Wrong Side of the River

Robert Alter

  • River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line by Rachel Havrelock
    Chicago, 320 pp, £26.00, December 2011, ISBN 978 0 226 31957 5

Rachel Havrelock’s River Jordan is broad in scope, subtle in interpretive detail and written in lucid prose, with an assured mastery of the relevant scholarship – all the more remarkable because it is her first book. What she has done in effect is to invent a new kind of historical analysis, which I would call cultural cartography, with culture comprising ideology and politics as well as national identity.

Everyone remembers that the Jordan River in the Bible marks the eastern border of the Promised Land. The biblical narrative at numerous points makes much of the crucial verb ‘to cross over’ in relation to the Jordan, and it is of course Moses’s fate to remain on the far side, looking out on the land from the east. The biblical picture, however, is much more complicated than this, as Havrelock shows. Contrary to popular conceptions of the Bible as a ‘book’, scholarship has long recognised that it is in fact a sprawling, disorderly anthology spanning many centuries and incorporating competing, sometimes clashing views. The originality of River Jordan is its demonstration that these disparate ideologies are translated into different maps of the land which express different constructions of ancient Israel’s national identity. These maps, moreover, are not merely of antiquarian interest, because at least some of them have continuing relevance in the conflict over the land today between Israelis and Palestinians.

The map most people recall is the one proposed by the so-called Priestly writers, who were responsible for Leviticus and a code emphasising purity and elaborate ritual distinctions, and were active from around the early eighth century BCE onwards. In this map the Jordan firmly demarcates the eastern border of the land of Israel. This separation of the country from its neighbours by a body of water fits nicely, as Havrelock argues, with the Priestly preoccupation with purity and the concomitant creation of barriers between the sacred and the profane. The notion of watercourses as boundaries, she goes on to say, following several previous scholars, also draws on cosmological ideas: in many biblical texts, as in their Canaanite antecedents, the world comes into being by the drawing of a dividing line between dry land and the primordial waters. This cosmological background is important to Havrelock’s overall case because she contends that borders have a mythological character that buttresses their appeal and that they do not inevitably correspond to fixed topographical features.

The Deuteronomistic writers – the reformist group that around 621 BCE created the core of the Book of Deuteronomy and began assembling the large historical narrative from Joshua to Kings – offer a far more expansionist map in which the eastern border is marked by a different river, the Euphrates. This ‘imperial’ notion, as Havrelock rightly describes it, was pure fantasy, for Israelite power was never projected deep into Mesopotamia. One might view it – although Havrelock does not explicitly say this – as a counterphobic expression of political anxiety: in the seventh century BCE the existence of the nation was threatened by an aggressive imperial power to the east, Assyria, which had already put an end to the northern kingdom of Israel (so called to differentiate it from Judah) in 721 BCE. (The Babylonians would later also fit into this picture.) The Deuteronomists’ grandiose map of the Promised Land was not endorsed by any significant trend in post-biblical Judaism, not even by the Revisionist Zionists, the precursor of the Likud, whose rousing anthem claimed rights to ‘both banks of the Jordan’, which meant all of Mandatory Palestine.

Israelite tribes had long settled in the northern Transjordanian region, a fact that led to ambivalences in the biblical record. These tribes were certainly part of Israel, yet they were on the wrong side of the river. The map that includes them, which is evidently a northern construction, does lay claim to an area east of the Jordan, but seems to Havrelock to admit to ‘the inevitability of blending with other peoples and to a fluctuating affiliation with Israel’.

Finally, in the period after the Babylonian exile, two antithetical and merely notional maps emerge: the one intimated in Ezra and Nehemiah, which bases nationhood on racial purity and appears to conceive the nation as a wagons-circled concentration in Jerusalem of Judeans returned from Babylonia; the other, suggested in the Book of Ruth, which involves a surprising reversibility of borders. Naomi crosses over from Judea to Moab in a time of famine. She crosses back accompanied by the devoted Ruth, who is a Moabite and will become the progenitrix of the line of David. This is striking because elsewhere in the Bible all intercourse with Moab is prohibited. Havrelock shrewdly notes that Ruth and Naomi are a reversal of Lot’s daughters, who incestuously engendered the Moabites and their neighbours the Ammonites. Of all the biblical conceptions of borders, the one intimated in Ruth strongly attracts Havrelock, pointing forward towards the hopeful horizon she tries to sketch at the end of her book:

The Book of Ruth can be seen as a mythic variant that refigures the border between Moab and Israel and thereby imagines the Jordan River as a place of crossing rather than of division. For the writers to allow a Moabite across the Jordan border is a radical act with revolutionary consequence. It suggests that incorporation of the foreign does not necessarily compromise the national body and that there is a place for women in the politics and economy of land ownership.

Nearly two-thirds of River Jordan is devoted to the constructions of national borders in the Hebrew Bible, and these are probably its most compelling chapters. But Havrelock wants to trace a large historical evolution down to the present, analysing the spiritual transformation of the meaning of the Jordan in the Gospels and its eschatological reconception in rabbinic legend before turning to the advent of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. Neither the New Testament treatment of the Jordan nor the rabbinical one is as relevant to the current predicament as the biblical maps, though Havrelock handles both aptly. She notes, for example, that when Jesus goes down into the river, instead of crossing it, he tilts ‘the temporal axis of the biblical plot from horizontal to vertical. No longer is the horizontal plane of space the site of redemption; instead, the Kingdom of Heaven, at the zenith of the vertical axis of earth and heaven, functions as such a location.’ This shift scarcely applies to the contemporary situation, with the possible exception of some fundamentalist Christian groups briefly invoked in the concluding chapter.

Exegesis is an important aspect of Havrelock’s project, and she is keenly aware that these differing accounts of the lie of the land need parsing: ‘The point is that the land is not an object or even really a place that can be fixed in time, but rather an act of narration with the power to determine where Israel belongs.’ For the most part, her interpretations of the biblical acts of narration are judicious, though occasionally she leans a little heavily on the biblical texts in order to align them with contemporary considerations. Let me cite three small instances.

When Jephthah’s brothers drive him out of their father’s house in Judges 11, they say to him, in Havrelock’s translation: ‘You are the son of an Other woman.’ Biblical Hebrew, of course, has no capital letters, and what they actually say to him is: ‘You are the son of another woman.’ The narrator has already described Jephthah as the son of a ‘whore’ (zonah). The reason his brothers euphemistically call her ‘another woman’ – that is, not their father’s legitimate wife – is that, for all their brutality, they don’t dare call Jephthah’s mother a whore to his face. Breaking this locution out into an upper-case ‘Other’ introduces an opposition between self and Other cherished by literary theorists but alien to the dramatic exigencies of this moment of dialogue.

Earlier, speaking of the Transjordanian tribes, Havrelock writes: ‘They pledge obedience to Joshua as long as “Yahweh your God [her italics] is with you as He was with Moses” (Joshua 1.17). With the turn of phrase, the tribes distance themselves from the invoked deity who fails to recognise their lands.’ The problem is that this particular phrase, the reference to Yahweh as ‘your God’, is used again and again in biblical dialogue when people are addressing a person thought to be invested with divine authority, and in the vast majority of these instances no geographical separation of the speaker or speakers from the main body of the nation is involved, only a matter of theological etiquette.

Finally, still on the subject of the Transjordanian tribes, Havrelock asks whether we can think of them as ‘the founders of Jewish diaspora’. The eagerness to highlight the contemporary relevance of the story here leads to a misuse of the word ‘diaspora’. The term, as its etymology indicates, means a geographical scattering of a population from its homeland. By the early Christian centuries, there were Jewish communities in Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, the Rhineland and elsewhere, and these constituted a proper diaspora. The Transjordanian tribes, on the other hand, were living in a limited region completely contiguous with the land west of the Jordan, and given the instability of the Jordan as a border – which Havrelock argues persuasively – this region might well have been thought of, at least by its inhabitants, as part of the land of Israel. It certainly offers no model for the way the Jews of Buenos Aires or New York might relate to the State of Israel.

