Sunday, July 03, 2011

Ibn Ezra, James Kugel and Multiple Authors

One of the stories that is on all the media at the moment is the new software which has been developed by a team in Israel which traces the different voices and 'authors' of the Bible. It was even picked up by Stuff, which is a New Zealand newspaper.

For me the key thing in the article is the last couple of paragraphs:

What the algorithm won't answer, say the researchers who created it, is the question of whether the Bible is human or divine. Three of the four scholars, including Koppel, are religious Jews who subscribe in some form to the belief that the Torah was dictated to Moses in its entirety by a single author: God.

The question is - how can people who see different voices and authors in the text continue to beleive that the entire text was dictated by a single G-d to a single prophet (Moses)? Do they have to compartmentalise in their brains, or is their a resolution of these two apparent contradictions (I think there is - see below).

Another question which has been bothering me for a while is the parallels between the story of the flood (and particularly Noach's sacrifices after the flood) in the Torah and in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Lawrence Kelemen uses this as evidence for the truth of the Torah. In "Permission to Receive" on pp. 88-89 he writes:

In 1872, Dr. george Smith of the British Museum identified the first nonbiblical, written record of such a deluge. Scanning cuneiform tablets discovered in the Palace of Sennacherib at Kuyunjik, Simith found a reference to "a ship touching ground on a mountain called Nisir," followed by these lines:

When the seventh day arrived,
I sent forth and set free a dove.
The dove went forth, but came back;
Since no resting place for it was visible, she turned around.

At first this seems like very strong historical evidence for the truth of the events that are described in the Torah. However, James Kugel, in his book "How to Read the Bible" (pp. 75-6) points out that the similarities are too great, and it would seem to invalidate the authenticity of the Torah as the primariy source for this story.

The discovery of the Mesopotamian flood texts proved torubling for traditional Christian and Jewish belief. The reason may not be immediately apparent. After all, if such a great flood had indeed taken place in ancient times, there ought ot be nothing disturbing in the fact that some account of it survived outside of the Bible - on the contrary, the existence of other accounts would only seem to confirm the veracity of biblical history. But hte fact that the biblical and Mesopotamian accounts agreed in so many details suggested to scholars that there was actaully a literary connection between them: that is, the different accounts did not seem simply to agree on the events that had occurred, but on how those events should be retold, inlcuding things that could not have been based solely on historical observation. To mention one detail: why should the Bible have bothered to say that G-d "smelled the pleasing odor" of Noah's sacrifice? Certainly such a vivid anthropomorphism was a bit odd in the Bible, and the text could have as easily said that G-d "was pleased" with the sacrifice - or said nothing at all. More to the point, however: how could any on-site observer of the flood and its aftermath know that G-d/the gods had smelled anything? Surely this was not an observable event but an author's asertion; and the fact that the same asertion, indeed, the very same expression, is found in both Gilgamesh and the Bible seemed to sugest that one text was dependent on the other, or that both derived from a still earlier source. The problem was the even the friendliest dating eliminates any possibility that the Mesopotamian accounts derive from the biblical story; the oldest fragments go back to early in the second millennium BCE, perhaps even earlier - long before the time of Moses nad the traditinoal setting for the giving of the Torah and its account of the flood. As a consequence, most modern scholars today see in the biblical flood story a direct dependence on the Mesopotamian literary tradition.

So, in summary:
How is it possible to see apparent evidence of multiple authors in the Bible, and yet still believe that it was given by G-d to Moshe?
And how should we deal with the literary similarity between the Torah and the Epic of Gilgamesh, which imply that the Torah borrowed the story from an earlier source?

I would like to answer both questions based on Ibn Ezra in Parshas Chukas. Actually, both Ramban and Chizkuni give similar explanations, but Ibn Ezra is the clearest. In chapter 21 verses 13-14 the Torah says:

From thence they journeyed, and pitched on the other side of the Arnon, which is in the wilderness, that cometh out of the border of the Amorites.--For Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites; wherefore it is said in the book of the Wars of the LORD: Vaheb in Suphah, and the valleys of Arnon.

Ibn Ezra (and Ramban and Chizkuni) ask what this "Book of the Wars of the Lord" is. His answer:

“In the Book of Wars of the Lord"– this was a separate book on its own, in which are written the wars of God for those who fear Him. It makes sense that this is from the time of Avraham, because many books were lost, and we no longer have them, such as The Words of Natan, The Book of Ido, Chronicles of the Kings of Israel and Songs of Shlomo and his Proverbs.

Ibn Ezra (and the other Rishonim) claim that the Torah text we have includes within it fragments from earlier texts (which presumably were also dictated by G-d to Moshe - either G-d gave him a copy of the book or said it word for word). This also explains why the language of these verses is not in classic Hebrew, and the commentators struggle to explain some of the words.

Rashi gives a different explanation, but it seems to me that he is not giving 'pshat' - let me know what you think.

So does it not make sense that when G-d was retelling Moshe the stories from Bereishis, including the flood, that He also quoted earlier texts, even though the Torah does not explicitly quote the source of the words (I don't think G-d has to worry about plagiarism). This would answer Kugel's apparent difficulty with the biblical text.

Perhaps this can also explain why there appear to be different strands of authorship in the Bible. Moshe was combining earlier texts into the Torah that we have today - all based on the word of G-d.

I think that some people may have difficulty with such an answer, but when three major Rishonim all explain that Moshe is copying from other texts, is it really a problematic answer?

Your thoughts please.


  1. We find in the gemara the idea that anything written with sheim Havayah involves G-d when He appears compassionate to us, and sheim E-lokus, when His behavior appears to be strict Justice.

    One can take this to mean that Chazal were aware that the Torah is intentionally written in multiple voices. The differences need not be due to the difference in source text, but due to HQBH's need to address both sides of the dialectics and ambivalence that are so endemic to the human conditions. As RYBS does in the Lonely Man of Faith, when he turns the "two creation stories" into the story of two archetypes -- Adam I and Adam II.

    To quote R Dr Mordecai Breuer, the Torah provides multiple perspectives, because "it it is only the combination of such truths that gives expression to the absolute truth."


  2. Interesting, my natural tendency is toward R' Micha's mehalech, but it does seem like what you're saying from the Rishonim

  3. There are many instances where the Torah quotes an evil person like Pharaoh or Lavan. Chazal do not hesitate to ascribe spiritual significance to their words.

    Presumably, we give significance to their words because they are quoted in the Torah.

    If you are right, the difference between another text and the text found in the Torah, is that every word in the Torah is given spiritual significance. The Epic of Gilgamesh is like an article from the New York Times; Parshas Noach is Hashem's way of presenting that same story. Of course, we will take time to appreciate every nuance of its' delivery.

    I can't find it now, but believe that I saw this idea in the Degel where he explains how he can find a Gematria in the words of Pharaoh.

  4. Rashi on Gittin 60a - according the opinion that the Torah was written as separate 'megillos', Moshe wrote the Book of Noach, Abraham etc and were incorporated into the Torah.

    Precisely this point.