In Search of the Hebrew People

Bible and Nation in the German Enlightenment

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Ofri Ilany
German Jewish Cultures
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , April
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ofri Ilany’s book, In Search of the Hebrew People: Bible and Nation in the German Enlightenment, highlights the work of Christian Hebraists in Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries. Hebraism, as Ilany defines it, was the systematic and secular study of the history and literature of ancient Israel “as well as imitation and adulation of the ancient Hebrews” (7). Once thought to be a fringe movement among a small minority of Enlightenment Christians, Ilany argues that Christian Hebraism was in fact quite widespread, “encompassing hundreds and even thousands of writers following the Reformation” (7). He frames his book as an effort to elucidate its particular manifestation among German academics, a phenomenon he sees as un- or understudied in the field. Ilany is particularly interested in demonstrating the intersection of the exegetical approaches of these scholars and trends in the development of a German national identity during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. 

Throughout the book, Ilany outlines the ways in which Hebraists like Johann David Michaelis (1717-1791) and Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) used the literature of the Hebrew Bible as a testing ground for contemporary theories of human development, and how they did so with a particular focus on nationhood. Chapter 1 traces the “historicization” of the Hebrew Bible under Michaelis and his disciples. These scholars, heavily influenced by the burgeoning field of ethnography, focused on situating the protagonists of the Hebrew Bible within their ancient Near Eastern context and on a universal scale of human development. In chapter 2, Ilany focuses primarily on Michaelis’s Mosaisches Recht (1770-1771) and its effort to contextualize Mosaic law as the product of the particular primordial culture of the ancient Hebrews, a particularity that was required for nation-building. According to Ilany, Michaelis’s approach treated the Bible as a resource for the contemporary construction of a German state, privileging cultural distinctiveness over against the universalist trends of the day both in Germany and Europe more broadly.

In chapter 3, which is concerned with Enlightenment responses to the Israelite conquest of Canaan, Ilany demonstrates how Hebraists appealed to contemporary concepts like a “national territory” to defend the ancient Hebrews. Eschewing traditional theological defenses of Israelite exceptionalism and divinely sanctioned “Holy War,” major points of critique among Enlightenment critics of the Bible, German Hebraists argued that the conquest was a legitimate example of a nation’s right to claim its ancestral homeland. In chapter 4, Ilany turns to the role of a native literature, poetry in particular, in the establishment of a nation. Herder and his followers argued that rather than an impediment to German heritage, the ancient Hebrews and their poetry offered a paradigm that distinguished German style from its classically-inflected French competition. In Hebrew poetry, Herder and poets of the Sturm und Drang movement like Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803) found a model to emulate that was simpler and more sentimental than the classical foundations of French poetry; Hebrew poetry synthesized theological and political themes  in a way that better served a developing and distinct German identity. 

Chapter 5 deals with an increasing scholarly skepticism regarding the historicity of the events narrated in the Hebrew Bible in the early 19th century, a skepticism that culminated with William Martin Leberecht de Wette (1780-1849) and his wholesale rejection of the Hebrew Bible as a reliable historical document for understanding Israel’s ethnogenesis. While this claim completely reversed Michaelis’s exegetical approach, Ilany argues that it did not undermine the value of the Bible for nation building. Instead, the move was simply part of a recategorization that transformed the Hebrew Bible from a “history” to a “national myth,” a political story developed to answer questions of how the nation of Judah came to be. Ilany sees in de Wette’s exegetical approach a parallel to the creation of a German national myth among contemporary Romantics, particularly “their interest in the Nibelungenlied and in German folk tales” (133). In this regard the “myths” of the Hebrew Bible were productive as a model for the construction of a national German past, even as they were ultimately replaced by “native” stories with darker and more fantastic motifs.

Throughout the book, Ilany does an excellent job of highlighting the apologetic nature of much of the scholarship he surveys. As he persuasively argues, Hebraists like Michaelis and Herder were not only invested in preserving the Hebrew Bible for its value as a model for a particular kind of German nationhood but also as a religious document for believing Christians. Through the application of contemporary methods in their exegetical approach to the Bible, the Hebraists surveyed in the book went to great lengths to protect the text from Enlightenment attacks. And while recent treatments of biblical scholarship on the period have highlighted the rejection of the Bible in the construction of German identity, Ilany’s book demonstrates that it was not this simple. His summary of Herder’s influence on German national literature, for example, is insightful and instructive: “Herder’s interpretation of biblical poetry was therefore transformative; by redefining its object of study, it simultaneously transformed the reading subject itself” (99).

As a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Ilany’s volume constantly reminded me that so much of what my field takes for granted is inextricably linked with the exegetical approaches developed in Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries. His study asks us to look closely at the foundations of the field and to critically examine positions that have their genesis in the work of Hebraists like Michaelis and Herder. In this regard, Ilany’s book has much to offer to biblical scholars invested in understanding the development of their field, but also to scholars of 18th- and 19th-century Germany and to those interested in the relationship between the academy and the ideological process of nation building more broadly. It succeeds in filling what its author saw as a gap in the field and productively supplements ongoing scholarly conversations about the issues at hand.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marshall Cunningham is a doctoral candidate in Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ofri Ilany is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Polonsky Academy for Advanced Study at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.


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