I pause in my consideration of Georg Fohrer’s Introduction to the Old Testament to go down a side path today. To many people his concern with sources for the Pentateuch and his unwillingness to take the stories of the patriarchs, the exodus, and the conquest at face value will seem to be anti-Bible and anti-faith. On the other hand, if you read recent scholars who discount any historical value in the Pentateuch, Fohrer will seem too conservative in thinking that the texts might actually yield some historical information.
Take Israel Finkelstein as an example of some recent scholarship. He thinks the primary history of Israel is a construct with only vague memories of actual events. For instance he says:
“the conquest and part of the period of the judges narratives should be seen, first and foremost, as a Deuteronomistic construct that used myths, tales, and etiological traditions in order to convey the theology and territorial ideology of the late monarchic author(s) (The Forgotten Kingdom, p. 23–this book is available free in pdf. format here.)
Against this you have the inerrantists and Christian apologists who are all over the internet with articles claiming that archeology confirms the historical truth of the Bible.
So you have two opposite views of the text. One is that texts are late and are constructed by people who had an agenda and who had very little real information about the distant past. The other is that the texts are meant to convey real events and the writers have real information that was supplied directly by God. Finkelstein’s method is to doubt the biblical text unless archeology directly confirms it. Christian apologists assume the biblical texts are precisely accurate and use archeology when they think they can get it to confirm this.
The value of a pre-postmodernist (that would be a modernist, I guess) like Fohrer is that he used the text to fill in blanks in the archeology and vice versa . He recognized that the texts do not come from people who had supernatural knowledge of the past. Yet he thought they had some real information. Finkelstein’s “myths, tales, and etiological traditions” also included traditions about real people. Moses, for instance, existed. The stories about him do not represent a precise history. A form of Finkelstein’s “territorial ideology” already existed in very ancient Israel. It was the reason historical events became part of the tradition. But there are methods by which you can say something about Moses from the text, even without definite physical evidence.
In my opinion postmodernism has given people an unwarranted pessimism about what we can know. It makes everything about conflict and power. When scholars deconstruct history in that light, there is often nothing left. But is this not going too far?
I have used this illustration before, but it makes more and more sense to me. In America, there was a battle at Gettysburg during the Civil War. Lincoln made a famous speech there. Now there is a national park. There are reenactments. We have sensationalized and commercialized Gettysburg. So there are myths about the battle. You can debunk some of what you will be told if you visit the site.
So, because we can deconstruct some of the motives and traditions about Gettysburg, do we get to doubt the event? No! The event happened. The north won. It was a turning point. You could say that the reason for the sensationalism and the myths is that the battle itself was so important.
Now events like the exodus and settlement of Israel are more lost to us than the battle of Gettysburg. I mean there are photographs from the aftermath of Gettysburg. But do the myths and propaganda that arose after the formation of Israel mean that we should just give up on the actual events? Or did the very importance and formative nature of the events give rise to the use of them in the construction of the epic?
So, although I will probably criticize many things about Fohrer’s book, I find the positive and optimistic pursuit of history in the texts a plus. If God has acted in history, then finding a positive approach to historical events seems necessary to faith.