This research series of writing’s provides an introduction to the literature of the Hebrew Bible and its structure and contents. Common misconceptions about the Bible are dispelled: the Bible is a library of books from diverse times and places rather than a single, unified book; biblical narratives contain complex themes and realistic characters and are not “pious parables” about saintly persons; the Bible is a literarily sophisticated narrative not for children; the Bible is an account of the odyssey of a people rather than a book of theology; and finally, the Bible was written by many human contributors with diverse perspectives and viewpoints
You don’t need me to tell you that human civilization is very, very old. Nevertheless, our knowledge of the earliest stages of human civilization was quite limited for many centuries. That is, until the great archaeological discoveries of the nineteenth and twentieth century’s, which unearthed for us the great civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Mediterranean, I always start with the Mediterranean Ocean, the Nile River, the Tigris and the Euphrates. So: the great civilizations of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and the area we refer to as the Fertile Crescent, of which a little part here about the size of Rhodes Island is Canaan. And archaeologists in the nineteenth and twentieth century’s were stunned to find the ruins and the records of remarkable peoples and cultures – massive, complex empires in some cases but some of which had completely disappeared from human memory. Their newly uncovered languages had been long forgotten; their rich literary and legal texts were now indecipherable. That soon changed. But because of those discoveries, we are now in a position to appreciate the monumental achievements of these early civilizations, these earliest civilizations.
And so many scholars, and many people, have remarked that it’s not a small irony that the Ancient Near Eastern people with one of the, or perhaps the most lasting legacy, was not a people that built and inhabited one of the great centres of Ancient Near Eastern civilization. It can be argued that the Ancient Near Eastern people with the most lasting legacy are a people that had an idea. It was a new idea that broke with the ideas of its neighbours’, and those people were the Israelites. And scholars have come to the realization that despite the Bible’s pretensions to the contrary, the Israelites were a small, and I’ve actually overrepresented it here, I’m sure it should be much smaller, a small and relatively insignificant group for much of their history.
They did manage to establish a kingdom in the land that was known in antiquity as Canaan around the year 1000. They probably succeeded in subduing some of their neighbours, collecting tribute – there’s some controversy about that – but in about 922 [BCE] this kingdom divided into two smaller and lesser kingdoms that fell in importance. The northern kingdom, which consisted of ten of the twelve Israelite tribes, and known confusingly as Israel, was destroyed in 722 [BCE] by the Assyrians. The southern kingdom, which consisted of two of the twelve tribes and known as Judah, managed to survive until the year 586 [BCE] when the Babylonians came in and conquered and sent the people into exile. The capital, Jerusalem, fell.
Conquest and exile were events that normally would spell the end of a particular ethnic national group, particularly in antiquity. Conquered peoples would trade their defeated god for the victorious god of their conquerors and eventually there would be a cultural and religious assimilation, intermarriage. That people would disappear as a distinctive entity, and in effect, that is what happened to the ten tribes of the northern kingdom to a large degree. They were lost to history. This did not happen to those members of the nation of Israel who lived in the southern kingdom, Judah.
Despite the demise of their national political base in 586 [BCE], the Israelites alone, really, among the many peoples who have figured in Ancient Near Eastern history – the Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Babylonians, the Hittites, the Phoenicians, the Hurrians, the Canaanites – they emerged after the death of their state, producing a community and a culture that can be traced through various twists and turns and vicissitudes of history right down into the modern period. That’s a pretty unique claim. And they carried with them the idea and the traditions that laid the foundation for the major religions of the western world: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
So what is this radical new idea that shaped a culture and enabled its survival into later antiquity and really right into the present day in some form? Well, the conception of the universe that was widespread among ancient peoples is one that you’re probably familiar with. People regarded the various natural forces as imbued with divine power, as in some sense divinities themselves. The earth was a divinity, the sky was a divinity, the water was a divinity, had divine power. In other words, the gods were identical with or imminent in the forces of nature. There were many gods. No one single god was therefore all powerful. There is very, very good evidence to suggest that ancient Israelites by and large shared this world view. They participated at the very earliest stages in the wider religious and cultic culture of the Ancient Near East.
However, over the course of time, some ancient Israelites, not all at once and not unanimously, broke with this view and articulated a different view, that there was one divine power, one god. But much more important than number was the fact that this god was outside of and above nature. This god was not identified with nature. He transcended nature, and he wasn’t known through nature or natural phenomena. He was known through history, events and a particular relationship with humankind. And that idea, which seems simple at first and not so very revolutionary – we will see, that’s an idea that affected every aspect of Israelite culture and in ways that will become clear as we move through the course and learn more about biblical religion and biblical views of history, it was an idea that ensured the survival of the ancient Israelites as an entity, as an ethnic religious entity.
