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from The Textbook Letter, March-April 2000

Examining the treatment of religion in schoolbooks

Textbook-Writers Promote Religious Tales as "History"

Earl Hautala

In a review of Glencoe's high-school book Human Heritage: A World History [see note 1, below], William J. Bennetta drew attention to the book's section about the ancient Hebrews, and he described that section as "a protracted exercise in deceit, with plenty of barefaced lies." Glencoe's writers, he said, have ignored 150 years' worth of biblical scholarship and have "contrived some five pages of fake 'history' consisting chiefly of myths -- complete with Moses and the Hebrews' hasty hike across the floor of the Red Sea."

That is true. Here is an excerpt from the material that the writers of Human Heritage, in their account of the ancient Hebrews, try to pass off as "history":

After the Hebrews settled in Egypt, they were enslaved. About 600 years later, Moses, the Hebrew leader at the time, appeared before the pharaoh and told him to end Hebrew enslavement and let the Hebrews leave Egypt. The pharaoh at first refused but later agreed. Moses then led the Hebrews out of Egypt. The pharaoh again changed his mind and led his army in pursuit. According to the Bible, Yahweh [the Hebrews' tribal god] parted the Red Sea to allow the Hebrews to cross and they escaped into the Sinai (si' ni) Desert. They called their escape the Exodus (ek' suh dus). [note 2]

Life in the desert was hard, but Moses told the Hebrews not to give up. Moses led them to Mount Sinai. There, he climbed to the top of the mountain to receive a message from God. . . .

When Bennetta complained that the writers of Human Heritage had ignored 150 years' worth of biblical scholarship, he seriously understated the case. After all, the belief that Moses was a real figure from history -- a man who had actually existed at some time in the ancient past, who led his fellow tribesmen through various adventures, and who wrote the Torah [note 3] -- began to crumble almost 500 years ago. In 1520 the German theologian Carlstadt [note 4] pointed out that Moses couldn't have written the Torah, because the Torah includes a narrative of Moses's own death.

Since then, biblical scholars have inferred that both the Torah and Moses are composites. The Torah was pieced together, some 2,700 years ago, from stories formulated at different times by several different writers. Those writers created, shaped and reshaped the figure of Moses, using him as a narrative device: Through the adventures and utterances that they ascribed to Moses, the writers conveyed their own conceptions of Yahweh, of Yahweh's desires, and of relations between Yahweh and man [note 5]. It is no wonder that the characteristics of both Moses and Yahweh display considerable variation as the Torah progresses.

The Torah's stories about Moses, like its stories about Noah, Abraham, Jacob and other important figures, fail when they are tested against historical evidence. Consider, as an example, the legendary enslavement of Hebrews in ancient Egypt. In the Torah, a fecund tribe of Hebrews called the Israelites [note 6], who have been living in Egypt, are enslaved by a fearful pharaoh because they have multiplied extensively, have become more numerous than the Egyptians, and have therefore become a threat to the Egyptian state (Exodus 1:7-14). But the archives left by the Egyptians themselves, who were consummate record-keepers, provide no corroboration for the Torah's claims. The Egyptians' records don't substantiate that Egypt ever had a huge population of Hebrews, or that Egypt had a discrete tribe of slaves, or that the Egyptians created an economy in which slaves outnumbered freemen and constituted the principal source of labor.

Nor have scholars found any support for the Exodus tale about a confrontation between a pharaoh and Moses. As far as we know, there is no Egyptian record of any showdown between a pharaoh and a slave, let alone a showdown in which magicians turned wooden staffs into living serpents (Exodus 7:8-12).

Nor is there any corroboration for the Exodus story about the Israelites' flight from Egypt. In Exodus, the pharaoh and a force of Egyptian charioteers chase the fleeing Israelites and overtake them near the Reed Sea [note 7], or Sea of Reeds. Yahweh parts the sea, creating a dry path for the Israelites to use as an avenue of escape -- and then, after the Israelites have fled, Yahweh causes the waters of the sea to reunite and to drown the pursuing Egyptians. But as far as we know, the Egyptians left no historical record of any occurrence in which an Egyptian army was lost while trying to foil a mass escape of slaves.

