Commentary Magazine


The Study of Man: Biblical Criticism and Judaism

The reader of the Bible in translation is rarely aware of the enormous problems presented by the text of this (or any other) ancient work. Traditional Jewish scholars, though they themselves have studied the original Bible text as perhaps no one has studied any other literary work, have not—often out of a sound instinct—been overly sympathetic to the effort to clear up these problems by treating it like any other ancient text. MOSHE GREENBERG, a young student now working toward his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, and who is also enrolled in the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, here offers a view of the present state of Biblical criticism, from the standpoint of one who would combine the best insights of the modern scholar with those of the great Jewish commentators of the past.

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A friend of mine was recently faced with the following challenge to the critical methods of present-day Bible study: “If your beloved had sent you a letter, would you set about scrutinizing the postmark, correcting her spelling, and criticizing her style?” To which my friend responded, “If in that letter I had been asked to make great sacrifices, even to the point of risking death, I should like to be pretty near certain first just who had written it!” We might add that if the letter had been written in archaic language, an even more basic question might arise: “What is she trying to tell me?”

These are the two major problems besetting any modern interpretation of the Bible: the “revelational” problem, and the “philological” one, which is logically first. What is the simple meaning of this Biblical text? And what are we able to determine about its ultimate origin?

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The understanding of any language is based upon the learned tradition of its speakers. Tradition is the link between the conventional linguistic symbol and what it means. The understanding of a written document involves an additional aspect of tradition: the fidelity and care with which the text has been transmitted. Our dependence on tradition becomes painfully clear when we are faced with the problem of deciphering dead languages. Travelers in Persia since the early Middle Ages registered their wonder at the tremendous inscriptions cut in wedge-shaped characters into the face of Mount Behistun, and preserved in great numbers in the ruins of the ancient imperial capital, Persepolis. All links between the languages of these three-columned inscriptions and those of the contemporary world had been broken. It was only at the beginning of the last century, when the German scholar Grotefend made the assumption that the first column was an archaic form of Persian, that the way of decipherment was opened. It was Grotefend’s correct guess that established the connection between the mute cuneiform signs and the living tradition of the Persian language. And it was only by applying the knowledge gained from the column in Persian that the column in Babylonian was deciphered and only through the knowledge of Babylonian that a key was fashioned which ultimately broke the secrets of Sumerian. It is precisely our inability to connect the inscriptions of the Minoan civilization of Crete with any living tradition that has kept them from being deciphered.

Now it is exactly in the realm of Biblical literature that we are aware today of tremendous gaps. The canonization of the books (about 90 C.E.) took place more than a millennium after the earliest of them had been set down. By then great areas of relevant knowledge had been lost and textual passages already corrupted. Something of the nature of these losses can be learned from the Bible itself, which is indeed only the remnant of a much greater body of literature.

I use the word, remnant, advisedly. The Biblical authors themselves often assume that an abundant literature is available to the reader for further clarification and illustration of their excerpts. “As for the rest of Jeroboam’s deeds, how he fought and how he reigned, they are recorded in the chronicles of the kings of Israel” (I Kings 14:19). To one who is today interested in, say, the true nature of the North Israelite religious reforms of Jeroboam (of which the Southern, Judean, view is given in II Kings 12:25-33), this reference is not much help. Nor are we better off when we try to get at the root of one of the most crucial religious doctrines of Jewish history: the centralization of sacrificial worship in Jerusalem. There is a cryptic reference to the sefer ha-torah, whose discovery moved Josiah to take this step (II Kings 22:8ff.), and an account of how he went about it (chapters 23 and 24). But all we are told otherwise is: “As for the rest of Josiah’s deeds, and all that he achieved, they are recorded in the chronicles of the kings of Judah” (II Kings 23:28).

If, again, we should like to get a deeper understanding of the concept of the miracle in Biblical times, and turn, say, to the notorious account of the halting of the sun by Joshua, we are once again frustrated by a fragmentary report. For the passage Joshua 10:I2-I3a has been torn out of its (apparently poetical) context by the author of the Book of Joshua. Should the curious reader wish to see it in its original setting, he is informed, “Is this not written in the Book of Yashar?” (Joshua 10:13).

