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The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (edition 2012)

by Yoram Hazony

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Member:iddrazin
Title:The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture
Authors:Yoram Hazony
Info:Cambridge University Press (2012), Paperback, 286 pages
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Stephen D. Early reviews The Philosphy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony in a 1-2/14 B&C article: non-Christian and non-traditional interpretation of scripture, contains much good general knowledge

At least since Augustine's The City of God, the biblical account of Cain and Abel has been used to treat them as archetypes of humanity...

...dismantle the popular view that the Hebrew Bible cannot be treated as a serious intellectual document because it is based on revelation and not on reason.

...literary treatments of the biblical story as presented in Byron's Cain: A Mystery and John Steinbeck's monumental East of Eden. For both of these writers, Cain is the crucial figure...

"The Bible is often said to advocate an ethics of obedience. But … this view involves a serious misreading of Hebrew Scripture." The figures most celebrated in the Hebrew Bible, Hazony argues, "are esteemed for their dissent and disobedience—a trait the biblical authors associate with the free life of the shepherd, as opposed to the life of the pious submission represented by the figure of the farmer."

"The biblical narrative endorses … an outsider's ethics, which encourages a critique even of things that appear to be decreed by God in the name of what is genuinely beneficial to man." From this biblical perspective, Hazony continues, "what is genuinely beneficial to man is that which will ultimately find favor in God's eyes," even if the idea did not originate with God and even if it was in opposition to God's original plan.

...this first act of violence between farmers and shepherds is a premonition of the violence between farmers and shepherds that appears in the later story of Abraham, and then again in the story of Moses, and yet again in the story of David."

As already noted, Hazony argues that Cain and Abel are presented as distinct theoretical types. Cain is a farmer "who represents tradition-bound and idolatrous societies such as Egypt and Babylonia" and "whose highest value is obedience." Abel is a shepherd "who stands for the spirit of freedom in search of that which is the true good." Abel represents the individual and the society "that is willing to forsake the might and riches of the great civilizations for the sake of personal freedom and the hope of something higher."

God then sends them out of the garden "to work the ground from which he had been taken." This passage emphasizes the "bitterness of the farming life" and is made even stronger by the words used to describe Adam's fate. According to Hazony, the Hebrew term usually translated "till" or "work" the soil also means "serve." Thus, "God has in fact punished man by sending him 'to serve the ground'—to become the servant and slave of the earth itself."

Abel has … found a way to escape the curse upon the soil." Hazony maintains that the biblical text emphasizes "the fact that this is about what Abel wants, first and foremost, rather than about what God wants."

Hazony argues that the story is constructed so as to present readers with a stark choice concerning the best way of life: "Each archetype represents a way of life and an approach to living as a human being, to ethics."

Next is the life of the shepherd. "Abel takes the curse of the soil as a fact, but not as one that possesses any intrinsic merit, so that it should command his allegiance. The fact that God decreed it, and that his father had submitted to it, does not make it good. His response is the opposite of submission: He resists with ingenuity and daring, risking the anger of man and God to secure improvement for himself and for his children. Abel represents the life of the shepherd, which is a life of dissent and initiative, whose aim is to find the good life for man, which is presumed to be God's true will."

What God really wants, according to Hazony, is "an improvement in man's station, a greater goodness which comes of man's own unsolicited efforts."

Hazony concludes with a fascinating appendix titled "What Is 'Reason'? Some Preliminary Remarks." Here, having rejected the traditional distinction between reason and revelation, he draws on the Reformed philosophers Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga. Their perhaps unexpected appearance should serve as a hint to readers whose understanding of Scripture differs sharply from Hazony's in some respects that they can nonetheless profit from time spent with this book.

