Wednesday, July 29, 2009

History, Story and the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible

Probably because I've been reading Megan Moore's book, Philosophy and Practice in Writing a History of Ancient Israel, in fact I've just finished it, but questions of history and text are really to the fore at the moment. But my last couple of posts are New Testament focused and I want to come back to my home turf, Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.

Over the last couple of decades there has been a bit of a history/culture war between what everyone terms minimalists and what Ed Conrad has called maximalists and Moore terms non-minimalists over how to do a history of Ancient Israel and the role the biblical texts should play in such an enterprise. I said in one of my earlier posts that for too long "biblical studies has been understood as a variant of history, digging around in the texts to ascertain what actually happened." Too often most of the so-called history has been little more than elaborate paraphrases of biblical narrative, but too often without any of the literary merit of the biblical text itself.

As part of the biblical history process, there has been the digging around in the texts, worse the dissolving of the texts to create new ones, hypothetical ones such as the Book of J or first Isaiah and so forth. These are then used in a kind of circular process to verify the historicity of the biblical narrative because these hypothetical source texts are seen as artefacts in that history even though they are really nothing more than scholarly constructions. I knew a colleague once who was very critical of the Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch. He would always say that he was keen to get to heaven and see if he would meet the Yahwist - "Hi, I'm Sam Yahwist, the author of J" - we'd always chuckle over that line.

And as with the New Testament, there was also a role for oral tradition but whereas in NT it was only a matter of a number of generations with the OT and primarily the Genesis stories of patriarchs and matriarchs it was an oral history handed down over many centuries. However in the 70s the historicity of those narratives really began to be questioned and nowadays we are all pretty much minimalists when it comes to Genesis. To try and read Genesis as history really misses the point of the stories which, when treated as sacred stories, are found to be rich in a plethora of meanings, that are obscured by, lost through trying to treat them as history.

The same applies to the Exodus stories and it was brought home to me the other day at Mass most strikingly. Currently in the daily lectionary, the Old Testament readings are from Exodus. Monday's reading concerned Moses confrontation with the golden calf and the ensuing events in Exodus 32. My attention was particularly caught by this

21 He said to Aaron, "What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?" 22 "Do not be angry, my lord," Aaron answered. "You know how prone these people are to evil."

What we have here is an example of a recurring pattern throughout these texts of putting down, abjecting the past, the ancestors. It's found in Genesis, most dramatically in the account of Joseph and his brothers. It runs all the way through the exodus accounts from Exodus to Deuteronomy, in a setting where the Israelites are almost in constant, dare I say, intimate contact with the LORD. In Joshua the triumphant (and genocidal) entry into the land sputters out towards the end into an almost civil war and ominous warnings from Joshua. Judges is a carnivalesque world were everything is topsy turvy finally spinning out of control with the parodically sociopathic Samson to culminate in the outrage at Gibeah and civil war followed by pack rape to close laconically saying "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes." Judges is pretty much an anti-heroic narrative, at times employing a fairly morbid sense of humour as in the accounts of Jephthah and his daughter and Abimelech. The Samson story, too, is sociopathic comedy. But history? No more than the Iliad or the Odyssey or the Epic of Gilgamesh, in other words not much at all.

In Christian Bibles Judges is followed by Ruth but in Jewish Bibles the narrative moves straight into Samuel. While Judges closes seeming to say, "if only we had a king we'd be fine" Samuel and then Kings basically reply "be careful what you ask for" These Israelites are pretty bad left to their own devices but under kings they screw up even more, so much more that first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians are sent by God to put an end to the whole Israelite experiment itself.

This same pattern of abjecting the ancestors is maintained in the (latter) prophetic books (as it is also in 1 Enoch) which serve really as a commentary on the whole primary 'history' Again oral tradition used to be invoked in using these texts as history. Now it's possible to imagine a community dedicated to the memory of a Jeremiah or maybe an Isaiah but what about an Obadiah or a Joel (if we can actually ascertain in what time period Joel is actually set) or a Nahum? And is it a coincidence that the names of these prophets have something to do with the themes of the texts which bear their names. I'm most familiar with Isaiah and the Twelve Minor Prophets and the one thing that strikes me most about these two texts is how much they read as scripts for perfomance pieces. More than anything else Isaiah reminds me of a liturgical performance; is it really a libretto?

Many of the Psalms, too, read as commentary. Again that was brought home to me most strikingly on Monday by the Responsorial Psalm which was from Psalm 105/106, a long piece proclaiming the wickedness of the Israel including the incident of the Golden Calf

19They made a calf in Horeb
and worshiped a metal image.
20They exchanged the glory of God
for the image of an ox that eats grass.
21They forgot God, their Savior,
who had done great things in Egypt,
22wondrous works in the land of Ham,
and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.
23Therefore he said he would destroy them—
had not Moses, his chosen one,
stood in the breach before him,
to turn away his wrath from destroying them.

In his In Search of 'Ancient Israel', Philip Davies speculates that the greater part of the Hebrew scriptures were composed pretty much contemporaneously. I remember at the time being quite excited by this idea. It made more sense to me than the notion of the rolling book(s) that moves through the centuries accumulating and absorbing additional text in a quite passive way. It always passes through the hands of generations of editors and there is no author to be seen almost anywhere. Something about that struck me as wrong - again it seemed too disturbingly linear and oddly passive. So the idea of them being composed deliberately as part of a broader project has a strong appeal. After all, these texts are remaking a religious tradition or several, I think, in response to the shock of Empire. In parts they incorporate older sources, in parts they rewrite and revise older sources and in other parts they compose wholly new material and most of the time it's not really clear which is which.

The most important history in these texts pertains to religious ideas and imagery. A good example is again in Monday's reading Exodus 32. After the destroying the Golden Calf Moses goes before the LORD and says

30The next day Moses said to the people, "You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin." 31So Moses returned to the LORD and said, "Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. 32But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of"> your book that you have written."

This whole scene is strongly evocative of the High Priest's role on the Day of Atonement. Perhaps the words in Moses mouth are from the very ritual itself. Perhaps. We can't know for sure and that's where the need for humility, of recognising the contingency of all readings, enters in.

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