The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible

The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible

by Harold Bloom


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A richly insightful reading of the King James Bible as a literary masterwork, published for the text's 400-year anniversary

The King James Bible stands at "the sublime summit of literature in English," sharing the honor only with Shakespeare, Harold Bloom contends in the opening pages of this illuminating literary tour. Distilling the insights acquired from a significant portion of his career as a brilliant critic and teacher, he offers readers at last the book he has been writing "all my long life," a magisterial and intimately perceptive reading of the King James Bible as a literary masterpiece.

Bloom calls it an "inexplicable wonder" that a rather undistinguished group of writers could bring forth such a magnificent work of literature, and he credits William Tyndale as their fountainhead. Reading the King James Bible alongside Tyndale's Bible, the Geneva Bible, and the original Hebrew and Greek texts, Bloom highlights how the translators and editors improved upon—or, in some cases, diminished—the earlier versions. He invites readers to hear the baroque inventiveness in such sublime books as the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Job, and alerts us to the echoes of the King James Bible in works from the Romantic period to the present day. Throughout, Bloom makes an impassioned and convincing case for reading the King James Bible as literature, free from dogma and with an appreciation of its enduring aesthetic value.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300187946
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/09/2012
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 789,986
Product dimensions: 7.80(w) x 5.10(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Harold Bloom is Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University. He lives in New Haven, CT.


New York, New York and New Haven, Connecticut

Date of Birth:

July 11, 1930

Date of Death:

October 14, 2019

Place of Birth:

New York, New York


B.A., Cornell University, 1951; Ph.D., Yale University, 1955

Read an Excerpt

The Shadow of a Great Rock

By Harold Bloom


Copyright © 2011 Harold Bloom
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-18001-5

Chapter One

The Five Books of Moses

* * *


THE FIVE SCROLLS (PENTATEUCH, from the Greek) or Books of Moses long ago were called the Torah, mistranslated by Christians as "the Law." Accurately, Torah means "the Teachings," and mostly it is a story, from the Creation on to the death of Moses, who is not allowed by God to enter the Promised Land.

Though the Pentateuch early assumed Judaic primacy, it was not the first part of the Hebrew Bible to be composed. An archaic text like the magnificent War Song of Deborah (Judges 5) comes out of a world where Moses is absent and the Twelve Tribes of Israel are dominant entities. Sages and rabbis labored to control our perspective, and the Five Scrolls of Moses represent as successful a usurpation of our consciousness as does the Christian conversion of the Hebrew Bible into the Old Testament.

Genesis traditionally is divided by scholars into the Primeval History, chapters 1–13, and the Patriarchal Story, 14–62, which itself separates out into Abraham, 14–32; Jacob, 33–48; and Joseph and his brothers, 49–62. In Hebrew, Genesis takes the title Bereshit, the first word of the scroll: "In the beginning."

We do not know when Genesis was put together: it evidently was part of the enormous labor performed by the great Redactor in the Babylonian Exile of the sixth century B.C.E. I have already dismissed the currently fashionable views that fragments of textual tradition were somehow pasted into the tales of Jacob or of Moses. Anyone who can read aesthetically should recognize the narrative style of the Yahwist, or J Writer, who possibly composed during the long reign of Solomon.

Genesis 1:1–2:3 offers a Priestly prose hymn of the cosmological event of Creation, possibly written six hundred years after the Yahwist's very different vision of origins in 2:4–3:24. It is difficult to overpraise either account of Creation, Priestly or Yahwistian. Each touches the limits of literature, the sublime in the Priestly Writer, and a strange, homely uncanny in the J Writer. The Hebrew texts compete in power with each other, and neither is quite captured by Tyndale, whose Genesis nevertheless is a magnificent narrative, taken over first by the Geneva men and then by the KJB revisionists.

The height of the Priestly Creation is 1:26–28:

26 ¶And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

"Let us make" implies that the Elohim, "divine beings" of the E Writer or God of the Priestly Writer, are a conclave acting together to create, though this can be read also as a royal "we." "Man" is Adam in Hebrew, meaning also humankind, and "image" is zelem in Hebrew, a term of enormous richness, perpetually evocative in later Jewish commentary, particularly in Kabbalah.

The Yahwist's account of Creation is the very different vision of Eden, in 2:4–25:

in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,

5 And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.

6 But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.

7 And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

8 ¶ And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.

9 And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

10 And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.

11 The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold;

12 And the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone.

13 And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia.

14 And the name of the third river is Hiddekel: that is it which goeth toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates.

15 And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:

17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

18 ¶ And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.

