Two New Works of Biblical Scholarship Demonstrate the Plausibility of Ancient Convictions

Dec. 26 2017

Reviewing two recent books on the Hebrew Bible by distinguished Jewish academics, David Wolpe explores their implications for religious readers:

In The Exodus, Richard Elliott Friedman seeks to answer, once and for all: was there an Exodus from Egypt? In The Great Shift, James Kugel responds to the perennial Sunday-school question: why doesn’t God talk to us anymore?

Kugel draws on [the philosopher] Charles Taylor’s notion that the premodern self was “porous”—or as Kugel puts it, “semipermeable.” People did not experience themselves as fixed, bounded individuals, but as continuous with the natural world. . . . The heart of the book contains evidence from the biblical text that not only were human beings more permeable, the Deity was different too: far less abstract and distant than in later conceptions. God was periodically visible [and] local, choosing to be accessible to select individuals at times.

[For his part, Friedman] insists that the Exodus did indeed happen, just not quite the way the Bible describes. . . . Friedman agrees with [the current scholarly] consensus [that] most Israelites did originate in Israel. But not all of them. . . . The Exodus story, [he argues], is really the tale of how the people we call Levites left Egypt and joined up with the Israelites already in Canaan. . . .

Both books trace the gradual emergence of monotheism from a background of polytheism. . . . Each explains the gradual unfolding of a universal God who is parent to all, who provides a paradigm of liberation and demands not just devotion but ethical action. Both authors succeed in deploying modern scholarship to prove the validity, or at least plausibility, of ancient convictions.

In Moses’ final song to the people, he encourages them: “Remember the days of old/ Consider the years of ages past/ Ask your father, he will inform you,/ Your elders, they will tell you” (Deuteronomy 32:7). They still have a tale to tell, those elders. As Kugel and Friedman demonstrate, if we learn new ways to ask, even doubting moderns can trust

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More about: Exodus, Hebrew Bible, Prophecy, Religion & Holidays

No, Israelis and Palestinians Can’t Simply Sit Down and Solve the “Israel-Palestinian Conflict”

Jan. 17 2019

By “zooming out” from the blinkered perspective with which most Westerners see the affairs of the Jewish state, argues Matti Friedman, one can begin to see things the way Israelis do:

Many [in Israel] believe that an agreement signed by a Western-backed Palestinian leader in the West Bank won’t end the conflict, because it will wind up creating not a state but a power vacuum destined to be filled by intra-Muslim chaos, or Iranian proxies, or some combination of both. That’s exactly what has happened . . . in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. One of Israel’s nightmares is that the fragile monarchy in Jordan could follow its neighbors . . . into dissolution and into Iran’s orbit, which would mean that if Israel doesn’t hold the West Bank, an Iranian tank will be able to drive directly from Tehran to the outskirts of Tel Aviv. . . .

In the “Israeli-Palestinian” framing, with all other regional components obscured, an Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank seems like a good idea—“like a real-estate deal,” in President Trump’s formulation—if not a moral imperative. And if the regional context were peace, as it was in Northern Ireland, for example, a power vacuum could indeed be filled by calm.

But anyone using a wider lens sees that the actual context here is a complex, multifaceted war, or a set of linked wars, devastating this part of the world. The scope of this conflict is hard to grasp in fragmented news reports but easy to see if you pull out a map and look at Israel’s surroundings, from Libya through Syria and Iraq to Yemen.

The fault lines have little to do with Israel. They run between dictators and the people they’ve been oppressing for generations; between progressives and medievalists; between Sunnis and Shiites; between majority populations and minorities. If [Israel’s] small sub-war were somehow resolved, or even if Israel vanished tonight, the Middle East would remain the same volatile place it is now.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East