- Remembering Abraham: Culture, Memory, and History in the Hebrew Bible
There are true memories and there are false memories, as in the case of false memory syndrome. True memories are constructed, a mélange of facts and [End Page 186] partial recollections, of reexperiences (since they are recalled) filtered through perceptions of the past. False memories are a mélange of fictions, construed the same way. Think "The Manchurian Candidate." To talk of memory is to evoke the presence of Freud and Nietzsche and to raise the possibility of the unreal as real. To talk of true memories is to talk of the past but to address it through ethereal, gossamer filaments of fact, interwoven with shafts of maybes, wafting in breezes of time. And that is what Ron Hendel undertakes in this interesting book.
In this collection of six short studies, four of which were previously published, Hendel inquires whether or not historical-like narratives in the Bible, dependent largely on Israel's national and/or cultural memories, were true or false memories of real persons and events. And if true, in what way or with regard to what may they be considered historical.
Chapter 1 situates ancient Israel in the cultural context of the Ancient Near East and illustrates well how the Bible's presentation of Israel as a people set aside, somewhat different from its neighbors, despite objective indicators that this was not necessarily the case, created a narrative framework through which Israel perceived the world and comprehended its evolving present and its evolving past. Chapter 2, "Remembering Abraham," written for this book, leads directly into chapter 3, "Historical Memories in the Patriarchal Narratives." The first of this pair explores how Israel's memories of Abraham function in the literature and how the earlier compositions in Genesis attracted later comments and reactions in texts that were composed later. The second focuses on the question of how much of what is predicated about Abraham may be considered factual. Hendel concludes that patriarchal names can be considered historical, that the "El" religion that they practice can be considered historical, and that an Egyptian "Fort Abram" mentioned by Pharaoh Sheshonk, the biblical Shishaq of 1 Kings 14:25–26, as being somewhere in the Negev ca. 925 BCE, imports a vague historicity to an actual heroic Abram, the self-same Abram/Abraham portrayed in Genesis. But when it comes time to parse the literary and archaeological data in order to discern when this character actually lived in the past, Hendel dates the patriarchal era to "the time forever recreated in the biblical narratives of Genesis 12–50. This era consists of myth and memory, mingled in a way far more compelling than ordinary history. It is an era in sacred time" (p. 55).
Chapter 4 explores "The Exodus in Biblical Memory," and concludes on the basis of both biblical and extra-biblical data that some veracity may be assigned to the memories linking bondage and Egypt, even though there is no necessary truth to the Bible's claim that all of Israel was in Egypt and that all Israelites in the Central Highlands of Eretz Israel during the divided [End Page 187] monarchy were descendents of former Egyptian slaves. Some of them, however, may very well have been individuals with direct or indirect memories of Egyptian slavery (p. 62). Nevertheless, when the plague narratives and the signs and wonders are factored into the equation and the extant Exodus narrative is comprehended as a memory, Hendel concludes that "the memory of the Exodus is not just a memory of historical events, but a conflation of history and memory that suits the conditions of different qualities of time" (p. 73). In chapter 5, Hendel searches for Solomon in history and memory. Using literary hints and archaeological clues, he disentangles the shadowy historical figure barely discernible behind the elaborate Biblical narrative text from the fictional one.
In chapter 6, a well-composed encapsulation of "The Biblical Sense of the Past," Hendel ties together the threads from...