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Encountering Bible and Sword by Barbara Tuchman

Barbara Tuchman 1971
Barbara Tuchman in 1971, with William Shirer (left) and John Eisenhower.

Last weekend I faced a solitary thousand-mile roundtrip drive from the Bay Area to San Diego down the largely featureless California Central Valley, a chore that became a delight as I spent the time listening to a book I’d never read, Bible and Sword, by a writer I’ve long admired, Barbara Tuchman.

In preparing for my trip and browsing Hoopla for audio books to listen to, I came upon the title with mixed feelings. Barbara Tuchman’s writing has had a hold on me since I was a kid carrying around The Guns of August like a puppy trying to carry a tree branch, and I can remember impatiently checking with bookstores for the arrival of A Distant Mirror. I still admire the opening of The Guns of August, in which Tuchman chose to introduce the book’s explication of the run-up to World War I through the brilliant device of describing the funeral procession in 1910 of Henry VII, in which all the characters—the monarchs and diplomats and warriors who were to play such a critical and tragic role in the events to come—literally march before your eyes so that Tuchman can introduce them in turn, all within the achingly poetic irony that they are attending the funeral of one of their own, and of their world.

My mixed feelings came from the fact that my fandom for Tuchman, who died in 1989, was a bit dated. In addition to the disappointment one often feels for old favorites revisited, there was also the fact that I am now embarked on my own book about Jerusalem and Israel. I wasn’t sure Mrs. Tuchman would have approved, which is not such a big deal, but more pointedly I was afraid I wouldn’t approve after these years of Mrs. Tuchman, which would have really saddened me.

But I was way over-thinking. Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour, originally published in 1956 and wonderfully performed in my edition by Wanda McCaddon, is sparkling and well worth reading (or listening to) today: exhaustively researched, informative, feeling, and heavily garnished with wit and enchanting turns of phrase. I learned a lot: the myth that Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus’s storied Jewish advocate in his final hours, had come to England, and how that played into English narratives of the Holy Grail and King Arthur, was entirely new to me, and I’m sure I’ll go back and comb over her documentation of the events and personalities of the early British Mandate. Her account of the specter of popular and political anti-Semitism— given purchase through her masterful recurring metaphor of a “baying hound” that stalks the Jews of Europe and Russia, alternately retreating and advancing, ominously growling at times and unexpectedly leaping from the shadows onto its prey— rises to the level of fine literature. And the fact that Mrs. Tuchman chose to end the narrative with Balfour also insulates the book to some degree from the current fashions of conventional wisdom. (In her forward, she said she ended the book in more distant decades because as she came nearer to her own time, the topic of Israel and Palestine made her too angry to handle as a proper historian. I can certainly identify with that!)

There was one passage in her book, though, that struck with me as remarkable. She spends some time comparing the challenges Theodor Herzl, an early Zionist, faced at the turn of the 19th century to those Moses faced in Biblical times leading the Jews to the Promised Land. The obvious similarity lies in that both are bringing the Jews out of oppression and into a new homeland where they can potentially live free. Tuchman has some fun with the comparison: Herzl, overworked and in ill health, could spend only seven years on the task, while Moses spent forty years in the wilderness and had God solidly at his back, etc. Harmless literary flair, one would think- why am I even bringing it up?

The reason is that Herzl existed and Zionism happened, but Moses as described in the Bible didn’t exist and the Exodus didn’t happen, and Tuchman (and for that matter Herzl) explicitly employs the mythic Exodus narrative as a template for historical events. When I say the Exodus didn’t happen, I mean that by the same standard most of us use to determine if our bank account is overdrawn or whether we should seek treatment when we feel sick, we should be aware that the biblical Exodus is a fable. It is not simply that there is no evidence to support the biblical account, it is that with this story the available evidence indicates that it never happened. And not to put too fine a point on it, but Blood and Sword is positioned as a work of history.

Preemptively let me add that some readers are doubtless thinking “but I believe the Exodus happened,” which is of course their prerogative, while others are unperturbed by the observation that the story is a myth. And Mrs. Tuchman doesn’t necessarily reveal by her word choice that she believes the Exodus story is historical: she was likely using the artful dodge wherein a skeptic can enjoy the passage as evocative metaphor while true believers can wallow in what they take as an actual historical comparison. None of these angles are what interest me.

What I do find interesting is how biblical (and Quranic) stories shape our perceptions of the Middle East, and I think this is even more interesting when many of us say we don’t believe them but still find our thinking unconsciously shaped by them. Biblical narratives are so tightly interwoven into our thinking, even among ardent secularists, that trying to pluck the fantastical threads out of the fabric of our opinions can lead to a very uncomfortable unraveling of other assumptions: if the Exodus account is a fable, then where does that leave the ideas of a Promised Land, or the Conquest of Canaan, or of the Covenant?

Which starts to come off as political, which I think is valid, but also partisan, which is not my intent. What scrutiny applies to the Jewish canon certainly applies to the Gospels and the Quran in equal measure not only due to fairness but also for the simple fact that these later scriptures are based on the Jewish canon. Indeed the fact that early Christians and early Muslims had to rationalize their scriptures with the Hebrew Bible and traditions is just the same point being made another way: even when you say you don’t believe it, you find your behavior shaped by it anyway. Tuchman provides plenty of grist for exercises like this from Jewish and Christian examples and plenty of historical Jews and Christians to second guess, though it has to be said she did seem to get through two millennia of Palestinian history without introducing us in any real way to the thoughts and feelings of a Muslim.

But now I’ve dragged Blood and Sword into places and issues its still-sparkling author did not intend to address. If you’re looking for an intriguing perspective on the formative politics and emotions behind 20th century Palestine and a fabulously good read, find a copy.


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One response to “Encountering Bible and Sword by Barbara Tuchman”

  1. […] popular historian Barbara Tuchman, made an uncritical reference to the Exodus in her classic Encountering Bible and Sword, and I noticed Michael Korda doing it as I was rereading his fine biography Hero: The Life and […]

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