Monday, July 21, 2008

The book of deuteronomy

This was a hard series of essays to figure out, at least for me. I sort of like these odd little series that take off on a theme and go wherever they go. Initially, when I wrote the "Book of genesis" one, my thought had been merely how interesting it was that Darwin was actually so little-known in a very personal way; what with his works being considered far more important to the modern secularist than the Bible, why is it that he is still not widely read? Actually, the practical answer for that is that while secularists do often claim the Bible to be a very boring book, the book of Genesis with its tales of incest and intrigue are bound to be more stimulating reading than a treatise on biology could ever hope to be.

Yet once I started in on the thought, I realized there was more that could be said. These are the words of the Bible (and supposedly God) on one hand, and on the other hand, the secular world has its own words to live by. A guest speaker at my church a few weeks ago actually said something that stirred up a bit of controversy, although I hope I was far from the only one in attendance that got his point. He said that when we look for a basis for our morality in life, if we decide (among other options he discussed) that basis should be the Bible, we're actually making a bad judgment. The only basis we should have for our morality is truth. (Now as Christians, we probably have come to the conclusion that the Bible is true, so there's no conflict there, but it sounds subversive.) How that plays out may be problematic, of course, as most of us feel that "truth" is subjective.

In the end, whatever the truth may be, it's inescapable. If Darwin is speaking truth, if Marx is speaking truth, if people of religions and cultures differing from your own are speaking truth, then it doesn't matter whether you like what they say or not. It's still truth.

The Bible is claimed by Christians (and others) to be truth, but truth of what nature? The first five books of the Bible are supposedly truth given to us from God by way of Moses. But is this truth about the Bible itself true? The book of Deuteronomy is probably the one book in particular that is Moses' own. Genesis? Moses' book of ancient history of his people. Exodus? Moses' book of recent history of his people. Leviticus? Moses' book of the laws of his people. Numbers? Moses' book about where his people are now, and what they're going through. Deuteronomy? This is Moses giving a speech summing it all up in his own words, telling his people what it's all about.

It's Moses' farewell speech, and he takes a lot of time to say a number of things we've already heard, just for review. But there are a number of new things as well, and significant things. While Christians tend to view John 3:16 as a verse that sums it all up, Jews go for Deuteronomy 6:4: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our G-d, the LORD is one." It's a prayer that virtually every Jew knows by heart, and holds dearest to their heart. Jesus, when asked what the "greatest commandment" is, didn't quote from the Ten Commandments back in Exodus, he quoted the very next verse, 6:5: "Love the LORD you G-d with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." One of my personal favorite verses from the Bible comes from this book as well, 29:5, which paraphrased says, "Hey, did you notice that after walking in the desert for 40 years, nobody ever needed a new pair of shoes?" For some reason, I find that wild!

But detractors of the Bible find a favorite verse in Deuteronomy as well, one to highlight what they see as "truth" trumping over what those of "blind faith" see in the Bible. Deuteronomy 34:5, "And Moses the servant of the LORD died there in Moab, as the LORD had said." Hmm, how many people in history, when writing their autobiography, include a chapter on their own death? (Actually, I'd really like to know, as I suspect that Moses isn't unique in this respect, just rare. I believe Graham Chapman's autobiography includes info on his death, as well as a few interesting stories that happened years after he died that have to do with his life. Of course, these stories were "ghost written", a very appropriate term in these particular circumstances, and a possibility concerning Deut. 34 that few people seem to accept despite it being the most likely case.) Yes, it seems unlikely that the (whole) book was written by Moses after all; but then, who did write the thing?

I was in the library, looking for a book on this particular subject that I knew was out there. I didn't find it (Dewey Decimal section 222.1066 was unfortunately empty, which is apparently where it should have been; it was probably checked out.) but I did find another interesting book that referred back to it. The book I did come across was Kenneth C. Davis' Don't Know Much About the Bible, perhaps a very appropriate title for one of the subjects of the first essay in this series. Davis is the author of several books in this vein, such as Don't Know Much About the Civil War, which are largely books of interesting factoids about whatever subject. Good reads, but from the bit I perused, the author sometimes falls prey to the same sort of problems he accuses the Bible of having: he takes some bit out of the Bible and says "Hey, the Bible claims to know the truth on this subject, but it's way off, because actually I'm the one that knows the truth!" Cute. Not as bad as I make it sound, though; it's a good read overall, I think, but I base this on reading probably less than a tenth of the book.

As I said, the book does refer to the other book I was looking for, Richard Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible?, a book that I think may be the definitive source for what is known as the "Documentary Hypothesis". For those not highly familiar with the concept, many modern scholars have come up with a theory as to how the Books of Moses came to be, and it involves the postulation of essentially five people given letters as code names, since their true identities are not known.

J is an author that writes a lot of the parts of the Bible that deal with people having more personal interaction with God, known in these sections of scripture as "YHWH" or "Jehovah", which is where the J comes from. In contrast, portions where God is referred to as "Elohim" are considered to have been written by author E, whose style is more prosaic. Author D is who is usually credited with writing the bulk of the Book of Deuteronomy (thus the D designation) and other sections that review and revise parts given elsewhere. Author P is mainly concerned with the establishment of the Jewish priesthood and codification of laws concerning it. Lastly, but far from least in importance, is R, the Redactor (a fancy word for "editor"), the one who took all the works of the other writers and wove it together into a single storyline, and rather poorly, if many textual critics are to be believed.

