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

October 13, 2016 | Kenneth Seeskin

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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