The Horrors of Deuteronomy

(Wednesday, April 23, 2008, 8:08 p.m.)

copied from Myspace blog

Out of curiosity (and research for a novel I began working on last summer) I've been reading through the (Christian) Bible. I finished the New Testament and decided I would go back and read the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, the heart of the original Jewish Scripture. I finished Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, and now I'm about half way through Deuteronomy, and in my travels within the Torah I've learned a great deal about mass animal sacrifices ("for the sweet savor unto the Lord") and about the merits of using genocide to make a land-grab, courtesy of Herr Meisterprophet Moses. Here's a little jewel for everyone who thinks that ancient book of myths and legends we call the Holy Bible should be interpreted literally and followed to the letter. The context of the passage below is that Moses is telling the Hebrews who are about to enter the Promised Land of Canaan how they should deal with false prophets and other people living among them who try to get them to worship other gods than Jehovah. I am not taking this passage out of context.

[6] If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; [7] Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; [8] Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: [9] But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. [10] And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.

—Deuteronomy, Chapter 13: 6-10, King James Version

There's nothing ambiguous about this passage: it says if anyone you know, even in your family, tries to persuade you to worship another god, you must haul them before the people and kill them without mercy by throwing stones on them. The chapter goes on to say that if the inhabitants of a city are caught worshipping other gods, "Thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is therein, and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword." (Deut. 13:15) (Note that women and children are not excluded, and they are explicitly included in other passages.) These were Moses' divinely-inspired instructions (among many others) to his Chosen People as they marched through the wilderness to claim their Promised Land from its current inhabitants, the Canaanites and other tribes in the area.

Later, Christianity would do potential believers in the One-God a favor by essentially saying we didn't have to follow the inconvenient and tiresome Law of Moses, so we don't have to kill unbelievers and adulterers and people who curse their parents or people that do work on the Sabbath day, and we can eat pork as we like and don't have to sacrifice herds of animals to the Almighty to satiate what must be His vast hunger. (Read the Torah, especially Leviticus through Deuteronomy; I'm not exaggerating.) I'm not familiar with the Jewish writings that have excused modern believers from following the awful instructions of Moses, but I am heartened that they have also modernized and liberalized their views. (Now, if only the Muslims would do the same with respect to their own Quran, maybe we would have less jihadic terrorism in the world today, or at least less acceptance of it.)

The lesson here is not that Jews or Christians or Muslims are evil people, bent on genocide. Human nature is what it is in everyone: both good and bad. Christian, Jew, etc., or atheist, are capable of both human kindness and monstrosity. The problem is with fundamentalism: the insistence on believing that we should follow everything Scripture says as God-given truth and law. The Scriptures, in fact, contradict themselves. Now that I've read enough of the Bible, I can see this firsthand. In practice, following the Scriptures literally means picking and choosing which passages to follow and which to ignore. A thoroughly pissed off, unemployed, dispossessed Muslim is likely to ignore passages in the Quran urging mercy and restraint and emphasize the passages involving holy war against the infidel. A reasonably well-off Muslim who's sincerely trying to fit in living in a modern industrialized society is more likely (like modern Jews) to deemphasize the hateful passages in favor of the kinder ones. There's ideological fuel in the Scriptures for both pacifists and for terrorists. Unfortunately, there's a lot of terrorism in the Scriptures. (From what I've read so far of the respective scriptures, the Torah may be actually worse than the Quran.)

From an anthropological standpoint, it is fascinating reading the Old Testament because what you have is a very well-preserved written record of ancient (pre-ancient Roman!) religion, complete with burnt-offering animal sacrifices and temple worship, records of a religion contemporary with the religions of the ancient Greeks with roots back into the Bronze Age, roots stretching back into the exceedingly ancient religions of ancient Sumer and Babylon. The Bible was written by ancient people who thought they were inspired by their god, and also believed that their god was the God of all the universe, and that the God of the Universe had singled them out as His Chosen People. The Judaic God probably was originally the king of a larger pantheon of gods, but the innovative priests that wrote Deuteronomy decided to axe worship of all the other gods in favor of the highest one alone. (A similar process of elimination was done by the Muslims to make Allah (probably originally a moon-god) into the One-God.) Later, the founders of Christianity took the originally tribal, ethnocentric god and opened up his worship to the people who weren't a part of the original tribe.

It is men, not invisible angels, that write down scriptures. Why not take that at face value? We don't believe the media when it tells us that Elvis is still alive; why should we believe that Moses parted the Red Sea just because someone wrote it down thousands of years ago? Why should we believe that a man named Moses actually existed even? We've stopped believing the earth is the center of the universe or that the earth is flat. We don't believe that Odysseus or Paul Bunyan really existed.

If we treat the Holy Scriptures the same way that we treat other literature like the Odyssey or the Epic of Gilgamesh, not as literal truth, but as a metaphorical expression of deeper truths, then we can liberate ourselves from vicious dogmas that inspire people to kill one another just for the sake of words and names and world-views. The ancient Hebrews lived in unforgiving and bloodthirsty times, constantly under threat of being wiped out by their neighbors. Should it surprise us if their god is portrayed as unforgiving and bloodthirsty? There are many good messages in the Holy Bible. ("Thou shalt not kill.", "Thou shalt not steal.") Any civilization, past or present, must abide by these rules if it is to endure. But smiting all unbelievers with the edge of the sword? We live (in most parts of the world) in much kinder, gentler times. Weird dietary and hygienic laws, and mass slaughter of whole populations in order to conquer territory may have been a matter of course in 500 B.C., but they have no place in the age of the hydrogen bomb and the Internet. It is unfortunate that there are still some people in the world who are living so far back in the past, and that some of these people have or will soon have access to nuclear technology.

If we must have fundamentalism, I hope that fundamentalists will do us a favor and blot out from their consideration those passages in their scriptures that are so clearly relics of barbaric and less humane times. Bear in mind that when the Holy Bible was written (both Old and New Testaments) slavery was a perfectly acceptable institution, and the writers of the Bible took it for granted and gave instructions on how to treat slaves, but rarely discouraged the institution itself. (The closest passage I've seen to a condemnation of slavery was in the apostle Paul's letter to Philemon.) We live in very different times. If we must live by a bible in our times, it would be better to write a new one and throw out the superfluous metaphysical dead-wood and the poisonous ethical vestiges of barbarism in the old scriptures.

As an atheist (which I am for reasons discussed in another blog) I tend to throw most of the package out as ancient superstition, to be treated as poetic metaphor but never literal truth. But there are other solutions for people who feel there must be a Supreme Being somewhere in the universe (or outside). If you believe in such a Supreme Being, why not reflect anew on the nature of that being? Why should you believe what tradition says, what people wrote hundreds of years ago on the shores of Canaan or in the Arabian desert? Tradition is only good if it leads to harmony between people and stability and peace in society. Tradition is man-given, not God-given. If there's a God, how can anybody claim that they've got His/Her/Its nature exactly right? How is it not possible that everybody is right about some aspects of God, but, still in this day and age, wrong on the whole package? Are ancient-peoples' beliefs about the nature of God really worth killing one another over? It's easy for me to ask these questions here in the safety of the United States. I hope it will become easier for people in other parts of the world to ask the same questions without being threatened with death, imprisonment, or ostracism. I also hope (with optimism, however, rather than serious dread) that here in the United States, that religion will never backslide into the nightmare world of Deuteronomy.

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