19 And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

20 And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.

21 And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;

22 And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.

23 And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.

24 Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

25 And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.

Instead of the Priestly celebration of a blazing glory, we are in a harsh, parched Judean spring, suddenly vivified by a mist welling up from the earth. Adam is formed from the red clay of the adamah, the soil, rather as though this playful Yahweh fashioned a mud figurine and then breathed life into it until it became a living being. Eden, used as a place name, also means "delight" in Hebrew. When Yahweh in verse 16 says, You may freely eat, the statement is ambiguous.

The creation of Eve is Yahweh's triumph, aesthetically superior to that of Adam, since she is fashioned out of life and not from clay. Tyndale rendered verse 18 as:

And the Lord God said: it is not good that man should be alone, I will make him an helper to bear him company.

Geneva gave:

Also the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be himself alone: I will make him an help meet for him.

The KJB omits that awkward "himself" and changes "Also" to "And" but otherwise adopts Geneva. "Helpmeet," our now out-of-fashion term, is a poor version of the Hebrew for "helper parallel to him," though the literal meaning is "opposed to him," which bears some dark pondering.

That is a hint of the opposing agent proper, the serpent of chapter 3:

1 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

2 And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

5 For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

For verse 4 Geneva gives, "Ye shall not die at all," while Tyndale wonderfully has, "tush ye shall not die." J's irony is that Yahweh has created the serpent to be more fully conscious than man or woman. It is important to be aware that the Yahwist is not Saint John the Divine, for whom the snake is Satan in Revelation. J's serpent is an enigma, a mischief maker without apparent motivation. Rather than translate him as "subtle," I prefer "smooth" in our American vernacular sense. J plays punningly on the Hebrew arom, "naked," and arum, "sly."

Yahweh's stage-managing of what Christianity names the Fall is adroit and rather reprehensible. It can be viewed as a bad father's deliberate blunder, since Adam and Eve essentially are children. I recall saying that J's point is "When we were children, we were terribly punished for being children." In the entire Hebrew Bible, this supposed Fall is never mentioned again.

Yahweh imposes mortality as a punishment, which makes him something of a hanging judge who thus concludes a children's story inappropriately. What mitigates Yahweh's harshness is that we are not reading narrative theology but a family romance that crosses over into tragicomedy. J's irony, too pervasive to be noticed, makes me wonder at the near-contradiction of a withdrawal from mortals of a freedom they never had. J knows nothing about immortality. The expulsion from Eden is therefore an eloquent puzzle:

22 ¶ And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:

23 Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

24 So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.


Can J's Yahweh really fear that Adam will become one of the Elohim by devouring fruit of the tree of life? Something is missing here, but then J can be as elliptical as Dante or the later Shakespeare.

Noah and the Flood, intricately mixed together out of J and P by the Redactor, has been solemnized by tradition as Yahweh's first Covenant with mankind, "the children of Noah." The J Writer's share in the composite text is marked by deliberate hilarity:

20 And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard:

21 And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.

22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.

23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness.

24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.

25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.


In his Norton edition of the English Bible, Herbert Marks corrects the KJB in verse 20, where the Hebrew reads, "Noah, a man of the ground, was the first planter of a vineyard." Readings differ after that, but evidently Ham sodomizes his drunken father at the moment Noah has intercourse with his wife. The delightfully circumspect behavior of Shem and Japheth has an outrageous humor, worthy of the J Writer. A similar wild spirit of comedy energizes the Tower of Babel, Genesis 11:1–9:

1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.

3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.

4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.

6 And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.

8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

Following Tyndale and Geneva, the KJB valiantly attempts to render the Yahwist at her or his most untranslatable. Satirizing Babylonian cultural aspirations, the J Writer dazzles with a Joycean wordplay that exuberantly mocks Babylonian cosmic structures. J's Yahweh, who closed up Noah's ark with his own hands, descends in person to make his own on-the-ground inspection and delights in his trickster aspect, bringing the tower down by a confusing of tongues, a kind of reverse Pentecost.

* * *

With Abram, who becomes Abraham, the Patriarchal Age begins. "Get thee out of" is Yahweh's injunction to Abram, as it will be to Moses, and to most Jews since. Through Ishmael, his son by Hagar, Abraham is the father of the Arabs as well as of the Jews. A purely legendary figure, he nevertheless had to be invented, since his Covenant with Yahweh in Genesis 17 is the foundation of Judaism, and ultimately of Christianity and Islam.

