if you’ve ever wondered why the Bible contradicts itself: a jewish solution

Posted by PeteEnns on January 13, 2017 in book notes and reviews nature of the Bible 10 Comments

Sommer Rev+AuthReaders of this blog will know that I think Christians (namely evangelicals) can learn a lot from how Judaism (in its varied forms) looks at the nature of the Bible and its interpretation. Bottom line: Judaism tends to be more flexible in accepting the Bible’s diversity and contradictions.

The question this raises, though, is how a book that is considered to be revealed from God can contain such non-Godlike properties as contradictions and internal debates among its authors. As I never grow tired of arguing, this conundrum is the bane of Evangelicalism’s commitment to biblical inerrancy.

Enter Benjamin D. Sommer, an observant Jew and professor of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Languages at the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC. In his latest book Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition, Sommer explains how Torah can be both a divinely authoritative book while also exhibiting these human traits.

Sommer’s answer is summed up in the phrase “participatory theory of revelation” or “participatory theology,” by which he means: the Pentateuch not only conveys God’s will but also reflects Israel’s interpretation of and response to that will (p. 2).

Or, to put a fine point on it, according to Torah, revelation involved active contributions by both God and Israel; revelation was collaborative and participatory(p. 1)

And that is why you have, for example,  contradictions in the laws of the Pentateuch between Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy: they are all interpretations of the divine revelation.

OK, Ben. You have my attention. The Bible is a paradoxical (and messy and complex and un-untanglable) convergence of divine and human involvement. In Christian terms I call this an “incarnational” understanding of the nature of the Bible. The Bible isn’t dropped out of heaven. Its “full humanity” is a non-negotiable and necessary property of Scripture, and should accepted as such with all its implications.

I read Sommer as a true kindred spirit, a notion underscored by the fact that, as he recently pointed out to me, we both went to the same high school (though we didn’t overlap). Small world. But while he was studying Hebrew in high school I was watching Gilligan’s Island and trying to make the baseball team.

Anyway, here are some brief quotes from the introduction to get a feel for Sommer’s point.

My thesis is a simple one. Many biblical texts that describe the giving of Torah move simultaneously and without contradiction in two directions: they anchor the authority of Jewish law and lore in the revleation at Sinai, but they also destabilize that authority by teaching that we cannot be sure how, exactly, the specific rules found in the Pentateuch relate to God’s self-disclosure (p. 1).

Read that slowly: the diversity in the authoritative Torah destabilizes that authority.

This paradox of revelation in the Pentateuch, Sommer argues, lies in fact that the Pentateuch itself gives voice to both stenographic [i.e., “dictation”] and participatory theologies of revelation (p. 2). In fact, biblical authors and editors expend considerable ingenuity weaving those threads into biblical accounts of the events in Sinai (p. 6). The writers/editors of the Bible intend for readers to struggle with the notion of revelation.

What I also deeply appreciate about Sommer’s approach is debt to historical critical scholarship for helping recover the biblical voices that were lost or obscured as a consequence of the way biblical books were edited in antiquity (p. 5). Sommers is not an advocate of giving priority to the final, canonical form of scripture but of seeing scripture itself as a complex, multi-layered tradition.

The payoff for such a view of the Bible, in addition to accounting for how the Bible actually behaves, is a wise caution concerning the nature of any theological quest:

It [the approach to scripture he has been advocating] involves a degree of doubt that renders religious practice tentative and searching rather thanSommer apodictic and self-evident. It ought to lead to that most important religious virtue, humility, rather than promoting a characteristic less rare among religious people than one would hope, self-righteousness (p. 6).

Ah, another paradox: a commitment to biblical authority should lead to humility about one’s grasp of the Bible. Christians take note.

Bottom line, this is a wonderful book that will provoke any Christian concerned with the questions, “What is the Bible, anyway, and what do I do with it?”




  • I find this helpful, thanks. I’m not particularly fond of “slippery slope” arguments – often because the assumptions on which they are based are not explicit and may sometimes be dubious. However, one thing did catch my eye:
    “Sommers is not an advocate of giving priority to the final, canonical form of scripture but of seeing scripture itself as a complex, multi-layered tradition.”
    I guess I (as a Christian) find the first bit of this sentence a difficult/dangerous line to cross, but I don’t see why the second half could not enrich our understanding whilst we continue hold on to the received canonical form as authoritative – with careful definition of what we mean by authoritative, and the intended reach of that authority.
    I’m also curious whether or not Sommer’s understanding is consistent with mainstream Jewish understanding – I don’t want to presume that, because he describes himself as an orthodox Jew, the views he is presenting are… em… orthodox.

  • Thanks for this tip Pete. I have enjoyed and benefited from reading other Jewish writers who you recommend, such as James Kugel and Jon Levenson. I also am amazed by the erudition of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the faith science front (eg. The Great Partnership: Science , Religion and the Search for Meaning). We evangelicals need to be reminded that there there is much to be gained by understanding what honest interpreters from many quarters have uncovered. Full agreement is never the real issue (but often used as a red herring). Learning by observing carefully from different perspectives is always a good thing. The book is a bit pricey, but just ordered it any way.

  • Why didn’t someone explain this sort of thing to me before we began raising our curious, yet debate-prone, children? It would have made coming up with satisfying answers to their good questions about the Bible less stressful. I appreciate knowing that I don’t have to be so certain and apodictical about everything.

    • I was that child. My devout parents dealt with my questions with threats of God’s punishment. No nuance was allowed in my upbringing.

  • So in essence: the Bible (“The word of God”) is fully divine & fully human? Much like Christ (“the Word of God”) is fully divine and fully human?

  • Is the Bible really a paradox or is saying that just another way of trying to avoid the obvious conclusions about it? Namely, that it is a record of the way that a particular group of humans wrestled with the concept of God, but not itself “divine” or “inspired” in any way.

  • Your post is timely. I’m reading through the Bible for the 2nd time in my life (using the wonderful bibleproject.com). There have been a lot of troubling passages in Leviticus and Numbers that I don’t remember from previous readings. I’ve been consulting Jewish and Christian scholars to better understand them. I’m shocked, for example, by the embedded injustice in the fact that some forms of adultery are punishable by death while child sexual abuse is not. Or that the cringe-worthy “test for adultery” in Numbers 5 is even included in the Canon. I don’t want to write off difficult passages as cultural oddities and have been trying to understand and reconcile my view of a loving, just God with what I’m reading. When I saw your post in my inbox, I nearly laughed out loud. It was JUST what I needed: another lens and way of thinking about what I’m reading. It so helps to know that I don’t have to throw the odd passages out OR accept them as unknowably perfect. To think of them as a partnership of sorts with a great deal of mystery that flows from the very reality that finite beings are trying to grasp an infinite God actually really does help. Thanks.

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