Prof. Ed Greenstein: Helping better understand the Bible

Greenstein has given humanity a great gift, the translation of the Book of Job in a manner in which we can better understand this important book of the Bible.

 Prof. Ed Greenstein holding his book, ‘Job’ (photo credit: David Salem/Zoog Productions)
Prof. Ed Greenstein holding his book, ‘Job’
(photo credit: David Salem/Zoog Productions)

Recently, sitting at the Shabbat table in Bayit Balev, my senior residence in Jerusalem, I was talking with some guests, a couple whose mother lives in our facility. Not only are they quite interesting, but they are also the uncle and aunt of Shamla, the Ninja.

As we talked, the gentleman told me about their teaching career in Winnipeg, Canada, for four years during the 1980s. He also told me that he is working on his doctorate at Bar-Ilan University deciphering additional Dead Sea fragments that have been discovered.

Since I was beginning to write a story on Prof. Ed Greenstein from Bar-Ilan, I asked this gentleman if he knew him. He began singing Greenstein’s praises, and I immediately realized why Ed was awarded the EMET prize in 2021.

He received it for his work on biblical literature in its Canaanite background, his introduction and use of diverse disciplines in biblical research, and his “revolutionary” translation of the Book of Job.

The field he entered and developed is called biblical and Semitic philology. This quote of his defines his work. “In order to obtain the results that you seek, you find and apply the method that works best.” Greenstein came to realize that “meaning is not inherent but is made, by the observer of the world.” So he concludes, “Texts don’t come alive (in fact, they are silent) until they are brought to life in an act of reading.”

 Greenstein receiving the EMET Prize. (credit: David Salem/Zoog Productions)
Greenstein receiving the EMET Prize. (credit: David Salem/Zoog Productions)

I went to Greenstein’s home because he is my neighbor in Jerusalem and asked him to explain philology.

The work of Prof. Ed Greenstein on Jewish philology

“Philology is the study of textual meaning. It is especially used regarding attempts to understand in as precise and profound a manner as possible ancient and classical texts,” he replies.

Now he takes us into his world and has dramatically demonstrated in his recent translation of the Book of Job by Yale University Press. He studied every single word of the book before translating it. For many, it is one of the great translations of a biblical book.

“To understand a biblical passage, one needs to determine the reliability of the text itself; one needs to research how the words, the phrases, metaphors, patterns are used throughout the biblical corpus,” Greenstein says. “Wherever possible, one needs to understand the use of the word in other ancient literature from the Bible’s cultural milieu. It is also important to know the rhetorical and literary conventions that prevailed in the biblical world.”

His education and training consisted of acquiring a solid basis in many, if not most, of the relevant disciplines and areas, from the study of ancient Semitic languages and literature to the modern and postmodern methods of reading and interpreting. He had outstanding teachers, who made him recognize that with biblical words you cannot accept the obvious. He wove his teachers’ words and direction into his exceptional success in explaining the biblical word.

He won the EMET Prize in 2020, nicknamed the “Israel Nobel,” in Humanities-Biblical Studies. His translation of the Book of Job won the acclaim of the American Library Association, the Association of Jewish Studies, and many other organizations throughout the world.

Recently, his students and colleagues prepared a scholarly Festschrift in his honor. The work has been published in English in two volumes. In a most unusual event held at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, his students and colleagues created an oral Hebrew Festschrift for him. I was there, a very cold rainy night, and more than 50 people, women and men, came to hear the presentations and praises for their professor lovingly called Ed.

After growing up in a non-traditional family in Long Island in the suburbs of New York, he himself became involved in the local Conservative synagogue primarily because of religious music. Greenstein has a special gene like his mother, which provides him with an ability to integrate music he hears immediately into his mind. His love of ritual Jewish music also appears to have interested him in the study of Bible. He adds, “I believe that sensitivity to language is often akin to musical talent.” He has done that dramatically in all of his career – i.e., finding out what the text really means.

His academic career began at the joint program of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and Columbia University. After he received his degrees from both institutions, he came to Israel for a year, where he studied at the Hebrew University. “I had the privilege of studying Psalms with Professor Nehama Leibowitz and other greats.” He then returned to Columbia, where he completed his doctorate in Semitic languages. At that point, he developed his unique approach to biblical research.

“I understood,” he stresses, “that I didn’t know the Bible better than anyone, and that even in languages there were more prominent scholars than I; but I did have the ability to apply knowledge from areas which had previously not been integrated into biblical studies.” He continues, showing how he began. “In my first article, while I was a student, I applied insights from historical linguistics.” Then he moves forward quickly.

“However, in my second and considerably longer article, I applied insights from the budding field of psycholinguistics to Ugaritic (northern Canaanite) and biblical poetry.” Then for what he had accomplished early in his career, he received commendations from leading linguists and psycholinguists, as well as Bible scholars. “I also wrote philological studies in Bible, as well as literary and linguistic studies.”

What impresses me most about him is his ability to inspire his students in their chosen approaches to the areas in which they specialize and his kindness and concern for them, which makes him a real mensch and an even greater teacher.

Greenstein has thus far graduated 37 doctoral students, and still counting, most of them in Israel. Their research spans the many fields in which Greenstein has labored: studies of biblical terms and ideas; biblical law; medieval Jewish interpretation; literary and rhetorical analysis of biblical texts; Ugaritic and other ancient Near Eastern literatures; post-modern including feminist biblical studies. His most recent doctoral student, from Ghana, wrote on the genre of last words in biblical narrative.

Greenstein covered many fields in arriving at the point where he could accomplish what he has. He acquired the tools of his scholarship from the study of ancient Semitic languages and literature, providing the modern and post-modern methods of reading and interpreting. “I had the best teachers who made it clear that one must not simply accept conventional understandings.”

He was inspired to go forward, which is why he has been so successful.

By studying every single word in the Book of Job, he provided a new translation which has been acclaimed throughout the world. The translation is considered so pointed that the last words of Job in his volume were the basis of a question on the television quiz show Jeopardy.

In his translation of the words “dust and ashes” at the end of the Book of Job, he says, “It occurs only two other times... a figure of speech for the abject human condition.”

From his in-depth study of the verse, he concludes, “We must not translate it to ‘I repent’ but “I am fed up! I take pity on dust and ashes’ (meaning humanity).”

To get the true sense of what he has accomplished, the committee that selected him for the EMET prize wrote: “The EMET prize is awarded to Professor Greenstein for his original contributions in the comparative study of the Ugaritic (early Canaanite) and biblical literature, and for his extraordinary ability to combine diverse disciplines in biblical research providing an original interpretation among them his crowning achievement, his revolutionary interpretation of the Book of Job and his new translation of the book.”

Now, for the ages, Greenstein has given humanity a great gift, the translation of the Book of Job in a manner in which we can better understand this important book of the Bible.  ■