The Creation of History in Ancient Israel

Marc Zvi Brettler

Routledge 1995
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996
Neither a futile attempt to prove that the Old Testament is accurate history or a pointless demonstration that it fails by the standards of modern historians, The Creation of History in Ancient Israel is instead a study of what the biblical authors were trying to do with their presentations of the past; an understanding of this is a prerequisite to any attempt to use the biblical accounts to reconstruct the history of Israel. Brettler gives a brief overview of modern biblical historiography in his introduction. He goes on, in chapter one, to suggest definitions of "history" and "ideology" that are useful for the purpose at hand, but argues that "literature" is not a term that can usefully be applied to biblical texts.

Chapter two uses Chronicles to introduce the complexities of Old Testament historiography: the Chronicler is one of the few biblical historians who can be seen "in action", because his sources (earlier parts of the Bible) are available. Brettler presents a detailed study of 1 Chr 15:1-26 (David's transfer of the Ark from Gibeah to Jerusalem) which highlights the ways in which the Chronicler's rewriting and reordering of his source materials reflects his own purposes and the historical and political situation in which he wrote. Like modern historians he uses "historical probability" — albeit in a pre-modern form — to evaluate and "correct" his sources.

Chapters three through six look at more specific aspects of biblical history, at typology, interpretation, satire, and ideology. Typology is where a story is retold several times in different forms, with the same pattern of events shifted forwards or backwards in time. Chapter three presents two examples of this from Genesis. The story of Abram and Sarai (Gen 12:10-20) is a "pre-enactment" of the story of Exodus. The Joseph story of Genesis 37-50 contains typological elements: parts of it reflect inter-tribal relationships (with earlier material "updated" to reflect later Judaean dominance) and others the conflict between the northern and southern kingdoms.

Chapter four looks at interpretation by the Deuteronomist, with a close study of two episodes from Deuteronomy itself: Deut 1:9-18 (the establishment of a judicial system by Moses) is based on Exod 18:13-26 and Deut 16:18-20, influenced by Num 11:11-17; Deut 2:26-3:7 (the conquest of the Transjordan) is an elaboration of Num 21:21-5 influenced by Deut 20:10-18. Analysis of both passages demonstrates the creative role of the Deuteronomist in refashioning existing material to fit his own beliefs. Some of this may have been deliberate fabrication, but more likely he was, like all historians, simply "viewing the past from the perspective of the present".

While he elaborates on his view that labeling the Bible "literature" is not constructive, Brettler argues in chapter five that it can be useful to apply specific genre labels like "satire" to particular biblical texts. He analyses the Ehud and Eglon story from Judges 3:12-30, showing that it is full of sexual and scatological innuendo and was intended as a humorous attack on the Moabites, that it is "political satire ... anchored in the historical period in which it was composed rather than in the historical period which it pretends to narrate".

Chapter six is a study of ideology in the Book of Samuel, and in particular in the story of David's rise to power. Here I was pleased to see Brettler use Stefan Heym's The King David Report (one of my favourite historical novels) as a source of insight into the period; he also offers a comparison with Assyrian royal annals. The basic thesis is that 1 Sam 14:52 through 2 Sam 8:15 was structured as a single unit and that an appropriate title for it would be "David as Proper King". It is essentially a work of propaganda, the purpose of which was to legitimate David's succession by praising him at the expense of Saul. The bias of the unit is obvious when it is compared with the preceding and following sections of Samuel, but Brettler suggests that it may have been a response to even more negative views of David, perhaps in the form of a continuing pro-Saul ideology.

Chapter seven is a study of a more complex passage, 2 Kings 17. This consists of reflections on the destruction and exile of the northern kingdom, a turning point in the history of Israel which evoked a wide variety of responses; it is a complex, layered tel built and rebuilt out of a large number of components over a considerable period of time by contributors writing with widely differing ideological motivations. It is not a reliable source for the reconstruction of the history of the northern kingdom, but it is a valuable source of information on the periods in which it was written, and particularly on Judaean attitudes to the north.

The final chapter looks at some of the issues involved in reconstructing the actual history of ancient Israel, stressing again the importance of studying historians before studying history. While the Old Testament is a useful source for the history of ancient Israel (something that some historians now deny), "most biblical texts present serious problems to the historian interested in objectivity". While on some issues we can reach a conclusion "beyond a reasonable doubt", on others we must settle for one based on "the preponderance of the evidence". In short (quoting Donald Redford) we must "learn to live with ambiguity".

The Creation of History in Ancient Israel is a solidly scholarly volume, with over eighty pages of notes providing the full apparatus of citation and textual analysis. It is far more accessible than most such volumes, however. While it does assume a general familiarity with the Old Testament and with the early history of Israel, no specialised knowledge is needed to read it. The more technical details (all the Hebrew, for example, and almost all the analysis of translation variants) are relegated to the endnotes where they can easily be ignored by the non-specialist. The passages discussed are included (in original translation), so there is no need to keep consulting a Bible. Perhaps most importantly, the subject of The Creation of History in Ancient Israel is broad and the passages treated in detail are interesting. The result is a volume which should attract readers from outside academia: it wouldn't make a bad introduction to the Old Testament for the general reader with a primarily historical (rather than theological or literary) interest.

March 1996

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%T The Creation of History in Ancient Israel
%A Brettler, Marc Zvi
%I Routledge
%D 1995
%O hardcover, references, index
%G ISBN 0415118603
%P xv,254pp