Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Weirdness of the Old Testament

Phil Christman, from his review of Robert Alter's new translation of the Hebrew Bible:
I always appreciate the weirdness of early Exodus, but then you hit the back half of the book, where God spends several chapters telling Moses exactly how to build a temple, and then Moses (or his secretary or, fine, be that way, “the redactor”) spends several chapters telling us that that’s exactly how he did it, quoting the earlier passages verbatim, page after page, and … here, reader, my attention will go no further. It turns and rebukes me, like Balaam’s ass. Someday, I keep telling myself, I’ll find the proper angle of view to see it whole. My patience with the text will attest to God’s with me.

Still, these are strange and alien volumes, and by this point the Bible’s body count and terrifying strictness have begun to make the alienation more than simply aesthetic. You start to wrestle with a special version of the same problem that worries every theist: if God is all good and merciful, and intends, finally, only restoration and wholeness, then why … all this? Why not skip to the good part? You can ask that question about all human history, and about the millennia of death and extinction that preceded human existence, and also about whatever future is left to life. The books themselves provoke such questioning – “Will you really wipe out the innocent with the guilty?” – even as they forbid it – “Who is this who darkens counsel?”

Those doubts only increase with the violence of Joshua, hero to gun-toting colonialists in modern America and modern Israel alike, and Judges, a book that ends in horrifying violence against an unnamed woman. As Israel begins nation-building in earnest (“Give us a king!”), the prophets register their anger at injustice, but they are at least equally insistent about ritual observation and location, a subject about which readers who aren’t practicing Jews don’t even have the option of having an opinion.

At worst, the picture that emerges for a modern reader is of a God more concerned with setting up elaborate rules than with the Dignity of All People and Concern for Individual Human Lives that thumbnail sketches of Western history often credit these texts with inventing. If God actually isn’t like this, then why does God start out by seeming like this? And why inspire a book so easy to misuse? No one has answered this question satisfactorily. No one can. But no one can answer these questions satisfactorily when we pose them about human history, either. The nihilist fails worst of all, since, having explained the slowness and ineffectiveness of the good by refusing to acknowledge its existence, he thus shuts his eyes to more than half of human life.

It is depressing, after so many years, to be asking the Bible the same questions I started asking it at eight years old. They are naive ones, but I come by them honestly, having been raised to believe that the Bible could have no mistakes. This hermeneutic could not survive a confrontation with the text’s own complexities, its self-contradictions and frank insufficiency as a rulebook for every question. The Bible has a proof text against eating owls, none against molesting children. It tells us that every person shall answer for their own acts, and that their children will pay for the parents’ sins. It posits universal brotherhood, then tells Israel to kill all the Amorites. Et cetera. Any village atheist can fill in further blanks. To some extent, the contradiction seems patterned, intentional, as though God liked to make rules in order to break them. Some texts insult eunuchs, others exalt them. Some texts seem to promote a hatred of everything that isn’t Israel, but the whole book of Ruth exists to insert alien blood into David’s line. . . .

Biblical inerrancy is a modern doctrine, and these kinds of reactions, too, invite the accusation that I am judging an ancient text by standards not native to it. Indeed, I am. This is a necessary step in a process called “reading.” My disgust and confusion are forms of information; they measure my distance from the text’s world. A reading that entered fully into the text’s thought-world, that required no haggling or silent dissent on the way, would be a useless exercise – you could bring nothing back from it; it would dissolve like a dream.


G. Verloren said...

I am baffled by people who try to reconcile the Old Testament with what came later.

The most basic fundamental premise of the New Testament and the Chistian faith is, "Oh, oops! It turns out, the documents that have been the basis of the Jewish faith for thousands of years aren't the whole story, because they totally don't talk about our new best bud Jesus! He's got all these great new ideas about how you can believe in Yahweh, but not have to speak, think, or act like a Jew, and can instead keep your current Greco-Roman cultural values and traditions!"

And then the most basic fundamental premise of the Quran and the Islamic faith is, "Oh, oops! It turns out, the documents that have been the basis of the Christian faith for hundreds of years aren't the whole story, because they totally don't talk about our new best bud Muhammad! He's got all these great new ideas about how you can believe in Yahweh, but not have to speak, think, or act like a Christian or Jew, and can instead keep your current Arabic cultural values and traditions!" ...but all that's total hogwash, of course. I mean - you can't just invent new prophets and claim that everything which came before wasn't the full, real story! Poppycock!

Christianity was an extremely radical reform movement of Judaism. If the old Jewish texts seem to contradict the new Christian texts or vice versa, it's because they do. And if that contradiction seems to undermine the notion of the perfection of the divine, that's because it does.

These are the works of humans, not gods. They are stories written by wildly different peoples, in wildly different places, at wildly different times, living wildly different lives and holding wildly different beliefs. The only real common thread between them is the name Yahweh and the of ascribing entirely new qualities to the deity that name is meant to represent, with each new iteration bearing little true resemblance to each prior version of itself.

Look at any tradition that has existed over decades or centuries, and you can trace how it changes - sometimes extremely radically. Look at the Christmas of today and ask yourself how much actual resemblance it has to the Christmas of the 1800s, or to the Christmas of the Renaissance, or to the Christmas of the Medieval era.

How do you reconcile the total contradictions that make themselves staggeringly apparent when comparing two Christmas eves a full millenia apart? Easy! You recognize that Christmas was invented wholecloth by people, rather than springing fully formed and flawless from some divine ether, and each new major revision was made to accomodate whatever values and traditions were then in vogue. If you can accept that Christmas wasn't chiseled in stone by the hand of God, it's only a short step to accepting that Christianity itself is likewise mundane.

Shadow said...

My favorite part of Exodus is when God chooses Moses to return to Egypt and bring his people out. Moses kind of looks at Him and hesitates and kinda wants to say no, then hems and haws, and finally starts negotiating. WiTH GOD!!! Moses wants this and he wants that. And I'm reading this and wondering when God is going to turn Moses into a burnt offering like he did some of the Aaron's sons in Leviticus. Seriously! Any one else and he's toast by now. This God didn't tolerate a lot of back talk.

G. Verloren said...


"Excuse me, I'd just like to ask a question: what does God need with a starship?"