Biblical Myths, Cultural Boundaries and Political Realities: Rachel Havrelock’s Important New BookPosted: February 8, 2012
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.
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.