Cracks in the Edifice: A Personal Reflection
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Encounters with Academic Studies
Since my teenage years, I have been aware of the tension between academic biblical studies and Torah mi-Sinai as presented by some of my teachers. For years, as I was mastering my yeshiva studies, I put these concerns aside with the implicit understanding that I would return to them when I became more grounded in traditional learning. Eventually, in my mid-twenties, I signed up to study biblical history at Hebrew University.
As I began my studies, I started to learn Tanakh with the historical-critical approach. As I deepened my facility with this methodology, I realized that I was constantly engaged in apologetics with myself, subscribing to readings of texts and theories that I would not be inclined to subscribe to if it were any other subject and if my beliefs were not at stake. This was intolerable to me since if I could not be honest with myself, I was lost before I started. At that point I made a fundamental methodological decision: I would compartmentalize my thinking for a while. When I studied history and text I would do so without any preconceived notions, no matter what the conclusion, and I would not let that effect my religious thinking until I felt I had a real grasp of the subject.
Over these years, I became proficient in the nuts and bolts of ancient history and academic biblical interpretation, learning Sumerian, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Egyptian, Greek and Latin so that I could read important material in the original. I learned about source criticism, redaction criticism, form criticism, literary theory, and a variety of other tools that academic biblical scholars use when studying the text. As I became more adept at this, I began to notice a myriad of problems. I will offer here some illustrative examples.
- The stories about Abraham and Isaac claiming their wives were their sisters do not work well in context. Sarah is old enough that she laughs (she even claims others will laugh) when told that she will have children (Gen. 18:12), yet she is taken by Abimelech (Gen. 20:2), ostensibly due to how fair she is. When Isaac behaves the same way with Abimelech, Rebekah is not taken, but Abimelech believes Isaac and later takes him to task for lying (Gen. 26:9-10). And yet, how could Abimelech believe Rebekah to be Isaac’s unmarried sister when the couple already has twins (Gen. 25:24)?
- Jacob has 12 children (11 sons and at least one daughter) in seven years (Gen. 29:32-30:25). Although admittedly possible, even with four wives this is a serious stretch. Leah has seven just in this period, and even has time to worry about how she stopped having children (Gen. 30:9)! Something is not quite right about this timeline. It is best explained as an attempt to fit two traditions into one narrative framework: Jacob’s many children and the account of Jacob in Aram.
- There are a number of name inconsistencies in the biblical text. For example: Who was Moshe’s father-in-law, Reuel (Exod. 2:18), Jethro (Exod. 3:1), or Chovav (Num. 10:29)? Additionally, was his father-in-law a Midianite (Exodus and Numbers above) or was he a Kenite (Judg. 1:16 and 4:11)? What is the name of the mountain of God? Is it Sinai (Exod. 19:20, 24:16, Lev. 7:38, 25:1, Num. 3:1, Neh. 9:13, etc.) or Horeb (Exod. 33:6, Deut. 5:6, 18:16, 1 Kings 19:8, etc.)? It appears that the Torah records competing traditions in all of these cases.
- Who sold Joseph? The brothers (Gen. 37:27) or the Midianites (Gen. 37:28)? Who brought Joseph to Egypt? The Madanites (Gen. 37:36) or the Ishmaelites (Gen. 39:1)? Again it appears that the Torah records competing traditions or stories.
- The opening four chapters of Deuteronomy contradict the narrative as recorded in Exodus and Numbers. Some examples: Was the creation of a court system Moses’ idea (Deut. 1:9-18) or Jethro’s (Exod. 18:17-23)? Was the idea to send scouts the people’s idea (Deut. 1:22) or God’s (Num. 13:1)? Did Edom sell Israel food and water when they wished to cross their land (Deut. 2:4-6) or did the Edomites send out their army in a show of hostility (Num. 20:17-21)?
- There are stories, like the scout story, the Noah story and the Korach/Datan and Aviram story, which seem to jump between two different versions with differing details. They have been edited to make them work together better, but the cracks are still observable.
a. Noah: Is the flood caused by rain (Gen. 7:12) or is it the unplugging of the heavens and depths (Gen. 7:11)? Is Noah supposed to take seven pairs of clean animals and one pair of unclean animals (Gen. 7:2-3) or one pair of each animal (Gen. 6:19-20)? Does the rain / flood last 40 days (Gen. 7:17) or 150 days (Gen. 7:24)?
b. Scouts: Are the loyal scouts Caleb (Num. 13:30, 14:24) or Caleb and Joshua (Num. 14:6-9, 14:30)? Is it Moshe (Num. 13:27, 14:9) or Moshe and Aaron (Num. 13:26, 14:2, 14:26) with whom God and the people speak? Why does God punish Israel twice (Num. 14:20-25, 14:26-35)? Do they go all the way to the north and Hamat (Num. 13:21) or just through the Negev until Hebron (Num. 13:22)?
c. Korah: Is the rebellion about Moshe not taking the people into Israel (Num. 16:12-14) or is it about Aaron having too much power and cutting the rest of the people / Levites out (Num. 16:2-3)? How does Korah die, with Datan and Aviram in the earth (Num. 16:32), or with the 250 incense lighters (Num. 17:5)?
