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The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony

Brad Rappaport meditates on a humanist reading of the Hebrew Bible.

Yoram Hazony is a political philosopher, and The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture is written with a political aim, namely to introduce Hebrew Scripture into the university environment as a work of reason on a par with any Greek philosophical text. Hazony states this explicitly, and proffers his book as a how-to guide for those who might wish to do so. It is written in an accessible style, deliberately tailored for a Christian as well as a Jewish audience, and is far more interesting than any agenda-driven work has a right to be.

The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture aims to set aside the dichotomy between reason and revelation in terms of which, Hazony claims, Hebrew Scripture is often mistakenly seen. He says this results in it being considered unworthy of or unsuitable for consideration as a rational text. Hazony instead understands Hebrew Scripture to have been composed by men with a purpose in mind, namely to teach the reader about the life well-lived, which in this context means lived by the Mosaic law. This he staggeringly identifies with natural law, praising the prophet Jeremiah for his elevation of it to the level of a law that all nations should follow.

Hazony likens talk of God in Hebrew Scripture to the Greek talk of gods in texts seen as unambiguously philosophical. He has in mind Parmenides’ account of the nature of being, which he said had been revealed to him by a goddess, or Socrates’ claim in various Platonic dialogues to be guided by a divine sign telling him when to abstain from doing things he might otherwise be inclined to do. If we approach these Greek texts with an eye to extracting what is of benefit to us, then why should we not look upon Hebrew Scripture as admitting of the same kind of interpretation?

Hazony wants to undermine the idea that Scripture commands obedience while philosophy cultivates independence of mind. The modern university, he says, puts a very high value on the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, while seeing Scriptural wisdom as, at best, a private virtue. This, he complains, is a result of the deprecation of the Jews in nineteenth-century Germany – the time and place of the origin of the modern university – as having no original ideas to offer. We might, for example, think of Goethe’s line quoted approvingly by Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents: “He who possesses science and art also has religion; but he who possesses neither of those two, let him have religion!”

Aiming to further destabilize the notion of an impermeable barrier between philosophy and religion, Hazony borrows a distinction pushed into the foreground by twentieth-century phenomenology, between truth as correspondence of statement to fact, and truth as a calling, or fidelity to purpose. Walking a path, seeing with the crispness of vision, at a time before asphalt roads and glasses, the time of Biblical Israel, is a doing of a kind evoked by Hazony as pregnant with meaning in a way that mere correspondence of statements to facts is not. A road or a vision that is true is one that is reliable, that serves its purpose of guiding one faithfully to one’s destination or seeing accurately what is coming towards us from afar off. Talk of God’s truth, then, is talk of a reliable promise that saves in the sense of providing material benefit. We might say that characterizing the land of Israel as ‘flowing with milk and honey’ aims to convey a vision of goodness as plenty, much as the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes says that our highest hope is to enjoy the fruits of our labors. Hazony is careful to specify that salvation in the Hebrew Biblical narrative has nothing to do with immortal souls.

For the Hebrew Scriptures, says Hazony, political and material benefit are one. Fidelity to the Law of Moses brings an ordered society in which all have a stake. Of the Messianic times envisioned by the prophets, we might observe, the prophet Micah said simply that “every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Hazony distinguishes between two types of person in the Hebrew Bible: the farmer and the shepherd. He orients the reader by discussion of the story of Cain and Abel. Cain follows in the tradition of their father Adam, working the land (which Adam has been cursed to do by God) while Abel opts for shepherding, having the sheep do the work of grazing. As the story goes, it is the shepherd’s animal sacrifice that God prefers to farmer Cain’s sacrifice of grain. Since God commanded Adam to work the land, Hazony reads this as an endorsement by the Bible of enterprise rather than a submission to fate. He also calls our attention to the fact that so many of the heroes of the Bible turn out to be shepherds, whether Abraham, Jacob, Moses, or David.

Interpretation & Opinion

They say that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own set of facts, and as an interpretation of Hebrew Scripture, Hazony’s work does not violate this rule. But any interpretation by necessity suppresses other readings. Hazony mentions in a footnote that he takes issue with the traditional classification of the Bible’s books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job as ‘wisdom literature’, and proceeds to ignore them. Doubtless this is because their ready intelligibility stands in contrast to the imaginative historical narrative of the books of Moses and the Prophets, which have produced a tradition of rabbinic interpretation – of which Hazony is not a part – precisely because they are less transparent in their teaching. The contrast militates against his argument that the latter are rational, and the strain of his labor to render them such shows.

Moreover, Hazony seems content to leave the spiritual inheritance of Jewish monotheism for Christianity to claim as its own, to the exclusion of the Jews. But a critical approach to the divine is shared by Greek philosophy and Jewish monotheism both. No interpretation is necessary to get to the bottom of Xenophanes’ idea that “Men think the gods are born and have clothes and voices and bodies like their own”, or Heraclitus’s claim, “And they pray to the images of the gods, which is like trying to have a conversation with a house; for they do not know the true nature of gods and heroes.” Compare this with Isaiah talking about making idols from wood: “Half of it he burnt with fire, on half of it he ate meat, he roasted a roast and became sated; he even warmed himself and said, ‘Aha, I am warm, I see fire.’ And what is left over from it he made for a god, for his graven image; he kneels to it and prostrates himself and prays to it, and he says, ‘Save me, for you are my god.’ Neither do they know nor do they understand, for their eyes are bedaubed from seeing, their hearts from understanding.” This to my mind is more fertile ground for claiming that Greek philosophy and Hebrew Scripture converge in such a way that they can both be read for wisdom, for both depend on the subversion of idolatry in the name of the unity of the divine.

Hazony would likely grant us our right to differ with him in our reading of Scripture as greater in spiritual than political significance. He adopts the contrary view to our own, but also says that Hebrew Scripture is intended to present a diversity of viewpoints from which one can approach a central teaching that one must seek out rather than being given. The need to question things for oneself – just as one finds out in time whether a road leads one safely to a destination or whether what is seen afar off is seen accurately – indeed Hazony wishes to emphasize is a legacy of Scriptural teaching akin to the questioning encouraged by Greek philosophy. This is in keeping with his goal of flattening out the differences between the two genres, in order that the kind of understanding we think we gain from Greek philosophy may be complemented by the kind of knowledge we can gain from Hebrew Scripture which guides us towards what is of benefit to us – namely, the embrace and espousal of a law-governed peace.

© Brad Rappaport 2023

Brad Rappaport holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Johns Hopkins University and has also studied philosophy at the University of Essex and Vanderbilt University.

The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, Yoram Hazony, Cambridge University Press, 2012, $32.99 pb, 394 pages, ISBN: 9780521176675

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