08/28/2012 07:58 am ET | Updated Oct 28, 2012

Reading the Bible as Reason Not Revelation

Revelation is frequently defined in opposition to reason: Reason is the natural exercise of human mental capacities in search of knowledge; revelation is when we bypass these faculties and gain knowledge by way of a miracle. Since at least the time of the Church Fathers, it's been argued that just this is what distinguishes the Bible from the works of philosophers such Plato or Hobbes.

A case can be made that this distinction between reason and revelation is already present in the New Testament. But it's hard to say this about the Hebrew Bible (or "Old Testament"), which was composed centuries earlier, at a time when human wisdom and insight were everywhere understood to be the gift of a god.

The Israelite prophet Jeremiah, for example, contemplates the destruction of Jerusalem and asks: "Who is the man so wise that he can understand this, and to whom the word of Lord has spoken that he may explain it?" In this passage, Jeremiah writes as though being wise and having God speak to you are the same thing. Isaiah, too, says of a future king in Israel: "The spirit of the Lord will rest upon him: The spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of good counsel" -- as if having God's spirit rest on you is the same as having wisdom, understanding and good counsel.

This seeming inability to distinguish human wisdom and insight from hearing divine speech is not a feature of Hebrew Scripture alone. We see much the same thing among the philosophers of pre-Socratic Greece. Parmenides, writing about 130 years after Jeremiah, says everything he knows about the creation of the world, proper belief and right living was taught to him by a goddess during a visit to her palace in the sky. Empedocles, too, tells us his philosophy depends on the goddess Calliopeia, who "sends" him what is fitting for men to hear in a chariot from on high.

Why are revelatory works by Parmenides and Empedocles taught and studied as "reason," whereas the views of Isaiah and Jeremiah on ethics, politics, and the nature of truth and knowledge are excluded from respectable discussion of these subjects? Different reasons can be explored, but in the end the supposition that Parmenides was an epoch-making thinker while Jeremiah was a half-mad street preacher hearing voices in the air (instead of other way around) will be found to rest on bare prejudice.

Consider some of the issues the biblical narratives were written to address:

1. The biblical book Judges mounts an extended critique of political anarchy. It advances the argument that without a centralized state to defend the people from foreign oppression and judge their disputes, each generation will become "more corrupt than their fathers" until they descend into a war of all against all. This is presented as the moral justification for the establishment of a king and standing armies in the book of Samuel.

2. The Mosaic law in Deuteronomy forbids the king from accumulating great armies, harems and gold, "so that his thoughts not be lifted above his brothers." In the book of Kings, we are presented with an argument in support of this conclusion: The narrative suggests that the burdens of taxation and forced labor imposed by Solomon -- so that he can build large armies, harems and palaces -- cause the mutiny that tears the kingdom into two and ultimately brings about its destruction. On this view, the longevity of the state depends on the king's ability to limit the burdens imposed on the people by the state.

3. The biblical narrative takes stands on ethical issues such as the tension between loyalty to one's superiors and moral rectitude, a central theme in the Joseph story in Genesis. Joseph is the most loyal of Jacob's sons and the most eager to be of service. But what at first seems to be an unalloyed virtue goes terribly wrong when Joseph becomes a no less devoted servant of Pharaoh. Indeed, the narrative blames the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt on Joseph's hesitation to offend the tyrant he serves - -a moral failing later remedied by Moses, who has no such qualms.

One may disagree with the conclusions of the biblical authors concerning anarchy, limited government or the virtue of loyalty. But the presentation of the biblical authors' views on these and countless other subjects constitute perfectly good examples of the exercise of reason. No belief in the revealed character of the biblical texts is required to follow the argument and perhaps even to be persuaded by it. Reading the Hebrew Scriptures as reason rather than revelation, we find a book entirely different from the one many people are taught to expect. Once approached in this light, we may never read the Bible the same way again.

Yoram Hazony is author of 'The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture,' just released by Cambridge University Press.