A Tale of Two Tablets

This is recommended reading for those who are keen to learn more about cultural history and take an interest in the roots of biblical criticism, in Assyriology and the historical connection between biblical criticism and anti-Semitism

Yair Hoffman
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Yair Hoffman

"Milhemet Haluhot: Hahagana Alhamikra Bame'a Hatesha Esrei Upulmoos Bavel Vehatenakh" ("The War of the Tablets: The Defense of the Bible in the 19th Century and the Babel-Bible Controversy") by Yaacov Shavit and Mordechai Eran, Am Oved, 305 pages, NIS 84

The Bible and polemics entered our world intertwined on the same day. By its very nature, the Bible is a polemical book. The verse "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" (Genesis 1:1) introduces a story that, in a sophisticated manner, challenges the mythological concepts of the creation of the world that were current among the People of Israel at the time. The last words of the Bible's final verse, "Whoever is there among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him, and let him go up" (2 Chronicles 36:23), taken from the Hebrew version of Cyrus' declaration, adopts an unequivocal stance in the debate over where the Jewish people should live: in its own homeland, and not in the Diaspora. Between the beginning and the end, there are an endless number of polemical challenges at various levels, on a wide range of subjects: idolatry, religious rituals, worship of God, the relationship between ritual and ethics, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of flesh and blood, divine justice, the People of Israel and the nations of the world, and so forth.

In the Bible it might even be possible to identify the buds of the debate over the biblical canon as an unparalleled sacred literary collection: "The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd. And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh" (Ecclesiastes 12:11-12). These closing words were added to the problematic Book of Ecclesiastes to "mend it" sufficiently so that it would be worthy of being incorporated in the Holy Scriptures. The message here is that all the books in the Holy Scriptures, including Ecclesiastes, are from a single shepherd, God ("Because everything is from one God, one agent, everything has been given by one shepherd" - Maimonides' "Guide for the Perplexed"), and that all other books that have been written, are being written or should never be written are nothing but prattle.

Dozens of years after that concluding verse had been added, mishnaic authorities were still hotly debating the issue of the final composition of the biblical canon. Around 90 C.E., Josephus Flavius debates with Appius the issue of the Jewish people's antiquity and the status of the Bible.

Comparing the attitude of the Jews to their Holy Scriptures with that of the Greeks to their sacred books, Josephus points out that "implanted in the hearts of all Jews, from their very first breath, is the belief that these books are the words of God and all Jews undertake to have faith in them, to be willing to joyfully die in order to sanctify them if necessary ... Do any Greeks have such faith in their laws? ... Because they consider their books mere lip service in which the authors went on and on, freely spouting their empty words" (according to the Simhoni translation).

This debate on the Bible was a harbinger of the many that would follow. These anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic debates, which ostensibly based themselves on the Bible, were intended either to delegitimize its moral value and sacred status or to interpret it, as a sacred text, in a manner that sullied the name of Judaism from within its very own sources.

Redeemed from the abyss

This book by Yaacov Shavit and Mordechai Eran transports us to the late 19th and early 20th centuries and presents us with yet another of the many biblical debates - an internal Jewish, internal Christian and, in some respects, a Jewish-Christian debate. At the center stands, Friedrich Delitzsch (1850-1922), one of the most renowned Assyriologists of his time. In the appendix to their book, the authors state that the scholarly research "on works dealing with the reaction of Germany's Jews to modern anti-Semitism and on works about the intellectual history of Germany's Jews" treats this debate as "nothing more than a footnote." The very creation of "The War of the Tablets: The Defense of the Bible in the 19th Century and the Babel-Bible Controversy" challenges the justification behind this assumed marginality and redeems the Delitzsch debate from the oblivion of history's abyss.

A question that should therefore be asked is whether the book is persuasive enough in its claim that the above debate is, in fact, historically important. My answer is a resounding yes. With their detailed depiction of the debate and everything related to it - lectures, articles, satirical theatrical performances, caricatures - the authors skillfully demonstrate that the debate was not simply an intellectual event that caused a storm in its day, but lost all relevance. They have shown that the century that has elapsed since the beginning of that debate has taught us to recognize its typological nature and thus its connection with major events. For the manner in which they have presented their arguments and for having produced the only book in Hebrew that deals with this debate, the authors deserve much credit and gratitude.

