An Atheist Reads the Bible, Part 4
The religion of the Old Testament is not the religion of Abraham. It is the religion of Moses.
In the previous installments, we looked at the sections of the Bible that relate to Abraham and which convey to us the key religious assumptions that he brought to his descendants. We have examined this religion’s polytheistic roots in Sumerian creation legends and the legendary tribal history of the Jewish patriarchs with its distinct message about man’s subordination to God. But all of that is just in the book of Genesis. The second book of the Bible starts from this patriarchal history but quickly terminates it with a four-hundred-year gap in Jewish history—from which the religion emerges transformed.
The story of Joseph is the sort of tribal history we get in the later chapters of Genesis. Jacob, the grandson of the great Jewish patriarch Abraham, has twelve sons. Joseph is his favorite and this arouses the jealousy of the others, who plot to kill him but eventually settle on selling him into slavery. He is sold to a master in Egypt, where further misfortune befalls him, and he ends up in prison. But he gains a reputation as a prophet and an interpreter of dreams, and he is eventually called upon by the pharaoh himself to interpret a dream. Joseph produces his prediction about how seven fat years will be followed by seven years of famine, and he counsels the pharaoh to set aside the surplus of the fat years to provide for the subsequent shortages. Pharaoh is so impressed with this advice that he puts Joseph in charge of the whole operation and makes him his chief magistrate. So Joseph has gone from being an outcast to being a wealthy and powerful man. Eventually, his brothers journey to Egypt because the famine has hit Canaan, too. Joseph confronts them, tests them, forgives them, and then imports the whole family into Egypt under his protection.
Most of these stories from the patriarchal period of Jewish history have some sort of upshot about how one nation or tribe or branch of Abraham’s descendants is related to another, and which one has the upper hand. There is very little of that here, with the exception of one passage in which the dying Jacob blesses his sons and “predicts” the rise of the house of Judah, which would eventually rule one of the Israelite kingdoms.
But for the most part, the story of Joseph and his family’s move to Egypt is of more narrow, practical significance. First, it establishes the name Israel, which Jacob adopts, and by way of his sons it establishes the 12 tribes of the Israelites. Second, it provides the backstory for how the Jews came to settle in Egypt under safe and prosperous circumstances.
And then, as Genesis closes, something strange happens: there is a gap of 400 years.
This is the length of time that the Jews remain in Egypt, yet the Bible glosses over those centuries in a few sentences, pretty much like this: “And Joseph died, and all his brethren, and all that generation. And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.” And boom, there’s 400 years gone.
Did nothing of interest happen to the Jews for 400 years? This is unlikely, but you see what I mean when I ask why some things were recorded in the Bible and others were not. I am sure that there were significant events—rivalries among the tribes, conflicts with their new Egyptian neighbors, difficulties adjusting to the Egyptian culture that now surrounded them. But none of that is recorded, presumably because it seemed insignificant compared to the enormous transformative impact of the Jews’ departure from Egypt and of the man who would lead them out.
These events are set off by the arrival of the Pharaoh of the Oppression.
“Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.
“And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we:
“Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there falleth out any war, they join also unto our enemies, and fight against us, and so get them up out of the land.
“Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens.”
This is where Isaac Asimov is useful as a guide, because when he hears about the Pharaoh of the Oppression, he immediately asks which pharaoh it was. He puzzles out the timeline and concludes that the Jews came to Egypt during the reign of the Hyksos, somewhere around 1800 BC. The Hyksos were foreigners from West Asia who took over the area around the Nile River delta. So the pharaoh who did know Joseph and who put him into a position of authority would have been a foreign occupier ruling over a resentful native Egyptian population. You can appreciate why he would welcome a tribe that came from the same part of the world as he did and who were personally indebted to him. He would view them as a counterbalance to the natives.
But after a few hundred years, the Hyksos were defeated and expelled, so you can see how the Jews would suddenly be resented by the new, native pharaoh, who “knew not Joseph.” They would be regarded as dangerous foreign occupiers, or at least as collaborators, and the natives would be slavering at the prospect of seizing their land. (Asimov also tracks down the Land of Goshen, where the Hebrews settle, and speculates that it refers to prime land in the Nile delta.) Add to this the “wise” economic management Joseph brought to the years of famine, which consisted of using the Pharaoh’s stocks of grain to force the Egyptian people to sell themselves into slavery.
“And when money failed in the land of Egypt, and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came unto Joseph, and said, Give us bread: for why should we die in thy presence? for the money faileth.
“And Joseph said, Give your cattle; and I will give you for your cattle, if money fail.
“And they brought their cattle unto Joseph: and Joseph gave them bread in exchange for horses, and for the flocks, and for the cattle of the herds, and for the asses: and he fed them with bread for all their cattle for that year.
“When that year was ended, they came unto him the second year, and said unto him, We will not hide it from my lord, how that our money is spent; my lord also hath our herds of cattle; there is not ought left in the sight of my lord, but our bodies, and our lands:
“Wherefore shall we die before thine eyes, both we and our land? buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be servants unto Pharaoh: and give us seed, that we may live, and not die, that the land be not desolate.
“And Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; for the Egyptians sold every man his field, because the famine prevailed over them: so the land became Pharaoh’s.
“And as for the people, he removed them to cities from one end of the borders of Egypt even to the other end thereof.
“Only the land of the priests bought he not; for the priests had a portion assigned them of Pharaoh, and did eat their portion which Pharaoh gave them: wherefore they sold not their lands.
“Then Joseph said unto the people, Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh: lo, here is seed for you, and ye shall sow the land.
“And it shall come to pass in the increase, that ye shall give the fifth part unto Pharaoh, and four parts shall be your own, for seed of the field, and for your food, and for them of your households, and for food for your little ones….
“And Joseph made it a law over the land of Egypt unto this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth part; except the land of the priests only, which became not Pharaoh’s.”
Note the carve-out for the priests; this will become relevant later.
So maybe there arose a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph—or maybe the Egyptians remembered him all too well, as an architect of their enslavement to the Hyksos rulers.
Hence the Pharaoh of the Oppression. But this pharaoh meets his match in the figure of Moses. The legend has it that Moses was born to a Hebrew woman, who is afraid for him because the Pharaoh of the Oppression has ordered all male children of the Hebrews to be drowned. So she puts her child in an ark among the rushes on the bank of the Nile, and while she’s puzzling out what to do with him, Pharaoh’s daughter finds the boy, takes pity on him, and decides to raise him. In a neat trick, Moses’ actual mother manages to get herself hired as his nurse.
As Cab Calloway would remind us, it ain’t necessarily so. (“He floated on water/’Til old Pharaoh’s daughter/She fished him—she says—from that stream.”) Unseemly speculations aside, the important thing about the story as it is told in the Bible is that Moses was a Jew, yet he was raised among the Egyptian elite and was in close contact with their customs and religion. This made him a particularly powerful challenger to the Pharaoh’s regime, whose workings he would have known from the inside, but it also will have an important impact on his transformation of the religion of the Jews.
Moses’ progress from regime insider to opposition leader follows something of the classic progress of an insurgent leader, who is radicalized by the sight of an injustice.
“And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren.
“And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand….
“Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian.”
While in exile, Moses has a vision in which the God of Abraham informs him that he will be the agent by whom God delivers the Jews out of the hands of the Egyptians and brings them to the land of milk and honey—no, really, “unto a land flowing with milk and honey.” He then gives Moses the power to perform miracles—on the level of shamans’ magic tricks—so that he can convince the Jews that he has spoken with God.
God also sets up an interesting partnership. When Moses objects that he is not eloquent enough to make the case for the Israelites, God responds:
“Is not Aaron the Levite thy brother? I know that he can speak well….
“And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people: and he shall be, even he shall be to thee instead of a mouth, and thou shalt be to him instead of God.”
And later, God says to Moses, “I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet.” So we get the idea of a holy man, a prophet, who is authorized to take the role of God in his dealings with other men. Keep that in mind, because it will be very relevant later.
Moses is sent to demand that Pharaoh “let my people go,” and what follows is a kind of showdown between two religions. Moses and Aaron perform various miracles that outdo the “enchantments” of Pharaoh’s sorcerers. But the big showdown is the ten plagues that are unleashed by God against Egypt to force the Pharaoh to submit.
There have been various attempts to reason out a natural basis for the chain of plagues that hit the Egyptians, and it’s somewhat plausible. Take the first plague, in which the Nile turns blood-red: “and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood. And the fish that was in the river died; and the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river.” That certainly sounds like an algae bloom. But there were bigger theological overtones. The usual theory is that there were ten plagues for ten gods—that each of the plagues corresponds in some way to one of the Egyptian gods. The idea is that the God of the Israelites is demonstrating his superiority over the gods of the Egyptians. The water turning red is an attack on Hapi, the god of the Nile; three days of darkness is an attack on Ra, the sun-god; and so on. God tells Moses, “against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord.”
