1. Biblical style and Western Literature

By Herbert N. Schneidau

Herbert N. Schneidau, “Biblical Style and Western Literature,” in Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience, ed. Neal E. Lambert (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1981), 17–38.

Chapter 1: Biblical Style and Western Literature

Herbert N. Schneidau


Professor of English at the University of Arizona, Dr. Schneidau linked his interest in literature to his fascination with Biblical studies and has long been recognized as a scholar on the literature of the Bible as well as a leading authority on Ezra Pound. His most recent book was Sacred Discontent: The Bible and Western Tradition when this was published.

In his presentation on “Biblical Style and Western Literature, “he argues that Biblical thinking produced Western literature and that the shape of this thinking was persistently and resistantly nonmythic, unlike the literature being produced by Israel’s neighbors during the time the Hebrew Bible was being shaped. He traces characteristic manifestations of this nonbiblical style in the manifestations of Yahweh to the children of Israel, the “identity crisis” precipitated when Israel demanded a human king instead of retaining its loyalty to its divine king, Yahweh, and the profound differences thus developed between the Hebraic point of view and the Greco-Roman worldview, differences now obscured by traditions of classical education.



I am going to be talking about a tradition which is defiantly parochial in some senses—a tradition that stresses uniqueness rather than universality and, of course, proceeds precisely by means of words and meanings rather than seeking the “word beyond meaning” or seeking through the ladder of images to achieve the state of the sound beyond meaning and so on. Specifically, also, I am going to be concerned more with written things—with the emphasis on what happens when oral traditions turn into written traditions; and that, of course, is something that can be a very fateful change.

This meditation is going to take, as its basis and its epigraph, a passage from Erich Auerbach’s magisterial work, Mimesis. In the well-known first chapter, he contrasts the style of Genesis with that of Homer, using the text in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Auerbach asks:

Whence does [God] come, whence does he call Abraham? We are not told. He does not come, like Zeus or Poseidon, from the Aethiopians, where he has been enjoying a sacrificial feast. Nor are we told anything of his reasons for tempting Abraham so terribly. He has not, like Zeus, discussed them in set speeches with other gods gathered in council; nor have the deliberations in his own heart been presented to us; unexpected and mysterious, he enters the scene from some unknown height or depth and calls: Abraham! It will at once be said that this is to be explained by the particular concept of God which the Jews held and which was wholly different from that of the Greeks. True enough, but this constitutes no objection. For how is the Jewish concept of God to be explained? Even their earlier God of the desert was not fixed in form and content, and was alone; his lack of form, his lack of local habitation, his singleness, was in the end not only maintained but developed even further in competition with the comparatively far more manifest gods of the surrounding Near Eastern world [the mythological world, I call it]. The concept of God held by the Jews is less a cause than a symptom of their manner of comprehending and representing things. [1]

To my mind this passage, especially that last sentence, repays careful and repeated study. “The concept of God held by the Jews is less a cause than a symptom of their manner of comprehending and representing things.” This sentence announces what might be a major theme of this conference especially—that the processes of mind that lie behind a people’s religion will also be seen in the style of its literature. But even more, it suggests that, at least in this case, the argument can be extended. The concept of Yahweh might, in a sense, be the result of the style—the biblical style.

Just to give a totally secular sidelight on this, I could make an example of Oscar Wilde’s argument that nature imitates art, that a London fogscape is never seen again in the same way after one has viewed impressionist paintings, that style in key ways is creative of content. [2] I always thought that Wilde’s point was very well taken—irrefutable, in fact. I remember very vividly going to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and how different New York looked when you came out of that museum. The forms which the artists represented in that museum deal, in a very clear connection—a very intrinsic relation—with the architecture of New York City; what you do is experience something that can only be called an education in form. It immediately strikes you when you come outside. You do not look at the city the same way: at least I did not.

