Title: The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel: The Susan and Roger Hertog Edition of Numbers
Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd.
One summer 30 years ago a friend, fresh out of Yeshiva University, was planning to teach 6th grade Tanach in a modern Orthodox school. He asked a dati le’umi Israeli talmid chacham and Bible scholar what to read.
The response was a challenge: “What are you prepared to read?” To truly understand Tanach, he would have to go beyond the traditional sources into the rich, rewarding, but theologically problematic realm of modern Biblical scholarship. But – the implication was – it would be worth it.
This exchange came to mind while perusing the The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel: The Susan and Roger Hertog Edition of Numbers, the fourth book to be published from this series. Like the preceding volumes on Exodus, Leviticus, and I & II Samuel, it “allow[s] Tanakh to be viewed in its historic, literary, religious, social, legal, political, and geographical contexts” thanks to the many discoveries of modern scholarship. The Koren editors have essentially done what this Israeli teacher had recommended. They’ve scoured the scholarly literature and curated a selection of insights designed to bring the Biblical world to life for an Orthodox audience. This approach is boldly championed by some and gives others pearl-clutching vapors. Personally, I’m a fan.
This series wasn’t conceived in a vacuum. A cluster of converging phenomena have contributed to the vibrant interest in Tanach among North American modern Orthodox Jews. In no particular order: the exposure while studying in Israel to teachers from Herzog College and Bar Ilan University, such as R. Yoel Bin-Nun, R. Elchanan Samet, Professor Yoni Grossman, and many others; the tiyyulim experienced during that year and on tourist visits to Israel, which connects the geography and archaeology of the land of Israel to the Tanach text; the highly engaging popular writings of Jewish scholars such as Robert Alter and (Orthodox) James Kugel; the growth of Jewish Studies in universities, leading to an increase in Orthodox scholars of Bible who attract Orthodox students; and the Internet and social media, which enable the effortless purchase of books and sharing of articles. Alongside these developments, a new breed of Tanach educator has developed. Influenced by all the above, these teachers bring more than Rashi, Radak, Abarbanel, and a little Nehama Leibowitz to the classroom. They’re also armed with concordances, cuneiform, and chiastic structures.
What all these approaches have in common is the pursuit of peshuto shel mikra – the contextual meaning of the text to its original audience, unguided by Chazal or (frequently) any traditional commentators. This volume is part of that trend.
The book is not a running commentary. It contains the Hebrew text and a terse, lively English translation written for the most part by the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt”l. The main attraction is a series of about 280 brief, 2- to 3-paragraph notes (as well as three spread-length articles). The categories covered are Archaeology, Egyptology, Near East, the Mishkan, Language, Geography, Flora and Fauna, and, oddly, Halacha (just 3 of the 280 in this volume). Koren’s team of academics, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have carefully, even lovingly, mined academic Bible and Ancient Near Eastern scholarship for gems that clarify puzzling or obscure words, verses, stories, and laws, and shed new light on those you thought you understood. (Surprise: you didn’t.)
To cite a few examples:
1) The phrase darach kochav mi-Ya’akov, “a star shall shoot forth from Jacob” (24:17) is illuminated (no pun intended) by parallels from the Ancient Near East. Imagery from The Epic of Gilgamesh and a stele found at Karnak in Egypt associate shooting and falling stars with the rising and falling of gods and kings. The Ugaritic verb darkatu which means “rule” or “dominate” suggests a similar meaning for the verb darach. The word shevet in the next line, ve-kam shevet mi-Yisrael, typically meaning “scepter,” may be better translated “comet,” based on a Mesopotamian text that refers to the god Nergal as sha shibti, “of the comet.” All this yields the translation “A ‘star’ will rule from Yaakov, who will rise like a meteor in Israel.”
2) The Torah says that Bil’am lived in “Petor asher ‘al ha-nahar,” Petor-on-the-River. This is identified as Pitru, a town located off the Sajur River, which begins in Turkey and flows into the Euphrates (known in the Bible as simply “ha-nahar,” the river). The seemingly superfluous designation “eretz b’nei ‘ammo,” translated as “in his native land,” may be better understood as “the land of the people of Amau,” a place name “possibly mentioned” in ancient inscriptions. (Of course, that’s not to mention the 9th Century BCE Deir ‘Alla inscription dealt with in the volume, which mentions Bil’am by name.)
