Why read the ‘Old Testament’?

Why bother reading the Hebrew Bible or “Old Testament”? It cries out to be read, because it’s a richly varied library of books, containing some of the world’s greatest stories. It began to reach its final form in the 6th century BCE, when a remnant of the Jewish population was allowed to return to Palestine after a 70 year long exile in Babylon. Their nation had been devastated, and their capital city Jerusalem destroyed. The Babylonian God Marduk was declared to have utterly defeated their God Yahweh, having reduced his rival’s Temple to dust and ashes. How could anything be retrieved from such a humiliating and overwhelming calamity?

An inspired few had the best possible, if seemingly unlikely, answer. To bring the remaining people together, and to rekindle strength, courage, belief in themselves, pride and hope, they needed a great national epic to give them a sense of identity, value, meaning and purpose. And so there was a gathering together of existing oral and written traditions – myths, legends, adventures, folktales and chronicles – and the fashioning of these into a story beginning with the creation of the world, and leading up to what was said to be their greatest past experience – their Exodus from Egypt, which led to their becoming the chosen people of their God Yahweh, their receipt of his Law, and their entry into the land that Yahweh had long before promised them.

They weren’t writing ‘history’ in our sense of that word, so in the stitching-together of the stories there are repetitions, anachronisms, inconsistencies, contradictions, and many a ‘purple passage’. The claim was made that far from having been overthrown, their God Yahweh was in fact the creator of the world, the one and only God, and that they had been chosen by him so that, through them, he would ultimately win every other nation to himself. They had once before been delivered from exile in Egypt, and now they had again been delivered from exile in Babylon, so if from now on they stayed faithful to Yahweh, their future would be assured.

It doesn’t matter that there’s no historical evidence for the existence of their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, nor any archeological or other evidence for an exodus from Egypt on anything like the monumental scale of the given story. It’s simply the stories as such that matter most. If, however, we claim that these were written, or dictated, by a God, then I think we do that God a disservice, not only because of their repetitions, inconsistencies and contradictions, but also because they contain everything from lies and deceit, to incest and rape, robbery and violence, slaughter and genocide. Too often, such behaviour not only doesn’t receive any reprimand, but is even said to be divinely ordained.    

We’re dealing, then, with a library of human authorship. We ought not to dismiss its stories as ‘unbelievable’, or being of often questionable moral character. We’d then have to dump TV and newspapers, novels, plays and social media tittle-tattle etc. Rather than ‘the word of God’, these books are ‘words about God’, and therefore words about ourselves – about what we are like, how we sometimes behave, our dreams and our fears, what heights we can rise to, and what depths we can plumb. 

There’s so much to enlighten us, entertain us, challenge us, and to confront us with what it can, does, and should, mean for us to be human beings, and how the remainder of the human story is in our own hands, for better or for worse. In the words of the Old Testament’s first book, ‘we have become like gods, knowing good and evil’ – there is in that a scary threat, but also a hopeful opportunity. The choice, assuming there is such a thing, is ours.

[ Image – askgramps.org ]

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