CHAPTER ONE: INTRODUCTION
First the inevitable question: Why another book on the bible? Answer: (1) Teaching a class in which I use the Bible as a text has taught me that many liberal arts students have no familiarity with the book, and have difficulty approaching the Bible for a number of reasons. Most have never read it, yet some find it irrelevant, and some find it too “sacred” ever to read it. This book is intended as a secular Midrash and students’ companion to the Bible. I treat the Bible as comprised of stories, human stories, to be approached with curiosity, not religious awe. I treat the texts of the Bible with the respect due to any great literature. I try to show that the Bible is not irrelevant, but has an importance to the contemporary consciousness. (2) Many colleagues in the liberal arts report a lack of Biblical knowledge on the part of their students. This lack of familiarity with the stories of the Bible makes it difficult to understand and respond to many of the literary texts of our culture, which often assume a familiarity with the basic stories of the Bible. (3) I love these stories, and I love writing and thinking about them. (4) I am on sabbatical leave and I have to do something.
I employ no particular literary theory, if that is possible. I was trained in old-fashioned New Criticism where I learned that the text itself is important and primary. But, I deconstruct when doing so helps to point to useful information or to understand what the story means. I mention literary forms when that is useful, and I point to features of the texts that may have been overlooked. I draw on the works of historians and of critics who know more than I about the times and places referred to in the stories. I have certain beliefs, which will manifest themselves in the readings I offer. I do not pretend to be a Bible scholar; I too, like most readers, know the work in translation. If this approach is eclectic I offer no apology. The critic’s task is always to point – to point to aspects of the work that may have been overlooked or under-emphasized. I want to de-mystify the texts and make them accessible to readers as important literary texts. I remember vividly my own sense as a child that the Bible was somehow special and otherworldly – too sacred to be read or thought about. I assumed that only priests and pastors had the “right stuff” which allowed them to read the text. And I noticed that they did nothing to dissuade me of that belief.
My general notion of literature includes these claims: literature is about the world, interpretation is a creative act, intention is a necessary condition for writing of any kind, there are four focal points for any work of literature: poet, text, world, and reader. In what follows, if I emphasize one of these over the others it will be text. The biblical text is complex and sophisticated narrative exhibiting many layers of intention in its final form. In the second book of Samuel, for example, we read the exciting love story of David and Bathsheba, and learn how David, driven by desire for the beautiful Bathsheba, brings her to his bed and makes her pregnant while her husband Uriah is in David’s army fighting the enemies of Israel. David eliminates Uriah by sending a letter (carried by Uriah) to the commander telling him to place Uriah in the fiercest fighting and then to fall back leaving him alone to be killed. After Uriah is killed Bathsheba mourns for him for the appropriate time and then David brings her into his house and takes her as his wife. (2 Sam. 11,12) Shortly after this we are told “what David had done was wrong in the eyes of the Lord.” And then, as we read in the King James Version:
And the Lord sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto
him, and said unto him, There were two men in one city; the one
rich and the other poor.
2. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds:
3. But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb,
which he had bought and nourished up; and it grew up together
with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and
drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a
4. And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he
spared to take of his own flock and his own herd, to dress for the
wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s
lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.
5. And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man;
and he said to Nathan, As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done
this thing shall surely die:
6. And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did
this thing, and because he had no pity.
7. And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. Thus saith
the Lord God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I
delivered thee out of the hand of Saul;
8. And I gave thee thy master’s house, and thy master’s
wives unto thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and Judah;
and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto
thee such and such things.
David will pay for his lust; the child he conceived in sin will die and the other threats will also come to pass. The punishment will fit the crime: the child conceived in sin will die; the man who could not control his sexual appetites will be punished by having his wives taken in front of everyone. Note the layers of narrative here. Nathan tells David a parable. David is moved by the story. He sentences the fictional man to die. Nathan tells David that he is the man. The story is used to get the king to see himself and to judge his own acts. Just as Uriah carries his own death warrant to Joab in the form of a letter of execution, David comes to issue a death sentence on himself through Nathan’s story. When Joab opens the letter carried by Uriah he will see David’s intention; when David “opens” the story carried by Nathan he will see the Lord’s intention.
Nathan relates a fictional narrative in order to get the king to see the truth about his own situation. Nathan’s intention is clear – he uses story to reveal truth. Once he gets David to see that the rich man in the story has done wrong then all he has to do is get him to see that he is like the rich man in the appropriate moral way. Self-delusion, though powerful in human affairs, can be broken by story. David has then judged himself. But there is another layer of intentional meaning here also. “The Lord sent Nathan…” adds a layer to the narrative which reveals another story of alleged divine intervention in the understanding of the events. And this story in turn is related by a writer or editor who is shaping the larger story of the books of Samuel for his audience. We get the sense that David would never have admitted guilt for killing Uriah in order to have Bathsheba, but he is able to see and respond to characters in stories. As readers we too are to respond to the stories and to that end have been given narrative access to the larger story pointed to by phrases like “The Lord sent Nathan….”
The Old Testament version of Esther begins:
Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus, (this is the Ahasuerus which reigned, from India even unto Ethiopia, over an hundred and seven and twenty provinces:) (King James, Esther 1)
Not only does this sentence signal that the reader is to accept the story as a report but it also establishes time and place. “The events here related” functions like “and it came to pass” except that “the events here related” stands between a past “lived” event and the report of the event while “and it came to pass” is most often used to suggest an inevitable and divinely ordered string of events manifesting themselves in time. While Nathan used fictional narrative in order to get the king to see the truth, the writer of Esther uses the truth, or at least what we might call “factoids” to establish a fictional narrative. That is, we are given a list of events which are placed in time and space by markers that sound decidedly like those of factual reports or historical documents. The story unfolds quickly: the king is giving one enormous party for the people, to show off his majesty, and after several days of drinking and feasting he decides to order his queen to dress up in something pretty and come forward to display her beauty and at the same time make the king feel even more mighty and splendid. She refuses to come in answer to the royal command, and the king, not used to being disobeyed, is incensed by her disobedience. He confers with his wise men, who are versed in law and religion, and they advise him that in order to keep order and not have women getting “uppity” he must punish the queen by banning her from his sight and replace her with a queen who is more able to conform to the rules of the kingdom. He does ban Queen Vashti, and he begins the search for a new queen. This plot device is necessary in order to get Esther into the king’s bed. After trying out many young and beautiful virgins the king chooses Esther as his new queen. We just do not know if there really was an Esther who was a Jewish queen at this time, but the story uses every device to make the events appear to be actual. Real or fictional matters not for the story goes on to show how Esther under the direction of her kinsman, Mordecai, is able to save the Jewish people from an execution order by outsmarting Haman who, as the king’s second in command, has gotten the king to order the destruction of the Jewish people in all the provinces. Esther, at threat of death, pursues a plan to overturn Haman and to topple him from power while at the same time preventing the destruction of her Jewish people.
At a crucial point Haman misreads the king’s intentions, for when the king asks Haman “What should be done for the man whom the king wishes to honour?” Haman believes that the king is speaking of him. Misreading intentions can be dangerous and Haman misreads not only the king’s intentions but also Esther’s intentions and in a complete reversal of fortunes he ends up hanged on the very gallows he had built to hang Mordecai. The letters from the king to the provinces are changed to allow the Jews to defend themselves and they end up killing 75,000 of their enemies instead of being destroyed themselves. The story is one that is read by rabbis on Purim, one of the great festivals celebrated by the Jews every year.
After reading the book of Esther in the Old Testament then you should read the version that appears in the apocrypha. The second version differs from the first in having about 140 more lines and all of those additional lines tell of God’s involvement in the plot. Dreams and portents are suddenly present and the intention of the author is clear in the additional lines. God, who does not appear in the Hebrew version, is suddenly omnipresent in the Greek version, and we can read the intentions of the Greek author in those added lines. Now God is the author of human events and is directly involved through dreams and intervention in the unfolding of events. We readers are to see that God is directly responsible for the outcome of stories and is controlling the events from afar.
Much of the great writing of our Western tradition comes from a Judeo-Christian culture. It is difficult to read Dante, Spinoza, Milton, Goethe, Shakespeare, Descartes, Newton, Kant and hundreds of others without some knowledge of the stories and the ideas of the Bible. Contemporary artists continue to draw on the images and forms of the biblical stories to create their stories, and whether they are believers or not the basic patterns of the Bible are still present to be considered, incorporated or dismissed. The biblical stories, of course, have special meaning for Jews and Christians because they are believed to be a record of God’s covenant with a chosen people. In the Old Testament this covenant is in the form of a promise of land in return for obedi- ence to a set of rules. In the New Testament the covenant is in the form of a promise for salvation in return for obedience and belief. The “promised land” of the Old Testament is land on this earth; the “promised land” of the New Testament, as described by Paul and other early Christians, is not of this earth.
