Thursday, May 07, 2020

The Hebrew Bible - Outstanding questiions


The following pages summarize the the first section of the Abrahamica studies of Wayne R. Dynes, which approach the foundational texts through the deposit of critical and historical studies over the last two and a half centuries.

At the outset, it is essential to separate the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Tanakh, from its appropriation by Christians who project into it significant anticipations of the New Testament beliefs.  In this light the term Old Testament should be discarded.  Moreover, in recent years many scholars have abandoned the traditional BC/AD system of dating in favor of the more neutral B.C.E./C.E. designations.

Foundational to the historical and critical inquiry is the examination of the first five books, the Torah proper, also called the Pentateuch.  These studies have led to the abandonment of the traditional ascription to Moses, replacing it with assumptions of a variety of authors.  The classic formulation of this pluralistic approach was worked out by nineteenth-century scholars in Germany.   The Documentary Hypothesis, as it is sometimes termed, long predominated as the leading model employed by biblical scholars to explain the origins and composition of the Pentateuch, ranking as the first five books of the Hebrew Bible in the conventional order.  The Documentary Hypothesis asserts that the Pentateuch is a compilation of four originally independent documents: the Jahwist (J), Elohist (E), Deuteronomist (D), and Priestly (P) sources. The sources would have been joined together at various points in time by a series of editors or "redactors."

A version of the Documentary Hypothesis, frequently identified with the German scholar Julius Wellhausen who produced the most influential version, was almost universally accepted for most of the twentieth century.  Recently some modification, fine tuning if you will, has been suggested by the publications of John Van Seters, Hans Heinrich Schmid, and Rolf Rendtorff in the mid-1970s. These authors argued that J is to be dated no earlier than the time of the Babylonian captivity (597–539 BCE) -  it may be later still -  and questioned the existence of a substantial E source. In fact, Van Seters, Schmid, and Rendtorff retained the pluralistic assumptions underlying the Documentary Hypothesis, differing about what changes would be required.

The absence of archaeological evidence for the Exodus narrative, and the anachronisms in the patriarchal narratives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, have convinced the majority of scholars that the Pentateuch does not provide an accurate account of the origins of Israel. This finding is consistent with the rejection of the traditional claim that the Pentateuch could not have been written by Moses during the second millennium BCE.

Today many scholars decline to accept the historicity of the leading figures of the early patriarchal period, including Abraham and Moses.  In fact there is no archaeological or other independent evidence for their existence.

Moreover, the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt is denied, together with the traditional narrative of the Exodus.  If there was no such migration, one must conclude that the ancient Israelites continued to dwell in their established homeland in the uplands if eastern Palestine.

Over the long term, the most influential source has been D, originally embodied in the core chapters (12-26) of the Book of Deuteronomy.  This work is assumed to have given rise to the broader "school" that produced all of the rest of Deuteronomy as well as the Deuteronomist history of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, and also the book of Jeremiah.

In 1999 the Israeli archaeologist, Ze’ev Herzog observed: “This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom. And it will come as an unpleasant shock to many that the God of Israel, Jehovah, had a female consort and that the early Israelite religion adopted monotheism only in the waning period of the monarchy and not at Mount Sinai. Most of those who are engaged in scientific work in the interlocking spheres of the Bible, archaeology and the history of the Jewish people--and who once went into the field looking for proof to corroborate the Bible story --now agree that the historic events relating to the stages of the Jewish people's emergence are radically different from what that story tells.”

Surely, it will be said, the ancient Israelites deserve credit for introducing monotheism to the world.  Not so, as that distinction belongs to the Egyptian pharaoh, Akhenaten, ruling in the fourteenth century BCE.  

At all events, the Hebrew Bible teems with many names of God or Gods. Today, Orthodox Jews maintain that every name refers to the same God, except those terms which designate the false deities of other religions. Yet some of the approved names from ancient Israel are strikingly similar to the names of gods from the polytheistic religions of the surrounding territories.

A major turning point was the uncovering of religious documents in Ugarit (Ras Shamra), an ancient Semitic city on the coast of Syria. These documents offer valuable comparative material.  At the summit of Ugaritic pantheon stood the chief god, Ilu or El, the "father of mankind," and "the creator of the creation." The Court of El or Ilu was referred to as the 'lhm. The most important of the other great gods were Hadad, the king of Heaven, Athirat or Asherah (familiar to readers of the Bible), Yam (Sea, the god of primordial chaos, tempests, and mass-destruction) and Mot (Death).  And many other gods were honored.

Here are some obvious parallels. In the Hebrew bible, God is often designated as El, recalling the chief God of the Canaanite pantheon. Furthermore, the term Elohim, now regarded as merely another name of God, served in the Canaanite religion as a term for the whole court of El. (The original Hebrew texts not having vowels, Elohim in Hebrew is basically the same as 'lhm.) Some of the other Gods featured in the Ugaritic texts are also mentioned in the Tanakh, not as synonymous with the Jewish God, but rather as "other gods.”

