Reframing the Discourse
In every generation, all [Jews] must view themselves as if they had left Egypt. — Passover Haggadah
Mnemohistory Versus History
Once upon a time, history and lore were closely intertwined. Legends and myths, blended with nuggets of cultural memory, explained the distant past. Understanding of the recent past was often inspired by real events, but was generally expanded upon and embellished by story tellers and bards. If records of political events were kept at all, they were inaccessible to the average, illiterate person, having been written for the crown and stored in the palace.
With the advent of the modern discipline of history, matters became more complicated. Scholars began applying various intellectual tools to our accounts of the past in an attempt to discern fact from fiction. It was only a matter of time before the historicity of many biblical accounts would come under question. It began with the parts of the Torah which are clearly folkloristic or symbolic in character. The creation of the world in six days, the account of Adam and Eve in the garden, Noah’s flood and the Tower of Babel—all of these were easily identified as ahistorical. These stories fit perfectly into the genre of folklore or allegory and each offers a simple narrative of intentionally fantastic character in order to explain some aspect of the world in which we live.
But matters did not—could not—stop there. The Torah traces the lineage of Israel’s first founding father, Abraham, back to Noah. But if Noah is not a historical character, what about Abraham? Additionally, it is hard to ignore the symbolic elements of many of the Abraham stories. Many of his sons—if not all of them—founded their own nations. Ishmael is the father of the Arabs; Midian is the father of the Midianites; Dedan is the father of the Dedanim, etc. Abraham’s main son, Isaac, turns out to be the father of two nations, the Israelites through Jacob and the Edomites through Esau. Scholars began to realize that the family history being offered in the Torah was really a schematic attempt—the technical term is etiological narrative—of the Israelite writers or story tellers to explain the relationships between themselves and their neighbors.
The same holds true of the description of the development of Israel. The idea that the twelve tribes of Israel were formed by the twelve sons of Jacob has all the appearances of a schematic attempt of Israelites to explain themselves to themselves: “We are all one family because we are all children of the same father.” These Torah stories are not history, the recording of past events, they are mnemohistory, the construction of shared cultural-memory through narratives about the past.
Given the data to which modern historians have access, it is impossible to regard the accounts of mass Exodus from Egypt, the wilderness experience or the coordinated, swift and complete conquest of the entire land of Canaan under Joshua as historical. At what point biblical historiography and ancient history begin to overlap in significant ways remains highly contested—some would say with the accounts of the United Monarchy (the period of Saul, David and Solomon) others with the account of the Northern king, Omri (beginning in the late tenth century).
However, even when historiography and biblical history overlap, they are hardly one and the same. Like all religious versions of history, biblical historiography is replete with miraculous fabula as well as exceedingly issue-specific evaluations of the historical kind, such that the portrait painted by the biblical text appears quite different than the one painted by archaeologists. In other words, even when the biblical accounts do overlap significantly with factual history, the writing still participates extensively in the genre of mnemohistory, writing about the past through the prism of cultural identity and the values of the author and the author’s society.
The Standard Religious Reaction
What does a religious person do with in the face of these developments? One reaction is to say that without grounding in historical fact, any religion is valueless and should be jettisoned. In other words, this school of thought believes that the value of Torah is based upon the belief that what it says happened, happened – literally. To me, this implies a paper-thin respect for Torah. I have seen people turn from total observance to nothing after realizing that the biblical narratives were not historical but symbolic. They said to me that there had been nothing tying them to their observance short of a belief that keeping and studying Torah is directly and literally commanded by God. The stories are important, these individuals believe, because they happened to have happened, and since they didn’t happen to have happened, they are—in their estimations—valueless. This is a sad conclusion, and one I hope to disabuse.
Critique of the Standard Reaction
The stories of the Torah have meaning and significance irrespective of their historicity. The Torah has holiness as the Israelite and Jewish encounter with God even after one realizes that the idea of God dictating it entirely and word-for-word to Moses on Mount Sinai is troublesome.
The popular idea that the Torah’s holiness stems only from the historicity of its claims, dictated by the mouth of God, strikes me as an attempt to depict the Almighty as a news reporter. The dialogue between Abraham and God, Moses and Pharaoh, the speech of Korah, the selling of Joseph—is all of this only significant because it happened to have happened? If the stories are nothing but history, then the details are all the random accidents of history. According to this model, if Korah didn’t rebel, if Abraham didn’t argue with God, if Pharaoh wasn’t stubborn or if Joseph hadn’t found his brothers in Dotan—the stories would have been told differently, with different lessons. Taking this point to its logical if outrageous conclusion, divine authorship of the Torah should only be considered important since it guarantees accuracy in reporting.
This vision of Torah may appeal to some but, ironically, I find it both unappealing and even sacrilegious. The Sages tell us that the Torah predates creation—although I understand this as a non-literal claim, it implies that the Torah had no choice but to turn out the way it did. The stories were destined to be told, irrespective of the historicity of its characters and their actions.
Mnemohistory: Torah as Sacred Lore
Many may feel a pang of fear when sacred stories of the past are referred to as lore—when mnemohistory is understood as something different than factual history. However, the most powerful force in most societies is not history. Societies are driven by their lore—their legends and their stories. Historically speaking, Columbus was not the first to realize that the world was round, but his trip to the New World has become one of the key symbols of the triumph of science and innovation over the Dark Ages’ dogmatic rule of stagnant scholasticism.
The same is true for biblical stories and characters. The stories of the Torah reflect the ways the prophets of old refracted their encounters with divine wisdom through the prism of mnemohistorical narrative. Adam is the story about why humans are here, and Noah is the story about the precariousness of our position and the existential need to be good people in order for our existence to have meaning. The stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are about who we (Israel/Jews) are as a people and how we found God/God found us; the Exodus and Conquest tell us about Israel’s mission as a nation and our covenantal relationship with God.
The prophets of old, accessing the divine flow, answered existential questions in stories with symbolic meaning. These stories are full of timeless messages and explain to us who we are even though they may not answer the questions with complete historical or scientific accuracy.
In contrast to the religious message of the Torah about the importance of humanity and the people of Israel’s divine mission, secular knowledge tells us that humans are here due to the accidents of evolution, our position in this world is precarious due to our lack of control over the world (disease, comets, etc.), that Israel began as a hodgepodge of loosely confederated tribes of a similar ethnic background that joined together in common cause against the Canaanite city-states, perhaps together with a group of escaped Egyptian slaves, under the banner of Yhwh, whom they believed to be their one true God. Which account is true? I say both accounts are true, but in different senses.
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March 27, 2013
October 29, 2023
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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