For years, I have told students that if my class and I were ever isolated on a desert island and could only obtain one book with which to study law, philosophy, literature and other subjects, that book would be the Bible, most especially its first two books, Genesis and Exodus. Many have wondered why a book, whose main characters cheat, lie, steal and murder, has been so influential throughout the ages. Now I know. Bernard Beck has persuaded me that at least part of the reason for the Bible’s enduring influence has been the marketing savvy of its authors. As the experienced marketer that he himself is, Beck makes a compelling case that the Bible is indeed a great marketing tool.
In some ways the marketing potential of the Good Book has been recognized by biblical commentators for a long period of time. One of the greatest commentators on the Bible was Rashi, who is quoted repeatedly by Beck. Rashi’s very first commentary on the very first word of the Bible introduces the concept of the Bible as a marketing tool. He poses the question of why the Bible begins with Genesis? Since the Bible is first and foremost a law book, the logical starting point would be the Book of Exodus and most particularly the Ten Commandments, which are the roots of our legal system. Why then start with the story of creation? Rashi responds in the following way:
It began thus because it wished to convey the message of the verse, “The power of His acts He told to His people, in order to give them the estate of nations.” So that if the nations of the world will say to Israel, “You are the bandits, for you conquered the lands of the seven nations who inhabited the Land of Canaan,” [Israel] will say to them, “The whole earth belongs to the Holy One, Blessed is He. He created it and He gave it to them, and by His wish He took it from them and gave it to us.”
Rashi thus presciently saw the Book of Genesis as a marketing tool for Israel, and it has indeed been used as such by modern supporters of Zionism, both Jewish and Christian. But like many marketing arguments, this one does not necessarily survive logical scrutiny. First, there are plenty of other stories throughout the Bible that provide justification for Israel’s right to live in the Holy Land. Second, Rashi’s own question is really broader than why the Jewish law book begins with the narrative of creation. Implicit in that question is the deeper one of why a law book should include any stories at all, instead of simply being a compendium of the rules. Why, for example, should it include the long lists of “begats” or the other stories—from the flood, to the binding of Isaac, to the Jacob and Joseph narratives, to the death of Moses? Rashi does not answer that question. Beck does.
He points out that:
Without such a careful marketing effort; without such careful preparation, the Mount Sinai covenant would be just another dry document and would end up in history’s dust bin like the Code of Hammurabi or any of the other Mesopotamian and Canaanite legal documents. But the Mount Sinai covenant remains a living breathing document that has been studied and debated for five millennia because it does not stand alone as a legal document but is rather the finale of the Biblical mythology.
I have made a similar point, from the perspective of law rather than marketing, as to why a law book, to be successful, must include a narrative of the people who are to be governed by the law.
Oliver Wendell Holmes taught us that the life of the law has been experience, not logic. So too the laws of the Bible were based, at least in part, on the experiences of the people to whom they were given. Without knowing about these experiences, we find it difficult to understand the law. That is why the narratives of Genesis had to precede the law books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. (The first part of Exodus continues the narrative of Genesis, culminating in the revelation. Thereafter the narrative continues, interspersed with laws.) Just as experience must precede law, so too must narrative precede codification. The genius of the Bible, at least from the perspective of a law teacher, is its integration of narrative and rules and its use of memory to bring home the moral component of the laws. ‘Do not oppress the stranger, since you understand the soul of the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ is perhaps the paradigm of such experiential codification. The theme of memory pervades the Bible and its commentaries.
Had the Torah—the great law book—simply begun with a list of rules, the reader would wonder about the basis for the rules. Some of them appear eminently logical, but the others cannot be understood without reference to the experience of the Jewish people.
The Bible is the first law book to integrate narrative and law. Previous law codes, such as Hammurabi’s and Lipit-Ishtar’s, simply presented a compendium of rules, without historical explanation or moral justification. Other early narratives, such as Homer’s, simply presented the stories, without accompanying rules. The Bible is different. Most of the laws of the Bible develop organically out of the narratives and are justified by reference to the experiences of its protagonists. There is a genre of nonjustified laws, called chukkim, which are seen as testing faith, but these are the exception. It should not be surprising that the God of the Bible justifies most of His laws rather than merely declaring them. After all, this is a God who enters into covenants with Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and the Jewish people. He is also a God who allows humans to argue with Him and sometimes even to succeed in persuading Him to change His mind. As we have seen, He is a “constitutional monarch” rather than an autocrat, and His subjects are entitled to seek reasons for the laws they are told to obey.”
As an experienced lawyer, I tend to look at a book like the Bible through the lens of rationality. The integration of law and narrative marks the beginning of democracy. The Bible not only sets out rules. It provides explanations: be good to strangers because “you were strangers.” Obey the Sabbath because God rested on the seventh day. “Because” is an explanation, and the need to offer explanations, based on common experience, rather than merely to order, based on hierarchy, is central to democratic governance. What distinguishes the Bible from other law books is precisely that it is a book of rules based on common experiences. That is why it begins with stories about fallible human beings struggling with jealousy, temptation, vengeance, lust, selfishness, and other vices.
As an experienced marketer, Beck views the Bible through a more emotional lens. Like any good marketers, the authors of the Bible appealed to the human unconscious and to the emotional part of the brain, as well as to our rational facilities.
For millennia, Biblical commentators have sought to explain difficult portions of the Bible by reference to rationality. Beck’s fresh new “Midrash” adds an important emotional dimension to this never ending quest to understand the power of the world’s most influential book.
Author of Genesis of Justice
The Bible: The Greatest Marketing Tool Ever Written.........$23.99
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