What Is the Bible?

An Atheist Reads the Bible, Part 3

What is the Bible?

I ask because I found it a little confusing for a while.

In the previous installment of this series, I covered Genesis up to Noah and the flood, and I understand clearly what the purpose of that section is. It is a creation myth about the origin of the world and of man. Every culture has one.

But then we move from this section of the Bible’s history, which scholars call the “primeval” period, to the section after the flood, which is called the “patriarchal” period, where we hear about the great patriarchs of the Jewish people, particularly Abraham. Rather than being figures of mythology, like Adam and Eve, the patriarchs are quasi-historical figures.

I say quasi-historical, because to be strictly “historical” requires independent verification. That’s the basic method of history, as first set out by Thucydides, who described how he compiled his history of the Peloponnesian War by interviewing eyewitnesses, comparing their accounts, and checking them against other records of the events. So if we see a historical figure mentioned both by a Greek chronicler and, say, a Persian, then we know this was a real person and we can say something reasonably certain about who he was.

This is the problem with Abraham and with much of the “history” presented in the Bible. The Jews were a small tribe at the fringe of big empires, and for the most part they were not significant enough to make it into the records of those empires—at least, not into the few records that managed to survive. So not much of the Biblical story can be independently verified as objective history.

Yet Abraham is a figure of historical times, circa 1800 BC. As we noted before, he is described as a Sumerian from Ur, and he wandered through Assyria on his way to Canaan (later Israel), then continued into Egypt before returning to Canaan. So he was acquainted with and lived alongside civilizations that we know very well from the historical and archaeological record.

I think it would be best to think of this section on Abraham and the other Jewish patriarchs as “legend”: stories told about people who did exist or probably existed, but where the stories have been exaggerated and embellished over years of retelling. So Abraham would be roughly equivalent, in a Classical context, to Agamemnon (the leader of the Greeks during the Trojan War) or Theseus (the legendary founder of Athens).

These legends provide an early tribal history of the Jewish people. But what was the purpose of that tribal history? The answer to that question solves a couple of other mysteries.

Have you ever wondered what those “begat” sections were all about? You know, passages like this one from Genesis, Chapter 10 (follow along, as usual, in the King James Bible online):

And Arphaxad begat Salah; and Salah begat Eber.
And unto Eber were born two sons: the name of one was Peleg; for in his days was the earth divided; and his brother’s name was Joktan.
And Joktan begat Almodad, and Sheleph, and Hazarmaveth, and Jerah.

And so on. But why is this in the Bible? Why, across the vicissitudes of centuries, would the Jewish priests make sure that these sections are transmitted and included in their religion’s definitive text?

To understand that issue, you have to know who it is who is being begotten. We don’t understand these sections today because most of the names mean nothing to us. But they meant a lot more to people at the time that the Bible was written. The men who are begotten in these sections are the patriarchs of all of the various tribes and people with whom the Jews of the ancient Near East would have come in contact.

Let’s start with the sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. The Bible says that “of them was the whole earth overspread,” and they had a particular geographical division. Of the sons of Japheth it is said that “by these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands.” So Japheth was the father of the Europeans. For example, one of the sons of Japheth is Gomer, who is usually associated with the Eurasian people historians know as Cimmerians. But what struck me most is that Japheth is believed to be the Hebrew form of Iapetus—the name of the father of the human race (by way of his son, Epimetheus) in Greek and Roman mythology. So in telling us about Japheth, the Bible is telling us how the Jewish tribe is related to the Europeans and specifically the Greeks, who were a rising power in the Mediterranean at the time the Bible was written.

Similarly, Ham is sometimes equated with the Egyptian god Amun, and his descendants mostly settled in Africa, with the exception of his son Canaan, who is the patriarch of the Canaanites—the inhabitants of the land where Abraham will later settle down, and whom the Jews will eventually conquer. We’ll see in a moment how that relates to the Bible’s genealogy.

The third of Noah’s sons, Shem, is the father of the peoples of the Middle East, the Shemites or “Semites”—a word that passes down to us today, though in a much narrower context. These include, for example, Asshur, the patriarch of the Assyrians. This whole genealogy, by the way, is called the “Table of Nations,” and you can go through it and see the various attempts to puzzle out which peoples correspond to the various sons and grandsons and great-grandsons of Noah.

This also brings us back to that part about how “Arphaxad begat Salah; and Salah begat Eber.” Arphaxad, one of the sons of Shem, is in some traditions believed to be the founder of Ur. His grandson Eber is the namesake of the Hebrew language, and if you go down a couple more generations of begattings, Eber is the great-great-great-great-grandfather of Abraham.

Why was all of this worth recording? Now we know. This was a political anthropology of the ancient Near East, setting the context and family relationships for Abraham and the Hebrews among the other nations of the Earth.

Specifically, it sets up who was on top in these relationships and who was underneath.

Consider the sad tale of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, back in Chapter 9.

And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard:
And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.
And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.
And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.
And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

This all seems more than little unfair to Ham, and this is certainly a Bible verse with a long and unpleasant history. Since Ham is the father of the Africans and was condemned to servitude to Shem and Japheth—the fathers of the Middle Easterners and Europeans—this verse was often cited as a Biblical justification for the enslavement of Africans. But we needn’t speculate about whether the Bible intended such a broad interpretation, because it’s clear in this verse that the Bible is less interested in Ham than it is with his son Canaan. The purpose of this story is to justify the later subjugation of the Canaanites, the original inhabitants of Israel, by the Jews.

This is what the legendary origin of the nations of the Earth is meant to accomplish. Yet the justice of these relationships is not demonstrated. There is no real attempt to show that Ham and his descendants really deserve their punishment. And the same applies to a whole series of later incidents in the tribal history of the Jews.

Take the case of Abraham’s first son. Call him Ishmael. Abraham and his wife Sarah are unable to conceive a child, and after a while Sarah gives up. So to give Abraham an heir, she arranges for him to also marry her handmaiden, an Egyptian woman named Hagar. Hagar gives birth to Ishmael.

But when Sarah finally has a son of her own, Isaac, she suddenly becomes a whole lot less broadminded about this domestic arrangement, and she demands that Abraham drive away Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham does so, with God’s assurance that he will make Ishmael into the father of a nation of his own, and this is the Bible’s legend about the origin of the Arabs. So this establishes the early relationship of the Jews and the Arabs, specifically establishing that the Arabs do not have any part of Abraham’s inheritance and are not part of Abraham’s covenant with God.

I’ll cite one more example: the story of Jacob and Esau. These are the two sons of Isaac and thus the next generation of heirs to Abraham. Esau is the older brother and thus the first in line for Abraham’s inheritance, but he sells it to Jacob for a “mess of pottage” (a kind of lentil stew). Here is the story, from Genesis, Chapter 25.

And the boys grew: and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a plain man, dwelling in tents.
And Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison: but Rebekah loved Jacob.
And Jacob sod pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint:
And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom.
And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright.
And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?
And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob.
Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright.

Jacob then goes on to make sure of this by tricking the elderly and blind Isaac into giving him his blessing and confirming the inheritance.

This story has much the same purpose as the other incidents in the Bible’s tribal history. Notice that Esau’s other name is Edom, and we discover later that Jacob’s other name is Israel. Well, in later years the Edomites were a tribe that lived to the south of the Israelites and sometimes joined them as allies. So once again, this was an attempt to establish the origin, relationship, and order of precedence between the various peoples of the ancient Near East. In this passage, the Israelites are recognizing the Edomites as family—but cutting them out of the will.

Notice again the odd amorality of this story. There is no real attempt to show that Jacob was dealing fairly with Esau or was justified in tricking his elderly and infirm father, just as there was no real attempt to show that Ham or Hagar and Ishmael were treated justly. It’s all a kind of brute power politics, with no holds barred. And I won’t even get into the story of Jacob and his wives Leah and Rachel, which is a real soap opera.

That’s what had me confused about the Bible at this point. In reading the stories of the great patriarchs of the Jewish people, I was expecting stories of morally exemplary action. In effect, I was expecting parables designed to instill a moral code. Isn’t that what you think “the good book” is going to be about?

I have no doubt that if you work hard enough you can extract certain moral messages from these stories, or at least you can read moral messages into them. I am sure there are no end of scholarly exegeses and Sunday morning sermons that seek to do so. But looking at these stories purely on their own terms, they strike me as essentially amoral. It is just a tribal history, which was preserved to record political relationships between various peoples: between Hebrews and Canaanites, between Jews and Arabs, between Israelites and Edomites.

But there is one really big exception: the story of Abraham and Isaac. Remember that Abraham and his wife Sarah could not conceive, and they waited for many years to have a child of their own, which God had promised to Abraham. So finally Abraham has Isaac and even goes so far as to cast out Ishmael to clear the way for him. And then what? God demands that he sacrifice Isaac. Here is the passage from Chapter 22.

And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.
And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

This would seem to be quite a dilemma. But the important thing about this story is that Abraham doesn’t really hesitate.