It's an interesting theory for a number of reasons. One thing that's interesting about it is that even being a strong Bible-believer, the first time I heard of this I was far from surprised. I don't know if it was something I was taught as a boy in synagogue, but I'd always believed that in particular the Book of Genesis was a collection of oral history put down on paper by Moses. Yes, those old stories came from multiple sources and were "redacted" by a later author, this person being Moses. As for the rest of the books of Moses, I do suppose that certainly that final chapter was likely to have been added after the fact, although given the supposed supernatural aspect of the books of Moses, it might be the case that Moses knew the circumstances that would surround his death and wrote about them before the fact. (It's also a possibility, although one purists would like much less, that Moses wrote about his death and then simply wandered off by himself, thereafter dying in a manner not actually recorded in Deuteronomy that remains a mystery to this day.) Be it a plus or minus to his authenticity, Moses is the fellow who called himself "more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth", as pointed out by Davis, who asks the obvious question as to whether a truly humble man would make such a statement. It seems like a rhetorical question, but if it were true, then couldn't he? No matter.

The fact is, in the end, whatever the source of the Bible, it's a very unique book. (Is "very unique" redundant?) Even assuming Moses is the one and only writer of these five books, the story would suggest to us that he wrote them over the course of forty years in a number of different situations, in a number of different locations, during a turbulent and difficult time for the country he was trying to lead. He traveled back and forth between continents, lived in different cultures, and played numerous roles in his life, including prince, outlaw, shepherd, prophet, and priest. Proponents of the veracity of the Bible often point out how remarkable it is that the Bible holds together so well given the fact that it was written across a vast span of time by a broad spectrum of authors in a variety of cultures and moments in history; much the same could be said of Moses' writtings alone.

The real problem with the Documentary Hypothesis is that it's just like the views that those of us of "blind faith" hold: it doesn't hold up to logical scrutiny. There are plenty of books in the Bible that have never been questioned as to being authored by a single person that have changes in style and/or preferred usage of certain names for God. The changing of style of writing within a single work can just as easily be a matter of change of mood or subject as change of author. So many of the bases for this theory have the same sort of self-contradicting tone as criticisms of the Gospels have: If a story is told twice in the Bible, and the two tellings match, critics will say that one was simply a copying of the other, and therefore meaningless. If, on the other hand, the two tellings do not match in any particular point whether major or minor, then there is a grievous contradiction that the editor has sloppily failed to fix. If a bit of the story indicates a prohibition of unusual practices, then it's labeled "intolerant", but if it allows unusual practices, it's labeled "inconsistent". If the story matches with a well-known event in history or in the folklore of other cultures' traditions, it's plagiarism, but if it tells a unique story, it's unsubstantiated. In short, just as there are certain people you will never be able to convince that the Bible has anything wrong with it, there are certain other people you will never be able to please when it comes to the Bible. To them, it's just plain wrong, and any and all evidence that supports this view will be accepted with joy.

But there's a middle ground here, and one that's not often explored for some reason. Yes, there are certain issues that the Bible has that need explaining, but I'm not sure this is one of them. How great of a blow falls upon the faith of those who believe in the Bible to suggest the possibility that the first five books of the Bible were not written by Moses? Does it really matter when all is said and done? When we're trying to determine what basis we have for religious belief and for our morality, if saying the Bible is our basis is inherently less sound of a choice than calling for a basis of truth, then how much less solid is a foundation that bases our core beliefs on oral tradition about a translation of a book that is an edited revision of an earlier oral tradition? Bible purists, don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to minimize the significance of the Bible here. What I am trying to do is point out that the real point of the Bible, the real meat of its message, is not in who may or may not have written any given portion of Scripture, but in what the source of that Scripture ultimately is. Does it matter whether God dictated the Torah letter by letter to Moses as he chiseled it into stone on Mount Sinai, directed Moses to write it down over the course of his forty-year wanderings, or inspired one of the followers of Moses to piece together the traditions of the people years after Moses died, so long as it is the case that God was the one behind the work in the end?

On the skeptics' side there is even something to be said. Robert Alter, in his translation of the books of 1&2 Samuel (The David Story), points out some interesting things about the nature of redaction. I've often quoted him on scriptural matters because although as far as I can tell from his writings he is an atheist, he also is a lover of the beauty of the Hebrew Scriptures, and doesn't let his theological bias detract from seeing a good story. Although he makes the claim that the book(s) of Samuel are likely the result of editing long after the death of David, there are parts of the story that are viewed by skeptics as contradictory, but in fact should be seen as a beautiful bit of artistry on the part of whoever put these stories together. Both 1Sam.10 and 1Sam.19 include a reason why "...they say, 'Is Saul, too, among the prophets?' " which is considered by many to be a problem.

"The doublet, far from being a stammer of transmission or inept or automatically inclusive redaction, is vividly purposeful...To the ancient audience, however, the recurrence would not have seemed a contradiction, and the conflicting valences given to the explanation of the proverbial saying add to the richness of the portrait of Saul, formally framing it at beginning and end." (The David Story, p. 122)
In other words, this is just an ancient style of writing that is out of the norm for today, but totally acceptable in ancient Israel. Sometimes we insist on interpreting ancient writings through our modern filters, and they simply don't fit. The problem may not be with the writings, but with the filters, which are being used in the wrong context. I understand and accept that people will refuse to believe the truths put forth in the Bible, but I have a hard time standing idly by when people reject supposed faulty logic on the basis of their own faulty logic.

Of course, I'm sure many skeptics feel the same way about me. Maybe I've just had too much coffee today?

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