3) The sociological terms “umma,” “bayit” or “beit av,” and “mishpacha,” mentioned in the censuses and other sections of Bamidbar, are all explained and placed in context with one another. Archaeological sites illustrate how the “bayit” or “beit av” members lived together in family compounds.
4) The gravity of Moshe’s and Aharon’s sin at the rock is placed in perspective using a core distinction, promoted by 20th century Israeli Bible scholar Yechezkel Kaufmann, between the pagan worldview and the Bible’s monotheism. In the pagan conception, there was a realm of magic to which the powerful-but-not-omnipotent gods and select humans had access; in the Biblical conception, G-d controls all and is unaffected by magic. The Israelites had spent hundreds of years in a culture with the pagan worldview. So when Moshe and Aharon (mis)spoke and said, “Shall we produce water for you from this rock,” they inadvertently created the impression that they were mere magicians and missed the opportunity to demonstrate G-d’s omnipotence.
If this stuff is your thing (full disclosure: it’s my thing), you will be in heaven. This series has elevated your nerdy, obscure factoids to superstar level in a large, glossy, lavishly illustrated volume full of Ancient Near Eastern inscriptions, reliefs, carved gods and goddesses, temples, landscapes, and artifacts. In fact, my only quibble is with the format; occasionally you can sense the editors’ straining to find a relevant image to accompany the text. Case in point: On page 117, below a blurb with a 7th century BCE description of a kettle drum re-covering ceremony which uses red items like the parah adumah ritual, is a large photo of 18th century Lithuanian kettle drums. (That’s CE, not BCE.) I was expecting something more Gilgamesh, less Vilna Gaon.
Now for the slightly controversial part.
The introduction to this series states that it is “a delicate balance between the scholarship of academia over the last two centuries and the traditions of the Jewish Sages that have come down to us over the last two millennia.” Further, it is “consistent with the beliefs and traditions of Orthodox Judaism.” Doth the lady protest too much? Would anything in this volume be hazardous to your spiritual health?
Well, it depends what kind of reader you are.
The average reader has nothing to worry about.
But if you’re the kind of reader who reads between the lines and is prone to further investigation of intriguing topics, this book might lead you to other books that aren’t under the OU (Orthodox umbrella).
For example, when the name “Parnach” (34:25) father of one of the nesi’im, is explained as Elamite language, known from the 5th century BCE (Elam was located in today’s Iran), you might wonder how an Israelite born in Egypt could have received such a name.
Or when you read that the inverted nuns surrounding 10:35-36 are not nuns at all, but scribal marks derived from the Alexandrian (Hellenistic Egyptian) scribal convention of marking off a portion of text thought to be out of place between two crescent-shaped, mirrored forms of the Greek letter sigma. You might wonder how sofrim learned about these symbols and why they thought it was okay to use them in a sefer Torah.
Or if you notice that the most-referenced scholars in the book (a total of almost 300 times between them) are Jacob Milgrom, author of the (non-Orthodox) Jewish Publication Society commentary on Sefer Bamidbar, and Baruch Levine, author of the Anchor Bible (secular, non-denominational) commentary on the Book of Numbers. You just might be tempted to buy those on Amazon to see what they’re all about.
All kidding aside (these are, after all, serious matters): the team of scholars at Koren are clearly aware of these dangers. They know that their own sources are a gateway to Biblical Criticism and the hazards of dating Biblical texts and events. They state plainly that “there may be a clear conflict between current knowledge and some element in the text” and are comfortable noting (and often not noting) the conflict and leaving the question open. They avoid the issue of chronology altogether (because dating can lead to mixed dancing). Eschewing a running commentary also helps avoid difficult questions. These precautions erect a barrier between the reader and potentially problematic information, but that barrier is somewhat porous.
Today, though, what barrier isn’t? Plus, when the alternative is seeking that same knowledge outside a religious context? When we’re talking about information that, based on their commentaries’ methods, mefarshim like Rashi, Rashbam, Ramban, Ibn Ezra, and Abarbanel would have given their eyeteeth to be able to access? When the overall result is a deeper, more mature, more sophisticated understanding of Torah?
I’d say: It’s worth it.