I will put all my cards on the reader’s desk here, face up. My J is a Gevurah (“great lady”) of post-Solomonic court circles, herself of Davidic blood, who began writing her great work in the later years of Solomon, in close rapport and exchanging influences with her good friend the Court Historian, who wrote most of what we now call 2 Samuel.”
Boisterously, let me suggest that Bloom’s most important card is not on the reader’s desk at all. Bloom has lifted the notion that the author of J may have been a woman from Richard Elliott Friedman, of UC San Diego, who proposed it in 1987 in his book “Who Wrote the Bible?” (Summit). Bloom cites this work in passing but does not credit Friedman for the provocative hypothesis that Bloom has placed at the center of his own work.
Does this mean that Bloom’s work is without originality? Not quite: “The Book of J” is a work of modest, if truncated, originality. Its method is circular and unabashedly subjective but, in my view, legitimate and, on occasion, brilliantly brought off.
Bloom infers a personality for his “great lady” from what she has written; namely, the received “Yahwistic” source of Pentateuch scholarship. Then, allowing the inferred personality to feed his imagination, he reads the text again and allows himself to notice what he might at first have missed. The text, now more deeply and artistically understood, further specifies the imagined personality of the author.
This method leads Bloom to four principal assertions:
1. J and Yahweh are both in love with David. In another Pentateuchal source, man is created in the image and likeness of God. In Bloom’s J, Yahweh is created in the image and likeness of Israel’s exuberant founding monarch.
2. J and Yahweh are decidedly cool toward the stiff and stammering Moses and oddly detached, even ironic, toward the Mosaic religion. “The Yahwist herself is not a Yahwist,” Bloom writes.
3. David aside, J and Yahweh respond more to vigorous women than to even the most vigorous men. “There is a grand hardness in J’s women,” Bloom writes, “in Sarai, Rebecca, Rachel, Tamar, and Zipporah, a hardness that perhaps J found in herself, or in Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba. . . .”
4. J and Yahweh are cool not just to Moses but also to the Israelite rank and file. They are aristocrats, in a word; their affections go to the chosen among the chosen: “A lifelong monarchist, as I read her, a distruster of priests and people alike, she had more faith in David than in Yahweh.”
More than can appear in such an enumeration, these are earned insights. Bloom may go perversely to those verses that most critics find peripheral or even undecipherable and ignore those verses, even in J, that most critics find central. The result, nonetheless, has impressive internal coherence. Bloom’s essays “The Representation of Yahweh” and “The Psychology of Yahweh” present a god with a daylight clarity that can be stunning.
And yet there is, even on Bloom’s own aesthetic and free-wheeling terms, both a structural weakness in his work and, as noted, a failure of nerve.
Bloom never asks after the overall aesthetic effect of the removal of those other materials that were combined with J by the ancient redactor. We may grant that their removal throws J into relief. What else does it do?
The fact is that this removal produces an effect rather like that of an opera cut to just the arias or a film with all the dissolves and fade outs, all the continuity, eliminated. Looked at one way, J without the rest of the Pentateuch is clean and masterful narrative; looked at another way, it is just “Bible stories” for children. Bloom writes, intuitively (and defensively): “We need to be like wise children in reading or listening to J, because her mode, and not just in the primeval history of humankind, is like a more sophisticated kind of children’s literature than we now possess.” There is a question here that needs more attention than Bloom has given it.
So much for the structural weakness. The failure of nerve is Bloom’s failure to see how directly his evidence suggests that his “great lady” is Bathsheba. The wife of a Hittite and almost certainly a Hittite or a Canaanite herself, Bathsheba--as a nubile young woman--seduced the much older David even as Tamar, the Adullamite, seduced the older Judah. If Bathsheba is Bloom’s J, we need not wonder that her sympathies tend so powerfully toward Tamar, that earlier Gentile who forced her way into Israel’s destiny and whom Bloom calls “of all J’s heroines . . . the most revelatory of J’s identity . . . the most memorable character in the Book of J.”
No wonder, either, that David’s wife should be so in love with David as to take him as her model for the personality of God. Or that this foreign woman should look with such studied coolness on Moses and on the fiercer, more moralistic strand of Yahweh-worship that he represented.
As we read in 2 Samuel, Bathsheba did not blush when she asked whether Abishag, David’s last concubine, was still a virgin after he had begun to sleep with her (she was). It is entirely possible that this indomitable queen mother survived her son Solomon as well as her husband, taking herself--quite as Bloom suggests--as the model for all those “hard” women of her own patriarchal narratives, not least for the two--Sarai and Rebecca--who make impolite jokes about the sexual limitations of elderly men.
And finally, once her hapless grandson Rehoboam has betrayed the Davidic legacy, who better than the queen mother to weave regal indignation into the warp and woof of Israel’s foundation myth? It all fits. Why does Bloom, otherwise so acute, fail to see it?
He fails, in my view, because he has an agenda in “The Book of J” which requires the repudiation of the very insight that made his reputation in “The Anxiety of Influence.” In that book, Bloom taught us that a literary successor can escape the humiliation of being merely a successor by a “strong misreading” of his predecessor, strong misreading being the kind of deliberate, calculated error that brings new truth into view.
In “The Book of J,” by sharpest contrast with “The Anxiety of Influence,” Bloom wants history to stop. The earliest stratum of Yahwism is the only one worthy of consideration. No strong misreadings here. All successors, beginning with Moses, are seen as weak “misreaders,” mere corrupters.
But are they so in fact? Bloom, Yahweh’s psychoanalyst, cannot fail to see the intrinsic interest in watching God’s character change as the rest of the Hebrew Bible comes into being. But then can that process halt at the end of the Hebrew Bible? What is there to prevent Israel’s masterpiece from becoming, as Bloom bitterly puts it, “the Protestant Bible, in which the Hebrew Scriptures dwindle down to that captive prize of the Gentiles, the Old Testament”?
The New Testament is, of course, the strongest, most outrageously successful misreading in history. If Bloom had the nerve to honor that misreading in the same spirit in which he honors Tamar for winning “a central place in the story that she was not born into and so had to usurp for herself,” then he could also recognize all the greatness that intervenes--the greatness of Moses, not to speak of Jeremiah (whom he professes to despise) and Isaiah and Job. And if he had the nerve to do all that, then he might have the nerve to face the implication in his own research that the Hebrew Bible was a Gentile captive in its opening moments; that as perhaps only Bloom would ever have the nerve to put it, Bathsheba invented Yahweh.