'Human-all-too-human'

Monday Book Reviews

February 18, 1991|By Patrick Ercolano

THE BOOK OF J. By Harold Bloom. Grove Weidenfeld. 340 pages. $21.95. I CANNOT prove anything about J," writes Harold Bloom, "not even that she existed, or whether she was a woman, or when she lived, or what was her rank or class, or whether her home was Jerusalem."

This doesn't stop Bloom, a leading American literary critic, from concocting a batch of new theories about the authorship of the Old Testament's first three books. His theories are presented, along with poet David Rosenberg's fresh translation of those ancient works, in a work that has sneaked on, then off, then back on the New York Times best-sellers list in recent months.

In the commentaries that make up some two-thirds of the book, Bloom contends that the author of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers was not Moses, as conservative religious tradition holds, or a group of different scribes, as academic tradition believes. Rather, the writer was a sophisticated woman of privilege, "J," who lived around 900 B.C. at King Solomon's Court Jerusalem.

Scholars agree that a "J" wrote some of the first sections of the Old Testament. The "Documentary Hypothesis" of 19th-century German Protestant scholars remains the generally accepted view. It states that an author, called J for "The Jahwist," wrote the earliest parts of the Old Testament around 950 B.C. Additions were made by "E," The Elohist (from the word "Elohim," a Hebrew term for a divine being) around 850 B.C.; then "D" (the author of Deuteronomy) two centuries later; and then "P" (for the Priestly Authors) a century after that. Finally, around 400 B.C., "R" (the Redactor) took all the previous sources and polished them into the version we know today.

However, no scholar has claimed, as Bloom has, that much of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers originally were the work of one sensibility, one writer, one woman.

Bloom's J was a friend, perhaps a relative, of the so-called Court Historian who wrote the second book of Samuel. She was no slouch as a writer, either. Bloom makes this clear with his repeated comparisons of J to such subsequent geniuses of Western literature as Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, Tolstoy, Kafka and Proust.

Perhaps Bloom's most startling conjecture is that J -- whose elliptical yet rich writings helped supply the foundation for Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- had no intention of creating a sacred text. Her aim was to take the legends and history of Jewish belief and, simply, write a story. She felt no awe for the "race of giants" she was describing, not even for her main character, God, or Yahweh, as he is referred to throughout the book.

"J's attitude toward Yahweh," says Bloom, "resembles nothing so much as a mother's somewhat wary but still proudly amused stance toward a favorite son who has grown up to be benignly powerful but also eccentrically irascible."

Her Yahweh, Bloom writes, is "human-all-too-human," impetuous, resentful, prankish, even misguided at times. J paints the biblical patriarchs in similar fashion. Unlike the puffed-up superman Abraham of Jewish legend, J's Abram is a down-to-earth sort with no small amount of humor. Indeed, says Bloom, who is clearly no fan of religion, J is a writer of supreme irony and humor, a punster deluxe, and he chides the scholars and worshipers who ignored or just plain missed those elements in her writings.

For example, compare the King James Bible and J on the scene in which God informs Sarah, Abraham's wizened wife, that she will bear a child.

First, the King James version, Genesis 18:12: "Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?"

And J, translated by Rosenberg: "So within her Sarah's sides split: 'Now that I'm used to groaning, I'm to groan with pleasure? My lord is also shriveled.'"

The language of the King James version lacks the punning humor and the sexual spice of J's passage.

Similarly, the King James Genesis 26 remarks of the success of Isaac's herds and crops, "And the Philistines envied him." J, ever putting a playful twist on her words, states it this way: "Philistine envy also bloomed." Her sprightly language and the way she plies it indicate that a major artist is at work here, says Bloom.

We are the worse for the loss of J's singular viewpoint, Bloom suggests. The latter biblical scribes took her "human-all-too-human" script and, like public relations men for God, converted it into the scriptures on which the great Western religions are built. They also padded J with the "In the beginning" section of Genesis 1, Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac, Moses' parting of the Red Sea and other tales, to make J's good book into The Good Book.

Bloom sees it as perhaps the greatest irony of J, a great ironist and supposedly a non-sacred writer, that her "power as a writer made Judaism, Christianity and Islam possible, if only because the furious liveliness of her Yahweh presented tradition with an unforgettable and uncanny being." Later biblical authors would take her vision and mute it. The result according to Bloom -- millions of worshipers basing their religious lives on a document whose original meaning was obscured more than 2,000 years ago -- is comical or tragic, depending on your point of view.

But then, as Bloom himself admits at the outset, he can't prove anything about his J. That doesn't necessarily lessen the pleasure of reading her book or pondering Bloom's theories.

Patrick Ercolano is an Evening Sun reporter who writes about religion.

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