A Commentary on Commentary
As I studied the essays of Francis Watson and Elliot Wolfson, I was particularly struck by their mutually enlightening approach to the relationship between plurality and truth in interpretation. Wolfson’s essay also gives an account of the relationship between the particular and the universal in Jewish thought and interpretation of Torah. In the process, Wolfson addresses the different ways that Jews, Muslims, and Christians have understood Abraham, and hints at what this means for the relationship among the three faiths.
In part one, I comment on a small part of the original Biblical passage, highlighting issues, some raised by Wolfson, which I believe are valuable to explore in the context of dialog among the three Biblical faiths. In part two, I explore and comment on how Watson and Wolfson address theological and philosophical issues related to interpretation of scripture, and explore issues raised by Wolfson’s discussion of the particular and the universal. In Part Three, I return to the original texts, and comment on them in light of Watson and Wolfson’s illuminating commentary.
A Commentary on Genesis 18:17-19
“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing? [a literal translation, NRSV translates “what I am about to do”] Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation and in him will be blessed all the peoples of the earth. For I recognize/acknowledge him [most literally “know him”] so that he will command his sons and his household after him and they will keep the way of the LORD to do tzedakah and mishpat [righteousness and justice] so that the LORD will bring upon Abraham what he has said to him.”
“what I am doing” The text might have plainly read “what I intend to do” or “what I will do” but chose an ambiguous locution. Does this mean to imply that God, knowing that there were no righteous men in Sodom, was certain He (for in this story God is surely male) would destroy Sodom but considered it important to share the news with Abraham? Perhaps having Abraham argue with him was part of God’s plan also.
“And in him will be blessed all the peoples of the earth.” The precise meaning of this, as Elliot Wolfson points out, is a point of juncture and separation among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Sages see Abraham as Jewish, and indeed sometimes state he observed every commandment later given on Sinai. Wolfson writes, “In his effort to obtain from God an assurance that no innocent man would be punished [in Sodom], Abraham stands typologically for the Israelite (and, by extension, the Jew) who must protect the way of God by seeking justice in the world. Deeply embedded in the biblical and post-biblical Judaic view is the exclusive ascription of this moral responsibility to the Jew who belongs to the concrete people of Israel, and not merely a Jew in spirit.”
Paul, in contrast, acutely conscious of and trying to overcome a dichotomy between Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus as savior and messiah, writes that Abraham “received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised . . . and likewise of the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he as circumcised” (Romans 4:11-12 NRSV). Note that Paul here, not surprisingly for someone with a Jewish education, agrees with later Jewish commentators that Abraham is Jewish and likewise agrees that the significance of circumcision is of crucial importance. Paul however, changes circumcision from a “sign of the covenant” to merely a “seal of righteousness,” not a sacrament, something intrinsically connected to God’s commanding grace, but only a relatively extrinsic recognition of an inner righteousness manifest by responding in faith to God’s promise.
Wolfson’s description of how a passage in the Qur’an views Abraham is even more clearly universalizing than Paul’s view, in that it starts with the assumption that Abraham is not specifically Jewish, but rather a person of pure faith in God. Wolfson quotes: “In one context, it says explicitly that Abraham was not a Jew or a Christian, but an upright man who bowed his will to Allah, hanifan musliman, the paradigm for those who embrace the religion (din ) of Islam (3:67).”
Though the theological and exegetical moves are different, both Christianity and (it seems) Islam, seek to appropriate Abraham’s faith and virtue for all who follow their respective faiths, possibly – or possibly not – considering him also in some sense the ancestor of the Jewish people in their relationship to God. Since Abraham is seen so differently, it becomes a pressing question just how he can actually be seen as a figure who unites the three faiths, and remains uncertain how a dialog can best speak of him without either engaging in old-fashioned polemic or giving up on what Wolfson calls “discerning the otherness of the self.”
“For I recognize/acknowledge him [most literally “know him”] so that he will command his sons and his household after him . . .” This is one of the key lines in the text, and I was surprised that Genesis Rabbah doesn’t comment on it (they devote their attention to the meaning of “righteousness and justice”.) We will return to this later, but for now suffice it to say that there is fertile difficulty in the idea that God “knows/recognizes/acknowledges” Abraham so that (lema’an asher ) he will command his sons and his household after him (household connoting perhaps later descendants, perhaps non-Israelites like Eliezer who serve or ally with Israelites; in the idiom of Rabbinic midrash it implies women) to keep the way of the LORD.”
