Andrew and I have been discussing OT history and historiography. We’re wrestling through hermeneutical questions such as “What and how does the text tell us about history?” We’re finding, as many others have already noted in various ways, that these are some tough questions because there are a thousand things to consider when answering them.
Let me explain with some excerpts and comments from a biography on Dwight Eisenhower by Michael Korda, namely, Ike: An American Hero (New York: HarperCollins, 2008). Two things in this book are worth thinking about as we consider histories and historiography, or writing history. I’ll mention just the first one in this post (the second to follow in a day or two).
First, here’s Korda: “It is not easy to get military ranks correct in dealing with several nations over a long period of time. To avoid confusion, therefore, I have attempted throughout to give the people mentioned in the book their correct rank at the time about which I am writing” (xviii; emphasis his). Korda also talks about how he deals with name changes due to change in rank and terminology over the years.
This begs many questions for those of us thinking of OT history and history writing. From what period in Israel’s history did the author, when writing, utilize the the weights, city names, people names, measurements, numbering, ranks, etc.? Would he use the standard terminology at the time he wrote, or of the time about which he wrote? Would the original audience just pick up on these things because there was a “normal” way that people wrote back then, some sort of conventional way to write history that we don’t have much information about? What if he didn’t follow the conventional way of writing, but it was so obvious to the readers that they understood the breach – but we don’t? What about those parts of the OT that had editors/redactors (like the person(s) who finished the Pentateuch after Moses died)? Which conventions did they follow when writing or editing?
In the OT, the author didn’t always give us the clues that Korda did; the project becomes more difficult when asking these types of questions. Considerations like these should make us pause or at least hesitate when answering certain questions of historiography in the OT. These types of questions and the difficulty in answering them results in less “I’ve-got-the-text-nailed-down” thinking and more amazement at the depth of OT text which portrays history. It is not a boring scientific endeavor to make all the pieces fit like a mathematical 1 to 1 ratio; rather, it is a rich and thick mosaic that we just won’t “nail-down” as pilgrims. Of course, we don’t have to throw up our arms in skepticism because the text we have is sufficient and accurate, able to instruct, teach, admonish, reprove, save, and so forth.
In theological terms, we don’t have some sort of univocal perspective on history/historiography, yet neither do we have an equivocal one. Ours is the pilgrim one: analogical.
Stay tuned for part II next time – we’ll ask some questions on “rules” of history writing along with chronological history writing. This book on Eisenhower, by the way, is a great read if you’re a history buff!