Asherah figured prominently in the Canaanite pantheon, where she ranked as the consort of El, and the mother of his seventy sons. Some scholars believe that Asherah was worshiped by many in ancient Israel and Judah; in fact, Jeremiah refers to her as "the Queen of Heaven."  Jeremiah 7.18 reads as follows: “The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead [their] dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.”

Another major Canaanite deity was Ba'al, who is mentioned in the Hebrew bible. Today, Orthodox Jews understand Ba'al to be a false god -- or several false gods -- yet the figure was evidently quite popular in Jeremiah's time.

In the Hebrew bible Yahweh is assimilated to El. But Yahweh may have started out in Canaanite religion as one of the seventy sons of El. The Dead Sea Scrolls fragment of Deuteronomy 32.8-9, agreeing with the Septuagint, reads as follows: “When the Most High ('Elyon) allotted peoples for inheritance, When He divided up the sons of man, He fixed the boundaries for peoples, According to the number of the sons of El But Yahweh’s portion is his people, Jacob His own inheritance.”

The argument for the original polytheistic context presiding at Judaism's birth is bolstered by the name "Elohim." Grammatically, "Elohim" has the form of a plural masculine noun, and indeed is often used that way in the Hebrew bible when used to refer to "other gods." (Needless to say, the belief found among some Christians that Elohim is a reference to the Trinity is extremely unlikely.) However, the term is often treated as a singular noun, as in Genesis 1.1. Some scholars hold that the plural form of "Elohim" reflects early Judaic polytheism. They argue that it originally meant 'the gods,” or the “sons of El,” the supreme being. They suggest that the word may have been recast as a singular noun by later monotheist priests who sought to erase evidence of worship of the many gods of the Judaean pantheon, replacing them with their own special patron god Yahweh. This is the Yahweh-alone gambit. Yet as we have seen, the erasure was incomplete.

On several occasions the Pentateuch mentions El Shaddai, usually translated in English-speaking Bibles as “God Almighty.” The expression may mean "God of the mountains," referring to a Mesopotamian sacred concept. In Exodus 6:3 the term was one of the patriarchal names for the tribal god of the Mesopotamians.

Acknowledging the polytheist substratum helps us to understand why there are four distinct words built on the same stem: El, Elohim, Eloah, and El Shaddai. El, the father god, has many divine sons, who are known by the plural of his name, Elohim, or Els. Eloah, might then serve to differentiate each of the lesser gods from El himself. As we have noted, El Shaddai seems to have been an imported cult.

In his book The Hebrew Goddess, Raphael Patai collected various types of evidence for a feminine divine (or semidivine) principle in Judaism, culminating in the Hokhma (personification of Wisdom, or Sophia) of Proverbs and several deuterocanonical books, expanded by the rabbis into the notion of the Shekhina, the feminine side of the High God. These elaborations demonstrate that polytheistic straying was not limited to the period of the formation of Judaism. It has recurred.

To be sure, the religion of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, evolved, like any other human institution. As with similar movements, adepts were unable to resist the temptation of retrojecting later convictions back into earlier centuries. So it is with Yahweh-exclusivity.

The passages cited above suffice to show the polytheistic entanglements of the religion of ancient Israel. Later revisers and exegetes never completely succeeded in erasing this element. Inconveniently for the champions of the pure-monotheistic thesis, the taint of religious pluralism lingers in the received text of the Tanakh, emerging there with disconcerting frequency.

While early Israel was, so to speak, infected by polytheism, it had a somewhat skimpy cohort of deities--a kind of basic pantheon. As we know from the Ugaritic documents, the Canaanites acknowledged over 200 deities. Ancient Israelites had to content themselves with seven main ones: El, Baal, Asherah, Yahweh, and the sun, moon, and stars. Frugal as it is in comparative perspective, that heptad suffices to demonstrate the prevalence of polytheism, not monotheism. Moreover, with further archaeological work, the presence of other deities may come to light.

A side point is that not all the deities recognized in the slimmed-down Israelite pantheon are rooted in Canaan. Yahweh himself probably stems from a source in the south, in Edom and the Midianite region. Moreover, even if gods like Baal were hated and despised (not members of the approved pantheon), they were still widely accepted as gods. Theophoric names, such as Jezebel and Beelzebub attest this status.

Another finding of recent scholarship is the demolition of old notion of Canaanite religion as a licentious fertility cult. This notion has elicited a certain prurient interest, but its main function has been to contrast the self-indulgent Canaanites with the noble, self-denying Israelites, who bequeathed to us the supreme gift of ethical monotheism. As Dennis Pardee remarks: "The fertility cult so dear to the heart of the older generation of Hebrew and Ugaritic scholars shows up clearly in neither corpus; the sexual depravity that some have claimed to be characteristic of the Canaanite cult in general has left no trace in any of the Ugaritic texts.” 

