Narrative

Unusually in the ancient world, even the earliest fragments of Israelite storytelling or historical narration are in prose (Alter 1981). In the Pentateuch, Genesis contains stories about the 'patriarchs' (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob's twelve sons), and Exodus about Moses and the escape of the Israelites from Egypt, which may derive from a source document ('J') written perhaps as early as the tenth century, and based on yet older materials. Other narrative books also contain what seem to have been originally independent legends or folk memories—stories about prophets, for example, in the books of Samuel and Kings (see 1 Sam. 9-10; 1 Kgs. 13, 18-22; 2 Kgs. 1-2). It was not until the fifth century that all the disparate materials in the Pentateuch came together to form the five books as we now have them, and much that was then included was certainly later than the early sections just mentioned. In the meanwhile, Israelite historiography had developed to a degree of sophistication unparalleled among the other nations in the ancient Near East. It is usual to single out the account of David's monarchy in its middle and later years (including his affair with Bathsheba, the near loss of his throne to his son Absalom, and the eventual succession of Solomon) as a separate 'Court History' or 'Succession Narrative', comprising 2 Samuel 9-20 and 1 Kings 1-2 (Whybray 1968). But the whole of 1 and 2 Samuel exhibit much the same skill in narration, and may show that such literary skills were already developing well before the monarchies of Israel and Judah went into terminal decline in the eighth century (Gunn 1978, 1980). The greatest work of compilation and editing can be found in the single 'history' running from Joshua through Judges and Samuel and ending with Kings (thus incorporating the already existing Succession Narrative), which was probably put together from older materials, or reworked from earlier editions, during the Exile in the sixth century BCE (Noth 1981). This massive narrative work is traditionally known as the 'Former Prophets' but in modern scholarship as the 'Deuteronomistic History', since it is an interpretation of the history of Israel down to the Exile according to criteria in part derived from the book of Deuteronomy.

All Israel's narrative literature is interpretative—narration necessarily interprets what it narrates. But a comparison of the finished Deuteronomistic History with its underlying sources, and with narratives in the Pentateuch, brings out two characteristic features of the interpretation of history in Hebrew literature. First, from the earliest times for which we have any evidence the narrators interpreted the history of the nation in religious terms. Israel's God is involved in what happens to the Israelites. This may be true at a local level, when a prophet or patriarch experiences the events that befall him as a contact with the divine; or it may be at a national or even international level, with events being interpreted as part of an unfolding divine purpose for the whole people of Israel, or even for the whole world. But second—and perhaps surprisingly—the divine element in human history tends to be heightened as Israelite historiography develops. Modern readers may expect that the earlier a story is, the more 'supernatural' it will be, but, if anything, the reverse is the case. It is in the Succession Narrative that the most 'secular' accounts of human events are to be found; the Deuteronomistic History tends to heighten the divine control of history, and includes more miraculous elements. The trend continued after the Exile, with Chronicles to some extent rewriting the events recorded by the Deuteronomistic Historian to make them reveal the hand of God more explicitly. Thus the development of Israel's historiographical tradition manifests an increasing 'sacralization' or 'theologization'. As we shall see, this is equally characteristic of other branches of the national literature.

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