The role of the Hebrew Bible, commonly known as the Old Testament, in Israeli culture is unique for a modern democracy. This is obvious, for example, from the language: much of the modern Hebrew lexicon bears connotations from the Bible, the liturgy, the Midrash (commentaries), and the Talmud (Jewish law). During the first decades of the State of Israel, many Israeli writers, predominantly poets and playwrights, exploited this linguistic dualism and incorporated the biblical text into their works. They have continued to do so to the present day, although contemporary Israeli writing does not refer to scripture to the same extent as it did during the early years of the state.

The Bible provided material for historical novels, such as Kivsat harash (David’s Stranger, 1956) by Moshe Shamir, based on the story of King David and Uriah the Hittite, and told from Uriah’s point of view; and history plays, such as Nissim Aloni’s Akhzar mikol hamelekh (The King Is the Most Cruel of All, 1968), about the relationship between King Rehoboam and the rebellious Jeroboam, as told in in 1 Kings 12 and 14:21–31 and in 2 Chronicles 10–12. Yet comparatively few Israeli novelists and playwrights retold biblical stories in this way; rather, they referred or alluded to the text in numerous ways, or used it as a framework for the exploration of ideas or experience in the modern world. Those authors who did so generally used the rhetorical devices of allusion and intertextuality.

Allusion is defined as a reference in a literary text to a person, place, event, or object in another text. This reference is often indirect. For example, the poem “Alah ashan” (Smoke Rose) by the Israeli poet Itamar Yaoz-Kest alludes to Genesis 3:8 (“And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden toward the cool of the day; and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden”). In Yaoz-Kest’s version the fear is not of God, but of a separate entity:

  • Smoke
  • rose
  • in the garden
  • God watched
  • from above
  • and fear walked
  • in the cool of the day

Intertextuality is similar in the relationship between two texts, but unlike allusion, an intertext is often a direct quotation from one text in another text. For example, the poet Yonatan Ratosh in “Ba’argaman” (“In Purple”) quotes Judges 17:6 (“In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes”):

Every man and pride of his heart—In those days there was no kingEvery man did that which was right in his own eyes.And every man shall pay with his blood.

Historical Background.

From the start, the method by which the Bible was employed in Israeli literature differed from the deferential retelling of the sacred text characteristic of premodern Hebrew literature. From the period of the medieval Spanish Jewish poets, a biblical interweaving had constituted the lining of the fabric of Hebrew literary texts. The biblical text was used as the source for poetry and for some dramatic dialogue. During the eighteenth-century Hebrew Enlightenment (Haskalah), authors would try to remain true to the biblical narrative but would expand it, fill in the gaps, create a dramatic narrative out of the laconic biblical text, and sometimes attempt to provide insight into the psychological motivation of the characters, as in the play Melukhat Sha’ul (The Reign of King Saul) by Joseph Ha’efrati (1794). In keeping with tradition writers would also utilize the biblical text for the purposes of allegory. Naphtali Herz Wessely (1725–1805) led the way to modernity in his Shirei Tiferet (Poems of Glory, 1789–1802), the first literary epic in Hebrew, telling the story of the Exodus in verse derived from eighteenth-century German literary style. Since then, works of Hebrew poetry, prose, and drama have consistently “interwoven” the biblical text and current literary style for a variety of purposes.

The reader of Hebrew secular texts has become accustomed to polysemous or simultaneous reading, that is, reading more than one text at the same time. Readers of the early Haskalah period concurrently read the modern text and the biblical passages to which the text referred. In this duality the source text imparts “meaning” together with the new text overwritten it like a palimpsest. The recognizable allusion or quotation carries its origin with it so that a link is established between its source and the new work. The writer is contemplating two sensibilities: the one represented by the allusion to the original text and the other, the writer’s own. In a way, we are seeing old wine in new barrels or a remodeling of the same raw material into different shapes.


This is not to say that the use of scripture as allegory or analogy is exclusive to Hebrew writers; we have many examples from non-Jewish literary cultures. Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers comes to mind, as well as works by Dante, Milton, Geoffrey Chaucer, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and many others. The difference between these and the Hebrew writers is language: Hebrew writers, particularly the poets, exploit the linguistic connection between modern and biblical Hebrew. This connection has been made possible by the fact that Hebrew was not a vernacular until the nineteenth century and therefore did not follow the trajectory of development common to other modern languages. The grammar and vocabulary of the biblical text were therefore not unintelligible to Hebrew speakers of the twentieth century, just as modern Hebrew may not notionally be entirely unintelligible to a biblical prophet. In fact, an Oxford Hebrew grammarian set an undergraduate examination question that asked, “If Isaiah were to come back to earth, would he be able to read Ha’aretz [an Israeli daily newspaper]?”

The answer is that, barring the vocabulary, he would. Yet the similarity of biblical Hebrew to modern Hebrew is both a blessing and a curse: on the one hand, Israeli writers are presented with a storehouse of vocabulary, archetypes, myths, and stories upon which to draw; on the other, every word in Hebrew is burdened with the past. In Hebrew literature, language is so charged with transcendental meaning that it is unable to shed its burden, and a single word is weighted with the significance of its original context. Modern Hebrew writers have attempted to find a way by which this context can be disregarded or changed.

The Bible and Jewish Nationalism.

The Hebrew Bible is central to virtually every permutation not only of modern Jewish culture, but of ideology as well: it offers both a mythical and a historical validation to Jewish nationalism and Zionism, in terms of history, geography, religion, and language. Both before and after the establishment of Israel, the Bible served as the central core narrative of the new collective—in Shahar Pinsker’s words, “a bridge between the glorious past, the problematic present and the desired future” (Pinsker, 2006, p. 28). Many Zionist ideologues believed that a return to the Bible was a return to the sources of Jewish nationhood. Writers of the period of Jewish settlement in Palestine from 1881 (the yishuv) to the foundation of the State in 1948 used Jewish classical sources to establish the link with the cultural past and to ally the revived national language with new cultural forms. Writers believed that employing the Bible as a narrative source would connect the nation’s ancestry with modern Hebrew culture, ensuring the emergence of a Hebrew literary form appropriate to express the new nation. The Bible became the banner of the Hebrew national epic, like other European epics of romantic nationalism.

Similarly, in Israeli literature, appropriation of the biblical text expresses Israel’s cultural identity and a conscious or unconscious statement of selfhood. Its most significant function is to reflect the strong links between the biblical text and modern Hebrew consciousness, even—perhaps especially—among the twentieth-century secular writers. Hebrew literature has never wholly strayed from its textual ontological nature. Modern or not, its framework during the first decades of Israeli statehood, encasing stories of family, landscape, love, and war, was text. That said, the deliberate use of biblical allusion was by no means the method of all Israeli writers; yet for many of them the biblical text was embedded in their writing as a subtextual affirmation of themselves, the land, and their history.

Twentieth-Century Literary “Secularism” in Israel.

It is important to remember that in this literary context, from the Enlightenment and in early Zionist writings, the biblical text had no religious connotations. Until the late twentieth century its framework was transformed and the religious or theological viewpoint gave way to a secular and modern one. As David Jacobson stresses, a secular worldview has provided the writers with a distinct type of relationship to the Bible, which is almost certainly not shared by religiously observant Jews (Jacobson, 1997, p. 24).

The most prominent Israeli writers of the early decades of the State (from 1948) proffered a version of literary history that proclaimed a clean break with the religious heritage of the European past, and their new literary tradition was, in those early years, partly built upon their rejection of this heritage. This point of view has rarely been challenged, and the identification of a large group of pre-1980 Israeli authors as “secular” prevails. Yet their deliberate “secularization” was ambivalent, because the structures of their literary imagination (as they revealed in their work) still fell well within traditional cultural structures. We therefore find the paradox of the writers’ conscious attempt to alienate themselves from the world of Jewish tradition while representing at least a linguistic continuation of that very tradition in their writing, including a reliance on the Bible as a source.

The power of tradition could not, it seems, be overcome in their literature even if it had been in their lives; consequently this power, embodied in the source text, is often preserved in the new text. On the other hand, the tension set up between the two texts by the rhetorical devices of allusion and intertextuality often lead to an ironic rereading of the biblical text. Authors deliberately create this ironic tension by juxtaposing the spiritual values embodied in the language and the ordinary, or even banal, modern world the language describes. The importance to us of this device is that it creates an ideological dialogue with the past, and indeed a unique form of literary discourse through a kind of subversive intertextuality, a deliberate discontinuity within the tradition, a “willful revisionism,” Harold Bloom’s well-known term. Yet the important thing is that Israeli writers are still drawing on their traditional culture despite their proclamations to the contrary.

Israeli writers in effect created their own modernist exegesis by reinterpreting the biblical sources to suit their contemporary context, following the trend in European symbolist and post-symbolist literature toward allusiveness to classical mythology. Baruch Kurzweil (1907–1972), the German-born Hebrew critic, claimed (like T. S. Eliot) that modernism is a continuing confrontation with every part of the writer’s cultural heritage. He suggests that any literature that fails to refer to the past has little value. Now postmodernism has also adopted intertextuality as a defining mechanism. Postmodern intertextuality represents, among other things, the desire to rewrite the past in a new, modern context.

Reasons for the Use of the Allusive Technique.

A significant argument for this technique was the easy and convenient point of reference provided by the biblical text for an Israeli readership that had studied the Bible even in secular schools. The writers could therefore depend on the readers’ knowledge of it when they sought archetypes or situations to serve as allegory or symbol, in the same way as others would use mythological sources. For example, if the Israelis wanted to speak about human strength, they would use Samson as a paradigm rather than Hercules. The Bible is a source of symbols—a kind of shortcut, or perhaps shorthand—that would immediately engage the reader. For example, titles, like Each Had Six Wings for a play, referring to Isaiah 6:2, or In the Heart of the Seas (Jonah 2:3) for a novel are immediately familiar to the readers and set up a particular kind of expectation in them, an “anticipated sense of the whole,” which, in fact, the authors would frequently frustrate.

Another reason was the writers’ need to probe their own experience. Modern allusiveness and intertextuality, the abstraction, distortion, and secularization of portions of the sacred text, may therefore be seen as a process of seeking understanding through the juxtaposition of scripture and a modern cultural context. Biblical stories provide a way of confronting the modern world at a remove, by endowing the source with a contemporary framework and worldview. The cumulative purpose of this treatment is a search for meaning in Jewish and Israeli history, in daily life in a beleaguered country, and in the eternal corollary of love. All this is generally cast in representations of personal experience, with the general argument based on the tension between the biblical text, biblical people, and the authors’ world.

Referring to other texts is therefore a strategy for articulating difficult ideas or experience. The biblical text mediates between the experience itself—often painful, tragic, usually perplexing—and its modern incarnation. Rather than address the Holocaust directly, for example, the poets created metaphors based on biblical stories. The enormity of the situation militated against established means of response, for the traditional responses to catastrophe were no longer appropriate. Perhaps, therefore, the main reason for the writers’ reliance on the sources is the inability of ordinary language to confront unprecedented and undescribed experience, which necessitates the search for new means of expression. Generally, such crises, war, and Holocaust have elicited the most eloquent responses. Allusions and intertextuality substitute for direct expression, and the careful choice of the quotations’ original contexts is often the most potent aspect of the modern understanding.

Means of Using the Biblical Text in Israeli Literature.

The method employed by the Israeli writers falls into three rather broad categories: biblical characters are placed in modern settings; biblical events are interpreted in modern settings; and authors engage in wordplay on the biblical text.

Biblical characters.

As biblical characters are transposed into contemporary environments, they confront contemporary cultural attitudes and current events, often in order to make moral or existential points. Patriarchs and matriarchs face the complexities of modernity in Israel and Europe. Biblical kings comment on modern families, inheritance, and, of course, twentieth- and twenty-first-century politics. It is interesting that the dramatic literature of a present-day democracy should choose a kingdom as the archetype of the polity; it is also natural for an Israeli writer to explore the nature of power and authority in a setting of historical Jewish autonomy despite the kings being neither strong nor admirable.

The plays refer to these periods of political autonomy as the forerunners of the modern independent state. For example, the contemporary background of Gilad Evron’s play Jehu (1992) is the period following the Lebanon War in 1982. Menachem Begin was prime minister and Ariel Sharon his chief of staff. After the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, Begin suffered a severe depression from which he did not emerge. Through the relationship between King Jehu and a court adviser, Jehu demonstrates the means by which moral leadership is compromised and the play is placed well within Israel’s contemporary political debate.

In an earlier drama, Yisurei Iyov (The Passion of Job, 1981), the playwright Hanoch Levin impales Job on a stake as a circus act, in a parody of the Crucifixion, showing up the cruel absurdity of modern life. Jesus walks by, as observer. In his ministrations to a sick child, S. Y. Agnon’s protagonist in his short story “Midira Ledira” (From Lodging to Lodging, 1939) recalls Elijah the prophet. In his monumental novel, Mar Mani (Mr. Mani, 1992), A. B. Yehoshua updates Hagar as an Israeli woman during the Lebanon War, and other characters in the novel allude to Moses, Isaac, and Jephtha. Yehuda Amichai’s play Masa LeNinveh (Journey to Nineveh, 1962) reveals Jonah residing happily inside his fish, not wanting to leave. In Meir Shalev’s novel Esau (1994) the sibling rivalry within the family of Abraham and Sarah is set in America and modern Israel.

