Last week, I attended the 2012 conference of the Society for Biblical Literature (held in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion), this year at Chicago’s McCormick Place. This isn’t meant to be any kind of comprehensive report; those who’ve been to the SBL will know that’s impossible, since dozens of sessions are running concurrently at any one time. But there’s also no forum for reacting to conference presentations once they’re over. So I’m using this post to present a reaction to something I heard there.
The remark that caught my attention was a comment made by Thomas Römer of the Université de Lausanne. I know his work only from hearing him speak at previous conferences, where he has always sounded sensible and thoughtful. But this time I think his good sense has steered him wrong.
It was in a session on “How to Reconstruct the Literary History of the Hebrew Bible.” The discussion touched on the question of how much of the Bible was put together during the period of the Babylonian exile, following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. Römer asked the rhetorical question, “When the Israelites went into exile, was their immediate reaction to start writing books?” The question drew a laugh, and a subsequent speaker also alluded to it, as if acknowledging that they obviously did not.
Now for a responsible opposing viewpoint.
We have an empirical model—more on this term in a later post—suggesting that the immediate reaction to exile might indeed be writing books that consolidate the knowledge of the exiled community.
The exile to Babylonia was not the first exile suffered by the Jews (that was in 722, when inhabitants of the northern kingdom of Israel were exiled to other lands by their Assyrian conquerors), and it was far from the last. The exile I want to discuss in this post is the exile from Spain in 1492, and the writer is Isaac Abarbanel.
Abarbanel (often given the courtesy title “Don” Isaac) is identified by the Encyclopedia Judaica as a “statesman, biblical exegete, and theologian,” but I would call him a politician and financier as well as a writer on religious topics. He was forced to leave Spain with the rest of the remaining Jews in 1492, but according to the EJ he was allowed to take 1000 gold ducats out of the country with him.
And here’s what happened next:
After the 1492 expulsion, Abrabanel* passed two years in Naples. Here he completed his commentary on Kings (fall 1493).
*Since the name appears most often in Hebrew characters, which do not make the pronunciation explicit, it appears in transliteration in a number of different ways. I follow the explanation by Sid Leiman (JJS 19 :49 n. 1) explaining that Don Isaac’s son Judah used the pronunciation “Abarbanel.”
Though Abarbanel was eventually able to resume political and financial activities, he also continued to write. His Bible commentaries are still used, not just read by scholars. (His Torah commentary, somewhat long-winded, is not translated into English, but you will find selections from it in my Commentators’ Bible series.)
Could some of Israel’s biblical literature have been written not only in, but early in, the Babylonian exile? The example of Abarbanel—whose commentary on Kings was finished in 1493, the year after the exile—says that it could.
What circumstances permitted Abarbanel to write his commentary on Kings?
1) He had the means, having left Spain with a bit of money.
2) He had the opportunity, since unlike a baker, tailor, carpenter or the like he could not immediately resume his financial and political occupations, but he could continue to write.
3) He had the motive, partly the same motives that had moved him to write commentaries and other religious works earlier in his career, and partly the desire to reassure himself and his Jewish contemporaries that their tradition was secure and that their ultimate fate was a hopeful one.
Could these same circumstances have existed—for someone—even during the very first months of the Babylonian exile? It would be surprising if they did not. The exilic community certainly included richer and more well-connected members (we know of a Jewish banking family in Babylonia not long after this period) and there were undoubtedly also many learned people among the exiles.
The important thing to remember is that it would only take one such person to produce a biblical book. Contemporary scholars speak of “the Deuteronomistic school,” “the priestly traditions,” and so on, but books are not written by committee—not good books, anyway. They are written by single authors, even if they subsequently change as they are transmitted through the centuries.
Römer’s question, “When the Israelites went into exile, was their immediate reaction to start writing books?” makes the very idea sound absurd. And posed in this general way, it certainly is. But there is nothing absurd about the idea that writing a book might have been the immediate reaction of a few individuals—individuals like Thomas Römer himself, and (not to put myself on the same level) like me.
So the idea that some of the biblical books were composed or compiled during the Babylonian exile is a quite reasonable one.