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Dessication and Civilization

Rain is necessary; for water is the medium of life, more important even than the light of the sun; the unintelligible whim of the elements may condemn to dessication regions which once flourished with empire and industry, like Nineveh or Babylon, or may help to swift strength and wealth cities apparently off the main line of transport and communication, like those of Great Britain or Puget Sound. – Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage

Years ago, when I was still an engineering undergraduate, my Hydrology professor predicted that World War III would be fought not over oil or ideology but over fresh water. That was back in the 1990’s and global warming was only an academic theory, barely mentioned in the mainstream media. Usable water, though, was already running out. Throughout the 20th century technology had allowed exponential population growth in many of the most arid regions of the world, such as North Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and the American Southwest.

Now accelerating climate change, along with an additional two decades of population growth, is making the situation much worse. The other day I read an article in the Irish Times  that reported on the current drought in the Southwestern region of the the US–the worst in a thousand years. The issue affects me deeply and personally since I live in Southern California. I have only to drive up Interstate 5 so see miles and miles of dry wasteland in an area once famous for its groves of nut trees. I will not attempt to explain the Byzantine world of California water politics. Suffice it to say that without enough water to go around, most of it has been allocated to Los Angeles and other municipalities. Farmers have been forced to cut down groves of trees that took years to establish.

I spent my last few days off tearing out the dead brown grass of our front yard and replacing it with stones, a project many of our neighbors have already completed. I capped off most of my sprinklers, leaving only a couple of heads to drip water on small beds of desert plants at the corners. As watering restrictions become more Draconian, I may not even be allowed to run those.

A Natural Southern California Landscape with an Aqueduct Visible in the Distance

A Natural Southern California Landscape with an Aqueduct Visible in the Distance

Drought is a major problem. Like most problems, however, it is far from new. In fact, cycles of climate change and dessication have always played a critical role in the history of civilization. As students of history and the Great Books, we have the advantage of being able to apply historical perspective to contemporary issues.

Historian Arnold Toynbee, in his Study of History, wrote that dessication was probably the primary factor in the development of civilization. Having survived the ice age, our species encountered a period of mild climate and spread prolifically until climate started to change again.  As some regions became drier different cultures responded to the challenge in different ways. Some migrated away from the dry areas and continued their primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Others became nomads, adopting very specialized and complex culture complexes which allowed them to live in regions which were uninhabitable by generalized hunter gatherers. Nomad cultures develop high levels of technology that allow them to survive in harsh environments, along with strict and complex systems of taboo and custom designed to reinforce survival behaviors and prevent individuals from endangering the group. But on the road to civilization, nomadism is a blind alley. Nomads live so close to the edge that they have no time or energy to be anything but nomads. The same taboos that help them survive discourage or forbid experimentation with new lifestyles or social organization. The size of the tribe must be limited to avoid exhausting water or graze. The rule of the family patriarch, a leader who is expert in survival skills, must be absolute.

Nomad Camp on the Central Asian Plain

Nomad Camp on the Central Asian Plain

The third group of people chose to remain where they were and develop a different set of technologies to survive. These were the cultures who learned to dig aqueducts and cisterns and wells to access water and bring it where they needed it, to build solid structures of brick and stone to protect themselves from the environment, and to practice intensive agriculture in their newly irrigated fields. These endeavors require far more organization and manpower than a hunter-gatherer band or nomad clan could ever muster. In fact, they require civilization.

Echoes of this decision read us in the Book of Genesis, which describes mans expulsion from Eden.  Man couldn’t go back to Eden because it no longer existed.  It dried out and became Mesopotamia.  Adam’s sons Cain and Able each had to choose which survival strategy they would follow.  Abel chose to become a nomadic shepherd while Cain became a sedentary farmer.  There was trouble between them almost immediately, culminating in the Bible’s first homicide.

Conflict between civilization and nomadism is one of the major recurring themes in history, mainly because nomads can use land which is too dry for farmers.  A minor shift in climate allows the forces of civilization to take land away from the nomads and plant it.  This happened in the US in the late 19th century during the years when “the rain followed the plow”.  Civilized farmers, with their superior population and production base, conquered the Great Plains, killing off the Plains Indians or forcing them onto particularly arid, undesirable land.

When climate shifts the other way, however, nomads come back into their own.  Throughout my lifetime the Sahara desert has been growing steadily.  Land that was once productive for farming is now useful only to Bedouins.  Similarly, the land at the periphery of China has changed hands many times between nomads and farmers as conditions changed.

In many ways California and the rest of the Southwest have more in common with the first Mesopotamian civilizations than with any society since.  Both exist in arid country that becomes extremely fertile only with constant irrigation.  In Los Angeles, as in Ur or Babylon,  imported water allows a high population density and enough surplus to support a high culture and a prolific artistic class.

But the water is running out.   The desert is getting closer.

No, I don’t necessarily believe that Southern California will be over run by nomads, even though that would be entirely consistent with history (and Mad Max movies).  But it’s hard to believe that the current society will be sustainable for more than a couple more decades.  To survive, we will need to consider the same three options as neolithic Mesopotamians.  We can try to move somewhere else and continue the same lifestyle.  We can adopt a highly specialized lifestyle adapted to the arid conditions.  Or we can try to become even more organized and civilized and use the power of civilization to leverage generalized technologies–possibly by moving into arcologies or dome cities or something of that sort.

It would be nice to have a fourth choice, but in the last 10,000 years no one has come up with one.

Arcosanti, a Real-Life Attempt to Explore Arcology Technology in the American Southwest [photo by Chris Ohlinger, General Manager of Cosanti Originals, Inc]

Arcosanti, a Real-Life Attempt to Explore Arcology Technology in the American Southwest [photo by Chris Ohlinger, General Manager of Cosanti Originals, Inc]


Hebrew Bible: Conclusion

It’s time to wrap up our discussion of the Hebrew Bible.  While there is no doubt a great deal more I could write, my mission in doing this series of posts is not to study any particular author or work in detail.  Rather, it is more of a reading journal to share my reflections on how the Great Books apply to my own writing and, hopefully, get some of my fellow writers interested in studying classics.  I think four posts on the Hebrew Bible is enough for that purpose.

Before I go on I should admit that I only read 26 of the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible this time around.  One reason was that these are the 26 book directly referenced in Jack Miles’ God: A Biography, which I was reading concurrently.  Partly it is because I have read the remaining books before and am eager to get back to the Greek classics.  The main reason though, is that all the rest of the books are prophetic works, and I tend to find prophecy hard reading.

The Prophet Isaiah, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo [Public domain], via Wikimedia

The Prophet Isaiah, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo [Public domain], via Wikimedia

Modern literature doesn’t have any direct parallel to the biblical genre of prophecy.  The closest thing would probably be those glossy hardbacks written by “experts” predicting financial doom.  I don’t tend to enjoy those either, because the writing tends to be poor, the advice is often self-contradictory and, if you pick one up from twenty years ago, you find out that few of the predictions actually happened.

Biblical prophecy is like that, except that the source of the revealed knowledge is supposed to be God, instead of some proprietary computer model or insider knowledge.  The writing style is often grating–Jack Miles refers to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel as “the manic, the depressive, and the psychotic” prophets, respectively.  Because most of the books are collections of different speeches to different groups, the same book will often contradict itself several times.  It doesn’t help that some of the books were written by multiple authors.  Isaiah, for instance, was probably penned by at least three writers.  And then, the fatal problem:  many of the prophecies never came to pass.

The basic premise of most of the prophets was that if Israel didn’t straighten out and stop sinning, God would wipe out the country.  Afterwards, however, a remnant of the people would survive and be rewarded for their holiness.  Well, the destruction certainly happened, several times.  The reward, at least in terms that would fulfill the prophecies, hasn’t happened yet.