__________________________________________________​__________________________________________________​__________________________________________________​

At least since Augustine's The City of God, the biblical account of Cain and Abel has been used to treat them as archetypes of humanity. Augustine argues that mankind is "distributed into two parts, the one consisting of those who live according to man, the other of those who live according to God." This is the foundation of Augustine's mystical understanding of the two cities, the city of man and the city of God. Cain was the first citizen of the city of man, while Abel belonged to the city of God. Both Cain and Abel were "first of all born of Adam evil and carnal," tainted with original sin. Only Abel, however, becomes a citizen of the city of God because after his carnal birth he "becomes good and spiritual … when he is grafted into Christ by regeneration." In Augustine's reading, Abel's status as a citizen of the city of God is not a matter of his actions or free choices; rather, he was "predestined by grace, elected by grace, [to be] a stranger below [in the city of man], and … a citizen above [in the city of God]." Based on Genesis 4:17, Cain is regarded as the builder of the first city, and therefore could be seen as the founder of the city of man. Augustine notes this in his discussion of the brothers: "Accordingly, it is recorded of Cain that he built a city, but Abel, being a sojourner, built none."

One of the pitfalls in using Cain and Abel (and perhaps in using other well-known biblical figures such as Abraham or Job) as types is the possibility of allowing the conclusion of the story to lead us into the development of predictable and oversimplified categories that miss the paradoxes and tensions contained in the original biblical story. A recent work that examines Cain and Abel as types but attempts to avoid this trap is The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony, president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem. I want to outline Hazony's discussion here for two reasons. First, Hazony's work is an important contribution to understanding the dynamic of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Second, Hazony's argument is important not just for understanding Genesis 4 but as a radical critique of the generally accepted understanding of the entire Hebrew Bible. German theologian Paul Tillich became well known in the postwar period for arguing that the heart of Protestantism was "shaking the foundations" of traditional theology. Similarly, Hazony "shakes the foundations" of the accepted understanding by arguing that when it comes to the Hebrew Bible, things might not be as clear-cut as they appear to be. Hazony's major focus in this regard, of which his treatment of Cain and Abel is but a small piece, is to dismantle the popular view that the Hebrew Bible cannot be treated as a serious intellectual document because it is based on revelation and not on reason. He seeks to establish the role of reason in the Hebrew Bible through a discussion of its structure and by highlighting and illustrating the array of techniques it uses to make arguments of a general nature that can be judged by reason. That is the larger context for Hazony's treatment of Cain and Abel, which is my primary subject here.

In many engagements with Genesis 4, the focus is almost entirely on Cain, and any discussion of Abel is merely an afterthought. This is certainly the case when we come to the literary treatments of the biblical story as presented in Byron's Cain: A Mystery and John Steinbeck's monumental East of Eden. For both of these writers, Cain is the crucial figure. In Byron, he is treated as a Prometheus-like hero who establishes human freedom through his refusal to obey God's orders. In Steinbeck's novel, Cain is also central to establishing the principle of human freedom, which is built around Cain's discussion with God and the meaning of the Hebrew word "timshel," which is translated by the house-servant Lee as "mayest." Lee argues that God's use of the word "may," as opposed to "must," contains the kernel of contingency and openness found at the heart of human freedom. It is not unfair to say that for both Byron and Steinbeck, Abel is just a stage prop or part of the scenery, while the real action of the story swirls around Cain. This neglect of Abel is perhaps not surprising, and is even suggested in the biblical account in Genesis 4 by Abel's name, which is related to the Hebrew for "vapor" and "puff of air" (according to translator Robert Alter) and signifies "something transitory" (according to translator Everett Fox).

Given the general treatment of the story, which emphasizes the relative importance of Cain and the relative unimportance of Abel, it is therefore somewhat surprising that the first mention of this story in Hazony's work refers to Abel and that Cain is not mentioned at all. In an overview of his entire book, Hazony writes, "The Bible is often said to advocate an ethics of obedience. But … this view involves a serious misreading of Hebrew Scripture." The figures most celebrated in the Hebrew Bible, Hazony argues, "are esteemed for their dissent and disobedience—a trait the biblical authors associate with the free life of the shepherd, as opposed to the life of the pious submission represented by the figure of the farmer." In a way, Hazony sets out to turn the tables on Byron's understanding; for Hazony, Abel (as the type of the shepherd) will represent dissidence and disobedience, while Cain (as the type of the farmer) will represent conformity and submission.

The first line of resistance of shepherd dissidence is against corrupt human institutions, but it goes beyond this. Hazony writes, "Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and other biblical figures are at times portrayed as resisting not only man, but God himself." Note the importance Hazony attributes to Abel, placing him first in this list of biblical heroes. He concludes, "The biblical narrative endorses … an outsider's ethics, which encourages a critique even of things that appear to be decreed by God in the name of what is genuinely beneficial to man." From this biblical perspective, Hazony continues, "what is genuinely beneficial to man is that which will ultimately find favor in God's eyes," even if the idea did not originate with God and even if it was in opposition to God's original plan.

Perhaps as surprising as Hazony's emphasis on Abel is his characterization of Cain. Hazony's introduction of Cain occurs when he places Cain's story within the broader sweep of biblical history; he argues that it "is very uncertain … that we can really understand the story of Cain, a farmer, murdering his brother Abel, who is a shepherd, if we do not recognize that this first act of violence between farmers and shepherds is a premonition of the violence between farmers and shepherds that appears in the later story of Abraham, and then again in the story of Moses, and yet again in the story of David."

As already noted, Hazony argues that Cain and Abel are presented as distinct theoretical types. Cain is a farmer "who represents tradition-bound and idolatrous societies such as Egypt and Babylonia" and "whose highest value is obedience." Abel is a shepherd "who stands for the spirit of freedom in search of that which is the true good." Abel represents the individual and the society "that is willing to forsake the might and riches of the great civilizations for the sake of personal freedom and the hope of something higher."

Hazony situates the story of Cain and Abel in its biblical context. Cain and Abel are born to Eve after she and Adam have sinned and been expelled from the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 3, God says to Adam, "Cursed is the ground due to you, and in sorrow shall you eat of it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it give forth for you, but you will eat the grasses of the field. By the sweat of your brow will you eat bread, until you return to the ground from which you were taken." God then sends them out of the garden "to work the ground from which he had been taken." This passage emphasizes the "bitterness of the farming life" and is made even stronger by the words used to describe Adam's fate. According to Hazony, the Hebrew term usually translated "till" or "work" the soil also means "serve." Thus, "God has in fact punished man by sending him 'to serve the ground'—to become the servant and slave of the earth itself."

In Genesis 4, we turn immediately to the story of Cain and Abel. The tale is told concisely: "Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed." Hazony makes a couple of points concerning Cain that are significantly different from the popular understanding. First, "The text emphasizes that the idea of making a sacrifice to God is Cain's. It is Cain who inclines toward piety, and thinks to take some of his meager supply of food, which he has scraped from the soil, and sacrifice it to God in gratitude." Second, as a tiller of the soil Cain is following the instructions God had given to Adam. Hazony writes, "He works the ground just as God had told his father to do. He submits to God's will, and even, amid the curse and the hardship, finds it in his heart to be grateful to God for what he has."

Hazony's account of Abel is also different from the standard view. First, Abel merely follows Cain's example in making a sacrifice. There is no suggestion that his offering is superior to his brother's. Second, while Cain has followed in his father's career and tilled the soil in accordance with God's instructions, in becoming a shepherd "Abel has … found a way to escape the curse upon the soil." Hazony maintains that the biblical text emphasizes "the fact that this is about what Abel wants, first and foremost, rather than about what God wants." So the pious and hard-working Cain's sacrifice is rejected while the sacrifice of the self-indulgent Abel is accepted. How can this be brought into an understandable framework?

Hazony argues that the story is constructed so as to present readers with a stark choice concerning the best way of life: "Each archetype represents a way of life and an approach to living as a human being, to ethics." First is the life of the farmer as portrayed in Cain. "Cain has piously accepted the curse of the soil … as unchallengeable. His response is to submit, as had his father before him … . In the eyes of the biblical author, Cain represents the life of the farmer, a life of pious submission, obeying in gratitude the custom that has been handed down, which alone provides bread so that man may live."

