Books by Mary F. BurnsJ-The Woman Who Wrote the BiblePortraits of an ArtistWest Portal MysteriesShort StoriesWorks in ProgressAbout the AuthorContact Me
Mary F. Burns
writing word by word...
J-The Woman Who Wrote the Bible

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     Why I wrote "J"

      Over the winter of 2006-2007, I read Harold Bloom's The Book of J - an enthralling literary critique of Genesis and Exodus, accompanied by a stunning, elemental new translation from the Hebrew by David Rosenberg. The translated passages were the only ones that scholars contend can be attributed to the J author of the Old Testament, hence, The Book of J.  In Bloom's critique, he surmises that "J" may very well have been a woman, a member of the royal court of David, and one whose irreverant and humorous attitude toward Yahweh, the patriarchs and religion itself would have naturally led to subsequent priestly censorship.

      Scholars agree that the Hebrew Bible (the Christian “Old Testament”) was written and composed over many hundreds of years by different people.  The oldest or earliest sections of the text were probably composed at Jerusalem in the tenth century B.C.E. (“before the common era”) during the reigns of David and Solomon.  Later versions often completely suppressed earlier stories for political, social or religious reasons; sometimes duplicate versions were just tagged on, and of course, many new stories, histories, poetry and polemics were added as time went on. 

           “J” stands for the original author, the “Yahwist” named for Yahweh – or Jahweh, in the German spelling, as it was German theological scholars who started this author naming process in the 19th century. They named this first author after the name of God most frequently used in those texts. The later strands of Bible stories in Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers are all revisions or censorings of J, and their authors are known as “E” (Elohist for “Elohim,” the plural name of God used for Yahweh in that version); “P” for the Priestly Author or School that wrote Leviticus; “D” for the author(s) of Deuteronomy; and “R” for the Redactor (or revisionist/editor) who performed the  “final” revision after the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian Exile.

           After reading Professor Bloom's book, I was compelled to write my own story of J, and how she came to be The Woman Who Wrote the Bible.  Here's a taste of the novel.

 Prologue

I am old now, my once-famous power reduced to a whispering behind my back as young slaves ask my woman, what was she like, back then? Even though I sleep much of the day, my mind is still sharp – like a needle rising and falling through the cloth, embroidering flowers and birds with dyed thread of many colors, and silver thread, and gold – it fixes a spot in the past, pierces it, ties it down with a fine silken filament, a memory, a fragment of poetry, my father’s poetry.

I am almost finished with the work he asked me to undertake for him, David the King, David my father:  the Story of our People. He is gone now, these many years, and his heir rules in his place. Solomon the Wise, they are already calling him, though I held him as an infant and find I must bite my tongue when I hear such things said.  I, whose very name is Wisdom, Gift from God, Hokhma Janaia.  I used to be jealous, but now I just laugh.

Ah, me, what secrets I hold!  A heavy burden, secrets and sorrows, but I have my ways of shifting under them, and the best way of all – this magic, this alchemy, this sacredness of writing.  Almost no one knows that I have learned to write; in the old days, a girl among men, I would have been banished at once, or even killed, and though these are more indulgent times, there is still envy and ambition and fear.

 I’m tired now.  It’s mid-afternoon, and the bees are humming, drowsy in the heat of the day, in the vines outside my window.  I can hear each one distinctly, and it makes me sleepy, too, so I will rest until moonrise, when the cool silence of the summer night will help me remember.  For not only do I write down the tales, the songs, the life of our people, wonderful as that is.
            I write a story that has never been told.


The Caves

“David fled the wrath of Saul and took refuge in the Cave of Adullam; his brothers and all his father’s family heard of it and joined him there.” 1 Samuel 22:1-2

 

One

 

Damp and cold in winter and summer, smoke-filled when it rained, the air in our caves was heavy with the smell of cooked food and unwashed bodies, which no amount of fresh straw or burning herbs could quite dispel.  But I was born there, and for the first twelve years of my life, that was home, and I liked it well enough.

The caves were witness to my first visions, and my initiation into prophesy.  I would see things – in water or in fire – and they would turn out to be true.  At first, when I was very young, I believed they were stories that belonged to the caves, spirits that lived there with the bats and small furry creatures in nook and cranny.  I know I didn’t grasp their meaning until many years later:  watery images of my mother and father meeting on a desert road, looking young and love-struck, or a glimpse in a cookfire of my father as a mere lad, alone in the midst of a circle of men while a very old man with a long beard poured oil on my father’s golden curls. 

