Let me begin with three quotations. One is from Marvin Pope's introduction to his edition of the Book of Job in the Anchor Bible: “The Bible cannot be properly studied or understood apart from its background and environment which comprises the whole ancient Near East.” The second is from Stanley Cook's Introduction to the Bible (1945): “The study of the Bible involves some fourteen or more centuries of ancient history: it enters into studies of myth and legend, religion, custom and law, prehistoric man and ancient history, archaeology and the monuments, anthropology and sociology, primitive and scientific ideas of the universe, men's thoughts about things, and the validity both of their ways of thinking and of our own.” The third is from Erasmus: “By identifying the new learning with heresy, you make orthodoxy synonymous with ignorance.”
A book which for many centuries was seen by adherents of two great religions as the true Word of God is now seen to be a collection of diverse works of very different dates intimately related to (as well as in some significant respects interestingly different from) a great mass of other literature and mythology emanating from the same part of the world which produced that book. But we now go further than that. It is not only “the whole ancient Near East” which is involved. We can turn to Comparative Folklore, as Sir James Frazer did, in order to throw light on beliefs and customs recorded in the Bible, and so bring in the Maoris of New Zealand, the Pelew Islanders, the aboriginal Kurnai tribe of Gippsland in Victoria, Australia, the Papagos of southwestern Arizona, the Cora Indians, the Chiriguanos of Bolivia, and any number of African, Indian, and classical and medieval European legends and ceremonies, not to mention English nursery-rhymes, Scottish ballads, and contemporary superstitions.
If we repudiate this knowledge as an aid to the study of the Bible we are obscurantists; if we say that esteem for the Bible as a unique source of divinely revealed law, history, and prophecy cannot tolerate the; use of such knowledge we come up against Erasmus's warning; yet if we use that knowledge impartially the Bible emerges as deeply and essentially a human document, illustrating differing stages of belief and the persistence or modification or transmogrification of all kinds of primitive superstitions and customs and rituals in a way that rules out sudden revelation or consistent adherence by its authors to a single, homogeneous body of beliefs and practices.
One can, of course, preserve a religious respect for the Bible by seeing it as the repository of some sort of “progressive revelation,” though I am never sure how far the arguments generally used in developing this position are not equally applicable to any great literature. Theodor Gaster, who is nothing if not sophisticated in his handling of the biblical text, and who combines Hebrew scholarship with wide learning in comparative religion and (let me spell this with capitals, since he always does) Comparative Folklore, prefaces his encyclopedia of analogies between biblical passages and extra-biblical folklore and custom1 with an introduction in which he tries to play down the significance for religion of these parallels:
It is not to be supposed that when ancient mythological stories are used in the Old Testament they were necessarily interpreted by the Scriptural writers within their primal frame of reference. To name but one significant point of difference, mythological characters (like demons and dragons) which originally represented independent powers in a world not yet regarded as a systematic cosmos have somehow to be subsumed to the overarching authority of Yahweh and to be depicted as elements within the economy of his dispensation. But it is just this plasticity which gives the old myths their continuing validity and relevance, and which makes the mythic mode of expression the supreme vehicle for the living Word of God. In many and divers ways has God spoken to our fathers . . . and still speaks.
So how does this work? Consider Psalm 29, a terrific description of a storm, which is included, for some reason, in the Sabbath Eve service (the reason given in the Talmud is that the seven “voices of the Lord” mentioned in the Psalm correspond to the seven Sabbath-benedictions, but this is a blatant piece of post-hoc rationalization). As long ago as 1935 H. L. Ginsberg presented this psalm as a Yahwistic adaptation of an older Canaanite hymn to Baal, the storm-god, and this is now widely accepted.
In the Poem of Baal, the story is told that god, after defeating the monster Yam (Sea) was acclaimed king of the gods and how, duly installed in an especially constructed palace, he received the adoration of his divine subjects. The Poem of Baal, like its Mesopotamian and Hittite counterparts, was in all probability the cult-myth of a seasonal festival, its main episodes corresponding to the main stages of the ritual. In both cases the pattern is the same: the god of the weather defeats a rebellious dragon or monster, thereby acquires dominion and is installed in a new palace: and in both cases the occasion is marked by the recitation of a paean rehearsing his glory and prowess.
