Rebecca Lesses

Associate Professor, Philosophy and Religion
School: School of Humanities and Sciences

Hebrew Scriptures
JWST 10300 / RLST 10300
Section 1 MWF 11:00-11:50    Friends 307
Section 2 MWF 1:00-1:50    Smiddy 107

Professor Rebecca Lesses
Office: Williams 119H
Office Hours: Mondays 2:00-3:30, Thursdays 2:45-4:00
Telephone: 274-3556

Course description
The Hebrew Bible (referred to by Christians as the Old Testament) is one of the foundational books of both western and world culture, and serves as the basis for Judaism and Christianity. In this course, we will read the books of the Bible critically as literature, as religious and moral text, and as a source of sociological knowledge. This course surveys the biblical literature, acquaints the students with critical methods for the study of the Bible, situates the Bible within the literature and culture of the ancient Near East, and discusses the religion of ancient Israel. We will deal with questions of history and archaeology, and with questions of meaning – what the biblical text meant to its ancient readers, and what meanings it has today. All texts will be read in English translation.

Course objectives
The primary goal of this course is for you to learn how to interpret the Bible yourself, using the tools you will learn in the course. These tools include:
  • careful textual analysis – closely reading biblical texts
  • literary approaches to the biblical text – reading biblical texts as stories
  • understanding the different genres of biblical texts – narratives, laws, royal chronicles, poetry, theology, etc.
  • history of the ancient Near East and how it relates to the writing of the Bible
  • analysis of the varieties of religious experience and expression found in the Bible
  • comparative analysis of biblical and other ancient Near Eastern texts from related cultures (Egypt, Mesopotamia)
  • feminist approaches to the study of the Bible
  • awareness of contemporary American culture and the Bible
This primary goal of the course means that you will be learning and applying critical thinking skills, including:
awareness of the preconceptions and assumptions that you bring to the biblical text
  • developing an attitude of curiosity and inquiry
  • appreciation of multiple interpretive perspectives
  • delving below the surface – not accepting superficial answers
  • evaluating texts and other sources – asking questions of a text: who wrote it, for what reason(s), for what audience(s), using what kind of language, including or ignoring what information


Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) (this book will also be on reserve in the library).

Buy one of these editions of the Bible (not both). Both are also available in the reference section of the library.

1. Michael Coogan, ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Oxford University Press, 2001.

2. Adele Berlin and Marc Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Additional readings will be available via WebCT (see schedule below).


1. Class attendance (5%) and participation (5%): this includes asking questions and speaking up during class discussions, participating in small group work in class, and active listening to lectures and to classmates. You will be graded on class preparation and participation – if you are silent and uninvolved in class, it will lower your grade. 10% of final grade.

2. Map exercise – it will be handed out on Wednesday, September 5 and is due in class on Wednesday, September 12. 5% of final grade.

3. Chevruta Exercises. Chevruta, a Hebrew word meaning companionship or friendship, is the traditional Jewish way of studying texts. Chevruta partners gather around a text to read it together, argue about it, and try to figure out what it means. We will be using this method many times throughout the semester, both in class and outside it. When the chevruta group meets outside of class, I will ask you to appoint a recorder to report on the discussion and hand in a written report. The list here of chevruta meetings is tentative and may be changed as the semester proceeds (15% of final grade).

  • Aug. 31 – How to Read the Bible: in class chevruta
  • Sept. 5 – Biblical Creation Story: meet with chevruta before class (report due)
  • Sept. 10 – Who wrote the Bible?: meet with chevruta before class (report due)
  • Sept. 21 – Who was Abraham?: meet with chevruta before class (report due)
  • October 1 – Movie as Midrash: in class chevruta
  • October 10 – Torah of the priests: in class chevruta
  • October 26 – Judges & Judges: in class chevruta
  • October 31 – Women and death in the book of Judges: meet with chevruta before class (report due)
  • November 7 – David’s reign: in class chevruta
  • November 14 – Amos: in class chevruta
  • November 30 – Jeremiah & life in exile: in class chevruta
  • December 10 – Tales of Exile: meet with chevruta before class (report due)

4) Short paper (2 pages) on a passage from Genesis, due Sept. 28. Instructions for the paper will be handed out on September 17. 10% of final grade.

5) Midterm Examination – Wednesday, October 17. 20% of final grade.

6) 6-8 page Research Paper – instructions will be handed out on October 22; it will be due on November 28, in class. Even though the paper is due after the Thanksgiving break, DO NOT procrastinate in working on it – I will not look favorably on requests for extensions. 20% of final grade.

7) Final Examination – It will be given at two different times. 20% of final grade.
11 am section    Thursday    Dec 20    7:30 am-10:00 am    Friends 307
1 pm section    Friday    Dec 21    1:30 pm-4:00 pm        Smiddy 107

How this class will be conducted

1. Bring the Bible to class! The main activity of this class will be reading and interpreting the Bible. We will always be referring to the Bible, therefore you must always have a Bible before you in class. Looking on with your neighbor is not sufficient.