The story of Abraham, powerful in Tanakh, retains its strength in the KJB. Yahweh, totally a personality, speaks to Abraham face to face and argues with him almost as an equal. And yet the incommensurateness always abides, and with it a sense of awe. Emily Dickinson called her God, in whom she nimbly disbelieved, by the name awe. The keynote of awesomeness is heard fully in Genesis 15:12–17:

12 And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him.

13 And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years;

14 And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance.

15 And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age.

16 But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.

17 And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces.

At Yahweh's command, Abram sacrifices heifer, goat, ram, turtledove, and pigeon. Then deep sleep falls upon him, and he goes into a trance. Pre-Judaic magic clearly is involved in that smoking oven and burning torch (to keep the fire going in the brazier), both of which intimate the flames associated with Yahweh's state of being. Images of cutting a covenant prepare for the miraculous begetting of Isaac by divine fiat in the wonderful opening half of chapter 18:

1 And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day;

2 And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground,

3 And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant:

4 Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree:

5 And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on: for therefore are ye come to your servant. And they said, So do, as thou hast said.

6 And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth.

7 And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetcht a calf tender and good, and gave it unto a young man; and he hasted to dress it.

8 And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat.

9 ¶ And they said unto him, Where is Sarah thy wife? And he said, Behold, in the tent.

10 And he said, I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son. And Sarah heard it in the tent door, which was behind him.

11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.

12 Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?

13 And the Lord said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old?

14 Is any thing too hard for the LORD? At the time appointed I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son.

15 Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said Nay; but thou didst laugh.

Yahweh, accompanied by two angels of destruction, is on the way to extinguish Sodom and Gomorrah, but is happy to stop for a hearty picnic beneath the terebinth trees. Offended by Sarah's sensible derision, he reminds her and us that nothing is too difficult for him. This is charming yet is surpassed by the rest of the chapter. Abraham courageously argues Yahweh down from his plan so that even ten righteous inhabitants would suffice to save Sodom. As there will be only Lot and his family, Sodom must be overthrown. This one time our father Abraham manifests exemplary moral courage. Knowing that he is nothing in himself, Adamic dust and ashes, Abraham stubbornly attempts to speak and act as if he were everything.


Excerpted from The Shadow of a Great Rock by Harold Bloom Copyright © 2011 by Harold Bloom. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION The Bible as Literature....................1
The Five Books of Moses....................27
Four Heroines....................81
David (1 and 2 Samuel to 1 Kings 2)....................97
The Prophets....................111
Psalms 1....................169
Psalms 2....................180
The Song of Songs....................215
The Hidden Books....................225
The Wisdom of Solomon....................231
Ecclesiasticus: The Wisdom of Ben Sira....................234
The History of Susanna....................240
The Literary Merit of the Greek New Testament....................245
The Writings of Paul....................263

What People are Saying About This

Iain Finlayson

Bloom reveals his own magisterial, sometimes mischievous, self in his meditations on the masters with whom he connects.—Iain Finlayson, The Times


From the Introduction:

The largest aesthetic paradox of the KJB is its gorgeous exfoliation of the Hebrew original. Evidently the KJB men knew just enough Hebrew to catch the words but not the original music. Their relative ignorance transmuted into splendor because they shared a sense of literary decorum that all subsequent translators seem to lack. Miles Coverdale, bare both of Hebrew and of Greek, set a pattern that Miles Smith perfected. It is another of the many paradoxes of the KJB that its elaborate prose harmonies essentially were inaugurated by Coverdale’s intuitive journey into the poems and prophecies his master Tyndale did not live to translate. We have Tyndale’s Jonah and a medley of prophetic passages, eleven from Isaiah, in the Epistle Taken out of the Old Testament. How wonderful it would be to have Job, Ecclesiastes, and Jeremiah from the hand of Tyndale, though probably that would have prevented Coverdale’s astonishing flair for style and rhythm from manifesting itself. This flair was unsteady, yet at its best it gave us something of the sonority we associate with KJB.

Tyndale, Coverdale, and the Geneva translators (including their best Hebraist, Gilby) all possessed the gift of literary authority. Their revisionist, Miles Smith, explicitly displays his sense of style in the 1611 preface, “The Translators to the Reader,” and implicitly stands forth by his editorial responsibility for the ways in which the KJB men handle their inheritance from previous English Bibles. Again paradox intervenes: from Tyndale through KJB the quest is to get closer to the literal sense of the Hebrew, while the consequence is to increase a cognitive music farther and farther away in regard to the Hebrew Bible’s relative freedom from metaphors. Since all metaphor is a kind of mistake anyway, even the plain errors of the KJB sometimes add to the resultant splendor.

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