Why Talk About the Past? The Bible, Epic, and Historiography

The article by Ronald Hendel, “Oral Tradition and Pentateuchal Narrative” offers me an excellent opportunity to respond with an article which deals with this and closely related topics, an article which I had originally presented as a paper at the 1999 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. It is just this month being published as chapter 11 in my newly released volume of collected essays: Biblical Narrative and Palestine’s History, Changing Perspectives 2, with introduction by Philip R. Davies, in the Copenhagen International Seminar series (Acumen Publishing: London, 2013).

By Thomas Thompson
Professor Emeritus
University of Copenhagen
March 2013

There has been a long history of discussion about whether the biblical narrative and, in particular, the long prose narrative from the beginning of Genesis to the end of 2 Kings is to be compared not only to the historiography of an Herodotus or Thucydides, but even more to the epic literature of antiquity: especially to Gilgamesh and, in the classical world, to the works of Homer and Virgil. This discussion has been taken up in the debates regarding assumptions of an oral or written Vorlage of biblical prose narrative. In Germany, the early discussion had long been dominated by Hermann Gunkel and Hugo Gressmann through their formalistic work on Gattungen within the context of comparative literature,1 which was tied to some of the early research of the Folklore Fellows during the first quarter of the twentieth century.2 From this perspective of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, Eduard Meyer had expressed deep reservations about the use of biblical tradition for a reconstruction of the past already by the turn of the century.3

Although considerable energy in the 1970s had been invested in the as yet unresolved questions regarding oral and written composition,4 the center of the field5 has explored the alternative possibilities of historiography as the dominant genre of biblical studies.6 Noth himself, however, had argued for a far less creative evolution of tradition in his insistence on an oral Vorlage for the Pentateuch.7 The discovery and translation of Ugaritic poetry since 1929 and particularly the tendency to identify one cycle of the Ras Shamra texts as “the Keret epic” gave added impetus to efforts to find epic roots for biblical prose narrative in early West Semitic narrative poetry. Frank Cross8 and Umberto Cassuto9 both used the Ugaritic poems in an attempt to revive Arvid Bruno’s much earlier efforts10 to find an epic predecessor of biblical prose, and – with the help of Sigmund Mowinckel’s assertion11 of a “national epic” on the basis of a liturgical understanding of the Psalms of David – to propose the existence of a Hebrew national epic as a direct continuation of Ugarit’s tradition. In the generation of Cross’ students and in the United States generally,12 one also – somewhat inconsistently – finds discussions promoting the acceptance of an originally prose epic tradition. Shemaryahu Talmon of the Hebrew University,13 on the other hand, takes his departure from Umberto Cassuto’s theological assertion of a Mosaic monotheism for the earliest of biblical literature and rejects both Cross’ and Cassuto’s assertions of an original Hebrew epic on the basis of his understanding of the epic genre’s essential roots in polytheistic myth. Talmon asks, rather, whether Israel hadn’t developed alternative forms to fulfill the functions of the epic in its national literature. In particular, he points to prose narrative as Israel’s alternative to the epic genre.14

Already beginning in 1975, when John Van Seters lowered the dating of the earliest sources of Genesis–Numbers to the sixth century,15 and especially since 1983, when Van Seters linked tradition history’s deuteronomistic narrative not to epic tradition at all but rather to Greek historiographic literature and particularly to a near contemporary Herodotus,16 the commonly assumed distinctiveness of biblical tradition from early ancient Near Eastern “polytheistic” mythology found a diachronic explanation. Van Seters’s separation of the biblical tradition from Ugarit and his reorientation of biblical narrative towards the genre of historiography, standing in sharp contrast to the genre of epic, have left the field deeply divided.17 There has been an especially sharp division between the models of Cross and Cassuto’s assertion of epic roots of biblical narrative in Ugaritic poetry on the one hand, in contrast to the tradition-historical explanation expressed in Van Seters’s hypothesis of a non-epical and more direct literary production of historiography in the manner of Herodotus on the other. Talmon’s rejection of the genre of epic for biblical literature on theological grounds – while superficially supporting Van Seters’s historiographical alternative – has, because of Talmon’s early dating, substantially removed any hope for consensus in the foreseeable future.

In spite of its profit and interest, I find the debate about whether there was once a Hebrew epic that somehow stood as the ancestor of biblical prose narrative and whether biblical literature fulfills epic functions or can be understood as a progressively redacted literary composition, fulfilling historiographic functions, a decidedly false debate, given that we have hardly defined, save by example and the use of Homeric epitome, what an epic is or what functions it might serve. We have not yet determined the syntax of epic literary expression. The search for definition is quite deceptive. Gilgamesh’s Uruk and Keret’s Ugarit are hardly national societies; their implied authors cannot be seen as spokesmen for any very specific folk. It was not the genre of epic as such which gave Gilgamesh, Odysseus, or Aeneas their roles in folk etiologies and origin stories. It was not the Aeneid, but rather its reception whereby Roman tradition recast its hero, Aeneas, as ancestor in Roman origin stories. Nor was the genre as such responsible for such stories’ reception as canonical texts within the educational traditions of antiquity. It has been rather their later refractions in the commentary and discourse of their reception, not anything implicit to their authorial voices. Similarly, it has been the reception of their traditions which defined their roles as rendering self-understanding for the bearers of these narratives. Nor is biblical literature as such a text, rendering any national understanding. Epic tradition cannot be described as a national literature any more than early historiography can – however, many scholars may have anachronistically asserted such nationalism in their historiographies about the origins of nations.

It is after all an element of the surface plot of biblical narrative which created the metaphor of Israel lost as our biblical entry into the world of ethné. It is this metaphor, not something associated with any real society’s self-identity or any biblical text’s implied author, which corresponds best with Herodotus’ idealistic concept of ethné. The tradition’s epitome within a historical Judaism, on the other hand, with its decidedly secondary and derivative voice of a new Israel and a repentant remnant, found a religious – not a national – identification. Israel, as a topos of self-identity is not among the goyim, but ever a “people of God!” This identification reflects the universal rather than nationalist character of so many figures of biblical literature – from Noah and Abraham to Saul and David, Job and Jonah, which render it attractive across many cultures, which variously found their more particular tradition’s point of departure. Another avenue of biblical research, with roots in the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule of Gunkel and Gressmann within biblical studies had early been supported both by Russian formalism as reflected in the theories of Vladimar Propp and Axel Olrik, as well as by such international and comparative literature and folklore projects as that of James Frazer’s Golden Bough.18 It had been strongly and positively affected by the Babel–Bibel debates as well as the “Myth and Ritual” school.19 It turned to questions of composition and tradition not so much out of a search for origins or historical roots but as a part of comparative literature and intellectual history. How can the literature of one region help with the understanding of another was ever its implicit question. In the 1950s, Cyrus Gordon worked on parallels of literary motifs between the Bible and Homer.20 Eduard Nielsen investigated oral tradition21 and Walter Baumgartner studied tale types.22 The work of Robert Culley on oral forms,23 of Dorothy Irvin on ancient Near Eastern motifs and episode patterns,24 and of Jack Sasson on tale types25 were all highly productive efforts of the 1970s which took their point of departure from the field of comparative literature, especially from the commentary of Bolte and Polivka on Grimm’s Märchen, the field research of Parry and Lord on Serbo-Croatian oral song and the comprehensive analytical index of motifs of Stith Thompson.26 It is this tradition of scholarship which is most in evidence in the work of scholars in Copenhagen. Formalism marks our approach to literary and comparative studies, and it is that approach that informs and structures the need to create an analytical index of the theological motifs and motif-clusters of biblical tradition. Such a project will enable us to establish theological links not only to the early Jewish literature of the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and Qumran, but to the New Testament as well. It is now thirty years ago that Heike Friis and Niels Peter Lemche27 took their leave from Noth’s tradition history and in particular from its dependence on an internal chronology of Israelite history and Bible composition.28 There was a similar break from the Albright tradition and the comparative method’s early tendencies at cross-cultural harmonizing that was so essential to Cross and Cassuto’s assumption of Ugaritic origins for biblical narrative.29 Not only do I think it important to follow an absolute chronology in dating the formation of biblical tradition rather than the relative chronology of Van Seters, but this is also based on textual evidence rather than on an internal, evolutionary model of tradition development.

Intellectually, biblical composition takes place within a Jewish and Samaritan rather than an Israelite context.30 I had long ago objected both to Van Seters’ identification of the earliest stratum in the Pentateuch as “oral,” on the basis of the rules of evidence – the texts we have are all written texts and the techniques of transmission from oral to written are essential to literary techniques – as well as to his methodologically crippling distinction between oral and literary societies on socio-historical grounds – all societies are oral, even literate societies! Rejecting both Van Seters’ historiographic compositional unity and Cross’s search for an epic unity in a pre-history of our texts, I am inclined to see biblical composition as driven by antiquarian motives and the present form of canonical books – developing from a tradition of commenting on, collecting and classifying by topic and genre a considerable breadth of literature – as a singularly useful technique appropriate to the transmission of a multi-variant and discursive intellectual heritage. I am strongly opposed to Cassuto and Talmon’s historicistic reading of biblical theology which attempts to assert a monotheistic Moses tradition against its environment without need for either historical development or context. Talmon’s question of whether biblical literature had other forms which fulfilled the functions of the epic, however, is still important, though it starts from false assumptions of an essentialist epic genre, to which other traditions presumably need to comply. Not only must we attend to function as well as form in comparative studies, but we should also attend to the literature we in fact have within the specific cultures of our investigation. In this respect, the Hebrew prose narrative we have needs to be the focus of our questions of comparison and potentially interpretative literary contexts and not some other construct that would be more typical of an epic our theory would prefer. Nor should we be too restrictive in our focus on any single chain of narrative. We also, for example, need to consider the composition techniques implicit in many close variants to the stories of Genesis to 2 Kings which we find in 1–2 Chronicles, the Book of Jubilees, 1 Enoch, the Damascus Covenant, the Testament of Moses, the Genesis Apocryphon, and even the Book of Deuteronomy, insofar as it is understood to be an independent variant or paraphrase of Exodus–Numbers. Moreover, just as the recognition of literary function is a goal of analysis, this departure from an essentialist approach to genre should encourage us to take up the rich collections of Hebrew song from Isaiah to the Psalms and Job, as well as the wisdom literature from Deuteronomy and Leviticus to Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in an effort to understand narrative, historiography, and tradition collection. On the basis of an analysis of comparable themes and motifs, such texts give access to a discourse implicit in the intellectual continua within a literary world that our narratives dramatize and historicize.

The choice of texts with which we might approach the question of whether there is a biblical literature comparable to what we call “epical,” such as Gilgamesh, Keret, the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, breaks arbitrary confinements not only of genre but of authorship. We might also free ourselves from scholarly prejudices related to assumptions of national singularity. The culturally unifying components of a biblical literary corpus – especially if one includes the early targums – is a religiously coherent, not a nationally motivated formation and transmission of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. This world of text development is Jewish and Samaritan, not Israelite, a product of the Persian and Hellenistic imperium, rather than of Palestine’s Iron Age. The central issue is one of text production not of sources: historical or literary. Methodologically, I believe we must move towards formalism as a means of controlling and systematizing our analysis of an integrated intellectual world. Lines of literary development and theories of book composition can hardly be seen as either linearly simple or chronologically progressive within an enclosed perception regarding single compositions. In fact, the evolutionary theories of the historical-critical method – whether regarding a Pentateuch or a deuteronomistic history – must allow for exegetical questions of the text’s implicit rhetoric. Diachronic questions about borrowing, redaction, and dependence – now loosened from their purported historical contexts – need to be integrated with synchronic questions of literary and intellectual associations related to reception.

The seductive powers of comparative literature, laid out on a broad canvas, seem now irresistible. The once great debate between oral and written sources, in an effort to solve problems regarding the origins of biblical tradition, has resolved itself peculiarly. The unequivocal rebuttal of the hypothesis of an oral Grundlage, that the tradition we have is not oral at all but written, at least as a written revision of only hypothetically oral stories,31 has been tenacious. Failing a history of Israel as appropriating context, a hypothetical Grundlage – theoretically allowing access to the past – defies definition. Text-Archäologie without a firm stratigraphy is reduced to treasure hunting. The deconstruction of a historicized biblical Israel has destroyed the tools for doing an internal tradition-history of our texts. Not only is the historicity of a “Josianic reform” shaken, but the use of a specific exilic period as a diachronic watershed for biblical texts has become unmanageable. The ideology of remnant theology informs all our texts – from the Abraham story’s transition from Babel to Hezekiah’s Jerusalem, as well as the thrice empty Jerusalem of Jeremiah – and the exile motif separates not Israelites from Jews, but the old Israel of a legend’s lost past from a new Israel of religious hope. Any pre-history for the tradition has lost its roots in its biblical revision. All biblical qualities, and indeed any folktale, lie in the tradition’s reception.

The Bible in its literary and theological environment

This reflection on the Bible as part of a literary world is supported by the many close parallels that have been drawn between the Bible and Homer as with Amenemope, Gilgamesh, and Ugarit. Rather, such comparisons become necessary to a reading of our texts. The “big bow-wow” heroes, the self-defining heroic quest, the theme of humanity’s struggle against the gods as every theme of tragedy, the envy of a divine eternity, story closures in self-understanding and humble acceptance of the human condition, all cross the hardly intrinsic geographical, linguistic, and chronological boundaries of inter-related disciplines. The more specifically biblical cadences of narrative rhythms, composition parallelisms, and the chain structures of story-plot find comparable features in both Greek and cuneiform canons. These are pervasive characteristics common to high literature in antiquity, defining as much the operatic tragedy about Israel and its silent God in the Book of Job and the dramatic presentation of the Oedipus legend, as it does the world that we have chosen too narrowly to speak of as epical. The values attached to the boundaries between poetry and prose, which played such a central role in defining what an epic was and which had supported the seemingly interminable debate about whether there was or had ever been a Hebrew or biblical epic, hardly seem of critical importance any longer. Biblical narrative – the literature of first interest to the comparative scholar of international epics – is prose. It is well defined as Kunstprosa.32 It is recurrently marked by reiterative parallelism, density of alliteration, interpretive word puns, lists of various sorts, and naming etiologies. It displays an ever-intrusive, tradition oriented, implicit discourse on both narrative plot and on theme. Leitmotifs abound and thematic reiteration structures the continuity of a firmly linked chain of narrative. It frequently uses inspired song as interpretive commentary, marking an ever-variable passage between the world of gods and humanity. It is a philosophical dialogue, witnessed by a compositionally motivated assembly of variants that mark plot, scene and theme, between both the multiple implicit authors of a text and the audience of its reception. These features of early Hebrew prose define the function of biblical story as ephemeral illustration and discursive refraction, not reflecting a past so much as a transcendent reality. On the plot-driven surface of biblical narrative, gods – as in Greek literature – are ever misunderstood by men. This marks such narration essentially as tragic, for it is the gods that control human destiny.

Exodus 15, Deuteronomy 32, and 2 Samuel 22 all present songs as theologically motivated closures and interpreters of larger prose narratives. Exodus 15, the “Song of the Sea” interprets Israel’s crossing of the sea as a new creation, echoing Genesis 1 and Psalm 89: a people is born through the Divine Wind’s cosmic victory over the sea. The Egyptians are cast in the role of the “kings” and “nations” in uproar as in Psalm 2:1-2. Like Psalm 1:4’s chaff blown on the threshing floor, they are blown away as froth on the surface of the waters.33 Moses sings a song of thanksgiving, reiterating the creation story of Genesis 1: not to identify a great event of Israel’s past, but to interpret the transcendent meaning of the story as a new creation. Similarly, Deuteronomy 32 – another song of Moses – closes the long narrative of the Pentateuch by interpreting it, within an inclusive monotheistic framework, as an origin story about Yahweh as Israel’s god and Israel as the first-born of Yahweh’s inheritance. As one of the sons (or messengers) of El Elyon, the old deity of Israel past is interpreted as a refraction of the truly divine. He was the divine as Israel had known it. The function of such song within prose narrative, offering a theological interpretation of the tradition’s storyline, becomes particularly clear with the reiteration of Psalm 18 and 1 Samuel 22. David sings this song after Yahweh had saved him from all of his enemies. Reiterating both 1 Samuel 25’s blessing of Abigail and 2 Samuel 7’s prophecy of Nathan, the song interprets David and his story as ephemeral illustrations of a transcendent myth about Yahweh and his messiah that we find in Psalms 2, 8, 89, and 110. David, as the singer of Psalm 18 at the close of his narrative, epitomizes the pious student of Torah. Fearing God, trusting in Yahweh as his salvation, he seeks refuge against the enemies of chaos. With this song, the story closes, mythically transformed in the light of eternity.

John Van Seters has underlined an implicit dichotomy in Old Testament comparative studies through his insistence that biblical narrative from Genesis to 2 Kings is literarily driven historiography. Tradition collection, he argues, is part of the process of this historiography. In this hard-won assertion, he stands opposed to all but a most limited assumption of independent oral tradition in the formation of the Pentateuch. This, I believe, has been fundamental to his decision to look to such an author as Herodotus and the Greek tradition of historiography for his comparative analogues, rather than to Homer and early Greek epic and mythic traditions. The dichotomy seems both unnecessary and idealistic, as oral tradition, whatever our knowledge of its influence in the formation of the biblical tradition, belongs to the unrecoverable past. Scholarly fascination with this genre needs tempering. The assumption that mythic traditions are more appropriately associated with epic than historiographic literature is equally unsubstantiated by knowledge. Van Seters’s narrow definition of Herodotus as historiographer carries additional distortions, not least the obscuring of that – for Van Seters – central historiographic function of national self-understanding.

Does an assumed chronological synchrony prejudice his choice of Herodotus as analogue for biblical narrative? If one wishes to epitomize ancient historiography for purposes of comparison with biblical composition, I would find an international spectrum of Hellenistic antiquarians far more convincing than the ethnographically oriented Herodotus. Egypt’s Manetho, Mesopotamia’s Berossus, and the possibly fictive source of Phoenicia’s Philo of Byblos. This spectrum of texts, while perhaps helpful in genre definition, does nothing for chronology. It leads one rather to think of Jewish analogues more in the direction of such tendentiously paraphrastic works as Josephus’ than Antiquitates of biblical narrative as such. From yet another perspective, a selection of such authors as Thucidydes and Xenophon on the Greek side might bring to mind the likes of 2 Maccabbees or Josephus’ Bellum Judaicum as a Jewish analogue. I do not wish to question the analogy of the Bible and Herodotus at all as I find the parallels that have been assembled both interesting and palpable. What I do question is that such comparability should affect our judgment about either genre or chronology. Moreover, it is of the essence of a critical comparative method that a spectrum of comparison be established before conclusions based on such comparison are drawn.34 The common ground between Herodotus and biblical narrative lies both in their prose form and in what, following Flemming Nielsen, I would prefer to call for the moment a “corporate narrative perspective,”35 rather than the national self-identity that Van Seters is inclined towards. As Herodotus speaks of the history of all Greeks, he defines Hellas in its struggle against a world-dominating Persian “kingdom.” This is defensibly historiographic since it epitomizes a worldview which is neither mythical nor fictitious in its defining essence. The narrative surface itself reflects the self-understanding of the historiography it supports. In both his narrative’s surface and in the causality of his argument, Herodotus’ work thus differs markedly from Homer’s.36 Van Seters defines his biblical genre on the basis of its similarities to Herodotus. He understands Genesis–2 Kings to present the narrative of a people of Israel who find self-understanding through their history of struggle against the nations. This literature, he argues, is written to support or create the national self-understanding of an ancient Israel. Functions of material causality and factuality are presented as vehicles of tradition collection. As historiographic functions, however, material causality and factuality are far more at home in Hittite annals and Neo-Babylonian chronicles than they are in Herodotus. They are, moreover, quite rare in biblical tradition which can be seen as fully as mythical and folkloric as Homer. The Bible’s commitment to a fictive and mythic past seems so intrinsic to Genesis–2 Kings, that the self-understanding, which Van Seters sees as the primary goal of the tradition’s formation, appears rather more as retrospective reflection on an “Israel” that exists idealistically, not as the origin tradition of a nation, but as a transcendent and mythical people of God. If one must look for Greek comparisons, such a perspective shares far more as an analogue to Plato’s Republic than it does with either Homer or Herodotus.

Contrasting epic with historiography

If we take up a comparison of biblical narrative and a spectrum of Greek literature– with Homer and the epic traditions on one side and Herodotus and historiography on the other side of our spectrum – we find a number of significant criteria that link it both with the epic genres and with historiography, but, nevertheless, identify it with neither. I confine myself to six examples:

1.  Epic heroes.
In cryptic agreement with Talmon,37 biblical narrative avoids heroic protagonists with difficulty. David’s winning his bride through the folkloric quest for a hundred Philistine foreskins – like Samson ripping his lions apart like kids – has a grandeur of the epic’s classic heroic test of valor, which not only contrasts well with Jason’s search for the golden fleece and the glyptic portrayal of Enkidu’s exploits on early seal cylinders, but biblical narrative and Palestine’s history also has a biting irony that rivals Don Quixote’s caricatures of the heroic genre. Against Talmon, however, biblical literature hardly avoids association with the figure of the hero. The riddle of the honey and the bees in the carcass of Samson’s lion echoes pages of Stith Thompson’s catalogue of folk motifs. The biblically more central, Israel-defining figure of Jacob wrestling with God as night-demon to win his role as Israel’s eponymous ancestor, illustrates not so much the past of a people as the tragic essence of humanity’s epical struggle with the divine. Here, we might listen well to the barmaid’s admonishing song to Gilgamesh as he sets out for the land-of-far-away in his quest for eternal life. On the other hand, the historiographic pedantry of Genesis 10’s geographic table of nations and of the Chronicler’s account of lineages of return, hardly gives us confidence in any too-easy rejection of a historiographic genre in favor of an epic. Genesis’ more folkloric tower of Babel story is far more at home as part of humanity’s mythic journey, seeking, with Gilgamesh, understanding.

2.  Oral and written tradition
The debate about oral and written origins of the Bible – like the debate between historiographical and mythical interpretations of the tradition – is a debate about reading. Van Seters presents a theory of successive revisions of a historiographic work which finally becomes Genesis–2 Kings of the Hebrew Bible. One is led to expect integration and coherence to present itself as the historian’s causally grounded logic unifies and harmonizes originally disparate traditions. Yet many texts, such as Exodus 3–6, remain wholly unreadable as story. The issue is more than the assumed original dissonance of sources surviving an imperfect harmonization. As I have argued elsewhere, it is the theology that has swallowed the narrative in Exodus. The text stands lamed and fragmented with purpose. Traditions are collected instead, one on top of the other, as the deity shows himself in the many facets of the past. He is Yahweh of tradition future: ’ehyeh ’imak. He will be with them in their name for him just as he has been known in so many different ways of the past: as Isaac’s god and as Abraham’s, as the god of all their fathers – even as El Shaddai, which they have forgotten. This element of fragmentation, presenting us with a tradition destroyed and lost, is a fascinating aspect of our traditions. The story of the death of Saul, which one would expect to find as a critical passage in any assumed account of David’s rise to power, defies all historiographic coherence. As many as five different accounts tumble over each other, trying to find their place in the tradition. Who killed Saul is my favorite exegetical question to the student of these passages. Certainly, all are afraid to kill Yahweh’s messiah, except for that poor dumb foreigner who is executed by Saul’s enemy for his trouble! The body of his armor bearer who lies dead on the stage at the curtain for act two has been inadvertently removed by a stagehand by curtain time for act three! The murder of Saul’s own sons vies for the dramatic center with Saul’s death. Has the audience left or is their attention merely divided? At times his sons and their bodies are with Saul, and then they are forgotten and most awkwardly lost, much as the narrative loses Saul’s head which is even today rolling around somewhere out on that ancient battlefield in Narnia. This is neither story nor historiography. It is tradition collected, and the tradition is still arguing theologically about its variants and the dread theological implications of the death of the messiah.

3.  Reiterative events
Biblical events are rarely singular and biblical narrative rarely carries aspects of historiography’s linear time. It is essentially interpretive: using genealogy to create an identifying legitimation and an eternity-bound context for a succession of heroes, each, in turn, offering illustration to a cyclical reiteration of human destruction and new birth, from Noah’s flood to the hopeful pregnancy of Jeremiah’s daughter of Jerusalem. The governing principle of reality that there is “nothing new under the sun,” voiced by Solomon in Ecclesiastes, not only shares in the Homeric cosmology of fate and destiny, it offers a philosophical rebuttal of historiography and places all reality in the beginning, with God’s creation. Event and history are illusory. The Bible’s progress through time is reiterative: neither linear nor historical. Like the epic, its quest is for understanding: to see the past in the light of eternity. Causation, that is, destiny and fate, is in the hands of the gods. On the other hand, the Masoretic Bible’s folkloric, chronological structure of forty generations over 4000 years, harmonized with a chain of eponymous ancestors, saviors, prophets, and divinely chosen kings, rendering a chain of continuity and succession from the Creation and Fall to the story of Jerusalem’s election and rejection. This chain is epitomized in the synchrony of royal succession in order to draw out the intrinsic parallelism of the fall of the royal houses of Samaria and Jerusalem as examples of “the way of all flesh.” 2 Kings’ audience is linked to the eternal through its illustrative discourse on Palestine’s past.

4.  Historical causes
The issue of historical causation is central to the debate about the Bible as myth or historiography. The biblical witness is irresolutely mixed and we have time for only a single example for illustration: that of “Good King Josiah.” In the Book of Chronicles, Josiah stands as one in a progression of kings of Israel and Judah who had opposed God’s will and were punished for their sins. Josiah is killed. The Chronicler’s goal in contrast was historiographical, drawing moral lessons from the past. He justifies God, arguing that the king had rashly opposed Pharaoh Necco, who was Yahweh’s servant in his war against the Assyrians. In 2 Kings, however, one finds an ever-good Josiah. Never has there been seen such a king in Israel, before or since. The story is quintessentially Jewish. Human goodness is destroyed, unprotected, and unmourned. The narrative evokes the remorseless deity of the flood story. Yahweh regrets that he has created humanity, and he is beyond repenting the evil he intends against Jerusalem already when the story opens. As in Gilgamesh and Homer, the implicit authorial voice points out how difficult the gods have made it to be human. As in his decision to accept and reject sacrifices in the Cain story, 2 Kings’ Yahweh establishes destinies as he chooses because he chooses, untrammeled by logical cause, but simply by his arbitrary will. This brief notation of Josiah’s death in fact opens a chain of scenes about Jerusalem’s fall, marking the long tragic narrative of old Israel’s fall from grace which had begun in Saul’s tragic opposition to David as Yahweh’s messiah and reached its climax with Hezekiah preparing Jerusalem’s bed in his invitation to the Babylonians. Also before Josiah, Saul too had been a good king, who did all that he saw to be good for his people and his god. Because of this—doing the good that he saw fit—he was rejected.

5.  Mythic interpretation of events
Comparable to Van Seters’s characterization of historiography as centered in a narrative about a people, in contrast to the stories about great individuals like Gilgamesh and Odysseus, is the distinctive particularity he argues for of themes and stories, with a surface presentation as events of the past, offered as a vehicle for moral lessons. Van Seters is here very close to Von Rad in his understanding of theologies of history. My assertion of reiterative history stands, however, opposed to the implicit assumption of a causal chain capable of developing any such thematically effective linear chronology which would be capable of creating interpretive evolutionary structured theological arguments such as Heilsgeschichte or a supersessionist covenant theology with national overtones. While the causal chain of historiographic narrative orients the events of the past progressively to the present of the implied author and the links of this chain are understood as determinative even of events future to the author, a mythic or reiterative understanding of narration accumulates an ever present past. The succession of events, past or future, is arbitrary. Each story synchronically illustrates the one comprehensive act of God’s creation with its ever-reiterated struggle against the nations of chaos. That is the reality behind the tradition. The whole of old Israel’s history is already captured in the narrative chain of Genesis 1–11. Jerusalem falls in ruins together with Babylon’s tower. Already in Genesis 1:2, the creative force of the divine spirit (ruach ’elohim) destroys for all the chaos of nothingness (tohu wa-bohu). The rest of the story – as we learn from Jeremiah 4 – is illustration.

6.  National identity
I have a quibble with Van Seters placing the people of an ancient historical Israel at the focal center of our narrative tradition. From the story of Abraham as the father of many nations and that of Jacob becoming Israel’s eponymous ancestor, the reiterative past of biblical narrative plays at best an ambivalent, duplicitous game with the theme of identity. This quarrel I see potentially resolved in the recognition of the tradition as a narration about an Israel past, an Israel lost and rejected, insofar as the voices of the text and its implied audience stand within the narrative’s construct of Israel’s self-understanding as Israel redivivus: an essentially supersessionist “new Israel.” This understanding of a people of God is not of a nation like other nations. That was the “House of David” built by men’s hands; that was the narrative surface of our texts. The wish that the structures of the destiny of old Israel had led to Yahweh’s flood story’s regret that he had created Israel, which had led to their rejection and destruction as a nation, not to its creation, finds its self-understanding as a repentant remnant, returning from the cosmic desert of its exile from its God. Playing on a theme of the benei Yisrael as heirs of biblical tradition, the voice of reception ever speaks with 2 Isaiah’s voice, with the sectarian voice of Ezekiel and the Chronicler: with the voice of piety’s new covenant, but hardly with a voice of a nation. The search for the new Jerusalem is not an expression of national hope but is rather an answer to Adam’s search for all humanity’s way back to the “tree of life” that stands blocked by the flaming sword of Yahweh’s cherubim. Put simply, the Old Testament is not an origin story of ancient Israel but of a new Israel that is commensurate with early Judaism. This is religious and philosophical self-understanding, explicitly contradicting ethnicity. It has its roots in mythic and theological, not historiographic, perspectives.

In concluding this chapter, I struggle against a compulsion to close with three further examples featuring explicit theological discourse related to tradition collection: The Cain story of Genesis 4 evoking discussions of both the theology of election and of the moral and legal implications of murder and vengeance, both divine and human; most expansively, the headings given to thirteen of David’s psalms, which have contributed to a mutually interpretive discourse between the stories of the Book of Samuel and the mythology implicit in the Psalter – the typology of these headings reveal one of the central techniques used by the Bible’s antiquarians in their collections of narrative and song; and, finally, the great Phoenix-echoing discourse on resurrection in Isaiah 10 used to interpret the Immanuel prophecies of Isaiah 7–9.


1 H. Gunkel, “Jakob,” PJ 176 (1919), 339–62; H. Gressmann, “Sage und Geschichte in den Patriarchenerzählungen,” ZAW 30 (1910), 1–34; H. Gunkel, “Ursprung und Entwicklung der Joseph-Sage,” in H. Schmidt (ed.), Eucharisterion, Festschrift für H. Gunkel (Göttingen, 1923), 1–55.

2 H. Gunkel, Schöpfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1895); H. Gunkel, Genesis übersetzt und erklärt (Göttingen: HKAT, 1901); H. Gressmann, Die Ursprünge der israelitischen-jüdischen Eschatologie, Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des alten und neuen Testaments 6 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1905); A. Aarne, Verzeichnis der Märchentypen, Folklore Fellows Communications, FFC 3 (Helsinki: Folklore Fellows, 1910); A. Aarne, Leitfaden der vergleichenden Märchenforschung, FFC 13 (Helsinki: Folklore Fellows, 1913); J. Bolte and G. Polivka, Anmerkungen zu den Kinder- und Hausmärchen der Brüder Grimm, 5 vols (Leipzig: Dieterich’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1913–22); K. Krohn, Übersicht über einige Resultate der Märchenforschung, FFC 96 (Helsinki: Folklore Fellows, 1931); S. Thompson, Narrative Motif Analysis as a Folklore Method, FFC 161 (Helsinki: Folklore Fellows, 1955); S. Thompson, Motif Index of Folk Literature, 6 vols (Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana, 1955–58); S. Thompson, The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography, FFC 184 (Helsinki: Folklore Fellows, 1961).

3 E. Meyer, “Der Stamm Jakob und die Entstehung der israelitischen Stämme,” ZAW 6 (1886), 1–16; E. Meyer, Forschungen zur alten Geschichte (Darmstadt : Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1892); E. Meyer, Die Israeliten und ihre Nachbarstämme (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1906).

4 See Chapters 4 and 5, this volume; also T. L. Thompson, “A New Attempt to Date the Patriarchal Narratives,” JAOS 98 (1978), 76–84; D. Gunn, The Story of King David: Genre and Interpretation, JSOTS 6 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1978); D. Gunn, The Fate of King Saul, JSOTS 14 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980).

5 Taking its departure from Martin Noth’s Überlieferungsgeschichtliche Studien (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1948).

6 H. Cancik, Mythische und historische Wahrheit, SBS 48 (Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1970); H. Cancik, Grundzüge der Hethitischen und alttestamentlichen Geschichtsschreibung, ADPV (Wiesbaden: Harassowitz, 1976); the important monograph of J. Van Seters has had enormous influence: In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983); also J. Van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975); also having great influence within conservative American biblical studies have been Baruch Halpern’s two studies: The Emergence of Israel in Canaan, SBLMS (Chicago, IL: SBL, 1983); and The First Historians (San Francisco, CA: 1988). In more recent years, however, the question of genre has lost considerable focus; so B. Peckham, History and Prophecy: The Development of Late Judaean Literary Traditions (New York: Doubleday, 1993).

7 M. Noth, Überlieferungsgeschichte des Pentateuchs (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1948), 40–44; M. Noth, Geschichte Israels (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1954); M. Noth, “Der Beitrag der Archäologie zur Geschichte Israels,” VTS 7 (1960), 262–82; M. Noth, Die Ursprünge des alten Israel im Lichte neuer Quellen (1961); cf. E. Speiser, Genesis, Anchor Bible Commentary 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1965), xxvii–xliii.

8 F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973).

9 U. Cassuto, The Israelite Epic, Biblical and Oriental Studies II (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1975), 69–109.

10 A. Bruno, Das Hebräische Epos (Uppsala: Almqvist, 1935); A. Bruno, Rhytmische Untersuchungen von Gen, Ex, etc. (Uppsala: Almqvist, 1953–59).

11 S. Mowinckel, “Hat es ein israelitisches Nationalepos gegeben?” ZAW 53 (1935), 130–53; S. Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1962).

12 R. E. Friedman, The Creation of Sacred Literature: Composition and Redaction of the Biblical Text, Near Eastern Studies 22 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1981); F. M. Cross, “The Epic Traditions of Early Israel: Epic Narrative and the Reconstruction of Early Israelite Institutions,” in R. E. Friedman (ed.) The Poet and the Historian: Essays in Literary and Historical Biblical Criticism, HSS 26, (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983), 23–9; R. E. Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible (New York: Summit, 1987); R. S. Hendel, The Epic of the Patriarch: The Jacob Cycle and the Narrative Traditions of Canaan and Israel, HSM 42 (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1987); G. W. Savran, Telling and Retelling: Quotation in Biblical Narrative (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988), S. B. Parker, The Pre-Biblical Narrative Tradition: Essays on the Ugaritic Poems of Keret and Aqhat (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1989); R. B. Coote and D. R. Ord, The Bible’s First History: From Eden to the Court of David with the Yahwist (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1989); Peckham, History and Prophecy, esp. 1–28.

13 S. Talmon, especially: “Did There Exist a Biblical National Epic?” Literary Studies in the Hebrew Bible: Form and Content (Jerusalem: Magness, 1993), 91–111; also: “Eschatology and History in Biblical Thought,” Literary Studies, 160–91; and “The Comparative Method in Biblical Interpretation: Principles and Problems,” Literary Studies, 11–49.

14 Talmon, “Did There Exist?” On the assumption of a biblical monotheistic revision of ancient Near Eastern perceptions, cf. T. L. Thompson, The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past (London: Cape, 1999; published in the US as The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel, New York: Basic Books, 1999), 293–301, 317–22; T. L. Thompson, “Historieskrivning i Pentateuken: 25 År efter Historicity,” FBE 10, G. Hallbäck and J. Strange (eds) (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum, 1999), 67–82.

15 J. Van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition.

16 J. Van Seters, In Search of History.

17 Such division of opinion is obviously responsible for the lack of clarity in questions of genre as, for example, reflected in S. Mandell and D. N. Freedman, The Relationship between Herodotus’ History and Primary History, South Florida SHJ 60 (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1993), as well as in F. A. J.Nielsen, The Tragedy in History: Herodotus and the Deuteronomistic History, CIS 4 (Sheffield: SAP, 1997).

18 V. Propp, Morphology of the Folktale (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1968); A. Olrik, “Epische Gesetze der Volksdichtung,” ZDA 51 (1909), 1–12; A. Olrik, Folkelige Afhandlinger (Copenhagen, 1919); J. Frazer, Folklore in the Old Testament, 3 vols (London, 1919); J. Frazer, The Golden Bough, 7 vols (London: Macmillan, 1913–22).

19 F. Delitsch, “Babel and Bible,” lectures 1–3 (London, 1906); J. Ebach, “‘Babel und Bibel’ oder das Heidnische im alten Testament,” in R. Faber (ed.), Die Restauration der Götter: Antike Religion und Neo-paganismus, (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 1986); see now R. G. Lehmann, Friederich Delitsch und der Babel-Bibel Streit, OBO 133 (1994); S. H. Hooke, Myth and Ritual: Essays on the Myth and Ritual of the Hebrews in Relation to the Culture Pattern of the Ancient Near East (London: Oxford University Press, 1933); S. H. Hooke, The Labyrinth: Further Studies in the Relation Between Myth and Ritual in the Ancient World (London, 1935); S. H. Hooke, The Origins of Early Semitic Ritual, Schweich Lectures for 1935 (London, 1938).

20 C. H. Gordon, The World of the Old Testament (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958); C. H. Gordon, Before the Bible (London: Collins, 1962); C. H. Gordon, The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations (New York: Norton Library, 1965).

21 E. Nielsen, Oral Tradition: A Modern Problem in Old Testament Introduction, SBT 11 (London: SCM, 1954).

22 W. Baumgartner, Zum alten Testament und seiner Umwelt (Leiden: Brill, 1959).

23 R. Culley, Oral Formulaic Language in the Biblical Psalms, Near and Middle Eastern Series 4 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967); R. Culley, Studies in the Structure of Hebrew Narrative, Semeia Supplements (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1976); R. Culley (ed.), Perspectives on Old Testament Narrative, Semeia 15 (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1979).

24 D. Irvin and T. L. Thompson, “The Joseph and Moses Narratives,” in J. H. Hayes and J. M. Miller (eds) Israelite and Judaean History (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1977), 147–212; D. Irvin, Mytharion: The Comparison of Tales from the Old Testament and ancient Near East (Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 1978).

25 J. Sasson, Ruth (Baltimore, MD: Anchor, 1979).

26 Bolte and Polivka, Anmerkungen; Thompson, Motif Index; M. Parry, L’Épithète Traditionelle dans Homère (Paris, 1928); M. Parry, “Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral Verse Making: Homer and the Homeric Style,” HSCP 41 (1930), 73–147; M. Parry, “The Homeric Language as the Language of Oral Poetry,” HSCP 43 ( 1932), 1–50; M. Parry and A. B. Lord, Serbocroation Heroic Songs, 2 vols (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954); A. B. Lord, The Singer of Tales, HSCL 24 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960).

27 In two prize essays at the University of Copenhagen in 1968. These have been subsequently published as H. Friis, Die Bedingungen für die Errichtung des davidischen Reiches in Israel und seiner Umwelt, BDBAT 6 (Heidelberg: DBAT, 1986); N. P. Lemche, Israel i Dommertiden (Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag, 1972).

28 M. Noth, Überlieferungsgeschichtliche Studien.

29 T. L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham, BZAW 133 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1974).

30 For a brief overview, see T. L. Thompson, The Mythic Past (New York: Basic Books, 1999), Part III.

31 See Thompson, “A New Attempt to Date the Patriarchal Narratives,” 76–84; T. L. Thompson, The Origin Tradition of Ancient Israel, JSOTS 55 (Sheffield: SAP, 1987), 61–8.

32 Allan Petersen, The Royal God: Enthronement Festivals in Ancient Israel and Ugarit, CIS 5 (Sheffield: SAP, 1998).

33 See Chapter 12, this volume.

34 For several systematic examples of spectrum analysis, see T. L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham, BZAW 133 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1974), 17–51; 196–297; N. P. Lemche, Early Israel: Anthropological and Historical Studies on the Israelite Society before the Monarchy (Leiden: Brill, 1985), 95–136; 170–84; 209–44.

35 Nielsen, Tragedy in History, 82.

36 Ibid., 83–4.

37 Talmon, “Did There Exist?”

Comments (2)

It may be too late to comment on this essay, which certainly merits more than one reading. Several themes - at least three, date, style and historicity - interweave.
I wonder if I correctly understand the statement that the problem is one of text development, not of sources. I would understand a combination of sources in this or any context as an attempt to put together a number of already existing authoritative-seeming but conflicting texts in a way that makes the most coherent impression that the editors can manage. A text showing development would be one reflecting a process where there were not necessarily any authoritative sources to begin with but where ideas had ebbed and flowed within a group and where the final editing showed up that ebb and flow. Have I got that right?
Thus we face the question of why leaders who are basically good - should we be asking that question about Obama and the Middle East? - fail. According to Chronicles 'because they make a terrible mistake', according to Kings 'because they are overwhelmed by the forces of ancestral guilt' (Josiah = Pentheus/Josiah = Orestes??)
I certainly have a feeling that this is the sort of thing they debated in Hellenistic rather than in Iron Age times. There was all that philosophical and poetic monotheism about in that Alexandrian spring.
But it is very difficult to do full justice to a style that is so surreal, so compelling, so numinous.

#1 - Martin - 03/23/2013 - 17:24

Dear Martin,
I think your remarks on authoratative sources are useful. The Pentateuch approaches that, but only in its reception!
Many thanks for your other comments too. The question regarding the fate of kings--whether in Chronicles or I-II Kings--has always fascinated me: especially as I Samuel tells us of the failure to come--which, for me, suggests that the actual stories of the kings belong to the realm of parables.

Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen

#2 - Thomas L. Thompson, Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen - 03/24/2013 - 16:19


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