As for our knowledge of the original extent of Israelite literature, as well as for our understanding of what has survived, we are surely no better off than those Talmudic sages who complained of the loss of a legendary legal literature: “Said R. Hisda to Avimi: We are informed that Father Abraham’s tractate on Idolatrous Worship contained four hundred chapters. Ours has but five, yet we don’t understand what we read” (Avoda Zara 14B.)

Yet we must marvel at the fact that as much of this original literature as we have did in fact come down to us. For while the literatures of neighboring cultures, inscribed on stone and cut into baked clay, could survive even the worst conflagrations or, buried in mounds, the passage of centuries, Hebrew sacred literature was written on parchment, papyrus, and leather, with ink that could fade or be washed away. Hence the preservation of this literature was entirely the task of its living bearers, who had the responsibility of recopying worn and tattered parchments, of guarding sacred scrolls from rodents, of snatching them from a burning temple. And, of course, when all literature was written by hand, the number of “published” copies of any work was inevitably small. It was only those manuscripts that survived to be candidates for inclusion in the canon that we can know about.

Is it any wonder that our present Bible text shows marks of disarrangement and mutilation? And again, when all literature is written by hand, one copy supplying the text for another, the slip of a scribe’s pen or eye can loom very large. When confronted with a verse such as ben shana sha’ul bemolcho, ushete shanim malach al yisra’el (I Samuel 13:1), which can only mean “Saul was a year old when he reigned, and two years did he reign in Israel,” what other recourse have we but to assume that a number indicating the age of the king was inadvertently dropped out before the word shana, “year(s)”?

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We have, up to this point, been dealing with the material, exterior factors that played a part in the mutilation of the Bible tradition. But a still more subtle factor must be considered, one affecting the very substance of that tradition.

The actors and events that go to make up a living tradition undergo constant reinterpretation. The archetypal prophet, Moses, became, in the Roman milieu of Josephus, an aristocratic legislator; in the academies of the Rabbis, an arch-rabbi and dayyan; in the philosophy of Maimonides, the Jewish counterpart of Aristotle. Now the cultural and social transformations during the thousand-year period spanned by early Hebrew literature were so extensive, we can be sure, as to have permitted similar reworkings of the original material. Here again, the surviving literature offers evidence of such transformations. Let me cite two examples:

From the narratives in the Pentateuch we learn about the recalcitrance, the backsliding, and outright treachery of the band of Israelite tribes that Moses led for forty years in the wilderness. It is of this desert generation that God, in the words of the Psalmist, says: “Forty years I was vexed by that generation, and thought, It is a people of erring heart, and who have not known my ways” (Psalm 95: 10). The same Israelites are reproached by Moses: “Remember, never forget how you excited God’s wrath in the desert; from the day you left Egypt until your coming hither you were ever rebellious with the Lord” (Deuteronomy 9:7).

Consider now what happened to this epic in the context of the corrupt, urban milieu of the late monarchic age. The prophets, observing that degenerate society, look back to a time, centuries ago, of pristine virtues when Hebrew loyalty to God was still firm: “The word of the Lord came to me saying: Go and proclaim this to Jerusalem: I remember for thee the faithfulness of thy youth, the love of the wedding day, how thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land unsown” (Jeremiah 2:1-2).

We are indeed hard put to it when we must choose between a Jeremiah and a Moses. . . .

A plague ravaged Israel because King David took a census of the people. Why did he do it? Our early source, the Book of Samuel, has it: “Now the Lord was again angered with Israel, so he incited David against them, saying to him: ‘Go take a census of Israel and Judah’” (II Samuel 24:1). If we turn now to a version several centuries later, in Chronicles, we find a remarkable alteration: “Now Satan stood up against Israel and incited David to count Israel” (I Chronicles 21:1).

I believe it is perfectly clear how the theology of a later age moved the chronicler to substitute Satan for God as the inciter to sin. Nor is there any doubt that he viewed this change as merely a clarification of what had been intended by the early version.

But the very fact that we can adduce from the tradition itself such evidence awakens the suspicion that perhaps similar cases exist of which we are not fully aware. And thus doubt enters our minds as to the fidelity with which the substance of the tradition has been transmitted. Not only have we lost much of the material presumed to be available to the reader by the authors of the tradition, but we find this tradition in its present form to be of more than one piece. To make sense out of the tradition now requires the application of methods and assumptions extrinsic to it. Jeremiah’s view of the forty years in the wilderness, for example, demands the adoption of a plastic, folkloristic conception of the tradition, which is certainly not what it purports itself to be.

