Earlier this week, Julie Baretz wrote about leading Christian tours of Israel and why she decided to make aliyah. Her book, The Bible on Location: Off the Beaten Path in Ancient and Modern Israel, is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
The idea for my book, The Bible on Location, grew from a study project designed to enrich my professional capacity to guide biblical sites in Israel. I set out to delve more deeply into the post-Torah books of the Tanakh – the ones that chronicle the Israelites’ trials and tribulations after arriving in the Promised Land – so that in addition to reading the stories on site, I could also provide commentary and food for thought.
Just as my teacher and I opened the Book of Joshua to the story of Rahab and the Israelite spies, an article appeared in the weekend newspaper about a rehab program for prostitutes in Israel. This led to an intriguing discussion of Rahab’s possible motivations for assisting the spies and betraying her people. As we read on, many fascinating questions arose, often in response to current events but also in the wake of cryptic information provided by the biblical authors and editors. Why is it stated that Ehud Ben Gera was left-handed? Why did Samson reveal the secret of his strength to the obviously manipulative Delilah? Why didn’t David punish his son Amnon for raping his sister Tamar? Did Ahab and Jezebel have a good marriage despite the zero-tolerance campaign she waged against his prophets?
Early on in the study process I knew I wanted to share what I was learning by writing a book. I chose twelve stories with compelling questions and set off to the library in pursuit of the answers, wading through books and articles on history, archaeology, literary criticism and rabbinic thought. I gathered threads from myriad sources and then wove them into commentary that answered my questions.
The process of literary sleuthing was exhilarating, but I soon realized that twelve sites didn’t sufficiently cover the biblical narrative arc or the geographic diversity of Israel. I chose eight more stories to complete the picture, but ran into a wall with the prophet Elisha, Elijah’s successor. I wasn’t able to connect to him, but as the subject of fifteen biblical stories, I couldn’t ignore him. I eventually found two illuminating articles on the story of Elisha and the wealthy Shunemite woman (II Kings 4). One lucidly explained the prophet’s role in the birth, death and resuscitation of the woman’s child, and the second discussed a commentary by an Israeli politician who, in a modern interpretation infused with Israeli political reality, accused Elisha of adultery. Good stuff, but neither article answered a curious question: why did the Shunemite woman, who had no sons, rebuff the prophet’s attempt to reward her with the birth of a baby boy?
I sniffed around for hints in the text. Shunem is mentioned a few times in the Tanakh, most notably as the hometown of Abishag, a beautiful young woman who was selected to warm the elderly King David in bed (I Kings 1). Maybe Shunem was well-known for its fetching females? Perhaps a limited but protected gene pool was producing outstanding beauties with similar features? It may then follow that the same inbreeding resulted in a tragic genetic mutation which caused death in infant males, which might explain why the Shunemite woman didn’t jump for joy at the prospect of conceiving a boy (I know, it’s a stretch). Yet, if the biological father came from a different gene pool the results could be different. This theory wouldn’t hold water academically, but I could respectfully present it as a midrash – traditional Jewish creative interpretation of text.
In a significant departure from the other nineteen chapters of the book, I wrote the commentary on II Kings 4 in the voice of the Shunemite woman. In presenting her version of the story, the two biggest challenges were explaining the genetic reality without using the word ‘genetics’; and elucidating how she conceived without specifically naming the father or casting aspersions on her husband or the prophet.
Is this modern midrash convincing? Read chapter 17 and decide for yourself.
Julie Baretz received her license from the Israel Government Tour Guides training program in 1987. Since then she has guided thousands of Jewish and Christian visitors to sites all around the country. Read more about her and her work here.
Julie Baretz received her license from the Israel Government Tour Guides training program in 1987. Since then she has guided thousands of Jewish and Christian visitors to sites all around the country. Her book, The Bible on Location: Off the Beaten Path in Ancient and Modern Israel, is now available. Read more here.