Towards a Hebrew Literature

By Assaf Inbari

A call to revive the Jewish story.


There is another way in which the “truth” of the Bible differs from that of the historian. The historian’s account is always based on partial information. If he witnessed the event himself, as did Thucydides, Xenophon and Josephus, he can usually see only one side of the picture. If, on the other hand, his own understanding is derived from the testimony of those who were there, of their descendants, or of documents they left behind, he will never be able to piece together the entire puzzle. At some point, every historian discovers that not only do the findings not square perfectly; they contradict one another, complicate the picture and raise unanswerable questions. The honest historian is precisely one who appreciates the limits of his work—how restricted he truly is in approaching the past, and how unreliable are the documents, rumors, traditions and other materials that accumulate on his desk. Not only does the fair-minded historian know his own limitations, he acknowledges them in his writing, shares them with the reader, and spells out exactly where the borders lie between fact and speculation.14
The biblical narrator, on the other hand, is omniscient. He knows how the world was created, and who created it. He has knowledge of how and why human beings, right and wrong, sex and shame, came into being; how and why languages developed; how and why the flood took place, and how life on earth was saved from extinction at that time. When the narrator relates events as grand as war and politics, or as small as familial and personal rivalry, he knows not only what all the heroes did or said, but also what they thought and felt. When he tells of events that took place simultaneously in different places, he knows, to the same degree of detail, what took place in each. And he presents all of this not as “hypothesis,” “conjecture” or “logical inference,” as does Thucydides, but as plain fact.
It may even be that the term “omniscient” is not strong enough to describe the kind of knowledge possessed by the biblical narrator. This term is generally used to characterize the narrator in realistic novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as opposed to the deliberately limited narrator typical of twentieth-century literature. The nineteenth-century “omniscient” narrator, however, “knows” much less than does the biblical narrator. The realistic worldview, and the poetics that reflects it, still restrict the former to what any normal person could know.15 The biblical narrative, on the other hand, constantly exceeds the bounds of knowledge characteristic of literary realism. Along with its more “historical” tales, the Bible contains enough miracles, angels and violations of the natural order for the book to be called fantasy. The biblical narrator, however, intertwines these supernatural events into the narrative without losing his credibility. He tells of the normal and the paranormal in the same matter-of-fact, reportorial manner, and in so doing impresses upon the reader that the text before him, wonders and all, is no fairy tale but rather a “true” story.
How is the effect of “historical truth” achieved in a text so “unrealistic”? In order to understand this, it is worth imagining what the Bible would be like were it written in the first person—“In the beginning, I created the heavens and the earth,” and so on. Would anyone believe it? Would we relate to it seriously? Clearly not. For if the narrator is also the Creator, then he is not only omniscient, but also omnipotent: “I, who created the world, also created this text.” An omnipotent narrator adds nothing to the credibility of the narrative, but rather weakens or even ruins it completely, for an omnipotent narrator can also invent history at will. The text itself would appear to be an invention, and as such could make no claim to truth.16
Even historians must assume, on occasion, some degree of literary freedom. Without it, they could never fill the many gaps that are the inevitable result of their limited sources. Even when there is no shortage of historical data, the very effort to interpret and judge it involves a great deal of guesswork, conjecture and inference. In other words, when a historian does not invent data, he at least invents its meaning. The biblical narrator, on the other hand, presents both fact and meaning as historically true, without reservations or disclaimers. The biblical narrator is thus the most authoritative narrator in literary history: Omniscient to a degree never attained before or since, a narrator who claims knowledge beyond any human limitation, but nonetheless insists upon the absolute credibility of every word.17
A narrator so authoritative cannot be a private voice. A private voice is a limited one, and as we have seen, even God cannot function as a biblical narrator in the first person without undermining his credibility. Wondrous, far-flung “data” such as are presented throughout the Bible can be taken seriously by the reader only if they are related by an impersonal narrator, who is not bound by any single perspective.
The “omniscient” narrator of the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century European novel is a very personal storyteller when compared to the narrator of the Bible. There are two reasons for this: First, the interpretive intervention of the modern narrator throughout the story; and second, the personal style that the author fashions for him. This is a narrator who expresses his opinion at every turn, explains to us the significance of events, offers lengthy descriptions of the characters and their motives, and exploits his podium to offer his own prognoses, thoughts and impressions as a “citizen of the world.”18 This tendency of the author to project himself into the text is completely absent in the Bible. The biblical narrator neither describes nor explains, and he never philosophizes. He presents the events and the actions of the characters, lets us hear the dialogues, and makes it clear that the events are meaningful and interconnected—but leaves us to figure out the meanings and connections for ourselves.
As for literary style, the prose of the nineteenth century, mainly since Gustave Flaubert, is marked by the need to give the narrator a private, unique voice—so much so, that uniqueness of voice became a primary measure of a work’s quality.19 The biblical narrator, in contrast, has no personal “voice.” Obviously, the Bible employs distinctive norms of the sort necessary for proper, functional writing. But the biblical text was, in all probability, assembled from any number of textual sources and underwent an extended process of compilation from among fragments of myths, genealogies, songs, descriptions of battles, and the like.20 The result is a kind of stylistic collage: The voice of all Israel of many generations, and of no one in particular, incorporating syntactic, idiomatic and figurative elements that span centuries. Even if Flaubert, Gogol or James had forgone their individual styles and adopted the detached style of the journalism of their day, they could not have approached the impersonality of the biblical text.
The Bible’s stylistic impersonality exceeds even that of the historian. The latter, like the narrator of the nineteenth-century novel, is forever making his presence felt within the text, by assessing probabilities, noting his uncertainty, interpreting data and offering hypotheses. It is precisely through his presence in the text that he attempts to unite his data into a coherent pattern without deceiving his reader. Moreover, the successful historian does not write unprocessed “content,” but is extremely careful—no less so than the novelist—in polishing his style, for he knows that no historical tale, no matter how important, will be read if not told in a masterful way.21 The biblical narrative, on the other hand, with its popular, multi-generational “voice,” achieves the opposite of the “self-expression” which stands at the pinnacle of Western artistic values.22
This biblical impersonality is strengthened, moreover, by the anonymity of the author of the Bible’s narrative passages, an anonymity that should not be mistaken for a simple convention of literary antiquity. This was, rather, a cultural choice. Among the Greeks, for whom writing was the way in which intellectual giants sought to immortalize their names, there is no trace of such anonymous authorship.23 Western culture inherited from Greece the desire for everlasting personal fame. The anonymity of medieval art, as an expression of Christianity, is derived from the Hebrew tradition. Since the Renaissance, however, the anonymous, impersonal, Judeo-Christian esthetic has been abandoned, and Greco-Roman individualism has once again become the foundation of Western art and literature.24

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