Critical Discourse as a Jewish Thing and Its Beginnings in the Bible

Edward Greenstein


Crit­i­cal dis­course is not exclu­sive­ly Jew­ish, but it is char­ac­ter­is­tic of Jew­ish cul­ture through­out the ages. The Jew tends to live in two worlds, the Jew­ish and the sur­round­ing one, and, as an insid­er who is also an out­sider, often com­ments crit­i­cal­ly on the sur­round­ing cul­ture from a parochial cul­tur­al per­spec­tive. The crit­i­cal atti­tude of the out­sider is reflect­ed in the bib­li­cal sto­ry of how Moses’ father-in-law, the Mid­i­an­ite priest Jethro, tries to set him straight on how to admin­is­ter jus­tice among the Hebrews. The Hebrew cul­tur­al cri­tique is itself rep­re­sent­ed as both out­ward­ly direct­ed and inward­ly direct­ed. On the one hand, bib­li­cal law, read along­side com­pa­ra­ble laws from the ancient Near East, can be under­stood as a mode of dis­course seek­ing to cri­tique and revise the pre­dom­i­nant cul­tur­al norms. On the oth­er hand, lat­er bib­li­cal laws can be read as cri­tique and revi­sion of ear­li­er laws. Crit­i­cal dis­course may be said to reach its height in the ora­cles of such prophets as Isa­iah and Jere­mi­ah, who, at least for the sake of argu­ment, seek to under­mine if not sup­plant the tem­ple cult.

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Knock knock. Who’s there? Not my son, he never visits. This well-worn joke about Jewish mothers puts its finger on a ubiquitous feature of Jewish discourse: implied, if not explicit, criticism. Criticizing the next person is literally one of the 613 commandments in the Torah: “You are not to hate your brother in your heart; you are to reprove, yes reprove, your neighbor, so that you do not bear a sin on his account” (Leviticus 19:17). If you find people doing wrong, you must call them on it. You are not to withhold your criticism.

Jews are surely not genetically programmed to speak critically, and yet there is an apparent, culturally nourished proclivity to critical discourse. The great nineteenth century sage, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, wrote in his Torah commentary (on Exodus 3:11) that the Israelites more than other peoples tend to challenge their forerunners’ ways of thinking. Many of the most trenchant critics of contemporary culture and thought in modern times have had Jewish origins 1 1 I am using “cultural criticism” to refer to the interdisciplinary analysis of contemporary culture, and of the question of what culture is, rather than the specifically postmodern, heavily ideological discipline of “cultural studies.” See, e.g., Vincent B. Leitch, “Cultural Criticism,” in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th ed., ed. Roland Greene (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012), 323-24. . One need think only of Karl Marx 2 2 Although Marx was baptized as a boy, he was a scion of rabbis on both sides of his family, and his mother was Jewish when she bore him. Marx went beyond alienation from Judaism to anti-Semitism; see, e.g., Robert S. Wistrich, Revolutionary Jews from Marx to Trotsky (London: Harrap, 1976), 6-7, 26-45. , and his influential analysis and critique of economics, governance, and class relations, and the Marx Brothers, and their comedic send-ups of economics (Night at the Opera), governance (Duck Soup), and class relations (Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers), as paragons of social and cultural criticism.

The engagement of Jews in critical thought is no coincidence. Freud attributed the independence and originality of his thinking to his Jewish background: “Because I was a Jew I found myself free from many prejudices which restricted others in the use of their intellect, and as a Jew, I was prepared to join the Opposition and to do without agreement with the ‘compact majority’.” 3 3 Sigmund Freud, “Address to the Society of B’nai B’rith,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey with Anna Freud (London: Hogarth Press, 1959), vol. 20, 274. As an insider who is also an outsider, the Jew has enjoyed a vantage point from which to grasp the values and perspectives of a society from the position of one who belongs, while bringing a different cultural mindset to the encounter. Like the ideal anthropologist, the Jew learns to speak the language of the culture under observation while relating to it in one’s own language. 4 4 Compare Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (trans. John and Doreen Weightman; New York: Pocket Books, 1977), p. 47. Jews have lived often and long in tension with their surroundings as a vulnerable minority, whether in the Persian Empire, as reflected in the story of Esther, where genocide is overcome by Jewish wit, or in twentieth-century America, where alienation and the push and pull of assimilation were sublimated by at once biting and self-deprecating humor. Satire is a quintessentially Jewish medium, whether it takes the high-brow form of Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, or the low-brow form of Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce, or MAD magazine.

