Tag Archives: Bible

Oral Tradition in Ancient Israel (Book Review)

Oral Tradition in Ancient Israel, by Robert D. Miller II, Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011. 154 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The concept of oral tradition has long captivated scholars and lay readers of the Hebrew Bible. Many find comfort in the notion that behind the written text is a sturdy and unfailing oral tradition, able to preserve accurate memories across generations. This hypothesis gained support when Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932), the founder of form criticism (which attempts to trace scriptural units to oral transmission), encountered the writings of Wilhelm Wundt. Wundt posited that human societies advance in predictable stages parallel to the development of the complexity of language—that is, from oral/illiterate to written/literate. Gunkel applied Wundt’s theory to the Bible, concluding that oral folklore was at the root of Israel’s stories. His position picked up steam with the oral-formulaic theory of Milman Parry and Albert Lord, whose study of epic poems led them to conclude that illiterate poets employed groups of repeated words (formulas) to retain and transmit their poetry. A certain percentage of formulas present in a written text was considered evidence of oral composition.

The oral-formulaic theory remains entrenched in biblical scholarship, with Lord’s The Singer of Tales (1960) occupying a particularly hallowed space. However, numerous holes have been poked in the theory since the late 1980s. Folklorists, classicists, anthropologists, and ethnomusicologists have exposed its limited applicability, and the absence of any one touchstone of oral tradition. For example, some oral folklore contains no formulas (e.g., Old Norse-Icelandic Skaldic poetry), some cultures value word-for-word memorization (e.g., Maori and Somali), and many societies produce oral and written literature simultaneously.

Robert D. Miller explores the latter observation in his slim but informative book, Oral Tradition in Ancient Israel. Miller, an associate professor of Old Testament at the Catholic University of America, advocates abandoning the outdated and simplistic linear model, in which oral stories circulate among bards and storytellers, are eventually written down, and are then recited or chanted to illiterate audiences. In its place, Miller proposes a fluid oral-written model for biblical literature, wherein “written texts circulated in spoken form by recitation long after they were committed to writing. And those recited forms begat oral forms that were not in writing, or were not put in writing for some time afterwards. Oral texts that circulated from bard to audience or bard to bard could be recorded in writing, could be consulted by writers, could be consulted by bards of other stories” (p. 54).

Miller appropriates Anthony Campbell’s “User Theory,” which sees the biblical narrative neither as a record of oral lore nor as a literary composition, but as “written outlines for oral elaboration (or for omission in performance)” (p. 55). This could explain why the ancient editors allowed alternative accounts and conflicting details into the text. Such kernels were, perhaps, optional rubrics to be chosen from for oral performance. This could also account for anachronistic accretions and other anomalies sprinkled throughout the stories. As the outlines were used and re-used in various contexts, they picked up ingredients from the local geography, social conditions, prevailing attitudes, regional folktales, and the like—some of which were recorded in writing.

These possibilities lie at the heart of Miller’s performance-centered analysis. In his reading, the Hebrew Bible is partially made up of “gobbets”: intentionally crafted memory aids that function as generic markers for narrative construction. They include story patterns, structural pathways, character sketches, images of situations, and traditional phraseology. These basic elements, swimming together in “tradition pools,” were selected and activated in performance or for a written text (pp. 37-38). The storyteller would assemble selected gobbets in a semi-rigid order, varying the details and style of delivery according to the needs of the moment, and modifying them to suit the setting. This improvisatory picture is enhanced by the likelihood that the performers told their stories with some sort of chant: a flexible spectrum of vocal utterance that includes plain speech, sung speech, spoken song, syllabic song, melismatic song, and adventurous vocalizations (p. 104).

