This series would be critically lacking if I did not deal with questions of archaeology, history, and Tanakh. However, this series, general and introductory as it is, does not provide enough time or space for me to address the large range of issues and contradictions that arise from this topic. Moreover, I have studied archaeology minimally, and only insofar as it relates to Tanakh, leaving me unqualified to write a thorough discussion of this issue. In light of all of this, what I would like to do here is present a general approach to contradictions between the historical pictures indicated by archaeological findings and the plain sense of the text of Tanakh. It is to this end that I would like to first turn to a letter written by R. Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook.
R. Kook was sent a letter asking about how one should deal with claims that certain texts from the beginning of Sefer Bereshit are not historical, claims that began to become popular in R. Kook’s lifetime. His response contains more specific statements that may apply to our topic, but it also contains a general statement of far-ranging significance:
And part of this is the general principle in the play of ideas, that when any concept that contradicts something from the Torah, we, initially, should not necessarily reject it. Rather, we should build the palace of Torah above it. The contradictory ideas thereby improve us, and clarify the different opinions. Afterwards, when we are not pressured by anything, then we will be able to combat the idea with whole-hearted security1.
R. Kook is essentially laying out an approach for any topic where there is a contradiction between what seems to be an idea in Judaism and an idea that is destructive to Judaism. In such a case, R. Kook suggests, our first step should not be to fight the destructive idea. Instead, we should assume, for the sake of argument, that it is true. If it is true, what would that mean for Judaism? How could Judaism be improved by this idea? And only then, once we have made this “destructive” idea as non-threatening as possible, should we attack the idea.
This two-step approach is valuable more generally as we attempt to ascertain truth throughout our lives. If we are searching for truth, we are likely to miss things if we are already committed to certain ideas. R. Kook is suggesting that we can avoid this problem — not by giving up on our beliefs and commitments, but by temporarily ignoring them and imagining what would be the case if a seemingly contradicting idea were true. Moreover, R. Kook suggests, we can thereby discover the value this idea might have for Judaism, and aspects of it that we might be able to incorporate into our Judaism, even if we ultimately reject the “destructive” idea.
If this all sounds horribly, mind-numbingly, abstract and confusing so far, then we’re right on course. I will, hopefully, clarify the idea further by way of applying it to the issue of contradictions between archaeology and Tanakh.
We start with the plain sense of the text of Tanakh, on the one hand, and the general consensus regarding the historical picture indicated by archaeological findings2 on the other. Without attacking this consensus, without even asking the question of whether individual archaeological findings really do indicate a historical picture that contradicts Tanakh, R. Kook’s letter suggests that we should temporarily assume, for the sake of argument, that the findings are correct. If it were to be true that the correct understanding of history contradicts the simple text of Tanakh, what would that mean? How could that improve our understanding of Judaism? It might well indicate that Tanakh is not attempting to teach us history, that we are not meant to extrapolate a historical picture from the text the way we do from objects dug out of the ground. This idea — “Tanakh is not trying to teach us history” — allows us to “build the palace of Torah above” the threat posed by archaeological consensus, eliminating the contradiction between the two. Instead of having two contradictory accounts of history, we have a historical account on the one hand, and the text of the Tanakh on the other. Instead, Tanakh is concerned with moral and spiritual instruction. Tanakh is less about pure history and more about how we can be better people in our relationship with God, with others, and with ourselves.
But can we really incorporate this idea into Judaism? Can we really give up on the idea that Tanakh records an accurate account of history so easily? And can we accept this as anything other than forced apologetics3?
In terms of apologetics, it’s worth examining whether “Tanakh is not trying to teach us history” is something a reader might get a sense of from the text of Tanakh itself. As a case study, let’s look at the conquest of the cities of Devir and Ḥevron upon the entrance of Bnei Yisrael into the land. To avoid quoting at length, the reader is referred to chapters 10, 14, and 15 of Sefer Yehoshua, as well as chapter 1 of Sefer Shoftim. Reading these chapters closely, we see that these cities were each conquered multiple times, by multiple different people (specifically: Yehoshua, Calev, and Otniel ben Kenaz). The last depiction of the conquest, in Sefer Shoftim, actually indicates that it happened after the first conqueror, Yehoshua, had already died. Given that depiction, would a reader automatically assume that the text was depicting history? I don’t think so. This is not to say that the depiction of the conquest of Devir and Ḥevron in Tanakh is necessarily a-historical. It is certainly possible to resolve these disparate texts into a unitary historical account, as commentators and exegetes have done for countless years. But the fact that such a historical account is not immediately obvious from the text may indeed give us reasons to think that Tanakh is not trying to teach us history.