Havrelock’s account of the present dispute over the borders of the territory inhabited by the Israelites long ago is a model of lucidity and careful balance. Its great virtue is the demonstration of a set of symmetries – clashing symmetries, unfortunately – on both sides. Each of the two peoples has experienced displacement and resettlement, leading both to ‘insist on indigenousness, primacy and the inalienable right of territory. In the midst of mobility, the concept of homeland becomes more entrenched.’ ‘The moral of this comparative story,’ Havrelock concludes, ‘is that a symbol shared by two ethnic groups but diametrically interpreted leads to more strife than two distinct symbolic systems.’ In this rivalry, Palestinians cast all Israelis as foreign interlopers and colonisers while Israelis cast all Palestinians as terrorists. ‘Since each mythic context can neither support nor sustain the opposing perspective, shared symbols produce competition and perpetuate conflict.’

All this strikes me as just, and refreshingly free of the accusatory or defensive notes that characterise discussion on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The minor defect of Havrelock’s account is that in establishing a set of equivalences between the two peoples, she does not hint that there are also asymmetries which further complicate the prospects for any resolution. A few years ago, the novelist Amos Oz, a strong voice in the Israeli peace movement, said that after long viewing the conflict as a clash between two rights, he now thought it might be a clash between two wrongs. And the wrongs are not entirely equivalent.

Both peoples have shaped their self-conception around a historical trauma – the Shoah for the Israelis and the Nakba for the Palestinians. Genocide is a still more hideous wound than exile, and I suspect (perhaps because of my familiarity with Israeli society) that it may have deformed political discourse in Israel even more than the Nakba has deformed political discourse among Palestinians. A recent poll shows that the majority of Israelis conceive their national identity to be based on the Shoah, and the cynical exploitation of this nightmarish collective memory by political leaders, by the ultra-Orthodox and by the settler movement, is one of the great scandals of Israeli life. In another case where evident symmetry proves to be asymmetrical, both peoples have their nationalist fundamentalists, some of whom commit acts that truly deserve to be called terrorist. Only on the Palestinian side, however, is there an actual fundamentalist government, in the Gaza Strip; such extremists on the Israeli side remain a minority, at least intermittently restrained by an independent judiciary and occasionally by the government and the army, and subject to withering public criticism in a society that preserves relatively uninhibited free speech.

I invoke the asymmetrical aspect of the territorial conflict only to indicate that there are complications beyond the complications Havrelock concedes. She is not in the least pollyannaish about the prospects of reconciliation, but does conclude her large historical argument with a kind of ecological grace note. If borders, and above all the Jordan as a national boundary, are, as she has shown, arbitrary lines propped up by mythology, it might be possible to think, as some people in Israel, Jordan and the Occupied Territories are beginning to, about this contested parcel of earth in terms that transcend borders. After all, the three political entities have a mutual interest in sustaining themselves with the scarce natural resources of the region. Sooner or later, this will be a matter of survival that just might trump nationalist hostility.

If the resources are seen as belonging to future as well as to current citizens, then current practices can be called into question from the future-oriented perspective of the environmental movement. If we perceive resources as part of inalienable human rights irrespective of place and time, then we can perhaps be persuaded by bioregional theories of human organisation that would disregard state boundaries and reimagine communities in terms of the waterways that support them.

This may sound like wishful thinking, but, as Havrelock informs us, Friends of the Earth Middle East has a Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli membership and has drawn up concrete proposals for sharing the resources of the Jordan and creating two transnational peace parks. Havrelock grants that the fierceness of national sentiment could easily block any such development, and also acknowledges the potential for the environmental movement to be co-opted by multinational corporations, already powerfully present in the region.

In the early biblical period, according to the story told in Judges 12, Jephthah’s troops slaughtered 42,000 men of Ephraim attempting to cross the Jordan when, because of their tribal dialect, they mispronounced the password shibboleth as sibboleth, giving away their ‘alien’ identity. The salutary aspiration of Havrelock’s study is that after her long scrutiny of borders as barriers, lines of divisiveness and killing-fields, she reaches to imagine, in the very consciousness of the border as a mythological construct, an alternative way for peoples to live alongside each other and to interact with one another. This is a scrupulous work of scholarship that is also informed, quietly but effectively, by a moral vision.