Understanding the Old Testament

April 15th, 2021 in Belief. Tags: , , ,

The Old Testament is a strange book – well a collection of dozens of books actually. How can any twenty-first century person understand it?

Can any thoughtful person really believe all of it? What do the experts say? These are questions I have grappled with for much of my life. I feel, finally, I have some reasonable answers.

You may learn something from my journey.

Things they don’t teach in Sunday School

I was sent to Sunday School as a boy, and I heard the stories about Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Moses in the bullrushes, David and Goliath, Samson and the rest.

But I certainly didn’t hear about the Canaanite genocide, Rahab the prostitute and the sexual abuse surrounding Noah and his sons and Tamar and Amnon. Nor did I ever read the sensual poetry of the Song of Solomon or the angry revenge of some of the Pasalms.

I knew that many people perished in Noah’s flood, Abraham almost committed child sacrifice, and the Egyptian army perished beneath the Red Sea, but I don’t recall being alarmed about the loss of life or scared God might do the same again. (Though I have since heard of other children who were traumatised by these events.)

The Old Testament is full of things that no Sunday School would teach.

And slowly I came to see that it contained things that strained the credulity and sensitivities of a modern thoughtful reader.

Who can believe in evolution?

Sometime, I think in my late teens, I actually read Genesis for myself. Not just the familiar stories, but the full text. And it becamse obvious to me.

The early chapters of Genesis are clearly not written as history. I had an interest in Norse mythology, and I’d read some other legends and folk tales, and it was obvious that Genesis 1-11 was the same sort of thing. A talking snake, a tree with mysterious properties, a tower that went up to the sky – clearly folk tales.

Perhaps the killer was when a respected Aussie christian speaker (Rowland Croucher) asked at a conference: “Were there koalas on the Ark?” The answer was obvious. Unless there was supernatural transportation, slow moving koalas who depend on eucalyptus leaves for food, were never going to make it to the middle east to board the ark, and back again to Australia.

But this didn’t make evolution any more believable to me, the idea seemed just too impossible. So for many years I disbelieved both evolution and 6-day creation.

But eventually, as I read more widely, I came to believe that evolution occurred. The DNA evidence was especially convincing to me. I concluded that Adam and Eve were legendary people, evolution was compatible with christian belief, and Genesis 1-11 had to be understood as myth used by God to reveal truth.

So if Genesis 1-11 was legendary, could other parts of the Old Testament be legendary too?

Did Joshua really conquer Jericho?

Another Old Testament “fact” that bothered my very early on was God’s command for his chosen people to wipe out the Canaanites to make way for the Jews to live in their Promised Land. I could see that since people are his creation, God had the right to take life back again, but it seemed totally wrong for him to ask the Jewish people to do his dirty work.

And it didn’t seem at all like the behaviour of a loving God.

I sat on that dilemma for decades, unwilling to rationalise the problem away somehow, and either condemn or justify God. Finally I started reading about the archaeology and discovered that it looks like the genocide never happened – few of the Canaanite cities appear to have been destroyed by the Israelites.

Reading the book of Joshua again made clear that while the first half portrayed the traditional story of conquest, the second half showed that only a few cities were destroyed at this time, and the Israelites were not this great conquering people at all. The Bible itself contains two different stories and the archaeology agrees with the non-genocidal one.

So it appears that the conquest story, and the genocidal commands, were a mixture of truth, misunderstanding, legend and propaganda.

Did 2 million Jews escape Egypt and cross the desert?

Not only did the archaeology show that Canaan wasn’t conquered by a huge army of marauding Israelites, but it showed that the population of Canaan was never anything near 2 million as the Bible suggests. So did Moses really lead 2 million escaping slaves across the Sinai?

It turns out that the experts are divided about Moses. Some accept most of the story as true, others argue nothing like it ever happened. But it seems the majority view, supported by DNA and other evidence, is that a smaller group did indeed travel to Canaan from Egypt. Much of the story may be embellished, but there is a historical core there.

Sceptics and believers are free to choose how much of the Biblical Exodus and conquest stories they believe, for the evidence (or paucity of it) allows a wide range of possibilities.

King David and beyond

By the time we get to King David (about 1000 BCE), the Bible stories start to look more historical and the archaeological evidence gets better. The previously nomadic Israelites had built cities, and the stone remains together with artefacts, plus accounts from other nations, allow many of the Bible stories to be verified.

So where does this leave me?

In the conservative christian circles I grew up with, thinking that much of the early Old Testament was legendary would have been impossible to swallow. But as I explored, I found that not all christians (or Jews) thought this way:

  • Famed christian scholar and author, CS Lewis, considered that the Old Testament began in myth and ended in history, and he saw no problem in that. He strongly believed in the basic historicity of the New Testament gospels.
  • Old Testament scholars like Peter Enns and Dennis Lamoureux presented a strong case for understanding some parts of the early Old Testament as not being literal history.
  • I came to understand that Jews at the time of Jesus understood and interpreted their scriptures in very different ways to modern westerners. It seems that some of the conservative christian ideas about literal and historical interpretation would not have been familiar to Jesus and his critics.

So I find myself comfortable with the idea that the Bible is a very human book that is nevertheless a crucially important way that God has revealed himself. Once I let go of my expectations of how God should act, I see no reason why it couldn’t have been through a Bible that contains legendary material.

Where does this leave critics and doubters?

Many people give up faith in God because the Bible doesn’t conform to their expectations. They cannot believe God ordered genocide. They seem unable to imagine that God could reveal himself via such a human book. They seem unable to believe that the Bible can be both human and divine.

I believe they are unfortunately mistaken. I believe if we start from the evidence rather than our assumptions, the Bible (principally the New Testament) gives us plenty of reasons to believe and far fewer reasons to doubt than we might think.

Other pages on this website summarise the reasons to believe. You may wish to approach them with a mind more open to the possibility that many of the Bible’s apparent difficulties are the result of assuming it is one thing (historically without error) when in reality God has given us something different (a human book inspired by God and revealing truth in messier ways than we might have expected).

Here are some places you may like to start:

Graphic: Paintings of a very European-looking Moses: Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law by Rembrandt and Moses with the Ten Commandments by Philippe de Champaigne, both in Wikipedia.

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