The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish Peopleby Jonathan Kirsch
Who is a Jew? In this colorful, eye-opening work, bestselling author and lecturer Jonathan Kirsch takes us on a three-thousand-year tour of Jewish identity and diversity and offers answers to this complex and difficult question. Kirsch reveals that Judaism has never been a religion of strict and narrow orthodoxy. For every accepted tradition in Jewish faith there… See more details below
Who is a Jew? In this colorful, eye-opening work, bestselling author and lecturer Jonathan Kirsch takes us on a three-thousand-year tour of Jewish identity and diversity and offers answers to this complex and difficult question. Kirsch reveals that Judaism has never been a religion of strict and narrow orthodoxy. For every accepted tradition in Jewish faith there are countertraditions rooted in biblical antiquity: the Maccabee freedom fighters who closed the Bible and picked up swords, dervish-like ecstatics who claimed to enjoy direct communication with God even after they had been excommunicated by a distrustful rabbinate, and courageous men and women who were the forgotten heroes of the Holocaust. With drama and narrative verve, Kirsch explores these and many other "Judaisms" that make up the rich tapestry of Jewish identity.
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THE WOMAN WHO LAUGHED AT GOD
Jonathan Kirsch, a book columnist for the Los Angeles Times and author of the bestselling and critically acclaimed King David, Moses: A Life, and The Harlot by the Side of the Road, writes and lectures widely on biblical, literary, and legal topics. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, past President of PEN Center USA West, and a former correspondent for Newsweek, he lives in Los Angeles.
ALSO BY THIS AUTHOR
Moses: A Life
King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel
The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible
Kirsch’s Handbook of Publishing Law: For Authors, Publishers, Editors, and Agents
Kirsch’s Guide to the Book Contract: For Authors, Publishers, Editors, and Agents
Who Laughed at God
THE UNTOLD HISTORY
OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE
For Ann Benjamin Kirsch,
my beloved wife and lifelong friend,
wise counselor and woman of valor.
For Jennifer Rachel Kirsch and Adam Benjamin Kirsch,
my accomplished, beautiful, and cherished children.
Judy Woo and Eui Sook (Angie) Yoon,
my dear friends and colleagues,
whose support and encouragement were essential to the writing of this book.
Remember us in life,
and health, and strength,
O Lord who delights in life,
and inscribe us in the Book of Life . . .
Yes, God is a writer, and we are both the heroes and the readers. We know that the angels have nothing but praise. Three times a day they sing: Sublime! Perfect! Great! Excellent! But there must be some angry critics, too. They complain: Your novel, God, is too long, too cruel. Too little love. Too much sex. They advise cutting. . . . But about one quality we all agree: God’s novel has suspense.
—ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER
As always, I have relied on the constancy and companionship of my beloved wife, Ann Benjamin Kirsch, and our children, Jennifer Rachel Kirsch and Adam Benjamin Kirsch, in all of the work that I do, including this book.
Andrew M. Solomon was my principal research assistant, working in the libraries at Columbia University and UCLA, and his accuracy, enterprise, diligence and good cheer were indispensable in making sense of 3,000 years of Jewish history!
Leonard Braman, too, shared his research skills, and I was able to draw on research materials that were gathered for my previous books by my son, Adam, and Vera Tobin.
Clare Ferraro at Viking Penguin has long encouraged and supported my work, starting with The Harlot by the Side of the Road and continuing over the years through the publication of this book.
I have also been privileged to work with Janet Goldstein and Beena Kamlani at Viking Penguin, each of whom brought their wisdom, insight, taste, and discernment to bear upon the manuscript of this book, as well as Miriam Hurewitz, Yelena Gitlin, and Ann Mah.
Laurie Fox is not only my agent but also my muse, and it was over a cup of coffee with Laurie at a cliffside restaurant in La Jolla that The Woman Who Laughed at God was first conjured up.
Linda Chester has always been welcoming and encouraging to me and my family, both in work and in life, and I am grateful to Linda and all of her colleagues at the Linda Chester Literary Agency for making so many opportunities for me over these many years.
At the offices of Kirsch & Mitchell in Los Angeles, where the early morning hours have been devoted to this book, I have been blessed with the companionship and colleagueship of my friend and law partner, Dennis Mitchell, and our co-workers, Judy Woo and Angie Yoon, to whom this book is affectionately co-dedicated.
I will always owe a debt of gratitude to my colleagues in publishing who are also my dear friends, including Marie Coolman, Heather Smith, Robin Benway, and Liz Williams.
Among the radio and television hosts who do the important work of calling attention to books, my own among them, I am especially grateful to Connie Martinson, Larry Mantle, Joe Skelly, Warren Olney, and Michael Cart.
Among the booksellers across the country who have welcomed me and my books into their stores, I am especially grateful to Doug Dutton, Diane Leslie, Lise Friedman, and Ed Conklin at Dutton’s in Brentwood, Stan Hynds and Linda Urban at Vroman’s in Pasadena, Stan Madson and Jeanne D’Arcy at the Bodhi Tree in West Hollywood, Peggy Jackson at Borders in Montclair, Michael Graziano at Borders in Pasadena, and Katie O’Laughlin at Village Books in Pacific Palisades.
Rabbi Michael Gotlieb at Kehillat Maarav in Los Angeles has always been generous in sharing his wisdom, insight, and encouragement with me and my whole family.
Finally, and with a full heart, I acknowledge the following generous people, each of whom has supported me and my work in many different but crucial ways:
At the Los Angeles Times, Bret Israel, Elena Nelson Howe, and Susan Freudenheim in the Southern California Living section, and Steve Wasserman, Tom Curwen, Nick Owchar, Cara Mia di Massa, Susan Salter Reynolds, and Ethel Alexander in the Book Review.
At the Publishers Marketing Association, Jan Nathan and Terry Nathan.
Tony Cohan at Acrobat Books, a stalwart of the Freedom to Write program of PEN Center USA West and the publisher of my books on publishing law.
At the Jewish Journal, Robert Eshman.
My mother and stepfather, Dvora and Elmer Heller.
My beloved aunt, Lillian Heller Conrad.
My daughter-in-law, Remy Holzer, and her family, Harold, Edith, and Meg Holzer.
Among my fellow writers, I am especially and deeply grateful to K. C. Cole, Carolyn See, Diane Leslie, Jack Miles, Bernadette Shih, Eric Lax, Dolores Sloan, and April Smith.
Donald Harman Akenson, Karen Armstrong, David Noel Freedman, and Richard Elliott Friedman, each of whom is an accomplished scholar from whose work I have benefitted beyond measure.
Rabbi Allen Freehling, the Rev. Peter Gomes, Rabbi David Wolpe, Rabbi Will Kramer, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin, Rector J. Edwin Bacon, Jr., and Pastor Mitch Henson.
Sheldon Kadish and Mary Ann Rosenfeld, Raye Birk and Candace Barrett Birk, Len and Pat Solomon, Scott Baker, Jacob Gabay, Inge-Lise DeWolfe, Fred Huffman, Jill Johnson Keeney, and Rae Lewis.
And Sarah Laughed
We are a people—one people.
—THEODOR HERZL, The Jewish State
• • •
There are six million Jews in America, and six million Judaisms.