The most tentative portion of Miller’s book deals with identifying orally derived bits in the Hebrew Bible. Although he confidently argues for the Bible as an accumulation of oral and written material, he hesitates to make definite statements regarding specific scriptural sections. That being said, his oral performance approach does shed light on the perplexing “bare gobbets,” such as empty references to Nimrod (Gen. 10:9) and the “giants” Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai (Num. 13:22), which were likely allusions to other stories and possibly served as starting points for individual storytellers. Miller also points out evidently oral elements in Genesis 49:9-12, 22-25 (Jacob’s final blessing), Numbers 24:17-19 (Balaam’s fourth oracle), and elsewhere, such as parallelism, ambiguous syntax, repetitions, obvious gaps, and broken connections.

With Oral Tradition in Ancient Israel, Miller offers a rich analysis of the interplay between literacy and orality in the Hebrew Bible. He paints a convincing portrait of bards and storytellers in antiquity composing from both oral and written sources, inserting their own contributions, and performing their tales. This lively picture stands in contrast to the fixed text as we have it today, and highlights the functional aspect of scripture.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

A Musical Heart

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The human heart was an object of fascination in the ancient world. Its position in the center of the body and extending circuitry of veins and arteries made it an organ of obvious importance and wide speculation. With only a rudimentary grasp of anatomy and physiology, the ancients envisioned the heart as the generator of fundamental human qualities. It was not valued for its mechanical function, but for its supposed control over aspects of our personalities. Yet, while almost every culture developed heart imagery, the details varied drastically from place to place.

The Hebrew Bible describes the heart as the locus of intelligence, reason and diligent deliberation. It makes virtually no connection between the heart and emotions, and never associates it with romantic love. Having a heart meant possessing wisdom; lacking a heart meant stupidity. It was a storehouse of lessons and memories—“Take to heart [remember] these instructions with which I charge you this day” (Deut. 6:6)—and was distinguished from the spiritual essence of our being—“serve the Lord your God with all your heart [intellect] and soul” (Deut. 29:4). In fact, the body’s non-rational center was thought to be the kidneys, as depicted in Proverbs 23:16: “I shall rejoice with all my kidneys.”

Clearly, this biblical symbolism has little to do with the heart in Western culture. This is because our conception has roots in non-biblical sources, mainly Egypt, Greece and Rome. The racing heart is a recurring motif in the love songs of ancient Egypt, and the influential Roman physician Galen (129–c. 200 C.E.) identified the heart as the seat of emotions. These ideas permeate our society, where the heart denotes romance, compassion, enthusiasm, deep feelings and desire-based decisions.

As opposite as the biblical and Western images are, they do merge elegantly in the experience of music. Music simultaneously makes us feel and stimulates cognitive interest. When we hear a piece of music, we are first struck by its emotional effect. But this is not enough to hold our attention. Almost immediately, we begin to process the unfolding sound and ponder why it makes us feel a certain way. This is normally understood as the engagement of heart and mind. However, we can also see it as the triggering of the emotional heart and the intellectual heart.

Music is unusual in its ability to captivate both our rational and non-rational sides. It is a complete human experience. Of course, the emotional and intellectual appeal of a piece is never perfectly balanced. Music, like the people who make it, tends to emphasize one aspect over the other. Still, even the most academic work can touch us on a sentimental level, while the simplest song can activate the brain. In this sense, music is a “whole heart” phenomenon.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Useful Boredom

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Conventional wisdom has it that boredom is of two main types. The first occurs when stimuli or circumstances are too simple, as when the gifted child finds herself in a remedial classroom. The second is when sensory input is so complex as to lull the mind into a quasi-vegetative state. This accounts for the general avoidance of subjects like philosophy and math. Musically, these species of boredom are embodied in the overly simplistic pop song on the one hand, and the overly orchestrated concert work on the other. The former is boring because it poses no challenges and offers no surprises. The latter is boring because its multitude of interacting tones and timbres require more concentration than most are willing to dedicate. In this binary view, the culprits reside at the poles: underload and overload.