In various complicated ways, the view of an utterly transcendent god with absolute control over history made it possible for some Israelites to interpret even the most tragic and catastrophic events, such as the destruction of their capital and the exile of their remaining peoples, not as a defeat of Israel’s god or even God’s rejection of them, but as necessary, a necessary part of God’s larger purpose or plan for Israel. These Israelites left for us the record of their religious and Cultural Revolution in the writings that are known as the Hebrew Bible collectively, and this course is an introduction to the Hebrew Bible as an expression of the religious life and thought of ancient Israel and as a foundational document of western civilization.
The course has several goals. First and foremost, we want to familiarize you with the contents of the Hebrew Bible. We’re not going to read every bit of it word for word. We will read certain chunks of it quite carefully and from others we will choose selections, but you will get a very good sense and a good sampling of the contents of the Bible.
A second goal is to introduce you to a number of approaches to the study of the Bible, different methodological approaches that have been advanced by modern scholars but some of which are in fact quite old. At times, we will play the historian, at times we will be literary critics. “How does this work as literature?” At times we will be religious and cultural critics. “What is it the Israelites were saying in their day and in their time and against whom and for what?”
A third goal of the series is to provide some insight into the history of interpretation. This is a really fun part of the series of articles. The Bible’s radically new conception of the divine, its revolutionary depiction of the human being as a moral agent, its riveting saga of the nation of Israel, their story, has drawn generations of readers to ponder its meaning and message. And as a result, the Bible has become the base of an enormous edifice of interpretation and commentary and debate, both in traditional settings but also in academic, university, secular settings. And from time to time, particularly in section discussion, you will have occasion to consider the ways in which certain biblical passages have been interpreted – sometimes in very contradictory ways – over the centuries. That can be a really fun and exciting part of the series.
A fourth goal of the lecture series is to familiarize you with the culture of ancient Israel as represented in the Bible against the backdrop of its Ancient Near Eastern setting, its historical and cultural setting, because the archaeological discoveries that were referred to [above] in the Ancient Near East, reveal to us the spiritual and cultural heritage of all of the inhabitants of the region, including the Israelites. And one of the major consequences of these finds is the light that they have shed on the background and the origin of the materials in the Bible. So we now see that the traditions in the Bible did not come out of a vacuum. The early chapters of Genesis, Genesis 1 through 11 – they’re known as the “Primeval History,” which is a very unfortunate name, because these chapters really are not best read or understood as history in the conventional sense – but these 11 chapters owe a great deal to Ancient Near Eastern mythology.
The creation story in Genesis 1 draws upon the Babylonian epic known as Enuma Elish. We’ll be talking about that text in some depth. The story of the first human pair in the Garden of Eden, which is in Genesis 2 and 3, has clear affinities with the Epic of Gilgamesh, that’s a Babylonian and Assyrian epic in which a hero embarks on this exhausting search for immortality. The story of Noah and the flood, which occurs in Genesis 6 through 9, is simply an Israelite version of an older flood story that we have found copies of: a Mesopotamian story called the Epic of Atrahasis [and] a flood story that we also have incorporated in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Biblical traditions have roots that stretch deep into earlier times and out into surrounding lands and traditions, and the parallels between the biblical stories and Ancient Near Eastern stories that they parallel has been the subject of intense study.
However, it isn’t just the similarity between the biblical materials and the Ancient Near Eastern sources that is important to us. In fact, in some ways it’s the dissimilarity that is remarkably important to us, the biblical transformation of a common Near Eastern heritage in light of its radically new conceptions of God and the world and humankind. We’ll be dealing with this in some depth, but I’ll give you one quick example. We have a Sumerian story about the third millennium BCE, going back 3000 – third millennium, 3000 BCE. It’s the story of Ziusudra, and it’s very similar to the Genesis flood story of Noah.
In both of these stories, the Sumerian and the Israelite story, you have a flood that is the result of a deliberate divine decision; one individual is chosen to be rescued; that individual is given very specific instructions on building a boat; he is given instructions about who to bring on board; the flood comes and exterminates all living things; the boat comes to rest on a mountaintop; the hero sends out birds to reconnoitre the land; when he comes out of the ark he offers a sacrifice to the god the same narrative elements are in these two stories. It’s just wonderful when you read them side by side. So what is of great significance though is not simply that the biblical writer is retelling a story that clearly went around everywhere in ancient Mesopotamia; they were transforming the story so that it became a vehicle for the expression of their own values and their own views.
