Once upon a time there was a man called Abraham. He lived in Chaldea near the city of Ur. One day a god called Yahweh came to him and told him to leave. Abraham listened to Yahweh and left. He moved to Haran in Mesopotamia and from there to the land of the Canaanites. Being a rich shepherd, he traveled with many servants. In Canaan, Yahweh promised the land to him and to his descendants. Abraham promised to obey Yahweh in all things. When his wife, Sarah, bore him a son, Isaac, at the age of ninety, Abraham was very happy. Isaac in turn fathered Esau and Jacob. With the double name of Jacob and Israel, Jacob in turn fathered twelve sons. From these twelve sons came the entire people of Israel, also known as the Hebrews.
Jacob and his twelve sons went down into Egypt. In time they were enslaved by a wicked king. After four hundred years Yahweh decided to rescue them. He chose a Hebrew named Moses to lead them back to Canaan. Two million strong, the Hebrews departed Egypt to march to the Promised Land. Along the way they stopped at Yahweh’s mountain, Mount Sinai. There Yahweh gave them rules and regulations to live by. After forty years they reached Canaan. Moses died. His successor, Joshua, led the Hebrews across the Jordan River and conquered the land in one fell swoop. The Hebrews settled down on the land and began to worship the gods of Canaan. An angry Yahweh punished them with disunity and enemies. The worst enemy was the Philistines. In time, the Hebrews united under the shepherd king David, defeated the Philistines and became an independent nation.
This is the biblical story of the origins of the Jewish people. Wherever Jews and Christians are to be found, this story is popular and familiar. It is so popular and so familiar that it has been incorporated into the patriotism and the holidays of the Jewish and Christian worlds.
While the story may be familiar, charming and even inspirational, it suffers from a major problem. It is simply not true. There is no evidence— beyond the text of the Bible—that most of these events took place, or that most of these people really existed.
If I tell you a story about a man named Uncle Sam who had fifty children named Massachusetts, Virginia, Missouri, California… you would laugh at the absurdity of the tale. But when a similar story appears in the Bible about Abraham, who is described as the ancestor of many nations, millions of people abandon their reason and embrace its credibility. Biblical tales are not so much descriptions of real events as they are propaganda for political and religious arguments which took place many centuries after the presumed events took place. If they have historical value, it is because they are clues to what was going on in Jewish life at the time the author of the story lived. The story of Abraham has less to do with 1800 BCE, when Abraham presumably lived, than with 700 BCE when his story was created.
Biblical mythology revolves around the central figure of Yahweh, a god whose devotees claim that he is the only God worthy of the name. In the biblical narrative, Yahweh precedes the Jewish people and is responsible for their formation through his covenant treaty with Abraham. He continues to manage the Jewish experience through thick and thin. Even when the Jews misbehave, he does not abandon them. According to the biblical writers, Yahweh and the Jewish people have been together from the beginning of Jewish history.
But, in reality, Yahweh, as a popular God, did not show up until much later. Even when Moses and David appeared, it seems that they spent much of their religious time with many gods other than Yahweh. The same is true of their Israelite contemporaries. The early history of Israel is a time of comfortable polytheism in which the life of the Hebrew shepherd and farmer was tied up with the gods of the Canaanites and other Semitic neighbors. Yahweh was around, but he was competing with other members of the pantheon for Jewish attention. The Hebrews were as yet unaware of an exclusive intimacy.
For almost five hundred years, the Jews grew up as a nation without Yahweh at the center. More important to their early story was the place where they lived, the neighbors they had and their own struggle for survival. The Jews, like all other people, have a human context for their birth.
Mythology is the story of the gods. If you believe that the gods intervene actively in human affairs, then mixing mythology with history is a valid enterprise. But if you do not, the mixing becomes an obstacle to the discovery of truth.
What would Jewish history be like if the mythology were fully dis-missed? Over the last two hundred years many scholars have attempted to deal with the Jews as a natural phenomenon.1 Some of them were Bible critics, some of them were secular historians, some of them were archeologists—all of them were united by their commitment to science as the best method for the discovery of the truth. Science simply means responsibility to the evidence of controlled investigation. Supernatural powers, supernatural beings and supernatural purposes have no place in the scientific perspective.
