Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Continuing Power of Biblical Narratives

In the last couple of weeks I've had a number of opportunities to talk Bible with people in social situations. Every occasion I've come away with a renewed appreciation of just how influential the various biblical narratives are in the collective memory and also frustrated that people are not equipped to engage with this biblical power but have learnt to accept the narratives as real history.

So I'm regularly pointing out to people that there is no evidence that there ever was a David or Solomon, not to mention a Moses or an exodus. I even once had to tackle a religious affairs journalist on the ABC who described ancient Judaism as a tribalistic religion in contrast to the sophisticated Hellenistic culture around it. And people still carry the idea that ancient Jews were something like Bedouins, tribes that rode into Palestine and settled down there and that all the stange food laws and so forth come from their supposedly primitive tribal background.

Well, of course, none of that is true or, at least, verified by archeology. Indeed, the results of many years of Israeli archeology have shown that the 'history' recorded in Old Testament narratives is really creative fiction or maybe a form of historical midrash given that some apsects of the later 'history' can be verified by other means. And I have to be careful about using the word 'verified'. Such verification is simply that we have records that certain monarchs in the books of Kings and Chronicles did exist but we don't know much about them and we can't say that the biblical accounts of them give details of actual events (and the accounts in Chronicles and Kings are often in conflict, the wicked king, Manasseh, is a very good example). We also have no evidence for the existence for any of the biblical prophets. Certainly the biblical Jeremiah and Ezekiel are colourful characters. Isaiah is less so but subsequent texts about him, e.g. the Ascension of Isaiah, flesh him out more as a character. But what about Obadiah or Joel or Malachi? Indeed, we have much more information about the figure of (the prophet) Enoch than any of the Twelve Minor Prophets.

In part the power of the text is exercised through the sheer mass of cultural after effects in art, film, literature and music. Leonard Cohen is in town and his song Hallelujah riffs off the stories of David and Saul and Bathsheba in Samuel. It's a superb song and has been covered by a number of artists including the late Jeff Buckley, not to mention John Cale, k.d.laing, Rufus Wainwright and many others. I also remember an epsiode of the kids cartoon series, Rugrats, which gave a Rugrats version of the Exodus story, obviously as a seasonal contribution for Passover. These are just two examples from popular culture. Furthermore most histories of the ancient Middle East simply give a paraphrase of the Old Testament narratives when dealing with ancient Palestine. When I was tutoring for the Introduction to World Religions course at University of Qld many years ago, I'd always have to tell the class every year to ignore the accounts in the text book of ancient Israelite/Jewish religion. All that stufff about David Solomon, kings, prophets, wandering tribes, the Yahwist, 1st & 2nd Isaiah, Ezra, Nehemiah was all so much fiction or biblical paraphrase.

Ironically, I think the Book of Joshua, the one that no one likes, with its images of invasion, genocide and holy war, is the text that more than any other exposes the constructed nature of this history and in fact says that there really wasn't an invasion, that Israelites were really all the time Canaanites.

So in subsequent posts I'll have more to say about the history of Israel and the origins of biblical religion and its texts. I'll also post more on Joshua and the strange deconstructions encountered there.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps the most egregious example of this phenomenon is our society's embrace of the Noah's ark story, frequently displayed as a frieze in child care centres and hospitals. Surely it can only be the anesthetising effect of overfamiliarity that would see a story of a supposedly loving god purposefully drowning every animal, child, woman, and man not safely stowed on the ark as suitable for children's consumption. I'm frequently galled by how appalled we are by stuff in the Qu'uran, whilst oblivious to the god-mandated genocide repeatedly reported in the Old Testament. So what's your prescription for raising awareness Michael?