—JACOB RADER MARCUS
Who is a Jew? Or, to put the question more bluntly, who is entitled to regard himself or herself as an authentic Jew, a faithful Jew, a “good” Jew?
The question was first asked several thousand years ago by the original authors of the Hebrew Bible, and it is still being asked today by both religious and secular Jews in Israel and throughout the Diaspora. After three millennia, we are no closer to a definitive answer—indeed, the only honest and accurate answer is that Judaism is not now, and never has been, a monolithic faith or a homogeneous people. In fact, the history of the Jewish people is such a rich and colorful tapestry with so many threads of belief and practice that scholars prefer to speak of it in the plural: not Judaism but “Judaisms.”
Of course, some Jews have always insisted on defining Judaism as a set of commandments literally written in stone, a moment of revealed truth that is fixed in time and place. At any point in the last three thousand years of Jewish history, we will find a few zealous Jews who have drawn a circle around a set of rituals and beliefs that they regard as essentially and authentically Jewish, and they have condemned as an apostate any Jew who dares to step outside the circle of orthodoxy as they define it. Ironically, even the most assimilated and secular Jews in the modern world seem to concede the point when they say of themselves: “I’m not very Jewish”: the unspoken premise is that Jewishness is a fixed point, and all but the most traditional Jews have strayed from authentic Judaism to one degree or another.
But there is quite another way to look at the history and destiny of the Jewish people. No single moment can be fixed as the time and place where Judaism reached its highest or purest expression. No single tradition in Judaism can be regarded as authentic and authoritative to the exclusion of all others. Starting in antiquity, and continuing without interruption to the present day, Judaism has been defined by generation upon generation of courageous men and women who felt both inspired and empowered to reimagine and reinvent what it means to be a Jew. After three thousand years of rich and daring innovation, an argument can be made that diversity rather than orthodoxy is the real core value of Judaism—and the only quality that all of the many “Judaisms” share in common.
Priestesses and Goddess Worshippers, Guerillas and Generals
That is exactly why it is so treacherous to focus on what is sometimes called classical or normative Judaism in seeking to understand what it really means to be a Jew. Hidden away behind the facade of classical Judaism is a rich and strange array of Judaisms, and for every tradition, there is a countertradition. As we shall come to see, Judaism has encompassed piety and prayerfulness but also mysticism and ecstasy, not only the ghetto but also the barricade, the gun and the plow as well as the Torah and the Talmud. Along with the more familiar figures of Jewish tradition—patriarchs and prophets, rabbis and sages, and martyrs in heartbreaking abundance—Jewish history is also populated with priestesses and goddess worshippers, astrologers and magicians, generals and guerillas, freethinkers and revolutionaries.
Many of these Judaisms have been hotly condemned when they have not been written out of Jewish history altogether. The practice of idol worship and goddess worship among the ancient Israelites was so distressing to the original authors of the Bible that they condemned it as “the abomination of desolation” (Dan. 11:31).1 The mystical and ecstatic practices of Kabbalism and Hasidism were once dismissed as “malignant growths in the body of Judaism” by one influential Jewish historian.2 Even a figure as pious and learned as the medieval Talmudist called Maimonides was condemned as an apostate in his own lifetime, and his writings were put to the flames at the behest of the more militant rabbis. The seventeenth-century philosopher Spinoza, nowadays regarded as the archetype of the modern Jew precisely because he insisted on reading the Torah with an open mind, was excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam for “abominable heresies.”3
Even the most recent and dramatic experiences in Jewish history have been the source of bitter contention. The single greatest catastrophe in Jewish history—the murder of six million Jewish men, women, and children by Germany and its collaborators during the Second World War—is regarded as a political as well as a theological mystery. Did so many Jews die because they had forgotten the ancient and authentic Jewish tradition of “the fighting Jew,” a tradition that begins with the biblical King David in the Book of Samuel? Or did they die because they had forgotten the elaborate and demanding code of religious law that begins with the biblical Moses, thus suffering the fate that God threatens to inflict on the Chosen People in the Book of Deuteronomy?
No less controversial is the single greatest achievement of the Jewish people in the last two thousand years—the founding of a Jewish homeland in Palestine in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Modern political Zionism can be seen as the latest of the many Judaisms, a fulfillment of the oldest and most pious aspiration of the Jewish people by a generation of Jews who were willing to pick up a gun and fight. Yet Zionism is condemned by some ultraobservant Jews who believe “with perfect faith,” as Maimonides puts it, that Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land must await the coming of the Messiah.4 For some Jews, Zionism is the ultimate betrayal of Judaism, and for other Jews, Zionism is Judaism. That is why many secular Jews in Israel regard citizenship in a Jewish state as the single most authentic expression of their Jewishness, and a few ultraobservant Jews affirm their allegiance to the Palestine Liberation Organization in preference to the State of Israel.
The War Among “Judaisms”
Diversity of belief and practice is so characteristic of Judaism, in fact, that it is the stuff of both somber Talmudic commentary and countless Jewish jokes. A story is told, for example, about a Jewish castaway who is plucked from a tropical island after being stranded for thirty years. He insists on conducting his rescuers on a tour of the island, proudly showing them all the comforts and conveniences that he built for himself during his long years of solitude—a cabin, a vegetable garden, a well, and not one but two synagogues.
“Why two synagogues?” asks the captain of the ship.
“To that one,” answers the castaway, pointing to one of the synagogues, “I never go!”
Now, it’s perfectly true that the sheer number of factions within the Jewish community—and the bitter frictions between them—are sometimes laughable. Among the ultraobservant Jews who live in self-contained neighborhoods around New York, all of whom pride themselves on the strict observance of the dietary laws of kashrut, the followers of one rabbi will sometimes reject another rabbi’s heksher—the seal of approval indicating that a food product has been deemed kosher by a particular rabbi. When a prominent Conservative rabbi in Los Angeles invited a leading Orthodox rabbi to join him at a Friday evening service in a gesture of Jewish ecumenicalism, the Orthodox rabbi accepted the invitation—but when the service started, he pointedly retreated to a corner and prayed with his back to the congregation. And some of the ultraobservant Jews of the Mea Shearim district in Jerusalem, who believe that the founding of the Jewish state was an act of apostasy, have used crudely printed scrip to avoid sullying their hands with the currency of the State of Israel.
Still, the war among Judaisms is not always a laughing matter. When a Conservative synagogue in Brooklyn was defaced with a swastika and set afire, for example, the culprits turned out to be not neo-Nazi skinheads but a gang of radical Jews who called themselves “T.O.R.A.H.”—“Tough Orthodox Rabbis and Hasids.” Jewish men and women who dare to pray together at the Western Wall in Jerusalem are likely to be pelted with rocks and dirty diapers by ultraobservant Jews: “Go back to Germany,” they taunt, “and let them finish the job!” Tragically, an obscure point of Talmudic law was invoked by a few Jewish zealots to justify the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli war hero and political leader who shared a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at peacemaking. Significantly, the term that is sometimes used in Israel to identify ultraobservant Jews—haredim—derives from the Hebrew word for “fearful,” which is used in the sense of “God-fearing” but also suggests how fiercely they condemn their less observant fellow Jews.*
The bitter conflict in the Jewish world may be an open wound but it is hardly a fresh one. Precisely the same clash—the clash between a strict and sometimes punishing Judaism and a kinder, gentler Judaism—can be traced all the way back to distant biblical antiquity. The Torah preserves the contending arguments of various authors who simply cannot agree on who God is or what God wants—sometimes Yahweh is a grizzled desert vagrant trying to cadge a free meal and sometimes a celestial king on a heavenly throne, sometimes a fatherly and forgiving deity and sometimes a bloodthirsty “God of Armies.” The first patriarch, Abraham, feels at liberty to argue with God himself, and so does Moses.
