Reading In and Out of the Bible

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I. Peshat and Homiletics

Rabbis and preachers have long known that the Bible teaches important messages with its stories and laws. Academic Bible scholars have only recently joined them, bringing along their critical apparatus and rigorous methodologies. All good literature can be analyzed for underlying messages, including sacred literature. If a thoughtful reader can locate philosophy and ethics in Tolstoy’s writings, he can certainly find them in the prophets’ as well.

Yoram Hazony’s new book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scriptures,* argues that scholars have ignored the Bible’s philosophical views for too long. The Bible sets forth on some of the key issues with which philosophers have grappled for millennia. Omitting this important, early opinion is a colossal scholarly oversight which Hazony intends to remedy with the tools of literary analysis. He sets out his tightly argued agenda and proceeds to offer numerous studies demonstrating how to extract philosophy from sacred text. While Hazony’s goal is certainly worthwhile, his specific steps toward it raise many questions.

When attempting to uncover the Bible’s philosophy we must find a way to avoid the implausible excesses of homileticists and post-modern literary interpreters. We must somehow differentiate between peshat, the simple meaning of the text, and homiletics so that we read out of the Bible its sacred messages rather than reading in our own.

The Christian commentator Gordon Wenham provides guidance on accomplishing this in his Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically. He points to two trends in biblical studies, synthesized into a third that creates a path forward in studying biblical narrative. Historical criticism analyzes the language and context of the Bible; literary criticism examines the structure, the tools used to tell the story. Rhetorical criticism unites these two approaches into a comprehensive and compelling methodology. Wenham writes (p. 18): “Rhetorical criticism attempts to integrate these two types of question, the message of the book on the one hand and the intended readership on the other. By synthesising the two it has offered some convincing interpretations of biblical texts.” When we combine the simple textual meaning with its form and context we arrive at the Bible’s authentic message.

II. Avoiding Homiletics

All authors incorporate views on many subjects in their writings, often only implicitly. By examining the literary structure, we can uncover many of these subtle messages. But we can only be sure we are reading out when we keep in mind the historical context–who wrote the book and for whom (or, as Wenham insists, who are the implied authors and the implied readers).

Homileticists read into the Bible, glossing over historical context for rhetorical purposes. While homiletics should not be summarily dismissed but rather judged within the rules of its genre, we are concerned here with reading out of the Bible, letting the text speak in all its complexity. Much like homileticists, post-modernists also read their own agenda into the text, dismissing authorial intent. Peshat commentators attempting to discover broad themes are only plausible, they only avoid the genre of homiletics, when their findings correspond to the A/author and intended reader. While homileticists and post-modernists may occasionally discover a profound peshat message that corresponds to the historical context, this is generally an accident of genius, a brilliant convergence of contemporary need and original intent.

III. Biblical Philosophy

Hazony carefully sets forward the methodological groundwork for extracting philosophical views from Scripture and provides examples of this process. In doing so, he exhibits both the necessity of his endeavor and some of the limitations it faces. I have no idea whether academics are really missing what has been obvious to preachers for centuries. Perhaps they dismiss it all as homiletics. But I take Hazony’s word that his effort is necessary.

He is undoubtedly correct that the Bible expresses views on issues of philosophical interest. He is not the first to suggest this but he argues it well and at length. However, Hazony’s methodology is surprisingly missing a key feature–context.

IV. Farmers and Shepherds

As Wenham explains, our best safeguard against reading into the Bible is keeping in mind the original context. In this book, Hazony treats the Bible as a piece of literature, certainly a valuable exercise but one fraught with the danger of reading in. The possibility is exacerbated by the interdisciplinary nature of Hazony’s endeavor. The application of external, in this case philosophical, categories to the Bible lends itself to reading in. This is not to say that Hazony is guilty of homiletics, of reading philosophy into the Bible. However, readers must evaluate his interpretations within a historical framework to determine whether he truly succeeds at unearthing a biblical philosophy. Before we proceed any further, let me fully admit to a lack of qualifications to conduct a historical investigation of the Bible. All that follows is conjecture, barely educated guesses, and should be read skeptically. That said, at least I can begin the task and see where we arrive.

