Reflections on “Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative” by Mieke Bal

At base, narratology “is the theory of narratives, narrative texts, images, spectacles, events; cultural artifacts that ‘tell a story'” (3). What Mieke Bal offers, then, is a basically a method for describing narrative. It is divided into three, large chapters: “Text: Words,” which focuses on how to describe various levels of texts; “Story: Aspects,” which focuses on various aspects of a narrative fit together; “Fabula: Elements,” which focuses on how chronology works in a narrative. Each chapter is full of helpful terminology, fleshed out with thorough discussion, which can easily be utilized for describing narratives in Near Eastern and Biblical texts. In this reflection, though, I will only focus on a few things which stood out to me.

First, Bal describes the levels of narration (pp. 44-56). Here, she describes various ways in which levels of narration may be understood depending on the particular text. In terms of my own work, this is interesting on one front. As is any literature, the Hebrew Bible is teeming with levels of narrative. The most basic example appears at the beginning of much prophetic literature, such as Micah:

(1) The word of Yahweh came to Micah, a Mosharite, in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, when he had a vision concerning Shomron and Jerusalem. (2) “Listen, all you peoples // Pay attention, Oh land and all within it…”

In this text, the speaker of vs. 1 is clearly distinct from vs. 2. Whereas vs. 1 is spoken by an external narrator, vs. 2 is spoken by the character. One way we can identify this is because the shift from a 3MS verb (the word came) to a 2MP and 2FS verb (Listen… Pay attention). Now, although this is a very basic example, the same narratological technique is used through the Hebrew Bible and all literature. I am  pointing it out because attentiveness to various layers of narrative can clarify confusing or problematic elements of texts.

Second, the issue of levels in narration is interesting for grammar, as a few scholars as discussed the issue of embedded text in light of the Hebrew verbal system (cf. Pardee, 2012). In 1 Sam. 1:20, for example, a waw-retentive PC can introduce a circumstantial clause which is embedded into the narrative line (Pardee 2012, pg. 303). This use of a waw-retentive PC in BH is common. Thus, it appears that analysis in terms of morphosyntax of biblical Hebrew can overlap with narratological concerns. And while they should not be conflated into one thing as analytical categories, it appears to me that narratology is a fundamental aspect of any language, BH included.

So, in Bal’s discussion on what marks personal and impersonal language she distinguishes between I/you and first and second person (personal) and he/she and third person (impersonal). Although these are only the first two distinctions she provides, it stands that narratology is (may be?) a fundamental aspect of BH, for BH uses grammatical person markers. The implication is that BH has narratological components built into it.

Third,  Bal’s description of how one defines an “event” was interesting in light of the Hebrew verbal system. According to Bal, an event is “the transition from one state to another state, caused or experienced by actors” (182). She continue on by describing three criterion for defining an event. What I am interested in seeing flesh out, though, is how her understanding of “event” does (or does not) fit with the H stem in BH. Roughly defined, the H stem expresses is causative. Drawing from my memory (I don’t have access to the three major grammars at the moment), I wonder how often the causative notion connotes an event (i.e. the transition from one state to another state as part of the fabula in a narrative) as opposed to a mere process, unimportant to a fabula.

These are just musings. I am still working them out in my head. So, if you are unsure of what I am saying, don’t worry. I am also not sure what I am saying.



Reflection on “Grammatical Parallelism and its Russian Facet” by Roman Jakobson (1966)

For those who were with biblical poetry, Roman Jakobson is an incredibly important scholar. For, his understanding of parallelism shaped and formed the framework by which Adele Berlin (The Dynamics of Biblical Paralellism) treated Biblical poetry in her own book. One quote from the article stands above the rest:

Pervasive parallelism inevitably activates all the levels of language – the distinctive features, inherent and prosodic, the morphologic and syntactic categories and forms, the lexical unites and their semantic classes in both their convergences and divergences acquire an autonomous poetic value. This focus upon phonological, grammatical, and semantic structures in their multiform interplay does not remain confined to the limits of parallel lines but expands throughout their distribution within the entire context; therefore the grammar of parallelistic pieces becomes particularly significant.

