The Bible as Fiction

George Caird

  • The Story of the Stories: The Chosen People and its God by Dan Jacobson
    Secker, 211 pp, £8.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 436 22048 2
  • The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter
    Allen and Unwin, 195 pp, £10.00, May 1982, ISBN 0 04 801022 7
  • The Great Code: The Bible and Literature by Northrop Frye
    Routledge, 261 pp, £9.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 7100 9038 2

When three distinguished literary figures are impelled to write about the Bible, it is clear that this strange library of books has lost nothing of its perennial fascination. All three grapple with the conundrum forcefully posed by Frye: ‘Why does this huge, sprawling, tactless book sit there inscrutably in the middle of our cultural heritage like the “great Boyg” or sphinx in Peer Gynt, frustrating all our efforts to walk around it?’ All three agree that it is fiction, but when we ask what they mean, we receive radically different answers.

Jacobson, the novelist, is curiously the least literary in his treatment. To him, the Bible is its doctrine, and its doctrine is election, with the concomitant Deuteronomic view of the cyclic nature of history, which he documents with extensive quotations from historical books, psalms and prophets. This doctrine he disbelieves, largely on moral grounds, because to choose is also inescapably to reject, but also because the periodic rise and fall of nations, including Israel, would have happened anyway through causes inherent in the historical process, without any need for divine control. The doctrine is therefore fiction, not merely because like all other doctrines it is a human construct, but because it is ‘untruth’.

As a Jew growing up in South Africa, Jacobson was familiar with one contemporary form of that bigotry which the doctrine of election has spawned throughout Christian history. But what exercises him is that Jewish belief in election has been the prime cause of anti-semitism. All the brutal intolerance of which the Gentile world is today pathologically ashamed was but the return to roost of fledglings hatched in the nest of Jewish self-assertion: ‘the very notion of being chosen by such a God will produce the retribution appropriate to it.’ Yahweh is the projection of Israel’s desire to be above other nations. Election, the chosen people, the choosing God – all are the fantasy of a homeless and insignificant tribe in quest of national identity. Election, moreover, verifiable through success, was protected against falsification through failure by the doctrine of covenant, which taught that privilege could be forfeited by disobedience, so that, throughout the ups and downs of history, Yahweh could never be faulted.

Jacobson is of course aware that the account he gives of the origin of Israelite religion is not historical: they really believed, and their belief was integral to the historical fabric of cause and effect. His account, no less than the doctrine he criticises, is fiction. But his onesided argument is robbed of offence by a charming mixture of passionate concern and playful delight in irony. There is first the obvious irony that, in a peripeteia worthy of the Deuteronomist, he has turned the tables on those who denied the existence of the gods of other religions. But he is aware also of the irony that all he says about the Bible could be applied to his own book: it has arisen out of his fear of homelessness, his determination not to allow his revulsion at Old Testament morality to alienate him from what he recognises to be the roots of the culture to which he belongs and of the morality which enables him to sit in judgment on the very rock out of which he was hewn. He appears, however, to have missed the further irony that, by ascribing to Israel the creative power which invented their God and so became responsible for initiating the religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, he has offered to the Jewish people a far greater claim to superiority than they could ever derive from faith in a God to whom they owed everything because he invented them.

The claim that the Bible is fiction is somewhat impaired by Jacobson’s own occasional disregard of historical accuracy. He lays at the door of Paul the conviction that the transfer of election to Christians entails the rejection of the Jews, notwithstanding Paul’s agony of wrestling with the problem in Romans and his passionate repudiation of the conclusion Jacobson attributes to him: ‘Has God rejected his people? I cannot believe it.’

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