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Torah and Canon: Changing How We See the Bible

Friday, December 12, 2008

Torah and Canon by James A. SandersThis is a short book review I did for my old testament class in grad school on James A. Sanders’ book Torah and Canon: Second Edition.

James A. Sanders argues that in order to truly understand the power of the Tanakh and to fully appreciate its value in our modern day society we must use exegesis and especially hermeneutics in order to:

break out of the ‘boxes and circles’ in which as humans we find ourselves so that we can recover the excitement and power of reading the Bible on its own terms…Using the tools of Enlightenment helps the reader to be aware of and put her or his ‘boxes and circles’ in check while probing the amazing depths of this powerful literature…(Sanders, xxxi)

Once we can read “the Bible on its own terms” we are then able to liberate ourselves in order to make the Tanakh our own and make it relevant to our present day society all while keeping it mind the Tanakh’s past and the multiple interpretations that have arisen from it over the centuries in Christian and Jewish communities.  Sanders makes this clear in his interpretation of the Job story and of God rebuking Job’s friends when they used the Torah and other past stories of God’s actions (rightly) to interpret what God was doing to Job in the present:

The meaning of the enigmatic response by God should be seen as…[w]hat worked well to explain the mighty acts of God in the earlier history of Israel and Judah cannot simply be applied to the new situation of individual worth and responsibility; the old must be re-signified and adapted to the new context. (128)

To help illustrate this point within the book he lays it out by (1) explaining the shape of the Torah and what is in it and how it was redacted and edited over time, (2) then he goes over the shape and meaning of prophecy and how the prophets reshaped their meaning of Torah, and (3) by explaining how the writers and editors of “the Writings,” wisdom literature, and the stories of Job and the Chronicles helped reinterpret the meaning of the Torah for the communities they were speaking to in order to give answers to the tough questions those communities sought (especially after the destruction of Israel and latter Judah).

While there are certain instances where I think Sanders may stretch the actual historical authority of the Tanakh a little to far, such as when he describes Josiah tearing his cloths as if it was an actual historical event (38), this is but a minor distraction as the main point as the book is not so much a historical account of the events in the Tanakh but rather an account how the Tanakh has interacted with the Jewish and Christian communities over the centuries and in turn how they interacted and readjusted and reinterpreted the Tanakh to fit their own needs.

In this vain Sanders succeeds quite triumphantly, first explaining how the Torah got created and then (more importantly) how subsequent communities saw the Torah in their own context which ended up leading to the other writings within the Tanakh, such as the books of the Prophets and the books of the Writings.

Sanders shows us how the prophets, through their hermeneutical circles and triangles, interpreted the Torah and how they reshaped not only the meaning of the Torah within their historical-social context but of how they reshaped their theology of God by combining “international wisdom thinking with specifically Israelite traditions about Yahweh that nudged the process along.” (90) This in turn lead to charges of blasphemy against the prophets as they were pushing against the perceived notion of what it meant to be Jewish as “[b]lasphemy was often the charge against the prophets who claimed God was bigger than the people and their leaders thought he was.” (91) Not only is that a revolutionary idea for Israel in say, the 8th century BCE, but it is a revolutionary idea for today.

The Writings also show us a new reworking of the Torah tradition as well, especially in the context of wisdom.  For certain Jewish communities in the Diaspora they needed a new context of looking at the Tanakh than had previously been done during the time of the Kingdom of Judah and of exile.  “Whereas for the prophets God was reality, wisdom stressed realism.” (121).

In showing us the fluidity of interpretation of the Tanakh by multiple communities Sanders succeeds in his thesis that the “canon [is] for those who find their identity in their ongoing re-reading of it…” (136)  By looking at the overall literary and historical formation context of the Tanakh we are able to get a more complete picture on the mission and meaning of the Tanakh; to give identity and to be a vehicle for critical thought and exploration.

Compared to the other ways Sanders could have gone with the interpretation method for this book I believe he has done the right thing in choosing canonical criticism (and then some) for the context of showing us the true liberating power of the Tanakh and what the Tanakh can mean for us today and how we can unlock its power to understand our own context better.  Instead of focusing on one structured discipline, such as historical-critical, form, socioeconomic, etc. he has actually giving us the opportunity to actually use what biblical criticism we see fit in order to interpret the Tanakah in our own context.  Sanders lays the groundwork for us in order to surpass him and explain in much more detail what the Tanakh means for us, for our society, for our faith community, and how we can interact with it.

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