Moshe Weinfeld, 1925–2009
But Where Can Wisdom Be Found?
Prof. Moshe Weinfeld passed away on April 29, 2009, on Israel’s 61st Independence Day. Weinfeld’s wisdom was biblical in its breadth and depth, both “a plastered cistern, which loseth not a drop,” and a “welling spring.” Like the biblical hakham, his knowledge was all-encompassing, encyclopedic, “from the cedar in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall.” True to his name, “Moshe was a very humble man,” and his modesty accompanied his approach to every person, both in his personal and in his academic dealings. In his scholarship, he “sought to discover useful … truthful sayings,” yet he did not present them as the only, final, and definitive word, always leaving room for further discussion. His studies, while supplying vast sources—biblical and extrabiblical—on the subject at hand, erudite and stimulating, are not of the “oracular” style. Often his research represents a new chapter in the book of knowledge, presenting the opening page while inviting others to step in after him and add their contributions to this wonderful field. Likewise, as a teacher he was never intimidating toward his students but rather was always pleasant and gracious. He shared his ideas and interpretations with his students, and we felt lucky to gain access to the man whose name we knew only too well from his many written studies.
Moshe was born in 1925 in Tsanz, Poland, home to one of the important Hassidic dynasties. Up to the age of 14 he went every morning to a Polish school, after which he was taught Jewish studies until 20:00. By then he was considered an illuy—a prodigy in Talmud and secular studies. At the beginning of the Second World War, his family escaped to Russia and was sent to Siberia, where Moshe worked in the gold mines. To keep himself awake during the long daily walks through the woods, he would recite the biblical verses he knew by heart. In 1947 Weinfeld’s family immigrated to Israel. After the forced break in his formal education, Moshe completed his high school diploma while serving in the army (1948–1950), then began his studies at the departments of Bible and Hebrew Language at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with Profs. M. D. Cassuto, Yehezkel Kaufmann, and Isac L. Seeligmann. The book of Deuteronomy, the Archimedean point of departure for modern theories regarding the authorship of the Bible, fascinated Weinfeld. His first book, published in 1972, was Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School. Now a classic in the research of Deuteronomy, this book, based on his Ph.D. dissertation, is a major contribution to the understanding of Deuteronomistic style and unique ideology. In 1991 he published a commentary on Deuteronomy 1–11 in the Anchor Bible series. Weinfeld’s study of biblical reality and ideology is well-represented in his books Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East (Hebrew 1985; ET 1995) and From Joshua to Josiah: Turning Points in the History of Israel from the Conquest of the Land until the Fall of Judah (Hebrew 1992). The perception of the Land of Israel stood in the focus of another book, The Promise of the Land: The Inheritance of the Land of Canaan by the Israelites, published in 1993. Other books that he published deal with varied subjects such as the social structure of the Qumran sect (Normative and Sectarian Judaism in the Second Temple Period, 2005) and ancient Jewish liturgy.
Indeed, Weinfeld touched upon every area in biblical study. There was no subject or text that he ignored or overlooked, that he did not explore and eventually write about. His lucid articles are read by beginners and advanced scholars alike. It is rare to find a course syllabus in the Department of Bible that does not refer to his work. Moshe may be best depicted as an Enki-Ea figure, dwelling in the seat of wisdom, having access to the sources of wisdom in the original ancient languages. He was one of the major scholars of the Bible and the ancient Near East. Law, covenant, and social justice, prophecy and poetry, historiography and propaganda, myth and wisdom—those and other subjects and literary genres characterizing the literature of the ancient Near East were his specialty, and he wrote central articles about them. His interest and knowledge encompassed not only this profusion of subjects but also extended geographically and culturally. Besides the Bible and Qumran texts, Weinfeld dealt with Mesopotamian and Egyptian sources, utilized Hittite, Ugaritic, and Aramaic texts, and was well-versed in the classical sources from Greece and Rome. Chronologically, his interests spanned from the beginning of history to the period of the sages in the first millennium C.E., delving into early Jewish liturgy as well. His writings included translations into Hebrew of such major creations as Enuma Elish, the curses in Esarhaddon’s vassal treaties, Hittite and Babylonian rituals, Mesopotamian prophecies, and Sumerian hymns to gods. He pointed to linguistic, textual, literary, ideological, political, and historical aspects of the texts he scrutinized. His memory and intuition led him to note the possible relations between compositions in particular. Overt or covert, genealogical or typological, adoptive or polemic—he drew attention to ties and hidden connections between different literary genres within the Bible, such as the story of creation and Second Isaiah or the book of Deuteronomy and wisdom literature, and to the huge impact the literature of the ancient Near East had on the Bible. In his work he revealed many hidden layers in the text and like a gold miner hewed out rare veins of treasure in the field of biblical studies. Our understanding of such subjects as the creator god, Deuteronomy, berit and hesed, biblical psalms and their parallels, and the Ten Commandments has been permanently altered by his research. Moshe Weinfeld drew a picture of a people not dwelling alone but which succeeded in taking more than a handful of the literary and intellectual wealth honed over the ages, the fruit of neighboring cultures, and adapting it to its own needs and message. Like an archaeological tel, his research accumulated to a monumental and noticeable layer in biblical research.
In 1976 Weinfeld established the Hebrew journal Shnaton for the study of the Bible and the ancient Near East, which quickly became an important publication in the field in Israel and elsewhere. He edited eleven volumes before his retirement in 1993. The volumes that have been published subsequently further prove the central place of this periodical and its role in disseminating knowledge to the initiated and the general public.
Weinfeld’s achievements have been acknowledged worldwide. He was renowned as one of the greatest scholars in the Bible and the ancient Near East. Many will remember him for his wonderful personality, too. In 1994 he received the highest Israeli honor, the Israel Prize. In 2003, his friends, colleagues, and students presented him with a jubilee volume, Sefer Moshe.
After retirement, and even after he was sick, Moshe continued to teach. When he lost his voice, he used a microphone, stopping only when it became totally impossible. During the past five years, while he dealt with his physical illness, he was still the consummate scholar, updated in all that was happening in the field, as well as with the achievements of his own students. With his death, biblical scholarship has lost a central, clear, and important voice, a gifted scholar and a dear man who found “favor and good opinion in the eyes of God and men.” We mourn with the family, his wife Shoshana and children Milka, Adi, and Malaachi.
May his memory be blessed.
Nili Wazana, Jerusalem
May 14, 2009