On the surface, this analysis might seem uncontestable. But there is a sense in which it derives from and supports an elitist view of music appreciation. Pop music is labeled as such because its style, structure and conventions appeal to the general public. Whether a selection is fairly or unfairly painted as “simple” has little impact on the audience’s acceptance of it. In fact, its obviousness can be gratifying, as it satisfies a primal desire for predictability. In contrast, it is not always the case that education or exposure causes one to derive pleasure from a drawn-out classical piece. There are many classically trained musicians who find it difficult to sit through a symphony performance (myself included)—a reality that dispels the assumption that understanding eliminates boredom. The typical abundance of valleys and paucity of peaks make for a tedious experience, regardless of the subtleties and layers aficionados detect and convince themselves to enjoy.

It is fair to blame symphonic fatigue on the music itself and not the listener. If we do so, we can begin to see the value this sort of boredom holds. As Bertrand Russell reminded us in The Conquest of Happiness (1930), the rhythm of nature is slow. The human body has evolved and adapted according to the leisurely pace of the seasons. The ultra-fast speed of modernity and the quest for convenience have numbed our patience and obscured the virtue of stagnancy. The boringness in classical music can help us to retrieve our long-forgotten tolerance for life’s unexciting moments, and discover in those moments opportunities for fruitful contemplation.

Russell made this point with the following illustration. Imagine a modern publisher receiving the Hebrew Bible as a new and never-before seen manuscript. It is not difficult to imagine the response: “My dear sir, this chapter [in Genesis] lacks pep; you can’t expect your reader to be interested in a mere string of proper names of persons about whom you tell him so little. You have begun your story, I will admit, in fine style, and at first I was very favorably impressed, but you have altogether too much wish to tell it all. Pick out the high lights, take out the superfluous matter, and bring me back your manuscript when you have reduced it to a reasonable length.”

In a similar way, classical music exposes the difficulty most of us have engaging in “superfluous matter.” But instead of taking the common path of frustration or the snobbish  approach of elevating musical lulls into something more than they are, we should accept boring passages as boring, and embrace the stillness they can invite within us. After all, if everything were exciting or immediately appealing, nothing would be.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

After the Song

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The biblical account of the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt concludes with the fabled crossing of the Red Sea. As the story goes, Moses held out his arm over the sea and split the waters, revealing a path of dry ground leading to freedom’s shore. When the sea march was complete, Moses raised his arm again, this time causing the waters to fall upon the pursuing Egyptians. The unlikely victory filled the Israelites with a mixture of elation and awe. Mere words could not express the magnitude of their feelings or do justice to the spectacle they had witnessed. Without hesitation and without rehearsal, they burst forth in a spontaneous yet poetically elaborate song of gratitude (Exod. 15:1-21).

Though clearly legendary, this episode is musically significant. It is the first prayer-song we encounter in the Bible and the first example of what might be called congregational singing. It shows music performance as a natural response to momentous events and overwhelming emotions. It presents song as a means of proclaiming group affiliation and expressing national pride.

These and other aspects of the musical occasion are repeated elsewhere in the Bible and are common to human societies throughout the ages. The depiction of the Red Sea song is memorable in large part because it resonates with our own experiences. Most of us have, at one time or another, felt the camaraderie of communal singing, turned to music as an emotional outlet, or used songs to assert our identities. These universal musical functions are readily ascertained from the climactic song of the exodus. There is, however, a less obvious but similarly important role the song plays in the biblical narrative: the return to normalcy.

A characteristic remark appears in the verses leading up to the Red Sea crossing. Catching sight of the advancing Egyptian army, the frightened Israelites ask Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness?’” (14:11-12). This sort of complaint—and the lack of trust underlying it—recurs throughout the Israelites’ desert sojourn. They were unmitigated complainers, constantly pressing Moses to satisfy their physical and psychological needs, and prove the alleged might and compassion of their deity.

