The Fate of Ideas

There is an outpouring these days of scholarly-looking books about the Bible. They might appear to depart from more traditional works on this venerable subject in their tone of condescension toward biblical texts and narratives, toward the culture that produced them, toward God. But these books in fact continue, however unwittingly, a tradition which is both long and unsavory.

We are culturally predisposed to sheltering criticism from criticism; we have enshrined the iconoclast. If our feelings register some minor shock, or if we suppose the public might be somewhat irked, or even if we think we can discern some earnest hope on the part of a writer to irk or to offend ourselves or our neighbors, then a book is praised as a creditable effort and excused from the kind of attention that might raise questions about its actual novelty or merit.

The intention behind these books seems to be only the one that is usual just now, to discredit in the course of laying blame. This is the purpose and method of much contemporary scholarship. Debunking exhausts its subjects, which must have some remnant of respectability about them to give meaning, or at least frisson, to the enterprise. And since the Bible does have a certain aura of sanctity about it yet, it offers the hope that there is discrediting still to be done, and this makes it an attractive subject. The value of this critical project in general is not a question of great importance. But as a method of approach to the Bible it draws attention to issues that are of a high order of significance by reproducing in exaggerated forms attitudes that have affected the reading of these texts for centuries.

These grave and interesting problems arise because of the special history of the Bible and of the polemics that have always surrounded it. More specifically, they arise from the complex and uneasy relation of the Old to the New Testament. This is an important aspect of the problem of Christian attitudes toward Judaism. (I will speak of the Old Testament rather than the Hebrew Bible because they have very different cultural histories, the order of books is different, Hebrew and Aramaic hover around the latter in any form whereas Latin and vernacular translations have very much conditioned the reading of the former, and so on.) It has been orthodox through most of Christian history to treat the Old Testament as rigid, benighted, greatly inferior to the Gospels. Thus was established, in the Christian mind, the nature and the degree of difference between Christianity and Judaism. This error has never been truly rectified. The Old Testament is very difficult to read, and the churches seem to do little now in the way of making its hard texts accessible, so it is known largely by reputation, and its reputation is daunting. It is generally thought of as a tribal epic which includes the compendium of strange laws and fierce prohibitions Jesus of Nazareth put aside when he established the dominion of grace.

Since its prophets and poets can be read for texts that seem to promise the Christian Messiah, and since the Gospels and epistles allude freely to Adam and Moses and Abraham, the significance of the Old Testament cannot be denied. And yet Christianity has tended to define itself by implied or direct disparagement of the Old Testament. The unloveliness of appropriating the sacred literature of another religion in order to put it to such use is hard to overstate. Worse, where Christianity itself has been rejected, very frequently it is the Old Testament which bears the brunt of disparagement, Jesus being allowed to escape on grounds of pathos and harmlessness. These lamentable habits are visibly at work in most of these new books. The historical consequences of such thinking forbid that impressive evidence of its continuing vigor should go unremarked.

The Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong has just published a book called Why Christianity Must Change or Die. It is a commonplace among churchmen that great institutional and doctrinal change is needed urgently to bring the faith abreast of changes that have already occurred in the culture. Bishop Spong is perhaps more forthright than others, arguing for the shelving of the Ten Commandments on the grounds that “this supposedly divine code has been abandoned wherever it has become inconvenient.” For example, in the matter of graven images, “our churches are filled with them, from crosses to crucifixes to tabernacles to ambreys to icons to stations of the cross. So the commandment against graven images has become irrelevant.” This is an example of the curious insularity of his thinking. A great many churches are empty of all these things, with or without the exception of crosses, in deference to that very commandment. And there are, need I say, temples and synagogues where it is still observed most scrupulously.

Perhaps the sanctity of divine law does indeed rest on its aligning itself with Episcopalian practice. We will all find out when the trumpet sounds. In the meantime, a question we can usefully address is raised by the terms in which the bishop dismisses the Ten Commandments and the Torah, that is, the first five books of the Old Testament. He says, “This mythology of a divine source of ethics enforced by the all-seeing God … has been revealed by the ancient codes themselves to be utter nonsense. A careful study of these codes reveals nothing less [he probably means ‘nothing more’] than the tribal prejudices, stereotypes, and limited knowledge of the people who created them. That is certainly true of the Torah and even more of the Ten Commandments.” This would appear to any dispassionate reader as blatant and illiberal disrespect for another religion, if it were not true of these most cherished Hebrew scriptures that we Christians stole them fair and square, acquiring even the right — perhaps the obligation! — to regard them with contempt. Surely I am not alone in feeling there is something very wrong here.

In fairness, Christianity also suffers terribly at the hands of Bishop Spong, though he may not be wholly conscious of this fact. He gives an account, with episcopal self-assurance, of what Christians believe, which I, who have long answered to that description, read with true astonishment. According to him, our assumptions about God are based on the notion of a three-tier universe, heaven above, hell below, and between them a flat earth. God, enthroned in heaven, can look down on us all and keep track of what we do. This derives, supposedly, from the Old Testament. But the earth, the bishop tells us, has been proved by science to be spherical! and space to be empty! He is heroic in his pursuit of the implications of this myth-shattering roundness so lately recognized as a feature of our planet. He explains that it makes nonsense of Christ’s ascension: “When citizens of China and the United States point upward, they are pointing in diametrically opposite directions. ‘Up’ is a spatial image. It reflects the assumption that the flat earth is the center of the universe, and, as such, it is incomprehensible to the modern mind.” It’s amazing we post-Copernicans can even get out of bed. But, Bishop Spong continues, “Today, if one could rise from this earth in an upward trajectory [the best sort of trajectory, if one is to rise at all] and go far enough, that person would not arrive in heaven but would rather achieve an orbit or, by escaping the gravitational pull of earth, would journey into the infinite depths of space.” I feel I must appeal here to the kindness of my non- and post-Christian readers. Regarding all such supposed issues of faith, believe me, to the best of my knowledge the bishop speaks for himself.

