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The Word of God

Torah as the Word of God

by Professor Jacob Ross
University of Tel-Aviv

The US philosopher of religion Nicholas Wolterstorff (b. 1932) opened his book Divine Discourse, based on his Wilde lectures at the University of Oxford in 1993,(1) with a quotation from the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906–95), aiming to show the audacity of the claim that God speaks to man.
Levinas writes as follows:
Our world lies before us, enabling us, in its coherence and constancy, to perceive it, enjoy it, and think about it; it offers us its reflections, metaphors and signs to interpret and study. Within this world, it appears that the opening of certain books can cause the abrupt invasion of truth from outside … How can we make sense of the ‘exteriority’ of the truths and signs of the Revelation which strike the human faculty known as reason? It is a faculty which despite its ‘interiority’, is equal to whatever the world confronts us with. But how can these truths and signs strike our reason if they are not even of this world?
These questions are indeed urgent ones for us today, and they confront anyone who may still be responsible to these truths and signs but who is troubled to some degree – as a modern person – by the news of the end of metaphysics, by the triumphs of psychoanalysis, sociology and political economy; someone who has learnt from linguistics that meaning is produced by signs without signifieds and who, confronted with all these intellectual splendours – or shadows – sometimes wonders if he is not witnessing the magnificent funeral celebrations held in honour of a dead god.(2)
Obviously stimulated by the reference in the passage to ‘the opening of certain books that can cause the abrupt invasion of truths from outside’, Wolterstorff began his first chapter by presenting the story of St Augustine’s conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, after meeting two fellow North Africans in the Italian city of Milan, as a primary example of God’s speaking. Their discussion of asceticism and the monastic life led St Augustine to tormenting reflections on his own manner of existence. He left his companions, threw himself under a fig tree and heard a child’s voice calling out ‘Take it and read. Take it and read!’ This reminded him of a story he had just heard concerning St Antony who had adopted the monastic life on hearing an appropriate verse from the Gospels being read in a church which he happened to visit. So he got up and ran back to the house where he had seen a book containing St Paul’s Epistles, opened the book and read the first passage on which his eye fell. This told him: ‘Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries’. He had no need or desire to read on. St Augustine wrote: ‘it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled’.(3) He was sure that God had spoken to him. So it is not only about the direct speech of God to the prophets and other human beings of which we are speaking. It is also the idea of indirect speech of God through the Holy Scriptures that must be explained. For as Wolterstorff correctly concludes, ‘Not only are such attributions as this characteristic of Jews, Christians and Muslims; they are fundamental in the religious thought of these communities and in theological reflections of their scholars’.(4)
Levinas himself, in the article from which Wolterstorff was quoting, went on to tell his readers that he accepted the account of the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005) regarding the nature of divine Revelation and speech, as set out in Ricoeur’s essay ‘Towards a Hermeneutic of the Idea of Revelation’.(5) Levinas therefore devoted his own article mostly to the Oral Law which, in the Rabbinic tradition, was said to have accompanied the giving of the Torah to Moses, and guided its interpretation and application in all subsequent generations. According to this, the Torah, once delivered to Moses, was no longer ‘in Heaven’, but in the hands of Joshua, the elders, the prophets, the judges (of the First Temple period), members of the Great Assembly (of the early Second Temple period) and the judges and rabbis of later tradition. Wolterstorff praises Ricoeur’s essay for its close look at the biblical text and his classification of this into five genres: prophetic discourse, narrative discourse, prescriptive discourse, wisdom discourse and hymnal discourse.
Since Ricoeur regards prophetic discourse as the original nucleus of the traditional idea of revelation, he takes this as his ‘basic axis for inquiry’. Thus, each time that Ricoeur moves to a new genre he asks what in it is analogous to what was identified as revelation in the preceding discourses. At the end he arrives, so he claims, ‘at a polysemic and polyphonic concept of revelation’, as something ‘at most analogical in form’. At this point Wolterstorff dissents and accuses Ricoeur of having left the speech of God entirely out of the picture, supplanted it with the notion of manifestation. This, he says, is indeed one form of revelation. But instead of dealing with the different forms of biblical discourse in terms of texts and the ‘worlds’ they ‘project’ (as do Ricoeur and other theoreticians of the Hermeneutic school), Wolterstorff prefers to think about speaking in the context of the speech-act theory of J. L. Austin (1911–60), initiated some forty years before his Wilde Lectures at Oxford. The theory makes a distinction between locutionary and illocutionary acts. The former refer to the acts of uttering or inscribing words, and the latter to acts performed by way of illocutionary acts, such as asking, asserting, commanding and promising. Wolterstorff writes:
Once illocutionary acts are thus distinguished from locutionary acts then it immediately occurs to one that though of course such acts as asking, asserting, demanding, and promising, can be performed by way of uttering or inscribing sentences, they can be performed in many other ways as well. One can say something by producing a blaze, or smoke, or a sequence of light flashes. Even more interesting: one can tell somebody something by deputizing someone else to speak on one’s behalf. Perhaps the attribution of speech to God by Jews, Christians, Muslims, should be understood as the attribution to God of illocutionary actions, leaving it open how God performs these actions – maybe by bringing about the sounds or characters of some natural language, maybe not.(6)
The ‘may not’ alternative is one which is reminiscent of Maimonides. But Wolterstorff specifically singles out Maimonides’s view as one that he rejects. This is because Maimonides belongs to that scholastic tradition which assumed that divine speech must be reducible to divine revelation. This is so since God has no vocal chords with which to utter words and no hands with which to write them down. God cannot literally speak or be a participant in a linguistic community. For this reason the attribution of speech to God must be taken as metaphorical.
Moses Maimonides in the "Guide of the Perplexed" writes that:
All these acts are only performed by means of bodily organs, all these organs are figuratively ascribed to Him; those by means of which local motion takes place – I mean the feet and their soles; those by means of which hearing, seeing, and smelling come about – i.e., the ear, the eye, and the nose; those by means of which speech and the matter of speech are produced – i.e., the mouth, the tongue, and the voice… To sum up all this, God, may He be exalted above every deficiency, has had bodily organs ascribed to Him in order that His acts should be indicated by this means, and those particular acts are figuratively assigned to Him in order to indicate a certain perfection; which is not identical with the particular act mentioned… Action and speech are ascribed to God so that an overflow proceeding from Him would thereby be indicated… Organs of speech [are] mentioned with a view to indicating the overflow of intellect towards the prophets.(7)
Wolterstorff notes that a contemporary theologian (Sandra M. Schneider) shares the same view in her book, The Revelatory Text, and maintains that this view overlooks the possibility that God might cause soundings-out or inscribings of words even though God has no body, and that in any case, according to speech-act theory, speaking itself is the act of communication, rather than the verbalizing or writing. This criticism by Wolterstorff seems to me unfair, since in the final development of his ideas he comes close to saying something very similar to Maimonides. In any case, the theory of overflow (shefa) which Maimonides notes is a medieval version of Arabic neo-Platonism which gives metaphysical strength to the notion of inspiration.


