Hebrew Bible and Philosophy

The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture

Yoram Hazony has joined the ranks of those who aim to bridge the divide between Athens and Jerusalem. His new book The Philosophy of the Hebrew Scripture, suggests that “the biblical authors used narrative and prophetic oratory to advance universal arguments about ethics, political philosophy, and metaphysics” (i). Initial reviews are mixed, though I think the biblical studies guild will find the critical review of Jon D. Levenson particularly on point. (Hazony’s website links to numerous reviews and promotional spots.)

While I agree with Levenson on all the major points, I want to highlight a particularly positive moment in Hazony’s book. “The Hebrew Bible is the modern university’s blind side” (20). In arguing that the reason/revelation dichotomy has proved to be an unfortunate impediment to appreciating the Hebrew Bible as a philosophical text, Hazony touches on an important interpretive posture which all readers of ancient (and contemporary?) literature must adopt:

If we refused to study a great thinker every time he disagreed profoundly with our own intuitions  there would be no great philosopher left to study. Think of Plato with his divine voices, his realm of ideas, his acceptance of infanticide, and his communism. Or Newton, with his alchemy, his belief in the growth of matter, his absolute time and space, his God deducible from the laws of physics. Or Kant, with his mystical transcendental deduction, his denial that it is right to lie to save the life of one’s friend. Or of William James’s belief in the occult, or Nietzsche’s assertion that our every action is repeated in an eternally returning cycle. The first thing we learn in reading the great works of the past is that tolerating the counterintuitive is basic to the enterprise. (277 n.26; emphasis added)

That being said, I’m inclined to agree with Levenson what he identifies as a potent factor for why the wider academy ignores or disparages the Hebrew Bible: “the deep secularity of most academics, their profound unease with the notion of a personal God who acts in history, has chosen a particular people for a special covenantal relationship, and has revealed his will (much of it mysterious and seemingly unnecessary) to them.” This is not a judgment he makes in concert with Hazony. As Levenson points out, “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture shares that unease.”

For another Jon Levenson plug, see Charles Halton’s list of books that make great holiday gifts.

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