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Frank Cross Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic

Frank Cross Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic

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Published by: David Bailey on Jul 20, 2013
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Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic
 Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel 
Frank Moore Cross
Harvard University PressCambridge, Massachusettsand London, England
 
Preface
The essays which follow are preliminary studies directed toward anew synthesis of the history of the religion of Israel. Each study isaddressed to a special and, in my view, unsolved problem in the des-cription of Israel’s religious development. The barriers in the way of  progress toward a new synthesis are many.
While the burgeoningarchaeological enterprise has increasingly uncovered materials which
can be used to reconstruct the ancient environment of Israel, at thesame time its discoveries have thrown the field into chaos. Great strideshave been taken in the endeavor to interpret the new data from thecenturies contemporary with ancient Israel and to view the history of Israelite religion whole in its ancient context; still, the sheer mass of new or unassimilated lore hinders synthetic treatment.Another obstacle in the way of attempts to rewrite the history of Israelite religion has been the obstinate survival of remnants of older syntheses, especially the idealistic synthesis initiated by WilhelmVatke and given classic statement by Julius Wellhausen. It is true thatthe idealistic and romantic presuppositions which informed the earlydevelopment of literary-critical and form-critical methods have largely been discarded when brought fully to consciousness. Few today wouldfollow
Gunkel
in presuming that the primitive Israelite was incapable of retaining more than a line or two ofpoetry. Not a few, however, continueto date short poems or poetic fragments earlier than longer poems. Inthis fashion the results and models based on the idealistic synthesisoften persist unrecognized and unexamined. Particularly difficult andtroublesome, for example, is the task of disentangling and removingantinomian tendencies of idealistic or existentialist origin from theanalysis of law and covenant and their role in the religion of Israel.
Hegel’s
evaluation of Israelite law might as easily have been written by a contemporary scholar: “The liberator [Moses] of his nation wasalso its lawgiver; this could mean only that the man who had freedit from one yoke had laid on it another.” Unhappily, such a view isalso wholly in tune with an older Christian polemic against Judaism.Yet another hindrance has been the tendency of scholars to overlook or suppress continuities between the early religion of Israel and theCanaanite (or Northwest Semitic) culture from which it emerged. Therehas been a preoccupation with the novelty of Israel’s religious
con-
 
VIII
Preface 
sciousness. More serious, the religion of Israel has been conceived asa unique or isolated phenomenon, radically or wholly discontinuouswith its environment. In extreme form these views root ultimately indogmatic systems, metaphysical or theological, and often serve anapologetic purpose. Yehezkel Kaufmann’s monumental attempt towrite a history of the religion of Israel comes under this criticism. Theempirical historian must describe novel configurations in Israel’sreligion as having their origin in an orderly set of relationships whichfollow the usual typological sequences of historical change. Kaufmann’sinsistence that Israelite religion “was absolutely different from anythingthe pagan world ever knew” violates fundamental postulates of scien-tific historical method.Characteristic of the religion of Israel is a perennial and unrelaxedtension between the mythic and the historical. Concern with thisaspect of Israel’s religious expression gives some unity to the essaysto follow. Israel’s religion emerged from a mythopoeic past under theimpact of certain historical experiences which stimulated the creationof an epic cycle and its associated covenant rites of the early time.This epic, rather than the Canaanite cosmogonic myth, was featuredin the ritual drama of the old Israelite
cultus.
At the same time theepic events and their interpretation were shaped strongly by inheritedmythic patterns and language, so that they gained a vertical dimensionin addition to their horizontal, historical stance. In this tension betweenmythic and historical elements the meaning of Israel’s history becametransparent.Perhaps the term “epic” best designates the constitutive genre of Israel’s religious expression.Epic in interpreting historical eventscombines mythic and historical features in various ways and propor-tions. Usually Israel’s epic forms have been labeled “historical.”
This
is a legitimate use of the term “historical.” At the same time confusionoften enters at this point. The epic form, designed to recreate and givemeaning to the historical experiences of a people or nation, is notmerely or simply historical. In epic narrative, a people and their god or gods interact in the temporal course of events. In historical narrativeonly human actors have parts. Appeal to divine agency is illegitimate.Thus the composer of epic and the historian are very different intheir methods of approach to the materials of history. Yet both aremoved by a common impulse in view of their concern with the humanand the temporal process. By contrast myth in its purest form is con-cerned with “primordial events” and seeks static structures of meaning behind or beyond the historical flux.

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