Approaches to the scholarship of the text of the Tanach in relation to Judaism can range from the rabbinic approach, through somewhat of an apologist approach, to full-fledged biblical criticism. While there can be a certain amount of overlap between these three approaches as well as subcategories within each, if one wants to understand the environment no claims made by religious groups regarding the meaning of biblical passages should be taken at face value.
Approaches to the scholarship of the text of the Tanach in relation to Judaism can range from the rabbinic approach, through somewhat of an apologist approach, to full-fledged biblical criticism. While there can be a certain amount of overlap between these three approaches as well as subcategories within each, if one wants to understand the environment –historical, political, economic, and religious that produced it– no claims made by religious groups regarding the meaning of biblical passages should be taken at face value.
The Rabbinic Approach
In his book, The Genesis of Justice: Ten stories of Biblical Injustice that led to the Ten Commandments and Modern Law (2000), Alan Dershowitz divides the traditional commentators on the Tanach and Talmud into categories that he calls the “defense lawyer commentators”, the “Socratic commentators”, and the “subtle skeptics”. While Professor Dershowitz does not claim to be a professional biblical scholar, I think the discussion is his work of a decade ago is warranted here, since I think it includes some profound insights in relation to certain biblical narratives, not only those that I’m raising in this section, but later in this paper as well.
Exemplified by Rashi (Rabbi Shimon be Yitzchak), who lived during the Crusades –and who, for all intents and purposes, might be considered the most revered deity of Modern Orthodox Judaism– the defense lawyer commentators wrote for the sole purpose of keeping the Jews loyal to the rabbinic faith, which is to say strict monotheism, along with the belief that everything in the Tanach, and especially the Torah, supports the assumption that the one god of the universe is the same god who is portrayed as communicating with Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and the various other leaders described in the Tanach to the day of Ezra. Added to the assumptions that are defended is the belief that the various names used in narratives of the Tanach to indicate powerful beings –Elohim, YHWH, El Shaddai, El Elyon, etc.– originally must have been intended as different names for the same deity. The basic approach of such defense lawyer commentators, according to Dershowitz, is simply not to ask any question for which the commentator does not already have an answer worked out. In other words, typically the commentaries of men such as Rashi consist either of strawman arguments, or hairsplitting between two possible meanings of statements whose meaning is not vague at all, but simply an issue of syntax or a choice of vocabulary on the part of a biblical scribe.
An illustrative example of Rashi’s style concerns the opening of the story of the Flood, which describes the character Noah. The description of him reads:
Noah ish tzadik haya be doro (Gen 6:9).
Translation: Noah was a righteous (or tzadik can mean right, correct, or good) man in his generation.
Rashi goes to great lengths asking whether the Torah means that Noah was an extremely righteous man for all time, on par with Moses and the others, or whether it means that Noah is of average righteousness, in spite of the fact that those in his time period are not righteous at all. Sadly, what many teachers in religious schools fail to do is to point out questions that Rashi did not ask, such as ought we be lauding a deity who could drown babies?
Fortunately, other Jewish scholars over the ages actually have asked the latter question. In the Torah, the famous argument between Abraham and YHWH over whether or not to destroy the city of Sodom is rather short (Gen 18), but a midrash has Abraham reminding the deity of what he did during Noah’s time and pointing out that he now was about to violate that earlier promise:
Here you promised that you would not flood the world ever again…A flood of water, you won’t bring, but a deluge of fire you would bring. With subtlety, would you evade your oath [to Noah]? (Midrash Rabbah: Genesis)
In this midrash, essentially Abraham is pointing out that YHWH is being a hypocrite, something that Rashi never would do. On the other hand, the Midrash is rabbinic, which thus shows that there is overlap between the approaches that I have outlined. There is one caveat, however.
A commentator such as Maimonides (Rambam), Dershowitz classifies in the Socratic category. By this, he means that they are willing to ask some difficult questions, sometimes to express doubt over whether YHWH’s ethics agrees with our sense of ethics. However, they resolve that some issues may not be answerable. Finally, in the subtle skeptic category, Dershowitz places commentators such as Ibn Ezra on account of his famous advice that those who understand “should remain silent”. This was in the wake of the commentator known as “Isaac the Blunderer” pointing out –correctly- that a certain list of descendents conflicted with another such list, and with the belief that Moses had written down the Torah, since some of the individuals on the list would have lived long after Moses’ time (Friedman, 1987). To all modern scholars of the Tanach who read with a critical eye, it is obvious that Ibn Ezra was onto the fact that Torah not only was not written long after Moses’ time, but by more than one individual, often with different accounts written by different people about the same event.
The Apologist Approach
Similar to the Rabbinic Approach, this outlook is common among people of faith, who see the narratives and laws of the Tanach as somehow different, more relevant to our modern ideas of morality, than other classic, ancient books such as the Iliad and Odyssey, the Gilgamesh Epic, the Code of Hammurabi, or the Enuma Elish. On account of this sympathy they seem to have that even biblical events that seem to be set as far back as the Middle Bronze Age –namely the stories of the Patriarchs– must be based in some way on actual historical figures, though they accept modern source criticism and historical criticism which tend to place the earliest writing of long stretches of biblical prose during the Israelite Monarchy period, which is to say in an Iron Age setting.
The Full-fledged Biblical Criticism Approach
The central tactic to this approach very straight forward: No claim made by any religion regarding characters or events mentioned in the Bible, is to be believed, if not corroborated by extrabiblical sources. Nor is the number of years (or generations) between events or births cited in biblical texts to be taken seriously. I am constantly amazed, given how no thinking person, scholar or otherwise, would take literally either of the two creation stories (the one on Gen 1 and the one beginning in Gen 2:4), the accounts of people living for hundreds of years, or the Jewish traditional fable that the world is about 5800 years old (based on the ages of those people cited to have lived for hundreds of years, yet many supposedly serious scholars of biblical history attempt to track down the time of the Exodus –even to the point of naming the dynasty and Pharaoh (an entire feature film was made, based on the proposition that it had to be Ramses II) – based on the number of generations cited in the Bible between the Exodus and the building of the Temple of Solomon. Not only does nobody known when Solomon’s temple was built, or if it was indeed built during Solomon’s reign (many suspect that it must have been built later, closer to Hezekiah’s time), but even if we knew when it was built, using it as a basis to date the Exodus assumes that the biblical writers were fairly good and counting time, which of course they were not.
Dershowitz, Alan M. The Genesis of Justice: Ten Stories of Biblical Injustice That Led to the Ten Commandments and Modern Law. New York: Warner Books 2000.
Friedman, Richard Elliot. Who Wrote the Bible? San Francisco: Harper, 1987).