An Old Man Studying, Maurycy Trębacz, 1896

The Inconsistency in the Torah exchange, part 3: ‘The Torah is a minefield of culturally dependent literary phenomena’


Joshua A. Berman is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Hebrew Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He is the author of Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought.

This exchange focuses on Professor Berman’s new book Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism (Oxford University Press). You can read parts 1 and 2 here and here.

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Dear Dr. Berman,

Traditionally, Jews have read the Torah as a unified whole — essentially, as one book. Source criticism, which your book challenges, maintains that the Torah cannot be read as a unified whole, but only as documents woven together. What role, if any, did the traditional way of understanding the unity of the Torah have in your motivation for this project?

Thanks once again for participating in this exchange.

Shmuel

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Dear Shmuel,

I studied in a yeshiva for eight years before I began academic Bible study, and the impact of the rabbinic tradition on my scholarly work has been enormous. Obviously, in the academic world you can’t say the text makes sense because Rashi said so, or because God gave the text and so it must make sense. But my extensive yeshiva background has allowed me to come to my academic work with a sense of intellectual humility: things that look obvious to us might be so only because of where we are standing. Let me give an example.

Think of the word religion. That word does not exist in either biblical or rabbinic Hebrew. In fact, no pre-modern culture has a word that parallels our word, religion. But how could that be? Judaism and Christianity have been around for thousands of years; what did people call these, if they didn’t have the word religion?

The answer is that the word religion reflects a very modern concept; it came about because of a secular worldview, one which wanted to limit the role that faith played in public affairs. Religion is what you do in the private sphere; it’s what you believe, the rituals you practice, the prayers you pray. It’s a small corner of your life, and, above all, it’s the realm of the private individual — it cannot be allowed to spill out into the public space. By contrast, classical Judaism, Christianity, Islam and all other ancient “religions” rejected that notion. They were complete systems for understanding all of life, the private and public spheres together. These were systems that encompassed everything, and so it would have been absurd to speak of any of them as belonging to a special category of one small part of life — religions. The greatest joy in my scholarship is when I discover something that is so clear and obvious to us — like the concept of religions — and then discover that those that lived before us often thought about things very differently.

And this brings me to my book. Modern Bible scholars see lots of contradictions in the text of the Torah. And the classic academic way of understanding these contradictions is that they are the result of multiple authors. Now, when I look at traditional views of the text of the Torah, I see that, in fact, the rabbis themselves were troubled by many of these tensions in the text and resolved them with recourse to Midrashsh. But what has always puzzled me is the degree to which traditional rabbinic approaches to the text didn’t seem bothered by many of these contradictions in the first place. And it seemed to me that this was a “religions” moment: just as the absence of the term religions in these texts demonstrates to us that people used to think about things very differently from how we do today, so, too, the fact that the rabbis weren’t bothered by many of the “contradictions” in the text of the Torah might also be because we don’t have a monopoly on understanding what is a unified text and what is a contradictory text.

In fact, scholars have been learning the hard way that their innate sense of contradiction might be failing them. A foundational staple of early Pentateuchal criticism maintained that the disparity of divine names found in the Torah was itself proof positive of composite authorship and a key to determining and delimiting its sources. This axiom had to be walked back in light of evidence showing that the ancients were quite comfortable referring to the same deity by multiple names, even within a single passage. In like fashion, in many texts, God addresses Israel but alternates between addressing Israel as “you” in the singular and “you” in the plural. This was thought to designate various sources or strata in the biblical text. However, the phenomenon is also found in ancient Aramaic treaties, where a king commands his subordinate to hand over fugitives, addressing him, seemingly in random fashion, sometimes in the singular, and sometimes in the plural.

As another example, consider historical inscriptions left to us by Ramesses the Great, who ruled Egypt in the 13th century BCE. To commemorate his greatest achievement, a victory over his arch-enemies the Hittite Empire at the battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE, Ramesses inscribed three mutually exclusive and contradictory reports, one right next to the other, each serving a distinct rhetorical purpose, on monumental sites all across Egypt. Not only that, but the longest of these compositions is full of what we would deem internal contradictions as well. These practices are wholly foreign to modern writers, and far from intuitive. If Ramesses could do this, perhaps the Torah could as well. There are two accounts of creation in Genesis 1-2. And, just like the Ramesses inscriptions, they are contradictory, use different vocabulary, and different names for God. Perhaps these, too, are complementary ways in which the Torah introduces the complexity of the human condition.

These examples serve as a warning flag for scholars looking to parse the text on the basis of their own notions of literary unity. The ancient text is a minefield of literary phenomena that are culturally dependent. Of course, the fact that Ramesses composed multiple conflicting accounts of his conquest does not prove that the Hebrew Bible must be read this way as well. But it should, at the very least, place a check on the confidence that a modern scholar can have when approaching the biblical text and encountering literary phenomena that seem inconsistent.

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