Shaye Cohen Discusses Joseph Bekhor Shor and Allegory

Shaye Cohen, the Nathan Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard University, has an interesting piece over at on whether the Torah should be understood as an allegory. I’ve benefited from Cohen’s lecture series covering the entirety of the Hebrew Bible. He asks good questions and offers unique perspectives.

In this article entitled “The Torah Is Not Allegory,” Cohen discusses the twelfth century rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor who wrote a commentary on the Torah. As Cohen notes, Bekhor Shor was known for attacking erroneous interpretations of biblical texts, particularly those of Christians. Allegorizing texts of the Hebrew Bible was practiced among many Christians in the medieval period and Bekhor Shor attacked those views head on. He also attacked Christian doctrines such as the Trinity. Cohen writes,

In Bekhor Shor’s understanding, the Christians think that Moses speaks in allegory and parable and that the Torah’s laws have no “actual” (ממש) meaning, since the verses can be twisted to yield any meaning at all.  Bekhor Shor is essentially turning an old polemic back against its source. Christian scholars argued that the Jews have misinterpreted scripture by reading it literally and missing its spiritual message; Bekhor Shor responds that, in fact, it is the Christians who are misreading.

The passage in question is Numbers 12:6-8.

And he said, “Hear my words:

When there are prophets among you,
I the Lord make myself known to them in visions;
I speak to them in dreams.
Not so with my servant Moses;
he is entrusted with all my house.
With him I speak face to face – clearly; not in riddles;
and he beholds the form of the LORD.

Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?

It is tempting to read this passage in light of later texts, particularly Christian ones like John 1:18, and force the passage to say something other than what it clearly means. Cohen quotes Bekhor Shor who says,

And thus the arm of the nations of the world is broken, for they say that what Moses our teacher said is an allegory, that is, a riddle and a parable, and does not mean what he actually says. And they change his prophecy into something else and they totally distort his meaning.

You can read the rest of the piece here.

Featured image: By Willem Blaeu – This file has been extracted from another file: Willem Janszoon Blaeu and Joan Blaeu. Terra Sancta quae in Sacris Terra Promissionis olim Palestina. 1648-1664.jpg, Public Domain,

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