We can, then, classify as anomalous the exuberant words of thanksgiving the Israelites sang while gazing at the sea. Although springing organically from their lips, the lyrics were a departure from their ordinary disposition. Indeed, the scene’s immensity is accentuated by the fact that the song was so atypical of this grumbling lot. The Israelites were stunned  both by the remarkable chain of events and by the unusual feelings it excited. The rush of sentiments and sensations was unlike anything they had experienced before, and singing was the best they could do to deal with it. The song’s success in this regard is demonstrated shortly after the music stopped: “the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” (15:24).

This normalizing effect should be added to the more familiar musical elements of Exodus 15 (e.g., congregational singing, emotional outlet and identity assertion). When the course of life is interrupted by dramatic incidents—big or small, good or bad—music can help ease the transition back to a comfortable and ordinary state. If the exodus legend is any indication, this effect was as well appreciated by the ancients as it is today.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Everyone’s a Critic

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The second half of the Book of Exodus concerns itself mostly with the construction of the Tabernacle: the portable sanctuary the Israelites reportedly used during their journey from Egypt to Canaan. As the Bible tells it, the structure was built according to meticulous specifications revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. “Exactly as I show you,” God commands Moses, “the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishing—so shall you make it” (Exod. 25:9). An array of artistic skills are needed for fashioning the extensive and minute details of the glorious tent, from architecture to embroidery to interior design. We read excruciating particulars about different woods, fabrics, dyes, precious metals and lustrous stones. There are instructions regarding materials needed for the Ark (ch. 25), partitions (ch. 26), copper altar (ch. 27), priestly vestments (ch. 28), anointing oils (ch. 30) and on and on. Adding to the ploddingness, there is enormous repetition throughout these punctilious verses, which amount to the largest and most exhausted single subject in the entire Pentateuch.

Contrast this with the Bible’s crudeness and over-simplicity when addressing the ways of nature. Biblical apologists usually paint these childlike passages as reflective of the intellectual and technological development of people at the time, not the knowledge of the heavenly creator. Stories of the origins of life, the positioning of celestial bodies, the mechanisms of earthquakes and the like are presented in imagery and terminology the Israelites could understand. Thus, palpability of information was an act of divine wisdom and compassion rather than an indication of naiveté.

Underlying this comparison is a still-pervasive reality: we are open and critical when discussing art, yet we freely concede ignorance when science becomes too complex. Works of art, like the Tabernacle, are designed to have a visceral and instant impact upon us. That is why sacred spaces from ancient days to the present are regularly adorned with eye-catching features. Scientific explanations, like those absent from the Bible, often exceed the average person’s ability to comprehend. That is why scientific inquiry is the domain of a highly intelligent, highly trained and highly specialized few. While art is for immediate human consumption, science seeks the best explanations for complicated phenomena, however unapproachable the methods or outcomes might be.

One result is that we fancy ourselves qualified to judge artistic creations, and do so impulsively. The reason the Tabernacle had to be made a certain way is the same reason we like art to look or sound a certain way: aesthetic preference. Our natural response to scientific work is essentially the opposite. When we come across scientific data, we tend to throw up our hands in a gesture simultaneously signaling ignorance and awe.

Bertrand Russell described these reactions in The Conquest of Happiness. “When the public cannot understand a picture or a poem,” he wrote, “they conclude that it is a bad picture or a bad poem. When they cannot understand the theory of relativity they conclude (rightly) that their education has been insufficient. Consequently Einstein is honored while the best painters are (or at least were) left to starve in garrets, and Einstein is happy while the painters are unhappy.”

Partly because of his awareness of this human tendency and partly because of his professed ignorance of art, Russell, when asked “What is your attitude toward art today?” replied, “I have no view about art today.” He elaborated in another interview: “You ask why I have never written on the subject of painting. The chief reason is that I suffer from an inadequate appreciation of pictures. I get very great delight from music and also from architecture, but for some reason I get much less from painting and sculpture. This inability makes we unable to form any judgment from the reproduction of the picture . . .”

