The Bible was divided into chapters only in the 13th century, by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1207-1228. The world remembers Langton for drafting the Magna Carta. Jews remember him for being the first to force the Jews of England to wear a distinctive white badge. Langton was typical of Christian antisemites of the Middle Ages, who believed that the Church had replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people.
According to Rabbi Bezalel Ariel, who since 2011 has been calling to restore the Jewish division of the Bible to its more ancient “chapters” (called seder, sedarim), the Christian division of Scripture reflects the Church’s theology of “Verus Israel,” that it is the “true Israel.” Even so, Jews have for some reason been using this division of Scripture since the 15th century, seemingly without giving it a second thought.
Rabbi Ariel’s project, called Shiva LeBitzaron (Returning to Our Strongholds, see Zechariah 9:12), makes the Seder division easily accessible for anyone interested, in hopes that one day it will replace the Christian chapter division.
For Ariel, this is not an exercise in parochialism. As he set out to prove, the current chapters reflect a theological bias entrenching in the minds of the readers a negative view of Israel. The Jewish division that predates Christianity reflects a more positive position, namely that Israel, despite their shortcomings, will forever be God’s chosen people.
The ancient division of the Bible to Sedarim was marked in the scrolls by the letter ס (s). Accordingly, the Jewish Bible, divided to 24 books, has 154 chapters in the Pentateuch, 204 chapters in the Prophets and 89 chapters in what’s known as the Writings. The 154 chapters of the Pentateuch facilitated a three-year reading cycle, as opposed to the one-year cycle of 54 portions in practice today. Instead of reading the long Portion of the Week (פרשת השבוע), which requires a specially-trained reader, the Seder-based portion of the week could be recited publicly by anyone capable of reading a few verses. Today this division is marked and numbered in the Koren edition of the Bible.
Ariel points out many examples of the negative/positive division, of which we’ll look at one.
Seder 2 of Genesis beings with “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens” (Gen. 2:4).
Seder 3 begins with “And the LORD God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:22).
Seder 4 begins with “This is the written account of Adam’s family line. When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God” (Gen. 5:1).
Seder 5 begins with “This is the account of Noah and his family. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time” (Gen. 6:9).
Respectively, Seder 2 highlights the world becoming inhabitable only after the creation of mankind. Seder 3 highlights the uniqueness of mankind (knowing good and evil). Seder 4 highlights mankind being made in the likeness of God. Seder 5 highlights the righteousness of Noah. This division expresses the fundamental Jewish outlook that mankind is inherently good.
But the Christian division reinforces the Christian understanding that mankind is fundamentally evil. Accordingly, Chapter 2 ends with the negative line “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” Chapter 3 begins with the negative description of the serpent luring Adam and Eve. Chapter 4 ends with Cain killing his brother. Chapter 6 begins with the negative recounting of the sons of God marrying human women.
This negative picture that begins with human beings in general is later narrowed down to Israel in particular. So, for example, the Jewish division choses to highlight the positive of the Golden Calf episode by opening a Seder where the Christian Chapter ends: “When the Lord finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant law, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18). For Jews, therefore, the Seder begins with a hopeful note: The Law is given despite the sin of the Golden Calf. The Christian division separates the positive from the negative by opening chapter 32 with “Come, make us gods who will go before us,” thus leaving the reader with a negative impression regarding the moral character of Israel.
Habits are not easy to change. Important as all of this seems to be, after 10 years Rabbi Ariel’s project remains largely unknown. But that doesn’t mean that at some point Jews won’t return to reading the Bible in the way they did prior to the 15th century, when hand-written manuscripts gave way to Gutenberg’s first printed Bible, which fixed the now-familiar division of Scripture.
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