“Israel on her part no longer expected the saving facts to continue.”

As I was reading this morning, I came across this provocative quote from Gerhard von Rad. Take a look. My thoughts follow below.

The number of these originally independent complexes of tradition is not large: the most important are the promise to the patriarchs, the Exodus from Egypt, the miraculous deliverance at the Red Sea, the revelation of Jahweh at Sinai, and the bestowal of the land of Canaan. The latest of them is that of Jahweh’s covenant with David — and because of its subject it does not fall within that common picture of the saving history which, as is clear, the older traditions developed at an early date. Without prejudice to their special features, they are all “election traditions,” for they are centred upon saving events brought about by Jahweh for Israel’s benefit. But with the tradition of the covenant with David and the choice of Zion the cycle of election traditions is rounded off. Beyond them Israel knew of no further event capable of producing traditions — things of the kind no longer occurred.

The next event which, at a distance, might have been assessed in such a way, was the return from the Babylonian captivity; but this was not in fact so assessed. It is not in any way attached as a new link in the chain of the earlier saving acts, nor did it, like them, result in the production of tradition. No doubt, the reason for the break in continuity in the saving facts lies, quite simply, to begin with, in the history and its development.

But there is another factor assuredly no less important — Israel on her part no longer expected the saving facts to continue. She no doubt felt, as hitherto, that she was standing in the light of these saving facts — she was in fact occupied more intensively than ever with her religious traditions. But the time of the direct intervention of Jahweh which was creative of saving history was clearly over after the beginning of the monarchical period, and within Israel herself the expectation of and readiness for such events had vanished too.

[Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology (trans. D. M. G. Stalker; New York: Harper & Row, 1962), I.69. Emphasis and paragraph divisions mine.]

Put in a more accessible form, von Rad classifies the major events from Israel/Judah’s religious history as follows:

  1. Part of both the “election tradition” andthe “saving history”
    • The promise to the patriarchs
    • The Exodus
    • The deliverance at the Red Sea
    • The theophany at Sinai
    • The giving of the land of Canaan
  2. Part of the “election tradition” but not part of the “saving history”
    • The covenant with David
  3. Not part of the “election tradition” and not part of the “saving history”
    • The return from exile in Babylon

What is interesting, I think, is that the above events can be classified in exactly the same order, but in a totally different way:

  1. Non-historical
    • The promise to the patriarchs
    • The Exodus
    • The deliverance at the Red Sea
    • The theophany at Sinai
    • The giving of the land of Canaan
  2. Historical, but happened differently than the text describes
    • The covenant with David
  3. Historical, and happened more or less the way the text describes
    • The return from exile in Babylon

In other words, the reason the return from exile didn’t become a part of Israel’s traditions could be that it was too real. The stories from classification (1) are very old and had time to become part of the mythos of Yahwism, and the stories from (2) had time to be embellished and be partway assimilated into that mythos. They were stories of what YHWH did for our ancestors and were built up by gradual accretion, being told over and over again throughout the centuries before they were codified.

The stories from (3), on the other hand, were stories of what YHWH did for us, and were codified very soon after the events happened, meaning that they did not have time to ingrain themselves into the Yahwistic consciousness organically. These stories (like Ezra, Nehemiah) were directly historical, and did not have any obviously miraculous elements in them — no thundering theophanies, no cataclysmic destruction of Israel’s enemies, no holy wars led by YHWH himself. God is often ascribed agency in these stories  (e.g., he inspires the Persian kings to send the Judahites home, he causes the returning exiles not to be ambushed on their journey), but his agency is never direct: people pray to him, but he does not answer back; people speak in his name, but he never speaks himself.

Finally, it is interesting to note that even though the stories about the return from exile themselves did not become part of the Israelite salvation history, the prophetic tradition, which flourished around the same time, did become an integral part of the Yahwistic mythos, precisely because its predictions were non-historical; the prophets told stories of what YHWH will do for us later, and thus addressed their hearers only indirectly. They also frequently use strange and miraculous language to describe YHWH’s actions in the future, which makes them easier to integrate into a miracle-based mythos.

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