Posted by Roger Price
For those who hold that the Bible, and particularly the Torah, is the Word of God, without flaw and inerrant, the last few hundred years have been very frustrating. The development of the Documentary Hypothesis, the idea that the Torah was a compilation of works from several discrete sources, was and, despite scholarly challenge, remains a formidable obstacle to the claim of unitary and divine authorship. But the Documentary Hypothesis is, for all its power and value, just that, a hypothesis. Similarly, the notion that much of the Torah text is pretext, i.e., a series of allegories designed to enhance the image of one or more Kings of Judah, is another provocative and persuasive concept, but again, just that, a concept.
Yet while some would dismiss such broad theories as too sweeping, and not definitive, small, stubborn little problems with the text cannot be so easily refuted and disregarded. One sign that the Torah is not the work of a single writer, much less a divine one, is the presence of anachronisms in the text.
An anachronism is a word or reference that is out of place temporally. It may be a person who is named, but was not yet born at the time in which his identification was set. Or, it may be a location or thing or event which is mentioned, but which did not exist or had not occurred when the story was placed. In such instances, the presence of the word both counters the claim of inerrancy and, conversely, helps to show when and where the passage in question may really have been drafted. For instance, if the Torah had said that Moses turned on electric lights the night before the exodus from Egypt so that he could review a map of his escape route, we would know that the text was flawed because electric lights were not invented until about thirty-one centuries after Moses supposedly lived. Moreover, the reference would help place the writing of the passage to some time in or after the nineteenth century of the Common Era.
Consequently, in order to determine whether a text actually includes an anachronism, you need to know at least two things. The first is the time in which the story in the text is set. The other is the time when the person, place or thing mentioned first existed or occurred.
Sometimes, the anachronism is obvious from the text itself. For instance, in Genesis 34:7, we read that Shechem committed an “outrage in Israel” by lying forcibly with Jacob’s daughter, Dinah. The narrative, however, has not yet identified any people known as Israel. There was no nation, nor any group, by that name around at the time to be outraged. (Contrast Deut. 22:21.) Similarly, in Exodus 19:22, 24 we read that the priests must stay pure. But the priesthood had not yet been established, and would not be until after the revelation of Sinai and the subsequent consecration of Aaron and his sons described in chapters 28 and 29 of Exodus.
In each of the foregoing instances, the author or editor seems to have made reference to a circumstance that his audience would have understood, i.e., rape penalty, priesthood. But each reference was also internally inconsistent with the chronology of the story.
Sometimes, discovering an anachronism requires knowledge outside of the text at issue. At Genesis 47:1-6, we read about Joseph introducing his father and brothers to an unnamed Pharaoh. The brothers request permission to stay in the Nile Delta area known as Goshen. Pharaoh grants their wish, and allows the family to settle in “the best part of the land,” in the “region of Goshen.” The story concludes with a note that Joseph settled his father and brothers “in the choicest part of the land of Egypt, in the region of Rameses.” (Gen. 47:11.) The problems here are two-fold. First, the reign of Rameses the Great did not begin until about 1279 BCE. It lasted until about 1213 BCE. Consequently, the area at issue was not named for Rameses until the 13th century BCE or subsequently, but at least two hundred years after the initial settlement of Jacob’s family according to Genesis. Moreover, the name Goshen may be related to an Arabic tribe whose domination of the area did not occur prior to the 6th or 5th centuries BCE. (See Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed (Free Press 2001), at 67.)
At Genesis 26:1, we read that at a time when famine forced him to move, Isaac traveled to the King of the Philistines. The story seems perfectly reasonable, until one realizes that the Philistines, as part of the Seas Peoples migration, did not arrive in Canaan until about 1200 BCE, centuries after Isaac died.
At Genesis 11:28 we read that Haran, brother of Abram (as he was then named) died in his native land, called Ur of the Chaldeans. Ur, located in what is now Iraq, was an ancient city, once the capital of Sumer. But the Chaldean Empire existed only relatively briefly, from about 626 to 539 BCE. That is, there were no Chaldeans until the late 7th or 6th centuries BCE, perhaps a thousand years or more after the reported death.
In chapter 28 of Exodus the Torah text discusses in detail the vestments that are to be made for and worn by Aaron and his sons in their capacity as priests. After the robe, tunic, breastplate, sash and other items are described, verse 42 states: “You shall also make for them linen breeches to cover their nakedness; they shall extend from the hips to the thighs.” These trousers or undergarments were to be worn as the priests enter the Tent of Meeting or approach the altar. As Biblicist S. David Sperling, has demonstrated, however, trousers were invented by the Persians around the 6th century BCE. The sartorial direction at Ex. 28:42 could not, therefore, have been written prior to then, certainly not during any 14th-13th century BCE Exodus. (See Sperling, The Original Torah (NYU Press 1998), at 116.)
In short, there are a variety of anachronisms in the text of the Torah which indicate, first, that the author of those passages lived after the time in which his story was set and, second, that he retrojected commonly understood circumstances back into an era that had no connection to them. Why he did that is another topic, but the fact that he did cannot really be disputed.
Moreover, at least some passages of the Torah can be no older than the 6th century BCE. That is, not only were they not written at Mt. Sinai just after the Exodus, they were not written prior to the alleged entry from the wilderness into Canaan. Indeed, they were not written before the time of Joshua, Judges, or Kings David and Solomon.
Of all the possible anachronisms in the Torah, perhaps none has caused as much controversy as the references in it to camels. The Torah contains just over two dozen such references and the entire Hebrew Bible contains no less than 53 references to camels, extending from mentions in the stories of the patriarchs to the travels of Ezra and Nehemiah to Jerusalem from Babylonia at the very start of the Persian Period, around 538 BCE.
The first reference is at Genesis 12:16 where Abram and Sarai (as she was then known), were well received in Egypt, especially Sarai, and Abram is reported to have acquired sheep, oxen, asses, slaves and camels. Camels are also mentioned with respect to Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. (See, e.g., Gen. 24:61-64; 31:17, 34; 37:25.)
These references, and others, all seem to make perfect sense within the story line -- except for the camels. The history of the camel, it turns out, is rather unusual, complex and not well detailed or understood. The ancestors of modern day camels, by which we really mean the dromedary or one-humped camel, originated in North America and then about two million years ago, at the end of the Pliocene Epoch traveled north and west to the Asian land mass, ultimately reaching Mesopotamia and even what is now the Saharan desert. While there is sporadic evidence of the presence of camels in Syria and the Dead Sea area well over hundreds of thousands of years ago, former Missouri Southwest University Prof. Juris Zarins reports that wild camels “seem to have disappeared or to have been driven out of their natural habitat into the more inhospitable reaches of the Arabian peninsula” by about 3000 BCE, the beginning of the Bronze Age. (See Zarins, “Camel,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday 1992), at I, 824.)
Based on the existence of jars and figurines that are said to be camels, various individuals have proposed a wide range of dates for the domestication of the camel, including prior to 2000 BCE. Ancient records of the Egyptian Nile Valley, however, while depicting a broad menagerie including all of the larger mammals, do not have a word for the camel. Moreover, there is a thousand year gap, between about 2180 and 1170 BCE in representations of camels in pottery. (See generally, A. S. Saber, The Camel in Ancient Egypt (United Arab Emirates University 1998).)
Columbia University Prof. Richard Bulliet states that “(h)istorically, the earliest explicit indications of camel use in northeastern Africa date back to the sixth and seventh centuries B.C. and are related to Assyrian and Persian invasions of Egypt across the Sinai peninsula.” (See Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel (Columbia 1990), at 116; accord, Saber, above, at 209.) Archeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman effectively concur, noting both that Assyrian texts from the 7th century are the first to refer to camel trade caravans in Canaan and that archeological excavations have revealed a noticeable increase in camel bones discovered from that period. (See Finkelstein and Silberman, above, at 37.)
So, while camels may have been domesticated, meaning may have been used as a source of milk and meat in the second millennia BCE in other locations such as Persia (present day Iran), there does not appear to be any serious evidence discovered to date that camels were domesticated in Egypt prior to 800 BCE. Thus, the stories of Rebekah riding a camel (Gen. 24:61-64), of camel caravans to Egypt (Gen. 37:25), of camels as part of Pharaoh’s livestock herds (Ex. 9:3) appear to be as Hamlet had it “out of joint.” (Shakespeare, Hamlet I, 5.)
All this talk about camels and the Middle East naturally reminds us of the ancient teaching that you should not allow a camel to put its nose in your tent, lest you will soon have the entire camel in there with you. The lesson is a metaphorical warning that permitting a small act can lead to greater and quite undesirable consequences.
From this, some might argue that anachronisms undermine the divine origin and, therefore, the importance of the text. But that argument goes too far. The presence of all of these anachronisms, those mentioned here and others, certainly support the conclusion that the Torah is the product of numerous human hands writing over a long period of time. That evidence, though, is corroborative. It compliments and supplements other approaches to the study of the text.
And the argument misses a greater point. If the Torah were really written by a Divine Finger, we would surely have to question the character and integrity of the presumed Author. The result does not demonstrate any of the omnis attributed to God (e.g., omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence), for it is not a pretty product, or even a coherent one. Leaving aside the murder and mayhem, the text is chock full of factual errors and internal inconsistencies which an omniscient Deity or even just a good editor would have resolved. Moreover, instead of an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-compassionate deity, we frequently see an admittedly jealous God who induces His chosen people to enter into an illusory covenant conditioned on adherence to a multiplicity of rules and regulations that no human group could long endure, much less obey. It is a contract destined to be breached.
If, however, the Torah is text by mere mortals, a work of human minds struggling to understand not so much their place in a grand heavenly scheme, but simply how to survive in their earthly present, then we have a work worthy of continuous study. For here are stories of a people seeking to distinguish themselves from their neighbors, and, on their better days, choosing, rather than chosen, to live an ethical life, to love each other and treat the stranger with compassion, and to become a holy nation. Here are stories, sometimes written in frank and salty language, and sometimes with puns, sarcasm and humor, that are both rooted in reality and aspirational, and because of that duality so challenging and inspirational for us.
Consequently, that the Torah is less divine decree and more human hand does not make it less worthy of reverence. To the contrary, if we understand these stories as written by those dared by their geography and history to survive on hard scrabble Earth and to try to figure out how to live day by day, week to week, season to season and year to year, then we have a source of endless worthwhile lessons about life, a fitting foundational text for Western Civilization and a work to treasure.
This essay was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.
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May 3, 2013 | 9:29 am
Posted by Roger Price
The psalmist and the skeptic and the prophet and the professor look at the universe in which we find ourselves, see the same stars, feel the warmth of the same sun, hear thunder pealing from the same sky, understand the processes by which nature unfolds in spring, retreats in fall only to regenerate again the following year, and yet often draw different conclusions from the same observable data. So, for instance, in response to the emergence of humankind, a non-theist might merely record the evolutionary data or might marvel at the improbability, the mystery, and the grandeur of our existence. The traditional Jewish believer, by contrast, might offer a prayer to the Supreme Being: Blessed are You, sovereign of the universe, who has fashioned us from the dust of the Earth in Your image and breathed our soul into us.
Is there another way, a way to attempt to understand one’s place in the cosmos that is consistent with current scientific knowledge, and yet recognizes the miracle of our presence without dependence on some supernatural being? Is there an approach to the cosmos which might be attractive to many, perhaps most, American Jews who do not believe in the traditional personal God who dominates the Torah, but nevertheless accept the existence of (and may even yearn for) some extraordinary power, force or spirit which pervades all that is? And, if so, is that path kosher?
Pantheism is one possibility. The term comes from two Greek words, pan meaning all and theos meaning God. Literally, then, pantheism is the belief that all is God, that God and the universe are coextensive. This formulation also means that there is no God but the universe.
Pantheism is a word first used just over three hundred years ago to express the philosophy developed by Baruch Spinoza (1632-77 CE), a Dutch philosopher of Portuguese Jewish descent who many consider one of the foremost thinkers of the Enlightenment in seventeenth century Europe. Spinoza himself did not use the term pantheism, and there is some debate about whether his philosophy was pantheistic. But Spinoza surely did not understand God in the traditional sense of an omniscient, wise or comforting personality, or as a judge who rewards and punishes.
Rather, for Spinoza, all things in nature were in God, and God was “the active, eternal, and immutable dimension of nature.” (See Nadler, Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge University Press 1999), at 187.) Consequently, God did not perform miracles, if by that term one meant events in violation of natural laws. There could be no miracles in that sense, as there was no distinction between nature and God. Nevertheless, Spinoza was not an atheist. His God was, for him, existing and real, the infinite substance and infinitely perfect.
Of course, Spinoza, at the tender age of 23, was also ex-communicated by the leaders of his Jewish community. The precise reasons for this action are not known, as the order placing Spinoza in cherem, i.e., cursing him and expelling him, did not detail his purported offenses. But it is certainly plausible that his alleged heresies included a rejection of an anthropomorphic God, the divinity of the precepts of the Hebrew Bible and the attribution of the authorship of the text to Moses, each and all of which positions, among others, Spinoza ultimately held and discussed in his writings.
Today, pantheism comes in various forms, and pantheists debate whether and how to use God language. In general, though, pantheism is characterized by several key concepts including (1) the acceptance and utilization of science and the scientific method and (2) a strong sense, even a spiritual one, of an integrated relationship of all things in the Universe, unencumbered or unenhanced, depending on your view, by a supernatural deity.
Pantheists, moreover, take a broad view of the universe, and attempt to synthesize logic and reason with awe and wonder. Their cathedral is not a building, but the universe itself. The universe, they say “creates us, preserves us, destroys us. It is deep and old beyond our ability to reach with our senses. It is beautiful beyond our ability to describe in words. It is complex beyond our ability to fully grasp in science.”
But how exactly does a pantheist relate to the universe? According to the World Pantheist Movement, “with humility, awe, reverence, celebration and the search for deeper understanding,” ways which are and are recognized to be similar to the ways those who believe in a traditional God relate to God. Except, as a pantheist would say, “minus the grovelling (sic) worship or the expectation that there is some being out there who can answer our prayers.”
If much of this sounds familiar to Jews, apart from the reference to groveling, it should. Jews know a thing or three about oneness.
According to the Torah, as Moshe (Moses) is recapitulating the law for the emerging Israelite nation, he asks the people to pay attention to his words with these: “Sh’ma Yisrael” or “Listen, Israel” (more conventionally, “Hear, O Israel”). “יהוה Eloheinu” (“HaShem/Adonai (is) our God”), he continued, “יהוה echad” (“HaShem/Adonai (is) one”). (See Deut. 6:4.) This call to take heed is, perhaps, not intended to be much more than an interjection in an otherwise dense legal oration, similar to the request to listen immediately prior to the recapitulation. (See Deut. 5:1). Over the centuries, though, the Sh’ma has assumed prime theological importance. We may disagree about what God is, even whether God is, but if God is, then God is one.
But what does that mean? Was Moshe asserting that the Israelite God was Number 1, first among many, or was he saying something else? Certainly, the statement can and has been understood to mean that the Israelite God was a single entity, in contrast to two gods or the multiple gods of nature. In this view, the Sh’ma is an affirmation of monotheism, a pronouncement that the Israelite God was the one and only god, and, conversely, a rejection of polytheism. But, if so, the Sh’ma was redundant, as at least two nearby passages which precede it explicitly state that יהוה (HaShem/Adonai) alone is God, that there is no other. (See Deut. 4:35, 39.)
Judith Plaskow, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, has suggested that this view of the “one God who was creator and ruler of the universe” is insufficient, for while it “defines ‘one’ in opposition to ‘many’, . . . it never really specifies what it means to say that God/Adonai/the One who is and will be is one.” (See Hoffman ed., My People’s Prayer Book, Vol. 1 -- The Sh’ma and its Blessings, (Jewish Lights 1997) at 98.)
Referencing Judaic scholar Marcia Falk’s understanding of an inclusive and not merely numerical monotheism, Plaskow argues that “Rather than being the chief deity in the pantheon, God includes the qualities and characteristics of the whole pantheon, with nothing remaining outside. God is all in all.” (Id. at 99.) Monotheism, she adds, is about “the capacity to glimpse the One in and through the changing forms of the many, to see the whole in and through its infinite images.” Here she finds “a unity that embraces and contains our diversity and that connects all things to each other.” There is precedent for this encompassing vision. Some scholars have argued that “early Hasidism had profound pantheistic tendencies and that many of its teachers saw God as the vital divine force that suffused every corner of the universe.” (See Nelson, Judaism, Physics and God (Jewish Lights 2005), at 262.) But the record is not clear.
Some modern commentators appear to share those tendencies. For instance, in a recent essay, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, of American Jewish University, talks about the “reality of an evolving, emergent, dynamic creation” in which “every natural event is related to every other natural event and to all natural events.” In his creation theology, “it is not God alone who is one. All is one. We are related to each and to all, as is the Creator.” (See Artson, “Revisiting Creation, Natural Events, and Their Emergent Patterns” in The CCAR Journal, The Reform Jewish Quarterly (Winter 2012), at 76.) “We are stardust -- we are all stardust,” he writes.
