The Book of J Translated from the Hebrew By David Rosenberg Interpreted by Harold Bloom Grove Weidenfeld. 335 pp. $21.95
THE BOOK OF J is a collaborative effort between David Rosenberg, who has given a fresh, interpretative translation of the salient portions of the "J" sections of the Pentateuch -- the first five books of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament -- and Harold Bloom, our reigning literary terrorist critic. The parts of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers that scholars have ascribed to the unknown wrter they call "J" include the story of Creation, Eden, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, Abraham and his wife Sarai in Egypt plus the majority of the stories involving the Patriarchs: Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Joseph, and, most important, the narrative of Moses. Bloom, bent on knocking out of the ring adversaries presumed to have the wrong theories as to the origins of the Old Testament, presents his view that the "J" portions were, in fact, the work of a woman -- a worldly sophisticate of royal blood of the house of David living in Jerusalem during the 10th century B.C.
In candidly admitting that his idea that "J" is a woman is an intuition born of his ear for poetry, rather than based on concrete fact, Bloom disarms his readers. After he has us well accustomed to accepting J's womanly gender, well toward the end of the book, Bloom somewhat disingenuously informs us: "I cannot prove anything about 'J,' not even that she existed, or whether she was a woman, or when she lived, or what was her rank or class, or whether her home was Jerusalem." It is the tough-mindedness of the sturdy woman characters and, in contrast, the child-like behavior of Yahweh in the J sections that most convince him of J's gender.
Such claims are not new: Samuel Butler maintained that Homer was a woman; the French critic, Jean Wahl, said he didn't care what great writer turned out to have been a woman, so long as Corneille was left in peace. Subjectively, I delight in the idea that the greatest literary narrative of all time, that from which flowed our three major religions -- the Judaic, Christian and Moslem -- was born of womankind. But, standing back a little, as a critic, I am more interested in Bloom's feat for its shrewd sleight-of-hand rather than as a true possibility.
Had not Bloom reimagined J as a sort of stunning intellectual princess, what would he have been left with? Myriad scholars have done the hard, nitty-gritty work on the Old Testament -- it already has been sorted out into its different parts: in addition to J, other divisions include E, P and D. The 1964 Doubleday Anchor Bible, with commentary by E.A. Speiser (who also supervised the translation), makes clear that J is considered by mainstream scholarship to be the work of one of the world's greatest literary geniuses. Speiser, like Bloom, has observed that the Yahweh created by the writer J is far more a personal participant in the lives of the patriarchs than the Yahweh of other writers. He also perceives J as a writer sophisticatedly aloof from his material, indeed, frequently critical of the messy behavior of the characters. Moreover, since in the Jerusalem of the 10th century B.C. the art of writing was not an equal-opportunity affair, and, as the family-minded Old Testament so meticulously concerns itself with status relationships, it would seem likely J had to come from the highest social caste.
But Bloom immediately heightens his drama, and separates it from traditional biblical and literary scholarship, by establishing his J as a foil for the Yahweh she has invented. Thus results a creation within a creation within a creation. We have Bloom creating J, who, in turn, creates Yahweh, who, in turn, creates Adam and then Eve.
"J . . . begins her account of the natural and the human with Yahweh, all alone, standing in a mist that comes from within the earth that he has made. There, in that mist, for no stated reason or cause, he scoops up a handful of wet earth and shapes it into what we would call an earthling. But this earthling is still a mud pie . . . until Yahweh blows his own breath, 'the wind of life,' into the nostrils he had formed . . . It would be like the lovingly ironic J if her childlike Yahweh breathes from his own nostrils into the child of her art."
Abruptly, albeit cleverly, Bloom shifts J from being a literary genius writing in a received tradition -- one which has at its core monotheism in its first representation, "Yahweh" -- to being, herself, the individualist inventor of her form of monotheism. "J is the most monistic of all Western authors," writes Bloom, "even as Saint Paul is one of the most dualistic. There is for J no split between body and soul, between nature and mind. So far as I can tell, such monism was J's invention, whereas the creation out of clay was not." He then adds, "I venture the speculation that J's power as a writer made Judaism, Christianity, and Islam possible, if only because the furious liveliness of her Yahweh presented tradition with an unforgettable and uncanny being."
Bloom no longer is interpreting the Old Testament, instead he is revealing to us the wills, desires and caprices of his mighty Princess J. Since nobody is a higher authority on Princess J than Bloom, he is, of course, in absolute charge. If one is willing to suspend judgment on Bloom's method and accept his donnees as pleasurably heightened literary drama, his scatterings of earthly delights have considerable allure. In mixing erudition with poetic leaps of the imagination he has a noble precedent in Robert Graves's "historical grammar of poetic myth," The White Goddess, which also involves a search for the ur-female hidden behind the obvious patriarchal bent of the Judeo-Christian religion.
Bloom particularly entices in his vivid description of Princess J and her strong rendering of Biblical women. He sweeps aside any notion of religious, moral or historical possibility in his J -- since she is the greatest of all literary geniuses, why must these profound areas be absent in her work? -- in order to highlight his view that Yahweh was merely her own literary creation: She had no need, therefore, to be in awe of him. Bloom almost novelistically places on one side J and her women, on the other, a weak, childlike, male Yahweh, who is no match for their female superiority.
In Bloom's reading, the aged Sarai ridicules Yahweh for suggesting that she beget a child with her husband Abraham -- "now that I'm used to groaning, I'm to groan with pleasure? My lord is also shriveled." A gritty Rachel holds on to her father's property by sitting on top of his idols; she tells the embarrassed Laban that due to her period she cannot rise from her seat. Bloom's favorite heroine though is Tamar, who nervily pushes her way into a story that she was not born into. Undaunted by the weakness of Judah's two sons, who, each in his turn, leave her childless, she seduces her father-in-law. Through her psychological insight into his behavior, she manages to take care that her sons, the ancestors of David, are born without stigma. She discreetly gets Judah to acknowledge legally his paternity while making it clear to him she will not make this disgraceful information public. "Most crucially, she knows that she is the future, and she sets aside societal and male-imposed conventions in order to arrive at her truth, which will turn out to be Yahweh's truth, or David."
Bloom's main aim is to nail down his Princess J as the absolute source and equal of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Kafka, Freud, et al. Since she is his personal hostage, he is also staking his own claim to the methods he means to maintain in judging their work. By stressing J and her women as equal to -- indeed, at times, more powerful than -- Yahweh and the patriarchs, he has directed our imagination to contemplate in a roomy way the unguilty child born of J's great prose narrative, that child being not religion, but literature. Barbara Probst Solomon's most recent book is a collection of essays, "Horse-Trading and Ecstasy."