Giving the Hebrew bible another read

Yorum Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012)

HazonyAbout twenty years ago, when I was in my early 60s and dealing with mild depression, I decided that it finally was time to read straight through the Bible, beginning with Genesis 1:1 and finishing at some later date with Revelation 22:21. I got as far as Judges. The bloody narratives, many of them describing actions incited by the warrior God of the conquering Hebrews, were more than my flagging spirit could manage.

Although I continue to read from the New Testament, especially the letters of Paul, the gospels, and Acts, it is as though the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures in my personal Bible are pasted together. Will The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge University Press, 2012) by a highly acclaimed young Israeli scholar, I am wondering, help me start over with the thirty-nine writings in the first part of my Bible?

Yorum Hazony, provost and senior scholar at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, believes that the texts of Hebrew Scripture are best read as “works of reason or philosophy.” The question of whether this can be done, he says, in the next to last paragraph of the Appendix, takes this form: “Do they engage in the effort to derive and make known to us the general causes or natures of the things encountered in human experience? Are these general natures used in attempts to establish principles or laws of general applicability concerning the world of our experience? And do these find application in particular instances, or to substantiate the truth of the principles and laws in question” (p. 273)?

In the final paragraph, Hazony states the one premise upon which he bases his constructive argument: “As soon as one recognizes, as I have suggested, that metaphor, analogy, and typology are in fact means by which the author of a work can establish positions with respect to general causes or natures, it becomes easier to see that the great majority of the biblical authors, and perhaps all of them, are indeed engaged in reason; and that it is the exercise of reason, which we find almost everywhere in the Hebrew Bible, that I’ve sought to depict in my inquiries into the ethics, political philosophy, epistemology, metaphysics, and faith of the Hebrew Scriptures as presented in Part II of this work” (p. 264).

Hazony believes, however, that the Hebrew Scriptures do not receive the respect they deserve from readers today, especially those with recognized competence in philosophy. Much of the book, therefore, is devoted to describing and counteracting the reasons why the ancient writings of his people are dismissed as works of reason.

One of these reasons is cited above, the form of these writings. They abound with references to the words and actions of God, which for many readers make them into works of mythology or divine revelation, incapable of being read as serious works of reason. Hazony quickly dismisses this argument by showing how many of these same skeptical readers seem not to be troubled by the obviously mythological format of Greek and Roman treatises that they acclaim as among the most important works of reason in the history of human thought.

If Greek writings can be read as works of reason despite their mythological format, he insists, then writings in similar form in other traditions, including the Hebrew, can also be read philosophically.

Far more important in Hazony’s explanation for this lack of respect is what he alleges is the misreading of Hebrew Scripture by Christians and the baleful effect this prejudicial attitude has had on the Western intellectual tradition. According to Hazony, Christians divide religious writings into two categories: reason and revelation. Revelation comes directly from God and is to be accepted as given. In contrast, reason is a human construct, always subject to error, always inferior to revelation. Even if one were to agree with this distinction, Hazony counters, this dialectic is irrelevant to the proper understanding of Hebrew Scripture. These documents were written prior to the emergence of the reason-revelation dichotomy in the Western intellectual tradition. Continue reading. . .Hazony-Philosophy


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