Review of Pentateuch (ca. 500–400 BCE)
Parts onlyThis page describes the individual parts of Pentateuch. The work as a whole is reviewed elsewhere.
- Entry: Genesis (ca. 500–400 BCE)
- Entry: Exodus (ca. 500–400 BCE)
- Entry: Leviticus (ca. 500–400 BCE)
- Entry: Numbers (ca. 500–400 BCE)
- Entry: Deuteronomy (ca. 630–400 BCE)
‣ Genesis (ca. 500–400 BCE)
Collected ancient myths and just-so stories for the origin of local customs, holy places and ethnic groups.
Chapter 1: In a story possibly intended to explain why you get a day off work each week, gods (“us”) 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 is painful: It’s punishment.
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 for longer than 120 years 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 (6:5). Their creator regrets making them (6:6) and 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. The flood 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.
The story switches gears, moving to the more central and more coherent myth of the Hebrew patriarchs.
Chapter 12: Fleeing famine, Abraham gets rich by letting the pharaoh take his wife and half-sister 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, not Abraham, for impertinence and drives her away, but a god—“the god of seeing”—brings the girl back.
Chapter 17: Without explanation, Abraham gets his name and standing orders to expel everyone with an intact foreskin on the penis.
Chapter 18: A god reads Sarah’s thoughts and insists that she mocked him by smiling. A god argues with itself about revealing its plans, then decides to destroy Sodom. Abraham haggles for justice.
Chapter 19: Lot offers his two daughters as a distraction so the men of Sodom don’t rape two visiting angels. For Abraham’s sake, the angels save Lot and his family while a god burns Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot’s daughters get pregnant by their father.
Chapter 20 repeats chapter 12 in a different country.
Chapters 21–23: The “binding of Isaac”. Abraham’s god orders him to kill his son. At the last minute it allows a substitute blood sacrifice of an innocent goat stuck in a shrubbery. Sarah then dies abroad.
Chapter 24: A 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 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-Lamarckist 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.
Around the time that the authors of Genesis completed their volume, Greek mercenaries were fleeing past the ruins of an ancient city. One mercenary, Xenophon, wrote about the marvellous city wall of Nineveh in book 3 of Anabasis (ca. 400 BCE). The wall was fifty feet thick, bigger than anything he’d heard of, but the city was no longer inhabited. The glories of the Late Bronze Age had been mostly forgotten, destroyed with the economic basis of the old empires. A Median and Babylonian alliance had sacked Nineveh in 612 BCE, leaving baked clay 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 in Genesis is corrupted to the point of stupidity. 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, so that it is not necessary for Uta-napishti to save every land-dwelling animal as Noah does in implausible fashion. After the waters recede, the gods take logical measures to limit the human population, introducing predators, menopause, famine, plague, and weakening in old age. 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 had a giant coracle 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. The language is similarly banal. According to Robert Alter, a professor of Hebrew, the famous first line of Genesis could well contain a nonce-word made up on the spot to create a rhyme: tohu wavohu is “like ‘helter skelter’ or ‘harum scarum’ in English” (“How translation obscured the music and wordplay of the Bible”, Aeon, 2019-02-27). This is like Georg Stiernhielm’s “arla” in Hercules (1658): a stunt that seems validated by historical coincidence, but is as silly as saying “super duper”.
One reason why the gods are so poorly presented is that they became surrounded by taboos. In particular, after some point in the long editing process, you couldn’t say the name “Yahweh” (introduced in chapter 2) or survive seeing that god. Compare this excerpt from book 1, chapter 99 of The Histories (440 BCE), about the proto-Iranian priest, judge and king Deioces:
When the town was finished, he proceeded to arrange the ceremonial. He allowed no one to have direct access to the person of the king, but made all communications pass through the hands of messengers, and forbade the king to be seen by his subjects. He also made it an offence for any one whatsoever to laugh or spit in the royal presence. This ceremonial, of which he was the first inventor, Deioces established for his own security, fearing that his compeers, who were brought up together with him, and were of as good family as he, and no whit inferior to him in manly qualities, if they saw him frequently would be pained at the sight, and would therefore be likely to conspire against him; whereas if they did not see him, they would think him quite a different sort of being from themselves.
