Review of A. Roitman, Biblia, Exégesis y Religión

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Roitman, Adolfo D., Biblia, Exégesis y Religión: Una lectura crítico-histórica del judaísmo (Estella, Navarra: Editorial Verbo Divino, 2010). Pp. 308. Hardback.  ISBN 978-84-9945-100-8. € 24.50.

Adolfo Roitman is a well-known biblical scholar born in Buenos Aires who earned a doctorate in ancient Jewish Literature and Thought by the Hebrew University; since 1994 he has been Curator and Director of the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum of Jerusalem. This book collects a series of revised articles published in the Israeli weekly magazine Aurora between 2007 and 2009 that serves as a kind of commentary to the sections of the Torah read weekly in the synagogue.

Roitman's aim in this book is to introduce the readers to the complex world of the Hebrew Bible by means of a thorough analysis of the social, politic, and religious reality of Israel in antiquity and to do so in a colloquial and current Spanish. The book is addressed to both Jews and Christians who are not experts in biblical studies, and it furthers free thinking among the readers, discovery and tolerance of the “Other,” and interreligious dialogue.

The volume is divided into three sections. The first is devoted to prominent biblical figures or personalities emphasizing the reception of such figures in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. This part reminds me of the reflections on Adam, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, or Job in Elie Wiesel's Messengers of God[1]. The second section is devoted to various questions concerning the Pentateuch. It takes into account historical-critical methods and explores the diffuse boundaries between history and myth. The third section is devoted to the religious revolution of Deuteronomy.

Roitman's main text is accompanied by some footnotes that clarify and support his statements, seven illustrations, a brief epilogue, a glossary of concepts and technical terms, and a full bibliography. The book is written in fluent Spanish and offers a pleasant reading. The book has been carefully prepared and I have found no egregious errors or printer's mistakes. I heartily congratulate both the author and Verbo Divino press.

Roitman is highly attuned to both the texts of the Hebrew Bible and the last discoveries of the Judaean Desert. His critical approach prevents fundamentalist and anachronistic readings of the Bible. The historical dimension of his study helps the reader discover the ability of biblical figures to be transformed in new contexts. Jews and Christians for centuries have not only tried to solve textual and interpretative problems, but they also engaged in their exegesis to construct their own religious identities. In many cases Jewish and Christian traditions intertwined and illuminated each other, as they shared a common origin. The publication of this book by a Jewish author by a Catholic publishing house is the best witness that the “brothers” can attain many common goals through their different identities and traditions. However, in this conversation, I miss the Septuagint, which might function as a further link to build a bridge between the traditions.

Taking the figure of Abraham as an example, Roitman describes the features of his personality as presented in  Genesis; he then traces the improvement and idealization of his figure in Genesis Apocryphon and Jubilees. He notes how Abraham was  transformed by Hellenistic writers from a biblical patriarch and pious man of faith into a Greek philosopher. I miss here references to Jewish-Hellenistic writers other than Josephus (Jewish Antiquities), such as Demetrius, Eupolemus, and Artapanus. [2] In spite of being preserved only in fragments, the latter attest to a new rewriting of the history of Israel in the Hellenistic period. Several recent studies have been published on Moses, Joseph, and the patriarchs in this period as well.

I agree with Roitman that, in contrast with the heroes of other ancient literatures, the nobility of biblical figures consists in their being normal persons who struggle to overcome their own weaknesses and limitations. The human side of these figures was a constant source of inspiration for future generations who reread these ancestral texts.

Only two women are included in the list of biblical figures studied by Roitman: Rachel the matriarch and Jacob's daughter Dinah. The various chapters constitute a kind of critical sacred history followed by its survival in Judaism. They attest to the dynamism and richness of the Bible not only in its text but also in its characters, archetypes, and narratives, which were constantly rewritten and reinterpreted as prototypes for the successive generations. Roitman presents the biblical paradoxes or the most embarrassing scenes of violence and cruelty, and examines afterwards how these passages have been received and interpreted in the Jewish postbiblical tradition, occasionally until the present time.

The second section of the volume deals with matters such as the Flood, Isaac's sacrifice, the Exodus and its wonders, the giants, and sacred war. Roitman reviews the different scholarly positions ranging from minimalists to maximalists and pronounces a balanced judgement on the different hypotheses. He emphasizes that already in antiquity there were multiple positions and differences between the literal interpretation of the pious men (midrash) and the rationalistic explanation of Flavius Josephus (p.143).

The third section addresses the spiritual revolution of Deuteronomy. Roitman deals with some controversial themes such as Israel's monotheism or monolatry, Jewish aniconism, the goddess Asherah as possible consort of Yahweh, the centralization of the cult, the institution of the book in Israel, and the problem of the ethnocentric ideology in Deuteronomy. However, the final commentary (p. 265) does not clarify the dangers associated with considering oneself the elected people among the other nations.

In brief it is a serious and readable book, written for a wide range of educated readers who desire a better understanding of the roots common both to Jews and Christians that are among the roots of Western civilization.

Natalio Fernández Marcos, Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales. CSIC, Madrid

[1] New York: Random House, 1976. reference

[2] Cf. N. Fernández Marcos, “Interpretaciones helenísticas del pasado de Israel,” Cuadernos de Filología Clásica 8 (1975), 157–86. reference