The Bible (ca. 110 CE)

Extent

Systematic reading in progress as of 2018.

This review refers to a text created gradually between the 8th century BCE and the 2nd century CE. Mainly, people wrote down what had been oral tradition and then gradually edited earlier passages or attributed their own additions to dead authors to give the work a more desirable message for each new generation. Numerous proposed additions, including dozens of gospels, were banned or excised for the same arbitrary historical reasons.

As a result, there must have been a huge number of different bibles over time. Through a series of synods, a rough mainstream had developed around 393 CE: “the” Christian bible as reviewed here. It differs from lost older Hebrew bibles, the Marcionite canon, the younger Masoretic Hebrew bible (7th–10th century CE), the Peshitta, the Oriental Orthodox Christian (e.g. Ethiopian, Tewahedo) bibles, the Eastern Orthodox Christian bible and so on. Synods have continued to modify the various canons.

The line between translation and authorship is not always clear. The influential Septuagint translation of an older Hebrew bible makes its own theological points and expands on the original text, which is no longer extant. In the 16th century, the Catholic church began to officially promulgate the Vulgate (called so since the 13th century), which is a 4th-century translation with some errors. It gave Moses horns on his head, which you can still see in some medieval church murals. Other bibles have taken greater liberties, such as the 1820 Thomas Jefferson bible and the unfinished 19th-century Joseph Smith bible.

I read mainly the 1999 Swedish translation, named Bibel 2000, which represents a substantial effort by a state commission started in 1972. The commission was partly secular—perhaps more so than the English-language NIV commission—and adopted an approach of literal translation to modern language, stylistic emulation and textual criticism over dogma. Though the commission project included the Apocrypha, my printed copy did not, thus falling in line with Swedish Lutheran tradition.

Categorization

Religious text. Some of the material was probably composed in a literal mode on the basis of sincerely held beliefs (i.e. as non-fiction), but indifference to the truth, charlatan intentions and forgeries are evidently more common.

Subject

The uneasy progression of a tribe–cum–nation’s belief system from syncretistic polytheism, via monolatry and henotheism, toward Greek-influenced individualism and a nominal monotheism undermined by servants, opponents and partial incarnations that are all divine.

Commentary

The overall date of 110 CE refers to mainstream scholarly estimates for 2 Peter, apparently the youngest text in the canonical New Testament. As of this writing in 2018, extant physical fragments of New Testament writings cannot be definitively dated as older than about 200 CE, though largely credible estimates range down to about 125 CE. Chapter numbers were added much later, verse numbers not until about 1551.

When you read the bible, it helps to know the ancient history of the Middle East, and to read scholarly analyses putting each component work in context, but the main thing you need is an everyday bullshit detector. If you’ve read a bunch of bad fantasy literature, you know what people like to imagine when they don’t need to stick to the truth. If you’ve hung around habitual liars, or even spent time exploring the imagination of ordinary children, you are equipped to read the bible.

The book speaks poorly for itself. No unprejudiced reader has ever come away from it with a clean, abstract deism, like the faith of David Hume or James T. Kirk. Such ideas come from outside the text. I surmise that actually reading the text—especially with an open mind—has produced mainly atheists. Religion spreads by other means: Parent to child, the peer group, the larger community, song, dance, ritual, political expediency, superstitious fear, and above all, the ignorance of facts and alternatives.

Internal contradictions litter the text. There are far too many for me to list. Generations of rewriters probably fixed some of these errors but left new ones in the canon. Supposedly, this became a concern only at a late date, when philosophy and science presented a more elegant system of explanations even with respect to major questions like the origin of life and humankind. Fundamentalism, it is said, arose under pressure from contrary evidence.

It’s worth reading some books of the bible to get a sense of how dull life was in the ancient Near East when regional bronze-age cultures had collapsed around 1177 BCE. With their impoverished imagination, the authors show the incuriousness and brutality of that dark age.

It’s also worth reading some books of the bible for their influence on politics and other literature.

References here: A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Metodboken — Bibel 2000 (1999), “Hell Is the Absence of God” (2001), “Neighbours” (1952), Man in the Wilderness (1971), Angel’s Egg (1985), Cast a Deadly Spell (1991).

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Entry:

Old Testament (ca. 164 BCE)

Subject

The priest John W. Rogerson mentions an Egyptian Merneptah Stele as the oldest preserved writing about an ethnic group called Israel. Rogerson outlines Yahwism, the subject of the Old Testament:

This group may then have been joined by a group of shasu [...] who brought with them a faith in a God, Yahweh, who had helped them to escape from Egyptian slavery. Faith in Yahweh as the God of Israel then became one of the distinguishing features of Israel as it struggled for survival with the Canaanites and the Philistines in Palestine and with neighbouring peoples in Transjordan.

That’s from the essay on “The History of the Tradition: Old Testament and Apocrypha”, printed in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible (2003). There is very little to support it.

The Philistines were one of the “sea peoples” that moved in the region around 1177 BC as part of a cultural and economic collapse, likely with ecological causes. The Old Testament implies how the tribal faith of Israel was reshaped under these forces. However, it is composed almost entirely of mutually contradictory fragments of the mythology invented to support the faith, written down from oral traditions with minimal context.

Whatever the true prehistory of the Hebrews might have been, the Old Testament has fairly little to do with it. Its main texts revolve around a much later event. The kingdom of Judah, south of Israel, rebelled against Babylonian rule and was destroyed in 586 BCE. The royal court of Judah, and its priests and scribes, were taken into captivity in Babylon to prevent further uprisings. This was the Babylonian exile.

The exile apparently had a bigger impact on the writing process than anything else. A faction among the exiled elite blamed their fate on disobedience to their tribal god and invented a past and future where their broken country was and would be glorious. This fusion of fantasy and recrimination thus became the backbone of the state religion, and of the Old Testament itself.

Commentary

According to Rogerson, “as late as the first century BC there was a group within Judaism that claimed and attributed revelations of God to Moses regarding vital matters of religion.” That is in reference to an apocryphal Temple Scroll. Without apocrypha the Old Testament seems to have been finished around 164 BCE, going by a 2002 John J. Collins estimate of the age of the book of Daniel (specifically its second half). The oldest parts borrow from Sumerian literature, which is itself about 2000 years older than the Collins estimate.

References here: “The Apple” (1967).

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Entry:

Pentateuch (ca. 500–400 BCE)

Subject

Nominally the early history of Israel, before the state is established.

Commentary

In the 1st century CE it was common practice to refer to the five books of the Pentateuch (Hebrew: Torah) as the “Law of Moses”, Mosaic law. Full authorship was attributed to Moses still later, in the Babylonian Talmud, composed around 200–500 CE. The date of the work is speculative. Some fragments were almost definitely composed centuries earlier. Heavy editing may have gone on as late as 250 BCE.

It is a common fundamentalist Christian claim that modern peace and prosperity, or else democracy, is the result of implementing Mosaic law. This assertion is unsupported. The authors were concerned with power, not reason. They defy reason at every turn, often with the vigour of a tantrum, and their heroes were anything but peaceful. In this, they had fallen behind the times. Compare Moses to Solon (ca. 638–558 BCE), a philosopher whose ten rules to live by are given in Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Solon’s list has obvious flaws but shows a good deal more wisdom than the fictional Moses. Democracy grew out of Athens, not the Pentateuch.

Throughout this collection, monolatry is the general rule. That is to say the authors believed in multiple gods but wanted to restrict their own community to the worship of a particular god. See for example Deuteronomy 32:43 where the other gods are explicitly commanded to bow to Yahweh. You may find that particular stanza missing in your translation, or neutered to read “angels” instead of “gods”, as part of the adaptation of the work to monotheism by later editors and wilfully incompetent translators. Check the English Standard Version or the Contemporary English Version for a decent translation.

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Entry:

Genesis (ca. 500–400 BCE)

Categorization

Collected ancient myths and just-so stories for the origin of local customs, holy places and ethnic groups.

Subject

Chapter 1: In a story possibly intended to explain the Sabbath, gods create the universe.

Chapters 2–3: An unrelated creation myth that seeks to explain, among other things, the patrilocal practices of the Hebrews and why childbirth hurts.

Chapter 4: A god doesn’t want to eat its veggies, so it curses first-generation man Cain to be restless, never settling down. Protected by the same god, Cain settles down. One of his descendants, Jubal, is the father of all who play the harp and flute.

Chapter 5: People live a long time before and after a god settles on a maximum lifespan of 120 years.

Chapter 6–10: Gods and people schtup, explaining why there are giants. Also, people are intrinsically evil and a god tries to kill everyone while the same god preserves all species. All of them fit on Noah’s boat measuring 150 by 25 by 15 metres. Water explicitly covers the tallest mountains. Trees survive under miles of water and grow fresh leaves after just a few days.

In a coda to the life of Noah, the old man is passed out drunk in a tent. This is such a hideous sight that two of his sons cover him with a mantle. He wakes up and curses another.

Chapter 11: Gods wish to prevent humans from developing a harmonious and enlightened civilization, so they now create separate languages (already being spoken in chapter 10), causing the building of Babylon to be abandoned.

Chapter 12: Fleeing famine, Abraham gets rich by letting the pharaoh take his wife Sarah (before the pair get these names) as a concubine. A god punishes the pharaoh, not Abraham.

Chapter 13: There is still a shortage of food. A parenthetical note explains that grazing lands are overcrowded by Canaanites and Perizzites. A god gives Abraham a perpetual lease on all the land he can see.

Chapter 14: Abraham and his slaves kill people.

Chapter 15: Abraham makes blood sacrifices. In a nightmare, a god promises Abraham that his descendants will be slaves for 400 years before his god punishes their enslavers.

Chapter 16: Abraham impregnates a slave girl. Sarah punishes the girl for impertinence and drives her away, but “the god of seeing” brings her back.

Chapter 17: Without explanation, Abraham gets his name and standing orders to expel everyone with an intact foreskin on the penis, immediately creating the custom of male circumcision with no female equivalent.

Chapter 18: A god reads Sarah’s thoughts and insists that she mocked him by smiling. A god argues with itself about revealing its plans, then decides to destroy Sodom. Abraham haggles for justice.

Chapter 19: Lot offers his two daughters as a distraction so the men of Sodom don’t rape two visiting angels. For Abraham’s sake, the angels save Lot and his family while a god burns Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot’s daughters get pregnant by their father.

Chapter 20 repeats chapter 12 in a different country.

Chapters 21–23: The “binding of Isaac”. Abraham’s god orders him to kill his son. At the last minute it allows a substitute blood sacrifice of an innocent goat stuck in a shrubbery. Sarah then dies abroad.

Chapter 24: Abraham’s servant puts his hand between Abraham’s thighs and resolves to pick a wife for Isaac by random chance, in his promised land. The girl, Rebekah, is seen off by her sisters, who prophesy that her descendants will conquer enemy cities. She veils her face.

Chapters 25-27: The family life of Isaac, wherein his neighbours argue about wells until they see he is favoured by Abraham’s god. There is a new famine. Rebekah tricks a senile Isaac into blessing the wrong son: Jacob instead of Esau. This makes Jacob the hero of the story.

Chapter 28: Jacob dreams of a great ladder connecting heaven and earth. Abraham’s god promises him that other peoples will be jealous of his own. In exchange for food and clothes on a trip, Jacob raises a rock to house the god and promises a tithe.

Chapter 29: Jacob is tricked into marrying the wrong cousin (Leah), but he also gets to marry the hotter cousin he wants (Rachel).