In addition to internal inconsistencies, there are a number of historical impossibilities in the Torah, considering the evidence from archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern documents. Here are some examples:
- The growth of a family of seventy into a nation of over two million in two hundred years seems difficult to accept.
- The Torah describes some of Israel’s neighbors—Ishmael, Midian, Edom—as being descendants of Abraham, and others of Abraham’s nephew Lot—Moab, Ammon. Firstly, it seems rather improbable to assume that the entire surrounding culture of the area were all descendants of one person, especially if that person arrived in the area when it was already populated. More problematic is the fact that stories that occur very soon after Abraham’s lifetime already assume that his sons have become a nationality. It is the Midianites (a people) who find Joseph in the pit and the Ishmaelites (another people) who take him to Egypt (Gen. 37:28).
- There is no evidence of a massive collapse in Egypt during the Ramasside period, or other periods close to it, and there is no record of any slave revolt or escape in Egyptian texts.
- There is no evidence of large-scale dwellings in the Sinai Desert or in Kadesh Barnea in the Exodus times; such settlements would be traceable with modern technology.
- Very few of the cities claimed to have been conquered by Joshua show destruction layers from this time period; many don’t even have occupation layers.
- There were no Philistines in the time of Abraham.
Caveat: It is true that historical evidence is sometimes absence of evidence, which is not always conclusive. Additionally, at times academics, whether historians or archaeologists, may have their own biases (pro-Greek, anti-Israel, etc.) and problems of group-think. Paradigms shift and new information comes to light.
Nevertheless, realizing this did not solve my problem. Although any given historical issue may be challenged or revisited in time, the overall historical picture of that period is at odds with biblical historiography. To ignore this problem by saying that perhaps many of these issues will be rethought in the future, or some unforeseen pieces of evidence may be discovered, seems more like avoiding the issues than dealing with them in good conscience.
Contradictions in Law
The legal sections also contain problematic contradictions. Here are some examples:
- Do slaves go free on the seventh year (Exod. 21:1-6, Deut. 15:12-18), or do they go free in the Jubilee (50th) year (Lev. 25:39-55)?
- Are Israelites supposed to cover the blood of slaughtered animals (Lev. 17:13) or just spill it on the ground (Deut. 12:16, 24, 15:23)?
- Is it permitted to eat non-sacrificed animals (Deut. 12:15) or is it necessary to sacrifice all animals eligible to be sacrificed (Lev. 17:3-4)?
- Is the tithe (ma’aser) supposed to be for the person bringing it to Jerusalem to eat there, in God’s place, except for every third year where it goes to the poor and the Levites (Deut. 14:22-29), or is the tithe a tax that goes to the Levites for their temple service (Num. 18:21-24)?
The Literary-Theological Approach
In an attempt to deal with some of the above-referenced problems, a number of Orthodox Bible scholars have adopted what some have coined as the literary-theological approach. They make use of the tools of literary analysis to make sense of the overall design of biblical texts with a focus on their meaning. The method implicitly treats the Tanach as a work of literature, emphasizing narrative structure and substance over historicity and dogma. Although I believe that this approach has merit, and I use it rather extensively, nevertheless, this approach doesn’t really counteract the two most “problematic” revelations of academic biblical study. If anything, literary analysis reinforces the impression that the Torah’s narratives are not historical. The literary structure and details of many texts appear as if we are reading fictionalized accounts.
For example, there are literary motifs that undergird many stories. There is the youngest-son-becomes-leader motif: Isaac is the youngest son of Abraham, Jacob is the youngest son of Isaac, Joseph and Benjamin are the youngest sons of Jacob, David is the youngest son of Jesse. There is the barren-woman-become-mother motif: Sarah was barren, Rebekah was barren, Leah was barren, Rachel was barren, and Hannah was barren. In various psalms God is praised as one who grants children to barren women (1 Sam. 2:5, Ps. 113:9), and this motif appears to be a narrative expression of that praise.
There are word plays by characters who, ostensibly, don’t even speak Hebrew. Pharaoh’s daughter names the baby Moshe, for she drew him out of the water (meshitihu). Pharaoh quips that Moses and Aaron are disturbing (taphriu) the people (Exod. 5:4), a play on the word Pharaoh. In what way other than fiction could Rahab the harlot quote from the Song of the Sea in her speech to the spies (Josh. 2:9 = Exod. 15:15)?
To clarify, it is not that any one of above points—whether the inconsistencies, the historical problems or the literary flourishes—is “unanswerable” in an ultimate sense. Many explanations have been offered for any one of them, and, at one point, I tried my hand at such justifications as well. Nevertheless, at a certain point “answering up” these questions made me realize that I was engaging in intellectually dishonest apologetics, defending my treasured viewpoint at all costs. For this reason, I decided on a different approach entirely.
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March 27, 2013
August 15, 2021
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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