It seems obligatory in a book like this to state where I “am coming from.” I am not a Jew. I am not a Christian. I was raised in a Christian family. We attended an Episcopal church when I was a small boy; after my mother remarried we attended a Lutheran church where I was confirmed at a young age. Shortly after that we started to attend a Methodist church, but none of these changes was, to my knowledge, based on any matters of doctrine, but rather on social reasons. I remember getting in trouble with the Lutheran pastor as a child because in Bible class I would ask real questions. “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me,” it said in the catechism. Why? The canned answer was: “The Lord, thy God, is a jealous God.” “Why is he jealous?” I would ask, “what would God have to be jealous of?” “Don’t ask questions,” the pastor would say, “just memorize the material.” That was the lesson of the church: do not ask questions; just memorize the stuff. There really was no life in the church. People came in, sat down, listened quietly, put some money in the collection plate, and then left to carry on with their lives as before. After hearing a sermon on the evils of “drink” and card playing, in which the punishments for disobedience were extremely uncomfortable, we would all get in our car and go to one of my step-uncle’s for an afternoon of drinking beer and playing pinochle. I learned to hate Jews (for they were somehow responsible for killing Jesus), Catholics (for they had all the riches), and Methodists (I cannot remember why). I learned hypocrisy, racism, and sexism (now called the “traditional” values by nostalgic writers who find the word “traditional” all fuzzy and warm). I read the Bible frequently because the stories were full of violence, sex, and mystery. I remember asking my mother what `womb’ means and she was very nervous and asked me where I had heard that word. When I told her I found it in the Bible she did not seem to know what to say. I had her! She arranged for my step-father to teach me about the “birds and the bees.” He in turn sub-contracted to a teen-aged farm hand who gave me a brief but descriptive lecture about things that I already knew. (The lecture, I remember, started like this: “So, you want to know about f…ing…,” my teacher at least exhibiting a sense of the dramatic.)
After a few years in public schools and four years in the United States Marine Corps, I learned about sex and violence in more direct ways, and stopped reading the Bible until I was in university. At the University of California in Santa Barbara I was assigned as a teaching assistant to Professor Douwe Stuurman, who taught a course on the Bible. His classes were always full of interesting people. In the front row were the nuns, who, he said, were there to spy on him. Then came the middle-aged students looking for therapy, the literature and philosophy students, and the atheists who sat in the back. I tried to sit in a different part of the room each time. Stuurman had a Freudian, Eastern, Calvinist, Proustian background and the ability to mesmerize an audience. Above all he opened up the text for me. I read it with fresh eyes. These stories were marvellous works of art! Stuurman’s lectures were inspiring (I used to call them “Stuurman on the mount”) and unlike my Lutheran pastor, he asked questions all the time. When not at the university I spent my time cleaning the Unitarian Church in Santa Barbara, which meant that I had the op- portunity to talk with Lex Crane, who was ministering there then. His background in literature was extensive and we used to have long talks about “meaning” while I should have been cleaning the toilets. I flirted with the idea of becoming a Unitarian minister, but never got the “call.” Because of this and more, I believe the Bible is worth reading and studying, not as moribund scripture but as living literature.
The first few stories in the Old Testament develop a recurring pattern in human affairs:
– the creation creation (innocence)
– the fall and the first murder conflict (sin)
– the flood suffering (purification)
– the rainbow resolution (salvation)
– the tower of Babel beginnings
This pattern is familiar to us because we do in fact find ourselves in a world that we cannot explain the origin of, even in our most thorough going scientific descriptions. “Why is there anything at all?” is a basic question that defies answers. We can easily understand how that question leads to religious answers, to answers that defy verification, for it is difficult to imagine an answer to that question that would be verifiable in the strict scientific sense. The answer we are given is a story that begins: “In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth….” The story tells us how not why. It does not presume to know why but takes as “evidence” for what might have been a clear notion of what is: we find ourselves walking on the earth, surrounded by the sky, nurtured by sunshine and water, sharing our world with many other species of animals, fish and birds. Plants, trees, flowers abound. Where did they come from? In this story we are told that they come form the creative command of a powerful spirit-god who creates by fiat. “Let there be light” – and there was light begins the whole chain of events. Other stories tell of the beginnings of life in different ways. For example, the Hopi Indians have a creation myth which tells the story this way:
In a remote time Spider Grandmother thought outward into space.