Something of serious importance is transacted in this book, however. Bishop Spong rescues Jesus not only from the conceptual archaism he feels distorts the meaning of the New Testament and the Creeds, but also, very disturbingly, from the moral and ethical primitivity which he finds in the Old Testament. Spong’s God is the Ground of Being, and his Jesus a realization of life, love and wholeness, who calls us “to be all that we can be.” Finally Christianity can put down its cross. For, as the bishop notes — and who will dispute it? — “a human father who would nail his son to a cross for any purpose would be arrested for child abuse.” Why do I feel compelled to note that Jesus was thirty-three?

It is entirely appropriate for Christians to come to whatever terms they must with the difficulties of their own sacred narrative, their own mythopoesis. But the Old Testament is another matter. It is not in the same sense theirs, and if they refuse to grant it its terms, or to give it their respectful attention, then it is not theirs in any sense at all. When Bishop Spong says, “The Jewish God in the Hebrew scriptures was assumed to hate anyone that the nation of Israel hated,” he offers no evidence of the truth of this harshly negative remark. The assumption is made that Israel and “the Jewish God” are both given to hatred, when two great exemplary figures of righteousness and graciousness in the Old Testament, Job and Ruth, are not Jews, are in fact an Edomite and a Moabite, despised people if one were to believe what one is told about the narrow tribalism of the Hebrew scriptures. Jonah is sent to save terrifying Nineveh, a great enemy city, which “the Jewish God” cares for and is at pains to spare. However one passage or another might be read, there is much unambiguous evidence of striking universalism to discredit this hostile characterization of the Hebrew scriptures. Elsewhere the bishop says that Jesus “lived in a world where cultural barriers were drawn that defined women as subhuman and children as not worthy of God’s concern.” He offers no evidence of the truth of this statement, and, coincidentally perhaps, the Bible contains no evidence of the truth of it.

If what is desired is a god who presents no difficulties and makes no demands, the Old Testament must surely be rejected. But to reject it is one thing, to denounce it is another, and to misrepresent it in the course of denouncing it is another still. The Old Testament is not for Christians to denounce, because we need only put it respectfully aside, as a Methodist might the Book of Mormon, as a Jew might the New Testament. The Old Testament certainly is not ours to misrepresent, since in doing so we slander the culture we took it from, an old and very evil habit among us. Since Friedrich Nietzsche seems to be on every curriculum, unshakeably canonized for all his deadness, whiteness and maleness, I need only mention his familiar theory that Judeo-Christianity was foisted on Europeans by vengeful Jews. I have never seen anyone else even speculate as to how it has come about that we can consider ourselves victimized for having made inappropriate use of someone else’s scriptures. Yet this sense of victimization is everywhere — it is even proposed in certain of these books that the Old Testament predisposed us to genocide.

After centuries of neglect and suppression the Old Testament became a much studied and lovingly translated text at the time of the Reformation. Its beauty rewarded the attention of Christian humanists and was the occasion for the definitive emergence of modern languages such as English and German as literary languages. The religious significance ascribed to it and the method by which it was interpreted varied with the theological setting in which it found itself. Yet never was it justly dealt with or properly valued by any major Christian tradition, nor is it now. In his Utopia, Thomas More, the 16th century statesman and scholar, notes one great difference between the regime of Christian England and the laws laid down by Moses. English thieves were hanged in great numbers, sometimes twenty on a scaffold, whereas “to be short, Moses’ law, though it were ungentle and sharp, as a law that was given to bondmen, yea, and them very obstinate, stubborn and stiff-necked, yet it punished theft by the purse, and not with death (italics mine). And let us not think that God in the new law of clemency and mercy, under the which He ruleth us with fatherly gentleness, as his dear children, hath given us greater scope and license to the execution of cruelty upon one another.” More wrote his book in Latin, and the learned could not be hanged (if they were male) — this is the actual meaning of the phrase “benefit of clergy” — so those to whom his thoughts would have been of pressing interest would not have been among his readers. But a very valuable point is made here, which is seldom made, and which, if we were honest, would force us to consider many things.

Moses (by whom I mean the ethos and spirit of Mosaic law, however it came to be articulated) in fact does not authorize any physical punishment for crimes against property. The entire economic and social history of Christendom would have been transformed if Moses had been harkened to only in this one particular. Feudalism, not to mention early capitalism, are hardly to be imagined where such restraint was observed in defense of the rights of ownership. Anyone familiar with European history is aware of the zeal for brutal punishment, the terrible ingenuity with which the human body was tormented and insulted through the 18th century at least, very often to deter theft on the part of the wretched. Moses authorizes nothing of the kind, nor indeed does he countenance any oppression of the poor. Thomas More is entirely conventional, as he would be still, in describing the law of Moses as “sharp” beside the merciful governance of Christ. But how could Europe have been more effectively Christianized — understand the sense in which I use the word — than by adherence to these laws of Moses? Granting the severity of the holiness codes in the Torah, they do not compare unfavorably with laws touching religious matters in More’s England. More himself called for the burning of William Tyndale, the great early translator of the Bible into English, who was in fact burned. It is often said that Europeans learned religious intolerance from the Old Testament. Then how did we happen to skip over the parts where the laws protect and provide for the poor, and where oppression of them is most fiercely forbidden? It is surely dishonest to suggest we learned anything at all from the Torah, if we have not learned anything good from it. Better to say our vices are our own than to try to exculpate ourselves by implying that our attention strayed during the humane and visionary passages. The law of Moses puts liberation theology to shame in its passionate loyalty to the poor. Why do we not know this yet?

