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Remembering AbrahamCulture, Memory, and History in the Hebrew Bible$

Ronald Hendel

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780195177961

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: February 2006

DOI: 10.1093/0195177967.001.0001

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The Biblical Sense of the Past

The Biblical Sense of the Past

(p.95) 6 The Biblical Sense of the Past
Remembering Abraham

Ronald Hendel (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The distinctive features of the biblical sense of history may be illuminated by comparison with classical Greek and ancient Near Eastern concepts. The biblical view includes features of what we call myth, epic, and history. A useful category is “genealogical time,” in which the past provides a foundation, a model, and continuous connection to the present and future.

Keywords:   biblical historiography, ancient Near East, genealogy, myth, epic, history

Memory installs remembrance within the sacred; history, always prosaic, releases it again.

—Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History”

The History of History

In the second volume of his Untimely Observations, Friedrich Nietzsche called for a critical analysis of the “problem of history.” 1 He argued that humans need to believe in illusion—especially religion—in order to live life fully and usefully, and that the prestige of historical consciousness in his time was suffocating this all-too-human need. In order to reduce this burden, he called for historical inquiry to investigate—and thereby destabilize—the authority of historical understanding: “The origin of historical culture … must itself in turn be historically understood, history must itself dissolve the problem of history, knowledge must turn its sting against itself.” 2 With this call, Nietzsche initiated what we might call the critical history of history.

The nature and rise of historical consciousness in the modern West has since been addressed in many important studies since, including the classic works of the 1930s, Paul Hazard's The European Mind and Friedrich Meinecke's Historism, 3 and more recently and more self-consciously Nietzschean, Michel Foucault's The Order of (p.96) Things and Hayden White's Metahistory. 4 When one attends to the conceptual shifts and institutional constraints that shape the emergence of new fields of critical inquiry (Foucault), or to the implicit plots or tropes that generate meaning in historical narrative (White), historical consciousness becomes a complex and fascinating affair. It is no longer a single, stable thing, but a congeries of styles of thought and discourse, intimately allied with other forms of life—social, religious, political, and literary. Historical inquiry has responded to Nietzsche's challenge by dissolving the problem of history into an array of interconnected problems, not the least of which is how to conduct historical inquiry in an age of uncertainty, an ironic reversal of Nietzsche's historical situation.

The ancient roots of modern historical consciousness are ably exposed in Arnaldo Momigliano's posthumous study, The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography. 5 Momigliano begins with the Greek and Hebrew historians but grants at the outset that awareness and commemoration of the past are common human traits. He cites the words of an eighteenth-century Mongolian chronicler:

If the common man does not know his origins, he is like a mad ape. He who does not know his great and right family connections is like an outsize dragon. He who does not know the circumstances and the course of actions of his noble father and grandfather is like a man who, having prepared sorrow for his children, throws them into this world. 6

To be human is, in this sense, to live historically. To discern the distinctive features of Greek and Hebrew historiography takes a finer-grained approach than the conventional view that they invented or discovered historical consciousness.

The Greek historians developed a critical perspective toward the truth-value of their evidence and their historical writings. In this they were influenced by the criticisms of received tradition advanced by Xenophanes and other philosophers. Perhaps as a consequence, the Greeks did not invest history with special religious or philosophical value, except as a series of exemplars or cautionary models. Momigliano observes:

[T]ypically Greek is the critical attitude towards the recording of events, that is, the development of critical methods enabling us to distinguish between facts and fancies. To the best of my knowledge no historiography earlier than the Greek or independent of it devel (p.97) oped these critical methods; and we have inherited the Greek methods. 7

The Greeks liked history, but never made it the foundation of their lives. The educated Greek turned to rhetorical schools, to mystery cults, or to philosophy for guidance. History was never an essential part of the life of a Greek—not even (one suspects) for those who wrote it. There may be many reasons for this attitude of the Greeks, but surely an important factor was that history was so open to uncertainties, so unlikely to provide undisputed guidance. To the biblical Hebrew, history and religion were one. 8

In contrast to the Greek perspective, the past in the Hebrew Bible is a central religious drama. This is why, Momigliano suggests, the biblical presentation of the past begins at the beginning of the world and contains all the privileged events of the past, whereas Greek histories tend to focus on particular events of public importance. 9 The past has a different scope and weight in the biblical perspective; it is an essential dimension of religious life.

Because of the normative quality of the past in the Bible, it is subject to different criteria than the Greek historical criterion of fact versus fancy. To the biblical writers, the traditional stories of the collective past are true, though these stories are subject to revision in order to maintain or revive their purchase on the truth. The biblical practice of historiography is one of interpretation and combination, rather than verification or falsification. This reliance on authority is similar to the practice of medieval historiography, as Peter Burke describes it:

Historical narratives tended to resemble “bricolage” compositions from ready-made fragments, for the historian would often incorporate the actual words of the “authority,” making a mosaic of the different authors. 10

In the Hebrew Bible, interpretation and revision are joined to textual bricolage. For example, the book of Chronicles revises the presentation of the past in the books of Samuel and Kings by recombining and interpreting these texts to bring them into line with current understandings—embellishing events that are important, omitting episodes that are irrelevant or problematic, and harmonizing divergent presentations in the source texts. 11 Yet even as it revises the older representations of the past, Chronicles also seems to presume the existence and authority of these source texts. It positions itself as a guide or commentary on earlier histories, even as it revises those histories in its own (p.98) text. The later text does not displace the earlier but rather sets itself over it as an exegetical frame, bringing the older text into focus. Sara Japhet acutely describes this interpretive relationship:

The best way to define the author's purpose is through the concept of “corrective history”: a thorough reformulating of ancient history from a new, “modern” perspective, responsive to its time. The new story should supplement the necessary facts where they were unknown or omitted, replace mistaken facts and explanations by historically probable and theologically valid ones, use all available sources and materials, and provide wholeness of form and meaning to the account of the past. 12

This hermeneutic strategy of an authoritative reframing of history can be seen in the Deuteronomistic redaction of its source texts in the Deuteronomistic history (Deuteronomy through Kings) and arguably in the Priestly redaction or supplementation of the older sources of the Pentateuch. 13 The J and E sources too are arguably revisions and recombinations of prior texts and traditions. 14 The prior versions are not repudiated but are corrected, curtailed, revised, or supplemented, as warranted by the historical horizons and certainties of the biblical writer, including the writer's literary practices and theological motivations. The operative criteria are not truth versus fiction but rather interpretation and revision. To borrow Meir Sternberg's terms, biblical historiography moves between the truth and the whole truth. 15 History carries the authority of sacred tradition. 16 But tradition can be—and must be—revised in order to retain its truth.

Myth, Epic, History

The Greek comparison brings out some distinctive features of the biblical attitudes toward the past. 17 The comparison with Israel's Near Eastern forebears is equally instructive. A previous generation of scholars tended to emphasize the contrast between the Bible's historical consciousness and the mythic consciousness of other ancient Near Eastern cultures. 18 In this view, history and myth are seen as mutually exclusive categories or worldviews, with the Bible representing the crucial break from myth into history. A brilliant and influential book by Yosef Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History, Jewish Memory, articulates this position eloquently:

It was ancient Israel that first assigned a decisive significance to history and thus forged a new world-view whose essential premises (p.99) were eventually appropriated by Christianity and Islam as well. … Suddenly, as it were, the crucial encounter between man and the divine shifted away from the realm of nature and the cosmos to the plane of history, conceived now in terms of divine challenge and human response. The pagan conflict of the gods with the forces of chaos, or with one another, was replaced by a drama of a different and more poignant order: the paradoxical struggle between the divine will of an omnipotent Creator and the free will of his creature, man, in the course of history. 19

In this view, the myth of cosmic battle—“[t]he pagan conflict of the gods with the forces of chaos”—was rejected in favor of a new worldview in which historical events are the primary sites of meaning. There is certainly something to be said for this shift of attention in the Bible, but—as with all such stark binary oppositions—the shift is more complex and variable and to some degree is an effect of the Bible's own rhetoric against its forebears and neighbors. As scholars have abundantly demonstrated, ancient Near Eastern cultures fully embraced the idea that the gods and humans were engaged on the plane of history, and the Hebrew Bible never wholly rejected the idea of the cosmic conflict between God and the forces of chaos. 20

Neither in the Bible nor in the ancient Near East is there a strong contrast between myth and history. 21 Rather, the significant events in both temporal settings are often intertwined and intersignifying. 22 A clear biblical example is Psalm 74, written in the wake of the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonian army in 586 B.C.E. In this psalm of lament, God is invoked to reverse the historical trauma precisely because he is the one who defeated the forces of chaos in primeval times: 23

O God, my king from of ancient times,

who brings salvation throughout the land;

it was you who roused the sea with your strength,

who shattered the heads of the dragons of the waters;

it was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan,

and gave him as food for the creatures of the desert. (Ps 74:12–14)

God defeated the chaos monsters in primeval times, and he is called upon to defeat chaos once again, now redefined as a historical enemy, a destroyed Temple, and a ruined community. The distinction between biblical and ancient Near Eastern thought on the perennial clash of chaos and order is not whether there was a primeval divine battle with chaos, but which god it was who prevailed—and will continue to prevail in the present and future. The psalmist (p.100) asks God for a repetition of his victory over chaos, joining the primeval Chaoskampf to the chaotic present. The struggle between divine and human wills in the turmoil of history is important in biblical writings, but it does not preclude the understanding that God has proven himself in cosmic battle. On the contrary, most biblical writings presume this knowledge of God's mastery in the primeval past.

The close relationship between myths of cosmic order and the orientations toward the past in the Bible can be clarified by the concept of collective memory—a topic first introduced by Maurice Halbwachs and refined in many studies since. 24 Cultures, like individuals, remember selectively and tend to assimilate historical events to traditional patterns, models, and themes. So, for example, the European encounter with the New World and its indigenous peoples was often conceived and represented through biblical paradigms—the New World was often seen as a New Eden, the refuge of the Lost Tribes, or a topic of biblical prophecy. 25 Similarly, modern conflicts, such as those in the Middle East, are often seen through the prism of hallowed narratives, such as God's promise of the land in Genesis, or the relationship between Muhammad and the Jews of Medina in the Qur;hzan. 26 These examples illustrate how collective memory interprets and represents events in terms of authoritative narrative models or schemata. Burke calls this “the process by which the remembered past turns into myth.” 27

The dynamics of collective memory can be illustrated in one of the earliest texts in the Hebrew Bible, the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15. 28 Frank Cross has explored the deep continuities between the Cananaanite myth of Baal's victory over Sea and this classic portrayal of Yahweh's victory over Pharaoh's forces and the exodus of Israel. 29 In brief, this archaic biblical text is suffused with the diction and themes of the myth of divine conflict. The remembered past is represented and shaped by inherited discursive forms, investing the constitutive events of the past with mythic significance.

The Song of the Sea begins with Moses and the Israelites invoking Yahweh in his role as divine warrior, an old Near Eastern divine type:

Yahweh is a warrior,

Yahweh is his name. (Exod 15:3)

Although Yahweh's adversary is a human opponent (“Pharaoh's chariotry and his troops”), Yahweh's victory has cosmic implications; hence the Song exalts him over all the gods:

Who is like you, O Yahweh, among the gods?

Who is like you, majestic in holiness, 30

awesome in praises, working wonders? (Exod 15:11)


The victorious God leads his newly redeemed people to his sacred mountain, after which Yahweh is proclaimed eternal king:

You brought them, you planted them

in the mountain of your heritage,

the foundation of your throne,

which you made, O Yahweh,

the sanctuary of my lord,

which your hands created.

Yahweh will rule

forever and ever. (Exod 15:17–18)

The mountain is Yahweh's, but he allows his newly redeemed people to dwell there, under the gracious care of the divine king.

The Canaanite myth of divine combat features the divine warrior Baal and a series of adversaries, first Sea (Yammu), then Death (Môtu). In the first movement, Baal battles and defeats Sea, after which a palace is constructed for Baal on his holy mountain, where he is enthroned as king. The general pattern of events is shared with the biblical text. The continuities of themes and diction are illustrated by the following passages from the two texts:

In my holy place, the mountain of my heritage (ǵūri naḤalatiya), 31

In my pleasant place, in the hill of my might. (CAT 1.3.iii.30–31)

In the mountain of your heritage (har naḤălātĕkā),

The foundation of your throne. (Exod 15:17)

[Baal's weapon] struck the head of Prince Sea (yammu),

Between the eyes of Judge River.

Sea collapsed and fell to the earth. (CAT 1.3.iv.24–26)

He cast them into the sea (yām). …

The primeval waters covered them. (Exod 15:4–5)

I alone rule over the gods (;hzilīma). (CAT 1.4.vii.49–50)

Who is like you, O Yahweh, among the gods (;hzēlīm)? (Exod 15:11)

You shall take your eternal kingship (mulka ;ayālamika)

Your everlasting rule. …

Baal will rule (ba;aylu-mi yamlu[ku]). (CAT 1.2.iv.10, 32)

Yahweh will rule (yhwh yimlōk)

forever (lĕ;ayōlām) and ever. (Exod 15:17–18)


Even from these brief lines, it is clear that the earliest biblical representation of Israel's emergence as a people is informed by traditional mythic language and concepts. The divine warrior dwells on “the mountain of your/my heritage.” The adversary is defeated at the “sea” (probably the Red Sea in Exodus 15), a symbolic displacement of Canaanite divine “Sea” (probably the Mediterranean). After his victory, the divine warrior proceeds to his palace sanctuary on his sacred mountain, where he rules as eternal king, exalted above the gods. The ordered cosmos is secure.

The Baal myth relates the victory of the divine warrior over the forces of chaos in primeval time. In the Song of the Sea, the scene of divine victory and cosmic kingship has shifted from the primeval era to the time of human history, and the adversary is not a god but a king's army—yet the dynamics of the divine victory over chaos persist. The biblical text presents a scene of divine deliverance using the traditional resources of the myth of cosmic battle. The defeat of chaos by the divine warrior and his ascent to cosmic kingship are the schemata that animate this hymn of God's victory and his redemption/creation of the people Israel. 32 Ethnogenesis recapitulates cosmogenesis.

The transposition of the defeat of chaos from mythic time to historical time highlights a distinctive feature in the concept of national and ethnic identity in ancient Israel. Israel was different in that it knew it was a recent arrival in the ancient Near East. Perhaps, as Amos Funkenstein suggests, Israel's conviction that it was God's chosen people was a compensation for its awareness of its belatedness on the historical scene. 33 Its lateness was turned into a sign of special favor, like the exaltation of the youngest son in Genesis and elsewhere. Yet even as Israel recalled its recent origins, this was not a radical turn from myth to history, or a first discernment of “meaning in history.” Cosmos and culture, myth and history, had long been intertwined in ancient Near Eastern self-consciousness. For instance, if a city or kingdom was destroyed in Mesopotamia, it was because of human impiety and the wrath of the gods. If cities were restored, it was because human sins were forgiven by the gods' gracious compassion. The gods warned and praised the king through prophets and diviners, and the enemies of the nation were equated with primeval adversaries. 34 The past and present were conceived as interpenetrations of cosmic forces and human events, such that neither the categories of myth or history adequately addresses the multidimensionality of our texts and representations. To cite another biblical example, just as other Near Eastern kings derived their authority from the cosmic victory of the divine warrior-king, so Psalm 89 depicts Yahweh inaugurating King David by setting “his hand on the sea, his right hand on the rivers” (Ps 89:26). 35 This symbolic rite makes (p.103) the Israelite king the victor over primeval chaos, just as Yahweh is earlier in the psalm (vv 10–15). 36 This is history conceived through the lenses of myth.