Jewish culture has long cultivated two basic ingredients of social criticism: protest and argument. The Jewish religious tradition, for example, has adulated such theological fault-finders as Abraham, who wondered if “the Judge of All the Earth would always act justly” (Genesis 18:25); Moses, who stepped into the breach to stave off an angry God who would put an end to his chosen people (e.g., Exodus 32:10-14); 5 5 See, e.g., Yochanan Muffs, “Who Will Stand in the Breach?”: A Study of Prophetic Intercession,” Love and Joy: Law, Language and Religion in Ancient Israel (New York and Jerusalem: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1992), esp. 11-24. Jeremiah, who charged the deity with rewarding the wicked (12:1-2); the books of Job and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), which challenge all the theological commonplaces; the midrash Lamentations Rabbah proem (petita) 24, in which the deity is outwitted and shown to be less compassionate than some of Israel’s ancestors; 6 6 For a convenient translation, see, e.g., David Stern and Mark Jay Mirsky, eds., Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives from Classical Hebrew Literature (Philadelphia and New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1990), 49-57. the medieval piyyuṭ (liturgical poem) in which the biblical rhapsody, “Who is like You among the Mighty (’eilim), O Lord?” (Exodus 15:11) is transmogrified by punning into “There is no one like You among the mute (’ilmim)?”—a God who keeps silent in the face of His people’s suffering! utzpa kelappei shemaya, “Chutzpah directed at Heaven” (e.g., Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 105a), is a Jewish cultural trait. 7 7 See Anson Laytner, Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition (Northvale, NJ and London: Jason Aronson, 1990), who traces this tradition up through Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev in the late 18th century and Elie Wiesel in the late 20th; cf. William S. Morrow, Protest against God: The Eclipse of a Biblical Tradition Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2006).

Another, as was said, is an argumentative disposition. 8 8 See, e.g., Leon Wieseltier, “The Argumentative Jew,” Jewish Review of Books, Winter 2015, 43-44. I do not mean only pilpul--argument for its own sake, which greases the gears of Talmudic reasoning--but a propensity to challenge and criticize, which is a hallmark of Talmudic discourse. 9 9 See, e.g., David Kraemer, The Mind of the Talmud: An Intellectual History of the Bavli (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), esp. 79-138; and compare the “antitraditionalist” tendency highlighted by Menachem Fisch, Rational Rabbis: Science and Talmudic Culture (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997). Jewish criticism, like Jewish humor, and often in combination with it, can be directed at the hegemonic Other, as in the Book of Esther, which lampoons Persian authority and its silly laws, 10 10 See, e.g., Edward L. Greenstein, “A Jewish Reading of Esther,” in Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel, ed. Jacob Neusner et al. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 225-43. or in Mel Brooks’ The Twelve Chairs (1970), which pokes fun at Soviet Russia. The critical disposition, and the humor that often accompanies it, is frequently aimed inwardly at Jewish culture itself, as Freud has famously put it: “This determination of self-criticism may make clear why it is that a number of the most excellent jokes…should have sprung into existence from the soil of Jewish national life. They are stories which were invented by Jews themselves and which are directed against Jewish peculiarities…I do not know whether one often finds a people that makes merry so unreservedly over its own shortcomings.” 11 11 Sigmund Freud, “Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious,” The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. A. A. Brill (New York: Modern Library, 1938), 704-5. The American cultural critic Albert Goldman explains: “The Jews have always been students, and their greatest study is themselves.” 12 12 Albert Goldman, Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!! (New York: Random House, 1974), 119.

