Translated from the original by Chris Tsilikas
Michelangelo: The creation of Adam
THE “IMMORAL” OLD TESTAMENT
‘God, protect me from my friends. My enemies, I know them.’
This clever proverb fits nicely the abuse the Holy Bible has been subjected to, not so much by its enemies but by the Christians themselves. And this is due to the fact that it has been and it is still conceived legitimately and morally, yet, the magnificent message it carries for the salvation of mankind is been neglected...
And the Old Testament is the
book which has been abused the most. A lot of people feel indignant when they
read its pages especially when they read about various sexual scenes, which
shock the reader, as the one described in the book of Genesis where Lot’s
daughters get their father drank in order to have a sexual intercourse with him
(Genesis, ch. 19, verses: 30-38), or when God commands the annihilation
of all the residents of a city even of young children by the people of Israel (Deuteronomy,
ch. 20, verses: 13-18).
That’s why we have an increase in the voices of those people who want either to eliminate those crucial points from the Old Testament or to reject once and for all the whole book of the Old Testament!
All these people, however, forget that neither Christ nor the Apostles, and moreover none of the very first Christians rejected the Old Testament. On the contrary, they insisted on pointing out that anything that happens, it happens in order for ‘the Scripts to be implemented’, meaning the Old Testament, since the New Testament had not been written yet.
Moreover, all those people who claim those far-fetched things make a big mistake. The problem does not lie in the Old Testament but in the way they approach the Old Testament. Because, as it seems, reaching tragic or comical conclusions is inevitable when you approach texts from an ancient civilization completely different from your own and you try to interpret them through the cultural conventions of your own civilization. Only the person who won’t fall into the trap of anachronism and respects the conventions and the way the culture he/she is studying was perceived by the civilization of the specific era will be able to get to safe and objective conclusions.
Let us now give two examples to become understood.
AGAINST ANACHRONISM – IN FAVOUR OF RESPECT FOR DIVERSITY
In Greece during the 60s the woman who wore trousers was taken from the vast majority of the public as a ‘scarlet woman’. Even worse, if that woman happened to smoke as well, then the distinction between her and a prostitute was quite difficult to make out.
The second example is from the book ‘Me, Pier Paolo in the angel’s hands’ by Dominique Fernandez, which refers to the turbulent life of the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. So, when Pasolini was in India he got into a restaurant by chance where he saw something that let him speechless. The people at the restaurant were eating rice in the following extraordinary way. Using their left hands only, they were trying to make an amount of rice seem like a ball, dip it into a carry sauce, and then bring it to their mouths to eat it! At first sight it seemed that they were all one-armed, but then he discovered that they all belonged to a sect of Hinduism which imposed eating this way.
The above mentioned incidents will cause mirth and irony to anyone who deals with them light-heartedly and superficially and maybe deep down he will feel lucky that he does not live in the specific era.
However, the one who wants to delve into the above incidents and research them profoundly and objectively, he will take into consideration the living conditions and conventions of both the era and of the geographical region, because he will understand that he has to deal with a different culture that has different moral values.
Similarly, the Bible and more specifically the Old Testament should be treated in the same way. But before this, let’s explain what the Bible is and what it discusses.
WHAT MESSAGE THE WRITERS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT WISH TO CONVEY
Well, the Bible is a theological book that discusses the greatest scandal of all eras. How God acquired flesh and body and came to live among humans.
Such God’s intervention presupposes the existence of a community of people who encounters this intervention. So, all the books of the Old Testament deal with this intervention. They refer to the treaty (testament) between God and the people of Israel – who constitute the community mentioned before – and the relapse of the people of Israel with regards to this treaty.
The writers of the Old Testament are not interested in making History or science in the sense these terms are used nowadays, but they are mainly interested in conveying the eternal divine truths. The texts they write in the long run, serve a different purpose every time, either to teach or to check, but always having as their ultimate goal the future of the relationship between God and his people.
However, we should not forget that the Bible and moreover the Old Testament did not fall from the sky but it’s a human work and is addressed to humans. So the writers use specific vocabulary, convictions about the cosmic image of the era, the various practices valid in war time during that period, and generally anything that reflects the specific cultural environment of the region and the era.
Therefore, when in the books of “Joshua” and “Deuteronomy” God is presented as a warrior who commands the annihilation of the losers; this is nothing other than the literary attempt on the part of the writers to describe the meaning of the word “anathema” in the practices of war in the era of the Bible.
