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A novel approach to the Torah

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Joseph’s bones are vital to interpreting the Genesis story, writes Jerome Segal, author of "Joseph's Bones." (Barnes & Noble)

Joseph’s bones are vital to interpreting the Genesis story, writes Jerome Segal, author of “Joseph’s Bones.” (Barnes & Noble)

SILVER SPRING, Md. (JTA) – “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it. … Stir not from it for you can have no better rule than it.” (Pirke Avot 5:25)

Tradition commands looking at the Torah from every possible angle, taking every possible approach. It maintains that there is no end to the richness of the Torah and what can be learned from it. Yet this very way of thinking about the Torah, that it is to be read for its wisdom, contains its own limitations.

What happens if we take off our religious lens and read the Torah as literature, without any prior assumptions about the nature of the God-character, Yahweh? What do we find if we make no assumptions about the wisdom of the Torah and do not read in search of wisdom? What happens if we pick up the Torah and read it as a book?

The Torah is most naturally and powerfully grasped as a novel. Moreover, taken as a novel, the Torah is incomplete. As it ends, the children of the generation that died in the desert are on the edge of Canaan. Invasion and combat await them, as well as the possibility that they, like their parents, may displease God and be sent again into the wilderness. Moses dies, but it is only in the Book of Joshua that we come to learn what happens and see the evolving relationship between Yahweh and the Israelites.

So a first result of a literary reading is to discover that the appropriate unit of analysis is not the Pentatuech but the Hexateuch – not the first five books but the first six.

This conclusion is buttressed by reflection on Joseph’s bones. There are three references to Joseph’s bones in the Hebrew Bible. The first occurs in the closing words of Genesis:

So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry my bones from here.”

Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and place in a coffin in Egypt [Gen 50:25-26].

They are mentioned a second time when the Israelites leave Egypt, and then in the Book of Joshua, after the conquest, after Joshua has died, in the next to last paragraph:

The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem … [Joshua 24:32]

Joseph’s bones are bookends around the tale of Yahweh’s first interactions with the Israelite nation. They bracket Exodus through Joshua.

More importantly, Joseph’s bones provide a key for interpreting the entire story of Genesis through Joshua because they call into question God’s harsh evaluations of the Israelites. Unlike Yahweh, who primarily sees the Israelites as a complaining, faithless lot, Joseph places his faith in the people.

Just as he returned the bones of his father, Jacob, to Canaan, Joseph could have asked his brothers to return his own. Instead he entrusts his bones to future generations of Israelites. And then some 400 years later, without any instruction from God, through the 40 years in the wilderness and through the conquest, the Israelites carry his bones. Then, without any instruction from Joshua or from God, they bury his bones in Shechem, fulfilling their forefathers’ commitment.

Are the Israelites a “wicked community,” as God calls them [Numbers 14:26], or are they the faithful people that Joseph envisioned? And if God can be wrong about the Israelites, then perhaps he was wrong about mankind at the time of the Flood. Perhaps he was wrong about many things.

Once we open ourselves to the possibility that in the Torah the God-character is deliberately presented as an imperfect being, passage after passage takes on a different sense, and in fascinating ways they begin to link up with each other, offering a coherent interpretation of the Torah as a whole. Take one of the key passages that we read on the High Holidays, Genesis 22, Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac at God’s command.

We are told, “God put Abraham to the test,” telling him, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering.” [Genesis 22:1-2]

Why does God need to test Abraham? The directive to slay Isaac is not only impossibly hard and contrary to nature, it is also most thoroughly wrong. Is God then testing Abraham to see if he is more faithful to God than he is to morality? Has Abraham, who has done many difficult things at God’s command, ever called into question whether God is higher than the commands of morality?

This question leads us immediately back to Genesis 18, Abraham’s effort to save the city of Sodom from destruction. Here Abraham’s first words to God are a challenge: “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” He continues, “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

The implications are sweeping:

* It is possible for God to act unjustly.

* Justice (morality) has an independent reality that is binding on all beings, including God.

* Collective punishment is unjust.

In the dialogue that ensues, God never accepts that he is bound by independent moral rules. Rather he agrees, step by step, to reduce the injustice, to not destroy the city so long as there are requisite numbers of innocent. In the end, he says he will not destroy Sodom if there are 10 innocents.

From the perspective of Genesis 18, the test to which Abraham is put in Genesis 22 makes sense. Abraham has asserted limits on God’s freedom; he has asserted that God is subject to norms of justice. God recoils from this and tests Abraham to determine whether he will obey the commands of justice or the commands of God.

God’s propensity for collective punishment emerges as a central theme throughout the Torah and in Joshua. Moses’ primary role is to protect the Israelites from God and, most interestingly, it seems that God has selected him for just this role. Moses’ name means “taken from the water,” and he is the human embodiment of the rainbow that God placed in the sky after the Flood when he vowed to never again level such destruction.

In the Book of Joshua, with Moses no longer able to protect the Israelites, we find that both God and the people have changed. God softens and becomes a teacher. The people, aware of the danger of collective punishment, become vigilant in enforcing God’s commands.

The idea of an imperfect God who engages in mutual transformation with his chosen people, though blasphemous to some, opens exciting spiritual possibilities for others. With the Torah having been written many centuries before the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism, and finalized in the years following the horrors of the conquest and destruction of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians, it is understandable that its authors might question God’s benevolence and justice.

For contemporary Jews, after the horrors of the 20th century, we may find that such a view of the human condition speaks powerfully to us as well.

Jerome M. Segal is senior research scholar at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. His book “Joseph’s Bones: Understanding the Struggle Between God and Mankind in the Bible” was published earlier this year.

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