Of course, Christians see themselves as the remnant, the coming of Jesus as fulfilling many of the prophecies, and their reward in terms of an afterlife and/or a coming kingdom of God on Earth.  Muslims also find meaning in the prophecies, although they assert that the words of Mohamed, the final prophet, were necessary to make sense of everything.  I don’t wish to detour too far into comparative eschatology, however, so let us stay within the context of Judaism and within the biblical period.  Reading the prophetic books, it really seems that the predictions were meant literally and were expected to happen quite soon, within a few generations at most.  Most of them didn’t, and Israel slowly lost interest in prophecy as a genre.

And yet, quite a few prophetic books ended up in the Hebrew Bible, and hence to the Christian Old Testament.  While the prophetic movement lasted, it deeply affected Jewish thought and history.  But I still find the prophetic books a tough read.

This brings us round to the issue of a canon.  I’ve already written about the purposes of the Torah and the historical books, but why were other books included in the “official” Hebrew Bible?  Why does it include so many prophecies that didn’t quite come true, a books of folk wisdom (Proverbs and Ecclesiastes), a temple hymnal (Psalms), or secular historical fiction (Esther) and love poetry (Song of Songs)?


hand-letered manuscript bible
In the days of scrolls, the cannon was not as important.  Scrolls were expensive, so people usually only bought the ones they liked or thought were important.  The Dead Sea Scrolls are the most intact library we know of from the period.  That collection includes several apocryphal works but omits the book of Esther.  Once the various books in the tradition began to be bond together into a single bible codex, though, the issue of what to put in and what to leave out became critical, since it would shape religious thought for the next two millennia (and counting).  We must wonder what criteria these ancient anthologists used, and what philosophical platforms they were trying to support.

Jewish canonization is interesting to us from a standpoint of studying the Hebrew Bible.  Canonization in general is a critical issue in any study of the Great Books.  Which books are Great, and why?  In my own Great Books study I am mostly sticking to Mortimer Adler’s list.  Adler’s criteria for a great book were that it had to be influential, you had to be able to read it over and over and get something new from it each time, and it had to be applicable to many times and places.  This sounds good in theory, yet other Great Books collections, such as the Harvard Classics, apply similar criteria and come up with very different lists.  If I Googled for an hour, I bet I could find fifty different reading lists which each contained someone’s idea of Great Books.

Luckily for me, I don’t need to buy all the Great Books in a single set, such as Adler’s Great Books of the Western World.  Rather, my situation is more like the Essenes as they collected the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Between free e-books from Project Gutenberg and used paperback classics, I have the freedom to collect and study the works that appeal to me, while still getting the ones that appear on most of the lists.


Hebrew Bible: The Deuteronomistic History

The so-called Deuteronomistic History, which is composed of the seven books of the Hebrew Bible from Deuteronomy through Kings, is one of the most interesting and accessible parts of the Bible.  If it were written today, it would be marketed as a historical fiction trilogy and publishers would have trouble restraining themselves from putting the overused words “Game of Thrones style epic” in the back cover blurb.  Actually, I enjoy it for the same reasons that I enjoyed George R.R. Martin‘s books; it is a sweeping story with numerous well-draw characters and a good mixture of politics, sex, and gore.

In my last post  I mentioned that the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ last speech to the Israelites before they enter the holy land, is essentially the prologue to the books which follow it.  Like any good prologue, it sets the scene and catches the readers up on what has happened in previous books, summarizing the major events of Exodus through Numbers and reiterating the terms of the covenant between the Israelites and God.  It then foreshadows the plot and themes for the story that follows:  God is about to deliver on his part of the bargain by giving the land of Canaan to his followers.  Their responsibility is to eradicate all other gods and their followers and to observe the law, as passed down through Moses.  As long as they deliver on their side the good life will be theirs–a country of their own, fertility, and divine protection.  However, any failure to honor the covenant will result in horrific punishment,

[T]he Lord will overwhelm both you and your offspring with severe and lasting afflictions and grievous and lasting maladies.  He will bring back upon you all the diseases of Egypt of which you were in dread and they shall cling to you..  Every other malady and affliction, even though not recorded in the book of this law, the Lord will inflict on you until you are destroyed…And just as the Lord took delight in making you prosperous and numerous, so the lord will take delight in bringing you to ruin and destruction; you shall be plucked off the land  that you are entering to possess…The Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt…and there you shall offer yourselves as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer. (Deut 28:59-68)

If they rebel, God will wipe them out and the survivors won’t even be fit to be slaves.  The dramatic tension is palpable because, with an introduction like this, you just know that they won’t be able to live up to the covenant and bad things are going to happen.

