Friday, March 15, 2002
The New York Times ran a review this past week of the Conservative Movement's new Chumash (Bible, 1st 5 books), called Etz Chayyim ("Tree of Life"). The essence of the review seems to be that the book is a wonderful advance because it debunks the historicity of the Exodus, etc. The Jerusalem Report has a review of the same book, arguing that it doesn't go far enough on the one hand in accepting mystical interpretations of scripture and on the other hand in denying the divine authorship of the text. Finally, Harpers has a piece this month (not online) on the topic of the historicity of the Bible (or lack thereof), called, "False Testament: Archaeology refutes the Bible's claim to history."
All of this strikes me as both very old hat and a lamentable trend. People have been trashing the historicity of the Bible since Wellhausen. But overwhelmingly the arguments are from silence. It's a simple fact that there is little in the historical record outside of the Bible to corroborate the biblical account of, say, the Exodus. It also just so happens that there is very little evidence that God split the Red Sea for Moses or stopped the rotation of the earth for Joshua. Believing Christians have to deal with the fact that no Roman history records the signs and wonders associated with the life and death of Jesus. And not just signs and wonders: big public actions like the Massacre of the Innocents: no evidence at all outside of the Christian scriptures. Believing Jews have to deal with the fact that the Egyptian court histories make no mention of Israelite slaves, the plagues, or the Exodus. For that matter, the Hebrew Bible makes no mention of the pyramids. And even secularists must reckon with the fact that no ancient source purports to be history in the modern sense (certainly Herodotus didn't) and that our own readings of the past are deeply informed by our notions of how history and culture work - that is to say, by ideological matters. An honest approach to the world of biblical criticism would admit that the bible critics can prove almost nothing. Their own theories are wildly speculative and mutually contradictory. What they share is a conviction that whatever the text says must be inaccurate until corroborated. That is certainly a skeptical stance, but why is it a neutral stance?
I do think it's worthwhile to try to construct a non-apologetic history of the ancient Levant. But you know, there's really no reliable source for such an endeavor. The Hebrew Bible is scripture, the non-Israelite royal chronicles are propaganda, and there's not much else to go on. You can only tease so much history out of archaeology; much of what gets published is wildly speculative. I read an interesting book once called Return to Sodom and Gemorrah. (It's not what you think; the author is a paleontologist and amateur archaeologist, and the book is basically airing his pet theories about the historicity of the Bible.) His particular pet theory is that the historical event that originates the stories of the plagues in Egypt and the parting of the Sea of Reeds (which, by the way, he identifies as the shallows of the Mediterranean) is the explosion of Thera (Santorini). This is the same event that supposedly accounts for the Atlantis myth, explains the destruction of Cretan civilization and, consequently, the origin of the Philistines and the rise of Homeric Greece in the subsequent power vacuum. Sounds as plausible to me as anything else people say about the history of the ancient world.
For myself, with my historian hat on I am persuaded that the Bible is our best account of the history of the biblical period. Specifically, nowhere in the article do I hear a refutation of Hertz's general contention: that the ancient Israelites would not have invested a past for themselves as slaves in a foreign country unless they were such. That's a very persuasive argument. The Torah's account of the wandering in the desert is hard to trace, and the Torah's use of numbers - the recurrent use of the number 40, for instance - suggests that outside of chronicle it means something different than calendar time. So why is the absence of pottery in the desert telling? The Times review says that the accounts of Creation and the Flood are of Mesopotamian origin. The Torah also says that the Israelites are of Mesopotamian origin, from Ur. So, does the similarity between the Torah and Mesopotamian myth confirm or disconfirm the biblical account of Israelite origins?
But let's step a little further back, put on our Jewish hats and take the divine nature of the Torah seriously, and what that implies. This text is written in language - human language, not God's language. Human language reflects human experience. It uses tropes, metaphors, similes, conventions. No text intelligible to humans can avoid these things; that is how language works. These human languages are artifacts of human history. If you write a text in a human language, your language will reflect that history, make use of it in deliberate and in unanticipated ways. So, if ancient Hebrew contained within its tropes and conventions the association of River with the Dragon slain by Marduk, how is it surprising that the Torah will play off that association? When God writes a book, He becomes an author, and He is constrained and empowered by the characteristics of the language in which the book is written. If He wrote the book without such constraint, His book would not have been intelligible to the reader.
All this was well-understood by pre-modern readers. They were so well-aware that the text, and the event of revelation, was embedded in history that they invented myths and interpretations that devalued the singularity of the moment of revelation. Two of note: first, the Rambam (Maimonides) argued that the sacrificial system was a concession to the idolatrous history of the Israelites. By implication, this system would not be restored in its original form in the Messianic age. That's a radical conclusion, rooted in a sophisticated understanding of the text that does not deny its divine origin. A second: there is a rabbinic story about Mount Sinai being suspended over the Israelites as they decided whether to accept the Torah. (The basis for the story is a specific turn of phrase in the biblical account; the children of Israel are said to be camped tachat ha-har ("under the mountain") and the rabbis undertake to explain why the text says "under" rather than "beside" by saying that God suspended the mountain over the Israelites' heads, saying: accept the Torah or I will drop the mountain on you and bury you here.) By means of such a story, which makes the original revelation an imposition rather than the voluntary acceptance of a yoke, the rabbis could devalue that moment in favor of their own interpretive moment. But the myth does not undermine the original text, or deny its divine origin. It simply embeds it in history.
And this, I think, is the real scandal to the Conservative rabbis: that God acts in history. This is what they cannot accept, because it means that God, the Ultimate, somehow breaks through into the mundane. They want God out of history because they see history as a record of crimes; they see that God's world does not do honor to God's purported justice, and their solution is to push God away from the world. Or, in Harold Kushner's version of the solution - and this is also Rabbi Philip Graubart's view in his Jerusalem Report review, at least as I read him - to reduce God to subordination to the world, which is to say, to make Him no longer God. Either way, one has to wonder, sitting in the synagogue: why am I here? If this text is not divine - either because God did not write it or because there is no divinity governing the universe - then why am I reading it here instead of in my study, alongside Plato and Freud?
Conservatives are trapped by their belief that they must at all times be reasonable and scientific, by their desire not to be fundamentalists. But in their desire to be scientific they have forgotten that they are not scientists, and do not have the commitments that a scientist has, while they do have other commitments. Who wants a Torah translation only as good as the latest archaeology? Planned obsolescence is for cars, not scriptures. What does archaeology have to do with the Torah text in the first place? Is the synagogue a history classroom? And how is this a remotely useful response to the fundamentalists who are behind books like the Stone Chumash? For these are the real enemies of traditional interpretation, in that they deny that there is such a thing as interpretation, and understand revelation as a license not to reason rather than the grounds on which to reason.
The Torah is not a biology textbook or a physics textbook, and it is not a history textbook either. It is scripture. Scripture is its own category of text, with its own hermeneutic rules, and if these are not taught to the next generation of readers then that generation will not know them, though they may know a great deal about biology, physics and history. It would be nice if someone who presumes to translate the Torah would remember that.