Thus Gaster, who concludes that “Psalm 29 is a form of the ritual laudation of the victorious god which formed part of the seasonal pantomime of the New Year Festival.” But he goes on:
It must be emphasized, however, that this in no way implies that the seasonal pantomime actually obtained in official Israelitic cultus, as has been so frequently supposed. All that we are here suggesting is that certain hymnodic patterns, derived from these earlier usages, survived in literary convention. . . . At the same time, we would not deny that the survival often involved more than a mere persistence of forms. Evidence is increasing daily that many of the psalms were conscious and deliberate Yahwizations of current “pagan” compositions; and we believe that this was the case in the present instance.
The psalm opens with the lines habu layhwh bene 'elim, habu layhwh kabod wa'oz, which literally means “Ascribe to Yahweh, sons of gods, Ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength.” “The psalm begins,” explains Gaster, “with an invocation to the bene elim or members of the pantheon, to pay homage to Yahweh.” But if elim are really gods, members of the pantheon inferior to Yahweh, then the psalm is a polytheistic poem. Gaster is quite specific in this interpretation. “These lesser gods are invited to ascribe unto Yahweh ‘the glory of His name.’” And we are told that in the Babylonian poem Enuma Elish “it is the company of the gods who render homage to Marduk after his victory.” So that is what is really going on, even though of course the “Yahwization” of the psalm means that we must interpret the sons of god as the angelic host. “The angels, standing in God's immediate presence and watching the storm, are called upon by the poet to praise Him whose glory is seen in the storm.” That is the explanation not of Gaster but of the late Rabbi J. H. Hertz, who was Chief Rabbi of the Ashkenazim in Britain at the same time that Gaster's father was Haham of the Sephardim.
Let me quote another Orthodox Jewish account of this psalm: “A thrilling description of a storm—a verbal symphony in which the shattering peals of thunder, reverberating round the hills, are reproduced in words with realistic effect. A Hebrew poet, however, could not rest satisfied with a word picture. His religious genius induced him to interpret the thunderclaps as the majestic voice of God” (A. Cohen, The Psalms, The Soncino Books of the Bible).
But if the psalm is a Hebrew adaptation of a Canaanite hymn to Baal, the storm-god, then the imagination which equated the voice of thunder with the voice of God (the most memorable part of the poem) does not derive from the Hebrew religious genius at all; that genius is occupied in “Yahwizing” the psalm, and even then this is not done completely, for the phrase “sons of god” (which means simply “O gods”), even though we translate it “sons of the mighty” or in some such way, retains disturbing polytheistic overtones as of course do so many similar phrases in the Hebrew Bible. I am not questioning the significance of the parallel between the hymn to Baal and the psalm as we have it. I am suggesting that the religious and ethical significance of the process of “Yahwization” requires much more detailed study, and that if a process such as is apparently involved in Psalm 29 reveals, as Gaster says in his introduction, “the living Word of God,” I want to know exactly what is meant by that phrase and exactly what was God's relationship to the pagan author of the original hymn.
I do not make this point out of mischief. I am really interested to learn how Jews can continue to regard the Hebrew Bible (I prefer this phrase to the Old Testament, which has unacceptable theological implications as well as representing a confusion between two meanings of the Greek word diatheke) as a unique source of divine revelation in view of what we now know about its development. Orthodoxy—at least European Jewish orthodoxy—solves the problem by taking the risk that Erasmus talked of: you will find no mention of Canaanite hymns to Baal in Gateshead Yeshiva or even in Jews' College, London. Gaster's father, like mine, would apply linguistic and comparative scholarship to any field except to the sacred biblical text.
I had occasion the other day to look up the article on “Gipsies” in the great eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It was written by Rabbi Dr. Moses Gaster, the Haham, president of the Folklore Society of England, formerly lecturer at Oxford in Slavonic and Byzantine literature, an authority on Rumanian popular literature, and an Orthodox—I had almost written grimly Orthodox—Jew in the strictest rabbinical tradition.
Leaving aside the doubtful passages in the Byzantine writers where the Athinganoi are mentioned, the first appearance of Gipsies in Europe cannot be traced positively further back than the beginning of the 14th century. Some have believed that a passage in what was erroneously called the Rhymed Version of Genesis of Vienna, but which turns out to be the work of a writer before the year 1122, and found only in the Klagenfurt manuscript, referred to the Gipsies. . . .
This is from Theodor Gaster's father's classic article on the Gipsies. But the combination of searching and free-flowing scholarship-moving freely among linguistic, bibliographical, and historical and folkloristic elements—could never have been applied by him with that freedom, and that free rein given to curiosity, to the text of the Bible, and certainly not to the Pentateuch, carried around and kissed weekly by the Orthodox as the veritable word of God.