And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him….
And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.
And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?
And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.

That’s rather poignant, in an exceedingly grim way: God will provide a lamb, my son—and it will be you.

But then God doesn’t make Abraham go through with it.

And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.
And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.
And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.

On one level, this is absolutely horrible, possibly the worst story in the Bible. It is about a god who would demand the murder of a child—and a believer who would be willing to execute that bloodthirsty demand. What makes it even more poignant, and underscores the evil of the whole idea, is Isaac’s question to his father about the lamb, which reminds us of the complete trust a child has that his parents will love him and care for him.

But in context—and it takes a little work to see this in context—the story means something a little different. The context is that human sacrifice, and specifically sacrifice of children, was commonplace in the ancient Near East. In particular, there was a well established custom in which a king or tribal patriarch like Abraham might be asked to sacrifice his first-born son to appease the tribal god. We can see this later on, in a story from Second Kings, in which the Jews are at war with a Moabite chieftain, who sacrifices his son to his tribal god Chemosh—and then wins the battle and repels the Jews.

The ancient Middle East was a very rough and nasty place. It was civilization at the bare bones level—they had cities—but not civilization in the higher meaning, which implies cultural and moral refinement. The story of Abraham and Isaac is, believe it or not, part of that refinement. Its actual meaning, in the context of its era, is the Jewish god’s rejection of human sacrifice and substitution of animal sacrifice.

Yet the principle of sacrifice remains. The message of this Biblical story is that God may not actually require you to sacrifice everything that is most dear to you—but you have to be willing to sacrifice everything.

What makes the Bible interesting—and perhaps this accounts for its longevity compared to other ancient religious traditions—is that it is constantly moving from a more concrete version of religion to a more abstract one. Abraham is generally credited with originating monotheism. In going from many gods to one, he is going beyond the concept of a specific god, Yahwey, to the concept of godhood or divinity as such, as embodied in a single God. Similarly, this story of Abraham and Isaac is a process of moral abstraction: it relinquishes the demand for literal human sacrifice, but does so in order to establish the principle of sacrifice.

This gives us an answer to our initial question. What is the Bible? Within its chronicles of tribal history, the Bible keeps returning to a very specific theme: a record of God’s relationship to man. As we saw in the previous installment of this series, the early chapters of Genesis establish God’s superiority over man. In these later chapters, and particularly in the story of Abraham and Isaac, the Bible establishes the principle that our devotion and obedience to God must be total.

Let us contrast this, as we usually do, with Greek mythology and specifically the Greek treatment of this same issue: what man is obliged to sacrifice to his gods. In Greek mythology, Zeus tells man to slaughter a head of cattle and divide it into two piles. Zeus will pick one pile, and that will determine which parts of the animal have to be sacrificed to the gods. Prometheus advises man to take the inedible bones and sinews and put them in one pile, then to cover this with “glistening fat.” In the other pile, he tells them to put all the choice cuts of meat, but to cover them with the intestines and offal. Zeus picks the glistening fat, only to discover that he has been tricked and that man has reserved the best cuts of meat for himself. That’s why, when Homer tells us of a sacrifice to the gods, he describes the bones of the animal being wrapped in fat and placed on an altar as a burnt offering—while the humans roast the meat and have a feast for themselves.

The moral of this story is that it is acceptable to hold back from the gods and not sacrifice everything. While Zeus is angry—he will eventually get his revenge against Prometheus—in the end it’s no big deal, because the Greek gods are just not that into us. There is a scene at the end of Book I of the Iliad, when Hera is haranguing Zeus about his intervention in the Trojan War, and as they begin to quarrel Hephaestus speaks up and urges them not to disturb the merriment of the feast for the sake of mere mortals. The gods chuckle in acknowledgement and go back to their feasting.

In the Greek outlook, the gods want what they want, and humans want what we want. Sometimes these things coincide and sometimes they conflict, and that’s just life.

The message of the Bible, and particularly of the Abraham-Isaac story, is that the God of Abraham does care and that no such leeway is permitted.

As to whether that’s a good thing, I’ll let you judge that for yourselves. But from an atheist’s perspective, I have to note that if there is no God, then it is not actually God who is demanding total obedience and total sacrifice. It is God’s self-proclaimed representatives on Earth who are making that demand. And if the word “total” gives you the heebie-jeebies—particularly after the last century’s experiments with “total” doctrines—well, it should.

This is an important context to keep in mind as we proceed to the next step in our reading of the Bible: the Jews’ journey into Egypt and out of it, where they come under the leadership of Moses.


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