As for the Israelites' adventures after their escape: We read in the Torah that Moses and his Israelites entered the Wilderness of Sinai soon after their escape from Egypt, and that they wandered there for 40 years. There is no archaeological evidence, or any other evidence, to show that these things ever happened.

The material in Glencoe's Human Heritage is plainly an effort to confuse and mislead students. One way in which the Glencoe writers create confusion is obvious: When they make their pseudohistorical claim about the parting of the sea, they cite "the Bible" -- but they hide the fact that all the rest of their pseudohistorical claims come from the Bible too, and are unsupported by evidence. Notice also that the writers' version of the sea story has been sanitized, for the writers don't disclose that this story, as told in the Torah, contains a stark internal contradiction: After Yahweh drowns the Egyptian troops, their bodies litter the seashore (Exodus 14:30) -- but later the Israelites rejoice that the drowned Egyptians "went down in the depths like a stone" and "plunged down like lead in majestic waters" [note 8]. For biblical scholars, such an internal contradiction is noteworthy because it may help to elucidate the provenance and literary purpose of a biblical narrative. For schoolbook-writers, bent on passing myths off as "history," an internal contradiction is something that must be hidden.

The deceptive material in Human Heritage isn't unique, by any means. Other world-history textbooks -- such as Holt's World History: Continuity and Change, Glencoe's World History: The Human Experience and Prentice Hall's World History: Connections to Today -- contain similar passages. All have been designed to make students believe that biblical myths are accounts of history, and all rely on selective omission and on trickery in the use of words. In the Prentice Hall book, for example, the writers employ such words as recorded and events and history in misleading, dishonest ways. They say that the early Hebrews "recorded events" in the Torah and that the "events" included "a great flood," the enslavement of many Hebrews in Egypt, the ascent of Moses, and the Hebrews' "escape, or exodus, from Egypt." Then they tell students, explicitly, that these and other biblical "events" constitute "history." They don't tell that the Torah's "history" also includes such "events" as a woman's conversation with a talking snake (Genesis 3:1-5) or the conversion of the Nile into a river of blood (Exodus 7:20-21). Nor do they tell that scholars have subjected the biblical story of "a great flood" to especially intensive analysis and have demolished any credibility that it may have had as an account of real happenings [note 9].

It is easy to understand why these false depictions of Hebrew "history" show up in world-history texts. The Hebrews played a significant role in the evolution of the ancient world, and they have to be acknowledged, but any honest treatment of the ancient Hebrews would conflict with Bible-based superstitions that are rampant among poorly educated teachers and in the population at large. So the writers of world-history textbooks omit the real history of the Hebrews, and they present Sunday-school stories instead.

This does not, however, explain the case that I shall consider in the rest of this article. I shall describe how biblical tales, disguised as fact, are presented in a schoolbook that deals not with world history but with American history. These tales of mythic Hebrew patriarchs and prophets have nothing to do with American history, and it is clear that the author is boldly using her book as a platform for religious indoctrination. The case is all the more bizarre because the author, in her attempt to represent biblical stories as "history," gets the stories wrong.

A History of US is a series of eleven American-history books, all dated in 1999, published by Oxford University Press. Oxford promotes and sells them as schoolbooks, for use in the higher elementary-school grades and in middle schools [note 10]. In each of the first ten books, the author shown on the title page is Joy Hakim. The eleventh book is anonymous.

Book 2 of the series is called Making Thirteen Colonies, and it purports to cover American history during the period 1600 through 1740. On pages 9 and 10 of Making Thirteen Colonies, Joy Hakim inflicts upon students a six-paragraph passage in which she retells, and depicts as matters of historical fact, stories that involve Abraham, Moses and other biblical characters:

A long time ago -- actually, it was almost 4,000 years ago -- in the city of Ur, there lived a man named Abraham. Ur was in a country that is now known as Iraq but was then called Sumer.