Next is the life of the shepherd. "Abel takes the curse of the soil as a fact, but not as one that possesses any intrinsic merit, so that it should command his allegiance. The fact that God decreed it, and that his father had submitted to it, does not make it good. His response is the opposite of submission: He resists with ingenuity and daring, risking the anger of man and God to secure improvement for himself and for his children. Abel represents the life of the shepherd, which is a life of dissent and initiative, whose aim is to find the good life for man, which is presumed to be God's true will."

While God said nothing about shepherding when he ejected Adam and Eve from Eden, it develops that shepherding does fit within God's plans. What God really wants, according to Hazony, is "an improvement in man's station, a greater goodness which comes of man's own unsolicited efforts." Hazony concludes, "God accepts the offering of a man who seeks to improve things, to make them good of himself and his own initiative. This is what God finds in Abel, and the reason he accepts his sacrifice." (I note in passing a point that Hazony does not make—this discussion of man's improvement of his situation sounds much like Locke's account of the divine origins of property in his chapter on property in the Second Treatise.)

Hazony concludes with a fascinating appendix titled "What Is 'Reason'? Some Preliminary Remarks." Here, having rejected the traditional distinction between reason and revelation, he draws on the Reformed philosophers Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga. Their perhaps unexpected appearance should serve as a hint to readers whose understanding of Scripture differs sharply from Hazony's in some respects that they can nonetheless profit from time spent with this book.

Steven D. Ealy is a senior fellow at the Liberty Fund.
  keithhamblen | Mar 15, 2014 |
Yoram Hazony offers an interpretation of the Hebrew Bible that may initially bother many religious people, but when they think about what he is saying, they may feel that they have gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of Scripture.

Hazony states that we should read “Hebrew Scriptures as works of reason or philosophy,” not as a document that must be accepted based on blind faith. It makes no difference whether one believes that Scripture was miraculously revealed or that it was composed by intelligent people, “we’ll get much further in understanding what these texts were intended to say to us if we read them as works of reason.” What is important is our duty to explore “how best to conduct the life of the nation and of the individual.”

He gives many examples that prove that the Hebrew Bible reflects natural law and that it teaches people to use their intelligence, think, seek truth, and not passively accept traditions. In fact, the Bible doesn’t present a single view of life. The Bible is composed of “often sharply conflicting texts.” It is an assembly of works “so readers could strive to understand the various perspectives embraced by [these views], and in so doing build up an understanding of their own.”

The Bible, Hazony emphasizes, extols the life of the shepherd over that of the farmer. Farmers and city dwellers are generally people who are stagnant, obey instructions, accept a way of life without questioning it and sticking to this life without personal growth; while shepherds are people on the move, always seeking to better themselves, thinkers. Biblical heroes such as Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, and many others were shepherds. A shepherd is “disobedient, preoccupied with improving his own lot and that of his dependents, and willing to overturn the inherited order to achieve this end.” Like Abraham and Moses, thinkers defy the views of the leaders of their society and even dispute with God. Thinkers feel that “A state that does not serve the right kind of ethical purpose is for them no state, just as a god that does not serve this purpose is for them no god.” And the Bible is clear that God “loves those who disobey for the sake of what is right…when a man has used his freedom to wrestle with him and to prevail.”

The Bible holds “individuals and nations morally responsible for their actions even where they appear to have received no laws or commands from him of any kind.” Thus, for example, Cain is punished for murdering his brother, Noah’s generation is destroyed for their violence, and Sodom for its perversity, even though they were never commanded not to kill and to act properly. The “sheer quantity of such examples [shows that] God’s commands are either supplementary to, or themselves expressions of, a fundamental moral law that derives from the nature of things.” Biblical laws are a base that challenges people to build upon to create a better life.

