“The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture” by Yoram Hazony— Unrevealing the Revelation

Hazony, Yoram. “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture”, Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Unrevealing the Revelation

Amos Lassen

It seems that the Hebrew Bible has always been regarded as a revelation but what if that is not what is was meant to be? Maybe it is not about miracles or salvation but merely tells us how to live in the world. Yoram Hazony proposes that we look at it differently and see it as a way to look at ethics, political philosophy and metaphysics (and the philosopher in me says “YES!!”). He offers us new studies of biblical narratives and prophetic poetry that transforms how we have understood Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and David as well as the speeches of Isaiah and Jeremiah and in doing so he shows us what these were meant to teach. This new philosophy does not assume a belief in God or any other commitment to religion but it does require a background in the Hebrew Bible. There is not of the disciplinary jargon and it gives a look at a book that we, in effect, do not know and after reading this, one will never read the Bible in the same way again.


I must say that the timing that I received this was perfect. For two weeks I have been trying to find some new approach to the binding of Isaac for the sermon I am presenting on Rosh Hashanah this year. I was beginning to think that the adage that there is nothing new under the sun is true because I was lost to find a new angle and here one is but I will get to that later.

As I read this new treatment, I had to stop every few moments and let in sink in and then say to myself, “Why have I never thought of that”? The brilliance of the text is actually based upon very simple thoughts and Hazony clearly shows how the reoccurring political and ethical themes of the Tanach tend to try to conform or measure ancient Hebrew Philosophy to Greek Philosophy. Dr. Hazony argues that the Tanach clearly shows a unique and deeply structured philosophy of its own. The way the stories are interconnected shows a need for advancement in areas such as Form Criticism and especially Redaction Criticism. Hazony’s prose allows a layperson to understand his theories is clearly and his “horizontal” reading of the Bible, carrying themes and identifying concepts across the stories and narratives, allows us to see ideas that are both challenging and exciting.

Echad Ha’am, one of the great Zionist philosophers, said that it is possible to make the Bible say whatever is wanted or needed but in recent times, there has not been a lot said in the area of offering wisdom to live by, either as an individual or as a people. Hazony offers a voice in that silence and offers us a whole new take on the purpose of the Hebrew Bible and we get a new understanding of what is written.

This is a theoretical framework for reading the Bible as a work of philosophy, a way of reading that many Hebrew Bible lovers may have long thought possible but which no one has bothered systematically with until now. His discussion of Biblical authorship came in good measure and fairly accounted for the various academic theories that have been studied forever and at the same time making the argument that authorship may have been intended as a mystery so as to encourage free inquiry. The most fascinating aspects here (and most enjoyable) are interpretations of key Biblical narratives through a philosophical lens. These readings are in and of themselves innovative in exegesis but Hazony presents the philosophical, political, and practical ideas prevalent the Bible (such as individualism and man vs. the state) that could inspire people of all walks of life today toward better societies. We are introduced to Biblical characters who are heroes of truth and forefathers of the ideas espoused later by Aristotle, Plato and Enlightenment philosophers. The Bible renders philosophy through narrative, poetry and metaphor, the same devices used later by the Greeks. The Bible then becomes a book of philosophical thought and the source of progressive philosophy.

The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture” is a naturalistic reading of the Hebrew Scriptures that allows the sacred texts of the Jewish people to do double duty: They can be read as revelation by the religious, or by the secular as a guide to personal virtue and national prowess. The question will be asked if this is a marriage of God’s word to natural law and if so what the result is. According to Hazony, Mosaic Law is an afterthought to natural law and in explaining this he differentiates between faith and reason and maintains that the Hebrew scriptures are works of reason. (There will be naysayers who will yell, “Blasphemy” but then there are always are).

