J. Blake Couey
The book of Isaiah is a compilation of prophetic poetry and narratives, named for an 8th-century
Isaiah is a sophisticated work of biblical Hebrew poetry, characterized by intricate combinations of imagery and wordplay. It features a high view of divine sovereignty, emphasizing Yhwh’s control over world nations and superiority over all human and divine powers; these ideas contributed to the emergence of monotheism in ancient Judah. The book also articulates diverse responses to imperial domination, even as it chronicles the ebb and flow of Judah’s own imperial aspirations. Striking portrayals of women and gender appear throughout Isaiah, including the extensive personification of Jerusalem as a woman and the comparison of Yhwh to a mother. Isaiah is also notable for its discourse about disability, which serves a variety of rhetorical functions in the book.
The impact of Isaiah was felt immediately, as evidenced by the number of copies of the book among the Dead Sea scrolls and citations of it in the New Testament. It greatly impacted the development of important religious ideas, including apocalypticism and belief in resurrection. In Christianity, Isaiah played an important role in reflection upon the nature of Jesus and the inclusion of Gentiles, even as it informed Christian anti-Judaism. The book has had a more complicated reception in Judaism, where it significantly influenced the growth of Zionism. Scholarly study of Isaiah continues to clarify the shape of its final form and history of composition. Current research on the book is increasingly interdisciplinary, engaging metaphor theory, disability studies, and postcolonial thought. The history of the book’s interpretation and reception is another area of growing interest.
J. Cheryl Exum
In the Hebrew Bible human sexual desire is, for the most part, constructed as male and as dangerous. In the patriarchal economy of ancient Israel, in which women were subordinated to men and younger men to older men, desire poses a potential threat to the preservation of male status, privilege, and hierarchy, upon which the patriarchal system is based. It is viewed warily as an overwhelming urge that, unchecked, can cause a man to lose control and act in ways that might jeopardize his position in the patriarchal hierarchy and, if some texts are to be taken seriously (Proverbs, the story of Samson), even his life. Thus legal texts seek to regulate and control sexual behavior and thereby channel sexual desire in permissible directions; Proverbs responds to the threat that uncontrolled desire poses by offering the young man a patriarchally sanctioned object of desire, personified Wisdom, and narrative texts, such as the stories of Samson and Delilah and David and Bathsheba, provide object lessons in the dangerous consequences of desire. There are few places in the Hebrew Bible where one person is said to love (’ahab) another in an amorous or carnal sense, and in all these cases only one of the pair is said to love. This does not mean that love was not thought of as reciprocated in biblical times, but only that reciprocal love was not a concern of biblical writers, with the exception of the poet of the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is the only text in the Hebrew Bible in which sex, desire, love, and romance can all be found. This short book, the Bible’s only love poem, gives its readers an unprecedented insight into what it is like to be in love from both points of view, a woman’s and a man’s.
Brent A. Strawn
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. Please check back later for the full article.
The God of the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) is arguably one of the most fascinating deities in all religious literature: complex and multifaceted; prone to great acts of mercy and kindness, although not above brutal acts of punishment and wrath; consumed with care for the world and its inhabitants; capable of changing direction or mind; inexplicably in love with God’s people and deeply concerned with their ways in the world.
This robust picture of the character of God in the Old Testament emerges in the aggregate: from viewing the library of books that is the Old Testament as a whole and trying to reckon with their literary complexity at a higher order of reflection. Inordinate attention to specific parts of the Old Testament—this verse, say, or that one, especially when divorced and isolated from all others—can produce a completely different (mis)perception such as that found in some ungenerous estimations that see the God of the Old Testament as petty or unjust, vindictive or bloodthirsty, misogynistic or genocidal. Such estimations are as old as the second-century arch-heretic Marcion but are also found in works of more recent vintage.
Some—although certainly not all—of these negative descriptors can be applied to the God of the Old Testament in certain passages, but a portrait consisting solely of them will end up being little more than a caricature that will not hold up to close scrutiny because it systematically ignores every piece of contrary data found in the Bible. To be sure, accounting for what might be called “polarities” in God’s presentation (God’s love versus God’s wrath) is a challenging intellectual task, literarily as much as theologically. Not all readers are up to the job (witness Marcion). But this task must be engaged if one wishes to write a complete character description (not to mention analysis) of God from the biblical texts. Indeed, the complexity of any more fulsome portrait of God in the Old Testament—marked, for example, by tensions, a vast array of metaphors, and alternative presentations—should be one of the primary results of such an endeavor. The God of the Old Testament is, after all, first and foremost, according to the description above, complex and multifaceted.