It is in Israeli poetry and drama that biblical figures proliferate, from the first family to the kings and prophets, as people thrust into the modern world, carrying the baggage apportioned to them by their original location in the biblical text. In poetry, for example, Yehuda Amichai’s modern, tired Samson visits the barber every week to have his hair cut in an effort to evade responsibility; Aryeh Sivan transforms Joseph into a Palestinian boy killed by an Israeli bullet; and Ariel Zinder’s Jonah goes to Tarshish to seek salvation. In a poem titled “Daniel bagov ha’arayot” (Daniel in the Lions’ Den), Natan Zach presents the biblical Daniel, who descends into the lions’ den, as told in the Bible. Yet Zach’s description of the lions’ den is reminiscent of the myth of Orpheus. Rather than a hero protected by angels, Daniel then becomes a tragic prophet abandoned by God. In a play titled Sodom City (1952), set in the nuclear age, Benjamin Galai portrays the cold war between the two sinful cities whose inhabitants ignore the nuclear threat.

The poet Yona Wallach was a controversial figure for whom the biblical text was a starting-off point for erotic contemplation. Her “Absalom” is an eternally lost child, the modern embodiment of King David’s beloved son. The poem, which plays against a number of biblical texts (Job, Ezekiel, 1 Kings, 2 Samuel), represents the feminization of a masculine archetype (King David). Here the story of Absalom has been inverted from a grieving father to a mother bereaved—or who has bereaved herself—of her unborn child, for the poem may be about abortion.

I must once againremember my son, Absalomwhose hair was caught in my womband I couldn’t manage [and it didn’t come out for me]to complete [finish] Absalom my son…

Later in the poem the mother repeats David’s poignant words, Avshalom beni (Absalom, my son) (2 Sam 18:33), which constitute the focus of the poem. At the same time the poem celebrates the woman’s sexuality, with hints of incestuous love. Although the poem’s narrative is largely metaphorical, the power of the original tragic story in 2 Samuel 18 exists in its vocabulary.

Biblical events and situations: The akedah.

It is often difficult to distinguish between modern works that foreground a biblical character or an event or situation. In all cases there is a dialectical playing off of the intertexts, often showing the writers at war with the biblical tradition, using its own terminology as their weapons.

It is possible to say that the writing of the first two generations of Israeli writers was dominated by the realities of new statehood and war. Only later was the Holocaust admitted into Israeli letters. Perhaps the most powerful biblical story, which still resonates in contemporary Israel and which incorporates the crises not only of Israel but also of the of the Jewish world in the mid-twentieth century, is that of the binding (akedah) of Isaac (Gen 22). This story appears so pervasively in Israeli literature through the decades, in so many guises, that it is, in a sense, elevated to the status of a founding myth. The frequent recurrence of this image in the literature and graphic art of Israel, prefigured by earlier literature, and the recent proliferation of scholarly studies of the literary uses of the akedah in Israel confirm its powerful hold on the Jewish, and particularly the Israeli, consciousness. The akedah has provided a format according to which a complex set of personal and social relationships can be conveyed. Its repeated appearance confirms the value of biblical narrative in the reinterpretation of features of Jewish life.

We have to ask why this symbol appears with such frequency in Israeli writing. On the metaphysical level the story of the akedah supports what Gershom Scholem termed the underlying current in Judaism all along. Its meaning to the persecuted European Jew is not difficult to comprehend: Isaac was a symbol of the Jewish people, who were constantly being called upon to make the supreme sacrifice as martyrs. In modern Israel the sons are called upon to fight and die for their country. In the biblical story Abraham did not kill Isaac, but as far as Israeli authors are concerned this is irrelevant, since psychology has taught them that the will to kill is morally equivalent to the accomplished deed. Jewish legends clearly indicate Isaac’s anger at his father’s intention to sacrifice him.

The akedah in fiction.

