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Joshua Berman Interview

Joshua Berman of Bar Ilan University/Shalem Center spoke at Davar in Teaneck two weeks ago. He discussed his new project of reassessing Biblical source criticism from an academic and Jewish perspective. When I probed him, he was nice enough to agree to answer a few bigger questions. Now we can return the favor and help him produce a better book by offering comments on his proposed project.

Berman attended Princeton University, and holds a doctorate in Bible from Bar-Ilan University. He studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and received his ordination from the Chief Rabbinate. His prior book is Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought . Go read it. It has gotten favorable reviews and even those who criticize parts of the book have been extremely charitable. It claims that the Pentateuch is history’s first blueprint for a society where theology, politics, and economics embrace egalitarian ideals, by reconstituting ancient norms and institutions. Created Equal is a popular work that used much of the current scholarly literature comparing ancient Near Eastern religion and Israelite religion, including those of Norman K. Gottwald who blurbed the book.

Berman’s new project is to respond, in some way, to Biblical source criticism as it is found today. He acknowledges that the traditional documentary hypothesis has been heavily modified and one should not set up a straw man to refute. He also directly refers to new approaches such as the supplemental model. He freely volunteers his affinity for Evangelical authors like Kenneth Kitchen, Alan Millard, Gordon Wenham (all in the UK, and all emeritus), and in the US, Richard Hess. But which version of the supplemental model is forefront in his mind is less certain. In the meantime, one can get a sense of the field from the much acclaimed Karel van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (available as pdf here and from scribd here), William Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book, and John Van Seters, The Edited Bible: The Curious History of the “Editor” in Biblical Criticism.

Berman’s approach to his task seems to have three parts. (1) To credibly add to the evidence showing affinity between the Torah and the literature of the Late Bronze Age and the era of Moses (2) To show that the repetitions and contradictions found within the Torah demonstrate unity in a manner foreign to our modern conceptions, but more apparent when seen in the perspective of a range of ancient Near Eastern literary genres. such as the Code of Hammurabi and the Gilgamesh Epic (3) To then show that the Bible has a unique message that transcends its ancient context and is still worth reading today.

In order to move his theories from possible ideas to a probable hypothesis, he needs to write peer reviewed articles that suggest a greater affinity to the literature of the late-second millennium, based on credible parallels with ancient Near Eastern literature. He also must be on his guard not to slip into a Bible as literature mode, such as explaining narrative repetition but does not actually answer historical questions. The project wont refute academic trends, rather offer a credible apologetic. If he does enough drafts and listens carefully to his critics, then he may possibly create the major apologetic work, that barring new archeological finds, will last for decades. Berman’s current project has the potential to be the new Umberto Cassutto or Nahum Sarna.

In his morning talk, he discussed Deut 13, which is universally taken in the academy to buttress a seventh century dating for Deuteronomy in light of strong parallels to the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon. Instead, he presented a 15c BCE Hittite text which according to Berman is much closer to Deuteronomy. He gave a version of the talk at SBL, available online, and it will be published in JBL in a few months.

The person sitting next to me who has read the scholarly literature asked: why does Berman assume an edited lack of contradiction? Why do we not assume that the scribal editor wanted to preserve all fragments since they considered them holy and prophetic?

Berman is part of the Shalem Center’s quest for a Biblical philosophy, bypassing Rabbinic categories, to be used for a broad conservative ideology. But Berman is actually trained in Bible. If one has read the literature in the field, much of what Berman says is a somewhat old-hat. It is a reworking and expansion of Mendelhall’s understanding of Ancient Near East vassal treaty covenants as relating to the Bible. One should compare Berman to entirely different presentations of the same material, such as that of Jon Levenson’s Sinai and Zion. So too, finding a polemical moral superiority to Israelite religion over polytheism goes back to John Selden in the 17th century. The Jewish authors Yehezkel Kaufman and Nahum Sarna, followed Hermann Cohen, and presented an opposition of Biblical ethical monotheism to the polytheist’s lack of morality. Berman manages to give  his own formulation connecting the Bible to social ethos and liberal communitarianism.Now, read his responses and help his project by asking thoughtful questions.

Question 1: Do you think reconciling biblical criticism is possible as an orthodox Jew without sounding like an Evangelical?

Answer: To be honest, I wish we were responding more like the Evangelicals, or at least some of them.  Like orthodox Jews, Evangelical Christians are spread across a wide gamut of positions.  Some are more fundamentalist and less sophisticated, just like in our own community.  But many are fully engaged with the world of scholarship, including biblical scholarship – more so, I would say, than we are.  There are literally dozens of evangelical scholars, whose work is respected, who ask tough about the reigning paradigms within the field, and produce thoughtful insights that have been a great source of inspiration for me.

