Reading Outside our Tradition: Two Interesting Jewish Texts …

No, I’m not referring to ancient texts, but to two books I’ve been reading, both published in the last year (2012).  Between the two books we find a fascinating combination of Jewish studies, biblical studies, and the philosophy of religion.  I thought for this post, I’d say a few words about each and draw attention to these volumes which otherwise would not be noticed by confessional Reformed readers.

I should make a quick disclaimer.  On the one hand, I don’t endorse these books as being examples of completely like-minded exegetical and theological reflection.  There is much to disagree with here.  But on the other hand, by common grace, there are some slants these writers have which can give us a helpful, though different, perspective on various topics.  Reading broadly can help enrich our own theological and exegetical conclusions.

Marvin A. Sweeney, Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012).

First, I’ve been reading a book by one of my former professor at the Claremont Graduate University, Marvin Sweeney.  Sweeney is such an intriguing writer and scholar.  Granted those of us who are conservative and confessional will find much to disagree with theologically and exegetically.  He writes from not only a Jewish perspective (and speaks negatively about Christian systematic theological concerns) but also utilizes a standard historical critical methodology.  And yet Sweeney’s attention to the details of the text, and especially to the way those details shape the text as we have it now, is very insightful.  This is a thorough literary, historical and theological analysis of the entire OT and there is much textual and historical analysis here to chew on and benefit from!  I’ve rarely found one who draws together textual minutiae into a meaningful whole in the way that Sweeney does.  One need not paint the same meta-narrative from those details to be inspired by his close reading.

Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Second, I’ve started skimming an interesting bridge between philosophy of religion and OT studies by Yoram Hazony.  Two things struck me about this volume: 1.) It purports to be a “philosophy” of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Often in academic discourse, philosophy and study of the OT are thought to be a sort of “arranged marriage” in the worst sense of the term.  “Hebrew” and “Hellenism,” representing the “OT” and “Philosophy” respectively, are thought to mix like oil and water.  Thus it was interesting to see a book arguing for a reading of the OT that is intentionally philosophical.  2.) Though endorsements don’t always mean much, the endorsement of Eleonore Stump caught my eye.  It reminded me of a conversation I had with Stump at a conference a few years back where she spoke very highly of an Israeli philosopher of religion.  I am almost certain she was referring to Hazony.  In the opening chapter, Hazony notes that “reason” and “revelation” have been artificially divided in the history of western thought, but interestingly enough, he seems to indicate that strands of the Protestant Reformation have avoided this false dichotomy.  I’ve been intrigued by what I’ve ready so far, even where I’ve disagreed.

Readers of this blog may or may not find either of these texts interesting, but I thought I’d draw attention to them anyway!

____________________
Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

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5 comments on “Reading Outside our Tradition: Two Interesting Jewish Texts …

  1. Nevada says:

    Hi Andrew,
    I have looked at Hazony and been intrigued. I may be wrong, but if I recall correctly he was signing copies of the book at the last national SBL. Anyway, I often find Jewish authors like Sweeney, Sommer, etc. to be quite helpful. Their knowledge of the biblical text often puts us to shame. (It was not unusual for Sommer to quote from memory the OT in Hebrew… Once he even stopped mid-sentence and corrected himself: “No, that’s not how that goes. It reads like this.”)

    • I remember thoroughly enjoying myself when Sommer sat down with a few of us at UCLA. We were reading through some Ugaritic texts and comparing them with Psalm 29. If I remember right, he was even pushing back on some of the parallelomania that usually exists with interpreting this Psalm. He was very brilliant, and also very personable.

      I’ve tended to find that what makes Jewish scholars most helpful in my own study is not so much their knowledge of the text (I’ve met many non-Jewish scholars who have committed huge portions of the OT to memory), but their uniquely Jewish-slant. They tend to ask a different set of questions of the text and even though I don’t always accept their questions as legitimate (i.e., anachronistic, misplaced, expecting the wrong things of the text, etc.), my attention is drawn to details of the text I would have otherwise missed. Often we are so settled into a reading tradition that we miss textual clues – not only clues that can correct or refine our reading, but sometimes clues that offer additional support for our reading. It also reminds me to be extra critical of myself in making sure that I’m asking the right questions of the text …

      • Trent says:

        What are some examples of them asking different things?

        • Trent says:

          Oh and details that you would have otherwise missed?

        • Good question, Trent. I don’t have a list of examples, but off the cuff, I’ve noticed that legal and festive elements tend to be more forward in the discussion than eschatological ones. I’ve found some Jewish scholars to illuminate connections between the narratives and the festivals that I’ve often missed. Also, they emphasize many of the “human” referents of Messianic prophecies. (While we ultimately disagree here, they do help us to see the contours of the “shadows” in ways that I’ve found helpful when considering the “types.”)

          Because of the impact of the Holocaust (Shoah), Jewish scholars see elements of theodicy that are insightful in the prophetical books (Sweeney is especially interesting here). Also, reading Jewish scholars is a reminder that Jews have a very different relationship to the Bible than do Christians. The OT/Tanak fits into a number of texts that play a normative role in Judaism (Mishnah, Talmudim, Haggadah, etc.). It is a reminder that we can’t just assume that Jewish scholars are asking the same questions through the same framework of revelation/authority. I’ve found this helpful – although I’ll have to think more about *why* I’ve found it helpful!

          Anyway, I’m sure this could be a more exhaustive list … I just never bothered to write these out. It has more been something I’ve noticed as I read through the books.

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