One of the most prominent of the prose works to deal with the topic of the akedah is S. Yizhar’s Yemei Ziklag (The Days of Ziklag, 1959), a monumental novel that examines the lives and responses of young Israelis in the early Israeli ideological environment. The young soldiers in the novel see themselves as eternal Isaacs, always being sacrificed for the greater good. Perhaps the best known work of short fiction alluding to this story is Amos Oz’s “Derekh haruah” (The Way of the Wind, 1962). It portrays a strong, self-absorbed father, Shimshon (Samson), who seems to hear the voice of God in political theory, and a son depicted as a poetry-loving dreamer. The son is ultimately sacrificed to his father’s dogged obedience to an outdated political philosophy. The story is at once a social commentary, a parody of the single-mindedness of early Zionist dogma, and the tragedy of a son trying to please his father. Isaac is not the only allegorized protagonist of this story: we recognize hints of the story of Cain and Abel as well, in addition to the nonbiblical myth of Icarus. Another forceful paradigm of the use of the akedah is A. B. Yehoshua’s epic novel Mar Mani. This multilayered, complicated work has many narrative threads, but underlying them all is the story of Abraham and Isaac. The Mani saga begins in the mid-nineteenth century with the accomplished act of filicide, and its repercussions are experienced for generations, to the present day.

Other works indicate that not only the sons are troubled by the obvious lack of ideological unanimity. Novels and stories frequently demonstrate the father’s point of view—the Abraham who is equally bewildered by his son’s defection. All he, the father, had done was to obey God’s command, which, in historical terms, meant fidelity to God’s law.

It is in the context of war that this judgment comes into its own. Using the war as a framework, novelists such as Hanoch Bartov, Amos Oz, and A. B. Yehoshua all tell stories about the father’s guilt for, or his complicity in, the death or disappearance of the son. Bartov’s sad, terrible story “Batze’adei ben” (In a Son’s Footsteps, 1957) is written from the point of view of a father who goes in search of his son who has joined the army after a quarrel over the keeping of the sabbath. The two never meet again: the son is killed. A novella by Yehoshua, “Batehillat kayits 1970” (Early in the Summer of 1970; 1972), is similar and brings to mind the poem by the twelfth-century poet and chronicler Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn in which Isaac is killed and resurrected: Yehoshua’s story tells of a father, significantly a Bible teacher, who hears that his son has been killed in the war and goes off to find the body but discovers that the son is not dead at all. The father experiences the death three times, each time suffering Abraham’s grief and guilt. The imagery of the akedah in this novella, including repeated references to the only son, morning, a tangle of thicket, knife, wood, and fire, is specific. In both these works the fathers are oblivious to the obligations of the modern world, steeped, as they are, in God’s law.

The akedah in poetry.

Poetry on this subject covers almost every character in this enigmatic story—God, Abraham, Isaac, and the angel, even the ram, which Amichai deems to be the real hero of the akedah. However, Isaac’s mother, Sarah, is consistently missing, except, for example, in Raya Harnik’s poem “Lo akriv” (I Will Not Sacrifice, 1983) where the mother refuses to give up her son for the national good:

I will not sacrificeMy firstborn as an offeringNot me.At night God and IMake dealsWho gets whatI know, I’m awareThanks.But not my sonAnd notAs an offering

The akedah in drama.

One of the earliest Israeli dramas, Yigal Mossinzon’s Be’arvot hanegev (In the Wastes of the Negev, 1949), features a father called Abraham who sends his son out on a deadly mission to serve the collective ideology. The akedah is explicitly cited in one of the early plays of Hanoch Levin, his first satire, Queen of the Bathtub (1969). The obsessive theme of Levin’s plays is sacrifice: usually a hapless, innocent person is brutally sacrificed by powerful forces, the most brutal being the State. Levin even satirizes the Israeli preoccupation with attributing meaning to children’s death in war by accusing the bereaved father of assuming the mantle of victim. Perhaps the most chilling conclusion is the poet Haim Gouri’s statement that members of each successive generation “are born with a knife in their hearts.”

All these works are cruel and bitter, reflecting political and ideological dilemmas inherited by each successive generation. In fact the “knife in their hearts” allows for very eloquent variations on the theme. For example, Hezy Leskly’s poem “Yitzhak” (Isaac, 1993) is a lament for victims of AIDS in his reincarnating Isaac as a gay man: “Many years ago / Izzy / was my soul-mate / he died of AIDS. …” These men, including Leskly himself, are not bound but sacrificed, and not by a father but by a disease that ravages them as though on a battlefield.

Yet recourse to the akedah as a symbol need not always be negative. In his “Lihyot be’eretz yisra’el” (To Live in the Land of Israel, 1982) Aryeh Sivan, one of Israel’s foremost poets of war, finds promise in the story:

They say that a cocked gunis bound to go off. Well, it isn’t.Anything can happen in this Land of Israel.a broken firing pin, a rusty spring,or an unexpectedly cancelled order,as was the case with Abraham on Mount Moriah.