Deioces ruled the Median Kingdom ca. 727–675 BCE. He was the grandfather of the man whose army sacked Nineveh, when those clay tablets went tumbling to the floor of the library. The excerpt shows that the idea of protecting unjust authority by invisibility and taboo was well understood. Applied to gods, invisibility helps explain why Christians never see evidence supporting the claims of their religion. The more specific notion that you would die if you saw Yahweh shifts the burden of policing the scoffers onto the scoffers themselves, while remaining perfectly compatible with the model of a king like Deioces who doesn’t want to be seen and will have you killed if you offend him. Even Herodotus, who wrote The Histories, often passes silently over matters of religious difference. He cites his own Greek scruples, i.e. taboo.
Following the development of taboos, Genesis was re-edited to cover the resulting plot holes. In the later parts especially, the gods communicate with Joseph through allegorical dreams, which put a safe distance between the authors, their characters, and the now lethal gods they spoke for. In Numbers 12:8, Yahweh has a comment on that, saying Moses—a guy in the next book—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: more word play.
The next creation myth in chapters 2 and 3 is 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 the gardener lies, telling you the fruit will kill you the same day you eat it. There’s a different fruit on the tree of life that the people are allowed to eat until verse 3:22, 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 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. Imitating the epic, 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 new 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, and the physical presence of the gods from Deioces’s example, and the number of the gods from a later monotheist development. 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.
A much later doctrine holds that the fruit episode of Genesis describes an “original sin”. Judging by the text, this sin would have to be curiosity, a desire for wisdom, or an unwillingness to abide by unjustified authority. Consequently, the Christian church encouraged ignorance and obedience, suiting kings. There is no textual support for the notion of original sin or any such causal relationship in these repurposed fragments of Sumerian poetry, nor anywhere else in The Bible. 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 one of the legends plagiarized for The Bible: ti meant both “rib” and to make (something) live. Somewhere along the line, a translator missed the point. When 16th-century anatomist Andreas Vesalius showed that men and women have the same amount of ribs, Christians got upset. By then, they were taking it all literally. I find it sad that people were outraged because they’d accidentally built their core beliefs about the universe around a joke. This is where you end up when you brand curiosity and disobedience as evil.
The footnote to Noah’s life in chapter 10 has no equivalent in the earlier Sumerian and Babylonian texts. It’s a good example of biblical writing: It’s pulled from thin air, it’s vulgar, it’s grotesque, it’s distinctly illogical, and its only discernible purpose is to throw shade on ethnic groups near Israel at the time of writing. The son that Noah curses is Ham, and according to the same chapter (verse 6), Ham is the common ancestor of both Egypt and Canaan. The anecdote must be intended to justify the race hatred the authors express later, when they paint the Egyptians as evil clowns in Exodus and rejoice in the genocide of the Canaanites in Numbers. Tragically, the real-world effects extended to even greater horrors. Numerous Muslim, Jewish and Christian believers have interpreted dark skin to be a sign of the curse of Ham, using this notion to justify their hatred and enslavement of Africans, well into the 19th century.
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.
Lot’s view of women is—at best—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, giving them their husband’s attention. They aspire to nothing else. In this fiction, all of their value lies in the functions they perform for other people: Men and children. Men here 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, given that all the major human characters are also men. 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 explode 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. The earlier narrative is driven by outrage at 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 in The Bible. 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. They prevail in this way because they are “culture” heroes, the mythical ancestors of the intended Iron Age Hebrew reader ca. 400 BCE.
In the 21st century, the patriarchs would belong to an extreme political right. They are not marked, as Gilgamesh is, 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 in the real world 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 pseudohistorical 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 religious studies in elementary school (80% Lutheran Christian indoctrination) 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. Most 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, like Herodotus. 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 gods. 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: Ezekiel (ca. 600–500 BCE), Leviticus (ca. 500–400 BCE), 1 Chronicles (ca 400–250 BCE), Psalms (ca. 700–200 BCE), Reasons to invent Jesus, Som en ateist läser bibeln, Fantasy with and without consistency, Romans (ca. 57 CE), Revelation (ca. 95 CE), John (ca. 90–110 CE), The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), On the Origin of Species (1859), “Two Butterflies went Out at Noon” (1862/1863), The Coming Race (1871), “Let Me Not Mar That Perfect Dream” (1875), “August, 1914” (1918), Under meteorernas trumeld (1932), Out of the Silent Planet (1938), The Little Prince (1943), The Czech Year (1947), “The Apple” (1967), Time Enough for Love (1973), “Tower of Babylon” (1990), “The Quickening” (1996), “Once Again, a World Where People Believe Everything Is Alive: A Dialogue with Tetsuo Yamaori” (2002), The Book of Eli (2010), “Giant God Warrior Appears in Tokyo” (2012), Eden (2021), Spriggan (2022).
‣‣ Paradise Lost (1667/1674)
John Milton (writer).
Read in 2021.
Read in the revised, 1674 version.
A rebel angel named Satan, cast down from Christian Heaven, takes his revenge on Yahweh (“Jehova”) by interfering with the project of Adam and Eve.
One of the most respected fanfics. It is more readable than the original, though built on a different theology.
Milton’s version of Satan is not just a satan—which is to say an adversary as in Job—but effectively a specific god, as in Jubilees (ca. 160–150 BCE), where he was called Mastema and was already halfway to a fallen rebel. Milton follows Revelation in identifying this Mastema-like Satan as the serpent in paradise and takes pains not to contradict the canon more directly than Revelation. For example, Eve is still created from a rib, following the Sumerian pun, and Adam is missing a rib as a result, even though Andreas Vesalius had already proven a century before Milton that men are not short a rib. Much of Milton’s canon is Christian and bears no relationship with the original: Jesus is present, eating the forbidden fruit is the reason for all human suffering, and so on.
Whereas the original story of Genesis 2–3 is a haphazard corruption of Mesopotamian myths, Milton aims for internal consistency and worldbuilding, more so than Jubilees. For example, Adam and Eve have sex before they eat the forbidden fruit, and in so doing, Eve blushes:
She heard me thus; and though divinely brought,
Yet innocence, and virgin modesty,
Her virtue, and the conscience of her worth,
That would be wooed, and not unsought be won,
Not obvious, not obtrusive, but, retired,
The more desirable; or, to say all,
Nature herself, though pure of sinful thought,
Wrought in her so, that, seeing me, she turned:
I followed her; she what was honour knew,
And with obsequious majesty approved
My pleaded reason. To the nuptial bower
I led her blushing like the morn: All Heaven,
And happy constellations, on that hour
Shed their selectest influence; the Earth
Gave sign of gratulation, and each hill;
Joyous the birds; fresh gales and gentle airs
Whispered it to the woods, and from their wings
Flung rose, flung odours from the spicy shrub,
Disporting, till the amorous bird of night
Sung spousal, and bid haste the evening-star
On his hill top, to light the bridal lamp.
Aw yeah, they smashed so hard the whole landscape gave applause. The sexism and the pathetic fallacy are evident. Like so many other Christian theologians, Milton equivocates: If both shame (blushing, shyness) and hill-shaking sexual pleasure came before the fruit, it is not obvious how the fruit’s additon of lust to monogamy should be so significant, or in other words, why Christianity’s lies should control life. At its core, the retold story is still nonsense, like the original.
