Four Views about Divine Revelation


There is no single view about divine revelation of the Bible. The following are four of the many opinions that scholars have offered.


Abraham Ibn Ezra

Ibn Ezra (1089-c.1167) mentions what he calls his “secret of the twelve” in his commentary to Deuteronomy 1:2. He does not explain his “secret,” probably because of his fear of offending those with a contrary view. Ibn Ezra’s super commentator Josef Bonfils explained the secret in his Zophnat Panei’ach, which he wrote in 1370. Bonfils explains that ibn Ezra realized that Moses could not have written the last twelve verses of the Pentateuch which tells about his death and burial – hence the name “secret of the twelve.” Ibn Ezra lists six more biblical passages that he felt could not have been composed by Moses.

  1. Deuteronomy 1:1 relates that God spoke to Moses on the “other side of the Jordan.” This implies that the writer wrote from the eastern side of the Jordan, but Moses never crossed the Jordan.
  2. Deuteronomy 31:9 uses the third person “and Moses wrote.” This seems to indicate that some other writer is narrating the deeds and writings of Moses.
  3. Genesis 12:6 recites that Abraham traveled throughout the land of Canaan. It adds “and the Canaanite was then in the land.” The statement appears to exclude the time when the passage was written when Canaanites were no longer in the land. Therefore it must have been composed after Moses’ death, after the Canaanites had been driven from Canaan.
  4. Genesis 22:14 calls Mount Moriah the “mount of God.” Since the mountain probably did not acquire this name until after the building of the Temple on this site, the choice of the Temple site was not made during Moses’ lifetime, and Moses did not indicate any spot chosen by God, the phrase must have been composed many years after Moses’ death.
  5. Deuteronomy 3:11 states that the bed of Og, king of Bashan, was nine cubits long and four cubits wide. Since the bed was probably not discovered until the city of Rabbath, where it was located, was conquered by David, it could not have been written before the Davidic era.
  6. Deuteronomy 27:1 reports that the entire Torah was written on stones and the rabbis explain that there were twelve stones. Ibn Ezra remarks: if Moses wrote all of the material that we consider the Torah today, it could not be placed on only twelve stones.

It is true that one could explain each of the half dozen passages mentioned by ibn Ezra and show that they do not necessarily imply that Moses did not write them. Indeed, the Talmuds address and answer these and similar problems and many later Torah scholars wrote explanations. However, ibn Ezra himself felt that they prove that Moses did not write the entire Torah.


Baruch Spinoza

In 1670, Baruch de Spinoza (1634–1677) – who was excommunicated for his beliefs – published his Tractatus Theologico-Publicus and took the expected next step. He mentions the passages that ibn Ezra noted and writes that while the “secret of the twelve” could refer to the last twelve verses of the Pentateuch as Bonfils contended, it could also refer to the twelve stone tablets of Deuteronomy 27:1, which suggests that Moses’ Torah was far smaller than the Pentateuch we have today. He contends that ibn Ezra must have noted many more passages that show that Moses did not compose them. He lists about another half dozen passages of this type and concludes: “From what has been said, it is clearer than the sun at noonday that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses, but by someone who lived long after him.”


David Weiss Halivni

David Weiss Halivni (born 1927), a scholar and winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship, noted,[1] as did many others, including rabbis in the Talmud, that there are many difficulties in the Bible. For example, the first chapter of Genesis seems to state that God created a man and a woman at the same time, while the second chapter says the woman was created at a later time out of the man’s side. The book of Exodus has one version of the Ten Commandments while the book of Deuteronomy has the same commands but with different wording and spelling. The book of Genesis has two tales of Abraham leaving Canaan and telling the residents of the visited places that his wife is his sister in order to save himself from being killed. His plan backfires both times. Didn’t he learn from the first incident and not repeat his mistake? Then the story is repeated with his son Isaac. Was there originally only one story?

The talmudic rabbis offered solutions. For example, they explain that the first chapter of Genesis is a general statement that God created a man and a woman, while the second chapter has the details that the creation was performed in two stages. But their explanations didn’t satisfy everyone.

