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Editorial Reviews Review

Things You Thought You Knew About the Bible

  • People say that Bible is about obeying God’s commands. But biblical figures such as Moses, Aaron, and Pinchas disobey God and are praised or rewarded for it.
  • People say Abraham was praised because of his willingness to sacrifice his only son on an altar. But Abraham never decides he will sacrifice Isaac. He believes God will back down, and the Bible tells us so explicitly.
  • People say that the biblical heroes are mostly men. But the Bible goes out of its way to emphasize that no fewer than five different women risked their lives in the struggle to save the infant Moses, suggesting that without every one of these women the Jews would never have left Egypt.
  • People say the Bible is about faith as the ultimate value. But the law of Moses includes no commandment to have faith, and the Bible tells us that Moses himself was unable to attain a perfect faith in God.
  • People say that God calls himself “I am that I am” at the burning bush, implying (as tradition has it) that he is perfect being, eternal and unchanging. But the original text actually says the opposite of this: In Hebrew God says “I will be what I will be,” suggested that God is not perfect but rather imperfect and changing.
  • People say that the biblical kingdom of the Israelites was destroyed because it turned to idolatry. But the fall of the kingdom begins with Solomon, his inability to control his desire for big armies, women, and gold, and the ruinous taxation and enslavement of his people that result from this.
  • People say the story of Cain and Abel is about hatred between brothers. But Cain and Abel aren’t just any brothers. They stand for conflicting ways of life—the life of the farmer vs. that of the shepherd. Abel is just the first in a line of biblical heroes (including Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David, and more) whom choose the life of the shepherd and what it represents and so win God’s love.

An Interview with Yoram Hazony

Yoram, why did you write The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture?

Hebrew Scripture is an intensely personal subject for me. In some ways, I feel a very deep sympathy for biblical figures like Jeremiah and Ezekiel. These are people who saw the destruction of their nation with their own eyes—something that we can hardly even imagine. The Hebrew Bible is the record they left us of what this unimaginable catastrophe, and of the lessons they thought future generations should learn from it.

I think that when someone leaves you a record like that, it’s a very special thing. These people sent us, you could say, a message in a bottle, telling us what happened to them. This bottle contains all their most intimate suffering, but also their reflections and ideas—ideas they thought we’d need so that we’d remember and not make the same mistakes ourselves. But today for all sorts of reasons we ignore that message. For most people the Bible is just a closed book.

And this is something I find very painful. I put myself in their place and think: How would they feel knowing that we today receive that message in a bottle—that we hold it in our hands—and say to ourselves: What these people had to say is just not something I’m interested in taking seriously. We turn our back on them. We’re deaf to their cry.

It’s been about twenty-five years now since I first understood that this is what was happening. I almost feel that I owe it to them, to the people who put that message in a bottle after what was really something like a Shoah for them, like the end of the world for them. I want to help people be able to hear their voices again. That’s how I came to this.

So you almost have a sense of mission about this—about bringing the Hebrew Bible to a place of respect among people who find it difficult to appreciate its power and importance today?

That’s exactly right. I do feel that. I’ve found that people who can bring the Bible to life for modern educated people are surprisingly rare. It’s something it turns out I can do well. I speak before audiences about the Bible and they sometimes sit for hours asking me to tell them another Bible story and then another so that they feel they make sense, maybe for the first time. If that’s what people want me to do, I feel I don’t have a right to turn that down. It’s really a kind of a calling.

When did you begin to feel this way?

It happened in graduate school. I went back to graduate school to study political thought and philosophy—subjects I’m embarrassed to say that I simply missed as an undergraduate. So there I was in a Ph.D. program studying Plato and Hobbes and Nietzsche for the first time in a serious way. I loved the subject and I loved my instructors.

But almost from the first moment I kept having this feeling as I was reading these books: Well this sounds just like Hebrew Scripture! It’s dealing with the same questions—sometimes giving similar answers and sometimes different ones. But the biblical answers are as good as the ones we find in the other big books of the Western tradition. So why isn’t the Bible part of the story? Why do we study the great books of the West but exclude the Bible?

I asked my instructors about this and they were actually extremely supportive. They told me that I might be right to feel uncomfortable, and encouraged me to write my doctoral dissertation on the political philosophy of the book of Jeremiah, which I finished in 1993. I think it was one of the first dissertations on a subject like that, although since then there have been many others. Parts of that dissertation are appearing in published form for the first time in this new book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture.

Do you think it matters much whether university programs teach Bible as part of what they study? Aren’t the universities detached from what most people think?

