Early Days: The Holy Scripture of Secular Zionism
The Zionist endeavor defined itself from the start in biblical language, as the “return to Zion” (Ps. 126.1 ), and by placing Bible study at the center of the school curriculum made it an integral component of national rebirth, rebuilding the ancestral land, and revival of its language. The return to the land, cultivation of the land, national independence, military valor, speaking the tongue of Amos and Isaiah, received quasi‐religious inspiration from the Bible; it embodied that generation's tasks and visions as if the present were recapturing the past. Leaders, authors, and teachers all believed that the Bible legitimized Zionism: It testified to Jewish ownership of the land and foretold the return, the rebuilding, and the ingathering. Conversely, Zionism enhanced Scripture: It was realizing prophecy and thereby confirming the Bible's eternal truth. The Bible was an inspiring commentary on the present, and the present was a concrete interpretation of the Bible. The immediacy and reality of the biblical saga—from the immigration of individuals in obedience to the command, “Go forth from your native land” (Gen. 12.1 ) and the mass exodus from the house of bondage, through the frailty of the “desert generation” and the virility of the conquerors of Canaan, culminating in the defensive wars waged by the Judges and the establishment of the monarchy—invested the present with an aura of ancient splendor. Biblical history gave the Zionist endeavor roots in time; geography, with its memory‐laden sites, confirmed its ties to place; and archeology provided the newcomers with material proof of their “nativity” in this old‐new land.
Literature, particularly poetry, played a major role in this two‐way association of Zionism with the Bible. The power of poetry can be seen in two poems about Saul's heroic death by Natan Alterman and Amir Gilboa, both published in the first decade of the State of Israel. Alterman's ballad, “The Day of Battle and Its Eve are Ended” (ʿIr ha‐Yonah, Tel Aviv, 1957, pp. 184–185 ) begins with a brief reference to the biblical story of the overthrow of Israel's army on Mount Gilboa: defeat, flight, and King Saul's suicide. The poet then goes on to describe in detail how thewounded herald rides a whole night from the battlefield to the queen mother's home and, upon arriving, falls to the ground, speechless. His blood, staining her feet, and the news of the king's death implied by his silence, have brought the battlefield to her doorstep. Her heroism is no less impressive than Saul's in this struggle for the national spirit. “Rise, my son,” she commands the herald, and upon hearing his tearful description of the king's falling on his sword, she responds, expressing the heroism of mothers:
Then spake she to the youth: Blood Will cover mother's feet, But the nation will rise seven times If it be defeated on its own land. Judgment has been visited upon the king, But a successor will arise in due time, For it was upon his own land that He leaned the sword upon which he died. Thus she spake and her voice trembled. And so it was. And David heard.
She neither weeps nor holds her tongue, but her voice trembles. David, and with him the readers, heard in her words the essence of Zionism: A defeat in Exile is final, but a defeat in the homeland is temporary. The blood‐soaked soil of the land strengthens the resolve of its sons and their mothers: Vanquished in exile by death and its terror, here they will prevail over both.
Alterman speaks through the mouth of a fictitious biblical character, whereas Amir Gilboa in his poem “Saul” (Keḥullim va‐Adummim, Tel Aviv, 1963, p. 216) bridges the time gap by having a contemporary speak to Saul. While the courage of Saul's mother is superhuman (in a sense even inhuman), Gilboa's narrator expresses amazement at Saul's awe‐inspiring death by describing his own weaknesses and doubts:
Saul! Saul! I do not know whether it was shame or fear of a bodiless head— But upon passing by the wall of Beth‐Shean I turned my head away. Then, when your arms‐bearer refused you the sword you commanded, I stood dumb, speechless, and my blood flowed from my heart. I really cannot say what I would have done in his place had I been your arms‐bearer. And you are the king. And it is your honor as king when you command. I really cannot say what I would have done in his place. Saul, Saul, come! In Beth‐Shean the Children of Israel now live.
Saul's head is impaled upon the (Roman) wall of Beth‐Shean at this day (1952), and the speaker, averting his gaze, admits that he does not know whether he did so out of shame at what the Philistines did to his king or out of fear of the terrible sight. Uncertainty as to the real reason for his behavior is also expressed in a further, even more heartrending, quandary: He is present at Gilboa when Saul's arms‐bearer disobeys the king's command to bring him his sword so that he can commit suicide. The speaker does not know whether he himself would have been brave enough to disobey his monarch, or whether he would have obeyed, recognizing that the king's honor required him to obey even unto death. The solemnity of the biblical scene is expressed through the narrator's insignificance and doubts: It does not occur to him to identify with the king, and while he is identifying with the arms‐bearer, he is still no more than a silent observer, his heart bleeding at the gravity of the dilemma. Only toward the end of the poem does a new certainty seize him, enabling him to address the live Saul and inform him of the great Zionist message of comfort; the story of Israel's defeat on Mount Gilboaand the abuse of Saul's body has a happy ending: Beth‐Shean is being rebuilt and settled by new immigrants!
Alterman delivers the message in loud, resonant tones; Gilboa whispers: By virtue of national continuity, geographic identity, and Scripture's eternal truth, we are living in the Bible and the Bible lives in us. Thus the Bible had become the Holy Scriptures of Zionism, but there was a profound difference between those who considered it a heroic epos, to be released from the heavy shackles of prophetic ethics, and those for whom it was a source of ethical lore and Jewish spiritual life. The latter considered the ethical values underlying the laws of the Torah, as well as the courageous social censure and vision of national redemption pronounced by the prophets, as a firm basis for a new version of Judaism: neither halakhic, traditional, nor exilic; but authentic by virtue of being neo‐biblical.
In addition to these groups of writers, however, there were radical discreditors of Judaism, for whom clinging to the national heritage and accepting authority, excess spirituality, moral scruples, the claim to national uniqueness, were obstructions on the path to a natural, free life. They rejected the Bible entirely, or expressed their adoption of alternative values by such means as giving poetic expression to the false prophets or explicitly rejecting David.