Chapter 9: The Concern with History and the End of Mythology

God in the New World
by Lloyd Geering

Chapter 9: The Concern with History and the End of Mythology

When we turn from the mythological world of ancient man to the Old Testament we find ourselves in a different world. It is a great pity that the casual Bible reader almost inevitably reads the Old Testament against the background of a sophisticated modern world, for then the first things to strike him are characteristics which are strange to him just because they reflect the ancient period. What he ought to find striking are some things which he usually never notices to be there, for the simple reason that they have become part and parcel of the modern world, and he does not realize, as he ought, that he has in fact inherited them from ancient Israel.

The mythological world of ancient man forms the real background for the appreciation of the Old Testament, and the first thing which strikes one is that the Old Testament contains so much writing of history. This historical concern in the Christian Bible still makes it unique among the holy books of the world. In the Holy Scriptures of Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam, one finds no real interest in history at all, but in both the Old Testament and the New Testament the thread of history provides the framework and focal points.

Today we take a sense of history for granted. We know that the past has gone for ever and that the present moment can never be recaptured. We know that history brings change. All our thinking and our human endeavors, whether individual or collective, religious or secular, are pursued within a context of history, in which we are ever moving away from an original beginning, and nearer to some future goal.

But in the mythological world ancient man had not developed a sense of history. He saw himself as a creature of nature, and almost the plaything of the gods who controlled nature. The world moved in cycles of various frequencies, returning to the points it had passed before. So man’s true welfare was chiefly to be attained by reconciling his life to the cycles of nature, such as day and night, summer and winter, death and rebirth. The really significant things were all executed by the unseen forces. The actions of men were of no great moment and indeed had little meaning.

How did the sense of history begin? It is generally agreed that it is of comparatively recent origin, and the beginnings of the writing of history are commonly traced back to the Greek historians Herodotus (c. 484-24 BC.) and Thucydides (c. 460-400 BC.). Herodotus is often called the ‘Father of History’ because he wrote a history of the Persian invasion of Greece after travelling extensively through the Middle East.

But Israel’s concern with history takes us back at least five centuries earlier. Paul Schubert, in a symposium devoted to the The Idea of History in the Ancient Near East writes: "When it comes to the idea of history, it must be said that Israel, through its sacred scripture . . . has proved to be the strongest and most influential single force observable by the historian in shaping the idea of history throughout two millennia of Western history." The Cambridge historian, H. Butterfield, has said of the Old Testament "Altogether we have here the greatest and most deliberate attempts ever made to wrestle with destiny and interpret history and discover meaning in the human drama; above all to grapple with the moral difficulties that history presents to the religious mind."

We can hardly expect the Old Testament to tell us explicitly how Israel came to have a sense of history, for she was not given to think in abstract terms and did not have a language suited for it. Indeed Israel had no word even for ‘history’, the nearest Hebrew expression meaning simply ‘the things of the days’. It is only by indirect means that we can learn how it all began. In the early stages, it was not at all easy to distinguish clearly the sense of history from the mythological context out of which it was emerging. Indeed, there was a strong tussle between the historical and the mythological concerns and this has continued in some degree down to the present day.

In the Old Testament there are two main complexes of historical material. The first is the Pentateuch, which sets out to sketch the history of the world from the day of creation to the point where Israel was about to enter the promised land. We now know that we cannot treat this material as if it had been written under the conditions that a modern historian would impose, namely, access to reliable contemporary records. But the remarkable thing is that these books betray a marked sense of history. They are expressed in terms of linear history and not in nature cycles. It was a pioneering feat of simply outstanding quality, testimony for which is seen in the fact that it served as the basic text-book of early human history for more than two and a half thousand years.

Modern scholarship has analyzed the Pentateuch into at least four different strata, which were once independent, but which were at later stages blended together to form the present unity. The earliest of these may have come from about the time of Solomon. The unknown writer responsible for it (often referred to as the Yahwist) appears to have sifted through the myths, legends and stories that had been transmitted orally by his forefathers, and to have molded them into a continuous story reaching from the first man down to the Exodus from Egypt, and possibly as far as his own time, Of course this is not wholly history by our standards, but within the limits of the material available to the Yahwist, it still reflects a remarkable sense of history. Here and there we can discern the words of the Yahwist himself, which are intended to interpret to us the material he has selected, and to enable us to follow the thread which formed for him the meaning of his narrative.

Now the quite distinctive feature of this pioneering venture into history writing is the way in which the Yahwist led his readers’ attention away from the ancient practice of turning to the priests and cultic practices for discerning the will of the gods. The Yahwist turned the spotlight not on the sanctuary, but on the human scene of historical event, as the sphere in which the will of the God of Israel became manifest. This change in focal-point cannot be over-emphasized, for it is the key to much which happened later in the faith of Israel, and which is again happening in the new world to which Christendom has given birth.