Hazony immediately raises historical questions with his first chapter of philosophical exegesis, which examines the farmer-shepherd contrast (e.g. Kayin and Hevel). Hazony posits that these two typologies represent civilization and conformity contrasted with radical political and personal independence. This interpretation faces two problems. First, which implied author would campaign against obedient citizenship to what implied audience? I cannot see an Israelite leader in the Sinai desert, preparing to take the nation into their own land and establish there a commonwealth, preach such an anti-establishment message. Nor can I see Ezra or anyone loyal to the kings throughout the First Temple era espouse this view. It was, at most, appropriate only under the rules of the wicked kings or in exile. One is challenged to accept that this represents a major biblical theme.

Additionally, the general contours of Hazony’s interpretation were proposed and rejected long ago on historical grounds (see p. 191 n. 26 that someone informed Hazony that Rousseau had offered this interpretation). Victor Hamilton writes in his 1990 commentary to Genesis (NICOT, Gen. vol. 1 p. 222; see also Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis, p. 28):

Earlier commentators were fond of suggesting that in its original form this biblical story served as an illustration of the clash in ancient civilization between two conflicting life-styles, one agricultural and the other pastoral or nomadic, with the deity preferring the latter. Two problems militate against this identification of the original form of the Cain-Abel story. First, clashes in ancient times were not between agricultural and pastoral peoples, but between urban agricultural societies (with their livestock) and steppe nomads (with their livestock). Second, how could this suggestion ever fit the contours of the narrative, for in it the husbandman (Cain) is driven to nomadism, but only to end up as the founder of culture and of the first city?

Hazony’s treatment of the Bible’s political philosophy seems historically stronger, at least from my armchair perspective. Certainly the nation in the desert and throughout the time of the judges, kings, exile and return would be interested in the ideal form of government. Suffering under multiple forms of bad government and observing alternative forms among their many neighbors, the Jews of those centuries were a likely audience for such philosophical musings about the practical limitations of both monarchy and anarchy (see Joshua Berman, Created Equal, ch. 2).

V. Between Reason and Revelation

Similarly, the method by which one achieves communion with God was certainly an interest to the prophets’ intended audience. Hazony argues that the dichotomy of active reason versus passive faith fails to account for the biblical perspective–active faith, acquired revelation, the use of reason to attain and (attempt to) comprehend revelation. Hazony’s main argument here is solid, unwittingly or at least unacknowledgedly following the lead of Medieval Jewish philosophers (e.g. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Yesodei Ha-Torah 7:1; Moreh Nevukhim 2:32), but even still he falls into the trap of false dichotomy which he claims to reject. We need not choose between faith and reason, as Hazony ably argues, but we also need not dismiss entirely the concept of some sort of catechism. “As these examples suggest, the God of the Hebrew Bible is not in the business of demanding belief in some fixed body of propositions” (p. 342). Instead, Hazony claims, God prefers interaction and debate.

Yet even the God of the Bible demands basic beliefs, such as in Creation, Exodus and His existence. If there is no prescribed vocabulary, there can be no conversation of the kind God so desires. Surely the middle ground between reason and faith allows room for a limited catechism. Even Hazony seems to accept the need for correct religious opinions, writing in his chapter on Yirmiyahu’s theory of knowledge (which we will address shortly), “Jeremiah repeatedly tells us that false opinions has painful consequences, which bear down upon and punish those whose understanding is false” (p. 266). The God of the Bible punishes false opinions!

VI. Knowledge and Truth

Hazony devotes an entire chapter on Yirmiyahu’s theory of knowledge. In his reading, Yirmiyahu railed against scholars and prophets, who are unreliable. Even our own minds are insufficient to reach truth. Rather, we must conduct our own searches based on experience.

