Imagining the Life of the First Jew
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Bible is the great book of biography. Biblical writers, in other words, recounted the lives and works of others based on oral history, eyewitness testimony, gossip, memoirs – in short, the whole panoply of sources that biographers customarily collect, collate, and coalesce into a narrative.
Does the biographer believe what she (David Rosenberg thinks one of the important authors of the Bible was a woman) reports and assimilates into a story? Perhaps, but biographies are books – sacred or profane – and no biographer is so simple as to presume that her account is literally true. Not even, “And the Lord said,” is literal. On the contrary, it is literary, a writer’s effort to evoke the ineffable.
The inability to accept the Bible and other sacred books as metaphor is where fundamentalists go wrong. They do not realize they are reading texts. But not only fundamentalists are at fault. Anthropologists, archeologists et al. err in so far as they do not recognize the figurative nature of literature, of which biography, as Samuel Johnson averred, is a supreme constituent.
Abraham, Mr. Rosenberg shows in his magnificent biography, “Abraham: The First Historical Biography” (Basic Books, 352 pages, $36.95), is not only the first Jew but also the first biographical subject, significant not because he was a king or a conqueror but in and of himself. To dismiss Abraham’s encounter with Yahweh as a “myth”of the supernatural, Mr. Rosenberg contends, is to miss the point of biblical biography, which is the nexus of the natural and supernatural, a terrain the biographer must respect, because it is the biographical subject’s domain.
To ask of the biblical biographer, “Do you literally believe in your story?” is futile.The biographer’s assembled text has a life of its own, engendered by the biographer’s sifting of sources. Abraham is not, in Mr.Rosenberg’s view,a legendary figure but a person who actually lived. He is not merely a “fiction” created by writers establishing a religion but a flesh-and-blood man who left records of himself and his culture, lost for millennia but now gradually being excavated from what once was Sumer and its surroundings. What has seemed like “myth,” in other words, is simply a history that has been buried. Those who originally read about Abraham – a small, but literate audience – would have known about him in the same way as, say, we know about our founding fathers.
The Bible, like any other book, and Abraham, like any biographical subject, are projections of the writerly sensibility. This is not to deny the divine, which is by definition outside natural confines, but rather to say the nature of the divine can never be literally appre hended in a book.
Abraham, Mr. Rosenberg emphasizes, is the product of four narratives by biblical authors whom scholars have designated as J (the literary genius Mr. Rosenberg and Harold Bloom identified as female in their 1990 collaboration, “The Book of J”), X, E, and P. It is essential to know about the lives of these original authors, Mr. Rosenberg insists, because “awareness of them as literate human beings illuminates what was written as no doctrine or literary approach can do by itself. Without the authors, we have no cultural equivalent for divine inspiration – that is, how an individual is wounded and inspired by history, culture, and language.”
Abraham started with the Sumerian theater of the gods – in which people literally took out carved representations of deities and played with them and then put them away for the night as children do toys – and instigated a new religion in which a playful Yahweh supplants the gods of declining Sumer that Abraham had to leave behind for a new promised land. As Mr. Rosenberg imagines it, Abraham’s trek away from Sumer is itself so interwined with the establishment of a new culture and a new religion that the question of divine inspiration and human motivation becomes, if not indistinguishable, then so of a piece that God and man speaking to each other becomes the only way to represent the profundity of his experience.
Mr. Rosenberg’s exploration of Abraham as a Sumerian emigrant is spellbinding. That Yahweh could talk to Abraham just as dolls talk to children, or as adults react to literature as if it were life itself (laughing, crying, and otherwise carrying on about characters who, the literalist would say, do not exist) was not merely “natural” but inevitable, Mr. Rosenberg’s account implies, since Sumerians spoke with their doll-gods every day.
Abraham’s story is about the ability of the individual to “daydream and override reality.” Mr. Rosenberg calls us latter day Sumerians, because, like them, we have great libraries of learning and a commitment to writing, and we yet yearn for the expression of what is beyond words:
The Abraham of history presented a sensibility not unlike our own; he was a man who had to exist precisely because we exist in relation to his worldliness. At some point, a man or woman had to reconcile religion and culture. Abraham’s life and death represent the first time that religion, governed by the creator-God Yahweh, informed a secular culture in stories of truth and justice. And at the same time, a secular Hebraic culture joined religion in constructing a cosmic theater within the narrative art of the Hebrew Bible.
What makes Mr. Rosenberg’s account so fascinating is that while exact examples of the Hebraic culture he evokes are still to be discovered, he provides a worldview of interaction between humankind and God that suffuses the Bible with new life as both religion and history. In such paragraphs, Mr. Rosenberg reveals his agenda, which is nothing less than to re-orient how we think of the Bible and its authors:
Yet modern scholarship has focused upon restoring the social and political context – at the expense of the cultural. It has asked what the Bible is used for, what its political and moral motives are, but it has scanted its cultural origins. Even the literary studies that narrow the focus on priestly “redactors” of the Bible remystify the text by ignoring Hebraic culture.
Like a good biographer, Mr. Rosenberg wants to know who wrote the work and why. Where did the subject come from? Where was he going? What were his family and community like? How did it all influence what he said and did?
Approaching the Bible as biography and as the work of biographers has yielded, in Mr. Rosenberg’s case, one of the most thrilling and perceptive triumphs of imagination and scholarship I have ever had the pleasure to read.