Me and the Hebrew Bible

I’ve never regretted choosing to specialise in ‘Hebrew and Old Testament’ when I studied ‘Divinity’ over 50 years ago. My only regret is that I did so as a very ‘conservative’ Christian, with a correspondingly semi-closed mind, but it’s never too late to remedy such things. Currently I’m reading through the first 15 chapters of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible, and re-reading the excellent “The Old Testament : a Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures” by Michael D. Coogan, as well as “The Bible Unearthed : Archeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts” by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. 

These are very readable and accessible books, which I recommend to anyone whose mind is open to the latest, fascinating findings of modern scholarship. They’ve increased my understanding and appreciation of the amazing achievement of the original tellers, subsequent writers and final editors of this extraordinary and exceptional collection of myth, folktale, legend and history, in prose and poetry, prophecy and proverb, law and ritual, that balances the winningly amusing with the unacceptably shocking, and the believable and inspiring with the questioning and sceptical. It’s one of the great ‘wonders of the world’, especially if read selectively, open-mindedly, and critically in the best and most positive sense of that term. 

In the words of Simon Schama, the distinguished Jewish professor of History and Art History at Columbia University, “The Hebrew Bible is the imprint of the Jewish mind, the picture of its imagined origins and ancestry; it is the epic of the YHWH treaty-covenant with Israel, the single formless God moving through history, as well as the original treasure of its spiritual imagination.” It has something for everyone, Jew and Gentile, believer and non-believer, who has a mind capable of thought, and a heart capable of emotion. 

At its core is the inspiring story of the Exodus from Egypt, that’s proved to be a constantly beating heart for the Jewish people down through the years. They are the world’s great ‘survivors’ – almost erased from history by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE, then by the Romans in the 1st century CE, and latterly by the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s. Hitler’s “thousand year Reich” lasted, thank god, for only a dozen, and what greater riposte could there possibly be than the perseverance of the Jewish people, not for one, but for more than three thousand years. 

The Exodus story has also been a vital inspiration for other peoples who have endured discrimination, domination and oppression, such as slavery and apartheid, and who have battled hard, before finally beginning to travel in the direction of equality, liberation and freedom. It has been, and will continue to be, a timeless source of encouragement, motivation and hope.

Returning to Simon Schama, he spoke about the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who reckoned that Zionism should not be “mostly about matters of power”. If Zionism merely ended up reproducing the power play of the rest of the world, all of its achievements would be self-defeating. Buber based his idea of a nation state on the precepts of Judaism, and the principle of Judaism that mattered most to him, we’re told, was ‘don’t do unto others what is hateful to you’. The acid test for Buber would be how the Jewish community treated the Arabs of Palestine. Now there’s a thought. After all, the Jewish people have experienced, to a greater and more prolonged extent than any others, discrimination, devaluation, dispossession, hatred, oppression, violence and killing. There must surely be a better way than that for all of us.

These, anyway, are the perhaps presumptuous thoughts of someone who’s not a Jew, but a kind of secular-christian transcendentalist, and certainly a fan of the Hebrew Bible, about which I shall have more, I’m sure, to write. 

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