Review of Old Testament (ca. 164 BCE)
Parts onlyThis page describes the individual parts of Old Testament. The work as a whole is reviewed elsewhere.
- Entry: Pentateuch (ca. 500–400 BCE)
- Remake: Jubilees (ca. 160–150 BCE)
- Entry: Joshua (ca. 650–500 BCE)
- Entry: Judges (ca. 650–500 BCE)
- Entry: “Ruth” (ca. 500–330 BCE)
- Entry: Books of Samuel (ca. 620–500 BCE)
- Entry: Books of Kings (ca. 620–530 BCE)
- Entry: Books of Chronicles (ca. 400–250 BCE)
- Entry: “Ezra” (ca. 300 BCE)
- Entry: “Nehemiah” (ca. 300 BCE)
- Entry: “Esther” (ca. 300 BCE)
- Entry: Job (ca. 550–200 BCE)
- Entry: Psalms (ca. 700–200 BCE)
- Entry: Proverbs (ca. 500–200 BCE)
- Entry: “Ecclesiastes” (ca. 400–180 BCE)
- Entry: “Song of Songs” (ca. 200 BCE)
- Entry: Isaiah (ca. 600-400 BCE)
- Entry: Jeremiah (ca. 570–400 BCE)
- Entry: “Lamentations” (ca. 586–520 BCE)
- Entry: Ezekiel (ca. 600–500 BCE)
- Entry: “Daniel” (ca. 164 BCE)
- Entry: “Minor Prophets” (ca. 750–200 BCE)
‣ Pentateuch (ca. 500–400 BCE)
Nominally the early history of Israel, before the state is established.
In the first 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.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣ Jubilees (ca. 160–150 BCE)
Read in 2020.
Read in James C. Vanderkam’s 1989 translation from a variety of sources.
This is in the same category as the Books of Chronicles (ca. 400–250 BCE). The emphasis is on memorial festivals and the chronology of fake ancient history.
In this remake, the creation sequence is more detailed, including the two originally separate myths segueing better, and Adam having to protect the Garden of Eden from roaming cattle. The garden survives even the flood because Enoch, here an immortal human, is still sitting in it “writing down the judgment and condemnation of the world and all the wickedness of mankind” (4:23). Cain is so settled that he is killed by the roof of his own house falling on him. Yahweh personally seals up Noah’s boat (5:23).
In a prelude to the flood, acting on Yahweh’s orders, people bind wicked angels beneath the earth and kill their hybrid children with swords, which is apparently why there are swords. This motif of angels and Yahweh at odds continues after the flood, with a character named Mastema. Quoting from chapter 10:
[Noah said] ‘[---] As for these spirits who have remained alive, imprison them and hold them captive in the place of judgment. May they not cause destruction among your servant’s sons, my God, for they are savage and were created for the purpose of destroying. May they not rule the spirits of the living for you alone know their punishment; and may they not have power over the sons of the righteous from now and forevermore’. Then our God told us to tie up each one.
When Mastema, the leader of the spirits, came, he said: ‘Lord creator, leave some of them before me; let them listen to me and do everything that I tell them, because if none of them is left for me I shall not be able to exercise the authority of my will among mankind. For they are meant for (the purposes of) destroying and misleading before my punishment because the evil of mankind is great’. Then he said that a tenth of them should be left before him, while he would make nine parts descend to the place of judgment. He told one of us that we should teach Noah all their medicines because he knew that they would neither conduct themselves properly nor fight fairly. We acted in accord with his entire command. All of the evil ones who were savage we tied up in the place of judgment, while we left a tenth of them to exercise power on the earth before the satan.
In an added adventure, Abraham (while named Abram) scares off ravens sent by Mastema to eat seeds planted by the people. Then Abraham teaches the same people to sow as they plow, with a combined instrument made by skilled woodworkers, putting the seeds too deep for the birds to find. The same man “burned everything in the temple” (12:12), killing his own brother and not taking responsibility for this murderous act of arson and religious intolerance. What a hero.
It is Mastema’s idea to have Yahweh order Abraham to kill Isaac, as a test. When Abraham shows he will do it, and Yahweh stops him, Mastema is thereby “put to shame” (18:12). Later, Yahweh and Mastema take opposite sides in the Egyptian holocaust (48:8f):
The Lord did everything for the sake of Israel and in accord with his covenant which he made with Abraham to take revenge on them just as they were enslaving them with force. The prince of Mastema would stand up against you and wish to make you fall into the pharaoh’s power. He would help the Egyptian magicians and they would oppose (you) and perform in front of you.