What Milton does best is the framework around the core. The nerdy fantasy worldbuilding itself is ahead of its time, better than formal theology and a lot of fun to see. The world Milton knew is larger than the Bible’s. To populate Heaven and Hell, which did not exist in the Bible, Milton used a comically wide variety of other religions and medieval boogeymen. His geography is also larger:
There was a place,
Now not, though sin, not time, first wrought the change,
Where Tigris, at the foot of Paradise,
Into a gulf shot under ground, till part
Rose up a fountain by the tree of life:
In with the river sunk, and with it rose
Satan, involved in rising mist; then sought
Where to lie hid; sea he had searched, and land,
From Eden over Pontus and the pool
Maeotis, up beyond the river Ob;
Downward as far antarctick; and in length,
West from Orontes to the ocean barred
At Darien; thence to the land where flows
Ganges and Indus: Thus the orb he roamed
With narrow search; and with inspection deep
Considered every creature, which of all
Most opportune might serve his wiles; and found
The Serpent subtlest beast of all the field.
Even “every star” is “perhaps a world // Of destined habitation”, looking ahead to C. S. Lewis’s Christian SF. Much of the structure and characterization are taken from The Odyssey (ca. 700 BCE) and other ancient epics, though the metre is English. The post-Shakespearean language is clunky, rarely pithy, but beautiful in its majestic flow. The action starts in medias res and the gaps are filled in later, with Homer’s nonlinearity.
Though evil, Satan is the bad-boy hero (“antihero”), a noble and capable underdog at the heart of the story, triumphant until arbitrarily punished. He is also an anarchist, rightly opposed to Yahweh’s unjustifiable authority, but selfish; a rounded character. Unlike most of the Bible, this literally Satanic, self-consistent and grandiose fantasy has both literary merit and entertainment value. You can skip book XII though; it proceeds beyond Genesis to purely Christian ideas, purportedly justifying Yahweh’s oppression while doing nothing of the sort.
References here: Nerd argues about distinction between fantasy and science fiction, “Green Tea” (1872), “Die Engel” (1902), Lord of Light (1967), “Paradise Lost” (1996), Pushing Ice (2005), Eden of the East the Movie II: Paradise Lost (2010).
‣‣ La Prophétie des grenouilles (2003)
Seen in 2017.
Review refers to the Swedish dub.
A consistently uncomfortable mixture of fable, religious myth, Michelin product placement, calculating frogs as a silly allusion to real climate change (the myth of frogs dying rather than jumping out of heating water), and an effort to be reasonable. Very briefly, the turtle explains his face-heel turn as the result of (real) human cruelty. He is then pardoned by the invincible patriarch, fortunately undermining a central feature of the narrative, namely the moral dichotomy. The fact that some of the predators would be unable to live on potatoes is coldly ignored, as in Isaiah (ca. 600-400 BCE). The local nature of the catastrophe is also ignored: It would be silly to ask what the dry part of the world was doing to help the victims.
The old married couple of elephants is pretty funny, and the visual design is decent, like a stereotypical children’s book coming to life with intelligent digital composition.
‣ Exodus (ca. 500–400 BCE)
Read in 2018.
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 the pharaoh. The brothers use magic but Egyptian 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 priests 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 at this. The brothers then summon flies, kill all domesticated animals, produce boils on the Egyptian people, and add fiery hail, locusts, and darkness.
Chapter 12: Instructions for celebrating Passover include painting your house with blood. If you don’t do that, Yahweh won’t understand that you are loyal to him, so he will kill you by mistake.
Yahweh kills all firstborn Egyptian animals, including the people. It relinquishes its control over the pharaoh so that he can honour his promise to release the Hebrews. Yahweh then mind-controls the Egyptian people to give silver, gold and clothes to those who leave. Their stay has lasted for 430 years, which again 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 other gods: The “opponents” of Yahweh.
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.
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 Middle 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 tribe. A fiction of prior unified exodus from captivity would have been politically expedient at this time, to sharpen boundaries. 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, less clearly in this volume. Isaiah 11:16 makes the comparison explicit.
