Friday, August 21, 2009

Review: Israel’s formative years

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Remembering Abraham is a very cursory look at the world surrounding the Hebrew bible. Using large strokes, Professor Ronald Hendel describes the importance of Abraham, Moses, and Solomon – leaders whose significance cannot be understated, who are always in discussion. The six loosely connected essays that compose this book don’t do a great deal of biblical analysis; they rely more on other scholarly works in order to make points. Unfortunately I think that that makes this book only a good recommender of other texts necessary to understand the Jewish religion and the ancient Hebrew people.


Hendel goes into the idea that the Hebrews were originally a spread out group, much like the city-states of Greece where there was some cultural overlap but every neighbourhood was basically autonomous. It wasn’t until outsiders threatened their peace and security that the tribes joined together and started creating a unified political centre.

Interestingly Hendel also goes makes the case that the Hebrews were the first to be interested in historical identity – the first people who looked to the past in order to understand who they are today. According to Arnaldo Momigliano’s study The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography, ‘The Greeks liked history, but never made it the foundation of their lives. The educated Greek turned to rhetorical schools, to mystery cults, or to philosophy for guidance. History was never an essential part of the life of a Greek. . . . To the biblical Hebrew, history and religion were one.’ Which is why there are so many lineage passages in the Hebrew bible (which is also to prove that certain characters in the bible aren’t outsiders, Babylonians or Philistines or Egyptians). Abraham himself has the word father ‘ab’ in part of his name (that is in the ancient Hebrew language).

Tribal genealogy was apex, for as Momigliano goes on: ‘If the common man does not know his origins, he is like a mad ape. He who does not know his great and right family connections is like an outsized dragon. He who does not know the circumstances and the course of actions of his noble father and grandfather is like a man who, having prepared sorrow for his children, throws them into this world.’ And this is an example that the more interesting material within this book comes from external sources.

The only eye-opening research that I found fascinating within this text was the subchapter ‘Moses: Mediator of Memory’, where Hendel goes into the concept that ‘Moses presents the figure of mediator, someone betwixt-and-between, “with one foot inside and the other outside Egypt.” . . . he is the multifaceted man, he is able to unite together all of the stories of Exodus, Sinai, and wanderings into a coherent collective memory.’ As in Moses was born a Jew but was raised by Egyptians from birth; he should have been born a slave but was raised in royalty; he had two masters, two kings: Pharaoh and Yahweh. I’ve never thought of Moses in this light before, but it is kind of staring you in the face when reading the Hebrew bible.

Overall Remembering Abraham was a quiet book that made few ripples. As mentioned before, it’s worth a look to see what other texts are out there in order to further study in Judaic studies.

3 comments:

Kari said…

Ha, I still find it funny that a 216 pg book is $50. Thanks for giving the public library patronage, Oxford Uni Press!

J.T. Oldfield said…

I'm a big Comparative Religion nerd, so I think I'll have to check this out!

Salvatore said…

It's kind of worth it, again if only to find out what other texts you should be reading.