I’m continuing my way through Uriel Simon’s Four Approaches to the Book of Psalms: From Saadiah Gaon to Abraham Ibn Ezra. Today, I read the rest of Simon’s chapter on Abraham Ibn Ezra. In this post, I have three items.
1. On pages 202-203, Simon talks about Ibn Ezra’s view on studying the Prophets and the Writings. Ibn Ezra believes that they could be useful in illustrating the commandments. For example, in I Samuel 14:32-35, Saul violated Leviticus 19:26’s prohibition on eating flesh with blood, and, in II Kings 14:5-6, Amaziah heeded Deuteronomy 24:16’s rule not to put to death the children of the guilty. Moreover, Ibn Ezra maintains that they can help a person acquire knowledge about the language used in the Torah. And yet, on a certain level, Ibn Ezra disputed the utility of the Prophets and the Writings, for most of their books contain no commandments; they are loaded with geographic, genealogical, and architectural information that is irrelevant to the commandments; and the prophecies are not useful because they either have already been fulfilled, or they are too vague to be interpreted. Simon (as he characterizes Ibn Ezra’s position) then says something that would set a person raised and bred in Bible study (like me) aback: “It is no wonder, then, that the Sages warned against excessive preoccupation with the Scriptures” (page 203).
Simon mentions this discussion within the context of a broader issue concerning Ibn Ezra and the Psalms: Although Ibn Ezra believed that the Psalms were composed under divine inspiration and could relate to future events, such as the Messianic Age, he did not hold that the Psalms contained actual prophecies about future events. Is this a blatant contradiction? Simon does not appear to think so. According to Simon, Ibn Ezra was contending against the Karaites, who treated several Psalms as prophecies about themselves and their own marginalization, or who applied details in the Psalms to specific events that would occur after the time of the Psalmist (i.e., regarding certain figures in Psalm 22 as Christians, or Ishmaelites). While Ibn Ezra thought that the Psalms spoke to future events, he did not believe that they contained specific details about what those future events would be. The Psalms were not in the same category as the Book of Daniel, in short!
According to Simon, Ibn Ezra’s view on the Prophets and the Writings was probably a reaction against claims by the Karaites that Jews had those biblical books to help them interpret the Torah, meaning that they did not need the oral tradition handed down by the rabbis. Like Saadiah, Ibn Ezra wants to uphold rabbinic tradition against a Sola Scriptura sort of crowd (which, eventually, came up with its own traditions to interpret the written Torah).
2. Contra some thinkers, Ibn Ezra did not think that the Psalms were arranged in a chronological or logical order (i.e., Psalm 2 talks about the defeat of David’s foreign enemies, then Psalm 3 concerns God’s defeat of David’s enemy, Absalom). Ibn Ezra believes that Men of the Great Assembly edited the Book of Psalms, but they lacked information about the writers and historical contexts of certain Psalms, explaining why a number of Psalms are anonymous. Simon says that Ibn Ezra probably maintained that the Men of the Great Assembly faithfully passed on the Psalms as they received them, precisely because they kept the tradition in its incomplete form, rather than artificially trying to smooth things over.
3. Page 229 contains an interesting passage, considering the tendency of many rabbis to seek importance in every little detail of Scripture: “Ibn Ezra [tries to] prove that the order of words has no effect on the meaning. This conclusion is compatible with his fundamental understanding that ‘the words are like bodies and the meanings like spirits,’ so that the content does not change when synonyms are substituted for one another, auxiliaries are deleted, or the internal order of the components is modified for some reason…” My impression from this is that Ibn Ezra believed there was a variety of ways to make the same point, and so he did not necessarily stress out trying to understand why a Scriptural passage would be phrased one way, rather than another. But I wouldn’t be surprised if, on some level, he sought to account for why Scripture said what it did, for he was an exegete.