It is these categories in particular which Berlin breaks down within biblical poetry. In the next few years, though, I do look forward to a dissertation being written within NELC at the University of Chicago. It may help to clarify much of what others, Jakobson, and Berlin argued, albeit with more clarity.

One things, though, stood out to me within this article: oral traditions. Essentially, a 19th century scholar recorded a many Russian folklore traditions and poems. Although many of these records had some variation, it was noted that many of these traditions were extremely similar. Scholars argued that these similarities were due to the usage of parallelism and its dominant role in oral traditions.  Such things are present throughout many modern cultures.

Additionally, they often times drew from parallelism as defined by Lowth. Down the road, it was argued that poetic and prose traditions in the Hebrew Bible reflect an oral culture preceding it. It is this point which I want to address. Without a doubt, the oral traditions of the Hebrew Bible are possible; however, comparison of 19th century oral traditions, such as a Turkish one which goes back to the 16th century, with those of the Hebrew Bible is methodologically flawed. The method is problematic because 2000 to 2300 years separate modern traditions and ancient traditions.

So, while it is possible to prove that modern folklore traditions tend to employ grammatical parallelism, it is harder to claim such a thing for the Hebrew Bible, as did Albright and many other scholars. That said, one must produce evidence and develop a method in order to bridge the gap between modern folklore traditions and ancient traditions, particularly with regard to the relationship between oral traditions and grammatical parallelism.

Cf. U. Gabbay / Dead Sea Discoveries 19 (2012) 267–312 (esp. p. 279), wherein here notes that Mesopotamian scholars had a sense they were the recipients of an oral tradition that allowed them to offer the best commentary on canonical texts.  

Psalm 1: Translation and Notes

This is part of an ongoing series of posts in which I am offering translations and notes of particular Psalms. I am doing this to prepare for my Psalms final. I did not divide this verse by standard versification (the way the verses are divided in the Hebrew Bible). Instead, I used an outline so that I could illustrate the structure of the Psalm more clearly.

  1. Blessed is the man [1] who
    1. Does not walk in the council of the wicked
    2. And on the path of the sinners he does not stand
    3. And in the dwelling of the scoffers he does not dwell [2]
    4. But rather [3]
    5. In the law of Yahweh he delights
    6. And on his law he meditates continually. [4]
      1. So, he is like a tree transplanted onto channels of water which
        1. its fruit it gives in season
        2. And its leaves do not wither [5]
          1. And all that he does will prosper [6]
          2. Not so the wicked [7]
          3. But rather [8]
        3. Like chaff which is blown in the wind [9]
      2. For that reason [10]
    7.  They will not be vindicated, the wicked, in judgement
    8. And {they will not stand}, the sinners, in the council of the righteous. [11]

a. For Yahweh takes care of the path of the righteous and the paths of the wicked perish. [12]

[1] This phrase is potentially problematic. The word for here is אַ֥שְֽׁרֵי. It is a Masculine Plural Noun in the construct form. This means that it is directly connected to the following word. As a rule of thumb, we can insert the word “of” between the construct noun and the following noun. So, “blessings of the man” would be a more literal translation. Throughout the Psalms, and other texts, this word אַ֥שְֽׁרֵי seems to function as a sort of claim. So, “blessed is the man” = “the blessings of the man.”