“and they will keep the way of the LORD to do tzedakah and mishpat ” ” Tzedakah ,” which in modern Hebrew often means something close to “charity” in practice if not in inner sense, in the Hebrew Bible usually means righteousness, often God’s or the king’s righteousness, or justice, often carrying connotations of ethical behavior and vindication of the innocent or worthy. Mishpat means justice in a more narrowly judicial sense. Other contexts in which the pair of words are found together are generally poetic, in Psalms and Proverbs for example. Proverbs 21:3 reads “To do righteousness and justice is preferable to the LORD over sacrifice.”
“they will keep the way of the LORD to do tzedakah and mishpat so that the LORD will bring upon Abraham what he has said to him.” Here we have another “so that.” This one has a Deuteronomist feeling to it–does it mean that all the promises of God (especially perhaps the inheritance of the land) may be conditional on the sons and household of Abraham keeping the way of the LORD by “doing righteousness and justice”? Certainly, there is a chain of causation here: God acknowledges/recognizes Abraham so that Abraham commands (or “charges” NRSV) his people (sons and household) to keep the way of the LORD so that S/He will bring upon Abraham what S/He said to him.
Commentary on Commentary (all italics used are my own)
Watson: “These four readings – Justin and Augustine, Calvin and Gunkel all exemplify the curious interdependence of interpretative insight and blindness. ”
Wolfson: “Beyond the literal boundaries of the scriptural canon, every word has divine potentiality insofar as it may be renewed in dialogue with the other. The otherness of the other imbues language with the capacity for renewal. . . . The originality of hearing-again is predicated on the recognition that every reading has the potential to be new and, consequently, the writing of a text is never complete for in each moment both the substance of text and reader is refashioned.”
The question that motivates this commentary is whether these statements contradict one another. Can one have “interpretive blindness” if “in each moment the substance of text and reader is refashioned”? Perhaps the answer to the question lies in the significance of dialogue with the other. A person interpreting on her own can suffer from interpretive blindness, but “in dialogue with the other” “every word has divine potentiality.” But what if both I and the other with whom I am in dialogue are fundamentally blind on certain issues, because we are bound by the pre-suppositions of our time or simply foolish or ill informed? Furthermore, can “divine potentiality” co-exist with human blindness, black fire on on white fire contained in vessels of clay?
Also, who is the “other”? Another living person, of our faith, or another faith? Can a text be “the other”? Can God be “the Other”? And if so – who would presume to claim to read in dialogue with God, and who would dare to do a religiously significant interpretation of scripture without reading in dialogue with God?
Watson : ” The diversity of Christian readings of this text should not be seen as demonstrating that meaning is irreducibly plural , being determined by the interests of interpreters and the communities they serve. Neither Calvin nor Augustine would have understood their differences in this way, which would for them have deprived the scriptural word of its divine authority, as well as radically individualizing the work of the interpreter.
Wolfson : “. . the belief that each moment of time is entirely different from what preceded it, can be appreciated only if we heed the fact that in Cordovero’s theosophical metaphysics temporality bespeaks the comportment of the divine impulse, the unnamable Ein-Sof that appears through the veil of the name YHWH. Cordovero relates this quality of time to the hermeneutical possibility of new interpretations of Torah: There are always new meanings to be elicited from Torah since the latter manifests the infinite light that is seen through a speculum of seemingly endless obfuscations.
Does the fact that “there are always new meanings to be elicited from Torah” amount to what Watson writes is the error of concluding that “meaning is irreducibly plural.”? No, because the irreducible plurality of reading to which Watson refers is generated by the human interests of interpreters and communities, whereas Wolfson speaks of the potentially infinite meanings of Torah generated because of the Torah’s manifestation of “the infinite light that is seen through a speculum of seemingly endless obfuscations.”
Does this mean that Wolfson sees all readings as equally attentive to the refracted divine light? Obviously not, or he would not argue so convincingly for the Jewish reading of Abraham as ancestor of Judaism in all its particularity.