While demonstrating that the Bible teaches that people are obliged to think, Hazony offers his readers much more, including an extensive investigation into the meaning of terms that most people accept without really understanding them, such as truth, faith, justice, amen, and reliability, and what it means to be human and to obey God. Readers will be especially intrigued by Hazony’s discussion on, if Scripture was not revealed by God, why does it say frequently “God said”? Among other things, Hazony shows that the ancient philosophers also ascribed their rational thoughts to a god. ( )
  iddrazin | Nov 13, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0521176670, Paperback)

Things You Thought You Knew About the Bible

People say that Bible is about obeying God’s commands. But biblical figures such as Moses, Aaron, and Pinchas disobey God and are praised or rewarded for it. People say Abraham was praised because of his willingness to sacrifice his only son on an altar. But Abraham never decides he will sacrifice Isaac. He believes God will back down, and the Bible tells us so explicitly. People say that the biblical heroes are mostly men. But the Bible goes out of its way to emphasize that no fewer than five different women risked their lives in the struggle to save the infant Moses, suggesting that without every one of these women the Jews would never have left Egypt. People say the Bible is about faith as the ultimate value. But the law of Moses includes no commandment to have faith, and the Bible tells us that Moses himself was unable to attain a perfect faith in God. People say that God calls himself “I am that I am” at the burning bush, implying (as tradition has it) that he is perfect being, eternal and unchanging. But the original text actually says the opposite of this: In Hebrew God says “I will be what I will be,” suggested that God is not perfect but rather imperfect and changing. People say that the biblical kingdom of the Israelites was destroyed because it turned to idolatry. But the fall of the kingdom begins with Solomon, his inability to control his desire for big armies, women, and gold, and the ruinous taxation and enslavement of his people that result from this. People say the story of Cain and Abel is about hatred between brothers. But Cain and Abel aren’t just any brothers. They stand for conflicting ways of life—the life of the farmer vs. that of the shepherd. Abel is just the first in a line of biblical heroes (including Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David, and more) whom choose the life of the shepherd and what it represents and so win God’s love.

An Interview with Yoram Hazony

Yoram, why did you write The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture?

Hebrew Scripture is an intensely personal subject for me. In some ways, I feel a very deep sympathy for biblical figures like Jeremiah and Ezekiel. These are people who saw the destruction of their nation with their own eyes—something that we can hardly even imagine. The Hebrew Bible is the record they left us of what this unimaginable catastrophe, and of the lessons they thought future generations should learn from it.

I think that when someone leaves you a record like that, it’s a very special thing. These people sent us, you could say, a message in a bottle, telling us what happened to them. This bottle contains all their most intimate suffering, but also their reflections and ideas—ideas they thought we’d need so that we’d remember and not make the same mistakes ourselves. But today for all sorts of reasons we ignore that message. For most people the Bible is just a closed book.

And this is something I find very painful. I put myself in their place and think: How would they feel knowing that we today receive that message in a bottle—that we hold it in our hands—and say to ourselves: What these people had to say is just not something I’m interested in taking seriously. We turn our back on them. We’re deaf to their cry.

It’s been about twenty-five years now since I first understood that this is what was happening. I almost feel that I owe it to them, to the people who put that message in a bottle after what was really something like a Shoah for them, like the end of the world for them. I want to help people be able to hear their voices again. That’s how I came to this.

So you almost have a sense of mission about this—about bringing the Hebrew Bible to a place of respect among people who find it difficult to appreciate its power and importance today?

That’s exactly right. I do feel that. I’ve found that people who can bring the Bible to life for modern educated people are surprisingly rare. It’s something it turns out I can do well. I speak before audiences about the Bible and they sometimes sit for hours asking me to tell them another Bible story and then another so that they feel they make sense, maybe for the first time. If that’s what people want me to do, I feel I don’t have a right to turn that down. It’s really a kind of a calling.

When did you begin to feel this way?

It happened in graduate school. I went back to graduate school to study political thought and philosophy—subjects I’m embarrassed to say that I simply missed as an undergraduate. So there I was in a Ph.D. program studying Plato and Hobbes and Nietzsche for the first time in a serious way. I loved the subject and I loved my instructors.

