Exodus as Autobiography
The fundamental assumption of virtually all serious modern students of the Jewish Bible is that it ought to be treated as a historical document, valuable for the light it casts on the development of Israel as a nation and as a religion. The first higher critics showed that before the Bible could cast any true light at all, it had to be broken down into its component texts. These, when analyzed, yielded a history of the Jewish people radically different from the one which the Bible seemed to tell when read naively. Recent critics use archaeological as well as textual evidence to confirm rather than to deny the “essential historicity” of the Bible’s own story. The late editor of the Anchor Genesis, for example, argued that everything we now know about Abraham’s period “enhances the probability of Abraham as a historical figure.” But Professor Speiser would have been the last to disagree with the assumption that has governed so much biblical criticism in the modern age—that we should use the Bible to find out “what the events in Hebrew history actually were.”
As a lay reader of the Bible, I cannot share this assumption. It asks me to agree that the Bible is important because without it the modern historian would be handicapped in his task of reconstructing the life of ancient Israel. I prefer an assumption which, rather than pointing to the creative role of the modern historian, affirms that of the Bible itself: without the Bible there would have been no Israel for the historian to reconstruct. The Bible not only told the people their history, it also nerved them to endure it. It was a repository not of fact, but of motive. It was a creative force within the history we study, insensibly forming the very objects of our study, and it needs to be understood as such—as an agency, not as a document. As a document it can only be correlated with some external order of fact and experience. As an agency it is a fact and a field of experience in its own right.
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