2. Bible Translations: Use one of the Bible translations ordered for this class, either the New Oxford Annotated Bible or the Jewish Study Bible. They are available in paperback in the bookstore. Even if you already have your own edition of the Bible, I request that you buy one of these, in order to be able to use the very useful annotations and essays found in these editions.

3. Class preparation is required. This class will be conducted partly as a lecture, partly as small group work, partly as large group discussion. I expect you to come to class having done each day’s reading and prepared to say something about it. You will be graded on class preparation and participation – if you are silent and uninvolved in class, it will lower your grade.

4. More on Chevruta. In class or for an outside assignment I will ask you to read a particular text together with another person or persons, so that you can discuss your own questions about the text and spark each other’s ideas. This method is taken from the rabbinic way of studying a text, a method that they called chevruta (fellowship). It stems from the idea that learning is acquired best through the active interaction between self, fellow, and text. Your chevruta partners may have different questions than you do, or different answers.

5. Active Listening. Listening to another person speak is not a passive enterprise. Really to understand another person requires paying attention to his or her words, taking notes on what the other person says, making associations with what you already know, asking questions when you don’t understand. This is true when you listen to your classmates in small or large group discussions or to my lectures. I expect you to pay attention in class and learn both from your classmates and from my lectures. Take notes. Do not expect simply to remember everything said in class. If you are unfamiliar with taking notes for a class, please speak to me.

Course Policies

1. No plagiarism on papers or cheating on examinations. ALL WRITTEN WORK MUST BE YOUR OWN. Please consult the Student Handbook for a complete statement of the Ithaca College policy on plagiarism, including definitions of plagiarism and proper citation of sources. Plagiarism includes using another student’s paper to write your own, or lending your paper to another student to “help” him or her write the paper (do not do this!). I refer proven cases of plagiarism or cheating to the Judicial Affairs office.

2. Attendance Policy. 2 unexcused absences are permitted; if class must be missed because of illness, athletic exercises, concerts, job interviews, or other unavoidable activities, please let me know with a full explanation and if possible a note from the relevant authority (doctor, coach, chorus leader, Dean of Students office, etc.). More than two unexcused absences will lead to reduction of the course participation grade.

3. Respect for others in the class is required. This includes:

  • Arrive to class on time.
  • Turn off your cell-phone before class starts. This includes the “silent” (buzzing) ringer, which is very irritating to listen to.
  • No text-messaging or playing games on your cell-phone during class.
  • Don't eat noisy food in class (e.g., potato chips). If you must eat in class, please throw away your trash after class.
  • Please do not leave the room during class except in case of dire physical need.
  • Respect the instructor and your classmates – listen when they speak and avoid whispering or passing notes in class.

4. All written work must be done to pass the class. This includes exams and papers.

5. If you need help with your writing: Please come speak to me. I also recommend the Writing Center, 228 Park, which is open 9-5 Mon.-Fri. and 7-10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs. To schedule an appointment, call 274-3315.

6. Students with learning disabilities: please approach me early in the semester and let me know your needs in terms of papers or exams. Also, please have the Office for Support Services send me a letter with your specific needs.

7. If you are having personal or family problems, and find it difficult to complete your assignments – please speak to me to set up special arrangements. Please, do not simply stop coming to class!


CT=Readings found on the WebCT site of this course

August 29 First Day of Class
Handouts: Syllabus, Comparative Translations of Genesis 1, Instructions for Friday’s assignment

August 31 How to Read the Bible (Chevruta day)
Bible: Gen. 1-2
CT: How to Read the Bible; Genesis chapters 1-2; Chevruta Questions on Gen. 1-2.

Sept. 3 Labor Day: NO CLASS

Sept. 5 Biblical Creation Story (Chevruta day)
Bible: Gen. 1-3; Coogan, pp. 3-5.
CT: Characteristics of the Creation Story.
Map Exercise handed out.

Sept. 7 Ancient Near Eastern creation stories
CT: Ancient Near Eastern Creation Myths.
Coogan, pp. 5-20.

Sept. 10 Who wrote the Bible? (Chevruta day)
Coogan, pp. 21-30; Bible: Gen. 6-8.
CT: Characteristics of the Flood Story, Flood Story According to the Documentary Hypothesis, Source Documents According to the Documentary Hypothesis

Sept. 12 Primeval history
Bible: Gen. 4-11; Coogan, pp. 31-42.
CT: Epic of Gilgamesh
Map Exercise due in class.

Sept. 14 Rosh Hashanah: NO CLASS

Sept. 17 Land and History
Coogan, pp. 45-62
CT: Timeline of Egyptian and Israelite History
Short paper assignment handed out.