The complexity of God’s portrayal in the Old Testament is the direct result of the diversity of the Bible itself—a term that derives from a Greek plural, ta biblia, “the books.” Not only are the books of the Bible several and different at a synchronic level, but also they come from different periods and are themselves (that is, within each particular book) the result of long diachronic processes. This two-layered diversity that marks the Bible adds yet further difficulty to the task of describing God therein, even as it suggests that more than one approach can and must be (and has been) utilized in the attempt.
In the final analysis, it seems safe to say that the complexity of God’s portrayal in the Old Testament has functioned not only to make this deity endlessly fascinating in the history of civilization but also to underscore—at some literary level, if nothing else—that the God of whom the texts speak is truly a divine character: not able to be captured, controlled, or managed by the human characters in the stories and not even by the sacred literature itself. Only a robust approach to the biblical literature that pays attention to both synchronic and diachronic aspects can hope to do justice to such a fascinating deity.
H. G. M. Williamson
The history of ancient Israel is best known to most people from the narratives in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. There, however, the name “Israel” covers a wide diversity of social and political entities over the course of many centuries. The first attestation of the name outside the Bible (on the Egyptian stela of Merneptah, c. 1208
How to combine these differing forms of evidence has been the topic of lively and sometimes rancorous debate, which varies in its detail from one period to another, often depending on the extent to which external sources are immediately available. Solutions are not always available, but exploration into the nature of these problems and misunderstandings in the application of appropriate methods reveal where the problems lie and, in some cases, what are plausible solutions.
Until the 19th century, the history of ancient Israel was, for most people, coterminous with the familiar narrative of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. No relevant external sources were known, and there was no reason to doubt its essential historical reliability, allowance made, of course, for those who could not accept the miraculous as historically factual.
Archaeological and epigraphical discoveries over the last two centuries or so, together with the introduction more recently of new and different historical methods, have led to aspects of this topic being fiercely contested in current scholarship. Taking a general familiarity with the outline “story” for granted, the following analysis will present some of the major topics on which new data have become available and on which opinion remains divided.
Jewish liturgy is a complex phenomenon, manifesting change over time and place as well as some significant diversity today. Today’s prayers emerged from the rituals of the rabbis of the early centuries of the Common Era, compensating for the loss of the Jewish ritual center, the Jerusalem Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70
The received rabbinic worship is highly structured and scripted. There are three services every day, with a fourth on festive days. The key structural elements combined in these services are the recitation of shema῾ and its blessings, the multi-blessing ῾amidah, and the reading of Torah. To these, other elements have aggregated, like introductory prayers, Psalms, and supplicatory prayers. Meals also require short blessings before eating and a longer grace afterwards. The Passover seder extends this meal ritual with narrative, Psalms, and songs. Variation among medieval regional rites and their modern heirs manifests itself within this structure not only in small differences of wording, but also in more significant dissimilarities in modes of performance. In modernity, liberal movements abbreviated, translated, and otherwise rewrote many prayers.
The messages of Jewish liturgy are embedded within this structure as well as in the themes of the liturgical year, expressed primarily through scripture readings. The annual Torah cycle tells the Jewish story from creation up to the Israelites’ entry into their land. The primary festival cycle and the blessings surrounding the shema῾ highlight the key elements of this narrative: God’s work of creation, redemption, and revelation. Permeating the liturgy, though, is the expectation of future messianic redemption.
Until the late 20th century, it was widely assumed that visual art could be of only negligible significance to a Jewish tradition that had been principally mediated through written texts. However, by the closing decades of the 20th century, Jewish cultural historians had demonstrated that, while Jewish worship and study is indubitably logocentric, the Second Commandment’s prohibition of the making and worshipping of graven images has not entailed a blanket ban on visual art. Jews have not been uniformly indifferent or hostile to visual art, a category that includes the architectural design and decoration of synagogues; funerary monuments; illuminated manuscripts; embroidery; liturgical seats, pulpits, and the other fittings and ornaments of religious Jewish life at home and at worship; as well as, since the 19th century, drawing, painting and sculpture. Most interpreters now read the biblical texts as prohibiting only the making and worshipping of images of the divine. The Bible forbids idolatry, but is aware that not all images are idolatrous. By around the 3rd century of the Common Era, rabbinical rulings recognized that the danger of Jews becoming idolaters, as they might have done under formerly pagan dispensations, had passed. In short, although in a number of Jewish historical periods and geographical regions there have been good reasons to be reluctant to accommodate visual art within the tradition, there is also ample evidence of visual art in settings that span the entire geography and history of Judaism. Jewish avoidance or neglect of visual art has usually been more historically contingent than theologically necessary. The religious culture of Jews resident in Islamic lands, for example, tended to conform to their hosts’ prevailing, though not historically or geographically comprehensive, tendency to aniconism.
On grounds such as these, it has been argued that the notion of Judaism as an aniconic tradition is a modern one. Kant’s appreciation of the Second Commandment as one of Judaism’s few redeeming features, proscribing any crude urge to see that which exceeds the bounds of sensibility, encouraged western European Jews to advert to Judaism’s lack of art a sign of its pre-eminence as the first enlightened religion. The 19th and early 20th-century claim that Jewish tradition is aural and literary, but not visual, seems to have owed more to the modern German scientific study of Judaism’s use of the Second Commandment to highlight affinities between Jewish and Christian monotheism and to Jews’ desire to integrate into Protestant culture, than to restrictions within their own legal and cultural inheritance.
Perceived violations of the Second Commandment no longer provoke much of a reaction in any but the most conservative Jewish communities. And even among the Haredim, artists have begun to paint semi-abstract pictures that are not considered a deviation from halakhic norms. Yet, while many Jews still regard abstraction as a more permissible form of Jewish visual art than others, it is evident that the art tradition that developed after Jewish civil emancipation in Western Europe has actually been predominantly figurative. A number of scholars have therefore proposed that the Second Commandment has not so much prevented figurative visual art as promoted a distinctive set of styles and techniques, especially those that allow Jewish artists to make images that fulfill their quintessentially Jewish obligation to criticize idolatrous images. Jewish art, it has been argued, exists because of the Second Commandment, not in spite of it.
This essay does not cover Jewish approaches and contributions to film and architecture. It examines both the history and theorization of Jewish visual art and Jewish religious approaches to visual art. The essay uses the findings of this two-pronged enquiry to suggest that Jewish visual art, which is more than art by artists who happen to be Jews, is properly counter-idolatrous art, art that is far from hindered by the Second Commandment but is actively produced by it. Jewish art does more than build cultural, political, and national Jewish identities; it does more than the commemorative work of visually constructing Jewish memory. Visual art made by Jews becomes Jewish when it serves a constructive theological, prophetic purpose and when it uses idoloclastic techniques to produce images that both cancel and restore the glory of the human. This claim counters the prevailing view that there can be no unified or normative theory of Jewish art.
The uncomfortable question of Martin Luther’s place in the development of modern anti-Semitism is raised by Luther’s status as a national cultural icon after German unification (1871) and by the fact that the Third Reich (1933–1945) perpetrated what is arguably the most violently racist state policy known to human history thus far. Luther contributed to the symbiosis of religious and secular prejudices. The reception of Luther’s anti-Jewish discourse illustrates the gradual diffusion of religious hostility into a society where churches slid from a central position to the margins of social influence. This can only be understood against the backdrop of a long chronology of religious thinking. The long chronology shows that Luther was more a conduit than a catalyst of European anti-Jewish polemic and feeling.