[2] 1.1-3 serve to define what the blessed man does not do. The word “who” (BH אֲשֶׁ֤ר) begins this by marking the beginning of a series of subordinate clauses. This means that 1.1-3 are not complete sentences; rather, they serve to define the parameters of the phrase “blessed is the man.” Notably, each thing used to define what a blessed man does not do is very similar. In 1.1, we see the following structure: a negative particle (namely, not) + verb + location in construct with a preposition + masculine plural noun (to represent people groups). 1.2 and 1.3 use the same elements; however, they re-order the sentence structure: location in construct with a preposition +masculine plural noun + a negative particle + verb. Because 1.1-3 are so similar in structure and all use the same preposition (a bet), they are best understood as one unit. This unit serves to define what the blessed man does not do.

[3] The short phrase כִּ֤י אִ֥ם serves to transition into the next set of parameters for the blessed man. As with most particles, prepositions, or conjunctions, it may mean a wide variety of things. I am taking it as a way of marking the transition into something else. This new thing being introduced is meant to be distinct from 1.1-3. So, I translate “but rather.”

[4] 1.5-6 describes what a blessed man does. Like 1.1-3, it uses the same preposition bet. By doing so, it links itself to 1.1-3. With the conjunction, though, we know that it is a contrast to what 1.1-3 describes. Furthermore, 1.5-6 continue the same sentence structure found in 1.1-3; however, there is now no negative particle. Thus, whereas 1.1-3 were what the blessed man does not do, 1.5-6 is what the blessed me does do.

Because 1.1-3 and 1.5-6 are so closely linked in terms of sentence structure and the preposition which they use, they should be read as a unit. Recall, though, that I argued in note [2] that 1.1-3 are a unit. In light of 1.5-6, 1.1-3 are still a unit, albeit a sub-unit. 1.5-6 is, likewise, a sub-unit. These two sub-units operates in conjunction (together) to present a full picture of what a blessed man does.

Notably, though, this consistent structure is broken by two slightly different elements. First, we see in 1.6 a different verb form. 1.1-5 use QATAL (Perfect) verb forms. 1.6 shifts to a YIQTOL (Imperfect) form. Second, vs. 6 has the additional words “day and night” (יוֹמָ֥ם וָלָֽיְלָה). I translated these as “continually” because it seems to be what the text is trying to express. The addition of “continually” breaks the sentence (syntactical) pattern which I noted in [2]. For these reason, namely the breaking of a pattern from 1.1-1.6, the minor shifts and changes in 1.6 may serve to say to the reader, “Hey! Things are about to change. I’ve some new ideas to talk about, so I’ll prepare you with a minor shift in pattern of the text.”

[5] 1.6.1 is the shift which I mentioned in [4]. Rather than continuing with more parameters about how a man is to blessed, 1.6.1 uses a metaphor. It compares 1 and 1.1-6 to being planted by channels of water., then, serve to specify the parameters of a tree planted by water. It (1) gives fruit in season and (2) does not whither. This is imagery is important because it is what allow life to thrive. One can have water. Without food, though, one is unable to survive. This imagery, then, metaphorically describes the blessed man as one who enables others do survive. A tree transplanted by water will be (1) thrive as an individual tree and (2) sustain the life of other animals and people.

The extent to which one blessed man may impact the environment positively is not too surprising. In an early post, I spoke about how miscarriage of justice could make the foundations of the earth totter. There was a correlation between ethical behavior and creation. Thus, we see in Psalm 1 a similar idea at play. The blessed man is not merely an ethical man who avoids the wicked and studies the law of God as an entity autonomous from everything else. Rather, his being blessed is correlated to creation. He doesn’t necessarily cause creation to prosper; however, the Psalmist does correlate the provisions of nature and wildlife to the ethical behavior of man.


The Dan River in Israel

[6] is not entirely clear. The verb for “to do” is not clearly referring to a particular thing. Likewise, the verb for “to be caused to prosper” has no clear subject. Up till this point, though, the only present character is the blessed man and the wicked ones. Because the two verbs in are a 3MS forms, it is best to understand the subject as being the blessed man from 1.

