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Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel
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Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel

by Bernard M. Levinson


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This book examines the doctrine of transgenerational punishment found in the Decalogue-that is, the idea that God punishes sinners vicariously and extends the punishment due them to three or four generations of their progeny. Though it was "God-given" law, the unfairness of punishing innocent people merely for being the children or grandchildren of wrongdoers was clearly recognized in ancient Israel. A series of inner-biblical and post-biblical responses to the rule demonstrates that later writers were able to criticize, reject, and replace this problematic doctrine with the alternative notion of individual retribution. From this perspective, the formative canon is the source of its own renewal: it fosters critical reflection upon the textual tradition and sponsors intellectual freedom.

To support further study, this book includes a valuable bibliographical essay on the distinctive approach of inner-biblical exegesis showing the contributions of European, Israeli, and North American scholars. An earlier version of the volume appeared in French as L'Herméneutique de l'innovation: Canon et exégèse dans l'Israël biblique. This new Cambridge release represents a major revision and expansion of the French edition, nearly doubling its length with extensive new content. Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel opens new perspectives on current debates within the humanities about canonicity, textual authority, and authorship.

Bernard M. Levinson holds the Berman Family Chair of Jewish Studies and Hebrew Bible at the University of Minnesota. His research focuses on biblical and cuneiform law, textual reinterpretation in the Second Temple period, and the relation of the Bible to Western intellectual history. His book Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation (1997) won the 1999 Salo W. Baron Award for Best First Book in Literature and Thought from the American Academy for Jewish Research. He is also the author of "The Right Chorale" : Studies in Biblical Law and Interpretation (2008), and editor or coeditor of four volumes, most recently, The Pentateuch as Torah: New Models for Understanding Its Promulgation and Acceptance (2007). The interdisciplinary significance of his work has been recognized with appointments to both the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton) and the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin/Berlin Institute for Advanced Study.

Product Details

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Publication date: 2008
Bibliographic info: xxx + 206 pages
Language(s): English


Cover: Cloth



"This is a path-breaking book that recasts totally the traditional dichotomy between (timeless) divine revelation and (historical, contingent, fallible) human reception and expression of the former within scripture, by showing the techniques of revision, involving even contradiction and repudiation of supposedly unchangeable 'divine' legal commands by scribes adapting the latter to altered historical circumstances, and this not in an external gloss or commentary, but operating repeatedly within scripture itself..." —Patrick Madigan, S.J., Heythrop College, in The Heythrop Journal 53 (2012): 282-83.

From the Reviews of the Earlier French Edition

“ . . . a sophisticated understanding of how canonization should be conceived in Judaism. An important work, rendered all the more useful by its third part which is a bibliography...” —John Barton, Society for Old Testament Study Book List.

“At present there is no better introduction to intra-biblical exegesis and it is simply indispensable reading for all those interested in this approach.” —Christophe Nihan, Henoch: Studies in Judaism and Christianity from Second Temple to Late Antiquity.

“Levinson shows the important role played by the scribes in divine revelation—‘the human voice in ancient Israel was not diminished but augmented’—and their ingenious capacity for innovation and even for textual subversion. He also compels us, more broadly, to reconsider the notions of canon and tradition in their mutual development and dialectical relationship. In the final analysis, he offers us a unique opportunity to reanimate a critical dialogue between biblical studies and the humanities, and thereby to revitalize the latter.” —Didier Luciani, Vies consacrées.

“In short, it is an interpretation that one must heartily recommend to those who wish to read the biblical texts intelligently, in particular the legal texts.” —Jean Louis Ska, Nouvelle Revue Théologique.

“The longest part of his study is devoted to show the innovation during the formation process of the canon . . .This part of Levinson's book is revealing and excellent, as he brilliantly demonstrates intrabiblical exegesis. He suggests that this can serve as a guide for modern exegesis.” —Walter Vogels, Review of Biblical Literature.

“Altogether, this is a stimulating study.” —P. S. Johnston, Vetus Testamentum.

