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.’

Jacobson’s own resolution of his love-hate relationship with the Bible is that what has permanent worth in our culture, including the moral standards by which we live, arises by some psychological alchemy out of the combined action of the less attractive characteristics of mankind and the human need to construct a fantasy which has no basis in reality; and he is understandably overwhelmed by the improbability of this thesis and by the unpredictability of the process he invokes.

It is at this point that Alter enters the discussion. His interest lies in the vivid early narratives of the Old Testament, which he describes as fictionalised history. In a world previously dominated by the stereotypes of myth these stories represented the emergence of a new literary genre. ‘Prose narration ... could be used to liberate fictional personages from the fixed choreography of timeless events and could thus transform storytelling from ritual rehearsal to the delineation of the wayward paths of human freedom, the quirks and contradictions of men and women seen as moral agents and complex centres of motive and feeling.’ But the facilitating cause of this liberation was nothing less than Israel’s monotheistic faith, the belief that God, like a good novelist, is able to bring about the dénouement of his plot without doing violence to the integrity, the autonomy, the idiosyncrasies, even the recalcitrance of the characters he has created. ‘The human figures in the large Biblical landscape act as free agents out of the impulses of a memorable and often fiercely assertive individuality, but the actions they perform all ultimately fall into the symmetries and recurrences of God’s comprehensive design.’

It might be objected that in all this there is nothing new, since the author of the Joseph cycle has said all that needs to be said in seven Hebrew words (‘You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good’ – Genesis, 1.20), which Alter forbears to quote. But his original contribution is in the sensitivity with which he has carried out his critical study. The primary task of the critic, as he sees it and admirably fulfils it, is ‘to explain how from these laconic texts, figures like Rebekah, Jacob, Joseph, Judah, Tamar, Moses, Saul, David and Ruth emerge, characters who, beyond any archetypal role they may play as bearers of a divine mandate, have been etched as indelibly vivid individuals in the imagination of a hundred generations’.

This aim, he warns us, cannot be achieved without meticulous attention to the literary techniques and artistry of the writers; and to this end he discusses with illuminating illustrations the use of thematic key-words and leading motifs, the delineation of character by means of dialogue, the significance of minute changes in the repetition of reported speech. Above all, the critic must be aware of the literary conventions of the age he is studying, not least in order to detect where an author has deliberately departed from them. Among such conventions was a standard of unity and coherence quite different from ours, which enabled the ancient author to set apparent contradictions side by side in a montage which allows each part to qualify the other.

In making this last point, Alter some-what contemptuously dismisses orthodox Old Testament criticism as ‘excavative’, and seems unaware that criticism of the kind he approves has already for more than a generation been deployed by scholars of great eminence. He does not, however, dispute the findings of older scholars that many of the stories are composite, and that the original elements belong to conflicting traditions. His contention is rather that the conflicts are so blatant that the editor who put the divergent traditions together in their present form must have known what he was doing and intended the effect he produced. The editor is not to be brushed aside as a scissors-and-paste botcher, but should be treated with respect as an artist in montage and the real author of the stories as they stand. His main illustrations are the interweaving of the pro-monarchical and anti-monarchical traditions in the narrative of Samuel’s dealings with Saul and the two incompatible accounts in 1 Samuel of David’s introduction to the court: he argues that the montage achieves the effect of allowing us to see the characters with binocular vision. But he seems to recognise that this is the weakest part of his case, and wisely does not attempt to use this device to rationalise the intricate scenario of Midianites and Ishmaelites in the story of Joseph, in which the Midianites, having first sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites, attempt to sell him again to Potiphar, who (recognising their duplicity?) prefers to buy him from the Ishmaelites.

If there are errors in this book, they are errors of overstatement, which do not detract from the attractive and compelling power with which it sweeps to its objective. The first thing to do with the Bible, it tells us, is not to regard it as a solemn authority, but simply to enjoy it. ‘The paradoxical truth of the matter may well be that by learning to enjoy the Biblical stories more fully as stories, we shall also come to see more clearly what they mean to tell us about God, man, and the perilously momentous realm of history.’

Northrop Frye regards the Bible as fiction because, like William Blake, from whom he derives his title, he comes near to identifying religion with creativity. To that extent he is an ally of Alter: but to him the focus of creativity is not in narrative but in myth; and myth is a construct – ‘it belongs to the world of culture and civilisation that man has made.’ ‘ “Mythical accretions” are what the Bible is: it is the bits of credible history that are expendable.’

