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IMAGINING THE BIRTH OF ANCIENT ISRAEL:
National Metaphors in the Bible
The Bible begins not with the culture of the Hebrews but with the origins of culture as such. The initial concern with the origin of civilization is already evident in the story of the Garden of Eden, where Eve and Adam acquire the first taste of “knowledge,” but it is only in the account of the bold building of the Tower of Babel, East of Eden, that we get a fuller consideration of human culture.
Humankind was once one, we are told, and “everyone on earth had the same language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1). But this era of cultural unity does not last for long. One day the people say to each other “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world” (11:4). In response to this challenge against heaven, God shatters the builders’ dream of grandeur, confounds their language, and scatters them in all directions. Culture, however, is not destroyed. Rather, it assumes a different form. From now on its distinguishing mark is diversity and dispersion. From now on, its distinct site becomes the nation.
Of the many nations that “branch out” in the vast expanses of the earth, Israel is singled out. In the episode following the Tower of Babel, God demands that Abraham leave his birthplace (Ur of the Chaldeans) and go forth (lekh lekha) to the land shown to him. There, God assures him, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great” (Genesis 12:2). Abraham’s migration to Canaan offers a new departure. Whereas the sinful homogeneous community of Babel failed, Abraham’s descendants, the people God has chosen from a multitude of peoples, seem to hold much promise, destined as they are (unlike the builders of the Tower) to acquire a “great name.” The primary exile of the first patriarch, his capacity to part from his cultural origins, is construed as an essential rift, a prerequisite for the rise of the nation. Later, in Exodus, the people as a whole will follow a similar route, moving out of Egypt, wandering in the desert, and fashioning the cultural contours of the nation on their way to the Promised Land.
Dispersion and exile, however, do not lead to clear-cut borders between cultures. Languages intersect in unexpected ways. The very name “Babel,” which commemorates the primary linguistic splitting, is also a cross-cultural product. Its meaning in Akkadian is presumably “the gate to the gods” (bab iley), but in the course of the biblical story it is Hebraized via a pun when it is linked to
the Hebrew root blbl (to confuse). Perhaps this interpretation of “Babel” is an attempt to mock the pretentious temples of Mesopotamia: the tower that was meant to lead to the gods leads only to confusion.
But what turns out to be far more confusing is the lack of clear demarcation between the chosen and the non-chosen. As the history of the children of Israel unfolds, we discover that the rebellious quality of primeval culture does not dissipate once we move into the realm of the chosen ones. Quite the contrary: rebellion is one of the salient features of the chosen nation. The Israelites do not venture to construct brick temples whose tops reach heaven, but their idolatrous cravings betray a similar tendency to transgress sacred boundaries.
The question of national identity—the attempt to fathom the entangled relations between Israel and God, between Israel and other nations—is one of the most resonant and unresolvable questions in the Bible. In tackling it, the biblical text relies not on philosophical contemplation but rather on narrative. More specifically, it offers a narrative in which the nation is personified extensively. Any attempt to understand the history of the children of Israel, to fashion a conception of national identity, to grasp communal motives and fantasies, collective memories and oblivions, the Bible seems to suggest, requires a plunge into the intricate twists and turns of the individual life.
The nation—particularly in Exodus and Numbers—is not an abstract detached concept but rather a grand character with a distinct voice (represented at times in a singular mode) who moans and groans, is euphoric at times, complains frequently, and rebels against Moses and God time and again. Israel has a life story, a biography of sorts. It was conceived in the days of Abraham; its miraculous birth took place with the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea; then came a long period of childhood and restless adolescence in the wilderness; and finally adulthood was approached with the conquest of Canaan.
To be sure, a collective character is necessarily more heterogeneous and less predictable. The Pentateuch’s account of national formation resists fixed definitions of the various phases in the nation’s life cycle. Roughly speaking, chronology is maintained, and yet images of birth, youth, initiation, and suckling intermingle throughout. Thus, the distinct manifestation of national suckling appears only in Numbers 11, where Moses likens the people to a suckling infant in the wilderness, long after the grand-scale initiation at Sinai. But, after all, such boundaries are never that clear in individual biographies either. Infantile dreams may linger on and initiation is rarely exhausted in one rite.
