The Dangers of Reading Too Little, or Too Much, into the Hebrew Bible

Oct. 13 2016

Noting the tendency of the Bible’s interpreters—from talmudic rabbis to Augustine to Maimonides and Aquinas—to read their own agendas into the text, Benedict Spinoza argued that Scripture must be read exclusively on its own terms, without introducing philosophical concepts. Such an approach prevails among academic Bible scholars today, but Kenneth Seeskin, a philosopher of religion, makes the case for more expansive interpretation:

[I]f part of the meaning of a text is contained in what it says, another part is contained in the direction to which it points. It is as if in addition to giving us a picture of the society in which he lived, an author can put us on a trajectory that leads to something beyond it. With respect to the Bible, it is hard to read the prophets without taking the idea of trajectory seriously. Although there are passages [in Isaiah] that glorify war as much as Homer did, [its author] could still look beyond the prevailing beliefs of his time to a day when the lion would lie down with the lamb. As the Talmud (Ḥaggigah 3a) tells us: “Just as what is planted is fruitful and multiplies, so are the words of the Torah fruitful and multiplying.”

Needless to say, if a text puts us on a trajectory to something new, it does not necessarily follow that the author knows exactly where that trajectory will lead. . . . My claim is simply that looking at where a text leads helps us to gain a perspective from which to appreciate the significance of what it was trying to say. The moment we ask about the direction to which a text points, we have begun to read it philosophically.

[Thus], to understand the opening verses of Genesis, we have to invoke categories like contingency and necessity that have no correlates in biblical Hebrew. To understand the full import of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, we have to skip millennia and look at the thought of Kant and Kierkegaard. To understand what it means for a people to be holy, we have to take into account ideas that were not fully expressed until the 20th century.

This does not mean that philosophers get the last word on everything, only that they get a word.

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More about: Benedict Spinoza, Hebrew Bible, Jewish Philosophy, Midrash, Religion & Holidays


What Egypt’s Withdrawal from the “Arab NATO” Signifies for U.S. Strategy

A few weeks ago, Egypt quietly announced its withdrawal from the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), a coalition—which also includes Jordan, the Gulf states, and the U.S.—founded at President Trump’s urging to serve as an “Arab NATO” that could work to contain Iran. Jonathan Ariel notes three major factors that most likely contributed to Egyptian President Sisi’s abandonment of MESA: his distrust of Donald Trump (and concern that Trump might lose the 2020 election) and of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; Cairo’s perception that Iran does not pose a major threat to its security; and the current situation in Gaza:

Gaza . . . is ruled by Hamas, defined by its covenant as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.” Sisi has ruthlessly persecuted the Brotherhood in Egypt. [But] Egypt, despite its dependence on Saudi largesse, has continued to maintain its ties with Qatar, which is under Saudi blockade over its unwillingness to toe the Saudi line regarding Iran. . . . Qatar is also supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, . . . and of course Hamas.

[Qatar’s ruler] Sheikh Tamim is one of the key “go-to guys” when the situation in Gaza gets out of hand. Qatar has provided the cash that keeps Hamas solvent, and therefore at least somewhat restrained. . . . In return, Hamas listens to Qatar, which does not want it to help the Islamic State-affiliated factions involved in an armed insurrection against Egyptian forces in northern Sinai. Egypt’s military is having a hard enough time coping with the insurgency as it is. The last thing it needs is for Hamas to be given a green light to cooperate with Islamic State forces in Sinai. . . .

Over the past decade, ever since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, Israel has also been gradually placing more and more chips in its still covert but growing alliance with Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s decision to pull out of MESA should give it cause to reconsider. Without Egypt, MESA has zero viability unless it is to include either U.S. forces or Israeli ones. [But] one’s chances of winning the lottery seem infinitely higher than those of MESA’s including the IDF. . . . Given that Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest and militarily most powerful state and its traditional leader, has clearly indicated its lack of confidence in the Saudi leadership, Israel should urgently reexamine its strategy in this regard.

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More about: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy