"History" and "Writing"

Did the authors and editors of Scripture ever intend to write what we define as "history?" If they did not, many of our arguments about the historicity of the Bible in modern terms become meaningless.

By Charles David Isbell
Director of Jewish Studies
Louisiana State University
August 2003

    If one rules out the extremists in both Christianity and Judaism, fundamentalists and black-hat haredim, it is virtually impossible to find anyone who believes that there is such a thing as “objective” historical truth. All history is somebody’s opinion. Still in all, “history” is perhaps the one word most frequently misunderstood and misused by scholars and students of the Bible. Too often, the source of this misunderstanding is a presumption that the Bible should meet the standard of something called “history” in the modern sense of the word but that the authors and editors of the biblical narratives were simply not sophisticated enough to understand what is meant today by “history.” The sad fact is that this dismissal of the ancients is likely to be done by modern writers whose own grasp of “history” is itself seldom clearly enunciated.

    Two of the questions posed by Professor Provan leap to the fore here. “What is the nature of our knowledge of the past? What are historical ‘facts’?” And Provan is correct that as a group pursuing this discussion, we have not produced answers that are plain enough to allow us to be sure that we are all talking about the same thing. The compelling “Minimalism” debate among biblical scholars unfolding on this site involves more than anything else a definition of “history” as found in biblical texts. Far too often, even this debate among scholars centers around modern theoretical models and personal ideologies. Often too, we read the conclusion that it is the lack of sophistication of the ancients that stands in the way of our ability to perceive the true meaning of their writings just because we are so modern. That is, in their simple and pre-modern state, they may have thought they were writing history, but of course we know that they were not.

    But although Provan’s questions are compelling, I believe there is another question that should be answered first: Did the authors and editors of Scripture ever intend to write what we define as “history?” If they did not, many of our arguments about the historicity of the Bible in modern terms become meaningless. As we attempt to set ideology aside and as we inquire after the Bible’s own internal witness to its purposes, the evidence is surprising.

    One of the basic rules of fairness in judging any book, ancient or modern, is to measure the way in which its author accomplishes his or her own stated objective. And if a survey of the ways in which the Bible explains its own aims reveals that the biblical writers did what they set out to do, only our modern arrogance would allow us to declare their writings a failure because they don’t produce the kind of “history” we want.

    A good starting point of any investigation of this biblical evidence might be an oft-repeated statement in 1 and 2 Kings. Beginning with Solomon, numerous times following the notice of a king’s death, the biblical text offers the following disclaimer: “Now the rest of the activities of ________, are they not written in the Book of the _________?” The only change in this formula is the name of the king and the exact name of the book. In 1 Kings 11.41, we learn of a special reference work about King Solomon titled “The Book [sefer] of the Acts of Solomon.” For additional information about Jeroboam and every other King of Israel, readers are referred to “The Book [sefer] of the Chronicles [divrei ha-yamim] of the Kings of Israel” (1 Kings 14.19).1 For Rehoboam and every other king of Judah, such information is in the “Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah” (14.29).2

    The Chronicler uses the same basic formula and cites additional sources not mentioned in Kings. For example, 1 Chronicles 29.29 underscores the special status of David, telling readers they can find additional information about him by looking at a document known as “The Words of Samuel the Seer [ro’eh], the Words of Nathan the Prophet [navi’], and the Words of Gad the Visionary [hozeh].” A more complete history from the era of Solomon and Jeroboam can be referenced in a work titled “The Words of Nathan the Prophet, the Prophecy of Ahiyah the Shilonite, and the Visions of Ye‘ddo the Visionary Concerning Jeroboam the son of Nebat” (2 Chron. 9.29). A final twist in 2 Chronicles 16.11 describes additional historical information about Asa that is located in the “Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel.”

    This formula in all its variations is nothing less than a frank statement by the biblical authors that they did not intend to write “history” as we might define the word in the modern world. They knew that they had not included many facts that historians might ask about, they tell us openly that we must research other literature if such facts are our aim, and they even mention by name the sources they consider most appropriate for learning these “facts.” They were not writing “history,” and they knew it! The editors of Kings and Chronicles were offering a moral evaluation of kings and events, not a chronicle or an annal that merely recorded what happened. In other words, our modern grousing about the biblical narrators misses the point when all we are doing is repeating what they admitted up front.

    I placed the data from Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles first because it is these works around which the argument swirls. But other illustrations can be offered from elsewhere in the Bible. In Genesis, every human being was wiped off the face of the earth except one small family. Yet we are never told that Noah took literature with him on his boat, and the claim is never made that he wrote anything down. Surely we moderns are not the first people to note that all the stories telling us about the world before Noah could not be anything like an eye-witness account. Even the earliest readers of Genesis would have realized that.

