Bible Reference Reveals Rich Legacy of Judaic Scholarship

Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible

By Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

William Morrow & Co.

628 pp., $25

The past year has seen an abundance of books summarizing, analyzing, and, at times, attempting to demolish the tales and truths of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Old Testament to Christians. The book of Genesis has proven particularly popular, thanks to the Bill Moyers series on public television.

Now comes Joseph Telushkin's new book, "Biblical Literacy." Subtitled "The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible," the would-be reader might ask: Does such a book need to be written? Isn't there enough on the subject? In fact, "Biblical Literacy" says little that is new, and that is, perhaps, its most impressive quality. For many, the book will be a first introduction to two millennia of Jewish Biblical scholarship.

"Biblical Literacy" is primarily intended as a reference work, to be used as an introduction to the weekly readings that are a part of Jewish Sabbath worship services. Jews and Christians alike will find themselves agreeing and disagreeing with Rabbi Telushkin and his sources.

The book is divided into three parts, each distinct and deeply intertwined. The first, titled "People and Events," takes up more than half the book. These are succinct, chapter by chapter summaries of the Old Testament, in order of their appearance in the Jewish canon. Most of the summaries end with a short section titled "Reflections." Here Rabbi Telushkin shares his knowledge of centuries of Bible lore.

"Laws and Ideas," the second part of "Biblical Literacy," may be seen as a kind of expansion of the "Reflections" of part one. It's generally fascinating to read about the concepts and precepts contained in the Torah (the Torah is the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). At other points it's a bit bewildering, for "Laws and Ideas" is a tangle of short essays on everything from each of the Ten Commandments to the "law of the Red Heifer."

Since "Laws and Ideas" takes up many of the ritual practices outlined in the Torah, the final section of Biblical Literacy gives the 613 Laws of the Torah. Telushkin's explanations are clear, precise, and concise. If there is a central theme to "Biblical Literacy," it is not ritualism but ethics. Ethics is central to Judaic thought and teaching, and the lessons of the Old Testament, from the disobedience in the Garden of Eden to the woes of Job and the bravery of Daniel, point toward an attainable morality, centered around the man made in God's image and likeness. The bountiful lessons of "Bible Literacy" are a timeless expression of the remarkable instruction given in the book of Proverbs: "[Wisdom] is more precious than rubies ... she is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is every one that retaineth her."

* Judy Huenneke regularly reviews books on religion for the Monitor.

Arguing with God

* One of the most fascinating features of the Hebrew Bible is that people argue with God when they feel He is acting unjustly. Job is the most famous character to do so;... [T]he very first person to argue with God ... is Abraham, who is regarded as the first Jew.... [H]e contends ... for the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, whose sinning has provoked God's wrath.

- From 'Biblical Literacy'

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