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.
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: