I wrote in a recent post about some of the difficulties with issues of history and historicity in the Old Testament I’ve had in preparing for my impending journey to Israel. Having had some time to clarify my thoughts, I thought I’d share them.
First, I want to focus on an exemplum of my thoughts and then I’ll speak more generally. Let’s begin with the Bablyonian Captivity. Or, rather, a little bit before that.
In 1 Kings 18, the prophet Elijah confronts Ahab, the monarch of the Kingdom of Israel, on Mount Carmel in a rather memorable set of contests. Really, Elijah is confronting the worship of Baal in the Kingdom of Israel here, but Ahab is culpable for allowing the Israelites to stray from the worship of Yahweh alone.
The four-hundred and fifty prophets of Baal are asked to pick between two bulls brought to the mountain, to cut it to pieces and to smoke if over a fire; Elijah–as Yahweh’s sole remaining prophet–will do the same with the other. Then they will each call upon their respective gods and see who “shows up.” As the Baalite priests beseech their god, they get no response. With memorable taunts (Maybe your god is sleeping and needs to be awakened? Maybe he’s traveling? Maybe he’s busy defecating?), Elijah insults Baal’s prophets until it comes time for him to beseech Yahweh. When he does, the Israelite God sends his “fire” down to earth to light the prepared wood, burn up the bull carcass and the stones, soil and water prepared around the altar. After this, the priests of Baal are slaughtered by the gathered people.
I’m not actually interested in the historicity of this particular story but in what it tells us about the culture of the time (Ahab’s existence is attested outside of the Bible and he was probably king of Israel around the middle of the 9th Century BCE). As we find in the cultures surrounding Isreal-Palestine at that time, gods were viewed to be local; they were the gods of particular cities or nations. We see this explicit in other places even in the Bible, where the Isrealite God states that “he” is the God of Israel (hence the epithet “Israelite God,” I suppose).
What’s happening between the lines in this passage in Kings is a divine turf war. Baal (which is a title that means “lord” and which is borne by several distinct deity figures and used generally to mean “a god”) is a god of the Phoenicians in the city of Tyre. If you look on a map of Biblical Israel, you’ll see that Tyre is on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea (on an island, actually) just a short journey north from Mount Carmel. The question being answered by Elijah’s story is, roughly put, “If Baal is the god of Tyre, and Yahweh is the god of Israel, and they’re both geographically close to one another, which has dominion in the middle ground?” Clearly the answer is Yahweh.
I mention the above passage because it sets us up for the real point about history and historicity in the Old Testament that I want to make in this post. When in the (very early) 6th Century BCE the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzer sacked Jerusalem and deported the Israelites to Bablyon, a crisis of faith occurred. Again, as a brief aside, this event is attested in the historical record outside of the Bible. If the Israelites were to worship the God of (the nation/land) Israel, how could they do that when they’d been transported to Babylon, the land of the Babylonian gods.
And here comes the prophet Ezekiel. In the verses that open the book that bears his name, Ezekiel tells us that he has a vision of God while among the exiled Israelites in Babylon “on the banks of the Kebar River.”
In this vision, as the Biblical historian Cynthia R. Chapman says, “God gets wheels.” Literally; Ezekiel sees God enthroned upon what I can’t help thinking of as a super-high-tech, four-likeness-of-living-creature-powered motorized wheelchair. That strange image aside, the point of the vision is that the God of Israel is mobile, that God is personally and actually present with the Israelites even in their exile. As a side note, my NIV says that Ezekiel is taken back to the “Kebar River near Tel Aviv”–this should be read as Tel Abib (in modern-day Iraq) by the Chebar River.
Hearing about the underlying spiritual-cultural concerns with regards to these (and other) Old Testament passages did much to “resolve” my problem of “historicity” in the OT (for purposes of this post, I have left aside all of the issues of the construction of the Old Testament text–whether discussion of the three hypotheses of its construction or the timing of its creation).
What I find here is something that makes much more sense to me than either extreme of the historicity debate–humans writing stories of their evolving understanding of and relationship with God. These stories are neither entirely myth nor entirely history; they are stories that draw upon historical experience (and the religious issues raised by that experience), mythological content that may or may not be based in fact (I’m not worried about the answer to that), revelation of the nature of God from God (there’s that spirit-breathed bit), and human reactions and struggles in response to that revelation.
I see this especially as the Israelite understanding of the nature of God breaks free from social precedent and evolves from polytheism to henotheism to true monotheism.
In some ways, what we have in the Old Testament is the macrocosm of Jacob’s struggle with God at Penuel–a back and forth between God and man that may defy explanation but results in relationship.
Does that make interpreting the Bible difficult? Absolutely; I don’t have an answer for you on how we best sort God’s intent from the voice of the writers from the historical record from the cultural context, etc. But I’m certainly willing to say that it’s not supposed to be easy. I can’t imagine that God would decide not to directly appear before all people in an unmistakeable way (which, to be clear, God hasn’t) and yet make Biblical interpretation something as simple as looking at words verbatim.
In the near future, I’m going to return to the Babylonian captivity and the Book of Job to talk a bit about theodicy in Christianity.