We still need to explain how this idea can fit within Judaism. We also, however, need to tackle an additional problem. While there are parts of Tanakh that might suggest that Tanakh is not interested in teaching us history, so much of Tanakh resembles a history book4. If teaching history is truly not Tanakh’s intended function, why does its form so closely resemble that of a history book? I would like to tackle both of these questions by juxtaposing the opinions of Rambam and Rabbeinu Baḥye Ibn Paquda, the author of the Ḥovot HaLevavot. (It might be easier to just quote the famous midrashic and exegetical principle, “אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה,” “the Torah is not fundamentally organized according to chronology,” but I prefer to look at the more explicit discussion put forth by these two Rishonim5).
Rambam dedicates the second chapter of his monumental philosophical work, the Moreh Nevukhim, to answering a question about the story of Adam and Ḥava in the Garden of Eden. He opens his response not by laying out his approach to the topic, as he does later in the chapter, but by critiquing the very way the questioner reads the Torah6:
You appear to have studied the matter superficially, and nevertheless you imagine that you can understand a book which has been the guide of past and present generations, when you for a moment withdraw from your lusts and appetites, and glance over its contents as if you were reading a historical work or some poetical composition7.
Rambam here specifically contrasts the Torah as “the guide of past and present generations,” with a book of history, arguing that one should not study the former in the same way that one studies the latter, and that this lies at the root of his questioner’s dilemma. For our purposes, it is simply important to note that this would seem to fit very well with everything we have said up to this point. It would seem that we can indeed incorporate the idea that Tanakh is not trying to teach us history into Judaism, as Rambam suggests that this idea has been there all along. However, Rambam does not solve the problem of the seemingly clear historical form of much of Tanakh. For an approach that deals with that problem as well, we must turn to Rabbeinu Baḥye Ibn Paquda’s introduction to his famed ethical work Ḥovot HaLevavot:
Likewise, the blessed Al-mighty gave His Torah of truth to His servants to test them. The thinking, intelligent man, when he reads it and understands it clearly, will divide it into three divisions. The first is the knowledge of fine spiritual themes, namely, the inner wisdom, such as the duties of the heart, the discipline of the soul and will obligate his soul on them always. Afterwards, he will select the second portion, namely, the practical duties of the limbs, doing each one in its proper time and place. Afterwards, he will make use of the third division, the historical portions of Scripture, to know the various types of men and their happenings in historical order, and the events of past ages and their hidden messages. He will use every part according to its proper occasion, place, and need8.
Rabbeinu Baḥye divides the Torah into three parts, in descending order of importance: 1) Cognitive duties, 2) Physical duties, and 3) History. Rabbeinu Baḥye is essentially pointing out that we need not read Tanakh as one cloth. Even just within the Torah itself, there are various types of texts, only some of which take on a historical form. Even further, and more importantly, the purpose of the third type of Biblical text is “to know the various types of men and their happenings in historical order, and the events of past ages and their hidden messages9.” Tanakh is coming to convey history, but only as a tertiary purpose, and even then history is utilized for larger goals, and is subordinate to them10. Essentially, Tanakh often takes the form of historical accounts — accounts that may convey valuable and real historical information — in order to teach hidden messages buried within those accounts. It would not, however, be surprising if those accounts were changed somewhat in order to better convey a more important message. Rabbeinu Baḥye thus enables us to say that A) Tanakh is not (primarily)11 interested in teaching us history and B) when it is, that history may be subordinate to larger messages.
All of this so far has just been step one of R. Kook’s two-step process. We have created an approach to Tanakh that makes the supposed archaeological consensus non-threatening, and moreover we have found that approach within Tanakh and the Jewish tradition. The second step is to return, if we so wish, to the field of battle and attack the archaeological consensus. Archaeology is a complex and often subjective process12. Such a discussion requires looking at each individual finding and would go incredibly far beyond the scope of this series. But I hope I have managed to lay out an approach that will allow us to have that discussion honestly and openly. More importantly, I hope I have shown how, as R. Kook suggests, this contradictory idea can improve our Judaism, helping us focus on the important messages that Tanakh is actually trying to teach us.
