A New-Old Approach to the Study of Tanach

Photos courtesy of Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Studies


Dr. Yael Ziegler is a lecturer in Tanach at Herzog Academic College in Alon Shvut and Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Studies in Jerusalem. She received her BA from Stern College and an MA and PhD in Bible at Bar-Ilan University. Dr. Ziegler has lectured widely on various Tanach topics in Israel, the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia and Europe. Dr. Ziegler is the author of Promises to Keep: The Oath in Biblical Narrative (Leiden, Netherlands, 2008), and Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy (Jerusalem, 2015).

Alex Maged: There seems to be a renaissance around the study of Tanach in recent years, spurred largely by the literary methods you are championing. And yet, the literary method seems in many ways to find antecedents  in the Midrash. What would you say is “new” in the literary approach, and how much of it is a function of reformulating, or expanding upon, that which Chazal already noticed?
Dr. Yael Ziegler: The medieval parshanim, the Rishonim, enable us to read (translate) the pasuk. Midrash often takes a step back and gives us a larger sense of the message.

A lot of the methods and goals of literary readings, certainly within the context of Herzog Academic College (a teacher training college in Alon Shvut associated with Yeshivat Har Etzion) where I teach, or “literary-theological readings”—a term coined by Rabbi Shalom Carmy—are similar to what the Midrash is doing. The Midrash won’t say explicitly, “This is a key word,” or “This is an interbiblical exegesis.” It doesn’t use that kind of terminology. But it will point to the words that stand at the center of the story and direct us to its undercurrents. So while it might not use the term “interbiblical exegesis,” it is doing those kinds of readings all the time, pointing us to the similarities between stories, characters and plot. So much so that I would say it is extremely rare, if not impossible, for me to find an analogy or parallel not already found in Chazal.

For example, a couple of years ago it occurred to me that there is a strong analogy between David fighting a lion/Philistines, and Shimshon fighting a lion/Philistines—both without weaponry—although I didn’t know of a midrash that compares the two figures. But of course there was! I went back to look again and sure enough, I found that Chazal alluded to this analogy.

What I have yet to find in Midrashic literature is any emphasis on seeking out broader structures in narratives. That is something I think is often very useful, though, like any tool, it can be over-applied or misapplied. There is sometimes an awareness of chiastic word structure among the medieval parshanim even if they don’t use that term. But as far as awareness of broader structures, I’m not sure if I see that in Chazal. So the literary approach can be very helpful in that sense, as well as by providing a heightened methodological awareness and the ability to classify and define techniques of interpretation.

AM: We’ve spoken a bit about your method as it relates to earlier methods of Tanach study, but let’s talk about the literary method on its own terms. What is it? What are the major questions it encourages us to ask when we study Tanach, and what are the advantages of asking these sorts of questions? Into what aspects of Tanach do we gain insight that we otherwise might miss?
DYZ: The literary approach has several advantages. It looks at all of Tanach as a whole. It assumes that we have an internal canon and deliberately draws from all of Tanach. It is sensitive to the allusive character of Biblical text. The literary approach pays close attention to the phraseology and rare words, especially when they appear concentrated in one passage and then in another passage. That’s begging for comparison! If you miss [some of these elements], you will miss some of the most important aspects of the text.

While [Midrash] might not use the term “interbiblical exegesis,” it is doing those kinds of readings all the time, pointing us to the similarities between stories, characters and plot.

At the same time it entails paying close attention to structure, syntax and the way in which ideas are expressed. It demands that the reader notice all sorts of conscious writing devices in the text—the subtle variances or ambiguities or word plays; all of those devices are there to draw our attention. The Tanach was not casually written—every word carries meaning. We are students of the idea that every letter has meaning. In general, this approach maintains that the methods of writing were conscious—such as key words, different kinds of patterns, characters: how they develop, how we meet them, how they are described, how we part from them, their first words, their last words, the way they interact with others. “Type scene” is a term borrowed from general literature. It’s basically a scene that unfolds in a specific way, for example, how people are born, how they die, how they become heroes, et cetera.  Analyzing the various type scenes in Tanach, and the subtle varieties within them, enables us to look more deeply at the stories to understand the underlying themes and goals.

Ultimately, what sets apart the religious quest from the academic quest is that in the former we are seeking a religious message. True, academics try to find meaning as well. But academics will ask, “What does this story say?” The religious person will ask, in addition, “What is the story saying to me?

AM: Can you share an example of a type scene in Tanach?
DYZ: There are so many examples. One classic type scene in Tanach is where a man and a woman meet next to a well. The man leaves his homeland for a distant land, draws water for the woman he meets and then is invited home to a meal where the couple becomes betrothed. Every time this scene appears, there are some very distinctive differences. Take Yaakov and Rachel—a prototypical type scene. But when you look deeper you see that there are things happening here that do not happen in other scenes of this type: Yaakov isn’t exactly on a leisure journey; he is running for his life. There’s a stone blocking the well. He’s not actually invited for a meal. And he must work for many years in order to marry Rachel. You get the sense that Yaakov’s life is marked by adversity. Which is true, of course—struggles in the womb, struggles with his brother, struggles with his children, et cetera.  But the theme of struggle is right there in his betrothal story—it highlights this ongoing motif in Yaakov’s life.