The example of Jewish critical discourse from the vantage of the insider-outsider harks back to the Hebrew Bible, the fountainhead of the Jewish cultural tradition. Like Jewish cultures of subsequent eras, the Bible displays a deep familiarity with the surrounding cultures of its ancient world as it critiques and subverts the values and social models it encounters. 13 13 Herbert N. Schneidau, Sacred Discontent: The Bible and Western Tradition(Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1976), 32. For the Bible’s ancient Near Eastern embedding, see, e.g., John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006); Kenton L. Sparks, Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible: A Guide to the Background Literature (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2005); Christopher B. Hays, Hidden Riches: A Sourcebook for the Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2014). Even more poignantly, the Bible’s paramount critics, the prophets and the authors of Job and Ecclesiastes, challenge and revolutionize Israel’s own cultural traditions as well. In what follows, the Bible’s penchant for critical discourse will be illustrated by some exemplary cases in point.

Biblical culture, like all Jewish cultures of later times, was hybrid, “always in a hierarchical relationship with the culture of the Other,” always in a “dynamic interplay of minority and majority….It is always, even when resisting and subverting the hegemonic culture, both embedded and indebted, owing its evolution primarily to energy supplied by the encounter with the hegemony.” 14 14 Moshe Rosman, How Jewish Is Jewish History? (Oxford, UK, and Portland, OR: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2007), p. 97. The Hebrew Bible wrestles with its environment in an effort to sharpen and make conspicuous its difference; 15 15 See Peter Machinist, “The Question of Distinctiveness in Ancient Israel: An Essay,” in Ah, Assyria…: Studies in Assyrian History and Ancient Near Eastern Historiography Presented to Hayim Tadmor, ed. Mordechai Cogan and Israel Eph‘al (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1991), 196-212. and it challenges its own traditions in an effort to bring them into conformity with what is believed to be true and just.

The Torah (Pentateuch) illustrates the dynamic of an insider-outsider criticism in the form of Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro. 16 16 Cf. Adriane Leveen, “Inside Out: Jethro, the Midianites and a Biblical Construction of the Outsider,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 34 (2010), 395-417. Jethro was a priest of Midian, a sort of sheikh. Moses lived with him for decades in exile from Egypt before being called by his ancestral God to return to Egypt and help deliver the Hebrew slaves from servitude there (see Exodus 2-4). Freud suggested that the Midianite (in contrast to the Egyptian) Moses was the founder of the Israelite religion. 17 17 Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, trans. Katherine Jones (New York: Vintage, 1939), 48-49. Some modern Biblicists, too, have considered Midian as the breeding ground of the Torah. 18 18 For a review of the arguments and the evidence for them, see Joseph Blenkinsopp, “The Midianite-Kenite Hypothesis Revisited and the Origins of Judah,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 33 (2008), 131-53. Although the Torah itself separates Moses from his father-in-law’s house, drawing him to Sinai, in order to commission him as Israel’s prophetic leader, the Torah does portray Jethro as a guide to Israel in the wilderness (see Numbers 10:29-33) and—more pertinently for the present discussion—as a critic of Moses’ administrative practices who brought change to the Israelite system of jurisprudence.

Following the exodus, the Israelites find themselves in the wilderness, in the vicinity of Mt. Sinai. Jethro has heard of the wondrous salvation and joins Moses and the Israelites, bringing with him Moses’s foreign wife and their two sons, who remained beyond the margins of the exodus event in Midian. After Jethro and the elders of Israel celebrated a meal of thanksgiving together:

It happened on the morrow that Moses sat to perform judgments for the people; and the people stood (waiting) for Moses from morning till evening. Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was performing for the people, and he said: “What is this thing you are performing for the people? Why do you sit (in judgment) alone while the entire people is waiting for you from morning to evening?” (Exodus 18:13-14).