The question of authorship presents many contrasts with traditional views. As discussed above, Moses is no longer accepted as the author of the Pentateuch.  There have been other demotions. It is now generally agreed that David did not write Psalms, and Solomon was not responsible for the Wisdom text commonly attributed to him.  

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Tanakh is the genocide of the Amalekites.  Seemingly, the Amalekites treacherously attacked the Israelites as they were traveling during the Exodus process (Ex 17:8). "When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and cut off all who were lagging behind.” (Dt 25:17-18). Later they attacked Israel during the time of the Judges (Judges 3:13), often raiding the Israelites' land after they had planted crops (Judges 6:2-5). God punished the Amalekites by ordering Saul to destroy them utterly (1 Samuel 15:2-3), over 300 years after they had first attacked Israel. Whether they were actually physically destroyed is disputed.  What is disturbing is that any ancient people would cherish such a legend.

The Book of Isaiah is the first of the Latter Prophets in the Hebrew Bible. A superscription identifies it as the words of the eighteenth-century BCE prophet Isaiah ben Amoz, but there is extensive evidence that much of it was composed during the Babylonian captivity and later. After Johann Christoph Döderlein suggested in 1775 that the book contained the works of two prophets separated by more than a century, Bernhard Duhm originated the view, generally accepted, that the book comprises three separate collections of oracles: Proto-Isaiah (chapters 1–39), purportedly containing the words of the original prophet; Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40–55), seemingly the work of an anonymous sixth-century BCE author writing during the Exile; and Trito-Isaiah (chapters 56–66), composed after the return from Exile. 

We turn to the larger question: when in fact did the texts comprising the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh come into existence?  Once again, traditional views are contradicted by recent interpretations.  According to the traditional view, seen for example in Louis Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews, the twenty-four book canon of the Hebrew Bible was fixed by Ezra and the scribes in the Second Temple period.  According to the Talmud, much of the Tanakh was compiled by the men of the Great Assembly (Anshei K'nesset HaGedolah), a task completed in 450 BCE, and it has remained unchanged ever since.

The scholars of the minimalist school hold that the Hebrew Bible reached its present form only in the third or second century BCE, that is, in the Hellenistic period. At all events, the ordinary view that the texts came into being not long after the events described cannot be sustained.

The foregoing analysis has been confined to the evidence discernible from the text of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible.  Yet there were significant additions in the rabbinical era, commencing about 200 CE.  One of the most important of these adjuncts is the concept of the Oral Torah.

What is the Oral Torah? First, it is not simply a “synonym for the Mishnah and the Talmud” (as the glossary in the Jewish Study Bible suggests), though to be sure those texts are major vectors of it. Nor is it the “authoritative interpretation of [Written] Torah” (idem). This last would appear to be a concept derived from Christian hermeneutics.

Perhaps the best short definition derives from David Stern. “[T]he Rabbis believed that the Bible--or what they called the Written Torah--was only one of two revelations God had given to the children of Israel on Mt. Sinai. Alongside the Written Torah, they believed, God had also revealed to the Israelites an Oral Torah, which as its name indicates, was delivered and transmitted orally. Precisely how to define the Oral Torah is one of the great debates among Jewish scholars. For our present purposes we may say that it comprises everything that the Rabbis believed was ‘Judaism’ that is not explicitly written in the Torah; admittedly, this is a vast and heterogeneous body of material that encompasses everything from the many laws not spelled out in the Bible to the Rabbis’ own beliefs and theology as well as all their folk wisdom and lore.” As the last point reveals, this is an ocean without bounds. Almost anything said by a rabbi, at any time or place, could be part of the Oral Torah.

Of course, some would take a more restrictive view, holding that the Oral Torah was essentially complete by ca. 600 CE, when the canon of the two Talmuds was closed. Yet no one is compelled to adopt this minimalist approach. And it remains the case that, in the Jewish view, the Mishnah and the Talmuds, despite their lofty status as examples of wisdom and scholarship, are in the end merely vectors of the Oral Torah. They are, as it were, lodging places for a phenomenon of much greater extent. According to the traditional view, it starts with Moses, Indeed, as delivered to him, it was complete then. Yet full disclosure of its manifold contents may not have been achieved even now. In this view, there is nothing to prevent an opinion expressed in 2020 by a rabbi in Grand Rapids or Toulouse, let us say, from ranking as an authentic manifestation of some component of the Oral Torah.

There is, needless to say, a certain appeal residing in this view taking it in its largest sense.  That is the idea that we can, all of us, from time to time utter real truths.


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