    In Exodus, again taking the biblical text itself as our guide, we see some things that are essential to the literary structure of the biblical story of the Exodus (the most basic narrative in the Bible) but which we can never hope to verify. [a] We do not know the identity of the Pharaohs in the Book of Exodus. [b] We do not know where the “Reed Sea” was/is. [c] We have no idea of how to locate Mount Sinai. Yet “the Pharaoh” was the very personification of evil, the Yam Suf was the location of the greatest miracle in the Bible, and Sinai was the name of the place where God spoke the most important words in human history, the Ten Commandments.

    The author of the Book of Exodus, who does not bother to identify or locate them, makes it clear that Pharaoh, Reed Sea, and Sinai are symbols of profound ideas and concepts far more important than their identity or their exact location because the story of the Exodus is not designed to satisfy our modern thirst to learn facts: who? what? when? where? how? The biblical construct is far simpler. The God of the Exodus is the God of Sinai. The deity who delivers has earned the right to make moral demands upon the delivered. What does not follow is the conclusion that because the biblical narrative of the Exodus is not “historical” in a way to satisfy us, this means that no Moses ever existed and nothing really happened. The biblical narrative is not the kind of historical evidence we would use to prove OR disprove such things. Neither does the biblical narrative prove OR disprove either the existence of the Pharaohs who are not named or the midwives who are!

    Internal biblical information about one of the greatest of all prophets further illustrates the point. The career of Isaiah the son of Amoz spanned the reigns of four kings of Judah late in the eighth century BCE.3 And in the first thirty-nine chapters of the Book of Isaiah, we find many references to Isaiah’s advice given in times of crisis, two of which were especially crucial.

    The first of these concerned the pressure placed upon King Ahaz by an alliance involving Syria and Israel, whose two kings wanted Ahaz to join them in opposing the advancing army of Assyria. The prophet’s advice to the king was to refuse to join Syria and Israel in war against Assyria but to trust YHWH to defend the nation.4 2 Kings 16.7-16 note that Ahaz did not follow Isaiah’s advice, choosing instead to make a deal with Assyria.

    The second major historical crisis in which Isaiah participated was the invasion of Judah by Sennacherib in 701, when Hezekiah had become King of Judah. Chapters 36-37 of the Book of Isaiah largely parallel the account of this incident given in 2 Kings 18.13-19.

    Yet a survey of the “facts” about these two incidents mentioned in the Book of Isaiah reveals only a small percentage of the details involved in the political and military machinations lying behind the scenes and causing each king such dismay. The book of the “prophet” Isaiah was not concerned to give a complete historical background for Isaiah’s messages but anxious to record that the prophet offered advice of a religious nature to two kings facing political and military disaster. This makes two references in 2 Chronicles extremely intriguing. 2 Chronicles 26.22 mentions King Uzziah, whose death marked the beginning of Isaiah’s career as a prophet (according to Isaiah 6.1), and also alludes to a radically different aspect of Isaiah’s career: “The rest of the activities of Uzziah [yeter divrei ‘uzziyahu], both early and late, were written by the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz.” Then 2 Chronicles 32.32 states with the same opening Hebrew phrase: “Now the rest of the activities of Hezekiah, and his faithful actions, are written in ‘The Visions of the Prophet Isaiah Son of Amoz.’”5

    We must think clearly about what the biblical text is disclosing. On the one hand, we have a fairly elaborate book of “prophecy” dedicated to the preaching and spiritual advice given by the great prophet Isaiah. This book was respected enough to be preserved [by Isaiah’s own disciples?],6 studied, copied, and transmitted from generation to generation until it became an essential part of the sacred text of Judaism, “The Bible.” On the other hand, Isaiah, the exact same “son of Amoz,” wrote two other literary works, one chronicling “the activities of Uzziah” and another with “the activities of Hezekiah” as its focus. The Chronicler knows of the existence of these additional works written by Isaiah and cites them to his readers as reliable sources from which they could learn more about two important kings. But these works, even though they were believed to have been written by Isaiah himself, were not included as part of “The Bible.” From the choice to exclude two books of history while embracing as canonical a third work of “prophecy,” all by the same author,7 we see clearly that “The Bible” is less concerned to be used as a source of “history” than it is to offer a prophetic, a moral, a Yahwistic interpretation of the true meaning of history!

    Whenever we encounter biblical stories clothed in the format of historical narrative, this prophetic or interpretative perspective of the Bible can never be overlooked, just as it is essential to know the perspective of the author of any book. Surely King Omri would have written about his own rule far differently from the cursory dismissal he received at the hands of the prophetic editors of the Deuteronomic History. Jeroboam II certainly viewed his rule over Israel more positively than did Amos or Hosea. And it would be interesting to know why King Ahaz rejected the advice of Isaiah. But the Bible does not allow Omri, Jeroboam, or Ahaz to speak for themselves and makes no apology for silencing them.

    All we know is what the prophets or the deuteronomic editors believed about their actions. And the biblical writers tell us openly that what we are reading in the Bible was not intended to be balanced and fair to all sides. These authors doubtless believed their perspective on each king was correct, and in each case we can detect a defense of the prophetic view of strict loyalty to the one true God. Even a slight deviation from this prophetic perspective [a king who mixed Yahwism with even a scintilla of Baal worship or who acted in disobedience to a prophetic word] automatically disqualified any king from earning a passing grade from the prophets. But there is nothing balanced or politically correct about Isaiah, the Deuteronomist, or the Chronicler, for such was never their goal.

    Certain biblical data are dry facts and figures, at least some of which can be checked and cross-referenced. Thus, the dates of a king’s rule may be synchronized with Babylonian or Assyrian sources, and Isaiah’s account of the siege of Sennacherib can be compared with the Assyrian view of the same incident. But most other kinds of biblical “facts” can never be verified in this way: the family tree of a group of people, the height of King Saul, the beauty of Tamar, the baldness of Elisha, the obesity of King Eglon, the long hair of Samson. These facts, though certainly integral to the literary artistry of the narrator, are not the most important element of the stories about each person. Genealogies serve to identify tribal or national affiliations among the various groups in the Bible world.

    The physically imposing Saul is made to appear quite small in spiritual stature standing next to Samuel and in the presence of what are portrayed as his spiritual shortcomings. The agony of Tamar after her rape and the decisive revenge against her rapist undertaken by her full brother Absalom are underscored and made more tragic by the knowledge that the victim was so beautiful. The baldness of Elisha serves as the setting for him to demonstrate his possession of awesome [Elijah-like!] power to harm anyone who stood in the way of a certified prophet of the Lord. The obesity of Eglon serves as a necessary backdrop for the horrifying description about the inability of Ehud to retrieve his knife from such a fat belly. The long hair of Samson provides the narrator with an avenue through which he can have a simple maiden overcome the most powerful warrior in the nation. But even if all these “facts” were changed, the point of each story would remain.

    Finally, we should remember that the most fundamental of all “facts” can never be verified by any modern method. I refer here to the most common statements of “fact” in the Bible: “Then God said,” or “This is what YHWH has said,” etc. We can no more prove or disprove such assertions than we can verify or dismiss the existence of a divine Being. Yet “objective” history would need to interview each of the witnesses cited in Scripture and quoted as having “heard” the voice of YHWH. The prophets never addressed the question of the existence of God, never questioned that He speaks fluent biblical Hebrew, and never doubted that they understood His messages properly. These are all taken as “fact” in the Bible, and all lie well outside the purview of modernity in all its glory.8 Here is the rub, I think. However remarkable it may appear to us, the biblical writers presume true the idea that ultimate questions of hope and absolute well-being depend on what we perceive as accidental circumstances in history. That is, what we believe to be ordinary events, many of which we are determined to “explain,” were to them irrefutable signs of the miraculous interventions of God in the realm of time and space. And this belief of theirs is simply not subject to verification. Nor should we continue to harangue them for offering to the world their reactions to the significance of these moments of divine intervention.

    If the Bible is read only as a search for “facts,” then most of its message will be lost, for the authors of the Bible were not interested in “just the facts.” They looked at the ways in which “facts” which they assumed true influenced people to live. That is why the Bible is so difficult to read and understand. We want to know facts of a kind that the Bible most often does not give. But it does not follow that because their interest in “history” was different from ours we may pronounce them at fault, even less that we may accuse them of twisting the truth to create out of whole cloth a piece of writing they themselves knew to be false and did not believe. We may be so arrogant as to assume that we know better than they did what they should have put in their “Bible.” But I doubt that they were so arrogant as to presume readers would be so gullible that both their present and all later generations [including us] could be fooled by ideas they themselves knew fully well to be mere fiction.


[1] See also 1 Kings 15.31; 16.5, 14, 20, 27; 22.39; 2 Kings 10.34; 13.8; 14.15, 28; 15.11. 15, 21, 26, 31.

[2] See also 1 Kings 14.29; 15.7, 23; 22.45; 2 Kings 8.23; 12.19; 14.18; 15.6, 15.36; 16.19; 20.20; 21.17; 21.25; 23.28; 24.5. This formula is missing only for Yehoahaz, who died in Egypt, and for Yehoyakin.

[3] See Isaiah 1.1. The four were Uzziah, Yotam, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.

[4] Isaiah 7.1-16. The date of this incident is between 732 and 722 BCE.

[5] This same verse adds that Hezekiah’s history is also found in “The Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel.”

[6] See Isaiah 8.1, and especially 8.16-18.

[7] I am not making the argument that Isaiah ben Amoz wrote the first 39 chapters of the biblical Isaiah Book. I am merely pointing out how the biblical editors of Chronicles perceived the relative value of two kinds of literature that they believed came from the same person.

[8] I suspect that even if we recovered a recording of someone speaking to “Moses” exactly the words now recorded in Exodus, the popular understanding would be that the voice was that of James Earle Jones rather than the sovereign deity of Israel. The point is that “facts” do not always alter the way in which one perceives the reality of an event.

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