The Book of Revolutions: The Battles of Priests, Prophets and Kings That Birthed the Torah

Bill Tammeus reviews Edward Feld's new book.

Edward Feld
The Jewish Publication Society, 320 pages | Published September 1, 2022

Readers of the Torah, which became the first five books of what Christians traditionally (if dismissively) call the Old Testament, find in it several “codes” created to guide the life of the people of Israel. There are, for instance, the Covenant Code in Exodus, the Law Code in Deuteronomy and the Holiness Code in Leviticus.

In The Book of Revolutions, Edward Feld, senior editor of the Rabbinical Assembly prayerbook for Sabbaths and festivals, unpacks all this in insightful ways. But for Christians, the primary value of Feld’s book may be found not in these code explanations but, rather, in his important reminder of the fluid, lively nature of Scripture. That means it can be misleading – sometimes wildly so – to read the Bible as inerrant, as if it were dictated to scribes directly from the mouth of God.

Feld wants readers to know that biblical literalism leads to all kinds of trouble because a Bible that’s considered inerrant is a house of cards — and a dangerous one at that. His approach is clear: You can take the Bible literally or you can take it seriously, but you can’t do both. He argues that his caution about biblical inerrancy is one that some large branches of Christianity need to hear and heed, even if they are, clearly, loathe to do so.

“At times,” he writes, “the biblical stories are so compelling that we do not notice moments of contradiction, but contradictions and opposition of ideas abound in the Torah.” Feld argues that this weave of contradictions was purposefully left in the Torah as its various sections came together over the years in the hands of editors. (Spoiler alert: Moses didn’t write the whole Torah.) That editing, he writes, “does not obliterate the variety of threads constituting contrasting theologies, visions and legal outcomes.”

In that way, the four gospels for Christians parallel the Torah because each tells a different story.  If the gospel stories don’t match up pinpoint by pinpoint, it’s because they were not written as the kind of history that 21st-century readers have come to expect. Rather, they were written as persuasive arguments for how to understand the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.

So what, for instance, if Matthew 1:16 tells us that the father of Joseph, Mary’s husband, was Jacob while Luke 3:23 says Joseph’s father was not Jacob but Heli? As Feld writes of the Torah, “Prophets, priests, royalists and their scribes, refugees from Northern Israel, and Judean elders could all find a home in this text, for all their traditions were incorporated into the Five Books.”

In the end, the writers of the Torah produced something new, Feld contends, by including in the text words that did not always confirm – and were, at times, in clear disharmony with – other parts of the text. Even though the Bible does contain some verifiable history, biblical literalists in Christianity have sucked the art, the allegory, the mythology, the poetry out of the text, forfeiting much of its beauty and meaning.

Feld insists that Jews “have not grasped the Torah’s truths in their entirety because the parts do not ultimately quite fit together.” The same is true for Christians and the New Testament. But it’s the very effort to grasp that helps make the life of faith so lively and fascinating. That’s what makes this book appropriate for anyone with a solid knowledge of Scripture, as well as a hunger to know more. And readers familiar with scholar Amy-Jill Levine’s writings that place Christianity in its Jewish context will find Feld’s book especially useful.

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