In the case of the Bible, what I want to argue is that Auerbach was right, and right not only about those qualities he was concerned to explain—those ways in which Yahweh, to use Auerbach’s words, “is not comprehensible in his presence, as is Zeus; it is always only ‘something’ of him that appears, he always extends into depth.” [3] As Auerbach suggests, the Hebrew style as represented in the Bible is a possible explanation of the singular fact that as Yahweh grows more competitive with the gods of the ancient Near East, he grows not more like them, but less. His lack of form, his lack of local habitation, grow even more marked. His lack of what I call mythological manifestation is more pronounced. But I would go still further and say that Auerbach gives us a key, not only to the Bible, but to a link between the way Yahweh’s appearances are recorded and the very shapes and matrices of Western literature.

In short, I assert that biblical thinking produced our literature, and furthermore, that this kind of thinking, which was so very different from the thinking of cultured people in the ancient era of the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians, cannot be taken for granted as normative. It is, in fact, a very different kind of thinking, very possibly an aberrant form of thought, if you add up all the ways human beings have had in which to think. What are ultimately the characteristics of this biblical style and the kind of thinking it bespeaks?

In order to extend Auerbach’s superb description of it, I will make a quick survey of biblical literature and its recordings of the manifestations of Yahweh. The picture I draw is taken mostly from recent biblical scholarship; and though it will need to be updated in some respects, I hope it will be acceptable in the main.

What came before the Bible itself? No doubt there were various creeds, sagas, and collections of traditions. Perhaps the most important for our purposes are the kinds of collections quoted in several passages in the Bible, one of which bears the significant name, “the Book of the Wars of Yahweh” (see Num. 21:14; RSV used throughout). What was in it? The title suggests that it consisted of poems like those we now have in the Songs of Miriam and Deborah (see Exod. 15; Judges 5). “[Yahweh] is a man of war; [Yahweh] is his name” (Exod. 15:3). This, in turn, suggests that the Exodus and Conquest traditions, during which the conception of Yahweh was powerfully reshaped and reaffirmed (if not, in fact, created for the first time), originally displayed the centrality of Yahweh the warrior, probably to be understood as literally present at the forefront of the militia horde that used his name as a battle cry. We have several broken and garbled traditions from the books of Exodus through Joshua that speak of manifestations of just what it was that went in front of the army: the famous pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, the angel or messenger, the hornet (sometimes plural), the fear or terror, the panic, and, of course, the Ark. (See, for example, Exod. 13:21; 14:19; 23:23–28; Deut. 1:33, 7:20; Num. 10:33; Josh. 24:12.) I’m suggesting simply that all of these are variant memories of what once was Yahweh himself manifest in various signs. The Ark as throne would be probably a later reconstruction or a hypostatization of that presence. [4]

Two things are important to note: one, that in later writings there is no developed nostalgia for this “presence” of Yahweh. The prophets speak of the wilderness period as a honeymoon because it manifested a simple faith of the Israelites in Yahweh and because it was a period lacking in external forms and ceremonies—not because the proximity of the presence guaranteed any metaphysical superiority. Two, the traditions of Yahweh’s presence and guidance are prefaces to the Hebrew conception of history itself, which is, at first, a recording of the signs and wonders of the “mighty hand” and the “outstretched arm,” to use the language of Deuteronomy 4:34; 26:8. The biblical style may be said, then, to evolve from these celebrations. And later the visions of the prophets recreate them in the future tense, with important differences, of course.

Moreover, though Yahweh’s role as warrior is clear, his agency at any given moment may take a variety of forms, none of which are him in his essence but only signs. Thus, from these very earliest of biblical texts, we have the tradition which is central to Auerbach’s contentions, namely, that biblical narratives always demand interpretation, whereas Homer positively resists it. Homer puts everything—including all the intentions and inner thoughts of Zeus—into a “uniformly illuminated” foreground, [5] everything present and accounted for. Homer’s text is, in some ways, like the art desired by certain primitives who are wary of perspective, foreshortening, and such devices because these sometimes hide parts of the bodies represented. They worry if a hand or a leg is missing. The Bible writers don’t know Homer’s certainties and they use a style with background, with built-in perspective. They begin with texts referring to great but mysterious acts that are signs, the meaning of which must be constantly sifted, probed, and recounted. In spite of expectations to the contrary, nothing is ever established as a certainty by act of God. History from its beginnings is a process, not simply of recording but of interpreting. And this produces not only the condition that Auerbach calls being “‘fraught with background’” [6] but also the demanding, problematic, ultimately parabolic nature of Western literature.