Russell’s responsible remarks are far from the norm. Most of us are quick to voice our opinions on paintings, buildings, sculptures, poems and music, usually blurting out the unsophisticated (and basically meaningless) words “good” and “bad.” As Russell noted, our assessments hinge mainly on whether or not we understand the art work. But when it comes to science, the less comprehensible the theory or concept, the more impressive it is.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Musical Canons

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The canonization of the Hebrew Bible occurred in several stages, though it is difficult to determine how and when it coalesced into the standard version we have today. Despite the enormous significance of the process and its monumental outcome, there is no direct record of the canon’s origination or the criteria employed by those who fixed it. Certainly the canonized books do not comprise the entire literary output of ancient Israel, nor were its books the only ones reputed to be holy or believed to be written under divine influence. The Bible itself lists several collections that were, for one reason or another, excluded from the final edition and thus lost to history (e.g., the “Book of the Wars of the Lord” referenced in Num. 21:14 and the “Book of Jashar” cited in Josh. 10:13 and 2 Sam. 1:18). In the absence of contemporaneous documentation, scholars have had to rely on indirect evidence, such as early surviving versions of biblical texts and later discussions of canonization in rabbinic sources. As a result, any suggestion of a timeline is tentative, speculative and subject to revision.

Perhaps the best that can be claimed are these points from Marc Zvi Brettler. First, the final phases of canonization were a reaction to the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E., a crisis that spurred the transformation of the Jews from a people of territory to the People of the Book. Second, canonization was not just a top-down procedure conducted by groups of elites. Certain works were already considered authoritative by large segments of the population, and their inclusion amounted to official recognition of their significance. Third, the canonization process was highly inclusive, yielding an anthology of works reflecting the assorted cultural, ideological, theological and aesthetic tapestry of ancient Israel.

The three attributes of cultural necessity, two-directional selection and representative sampling are also present in the formation of musical canons: corpuses of pieces viewed as illustrative of a place, period or group. Every age and every genre generates far too much music to be remembered or retained in wide usage. Statistically, there can only be a few survivors. As the (subjectively determined) cream rises to the top it is packaged into a canon, which may take the form of a songbook, performance repertoire, industry list, greatest hits album or another type of essentially stable compilation.

Like the Bible, musical canons help preserve the cultures they represent. A book of show tunes from the 1920s, for example, will contain only a fraction of pieces written for that setting. But its selections—which have earned enough notoriety to be included—are received as exemplary of the period, and are thus an important part of American heritage. As with biblical literature, the anthologized sounds carry associations with their place of origin and contribute to the self-understanding of those who have inherited them.

Canons of music also mirror the biblical canon in that they arise through a mixture of top-down and bottom-up processes. The former is a conscious and calculated effort of authoritative entities, such as entertainment executives, academicians, cultural societies, publishing houses and professional organizations. These influential bodies can—and often do—play a considerable role in determining what reaches the ears of the general populace. However, the latter movement—bottom-up—is historically more prevalent. For example, the musical menus of synagogues and churches most commonly take shape through the organic forces of taste and time. According to Roman Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, new music enters religious services on an ephemeral (temporary) circle. If the music is not rejected outright, it may pass into a conjectural (more stable) circle, and from there eventually be incorporated into a structural (mainstream) circle. This natural selection accounts for the survival and continued singing of a handful of melodies from disparate periods and locations, as well as the “new traditions” that emerge within a generation.

Musical canons also possess an inclusiveness resembling that of the Bible. Though they epitomize a certain kind of music or music accepted by a particular group, the collections display internal diversity. The very term representative implies a snapshot of the music-culture as a whole, which rarely (if ever) is a homogenous soundscape. One need only survey contemporary songs on the radio to appreciate the diversity of our popular music. A select few of these recordings—which are themselves a tiny sliver of songs being made—will be included in the retrospective canon of American popular music of the 2010s.

Due to the limited size of a musical canon and the variable factors that affect its complexion, worthy pieces are inevitably left out while questionable ones invariably appear. This, too, is a characteristic of the Hebrew Bible. Yet, despite such inescapable flaws—and the calls for revision they may provoke—canons remain crucial contrivances for condensing, conserving, shaping and sharing culture.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Ritual Chickens and Musical Eggs

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

John Blacking, the late British ethnomusicologist, posed an ostensibly innocuous question: “Which came first: music or ritual?” The conventional assumption is that ritual was first, since ceremonies seeking contact with the spirit world arose in the early phases of human evolution. Music and dance, it is thought, were added to ritual as a reliable means of promoting the desired atmosphere. But Blacking postulated that it might have been the other way around. Just as children instinctively dance, sing and gravitate toward instruments well before they begin to walk or talk—let alone engage in structured activities—musical experimentation might have been the primordial spark that ignited ideas of a supernatural realm and eventually led to ceremonial enactments. The absorbing effect of music—mysterious to peoples ancient and modern—sent the mind groping for otherworldly explanations. To ensure that musical-spiritual sensations would be controlled and repeatable, increasingly complex mélanges of words, objects and gestures were devised, and music took on a (seemingly) secondary status. In other words, music was the egg that hatched religion.

This scenario is entirely plausible. Music was discovered long before religious behaviors developed and could have inspired beliefs about contactable spirits. But since we are so distant from that prehistoric moment, a conclusive statement on musico-religious origins remains out of reach. What is uncontestable is that music and ritual have been joined for millennia.

This is important when examining liturgical segments of the Hebrew Bible. Although the book is brimming with prayer-songs—including a daunting assortment of 150 psalms—references to associated rituals are surprisingly sparse. Even if we presume—as we do—that prayers were regularly sung in ceremonial contexts, the Bible itself provides only hints of confirmation. In fact, it is our own experience of music in ritual that best supports a biblical link between music, liturgy and cultus. Were it not for that alliance, we could hardly account for the preservation and transmission of psalms over extended periods prior to their canonization. But again, concrete evidence is lacking.

The place of song within biblical religion is treated extensively in the writings of Sigmund Mowinckel. Taking a “cult functional” approach, Mowinckel maintained that all of the psalms were connected to the cult: they both originated in and were intended for communal ritual. Placing this general claim in a specific setting, Mowinckel attached more than forty psalms to a hypothetical autumnal New Year festival. His grounds for this celebration came from the Babylonian New Year feast, which celebrated the rule of the chief deity Marduk and the corresponding earthly reign of the king of Babylonia. The king played a major role in this dramatic celebration, and was a central figure in cultic activities more generally. Mowinckel proposed that the festival, which had pre-Davidic roots but apparently lingered in the Israelites’ consciousness, was the basis for Israel’s own autumn New Year commemoration (Exod. 23:16; 34:24; Lev. 23:23–24). According to Mowinckel, the event culminated with the procession of the Ark to the Temple, representing God’s enthronement, and the singing of “enthronement psalms” praising God as king (e.g., Pss. 47; 93; 95–99). Following Babylonian practice, the ritual coincided with the reaffirmation of the Israelite king, and was proclaimed in “royal psalms” celebrating his status as the earthly embodiment of God’s heavenly kingship (e.g., Pss. 2; 89; 110).

Although Mowinckel constructed this festival without direct biblical support, the Bible does divulge a few subtle indications of musical-liturgical ritual. For example, there is the priestly benediction with which Aaron and his sons blessed the Israelites (Num. 6:22–26), and the cultic liturgy of the first fruits (Deut. 26:1–11). Solomon’s Temple included “prayer and supplication” (1 Kgs. 8:28), while prophetic books attest to a statutory Temple liturgy (e.g., Isa.1:15; Jer. 33:11; Amos 5:23). Whether the occasion was a local festival, national holiday or regular offering, the singing of psalms and psalm-like prayers seems to have been a regular part of public ritual.

On a practical level, it matters little whether or not we can ascertain details of worship rites in biblical times, or whether music or ritual came first in the development of religion. The bond between music and ceremony is sealed so tightly as to suggest an eternal union. It is an expected element of societies past, present and future.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.