A Review of Rabbi Michael Hattin’s “Joshua: The Challenge of The Promised Land”

Joshua: The Challenge of The Promised Land by Rabbi Michael Hattin, Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2014.


There are many approaches to writing about a section of tanakh, from the disinterestedly academic to the passionately religious. Even between those two poles, the chosen approach can be as nuanced as an academic approach that participates in religious discourse, or a religious book that makes use of academic tools. Rabbi Michael Hattin’s “Joshua: The Challenge of the Promised Land” falls squarely in the latter category. Joshua is not an academic book that gleans religious meaning from dispassionate study but a deeply and unapologetically religious book that uses the best tools of the secular world to uncover the meaning behind the biblical text.

Joshua is essentially a collection of essays on the biblical book of Joshua, arranged according to the order of the biblical text. Each chapter opens with a quick introduction to a section of biblical text, and in short order, an apparent problem within the text or the story is presented. By the end of the chapter not only is the problem resolved, but it is resolved in such a way that what had at first seemed to be a problem is now an expression of a religious theme or ideal. While each chapter focuses on a different concept, there are several recurring concepts that Hattin highlights as the dominant themes of the biblical book of Joshua. Hattin discusses the way the biblical text explores the character of Joshua as he takes over the leadership role of his late mentor, Moses, through parallels between events in the Torah and events in the book of Joshua. He also looks at the tension between divine providence and human initiative as the Israelites transition from the Wilderness, where they were entirely dependent upon God, to the land of Canaan, where they will have to run their own society.

The common thread that runs throughout Joshua is the idea that the biblical text is inherently meaningful. There is no such thing as a passage that doesn’t have relevance to our lives, including the long lists of geo-topographical data in the second half of the book. All of it is meant to guide us in our religious and moral development, and thus the act of studying the biblical text is religious, not literary. This orientation towards meaning drives much of the content of Joshua. The book’s hermeneutic, it’s guiding principles of interpretation, flow directly from this orientation. The discussions of both morality and archaeology throughout the book are not abstract, but driven by their relevance to the modern Jew. The same goes for Hattin’s discussions of rabbinic literature related to the book of Joshua.

The basic religious hermeneutic of Joshua is laid out in the introduction, in a section discussing the pros and cons of secular scholarship. While many fields of academia are trumpeted as greatly valuable, one field is rejected quite forcefully. According to Hattin, source criticism “hinges upon charging the text with literary superficiality that… relegated the underlying message to the proverbial dustbin” (pg. xx). However, it is not that he rejects source criticism, but how he does so, that makes his book so firmly religious. Source criticism can be rejected from a secular perspective; the rise of Literary Criticism in the last half a century more than demonstrates that. That Hattin chooses to reject source criticism from a strictly religious perspective is therefore incredibly significant.

The Tanakh is, at its core, a sacred document that describes the ongoing interaction between God and humanity, between God and the people of Israel. It is a document that continuously challenges us to ask penetrating questions that relate to the essence of human nature and the purpose and meaning of existence. Its ancient but timeless words kindle the spiritual yearning that glows in every human heart, the longing for God, for goodness and a better world. No assault on the text can ever rob it of this transcendent quality. (pg. xx)

With this, Hattin not only rejects source criticism, but also sets up a strictly religious hermeneutic that will guide the reader throughout the rest of the book. It is not simply that source criticism is incorrect, it’s that it fails to appreciate the inherently meaningful nature of the text.

Hattin makes a phenomenal attempt to integrate the narrative of Joshua with modern archaeological discoveries. He rightly trumpets the scorched ruins of H̱atzor as fitting the biblical narrative perfectly. He is willing to remain agnostic on some issues, leaving the challenge to the biblical narrative unanswered, but he is impressively willing to reinterpret the biblical text when the popular interpretation does not fit the archaeology. For example, the ruins of Jericho bear no indication that the entirety of the walls came down in the period of history under discussion. Hattin begins by suggesting why the ruins might indicate this when in fact the entirety of the walls had come down, enabling the reader to affirm the traditional understanding of the text. He then switches gears and discusses traditional approaches that don’t contradict the archaeological record. Applying this method to the issue of the speed of the conquest of the land, which the bible indicates is miraculously fast while archaeology suggests that it was very slow, Hattin differentiates between the conquering of the land, which was fast, and the settling of the land, which was slow. Hattin also points out that not only does this fit with the biblical data from other books of Tanakh, but also with the text of Joshua itself.

