How the Authors of the Bible Spun Triumph from Defeat

The Moshiach came to Madison Avenue this summer. All over a not particularly Jewish neighborhood, posters of the bearded, Rembrandtesque Rebbe Schneerson appeared, mucilaged to every light post and bearing the caption “Long Live the Lubavitcher Rebbe King Messiah forever!” This was, or ought to have been, trebly astonishing. First, the rebbe being urged to a longer life died in 1994, and the new insistence that he was nonetheless the Moshiach skirted, as his followers tend to do, the question of whether he might remain somehow alive. Second, the very concept of a messiah recapitulates a specific national hope of a small and oft-defeated nation several thousand years ago, and spoke originally to the local Judaean dream of a warrior who would lead his people to victory over the Persians, the Greeks, and, latterly, the Roman colonizers. And, third, the disputes surrounding the rebbe from Crown Heights are strikingly similar to those which surrounded the rebbe Yeshua, or Jesus, when his followers first pressed his claim: was this messianic pretension a horrific blasphemy or a final fulfillment? Yet there it was, another Jewish messiah, on a poster, in 2023.

The messianism on our street corners is a reminder of Judaism’s peculiarly long-lived legacy. Who can now tell Jupiter Dolichenus from Jupiter Optimus Maximus, two cult divinities once venerated at magnificent temples in Rome? But we all know what a messiah is, and some people wonder if the Brooklyn rabbi might be he. The pagans who dominated the world lost their gods when they lost their empires and saw them swept into myth by the monotheistic religions spawned from the Jewish one. And the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, is, perhaps, unique on the planet inasmuch as it is, as the scholar Jacob L. Wright suggests in his new book, “Why the Bible Began” (Cambridge), so entirely a losers’ tale. The Jews were the great sufferers of the ancient world—persecuted, exiled, catastrophically defeated—and yet the tale of their special selection, and of the demiurge who, from an unbeliever’s point of view, reneged on every promise and failed them at every turn, is the most admired, influential, and permanent of all written texts. Wright’s purpose is to explain, in a new way, how and why this happened.

The easiest explanation is that it happened this way because that’s the way God wanted it to happen. But this does not lessen the need to say how it happened. Or, as Edward Gibbon wrote, in one of the most perfect of sentences, explaining his ambition to provide a rational account for the rise of Christianity, “As truth and reason seldom find so favourable a reception in the world, and as the wisdom of Providence frequently condescends to use the passions of the human heart, and the general circumstances of mankind, as instruments to execute its purpose, we may still be permitted, though with becoming submission, to ask, not indeed what were the first, but what were the secondary causes?”

The “secondary cause” for the Bible’s triumph, in Wright’s view, can be put simply: losers rule. More people remember the record-losing ’62 Mets than the pennant-winning ’62 Yankees. Division and defeat, Wright explains, made the Bible memorable. Successive expulsions and exiles forced the Jewish poets and prophets, like Red Sox fans of yore, to imagine defeat as a virtue, dispossession as a gift, failure today as a promise of victory tomorrow. Defeat usually compelled other ancient peoples, as it does us, to invent rationalizations for what happened. (Yes, we failed to pacify Afghanistan, but nobody could have done so.) In the face of regular defeat, however, the Jewish scribes had to ask whether defeat wasn’t God’s will in the first place, and so opened mankind unto a new contemplative possibility: that spiritual success and failure were not to be judged on worldly terms. Nice guys, or, anyway, pious guys, finish last and should be proud of their position.

The Hebrew Bible was mostly composed—composed, recomposed, and redacted, by many hands at many times in many places—during the millennium before the Common Era, and the defeats endured by the Jews, having settled, probably peaceably, in the Egyptian-dominated land they called Canaan, are still astonishing to itemize. The most significant of these took place in the middle centuries of that millennium. First, the Assyrians, around 720 B.C.E., conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and deported and enslaved its people. Then, around 600 B.C.E., the Babylonians—led by the impressively named Nebuchadnezzar—laid siege to Jerusalem and ended the southern Kingdom of Judah and perhaps its temple as well, resulting in another massive forced migration. So began the “Babylonian captivity,” which lasted, by legend, until the Babylonians, in turn, were conquered by the Persian King Cyrus, who issued an edict, in 569 B.C.E., allowing the Jews to go back to Jerusalem. After that came the Seleucid Greeks, who ran things briefly, only to be kicked aside by the Romans, who were running everything in those days. It was in putting down the First Jewish Revolt, in 70 C.E., that the Romans laid waste to Jerusalem, destroyed its temple, and saw its people once again scattered, this time for good.

All these historical details are controversial: the mass expulsion of the Jews to Babylon may have involved only a select number of the élite; the edict of Cyrus may have been, as Wright suspects, a retrospective invention giving a particular name to a more general Persian practice of religious toleration. Even the First Temple, the so-called Temple of Solomon, may have been nothing more than a tabernacle tent, turned by retrospective memory into a marvel of cedar and gold and twisted columns. Yet a legacy of losses seems hard to deny.