An ethical philosophy founded in natural law is embedded in the Tanach’s historical narrative and it does not require a supernatural revelation. This is what he names as “shepherd’s ethics”—that is, “the vantage point of an outsider that owes nothing and has committed to nothing that cannot be reconsidered in light of one’s own independent judgment as to what is really right.” There is virtue inherent in the shepherd that can see difference whether it be between nomad and city dweller to between Cain and Abel, between the Abram of Ur from the nomad Abraham of Canaan, Joseph the shepherd from Joseph the minister of Pharaoh, and so on.

Regarding the binding of Isaac, the Akedah, Hazony’s understanding of Genesis centers on the story of Cain and Abel, which he believes fixes the archetype of farmer and herder. As Hazony sees it:

“Cain embodies the virtues associated with the agrarian societies of the ancient Near East; Cain obeys God’s instructions; he perpetuates the order inherited from his father; and he exhibits piety to the Gods who have created this order. His brother Abel, however, resists the fate that God has decreed for him. He ignores God’s decree and becomes a shepherd—a man whose station is elevated in that he lives a life of relative ease, leaving the job of extracting nourishment from the ground to his sheep and goats”.

Why, then, is Cain’s sacrifice rejected? Because “God accepts the offering of a man who seeks to improve things, to make them good of himself and his own initiative. That is what God finds in Abel, and the reason he accepts his sacrifice. Hazony’s identification of Abel with Middle Eastern nomads in general is problematic, and his natural-law allegory seems impoverished next to the traditional commentator’s more nuanced human tragedy. Instead, Hazony is most convincing in his critique of the classical Greek state, the exemplar of the classical political rationalism he proposes to replace. He quotes Socrates’ reproach to Crito, who has arranged his escape from prison, that the individual is only the “offspring and servant” of the state, “both you and your forefathers.”

Hazony is convinced that Abraham ascended Mount Moriah so secure in his knowledge of natural law that God had no such thing as human sacrifice in mind. He writes: “Abraham at every point keeps firmly in view what is to him a fact—that whatever God may have said to him, he will not require him to murder his son. God himself will provide a ram for the sacrifice … at no point does Abraham intend to murder his son.” That is the least convincing assertion in a book full of challenges to the plain sense of the text. If Abraham knew God would provide a ram, and God knew that Abraham knew all along, moreover, why stage the whole grisly pantomime in the first place?

One answer is given by the private scholar Lipmann Bodoff, who contended in a 2005 book that Abraham was testing God. But Bodoff, unlike Hazony, is attentive to the difficulties that attend his interpretation. For example, an angel calls out to Abraham as he stretches his arm over Isaac, knife in hand. If God knew that Abraham would not strike, why did the angel bother? Bodoff explains although God is omniscient, angels “are not competent to know the intentions of human beings.” To affirm this view without inflicting violence on the text requires among other things attention to subtle distinctions among supernatural beings that have little to do with Hazony’s idea of natural law.

Hebrew Scripture, in Hazony’s view, makes no claim that divine guidance is needed for good behavior. “The different roads that are open to us are there to be compared. If we can look at them and discern ‘which is the good way’ almost empirically (sic), without need for God’s instructions, it is because the evidence is there to be discovered by those who look.” We know that worshipping idols is wrong because they are just blocks of wood, that we should not commit adultery “because we know from experience that a man will have his vengeance,” and so forth”.

Nothing in the “almost empirical” observation of the ancient Near East dissuaded men from sacrificing their children to the gods, among other revolting practices. Before Israel, infanticide was universal in the ancient world—which brings us back to the Akedah, the event that divides the bloodthirsty barbarism of the ancient world from the Jewish (and later Christian) concept of sanctity of life.

Tradition tells us that the bond between God and Abraham was based upon inexplicable love and faithfulness This is what the covenant is established And from this covenant comes the foundation of Western civilization—the sanctity of human life, the dignity of mankind and the inviolability of human rights. If we accept the traditional view of the Akedah rather than this new one, natural law of the Bible falls apart and this is exactly what Soren Kirkegaard wrote in his classic “Fear and Loathing”.




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