Delitzsch delivered two lectures in Berlin, on January 13, 1902 and April 17, 1903, before large audiences of distinguished individuals. The lectures were given under the auspices of the German Oriental Society and under the patronage of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who granted the events the status of something approaching "an official declaration from the Kaiser and the State." The lectures, under the rubric "Bible and Babel," "aroused a storm of controversy ... appeared in several editions and were published in tens of thousands of copies. They were also translated into many languages. Delitzsch estimated that by 1904 he had received responses in 1,350 short articles" and hundreds of other publications in Germany and elsewhere.

In his lectures, Delitzsch stressed the cultural- historical importance of the cultures of Mesopotamia that had only recently been discovered. Mesopotamian writings had been deciphered and some of the early cities of these cultures had been uncovered. He stressed - from the historical standpoint, he was doubtless correct and later research on Mesopotamia has proven this - that the Bible and early Israelite culture cannot be properly understood without the background of the other cultures of the region.

However, underlying his scholarly observations was the undisguised current of anti-Jewish and anti-biblical polemics. He argued that the source of both the biblical perspective and biblical law was Babylon - not Mount Sinai, which was what Moses wrongly claimed, and not the original creative spirit of the Jewish people. Therefore, the source of the cultural influence on Christianity was not Judaism, but "Babel" (for example, the Code of Hammurabi), the code name for the ancient Mesopotamian cultures. As the authors write: "The only element of `racist' ideas in the first lecture was the allusion to the Assyrians' Aryan origin."

Babylonian superiority

Delitzsch praised the superiority of Babylonian culture over biblical culture; attacked biblical prophecy for harboring hatred toward other nations; expressed disgust for Yahweh, the cruel God; and stated that hatred of other nations was deeply rooted in the character of the Semitic peoples (that is, the Jews): "The God of Israel is a god of the sword, a god of wrath, whereas the God of Babylon (and the Christian God) is a compassionate, merciful god." Thus, according to the lecturer, without first liberating oneself from the false picture of the revelation at Sinai and from dependence on the Bible, it would be impossible to promote Christianity.

Such statements aroused harsh criticism even on the part of the Kaiser himself, as the head of the Lutheran Church, because, in trying to undermine the principle of divine revelation, they amounted to an attack on Christianity. In view of the criticism, it was not surprising that the third lecture in the series, which took place in late 1904, was delivered outside Berlin and without the Kaiser's patronage. In this lecture, Delitzsch continued his argument, noting that Jesus, a resident of the Galilee, was perhaps a child born to residents from Mesopotamia who had been exiled by the Assyrians following the defeat of the Samarian kingdom (in 721 B.C.E.); in other words, Jesus was not of pure Semitic descent.

This motif, evident in his book entitled "The Great Deception," which appeared in 1920, developed into the argument that there is a similarity between the Samaritans (who were not Semites) and the Germans. Delitzsch's lectures sparked a wave of protests and the book in question here surveys, in a matter- of-fact way and from a sociological viewpoint, which groups mounted the attack against Delitzsch, who wanted to replace the tablets of the Ten Commandments with the clay tablets of Mesopotamian culture.

The tablet motif, chosen for the title of the book, can be found, perhaps not unintentionally, in a few of its 10 chapters, which are divided into three sections. Section 1 deals with the beginnings of biblical criticism and with Jewish reactions to it. Here the central figure is Julius Wellhausen, the greatest biblical scholar of the 19th century, who established "source criticism" as the primary method in biblical criticism, and championed the philological-historical approach in the study of biblical texts. Section 2 is concerned directly with Delitzsch's lectures and with the controversy over them in German society, while Section 3 surveys Jewish reactions to his lectures and even goes as far afield as Palestine with a brief discussion of biblical scholar Yehezkel Kaufman and Israel's first prime minister David Ben-Gurion as representatives of the "secular historical-biblical fundamentalism" that developed there.

The authors see the "War of the Tablets" as a central theme from the chronological standpoint, in terms of both the cultural background and the reactions that this war aroused. (It is curious that the book makes no mention of another Friedrich - Nietzsche - who made a crucial contribution to the "neo-paganic" thinking in Germany in his day, to which Shavit and Eran frequently refer.) The focus on this "war" makes eminent sense: The intellectual background to it - the highly respected standing that biblical criticism was starting to acquire and the bitter opposition to its conclusions, primarily from Jewish groups (not necessarily Orthodox) - provided the soil in which the Delitzsch polemical debate sprouted and, without knowledge of that background, it is difficult to understand the debate. The reactions to the debate and its later reverberations prove the authors' argument concerning its importance in the cultural history of both Germany and the Jewish world.

