Biblical Myths, Cultural Boundaries and Political Realities: Rachel Havrelock’s Important New Book

I don’t usually review books while I’m reading them, but I’m definitely making an exception in this case.

I’m currently enthralled by and savoring “River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line,” an amazing new book by by Rachel Havrelock of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Havrelock, an associate professor of Jewish studies and English at UIC is a particularly gifted scholar of the Hebrew Bible, its historical interpretation and contemporary cultural/political relevance. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that so skillfully maneuvers through the terrain of Biblical scholarship, cultural anthropology, modern history and contemporary politics.

In “River Jordan,” Havrelock investigates what she identifies as five essential “national myths” in the Hebrew Bible and discusses their history, their implications and their uses. Her ideas will certainly surprise those who have internalized more conventional assumptions about Biblical national mythology – and particular the Biblical myths that have been utilized by modern Zionism.  All of this, needless to say, has very real – and profoundly important – implications for envisioning a viable future for contemporary Israel/Palestine.

For an introduction to Havrelock’s work, I strongly recommend watching her presentation in the video interview above.

An excerpt:

There are two maps that have really impacted political life and one of these is the idea from the book of Deuteronomy and related sources of the expansionist idea, of conquest and expelling indigenous others. The other idea, the kind of Priestly idea of a discrete land that ends at the Jordan river, these have participated in a prominent way in modern political thought.

But there are other maps there – and the ones that I talk about in the book, that I try to make available also for political use, are on the one hand are this idea of the Northern Kingdom of Israel where boundaries aren’t fixed lines – they’re open, fluid frontiers and people cross them, they go in and out… But there also is a very potent geographic tradition in the book of Joshua.  In chapters 12 through 21 there are all of these regional maps or “boundary lists” if you will, and they talk about the tribes of Israel ultimately settling and living and they concede to the fact that Israel under Joshua did not expel everyone or exterminate them but rather that they lived alongside them.

And so we see in these traditions in the book of Joshua the coexistence of overlapping claims, the simultaneity of different identities and different peoples and we also really get to a regional model. In chapter 15 of the book of Joshua, there’s even a verse that says “until today, the tribe of Judah and the Jebusites live in Jerusalem.” Jerusalem is divided between them.  So there, right in the Bible, is the idea of a shared Jerusalem which really is much closer to the reality of contemporary Jerusalem – and it has Biblical precedent.

So I would say to those who say wait, Jerusalem must be Judaicized, Palestinians must be run out of their neighborhoods – and the idea that this has to be done in the name of King David, I would tell them to look closer at the text and see how these traditions of coexistence have as much root in the Bible as the military traditions that inspired the early movement and the wars in many ways.

Truthout has also recently published this extended written interview as well.  If all this whets your appetite for more, it’s time to check out her book.  Highly, highly recommended.

10 thoughts on “Biblical Myths, Cultural Boundaries and Political Realities: Rachel Havrelock’s Important New Book

  1. Dave

    A nice bit of parsing.

    The passage in full goes, “And as for the Jebusites, the children of Judah could not drive them out; but the Jebusites dwelt with the children of Judah at Jerusalem, unto this day.”

    Not quite the pacific situation she describes. Nor is the existence of the Jebusites in Jerusalem, as described, the way it should be or the way it will be.

    And last I checked, yup, I thought so. Nobody calling themselves Jebusites in Jerusalem today.

  2. Richard Kahn

    I have to agree with Dave. I’ll clearly need to read the book myself, but using Joshua to promote coexistence doesn’t pass the reasonableness test.

  3. Eric Greenberg

    I don’t think the author was suggesting that the Book of Joshua be used to promote coexistence. Only that the Biblically mandated Genocide (or ethnic cleansing) against the Jebusites and other Canaanites “didn’t work” and should not be as a model of nationalism but a myth of national worship.

    1. Eric Greenberg

      Religiously mandated ethnic cleansing has been committed by religious majorities against religious minorities throughout human history. (And by even more majorities against many minorities of the same faith) The problem I have with some of my fellow Jews is they only seem to think it exists when it happens to us. Guess what, it can also be perpetrated by us. That Israeli policies have disenfranchised and devastated Palestinians is not a myth but an actual historical fact. Using ancient myths, that likely have no historical veracity to justify actual acts of ethnic cleansing is beyond shameful and is ultimately using Gods name in vain.

  4. i_like_ike52

    Doesn’t the Qur’an specifically mention the eradication of the Jewish tribes of Arabia that refused to accept Muhammed’s new religion? What do you call that?
    Also, doesn’t Islamic teaching, whether from the Qur’an or later sources, demand that pagans who are not “ahl al-Qitab” (people of the book-i.e. monotheists like Jews or Christians) and who do not accept Islam also be eradicated?

    1. Shirin

      No, Ike, the Qur’an does not mention the eradication of the Jewish tribes of Arabia that refused to accept Muhammad’s new religion. The historical background of that passage as well as the meaning has been misrepresented by people who would like to paint Islam and Muslims as evil and dangerous – tragically, that should be a familiar phenomenon to Jews.

      No, Islamic teaching does not demand that pagans be eradicated. Islamic teaching does not demand that anyone be eradicated. Ahl Al Kitab (not Qitab, which is a totally different root with a totally different meaning) had a special status due to their religions’ linear relationship to Islam, as you would understand if you had actually read the Qur’an. That does not mean that everyone else was to be eradicated.

      Now, have you read the Tanach lately?

      1. Richard Kahn

        Does the Quran have any problematic teachings? Anything that you find morally problematic? The Tanakh certainly does.

  5. David Gesundheit

    OK, yes there are objectionable passages in the Tanakh, but it’s all irrelevant. Let’s look at the situation today. What I find disturbing in Rachel Havrelock assessment is that she only mentions Jewish/Israeli attitudes that are problematic. What about the call to genocide on the part of the Arabs? Has she not read the Hamas charter?

    A one state solution will not work and the other plans did not work either since the Arabs have never accepted any Jewish connection to the land. This is the problem. Furthermore it is unreasonable to expect Israelis to give up their country and their nationhood and put themselves at the mercy of those who want to kill them.


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