And now, a word about inerrancy (or the lack thereof).... What if rather than giving to His people de facto truths God chose instead to work TOGETHER with His prophets, writers, and editors of the Bible to struggle with revelation and it's interpretation/meaning thereof? That instead of giving priority to a finalized, "canonical" form of scripture the prophets, writers, and editors of the "bible" actually struggled for its meaning into their communities before committing it into canonical law? If so, than scripture itself emerges as a complex, multi-layered tradition built upon personal/social interpretation at its time of development given more as guidance than as law. And as "all rocks roll downhill rather than uphill" the doubter within me says that I would expect less from the public interpretation of God's will then I would more - as is evident throughout the pages of the Old Testament in the obsequious interpretation by God's people to one another as well as to their neighbors and enemies.
In this way Judaism tends to be more flexible in accepting the Bible’s diversity and contradictions than the Western tradition of biblical interpretation. The very people of the Bible (Israel) know that with every jot and tittle there can be diverse opinion about the true meaning of God for that era or that community.
This view of canonical development then is known as the “participatory theory of revelation” or “participatory theology,” by which the Pentateuch not only conveys God’s will but also reflects Israel’s interpretation of, and response to, God's will however imperfectly it comprehended or actualized this task. So obviously there is the cultural element of apprehension as it grows and evolves within and without various faith traditions doing their best to know the mind of God so as to be obedient and humble to it. Otherwise known as the Bible's "existential comportment" or, "how it came to be read and understood within individual faith groups."
As such, many biblical texts that describe the giving of Torah move simultaneously - and without contradiction - in two directions: they anchor the authority of Jewish law and lore in the revelation at Sinai, but they also destabilize that authority by teaching that we cannot be sure how, exactly, the specific rules found in the Pentateuch relate to God’s self-disclosure without searching through them in its practical applications to that time and place.
To cut through all the skulduggery, the bottom line is love, humility, and service. God never intended His word to be onerous. That is the man-side of things when we get involved and declare for self-righteousness. Assuredly, most will assent to the dictum that pride is the worse sin of all. But underneath this grotesque sin is what the Bible knows as legalism. The quality of an individual to lift their willfulness up for acceptance before God rather than to give it up and allow God to crush it under Jesus' atoning sacrifice as the sum virtuous description of any follower of God. And if so, than God's word will do no less in its transformative work across communities challenged in their interpretations and beliefs to holiness in love and humility.
January 14, 2017
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Finalist for the 2015 National Jewish Book Award:
Nahum M. Sarna Memorial Award for Scholarship
Hardcover: 440 pages
Publisher: Yale University Press (June 30, 2015)
At once a study of biblical theology and modern Jewish thought, this volume describes a “participatory theory of revelation” as it addresses the ways biblical authors and contemporary theologians alike understand the process of revelation and hence the authority of the law. Benjamin Sommer maintains that the Pentateuch’s authors intend not only to convey God’s will but to express Israel’s interpretation of and response to that divine will. Thus Sommer’s close readings of biblical texts bolster liberal theologies of modern Judaism, especially those of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Franz Rosenzweig.
This bold view of revelation puts a premium on human agency and attests to the grandeur of a God who accomplishes a providential task through the free will of the human subjects under divine authority. Yet, even though the Pentateuch’s authors hold diverse views of revelation, all of them regard the binding authority of the law as sacrosanct. Sommer’s book demonstrates why a law-observant religious Jew can be open to discoveries about the Bible that seem nontraditional or even antireligious.
If You've Ever Wondered Why the Bible
Contradicts Itself: A Jewish Solution
by Pete Enns
January 13, 2017
Readers of this blog will know that I think Christians (namely evangelicals) can learn a lot from how Judaism (in its varied forms) looks at the nature of the Bible and its interpretation. Bottom line: Judaism tends to be more flexible in accepting the Bible’s diversity and contradictions.
The question this raises, though, is how a book that is considered to be revealed from God can contain such non-Godlike properties as contradictions and internal debates among its authors. As I never grow tired of arguing, this conundrum is the bane of Evangelicalism’s commitment to biblical inerrancy.
Enter Benjamin D. Sommer, an orthodox Jew and professor of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Languages at the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC. In his latest book Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition, Sommer explains how Torah can be both a divinely authoritative book while also exhibiting these human traits.
Sommer’s answer is summed up in the phrase “participatory theory of revelation” or “participatory theology,” by which he means: the Pentateuch not only conveys God’s will but also reflects Israel’s interpretation of and response to that will (p. 2).
Or, to put a fine point on it, according to Torah, revelation involved active contributions by both God and Israel;revelation was collaborative and participatory. (p. 1)
And that is why you have, for example, contradictions in the laws of the Pentateuch between Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy: they are all interpretations of the divine revelation.
OK, Ben. You have my attention. The Bible is a paradoxical (and messy and complex and un-untanglable) convergence of divine and human involvement. In Christian terms I call this an “incarnational” understanding of the nature of the Bible. The Bible isn’t dropped out of heaven. Its “full humanity” is a non-negotiable and necessary property of Scripture, and should accepted as such with all its implications.
I read Sommer as a true kindred spirit, a notion underscored by the fact that, as he recently pointed out to me, we both went to the same high school (though we didn’t overlap). Small world. But while he was studying Hebrew in high school I was watching Gilligan’s Island and trying to make the baseball team.
Anyway, here are some brief quotes from the introduction to get a feel for Sommer’s point.
My thesis is a simple one. Many biblical texts that describe the giving of Torah move simultaneously and without contradiction in two directions: they anchor the authority of Jewish law and lore in the revleation at Sinai, but they also destabilize that authority by teaching that we cannot be sure how, exactly, the specific rules found in the Pentateuch relate to God’s self-disclosure (p. 1).
Read that slowly: the diversity in the authoritative Torah destabilizes that authority.
This paradox of revelation in the Pentateuch, Sommer argues, lies in fact that the Pentateuch itself gives voice to both stenographic [i.e., “dictation”] and participatory theologies of revelation (p. 2). In fact, biblical authors and editors expend considerable ingenuity weaving those threads into biblical accounts of the events in Sinai (p. 6). The writers/editors of the Bible intend for readers to struggle with the notion of revelation.
What I also deeply appreciate about Sommer’s approach is debt to historical critical scholarship for helping recover the biblical voices that were lost or obscured as a consequence of the way biblical books were edited in antiquity (p. 5). Sommers is not an advocate of giving priority to the final, canonical form of scripture but of seeing scripture itself as a complex, multi-layered tradition.
The payoff for such a view of the Bible, in addition to accounting for how the Bible actually behaves, is a wise caution concerning the nature of any theological quest:
It [the approach to scripture he has been advocating] involves a degree of doubt that renders religious practice tentative and searching rather than apodictic and self-evident. It ought to lead to that most important religious virtue, humility, rather than promoting a characteristic less rare among religious people than one would hope, self-righteousness (p. 6).
Ah, another paradox: a commitment to biblical authority should lead to humility about one’s grasp of the Bible. Christians take note.
Bottom line, this is a wonderful book that will provoke any Christian concerned with the questions, “What is the Bible, anyway, and what do I do with it?”