Frye’s critical tools are those he forged for himself a quarter of a century ago in the Anatomy of Criticism, but they have acquired a new cutting edge in their application to a fresh theme. He takes his start (though he rapidly leaves it behind) from Vico’s three types of language: the hieroglyphic, which works through metaphor and represents reality in terms of immanence, without separation of subject and object; the hieratic, which expresses itself in metonymy and sets subject and object in a relation of transcendence; and the demotic or descriptive, which lays emphasis on objectivity. He grants that these broad distinctions have some useful reference to historic periods, but rejects the notion that they stand for evolutionary stages in development from naiveté to sophistication, ‘It apparently takes social scientists much longer than poets or critics to realise that every mind is a primitive mind.’ All forms of language have their limitations, and the trouble with arguments about the existence of God is that the protagonists on both sides of the debate are prisoners within their own conventions of language. With a crusading zeal Frye sets out to free us from our prisons by making us ‘more aware of our mythological conditioning’. The hieratic approach belongs with ecclesiastical authority and finds the meaning of the Bible in doctrine. The demotic approach concentrates on a narrowly defined concept of historicity. In place of these Frye pleads for an unabashed return to the hieroglyphic, which with its language of metaphor and myth can open the eyes of the blind. But what the Biblical mythology, with its structure of recurrent imagery, enables us to see is not the actual world, in all its ambiguity and frustration, but the limitless expanses of the possible. Its endless resource of imaginative energy redeems the world by transforming it, and transforms it by its influence on creative minds, not only the minds of artists but the minds also of those who appreciate and commit themselves to the social concern of myth. In expounding this thesis, Frye leads us on a journey of exploration through language, myth, metaphor and typology, and back again in reverse order.

The Bible, he argues, is literary without being literature, poetic without being poetry, at least in any sense which would dissolve the distinction between Jesus and the characters in his parables. Its mythology provides a framework of cultural and historical understanding, with the proviso that its history is not what we should have seen if we had been present (Welt-geschichte), but what the eye of vision can perceive to have really been going on (Heils-geschichte): yet these two must be seen as different aspects of a single entity, unless the one is to crumble into barrenness, while the other evaporates into fantasy. ‘The Bible is far too deeply rooted in all the resources of language for any simplistic approach to its language to be adequate.’

Metaphor is the language of faith, as well as of poetry: not only for the obvious negative reason that he who would speak of God has no other language than metaphor, but for the positive reason that faith clings to the emancipating vision beyond the limits of reason. Hieratic doctrine tries to rationalise metaphors, to explain them, to turn them into metonymy, and leaves ‘a strong smell of intellectual mortality’. Demotic description finds metaphor embarrassing to its quest of accuracy. But metaphor is not an optional, dispensable extra. What we call reality is a chaotic stream of impressions which we receive and reduce to order through a linguistic screen, so that our world is literally created by the word, and due attention to language is needed if we are not to fall into idolatry, the idolatry of ‘externalised literalism which subordinates words to “real” things’.

One Biblical form of metaphor is typology, which depicts the fulfilment of a recurring pattern in terms of its shadowy and partial antecedents. Doctrine and description are tied to traditional forms of causality, in spite of the limitations of those forms exposed by philosophers from Hume to Whitehead. But typology reverses causality (or, in Aristotelian terms, gives the final cause precedence over the efficient cause), since in typology the anticipatory forms of the pattern find their meaning only in that which is to follow. Thus in this respect as in all others Biblical language deals less with the facts of a closed past than with the possibilities of an open future.

These sample dips do scant justice to the richness of Frye’s treatment. This is a weighty book which makes strenuous demands on the reader in return for the rewards it offers. It leads us on a labyrinthine course with no concessions to the weakness of those who ask for an Ariadne’s thread to guide them, but only a reminder that anxiety is the very minotaur with which we must in the end do battle. ‘Man is constantly building anxiety-structures, like geodesic domes, around his social and religious institutions. If Milton’s view of the Bible as a manifesto of human freedom has anything to be said for it, one would expect it to be written in a language that would smash these structures beyond repair, and let some genuine air and light in. But of course anxiety is very skilful at distorting languages.’

In the end, apart from the anxiety that I have very imperfectly understood him, Frye leaves me with one anxiety he cannot dispel. Granted that the language of the Bible, mythical, metaphorical and typological, enables us to see, what if the vision be false? I still have Jacobson at my shoulder to remind me that many of those who were inspired by the imagery of the Bible, indeed many who contributed to that imagery, were capable of being drastically, demonically wrong. In the Bible the man of vision is the seer, but Old and New Testaments alike know of false prophets as well as true. Part of my difficulty, not only with this question, but with Frye’s book as a whole, is that he is so devoted to the fertile ambiguities of metaphor that he uses even the technical terms of criticism, like metonymy, in a multitude of unfamiliar senses; and vision too is a highly ambiguous term. It can stand both for the act of sight and for the object seen. But in the Bible there is never any suggestion that the act of sight is in itself liberating, independently of the reality which through recovered sight dawns upon the eyes. ‘Your eyes shall behold a king in his splendour.’ Words also can be idols.