Another interesting feature of this metaphor is the use of verbs. Recall in note [4] that 1.6 was the first occurrence of a YIQTOL verb form. In the metaphor, the only verbal form used is a YIQTOL form (except for one WǝQATAL which functions like a YIQTOL). The implication is that this metaphor is durative. Consequently, the blessed man is thought to be this way unceasingly. At no point in the imagination of this Psalm does the blessed man cease being like a tree.

Furthermore, the use of YIQTOL forms in this metaphor emphasizes it as a particular unit. The end of the first unit, 1.1-6, offers a transition into this new unit of the tree metaphor.

[7] shifts directions, yet again. Whereas previously the Psalm focused on the metaphor of the righteous man, it draws a contrast with the wicked ones.

[8] Until this point, “but rather” has only occurred once as a way of describing what the blessed do. By re-using “but rather” in context of the wicked ones, the reader now expects to see a contrast between what the blessed to and what the righteous do, or are like.

[9] The contrast derived from the phrase כִּ֥י אִם strongly contrasts the imagery of a healthy, fruit-giving tree. The notion of being “chaff” blown in the wind implies absolute lack of value. When gathering grain, the chaff is, quite literally, blowing away in the wind. They do this because it serve no value. It does not contribute to the sustaining people. Additionally, the tree is said to “give.” In, the verb establishes the tree as the agent of giving. In, the chaff has no agency in the action. Thus, the role of chaff is less significant in the sentence. Whereas the tree is an acting agent, the chaff is only acted upon.

[10] “For that reason” serves as another transition to describing the nature of the wicked. Notably, there are two conjunctions which introduce the wicked: לֹא־כֵ֥ן (lo’ ken) and עַל־כֵּ֤ן (‘al ken). These two conjunctions are strikingly similar in terms of how they sound (lo vs. al). Because of this similarities, the Psalmist may be attempting to tie these two phrases together into a larger unit.

[11] 1.7-8 reflect 1.1-6. Whereas 1.1-6 demonstrates what a blessed man did and did not do, 1.7-8 reflects what a wicked man will not do, namely stand in judgement. The notion of “standing in judgement” may have to do with what I wrote about regarding Psalm 82. If one is standing in judgement, their honor has been, to a certain extent, restored. If the wicked will not stand in judgment, their honor will not be restored. Consequently, 1.8 acknowledges that they will not stand among the righteous. For the righteous will have their honor restored.

This imagery of “the righteous, a MP N, reflects well 1.1-6. In 1.1-6, the wicked ones, a MP N, are juxtaposed to the blessed man. Now, the wicked ones are juxtaposed to the righteous ones.

Furthermore, the reason I placed “will not stand” in {} is because it not actually in the text at this point. This is what Greenstein refers to as “deep structure.” Grammatically, it should be translated “and the sinners in the council of the righteous.” As cognitively aware readers, though, our minds fill in the place where we expect a verb. Because 1.7 contains the verb, the mind fills in the blank.

Finally, the description of the wicked, including the metaphor has more brevity than the blessed man. This is important because it further demonstrates that the focus of the Psalm is the blessed man. Even though a stark contrast is being drawn between the wicked and the righteous, the focus is ultimately the righteous.

[12] a serves as the summation of Psalm 1. Before explaining a, though, note the structure of Psalm 1. Here is a small, easy version:

  1. Ways of the blessed are described.
    1. Ways of the blessed are described metaphorically.
      1. Conclude the ways of the blessed.
      2. Shift to the ways of the wicked.
    2. Ways of the wicked are described metaphorically.
  2. Ways of the wicked are described.

Each number 1 reflects the same type of description in 2. The only different is that one describes the blessed, while the other describes the wicked. This structure is what is called a chiasmus. The chiasm allows us to see a stark contrast between the wicked and blessed not just in terms of the specific words used, but in the places where they are employed. The summary is a. picks up on this by summarizing the entire Psalm in terms of the the way of the righteous as opposed to the way of the wicked. One major addition occurs here, though.

