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Cultural Memory and the Hebrew Bible

By Ronald Hendel
Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies
University of California, Berkeley
July 2011

While scrolling through the pages of this website, I was pleased to come across an article by Philip Davies titled “Biblical History and Cultural Memory.”1 Having made some contributions myself to this topic over the last decade, I was curious to see what Philip had to say. Since he and I start from quite different premises, I always experience a shock of surprise when we agree on something. In this instance, much to my pleasure, we agree that the concept of “cultural memory” solves some important problems in the study of ancient Israelite history and literature. But also, not surprisingly, I differ with Philip on where we should go with this concept.

He aptly summarizes the main virtue of the concept of cultural memory:

Its particular value is its recognition not only that “the past” is always something created rather than simply recorded but also that recollection serves to create and sustain identity. Thus, while the effect of memory is to reproduce the past, its function is in truth orientated towards the present, to which the past is constantly adjusting itself.

Cultural memory (re)produces a past with present relevance, and since the relation between the remembered past and the present shifts with every generation, this remembered past is continually revised to suit present circumstances, including political, religious, institutional, geographical, and family relationships. In cultural memory, to paraphrase master Yoda, “always in motion is the past.”

As Philip further observes, the “value of cultural memory is to focus the attention … on the memory itself rather than the event it conjures.” This is quite good. But then he goes on to say: “The old dichotomies of ‘history’ vs. ‘fiction’ or ‘truth’ vs. ‘falsehood’ are obsolete.” Here I both agree and disagree. It is indeed a virtue of cultural memory to place our focus beyond these dichotomies. But it doesn’t take us out of their scope altogether – rather, it complicates their interrelationship. Both sides of these dichotomies are included in a dialectical fashion in cultural memory, such that history/fiction and truth/falsehood are interwoven in its discourse. The stories of the patriarchs or the Exodus or the battle of Jericho include history and fiction, truth (of various kinds) and falsehoods (of various kinds), held together by their present relevance, the authority of tradition, and the narrative artistry of the writers. I have made some forays into the “mnemohistory” of these biblical texts,2 and I submit that this approach yields more fruit than conventional historical scholarship that limits its scope to adjudicating between these “old dichotomies.”

This is where I diverge from Philip’s approach. He starts at the right place, but he stops too soon. After introducing the concept of cultural memory, he swerves back into his old habits (this is not a major criticism, since it’s a very human trait) and takes a stand on one side of these old dichotomies. He berates scholars who “try and chase the chimera of a fictitious 12-tribe ‘nation’ [of Israel]” which he claims to have demonstrated is unhistorical and false. But the point of cultural memory is to chase the memory itself, how it is constructed out of history and fiction, and how it produces, on various levels, the identity that it describes. I would locate the circulation of this memory much earlier than Philip does, but the dates are relatively trivial compared to the productive meanings (social, historical, literary, and religious) that circulate in such core cultural memories.

Similarly, Philip says that “we now know that very many biblical images of the past (patriarchs, exodus, wandering, conquest, perhaps David and Solomon, too) are not authentic ones.” This remark also misses the point of cultural memory. They are indeed “authentic” as “biblical images of the past.” This is the point. By their multifaceted representation of the past, these narratives of cultural memory enable us to pursue a richer form of scholarship than if they were merely an “objective” chronicle of events (note the scare quotes, although I submit that in some sense we still need this word for historical work, if only as a regulative ideal). In other words, seeing these biblical texts as “good” or “bad” history is a category mistake. Cultural memory is a more accurate category, which enables us to pursue a more sophisticated scholarship.

Hence I disagree with Philip’s contention that the concept of cultural memory supports what he calls “the minimalist option” in biblical studies.3 It does no such thing. The minimalist/maximalist dichotomy, as far as I understand it, becomes obsolete in light of the concept of cultural memory. The truth (if I may use this word in its everyday sense) is more complicated than this dichotomy allows. The pursuit of cultural memory in biblical studies has the potential to complicate and reconfigure many dubious dichotomies in our field, including maximalism/minimalism, history/fiction, diachronic/synchronic, and perhaps even postmodern/modern. And as Philip and I agree (to my pleasure), it also implicates post-biblical and modern memories of the biblical past, and how such memories are revitalized and contested in each generation.


2 Ronald Hendel, The Exodus in “The Exodus in Biblical Memory.” JBL 120 (2001), 601-22; Remembering Abraham: Culture, Memory, and History in the Hebrew Bible (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); “Cultural Memory,” in Reading Genesis: Ten Methods, ed. R. Hendel (New York/Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 28-46.

3 Philip R. Davies, Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History—Ancient and Modern (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 149.