Yet a third respect in which the links between us and the materials of Biblical tradition have been severed is in regard to the actualities of ancient Hebrew life. Centuries of exile have made the geography and ethnology of the Bible vague to most readers: “The Kenite, and the Kenizzite, and the Kadmonite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Rephaim, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Girgashite, and the Jebusite” (Genesis 15:19-21) are to most of us an undifferentiated mass of Gentiles. Countless household terms, manners, dress, and customs present even greater difficulties. Now while it must be admitted that the clarification of these matters does not always shed new light on the religious significance of a passage, ignorance of them puts the reader in much the same position as someone listening to a fine recording of music on an antique, hand-cranked phonograph. The tune of the Bible is generally capable of being reproduced on the crudest instrument: it is hard to misconstrue the meaning of “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). It is the subtler, more specific application of these very general principles to situations in life that eludes us when the concrete circumstances of that life are unknown to us.

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Before we turn our attention to the findings of modern scholarship we should for a moment see how earlier generations of Jewish scholars approached the problems of Bible interpretation. The more one finds the Biblical tradition unable to explain itself to us, the more urgent becomes the question: didn’t the Talmudic scholars understand the Bible? Didn’t Maimonides, didn’t Rashi understand it?

Let it be at once said that in their elucidation of the main lines of Biblical theology, the early interpreters are unmatched. Their observations on matters of style and syntax testify to a most acute sense of Biblical language. What is it then that makes us feel so often that these scholars missed the mark and, equally often, did violence to the plain meaning of the text? Certainly one reason is the way in which they tried to meet the problems we have just outlined.

Starting with the assumption that the Bible is not only divine revelation, but also the complete text of the divine revelation, they could have had only one attitude toward the lost source books indicated in the Bible. As far as we can see, rabbinic writing recognizes no such things. It is interesting to see how the Talmudic commentators treat the reference to the Book of Yashar. On the passage in II Samuel 1:18, “And [David] said to teach the sons of Judah archery, behold, it is written in the Book of Yashar,” we have the following discussion:

“What is the Book of Yashar? Said R. Hiyya bar Abba in the name of R. Yohanan: It is the book of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob [i.e. Genesis] who are called yesharim, upright. And where is archery there alluded to? ‘Thy hand shall be at the neck of thine enemies’ (Genesis 49:8). Now what form of warfare has hand at neck? Archery!

“R. Eliezer said: It is Deuteronomy, in which is written, ‘Thou shalt do hayashar, what is upright and good in the eyes of the Lord’ (Deuteronomy 6:18). And where is archery there alluded to? ‘His hands shall contend for him’ (33:7). Now, what form of warfare requires both hands? Archery!

“Samuel bar Nahmani said: It is the Book of Judges, in which is written, ‘Each man did hayashar, what was right in his own eyes’ (Judges 17:6). And where is archery there alluded to? That the generations of Israel might know, to teach them war’ (3:2). What form of warfare especially requires teaching? Archery!” (Avoda Zara 25a.)

Equally drastic was the assumption that each of the Biblical books was as a rule the complete product of a single author, and that the Bible itself was likewise a complete, self-consistent unit. No room was left for inconsistencies or variations of opinions. It was only when the contradictions of Ezekiel and the Torah, of Ecclesiastes and later Judaism had been removed by exegesis that these books could be finally canonized. Thus inconsistencies of the type pointed out above, which were of course apparent to our ancestors, were explained away. This is the way in which the Jeremiah passage we quoted above is interpreted by the medieval-style commentary of Metsudat David:

I remember for thee the faithfulness I bore for thee in thy youth, when I chose thee to be my people, and the love I loved thee then as a bride on her wedding day. So do I recall the trust thou didst trust in me, how thou wentest after me in the wilderness. . . .

Is it not remarkable how the incongruity of the passage with the Pentateuchal accounts of the desert journey is all but obviated?