This is the only place in the Psalm where Yahweh becomes the agent of the verb. Although Yahweh appears as a figures to describe the “Law of Yahweh”, he was not the subject for a verb. As the subject a verb, Yahweh is said to “care for” (lit. “know”). I take this verb “to know” as a way of expressing how the divine watches over the blessed.

In contrast, the path of the wicked may be taken in two ways. First, the “path” could be a collective notions of “paths.” This is possible because the wicked don’t all act wicked in the same way. Thus, “path” could be understood as a plural. Furthermore, although “path” is typically understood as a masculine noun, it shows up a feminine noun. In light of these two observations, it is possibly that the subject of “to perish” is the paths themselves. So, we would translate, “and the paths of the wicked perish” (taking תֹּאבֵֽד in a stative sense). Alternatively, Yahweh could be the subject. In this case, the verb “to perish” should be taking as a 2MS, with Yahweh acting as the subject: “the paths of the wicked you, Yahweh, cause to perish.”

The alternative is less likely for two reasons. First of all, I am hesitant to give a Q form a causative meaning unless absolutely necessary. The other option, with “path” as the subject, demonstrates that using the verb as a causitive Qal is not necessary. Second, Yahweh as the subject is odd in the structure of a. Like any good syntax, the first part of a. reads as a verb followed by the subject. Thus, the subject, namely Yahweh, “knows.” The syntax clearly correlates the two. There is no reason, though, to correlate Yahweh with “perish.” Structurally and grammatically, it makes more sense for the subject of “to perish” to be “paths” (lit. path).

Also, feel free to click on this link. It may help me win a free book:


More on the History of the Old Testament

Historiography is the narrative of what happened in history. Like any narrative, story, or account, it takes place from one particular tradition. The narrative is told from a particular perspective. One major example of this is in the Hebrew Bible itself.  The authors, editors, and compilers of the Hebrew Bible each had a particular tradition which informed their perspective. Thus, their writings and edits evident in the Hebrew Bible were historiography.

But is historiography history? In other words, in the Hebrew Bible history? The answer is simple: yes and no, and a little bit in-between. Okay, maybe that’s not a simple answer. Though, I ask that you bear with me. All will become clear soon (hopefully).

In a recently published volume about the reception of the Hebrew Bible between the 1st century CE and the 21st century, Walter Dietrich comments on the current status of how scholars understand the reliability of the Hebrew Bible.  He makes his comment in light of historiography, the notion that the writers and editors of the Hebrew Bible were telling a story from their own perspective and tradition.

“Contemporary research discussion moves between the poles of a sceptical hyper-criticism and an unbroken trust in the reliability of biblical history writing. On the one hand one thinks that it is only possible to write the history of Israel without or against the Bible and on the other hand one follows to a large degree the biblical view of history. The truth lies between these two poles. An avoidance of the use of biblical historical records is no less appropriate than their extensive and uncritical use. Many details provided by the Old Testament are plausible or have already been verified by extra-biblical sources [i.e. outside of the Bible], but many are fictional and have already been proven to be false through external evidence. There is therefore a need to find the appropriate balance of critical evaluation of biblical sources and a reasonable reconstruction of history” (HBOT, vol. III/2, pp. 468-69).

This is a somewhat complicated and dense idea. So, I shall clarify. Many people either disregard 100% or maintain 100% confidence in the Hebrew. Neither of these stances is true. Rather, the truth of the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible is between complete skepticism and complete belief. Already, non-biblical evidence has proved that many things in the Hebrew Bible are historically accurate. Yet, non-biblical evidence has also proved that many things in the Hebrew Bible are not historically accurate. Therefore, we need have a balance between complete dependence and complete skepticism of the Hebrew Bible for reconstructing history.