By the eighteenth century “biblical criticism” became rampant, a multitude of biblical difficulties were pointed out, and the “documentary hypothesis” was developed. It dismissed the idea of a divine revelation out of hand. It contended that the five books of Moses is a collection of disparate document that was probably put together by the biblical Ezra in the fourth century BCE. Ezra and his cohorts collected a large assortment of unlike fragments that had been considered important or holy by Jews in the past. They stitched the documents together with little or no editing; for who would dare change a holy document. Since the writings came from different sources with dissimilar versions of ancient tales and since Ezra felt that he could make no or little alterations or corrections, the text that he assembled kept the different versions, discrepancies, and other difficulties.

David Weiss Halivni, an observant Jew, developed his own original idea in his Revelation Restored. He insists on the correctness of the traditional view that God interfered with natural law some three thousand years ago and revealed the Torah, the five books of Moses, to the Israelites after they escaped Egyptian bondage. This Torah, Halivni states, was perfect. God revealed it because he wanted to give humanity a gift of perfect knowledge that would teach them how to behave.

However, a problem occurred after the revelation when God stopped interfering with the laws of nature that he created and ceased being involved in human affairs. God gave the Torah to humanity to help them, but people ignored the Torah and it fell into disuse.

Fragments remained here and there, but no one guarded the divine treasure. Along with the ancient fragments were less ancient human versions of the lost and disused Torah, frequently distorted memories of what people thought the Torah had said. Some recalled that God told Noah to save a pair of each animal, others that it was seven of each. Some were certain that the original Torah had Reuben save his brother Joseph from being killed by the other sons of Jacob, while some people were just as certain that it was Judah. As a result both versions are Genesis 7 and 37.

In short, Halivni maintained the traditional belief in revelation while agreeing with biblical criticism that Ezra compiled fragments and constructed the Torah we have today.[2]


Rabbi Kook

Pinchas Polonsky describes the open-minded concept of Rabbi Abraham-Yitzhak Kook (1865-1935)[3]. His “teachings reflect a deep modernization of the Jewish faith and of its approach to an array of contemporary problems.” Polonsky calls Kook’s approach “Modern Orthodoxy.” But explained that his ideas could, and indeed should, radically change the way Judaism and other religions are practiced.

Rabbi Kook taught that there is “continuing revelation.” The original divine revelation at Sinai was important, but it did not stop. God is revealed today in daily events, science, history, and the development of culture. Men and women need to observe, examine, and ponder these items and events to understand what God is revealing.

Polonsky wrote that this is the way Rabbi Kook understood what ancient prophets heard and saw and interpreted it. “A prophet is one who brings the word of God to the people, in particular through the understanding of the historical process. In a sense, a prophet is a religious history teacher or, more accurately, one who exhorts the people to see religious meaning in historic events.” A prophet is not a soothsayer who miraculously predicts the future; a prophet teaches people how to see God’s message revealed in history and daily events.


In summary

Four of the many ways that people understood revelation are described. Ibn Ezra questioned whether every detail in the Bible was revealed by God and recorded by Moses. Spinoza felt certain that nothing in the Bible was revealed by God. Noting difficulties in the Bible, as did ibn Ezra and Spinoza, Halivni insisted that God revealed the Torah but people neglected it and it became scrambled. Rabbi Kook reinterpreted the concept of revelation and said that God is revealed in nature, intelligent people recognize this and pass on their observations and thoughts, this happened in the past and it should happen today.


[1] In Revelation Restored, Divine Writ and Critical Responses, 1997.

[2] Why would the all-knowing deity bother to reveal a Torah when God knows that humans will corrupt it? Perhaps the answer is that despite the difficulties, the Torah is still vibrant, important, and helpful, and, therefore, a holy document.

[3] In his 2009 book Religious Zionism of Rav Kook. Rabbi Kook was appointed by the British, who were then in control of Palestine, as the country’s first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in 1921.