Interview

Ten Questions with a Torah / Bible Scholar: Prof. Jacob L. Wright

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August 2, 2013

Widely respected for his skills in biblical interpretation, Jacob Wright is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and the Director of Graduate Studies in Emory’s Tam Institute of Jewish Studies. His first book, Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah Memoir and Its Earliest Readers, was awarded a Templeton prize for the best first books in religion and theology. Wright has edited several volumes and published many articles and essays on a wide range of topics, bringing interdisciplinary perspectives to bear on often neglected aspects of the history of ancient Israel and the formation of the Tanach.

Ten Questions with a Torah / Bible Scholar: Prof. Jacob L. Wright

1. How and why did you choose to study Tanach academically?

I got hooked on the Bible when I was living in Germany in 2000. I happened to be in Göttingen (Germany), a renowned center for the study of the Altes Testament (the German term for Old Testament/Hebrew Bible). (The late nineteenth century Protestant scholar Julius Wellhausen, and Hermann Gunkel, two pioneers of modern biblical scholarship, taught there.) I was working in a project at the Center for Judaic Studies there, editing Geniza fragments of Avot de Rabbi Nathan. I enrolled in one of Reinhard Kratz’s seminars in which we analyzed the formation of the Sinai account in Exodus and its relation to Deuteronomy. In the very first session I realized how extraordinary biblical literature is and how fascinating it is to study it critically.

After the course was over Kratz invited me to write a dissertation under his guidance, and I worked for several years on Ezra-Nehemiah. The scholarship on this book at the time had reckoned with a number of sources (i.e., the Aramaic account of the building of the Temple, the Ezra account, The Nehemiah memoir) that a “compiler” supposedly collected and, with very little editorial intrusion, arranged into a narrative. As I conducted my research, I found many problems with this approach. It seemed to me much more likely that the book emerged gradually in response to the problems posed by the idiosyncratic and, in many ways, unorthodox views presented in Nehemiah’s memoir (the first-person account found in Nehemiah 1-7 and 12-13).

I really enjoyed working on the dissertation. After finishing it, I received an offer from Jan Gertz at the University of Heidelberg, one of Europe’s oldest universities with a prestigious history in biblical scholarship. I taught there for several years. Much of my time with both Kratz and Gertz was spent working on the formation of the Pentateuch. I eventually branched off into other areas, studying the history of ancient Israel, participating in archeological digs, and working with the very fine scholars of cuneiform studies at Heidelberg. Eventually I moved back to the States to take a job at Emory University, which boasts the largest Hebrew Bible program in the country.

Looking back over the past decade, I would say that academia certainly has its share of problems. Yet I do love being in the classroom and working with students. And I’m convinced there’s nothing more fascinating in the world than Tanach.   

2. Which Bible scholars or scholarly works have had the most influence on you?

First and foremost, Reinhard Kratz. From the start I was in awe of his ability to get at the heart of a problem and, above all, to read a text with extraordinary nuance. Where many scholars perform their literary analyses in a social and historical vacuum, Prof. Kratz is keenly aware of the potential that our research has to reframe our understandings of ancient Israel’s history.   

The scholars who have been the greatest influence on my work in recent years are Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Carol Newsom. Prof. Eskenazi has helped me think about the role of the Bible has to play in contemporary Jewish life, while Prof. Newsom has helped me to pursue my interdisciplinary interests. I share with both scholars a concern to read the Bible in relation to the most critical questions related to the human condition, bringing it into conversation with infuential thinkers and great works of literature.

3. How often do you think of or come across new ideas about Tanach? Can you briefly share an example of a new idea that recently caught your attention?

Genuinely new ideas are rare, and they’re usually seriously flawed. Instead of being absolutely original, the best ideas, I find, are those that synthesize disparate insights.