She thought and breathed and sang and spun the world into
existence. So threads and stories, spinning and spirals all began
with Spider Grandmother.
“Thought,” “breathed,” “sang,” are the operative verbs in this story. They suggest a certain kind of creation: mental, intangible, structured. Diction, which is merely choice of words, reveals intent. A particular recipe lies behind a description which employs just these words, a recipe which includes a pattern for building “reality” as well as a description of a given “reality.” Reading stories always entails paying close attention to the writer’s diction, for in the selection of a vocabulary a writer chooses a value system. Look at these lines by Wordsworth:
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither feels nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
What a simple vocabulary Wordsworth uses to tell us of a motionless young woman who has died. The words “force,” “motion,” and “diurnal” come from the vocabulary of science and are used here to contrast life and death with the scientific vocabulary of Newtonian physics. “Diurnal” is the only word in the stanza likely to send a reader to the dictionary. And what does this word mean? “Daily.” Wordsworth could have used “daily” in the line; it is a word he would have had in his vocabulary. But he chooses “diurnal.” What does he gain by this choice? “Diurnal” hints at “die,” “urn,” “eternal” – all words, and through them images, which cluster around the chosen word and reveal a complex of emotional and intellectual concerns that “daily” just does not. It is in the choice of diction that the poet negotiates the meaning transfer from intention to interpretation.
The poet who wrote the creation story in Genesis also reveals intention through diction. One repeated phrase that in its repetition is highlighted as surely as is the light which results form the first command is the phrase “God saw that it was good” repeated after each creative act. From the very beginning we are told of a world that has value and goodness built right into it by the act of the creator-god. Good is not added like a cosmetic but is shown through the language to be a fundamental part of the cosmos. As the myth of our beginnings unfolds in the thoughts and spinnings of the Genesis poet we see that into this place of perfect good enters chaos as a result of disobedience and jealousy. Good is followed immediately by its opposite and God drives Adam from the garden.
One way of approaching these early stories is to think of them as maps. They were constructed after the fact as ways of explaining and charting the unknown past of how and why. In that respect they are backwards looking. But they also contain a perspective from the present projecting into the future. They contain within them a story about how we ought to be. And the language of these stories is often the language of dream – symbolic language – a language that means more than it says, a language that is found in poetry and in children. When our immediate family experienced the first death in the family which our kids experienced it happened like this: the phone call came saying that Grandpa Jim had died and that his funeral would be in a military cemetery in a few days. Margaret, our daughter, was about three years old. She heard her mother on the phone and guessed that something was wrong. She asked her older brothers (seven and eight) what was going on. “Grandpa Jim is dead.”
“What does that mean?”
“They will put him in a hole in the ground.”
“And put dirt over top of him.”
“And you will never see him again.”
She was puzzled. Later she went off to bed without saying much of anything. In the middle of the night I heard her weeping quietly in her crib. I went to pick her up and held her against my chest. She was in that state between sleeping and waking and was sobbing over and over again: “I don’t want to go down in that hole; I don’t want to go down in that hole.” That is symbolic language. What heart knew head guessed. The stories of the Bible are written in that kind of language. At the level where the human cry of mortality and mystery emerges is to be found the story line of the best of the stories from the Bible collection. At another level, of course, is the official line, which offers an explanation, a reading of the stories, proclaims an interpretation, an ordering conceptual map.
The Bible stories can be seen as maps – maps of concepts constructed in language which trace psychological or social processes. But do they record or construct the facts? In what follows I will argue that, like all literature, they do both. A recent literary critic puts the distinction this way:
The recognition that our concepts are constructions of language
systems…tells us nothing about their relation or lack of relation to
reality. It follows that the antithesis between “constructing” and
“recording” is unreal, for it opposes a genetic category to a logical
one; it confuses the process by which formulations come into being
(constructing) and the logical status of these formulations (“record-
ing”). The opposition becomes unreal as soon as we recognize how
much constructing is required in the process of recording. The fact
that a reader’s interpretation of a text is, in a sense, his construc-
tion is no argument against (or for) its adequacy to the text.
Similarly, the fact that a literary work is constituted by the imagina-
tion, or by a system of literary conventions, does not prevent it
from qualifying as a record or representation of reality.
A valuable approach as reader is to consider that reading a text is a performing art. I do not mean by this that one needs to learn to be an oral interpreter, although that is a good skill to develop. I mean that in reading a text one must engage every bit of creativity, of sensitivity, of intellect and feeling that one possesses. The story is in the text, but its full experience is in the mind of the reader. The story provides form and directs responses, and the reader completes the communicative act. Think of the text as a musical score and yourself as a performing musician. The notes are there – are in the score – and you must be able to perform them on your musical instrument. You need to bring technical skill, sensitivity to nuance, and knowledge of the language of musical notation to the task.
I believe that most of us at some time or other confuse items from one logical category with items from another, and, as a result end up believing and stating silly or nonsensical things. Sometimes we confuse the menu with the meal, or the map with the landscape, or our theory with reality; in short we sometimes make category mistakes. We sometimes confuse our favorite theories about the world with the way the world is. Stories often contain theories of a kind (or official lines as I will call them) – these are combinations of presuppositions, conventions, assumptions, and assumed value judgements. And these official lines are evident in the verbal structure of a compound narrative. In what follows I will try to show that separating the official line from the story line is a necessary aspect of reading the Bible. Stories provide maps of a culture’s deepest hopes and fears, of its value system and its “take” on reality. Maps, of course, like language, select certain features and ignore others; and like language, maps are cultural expressions of elements significant to a society.
Look at a reproduction of the Roman Peutinger Table, a ribbon map originally some twenty-five feet long by one foot wide showing the Roman world from Britain to India. A complex strip map, it was apparently constructed to aid generals and merchants to find their way around the empire. It is a map with Roman efficiency: great chunks of recalcitrant land are forced into a narrow highway from Rome to the ends of the world. Physical space is distorted to fit the utility of the enterprise. In another marvellous map of the thirteenth century, the Ebstorf map, which is some nine feet in diameter, Jerusalem is shown in the very center of the map with Christ’s head at the top, feet at the bottom and hands to the east and west. The mapmaker projects certain features from the worldview into the view of the world. “Maps are by nature distortions of physical space.” And interpretations are by nature distortions of stories.
We can say that a map is distorting physical space only if we know what would count as non-distorted physical space. Just as there can be no counterfeit money unless there is some genuine money, there can be no distortion unless there is some way of knowing about it. Stories too are like that. A general model for map making and story telling looks like this:
Scientists, story tellers, and map makers
1. select certain features from the physical world based upon
complex considerations of beliefs, function, and reality;
2. make guesses about the way the world works, and put these
guesses in the form of hypothesis, map, painting or story;
3. these guesses are improved upon, amended, corrected, or
The stories in the Bible grow out of a certain place and a certain people. By now they are overlaid with centuries of interpretation and have become presented as Repositories for Truth instead of vehicles for truth. The god of the Old Testament, for example, is a complex projection based in part on the needs of a nomadic people: above all this god had to be a portable god, not one assigned to a particular valley or mountain, but one that moved with his people. Place dictates image. We can expect to find in these stories a concern with survival in a near-desert climate – a desire and hope for the oasis with its life giving water, shelter and comfort. Is it any wonder that the Garden of Eden appears as the perfect place for human life? Later ages will describe this metaphoric place not as “a palm at the end of the mind” but as a place with streets paved with gold. And that change in image tells us something about the story tellers.
The Bible is sometimes referred to as a “transparent” text or a “laminated” text. The images here suggest an important aspect of the biblical texts. If the text is transparent what is it we readers are supposed to see through the text? And if laminated what makes up the layers? The transparent text is supposed to reveal the Truth of God. Readers, says this approach, are to look through the text to see the hand of the divine at work behind the scenes. Reading in this way requires the reader to have a point of view to begin with, to start with an official line which is used as a template for the stories’ meaning. In this way the text is not so much transparent as it is a mirror. One tends to see one’s own preconceptions when looking through this “transparent” text. To think of the biblical text as laminated is to become aware of the layers of textual accretions that have built up over the years and through the translations. Stories, legends, poems, oral materials, chronicles, letters, have all been folded into the final product, with frames and transitions added, and with direct commentary from time to time.
In what follows I want to point to the excellence of the Hebrew texts in translation, suggest a way of reading those texts which depends upon the creative involvement of the reader, and provide you with some sense of the excitement of reading these stories with fresh eyes and an open mind. Reading these stories is a way of reading yourself.
THE HOLY LAND
The stage for the Biblical drama is the world of the ancient Near East, the meeting place of three continents: Asia, Africa, and Europe. This territory today is made up of the modern states of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. Now (1990) the area is well known to North Americans from daily maps on television used as backdrops for news reports about the United Nations action against Iraq in the area. Once more the winds of war are blowing in the Middle East, an area of the world buffeted by those winds for centuries. It is an area of conflict between peoples looking for a home. It is an area of conflict because for centuries other countries have dominated various parts of the land for military strategy, for religious strategy, or for commerce. Today oil brings the armies to the desert. In the past it has been land, water, agriculture, trade routes and other reli- gious concerns of the day.
The Middle East is an area of widely contrasting terrain, climate and culture. It includes the rugged mountains of Armenia, the great Arabian Desert, and, in between, the long, crescent-shaped strip of land known as the Fertile Crescent, which stretches from Egypt on the southwest, up the Mediterranean coast through Israel and Syria, and down the Tigris-Euphrates Valley to the Persian Gulf. It has always been an exciting and romantic setting for the magnificent characters who have walked on its stage. The patriarchs walked the desert sands with their flocks. Pharaohs built pyramids for their long sleep. Legendary heroes like Moses and Jesus are to be found here in the desert, conversing with their God, teaching their flocks. Here Alexander the Great stretched out his arm of conquest. Here too the Roman armies fought the local peoples. Caesars walked the earth here. David and Solomon reigned briefly over a united kingdom of Israel. In Egypt Antony and Cleopatra loved and lost. Deborah, Rebekah, Jael, Mary and Elizabeth, Sarah: these powerful and strong women people the stories set in this landscape. Today tanks are strewn across the landscape; a reminder in sculptured and bullet pocked iron of the continuing conflict in this desert of despair.
At stage centre, as far as Hebrew history is concerned, is the land of Palestine, a narrow corridor between the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian Desert with Syria and Lebanon on the north, and Egypt on the south. Pushed up against the Mediterranean on the west and with Jordan on the east, the modern state of Israel is impressive first of all because of its size. It is very small. Measuring about 150 miles “from Dan to Beersheba,” the Biblical idiom for its north-south extremities (Judges 20:1), it has nevertheless always played a significant role in the political, economic, and cultural life of the ancient world. Situated astride the major highways joining Egypt and Mesopotamia, Palestine commanded a strategic location for military and commercial affairs. Trade between Assyria, Babylon, Persia and Egypt often moved through the lands of Palestine. Too often the larger neighbours were also moving soldiers, chariots and war machines into the area as the power struggles between larger nations waxed and waned. At times in her history, for example, during the uni- fied reigns of David and Solomon, Israel was able to capitalize on her strategic location and gather income from the trade caravans travelling north and south. But more often than not, one of the larger nations was on her soil as an invading army or as a landlord exacting tribute and taxes from the people.
In such a small country one does not expect the vast topographical differences that one finds. Southern Israel (the Judean Wilderness) is dry rocky land that looks like places on the moon. Rough, rocky terrain gives life to a few thistle-like plants, small trees, and tough grass wherever there is any moisture at all. This is the land of the Dead Sea, a large land-locked body of water so filled with salts as to make sinking in it impossible. Around the Dead Sea are the hills and valleys in which Qumran and Masada were built over 2000 years ago. Here the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the caves around Qumran, and here Herod the Great built a magnificent castle for his family and for protection should he ever need it. Summer temperatures climb to 48 degrees Celsius as the brilliant sunshine is reflected off the rocky terrain much like a reflecting oven. With a stark beauty of its own the Judean Wilderness fig- ures prominently in many of the bible stories from both the Old and New Testaments. Even here some rain falls in the winter months and provided water for the hardy settlers who stored it in deep underground cisterns for use during the dry summer months. There are really just two seasons in Israel: summer and winter, the first running from May to October. The moisture laden winds from the Mediterranean and the long season of winter rains nourish olive, fig, orange and date trees on many of the hill slopes of the Judean Wilderness. Fields of grain and vineyards are spread across the intervening valleys.
The Central Highlands have been divided historically into three regions of Galilee, Samaria (Ephraim) and Judah (or Judea). Galilee, in the north, is separated from the central heartland of Samaria by the important east-west Valley of Jezreel, through which passed the major trade route linking the Palestinian coast and Syria. The Valley of Jezreel is a fertile plain drained by the Kishon River and across from which Mount Tabor (1,843 ft.) and Mount Gilboa (1,6987 ft.) face each other. It was at Mt. Tabor that Deborah gathered her armies to defeat Sisera as we are told in the book of Judges.
North of Jerusalem one finds vegetation and a hospitable landscape, and though no well-defined geographical feature separates Samaria from Judah one has to travel but a few miles south or east of Jerusalem or Bethlehem before entering upon the forbidding Judean Wilderness mentioned above. Here the stony, gray hills support no vegetation throughout most of the year. South of Beersheba the Judean Hills flatten out into the barren southern steppe, the Negeb, which merges with the Sinai Desert.
The Jordan valley is the most characteristic geographical feature in Israel. A part of the great geological rift which extends through Syria and continues southward as the Wadi Arabaly it parts the country lengthwise from north to south, and through it the Jordan River descends in its serpentine course. The Jordan’s waters are supplied by springs at the foot of Mount Hebron and empty finally into the Dead Sea. The Jordan supplies three lakes, and one gets a sense of the rapid descent of its waters by contrasting the surface level of the three. Lake Huleh is 223 feet above sea level; the Sea of Galilee is 695 feet below sea level, and to the south, the Dead Sea is 1,285 feet below sea level. From the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea is, as the crane flies, only about 65 miles but three times that distance as the river meanders from north to south.
Claims and counter claims to the lands in the Near East have been an integral part of the history of the area and continue to be a source of conflict. Prime Minister Begin of Israel has argued since 1967 that Israel should hold the Golan Heights and the West Bank of the Jordan because the country is so defined in the Bible. So far Israeli tanks have been able to provide backing for the Biblical argument.
Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Samson, Deborah, and all the other characters from the Old Testament stories live their lives here in this land where water is so precious and where the sand and the stars meet at the horizon on endless clear nights. The Judean Wilderness is just that: a wilderness. To cross it took a wily, tough and hardy people who knew how to survive in an inhospitable land without easy access to food and water. Where rocks are everywhere in the landscape it is no surprise that they play an important and recurring part in the imagery of the stories. When water is so scarce it is not surprising that wells and rivers become central meeting places for bringing together the people and the flocks. Every betrothal scene in the Old Testament is set by a well. Moses’ main concern while leading the tribes through the wilderness is to find water.
For one raised in North America with its vast distances, miles and miles of countryside, forests that go on for miles and miles, it comes as a shock to discover that Bethlehem is but three miles from Jerusalem. In my Sunday School memory the journey from Bethlehem to Jerusalem was a long journey indeed especially when travelling on a donkey. But then my Sunday School memory was filled with all sorts of falsehoods.
One of the most interesting sites is the marvelous Caesarea on the Mediterranean Sea. Built about 2000 years ago, Caesarea still exhibits evidence of the Roman influence, with its baths, its wide streets, and its arena for sporting events. Herod the Great, who figures prominently in the Jesus story, was a rich and powerful king who has to be one of the world’s greatest opportunists. As powerful men struggled for ascendancy in Rome and one “Caesar” after another crossed the Tiber to seek the highest office on earth, Herod was able, by quick maneuvering and clever “politicking” to stay always on the side of the person in power. He snuggled up to the right general time after time and hence was able to keep the power and influence required to rule and exploit the country. He was also interested in architecture, was influenced by the Romans in all things, and built many of the lasting monuments in Jerusalem, Jericho, Masada, and Caesarea.
As Martin Noth puts it:
About 22 miles south of the Carmel solient there was a fairly old,
quite small place called “Strato’s Tower”. This place had been made
over to Herod in the year 30 B.C. with a whole coastal area. On its
site Herod had a magnificent city built at great expense over a
period of twelve years, with artificial harbour installations and with
all the public buildings such as theatre, ampitheatre, and hippo-
drome which formed part of a complete Hellenistic-Roman city. In
the year 10 B.C. it was ceremoniously opened with magnificent
games for which Augustus and Livia gave a considerable sum.
…Herod called the city “Caesarea”….
Caesarea, Bethlehem, Jericho, Nazareth: all are cities we have heard of from Sunday School days on. But the most famous, the most beloved, the most complex and mysterious of cities is Jerusalem. Even before David’s time Jerusalem was an important city, but from David on its place in history was assured. To go there today is to go back in time at least 3,000 years, and it is to visit the holy site for three of the world’s largest religions. Divided into four quarters (the Jewish Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Christian Quarter, and the Arab (Moslem) Quarter), old Jerusalem thrives behind its ancient walls with some of its inhabitants waiting for the Messiah to arrive through the Golden Gate, others waiting for the Second Coming of Christ, and others waiting for Mohammed to reappear. This is the city of Godot. Everyone is waiting. Waiting for Godot. Waiting for God. It contains more temples, mosques, and churches per square foot than any other city in the world. Bullet pocked stone walls are silent testimony to the fact that the religious conflicts of thousands of years are still very much alive. Evidence from the first temple period abounds and one feels while walking in the Old Jerusalem that there are several layers of city below one’s feet. It is here that David chose to build his capital: “In view of the jealousy and bad feeling between the two Kingdoms of Judah and Israel…with the sure instinct of the wise statesman he chose a city on neutral soil between the territories of the two kingdoms. This was Jerusa- lem…” Later Solomon would fortify the city and still later battle after battle would be fought there as it became the holy place for Jews, Moslems, and Christians, and the temporal place to capture if one wanted to control the area. Babylonians, Romans, Crusaders, each motivated by different urges fought and died there to gain control of the city – this magic and bloody city of Jerusalem. The three religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share few things: these are one God, the patriarchs, especially Abraham, and Jerusalem.
To Jews and Moslems one belief is central: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord of our God, the Lord is one” or as Moslems put it, “There is no God but God.”
Both religions demand submission to the will of God – “Islam” means “submission” – and regard fulfillment of his commands as the main road to salvation. Both separately, have a large body of law, a regimen of rite and custom. Jews derive theirs from the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinical traditions of the Mishneh and Talmud. And more, because Judaism is ready to develop and to disagree: it has several strands today, conservatism of belief going, usually, with strictness of observance. But all agree that a covenant with God, sealed at Sinai, selects the people of Israel for special favour – including the “land of milk and honey” – in return for special devotion.
Moslems draw their beliefs from the Koran , the word of God revealed through Mohammed; and from the quite distinct Hadith, traditions of what the Prophet himself said or did. An Arab trader, he received his first “revelation” about 610 A.D. (the start of the Moslem era). Moslems are not free to develop their tradition just because times have changed: “the messenger of God” was the last of the prophets (of whom Jesus was one), and the revelation he received final and complete. Belief in God, prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and charity are the pillars of Islam.
Christianity is the odd religion out. Central to it is not the oneness of God, but his incarnation in the person of His son, Jesus Christ; who, we are told “was crucified, dead and buried. The third day he rose again…he ascended into heaven.” Why? For the redemption of humankind, from the sin it had in- herited from Adam and Eve. In the Christian story it is God’s grace expressed through His only son which promises redemption and victory over death.
The common denominator: Jerusalem. Hence, it is not strange that Jerusalem is, to continue the theatrical image, at the very heart of stage centre, bustling today with Jews, Christians, and Arabs who live, work, pray, and fight together focussed by their beliefs and sharing a complex, violent, and passionate history.
The Bible gives us a particular, a prejudiced, look at this history; though, of course, it is not a history book in the modern sense of history. As Auerbach says, “the Old Testament presents universal history: it begins with the beginning of time, with the creation of the world, and will end with the Last Days, the fulfilling of the Covenant, with which the world will come to an end.” Throughout this “history” some sense of place is essential in understanding the feelings of the characters who are working out their destinies on this particular human stage.
1. Quoted here from “Hopi” a Corporation of Public Broadcasting film produced by New Day Films in New York.
2. William Wordsworth “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, W.W. Norton and Company, Third Editon, page 142.
3. Gerald Graff, Literature Against Itslef, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1979, page 199.
4. Martin Noth, The History of Israel, Harper and Row, New York, 1958, page 415.
 Quoted here from “Hopi” a Corporation of Public Broadcasting film produced by New Day Films in New York.
 William Wordsworth, “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, W.W.Norton and Company, 3rd Edition, page 142.
 Gerald Graff, Literature Against Itself, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1979, page 199.
 Martin Noth, The History of Israel, Harper and Row, New York, 1958, page 415.