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The Hebrew Bible and the Human Mind

Yoram Hazony has a bone to pick with Tertullian, the second-century Christian theologian who asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”

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The Bible and the Good Life  Aryeh Tepper, Jewish Ideas Daily. Arguing with God is one thing.  Where is the evidence that the Bible is a philosophical text?
Jerusalem and Athens  Leo Strauss, . While both the Hebrew prophets and the Greek philosophers had a divine mission, the mission was not the same.

For Tertullian, the life of the mind was a choice between two paths.  A wise man took the path of Jerusalem—of faith.  Although there is a far distance between second-century Christianity and Mormonism, Tertullian’s position might be summed up in a lyric from The Book of Mormon, advertised as the “greatest Broadway musical of the 21st century”: “I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes.”

Tertullian wanted Christians to avoid the path of Athens, the path of intellectual inquiry.  For Tertullian, true answers to questions about the will of God could not be discovered by even the best efforts of the human mind; therefore, God sent Jesus to reveal these answers.  Tertullian advised the Christian to think just hard enough to accept the truth of scripture as taught by the church, then stop, “lest he should come to know what he ought not.”

Yoram Hazony’s new book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, is a refutation not only of Tertullian but of a Western intellectual tradition that errs by dividing the world into opposing categories: reason versus faith, philosophy versus revelation, Athens versus Jerusalem, Plato versus the Bible.  Hazony tells us that this dichotomy fundamentally misunderstands the Hebrew Bible and the human mind.

In the New Testament, Paul offers revealed wisdom, a divine gift of ideas that the human mind is incapable of working out for itself, a gift that wise men should  accept on faith and because a series of miracles, attested to by the Gospels, proves these divine mysteries true.  Paul and the Apostles announce the “good news” of this “hidden wisdom,” secrets that the “powers that rule the world have never known” but that that “God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”  

The Hebrew Bible, in Hazony’s view, offers nothing of the kind.  Far from revealing holy mysteries, the final editor of the Hebrew Bible wants to “persuade his readers that there exists a law whose force is of a universal nature, because it derives from the way the world itself was made, and therefore from the natures of men and nations in this world.”  This Bible is not a series of mysteries requiring divine revelation, it is a Bible of ideas with which the human mind can reason.  This Bible comes to convince the exiles in Babylon, and us, that “the law of Moses was the very first systematic expression of this natural law, written down for the benefit of Israel and of all mankind.”

Far from a Tertullianesque claim that faith trumps reason, Hebrew scripture wants readers to reason with the complex ideas it presents.

Hazony’s book targets two audiences.  First, it asks intellectuals to free their minds from Tertullian’s dichotomy and take a clear-eyed look at a Hebrew Bible that they have failed to see until now because their avowedly secular minds have been so completely blinkered by Christian paradigms.

Hazony is one of a number of contemporary scholars who contend that philosophers and historians have ignored the impact of the Bible on the development of Western political thought.  Hazony’s contribution is his thesis that political theorists have failed to perceive the Bible as philosophy because its arguments are couched in the language of metaphor and narrative.

But Hazony’s primary audience is made up of the readers of Jewish Ideas Daily.  For Hazony, it is not enough that Israel provide a refuge for the Jews who were ethnically cleansed from Egypt, Iraq, or Poland.  He wants to persuade Jews to build a state shaped by ideas found in the Hebrew Bible. 

Hazony understands the Bible as a variegated “compendium.”  Its teachings cannot be distilled into a single “brief and sharply delineated” statement like a Christian catechism.  Rather, the Hebrew Bible is “a school of viewpoints” containing the political, literary, philosophical, and historical traditions of ancient Israel. As Hazony summarizes them in an article in the October issue of First Things, these writings grapple with “questions that are usually considered to be central to political philosophy,” such as “the relationship of the individual to the state, the virtues and dangers of anarchy, the reasons for the establishment of government, the dangers of government, the best form of political order, the responsibilities of rulers, and the causes of the decline of the state.”  Scholarly misunderstanding of the Bible is partly the result of the fact that the text’s consideration of these questions is not written in the form of Socratic debate.  The Hebrew Bible takes philosophical stances but presents them as metaphor, depending on “narratives for its force and significance.”

Hazony does not write simply to persuade us to agree or disagree with his interpretation of any particular story.   Reviewers who think so do him an injustice.  Instead, Hazony wants to persuade us that to read the Bible is to engage in a necessary argument over how to build a good society.   

Hazony’s Bible does not deal with a God who advises us to suffer patiently until messiah comes.   It does not deal with Tertullian’s God, who saves by faith alone.  It does not deal in easy promises.  Instead, the biblical narrative presented by Hazony permits us to “position the law, and our observance of it, within a life lived according to reason.”  The stories, psalms, and prophetic books “explain the law and to qualify it so that we retain an understanding of why observance of this law is something that we should want—and that all men should want.”

Hazony’s Jerusalem is different from Athens, but not in the way that Tertullian suggests.  The Hebrew Bible is different because it calls on all human beings to wrestle with fundamental questions of good and evil.  Unlike Socrates or Tertullian, the Bible does not view the obligation and the right to contemplate demanding moral questions as the province of the elite alone.