The Talmud, a vast anthology of rabbinical commentary that is the font of classical Judaism, can be described as one long and noisy debate about the meaning of Judaism that began fifteen hundred years ago and is still going on. Another Jewish joke sums it up: “Two Jews, three opinions.” That is why there is no Jewish counterpart to the pope, no Jewish catechism, no Jewish version of the Inquisition. Significantly, the Talmud records one especially heated debate on a point of religious law in which God himself is moved to speak out from on high—and God is outvoted! So diversity of belief and practice is nothing new in Judaism. Indeed, it is an ancient and authentic tradition—perhaps the most authentic Jewish tradition of all.
The Red Heifer
Of course, some examples of diversity in Judaism are affirmed and celebrated throughout the Jewish world. The so-called Ashkenazic Jews trace their ancestry back to the Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe, Sephardic Jews to Spain, and “Oriental” Jews to Babylon, Persia, and elsewhere in the ancient Near East. Each community practices a slightly different form of Judaism—Ashkenazic Jews regard rice as a forbidden food during Passover, for example, but the Sephardic Jews do not; Ashkenazic tradition prohibits the naming of a newborn after a living relative, but Sephardic tradition requires it. Yet all of these communities are regarded as thoroughly and authentically Jewish despite their profound differences in matters of ritual, cuisine, language, and folkways.
Other expressions of diversity are more controversial. To be an authentic Jew, or so goes the argument of Orthodoxy and other highly observant movements in Judaism, one must bear the full weight of the Jewish religious law as set forth in the Torah and the Talmud. But each of the progressive movements in Judaism—Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist—has come up with its own understanding of what points of Jewish religious law ought to be preserved and what points ought to be simplified, modernized, or abandoned. And the vast majority of Jews, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, have purged their lives of all but a few symbolic gestures—they may circumcise their sons, engage a rabbi to perform a wedding ceremony, or show up in synagogue for a few hours on Yom Kippur, but their Jewishness is not defined by religious observance. That is why Jews cannot agree on something so fundamental as what constitutes the practice of Judaism.
So it is that Jews express their Jewishness in every imaginable way. An ultraobservant Hasidic rebbe is so meticulous about keeping kosher that he will not even drink a glass of wine if it comes from a vintner that employs non-Jews—the functional definition of “kosher wine” under Jewish religious law—while an ultrahip Jewish yuppie yields to the nostalgic longing for a pastrami sandwich even though he is concerned about his cholesterol count. Jewish men in some congregations still thank God in their morning prayers “for not having made me a woman,” while in other congregations, the liturgy and the Torah itself have been rewritten in gender-neutral language by women rabbis. Ultraobservant Jews, preparing for the day when the Temple will be rebuilt and animal offerings will be resumed in Jerusalem, resort to genetic engineering to breed the “red heifer” whose sacrifice is mandated in the Torah. At the same time, secular Jews in New York and Los Angeles consult the ancient mystical teachings of the Kabbalah to improve their sex lives. Each one defines his or her Jewishness in a wholly different way, and yet all of them insist on regarding themselves as Jews.
The Laughing Matriarch
If we ask the toughest question of all—what do all these varieties of Judaism really have in common?—we will find no easy answers. That’s exactly what historian Jacob Rader Marcus means when he looks at six million Jews in America and sees “six million Judaisms.”5 But we will find some intriguing and provocative clues in what I have called “The Untold History of the Jewish People,” the surprising and even shocking moments over the last three thousand years when Jewish men and women dared to break out of the circle of orthodoxy and express their Jewishness in new and inventive ways.
As an emblematic example of one such moment, I have chosen the biblical account of the remarkable encounter between God and the woman called Sarah. The scene in the Book of Genesis opens with Abraham, then nearly one hundred years old, as he idles at the opening of his tent near a grove of oak trees in the Judean wilderness. The old man, perhaps dozing in the shimmering heat of the late afternoon, suddenly realizes that three men are standing outside his tent—two of them, the Bible reveals, are angels of death on their way to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their sinfulness, and the third man is God himself. Suddenly, Abraham rises to his feet, hastens to greet the strangers, and begs them to tarry at his encampment.
Abraham orders his elderly wife, Sarah, to prepare a meal of curds and milk, veal chops and fresh bread. “And he set it before them,” the Bible tells us, “and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat” (Gen. 18:8).6 Sarah is not permitted to join the menfolk at their meal, but she lingers by the tent-flap and listens to their conversation.
“I will return to you next year,” God vows to Abraham, “and your wife Sarah shall have a son!” (Gen. 18:10) (New JPS).
The words strike Sarah as not merely surprising but ridiculous. After all, she has been barren all her life, and now, at the age of ninety, she is beyond all hope of childbearing. So startling is God’s promise, in fact, that Sarah cannot contain herself.
“And Sarah laughed within herself,” the Bible reports, “saying: ‘Withered as I am, am I still to know enjoyment—and my husband so old!’”
God apparently overhears Sarah’s laughter because he now addresses a question to both Sarah and Abraham.
“Why did Sarah laugh, saying ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’” God wants to know. “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”
“I laughed not,” lies Sarah.
“No,” insists God, “but you did laugh” (18:12–15).7
Elsewhere in the Torah, God is shown to be wrathful and punishing, and human beings are shown to cringe and cower in fear of him. And for good reason, too—God is perfectly capable of scourging and even killing men and women who are not sufficiently compliant and deferential. But, at the moment of his tête-à-tête with Sarah, all of our expectations about who God is and what God wants of us are tweaked. Sarah is so unafraid of the Almighty that she laughs at his words and then lies to his face. The all-knowing and all-seeing God of Israel is so taken aback that he is forced to ask why she is laughing at his solemn promise. For all of her audacity and boldness, God responds only with petulance rather than punishing wrath. And, as if to symbolize how little Sarah fears God, the child she bears in fulfillment of God’s promise is named Yitzhak (“I laughed”), a pun on the Hebrew word for laughter (tsa-hak).
Classical Judaism is troubled by the laughing matriarch. Much is said about Sarah in the rabbinical tales that we find in the Talmud and the Midrash—she is so beautiful, even in her old age, that all other women are “like monkeys by comparison,” goes one such tale, and she is regarded as the greatest among the seven women who are honored as prophetesses in pious Jewish tradition.8 But the high spirits that prompted her to laugh at God are mostly passed over in a kind of embarrassed silence by the rabbinical storytellers, and some of the ancient translators of the Bible into Aramaic went so far as to rewrite the biblical text to remove any reference to Sarah’s audacious laughter.9 Nowadays, Sarah is invoked along with the other matriarchs in the “egalitarian” liturgy of the more progressive movements in Judaism, but her remarkable encounter with God is rarely, if ever, mentioned at all.
Yet the woman who laughed at God embodies one of the essential values of Judaism—the audacity, boldness, and daring that are summed up in the Yiddish word “chutzpah.” Like so many other moments in the “untold history” of the Jewish people, as we shall see, the encounter between God and Sarah reminds us that Judaism is not a fossil-religion, not a fly caught in amber and preserved over the millennia, but something fully and vigorously alive, something that acknowledges and affirms what human beings really are and what they really do, something that lives and endures precisely as it grows and changes.
The People of the Book
Aboriginal Creation myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who had wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path—birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes—and so singing the world into existence.
—BRUCE CHATWIN, The Songlines
Let us begin where the Bible begins: “B’reh-sheet” (“In the beginning”) is the very first word of the Hebrew Bible, a work that presents itself as the official history of the people who will one day come to be called the Jews. Starting with the very moment of creation, and spanning several thousand years of human experience, the biblical history of the Jewish people is sometimes exalted, sometimes sordid, and sometimes baffling. As profoundly misunderstood and misused as it may be, the fact remains that the Bible is, and has always been, the document by which Judaism has defined itself.
Jews like to call themselves “the People of the Book,” a phrase that honors the intimate connection between the Bible and the people who were its original writers and readers. By one of the many rich ironies that decorate Jewish history, the phrase itself originated with Muhammad, founder of Islam, and it is used in the Koran to describe both Christians and Jews. Still, the Jewish people have embraced it precisely because “the Book”—that is, the Bible—is the touchstone of Jewish law, ritual, and tradition. Although, as we shall soon see, Judaism has grown into something drastically different from the faith that is actually described in the Bible, the Jewish people have always understood themselves and explained themselves to the rest of the world by reference to the Bible.* “God, Torah and Israel are one” goes a credo that is preserved in the work of Jewish mysticism known as the Zohar.1
The Bible presents itself as a work of history, but it can be deceptive and even dangerous to regard the biblical text as history in the modern sense. After centuries of scratching in the rock and sand and soil of the Holy Land, the enterprise once known as “biblical archaeology”—that is, the search for archaeological evidence to prove that the Bible is historically true—has produced only meager results. Not a single item of archaeological evidence unambiguously confirms what we read in the Bible about people or events before King David, who supposedly lived and reigned starting around 1000 B.C.E. But the evidence for the glorious King David is oblique at best—a fragmentary inscription on a stone monument dating as far back as the ninth century B.C.E. appears to refer to the dynasty (or “house”) of David, but the stela postdates the supposed life of David by at least a century or so.
Sometimes, the archaeological record squarely contradicts what is recorded in the Bible. The very earliest mention of Israel outside the Bible, for example, is an Egyptian stela of the thirteenth century B.C.E., a period in which a couple million Israelites were supposedly marching out of Egypt, across the Sinai Peninsula, and into the land of Canaan. But, contrary to the saga of liberation and conquest that is reported in the Book of Exodus, the Egyptian stela preserves a boast by a pharaoh called Merneptah that the nation and people of Israel had been utterly destroyed: “Israel is laid waste, his seed is not.”2
According to pious tradition in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, of course, the Scriptures are regarded as literally true. The first five books of the Bible were given on Sinai “from the mouth of God to the hand of Moses,” as we recite in the liturgy of the Torah-reading service. But modern biblical scholarship suggests that the Bible can and should be understood in much the same way that we approach the myths and legends of other ancient and primitive peoples as embodied in their sacred writings. Thus, for example, the myth of origin that appears in the opening passages of the Bible—“And God said: ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:3) (JPS)—can be understood as an ancient Near Eastern counterpart to the Dreamtime of the aboriginal people of Australia, who believe that the world was sung rather than spoken into existence at some magical moment in the far distant past.
The God of History
Deeply embedded in the Bible is the simple but revolutionary idea that the God of Israel is a god of history, and that is why the Bible presents itself as a work of history. Stripped of its rich mythical and theological decoration, the Bible can be read as a factual account of the twelve tribes that descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—how they wandered across the ancient world, sought refuge in Egypt under Joseph, passed into slavery, and then marched out again under Moses, conquered the land of Canaan under Joshua, united into a single kingdom under David and Solomon, fell into bitter tribal rivalry again when the “United Monarchy” cleaved into a northern kingdom and a southern kingdom, and finally suffered a series of military and political defeats that ultimately deprived them of national sovereignty and sent them into a long diaspora.
Significantly, all of these crucial events are credited by the biblical authors to God himself: “The Lord will bring a nation against thee from far away, as the vulture swoopeth down,” Moses is shown to prophesy in the Book of Deuteronomy. “And the Lord shall scatter thee among all peoples, from the one end of the earth even to the other end of the earth” (Deut. 28:49, 64).3 Only when they are liberated by the Persians in 538 B.C.E. does a remnant return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple, and it is the emperor Cyrus II who is hailed in the Book of Isaiah as the Messiah—God’s anointed one—precisely because the god of history chooses a pagan from far-off Persia to work his will in the Holy Land.
Indeed, the distinction between a god of history and a god of nature is crucial to understanding the Bible and its role in Judaism. Across the ages and around the world, the gods and goddesses who were worshipped in various pagan faiths were imagined to manifest themselves in natural objects—mountains and rivers and oceans, caves and rocks and trees—and to work their will through natural phenomena such as thunder and lightning, floods and earthquakes, and, above all, the fertility of animal and vegetable life. The Jewish understanding of God, as it was first articulated in the Bible, was something wholly new and different: the God of Israel is a cosmic deity who cannot be contained on a single sacred mountain or in a single grove of trees, and whose powers are not confined to flood and fire. Rather, the God of Israel prefers to express himself through the words that ordinary human beings are inspired to speak and write, and he works his will through the deeds that they are inspired to do.
“The lofty conception . . . that the God of nature is also the God of history,” wrote Heinrich Graetz, an influential Jewish historian of the nineteenth century, “is a product of a people that possessed a keen eye for the unusual and the wonderful.”4
To be sure, the Bible presents itself as an historical narrative. One of the enduring credos of Judaism, which originated in ancient Israel as a formula for sacrificial offerings and is now recited during the observance of Passover, is actually a thumbnail sketch of a thousand years or so of biblical history:
My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey (Deut. 26:5–9) (JPS).
But when we read the Bible with open eyes and an open mind, we will come to see that it is not a work of history in the conventional sense. The various sources who authored and edited the biblical text do not always agree with each other on the details of biblical history, great or small. When Noah sought to find dry land after the Flood, for example, did he send out a raven (Gen. 8:7) or a dove (Gen. 8:10) or both? Was the father-in-law of Moses named Jethro (Exod. 3:1) or Reuel (Exod. 2:18) or Hobab (Judg. 4:11)? Did David slay Goliath (1 Sam. 17:49–50) or was it a man called Elhanan (2 Sam. 21:19)? Even something so fundamental as the name and nature of God himself is the subject of debate among the biblical sources, and it turns out that the God of Israel—like Judaism itself—can be understood in many contrasting and sometimes conflicting ways.
So the diversity that has always characterized Judaism begins in the Torah itself. The biblical sources confirm that the Israelites embraced a rich and strange assortment of beliefs and practices, and even the orthodoxy of ancient Israel was something very different from what we recognize as Judaism today. That is why the Bible is the best place—the only place—to start in a quest for the many Judaisms of antiquity.
Who Really Wrote the Bible?
The Bible, according to the common wisdom of modern biblical scholarship, is a work of human authorship, composed and compiled by many different authors, men and women alike, working at different times and places over a period of a thousand years or so and embracing a variety of beliefs about who God is and what God wants. Though Jewish fundamentalists in the modern world may regard the idea as heretical, it was apparent a thousand years ago even to those who regarded the Bible as Holy Writ.
For example, a Jewish physician called Isaac ibn Yashush, who lived in Spain during the eleventh century, noticed that the Edomite kings who are listed in Chapter 36 of the Book of Genesis actually lived and reigned long after the death of Moses, the supposed author of Genesis and the rest of the Five Books of Moses. Surely, he suggested, the king list must have been inserted into the text by someone other than Moses. Isaac was condemned as “Isaac the Blunderer” by Abraham ibn Ezra, a Spanish rabbi of the twelfth century, but the rabbi seemed to concede that the good doctor’s only real blunder was his lack of discretion rather than his sharp-eyed reading of the Torah. “[I]f you understand, then you will recognize the truth,” wrote Rabbi ibn Ezra, “and he who understands will keep silent.”5
Here begins the old and honorable but sometimes dangerous tradition of reading what is actually written in the Bible. “It is clearer than the sun at noon that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses but by someone who lived long after Moses,” insisted Baruch Spinoza, the seventeenth-century philosopher who was excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam for holding such opinions and speaking them aloud.6 By the late nineteenth century, the pioneers of modern Bible scholarship had begun to identify and describe the various human authors and editors who created the biblical texts and whose ideas are preserved in the Bible as we know it today. Nowadays, only the most fundamentalist Jews still insist on regarding the Bible as the word of God in a literal sense; the rest of the Jewish world is willing to entertain the idea that it is actually the work of men and women who may have been God-inspired but were also thoroughly human in both their methods and their motives.
The Woman Who Laughed at God
The very first clue to the multiple human authorship of the Bible is also the single best example of the startling diversity of belief that is accommodated and even encouraged by the biblical authors. Although the closest thing to a catechism and a credo in Jewish tradition is a line of text from the Book of Deuteronomy that declares the oneness of God—“Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is One” (Deut. 6:4)—God has always meant different things to different people. And nowhere are the many faces of God displayed with greater variety than in the Bible itself.
At one moment, for example, the Bible depicts God as a desert wanderer who shows up at the tent of Abraham and Sarah to cadge a meal of veal and curds—God has not yet handed down the law that will one day be interpreted to prohibit the mixing of milk and meat (Deut. 14:21), and so he is perfectly willing to eat trayf (Gen. 18:1–8). At another moment, God resembles one of the pagan storm gods and mountain gods whom the Bible finds so abominable: “Now Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire,” goes a passage in the Book of Exodus, “and the whole mount quaked greatly” (Exod. 19:18) (JPS). At yet another moment, God is the Ancient of Days, a white-haired king seated on a throne of fire and attended by “ten thousand times ten thousand” angels (Dan. 7:9–10). And God agrees to reveal himself to the prophet Elijah in the most sublime passage of all:
And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice (1 Kings 19:11–12) (JPS).
The classic proof for the multiple human authorship of the Bible—and the starting point for identifying and describing the various biblical sources—begins with the most basic question of all: What is God’s name? One biblical source, who is known in Bible scholarship as the Yahwist or J, calls God by his personal name, Yahweh.* Another biblical source, known as the Elohist or E, generally calls God by a descriptive noun rather than a personal name—“Elohim,” a plural noun that can be literally translated as “gods.” Not only does each source call God by a different name, but each one presents God in a very different way.
J gives us a deity who is approachable and companionable, if sometimes also cranky and impulsive. After sitting down to dinner with Abraham and Sarah, according to J, God promises the aged couple that Sarah will bear a son. The old woman finds the idea so preposterous that she is moved to impulsive laughter, and God reacts to the sound of Sarah’s laughter in a way that reveals not his mighty wrath but his hurt feelings. “Why did Sarah laugh?” asks God, protesting just a bit too much for a God who is supposed to be omnipotent and saying of himself: “Is anything too hard for Yahweh?” (Gen. 18:13–14).7
E, by contrast, gives us an all-seeing and all-knowing deity who flatly refuses to manifest in human form and inspires only blood-shaking terror in his Chosen People. According to E, for example, God calls to Moses from a burning bush atop the sacred mountain called Horeb—and Moses hides his face like a child because, as E tells us, “he was afraid to look upon Elohim” (Exod. 3:6).8 Thus, J shows us that an old woman might giggle at God and suffer no consequence at all, but E suggests that a man is worthy only if he lives in abject fear of God.
The points of conflict among the biblical sources are not merely objects of curiosity. Rather, they go to the heart of what the Bible teaches about who God is and what God wants. When God reveals to Abraham that he intends to kill every man, woman, and child in the sin-soaked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, for example, J gives us a scene in which Abraham reprimands God—“Wilt thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Gen. 18:23) (JPS)—and then haggles with him like a bazaar merchant. Would God spare Sodom if there were fifty righteous men and women in the city? What if there were only forty? How about thirty? Finally, Abraham extracts a promise from God that he will not destroy Sodom if he finds only ten righteous men and women. And yet, when God demands that Abraham offer up Isaac as a human sacrifice, E gives us a very different scene in which Abraham is willing to comply without a word of protest—“And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son” (Gen. 22:10) (JPS)—and spares Isaac only when God abruptly calls the whole thing off (Gen. 22:12).9
The same tension can be seen when we compare the writings of the Priestly Author, a biblical source who is wholly concerned with the meticulous observance of ritual law in every detail, and the Prophets, who insist on looking into the hearts and minds of the Israelites. “And the anointed priest shall take of the blood of the bullock and bring it to the tent of meeting,” goes a typical passage in the Book of Leviticus on the rites of sacrifice that are nothing less than a priestly obsession. “And the priest shall dip his finger in the blood, and sprinkle of the blood seven times before the Lord, in front of the veil of the sanctuary” (Lev. 4:5–6). But the prophet Isaiah voices the disgust of God at the hypocrisy of those who piously observe the fast days while forcing their laborers to stay at work. “Do you call that a fast?” asks an angry God, and he goes on to describe “the fast I desire”:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness
And untie the cords of the yoke,
To let the oppressed go free. . . .
• • • • • • • •
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.
(Isa. 58:5–7) (New JPS)
Most significant of all is the simple fact that all of these conflicting ideas about God—and much else that is contrary to what is taught in traditional Judaism—have always coexisted within the pages of the Torah.
The Angel in the Flame
The Yahwist and the Elohist are not the only authors whose differing takes on history and theology have been teased out of the Torah by modern Bible scholarship. A third source, who is obsessively concerned with ritual matters, religious law, and other aspects of priestcraft, is known as the Priestly Author or P. The Book of Deuteronomy, so distinct from the rest of the Torah in its theology and its rhetorical style, is attributed to a source called the Deuteronomist or D. All of the various strands of authorship were woven together by yet another source known as the Redactor or R. That is why the Bible must be read as an anthology rather than a seamless work of authorship by a single source, human or divine.
During the long process of biblical authorship, many of these various sources felt at liberty—or perhaps even obliged—to fix what they found wrong with both the history and the theology of ancient Israel as it was reflected in the biblical texts. Revision of the text was a tool of reinterpretation. Thus, for example, one nameless source, who was apparently uncomfortable with the notion that God and human beings are able to encounter each other without the assistance of a duly consecrated priest, may have rewritten key scenes to suggest that God is always accompanied by an intermediary when he deigns to reveal himself to ordinary men and women. That is why, some scholars believe, angels have been inserted into some of the most familiar passages of the Bible, often lamely and sometimes confusingly, as when God calls to Moses from a burning bush:
And the angel of the Lord appeared unto [Moses] in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. . . . And . . . God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, “Moses, Moses.” And he said, “Here am I” (Exod. 3:2, 4) (JPS) (Emphasis added).
Sometimes, the Bible preserves two entirely different accounts of the same life or the same event. Thus, for example, one early biblical author called the Court Historian is credited with the intimate and candid biography of King David that appears in the Book of Samuel, where we are allowed to see David not only as a courageous war hero, compassionate father, glorious king, and pious worshipper of Yahweh, but also as a bandit, mercenary, trickster, shakedown artist, seducer, adulterer, voyeur, exhibitionist, and even murderer. But another author, known as the Chronicler, came along several centuries later and composed the revisionist version of David’s life story that is preserved in the Book of Chronicles, where all of the salacious details have been cut out and only a plaster saint remains.
“See what Chronicles has made out of David!” exclaimed Julius Wellhausen, one of the early and influential figures in modern Bible scholarship.10
The Things That Are Concealed
During and after the Babylonian Exile of the sixth century B.C.E., the priests and scribes who were the custodians of the sacred writings of Israel felt at liberty to act as censors. Some of the texts in their care were ancient and revered: the biblical life story of King David in the Book of Samuel may date back to the lifetime of David himself, for example, and a few passages of the Bible, such as the Song of Miriam (Exod. 15:21) and the Song of Deborah (Judg. 5), may be even older, perhaps the very oldest fragments in the entire Bible. But the texts that are collected in the Bible were worked and reworked over the centuries by a series of priestly authors and editors who were committed to theological law and order.
That is why, for example, some of the biblical sources—like their spiritual successors in strictly observant Judaism—insist that what God wants of the Chosen People is, above all, simple obedience to the 613 mitzvot (commandments) that were revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, a body of law that concerns itself wholly with life as it is lived down here on earth. Certain passages in the Bible suggest that so long as a man does not sleep with his sister, for example, or plow his field with an ox and an ass yoked together, or shave the corners of his beard, he will be blessed by God. If, however, he does any of those things, he will be cursed. This is what Moses really means when he is shown to say, so famously and so memorably, “I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and curse; therefore choose life” (Deut. 30:19).
The same biblical sources—again, like their heirs in the strictest traditions of Judaism—condemn mystical yearnings in general and magical practices in particular. “If there arise in the midst of thee a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams,” warns Moses, “saying, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or unto that dreamer of dreams” (Deut. 13:2–4).11 The ban on the practice of the black arts extends to “a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or one that consulteth a ghost or a familiar spirit, or a necromancer” (Deut. 18:10–11), and the penalty is death: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” goes one bloodthirsty clause in the Book of Exodus (Exod. 22:17). Theological speculation ought to be left to the experts, the Bible seems to say, and ordinary men and women ought to content themselves with the here and now.
“The secret things belong unto the Lord our God,” says Moses, “but the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:28) (JPS). But something deep in human nature prompts us to go in search of the “secret things”—that is why Adam and Eve earned a place in the theological hall of fame—and the biblical censors were unsuccessful in their efforts at concealment of forbidden truths. Through the cracks in the wall that was built up around the oldest texts in the Bible, we can see that the Israelites were no less curious and no less daring than anyone else in the ancient world, a time and place in which most people felt free to mix and match gods and goddesses, rites and rituals, according to their own whim and inspiration. Indeed, the effort to censor the Bible—an effort that begins within the pages of the Bible itself and continued long after the biblical canon was closed—has been a failure. Crucially, the works of both the Court Historian and the Chronicler are preserved, and we can see for ourselves much of what we are not supposed to see at all.
We do not know exactly why so many provocative and troubling passages were allowed to remain in the Bible by the very people who tried to clean up the text. Perhaps some of the most scandalous or self-contradictory stories were so familiar to the people of ancient Israel that the priests and scribes did not feel free to leave them out; perhaps they fretted that the original readers of the Bible would not accept it as authentic if, for example, the torrid but star-crossed love affair of David and Bathsheba were cleaned up or cut out entirely. Perhaps the inclusion of two versions of the same incident—what scholars called a “doublet”—is a wink and a nod from the biblical author that is meant to convey his own doubt about the historical accuracy of either one. And, for some of the biblical sources, the notion that David was both “a man of blood” and “a man after God’s own heart” is itself an affirmation of faith: the will of God prevails even in the face of flagrant disobedience of his sacred law.
Whatever the reason, however, we are fortunate that the biblical censors were so halfhearted in their efforts. And if we dare to draw back the thin veil that they drew across the more provocative passages of the Bible, we can glimpse a landscape of startling richness and diversity, the very landscape in which the many expressions of Judaism first flowered in such profusion.
What Moses Believed
“We do not know what the faith of the Patriarchs was,” insists Harold Bloom in The Book of J, “or what Moses believed.”12 But the Bible allows us to see that the faith of ancient Israel was something far different and far more diverse than what has been preserved in Jewish tradition. Indeed, the religion that is actually described in such blood-soaked detail in the pages of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—a religion based on elaborate rituals of animal sacrifice by an hereditary priesthood at a single central sanctuary—is so unlike what we know today as Judaism that Jacob Neusner calls it “proto-Judaism,”13 and Donald Harman Akenson uses the newly minted term “Judahism” to distinguish it from “Judaism.”
“This is not a trick word,” insists Akenson. “The religion of Judah, based on Temple sacrifice to Yahweh, up to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., is distinct historically from its descendent, the post-Temple faith, usually known as ‘Rabbinic Judaism.’”14
First of all, the ancient Israelites were not originally or always strict monotheists. An intriguing clue to what Moses actually believed can be found in a prayer that is uttered in synagogues all over the world to this very day: “Mee khah-moh-kha b’elim Adonai.” According to the Book of Exodus, these words were first uttered by Moses in praise of God after the miracle at the Red Sea, when the waters were parted to permit the Israelites to cross on dry land and then closed again to destroy the pursuing army of Pharaoh. “Who is like You among the heavenly powers, Hashem!” goes the English translation of the prayer in one modern prayerbook.15
But the pious translation is inaccurate, and intentionally so. “Hashem,” for example, is a Hebrew word that literally means “the Name” and is traditionally used in place of the word that actually appears in the biblical text: Yahweh, the personal name of God. According to the practices of ancient Israel, the name of God was uttered only on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, only by the High Priest, and only in the Holy of Holies in the Temple at Jerusalem. By the second century B.C.E., even the High Priest was forbidden to speak “this glorious and awful Name” (Deut. 28:58). By long and devout tradition in Judaism, the word that appears in prayers and biblical passages as Yahweh is read aloud as “Hashem” or “Adonai.”
But even more deceptive is the rendering of the Hebrew word elim as “heavenly powers.” Other Jewish translations are equally evasive: the word elim is translated as “the mighty” or “the celestials” in various Bibles.16 In fact, elim is a Hebrew noun that literally means “gods,” and the words of Moses as reported in Exodus can be rendered in a way that suggests he was not quite the strict monotheist he is reputed to have been in Jewish tradition: “Who is like you, O Yahweh, among the gods?” is the real meaning of what Moses is reported to have said in the Bible (Exod. 15:11).17
So Moses—or, perhaps more accurately, the biblical author who composed the so-called Song of Moses in Chapter 15 of the Book of Exodus—may not have believed that Yahweh is the one and only god. Rather, his words can be understood to suggest only that Yahweh is better than all the other gods and goddesses—or, perhaps, that Yahweh is the best of all gods only as far as the Israelites are concerned. Although the Book of Deuteronomy presents us with the pristine declaration of monotheism that is the closest thing to a catechism in Judaism—“Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is One” (Deut. 6:4)—the Bible seems to preserve, almost inadvertently, a more open-minded and affirming attitude toward polytheism than the later biblical authors were willing to allow.
“The Brazen Serpent That Moses Had Made”
Another fundamental idea in Jewish tradition is that God detests not only the worship of rival gods and goddesses but also the making of idols that are imagined to depict or embody them. “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image,” goes the Second Commandment, “nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water” (Exod. 20:4). So sacred is the Second Commandment that, when the Israelites make and worship the notorious Golden Calf, God vows to exterminate the Chosen People—man, woman, and child—and start over again with Moses and his two sons. Only when Moses stands up to God and challenges him to keep the faith—“Turn from thy fierce wrath,” Moses boldly implores, “and repent of this evil against thy people” (Exod. 32:12) (JPS)—does God spare the Israelites from divine genocide. Even so, God insists on death for anyone who has committed the sin of idolatry, and Moses carries out a bloody purge of the men and women who had joined in the worship of the Golden Calf:
Thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel: Put ye every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour (Exod. 32:27) (JPS).
Yet, even in the life story of Moses, the Bible allows us to see that the law against the making of graven images was not always enforced with perfect zeal. Moses himself is shown to fashion a serpent out of brass and use the graven image as a magical cure for snakebite, all at the specific bidding of God himself: “Every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live” (Num. 21:8–9). In fact, one of the biblical authors confirms that the brass snake was preserved for centuries in the Temple at Jerusalem, where it was cherished along with other relics of the Exodus. Not until the reign of Hezekiah, a reformer-king of the eighth century B.C.E., did some of the more devout and literal-minded Israelites wake up to the fact that the graven image of a snake—and, especially, the uses to which the so-called Nehushtan was put—were a plain violation of the Ten Commandments.
“And he broke in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made,” the Book of Kings reports of Hezekiah, “for unto those days the children of Israel did offer to it” (2 Kings 18:4).
Moses is not the only revered figure who is shown in the Bible to traffic in graven images. Rachel, the favorite wife of the patriarch Jacob, filched her father’s collection of household idols, known in the Bible as teraphim, or so J reports in the Book of Genesis without a hint of disapproval. Michal, daughter of Saul and wife of David—each one of them anointed by God as a king of Israel—apparently kept a collection of teraphim in her own home, and she used one to trick the death squad sent by her father into thinking that her husband was asleep in bed when he was already on the run (1 Sam. 19:13–16). The Court Historian, who tells the tale in the Book of Samuel, also allows the incident to pass without comment.
Only when we reach the Book of Kings and the writings of the Prophets do the biblical authors enforce the laws against idolatry wholeheartedly and embrace monotheism as the official theology of ancient Israel in plain language. It is the prophet Jeremiah (c. 640–587 B.C.E.), for example, who rules out any notion that Yahweh is merely the best of all possible deities: the gods and goddesses worshipped by the pagans (and not a few Israelites) are “no-gods,” as he puts it (Jer. 2:11, 5:7) (JPS). And it is Josiah, a king who reigned in the late seventh century, who seeks to purge the faith of ancient Israel of the last traces of polytheism and paganism.
The good king Josiah, according to his admirers among the biblical authors, purifies the Temple of Yahweh at Jerusalem by dragging out and destroying the idols and other paraphernalia used for the worship of the Canaanite god Baal and his consort Asherah. He carries out mass executions of the priests who make sacrificial offerings “to the sun, and to the moon, and to the constellations, and to all the hosts of heaven” at hill shrines around Jerusalem and the tribal homeland of Judah, and he burns their bones down to ash. And he tears down the houses where men are offering themselves as temple prostitutes and women are put to work at weaving the vestments used for the worship of Asherah.
“No king before him had turned to the Lord as he did, with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, following the whole law of Moses,” goes the account in the Book of Kings, echoing the distinctive rhetorical flourishes of the Deuteronomist, “nor did any king like him appear again” (2 Kings 23:4–7, 25).18
Almost inadvertently, the biblical author concedes that the pious Josiah was a rarity among the people of Israel. Before and after Josiah, the Israelites and their kings are lured into all of the practices that the Bible condemns as “abominations”—idol worship and ritual intercourse and even human sacrifice. Even King Solomon, who is said in the Bible to have been blessed by God with “wisdom and understanding and largeness of heart” and who is mandated by God to build the Temple at Jerusalem, is also plainly depicted as an apostate who is seduced into idolatry by his several hundred foreign wives and concubines (1 Kings 11:5–13) (JPS). “Upon every high hill, and under every leafy tree, thou didst recline, playing the harlot,” complains Jeremiah of his fellow Israelites (Jer. 2:20) (JPS), conjuring up the orgies of sexual excess that both the authors of the Bible and the makers of Hollywood epics associate with the worship of pagan gods and goddesses.
So the schism between belief and practice was a fact of life in ancient Israel. The Bible itself attests that the Israelites, their kings, and even their priests were as susceptible as anyone else in the ancient world to the charms and seductions of paganism and polytheism. The invisible God of Israel—so austere, so aloof, so demanding—was always in competition with the more alluring gods and goddesses and the beguiling artifacts and rituals by which they were worshipped. Even when the biblical author seeks to shock his readers with a description of the pagan excesses that King Josiah stamped out—the groves and high places where the idol worshippers gathered, the altars and standing stones and living trees that were the object of worship, the “houses of sodomites” where the ritual paraphernalia was prepared, the incense that was burned in celebration of “the sun, the moon, the planets, and all the host of heaven”—he betrays himself by allowing us to see how seductive it all must have seemed to the Israelites themselves (2 Kings 23:4–7).
If the Bible is a work of history at all, then, it is the history of how the fundamentalists of ancient Israel tried—and failed—to enforce a strict orthodoxy on the rest of the Israelites. The Josianic reform, as it is known in biblical scholarship, was spotty and short-lived, and the faith of ancient Israel was never wholly purged of paganism and polytheism. Indeed, the Bible can be read as one long song of despair over the failure of the Chosen People to live up to the lofty standards of faith and conduct set for them by their priests and prophets. When Moses is shown in the Book of Deuteronomy to scold the Israelites yet again—“Behold, while I am yet alive with you this day, ye have been rebellious against the Lord; and how much more after my death?” (Deut. 31:27)—surely we are hearing the voices of the disappointed and frustrated biblical authors who lived long after his supposed lifetime.