(trans. Esther Raizen)


As we have seen, it is in poetry that this device of biblical allusion is the most remarkable, although during the 1950s and 1960s the Israeli stage presented a number of plays on biblical themes. The most prolific use of this allusive device is both in the ideology of biblical usage and in a modern form of Midrash. Midrash is a collection of commentaries on the Hebrew Bible compiled between 400 and 1200 C.E. and based on exegesis, parable, and legend. Israeli authors use a quasi-Midrashic style in order to express their cultural and psychological content. The Hebrew literature scholar Malka Shaked has set out the method of the poets’ modern exegesis: “Sometimes poetry goes the way of traditional exegesis and interprets the Bible in order to understand it in accordance with the Bible’s own intent; while at other times it interprets the Bible in the manner of early Midrash, that is, in order to express new content. Sometimes it interprets the Bible in a manner contrary to intent, confronting the Bible, arguing with it, criticizing it, and taking issue with it; at other times it employs the Bible freely, not in order to explicate it, but to satisfy personal or societal needs in the writer’s present” (Shaked, 2004, p. 157).

Perfect examples of modern Midrash are Amichai’s short ironic comments on biblical verses (Genesis 4 and Judges 16:28, respectively):

Cain and Abel, not understanding love:Cain only wanted to give him a big hugand suffocated him; neither understood.Chained to the pillar in the Philistine TempleSamson prayed in Gaza: strengthen me only this once, O God.

(But what about the next time?)

Writers are not always this explicit: much of the allusion is embodied in the language. The poets manipulate the meaning by substituting or omitting words in a biblical phrase or indirectly referring to an event. For example, Avner Treinin in “Hatul bashovakh” (Cat in the Dovecote) refers to Genesis 49, Jacob’s blessing of his sons, but ironically transforms the great Lion of Judah into a cat preying on a dovecote:

It climbed, devoured.There will beNothing in her mouthAnd she will not return to the ark.

Judah, in the biblical verse, rises from his hunted prey; Treinin deploys the identical Hebrew roots `a-l-h (go up) and t-r-f (devour, prey) to describe the cat eating a dove. The consequence is that the dove “will never return to the ark,” implying that the death of this little creature is bad for the world. This is a reference to Genesis 8:11, where the dove brings an olive leaf to Noah, signaling the end of the flood.

In a poem titled “Building Site,” the poet T. Carmi writes: “At a ladder’s foot, the drowsing watchman dreams: / A door, a ceiling, curtains and a bell; …” These lines may not seem at first glance to contain an allusion, but the words “ladder’s foot,” “dreams,” and “door” lead us immediately to the story of Jacob and his dream. Exhausted from his journey, Jacob lies down to sleep and dreams of a ladder rising to heaven, with angels moving up and down. He realizes that this site is, in the words of Genesis 28:17, “none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Carmi uses the banal image of a sleeping watchman on a building site to refer us to the revelation of God’s house to Jacob. Moreover, the word “watchman” brings to mind one of God’s repeated admonitions to the people: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me” (Ezek 3:17). This means that it is the prophet’s duty to warn the people of the consequences of disobedience to God’s law. If one wants to stretch Carmi’s text a little further, the watchman, identified with the dreaming forefather Jacob, is there to prepare the people for God’s word. Whether or not this interpretation is valid, it indicates the biblical weight borne by each word of the Hebrew text.

Sometimes the intertext is unchanged: it speaks eloquently through its structural manipulation. In Liat Kaplan’s war poem “Zeh hazman” (Now Is the Time), a biblical passage is quoted almost in its entirety. Kaplan builds an argument, using nothing but biblical intertexts (“ready made,” according to the Israeli poet Zvi Atzmon), turning scripture against itself.

And if trouble ensuesand we demand a life for a lifean eye for an eyea tooth for a tootha hand for a handa foot for a foota burn for a burna wound for a wounda bruise for a bruisean eye for a tooth for a hand for a foot for a wound for a burn for a bruise for a life

(trans. Rachel Tzvia Back)

This poem contains a direct quotation from Exodus 21:24–25 (“Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe”). The last line of the stanza extends the lex talionis to suggest the injustice of unequal retaliation, in the context of the Israel–Palestine conflict. Yitzhak Laor, well known in Israel for his radicalism, proclaims the line from Deuteronomy 25:17, “Remember that which Amalek has done unto thee …,” with lacerating irony to ensure that the Jewish people’s victimhood will be preserved at all costs:

Remember whatAmalek didTo you of course.Over.Do unto AmalekWhat AmalekDid to youOver.

