Commentary Magazine


The Story of the Stories, by Dan Jacobson

The Wheel of History

The Story of the Stories: The Chosen People and its God.
by Dan Jacobson.
Harper & Row. 211 pp. $11.95.

Some years ago the South African-English-Jewish author Dan Jacob-son wrote a novel called The Rape of Tamar. It was not, in my opinion, a successful book. This was in part because it did not take seriously enough the biblical narrative that it drew its plot from, so that, instead of portraying its characters as the human beings magnified by passion that one feels them to be in the Bible, it debunkingly reduced them to a fatuous clique of scoundrels and ninnies—a sure prescription for failure in a historical novel, which, if it cannot manage to maintain, let alone enhance, the intensity of history for the reader, might as well leave history alone. Indeed, Jacobson himself, it would seem, realized his mistake, for he has since twice made amends: once to his own tale by taking the thematic substance of The Rape of Tamar, giving it a contemporary setting, and rewriting it as a first-rate work of fiction entitled The Confessions of Josef Baisz, and now, a second time, to the Bible, in a work of literary criticism that is nothing if not serious and intense.

Of course, literary criticism of the Bible is in vogue these days, so much so that, faced with the Current outpouring of it, one might almost believe that the text of Scripture had been recently found in a cellar, as it was by Hilkiyahu the scribe in the time of King Josiah, and were being deciphered for the first time. Suddenly the word is out that the Bible too is literature; and forthwith, equipped with the precision tools of the trade, an army of academicians has marched off into its pages to hunt for synechdoches and metonymies, track down metaphors and images, discover hidden ironies and tensions, and unearth realities-behind-appearances and appearances-behind-realities that would do a T.S. Eliot poem or an E.M. Forster novel proud. Some of this output is undoubtedly of genuine interest; much of it is predictably dreary; but little of it, for all its concern with how biblical narrative “works,” makes any serious attempt to inform us what the Bible is really about. Like a great deal of contemporary literary criticism, it might be compared with a lesson in horology in which one is told the precise construction and function of every cog, spring, wheel, and balance in the mechanism of a clock—everything, in fact, but how to tell the time that is on the clock face.

Dan Jacobson’s new book is not this sort of nuts-and-bolts dissection of a text; indeed, it is very much a bold attempt to grapple with the Bible as a whole. Although Scripture, its title gives us notice, contains many stories, it is not with the details of any of them that Jacob-son is concerned; rather, it is with “the story of the stories,” that is, with the central “plot” of the entire Bible considered as one book, starting with Genesis and ending with the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. (To readers familiar with Jacobson’s previous work, it is hardly necessary to point out that this coupling of Old and New Testaments for purposes of literary analysis is by no means due to any Christian bias on his part.)

Of course, all this presupposes that such a “plot” really exists, and that the Bible can or should be read as a single coherent document rather than as the thousand-year compilation of multiple and mutually inconsistent sources that historical scholarship has taught us it is. And in this ahistorical readiness to gloss it as a single synchronic text regardless of when and by whom various parts of it were written, Jacob-son shares a basic assumption with the new school of biblical literary criticism on the whole. (As does the latter, curiously, with traditional Jewish and Christian hermeneutics, for which the unity of Scripture was an axiom.) The originality and imaginative scope with which he applies this assumption are what make The Story of the Stories the remarkable book that it is.

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Briefly, his thesis is as follows:

If we read the Bible at face value, what it most obviously seems to be about is the long and stormy relationship between the Children of Israel and their God, and the many vicissitudes that mark its course. This relationship was initiated, the Bible tells us, by God, but once formalized in the Covenant it is forever binding on both parties—who, indissolubly pledged to each other, proceed to act out the most contradictory attitudes and emotions. The Israelites are alternately grateful for God’s attentions and resentful of His demands, obedient toward Him and rebellious, devoted and unfaithful, supremely confident in His love and terrified of His wrath; while He, in His dealings with them, is by turn unstintingly generous and morbidly suspicious, tenderly loving and full of hateful spite, solicitous of their welfare and capable of wreaking on them the most frightful retributions, brutally implacable and touchingly stricken with remorse for what He does. We have, in a word, a highly ambivalent relationship that is constantly oscillating between emotional extremes. Not an ideal marriage, perhaps even a deeply unhappy one, but a lively one for all that, and one that (at least, according to the Christian view, until New Testament times) neither party is willing to see end in a divorce.