Hattin also tackles the moral difficulties of the book of Joshua. It is difficult to read the book of Joshua in the 21st century without being bothered, at least a bit, by the morality of a holy war to conquer the land of Canaan. Hattin’s main argument is that the narrative of Joshua cannot be taken in a vacuum; Joshua assumes the reader is familiar with many of the narratives and polemics of the Torah. Hattin quotes numerous biblical texts which suggest that the war against the Canaanites is not racial but moral; the Israelites are not wiping out a different race, but an incompatible moral system. In this light, the entire discussion of the morality of the conquest is flipped. In place of a morally dubious land grab, Hattin depicts the victory of a divine moral system over pagan moral relativism, of human dignity over oppression.

It is at this point that Hattin perhaps becomes a little overzealous in his depiction of the conquest as a moral war. Hattin sees this moral understanding of the war not just in the voice of the biblical text, but also in the minds of its characters. In discussing the textual depiction of Raẖab, Hattin discusses the way that Tanakh generally takes a rather dismal view of prostitutes, something that surprisingly fails to manifest here. Hattin argues that the reason for the generally dismal view of prostitutes is that they are seen as disloyal. In contrast, he argues that Raẖab should be seen as motivated by the vision of a moral society heralded by the arrival of the Israelite nation. This explains the Tanakh’s positive depiction of Raẖab, as her betrayal of Jericho is not a function of disloyalty but of a strong sense of morality. While this moral depiction of the entire conquest may be the way the Tanakh depicts the war, it seems incredibly forced to read this into Raẖab’s motivation. Hattin ignores the possibility that it is at least as likely that she was motivated by the survival of herself and her family, and that the reason the Tanakh does not depict her badly, despite being a prostitute, is that she was instrumental in the success and survival of the Israelite spies.

A similar instance is found in Joshua’s discussion of the battle with the Southern Kings. He describes the Southern Kings gathering together to fight the Israelites not just because they’re afraid for their survival, but because they see the Israelite invasion as the end of their immoral pagan societies. This moral awareness seems like a stretch in a situation where it is so much simpler and more likely to say that the kings were afraid of physical destruction.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Joshua is the total mastery Hattin displays over not just the biblical text of Joshua itself, but over any and all related rabbinic literature. Throughout the various essays that comprise the book, textual problems are resolved not just from the text, but also from the traditional rabbinic commentaries. But Hattin doesn’t just bring the commentary that he feels best resolves the problem; instead, he brings a variety of opinions, and then shows what in the text led each commentator to their opinion. When those opinions are actually based on midrashim from Hazal, he not only points this out, but goes in depth to show the various exegetical understandings underlying the midrashim.

However, Hattin’s approach to midrashim is frustratingly vague. He continuously refers to midrashim as “traditions,” but this phrase could mean prophetic revelations passed down from Sinai or rabbinic exegeses passed down through the generations. He is also unclear about whether he considers midrashim to be taken literally, figuratively, or some blend of the two. He reads them thematically, showing how the midrash plays off and expands themes of the text, but he doesn’t seem to take them to be entirely metaphorical in nature. Perhaps, however, it is for the best. Hattin’s studies in midrashim and their relationship to the text allow for appreciation of hazal not just as legalists and story-tellers, but as careful readers of texts in a way the “metaphorical” approach does not do. Midrashim are a complex and disparate body of work, and appreciating that complexity by default leads to some vagueness and ambivalence. Hattin does a good job of demonstrating that this in no way detracts from their significance; in fact, it makes them all the more meaningful.

Rabbi Michael Hattin’s Joshua: The Challenge of The Promised Land is a deeply religious book that is simultaneously engaged with modernity, a description that is equally apt when applied to Joshua’s audience. As part of Maggid Books’ new line of English books on Tanakh, Joshua serves as an introduction, not only to the book of Joshua, but to the field of Tanakh study in general. Many Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist Jews, presumably the book’s target audience, who might once have delayed their forays into Tanakh indefinitely will now find its pages open before them. Rabbi Hattin has succeeded in making Joshua not only accessible, but incredibly meaningful as well. While Hattin does not mention the immediate, everyday, relevance of each chapter, he demonstrates the basic meaningfulness inherent in the text and leaves the reader to apply it to their daily life. Simultaneously, he introduces the reader to a range of modern literary techniques for understanding tanakh, from literary parallels to keywords. Thus armed with both newfound skills and an orientation toward meaning, the reader can begin to approach Tanakh on his or her own.