The Egyptians pursue the escaping Israelites on Mastema’s command and is “put to shame” again in the parting of the sea. He and the other satans get locked up for a few days after that, so the Israelites have a chance to steal utensils (48:18), but the satans are then released to guide the Egyptians once more (48:16). However, it is also Mastema’s team that kills the Egyptian firstborn for Yahweh (49:2), so Mastema’s working for both sides.
Jubilees is evidently intended to supplement rather than completely replace Genesis and Exodus. There’s a lot of sophistry in this book, to answer questions raised by the older books. For example (4:30):
[Adam] lacked 70 years from 1000 years because 1000 years are one day in the testimony of heaven. For this reason it was written regarding the tree of knowledge: ‘On the day that you eat from it you will die’. Therefore he did not complete the years of this day because he died during it.
This is supposed to cover the plot hole that Yahweh lies in Genesis, but as an additional safeguard against critical thinking, Yahweh’s lie is omitted from Jubilees’s version of the myth of Eden, so that the FAQ becomes nonsensical in the new context.
The fan fiction of “Prince” Mastema seems highly significant. This angel is contracted by Yahweh to torture people and do other dirty work, including the spread of disease in general and the killing of Egypt’s firstborn: FAQ stuff. His relationship with Yahweh is apparently tense, since he has to change Yahweh’s mind to keep some of his fellow satans, and is “put to shame” in two competititions against Yahweh. Mastema’s function in the narrative is consistent with medieval notions of Satan as a Christian de-facto god of evil, a “fallen angel” and rebel leader opposed to Yahweh. We can see, from their identification with disease, that Mastema’s “spirits” are the demons of Christianity, the same creatures Jesus blaims for disease. The netherworld where the most savage spirits are confined also sounds a lot like modern Catholic and pop-culture Hell. Supposedly, Jubilees was big with the early Christians before the canon congealed.
I guess the deeper penetration of Persian Zoroastrian thought into Judaism is behind the development toward opposing gods of similar influence, but there must be more to it than that. The modern Christian Satan seems explainable as a product of intuitive reification and concretion. If Yahweh likes us, the train of thought goes, there ought to be another god to explain the bad stuff that keeps happening in Yahweh’s “land of milk and honey” and after Jesus’s universal forgiveness for whatever. The symmetry of that assumption is easy to grasp, even for children, and since Yahweh still wasn’t omnipotent or omniscient when this book was written, there was room to expand as long as Yahweh nominally made the new god.
Jubilees leaves the impression that mythology evolves in whatever direction children push it. In the narrative, the hybrid children of angels can be killed by humans with divine swords: the stuff of kitsch D&D-style fantasy, glamorous and exciting. The demons themselves can be fought with herbal medicine: the stuff of pseudoscience, commercially lucrative. All this stuff resonates stronger with modern non-literate Christian culture than does The Bible, but Jubilees also keeps nearly all the bad ideas. At least it mentions technological development; that’s pretty nice.
‣ Joshua (ca. 650–500 BCE)
Read in 2018.
The conquest of the “land of milk and honey” that Yahweh 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.
A catalogue of ethnic cleansing.
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 an example of superstitious paranoid thinking. In it, 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, Achan (Sw. 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, downplaying the larger motif: The purpose of the war is 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.
‣ Judges (ca. 650–500 BCE)
Read in 2018.
Superhero fiction repeating a cycle: The Israelites worship the many gods, Yahweh uses neighbouring peoples to punish the Israelites, the Israelites cry, 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 control 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 war against the Benjamites, one of the twelve tribes.
All Benjamite women are killed in this war, threatening the tribe’s future existence. The other tribes check to see who has sworn an oath not to give their daughters in marriage to any Benjamite. Consulting Yahweh they find that nobody from Jabesh Gilead came to the particular meeting where the oath was sworn, which also means that Jabesh Gilead declined to participate in the war. With no other justification, the other tribes fight a second civil war against the innocent. They kill everyone in Jabesh Gilead except 400 virgins. Following Yahweh’s will, they give the girls to the Benjamites as sex slaves.
The narrative of all six books leading up to this one is about the land of Israel, promised to Abraham by Yahweh, 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.
