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off the shelf | Book reviews: unfamiliar tales of Bible’s heroes

Thursday, December 4, 2014 | by howard freedman 

Every year when we return to reading Genesis, I like to revisit not only the Bible itself, but the continuing flow of insightful literature expounding on it. The following sampling of new books reflects the many ways of approaching this material, ranging from close reading of familiar text to venturing beyond the Bible we know.

In “David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory,” Jacob Wright offers provocative suggestions about the composition of the Bible and the history of ancient Israel.

Rabbi David Wolpe’s new book, “David: The Divided Heart,” is a deeply felt exploration of why the story of David matters so much to us, regardless of its historical truth. …

If David is the Bible’s most fully realized characters, then Leah is one of the least so. Despite being mother to half the tribes of Israel, she has but two lines of spoken dialogue. In “The Lost Matriarch,” Jerry Rabow looks beyond the biblical text to the classical midrash to offer a detailed account of Leah and how she is viewed in the larger Jewish tradition.

This tour of midrash is rewarding (although I would have preferred more direct citations and less summarizing) and occasionally disturbing. An example of the latter occurs in association with the rape of Dinah by Shechem. Although Leah plays no role in this episode, the rabbis, many of whom problematically hold Dinah accountable for the sexual violation she experiences, latch onto the introductory words “Dinah the daughter of Leah … went out …” and cast aspersions on Leah by association.

“The Lost Matriarch: Finding Leah in the Bible and Midrash”
 by Jerry Rabow (264 pages, Jewish Publication Society, $22.95)


Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a project of LearningWorks, in San Francisco.