Reviewed Book: Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (New York: Cambridge UP, 2012).
When a book garners praise from both Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who called the work “paradigm shifting,”[i] and Harvard linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker, who called it a “great achievement,”[ii] it is wise to pay attention. The book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony, is indeed game-changing. Hazony, the Provost of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, boldly challenges conventional thinking about how we read and why we revere the Bible. Hazony’s basic thesis? We’ve been reading the Bible wrong.
The Bible, insists Hazony, was not meant to be read as a book of revelation. Rather, it was meant to be read as a book of reason— concerned with the nature of the world, the political ethics, metaphysics, and the just life for humans. We should be studying the Bible alongside Tocqueville, Aristotle, and Locke not necessarily because it is a book written by God, but for its insights into the nature of government, totalitarianism, and the citizen’s relationship to the state. In fact, he insists that reading the works as “revelation” will “come pretty close to destroying them,” because “we accidentally delete much of what these texts were written to say.”[iii] We are clouded by our own cognitive biases, causing us to overlook other compelling readings of the text.
Reading the Bible as philosophy would allow us to uncover illuminating insights that have been overlooked for millennia. In order to reveal this layer of meaning, Hazony peels away what he considers to be imported readings that have crept into our modern interpretations of the text. Christian theologians, Greek philosophers, and Jewish medieval interpreters have fundamentally changed how we read what we read in Scriptures. Hazony believes that we are no longer reading the Bible as the authors of the texts wanted us to read them.
Hazony’s methodology derives from the always-popular peshat method. Indeed, Hazony’s attempt to strip away the various foreign readings that have crept into our perceptions of the Bible get at the very definition of peshat, the essential message that the text is meant to impart. Hazony examines the development of a narrative holistically. By examining huge swaths of text, from Genesis to II Kings, this Gestalt approach allows Hazony to draw new conclusions by picking up on recurring themes, symbols, and tropes. Hazony’s meta-analysis of Abraham, for instance, boils down five virtues that readers are to associate with the patriarch. Abraham’s extraordinary generosity, sensitivity to injustice, fairness in monetary matters, piety, and safeguarding of his interests, as any reader of Tanakh knows, appear over the course of many chapters. [iv] But by examining the literary arc over the total life of Abraham, we can now uncover which ideals the Bible wants to impart to us about leadership, responsibility, and interestingly, the merits of rebelliousness.
The modern-day bifurcation between secular society’s handling of Scripture as irrelevant and unintellectual and the religious world’s reverence for the same work, is due to what Hazony calls the “reason-revelation dichotomy.” The Bible is not read in public schools or studied in the philosophy, political theory, or intellectual history departments of universities because it is seen as a work of revelation, not reason. Works of revelation are seen as particularistic, if not parochial, and unworthy of the public’s intellectual scrutiny. The mere mention of “and the LORD said to Moses” frightens modern sensibilities that view theophany with suspicion of foul play by biblical authors. This, insists Hazony, is an unfair double-standard.
If all texts depicting God speaking and acting were classified as revelation, even the most philosophically respected texts would be rejected. From Parmenides and Empedocles, who describe interactions with goddesses, to Socrates, who hears a divine voice, the ability to “conduct philosophical inquiry was frequently seen as partially or wholly dependent on revelation or some other form of assistance from a god.”[v] Yet, while the famous British philosopher Bertrand Russell praises and examines these Greek philosophers, he flatly denies the Hebrew Bible any significance in the canon of Western philosophy.[vi] If he can look past the Greeks for their strange gods and oracles and judge them “for the content of their teachings,” why “should not this same standard be applied to the writings of the Jews?”[vii]
Hazony is essentially attempting to tear down the “Jerusalem versus Athens” separation championed by French philosophers and German intellectuals whose objectives were to “discredit the Bible and force it out of the rink as a force in European public life.”[viii] Greek wisdom continues to be touted as the only ancient wisdom worth caring about, while the Hebrew Bible remains a closed book. Hazony attempts to open up the Bible by trailblazing a new approach to investigating biblical texts.
Gleaning philosophy from narratives, prophetic discourses, and legal codes seems incongruous: The narrative tracts of the Bible do not seem to fit into our paradigmatic genre of philosophic works. However, collecting ethical material from narratives is superior to abstract theoretical discourses such as Plato’s dialogue, writes Hazony, because it deals with the “fine-grained, complex, and indefinitely variable situations that we encounter in real life.”[ix] Furthermore, the biblical authors did “develop methods for overcoming the limitations of narrative and oratory so as to be able to express themselves on general questions.”[x] These methods include allusions to previous works within the Bible, examining the narrative arc of stories, and paying particular attention to nuances in language.
