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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

The Historical Books and Historiography

THE BOOKS OF JOSHUA THROUGH KINGS are often categorized as historical texts. Yet the idea that historical writing should capture the events “as they really were,” that historians should attempt to write an objective account of the events of the past, is a relatively recent notion which developed in European universities in the 19th century. Before that, history was typically didactic in nature, teaching the readers how to be good citizens or how to lead proper religious lives. Sometimes histories were produced in the royal court, in which case they were apologetic, showing how the king fulfilled his royal duties. Surviving historical documents from the ancient Near East show similar religious and ideological goals. Thus, it should not be surprising that the biblical writers are not primarily interested in the accurate recording of real events; rather, they use narratives about the past to illustrate various issues of significance to their earliest audience, the ancient Israelite community.

It is easiest to understand the biblical notion of history by first focusing on an earlier work, Exodus ch 13 . Verse 3 begins: “And Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage.’” This would seem to suggest the importance of history for its own sake. This unit continues, however, with a set of commandments that directly result from this event: “No leavened bread shall be eaten” (v. 3 ); “seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival of the LORD” (v. 6 ); “no leavened bread shall be found with you, and no leaven shall be found in all your territory” (v. 6 ); “And you shall explain to your son on that day….” (v. 8 ); “and this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead” (v. 9 ); “you shall set apart for the LORD every first issue of the womb: every male firstling that your cattle drop shall be the LORD's” (v. 12 ). Taken as a whole, this passage indicates that the exodus is not significant as a disembodied historical event, as the beginning of v. 3 might suggest; rather, the exodus is a key occurrence because it serves as the basis for the observance of a central set of laws or norms.

The use of historical material in Psalms is even more instructive, since there these traditions about the past are typically surrounded by a framework which explicitly highlights their theological significance or purpose. For example, in Psalm 78 , a particular set of traditions is chosen and shaped so:

that a future generation might know —children yet to be born— and in turn tell their children that they might put their confidence in God, and not forget God's great deeds, but observe His commandments, and not be like their fathers, a wayward and defiant generation, a generation whose heart was inconstant, whose spirit was not true to God. (vv. 6–8 )

Psalm 106 tells how God saved Israel time after time, despite their covenant violations. This is used as an argument to God that they should be rescued again:

Deliver us, O LORD our God, and gather us from among the nations, to acclaim Your holy name, to glory in Your praise. (v. 47 )

Unfortunately, the material collected in Joshua through Kings is not as explicit about its purposes as these psalms or Exodus; for this reason, these books need to be subjected to internal analysis, in order to see what motivations and interests best explain their shape.

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