The Birth of God; the Bible and the Historian, by Jean Bottéro

Article excerpt

translated by Kees W. Bolle. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000. 214 pp. $40.00.

Sometimes an expert in an ancillary discipline can enter the field of biblical studies and make a contribution by providing valuable insights into the ancient texts or trenchant critiques of modern scholarly theories. Professor Bottéro is a leading Assyriologist with a record of over forty years of distinguished scholarship. Thus, The Birth of God: The Bible and the Historian promised to be one of those books that might provide some fresh perspective to biblical studies. This book is actually a translation of Bottéro's Naissance de Dieu: La Bible et l'historien (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1986), and the five essays included in this volume were written between 1949 and 1969. Unfortunately, as the original dates indicate and the contents reveal, these essays are rather dated in many respects, reflecting the state of biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies when they were composed.

The first essay, "The Universal Message of the Bible" (written in 1969), constitutes fully the first half of the book and amounts to little more than a biblical paraphrase. This essay seeks to provide both a survey of Israelite history as well as an account of the development of Israelite religious thought. Bottéro adopts the religious perspective of the Bible's latest (Deuteronomistic) editors as if it were the dominant religious perspective in ancient Israel and Judah. His overall goal is commendable, even if nowadays it appears a bit naïve.

But another way of reading is possible, and preferable, which too few undertake with these same writings. This way is followed when, aware of the vast distance in time and culture that separates us from the authors, we nonetheless attempt to read them with a perspective and mental attitude as close as possible to the perspective and mental attitude with which they composed their works. In other words, through the texts we seek to discover the people who mused on them and couched them in writing, and those whom they thought of while they wrote. Reading in this way, we may hope, on good grounds, to draw from what they wrote, not what we, in our century, can effortlessly recognize or fancy as our own experience, knowledge, reason, taste, but what they meant within that enormous heritage that the long line of our ancestors since the dawn of time has never ceased to enrich and that is passed to us together with the life and the culture we receive at our arrival in the world. (p. x)

The very idea of the "universal message of the Bible" is a romantic ideal that, although it may be at home in some religious communities, honestly fails to account for the diversity of the biblical materials and the diversity that characterized the ancient Israelite religious imagination. …