The Magazine

Between the Lines

What is the meaning, and intent, of Hebrew Scripture?

Jan 28, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 19 • By JUDAH BELLIN
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Yoram Hazony is frustrated. A scholar at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, he has sought to bring Judaism in conversation with Western thought. The West, he believes, has not returned the favor.

Indeed, Hazony believes that academic opinion has turned against the Hebrew Bible. Neither professors nor their students, he notes, believe it contains any “ideas of worth and interest.” He traces this idea back to the Enlightenment-era thinkers who (according to Hazony) falsely distinguished the Greeks’ reasoned approach to life from that of Scripture. He cites Kant, who saw the Hebrew Bible as “a collection of mere statutory law,” and Hegel, who depicted ancient Judaism as “abjectness where no reason was.” In Hazony’s account, this attitude informed the German universities’ approach to the Bible, which in turn informed the approaches of American and British institutions.

Hazony seeks to undo the damage by reading the Hebrew Bible for philosophical insight. He believes this approach is groundbreaking. However, though Hazony promises readers that they will “never read the Bible the same way again,” he merely returns to an older tradition. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, for instance, saw Hebrew Scripture as a source of political guidance. In his Leviathan, Hobbes derives the sovereign’s absolute power from Samuel’s declaration that kings have every right to “take your sons .  .  . take your daughters .  .  . take the tithe of your corn and wine.” Likewise, in his Second Treatise, Locke uses the Bible’s description of Adam to argue that, in his original state, man was “capable of .  .  . govern[ing] his actions according to the dictates of the law of reason.”

What is new is today’s cultural elite’s dismissal of the Bible as supernatural hokum. Hazony believes they misunderstand Scripture’s purpose; in his conception, Scripture has a distinctly political purpose. To demonstrate this point, he focuses on what he calls the “History of Israel,” which comprises the Pentateuch, as well as the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. The authors, Hazony believes, began with the creation myth and ended with the Babylonian exile in order to inform the Jewish people of their place in history as well as their mission. They designed this work as a common framework for the dispersed Israelites.

But Hazony subsequently seems to change his opinion of the Bible’s purpose. Later on, he claims that Hebrew Scripture seeks to explain history through the lens of philosophy. He argues that God’s message is a philosophical one since it reflects a particular conception of the Good. Since the Good is universally true, Hazony continues, it follows that God’s message in Hebrew Scripture applies to all humanity, not just the Jews. Thus, in contrast to his earlier argument, Hazony claims here that Hebrew Scripture is not a parochial document. Hazony does not address the contradiction; nor does he address a pressing question his new interpretation raises: If Scripture merely expresses universal philosophical truths, why should it hold any more sway over the Jewish people than, say, Plato’s Republic?

Answering this question requires serious introspection, but Hazony offers none. He instead launches into philosophical “case studies.” His attempts at outlining Scripture’s “truths,” however, fall short: One cannot entirely encapsulate Scripture’s philosophy because it sends conflicting messages about the best life for man. It resists generalization. Hazony’s assertion that Hebrew Scripture shows us “not what happens, but what always happens” rings false, as very rarely does anything occur with perfect consistency in the Hebrew Bible.

He first argues that the Bible lauds an “ethic of the shepherd.” In his account, Abel, the first shepherd, defies God’s directive to work the land. Rather than reprimanding Abel for disobedience, though, God makes His preference known for Abel’s livestock offering. To Hazony, this indicates that God favors open-mindedness, creativity, and independence; shepherds, who stayed outside the agricultural systems that sustained the surrounding empires, embodied these virtues. Hazony thinks this explains why the most important biblical protagonists—Abraham and his sons; Joseph and his brothers; Moses; David—are shepherds.

As the story of Abraham suggests, however, Hazony overstates his case. While Abraham displays independence by challenging God’s decision to overturn Sodom, in most other instances he is quietly obedient. Indeed, he unquestioningly accepts God’s most onerous commands: He abandons his father’s home for an unfamiliar land, leaves that land for Egypt during a famine, and prepares to sacrifice his firstborn son. The shepherd of Hazony’s imagination would challenge God on any of these commands—but Abraham, of course, does not. Neither God nor the narrator, however, chastises him for his inaction. By repeatedly showing Abraham’s passive acquiescence, the Bible seems to teach us that submission is sometimes virtuous.

Another scriptural lesson cited by Hazony is: “In accepting an offer of hospitality, one takes the first step toward forfeiting one’s freedom.” Accordingly, he refers to numerous stories in which hosts take advantage of their guests. But this, too, is an overstatement, as it ignores the many unmistakably positive depictions of hospitality, such as Abraham’s welcoming three men into his tent after his circumcision, Rebecca’s caring treatment of Abraham’s servant Eliezer as he seeks a wife for his master’s son, and Rahab’s hiding of Israelite spies in Jericho.

Scripture does not teach that hospitality is inherently problematic, but that its quality is contingent on the host’s character. Though this lesson is less provocative than Hazony’s proclamations, it is truer to the text’s plain meaning.

Some of Hazony’s claims are not only overgeneralizations but mistakes. When discussing the political theory of Hebrew Scripture, he contends that the “biblical ideal” is a “single, limited state .  .  . in which the king will be chosen from among the people and be among them in spirit.” To the contrary, the Bible makes its distaste for kings clear. In the Book of Samuel, God states that the people’s request for a king indicated that they had “rejected me as their king.” God demands self-rule according to his guidelines, as God’s moral law holds an exclusive claim to sovereignty. Accordingly, the prophet Samuel rebukes the people for surrendering their freedom to an all-powerful earthly king.

Ultimately, Hazony’s most effective arguments are his narrowest. He draws a compelling contrast between Abraham, whose first action is to abandon the city of his birth, and Socrates and Aristotle, who considered themselves inextricably bound to the state. In Hazony’s reading, God wishes to teach Abraham that no earthly institution holds an exclusive claim to his soul; he owes his allegiances to a higher order. Likewise, in a chapter on Jeremiah, Hazony shows that, like the Greeks, Jeremiah believed that much of humanity lived within an illusory reality. He exhorts them to “inquire of the paths of old which way is the good” in order to break through their delusions.

I can’t help but wish that Hazony had dedicated more time to these focused arguments than to his sweeping claims about Scripture’s “purpose.” But he acknowledges that The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture is meant not to provide conclusions but to spark a renewed relationship with the text. At its conclusion, he asks us to view the Hebrew Scripture as “a family or school of viewpoints, each of which approaches truth from a different place,” rather than a “fixed body of propositions.” Though this is not exactly harmonious with Hazony’s attempt to discern the Bible’s consistent truths, he is correct in arguing that the Hebrew Scripture invites unceasing inquiry.

Judah Bellin is an editorial assistant at Minding the Campus, the online magazine of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University.