Facing Our Past

Biblical scholarship as archaeo-psychology sheds light on the development of moral and religious awareness. We can either run from it or learn from it.


November 11, 2015

Dan Sofer

Dan Sofer


Facing Our Past

It’s in the Past

A very memorable scene from the Lion King always makes me smile. An estranged Simba is conflicted about returning home to Pride Rock and confides in Rafiki, the baboon-witch doctor:

“I know what I have to do,” Simba says, “but going back means I’ll have to face my past. I’ve been running from it for so long.”

Rafiki promptly hits Simba over the head with a large stick.

“Ow! Geez. What was that for?”
“It doesn’t matter,” counters Rafiki. “It’s in the past.”[1]

For observant Jews, the Bible in its present form is the focus of religious study and practice. ­ The composition history of the biblical text—how the Bible arrived at its present form—and whether or not the events therein took place exactly as described, is of secondary importance, although for many these questions cause serious headaches.[2]

Of course, as TABS readers are aware, teasing out the developmental layers of the Bible using the methodologies of biblical scholarship provides compelling answers to these questions as well as to inconsistencies in the received text. In this article, I will mention two additional benefits of biblical scholarship for Jewish learners.

A Non-Peekaboo Learning Experience

Traditional Jewish interpreters do not shy away from questions regarding the biblical text. Their answers, however, often stop short of reassessing core assumptions. By challenging our assumptions, biblical scholarship brings a new range of solutions to the study hall, and creates a greater sense of intellectual honesty.[3]

In an interview on The Mottle Wolfe Show, Rabbi Zev Farber describes this experiential shift using the most intellectually stimulating—and in fact the only—psychological explanation of Peekaboo that I have ever encountered:[4]

The logic of [Peekaboo] is that the baby or child wants to get used to the idea of the mother or father not being there but they don’t want to be nervous—too nervous. You want to be on the edge and then suddenly there is the mother again. And I feel like, when you think of a shiur in yeshiva, you start asking these questions, and the questions are there to make a posuk or a gemara or something feel like it doesn’t make sense. But deep down it’s not a real question. You’re not really asking anything and you know that if the game is played right, there’ll be a creative answer at the end. The text always wins. At a certain point, that felt unsatisfying to me. I wanted to really engage the text, but to really engage the text and tradition you have to take the risk that you can ask a question that there’s no answer to or that you won’t like the answer and that the text won’t come out on top.[5]


To illustrate another benefit of biblical scholarship, it is useful to compare the field with two other areas of academic inquiry that also have developed significantly over the past few centuries: archaeology and psychology.

Archaeologists literally dig up the past, and their digging has revealed many artifacts, ruins and entire ancient libraries. Among the major achievements of modern archaeology are the methods that archaeologists have developed to make sense of their findings: the grid system of excavation; dating based on ceramic and pottery remains; DNA analysis to gain insights into population movements and mingling; and even the study of coprolites (fossilized feces) to understand nutrition and extract DNA samples. The list goes on.

Psychologists, on the other hand, examine our thoughts, memories and behavior in order to adjust our behavior, heal neurosis, and gain insight into our inner world. As with archaeologists, psychologists have developed methods and frameworks for mining and healing the human psyche: psychotherapy, behaviorism, cognitive psychology, hypnosis, meditation, and so on. Sometimes, the key lies buried in repressed memories that, once accepted, allow us to come to terms with the past.

Biblical scholarship is in the unique position to merge aspects of archaeology and psychology. It shares the raw materials of archaeology: ancient texts (biblical and extra-biblical) and artifacts. But biblical texts are no mere lifeless ruins; they are windows onto the beliefs and thoughts of the time. As a result, biblical scholarship is able to peel back the layers of our past religious thinking in order to better understand how we, as a community of believers, came to think and feel as we do today. As such, biblical scholarship can provide the kind of insight usually associated with psychology.[6]

From Words to Scrolls to Scripture

For example, James L. Kugel, both a scholar and an observant Jew, uses the Bible to illustrate how the ancient Israelites conceptualized God’s communication.

Picking up on changes in symbolism across multiple biblical works, Kugel plots the evolution of the popular understanding of prophecy: from “God’s word” to a recording of that word, and then onward to an object of independent religious significance—into Scripture.

Connected with this increasing recourse to the Torah and the prophetic books were other changes—the rise of wisdom and the sage in postexilic times, and along with that, the growing role of books and writing in the popular imagination. The prophets themselves bear witness to the beginnings of this change.
When Jeremiah is summoned to prophesy, God puts his words in the prophet’s mouth (an old expression meaning “tell him what to say”). In Ezekiel’s call, as we have seen, this idiom is modified and concretized: God actually gives a prophet a rolled-up scroll to eat and digest. Prophecy was becoming a thing of written texts. A still more vivid expression is found in Zechariah’s vision of a huge, flying scroll […] Here the scroll itself seems to be playing the role of God’s own angels, entering the house of the thief or the person who swears falsely and imposing God’s punishment. One could hardly ask for a more vivid illustration of the written word’s increasing role—sub specie divinitatis! It was now Scripture itself that spoke to people, telling them what God wished for them and—in Zachariah’s vision—entering their innermost chambers to punish them if they did not carry out Scripture’s words.”[7]

The growing impact of religiously authoritative texts changed the concept of how God communicates. Ironically, it is this last conception of God’s word—as Scripture with a capital S—that causes so much of the religious discomfort with biblical scholarship!

The cost in faith incurred by biblical scholarship is paid back by greater understanding of Torah and of ourselves. In the above example, the insight explains our uneasiness with critical approaches to the Bible and indicates that, in earlier periods, Jews may have focused more on the spirit of God’s word than on the letter of His written text.

By unearthing these “repressed memories” of earlier Jewish religious attitudes, we are better equipped to come to terms with the biblical past and to overcome our “anxiety” over biblical scholarship.

One could say that biblical scholarship itself has produced a pill to relieve the “headache” caused by its other “troubling” findings.

The Past Can Hurt: You Can Either Run from It or Learn from It

As we have seen, biblical scholarship can shed light on the development of moral and religious awareness during the biblical period, and this in turn can inform current religious attitudes.

Let us return to that scene from the Lion King. Simba nurses the fresh bump on his head.

“But it still hurts!”
“Oh, yes,” says an unrepentant Rafiki. “The past can hurt. But the way I see it you can either run from it or learn from it.”

Rafiki swings his stick again, but this time Simba ducks the blow.

The exciting journey of Jewish learning hand-in-hand with biblical scholarship has begun. Instead of bemoaning the loss of an idealized past, we can enjoy the profound insights that scholarship facilitates. Like Simba, we can avoid repeated “blows to the head”—discomfort with questions of the biblical past—by facing that past once and for all—by accepting the Torah in all its historic complexity.

Dan Sofer is an author of fiction. His most recent novel is called A Love and Beyond, and his stories have appeared in different venues, such as Midstream Magazine and on his website, http://dansofer.com. Sofer studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion (’95-’99) and holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Computer Science from the University of South Africa. He represented South Africa at the 1993 International Bible Contest (Chidon HaTanakh HaOlami) in Jerusalem.


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