The very first vision that struck home to me, that spoke to me as an actual foretelling, appeared on a cavern wall streaming with water from some hidden spring:  my father and his men hiding in the forest near our caves.  It was a sign to me that he was almost home again, David the bandit, David the future king.

HaShem, the Lord, has anointed me to be King, my father always insisted.  We believed in this HaShem more than any of the other gods the people sacrificed to – like Baal or Dagon.  He was a strange god, more demanding than the others, but definitely more powerful.  We were not even allowed to say His real name for fear of being struck down, so we called Him HaShem which simply means, The Name.  My father would talk to Him from time to time, and I saw his face when he came back from the high, bare places, the skin stretched fine, his eyes not quite seeing, as if a fire raced through his veins and burned him from the inside, burned him clean and hollow, to receive a spirit other than his own. 

I wanted to feel this same spirit.  Though I was barely twelve years old, and a girl, I had the Sight as my mother once did, and I knew I would wield a power beyond what she could imagine.  I remember the day the first prophecy took me – it was the day my father came home.

 

My mother’s voice echoed through the caverns.  “Hokhma Janaia!  If you are not standing in front of me before I finish speaking, you will regret it until the new moon!” 

When she used both my names, she meant business.  

I scrambled down from my hiding place, a little shelf of rock I found when I was five, and which I was just about too big to crawl into anymore, but there I had myself to myself, and the outside world fell away.  There I took my treasures to look at and savor – a silver ring my father gave me when I was seven, a piece of woven cloth from the life my mother left behind in a rich house, for her first husband was a wealthy farmer and trader.  The cloth was silk, I was told, and it was red, softened with many washings.  I would hold it to my cheek and imagine myself in a whole dress made of this silk, so smooth against my skin, so colorful – instead of this coarse itchy stuff we wore here in the caves, sheep’s wool with the briars still in it sometimes!  “Someday” my mother told me.  “Soon” my father said.  Life would be so different when he was King. 

I certainly hoped so.  But in the meantime, living in a cave wasn’t so bad.  I was adventurous; I liked to roam, find things out.  Another thing about my little hidey-hole – there was a sideways crack in it, just enough to see through, and it opened into my father’s council chamber.  When I was younger, the things the men talked about made little sense to me and weren’t very interesting, nothing but fights and ambushes, arguments about when to strike or whom to kill, but I always loved to listen to my father’s voice, so commanding, so strong.  Everyone fell silent when he opened his mouth.  And now they talked more and more about “going home,” and that excited me.  It was time for a change. 

I ran into the cooking area where my mother was, and when I reached her, she was just drawing breath to call my name again. 

“Here I am, Mother.”  I ran up to her and clasped her around the waist. “Dove mother, mother whom I love more than anyone!”  I hid my smile against her skirts, felt her hands grasp my shoulders and give me a little shake.

“Nonsense!  Just like your father, sweet talking!”  But I could tell she was pleased.  She pulled back, made me stand up before her.  “Look at you, covered in dust!  You’d think you were five years old!  Go now, find something clean and nice to put on; your father is home, and there is much to do!” 

I looked around, noticing for the first time that the women of our camp – David’s host lived in an armed camp – were bustling around, preparing food, cleaning fowl, making bread enough for scores of people.  My heart leaped to hear my father was home, and safe.  My mother and I looked deep into each other’s eyes; we saw the same relief, the fear assuaged for a while, the same love for this man of ours.  I opened my mouth to tell her about my vision, but she forestalled me.  Her woman was bringing my baby brother Amnon to her for nursing; she took him in her arms, kissing his dark curls, and she dismissed me.

“Don’t talk to me now; I’m too busy to answer your questions!”  My mother shook a hand at me, waved me away.  “Go now and get dressed, then come back and make yourself useful here instead of mooning away in a corner.”

 

I caught sight of my father after I’d been helping prepare the dinner for what seemed like hours.  Cooking was not what I did best, though then I was never quite sure what it was I could do best, other than hide away and dream.  No wonder my mother was always impatient with me; she had been trying for so long to help me learn all I needed to know to become a good wife and mother.  I returned to chopping roots with renewed vigor, and then I saw him.  He strode past all of us women, not even glancing in our direction, his arm around the shoulders of a man I’d seen many times before, their heads close together in talk.  They seemed to be headed outdoors, and probably, I thought, to get away from everyone, to be really alone together. 

