The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible (REVIEW)

September 19, 2012 10:34 am 0 comments

The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, by Harold Bloom.

The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, by Harold Bloom   (New Haven: Yale University Press. 2011)

Anniversaries generate memories and also books. The Dickens industry is already in production  for the 200th anniversary of the novelist’s birth (1812), and Professor Harold Bloom’s The Shadow of a Great Rock is among the notable celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the 1611 publication of the King James translation of the Bible. Since the Reformation in England (once a Catholic country) made Bible reading essential for Christians, it was important to translate the Hebrew and Greek originals into English. William Tyndale had begun his translation in 1523, but his project was aborted by martyrdom. In 1535 Miles Coverdale  published (in Switzerland) the first complete English Bible. Then came the Geneva bible of 1560, a stridently Protestant work .  King James, dissatisfied with the Geneva version (which he deemed unsympathetic to monarchy) authorized a group of translators to make a new version. Bloom evaluates not only  the relation of King James (KJB for short) to its Hebrew and Greek originals but also to Tyndale, Coverdale, and Geneva. His title, which in Isaiah refers to a shelter from the hot summer sun and is “a  great poem in itself,” refers to the sheltering nourishment  that the Bible provides to  Western literature and civilization.

Speaking of anniversaries—those of us who boast (or lament) having passed “our Biblical three score and ten”  pay unwitting tribute to what Bloom calls KJB’s tendency to “brilliantly mistranslate” the Hebrew original. A glance at Psalm 90  reveals that Tanach gives only the bare “shiv’im” for our allotted seventy years.  Similarly, Ecclesiastes’ “vanity”  deliberately mistranslates the Hebrew (hevel) for breath. Bloom celebrates King James not for anything so pedestrian as “accuracy” but for what he himself has championed during his long and distinguished career as a literary critic: creative misreading. Not that Bloom confers his blessing on all “strong misreading”:  he considers the religion of Akiba, “our normative [rabbinic]  Judaism,” a  distortion of the Covenant code of Exodus, and the Christian New Testament a far more egregious and tendentious misreading of the Hebrew Bible (as well as its literary inferior).

This is not Bloom’s first excursion into the genre he reluctantly calls “the Bible as literature.” In 1990  he published The Book of J, which   posited three  authors of the Pentateuch, most prominently (perhaps to epater les Juifs) the “J” (or Jehovistic) narrative  composed by a witty female intellectual resident of the court of David and  Solomon.  Bloom  rehearses this scenario,  which determines much of his interpretation and  endows him with the ineffable charm of an octogenarian enfant terrible, in the introduction to Shadow of a Great Rock. Yahweh,  far from being  creator of the universe, is himself the creation of “one of the universe’s greatest writers,” and contains within himself “Falstaff’s  vitalism, Hamlet’s ontological denials, Iago’s destructiveness, and Lear’s jealous furies and  shattering madness. The Bible matters most  because the Yahwist imagined a totally uncanny god, human-all-too-human and exuberant beyond all bindings.” This clever gal would, Bloom imagines, be amused and amazed to learn that her ironic invention, with all his “violent, excessive, ill-tempered, unfathomable, and horribly dangerous” passions, would enjoy  a second life as the revered, wise, merciful and just object of worship for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Declaring the Yahwist to be of the female persuasion is part of Bloom’s campaign to give women what he deems their just deserts in the Hebrew Bible. Deborah’s “magnificent War Song” is its most venerable poem, equaled  only by Miriam’s “great song of triumph.”   Ruth is the Bible’s  “most beautiful work.”  Even the murderous Judith and Yael are “godly and lethal, virtuous and deadly.” The Book of Esther is  “splendidly secular”–high praise indeed from  Bloom,  who says that “the commandments, whatever their moral value, need not be considered in an artistic appreciation.” (This is probably why he finds Leviticus, alone among the Five Books of Moses, “unreadable”—a rare instance in which he acquiesces in conventional prejudices.)

Bloom’s introduction deals with  “the  Bible as literature,” a phrase he finds lame and foolish, yet necessary to protect  critical inquiry from religious incursions.  He correctly credits  the Victorian poet-critic Matthew Arnold  with both the phrase and its idea.  Yet he fails to grasp the problem  Arnold faced in the 1870s, when  humanistic education was under assault by science. Arnold’s literary approach to the Bible  offended  religious men (like Cardinal Newman) as blasphemy, and  scientists (like Huxley) as obscurantism.  Arnold contrasted Darwin’s description of our original ancestor as “a hairy quadruped  furnished  with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in his habits,” with KJB’s  account of creation: “God said, Let us make man in our own image, after our own likeness.” After publication of The Origin of Species (1859), Darwin’s version seemed validated in the fossils and rocks, but not in our own experience; it was objectively true, but subjectively false.  Genesis seemed subjectively true, but objectively false, validated by experience, but not the fossils and  rocks.  Arnold therefore urged that the Bible  be read  not as exploded science, but as poetry, because in poetry the idea is everything, and there are no facts to be exploded. Besides, added Arnold (and Bloom concurs),  the poetry of the Hebrew prophets  equals  Homer and exceeds Shakespeare and Milton in literary power.

Bloom’s book is seriously flawed, yet illuminating. It is often allusive when it should be expository.  We get many  long quotations –useful when  showing how KJB  “fully matches the splendor of the Hebrew,” less so when from other translations or  Thomas Mann,   Victor Hugo, and the omnipresent Herbert Marks,  with little accompanying analysis. Nevertheless, Bloom’s fleeting apercus nearly always strike one as both new and natural.  Examples: “The outrageousness of what Yahweh imposes upon his wretched chosen people somehow has escaped commentary, ancient and modern, rabbinical and scholarly. Who can journey forty years in the waste lands without anguish and discontent? Is that part of the Blessing?”  King David is “the first portrait of an artist who is also a national leader…[He] anticipates Hamlet as a masterpiece of contraries…[he] incarnates the whole truth of our contrary existence.”

