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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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.