Berel Dov Lerner

Berel Dov Lerner was born in Washington D.C. and is a member of Kibbutz Sheluhot in Israel's Beit Shean Valley.  He received a BA in social and behavioral sciences from Johns Hopkins University, an MA in philosophy from the University of Chicago, and a PhD in philosophy from Tel Aviv University.  He also studied Judaism at Yeshivat HaKibbutz HaDati.   Berel is currently a lecturer in philosophy at the Western Galilee College in Akko and also teaches at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.  He is the author of many articles in philosophy and Jewish studies and of the book Rules, Magic, and Instrumental Reason (Routledge 2002). 

From Genesis to Exodus: Certainty Lost and Regained

The history of the Jewish People in the Book of Genesis tells a story of epistemic decline. It begins with Abraham, who receives clear prophetic communications setting out what he is expected to do, who will succeed him as patriarch, and what the future holds for his descendants. Genesis ends with Joseph, who never receives prophetic instruction, whose familial status is unclear (Is he the fourth patriarch? Will his children found tribes?), and who fails to understand the larger historical significance of his family's passage to Egypt. He sees the latter only as a stop-gap measure to ensure their survival through the famine, while it is, in fact, the beginning of the descent into slavery foretold to Abraham.

It is only towards the end of Genesis that Joseph finally begins to grasp something of his situation; apparently, by then it is too late. After Jacob's death, Joseph relinquishes any claim to becoming the next patriarch by explicitly asking that his bones remain in Egypt with the other Israelites. This stands in obvious contrast to Jacob, who asked that his body be immediately transported for burial besides the remains of the other Patriarchs and Matriarchs in the Cave of Machpela. It is only in the penultimate verse of Genesis that Joseph expresses his realization that conditions in Egypt will take a turn for the worse, and that God will have to intervene to remove the Israelites from that land.

Two markers trace the process of epistemic decline: the nature of dreams and the names used to refer to God. Until Joseph arrives, all the dreams of Genesis are of clearly divine origin (they explicitly record human encounters with God or His angels), and their messages are immediately comprehensible. Joseph is the first character in Genesis to experience dreams which are not clearly divine in origin. Soon after his appearance, dreaming becomes an entirely ambiguous affair; dreams no longer relate explicitly divine messages and their interpretation requires consultation with experts. Correspondingly, the Tetragrammaton disappears from Genesis early on in the Joseph narrative (it does occur one more time in Jacob's deathbed pronouncements, a detail to be treated in my talk). This is of particular interest from the standpoint of religious epistemology because “knowledge of the Lord” comes to play a central role in biblical theology. Pharaoh proclaims that he does not know the Lord (Ex. 5:2), while the whole purpose of the Exodus is to make the Lord known (Ex.6:7, etc.)

Moses' appearance announces a new form of social organization and reverses the epistemic decline that began with Joseph. Since the Israelites constitute the raw materials of a nation, the whole question of choosing a new familial patriarch has become irrelevant. God's plans for history are made public knowledge. The Tetragrammaton is explicitly reintroduced (Ex. 3:15). Moses must transcend the level of prophetic knowledge sufficient for leading a family in order to serve as a nation's law-giver. Appropriately, the entire issue of dream-epistemology becomes irrelevant for him. Moses, the prophet with whom God speaks "mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles" (Numbers 12:8), has no need for dreams or their interpretation.

We are left asking why the Patriarchal age could not have simply evolved peacefully into the age of Moses without the intervening decline associated with Joseph. The answer is that the Israelites would never have walked into Egyptian enslavement with their eyes open; that part of the divine plan revealed to Abraham could only be achieved if the Israelites were confused about their situation. Finally we must ask what point there was to the Egyptian enslavement itself. That tragic episode might be seen as a necessary precondition for the transformation of the Israelites into a covenantal national community. Some may view this explanation as offering a biblical precedent for revolutionary leaders who insist they must "break a few eggs" to cook up their historical "omelets". However, the biblical precedent does not really apply to human political leaders who want to restart society at "Year Zero." God is, after all, the only one allowed to play God.