On Becoming a Critical Torah Scholar
I did not always believe in biblical criticism. I attended an Orthodox Day School, where biblical criticism was, in general, ignored—except for a brief warning not to take any courses that deal with it in college. The world of the Rabbis, or Talmud and Midrash, and of the great medieval parshanim (Rashi, Ramban, Ibn Ezra, and others) was sufficient for all my needs, or so I was told by most of my teachers.
I did not follow that advice, and I discovered modern biblical scholarship in college. Quickly I was hooked, since it offered such compelling answers to such obvious questions. The questions that it dealt with were not new to me, but the answers that it offered were, and they were more elegant, simple, and compelling than what I had been taught earlier.
I realized that Bereshit 1-3 did not consist of a single story but rather two that are fundamentally different. I saw that the order of creation in Bereshit 1, where God created land animals followed by man and woman, contradicts chapter two, where man is created, and then the land animals, and then woman. (If you don’t believe me, reread the text carefully.) These are different stories. And the differences don’t end there—each story has a different style and even favorite words, just like different modern authors: the first uses ברא, usually translated “create,” which is completely absent from the second. Coincidences do happen, but this seemed like a rather unusual coincidence.
Further study multiplied similar observations. For example, is Israel holy (e.g., Devarim 7:6) or is Israel supposed to be holy (Vayikra 19:2)? Is the sukkot festival seven (Devarim 16:15) or eight days (Vayikra 23:26)? The conclusion was inescapable: the Torah is not a single, uniform document. It has a history; it is comprised of earlier written sources that were combined by an editor or redactor. I became a source critic.
Careful study of Tanakh texts outside the Torah convinced me further. Why, I asked myself (and I was not the first to do so), do earlier biblical texts typically speak of torot in the plural, while only in the latest texts do we find terms like the Torah (הַתּוֹרָה), God’s Torah (תּוֹרַת ה׳) or Moses’ Torah (תּוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה)? How could the prophet Amos say (5:25): “Did you offer sacrifice and oblation to Me those forty years in the wilderness, O House of Israel?” suggesting that the wilderness period was a time in which no sacrifices were offered, when Vayikra is full of sacrifices? Doesn’t that mean that the prophet didn’t know Vayikra?
Doesn’t that mean that the prophet didn’t know Vayikra?
More careful study convinced me more and more. I learned that Divrei Hayamim, based on linguistic and other evidence, was a later recasting of earlier historical books, especially Shmuel and Melachim. But when Melachim Alef 8:25 wants to speak of following God’s will, it uses the expression לָלֶכֶת לְפָנַי, “walk before Me”; the later Divrei Hayamim Bet 6:16 recasts this as לָלֶכֶת בְּתוֹרָתִי, “walk in [the path] of My Torah.” This most likely means that the author of Melachim did not yet have a concept of “the Torah,” and that this concept only developed later, which is why it is found in the later Book of Divrei Hayamim. Stated differently, the author of Melachim could not have expected Solomon to follow the Torah since that author himself had no conception of the Torah.
Other revelations followed. For years I had been bothered by the biblical text I recited every Friday, from the second chapter of Bereshit: וַיְכַל אֱלֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, “God ceased on the seventh day the work that He had done.” I thought God rested on the seventh day, not working at all on it? I knew the traditional answers that can be divided into two camps: וַיְכַל should be read as a pluperfect, “had ceased by (the seventh day),” or the creation of Shabbat was in some sense work. But these answers were not really satisfactory: the grammatical explanation just wasn’t true to Hebrew grammar, and creating the Shabbat was not work in the same sense as the previous six days of creation. The Septuagint came to my rescue.
The Septuagint is the standard Greek translation of the Bible, begun in the third pre-Christian century in Alexandria, Egypt, for a Jewish community that did not know Hebrew. (This is not the first “Artscroll generation.”) It is, at least for the Torah, a very literal translation. And it renders that verse as “God ceased on the sixth day,” very likely reading from a Hebrew text that said הַשִּׁשִּׁי, “the sixth,” not הַשְּׁבִיעִי, “the seventh.” Mistakes happen, and the word הַשְּׁבִיעִי, “the seventh,” preserved in our standard Hebrew text probably represents the perpetuation of such an ancient mistake.
We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that the biblical text of the Second Temple period was not fixed and often circulated in different versions with different words and sometimes different sentences and differing sequences of units. One of these versions was ultimately chosen as the standard Jewish biblical text. It was not a perfect text, and other versions, whether from the Dead Sea Scrolls or from ancient translations that were rendered from a text other than the one we use in our Torah scrolls and in our Tanakhim, have value as well. I became a text critic.
Then I studied other ancient Near Eastern texts and languages and read works such the law collection of Hammurabi and the myths from ancient Canaan found in the early twentieth century at Ugarit, a city in Syria. All these texts predate the Bible. I saw that Hammurabi had laws on goring oxen much like the ones Mishpatim 21:28–30. I saw that the myths found in some of the Ugaritic texts, such as those about beings like Leviathan, influenced the Bible (e.g., Yish. 27:1; Iyov 40:25).
I even realized that certain verses in Tehillim look like they are plagiarized from older Canaanite poems. I realized that biblical uniqueness was a myth, that the Bible was deeply embedded in the literature of the surrounding cultures, and as a latecomer, was influenced by it, often very deeply. The Bible was no longer in a self-enclosed bubble. I became a scholar of the Bible as an ancient Near Eastern text.
For me they have enriched the Bible and my Judaism.
These processes continued, and continue. For me they have enriched the Bible and my Judaism. I do not see them as invalidating traditional Jewish interpretation but as complementing it. It is this process of learning these new ways of approaching the Torah and the Tanakh that I hope this website will foster. And I ultimately believe, based on my experience and the experience of others, that these new tools, developed by biblical scholars over the last three centuries, can enrich Judaism, increase the study of Torah, and even enhance Jewish observance.
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May 2, 2013
July 31, 2020
Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and co-author of The Bible and the Believer. Brettler is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) – TheTorah.com.
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