Purim 5774 – And It Was In the Days of Ahashverosh: On the Timely and Timeless in Megilat Esther

וַיְהִי בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ

The books of Tanakh are meant to be both timeless and timely. The Torah existed for thousands of years before the world was created[1] but was written in the language of man[2]. It is meant to have meaning on multiple levels. This means that while distinguishing the historical context of a biblical event is important, one should not disregard the unique extra-historical significance[3]. However, when a book opens up with a line like, “And it was in the days of..” it is clear that the history is going to be important. With this introductory line, the author of the Scroll of Esther tells the reader that this book is dominated by a timely message, which means that the timely significance will have to be drawn from there[4].

Which Persian king exactly is intended when the Book of Esther says the name “Achashveros” is not a simple question to answer. There are several perfectly good candidates, which is further complicated by  the presence of a second Achashverosh in tanakh[5]. However, sufficient examination of the history of the Persian kings of the era would indicate that the Achashverosh of Megillat Esther is the Persian king known as Xerxes. This in and of itself is not particularly meaningful, but what makes this important is Xerxes’s position shortly after Cyrus the Great, referred to in Tanakh as Coresh. Cyrus the Great is most famous for undoing the work of the Assyrian Empire. When the Babylonians took power from the Assyrians, Cyrus decided that the best policy was not the Assyrian policy of exiling peoples from their native lands, but rather that each nation should be returned to its native land, and be permitted to rebuild its temples in a semblance of independence[6]. The relevance of this to Megillat Esther is deeper than the sea, a fact that midrashei Chazal highlight beautifully.

Of all the various Midrashim on Megillat Esther, perhaps the most famous is that of the “כלים שונים”, the vessels used in the Feast of Achashverosh in the beginning of Megillat Esther. In an attempt to simultaneously answer the questions of why this first chapter is needed in the narrative and, more importantly, what Bnei Yisrael did to merit the decree of destruction[7], the midrash says that ‘א decreed destruction upon the Jews because they participated in the Feast wherein the vessels of the Beit HaMikdash were being used. This midrash is problematic on two fronts. Firstly, why is this a big enough sin to merit destruction. Eating from the vessels of the Mikdash is really more of a misdemeanor. Secondly, this is historically problematic. Achashverosh comes after Coresh, and Coresh was the king who sent the Jews back to Israel to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash, and alongside this he sent the vessels of the Mikdash back to Israel for the rebuilding. Thus when the vessels are being depicted by the Midrash as being in Shushan, they are actually already back in Israel. So what is going on?

In truth, this is not a problem at all, assuming one has a proper understanding of midrashim. Midrashim are not necessarily meant to be understood literally. Rather, what midrashim do is highlight and expand upon latent ideas in the text. Most midrashim are based off of incredibly close readings of the text, and if you can’t figure out what a midrash is based off of, it means you’re not paying enough attention. Thus midrashim, by depicting thematic scenes in the text, also draw your attention to these themes. If you take a midrash literally you miss the whole point, and worse, you obscure the value and and purpose of the text of Tanakh[8]. Thus the midrash of the vessels is not saying that Bnei Yisrael ate from the vessels of the Mikdash but rather exactly the opposite[9]. Instead of being in Israel eating from the vessels, the Jews of Shushan are in the exile eating from the vessels of King Achashverosh. This image becomes a startling theme evident throughout the text of Megillat Esther.

Megillat Esther, on a textual level, bears out the assertion of this Midrash. In all of Tanakh, only Jerusalem, the Beit HaMikdash, and Shushan are called “HaBirah”. Achashverosh’s first feast lasts 180 days, followed by a shorter 7 day feast, corresponding exactly to the amount of time from the command to build the Mishkan and its completion, plus the 7 days of its inauguration. Both King Shlomo and Achashverosh held feasts in the 3rd year of their reign, Achashverosh in order to show off his “Riches and Glories” (אושר וכבוד), Shlomo in context of a prophecy about building the Beit HaMikdash where ‘א promises him “Riches and Glory”. If one imagined a scenario where all the Jews are fasting, including their leader, and said leader has to appropriately enter the throne room of the King at great risk to their well being,that could either refer to the Kohen HaGadol in the Mikdash on Yom Kippur or Esther coming before Achashverosh in the Megillah[10]. When Mordechai is introduced it is specifically noted, as part of his introduction, that he is an exile. All of these verses serve to highlight the contrast between the Jews of the Exile and the theoretical messianic era occurring in parallel to the narrative of the Megillah, a parallel brought to its peak when one considers that the days of Achashverosh would have been shortly after the days of Zecharia.