Chapter 30 repeats chapter 16 with Jacob impregnating slave girl Bilhah on cousin Rachel’s orders. He also impregnates the other cousin’s slave girl, and so on. Leah surmises that “God has rewarded me for having my husband sleep with my slave.” Also, Jacob uses a proto-Lysenkoist goat-breeding scheme to get rich at his father-in-law’s expense.

Chapter 31: Continuing to trick his father-in-law, Jacob leaves his house. Rachel steals his gods and pretends to be menstruating to protect the loot. Abraham’s god warns the father-in-law not to interfere. There is a ceremony to settle their differences, where Abraham’s god and Nachor’s god have equal standing.

Chapter 32: One night, Jacob wrestles an unidentified god who dislocates his hip. Jacob is named Israel. This is all offered as an explanation for why Hebrews don’t eat the sinew of the thigh.

Chapters 33–34: Jacob is reconciled with his brother Esau. A drama of tribal honour follows. The son of the local chief rapes Jacob’s daughter and falls in love with her, kidnapping her and sending the chief to negotiate a marriage.

Pretending to agree to the marriage so that the chief’s people will get circumcised as a token of friendship, Jacob’s sons murder all of the men in a city while their penises are painfully swollen. They enslave all the women and children and steal all the goods. Jacob is frightened that they have angered the Canaanites and Perizzites who dominate the area, but his sons reply “You gonna let ‘em treat our sister like a whore?” Indeed, there is no revenge.

Chapters 35–36: Jacob cleans house. He gets his family to throw away their gods and he meets with Abraham’s god, who repeats what the wrestler god said in chapter 32. Jacob’s twelfth son is born: Joseph, his favourite.

Chapter 37: Sick of Joseph’s narcissistic dreams, his brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt and pretend he was killed.

Chapter 38: A god kills a man and then kills his brother Onan for refusing to impregnate the first man’s wife, Tamar. Onan does have sex with her but it’s coitus interruptus, so he has to die. In a veil and make-up, disguised as a prostitute, Tamar tricks her father-in-law into impregnating her.

Chapter 39: Joseph’s owner’s wife nags him to sleep with her. Spurned, she has him thrown into prison with a false accusation of attempted rape.

Chapter 40–41: Joseph interprets the dreams of two fellow prisoners, then the pharaoh. The pharaoh therefore promotes this slave, a foreign, (wrongfully) convicted attempted rapist, to rule Egypt. Joseph mitigates famine by taking grain from the common people’s granaries and storing it in different granaries.

Chapter 42–45: Joseph secretly punishes his brothers. They assume they are being punished by their god. They are reconciled.

Chapter 46: Jacob and his entire family, the 70 Israelites, move from Beersheba (modern-day southern Israel) to Goshen, northern Egypt.

Chapter 47: As the seven-year famine continues, Joseph extorts all money, all cattle and all land from the Egyptian people, making them slaves of the pharaoh. The victims are grateful and agree to pay a 20% tax on all future harvests.

Chapters 48–50: Jacob dies, variously cursing and blessing the named twelve primogenitors of the tribes of Israel, exhorting them like the god of Abraham to multiply.

Commentary

When the authors of Genesis completed their volume, the glories of the Late Bronze Age had been mostly forgotten. A Median and Babylonian alliance had sacked Nineveh quite recently, in 612 BCE, leaving tablets strewn on the floor of the library of Ashurbanipal. Some of the myths in this volume share their source with those tablets, something Assyriologist George Smith discovered in 1872.

For example, the version of the flood myth given here is corrupted. Noah corresponds to the Sumerian Ziusudra, who became the Old Babylonian Atra-Hasis and the later Babylonian Uta-napishti. In the standard Babylonian version of The Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2100–1100 BCE), Uta-napishti’s warning comes from a different god, not the same one that caused the flood. His boat houses even “members of every skill and craft” so their knowledge is preserved. The event lasts only fourteen days, and even at the high point, Uta-napishti sees fourteen islands, too distant for his birds. After the waters recede, the gods take wiser, less wasteful measures to limit the human population, introducing predators, menopause, famine, plague, death by old age etc. Uta-napishti’s longevity is explained as an exemption and reward. By learning Uta-napishti’s story, Gilgamesh grows wiser and helps restore the wonders of the old world. In the Sumerian poem beginning “The great wild bull is lying down”, this wisdom includes how to properly wash your hands and mouth!

An Old Babylonian version of the flood myth from about 1800 BCE has Atra-Hasis building a round boat, i.e. a coracle, which makes more sense than Noah’s design; this has been demonstrated by Assyriologst Irving Finkel, who helped have one built and tested on water. The bible, lacking good new ideas, fails even to preserve the old good ideas.

Throughout Genesis, the gods are poorly characterized. For instance, there is no stated reason why they put a forbidden tree in the garden of Eden, why they make its fruit delicious or why they lie about it. They are not numinous but physically present, like the gods of Sumer. They sometimes speak directly to the people they like, but because their actions make so little sense, they come across as fickle and banal.

One reason why the gods are so poorly presented is that, in Hebrew culture, the gods gradually became surrounded by taboos. In particular, you couldn’t say the name “Yahwe” (introduced in chapter 2) or survive seeing the god, a theological invention to help explain why the reader never sees evidence supporting the claims of the religion in real life. Genesis was re-edited to cover the resulting plot holes. In the later parts, the gods communicate with Joseph through allegorical dreams, which put a safe distance between the authors and the gods they spoke for. In Numbers 12:8, Yahweh has a comment on that, saying Moses was the last prophet privileged to get plain speech.

Notice how, in chapter 1, the second day is the only day that isn’t good. There appears to be no consensus among Christians as to why, but some claim the number two is inauspicious. That’s funny, considering how many of the myths here are given in two versions. Apparently much of the composition is numerological, based on hitting multiples of seven in word counts and repeated phrases. Needless to say, the whole thing is thoroughly contradicted by evidence and reason.

Chapters 2-3 are strikingly nonsensical. It’s purportedly bad to be naked, but no reason for this rule is given and people are deliberately created without the ability to know the rule. You get the ability in a delicious fruit, but you can’t eat the fruit because the gardener says it will kill you the same day, which is a lie. There’s a different fruit on the tree of life that the people are allowed to eat but they don’t. They eat the forbidden fruit, evidently not knowing better. In consequence, snakes have to eat dirt, which they do not. This makes less sense than Hesiod. It sounds like something a sleepy eight-year-old made up after stealing candy.

Again, compare the original: On tablet 11 of his epic, Gilgamesh is terrified of death, finds a magical plant beneath the ocean, and formulates a plan to test it on “an ancient”, a senior citizen of Uruk. Before he can carry out this scientific experiment, a snake steals the plant because of its scent. The snake doesn’t talk. Instead, as it gets away it sloughs off its skin, meaning it is rejuvenated. That’s why the author of the epic used a snake: Snakes seem able to rejuvenate. The author of chapters 2–3 has forgotten why it’s a snake and what is supposed to happen with the tree of life. A different, more stupid fable is smeared across the old. The editors failed to cover for the change, just like they failed as editors to update Noah’s chronology from Uta-napishti’s. I wonder if the garden of Eden itself is based on the Forest of Cedars; one Sumerian fragment places Humbaba’s realm to the east, unlike the standard version, which puts it in Lebanon.

Later doctrine holds that the fruit episode describes an “original sin”, which seems to be curiosity, a desire for wisdom, or an unwillingness to abide by unjustified authority. Consequently, the church encouraged ignorance and obedience, suiting kings and making other people miserable. There is no textual support for the notion of original sin or any such causal relationship in these repurposed fragments of Sumerian poetry. Instead, evil is simply inherent in people and the world. Though the authors tried to adapt the fragments to monolatry, Yahweh is not yet moral, omniscient, omnipresent or omnipotent.

Incidentally, the popular image of the forbidden fruit as an apple comes from a translator’s pun: The Vulgate’s Latin malum means both “apple” and “evil”. The idea of making a new person from a rib is also a pun, but several thousand years older. According to Samuel Noah Kramer, it was a Sumerian play on words in a legend plagiarized for the bible: ti meant both “rib” and to make (something) live. Somewhere along the line, a translator missed the point. When 16th-century anatomist Andreas Vesalius showed that men and women have the same amount of ribs, Christians got upset. By then, they were taking it all literally. I find it sad that people were outraged because they’d accidentally built their core beliefs about the universe around a joke. This is where you end up when you brand curiosity and disobedience as evil.

The footnote to Noah’s life in chapter 10 has no equivalent in the earlier Sumerian and Babylonian texts. It’s a good example of biblical writing: It’s pulled from thin air, it’s vulgar, it’s grotesque, it’s distinctly illogical, and its only discernible purpose is to throw shade on ethnic groups near Israel at the time of writing. The son that Noah curses is Ham, and according to the same chapter (verse 6), Ham is the common ancestor of both Egypt and Canaan. The anecdote must be intended to justify the race hatred the authors express later, when they paint the Egyptians as evil clowns in Exodus and rejoice in the genocide of the Canaanites in Numbers.

Chapter 18 gives an example of a sorites paradox. Instead of piling grains of sand without knowing when he’ll have a heap, Abraham subtracts righteous people from the amount required to save Sodom. It starts at 50 and ends at 10, implying it’s acceptable that 9 righteous people die while Sodom is destroyed. It’s interesting how this argument is never followed to any kind of logical principle or conclusion as it would have been in a contemporary Greek text. Abraham just stops arguing, but the god apparently realizes that it can spare individuals. It spares Lot, a horrible person.

The view of women is typical for the place and time. It, too, represents corruption, a fall from the relative complexity of Shamhat or even the unnamed wife of Uta-napishti, a speaking role in the epic of Gilgamesh. Originally created for undefined companionship, women in Genesis are cursed in Eden to desire men. This means that, in the narrative, sexual desire is both evil and the fault of women. This is the authors projecting their own failings onto their victims. Female characters are continually valued for fertility and beauty. In chapter 30, women view pregnancy and motherhood as a direct intervention by their god, which gives them their husband’s attention. They aspire to nothing else. Men are never sterile or senescent, only women. The gods are masculine; I am using the pronoun “it” rather than “he” just to get shorter sentences in these reviews. I wish I knew to what extent the veneration of the text has helped to perpetuate its sexism in Christian societies.

Much of the writing is symptomatic of what a powerful, egotistical man would secretly want. Chapters 12 and 20 give you wealth and comfort for pimping hot women (and suggest a fetish for cuckoldry); chapter 26 almost repeats the same motif a third time. Chapter 16 lets you sleep around. In chapter 19, the bad guys get blown up and the good guy gets his daughters’ virginity. In chapter 38, a man similarly gets to sleep with his daughter-in-law, innocently thinking she is a prostitute. Chapter 24 implies that a man’s wife replaces his (dead) mother.

Like Robert A. Heinlein, the authors of Genesis can’t keep one hand out of their pants, using the context of fantastic fiction to slip in transgressive pornographic scenarios for their own amusement. This, too, represents a decline from earlier Mesopotamian literature. Gilgamesh is described as a tyrant, an incompetent ruler, because he abuses his power for droit de seigneur. In fact, the wild man Enkidu goes to see Gilgamesh because he is outraged by the king’s bad behaviour. Like the biblical patriarchs, Gilgamesh is symptomatically sanctioned by the gods (“By divine consent it is so ordained” says Shamhat on the Pennsylvania tablet), but he is realistically condemned by other gods and his own subjects. Not so with the biblical patriarchs.