This quality is thrown into even higher relief in the texts we have next to take up—those dealing with the great identity crisis of Israel that led to the establishment of the monarchy. According to current theory, the Court History of David (2 Sam. 9–20; 1 Kings 1:2) was the first extended part to be written down, and the rest of the text accrued around it. This may well be true, but the key is that the parts dealing with the Judges, with Samuel, and with Saul, even if written later, are testimony to a precondition without which the significance of David’s reign cannot be understood: namely, that in accord with a tradition of Yahweh as warrior, Israel maintained itself in the Judges’s period as a theocracy with no human king. Thus, the proposal to establish one presented them with what I have called an identity crisis. The king, in Semitic usage in this time, was a warrior who “go[es] out before us and fight[s] our battles” (1 Sam. 8:20). A human warrior-king is what the people ask for because they want to be like all the nations, the gentiles. They want to have what the other people have. “I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: [Yahweh] shall rule over you,” Gideon is supposed to have replied to an earlier temptation to make himself a king (Judg. 8:23). But we may suspect this text of being a whitewash since Gideon has a son whose name is Abimelech, meaning “my father is king.”

In any case, the tradition is clear that would indicate powerful religious opposition to dynastic kingship. That is the major reason why the acts of Samuel, Saul, and David must be so scrupulously recorded and interpreted. Parts of this story were undoubtedly written down in the belief that in allowing David to succeed where Saul failed, Yahweh was validating and endorsing the monarchy. But other parts, such as 1 Samuel 8, were written to show that in allowing a king Yahweh was simply giving the people enough rope to hang themselves. In verse 7’, Yahweh, with grim foreboding, says to Samuel, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” The prophets, of course, take up this latent opposition to the monarchy and to the Canaanitish syncretism that it led to after Solomon, with some kings going so far as to put male prostitutes in the temple. They interpret the disasters looming ahead for Israel as divine punishments for such faithlessness. They even denounce the military efforts and alliances of the kings as merely further examples of men putting their trust in man instead of God and of entangling in foreign alliances the one nation that should not have been like all the other nations, that should have remained an unsophisticated and uncorrupted theocracy. The prophetic denunciations of economic exploitation, of perversions of justice—even of weights and measures—must be understood as part of this opposition to the kings and to the upper classes who supported the monarchical program of importing idolatrous foreign ways and practices. Certainly they were linked together in the prophetic mind.

Thus, the record shows that history, for early Israel, entailed putting into writing the train of events that manifested Yahweh’s special and mysterious purposes for the nation. He, himself, is hidden behind his acts and behind events—hidden, though not inscrutable. We can do no better for purposes of comparison than to bring up Shakespeare’s history plays where the Wars of the Roses parallel the history of Israel and in which the recurrent question is: “Who has God’s mandate?” The Henrys are technically usurpers like David, and the Richards are, in some ways, like Saul. They once had the mandate but they forfeited it through arrogant presumption, through facile claiming of religious prerogatives. In Henry V, the king kneels down and prays to the “God of battles” (Yahweh Sabaoth) to forgive him for the sins of his fathers and to show it by giving him victory against all the odds at Agincourt (see 4. 1. 306–22). One of the reasons he does not want any more men with him is that he has contrived this battle as a test of precisely that question. After he has been given this great victory, he instructs his soldiers to sing Non Nobis and Te Deum, “not to us, but to you, O God, shall this triumph be ascribed” (4.8. 127–28). This is the climax of these plays, although chronologically—that is, in terms of what Shakespeare was dealing with—it comes in the middle of the sequence. However, in dramatic terms, it provides a spectacular answer to the recurrent problem of lawful rule and 1 have always thought that is why he wrote it last. This answer is couched insistently in biblical terms.

