Author Archives: Robert M. Seltzer

Robert M. Seltzer

About Robert M. Seltzer

Robert Seltzer is a Professor of History at Hunter College (CUNY).

Bible as Ancient Literature

What is Religious Literature?

Religion begins with the experience of something uniquely holy, at once terrifying and fascinating, sublime and numinous. As a culture discerns symbols, metaphors, and analogies to identify and name the numinous, its deities provide a framework for understanding the most urgent matters of human concern: birth and death, the regularities and eruptions of nature, social solidarity and authority, personal solitude and the wish for forgiveness. 

Religion is man’s effort to elicit meaning and value from confrontation with the holy. Through acts of worship he enters into formal communion with the divine; through myths and theology he seeks to explain the relation between the divine and the actualities of life. Proceeding one step further, religious literature collects, records, and organizes this lore and teaching, enabling man’s positive responses to the holy to be transmitted over the span of generations.

Common Elements in Ancient Near Eastern Literature

The Bible–the surviving religious literature of ancient Israel–faces in two directions. It draws on the ideas and skills of three previous millennia of Near Eastern creativity and opens new paths. No appreciation of the Bible can overlook the degree to which it reflects elements common to other cultures.

The physical structure of the universe, taken for granted by biblical writers, characterizes ancient Near Eastern literature as a whole: The earth is a thin disk floating in the surrounding ocean; the heavens are a dome (the firmament) that holds back the “upper waters” unless its windows are opened to permit the rain to fall. Under the earth lies Sheol, the abode of the dead (see Ps. 88: 3-12). In the heavens there meets a divine assembly where God announces his judgments (1 Kings 22: 19). Although all humans descend to the underworld when life is over, the Bible mentions two who are raised up above to join the celestial creatures in heaven (Enoch in Gen. 5:24 and Elijah in 2 Kings 2:11). Demonic spirits wander about in the world (Azazel in Lev. 16:8, the satrys in Isa. 34:14) and even YHVH is capable of demonic behavior (Ex. 4:24).

Jewish Diaspora

The following article is reprinted from
Jewish People, Jewish Thought
, published by Prentice-Hall.

The first permanent Jewish diaspora was the settlement in Babylon created by Nebuchadnezzar’s deportations from Judah in the 590s-580s [BCE]. (The Israelites exiled by the Assyrians in the 720s did not long survive as a separate group.) Although the Babylonian Jews returned to Jerusalem in several waves during the Persian period, a sizeable Jewish population continued to reside in Mesopotamia, and…played an influential role in Jewish intellectual history beginning in the third century CE. 

In Egypt, Jewish settlements were established by Jewish soldier contingents brought there by the Persians. These exilic and postexilic communities were a modest prelude to the remarkable expansion in the numbers and distribution of diaspora Jews that occurred in the Hellenistic era

Diasporas were a common feature of the Hellenistic-Roman world. In the fourth century BCE, colonies of Egyptian, Syrian, and Phoenician merchants were frequently in the seaports of Greece and Italy. After the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greeks and Macedonians constituted an immense diaspora throughout the Near East. Ethnic resettlement and religious diffusion went hand in hand, as settlers brought with them ancestral cults and won for their gods new worshippers among the local population. Although not unique, the Jewish diaspora was outstanding in its ability to preserve and perpetuate its identity at considerable distance from the homeland and over large stretches of time.


Several factors guided the spread of the Jewish dispersions in Hellenistic times, of which the political history of the Mediterranean basin was the most important. During Ptolemaic rule of Judea, large-scale Jewish settlement in Egypt began. Under the first Ptolemies, Jewish captives, when freed, established communities throughout the country. The Ptolemies brought in Jewish soldiers and their families, and other Jews migrated from Judea to Egypt probably for economic reasons.

The Book of Job: A Whirlwind of Confusion

 Reprinted with permission from Jewish People, Jewish Thought, published by Prentice Hall.

The book of Job is one of the most problematic portions of the Bible and has called forth a variety of interpretations. A major difficulty in understanding the meaning of the book is, what insight leads Job to submit so humbly to God at the end. (It should be kept in mind that Job is not the author, but the principal character.) 

There are important and subtle differences between the various modern scholarly views, but they usually revolve around two aspects of God’s speech from the whirlwind. First, that the divine voice does not answer Job’s complaint directly, but instead describes the wonders of creation, pointing to natural occurrences that surpass the limits of human understanding. Second, that Job does indeed receive an answer.

The Mystery of it All

One widely held view is that the climax of the book teaches that God’s purposes and ways are mysterious and unfathomable, hidden from his creatures. Given the difference between infinite God and finite man, theodicy is not possible. (Theodicy is the theological justification of God’s goodness in relation to his omnipotence [i.e. his all-powerful nature].)

Walther Eichrodt writes, "In the speeches of God in the book of Job, this God of men’s construction [the traditional theodicy of the friends] is opposed to the incomprehensibly wonderful Creator God, who cannot be caught in a system of reasonable purposes, but escapes all human calculation."

Also taking note of the preoccupation with the beauties of nature in the speech from the whirl­wind, but drawing a less extreme conclusion, is Robert Gordis, who sug­gests that the author implies that there is an analogy between the har­monious order of the natural world and the moral order. "What cannot be comprehended through reason must be embraced in love."

Several scholars have turned to an earlier chapter of the book for the key to the divine speeches (chap. 28, especially 28:28). A righteous man cannot know why he suffers and the wicked prosper, because men’s wisdom is not God’s. YHVH [i.e. God] keeps his cosmic wisdom from human beings, giving them instead a "fear of God" as their own precious and proper concern.

Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Prophet’s Prophet

The following article is reprinted from Jewish People, Jewish Thought, published by Prentice-Hall.

His Life

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), a descendant of two important Hasidic dynasties, was born in Warsaw. After receiving a thorough Jewish education in Poland, Heschel entered the University of Berlin, where in 1934 he received his doctorate for a study of the biblical prophets… . In 1937 Heschel became Martin Buber’s successor at the Judisches Lehrhaus in Frankfort and head of adult Jewish education in Germany, but the following year, he and other Polish Jews were deported by the Nazis.

thinkers & thought quiz[Martin Buber (1878-1965) was a German-Jewish social and religious philosopher. The Frankfurt Lehrhaus, an experimental center for adult Jewish education, aimed to teach marginal, acculturated Jews about Judaism. Ed.]

After stays in Warsaw and London, in 1940 he came to the United States to teach at the Hebrew Union College. In 1945 Heschel became Professor of Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and began to publish a series of works, ranging from studies on the piety of East European Jewry and the inward character of Jewish observance, to religious symbolism, Jewish views of humanity, and contemporary moral and political issues. Before his untimely death, Heschel had become highly respected among American religionists of many faiths not only for his writings but also for his active role in the civil rights and peace movements of the 1960s and in the Jewish-Christian dialogue.

A Unique and Vivid Style

Heschel’s literary style is unique among modern Jewish religious authors. Remarkable juxtapositions of the concrete and the abstract, suggestive similes and metaphors, striking aphorisms and extended images, concepts from classical and existentialist philosophy, are all used to evoke the numinous quality of the divine and the capacity for human self-transcendence. Heschel’s aim is to shock modern man out of his complacency and awaken him to that spiritual dimension fading from the contemporary consciousness. Because he stresses now one and now another polarity of the religious experience and because of the rich cumulative impact of his style, Heschel’s point of view does not lend itself to paraphrase or brief summary. The following remarks are limited to a few characteristic themes.

Mordecai Kaplan: Founder of Reconstructionist Judaism

Reprinted with permission from Jewish People, Jewish Thought (Pearson Education).

[Mordecai] Kaplan was born in 1881 in the small town of Svencionys, in the Lithu­anian district of the Jewish Pale of Settlement in tsarist Russia. At the age of eight he came to the United States with his family. Kaplan’s early religious education was traditional, but he attended public school and Columbia University where he absorbed a modern critical approach to religion and to the Bible. After ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1902, Kaplan served as rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue in New York until, in 1909, he was appointed dean of the newly estab­lished Teachers Institute of the Seminary and soon afterwards also made professor of homiletics, midrash, and philosophies of religion. During his more than fifty years on the faculty of the Seminary, he attracted a devoted student following and, at the same time, maintained an exten­sive involvement in Jewish communal activities. 

In 1917 he became leader of the first synagogue to incorporate a broad range of cultural and recre­ational activities into its program. After a split developed in the congregation over his innovative views, he and his supporters left to organize the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (1922),a New York syna­gogue and Jewish center based on Kaplan’s position that worship was only one of the functions that a congregation should foster.

His first major book, Judaism as a Civilization (1934), contained a detailed criti­cism of existing Jewish movements and a call for the "reconstruction" of Jewish life, leading him and his associates, the following year, to publish The Reconstructionist, a journal of Jewish affairs that has made consid­erable impact on the leadership of non‑Orthodox American Jewry. In the 1940sand 1950s, the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation issued a series of new liturgical texts: a Passover Haggadah and prayer books for the Sabbath, the high holy days, and the festivals. In 1968, the Founda­tion opened the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College in Philadelphia with a curriculum arranged according to priorities that the movement felt were not adequately espoused by other forms of American Judaism. Thus, in Kaplan’s later years, Reconstructionism was transformed from an ecumenical position cutting across Jewish denominational lines to a small separate movement.