The prophet Zecharia is one of the major prophets of the Return to Zion and the Second Temple. Thus, when the Jews of the exile had a question two years into the building of the new temple, they sent it to Zecharia. With the building of the Second Temple well under way, the Jews of the Exile needed to know if they should still be observing the fasts that were enacted to remember the destruction of the First Temple. In typical prophetic fashion, Zecharia launches into a tirade about how if they would just take care of the poor and their fellow man all roads would be open to them, how all they really need to do is to create Truth and Peace. These of course parallel the mitzvot of Purim to give gifts to the poor and others in need, and the scene from the last chapter of the Megillah Esther, in which a letter comprised of “words of Truth and Peace” is sent out. Perhaps most accusingly of all, Zechariah (Ch. 7) describes a messianic vision in which the nations of the world all come to Jerusalem (הבירה) in order to ask the איש יהודי for religious advice. In contrast, the only other  איש יהודי in Tanakh is Mordechai the exile, sitting in the gates of Shushan. Everything is turned on its head.

The consistent, timely, theme of Megillat Esther is obvious. The Jews of the days of Achashverosh knew that they were supposed to be in Israel, and yet they weren’t. Megillat Esther was given to them to remind them of their forgotten duty. They ought to have been in Israel helping build the Beit HaMikdash, not languishing in the Exile. This is the timely message, from which the timeless message can be easily recognized.

The Jews of the Exile knew what they ought to have been doing. They had a prophet declaring to them that Coresh was doing ‘א’s work in sending them back to Israel and that they ought to have gone to help build the Second Temple[11]. We don’t have prophecy today to tell us what to do. Instead all we have is ‘א’s word as embodied in the Torah, and generally speaking, we all know what it says. More often than not, we know what we are supposed to be doing. We know what the right choice is. The charge that Megillat Esther leveled at the Jews in the Babylonian Exile is the same charge we ought to be leveling at ourselves every day: you know what you have to do, now go do it.

[1] Talmud Bavli Shabbat 88b, Bereishit Rabbah 8:2.

[2] Sifre Bamidbar 112, Moreh Nevukhim 1:26.

[3] The Bible From Within, Meir Weiss, First Introduction.

[4] This essay draws heavily from R’ Hayyim Angel’s lecture “Megillat Ester: What they didn’t teach us in school” and Rav Menachem Lebitag’s lecture, “Between Ezra and Esther: considering author’s intent in Ketuvim”, both easily available at www.yutorah.org. Another useful resource in this composition were Yonatan Grossman’s essays on Megillat Esther from http://www.vbm-torah.org/ester.html.

[5] For more, see the above mentioned sources from Leibtag and Grossman.

[6]  This can be found at the beginning of Ezra and the end of Divrei HaYamim II, the very last verses of Tanakh.

[7] To highlight how difficult this question is, it is worth noting that not only does the text never mention Bnei Yisrael performing any sin, the only thing Haman really has to accuse them with before the King was that they were keeping to their own laws.

[8] R’ Yoel Bin Nun, http://www.ybn.co.il/mamrim/PDF/Pesach_Lot.pdf

[9] In a similar vein, the midrash says that feast was intended to celebrate the passing of Yirmiyahu’s date for the return to Israel. Achashverosh would have had no reason to celebrate the 70 years coming to an end, but the Jews out to have been celebrating in Israel and weren’t.

[10] This is reminiscent of the midrash stating that anytime “המלך” is used it is actually a reference to ‘א. Achasheverosh has replaced ‘א in the story, and his palace has replaced א’s palace.

[11] See R’ Leibtag’s “One Isaiah or Two?”, also available on www.yutorah.org.

Parashat Toledot – Rivkah’s Oracle and Interpretive Responsibility

וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר

Parashat Toledot opens with the story of the childless Rivkah and Yitzhak praying for a child, and then conceiving. Rivkah experiences a tumultuous feeling within her body, and so she goes to inquire of ‘א (Bereishit 25:22). She receives a detailed prophetic response depicting the future of her progeny. “There are two nations in your belly; Two peoples will depart separate from your womb. One people will be stronger than the other, and the elder will serve the younger” (25:23). This seems like a clear and straightforward statement. Rivkah has twins in her womb, each of which will grow to be a great nation, and the older one will serve the younger. However, if Rivkah is presented with this clear message, then understanding the rest of Rivkah’s story (25:19-34; 26:34-28:9) presents us with numerous difficulties, not the least of which is the question of why Rivkah did not simply tell Yitzhak that Esav was destined to be in charge. However, if the oracle is understood as somewhat more ambiguous, then we can learn not only the story, but also about the way we relate to the Word of ‘א.