This is because much of what is written in the Hebrew Bible “is characterised by a combination of historical, aesthetic, and theological objectives” (HBOT, vol. III/2, p. 469). So, the Hebrew Bible, the historical books in particular, is not just a person writing a historical document, though it does have history within it. At the same time, the Hebrew Bible is not just a person writing a theological document, though it does have theology within it. For this reason, Dietrich comments that in the Hebrew Bible “the boundaries between historical facts and literary fiction are fluid” (HBOT, vol. III/2, p. 468).

Think about, for example, how different news stations present the same story. Fox News does not present stories the same way as CNN. Likewise, CNN does not present stories the same way as MSNBC. MSNBC does not present stories the same way as Al Jazeera. Rather, each of these television stations constructs and shares a narrative based in history. Because each station approaches the issues and events differently, they each present the story in a different way.


Broadly speaking, this is how scholars attempt to understand the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible. It is a perspective on history; yet, just as some facts presented in the news are absolutely false or skewed, the same thing happens with the Hebrew Bible.

What are your thoughts? How skeptical of the Hebrew Bible do you think we should be? Or how trusting of the Hebrew Bible do you think we should be? I’d love you hear your perspectives.



Dietrich Walter, “Historiography in the Old Testament”, in Hebrew Bible / Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation, vol. III/2. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015.

On Prophecy in the Ancient World


Source: Wikipedia

More often than not, understandings of prophecy arise from hearing about or reading the Hebrew Bible. Books like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and Isaiah shapes and form these understandings. In this blog post, I will briefly examine one example of prophecy which occurred before all else in the Hebrew Bible. By looking at this text, I hope to demonstrate, through non-biblical material, a function of prophecy in the ancient world. The letter which I will write about was written around the 18th century BCE (c. 1800 BCE) [1].

In this letter, Inibsina is communicating with her brother who she calls Kakkabi (Zimri-Lin) [2]. Within the letter, we first read the following: “Previously, Selebum the Assinu gave a prophecy to me… Now, one female Qammatum of Dagan of Terqa came to me.” Here, Inibsina is telling Kakkabi that she previously received a prophecy. Now, she received another prophecy from a religious priestess. What did this priestess prophecy, then?

“The alliances of the men of Esnunna (a city in the ancient world) are deceptive. And, under the straw, the water will go; and toward the net, of which it can be said I will bind, I will gather it. His city I will destroy, and his stuff, which from ancient times was not defiled, I will defile.”

What is going on here? For the sake of this post, there are two main things which should be addressed: what is the message and who is the speaker?

In this prophecy which was first reported to Inibsina, the message is fairly straightforward: current allies of Kakkabi are deceptive and will not remains faithful to the alliance. As a result, the god Dagan of Terqa will destroy the city of those in the alliance who are deceptive [3]. In other words, the god recognizes the unfaithfulness of some members in the alliance. So, he will destroy them. As for the speaker, it is Dagan of Terqa speaking through the Qammatum priestess.

What does this mean, though, for how we think about religion, politics, and society in the ancient world? As this text demonstrates, the gods are understood to be directly involved in politics and social relation. Consequently, religion is directly involved with politics and social relations. Viewing it the other way, politics is directly involved with religion. Either way we look at this letter, it is evident that the people living in 18th century BCE Mari did not make a large distinction, if any, between politics and religion. They were intrinsically intertwined, if not the same.

Likewise, prophecy was intrinsically intertwined into politics. Although popular modern notions of prophecy tend to distinguish it from politics, this ancient letter demonstrates that it was, during this period, understood as part of the political atmosphere. This notion of prophecy for both religious and political ends is important because it may inform how we understand prophecy within the Hebrew Bible. Though I do not advocate that all prophecy in the Hebrew Bible is politically driven, it is worth keeping this reality in mind as we read through prophetic literature in the Hebrew Bible [4].

[1] ARM 10 80. Translation is my own.

[2] Martti Nissinen, Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East, Atlanta: SBL Press, p. 28 n. b. For simplicity, Kakkabi is best understood as a nickname for Zimri-Lin.

