On History and Fiction in Traditional Literature

By Thomas L. Thompson
Professor Emeritus: University of Copenhagen
September 2009

A central problem with the project of “Biblical Archaeology” has been that the historical context of the biblical tradition’s composition has been closely associated with scenarios and references drawn directly from the narrative tradition. Whether one is dealing with an understanding of the patriarchal narratives as reflecting migrations of Amorites in “the patriarchal period,” a pre-monarchic “time of the Judges,” reflected in the song of Dinah or the story of Samson or, indeed, “Josiah’s reform” as a context for the Deuteronomistic history, one creates a circular argument and asks the stories to explain themselves. Archaeology is assigned apologetically defined roles of confirmation and legitimation, providing a patented gloss while the Bible is given the fundamentalists’ task of rendering history. Edward Meyer pointed out long ago that such “history” is never anything more than virtual.i In fact, virtual history is all that we ever have had in our Bible histories. Such histories were not written on the basis of evidence, but on what is, after all, every fiction’s plausibility and verisimilitude. They have not merely been arbitrary; they have been alternatives to history: creating a past to serve our purposes—narcissistic mirrors of our own ideologies, politics and theologies.

It has been a central task of critical scholarship, beginning already with John Van Seters’ redating of the “Admonitions of Ipuwer,”ii to break this uncritical, interpretive circle of “Biblical Archaeology” in order to write a history, which is independent of the perspectives of biblical or other traditional literature. The apologetics of “Biblical Archaeology” can only be countered if a clear distinction is made between traditional texts on the one hand and historical and archaeological sources for the actual period in question on the other. No means should be excluded in our efforts to understand traditional texts in a manner that is consistent with their original purpose and intent. Biblical archaeology’s defense of the virtual memories of the Bible ignores the literary questions which give access to a text’s implicit voice and avoids the necessary exegetical questions which might change our understanding of its context, function, and goal.

Biblical narratives hold implicit the social-political world belonging to the author, while referring to a literary world, with which we also have access through the Bible and its comparative literature. Lamentations, for example, does not refer so much to historical sufferings from specific deportation and population transferences which occurred in the Neo-Babylonian period. They refer, rather, to largely known literary works, which deal with themes of loss, exile, and a returning remnant in the service of a discourse on atonement and reconciliation. Through such literature, one accesses not past suffering itself, nor any historically specific exile or return, so much as the pious understanding of the past implicit in the self-understanding of those who have come to understand themselves as Israel’s remnant and heirs of the tradition. Allow me three examples to illustrate the distinction I propose between fictional and historical readings:

a) The myth of Lucifer and the fallen angels seems clearly echoed in Genesis 11’s story of the tower of Babel as it introduces the Shem-Abram genealogy, which opens the patriarchal narratives. The Babel story is marked by allegorical echoes of Jeremiah’s great closing oracle against Babylon, in which the fall of Babylon marks Yahweh’s victory over Lucifer’s assault on heaven and the inauguration of Jeremiah’s new covenant. The city is destroyed and the land turned to desert, while the people are spread. This story of the exile of Babylon, echoing Esarhaddon’s famous story of Babylon’s flood and the projection of a Jeremiad 70-year exile,iii is reused by Genesis to introduce the theme of return in the allegory of Abram’s call (Gen 11,1-9; Jer 50,1-51,58). In Jeremiah’s version, however, when Babylon falls and the people are spread, “the Israelites return home from their exile and the Judeans with them” (Jer 50,4). Israel comes back to “Bashan and Carmel, in Gilead and in Ephraim”, while the Judeans, together with Israel, search for Zion (Jer 50,4-5.17-19). Just so, in Genesis, Terah comes with Abram and his brothers to Canaan from Ur, the “city of Chaldea;” namely, Babylon (where biblical tradition places the exile from Jerusalem). In its episode variant, however, Abram is called by Yahweh from Harran (where the Israelites had been exiled according to Samaritan tradition). He comes first to Moreh’s oak in Shechem (=Samaria) and, through his chain of stories, wanders ever towards Jerusalem’s Moriah (Gen 11, 26-12,3.6; 15,7; 22,14; 2 Chron 3,1). The Bible’s narration is essentially reiteration, with an allegorical import that has serious implications for reading and understanding traditional texts: “That which once was, is the same as that which is to come, and that which once happened is the same as that which will happen” (Eccl 1,9). The Bible’s never ending story begins with Babylon’s fall and the covenant with Abraham and ends with Jerusalem’s fall and the promise of Jeremiah’s new covenant.

