Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 7 (2007) - Review

Ronald Hendel, Remembering Abraham: Culture, Memory, and History in the Hebrew Bible. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). Pp. xi + 200. Cloth, CAN$45.50, US$35.00. ISBN 0-19-517796-7.

Ronald Hendel's book starts with a discussion of the identity of Israel. Situated among the nations, Israel had to differentiate itself by constructing and maintaining a variety of cultural, religious and ethnic boundaries. The most distinctive markers were male circumcision, the dietary law, and the institution of the Sabbath. The origin of the first two, in Hendel's judgment, was facilitated by the dangerous presence of the Philistines (pp. 21-22). As for the Sabbath, pre-exilic observance was evident, although the precise time frame was less clear (p. 23).

The past always comes alive in special times. Memories evoked, however, are not simply events recalled. In Chapter Two, the author beautifully demonstrates that the remembering of Abraham as witnessed in the Hebrew Bible serves to activate conventional social, religious and political ideals, and to create from the past stories new fissures, oppositions and understandings. The counter-memory claim in Ezek 33:23-24 (p. 42) highlights the fact that Israel did resort to their identity as Abraham's offspring and that the remembrance of him was not enshrined. In other words, memory was subject to negotiation, critique, and even revision.

In Chapter Three, Hendel examines the archaeological evidences and affirms that the biblical traditions of the patriarchs can be stretched back to the second millennium memories of El and the old Amorite tribal home. In Chapter Four, combing through ancient documents, he argues that the tradition of the Exodus preserves many ancient memories, such as the oppressive rule of Pharaoh (pp. 59-60), the enslavement of the Canaanites (pp. 60-62) and the “Egyptian diseases” (pp. 64-65). A powerful story it is, and the Exodus functions as a paradigm to be remembered and reinterpreted both in the temporal rhythm of everyday life and in the lifespan of human species.

Chapter Five is an exercise and an illustration. Assuming Israel Finkelstein is right in lowering the so-called “Solomonic” strata by 75-100 years, the author reads anew the biblical text of 1 Kings 9:15-19 in which Solomon was credited with many building activities. When the narrative is read in light of the low chronology, it illustrates the thesis of the book that the later literary composition makes use of history to shape and reinforce a certain ideology.

last chapter of the book, “The Biblical Sense of the Past,” is an interesting and fitting development of the main thought. Having perused the biblical text in seeking the social function of history, Hendel now looks at the nature of history as it is reflected in the biblical material. He observes, “The biblical practice of historiography is one of interpretation and combination, rather than verification and falsification” (p. 97). This finding corroborates with Gershom Scholem's observation that interpretation and commentary became for the Jews what philosophy was for the Greeks, the preferred method for discerning truth (p. 103).

If the task of the modern biblical scholar is to negotiate the complex circulation of meanings in and among the texts, attending to matters of language, history, religion, literature and culture (pp. ix-x), Hendel has done his job superbly in this book. Running the risk of venting empty words, I offer one critique and one reflection for further thoughts.

My criticism is that in a few places the discussion is not thorough. For example, Hendel locates the origin of circumcision in the period of the Philistine migration without much discussion. This seems less than satisfactory since there are traces in the biblical texts that this institution may have been established in earlier times. It is true that circumcision was not foreign to the Egyptian society. We know from several temple reliefs, however, that it was limited to a certain group and was not performed on babies. The enigmatic passage in Exodus 4:24-26 in all likelihood reflects such disparities for Moses and should be an important text for Hendel. Unfortunately, he does not elaborate on this incident.

Similarly he dates the earliest trace of the food law to the same period while the biblical view has it in the Wilderness after the Exodus. Hendel builds his case by appealing to Larry Stager's find that pig bones were rare in the highland village of Iron I but were common in Philistia (p. 22). The problem, however, is more complex. Pig constitutes only one source of food. The comprehensive list of prohibited food requires a more substantial explanation. It is true that Israelite meals celebrated and maintained the boundaries of society. Nevertheless, whether these boundaries were set simply to counter a common practice of the Other or to reflect a systematic thought and a particular ideology is a legitimate question.

My reflection stems from Hendel's experiment with the low chronology and the passage describing Solomon as the great builder, which we have briefly discussed. The chapter deserves another look because Hendel also scrutinizes the literary representation of Solomon in 1 Kings 1-2. He concludes that this shady Solomon, because it conflicts with the otherwise idealized portrayal of Solomon, is probably as close to the historical Solomon as we are likely to get (p. 93). What is of interest here is that this does not lead Hendel to posit a multiple-source theory or to a path of redactional speculation. Rather, he writes, “Careful attention to each of the two Solomons–the dimly perceived historical king and the textual representation–is crucial to a coherent understanding of the other” (p. 94). “Did the author or redactor realize this?” we may wonder. If narrative discourse had always been a tool in fashioning public opinions, wouldn’t some of the competent ancient readers attain as homogeneous an understanding as Hendel's? If so, what does this tell us about the writing or editing of the text? Moreover, what does this reveal to us as to the nature of the text?

“The future too is implicit in the past,” Hendel writes (p. 37). Perhaps the answer is already in the book and we should read it again!

Wesley Hu, China Evangelical Seminary