Torah Torah Torah 4

4 – The “growth” of stories

It will be seen at once that I am not taking as cynical an attitude toward the Biblical record as many skeptical scholars would. Many would say that Abraham is surely a mythical figure, not a historic one, and that even if someone way back there did have that name, absolutely none of the patriarchal narratives reflect his actual life. I on the other hand am willing to accept at least the L chapter (the 14th) in Genesis as a surviving fragment from a biography by someone who really knew the man, while at the same time considering much of the rest to be exaggerated tall tales. L gives a flattering portrait of Abraham (or “Abram” rather; the preservation of the antique short-vowel form of the name is one of the good signs of authenticity here) as resourceful, generous, and pious, but there is not a hint of the supernatural. A “king” Chederlaomer, no doubt a very petty bandit-chief in sober fact, raids into Canaan, siezing booty and captives from the “city” of Sodom (cities at this time had populations in the hundreds at the most, certainly not thousands) as well as Abraham’s estate; Abraham organizes a counter-raid and recovers everything. The king of Sodom engages him in a “politeness duel”, insisting on splitting his recovered property with Abraham, which Abraham absolutely refuses, relenting only to the extent of letting his men accept rewards. From his own recovered property, Abraham dedicates a tenth as a gratitude offering to the shrine of “God Supreme” at Shalim: this town was known as Uru Shalimi in the Egyptian records, where Ur is a very ancient root for “town, -burg, -ville”; only later would the initial waw be altered to yod, due to the severe disfavoring of initial waw in Hebrew, to give Yerushalim; and only much later would a vowel-lengthening give Yerushalayim; again the faithful preservation of a very antique form of the place-name is a good sign that our source is well-preserved from an early date. The religion seems to be what anthropologists call “henotheism” rather than “monotheism”, i.e. this god is “supreme” over the other gods, but the reality of other gods is not denied. This could develop in the direction of “non-exclusive henotheism”, as in Egyptian mythology or Hinduism, in which every god is addressed as “supreme” in the context of his/her own cult, and the various “supreme” gods and goddesses are readily identified with, or married off to, or portrayed as parents and children of, each other; the development into the “exclusive henotheism” of Mt. Sinai (“thou shalt have no other gods before me“, which is not the same as “thou shalt have no other gods”) and from there into monotheism was not yet an inevitability.<o:p></o:p>

But if L is taken at face value, as indicating that there were really written records surviving all the way from Abraham’s time, how do we account for the tall tales and confusions which creep into the story? We must bear in mind that written records were very rare and terse, since good writing materials were not common. A consequence is that later accounts are often expanding a brief notice into a full narrative, often quite imaginatively. The example of Israel fighting the Amalekites at Rephidim has already been given: the story is that Moses held his arms up, and Israel prevailed, but whenever he got tired and dropped his arms, Amalek would prevail, and Aaron helped to hold his arms up. But the final verse, “hand up, flag of YHWH, YHWH wars against Amalek, generation to generation” is probably the entirety of the source for this; the author of J has an old banner, with an archaic inscription, and has spun the whole story from the phrase “hand up”. A very similar case is the famous “sun standing still” story in Joshua. Joshua leads his troops on a forced night-march to catch an enemy coalition by surprise; “is it not written in the book of Jashar?” our author tells us, and cites a verse from this lost book of Jashar, “Sun, stand still upon Gibeon, Moon, stand still upon Aijalon”. This is taken to mean “Sun, DON’T SET, and Moon, DON’T RISE” and we are told how the DAY was miraculously prolonged to give Israel enough time to thoroughly rout the Canaanites. But archaeologists now know where “Jalon” was: Ai-Jalon means “the ruins” of Jalon; the town was long abandoned by Joshua’s time, and its very location had become forgotten by the time the book of Joshua was written; it was WEST of Gibeon. Thus, the verse actually means “Sun, DON’T RISE, and Moon, DON’T SET” and is not asking for the day to be made longer, but for the NIGHT to last long enough for the forced night-march to reach its destination. The poetry has been misunderstood, and turned into a fairy-tale. A reader of the book of Joshua might get the impression that the whole story is derived from the older book of Jashar, and that the cited verse is just a small extract; rather, the cited verse is probably the entirety of what “Jashar” had to say about this battle.<o:p></o:p>

We can see this “threatening” to happen in one of the Psalms which might even be older than David (most of the Psalms, of course, are much later than David, although there is no real reason to doubt that David did write some Psalms). It has a stately rhythm, b-tzeath Yisrael mi-Mitzraim, beth Ya’akov me’am lammim (accented syllables underlined) “at the exodus of Israel from Egypt, of the house of Jacob from a nation of stutterers” (i.e. “barbarians, people who talk funny”) and describes sonorously how “the mountains danced, the hills leaped for joy”. Surely no-one would take this literally? Oh, yes, some people would! We do not find any dancing mountains in the Torah, but a similar poetic expression to the effect “You guided us with fire by night, and with smoke by day” has evidently been taken dead-literally by someone, to produce the “pillar” that led the Israelites around in circles for 40 years (wouldn’t you think after a few years that they would decide this pillar wasn’t such a great navigational device?). A longish list of curses on Egypt, such as we can find addressed to this or that nation in the later books of the prophets, is likely the source of the “plagues of Egypt” narrative. It is rare that we have the underlying piece of poetry preserved side by side with the expanded story, but the cases where we do give a good glimpse at the process involved.

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