Moses explains that whenever the people have a “thing” (a legal case), Moses applies the divine law to resolve it (verses 15-16). That is Moses’ “thing.” Jethro, seeing Moses wear himself out day in and day out (verse 18), chastens him: “The thing you are performing is not good!” (verse 17). 19 19 For the punning on “thing” and other puns in this episode, see Edward L. Greenstein, “Jethro’s Wit: An Interpretation of Wordplay in Exodus 18,” in On the Way to Nineveh: Studies in Honor of George M. Landes, ed. Stephen L. Cook and S. C. Winter (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999), 155-71. The Midianite priest advises his son-in-law to appoint a coterie of honorable men to adjudicate all the smaller cases and to have them bring only the weightiest cases to him (verses 19-23). Moses adopts the plan (verses 24-26) and sends his father-in-law back to Midian (verse 27).

The dismissal of Jethro seems to reflect the dual nature of accepting criticism: on the one hand, it is valued; on the other, it is resented. The critic is both appreciated and scorned. The critical observer who is more outsider than insider is first respected, then deported.

The same thing happened to the prophet Amos from Tekoa, a Judean village southeast of Jerusalem, when he blasted the northern Israelites on their own territory for their socio-economic exploitation of the poor. The priest of the temple at Beth El, in the northern kingdom, Amaziah, reported the prophet to the king as a seditious conspirator (Amos 7:10-11) and ordered him to leave: “O Seer, go take flight to the Land of Judah; there eat your food, there prophesy! But come no more to Beth El to prophesy, for it is a sanctuary of the king and a temple of the kingship!” (verses 12-13). Amos replied in defiance, but the point was made: the critical outsider is welcome only so long as he is of benefit.

Prophetic rebuke is not subtle. But to appreciate the nuances of the Bible’s critical discourse one needs to read closely and comparatively. A critique of the Other is implied in this law concerning bodily injury. It first arises in connection with a very specific case (Exodus 21:22-27):

When two men scuffle, and they knock into a pregnant woman, and her child aborts, but there was no fatality (the woman did not die)—a penalty will be set in accordance with what the woman’s husband imposes, and he (or they—the responsible parties) will pay according to the assessment. But if there is a fatality, you will pay a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an arm for an arm, a leg for a leg, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise. When a man strikes the eye of his man-servant or the eye of his woman-servant, and destroys it—he must release him (or her) for his (or her) eye. Or if it is the tooth of his man-servant or the tooth of his woman-servant he knocks out, he must release him (or her) for his (or her) tooth.

This set of laws can only be appreciated in historical context, comparing parallels in ancient Near Eastern, primarily Mesopotamian, law, which had a demonstrable influence on the formulation of the Torah’s law. 20 20 See, e.g., Meir Malul, The Comparative Method in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical Legal Studies (Kevalaer: Butzon and Bercker / Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 1990).

The first part of the Biblical law, dealing with accidental injury to a pregnant woman, finds a close parallel in the Laws of Hammurapi (209-210): 21 21 For the texts, see Martha T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995). The translations, however, are mine.

If a man strikes the daughter of a man so that she loses her fetus, He must pay ten shekels of silver for her fetus. If that woman should die, they shall kill his daughter.

Yes—his daughter. It will immediately be seen that in both the Biblical and the Babylonian cases the man responsible for the miscarriage must pay compensation for it. However, in Hammurapi’s law, which precedes the Hebrew law by several centuries, the husband of the injured woman, and not a lawgiver or a judge, fixes the amount. Justice is much more personal, more local. The greater difference is found in the next paragraph: in the event of the woman’s death, the Torah exacts a life for a life, almost certainly referring to the life of the guilty man; whereas in the Babylonian law, it is the daughter of the perpetrator who is put to death—a daughter for a daughter.

