A Review of Between the Lines of the Bible

Between the Lines of the Bible Exodus

by Yaakov Beasley

Having begun t read the parshiyot of our leaving Egypt, it behooves us to review one of the more important books on parshanut on Sefer Shemot to come out in the past several years Volume 2 of Rabbi Yitz Etshalom’s work Between the Lines of the Bible. Like his original ground-breaking volume, this book is hailed as an exemplar of the “new school” of Biblical interpretation, what is being called either the “theological-literary approach” or the “Gush/Herzog derech”. The roots of this methodology are two-fold, stemming from both the appearance almost four decades ago of a literary-based approach stream in academia that focused on the poetics and structure of the text as opposed to traditional critical questions about the formation of the text (and supposed pre-texts) and speculations as to the historical milieu in which it occurred; along with the revolutionary shiurim and articles that simultaneously emanated from the Yitzchak Herzog Teacher’s College and Yeshivat Har Etzion. (The exact relationship between the two streams has yet to be fully charted, see the author’s review of R. Etshalom’s first volume in Tradition 2009, 42:1, “Return of the Pashtanim” for the first attempt in this direction).

Within pages of opening Rav Etshalom’s book, one senses both the forethought and planning that went into achieving both of the goals that he set for it: to demonstrate the fundamental mechanics of how the “new school” reads the Biblical text, and to serve as an interpretation of Sefer Shemot. In this respect, volume 2 differs from volume 1, which used Sefer Bereishit as a springboard to present methodology, but not as a commentary on Sefer Bereishit itself. This time, the entries are sorted by chapter, and are meant to serve as a running commentary on Shemot as well. That R. Etshalom is an engaging speaker comes through in the clear and lucid prose; more importantly, especially for a book on methodology, he doesn’t simply present his conclusions, but guides the reader through his thought processes so that the tools can be applied elsewhere.

Almost of all the ‘tools’ of the “new school” toolbox are on display:  parallelisms, chiasms, differing points of view, archeology, philology, etc. Responsive to one of the criticisms of the first volume, where each chapter consisted of only one example to demonstrate it, in volume 2, R. Etshalom provides several examples of each pattern when it is presented. The first entry reveals R. Etshalom’s structuralist roots, as he attempts to find the underlying structure of chapter 1. Like his mentor R. Elchanan Samet, he divides the chapter (ignoring the first verses, which serve as the introduction to the entire book) into two equal halves, both in terms of verses and words, with Pharaoh’s first commands to enslave the Israelites comprising the first half, and his command to the midwives to kill the male children comprising the second half. However, unlike Samet who concentrates on the literary parallels between the two halves, R. Etshalom develops a philosophical explanation as to why the two halves are necessary, based on the principle of dual causality (events in the world unfold due to both Divine plan and human actions), and then attempts to find literary parallels for each half with their literary precedents in Bereishit.

Several examples from R. Etshalom demonstrate not only the strength of his readings, but the necessity for the usage of the “new school” methodology. In his analysis of the conversation between Hashem and Moshe in the attempt to convince Moshe to serve as the Divine agent to free the Jewish people, R. Etshalom notes that Moshe speaks seven times, beginning with the eager response “Here I am” “hineni“, and ending with the rejection “Send whom you will send [but not me]”. How did this change occur? By placing Moshe’s seven statements in a row, R. Etshalom demonstrates that they form an almost perfect inverse chiasm, which centering on Moshe’s conviction that the Israelites will not believe him. The rest of the statements reflect how Moshe’s disbelief permeates throughout the conversation. This example demonstrates the value and necessity of applying a larger picture arrangement to a text that would be lost in a traditional Biblical classroom that relies on the traditional model of “read a line, read a commentator, repeat”.

The laws of the korban Pesach also benefit from R. Etshalom’s sensitive eye and ear. First, he discusses why the various laws are scattered throughout chapter 12, some appeared at the beginning of the chapter, and other details only appear suddenly near the end. Afterwards, he notices parallels between the laws at the end of chapter 12, and the original covenant between Hashem and Avram in Bereishit 15, specifically the strange prohibition (especially in terms of its location ג€“ why here and not earlier in the chapter or in Sefer Vayikra) against breaking the korban’s bone and its relationship to the original pieces that comprised the Berit bein haBetarim. Similarly, his finely tuned ear hears the echoes between the plague of blood and the bitter waters of Marah; and the parallels that exist between Yosef and Moshe. Structures explain both the order and purpose of the plagues, as well as the doubling of the episodes of the Jews upon leaving Egypt (two war stories, two stories where they run out of water). Five chapters that discuss the Mishkan and one overall chapter that outlines the themes of Sefer Shemot conclude the book.

No one reader will find every suggestion convincing; whether his claim (based on Rashi and Chazal) that God said both גœzachor (remember) and shamor (keep)  and were said in one voice is the text’s understood meaning (see Ibn Ezra for a more peshat approach), or his assertion that the magicians performed their magic before the plagues (absent any textual markers that would indicate this, such as a change to the past perfect form see Rashi on Bereishit 4:1, the Malbim on Yehoshua 1:13). More importantly, however, several important discussions that R. Etshalom has alluded to remain incomplete or need to be addressed, including the differentiation between peshat and derash readings (or various levels of peshat understandings), how one evaluates the correctness of an interpretation, especially when the connection is only alluded to through verbal echoes, and how much of this methodology that R. Etshalom claims was known and utilized by Chazal and traditional commentators was actually part of their hermeneutic lexicon. However, fortunately for us, R. Etshalom has an additional several volumes on Vayikra to Devarim (and beyond?) to provide us with answers. Until then, while we patiently await their appearance, we shall enjoy the two volumes that have graced our shelves so far and express our appreciation to R. Etshalom for his yeoman’s work in presenting the fundamentals of modern Tanach study in a manner that is not only clear and entertaining, but enlightening for the reader.

This review first appeared in Bookjed Digest


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