Utopia describes the consequences of the nightmarish policy of clearance and enclosure, persisted in for centuries, which drove the rural poor out of the English countryside.

For look in what parts of the realm doth grow the finest and therefore dearest wool, there noblemen and gentlemen, yea and certain abbots, holy men no doubt … much annoying the public weal, leave no room for tillage. They enclose all into pastures; they throw down houses; they pluck down towns, and leave nothing standing but a church to be made a sheep-house… [the poor] must needs depart away, poor, silly, wretched souls, men, women, husbands, wives, fatherless children, widows, woeful mothers with their young babes … Away they trudge, I say, out of their known and accustomed houses, finding no place to rest in … [When they have sold whatever they have] what can they else do but steal, and then justly be hanged, or else go about a- begging? And yet then also they be cast in prison as vagabonds, because they go out and work not, whom no man will set a- work, though they never so willingly proffer themselves thereto.

As I will demonstrate from the text, all this violates laws of Moses, in letter and in spirit. How it is to be reconciled with any conceivable intention of Jesus I cannot imagine, but that is not the issue here. In fact, the laws of Moses establish a highly coherent system for minimizing and alleviating poverty, a brilliant economics based in a religious ethic marked by nothing more strongly than by an anxious solicitude for the well-being of the needy and the vulnerable.

Ah, but the people Moses brought out of slavery invaded and took the land of the Canaanites! The Israelites are much abused these days for their treatment of the Canaanites. The historicity of the invasion stories as they occur in Joshua is questionable; archeology does not confirm them. Nor does the Book of Judges, which names the peoples “the Lord left” in Canaan: Philistines, Sidonians, Hivites, Hittites, Amontes, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites (Judges 3: 3-5). The Israelites may well have been Canaanites themselves, or a mixed population of those who were slaves in Egypt rather than a tribe or people. The number of those who left Egypt may have been small and have grown in retrospect, like the French Resistance. Possession of Canaan was never complete. Other inhabitants, for example Hittites and Philistines, were also invaders. Ancient Near Eastern records often describe the defeat of enemies as their extermination; in fact the one known mention of Israel in Egyptian writing, dated about 1230 BCE, boasts that “Israel is laid waste, his seed is not.” In any case, whatever happened in Canaan, a violent epic was made of it which is the basis for much vilification of “the Jewish God.”

As ancient narrative, and as history, this story of conquest is certainly the least remarkable part of the Bible, and a very modest event as conquests go, the gradual claiming of an enclave in a territory that would be utterly negligible by the lights of real conquerors such as Alexander the Great or Augustus Caesar or even Ashurbanipal. The suggestion that God was behind it may make it worse than the campaigns of self-aggrandizement that destroyed many larger and greater cities, though it is not clear to me that it should. A consequence which follows from God’s role in the conquest of Canaan, asserted with terrible emphasis in Leviticus and elsewhere, is that God will deal with the Israelites exactly as he has dealt with the Canaanites, casting them out of the land in their turn if they cease to deserve it. Abraham is told in a dream that possession of the promised land will be delayed an astonishing four hundred years until, in effect, the Amorites (that is, Canaanites) have lost their right to it. We Anglo-European invaders do not know yet if we will have four hundred years in this land.

Furthermore, as they approach Canaan, the Hebrews are told that they may not take any land of the Edomites or the Moabites, because God has already given those people their lands, having driven out former inhabitants (Deuteronomy 2: 4-11). This is not the thinking of racial supremacists, or of people who believe they alone have God’s attention. Certainly it implies that God honors righteousness in those outside the Abrahamic covenant — otherwise the Canaanites could not have held the land while they did. In any case, only ignorance can excuse the notion that Europeans learned aggression and tribalism while perusing the Bible. The Peloponnesian Wars by themselves are a sufficient demonstration of this point.

Assuming that my readers are, for the most part, non-indigenous as I am, I would like to raise a question that seems to me as relevant to ourselves as to Moses. The movements of populations, that great mysterious fact, are always full of disruption and grief and regret and are as inevitable and irreversible as the drift of continents. Say that my ancestors fled poverty or affliction elsewhere, as the old Hebrews did, and caused poverty and dispossession here. Granting that they were invaders, they might still have drawn conclusions from hard experience about how society might be made just, which were generous, and a laudable conversion of bitterness into hope. The most beautiful laws of Moses, when they are noticed at all, are as if shamed and discredited by the fact that he brought his tired and poor to settle in a land that was already populated. We have learned to think of our own most beautiful laws in the same way. Are disruption and dispossession somehow redeemed by contempt for their best consequences? Clearly it was the inspiration of Moses to exploit what might be called the culturelessness of people who had lived for centuries as outsiders in tradition-bound Egypt, in order to make a new nation with a distinctive religious culture which would express itself in a new social order. In the narrative, his laws are formulated before the entry into Canaan, implying that the vision of the society pre-existed the society itself — and indeed, was like a prophetic vision, always still to be realized. If the purpose of the law is the righteousness of the individual, its purpose is also the goodness of individual and communal life. If each member of the community obeys the commandments, then all members receive the assurance that they will not be murdered, that their households will not be robbed or disrupted, that they will not be slandered, that their children will not abuse or abandon them. The relation of law to prophecy, of prohibition to liberation, is very clear.