The plagues inflict horrible cruelty and mass death on the Egyptians, and the purpose was to demonstrate the ultimate power of the Jewish god. But having led the Jews out of Egypt with this show of superiority over the religion of the Egyptians, what does Moses do?
He leads the Jews out into the desert of the Sinai Peninsula, he goes up to the top of Mount Sinai to commune with God, and he comes down with new laws. And what is the essence of the new laws? A bunch of ideas borrowed from the Egyptian religion.
The Ten Commandments proscribe a few basic laws: thou shalt not kill, and thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s, well, anything. And the law goes on in quite some detail about much more specific cases, such as who bears liability when your ox gores someone. Exodus also contains an interesting description of the purpose of the law and of how Moses creates a kind of judicial hierarchy on the advice of his father-in-law, Jethro.
“And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people: and the people stood by Moses from the morning unto the evening.
“And when Moses’ father in law saw all that he did to the people, he said, What is this thing that thou doest to the people? why sittest thou thyself alone, and all the people stand by thee from morning unto even?
“And Moses said unto his father in law, Because the people come unto me to enquire of God:
“When they have a matter, they come unto me; and I judge between one and another, and I do make them know the statutes of God, and his laws.
“And Moses’ father in law said unto him, The thing that thou doest is not good.
“Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone.
“Hearken now unto my voice, I will give thee counsel, and God shall be with thee: Be thou for the people to God-ward, that thou mayest bring the causes unto God:
“And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do.
“Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens:
“And let them judge the people at all seasons: and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge: so shall it be easier for thyself, and they shall bear the burden with thee.
“If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee so, then thou shalt be able to endure, and all this people shall also go to their place in peace.”
Such laws against murder and theft, detailed explanation of tort law, and the establishment of a government bureaucracy are not particularly distinctive. The Mesopotamians had them, and pretty much every civilization has some version. But the law brought down by Moses went well beyond these topics. The law takes up a good part of Exodus plus a whole additional book, Leviticus, and a good part of Numbers and Deuteronomy (though much of this is repetition).
Among the ideas borrowed from the Egyptians are various dietary restrictions and distinctions between the clean and unclean. These are partly symbols of religious devotion. In this respect, they’re sort of like recycling today. Those who are pious sort their trash, not because they really have to or because it makes any noticeable difference in their lives, but as an expression of their devotion to the modern environmentalist creed. But the dietary rules of the Jews also served a practical purpose, as rules of hygiene. Pigs really can be unclean animals, and some of the rules of quarantine—the middle chapters of Leviticus get quite medical, talking about plagues and scabs and bodily fluids—hold up well in light of modern scientific knowledge.
The Ten Commandments also cement Judaism’s monotheism: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Or at least this is henotheism: there might be other gods, but they don’t come before the Hebrew god, Yahwey, “for I am a jealous god.” This is a reminder of my point, from earlier in this series, about the polytheistic origins of the Jewish religion, which goes through a long period of transition from a general precedence of Yahwey above other gods to a full denial of other gods. There is some speculation that this transition toward monotheism could have been influenced by Egypt’s experiment with monotheism under Akhenaten, who probably came before the time of Moses.
But the main purpose of Moses’ law is one that is not widely appreciated. Notice the name of the book that contains most of the law: Leviticus. In Latin, this means “the things pertaining to the Levites.” Who are the Levites? They are one of the twelve tribes of Israel, the descendants of Jacob’s son Levi. The leading Levites are Moses and his brother Aaron. So why is a chapter named after them? Because the central purpose of Moses’ law is to establish the authority and prerogatives of the Levites as a priestly caste.
This is first established in Exodus:
“And take thou unto thee Aaron thy brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that he may minister unto me in the priest’s office, even Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s sons…. and the priest’s office shall be theirs for a perpetual statute: and thou shalt consecrate Aaron and his sons.”
To understand why this is so important, note that before the Jews go to Egypt, in the patriarchal period of Genesis, there is no mention of priests. God speaks to the Jews by occasionally appearing to the tribal patriarch. A good example is “Jacob’s Ladder” from Genesis, Chapter 28.
“And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran.
“And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.
“And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
“And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed;
“And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
“And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.
“And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.
“And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
“And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it….
“And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.”
So the patriarch sees God himself in a dream and erects a crude altar, a mere pillar of stones, and that’s good enough. It is all very informal.
It is no longer good enough after Moses. Exodus lays down extremely detailed instructions for the construction of a temple, for the fine robes and jeweled breastplates of the priests who tend it, and for the selection of the priests themselves. The design of the temple is instructive, too, because it has an inner sanctum, a holy of holies, which may only be approached by the head priest—which is exactly the design of the Egyptian temples.