The first textual difficulty we are presented with is found in 25:24, “And the days of her term were full; and behold, there were twins in her belly.” The second half of this verse repeats information that we have already received not once, but twice before. Not only did it appear in the oracle in the previous verse, but the verse before that specifically references that she has more than one son within her. Thus this verse presents a redundancy that must be explained. Rav Dovid Kimchi (רד״ק) explains that this verse ought to be understood as “And behold, the twins were born.” This understanding is problematic however, as the verse explicitly mentions that the twins were in her womb, something that Radak’s understanding leaves out. Rav Shemuel Ben Meir (רשב״ם) and Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch understand the verse to be speaking from purely Sarah’s perspective, indicating that she was surprised by this fact. This explanation runs into the problem that Sarah already heard in the prophecy of verse 23 that there are two nations in her womb, and therefore there would be no reason for her to be surprised. However, the answer of R’ Hirsch and Rashbam makes a lot more sense if we simply assume that the prophecy is unclear. When Rivkah goes to inquire of ‘א, this is following the Torah mentioning that she is pregnant with multiple children in verse 22. However, the narrative voice of the Torah speaks from an omniscient, divine perspective, wherein it is already known that Rivkah gives birth to twins in just a few verses[1]. We, as readers, are therefore privileged to also know this, but Rivkah is not. Thus when we read the prophecy in verse 23 that says, “There are two nations in your womb,” we think, “Oh, so each of the children mentioned in verse 22 becomes a nation.” Rivkah, however, has no prior knowledge that she is pregnant with more than one child, and thus she might simply understand the prophecy as, “my child, and his descendants after him, will develop into two nations.” She also might consider both possibilities. But only when the children are born in verse 25, does she discover that the oracle really had been referring to twins currently within her womb.

The second, and perhaps more critical, textual difficulty this approach solves is the question of why Rivkah did not tell Yitzhak about the prophecy. Even if one wanted to argue that this would not have changed his mind about loving Esav, doesn’t he deserve to know that one of his sons has received the divine imprimatur, that ‘א has decreed one to be superior. Moreover, while verse 28 makes it clear exactly why it is Yitzhak loves Esav, a reason is never given for why Rivkah loves Yaakov. It is certainly possible, as Rashbam suggests[2], that the reason she loved him was because he was favored by ‘א (this would imply a certain moral superiority that Rivkah may have favored)[3]. Certainly her actions in chapter 27, where she instructs, encourages, and enables her son Yaakov to deceive his father and steal his older brother’s blessing, would seem to be an attempt to bring to fruition the final line of the oracle, “And the elder shall serve the younger.” However, this all once again assumes a privileged reading of the text, where we know that in the end Yaakov received the blessing of the firstborn, and thus we assume that the phrase “וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר” really must be understood as “and the elder will serve the younger.”[4] However, the syntax here is ambiguous. It could just as easily mean “and the elder will enslave the younger.”[5] Depending on how you interpret the word “וְרַב,” it could even mean that the younger will do an incredible amount of labor[6]. Thus Rivkah did not necessarily receive a clear message about which child was favored by ‘א, and she really had nothing concrete with which to approach Yitzhak. For all the text tells us she may have told Yitzhak, and the Torah simply didn’t feel it necessary to say so because no concrete course of action could be based off of the oracle.

This immediately raises the issue of why Rivkah preferred Yaakov to Esav (in contrast to Yitzhak), going so far as to plan and execute his stealing the blessing of the firstborn. As mentioned above, it is often assumed that this is due to the final verse of the prophecy indicating that Yaakov was favored by ‘א and was meant to receive the blessing, but as we have shown the prophecy says no such thing, and thus a new explanation must be found. Lacking any special prophetic insight, Rivkah remains the mother of Yaakov and Esav, and thus can be assumed to have a good understanding of their character[7]. The Torah itself does not tell us much about their character, but the Torah is generally very minimal in its exposition, using a minimum of text or a maximum of characterization. What it does tell us then, however minimal, will likely indicate what it was that Rivkah saw that caused her to favor Yaakov.