Initially things go fairly well.  The Israelites easily overwhelm the locals.  Soon, though, things start to go wrong, preventing the complete genocide that had God ordered.  The Gibeonites maneuver Joshua into agreeing to nearly annex their towns instead of massacring their population.  In other towns the women are allowed to live and intermarry with the Israelite men and start converting them to the local religion.  Meanwhile, it doesn’t seem like the Israelites will ever be able to dislodge the Phoenicians in their fortified cities on the coast.  Despite these hiccups, however, the conquest is substantially complete by the end of Joshua.  The land is parceled off to the tribes of Israel and the horde disbands to take up residence in their newly gained real estate.

The whole country immediately descends into anarchy and stays that way until part way through Samuel.  It’s more or less every town for themselves.  Actually, the situation isn’t too different from the way Greece was in Homer’s time.  As in Homer, heroes emerge–heroic in terms of abilities, not morality.  Men like Gideon or Sampson could have shown up at the siege of Troy and fit right in, with their super strength and fondness for dirty tricks.  Things are truly horrible; the nearest modern analogue would be the bad parts of Somalia.  Even I winced a little at such cheerful anecdotes as the Ammonite king who made a habit of gauging the right eye out of every Israelite he met (1 Sam 10) , or the Kenite woman who was persuaded to double-cross her ally and killed him by hammering a tent stake through his skull (Judg 4:21).

The closest thing to law and order happens when a local leader (referred to as a judge) manages to scrape together a strong enough militia to fight off the latest invader or establish martial law over a small area.

There is plenty of gratuitous violence between the Israelites themselves.  In Judges 19 and 20 we read about the concubine of a Levite man who is gang-raped to death.  Her husband, who had used her as a decoy to avoid the same fate himself, responds by dismembering her corpse and sending the pieces to his allies to get their attention.  They proceed to massacre every Benjaminite they can find until they realize that they have gone to far and the tribe is in danger of becoming extinct.  Making peace with the Benjaminites, they give them permission to kidnap and rape every maiden they can catch at a particular religious festival so they can rebuild their bloodline.  The author ends many of these passages with the words “In those days there was no King in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”  The main purpose of this section is to justify the need for the monarchy to come.

"Book of Judges Chapter 4-7 (Bible Illustrations by Sweet Media)" by Jim Padgett - Biblical illustrations by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Ft. Worth, TX, and Gospel Light, Ventura, CA. Copyright 1984. Released under new license, CC-BY-SA 3.0. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Book of Judges Chapter 4-7 [ Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, CC-BY-SA 3.0.]

Gradually, things get better.  The later judges are able to hold larger and larger sections of the country.  The last judge, Samuel, is the de facto leader of all of Israel.  Samuel has very little formal authority, though.  The people are ready for a real king and pressure Samuel to appoint one.  He eventually relents and chooses Saul.  As soon as Israel has a king, the game of thrones begins in earnest.  For the rest of the monarchy the court is a snake pit of intrigue.  When Saul and his heir are killed in war one of his former commanders, David, seizes power.  David had previously fled the country after Saul had plotted to have him killed.  Upon his return, he becomes the best king in the history of Israel: strong in war, stronger in politics, and–most importantly–a devout follower of Yahweh.  David is adept at maneuvering his underlings into assassinations and other unsavory actions, while maintaining plausible deniability.  This allows him to eliminate anyone who stands in his way, while still remaining popular with the people.

David is succeeded by his son Solomon, who is neither as politically adept nor as devout.  Solomon has the good fortune to rule during a long economic boom.  Under his leadership Israel becomes decadent and complacent and tolerates the worship of foreign gods, once again earning divine punishment.  After Solomon the ten tribes in the North of the country break away and the House of David is left only with Judah and Benjamin.  The books of Kings follows the history of the Kings of Judah and Israel.  When a king is devout, his country prospers.  When a king strays from the law, the people are punished.  The overall trend, though, is downhill.  By the end of the story, both kingdoms are alternately puppet states of Egypt and Assyria.  Finally, Israel is conquered outright by Assyria.  Later a new superpower, Babylon, annexes both Assyria and Judah and another great epoch of Hebrew history comes to an end.

"King Solomon Hajdudorog" by Jojojoe - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

King Solomon Hajdudorog [via Wikimedia user Jojojoe – Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0]

From this point Israel is never again ruled by an independent monarch.  It won’t even become an independent Jewish country again until the 20th century.  The era of chiefs and kings is over, while the era of scribes and prophets is just beginning.  Next time I post about the Hebrew Bible, I will be discussing their writings.

Hebrew Bible: Genesis Through Numbers

I had originally planned to write one post about each of the traditional groups of books in the Hebrew Bible: The Law, The Prophets, and the Writings. As I read, however, I realized that this is not the most natural grouping. Therefore, this first post will concentrate on the first four books, of the five which make up the Law and also known as the Torah to Jews and the Pentateuch to Christians.

Most of the current arrangement of the Hebrew Bible is a result of the scroll-based book technology on which it was stored. Long scrolls are unwieldy, so the Hebrew Bible was divided into “books” which would fit on a standard 30-foot scroll.  Also, it was common practice to store the scrolls in clay jars and it was convenient to have one jar for “Law” books, one for “Books by Prophets”, and so forth. This traditional organizational scheme was retained even after the Bible began to be written on codex-type books with pages.

One of the Clay Pots Used to Store the Dead Sea Scrolls

One of the Clay Pots Used to Store the Dead Sea Scrolls (Dale Gillard [CC BY 2.5] via Wikimedia Commons)

Even though they take up three scrolls, however, it is fairly clear that the books of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers are essentially a single, continuous work. Leviticus is a closely related, but separate work; even though the author places it within the same time-line as the other books by adding the introductory words “And the lord spoke to Moses saying:” at the start of each section, it is really not a narrative work at all so much as a ritual handbook for the priesthood.

Deuteronomy, while it is presented as Moses’ last speech to his followers, is actually the prelude for a completely new series of books, a national history which follows the Hebrew people from the initial invasion of Canaan, though the golden age of King Solomon, to the final conquest of the promised land by Babylon. Deuteronomy sets out the major theme for the rest of the story, which is basically “As long as the people remain holy and follow the law they will be rewarded with peace and prosperity, but as soon as they transgress punishment will result.” I will be writing about this Deuteronomistic history in my next post. For now, however, I will return to the other four books of the Law.

The Genesis-Exodus-Numbers cycle and the book of Leviticus were compiled at a time after the promised land had been conquered by the empire of Babylon. The Babylonian government prevented a possible insurgency by deporting the priests and aristocrats of Judah to other parts of the empire. In a semi-literate society, the elite are the main preservers and transmitters of culture. After they were removed, the native Hebrew culture was in danger of dying out. Meanwhile the upper-class Hebrews, living abroad, were at risk of being assimilated and adopting foreign ways. With the old verbal traditions imperiled, it became imperative to create a single, definitive version of the Jewish origin story and to write down as many of their key customs and rituals as possible.

The project was a remarkable success. There is no question that the existence of the Torah is one of the key factors which have allowed the Jewish people to retain their unique cultural identity throughout history. According to Edgar Schein, MIT Sloan’s famous Organizational Behavior scholar, culture is made up of artifacts, values, and assumptions. All three of these are recorded in the Torah. Artifacts are behaviors and physical objects which are observable to outsiders.   Examples of behaviors would be the cleanliness laws (Lev 11-18) and the rituals of the Levite priesthood. Examples of physical objects are the furniture of the Holy of Holies (Ex 25-27) or a special hair style (Lev 19:27). Deeper and more important  than artifacts are values, such as the sanctity of marriage (“Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife.”, Ex 20:17) or proportionate punishment for crimes (“An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth” Ex 21:22). Deepest and most important are assumptions, such as the idea that God created mankind in his own image (Gen 1:26). By identifying and codifying all of these, the Torah provides a static snap-shot of Hebrew culture in the 6th century BCE, a fundamental baseline reference for all future Judaic culture.

In fact, some noted historians, particularly Arnold Toynbee, have suggested that Judaic culture never changed appreciably after this time. In A Study of History, Toynbee refers to the Jews as a “fossil society”. Toynbee probably should have chosen a more politic terminology; generations of writers have taken offense at the term and accused him of antisemitism. All he really meant was that the Jews, who 2600 years ago were one culture among numerous, relatively similar, Semitic cultures, have managed maintain their cultural integrity millennia after their neighboring cultures have become extinct or been assimilated into other civilizations.

So, having looked at why the books were written, let me turn to the story that they contain. I am, after all, a writer, so stories are my primary interest.

Genesis begins with two creation stories, then the story of the flood. In broad terms, these are similar to other surviving mythology which we have from the near and mid-east. Compare, for instance, the flood narrative in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, or the mythical battle between Marduk and Tiamat, which has echoes in the incident with the serpent (i.e. Tiamat) in Eden (Gen 3). Then, towards the end of Genesis 11, the book introduces Abram, who is herding sheep in Mesopotamia, where these myths come from. Abram, later known as Abraham,is the ancestor of all the Israelites. From this point on, the story follows his descendants from one generation to another.

The story itself is quite interesting from a historic point of view, even though we must make allowances for bias and the fact that the goal of whoever edited together to book was more to foster a sense of Jewish identity than to lay out an accurate historical account.

In the life of Abraham’s grandson Jacob his descendent, now an extended family of 70, emigrate to Egypt to become what we would now call guest workers. They are able to get permission to settle there because Jacob’s son Joseph has obtained a plum position in the Egyptian bureaucracy. They stay there for several generations, breeding prodigiously after the fashion of the poor everywhere. As time goes on, the narrative begins to describe them as slaves. Even today, in much of the world, the distinction between guest workers and slaves is often a blurry one.

Eventually relations between the Israelites and the Egyptian government deteriorate and they leave, either because labor conditions in Egypt had become intolerable, or because the Egyptians force them out. Probably, the political situation was complicated and messy and both sides were glad to see the last of each other. The Bible is only the Hebrew side of the story. The Egyptians of the time, while they kept extensive written records, were less interested in writing about what we would call “current events”. The first Egyptian work that mentions the episode at all was written at a much later period by the priest Manetho. All we have is a paraphrase of it as cited by the Roman historian Josephus from the first century C.E.. According to this account, the Hebrews were living in poverty and squalor when an epidemic had broken out among them. The Egyptians evicted them from the country because the plague was beginning to spread to the natives. Moses was an Egyptian priest who went among them to teach them rules of Hygiene and cleanliness modeled on those of the Egyptian priesthood.

Moses and Aaron Before Pharaoh

Moses and Aaron Before Pharaoh (Benjamin West [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The biblical account, on the other hand, is that the Hebrews were oppressed by the Egyptians, who resented the incredible fertility granted under the terms of their covenant with God. Moses, an Israelite spokesman, created the plagues to force the Pharaoh to let them go. Perhaps in reality some elements of both stories are probably true.

Whatever actually happened in Egypt, the Hebrews migrate into the Syrian desert. During this period, Moses receives the Law from God and the narrative begins to be interspersed with passages of law. After living in the desert for 40 years, the Israelites have bred and trained enough fighting men to surge forth from the wilderness and overwhelm several small cities on the East bank of the Jordan River. The story in the Torah ends with the Israelite horde preparing to cross the river and invade the country of Canaan, under their leader Joshua. In my next post, I will talk about what happened after they crossed the Jordan and conquered their promised land.

