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Conceiving a Nation: the Development or Political Discourse in the Hebrew Bible.

Conceiving a Nation: The Development or Political Discourse in the Hebrew Bible, by Mira Morgenstern. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009. 230 pp. $65.00,

As the title and subtitle of the present book indicate, this is a study about the nature of Israelite nationhood and on "the centrality of political discourse in the creation of national identity," as the author puts it in the Conclusion (p. 201). While this is the broad framework of this volume, its substance is made up of elaborate studies of various biblical heroes and heroines, including Joseph, Moses, Ruth, Jotham, Samson, Esther, each study done with careful consideration for relevant detail, each story analyzed ingeniously with countless references to commentaries and Midrashic literature, as well as modern interpretations of psychologists, anthropologists, and linguists. The numerous references are reflected in the Bibliography (pp. 203-222), counting about 450 items.

This work of Professor Mini Morgenstern may be read and evaluated from two distinct perspectives, even if these are linked in the intention and design of the author. One is the detailed analysis in each chapter which deals with one or more biblical figures. (For the above list is nor complete: Miriam, Gideon, Naomi, Boaz, Mordecai, and others are also included.) Another perspective connects diverse stories and aims at supporting, nor to say "proving" a general conclusion which claims its place in the discussion.

It is possible to agree with much in the detailed studies without accepting the general statements, and vice versa. Moreover, one can accept Morgenstern's analysis of one figure and disagree with her presentation of another. It is important in the context of a review to give justice to the author's ingenious, though complicated, analysis of the various narratives and their protagonists, or, for that matter, to present and justify the disagreement of the reviewer in some cases. The review will address these issues without necessarily dividing them in the aforesaid manner.

"The Bible structures its analysis of political discourse by focusing on a nation whose political development is atypical" (p. 5). It is also the strangeness of political protagonists that characterizes the Israelite foundation of national-political awareness, in contrast with the accepted notions of the nature of national identity. Thus, the story of Ruth questions the ethnic essence of nationality, the tale of Samson defies the cultural character of nationhood, and the book of Esther presents the Jews as people without a territorial base (p. 4).

The present reviewer has doubts about such crucial place of strangeness in political discourse at large, as well as in the specific case of Israelites or Jews and the examples adduced here. Let us deal with the latter.

The survival of Jewish nationhood on foreign territory is, of course, an unusual phenomenon, and has been elevated or downgraded to a proverbial status. Yet, the phenomenon of a nationhood without a territorial base is not at the root of Jewish national awareness, an awareness which solidified before Jewish dispersal and was strong enough to survive the ordeal of exile. Jewish nationalism does not owe anything to Esther--book or heroine. It is Esther who owes her national identity to Jewishness and to the enmity of her host country. This, of course, is largely--though not necessarily--the case of the Jewish condition in history. That this peculiarity may not be a guarantee of the survival of Jewish nationhood on any soil has been amply shown by the assimilation of Jews in diaspora, as the Persian names of Esther and Mordecai not so discreetly indicate. Indeed, the cultural identity of Jews has not always been secure on their territory either, as the Hellenistic manifestations of the Hasmonean kingdom show, or, for that matter, the linguistic and cultural fragility of contemporary Israel demonstrates

As to the difference of Samson, it has to be borne in mind that, being one of the "Judges" in the eponymous book, he could hardly be a "regular guy." The Judges (Shoftim) were not an institution, like the Kings, but ad-hoc military commanders emerging in times of national calamity--whether by public outcry or by divine choice, or both. Such individuals could hardly be expectedto follow a certain "profile." Moreover, Samson's story is atypical even among other Shaftim, For he is not a military and political leader, but a solo performer--not unlike Heracles or Theseus in the Greek mythology. One can hardly perceive such a figure as one of the people. He is extraordinary by definition.

Ruth is the heroine of the eponymous scroll, which essentially presents a picture of the total devotion of a Moabite woman to her Israelite mother-in-law, No'omi (usually mistakenly transcribed from Hebrew as Naomi). The latter, a widow, lost her two sons, and the two women, left without children or grand-children, present the picture of love and devotion in the setting of a personal disaster. Both apparently accept the notion that children secure the continuation of the patrilineal family, though wives are indispensable for attaining this holy goal. Through clever stratagems and the responsive Boaz, Ruth marries and bears a son, and the lonely poor women achieve their goal, which also benefits them personally. As mixed marriages do not seem to have been frowned upon in Israel those days, there is nothing exceptional in this story. It has been repeated in various places and ages, without undermining the sense of national identity of the community. That Ruth's progeny after a few generations happened to be David is clearly incidental, and, entre nous, nothing to make Ruth and No'omi proud of, in view of David's crimes against Uriah the Hittite (another virtuous stranger), the king having committed adultery and murder (two capital offences according to the Torah), besides getting rid of the descendants of Saul--not personally, but accommodating the Gibeonites (See 2 Samuel, 21:1-9). The innocent poor Moabite Ruth did not contribute to the discourse of Israelite nationhood.

Outstanding is Morgenstern's analysis of the story of Jotham, the youngest son of Gideon, who had survived the slaughter by Avimelekh of his brothers, in his attempt to become the king. The dramatic situation, the contrast between the power-hungry Avimelekh and the saved Jotham, the latter using his intelligence and eloquence to fight against his dangerous brother and expounding his parable of the trees looking for a king over themselves, offer our author an opportunity to unveil an impressive commentary and comments, taking lull advantage of the biblical text, Midrashim, and European political theory.

That Morgenstern engages so eagerly in exploiting the biblical narrative with all the satellites circling round it, comports with her notion that political discourse sustains the nation and the communal life. This is a democratically colored perception of the Bible, of nationhood, and of the Jewish polity. One can ask whether here the American experience contributes to the interpretation of the Bible, or the Bible informs the American polity.

Perhaps the answer to this question, which may upstage it, has to be sought in the idea offered by Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Communities, quoted by Morgenstern: "The nation ... is an imagined political community. ... Communities are to be distinguished ... by the style in which they are imagined" (p. 31, note 51).

We could take a step further and recall Ahad Ha'am. In his essay on "Moses" (English translation in Selected Essays, 1912), he looks at him not as at a historical figure, who may or may not have existed in flesh, but sees in him the incarnation of the distinctive national ideal. Moses represents the soul of the Jewish people, which is the idea of justice, or righteousness, in its perfection. Thus, the essence of the Israelite or Jewish nationhood is the principle of the Right or the Just. The Israelite community, nationhood, polity, is guided by the quest of Right--which, of course, requires a continuous discourse.

A minor, technical, comment: On page 61, note 33, the parable of Socrates as a gadfly is recorded as mentioned in Plato's Crito. In fact, it is related in Apology 30-31.

Mordecai Roshwald

Professor (Emeritus) of Humanities

University of Minnesota in

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Author:Roshwald, Mordecai
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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