Benjamin Sommer

Benjamin D. Sommer is Professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Dr. Sommer is spending the 2011–2012 academic year as a Fellow at the Tikvah Center for Jewish Law and Civilization at the New York University School of Law, and he will spend the 2012-2013 year as a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study of the Hebrew University. Dr. Sommer's research focuses on the history of Israelite religion, literary analysis of the Bible, and biblical theology. An overarching concern of his scholarship involves the close and manifold relationships between biblical thought and later Jewish theology or, to use the Hebrew phrasing, between Torah shebikhtav and Torah shebe'al peh.

Dr. Sommer's book, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel received the Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion from the American Academy of Religion for the year 2009 as well as the Jordan Schnitzer Award from the Association for Jewish Studies for years 2006–2009. The book addresses perceptions of divine embodiment in ancient Israel, Canaan, and Assyria, and how these perceptions reappear in later Jewish philosophy and mysticism. His first book, A Prophet Reads Scripture: Allusion in Isaiah 40–66, was awarded the Salo Wittmayer Baron Prize by the American Academy of Jewish Research in 1998.

Dr. Sommer is the editor of the Psalms volumes of the Jewish Publication Society Bible Commentary series. He is currently completing also working on a book, Artifact or Scripture? Authority, Canon and Revelation in the Bible and Jewish Thought, which book will examine whether the Bible, understood as the ancient Near Eastern document it is, can be relevant to modern Jewish thought.

How Can One Know About God? Nature, Revelation and Grace in Psalm 19

The question of how philosophy relates to scripture is a species of another, more general
question: what is the relationship between reason and revelation? Insofar as these literatures, and
these modes of knowing, concern themselves with knowledge of the divine, they both reflect an
underlying question: To what extent does knowledge of the divine originate from thoughtful
deliberation pursued by humans on the basis of their observations of the world, and to what extent
must this knowledge depend on a gift from God to humanity? Thinking about the relationship
between philosophy and scripture, then, forces us to consider the relative places of human action
and divine grace.This relationship, furthermore, parallels one between the universal and the
particular; at least up until recently, philosophers have regarded reason as universal, while for
Jews, Christians, and Muslims revelation has entailed particularity. In short, the relationship
between philosophy and scripture entails several linked polarities: nature / revelation; human
reason / divine grace; universal knowledge of God / particular knowledge of God. These
polarities are precisely the ones associated since the Middle Ages with the study of natural law or
natural theology.

One would expect, consequently, that discussions about the relationship of philosophy and
scripture would focus on the theme of natural law. In fact this focus has manifested itself much
more among Christians than among Jews. The connection between natural law and revelation has
been a central concern for Christian theologians for generations. Debates concerning these two
modes of coming to know God (and to know about God and about God’s will) have had a
profound influence on modern biblical scholarship among Christians. Karl Barth’s work, for
example, had an enormous impact on Brevard Childs and his school, while the vigorous responses
to Childs by James Barr and John Barton took aim as much at Barth as at Childs. Further, among
contemporary Catholics, both theologians (especiallyMatthew Levering) and biblical scholars
(John Collins) have studied the relationship between natural law and biblical texts. But modern
Jewish thinkers have devoted less attention to this debate (with notable exceptions such as
MichaelWyschogrod and David Novak, in addition to the overlooked discussions of this issue
interspersed throughout the works of Abraham Joshua Heschel) . Biblical scholarship produced by
modern Jews has attended to the issues at hand almost not at all. Yet as the examples of Barr,
Barton, Collins, and Levering show, awareness of natural law theory can enhance our reading of
biblical texts, and it is at least possible that biblical texts might shed light on (or lend authority to)
attempts to discern universally available and rationally argued knowledge of God.

Psalm 19 has been a core text in the debates among Christian theologians on how
revelation relates to nature, how grace relates to reason, and how the particular relates to the
universal. This is the case because the psalm is widely (though, I shall argue, erroneously) viewed
as being split between one section that deals exclusively with nature and another one that speaks
exclusively of torah. The linkage between the two parts of this psalm (if they are to be linked at
all) plays a crucial role, then, in unlocking a biblical attitude towards the relationship between
reason and revelation, and hence this text intimates a teaching concerning a proper relationship
between philosophy and scripture. In the paper I am proposing, I will begin by examining Psalm
19 in light of the debates among Christian theologians regarding nature and revelation and in light
of the treatment of these themes in medieval Jewish exegetical tradition. I will also attend to the
ancient Near Eastern context of the psalm. Comparison with prayers to solar deities in the ancient
Near East will help demonstrate the literary unity and theological background of the psalm.
Further, the archaeologically-attested tendency of Israelites to regard the God of Israel as a sungod
will render our psalm’s attempt to compare revelation with nature both clearer and more
acute. On the basis of a reading of the psalm as a literary unity, I will move on to ask what this
poem contributes to Jewish and Christian discourses concerning how one comes to know God’s
will, to know God’s nature, and to know God’s person. Although theological and
historical/philological/comparative approaches are usually thought of as coming from opposite,
and mutually hostile, sides of biblical interpretation, I hope to show how these approaches work
quite well in concert, especially when joined to the close literary reading that rabbinic exegetes of
the Middle Ages promote. In the end, attention to the psalm’s ancient Near Eastern context will
demonstrate a close coordination between the two halves (better: stanzas) of the poem in
question. Working together, these two stanzas provide a dynamic but consistent view of how
humans in general and Israelites in particular come to understand God. This coordination will
yield a Maimonidean reading of that psalm that regards revelation as a crucial - and for Jews
indispensable - supplement to the valid knowledge of God available from reason. The psalm’s
work of supplementation will show that in the allusive and concrete manner of ancient Near
Eastern literature (rather than the abstract and propositional manner of most Western thought),
the psalm is proposing a distinction that was to play a major role in medieval and modern
theology: to wit, the distinction between knowing about God’s attributes or characteristics, on the
one hand, and knowing God and thus knowing God’s will, on the other.