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Good on Images but Words Sometimes Fail
on 21 January 2014
"The Story of the Jews" (of which only volume 1 has so far appeared; volume 2 will come out in September) was conceived simultaneously as a TV series and a book, and the book is actually based upon the TV series.
This combination of the visual image and the printed word works excellently in relation to the central theme that the true and eternal homeland of the Jews is the Book - the Jews being very aptly named "The People of the Book"; that the indestructibility of the Book is one of the main reasons for the survival of the Jewish people in the face of terrible adversity; and that as a result the words of the sacred books were regarded as so beloved and holy that beautiful images grew up around them. Schama excels in describing the lovely, vibrantly-coloured images that decorated the words in Hebrew illuminated manuscripts (pages 372-3) - and this book contains beautiful illustrations of these.
Related to this is Schama's demolition of the myth that Judaism is opposed to representational images, with his vivid description of the discovery of early synagogues with brilliantly-coloured paintings on their walls (pages 173-192), also reproduced in the book's illustrations.
Schama is also particularly good on the "mappae mundi" - the "cloths of the world" that were made by the Jews of Palma de Mallorca during the Spanish Golden Age - maps such as the Catalan Atlas (which also features in Schama's illustrations), with its "folding lengths of painted vellum - crowded with Catalan text, webbed with the lines of the winds, brilliant with gold and silver, vermilion and viridian, the personifications of the zodiac, things fabulous and things charted...." (page 375). These maps, as Schama brings out, also bear witness to the dispersal of the Jews all over the world and celebrate their adventurous trading voyages.
But a big drawback of the dual-media presentation is that what works well as a TV series often does not come over so effectively in a written history. In a TV series, we need a presenter to provide continuity between the visual images, but in a book, the presenter himself as an ever-present guide can come to seem intrusive and over-familiar. Schama adopts a chatty, jocular, at-your-elbow style that works on TV but in a written history can become very irritating (though some Amazon reviewers evidently find it engaging).
There are also a number of errors. An earlier reviewer (writing last September) mentioned the statement on page 19 that the Sabbath does not appear in the Book of Deuteronomy. This mistake has already been corrected in my copy, recently ordered from Amazon, but I have spotted several others. Two small ones are:
1) Again on page 19, Schama claims that Exodus and Deuteronomy forbid intermarriage: "The Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy took a dim view of the practice ("Neither shalt thou make marriages with them" Deuteronomy 7:3)". But this quotation from Deuteronomy only applies to the seven "wicked" Canaanite nations, not to all Gentiles. In Exodus, Moses actually marries a Midianite woman! (2:21) It was not until the time of Ezra that intermarriage was forbidden.
2) Schama claims that whereas the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem was part of God's historical plan, the Israelites' sojourn in Egypt was not: "In the Bible-writing mind, Babylon-Persia had been co-opted as the instrument of divine will. Egypt was always the enemy of YHWH's plans for history." (page 11). But God says clearly to Abraham, generations before the departure to Egypt: "Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years;/And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterwards shall they come out with great substance." (Genesis 15: 13-14)
Though it can't be called an error in itself, I find very unconvincing Schama's evident approval of the hypothesis that the Passover Seder meal is a "response to" the Christian Eucharist. To justify this theory, Schama writes: "since the Torah had nothing to say about any kind of Passover meal (only the sacrifice and reading of the Exodus) it has been daringly suggested that the rabbinical invention of the Seder might have been in response to the Easter rites rather than the other way round." (Pages 211-12). The claim that the Torah has "nothing to say about any kind of Passover meal" is in fact another error: what about Numbers 9: 11: "the fourteenth day of the seventh month at even they shall keep it [ie the Passover] and eat it [ie the sacrificial lamb] with unleavened bread and bitter herbs./They shall leave none of it unto the morning"? Surely this is a meal? In any case, the Eucharist can hardly be called a meal, so how can the Seder be a response to it? (It should also be pointed out that the Eucharist derives not from the Passover, but from the Last Supper in the Gospels, which probably wasn't a Passover meal.) A much more convincing theory, which Schama never mentions, even though he stresses the Hellenisation of the Jews, is that the Passover Seder was based upon the ancient Greek Symposium: a banquet characterised by wine-drinking and philosophical discussion.
