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The Inescapable Personhood of God

If philosophers are to read the Bible properly, they need a philosophical model that is not embarrassed by the living God who is considered to act in history.

From Landscape with Moses and the Burning Bush by Domenichino, 1616. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

From Landscape with Moses and the Burning Bush by Domenichino, 1616. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Last Word
Jan. 30 2017
About the author

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List professor of Jewish studies at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism (Princeton University Press, 2015) and Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton University Press, 2012).


I’m grateful to Joshua Berman, R. R. Reno, and James Diamond for their learned and thoughtful responses to my essay, “Is the Torah a Work of Philosophy?,” in which I mainly addressed myself to Kenneth Seeskin’s new book, Thinking about the Torah. In replying now to their observations and criticisms, I hope to shed further light on the challenges and pitfalls confronting anyone who would try to view the Bible through the lens of philosophy—and, in the process, to clear up some misunderstandings that my essay may have created.

Joshua Berman points to one especially important feature of the ancient Near Eastern world in which the Bible originated: its high tolerance for contradiction or, to put the point negatively, its lack of systematic thought and organization. This he rightly connects to the centrality of family life in the society of the time, for in families “ideas and attitudes [are] unexpressed in systematic fashion.” In this sense, the Bible is no outlier to the general pattern. Even “when the Bible does communicate its ideas in writing,” Berman adds, “it is always with only partial expression, very much framed for the needs of the moment and the given situation.” For that reason, the Bible’s “separate and apparently incompatible statements about creation” that I adduced in my essay make eminent sense if we remember that they are “tailored in each case to the spiritual needs of an audience and its time.”

Berman is correct that in this sense the Bible is the opposite of most philosophical works (there are exceptions), for the latter prize systematic thinking, precision, and a keen awareness of alternative ideas and the need to refute them. To the extent that we attempt to fit the Bible as a whole or even individual texts into a template borrowed from philosophy (or its cousin, systematic theology), we run a high risk of distorting its messages.

It is also the case, however, that a literature premised upon “family life,” “lived experience,” and “the needs of the moment” cannot but be fragile. Social structures, even family structures, change, and new peoples, with new literary genres, appear and exert pressures upon the old traditions. When this happens, the naturalness of those ancient habits of thought—their givenness and the sense of their rightness—fades, and “the spiritual needs of [the] audience” now require something more deliberate and self-conscious.

In the specific case of the Bible, moreover, the gradually emerging sense of a canon of sacred scripture brought together compositions from a wide variety of periods, situations, and genres in what eventually was to become one book, with the richly productive implication that all its passages spoke to the same ultimate reality and could be adduced to shed light on it and on each other. As soon as one has uttered the word “Bible,” therefore, one has already presupposed the loss of the original context of the individual components of the Book of Books and affirmed, in its stead or alongside it, a new and larger context in which they must now function.

I would note another change that catalyzed the same process: when the written word begins to rival oral recitation as the way by which literature is received, the act of moving back and forth within the same text, observing and addressing apparent contradictions, seems not only natural but also, to some degree, necessary. This new circumstance, which elsewhere I’ve termed “the literary simultaneity of scripture,” stands in tension with that “given situation” and those “spiritual needs of an audience and its time” to which Berman properly draws our attention.

All this means that the very notion of a “Bible” suggests the existence of multiple frames of reference in which the same literary unit can be interpreted—from the smallest and most immediate context to the entire scriptural canon (however defined—another important variable) and beyond, into the continuing tradition, in all its diversity, through which the particular set of scriptures has come to the contemporary interpreter. From the vantage point of any given frame of reference, the interpretation suggested by another frame will seem forced.

There is, in other words, friction among and between the different contexts, and the modern interpreter, aware of these differences, needs to acknowledge the friction and to be cognizant of the meaning the text is likely to have when it is interpreted within an alternative frame of reference.

 

R. R. Reno, for his part, observes that “the tension [among different modes of reading] can be a happy one” because it can “get our minds moving” and, ideally, cause us to “read more deeply.”

With this I have no quarrel, only adding that Reno’s observation assumes that the interpreter feels the tension and does not dissipate it by, for example, identifying the insights of one interpretive mode with sophistication and wisdom and the insights of another with primitiveness or with psychological needs alone. And, although “the old tension of Athens vs. Jerusalem” to which he draws attention is usually badly overdrawn, I also agree that inquiries into the philosophical implications of non-philosophical literatures can be productive. Kenneth Seeskin’s book, despite the weaknesses I pointed out in my essay, exemplifies this potential well.

Reno’s claim that Judaism and Christianity have “for the most part . . . encourage[d] luxurious interpretive habits of mind rather than spare ones” is accurate for the foundational periods of antiquity but less so for the Middle Ages, when notions of a narrower contextual or “plain” sense (peshat; sensus literalis), buttressed by a burgeoning interest in philology, came into being. Standing in evident tension with the classical midrashic, typological, and allegorical readings of Judaism and Christianity, the new approach grew in the medieval period but, interestingly, did not immediately dislodge the traditional laws and theologies supported by the ancient midrashim and kindred modes of interpretation. Had a “secular church of the university” (Reno’s phrase) existed, few pursuers of the plain sense would have felt the need to join it. The idea of different approaches that are all valid, though in different contexts and for different purposes, is evident as early as Rashi (11th century), whom Reno cites. In both religious traditions, it was expressed in various formulas affirming that scripture has multiple senses.

Reno’s belief that “the task is to breach the walls of the Bible’s plain sense the better to plunge into its depths” reflects the greater imaginative richness and theological fecundity of the midrashic approaches over against the dry philology associated with the plain sense. But clearly the medieval Jews and Christians who pursued the latter saw something religiously valuable in it; they did not think they were building a wall to shield their readers from the depths of the scriptures. Similarly, the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century, with whom Reno opens his reflections, regarded their banishment of allegory as necessary to recovering the power of the biblical message and not as a distraction from that demanding theological task.

Within the context of Jewish-Christian relations, we shouldn’t overlook another key, and closely related, aspect of the Reformation: heightened respect for the Old Testament (no longer so easily subordinated to the New) and for Hebrew, including post-biblical Hebrew and the Jewish sources written in it. Eventually, this led to a Christian Hebraism especially influential on political culture in Britain and America. I regard the effects, visible to this day, as highly positive.

With the rise of the historical-critical approach to the Bible starting in the late 17th century, the focus of academic biblical interpretation gradually shifted from the canonical and traditional contexts of the text itself toward a recovery of its authors’ intentions. Since these authors were understood to have been largely or completely products of their own historical moments and locations, it became increasingly hard to credit the traditional efforts to harmonize the texts within the Bible so as to yield one timeless truth, whether Jewish or Christian. Instead, the central task became that of establishing a literary stratigraphy of the biblical corpus so as to identify the antecedent sources and the periods in which they were produced. Only once this was done could anachronism be avoided and a historically defensible account of biblical teaching be assembled.

The astonishing recovery of the ancient Near Eastern world in the 19th and 20th centuries (and hardly at an end in the 21st) has contributed enormously to this shift, affecting every dimension of the study of ancient Israel and its literature. But perhaps its most consequential effect is to have fleshed out what the text meant to its original authors and audiences and thus, correlatively, to have undercut traditional interpretations that are at odds with that meaning.

 

If I understand his probing response correctly, James Diamond thinks this recovery of authorial intention is impossible. Questioning my allusion to the meaning of the Bible “on its own terms,” he expresses doubt as to “whether there is an inherently ‘objective’ meaning within a text, especially an ancient text like the Bible, that is accessible to us as readers.”

My essay, however, never identifies any meaning as “objective”; the word does not even appear in it. Perhaps an analogy can help clarify what I actually meant by interpreting a biblical text on its own terms.

A story has long circulated (albeit in different versions) about an evaluation of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed early in the 18th century. The British monarch of the time is reported to have described the edifice as “awful, amusing, pompous, and artificial,” or some combination of those words. In British or American English today, those same adjectives communicate withering criticism. At the time, however, they did not; each of them, in fact, carried a positive meaning.

The judgment that this is so need not imply that the words have some objective meaning that limits their use as negative descriptors today. All it assumes is that, in what I referred to above as the “narrower contextual sense,” the words were positive. Any attempt to interpret them differently creates an unmistakable friction with that contextual sense and, in my judgment, requires the interpreter to acknowledge this. Otherwise, a key meaning of the incident in which they were uttered or of the text in which they appeared is simply lost. It is one thing to propose a reading that violates that narrower contextual sense. It is quite another to imagine that such a reading is the narrower contextual sense.

In sum, there is an inherent meaning in an ancient text like the Bible that is “accessible to us as readers.” And it would seem that Diamond actually agrees. Otherwise, why would he be at such pains to argue that “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3) points to “a biblical hierarchy of being”? If the meaning of the biblical text is inaccessible, altogether occluded by our own insuperable subjectivity, how would we ever know that any interpretation corresponds to something biblical?

In fact, much of Diamond’s exegesis of Genesis 1 strikes me as plausible, although I would have preferred that he take more seriously its deviation from a philosophical reading. “Light,” he tells us,

is the most dominant metaphor in the history of philosophy for signifying a form of knowledge. For the Greeks, what can be seen is the vehicle of true knowledge. In the Bible, however, what precedes and sets into motion the acts of creation is God’s word.

If so, then Genesis 1:3 serves as a cautionary example to anyone who would replace biblical theology with philosophy in the Greek mode. Diamond intends his response as a defense of Kenneth Seeskin’s book, but to me this example illustrates nicely the concluding sentence of my essay questioning “whether Western philosophical discourse presents the best way of going about that important task [of ‘thinking about the Torah’].”

Elsewhere, however, Diamond’s discussion of creation strikes me as less credible, at least as an interpretation of the biblical text in the “narrower contextual sense.” Is it really true that the first two verses of Genesis “evoke a portrait of God Himself as a philosopher”? What philosopher ever existed primordially or created a world? That God in Genesis 1 replaces “formlessness” with “shape and definition” is quite accurate, though I do not see that the formlessness “provokes” Him to do so, as Diamond thinks, or that in the same chapter God seeks to make “the created world itself an object worthy of scientific and philosophical reflection.”

That the order inherent in creation renders those activities possible is obviously a defensible claim. That Genesis 1 has either science or philosophy in mind, as those terms have come to be used, is not. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of scientists and philosophers find the biblical notion of a God who created and actively sustains the natural world to be at best unnecessary and at worst indefensible. To me, this demonstrates the importance of the contrast I drew in my essay between philosophers in general and “Jewish and Christian philosophers who defer to the authority of religious tradition.” The proposition that philosophical reflection should focus on the created world (as distinguished from a self-subsistent natural order) makes sense in the framework of the latter group but much less so, if at all, in that of the former. If Diamond means to imply that an intensely theocentric text like Genesis 1 can provide robust authorization for non-theistic modes of inquiry like (most) modern science and philosophy, here, too, I must dissent and cite this as another example of allowing philosophical commitments to divert the interpreter from the theology internal to the text at hand.

As for Genesis 1:3 (again: “God said, ‘let there be light’; and there was light”), the theological meaning of the verse within its context of the seven days of creation, ending, in my opinion, with Genesis 2:34, strikes me as rather different from the philosophical points that Diamond makes. The verse serves to announce the prime structuring feature of the passage, namely the formatting of creation into that sequence of seven days and thus the interpretation of the Sabbath, the seventh day, as inherent in creation itself. In other words, an institution that will not be revealed to human beings until the story of the manna in Exodus 16 turns out to be based in the origins of the universe as we know it, and the human observance of that institution is a mode of imitatio Dei.

Note the synonymy established at the conclusion of the first paragraph of the story: “God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day” (Genesis 1:5). There will, of course, be six more days in the narrative, and the number seven will be structured into it in several different ways, some of them quite subtle and ingenious.