Wolfson: ” . . . the matter of divine justice from the perspective of the biblical text and the rabbinic tradition that evolved therefrom cannot be separated from the covenantal bond of circumcision. To anticipate the later discussion, there can be no divine justice in the absence of a righteous vessel in the world, and the righteousness of that vessel is dependent on the hallowing potency of circumcision. ”
Perhaps because I practice the Christian faith, perhaps because I’m a woman, this emphasis on circumcision as that which hallows “the righteousness of the vessel” seems exaggerated. Certainly there are Rabbinic and later Jewish texts that thus describe the covenant inscribed on male Jewish bodies. All the ritual and ethical mitzvot (“commandments”), however, are ordained by God, a sign of covenant, and a path of sanctification for the Jewish body and mind. Furthermore, circumcision, undoubtedly a formidable challenge for an adult man without anesthesia, is less difficult to perform on a baby, and seems to be less painful too.
The most important part of Wolfson’s passage, though, is this, “there can be no divine justice in the absence of a righteous vessel in the world.” This, I believe, is true. The fundamental distinction between the here-and-now and the messianic End Time is that then God will administer justice in person, so to speak. Now, people, called servants of God, children of God, vice regents or friends of God, are God’s vessels and agents as individuals and communities.
Even insofar as Christians and Muslims speak the language of universality, we recognize our own particularity whenever we come together recognizing that Muslim, Christian or Jewish dialogue partners have a living bond with God and unique ways of understanding of God (even if we may still consider other faiths less perfect than our own). Thus in the dialogue of scriptural reasoning, and in other dialogues, some of the ways in which Judaism has historically handled the tension between universalism and particularity may prove valuable to Christian (and perhaps Muslim) thinking.
Watson: “To what extent is Gunkel’s still a recognizably ‘Christian’ reading of Genesis 18?”
Wolfson: “When one undertakes to read the eighteenth chapter of Genesis in conjunction with the seventeenth chapter, the approach adopted by rabbinic interpreters through the ages, then what emerges most manifestly is a tension between the universal and the particular . In his effort to obtain from God an assurance that no innocent man would be punished, Abraham stands typologically for the Israelite (and, by extension, the Jew) who must protect the way of God by seeking justice in the world. Deeply embedded in the biblical and post-biblical Judaic view is the exclusive ascription of this moral responsibility to the Jew who belongs to the concrete people of Israel, and not merely a Jew in spirit .”
Gunkel’s reading of Genesis 18 is still a recognizably ‘Christian’ (and modernist) reading of Genesis 18, because it is a universalizing, individualizing, and theological reading. Gunkel recognizes the myth of the divine-human encounter as myth, but also claims it as universal myth, common to both Greeks and Israelites. It is an individualizing interpretation because he believes the myth’s most ancient core refers only to the birth of a son rather than to the establishment of a tribe or people. Furthermore, Gunkel sees the transmission and redaction of the myth as a process involving increased monotheism (which he presumably applauds), and does not recognize that it also involves developing or increasing the theme of Abraham as father to the Israelite tribes.
With apologies for perhaps reading too much into a single word, I quote Wolfson: “embedded in the biblical and post-biblical Judaic view is the exclusive ascription of this moral responsibility to the Jew who belongs to the concrete people of Israel.” This could imply that moral responsibility for the peoples of the world is a Jewish preserve. I do not think that Elliot Wolfson believes this, but I do think that historically many Jewish thinkers have done so. The Kabbalistic notion that there are uniquely “Jewish souls” originally came with the idea that “Gentile souls” are less fully connected to the divine. It is clear from his complex summation of the relationship between universal and particular that Wolfson speaks universally of the ethical mandates incumbent on all people, but he does not here explicitly address this dark aspect of the Jewish understanding of particularity, as he does in parts of his middle section on circumcision.
Realistically, the world is in trouble if only Jewish children of Abraham seek for righteousness and justice, because there are so few Jews in comparison to Muslims and Christians. On the last page of his paper, Wolfson writes, “The ethical mandate thus embodies the paradox of novelty and repetition that I discussed above in conjunction with hermeneutics and temporality.” The paradox of novelty and repetition fundamentally refers back to the nature of the relationship between God and the world, between God as universal and utterly transcendent, and God as indwelling in the particulars of manifestation, including the Torah. Is there any way to see God as both the Ultimate – called in mystical Judaism the Ein Sof , the Without End – and also as “God of Moses,” and “God of (and in) Jesus,” and “God of Mohammed (peace be upon him),” without contradiction?
