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old testamentAs an English snob once said, “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” What is remarkable about the history of the Jewish people is that it is unremarkable. It is extraordinary because it is ordinary. In other words, the Hebrews did not build ziggurats and hanging gardens. They did not carve a mysterious and monstrous sphinx or construct pyramids that reflected the constellation’s locations. They did not erect monolithic circles of stones, carve gigantic images across the plains of Peru, build an impossible city high in the Andes or establish a civilization with gigantic deities enthroned as immortal kings and queens. The Hebrews were shepherds. They were nomads in the no man’s land of the Arabian desert. Their wandering is not wonderful and the scene of their wandering is practically the only thing about them that causes me to wonder. Their desert was one of the most barren in the world. Their life was simple and their customs sparse. The only other thing that is wonderful about them is their survival.

The Hebrews were just ordinary people trying to scratch out a living the best way they could. In this respect, their lives were like the lives of most simple people of the time. Most ancient peoples were not Egyptian pharaohs, Babylonian monarchs, Aztec princes, or Celtic chieftains and shamans. The Hebrews were not members of the great civilizations. Wandering in the desert, they existed like the flotsam and jetsam of the ancient world.

In fact, the Hebrews are remarkable, but the reason they are remarkable is unpredictable and unexpected. They are remarkable because they epitomize the mythological. What I mean is that this tribe of Mesopotamian monotheists, these Jewish gypsies, these nomadic nobodies captured in their history the spiritual and psychological history of the human race. They did so because they lived out, in an astounding way, all the great myths and legends of the world. The poignant tales of lost children, the transit through the underworld, the quest for redemption, the salvation from slavery, the passage from death to life and the hero’s battle with the forces of darkness—all these stories come alive in the ancient stories of the Hebrew people. The difference is, the stories are locked into history. The fantastic tales become family sagas.

The tales of mythological mystery and magic become mundane tribal legends. The superheroes are not so super. Instead of helmets they wear turbans, their masks are scarves to shield their faces from the whipping sand of sandstorms; instead of capes, long woolen robes (except for one who wore a coat of many colors). The Hebrews are not gods, but they talk and walk with God. They are not masters of hidden mysteries or magi or astrologers or arithmeticians. They are camel drivers, sheep herders, warriors, traders, and dwellers in tents.

Consider for a moment all the great mythic stories of the world. Think of their great themes. Each one can be found in the Old Testament, which is both the story book and the history book of the Hebrew people. Are you looking for the story of the ordinary man who is really a prince, who hears the magic voice calling him to embark on a heroic quest? Has this ordinary hero a dark secret? Has he killed a man? Is he on a journey to reclaim his own soul as well as to overcome a dark Lord and set his people free? It is the story of Moses.

Shall we tell the tale of the hero who must pass through the underworld to claim salvation? Does he go down deep into the darkest bowels of the earth? Does he face his own mortality, his own rebellion, his own weakness and poverty? Does he lose all to gain all? Does he sacrifice his own life, then rise victorious to save his friends and family and himself? Then remember Joseph who was cast down into the pit, sold into slavery, and emerged triumphant as a ruler in Egypt. Or think of Jonah the prophet who was thrown into the deep, dark chaos of the sea and swallowed by a great fish, only to be vomited out on the third day, soiled but triumphant. Remember Elijah, in the depth of the cave on the holy mountain, sitting and watching and waiting for the voice of God.

Do you long for a tale of the search for true love, for loyalty and bravery and courage in the face of the threatening dark? Does this love that overcomes all point you to a greater love, and do those stories echo some greater universal truth? The stories are there in the Old Testament sagas of the love between Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Boaz and Ruth. The same universal stories and themes that connect all humanity were lived out in the history of this ordinary, dusty tribe of nomads.

Are you one who loves the stories of heroes engaged in the battle against the seemingly indomitable forces of darkness? Shall the story have a supernatural dimension? Shall the hero be an underdog, an unlikely ordinary boy who overcomes against great odds? Should there be a romantic interest? A battle not only for love, but against lust? Then remember the story of Joshua who went out to battle the people of Jericho, avoided the temptation of Rahab, and won the victory through cunning and divine intervention. Do you love the story of the boy who is terrified of the giant, but beats him and saves his family by outsmarting the huge oaf? Then remember David in his unlikely battle against Goliath. Do not forget the hero Samson, who fell for the beautiful woman—the femme fatale who proved to be his downfall, and how King David, fell into the arms of another man’s wife then fell further into schemes of foul murder.

The fantastic stories of the interaction of the gods with men are also alive in the stories of the Old Testament. The difference is that the Old Testament stories present themselves as part of history. Do you like to hear about the gods coming down to earth? Remember the mysterious visit of three angels to Abraham or Jacob’s dream of the angels ascending and descending on a stairway to heaven. Remember Elijah taken up in the fiery chariot, or the angel walking in the fiery furnace with the three Hebrew boys.

In the myths and fantastical stories of the world cultures the gods command the mortals. In the Hebrew stories, God the creator speaks to his people in all manner of ordinary ways: through dreams, through night visions and morning terrors, through the words and works of ordinary life: a transcendental vision of a bush that seems to burn without being consumed, in the thunder, earthquake, wind and fire, a quiet voice to a boy serving in the temple at night, or in a still, small whisper at the entrance of the cave—the door to the underworld.

Not only are all the universal stories of the world enfleshed in the stories of the Hebrew people, but all the archetypal characters are there. In the great stories of the world certain types of hero occur and recur time and again, and in the Hebrew story they all appear, but not in fantastical forms, but historical forms. The brave and handsome young warrior hero is the famous King David. The intelligent young hero who is orphaned and left alone to fend for himself in the desert is the patriarch Joseph. The princess who lies hidden and emerges as the brave hero of the story is Queen Esther. The beautiful bride, discovered at last by her handsome prince is Rachel. The wise old man who mentors the hero is Eli to the boy Samuel, and Samuel to the boy David and Elijah to the young Elisha. If all the heroes are there, so are all the villains. The murderous brother Cain, the clever rebel brother Jacob, and the faithful son, Isaac. Like any fanciful fairy tale, the cast list of the wicked kings and queens runs through the historical tapestry of the Old Testament like a dark burgundy thread: the Egyptian Pharaoh, wicked King Ahab, wicked Queen Jezebel, murderous Haman, jealous King Saul, and weak Rehoboam.

What very few have stopped to realize is that in the midst pagans telling fantastical stories of star gods visiting earth and titanic struggles between the deities of their pantheons, the same dramas were being lived out by this unremarkable tribe of nomads. There was a deeper point to it all of course. All the little dramas pointed to the greater drama, and the incarnation of those stories on the barren stage of the Arabian desert, Egypt, and Canaan point to the greater incarnation of the greatest story—the incarnation of the storyteller himself. So in the eons before the incarnation of the Son of God, the pagans wove the fantastical tales while the Hebrews lived them out, and all of them pointed through the magic of signs and symbols to the greatest story ever told.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay is an abridged version of chapter thirteen of Dwight Longenecker’s book The Romance of Religion.

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3 replies to this post
  1. The rhymer who opens this fine piece is no English snob; rather the Anglo-French, Catholic polemicist, friend of Chesterton, and almost certainly devout anti-Semite, Hillaire Belloc (Wilson and Powell, his two best biographers, are certain).To which the witty Isaac Asimov replied;

    “Not odd
    Of God;
    Goyim
    Annoy ‘im!”

  2. I believe it was Arnold Lunn who wrote (and Ronald Knox who popularized) the lines in reply,
    “Not half so odd as those who choose
    A Jewish God, but scorn the Jews.”

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