Read the other parts of this series here.
1. The translation is mine. Due to the often difficult and poetic nature of R. Kook’s language, I have translated with an eye toward the experience of reading and the general meaning than toward exactitude in the meaning of each word.↩
2. This clause ended up being somewhat complex. I didn’t want to write it out at greater length in the text itself, but I will attempt to explain further here. The “destructive idea” that contradicts Judaism that we’re discussing here has three parts: 1) The archaeological findings. This is the actual remnants from ancient societies that are dug out of the ground, the material objects themselves. 2) The historical picture indicated by these findings. This is the theoretical interpretation that archaeologists give in attempting to understand the findings and create a broader historical account. This is done by integrating different findings and by speculating and extrapolating further. We’ve moved here from the realm of concrete objects into the realm of subjective interpretation, where specific interpretations can be more or less compelling to different individuals. 3) The general consensus. This is the specific interpretations that are agreed upon by the majority or all of the individuals qualified to have an opinion about the correct interpretation of archaeological findings. It could obviously be debatable who exactly is qualified, but it should be relatively uncontroversial to say that it must be individuals with expertise in archaeology. While “expertise” is still a fairly amorphous and interpretable term, this is an unavoidable, but somewhat limited, difficulty. It’s worth noting, as we will further on in the paper, that both 2 and 3 are very flexible and attackable categories. For the sake of this essay, however, I will assume that versions of 2 and 3 least charitable to the plain text of the Torah are true. If my argument still works, then it will be all the stronger for it.↩
3. For the sake of clarifying this often confusingly used term, I would like to take a moment to try and lay out two distinctions, between an “apologetic” and a “reason” and between a good apologetic and a bad apologetic. In the process of explaining these distinctions, I hope to explain and help alleviate some of the negativity surrounding the term “apologetic” and the inauthenticity often associated with it. “Apologetics” and “reasons” are both given when attempting to explain a concept or practice that is taken to be objectionable. The difference between them is whether the originator of the concept/practice would have given that explanation, or whether it is only something we would say today. A reason for an objectionable concept is an explanation for it that the originator would, or could, possibly have said. An apologetic is something the originator could not have possibly said. This is why apologetics tend to be taken negatively. However, if one assumes that an apologetic is not meant to explain the origin of a concept, but only to explain its usage in contemporary society or the like, then the apologetic becomes much more palatable. “Good” apologetics and “bad” apologetics are both ways of explaining the usage of an objectionable concept in contemporary society, or the like. A good apologetic gives an explanation that the person saying it would accept, even if the objectionable concept did not exist. A bad apologetic is an explanation that the person saying it would not accept if the objectionable concept did not exist; it is something they are only accepting in order to explain away the objectionable concept. By way of example, it is often asserted that women are obligated in fewer mitsvot because they are inherently holier, and thus less in need of mitsvot. It is worth considering, however, if the person saying that women are holier would say that if he was not confronted by women being obligated in fewer mitsvot. If the answer is yes, then it is a good apologetic, at least for such a person. If the answer is no, then it is a bad apologetic. Then the same question must be asked for this person’s audience. That is all I can write on this topic at this juncture, but I hope this has helped clarify this confusing term somewhat, and that I can write a fuller essay on the topic at some point in the future.↩
4. Specifically, Nevi’im Rishonim, not for nothing referred to often as “The Historical Prophets” or “The Deuteronomistic History.” Texts from Nevi’im Aḥaronim, “The Literary Prophets,” and Ketuvim tend to have a generally more obviously non-historical nature.↩
5. While only stated explicitly in the midrash and commentators, this principle is obvious from the text of the Torah itself, in the tension between Bemidbar 1:1 and 9:1, as I have written about here.↩
6. Both Rambam and Rabbeinu Baḥye deal with the Torah specifically rather than Tanakh more generally, but I see no reason why their arguments and conclusions cannot serve a broader purpose.↩
7. Translation from sacred-texts.com.↩
8. Translation from dafyomi.co.il.↩
9. Emphasis mine.↩
10. Rabbeinu Baḥye does not explicitly say that the historical sections are subordinate to larger, non-historical, goals, but it seems to me to be the obvious continuation of his idea.↩
11. This word being the key difference between Rabbeinu Baḥye and Rambam, as well as everything we had said before.↩
12. See note 2 above.↩