Jewish Bible and Civilization
The Old Testament: Keystone of Human Culture
By William A. Irwin.
Schuman. 293 pp. $4.00

 

Most people take it for granted that the teachings of the Old Testament are one of the prime foundations of Western religion and ethics; yet there are few who would be able to set down on paper just what the Old Testament teaches about God, man, and the world, or in what way its teachings are distinctive and unique. It is this that Professor Irwin has attempted to do in the present luminous, sensitive, and beautifully written book, an expansion of the essay which he contributed, seven years ago, to the University of Chicago volume, The Intellectual Advancement of Ancient Man. He has tried to give us a rounded picture of Old Testament thought about the perennial problems of the universe and man’s place within it.

The task is not easy. In the first place, the Old Testament is the product of many minds, many centuries, and many environments, so that its thought is not always consistent or monolithic and does not represent any single ordered “system.” Second, the views of the ancient Hebrews about God, man, and the world were more in the nature of insights born of experience than of philosophies born of methodical speculation. Consequently, they leave unsolved or unapprehended many problems which a purely rational approach would raise, and there are many gaps in logic. Third, it is extremely difficult for modern man to strip away from the Hebrew concepts the mass of later ideas which now encrust them—that is, to get back to the ancient categories of thought and to avoid pressing them into alien molds.

Professor Irwin is conscious, however, of these and other limitations, and one of the things which makes his treatment so valuable is the very fact that he does not represent Hebrew thought as all-inclusive and all-comprehending, but faces up honestly to its logical deficiencies and ambiguities, preferring to regard it as a tentative and dynamic quest rather than as a positive and static “solution.”

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Irwin finds that the Hebrews made three principal contributions to man’s conception of the universe.

The first was that the world was governed by a God who was essentially good, who was prepared, for example, to wreak punishment on the Moabites, the Ammonites, and the Edomites, not simply because they had assailed his own particular people, but because they had outraged a universal standard of ethics.

The second contribution was that history was a revelation of this essentially ethical God in the world of men. For the Israelites, says Irwin, “history was a great process; it was going somewhere, but that progress was under the will and direction of the God of goodness whom Israel’s faith envisaged.”

The third was that man, too, was essentially good—a limited replica of God. “He was made in the image of God, but a little lower than He, worthy to companion with Him, but yet so far removed that the highest human attainments, even the best aspirations, are acceptable only by divine grace. . . . God is far other than man. But it is entirely false to Old Testament thought to claim that He was ‘wholly’ other. Israel’s thinkers would have repudiated such an idea with indignation.” Consequently, the “sins” of man were not to be regarded as evidence of any innate turpitude but were to be attributed solely to the fact that, through the imperfection of his nature, he necessarily missed the mark and deviated at times from the divine guidance.

All of these points are supported by abundant quotation and analysis. Yet on some of them it seems possible to demur.

Irwin concedes, for example, that monotheism was not formally articulated in Israel until the time of Hosea, and he points out that Israel’s contribution to religion was, in any case, not the creation of monotheism per se but of ethical monotheism. One wonders, however, whether the common and time-worn antithesis between monotheism and polytheism is not really a distinction created only by our own inadequate categories. For the truth seems to be that all primitive religions really recognize two distinct types of suprahuman beings: on the one hand there are numina who lie behind the individual phenomena of nature, who are responsible for particular moments of awe or trauma, and who may also be regarded, in more social terms, as the “spirits” or personified quintessences of peoples or localities; and on the other, there is usually some transcendent being who informs or exemplifies the cosmic “all-together.” The former are the practical “low gods” of cult and worship—the gods who are used; while the latter are the rarefied “high gods” of abstract speculation, the gods of philosophy and myth. The two types exist side by side, issuing from different but parallel sources, and it is only because we have given to both of them the name “gods” that we have been led into the error of assuming that they stand in genealogical succession and that monotheism was a development of polytheism. Accordingly, the vexed question of whether the more ancient Hebrews were monotheists or polytheists has, in fact, no substantive reality; it is simply the product of terminological confusion, and reflects only our own inadequate approach.