So far, of course, nothing much has been said that any intelligent reader of the Bible cannot see for himself. But at this point Jacobson throws out a leading question. If, he asks, one does not think as a believing Jew or Christian, but rather assumes, as he himself does, that it was man who created Jehovah instead of the other way around, and that the God of the Bible and His relations with His chosen people are in fact the collective mythical invention of that people itself, how is one to explain the contents of this myth? Or to put it differently: if, ultimately, both Israel’s feelings toward its God and God’s feelings toward Israel are an outward projection of Israel’s inner life, what can be the source of the profound ambivalence that Israel feels toward itself and toward the world? What psychological dynamic is at work here?

To which The Story of the Stories replies:

Obviously, a people that wishes to believe that it alone has been chosen by a universal, omnipotent God to be the special beneficiary of His favors (for there would be nothing unusual in being preferred by a god who was merely one more tribal deity among many) is a people with an exalted sense of itself—so unrealistically exalted, in fact, that in some cranny or crevice of its being it must be aware of the enormous hubris that is involved in such a conception of its own role. (Indeed, the reviewer might interject at this point, do not both modern psychology and ordinary observation assure us that such an exaggerated sense of superiority is itself commonly a compensation for deep-seated feelings of unworthiness?) At the same time, therefore, that this people prides itself on its specialness and on its divinely granted good fortune that has, among other things, delivered it from bondage in Egypt and given it a fruitful land wrested forcefully from others, it lives in constant fear of the comeuppance that is awaiting it and that is even due it for its pride. In Jacobson’s words:

Thus, while exulting over Yahweh’s choice, and rejoicing in the discomfiture of their enemies, who had been passed over and rejected, the composers of the biblical story could never lose sight of the terrifying possibility that it might be their turn next to join the ranks of the rejected. That was the danger to which they had exposed themselves imaginatively in evoking a God who had exercised choices of such a fateful kind; that was the price they had to pay for the favor He had bestowed on them. The constant presence of the possibility of such a rejection is one of the wonders of the entire tale. Sooner or later it is bound to happen, the story implicitly tells us, to those who seek preferment on special terms from the world all men are compelled to live in. . . . The explicit moral of the Bible is that the people of Israel fall into God’s disfavor only when they disobey Him; the tacit moral is that the very notion of having been chosen by such a God will produce the retribution appropriate to it. It is, I suspect, because the former moral is urged upon us with such exhaustive vehemence that the latter has been virtually overlooked. [Emphasis in original]

The “terrifying possibility” of God’s rejection, Jacobson writes, was further heightened for the Israelites by the “moral unease” felt by them over their dispossession of the native peoples who had preceded them in the land of Canaan—an unease well expressed by the biblical injunction that God’s commandments must be obeyed, “. . . lest the land vomit you out when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.” Indeed, it is this haunting fear of tit for tat, of the wheel of divine fortune turning again, that explains the compulsive thoroughness of biblical legislation and the supreme emphasis placed in the Bible on unquestioning obedience to the Law. More than the Law being a writ of God’s claims on Israel,

The centrality given to the covenant Law in the Scriptures actually represents an attempt by the biblical writers to put a yoke upon Yahweh. . . . The Sinai covenant and everything that went with it should be seen as an all-but-explicit attempt by the biblical writers to preclude the possibility of this inveterate chooser among gods again exercising His free will, so far as the people of Israel and “the nations” are concerned. Once was enough. Twice could only mean disaster. Out of the arbitrariness and inscrutableness of the initial choice the biblical writers wanted to make something predictable and orderly and rational. Hence in lashing themselves down within the covenant, and to all its accompanying laws, they hoped to lash down Yahweh too. Quid pro quo.

By the time disaster actually strikes, therefore, intially in the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel, and subsequently in that of the southern kingdom of Judah, it has been so thoroughly anticipated (perhaps even unconsciously sought) that, far from putting an end to its victims’ unique conception of themselves, it only strengthens this conception and is quite naturally incorporated into the national myth. The very fact that God has gone to such lengths to chastise His people and inflict such suffering on them becomes proof in their eyes of His special relationship to them—and yet, Jacobson writes,

. . . if the story of the rejection by Yahweh of His people is indeed an internalization by the biblical writers of certain ineluctable historical facts, it is as well an act of self-rejection on their part . . . in telling the story in these terms they committed themselves to blaming and fiercely rejecting those people, their fellow Israelites, their own kinsmen, whom they felt to be responsible for the disasters that had come upon the nation as a whole.

Thus, in the moment of being exiled from its land no less than in the moment of possessing it, in defeat and degradation as much as in triumph and celebration, great self-love and great self-hate are inextricably tangled together in Israel’s psyche, playing off against and reinforcing each other at one and the same time. The greater the one, the greater the other; the greater the two of them, the greater the swing back and forth between them; the greater the swing, the greater the need to reconcile them by means of the collective myth, that is, by the biblical religion that eventually came to be known as Judaism.