Return to Commentary on Genesis 18:17-19
“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing? Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation and in him will be blessed all the peoples of the earth. For I recognize/acknowledge him [most literally “know him”] so that he will command his sons and his household after him and they will keep the way of the LORD to do righteousness and justice so that the LORD will bring upon Abraham what he has said to him.”
“in him will be blessed all the peoples of the earth.” Here is the essence of the question of universality and particularity faced by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, internally and in relationship to one another. Christianity and Islam also have similar promises made by God about Jesus or Mohammed (peace be upon him), as final savior or final prophet. How do these promises apply to the non-Muslim and non-Christian world; must one become a believr to take advantage of them? Paul says that Abraham’s blessing to the peoples of the earth comes because he is the ancestor of Christ, and in general later Christian and Muslim commentators seem to emphasize Abraham as the father of faith, at least legendarily the originator of a correct relationship with God. Judaism, in contrast, often emphasizes Abraham’s actions, and those of his descendants, in doing righteousness and justice. With addition of this Jewish perspective, Abraham acquires more potential as a unifying force among the three faiths. Their theology and rituals differ, but they share basic moral standards they can agree on. And certainly if God’s blessing is to be enacted in the world as we know it, particular human beings, and human communities, must be those who do so.
“For I recognize/acknowledge him so that he will command his sons and his household after him and they will keep the way of the LORD.” That which enables human beings to keep the way of God is that God acknowledges them. This is perhaps the most basic thing that one person can do for another, acknowledging him or her as a separate being, with her own experiences and emotions and desires. Refraining from harm or seeking to benefit follow from this recognition of “the other.” When one sees the other as an independent consciousness, one also becomes open to being influenced by that person. God, having recognized Abraham, realizes H/She must be open to hearing Abraham’s response, perhaps even to changing His course of action.
Studying scripture is, for Muslims, Jews and Christians, a way to encounter God. In the sacred text, we do not merely meet God: God meets us. God acknowledges us in the particularity of our different scriptures and religious traditions. To experiencebeyond fear and narrow self-seeking, and to become open to partnership plan.
“he will command his sons and his household after him and they will keep the way of the LORD to do righteousness and justice.” Wolfson writes, “On this point Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in their scriptural foundations . . . are in agreement: God’s justice cannot be conceived without assuming a system of reward and punishment. Judgment, in the end, must be judged an expression of mercy.” God’s justice, and its associated reward and punishment, is not popular with many of us modern and post-modern types. Belief that one acts in harmony with divine justice seems to be too often associated with self-righteous condemnation of others, even with violence and a thirst for revenge. As we see in Afghanistan, the technology of modern warfare makes mockery of Muslim and Christian just war theologies, which emphasize that non-combatants are to be protected from harm. Nor can one forget that warfare of all periods has killed countless young soldiers, and harmed and killed countless defenseless people, who lacked any personal responsibility for their tribe’s or nation’s battle.
Yet today, as always, individuals and states do great harm, and how can they be rightly confronted by focusing only on the suffering of victims and survivors, without calling those who do harm to justice – and if necessary bringing them to justice? “Righteousness and justice” is the Biblical phrase. Human righteousness , tzedakah , is both individual and collective, and encompasses care for those in trouble or need. Justice, mishpat , is collective and social, administered through courts of law and other public institutions. Both are necessary for the right functioning of society and for the liberty and peace of individuals and families. Democracy is a form a government particularly vulnerable to lack of public justice, whether by violence or corruption. So righteousness and justice must be sought, and more intensely sought the more we renounce narrow condemnation and seek to use the least possible physical force. Though the ethical monotheisms have been used to justify the worst possible understandings of righteousness, they have also inspired the most self-forgetful and life-affirming champions of justice.
“and they will keep the way of the LORD to do righteousness and justice so that the LORD will bring upon Abraham what he has said to him.” One can read this as implying a threatened punishment for non-compliance, but one can also read it as simple fact. Only if and in as far as the faiths who claim Abraham/Ibrahim as father can “keep the way of the LORD” today will believers, and all people, today experience the security that God has promised. All who claim the sanction of holy war, and all who falsely claim that every member of another faith is embarked on holy war – and thus refuse to acknowledge people of that faith as human others – stray from the way of God, and have allied themselves with forces of violence. Righteousness and justice are both necessary in this world, but human understandings of justice must be transformed by the guidance of God’s righteousness.
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