In the Mesopotamian stories, for example, the gods act capriciously, the gods act on a whim. In fact, in one of the stories, the gods say, “Oh, people, they’re so noisy, I can’t sleep, let’s wipe them all out.” That’s the rationale. There’s no moral scruple. They destroy these helpless but stoic humans who are chafing under their tyrannical and unjust and uncaring rule. In the biblical story, when the Israelites told the story, they modified it. It’s God’s uncompromising ethical standards that lead him to bring the flood in an act of divine justice. He’s punishing the evil corruption of human beings that he has so lovingly
Created and whose degradation he can’t bear to witness. So it’s saying something different. It’s providing a very different message.
So when we compare the Bible with the literature of the Ancient Near East, we’ll see not only the incredible cultural and literary heritage that was obviously common to them, but we’ll see the ideological gulf that separated them and we’ll see how biblical writers so beautifully and cleverly manipulated and used these stories, as I said, as a vehicle for the expression of a radically new idea. They drew upon these sources but they blended and shaped them in a particular way. And that brings us to a critical problem facing anyone who seeks to reconstruct ancient Israelite religion or culture on the basis of the biblical materials. That problem is the conflicting perspective between the final editors of the text and some of the older sources that are incorporated into the Bible, some of the older sources that they were obviously drawing on.
Those who were responsible for the final editing, the final forms of the texts, had a decidedly monotheistic perspective, ethical monotheistic perspective, and they attempted to impose that perspective on their older source materials; and for the most part they were successful. But at times the result of their effort is a deeply conflicted, deeply ambiguous text. And again, that’s going to be one of the most fun things for you as readers of this text, if you’re alert to it, if you’re ready to listen to the cacophony of voices that are within the text.
In many respects, the Bible represents or expresses a basic discontent with the larger cultural milieu in which it was produced, and that’s interesting for us, because a lot of modern people have a tendency to think of the Bible as an emblem of conservatism. Right? We tend to think of this as an old fuddy-duddy document, it’s outdated, has outdated ideas, and I think the challenge of this course is that you read the Bible with fresh eyes so that you can appreciate it for what it was, [and] in many ways what it continues to be: a revolutionary, cultural critique. We can read the Bible with fresh and appreciative eyes only if we first acknowledge and set aside some of our presuppositions about the Bible.
It’s really impossible, in fact, that you not have some opinions about this work, because it’s an intimate part of our culture. So even if you’ve never opened it or read it yourself, I bet you can cite me a line or two – “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” and I bet you don’t really know what it means. “The poor will always be with you”: I’m sure you don’t really know what that means. These are things and phrases that we hear and they create within us a certain impression of the biblical text and how it functions.
Verses are quoted; they’re alluded to, whether to be championed and valorised or whether to be lampooned and pilloried. But we can feel that we have a rough idea of the Bible and a rough idea of its outlook when in fact what we really have are popular misconceptions that come from the way in which the Bible has been used or misused. Most of our cherished presuppositions about the Bible are based on astonishing claims that others have made on behalf of the Bible, claims that the Bible has not made on behalf of itself.
So before we proceed, I need to ask you to set aside for the purposes of this lecture series, some of the more common myths about the Bible. I have a little list here for you. The first is the idea that the Bible’s a book. It’s not a book. We’ll get rid of that one. The Bible is not a book with all that that implies that it has a uniform style and a message and a single author, the sorts of things we think of when we think in a conventional sense of the word “book.” It’s a library. It’s an anthology of writings or books written and edited over an extensive period of time by people in very different situations responding to very different issues and stimuli, some political, some historical, some philosophical, some religious, some moral.
There are many types or genres of material in the Bible. There’s narrative, wonderful narrative stories. There are all kinds of law. There are cultic and ritual texts that prescribe how some ceremony is supposed to be performed. There are records of the messages of prophets. There’s lyric poetry, there’s love poetry, there are proverbs, and there are psalms of thanks giving and lament. So, there’s a tremendous variety of material in this library, and it follows from the fact that it’s not a book but an anthology of diverse works, that it’s not an ideological monolith. And this is something a lot of students struggle with.
Each book or strand of tradition within a book, within the biblical collection sounds its own distinctive note in the symphony of reflection that is the Bible. Genesis is concerned to account for the origin of things and wrestles with the existence of evil, the existence of idolatry and suffering in a world that’s created by a good god. The priestly texts in Leviticus and Numbers emphasize the sanctity of all life and the ideal of holiness and ethical and ritual purity.