The “Deuteronomistic history” hypothesis provides 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 distant home, 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 disparaging 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 goal of total ethnic cleansing is contradicted. 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, you should personally cut their 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), Reasons to invent Jesus, Sortering av bibelböcker, Som en ateist läser bibeln, Romans (ca. 57 CE), Matthew (ca. 80–90 CE), Acts (ca. 80–110 CE), Don Quixote (1605), “The Apple” (1967), Judge Dredd (1995).
‣ “Ruth” (ca. 500–330 BCE)
Read in 2018.
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.
The position of this work in the Hebrew Bible is 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.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣ Books of Samuel (ca. 620–500 BCE)
Read in 2018.
At this point the “Deuteronomistic history” comes further into the style of Olaus Magnus’s A Description of the Northern Peoples (1555), or Geoffrey of Monmouth’s chronicles. 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 myopia of the work: Though it purports to tell the history of the world, that history is centred on the border between Judah and Israel, with no knowledge of anything further away than Kush (roughly modern Sudan, maybe as far as Ethiopia). 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 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 denigration of the defeated ethnic group.
‣‣ 1 Samuel (ca. 620–500 BCE)
Read in 2018.
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 (“sheol”, chapter 28) using a witch. Finally, Saul dies.
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 their 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 Yahweh acts on countries and governments, specifically kings (2:10). This introduces a theme.
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. Four 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 would all 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 in The Bible.
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, presumably influenced by Zoroastrianism, i.e. the cult of Ahura Mazda.
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 an 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.
‣‣ 2 Samuel (ca. 620–500 BCE)
Read in 2018.
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.
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 in the same way Herodotus’s greatest heroes are nominal descendants of Heracles. 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. The 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 an 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 Bible has been a major influence on European and therefore American legislation, including legslation on women’s rights. Here, 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 rape (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. No wonder women’s rights have lagged behind in Christian countries.
References here: Som en ateist läser bibeln.
‣ Books of Kings (ca. 620–530 BCE)
Read in 2018.
More kings following David and their eventual defeat by foreign powers as Yahweh’s collective punishment.
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 is crucial. It drives the entire Old Testament up to this point. The Yahwists surely had their say in earlier bibles but their failure seems to have brought on a flurry of re-writes to give their message a political dimension. According to scholars, and 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. Their books, placed before this one, are the prequels and the Books of Kings are the main works 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 little light on the thought process, but it’s still worth reading for the monumental impact of the authors’ gambit.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣‣ 1 Kings (ca. 620–530 BCE)
Read in 2018.
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.
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 believers have learned not 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 to include this scene says a lot about the state of their society.
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.
Present-day followers of Abrahamic religions don’t seem to write such things. Instead, the modern form of Yahweh “walks in mysterious ways”. The idea of faith itself as a virtue has become foundational to its religions: Christians celebrate those who ignore the lack of evidence for Yahweh’s existence. The authors of this volume clearly had a different attitude. They had a picture of Yahweh as concrete, anthropomorphic and testable, so they wrote a story demonstrating these properties.
You would still do well to ask why the authors described the contest in such a bloodthirsty, knowingly cruel and implausible way. They may have been working from an oral tradition, but they knew the contest never happened as they chose to describe it. They may have been unsure about Baal, but at the very least, they knew that Yahweh does not really appear on command to prove its existence. Somehow they weren’t bothered by the reader’s ability to take their test.
I believe 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 did not 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 of the book. 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.
‣‣ 2 Kings (ca. 620–530 BCE)
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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).
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.
Carl Sagan found it telling that Deuteronomy supported the agenda of the very king who “recovered” it. As usual, the narrative is self-contradictory: Before Josiah’s workers find the scroll in the temple, another king follows Deuteronomy 24:16 (cited in full), which shows the law is not forgotten, or rather that the history was revised to exalt the law. 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 almost 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 will be the next king (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 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 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.
‣ Books of Chronicles (ca. 400–250 BCE)
Read in 2018.
A summary of the main points of the preceding books with extra genealogies and interpolations.
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.
‣‣ 1 Chronicles (ca 400–250 BCE)
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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).
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:
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 (“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).
References here: “Ephesians” (ca. 80–90 CE).
‣‣ 2 Chronicles (ca 400–250 BCE)
Read in 2018.
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).
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. In the context of the fiction, 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.
‣ “Ezra” (ca. 300 BCE)
Read in 2018.
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).