Hazony sees this as a universal theory of knowledge: “Indeed, it would appear to be in mankind’s nature to constantly misunderstand the things we see…” (p. 253). “This is not because the priests and the prophets are dishonest men, although there are dishonest men among them. It is because the mind is deceitful above all things” (p. 255).

However, I question whether Yirmiyahu’s assertions, if Hazony interprets them properly (more on this shortly), can be generalized because his context–his audience–was very specific. Yirmiyahu preached to a generation faced with false prophets and dishonest teachers. Of course they could not trust their wise men! They could not even trust themselves because of the vast confusion caused by these intellectually and ethically corrupt leaders. When convoluted arguments dominate public thought, they poison the entire intellectual atmosphere. Given the historical context, Yirmiyahu’s harsh words can hardly represent a general theory of knowledge.

Perhaps Hazony is differentiating between the prophet’s audience and that of his book. He spoke directly to a generation of darkness but his book may be intended for all ages. On the other hand, maybe it was intended for all similar ages dominated by false intellectual currents. Given Yirmiyahu’s context, I find it hard to generalize a theory of knowledge from his temporal skepticism.

VII. Interpretive Challenges

A critical aspect of discovering philosophy within the Bible is properly interpreting the text. It is true that a “proper” interpretation is an unattainable ideal because the text is often ambiguous and because literary analysis is an inherently imprecise enterprise. However, we already discussed the importance of historical context in validating an interpretation. Plausibility and consensus, or at least precedent, are also critical in constructing a broad literary analysis. A philosophy based on a tenuous textual analysis can hardly be considered a biblical philosophy.

Hazony is a creative thinker and often veers from the trodden path of biblical interpretation with original but questionable innovations. For example, he understands Jer. 2:8 as meaning that Torah scholars failed to understand the sacred texts (pp. 250, 255). However, standard commentaries understand that passage to mean that the scholars failed to observe God’s laws, as the context seems to indicate.

Hazony connects three of Avraham’s actions (Gen. 14:21-24, 21:25-30, 23:6-20) as demonstrating “a scrupulous insistence on defining property boundaries between himself and others” (p. 156). However, the incidents are each so full of unique meaning that their grouping, while clever, seems implausible to this reader.

Quite surprisingly, Hazony suggests that Pinchas disobeyed God by killing Zimri and Kozbi (Num. 25:7). This was “a reckless imprecision in the application of God’s command” which “would seem to be what motivates God to take Pinhas and his line out of political and military affairs by giving them the priesthood” (pp. 184, 200 n. 140). This inversion of a heroic deed and its reward into a sin and punishment is quite unexpected. Hazony’s interpretation that Avraham was certain that he would not have to sacrifice Yitzchak (p. 163) is similarly implausible. His connection of the word akov in Jer 17:9 to the word akum (twisted) seems grammatically suspect (p. 254).

Hazony reads Jer. 6:19 as meaning that the Jews were punished for their incorrect thoughts, “their ability to distinguish, in their own minds, between that which is really to be relied upon, and counted as knowledge, and that which is vain and worthless” (p. 246). A simple reading renders it as evil plans, whether brought to fruition or not (see two interpretations in Radak).

These are some of the interpretations in this book that I found implausible, which in turn make me question the success of some of Hazony’s attempts to extract philosophy from text. But let me conclude with a very interesting commentary Hazony offers. He points out that a careful reading of Moshe’s encounter with God at the burning bush (Ex. 3:1-4) shows that God only responded (twice) after Moshe actively sought divine contact (p. 340). Moshe had to make the first move before God revealed Himself, a trend Hazony finds throughout the Bible. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg (The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on the Exodus, p. 79) begins such an interpretation but Hazony fully fleshes out this very interesting analysis.

VIII. Conclusion

Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scriptures is a provocative read, demanding attention for the Bible’s neglected philosophy. Using the tools of literary analysis, Hazony shows that the Scriptures have as much, if not more, to offer philosophers than any complex novel. His bold interpretations leave room for future scholars to proceed more cautiously, taking into account context, and setting the philosophical record straight about the Bible’s neglected contributions to human thought.


