Can Reverence and Objectivity Go Together?

 There is no reason why awe and reverence cannot be combined with critical objectivity


See Synopsis of Misusing Scripture: What Are Evangelicals Doing with the Bible? 
See Misusing Scripture: A Brief Rejoinder 

See Response to Jim West, “Misusing Scripture: A Brief Rejoinder” 
See On Critical Thinking


By Kenneth Seeskin
Department of Philosophy and Department of Religious Studies
Northwestern University
September 2023


            The usual way of characterizing Bible scholarship is to distinguish a faith-based or devotional approach from a critical or historical approach.  The first takes the text as the inerrant word of God, the second as a historical document expressing a variety of viewpoints.  The faith-based approach exhibits awe and reverence in the face of a sacred document while the critical approach interprets the text with the same methods used to interpret Homer, Shakespeare, or Milton.

            This essay seeks to show that this is a false dichotomy. There is no reason why awe and reverence cannot be combined with critical objectivity. As I see it, reverence demands a critical attitude because the whole point of reading the text is to experience a unique form of enlightenment, the kind of enlightenment that allowed a semi-nomadic people in the ancient Near East to establish the foundation of Western religion for three different traditions.

            In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I am a practicing Jew who reaches out to kiss the Torah when it passes by and has no doubt about its sacred status.  While I have deep respect for Homer, Shakespeare, and Milton, I do not treat their writings in the same spirit.  The text I most revere is a story of how God liberated the Israelites from Egyptian bondage.  According to that text, over 600,000 men at arms together with as many as 1,400,000 women, children, elderly, and servants wandered through the Sinai Peninsula for some 40 years before their descendants conquered a new territory by annihilating the native population.

            Although I have grave doubts that anything like this ever happened, I celebrate Passover on Friday nights and thank God for liberating the Israelite people.  Am I inconsistent?  I think not.

           Whether there was a historical Exodus like the one described in the Torah, the theme of liberation, which is to say the upholding of freedom as a transcendental value, is inseparable from my understanding of divinity.  Here is a God who chose to free slaves rather than be celebrated by the rich and powerful nations that surrounded and eventually subdued tiny Israel.  I have no hesitation worshipping this God even though I am skeptical of the narrative that purports to describe his accomplishments.

            Like those in the rationalist tradition before me, I see myself as trying to demythologize religion.  Sure, one can focus on glorious deeds, miracles, and private, mystical experiences.  But that is not the religion I practice.  To understand my religion, let us turn to Scripture.  At Deuteronomy 4:5-8, Moses says

For I have taught you statutes (huchim) and laws (mishpatim) which 
the LORD my God has commanded me . . .   Observe them faithfully, 
because that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other
peoples . . . [Who will say] What great nation has statutes and laws
as perfect as the teaching that I have set before you this day?

The word translated as teaching is torah.  Although torah is usually rendered nomos in the Septuagint and as law in English, these translations obscure the fact that more than a simple body of laws, the Torah is a body of instruction that is supposed to be understood and admired by every nation on Earth.

            The Torah that we have and to which I bow my head contains everything from epic narrative to poetry, legal theory, historical reflection, even an attempt at comedy.  The rest of the canon of the Hebrew Bible contains more poetry, historical narrative, theological reflection, and an attempt at philosophical dialogue in the Book of Job.  The complete text runs the gamut from the world weariness of Ecclesiastes to the vibrant love of Song of Songs.  Should we hold that all this is the inerrant word of God, or should we say instead that it represents the human attempt to be in the presence of God?

            If the latter, it follows that not all these attempts can bear rational scrutiny.  To a tiny nation sandwiched between mighty empires to the West and East, being in the presence of God means having a fierce and loyal protector who cares nothing for the welfare of one’s enemies.  Thus, the people sing and dance when God drowns the Egyptian army in the sea or Moses commands the people to show no mercy to their enemies and to destroy everything in their midst when conquering them.[1] 

            How can we reconcile this with the loving God of Exodus 34 who is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and willing to forgive iniquity?  One answer is to say that the people to whom the Israelites were to show no mercy were engaged in abominable practices such as child sacrifice, black magic, sacred prostitution, and the worship of idols.  So, in asking the Israelites to show the inhabitants of these cities no mercy and destroy every living thing in their midst, God was bringing just punishment upon the inhabitants.

            While it is true that these practices are abominable, the brutality of these passages raises several questions.  Like the Exodus from Egypt, there is virtually no evidence supporting the slaughter of Canaanite towns by ancient Israelites.  If the practices of the Canaanites were that bad, why not just say that?  Why command the Israelites to kill indiscriminately?  Why kill women, children, and cattle as well?  Where is the idea that all people are made in the image of God?  Were the Canaanite people any worse than other peoples in the ancient Near East or, in some circumstances, the Israelites themselves?