Yes, I think it matters immensely. People think of the universities as an “ivory tower” disconnected from the normal lives that regular people lead. But this is a mistake. The universities play a very important role in modern society: They define the range of legitimate belief on almost every subject they deal with. If the universities decide that dinosaurs were warm-blooded and hopped like birds, then all the dinosaur books we had when we were kids get thrown out and replaced by new ones. And if the universities decide that most of the universe is made of dark matter that can’t be detected by any instrument, then this is what most people think you should probably believe, even if ten years earlier people would have said that was ridiculous.

The same is true for the Bible. If the basic view that’s accepted in universities is that what’s in the Hebrew Bible just isn’t worth taking seriously—that it’s not worthy of being studied sympathetically and with respect like other classic works of philosophy or political thought, then that’s pretty much what educated everywhere are going to end up thinking.

Then it ends up being the case that the schools don’t really teach Bible and it’s not really the subject of discussion in any other cultural setting either. The view of the professors ends up being a kind of semi-official opinion that’s accepted throughout society. Of course there are religious folks who think the Bible is worth reading—but they end up being seen as oddballs for it. There’s just this feeling that you can’t be really impressed and exciting by the teachings of Hebrew Scripture and still be a reasonable person.

And you’d like to see a change in that?

I think it’s desperately needed.


You know, I can’t say it better than this young woman I met at an airport in the UK last year. I was on my way to Scotland and she was coming from Ireland and on her way to Israel—she was getting onto a plane I had just gotten off of. It was her second trip. She told me her husband hadn’t wanted to go so she was going alone. I asked her why it was so important for her to go, since she wasn’t a Jew. She said to me: “I can’t explain exactly. But I know that going back to the Bible is going back to the root of everything. It’s who we are.”

I think this young Irishwoman had it right: The Hebrew Bible is who we are, and what we are.

People who don’t know how to approach the biblical texts simply don’t realize the degree to which what is written in them defines us: What we think about and how we think about it. A lot of things we believe are modern are actually biblical in the most obvious sense—but if you don’t know the Bible then you think it was made up by someone recent.

I think this disconnection of modern people from everything having to do with their roots is difficult on the individual level and might even be dangerous on the level of nations. When you’re cut off from your roots you often come to feel an ache and an emptiness that you can’t explain. And often enough that vacant space ends up getting filled with all sorts of crazy things, with fascism and communism being just two obvious examples of what the world looks like after all the roots have been torn out.

But isn’t that a process that’s already very far gone. Is there really any hope of going back?

I really don’t know. I look at the way the European nations are tearing up and discarding everything they once were, and I do wonder. Countries like Holland and Britain were nations formed by the Bible—and especially by the “Old Testament” part of the Christian Bible. But then I meet people like this woman from Ireland, and it makes me think maybe something could change.


"A deep and lucid investigation of the connections between the two chief strands of our intellectual history. A great achievement."
Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works and The Better Angels of our Nature

"A paradigm-shifting work of immense significance."
Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth

"Hazony is on a mission to put the greatest book on earth at the heart of academic study ... [He] is a modern-day Jerusalem shepherd who is challenging authority - and has no idea how things will turn out."
David Suissa, Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles

"His argument is ... provocative: the Hebrew Bible does not conform to the commonly accepted dichotomy of reason versus revelation ... Rewarding for biblical studies or philosophy insiders who are receptive to new ideas."
Publishers Weekly

"... a bracing intellectual adventure."
Alan Mittleman, The Jewish Theological Seminary

"Hazony does not write simply to persuade us to agree or disagree with his interpretation of any particular story. Reviewers who think so do him an injustice. Instead, Hazony wants to persuade us that to read the Bible is to engage in a necessary argument over how to build a good society."
Diana Muir Appelbaum, Jewish Ideas Daily

"First, Hazony's work is an important contribution to understanding the dynamic of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Second, Hazony's argument is important for understanding not just Genesis 4 but as a radical critique of the general understanding of the entire Hebrew Bible."
Steven D. Ealy, Books and Culture

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 286 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (July 30, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521176670
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521176675
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (67 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #156,375 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Yoram Hazony is an Israeli philosopher and political theorist. He is President of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem. Previously, he founded the Shalem Center, recently accredited as Israel's first liberal arts College. Subscribe to receive his essays at

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

34 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Olaf Sakkers on August 23, 2012
Format: Paperback
These are the most important things about this book:
- Hazony tries to collapse the dichotomy between reason and revelation (which you probably intuitively subscribe to) by suggesting that we read the Bible as a work of reason (i.e. as making defensible claims that we can verify through experience, rather than claims that must be accepted because they are God-given). This is quite an ambitious (and perhaps unexpected) goal, but it is also an exciting project because it forces you to think of the Hebrew Bible in a completely different way. The first section of the book is dedicated to defending this approach and offering tools for reading the Hebrew Bible in this way.
- The second section of the book offers demonstrations of this argument in practice, presenting five novel and diverse readings of sections of the Hebrew Bible (with particular focus on Genesis, Samuel and Jeremiah) that give insight into the implications of the main argument and a profoundly different understanding of many Biblical passages.
- In the process, Hazony challenges many long-held dogmas about the nature of God - such as His omnipotence. Similarly, he argues that the Hebrew Bible holds that God's Law should be understand within the framework of Natural Law (that the laws are good because they outline how man can live the best life he can) rather than the within the framework of Divine Command Theory (that they're good because God gave them to us). He also proposes a radically different (and rather compelling) understanding of the nature of truth.
- Hazony has a clear and compelling writing style that makes complex concepts discernible.
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33 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Bror Erickson VINE VOICE on November 15, 2012
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Yoram takes shreds the tired clichés of scripture, and challenges some cherished ideas and beliefs held by atheists, Christians, and Jewish believers. I wasn't sure what to expect at first, but I absolutely loved the introduction and first chapter and have been delighted by insights into the scripture that he brings in every chapter since.
I'm a pastor. I have read the Bible through cover to cover quite a few times. The first time I did so I was sixteen. Ever since that day I have been absolutely fascinated with scripture and what it has to say. I have often wondered why it isn't given more serious consideration than it is in philosophical circles, and Yoram's book is a challenge to just such circles to read it and take it more seriously than the caricatures of it often given to it.
The first thing he does is challenge the notion that because it presents itself as a revelation it cannot be read as a book of reason, even though if read carefully it shows itself to be quite reasonable. At one point he even shows how the collapse of the anarchic state and the rise of a kingdom shown in the Bible were instrumental in Rousseau's idea of the social contract. He challenges both the notions that scripture treats revelation as something that should just be believed, and that faith is supposed to be antithetical to reason. This is something I find myself as a pastor often having to overcome in the lives of my parishioners. I am thankful that Yoram has written a helpful book dealing with these subjects.
As a Christian we might see things differently, that perhaps the unifying idea of the Old Testament isn't the shepherd ethic vs. Civilized farmer ethic motif, but Christ himself.
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33 of 39 people found the following review helpful By AndiArnovitz on July 31, 2012
Format: Paperback
I have been a fan of Yoram Hazony's writing for years, but this book has been the most fascinating to me. I am not an academic by any means, but have always enjoyed Bible/Tanach commentary and Yoram simply reads the Bible in a way that I have not seen anywhere else. I have only a layman's philosophy background, so the background material that Yoram writes that allows a layperson to understand his theories is clear and accessible. His "horizontal" reading of the Bible, carrying themes and identifying concepts across wide swathes of the stories and narratives, opened my eyes to concepts and ideas that were both challenging and exciting.

I can't recommend this book highly enough - both for the incredibly original insights (so many "aha- why didn't I think of that?" moments), his exquisite writing, and his ability to strip away the Jewish medieval interpreters, the Christian theologians, and the Greek philosophers and expose the intent and meaning of the original Biblical Author/author/authors (your choice). It's a great reference for the philosophy department, the new Tanach school of learning, Bible scholars and amateurs of any religion, and the Shabbat table.

Agree or disagree with the book's contents, this is a terrific read.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Ariel on August 22, 2012
Format: Paperback
Yoram Hazony's The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture provides readers with a philosophical reading of Old Testament texts. Whether one studies the Bible daily or is interested in learning about the first Bible for the first time, Hazony's book will be a worthwhile purchase. The book is clear, informative, and thought-provoking and will enhance its readers' understanding of the Old Testament.

While the logic of many philosophy books can be hard for some readers to follow and understand, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture is a well-organized and clearly argued text. Yoram Hazony's introduction is particularly demonstrative of the book's clarity. At the beginning of the introduction, Hazony clearly identifies the problem he aims to address. He maintains that the Old Testament (which he calls the Hebrew Bible) has historically been viewed as a book of "revelation," that presents God's instructions as they are understood by his messengers, instead of as a book of "reason" that presents philosophical arguments about the nature of life and ethical behavior. Hazony then provides a preliminary (but not fully comprehensive) set of examples to demonstrate why the approach reading the Bible as a work of "revelation" is flawed and how it developed. Only after providing this background does Hazony "pivot" and flesh out his argument. He goes on to explain why he believes that scholars and non-scholars alike should begin to interpret and study the Hebrew Bible as a work of "reason." He then provides case-studies to legitimate his claims.

Novices and experts will not only appreciate the book's clarity, but will also find it highly informative. Hazony primarily presents his own reading of the Hebrew Bible.
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