Biography 24.3 (2001) 607-609
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The traditions of ancient Israel preserved in the Hebrew Bible are rich in biography--stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs; tales of birth, maturation, marriage, adventure, and death; exploits of the swashbuckling chieftains called judges; careers of kings, prophets, and priests. The lives are framed in the formulaic and recurring patterns of oral-style lore, while the information provided is inherently metonymic and sometimes contradictory. What was the nature of Abraham's youth? Was he from Ur or Haran?
Ilana Pardes has provided a thoughtful and intriguing tour through the Hebrew Bible as biography. Professor Pardes is attuned to the lives of individual narrative protagonists such as Abraham and Moses, and has much of interest to say about them, but her overriding focus is upon ways in which the written tradition preserves and constructs a life of the people Israel, a national identity.
The work is informed by an eclectic and interdisciplinary range of methodologies and thinkers. Otto Rank's studies of the hero are present. Arnold van Gennep's, Victor Turner's, and Mercea Eliade's research on rites of passage and transformation are relevant for Pardes, who shares these scholars' interests in anthropology and religious phenomenology. Michael Walzer and Eric Hobsbawm are also represented, with their studies on the nature of social movements and political renewal. Benedict Anderson's work on the concept of the nation is relevant, as are the contributions of literary critics and poets, including Bakhtin and Bialik. Professor Pardes is also familiar with a wide range of biblical scholarship, including the work of Tikvah Frymer-Kensky, Edward Greenstein, and Shermayahu Talmon. These various influences emerge implicitly and explicitly, enlivening Pardes's treatment of Israel's stories of formation or national birth; his--Israel is seen primarily as son--separation from Egypt as mother; his identity crises in contact with Egyptians, Canaanites, and others; his "initiatory voyage" in the wilderness; and his effort to partake of the mother (land) of milk and honey. As this summary of some of the areas explored by Pardes indicates, the strongest influence upon her work is Freud. Ultimately, Pardes writes about the psychology of becoming, of achieving self-definition as a cohesive group that presents and comprehends itself in certain ways. She explores the challenges faced in the struggle to reach a sense of national identity, and the ambivalences expressed. As an actual person undertakes such a journey in life, so does the nation as perceived by biblical writers. [End Page 607]
Pardes's examination of Israelite historiography from an eclectic, creative, yet nicely synthetic biographical perspective yields many profound insights. She shows, for example, the many links, literary and conceptual, between the biographies of individual biblical heroes, such as Abraham and Moses, and the biography of the nation. She is particularly sensitive to the slave mentality that emerges in the birth story of ancient Israel, which she views as a tale of "trauma and recovery" (21). She sees the blood motif of the Passover story as a complex multivocalic symbol having to do with an emergence from the womb. Attuned to ancient mythic patterns, Pardes draws revealing comparisons between Israel's return to the land and Odysseus's homecoming. Aware of the variation on similar patterns that is the stock and trade of traditional literatures, she explores the meaning and significance of inner biblical variants such as Joshua 2 and Numbers 13. Pardes's attention to the role of Egypt in Israelite identity is especially good. As Robert Oden and Donald Redford have shown, biblical scholars have paid far too little attention to Egyptian influences on Israelite culture and literature. Pardes suggests that Egypt holds an important and paradigmatic place in an Israelite symbolic universe.
A subplot of Pardes's biography includes the post-biblical elaborations of the biblical tradition--for example, her comments on the motif of Miriam's well, which continues to draw...