Divine Writ and Critical Responses
By David Weiss Halivni
Radical Traditions, 1997, 114 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - December 15, 2009
Were the five books of Moses revealed to the Israelites by God during the Israelite sojourn in the Sinai desert for forty years? Is the text of these five books that we have today the same as the one that was revealed; or, if not revealed, the same as the one that existed in ancient times? Were the biblical passages garbled over time?
These questions and a lot more like them have troubled people since antiquity. Even the rabbis who wrote the Talmuds recognized that there are many difficulties in the Bible.
For example, the first chapter of Genesis seems to state that God created a man and a woman at the same time, while the second chapter clearly writes that the woman was created at a later time out of the man's side. The book of Exodus has one version of the Ten Commandments while the book of Deuteronomy has the same commands but with different wording and spelling. The book of Genesis has two tales of Abraham leaving Canaan and telling the residents of the visited places that his wife is his sister in order to save himself from being killed. His plan backfires both times. Didn't he learn from the first incident and not repeat his mistake? Then the story is repeated with his son Isaac. Was there originally only one story?
The talmudic rabbis offered solutions. For example, they explain that the first chapter of Genesis is a general statement that God created a man and a woman, while the second chapter has the details that the creation was performed in two stages. They say that the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments is the divine revelation, while the version in Deuteronomy is the identical revelation with Moses' additions and changes that he made to add emphasis.
These explanations did not satisfy everyone. By the eighteenth century "biblical criticism" became rampant, a multitude of biblical difficulties were pointed out, and the "documentary hypothesis" was developed. It dismissed the idea of a divine revelation out of hand. It contended that the five books of Moses is a collection of disparate document that was probably put together by the biblical Ezra in the fourth century B.C.E. Ezra and his cohorts collected a large assortment of unlike fragments that had been considered important or holy by Jews in the past. They stitched the documents together with little or no editing; for who would dare change a holy document. Since the writings came from different sources with dissimilar versions of ancient tales and since Ezra felt that he could make no or little alterations or corrections, the text that he assembled kept the different versions, discrepancies and other difficulties.
David Weiss Halivni, an observant Jew and a world recognized scholar, developed his own original idea. His Revelation Restored was the 1997 winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship.
Halivni insists on the correctness of the traditional view that God interfered with natural law some three thousand years ago and revealed the Torah, the five books of Moses, to the Israelites after they escaped Egyptian bondage. This Torah, Halivni states, was perfect. God revealed it because he wanted to give humanity a gift of perfect knowledge that would teach them how to behave.
The problem occurred following the revelation when God stopped interfering with the laws of nature that he created and ceased involving himself in human affairs. He gave the Torah to humanity to help them, but people being human ignored the Torah and it fell into disuse.
Fragments remained here and there, but no one guarded the divine treasure. Along with the ancient fragments were less ancient human versions of the lost and disused Torah, frequently distorted memories of what people thought the Torah had said. Some recalled that God told Noah to save a pair of each animal, others that it was seven of each. Some were certain that the original Torah had Reuben save his brother Joseph from being killed by the other sons of Jacob, while some people were just as certain that it was Judah. As a result both versions are Genesis 7 and 37.
In short, Halivni is able to maintain the traditional belief in revelation while agreeing with biblical criticism that Ezra compiled fragments and constructed the Torah we have today.
At least one problem remains. Why would the all-knowing deity bother to reveal a Torah when he knows that humans will corrupt it? Perhaps the answer is that despite the difficulties, the Torah is still vibrant, important and helpful, and, therefore, a holy document.