            Rather than engage in special pleading on behalf of a vengeful and bloodthirsty God, it would be better to look at the historical context in which these passages were written.  First, these commandments are anachronistic because the supposed entry of the Israelites into Canaan would have occurred centuries before Deuteronomy was written.  Second, there are the realities of the present.  Following the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians, Judah, the Southern Kingdom, faced the question of how to deal with the shifting alliances of Middle-Eastern politics.  For a while Judah paid a substantial monetary tribute to Assyria.  As Assyrian influence began to wane, however, Judah had to decide whether to form an alliance with Egypt against Babylonia or stand alone.  In 586 BC, the Babylonians conquered Judah and sent many of its leading citizens into exile.

            Given the constant threat of annihilation by larger powers, we can imagine why people would want to hear about a time when they were the dominant force and could subdue their enemies in the most ruthless fashion.  Some might have hoped that God would intervene, and history would repeat itself.  In short, these passages are best seen as a literary creation rather than a statement of historical fact.  In the words of Robert Alter, they are a fantasy, albeit a particularly dangerous one because they seem to provide a divine sanction for monstrous behavior.[2]

            One figure who certainly did not believe in the inerrancy of the Torah is the prophet Ezekiel.  According to Exodus 20:5 and 34:7, God is willing to punish children for sins committed by their parents.  This is consistent with the tenth plague that God visits on Egypt, where the first-born sons of the Egyptians are killed to punish Pharaoh.  Without hesitation or apology, Ezekiel says on God’s name that this cannot be right: only the person who sins will be punished.[3]  I leave it to the reader to decide whether God changed his mind or Ezekiel came upon a basic moral insight.  The point is that the passages that have God punishing children for the sins of the parents cannot be right.

            In a similar way, I cannot believe that the commandments that order complete devastation of the enemy are part of the instruction that Moses gave to Israel.  Ditto for the commandment to kill a rebellious son or stone an adulterous woman.[4]  Sticking to the prohibition against adding or subtracting from the Torah, the rabbis so restricted the application of these commandments that they were all but eliminated.[5] 

            One can hold on to the claim that whether we like them or not, these commandments do reflect the will of God.  Even if this were true, which I doubt, we face the question how a fallible creature can take it upon itself to modify the stated wishes of an infallible one.

            To this question, Judaism has a ready answer.  As Moses says to the assembled multitude at Deuteronomy 30:11-14:

What I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 
It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask: “Who will ascend into heaven to get
it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?”  Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have
to ask: “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?”  No,
the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may do it.

The plain sense of the passage is that the laws of the Torah are not too difficult to understand or fulfill.  According to famous passage in the Babylonian Talmud, however, the passage is noteworthy for the claim that Torah is not in heaven.[6]  In other words, God has given the full Torah to Moses so that there is no remnant of unrevealed Torah left in heaven.

            The implications of this doctrine are far-reaching because it implies that we cannot appeal to God to provide clarification about how the Torah should be interpreted or applied.  What parts of it should be understood literally and what parts figuratively?  Which laws should be applied broadly and which narrowly?  How exactly should we define murder, marriage, work on the Sabbath, or bearing false witness?  Are their circumstances in which some laws should be suspended temporarily?  If so, which laws and under what circumstances?

            To repeat: We cannot appeal to God for clarification.  All these questions must be answered by human authorities acting on God’s behalf.  It follows that even if we assume that the original revelation given to Moses is inerrant, its meaning and practical significance can only be decided by human agents.  For the claim of inerrancy to stand up, one would have to say that the human agents interpreting God’s will are inerrant as well – a sweeping and highly controversial assertion.  Human authorities may be inspired by God, but who would want to maintain that like God, they are infallible as well?

            What I am suggesting is that no matter what its origin, no pronouncement or written text can stand alone.  Or, to put it another way, no statement can be completely explicit about its meaning or application.[7]  This is truer if we are dealing with statements made thousands of years ago in contexts vastly different from our own.  We know that even in ancient times, when the Torah was read in public, the people needed the Levites to explain it to them.[8]

            The upshot is that it is a mistake to think that revelation is a simple relationship between a divine author and a human recipient.  Even if the recipient copies the exact words the divine agent speaks (e.g. “Thou shall not commit murder”), questions of interpretation are inevitable.  Do abortion or mercy killing count as murder?  What if the murder is unintentional?  What do we do with those who are accessories to murder?  As long as the interpretation is in human hands, there is no way to eliminate fallibility and thus the possibility of error.

            Take something as simple as the Ten Commandments.  The Exodus version differs from the Deuteronomy version.[9]  The Bible itself is far from clear whether the people heard the commandments directly from God or needed Moses to act as an intermediary.[10]  To this day, Jews, Catholics, and Protestants differ on how the commandments are to be parsed and what exactly is prohibited.  Which version counts as the inerrant one that God commanded?[11] 

            We could ask a similar question about books of the Bible.  The Septuagint’s version of Job omits a number of lines from the Hebrew version and presents a very different picture of the title character.[12]  Which version is the correct one?  Are Maccabees I and II inerrant?  Or Judith?  Or the Wisdom of Solomon? 

