Thursday, March 18, 2010

J.D. Eisenstein on Bible Criticism - Pt. 1

Eisenstein's Commentary on the Torah was written as a reaction to modern Biblical criticism. It is a “Defense of the Traditional Jewish Viewpoint” (which is also the subtitle of the book) and the author attempts to call into question many of the assertions of Bible critics. Since this is a relatively hard book to find, I am providing a summary of his arguments on a chapter by chapter basis. This post covers only the first three chapters; I hope to continue at a later date. Please note that I have refrained from personal remarks on Eisenstein's commentary (although I may bold or italicize certain portions); what follows are either direct quotes or accurate paraphrasing of the text.

Judah David Eisenstein finished this book in 1952, but he unfortunately passed away (in 1956 at the age of 101) before he could see it published. Of course, many new developments in biblical scholarship and more sophisticated arguments have arisen in the decades after his death, consequently his treatment may seem outdated to some.


A summary of biblical criticism, including both non-Jewish and Jewish critics. Among the Jewish critics, Eisenstein mentions one traditional commentator - Ibn Ezra - who suggests that some passages of the Torah may have been written after Moses' death. Brief discussion of Talmudic sources, various translations, and faulty translations. Potent quote:
The Rabbis of the Talmud, who lived in the early centuries of the common era and devoted their lives to the study of the Hebrew Bible, are certainly more qualified to judge the authenticity of the Bible in general and the Torah, upon which the details of the Jewish faith and practices are based, in particular. The Rabbis scrutinized every question raised by apparent variants, contradictions, misplacements, or anachronisms, and introduced certain rules by which these discrepancies might be solved and explained. The early Jewish commentators, following these rules, met and even anticipated every type of criticism advanced by the critics. But the critics do not or cannot read the Hebrew commentators; they rely on their own misinformation and prejudice, and consult only those books which coincide with their views.
Chapter 1: The Creation, Flood, and the Tower of Babel

The creation story is not a scientific presentation, but a religious axiom to stimulate faith in God and in the Mosaic Books.
Experience has shown that there is no basis for the fear that children will rebel against such teachings and rebuke us for indoctrinating them with unsound ideas lacking scientific foundations.
Contradictions between the events of the two creation stories are answered by Rashi or - for example - Chullin 27b. For example, the winged fowl of the fifth day in the 1st chapter are insects, as opposed to the fowl of the air of the sixth day in the 2nd chapter which are birds.

The Flood. Shanaim shanaim are “pair by pair”; the Torah does not limit the number of pairs of clean animals, thus there is no contradiction of one vs. seven pairs of animals in the story. The Flood only inundated Mesopotamia. Noah's ark contained only those animals common to the region. Repetitions in the story are due to differences in the style of ancient Biblical writings vs. modern fiction writers.

Chapter 2: Facts, Legends and Miracles
“The sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them with wives whomever they liked. (Gen. 6:2)... is an erroneous translation of the Hebrew. Onkelos of the first century renders “benei Elohim” as powerful or mighty men, not the sons of God, nor angels who cohabited with mortal women. It is not denied that there is some difference between the primeval chapters (Gen. 1-11), and the patriarchal chapters (ibid., 12-50). The former are based on the phenomena of nature and are related to the creation: of the world and its inhabitants in earliest historical times, couched in a language best understood by ordinary people for the purpose of impressing on them the belief in a Supreme being.
A nod to the Kabbalists and a mention of the multiple ways of interpreting the first 11 chapters of Genesis. “The patriarchal chapters, however, are historical facts.” Moses collected the scrolls that the Israelites read while in Egypt, and then wrote Genesis and the first part of Exodus with divine inspiration. He then added his history in Egypt, the deliverance of the people, the rest of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and then Deuteronomy before his death. The miracles of which modern critics are skeptical may be explained in a reasonable way. The Jews passed through the Red Sea at ebb tide, although this does not explain how 600,000 could pass through the sea. The sun standing still by Joshua may be due to the Aurora Borealis. The ravens bringing food to Elijah were actually a family named Oreb (raven). Other phenomena are rhetorical or poetic fancies, such as a the Tower of Babel being expresses as a “tower with its top in the heavens.”

Chapter 3: Script and Language

The Hebrew alphabet was the invention of Hebrews, not the Phoenicians. Archaeological discoveries bear this out: the excavation of Tel ed-Duweir (Lachish?) by Sir Charles Marston shows characters from 1500 BCE which were from early Hebrews. Ras Shamra dates back to 1400-1360 BCE. Phoenician script came into use later, about 1250 BCE during the reign of King Shiram. The Talmudic discussion of what script the Torah was written with (e.g., Sanhedrin 21b, 22a) shows that the rabbis were dealing with a very ancient text, since they no longer knew its original style of writing. Potent quote:
The word sepher mentioned in the Torah does not mean book in the ordinary sense. It was a tablet on which the narrative (sippur) was inscribed with a stylet or with a pointed instrument similar to the modern pen. Jeremiah was the first to mention writing with ink upon a scroll (Jer. 36:16), evidently on parchment. There is an interval of about nine centuries between Moses and Jeremiah. This certainly refutes the theories of the critics, some of whom date the composition of several of the books of Moses later than Jeremiah when inscribing on stones had ceased.
Masoretic corrections. Keri and ketiv notes were made by comparing three copies of the Torah a long time after Moses wrote the Torah. The corrections are found in the margins only, which refutes the theory of the postdating its composition.

Some critics attempt to prove that the talmudists were ignorant of vowels. They quote the story from the Talmud (Baba Batra 21b) that King David censured Joab, his chief of the army, for killing all the males in Edom (I Ki. 11:15), and that Joab’s excuse was that he followed the instruction of his teacher, based on the command of God to Moses, who enjoined Joshua to “blot out the remembrance of Amalek (also known as Edom) from under the heaven.” (Ex. 17 :14) The word “remembrance” in Hebrew is zeker, but his teacher taught him to read zakar, which means males, so he completely wiped out all males in Edom (T. Baba Batra 2lb). This, however, can be accounted for by the fact that the teacher who copied the Torah placed the wrong vowels under the consonants ZKR, or that he read from a copy in which the wrong vowels had been placed by error.
Other examples follow. Jesus quote: Jesus said, “One jot or one tittle shall in nowise pass from the law.” (Matthew 5:18) He referred to the vowels and the accents of the Torah, in existence in his time.

Certain corrections of a euphemistic character were made in the Bible by the Soferim or, according to another authority, by the original authors. This opinion appears in the light of certain changes in the text.
Many examples follow, such as “But Abraham stood yet before the Eternal” (Gen. 1-8:22), instead of “The Eternal stood yet before Abraham”.

Foreign Influences. Eisenstein discusses the many foreign loan words in the Torah which “prove the authenticity of the Torah regarding the historical narratives of Israe1’s sojourn in and exodus from Egypt, including the story of Joseph’s experiences in Egypt.” (This is a quote from a Dr A. S. Yahuda, in Language of the Pentateuch. [hey, it's an old book, why isn't there a full view on Google Books??])
Dr. Yahuda points out the inconsistency in the thinking of the German critic, Edward Meyer, who considers the story of Joseph as fiction and who suggests that it was a mere adaptation from an Egyptian story. Meyer was one of those critics who assumed the author of the Joseph narrative to be completely ignorant of Egyptian literature. The fallacy of his theories is readily recognized when the authenticity of the Hebrew Bible is carefully explored.
Names. An explanation of the variations in personal names mentioned in the Bible. E.g., Esau changed the name of wife Mahalat (daughter of Ishmael, mentioned in Gen. 28:9), to Basemat (36:3) in memory of his former wife (26:34) who died childless. Mahalat means “illness”, and this was replaced by Basemat, which means “sweet spices”.

Detailed Descriptions. There are numerous personal narratives which could not have been described in such minute detail in a later period by various writers. Examples include: details on the generations from Adam until Noah, details on the ark, names of the families that went into Egypt, the Tabernacle dimensions and construction, census of tribes and Levites (“it is quite unlikely that an author of a much later period would fictionalize such events and enumerate in so specific and particular a fashion”), detailed itinerary of the Israelites and the names of the camps they established are evidence of their actual sojourn in the Wilderness before entering Canaan.
Forty-two camps are named individually in the itinerary (Num 33). And yet the critics deny the events of this sojourn in the Wilderness. We may ask them, if all these places are myths, what purpose had the later writer in locating all the camps in the Wilderness, when he could have set them in Canaan or elsewhere. Besides, some of these places were unknown during the time when the Israelites were settled in Palestine; they were identified only in recent years.
[End of Part 1.]


Joshua said...

So are we going to get your responses/evaluations of his arguments or just summaries?

I'm curious to hear your opinions in that some of these are demonstrably false while others are valid points and others sound just irrelevant.

Anonymous this time said...

I only got my hands on the book once, and came away disgusted. I had built up such hope, since a) a response like this, especially written so recently, is exceedingly rare and b) people had intimated that is was good. It only served to further convince me that the modern Bible scholars are onto something real.

Frum Heretic said...

I wanted to initially just present his arguments, rather than evaluate them one by one. But eventually I'll comment on his examples and assertions.

Anon - at least for some of his arguments, I think you really have to consider the time period in which it was written. For example, did he only give credence to to fundamentalist archaeologists, or does his book reflect the archaeological knowledge of 60 years ago? I don't have the answer for that, but it does somewhat mitigate the fact that his archaeological "data" is certainly out of date.

Baal Habos said...

?The Rabbis of the Talmud, who lived in the early centuries of the common era and devoted their lives to the study of the Hebrew Bible, are certainly more qualified to judge the authenticity of the Bible in general and the Torah, upon which the details of the Jewish faith and practices are based, in particular."

This says it all. Is there really any need to read further?

Frum Heretic said...

BhB - well he could have ended the book with that statement, but chose to detail specific arguments for the traditional view of Torah. So let's continue to explore what was presumably the "state of art" for anti-DH thought in 1950.

S. said...

Re the Yahuda book, it's not on Google because it was published in 1933. In order to be on Google in its entirety, it would have to be published in 1923 or earlier.

However, you can download the book right here.

Frum Heretic said...

Excellentness - thank you for that link!