A third assumption was that the received text of the Bible was perfect in its present form. Here again it should be pointed out that this assumption hardly led to more excesses than does the contrary and later one, which maintains that the received text is at every turn liable to emendation. And while the modern view often enough fails to enable us to understand Biblical usage one whit better, the old view had at least the merit of requiring one to scrutinize the text thoroughly in order to exploit its every idiosyncracy in support of one’s interpretation. But, having made a genuflection to our predecessors, we may now proceed to examine the less reasonable aspects of their theory.

Let us take the same corrupt passage we mentioned before: ben shana sha’ul bemolcho—”Saul was a year [read: “x years”] old when he reigned. . . .” Rabbinic exegesis, refusing to acknowledge textual imperfection, produced the following picturesque paraphrase: “Like a one-year-old who has no sins was Saul when he reigned. . . .” (So, e.g., in the official Aramaic translation fixed about the 5th century C.E. in Babylonia.)

With this we come to a method of interpretation much reviled by moderns, and, consequently, little understood: the method of midrash.

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We may consider midrash a device for extracting from a text, often a difficult one, some general, timeless truth. The Rabbis usually aimed at elucidating the attributes of God or the duties of man through their midrash. Medieval philosophical midrash was bent on deriving philosophical truths from the Bible. Mystics used midrash for similar partisan ends. The common aspect of midrash is the imposition upon the Biblical text of the specific system of ideas espoused by the interpreter. The locale, events, particulars of the Biblical story are of no importance in themselves. The narrative is reduced, or rather elevated, to a parable.

Now while there is certainly Biblical precedent for this practice, such promiscuous interlarding and overlaying of the Biblical text is not likely to produce a result consonant with the original intent of the author. And if the author be divine, how much graver the fault of the distorter! Powerful objections were raised to indiscriminate midrash as early as Mishnaic times. When R. Judah interpreted the proclamation “Avrech” which was cried before Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 41:43) as “Av, father—in wisdom; rack, tender—in years,” his colleague, Yosi ben Durmaskit, reproached him with a ringing, “How long will you distort for us the meaning of Scripture! ‘Avrech’ is clearly derived from birkayim, knees, conveying the idea that all were to be subject to Joseph’s command.” (See Rashi on this passage.)

“How long will you distort for us the meaning of Scripture!” This cry was later echoed in the Talmudic rule: “Scripture never loses its plain meaning”—no matter to what lengths it is extended by midrash.

Nevertheless the way of midrash was far better suited for the exhortatory as well as legal uses of the Rabbis, so that it dominates their Biblical exegesis and makes it difficult to tell what they considered the plain meaning of a text to be. Even more difficult for us is to understand what significance they attached to the plain meaning, although there can be no doubt that they were at least as aware as we are of this meaning.

At any rate, the cumulative effect of the assumption that the Bible was a complete and perfect unit, along with the consequent necessity to harmonize its inconsistencies by hook or crook, and the flourishing of midrash, was often to obscure the original intention of Biblical texts. A great protective screen of commentary was interposed between the virgin mind of the reader and the plain meaning.

If by understanding the Bible, we mean then the ability to deduce from it correct notions of God and of the duties and laws He has imposed on man, then scholars must consult their respective faiths before deciding whether the early Jewish commentators understood it. But if we mean the appreciation of its authors’ intentions, the recognition of the truly heterogeneous nature of the book, a real grasp of historical truth, and a tenable theory of the function of revelation—then we may say that our understanding, though drawing on theirs, has in many ways shown theirs to be inadequate.

Interest in the plain meaning of the Bible, while never wanting many advocates in every period of Jewish history, reached a new intensity with the culmination of the formative period of legal development. It was much as if it were felt that once we had completed and established a midrash-based legal structure, we could without risk take up Bible study again and try to discover what it really meant to say. Here is how Rashi’s grandson, the 12thcentury Solomon ben Meir, puts it in his commentary:

“Let lovers of wisdom consider and take to heart the teaching of our Rabbis: Scripture never loses its plain meaning. Although the essence of Torah is to teach us homilies and laws by means of allusions and superfluities in the text . . . our predecessors, out of their piety, so busied themselves with midrash—which is, to be sure, essential—that they became unaccustomed to the true plain meaning of Scripture.” (Commentary on Genesis 37:2.)

