If you are going to understand the Old Testament, you need to realise that this is a work that was edited and written over a period of centuries, the last such between the 5th and 7th BC.
We stand back in horror when we read of the massacre of everything, men, women, children, domestic animals, when the Jews invade Canaan, killing everything they meet regardless.
However, we cannot condemn them, because in that age of religious development, there was something called a “ban”.
Everything that was living when a community was successfully conquered (with the help they believed of God), everything that was killed or taken had to be offered to the god (of whatever belief).
They were sacrifices to be offered to the deity; nothing had to se excepted. We find instances where a father such as Jepthah sacrificed his own daughter as he had promised, prior to a successful battle that he would sacrifice, whatever or whoever he first met on his triumphal return. Sadly that was his daughter.
Yet, we find passages in the early books of the OT, where in Deuteronomy for instance, all whom the Israelites encountered were to be treated kindly, even if they were “immigrants”, described as “strangers”.
Isaiah (58, vv1-9) proclaims that God does not require sacrifices of animals; what He requires is obedience to His laws. Indeed, according to the prophets, that obedience is to provide hospitality and acceptance of everyone.
Reading the OT, one is reminded that the relationship between the Israelites and God was an uneasy one, for, whilst promising to obey all His laws, they were rewarding Him for all His protection by turning their devotion to pagan gods whom they found in the conquered lands.
There is also a conflict between the prophets and the secular authorities, and in the years when the great prophets were most active, their manifesto sounds like pure socialism. We shall discover this most starkly, when we study the prophets in detail during the next few weeks.
It is impossible to suggest that every word of the OT is to be taken literally, for It is full of exaggerations. When you study for instance, the ceremonial laws given in the desert, with commands that the sacrificial altar and all that accompanies it, must be covered with pure gold; the priestly robes had to be extraordinarily rich and you wonder where materials for all this could be found in a desert.
Likewise, later, one suspects that the thousands of fighting men for the armies, together with their horses and chariots may be more imaginative figures by the recorder to enhance their king’s reputation.
As you will (I hope) realise, that you cannot judge what happened in the 2,000 years between Moses and the completion of the Old Testament (somewhere about the 6th century BC) by our standards.
When Jesus says “But I say unto you” in response to queries abgut the Law, this is the true voice of God, superseding all that has gone before.
When is a miracle a miracle?” That’s a fair question, because of the wonderful deliverance of the Israelites, when God commanded the waters of the Red Sea to stand back while the escaping Jews crossed, and the pursuing host of Pharaoh’s army were drowned.
An event that is stamped into the memory of every Jew until this day.
But what is a miracle?
It could be fairly stated that, whilst the shallow Red Sea (Red = "Sea of reeds") was at the right moment able to be crossed in bare feet and being shallow (as in Ryde’s case) the tide returned swiftly, was this a miracle, that it happened at just the right moment to the pursuing army’s discomfort?
In other words, the event itself was not “miraculous”, but it was a miracle when it happened at just the right moment.
That does not devalue the event in the Israelites’ eyes, because the wonder is that by some divine intervention God’s People were rescued from annihilation, enabling them to continue to make their way to the Promised Land.
However, wen we come to Noah and his Ark we are in a different scenario: this is an event that is part of folk stories, preceding the possible date of the Ark as described in Genesis 6-9.
Here, we are on “dodgy” ground.
A gigantic flood is recorded in several ancient myths, particularly a Babylonian story of The Epic of Gilgamish and for this there is no other reason why God should do this except perhaps as a sample of divine caprice.
In all this, we have to realise that most of the Old Testament has been worked over by reputable scholars and these are identified by them through the vocabulary and writing style of sections.
The final editing seems to have taken place at the end of Israel’s enforced exile in Babylon when under Cyrus, the king of Babylon, the Jews were allowed to return in 538 BC.
Over the centuries, many attempts have been made to find the wreckage of the Ark, many since the Reformation, where Evangelical Christians (mainly from America) have discovered ancient timbers that unfortunately proved to be fakes.
Space or reader’s possible boredom may discourage you from digging deeper, but unless we realise that various forces were at work in the transmission of the events through what were very formative years, then we shall find ourselves struggling.
The first 5 books of the OT(described as the 5 books of Moses) carry the influence of editors until as late as the 5th or 6th centuries BC when there are elements that are characteristic of this later period.