Cross has observed, “Characteristic of the religion of Israel is a perennial and unrelaxed tension between the mythic and the historical.” 37 I would qualify this to stress the ready interpenetration of the mythic and the historical, such that they are not antithetical domains in Israelite religion. This mixture or mediating category Cross opts to call “epic,” by analogy with key features of the Greek Homeric epics. These analogous features are the following: 38

  • A crystallization in writing of stories, themes, and motifs drawn from oral tradition

  • A pan-segmental or national orientation, incorporating local variants or multiforms

  • A doubled level of action in which divine and human actors participate in tandem (dual causality)

  • A description of an age conceived as normative, the events of which give meaning and self-understanding to a people or nation.

Cross's proposal is usefully complemented by Paul Zumthor's characterization of epic discourse as a type of narrative with distinctive semantic properties:

It is probably worthwhile to distinguish … between the epic poem as a culturally conditioned poetic form—hence variable—and epic discourse as a class of narrative discourse that is relatively stable and definable by its temporal structure, the position of the subject, and a general aptitude for assuming a mythical charge that makes it autonomous in relation to the event. … For its intended audience (which it intends for itself), it is autobiography, its very own collective existence that it recounts … a natural integration of past and present. 39

In its epic discourse, Israel combines the mythic and the historical in such a way that its collective past takes on the authority of sacred myth. This is what Hans-Peter Müller calls the “Historisierung der mythischen Funktionen” in biblical historiography. 40 This is one reason that the biblical writers never developed the critical methods of the Greek historians—the sacred function of the past precludes systematic doubt. Interpretation and commentary, as Gershom Scholem observed, became for the Jews what philosophy was for the Greeks, the preferred method for discerning truth. 41

The characteristics of epic discourse inform not only the representation of the normative past in the the Pentateuch, but also extend into the more recent (p.104) past, the time of tribal leaders, prophets, priests, and kings. 42 In particular, the principle of dual causality persists, in which God and humans are complementary causal agents. 43 This principle operates in texts that exhibit remarkably sophisticated historical perspectives, such as the Court History of David in 2 Samuel 9–20 and 1 Kings 1–2. Gerhard von Rad called it the “oldest specimen of ancient Israelite historical writing.” 44 At a key turning point in this narrative, David's ally Hushai gives the rebellious Absalom bad strategic advice in order to delay his military campaign against David. 45 Because of Hushai's reputation and eloquence, his advice seems compelling to Absalom and his men. But while Hushai is a cunning sabateur, Yahweh is also orchestrating events. After relating the intrigue at the purely human level, the narrator exposes the dual causality:

Absalom and all the men of Israel thought the advice of Hushai the Archite was better than the advice of Ahitophel, for Yahweh had determined to overturn the good advice of Ahitophel, in order that Yahweh would bring evil upon Absalom. (2 Samuel 17:14)

Events turn because humans and God act in complementary ways, even when God's hand is unseen by the participants.

There are, of course, other degrees of relation between God's will and human events in biblical literature. In some cases, God does not enter into the chain of human events—sometimes to the despair of the humans. 46 At other times, humans are seen as actors in a grand divine plan. 47 All of these are varieties of historical consciousness, but they are also animated by the forms and structures of myth and epic. Historical consciousness is abundantly in evidence in the Bible, as it is in previous and neighboring cultures, mingled with the revelations of prophets, the politics of kings, and the memories of previous divine interventions.

A further complicating factor in the biblical sense of the past is generic multiplicity: the ways that the Bible remembers the past are conditioned by the features of its discursive styles and genres—including narrative prose, didactic or legal prose, and poetry—each of which has its distinctive representational possibilities. 48 For example, in the poetry of the Song of the Sea, Yahweh is the sole agent of Israel's salvation, and Moses is not even mentioned. But in the prose version of the same event, Moses is at the center of the narrative, and Yahweh and Moses act in tandem. The hymn of praise is concerned solely with divine agency, while the epic celebrates dual causality. In sum, the forms of the biblical past are multiple and complex.

At the beginning of his tetralogy, Joseph and His Brothers, Thomas Mann (p.105) muses about the biblical past, “Deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it unfathomable?” 49 That is to say (risking an awkward paraphrase), we cannot expect to measure it fully.