Towards the end of the story, Esav swears to kill Yaacov, and Rivkah knows this. However there is no indication of any murderous tendencies in the earlier parts of the story. Going back to the beginning, we are told two things each about Yaakov and Esav, besides for their physical state upon birth (25:25-26). We are told that, as they grew up, Esav knew how to hunt and was a farmer[8], while Yaakov was a wholesome man and a shepherd[9] (25:27). While seemingly minimal, this description actually tells us quite a bit. Firstly, the depiction of one brother as a farmer and one as a shepherd is very important. The dichotomy of the farmer and the shepherd is very common in Tanakh and, while the exact reason for this can be debated, it is very clear in the eyes of the Tanakh that being a farmer is something of a moral failure. Some good examples of this are Kayin and Hevel, where Kayin’s only apparent transgression before murdering his brother is being a farmer (4:2-5), or when Yaakov’s family descends to Egypt and must hide that they are shepherds in this new agricultural country (46:31-47:4). Thus the depiction of Esav is a clear indication of moral inferiority on his part. Since the second part of each brother’s description (“farmer” and “shepherd”) are a pair, it’s worth looking at the first part of each description with an eye to whether or not they are a pair as well. At first glance, this approach would not seem to bear fruit. While Esav is “a person who knows how to hunt,” Yaakov is “wholesome.” We don’t usually think of hunting and wholesomeness as necessarily opposed. However, as Ibn Ezra points out (ad loc.), there is something innately deceitful about hunting, as it involves tricking or forcing an animal into a position of weakness in order for you to kill it. Thus Esav’s knowing how to hunt should more likely be seen as a symbol for his deceitful nature, something that is absolutely opposed to being “wholesome.” As the first part of each description is then paired, this can help us understand why Rivkah loved Yaakov, as opposed to Esav. Verse 25:28 records that Yitzhak loved Esav because he gave Yitzhak meat that he had hunted[10], and that Rivkah loved Yaakov. This last phrase is conspicuously missing a reason like the one provided in the first half of the verse. However, as Yitzhak loved Esav because of the first half of his description, that he hunted, so too Rivkah loved Yaakov because of the first half of his description, because he was wholesome[11]. Thus Rivkah did not cause Yaakov to steal the birthright because the Word of ‘א told her that was proper, but because she understood that one of her sons was worthy and the other was not.

Rivkah was confronted with ‘א’s Word in the form of a prophecy regarding the destiny of her children. It comes to us in the form of the Torah. In terms of understanding the text itself, the Torah is not entirely clear. There are often many possible interpretations for a word, or a verse, or a passage. When we try and understand the relevance that the Torah possesses for us today, these difficulties are multiplied a hundredfold. Interpreting the prophecy she received was a dangerous game for Rivkah; it is perhaps more so for us. As both followers and interpreters of the Torah, how we interpret it bears great meaning for our lives and our practice. Moreover, we often share our interpretations, and to do so with a mistaken interpretation can be catastrophic. Possessing ‘א’s Word is an incredible gift; Interpreting it demands of us incredible responsibility. Rivkah did not simply interpret the prophecy as she saw fit, and we cannot bend the Torah to our needs. If Rivkah had thought the prophecy meant that Esav was meant to dominate Yaakov, she still could not have just acted upon that, as it would have been an immoral interpretation. So too, we cannot interpret the Torah in an immoral manner. We have a responsibility to read it with an eye towards the values of ‘א, Life, and Holiness.

[1] Ibn Ezra, ad loc.

[2] In his comment on verse 23.

[3] However, see Rashbam’s comment on verse 28.

[4] This reading also makes certain assumptions about the meaning of the phrase “will serve.” If we take it as referring to who will receive the blessing of their father, certainly not the literal meaning of the phrase, then it would obviously refer to Esav. If it refers to being submissive, then it might very well refer to Yaakov, who spends his last encounter with Esav referring to Esav as his master and to himself as Esav’s servant (Bereishit 33). If it refers to rulership and dominance, then one has to look beyond the scope of the Torah itself, out into the rest of Tanakh and beyond, and it could be referring to either brother (For more see the end of Radak’s comment on Bereishit 25:23).

[5] Radak 25:23.

[6] Hizkuni 25:23. This interpretation is perhaps odd in light of both the way that the word has been interpreted historically and the fact that the immediate context is speaking about both sons, not just one.However, it is worth pointing out that this explanation might actually make the most sense of all, in light of the lack of the hebrew vowel indicating the demonstrative adjective “the” (as in “the elder”) is suspiciously lacking in the phrase in question.

