The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture
By Yoram Hazony
Cambridge University Press, 2012, 380 pages
Yoram Hazony offers an interpretation of the Hebrew Bible that may initially bother many religious people, but when they think about what he is saying, they may feel that they have gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of Scripture.
Hazony states that we should read “Hebrew Scriptures as works of reason or philosophy,” not as a document that must be accepted based on blind faith. It makes no difference whether one believes that Scripture was miraculously revealed or that it was composed by intelligent people, “we’ll get much further in understanding what these texts were intended to say to us if we read them as works of reason.” What is important is our duty to explore “how best to conduct the life of the nation and of the individual.”
He gives many examples that prove that the Hebrew Bible reflects natural law and that it teaches people to use their intelligence, think, seek truth, and not passively accept traditions. In fact, the Bible doesn’t present a single view of life. The Bible is composed of “often sharply conflicting texts.” It is an assembly of works “so readers could strive to understand the various perspectives embraced by [these views], and in so doing build up an understanding of their own.”
The Bible, Hazony emphasizes, extols the life of the shepherd over that of the farmer. Farmers and city dwellers are generally people who are stagnant, obey instructions, accept a way of life without questioning it and sticking to this life without personal growth; while shepherds are people on the move, always seeking to better themselves, thinkers. Biblical heroes such as Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, and many others were shepherds. A shepherd is “disobedient, preoccupied with improving his own lot and that of his dependents, and willing to overturn the inherited order to achieve this end.” Like Abraham and Moses, thinkers defy the views of the leaders of their society and even dispute with God. Thinkers feel that “A state that does not serve the right kind of ethical purpose is for them no state, just as a god that does not serve this purpose is for them no god.” And the Bible is clear that God “loves those who disobey for the sake of what is right…when a man has used his freedom to wrestle with him and to prevail.”
The Bible holds “individuals and nations morally responsible for their actions even where they appear to have received no laws or commands from him of any kind.” Thus, for example, Cain is punished for murdering his brother, Noah’s generation is destroyed for their violence, and Sodom for its perversity, even though they were never commanded not to kill and to act properly. The “sheer quantity of such examples [shows that] God’s commands are either supplementary to, or themselves expressions of, a fundamental moral law that derives from the nature of things.” Biblical laws are a base that challenges people to build upon to create a better life.
While demonstrating that the Bible teaches that people are obliged to think, Hazony offers his readers much more, including an extensive investigation into the meaning of terms that most people accept without really understanding them, such as truth, faith, justice, amen, and reliability, and what it means to be human and to obey God. Readers will be especially intrigued by Hazony’s discussion on, if Scripture was not revealed by God, why does it say frequently “God said”? Among other things, Hazony shows that the ancient philosophers also ascribed their rational thoughts to a god.