The Shape and Meaning of Biblical History

By Daniel Gordis

The story of the rise and fall of the Hebrew commonwealth is well known—but have we paid attention to the bigger picture?

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According to a popular opinion among contemporary scholars of religion, there is no such thing as a “biblical worldview.” Many—in keeping with the deconstructionist school of thought—insist that the biblical text is not a coherent, homogenized narrative, but rather a collection of documents spanning hundreds of years, multiple authors, disparate styles, and diverse ideologies. Any attempt to articulate a unified philosophy underlying the Bible is thus condemned as hopelessly simplistic and ultimately futile; all we have, these scholars argue, is a polyphony of voices, a medley of claims and counter-claims, official doctrines and subversive positions. David M. Gunn and Danna Nolan Fewell, for instance, the authors of Narrative in the Hebrew Bible, contend that
Because of its multivocal nature, the Bible, despite its biases of gender, race/ethnicity, and class, makes provision for its own critique. It points to its own incongruity…. The Bible shows us not merely patriarchy, elitism, and nationalism; it shows us the fragility of these ideologies through irony and counter-voices. Voices from the margins, voices from the fissures and cracks in the text, assure us that male sovereignty is contrived and precarious, that racial/ethnic chauvinism is ultimately insupportable, that social elitism is self-deluding, that religious rectitude is self-serving.1
In the absence of a single authoritative voice, any attempt to declare a particular passage or episode emblematic of the biblical worldview is, according to this line of thought, doomed to failure.
In an essay I published in this journal just over a year ago (“The Tower of Babel and the Birth of Nationhood,” Azure 40), I attempted to prove this claim wrong. The misleadingly simple story of the Tower of Babel described in Genesis 11, I suggested, in truth serves as an introduction to the Hebrew Bible’s political philosophy: namely, the notion that the ethnic-cultural commonwealth is an indispensable condition for human freedom and self-realization. I sought to demonstrate that the biblical story, through a variety of subtle yet masterful literary and stylistic techniques,2 advocates not only the concept of ethnic and cultural heterogeneity (expressed here as the “dispersion” of different peoples), but also the formation of political entities that can promote the flourishing of those ethnicities and cultures—what is known today as the nation-state.3 Hence, I concluded, the concept of nationality, or of a distinct, particular group identity based on a common language, culture, land, and blood ties, was not a modern European innovation, as some scholars proclaim it to be. Rather, and despite the arguments made by Gunn, Fewell, and many others, it was an integral part of the Hebrew Bible from its very beginnings.
This was, I concede, a rather controversial thesis, and not merely because of my assumption that the Bible has a political philosophy, but also because this philosophy was predicated on a single (albeit foundational) narrative. Undoubtedly, we must be wary of readings that reduce the Bible’s complex and nuanced thought to a monolithic dogma. Yet all too frequently, in their eagerness to take the Bible apart, its critics miss the forest for the trees. For though the biblical text may reflect a variety of viewpoints from a multiplicity of authors, it has still undergone a rigorous editing process. The result is a coherent whole imbued with a distinct ideological intent. Indeed, a panoramic examination of the biblical corpus reveals a magnificently elaborate structure, one that a fashionably microscopic reading could easily miss. In the present essay, I will demonstrate that somewhere in the course of redaction, the biblical text was endowed with a structure meant to transform the call for national heterogeneity from the isolated lesson of a particular story to the overarching message of the Bible at large.

Daniel Gordis is president of the Shalem Foundation and a senior fellow at the Shalem Center.

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