This is a characteristic of many religions (including the Greek and Roman religions, which were also influenced by Egypt), and it would persist in the Judeo-Christian tradition for a very long time. Temples weren’t primarily for the masses but for the priests. Have you ever seen one of those cathedrals that has a big iron fence with a gate between the main seating area and the section in front the altar? That was because only the priests and a few other church officials were allowed near the altar. It was not until the rise of Protestantism that Christianity really started to reject this idea of priests as the intermediaries that stand between the rank-and-file believers and their God.
This idea was clearly borrowed from the Egyptians. In place of the informal religion of the patriarchs, Moses established an Egyptian-style hierarchy, and he devotes large sections of Leviticus and Numbers to establishing its rules and privileges.
These rules include certain economic privileges, such as donations of cloth and bread and olive oil, and the privilege of eating the meat from the animal sacrifices offered at the temple.
“And this is the law of the meat offering: the sons of Aaron shall offer it before the Lord, before the altar.
“And he shall take of it his handful, of the flour of the meat offering, and of the oil thereof, and all the frankincense which is upon the meat offering, and shall burn it upon the altar for a sweet savor, even the memorial of it, unto the Lord.
“And the remainder thereof shall Aaron and his sons eat: with unleavened bread shall it be eaten in the holy place; in the court of the tabernacle of the congregation they shall eat it.”
Get that? A token amount of the sacrifice is burned on the altar, and the rest is eaten by Aaron and his sons. So this is literally a scheme to feed the Levites at the expense of the rest of the Israelites. They are also supported by a tithe of ten percent of the earnings of the other tribes—though in exchange the Levites are not to be granted any of the lands conquered from the Canaanites.
“And the Lord spake unto Aaron, Thou shalt have no inheritance in their land, neither shalt thou have any part among them: I am thy part and thine inheritance among the children of Israel.
“And, behold, I have given the children of Levi all the tenth in Israel for an inheritance, for their service which they serve, even the service of the tabernacle of the congregation.”
And then there is the question of how this new system is enforced. Moses goes up to Mount Sinai again to commune with God and stays up there for 40 days. When he comes back down, he finds the disappointed Israelites lapsing back into polytheism.
“And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.
“And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.
“And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron.
“And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt….
“And the Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people.”
I love that last line, by the way. Several times throughout these first books of the Bible, God refers to the Hebrews ruefully as “a stiffnecked people.” I’ve known a few modern-day Israelites, and yeah, they’re stiffnecks.
So how does Moses deal with their apostasy? Does he deliver a stern sermon? Call on his moral authority? No, he does this:
“And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount.
“And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire….
“Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the Lord’s side? let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him.
“And he said unto them, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.
“And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.”
Earlier in Exodus, as the Jews were leaving Egypt, we were told that they numbered about 600,000 people. So if you kill 3,000 of them, that is one half of one percent of the total population. Put that in context. In America, that would mean 1.5 million people. It would be a reign of terror. Or let’s put it in a more realistic context. In a nation of 20 million people—like, say, Syria—that would mean killing 100,000 people. The best estimates are that Bashar Assad has killed only 80,000 people so far.
Is that an incendiary comparison? Perhaps, but which part of it isn’t true? It is a comparison of one sectarian civil war to another.
Consider also what happens after the golden calf. The book of Numbers catalogs how many Israelites there were from the different tribes and chronicles their wanderings through the desert. Along the way, it describes various challenges to Moses’ rule. The most intriguing is a challenge by his siblings, Aaron and Miriam.
“And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman.
“And they said, Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us? And the Lord heard it….
“And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them; and he departed.
“And the cloud departed from off the tabernacle; and, behold, Miriam became leprous, white as snow: and Aaron looked upon Miriam, and, behold, she was leprous….
“And Miriam was shut out from the camp seven days: and the people journeyed not till Miriam was brought in again.”
Basically, this is a description of the palace intrigue within a dictatorship. Then there is a major uprising.
“Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men:
“And they rose up before Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown:
“And they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them, Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?…
“Is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land that floweth with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, except thou make thyself altogether a prince over us?…
“And Moses said, Hereby ye shall know that the Lord hath sent me to do all these works; for I have not done them of mine own mind.
“If these men die the common death of all men, or if they be visited after the visitation of all men; then the Lord hath not sent me.
“But if the Lord make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down quick into the pit; then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the Lord.
“And it came to pass, as he had made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground clave asunder that was under them:
“And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods.”