  • Two Notes: Hazony consistently refers to the Hebrew Bible due to his broader audience. I have a more limited audience and will use the term Bible to mean the Hebrew Bible. Also, all page numbers refer to the Advance Reading Copy. I do not have access to the final published book.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

12 comments

  1. Anyone else notice that even with the big growth in hip, sophisticated readings of the peshat, and the accompanying pedantic lectures about how silly it is to take Midrash literally, among the Modern Orthodox, Christians still seem to be doing it more often and with more sophistication?

  2. There are a lot more of them and they dont have to learn daf yomi.

  3. Took the words out of my mouth, Moshe. Add: They are starting “from scratch,” so to speak.

  4. Actually, those studying Daf Yomi have had a refresher course in the boldness and playfulness of Chazal’s midrsashic interpretation in the first perek of B’rachot.

  5. I didn’t read the book but I did hear Hazony speak about it for over an hour. I totally agree with your assessment. He spoke about Cain and Abel and that was enough for me to discern all of the short comings you so clearly listed. While Hanzony himself doesn’t seem to believe in divine authorship of the Pentateuch (he actually slipped up on that when he spoke), he does believe that the authors imbued many fantastic philosophical lessons although they may not be easily perceivable in the text. I find this somewhat hypocritical, because why would mortal authors choose to impart lessons in ways not very discernible? Further if these lessons were the intent of the supposed authors why is it that we don’t this type of analyzation in antiquity? His methodology was reminiscent of chaissdeshe torah to a certain extent. He actually said לעבוד את האדמה was a triple entendre meaning to work the ground, to be subservient to the ground, and to worship the ground (yes, the way he described it God said to Adam go worship idols)! One would expect that if the scriptures were meant to impart these philosophical lessons, the exegesis of such lessons would be preserved by those closes to the authorship of the works. Hazony also extrapolated lessons across multiple works although the books were of different authors (I mean lessons that only are learnt from the conglomerate of the divergent verses, which would only make sense of he subscribed to divine authorship of the whole Tanach ). He was very passionate about his work and his uncovering of the hidden meaning. All of this leaves me quite perplexed in what his motive really was. Did he believe what he preached?

    Anyhow R’ Gil is right about the inherent handicap most people have in extrapolating only those lessons which appeal to the reader, and this was clearly evident with Hazony. He made me feel as if the Bible was a post-modern work which spoke for some reason in a esoteric way, kind of like modern art.

    But Hazony isn’t the only conundrum. I am also astonished by R’ Gil’s treatment of Hazony. While the review was great, R’ Gil takes Hazony apart in his own playing field, one that makes human authorship implicit. He questions what contextual setting would generate such philosophical messages. In the early Israelite history there was no setting which would espouse anti-institutionality. But if one believes in mosaic authorship this doesn’t pose much of a problem. Hazony uses the tools of Gunkel’s etiological foundation myth to explicate the Bible’s philosophical lessons, and R’ Gil challenges him on his application, but not on his pretense. While understandable when dealing with Hazony, I would have never thought you would do this.

  6. ” I find this somewhat hypocritical, because why would mortal authors choose to impart lessons in ways not very discernible? Further if these lessons were the intent of the supposed authors why is it that we don’t this type of analyzation in antiquity? ”

    Well, the first point is that we don’t find any analyzation in antiquity at all. It’s well over 1,000 years, maybe more before we see Midrash or Mishna.

    It is entirely possible that this is how people understood and wrote texts back then, since they did not have the developed tools to analyze properly, they did so in their own minds and subconscious.

    “He made me feel as if the Bible was a post-modern work which spoke for some reason in a esoteric way, kind of like modern art.”

    The point behind modern art is that ALL things work this way. Just some are more obvious than others. That is how and why the Midrash and Zohar can be so playful with the text centuries before Modern Art and Post Modern literature were explicitly defined.

    ” Given the historical context, Yirmiyahu’s harsh words can hardly represent a general theory of knowledge.”