The laws of Moses assume that the land is God’s, that the Hebrews are strangers and sojourners there who cannot really own it but who enjoy it at God’s pleasure (Leviticus 25: 23). The land is apportioned to the tribes, excepting the priestly Levites. It can be sold (the assumption seems to be that this would be done under pressure of debt or poverty) but a kinsman has the right to buy it back, that is, redeem it, and restore it to its owner. In any case, in every fiftieth year the lands are to be restored to the tribes and households to whom they were first given. Every seventh year Hebrew slaves are freed, each taking with him or her enough of the master’s goods to “furnish him liberally” (Deuteronomy 15:14. All quotations are from the Revised Standard Version). In these years also all debts are to be forgiven. Obviously these laws would have the effect of preventing accumulation of wealth and preventing as well the emergence of a caste of people who are permanently dispossessed. Furthermore, in every seventh year the land is to have a sabbath, to lie fallow, “that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild beasts may eat” (Exodus 23:11 ). Others are to live on what it produces without cultivation and on what has been set aside (Leviticus 25: 1-7, 20-23). At all times people are forbidden to reap the corners of their fields, to glean after they have reaped, to harvest their vineyards and their olive trees thoroughly, to go back into the field for a sheaf they have forgotten: “It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24: 21-22).

These laws would preserve those who were poor from the kind of wretchedness More describes by giving them an assured subsistence. While charity in Christendom was urged as a virtue — one which has always been most unevenly aspired to — here the poor have their portion at the hand of God, and at the behest of the law. If a Commandment is something in the nature of a promise ( Ten Commandments is an English imposition; in Hebrew they are called the Ten Words), then not only “you will not be stolen from” but also “you will not steal” would be in some part fulfilled, first because the poor are given the right to take what would elsewhere have been someone else’s property, and second because they are sheltered from the extreme of desperation that drives the needy to theft. The law of Moses so far values life above property that it forbids killing a thief who is breaking and entering by daylight (Exodus 22:2). Judgment in criminal matters is based on the testimony of at least two witnesses, and not, as in pre-modern European civil law, on judicial torture and self-incrimination, which often led to the deaths of accused who insisted on their innocence. In very many ways Moses would have lifted a terrible onus of manslaughter from the whole civilization. The benefits to everyone involved in terms of dignity and peace would have been incalculable.

And it is certainly to be noted that no conditions limit God’s largesse toward the poor. They need not be pious, or Jewish, or worthy, or conspicuously in need, or intent on removing themselves from their condition of dependency. The Bible never considers the poor otherwise than with tender respect, and this is fully as true when the speaker is “the Jewish God” as it is when the speaker is Jesus. What laws could be more full of compassion than these?

You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you; he shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place which he shall choose within one of your towns, where it pleases him best; you shall not oppress him. (Deuteronomy 23: 15-16)

When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not go into his house to fetch his pledge. You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you. And if he is a poor man, you shall not sleep in his pledge; when the sun goes down, you shall restore to him the pledge that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you ; and it shall be righteousness to you before the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 24:10)

You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge. (Deuteronomy 24:17)

You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brethren or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns; you shall give him his hire on the day he earns it, before the sun goes down (for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it); lest he cry against you to the Lord, and it be sin in you. (Deuteronomy 25:14-15)

If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be … You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him; because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and all that you undertake. For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land. (Deuteronomy 15:7-8,10-11)

Then there is the sabbath, the day in which one may not exploit and cannot be exploited, even by one’s family or oneself. Six days you shall labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant, or your ox, or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:12-15)

Exhaustion was as endemic as malnutrition among the laboring classes of European cultures into this century. Moses obliged manservant and maidservant, stranger and sojourner, ox and ass to share in God’s rest one day in seven. This is profoundly humane, quite unexampled. Some Christian writers on the sabbath say this law has never applied to us, though historically many Christians have in fact sabbatized earnestly, one day late. Jesus, in the manner of a Jewish prophet, criticized the way in which the sabbath was observed in his time, clearly feeling that it had become more demanding than restorative. This is far from a rejection of the institution itself, nor is it to be imagined that Jesus could have wished to deprive servants of their rest any more than widows and orphans and strangers of their sustenance. Yet all this has been done in his name, because he supposedly freed us from the burden of the law. It seems to me fair to say that the loss of Moses was the defeat of Jesus, insofar as it was the hope of Jesus to bless and relieve the poor.

These are the laws of a passionate God. “Impassioned” is the word usually used by the Jewish Publication Society to translate the word other English translations render as “jealous.” The Hebrew stem apparently means “to grow red.” The word “jealous” comes from the same Greek root as “zealous,” and the Greek words that derive from it are usually translated in the New Testament as “zeal” or “zealous.” In its earliest English uses, for example in John Wycliffe’s 14th century translation of the Old Testament, the word “jealous” often has that meaning, suggesting ardor and devotion. In modern translations the Hebrew word is usually translated as “zeal” when the subject is a human being (as in I Kings 19:10), which must indicate an awareness of the wider meaning of the word. But “jealousy” is virtually always imputed to God. Jealousy has evolved into a very simple and unattractive emotion, in our understanding of it, and God is much abused for the fact of his association with it. Since translations are forever being laundered to remove complexity and loveliness, and since tradition is not a legitimate plea in these matters, one cannot help wondering how this particular archaism manages to survive untouched.

