Nahum Sarna’s Understanding Genesis (New York: Schocken Books, Inc. 1966) is a great resource for studying the first book of the Bible from a Jewish perspective. I especially liked the introduction, where Sarna talks about OT studies in general in light of higher criticism and fundamentalism. In one section of the introduction, Sarna explains how amazing it is that some written documents from biblical Israel actually survived through the ages. Here’s an edited summary of his explanation (found on pages xviii-xix).
1) In a predominantly illiterate society the circulation of the written word would of necessity have been strictly limited. Neither the demand for, nor the means of, commercial mass distribution existed. The labor of hand copying on the part of scribal specialist restricted the availability of the finished product and hence reduced its chances of attaining repute.
2) The prospects for survival in Israel were infinitely more uncertain than elsewhere. The strategically exposed nature of the land as a bridge between continents and as an arena of unceasing contention between the great powers, meant that it would be more frequently plundered and more thoroughly devastated than any other in the Near East. The meager material and monumental remains of ancient Israel bear eloquent, if gloomy, testimony to this truth. [2 Maccabees and 4 Esdras bear witness to this.] No wonder then, that the volume of epigraphic finds in Palestine has been so slender. Inscriptions and books were simply destroyed in the wake of man’s inhumanity to man.
3) Another factor was the climate. The land of Israel was not blessed with the type of rich alluvial soil characteristic of Mesopotamia which yielded an inexhaustible supply of cheap, durable writing material in the form of baked clay. The Israelite scribe had to make use of far more expensive and highly perishable papyrus and animal skins. Unfortunately, the climactic conditions of Palestine, unlike those in Egypt, are thoroughly inhospitable to the preservation of such materials. More often than not, the writing materials used were highly perishable so that only for extraordinary reasons would a work be copied from generation to generation to defeat thereby the natural ravages of time.
4) Until the Hellenization of the East, it is extremely unlikely that anyone in the ancient world, outside of the congregation of Israel, had the slightest interest in the Jewish people, its history and literature. Since, with very brief exceptions, Israel was neither an imperialist nor a mercantile power, there was little opportunity for the dissemination of its cultural productions beyond its own national frontiers. A copy of the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic can turn up at Meggido in the territory of Israel, but it is unlikely in the extreme that any specimens of Israelite literature from biblical times will be unearthed in Egypt, Syria, or Mesopotamia.
We can summarize it like this: Why it is amazing that we actually have extant texts from biblical Israel? 1) Because texts themselves were rare and were never mass-produced, 2) Because Israel was ransacked by enemies so many times, 3) Because the climate and writing materials used made it difficult to preserve texts, and 4) Because no other nations around Israel cared enough about Israel to read and reproduce her texts.
It is not surprising that many of Israel’s texts did not survive (i.e. “the Book of the Wars of the Lord”,” the “Book of Jashar” among others; cf. Num. 21:14, Josh. 10:13, etc.). What is surprising is that some texts did survive – the collection of texts we now call the Old Testament. As the Westminster Confession says in 1.8, God preserved and “kept pure” the OT and the NT “by his singular care and providence.” What is also surprising is that the Hebrew Bible has “captured the hearts, minds, and loyalties of so many diverse peoples, totally removed racially, geographically, and culturally from its Israelite source” (Sarna, xix).
Indeed, the word of God is “enduring” (1 Pet. 1:23).
rev. shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)