Menachem Mendel

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Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel

Biblia Hebraica has a very enthusiastic review of Bernard M. Levinson’s Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel. Cambridge University Press, 2008. For sale by Amazon.

This just might be the best book I’ve read in a long time. It’s challenged my assumptions about the development of the Hebrew Bible and the role of innovation alongside preservation. I don’t think I really understood inner-biblical exegesis before reading this book. The larger issue addressed by the book is the interplay between continuity and change within the biblical text itself. This was a familiar issue to me from the vantage point of classical rabbinic Judaism’s innovative re-creation of Judaism post-70 CE, but I had never considered it’s role in the development of the text I study primarily – the Hebrew Bible. Basically, later texts subtly undermine the plain sense of earlier texts and adapt the community’s thinking in such a way that the new innovative meaning is presented as the meaning that was there all along. Their exegesis changes the text, but they claim to have made no change.

9 Responses to “Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel”

  1. 1
    John Hobbins:

    Levinson writes well and clearly. Here is a link to an online interview, and a brief bibliography, now in need of an update:

  2. 2

    Of course an alternate explanation of the inter-textual exegesis is that we are seeing examples of Torah she Baal Pe within the text. It’s all in what assumptions you choose to approach this issue.

  3. 3
    Michael P.:


    Explain what you mean when you say Torah she b’al peh and why is it different. Are you claiming that these interpretations go back to Sinai and only in some later biblical book they are coming to the surface?

  4. 4

    Exactly, and this has been well explicated in works like Matteh Dan and in more recent timesR. A. Miller’s books. An example would be the bowl of water that David took from Saul when the latter was sleeping in the cave, revealing that netilas yadaim was already present at that time(SamuelI, Chapter 26). There is a whole genre of commentary and derush that engages in this kind of connecting of TSBP and the Written Torah, from Netsiv to Daat Sofrim ( and many, many others. But I am not surprised that those in the Conservative orbit may have never heard of it.

  5. 5
    Michael P.:

    I am familiar with these interpretations, I usually describe them as anachronistic interpretations from later time periods. This is not to deny that one cannot find antecedents and sources for later rabbinic practice, just that these claims must stand up to critical scrutiny.

  6. 6

    This is dismissive of an entire genre of interpretation. Undoubtedly some connections are forced but others are quire cogent and…the point remains that it is as plausible, if not convincing, that the later Biblical books are reporting oral traditions rather than engaging in reinterpretation.

  7. 7
    Michael P.:

    As I wrote,

    “This is not to deny that one cannot find antecedents and sources for later rabbinic practice, just that these claims must stand up to critical scrutiny.”

    If it stands up to scrutiny, I am all for it, but to initially go looking for things which may not be there often leads to forced interpretations. You are correct that the later biblical books contain lots of information about later traditions and laws, but the danger is getting carried away and finding things which probably aren’t there. There are many shabbat laws which can be found in the later prophetic writings.

  8. 8

    It was exciting to see the discussion prompted by my book, and the appreciation provided in the review on Biblia Hebraica. The world of blogging remains new to me. But it was indeed my goal to reach a broader audience with the book: I strongly believe that biblical studies has important implications for broader discussions in the humanities, in comparative religion, and in contemporary legal theory (including debates about the role of the Supreme Court). In the back and forth here on the blog, I do have one awkward question: I couldn’t tell whether Avakesh actually had an opportunity to read the book, or whether the response here took for granted an approach that I am not clear I hold. While I am absolutely committed to the methodology of academic biblical scholarship, including historical-critical scholarship and compositional analysis, my guess is that there is significantly more attention paid to rabbinic exegesis than is often found in the field. At many points, I attempt to consciously bring the two methodologies into dialogue with one another. I certainly challenge harmonistic approaches, but I think openness to that kind of debate is a strength of ancient exegesis.

  9. 9
    Menachem Mendel:


    Avakesh’s approach is at odds with modern biblical scholarship. It attempts to read back into biblical texts, in my opinion anachronistically, later rabbinic customs and practices. Thank you for the comment.




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