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Capturing Hebrew Orality
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Louis Ginzberg
Legends of the Bible (Old Saybrook, CT, USA:  Konecky and Konecky, 1956.  646p.)

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The publisher's liner notes introduce this book with these words:

"Variations of the stories in scriptures as told and retold in the ancient east from the days of Abraham, in synagogues and churches and the homes of a hundred generations of men."  This is a representative selection from a 7-volume series by the author.  These stories give valuable insights into the eastern concept of the story, and the character of the stories in Genesis.

Oral Culture Stories
These legendary stories reveal a context of worldview and oral culture that shed light on the styles and forms of thought behind the Old Testament accounts that often puzzle and confuse modern, western readers.  Forms of many of the stories illustrate a characteristic of oral cultures, a dynamic and immediate concept of history.  Events and their meanings are the unifying focus for use of details, not an objective historical sequence preferred by recent analytical western concepts of linear history.

People from different eras of history in the western linear understanding of events, all participate in the same events.  Some of the characters found in stories about the Egyptian captivity are biblical characters from time of the conquest of Canaan, David's era and even the rebuilding of the Temple after the Babylonian captivity and the Roman period in Israel!  Stories about the Creation involve angels and various historical personalities conferring with God about options and alternatives.

One of those personalities is the personified Torah, another is the Sabbath.  Stories of the Patriarchs are retold in multiple forms for various reasons, and from varied geographic and historical contexts.  The details of the stories vary in each form according to the purpose of the teller — sometimes simply to make one moral point or set up a proverb, or explain the origin of a name — much like many of the Genesis stories.

Multiple Versions
There are many versions of some stories from Genesis and from folk sources which often contradict each other in details if evaluated on the basis of modern western analytical concepts of scientific history and truth as objective fact.  The stories illustrate more fully the concept of testimonial truth.  Details are not reported for their own sake, but to enhance the testimony being given, the covenant value to the Hebrew.

Similarly this oral literature, captured in writing, clarifies the guiding principles in an oral and covenantal society as the dynamic concepts of event as truth and event as relationship.  Many of the stories further reflect and illustrate the mystical concepts and concerns of eastern cultures, richly expressed in the Kaballah of European Jews.  Many of the stories have fanciful, unrealistic — even outlandish — portrayals or claims.

Moral and Relational
These dynamic oral characteristics are replete in the canonical scriptures also.  The Bible is primarily stories and songs, not didactic, analytical or abstract topics.  The focus and purpose is moral and relational.  This is also one reason why multiple versions of some ancient stories occur in the Bible, like the three different stories of how Jerusalem was conquered (Joshua 18, Amorite city conquered by Joshua; Judges 1, Canaanite city conquered after Joshua's death, but by Jacob's sons Simeon and Judah; 1 Samuel 17:54, a Jebusite city, conquered by David).

This representative collection of stories Ginzberg has put together here can help provide an appreciation for this different oral-relational worldview and the dynamic way of conveying truth through stories, beyond the analytical rational demands of the modern age.  The postmodern mindset will appreciate this ancient dynamic, oral worldview better than the modernist mindset.

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[TXT width= Different Literacy — Different World
(Are Older Bible Manuscripts More Reliable?)

[TXT width= Eye Learning or Ear Learning?
[review] The Genesis Stories in their Own Context
[TXT width= God and Literacy
[TXT width= Literacy — A Modern Phenomenon
[TXT width= Orality and Christian Mission
[TXT width= Orality and the Post-literate West
[TXT width= Orality, Literacy and the Bible
[TXT width= Stories and Storytelling: Reclaiming our Oral Heritage
[TXT width= Storytelling for Learning and Teaching

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First reading notes written 23 March 2005
Finalized and Posted on Thoughts and Resources 5 November 2007
Last edited here and posted on Amazon 16 February 2009

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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