Shakespeare’s plays are fundamentally different from Greek tragedies, only partially for the reasons eloquently argued by Helen Gardner, who says that Greek tragedy presents crisis whereas Elizabethan tragedy presents process. [7] What I would say distinguishes them is the same mark that distinguishes Hebrew history from the dominant modes of thoughts of the ancient Near East as well as from Greek thought: in neither Shakespeare nor the Bible is there a sense of what the Greek philosophers sometimes call the logos. This term is notoriously hard to define in Greek usage, but here I take it to mean the concept that the whole cosmos has an order, an essential structure which is ultimately apprehensible by reason, hence speakable in some ideal way if certain clouds of misapprehension that may be obscuring the reason are swept away. This concept of an eternal and immutable order on which all possible changes in the world are merely variations is, of course, found very widely in ancient thought and has close relations to the Egyptian concept of ma’at and to the Sumerian gish-khur and to many other manifestations. In Greek thinking, it is the concept that allowed Aristotle to assert that poetry is a higher and more philosophic thing than history, for history represents the actualizing of only a small part of the infinite world of potentialities of what anything might be; and poetry, which can represent the impossible but probable (to use Aristotle’s term) can therefore represent the logos, being tied, as it is, not to events but to reason. [8] Obviously these standards are at variance with the Yahwist belief in which there is no sense of an eternal order of things that somehow stands beyond Yahweh’s will.

The important point is that Shakespeare doesn’t believe in the logos either. (I am, of course, not referring to the Christian adaptation of that term.) What makes a true English king is not his place in some immutable order but rather God’s mysterious election. Richard II believes in the logos. He thinks that his person is intrinsically sacred and that when his soldiers desert, angels will replace them (see Richard II, 3. 2. 58–62). Once the king always the king. But the Henrys know it is not so. They will surely be tested by God, i.e., by history, and must prove worthy. Shakespeare does not repudiate the medieval concept of the king’s two bodies. In fact, he follows it in believing that God’s election may light on any man as it once did on the humble shepherd boy.

In Egypt, only the changeless was truly significant, remarks Henri Frankfort. [9] Changes are insignificant, being at best minor and transient rearrangements of the cosmic kaleidoscope in an ideology of the logos. But changes are, of course, the very stuff of history, and change in Hebrew thought has very much the significance and the enabling power that Jacques Derrida ascribes to difference, or differance, [10] as we can call it, although when he spells it with his a he does not mean it to be pronounced any differently. Not to be reified or made into a metaphysical concept, it yet is that which permits all significance and all concepts to be brought into being. Indeed, historical change is simply difference in a certain context; therefore, it makes a great difference whether a people’s literature is founded on the concept of the logos or on the idea of history that Aristotle would call lower—the idea of history which I define as the search for meaning in a world without the logos.

History presupposes no fixed order, no pattern to which all things will sooner or later return no matter how wide the pendulum of events swings. Hence the phrase “the laws of history” is a contradiction in terms, which may explain why no historians have ever been able to find any. The modern historian may think he is searching for them but his activities taken as a whole do not suggest this. In fact, they rather suggest the Hebrew sense of recording and interpreting everything, because you never know which facts will be messages. The modern historian has, of course, no conscious thought of God, but the form of his work still suggests a search for somebody calling the shots.

