1. The Tanakh is a composite work. Simply glancing at the table of contents in any western translation of the Tanakh should be a sufficient indicator of this fact. It is a conglomeration of narrative, fable, verse, social ordinance, religious custom, advice, political opinion, and invective, all of which stem from a variety of political and scribal circles spanning over one thousand years, and much of which has been repeatedly revised and glossed in order to reflect changing circumstances. Should one expect a homogeneous consistency of outlook from such a mish-mash of sources and genres? The upshot: do not be surprised when the Bible looks like it is arguing with itself. Sometimes it is. After all, it doesn’t know that it is Bible!
2. Neither book nor internal narrative order need be sequential. A book’s relative position in a printed table of contents possesses no inherent value for determining that book’s relative antiquity. Do not make the mistake of concluding that just because “Genesis” precedes “Amos” in the printed table of contents in your Bible translations, this means that the textual material in Genesis is older than the contents of Amos. Distinguishing “older” from “younger” literature is a complicated process which involves the assessment of linguistic criteria, archaeological evidence (if available), textual stability, and the internal testimony of the text itself (e.g., what sorts of social structures are presupposed by the text? Are there allusions to historical figures and events? etc.). Furthermore, present-day biblical tables of contents vary from religion to religion (e.g., the Jewish canon as opposed to the Protestant Christian one) or even within a single religion (e.g., the Protestant O.T., the Roman Catholic O.T., the Samaritan Pentateuch, etc.).
As a corollary to this caveat, we might keep in mind the oft-repeated rabbinic injunction that eyn mequdam ume’uhar be-torah (Sifre Num §64); that is, “there is no ‘before’ and ‘after’ in the Bible.” This means that textual position is not always a reliable guide for determining what narrative activity or event preceded what! For a proof-text, compare Num 9:1 with Num 1:1, or look at the present form of the book of Jeremiah.
3. The Tanakh is not a Christian book. All of the books comprising the Hebrew scriptural canon were composed, edited, and transmitted to subsequent generations well before the onset of classical Christianity—most of them hundreds of years prior to the activity of Paul and subsequent Christian exegetes. Therefore there are neither explicit nor implicit references to “Jesus” nor any other Common Era personage or event in the Tanakh, at least in terms of the work’s original intent. King David and the prophet Isaiah had no more knowledge of (or interest in) what would transpire a millennium hence than you or I have of who might play in the Super Bowl of the year 2998 CE. Think about it!
It is of course true that the Tanakh achieved scriptural status in classical Christianity, where it bears the pejorative designation “Old Testament.” This label deliberately plays off that of the “New Testament,” a collection of relatively early Christian writings which won scriptural rank for most branches of that religion. Within classical Christianity, the “Old Testament” came to be viewed as a sourcebook of ‘unfulfilled’ narratives and prophecies which were superseded and/or find their final fulfillment within the “New Testament” documents. While this dominant idea may possess utility for Christian faith, doctrine, and practice of various stripes, it has no relevance outside the boundaries of that religion. One can (and many do) read the Tanakh without sectarian bias, and this is the model which we will follow in this class.
4. Anyone who reads the Tanakh carefully will soon notice that there seems to be quite a bit of repetition of narrative motifs, themes, and events. Some of these themes and events are so pervasive and hence important that I have dubbed them “paradigmatic”—and we will spend some time exploring these later in the semester. One must realize that much of the narrative in the Bible is constructed typologically; that is, it deliberately invokes through its narrative art a prior story, or presages through its narrative art a future story (I like to call these ‘re-enactments’ and ‘pre-enactments’ respectively). The great thirteenth-century scholar Ramban recognized this clearly: “anything which happened to the father happened also to the children” (ad Gen 12:10). In other words, what superficially appear to be many separate and distinct stories are at root the same story, repeated ad infinitum. Such a recognition possesses obvious implications for a particular narrative’s historicity.
5. Note well the following observations:
a. “Abbaye said: The verse says, ‘Once God has spoken, but twice I have heard’ (Ps 62:12). A single verse has several meanings, but no two verses hold the same meaning. It was taught in the school of R. Ishmael: ‘Behold, My word is like fire—declares the Lord—and like a hammer that shatters rock’ (Jer 23:29). Just as this hammer produces many sparks (when it strikes the rock), so a single verse has several meanings.” (b. Sanh. 34a; also Shab. 88b).
b. Dibberah torah ke-lashon beney adam (Sifre to Num 15:31). Translated, this asserts that the “Bible speaks a human language,” as opposed to some sort of supernatural code. If accepted at face value, this means that biblical discourse displays the same ambiguities of meaning that our everyday speech conceals. Consider the claim of Num. Rab. 13.15, which speaks of the 70 panim (“faces,” here “meanings”) of a scriptural verse, or the case of Lev. Rab. 18.2, which interprets Hab 1:7 six different ways, none of which are “wrong” in any absolute sense, and each of which are perfectly intelligible within their interpretive context.
The moral—there is no one “right” or “wrong” way to interpret a scriptural verse, by definition. However, some interpretations are more plausible than other interpretations, and there are usually measurable criteria for making such a determination. This is all the more true for the historical-critical method, which aspires to the rigor of a “science.”