This bold approach did not hesitate even at giving legal passages in the Torah a meaning discordant with the established law. For Exodus 13:9, “And you shall have it as a sign upon your hand,” one of the bases of the law of tefillin, Solomon offers the following startling interpretation:

“Its true simple meaning is: bear it ever in your memory as if it were written on your hand. Compare the expression, “Set me as a seal upon thy heart” (Song of Songs 8:6).

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The crowning light of this school of Jewish commentators was Abraham Ibn Ezra. In his work we reach the ultimate limit of traditional interpretation. In fact, whether or not Ibn Ezra went beyond that limit and ventured upon unorthodox interpretation has been debated ever since Spinoza affirmed that he had. It is worth our while to note here a mysterious passage in Ibn Ezra’s commentary on Deuteronomy 1:2 that has occasioned much discussion:

“It is an eleven-day journey [runs the verse] from Horeb to Kadesh-Barnea by way of Mount Seir.” Problem: How could Moses know this, when traditionally the same distance was covered in three days by the Israelites? Says Ibn Ezra:

If you discover the secret of the twelve [i.e. the last twelve verses of Deuteronomy, which tell of the death and burial of Moses], and of the verse ‘And Moses wrote his Torah’ [Deuteronomy 31:9—did Moses write down this verse too?], and of the verse ‘And the Canaanites were then in the land’ [Genesis 13:7—the impression is strong that they were not in the land at the time of writing], also of ‘On the mountain where the Lord appears’ [Genesis 22:14—an allusion to the site of Solomon's temple, built centuries after Moses], and of ‘His bed is of iron, is it not in Rabba, capital of Ammon?’ [Deuteronomy 3:11—such knowledge appears to presuppose the capture of the Ammonite city by Israel, not accomplished until David's time]—then [concludes Ibn Ezra] you will know the truth concerning this verse!

There is scarcely room for doubt that Ibn Ezra saw the hand of another than Moses in these verses. With this, then, we have reached the threshold of modern criticism. The assumptions of the old criticism have finally been abandoned, and we want no better spokesman for the new than Spinoza himself, who, in the introduction to his Theologico-Political Tractate (1670), expresses himself thus:

As I pondered over the facts that the light of reason is not only despised, but by many even execrated as a source of impiety, that human commentaries are accepted as divine records, and that credulity is extolled as faith. . . I determined to examine the Bible afresh in a careful, impartial, and unfettered spirit, making no assumptions concerning it, and attributing to it no doctrines which I do not find clearly therein set down.

Isaiah-like all the other

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We spoke above of three points at which our direct connection with the Bible tradition has been severed. We have lost the contemporary literature, both Israelite and non-Israelite; we are at a loss to handle obviously disparate traditions on the same subject, and have reason to suspect some tendentious alterations of the tradition generally; we also lack the information to reconstruct the concrete conditions of Bible life.

In all these areas modern scholarship has supplied us with means to remedy our ignorance. Although we have little hope of recovering the chronicles of the kings of Judah or Israel, we have recovered a contemporary Babylonian chronicle that has shed undreamed of light on the religious and political policies of Josiah. And while we do not expect to recover any pre-Exilic scrolls of the Torah, historical criticism has indicated some salient features of the development of the Torah tradition. And textual criticism has taught us how to use the evidence given by early translations of the Bible in order to restore many mutilated passages in our present text. Archaeology has magnificently illuminated the material facts of life in the Biblical world, discovering written and unwritten records, so that we can now restore flesh and blood to the bones of Biblical tradition.

Take, for example, the concept of prophecy. An earlier age, innocent of critical considerations, imagined that anything could form the subject of prophetic inspiration. A list of kings, say, who ruled in Edom before there reigned any king in Israel (Genesis 36:31ff.) might be a fit subject of divine revelation to Moses. A particular prophetic propensity was to describe minutely great events in the future: Isaiah, standing in 8th-century (B.C.E.) Jerusalem, paints a vivid picture of the triumphant advance of Cyrus the Persian two centuries later. Solomon, prophetically inspired, writes an elaborate history of Israel, from its beginnings to the coming of the Messiah—to be found in allegoric form in the Song of Songs.

