A Secular Humanist Coming to Grips with the Bible

Just finished reading the second chapter of Karen Armstrong’s new book, The Case for God. This chapter looks at the historical development of the first five books of the Bible (constituting the Jewish Torah) where Armstrong presents her premise that this document is perhaps the first great compendium of mythology and historical fiction, drawing its content from the history of the tribes of Israel and their relationship with their God. Far from being either factual history or a consistent theological treatise, Armstrong (based on reference to archeology and biblical scholarship) sees this work as a set of stories that were told and retold over hundreds of years and compiled in written form by four groups of “editors”, each in succession adding to and reworking the various stories.

The Bible has always been an intimidating artifact to me, a kid who grew up outside of religious ideas and practice in a mostly humanist university milieu. I would see copies lurking (seemingly unread) in the nightstands of motel rooms my family stayed at when we traveled and I would see it sworn on in real or fictional court proceedings in TV and film. At each occasion of its presence, I would be reminded that it contained some sort of ancient wisdom that I and the circles of people around me were choosing to ignore (at our peril perhaps). I understood it to be the words of a deity that I was choosing not to believe in. It made me uncomfortable at every encounter and I rarely would even dare to crack the cover and read any of the contents. It was best out of sight, out of mind!

As an older youth watching the news on TV (particularly speeches by Martin Luther King or interviews with Billy Graham) or reading various fiction or non-fiction I would see references to its various passages with their at times archaic syntax and moralistic tone. I understood that there were good people that found wisdom and inspiration in its text and I recall making a few half-hearted attempts to read the first several chapters of its first book Genesis. But lacking a compelling enough narrative in any context that I understood, I soon put it down. I even was cajoled into a couple of “Bible classes” led by a neighborhood kid, but suffered through them in silence before I could make my retreat. I also experienced various pop culture recitations of the Jesus story (drawn the from New Testament) in the form of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell that I found interesting and at times compelling.

But it wasn’t until I was a young adult in college and then beyond when I started reading a lot of feminist works that referenced the Bible and were generally highly critical of many of its cited passages. Later at yearly Passover dinner’s with my partner Sally’s family, I learned the gist of the story of Exodus told around the Passover Seder. After reading Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade I even made a more determined effort to read significant excerpts from the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. I have also heard various pieces of these tracts at a number of Jewish worship services I have attended, mainly for relatives’ Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

After reading Eisler’s work, my partner Sally’s mom suggested that I read Karen Armstrong’s book A History of God. Like Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade, it was a long tough slog through a scholarly work written more like a text book than an engaging narrative. But reading Armstrong after reading Eisler gave me a unique perspective, moving me for the first time beyond that conventional humanist wisdom that, as my mom used to say, “Religion is the root of all evil in the world”. My exposure to Unitarian-Universalist non-dogmatic theology was also broadening my religious perspectives. My synthesis of these two provocative writers with the U-U framing thrown in was that religion was not the problem in itself, it was religion woven into patriarchal models of power-over and control that were the real problem, like gasoline and an open flame.

So my own story of wrestling with the content and context of the “Good Book” contributes to my current mindset in reading Armstrong’s more readable repackaging of many of the ideas I found fascinating first encountered in her denser A History of God. One of those ideas is the premise that the Bible is a compendium of at times paradoxical stories, compiled, edited and reworked by various “editors”.

Focusing on the first five books of the Bible, Armstrong summarizes this biblical scholarship identifying four such “editors”, each designated by a name or its one-letter abbreviation.

The first has been dubbed the “Jawist” or “J”, and was given this name by an 18th Century biblical scholar because he used the Hebrew God’s proper name “Jahweh” (“Yahweh”). This person is believed to have lived in the southern Hebrew kingdom of Judah and compiled the original version of the Adam & Eve story in Genesis that depicted God inhabiting the Garden of Eden and interacting directly with his human creations. The second writer is known as “Elohim” or “E”, because he preferred to use the more divine title “Elohim” for God, and this person was probably a contemporary of “J” but lived in the kingdom of Israel north of Judah.

The two had had very different interpretations of the stories of the people of Israel, based perhaps on their geographic contexts. Says Armstrong…

J saw Abraham, a man of the south, as the prime hero of Israel and had little time for Moses, who was far more popular in the north and one of the leading protagonists of E’s narrative. Neither J or E seems to have made any effort to research the history of Canaan, but were content to adapt the old stories to the conditions of their times.

Armstrong paints the picture of two very popular regional bards, holding forth to their different regional audiences, aware of and reinterpreting each of the other’s stories to add their own slant and biases. There appeared to be none of the tension with the pagan deities in either of their stories that was later added to their reworked tales and made the cut in the version of the Bible that has survived into the modern world. Yahweh/Elohim was just one deity among many, not yet the be all end all. Armstrong sees their portrayals of God and their human characters not as “morality tales”, but more morally ambiguous stories like many later works of great fiction.

Armstrong hammers at this whole Bible as fiction/mythology theme over and over again in her work. The people who sat around the campfires and heard J or E hold forth about God and the exploits of God’s children understood that these were “tall tales” mixed with some fictionalized history, but compelling narratives with enough underlying wisdom and meaning to be told over and over again and eventually recorded in writing for posterity.

The third school of biblical editors, are known as the “Deuteronomists” of “D”, and represented a group of priests, prophets and scribes during the time when the Temple still stood and the nation of Israel was still a strong political entity. They were attempting to reform the religion of Israel by reinterpreting the stories of J and E into a more secular political context. Their program, according to Armstrong…

Would have included the establishment of a secular sphere and an independent judiciary separate from the cult; a constitutional monarchy, which made the king subject to the Torah like any other citizen; and a centralized state with a single, national shrine. The reformers also rationalized Israelite theology to rid it of superstitious mythology.

The description is oddly and ironically modern, addressing perhaps an early clash between the religious and the secular, a conflict that continues today. The D’s reforms were apparently never enacted, but their stories of temporal power and violence live on in the book of Deuteronomy.

The fourth group of editors is known as the “Priestly” school or “P” and reinterpreted this edifice of stories of the people of Israel in a very different context than the “Deuteronomists”. The nation of Israel had been conquered, the Temple destroyed, and its leaders and many others deported to Babylon in exile. Temporal power was no longer in the cards, and the exiles who came together as the P group reworked their cultural stories away from the power and glory of the D school into a portable theology that could support a people in exile, wherever they might be. It sounds to me like something not unlike the Christian Reformation two millennia later. People should be their own priests (thus the name “Priestly”), and read the liturgy and follow the dietary laws that had been previously practiced only by the official clergy. God would be present wherever they gathered to pray. Out of this new orientation came the biblical books of Leviticus and Numbers, laying out a how-to of religious practice and law.

Just so you know, mine is just the briefest superficial overview of these four biblical editors for the purposes of this blog piece. I strongly recommend Armstrong’s well wrought and readable narrative. Her framing of the context for these five opening books of the Bible (the Torah of Judaism). For me as a “secular humanist” and atheist, Reading Armstrong’s work takes a lot of the negative “charge” off the Bible, as she tries to work a middle path between militant fundamentalism and mechanistic atheism, and puts this literary classic for me more in the realm of Shakespeare than scripture.

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