With Rosh Hashana arriving Wednesday night, and being one of the People of the Book, I thought that it would be good to begin the new year 5774 with three book reviews. Come back next Monday and Wednesday for two more.
When I received a review copy of With a Mighty Hand: The Story in the Torah, I swooned. At a time when the printed word seems to be hanging in the balance, and the Nones are a newsworthy phenomenon, it was more than heartening to read this beautiful volume, an illustrated retelling of Bible stories. In hardback no less!
Candlewick Press deserves high praise for publishing this beautiful volume.
In author Amy Ehrlich’s capable hands, the stories in the Torah (the Hebrew Bible) come to life in vivid prose that hews quite close to the original text. Ehrlich distills the Five Books of Moses into a single narrative. Children’s bible stories often focus on those passages rich with visual potential—while skipping the darker side of these stories. This is not your father’s Golden Bible version. Ehrlich presents the Torah in full: animals marching two by two and Noah drunk from wine, exposed in nakedness to his son Ham. Recounted are the days of creation as well as Adam and Eve’s blame-shifting conversation with God after they ate the forbidden fruit. What an opportunity to talk to a child about taking responsibility for one’s actions and the all-too-human tendency to lay blame elsewhere.
Reading the Tree of Knowledge chapter this time around, I saw something new in the text. The serpent’s punishment is to crawl upon the ground, metaphorically eating dust all the days of his life. Dust figures in Adam’s fate as well: He will not live forever but will return to dust. Eve, however, is punished not with dust, nor with bearing children in pain as I have always understood it. She is punished with a multiplication of the pain of her childbirth. This passage, as presented by Ehrlich, raises two questions. What does it mean that Eve’s punishment has nothing to do with dust? And second, was Eve’s punishment lighter than Adam’s and the snake’s? Admittedly, childbirth is no walk in the park, but the text seems to be telling us that God would multiply a pain that was already Eve’s destiny come childbirth. The snake lost its legs, left to crawl belly-to-dirt for all time and Adam lost eternal life in the Garden, both consequences that had no mirror pre-forbidden fruit.
Daniel Nevins, the artist chosen to illustrate the book, has done glorious work. His paintings have a depth and solidity in both his figures and in his color palette that echo well the seriousness of the text. There is poignancy, too. Nevins’ illustration of Moses, post Golden Calf, is heart-breaking. The father of this wayward tribe of Hebrews kneels prostrate upon the ground, his staff and the tablets are strewn upon the earth beside him. Moses, one hand on the ground, one resting upon the back of his head, holds a posture of such submission and defeat that one can almost hear him weeping in fury and frustration. Nevins rendered the splitting of the Sea of Reeds as a double-page spread with the yabasha, the dry ground, turning the interior of the book’s spine into part of the Israelites’ path to freedom. The whitecaps of the waves reach like hands from the confines of the pages. He was a marvelous choice to bring these stories to visual life.
There are any number of reasons why I’m eager for grandchildren one day. With a Mighty Hand gives me another reason. I dream of quiet afternoons and evenings reading portions of this beautiful book with them, visiting and revisiting the text, exploring the illustrations, discussing the moral issues inherent in each chapter. The Hebrew Bible is a storybook like no other, as relevant today as the day it was given, because its stories speak to us all. I look forward to the day it speaks to my children’s children. May God bless me so.
WITH A MIGHTY HAND. Text copyright © 2013 by Amy Ehrlich. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Daniel Nevins. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.