Fewer modern works confront the Holocaust through the biblical text. One of the best known, the most paradigmatic and most frequently discussed poem of this sort, is by Dan Paggis, titled “katuv ba’iparon bakaron hehatum” (Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car):

here in this carloadi am evewith abel my sonif you see my other soncain son of mantell him that i(trans. Stephen Mitchell)

Clearly, because of the title, this poem refers to the Holocaust; without it its enigma is unsolved and the characters’ relationships within the poem, and to their biblical archetypes, continue to defy interpretive certainties. The purpose here of the suffering Eve as the mother of humanity and her fragmented family, of which the pivot is Cain, is to send an alarming message to the post-Holocaust world. In a poem by Avner Treinin, with a similar sensibility, Joseph’s “coat of many colors,” which in Hebrew is a “coat of stripes” (kutonet pasim), is symbolically transferred to the striped concentration camp garment (the word pasim means both railway lines and stripes in a fabric).

The methods used by these poets are complementary: just as the biblical text is used to clarify a particular feature of the poet’s world, a new reading of the text sheds light on it—both biblical and modern texts are therefore illuminated in different ways. A new relationship is formed in the tension between the source and its new location.

These are not only witty exercises—“witty blasphemy” to use John Carey’s term—but a serious attempt to contend with human experience.


Since the 1980s a growing number of Israeli writers have emerged from Orthodox backgrounds, and their work consequently exhibits a strongly religious sensibility. Poets in particular demonstrate a more intrinsic familiarity with all the traditional texts, giving their work a spiritual infusion that was lacking in the work of their “secular” predecessors. Yet the terms of this literary spirituality are still vague and difficult to define.

As we have seen, there has been an element of “religiosity” in Israeli writing from the start, and so-called religious literature is being written by Orthodox and “secular” writers to the present day. The question, therefore, is whether religious writing has intensified to the extent that a movement can be discerned, or whether the work of writers from an Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox background can be defined as “religious” at all. Many of the best-known representatives of “religious” writing publish in general, nonreligious journals. Still, the preoccupations of their literature differ from those of its mainstream counterpart. The life of Orthodoxy, the reinvigoration of Zionism, prayer, the personal relationship with God, and spirituality are its themes. The Bible is restored to its function as a sacred text. Yet one of the youngest Orthodox representatives, Ariel Zinder, has called his exploration of salvation in the modern world “Oniot Tarshish” (The Ships of Tarshish), with his central protagonist a highly abstract prophet Jonah.

Much of this writing still surveys the existential dilemmas of the modern world from the viewpoint of writers who seek, and sometimes find, a dialogue with God. Even literature termed “religious” within Israeli literary discourse, and work that uses the Bible, still strives for universality and transcends narrow religious piety. It also attempts to rise above religious politics and, therefore, above the political controversy that surrounds the religious–secular divide in Israel.

Generally, however, the importance of the Bible to Israeli culture began to wane in the 1980s and onward. The rapid development of spoken Hebrew in Israel at the end of the twentieth century intensified the difference between biblical and modern Hebrew, and readers found it increasingly difficult to understand the text. Some Israeli scholars lament the young generation’s lack of interest in the Bible, and other scholarship notes the consequent absence of biblical language and references in contemporary Israeli literature. Some of the literature does still refer to the Bible, even if nowadays this is an atypical phenomenon, and there have been some notable recent novels based on biblical stories.

Another reason cited for the comparative ignorance of the Bible in secular Israeli society is the reduction in the number of hours of Bible teaching in the secular state schools. In fact, this was the subject of a 2013 petition by teachers of the Bible in these schools to increase the number of hours for biblical study. According to Yael Zerubavel, this was to counteract the politicization of the biblical text within the framework of the conflict over Jewish settlement in the occupied territories and its becoming identified with the Orthodox and the Israeli right (Zerubavel, 2013, p. 5). Some novelists, mainly women, have attempted to sever the Zionist connection between the Bible and the land, a kind of “dezionization” of the biblical text.

The overall result of the attenuation of Bible study is that contemporary Hebrew writers are less familiar than their predecessors with the biblical text, and conversely, without knowledge of the Bible, students and readers are unable to appreciate the power of biblical intertexts in literary works. On the other hand, there has recently been an even less reverent approach to the Bible than that demonstrated by Israeli writers, for example, in popular comics and graphic novels that tell the biblical story through caricature and satire.



