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.

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.

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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 couplet 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 a 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 means 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), Out of the Silent Planet (1938), The Little Prince (1943), “Tower of Babylon” (1990), “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).

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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 it 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 and letting it get away. 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 something as mundane as poverty, when you could instead make up a divine promise to eliminate poverty or leprosy or both. It’s inelegant, 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 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), 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: What to do 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 or anything. 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).

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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, 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 also, 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: 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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