There can be little doubt that many of the gospel stories are derived from the Jewish Scriptures: Jesus in the wilderness reworks the nation Israel’s and the prophet Elijah’s sojourn there; Jesus feeding the multitudes and raising the dead are surely inspired by comparable miracles by Elijah and Elisha and many more. What I find particularly interesting about this process is that the Jewish Scriptures themselves invite, or even entice, readers to undertake that very kind of rewriting we find in the gospels.
Embedded in the narratives of the books from Genesis to 2 Kings are two types of repetition:
- composite stories where two different accounts of the same event are placed side by side
- reiterations of common events and motifs in new contexts inviting readers to reflect on and compare quite different narratives
Look at opening chapters of Genesis and the creation of Adam. There are actually two stories of Adam’s creation in the first two chapters and each one is different. In the first Adam and Eve are evidently created equal. In the second Eve is an afterthought who was contemplated only after God finally realized that he absentmindedly overlooked giving Adam the same sort of sexual partner he had provided for other animals. Here is Robert Alter’s interpretation of what is going on here:
Just such a technique of placing two parallel accounts in dynamically complementary sequence is splendidly evident at the very beginning of the Hebrew Bible. There are, of course, two different creation stories. The first, generally attributed to P, begins with Genesis 1:1 and concludes with the report of the primeval sabbath (Gen. 2:1–3), probably followed, as most scholars now think, by a formal summary in the first half of Genesis 2:4: “This is the tale of the heavens and the earth when they were created.” The second version of the creation story, taken from the J Document, would then begin with the subordinate clause in the second half of Genesis 2:4, “When the LORD God made earth and heaven … ,” going on to the creation of man, the vegetable world, the animal kingdom, and woman, in that order, . . . .
The decision to place in sequence two ostensibly contradictory accounts of the same event is an approximate narrative equivalent to the technique of post-Cubist painting that gives us, for example, juxtaposed or superimposed, a profile and a frontal perspective of the same face. The ordinary eye could never see these two at once, but it is the painter’s prerogative to represent them as a simultaneous perception within the visual frame of his painting, whether merely to explore the formal relations between the two views or to provide an encompassing representation of his subject. Analogously, the Hebrew writer takes advantage of the composite nature of his art to give us a tension of views that will govern most of the biblical stories—first, woman as man’s equal sharer in dominion, standing exactly in the same relation to God as he; then, woman as man’s subservient helpmate, whose weakness and blandishments will bring such woe into the world.
A similar encompassing of divergent perspectives is achieved through the combined versions in the broader vision of creation, man, and God. God is both transcendent and immanent (to invoke a much later theological opposition), both magisterial in His omnipotence and actively, empathically involved with His creation. The world is orderly, coherent, beautifully patterned, and at the same time it is a shifting tangle of resources and topography, both a mainstay and a baffling challenge to man. Humankind is the divinely appointed master of creation and an internally divided rebel against the divine scheme, destined to scrabble a painful living from the soil that has been blighted because of man.”
Similarly with the rise of David. Again, two incompatible stories about his rise to power are told side by side. Whoever combined the stories was not interested in making them look like a seamless whole but left the inconsistencies for all to see and no doubt talk about.
The effectiveness of composite narrative as a purposeful technique is even more vividly evident when the primary aim is the presentation of character. The most elaborate biblical instance is the introduction of David, which, as has been often noted, occurs in two consecutive and seemingly contradictory versions (1 Samuel 16 and 17). In the first account, the prophet Samuel is sent to Bethlehem to anoint one of the sons of Jesse as successor to Saul, whose violation of divine injunction has just disqualified him for the kingship that was conferred on him. . . . Following the anointment, David is called to Saul’s court to soothe the king’s mad fits by playing the lyre, and he assumes the official position of armor-bearer to Saul. In the second account, David is still back on the farm while his older brothers (here three in number rather than seven) are serving in Saul’s army against the Philistines. There is no mention here of any previous ceremony of anointing, no allusion to David’s musical abilities or to a position as royal armor-bearer (indeed, a good deal is made of his total unfamiliarity with armor). In this version David, having arrived on the battlefield with provisions for his brothers, makes his debut by slaying the Philistine champion, Goliath, and he is so unfamiliar a face to both Saul and Abner, Saul’s commander-in-chief, that, at the end of the chapter, they both confess they have no idea who he is or what family he comes from, and he has to identify himself to Saul. . . .