    This is REALLY bizzare thing for you to say. Firstly, while the original listeners might have been in one historical context, Chazal who decided to keep Yirmiyahu in Tanach lived in an entirely different historical context. Second, isn’t the point of Tanach that only the prophets which speak to all the ages were put in?

    Very very strange criticism indeed!!

    ” In the early Israelite history there was no setting which would espouse anti-institutionality.”

    That’s really up to debate isn’t it? I mean, they did just get released from slavery, slavery is the ultimate institution. Just like the US has lots of ideas and laws designed to be anti-monarchy.

  7. Ephrayim: I would be careful about stating publicly that Hazony does not believe in divine authorship of the Pentateuch. It is very possible that you misheard or that he misspoke or something else.

    avi: This is REALLY bizzare thing for you to say. Firstly, while the original listeners might have been in one historical context, Chazal who decided to keep Yirmiyahu in Tanach lived in an entirely different historical context.

    You have to read through to the end of the paragraph.

  8. Hazony sees Rav Soloveitchik as having, in Emergence of Ethical Man, issued a call for a Jewish philosophy purged of its acquired Greek and Christian influences, especially with regard to concept of the soul and immortality, not exempting Rambam. In keeping with the baseline Jewish model of using illustrative cases and stories rather than explicitly stating principles, this would need to be based on the stories in Tanakh as well as on halacha. It sounds like Hazony is trying to answer the call with The Philosophy of Hebrew Scriptures.

  9. “You have to read through to the end of the paragraph.”

    You will have to specify what you mean. Nothing at the end of the paragraph causes me to think your statement is any less bizzare. The context of whom Yirmiayhu is speaking to, isn’t really relevant, since the question is why did Chazal think the message was for all time?

  10. Sorry, I meant the next paragraph:

    “Perhaps Hazony is differentiating between the prophet’s audience and that of his book. He spoke directly to a generation of darkness but his book may be intended for all ages. On the other hand, maybe it was intended for all similar ages dominated by false intellectual currents. Given Yirmiyahu’s context, I find it hard to generalize a theory of knowledge from his temporal skepticism.”

  11. Avi, you must not know much about biblical interpretation. There are many witnesses to interpretation in antiquity, though almost all of them are outside the orthodox oeuvre. A good start would be Kugel’s How to Read the Bible – A Guide to Scripture Then and Now. Anyways I wasn’t referring specifically to antiquity, but to all ancient interpretation. The Medrashim and Talmududim also don’t espouse such views.

    Regarding your view on modern art, I will just say I disagree. I know there are a lot of loonies out there that like to retroject their own views on old things. I am not the only own that thinks modern art is a lousy excuse for real talent. You have to have a certain type of mind for that art to invoke all of those supposed ideas, and I am not one of them. My impression is that in old times there were very few people with that mindset.

    Regarding anti-institutionality I was just paraphrasing what R’ Gil had written above. Anyhow I think you missed the point. Assuming human authorship means that the scriptures were written in a certain period. As I understand it modern academics don’t think it was written anytime close to the Egyptian exile (if they believe it even existed).

  12. “Regarding your view on modern art, I will just say I disagree. I know there are a lot of loonies out there that like to retroject their own views on old things. I am not the only own that thinks modern art is a lousy excuse for real talent. You have to have a certain type of mind for that art to invoke all of those supposed ideas, and I am not one of them. My impression is that in old times there were very few people with that mindset.”

    A. It’s not my view.
    B. You don’t need a certain type of mind, you just need to be able and willing to read the artist’s statement, and then be willing and able to think about said statement.
    C. All human beings have that mindset. It’s how language works, and why these funny shapes on the screen evoke thoughts in your mind.

    “Avi, you must not know much about biblical interpretation. There are many witnesses to interpretation in antiquity”

    You must have not understand what I meant, or we are talking about different antiquities.

    “Assuming human authorship means that the scriptures were written in a certain period. ”

    Incorrect. Human authorship can span multiple time periods.

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