Response to Jon Levenson: Is There a Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture?

By Yoram Hazony, December 2, 2012
This is a version of an essay that appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Jewish Review of Books. It is a response to an earlier review essay by Jon Levenson that appeared in the Fall 2012 issue.
Levenson’s original review is available here. My response appears in the new issue together with an additional rebuttal by Levenson here.

Jon D. Levenson is one of the larger-than-life figures of contemporary biblical criticism, and I am honored he has taken the time to write such a lengthy review essay of my new book,The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. Unfortunately, Levenson is also quite unhappy with my book, and his review consists mostly of objections to it. In this essay I respond to what I take to be his principal objections, and offer criticism of Levenson’s own proposals for how we should read Hebrew Scripture.

In The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, I argue that the Hebrew Scriptures can be read as “works of reason” like the writings of thinkers such as Plato or Hobbes. I propose that the most important of these texts is the great narrative extending from the creation of the world in Genesis to the collapse of the kingdom of Judah in the book of Kings—a massive “History of Israel” spanning the first half of the Hebrew Bible; and I offer evidence in support of reading this work as an integrated “instructional narrative” that advances arguments regarding fundamental questions in ethics, political philosophy, and metaphysics. I suggest that the other twenty-six books of the Bible often take stands at odds with those presented in this History and with one another, and that these internal disagreements make the Hebrew Bible the record of a “tradition of inquiry” rather than a homogenous book with a single message.

Why is Levenson unhappy with this reading of the Bible? His essay touches on many things, but two big issues appear to drive everything else: First, Levenson seems to believe that it’s not really possible for a responsible scholar to read the biblical History from Genesis to Kings as a unified narrative advancing a coherent standpoint on moral and political subjects. Second, he is committed to a surprisingly dogmatic understanding of what the sole “message” of the Bible has to be. I will consider these problems in turn.


Regarding my reading of the biblical History, Levenson is troubled that I “treat the text as a unity and . . . disregard the seams and variant perspectives on which source critics focus.” What’s wrong with this, he says, is that I read the Bible like “any fundamentalist,” not reckoning with “the idea that we deprive ourselves of precious perspectives and traditions when we read the text only through the lens of its last redactor.”

On the face of it, comparing my work with fundamentalist readings of the Bible seems a bit over the top. True, I do tend to find the work of the source-critics to be conjectural and their results inconclusive. But I’ve made no in-principle argument against source-critical works such as Levenson’s Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible, which base themselves on hypothetical source-documents from which the biblical text was supposedly composed. In fact, I cite Levenson’s work favorably a number of times, and my feeling more generally is, if Levenson thinks he has identified “precious perspectives and traditions” in the source-documents as he sees them, by all means let him bring them forward. The question is rather the reverse: I have written a book marshaling evidence suggesting that reading the biblical text “through the lens of the final redactor” (that is, as a unified literary work) yields a gripping and indispensible view of what the Bible is all about. This is a view that has been almost entirely absent from academic research and teaching about the Bible, and the question on the table is whether Levenson is willing to make room for this kind of disciplined effort to understand the biblical narratives as finished works—or whether his position is, in effect: We don’t look at the forest. We only study the trees.

My impression from Levenson’s review is that when it comes down to it, he is not willing to take seriously argumentation based on reading the biblical History as a unified work. Consider, for example, his treatment of my shepherds thesis. In the book, I argue that the biblical History is structured around a conflict between shepherds and farmers. The principal heroes of the story—Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David, among others—are shepherds, and the narrative is packed with imagery designed to emphasize this: Abel declines God’s command to farm the land and chooses to be a shepherd; Abraham leaves the city of Ur to live in a shepherd’s tent; Abraham sacrifices a sheep in place of his son; Moses leaves Pharaoh’s palace to become a shepherd; Moses first hears God’s call while driving his sheep; the Israelites smear lamb’s blood on the doorposts of Egypt; the shofar (made from a ram’s horn) is blown at Sinai when the law is given—there are scores of such examples. At the same time, the Israelite heroes’ nemeses, the great empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia, are associated with the farmer toiling to bring grain from the soil. Just think of Joseph’s dream of getting his shepherd brothers to harvest grain, and of their packing him off to Egypt where shepherds are considered “an abomination” and grain is king, and you get the picture. I propose that this conflict between shepherd and farmer is used to frame a clash between civilizations, with farming representing (to oversimplify) a life of pious submission to the laws and customs of the idolatrous societies in the river valleys, while the shepherd represents the spirit of resistance in search of the true God and what is truly right.

When you see that the biblical History as a whole is engaged in describing such a conflict, this sheds light onto what the different parts of the narrative mean. For instance, if the narrative systematically uses shepherding and farming imagery to represent a confrontation between two fundamental and conflicting approaches to morals, politics, and theology, it becomes clear why the biblical narrative after Eden opens with a story of two brothers, a farmer and a shepherd, as well as why the shepherd Abel wins God’s love and the farmer Cain murders his brother. This story sets the stage for everything that follows in the subsequent history of mankind.