Reviews of the New Cambridge Edition

“This just might be the best book I’ve read in a long time. It’s challenged my assumptions about the development of the Hebrew Bible and the role of innovation alongside preservation. . . . All in all, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the issues of early biblical interpretation and the formation of the biblical canon. Specialists across the board in religious studies and biblical studies would profit from a closer look at Levinson's book. I'm recommending it to everyone I know - NT students, rabbinics experts, early Christian studies people, Hebrew Bible colleagues - you know who you are - read this book!"—Douglas Mangnum at Biblia Hebraica

“The bibliographical essay is an excellent overview of research on what is now often called “inner-biblical exegesis,”and it will serve as a superb tool for beginners and seasoned researchers alike. The other essays span a vast array of methodological problems and exegetical insights and are at the forefront of current research into legal traditions in the HB. A highly welcome volume.­” —Joachim Schaper, SOTS Book List 2009 =JSOT 33 (2009) 159.

“Perhaps I am biased, but it seems to me to be beyond any reasonable doubt that, behind the final form of the canonical, biblical text lies evidence of a lively, imaginative, and creative use of interpretation, reinterpretation, and reapplication of earlier texts. It is a complex, living, creative achievement which, for just this reason, invites constant, continuing invention, as Levinson maintains. I certainly find this book itself a delightful, informative, and stimulating one to read.” —Rex Mason, Journal of Theological Studies

The book’s most innovative contribution lies in its first . . . half, which explores the relation between biblical studies and the humanities. . . . As L. notes—rightly in my judgment—this deeply rooted separation of Jerusalem from Athens has been to no one’s advantage. His discussion of the relationship between the concept of ethics in Kant and in Ezekiel demonstrates how much both disciplines might gain from such a conversation. The secularization of the liberal arts has left them largely uninformed about contemporary ways of reading the Bible. Recent discussions in the humanities could find much of value in biblical studies’ sophisticated ways of thinking about canonicity. . . .
The essays that constitute the first half of this book are the product of more than a decade and a half of research and deliberation. Their sustained and fluent reflection on important issues will reward contemplation by biblical scholars, while the bibliographic essay that makes up the second half will be a useful tool for those interested in exploring the growing body of work on inner-biblical exegesis.—Frederick E. Greenspahn, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 71 (2009): 873–75

"This is a revised and expanded essay first published in French in 2005. The concern is innerbiblical exegesis, an important area of recent Old Testament research and a subject to which Levinson is a significant contributor. The first half of the book sets the subject of innerbiblical exegesis within the context of canon. Levinson rightly observes that biblical exegesis is not a development that emerges after final canonization, but something occurring within the material from an early stage. For him canon is something that tends towards fixity, but yet the texts also attest radical innovation as texts are disputed even within the canon itself. One extended case study occupies a significant part of Levinson’s attention: those texts that deal with intergenerational punishment. Levinson seeks to show that Ezekiel and Deuteronomy 7 deliberately cite the Decalogue in order to subvert its plain meaning and offer a reinterpretation where individuals receive reward and punishment for their own deeds. This reinterpretation of the Decalogue is determinative for later Jewish thinking. The final chapter contributes half of the book’s length and is a bibliographical essay on inner-biblical exegesis. It traces the subject from Wellhausen through the very earliest observers of the biblical literature¹s literary (rather than oral) inter-relationships to the most recent works. Pithy and perceptive introductions to all the major literature on inner-biblical exegesis are given and this is an extremely valuable resource for more advanced students. This would be an excellent addition to any theological library and it is to be hoped that the publisher will soon release a paperback version so more students can enjoy the fruits of Levinson’s labours."—Dr. Nathan MacDonald, University of Göttingen (Georg-August-Universität) in Theological Book Review 2009

"First, it provides a thorough but brief introduction to innerbiblical exegesis approach, both in method and in theory. Anyone, scholar or student, who is interested in learning more about how the theoretical foundations of this approach as well as how it works will find the text invaluable. Second, for scholars in particular, the footnotes and the bibliographic essay are excellent and up-to-date resources of the field. The bibliographic essay was a particularly delightful read in that Levinson connected many scholars with whom most readers will have at least a passing acquaintance in a new way. Third, the length and style of this text make it very accessible to both upper-level undergraduate students and graduate students working in the area of biblical interpretation or looking more generally at the idea of canon."—Karla Suomala, Luther College Review of Biblical Literature, November 2009