Both stories, though drawn from disparate sources, are necessary, however, in order to produce a binocular vision of David. In this case, the inference of a deliberate decision to use two versions seems especially compelling, for the redactor of the David story, unlike the redactor of Genesis, is not working with traditions sanctified by several centuries of national experience. One may infer that he had greater freedom as to what he “had” to include than did his counterpart in Genesis, and therefore that if he chose to combine two versions of David’s debut, one theological in cast and the other folkloric, it was because both were necessary to his conception of David’s character and historical role. Much the same point has been made by Kenneth R. R. Gros Louis in an intelligent essay on the larger David story: “But surely whoever put the narrative into this final form was aware of the inconsistency too; such inconsistency in close proximity in a narrative is more than an author’s nodding; it is the equivalent of deep sleep.” . . . . .
[T]he joining of the two accounts leaves us swaying in the dynamic interplay between two theologies, two conceptions of kingship and history, two views of David the man. In one, the king is imagined as God’s instrument, elected through God’s own initiative, manifesting his authority by commanding the realm of spirits good and evil, a figure who brings healing and inspires love. In the other account, the king’s election is, one might say, ratified rather than initiated by God; instead of the spirit descending, we have a young man ascending through his own resourcefulness, cool courage, and quick reflexes, and also through his rhetorical skill. All this will lead not directly to the throne but, as things usually happen in the mixed medium of history, to a captaincy; further military successes, a devoted following; the provocation of jealousy in the king, which brings about his banishment; a career of daring action, subterfuge, hardship, and danger; a bloody civil war; and only then the throne. Without both these versions of David’s beginnings and his claim to legitimacy as monarch, the Hebrew writer would have conveyed less than what he conceived to be the full truth about his subject. . . .
Embracing complexity and contradictions
The fundamentalist view of the Bible that “there are no contradictions in God’s word” would seem to turn the Bible into a collection contrary to the purpose of its authors. One can imagine the discussions, the debates, in which authors and many readers must have once engaged.
Other Vridar posts exploring this same question of contradictory narratives in the Bible:
Explaining (?) the Contradictory Genesis Accounts of the Creation of Adam and Eve (this post focuses on comparisons and contrasts with the methods of the Greek historian Herodotus)
Another but with a less direct approach:
In regard to larger blocks of narrative material, the characteristic biblical method for incorporating multiple perspectives appears to have been not a fusion of views in a single utterance but a montage of viewpoints arranged in sequence. Such a formula, of course, cannot smooth away all the perplexities of scribal and editorial work with which the biblical text confronts us; but we are well advised to keep in mind as readers that these ancient writers (and their redactors), like later ones, wanted to fashion a literary form that might embrace the abiding complexity of their subjects. The monotheistic revolution of biblical Israel was a continuing and disquieting one. It left little margin for neat and confident views about God, the created world, history, and man as political animal or moral agent, for it repeatedly had to make sense of the intersection of incompatibles—the relative and the absolute, human imperfection and divine perfection, the brawling chaos of historical experience and God’s promise to fulfill a design in history. The biblical outlook is informed, I think, by a sense of stubborn contradiction, of a profound and ineradicable untidiness in the nature of things, and it is toward the expression of such a sense of moral and historical reality that the composite artistry of the Bible is directed.
Excerpts from: Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981. pp. 141-153
Reiterations: “all reflecting a single transcendent reality throughout the Bible’s narrative”
Then there is the other type of repetition: the reverberations of the same motifs, images, actions in different contexts and with augmented meanings. Here I will cite Thomas L. Thompson and his thoughts in The Mythic Past.
This sense of history as an illustration of creation, this view of humanity living out a fate determined by its nature, dominates the biblical view of history as a reiteration of what always has been. It can best be seen through the many stories that present the recurrent theme of new creation, new beginnings and new hope. All play out their contrast to stories of human wilfulness. In the creation of such reiterative story chains, one finds recurrent echoes of characters who perform the same or a similar function. Within a biblical perspective, all reflect a single transcendent reality. Three examples of such echoing clusters of stories should make this clear.