Moses’s birth in chapter 2, with the humble basket of reeds, echoes a commonplace motif in earlier Mesopotamian literature. It was also used for the biography of Sargon of Akkad, who lived 1900 years before this book was written. Religious canon puts Moses’s exodus around 1400 BCE, just 900 years after Sargon’s time. Egypt probably had a population of around 2 to 3 million then. 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 moving from Rameses to Sukkoth 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 mortality of the era, it would indeed seem probable within the framework of this fiction 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 apparently indicate that 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. Why are the Hebrews now 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. Perhaps editors removed references to a divine struggle. There are ancient Egyptian records of circumcision; the Hebrews did not invent the practice.
Some editor must have noticed the plot holes. Perhaps in a lost version, the pharaoh acted under his own power, as in Genesis. Someone apparently found it necessary to posit that Yahweh is now controlling the leader as a reason for the vulgar display of power to continue. Thusly mind-controlled, the pharaoh wilfully antagonizes a weirdly unassimilated ethnic group larger than his own through massive atrocities. He even lowers their productivity (hence their economic value) and provokes his victims to spread out looking for straw, which would put them in an excellent position to retaliate and rise against the tyrant. Later editors obviously weren’t happy with this either, so in later bibles that include Jubilees (ca. 160–150 BCE), another god does the dirty work.
Consider how the balance of the two populations might change when the Hebrews are spared while the Egyptians are struck 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. Realistically, this 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 dropping their bricks and walking away.
Yahweh’s puppet pharaoh keeps digging himself a deeper hole, reneging on his promises each time. You can’t blame a puppet in such a fantasy but you can blame the authors for admiring a god who would bend the minds of the innocent toward evil as he slaughters them. These authors do not bother with any plausible attempt to denigrate the Egyptians or the Amalekites, nor do they highlight any Hebrew virtues. 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 the much older lex talionis (“an eye for an eye”, already collated in the Code of Hammurabi) 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 heroes, but generally not otherwise; other killings 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 seems to state the intention more clearly.
Forward-thinking Christians have had to struggle against literate Christians for 1900 years to stretch the law against killing from its intended narrow meaning into a general meaning that would have seemed alien to the authors. In 2018, they were still struggling. That year, Pope Francis changed the Catechism to condemn the death penalty “under all circumstances”. Catholics still kept killing other people in the most conscious way possible. To the extent that they were motivated by religion at all, Christians carrying out the death penalty acted on a reasonable understanding of The Bible’s intended meaning, which is bad.
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):
But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of 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), Reasons to invent Jesus, Som en ateist läser bibeln, Reviews on this site, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), “Our Man Bashir” (1995), Metodboken — Bibel 2000 (1999).
‣‣ The Ten Commandments (1956)
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.
Biblical sword-and-sandal spectacle with lots of special effects, motivated entirely by the horrifying rise of television. It 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. Stupid on many levels, like the blockbusters of fifty years later.
‣‣ The Prince of Egypt (1998)
Love that sandstorm.
‣‣ Seder-Masochism (2018)
Seen in 2019.
The ceremonial Seder meal, and through it, Passover as celebrated by observing modern U.S. Jews, and through that, a retelling of the fictional story of Exodus. Aaron’s golden calf, and much else, is interpreted to refer to mother goddesses eclipsed and reviled by the three major Abrahamic religions.
Animator-director Nina Paley depicts herself as a sacrificial calf interviewing her own patriarch—her actual father—who died between the interview and the film production. The taped interview covers his transition from religious faith in childhood to atheism in his early teens.
A musical in 2D vector animation, made with open technologies and Kickstarter money, hence the joke about the “Four Freedoms” wilfully misinterpreted as a reference to the FSF instead of FDR. I was the only one at the GIFF 2019 screening who laughed at that joke.
This is almost a sequel to Sita Sings the Blues (2008), but Paley has acquired even more impressive skills and treats the mythology of her own inherited culture instead of the Hindu mythology of a previous partner’s place of work. The whole thing is literate, fluid (by the standards of a one-woman show), funny and catchy, with appropriate empathy for the non-human and non-Hebrew victims in the old story, and a split-second gag about the bathetic contrast between the desert and the promised “land of milk and honey”. Among the few flaws are a couple of awkward scene transitions and an exaggerated focus on the idea of the mother goddess as an almost universal cult all the way into the Iron Age. All of the literature listed in the end credits seems to be about that speculation.