[7] One could argue against this by pointing out that Yitzhak, as their father, ought to be assumed to have the same amount of insight into their character as Rivkah, and yet he loved Esav. However, the Torah itself indicates that Yitzhak did not understand the morality, or lack thereof, his sons were exhibiting, in saying that Yitzhak had become blind (Bereishit 27:1). A similar expression is found in Sefer Shemuel 3:2, wherein the Kohen HaGadol, Eli, was unaware of the immoral actions that his sons had forced upon the populace. Blindness as a metaphor for a lack of understanding in terms of another action is also found in Shemot 23:8, where it is said that taking a bribe “blinds those who can see.” The midrash in Bereishit Rabbah 68:5-7 specifically points to the food that Yitzhak took from Esav as if it were a bribe that he took, that blinded him to Esav’s shortcomings.

[8] For this understanding of the phrase “איש שדה,” see Ibn Ezra and Seforno’s comments ad loc.

[9] For this explanation of the phrase “ישב אהלים,” see Ibn Ezra, Seforno, Hizkuni, and Rashbam ad loc. Also see Bereishit 4:20.

[10] Latching on to the essentially deceitful nature of this characteristic, the midrash understands “כִּי-צַיִד בְּפִיו” not as “because that which Esav hunted was in Yitzhak’s mouth,” but as “for Esav hunted Yitzhak with his mouth,” meaning that Esav would speak before Yitzhak with respect, and thus deceived Yitzhak about his character (Tanhuma Toledot, 8).

[11] Rashbam 25:28.

No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 4: Axioms and Subjectivity

No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 4

Axioms and Subjectivity

(For those just joining us, here are Parts One, Two, and Three)

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about the intersection of Biblical Criticism and religious thought is that they have fundamentally different ways of thinking about and approaching the Tanakh. This isn’t a matter of proofs or faith, simply of axioms. An axiom is a starting point for a line of reasoning, one that is not proven, but simply accepted. Most axioms are understood to be self-evident, but that does not have to be the case. Sometimes, an axiom that some find to be self-evident can be disagreed with by others, without either side actually being able to prove their axiom more correct. Such is the case when it comes to Biblical Criticism, as I will attempt to demonstrate in brief.

The first and most important axiom to appreciate regarding Biblical Criticism is the Non-Existence of Prophecy[1]. This is in direct contrast to the basic assumption of most religions, certainly of Orthodox Judaism, that ‘א communicates His Will to man. This is important to realize because it enables proper understanding of things like the Documentary Hypothesis. The Documentary Hypothesis was never meant to prove that the Torah is not Divine. Rather it started with that assumption, with the knowledge that the text was human, and based its approach on that. It is true that Source Critics at no point ran into anything that made them stop and consider that the text might be Divine, but that was also never really an option. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, tend to start with the belief that the Torah is Divine, or at least that such a thing is possible. Therefore when looking at the text Bible Critics and Orthodox Jews are more or less guaranteed to see different things, simply due to their underlying assumptions.

A second important axiomatic difference to appreciate is the understanding of Context[2]. Everyone agrees that ideas must be understood in their proper contexts, including Tanakh. However, the Academic and Traditional[3] approaches to the text differ in terms of what context they put the Tanakh in. The academic approach understands all things in terms of their Historical context. Israelite society and the Tanakh are put in terms of other Ancient Near Eastern civilizations and their literatures, both sacred and secular[4]. Such comparisons can be both helpful and misleading (This will be discussed further in a later segment on Archaeology and Patternism). The traditional approach sees Tanakh, and all of our sacred texts, in light of the Jewish Tradition. This is most obviously true in terms of Halakhah, which gets decided based on the various texts of the Jewish Tradition, but it is also true for Tanakh. Even where they are not decisive, midrashim and later commentaries are taken into account by the Traditional scholar when reading Tanakh[5].  Thus the traditional scholar and the academic will see the text of Tanakh in very different lights.

Having said that, it’s worth taking a look at the historical context of Biblical Criticism, at least at its origins. Biblical Criticism, and the Documentary Hypothesis in particular, sprouted up in the latter half of the 19th century[6]. This had a lot of ramification in terms of the way Critics treated Tanakh like other literature of the time, without proper understanding of Israelite Society, but its greatest effects on Biblical Criticism came from the Scientific and Religious atmospheres of the time.

The triumphs of evolutionism in natural science have made it a hallmark of intellectual modernity. Over against the essentially medieval unconcern (and unawareness) of history, so characteristic of theological exegesis, current critical exegesis opposes its perspective, developmental view of the text as its chief qualification for intellectual respectability in our time. Hence any proposal of literary development is better than none–better in that it demonstrates sophistication, that is, advance beyond medieval dogmatic prejudices and naiveté. (M. Greenberg, The Vision of Jerusalem in Ezekiel 8-11, pg.147-8)

Once science discovered the idea that nature and life had evolved over time, that idea spread like wildfire through the consciousness of the time, pervading all discussions. Everything had to have developed over time. In many, many, arenas this proved to be an excellent method, but it’s important to note that, as opposed to in the natural sciences, it was something external that was imposed onto whatever was studied, rather than something internal discovered through study. When it come to the text of Tanakh, some minor development over time is self-evident, letters and words and the like[7], but there is no obvious and self-evident evidence of a slow and steady evolution from a core text, or texts, to what we have today.

A second need for the historical-analogic method arises from the situation of the Christian faith community which is its matrix. First, that community must justify its retention of the Old Testament alongside the New, and does so by showing that light is shed upon the New by viewing the Old as a series of steps leading up to it. The more fully this can be worked out, the greater the value set on the Old Testament. Second (though less articulated), that community, though buffeted by change and modernity, affirms the validity of its ancient Scripture in the present. This affirmation is accomplished by showing that the biblical text itself incorporates a record of reinterpretation, adjustment to change and supplementation by later hands. Given the community’s overriding need for validating constant reinterpretation, any proposal that roots that process in the biblical text itself will have bias in its favor. (Ibid, pg.148)

Ironically, much of the challenge to Divine Unity of the Torah came not from secularist but from religious individuals. Julius Wellhausen, father of the Documentary Hypothesis, was a Professor of Theology who retired upon realizing that instead of preparing his students to join the clergy he was disqualifying them from that role[8]. Christianity needed Tanakh to have developed over time and to have been subject to constant reinterpretation, something Source Criticism confirmed with gusto. Thus the Documentary Hypothesis was accepted much more readily than it would have been otherwise. Thankfully, Biblical Criticism has moved away from these harmful mindsets, particularly with the rise of both Literary Criticism and the number of Jewish Academic Scholars in the second half of the 20th century.

At this point it’s worth taking a minute to point out something that has plagued Biblical Criticism from the start, namely, Subjectivity. Biblical Criticism is by its very nature an incredibly subjective field.

The book of Micah itself structurally alternates three prophecies of doom with three prophecies of restoration or hope…These restoration passages may seem a little out of keeping or out of step with the scathing denunciations or condemnations of Judah in the other parts of Micah’s prophecy, and so some scholars have suggested that…these must be interpolations by a later editor…But this is always a very difficult case or issue, because we know that the prophetic writings do fluctuate wildly between denunciation and consolation. So I think that a shift in theme alone is not ever a certain basis for assuming interpolation — outright contradiction perhaps — but a shift in theme or tone is never a solid basis for assuming interpolation. (Prof. Christine Hayes, from the transcript of Lecture 18 of the Yale Open University’s RLST 145: INTRODUCTION TO THE OLD TESTAMENT)

All textual analysis, regardless of what the text is or who is reading it, suffers from the subjectivity of the interpreter. It’s unavoidable. However, it is particularly prevalent in Biblical Criticism where so little is known about the historical nature of the text under discussion, and so any conception of what it “should look like” originally has to be incredibly speculative. This does not mean that all or any of Bible Critics’ conclusion are necessarily wrong, but it does indicate that we should look at their conclusions with a healthy degree of skepticism.

(The rest of this series is being hosted at dafaleph.com. Onward to Part Five.)


[1] For more on this, see this excellent lecture by Rabbi Jeremy Wieder.

[2] An excellent discussion of this idea by Rav Natan Slifkin can be found here.

[3] I switch here from the terms “Religious” and “Orthodox” that I have been using to the term “Traditional” as this is one area where even the religious may often make use of the Academic approach.

[4] This simple point is often missed by Rabbis who ridicule Biblical Criticism for not taking Midrashim into account. For one such example, see here.

[5] For more on this, see Rabbi Hayyim Angel’s lecture on contradictions between laws from Sefer Devarim and narratives from later in Tanakh, downloadable here. Pay particular attention to his discussion of “Halakhic Man” vs. “Tanakhic Man”.

[6] The ideas in this paragraph come a fuller and truly excellent discussion by Moshe Greenberg at the beginning of this article.

[7] For more on this, see our discussion of Lower Criticism, here.

[8] From his letter of resignation (quotation available here), cited in Robert J. Oden Jr.,”The Bible Without Theology”, Harper and Row, 1987.