In the Bible, as elsewhere, history is written by the victors—or, at least, the survivors. Tellingly, the strictest of the biblical sources—the Deuteronomist, the Priestly Author, and perhaps even the Elohist—have all been linked to the priestly caste of ancient Israel, and they put their own political and theological imprint on everything that we read in the Bible. Not only the long and sometimes tedious codes of biblical law and ritual but even the most thrilling tales of military and sexual adventure are shaped—and sometimes distorted—by their real goal of winning the hearts and minds of the original readers of the Bible. And, for that reason, it is treacherous to read the Bible as history even when it invites us to do so.
The story of creation in the Book of Genesis, for example, is self-evidently a work of myth, not science, and it is intended as a statement of theology rather than a factual account of how the world came into existence. Its rich poetic imagery recalls (and may have been inspired by) the creation myths of the pagans among whom the Israelites lived. For example, the Epic of Gilgamesh, an early work from Mesopotamia that long predates the Bible, includes a flood story not unlike the one told about Noah, and the motif of a creator-god imposing order on the watery forces of chaos can be found in mythological works all over the ancient Near East. Even the Orthodox movement in modern Judaism is willing to concede that “those seven ‘days’ of creation may in fact have been periods of extremely long duration,” as Rabbi Hayim Donin puts it, “that correspond to ‘stages’ rather than days similar to our own twenty-four-hour day.”19 And biblical scholars insist that the original readers of the Bible did not regard it as literally true.
“[T]he audience of the biblical writers had its own literary idiom,” explains Bible scholar Nahum M. Sarna. “[W]e must not confuse the idiom with the idea, the metaphor with the reality behind it.”20
Indeed, the Bible itself suggests that the biblical authors regarded the story of creation as not much more than a curtain-raiser. The history of the world from the day of creation to the calling of Abraham is covered in eleven short chapters, which take up only eleven pages in the Bible that was handed to me on the day I was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah. The rest of the Book of Genesis, along with the other thirty-eight books of the Hebrew Bible in their entirety, is devoted to an account of the ancient Israelites and their descendants, the Jewish people. And the whole of the Bible can be read as a pair of parallel histories, a sacred account of the dealings between God and humankind that appears side by side—or sometimes layer upon layer—with a secular account of how human beings deal with each other. In fact, much of the Bible—Judges, Samuel, Kings, and many of the later books—is entirely devoid of divine miracles of any kind. By the time we reach the Book of Esther, God is not mentioned at all.
“It is real history,” enthused Sigmund Freud, an amateur Bible critic, about the biblical life story of King David, “five hundred years before Herodotus, the ‘Father of History.’”21
Or is it?
“One Who Struggles with God”
The history of Israel, as we find it in the Bible, starts with Abraham, a restless nomad who is called by God from the city of Ur in Mesopotamia and promised a homeland in a distant place called Canaan. Abraham begat Isaac, as the King James Version puts it, and Isaac begat Jacob, and Jacob begat twelve sons, each of whom is regarded as the founder of a tribe. After Jacob wrestles by night with a deeply mysterious figure who might be an angel or God himself, his name is changed to Israel (Yisrael), a Hebrew word that is understood to mean “one who struggles with God.” And that is why the Israelites are known in the Bible quite literally as “the Children of Israel” (B’nai Yisrael).
Significantly, it is the fourth-born son of Jacob, a man called Judah, on whom the richest blessings are bestowed. Indeed, the whole of the Bible can be read as a saga in which younger sons—Jacob, Joseph, Judah, Moses, David, and Solomon, among others—prevail over their older siblings. And it is the tribe of Judah that will survive and prevail over the other tribes of Israel—the tribe that will produce David, the king who unites the twelve tribes into a single nation and conquers the city of Jerusalem as its royal capital; and Solomon, the king who builds the all-important Temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem; and, one day, the Messiah, the “anointed one” whom God will send to redeem the people of Israel. And it is the Jews—called Yehudim in Hebrew—who are the modern survivors of the tribe of Judah (Yehudah) and the inheritors of the tradition that is described so convincingly in the pages of the Bible.
Until very recently, in fact, the biblical saga of early Israel was regarded as essentially if not entirely historical by scholars. Abraham, for example, is shown in the Bible to purchase the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron as a burial place for his wife, Sarah (Gen. 23:9). The transaction is commemorated even today at the so-called Tomb of the Patriarchs in the modern Arab town of Hebron. And the incident is so convincing that a contemporary historian, Paul Johnson, describes it as “perhaps the first passage in the Bible which records an actual event, witnessed and described through a long chain of oral recitation and so preserving authentic details.”22
Johnson can be credited with a gracious concern for the sensibilities of his Jewish readers in describing what actually happened at Hebron in distant biblical antiquity—“This is where the 4,000-year history of the Jews, in so far as it can be anchored in time and place, began,” he writes23—but the fact is that modern scholarship makes no such claim. Jews and Muslims have long fought with each other over what they both regard as a sacred site; some sixty-seven Jews were killed during Arab rioting in Hebron in 1929, and some twenty-nine Muslims were killed when an Israeli physician opened fire on an Arab prayer service at the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994. But, as it turns out, they are fighting over a myth: “The only indisputable fact in all this is the cave at Hebron cannot possibly be the biblical Cave of Machpelah,” writes Magnus Magnusson. “[I]t is in fact a manmade water cistern, once carefully plastered to prevent the water seeping into the rock.”24
No archaeological evidence of any kind confirms the existence of Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, or any of the exploits attributed to them in the Bible. “Most Bible scholars and archaeologists have abandoned the question of the Patriarchs altogether,” says Bible scholar Ronald Hendel. “They don’t regard Abraham as having anything historical to say.”25 And nothing in the vast archaeological record of ancient Egypt preserves even a memory of Moses or the liberation of the Israelites from slavery under Pharaoh or any of the other events of the Exodus, most of which are nowadays regarded as purely legendary. “Do we possess any historical testimony about Moses?” muses Bible scholar Elias Auerbach in his own study of Moses. “We have none.”26
Israelite Shleppers and Canaanite Shleppers
One of the core values of the Bible is what Auerbach calls “the desert-ideal,” the notion that the Israelites are nomadic wanderers who are untainted by the comforts and corruptions of city life.27 The Tenth Commandment—“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house (Exod. 20:14)—may have originated as a rejection of all houses by a people who aspired to the freedom of movement that only a tent dweller enjoys. And though the Bible occasionally refers to the Israelites as “Hebrews” (ibrim), the biblical authors may intend to describe them as habiru, a term that is commonly used in extra-biblical writings to describe anyone who lived outside the settled communities of the ancient world. The notion of the Israelites as outsiders is summed up, as we have already seen, in a simple credo: “A wandering Aramean was my father” (Deut. 26:5) (JPS).
Meet the Author
Jonathan Kirsch is a book columnist for the Los Angeles Times and author of the bestselling and critically acclaimed King David, Moses, The Harlot by the Side of the Road, and The Woman Who Laughed at God. He lectures and consults widely on biblical, literary, and legal topics and is a past president of PEN Center USA West.
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