Genealogical Time

Whichever generic category one uses to describe the biblical accounts of the formative past—epic, legend, history, prose fiction, traditional narrative, or other—the biblical presentation of the past has its own distinctive qualities that are not exhausted by any particular classification. As a complement and corrective to these categories, one should also explore the Bible's own categories, what Dan Ben-Amos calls its ethnic genres. 50 The only term used in the Pentateuch to refer to its own narrative of the past is תולדות‎, “generations” or “lineage,” a term found only in the P source. 51 This term first appears at the end of the creation account of Genesis 1:1–2:3 as a pause and transition: “These are the תולדות‎ of heaven and earth” (Gen 2:4). This statement of genealogical descent is used metaphorically here, signifying that what happens next is the temporal “offspring” of cosmic origins. The idiom of genealogy suggests a coherent connectivity of events, a causal relationship between God's work of creation and what happens next.

The word תולדות‎ literally means “begettings,” from the verb “to beget” (הוליד‎), used of a father. (A mother gives birth with the basic stem of the same verb.) This word refers to the offspring of the male head of the household: the patriline. By repeating the phrase, אלה תולדות‎, “these are the generations/patriline of X,” Genesis presents the past as a genealogy, starting with heaven and earth and ending with the tribes of Israel. Similar phrases with תולדות‎ recur several times in Exodus and Numbers, culminating in the priestly lineage of Moses and Aaron (Num 3:1). By this framing technique, the normative past is represented as a genealogical narrative, and time is concentrated into the connective form of a branching lineage.

The book of Chronicles distills the idea of time as a genealogy to its essence. In 1 Chronicles 1–9, the entire past from creation to the line of Saul is presented as a concatenation of lineages, beginning with Adam. The past is pared down to its representational minimum, which is a complex genealogy. This is its connective tissue, that which provides structure and continuity to the past and which links the past to the present. The genealogical view of the past is perhaps a natural symbol for a lineage-based society such as ancient Israel; it expresses powerfully the authority and relevance of the past for the (p.106) world of the present. As Johannes Pedersen observes of this genealogical concept of time, “History is upheld by the generations, and it springs from primeval time, concentrated in the fathers in whom the life of the family lives.” 52

Genealogical time in the Bible is a model not only for the past and the present, but also for the future. A notable instance is the Blessing of Jacob in Genesis 49, in which Jacob, on his deathbed, foretells for his children (the ancestors of the twelve tribes) what will be their destiny. This is a curious change of character for Jacob, who once was a trickster and now becomes a seer. (This transformation begins in the previous chapter, when Jacob grants Joseph's younger son, Ephraim, the blessing of the firstborn and announces with oracular foresight that he will be the greater son. This is a sly reversal of Jacob's youthful deception of his old blind father in Genesis 27.) Now on his deathbed, having acquired the shadowy foresight of one who is on the boundary of life and death, Jacob summons his sons: “Gather, that I may tell you what will happen to you in the days to come” (Gen 49:1).

The future that Jacob foretells is a genealogical future, that is, the future situation for his sons' lineages. The first three tribes will lose their genealogical status because of their sins: Reuben will diminish, and Simeon and Levi will be scattered in Israel. This corresponds to the historical disappearance of the tribes of Reuben and Simeon and the dispersed location of the Levites as priests. The genealogical status of the firstborn descends to the fourth son, Judah. He will be king, served by his brothers: “Your father's sons will bow down to you. … The scepter will not turn aside from Judah” (Gen 49:8–10). The future is framed by the genealogical ascent of Judah to the status and authority of the firstborn, which yields a blessing for the kings from the tribe of Judah. In other words, future dominance and glory belong to the Davidic king, the apex of the patriline in the genealogical future.

The Blessing of Jacob in Genesis 49 probably stems from the early monarchy, 53 and Jacob's prophecy may be designed precisely to authorize the Davidic king with the patriarchal blessing. In a later era, when there was no longer a Davidic king on the throne, the Blessing of Jacob came to be understood as a prophecy of a king to come, a new branch that will sprout from the stump of David. The phrase that Jacob uses to denote the future in his blessing is אחרית הימים‎ (Gen 49:1), which in classical Hebrew means “days to come,” but which literally means “the end of days.” This phrase is taken in its literal sense in postmonarchic times, 54 and Jacob's prophecy of the genealogical future becomes an eschatological prophecy. 55 At “the end of days” a new king will arise from the house of Judah, and at that time, “the sceptre will not turn aside from Judah.” This becomes a messianic prophecy, and the genealogical future becomes the eschaton, the End of Days.

(p.107) This messianic expectation in genealogical time comes full circle at the beginning of the New Testament, which relates “an account of the genealogy of Jesus the messiah, son of David, son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1). This text expresses the purposeful direction of time and the messianic credentials of Jesus through the structure of genealogy. The future of the patriline, as foretold in the Blessing of Jacob, is resumed and consummated in Jesus' genealogy. In this understanding of Jacob's blessing, genealogical time culminates in the time of the messiah, the final scion of Abraham's lineage. The messianic cusp of the biblical genealogy has been for millennia a shared feature of the structure of time in Judaism and Christianity and continues today in many communities.