Scholarly books on the Scriptures typically claim objectivity, and may sometimes aspire to it, though their definitions of objectivity inevitably vary with the intentions of their writers. But to assume a posture of seeming objectivity relative to any controverted subject is a very old polemical maneuver. David Hume, in an endnote to his Natural History of Religion (written in 1751 , published in 1779), quotes Chevalier Ramsay, who quotes an imagined Chinese or Indian philosopher’s reaction to Christianity: ‘“The God of the Jews is a most cruel, unjust, partial, and fantastical being … This chosen nation was … the most stupid, ungrateful, rebellious and perfidious of all nations … [God’s son dies to appease his vindictive wrath, but the vast majority of the world are excluded from any benefit. This makes God] … a cruel, vindictive tyrant, an impotent or a wrathful daemon.’” And so on.

Even pious critics seem never to remember that, in the Old Testament, the Jews were talking among themselves, interpreting their own experience to themselves. Every negative thing we know about them, every phrase that is used to condemn them, they supplied, in their incredible self-scrutiny and self-judgment. Who but the ancient Jews would have thought to blame themselves for, in effect, lying along the invasion route of the Babylonians? They preserved and magnified their vision of the high holiness of God by absorbing into themselves responsibility for their sufferings, and this made them passionately self-accusatory, in ways no other people would have thought of being. This incomparable literature would surely have been lost if they had imagined the use it would be put to, and had written to justify themselves and to defend their descendants in the eyes of the nations rather than to ponder their life in openness toward God. By what standard but their own could Israel have been considered ungrateful or rebellious or corrupt? Granting crimes and errors, which they recorded, and preserved and pondered the records of for centuries, and which were otherwise so historically minor that no one would ever have heard of them — how do these crimes compare with those of other peoples, their contemporaries or ours? When Hume wrote, the English gibbets More describes were still as full as ever. The grandeur of the Old Testament, and the fact that such great significance is attached to it, distracts readers from a sense of its unique communal inwardnesss. It is an endless reconciliation achieved at great cost by a people whose relation to God is astonishingly brave and generous. To misappropriate it as a damning witness against the Jews and “the Jewish God” is vulgar beyond belief. And not at all uncommon, therefore. It is useful to consider how the New Testament would read, if it had gone on to chronicle the crusades and the inquisition.

Recent treatments of the Bible consistently ignore the unambiguously humane aspects of the Old Testament, continuing ancient practice. Jack Miles, in his God: A Biography (1995), says, “Though the law codes of the Pentateuch make moderate provision for widows, orphans, foreigners, slaves, and others in vulnerable categories, provision is not required because of any special relation that the Lord has with such people.” The passages quoted above encourage another view of the matter. There is no standard, ancient or modern, by which these cycles of release from debt and bondage — which are called ‘sabbaths’ and which are meant to structure the life of the community — could be called “moderate provision.” But the assumptions from which Miles proceeds preclude the discovery of benevolence in God. Miles makes God an amalgam of Ancient Near Eastern gods: “The equation is creator (yahweh/’elohim) + cosmic destroyer (Tiamat) + warrior (Baal) = GOD, the composite protagonist of the Tanakh,” the Tanakh being the Hebrew Bible. We do not have the makings of loving kindness here. Miles does not capitalize the divine name because Hebrew does not capitalize. So it seems we are to assume Akkadian does.

Miles’ book is a very good illustration of the interpretive conse- quences of the use of scholarship and its like. Tiamat is the Babylonian goddess of the sea and mother of the gods, who in fact attempts to prevent the destruction of her offspring, though she is finally provoked to cosmic war with Marduk. And Canaanitish Baal seems to have been a God of rain and fertility, not of war. The invoking of such lore looks scholarly, but it is long out of date, even if it were not otherwise questionable. There is simply no evidence to support the idea that God had any such origins. Miles acknowledges this in a long endnote. This dumbed-down pseudo- syncretism, which is put forward as an explanation of the complexity, the Godlikeness, of God in the Tanakh, contains implicitly the statement that the ancient Jews had no primary conception of the nature of the holy, and the statement that the core qualities of God are simply those which distinguished Baal and Tiamat — in Miles’ s view, at least. I invite the reader to consider the consequences for Miles’s thesis if he had made God an amalgam of Baal and Tiamat, therefore of fertility and the sea, or motherhood. The attributes Miles discovers in God are Miles’s assumptions about him projected onto his supposed progenitors. It looks like objectivity to place God in the landscape of Ancient Near Eastern religion and regard the narratives in which he figures as if they were the mythos of any other ancient cult. But if the reading of such evidence about that landscape as exists is tendentious, nothing could be less objective. This has been the curse of this style of biblical scholarship since the 18th century.

God: A Biography is not, and does not claim to be, literary or scholarly or theological. It reads the Hebrew Bible as if it were a Christian Bible, that is, as if it were ordered chronologically in terms of narrative, which it is not. It proceeds as if the books of the Tanakh were written in the order in which they are arranged, which they were not. Miles allows himself conclusions that are only available to him because of the arbitrariness of his approach. Whatever the point of the exercise, certainly no new insight is achieved. His “God of the Tanakh” is petulant and violent and thick, familiar enough, the God of the disparaged Testament.

Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (1997) is the work of Jan Assmann, a major German Egyptologist. It dusts off Freud’s old theory that Moses was in fact Egyptian. Therefore Moses would have been influenced, Assmann argues, by the monotheistic cult of Aton, which worshipped the solar disk. (More precisely, it seems the pharoah worshipped Aton, and everyone else worshipped the pharoah.) Aton tended to go down at night, and there are lovely hymns of relief at his rising in the morning — facts which suggest that this was a lesser order of monotheism, and that Moses’s achievement is undiminished. This is another example of the tendentious use of scholarship. Assmann argues that the monotheism of Akhenaten, the pharoah who founded the cult, was intolerant, and hated, and its effects lingered to infect the monotheism of Moses, which was therefore also profoundly intolerant, and hated. Obviously there is nothing inevitable here.

Assmann’ s argument is the sort of razzle-dazzle that depends on coinages like “mnemohistory,” which is the exalted and useful discipline of interpreting history that collective memory has displaced and suppressed so thoroughly only the writer has an inkling even of the fact of suppression. In this cognitive implosion a fusion occurs between Moses and the Aton cultus which conventional history simply cannot achieve. Assmann is writing this book in response to Freud’s abysmal question about the origins of anti-Semitism. “Strikingly enough, his [Freud’s] question was not how the Gentiles, or the Christians, or the Germans came to hate the Jews, but ‘how the Jew had become what he is and why he has attracted this undying hatred.’” He paraphrases Freud’s answer thus: “Not the Jew but monotheism had attracted this undying hatred. By making Moses an Egyptian, [Freud] deemed himself able to shift the sources of negativity and intolerance out of Judaism and back to Egypt, and to show that the defining fundamentals of Jewish monotheism and mentality came from outside it.” So we are to concede, apparently, that these are “the defining fundamentals of Jewish monotheism and mentality.” Comment is unnecessary, though I will draw attention here to the notion of victimization I remarked on earlier. We gentiles have the Torah to blame for our worst moments, it would appear.

Like others of these writers, Assmann argues that ancient polytheism was essentially tolerant, “cosmotheism,” and readily accepted other gods, translating them into the terms of the culture that received them. Granting that Melqart, a god of Carthage, did indeed lounge around in a lion skin looking just like Hercules, we have the fact that Rome loathed Carthage, and was despised in turn, and reduced that great city to bare earth and then plowed salt into the ground. Athens and Sparta had just the same pantheon, and they fought to the death. And Rome conquered Greece, whose gods it had thoroughly Latinized. That is to say, whatever the merits of polytheism, at best it only obliged people to find other than religious grounds for hostility, which they were clearly very able to do. How the wars of the Hebrews against the Canaanites are more culpable than the wars of the Romans against the Etruscans I fail to see, or why anyone should imagine that these wars were less formative for European civilization than those distant, inconclusive wars among the Semites. Or, for that matter, why they do not prove that the character of the civilization was already formed when Rome set about the conquest of Italy. Jack Miles attributes the structure of Western consciousness to monotheism on the grounds that “the Bible was the popular encyclopedia of the Middle Ages.” But in fact through most of the Common Era in Europe the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, existed almost exclusively in Latin, a language incomprehensible to the great majority of people, who were in any case illiterate. So its influence is easily overstated. Yet ferocious intolerance has characterized most of Western history in the Common Era.

Polytheism is as fashionable now as it has been since fascism was in its prime. As a corollary to the current tendency to blame monotheism for intolerance and aggression and genocide, there is an assumption that polytheism must have been tolerant, pacific and humane. This notion is old, too. In The Natural History of Religion, Hume says, “by limiting the powers and functions of its deities, [idolatry] naturally admits the gods of other sects and nations to a share of divinity, and renders all the various deities, as well as rites, ceremonies, or traditions, compatible with each other … [By comparison] when one sole object of devotion is acknowedged, the worship of other deities is regarded as absurd and impious.”

It is striking to see how the cultural discourse is circling on itself. Perhaps the real familiarity of their arguments explains why these writers I have looked at offer so little in the way of evidence. For example, Assmann, the most scholarly of them, says the Old Testament is deeply informed by aversion to Egypt, then offers no support from the text. And, coincidentally perhaps, little evidence is to be found in the text. One Mosaic law of unambiguous relevance, which goes unmentioned by him, is Deuteronomy 23:7: “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother; you shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a sojourner in his land.” This law provides that both Edomites and Egyptians may enter the assembly of the Lord on favorable terms — after three generations, that is, which seems long, but which is liberal by comparison with the ancient Athenians, for instance, who never naturalized the descendants of foreigners. Nor, as I understand, do the modern Germans. This one verse is sufficient to demonstrate that there was not hatred but in fact a certain bond between Hebrews and Egyptians.

This idea, that the hatred of the Other is the signal preoccupation of the Old Testament, is carried to great lengths by Regina Schwartz in The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (1997). The following passage gives a fair sense of the book:

Western culture is laced throughout with a variety of institutions, marriage laws, laws concerning the rights of so-called minors, sodomy laws, and a less overt but equally insidious bourgeois morality that specifies which sexual practices and partners are permissible as strictly as Leviticus. These institutions that reduce women to property — wives owned by their husbands, daughters owned by their fathers — are stubborn institutions that are the heirs of the monotheistic thinking about scarcity that have kept misogyny alive and well long after the biblical period, institutions that regard a sullied property — a land shared by a foreigner, an adulterous woman — and other variations of multiple allegiances (multiple gods, if you will), as anathema. The tentacles of the injunction “you shall have no other gods before me” reach throughout our social formations, structuring identity as a delimited possession with a remarkable grip.