All the heroes of Genesis die of old age, never in battle or untimely disease. Abraham’s god favours them and is stronger than the other gods. The heroes prevail in this way because they are “culture” heroes, the mythical ancestors of the intended (iron-age Hebrew) reader. In the 21st century they would belong to an extreme political right. They are not marked, like Gilgamesh, by character, intelligence or luck. They do have brawn and sexual prowess, but not in mythical proportions. Compare Joseph’s Egyptians: the pharaoh is an unnamed idiot, the Egyptian people are glad to be oppressed by a foreigner, and the foreigner is unimpressed by a culture so old and rich that it absorbed many of its conquerors. Presumably the authors had never been to Egypt. Today this sort of thing is written mainly by adolescents boosting their ego. It’s flat wish fulfilment.

There is a gradual descent from loose myth to a historical mode, starting with Abraham. Chapter 32 is a bizarre exception: A night-time desert theomachy, suggesting humans take their fate from gods through trial by combat. Creation through divine battle was a common form of creation myth among the Hebrews, again influenced by Mesopotamian culture, but no coherent version of it was canonized alongside the two in this volume.

The historical mode is disappointingly disconnected from the more fantastic earlier stuff. For example, chapter 21 treats as miraculous a birth that would have been routine with the 230-year lifespan of Serug. In the Masoretic version, there is a roughly-100-year overlap between the lives of Serug and his great-grandson Abraham, but the 99-year old Abraham does not reflect on this when he despairs of having children. Even Abraham’s life is about 5 times longer than an ordinary person’s life would have been at the time of writing. I remember a middle-aged teacher of Christian “cultural history” (theology) in elementary school describing the miracle of Sarah’s pregnancy as if with some personal aspiration, omitting that it comes on the tail end of vastly greater wonders. Christians apparently have the same attitude to this stuff as fans of bad fantasy novels do to their genre.

By chapter 35, the historical mode develops to show a grain of anthropological truth. The narrator first explains that in Israel, rape is considered serious. Evidently this would not be known to the intended reader. The resolution is a bloodthirsty fantasy, but it does describe how different tribes would occasionally want to treat one another at the time, before institutions arose to mediate in disputes and cruel deception became a matter of public record. The brothers mention that their sister Dinah has been defiled, implying that her value to them has diminished. Her own feelings are somehow irrelevant. She does not speak. Empathy is not shown.

By this point in the narrative, with new authors, the gods have fallen silent. Chapter 37 introduces the substitute motif of the intradiegetic allegory, presented and discussed by characters in the narrative, without explication. Joseph appears to describe his dreams innocently, but their allegorical meaning is obvious to others. It’s all about hierarchy and domination. In chapters 40 and 41, the motif is made more elaborate, with the former dreamer now interpreting the stranger allegorical dreams of others with perfect prophetic accuracy, which he attributes to a silent god. Notice how the pharaoh repeats his entire dream in chapter 41, implying the author is literal-minded and steeped in oral literature. There is no finesse yet.

Chapters 39 onward fall from the historical mode to melodrama, with emotions constantly running high and a great deal of deception, power, wealth, glamour and sentimentality, moving at a slower pace. This fails to illustrate the seven-year famine that has gripped the known world.

Joseph seems to believe that his god wants an extremely unequal distribution of wealth, human overpopulation in Egypt, and slavery under the pharaoh, but not death by famine. Because the god says nothing in this episode, it’s not clear why it’s less genocidal than Noah’s or Abraham’s. I suppose this vagueness was crucial to the success of the text. If Joseph’s god had shown up to state explicitly what is implicit, the cult would have aged more poorly.

References here: Leviticus (ca. 500–400 BCE), 1 Chronicles (ca 400–250 BCE), Out of the Silent Planet (1938), The Little Prince (1943), “Tower of Babylon” (1990), The Czech Year (1947), “The Apple” (1967).

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Entry:

Exodus (ca. 500–400 BCE)

Extent

Read in 2018.

Subject

The Hebrews leave Egypt.

Chapter 1: To prevent Hebrew animosity, the new pharaoh enslaves the Hebrews, forces them to do hard labour and orders their male children killed at birth.

Chapter 2: Jacob’s great-grandson Moses is born, murders an Egyptian and marries.

Chapter 3: From a conspicuously burning bush, Abraham’s god promises to release the Hebrews from the captivity it arranged. It now calls itself “I am”. I will call it by its name, Yahweh.

Chapter 4: Yahweh teaches Moses some magic tricks for convincing the pharaoh. Moses is not a good speaker and arranges to have his brother Aaron do the talking. The god explains that it won’t matter because it will force the pharaoh to ignore any plea. One night, it tries to kill Moses but cancels the attempt when his wife circumcises their child with a piece of flint. Using magic, Moses convinces the elders of his people of his divine mission.

Chapter 5: The pharaoh rejects Moses’s lie that the Hebrews need to leave to do some praying. The pharaoh makes absurd new requirements upon the Hebrews.

Chapter 6: The other Hebrews ignore Moses.

Chapter 7: Yahweh makes Moses a god. It repeats that it will continue to prevent the pharaoh from listening, but still orders Moses and Aaron to argue with him. The brothers use magic but Egyptian wizards (priests) have the same magic. In the process, Moses and Aaron turn all water in the country into blood, killing all fish and rendering the Nile poisonous to drink.

Chapter 8–11: Moses, Aaron and the Egyptian wizards cover much of the country in frogs. When the brothers transform all dust in the country into mosquitoes, the Egyptians advise the pharaoh that the Hebrews are better wizards. The brothers then summon flies, kill all domesticated animals, and summon boils (on the Egyptians themselves), fiery hail, locusts, and darkness.

Chapter 12: Instructions for celebrating Passover include painting your house with blood so Yahweh will understand that it shouldn’t kill the people inside.

Yahweh kills all firstborn Egyptian people and animals, releases its control over the pharaoh so that he can honour his promise to release the Hebrews, and mind-controls the Egyptian people to give silver, gold and clothes to those who leave. Their stay has lasted for 430 years, which is two generations in Moses’s family.

Chapter 13: Yahweh is a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, guiding the Hebrews on a detour so they don’t get scared of other tribes.

Chapter 14: Yahweh kills Egyptians with magic in the parting of the Sea of Reeds.

Chapter 15: Musical interlude.

Chapter 16: The Hebrews are confused and ungrateful to be free. Their god feeds them quail and magic bread called manna. Moses is disappointed.

Chapter 17: Amalekites suddenly attack the Hebrews for no apparent reason. Moses strikes a pose to determine the outcome of the battle. Others physically support his arms to help him maintain that pose.

Chapter 18: Moses’s father-in-law inspires him to select chiefs who act as judges.

Chapter 19: At Mount Sinai, anybody who tries to get too close to the fuzzy mountain god without its permission must be killed.

Chapter 20: Moses conveys ten laws (the “commandments”). For instance, don’t climb stairs to an altar or else people will see your dick (20:26).

Chapters 21–23: Additional fine print of Mosaic law, in which the jealous (20:5, 34:15 etc.) Yahweh promises terror and genocide (23:23) to produce an ethnically cleansed state (23:33) and you have to kill witches (22:18).

Chapters 24–31: Moses gets stone tablets with the ten laws, and instructions for a field temple (the “tabernacle”).

Chapter 32: Disappointed again, Moses smashes his new tablets and has 3000 Hebrews killed for worshipping a calf that Aaron made from earrings. Moses says this heresy is the work of “opponents” of Yahweh, i.e. other gods.

Chapters 33–34: Getting new tablets, Moses takes up the habit of wearing a mask around people so they aren’t bothered by his disconcertingly glowing face.

Chapters 35–40: The field temple is built.

Commentary

Moses’s birth in chapter 2, with the humble basket of reeds, echoes a commonplace motif in earlier Mesopotamian literature.

Chapter 18 provides a glimpse of an earlier conception of Yahweh. Its attempt to kill Moses in chapter 4 is consistent with Genesis 32 and the tradition of “divine warrior” figures in the ancient Near East. Legitimate scholars seem to agree that the bulk of this work was written in Babylonian exile, at a time when cultural division and assimilation was perceived as a threat to the Hebrews. A fiction of prior unified exodus from captivity would have been politically expedient at this time, to sharpen the boundaries of the tribe. For the same reason, a unifying force was beefed up: Yahweh, the old divine warrior, got promoted. The Babylonian exile is written into the text as if it were a premonition (most clearly in Deuteronomy 4:27ff).

Religious canon puts the exodus around 1400 BCE, at which time Egypt probably had a population of around 2 to 3 million. This is compatible with the pharaoh’s remark in chapter 5 that the Hebrews are more numerous than the Egyptians, and the head count of 600,000 (adult Hebrew) men leaving the country in chapter 12. With rough estimates of family size, keeping in mind that males in the last generation were mostly killed at birth, and the high mortality of the era where this is supposed to take place, it would indeed seem probable that the Hebrews outnumber the native Egyptians before the plagues.

While the math checks out for the pharaoh’s off-hand remark, little else does. The Egyptians did a lot of writing. History contradicts even the most basic outlines of the narrative. The Elephantine papyri indicate that even Jews in Egypt in the 5th century BCE had no knowledge of an exodus. There was no agricultural base for a combined population over five million, and it takes some breeding to produce 2–3 million people from a single clan of 70 in the space of two generations, even if the two generations take 430 years. How could the Hebrews be enslaved when, in Genesis, it was the Egyptian people that was enslaved, effectively by Joseph? Why does Yahweh orchestrate this entire spectacle through a single murderer, or at all? No reason is given.

Some editor saw these plot holes. Perhaps in an earlier bible, the pharaoh acted under his own power, as in Genesis. Someone apparently found it necessary to posit that Yahweh is controlling the pharaoh so that the vulgar display of power can continue. This is as intelligent and compassionate as tying a baby to a burning crate of fireworks so you can blame the baby when you set your neighbour’s house on fire.

The mind-controlled pharaoh wilfully antagonizes a weirdly unassimilated ethnic group larger than his own through massive atrocities, even lowering their productivity (hence their economic value) and provoking his victims to spread out looking for straw, which would put them in an excellent position to retaliate and rise against the tyrant.

Consider how the balance of the two populations might change with the poisoning of all potable water, the killing of all domesticated animals raised for meat or milk, the failure of the most important crops, and the killing of all firstborn, little or none of this affecting the Hebrews. Realistically, it would destroy the state of Egypt. Any real pharaoh who saw even a tenth of that apocalyptic horror would be urging the Hebrews to leave at once before they overran Karnak. By the end, there cannot be enough Egyptians left standing to prevent the Hebrews from simply walking away.

Yahweh’s puppet pharaoh keeps digging himself a deeper hole, reneging on his promises each time. You can’t blame a puppet but you can blame the authors for admiring a god who would bend the minds of the innocent toward evil as he slaughters them.

The authors do not bother with any plausible attempt to denigrate the Egyptians or the Amalekites, nor do they highlight any Hebrew virtues. Interestingly, the target audience—Iser’s implied reader—is one that simply assumes other ethnic groups deserve every possible abuse.

As fantasies go, this is vile.

The thinking on display in this book is the expected consequence of combining “an eye for an eye” with profound ignorance and the darker tendencies of human psychology. It’s not philosophy; it doesn’t try to be. Mosaic law condemns itself in the eyes of any intelligent modern reader. I’ll just note one thing about the ten laws:

The law against killing (20:13) is delivered by an unrepentant murderer (2:12). In context, it genuinely seems as if “don’t kill” means “free Hebrews should intentionally kill other free Hebrews when provoked, and under circumstances listed elsewhere in this diatribe or exemplified by our heroes, but not otherwise; other living things don’t matter”. Compare, for example, 21:13, where beating a man to death by accident is defined as a divine act in contrast to murder. Compare also Deuteronomy 27:24–25, which seem to state the intention more clearly.

