Review: Tanakh of the Land of Israel

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The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel: Exodus, edited by David Arnovitz et al. (Koren Publishers, 2019), 305 pages.

Reviewed by Hayyim Angel

Koren Publishers has embarked on an impressive new project, a popular companion to the Torah presenting contemporary research on archaeology, Egyptology, flora and fauna, geology, the languages and realia of the ancient Near East, and other areas that elucidate aspects of the biblical text. It is presented in a similar engaging manner to the Hebrew series, Olam HaTanakh, and like that Hebrew work was composed by a team of scholars who specialize in a variety of fields of scholarship. There are brief articles and glossy photographs, maps, and illustrations that bring these areas to light. Living up to the standard that the community has come to expect from Koren publications, the volume is an impressive work of graphic design, with a highly engaging aesthetic sense. Unlike Olam HaTanakh, which also offers a running commentary on biblical books, The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel discusses specifically those background areas that may enhance our understanding of the text within its real-world setting.

This series is written from an Orthodox perspective. Its authors believe that God revealed the Torah to Moses, and they utilize contemporary scholarship as a tool for understanding God’s word. The articles generally are presented judiciously, rather than reaching conclusions that exceed the biblical and archaeological evidence. The volume does not purport to be original scholarship, but rather synthesizes contemporary academic scholarship in an accessible and Orthodox-friendly manner.

Here are a few brief examples of how the authors highlight elements of the background of the narrative and laws:

  • In Exodus 1:16, Pharaoh orders the midwives Shifra and Puah to “look at the birthstool” (u-re’iten al ha-ovnayim). In ancient Egypt and elsewhere in the ancient Near East, women used birth bricks to support their feet while they squatted. In Egypt, they used four bricks made of black Nile mud (9).1
  • God redeems Israel from Egypt “by a mighty and an outstretched arm” (be-yad hazaka uvizroa netuya; e.g., Deuteronomy 4:34; 5:15; 26:8; Jeremiah 32:21; Psalm 136:12). This terminology appears almost exclusively in Tanakh regarding God and the Exodus. The authors quote Egyptologist James Hoffmeier, who suggests that these terms are related to contemporaneous Egyptian military terms referring to Pharaoh’s military might (khepesh=arm-power; per‘=one whose arm is extended). God specifically employs this terminology in the Torah to convey the message that God will defeat Pharaoh militarily (22).
  • The Egyptian Book of the Dead relates how after a person dies, his or her heart is weighed on a scale. If the heart was light, the person was considered righteous and would merit afterlife. In contrast, a heavy heart meant that the person was a sinner, and his or her heart would be devoured by a monster who lurked under the scale. Perhaps the Torah’s references to Pharaoh’s heart being heavy convey the additional notion that in Egypt, a heavy heart brought destruction onto its owner (41).2
  • Pharaohs were responsible for Maat, loosely translated as the cosmic order (Maat also was the name of a goddess in charge of maintaining that cosmic order). When the world turned to chaos during the plagues, Pharaoh would have been held responsible (37-38).
  • In Egyptian temples, the innermost compartment was the holy of holies. The room was maintained in complete darkness. A statue of the deity was kept in a cabinet, and no one but the High Priest was allowed to open the cabinet and touch it, or even to enter. On religious festivals, they took the statue out on a boat, kept in its cabinet and protected by a curtain so that no one could look at the statue. This insight from Egyptology is brought to deepen our understanding of why Moshe “hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” at the burning bush (3:6). “It might have been only natural,” the Koren commentary suggests, “for Moshe, with his Egyptian background, to cover his face before God. Egyptians were in awe and feared their gods, and it would have been his instinctive reaction to hide as soon as he realized he was encountering the Divine” (19).
  • The obscure orot tehashim (Exodus 35:7) used in the Tabernacle are likely best explained as deriving from an Egyptian word that refers to a certain type of Egyptian leather (195).

The authors generally present accurate readings of the biblical text and judiciously apply the relevant contemporaneous materials. Occasionally, however, they make excessive efforts to draw parallels between the Torah and its ancient setting. One such example is the discussion of the plague of darkness:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. Pharaoh then summoned Moses and said, “Go, worship the Lord! Only your flocks and your herds shall be left behind; even your children may go with you.” But Moses said, “You yourself must provide us with sacrifices and burnt offerings to offer up to the Lord our God; our own livestock, too, shall go along with us—not a hoof shall remain behind: for we must select from it for the worship of the Lord our God; and we shall not know with what we are to worship the Lord until we arrive there.” But the Lord stiffened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not agree to let them go. Pharaoh said to him, “Be gone from me! Take care not to see me again, for the moment you look upon my face you shall die.” And Moses replied, “You have spoken rightly. I shall not see your face again!” (Exodus 10:21-29).

The authors ask: The plague of darkness is depicted in the Torah as the one that nearly cracked Pharaoh’s stubbornness. But why should this particular plague, which inflicted no damage, be so effective? The authors respond that the Egyptian sun god was the head of the Egyptian pantheon. In their mythology, the sun god rode a boat (called a barque) each day from east to west. He was born each morning, was in his prime at noon, and entered the Netherworld in the evening as an old man. During the night, he made his way through the Netherworld in order to be reborn in the morning, but a hostile chaos serpent named Apophis tried to stop him. When the sun rose in the morning, Egyptians could rest assured that the sun god had made it. Egyptians feared that if the sun did not rise in the morning, the world would descend into chaos. Therefore, the plague of darkness would have been particularly horrifying to Pharaoh and the Egyptians.

One may ask two questions against this explanation. First, does the Torah present the plague of darkness as the one that nearly cracked Pharaoh’s stubbornness? All Pharaoh says is, “Go, worship the Lord! Only your flocks and your herds shall be left behind; even your children may go with you.” This response is not remarkably different from his reactions to several other plagues. Contrast that brief reaction with Pharaoh’s remarkable admission of error during the earlier plague of hail:

Thereupon Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron and said to them, “I stand guilty this time. The Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. Plead with the Lord that there may be an end of God’s thunder and of hail. I will let you go; you need stay no longer” (Exodus 9:27-28).

Or Pharaoh’s response to the plague of locusts:

Pharaoh hurriedly summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “I stand guilty before the Lord your God and before you. Forgive my offense just this once, and plead with the Lord your God that He but remove this death from me” (Exodus 10:16-17).

No less significantly, the Torah does not mention the sun or its failure to rise in its account of the plague. It appears more likely that the Egyptians faced a massive hamsin with thick dust blocking out all sunlight and preventing motion.

Overall, this new series is a welcome contribution to the growing body of Orthodox writings that draw the best from contemporary scholarship in the service of understanding Tanakh. The series also successfully presents the material in an accessible manner that will benefit people of all backgrounds. The high-quality scholarship, coupled with the engaging presentation, will make this series a valuable companion for learning Torah. We look forward to the publication of the other projected 17 volumes in the series, which will be published over the coming few years, and will cover all 24 books of Tanakh.

Rabbi Hayyim Angel, a member of TRADITION’s editorial board, is the National Scholar at the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals and serves on the Bible Faculty, Yeshiva University. His essays and reviews for TRADITION can be read in our archives.

[Published January 15, 2020]

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