What is the Bible? (Part 2)

In Part 1, I suggested that there were two distinct ways one might respond to our query What is the Bible?: subjectively and objectively—the former focusing on what the Bible means from the perspective of the individual subject, and the latter on what the Bible is from the perspective of the Bible itself, the object under examination. I also suggested that when the vast majority of people think about, invoke, refer to, attempt to define or describe the Bible and what it is, this is done from a purely subjective level. In other words, ‘what the Bible is’ gets reduced to what the Bible means to an individual, to various faith-communities, or even to a culture. Thus when one invokes the Bible, they are usually invoking a subjective idea of the Bible, and not the actual biblical texts themselves. Let me enumerate by way of an example.

In her Bible: A Biography—which except for a few brief pages in the first chapter does not actually deal with the Bible at all, but its many interpretive traditions—Karen Armstrong affirms that most people “have based their lives on scripture—practically, spiritually, and morally” (2). I could not disagree more with this statement, or similar such claims. Indeed, this is not a novel claim; one finds it pronounced often and by many. Yet upon closer examination such idealistic claims do not hold. First, just how familiar are people who make such claims with the actual biblical texts themselves (again this entails knowing the many biblical texts’ historical and literary contexts, i.e., the texts and the historical circumstances that brought them into existence, who wrote them, to whom were they written, and why, etc.)? Isn’t it rather that most people “base their lives on,” or “try to live according to,” what the Bible means or has come to mean to that particular individual, faith-community, or culture? And that upon closer examination of the biblical texts themselves, it seems more accurate to concede that people who actually make such claims base their lives on, or try to live according to, an idea of (what) the Bible (is) or what it has come to be or mean—that is, what the word or concept “Bible” has come to invoke, mean, or even symbolize—and not the actual biblical texts themselves.

For instance, the priestly author of the book of Leviticus expresses a unique priestly ideology and worldview reflective of this author’s historical context and concerns. Furthermore, his authorial agenda and ideological program is placed on the lips of his deity, Yahweh, in the form of eternal commandments. Basically these entail: a centralized cult in Jerusalem, the idea that Yahweh dwells among the people and therefore they are required to be ritually and ethically pure, the conviction that purification and atonement of sins only comes through sacrifice, and that the priesthood is the exclusive prerogative of Aaronides (i.e., those descending from Aaron, and not the Levites from Moses in general). Along these lines, this author also ordains, again through the mouthpiece of his god Yahweh, that one will be “cut off” from Yahweh and from among his people if one refuses to keep these eternal decrees: circumcision on the 8th day (Gen 17:14), observance of the festival of unleavened bread (Ex 12:15, 19), Passover (Num 9:13), the Sabbath, which is our Saturday! (Ex 31:14),and Yom Kippur (Lev 23:29-30), to ritually purify oneself after contact with the dead (Num 19:13, 20), to not eat sacrificial meals in a state of impurity (Lev 7:20, 21), to not eat fat or blood (Lev 7:25, 27), to abstain from various sexual violations including sleeping with a relative, a menstruating woman, the wife of another, males with males, and a woman with an animal (Lev 18:6-30), necromancy (Lev 20:6), child sacrifice (Lev 20:2-5), and any intentional sin or crime (Num 15:30-31)! Is this what we “base our lives on” or “try to live according to”—practically, spiritually, and morally? How could it be? These are historically conditioned views. Ok, then how about the following.

There are 3 core law codes in the Hebrew Bible, each written by a different author: Exodus 20-23, Deuteronomy 12-26, and Leviticus 11-26. Are these the sources of our daily lives, what we base our lives on—practically, spiritually, and morally? That is to put to death: adulterers (Deut 22:22; Lev 20:11), those who lie with animals (Ex 22:18; Lev 20:15-16), those who worship a god other than Yahweh (Deut 17:2-5), blasphemers of the name Yahweh (Lev 24:16), anyone who intentionally strikes another and that person dies (Ex 12-14; Lev 24:17, 21), anyone who strikes his father or mother (Ex 21:15), anyone who curses their father or mother (Ex 21:17), false prophets (Deut 13:5), kidnappers (Deut 24:7; Ex 21:16), a betrothed virgin who is raped and does not cry out (Deut 22:25-27), a woman who is not a virgin at her marriage (Deut 22:13-21), and wizards and mediums (Lev 20:27). Or what about the law of retaliation: ‘an eye for an eye,’ etc. (Deut 19:21, Lev 24:19,21; Ex 21:24), commandments to observe the Sabbath, i.e., Saturday! (Ex 20:8-11, 23:12-13, Deut 5:12-15; Lev 19:3, 30), not to eat animals that die of themselves (Deut 14:21), not to slaughter an animal with its young (Lev 22:28). What about these prohibitions: unclean animals are forbidden as food (Deut 14:7-8), cross breeding (!) of animals is prohibited (Lev 19:19), carved images or pillars forbidden (Lev 26:1; Ex 20:4, 20:23, 34:7; Deut 5:8), images of other gods shall be burned (Deut 7:25), make no covenants (i.e., treaties and alliances) with other peoples (Ex 34:15), remission of all debts every 7th year (Deut 15:1-6), no wool or linen can be worn (Deut 22:11), a man shall not wear woman’s clothing, and vice versa (Deut 22:5), you shall not follow other gods (Deut 6:14; Ex 20:3), do not charge interest (Lev 25:37; Deut 23:19), do not provide food at a profit (Lev 25:37), a woman who grabs a man’s genitals shall have their hand cut off (Deut 25:11-12), newly married men are entitled to a military free-year (Deut 24:5, 20:7), sowing two kinds of seeds in same field forbidden (Lev 19:19; Deut 22:9), tattoos forbidden (Lev 19:28), and let’s not forget love solely Yahweh (Deut 6:4-5), love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18), worship, obey, and fear solely Yahweh (Deut 10:20, 13:4), respect the elders (Lev 19:32), love foreigners as yourself (Lev 19:34). Are these what is referred to when people claim they live their lives according to, or base their lives on, the Bible? Are we being honest with ourselves? These are the stipulations of our biblical texts. Is this what we follow individually or socially—practically, spiritually, and morally? Should it be? Or perhaps it’s the following.

A large portion of the Hebrew Bible was written by the Deuteronomist (Deuteronomy – 2 Kings) whose theological interpretation of history, as well as of his god, Yahweh, also does not conform to our beliefs, values, worldview—practically, spiritually, or morally. For example, the Deuteronomistic theology is constructed on an invariable premise, namely that Yahweh is sovereign. This idea is also found in much of the prophetic literature which shares in this Deuteronomistic theology. One might actually refer to it as the central theological premise of the Hebrew Bible at large. This theological premise dictates, furthermore, how the Deuteronomist and other biblical writers saw and wrote about their world. All events, whether national or personal, were seen as regulated, ordained, and decreed by Yahweh. That is what is meant for Yahweh to be sovereign. This then translates to all facets of life: into understanding personal illness and disease, for example, as stemming from Yahweh—“Who makes a person dumb or deaf, gives sight or makes blind? Is it not I, Yahweh!” (Ex 4:11). This is just one example among many throughout the biblical corpus. It stipulates that any misfortune, illness, whether individual or national, is seen as originating from Yahweh. This theology also dictates that Yahweh is the source of everything, and most modern people fail to understand what this actually means. Here are some examples: “I am Yahweh and there is none other; I fashion light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil. I am Yahweh who does all these things!” (Is 45:6-7); “Should evil befall a city and Yahweh has not done it?” (Amos 3:6). These last two quotes are an example of how our biblical writers interpret history and historical events through the theological prism ‘Yahweh is sovereign.’ The historical contexts are the Assyrian destruction of Israel in 723 BC and the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC. The theological “given” stipulates that these events were Yahweh’s doing. And indeed this is expressed in 2 Kings, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and most of all Jeremiah. Furthermore, the theological premise that Yahweh is sovereign and just is safeguarded by making man the unjust sinner and thus theologically explaining Yahweh’s choice in destroying his own people, city, and temple. We will see later in other posts that this is exactly the same theological interpretive grid that other ancient Near Eastern cultures also employed in understanding and interpreting their worlds and the destruction of their cities and temples by foreign nations! But we in the 21st century do not see the world through such a prism, even if many pay lip service to the idea that God is sovereign. Point of fact, however, is that most fail to understand what this means or meant per our biblical authors, as the few examples above indicate. Where we see, and blame, human agency (or even demonic forces in the case of misfortune) in most aspects and events of our lives, individually or nationally, the ancients would have seen divine agency, and for the Israelites that was Yahweh.

Another key theological concept for the Deuteronomist and other Old Testament authors is ‘faith in Yahweh.’ Is this the ‘faith’ that modern people claim to live their lives according to? For the biblical authors, this faith specifically takes form in a number of ways: martial reliance on solely Yahweh, reliance on Yahweh for the staples of sustaining life, as supreme officiator of justice and judicial proceedings, and as sole political leader of the people. These theological beliefs, embedded as they were in the geo-political word of the ancient Near East, stipulate that one’s military success is not only to be measured in terms of Yahweh’s presence as warrior in the battle, but also as a repudiation of, and stark condemnation for, the military help of other nations and the formation of alliances with other nations. There are numerous examples of this throughout the Hebrew Bible. Faith in Yahweh as sole reason for military success is also voiced in narratives where faith is the sole criterion for victory over against the use of military might or weaponry by Israel’s opponents. One can see this in the David and Goliath story (I Sam 17), Samson and Philistines story (Judg 14-16), and Hezekiah and the Assyrians story (2 Kings 18), to name a few. Along similar lines, Yahweh, as portrayed by our biblical authors, denounces any type of treaty, covenant, or alliance with other nations, whether that be for military purposes or, and especially, commercial and ‘entrepreneurship’ purposes. There is only one treaty, covenant, pact of loyalty, source of martial and agricultural sustenance and that is with Yahweh. Do we truly want to claim that these are the standards we live and ought to live by? Do you think that people, or our nation, adhere to ‘faith in Yahweh’ as defined by our biblical writers—practically, spiritually, and morally—whose writing, again, represented the beliefs, concerns, and geo-political worldview of their historical circumstances? Especially consider that faith in Yahweh is expressed as Yahweh being sole bestower of the sustenance of life: sun, rain, grain, cattle and flocks. Today, we rely on industrialization, production, and agricultural sciences. Or, what about the fact that many of the Bible’s texts are full of views, positions, and beliefs which are partial to particular classes. Since much of the Hebrew Bible was written by priests who advocated their own agendas, many of the Bible’s narratives were created by these elite guilds as lessons and warnings against potential rivals or those who would question the ideological aims and position of such-and-such priesthood. The story of Uzzah, a commoner, who actually saves the ark of the covenant from crashing to the ground but is nevertheless struck down, killed, by Yahweh (2 Sam 6:7). Or look at the 50,070 innocent non-Levites whom Yahweh smote just “because they gazed upon the ark of Yahweh” (1 Sam 6:19). These texts are none other than stories created by Levite priests to show that under no circumstance are non-Levites to touch, even gaze upon, Yahweh’s ark! Only the Levites can do this. These are powerful narratives that reinforce Levite ideology by presenting their deity as a spokesperson for their own agendas. The same priestly lesson is to be found in Yahweh’s slaughtering of Korah, his family, and all those associated with him who dared challenge the authority of Moses and, in this case, the Aaronid priesthood in Numbers 16. There are numerous other examples as well. Is this what we base our lives on—practically, spiritually, and morally? Or perhaps it’s in the ethnic inequalities and biases pronounced throughout numerous other narratives in the Hebrew Bible, or its pejorative view of women, etc. Are these what is meant when people claim that they live their lives according to the Bible? Again these are all historically conditioned narratives, beliefs, and views.

Let’s move forward.

If you think the 2,000 year old politically and religiously conditioned writings of the New Testament do better in presenting the modern values or standards that we live by or base our lives on individually and socially, you also haven’t read close enough. For example, Paul’s interpretation and understanding of Jesus’ death on the cross as the sacrifice that atones, expiates, and quite literally for Paul extinguishes sin and death can hardly be salvaged in our era. For Paul, this sacrificial theology of the cross, through which means sin was not only expiated from the believer but even extinguished, dictated a personal ethics. Since Christ’s blood on the cross expiated sin, there was no more sin for Paul. To answer how so and why we have to look at Paul’s eschatology which we will have to do later. But at present, this expiation meant that the individual no longer lives in sin; there is no more sin—if either of these were untrue, then Christ’s sacrifice is annulled according to Paul and the author of Hebrews. There is only one atonement and expiation of sin, and that happened according to these authors, some 2 thousand years ago. Furthermore this atonement of sin requires complete bodily and ethical purity for Paul—an ethics that is hardly seen nor practiced in modernity. In fact, I would argue it can’t be; it’s an ethics borne from the historical circumstances, beliefs, and worldviews of peoples living 2 millennia ago. It’s an ethics rooted in waiting for Christ’s coming, and in that waiting, in the brief time remaining (for Paul thought that he himself would see that day, see 1 Thess 4), one was not to be idle with their hands, was to serve as servant to their brethren, stay chaste and celibate if possible, and in general conduct one’s life as if they were already living in the kingdom with Christ: no sin, no death, and no worldly pursuits, interests, or engagements. Early Christianity was borne from Jewish apocalypticism, and although many today might give lip service to the idea, they are a far cry from Paul’s worldview. We do not build nor conduct our lives, nationally or individually, with our backs toward the earthly and an earthly life and our gazes fixed to the heavens, to wait and watch as Mark’s Jesus exhorts (13).

Now, one could say the same thing with respect to the ethical requirements stipulated by Matthew’s Jesus in the sermon on the mount (5-7). Do we not take our brethren to court, do we give more than what is asked of us, do we requite evil by offering another appendage for ill-treatment, do we judge what is sinful our thoughts rather than our actions, etc. Again, what historical circumstances prompted such an ethics is a valid question and we can explore that later. But such an ethics is utterly untenable, even undesirable, in our own historical era. Or, what about Matthew’s Jesus’ ethical stipulations for eternal salvation: to feed those who are hungry, cloth those who are naked, and to take in those who are homeless (25). I see hundreds of people on the motorway speeding by the homeless, hungry, and shabbily clothed on a daily bases, me included! How can we pretentiously claim that this is what we base our lives on? I hear ringing in my ears Matthew’s Jesus’ condemnation to his Pharisaic brethren “Hypocrite!” but it is now directed to all those who would make such claims. Or what about the ethical stipulation in all the gospel narratives: to extinguish ego and serve others! Nay, that can’t be what people today mean when they claim to live their lives according to the Bible, the same people who have, rightly, constructed lives around themselves, their ambitions, their consumerisms, private properties, etc. Or perhaps it’s the author of 1 Timothy, who adamantly professes that women ought not speak in public nor teach, and are to be submissive to men (2:11-15). Is this what is meant by basing one’s life according to the Bible? Or what about the commandment not to store up treasures on earth, that one cannot pursue 2 masters, God and Money, that one’s role was simply to wait, one’s focus was on the coming kingdom, one did not horde private possessions and property, one did not seek justice per the standards of the world, one did not pursue anything per the standards of this world in fact. Moreover, those who would inherit a place in this new kingdom were the meek, persecuted, hungry, mourners, servants etc. (Matt 5). We, however, strive to be and do just the opposite. Our whole cultural and individual values are in complete opposition to striving for the kingdom per these texts, i.e., to be a servant, to be meek, mourn, persecuted, ethically sinless, have no private possessions, etc. We need to have a serious conversation about this, rather than feign some sort of lip service to these texts and pervert them, or invoke them, to justify our own values, beliefs, and worldviews.

And so it would appear that our values, morals, meanings of life, worldview, political, social, and religious ideas and beliefs are all vastly different from those expressed by the biblical texts themselves. And rightly so. They reflect the ideas, values, concerns, and beliefs of specific historical communities, epochs, and thoughts of peoples that existed 2+ millennia ago! We do not live our lives according to any of this. Rather we re-create what the religious ideas of the religions of the Bible were in order to make them conform with our own standards, values, and beliefs, and claim we live according to “the Bible”! And in so doing, we have totally skirted the issue of what the Bible really is—ancient texts, written by many ancient authors, and to specific audiences and for specific purposes. It would seem then that the Bible, or more precisely the way in which “the Bible” is invoked, has become a catch-all to justify our current norms and values, irregardless and negligent of what these 66+ texts, their authors, and the audiences to whom they were writing, actually said and thought, and why they said and thought what they did. Or, the invocation of “the Bible” in modern parlance has come to signify an ideal religious goal to which we feign accordance. But in either case “the Bible” is not equivalent with the Bible [read more]. We cannot just recreate the Bible as ideal and claim allegiance to it with no concern for the actual Bible itself, i.e., the many biblical texts and the authors who wrote them. And so preliminarily we are forced to conclude that what the Bible actually is is utterly foreign to most people. It is the Book, as many of my colleagues have professed, the most often cited and revered but the least understood and known. And so we return once again to our initial question: What then is the Bible?

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One Response to What is the Bible? (Part 2)

  1. the menace says:

    Hi. A voice from across the Pond. Just read your blog from April 2012, and I could not have said it better myself. I look forward to reading the rest.
    Dennis the menace ( a British joke)

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