It is a war practice quite scattered in the region of ancient Anatolia, according to which a whole city together with its residents is devoted to Gods. So, through the descriptions of the achievements of the Israeli people the writer’s purpose is to pronounce the eternal truth that paganistic Gods are counterfeit before the real God, since they hadn’t been able to protect their people.
And everything we have claimed so far is not contrived or bed-time stories. On the contrary they are all proved through the Old Testament.
WHAT IS WRITING AND WHAT IS RECORDING A BOOK IN THE ANCIENT TIME
First of all, while in Joshua we have the description of the whole Canaan by all the races of Israel led by Joshua, the son of Nun, in the following book of Judges, and more specifically in book 1, what we get is the description not only of the battles different races made against Canaan in order to occupy regions of it, but also their failure, since lots of regions remained in the hands of the Canaanites.
This contradiction is conspicuous and the writers of the Old Testament could have eliminated it when they recorded the specific books. They didn’t do that though, and they don’t take the contradictory into consideration, simply because every book of the Old Testament serves a completely different and special purpose.
It’s worth explaining at this point, before we go any further, what it means writing and recording a book for the ancient peoples. Nowadays, when we say that a book has been written we mean that it has been written on paper. However, in the past it had a different meaning. It meant the oral transmission of the specific book from generation to generation which more often than not could have been different, and as a result we have different versions of the same book.
When that book was written on paper in the sense we use the word “writing” nowadays, then the most appropriate word to describe it is that of “recording”; for instance, Homer’s poetry were written between the 8th and the 7th century B.C. yet they were recorded in the 6th century B.C. under the regime of Peisistratus, resulting thus today in the so called “Homeric question”, which refers to the writer or writers of the epics, meaning that it is questionable whether behind the name of Homer lies only one or more than one writers.
Similarly, when the biblical writers investigated the materials they had in their hands – which stemmed from ancient sources hundreds of years old – they dealt with them as theologists and not as historians in the sense of today. In addition there are a thousand years between the “writing” and the “recording” of the first book of the Old Testament.
Therefore in the book of “Joshua” the biblical writers present the ‘God-warrior’ to eliminate the false Gods of the pagans on the side of his people, keeping the Testament (the treaty) he had made with them, while in the book of the “Judges” the writers demonstrate how the alienation of the people of Israel from God consequently leads to their abandonment from God and their suppression from neighbour peoples. So, their survival as a people depends directly on the quality of the relationship they will keep with God, and on their retrieval of the fidelity to the Testament (treaty), since God has always remained faithful to it.
THE “EVIL” GOD OF THE OLD TESTAMENT WHO ALWAYS CARES ABOUT THE FOREIGNERS
And the book in which it is clear that the presentation of God as a warrior and as willing to annihilate even the young children of all those who do not belong to the Israeli people is just the literary attempt of the biblical writers to proclaim the above theological positions is ‘Deuteronomy”. And we claim this due to the fact that while God is presented as vengeful and inhuman, on the other hand we have the presentation of Legal Acts that refer to the protection of human life and love to the non-Israeli (foreigner) under the command of the “evil” God!!
“For the LORD your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, which regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward: He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment. Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy, 10: 17-19)
“And the Levite, (because he hath no part nor inheritance with thee,) and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, which are within thy gates, shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied; that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hand which thou doest.” (Deuteronomy, 14: 29)
Additionally in the book of Leviticus, the supposed “evil” God of the Old Testament, commands Israeli people to love the foreigner as they love themselves!! “And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus, 19: 33-34)
Of course we should not forget or overlook the fact that the supposed ‘evil’ God of the Old Testament refuses to punish even the symbol of universal domination and injustice, Nineveh, ‘forcing’ Jonah the prophet to go down to Nineveh to convince its residents to repent!
Therefore, we believe that the approach to the texts of the Old Testament should be made without anachronisms, and with respect to the different way of thinking and the different cultural traditions of the area in which the specific texts had been developed.
Last but not least, they should be approached as theological texts because this is what they are. Otherwise, anyone who approaches them in any other way, he will be forced to accept that God is interested in the colours of the clothes in the scene of a tragedy and he ignores the slaughter of thousands of people! Or he will fall into theological traps like the ones in which the Gnostics fell, who being unable to interpret the origin of the Mosaic Law ‘invented’ a deity who acted as a medium, “The Medium” who is distinguished from the unborn Father, because the Law presents faults but at the same time condemns injustice!
So, the time has come for a fresh, correct this time, re-approach of the Old Testament, appropriate to Christ, to the Apostles and to the first Christians so that the Old Testament takes the place it has always deserved; in our hearts!