Saturday, 1 May 2010

The Torah (Pentateuch) a political fiction?

David Sperling writes (1998) about the nature and purpose of "the original Torah", focusing on "the political intent of the Bible's writers". He takes further the main point I made in Creating the Old Testament: The Emergence of the Hebrew Bible in 1989 and also the work of Niels Peter Lemche, Ancient Israel: A New History of Isralelite Society in 1988. We all emphasise that Old Testament readers should stick to the evidence. The main evidence is simply that someone wrote the books, and this was clearly later than the last things they describe. Whether these books were fact or fiction we have to decide on the basis of other evidence, for example from archaeology.

Since there is no convincing archeological or documentary evidence for the existence of characters such as Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the eponymous ancesters of Israel, we all insist that they did not exist as historical characters.This is now the trend in non-conservative Old Testament studies, where analysis and theology do not get mixed up.

So, the Torah had a writer, whose date has to be determined. The reasons across Old Testament scholarship for this date being given as exilic or post-exilic are many and various: datable loan words, the relationship of Deuteronomy to King Josiah, and the editorial hand of the Priestly Writer (P) are all part of this evidence. Especially the archaeological record does not support the details given in the stories. So Sperling starts his discussion with a sixth or fifth century BCE writer, whose purposes have to be ascertained from the text.

He uses the concept of allegory. The Torah stories are seen as reflecting some later event of significance to the writer. Slavery in Egypt is an allegory for the people in Canaan/Palestine being in servitude to Egypt, their overlord, as the archaeological record shows. The covenant is a treaty of alliance, common in the ancient near east: for supporters of Yahweh, it was a means of political control. The Abraham cycle was composed to legitimate King David, the Jacob cycle to legitimate Joroboam and the northern kingdom, 'Israel'. The Aaron traditions legitimated northern temples and festivals (and later Judaean editors damned him for this). Moses, like Saul, was responsible for Yahweh becoming Israel's official God, so the Moses cycle needs to be read also as a legitimation myth. These comments of summary cannot do justice to the detail of the argument, which I take as persuasive. Indeed it has parallels in some current work I am completing and will be discussed in this blog later. That Bible texts are the result of political spin should not surprise us, given the nature of our own political mythologies.

(UK readers looking for these books had best use

No comments:

Post a Comment