Bible Review 5:6, December 1989

The Hebrew Bible Contains the Oldest Surviving History

By Jacob Licht

The extraordinary achievement of the Hebrew Bible as history is rarely remarked on, but it is worth considering. For the Hebrew Bible contains the oldest surviving historical work as such and perhaps the earliest history ever written.

We tend not to appreciate this achievement because we simply assume that this is the way reality is perceived—historically. That the Bible does so therefore seems not unusual.

The fact is the Bible has imposed on us—our so-called Western or Judeo-Christian culture—its way of perceiving reality, that is, historically.

Not all cultures are equally conscious of their past, however. Some are history-minded, some are not. And there are differences of style and degree. To grasp the startling innovation that the introduction of history constituted we must, as it were, pull ourselves outside of our own historically oriented culture. Perhaps a metaphor will help us do this: A man sits at a window in a moving train, his back to the engine, looking at the landscape. You might think he does not care where he is going, as long as he can see where he was. In this particular train, however, the seats are so arranged that one can’t look ahead; seeing where one has been is the only way of finding out where one is. This is what fascinates the man at the window. He tries to tell what he sees to others in the compartment, and they are polite enough to listen occasionally, though not really interested. Because they all expect to reach their several destinations, it does not really matter to them where they are or where they have been or what the landscape is like that they have passed. So they spend their time reading, playing cards, chatting and eating hard-boiled eggs.

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