- In the Beginning . . . : Typology, History, and the Unfolding Meaning of Creation in Nahmanides’ Exegesis
In his important and influential essay on Nahmanides’ biblical ex gesis, Amos Funkenstein brought into focus the mechanics and interpretive methods employed in Nahmanides’ typological reading of Genesis. He demonstrated that Nahmanides manipulated the nuances of language and narrative to inscribe a figurative sense in his exegesis: “Nachmanides, just as the more mature Christian exegetes do, distinguishes clearly between words and images describing an event on the one hand, and the events themselves on the other: typological analogies rest only on the latter.” 1 Funkenstein’s analysis highlighted two central issues: the depth of symbolism implied in Nahmanides’ typology, and what he referred to as Nahmanides’ effort to restrict legitimate application of this method to a relatively limited selection of historical circumstances. 2 Funkenstein concluded that Nahmanides “insists far beyond midrashic reminiscences that the events and persons of which the Torah speaks—not the words themselves—are historiosophical symbols whether or not they are also theosophically relevant. They foreshadow, prefigure, and even predetermine events in the future of Israel.” 3 Nahmanides’ innovation, Funkenstein showed, was in defining a method for understanding stories regarding the patriarchs as historical events and as figurative narratives presented as lessons for the future.
As Funkenstein noted, typological exegesis is a tool more frequently associated with the Christian exegetical tradition than with Jewish biblical interpretations. Indeed, he suggested that the inspiration for Nahmanides’ [End Page 54] typological approach to biblical history grew from a familiarity or contact with Christian biblical interpretation. 4 However, unlike his Christian counterparts, Nahmanides resisted making typological interpretation a general rule that might be applied to any portion of the biblical text; instead, he explicitly described this technique as valid only for understanding the patriarchs. Funkenstein explained this reticence to expand the parameters of figural interpretation by the fact that Nahmanides recognized this form of biblical exegesis as a hermeneutic device of preference in Christian biblical commentary—a device frequently used to demonstrate historical progress within a closely defined paradigm that shifts the designation of chosenness from the Jews to the Christians. 5 To account for the apparent contradiction between Nahmanides’ introduction of typological exegesis and its limitation, Funkenstein provided a careful appraisal of Nahmanides’ ambivalence toward typology. He raised five crucial points:
• Nahmanides was afraid that a broad application of figurative or typological interpretation would open a clear field for Christian polemical attacks.
• It was not necessary that the biblical narrative be stretched to demonstrate the chosenness of the Jewish people or to accommodate, in Funkenstein’s words, “the unity-within-diversity of two or more successive revelations.” 6
• Medieval Jewish commentators, including Nahmanides, were more interested in contemplating the mysteries of God than the vicissitudes of history.
• When kabbalists in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries—and Funkenstein again included Nahmanides in this group—did ponder biblical historical data, they concerned themselves with the scripture’s textuality more than with the thematic content.
• Unlike Christianity, Judaism is not built around the assumption of progress, so Jewish interpreters for the most part are not driven to invest repeating themes or events with a deeper signification.
In Funkenstein’s final estimation, typology provided Nahmanides with a very effective means of emphasizing the symbolic element in biblical narrative but not a method of understanding and decoding the vicissitudes of history in general. By treating this typology as pure symbol, Funkenstein effectively overlooked the fact that practical—in addition to symbolic—historical reckoning was a dominant theme throughout Nahmanides’ later writings. I will argue here that an organized conception of temporality contributed to and shaped Nahmanides’ [End Page 55] unusual, even radical mode of exegesis. For Nahmanides, the Bible comprised not just a narrative representation of the shape of historical time but also (in terms of the narrative flow, the grammatical construction, and the numerical value of text) a real physical embodiment of history, of the divine plan. The crucial element in Nahmanides’ view of text and history was the steadfast belief that time itself has a purpose, namely to provide a qualitative and quantitative rhythm to the generations of human life.
Nahmanides read the book of Genesis...