Having said that, learning about (old) ideas for the first time is always a lot of fun. I remember when I was introduced to the research on the competing views of Israel’s origins in the Torah—one that presents Israel originating in the Land (the Avot ve-Imahot traditions in Breishit) and the other that traces Israel’s origins to Egypt. When I heard it, I found it to be so compelling that I wondered why I had never thought of it myself. The idea is powerful because it provokes us to consider the many other potential cases in which the biblical authors, in their efforts to consolidate rival groups into one people, connected originally separate literary traditions and figures (e.g. David and Solomon or Moses and Joshua) to create an unbroken historical narrative. That biblical project is carried on in later Jewish historiography (for example, the “chain of tradition,” shalshelet ha-kabbalah that we find in Pirkei Avot). What defines modern historical scholarship, to a great extent, is the effort to complicate claims of continuity—to unravel the historical narrative, showing how it evolved and whose purposes it serves.   

4. Do you use traditional commentaries/meforshim, and if so, which do you find most useful and why? If not, why not?

I rarely spend much time on a text without examining the Mikraot Gedolot or doing a search on the Bar Ilan database. It is exciting to witness the ingenious way that textual problems are addressed. 90E6032E-3E2A-457F-90FB-2F9DA3CC33D2The commentators are, after all, doing a kind of harmonization that is not all too different from what the biblical redactors were engaged in.

For critical scholarship, the consultation of these commentaries is invaluable for the control they offer: What we find to be incongruous in the text may be due to our modern sensibilities, and one way to gauge our intuitions is to find out whether pre-modern interpreters noticed the tensions and sought to reconcile them in some way. Often, though, we are astonished to find that the commentators completely ignore passages that pose major problems, even when we can be  sure that they were well aware of the problems. The reason is that their objectives differed from those of modern scholars concerned with composition history. 

5. What is the difference between teaching academic Bible and teaching Tanach? Can the two work together?

Stated most simply, teaching Tanach is about Jewish communal identity formation, while teaching academic Bible is about assessing historical origins and impact.

Most PhD students often have personal histories that prompted them to devote their lives to biblical studies. Nevertheless, these students usually know how to set aside, pragmatically, their personal religious convictions in order to create a space conducive to discussions with their colleagues who come from different backgrounds and have different commitments.

In addition to teaching PhD students of Hebrew Bible and occasional courses in the college, I work with seminary students who are preparing themselves for service in churches and Christian communities. In this capacity, an instructor cannot expect his or her students to bracket personal faith commitments. To the contrary, these commitments are integral factors of the classroom experience. The discussions pose many challenges for an outsider. Yet I have always found them to be enjoyable and enriching.  

As for teaching Tanach, I’m a member of a Modern Orthodox shul (Young Israel of Toco Hills), and I usually reveal to my audience—whether it be during a shiur or at a Shabbat meal—how various biblical scholars think about the problems posed by the text. Indeed, I think it is condescending and disingenuous not to be forthright in this regard. In my experience, most observant Jews are eager to learn about the fascinating research conducted in biblical studies.

With regard to young people in our communities, I think it’s a big mistake to make Jewish education an “all or nothing” enterprise. We have to impart to children and students a freedom to evaluate thoughtfully all claims and show them that Jewish observance need not be determined always by historical facticity. After all, the biblical authors and the rabbis were much more sophisticated on these matters than many of the reactionary apologists who have addressed the issues of critical scholarship in modern times. For this reason, I’m grateful for the conversation you have initiated on this website and am committed to supporting the TABS project.

6. Is there a value in trying to understand the text of the Torah as an integrated whole?

There is most certainly a value in trying to understand the Torah as an integrated whole. In doing so, we are attempting to make sense of what the biblical authors themselves were after. They had a reason and rationale when they, for example, demarcated the Torah with the death of Moses in the Transjordan and lopped off the description of the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land, which appears to be the older conclusion to the exodus account (Exodus 2 – Joshua 12).

The Torah has been read as an integrated whole for two millennia, and it’s foolish to conclude that all these readings have little academic value. Of course, some integrated readings may find meanings in the text that were never intended by their authors. Yet instead of dismissing integrated readings altogether, as some source critics do, we should acknowledge that those responsible for the final shape of the canonical Torah had very concrete messages they wanted to communicate via the whole, not solely its parts.

Students of the Tanach’s composition history have a lot to contribute to these integrated readings that are conducted both in the synagogue and the academy. If we approach the text without a sense of what limited the authors/editors in their effort to sculpt new forms and meanings from the materials they inherited, then we may very well emphasize that which they sought to de-emphasize, and vice versa.

