Legends before the Bible
Was Judaism the first religion of the early Israelites? Based on archeological evidence, scholars believe our ancestors worshiped more than one deity. According to Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch, the biblical text was written to promote a different idea: that the Israelites were to worship only one God. In “From Gods to God: How the Bible Debunked, Suppressed, or Changed Ancient Myths and Legends” (The Jewish Publication Society), Shinan and Zakovitch show how, before the Bible appeared in written form, numerous oral traditions presented different variations of the tales about the patriarchs and the Israelite kingdoms. Their book searches for the other versions by a method described as literary archeology in order to recover these lost traditions.
Shinan and Zakovitch note that “the official, written version of a story (i.e., the Bible’s version) was meant to dispute views and opinions that were accepted when the story was still making its way orally through the world. By fixing the stories in writing, biblical writers aimed to establish what they deemed to be the ‘correct’ version, the tradition that was worthy of preservation, and to eliminate traditions or viewpoints that they considered unsuitable or impossible to accept.”
However, these writers were unable to eliminate all tales with which they were uncomfortable, although they attempted to mold them into a more acceptable form. Echoes of the missing stories can be found in other Middle Eastern literature or reappear later in everything from rabbinic midrash (stories) to extra-biblical literature such as the “Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.” Searching through this material allows the authors to uncover oral traditions, which they carefully note are not historical fact, but rather unwritten legends that were passed from generation to generation.
“From Gods to God” explores a variety of biblical stories in order to discover these “ancient oral traditions.” For me, the most interesting chapters explore how the biblical writers portray Moses, emphasizing that he was an ordinary man chosen by God. Yet, hints of a different story appear throughout the Bible, which suggest that Moses was, in fact, once treated as an entirely different kind of hero: a semi-divine being like those found in Greek myths. The fact that Moses’ birth deliberately receives little notice when compared to stories of other important biblical figures (for example, Isaac and Samson, both of whose parents learned of the upcoming birth from God or a visiting angel) leads the authors to suggest that the biblical account “was meant to contend with another one: one that brimmed with wonders and miracles.”
The Bible, however, seeks to downplay even those miracles it recounts (for example, when Moses splits the Sea of Reeds and releases water from a rock) by announcing that it was not Moses who performed the deed, but God. Although the biblical text explicitly states that Moses died—thereby making him a mortal, rather than divine—some Jewish traditions claim that Moses ascended to heaven without dying. Shinan and Zakovitch believe the biblical writers found the idea of Moses’ immortality troubling, because they thought people might worship him, rather than God.
Other chapters focus on:
• How the snake featured in the Garden of Eden is a tamer version of an immortal serpent, which fought with God before the creation of the world.
• The two biblical traditions behind the eating of matzah on Passover. Are we commanded to remember the bread of affliction our ancestors ate while they were slaves, or does matzah serve to remind us of the unleavened bread they consumed while hurriedly leaving Egypt?
• Why the original story of the Golden Calf treated its creation not as a sin, but “as symbolic of the presence of Israel’s God,” something no different from “the cherubs, those winged creatures that served as God’s chariot... in the Temple in Jerusalem.”
• The question of whether the law was given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai or in the land of Israel after Joshua made the people put away their foreign idols.
• A curious note in the book of Chronicles that suggests Jacob’s son, Ephraim, never journeyed to Egypt, putting into doubt whether or not an Exodus ever occurred.
• The question of who really killed Goliath: King David or little-known hero Elhanan, son of Jarre.
• The real reason that Reuben slept with Bilhah, the concubine of his father, Jacob.
Shinan and Zakovitch succeed in their aim “to open a window through which readers might glimpse traditions that existed before the Bible came into being,” and the strategies the biblical writers used to adopt and redefine them “in order to make them suit the lofty ideals of monotheism, to elevate them to the morals and value system the Bible sought to install in its readers.”
Some chapters are more convincing than others, but all were intriguing. Readers interested in the legends of ancient Israelites or examining the possibilities of the biblical text from a different viewpoint will enjoy exploring the lessons of “From Gods to God.”