Is prophecy a real thing? Is the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) inspired by God? Are its words sacred, conveying somehow true things about God’s nature and his desires?
Yes, I certainly think so. A commenter challenged me regarding my recent article, “Believing in Torah While Accepting Biblical Criticism.” His words are sharp and to the point:
While this article rehashes the nobler aspects of Torah, this article’s attempt to justify faith in the Torah’s validity in light of criticism seems to come up short.
Respectfully. The first article seems to put forth evidence to its claims of human intervention. Yet this article, attempting to maintain divine intervention, seems to eschew the previous evidentiary standard and instead marshals feelings.
Lots of sacred texts say noble things about love and freedom. Lots of sacred texts inspire. Your first article appeals to fact. This one appeals to belief. That doesn’t seem like an even match.
Proofs That Fail
My friend and critic wants something that isn’t to be had. The case for the Hebrew Bible isn’t really comparable to the case for Biblical criticism. It is easier to show a falsehood than to give evidence for a miracle.
It is one thing to say, “By some pretty sane rules of epistemology (a word that means “how we know things”) we can demonstrate that Moses did not write the speeches of Deuteronomy.” It is another to say, “I can prove that God split a sea in half.”
Some people think if they can show aspects of biblical history to be true, this proves the divine inspiration of it. Not so. A person might write a historical essay that everyone judges to be an accurate account, but it does not become divinely inspired by merely being factually correct.
Some people think if they can find miracles in the letters and play games with math they can prove the sacredness and otherworldliness of Torah. That path also fails. After all, people have done the same with Nostradamus.
Sometimes Christians seek to prove the Bible, including the “Old Testament” starting with Jesus:
- It is a fact that Jesus rose from the dead.
- Therefore, Jesus is divine.
- Since Jesus believed in the Hebrew Bible, we must as well.
This proof too is flawed. It tries to make the inspiration of the Hebrew Bible a mere matter of history. Some would say “proving” a miracle happened in history is inherently impossible. Others might say Jesus’ return from death, if they were willing to grant that it happened, doesn’t prove that he was divine or that his opinions about Jewish texts were correct.
At any rate, what is reason to believe?
How Can I Know if God’s Will Is Revealed in the Hebrew Bible?
As Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us (God in Search of Man) this is not a question we can afford to be disinterested in. It is a personal, pressing matter.
Heschel didn’t say this, but let me put it to you this way. If you thought that with a little investigation you could personally discover a way to connect with life from beyond our solar system, what obstacles could prevent you from trying? Wouldn’t you be fascinated and irresistibly drawn to try?
Suppose then the otherworldly voice of God can somehow be detected whispering through a crack in space-time? Won’t you try to listen?
Heschel says there is a difference in the way we seek out truth as a conceptual problem versus truth as a situation in which we find ourselves. If you are an engineer studying the structure of dams and the forces of dammed up water, this is a conceptual study. If a crack appears in the dam and you are the engineer trying to save 200,000 lives, this has now become a situational problem.
Conceptual thinking, Heschel says, involves an attitude of detachment. But the situational thinker has an attitude of concern. Then Heschel gives us one of his priceless sentences:
The beginning of situational thinking is not doubt, detachment, but amazement, awe, involvement.
So the question for you, I mean you specifically, is not, “has God made his will known in the Hebrew Bible?” but “has God made it known to me?” The beginning of your search should not be doubt and detachment, but an openness to awe and radical amazement.
What Are Some Evidences and Methods of Seeking Out an Answer?
A basic lesson of history is the first evidence I will offer you. I do not mean you have to accept a specific view of this particular history, which is the history of the Jewish people, but only a very modest conclusion which most of you will find agreeable: Israel is an unusual example in history of a tiny people who have survived against immense odds and who have not assimilated (completely) even after several millennia. To put it simply, the survival and non-assimilation of the Jewish people seems to agree with one of the major points of the Hebrew Bible. That is, the Hebrew Bible indicates that the Jewish people will exist at the end of human history.
The second evidence I will offer you is that the Jewish people have affirmed and treated as sacred the Hebrew Bible. If we are open to the biblical notion of the Jewish people as bearers of a covenant and if we admit the possibility that God would speak, it becomes reasonable to suggest he has done so through the Hebrew Bible. To put the argument simply: if God can speak and if Israel is his people, it is reasonable to believe he has done so through Israel’s scriptures.
The third thing I will offer you is not evidence. It is a personal challenge. You have your own story and relative viewpoint from which you see this universe. If God speaks, I challenge you to hear him. Actually, you should challenge yourself. If you encounter God in the Hebrew Bible, your experience very well may be real. Only you can decide.
I am sure these evidences and this test of your own experience will leave some people disappointed. “I want proof!”
You have not reckoned with the silence of God and the futility of this present world. It would be the subject of another article, but if God’s revealing of his nature and will comes to us rather quietly in some ancient words of prophets, priests, and sages, don’t be scandalized by it. Be open. We can detect a divine purpose in the silence, in the twilight in which we live. Don’t discount flashes of light which give us glimpses of the beyond.
Meanwhile, the factual errors and pre-scientific beliefs in scripture do not hurt the case. We need not assume God intended to give us an inerrant text.
Are we then, because of the indescribability of revelation, justified in rejecting a priori as untrue the assertion of the prophets that, at certain hours in Israel’s history, the divine came in touch with a few chosen souls? That the creative source of our own selves addressed itself to man?
Knowing what the universe means is not a conceptual matter. It is personal and pressing for each one of us. We will realize it when we agree with something else Heschel said, that our souls must be “shaken with unmitigated concern about the meaning of all meaning” and that we must “suspend all life-stifling trivialities.”
I can say, I have had reason enough to seek an encounter with God in the Hebrew Bible. I can say that I believe I heard him in its pages. How about you?