[3] My attempt is not a careful and close reading. I simply want to present the gist of the text.

[4] Ancient Israelite prophecy is, in fact, a unique phenomenon.


Charpin, Dominique (Paris), “Mari”, in: Brill’s New Pauly, Antiquity volumes edited by: Hubert Cancik and , Helmuth Schneider. Consulted online on 23 April 2017 <;

Nissinen, Martti, Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East, Atlanta: SBL Press,

What Do I Think About the Hebrew Bible?


14th century CE copy of the Bible (Source: Wikipedia)

Previously, I posted about how we can think about the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible. As I continue this series, I plan to continue exploring this question. Although it may not seem important, one of the most important things we can do first is ask ourselves a question: what do I think of the Hebrew Bible? Preconceived notions of the Hebrew Bible will often times guide how we read and understand the Hebrew Bible. Interestingly, this can happen across the spectrum. In order to demonstrate this, I will offer thoughts from both sides of the spectrum. I know these are not representative of everybody. I use these generalizations in order to make the point that we have to think about what we think of the Hebrew Bible, regardless of where we stand.

On the far right, we have conservative groups. These groups may be Christian or Jewish. Often times, when more conservative readers approach the Hebrew Bible, there is a preconceived notion that the text of the Hebrew Bible is holy in some manner. Being holy, it will speak the truth. Therefore, what we see in the bible is probably historically accurate.

Naturally, this view is not necessarily wrong. As I pointed out previously, some parts of the Hebrew Bible may be historically reliable. Other parts of it may not be historically reliable. So, in one sense, it is good that conservative groups automatically assume the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible. Many part of I and II Kings, for example, are historically reliable.

However, this view is also problematic. Think about, for example, Genesis 1:1-2:4. Many would argue that this text reflects and records the history of how God created the universe. When we look the Hebrew Bible’s historical context, though, it becomes apparent that there are many versions of how deities created the world and established kingship. Historically, these texts were never meant to present a material history of exactly how the deity created; rather, they were meant to demonstrate that the deity was a legitimate ruler. In other words, the goals was not to write history.

Therefore, it is problematic to see Genesis 1:1-2:4 as a historical account of how God created the world. I make this claim  based on the historical context of Genesis 1:1-2:4.

On the other side of the spectrum, though, we have people who are strongly opposed to religion. And the Hebrew Bible is a religious book. Therefore, we should be extremely skeptical about it [1]. In reading the Hebrew Bible, they may be substantially more skeptic about accepting anything in it as historically reliable. This approach, of course, is valuable. Like I posted previously, some part of the Hebrew Bible are absolutely not historical. Genesis 1:1-2:4, for example, is myth. It is not history.

However, some part of the Hebrew Bible are historically reliable. So, viewing the Hebrew Bible entirely skeptically is problematic. Consider, for example, II Kings 18-19. In this passage, we see an account of Sennacherib attacking Jerusalem. What is more, we also have written documentation by Assyrians during that period which reference this attack upon Jerusalem. Although both texts differ in how they understand the event, they nonetheless point to the same event. Therefore, we should be cautious to quickly dismiss the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible.

In either case, whether conservative or liberal and strongly opposed to religion, we must recognize that we often read our own preconceived notions and ideas into the Hebrew Bible. These notions may sometimes be valuable, such as skepticism of the historical reality of Genesis 1:1-2:4. Or, on the other side, acceptance of the historical reality of Kings. In either case, the reader needs to be critical not just of the text; rather, the reader needs to be critical of where they come from.

By asking ourselves, “What are my preconceived ideas about the Hebrew Bible,” we are able to approach it critically. We are able to ask questions which we normally wouldn’t ask. Only by doing this are we able to think about the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible [2].

[1] Please let me know if this is totally inaccurate. This was not my background. So, it is more difficult for me to explain.