Forward-thinking Christians have had to struggle against typical Christians for 1900 years to stretch the law against killing from its intended narrow meaning into a general meaning. As of 2018, they are still struggling. That year, Pope Francis changed the Catechism to condemn the death penalty “under all circumstances”, and Catholics still kept killing other people in the most conscious way possible. The killers acted on an adequate understanding of their bible. The bible is the problem.

As the plot picks back up at the end of chapter 23, consider the middle of the last paragraph, verses 29 to 30 (NIV translation):

I will not drive them out from before thee in one year; lest the land become desolate, and the beast of the field multiply against thee. By little and little I will drive them out from before thee, until thou be increased, and inherit the land.

I cannot find the words to say how repugnant this passage is to me. It is the lazy attitude of those among our ancestors who killed the last of the Neanderthals and Denisovans by driving them onto marginal lands. It describes the casual holocaust of the Emishi and ten thousand other oppressed “aboriginal” groups throughout history, by red-handed conquerors who conflated power and wisdom. By extension, it’s the mindset of the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide and the Shoah itself.

People who believe in the Abrahamic religions will often say that you need their god or Moses’s commandments to be nice, and yet, when you read the bible, Moses tells you—in Yahweh’s own words—not only to commit the highest crimes against humanity but to do it the easy way. The wilful ignorance is staggering.

In conclusion, this is a hateful book. Read it and think about how the world might have been different if this foul stuff had not been the foundation of three major world religions. You can skip the chapters about the temple though. They’re just boring.

References here: Genesis (ca. 500–400 BCE), Metodboken — Bibel 2000 (1999), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

fiction text

Adaptation:

The Ten Commandments (1956) IMDb

Categorization

Biblical sword-and-sandal spectacle with lots of special effects, motivated entirely by the horrifying rise of television. Comes complete with a 220 minute runtime, a famous director who not only narrates but also appears on screen to introduce his work, and an action hero playing Moses.

Subject

Largely faithful. A little dude deposited in some reeds grows up and topples the might of ancient Egypt, thanks to the observable assistance of an incredibly inefficient god who enables such things as rival gods transmuting hilariously phallic staves into snakes.

Commentary

Stupid on many levels, like the blockbusters of today.

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Entry:

Leviticus (ca. 500–400 BCE)

Extent

Read in 2018.

Categorization

Additional Mosaic laws with minimal narrative.

Subject

Most of the laws concern purity and how to kill. For example:

  • Yahweh owns all fat (3:16f).

  • Priests get to eat sacrificed meat in exchange for giving absolution (5:13).

  • If a lizard falls into a pot, smash the pot (11:33).

  • Menstruating (15:19ff) and having children, especially girls (chapter 12), is unclean and you have to compensate by killing.

  • Kill for Yahweh at Yom Kippur but let one goat run to Azazel (16:6ff). This is the proverbial “scapegoat”.

  • Love your neighbour (19:18) and kill them if they seem possessed. Blame the victims (20:27).

  • Yahweh is concerned with two neat stacks of cakes, six in each (24:5f).

In a brief narrative interlude, Yahweh kills people for trying to please Yahweh (10:1f).

Commentary

The notion of purity here, like so much else in the bible, is an example of magical thinking. The premise of it is never stated, but you can extrapolate it from the specifics of the law: Physically real dirt, rot and disease is equivalent to everything else that triggers the reflex of disgust in a middle-aged Hebrew man. This includes corpses, cooties, natural wildlife and supernatural evil. As a result, some of the advice is basically sound for the period, like what to do when your building catches leprosy (chapter 14, last half), but the thinking is muddy.

Cloven-hoofed ruminants, i.e. genetically domesticated livestock, are practically the only things listed as clean (11:3). Other animals in general and many in particular, like the innocent rock badger, the hare and the pig (11:5–7) as well as water-living animals without fins or scales (11:12) and many specific bird species (11:13ff) are unclean. Thus nature in general is unclean. This division is based mainly on the shepherd’s greed and fear of the unfamiliar. The authors had no idea how many diseases had spread through livestock to people.

Even in Bibel 2000, Azazel (Swedish “Asasel”) is named as if it referred to a god of the wilderness, but this is apparently one of the traditional mistranslations, not one of the polytheistic slip-ups. According to credible scholarly commentaries, “Azazel” refers to more magical thinking: Choose by lots, with Yahweh acting through random chance, and drive away the goat who is thereby selected to carry your sins. It’s yet another horrible scene of blood sacrifice, but there is something darkly funny in the Frazerian idea of tricking Yahweh to ignore your sins by sticking them to a goat. This requires Yahweh to be foolish, in the same way that a small child’s fantasies will often involve a fool to make the child seem wise. Later on, “Azazel” became the name of a fallen angel.

On the subject of the concept of nature in the Pentateuch, this book contains one of several elaborate revenge fantasies where Yahweh promises to punish the people if they don’t live up to the covenant. In this particular fantasy, a temporary absence of the people from the promised land is characterized as a Sabbath of the land as such (26:34f), i.e. a supernaturally enforced long-term fallow period. This rounds out the image of Yahweh as a preternaturally powerful version of the intended reader, the slave-owning head of a Hebrew household.

Starting in this book, allowances are made for people of limited means, including lepers who can be purified for less (14:32). As in Abraham’s haggling over Sodom and Gomorrah, there is something profoundly primitive in the idea of making up a law mandated by a god with explicit exceptions for the most mundane problem in the world, when you could instead make up a divine law to eliminate poverty or promise to eliminate leprosy, or both. It’s an inelegant cash grab, and the authors show a sort of pride in this. Yahweh asserts that might makes right and the believer who wants justice or elegance or tolerance or beauty can piss off. You can see the arc starting to bend toward a more mature later monotheism where the very concept of morality is identified with the god. For instance, by implication of chapter 26, Jacob committed a horrible crime when he raised a stone in Genesis 31:35, because Yahweh now forbids idols.

Dwell on chapter 18, where Yahweh bans male homosexual intercourse. According to biblical scholar Idan Dershowitz, there is evidence in the Hebrew that this particular law was added in one of the later rounds of revisions. Secondary verses (glosses) attached to other laws focus on heterosexual relations: The verse about your parents is twisted to ban sex with your mother, not your father, and the same with uncles and aunts. Dershowitz claims that these glosses are a late addition made intelligible by a general ban on gay sex, which must therefore be a late addition too. It’s a weak argument, but even the after-thoughts and brain farts of these ancient editors may have extended to drive gay teenagers to suicide thousands of years later.

Dwell also on chapter 25, where Yahweh sanctions permanent human-on-human slavery (25:44–46) and declares that it personally owns all Hebrews as slaves (25:55). This is a picture of the authors in mise en abyme as slave-owning slaves, a link in the chain from Yahweh to the smallest creatures, where each one controls the next through fear and force: The gods over the prophets, the prophets over the judges, the judges over the priests, the priests over the patriarchs who form the primary target audience, and so on, with the inedible insects somewhere at the bottom of the heap. The authors wanted you to believe this was the natural order.

References here: Deuteronomy (ca. 630–400 BCE), 2 Chronicles (ca 400–250 BCE), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

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Entry:

Numbers (ca. 500–400 BCE)

Extent

Read in 2018.

Subject

Catalogues of the military strength of the Hebrews, more laws, and stops on the journey. Highlights include:

Chapter 5: When you suspect your wife of adultery, force her to eat dirt and see if her vulva shrivels up and her belly distends. If they don’t, she’s innocent but you don’t have to apologize. There’s no info on male adultery.

Chapter 11: Yet again Yahweh has to bully Hebrews into submission because they complain about freedom and the free food they’re getting by magic. This time Yahweh takes some of its spirit and gives it to the tribal elders to convince them. Moses wishes it had done that sooner. Yahweh lures people to sin and kills them.

Chapter 13: Scouts go to Abraham’s promised land and find a single cluster of grapes so big that two men must carry it between them on a pole. There are giants living there.

Chapter 14: Yahweh kills all but two of the scouts (and many others) for lying and vows to let the entire present generation of Hebrews die in the desert for not taking the promised land from its peoples by force. This is why the Hebrews spend 40 years in the desert on a trip that would normally take about two months. Indeed, Yahweh “punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation” (verse 18).

Chapter 15: Moses has a man killed for gathering firewood. Also, you have to have tassels.

Chapter 16: Yahweh kills people.

Chapter 21: Genocidal war against the Canaanites and Amorites.

Chapters 22–24: The prophet Balaam (Swedish: Bileam) is asked to curse the Hebrews but Yahweh mind-controls him to bless them. Balaam has a talking donkey (22:28ff).

Chapter 25: Yahweh kills people for loving their neighbour, i.e. attending the feasts of a neighbouring people who worship different gods.

Chapter 30: The promises of women are subject to male approval.

Chapter 31: Genocidal war against the Midianites. Balaam is killed; no word on the donkey. Moses says to enslave the virgin girls (hint: for rape) and kill everybody else.

In this volume, Joshua starts to emerge as a hero.

Commentary

Tedious and awful, but I can’t complain about tassels.

Like a dictator in his own propaganda, Moses is described as the most humble person on Earth (12:3). Yahweh says it is Moses’ special privilege to get Yahweh’s word in plain sentences as opposed to riddles (12:8), which would indicate that Joseph was worse, since he got riddles. Despite his privilege, Moses receives no answer when he seems to ask the obvious question: Why does Yahweh taunt and kill Hebrews instead of convincing them?

From what I gather, the historical Hebrews themselves were heavily blended with the other Semitic peoples they kill here. Supposedly, one of the major purposes of writing the Pentateuch was to differentiate between these groups and sharply define an Israelite identity. The stubbornness of the Hebrews as they are depicted is part of this “identity card”. Bad-boy recalcitrance seems to have been a source of tribal pride, and there is a sort of primitive anarchic freedom in it, but at the same time, the authors show an obvious contempt for the common members of the tribe. The continuing refusal of the Hebrews to believe must be an allusion to the refusal of most real people to believe real priests who do their work by spouting bullshit without the benefit of magic. In this allegory, the authors apparently couldn’t picture widespread religious devotion even in a fantasy of their own making.

References here: Genesis (ca. 500–400 BCE), “The Apple” (1967).

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Entry:

Deuteronomy (ca. 630–400 BCE)

Extent

Read in 2018.

Subject

Moses, having been condemned with the rest of his generation to die in the desert without seeing the promised land, makes a farewell speech recounting some of the earlier episodes of the Pentateuch and anticipating those of Joshua. Along the way, he states a number of laws, some mirrored in books placed earlier in the Pentateuch. He dies on a mountain close to his sky god. Highlights:

Chapter 7: Yahweh has condemned seven specific peoples to extinction by genocidal war in order to make way for Israel. The Hebrews must show no mercy, must leave nobody alive and must desecrate the temples until the names of the conquered are forgotten.

Chapter 10: Moses demands fear of Yahweh and, in the same breath, absolute love of the same god (“with all your heart and with all your soul”, verse 12) and obedience to the laws.

Chapter 12: Moses promises guilt-free meat. The worst thing he can say about the condemned peoples is that they purportedly practised human sacrifice, which is incidentally what Yahweh demanded of Abraham.

Chapter 18: True prophets will be identifiable only in retrospect (by their predictions coming true) but also by not dying.

Chapter 19: A crime with a single witness, such as a typical case of domestic abuse or rape, cannot be prosecuted.

Chapter 20: Laws of war. Non-commissioned officers will order all soldiers with new houses, new vineyards or new wives, as well as anybody who feels scared, to leave the army immediately before a battle. When your army reaches a distant city, you must offer slavery as if it were peace.

