The great German writer Thomas Mann began his biblical trilogy, Joseph and His Brothers, with the comment, “Deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it unfathomable?” Mann plumbed the depths of the past with his brilliant literary imagination. The historian also gazes into the well of the past, which seems to recede endlessly. Each moment of the past has its own history, which leads to earlier historical antecedents, and so on, in a near-infinite regression. There are no solid points of beginning, because each beginning is part of a chain of earlier events and circumstances. The past goes all the way down.
When teaching about biblical religion or ancient Israelite religion (the terms are not entirely synonymous, since the Bible is a collection of interpretations or perspectives on ancient Israelite religion), I always wonder where to begin. Should I start with the Israelite settlement? With the era of Moses or the Patriarchs? With the period when our main biblical texts were written? Each of these possible beginnings is fraught with problems and uncertainties, and each raises other debated historical questions. More importantly, each has significant historical antecedents. So where to begin is always a problem.