Question 2: Are the responses to Biblical criticism written by of Rabbi Dovid Zvei Hoffmann and Umberto Cassutto still relevant today?

Answer: Rabbi Dovid Zvei Hoffman passed away in 1921, and Umberto Cassuto in 1951.  I can’t think of a field of inquiry where the questions of today could be answered by works in the field penned 60 or 90 years ago.  Each thinker had key insights,(See the Shalem Press reprint of Cassuto’s classic work, The Documentary Hypothesis with an introduction by Berman – A.B.). But the field of biblical studies has progressed enormously in the last half century. Today, the questions being asked are different, and the range of answers being offered is much broader.  Our knowledge and understanding of the ancient Near East is enormously greater. We now know more about Akkadian and Ugaritic texts, we have new texts from Ras Shamra, Ebla, and Elephantine. The field has new approaches to source criticism.

Question 3: Why do Orthodox Jews and Evangelicals still talk about the Documentary Hypothesis, when many have been using a form-tradition model based on Hermann Gunkel or a supplemental model based on John Van Seters or Rolf Rendtorff?

Answer: John Van Who?  Rolf Who? As someone working in the field, I am familiar with the work of these scholars, but I suspect that few of your readers are.  And that’s just the point.  Even in an age of internet, the vast majority of people don’t tune in to the proceedings of the Society of Biblical Literature – all these new theories are, for most people, the stuff of the ivory tower.

Julius Wellhausen, and his documentary hypothesis were different. A hundred years ago, Wellhausen’s theory spread like wildfire, it was debated in the popular arena , and was the uncontested truth about the Torah in much of the western world for a full century.  It explained everything in a nice neat package – what was written by whom, when, and why, and how one nice neat stage led to another.  Wellhausen was a late 19th century German, where big ideas were in vogue (think Hegel, Harnack, and just a little later Frued and Einstein).  Even though the academy has largely repudiated Wellhausen over the last 30 years, his work has become part of the fabric of western culture, and that’s what people know about.

Question 4: If the flood story appears to be based on the Mesopotamian accounts, then why look for moral teachings and deeper meanings in the Torah version? Why did the Torah teach the flood story at all?

Answer: I don’t know what really happened with the flood, Noah, or the animals. Even the Rambam allowed that it might not be literal.

I do know, however, that when we compare the flood narrative of Gen 6-9 to the Mesopotamian flood traditions we see one thing: that the Genesis account is engaged in theological polemic with the other known story.

The Mesopotamians were caught in a bind: since the gods created men to be their servants, why is there famine and disease in the world?  The Mesopotamian flood story gives the answer: the gods were troubled by overpopulation of the world, because – and this is what is says – there were so many humans, making so much noise, that they were disturbing the sleep of the gods!  So the gods sent all manner of suffering to kill off people, culminating with the flood, and following which, the gods introduced fertility problems into the world, to solve the problem.

The Torah spins all that on its head: humanity suffers not because it disturbs the gods’ sleep, but because of its misdeeds.  In the Mesopotamian story, the “Noah” figure escapes only because a rogue god tipped him off, and told him to build an ark. In the Torah, saving a remnant of humanity was always part of the plan, and the choice of whom to save was based on righteous deeds.  The Torah’s flood story ends with a ringing affirmation of human reproduction: “And the Lord said to Noah and to his sons, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the land.”

Question 5: Do you have any thoughts on the classical positions on Revelation?

I know that the classical sources of Machshevet Yisrael pursue this topic great length.  In a personal admission I will say that I was never very good at Machshevet Yisrael.  When reading the Torah or the Nevi’im I proceed from a supposition that the only way that I will properly understand the message of the text is if I take it literally.  An analogy: I know, intellectually, that it is pointless to describe the Almighty as “angry” “loving”, etc.  I know that mouthing the words of the tefillah is unnecessary for God to know what I’m thinking.  Utilizing these terms, however, is the best way for me to relate to the Almighty. Over-speculation on what He is really like, will actually detract me from the proper service of Him.  I don’t know what it means when the Torah says, “God spoke to Moses saying…” – but I do know (or, this is my operating belief, anyway) that I will only be able to grasp the Torah’s message (dare I use the Christian term “kerygma”?) if I relate to that phrase in its simplest manner.