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The stories of the Bible: the prose that was a song

Biblical prose may have begun as narrative poems, similar to those prevalent in the ancient Near East.

The remains of the royal palace in Ugarit. Illustration:
The remains of the royal palace in Ugarit. Illustration:

The stories of the Bible - such as the stories of creation, the flood and the plagues of Egypt - are written in beautiful and concise prose. On the other hand, the parts of the Bible written as songs, such as the Song of the Sea, David's Lamentation, the Song of Songs and more - about a third of the biblical text - never tell a story. And here, neighboring cultures in the ancient East had long poems describing the plots of humans or gods. These works are called epics, or story poems in Hebrew. The epics are similar in form to biblical poetry, and on the other hand, they are similar in content to biblical prose, so much so that there are stories that appear in the Bible in a prose version and in other cultures in our region in the written version as poetry.

One of the Akhat plot tablets in Ugrit. From Wikipedia
One of the Akhat plot tablets in Ugrit. From Wikipedia

How and why did this difference arise, between the prose versions in the Bible and the narrative poem versions in the neighboring cultures? Prof. Eliezer (Ed) Grinstein from Bar-Ilan University is trying to answer this question. In neighboring cultures in the ancient Near East, texts were created that are very similar to ancient Hebrew texts, and in particular to those collected in the Bible. The laws of the Torah, for example, are characterized by striking similarities to the laws of King Hammurabi of Babylon and other codes of law from the ancient Near East. Prof. Grinstein's research, which is being carried out with the support of the National Science Foundation, focuses on the connection between biblical literature and sources from the ancient land of Canaan. The most important of these sources are writings found in the ruins of Ugarit - an ancient port city on the coast of today's Syria.

In the ruins of this city, epics were discovered written in a style and language very similar to those of biblical poetry. Both here and here we find, for example, receipts, that is, sentences consisting of two parts that are similar in content and form (such as: "It will fall like rain for me to take, it will fall like rain for my words" - Deuteronomy Lev, XNUMX).

The Ugaritic epics are therefore similar in form to the biblical poems, but in their content they are similar to various passages of biblical prose - so much so that it can be argued that an indirect line connects these Ugaritic works, which were written no later than the 13th century BC, and the biblical poetry, which only began to form in the same period of time. For example, the destruction of the golden calf by Moses and the struggle between God and the sea have clear parallels in the Ugaritic writings.

The similarity does not end with the content: the Ugaritic plot poems are characterized by certain language formulas, such as "And he lifted up his eyes and saw" or "And he lifted up his voice and cried." The same formulas appear in biblical prose, such as in the stories of the patriarchs, for example: "And Jacob kissed Rachel and lifted up his voice and wept" (Genesis XNUMX:XNUMX).

"Like other researchers, I assume that there were intermediate stages between the Canaanite literature recorded in Ugarit and other places and between the biblical literature," says Prof. Grinstein. "Even if the works that mediated between Ugaritic literature and biblical literature have not been found, it is impossible to explain the impressive similarities between them without assuming that there were intermediate works."

The biblical prose is characterized by clear signs of an epic

How and why did this happen - that the biblical prose is characterized by clear signs of an epic, both in its content and in its linguistic patterns ("And he lifted up his voice and wept"), and yet it is written as prose, and not as poetry? And why does biblical poetry, which is also similar to epics in some of its characteristics (such as receptions), never tell a story?

The first and clear part of the answer is that in ancient Israel there was epic poetry, narrative poetry, which the later writers of Hebrew knew and used as a basis for prose stories. Hence the similarity in the content and the linguistic patterns that we pointed out, as well as another characteristic - single poetic verses that appear within prose passages in the Bible. For example, in the story of the flood in the book of Genesis, in a very prosaic passage that indicates facts and dates ("In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, on the seventh day of the month on this day"), a very poetic sentence suddenly appears: The spring of the great abyss and the chimneys of the heavens were opened" ( Genesis XNUMX XNUMX). It is easy to assume that such poetic passages, integrated within the biblical prose, did not suddenly occur to the writer, but were drawn from an earlier source about the flood - which, unlike the story of the biblical flood, was written as poetry, as an epic.

Why did stories that appeared in the ancient Canaanite culture, and probably also in the ancient Israeli culture, in the form of plot poems, take the form of prose in the Bible? "The transition from poetry to prose made it possible for the biblical writers to create a text whose time frame is more precise and clear," explains Prof. Grinstein. "For poetry, it is more difficult to be precise in relation to time. The main form of the verb used by the writers of the Canaanite epics, such as the Ugrit epics, is 'future present', similar to 'present future' in classical Arabic. The epic poet describes the plot of the story as if it were happening now, before the eyes of the audience, as in a theater. More than that: the epics we know are isolated stories, with no chronological connection between them, while the biblical prose creates a distinct chronological framework: the story of creation followed by the story of the flood and so on. This ambitious goal, to describe explicit and precise relationships between the times in which the various stories took place, made the prose form more suitable for biblical fiction."

In recent years, Prof. Grinstein has discovered evidence of the remains of ancient epics in various stories in the Bible, such as the Balaam episode in the Book of the Desert and the story of the plagues of Egypt, and tries, if possible, to reconstruct parts of these ancient epics.

Life itself:

Prof. Grinstein loves music very much and plays the saxophone. He composed melodies for prayers as well as songs, two of which were even recorded by a former doctoral student.

Summary - the connection between the cultures in the East in ancient times

  • The Bible was written over hundreds of years, from the 10th century BC to the 2nd century BC.
  • The Bible reflects the culture and society of the people of Israel in that ancient period in the ancient Middle East.
  • There are mutual influences between the Bible and the cultures and religions of Mesopotamia, such as the Sumerian and Akkadian mythology and the Canaanite religion.
  • The stories of creation and the flood in the Bible are reminiscent of similar stories from the Babylonian creation epic "Anoma Elish".
  • Hammurabi's laws from 1760 BC reflect laws and customs similar to those in the Bible.
  • There is a similarity between the wisdom literature in the Bible and Egyptian and Mesopotamian wisdom literature.

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