The Bible as Literature
The Hebrew Iliad: The History of the Rise of Israel Under Saul and David
Translated from the Original Hebrew by Robert H. Pfeiffer, with General and Chapter Introductions by William G. Pollard
Harper. 154 pp. $2.50.
Critical scholarship holds that the central narrative in the Biblical books from Genesis through Joshua, with large exceptions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, rests on a single continuous document into which parallel and later matter has been introduced in the interest of more advanced political and religious views. The narrative in Judges, First and Second Samuel, and First Kings rests on another document, similarly treated, which recounted the establishment of the Hebrew monarchy under Saul and its continuation under David. The main thread of these two documents can be disentangled from their incrustations with reasonable probability. What Mr. Pollard (who is the Executive Director of the Institute of Nuclear Studies at Oak Ridge and a recently ordained Episcopal clergyman) has done is to present the second of these documents, in a straightforward translation by the distinguished Biblical scholar Robert H. Pfeiffer, and provide it with a general Introduction and introductory notes to the seventeen sections into which he divides the work. This he calls “The Hebrew Iliad”; the narrative of the earlier history (Genesis through Joshua), which he calls “The Odyssey,” he hopes to present in a companion volume.
Mr. Pollard’s object is to advertise the merits of the Bible as literature; “the increased secularization of the West,” he writes, “has not so far resulted in releasing the literary treasures of the Bible for general study and appreciation by students of the humanities.” Actually secular education has by no means boycotted the Bible. It is represented in virtually all “Great Books” reading lists and in separate courses in almost every college; even in sectarian institutions the approach is literary and historical rather than doctrinal. Professor Pfeiffer’s own Introduction to the Old Testament, which is one of several textbooks designed for such courses, has sold 30,000 copies. The documentary sources of the Bible are dealt with in all these books.
Aside from enthusiasm, then, which is always refreshing and especially impressive in a distinguished physicist, Mr. Pollard’s principal contribution is in his title. But for students of literature, unfortunately, the title is likely to diminish rather than enhance appreciation of the chronicle here presented. Iliad is the model every critic and student has in mind when he attempts to define epic or enumerate its characteristics. One (but only one) of these characteristics is what E. M. W. Tillyard has called the “choric” element: the epic must subsume and propagate the ethos and aspirations of a whole people. Mr. Pollard is forced to admit that this is the only element shared by his epic and Homer’s: “In the final analysis this choice of title must rest, not on internal parallels but, as we have already seen, on the parallel position that Ahimaaz [the presumed author] occupies in the literary history of Israel and the parallel function his epic performed in the cultural history of his people.” Aside from vast differences in literary techniques which make it impossible to subject Homer and the Bible to a single gauge, there is an even more important difference in ideological premises. The Iliad is thoroughly aristocratic and individualistic; its hero, Achilles, is so concerned with his own glory that he can desert in time of war and pray for his side to be defeated. The Israelite is expected to fulfill himself by submitting to and serving a larger cause.
Mr. Pollard’s preoccupation with his own text has resulted in other slips which may disturb the reader’s confidence. He insists on the priority of the Hebrew “Iliad” and says nothing of the Babylonian poem Gilgamesh, which is a genuine epic by any definition and is not only anterior to the Bible but may also have influenced both the Greek and the Indian epics; so at least Gertrude Levy and others have argued on the basis of affinities between Mohenjodaro and Mesopotamian cultures. Mr. Pollard repeatedly insists on the priority of his Biblical narrative to Herodotus and Thucydides and again the comparison is of different species, not specimens of the same species. Herodotus is as much anthopology and sociology as history, and Thucydides is a sophisticated monograph on the political implications of a single war. Actually the Biblical narrative precedes its nearest rival not by a half but by a whole millennium, for the next book designed to show the divinely ordained establishment and rise of a chosen people is Livy’s history of Rome.