This receives further emphasis when we turn to the second main corpus of historical material in the Old Testament. This consists of the books called Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, which together form a consecutive history of Israel covering the period of the occupation of the Promised Land from the time of Joshua’s entry until the Fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Here, too, there are included many earlier blocks of material which have been pieced together, and these include the finest piece of historical narrative in the Old Testament. It is to be found in 2 Samuel 9-20 and I Kings 1-2. It is often referred to as the ‘Succession Story’ for it deals with the historical problem of who was to succeed David as king. It is judged by many scholars to have been written by one who had lived as an eye-witness through that critical period, and who gathered the necessary information together to write this account of that important crisis.

The historical problem with which this writer was dealing may be briefly described as follows. Before King David all of Israel’s leaders had been of a charismatic kind, and were believed to have been raised up by God to meet particular crises. The personal prowess of the young David had led all the Israelite tribes finally to accept his rule and from that point he went on to establish a kingdom, and indeed a minor empire, such as Israel had not previously experienced. There had as yet been no dynastic rule. The approaching death of David therefore raised vital questions on which Israel’s future existence depended. Was the day of charismatic leadership over? Would the kingdom of David disintegrate on his death? Could the stability of the kingdom be sustained by the establishment of dynastic rule? If so, which of the many sons by various wives should succeed him?

Thus the last years of David’s rule witnessed the working out of these problems, and the consequent clash among several of David’s sons for the throne soon to be vacant. Our unknown historian not only shows a penetrating knowledge of human nature in the way he sketches the characters of the piece, particularly David himself, but he soon makes the reader aware that his story is not a succession of meaningless events. The historian keeps his own sympathies out of the story, and makes no attempt to hold his characters up to praise or blame. Yet his narrative shows that each of the characters contributes to the complexity of the situation, in which ambition, guile, and secret plotting end in various acts of judgment. When, at last, Solomon is king and all rivals are vanquished, the history is brought to an end with the words, "So the Kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon."

Here we have no piece of theocratic history or myth, but a straightforward, and so far as we can judge, faithful account of a very human situation on which so much hung for the future of Israel. Eduard Meyer, a distinguished German historian of the turn of this century, described this historical writing as purely secular, and of it he said, "Thus the golden age of the Hebrew monarchy produced genuinely historical writing. No other civilization of the ancient East was able to do so. Even the Greeks achieved it only at the height of their development in the fifth century, and then as quickly fell away again . . ."

In this otherwise secular historical writing there are only three hints of a theological character. After the shameful incident between David and Bathsheba is concluded, there comes the comment, "But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord". When Solomon, the future successor to David, is born we read, "And the Lord loved him". At the crucial point in Absalom’s rebellion against his father David, we are told that "the Lord had ordained to defeat the counsel of Ahithophel, so that the Lord might bring evil upon Absalom". Imperceptible though these hints may appear, the reader should remember them when he gets to the end of the story and recognize that the historian sees a purpose being worked out in the history he relates.

Gerhard von Rad, a renowned Old Testament scholar of our day, has shown how revolutionary was this view of history when it was first put forward. Up until this time the activities of the gods were expected primarily in natural events, particularly the miraculous and the extraordinary, such as earthquakes, storms and famine. But this historian believed that to the eye of faith the works of God were to be seen in everyday life, in events both public and private, and in secular affairs rather than in religious activities. "With this work," writes von Rad, "there begins a wholly new conception of the nature of God’s activity in history."

We have looked at only two examples which illustrate how the Old Testament writers were concerned with history. They were two of the earliest but they were followed by many others. Israel was always trying to evaluate the present in the light of the past. To do this she was not afraid to reinterpret the past in the light of new events in her own day. Consequently the Old Testament contains not just one interpretation of history, but several, and each is related to the circumstances of the period which brought it to light. Among Israel’s interpreters of history we must number the great prophets, for though, so far as we know, they did not themselves write any historical narratives, the divine oracles they proclaimed as coming from the mouth of God were all steeped in the historical sense of which we have been speaking. The prophets of the eighth and seventh centuries BC. were the prophets of crisis, who interpreted to Israel the catastrophes in which first one, and then the other Israelite kingdom was swallowed up in the imperialist expansion of Assyria and Babylon respectively.

Thus in contrast with the ancient mythological cultures and with holy scripture outside the Judeo-Christian stream, most of the Old Testament either consists of historical material, or is expressed with due regard to the historical nature of human life. This led Israel to pay particular attention to what was going on in the world in her own day. National affairs and international affairs constituted the raw material for theological thought about the questions of human destiny. For Israel, God was to be sought both in nature and in history, but chiefly in the latter. He was for her the Lord of history. Modern Old Testament scholarship is continually emphasizing that Israel’s theology, as expressed in the Old Testament, is essentially a theology of history.

