Off the Shelf: The “why” of the Bible

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

People ask a variety of questions about the biblical text. Some focus on the stories, offering commentaries meant to teach religious lessons. Others look at the book from a scholarly point of view. They want to know who wrote particular sections or how the scribes brought together the disparate parts. Readers who love studying the biblical text often welcome these different approaches because they offer lessons that enhance the reading of the text, in addition to presenting different ways to think about Jewish history. Those interested in the history of the Bible should be intrigued by Jacob L. Wright’s fascinating “Why the Bible Began: An Alternative History of Scripture and Its Origins” (Cambridge University Press). Wright, a professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University, believes the Bible was not originally a religious document, but rather one that sought to bring together two defeated kingdoms – those of Israel and Judah – as a people with a common past, creating and molding their stories into a shared history of what were once two separate nations. 

It’s not easy to summarize the more than 470 pages of text in “Why the Bible Began” because there is so much interesting material. The question that underlies Wright’s study is why the biblical text not only survived over the centuries when the writings of other cultures of ancient times disappeared, but how it remains relevant to numerous communities in contemporary times. He sees the text as focusing on defeat and conquest, which makes it different from other ancient texts, many of which we only know about through archeological discoveries. Those texts focus on the success of the leader of the country, particularly on how the leader vanquished neighboring cities or kingdoms. Wright also notes how few texts have been found that focus on ancient religious practices: those legends were passed down verbally, but even the few found don’t offer the specifics of religious practices the way the Bible does.

According to Wright, the authors of the works that later were gathered together as the Bible were professional scribes. They weren’t looking for their names to be known, but, rather, to transform their national narrative at a time their nation state no longer existed. They sought to have former subjects of their kingdom see themselves as a people, rather than as citizens of a particular country. But this development slowly occurred over time. The northern Kingdom of Israel was first destroyed and many of its scribes fled to the southern Kingdom of Judea. Their writings form many of the early sections of the Bible, in addition to those that condemn the institution of kingship. When the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed, the documents of the scribes from both kingdoms became combined. However, in their writings, the southern scribes retained the idea that the kingdom of David was blessed and would return someday. Wright sees both these ideas – the condemnation of having any king other than God and the holiness of the Davidic dynasty – presented in the Bible as we know it. 

The purpose of the Bible was to create a history for two disparate groups by acting as if they had a common ancestor, connecting Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as family, rather than seeing their stories as those of three unrelated people, as Wright believes they originally were. It portrayed this group of people as having existed before there were nations ruled by kings – meaning that they could also continue to exist when no kingdoms remained. This made their connection portable: they did not need to all live in the same place in order to remain part of this extended family. 

According to Wright, while this people could no longer celebrate space (as in a physical kingdom), they could celebrate time, making Shabbat a key to their peoplehood. Wright believes that Shabbat was originally only celebrated once a month on the full moon. At that time, it was linked to the seasons and the harvest. However, after the defeat of Judah, it was reinvented as a weekly day of rest connected to the creation story: this moved its origin back in time and connected it to God’s work. Of greatest importance is that Shabbat was also portable: it could be observed anywhere. Peoplehood now focused on personal actions, for example, ritual practice and behavior, rather than on territory or political and military actions. 

Wright also analyzes many of the stories found in the biblical text. In addition to showing how the patriarchs were not related, he writes of how many of the stories originally made no mention of God: the text makes sense without the religious context. However, offering a family history with a God who cares about them might have helped those who felt lost without citizenship in a kingdom. This common history – this family connection – created a sense of belonging. It was a lack of this connection that caused most ancient nations to disappear; once they were defeated, their national story – of conquering kings who were blessed by their gods – was no longer relevant to their lives. The tales of the Bible, however, focused on loss and defeat. This narrative managed to keep the group alive and connected through the centuries.

The author also discusses the Writings section of the Bible. Of particular interest are his thoughts on the book of Esther, which shows the success of the biblical endeavor. The evil Haman sees the Jews not as citizens of another kingdom, but as a people with their own specific customs (although what those customs are is never made clear in the book) who live in Shushan. These different customs are why they stand out and capture Haman’s attention. For Wright, Esther serves as the archetype of a new Jewish identity: she is the cunning Jew who uses her wits, rather than force, to save her people.

“Why the Bible Began” is an impressive and important work. Readers don’t have to agree with all of Wright’s ideas in order to find his work intriguing and challenging. The prose is easy for the non-scholar to read, although they may be overwhelmed at times by the sheer amount of material and theories offered. However, anyone interested in the history of the Bible will find themselves eagerly turning its pages.