But by the dialectic logic of this religion, the story is not yet over: “After rejection—renewal and restoration. In terms of the story the development was not merely logical or desirable; it was absolutely indispensable.” Once the divine wheel of fortune has spun them down, delivering the blow they long have feared and purging their anxiety and guilt, the people of Israel can permit themselves to hope, even confidently believe, that it will now spin them up once more and that God will deliver them from their exile as He did once before in Egypt. And so, it would seem, the “great circular movement” of the biblical narrative, as Jacobson calls it, might be expected to continue ad infinitum, for the wheel set in motion by Israel’s basic ambivalence must spin again and again, and the same tale that

has seen the people move from a condition of homeless nomadism to possession of the land; from possession of the land to dispossession of it; from dispossession to exile; from exile to the hope or vision, at least, of reentry and true repossession

should logically lead to yet another round of exile and homelessness, thus recommencing the entire cycle. It was the need to break out of this vicious circle, Jacobson posits, that not only suggested, but ultimately demanded, the prophetic vision of the apocalypse. “Can such a story,” he asks,

ever really come to an end? . . . The prophets certainly willed that it should; hence their great, final effort of the imagination in presenting the renewal-to-come as a state of eternal rest, or arrest.

Indeed, it might be conjectured, only by means of such a last judgment, in which no more than a “saving remnant” of Israel is redeemed, so that the bad are punished and the good rewarded on their own merits instead of having to suffer and prosper together through unending national cycles, can the polarities of Israel’s self-image be resolved. Self-love and self-hate are now separated out into the wheat and the chaff, the sheep and the goats, within Israel itself, and the chosen people’s tortuous romance with its God has come to a happy end.

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Jacobson stops where the Bible does and does not pursue Jewish history and religious literature beyond its limits. Instead, he concludes with two chapters on the New Testament, which he sees as both a logical sequence to Jewish Scripture and an ultimate repudiation of it. On the one hand, Christianity adopted the Old Testament’s messianic myth—although, of course, with a difference:

Oppressed, beleaguered, megalomaniac Israel had promised itself, through its prophets initially, and then through its apocalyptics, that one day its messiah would come in power and glory to overthrow all its enemies and vindicate its God for all time. Now Paul and others said: yes, he had come, but in such a humble guise that almost nobody had recognized him; in so lowly a form that the powerful and self-glorifying within Israel itself had no compunction in destroying him.

On the other hand, in adapting this myth to its own purposes, Christianity decisively rejected the people it originally referred to,

which meant that within this surprising twist of the plot there lay concealed yet another. In order to bring about the great revolutions in history which had characterized His reign throughout, the God of Israel had repeatedly used evil persons, nations, and institutions as His instruments. . . . But on this occasion He had surpassed himself in ingenuity. He had used Israel in that very way. Israel had been turned into His instrument to torture the good He had sent into the world, in the form of His “Son,” so that in the end a greater good might come. “The son of man,” Jesus says of Judas Iscariot, “goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the son of man is betrayed.” And woe to the people whose name Judas bore.

In this fashion Christianity too broke with the “great circular movement” of the Bible, not by prophesying an end to it, but by declaring that that end had already come. And in doing so, it achieved something else: by universalizing its constituency and rejecting the notion of a special, divinely chosen people, or rather, relegating it to a theologically superseded past, it freed its believers from the extreme emotional tension that had haunted the Jewish people since its beginnings. Now that it was no longer the possession of the Jews, the religion given by them to the world had lost its deep Jewish ambivalence.

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Needless to say, the preceding account does not do full justice to a book that, while brief in length, is argued with great force and cogency. It is a virtue of such brevity that it leaves the reader to work out for himself ideas that have merely been suggested and makes him a partner in their development; hence the reflections that follow.

Is Dan Jacobson right? I doubt that the question can be answered. At stake here are not the facts themselves, but rather an interpretation of them, and interpretations are always arguable. As a reviewer I can only say that Jacobson’s reading of the Bible makes a great deal of sense to me—and that I find it deeply disturbing.

What disturbs me about it, though, is not so much what it has to say about the roughly one-half of the Jewish historical past that it explicitly deals with. It is rather what it implies about the other half—that is, about the post-biblical period in which we are still living. Indeed, it is especially in connection with our own times that Jacob-son’s analysis stirs up some unwelcome thoughts.

