The Story of the World by Susan Wise Bauer and one of many academic books on the topic of the early Hebrew religion
Biblical history,  history,  homeschooling

Notes on the Story of the World – from a secular academic perspective

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The Story of the World by Susan Wise Bauer is a very popular history curriculum amongst homeschoolers. However, one complaint frequently made is that the book presents Biblical stories as if they were history. In chapter six of volume one it tells the story of Abraham and then the story of Joseph, both embellished from the Bible. Here are some notes on how I would approach these.

Placement of the Story

The Story of the World situations the story of Abraham as taking place shortly after Sargon the Great. Sargon the Great lived over two thousand years before the Common Era (CE or, as it was known in my childhood, AD). I would suggest that there were no travels of the Hebrew people until long after Sargon the Great’s death. So I would not include the story at the point located in the Story of the World. Instead I would wait until I’m talking about the Israelite people later, and present it as a set of stories they told about their founding fathers.

Twelve Tribes of Israel

The Story of the World says:

Eventually, each one of Jacob’s sons had a whole tribe of people named after him. The tribe of Judah was named after Jacob’s son Judah. The tribe of Benjamin was named after his youngest son Benjamin. The twelve tribes became known as the nation of Israel, or the Jewish people.

The Bible is actually inconsistent in how it lists the twelve tribes of Israel, so that when it comes to the distribution of land the twelve tribes are not the same as the sons of Jacob and in Revelations there’s a different list. There were likely twelve sons in the story to represent twelve tribes, but the twelve tribes change a bit.

One explanation was that Joseph’s family was not wealthy enough to redeem him (buy him back from the Egyptians) so they adopted his sons instead and Levi got excluded from having a tribe so his people became the Levites (the special priestly-sort of group). So 12 sons minus two sons (Levi and Joseph) plus two grandsons (Manasseh and Ephraim) make twelve tribes. However, that begs the question why was Levi excluded, which brings up a whole other story that I wouldn’t want to discuss with young children.

This also brings up the question of is that really the true story. Is that how the twelve tribes came about? I’d say no. I’d say that later writers were trying to write the twelve tribes into the old legends, so they said that for Jacob to be the father of all of the tribes he’d need twelve sons. Then later as they were trying to explain the rise and fall of different tribes by referencing the deeds and misdeeds of their ancestors they complicated the whole story.

Monolatry, not Monotheism

One thing I like about its retelling of the story of Abraham is the mention of the moon-god. One thing I don’t like about how they tell the story is that they have God telling Abraham that there is no other God than him. Many Biblical scholars believe that the earliest movements towards monotheism in the Hebrew religion took place during the reigns of Hezekiah or Josiah and that in earlier times the religion of the Hebrew people was a form of monolatry – the worship of one god, but the belief that many existed. So if we want to imagine that there was truth to the Biblical legend and that there was an ancestor coming out of Ur and starting the Hebrew people, it is very possible he would have believed that just one god was worthy of worship, but very unlikely he would have believed there was only one god.

El, the Canaanite creator deity, Megiddo, Stratum VII, Late Bronze II, 1400-1200 BC, bronze with gold leaf - Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago - DSC07734.JPG
By Daderot – from Wikipedia. Click on the picture to go to the article on El.

If this mythical Abraham traveled from Ur to Canaan, he would have been introduced to the Canaanite pantheon, which had El as its high god. The name El appears in the words IsraEL, MichaEL, GabriEL, etc. This is one of the names of God in the Bible.

The gilded statue embedded on this page from Wikipedia is of El, from a statue found at Megiddo. (Megiddo, by the way, is a part of Israel, and it is better known as Armageddon. This is where the last end times is supposed to begin according to some.)

Another possibility is that this mythical ancestor worshipped the god Yahweh or YHWH. The origins of that name is less clear. According to some interpretations of the Bible, Abraham and his descendants worshiped God under the name El until Moses, and then God told Moses his other name, YHWH.

In any case, in telling a child the story of Abraham, I would be inclined to suggest that the god who spoke to Abraham did not claim to be the only god in existence, but simply promised to be Abraham’s special protector if Abraham worshipped only him. Similar deals were made by many of the ancients.

Note that often over hundreds of years people stop worshipping one god and start worshipping his son. The old god becomes too distant and remote. A new god is seen as more energetic. In Canaan the god El faced competition from his son Baal. Baal was the rider of the clouds, an energetic storm god who defeated the sea monster Yamm. In the Bible, the language that the Canaanites used for Baal was co-opted by the Biblical writers. They applied it to their god – El or YHWH – and said that Baal was a false god. The Bible says YWHW/El created the monsters of the sea. It says YHWH/El brings rain not Baal.

Sections of the Bible are concerned about this power struggle between the followers of the two gods. You can teach your kids to see it as a struggle between  the followers of two mythical gods, and one side was eventually so successful that many people don’t see him as a mythical being like Baal, Zeus or Ningal anymore.

Alterations to the Joseph Story

Those familiar with the story of Joseph according to the Bible know that it includes false rape accusations and attempted seduction. The Story of the World replaces that with Potiphar’s wife being jealous of his power. Using this variation you run the risk of a child saying “why did the slave have more power?” and then having to make things up.  However, you don’t have to explain the other stuff.

The Best Part of the Joseph Story

I think Susan Wise Bauer’s retelling of the story of Joseph misses the best part of the story. Genesis 47:13 – 26 tells of the people of Egypt giving up their money to Pharaoh for food. Then when they are out of money, they give up their livestock. When they have given all their livestock, Joseph buys up their land for Pharaoh. Then he gives people seed and tells them that they can plant, but one fifth of their produce must go to Pharaoh.

To me, this is the most interesting part of the story. There are so many things one could discuss with children about this. Is what Joseph does fair? Should the Pharaoh be able to charge money from his people when he presumably collected the food himself? Is this a story about the cost of having a king? A king or government can protect a nation from disasters – by building projects (like dams to protect them from flooding), by taxes and grain storage (like thin this story), by defending them from war, etc. Yet a king or government also cost the people a lot.

More to Come

Those are my basic notes on the way the Story of the World deals with Abraham and Joseph in chapter six, and as I said at the beginning I wouldn’t include them after the story of Sargon, but much later in ancient historical text. I’ll deal more where to include them (as fiction, not fact) and with the story of Moses as portrayed in Chapter 14 in another post.

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