A further shift toward historicity. This is one case where I hesitate to apply the term “fiction”. More obviously, it’s a radical departure 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. At the time of writing this review, Wikipedia’s article on who is a Jew was 13,000 words long: More than twice the length of “Ezra”. It was not a simple term in 2018, and it doesn’t seem simple in this novella either.
The use of “Jew” here seems to support the hypothesis that the material placed earlier 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, taking hundreds of years to resolve.
References here: “Nehemiah” (ca. 300 BCE), “Ecclesiastes” (ca. 400–180 BCE), “Daniel” (ca. 164 BCE), Old Testament (ca. 164 BCE), Sortering av bibelböcker, Som en ateist läser bibeln, John (ca. 90–110 CE).
‣ “Nehemiah” (ca. 300 BCE)
Read in 2018.
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.
Similar to “Ezra” (ca. 300 BCE) and an interquel to it. 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. 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.
‣ “Esther” (ca. 300 BCE)
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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).
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.
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.
‣ Job (ca. 550–200 BCE)
Read in 2018.
In a mythical land and time, there is a rich man named Job. Yahweh allows a prosecutor god to test Job’s faith by committing horrible atrocities against people and animals adjacent to Job. The prosecutor god is technically nameless but gets the epithet ha-satan, literally “the accuser”, so it’s called Satan.
The suffering of the immediate victims is ignored as unproblematic. 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).
A poetic theodicy in dialogue form, long before Leibniz coined the term in 1710. This is another bit of mythology likely to have been plagiarized from older Mesopotamian works, in this case “The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer” (ca. 1700–1280 BCE). The figure of Lilith is likewise taken from tablet XII. From these allusions I surmise that this is fan fiction in a deliberately archaic style, but the character of Satan may have been a recent evolution of the faith under Persian Zoroastrian influence.
Compare verses 3:12ff to tablet XII of the Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2100–1100 BCE). Both texts posit that newborns are better off dead, an implicit condemnation of nature and human life. The idea that growing out of infancy is bad for you is made almost explicit 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 people who work can lead fulfilling lives. They also did not realize that thralls are oppressed by other people, rather than being intrinsically miserable.
The chief evidence of Job’s purported goodness is his frequent killing of animals, something thralls could not afford to arrange. 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 surmise 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. One might paraphrase it as “might makes right”.
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 not welcomed back into the fold by subtle wishful thinking or a nuanced understanding of his own place in nature. He is pulled back by spectacular magic 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 or sermons, and certainly not by philosophical arguments.
When the Black Death came to Europe in the 14th century, Christians who had read Job supposed that Yahweh had sent the plague, the same way it sends disease in this book. This conviction discouraged the search for any medical cure or means of prevention. It is mean and foolish to teach people to be so blind and helpless.
It could have been even worse. I suppose it’s good that some characters in the canon are allowed to mention unfair pain. 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 more elegant than the medieval Christian moral dichotomy that put Satan and Yahweh on a more equal footing, but it’s a shitty book, repetitive like oral literature and full of mistakes.
‣ Psalms (ca. 700–200 BCE)
Read in 2018.
Bibel 2000 contains 150 psalms.
Poems, laments and liturgical librettos. Subjects include:
- Fond wishes that loyalty to Yahweh will be rewarded.
- Atheism, conflated with any lack of adherence to the cult of the authors. Psalm 73 has atheists, fat and rich, “perishing in horror”. Psalms 10 and 36 portray people in a natural state of non-belief as evil. In fact, psalm 58 acknowledges that atheists are born as such (58:4) apparently through no fault of their own, yet implores Yahweh to break their teeth (58:7).
- Fanfic. Psalm 33 is the strongest reference up to this point back to Genesis 1. Psalms 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59 etc. refer to fairly specific passages in other biblical narratives, falsely attributing a contemporary authorship to David.
- Fantasies of revenge and extreme violence. Yahweh strews the bones of atheists about him in a sudden terror (53:6), the “righteous” wade in the blood of atheists (58:11), a “saviour” god crushes human skulls (68:21f) etc. There’s even a prayer to make your enemies homeless (59:12).
The 500-year process of editing this volume must have been a theological battleground. Orwellian self-contradictions and paradoxes are sometimes densely packed, as when Yahweh is feared for being forgiving (130:4) or hailed as merciful for killing children (136:10). Psalm 40 curiously denies that Yahweh wants sacrifice and encourages the faithful to speak the Takbir (“Allāhu akbar”, 40:17), though not in Arabic. Psalm 51 basically equates the metaphysical concept of sin with the feeling of guilt, then engages in wishful thinking about not having to examine the real-world consequences of hurting other people, instead merely purging guilt through religion. Mostly, however, Psalms is monotonous and boring.