Even for posteschatological Jews and Christians, for whom the messiah is an ideal rather than a real expectation, and for those for whom religion is an illusion (reverting to Nietzsche's untimely observations), the genealogical time of the Bible still exerts its power and fascination. In recent years, we have learned to read the Hebrew Bible with attention to its literary brilliance and conceptual depth, and in so doing we are caught up in its web of genealogical forces. Even if we return to it as a literary or spiritual classic, we perceive that we are related, however distantly, to this ancestral root. It makes its claims on us, it inserts us into its genealogy, whether we wish it or not. As Erich Auerbach comments in his magisterial work Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature:

The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historically true reality—it insists that it is the only real world. … All other scenes, issues, and ordinances have no right to appear independently of it, and it is promised that all of them, the history of all mankind, will be given their due place within its frame, will be subordinated to it. The Scripture stories do not, like Homer's, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us—they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels. 56

When we read the Bible attentively, we are drawn into its rich web of meanings. Even if we admit that we are rebels—which may be the burden of modernity 57 —we take up a relation to the Bible, the ancient book that still rests on our shelves. Even if we ignore it or block it from view, the Hebrew Bible is part of our cultural and intellectual genealogy, our relation to the past, our ground and root. It is our old ancestor, and we are its descendants, though we may be wayward, prodigal, and forgetful. (p.108)


(1.) F. W. Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980 ; German original, Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben, 1874), 45.

(2.) Nietzsche, Advantage, 45 (translation adapted); Nietzsche, Werke, ed. K. Schlecta (Munich: Carl Hanser, 1966 ), vol. 1, 261: “der Ursprung der historischen Bildung … muss selbst wieder historisch erkannt werden, die Historie muss das Problem der Historie selbst auflösen, das Wissen muss seinen Stachel gegen sich selbst kehren.”

(3.) P. Hazard, The European Mind (1680–1715) (Cleveland: Meridian, 1963 ; French original, La crise de la conscience européenne, 1935); F. Meinecke, Historism: The Rise of a New Historical Outlook (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972 ; German original, Die Entstehung des Historismus, 1936).

(4.) M. Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Pantheon Books, 1971 ; French original, Les mot et les choses, 1966); H. White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973 ).

(5.) A. Momigliano, The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990 ). For some apt qualifications of Momigliano's treatment of Near Eastern historiography, see A. Kuhrt, “Israelite and Near Eastern Historiography,” in Congress Volume: Oslo 1998, ed. A. Lemaire and M. Saebo, VTSup 80 (Leiden: Brill, 2000 ), 257–79. See also the insightful essay of P. Machinist, “The (p.154) Voice of the Historian in the Ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean World,” Interpretation 57 ( 2003 ): 117–37.

(6.) Momigliano, Classical Foundations, 30. See further the theoretical discussion of M. Detienne, “A Debate on Comparative Historicities,” in Israel Constructs Its History: Deuteronomistic Historiography in Recent Research, ed. A. de Pury, T. Römer, and J.-D. Macchi (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000 ), 174–88.

(7.) Momigliano, Classical Foundations, 30.

(8.) Momigliano, Classical Foundations, 20.

(9.) Momigliano, Classical Foundations, 19.

(10.) P. Burke, The Renaissance Sense of the Past (London: Edward Arnold, 1969 ), 7.

(11.) See recently S. Japhet, “Postexilic Historiography: How and Why?” in Israel Constructs its History: Deuteronomistic Historiography in Recent Research , ed. A. de Pury, et al., 158–66; M. Z. Brettler, The Creation of History in Ancient Israel (London: Routledge, 1995 ), 20–47; I. Kalimi, Zur Geschichtsschreibung des Chronisten (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1995 ).

(12.) Japhet, “Postexilic Historiography,” 161.

(13.) See recently Brettler, Creation, 62–78; B. Halpern, The First Historians: The Hebrew Bible and History (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988 ); D. M. Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1996 ), 114–29.

(14.) S. E. McEvenue, “The Elohist at Work,” ZAW 96 ( 1984 ): 329–30; R. E. Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987 ), 83–85; R. S. Hendel, “Leitwort Style and Literary Structure in the J Primeval Narrative” ( forthcoming ).

(15.) M. Sternberg (The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985 ], 230–63) uses the phrase to describe the “gapping” strategies of biblical narrative: “the reader fills in the gaps himself to the best of his (limited) ability, forming and revising and if possible deciding between alternative closures as he goes along, till the end either resolves or fixes the play of ambiguity” (p. 239).

(16.) Machinist (“Voice of the Historian,” 135) aptly observes that ancient Near Eastern historiography operates under multiple structures of authority: “The principle authorities were: (1) the human ruler, the king; (2) tradition, what passes for the collective wisdom and behaviors of the society into which each member is absorbed; and (3) especially the divine world, the ultimate `omniscient' authority controlling all human, natural, and cosmic events.”

(17.) An interesting form-critical comparison of Greek and biblical historiography is undertaken by J. Van Seters, In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983 ), 16–54; idem, Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992 ), 86–99, 328–33; but many of his conclusions and inferences are unconvincing; see the critical evaluation of E. Nicholson, The Pentateuch in the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998 ), 146–53.