If there are Eastern or polytheistic cultures which cannot be described in the same terms, or in much harsher terms, Schwartz does not name them. So we must take her word for it that monotheism has created misogyny and xenophobia and all the rest in Western culture. For her, monotheism functions as original sin has done traditionally. It is the ultimate source of every evil. And it is entirely located in the Old Testament — the New Testament is mentioned once, in a note. This is an extraordinary burden of opprobrium to place on a literature that was of distinctly secondary significance during the formative stages of Western civilization, beside civil law and canon law and common law and natural law, beside the New Testament and the teachings of the Church, beside the customs and prejudices that survived Christianization. I think it unlikely that the Norse or the Franks turned misogynist under the influence of Moses. For some reason the grim pre-history of Christian Europe seems to deserve not a glance. Considering the view Christendom has taken of Mosaic law, there is no great reason to imagine that its princelings were deep students of Leviticus.

Schwartz draws attention to the striking perdurability of attitudes and approaches to biblical scholarship that arose in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This scholarship was the work of Germans for the most part, and it was profoundly influenced by emerging nationalism and anti-Semitism — and often brilliant, like so much that was done in Europe in those years. Schwartz draws attention to some highly questionable assumptions that survive and flourish in biblical criticism on the strength of that old prestige. Source criticism, which has given us J, E, P, D, and other such artefacts of learned speculation, was pioneered by Julius Wellhausen in the middle of the last century. This analytical method is so perfectly suited to conforming the text to the critic’s assumptions about it that it establishes nothing. Yet it has profoundly conditioned the reading of the Bible, which is now assumed by many to have been patched and botched and redacted till its intelligibility is at best merely apparent. It is refreshing to see attention drawn to the extremely tenuous nature of so much of the seeming learnedness that cumbers writing about the Bible. Bishop Spong tells us in what order and for what reason the books of the New Testament were composed. Not surprisingly, his hypothesis — which is all in the world it is or can be — makes his interpretation of these texts seem downright inevitable. To offer hypothesis as fact is not fair to the non-specialist readership for which his book is clearly intended. In doing so he is typical rather than exceptional among popular writers.

On the other hand, Schwartz’s own approach is full of the mannerisms of contemporary scholarship, eager to indict, indifferent to the strengths and pleasures of the text. It is perhaps this approach which makes her insensitive in her own book to the worst tendency of the 19th century criticism she is so right to consider suspect. That is, its tendency to primitivize and demean the Old Testament, encouraging the belief that it was full of ideas Western culture would be well rid of, that it revealed the “negativity and intolerance,” in Assmann’s words, of the Jewish mind. A favorite disparagement has always been that the Hebrew scriptures have little religious meaning and reflect no spiritual aspiration. Every book I have looked at proceeds from these assumptions without comment, as if no reasonable person could take another view. It is perhaps worth noting that the contemporary literary-critical sensibility is rooted in a milieu not so unlike the one that produced 19th century biblical criticism and which was surely influenced by it — in, for example, Nietzsche and Heidegger. It is no accident that these contemporary critics employ terms like “exegesis” and “hermeneutics.”

One last book is worth noting because of its utter, credulous reverence for this same 19th century biblical historicism. Gerd Ludemann, in The Unholy in Holy Scripture: The Dark Side of the Bible (1997) quotes the following “classic” description of Israel from the writing of Julius Wellhausen, one of the great figures of that school: “Then and for centuries afterwards the prime expression of the life of the nation was war. It is war that makes peoples; war was the function in which the cohesion of the Israelite tribes was first confirmed, and as a national war it was a holy business. Yahweh was the battle-cry of this warlike confederacy, the shortest expression of what united them and separated them from others. Israel means ‘El (God) fights,’ and Yahweh was the fighting El, from whom the nation took its name … The war camp, the cradle of the nation, was also the oldest sanctuary. Such was Israel and such was Yahweh.” One would expect a scholar so clear-eyed and disabused as Ludemann tells us he is, to note here the probable contamination of historical objectivity by the nationalist excitements of the period during which Wellhausen did his work. This warlike confederacy wanted to walk back to Egypt when they learned that the Canaanites were tall and their city walls were high. And if the name “Israel” does actually mean “God fights,” then the etymology offered for it in the narrative of Jacob’s wrestling with an angel (Genesis 32:24-30), “he who fights with God,” is a profound reinterpretation of the relationship of God and his people, asserted within Scripture, which does not at all confirm Wellhausen’ s account.

In Ludemann’s reading, the Old Testament, and particularly Deuteronomy, is a theology of holy war. By this he means genocide, a word he employs frequently. He is aware the evidence is doubtful that such warfare was actually carried out, but he offers a proof that it is indeed likely to have been practiced by the Israelites. His reasoning on this crucial point is enough to make one weep for the scholarly enterprise. He has found a Moabite inscription which declares that at the hands of one King Mesha, “Israel (!) perished utterly and forever.” Having made his case to his satisfaction, Ludemann goes on to aggrandize this genocidal bent he finds in Old Testament theology, which he is obliged to do because, at very worst, holy war would have been a minor phenomenon simply through lack of occasion. Ludemann says:

The Holy War, which in most cases was only longed for and not waged, and the message of Deuteronomy, are loaded with violence, and those responsible for them wanted in their minds to exterminate whole peoples in the name of God. The phenomena mentioned are only the shell around a glowing kernel. Its content is the claim to exclusiveness made by an intolerant deity or, more precisely, the image of an intolerant God who chooses Israel and for better or for worse has sworn an oath with this people.