But the characters and compositors of Hazony’s Bible also differ from those of Tertullian’s imagining in a particularly contemporary way.  They “struggle with the question of how one is to find that which will stand and that which can be relied upon to benefit mankind in the face of an epistemic jungle.”  They contend with a “confused and frightening reality in which such knowledge is chronically distant.  They believe that such wisdom can be found in the world, because they believe that God has spoken it.” 

To find “that which is true and just” is not, as Tertullian would have it, a simple matter of having faith.  It demands a “lifelong quest.”

Now go and study.

Diana Muir Appelbaum is an American author and historian. She is at work on a book tentatively entitled Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy.

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michael david gardner on September 10, 2012 at 2:08 pm (Reply)
you make alot of good points.but i think your overlooking some.the hatred created between cain and able.was the start. then the struggle between jacob and god. which brought the creation of israel.which stated israel to be the chosen people. to me that was the start of jealousy toward the jewish people.and remains so even not trying to be disrespectful just being honest.
David Levavi on September 10, 2012 at 10:23 pm (Reply)
Michael David Gardener:

Let's discuss the Cain and Abel encounter then follow with discussion of the Jacob's struggle with "a man" ("ish" in Hebrew text).

Cain the farmer and Able the shepherd offer sacrifices to an unseen, unknowable, and unnamable Creator we Hebrew moderns refer to simply as Ha'shem (The Name). Farmer Cain offers what grain comes to hand in sacrifice; shepherd Able carefully chooses the best of his flock for sacrifice. Hashem prefers Able's more thoughtful and heartfelt offering to Cain's mediocre offering. Cain flies into a jealous rage and kills his brother Able.

How does this Biblical narrative inflame "jealousy toward the Jewish people," Michael?

Our second patriarch, Jacob, is a charming crook. His name, "Ya'akov," translates to "lamer." Jacob is a tripper-up of men. Jacob cheats his brother Esau out of his inheritance and he cheats his uncle Laban out of his flocks.

But Jacob’s crooked ways catch up with him. He finds himself on the run with his two wives and all his clouded possessions. His uncle Laban and his men are in hot pursuit behind him; his brother Esau and his men are waiting up the road ahead. Jacob goes to bed that night knowing the game is up. Tomorrow he will be dead and all that he gained in a lifetime of deceit will be forfeit.

Jacob sleeps and sleeping dreams that he is struggling with “a man”—plainly his own self—his conscience—the better part of his nature. In the morning he wakes, a new man, his body twisted crooked in the struggle but his character straightened and true.

For this, Ya’akov, the lamer of men, is renamed “Isra El”, he who struggled with the Lord. As we, the children of “Isra El, must struggle with our Creator, whose reflection we are, every day of our lives.

Again, Michael, how does this Biblical narrative inflame "jealousy toward the Jewish people?"

Your confusion, I suspect, is that you read these Biblical narratives in English, Michael—probably the King James Translation (KJT). Reading the Hebrew Bible in English is like reading Shakespeare in Hebrew. You can follow the basic plot but a great deal is lost in translation.
David Levavi on September 10, 2012 at 10:27 pm (Reply)
Did I say "second Patriarch?" I meant third, of course.
Mildred Bilt on September 10, 2012 at 11:01 pm (Reply)
The Torah teaches the machinations of humanity as reality. As each specific situation arises the reader (and thinker) has to read berween the lines and flesh out the meaning of what is really deep philosophical ruminations on living in this world. Cain and Abel- thus it has always been and will be. Killing, war,contention, for whatever and any reason is the story of Cain and Abel. The Garden of Eden sought by dreamers and fantacists can never be-because it means dedication to self imposed amd deliberate ignorance. There are those who always will search for knowledge and exploration and reject the bliss of knowing nothing. Abraham the hero who rejected the absudity of clay gods and the horror of child sacrifice-(he cooked up the story of the Almighty command and the subsequent annulment of his son's murder) to stop the practice. He also had human flaws as the Bible describes him pimmping his wife/sister to Pharoah in order to receive the customary gifts from Pharoah that would establish him as a man of considerable assets because he went to Egypt bereft of all goods. Does this disturb you? This is real life and real desperation. And then there's Solomon the Wise. A wretched hypocrite, an idol worshiper, a sex addicted tyrant who bled the poor. That's what the Torah is saying. Beware of those who would rule over you by professing all kinds of virtues. That's what Torah is saying. Read and read carefully-flush out the depths of the messages. Each episode tells us about human actions-including poor Aaron, High Priest with the glib tongue who lied to Moses about dancing before Baal. And Moses knew he lied. And Moses knew that is the way of many men. Read and learn. Nothing is as it seems There are deeper lessons and learning.
Ralph Hancock on September 11, 2012 at 11:13 am (Reply)
It is important to note that the Broadway show is not an authority on the Mormon take on the reason/revelation problem. Mormons are not fideists.
Diana on September 11, 2012 at 1:51 pm (Reply)
In response to Ralph Hancock has a point.

The Book of Mormon is a musical, not an official presentation by the Church of Latter Day Saints. "I Believe" is the most accurate presentation of fideist theology ever seen on a Broadway stage; also a great song.

The Church does not endorse the theological position taken by the song.

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