Friday, September 13, 2013

Writing about the Bible by Richard Abbott

Writing about the ancient near east around 1200BC or thereabouts inevitably means writing about places and times that overlap with accounts in the Hebrew Bible. This raises a set of unique problems, because of the particular place that that book occupies in world culture. As I have read around fictional books based in biblical times, then you get a very wide spectrum. Some writers are loathe to look as though they are altering any minute details that one or other biblical book has supplied. Others seem anxious to write the exact opposite – people and events that the biblical authors see as bad are presented in their books as good, and vice versa.

Both of these extremes seem to me to show very lazy writing. It is clear that the Hebrew Bible was never intended to be a comprehensive view of regional history – so there are a great many gaps and uncertainties in its coverage. But equally, there are situations for which it is the only written record that we now have – so simply dismissing it or inverting its content seems reckless. We need to look at our sources with a critical eye.

An interesting difficulty which many people have arises from the rather long timespan of events described. Let’s ignore the early chapters about creation, the flood, and so on, and start where the account seems to settle into a more soberly historical form; say a quarter of the way into Genesis, then through the other historical books. Even so we are looking at well over a thousand years of cultural memory. It is natural for later authors, and later readers, to look back at earlier times with a rather rosy view.

In a religious sense, what this means is that the confident monotheism of much later years is projected onto an age where – so far as we can tell from both archaeological and textual sources – ideas were nowhere near so clear-cut. The early Israelites were not so insistent on the idea of a single deity as the later ones, and careful readings of the biblical text show traces of this. Both biblical books and physical artefacts suggest that the Israelites were often inclined to integrate local ideas with their own.

So how have I written about the Israelites – the Ibriym, as I have called them – in this early stage of their history? Well, I present them as carrying around quite a mixture of ideas. Their names are often a blend of Canaanite and Egyptian elements. They are able to live alongside, and make treaties with, representatives of the Canaanite group that is my main focus, even though this involves prayers and offerings to different deities. Their own mixed heritage is sufficiently close in time that they understand the Canaanite world view, though there are parts of it that they do not want to share. I reckon it makes for some interesting situations – and ones that are credible for the late second millennium. Let me know what you think!

Milk & Honeyed Land
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Genre – Historical Fiction
Rating – PG13
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