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Attractively written, stimulating and controversial
on 16 February 2013
In his introduction, Hazony makes two major points. The first is that the history of philosophy as taught in the universities and in general text books, pays next to no attention to the philosophy of the Hebrew Bible: for them the history of philosophy begins with the Greeks and with Christianity. (Teaching, as I do, the philosophy of Biblical Judaism as part of my History of Philosophy course, I had been quite unconscious of this first point.) The second point is that, while they ignore the fact that early Greek philosophers like Parmenides, Empedocles and even Socrates claim that the philosophical positions they expounded were attained with the help of the gods, they dismiss as unworthy of philosophy any position in the Hebrew Bible that is attributed to a revelation by God. The distinction, let alone the clash, between Reason and Revelation, Hazony believes, simply did not exist before the Fathers of the Christian Church first adopted it, to be vigorously resumed by the Enlightenment as part of its denigration of Revelation.
In the rest of the book Hazony then shows the philosophy that is to be found in the Hebrew Bible. He writes that the many books that make up the Hebrew Bible as we now have it were collected, EDITED and then presented to us to make a coherent philosophical whole. The Redactor saw the historical books from Genesis to the Babylonian exile as central, and the books of the Prophets as a philosophical, political, ethical and, above all, critical commentary on especially the later parts of that history. There is further philosophical material in Psalms, Proverbs, Job and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes).
This does not mean that these philosophical commentaries have a single viewpoint or message - conflicting ones are presented to us as a challenge for our own philosophical thinking, their truth to be tested by experience and not (like the Virgin Birth, Resurrection, or the Trinity) laid down by credal formulations. God's wisdom is not contrary to the human wisdom resting on experience, but an extension of it.
The historical books present their own philosophical material. The narrative is often "instructional". For example, a careful study of five of the sons of Jacob can, by implication, tell us what does and does not contribute to good leadership. The repetition across the Bible of certain similar but not identical situations were intended to invite us to see common principles at work in them, which is again an exercise of philosophical meditation. The repetition of certain phrases is also designed to emphasize what the contexts in which they appear have in common.
The Hebrew Bible repeatedly makes the point that Abraham and his descendants will be a blessing to ALL by the nations of the world and a light to lighten the gentiles. That is because their values and their way of life - their philosophy, in short - has universal validity, and, because their ability to produce in practice the good life can be tested by experience, is capable of being perceived by all. (Hazony implies that obedience to the Mosaic Law can be justified because it has these good effects in practice. I can see that this is broadly true of the Ten Commandments - but not how it can be true of many of its remaining 603.)
When it comes to what values the Hebrew Bible actually promotes, Hazony believes that they are the values of freedom and independence, as characterized by "shepherds" like Abel (and also Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David) as opposed to those of "farmers" (like Cain), who are tied to the soil, to tradition, to obedience and - ingeniously - the urban life (Cain becomes the founder of Hanoch, the first city, Gen.4:17) - in other words the values prized by rulers of states and empires who, more often than not, will be the targets of the Prophets. Unlike the idea of surrounding states (and later of Plato and Aristotle) that it is the state in which man finds his fullest development, the ethos of the Hebrew Bible exalts the independent individual who does not hesitate to argue - successfully - even with God, as Abraham, Jacob (Israel, who "struggled against God and prevailed") and Moses sometimes do. The Bible recognizes that kingship is a necessary evil to prevent chaos, for God reluctantly accepts this (I.Sam. 8:22) and had even anticipated it in Deut.17:14-17; but it is made clear that this should be a limited and God-fearing monarchy, unlike the neighbouring ones in which the kings were treated as divine and ethically unaccountable. Alas, even the best of kings, like David, will have ethical failings for which they will be chastized by prophets.
Hazony devotes a long chapter to the Bible's support for "the Ethics of a Shepherd" - illustrating it with the stories of Cain and Abel, of Abraham and of Joseph. The chapter is closely argued but intensely controversial and has in fact resulted in a lengthy debate (and not just about this point) between Hazony and another scholar, Jon D. Levenson, in the pages of the Jewish Review of Books in 2012 and 2013. Hazony's chapter includes an explanation why God accepted the sacrifice of Abel but spurned that of Cain, and including also a radical take on the so-called Sacrifice of Isaac, which many readers will find hard to take.
In two chapters towards the end, Hazony discusses some rather technical differences - more of specialist than of general interest - between Biblical and Greek philosophy (How do we achieve knowledge of what is good? What is meant by saying that something is true?). There is also a technical appendix in which he explains what he means by Philosophy.
Many of the end notes - 80 pages on a text of 273 pages - are not just references, but are a really important part of the book. That is a little trying in a work which, though difficult in places, is written (and argued) with exemplary and attractive lucidity.