To make the point in another way, let us turn to Levi-Strauss. [11] If what he says about myth is valid, it evokes a world view which is essentially that of the cosmos as logos—which is to say, of course, that myth and history are poles apart. This is hardly a new point, but perhaps it needs repeating now when structuralism and other philosophies can accuse us with much justice of mythologizing history. The kind of society Levi-Strauss studies and favors uses myth as a powerful element in its constitution. One might say, in fact, that myth provides the DNA of these cultures, passing on much of the information needed for their self-replication. Surely it is characteristic of the ideology of these societies, as Levi-Strauss implies in his analysis of the Oedipus myth, that in them social structure and cosmology verify and reinforce each other. The cosmos is seen as having a structure to which human life must relate, and social order must reproduce it. In Yahwist thinking, this is manifestly impossible. The social order like the historical order has no status beyond contingency, and it draws no sacredness nor any other form of validation from cosmic order, since the latter does not really exist in Yahwist thought. As many have noted, the Bible seems to take positive delight in challenges to the social order. We could take tests as various as the Song of Hannah—“The bows of the mighty are broken, . . . He raises up the poor from the dust; . . . to make them sit with princes. . .” and so on—to the New Testament motto, “the last shall be first” (1 Sam. 2:4, 8; see Matt. 19:30). Although it is unfashionable to say so, mythological societies are far more conservative, traditionbound, and deferrent to their own social orders than those in the biblical or Western tradition. This is a concept that Levi-Strauss particularly has trouble dealing with because of his intrinsically revolutionary bent.

It is equally true, of course, that the Bible can be used as a mythos, as in Byzantium or Europe in the Middle Ages; and also it does not mean that mythological societies are not creative (witness Sumer and Egypt)—but these do identify the social order with the cosmos and both with some kind of logos; hence, their literature would be of the kind to suit Aristotle as philosophic while their histories remain those of annals and chronicles and king lists. Take Gilgamesh, for example. Though most scholars now believe he really existed, the epic about him can hardly be said to be even historical fiction. It has no trace of the historical texture of the story of Abraham, to say nothing of that of King David. It may be that the story’s attitude toward the logos is mournful or rebellious, but the logos is there any way in forming the eternal truths that the story illustrates. Gilgamesh almost sees the secret of immortality, but now snakes have it and men do not. This is a Just-So Story, like that of Adam, no doubt; but the story of Adam is not really typical of the Bible whereas the story of Abraham is. We might think here of Levi-Strauss’s phrase, “What gives the myth an operational value is that the specific pattern described is timeless; it explains the present and the past as well as the future.” [12]

A further corollary: according to Levi-Strauss the order of events in a myth is relatively insignificant. By this method, which is to lay out the mythemes, or shortest possible statements of the myth’s events, on a kind of grid, the meaning is found by explicitly ignoring the narrative order and concentrating on the relations of the mythemes—arranged, if possible, in parallel columns. Were we to tell the myth, says Levi-Strauss, we would disregard the columns and read the events in the order in which they occur. But if we want to understand the myth, then we must disregard the so-called diachronic arrangement of the events and look for the hidden relationships in and between the columns. [13] This is from his famous essay, “The Structural Study of Myth,” which I call “the Oedipus essay.”

This flat and absolute contrast between telling and understanding is thus a major feature of the structuralist method, corresponding to their assertion that the anthropologist can slice through the images that the native uses to present his society to himself. But for our purposes, the key point is that for Levi-Strauss the narrative is merely a vehicle, merely a medium, for the presentation of the myth’s true meanings. The narrative itself can hardly be intrinsically involved with these meanings if one has to ignore it in order to understand the myth. One could say that the narrative for Levi-Strauss is like Plato’s poet in the Ion—it doesn’t know anything of the truths it has to convey. Here let us go back again to Auerbach for the contrast which the biblical style presents—not only God, he points out, but all the biblical personages have background, and it is precisely their biographical pasts, or what has happened to them earlier in the narrative, of which this background consists:

Abraham’s actions are explained not only by what is happening to him at the moment, . . . but by his previous history; he remembers he is constantly conscious of what God has promised him and what God has already accomplished for him. . . . Such a problematic psychological situation as this is impossible for any of the Homeric heroes, whose destiny is clearly defined and who wake every morning as if it were the first day of their lives. . . . Herein lies the reason why the great figures of the Old Testament are so much more fully developed, so much more fraught with their own biographical past, so much more distinct as individuals, than are the Homeric heroes . . . [who] have no development, . . . [and who] appear to be of an age fixed from the very first. Even Odysseus, in whose case the long lapse of time and the many events which occurred offer so much opportunity for biographical development, shows almost nothing of it. Odysseus on his return is exactly the same as he was when he left Ithaca two decades earlier. But what a road, what a fate, lie between the Jacob who cheated his father out of his blessing and the old man whose favorite son has been torn to pieces by a wild beast!—between David the harp player, persecuted by his lord’s jealousy, and the old king, surrounded by violent intrigues, whom Abishag the Shunnamite warmed in his bed, and he knew her not! [14]

In one of his best strokes, Auerbach disposes of the objection that the historical texture in the biblical stories sometimes arises from the combination of several legendary personages into one, as with Jacob and also David, since the Goliath story is certainly a legend. This does not matter, as Auerbach shows, because so strong is the historicizing character of biblical style that even where its raw material is legend, the stories are transmuted into a continuous narrative with historical texture. The very lacunae and joins in the text evident to the specialist only add to the background effect described by Auerbach.

Even by such a modern criterion as historical reliability we find the Bible amazingly nonlegendary. The point, of course, is not the truth of the Bible but the character of its style and of the thought processes which caused certain Hebrews to preserve their traditions in certain ways. I do not see how there can be a much more important stylistic feature than this point: that in the Bible the narrative—the order of events—is not merely a vehicle but is itself crucial to the meaning. And this, in turn, implies why structuralist methods, designed to elucidate myth, work so poorly on the Bible. We must give Levi-Strauss credit; he himself is notoriously hesitant to apply his techniques to the Bible, though not all his followers are so cautious. History and myth no doubt mix in many ways. But my point is that the literature that draws its inspiration from the one is likely to seem almost antithetical to the other.

As a footnote I may add that whereas by Levi-Straussian standards myth might as well be totally episodic, Aristotle prescribed that such loose-jointedness was not to be tolerated in tragedy. But his reason is the key. He rejects episodic plots because they offend our sense of the rational necessity of the logos. Once fully disclosed, the events of the tragedy must be seen as having been inevitable. In biblical narratives, on the other hand, the reasons for rejecting episodic qualities have to do with historical fact and sequence, not with the logos. There is no true inevitability, given Yahweh. Many myths are in fact episodic, so much so as to be deeply puzzling to us. In at least one version of the Gilgamesh epic, Enkidu, whose death precipitates Gilgamesh’s epic journey, is spoken of at the end as if he were alive, which goes to show that Auerbach’s contrasts are relevant not only to the Greeks but to all the ancient world vis-à-vis the Hebrews.

It seems to me that the character of literature in the West follows the biblical pattern in much more important respects than it follows the Homeric or mythological. Someone has remarked that all the great Western writers are realists in their own terms; that is, they define themselves as realists against any romanticism or idealism or other mythologizing tendency in their predecessors or contemporaries. Even so visionary a poet as Blake felt himself to be asserting a kind of realism against the illusionism of Sir Joshua Reynolds and other purveyors of the false classics. Blake’s preference for biblical prophetic visions as against imitation Augustanism is well known.

But my point has to do not only with conscious preferences but also with unconscious models. This realism preferred by our great writers is very much the result of that historicizing that Auerbach shows to be the hallmark of biblical style. Even the visions of the prophets and the anguished meditations of the Psalmist are historically situated and full of realistic touches in a sense utterly foreign to Homer and to most myth with which I am familiar. It may well be that there are other cultural traditions in which historical quality is found in the literature. But as Auerbach goes on to show in subsequent chapters of Mimesis, the Greco-Roman world was not much interested in these.