Now to call upon divine revelation to explain the presence of a list of Edomite kings in the Book of Genesis is somewhat like using a derrick to lift a toothpick: it will work, but is it reasonable? Fortunately, literary and historical criticism have detached divine inspiration from such trivia, and have thereby enabled us to gain a truer picture of the nature and function of prophecy as it was practiced in ancient Israel.

When chapters 40-66 of the Book of Isaiah are assigned where they belong, two centuries after the age of the Jerusalemite Isaiah, his proper function is clearly brought out. Isaiah—like all the other prophets—serves as interpreter of contemporary events to his people. He is gifted with insight that enables him to decipher the intent of the divine will in the upheavals of the times. The prophet is not primarily an Oracle, expounding visions of the future over the heads of a troubled people. He is wholly immersed in the issues of his time, and the lasting significance of his words derives from his inspired ability to guide his contemporaries according to principles that transcend the situations which call forth his voice. To liberate the prophecies of Isaiah, son of Amoz, from the incongruous burden of chapters 40-66 is to see the man for the first time in his real, and magnificent, role.

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In another area modern scholarship has illuminated the difficult problem of just what is unique in Biblical religion. The discoveries of the literature of ancient contemporary cultures have enabled us to see that Israelite religion did not spring up in a vacuum. On the contrary, it was in many ways heir to the spiritual heritage of the entire Near East, a heritage that offers many sublime ideas to match those of the Bible:

“More acceptable is the character of one upright of heart than the ox of the evildoer.” This is a passage from the proverbs of Egypt, not from the prophets of Israel.

“Who, my friend, is superior to death? Only the gods live forever under the sun. As for mankind, numbered are their days, whatever they achieve is but the wind.” This is the Babylonian Gilgamesh speaking, not the Psalmist.

“Omri, king of Israel, afflicted Moab many years, for Cemosh was angry with his people.” This is Mesha, the king of Moab’s version of Isaiah’s “O Asshur, the rod of Mine anger” (Isaiah 10:5).

It becomes necessary for us to redefine the contribution of Biblical religion. We can no longer comfortably luxuriate in the notion that Israel sprang up as a rose among the barbarian thorns. That Israel added something new is a fact of history. But anyone who wants to define and understand that novelty must start from within the framework of that general culture whose vocabulary and store of ideas were common to all peoples in the Near East several thousand years ago.

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A final word on the impact of scholarship upon the authority of the Bible. It cannot be denied that modern criticism has succeeded, if not in denying revelation, then in at least showing that the degree of divine illumination has not been the same throughout the ages. If the fact of revelation is not set aside, the varying forms and stages of it are rather clearly brought out, so that we can see cruder notions being replaced by more refined ones. Since both kinds are found in the Bible, it appears inescapable that if authority is to be ascribed at all, the cruder form must be denied it.

The countenancing of slavery in the laws of the Bible, while containing much that marks a great advance over non-Israelite attitudes, nonetheless seems to fall short of the highest in man, not to speak of God. We find it impossible to reconcile the divine attributes with the condoning of such a system. Yet is it not paradoxical that the ideal grounds for abolishing slavery are to be found in the Bible too? What more poignant defense of the rights of a slave can be found than Job’s statement, “Did not He who made me in the womb make him also? And did not One fashion us in the womb?” (Job 31:15).

In the same way, the Second Isaiah’s inclusion of the maimed and the foreigner in the future community of God repeals the earlier Deuteronomic exclusion of them (Isaiah 56: 3-8; contrast Deuteronomy 23:2, 4); and Ezekiel’s insistence on individual responsibility appears to contradict the more general notion of corporate guilt (Ezekiel 18; contrast verse 20 with Exodus 20:5). It is precisely this record of man’s wrestling with God, and of the divine pedagogy leading him on, that makes the Bible a unique source of optimism and confidence to its readers. The gradual process of God’s self-disclosure to man, made evident by modern scholarship, has not diminished the Bible, it has rather enlarged our confidence that this process has not yet ceased; that that spirit which has attuned itself to the Divine by the enlarging experience of Biblical religion will not be denied a corresponding self-disclosure.

It is in this deepest sense that we maintain the authority of the Bible. Not in the sense that its answers are final, or that it frees us from the necessity of the eternal quest and the unending spiritual struggle, but in the sense that the ultimate answers, when attained, will be found at the end of a road that is drawn in the Bible as if on a map.

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