Levenson says the evidence is “slight, to put it mildly,” that anything like this is going on in the Cain and Abel story. The way he comes to this is revealing. In The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, I present a lot of evidence in support of the shepherds thesis, drawing from episodes across the entire narrative arc of the History. But in his review, Levenson ignores this evidence completely. Instead, he goes straight to an examination of what he calls the “little tale” about Cain and Abel, which he says is just “sixteen verses of . . . text.” It is within the confines of this fragment of a text—two hundred words in length—that he says he can’t find any evidence in support of my reading of what Cain and Abel represent.

But why assume that the meaning of the story of Cain and Abel is nothing more than what can be dug out of the sixteen verses of Genesis 4:1-16? In fact, reading these verses without reference to what comes before and after means arbitrarily detaching them from much of the information needed to make sense of the story: It means detaching them, for example, from Genesis 3:23 (two verses earlier) in which God instructs human beings to leave Eden and become farmers—something Cain accepts, while Abel refuses. It means detaching them, too, from Genesis 4:17 (one verse later), in which Cain is presented as the founder of the first city, thus tipping us off that Cain represents the entire life of the river valleys in which cities gained unprecedented power on the backs of the farmers they ruled. Similarly, it means cutting the Cain and Abel story off from the second chapter of Genesis (two chapters earlier)where we learn that God conceived of man as an agriculturalist even in Eden; and from Genesis 9 (five chapters later), in which God attempts to redeem the world by means of a covenant with a good farmer, Noah, forbidding the bloodshed that his predecessor Cain had brought into the world—an attempt that ends in failure after Noah’s agricultural interests introduce wine, drunkenness, lewdness, and worse into the world.

These and similar facts form the narrative context in which the story of Cain and Abel is embedded, without which we have little hope of understanding what it is about. But Levenson says he has a reason for refusing to engage such evidence that the biblical History advances political and moral positions using the type-contrast between shepherds and farmers. His reason is that “most knowledgeable scholars” agree that in ancient Israel “villagers both farmed and kept flocks of sheep and goats; they sometimes had an ox or a donkey as well.” From this Levenson concludes that the “image of the tradition-bound farmer and the freedom-loving nomad . . . does not correspond to the world of the ancient Near East.”

But how is this relevant to the issue at hand? We are discussing whether shepherding and farming function as symbols of certain political, moral, or theological positions in the biblical text. And for answering this question, details of what things were “really like” in a historian’s attempted reconstruction of the lives of late Bronze Age Israelite villagers have little bearing, if any. To see this, consider a parallel case. Suppose a professor of literature proposes that in William Golding’sLord of the Flies, Ralph’s conch functions as a symbol for legitimate authority and Piggy’s glasses represent reason and knowledge. But Levenson dismisses the whole thing, pointing out that experts on marine mollusks of the North Atlantic agree that conches don’t actually make a commanding sound when you blow into them and that historians of optometry have concluded that no pair of glasses with which Golding would have been familiar in England of the 1950s could have focused the sun’s rays to light fires as Piggy’s spectacles were supposed toHas Levenson thereby proved that the conch and the glasses do not function as symbols for authority and reason, respectively, in Lord of the Flies? Of course not: The conch and the eyeglasses in Golding’s narrative mean what they mean mostly because of the roles the author gives them to play in the text. And the same is true of the Bible. Shepherding and farming mean what they mean in the History principally because of the roles they play in this text as an integral whole.


A second example of a philosophically significant issue treated in the biblical narrative and discussed in my book is what can be called the anarchy thesisthe suggestion that the biblical History addresses the question of whether a limited political state is preferable to the freedoms associated with political anarchy. Here, too, I present quite a bit of evidence: I examine the overall position of the narrative with respect to kingship and empire, showing that from its earliest scenes—the tower of Babylon, Abraham’s relations with Pharaoh and the king of Sodom, and so on—the biblical History paints the rule of kings as rapacious and brutal. In Genesis, we see Abraham and his household try to live beyond the reach of kings, and in the book of Judges we get to see his descendants, the people of Israel, try to live without a governing political center—an experiment that results in the progressive decline of the Israelite polity into barbarism and civil war. The narrative itself repeatedly describes this period as one in which “There was no king in Israel, and every man did what was right in his own eyes,” (Judges 21:25). Eventually, the bloodshed and corruption become so great that a kingdom is established to defend Israel externally and keep peace at home. Saul, David, and Solomon establish a centralized state that grows until it resembles the other kingdoms of the Bible, complete with coercive taxation, a draft for conscripting labor for public works and war, a standing army, and ministers as part of a permanent bureaucracy for operating all of this. The burdens imposed by this centralized system are supposed to be constrained by the law of Moses, which forbids the Israelite king from maintaining great standing armies, harems, and stockpiles of gold as other kings do. But these laws are violated lavishly, and in the time of Solomon’s son Rehavam the people rebel against the king, shattering the united monarchy. The argument (again, I am simplifying) is that had the Israelite king maintained only a limited regime, the people would have been happy and the kingdom would have prospered.

Here too, Levenson dismisses my evidence without even a mention. He explains this rejection by saying that there is no “state, limited or other” in the biblical narrative (because in ancient Israel, there were really only “kin-groups of various sizes”); and that there is “neither anarchy nor liberty” in the book of Judges (because in this part of the narrative the Israelite tribes are ruled by “theocracy, the rule of God rather than man”).

Now I don’t want to quibble about terms. I don’t really care whether we use the words “state” or “anarchy” or “liberty” as long as we are able to understand the argument in which the biblical narrative is engaged. But Levenson doesn’t understand the argument at all. Any sound reading has to recognize that biblical Israel was replete with tribal, clan, and family politics. The question with which the biblical History is grappling is whether peaceable civil life and unity can be achieved among these bitterly jealous tribes and clans in the absence of a coercive central government—a “king” with a standing army and a harsh system of taxation and impressments like those of “all other nations.” The hope, expressed in the speeches of Gideon, Yotam, and Samuel, is that such coercion should not be necessary. But the narrative reaches a different conclusion: Men are too flawed to live with no one above them besides God, so a coercive central government must be erected. Whether such a government will not itself become corrupt like those of other nations is the question taken up in Samuel and Kings.

If this is so straightforward, why can’t Levenson see it? Because his insistence on focusing on small text-fragments blinds him to the trajectory of the argument in the narrative as a whole. Consider his insistence on calling the anarchic-tribal order in Judges a “theocracy,” which he says means that the God of Israel should rule Canaan “rather than man.” The principal source for this claim is the story of Gideon, in which the people beg the war hero to be their king, and he famously responds: “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you, but God will rule over you” (Judges 8:23). In the context of the biblical History’s persistent critique of kingship and its interrogation of the possibilities of living outside the framework of standing political power, the meaning of Gideon’s noble sentiment is crystal clear: Gideon says that the people should attain peace and unity without bringing down upon themselves all the evils that attend a centralized coercive regime.

Levenson, however, examines Gideon’s words as if in a vacuum and concludes that Gideon is calling for the God of Israel, rather than man, to ruleBut what could this possibly mean? Is Gideon actually proposing that the best arrangement for governing Canaan would be for human beings to make no decisions, and for everyone to sit around waiting until God decides where to put the stop signs? Once again, Levenson turns to the community of Bible scholars for assistance, but this time he finds no consensus. As he writes: “Precisely what arrangements the author had in mind is a large historical issue, and the theological question of how the kingship of God can today be something more than a liturgical affirmation . . . is at least as perplexing.” Yes, perplexing indeed. A less polite way of saying this is that once Gideon’s words have been pulled hopelessly out of context, what is left is a passage that is not only inscrutable, but incoherent. But Levenson nonetheless prefers his inscrutable and incoherent reading to my straightforward and coherent one.

Levenson’s treatment of Gideon, like his discussion of Cain and Abel, suggests that his aversion to reading the biblical History as an integrated whole is more intense than he is willing to admit. In fact, Levenson is powerfully committed to reading the biblical text as a series of fragments without an overarching literary purpose holding them together. And this prejudice systematically obscures from his view much of the information one would need to have a shot at understanding what the biblical stories are there to tell us.


Given Levenson’s discomfort with the idea that the biblical History of Israel possesses a strong internal unity, I would have supposed he’d reject attempts to depict the biblical corpus as possessing some kind of homogenous “message” or teaching. But as it turns out, Levenson has quite a strong view as to what the overall message of the Bible has to be—and this view is a second, independent reason for Levenson’s unhappiness with the way I read the Bible. As Levenson tells us at the end of his essay, the focus of the Bible is really on one thing only: reporting to us the “world-transforming acts” of God so that we Jews can come to embrace the covenant in “love, service, and obedience.” Notice that Levenson sees no need to argue for this view of the Bible or to cite evidence for it. To him it’s just obvious.

But I wonder: Is it really so obvious that one thousand pages of Hebrew Scripture—encompassing centuries of Israelite thought by dozens of different writers on a daunting range of subjects—can all be boiled down to this simplistic three-word slogan of love, service, obedience? To me this sounds more like something out of a polemic of Paul than the careful assessment of a scholar of Hebrew scripture, mindful of the marvelous intricacies of these texts.

Love, service, obedience? Why yes, these things are in the Hebrew Bible. But so are many other things—anger, audacity, and disobedience, for example. As when Moses fights with God over what he sees as God’s abandonment of Israel, or when Aaron refuses to conduct the sacrificial service because of the deaths of his sons, or when the daughters of Zelophehad demand that God’s law be altered because they feel it is unjust, or when Gideon scoffs at the angel’s claim that God is with him, or when David’s anger burns against God for killing one of his men, or when Jacob wrestles with God until he is crippled for life for it, and yet will not release his grip until God says “you have prevailed” and gives him the blessing he wants.

None of these stories would have found a place in a Bible whose sole focus was to induce “loving obedience.” But they do extraordinary things in a more mature and realistic Scripture—one composed in an attempt to raise and answer many of the grandest and most vexing issues mankind has known. This is what the Hebrew Bible is, and it is the way I describe it inThe Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. We could do worse than to set aside old dogmas and try to read it in this light.

For more information about The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge University Press, August 28, 2012) go here.

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