The last three weeks of the course will address the narrative portions of the Law of Moses. Ancient and modern interpreters agree that the Law of Moses includes the less obviously legal narratives in Genesis. They disagree on exactly how the narratives are relevant. Perhaps they teach legal and moral norms in a slightly less direct genre. Perhaps they teach the need for law by illustrating lawlessness. Perhaps they relate etiologies of legal (and other social) norms. One scholar even believes the legal collections were written in response to the narratives.
Start with the basic scholarly overview in Collins. In principle, it also seems to me that reading the chapter on the Exodus from Egypt would also be a wholesome part of a course on the Law of Moses, even if we will not get to the Moses narratives.
The Abraham stories are familiar, perhaps too familiar. Make an effort to read Genesis 12–23, especially 12 and 22, with fresh eyes. Although we may touch on several areas of the Abraham narratives, we will focus on Abraham’s election in Genesis 12 and the near sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22.
Although the father of the chosen people is not singled out until two generations later, Abraham’s election by God serves as a charter for the nation and its understanding of its relationship with God and neighbors. Among the issues interpreters sought to address was, “Why Abraham?”
The binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 will be a good opportunity illustrate the different approaches of pre-modern, modern, and post-modern interpreters. Recall what Collins said about Genesis 22 (pp. 50–51 in the 2007 edition, 57–58 in the 2014 edition), especially Exodus 22:28–29, Judges 11, and Ezekiel 20:25–26. Pre-modern interpreters are well represented in the readings from Kugel. Post-modern interpreters will ask questions that probably would not have occurred to the ancients, such as what if Sarah had been the one asked to sacrifice Isaac, and did Abraham pass the test?
Again Kugel gives a nice sampling of premodern interpretation organized around some key questions and motifs.
Read the Introduction on pages 1–5. The additional pages of the Reader will come in handy later.
Jubilees exemplifies reading Genesis as law. According to Jubilees, the patriarchs followed the law long before Moses on Mount Sinai, which was really just a renewal of a much older covenant and law. On rare occasions, Jubilees sometimes has to admit that particular laws did not apply to the patriarchs because they were not yet revealed. Even so, the entire law, including the election of Jacob, was written on the heavenly tablets from the beginning of creation. This introduction to Jubilees should tell you what you need to know about the book and its historical context.
Also skim through the rest of the Abraham cycle, Jubilees 11–23 (PDF)
Dershowitz is a high-profile attorney and faculty at Harvard Law School. This book is written for a popular audience, not legal or biblical students, but it does hit on the theme of the course of thinking about the Law of Moses from a legal perspective today. Although Dershowitz makes frequent reference to premodern interpretations (Midrash), this book is a good example of post-modern interpretation. This is perhaps most explicit when he says, “Let me offer an interpretation from the perspective of a teacher of law.” He differs from modern interpretation in the principle that he is speaking from his own perspective, and his own context. He is not claiming to give the one true meaning intended by the original author. He makes no reference to the ancient world outside the narrative, to Hammurabi, archaeology, source criticism, etc. He is embracing his perspective from the Jewish tradition and the legal profession, rather than striving for neutrality or objectivity. He is concerned with what the stories mean for readers today. Sometimes post-modern can resemble premodern (in not being modern), but the key differences are that he does not assume that Abraham and Jacob are perfect, or even that the story is perfect in accurately conveying a view of a just world. It is fairly common in post-modern interpretation to speak only in the world of the narrative, not the history of its composition. Thus, Abraham and Jacob are “before” Deuteronomy in the sense of appearing first in the narrative or first in the canonical sequence of books, whereas modern interpreters go nuts trying to figure out how much of the narrative material in Genesis existed before the composition of Deuteronomy in the 7th century BCE. Often post-modern interpretation is written from a particular social context with an eye to how the text can be liberating or oppressive to people in that context, such as feminist, womanist, African, African-American, south east Asian, post-colonial, Latino/Latina, etc. Although post-modern interpretation often rejects the assumption that you have to know Hebrew to say anything about the Bible, I don’t want to give the impression that post-modern interpretation is inherently as “popular” as Dershowitz.
And Abraham awoke in the middle of the night and said to his only son, Isaac, “I have had a dream where the voice of the Lord sayeth that I must sacrifice my only son, so put your pants on.” And Isaac trembled and said, “So what did you say? I mean when He brought this whole thing up?”
“What am I going to say?” Abraham said. “I’m standing there at two A.M. I’m in my underwear with the Creator of the Universe. Should I argue?”
“Well, did he say why he wants me sacrificed?” Isaac asked his father.
But Abraham said, “The faithful do not question. Now let’s go because I have a heavy day tomorrow.”
And Sarah who heard Abraham’s plan grew vexed and said, “How doth thou know it was the Lord and not, say, thy friend who loveth practical jokes, for the Lord hateth practical jokes and whosoever shall pull one shall be delivered into the hands of his enemies whether they pay the delivery charge or not.” And Abraham answered, “Because I know it was the Lord. It was a deep, resonant voice, well modulated, and nobody in the desert can get a rumble in it like that.”
And Sarah said, “And thou art willing to carry out this senseless act?” But Abraham told her, “Frankly yes, for to question the Lord’s word is one of the worst things a person can do, particularly with the economy in the state it’s in.”
And so he took Isaac to a certain place and prepared to sacrifice him but at the last minute the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand and said, “How could thou doest such a thing?”
And Abraham said, “But thou said ——”
“Never mind what I said,” the Lord spake. “Doth thou listen to every crazy idea that comes thy way?” And Abraham grew ashamed. “Er - not really … no.”
“I jokingly suggest thou sacrifice Isaac and thou immediately runs out to do it.”
And Abraham fell to his knees, “See, I never know when you’re kidding.”
And the Lord thundered, “No sense of humor. I can’t believe it.”
“But doth this not prove I love thee, that I was willing to donate mine only son on thy whim?”
And the Lord said, “It proves that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice.”
And with that, the Lord bid Abraham get some rest and check with him tomorrow.