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The Biography of Ancient Israel

The Biography of Ancient Israel: National Narratives in the Bible

Ilana Pardes
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  • Book Info
    The Biography of Ancient Israel
    Book Description:

    The nation--particularly in Exodus and Numbers--is not an abstract concept but rather a grand character whose history is fleshed out with remarkable literary power. In her innovative exploration of national imagination in the Bible, Pardes highlights the textual manifestations of the metaphor, the many anthropomorphisms by which a collective character named "Israel" springs to life. She explores the representation of communal motives, hidden desires, collective anxieties, the drama and suspense embedded in each phase of the nation's life: from birth in exile, to suckling in the wilderness, to a long process of maturation that has no definite end. In the Bible, Pardes suggests, history and literature go hand in hand more explicitly than in modern historiography, which is why the Bible serves as a paradigmatic case for examining the narrative base of national constructions. Pardes calls for a consideration of the Bible's penetrating renditions of national ambivalence. She reads the rebellious conduct of the nation against the grain, probing the murmurings of the people, foregrounding their critique of the official line. The Bible does not provide a homogeneous account of nation formation, according to Pardes, but rather reveals points of tension between different perceptions of the nation's history and destiny. This fresh and beautifully rendered portrayal of the history of ancient Israel will be of vital interest to anyone interested in the Bible, in the interrelations of literature and history, in nationhood, in feminist thought, and in psychoanalysis.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92972-2
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. CHAPTER ONE Introduction: Split Conception
    (pp. 1-15)

    In a grand annunciation scene, hovering between dream and revelation, God leads Abraham outdoors and says, “Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them. . . . So shall thy seed be” (Gen. 15:5).¹ To envision an abstract concept such as nation requires poetic power, a metaphoric leap that would make the transition from one to a multitude more tangible. Abraham, at this point in his life, finds it difficult to imagine even the birth of a single heir (old and childless as he is), but God demands that he step out of...

  5. CHAPTER TWO Imagining the Birth of a Nation
    (pp. 16-39)

    The metaphor of national birth is probably the most resonant anthropomorphic image in national biographies from antiquity to modern times. In fact, it is so resonant one tends to forget that nations are not born literally but rather are imagined in these terms. Every nation, however, has its own birth story, or birth stories. The Book of Exodus provides an intriguingly complex representation of Israel’s birth in keeping with the preliminary imaginings of the nation in Genesis. The opening verses of Exodus i make clear that God’s reiterated promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the grand national annunciation scenes of...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Suckling in the Wilderness: The Absent Mother
    (pp. 40-64)

    The story of the journey in the desert is punctuated by recurrent statements that chart the various stations Israel passed through on the way from Egypt to the Promised Land:vayis’u vayachanu, “and they journeyed from . . . and encamped in.” The names of the stations and the time spent in each one—measured in relation to the Exodus, the new calendar’s point of departure—are recorded meticulously. A map of the nation’s winding wanderings is drawn bit by bit. Yet we know very little about the character of the loci. The stations are almost indistinguishable topographically. There are...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR At the Foot of Mount Sinai: National Rites of Initiation
    (pp. 65-99)

    So proclaims God in the initial ceremonial address to the people at Mount Sinai. It is a climactic point in the biography of ancient Israel, the opening note of the momentous initiation rites of Sinai. The diction ascends above the level of prose and assumes poetic form, as befits a passage dealing with such an exalted topic.¹ Before the law, before the smoke, the fire, the thunder, and the cloud, comes poetry. The beautiful image of the “eagles’ wings” likens the journey up the mountain to an exhilarating swift, smooth flight beyond the dangers and the dreariness of the human...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE The Spies in the Land of the Giants: Restless Youth
    (pp. 100-126)

    On the threshold of Canaan, in the wilderness of Paran, Moses sends twelve representatives, one from each tribe, to explore the Promised Land. “See the land,” Moses instructs them, “what it is; . . . whether it be good or bad, . . . whether it be fat or lean, whether there be wood therein, or not” (Num. 13:18–20). After forty days, the men—better known as the twelve spies—return with pomegranates, figs, and an enormous cluster of grapes held by two men. Presenting the fruits to the people, they unanimously hail the fertility of the land. “We...

  9. CHAPTER SIX Crossing the Threshold: In the Plains of Moab
    (pp. 127-153)

    Israel approaches the threshold of the Promised Land once again after some forty years of roaming and discovers various guardians on Canaan’s borders—the neighboring nations of Transjordan—that complicate the passage into the ancestral home. Edom is the first to block the entrance. Moses sends messengers to the king of Edom from Kadesh, asking for permission to use the king’s road on the way to Canaan, though he does not dare evoke the name of their final destination: “Thus saith thy brother Israel. . . . Let us pass, I pray thee, through thy country: we will not pass...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN Epilogue: Mount Nebo
    (pp. 154-160)

    I close with Mount Nebo, the locus where the Pentateuch—the primary biography of ancient Israel—ends. From this point on Israel ceases to be a full-fledged character. The voice of the nation is heard on occasion in other historical texts in the Bible, but it no longer assumes a central role in the drama.¹ To be sure, the history of the people continues, but once we move beyond the formative years of the nation into Canaan, once we move beyond the liminal zone of the desert, where the primary questions about the origin and character of Israel are raised...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 161-182)
    (pp. 183-194)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 195-211)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 212-212)