This is how the little wars and imagined wars of the Israelites become the very big and very real wars of the Europeans. The next stage in Ludemann’s argument is inevitable, therefore. “The most pernicious consequence of the utopias of violence in the Old Testament which are bound up with the Holy War is that in the history of Christian influence, from the Crusades to the Holocaust, they were turned against the people in whose tradition they were produced.” Once again we know who to blame.

Ludemann says, “anti-Judaism was and is the creeping poison in the history of Christianity. Whether it has already passed its climax in the history of the Christian churches and theology remains to be seen.” No student of the subject would dispute either point. He continues, “At the same time anti-Judaism has tragic features, since much in it has in fact been taken over from Israel and later was even (sic) turned against the Jews. Part of the real problem seems to be how a people can suddenly claim that it has been chosen and viceversa [whatever that means]. For election often provokes hostility to the others who have not been chosen.” So the problem all lies with the Old Testament. The source of anti-Judaism is Judaism. This is astonishing. And here is how Christianity is to be saved. The Old Testament is to be put aside, and those parts of the New Testament which are contaminated by its violent and exclusivist influences are to be put aside, till we are left with Jesus of Nazareth, a very nice man.

Jack Miles remarks that the accomplishment of the Hebrew Bible is ethical monotheism. There being one God, whose central preoccupation is morality, the pre-eminence of ethicalism over all other values is established. Yet there is no hint in his account of God of anything that deserves to be called ethicalism. Nor does he pause to consider the meaning of the moral regime established by God among the Hebrews. None of these books views morality otherwise than as prohibition, or prohibition as other than regrettable, though no doubt we all recognize that those who have internalized certain restraints, against killing and stealing, coveting and slandering, for example, are not only better but also happier for having done so.

Yet there is an odd kind of magical thinking at work in these responses to the Bible. The assumption seems to be that if the Mosaic codes do not anticipate contemporary preferences in uncanny detail, their claims on our attention amount to imposition or worse. No one could bring such expectations to texts so very ancient as these are, who did not assume that they exist outside history and are therefore good or bad intrinsically, without reference to the circumstances of the culture within which they took shape. This is really only the flip side of fundamentalism. The notion that the laws ought to be ahistorical is no more sophisticated than the insistence that they are in fact ahistorical.

These expectations, that the laws should have arrived ahead of us at whatever consensus prevails — among certain of us, at least — in this odd historical moment, make the shortcomings of the laws, thus defined, of exclusive interest. The whole character of the law is inferred from those aspects of it which seem most archaic and least congenial. Schwartz proceeds from gender relations to attitudes toward foreigners to patterns of property ownership, calling them all exclusivist. But foreigners (the Hebrews were “strangers” and “sojourners” in Egypt, so there is no doubt about the meaning of these words) were clearly to be treated with fairness and generosity. And ownership of the land was limited and conditional by any standard — a part of what it produced always belonged to the poor, for example. Bishop Spong dismisses the laws of the Torah on the grounds of tribalism, saying they only regulated conduct among Jews. This would imply that one may kill or steal from those one is forbidden to oppress.

If these laws belonged to any other ancient culture we would approach them very differently. We need not bother to reject the Code of Hammurabi. Presumably it is because Moses is still felt to make some claim on us that this project of discrediting his law is persisted in with such energy. The unscholarly character of the project may derive from the supposed familiarity of the subject. Freud might say that, since the killing of the father is forbidden in any case, there is no need to fret much over the weapons employed. The law as resented tyranny is under assault and that is all that really matters. In other words, Moses is somehow our ancient contemporary, whose ancientness does not relativize his claims on us but instead only makes them more insufferable. Solon is dead, Lycurgus is gone, but old Moses is immortal, still menacing and accusing, warping our personal relationships and confounding our value systems. It really is interesting to discover how oppressed one can feel by laws with which one seems to have no meaningful acquaintance. If anyone could document that the obligation is deeply felt among us to forgive our debtors, then the case for the patriarchal dominance of Moses would be more persuasive. The fact is that the hardest of the laws, those comprehended in the phrase “open wide thy hand,” are never even noticed to be resented.

If one were to argue that the attack on Moses is and always has been an attack on the very idea of ethical obligation, one could adduce by way of evidence, first, the fact that, where Moses has been rejected, virtue has been of the kind Jesus described as tithing mint and cumin — a devoting of much attention to minor things. When the Bible was finally unleashed on Europe, it set off revolutions.

A second, graver point might be made, too. Every one of these books displaces ethical responsibility away from Christian or modern civilization and onto the Old Testament. Is it useful, is it even rational, to excuse oneself and one’s own from ethical responsibility by any means at all, let alone by means that reinforce this worst prejudice? And in fact would not justice to Moses restore to this mysteriously religious society something urgently needed, a sense of the absolute biblical imperative of respectful generosity toward the poor and the stranger? When Jesus describes Judgment, the famous separation of sheep from goats, he does not mention religious affiliation or sexual orientation or family values. He says, “I was hungry, and ye fed me not” (Matthew 25: 42). Whether he was a rabbi, or a prophet, or the Second Person of the Trinity, the ethic he invokes comes straight from Moses.