Review of Benno Jacob, The First Book of the Bible: Genesis: Genesis, Augmented Edition

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Benno Jacob, The First Book of the Bible: Genesis, Augmented Edition (Abridged, Edited and Translated by Ernest I. Jacob and Walter Jacob; Jersey City: KTAV Publishing House, 2007). Pp. xxii + 358. Hardcover, US$49.50. ISBN 978-0-88125-960-5 


This is a reprint of the 1974 edition of the same book, augmented only by a short three-page introduction to the 2007 edition. The original German commentary was published by Benno Jacob in Berlin, 1934, with a reprint by Ktav in 1974, and this abridged English translation is only about one-third the size of the original. The editors, son and grandson, decided to omit much of the critical and detailed scholarly discussion of the original to make it more appropriate for a lay audience, but this makes it much less helpful for the academic study of the Bible, for which one must still resort to the German edition.

 Jacob’s basic approach is to accept the MT as the received text, and to view it as the work of a creative editor using old sources, which have been brought together into a harmonious whole. Jacob rejects the Documentary Hypothesis of critical scholarship and in his original full edition argues against it throughout the commentary and in a one hundred page appendix, but this discussion has been almost entirely eliminated in the abridged version, with only the occasional dismissive comment about this critical approach. Thus we are given a holistic interpretation reflecting a single and consistent theological viewpoint, which is completely consonant with the long tradition of Jewish orthodoxy. As if to demonstrate this continuity of tradition, Jacob makes frequent citation from early rabbinic and medieval midrash and commentaries.

Such a style of exegesis, especially in this abbreviated form, is quite suitable within the context of Bible instruction in the synagogue. This should not be surprising because Jacob did not have an academic appointment but was for most of his professional life a rabbi in the synagogues of Göttingen and Dortmund. In his holistic method of interpretation and his rejection of “higher criticism” Jacob stands in the tradition of a number of Jewish scholars, such as U. Cassuto and Y. Kaufmann who wrote strong polemics against the Documentary Hypothesis and championed the holistic approach, and they still have many supporters both in the Jewish and Israeli scholarly community.

Of course Jacob recognizes that Genesis is not history or science in the modern sense but is revelation accommodated to the perspective and limitations of the ancient writer. In the unabridged version of the commentary Jacob gives extensive demonstration of his erudition in the broader field of ancient comparative literature, and Near Eastern texts in particular as they were known in his day. However, they are used primarily as a foil to demonstrate the superiority of the biblical literature over the religions of the surrounding pagan culture. There is no room for notions of religious development, such as are reflected in Wellhausen, with the result that all texts are made to conform to the same orthodoxy and he can cite proof-texts from elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible to support his understanding of any given text.

Jacob’s method of exegesis may be illustrated by a few examples. Thus in the case of the text in Gen 6:1-4, which deals with sexual intercourse between the “sons of God” and mortal women, Jacob renders the problematic phrase “sons of God” as the “divine ones” and explains that they “were like God in their own eyes, and yet of a very earthly humanity” (p. 45). This leads him to suggest that the origin of the giants has nothing to do with the divinity of the “sons of God” but with the women who are described as “strong” rather than “beautiful.” Furthermore, the age limit of 120 years that is imposed by the deity on the offspring of such a union reminds Jacob of the fact that Moses, “a man of God,” lived until 120 years old, so that he becomes one of these “divine ones,” and the same applies to Elijah another “man of God,” although his age is never specifically given. The whole discussion of this unit becomes a complex interconnection of biblical texts, a fanciful intertextuality that is typical of the rabbinic tradition of midrash.

Jacob uses this same method to overcome problems raised by the Documentary Hypothesis and its division of sources. Thus, in the flood story one source suggests that there were only two of all the animals whereas the other source makes a distinction between seven pairs of the clean animals and birds and one pair of the rest. Jacob gets around this problem by arguing that the order regarding the seven pairs of clean animals was in addition to the order about the one pair of all animals. This he proves by suggesting that Noah sacrificed all seven pairs of the clean animals after he left the ark, although the text does not explicitly say so. Why was this necessary? He points to the statement in the story of Job, in which Job offers atonement sacrifices for each of his seven sons (1:5) and since there were seven members of Noah’s family on board the ark (his wife, three sons and their wives), he needed all seven pairs of animals for his sacrifice. The intertextual connection is quite ingenious, but it is just a typical case of special pleading.

At times Jacob’s ideological reading is quite pronounced. When he is commenting on Abraham’s migration from Mesopotamia and arrival at Shechem in the land of Canaan, he treats Abraham as a “colonist” (see the German original) and speaks of the altar that Abraham builds as his claim to the land: “In a manner he hoists the flag of his God over the land of Canaan” (p. 88). The Canaanites are merely an aboriginal population, which are to be displaced. Since Abraham is presented as the “example for future people of Israel,” it is not hard to see the message here for early Zionism.

  What I believe is important about this abridged version of Jacob’s Genesis commentary is not its contribution to critical scholarship, but its possible use as an easy access to the thought and exegetical style of one of the major figures from the early 20th century who shaped modern Jewish biblical scholarship. This is particularly the case in its strong emphasis on the continuity of the biblical tradition with rabbinic and medieval exegesis, and its use of midrashic exegesis in the form of biblical intertextuality.

John Van Seters, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada