From a frontispiece to a 13th century manuscript of the Hebrew Bible now in the British Museum in London. Photo12/UIG via Getty Images.
After the Reformation in the 16th century, the word “allegory” became virtually outlawed among Protestants. It was an omnibus term referring to any reading of the biblical text that imported an elaborate interpretive apparatus. The Reformers wanted the plain and simple words of the Bible and imposed the interpretive asceticism of sola scriptura. Centuries later, their descendants pioneered the methods of historical criticism. Anachronism became the new swear word. The new asceticism required restricting our readings of the Bible to what could be “scientifically” determined by biblical scholars properly trained in the secular church of the university.
Most of us are parishioners in this modern church, whether we admit it or not. Like the Reformers (like all reformers), we distrust tradition, though now for modern reasons. But without tradition’s ballast, the Bible’s meaning becomes uncertain, dangerously untethered to anything solid enough to protect against misinterpretation and, worse, misuse. This in turn can motivate us to build, as it were, fences around the Torah, carefully limiting ourselves to proper, trustworthy approaches. Unfortunately, we thereby develop a worldly tendency to glide along the surface of God’s Word.
It was not always so. For the most part, in fact, our traditions themselves have assumed the opposite, encouraging luxurious interpretive habits of mind rather than spare ones. According to this way of thinking, the Bible is fecund, not vulnerable. In our traditions, both Jewish (about which I sadly know too little) and Christian (about which I can claim less ignorance), far from being encouraged to build fences around the Torah, the task is to breach the walls of the Bible’s plain sense the better to plunge into its depths.
There are meditative, mystical techniques by which to enter into the Bible. They’re present in our traditions. But in the main we have inherited a less esoteric approach, one of friction, even to the point of contradiction. Jews know it in the many unresolved arguments of the Talmud. Christians recognize this approach in the sic et non of scholastic objection and response.
The interpretive genius of contradiction is evidently at work in Thinking about the Torah, Kenneth Seeskin’s new book applying the insights of philosophy to the biblical text. But as Jon Levenson observes in “Is the Torah a Work of Philosophy?,” the Bible runs on narrative and law, not conceptual arguments from the tradition of Western philosophy that Seeskin draws upon. This means, Levenson writes, that there will be a “palpable tension” in any philosophical reading of the Bible: the old tension of Athens vs. Jerusalem.
Levenson is right, though I would add that the tension can be a happy one. For it is by working against the grain of the Bible that one generates the friction needed to burn away the indolent assumption that one already knows what the Bible says (the usual assumption of Jews and Christians both ancient and modern).
Of course, once wakened from complacency by the blows of contradiction, there is no guarantee one will read more deeply. As Levenson points out, Seeskin tends to prefer the tidy concepts of philosophy to the refulgent darkness of the biblical text. But “palpable tension” does get our minds moving, and they must be moving in order to move in the right direction.
The tension between philosophical reflection and the Bible has played an important role in the Christian tradition, perhaps less so in Judaism. In both instances, however, it has not provided the most important source of creative friction. That role has been played by the tension between tradition and text, between what religious authorities say and what the Bible seems to say.
The opening of Rashi’s commentary on Genesis provides an example. Commenting on the first verse of the Torah, the great medieval exegete reports a rabbinic source that, playing on the lexical ambiguity of the sacred text’s opening word, suggests that the Bible should have properly begun not with creation but with Exodus 12:2: “This shall be for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.”
The resonance of the Hebrew word for “beginning” in Exodus 12:2 with the Hebrew word for “beginning” in Genesis 1:1 may play a role in this apparently brash upsetting of the Torah’s sacred sequence. Rashi and the tradition he represents have greater ambitions, however. As I understand it, the rabbis regarded Exodus 12:2, the opening of God’s stipulation of the Passover sacrifice, as the first commandment or law given to the people of Israel. The Torah being the book of law—the Israelites’ constitution—one might therefore read everything preceding it, including the entire book of Genesis, as a long “Whereas” clause establishing the “Now therefore” ground on which the Almighty stands in imposing His commandments on His chosen people and, as the creator of all the earth, granting them the deed to the Holy Land.
As a commentator, Rashi is notoriously succinct. He makes the provocation rather than resolving it. But, having felt the provocation, we’re aroused from our complacency. What is the meaning of Genesis 1:1? The plain sense of the words suggest little more than a temporal marker: an important event (creation!) begins at a certain time. Rashi, however, wants us to read as follows, “God, for the sake of the Torah and for the Jewish people, created the heavens and the earth.”
Another source of friction comes from contradictions latent within the Bible itself. Jon Levenson is particularly fond of this approach. In his discussion of Seeskin on creation, he adverts to the Bible’s other “models of creation,” such as that in Isaiah 27 featuring a divine “victory over a primordial opponent conceived as the sea or as a sea-monster.” His object is not to undermine our confidence in the Bible. Instead, he hopes to loosen the grip on our spiritual imaginations of overly narrow, abstract, and metaphysical conceptions of creation. (These conceptions are encouraged by the dignified, liturgical language of Genesis 1.) Levenson makes the Bible into a fruitful problem. Is the “real” biblical view of creation to be found in Genesis 1 or in Isaiah 27:1? Is the “beginning” in the beginning—or is it yet to come? A “palpable tension” forces our minds to move beyond easy assumptions both about creation and about redemption—the same outcome Rashi seeks.
The Bible’s “problem” passages provide still another motor of interpretive daring. Levenson dwells on the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22, chastising Seeskin for posing a pat philosophical question—can God command unethical deeds?—that enables him to evade the depth of the text, which is not about Kantian morality but about religious sacrifice. Genesis 22 does not direct our attention toward God, bidding us to wonder whether or not He is just. Rather, Abraham’s trial speaks to our souls: what are we required and what are we able to give up for the sake of faithful obedience to the Lord?
As a Christian, I have my own “problem” texts, and they, too, concern sacrifice. Coming at the end of the gospel stories, Jesus is crucified and dies in a textual atmosphere suffused with images from Passover and other aspects of the Torah’s economy of priesthood and sacrifice. My attention is inward, of course, but upward as well. Unlike the scene of the binding of Isaac on Mount Moriah, here the son is sacrificed. For a Christian reader, the scene shatters complacent metaphysical assumptions about the divine, forcing my entire tradition to rethink its doctrine of God at the most fundamental level.
We prize clarity and think it a mark of truth. The directly stated thesis, the cogent argument, the compelling demonstration—for us, these are intellectual ideals that too easily color our spiritual imaginations. Origen of Alexandria, a great reader of the Bible, perhaps the most influential in Christian history, offers a corrective. “Divine wisdom,” he observed, “has arranged for certain stumbling blocks and interruptions” in the Bible’s plain, literal sense. These difficulties present “a barrier to the reader” and prevent him from proceeding “along the pathway of the ordinary meaning.”
I’ve known many friends who say that the Bible isn’t compatible with science, contradicts itself, and is primitive and irrelevant. They regard these observations as definitive criticisms. I think of them as commendations, not to a complacent fideism but to an enduring, unending task of seeing how, with fresh eyes, what is true is true. The difficulties facing those of us who believe the Bible to be divine revelation reflect God’s benevolence, not negligence or malice. We need to be jarred, even knocked down, by “palpable tensions.” For we cannot ascend to God and the fulfillment of His extraordinary promises if we simply continue along “the pathway of the ordinary.”