For a long time now, Western critics have assumed that the so-called classics, that is, the literary works of the Hellenistic world, were the matrix and nurturer of our literature. These critics seem not to have read Auerbach. Frankly, I suspect that the English public school tradition, in which knowledge of Greek and Latin was the mark of a gentleman, may have been an efficient cause of this misleading identification. English social snobbery would also explain something of the neglect of the Bible, for close knowledge of the scriptures was often the mark of the dissenter, the charity boy, the nonuniversity man like Blake or D. H. Lawrence. The kind of realism I am talking about here is that which derives from taking the historical to be the real so that the texture of the work (Joyce’s Ulysses would be the supreme example) must be full of gritty actualities. Notice that by these standards even Dante’s Commedia is realistic. If he had simply rhapsodized about the structure of the world beyond or made his epic journey through it meeting only allegorical beasts, as in the first cantos, and not meeting any of the historical characters that he does meet, then the work would be something else; it would be a fable, let us say. But Dante’s work, like that of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Moliere, et al., is rooted in historicism, even when mythic archetypes are invoked, for these are always subordinated, as they are even in such a grandiose and supposedly timeless work as Paradise Lost, to the realities of the time as the author sees them. Who was more embroiled in the issues of his day than Milton or, for that matter, Dante? The notion of the artist in the ivory tower is, of course, a fallacy.

My point here is to lead up to the assertion that historicizing produces many different kinds of historical texture, that there need not be an obvious historical setting for a work to be realistic in this sense. Some strategies have different requirements. Let me quote Hugh Kenner, who says in his book, The Counterfeiters:

Consider an anecdote from the German occupation of France:

Two men have been sent into the country to make a rendezvous with a third, whom they have never seen and know only by a code name. They work hard at making their presence and movements seem natural, an especial challenge since they seem to have no cover story. They scrounge vegetables, sleep in ditches, submit like tramps to indignities and beatings: and at the appointed spot no one meets them. Should they move on or stay? It seems best to stay; the normal prudence of the underground has withheld from them any clue to the significance of their rendezvous, but they cannot assume its significance is slight. So they set about the business of waiting, on a country road, at evening, not too obtrusively. The tax on their resources is enormous. A refugee passes, his servant loaded with belongings; they are so relieved to see anyone at all that they almost give their mission away. Then a boy runs up with a message, “Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won’t come this evening but surely tomorrow:” and they are committed to a second time of waiting, more deadly than the first.

As Kenner says, “It seems reasonable to guess that Beckett’s play had some such germ,” especially since Beckett was involved in the Resistance. But “the anecdotal specificities” have been withdrawn. Kenner notes that “a few references to Germans and sector chiefs would have told us to say that the play is ‘about the Occupation.’ As things are, it is difficult to say what it is about, except about waiting, and so powerful is the experience of a play about waiting, once we have experienced it, that no adduction of Occupation detail will distract us. We have meaning, then, without specific content.” [15] In short, the play derives its power from a historical situation, even where the detail that would specify that situation is missing. The detail would have made the play a lesser work, a kind of thriller. But there is no appeal to the logos by Beckett, not in Aristotle’s sense. History produces far stranger things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in Aristotle’s philosophy.

That such a strategy is ultimately biblical I hope to persuade you by pointing to the example of Job. At first glance the book of Job seems to violate biblical style. It seems to be a selfconscious fable. It even begins with the Hebrew equivalent of “once upon a time.” (I’m ignoring for the moment most of the problems about the text.) But there are many theories about the date of composition and so on, and the book would seem to have no more determinable historical setting than the early chapters of Genesis. Yet I believe that it does have one. I base my case entirely on a reading of the twenty-eighth chapter of Deuteronomy. This chapter purports to be an exhortation by Moses, listing the blessings that Yahweh will send for keeping the law and curses for not keeping it. The list of curses is far more significant and longer and more detailed. Manifestly, it is not a prediction, but a memory of the horrors of the Assyrian invasion. Let me just read nine consecutive verses from this long chapter:

The Lord will smite you with the boils of Egypt, and with the ulcers and the scurvy and the itch, of which you cannot be healed. The Lord will smite you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind; and you shall grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness, and you shall not prosper in your ways, and you shall be only oppressed and robbed continually, and there shall be none to help you. You shall betroth a wife, and another man shall lie with her; you shall build a house, and you shall not dwell in it; you shall plant a vineyard, and you shall not use the fruit of it. Your ox shall be slain before your eyes, and you shall not eat of it; your ass shall be violently taken away before your face, and shall not be restored to you; your sheep shall be given to your enemies, and there shall be no one to help you. Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people while your eyes look on and fail with longing for them all the day; and it shall not be in the power of your hand to prevent it. A nation which you have not known shall eat up the fruit of your ground and of all your labors; and you shall be only oppressed and crushed continually; so that you shall be driven mad by the sight which your eyes shall see. The Lord will smite you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head (Deut. 28:27–35).

I have selected this passage so as to highlight the boils, but even without these I cannot but believe that this catalogue of pains and humiliations, this mental landscape of anguish and helplessness, was very much in the mind of the Job writer. Deuteronomy 28 is the pretext for Job in all senses of the word. The Job poet had only to transmute the disasters suffered by fallen Israel into horrors that may come into any life, no matter how guiltless the individual, and his work was before him. He may have done something very like what Beckett did with his play. The lack of specifying detail is not a sign of the lack of a historical framework. There are other biblical examples of this: the Songs of the Servant of Yahweh, for instance (see Isa. 42:1–4; 49:1–6; 50:4–9; 52:13; 53). By common agreement the book of Job contains no real structuring of a theodicy, no successful attempt to answer the monumental questions about the suffering of the innocent. We must endure our plagues; and after our cries are wrung from us, we must be silent. There is no attempt to say that partial evil is universal good, no appeal to such a logos.

The book of Job is not a fable; but it is very like a parable, that form which finds ultimate flowering in the New Testament. Some parables may be simply homely attempts to set down common truths, but the form is capable of more than that. The great New Testament parables—I would instance particularly the laborers in the vineyard (see Matt. 19:30–20:16) and those like it—are those that make it clear that common truths do not answer the real problems, indeed, that the real problems are so hard we can barely understand or frame them, let alone answer them. Parables are a form of literature whose very existence is itself a parable, a parable about the immense labors of soul-searching and mind-searching needed for understanding. “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60) so many hearers have said.

The parable returns us to Auerbach’s final formulation of biblical style: “certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed, ‘background’ quality, multiplicity of meanings and the need for interpretation, universal-historical claims, development of the concept of the historically becoming, and preoccupation with the problematic.” [16] Those are among the concluding words of Auerbach’s chapter in defining that style. And I believe that these are the qualities that gave continuity to the Bible and to Western literature in its image.


[1] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard Trask (1953; reprint, Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957), 5–6.

[2] “The Decay of Lying,” in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, 12 vols. (New York: Wm. H. Wise, 1927), 5:47–48.

[3] Auerbach, Mimesis, 9.

[4] See Thomas Mann, Divine Presence and Guidance in Israelite Traditions (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).

[5] Auerbach, Mimesis, p. 5.

[6] Ibid., p. 9.

[7] Helen Louise Gardner, Religion and Literature (London: Faber, 1971), p. 74.

[8] Aristotle, On Poetics, 9:1451b 5–10.

[9] Henri Frankfort, The Birth of Civilization in the Near East (New York: Anchor Books, n.d.), p. 9.

[10] “Differance,” Speech and Phenomena, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1973).

[11] Claude Levi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth,” Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobsen and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf (New York: Basic Books, 1963), pp. 206–31.

[12] Ibid., p. 209.

[13] Ibid., p. 214.

[14] Auerbach, Mimesis, pp. 9–10, 14.

[15] The Counterfeiters (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), pp. 159–60.

[16] Auerbach, Mimesis, p. 19.