Why Write a Biblical Commentary?

Walking in the footsteps of Philo, the first biblical commentator, taking Ibn Ezra’s critiques to heart, and paying it forward to the next generation.


August 16, 2023

Prof.Ronald Hendel


Ronald Hendel


Why Write a Biblical Commentary?

Select volumes from the Anchor Bible and the JPS Torah and Bible Commentary series

Writing a commentary on a biblical book is often seen as the ultimate challenge, a scholarly equivalent of climbing Mount Everest. It takes years of research and writing, and obsessive attention to myriad details.

The First Biblical Commentary

The first person we know who wrote biblical commentaries—on the Torah, especially Genesis and Exodus—was Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 B.C.E.–50 C.E). He was puzzled by the fantastic details in the Torah, such as talking snakes and anthropomorphic descriptions of God (e.g., God walking in the Garden of Eden or showing emotions before the flood). He solved these puzzles by drawing out their philosophical and allegorical meanings, which he said were consistent with Platonic philosophy.[1]

In other words, he made the biblical texts readable for his community of educated Jews in the Greek world. By showing that Moses’s teachings were equivalent to Greek learning he also created a Jewish-Greek synthesis that informed later eras of biblical religion.

Ibn Ezra’s Introduction to His Own Commentary

In a sense, making a biblical book readable is what all commentaries do. One of the great medieval Jewish commentators, Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089–1164), added some important caveats to the task of writing commentaries. He argued that they should not be too philosophical (against Philo’s heirs), too encyclopedic, or too long. He also criticized midrashic and homiletical commentaries, since some midrashic interpretations themselves require interpretation. He recommends keeping to a literal interpretation of the biblical verses in their context, with attention to the nuances of Hebrew grammar. He describes his commentary as בעבותות הדקדוק נקשר, “bound by ropes of grammar.”[2]

Ibn Ezra’s advice is compelling but hard to implement. Against his better intentions, he brings a good bit of Neoplatonic cosmology into his commentary. But his criticisms are well-aimed—and they even rhyme!

גם ר' שמואל בן חפני אסף רוח בחפניו./ בפירוש ויצא יעקב (ברא' כח, י) ברוב עניניו,/ כי הזכיר כל נביא בשמו,/ וכמה פעמים גלה ממקומו,/ וכמה תועלת יש בהליכת הדרך,/ ואין תועלת לפירוש הזה, כי אם אורך
Similarly Rabbi Samuel ben Hofni [an 11th century Talmudic scholar] gathered wind in his fists (chofnav; Prov 30:4) in his lengthy comments on “And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba” (Gen. 28:10). He there mentioned every prophet by name, and how many times each one was exiled from his place. He also expounded on the value of travel. The only value of his commentary is its length.

The Three Dimensions of a Commentary

To expand on Ibn Ezra’s advice, I would say that a commentary should address the biblical text in at least three dimensions.[3]

Internal world – The commentator should elucidate the text’s internal field of reference, that is, its narrative world. This task combines Ibn Ezra’s “ropes of grammar” with the ropes of what we can call literary grammar, that is, features like style, plot, character, wordplay, irony, allusion, dialogue, and other kinds of literary design.

External world – The text’s external field of reference is the way the words produce meaning in relation to the worldview of its time and culture. For this we need to integrate the text’s internal design with what we know about ancient Israelite culture, religion, politics, philosophy, economy, and other practices.

Our knowledge of the external field of reference is partial, drawing from archaeological and historical sources about ancient Israel and the Near East. In pursuing this dimension, a commentary runs the risk of being encyclopedic, since there is often a lot of relevant material here, even as we wish for more.

Historical change – This dimension intersects with and complicates both the internal and external fields of reference. Most biblical books were compiled in multiple stages, and each stage has its own interior field of reference and interacts with the previous and subsequent ones, sometimes deliberately and sometimes by simple juxtaposition. And each stage has an external field of reference, as Israel’s worldview and practices changed over time.

The external field of reference also changes after the book’s composition, which creates new possibilities for the book’s history of reception. That is, we must be aware of the historical developments in the external world that affect how each community interacts with the text. This third dimension also includes the modern commentator, who is situated in a modern worldview and a modern community of readers.

Attention to these three dimensions and their interactions has its dangers. There is the triple lure of speculative constructions, endless research, and infinitely long commentary. These tasks must be balanced while resisting the siren song of a perfect commentary. We can only see and say so much.

Paying It Forward

Writing a biblical commentary is a big task, hedged with troubles. Having just finished a commentary on Genesis 1–11 for Anchor Yale Bible (with the second volume on chapters 12–50 still to go), I have been thinking about the question of why we undertake such a massive task. The answer is both simple and elusive. We write commentaries because the books of the Bible are complicated, and for a variety of reasons, we want to understand them. Their meanings are often not self-evident. (Sorry about that, Martin Luther—who argued for the self-interpreting quality of Scripture, but who also wrote many commentaries.)[4]

It is a worthwhile endeavor to walk in the footsteps of Philo, Ibn Ezra, and their modern successors, absorbing their wisdom and learning from their mistakes. And it is important to pay it forward to the next generation. Gershom Scholem once observed that Judaism is a culture of commentary,[5] and we can say the same for Christianity, Islam, and other world religions. Perhaps it is simply our task to write biblical commentaries. But the results will not be perfect. We can take up the task and advance it, and hopefully our understanding of the Bible, a step or two, with the hope that others will carry on the culture of commentary.

Prof. Ronald Hendel is the Norma and Sam Dabby Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University in Biblical History and Northwest Semitic Philology and is author of many articles and books, including The Book of Genesis: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013). He is a general editor of The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition, a text-critical project sponsored by the Society of Biblical Literature.


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