Archive for March 23rd, 2009

Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought, Joshua A. Berman, Oxford University Press 2008

A couple of years ago I heard a fascinating lecture by (Rabbi Dr.) Josh Berman given at the annual Tikun Leil Shavuot held in our community. In his lecture he compared the structure of the ten commandments to that of suzerain treaties (treaties between dominant and subordinate kings) in the Near Eastern late bronze age. His thesis was that in order to understand the Biblical text correctly, we must look as much to the cultural context in which it was written (or given, if you will) as we do to the later commentaries written in the spirit of traditional interpretation of the texts. By doing this we can uncover a whole new layer of understanding of structures and nuances that would have been understood and taken for granted by the protagonists of Biblical times (and sometimes even to the writers of Midrash) but that are totally lost to us.

In his book Joshua Berman explores these avenues further in order to show how the Bible is a book of political and social reform as much as it is a book of religion. He elucidates the revolutionary egalitarian program proposed in it together with its attendant covenantal theology and compares and contrasts the structures of this new social order with those of its contemporary cultures and Western political theories beginning in Greece and to this day.

The Biblical political program stands in stark contrast to its contemporaries. These were deeply hierarchical, totalitarian and dehumanizing political systems, legitimized by a parallel theology that mirrored and justified the earthly self-serving hierarchy. What the Bible proposed was an anti-hierarchical society of freemen answerable to God alone, assets were envisioned as ultimately belong to God himself and the weilding of power political or economic over another illegitimate. Knowledge likewise, was to be universally distributed.

 The book is divided into five chapters that discuss in turn the new status of man before God, the new political hierarchy (or lack of it), the Bible’s economic program, its attitude towards the dissemination of knowledge and the revolutionary use of writing technology to this end. The final chapter examines the stories of the birth of Sargon of Akkad and Moses (Exod. 2:) in the light of the insights gained through the course of the book. The texts are examined word by word on a micro scale and then through artistic interpretations. This case study is stylistically very different from anything that went before and I am not sure what it really adds to the book. I was left with the feeling that it was an afterthought, maybe a reworked paper on that subject, that was appended to the book.

As well as being an academic scholar, Joshua Berman is an Orthodox rabbi. At the outset of the book he sets his ground rules whereby he will read the Pentateuch as a textual whole – maybe as an idealized text – without reference to theories of the historical authorship and editing of the text. This stance is undoubtably determined by his Orthodox standpoint, but he well justifies it in intellectual terms without resorting to dogma. Personally I agree with his approach of holistic reading and this is what makes his study valuable and interesting. This approach does not prevent him from writing a very interesting comparitive study that quotes disparate sources from the whole history of Western thought, modern academia, rabbinic writings and the Christian holy books. It is perhaps a badge of honor of Modern Jewish Orthodoxy that modern approaches from that of Breuer through to studies such as Berman’s are increasingly legitimized and taking a center stage in theological discussion, synthesising old and new in a textual revival.

Created Equal is a book I would recommend to all readers interested in reading and understanding the Tanakh as it was intended. Whether you come to the subject religiously or academically, this is a book that can change the way you think about the Biblical age and the Bible. Unfortunately many of the potential readers that I would recommend the book to will be frightened to read it and to be exposed to unfamiliar ideas… but that is another story.

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