Now you may be asking why we are in ancient Sumer when this is a book about U.S. history. Well, hold on. Abraham will turn out to be important -- to people all over the world -- and to us in America.

Abraham lived in an interesting urban center. In Sumer, between the Tigris (TY-griss) and Euphrates (yoo-FRAY-teez) rivers, people had learned to read and write and to build and govern cities (which hadn't been done much before). But something must have been wrong, because one day Abraham decided to move.

Abraham moved with his whole family and his cattle and oxen. He traveled northwest, following a fingernail of green land called the Fertile Crescent. He went to a place known as Canaan (KAY-nun); he called it the land of Israel. There Abraham had two sons: Isaac and Ishmael. The descendants of those sons founded two great religions. From Isaac's children came Judaism and the Jewish people; from Ishmael's came Islam and the Muslims.

Abraham must have been a restless type, because he traveled on, to Egypt and back to Canaan. In Egypt he found a spectacular civilization, where people could also read and write. The Egyptians had built big cities and tall pyramids. They called their rulers pharaohs (FAIR-oze), and they kept slaves -- as did many people in those days. Some of Abraham's people became slaves. Like all enslaved people, they longed to be free. Help was on its way.

One day an Egyptian princess found a baby boy floating in a basket among the bulrushes at the edge of the river Nile. The baby was Moses. He became a great leader and led the Jewish people out of Egypt. The trip was filled with danger and adventure. It took Moses and the Jews 40 years to get to their destination: Israel. You can read the story of that flight to freedom in the Hebrew Bible, which is also called the Old Testament.

Hakim, we can infer, knows that her religious stories are irrelevant to the subject of her book, and she recognizes that some teachers and students will know this too. Notice how, in her second paragraph, she creates a rhetorical diversion and leads her readers to believe that she later will provide a rationale for what she is doing: "Well, hold on," she writes. "Abraham will turn out to be important -- to people all over the world -- and to us in America."

No, he won't. Nor will readers of Making Thirteen Colonies ever see any justification for the claim that Hakim has put forth. As far as I have been able to learn, while inspecting Making Thirteen Colonies from cover to cover, Hakim never says anything more about Abraham, let alone connecting him with colonial America [note 11]. By her refusal to explain her claim, she underscores what is already obvious: The only reason why stories about Abraham appear in Making Thirteen Colonies is that Hakim is using her book to promote her personal religious beliefs.

Most of the beliefs that she promotes are obviously based on stories in the Book of Genesis and the Book of Exodus, but she has misread (or misremembered) those stories and has mixed them with extrabiblical inventions -- i.e., with claims that involve biblical figures but cannot be derived directly from any biblical text. Historians and mythologists, therefore, will regard Hakim's biblical pseudohistory as ignorant and foolish. Fundamentalists will find it shoddy, perhaps even blasphemous, because so much of it is biblically incorrect. First Amendment advocates will recognize that Hakim's preaching renders Making Thirteen Colonies unfit for use in a public school -- and so will teachers and students who understand the constitutional separation of church and state.

Hakim begins by introducing a figure who, she says, dwelt in the city of Ur and bore the name "Abraham." Biblically incorrect! The mythic character that Hakim has in mind is Abram, not Abraham. Abram (who appears for the first time in Genesis 11:27) is a son of Terah, and he dwells in Ur with Terah and the rest of Terah's family. Not until much later, long after he has left Ur, will Abram acquire the new name "Abraham." That name will be conferred on Abram by Yahweh (in Genesis 17:5) to signal the start of a new stage in Abram's life: Abram, renamed Abraham, is going to become the progenitor of the Hebrews. When Joy Hakim claims that Abraham was always called Abraham, even during his days in Ur, she is wrong.

Hakim says that Abram lived "almost 4,000 years ago." That claim is one of Hakim's extrabiblical inventions. When coupled with her description of Ur as a place where "people had learned to read and write," it creates the impression that, 4,000 years ago, writing was a new invention. That impression is false. See "It's About Time," on this page.

Hakim says that "one day [Abram] decided to move" and that he then left Ur with his family and his beasts. Biblically incorrect! Hakim has confused Abram with his father, Terah. In Genesis, Abram doesn't decide anything. In Genesis, it is Terah who packs up his family (including Abram) and leaves Ur, intending to travel to Canaan (Genesis 11:31). Abram plays no significant role in this project. Moreover, Terah and his family fail to reach Canaan. They settle in Haran (or Harran) and remain there until Terah dies, at the age of 205 (Genesis 11:32). Later, Abram migrates to Canaan from Haran -- not from Ur. And even after his arrival in Canaan (Genesis 12:5), his name is still Abram.

Hakim declares that Abram, when he reached Canaan, gave Canaan a new name -- "he called it the land of Israel." Biblically incorrect! Nowhere in Genesis does Abram rename Canaan, and Hakim's notion that Abram called Canaan "the land of Israel" is preposterous. The word "Israel" never appears in any story about Abram (or Abraham). The first occurrence of that word in the Torah comes in Genesis 32:29, where the name "Israel" is conferred on Abraham's grandson Jacob. By then, Abraham is long dead.

Hakim says: "[In Canaan] Abraham had two sons: Isaac and Ishmael. The descendants of those sons founded two great religions. From Isaac's children came Judaism and the Jewish people; from Ishmael's came Islam and the Muslims." This is another extrabiblical invention, and Hakim has mangled it. What we have here is Hakim's version of a well known folktale in which Ishmael is cast as the progenitor of the Arabs, not of "the Muslims." Hakim evidently thinks that the terms Arab and Muslim are interchangeable -- i.e., she evidently imagines that all Arabs are Muslims, and all Muslims are Arabs. Those propositions are false.

Hakim writes: "[Abraham] . . . traveled on, to Egypt and back to Canaan. In Egypt he found a spectacular civilization, where people could also read and write. The Egyptians had built big cities and tall pyramids. They called their rulers pharaohs (FAIR-oze), and they kept slaves -- as did many people in those days. Some of Abraham's people became slaves." Biblically incorrect! The Torah says nothing about any enslavement of Hebrews in Egypt during Abraham's lifetime. Abraham dies, at the age of 175, in Genesis 25:1. The legendary enslavement comes much later, in Exodus.

Finally, Hakim produces a slushy paragraph that lacks any sense of time and that makes Moses appear to be a contemporary, or a near-contemporary, of Abraham. Hakim retells (as "history"!) the myth of Moses in the bulrushes, then she sends Moses and "the Jewish people" out of Egypt, and then she says that "It took Moses and the Jews 40 years to get to their destination: Israel." Biblically incorrect! In the Torah, the land that the Israelites seek to reach, after their escape from Egypt, is not "Israel" but Canaan -- the same land that has figured prominently in stories about Abraham. Hakim is still promoting her unfounded notion that Abraham gave Canaan a new name [note 12], and she makes matters worse by using the terms "Jewish" and "Jews," which are misnomers [note 13].

What has gone on here? I know what Joy Hakim has done, and I grasp her religious motives, but what about Oxford University Press? Did the Oxford editors who handled Making Thirteen Colonies fail to notice that Hakim's "history" consists of nothing but quasibiblical religious claims? If they noticed it, why didn't they do anything about it? Did they share her religious zeal and her notion that a "history" book should be used for promoting biblical beliefs in schools? Maybe they did. But if those Oxford editors were devotees of biblical religion, why did they fail to recognize that so much of Hakim's biblical lore was incorrect and contradicted the Bible itself?

Whatever the answers to those questions, there is no place for Making Thirteen Colonies in any public school.

Notes

  1. See "Are We Having Fun Yet?" in TTL, May-June 1999. [return to text]

  2. The claim that the ancient Hebrews talked about their "exodus" is ridiculous. The word exodus is Latin, not Hebraic. It is the Latin form of the Greek exodos, meaning "the road out." [return to text]

  3. The Torah comprises the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, taken together. The five books are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Torah is also known as the Pentateuch. [return to text]

  4. Andreas Rudolf Bodenstein, known to history as Carlstadt (or Karlstadt). He was born at Carlstadt, in Bavaria, in 1480. [return to text]

  5. A short review of the origin and evolution of the Moses character appears in David Denby's article "No Exodus" in The New Yorker, 7 & 14 December 1998. [return to text]

  6. The Israelites are a discrete lineage, all descended from Jacob. They are called "Israelites" (or "Children of Israel," or simply "Israel") because Israel is Jacob's alternative name, conferred on him in Genesis 32:29 and Genesis 35:10. [return to text]

  7. Not the Red Sea. The common notion that Exodus mentions the Red Sea is wrong. It arose from a translator's error, was incorporated into the most influential English rendering of the Bible -- the King James Version -- and has been repeated in countless adaptations of biblical lore. (Not the least of these is the film The Ten Commandments, a sanitized pseudobiblical epic that was produced by Cecil B. DeMille in 1956 and that still is shown, year in and year out, on commercial television.) Was the Reed Sea just a fiction, or did the Exodus writers have some real body of water in mind? There is no way to tell. See Everett Fox's comments in The Five Books of Moses, his illustrious translation of the Torah. The Five Books of Moses is the first volume of The Schocken Bible, issued by Schocken Books (New York City). [return to text]

  8. The phrases in quotation marks come from Everett Fox's translation. See note 7, above. [return to text]

  9. The biblical Flood story is evidently the Hebrews' retelling of a myth that they encountered in Mesopotamia. Though it is plainly fictitious and fails to make sense if taken literally, many fundamentalists not only believe that it is a description of actual events but also insist that it must be taught in public-school science classes as a "scientific" explanation for various geological and biological phenomena. As a result, the Flood story has received more than its share of scholarly analysis and refutation. See, for example, "Part IV: Two Views of Geology and Crustal History" in Arthur N. Strahler's book Science and Earth History, published in 1987 by Prometheus Books (Buffalo, New York). For a more playful consideration of some of the fundamentalists' notions about the Flood, see Jack Hitt's article "What Did Noah Do with the Manure? and Other Burning Questions of Creation Science" in The Washington Monthly, February 1987. [return to text]

  10. See "Keeping an Eye on the Scams, Shams and Swindles" in TTL, September-October 1999. [return to text]

  11. She doesn't say anything more about Moses, either, and there is no entry for Abraham or for Moses in the book's index. The text of Making Thirteen Colonies does contain a few more references to the Bible, but they don't amount to much. We read that "The Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest known copies of parts of the Hebrew Bible" (page 11), we learn a little about the King James Bible, the publication of which was "authorized by the king himself" (page 48), we learn that the Puritans thought that everyone should read the Bible, and that "some children were actually taught to read the Bible in its original languages" (page 65), and we read that Anne Hutchinson was "a woman with 14 children who was interpreting the Bible" (page 71). All these mentionings, combined, fill less space than the stories about Abraham and Moses on pages 9 and 10. [return to text]

  12. By again misusing "Israel" as if it were the name of a territory, she invites these questions: Does she have a political objective in mind, along with her religious goal? Is she trying to manipulate students' perceptions of events that are taking place in the Middle East today? [return to text]

  13. The English word Jew (along with Judaism and related terms) originated from the name of a nation that existed in Palestine from the 6th century BC to the 1st century AD. Applying the name "Jews" to people from earlier times -- whether the people be mythical or historical -- is wrong-headed, anachronistic and confusing. [return to text]


Earl Hautala is a chemist, now retired. As a research scientist with the United States Department of Agriculture, he specialized in the chemistry of plants and in the development of analytical methods. He is interested in library information systems, and he serves as The Textbook League's manager of research.


Readers who want to learn more about Joy Hakim and A History of US should consult these articles:

"Multi-Culti Joy"

"More Hokum from Hakim"

"Joy Hakim Should Not Write About the History of Europe"

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