Saturday, 19 December 2015

Reflections on the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament)

For most Jews and Christians, the Bible is an artefact.  It is revered rather than read.  Even in the secular world, politicians and commentators occasionally claim that our country was built on the Bible or on Biblical values - but this is a claim that needs to be unpacked quite a bit.  The truth is that the Bible is at once a much more foreign and a much more interesting book than most people realise.

The Hebrew Bible - the Christian Old Testament - is the surviving literature of a small, premodern agricultural society which was beset by ongoing struggles with its more powerful neighbours.  It bears all the marks of this origin.  It brings together a diverse selection of texts, from the myths and legends of Genesis to the priestly technicalities of Leviticus to the world-class poetry of Isaiah, Job and the Psalms.  It is not doctrinally univocal: one can extract many differing - indeed, incompatible - doctrines from the Bible, as the wide range of Jewish and Christian sects demonstrates.  Nevertheless, the Hebrew Bible has a number of fairly clear recurring themes.


The presiding deity of the Old Testament is Yahweh, the God of Israel.  Yahweh is a powerful, male deity who is credited with creating the world.  He is worshipped by means of sacrifices at the great Temple in Jerusalem.

Yahweh is also, very importantly, a deity with a dual nature.  In one aspect, he is generous and benevolent, with a particular care for the poor.  In another aspect, he is angry and violent; and his people are accordingly recommended to "fear" him.  Warning of the anger of Yahweh was part of the stock-in-trade of the Hebrew prophets:

          For Yahweh will come in fire,
              and his chariots like the whirlwind,
          to pay back his anger in fury,
              and his rebuke in flames of fire.
          For by fire will Yahweh execute judgment,
              and by his sword, on all flesh;
              and those slain by Yahweh shall be many.  (Isaiah 66.15-16; trans. adapted from NRSV)

Other gods were inferior, not to be worshipped by Israel, or even non-existent.  Interestingly, the Hebrew Bible is not strictly monotheistic throughout its text: it contains some traces of an earlier, polytheistic era.  Even after the Hebrews had become monotheists, they continued to believe in other, inferior supernatural beings such as cherubim and seraphim (and also Satan, although he is very rarely mentioned in the Old Testament).

The dual nature of Yahweh was perhaps a deduction from the Israelites' experience of life: if Yahweh is all-powerful, and life consists of a mixture of success and suffering, then the will of Yahweh must be characterised by such a division too.  Much of the variegated history of Judaeo-Christian religion and culture can be explained by shifts in emphasis between the two aspects of the deity.


The Hebrew Bible is pervaded by a theology of election.  Yahweh chose the Israelites as his own people and entered into a personal relationship with them.

Yahweh selected Abraham as the father of his people; led them out of slavery in Egypt; made a covenant with them at Mount Sinai; and gave them the Land of Israel to dwell in.  The following words attributed to Moses in the Torah aptly sum up the terms of the covenant:
See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of Yahweh your god that I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of Yahweh your god, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known.... 
When you cross the Jordan to go in to occupy the land that Yahweh your god is giving you, and when you occupy it and live in it, you must diligently observe all the statutes and ordinances that I am setting before you today.  (Deut. 11.26-32)
There was no developed universalist vision or ethic here.  Yahweh came to be seen as a universal deity, but his people were still a specific nation.

Sin and its consequences

Repeatedly singled out for condemnation is the sin of worshipping gods other than Yahweh.  This highlights a curious feature of Old Testament ethics.  Sin is not just a matter of breaking a code of laws: it is an offence against a person, a betrayal of a relationship with the national god.

If a person, or the whole of Israel, should chance to sin, what would the consequences be?  Eternal punishment was not really part of the Old Testament worldview - indeed, insofar as the afterlife is discussed at all, it is conceived mostly as a shadowy existence in the Underworld (Sheol).  There are some references to apocalyptic events at the end of time, including both tribulations and a future paradise, but eschatology is not a major theme of the Hebrew Bible either: there is no consistent, developed conception of a final judgment of the good and the evil.

Generally speaking, the text presumes that people get their just deserts in this life from Yahweh.  A range of books teach that suffering is a punishment for sin (although this was not a unanimous view, as Job and Ecclesiastes in particular highlight).  This doctrine of temporal retribution could be acted out on a national scale.  Military defeats by and of Israel are regularly seen through this prism.  We are told, for example, that the kingdom covering the northern part of Israel was defeated by the Assyrians because it had been unfaithful to Yahweh:
In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria captured Samaria; he carried the Israelites away to Assyria.... 
This occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against Yahweh their god, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.  They had worshipped other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom Yahweh drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had introduced.  The people of Israel secretly did things that were not right against Yahweh their god....  They did wicked things, provoking Yahweh to anger; they served idols, of which Yahweh had said to them, “You shall not do this.”  (2 Kings 17.6-12)


Ancient Israel was a patriarchal society in which men both ruled over women and allocated them as marriage partners amongst each other.  The sexuality of women was more tightly restricted than that of men: women were meant to be virgins before marriage and faithful within it.  Prostitutes existed and were stigmatised by men; but their male clients were not.  Prostitution is used on a number of occasions as a metaphor for condemning the Israelites' worship of gods other than Yahweh:
For thus says the Lord Yahweh: I will deliver you into the hands of those whom you hate, into the hands of those from whom you turned in disgust; and they shall deal with you in hatred, and take away all the fruit of your labour, and leave you naked and bare, and the nakedness of your whorings shall be exposed.  Your lewdness and your whorings have brought this upon you, because you played the whore with the nations, and polluted yourself with their idols.  (Ezekiel 23.28-30)
In its attitudes towards patriarchy and female sexuality, the Hebrew Bible is no more or less reprehensible than the literature of other ancient Mediterranean cultures.  But serious problems do arise when modern people attempt to use it as a secure source of moral guidance.