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 Commentary ‎Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer (REVIEW)

    ‎Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer (REVIEW)

    Kosher Lust, by Shmuley Boteach (Gefen Publishing House, 2014). You really do want to find something positive to say about Shmuley Boteach. He is a phenomenon; very bright, an articulate bundle of energy and self-promotion. Anyone who has the chutzpah to describe himself as “America’s Rabbi” deserves ten out of ten for effort. I believe that along with most Chabad alumni, official and unofficial, he does a lot of good and is a sort of national treasure. In this world [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Hollywood’s Revisiting of Passover’s Exodus Story a Part of Throwback ‘Year of the Bible’

    Hollywood’s Revisiting of Passover’s Exodus Story a Part of Throwback ‘Year of the Bible’

    JNS.org – In a throwback to the golden age of cinema, Hollywood has declared 2014 the “Year of the Bible.” From Ridley Scott’s Exodus starring Christian Bale as Moses, to Russell Crowe playing Noah, Hollywood is gambling on new innovations in technology and star power to revisit some of the most popular stories ever told. “It’s definitely a throwback to the 1950s and early ’60s,” Dr. Stephen J. Whitfield, an American Studies professor at Brandeis University, told JNS.org. Starting with The [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    Eddie Carmel, dubbed “The Jewish Giant” by American photographer Diane Arbus, is the centerpiece of a new exhibit opening April 11 at The Jewish Museum in New York. Arbus met Carmel, who was billed “The World’s Tallest Man,” at Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus in 1959 but waited until 1970 to photograph him at his parents’ home in the Bronx, according to the museum. The son of immigrants from Tel Aviv, Carmel posed for Arbus with his head bowed to [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    A Passover themed cover of hit songs Let It Go and Do You Want to Build a Snowman? from Disney’s Frozen has attracted tons of media buzz and a cool 65,ooo views on YouTube within days of going online. The work of Jewish a capella group Six13, the track is aptly named Chozen. We are celebrating “our freedom, our favorite festival, our fabulous fans, and aspiring Disney princesses everywhere” the group said. The Chozen music video tells the story of [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    JNS.org – Many young Jewish artists struggle to define who they are personally, artistically, and religiously. Against the backdrop of that struggle, the recent Asylum Arts International Jewish Artists Retreat provided a space for some 70 young Jewish artists to explore Jewish ideas, to build community and a culture of reciprocity, and to learn skills to assist their career development. “We are trying to encourage and excite people to engage in Jewish themes,” says Rebecca Guber, director of Asylum Arts. [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Literature Darren Aronofsky Adds Psychological Depth, Little Else to ‘Noah’

    Darren Aronofsky Adds Psychological Depth, Little Else to ‘Noah’

    JNS.org – Has the era of large-scale biblical epics returned? Not since “The Ten Commandments” has there been so much torrential water on the big screen (not counting weather-related disaster films such as “The Impossible”) than in “Noah,” the latest blockbuster from writer and director Darren Aronofsky. “Noah” takes the traditional tale and splices it in an eco-friendly and psychologically driven plot. After Adam and Eve got booted out of the Garden of Eden and after Cain killed Abel, mankind [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Israel Israeli Arab Microbiologist Wins on Israel’s ‘MasterChef’ Reality Show

    Israeli Arab Microbiologist Wins on Israel’s ‘MasterChef’ Reality Show

    JNS.org – An Israeli-Arab microbiologist and mother of three won the fourth season of Israel’s most popular reality TV show, “MasterChef.” Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, 32, who holds a PhD in microbiology and is from the Israeli-Arab town of Baqa al-Gharbiyye, described winning as the “the most exciting moment in her life.” She said she plans to use the prize money to open up an Arab-Jewish cooking school. MasterChef is a popular reality TV show that originated in the U.K. It is [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Theater Play About Muslim Man Who Discovers His Parents Are Jewish Seeking Funds

    Play About Muslim Man Who Discovers His Parents Are Jewish Seeking Funds

    Jewish comedian and writer David Baddiel is seeking public support to help produce a musical based on his film about a British Muslim man who discovers his parents are Jewish. London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East is in development to premiere The Infidel in October, London’s Evening Standard reported on Wednesday. However, the theater needs another £55,000 on top of around £200,000 already raised in order to produce the show. Baddiel, 49, retained the stage rights to the story when he wrote the [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.