A Rabbi Disagreeing with Prophets?

Jacob Neusner, Invitation to Midrash: The Workings of Rabbinic Bible Interpretation (Atlanta: Scholars, 1998) 153.

Leviticus Rabbah dates to the fifth century C.E. Neusner quotes and discusses LR 27:8, which comments on Isaiah 1:3. The quote is as follows:

Said R. Judah b. R. Simon, “It is written, An ox knows its owner, and an ass its master’s crib, but Israel does not know (Is. 1:3). Did they not really know? Rather, they trampled under heel [God’s commandments]. [They did not pay adequate attention and sinned by inadvertence.] Along these same lines: For my people is foolish. Me they have not known (Jer. 4:22). Did they not know? Rather, they trampled under heel. Along these same lines: And she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, wine, and oil (Hos. 2:8). Did she not know? Rather, she trampled under heel.

Neusner comments about this passage: [It] carries forward the view that the prophets exaggerated Israel’s guilt, but in fact Israel was not sinning at all. It is not that they were worse than beasts but rather that they paid no attention and so sinned through inadvertence.

At first, Neusner’s interpretation made no sense to me. The passage seemed to me to be saying this: the prophets say that Israel is foolish and does not know God, but that’s not the case, for Israel breaks God’s commandments willfully, knowingly, and defiantly. As far as I could see, the passage was saying that the prophets downplayed Israel’s sins, making Israel appear better than she actually was. But Neusner says the opposite: the Leviticus Rabbah passage exaggerates Israel’s sin and makes her look worse than she really was.

Neusner’s interpretation makes sense in light of the context. The previous two passages in Leviticus Rabbah 27:8 say that God has forgotten Israel’s sin with the Golden Calf, and that the true Israelites were not responsible for the sin, for the proselytes of the mixed multitude (Exodus 12:38) were the ones who made and worshiped the calf. Since the first two passages in Leviticus 27:8 try to encourage Israel and portray her in a positive light, it would make sense that the third passage does so as well.

I checked my Judaic Classics Library, and it offers the following note: They trampled upon God’s commandment by not protesting but permitting these proselytes to make the Calf, though they did not actually take part in it themselves (Radal, ‘E.J.).

What I get is this: the third passage is saying that the Israelites were not foolish like beasts, for they definitely knew God. But they trampled God’s commandments through their weakness and cowardice in not confronting the Gentile worshipers of the Golden Calf. So the prophets made Israel look worse than she really was.

It’s interesting that this rabbinic passage actually disagrees with the prophetical writings. This corresponds with a post I wrote a few days ago, More or Less Authoritative, in which I say (based upon things I’ve read and heard) that the rabbis believed the Torah was more authoritative than the Prophets and the Writings. I recently asked a professor how the rabbis reconciled Deuteronomy 23’s exclusion of certain people from the LORD’s congregation with Isaiah 56’s picture of God’s temple being a house of prayer for all people (including eunuchs, whom Deuteronomy 23 barred). He replied that he couldn’t recall a passage in which they did attempt to reconcile them, for their focus was mostly on defining the terms of Deuteronomy 23, even though they did seek to harmonize the inclusion of Ruth the Moabitess with Deuteronomy. I vaguely recall him saying that the rabbis didn’t take Isaiah 56 all that seriously.

At the same time, the rabbis did cite scriptures from the Prophets and the Writings in their attempt to interpret the Torah. Were there different rabbinic viewpoints on the authority of the non-Pentateuchal portions of Scripture, or was their position nuanced?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Bible, Rabbinics, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.