(18.) Note the indicative title of G. E. Wright's influential study, The Old Testament (p.155) Against Its Environment (London: SCM, 1950 ); and the works discussed in Van Seters, In Search of History, 227–48. On the dubious contrast of linear versus cyclical time in many of these older works, see J. Barr, Biblical Words for Time, 2nd ed. (London: SCM, 1969 ); and A. Momigliano, “Time in Ancient Historiography,” in Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1977 ), 179–204. See also n. 20.

(19.) Y. H. Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (2nd ed.; New York, Schockea, 1989), 8.

(20.) See the classic study of B. Albrektsen, History and the Gods: An Essay on the Idea of Historical Events as Divine Manifestations in the Ancient Near East and in Israel (Lund: Gleerup, 1967 ); and the important contributions of J. J. M. Roberts, “Myth versus History: Relaying the Comparative Foundations,” in Roberts, The Bible and the Ancient Near East: Collected Essays (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2002 ), 59–71; J. D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988 ), 3–50; and J. Assmann, “Guilt and Remembrance: On the Theologization of History in the Ancient Near East,” History and Memory 2 ( 1990 ): 5–33.

(21.) The same can be said of much Greek and Roman historiography, particularly of the distant past or distant cultures, as Erich Gruen (personal communication) reminds me: “The absence of a strong contrast between myth and history can be said of much of classical historiography as well. Herodotus' play with fanciful tales in his History is well known. Livy's narrative of early Rome conveys transparent legends as historical narrative. Even Thucydides, that most `rational' and `critical' of historians, never questioned the authority of Homer.”

(22.) I am using the words “myth” and “history” to refer to discursive genres, their respective subject matters, and their eras of the past; these semantic ambiguities are pertinent to the present discussion, since their boundaries are malleable.

(23.) On this aspect of the psalm, see further J. Day, God's Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea: Echoes of a Canaanite Myth in the Old Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985 ), 21–22; R. J. Clifford, Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and in the Bible (Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association, 1994 ), 154–58.

(24.) See recently J. Assmann, “Kollective Gedächtnis und kulturelle Identität,” in Kultur und Gedachtnis, ed. J. Assmann and T. Hölscher (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1988 ), 9–19; P. Burke, Varieties of Cultural History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997 ), 43–59; A. Funkenstein, Perceptions of Jewish History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993 ), 3–10.

(25.) A. Grafton, New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992 ), esp. 148–49; S. Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991 ), 78–85, and Columbus's comment: “[God] spoke so clearly of these lands by the mouth of Isaiah, in many places of his Book” (p. 83).

(26.) See the treatment of modern conflicts in Hebron in A. D. Marcus, The View from Nebo (Boston: Little, Brown, 2000 ), 29–50.

(27.) Burke, Aspects, 51; see also the treatment of analogous issues in M. Sahlins, (p.156) Islands of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985 ), esp. 146: “by thus encompassing the existentially unique in the conceptually familiar, the people embed their present in the past.”

(28.) On the antiquity of this text, see A. Sáenz-Badillos, A History of the Hebrew Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993 ), 56–62, and the following note.

(29.) F. M. Cross, “The Song of the Sea and Canaanite Myth,” in Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973 ), 112–44; and see the recent treatments of W.H.C. Propp, Exodus 1–18 (New York: Doubleday, 1999 ), 554–61; and H.-J. Fabry, “Mythos `Schilfmeer',” in Mythos im Alten Testament und seiner Umwelt: Festchrift für Hans-Peter Müller, ed. A. Lange, H. Lichtenberger, and D. Römheld (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1999 ), 88–106. On the interpretation of the Song of the Sea in the prose narratives of Exodus 14, see B. Halpern, “Doctrine by Misadventure: Between the Israelite Source and the Biblical Historian,” in The Poet and the Historian: Essays in Literary and Historical Biblical Criticism, ed. R. E. Friedman (Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983 ), 49–52.

(30.) Or “majestic among the holy ones,” taking קדש‎ as a collective; see Cross, “Song of the Sea,” 129 n. 61.

(31.) My vocalization of the Ugaritic is a philological conjecture, based on our imperfect knowledge of Northwest Semitic linguistics.

(32.) Note the creation language in the phrase עם זו קנית‎ (Exodus 15:16), which means “the people that you acquired/redeemed” and “the people that you created,” playing on different senses of the verb קנה‎; cf. the probable allusion to this text in Isa 43:21, עם זו יצרתי‎, “the people that I created.”

(33.) Funkenstein, Perceptions, 52.

(34.) See the examples in Albrektsen, History, passim.

(35.) Cf. the eighteenth century B.C.E. letter from Mari (ARM A.1968), in which the god Adad of Aleppo (via his prophet) recalls his inauguration of King Zimri-Lim: “Thus says Adad: … `I restored you to your father's throne, and I gave you the weapon with which I smote the Sea (Têmtum). I anointed you with the oil of my glory, and no one has withstood you.' ” See J.-M. Durand, “Le mythologème du combat entre le Dieu de l'orage et la Mer en Mésopotamie,” MARI 7 ( 1993 ): 43–46; N. Wyatt, “Arms and the King: The Earliest Allusions to the Chaoskampf Motif and Their Implications for the Interpretation of the Ugaritic and Biblical Traditions,” in “Und Mose schrieb dieses Lied auf”: Studien zum Alten Testament und zum Alten Orient, ed. M. Dietrich and I. Kottsieper (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1998 ), 841–44.

