Towards a Hebrew Literature

By Assaf Inbari

A call to revive the Jewish story.

But it is precisely questions such as why it rained in a given summer that are dealt with in the biblical narrative. The pagans left such questions untouched, because pagan culture found meaning not in deviations from nature’s norm, but in the norm itself. For the biblical narrative, however, only events such as these are worthy of mention, because only in singular, anomalous events—those which, taken together, we call “history”—is the will of God revealed. The Bible does not deny, of course, the regularities of nature. On the contrary: “The heavens declare the glory of God, the sky proclaims his handiwork.”10 All of creation, from the biblical standpoint, arouses a sense of awe; but this amazement differs from the pagan view, which sees nature as supremely important. According to the biblical conception, the created universe is only one of the reasons to marvel at the omnipotence of God. While the heavens declare his glory through their manifest reality, this glory is manifest even more clearly in the rare moments when the natural course of events is disturbed: When God heeds a warrior’s call, “Stand still, O sun, at Gibeon, O moon, in the valley of Ayalon”; when a baby is born to an elderly couple; when whole cities are destroyed by fire and brimstone from heaven; when a bush burns without being consumed; when the waters of a great river turn to blood; when the sea parts to allow refugees to walk through; when food descends from the heavens like rain; when city walls are felled by the blowing of rams’ horns; when a single man brings down a pagan temple with his bare hands; when a jet of fire descends upon an altar at the command of a prophet; and when a chariot drawn by a team of horses takes a man up to heaven.11
The biblical God is not something, as were the ma’at, brahman and moira—but someone; not a “Supreme Being” or the “Absolute,” not the “Unlimited” (apeiron) of Anaximander, or the “Idea of Ideas” of Plato, the “Unmoved Mover” of Aristotle, the “One” of Plotinus, or any other monist abstraction. God is not the law, but the lawmaker. He is the Master of the Universe, and his sovereignty is manifest in history.

The biblical message that God is revealed in history cannot be “proven” by philosophical arguments. It is anti-philosophical: It focuses not on conceptual abstractions, but on the specific and unusual; not on the rule, but on the exception. In contrast to the metaphysical “absolute” of the Greeks and Indians, the Hebrew “historical” God is described only through the reports of those who have encountered him—through testament. Prose is the form of verbal expression that best suits a belief in him. God’s involvement in the world is a story; it is a series of his actions as sovereign of the world, both in their earthly, political form (“reward and punishment”) and in their miraculous, otherworldly form (“signs and wonders”). Time itself is directly affected by this perspective. The sense of time revealed in the biblical narrative is not the circular “eternity” of nature, but the linear, irreversible, historical time with which we, as products of Western culture, are so familiar that we are liable to forget how foreign this idea was to the pagan cultures of antiquity. History, too, has a history: It begins with the Bible.
And yet, the Bible is no history book. It is literature, a “historical” narrative: Artful prose, infused with a purposive conception of time that was completely absent from the pagan consciousness—even from that of pagan historians like Herodotus and Thucydides. Pagan time is rhythmic. The Greeks inherited the Babylonian division of the day and the night into twelve hours each, and of the circle into 360 degrees. This cyclical division of time into “hours” and of space into “degrees” reflects a worldview that is totally foreign to the Bible: “Day” and “night” are the smallest units of time appearing in Scripture. Hours, minutes and seconds are ideological in nature, reflecting a cyclical, rhythmic consciousness that differs markedly from the linear biblical conception. In a world of repetition, there is no meaningful difference between this summer and last summer. However, if the world was created at a certain moment, as the Bible asserts, then time is not repetition but direction. Pagan time is a circle; biblical time an arrow. No point in time is identical to any other. Every moment has a significance all its own.12
In terms of poetics, the difference between linear and circular time finds expression in the literary techniques known as ab ovo and in medias res. A story which is told ab ovo (literally, “from the egg”) begins from the perspective of the earliest moment in the plot, and the reader is carried forward with events; one which is written in medias res, however, starts the tale with events already in progress. There has never been a text so radically ab ovo as one that begins with the creation of the universe and moves forward over thousands of years of history until the Return to Zion in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. In contrast, works such as the Odyssey and Oedipus Rex are outstanding examples of in medias res. In both of them, the opening scene takes place two decades after the start of events. The reader encounters Odysseus about twenty years after the beginning of the Trojan War, and Oedipus a similar amount of time after he murdered his father and took his mother for a wife. The Greeks abjured the ab ovo technique because it expressed a linear, evolutionary perspective that did not fit their worldview. The in medias res technique, in contrast, better fit the Greek notion of time, which emphasized the intensity of the present moment.13 The Greeks possessed an intense, ecstatic sense of the present, alien to the continuous, plodding, historical sense of the Hebrews. This contrast between the dense dramatics of in medias res and the chronological patience of ab ovo also explains the preference for theater in Greek culture, as opposed to the narrative prose chosen by the Hebrews.
The pagans did not have history; what they had instead was chronologies. A chronology is never an arrow, for it lacks direction and purpose. It is an account of events that do not form a significant whole; it is a string of unconnected facts. The walls of the temples and palaces discovered in Egypt and Mesopotamia are covered with dynastic chronicles, the tallies of victories and conquests, as well as bureaucratic records. These chronicles, in contrast to history, do not portray events as leading from one to the next, but as occurring one after another, as a procession of recurring elements. In the chronicle, time marches in place: The kings, military commanders and priests who lead one generation undertake the same types of action as did their predecessors. Only the names change.
The emphasis Herodotus and Thucydides place on single events (Herodotus writes entirely about the war between Greece and Persia, Thucydides about the war between Sparta and Athens) is simply another aspect—although a more sophisticated one—of the same non-linear perspective: There is no history for these “historians,” no attempt to grasp the greater significance of events or to describe them as part of a larger whole; these wars are points isolated in time. In the Bible, however, events of this type are only links in the chain of a causal historical description spanning generations and eras. This linear view of time, which today we identify with the work of historians, is missing in the Greek writings. For them, the study of the “past” means writing about the recent past—a craft that today is practiced by journalists.
The Hebrew Bible is more historical than its Greek counterparts, but, as noted above, writing historical narrative is not the same as writing history. The Bible is not history but literature, because it is concerned not with facts but with values. A history book is meant to make the reader more knowledgeable; the Bible, more wise. The former is intended to reconstruct the past; the latter, to fashion the future in light of the past. This does not mean that the Bible “invents the past”; the flood in the time of Noah, the binding of Isaac, the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai may have happened, or they may not have; if they did, there is no way of telling whether they happened exactly as the Bible portrays them. But such doubts, which would be intolerable in a history book, take nothing away from the value of the biblical narrative.
The fact that the Bible begins with a series of mythic “events” that do not allow for empirical confirmation (Creation, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, the flood), and that these “events” are woven seamlessly into a story line that also includes realistic historical accounts (the division of Israel into northern and southern kingdoms, the conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, the proclamation of Cyrus), demonstrates that the factual, documentary aspect is not what is most important to the narrative. The many stories may well reflect what actually happened to the people of Israel. But the narrative itself, the historical whole in which these scenes are inlaid, is not “historical truth,” just as it is not falsehood. It is literature, and its purpose—like the purpose of any work of art—is not informative but spiritual, relating to values, esthetics and emotions. Even if we choose to read the Bible as a historical document, it is not its “facts” that give us the sense of history, but rather the linear unfolding of its narrative.

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