I was recently participating in a class offering an introductory examination into the Hebrew Bible. In the second week of discussions the following question was posed:
Discuss the possible reasoning and implications as to why God might have placed Old Testament Israel at that particular location and time in history for the growth of this religious faith?
A question as succinctly stated as this bears with it an air of simplicity. Yet, upon closer inspection or when viewed from an alternate vantage one will quickly find that this semblance of the simple is illusory at best. Unless one is of a particular persuasion than the question itself and any answers that may arise are a dead stop and are stillborn. Stated another way, if one does not subscribe to what is implied within the context and framework in which the question was constructed then, the question is unanswerable and is void of meaning.
The question as to “why God might have placed Old Testament Israel” within the geographical and chronological confines of the Ancient Near East, stated as such, is leading and loaded, to some extent, as it has within itself a very specific set of presuppositions. To begin with, the question presumes there is a God. Secondly, the question posits a precise set of characteristics and traits corresponding to “God.” It implies that this “God” is strategically decisive and, to some degree, interventionistic. Along these same lines the question is suggestive of a God that is omniscient, and in this case has an all-seeing eye, an all encompassing knowledge and awareness of time and place throughout the entirety of history. Here also is the presumption of omnipotence as well, as implicit within the question is the assumption that God, having known and seen all infinitesimal aspects of history, has the power and capacity to place the development and position of a people in any area God sees fit.
From a simple position of belief, if one disavows the existence of a “God,” then there is no reason to even attempt an answer, i.e. if there is no God then obviously “God” did not place anyone anywhere. Yet, from a literary critical perspective, which would be most applicable as it pertain to textual study of the biblical literature, Jack Miles clearly writes that “Knowledge of God as a literary character neither precludes nor requires belief in God” (4). As God is the primary character of the Hebrew Bible, this perspective at least provides anyone, regardless of their belief pertaining to God, a moderate piece of ground and equal footing on which to stand and begin to tackle this question.
Yet, even here the question proves complex as there is not a single conducive explanation or picture of the nature or composition of this character upon which all the various books of the Hebrew canon agree. Even the varying sources within a single book disagree, i.e. the God of J is as different from the God of E and the God of P. If this were not enough, thanks to the Redactor, God, as a character, has thus become “an amalgam of several personalities in one character” (6). In many cases the God presumed in the question is not displayed in the text, especially given that the authors wax and wane between immanence and transcendence, presenting a God that utterly anthropomorphic or a God that is wholly other. In other cases I would go so far as to say that it is not always necessarily clear as to whether God is the protagonist or the antagonist.
Here the task is complicated further when we consider Derrida’s deconstructive engagement with literature, in that “what a text means cannot be separated from the reading process used by readers as they draw on personal and literary experiences to make meaning” (Schilb and Clifford, 1603). Perhaps more simply stated, “the text is not an object but an event that occurs in readers over time” (1603). Thus, “what a text means cannot be separated from the reading process used by readers as they draw on personal and literary experiences to make meaning” (1603).
Perhaps then, the question is better answered from a sociological perspective. With this in mind the pioneering work of sociologist Georg Simmel can be substantially pertinent. Simmel proposed that “the models for many, if not all, religious sentiments, expressions, and beliefs, reside originally in society at large” (Johnstone, 30). Simmel made clear that “Before religion can develop, there must first exist general patterns of social interaction – that is, a society – that can serve as a model” (30). In other words, “society precedes religion” (30). Perhaps then, the reason “God chose” to place Israel within the Ancient Near East is because this is precisely when Israel began to develop themselves as a society, thus, beginning to formulate and systematize “God” and their religious organization and attachment to him as a society.
Far from being only an ancient practice, as a culture and society we have continued to systematically construct, codify, and invoke mythic tales and “creation” stories of “God’s” decisive pre-ordination of events, conventions, and institutions as a means of legitimating the maintenance our ideological observance and adherence to the status quo.
Johnstone, R. L. Religion in Society: A Sociology of Religion . 8th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2007. Print.
Miles, Jack. God: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc, 1995. Print.