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Saturday, February 2, 2019

Old Testament Myth, And The Persistent Ethos Of Vengeance, Retribution, And Righteousness

If one only read the New Testament – the good news of Jesus Christ and his promises of redemption from sin and salvation; his messages of brotherhood, compassion, and sympathy – and accepted his word that with his coming a new more generous covenant between God and Man had been concluded – the world would be looked at within a hopeful, loving perspective.  If one only loved Jesus unequivocally, without reservations or restraint, his grace would be forthcoming and the Kingdom of Heaven would be within reach.

But what about Yahweh?  His vision of righteousness as expressed in the Old Testament is entirely different.  In the Book of Exodus God makes it quite clear – Israelites are his chosen people, and he will do anything to restore them to the promised land of Canaan.  It is not enough for God to persuade Pharaoh to let his people go – to negotiate their release from servitude, perhaps compensate Pharaoh for the loss of Jewish labor, provide him decades of good harvests – or even to intimidate and threaten the regime.  He visits ten deadly plagues on Egypt, each more deadly and destructive than the next. Yet, despite the decimation of thousands of innocent Egyptians, Pharaoh remains firm and refuses to let the Jews leave.  Only after the tenth plague, ‘Death of the Firstborn’ after which ‘there was not a house without someone dead’ (NRSV), did Pharaoh relent.  Not only did God destroy the Egyptians by plague, but he tells the departing Israelites to plunder Egyptian wealth and to take all their gold and silver. Those few who have survived his vengeance should be left with nothing.

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If that was not enough, and had he not inflicted enough pain and suffering on the Egyptian people, Yahweh drowns the entire Egyptian army pursuing the Israelites across the now-parted Red Sea.  Again, Yahweh’s actions are brutal, uncompromising, and vengeful.  Whereas there might have been many ways to save his people and assure their safe passage to Canaan, he chose massive, total destruction.  In the Song of Moses, the author tells of Yahweh’s power:

‘Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea’…The LORD is a warrior…Your right hand shattered the enemy…You overthrew your adversaries, you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble…You blew with your wind, the sea covered them, they sank like lead in the mighty waters…”
Image result for images moses and the red sea

This, for all its vengeful destruction, is mild compared to later books of the Old Testament. “They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys (Joshua 6) or the destruction of Gibeon and the slaughter of its inhabitants (Joshua 10). Many more such bloody, uncompromised battles are described in Judges. Even in Exodus, the slaughter of Israel’s enemies is demanded by God - “…You shall utterly demolish them and break their pillars in pieces” (Exodus 23:23).

Centuries of scholarly exegesis have parsed every verse of Exodus, Joshua, Deuteronomy, and other books dealing with the Old Testament covenant, the power of an almighty and unforgiving God, and his absolute mastery over the world he created.  Not only did he destroy the Egyptians, but the entire populations of Sodom and Gomorrah and most extreme of all, the entire world in the Flood.  Far less punishment and certainly far less death and destruction might well have convinced impenitent citizens to reform, but it seems that penitence and reform were not Yahweh’s point.  Only the vengeful slaughter of those who defied him would do. 

Image result for images destruction sodom and gomorrah

If the New Testament is to be believed, none of Yahweh’s threats, intimidation, and annihilation had any effect.  Jerusalem as Jesus found it was a corrupt, idol-worshipping, sacrificial, hidebound and legalistic society that offered no real promises to its people.  Given the long trajectory of a venal, aggressive, brutal, territorial, and vengeful human history, one has to conclude that Jesus’ message has had little impact as well; and one wonders if the ethos of the Old Testament isn’t somehow more appropriate.  If the world has only responded to the sword; if aggression always has been met with military force; and if world peace – or at least peaceful accommodation – has never been realized, then if there is a testament to be read and considered, it is the Old one.   Over two thousand years of Christianity have resulted in nothing but continual war, violence, disharmony, civil unrest, and geopolitical division.

This is not to say that Christianity has not fulfilled Christ’s spiritual promises.  Millions have had faith in him and have devoted their lives to him, fully expectant of a life forever after with him in his Kingdom.   It is only that Christ’s social messages, while never as punitive as the God of the Old Testament – any message that contains the hope of redemption can never be irredeemable – have had little or no impact.  While Yahweh demanded allegiance and threatened destruction if it were not accorded, Jesus asked for the same devotion but voluntarily.  He encouraged faithfulness by example and benign miracles, whereas Yahweh’s miracles were devastating, destructive, and intimidating.  Therein lies the greatest distinction between the two religious traditions.

For the non-believer, such distinctions are only matters for academic discussion – the nature of religious myth, its origins, spread, and institutionalization.   The academician is more interested in relevant questions of political ethos, the nature of power and rule.  How was it that a brutal Pharaoh listened to the fabricated story of Jewish fertility made by low-class midwives in answer to his question about why there were still Jewish boys being born and surviving? Is it plausible that a highborn daughter of Pharaoh be willing to risk her father’s wrath to save the little Jewish baby? How was it that he did not realize that he was dealing with a supernatural power even after the first plague? What was it about this tribe of displaced Israelites that had such tenacity, discipline, patience, and enterprise?  Where do history and myth coincide in the Book of Exodus?

Image result for images destruction sodom and gomorrah

For the believer, none of these mythological discrepancies make any difference whatsoever.  There can be no questioning either God’s justice or his reasoning.

For the third estate – those that read both Old and New Testaments as derived myth – and ask which version is a closer representation of life and history (as all myths must do), it is hard to answer anything but the Old Testament.  It’s uncompromising, unyielding, and absolute righteousness is a tale of today.  What powerful world leader is without such purposefulness and determination to pursue what he knows to be right?  Where, even in the most Catholic countries, are the social exhortations of Jesus (brotherhood, tolerance, community, compassion) ever followed?

In other words Old Testament myth endures and continues to have resonance and salience because it reflects human activity which itself has not changed since the beginning of human history.

Last but not least it is hard to ignore the history of modern-day Israel which in many ways is reflective of the Book of Exodus.  Never mind the obvious. Egypt has until recently always been an enemy and an aggressor; Israel’s right to sovereignty and nationhood has always been rejected by its Arab neighbors; bloody wars have been fought with all invaders to assure this right.  It is the lessons of Israel, so reminiscent of the Old Testament, that give the myth even more pertinence.  Nations have always fought for their right to survive; and while many have overstepped this legitimate purpose and expanded their territories farther than necessary for self-protection, the purpose itself has never been challenged.

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Although Christianity was spread in the first centuries of its existence through evangelism – Paul was a genius at promotion, marketing, management, and institutional development – it was as militant as any in its later decades.  The Crusades were nothing but  military excursions to secure geo-political and economic hegemony.  The Vatican has always, throughout its history been politically minded, ruthless, and demanding.  Its ultimate conflict with Henry VIII was simply a long time coming but inevitable.

So, for lessons about humanity, human history, and human development, one should first turn to the Old Testament and perhaps go no farther.

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