Sept. 19 Abraham & Sarah
Bible: Gen. 12-13, 15-17, 20-22; Coogan, pp. 63-69.
CT: Abraham and Sarah Stories, Genealogy of the Ancestral Families

Sept. 21 Who was Abraham? Traditional Jewish and Christian views (Chevruta day)
CT: Midrash on Abraham, Abraham in the New Testament

Sept. 24 Jacob & his children
Bible: Gen. 25:19-34, 27-34; Coogan, pp. 69-76.
CT: Robert Alter, “Narration and Knowledge.”

Sept. 26: Joseph and his brothers
Bible: Gen. 37-50; Coogan, pp. 76-83.

Sept. 28: Israel in Egypt
Bible: Ex. 1-15; Coogan, pp. 85-104.
CT: Issues in the Book of Exodus

October 1 Movie as Midrash: The Ten Commandments and Exodus (Chevruta day)
Screening of selected portions of the Cecil B. DeMille movie and comparison with Exodus

Oct. 3 Covenant and Holy Nation
Bible: Ex. 16-24; Coogan, pp. 105-119.
CT: Revelation and Covenant in Exodus

Oct. 5 Simchat Torah: NO CLASS

Oct. 8 Covenant Code & ANE law
Bible: Ex. 21-23; Coogan, pp. 120-125.

Oct. 10 Torah of the Priests: sacred places (Chevruta day)
Bible: Ex. 25-31, 40; Coogan, pp. 125-137.

Oct. 12 Leviticus
Bible: Lev 11, 15, 16-19; Coogan, pp. 138-151.

Oct. 15 Review Session for Midterm Exam

Oct. 17 Midterm Exam

Oct. 19 Fall Break: NO CLASS

Oct. 22 Numbers
Bible: Num 5-6, 12, 13-14, 21-24; Coogan, pp. 153-172.
Research paper assignment handed out.

Oct. 24 Deuteronomy
Bible: Deut. 1-6, 12-15, 17-18, 20, 22, 34; Coogan, pp. 173-190.
CT: Deuteronomy

Oct. 26 Joshua & Judges on the conquest of Canaan (Chevruta day)
Bible: Joshua 1-11; Judges 1; Coogan, pp. 191-210.
CT: Deuteronomistic History.

Oct. 29 Judges: what is a judge?
Bible: Judges 2-5, 11-16; Coogan, pp. 212-226.

Oct. 31 Women and death in the book of Judges (Chevruta day)
Bible: Judges 19-21; Gen. 19.
CT: “Eroticism and Death in the Tale of Jael”

Nov. 2 Samuel and Saul
Bible: 1 Sam 1-15; Coogan, pp. 231-237.

Nov. 5 David vs. Saul
Bible: 1 Sam 16-31, 2 Sam 1; Coogan, pp. 237-247.

Nov. 7 David’s reign (Chevruta day)
Bible: 2 Sam 2-19, 1 Kings 1-2; Coogan, pp. 248-265.

Nov. 9 Solomon’s reign
Bible: 1 Kings 1-11; Coogan, pp. 266-286.

Nov. 12 Divided Kingdom
Bible: 1 Kings 12-19; Coogan, pp. 287-306.

Nov. 14 Amos – what is a prophet? (Chevruta day)
Bible: Amos; Coogan, pp. 307-321, 325.
CT: Characteristics of Prophecy

Nov. 16 Hezekiah & Josiah – prophet and king
Bible: 2 Kings 15-23; Coogan, pp. 327-330, 336-345, 349-355.
CT: Assyrian Threat to Israel and Judah

Nov. 26 Isaiah
Bible: Isaiah 1-12, 29-39; Coogan, pp. 330-336, 342-343.
CT: Isaiah

Nov. 28 Fall of Jerusalem
Bible: 2 Kings 23:31-25:30, Jer. 52; Coogan, pp. 359-365.
CT: Timeline: Fall of Judah
Research Paper due

Nov. 30 Jeremiah & life in exile (chevruta day)
Bible: Jer. 1-7, 13, 17, 21-25, 29, 30-31, Lamentations, Psalm 137
Coogan, pp. 366-377, 381-386.

Dec. 3 Return to Zion
Bible: Ezra 1-2, Isa. 34-35, 40-55.
Coogan, pp. 401-416.

Dec. 5 Rebuilding of the Temple
Bible: Ezra 3-6, Isa. 56-66.
Coogan, pp. 419-423, 427-429.

Dec. 7 Worship in the Second Temple
Bible: Psalms 3-5, 19, 24, 30, 72, 80, 91, 97, 121-122, 124.
Coogan, pp. 456-472.

Dec. 10 Tales of Exile: Esther and Jonah (Chevruta day)
Bible: Esther, Jonah
Coogan, pp. 525-530.

Dec. 12 Bible today

Dec. 14 Review session for final exam


11 am MWF    Thursday    Dec 20    7:30 am - 10 am        Friends 307
1 pm MWF    Friday    Dec 21    1:30 pm - 4 pm        Smiddy 107