The divisions that Wright speaks of are less familiar, and—this is perhaps the chief originality of his book—just as decisive. The southern Kingdom of Judah and the northern Kingdom of Israel, which we might have imagined as agreeable sister kingdoms, were, in the centuries around 900-700 B.C.E., warring adversaries, though a single deity, one of many names, was shared between them. The oldest deity, El—“Israel” is usually interpreted to mean “One who struggles with God”—got replaced over time by the unnameable deity Yahweh, who originally had a female companion, and then by a more metaphysical maker, Elohim. Wright stresses the extent of the disruption that occurred when Israel was subjugated by the Assyrians while Judah maintained self-rule for more than a century afterward. (A blink in Biblical time, perhaps, but it’s an interval like the one that separates us from the Civil War.) It was during this period, he argues persuasively, that a fundamental break happened, leaving a contrapuntal discord in the Bible between the southern “Palace History” and the “People’s History” of the dispossessed northern scribes. The Palace History conjured up Saul and David and Solomon and the rest, still comfortably situated within a “statist,” dynastic Levantine court; the People’s History, by contrast, was aggressively indifferent to monarchs, real or imagined, and concentrated instead on popular figures, Moses and Miriam, the patriarchs and the prophets. The Jewish tradition of celebrating non-dynastic figures of moral or charismatic force—a practice mostly unknown, it would seem, in the rest of the ancient world—begins in the intersection of dispossessed Israelites and complacent Judaeans.

The northern and the southern narratives were, Wright says, constantly being entangled and reëntangled by the Biblical writers, as a kind of competition in interpolation. So, for instance, Aaron the priest is interpolated latterly as Moses’ brother in order to align the priestly court-bound southern caste with the charismatic northern one. Again and again, what seems like uniform storytelling is revealed to be an assemblage of fragments, born from defeat and midwifed by division.

This process is perhaps not as strange as Wright seems to think, and not even unknown within the nearer confines of American history. The defeated Southerners of our Civil War also made a popular myth-history out of very different material from that of their Northern brethren. The Southern scribes, too, favored non-dynastic folk heroes, such as Davy Crockett, and fictional romantic figures, such as Rhett Butler, over the Presidential luminaries whose names bedeck Northern cities. The compass directions are reversed, north to south, but one is very much a people’s narrative, the other a palace narrative. Indeed, the Western, that peculiarly American contribution to the world’s store of epic and saga, often depends on the tale of a defeated Confederate at large to enforce virtue, someone whose heroic individualism is counterpoised with the superficial discipline of the federal troops. The beloved figure of the outlaw, still haloed by Bob Dylan and others, with Jesse James (a onetime Confederate guerrilla) at its center, is that of a Southern soldier who won’t give up after defeat, so that he crosses into a subversive and (in Wright’s terms) an anti-statist role. A people’s history is not always an admirable one.

Wright is both an analyst of Biblical texts and an apologist for them. His analysis is often brilliant and persuasive, leading us to see ideological fractures in texts that we thought we knew. And though much of the textual history will be familiar to scholars who have gone deep into the weeds, or the bulrushes, Wright does a terrific job of bringing it forward for his readers. He explains, for instance, that the great opening pages of Genesis are an interpolation of the Babylonian period, and a conscious, studio-notes-style rewrite of a violent Babylonian creation myth in which a female spirit is slain by a male one, and only then the world begun. Against this, the Jewish writers post the more placid, word-centered creation tale of Elohim; in a culture where words are all that is left as weapons, it’s words that make the universe.

“North and South never managed to overcome their rivalry,” Wright tells us, identifying traces of it everywhere in the text. Genesis, he stresses, exists on several sedimentary levels. One level focusses on the doings of the Creator; another gives us a more familial version of the creation story. This story, rooted not in Elohim and his acts but in Abraham and his progeny, emphasizes continuity, and the idea that the Israelites had always lived in the promised land. The Mosaic account, in Exodus, is a sharply different and imperial alternative. “Whereas the patriarchs make peace with the inhabitants of Canaan,” Wright observes, “the Exodus-Conquest Account presents the newly liberated nation taking the country by force.” In his view, the tension between the “ecumenical and conciliatory” political model and the “particularist and militarist” model defines the character of the whole. At the other end of the Bible, Wright, having so neatly delineated the wars between the north, which was centered on Samaria, and the south, which was centered on Jerusalem, makes our encounter with the southern fable of the Good Samaritan suddenly hair-raising. Revisiting Jesus’ tale about a traveller, beset by robbers, who was left untouched by a Levite (i.e., his own southern people) but rescued by a kind Samaritan (i.e., a northerner), we realize that the parable contains within it a thousand years of contentious Jewish history. One people, divided in two, should again be one people.

As an apologist, Wright suggests, less persuasively, that the Jewish stories have a special virtue for having been forged in the smithy of suffering. “One cannot help but wonder: if neighboring peoples had not only admitted defeat but also made it central to a new collective identity, as the biblical scribes did, would they too have produced corpora of literature that continued to be transmitted for generations?” he asks. Yet the Judaean cause isn’t necessarily vindicated by the scale of the suffering, or by the lyricism of its lamentations, since the essential lesson conveyed isn’t the lesson one would wish for—the thought that nobody should conquer other people or throw them into slavery and exile—so much as the thought that it was bad luck it happened to us. The Lamentations can be universalized, but they are limited, in the first instance, to us and ours.

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