Chapter 21: When you don’t know who the killer is, don’t investigate the murder. Investigate the distance to nearby cities. Whichever city is nearest must kill an animal in a ravine and wash their hands over the dead animal to avert responsibility for the murder.

Also, disobedient sons must be stoned and when you kill somebody, raising the corpse for display as in a crucifixion, take care not to leave the corpse up over night.

Chapter 22: You can prove that a wife was a virgin at the time she got married, but there’s no info on how. Also, this time, both men and women are culpable for adultery. Also, happily, tassels.

Chapter 25: There’s an elaborate ritual to be performed with spit and a sandal when two brothers live together and one of them dies with a wife but without a son and the remaining brother—like Onan—won’t marry and impregnate his sister-in-law as Yahweh intended.

Chapter 28: Practically all welfare in life is contingent upon total obedience to Yahweh.

Chapter 30: Moses argues that Mosaic law is easy to follow because it exists.

Chapter 32: Musical interlude. In it, Moses alludes to the traditional Mesopotamian afterlife in “the realm of the dead below” and describes Yahweh as a warrior whose hand is so strong you can’t pull anything out of it.

Chapter 33: Like Jacob, the dying Moses surveys the tribes, but is more upbeat.

Commentary

The English-language name “Deuteronomy” is an example of how the text has been corrupted in translation. It comes from the Septuagint, translating the Hebrew phrase mišnê hattôrâ hazzō't, meaning “a copy of this law”, into Latin for “a second law”.

According to John W. Rogerson, the law code contained in chapters 5–26 is from the second half of the 7th century BCE, the rest of the book having been added later to round out the Pentateuch and segue into other then-current books, starting with Joshua. I don’t know whether the Hebrew phrase was a title, but in this interpretation the book started as a (written) copy of the (oral) law. It became seen as a “second” law after being appended to the newer, more colourful Exodus. Chapter 4, verse 27f, anticipates the Babylonian exile that prompted the bulk of the work on the Pentateuch.

In chapter 2, Moses is told not to invade land given to the descendants of Lot, the creep from Genesis. This seems to suggest that the authors truly viewed Lot as a hero.

Returning to the problem of population dynamics, consider how plausible it is that 2 to 3 million Hebrews found seven larger peoples occupying their promised land. That would make over 20 million inhabitants, perhaps 50 times carrying capacity. Chapter 8 states that, in addition to the miraculous food provided in the desert, the clothes of the wandering Hebrews never wore out and their feet never got swollen. According to this story, the direct beneficiaries of this constant magic refused to respect the god who saved them from extinction by infanticide. Verses 10:16 and 30:6 provide a penis-based metaphor for the people’s skepticism: “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.” I keep wondering why the population numbers are so off, but of course that’s just a funny-looking mushroom in the authors’ great forest of mistakes.

Chapter 25 states that judges are meant to acquit the innocent and condemn the guilty. The mere presence of this law implies that somebody, at some point, pretended to believe the opposite and required scriptural proof to accept the obvious. I find this amusing, especially in the context that no space at all is spent articulating anything that would indicate the authors had supernatural insight, as is their claim. They might have formulated something useful and non-obvious, like the laws of thermodynamics.

Nothing in the Pentateuch manages to articulate an elegant underlying principle, but chapter 28 comes close. It seems to describe a moral foundation where the good is defined as loyalty to Yahweh. All good things the authors could imagine thus follow obedience, and all bad things follow disobedience. This is not portrayed as a natural law but a consequence of the god’s deliberate actions: It will reward the loyal and punish the disloyal.

The idea of loyalty as the highest good is the attitude of a dishonest human leader, particularly a strong-man type. It is not a natural fit for henotheism in general or Yahweh’s odious personality in particular. I suppose the poor fit is the reason why the authors did not do a better job of stating the principle as such. Its correspondence with human leadership follows the logic of status and domination that is the skeleton of the text.

Compare Leviticus 25 on slavery. In such a world, where might makes right, the best you can do is to guard your status and praise loyalty as a virtue. The authors apparently saw no alternative. They could not imagine an authority without personal vigilance and violence to back it up. They lived before the modern state. Perhaps they never reflected on how mere power might differ from a later moral sensibility. Smarter people in their time certainly did.

The idea of reward and punishment as a moral foundation has survived into popular Christianity with its carrot of Heaven and stick of Hell. It is dull and useless for purposes other than tyranny. I mention its early form because, while some of the most repellent laws of the Pentateuch are famous, few seem to know its intellectual and emotional poverty.

References here: 1 Kings (ca. 620–530 BCE), 2 Kings (ca. 620–530 BCE), Exodus (ca. 500–400 BCE), Pentateuch (ca. 500–400 BCE), “Hell Is the Absence of God” (2001).

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Entry:

Joshua (ca. 650–500 BCE)

Extent

Read in 2018.

Categorization

A catalogue of ethnic cleansing.

Subject

The conquest of the “land of milk and honey” that Yahwe promised Abraham. This starts with magic (the river Jordan is temporarily dry) and the cutting of several hundred thousand foreskins on the Hill of Foreskins (chapter 5). Then they get an angel general and take Jericho by magic (chapter 6), killing everyone except the family of a prostitute who helped Hebrew scouts. A Hebrew takes loot from Jericho so Yahweh kills Hebrews until the culprit is identified by a lottery and killed (chapter 7).

The action adventure continues with more magical help until the Hebrews win all the land they want, with anecdotes on local landmarks—including ruined cities—along the way. The holocaust of resident peoples is substantial but not all of them are wiped out. For instance, some Canaanites survive as slave labourers (16:10), which seems to be an invitation to further pogroms. There is a large catalogue of lands and cities assigned to the twelve tribes. As under Moses, the Hebrews are constantly on the verge of apostasy but promise to be good.

Commentary

According to a modern revision of the 1943 “Deuteronomistic history” hypothesis, a kernel of Joshua and the next few books appeared in the reign of Judah’s King Josiah (late 7th century BCE) and was largely finalized in a second edition during the Babylonian exile (6th century BCE). I can imagine that much of the Pentateuch, like the anecdote of Noah cursing Ham, was written to contextualize and motivate the violence on display here.

Those ancient Hebrews sure cared a lot about foreskins. There is no stated reason why they so grossly violated Mosaic penis law on their trek, but again, the scene on the Hill of Foreskins might have been written before the general law was formulated.

Chapter 7 is quite an extreme example of superstitious paranoid thinking: 36 of the hundreds of thousands of Hebrew fighters have died in a losing skirmish. Any real commander would expect and accept that number even in a victory. Joshua does not: He panics and deliberately conducts an internal witch hunt by sheer random chance. This turns out to be the right decision. Joshua is fully vindicated.

The 36 men died because another man, Akan, had not fully committed to genocide for its own sake. The culprit tainted the mass killing by grabbing loot from the innocent dead. This purports to show that material concerns debase the otherwise moral act of hacking down women and children, putting even babies to the sword. Consider what a horrible belief system the authors must have had to make this choice. Wanting to depict the ancestors of their people as stoic heroes with a right to their land, the authors kept describing these huge massacres of the innocent. Wanting to depict the Hebrews as noble and selfless, they chose to emphasize how the vast majority did no looting in a war to grab land.

If you ever survive a bad skirmish, killing a random soldier on your own side with a supernatural explanation would be a poor decision for you to make. It’s effectively a human sacrifice for the expurgation of your sense of guilt. The absurd premise of the biblical narrative contextualizes it as the best possible decision. This is so plainly illogical that it reads like gaslighting, as if the authors tried to undermine all better judgement for the sake of building religious belief.

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Entry:

Judges (ca. 650–500 BCE)

Extent

Read in 2018.

Categorization

Superhero fiction.

Subject

Repetitions of a cycle: The Israelites worship the many gods, Yahweh uses neighbouring peoples to punish the Israelites, the Israelites cry about that, and Yahweh sends a superhero to save them. The hero becomes a judge, there is peace for one or two generations, and the cycle repeats. Not every element of the cycle is explicit in each repetition. Throughout, Israel has no king, nor does it cover Jerusalem.

Infighting among the Israelites gradually moves to the foreground. Chapter 12 mentions a slur about half-breeds between the twelve tribes of Israel, and the word “shibboleth” as a shibboleth. Forty-two thousand people are murdered for saying it wrong. Chapter 19 mirrors the story of Lot at Sodom. The man corresponding to Lot somehow sleeps through the long rape of his concubine, then cuts her into twelve pieces and sends the pieces all over the country to start a civil war against the Benjamites, one of the twelve tribes.

Following the war, the Benjamites are left without women. The other tribes check to see who has sworn an oath not to give their daughters in marriage to any Benjamite. They find that nobody from Jabesh Gilead came to the particular meeting where the oath was sworn. Without provocation, the other tribes fight a second civil war against Jabesh Gilead, killing everyone except 400 virgins who are given to the Benjamites as sex slaves so the tribe can recover from the first civil war.

Commentary

The narrative of all six books leading up to this one is about the land of Israel, promised to Abraham by Yahwe, as a reward for being good. This promised land is supposed to be a wonderful place. After all, it’s got barely-portable grapes, as well as “milk and honey”, a set phrase used throughout the franchise. Certainly, having arrived in it, the common Israelites would no longer have reason to complain about slavery, or systematic infanticide, or their arduous journey, or scary genocidal wars. They would therefore have less reason for heresy. However, the authors posit that previous events are not remembered (2:10), nor do they influence the narrative in any way. Evidently, the promised land is no better or worse than the surrounding land. The Israelites themselves are unchanged by their ordeal and by their nominally blessed state. This is typical of bad writing in any genre.

There is a simple real-world reason for the continuity error: The prequels were made up to define a national identity and justify war. The events in them do not influence the plot because they never took place, nor did the authors take their own fiction seriously.

Though some authors might have written in Babylonian exile, romanticizing their home while absent from it, the editors evidently chose to preserve lies about Israel as a wonderful place for a target audience living in Israel. This amounts to a sort of patriotic bluster, part of the general pattern of denigrating neighbouring lands and peoples. Ultimately, the authors expected their target audience to be so profoundly ignorant and so prejudiced they would simply believe they were living in a special, blessed land.

There is a diegetic justification for why the earlier dream of total ethnic cleansing is forgotten. According to verses 3:1f, Yahweh keeps the inferior peoples around so that each new generation of Hebrews will learn to fight and be tested by fighting. With this thin excuse for perpetual race hatred and pogroms, the epic mode is abandoned. The overarching plot ended in Joshua and there is nothing here to replace it.

Judges thus represents a continuing descent toward a historical mode with traces of anthropological credibility. There is less vulgar magic and the orgies of destruction are a bit smaller in scale, being closer to the intended reader’s own life and recorded history. However, the lack of credible historical detail is telling. The structure is overtly schematic because it’s made up. Most of the episodes are illustrated only by some horrible anecdote, not what a contemporary historian would write. There is torture (1:6), murder (3:20f), more murder (4:21), traceless testing of angels (e.g. Gideon’s experiments with dew and wool, 6:36–40), human sacrifice to Yahweh (11:30), a bee hive in a lion (14:8), and mass murder violating the previous law of “an eye for an eye” (16:28), all apparently pleasing to Yahweh. This god, who says Gideon has too many soldiers (chapter 7) is defeated in battle by chariots (1:19). Like Aaron, Gideon creates an idol and is a heretic (8:27) despite being chosen as a saviour. From chapter 19 you might learn the lesson that if your partner is raped to death, cut the body into pieces and send one piece to each police station to make sure justice is done.

Much is communicated through dreams and allegories. Samson’s allegorical lion and riddle (14:14) is a particularly insulting example. I like the fable of the king of trees (9:7–15) which celebrates diversity and expresses an anarchist sentiment. In it, a king must reject its own nature and cease to be productive in order to rule. Other authors seem to miss the point and believe Israel should have a king anyway.

References here: 1 Samuel (ca. 620–500 BCE), “The Apple” (1967), Judge Dredd (1995).

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Entry:

“Ruth” (ca. 500–330 BCE)

Extent

Read in 2018.

Subject

The family history of David, a later king of Judah. A woman’s friends help her find a man by sneaking into his bed and lying down at his “feet”, which is supposedly code for genitals.

Commentary

The position of this work in the Hebrew bible is very different; Christians moved it to follow Judges for its purported place in history. It’s more empathetic than the earlier books and nobody is beaten to death, but it’s still symptomatic quasi-pornography.

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Entry:

Books of Samuel (ca. 620–500 BCE)

Extent

Read in 2018.

Commentary

At this point the “Deuteronomistic history” comes further into the style of Olaus Magnus’s A Description of the Northern Peoples (1555). The lies are gradually replaced by bullshit in the technical sense: Statements made without caring whether they’re true or not. Some of them probably contain a grain of truth, for instance in political contrasts between Judah and Israel or in the rivalry with Philistia.

The distinction between Judah and Israel seems to have been a difficult problem for the authors of these prequels. Consider the extreme myopia of the work: Though it purports to tell the history of the world, that history is virtually centred on the very border between Judah and Israel, with no knowledge of anything further away than Kush (roughly modern Sudan). Even so, the border itself is taken for what it really was: A historical coincidence. It is never explained, merely foreshadowed by genealogy. This is disappointing to me, probably because it is inconsistent with the extreme teleology of the narrative in other respects.

Philistia, a neighbouring state to the southwest, had buckled by the time these books were written. The rivalry was probably real enough, and vaguely remembered in oral tradition. Its outline provides a convenient backdrop for a sort of superhero narrative paired up with continuing denigration of the defeated ethnic group.

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Entry:

1 Samuel (ca. 620–500 BCE)

Extent

Read in 2018.

Subject

The first Hebrew king, Saul. He is king of both Israel and Judah. Yahweh appoints Saul through the prophet Samuel, after breaking its word of letting the Levites act in its stead as priests (2:30). A younger man, David, is chosen to succeed Saul and kills the Philistine giant Goliath.

The last third of the book is devoted to a queer rivalry between Saul and David. There are multiple scenes, starting with 19:9, where Yahweh mind-controls Saul to attack David while the younger man plays music and dodges the attacks. Not knowing he is being set up, David tries to please the first king by sexually mutilating two hundred human corpses, symbolically converting them to his own religion (18:27). After Samuel dies, Saul summons him from his rest in the Mesopotamian land of the dead (chapter 28) using a witch. Finally, Saul dies.

Commentary

As in the preceding books, good women like Samuel’s mother Hannah seem obsessed with fertility and view it as divine intervention. In combination with Judges 3:1f, a monotheist interpretation of this conviction suggests that the non-Yahwists who surround Israel are fertile by Yahweh’s frequent intervention, but only so that Hebrews have people to kill.

As reputation suggests, the women of the Old Testament, including both temptresses like Delilah of Judges and madonnas like Hannah, are generally reduced to their narrow functions in the eyes of the male authors. Hannah is mocked for being childless (1:6) and then mocks her “enemies” in turn because fertility has redeemed her (2:1). This suggests a life of constant hen-pecking over chance events, which is gruelling.

In song, Hannah denies that people can succeed without divine intervention (2:9) and asserts that Yahwe acts on countries and governments, specifically kings (2:10). This introduces the theme that Yahweh “ordained the government for his purposes” (Romans 13), a central theme of this book, to be developed in other books all the way into the New Testament, without conclusion.

Samuel sleeps in the presence of the Hebrews’ idol, the non-figurative ark of the covenant. Yahweh speaks to the boy there as he spoke to Moses, which the narrator says is now rare (3:1) again. Three times, Yahweh addresses Samuel directly, which must refer to the common illusion of hearing one’s own name on the verge of sleep. Vulgarly, the first three times, Samuel thinks it’s the old man Eli sleeping nearby who has called him. Only then does he learn to recognize the difference in voice between the purported creator of the universe, the sight of which is lethal, and an ordinary old man. This is telling. Eli’s comment is that the god does whatever it wants (3:18, echoing the refrain of Judges), with the implication that such freedom is good for the god and bad for anybody else.

Also vulgar is the battle between two idols in chapter 5, and the Philistines making boils and rats of gold in chapter 6, before they are even convinced of Yahweh’s influence (6:9). According to archaeologist Aren Maeir, the obscure term ofalim commonly interpreted as “boils” (or “haemorrhoids”, “swellings”), may be an example of the authors’ fear to describe the other gods, in this case the Philistine goddess, who had a phallus. The real Philistines evidently made phalluses as religious symbols. In this interpretation, the biblical victims were making swollen golden lady-dicks to signify that they were getting fucked, and this all would have been a deliberate insult of the neighbours’ faith. I first heard of this explanation in a 2014 lecture by Maeir, “New Light on the Biblical Philistines: Recent Study on the Frenemies of Ancient Israel”.

The Philistines thus have the role of comically (horribly) suffering clowns and foils, like the Egyptians in the Pentateuch. Their lack of certainty continues the descent toward a historical mode: Divine communication and intervention are non-obvious even to their most immediate subjects.

A tedious level of detail is spent on Saul and David, who probably never existed. In the imagined debate over whether to have a king, the authors take both sides, showing both bad priests and a bad king, and having Yahweh argue against kings (chapter 8) on the basis that it is a king (12:12) before letting it happen anyway, leading to a good second king. This is also in line with the idea of the authors imitating less moralistic, descriptive historical texts as a template for their imagination. As with Moses, they continue to invent humble origins for their heroes (e.g. 9:21), and to attribute random chance to divine intervention (10:20ff) even when the ultimate results are bad in their own opinion. Interestingly, the use of humility extends momentarily to appearance, with Yahweh telling Samuel to reject certain handsome candidates (16:7), but the narrator immediately undermines this point by making the right man beautiful (16:12).

By the same token, it makes no sense that David should believe he is too lowly to marry into Saul’s family (18:18). A skilled writer of fiction would remain aware at this juncture that Saul’s own origins are as humble as David’s, and that Saul is literally the only king in the country’s history, hence there can be no tradition of stratification. The book is written by and for people who have lived their entire lives under a tradition of monarchy and cannot imagine the events of the story.

The motif of humble origins is a trick for building acceptance of authority and sympathy for the underdog. Compare Judges 7 where Gideon gets rid of the majority of his soldiers just to get into an underdog position. Apart from a mirrored insult, David versus Goliath is a much more intelligently written underdog scene, and therefore the most seductive action set-piece thus far.

As the narrative continues the development toward the intended audience’s present—a time with kings and without magic—it also continues the development toward monotheism. Yahweh now says that the other gods are empty (12:20), which is smarter than saying they are bad and that Yahweh is jealous of them, as has been the story up to this point. The distinction requires a wider public acceptance of monotheism. This makes me think the writing is a little more recent.

The bad king Saul blames his crucial misstep on a fear of the people (15:24). In his view, the misstep was to do what the people wanted. This is a very interesting verse. Recall that the authors of the Pentateuch frequently demand fear of Yahweh as a virtue. Compare the fear of the rex Nemorensis for his own successor, a mythical tradition which gave its name to Frazer’s Golden Bough.

In later democratic societies, the ruler was supposed to fear the people, to be a mere proxy of the people’s greater collective power. The Magna Carta was negotiated (and renegotiated throughout the 13th century) from such a fear, eventually leading to a modern view of regime legitimacy and state power. If the authors of the bible had been clever, they would have proposed something similar. It would have made sense, from the axiom that Yahweh has blessed the Israelites as a group, that their king should serve at the people’s pleasure and fear their anger. However, despite their obvious ambivalence about the monarchy, the authors missed the opportunity. The bible shows a more primitive view: Everyone should fear those above them, especially the unappointed god.

References here: “Dagon” (1919).

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Entry:

2 Samuel (ca. 620–500 BCE)

Extent

Read in 2018.

Subject

The kingship of David and his successors. He starts as a king of Judah, with a rival king in Israel (2:8f). In a notoriously incongruous passage (5:8) he takes the stronghold of Zion, conquering Jerusalem from the Jebusites. A guy walking beside the non-figurative idol accidentally trips and touches it, so Yahweh kills him (6:7).

Yahweh and David get along so well that they promise to build houses for one another (chapter 7) but Yahweh kills one of David’s children (12:18). David and the hottie Bathsheba schtup for comfort and produce his heir, Solomon. While Solomon is growing up, another one of David’s sons, Absalom, rebels because David defends his firstborn son, an incestuous rapist. Later, another problem develops because Saul had attempted a genocide not sanctioned by Yahweh (21:1f). Continued wars with the Philistines bring additional superpowers (e.g. 21:19f) and Yahweh kills tens of thousands of Hebrews because David counts them (24:10ff): There are 1.3 million capable of bearing arms.

Commentary

When people act as if on David’s orders, increasing his power, David punishes them (e.g. 4:8ff). This is a curious detail which suggests that David might have existed. A sycophantic historiography that clears the name of a typical murdering iron-age ruler is not something you are likely to waste on a complete fiction, but then again, the authors may have been sucking up to their own patron, a nominal descendant of David. The symptomatic facets of the narrative surely serve the authors’ own power fantasies. Maybe they just dreamed of being handed a greater kingship through no fault of their own. Notice also the sexual double standard: David is a slut and serial baby daddy (3:18, 5:14f).

At the start of chapter 12, the prophet Nathan provides a clear example of one of the most common uses of metaphor in the bible: As a veiled form of attack. It allows the prophet to criticize the king’s actions to his face. Not knowing he is being criticized, David is furious with behaviour ostensibly equivalent to his own. This fury then forces him to see himself at fault. This last step, where the metaphor is explained to its subject, is obviously risky. Here it marks the fearlessness of a good prophet, and the role of a good prophet as a social justice warrior. Nathan is a good example of his archetype in another way also: Even more than Samuel, Nathan’s a professional intermediary between Yahweh and the king, a role that has partly replaced the combined prophet-leaders of the earlier books (the patriarchs, Moses etc.). However, Yahweh also speaks directly to David (e.g. 21:1).

The rape victim suggests that instead of taking her by force, the perpetrator should go to their father, David, whom she says will surely allow a marriage. Whether the woman actually wants her aggressive brother fucking her is somehow irrelevant. When the deed is done she admonishes him for not marrying her even then. Not doing so is, in her own opinion, a crime greater than the rape itself (13:16). Indeed, this is what causes Absalom’s rebellion, but the woman does nothing. Being a woman in the bible, she is of no account.

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Entry:

Books of Kings (ca. 620–530 BCE)

Extent

Read in 2018.

Subject

More kings following David and their eventual defeat by foreign powers, as Yahweh’s collective punishment.

Commentary

Originally copied as a single book. The break between its two halves is particularly artificial. The narrative is largely coherent, being informed by comparatively recent events concluding the history of the country up to the time of writing.

The major motifs are the superpowers of the prophets and the gradual collapse of Israel and Judah from a high point under the fuzzily mythical Solomon to real subjugation by foreign powers. The theme is religious freedom as an explanation for the failure of the state. In particular, military defeat is blamed on a policy decision repeated by a majority of the kings: To allow the people to worship without government persecution. The narrator sounds like a broken record repeating this same note about each new entry in the lines of succession.