Biblical studies were once integrated into the center of scholarship and even its moving agent. With this study Levinson wants to reintegrate the study of the Hebrew Bible into the overall humanities discourse. The religious canon of the Hebrew Bible is not an inflexible collection of books that stands in the way of innovation. Levinson analyses the phenomenon of the rewriting of texts both inside (e.g. legal change) and outside the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Targum) to demonstrate the opposite. The example of transgenerational punishment shows, the exegetical processes involved in this rewriting point not only to dynamic and creative processes inside the canon of the Hebrew Bible but show how a canon initiated and initiates innovation as its driving engine. Levinson points e.g. to a nexus between the emergence of the German literary canon and academic biblical studies. With this study Levinson demonstrates again how he masterfully integrates his own exegetical brilliance into larger theoretical frameworks beyond the constraints of biblical studies.  Especially helpful to the specialist and colleagues from other fields is a long essay on the history of research about rewriting processes inside the Hebrew Bible (91-181).—Armin Lange, Journal of Ancient Judaism 1:2 (2010)

"Levinson is, by all rights, a leading scholar in the analysis of this phenomenon and extends here his previous work on the topic in a number of intriguing ways...
"The book deserves a wide readership. It would serve well as a text for advanced undergraduate or graduate courses that deal with inner-biblical exegesis. One can also hope that scholars in other fields will read it and take to heart Levinson’s argument for the reintegration of biblical studies into the core of academic work in the humanities. In addition, there are faith communities that would be encouraged by Levinson’s insight into the nature of canon and the necessity for ongoing reinterpretation of tradition. The book’s research is thorough, its argument forceful, its writing elegant, and it is blessedly short. If books can be placed into tribes, may this one’s increase."—Bruce Wells, Saint Joseph’s University, in Review of Biblical Literature, March 2010

"Throughout the text, L.’s careful work leads him to exhort the humanities explicitly to engage in greater interdisciplinary dialogue. Academic biblical studies have engaged and incorporated insights from other disciplines into exegesis, but colleagues in comparative literature, history of religions, and related fields have not reciprocated to the same degree. ‘Unfortunately, many within the broader academic community are woefully uninformed about how to read the Bible critically, historically, and intellectually’ (93). "—John J. Pilch, Georgetown University, in Theological Studies 70:4 (2009)

"In his foray into the topic of the Ten Commandments in history and tradition seen from the vantage point of inner-biblical exegesis, Bernard Levinson zeroes in on the question of moral agency. It is hard to think of a more fundamental topic at the interface of law and theology. Levinson understands Ezekiel 18 to amount to a covert repudiation of the doctrine of cross-generational transfer of the consequences of human behavior as it finds expression in the Decalogue at Exod 20:5-6.1 A brilliant thesis, one I hope receives a wide hearing."—John F. Hobbins at Biblical Hebrew Poetry blog

"In this book, Levinson considers the literary and textual authority of scripture and the creative conventions that led to its production. . . . With an extensive bibliographic essay outlining the contributions of renowned scholars, prominent in the field of inner-biblical exegesis, this exhaustive book recognizes the need for a more innovative and intuitive debate within the wider humanities about canonicity, textual authority and authorship. . . . I was inspired by Levinson’s theories and would certainly recommend this book to scholars interested in the textual construction of scripture ..."—Benjamin Bury, in Reviews in Religion and Theology 17:3 (2010)

“The book may claim to be about the dynamics of legal (i.e. halachic) development within the Bible, but the underlying message deals with the viability of theories of halachic change in the contemporary Jewish community. That is why it should be required reading for participants in law committees and students of Jewish law.”—Rabbi Neil Gillman, in CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism, Summer 2011

"Levinson’s book is a gem and deserves a wide readership."—Megan Warner, Melbourne College of Divinity, in Australian Biblical Review 59 (2011)

“This slender volume . . . sets out the discipline of “inner-biblical exegesis” by one of its foremost practitioners today. The author, Bernard Levinson, sets himself apart from most other inner-biblical exegetes in two ways. The first is his desire to engage in dialogue with disciplines outside of biblical studies. The second is the scrupulous attention he pays to ancient Near Eastern legal texts as sources for illuminating biblical law. . . . Levinson is to be applauded for this fine volume, which demonstrates his preferred methodology clearly and concisely for a broad academic audience.”—Sidnie White Crawford, Willa Cather Professor of Classics & Religious Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in Biblical Theology Bulletin: A Journal of Bible and Theology 40 (2010)

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