Another wonderful point made by the Dutch scholar Jan Fokkelman is that you find stones everywhere you see Yaakov. Every time I teach this portion of Tanach, my students say, “Aha!” Everyone knows this but fails to notice it. The stones under Yaakov’s head on Har Hamoriah, the stone on the well in Charan, the stone matzeivah Yaakov places between himself and Lavan and the mound of stones (gal) that marks the treaty between the two on Har Hagilad, et cetera. What’s fascinating is that although Yaakov struggles, in the end he overcomes his struggles. He obtains the bechorah (birthright) and the blessing, he manages to push the stone off the well, and he eventually marries Rachel.

Academics will ask, “What does this story say?” The religious person will ask, in addition, “What is the story saying to me?”

The Gemara in Pesachim 88a associates Yaakov with the “House”—he is the only one of the forefathers who refers to the future place of the Mikdash as a “Bayit.” And he is the first person in Tanach to build a bayit (Bereishit 33:17). The point, I think, is that he takes those stones and instead of tripping over them, he builds a house. He is the first to have a complete family. He becomes the symbol of how we deal with challenges—the “father of overcoming adversity.”

A shorter example of the same type scene takes place in Megillat Ruth. An individual leaves what’s familiar to travel to a distant land. But the story is inverted here: in Megillat Ruth it is not the man who is the central figure leaving, it is the woman. In every other story it’s the man who leaves. This points to what is unique about this particular marriage, which perpetuates the traits of the female throughout the generations. It is Ruth who is the progenitor. By noting that, we see in concrete terms the idea that the line that will emerge from this couple is important.

AM: What originally got you interested you in Tanach studies?
DYZ: When I was in college I was not particularly interested in Tanach, I was actually interested in Torah Shebe’al Peh. When I began my graduate studies it was a very fortuitous time for Biblical studies in academia, because it was the beginning of a significant shift from an emphasis on Bible criticism to an emphasis on using literary tools for analysis. This very much appealed to me as a religious person who had learned Tanach. I also had a background in Midrash.

Dr. Yael Ziegler teaching a class at Matan Women’s Institute for Tanach Studies in Jerusalem.

AM: Who were your major influences?
DYZ: Dr. Bryna Levy was a Tanach teacher of mine who inspired me to love Tanach and to seek to deepen my understanding of it. After college, I read a great deal of books and articles on literary study of Tanach by authors who introduce a methodology that facilitates sensitive and close readings of Tanach passages.

I was very influenced and inspired by Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Sabato, an expert on Tanach at Yeshivat Har Etzion, whose work is very comprehensive and deep. In addition to focusing on structure and close reading, he weaves in traditional ways of approaching Tanach. It took him years to teach any particular section of Tanach because he delved so deeply into the text. I appreciate his methodical approach and have largely adopted it; in my book on Ruth I try to employ both traditional and literary academic approaches to the text.

Rabbi Yaakov Medan, a rosh yeshivah at Yeshivat Har Etzion, also had an influence on me. He believes that Midrash points towards a deeper peshat“omek  peshuto shel mikra.” Sometimes I read a midrash and say, “I’m not really sure where this is alluded to in the peshat.” But often, upon closer examination, I find that the Midrash actually reveals the simple meaning of the text, the core of the peshat. That is something I’ve learned from Rav Medan that’s been very inspiring for me.

AM: What are the limitations of the literary approach to Tanach study? Does it run the risk of leading one to treat Tanach as though it were just another literary work?
DYZ: This method should never, ever become technical and omit the dimensions of meaning and inspiration. You must have the right teacher, and be engaged in the right quest. The study of Tanach should not just be an exercise in intellectual and aesthetic prowess. I’ve read academic articles that focus on form only; “Isn’t this literarily beautiful?” the authors conclude. But for the religious student, the study of Tanach is not merely an aesthetic experience; there is a deeper religious meaning. One of the reasons so many people have become excited about Tanach study is because Tanach contains such profound ideas. Taking stories that we are all familiar with and rethinking some of the broader and deeper messages can and should produce something that is meaningful and profound. I don’t think everyone uses this methodology correctly, but because this approach is so similar to what Midrash does, how could it not be a legitimate means of probing Tanach?

AM: How confident should we be in the conclusions we reach through the literary approach?
DYZ: I think everybody likes a good literary structure, but you need to be certain that it’s something that is embedded in the story. I’ve been asked many times, “Do you think this was the intent of the Author? Do you think that Megillat Ruth was intentionally alluding to the earlier type scenes of Bereishit?” It’s hard to answer those kinds of questions, but I do think that there is truth in these readings because they give us insights or pull together ideas that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to find otherwise. Having taught some of these ideas many times, I’ve noticed that students emerge with an “aha” moment, acquiring a newfound understanding of very familiar stories. That’s one of the advantages of using this “new-old” method.

Does this methodology turn Tanach into Shakespeare? I don’t think so, but it all depends on the teacher and the endgame and what you are trying to achieve.

AM: Are there particular books of Tanach that lend themselves less to the literary method, which you’ve had a harder time “breaking through”?
DYZ: It might be harder to apply the literary method to the wisdom books—for example, Mishlei. But it’s particularly fruitful in narrative and in poetry. I have written on narrative and I’m now working on Eichah (poetry) and I think it’s been very useful in those contexts.

Alex Maged holds a master’s in Biblical studies from Yeshiva University.


This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2018.