A particularly interesting chapter entitled “What is the Purpose of the Hebrew Bible?” delves into the possible reasons why the current “revelation” framework was adopted. Hazony argues that the Christian Bible’s purpose was to bear witness to the life and events of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel employs “juridic character,” relying on comparisons drawn from courts of law. Thus, Luke urges those who saw the resurrection to be “witnesses to all,” John was to “bear witness” to the baptism of Jesus, and Peter “attests” that the Gospel as recorded by John was true.[xi] Employing this juridic framework is risky. These works of testimony exist in a binary: Either the miracles reported in the Gospel are true or Luke and Peter are lying. Jews and non-Jews have been reading the Hebrew Scriptures “as though their main purpose, like that of the New Testament, is to bear witness to certain miraculous events.”[xii] Reading the Hebrew Bible through a juridic lens, though, is unwise. It leads us to believe that the Bible’s primary purpose is to give testimony to the truth of events and not to impart philosophical truths.
Hazony’s arguments seem for the most part unassailable. He validates his original arguments with a plethora of verses. Some of his arguments might be perceived as controversial. For instance, he asserts and demonstrates, as he did last year at the Shalem Conference,[xiii] that the God of the Hebrew Bible is far from a perfect Being. He is not omniscient (He is surprised, upset, and disappointed), He is not omnipotent, He needs humans to form a covenant with Him. The personalities of the Bible are also imperfect. In fact, the most celebrated characters are disobedient, rebellious, and chutzpadik.
The book is a pleasure for the advanced reader of the Bible. Hazony’s conversational style avoids the high-flown language of the theorist, and we get the sense that lucidity is at the heart of his project. He is clearly attempting to reach a broad audience. He quotes Scripture often but does not get hung up on detailed analysis. At the same time, his third chapter, for example, includes 126 footnotes replete with extra references, etymological discussions, critiques of other works in the field, and other texts worth reading—satisfying the most demanding reader. There is even an appendix clarifying the terms “reason” and “philosophy”—assuaging the philological stickler.
That being said, it will be interesting to read academic reviews of The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. Hazony ventures into many fields in this work—Christian epistemology and Greek ideas of statehood are just two of many—and scholars might be compelled to call him out when he ventures too far from his expertise. The typical reader might relish Hazony’s argument that biblical history presents more wholesome and compelling guidance to lead a successful political life,[xiv] while a professor of Aristotelian philosophy might very well find little basis for Hazony’s arguments in other parts of Nicomachean Ethics. Conceivably, Philosophy might become controversial in academic and fundamentalist circles alike.
Hazony, however, is careful to avoid the politics surrounding the Documentary Hypothesis. Like many Orthodox scholars, he sidesteps the issue by pointing to the irrefutability and lack of consensus among specialists concerning biblical criticism. He keeps the door open to those who believe in the divine nature of the text. He thus joins the ranks of Meir Sternberg and Robert Alter, the latter of whom quipped that despite efforts to unscramble the biblical authors, the Bible is a “well made omelet indeed.”[xv] He is less concerned with the prehistory of the text than how the text can inform and inspire.
Hazony’s brilliant examination of dichotomy between farmer and shepherd from the story of Cain and Abel until Joseph will surprise even the most advanced reader of Scripture for its cogency and originality. His reading of Jeremiah’s message in “Jeremiah and the Problem of Knowing”[xvi] will inspire a newfound respect for the prophet and the enduring nature of his words. In fact, despite Hazony’s modest characterization of this work as an “introduction,”[xvii] it seems every story he examines yields unexpected philosophical and literary results. Yoram Hazony might very well lead the charge to restore the Bible to its rightful place among the great philosophical texts in the Western canon.
Gavi Brown is a junior at YC majoring in English, and is the design editor for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] See www.yoramhazony.org.
[iii] Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (New York: Cambridge UP, 2012), 3.
[iv] Ibid. 155-156.
[v] Ibid. 11.
[vi] Ibid. 16
[vii] Ibid. 13.
[viii] Ibid. 7.
[ix] Ibid. 96.
[x] Ibid. 94.
[xi] Ibid. 288, esp. notes 11 and 13.
[xii] Ibid. 71.
[xiii] Wrestling with God, Dir. TheShalemCenter, Perf. Yoram Hazony, YouTube, 25 July 2012, available at: www.youtube.com.
[xiv] Hazony 180.
[xv] Alter, Robert. The Literary Guide to the Bible (Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1987), 25.
[xvi] Hazony 240.
[xvii] Ibid. 3.