A serious and revealing error appears in Schama's comment - in relation to the account, in the two Books of Maccabees in the Apocrypha, of the Hasmonean kings' adoption of the dual role of monarchs and high priests - "Tellingly, neither book professes any concern about the violation of a separation of roles established as far back as Moses and Aaron" (page 115).
The separation of the roles of Moses and Aaron is the separation of the roles not of the King and the Priest but of the Prophet and the Priest. Moses was the first Prophet, the spiritual ancestor of the Prophets, who were arbitrarily chosen to be the inspired mouthpieces of God, through whom He spoke to the Kings and People; the Priests were lineal descendants of Aaron and their role was ritual and ceremonial and therefore subordinate to that of the Prophets (of course some Prophets, such as Jeremiah, could also be Priests). Writing of Jerusalem in 200 BCE, Schama says: "the charisma of authority was concentrated in the imposing figure of the High Priest" and that "the appearance of the miraculously clad High Priest was the closest Jews got to the apparition of divine exaltation in human form"(page 106). Schama omits to mention the scribes and sages who in 200 BCE were already developing synagogues and preserving the oral law and who thus provided a link between the Prophets and the Pharisee movement of rabbis that was about to emerge (in the middle of the 2nd century BCE, at the time of the Maccabean Revolt). These scribes and sages and later the Pharisee rabbis possessed, like the Prophets, moral and spiritual authority, as opposed to the merely ritual authority of the imposing ceremonial figure of the high priest in his gorgeous robes.
This over-valuation of the Priests is connected to a certain under-valuation of the Prophets. Thus I found it puzzling that Schama describes the Second Isaiah as insisting on the "exclusiveness" of God (page 46) (also the claim that he is the first of the Prophets to worship One God alone, not just one supreme God, is very much open to question). Taken together with a theme in the early part of the book of a "broad" Judaism open to other cultures and even other gods and a "narrow" Judaism that worshipped only one God, this seems implicitly to criticise the Second Isaiah for being narrow-minded. But how can the universalist vision expressed in the verses attributed to the Second Isaiah possibly be called narrow-minded? "Thus saith God the Lord, he that created the heavens and stretched them out; he that spread forth the earth and that which cometh out of it..../I the Lord have called thee in righteousness and will hold thine hand and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles...." (42: 5-6 ) Schama does not seem to me to bring out sufficiently the role in preserving Jewish identity not only of the words but of the main content of the words: the Jews' sense of dedication to one indestructible, eternal God representing universal values and a plan of perfectibility for the whole of mankind.
Schama's over-valuation of Priests and Kings also seems apparent in his evident wish to believe that Khirbet Qeiyafa, an impressive 10th-century BCE city recently discovered 30 kilometres south-east of Jerusalem by Israeli archaeologists, is, as these archaeologists claim (an assertion that has modern political reverberations) a city built by King David and proof that he was an important monarch who ruled over a united kingdom. These archaeologists are trying to disprove the argument, put forward by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman in "The Bible Unearthed" that the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah were always separate and there never was a glorious united kingdom of David and Solomon, who were only minor tribal chieftains whose capital in Jerusalem was just a hill-village. While not coming out completely in favour of the hypothesis that Khirbet Qeiyafa was one of David's expansive royal cities, Schama goes a long way to indicate his approval of it, at one point pre-empting the issue by writing that "the defensive perimeter was casement....since casement walls largely disappear from such sites after the tenth century, this was another indication of an earlier date, most likely from the united not the divided monarchy". Schama does write of "sceptics" but does not dwell very much on the alternative theories , which are that a) Khirbet Qeiyafa is Canaanite; b) (put forward by Israel Finkelstein), that it is in the southernmost part of the much larger and more affluent northern Kingdom of Israel.
To conclude: I found this long first volume (420 pages) to be absorbing and irritating by turns. On the positive side, the individual stories of ordinary Jews are fascinating. I won't of course be able to write a review of "The Story of the Jews" as a whole till I read the second volume in September. I hope to review the book as a whole then and to include more about the first volume (I've already written enough here, I think!)