This is something which the view of Ricoeur virtually parallels in his understanding that all forms of biblical text may be regarded poetically as being ‘inspired’ by the Holy Ghost. But whereas Ricoeur and his pupil Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) denied the centrality of ‘authorial intention’ in the interpretation of texts, including the texts of Holy Scriptures, Wolterstorff seems to offer qualified support to the notion of ‘authorial intention’ in order to promote the possibility that God can continue to speak to individuals through the Scriptures, and otherwise, even today. But there is to my mind no necessary connection between ‘authorial intention’ and this possibility.
If we may be permitted, then, to deal with the topic of ‘divine revelation’ as Torah min Hashamayim in modern traditional Judaism, and assess the theological views of Louis Jacobs and others, we will discover that Jacobs came very close to the views of Ricoeur and Levinas in his early writings. However, he made the mistake (which he later corrected) of thinking that if the word of God is both divine and human, there is a way of pointing out that anachronistic views regarding morality such as the total destruction of the Amalekites are not truly the word of God. What he should have realized was that, in accordance with the notion of ‘divine accommodation’ as used by many Jewish thinkers, especially Maimonides, the more sensible view is that God accommodated His commandments to the times of the occurrences in the Bible, so it suited His divine purpose to employ the laws of warfare as understood in those times rather than ours. Much more remains to be said, clearly, about the traditional doctrine of Torah as the word of God and the possibility of accepting some more critical views in biblical studies, together with the rabbinic view of Torah min Hashamayim.
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  1. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) 8–9.
  2. ‘Revelation in the Jewish Tradition’, in Sean Hand (ed.) The Levinas Reader (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989) 191.
  3. Confessions VIII, 12: 29.
  4. Wolterstorff (see n. 1) 8.
  5. Paul Ricoeur, ‘Towards a Hermeneutic of the Idea of Revelation’, in his Essays on Biblical Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980).
  6. Wolterstorff (see n. 1) 13.
  7. Moses Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, trans. Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963) I:46, pp. 99–100.