National literatures were not common in the ancient world. Israel’s preoccupation with its reason for being is exceptional in the ancient Near East. In Greece and particularly in Rome, however, narratives concerning national origins are equally important. Israel’s history bears resemblance to the Roman one. It too involves a divine promise, individuation from a major civilization, a quest for lost roots, a long journey to what is construed as the land of the forefathers, and a gory conquest. What makes the Bible unique is the extent to which the nation is dramatized. In the Aeneid, by way of comparison, the plot revolves round Aeneas. The wanderings between Troy and the promised new land are primarily Aeneas’s wanderings: the people remain a rather pale foil. They engage in no conflict—either with Aeneas or the gods—that would grant them access to the central stage. The biblical text is significantly different in its rendering of national drama. Israel is a protagonist whose moves and struggles determine the map—so much so that 40 years of wanderings in the desert are added to the itinerary as a result of the people’s protest against the official preference of Canaan over Egypt.
The fashioning of Israel as a character is a forceful unifying strategy, but the metaphor does not yield a homogeneous account of national formation. The biblical text reveals points of tension between different traditions regarding the nation’s history and character. Even the nation’s sexual identity is not stable. Although the Pentateuch shapes a male character, referring to the people as am (singular masculine noun), the Prophets, more often than not, represent Israel as female, using “Jerusalem” or “Zion” (feminine nouns) as alternative designations.
This essay focuses on the intricacies of national imagination in the Pentateuch, and as such it is concerned with the fashioning of a male character who is marked as God’s firstborn son. Double personification is at stake—of God and the nation—creating a familial link between the two. If Rome’s sacred origin is assured through the divine blood of its founding fathers—Aeneas is Venus’s son, and Romulus and Remus are the offspring of Mars—in the case of Israel, the nation as a whole, metaphorically speaking, is God’s son. On sending Moses to Pharaoh to deliver the people, God proclaims: “Israel is My first-born son. I have said to you [Pharaoh], ‘Let My son go’ ” (Exodus 4:22–23). The priority given to Israel by the Father represents a translation into national terms of the reversal of the primogeniture law—a phenomenon so central in the lives of the patriarchs. The late-born nation that came to the stage after all its neighbors had assumed their historical roles is elevated by God to the position of the chosen firstborn.
Israel is a chosen nation, God’s nation, but the reason for its chosen-ness remains obscure. It does not succeed in following traditional norms of male heroism, nor does it become an exemplary nation with high moral and religious standards. The more mature Israel, in the plains of Moab, on the threshold of Canaan, is far more established a community than the nascent nation on the way out of Egypt, but this by no means suggests that biblical historiography relies on the principle of progress. Whereas in the initial stages of the journey the children of Israel worship a Golden Calf in a carnivalesque feast, at the last station, just before crossing the Jordan river, they “cling” to Baal Peor (under the influence of Moabite women), adopting Canaanite religious practices with much enthusiasm. The Song of Moses, with its synoptic presentation of Israel’s history, regards the nation as an ungrateful son whose conduct fails to improve over time: “Do you thus requite the Lord, O dull and witless people? Is not He the Father who created you, fashioned you and made you endure!” (Deuteronomy 32:6). Instead of appreciating God’s vigilance, Moses claims, once the nation “grew fat” it used its new powers to “kick” (Deuteronomy 32:15).
What is most fascinating in the primary biography of ancient Israel is the ambivalence that lies at its very base, an ambivalence that is expressed so poignantly through the intense struggles between the Father (or Moses) and His people. The nation is both the chosen son and the rebel son, and accordingly its relationship with the Father is at once intimate and strained.