The decision to blame military defeat on freedom drives the entire Old Testament up to this point. The Yahwists surely had their say in earlier versions of the bible, but their failure seems to have brought on a flurry of re-writes to give their message a political dimension. According to scholars, the aim was to rebuild the nation with a sharp new image of its origins. As far as I can tell, Abraham and the other patriarchs, as well as Moses and Joshua’s genocidal conquest of Israel, were all invented or substantially adapted to reforge Israel in reaction to the few real events shown here. They are the prequels while this is the main work of the Old Testament.

Combining ethnocentrism, intolerance, superstition and paranoia is generally potent and dangerous. The addition of a primitive monotheism to the mix, denying all other narratives, would turn out to be one of the most important decisions in human history. The text itself is so poorly written that it sheds very little light on the thought process, but it’s still worth reading for the monumental impact of the authors’ gambit.

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Entry:

1 Kings (ca. 620–530 BCE)

Extent

Read in 2018.

Subject

The kingship of Solomon. Yahweh is thrilled that the king prays for wisdom (3:10), and so rewards the Hebrews with the first period of apparent happiness and contentment in the entire bible up to this point (4:25). Solomon builds a temple and transfers the ark to it, praying that his people will always live in fear of the spying Yahweh (8:40) and denying all innocence (8:46). After a few of Solomon’s successors cause a schism and Egyptians loot the temple in Jerusalem (14:26), the prophet Elijah appears and announces a long drought. Elijah himself is fed by ravens.

While he is the only prophet in his time, Elijah has a contest of magic with 450 prophets of Baal. He mocks them for not being able to produce concrete material evidence of the veracity of their religious faith, and then proves his own in a bloody spectacle where Yahweh eats a sacrificed animal (18:38). Elijah proceeds to have all of the prophets of Baal killed (18:40). This massacre ends the drought, but the bad successors keep coming.

Commentary

As the only evidence of Solomon’s wisdom, the authors submit a scene where the king orders a man to hack a baby to death with a sword in front of its mother (3:25). It’s an edgelord scare tactic which mirrors the binding of Isaac: The fatherly ruler demanding a great horror, then retracting its command. This method of ruling by negative emotional manipulation is the pinnacle of what the authors call wisdom.

Elijah’s contest invites all skeptics to demand evidence of Yahweh’s existence, and to accept only confirmedly supernatural events as evidence. It’s a self-defeating piece of theology. I was surprised to see it in the bible. Modern Christians know better than to try it: Virtually all of them accept that their god will never appear to them and that there will never be evidence like Elijah’s. This is why you don’t see a rabbi challenging 450 bhikkhus to a summoning contest. Again, the authors’ choice of including this scene says a lot about the state of their society. They had not yet come up with the foolish protective notion that faith can only exist in the absence of evidence, nor had they formed the flimsy theological defence that the god of Abraham “walks in mysterious ways”. Yahweh was still concrete and anthropomorphic in their day.

The priests of Baal are another human sacrifice to Yahweh, a god supposedly too kind for such sacrifices, according to Deuteronomy 12. More to the point, what sort of person do you think would enjoy the thought of killing all those men? If Baal is not real but merely a figment of the imagination, as Elijah’s contest purports to show, then the priests are simply ignorant. The authors fail even to speculate about why anyone would willingly serve a false god. Realistically, if such a contest had occurred in the ancient world under the supernatural premisses of the authors, a large proportion of the priests of Baal would have been thrilled to accept the direct evidence of a true faith. Here, none convert.

The contest is written in such a bloodthirsty, knowingly cruel and implausible way because the authors knew that Yahweh does not really appear on command to prove its existence. Like modern Christians, they knew the contest never happened and could never happen. As usual, the authors were concerned with propagating the myth that Yahweh is a better choice than other gods, and they simply could not think of a better way to do it than fiction. They could not think of any good reasons to believe. They could not even clearly formulate the idea that Baal is made up, perhaps because they themselves did not fully believe it. They could only spew this vulgar stuff where picking the wrong team leads to humiliation and death.

Such negative propaganda is the major theme. Despite David’s census, Israel’s army is tiny when it kills a hundred thousand Arameans. This slaughter occurs because Yahweh feels insulted to be called a mountain god (20:28). Whores wash themselves in the blood of one of the bad kings (22:38), whose failure is the result of Yahweh making his prophets tell lies. Over and over, the authors insist that extreme religious fanaticism, in their particular faith, is the only protection from such punishment.

Despite the Schadenfreude, the book is worth reading for the startling happiness of the people under Solomon, and the amusing simplicity of Elijah’s contest. The happiness extends to all male Hebrew landowners, not further. Thankfully, it is not a big fascist myth of paradise lost, though it is useful for fascist purposes. It’s interesting because it comes so late and stays so briefly. To their credit, the authors did not paint a big theocratic utopia for later believers to build. However foul its intent, the basic impetus of Elijah’s contest is still good: You should in fact demand evidence of religious authorities. It will almost certainly make you an atheist.

References here: Books of Chronicles (ca. 400–250 BCE), “Whom Gods Destroy” (1969).

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Entry:

2 Kings (ca. 620–530 BCE)

Extent

Read in 2018.

Subject

The prophet Elijah dies like a heavy metal album cover (2:11) and is replaced by his disciple, Elisha, whose adventures take up much of the first half of the book. Elisha asserts his supernatural insight by saying “I told you so” (2:18) and murders 42 children for making fun of his baldness (2:23f). When Elisha gives an unwilling woman a son by a miracle, the child dies and the woman says “I told you so” (4:27f), but Elisha spitefully resurrects her unwanted son by entering the room with the dead body, closing the door behind him and lying down on top of the corpse, mouth to mouth (4:33f).

A second thread of the narrative extends the history of the Hebrews almost up to the time of writing. In war, they attempt ecocide (3:25) until they are so disgusted by the enemy’s single human sacrifice that they forfeit the war and go home (3:27). There are seven years of famine (8:1) without consequences.

King Jehu enforces religious intolerance (chapter 10), but this is shortly before Yahweh begins to mutilate Israel for punishment (10:32). Under king Josiah, men working to restore the temple in Jerusalem find a scroll of the law in it (chapter 22). Having recovered this scroll—implied to be all or part of the Pentateuch—the people renew the vow of their covenant with Yahweh and celebrate Passover for the first time since before Saul (chapter 23). However, Yahweh still decides to destroy Israel and Judah, rejecting its temple (23:27).

First, Assyrians defeat Israel (15:19, 15:27 etc.), acting on Yahweh’s direct orders (18:25) but punished by Yahweh (19:35), then king Hezekiah shows Babylonian envoys his treasure (20:13), inviting disaster. Next, Judah is caught in a war between Egypt and Assyria (23:29), falling under Egyptian rule (23:34). King Jehoiakim thus rules Judah for Egypt when he is defeated by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, rushing into the power vacuum left by the fall of Assyria. Though Jehoiakim rebels against his new master, Yahweh sends bandits to destroy Judah (24:2) and the Babylonians take the treasure they were shown and all important people to Babylon. A prisoner, the king of Judah is eventually pardoned and treated well (25:27ff; traditionally ca. 561 BCE).

Commentary

According to a modern revision of the 1943 “Deuteronomistic history” hypothesis, this is the only part of that history written in part by contemporary observers: An early version under Josiah, who appears here, and a later one in Babylonian exile or shortly thereafter. As such this book solders the revised mythology of the Hebrews onto real events, moving from the freewheeling Olaus Magnus mode of the Books of Samuel toward a handful of facts peppered with exaggerations and flights of fancy, like the medieval chroniclers.

Before Josiah’s workers find the scroll in the temple, another king follows Deuteronomy 24:16 (cited in full), which seems to show the law is not forgotten. It’s not clear how much of the “recovery” of the scroll is a Joseph Smith-style forgery of new old scripture orchestrated by the authors of this volume, and how much is mere convenience for the larger purposes of the retcon.

The stiff-necked refusal of the Hebrews to worship only Yahweh, all throughout the books placed earlier in the Christian bible, anticipates this more central, earlier work. Alas, it is peppered with bullshit and expresses virtually no sense of empathy.

In a single scene, the authors admit that prophets were actually viewed as unreliable outcasts (9:11) and they assert that people instantly took the outrageous actions of these same prophets seriously (9:13). By this token, both Elijah and Elisha are author self-inserts. They’re the cool kids who snub the kings (e.g. 3:13f), and they don’t take any lip. Elijah repeatedly kills 50 of the king’s men at a time (1:10ff). With a prophecy, Elisha inspires regicide, effectively deciding who the next king will be (8:13ff) without having to take responsibility for his actions. The correct term would be “wizard”, not prophet.

It’s embarrassing to read this schlock, but there are bright spots. For instance, a skeptical leper is disappointed to get Elisha’s advice that he should bathe in the Jordan. His companions tell him to follow the advice, arguing that if the suggested cure had been more difficult, the man would have been happy to attempt it (5:13). That comment is actually pretty clever. Because this is a fantasy, the cure is effective (and the foreign leper is converted, and he asserts that the only god on Earth lives in Israel, and the leprosy is then transferred to Elisha’s disobedient disciple as punishment), but that’s not the point. The authors use Elisha to project a seductive illusion of common sense and humility, backed up by ridiculous Frazerian magic.

Another bright spot is a very slight relaxation of the pervasive sexism, in one small detail: It is implied that male senescence may actually exist (4:14), in which case infertility would not always be a woman’s fault.

References here: 2 Chronicles (ca 400–250 BCE), “Hell Is the Absence of God” (2001).

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Entry:

Books of Chronicles (ca. 400–250 BCE)

Extent

Read in 2018.

Categorization

Summary with interpolations.

Subject

The main points of the preceding books with extra genealogies.

Commentary

The contents are redundant except for a few brief notes continuing the narrative. As with Kings, the division into multiple books is arbitrary.

Remarkably, despite writing a few centuries after the Deuteronomistic authors, the chronicler fails to perceive meaningful change over time. There is no sense of technological, intellectual or economic development. Such things were unknown to the cult. The only thing that’s added to Israel after the world is made is “algumwood”, a botanically mysterious reference repeated from 1 Kings 10:12.

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Entry:

1 Chronicles (ca 400–250 BCE)

Extent

Read in 2018.

Subject

The history of Israel and its surroundings from Adam to Solomon. Chapters 1–9 is a genealogical catalogue attempting to connect the narrative by male lines of descent. There are only momentary glimpses of post-exilic history (e.g. 9:2). Instead of continuing the narrative, the author makes adjustments, such as a note that summoning Samuel from the dead was one of Saul’s major errors (11:13f), something that is not clear in the original scene.

David’s census gets a lot of added and contrasting detail. It doesn’t have the same result as last time (21:5), it is ordered by a new god called Satan (21:1) and the punishment for it is more elaborate, with an angel pointing a sword at Jerusalem rather than stretching out its hand. Also, it’s condemned because Yahweh said to the patriarchs that their descendants would be countless; this is now taken literally, as a law. In fact, in this retcon, David specifically avoids counting men below the age of 20 because Yahweh said the Israelites would be as many as the stars (27:23).

Much effort is spent cataloguing singers and temple doorkeepers. A song emphasizes underdog status (16:19) and the pathetic fallacy, attributing sympathy for the cult of Yahweh to trees and other non-sapient things in nature (16:31–33). A prayer states that everything belongs to Yahweh so there is nothing to hope for (29:15).

