When rabbis deliver their sermons tomorrow, many will take a passage from the weekly Torah portion and make some link with a contemporary issue or event. The assumption that the biblical texts have something to say to us thousands of years after they emerged is so natural to us that we hardly give it second thought.
But that assumption is often not shared in the wider world, and certainly not in much of academia, according to Dr Yoram Hazony. The Bible is too commonly dismissed as simply a book of miracles or a manual demanding obedience to God with no relevance to modern life. And that scandalous disregard he hopes his new book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, will help to correct.
The Bible is a complex, sophisticated work of ideas, about “how to live life and understand the nature of the world”, he argues, which uses story and poetry rather than discursive prose. “The purpose of the book is to raise the question whether we have a cut off an entire universe of possible deep readings of the Bible because of our prejudices and assumptions that it doesn’t have important ideas in it,” he says.
It is a book that comes with some starry endorsements, from secular psychologist Steven Pinker to Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, who calls it “a paradigm-shifting work of immense significance”. Dr Hazony, 48, is the founder of the Jerusalem research institute, the Shalem Centre, where he still teaches: his previous books include a study of the political teachings of the Book of Esther and The Jewish State; the Struggle for Israel’s Soul.
It was while his researching a doctorate in political philosophy at Rutgers University in the United States that he became aware of the neglect of the Bible. An introductory course to Western philosophy ran from the classical Greeks, such as Plato and Aristotle, to Christianity to modern liberal thought. “It becomes quickly apparent the history of the West is told in a certain way,” he says. “There are no pitstops for Jewish texts and especially not the Bible, which is particularly strange, since beginning with Augustine through to Nietzsche, almost everyone you read is engaged in the Bible and arguing with the Bible.”
Central to his approach is that while the early books of the Torah and of the judges and kings of Israel may be preoccupied with the history of a particular people, they contain social, political and ethical ideas that are of universal significance. The stories of the judges and kings, for example, are concerned with the limitations of state power.
These narrative book, he argues, should be read as a whole rather than, as is sometimes the tendency, split piecemeal into little bits as though the various stories have no connection with one another.
“The approach of trying to extract little stories from the big biblical narrative and reading them as though they are Aesop’s fables — a few lines and a moral pops up at the end— is a poor way of reading these texts. It is a poor way to read Anna Karenina or Middlemarch or Plato,” he says. “Another way is to assume each of the stories is actually part of a very large narrative. And when something repeats over and over again, it repeats for a reason. And if a symbol appears over and over again, some metaphor or figure, it is trying to say something.”
He devotes a chapter to exploring the significance of the fact that Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David are depicted as shepherds, whose nomadic way of life represents a particular ethos — in contrast to that of the farmer, whom he sees linked to the great agriculturally-based civilisations such as Babylon.
It is through making such connections across the stories of the different biblical books that its ideas can be teased out. In another chapter, he investigates the concept of knowledge through the imagery of Jeremiah.
Dr Hazony himself is religious, but his aim is to contest the narrow view that the Bible can be viewed only as a religious book. It is a mistake, he says, just to read the story of the Exodus as a miraculous story of divine intervention. In fact, he points out, God remains silent for some 200 years while the Israelites are enslaved in Egypt. The first resistance to imperial power comes from women: the midwives who defied Pharaoh’s order to kill male babies, Jochebed and Miriam, who sought to save Moses and Pharaoh’s daughter who adopted him.
Only after Moses kills an Egyptian oppressor — without any divine instruction —and flees into the wilderness, does God enter the scene. The story offers “something much more complicated about the role of human beings in history and how God responds to human beings by assisting them,” he says. “Which is something you can read and understand if you believe in God, and something you can understand if you think no, this is really a story about human beings contending with reality. I don’t think the text forces you to take sides on that. It has plenty of things to say other than that God intervenes in history.”