Primary Sources: Hebrew

  • Harnik, Raya. Shirim leguni. Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1983.
  • Leskly, Hezy. “Isaac.” Helikon 9, Summer 1993. See also Isaac-reimagined-as-a-Gay-man/en.
  • Stavi, Zisi. 66 Meshorerim. Tel Aviv: Yediot Aharonot, 1996.
  • Yaoz-Kest, Itamar. Shirim. Tel Aviv: Eked, 1960.

Primary Sources: English

  • Amichai, Yehuda. A Life of Poetry, 1948–1994. Translated by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
  • Amichai, Yehuda. Open Closed Open. Translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld. Fort Washington, Pa.: Harvest, 2006. Amichai’s last collection of poetry.
  • Birman, Abraham. An Anthology of Modern Hebrew Poetry. London: Abelard-Schuman, 1968 (for T. Carmi, “Building Site”).
  • Burnshaw, Stanley, et al., eds. The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself. 3d ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003 (for Yona Wallach, “Absalom”; Yonatan Ratosh, “In Purple”). A collection of Hebrew poetry from the late nineteenth century to the present day with translation, transliteration, and commentary for each poem.
  • Mintz, Ruth Finer. Modern Hebrew Poetry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966 (for Avner Treinin, “Cat in the Dovecote”). A bilingual anthology.
  • Nitzan, Tal, and Rachel Tzvia Back, eds. With an Iron Pen: Twenty Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009 (for Liat Kaplan, “Now Is the Time”). A collection of 42 Israeli poems protesting war and occupation.
  • Oz, Amos. Where the Jackals Howl and Other Stories. New York: Bantam, 1982. Oz’s original collection of short stories, including “The Way of the Wind.”
  • Raizen, Esther. No Rattling of Sabers: An Anthology of Israeli War Poetry. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995 (for Arieh Sivan, “To Live in the Land of Israel”). A bilingual anthology.
  • Shemtov, Vered. “The Bible in Contemporary Israeli Literature: Text and Place in Zeruya Shalev’s Husband and Wife and Michal Govrin’s Snapshots.” Hebrew Studies 47 (2006): 363–384.
  • Taub, Michael, ed. Modern Israeli Drama in Translation. London: Heinemann, 1993.
  • Yehoshua, A. B. Early in the Summer of 1970. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977.
  • Yehoshua, A. B. Mr. Mani. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Secondary Sources: Hebrew

  • Zerubavel, Yael. “Ha’tanakh akhshav: Ikh’shuv, satira politit ve’zikaron le’umi” [The ‘Bible Now’: Contemporizing Political Satire and National Memory]. Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Folklore 28 (2013): 755–774. An analysis of the use of the Bible in contemporary Israeli society.

Secondary Sources: English

  • Balaban, Avraham, “Secularity and Religiosity in Contemporary Hebrew Literature.” Middle Eastern Literature 5, no. 1 (2002): 63–82.
  • Feldman, Yael S. Glory and Agony. Isaac’s Sacrifice and National Narrative. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2010.
  • Jacobson, David. Does David Still Play Before You? Israeli Poetry and the Bible. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997. A collection of poetry with a comprehensive introduction, detailed discussion, and analysis.
  • Kartun-Blum, Ruth. Profane Scriptures: Reflections on the Dialogue with the Bible in Modern Hebrew Poetry. Cincinnati, Ohio: Hebrew Union College Press, 1999.
  • Pinsker, Shachar. “ ‘And Suddenly We Reached God’? The Construction of ‘Secular’ and ‘Religious’ in Israeli Literature.” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 5, no. 1 (2006): 21–40.
  • Shaked, Malka. “The Figure of Moses in Modern Hebrew Poetry.” AJS Review 28, no. 1 (April 2004): 157–172.
  • Shapira, Anita. The Bible and Israeli Identity. Jerusalem: Magnes, 2005.
  • Dr. Vincenzo Placella for “Biblical Sources and the Literature of Catastrophe: Three Modern Hebrew Poems.” Memoria Biblica e Letteratura. Napoli: Dipartimento di Studi Letterari e Linguistici dell’ Europa (2005): 569–581.
  • Dr. Sacha Stern for “The Akedah in Modern Hebrew Literature.” Journal of Jewish Studies 41, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 101–114.
  • Claire Taylor (Cambridge University Press) for “Israeli Drama and the Bible: Kings on the Stage.” AJS Review 28, no. 1 (April 2004): 68–82.

Glenda Abramson