The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is one of the foundational sacred scriptures for three (3) [Abrahamic] religions. Each tradition takes a slightly different approach to interpreting what it actually says (exegesis), but few commentaries explore why each story is told the way it is told … perhaps because of a presumption that because they were inspired by God, they did not actually change or evolve … a presumption that is no longer the general consensus of biblical scholars. In fact, there is a significant wing that promotes the exact opposite supported by recent discoveries of ancient versions of the text that appear to illustrate how they evolved over time for different jewish communities. Stepping into that academic line of questioning, Why the Bible Began begins with accepting this evolution as fact and then takes it one step further by suggesting that there was a specific purpose to the work of these historical redactors and a specific reason these changes endured (why the work).
Most biblical scholars are familiar with the document hypothesis … this appears to take a slightly different approach. It starts with the idea that there really never was a United Monarchy … in fact, the starting point very nearly aligns with the minimalists view of early Israel. As such, we start to see parts of what appears to be conflicting traditions woven together for a specific goal … to create the idea of a people define by belief and practice instead of by territory or ruler in order to help the community survive being under the heel of external conquerors. What I found interesting is how this was a concept that was mostly driven by circumstances … in other words, it was the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel that provided much of the skill and source material to weave together disparate traditions to make a unified national narrative. Then it was the subsequent fall of the Southern Judean Kingdom that forced the creation of a people narrative to united the community throughout all of the diaspora.
Over all, despite being more of an academic piece, it was well supported and very accessible if you are interested and open to this approach … it won’t work for everybody. There are a lot of references to assumptions that represent current research that make this more of a companion work that provides a solid overview with a deeper dive into the support to fully understand the why the author takes the stance that he does.
The chapters and sections in this work are:
Part I - The Rise and Fall
Chapter 1 - Abraham and Sarah: From One to the Many
Chapter 2 - Miriam: Empire and Exodus
Chapter 3 - Deborah: A New Dawn
Chapter 4 - King David: Between North and South
Chapter 5 - Ahab and Jezebel: Putting Israel on the Map
Chapter 6 - Jehu and Elisha: Israel’s Downfall and Judah’s Jubilation
Chapter 7 - Hezekiah and Isaiah: Putting Judah on the Map
Chapter 8 - Josiah and Huldah: Judah’s Downfall and Deportation
Part II - Admitting Defeat
Chapter 9 - Daughter Zion : Finding One’s Voice
Chapter 10 - The Creator: Comforting the Afflicted
Chapter 11 - Haggai the Prophet: Laying the Foundation
Chapter 12 - Nehemiah the Builder: Restoring Judean Pride
Chapter 13 - Ezra the Educator: Forming a People of the Book
Chapter 14 - Hoshayahu the Soldier: Peoplehood as a Pedagogical Project
Part III - A New Narrative
Chapter 15 - Jeremiah and Baruch: A Monument to Defeat
Chapter 16 - Isaac and Rebekah: The Family Story
Chapter 17 - Moses and Joshua: The People’s History
Chapter 18 - Hannah and Samuel: The Palace History
Chapter 19 - Solomon and the Queen of Sheba: The National Narrative
Chapter 20 - Jonah and the Whale: The prophets as Survival Literature
Chapter 21 - Yhwh and His People: Codes, Covenant, and Kinship
Part IV - A People of Protest
Chapter 22 - The Matriarch: Women and the Biblical Agenda
Chapter 23 - The Hero: Redefining Gender Roles
Chapter 24 - The Other: Tales of War, Outsiders, and Allegiance
Chapter 25 - The Soldier: Sacrificial Death and Eternal Life
Chapter 26 - The Prophet and the Priest: Open Access, Public transparency and Separation of Powers
Chapter 27 - The Sage: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes
Chapter 28 - The Poet: Song of Songs and Psalms
Chapter 29 - The Queen: Peoplehood without Piety
Chapter 30 - Conclusions: Nations, Nationalism, and New Bibles
Some of the other points that really got my attention are:
Through its destruction at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians, the nation became essentially a religious community held together by the cult. The precondition for this religious community was foreign control, which forced Jews from the political sphere into the spiritual
That Elohim created humans in his image was a radical claim. Traditionally, only the king is made in the divine image; here it is all humans.
Rather, the scribes who curated the biblical corpus consciously took what priests and palace members had long guarded as their special heritage and made it available, and indeed mandatory, for the education and edification of the entire nation.
Having forfeited territorial sovereignty, communities in both the North and South needed to create for themselves a space in a foreign empire. The space they carved out is not so much territorial and political as it is social, one demarcated by practice and behavior. And because this project was by and large the work of scribes, the tools they used for demarcating it were written traditions.
The answer to this question bears directly on two rival accounts of the nation’s origins. We have just explored how scribes created one account, the Family Story, by connecting the originally independent figures of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We now turn our attention to a competing work, the Exodus-Conquest Account, that begins with the stories of Moses’ birth and commission.
The People ’s History consists, as we saw, of two parts: the Family Story of Genesis and the Exodus-Conquest Account. At the heart of the Family Story are traditions related to Isaac, Esau, and Jacob; they likely originated before the downfall of the Northern kingdom in 722 but were clearly reworked – from both Northern and Southern perspectives – for centuries thereafter.
Over the centuries, Southerners came to see themselves as members of the people of Israel. As they did, the People’s History became a prehistory and preamble to the older Palace History, with the People’s History furnishing a framework for the most formative stories as well as collections of divinely revealed laws.
With this sacred object, scribes charted a path from Mount Sinai to Mount Zion. These two fixed points in the National Narrative correspond to two competing social circles, one that identified with the Torah and the study of texts, and the other that identified with the temple and priestly rituals. The Ark thread in the National Narrative ties them together by telling how Moses deposited the tablets of the Torah in the Ark, and then how later Solomon deposited the Ark containing these tablets in the temple.
The inception of the covenant thus provided a major impetus for scribes to embellish the National Narrative. Older portions of those books had already combined disparate histories into a common story, giving divided communities a shared past and sense of kinship. But after being reworked, the narrative’s overarching purpose is to demonstrate the validity of the covenant, culminating with the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of Judah.
The scribes who curated the biblical corpus clearly did not want make space for some form of heavenly afterlife. For them, future life and “resurrection”were to be sought in a revived community after its death in defeat–one with families finding their ultimate happiness in the enjoyment of the good, God-given earth that had been created to endure for eternity.
Thanks to these ambitious editorial moves, the Pentateuch punctures the bubble of priestly privilege. Prerogative becomes duty. It is no longer a matter of what the priests get to do but rather what they have to do. They are to perform their tasks on behalf of the nation, and they must neither shirk their duties nor bend them according to political influence.
I was given this free advance reader copy (ARC) ebook at my request and have voluntarily left this review.
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