Delitzsch's anti-Semitism

Throughout the book, the reader becomes aware of the question that is presented toward the end: Was Delitzsch anti-Semitic? And does the latter part of his life - in "The Great Deception," published two years before his death, he emerges as an "undisguised racist anti-Semite" - attest to the early part, when he harbored anti-Semitic sentiments but did not permit himself to present them explicitly in public? Shavit and Eran provide the reader with opinions by contemporaries of the period on these issues, and offer a hesitating, affirmative answer: "A retrospective reading calls attention to overt and covert anti-Semitic elements, and they can be seen as the nuclei of ideas that matured in later years."

However, Delitzsch's anti-Semitism is far less important than the fundamental question touched on in the book of whether the charge of anti-Semitism can be justifiably applied to any scholar who seeks to discredit the Bible as a sanctified text, as a book containing moral, literary and religious values, and as a historical source. One aspect of this question relates to how one should view biblical criticism in general. The authors offer many examples of Jewish intellectuals, not necessarily Orthodox, who believed that biblical criticism and the denial of the concept that the source of the Bible is divine, were directly linked with anti-Semitism. Nor is this approach limited exclusively to the 19th century.

A second fascinating aspect of the Delitzsch debate is the following question: To what extent do arguments denying the antiquity of the Jewish people, as opposed to the Bible's cultural and religious "primacy" (not necessarily superiority), conceal anti-Semitic sentiments? Granted, these motives can be seen in the words of Appius, who clearly expresses anti-Jewish views; however, even here, we must exercise caution. Today, no biblical scholar - whether "Jewish," "Israeli" or even "Zionist" - would hesitate to point out that foreign cultures influenced the ancient Israelites and their culture, or would feel that stating such a view undermines the primacy of Israelite culture. Nevertheless, we would be burying our heads in the sand if we were to deny that some scholars use biblical criticism to serve a political agenda that may reflect elements of an anti-Israeli and/or anti-Zionist attitude, which, as we know, is sometimes a camouflage for anti-Semitism.

I am referring here to people like Thomas L. Thompson, Niels Peter Lemche, Michael Prior (note, for example, the title of a book written by Keith W. Whitelam that appeared in 1996: "The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History"). In an obvious attempt to deny the primordial nature of the Bible, they date its composition as late as the Hellenistic period and hint that important archaeological finds supporting the historiography's antiquity (for example, the Mesha stele and the Tel Dan inscription) are forgeries. Similarly, they present hollow arguments not backed by any empirical evidence.

It is interesting to note the following: Just as Delitzsch's "biblical" anti-Semitic allusions were harbingers of the appearance of open, crude anti-Semitism in various intellectual circles and elsewhere in society, the anti- Israel and anti-Zionist allusions in late 20th-century European biblical criticism have been harbingers - as we now realize - of the expressions of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist sentiments in Europe today. Apparently, here as in other realms, science is ahead of its time.

`Living with the Bible'

The accolades that "The War of the Tablets" richly deserves - and only some of them have been presented here - cannot conceal certain elements that must be criticized. Here, for symmetry's sake, I will present only some of them.

In the book's first section, the authors make frequent, numerous references to Judaism's "return to the Bible" in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, this is a thoroughly misleading concept that creates the impression that there were periods in history when the Jewish people "lived with the Bible" (to paraphrase the title of Moshe Dayan's book), that the Jews subsequently abandoned it and that they then returned to it with the modern awakening of Jewish nationhood. The truth is that the Jewish people never "lived with the Bible." Before the biblical canon was finalized, in the 1st century C.E., there was no Bible, and thus the Jews could not "live" with it. Even after the Bible's canonization, the rabbinical authorities were involved in the composition of the Mishna and subsequently the Talmud, but never with the Bible, and certainly never with its historical aspects.

In ancient times, in talmudic yeshivas and other houses of religious study in Spain, Germany, Eastern Europe, the Maghreb and other places, Jews studied the Talmud and regularly learned the Pentateuch with Rashi's commentary, but they never studied the rest of the Bible. Thus, with the awakening of Jewish nationalism in the modern period, the Jews had their first encounter with the Bible as a historical document, which was used to provide the foundations for modern Jewish nationalism.

I was troubled by the fact that, in the fascinating discussion of Delitzsch's lectures, there is not even one extended quote, neither in the original German nor in Hebrew translation, from those lectures, which, according to Shavit and Eran, contained acerbic and crude statements. For instance, there is no suitable quotation to illustrate the harsh words appearing in Delitzsch's book, "The Great Deception," although readers are offered a quote from Augustine (in Latin, without any reference that could tell them where the passage is to be found in the original).

