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December 24, 2012 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayehi

In this week’s portion (the last of Genesis), Jacob engages in a kind of last will (Gen. 49) making prophecies about his children and their descendants.

Sarna writes: “Medieval scholarship has added almost nothing to the great variety of medieval exegesis in its attempt to unravel the historic background of the sayings, except that the medievals treated these as prophetic, whereas the moderns would be generally inclined to view them as retrojections from later historical reality.”

This distinction is an interesting example of how your assumptions can affect your interpretation of the Torah.   Both traditional and secular scholars assume that Gen. 49 somehow reflects historical reality (and given how little archaeology tells us about the individual tribes, we don’t really have an alternative do we?)

Traditional Jewish scholars make the additional assumption that the Torah is true.  So if Jacob says X about  what the descendants of Zebulun or Isaachar do X hundreds of years later, he must have actually said X.  (Though Gen. 49 is sufficiently ambiguous that they might disagree about what X means).

Secular scholars assume that prophecy doesn’t happen.  So even if they believe X is true, they infer that the Gen. 49 discussion of X was generated when or after X actually happened (usually during the period of the Judges, since that’s when the Tanach discusses the tribes the most; after the founding of the monarchy, the Tanach is  more focused on Judah and Ephraim because that’s where kings came from).

Similarly, the dispute over the Documentary Hypothesis is all about assumptions.  If you assume the Torah is Divine, inconsistencies can always be explained away – after all, where is it written that God can’t say things that are ambiguous or seemingly inconsistent?  If you assume that God is incapable of being ambiguous or inconsistent, then you either have to (1) be much more aggressive in waterboarding the text to make it seem more consistent or (2) decide that the Torah was written by many humans over a period of centuries.

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One Comment

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  1. Shira Salamone / Dec 28 2012 10:56 am

    You have at least one regular reader–I’ve been linking to your divrei Torah in my parshah posts almost every week, including this one. I’m a Documentary Hypothesis partisan, myself.

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