Persons and Other Things
Exploring the Philosophy of the Hebrew Bible
- ISBN: 9781487508982
- Published By: University of Toronto Press
- Published: August 2021
Mark Glouberman’s Persons and Other Things: Exploring the Philosophy of the Hebrew Bible is divided into three parts. The title of the first, “Persons,” focuses on an original thesis of the author concerning the ontological status of persons in the Hebrew Bible. The second, “Passages,” is an extension of the ideas of the first part, while the third, “Things,” takes up a number of additional topics, ranging from Judaism and Jewish culture to Charles Taylor and René Descartes. Here too, the topic of the first two parts shows up from time to time. Because of its centrality to the book, I will confine my review to this topic.
Before doing that, I must tell the reader that Glouberman has a most distinctive style that will lure some and dumbfound others. The book is full of engaging witticisms. There is hardly a paragraph in which there is not a pun or a play on words. And the book is packed with off-hand references to world literature, mythology, history, and philosophy, many of them beyond the ken of most readers. I found the style to be both challenging and at times worthy of a good laugh out loud. To get the most out of this book, be prepared to read it with Google right next to you. On the other hand, the countless non-essential asides, however impressive, can throw the reader off course at times. But stick with it.
Glouberman’s novel, brilliant thesis is that there is an essential difference between the ontologies of humanity presented in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, respectively. In Genesis 1, humanity appears as one of the world’s species, part of the natural system, whereas in Genesis 2 human beings are independent individuals, not part of the natural system. Glouberman argues that Genesis 2, and not Genesis 1, sets what becomes the biblical understanding of persons in the Hebrew Bible. what follows.
Here is the idea in its bare outlines. In Genesis 1, God creates humankind (along with all the other species), meaning we should read 1:27 as “So God created humankind [Hebrew: “ha-adam”] in His own image,” not “So God created a man in His own image.” In that first chapter, there is no reference to a first man or first woman; rather, an entire species comes into existence: “Male and female created He them.” Many humans are created from the start, just as with the other species. The topic is the species of humankind as such, no individual persons, just as there are no significant, individual cows or mammoths for Genesis 1.
God creates humans in the “image of God” and tells them to have dominion over the other species. Ordinarily, these are thought of as two distinct acts of God, first bestowing the image of God, and after that giving dominion to “Man.” Glouberman sees this as a unified act, “Since being in the image of God means possessing dominion. Just as God has dominion over the world, so humankind, in its own way, shall have dominion over the other species. Having dominion just is what the image of God amounts to. Glouberman is sure to note, however, that this does not mean that humans have a right to abuse nature. While God bestows considerable powers on humankind, this does not give men and women license “to act heedless of consequences except as they impinge on their own well-being. It’s rather intended to explain how men and women differ from other (natural) species” (101).
Glouberman sees this species-centric understanding of humankind as matching Greek thought. But Genesis 2, for him, departs from that mindset to endorse a new philosophical idea, that a person should be defined as an individual, and not as a member of the species of humankind. And this former conception dislodges the thinking of Genesis 1 and becomes the determining philosophical category of humans in the Hebrew Bible.
Here is the idea. In Genesis 2, God, the Single One, creates the first human alone, as a single individual. This creative act is described in Genesis 2, where no mention is made of any broader human species. And God creates this creature not from a distance with a “Let there be….” declaration, but by directly fashioning this person: “And the Lord God formed the man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). In this telling, the image of God is individualistic: just as God is wholly an individual, so is each person. And just as God is not part of the natural order, neither is the first man. We are not a part of the natural scheme of things. And so, God places Adam in an orderly garden that God plants, set apart from the wild and haphazard realm of nature, as befits a creature separated from nature.
The story of the sin of Adam and Eve furthers the theme by highlighting the fact that Adam and Eve are “misfits among creatures” (59). Only they can act against the order that God has decreed. First and foremost, they have dominion over themselves. They have the ability to sin and are not bound by the character of a species, which God determines. The story of the first sin is one of “separateness and particularity.” Further along, we hear echoes of Genesis 2 in the story of Abraham, who leaves his father’s house and his native land. Abraham is not bound by his natural home and culture. He is being called to be an individual. The same applies to any number of other figures in biblical history.
Persons and Other Things upsets ageless readings of the Hebrew Bible, chiefly by delineating a profound philosophical difference between the two opening chapters, but also by offering an entirely new notion of the image of God and a different understanding of the first sin. One can argue with this book’s thesis, but it cannot be ignored. Let us hope that others will engage this book with the seriousness it deserves.
Jerome Gellman is an emeritus professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.Jerome GellmanDate Of Review:October 24, 2022