So Theodor gaster comes by his combination of scholarly interests honestly, but, unlike his father, he applies them to the central documents of his own religion, with only the most general affirmation that somehow God's word is not put in question in spite of the voluminous citing of evidence which puts the biblical text in a continuing and non-special context. Of course it may be argued that it is naive to expect absolute and total uniqueness in the transmission of divine revelation, on the grounds that God works in history through the developing human material as it acts according to its own laws. But such an argument, it seems to me, would logically imply a sort of literary pantheism, a view that sees divine revelation in any ethically illuminating work of literature. That the Hebrew Bible provides special kinds of ethical illumination that are to be sharply contrasted with, say, what we find in the Hellenic tradition, can be argued, but only if we make a very special selection from the biblical canon.
In his extremely interesting and searching article in the July COMMENTARY, “Hebraism and Hellenism Now,” Milton Himmelfarb cites some of the ethical aspects of Hebraism which contrast favorably with Hellenism, and he is right as far as he goes. But there is a great deal in the Bible that he is silent about, that is vicious and cruel and murderous. I think that there is a case for maintaining that if you believe in capital punishment (which I do not) then everybody in society should be personally involved in inflicting it rather than having it done behind closed doors by a professional hangman, yet the popular stonings by the congregation of, for example, the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath seem to me to represent an awful barbarity. The slaughterings that accompanied the Israelite conquest of Canaan, the ritual slaying of Agag, the appalling story of the Levite who chopped his faithless concubine up into twelve parts, and many other stories of superstitious savagery that are found in the Bible, can best be explained as survivals of primitive ways of feeling and acting that are testimony to the historical reality underlying the Bible story. The Bible is anthropologically fascinating, historically significant, linguistically a mine of information, a marvelous repository of ancient myth and literature, but (it seems to me) ethically and religiously it is a record of man discovering the kind of God he wants to believe in: man's evolving word about God, not God's fixed word about man.
Gaster's book represents, in his own words, “an attempt to gather into one place all that can be derived from Comparative Folklore and mythology for the interpretation of the Old Testament.” It incorporates large sections of Sir James Frazer's Folklore in the Old Testament, with additions and expansions by Gaster. It is “designed primarily as a work of reference” rather than as a book to be read through, and it is based “on a card file, now running to more than 17,000 items, which I have been assembling for the past thirty-five years.” The card file is all too evident. Each item is presented independently, with many repetitions, sometimes of identical sentences, usually without cross-references. Thus in the discussion of Psalm 29 already referred to, the Yahwizing of a pagan hymn is defended on the analogy of Rowland Hill's remark that “the Devil shouldn't have the best tunes,” and a reference to Professor Soothill's reminiscence of having heard children in India singing “Buddha loves me: this I know, For the Sutras tell me so.” Twenty pages later, in talking about Psalm 93, he again quotes Rowland Hill and again cites the two lines heard by Professor Soothill in India. This is no significant blemish in a work meant to be looked up paragraph by paragraph, though it would have been more valuable, as well as more readable, if it had been welded together into an integrated narrative.
More serious is the repetition of actual errors (which appear to be misprints). In the introduction Gaster refers to the device of giving characters of a story “arbitrary or invented names significant of their roles.” “One recalls at once,” he continues, “Aristophanes' Lysistrata, ‘Madame de Mobilization,’ who seeks to ‘bring the boys back home’ from the Peloponnesian War.” This is repeated on page 73: “Thus, in the comedies of Aristophanes, the woman who leads a sex strike to ‘bring the boys back home’ from the Peloponnesian War is called Lysistrata, as if ‘Madame de Mobilization.’” But this, of course, is nonsense. Lysistrata is “Madame Demobilization,” the Greek lysis meaning “a loosing, setting free,” from the verb lyo, “to loose,” which every schoolboy who has had to struggle with Greek conjugations knows only too well, and stratos meaning “army.” This is only one piece of evidence that Gaster has been content to let someone assemble his index cards without himself paying too much attention to the individual entries once they appeared in print.
Then there is the larger question of the degree of illumination which can be obtained by citing scores of parallels or analogies or even faint resemblances to such things as the biblical story of the flood, the building of the tower of Babel, and many others. The fifty pages of flood analogies are very wearisome; the essential point could have been made in five pages or less, and as we wade through the flood stories of the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Turks, the Lithuanians, the Finns, the Punjabis, the Burmese, the Malays, the Dyaks, the Melanesians, the North American Indians, the Central American and Mexican Indians, and many others, we begin to recognize the justice of some of the complaints made against Frazer—for most of this material comes from him—that he was content with an uncritical piling up of analogues.
Much of Gaster's own material, fascinating though it often is, is admittedly conjectural. “I have made a special point . . . of trying to illustrate images and metaphors from folklore.” (He is talking here of his interpretation of the Minor Prophets as sustained satire of seasonal festivals, from which the prophets ironically drew their metaphors.) “Admittedly, this involves a process of reading into the texts (eisegesis) as well as out of them (exegesis), and the danger of subjectivism is ever-present; but this is, in the last analysis, a danger implicit in attributing meaning to anything, and the notion that there is such a thing as the objective interpretation of literature or art is—at least to me—itself meaningless, the tired cliché of tired scholars.” I find this remark puzzling, because surely the purpose of bringing in Comparative Folklore and the other tools which Gaster uses is precisely to provide a check on irresponsibly subjective personal interpretations by saying “Look, this is what the metaphor means, it is this primitive ritual that explains this image, it is our knowledge of this particular custom among so many other peoples that leads us to interpret this passage in this way.”
Yet one understands Gaster's caution. One has only to imagine the use of the same tools in interpreting some modern social customs (for example, the playing of golf) to realize how wildly they could lead one to err. One of the favorite kinds of competition in British literary weeklies is to invite competitors to apply the tools of the anthropologist to some item in our civilization discovered far in the future: I have read some hilarious yet in themselves wholly plausible interpretations. The danger is even greater in using etymology. Nobody today would dream of explaining the meaning of “hysteria” in the light of its derivation from the Greek word for “womb” and the odd theory which at one time associated hysteria with the womb. The present meaning of the word has nothing to do with its etymology: there is no surviving folk belief about hysteria being produced by a wandering womb, yet one could imagine a future anthropologist deducing such a belief from the etymology of the word.
One could cite hundreds of examples of modern English words where an attempt to explain their present meaning in the light of their etymology would be disastrous. Just how illuminating is it, therefore, to be told that the word translated as “created” in the first verse of Genesis is originally a craftsman's word: “to create meant simply to give shape and form, and all the Hebrew words which are so rendered derive from the vocabulary of handicraft, and refer primarily to the paring of leather, the moulding of clay and the like.” This is helpful to the linguist, but does it necessarily tell us anything about what the word had come to mean for the author of Genesis? But perhaps Gaster would say that he is not concerned with what the word had come to mean for the author of Genesis. Yet if his book is not concerned with what the Bible stories mean, what is it concerned with?
The fact seems to be that Gaster has no absolutely consistent end in view. At one point—in his account of the competition between Elijah and the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel—he seeks “to reconstruct the incident as it may really have occurred,” and he goes on to present the story as “essentially, a competition in rain-making during a period of drought.” But in fact, though he abundantly illustrates the background of the story by reference to Comparative Folklore and Religion, we are left quite in the dark as to what actually occurred: indeed, he rejects the common explanation that Elijah produced fire for his altar by some deliberate hocus-pocus, pointing out that he could not have used the sun in some way to kindle the fire because the incident occurred in the late afternoon when the sun would not have been strong enough to work such a trick. So what happened? We are not told. It is not, in fact, Gaster's general practice to use his tools in order to reconstruct the historical fact underlying the biblical account of a particular incident, and the reference here to “the incident as it may really have occurred” is unique in his book. His concern is more often to illuminate habits of thought and behavior and linguistic usage by reference to folk customs, rituals, and myths that can be paralleled both in other Near Eastern cultures and throughout the world. More often than not he goes out of his way to avoid historical reconstruction. Of course it is unfair to reproach Gaster with not doing what he had no intention of doing. But every now and again he seems to be using his tools to get behind the story as told, to something else, and why should not that something else be history as often as myth? Or a mixture of both? But in fact Gaster's concern is more the remythologizing than the demythologizing of the Bible.
It is part of the great value of Gaster's book that it raises more questions than it can answer. I hope that my limited exploration of some of these questions has not seemed querulous. I have read right through his 899 pages (including the detailed bibliographies) with enormous profit. This is the raw material of a really important book, and I hope that one day Gaster will write it.
1 Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament, Harper & Row, 899 pp., $20.