There are odes to human reason and learning and endeavour in the wisdom book of Proverbs. Ecclesiastes reads like an existentialist writing from the twentieth century. It scoffs at the vanity of all things, including wisdom, and espouses a kind of positive existentialism. The Psalms are very individual writings that focus on individual piety and love and worship of God. Job, possibly the greatest book of the Bible, I won’t give away my preferences there, challenges conventional religious piety and arrives at the bittersweet conclusion that there is no justice in this world or any other, but that nonetheless we’re not excused from the thankless and perhaps ultimately meaningless task of righteous living.
One of the most wonderful and fortuitous facts of history is that later Jewish communities chose to put all this stuff in this collection we call the Bible. They chose to include all of these dissonant voices together. They didn’t strive to reconcile the conflicts, nor should we. They didn’t, we shouldn’t. Each book, each writer, each voice reflects another thread in the rich tapestry of human experience, human response to life and its puzzles, human reflection on the sublime and the depraved.
And that leads me to my second point, which is that biblical narratives are not pious parables about saints. Okay? Not pious tales. They’re psychologically real literature about very real or realistic people and life situations. They’re not stories about pious people whose actions are always exemplary and whose lives should be models for our own, despite what Sunday school curricula will often turn them into. And despite what they would have us believe.
There is a genre of literature that details the lives of saints, Hagiography, but that came later and is largely something we find in the Christian era. It’s not found in the Bible. The Bible abounds with human not superhuman beings, and their behaviour can be scandalous. It can be violent; it can be rebellious, outrageous, lewd, and vicious. But at the same time like real people, they can turn around and act in a way that is loyal and true above and beyond the call of duty. They can change, they can grow. But it’s interesting to me that there are many people who, when they open the Bible for the first time, they close it in shock and disgust. Jacob is a deceiver; Joseph is an arrogant, spoiled brat; Judah reneges on his obligations to his daughter-in-law and goes off and sleeps with a prostitute. Who are these people? Why are they in the Bible? And the shock comes from the expectation that the heroes of the Bible are somehow being held up as perfect people.
That’s just not a claim that’s made by the Bible itself. So biblical characters are real people with real, compelling moral conflicts and ambitions and desires, and they can act short sighted and selfishly. But they can also, like real people, learn and grow and change; and if we work too hard and too quickly to vindicate biblical characters just because they’re in the Bible, then we miss all the good stuff. We miss all of the moral sophistication, the deep psychological insights that have made these stories of such timeless interest. So read it like you would read any good book with a really good author who knows how to make some really interesting characters.
Thirdly, the Bible’s not for children. Prof. Dr. Christine says about her experience, ”I have a 12-year-old and an 8-year-old. I won’t let them read it. I won’t let them read it. Those “Bible Stories for Children” books, they scare me. They really scare me. It’s not suitable for children. The subject matter in the Bible is very adult, particularly in the narrative texts.”
There are episodes of treachery and incest and murder and rape. And the Bible is not for nave optimists. It’s hard-hitting stuff. And it speaks to those who are courageous enough to acknowledge that life is rife with pain and conflict, just as it’s filled with compassion and joy. It’s not for children in another sense. Like any literary masterpiece, the Bible is characterized by a sophistication of structure and style and an artistry of theme and metaphor, and believes me, that am lost on adult readers quite often. It makes its readers work.
The Bible doesn’t moralize, or rarely, rarely moralizes. It explores moral issues and situations, puts people in moral issues and situations. The conclusions have to be drawn by the reader. There are also all kinds of paradoxes and subtle puns and ironies, and in section where you’ll be doing a lot of your close reading work, those are some of the things that will be drawn to your attention. You’ll really begin to appreciate them in time.
The fourth myth we want to get rid of: the Bible is not a book of theology, it’s not a catechism or a book of systematic theology. It’s not a manual of religion, despite the fact that at a much later time, very complex systems of theology are going to be spun from particular interpretations of biblical passages. You know, there’s nothing in the Bible that really corresponds to prevailing modern western notions of religion, what we call religion, and indeed there’s no word for religion in the language of biblical Hebrew. There just isn’t a word “religion.”
With the rise of Christianity, western religion came to be defined to a large degree by the confession of, or the intellectual assent to, certain doctrinal points of belief. Religion became defined primarily as a set of beliefs, a catechism of beliefs or truths that required your assent, what I think of as the catechism kind of notion of religion. That’s entirely alien to the world of the Bible. It’s clear that in biblical times and in the Ancient Near East generally, religion wasn’t a set of doctrines that you ascribed to. There is a link between the word ‘Religion’ and Egyptian Pharoahnic ‘Hanafah’. In Sha Allah, I will touch that aspect in Monday 10th August 2020 column.