The difference reflects a stark contrast in values. 22 22 See Moshe Greenberg, “Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law,” in The Jewish Expression, ed. Judah Goldin (New York: Bantam Books, 1970), 18-37. To understand that difference is essential to understanding the principle behind the Torah’s “eye for an eye” law, which may at first seem to be a primitive regression. Hammurapi’s laws posit an economic calculus: compensation must be made of equivalencies. Accordingly, if a man injures a pregnant woman, termed in the law “the daughter of a man,” his life cannot be given for her life because he is, well, a man, and not some other man’s daughter. A daughter for a daughter is an equivalency. Similarly, in Hammurapi’s laws, if a contractor builds a man a house, and the house is faulty and collapses on the owner, the contractor forfeits his life (law 229). But if the house collapses and kills the owner’s son, it is the son of the builder who is executed (law 230)—a son for a son.

This sort of mathematical quid pro quo is specifically forbidden by the Torah:

Fathers shall not be put to death for sons, and sons shall not be put to death for fathers; each man shall be put to death for his own crime (Deuteronomy 24:16).

The second paragraph of the Biblical law concerning the altercation in which the pregnant woman was injured treats the case in which she dies. In that case, the law of talion, “retaliation,” applies—“a life for a life.” (It is obvious that a fetus is not considered a “life” so that the miscarriage is treated in the realm of compensation for damages and not as a capital crime.) The Torah takes the opportunity to spell out the law in cases in which the injury is less than fatal: bodily injury bears the penalty of bodily injury.

The parallel laws in Hammurapi (sections 196-208) are similar, except for one consistent difference. Hammurapi’s laws divide men into three socio-economic statuses: the man, the commoner, and the slave. If a superior injures a person of lower standing, he pays monetary damages. For how can one compare the worth of a “man’s” eye or tooth to that of a commoner’s, much less a slave’s? But if a man of lesser standing injures a superior, the case is not even considered in the laws. It is a no-brainer: only an eye for an eye can produce justice for the affront. The economic calculus of equivalency for equivalency holds strong.

Therefore, in the continuation of the Babylonian law about the man causing a woman to miscarry, the law differentiates (paragraphs 211-214): if the woman who lost her fetus was “the daughter of a commoner,” payment is made; and if that woman herself dies, a much larger payment is made; and similarly, if the injured woman was of the slave class—silver is weighed out. In no case does a man of high standing who killed a pregnant woman forfeit his life.

The Biblical law, when compared to the Mesopotamian law, appears to critique and revise it. The principle of economic equivalence is rejected and in its place a simpler principle is enacted: life and limb cannot be reduced to market value. 23 23 Cf., e.g., Edward L. Greenstein, “Biblical Law,” in Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts, ed. Barry W. Holtz (New York: Summit Books, 1984), esp. 92. The contrast is even stronger if one compares a collection of Babylonian laws about fifty years earlier than those of Hammurapi, the Laws of (the town of) Eshnunna (paragraph 42):

If a man bites the nose of a man and cuts it off, he shall pay one mina (60 shekels) of silver; if (a man takes out) the eye (of a man, he shall pay) one mina; if a tooth, half a mina; if an ear, half a mina; if a slap to the cheek (a gesture of shaming), he shall pay 10 shekels of silver.

Injuries to another person are priced. In the Torah, life and limb belong to God the Creator and cannot be priced. By formulating its laws in a manner that at once recalls and revises the laws of Mesopotamia, Biblical law becomes a medium of cultural criticism, rejecting the approach toward life and limb as commodities and replacing them with an ethical one.

Still, what about the fact that, in the third paragraph of the Biblical law concerning the altercation, a distinction is made between the application to a free person and the application to a servant? If one puts out the eye or tooth of a servant, one does not undergo the penalty of an “eye for an eye” but rather liberates the servant. Although the Biblical law is in every way more considerate than that of Mesopotamia, the distinction between classes is maintained. Compare also Exodus 21:20-21 according to which a man who beats his servant to death is to be avenged (by the servant’s family), 24 24 See Pamela Barmash, Homicide in the Biblical World (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005). and not executed by a court; unless the servant does not immediately die, in which case the beating, assumed to be for disciplinary purposes, is justified (see Proverbs 23:13). 25 25 Moshe Greenberg, “More Reflections on Biblical Criminal Law,” in Studies in Bible 1986, ed. Sara Japhet (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1986), 11-14. Here we may find a degree of second-class treatment toward the bonded servant in the Torah.