References here: “Ecclesiastes” (ca. 400–180 BCE), Old Testament (ca. 164 BCE), Sortering av bibelböcker, Som en ateist läser bibeln, Acts (ca. 80–110 CE), “A Modest Proposal” (1729), “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937), “If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth” (1951).
‣ Proverbs (ca. 500–200 BCE)
Read in 2018.
Collected sayings and instructional texts of varying length. Part of the contemporary genre of wisdom literature.
The main subject is fools, but there are plenty of verses on nagging wives and the virtue of beating your children and slaves so as not to spoil them. Painful wounds drive out evil (20:30). The stakes are high. The main reason to raise your son properly is so he won’t die (19:18).
A lot of the advice is good in an insultingly obvious way. For example, one of the authors felt it necessary to advise against becoming a roving murderer (1:15), as if in reaction to a large pro-murderer faction in contemporary philosophical debate. Of course there was no such faction. A lot of the material is similarly thoughtless, often finding a tortured simile to make something look generally good or bad without argumentation. Several verses are repeated essentially verbatim in different parts of the book. A chunk was cribbed from Egyptian wisdom literature.
More interesting sayings, some of them good:
- 15:17. Some verses express a social consciousness and aversion to hatred. This one could be repurposed for environmentalism, but obviously the authors had no such intent. At least they managed to make a non-obvious point.
- 16:3. To paraphrase: Make life a gamble out of self-interest.
- 16:9. On the illusion of free will, undermining that central notion of medieval theology. Substitute nature for Yahweh and you get Sapolsky’s view of freedom.
- 16:30. Beware people who squint or purse their lips. Those fuckers are evil.
- 16:32 puts thoughtfulness and self-control over courage and action. This would look great in a Confucian collection of proverbs.
- 17:1. Another sign that the authors were introverts.
- 17:3. Good poetry. Again, substitute nature for Yahweh and you have a pretty good saying.
- 18:8 (identical to 26:22). A decent simile for gossip.
- 21:20. Advice against greed and wishful thinking.
- 23:26–35. Oddly striking poems on prostitutes and alcoholism. The latter, in particular, could be written from experience.
- 24:11f. After so many books of The Bible arguing for genocide, it’s refreshing to see an argument against genocide. This one is creepily prefigurative of the holocaust of European Jews.
- 25:2. “It is the glory of God to conceal”, a favourite of conspiracy theorists.
References here: “Ecclesiastes” (ca. 400–180 BCE), Sortering av bibelböcker, Som en ateist läser bibeln, Romans (ca. 57 CE), John (ca. 90–110 CE), Walden (1854), Tillsammans (2000), Ministry of Evil: The Twisted Cult of Tony Alamo (2019).
‣ “Ecclesiastes” (ca. 400–180 BCE)
Read in 2018.
The emptiness of human life.
More wisdom literature like Proverbs, but more coherent, nihilistic and revealing.
The English title is from the Greek ekklesiastes, which translates the Hebrew kohelet, here a pen name meaning roughly “lecturer”. The text is falsely attributed to Solomon.
A large part of the ancient Jewish cultural elite were happy to assert divine right as casus belli and to kill continually for the glory of their tribe, but it seems they were not personally satisfied with their religion. It preserved its Mesopotamian foundations, including the notion of a perpetual bleak afterlife. Its moral philosophy was crude in the extreme, surely making clever people uncomfortable. “Ecclesiastes” ruminates not on the falseness of this religion but on its effects, particularly how it sucks the fun out of life.
As in Job, the unknown author of this volume observes that the world is not fair (8:14), as if Yahweh did not exist. He falls back on blind faith, simply asserting that you must still fear Yahweh for no apparent reason. Though the conclusion is the same in both books, “Ecclesiastes” does not have Yahweh making a personal appearance. A recommendation to obey religious law appears only in a framing device at the very end, likely added by a later editor. This book thus presents a more mature form of the religion, close to the moderate Judaism of the 20th or 21st century.
