Four Assumptions You Need to Make to Read the Bible
© 2018 S.H. Parker

James L. Kugel (How To Read The Bible, Free Press, 2007) notes: 

It is a striking fact that all ancient interpreters [i.e., both Jewish and Christian] seem to have shared very much the same set of expectations about the biblical texts....

1. They assumed that the Bible was a fundamentally cryptic text...

2. Interpreters also assumed that the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day. It may seem to talk about the past, but it is not fundamentally history. It is instruction, telling us what to do...

3. Interpreters also assumed that the Bible contained no contradictions or mistakes. It is perfectly harmonious, despite its being an anthology; in fact, they also believed that everything that the Bible says ought to be in accord with the interpreters' own religious beliefs and practices (since they believed these to have been ordained by God)....

4. [The first three are not "a natural by-product of:"] [T]hey believed that the entire Bible is essentially a divinely given text, a book in which God speaks directly or through His prophets. [Including] the story of Abraham and the other stories in Genesis, even though the text itself never actually said there that God was the author .... And it was held to be true of the rest of the Bible too - even of the book of Psalms.... (pp.14-16)

[A corollary to] Assumption 3 of the ancient interpreters - that the Bible contains no internal contradictions but is perfect in all its details and perfectly harmonious - eventually included within it the notion that every word of the Bible is significant. The Bible never repeats itself or says anything for emphasis, and when it seems to, there must be some additional, hidden meaning. (p.124)

Prof. Kugel is quite right. The "interpreters," if they did not explicitly assert these "principles," clearly acted on them (though my own teachers, 2000 years later, did explicitly teach 2, 3 and 4). But, in fact, they do assert what amounts to the same thing:

We hear such things as "Torah conveys many messages [or lessons] in a few words," or "Torah teaches many laws through ... enigmatic verse[s]" or, best of all, "the sages were commanded, by Torah, to protect its laws,” even to the extent of going beyond the word of Torah, despite repeated commandments not to do so; even to the extent of making things up “out of whole cloth”.

We learn, Rosh Hashannah 25a, that "the Rabbis" (Gamliel II's academy at Yahvneh) claimed the exclusive right to interpret, decide and judge what Torah does and does not say and how it is to be applied. Akiva, in defense of Gamliel's repeated errors, argued that even in error, including intentional error, what the beit din said was definitive and to be obeyed.

The thing about assumptions is that they have no foundation in reality or reason (that's what "assumption" means). They are not open to discussion or reconsideration (granted, sometimes there is reconsideration in the face of contradictory fact; but this is much more rare than one would hope or expect). In the case of biblical texts, reading "on assumptions" is eisegesis, in my opinion always an invalid way of reading a text ... any text ... and inevitably leads to absurd "interpretations."

Any time you start with a set of beliefs about what a text should say or mean - or as Prof. Kugel observes, believing "everything that the Bible says ought to be in accord with the interpreters' own religious beliefs" - you end up with ... uh, garbage.

The Bible is fundamentally cryptic

If Torah is fundamentally cryptic, then it requires people with special knowledge to understand and explain it; "common" people (the unindoctrinated) can't be trusted with the text. Of course, the qualified people are the ancient interpreters. More than a bit self-serving on the part of those putting forth this notion, since the proponents of this position were those very interpreters.

Torah has something to say on the subject of the difficulty of understanding it:

For this commandment which I command you today, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.

It is not in heaven, that you should say: "Who shall go up for us to heaven and bring it to us and cause us to hear it, that we may do it?"


It is not beyond the sea, that you should say: "Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, and cause us to hear it, that we may do it?"


But the word is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you can do it.

                                                                                                   Deut 30:11-14

These same interpreters assert that the entire Bible is divinely given. If so, should these passages be given their due as divine revelation? Or do our interpreters know better than the divine word? 

The fact is that Torah, itself, thinks it is written in straightforward language, accessible to all who speak the language. Ezra, and those who came after him, must have agreed. When Ezra “discovered” a book of Moses, he provided repeaters, so that those further away could hear. He provided “interpreters,” that is translators, for those whose Hebrew wasn’t good. Later, Targumim (Aramaic translations) were provided when Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the lingua franca of Judea. To this day, Samaritans read the Aramaic Targum Onkelos along with the Hebrew in their services. Similarly, when knowledge of Hebrew was poor in Alexandria, a Greek translation was made (the Septuagint). If there was something cryptic, these translators were deluding themselves, weren’t they?

Addressing the question of hidden meanings directly, Torah tells us:

The secret things belong to Adonai our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this torah  - Devarim 29:28

All this said, there are genuine issues in our understanding of the texts. First and foremost is that the words were written in a specific socio-cultural context and their meaning is in large part tied to that context. It was, after all, written for a particular audience. And, with all due respect to D.H. Lawrence ("A writer often writes better than he thinks), absence of knowledge of that context affects perceived meaning. So, what may have been a well understood reference, centuries later may well seem either obscure or, even, entirely different (as I maintain is true of the laws about “slavery” at Ex. 21:2 ff.) Even more important are phrases whose meaning has been forgotten (the difficult phrase לֶךְ־לְךָ֛, at Gen. 12:1 being an excellent example). Most important is the fact that words change meaning over time (and that need not be a lengthy period of time, a few decades can do). Words written in the 9th, 8th or 7th centuries may very well have morphed by the time of the “interpreters,” leading to apparent difficulties with the text and the consequent claim that it is “cryptic” (זָרָה being a fine example; in Torah, it indicates something inappropriate, something in the wrong place or wrong time, (hence the modern rendering “strange”) but by the time of the ancient interpreters, possibly much earlier, it always indicated something pagan). In fact, it is not difficult to understand, it’s just our ignorance at issue (and our arrogance in interpreting what we don’t understand and usually know we don’t understand it).

[Everything in] The Bible is instruction and currently relevant

It is true that the word "torah" is often rendered as "instruction" or "teachings." More exactly, "torah" is based on the root ירה meaning "to guide, to teach." So, "torah" is guidance, teaching, etc. Still ...

If you believe that everything in the Bible is instruction and currently relevant, then you will find "instruction" in every passage, word or letter. That is what eisegisis is ... finding what you set out to find. Whether it's actually "there" or not is beside the point.

Of course, the "instruction" you come up with may be utterly insignificant (such as learning that "God is the master of nature" from the opening chapters of Beresheit (Genesis) or the tale of the 10 Plagues. Torah constantly asserts this, what more is there to "learn?"

Of course, the "instruction" you come up with may completely mangle the text. לֹא-תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי, בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ (you will not boil a kid [baby goat] in its own mother's milk) is a superb example. Despite the precision of the language, despite the ancient belief that this was a specific pagan ritual, somehow this comes to "teach" the utter separation of all meat and meat products from all milk and milk products up to the necessity for separate dishware. (And this separation is not attested anywhere in the Torah nor in archaeology.)

You get such ridiculous "foreshadowings" as both Abraham and Yitzhak each foreshadowing Jesus. You get such nonsense as understanding "new covenant" as "meaning" that the terms of the existing covenant will be replaced by new terms. Unfortunately חדש, "new," also means "renew" and nowhere does any prophet talking of a "new" covenant even hint at a replacement of its terms. What is blatantly meant is a covenant renewal ceremony like the one Joshua holds at Shechem.

The simple fact is that, when we read the Torah, there is some, much, clearly heuristic material. There are statements of overarching principles and there are statements that look like specific rules (or judgments - which allow us to talk about the principles underlying them). But there are also materials that are clearly etiological (the first two chapters of Beresheit, for example and, on this, even Rashi agrees), historical (certainly in intent, the entire Joseph cycle comes immediately to mind) and "spiritual" (the songs, especially).

The simple fact is that blind acceptance of this presumption requires all of us to be on guard against textual mutilation.

There are no contradictions or errors

Ignoring spelling mistakes (most especially the two very different ways of spelling the Tetragramaton, the four letter personal name of God, except in Devarim (Deuteronomy and occasionally in the Tetrateuch) where it is spelled with three letters ...

When was the covenant made? With Abraham?-If so, which of the two tellings of his making a covenant with God? At Sinai, with the whole people? Or at Shechem with Joshua?

Was woman made along with man ("male and female he created" - Chapter 1) or from man's side (Chapter 2)?

Did Israel stop at Meribah (the stories of the bitter waters) once or twice? So did Moses speak to the rock or did he strike it?

Is it "Remember" or "Guard" the Sabbath day? "Honor your father and your mother" or "your mother and your father?"

There are many instances of two versions of a passage, story or event; sometimes there are three. This has been long known. When you study the ancient commentators, you see the lengths they go to, the gymnastics they go through to "reconcile" disparate versions of things ("Remember" and "guard" were spoken simultaneously; but "Honor.." comes to teach that mother and father are equal in the home – two logically different kinds of solution to the same problem). I was explicitly taught that if no semantic resolution ("redefinition" of the terms) presented itself, finding a third passage to make reconciliation was mandatory.  But why are these contortions preferable to acknowledging that there might be multiple traditions?

The crux of this presumption is "they also believed that everything that the Bible says ought to be in accord with the interpreters' own religious beliefs and practices." This is eisegesis at its absolute worst (and, equally, entirely typical homiletics and religious "education" for centuries). Teffilin fall in this category. So did the trinity until the non-trinitarians were killed off. So does Christians' use of icons ("graven [carved] images").

When it's your own imam, minister, priest or rabbi, "no problem." Now try listening to homiletics from another sect or religion. Point taken?

The entire Bible is divinely given

Maybe. Maybe not. Define "given" please. The empirical evidence says otherwise. A few years ago, a group of computer scientists at Bar Ilan University (they were, if it makes any difference, observant Jews) created software similar to plagiarism-detecting software. In this case, the software's job was to distinguish authorial hands. To test it, they took two books of the Prophets and intermixed verses and paragraphs. The software correctly reconstructed the two original documents. When the entire text of Torah was submitted to the software, it split it into four authors in almost completely agreement with the division made by fallible human scholars of The Documentary Hypothesis.

Still, "Said Rav Jeremiah: the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai." (Baba Metzia 59a) And, elsewhere, "the things that are revealed belong to us" (Devarim (Deut.) 29:38) and (I don't remember the citation) "Torah is written in the language of man [i.e., in human language and, back to the assumption of cryptic-ness, comprehensible by humans]."

Prof. Kugel agrees that the text and the interpretation evidence serious differences. He writes:

Scripture was sacred, but more sacred still was the purpose underlying the very idea of Scripture. (p. 684)

Israel was founded on a single monumental idea. It is that idea that has persevered and which Israel has not simply internalized but of which Israel has become the symbol, the living embodiment (and which, in my opinion, is the root cause of anti-Semitism). Israel has survived all it has survived because of the idea. Proper Biblical exegesis is to explicate this grand foundational idea and to help with its implementation. Approaching the texts with assumptions does not contribute anything of value to the enterprise, it detracts from the work.