Nevertheless, it is precisely in the way that servants are treated that we encounter a prime example of implicit criticism within the Biblical legal tradition. Here the Hebrew insider turns like an outsider toward an earlier Biblical passage and rewrites it. 26 26 Compare in general Bernard M. Levinson, Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008). For subversion of a sacred text as an expression of protest as a mainstay of Jewish culture, see, e.g., David G. Roskies, Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture (Cambridge, MA-London: Harvard University Press, 1984), esp. 19-20. The law concerning the purchase of a Hebrew servant appears three times—in Exodus 21, in Leviticus 25, and in Deuteronomy 15. Although one can argue over the relative dating of the two latter laws, 27 27 See, e.g., Sara Japhet, “The Relationship between the Legal Corpora in the Pentateuch in Light of Manumission Laws,” in Studies in Bible 1986 (above, n. 26), 63-89. from a literary perspective, the later laws are read after the earlier laws and can be interpreted as revisions of them. 28 28 See Greenstein, “Biblical Law” (above, n. 24), 96-98.

The law in Exodus 21 takes the purchaser’s point of view—“When you buy a Hebrew servant” (verse 2). How or why the servant was put up for sale does not matter. In this law, a female belongs either to the Hebrew man who is purchased, or to the master—she does not go free after six years of service as the male does (verses 3-5). The male servant also lacks complete autonomy—he may be provided with a wife by the master, and neither the wife nor any children she may bear to him go free when he does. They do not belong to him. Accordingly, if, after the six years of mandatory servitude, he wishes to go free, as is his right by law, he cannot take with him a wife or any children that came to him after having been purchased.

The law in Leviticus 25 places the purchase of a servant in the context of the Jubilee year (every fiftieth year) release. In that year, homesteads can be redeemed by the family of the original owners and servants are set free. (Note that servitude can be forty-nine years in the case of a person who goes into servitude in the first of fifty years!) In this law the servant is “your brother,” who is compelled to “sell himself to you” in order to pay off debt (verse 39). The lawgiver takes the servant’s perspective. A theological reason is provided: the Israelites are the exclusive servants of the deity and cannot be indentured to human beings in perpetuity (verses 42, 55). And because the Lord delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage, where the Israelites were treated harshly, they are prohibited from treating their Hebrew servants harshly (verses 42-44).

The law in Deuteronomy 15 is worded much more closely to the law in Exodus and seems much more like a revision of it. Here, as in Leviticus, the servant is characterized as one who sells himself to you—and here, too, the servant is “your Hebrew brother” (verse 12). However, here a point is made of equalizing the status of the male and the female servants (verse 12). Both are autonomous individuals whose possible relationship to one another is irrelevant to the purchaser, who does not interfere in any way in their lives. On the contrary, the temporary owner is exhorted to liberate his servants enthusiastically and to provide them with the wherewithal to start over afresh (verses 12-14, 18). The rationale given here is more ethical and personal than theological: God redeemed you from servitude in Egypt, so you must do the same for your servants (verse 15). God has blessed you, and you must share this blessing with your Hebrew brother and sister.

The later texts have extrapolated the significance of the Biblical rules of Hebrew servitude (God wants servants liberated) and have rewritten the earliest rule accordingly. With respect to the theme of this essay, observe that the former law was not expanded or expounded—it was found wanting; it was therefore critiqued and revised. Criticism in the Bible is both outwardly and inwardly directed.

In bringing this essay to a close, let us consider one more example of the inwardly turned criticism of Biblical literature from its most likely source—the prophets.

