What most people know about the Old Testament—the Hebrew Bible—is not so. They know much that ain’t so because they live in a world in which references to it are many, giving them a false sense of familiarity. And, they also know too little because more often than not, they allow others to read it for them through the filtering lens of a specific theology, creating many misconceptions.
The Hebrew Bible is not a book. It wasn’t produced by a single author in one time and place. It’s a small library of books composed and edited over a thousand years by people responding to a wide range of issues and historical circumstances. Because it’s not a book (the name “Bible” comes from the plural Greek form ta biblia, meaning “the books“), it does not have a uniform style or message.
As with any collection of books by different authors in different centuries, the books contradict one another. They contradict themselves because multiple strands of tradition were woven together to create the books. The compiler of Genesis placed, side by side, two creation stories that differ dramatically in vocabulary, literary style and detail. A few chapters later, two flood stories are interwoven into a single story despite the many contradictions and conflicts.
Proverbs extols wisdom, but Ecclesiastes scoffs at its folly. Deuteronomy harps on God’s retributive justice, while Job arrives at the bittersweet conclusion that despite the lack of divine justice, we are not excused from moral living. Ancient readers viewed this anthology—what would become the Hebrew Bible—as worthy of preservation without a requirement that they agree with one another.
The Hebrew Bible is not a book about the divine delivering eternal truths, despite the fact that at a much later time, complex systems of theology would be spun from particular interpretations of biblical passages. Rather, its narrative materials give an account of the journey of the ancient Israelites as they struggled to make sense of their history and how to maintain a relationship with their god. Yes, the Bible addresses moral questions, but those few instances are few and far between.
Reading the Bible alongside parallel materials from the many cultures of the Ancient Near East is a revelation, as the ancient Israelites borrowed shamelessly from the outside world. They adopted and adapted literary styles and stories from other cultures, but in the process produced richer, more coherent readings of the biblical text than would have been otherwise possible.
The narratives of the Hebrew Bible are not pious parables about saints, nor are they G-rated tales easily understood by children. Biblical narratives are stories about human beings whose behavior was often obscene, mean-spirited and violent. But, biblical characters could also change and act with justice and compassion.
The unfounded expectation that biblical characters are pious models for our own conduct causes many readers to try to vindicate biblical characters, just because they are biblical characters. But if we attribute to these characters the reputation for piety manufactured by later religious traditions, if we whitewash their flaws, then we miss the moral complexities and the psychological insights that have made these often R-rated stories of timeless interest. Biblical narratives place serious demands on its readers. They explore moral issues by placing biblical characters in moral dilemmas. But they usually let the reader draw a conclusion.
The god of the first five books of the Bible should not be confused with the god of western theological speculation. The attributes assigned to “God” by post-biblical theologians, such as knowing all things, are not attributes possessed by Yahweh in the Old Testament. On several occasions this god changes his mind, because when it comes to human beings his learning curve is steep. Humans have free will; they act in ways that surprise him and many times he must change course and respond. One of the greatest challenges for modern, objective readers of the Hebrew Bible is to allow the text to mean what it says, when what it says flies in the face of doctrines that emerged centuries later from philosophical debates about “God.”
If people will acknowledge these misconceptions about the Hebrew Bible, it will enable them to encounter and struggle with the Bible in all its rich complexity—its grandeur and its mediocrity, its sophistication and its self-contradiction, its sense of sorrow and its humor—and perhaps help them arrive at a compassionate, non confrontational, not-a-my-way-or-the-highway understanding of the Hebrew Bible.
(If you would like to know more about the Hebrew Bible, I would highly recommend reading Christine Hayes’ Introduction to the Bible. The book is well-researched and a fascinating read. I shamelessly borrowed from the book to write this article.)