There is no reason that a recognition of this key role of light/day need preclude a philosophical discussion of the implications of light symbolism in the Bible. Contrary to the impression left by Diamond’s critique, my essay never excludes the philosophical reading of the scriptural text. Instead, it affirms that “a philosophical investigation of the Bible . . . offers a prospect of great rewards,” while also speaking of the “great dangers” posed by such an approach, including “the temptation to substitute a foreign discourse for that of the Bible itself.”

The danger is not inevitable, but to avoid it, philosophical interpreters must immerse themselves in the biblical text and be alert to the differences between the passages discussed in their biblical contexts and the meanings that the same words have in the very different discourses of Western philosophy. Otherwise, they will quickly come to resemble one who thinks that “awful, amusing, pompous, and artificial” in a text from early 18th-century England conveys a negative judgment.

 

And it is not just words that must be carefully considered: it is also institutions. Philosophical interpreters of the Bible need to reckon with institutions that may be foreign to the sorts of texts to which they are accustomed—institutions like the Sabbath, for example, or like sacrifice, which, as I pointed out in my critique of Seeskin’s handling of the Akeidah, cannot, Kant and Kierkegaard notwithstanding, be so simply equated with killing.

Since I did not fault the philosophical investigation of the Bible per se, I would be happy to agree with Diamond that my critique “is less an argument against Seeskin’s principal enterprise of reading the Bible philosophically than a criticism of Seeskin for failing to be more comprehensive in his choice of biblical examples.” But with one caveat. The problem is not the choice of biblical examples; it is the choice of philosophical models. That was the point of my suggestion that Michael Wyschogrod’s work be taken into account. What is needed is a philosophical model that is not embarrassed by the personhood of God—the living God who is thought to act in history and is able to sustain the relational, covenantal theology that dominates in the Bible.

This should clarify why I cannot agree with Diamond’s definition of “the essential difference between the biblical scholar and the philosopher: the former seeks answers; the latter seeks the questions that can help situate the human being existentially and rationally within the universe.” Biblical scholars are interpreters of a text, and must evaluate the readings of it that are assumed by philosophers or anyone else. And philosophers do not merely ask questions; they also propose answers. When those answers involve interpretations of the Bible, biblical scholars rightly ask questions of their own. Do the language and literary shape of a particular passage support that reading? Are there features of the text that the philosopher (or any other interpreter) is missing? Is the interpretation overgeneralized? Within what frameworks does the interpretation make sense or fail to do so? In sum, it is not that biblical scholars seek answers and philosophers seek questions. Both professions, rather, both ask and answer.

Finally, I need to correct a misstatement about my own work. In Creation and the Persistence of Evil, I do not claim that the primordial opponents threatening the world’s stability (as in Isaiah 27:1) are “competing powers over which God does not have complete control.” The very subtitle of that book—The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence—suggests the opposite. If there is divine omnipotence, God must, in some sense, be capable of complete control. The problem is that, in the Bible, He often fails to exercise that capability. As I wrote in that volume:

The failure of God is openly acknowledged: no smug faith here, no flight into an otherworldly ideal. But God is also reproached for His failure, told that it is neither inevitable nor excusable: no limited God here, no God stymied by invincible evil, no faithless resignation before the relentlessness of circumstance.

In the preface to the book’s paperback edition, I went out of my way to distinguish this particular biblical theology from schools of philosophy of our day that advocate a limited God. “I worked the expression ‘omnipotence’ into my subtitle,” I wrote, “in part to encourage the thought that omnipotence was not being eliminated but redefined in ways more appropriate to the Hebrew Bible (as well as to ancient Judaism and earliest Christianity) than the classical definition has proved to be.”

Now as then, I am convinced that the dichotomy between the omnipotent and the limited God is too static, too abstract, too propositional to deal with the dynamic rendering of the living God in the Bible and most of subsequent Jewish tradition as well. On this issue, as on others, my hope remains that philosophical investigations of the Bible will develop models that are more adequate to the text than those on offer have usually been. I would be remiss, however, were I to deny that, in my judgment, no philosophical model of divine action can do full justice to a God who is made known primarily through narrative and whose will mostly takes the form not of abstract moral principles but of covenantal commandments.

More about: Hebrew Bible, History & Ideas, Religion & Holidays