Stephen G. Burnett
Christian Hebraism was a facet of Renaissance humanism. Biblical scholars, theologians, lawyers, physicians, astronomers, philosophers, and teachers in Latin schools sought to learn Hebrew in order to read the Old Testament in its original language, and to borrow and adapt ideas and literary forms from post-biblical Hebrew texts to meet Christian cultural and religious needs. While some medieval Christian scholars such as Nicholas of Lyra and Raymond Martin made extensive use of Hebrew in their works, not until the early 16th century were a significant number of Christians able to learn Hebrew and use it to study the Hebrew Bible and post-biblical Jewish texts. The desire of biblical humanists to read the Old Testament in Hebrew, the curiosity of Christian Kabbalists searching for ancient wisdom, and a slowly growing number of Jewish tutors and Christians who were able to provide Hebrew instruction all contributed to the growth of this movement. Jewish printers pioneered the techniques of mass-producing Hebrew books to feed this new market. Christian printers would use these same techniques to print grammars, dictionaries, and other books needed for instructing Christians. The growing conviction of Martin Luther and his followers that the Bible was the sole source of religious authority (sola scriptura) provided the most compelling reason for large numbers of Christians to learn Hebrew. The most active and innovative Protestant Hebraists during Luther’s lifetime were members of the “Upper Rhineland School of Biblical Exegesis,” including Martin Bucer, Wolfgang Capito, Conrad Pellican, and above all Sebastian Münster.
Martin Luther and his Wittenberg colleagues were early adopters of the new Hebrew learning. He first learned Hebrew using Johannes Reuchlin’s Hebrew grammar, and put his knowledge to practical use when lecturing on the Old Testament and translating the Bible into German. His colleagues, above all Philip Melanchthon and Matthaeus Aurogallus, helped Luther translate and revise his translation from 1521 until his death in 1546. Luther characterized his approach to interpreting the Hebrew Bible as “Grammatica Theologica,” employing Hebrew philology to interpret the text, but also wherever possible making it “rhyme” with the New Testament. Toward the end of his life, Luther became increasingly concerned that Münster and other Hebraists were too quick to accept Jewish interpretations of many Old Testament passages, particularly verses that traditionally had been understood to be messianic prophecies. In On the Last Words of David (1543) Luther offered a model of how he interpreted the Old Testament, while sharply criticizing Christian Hebraists who followed Jewish interpretation too closely.
Martin Luther was engaged with the topic “Jews and Judaism” all his life, from his earliest works until his last. The main context for his preoccupation with this topic was interpretation of Holy Scripture, particularly in his many and ample lectures on books of the Old Testament, starting with the “Dictata supra Psalterium,” his first lecture on the Psalms (1513‒1515), down to his “Lecture on the Book of Genesis” (1535‒1545). In addition, he wrote several treatises on the question of how Christian society should relate to the Jews living in its midst, most important, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” (1523) and “On the Jews and Their Lies” (1543). These writings were, however, to a large extent also exegetical works. Altogether Luther’s attitude toward the Jews and Judaism is characterized simultaneously by continuity and by radical change: (1) continuity is obvious in his theological statements on Judaism which were based on a certain hermeneutics of the Old Testament centered in the Messiahship of Jesus Christ; and (2) change in his demands regarding the treatment of contemporary Jews which in earlier years followed his conception of the Two Kingdoms whereas in later times he came back to the traditional ideal of corpus Christianum. This change led to contradictory receptions of his statements on the topic in the course of history. All this is reflected in the research on the subject since the beginning of modern historical scholarship.
Anne W. Stewart
Do humans have a will capable of choosing the good, doing the good, and evaluating the good? These are the central questions of moral agency, the notion that humans can be morally responsible for their actions, that is, that they are capable of deliberately exercising agency for good or ill. The Hebrew Bible offers multiple perspectives on these questions, and at least three different models of moral agency can be discerned. Some traditions indicate that humans are fundamentally flawed moral creatures who are incapable of choosing the good apart from divine intervention. For example, the psalmist confesses: “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5) and prays for a divine change in the human condition: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (51:10). Other traditions, however, frequently take the more optimistic view that humans are capable of choosing and acting in accord with the good, though they may not always exercise their inherent capacity to do so. The Deuteronomic law, for example, is based on the notion that humans have the ability to distinguish obedience from disobedience and to act accordingly. Thus humans will reap the consequences of their actions, for God “maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and [God] repays in their own person those who reject him … Therefore observe diligently the commandment” (Deut. 7:9–11). In other words, humans are held responsible for their moral choice. A third view, found especially in the book of Proverbs, takes a middle view that moral agency involves a combination of internal and external factors: while most, though not all, humans are inherently capable of choosing the good, their capacity for moral agency requires cultivation by external forces. That is, humans are capable of moral choice, yet their ability to choose according to the good depends upon both an innate receptivity and training by others. The Hebrew Bible thus reflects a diverse set of viewpoints about the status of human moral agency, the extent of human accountability, and the factors that influence human action.