Bloom’s “divine Oscar Wilde”  said that “The highest, as the lowest, form  of criticism is a mode of autobiography.” This book illustrates both extremes. It is often quirky, self-indulgent, and dogmatic.  But it is also wonderful in its self-revelation.   An early chapter  provides  a glimpse of the child who is father of the man and can “ still remember my childhood awe at the wineglass set aside for Eliyahu hanavi at every Passover seder, with my sleepy fantasies that indeed he had come by to drain it!” The  Ecclesiastes chapter, following Jewish tradition,  identifies the author of “this strikingly heretical meditation upon wisdom”  as  “the eighty-year-old Solomon,”  confirming its verses on vanity through personal experience: “This is one of the KGB’s miracles. I brood, at eighty and counting, daily on these verses, as my fingers tremble, my legs bow themselves, my teeth cease, my eyes darken, my ears shut, birdsong grows fainter, heights increase my fear of falling, and even walking finds fears in the way.  Spring will begin again (in Jerusalem) with the flowering of the almond tree, but …will bring no seasonal renewal to desire, because the ‘long home’ …is prefigured by my generation’s mourners.”   The heretic of the Bible and the heretic of New Haven become one:  “I feel odd finishing this book because I have been writing it all my long life and I am eighty.” Literary criticism may ultimately be no more than character.

Edward Alexander’s most recent book is THE STATE OF THE JEWS: A CRITICAL APPRAISAL (Transaction Publishers, 2012).

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Book Reviews Personalities Biography Sheds New Light on David Ben-Gurion’s Place in Jewish History

    Biography Sheds New Light on David Ben-Gurion’s Place in Jewish History

    JNS.org – There is one sentence in “Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel” that made me sit up in surprise. I thought that I knew the basic facts about how Israel came into being, but while describing what it was like in the days and hours before the state was declared, author Anita Shapira provides one important anecdote I was not aware of. On the 12th of May, the Zionist Executive met to decide what to do. Moshe Sharrett had just returned [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    An actress starring in the controversial Met Opera The Death of Klinghoffer defended the show on Tuesday by comparing it to the 1993 Holocaust film Schindler’s List, New York Post reported. “To me, this was like [the movie] Schindler’s List. We make art so people won’t forget,’’ said the actress, who plays a captured passenger in the show and asked not to be identified. The Met Opera focuses on the infamous murder of Lower East Side Jewish resident Leon Klinghoffer, 69. The wheelchair-bound father of [...]

    Read more →
  • Analysis Arts and Culture Beyond ‘Klinghoffer’: Opera’s Composer, Librettist Have Broader Jewish Problem

    Beyond ‘Klinghoffer’: Opera’s Composer, Librettist Have Broader Jewish Problem

    JNS.org – One of the most controversial operas in recent memory, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” debuted Oct. 20 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The Met has scheduled seven more performances through November. The first staging did not occur without protest, as about 400 demonstrators—including Jewish communal and nationally recognized leaders—came to Lincoln Center to denounce the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel opera. “Klinghoffer,” the creation of composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, premiered in 1991—with few additional stagings. The opera is based [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli actress Gal Gadot is in negotiations to take on the female lead role in the remake of the 1959 classic Ben-Hur, according to The Hollywood Reporter. If the deal is finalized Gadot will play Esther, a slave and Ben-Hur’s love interest. Actor Jack Huston will star as the Jewish prince who is betrayed into slavery by his childhood friend Messala, played by Toby Kebbell. Ben-Hur fights for his freedom and vengeance with the help of Morgan Freeman’s character, who trains Ben-Hur how to win at chariot-racing. [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    JNS.org – Baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie are the American dream. So why do two young men who have built their lives in Israel have a GoFundMe crowd-funding webpage with the urgent message that they need $3,000 to travel to the U.S. to watch the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles square off for Major League Baseball’s (MLB) American League championship? Brothers Naftali and Yoni Schwartz, 27 and 25, respectively, are Kansas City natives. Even though they made aliyah with their [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Sports Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Some 3,000 years ago, King David probably never imagined cars racing at 240 kilometers per hour (150 miles per hour) through the ancient capital of the Jewish people. But on Monday and Tuesday, October 6-7, thousands of Israelis lined the streets to watch Porsche, Audi, and Ferrari race cars fly through the capital against the backdrop of the Tower of David, the Old City Walls, and other city landmarks. The second annual non-competitive Jerusalem Formula One Road Show had been [...]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James expressed interest in visiting Israel someday, local news site Cleveland.com reported on Sunday. Speaking to Israeli reporters before the Cleveland Cavaliers’ preseason debut against Maccabi Tel Aviv, the NBA star said he had never visited the Jewish state but “I want to look forward to going there if I get an opportunity to.” When asked by an Israeli reporter if there was “any chance that LeBron James and Cleveland comes to Tel Aviv,” the athlete said [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    A Florida-based Chabad rabbi put former basketball star, U.S. Congressman Curt Clawson to shame on the court when the two faced off one-on-one recently. A YouTube video, posted online on Tuesday, shows Rabbi Fishel Zaklos of Chabad of Naples shooting hoops with the Florida politician, who played basketball in high school and at Purdue University in Indiana. The game took place in the parking lot of the Chabad Jewish center run by Zaklos. During the 1-minute clip, Zaklos scores two impressive [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.