Ted Chiang observed in a comment on his “Hell Is the Absence of God” (2001) that the purportedly happy ending of Job undercuts the message of that book. That common criticism doesn’t apply so well here. The author of “Ecclesiastes” repeats the wishes of Psalms but does not present a narrative where the loyal are ultimately rewarded. It’s almost as plausible as “Ezra” (ca. 300 BCE).
Following the Babylonian exile and the triumph of Deuteronomist historical revisionism shown in “Nehemiah”, it would have been clear to many intellectuals in the following generations that their popular mythology had been invented by the priestly caste to manipulate people. It is possible to interpret the author’s fearful conclusion as Machiavellian, based on a desire to preserve social control through ceremony without faith. Certainly, there is little here to indicate a sincere and concrete belief in the supernatural. The situation is analogous with the state of Greco-Roman polytheism in late antiquity, before Constantine adopted Christianity: The intellectuals knew their religion was bullshit, but they struggled to act on the realization.
The undercurrent of nihilism is so strong that the author claims there is nothing better in life than to eat, drink and try to find some satisfaction in work (2:24, repeated). Yahweh’s role is logistical; the main god is reduced to redistributing the physical items produced this way (2:26). Injustice from the cradle to sheol is a fact of life and exists to make people see that they are equal to animals (3:18f), a theodicy that requires no god or creation.
The author stands apart from “foolish” celebrants, saying that the wise prefer sorrow over joy (7:5) and criticism over song (7:6). This paints a picture of the author as a depressive realist. For such a text to enter the canon must have required a crisis of faith on par with the defeat of Judah by the Babylonians. It is tempting to speculate that this hollow fatalism among the elite paved the way for more vigorous entrepreneurial cults like Paul’s a couple of centuries later.
“Ecclesiastes” is the most modern work in the Old Testament and the most intellectually accomplished. Scholars argue over whether this is a consequence of Hellenistic influence (suggesting an origin around 200 BCE; its earliest known citation was in 180) or not (allowing an origin as far back as 450 BCE based on wording). It’s still really bad. The author says nothing constructive and shits on women (7:27).
References here: New Testament (ca. 110 CE), Sortering av bibelböcker, Som en ateist läser bibeln, The Silence (1963), Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (2000), The Zero Theorem (2013).
‣ “Song of Songs” (ca. 200 BCE)
Human sexual love and longing.
As poetry, it’s mostly bad similes. It can’t hold a candle to Sappho. As a case study in the interpretation of literature, it’s more interesting. When the religious thought police within Judaism realized that porn undermines the dour authority of the temple, a rabbi named Akiva wilfully misinterpreted the “Song of Songs” as if it described the love between Yahweh and Israel. The allegorically-minded branch of Christian theology, once based in Alexandria, similarly chose to misinterpret the poem as if it described Jesus’s love for his flock.
‣ Isaiah (ca. 600-400 BCE)
Read in 2018.
A mixed bag of sermons and prophecies.
First of the “major prophets”. Traditionally, scholars have attributed Isaiah to a range of authors in at least three periods. There may be a pre-exilic core, but to my layman’s eyes, the whole thing seems informed by the defeat and exile, including the opening chapters on religious and ethnic diversity causing the downfall. There is even a verse where the real return from Assyria is explicitly compared to the mythical return from Egypt (11:16).
As a book, Isaiah is even less consistent than Genesis. It reads like a collection of sermons. I assume many were falsely attributed to the character of Isaiah, seen in 2 Chronicles and 2 Kings, to give them some extra punch.
I guess the sermon-like qualities of the material is the basis for its influence. It would have been easy for medieval preachers to go over a chapter or two on a Sunday, without the full context of the fake history books. For example, it’s got a choir of majestic Seraphim surrounding a mantle-clad, anthropomorphic Yahweh seated on a throne in the temple (chapter 6), as if posing for Michelangelo. Later, Yahweh is pictured as a loving shepherd, carrying lambs in his arms (40:11), offering forward compatibility with Christianity. There’s no hill of foreskins crowding the foreground.
A lot of the material is supposed to be dark, condemning the enemy races and nations that surround Israel, or the entire earth (chapter 24). In these scenes, there are charmingly incongruous details. For example, in the “future” ruins of Babylon, the Eurasian bittern (Sw. rördrom, according to Bibel 2000) will make its nest (14:23). That is such an awesome bird that you can almost imagine the author rejoicing in the return of the land to a natural state, but he can hardly have meant anything but scorn for nature. Compare the “future” fate of Edom (34:14ff), which will be home to hyenas, the witch bitch Lilith, a bunch of ghosts, babbler birds (Sw. skriktrastar) and kites (Sw. glador; translations into English name a variety of radically different birds), all poorly regarded by the authors.
Mixed in with the dark apocalyptic material, there is some brighter stuff, including unnatural fantasies of wolves living peacefully with lambs (11:6) which helped create medieval notions of Eden and Noah’s boat as places of saccharine peace between all species. The wolves even do some grazing, and the lions eat hay (65:25). These images come from an understanding of biology typical of a five-year-old.
The authors continue to demonstrate confusion about the relationship between an idol and a god. Yahweh addresses its rival gods by speaking to their idols (41:21ff). It—a fictional character—says these puppets are not doing anything (41:29). I can’t explain why the authors felt it necessary to write such a scene. Perhaps they wished to rely on the audience’s ability to picture Yahweh in their minds’ eye, which would make that god appear more lively than an idol. The authors themselves ask, rhetorically, why people make idols when the idols don’t really help you (44:10). They conclude that people of other religions are tricking themselves (44:20). They completely fail to examine why a god would be better off without an image, and why it would be better for a priest to make up such a god with words than to carve an image, but there must be an underlying assumption of the power of language and the human imagination. Perhaps they realized that it is difficult to fear something you can see, even in a fairly abstract representation.
The volume concludes with a jumble of positive and negative prophecies, promising a future where the faithful can happily forget everything (65:17) and suck on the fat titties of Jerusalem (66:11). The penultimate point of this vision encourages spreading the faith all over the world, a process which will include selecting Levites among all of the other peoples (66:21). This, too, offers forward compatibility with Christian evangelism, but there’s an obvious false note. The new Levites would not be descended from Levi. The vision polishes up the old tribal religion for mass-market appeal, but it ends on a downer: Worms writhing in the evil dead (66:24). The introvert authors did not do a great job putting lipstick on this pig, but it would be fun to know why they tried. It’s certainly a smart direction. Natural selection has favoured those Abrahamic off-shoots that emphasized monotheism and de-emphasized the arcane tribal details of Judaism.
‣ Jeremiah (ca. 570–400 BCE)
Read in 2018.
Bibel 2000 contains the shorter version, based on the Greek.
Jeremiads. A Moses-like figure named Jeremiah lists a number of confessional curses, pieces of street performance in the genre of prophetic gesture etc.
Prophecy written after the fact. Second of the “major prophets” and a patchwork like Isaiah.
The process of writing books like this one is implied by the book itself. One of its latter sections is described as having been copied at a late stage by a scribe, with “many similar words” added, ostensibly in dictation (36:32). New authors attributing their words to old authorities were rarely this brazen.
The character of Jeremiah was patterned after a common sort of street performer, the memetic warrior of his time. Whether he ever existed as a single individual or not, he seems like a poor source of information. He’s an entitled whiner, putting on a deliberately cryptic show to get attention, screaming about the erotic adventures of anthropomorphized female versions of Judah and Israel to titillate his audience. He is not aware of erosion (5:22). He attributes the regularity of harvests to Yahweh’s intervention in the weather patterns (5:24), turning causality on its head: In reality, people adapt to climate.
Jeremiah decries false prophets, but like every other time they’re mentioned in The Bible, Jeremiah does not give you a practical method of identifying false prophets. This is not surprising, but this time Yahweh kicks it up a notch. Through Jeremiah, the god actively asserts that unnamed prophets were not sent by Yahweh, nor has it spoken to them, implying some other, equally potent agency at work, besides “the delusions of their own minds” (14:14). So basically, false prophet Jeremiah could think of no better way to undercut his competition than to quote a purported creator of the universe as saying “Some prophets are false, but I don’t know why and you can’t tell the difference.” This is just as painfully dumb as the notion in 1 Kings that Yahweh did send even the false prophets.
On the subject of false prophecy, there’s an amusing anecdote in here about reading a prophecy of the fall of Babylon in Babylon itself before the city falls, but instead of preserving a record of the event, the instruction says to destroy the prophecy in order to illustrate it by example (51:63). Apparently, somebody thought that this mention of an instruction to destroy the prophecy would be an adequate explanation for the lack of evidence that any meaningfully specific, unambiguous prediction was ever made ahead of the event. There must have been smart people in the temple shaking their heads over these lies even as they were copying them for another generation.