Similarly, in his search for new metaphors in an age of science, Reform Rabbi David Nelson, currently assistant professor of religion at Bard College, reaches to the Big Bang. He says that “The oneness of God can now be understood as indicating that everything, the totality of being itself, is, in a sense, God. ‘God is one’ may now be taken to mean the ‘God’ is a term that signifies the unity of all existence, a unity rooted in the common origin of all existence in a single point of time, space, and nascent matter.” (See Nelson, above, at 19.)
“The very term singularity,” he argues, “which has become a common place of contemporary physics, might be seen as a modern Jewish metaphor for the traditional Jewish idea of oneness.” (Id.) By singularity, Nelson is referring to the earliest moment in the history of the universe when, according to Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the universe must have been incredibly small, compact and hot.
Metaphors are tricky things, however. They are, by their very nature, comparisons to and therefore dependent on an unrelated object. Consequently, if the referenced object changes, then the strength of the metaphor must change as well, and, in some cases, so too must the validity of the metaphor.
Professor Stephen Hawking has been a dominant astrophysicist for over forty years. His work in 1970 (with Roger Penrose) convinced the scientific community about there being a Big Bang singularity. Subsequently, however, Hawking recanted. Today Hawking does not dispute the description of our universe at a very young age as small, perhaps a billion-trillion-trillionth of a centimeter, and therefore unimaginably compact and hot, but argues that the predictive value of Einstein’s theory breaks down at the earliest moment of the origin of our universe, when t= 0. Indeed, Hawking’s consideration of quantum theory leads him to claim that there was “a vast landscape of possible universes.” Alluding to one of Einstein’s famous phrases, Hawking writes: “If one were religious, one could say that God really does play dice.” (The Grand Design (Bantam 2010), at 139, 144.)
The point here is not that Nelson’s metaphor fails, but that it (1) demonstrates the risk in appealing to science, especially astrophysics, that is in flux and (2) takes us only so far. Nelson himself has recognized its limits. All this does not mean that the metaphor is not useful. To the contrary, it is very useful. Nelson’s Big Bang metaphor may not take us to the original quantum event which initiated the universe as we know it, but it takes us to within a split second of that event, and to a moment before we were stardust, before there were stars. It underscores the common source of all beings, of all things. And, to the extent it does, it is of a piece with the tapestry being woven by Plaskow, Falk and Artson, with material supplied by Einstein, Spinoza and, in some ways, the biblical authors of the Sh’ma.
Moreover, the intent here is certainly not to label either Nelson, Plaskow, Falk or Artson as pantheists, but, rather, to note that some of what each contemporary Jewish scholar has written is consistent with classic pantheistic expressions on the interconnectedness of the universe and the notion of the equivalence of God and nature.
Contemporary pantheism, however, often rejects its Spinozan origins, effectively favoring pan over theism and resembling, in the end, a paganism against which Judaism has historically stood. There is, though, a related approach, panentheism, which avoids this problem.
Panentheism does not argue that God is everything, but, rather, that God is in everything. That is, it allows for a God that is, in one or some ways, more than merely the sum of the parts of the universe. This orientation also permits new language to be written by poets about the interconnected unity of energy and matter and life, about humanity’s unique role in the natural scheme of things, yet with room for that unknown force or power or energy or field or whatever it was that preceded inflation in the Big Bang model and all that followed and will follow from that first inflation and then subsequent expansion as our universe continues its journey of evolution.
In the cosmic drama that we have only recently begun to understand, Conservative Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky sees “no religious response to the scope of space and time other than worshipping the Name of Existence—the sacred reality in which we participate, but that utterly transcends our place in the cosmos.” In short, accordingly to Kalmanovsky: “Finding God inhering naturalistically in all things -- a theory usually called panentheism -- is the only adequate religious response to science.” (See Kalmanofsky, “Cosmic Theology and Earthly Religion,” in Jewish Theology in Our Time (Jewish Lights 2011), at 25-26.) Note that Kalmanovsky is not saying that there is only one response to science. He is saying that there is only one response which is both religious, that is, which includes some concept of (a) God, and adequate, by which he seems to mean serious in its acceptance of modern science.
Pantheism, maybe, and panentheism, more certainly, seem to provide approaches which not only have authentic Jewish connections, but may also appeal to what a substantial number of American Jews claim to believe, even if they do not know the names of the philosophies they have intuitively adopted. If this is so, why haven’t the seminaries and synagogues responded?
Carl Sagan, an astronomer and writer who died too young in 1996, wrote that “(a) religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later such a religion will emerge.” (Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (Random House 1994), at 52.) What are we waiting for?
A version of this essay was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.