The Hebrew prophets, Jacobson writes, sought to break out of the repetitive cycle of the biblical “plot” by envisioning a final, apocalyptic end to it, a messianic last act to the lengthy drama of Israel and God. The apocalypse, however, did not occur; and although the final books of the Bible, which were composed after the return from the Babylonian captivity and the building of the Second Temple, leave us with the people of Israel securely again in its land, the biblical cycle “from possession of the land to dispossession of it; from dispossession to exile; from exile to the hope . . . of reentry and true repossession” was to run its course again, from the golden age of the Hasmonean dynasty to the catastrophic failure of the two revolts against Rome; from the final loss of independence that followed to the near-total depopulation of Jewish Palestine; and from the long travail and ultimate horror of exilic life in the Diaspora to the renewed attempt to create a Jewish homeland in our time. In short—mysteriously, inexplicably, incredibly—the “great circular movement” of the Bible, having returned to its starting point, proceeded to go through another, complete, two-thousand-year-long phase.

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Zionism, like biblical prophecy, sought a way out of this cycle—although unlike the prophets, of course, its proponents expected this to be brought about by means of human endeavor rather than of divine intervention. If the exile, they reasoned, was a historical misfortune that had fallen upon the Jews, an act of Jewish will could reverse it. In fact, this will already existed in the form of the traditional Jewish yearning for Zion; one only needed to give it the practical opportunity to express itself. And indeed, with the triumphant establishment of the state of Israel, the Zionist diagnosis seemed confirmed: the Jewish people, or at least a significant and growing part of it, was home again for good.

Or was it ? For what is already clear today about the Jewish state is that, thirty-four years after its creation, it is a far more problematical affair than its founders ever thought it would be. Isolated among the nations, surrounded by enemies whose geopolitical strength is on the rise, weakened by internal dissension, a faltering economy, and a rising tide of emigration, faced with the fact that the Jews of the Diaspora have no desire to live in it and cannot be counted on to offset the steady growth of a hostile Arab minority in its midst, Israel is a country whose future appears far from assured. Can it be that, far from being an end to the repetitive cycle of events that began in Ur of the Chaldees nearly four thousand years ago, it will prove to be but another station touched by the turning wheel, which, as though endowed with some sort of diabolic perpetual motion, will continue to spin without cease? Zionism was no doubt right to see its victory as an integral moment in the pattern of Jewish history; suppose it should ironically be the case, however, that this same pattern must ultimately sweep it to its downfall?

A fanciful thought—certainly far more fanciful than The Story of the Stories, which sticks to a responsible analysis of biblical text; yet one which, if it was all but unthinkable ten or fifteen years ago, no longer seems quite so now, less than ever after reading Dan Jacob-son’s book. For what Jacobson has done is not just lucidly to describe what the “plot” of the Bible is about, but to give us a psycho-ethnic explanation of why it came to be written and lived; and if he is correct, or even partially correct, in what he says, one can hardly help asking whether the same psycho-ethnic factors, or some of them, are still at work among Jews today and are still producing the same reactions among Gentiles who encounter them. Of course, if one were talking about any other group of people, such a line of inquiry would be patently absurd. Who is there zany enough to suggest that one can understand something important about the character of contemporary Englishmen, let alone speculate on the future of Great Britain, by carefully studying Beowulf? Different times, different peoples—and the antiquity of Beowulf is less than half that of Leviticus or Kings.

But then this is the point: for not only do the English not consider Beowulf a sacred text, no other people beside the Jews has consistently interpreted its own history in the light of such a text, in which it has seen, in addition to the authoritative record of its past, the inviolable guide to its future. Precisely this living connection with the Bible has traditionally been the greatest source of Jewish strength—the awareness of which in our own times has motivated the secular political and educational establishment of Israel to give the Bible a position of great prominence in national life and to seize every opportunity to stress how Zionism is legitimized by scriptural chapter and verse. Nor is this an arbitrary procedure. One need only read the Bible (how many genuinely literate people, despite the current vogue of the new biblical criticism, still do?) to be struck by how persistently, in Genesis and in Exodus, in Jeremiah and in Isaiah, in the Book of Esther and in the Book of Lamentations, it reads like a running commentary on modern Jewish life. Its stories and descriptions repeat themselves in our own age; its characters speak lines that are plagiarized from men and women we know; it tells Jews more about what is happening to them than do the newspapers—and I, for one, find all this profoundly uplifting and profoundly scary.

Dan Jacobson’s book does nothing to make it seem less so. The myths of the Bible, he says, were self-fulfilling because they both emerged from, and themselves helped to structure, the collective psychology of the people who believed in them and acted them out. In the minds of how many Jews today, and not necessarily just those who are aware of it, are these same myths, transmitted and sometimes transmuted from generation to generation, still active agents? Jacobson does not ask the question—but he forces us to. Would Jews still be Jews without them? The answer is the same. “History,” said Stephen Dedalus, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”—but is the Bible a Jewish nightmare or the necessary vision on which Jewish existence still depends? Or is it both? Or neither? If one goes on dreaming it, will its great plot-wheel continue to spin? And if one awakes from that dream, what reality will take its place?

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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