a possible beginning to a possible book
Why We Can’t Read the Torah: The Form of the Pentateuch and the History of Ancient Hebrew Literature
As a book, the Hebrew Bible makes offers and demands that seem to speak from nowhere, with no upper limit. It decrees laws which need no police, though some are punishable by death. Its prophets announce the overthrow of governments, as a voice speaking through the text anoints their new rulers. Its poetry places you in a dismembered and reanimated version of the present world. The last thing it seems to want you to do is appreciate it as literature, read it as art for art’s sake, musings for your spare time. The stakes are too high for that.
The Bible was allowed into the academy at the price of its disarmament. Critical scholarship drastically lowered its stakes, defusing the promises and threats with which it was armed. What is surprising is what was left.
For every hard look at the Law and Prophets revealed an incoherence at their heart: Genesis begins with the world created twice, in different ways: Isaiah disappears from the second half of his own book to be replaced by someone speaking from a new world some century and a half after his death. And for almost anything scholarship has claimed to prove about these texts, a scholar has argued the opposite: we can demonstrate that they are authentic traditions or false memories, lofty speculations or hard-nosed reforms. We can identify the pieces, but we can’t agree on where they come from or what they are for.
The Bible’s writing was not normal anywhere in the ancient world, and it did not inspire normal sorts of readership. Audiences have, since the beginning, seen the text as speaking directly to them. Since the beginning, something in the alchemy of the text’s own voice and what its audiences expect to hear has made people read it as permanently relevant…