The Hebrew Bible (also called the Tanakh) is sacred scripture for more than half the world’s population. But even as religious fundamentalists cite chapter and verse in support of their competing doctrinal claims, modern critical scholarship has uncovered a radically new biblical narrative, revolutionizing our understanding of the Bible. These modern scholars, however, too often focus on the plain meaning of the biblical text, ignoring the ancient hermeneutical tradition that explains the methods by which that text is encoded. The Zohar (13th century c.e.), the leading work of the Jewish mystical tradition, describes this encoding of Hebrew scripture in this way:
Woe to the person who says that Torah intended to present a mere story and ordinary words! For if so, we could compose a Torah right now with ordinary words, and more laudable than all of them [in the existing Torah]!... Therefore, concerning Torah, one should look only at what is beneath the garment. So all these words and all these stories are garments.
So, how then does one remove the “garments” of Hebrew scripture, gaining access to the story behind the story? The book Torah Nondualism explains in plain language some of the complex hermeneutical techniques recorded in ancient biblical commentaries, persuasively demonstrating that Hebrew scripture is encoded and revealing how to pierce that code. The book then combines those ancient hermeneutical techniques with the methods of modern critical scholarship to unlock the Hebrew Bible as never before, revealing a hidden subtext previously known only to a few experts and hinted about in obscure Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts. And the basic theme of that subtext is the synthesis of both diversity and conflict in a world in which God is understood to be the one power at the source of all things, whether familiar or foreign, good or evil. (For an example of how the Torah uses scribal hermeneutics to convey its nondual message, click here.)
The analysis is divided into five parts. Part One is a commentary on the book of Genesis. As we explore the rich motifs of Genesis, we will see that the Torah has its roots in two religious cultures (Egyptian and Canaanite), and that this subtle ideological division within the Torah reflects the complex history of two rival kingdoms (Judah and Israel). Part One begins by exploring the many areas of correspondence between Genesis and ancient Egyptian mythology. It then turns to the Canaanite religion and demonstrates the many ways in which the Torah integrates Egyptian and Canaanite religious ideas. (For more detail on how the Torah integrates two religious cultures, click here.)
Part Two is a commentary on the book of Exodus. The primary focus of Part Two is the divine name yhvh, the most sacred name of God in Judaism. yhvh is the divine name used by Moses, the Egyptian prince, and Part Two demonstrates, by scribal hermeneutics and by a close reading of the Torah’s own text, that the name yhvh is an encoded reference to the Egyptian god Thoth. (For more detail on the secret of the divine name yhvh, click here.) Thus, Part Two offers scholars of Hebrew scripture access to the single most significant secret of the Torah, known among Jewish mystics as “the great secret of the name” (ha-sod ha-godol ha-shem). This secret demonstrates that the Torah is fundamentally a syncretistic text aimed at harmonizing Egypt’s venerable Thoth cult with Canaan’s rival El cult.
Part Three, which concerns the book of Leviticus, takes the reader on an intellectual excursion to South Asia, presenting a brief introduction to Vedic thought. Leviticus focuses, among other things, on ritual fire sacrifice, a once ubiquitous form of worship that continues today primarily in South Asia. (For a description of South Asian fire sacrifice, excerpted from Part Three, click here.) South Asia thus functions as a time capsule of sorts, preserving ancient ideas about sacrificial worship, and therefore Part Three seeks to deepen our understanding of ancient Jewish sacrificial ritual by comparing it to its Vedic counterpart, analyzing the common modes of thought that make both ritual systems comprehensible. In particular, Part Three shows that the Jewish fire sacrifice operated as an enacted metaphor that unified diverse human experiences, thus enabling a person to repair, through ritual action, the way he or she viewed and engaged the external world. (The introductory section to Part Three is posted here.)
Part Four, an essay on the book of Numbers, introduces a thesis that is even more provocative than the assertion that yhvh is the Egyptian god Thoth. Part Four argues that after a deadly confrontation with a band of Israelite rebels, Moses and Aaron were arrested, charged with capital offenses, tried, convicted, and — in accordance with God’s word — Aaron was executed, dying as a martyr. (For more detail on Moses’ capital offense, click here.) That, of course, is a huge interpretive claim, but it is one that finds undeniable support in the Torah’s encoded text and also in the esoteric Jewish tradition, as Part Four shows.
Part Five, an explication of Deuteronomy, carries the provocative thesis of Part Four a step further. The book of Deuteronomy introduces a new set of chauvinistic values to the Torah, supplanting the Egypt-Canaan syncretism of Genesis and Exodus with a denunciation of Canaan’s religious culture in favor of a centralized, pro-Jerusalem, pro-yhvh religious model. Deuteronomy achieves this ideological shift through the guise of relating Moses’ last words to the Israelites. But the clearly revisionist content of Deuteronomy suggests that the book was composed at a relatively late date, when Judah and Israel were established kingdoms with an agrarian, not a pastoral, economy. Deuteronomy was probably put into semi-final form shortly after the fall of the Kingdom of Israel (the Northern Kingdom), when the Kingdom of Judah (the Southern Kingdom) was struggling to absorb Ba‘al-worshiping refugees from its northern neighbor, and when Judean kings were seeking to consolidate political and cultic authority in Jerusalem, where yhvh, not Ba‘al, was worshiped. Deuteronomy not coincidentally reflects those concerns — concerns that prevailed in the 7th century b.c.e., which just happens to be the time when the book of Deuteronomy was rather conveniently “found” in the Jerusalem temple. The effort to assimilate refugees from the Kingdom of Israel into the yhvh-worshiping Southern Kingdom explains the famous declaration of faith set forth Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel; yhvh is our god; yhvh is one and only.” (Deuteronomy 6:4.) In short, Deuteronomy modifies the Torah in ways that serve the interests of a particular political regime, and it corresponds to the historical reality of a particular time. (For more detail on how King Josiah (649-609 b.c.e.) changed Judaism, click here.)
Nonetheless, Deuteronomy’s recapitulation and revision of the Torah also includes a beautiful and compelling justification by Moses of his own actions while leading the Israelites. When the latter point is considered in light of the hidden subtext of the book of Numbers, we see that Deuteronomy — even if composed long after Moses’ death — takes the literary form of Moses’ defense at his own trial for capital murder, ending in a description of his martyrdom at God’s command. Deuteronomy is, thus, a powerful Hebrew analog to Plato’s Apologia Socratis.
For a thorough exploration of these ideas and more, please read Torah Nondualism: Diversity, Conflict, and Synthesis in the Pentateuch.