Over the last two centuries a great deal of evidence has been accumulated to create an alternative Jewish story. The origins of the Jewish people, the origins of the Bible, the evolution of priestly Judaism, the development of Talmudic Judaism, the realities of Hellenistic Jews, the emergence of antisemitism, the adaptation of the Jews to the Christian and Muslim worlds—all of these important chapters in Jewish history which have been distorted by the lenses of mythology and theological apologetics—now have alternative stories. In some ways the new alternatives are less roman-tic because the gods have been reduced to ideas in human minds and their passionate and whimsical agendas are absent from the tale. In other ways the new stories are more interesting and exciting because they are not merely the repetition of familiar religious doctrine. Flesh and blood people of the narrative are no longer the passive victims of divine manipulation, but rather the authors and creators of the events themselves.
It is not true that the real history of the Jews has been around for a long time and has been available to anyone who wants to study it. The real story of the Jews is only now emerging and confronts resistance from the de-fenders of the tradition. Since so many traditional stories have been woven into the fabric of Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays, literature and symbols, many people who are open to scientific change in less emotionally charged areas of their lives offer stiff opposition to this new telling of the Jewish experience.
The new history is full of surprises. It may be the case that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are purely legendary. It may be the case that the Exodus from Egypt is a theological fabrication. It may be the case that the fundamental cultural influence on early Jewish life was not monotheistic and Mosaic but polytheistic and Canaanite. It may also be the case that the biblical prophets recommended a life style that was profoundly at odds with the economic and social direction of Jewish history. In fact, the sacred literature of the Jews was unsympathetic, from the beginning, to the mercantile role of the Jews in Western history.
Jewish history is tied up with the theology of three very powerful religious systems. Judaism and Christianity, and Islam to a lesser degree, can-not separate their sacred events from Jewish events. The Jews, as the Chosen People, are beyond the normal patterns of human development. Jewish experience, as a theological lesson, is a witness to supernatural power and divine intervention. In the religious context, Jews become more than Jews. They become agents of God, sustained by mysterious forces that can neither be described nor scrutinized. For millions of believers, Jewish history is more than history. It is divine revelation.
Many historians have difficulty dealing with the Jews as a normal people who function in the natural world in which most other nations seem to exist. Because the mythology of the Bible is so familiar to the reading public, mythical figures like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are simply accepted as real. If the mythology were Chinese, an objective and skeptical approach would be more easily accepted. There is a tendency in the Jewish and Christian worlds to defend the indefensible because the indefensible is our very own.
Traditional history may be a denial of what the Jews really were and are. Monotheism and the Chosen People idea may not be the most important beliefs that defined Jewish power and suffering. Ideology and faith may not be the major reasons why Jews were assaulted and persecuted. The Jews have been, and continue to be, a “provocative” people. Jewish apologetics is comfortable attributing that provocation to “superior” religious and ethical ideas. But modern antisemitism has given the lie to this interpretation. The economic role of the Jew may have been more important than the theological one. The patriarchal, priestly and prophetic periods of Jewish history may not be the “Golden Age” of Jewish achievement. The present age may be an alternative candidate.
The contemporary Jew-hater is not provoked by Jewish monotheism and Jewish ethics. He is provoked by the economic power which he attributes to the Jews and by the modernist ideas (atheism, secularism and Communism) which he accuses the Jews of fostering.
The economic role of the Jews in Western history is not a role that makes Jews comfortable, especially because the power of the Jews has been exaggerated. Jews are more comfortable with shepherd ancestors like Abraham and Isaac than with craftsmen, merchants and moneylenders. But shepherds had very little to do with most of Jewish history—and merchants and money were omnipresent. It may be the case that the Jews, as the pre-cursors of capitalism and an urban society, may be more important than the Jews as the inventors of a new theology. If we shift our focus, then, the ancient period of Jewish history may turn out to be the prelude to more dramatic accomplishments. Modern times, with all of its problematic antisemitism, may emerge as the heyday of Jewish significance.