The man was Jonathan, son of King Saul, and my father’s best friend.  David’s long hair, like a burnished red-gold halo when it was clean, was tangled in dirty braids around his neck and shoulders, but it still shone in contrast to Jonathan’s dark curly locks.  My father was taller than most men and powerfully built, though I have heard that as a boy – a shepherd of his father Jesse’s flock – he was slim and reed-like.  Well, the reed had grown into a cedar.  Next to him Jonathan looked like a mere youth, though he was also strongly made.  These men, they were all fighters, warriors – always ready for battle. 

All the women, young and old, no exceptions, drew in their breath, stock-still as if turned to stone, their laughter and chattering silenced, as they watched the two men walk swiftly past, like a sudden gust of wind through a mountain pass.

 These thoughts raced through my head in the time it took my father and Jonathan to walk across the space and disappear into the twilight outside the cave.  I heard a roar of greeting, shouts of acclamation, from the men around the outside campfires – David’s seven brothers and their sons, and their sons – all bound to him and to bringing to fruition the promise of HaShem when the great prophet Samuel anointed David as a boy, foretelling he would be the King of all Israel. 

I didn’t even know what “Israel” was, as far as being something one could be king of.  Our country was Judah, our ancestors descended from the twelve sons of Jacob after they left the slavery of Egypt under our great father Moses, of blessed memory, and came back to the Promised Land.  I have heard the story a hundred times.  And long after that, the tribes dispersed; some were lost, others came south to Judah. But my father, the great David, would restore the tribes to the land and the land to the people; he would be King of everything and everyone.

I was called from reverie by the sharp elbow of the woman beside me, my mother’s most trusted servant, Aloheth, who poked me back to work because she saw my mother watching me.  After the eagle eye was withdrawn, Aloheth leaned over to whisper in my ear, under cover of the women’s clamor that rose again in the wake of the presence that swept by them.  “Your father could take on this whole room by himself, don’t you think?”  She chuckled under her breath, nudged me again with her elbow.  “And they’d all fall on their backs in the wink of an eye!”  She continued her small laughing and moved away after a moment, intent on filling the pot with vegetables, and didn’t notice that I did not answer her.  I was watching my mother, whose face held traces of longing and fear, feelings I knew, young as I was.

 

Before the feast was half over, I was sent off to bed, but not before my father – finally - called me to him and pulled me close.  His eyes – ever-changing, wondrous eyes – that night they were warm green, with darker flecks in them.  Enveloped in his arms, pressed against the hair on his chest, I smelled the deep musk of his warrior’s body, felt the scratch of beard on my forehead and cheeks as he lifted my face to kiss me good night, full on the mouth, a slightly drunken kiss.  My heart beat faster and when he pulled back, raising his head, I burrowed more closely into his arms. 

I heard his voice then, to my mother.  “She’s on the edge of womanhood, don’t you think, Abigail?”  I did not hear my mother’s reply, but I was suddenly released from his grip and handed over to the servant who led me away to my bed.  As we retreated to the back of the cave, the laughter and shouting echoed around the walls, circling and circling like a flock of crows overhead.

The servant helped me change into a shift and tucked me in my little niche off to the side of my parents’ bed of pillows and blankets salvaged from my mother’s house.  A once bright and lovely curtain of woven stuff, now faded after more than ten years, hung across the arch that separated our quarters from the rest of the people.  How often I had lain in my bed at night, listening to the strange and wonderful sounds of my parents’ love-making, their whispered talk, the urgency of desire and need welling up in the cave, so alive I could almost taste it.  Sometimes, when there were storms, or even just because I was little and the only child, they would let me lie between them, warm against their strong, smooth bodies, my father smelling of sweat and fire-smoke, my mother a softer fragrance of lavender and hip roses.  I looked over to the center of the small rocky place, lighted by a smoking oil lamp, where the three of us would lie, happy, together, safe. 

I felt a sudden shiver about the future:  we would never be like this again, the three of us.  My little brother Amnon now had pride of place, because he was a boy, my father’s first son, and he had all my mother’s attention at night.  Well, I was my father’s first daughter!  I swore to myself I would make that stand for something.  When he was king, I would be a royal daughter, someone to be reckoned with.  I would be married to a prince, or perhaps a king, an ally of my father’s.  Yes, I would be a queen, with ten sons and six daughters, and we would all be happy and at peace, and I would use my power of Sight to tell the future and keep everyone from fighting.  I comforted myself with these thoughts, and fell asleep despite the dull roar of the men feasting outside. 


 

 

 






Books by Mary F. BurnsJ-The Woman Who Wrote the BiblePortraits of an ArtistWest Portal MysteriesShort StoriesWorks in ProgressAbout the AuthorContact Me