A Critical Commentary

All Scripture is inspired by God and beneficial for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness;  2 Timothy 3:16  NASB

Inspired – Thanks to centuries of Christian theological exposition, “inspired” today has the overtones of “certain,” “truthful,” and “definite.”  This verse from Paul’s letter to Timothy convinces most Christian conservatives that God oversees the entire process of Scripture so that nothing “human” interferes with His message.  But textual exploration and historical analysis doesn’t support this dogma.  As a counterpoint, I would like to offer the remarks of Robert Alter in his introduction to the translation of Genesis.  It seems to me that his approach and understanding of the text is far closer to the original authors than the declarations of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and contemporary fundamentalists.

Robert Alter

From “Genesis: Introduction” in The Hebrew Bible, Volume 1, The Five Books of Moses

Pages 5-6

The informing assumption of my translation and commentary is that the edited version of Genesis—the so-called redacted text—which has come down to us, though not without certain limited contradictions and disparate elements, has powerful coherence as a literary work, and that this coherence is above all what we need to address as readers. One need not claim that Genesis is a unitary artwork, like, say, a novel by Henry James, in order to grant it integrity as a book. There are other instances of works of art that evolve over the centuries, like the cathedrals of medieval Europe, and are the product of many hands, involving an elaborate process of editing, like some of the greatest Hollywood films. From where we stand, it is difficult to know to what extent the biblical redactors felt free to modify or reshape their inherited sources and to what extent they felt obliged to reproduce them integrally, permitting themselves only an occasional editorial bridge or brief gloss. What seems quite clear, however, is that the redactors had a strong and often subtle sense of thematic and narrative purposefulness in the way they wove together the inherited literary strands, and the notion of some scholars that they were actuated by a mechanical compulsion to incorporate old traditions at all costs is not sustained by a scrutiny of the text, with only a few marginal exceptions.

It is quite apparent that a concept of composite artistry, of literary composition through a collage of textual materials, was generally assumed to be normal procedure in ancient Israelite culture. The technique of collage could come into play at two stages. A writer in the first instance might feel free to introduce into his own narrative, as an integral textual unit, a genealogy, an etiological tale, an ethnographic table, or a vestige of a etiological tale, an ethnographic table, or a vestige of a mythological story, or perhaps to re-create one of the aforementioned without an explicit textual source. Then the redactor, in shaping the final version of the text, could place disparate textual materials at junctures that would give the completed text the thematic definition or the large formal punctuation he sought. I am deeply convinced that conventional biblical scholarship has been trigger-happy in using the arsenal of text-critical categories, proclaiming contradiction wherever there is the slightest internal tension in the text, seeing every repetition as evidence of a duplication of sources, everywhere tuning in to the static of transmission, not to the complex music of the redacted story.

The reader will consequently discover that this commentary refers only occasionally and obliquely to the source analysis of Genesis. For even where such analysis may be convincing, it seems to me a good deal less interesting than the subtle workings of the literary whole represented by the redacted text. As an attentive reader of other works of narrative literature, I have kept in mind that there are many kinds of ambiguity and contradiction, and abundant varieties of repetition, that are entirely purposeful, and that are essential features of the distinctive vehicle of literary experience. I have constantly sought, in both the translation and the commentary, to make this biblical text accessible as a book to be read, which is surely what was intended by its authors and redactors. To that end, I discovered that some of the medieval Hebrew commentators were often more helpful than nearly all the modern ones, with their predominantly text-critical and historical concerns. Rashi (acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Itsḥaqi, 1040–1105, France) and Abraham ibn Ezra (1092–1167, traveled from Spain to Italy, France, and England) are the most often cited here; they are two of the great readers of the Middle Ages, and there is still much we can learn from them.

Are you able to set aside the mechanical dictation view of plenary inspiration?  Can you live with a divine/human interaction and evolving development of the Bible?  Does the text need to be absolutely certain in order to be inspired?

Topical Index: inspired, redaction, literature, art, Robert Alter, Genesis, 2 Timothy 3:16

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Richard Bridgan

Yes, I can live with it… even when the text is hard to hear and difficult to understand and does not fit within my paradigmatic notions of linguistic items that form mutually exclusive choices… the Spirit is the one who gives life; the flesh profits nothing! (The words He has spoken to me… the testimony and witness of the text… are spirit and are life.)

“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105)

Derek Satz

I’ve typed and deleted my response about 4x now. I guess my question is, “what is it to be inspired?”. Naturally I know that, that is what this post is about. But I’m not even sure what that means to me anymore. I can make a claim that I am inspired, but I’m getting the feeling that Hebrew thought is different then mine when it comes to inspiration. Furthermore, is it that it’s binary, the Bible is inspired therefore no other religious book can be inspired? And maybe I’ll just leave it at that before retyping the comment once again. (For those in the states, have a restful holiday).

Derek Satz

Thanks for the reply. I had to reread this comment quite a few times. I find this very profound and something to chew on.