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Defending Ibn Ezra

Defending Ibn Ezra

Poor Abraham Ibn Ezra! In Jewish discussions of the authorship of the Pentateuch, in particular of the Book of Deuteronomy (Devarim), this great 12th-century commentator and linguist has been so often misquoted, misinterpreted and misunderstood.

In his “Sabbath Week” column, “Who Wrote Devarim?” (Aug. 12), Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman continues that unfortunate tradition.

Ibn Ezra, like the virtually entire tradition of classical Jewish biblical interpretation, believed that the Torah was substantially complete upon the entry of the Israelites into Canaan. He in no way anticipates so-called higher biblical criticism or the Documentary Hypothesis, although since the time of Spinoza he has been cited as advocating such views by Jews who searched within earlier Jewish tradition for support of their untraditional views.

In fact, Ibn Ezra’s view on the authorship of the last verses in the Pentateuch differs from one of the views in rabbinic literature only in the number of verses that are deemed to be written by Joshua. In several other passages, Ibn Ezra suggests that a few words each in several verses in Genesis and in Deuteronomy are non-Mosaic, but that is all. When it comes to an only slightly larger unit of text, he fulminates against one Yitzhaki, identified by many with the 11th-century Yitzhak ibn Yashush, who claimed that the list of Edomite kings in Genesis 36 was written long after Moses. In a remark at the end of the introduction to his commentary on Psalms, Ibn Ezra writes, “There is no doubt among the Israelites that our Master, Moses, peace be upon him, wrote the Book of Genesis, for that is the tradition of our holy ancestors, even though it does not say at the beginning, ‘the Lord Spoke.’”

Modern Jews have the luxury of accepting or rejecting traditional views of issues such as “Who wrote Devarim?” but it is clearly inaccurate to claim that a modern nontraditional view was held by a medieval exegete whose writings make it quite clear that he would have disagreed vehemently with it.

Professor of Bible and Jewish History
Denenberg Chair in Biblical Studies
Yeshiva University

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