Back to the Bible - A Former Believer Re-Reads the Old Testament
Unlike Ecclesiastes I can’t quite provide “the conclusion of the whole matter” (12:13 KJV), but for whatever it’s worth here are some things that occur to me in thinking back on my reading of the Old Testament. I didn’t think it would take as long as it did; it’s not easy reading. Especially for someone like me who feels compelled to hunt down the meaning of the many obscure things that come up in reading something that was written about two thousand five hundred years ago by people who had a very different conception of reality.
I wonder how many people who profess a belief in the Bible as the literal word of God have actually read it. Not just verses here and there taken out of context in support of a particular belief that they have been taught, the way I most often encountered it growing up surrounded by believers. Reading it as a whole, even one book from start to finish, not skipping over the difficult parts, leaves a different impression. There are many things that simply don’t fit with what I was taught about the basics of right and wrong. There really isn’t much of a unified message. There are contradictions and confusion in the text due to damage over the many years of it being repeatedly copied, as well as things that don’t fit with what is known of ancient Near Eastern history.
But there is also much that is fascinating. What most stands out for me are the stories. Particularly the longer, more developed narratives such as the Joseph saga, the story of David, and most of all the books of Ruth and Esther. In those stories there is less focus on religion and more on human interaction. In all but Esther religion is of course present but more as background to stories in which very human people take center stage.
It seems to me that Yahve is often represented in the Old Testament as a basically narcissistic being who demands unquestioning total obedience. The Ten Commandments not withstanding, in his actions Yahve seems much more concerned with how he is worshipped than with how people treat one another. The worse crime is to not worship him; crimes against other people get less attention, often go unpunished, and are sometimes even done at his command. His actions often seem arbitrary and tend to harm the innocent along with the guilty. To win a bet with Satan he allowed Job to be tormented and his children killed. He wiped out tens of thousands of people simply because David ordered a count of military age men, something which the story in Samuel says Yahve led him to do. As Israel entered the Promised Land Yahve ordered the merciless slaughter of whole groups of people who happened to be living where he wanted to settle his chosen people. Merciless slaughter of enemies continued long after Israel was an established nation. To be fair much of this comes from the idea that everything, evil as well as good, must come from God who is by definition in control of everything that happens. So, in rather circular logic, whatever happens has to be according to his will. Over time, especially in Christianity, the evil side of the deity was split off to be attributed to Satan/the Devil, a process of which there are traces in the later writings of the Old Testament. But even then the seemingly insolvable puzzle of why bad things happen to good people if an all powerful and just god is in charge of the universe remains.
Religion in the OT revolves around the ritual sacrifice of animals to Yahve. From a historical perspective this of course is typical of ancient cultures whose deities demanded blood offerings. But it doesn’t fit well with modern sensibilities, although we of course continue to kill animals in slaughter houses for our consumption and most of the sacrificial animals in ancient Israel became food for humans. Still it is difficult to revere a god who demands continual sacrifices. I can’t quite get the picture of the temple as a ritual slaughter house filled with the stench of burning flesh out of my mind.
It was certainly a good idea, as suggested by Samuel Sandmel, to begin the Old Testament by reading the prophets who railed against the established order based around ritual sacrifice. Most of the prophetic books describe Yahve as more concerned with ethical issues than he is with sacrifice and voice opposition to the temple establishment. But, as is often the case, the establishment usually won. The temple with its sacrifices continued until Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it then was rebuilt with Persian support to continue until its final destruction by the Roman army in 70 CE.
As a Seventh-day Adventist I was taught that the overarching message of the Bible, consistent “from Genesis to Revelation,” is the promise of a restoration of fallen humanity to its original Edenic state. While that may be true for the New Testament, it is hard to find it in the Old. Somewhere during the course of my reading it occurred to me that there were no references to an eventual heavenly reward. Divine blessing or condemnation was here and now with consequences for good and evil actions dealt out in one’s lifetime, or maybe the lives of one’s offspring as was said to have been the case with several long reigning evil kings. Only in the later books of Daniel and maybe Ezekiel is there any reference to resurrection. Adam and Eve weren’t told that they could regain eternal life and return to paradise by “being good.” Only that life was going to be hard because they had tasted the forbidden fruit. The promise to Israel is not about life in heaven but that they would be a great nation that would last forever on earth. The expected messiah, a term Second Isaiah applies to King Cyrus of Persia, was to be a human king who would reestablish Israel as an earthly kingdom. Only later, as prophecies seemed to be going unfulfilled with Judah continuing to be dominated by foreign powers did the focus shift from an earthly messiah to supernatural intervention in the development of an extensive Jewish apocalyptic literature represented in the canon by the books of Ezekiel and Daniel as well as the many apocalyptic books that are not included in the Old Testament.
I now have a better understanding of the history of ancient Israel which, according to the biblical account, existed as a unified and independent kingdom for only eighty years during the reigns of David and Solomon. The divided kingdoms continued for a few more centuries before the northern kingdom fell to Assyria followed by conquest of the southern kingdom by Babylon. While some of the Judean exiles returned to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, except for a brief period during the time of the Maccabees (as described in the Apocrypha) ancient Israel never again was an independent nation.
I also have a somewhat clearer picture of Second Temple Judaism out of which Christianity emerged along with Rabbinic Judaism which became the dominant form of Jewish religion after the 70 CE destruction of the temple by Rome ended the sacrificial system which had been the central practice for Jews for as long as they had considered themselves descendants of Abraham. The Old Testament is important not only for Christianity and Judaism. It also influenced Islam; the Quran contains many somewhat different versions of Old Testament stories. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, what we know as the Old Testament was on its way to becoming more than just some books from a small, relatively unimportant nation. Writings from a once obscure place in the ancient Near East are now part of world literature. Some familiarity with the Bible is a necessity for anyone who wants to understand the great works of Western literature from medieval to modern times, much of which assumes knowledge of the Old Testament.
© 2021 James Moyers
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