When we think of organized religion in the Biblical world, we think first of the sacrificial cult. Offerings of animal, grain, and (at one time) drink were brought to the deity’s shrine in order to manifest reverence, concern, and hospitality. If God is furnished with a fitting environment, he will dwell among the people and be for them a source of blessing and protection. 29 29 See Greenstein, “Biblical Law” (above, n. 24), esp. 89-91. When, however, people get the idea that ritual performance is enough, and the ethical demands of the deity are unimportant, the prophets step up in order to rectify what they regard as a total misconception. 30 30 See, e.g., J. Lindblom, Prophecy in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1962), 346-60.

Isaiah confronts his Judean contemporaries (late eighth century BCE) thus:

What to me are your many sacrifices?! says the Lord.
I have had my fill of burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fattened-sheep!
The blood of bullocks and sheep, and he-goats—I do not want!
When you come to see my face (i.e., worship me)—
Who demanded from your hands—to trample my temple-court?
Bring no more worthless grain-offering!
Your incense is an abomination to me!
New Moon and Sabbath and sacred-convocations—
I cannot tolerate sin together with assemblies!
Your New Moons and festivals—I just hate them!
They are a weight upon me that I cannot bear! (Isaiah 1:11-14).

The Torah elaborates the festivals, the Sabbath, and all the offerings to be made to the deity on those days and on every other day. The prophet undermines it all because the hands he sees bringing the offerings to the temple in his day are “full of blood-guilt” (Isaiah 1:15).

Isaiah’s reproach of his compatriots in the name of God takes the form of subverting the Torah. Jeremiah, a century later, impelled by a similar purpose, formulates his critique even more radically: he repudiates the Torah. He pulls the sanctuary out from under the Judeans. They had thought they could count on the cult to insure their security (Jeremiah 7:4). He reminds them of how the Lord had earlier allowed his shrine in Shiloh, “where I had made my name dwell,” to be destroyed: “See what I have done on account of my people Israel’s evil!” (verse 12). The deity is not above razing his own house (compare the stinging description in Lamentations 2:1-9). But Jeremiah does not stop there; he goes on to have the Lord retract the cultic rituals entirely, adopting a (very Jewish-sounding) sarcastic tone: “Add your burnt-offerings to your sacrifices and eat the meat!” (verse 21). They will not help because they are not wanted—and, says Jeremiah, they never were!

For when I took you out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your ancestors and I did not command them on matters of burnt-offerings and sacrifices (verse 22).

Jeremiah seems to excise the whole sacrificial cult from the Torah. From the succeeding verse it becomes clear that Jeremiah’s point was rhetorical, hyperbolic (also very Jewish)—not burnt offerings but obedience to divine norms is what the Lord desires. And yet, in order to make his point, the prophet takes the liberty of overruling all the cultic regulations of the Torah. For the sake of an urgent social critique, total subversion may be required.

“The scriptures implicitly tell us to be critical of the scriptures,” asserts historian Donald Akenson. 31 31 Donald Harman Akenson, Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds (New York, San Diego, and London: Harcourt Brace, 1998), 8. “Time and again the later books of the Bible and the associated texts cite earlier items. On the surface this is always respectfully done. But, there is often an undercurrent of subversion.” 32 32 Ibid. That is why irony, like Jeremiah’s, and let us recall Jethro’s (how can you sit all day to attend to the people standing over you?) pervades Biblical discourse. 33 33 See Edwin M. Good, Irony in the Old Testament (Louisville: Westminster Press, 1965); Carolyn J. Sharp, Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009). If you don’t see the irony, look between the lines.

Greenstein, Edward. “Critical Discourse as a Jewish Thing and Its Beginnings in the Bible.” In geveb, June 2020:
Greenstein, Edward. “Critical Discourse as a Jewish Thing and Its Beginnings in the Bible.” In geveb (June 2020): Accessed Mar 04, 2024.


Edward Greenstein

Edward L. Greenstein is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Bar-Ilan University, Israel, and a leading scholar of biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies.