Works Reviewed: Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, 379 pages.

“Philosophy is useless, theology is worse.” There are times when this warning from the Dire Straits resounds,  not prophetically, but with the banal levity of a jingle. Stuck in within the mess of neurons we once called our minds tirelessly forbidding thought or belief. It isn’t a heavy nihilism though, more of a cliche than anything else. And, no doubt because there is no one else to do it, the theologians and philosophers continue to pursue their subtle movements, never quite sure whether it is a dance or a boxing match. This is done, often enough, with an eye to utility that translates philosophy into political philosophy and theology into political theology.

Politics names only one of the possible connecting points for theology and philosophy. To another we might well give the name religion, and by this we are to understand the questions that arise when approaching questions of ethics, epistemology, and being from a particular confessional tradition. Religion generally conveys the conception of deeply ingrained set of beliefs and mental practices that traverses the psyche of the individual to a much deeper level than that typically associated with politics. From a certain perspective these beliefs and practices are viewed as errant and illegitimate methods of knowing. Religion, then, becomes something opposed to the exercise of human reason and the texts associated with religion are rendered suspect. Particularly when the texts in question are portrayed as originating in a supernatural or revelatory manner.

Or so the story goes. In The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture Yoram Hazony makes the case that the reason/revelation dichotomy has been used to marginalize the Hebrew Bible and render it obscure to the modern reader. He identifies a typology that divides literature into the camps of reason and revelation, where reason is generally associated with philosophical texts written by people like Plato or Thomas Hobbes, while the Bible is firmly counted in the revelation camp as an example of a miraculous knowledge that is to be believed on faith alone. Hazony argues against this reading, arguing that it is a view of the Hebrew Bible forged by the early Christian readings of the texts as well as by anti-Semitic tendencies in the German Enlightenment that celebrated the advent of Greek thought and sought to exclude all things Jewish from the halls of learning. Noting that even Parmenides and Plato make appeals to gods and goddesses in their philosophies, he argues that the texts of the Hebrew Bible should not be banned as examples of the pursuit of human reason simply because they use phrases like “the Lord said.” Hazony then goes on to outline how one might approach the Hebrew Bible as a work of reason, and draws out an ethics, political philosophy, and epistemology from its texts.

The result is an intriguing and at times insightful book. Hazony provides a good overview of the three major divisions of the Hebrew Bible into the History of Israel, the Orations of the Prophets, and Writings. This is a fairly standard way of dividing the works of the Hebrew Scriptures according to major genre or literary traditions. Hazony`s main novelty is to place the central focus on the History, rather  than the Torah, as a continuous narrative which opens up “a space in which a certain discourse arises, and a search for truth that is, in effect, unending.“(65) This certain discourse, which is then understood to be written across the face of the Hebrew Bible, is essentially philosophy; Hazony argues that the biblical authors are “concerned to advance arguments of a universal or general significance.t(23)

Hazony adeptly traverses the biblical narrative, drawing on its typologies and parallels to produce a cohesive and close-knit reading of the text. The ethics of the bible is the ethics of the shepherd, a freedom-loving and at time rebellious figure, who stands in opposition to the pious farmer. This typology is cast first with the story of Cain and Abel, where Cain is supposed to represent the piety of the grain-keeping nations like Babylonia and Abel is the figure of dissent whose echo can be read across the History in the stories of Abraham, Jacob, and all the stories of “dissent and disobedience that give use the courage to wrestle with man and with God where we must.”(139)

There is certainly something intriguing about this reading, which recaptures a sense of the heroic, of tempering obedience to the law with reason and courage. Hazony’s attention to the literary cohesion of the biblical corpus is exquisite, his attention to the historical context in which it arose less so. The simple dichotomy between shepherd and farmer does not provide an accurate picture of the socio-economic realities of the Ancient Near East, and reading too much into this typology may be to cast the concerns of the modern imagination back into the text. Hazony, who is quite skeptical of most of the efforts of historical criticism, intends to read the Bible as a completed literary work. In this case, one could well imagine, that the mythic past of simpler economic times already informed the contemporary imagination, thus providing the biblical philosopher with a framework within which to advance his arguments. 

Taken in isolation the distaste for historical criticism would be excusable. It is, indeed, a growing trend within the field of biblical interpretation to pay more attention to the literary qualities of the works themselves. Hazony’s insistence on reading the Hebrew Bible strictly as a work of philosophy, however, leads him to dismiss many of the developments in biblical studies as irrelevant or misled. This comes out most strongly in his analysis of the New Testament. Hazony begins the book by castigating the reason/revelation dichotomy for the way in which it obscures the meaning and purpose of the Hebrew Bible. This dichotomy, he maintains, is largely the result of early Christian distortions. The New Testament, it appears, was composed principally to bear witness to certain events and establish their reliability. The New Testament, essentially juridic in its character, perpetuates a secretive esoteric knowledge that is anathema to the philosophic pursuits of the Hebrew texts. This is Hazony’s take on the New Testament and, while it certainly points to one of the ways those texts have been read, it is not a reading well-informed by scholarship in the field of biblical studies. The New Testament is a work of diasporic thought whose authors are struggling to make sense of their ancestral culture and the promises of God in light of a new cultural, political, and religious context. True the format of the narrative is different, the individual witness and the juridical metaphor do take a more central role. A form of collective identity other than the national or ethnic also emerges. Does this mean that the New Testament is a work devoid of reason? 
Hazony, in a reading shaped almost exclusively by Tertullian, suggests that the answer is yes. In doing so he is forced to repeat the reason/revelation dichotomy which he had earlier decried. He is also bound to a philosophy that is bound to a national character, a philosophy that has no room for the concerns of  individual, no resilience or resistance for times when the prevailing wisdom is bound up with the violent unjust excesses of state. It is unfortunate that Hazony cannot find in the diasporic some resonance with the post-exilic. Unfortunate too that, despite protestations to the contrary, Hazony ultimately reads both scripture and philosophy as closed books, everything has been written there is no room for the new in political configurations, ethical views of the self, or understandings of truth.
Yet, at its strongest moments, Hazony does point to these possibilities. The task of the reader is perhaps to take him seriously in his suggestion to read the biblical texts as works that are not entirely foreign to human reason and to expand this reading in ways that are historically consistent and engage more fully with the breadth of human experience and imagination, allowing for the divine spark of creativity and the revelatory character which accompanies not only religion but all forms of true knowledge. Perhaps, then, we could shake off the persistent commercial jingles that stifle thought and erode conviction.