Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel

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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 the Institute for Advanced Study (1997); the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin/Berlin Institute for Advanced Study (2007); and, most recently, the National Humanities Center, where he will serve as the Henry Luce Senior Fellow in Religious Studies for the 2010–2011 academic year.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"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. . . 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!" —Biblia Hebraica Blog

“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.” —Journal of Theological Studies

"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." —Society for Old Testament Study Book List

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. —Review of Biblical Literature (2010)

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. —Catholic Biblical Quarterly 71 (2009)

The format of this book . . . provides a thorough but brief introduction to inner-biblical 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. —Review of Biblical Literature 11 (2009)

"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)

"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. —Theological Book Review 21 (2009)

"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): 967-68.

"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 Hobbins, Ancient Hebrew Poetry blog

“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, p. 9 [online:].

“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, Biblical Theology Bulletin: A Journal of Bible and Theology 40

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521513449
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/2010
  • Pages: 236
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Bernard M. Levinson holds the Berman Family Chair of Jewish Studies and Hebrew Bible at the University of Minnesota. He is author of Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation (1997), which won the 1999 Salo W. Baron Award for Best First Book in Literature and Thought from the American Academy for Jewish Research. He is coeditor of four volumes, most recently The Pentateuch as Torah: New Models for Understanding Its Promulgation and Acceptance (2007), and the author of The Right Chorale: Studies in Biblical Law and Interpretation (2008). 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.

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Table of Contents

1. Biblical studies as the meeting point of the humanities; 2. Rethinking the relation between 'canon' and 'exegesis'; 3. The problem of innovation within the formative canon; 4. The reworking of the principle of transgenerational punishment: four case studies; 5. The canon as sponsor of innovation; 6. The phenomenon of rewriting within the Hebrew Bible: a bibliographic essay on 'inner-biblical exegesis' in the history of scholarship.

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