A large part of this book consists of the names of scholars, members of the clergy and other personalities, with short and not-so-short references (from primary and, especially, secondary sources) to their position on the subject discussed, a sort of short encyclopedic catalog. Thus, the index of names at the back of the book is of crucial importance. The problem is that it is missing dozens of names, which are referred to in the endnotes, but not in the body of the book (for example, Amit, Ehrlich, Harvey, Parpola, Clifford, D. Strauss and so forth). Readers should be given access to them as well, especially in view of the absence of a comprehensive bibliography at the back of the book - apparently, in keeping with the publishers' policy.

This catalog-encyclopedic phenomenon sometimes leads to a vague, even imprecise, presentation of statements by the scholars. Two examples: At one point, we are given a quote from Assyriologist Fritz Hommel, according to which the study of Assyriology will lead students to understand that "Wellhausean biblical criticism has gone bankrupt." Immediately afterward, readers are offered the opinion of S.R. Driver, one of the greatest biblical scholars of his day, according to which many biblical depictions can only be understood through the light that archaeology sheds on them. In Driver's view, the Israelite author of the biblical text, who was suffused with the divine spirit, drew from one source here and from another there - yet, at the same time, "reworked" the sources under the influence of divine inspiration. The impression that the reader receives is that, like Hommel, Driver believes that Wellhausean biblical criticism "has gone bankrupt," whereas actually, Driver was one of Wellhausen's most devoted disciples.

Praise and flaws

The authors also inform us that Kaufman argued that the the text of the Pentateuch was finalized before the Babylonian exile. However, that is imprecise. According to Kaufman, although all the sources of the Pentateuch were written before the exile, the Pentateuch itself is a product of the "Return to Zion" period, which is also Wellhausen's view (Y. Kaufman, "The Religion of Israel," 1960).

Apparently, not enough care has been taken in "The War of the Tablets" in avoiding the use of unclear terms and ambiguous phrasing. For instance, there is the excessive employment of the term "historicization" in various contexts: What is "historicization" of the biblical text? And what are the logical meaning and substantive validity of the following sentence (regarding the Code of Hammurabi): that "most of them [the scholars - Y.H.] regarded the text as a body of laws ... although this is a collection of laws whose publication was intended, apparently, to glorify the name of the king ... and the code should not really be considered a collection of laws at all"?

First, a substantive point should be made here: This is certainly a collection of laws, similar to the laws of Lipit Isshtar and Eshnuna respectively, which are rightly mentioned in the same context as the Code of Hammurabi. Granted, the preamble to the code praises the king (see Israel Finkelstein in the "Biblical Encyclopedia"). But that does not mean that the code is not a collection of laws. And if anyone can fathom the final sentence in the book before the appendixes, I will eat my hat!

We read that the "Prophet Isaiah prophesied the fall of Babylon." In Isaiah's day, Babylon was far from being an empire and was certainly not the "glory of kingdoms" (Isaiah 13:19). The prophecy concerning Babylon that appears in chapter 13 of the Book of Isaiah is of late origin and was not written by Isaiah. Another point: Babylon and Nineveh are both mentioned here. Why do the authors present in an endnote archaeological-historical information on Nineveh without saying one word about Babylon?

"The chief source on which the image of the kingdoms of Assyria and Babylon were built in the Christian world ... was the Bible, which established for all posterity the memory of the city of Babylon, together with its palaces, temples and hanging gardens." What connection could one possibly find between the Bible and Babylon's hanging gardens?

Also: De Vries was a Talmudist, not a biblical scholar, the Pentateuch is not synonymous with Torat Kohanim (Law of the Priests), and as to the reference to the 92nd chapter of Book 3 of the "Guide for the Perplexed" - the work has no section that has 92 chapters.

These critical comments and others - it is doubtful whether any book of this type can ever be free of flaws - should not be construed as undermining the praise that the authors deserve for granting readers the privilege of such a book. "The War of the Tablets" is recommended for all those who are keen to learn more about cultural history and all who take an interest in the history of biblical criticism, the history of Assyriology, the historical connection between biblical criticism and anti-Semitism, and late 19th-century and early 20th-century Germany. This book will be especially treasured by those who want to study how, on the eve of the World War II, the different streams in Judaism tried to cope with the new status of the Book of Books, which was used as the document that provided the foundations for the renewal of Jewish nationalism, but whose status as a sanctified and authoritative text was, at the same time, in danger.

Yair Hoffman teaches at Tel Aviv University's department of Bible studies and chairs the department of Bible studies at Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College.



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