1) There are two great stories in the Bible in which old Israel is led through water to begin a new life. In Exodus 14-15, Moses leads the people through the sea on dry land. The waters stack up like Jello on each side. Those who had been helpless slaves in Egypt become a victorious people led to victory by their God. The same motif of crossing the waters from defeat to victory finds its place in Joshua. The divine presence leads the people dry-shod across the Jordan River, whose waters ‘stand in one heap’ (Josh. 3: 7-17). It is a new Israel, coming out of the wilderness that enters the land. A minor echo of this motif can also be seen when the patriarch Jacob crosses the Jabbok in Genesis 32: 22. In this crossing, he becomes Israel. The transcendent reality that each of these stories reiterates is the original division of the waters of chaos at the creation, when God caused the waters ‘to be gathered in one place, letting the dry land appear’ (Gen. 1: 9).
Elijah’s and Elisha’s crossing of the Jordan can be added, and the emergence of the new world after the Flood. We don’t need special gifts of insight to think of the baptizing by John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism where the heavens themselves part, Jesus walking across the water, and perhaps even Jesus regularly crossing the Sea of Galilee, fisherman being called from the waters.
2) The great collection of poems that prophesies Babylon’s destruction at the hands of ‘Yahweh of the Armies’, in the Book of Jeremiah (chapters 50 and 51) rings with obvious echoes of Genesis 11 ‘s story of the tower of Babylon. That story, however, also reiterates the paired and nearly indistinguishable stories of the destructions of Samaria and Jerusalem we find in II Kings 17 and 25. All of the prophecies of destruction against Israel’s enemies (Jer. 46-49) are mere variations of a single theme. As commentary on human events, such poems and stories about God’s wrath against cities and nations reiterate the transcendent reality of Yahweh’s war against the godless. The fundamental mythology that structures this war and destruction metaphor is seen much more clearly in the obviously cosmic allusions in the stories of the great flood (Gen. 6-9) and of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19). Noah and Lot both fill the exilic role of Israel’s surviving remnant. They find ‘favour in Yahweh’s eyes’ (Gen. 6: 8). Yet another mythic variation of this leitmotif recurs throughout the Book of Psalms, where the transcendent struggle between the way of righteousness and the way of evil is captured in the metaphor of the cosmic war that Yahweh and his Messiah wage against the nations, as in Psalms 2, 8, 89 and 110. All are expressive of the divine dominance over reality. Offering a template for comparable recreations of this theme in the Books of Daniel and Revelations, Yahweh says to his Messiah (as well as to the poet’s implicit audience, revealing for a moment this metaphor’s importance in file language of piety): ‘Pray, and I will give the nations into your possession, and you will own the ends of the earth. You will crush them with an iron mace, break them into pieces like the shards of a pot’ (Psalms 2: 8-9).
The synoptic gospels unite in tying Jesus’ time to the destruction of Jerusalem and the ushering in of the Kingdom of God. Even the Gospel of John opens with an announcement of the destruction of the Temple and its replacement with a new one embodied in Jesus.
3) My third example of a cluster of metaphors reiterating transcendent reality throughout the Bible’s narrative of the past is a central part of the structure of what has been thought Israel’s historical past. The theme of crossing the wilderness forms an initial setting for the expansive collections of law and wisdom we find throughout the rest of the Pentateuch. Israel sets out across the desert after the crossing of the sea and is prepared as early as Exodus 23 to enter into the promised land. Moses accumulates his ever-growing torah as he climbs Mount Sinai at least eight different times. ‘Murmuring’ and ‘backsliding’ are used to delay the plot throughout their wilderness trek. Finally, at the end of Numbers, Yahweh in his anger declares that this generation will never enter the land of promise. The desert becomes a place of exile for ‘those who refuse to walk in Yahweh’s path’. The story line waits the full generation of forty years for its new Israel to enter the land with Joshua. The transformation from the motif of wilderness-crossing to one of being held captive in a desert of exile is a shift that allows the entire final portion of the Pentateuch to be the subject of an exile’s reflection with Moses on Mount Nebo in the Book of Deuteronomy. Israel progresses through the themes of punishment, understanding and acceptance, allowing the Pentateuch’s narrative to close in mirrored step with the similarly meditative closure of II Kings in the city of Babylon.
Thompson, Thomas L. The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel. New York: Basic Books, 1999. pp. 18-20
When we think about some of those extra-canonical writings like the Book of Jubilees, the Ascension of Moses, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and so forth we should not wonder at what liberties they took with what we read in the canonical works. The same goes for the gospels, of course. Read against the same background, in some ways they seem to be a logical outcome of the Jewish Scriptures.
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