Recently April DeConick posted some excellent thoughts on 10 commandments or operating principles for engaging a text from the historical-critical method. Her post is well worth the time to read and ponder. Once of her points struck a chord with some of the things we've been wrestling with in Community of God, namely to what degree are certain texts communicating "history." Here's one thing she had to say:
The text is not reporting history, it is reporting theology and it is using story to do so. This makes recovering history extremely difficult because all is not as it seems. We need to ask questions such as why is the author reporting his history and his theology this way? What other histories and theologies does the author know about? What traditions has the author received? How has the author shaped those traditions? Why has he shaped them in the manner that he has? Who has something to gain by this view of history and theology? Who has something to lose by this view of history and theology? What are the author's assumptions and how do these impact the author's narrative? How is the author's narrative related to other narratives? How is the author's narrative related to history? Etc.
Concerning the quote above, I tend to agree with James McGrath [see the comment section of her post] that certain texts may not be communicating what we would define as "history," as we have come to embrace it in our post-enlightenment mindset. As I've said before here, I think we need to temper our vision of "history" when we approach the text of the scriptures.
I think DeConick is correct in her assessment that even what may appear as a historical narrative in the text has some underlying assumptions and motivations that we need to be aware of. Texts that appear to be historical need to be read with the question of what theological, political, and social position the author is writing from, as this has an inherent impact on the way the historical portrayal is being painted. All scripture is theological, even portions that appear to be presenting a mere historical narrative.
Case in point from Community of God. We've been exploring the return of the exiles through the texts of Ezra and Nehemiah. One of the issues raised in these texts is the intermarriage of the Jews with the surrounding "foreigners." What is presented in the texts is a strict exogamy based upon "the Law." Yet this raises a few questions, like what are we to do with Moses, the receiver of the Law, who married a foreign wife? It appears that what is offered in Ezra 9-10 as a breaking of "the Law" is more of a theological and identity driven discussion, offered as in historical narrative. To make things even more complicated, we read Ruth alongside Ezra-Nehemiah. What appears to be a simple tale of a kinsman-redeemer takes on a different significance when we realize that Ruth was a foreign wife. It appears that the text is proclaiming God's greater acceptance of the foreigner, even the foreign wife.
So in two texts that appear to be recording history, we find a theological concern being set forth. Even more surprising, we find two absolutely opposing theological views being presented in the scriptures, each being couched in what appears to be a historical narrative. To read each of these merely as history is to miss the greater theological portrait being painted by each author about what and who constitutes being Jewish.