I explain: We have no corroborating evidence. The Hebrew Bible is our sole source for the stories and tales we tell about Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob (and we can say the same thing about all the matriarchs, too). We have to reach King David’s time to find texts that affirm even the smallest measure of Israelite history as Tanakh tells it.
Scholars have found no trace of hundreds of thousands of ancient slaves traveling along the pathways the Israelites are supposed to have taken during the Exodus. We don’t have evidence that Israelites were monotheistic – just the opposite, if you look at the archeological evidence.
The Hebrew Bible (read Tanakh) is a minority report, I tell my university students. A likely all-male, educated elite wrote its books over many centuries and from many different historical and theological perspectives.
Our classroom conversations are around the role of mythical narratives, and their inestimable value and power for defining the human-divine experiment. It’s interesting stuff, a way to travel on the ancient wild side. And my students connect with it. They discover that it is relevant. In our classes, bible becomes real for them in ways they never expected.
Example: The recent discussion of Joshua 2 in my class on women in the Hebrew Bible. The story features a Canaanite prostitute who announces an imminent victory for the invading Israelite nation and negotiates safe passage for herself and her family. Rahab, who lives in the very walls of Jericho, manages to hide two Israelite spies sent by Joshua to scope out the city’s defenses. She bluffs her way out of an interrogation conducted by the king’s men and sends them into the countryside on a crazy goose chase after the spies (who are, in the meantime, sunning themselves on her roof). Afterwards, she heads upstairs to deliver an oracle to her Israelite guests in true Deuteronomist style.
We have heard, Rahab tells the Israelite spies, how YHVH dried up the waters of the Sea of Reeds to allow the Israelites to escape Egypt. We know how God helped the Israelites defeat powerful Amorite kings. Jericho’s inhabitants are quaking in their boots, she says, “for the Lord your God is the only God in heaven above and on earth below.”
Based on her intimate knowledge of Israelite narratives and her surety about the Israelite future, she follows her oracular prologue with hard-hitting negotiations. She’s protected them; now, they owe her. She stipulates her conditions and the Israelites do the same. There are sanctions for both sides if anyone fails to meet their obligations. Rahab demands an oath to seal the deal, the spies agree, and they, in turn, give her a scarlet cord as the physical sign of their agreement.
The day we discussed this story, my students spent time marveling at the way Rahab managed all the men in the story. She was tough, clever, aggressive in ways they could admire, and did.
One student pointed out that a Canaanite prostitute had effectively doomed the king and his entire administration.
“She’s the ruler of Jericho,” she said.
“Oh, my,” I said suddenly. I stood very still.
“What is it, Dr. Thiede?” one of my students asked.
“I just had a thought,” I said slowly.
Everyone waited patiently. My students are Very Nice People.
“You know how I am always reminding you that we have to treat these narratives as stories, tales with a lot of mythical elements?”
“Yes,” one said slowly.
“And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing,” I continued. “Except it just occurred to me that we are living in a time when a pornographic actress has been sending a lawyer who is the king’s man on a wild goose chase to secure her silence. She has declared a contract void because the king hasn’t signed it. She is posing a serious threat to the king’s credibility. Who is ruling Washington, DC, these days? Or,” I added, “at least, CNN.”
“Omigosh!” one of my students said. “Stormy Daniels!”
“Ha,” I added. “The bible says: Be careful about tangling with someone connected to sex work. It may not be history, folks, but Bible is real.”
Class ended. I headed for my office, looking at the sky. Clouds were gathering. As might be expected, I thought. And just as you thought yourself. Just now.
It’s another stormy day.