[2] This is a constant process. No matter how long one has been reading the Hebrew Bible or studying the ancient Near East, we must constantly ask ourselves what our own preconceived notions are.

Is the Hebrew Bible a Historically Reliable Text?

The following is a draft which I am developing for Ancient History Encyclopedia. Although I will be writing on ancient Israelite and Judean religion, the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible is problematic for many, scholars and non-scholars alike. In particular, the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible’s portrayal of ancient Israelite religion is problematic. Thus, I wrote this piece to undergird my presentation of ancient Israelite and Judean Religion. As I proceed, I will add more layers to the issue. My goal, though, is to make the information comprehensible. 

The historicity of the Hebrew Bible is a complex issue. In order to decide whether or not it is historically reliable, we must pay close attention to the text, archaeology, and other literature from the ancient Near East. After analyzing the Hebrew Bible alongside other ancient Near Eastern literature and archaeology, we can make an informed decision as to whether or not we should utilize the Hebrew Bible for understanding the history in the regions throughout the Levant (the Levant is the area encompassing modern day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria).


Source: Wikipedia

In seeking to understand the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible, though, we must take three factors into consideration. First, we must consider that the Hebrew Bible was not originally written and composed as a single document; rather, it is an anthology of ancient writings. The ancient writing were written by many authors, over a long period of time. Thus, any attempt to answer the question must consider the varying degrees of historically reliability of texts within the anthology. Some texts may be historically reliable. Some texts may not be historically reliable.

Second, we must consider the length of time over which the Hebrew Bible was developed. As Sara Mandell notes, the history of the Hebrew Bible is “a historically late, redacted composite that presents the diverse religious and historical perspectives of its several layers of editors.”[i] In simpler words, the Hebrew Bible consists of texts which were edited by many people. By the time of the earliest, fully compiled version of the Hebrew Bible (c. 300 BCE), the text had been developed and edited for nearly 600 years. Because it was developed over such a long period of time, it contains traditions and ideas which reflect the culture of the 10th century BCE. Yet, it also contains traditions and ideas which reflect the culture of the 3rd century BCE. So, when we think about whether or not the Hebrew Bible is historically reliable, it is essential that we recognize that it was written and edited over a long period of time and in many different historical contexts, not just one.

Third, the Hebrew Bible is not just history. Within the Hebrew Bible, there are many different genres of texts. For example, the Psalms contains liturgical hymns used in temple contexts, lamentations, personal prayers, and many other genres of literature. Additionally, texts like 1 and 2 Kings are historiography, historiography being an attempt to tell history through a particular worldview. In the case of 1 and 2 Kings, the author(s) viewed the history through a theological lens. In addressing the historically reliability of the Hebrew Bible, then, we must think about the genre of text. Would one read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) like it is a poem? Absolutely not. Darwin’s book is about scientific observations. It does not fall within the genre of poetry. Likewise, we should be aware of the genre of text we read within the Hebrew Bible. By doing so, it can help us to understand how relevant the particular text in terms of its historical reliability.

To summarize, the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible is not a simple question to answer. We must take into consideration archaeology, other ancient literature, and the complicated nature of the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible is, after all, (1) an anthology of many texts and traditions from the ancient Levant. (2) These texts were developed over a period of nearly 600 years! 600 years ago from 2017, the USA did not exist, France was not established as a country, and the events which inspired some of Shakespeare’s plays were still taking place. In other words, a lot can happen in 600 years, both in Europe and the ancient Levant. Within the anthology of texts composed over a long period of time, namely the Hebrew Bible, (3) things were written in many different genres. By being aware of different genres, we can think about how we should read the text. Should we read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games as a story? Or should we read it as a history like Edward Gibbon’s History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire? These are pertinent questions and considerations when thinking about whether or not a text within the Hebrew Bible is historically reliable.


[i] Sara Mandell, “Israelite Religion”, in Encyclopedia of Judaism, vol. II.