The fictional quality of the struggle between God and the nation does not preclude the historicity of the text. Israel’s beginning is situated in historical times—in the days of the Exodus—rather than in a mythical “in illo tempore.” Similarly, God defines Himself, at Sinai and elsewhere, as the one who brought Israel out of Egypt—not as the Creator of primeval times. Even at moments when the biography of ancient Israel relies on mythical materials—primarily, on the myth of the birth of the hero and the myth of the hero’s return—these are inextricably connected with a historiographical drive to record memorable past events and question their meaning. In the Bible, history and literature go hand in hand, more explicitly than in modern historiography, which is why it serves as a paradigmatic case for the examination of the narrative base of national constructions.
The metaphor of birth is probably the most resonant anthropomorphic image in national narratives from antiquity to modern times. In fact, it is so resonant one tends to forget that nations are not born literally but are, rather, imagined in these terms. Every nation, however, has its own birth story, or birth stories. The book of Exodus provides an intriguingly complex representation of Israel’s birth in keeping with the preliminary imaginings of the nation in Genesis. The opening verses of Exodus 1 make clear that God’s reiterated promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the grand national annunciation scenes of Genesis—are finally realized. The descendants of Jacob, whose names are listed solemnly, multiply at an uncanny pace and turn into a “mighty” nation: the nation of the “children of Israel.” “Israel” for the first time is not merely Jacob’s second, elevated, name but rather a collective designation of a burgeoning community that “fills” the land. But then we discover that God’s darker prophecy, in the covenant of the parts (Genesis 15:13), is equally fulfilled: Israel is born in a prolonged exile, against Pharaonic bondage.
Representing the birth of a nation is not a simple task. The imagining of this dramatic event in Exodus is facilitated by the interweaving of two biographies: the story of the birth of Moses, and that of the nation. The fashioning of Israel as character, here as elsewhere, is inseparable from a complementary narrative strategy: the marking of individuals whose histories are paradigmatic. The nation’s life story, in other words, is modeled in relation to the biographies of select characters. Abraham, whose departure from Ur serves as prefiguration of the nation’s exodus, is only the first exemplary figure. The heterogeneity of national imagination in the Bible depends on a variety of representatives. Fragments of the biographies of Isaac, of Jacob, the eponymous father, and even of Hagar, the Egyptian handmaid, whose affliction foreshadows the nation’s enslavement in Egypt, are also linked in different ways to the nation’s biography and take part in its construction.
On the question of birth, Moses’ story is of special importance. The analogy between the one and the multitude in this case is more immediate. Unlike the patriarchal biographies that pertain to a distant past and flicker over the chasm of time, Moses’ birth occurs within the same historical setting. Moses is a national leader whose history blends with the history of the nation. He is one of many Hebrew babies persecuted by Pharaoh. His story, however, is marked as the exemplary account that sheds light on the collective birth story as it prefigures the deliverance of the nation as a whole from bondage.
Moses’ birth story shares much in common with mythical birth stories. What characterizes the birth of a hero? The conception of the hero is usually impeded by difficulties such as abstinence or prolonged barrenness. During or before pregnancy there is a prophecy, or an oracle cautioning the father against the hero’s birth; the father tries to shape a different future and gives orders to kill his new-born son; the babe is then placed in a basket or a box and delivered to the waves. Against all odds, however, the hero is saved by animals, or by lowly people, and is suckled by a female animal or by a humble woman. When full grown, he discovers his royal parents, takes revenge on his father, and, recognized by his people, finally achieves rank and honors.
Moses’ story is indeed compatible in many ways with this model: a threatened child, the exposure in the basket, the miraculous deliverance of the foundling, the two sets of parents, and the final acknowledgment of the hero’s power. But there is a significant difference: Moses’ true parents are not the royal ones but rather the poor Hebrew slaves. At a moment of national birth, the inversion of the two sets of parents is not without significance. Moses’ “true” parents are higher in rank despite their lowly position precisely because they are members of the chosen nation-to-be.
the politics of birth
The juxtaposition of Moses’ story and that of the nation entails an adaptation of the myth of the birth of the hero on a national plane. Put differently, it enables the construction of a myth of the birth of the nation. Israel’s birth, much like that of Moses, takes place against Pharaoh’s will.