The same may be said of the common assertion that God is good. Baldly stated in this form, the assertion suggests a host of ideas which were in fact foreign to the Hebrew outlook and which logically involve a vicious circle. It suggests that there is some absolute standard of goodness (usually identified with maximum benefit) to which God absolutely and entirely conforms. The Hebrew conception would seem, however, to rest rather on the concept of the normal than of the ethical. God is the source of tzedek, not in the sense of righteousness, but in that of the norm, the regular, the standard—the inherent pattern of cosmos. His law—more properly, his guidance (torah)—is the revelation of that norm in nature and event, and man is required to conform to it not for the mere sake of obedience, but in order to live in harmony with the universe and thus advance its progress by realizing within it his own maximum potentialities. Such conformity is “goodness,” while non-conformity or deviation (Hebrew: avon) is “badness,” because thereby men lose their bearings in the world and at the same time frustrate the plan of God. In a word, good and evil are pragmatic standards applicable to man, not to God. Man is good when he is “normal,” not normal when he is good. Conversely, he is evil when he is abnormal, not abnormal when he is evil.

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Other problems, too, arise immediately out of the Old Testament view of God. If God is the pervading spirit of the universe, how can he be localized at any one spot—say, Bethel or Jerusalem? And if God determines the regimen of the universe, does man possess free will?

It is not the least of Irwin’s merits that he does not attempt to foist upon the Hebrews any definitive answers to these questions. Instead, he carefully presents just what the various Old Testament writers have to say about them, and then points out candidly that no final synthesis was ever achieved. Nevertheless, one may be permitted to wonder whether the truth does not really lie deeper than this, and whether some of the tentative explanations of Hebrew concepts which Irwin does venture to offer are not in fact influenced, albeit unconsciously, by modern categories of thought. The real point may be that it is not here a question of the Hebrews’ having floundered around in their efforts to resolve logical inconsistencies, but rather of their not having recognized them as such, owing to the fact that their outlook was neither determined nor controlled by rational dialectic.

Take, for example, the seeming contradiction between the omnipresence of God and his localization. Irwin suggests that the Hebrews may have conceived of God as a kind of fluid essence which manifested itself at particular places in the form of flame or exhalation. But is this explanation necessary? May not the truth really be that on an a-logical plane of feeling, a distinction is drawn between localization and concentration, between omnipresence and ubiquity, so that when the cosmic and universal God is said to be on hand at a particular place, this by no means implies that he is confined or restricted to that place, but only that it serves as a spot where mortals can make contact with him (compare Exodus 29:42; Numbers 17:19)?

Similarly, the logical contrast between predetermination and free will may not have presented itself so rigidly to the Hebrew mind, to which the direction of human affairs may have appeared rather as an act of partnership between God and man, God thinking out and revealing the plan (torah), and man being left, of his own choice and volition, to realize and exemplify it. To be sure, this comes very close to Irwin’s own very fine formulation: “Israel could be the medium of divine revelation, and yet could in the same act preserve her intellectual independence; indeed, only because of this independence could she be such a medium.” The point is, however, that in speaking here of “independence,” Irwin may well be introducing a dichotomy which springs only from logical thought and of which the Hebrews may have been totally unaware.

The same unwitting concession to modern logical categories may be seen also in the assertion that “God, for Israel, was supreme above nature, and employed it for his purposes.” Here, again, it may be asked whether the Hebrew concept of a transcendental, universal God was not in fact what we mean when we speak of a transcendental, universal Nature. In that case, God did not transcend nature because he was nature; all that he transcended were individual natural phenomena.

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The general point that I am here trying to make is that our understanding of Hebrew and, indeed, of all early and primitive types of religion, is today beclouded by the fact that we tend to approach them through alien categories. The moment we use such terms as “god,” “religion,” “worship,” and the like, we unload upon them a mass of foreign concepts or of concepts so charged with later meanings and nuances that they obscure rather than clarify. Nor is this a purely academic point. Through the reduction of Hebraism and Judaism to our own modes of thought, much of their distinctiveness and validity evaporates. When torah becomes Law, and elohim becomes God, and tzedek becomes ethical conduct, and nebuah becomes prediction, what made each of them distinctive is at once swallowed up, and we trade our birthright for an ideological mess of pottage.

It is the great value of Professor Irwin’s work that, though at times he seems unconsciously to succumb to this pitfall, in the broad lines of his interpretation he gives us a splendid and radiant restatement of Hebrew thought as it really was. And he does so in terms readily intelligible to the “common reader.” Indeed, the reviewer believes that this is the best presentation of the subject in English, and that it is a book which every thinking Jew should read.

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