Tuesday, August 11, 2020 -
Print Edition

The Biblical text, frozen and unfrozen

Clearly, the Hebrew Bible is a book of history. It is filled with biographies, narratives, wars and historical journeys — with the lives of Abraham and Sarah, the story of Joseph in Israel and Egypt, the wars between the Israelites and the Midianites and the journey of the Israelites out of Egypt.

Just as clearly, the Hebrew Bible is not a book of history. It is highly selective, condensing many years of a person’s life or of a major event into a single verse or omitting them altogether; reducing long lives to a genealogical list; and suffused with a distinct point of view.

Taken together, the historical and anti-historical frames in the biblical text aim to teach, not to convey information. The aim of the Hebrew Bible is to teach morality, to foster holiness, to enhance liberty, to prescribe certain behaviors and to proscribe others. My question here is, how does a highly selective historical narrative in the Bible achieve these goals?

On the one hand, we have a sequence of events. Clearly, a piece of history. On the other hand, we have events selected and designed to edify and inspire. Clearly, not a piece of history. As we put these two together, we end with a unique text, seemingly historical, yet, in a certain way, dismissive of history, didactic in intent. The Bible’s purpose is to convey meaning, not just information, and it conveys meaningn on many levels.

Rabbi Yechiel Y. Perr illustrates the point in his new book, Faith over Fear. With slight modifications, I quote from the book:

In II Kings, chapters 6 and 7, Ben-Hadad the Aramean king laid siege to Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of ancient Israel. Inside the city, conditions deteriorated steadily until the point that people were desperately buying doves’ excrement and donkey heads for the meager sustenance they offered. Elisha prophesied that by the same time the next day, produce would be so abundant that its price would be extremely cheap.

The Aramean’s king’s officer scoffed at the Prophet Elisha. “Even if G-d makes windows in the Heavens, can such a rapid turnaround be possible?” said the officer. His point was that even if G-d opened the Heavens to send forth a gush of rain, it would take time to grow food. Elisha responded that the officer would see the bounty, but would be precluded from enjoying it. Everyone else would, but not he.

Through an extraordinary turn of events, Elisha’s prophecy came true. Look it up for the astonishing details. For our purposes, we note that the anonymous officer had a moment of eternal significance recorded in the Hebrew Bible. We know nothing else about him. Here is selective history at its most extreme.

Writes Rabbi Perr, “For many people, life is just a rippling slate of emptiness dotted with a few islands of meaning. That’s one point about this Scriptural narrative.

“The next point is about the midrashic take on the wording. It is natural to wonder: Did the officer mean to use the word windows [of the Heavens] to refer to the windows of Noah’s flood? Was that truly his intention as explained by the Midrash?

“I don’t think he thought so, but I also don’t think it is relevant if he did. The Torah is clearly not a history book but rather tells certain stories with very specific goals in mind. When a story is enshrined in the Torah, the historical reality becomes elevated to become a piece of Torah itself. The reality of what happened is no longer relevant, and we can darshan (apply the standard hermeneutical principles to) the details that are presented by the Torah. So, in this example, the Torah picked the word windows in order to connect it to Noah’s flood, as explained by the sages. . . . ”

So there it is. The Hebrew Bible is history and it is not history. Its narratives are supple, surprising and shocking (think the Binding of Isaac, the Ten Plagues, the overnight exodus from Egypt); these narratives grip us as few works of history can. Yet, ultimately, the narrative is irrelevant; it is the point of the narrative and the principled interpretations — the levels of meaning — that count.* Not just interpretation on a macro basis; but on a micro basis: why was a given word, such as windows, used? Is there an association between this word and its use elsewhere in the Bible? Which actions or traits of a Biblical personality are praiseworthy, or blameworthy, or ambiguous, and again, how may they be illuminated by a similar or even a dissimilar context elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible?

Once the historical event is elevated to Scripture, it is not only that the actual historical events recede, frozen in time; it is also that the events take on a new life of their own, subject to many levels of meaning, unfrozen from their context, indeed liberated, able to speak to all times, across the ages, across the cultures.

So this question as to whether the Hebrew Bible is history is really just a starting point, leading to an understanding of the meaning of Scripture in its own time and for all times.

Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor | hillel@ijn.com

Leave a Reply