Approaches to the Hebrew Bible

As I mentioned in my past few posts, I am in the process of reading as many as I can of Western Civilization’s Great Books as part of a project to improve my own writing. For the moment, I am trying to read the books in the order they were written–the idea being that, since later works build on the ideas of earlier works, the books will make more sense in order. Having just finished the works of Homer, I am now moving into the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament or the Tanakh. Although parts of the Hebrew Bible are based on oral traditions going back to the dawn of Mesopotamian civilization, scribes probably began editing the Hebrew Bible into its present form around the time of the Babylonian Captivity, which began in 597 BCE. Thus, it is newer than Homer, but older than any of the writing of Classical Greece. The reason that I will refer to it as the Hebrew Bible is because, while at least four major world religions accept it as inspired scripture, they all have their own names for it. The Hebrew Bible is a neutral term because everyone agrees that it was written in Hebrew.

By Bejinhan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Hebrew Sefer Torah.  [Wikimedia Commons.  User: Bejinhan (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 ]

There are several different approaches that we can take when we read a sacred text like the Bible, based on what we seek to gain from the experience and how that text fits into our own belief system. I think it’s appropriate to use this post to give a brief overview. I should mention that I am not a Bible scholar myself. Furthermore, this whole series of articles is about how different books fit into the Western literary tradition and how they are relevant for modern writers, not about theology or comparative religion, so my perspective will naturally be different someone blogging about bible study or spirituality.

The first way to read the Bible is literally. Many people all over the world consider the bible to be the literal word of God, as dictated to various prophets. These people are likely to take a very topical approach to reading the bible. For instance, if they had a question about “marriage” they would probably look up several passages that mentioned marriage and see what the bible says on the subject. From a literary or philosophic point of view, this is a rather shallow level of reading and analysis, but for many people, that is not the point.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must mention that I am a member of the Episcopalian church. Like all Anglicans, we believe that the bible is divinely inspired and that it is the ultimate source of all of church doctrine. We do not believe, however, that it should necessarily be taken literally. The majority of us, for example, accept the theory of evolution and interpret the creation stories in Genesis in a metaphorical sense. My church also teaches that each individual needs to rely on his or her own powers of reason and the inspiration of the holy spirit to come to a personal understanding of scripture, and that scripture should be viewed in the context of the writings of the early church fathers and the liturgical traditions of the church. I do not, however, wish to disparage biblical literalists or imply that there view not valid.

This viewpoint goes hand in hand with the next major approach to reading sacred texts, which tries to go beyond what the words literally say and find out what they mean.  This requires study and analysis of the historical context and the use of figurative language, allegory, and symbolic imagery. While this approach is mainstream today, it is actually fairly new. It was first articulated by Baruch Spinoza in his Theologico-Political Treatise. When the book was first published, in 1670, it was so revolutionary that it provoked a firestorm of reactionary criticism. Today it is barely read because many of Spinoza’s points seem like such commonplaces. Needless to say, we will be talking about Spinoza more in the future.

Theological-Political Treatise [Public Domain via Wikimedia]

Theological-Political Treatise [Public Domain via Wikimedia]

The next major approach is scholarly analysis of the text itself. Word choices and writing styles of the texts are analyzed in the original language and used to theorize about how the texts have been edited or combined over time. Thus, we now believe that that Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers were compiled from at least three earlier sources by an anonymous editor, usually referred to as “J”. Interestingly, at least some experts believe that “J” was a woman.. If this is true, then J was probably the most influential female editor in the history of the world. This field has exploded in the past century as archeology discovered several very early biblical manuscripts. The best known of these finds is the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The last approach to reading the Bible, and the one of most interest to us as writers, is to study it as a work of literature, using the tools of literary criticism. A brilliant example of this in action is the book God: A Biography, which won Jack Miles a Pulitzer prize in 1996. In this book, which I am currently reading, Miles, a literary critic, analyzes God as the main character in a story which follows the traditional Jewish order for the books in the Hebrew Bible.  While his his major analysis is literary, Miles introduces many fascinating insights from the first three approaches along the way. He argues that the main theme of the bible is that God created mankind in his own image and that mankind becomes more like god over time. God, however, is also a character who changes and develops over time and seems affected by his relationship with mankind.

God: A Biography Cover Image

Now that this introduction is out of the way, I will be back in a few days to write about particular sections of the Hebrew Bible, starting with the first five books, known to Christians as the Pentateuch and Jews as the Torah.