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Convoluted Bible Criticism As A Replacement For Actually Understanding The Torah On Its Own Terms

July 15, 2015

The other day, I got into an online discussion with the usual gang of bloggers about the meaning of one the recent parashiyoth. One of my major points was repackaged as its own post two weeks ago. What surprised me the most about the whole discussion was this: my disputant sent me a link to this article at the The website has some hundred contributors, some Orthodox, but the vast majority, like Rabbi Frankel, are Conservative or worse, and they subscribe to the most pernicious form of Bible criticism, the kind that seeks to show how the Torah is just a badly edited cut-and-paste project. Just read his conclusion:

This analysis has important ramifications for source analysis of the Torah. It shows that the editorial work of the redactors was far more complex than is often imagined. The simplest approach is to assume that composite texts in the Bible simply juxtapose parallel versions of the same basic story in a continuous narrative. The case of the non-Priestly verses in Numbers 20 should alert us to the fact that biblical editors may often have been much more flexible and creative while integrating their sources. 

That is, when I read parashath huqqath, the details bring out the themes of the entire book of Numbers and show harmonious purpose, a purpose that teaches us about God’s will and obedience to His word, whereas when he reads it, he sees that individual pieces of the narrative reflect conflicting versions and not all of it can be true. No actual lessons can be gleaned, either. Did the people complain about the lack of water but once, and the confused “final redactor” included parts of two written versions of the event? Did the redactor include two stories about the Israelites complaining about the lack of food because he could not decide which account was the most accurate? More importantly, my disputant failed to grasp my point, which was made even granting his. Even if the final edition is a composite work, when we read it as a whole, we see that the redactor included certain details, and therefore we cannot discount that perhaps the composite story should be understood exactly as he presented it, and therefore the subtle differences between the peoples’ words in the intervening episodes might be there to teach something. 

The whole critical enterprise ignores the possibility that two similar events can happen, and that one trying to present certain points would, in order to bring out another point, highlight the major similarities and critical differences. You don’t think that twice in a 40-year period the Jews had a lack of water in the Wilderness? Yes, the episodes could have been very different, but the redactor purposely described the stories similarly in order to bring out a critical contrast: that one time, the people are held accountable for their behavior, whereas the other time Moses is faulted. Any other details, the details whcih would probably illustrate how different the incidences were,  which there of course were, are superfluous and therefore discarded.

This may be compared to multiple accounts of Netanyahu’s getting elected. Imagine that someone were to write a biblical style book today that would be analyzed critically 2,500 years from now. The main players involved in both the 2013 and 2015 Knesset elections, Netanyahu, Bennett, Lapid, Lieberman, Livni, the Haredite parties, the Arabs, Obama, etc. were all there, and the issues were very much the same, but the resulting coalitions were radically different. The first featured the anti-haredite Lapid party as Bibi’s largest coalition partner, and his agenda was pushed through rather quickly. The latter Knesset had the Haredite parties instead of Lapid, and it quickly got to work undoing whatever the previous Knesset did. A prophet who would write about such events would highlight the similarities, and then make note of the main differences. Let’s make this difficult. He approved of the first government, but not the second, so he would describe the first as having done right in the eyes of God, and the second as not. Story 1:

And it came to pass that Netanyahu did form his government with the parties of Lapid and Bennett and Lieberman, and they ended many of the needless handouts, and reformed the draft laws, and reformed the conversion laws, and they did well in the eyes of the Lord.

Story 2 appears in the same book, but some chapters later:

And it came to pass that Netanyahu did form his government with Bennett and Kahlon and the Haredites, and they restored the handouts to the way they were, and undid the draft and conversion reforms. And God’s wrath flared against them.

The bible critic then comes along and notes that the accounts seem too similar to each other, so he assumes that both could not have actually happened. The truth is somewhere in between. The first account is attributed to some imaginary Lapidists who were trying to create a mythological account of their former glory when they held some power, while the second story was from a different, pro-Haredite source text. He’ll call the first the “L” source, and the second, the “H” source. 

Here’s a prime example of some more tripe from the “frum” critics: Three “differing” accounts of Joshua’s initiation and ordination. The three accounts are presented as conflicting with each other, as though Joshua was appointed once, and then had no further dealings with Moses and had nothing more to learn from him and God about leadership. Consider a more recent example, succession in the British monarchy. Prince Charles was born in 1948, the son of the then heir-to-throne, Princess Elizabeth. His official name and title was only “Prince Charles of Edinburgh.” When his grandfather, George VI, died in 1952, he became known as “The Prince Charles, Duke of Cornwall,” the title denoting his automatically becoming heir to the British throne, and in 1958, his mother declared that he would officially accept the title of “Prince of Wales.” All of these were well-publicized events, each with their own official pronouncement, but it was only in 1969 or so that he was officially crowned prince of Wales in a globally televised ceremony. The Bible critics of the future would look at a biblically-styled account of these events and conclude that indeed they all relate to the same person, but they are all differing accounts of one event, and the differences in the accounts are due to socio-political considerations of the redactors. The story of Charles becoming Duke of Cornwall, as opposed to Prince of Wales, comes from an anti-monarchist school of political functionaries, who sought to write a history of a weak, female monarch who never bore any male heirs fit for the throne, and the two accounts of his becoming prince of Wales, the former without a coronation and the latter with a coronation, represent two-subschools among the monarchists. The first school did not require coronation to establish the legitimacy of monarchs or their heirs, and the latter did. See how easy it is to be a bible critic! The text never means what it says. Two similar but conflicting accounts do not indicate a simplified understanding of history. They represent two biased, diverging views of history that cannot be harmonized. I am also reminded of this classic movie scene, made from footage shot in two different takes years apart from each other. The critic sees how they were spliced together, but ignores the director’s intentions, despite his knowledge of the differing sources, to present one complete scene:

My greatest complaint against this approach is similar to Maimonides’s opposition to studying Messianism: it does not lead to intellectual, moral, or ethical improvement. It has no to’eleth outside of showing that the final edition of the Torah as we have it still needs to be edited. When we study the Torah, we should be seeking what it means in the form as we have it. I am fairly certain that the redactor was well aware of all the details he included, and he wrote them that way on purpose.


From → original, parasha

One Comment
  1. L. Asher Shimshon Burrows permalink

    Avi, if you write a modern, politically themed book of the prophets, I will buy one.

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