            There is no way to answer these questions without engaging in denominational disputes.  If we assume, as I do, that no denomination has a monopoly on truth, then we have no choice but to admit that while the text we have reflects the will of God, it also reflects the work of editors, selection committees, translators, and interpreters.  In other words, there is no way to ignore the human contribution to the final product.  That is why the final product stands in need of historical analysis and corrective commentary.  If it were really inerrant, corrective commentary would not be needed.

            This all assumes that God’s will cannot be captured by a single text.  Rather than words on a page, it is best understood in Mosaic terms as a body of wisdom.  Like any body of wisdom, it is fluid in the sense that it is always open to revision and reinterpretation.  Although our ancestors could imagine God as a warrior king or vengeful judge, we no longer can.  I submit that this is true whether we come to God from the perspective of faith seeking spiritual fulfilment or from that of academic scholarship seeking objectivity.  In either case, we come with the benefit of centuries of commentary, historical research, and moral reflection.






Alter, Robert. 2019.  The Hebrew Bible, Vol. 1.  New York. W. W. Norton.

Gard, D. H. 1953. “The Concept of Job’s Character according to the Greek Translation of the

Hebrew Text,” Journal of Biblical Literature. 72, no. 3.

Seeskin, Kenneth. 2020. “Commentary – Why We Need It and the Price We Pay for Having It.” The Bible and Interpretation.…

[1] See Exodus 15: 1-3; Deuteronomy 7:1-2; 20:16-17.  Also see Joshua 6:21 and 1 Samuel 15:3. In a nutshell, these passages are aimed at seven Canaanite tribes and the Amalekites.  Since it is impossible to know who the descendants of these tribes are, commentators realized that for all intents and purposes the commandments had become moot.

[2] Alter, 2019, 686.

[3] Ezekiel 18:1-20.

[4] See Deuteronomy 21:18-21 and 22:23.

[5] Deuteronomy 4:2 prohibits adding to or subtracting from the original legislation handed down by Moses.

[6] Baba Metzia 39b.

[7] For further development of this point, see Seeskin, 2020.

[8] Nehemiah 8:1-3, 7.

[9] Consider the commandment dealing with the Sabbath day.  The Exodus version asks us to remember the Sabbath day while the Deuteronomy version asks us to observe the Sabbath day.  The Exodus version justifies the commandment by saying that God rested on the seventh day while the Deuteronomy version refers to freedom from slavery.

[10] See Exodus 19:25–20:19; Deuteronomy 4:10-14 and 5:4-5.

[11] For example, the traditional Jewish version of the commandments treats “I am the LORD thy God . . .” as a commandment even though it does not say anything about doing or not doing something.  Christian versions normally treat it as a preamble.  The Catholic version leaves out any mention of graven images.  The Catholic version lists the prohibition of adultery as the 6th commandment while Jews and most Protestants list it as the 7th.  The Catholic version has two commandments dealing with adultery while Jews and most Protestant have only one.

[12] Compare the two versions at 3:20, 9:13, 9:22, 12:6, 14:16, 16:13-14, 19:6, and 23:7.  For further discussion, see Gard, 1953, 182-186.


Article Comments

Submitted by on Tue, 09/26/2023 - 23:58


My questionis simply: Does this reverence induce you to shy away from a 100% critical study of the Bible? Are there question which you consider illegal?
If you say no to both questions, we are very much in agreement.
Some years ago I was invited by a newspaper to discuss such matters with a leading member from the so-called Lutheran faculty of theology in Copenhagen (Dansk Bibelinstitut). The journalist had hoped for a fight. Instead we decided that historical matters was tabu and not very interesting. So we concentrated on theology including ethics and soon found that we were mainly in agreement.
Historical truth is -- whatever it is -- the spoiler.

Another thing: You idea of early Israelite history is about a hundred years old -- Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth you know. I believe that most of us as left that stage a long time ago.

Submitted by Jim West on Wed, 09/27/2023 - 10:15


Objectivity and reverence can indeed go together. Historical objectivity and reverential deference to a series of historical claims, however, cannot.

Submitted by Kenneth Seeskin on Thu, 09/28/2023 - 11:50


I don't shy away from anything. As far as I'm concerned, any body of evidence or reasonable argument is fair game. This doesn't mean I have an answer for everything but that nothing is ruled out a priori. If the available evidence suggests that the Bible's account of the Exodus from Egypt never happened, I accept it. I celebrate Passover as a moral ideal rather than established fact. If my account of early Israelite history is inaccurate, I'm happy to be corrected. But as far as I know, the conquest of Palestine as described in the Bible never happened.

Submitted by Robert Rezetko on Thu, 09/28/2023 - 13:57


Seeskin’s faith-based and critical approach is possible (in his mind) because he recognizes the human dimension in the production of the biblical texts, and he shuns biblical inerrancy. Inerrantists assert the historicity of biblical events like the exodus and conquest, but Seeskin does not. This approach distinguishes Seeskin, and many other Christians and Jews, from modern American conservative evangelicals. As we argue in Misusing Scripture, the premise of biblical inerrancy is incompatible with scholarship, with scholarly inquiry and critical thinking. On this we and Seeskin seem to agree.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.