7. What do you think could be the next great archaeological find?

I am honestly not too interested in the next great archaeological find. Sensational finds in archaeology, at least in the archaeology of Iron Age Levant, are more often than not unsensational finds that are presented to the media with a lot of silly hype. The goal is to attract the public’s attention to the excavations. (The archaeology of ancient Israel is, after all, a highly competitive field.) The danger of these media stunts, which often conceal the problems with the claims, is that they jeopardize the public’s confidence in us as scholars and encourage non-scholars to think of archaeology as a gold-digging adventure of the Indiana Jones variety.

The most certain way to create buzz is to claim that you’ve found something related to the reign of King David. The attempt to link all kinds of finds to this figure betrays an impoverishment of the historical imagination.

The biblical account represents a thoroughly simplified historical construction, with a pronounced political message and theological-didactic function. Careful research on both the biblical materials and the archaeological record reveals a much greater diversity of polities, which gradually coalesced into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

5AFA6387-9649-43AD-AFEF-F03C4AB188B3 (1)Khirbet Qeiyafah, which has been in the news for the past few years, is an important site, but it is likely part of a smaller local polity, with no appreciable connections to Jerusalem. In my opinion, the biblical account makes it likely that Hebron remained David’s capital. Jerusalem appears to have been primarily a fortress on the northern periphery of the Judahite state David established and to have not become the kingdom’s capital until later.

Fortunately we are blessed with a wide selection of wonderful excavation projects (e.g. Tel es-Safi/Gath, Azekah, Tel Eton, Ashdod-Yam, Er-Ras, Abel Beth-Maacah, Gezer, Megiddo, Jezreel, and several others) whose directors do an excellent job of studying the so-called “longue durée” of their sites and seek to attract attention to their projects via creative educational programs. I encourage your readers to check out their websites and Facebook pages; they should feel free to contact me for details through my homepage www.js.emory.edu/faculty/wright.htm.

8. What is your favorite Mitzvah?

Bal Tashchit, the prohibition of gratuitous destruction. A few years ago I wrote an essay on the origins of this first written law of war (found in Deut 20:19-20). I argued that it is not formulated, as many scholars claim, as a polemical response to the practices of the Assyrian imperial armies of the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. Instead, in my view, it grew out of a discourse among wisdom teachers on acceptable martial conduct for native armies. As much of the oldest legal material in Deuteronomy, this prohibition is an example of a wisdom teaching that has been reformulated as a legal injunction. The phenomenon has been studied by Moshe Weinfeld, Alexander Rofé, Jack Sasson, and several others.

In view of these findings, it’s fascinating to witness how the rabbis broadened the law’s scope to address all sorts of gratuitous destruction in civilian life. If what I argue is correct, the rabbis’ halachic innovation is in keeping with its pre-biblical origins. Whatever the case may be, this mitzvah is particularly relevant as we witness all kinds of wanton ruination perpetrated in our own societies.

9. Which character in Tanach is your favorite and why?

I can’t help but identifying closely with Nehemiah. This guy gets a bad rap, both from the rabbis and modern scholars. He repeatedly draws attention to his own good deeds, punctuating his memoir with demands that God remember him for his achievements. Many interpret his memoir as the work of an egotist, but what resonates with me is Nehemiah’s effort to preserve his memory through writing. More than that, he lived in a post-heroic age, when Judahite men could no longer seek a name and fame through martial valor on their battlefields. Yet instead of relinquishing all ambition, he concentrated his efforts on rebuilding—both the physical ruins of Jerusalem and the spiritual foundations of Judah. Despite his many nemeses, he sought to find commonalities that could unite deeply divided and apathetic communities. Finally, as was true of many other great figures of the post-exilic age, he appears not to have had children of his own. Perhaps that is why he devoted so much of his energies to the wellbeing of his people.

10. If you could experience one of the stories/events described in the Bible, what would it be?

I would love to have been there when the sun stood still for Joshua in Giv’on (Gibeon). The day is never long enough to finish all that I set out to do in the morning. I just wish something would happen when I say: shemesh [be’atlanta] dom!