April 13, 2024
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April 13, 2024
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An Orthodox Rabbi Discusses Secular Bible Questions

Reviewing: “To This Very Day,” by Amnon Bazak. Maggid. 2020. English. Hardcover. 492 pages. ISBN-10: 1592645151.

The publication of this book (471 pages with extensive footnotes) is a historic event! This is a work by an Orthodox rabbi/educator that deals effectively with the major questions raised by secular scholars about the Bible. The author teaches at Yeshivat Har Etzion and at Herzog College.

The subtitle of the book is: “Fundamental Questions in Bible Study.” The book has 10 chapters, including: 1) Verses Added to the Torah at a Later Date, 2) Authorship of the Prophets and Writings, 3) Accuracy of the Masoretic Text, 4) Tanakh and Archaeology, 5) Tanakh and the Literature of the Ancient Near East, 6) Peshat and Derash—Midrash Aggadah, and 7) Peshat and Midrash Halakha.

The book also teaches you everything you need to know about the Documentary Hypothesis and does an excellent job of pointing out its glaring weaknesses.

Many who adopt the Documentary Hypothesis believe that the era of most of the Prophets preceded the era of some of the Five Books. But Bazak explains that a comparison of the styles of the Hebrew belies this claim. For example, the expression “Hashem Tzevaot” appears 260 times in the Nach, beginning in the book of Samuel. Yet it is not used in the Torah or in the books of Joshua and Judges. Accordingly, it must be a later development. Also, the word “naara” for “girl” appears 22 times in the Torah. All but one time it is spelled נער (with a “kamatz” added under the last letter to signify the feminine form). In contrast, in the rest of Tanach this word for girl appears 23 times, always spelled נערה. It seems evident that in the most ancient form of Hebrew (=the time of the Torah), the word נער=“naar,” was used for both males and females, and that the use of “naarah” for a female represents a later development. Hence this is its spelling in Nach.

The “Tanakh and Archaeology” chapter summarizes everything you need to know to defend the historicity of the Exodus, despite the weak “argument from silence” propounded by many scholars.

He does an excellent job on discussing the approximate date of the Exodus. He explains that today we can date the building of Solomon’s Temple to approximately 960 B.C.E. A literal reading of the verse at 1 Kings 6:1 tells us that the Exodus took place 480 years before that. This would place it around 1440 B.C.E., but placing the Exodus this early raises certain other problems. He then explains that the more likely view is that Ramesses II (c. 1279-1213) was the Pharaoh who ordered the Oppression. In this view, we have to discount the literalness of the 480 number and view it as a “typological” one, which may merely symbolize 12 generations. Ramesses II is the likely candidate for the Pharaoh of the Oppression because Ex. 1:11 tells that the Israelites built a city called רעמסס and archaeologically we know that the city of Pi-Ramesses was built at that time. (Upon the death of Ramesses II at Ex. 2:23, Merneptah would become the Pharaoh of the Exodus.)

In his definition of “peshat,” he writes (p. 338): “Peshat assumes that ‘the Torah speaks in the language of human beings’ and that it should be understood in the same manner in which human speech is usually understood— i.e., in accordance with the rules of grammar and syntax, with consideration for textual context…” He jokingly mentions the well-known aphorism: “My interpretation of the verse is the peshat—and yours is the derash!”

He cites a surprising but important passage of Rashbam, known for his peshat interpretations that often disagree with the Sages’ halachic interpretations. At Ex. 21:1, Rashbam writes that although he is giving you the plain meaning, it is the halachic interpretations that are the essential ones and that uproot the plain meaning of the verses. (The word משנה at the end of the Rashbam here is likely an error. It should read מקרא.) So why did Rashbam write his peshat commentary? I will deal with this in a future column.

Another chapter discusses the meaning of the word תורה throughout the Tanach. It does not have its common meaning today (=all five books) until the book of Nechemiah. Earlier it often refers merely to “collections of laws” or to central portions of Deuteronomy.

As to the dating of Isaiah, he has an extensive discussion of why many believe that starting with chapter 40 we are dealing with a later prophet. Ibn Ezra is the first source that takes this position, although he states his view in a vague manner. Bazak adds: “Given that the Sages attribute the redaction of Isaiah to Hezekiah and his colleagues, the idea that the book is composed of the prophecies of more than one prophet in no way contradicts this view. As with other books, the attribution of authorship may apply to most of the book but not its entirety.”

As to the dating of Psalms, it seems evident that many Psalms, such as Psalm 137 (“al naharot Bavel sham yashavnu gam bachinu be-zachreinu et Tziyon”), were composed at some point after the destruction of the Temple. Even though Bava Batra 14b attributes the book of Psalms to David “al yedei asarah zekenim” (all of whom seem to have lived either in his time or earlier), Bazak mentions a different rabbinic tradition in Shir Ha-Shirim Rabbah (4:4), where Ezra is listed as one of the 10. This was long known. But Bazak (p. 147) points now to a recently discovered commentary of Rashbam on Psalms, first published in 2010, that takes the position that some of the “songs of ascent” were composed in the Babylonian exile or at the beginning of the Second Temple period.

In the chapter on the “Accuracy of the Masoretic text,” he quotes the passage at Kiddushin 30a that states that there is a tradition that the vav of “gachon” (Lev. 11:42) is the halfway mark of all the letters in the Torah, “darosh darash” (Lev. 10:16) are the middle words of the Torah, and “ve-hitgalach” (Lev. 13:33) begins the middle verse of the Torah. Then he points out that “these locations are quite far removed from the ‘middles’ as we know them today.” The middle letter in our Torah is at Lev. 8:28, the middle word is at Lev. 8:15, and the middle verse is Lev. 8:8.

There are ways to explain the difference in the letter and verse counts. As to the former, the Amoraim there admit that they are not expert in “chaserot ve-yeteirot” (i.e., vavs and yods that were sometimes added). As to the latter, it is evident from the Talmud (same page) that there were different ways to divide up verses. But Bazak admits that a count of the number of words in the Torah should always be the same. This issue remains problematic.

In the introduction to the work he quotes a statement of R. Abraham Isaac Kook that our understandings of the Torah become better by confronting views that on first impression appear to contradict some matter in the Torah.

The English edition of Bazak’s work is based on a Hebrew version published in 2013. But the footnotes often cite articles published after that. So it is reasonable to presume that the text has been updated as well.

The back of the book includes the following statement: “This book is a must-have for students of the Bible on every level.” I wholeheartedly agree!

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected].

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