The accompanying article attempts to uncover the political agenda of the Torah. The narrative describes an earlier historical period, but imbedded into the narrative is the political message of an author from a later period. Obviously, the biblical material can be read without its later political agenda, simply as great literature or as insightful theology or as embellished history.

However, great literature that deals with historical events but also reflects a contemporary political agenda has been a common phenomenon throughout history. Probably the example best known to modern readers, especially Americans, is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. This is an outstanding play and a great work of literature. But as everyone who sees or reads the play is keenly aware, it is also a strong contemporary political statement. Miller tells the story of the witch trials that occurred in 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts. But the story is told through the filter of the McCarthyism of the 1950s, of which Miller himself was a target. The story is set in the past, but it tells us more about the present.

Another excellent example is the motion picture and television series M*A*S*H.

Robert Altman’s 1969 film is set in Korea, but the true message relates to another war in Asia, Vietnam. The main character, Hawkeye Pierce, played by Donald Sutherland in the movie version and by Alan Alda in the subsequent television series, gives expression to an antiwar sentiment that typified the Vietnam era of the late 1960s and early 1970s but is largely anachronistic when set in Korea in the early 1950s. As with The Crucible, so with M*A*S*H: We are looking at the historical past, but we are seeing present-day events.

The majority of Shakespeare’s histories present the events in the lives of the kings of the House of York and the House of Lancaster in the late 14th and 15th centuries. But as students of these plays recognize, the characterizations bespeak the monarchy of Shakespeare’s own day. The most telling remark is that of Queen Elizabeth I herself, who is reported to have said to the keeper of the Tower, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?”

All of these works purport to present history, but the authors do not present the literal truth of the historical epochs portrayed. Nor do the authors of these classics invent the stories out of whole cloth. Something similar, I suggest, happened with the narratives in the Torah. Clearly, these narratives cannot be seen as the literal truth. The history of the Torah is an idealized history. However, we should not simply dismiss the existence of the heroes of the Torah in a rush to conclude that they were created ex nihilo by ancient Israelite literati. These texts pack their punch specifically because the historical characters are real. If Richard II had been an invented figure, the impact of the play on Elizabethan England, and on Elizabeth I, as witnessed by her comment above, would not have been as powerful.

Naturally, there is a crucial difference. Because we have the historical records of the kings of England, the Salem witch trials and the Korean War, we are able to judge the historical picture of the artistic creations under discussion. The sources allow us to reconstruct the true history and to distinguish this history from the literary representation. Since we lack contemporary records about the characters in the Torah, we cannot do this with the Bible. But it is quite possible that individuals such as Abraham, Joseph and Moses existed in history, even if the literary presentation of them is a far cry from their actual lives.