A coda repeats 2 Kings. This fact itself is just another layer of stupidity, but I do find it funny that a king mentioned in both places is named Amel-Marduk, transcribed as “Evil Merodak” in Bibel 2000. Ironically, the man seems pretty nice.
‣ “Lamentations” (ca. 586–520 BCE)
Read in 2018.
The central event of the Old Testament: The destruction of Jerusalem by the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE.
References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.
‣ Ezekiel (ca. 600–500 BCE)
Read in 2018.
Visions of uncute cherubs and stuff.
Of all the prophets in The Bible, Ezekiel has the second coolest scenes of high fantasy, beaten only by Revelation. The valley of bones (chapter 37) could be a scene in your next D&D campaign. I expected to find a lot more of this stuff in the Old Testament, like Nostradamus, Swedenborg or Ekelöf, but it’s thin on the ground. The authors of this volume were apparently wary of belting out laboured symbolism to make a point divorced from literary value, hence Ezekiel himself reprimands Yahweh, saying he wants material that won’t be dismissed as mere parable (20:49). Alas, there is too little beauty to make it worth the read among the pronouncements of doom and gloom and miscellaneous repetitions.
On the topic of parable, Yahweh says again that it is purposely hiding itself (39:29), implying that if the book were clearly formulated, it would be dangerous to the reader. The latter half of chapter 14 is an example of the failure to construct a clear argument. Like the inverse sorites paradox in Genesis 18, it is curiously lengthy and shows the author struggling with the basic problem of formulating an idea. Also like the example in Genesis, it is not resolved.
Chapter 16 extends Jeremiah’s metaphor of Hebrew dwelling places as adulterous and slutty women. In this metaphor, Yahweh mentions that Egyptian men have big dicks (16:26); a jealous god indeed. Yahweh compares Jerusalem to Sodom while speaking for the poor and needy. It concludes that the woman Jerusalem (“you”), once properly chastised, will “be ashamed and never again open your mouth” (16:63), a neat example of how the patriarchy combined sexual fantasy and the oppression of women with their religious feelings. This is further extended in chapter 23, about squeezing the young breasts of slutty sisters.
‣ “Daniel” (ca. 164 BCE)
Read in 2019.
Six chapters of the heroic life of a Jew in exile to the Babylonian court followed by six chapters of political eschatology, written later. The character of Daniel, the hero, was probably intended to be the same Daniel mentioned in Ezekiel.
Fan fiction adventure and prophetic visions. The last of the “major prophets” in chronological and presentation order. The last additions to it are regarded as the most recent substantial work on the Old Testament.
Strangely, “Daniel” is the polar opposite of “Ezra” despite having been written around the same time and being about the exilic nadir. Everything good about “Ezra” is absent here.
Chapter 1 describes a gambit to avoid having to eat food that is unclean according to Mosaic law, but since this purpose is not mentioned, it can be misread as vegetarian/vegan heroic fantasy. Alas, it is embarrassingly trite. The nominal narrator—a young fictional character—describes himself and his companions as ten times wiser than the wisest of Babylon, offering no basis for this boast.
The juvenile fiction gets worse from there, including the ahistorical Babylonian law that anybody “of any nation or language” who says anything against Yahweh “be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble” (3:29). Even this late in the game, the authors of the Old Testament were still masturbating over pathetic power fantasies, imagining that a foreign king would ban free speech about Yahweh and make the punishment comically cruel. In the same chapter, some of the king’s men die carrying out his orders, but there is not a single hint of sympathy for those men. They are not the author’s self-insert superhero. The same bullshit is repeated with lions instead of a furnace and nobody learning from experience.
The interpretation of dreams is also simple. A really nice world tree scene is interpreted to refer to the king, and chopping it down to his madness, which makes a poor riddle. Returning to sanity, the king expresses the author’s pathetic vision of ideal power as the ability to hold everyone else in contempt and never be questioned even in the most innocuous way (4:32 in Bibel 2000, 4:35 in the NIV).
This is as dumb and poisonous as the Pentateuch. The author even persists in the wilful misinterpretation of idols as being gods onto themselves rather than symbols (5:23). The stylistic contrast against the last six chapters is sharp. The poor allegorical writing remains, but the keys are withheld, making an intrinsic reading almost meaningless.
‣ “Minor Prophets” (ca. 750–200 BCE)
Read in 2019.
A uniformly dull anthology of short works attributed to twelve minor Hebrew characters, prophets of Yahweh.