From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel

By Gottwald, Norman K. | Interpretation, January 2000 | Go to article overview

From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel


Gottwald, Norman K., Interpretation


From Epic to Canon: History and Literature In Ancient Israel by Frank Moore Cross

Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1998. 277 pp. $45.00 (cloth). ISBN 0-8018-5982-4.

THIS IS AN IMPORTANT WORK, more for what it recollects and brings into focus than for what it originates. One of the most remarkable partnerships in biblical scholarship, extending over more than fifty years, is the collaborative and parallel work of Frank Moore Cross and David Noel Freedman as independent-minded students of William R Albright. The present volume reminds us of their substantial contribution to biblical scholarship, whether we agree or disagree with one or another of the positions they have forcefully championed. Our field is vastly enriched by the fertility of their ideas and the care they have taken to support their views linguistically and exegetically. Cross and Freedman are among the chief exemplars of historical-critical method in an era when that method has fallen into disfavor with many biblical interpreters.

That tribute paid, we may assess this collection of Cross's essays as primarily significant for bringing together widely scattered articles organized around the major themes that have occupied his scholarly work. A majority of the essays, drawn from a period spanning 1973-88, are lightly revised or modestly expanded, chiefly in footnotes on subsequent literature and occasionally in dialogue with contrary views. Three of the twelve essays are published here for the first time, providing insights into the direction that the author's ever-- fertile mind is moving. The title From Epic to Canon echoes his earlier Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, and many of the essays build on and extend the positions staked out in that highly influential work.

The first of the new essays sums up the evidence for kinship obligations to family and lineage as the basis of non-state societies in the ancient Near East, which are then extended fictitiously to larger groupings of tribes and tribal leagues, and eventually employed to characterize inter-state treaties and religiopolitical ties between king and people and between king and deity. The fundamental basis of biblical covenants is this concept of kinship linkages. Cross argues that D and P resuscitate and reshape the old kinship norms and practices of Israel's tribal league as late archaizing gestures in order to counter unilateral royal claims to authority and power.

On the theme of early Israel's epic traditions, Cross presents a spirited defense of the thesis that the Tetrateuch was an orally composed epic converted largely into prose when written down by JE and expanded by P. As to genre, it is neither fiction nor historical narrative but an epic recital of the cultural and religious lore of tribal Israel shaped during festivals at various league shrines. The historical detail that can be extracted from the epic is minimal, but the general contours of the social and religious life of early Israel are authentically retained. The "conservatism" of Cross in positing and dating sources brings him to a reconstruction of premonarchic Israel that shares much in common with the work of Noth, von Rad, and Gottwald. His chief departure from Noth and von Rad is to accept the patriarchal traditions as part of the old epic, and he differs from Gottwald in finding no place for an outright Israelite "revolt" against city states in spite of Israel's sustained "patriarchal-- egalitarian" and "anti-Canaanite" polemic. Moreover, Cross's way of "working" the sources is well illustrated by his explanation for Reuben's preeminent place as Jacob's firstborn who subsequently disappears from the traditions. He attributes this puzzling feature to a dash of priesthoods. The prime importance of the Mosaic Levites for Reuben and other proto-- Israelites closely linked with Midianites, who came from the south into Transjordan, was eclipsed and suppressed by the ascendency of Aaronid priests based in Jerusalem. …

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