This concern with history is continued in the New Testament, which records a further set of historical events of quite outstanding importance. The ministry of Jesus started with the proclamation, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand". An air of expectancy and of imminent cosmic change pervades the New Testament, even as the apostles go out to proclaim the events of the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The early church believed that God had spoken and acted in history in their own day in a way which lit up all that had gone before.

So far, we have been at pains to describe how a concern with history came to the fore in Israel earlier than anywhere else, and found expression in the Bible. But this does not mean that there is a complete absence of mythology in the Bible. Indeed this should hardly be expected, for it was only by degrees that the concern with history developed. It is not the actual presence of mythological material in the Bible that is surprising, but the very small amount of it relative to the whole.

Almost the only element of pure mythology in the Old Testament is found in a few verses in Genesis 6, where it is reported that divine beings fell in love with human beings, married them, and gave rise to a hybrid race, presumably half-divine and half-human. There are several places where myths of the ancient world are clearly reflected, such as the story of the Garden of Eden, but these myths have been remolded by the Yahwist and other writers to serve another purpose. They have been largely stripped of their original mythological elements, and have become rather like parables.

Generally speaking, the more the sense of history developed and turned Israel’s attention to the human scene, the more the elements of ancient mythology were discarded. Yet there was always a cultural battle going on between the two, and the prophets may be regarded as the chief champions of the view that God is the Lord of history. It is probable that popular religion in Israel was much more mythological than the Old Testament, for the simple reason that the latter records the vanguard of Israel’s thinking. Because each generation has, in a sense, to pass through all the stages of human evolution, both biologically and culturally, there is always a tendency for men to revert to mythology.

We are not surprised therefore to find that when, from the Exile onwards, the Jewish remnant of Israel was dispersed among foreign cultures which were still predominantly mythological, there was a resurgence of the mythological elements in Judaism. The Persian religion of Zoroastrianism was the strongest influence in this direction. It revived interest in angels, which now became a hierarchy of named heavenly beings, each with particular tasks to perform. It stimulated an interest in an after-life by contributing a doctrine of rewards and punishments in another life beyond the grave. The very term ‘Paradise’ is of Persian origin.

It is because of the resurgence of mythology in Judaism in the two or three centuries before Christ, and the continuing influence of Persian and other Eastern religions, that we find more elements of mythology in the New Testament than in the Old Testament. This is chiefly to be seen in the frequent reference to angels, the personification of the cosmic power of evil in Satan, the story of the Ascension, and the birth stories of Jesus, both of which are expressed in terms of traffic between heaven and earth. The earliest affirmations of the Resurrection of Christ are already tinged with mythology, but were quite restrained when compared with the Resurrection stories soon to develop, and by the second century the trends already present in the Biblical material had led to pure mythology, as in the Gospel of Peter.

The concern with history pioneered by Israel did not put an immediate end to mythology. On the contrary, when Christianity spread into the Gentile world of Greece and Rome, and later into the Teutonic world of Europe, there was a strong tendency for mythology to be baptized into the faith along with the new converts and to flourish under a Christian guise. It is open to debate whether popular Christianity in the Middle Ages was very greatly different in character from the popular religion of ancient Persia, except that the name of the Savior was different. By that stage the scene of human history was no longer the focal point for Christian faith, for it had now been superseded by the heavenly scene, where all that was really vital for men was decided. One’s destiny was in the hands of a whole heavenly company of angels and interceding saints.

The emergence of the new world, with its increasing secularization, has brought about the dissolution of the medieval Christian mythology. Orthodox Christians have often regarded this increasing worldly interest and this human emphasis on the here and now as a deplorable departure from the true spiritual path. But in actual fact this is the very direction in which Israel was stepping out in faith three thousand years ago. The abandonment of the other-worldly interests and the increasing concern with the historical processes in the world of here and now, far from being a sign of Christian apostasy, represent the recovery of some of the essentials of the Judeo-Christian heritage.

With the modern return of interest in the meaning of history, it has been common for some biblical scholars to recognize the important role that history plays in the Bible, but to limit the Christian’s concern with history to those events to which the Bible witnesses. These events have been referred to as ‘Salvation’s history’, as if the hand of God is to be seen only in a selected number of events of the distant past. But this does not go far enough. The witness of the Old Testament is that Israel was always concerned with her contemporary history, and was prepared to reinterpret her past heritage in the light of what she witnessed in her own day.

The Bible, therefore, leads us to pay proper attention, not only to the significant events in the period of origins to which it gives first-hand witness, but also to the human scene of our own day. Concern with an other-worldly mythology can form a tranquilizing escape from the moral decisions and duties which involvement in the historical world forces upon us. The Bible leads us to see the problems of peace and war, of politics and economics, of race relations and poverty as the very areas where the God of the Christian heritage is speaking His word in history today. In the events in which we are caught up, in the problems that confront us, in the crises which hang over us, we are confronted by the God of our fathers. The decisions we make in our human situation is our response to God. In these decisions we are making history, and in this history we are encountering the Lord of history, and working out our own eternal destiny.