This is a book that has been on my shelf waiting for me to read for quite a long time. I picked it up when I was in college. Harold Bloom had come to speak at the campus and I knew I would have the opportunity to meet him before his lecture. I was familiar with the book and the concept was very interesting, so I bought a copy and had him sign it for me. (Yes, I’m one of those book-dorks who loves autographed copies.) Anyway, I finally got around to reading it and I’m glad I did.
Essentially, the Book of J is a construct of passages extracted from the first three books of the Torah, or the Old Testament for Christian readers (Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers). Scholars seem to be in agreement that the early biblical texts were written by several different people, then combined and redacted to create a unified text. In this book, Bloom argues that one of the unknown authors, whom he refers to as J, was a woman and referred to god as Yahweh. In addition, he goes on to assert that the intention of J as a writer was not to create a religious or historical text, but that she was in fact writing a literary story of comic irony, comparable to Shakespeare or Chaucer.
The book is split into three parts. The first part contains Bloom’s introductory sections—background information, thesis, history, and so forth. The second section is the reconstructed Book of J, the text translated by David Rosenberg. The third section is Bloom’s analysis of the text.
Bloom begins by asserting that J was a woman writer who wrote for a female audience. He also stresses that “Yahweh, in the Book of J, is a literary character, just as Hamlet is.” (p. 12) He continues by placing J in the same category as Shakespeare, claiming that they are both universal authors, hence their works are prone to contradictory interpretations. Bloom then praises J’s work as being so powerful that three major religions were founded based upon her writing.
J mixes everything available to her and produces a work so comprehensive and so universal that the entire Hebrew Bible, Greek New Testament, and Arabic Koran could be founded upon it. (p. 18)
Shortly before presenting J’s text, Bloom encourages readers to let go of their preconceived notions of the text and approach it from a literary and not a religious perspective.
Perhaps the largest obstacle to our reading J as J is that we cannot cease thinking of the Book of J as the heart of the composite work the Torah, or five books of Moses, and so as the central element in those even more composite works the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible, with its Old testament/New Testament structure… To read the Book of J, we need to begin by scrubbing away the varnish that keeps us from seeing that the Redactor and previous revisionists could not obliterate the original work of the J writer. That varnish is called by many names: belief, scholarship, history, literary criticism, what have you. (p. 47)
J’s book begins with the creation of Adam in the Garden and ends with the death of Moses in Moab. Throughout her text, Yahweh appears as a fickle, unstable god, who cannot help acting upon whims. In addition, the women characters always appear stronger than the male counterparts, which is something Bloom points out as support for his argument that J was a woman writing for a female audience. In fact, I would personally take it a step further and assert that J viewed women to be on the same level of divinity as Yahweh, as demonstrated by Hava’s (Eve) claim that she possesses the creative life-giving power of god.
Now the man knew Hava, his wife, in the flesh; she conceived Cain: “I have created a man as Yahweh has,” she said when he was born. (p. 63)
I want to look at one more passage from J’s book, which is a great example of both Yahweh’s fickle character and the strength of the women in the book. In this passage, Yahweh decides to kill Moses for no apparent reason (except that maybe because Moses had not yet had his son circumcised), which in and of itself is bizarre. Why kill your main prophet and the person who is leading your chosen ones? But what is most telling about the passage is that it is Moses’ wife who intervenes and saves Moses. I get the impression that J was expressing that Zipporah, being a strong woman, was on equal footing with Yahweh. She is, in any case, certainly stronger than Moses.
On the way, at a night lodging, Yahweh met him—and was ready to kill him. Zipporah took a flinty stone, cutting her son’s foreskin; touched it between Moses’ legs: “Because you are my blood bridegroom.” He withdrew from him. “A blood bridegroom,” she said, “marked by this circumcision.” (p. 144)
Bloom has a lot of great commentary following the Book of J, and it is much too in-depth to go into within the confines of this blog post. I’ll just mention as bullet points a few of the concepts that struck me as interesting and which you may want to think about:
- There was no proverbial “fall” and hence no split. J expresses a unity between body and soul, as well as between man and nature.
- Yahweh did a better job creating the first woman than he did creating the first man.
- Man was banished from the Garden to prevent his ascension to god-status.
- Sodom was destroyed not because of sin, but because the people there showed contempt for Yahweh as well as contempt for others. Sin was not a concept for J.
“By normative standards, Jewish or Christian, J’s portrayal of Yahweh is blasphemy.” (p. 280) She portrays Yahweh as a character with defects and flaws, which makes him a realistic literary character and one to whom we can relate. After reading this book, I will never read the Torah texts the same way again.