b) Of three stories about Josiah’s reign, 1 Esdras’ tale offers a challenging variation. In presenting Josiah’s celebration of Passover, it uses a very close variant of 2 Chronicles’ description of this event, to which 2 Kings surprisingly gives little attention (2 Chron 35, 1-19; 1 Esd 35, 1-23; cf. 2 Kings 23, 21-23). 1 Esdras also offers a close variant of 2 Chronicles’ version of Josiah’s death after ignoring Yahweh’s prophet, which, marking Josiah with a Saul-like disobedience as it does, is very strikingly different from 2 Kings’ anti-drama. 1 Esdras, however, is more consistent than 2 Chronicles in its rejection of Josiah’s unparalleled virtue. Not only does 1 Esdras not have a story of finding a law book or undertaking a great centralizing reform, it also departs from both of the canonical versions’ presentation of a king of unparalleled goodness and a people who share in the goodness of their ruler’s reforms and Passover. 1 Esdras rather proposes a decidedly different closure for its Josiah story. Rather than praising the goodness of both king and people, 1 Esdras paints a picture of failure. It closes with reference to “the events of his reign,” which “have been recorded in the past, concerning those who sinned and acted wickedly towards the Lord . . . grieving him deeply so that the words of the Lord rose up against Israel” (1 Esd 1,24). This negative statement introduces the story of King Josiah’s death because he did not listen to Jeremiah’s prophecy (v.28, cf. “Pharaoh Neco” in 2 Chron 35,22). These significant divergences from both 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles are not entirely unique, as they share common ground with the opening of the Book of Jeremiah, which similarly knows little of this king’s goodness, dating as it does Jeremiah’s judgment against Jerusalem as having begun in the 13th year of Josiah’s reign. Like Genesis’, 1 Esdras’ virtual history draws its narrative revision on the basis of Jeremiah, clearly dependent as he is on literary, not historical sources.

c) It is also difficult to read the Book of Ezra as an historical account, particularly its closing narrative of the cleansing of Jerusalem from the peoples of the land. Ezra 9-10’s unequivocal echoes of the traditions of Numbers and Joshua, particularly as raised in the insistent lament over the people’s foreign wives and children by a Torah-wise Ezra, should awaken the reader to the quite dominant Pentateuchal themes of ethnic cleansing and holy war—and not least their treatment in the farewell speech in Joshua 24. It is, in fact, since this very time, Ezra complains, that the people have sinned with the result that—“the whole race has mixed itself with the peoples of the land.” Ezra’s narrative gives reference not only to the never-ending story of failure which had driven the Torah’s narrative of holy war toward its tragic closure in Samaria and Jerusalem’s ruins, but—while casting an ironic question regarding Ezra’s fame as Torah scholar—offers its story as an allegory for the Pentateuch’s center (Lev 19,34) by reference to Exodus 22, 20-23; namely, that the mistreatment of foreigners, as of widows and orphans, will make widows and orphans of their own wives and children. It is therefore that the scene in the freezing rain, before Jerusalem’s walls, in Ezra 10 is not a happy ending. Lacking is any expression of joy for a purified and united Jerusalem as, for example, we do find in the closing scene of its xenophobic variant in 1 Esdras 9! In Ezra, the tears of the old men, the freezing rain, and the disappearing wives and children reiterate themes of the Torah’s “lost generation” of Numbers. They evoke for Ezra’s readers a future of widows and orphans, as the banishment scene closes our story with intimations violently opposed to the story’s surface plot. The Bible’s never-ending story of failure continues.


i E. Meyer, Die Entstehung des Judentums (Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1906), 130-13 1.

ii J. Van Seters, ”A Date for the ‘Admonitions’ in the Second Intermediate Period,” JBL 50 (1964), 13-23.

iii D.D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia II (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1926-1927), sec. 647-677.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.