But almost from the first moment I kept having this feeling as I was reading these books: Well this sounds just like Hebrew Scripture! It’s dealing with the same questions—sometimes giving similar answers and sometimes different ones. But the biblical answers are as good as the ones we find in the other big books of the Western tradition. So why isn’t the Bible part of the story? Why do we study the great books of the West but exclude the Bible?

I asked my instructors about this and they were actually extremely supportive. They told me that I might be right to feel uncomfortable, and encouraged me to write my doctoral dissertation on the political philosophy of the book of Jeremiah, which I finished in 1993. I think it was one of the first dissertations on a subject like that, although since then there have been many others. Parts of that dissertation are appearing in published form for the first time in this new book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture.

Do you think it matters much whether university programs teach Bible as part of what they study? Aren’t the universities detached from what most people think?

Yes, I think it matters immensely. People think of the universities as an “ivory tower” disconnected from the normal lives that regular people lead. But this is a mistake. The universities play a very important role in modern society: They define the range of legitimate belief on almost every subject they deal with. If the universities decide that dinosaurs were warm-blooded and hopped like birds, then all the dinosaur books we had when we were kids get thrown out and replaced by new ones. And if the universities decide that most of the universe is made of dark matter that can’t be detected by any instrument, then this is what most people think you should probably believe, even if ten years earlier people would have said that was ridiculous.

The same is true for the Bible. If the basic view that’s accepted in universities is that what’s in the Hebrew Bible just isn’t worth taking seriously—that it’s not worthy of being studied sympathetically and with respect like other classic works of philosophy or political thought, then that’s pretty much what educated everywhere are going to end up thinking.

Then it ends up being the case that the schools don’t really teach Bible and it’s not really the subject of discussion in any other cultural setting either. The view of the professors ends up being a kind of semi-official opinion that’s accepted throughout society. Of course there are religious folks who think the Bible is worth reading—but they end up being seen as oddballs for it. There’s just this feeling that you can’t be really impressed and exciting by the teachings of Hebrew Scripture and still be a reasonable person.

And you’d like to see a change in that?

I think it’s desperately needed.

Why?

You know, I can’t say it better than this young woman I met at an airport in the UK last year. I was on my way to Scotland and she was coming from Ireland and on her way to Israel—she was getting onto a plane I had just gotten off of. It was her second trip. She told me her husband hadn’t wanted to go so she was going alone. I asked her why it was so important for her to go, since she wasn’t a Jew. She said to me: “I can’t explain exactly. But I know that going back to the Bible is going back to the root of everything. It’s who we are.”

I think this young Irishwoman had it right: The Hebrew Bible is who we are, and what we are.

People who don’t know how to approach the biblical texts simply don’t realize the degree to which what is written in them defines us: What we think about and how we think about it. A lot of things we believe are modern are actually biblical in the most obvious sense—but if you don’t know the Bible then you think it was made up by someone recent.

I think this disconnection of modern people from everything having to do with their roots is difficult on the individual level and might even be dangerous on the level of nations. When you’re cut off from your roots you often come to feel an ache and an emptiness that you can’t explain. And often enough that vacant space ends up getting filled with all sorts of crazy things, with fascism and communism being just two obvious examples of what the world looks like after all the roots have been torn out.

But isn’t that a process that’s already very far gone. Is there really any hope of going back?

I really don’t know. I look at the way the European nations are tearing up and discarding everything they once were, and I do wonder. Countries like Holland and Britain were nations formed by the Bible—and especially by the “Old Testament” part of the Christian Bible. But then I meet people like this woman from Ireland, and it makes me think maybe something could change.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:58 -0400)

The author proposes a new framework for reading the Bible. He shows how the biblical authors used narrative and prophetic oratory to advance universal arguments about morals and politics, truth and being, struggle and faith. On the way, he provides a series of bold new studies of the biblical narratives and prophetic poetry, transforming forever our understanding of what the stories of Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David and Solomon, and the speeches of Isaiah and Jeremiah, were meant to teach us.… (more)

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