All of this violence—and there are a couple of other incidents similar to this—is attributed to God and not to men. But the clear implication is that dissent is not welcome and that challenges to Moses’ rule will be put down with bloodshed.
Moses convinced the Israelites to throw off the yoke of the Pharaoh of the Oppression, only to install himself as the Prophet of the Oppression. Israelites traded a pharaoh for a theocratic dictator. Come to think of it, that’s not the last time something like this would happen in Egypt, is it?
Now let’s integrate this with the big context of what comes before and after Moses’ theocracy in the desert. His rule begins with the ten plagues and the mass slaughter of the Egyptians, and it ends with Moses finally leading the Israelites to the borders of Canaan, where they begin to conquer the existing inhabitants by force, killing most of them. Here, we also have to remember a prohibition against intermarriage that goes all the way back to Abraham, whose son and grandson were sent to take wives from his brother’s family in Assyria. It is the normal fate of conquerors to be absorbed into the society they conquer, or to create a cultural hybrid, because the rulers are outnumbered by the ruled. But the Israelites are instructed very clearly to avoid any intermarriage with or absorption into the native culture of the Canaanites. If that’s their goal, the only way to be safe is to slaughter the people you conquer. So here’s what happens to the Amorites:
“[A]nd Og the king of Bashan went out against them, he, and all his people, to the battle at Edrei.
“And the Lord said unto Moses, Fear him not: for I have delivered him into thy hand, and all his people, and his land; and thou shalt do to him as thou didst unto Sihon king of the Amorites, which dwelt at Heshbon.
“So they smote him, and his sons, and all his people, until there was none left him alive: and they possessed his land.”
Or what happens to the Midianites:
“And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?
“Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord.
“Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
“But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.”
This was a rough and primitive time, and I can’t say that the Amorites or the Midianites wouldn’t have done the same if they had prevailed. What we condemn today as genocide or “ethnic cleansing” was just the law of war back then. But suffice to say that the Israelites and their religion did not rise above the brutal standards of their time.
There is one final respect in which Moses’ rule was like that of a modern dictator: he never actually brings his people to the Promised Land. Part of the reason for the challenges to his rule—there are enough of them that the Bible begins referring casually to “the rebels” by the end of Number—is that Moses leads the Israelites out of a fertile, abundant land in Egypt, then drags them through the desert for 40 years of privation, all the while promising them a new land of milk and honey that they never quite reach. Sound familiar? Throw in the beard and the long-winded speeches, and you’ve got an ancient version of Fidel Castro—except that Castro passed the 40-year mark some time ago.
But the Israelites are told that it is all their fault, because they dared to question God and his prophet, so God has decreed that the generation of Jews who came out of Egypt will never make it to Canaan.
“Your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness; and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward, which have murmured against me,
“Doubtless ye shall not come into the land, concerning which I sware to make you dwell therein, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun.
“But your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, them will I bring in, and they shall know the land which ye have despised.
“But as for you, your carcasses, they shall fall in this wilderness.”
This reminds me of the bad old days of Communism: it was always the next generation that was going to experience all the benefits, but this one wasn’t good enough to deserve prosperity.
All of this is the payoff from where we ended the last installment of this series. I concluded:
“The early chapters of Genesis establish God’s superiority over man. In these later chapters [of Genesis], and particularly in the story of Abraham and Isaac, the Bible establishes the principle that our devotion and obedience to God must be total….
“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.”
The stories in Genesis set up the potential for a religious dictatorship, and with help from the Egyptian religion and its idea of a separate priestly caste and religious hierarchy, Moses cashes in on that potential.
If the Bible ended here, it would be quite a dangerous document. It would be more like—well, more like the Koran, which does basically end there. The founding legends of Islam end up with Mohammed as a triumphant dictator and conqueror. I haven’t studied the Koran, but some who have studied it argue that the early sayings of Mohammed include promises of tolerance and peace—when he was weak and surrounded by enemies and needed to sound conciliatory. But his later sayings become more brutal and dogmatic, once Mohamed is in power. You can see how this sets up fourteen centuries of trouble.
But the Old Testament of the Bible moves in the reverse direction. After Moses establishes himself as a religious dictator, the Jews will eventually go from being the conquerors of Canaan to being conquered by larger empires, and their religion will become less about establishing themselves as rulers and more about enduring life as a homeless and persecuted minority. This will have a distinct effect on the character and ideas of the religion, as we will see in later installments.
In this installment, I have said some the worst there is to say about the Bible, so in the next installment, I will describe one other idea that emerges from these chapters, and from the Mosaic law, that makes up a better, more liberating part of the Judeo-Christian legacy.