Although many events in the Bible are very familiar in the West even to non-religious people, the overall narrative is much less well known. I reproduce below the synopsis from Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman’s excellent book, The Bible Unearthed.
The heart of the Hebrew Bible is an epic story that describes the rise of the
people of Israel and their continuing relationship with God. Unlike other
ancient Near Eastern mythologies, such as the Egyptian tales of Osiris, Isis,
and Horus or the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic, the Bible is grounded firmly in
earthly history. It is a divine drama played out before the eyes of humanity.
Also unlike the histories and royal chronicles of other ancient Near Eastern
nations, it does not merely celebrate the power of tradition and ruling
dynasties. It offers a complex yet clear vision of why history has
unfolded for the people of Israel – and indeed for the entire world – in a
pattern directly connected with the demands and promises of God. The people of
Israel are the central actors in this drama. Their behaviour and their adherence
to God’s commandments determine the direction in which history will flow. It is
up to the people of Israel – and, through them, all readers of the Bible – to
determine the fate of the world.
The Bible’s tale begins in the garden of Eden and continues through the stories
of Cain and Abel and the flood of Noah, finally focusing on the fate of a single
family – that of Abraham. Abraham was chosen by God to become the father of a
great nation, and faithfully followed God’s commands. He travelled with his
family from his original home in Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan where, in the
course of a long life, he wandered as an outsider among the settled population
and, by his wife, Sarah, begot a son, Isaac, who would inherit the divine
promises first given to Abraham. It was Isaac’s son Jacob – the
third-generation patriarch – who became the father of twelve distinct tribes.
In the course of a colourful, chaotic life of wandering, raising a large family,
and establishing altars throughout the land, Jacob wrestled with an angel and
received the name Israel (meaning “He who struggled with God”), by which all his
descendants would be known. The Bible relates how Jacob’s twelve sons fought
among one another, worked together, and eventually left their homeland to seek
shelter in Egypt at the time of a great famine. And the patriarch Jacob declared
in his last will and testament that the tribe of his son Judah would rule over
them all (Genesis 49:8-10).
The great saga then moves from family drama to historical spectacle. The God of
Israel revealed his awesome power in a demonstration against the pharaoh of
Egypt, the mightiest human ruler on earth. The children of Israel had grown into
a great nation, but they were enslaved as a despised minority, building the
great monuments of the Egyptian regime. God’s intention to make himself known to
the world came through his selection of Moses as an intermediary to seek the
liberation of the Israelites so that they could begin their true destiny. And in
perhaps the most vivid sequence of events in the literature of the western
world, the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers describe how through signs
and wonders, the God of Israel led the children of Israel out of Egypt and into
the wilderness. At Sinai, God revealed to the nation his true identity as YHWH
(the Sacred Name composed of four Hebrew letters) and gave them a code of law to
guide their lives as a community and as individuals.
The holy terms of Israel’s covenant with YHWH, written on stone tablets and
contained in the Ark of the Covenant, became their sacred battle standard as
they marched toward the promised land. In some cultures, a founding myth might
have stopped at this point – as a miraculous explanation of how the people
arose. But the Bible had centuries more of history to recount, with many
triumphs, miracles, unexpected reverses, and much collective suffering to come.
The great triumphs of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, King David’s
establishment of a great empire, and Solomon’s construction of the Jerusalem
Temple were followed by schism, repeated lapses into idolatry, and, ultimately,
exile. For the Bible describes how, soon after the death of Solomon, the ten
northern tribes, resenting their subjugation to Davidic kings in Jerusalem,
unilaterally seceded from the united monarchy, thus forcing the creation of two
rival kingdoms: the kingdom of Israel, in the north, and the kingdom of Judah,
in the south.
For the next two hundred years, the people of Israel lived in two separate
kingdoms, reportedly succumbing again and again to the lure of foreign deities.
The leaders of the northern kingdom are described in the Bible as all
irretrievably sinful; some of the kings of Judah are also said to have strayed
from the path of total devotion to God. In time, God sent outside invaders and
oppressors to punish the people of Israel for their sins. First the Arameans of
Syria harassed the kingdom of Israel. Then the mighty Assyrian empire brought
unprecedented devastation to the cities of the northern kingdom and the bitter
fate of destruction and exile in 720 BCE for a significant portion of the ten
tribes. The kingdom of Judah survived more than a century longer, but its people
could not avert the inevitable judgment of God. In 586 BCE, the rising, brutal
Babylonian empire decimated the land of Israel and put Jerusalem and its Temple
to the torch.
With that great tragedy, the biblical narrative dramatically departs in yet
another characteristic way from the normal pattern of ancient religious epics.
In many such stories, the defeat of a god by a rival army spelled the end of his
cult as well. But in the Bible, the power of the God of Israel was seen to be
even greater after the fall of Judah and the exile of the Israelites. Far
from being humbled by the devastation of his temple, the God of Israel was seen
to be a deity of unsurpassable power. He had, after all, manipulated the
Assyrians and the Babylonians to be his unwitting agents to punish the people of
Israel for their infidelity.
Henceforth, after the return of some of the exiles to Jerusalem and the
reconstruction of the Temple, Israel would no longer be a monarchy but a
religious community, guided by divine law and dedicated to the precise
fulfillment of the rituals prescribed in the community’s sacred texts. And it
would be the free choice of men and women to keep or violate that divinely
decreed order – rather than the behavior of its kings or the rise and fall of
great empires – that would determine the course of Israel’s subsequent history.
In this extraordinary focus on human responsibility lay the Bible’s great power.
Other ancient epics would fade over time. The impact of the Bible’s story on
western civilisation would only grow.