‣ Leviticus (ca. 500–400 BCE)
Read in 2018.
Additional Mosaic laws with minimal narrative. 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). This makes the meat payment in kind for services rendered.
- 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 your victims for your own actions (20:27).
- Yahweh is concerned with two neat stacks of bread, six in each (24:5f).
In a brief narrative interlude, Yahweh kills people for trying to please Yahweh (10:1f).
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 discover 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 ancient 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 another case of polytheism. According to scholarly commentaries I find credible, “Azazel” refers to more magical thinking: Choose by lots, with Yahweh acting through random chance, and drive away the goat who is thereby selected to carry your sins. It’s yet another horrible scene of blood sacrifice, but there is something darkly funny in the Frazerian idea of tricking Yahweh to ignore your sins by sticking them to a goat. This requires Yahweh to be foolish, in the same way that a small child’s fantasies will often involve a fool to make the child seem wise. Later on, “Azazel” became the name of a fallen angel.
On the subject of the concept of nature in the Pentateuch, this book contains one of several elaborate revenge fantasies where Yahweh promises to punish the people if they don’t live up to the covenant. In this particular fantasy, a temporary absence of the people from the promised land is characterized as a Sabbath of the land as such (26:34f), i.e. a supernaturally enforced long-term fallow period. This rounds out the image of Yahweh as a preternaturally powerful version of the intended reader, the slave-owning head of a Hebrew household.
As in the Code of Hammurabi, allowances are made for people of limited means, including lepers who can be purified for less (14:32). This distinction resembles 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 fixed prices and explicit exceptions for the most mundane problem in the world, when you could instead make up a divine law to eliminate poverty or promise to eliminate leprosy (as the WHO eventually did without the benefit of magic), or both. Discounts in the name of a god are an inelegant cash grab combined with a fear of revolt, 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 probably committed a crime when he raised a stone in Genesis 31:35, because Yahweh now forbids idols.
Dwell on chapter 18, where Yahweh bans male homosexual intercourse. According to biblical scholar Idan Dershowitz, there is evidence in the Hebrew that this particular law was added in one of the later rounds of revisions. Secondary verses (glosses) attached to other laws focus on heterosexual relations: The verse about your parents is twisted to ban sex with your mother, not your father, and the same with uncles and aunts. Dershowitz claims that these glosses are a late addition made intelligible by a general ban on gay sex, which must therefore be a late addition too. It’s a weak argument, but even the after-thoughts and brain farts of these ancient editors may have extended to drive gay teenagers to suicide thousands of years later.
Dwell also on chapter 25, where Yahweh sanctions permanent human-on-human slavery (25:44–46) and declares that it personally owns all Hebrews as slaves (25:55). This is a picture of the authors in mise en abyme as slave-owning slaves. With competent authors there would be consistency in this motif. Here it is merely implied to make a link in a chain from Yahweh to the smallest creatures. 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 male heads of families 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), Dao De Jing (ca. 400 BCE), 2 Chronicles (ca 400–250 BCE), Soft drinks and ethical nihilism, 1 Corinthians (ca. 56 CE), Silent Spring (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Idoru (1996), Knife of Dreams (2005), The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016), “Dead Sea Scroll Detectives” (2019), Dorohedoro (2020).
‣ Numbers (ca. 500–400 BCE)
Read in 2018.
Catalogues of the military strength of the Hebrews, more laws, and stops on the journey. Highlights include:
Chapter 5: When you suspect a woman 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. Instead, you will be happy to know that the woman can now receive your seed (5:28).
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” (14:18).
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.
Tedious and awful, but I can’t complain about tassels.