Fear not, because we discern the witness of the Prophets such as Isaiah, and they provide a different view of what is happening and interpreting events from God’s point of view.
What is important as I stressed previously is to discover that there is one theme running throughout the OT and that is, that through their lives the Jews are discovering that God is walking with them.
No, not all you read in the Bible is true, but it seeks to convey the essential truth of God’s caring nature until we open the New Testament finding that “God so loved the world that He gave is only begotten Son, to the end that all who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life”.
Next week: “Is God a loving Father or a cruel blood-thirsty tyrant?"
Everyone knows about the fig-leaves as Adam and his wife struggle to cover their nudity; all the result of eating the forbidden fruit in defiance of God’s orders regarding this tree, “If you eat it, you will die”.
But they don’t; instead, kind-hearted God replaces their skimpy modesty covering with animal skins (Genesis 3, v20) , and, do they die? Nope.
Here is an indication, not of the blood thirsty events that follow throughout the early books of the Bible, for rather than destroy them, they are punished by God banishing them from the beautiful garden.
Here is a sign of Divine compassion.
In this story (a myth), we find primitive man exhibiting the same behaviour as we do now; not a true story, but one that illustrates the God who saves.
However, study the episode and you will find that you are following the whole pattern of temptation as we find it now, 4,000 years later.
There is for us a tempting voice, not from a snake, but from that disobedient impulse that has cursed mankind ever since.
When confronted with a choice between what we perceive God would have us do and what we are inclined to do, isn’t there an inner voice that says, “Go on, do it (whatever it is), “you won’t be punished”, or “No one will know”, “nothing will happen”. Often when we are young we succumb to the “dares” when friends urge us to defy School, Society’s or Parental rules?.
The serpent is ideal as an example, for they can slip unnoticed into places where they should not be, and this will have happened to every one of us.
You wonder why God, starting from scratch gave us free-will, to obey or disobey; wouldn’t life have been easier for all of us, if we were programmed to do only what God commands?
Well, yes; if we are not free to do as we wish, then there is no moral value to our actions. We should do things, not because we are afraid of punishment, but because they should be a response to a loving God.
What value is there to an action that we are forced to take?
We could have been programmed, so that when we hear the church bell, calling us to worship, we could do no more than obey and trot into do so; what moral value would that have been?
Here God took a calculated risk and sadly we observe how disastrous that has been for mankind, but could it have been any other way?
We see how disastrous that becomes, when of their two sons Cain lures his brother Abel into the field, killing him in jealousy.
Cain, when asked by God, “Where is your brother?” makes that chilling response “Am I, my brother’s keeper” , of which the answer is “Yes, and your brothers’ and sisters’ keepers too”.
If we took that to heart and lived by it, what a wonderful world this could be.
In the first five books of the OT, we shall find many sections which show God eager to punish with death by the slightest infringement of His commands, but there follows Adam and Eve, not being killed for their sin. Equally is telling is the way in which God, for fear of a lynch mob trying to kill Cain the murderer, sets a mark on him to protect him so that he can escape to another country (Genesis 4, v1-16).
Biblical scholars have identified by vocabulary and style at least four different editors to Genesis, adding to the difficulties of interpreting these early events, making life even more confusing.
Some of these five books, attributed to Moses, were probably, as I have said, not entirely historical fact, but ideas orally transmitted (by word of mouth) as the ancients tried to fathom what had been and why.
These stories may not be necessarily historically true, but underneath through them we find truths over which we may ponder.
One thing is clear, that they had deduced that God is a being of compassion as well as of judgement.
9 August 2020
Next week: “What about Noah, the Ark and the crossing of the Red Sea?”
A leading Humanist created an uproar in the 1930s, when she declared that “The Bible was the most dangerous book in the world and should be banned”.
In her defence she pointed to the gruesome accounts of countless massacres of the Israelite’s enemies, with everyone (including all the children and animals) slaughtered at God’s command.
What I will try to do in successive Jottings, is to try to unravel truth from the myths and exaggerations throughout the Old Testament; so please bear with me, as some of what we discover may throw a light on what is, for many, a worrying series of books and make us wonder, “Where is this God of love, whom we as Christians, worship?
Where then, should we start? Surely, at the beginning with the book Genesis (the title means “beginnings”).
Open your Bible and look at the first two chapters and if you read and think about what you have read, you will realise that there are two accounts of Creation, both contradictory and separated by about 1500 years BC, with Abraham appearing on the scene about 1900 BC.
Early books of the OT are the product of oral transmission, and “history” as such doesn’t begin until 2000BC.
If the Bible is unerring “truth” then we wonder how two conflicting accounts of Creation appear in chapters 1 & 2.
Chapter 2 is probably from the period when certain ideas circulated around Creation itself by groups of people proposing ideas about how things were as they experienced them. Group discussions probably gave rise to the idea of man being created first. The remainder of life being created to enable that first man to survive.
Chapter 1 ushers you into a different order; God creates the world, then from the sea emerges amphibious creatures which by evolution form into primitive man (and women).
In other words, Chapter 1 is almost pure Darwinism, and compiled by religious scholars, providing us with a warning that intermingled with historical fact, there is also the explanation of how or why things are from the ideas made from trying to delve into our past. In other words, “Myths”.
Before you throw up your hands in horror, just remember that when dealing, for instance with a child’s “Why?” sometimes our response may be to tell of a fictional child who by ignoring the “Green Cross Code” suffered injuries, or even worse.
In other. words, behind a fictional story we may find truths about what happens to us and through us.
Earnest missionaries (of the Evangelical flavour) will tell us that everything in the Bible is true, but they are caught up short, in that while everything in the Bible is “Truth”, yet accounts such as Adam and Eve are not strictly so, but the product of primitive minds trying to explain how things are as they were experiencing, and trying to find meaning.
As Pontus Pilate remarked to Jesus, at the crucifixion, when Jesus says He is bringing the truth, Pilate’s response is a cynical question “What is truth?” (John 18, 33-38)
So next week, we’ll talk about the “myths” where we learn about the nature of God, if you can bear it!
It happened every Lent half-term at College. The Principal would call all the married men into his study, saying “You men have been away from your wife and families for six weeks, but when you get home, do remember that it is still Lent and a time to abstain. Do I need to say more?” I suspect he was not heeded all that much!
Likewise, I and my best mate at College was John, and we both cycled together as keen bell-ringers to the nearest monthly Ringers’ Meeting in some country church. Nothing erotic about that you may say, but the Principal had ordered us to not .go out together, on the grounds that it was “not healthy”!
I only recount this as it illustrates how sexual activity became the major sin, as far as one can tell from Early Church history. It could not be claimed to be something about which Jesus was unduly concerned.
Sex gradually became a cardinal sin after the fourth century. It tormented some of the Saints to an obsession and springing from that was the need for priests to be celibate; something that still exists in the Roman Catholic Church and probably is the reason why there was much anguish when Anglican clergy (with wife and children) were allowed to become RC priests with the Ordinariate.
Interesting that in Genesis (1, vv27-28), the newly created man is told to be “fruitful and multiply”. How, without sex?
Early in St. Mark’s Gospel, (2, vv15-17) we find Jesus sat down among a crowd of undesirables, among whom were probably prostitutes, drinking wine and doubtless accompanied by a song or two and much merriment.
You have the classic case (John 8, vv1-11) where the Scribes and Pharisees bring a wretched adulterous woman to be judged and punished (death by stoning). No doubt about her guilt, but Jesus suggests that “He who is sinless should throw the first stone” and convicted by their own consciences, we find just Jesus and the woman alone. “Hath no man condemned thee?” and on her answer “No man, Lord”, He says “Neither do I condemn thee; go and sin no more”.
Note, Jesus doesn’t say she hasn’t sinned, but He doesn’t condemn her.
The sin in adultery, was the breaking of a solemn undertaking, a betrayal of marriage promises (the same way in which God is portrayed as making a marriage between Himself and the Hebrews, and breaking that covenant and abandoning Jahweh, was a form of adultery).
Yet, what did Jesus decry? Religious hypocrisy, creating Laws that were man-given and not God-given, failing to treat the poor and outcasts with some respect, and (our old friend), Pride.
Lust can be more than simply sex; other tendencies can be a priority where they became an obsession, coming between ourselves and God. Alcoholics, gamblers, drug addicts have an unhealthy lust for their addictions.
Nowadays, we talk about “Having Sex”, reducing what can be beautiful between a man and a woman to almost a commodity. That is a sin, because it can be an action which is not an expression of love, but of lust.
Rather we should describe the sexual act as another description, “Making Love”, a physical expression of that commitment, for sex without love is misusing a God-given gift. That is lust.
We have devalued it, and we are spiritually poorer as a result.