Commentary

1:7, a verbatim copy of Genesis 10:4, mentions the Rodanites. These are the only two mentions throughout the bible. I guess these people are the ancestors and/or descendants of Rodan (1956), but the anonymous author casts no light on this fine point of theology. Given that the text was being copied by hand, it’s curious that the genealogies were only preserved as running text, instead of diagrams. A tree structure would have been slightly less dull.

The figure of Jabez, mentioned only here, speaks a prayer that summarizes the Old Testament quite well:

Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request. (4:10)

It’s all in there: Tribalism and polytheism (“the God of Israel”), selfishness and greed, fear (the dark iron age), peaceful co-existence equated with “pain”, the desire for conquest (“enlarge my territory”), the attribution of apparently uncontrollable events to a supernatural power, and the wishful thinking that this same power listens to and obeys some people, redistributing property.

Despite his own life being roughly contemporaneous with the most famous ancient Greek philosophers, the author reminisces about the genocidal wars of the past (4:41, 5:19f).

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Entry:

2 Chronicles (ca 400–250 BCE)

Extent

Read in 2018.

Subject

From Solomon to the exile. In the end, the Sabbath of the land itself, implied by Leviticus 26:34f in the guise of prediction, is made explicit as history (36:21).

Commentary

The author repeats the assertion that Solomon was richer than anyone else would ever be (1:12). The advantage of centuries is wasted when the author describes this wealth: gold and silver as common as stone (1:15), with no hint of inflation or economic activity as a basis of wealth. Fortunately, he offers no new examples of the king’s “wisdom”, merely asserting that he could answer every question (9:2). This conflates confidence with intelligence.

Persistent henotheism is succinctly expressed in a boast: “The temple I am going to build will be great, because our God is greater than all other gods.” (2:5). However, monotheism is also present: “They spoke about the God of Jerusalem as they did about the gods of the other peoples of the world—the work of human hands.” (32:19). Apparently, if both of these passages had the same author, he was confused about the relationship between a physical idol and a god, perhaps feeling that Yahweh was the bigger god because miniatures of it were banned.

Even stranger passages include a new conversation between king Josiah and pharaoh Necho from 2 Kings 23. Here, the Egyptian asserts superior knowledge of Yahweh’s intentions, without evidence (35:21). Apparently, Necho tells the truth and is indeed a monotheist. The king of Judah is a fool for not believing the Egyptian, and he pays with his life. This explanation for a military debacle must have had generations of ordinary Hebrews rolling their eyes in disbelief, but it’s a welcome break from the ethnocentrism. Reading the bible, I often get the sense that sensible people around the authors were trying to live well, ignoring the bitter zealots who were writing these books.

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Entry:

“Ezra” (ca. 300 BCE)

Extent

Read in 2018.

Categorization

A further shift toward historicity. This is one case where I hesitate to apply the term “fiction”.

Subject

Reconstruction following the Babylonian exile. The cult of Yahweh starts killing and burning animals again (3:3) but they’re back to fearing the peoples Yahweh sentenced to extermination. Some of these neighbours also worship Yahweh (chapter 4) but they’re the wrong sect or race or something.

The focal cultists want to rebuild the ruined temple in Jerusalem. Some of the local people think it’s a bad idea, asking the Persian king Artaxerxes to check the old chronicles for evidence that Jerusalem was razed because of the harm it caused (4:15). Through several generations of kings, cult leaders persist in gradually rebuilding the temple anyway.

Two thirds of the way into the book, the prophet Ezra leads a party from the eastern diaspora—i.e. Persian-controlled former Babylonia—to Jerusalem and starts narrating in the first person. He is horrified to learn that local people are marrying across ethnic lines (9:1f). Viewing their love as criminal miscegenation, he orders the cult never to promote the happiness and welfare of its neighbours (9:12). Supposedly foreign wives are expelled (10:19) with their children (10:44).

Commentary

A radical shift in style from the Deuteronomists’ masturbation. There are no miracles here and you can really feel the general depression. Given the relative realism, I was surprised to learn that “Ezra” is not believed to have been written closer to the events it depicts. Some of its plot points, including Cyrus’s edict as presented here, are fanciful, politically convenient and uncorroborated.

There must have been plenty of Hebrews around the fall of Jerusalem who reacted well to their defeat. Surely there were moderates who rejected the exilic assertion that the solution was more fanatical worship of some supernatural perpetrator. Under the assumption that such moderates did exist, it is sad to see the terrible old ideas reasserted here, creeping back into a population that was trying to integrate and overcome race hatred and inbreeding. Although the story is told from the fanatics’ perspective, the vilification of the cultural mainstream is incomplete and you can almost see the majority of the people trying to move on in peace and love, with new ideas. Their failure to do so is the central tragedy of all the history recorded in the bible.

Another reason to read “Ezra” is its introduction of the term “Jew”, not used in the books placed earlier in the bible. At the time of writing this review, Wikipedia’s article on who is a Jew was 13,000 words long. It was not a simple term in 2018, and it doesn’t seem to be simple in this novella either. Its use here seems to support the hypothesis that the material placed earlier in the bible was written or re-written mainly to define a group of people, whether for the political purposes of its own leadership or by request of its conquerors. The group thus defined needed a name, but then, why not use the same name in the fake histories themselves? Its introduction at this late stage points to cultural diversification as a result of defeat and exile: The authors felt it necessary to distinguish between the particular sect they had created and the other self-proclaimed Yahwists and Hebrews around them in the ruins of Jerusalem. I suppose that, just as the original Hebrews branched off from the Canaanites and were hardly distinguishable at first, the Jews similarly branched off from the Hebrews, with less success and more confusion.

References here: “Nehemiah” (ca. 300 BCE).

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Entry:

“Nehemiah” (ca. 300 BCE)

Extent

Read in 2018.

Categorization

Similar to “Ezra” (ca. 300 BCE) and an interquel to it.

Subject

Efforts to rebuild the city wall of Jerusalem. When the wall is repaired, Ezra reads from the Pentateuch to his congregation, and they weep (8:9). In a song, they declare that the surrounding lands were given to them by Yahweh specifically for use as marginal lands (9:22). They promise to leave the land fallow every seventh year (10:31), suggesting that failure to do so was one of Yahweh’s reasons for the great defeat.

Commentary

Loaded with political dog whistles. The authors’ faction claims to want the wall to stop “humiliation” but all of their actions suggest a military intention. When his political opponents state a reasonable suspicion that the zealous Nehemiah wants to be king, he essentially replies “nuh-uh” (6:8) and becomes governor.

Nehemiah’s prayer (“Remember me with favor, my God, for all I have done for these people.”, NIV, 5:19; cf. 13:22) suggests both a personal relationship more humble than that of the earlier wizard prophets, and an act of accounting, drily reckoning sin and virtue to guide Yahweh. Ironically, what Nehemiah counts in his own favour is awful behaviour, locking the city gates and threatening anybody who moves on the Sabbath with violence, then personally beating women for allowing love across ethnic lines. Evidently, the newly revised Mosaic law is being implemented through a campaign of terror and violence.

The whole congregation confesses to its sins in a ritualistic fashion (9:3), suggesting that the contempt of the Deuteronomists for their people has become accepted as part of the religion. Interestingly, the public reading of the Pentateuch, if it has any basis in reality, may have been one of the first, since the canon was being revised around this time. The people’s surprise to hear the material may thus have been a genuine first reaction to fresh fiction, noted here by a forger proud of his accomplishments in manipulating their emotions.

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Entry:

“Esther” (ca. 300 BCE)

Extent

Read in 2018.

Categorization

A return to the style of a medieval chronicle. There is still no magic but there is mass murder, dramatic irony, and enough secrecy, sudden reveals and reversals, sharp swells of emotion, confrontations and villainy for a soap opera.

Subject

Esther, a secret Jewish bombshell in Xerxes’s harem, manipulates the king of Persia into sanctioning the killing of women and children who seem hostile to the Jews (8:11). The Jews are therefore able to kill 75,000 such “enemies” (9:16) on unclear grounds. The terror is so severe that other people claim to be Jews because they are afraid they will be killed if they say otherwise (8:17), while the Jews themselves are ecstatic (8:16).

Commentary

Xerxes’s greatness is hinted at without any reference to Yahweh having a hand in it, and Yahweh fails to act through lots as it has in previous books (9:24ff). There are no theological pretensions. This time, the victims of ethnic cleansing are portrayed as persecutors and would-be cleansers. The authors do not reflect on how a vendetta like their own might be self-perpetuating in this regard.

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Entry:

Job (ca. 550–200 BCE)

Extent

Read in 2018.

Categorization

Poetic theodicy in dialogue form.

Subject

In a mythical land and time, there is a rich man named Job. Yahweh allows a prosecutor god (ha-satan, literally “the accuser”, hence the name Satan) to test Job’s faith by committing horrible atrocities against people and animals adjacent to Job.

The suffering of the immediate victims is consistently ignored. Job’s wife survives, having suffered like Job, but it is Job who speaks. One of his problems is that his female servants are no longer attentive to him, looking at him strangely (19:15).

Job argues at length with his friends over whether Yahweh truly rewards virtue and punishes vice, but they get nowhere in this long debate. Yahweh therefore appears to Job, awing him with raw power. Two monsters, Leviathan and Behemoth, are touted as examples of divine greatness. There are other monsters, too: Death personified, a “King of Terrors”, Lilith (18:15) etc. Job cowers and submits, becoming richer than before and living for another four generations.

Atheism never enters the picture. Having seen Yahweh with his own eyes, Job’s belief is strengthened (42:5), but it was never gone. He actively asserts his belief in Yahweh even as he complains about the god’s behaviour (13:16).

Commentary

Another bit of mythology likely to have been plagiarized from older Mesopotamian works, in this case the “Ludlul bēl nēmeqi” or “Poem of the Righteous Sufferer”. Also compare verses 3:12ff to tablet XII of the Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2100–1100 BCE): It’s the same assumption that those who die as newborns are better off, an implicit condemnation of nature and human life. The figure of Lilith is likewise taken from tablet XII. I surmise that this is fan fiction in a deliberately archaic style.

The idea that growing out of infancy is bad for you is made almost explicit later, when the posh authors portray all human life as horrible by comparing it to the life of a thrall or day labourer (7:1f), apparently without realizing that thralls and day labourers are in fact human beings. The authors did not know that workers can lead fulfilling lives.

The chief evidence of Job’s purported goodness is his frequent killing of animals. As in earlier books, material wealth and uncritical loyalty are conflated with piety. There is a critical impulse, however. At first, Job fails to hold the perpetrator responsible (1:22). When the misery is piled on further, the authors coyly suggest that there might not be perfect justice in the world. Having hinted at this obvious fact as if it were somehow spurious and scandalous, they retreat to the horrible notion that anything Yahweh wants must be good and right because Yahweh is powerful. Essentially, humans have no right to judge what is bad for them, because they didn’t personally create the universe. As theodicies go, this is in the bottom half of a low heap.

The text shows signs of being amended to fine-tune its message. In a curious aside, one debater mentions that Yahweh appears in dreams and to people on the edge of death (33:15ff), i.e. when the rational mind is shut down. However, Job is pulled back into the cult by spectacular miracles and money prefiguring the “prosperity gospel”. New kids replace his dead kids, with no sign of him missing the dead. He is not swayed by dreams, and certainly not by philosophical arguments. As foolish as this all seems to me, I suppose it’s good that someone in the bible is allowed to say something about unfair pain without being denigrated for it. Having the book of Job is arguably more productive than a strict taboo against questioning Yahweh’s motives, and attributing even pain to Yahweh is arguably more elegant than the medieval Christian moral dichotomy that put Satan and Yahweh on a more equal footing, but it’s a shitty book.

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