(36.) R. J. Clifford, “Psalm 89: A Lament Over the Davidic Ruler's Continued Failure,” HTR 73 ( 1980 ): 40–45.

(37.) Cross, Canaanite Myth, viii; idem, “Traditional Narrative and the Reconstruction of Early Israelite Institutions,” in From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998 ), 22–52.

(38.) Cross, “Traditional Narrative,” 23–29. I am agnostic on the view that biblical epic derives from Israelite oral poetry, though Ugaritic epic is an important antecedent; the preference for prose may be another ingredient in the “historicization of the (p.157) mythic function” (see n. 40). On the advantages and disadvantages of the term “epic,” see my remarks in JAOS 121 ( 2001 ): 139–40.

(39.) P. Zumthor, Oral Poetry: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990 ), 81, 84.

(40.) H.-P. Müller and J. Krecher, “Vergangenheitsinteresse in Mesopotamien und Israel,” Saeculum 26 ( 1975 ): 32–33. Müller notes that this tendency also pertains to much ancient Near Eastern historiography.

(41.) G. Scholem, “Revelation and Tradition as Religious Categories in Judaism,” in The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (New York: Schocken, 1971 ), 289–90.

(42.) See Cross's comment (Canaanite Myth, ix): “The Deuteronomistic history (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) and the Chronicler's work … in effect extended the Epic, interpretating the later history of Israel in Epic patterns.”

(43.) See further I. L. Seeligman, “Menschliches Heldentum und göttliche Hilfe: Die doppelte Kausalität im alttestamentlichen Geschichtsdenken,” TZ 19 ( 1963 ): 385–411; Y. Amit, “The Dual Causality Principle and Its Effects on Biblical Literature,” VT 37 ( 1987 ): 385–400.

(44.) G. von Rad, “The Beginnings of Historical Writing in Ancient Israel,” in von Rad, The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays (London: Oliver & Boyd, 1966 ), 176; cf. the more nuanced views of E. Blum, “Ein Anfang der Geschichtsschreibung? Anmerkungen zur sog. Thronfolgegeschichte und zum Umgang mit Geschichte im alten Israel,” in Die sogenannte Thronfolgegeschichte Davids: Neue Einsichten und Anfragen, ed. A. de Pury and T. Römer (Freiburg: Universitätsverlag Freiburg, 2000 ), 4–37; and R. Alter, The David Story (New York: Norton, 1999 ), xvi–xxiv.

(45.) On the importance of this scene, see von Rad, “Beginnings,” 198–202; P. K. McCarter, Jr., II Samuel (New York: Doubleday, 1984 ), 387.

(46.) R. E. Friedman, The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery (Boston: Little, Brown, 1995 ), 7–29, 60–76.

(47.) P. Machinist, “Fate, miqreh, and Reason: Some Reflections on Qohelet and Biblical Thought,” in Solving Riddles and Untying Knots: Biblical, Epigraphic, and Semitic Studies in Honor of Jonas C. Greenfield, ed. Z. Zevit, S. Gitin, and M. Sokoloff (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1995 ), 159–75; R. S. Hendel, “Tangled Plots in Genesis,” in Fortunate the Eyes That See: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman, ed. A. B. Beck, A. H. Bartelt, P. R. Raabe, and C. A. Franke (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995 ), 42–45.

(48.) See particularly R. Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981 ); idem, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 1985 ).

(49.) T. Mann, Joseph und seine Brüder: 1. Die Geschichten Jaakobs (Berlin: Fischer, 1934), ix: “Tief ist der Brunnen der Vergangenheit. Sollte man ihn nicht unergründlich nennen?”

(50.) D. Ben-Amos, “Analytic Categories and Ethnic Genres,” in Folklore Genres, ed. Ben-Amos (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976 ), 215–42; see also idem, “Folklore in the Ancient Near East,” ABD 2:823–26.

(51.) Or the priestly redactor; see Cross, Canaanite Myth, 301–5; R. E. Friedman, (p.158) The Exile and Biblical Narrative (Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1981 ), 77–80; Carr, Reading, 68–75, 93–99.

(52.) J. Pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture, 2 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1926–1940 ), 1. 491.

(53.) It belongs to the corpus of archaic Hebrew poetry; see Sáenz-Badillos, History, 56–62; cf. J.-D. Macchi, Israël et ses tribus selon Genèse 49 (Fribourg: Editions Universitaires, 1999 ), 19–25.

(54.) E.g., Ezek 38:16; Dan 2:28; 10:14; see H. Seebass, “אחרית‎,” TDOT 1:210–12.

(55.) See the early interpretations collected in J. L. Kugel, Traditions of the Bible (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990 ), 468–74.

(56.) E. Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953 ), 14–15.

(57.) Cf. M. de Certeau, The Writing of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988 ), 14: “[the] system of Scriptures which modernity has made into an absent body, without being able to eliminate it.”