The law of jealousy in chapter 5 has no info on male adultery. There may be a cause for this beyond mere sexism. It’s certainly sexist, humiliating women trapped in a loveless marriage, but such women are not the target audience of the text. The threat of the ceremony does not seem like an effective deterrent against adultery, though this was my original interpretation. Consider that when there are no witnesses (5:13), the main reason to suspect a woman of adultery would be an unexpected pregnancy: A likely thing on a polygamous estate where the richest man isn’t actually fucking everybody. The chapter makes sense in this light. Though translations vary, the original intent was probably to describe a pious method of forced abortion. As with Eve being made from a rib, this chapter was also written without knowing how human life begins. It seems as if the ancient Hebrews believed a cup of bitter clay would somehow negate the mysterious forces at work in the pregnant woman. A lot of poisons will.
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 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 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.
‣ Deuteronomy (ca. 630–400 BCE)
Read in 2018.
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 5: All visual representation is forbidden (verse 8).
Chapter 7: Yahweh has condemned seven specific peoples to extinction by genocidal war in order to make way for Israel. The Hebrews must show no mercy, must leave nobody alive and must desecrate the temples until the names of the conquered are forgotten.
Chapter 10: Moses demands fear of Yahweh and, in the same breath, absolute love of the same god (“with all your heart and with all your soul”, verse 12) and obedience to the laws.
Chapter 12: Moses promises guilt-free meat. The worst thing he can say about the condemned peoples is that they purportedly practised what Yahweh demanded of Abraham: Human sacrifice.
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 raise a victim for display as in a crucifixion, take care not to leave the corpse up over night.
Chapter 22: You can prove that a wife was a virgin at the time she got married, but there’s no info on how. Also, this time, both men and women are culpable for adultery. Also, happily, tassels.
Chapter 25: There’s an elaborate ritual to be performed with spit and a sandal when two brothers live together and one of them dies with a wife but without a son and the remaining brother—like Onan—won’t marry and impregnate his sister-in-law as Yahweh intended.
Chapter 28: Practically all welfare in life is contingent upon total obedience to Yahweh.
Chapter 30: Moses argues that Mosaic law is easy to follow because it exists.
Chapter 32: Musical interlude. In it, Moses alludes to the traditional Mesopotamian afterlife in “the realm of the dead below” and describes Yahweh as a warrior whose hand is so strong you can’t pull anything out of it.
Chapter 33: Like Jacob, the dying Moses surveys the tribes, but is more upbeat.
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 the ecological carrying capacity with the agricultural technology of the period. 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 insights beyond common knowledge, as is their claim. With insight they would have formulated something useful and non-obvious, such as the laws of thermodynamics. Instead, it’s on the level of “crime is illegal”.
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 as 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 so that your goons don’t turn on you. 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.
The sermon in chapter 28, apart from suggesting something like a principle, also goes to cartoonish excess in describing Yahweh’s punishments. For example, the god will arrange sieges so horrific that those who obeyed less than all of the laws are going to eat their own afterbirths as well as their children (28:54–57). This is apparently a reference to real sieges that had already taken place. This literary technique of putting a belated prophecy in Yahweh’s mouth was supposed to add punch and would remain popular. For example, Gabriel de Mussis did exactly the same thing at the opening of his Istoria de Morbo (ca. 1355) where Yahweh, in its on words, condemns those who are about to experience the first European outbreak of the Black Death in 1347.
References here: 1 Kings (ca. 620–530 BCE), 2 Kings (ca. 620–530 BCE), Exodus (ca. 500–400 BCE), Pentateuch (ca. 500–400 BCE), Republic (ca. 375 BCE), Reasons to invent Jesus, Sortering av bibelböcker, Som en ateist läser bibeln, “Galatians” (ca. 55 CE), 2 Corinthians (ca. 56–57 CE), Matthew (ca. 80–90 CE), “1 John” (ca. 90–110 CE), The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok (ca. 1300–1350), “The Quickening” (1996), “Hell Is the Absence of God” (2001).