First Time Readers


This section is based on the Translator’s Preface from my The Five Books of Moses (Schocken Books, 1995). It’s the outcome of many years of using my translations in the classroom, for students from 8 to 88, and is part of a curriculum developed by Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox and myself.

What we have found is that both children hearing the texts read aloud, or adults studying them for the first time, can be taught to pay attention to important stylistic features that provide inner clues to the meaning of the text. Below I have laid out ten principles to keep in mind when reading the Bible, especially the books from Genesis through Kings. They do not all apply to every text, but can lead to the first set of questions to ask as you grapple with the meaning of what you are reading.

Principle 1
Translation: There is a difference between the Bible in Hebrew and English translations.

Principle 2
Cola are poetic units, with the text divided into lines like free verse.

Principle 3
The sounds of the words play a crucial role in bringing out frequently missed ideas in the text. Connections between words are based on the sound of the words using assonance, alliteration and repetition.

Principle 4
Many passages in the Bible have an orderly structure. This is usually intentional on the part of the writer.

Principle 5
The text plays off the sound of words to make a point.

Principle 6
Names are frequently meant to give clues about their bearers’ personality or fate.

Principle 7
Small scale repetition: the text repeats a word several times in a short passage in order to signal something of importance.

Principle 8
Leading word: a key word is repeated frequently in a story to draw the reader’s attention to an important motif or message.

Principle 9
Allusion: the wording of one passage echos the wording of another, indicating a connection between them.

Principle 10
The Bible, like other great literature, makes major thematic connections between stories. A continuing them or a similar circumstance in separate stories points to a major emphasis in a book and sometimes beyond.