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.