Friday, August 13, 2010

Hitchens and Archeologists Take on the Old Testament

Christopher Hitchens is one writer who is best enjoyed in small sips. He is witty, erudite and brutally honest to those who agree with him. He is arrogant, conceited and aggressively obnoxious to those who don’t. In his book, god is not Great, he devotes a chapter to debunking the Old Testament as a religious document. This is Hitchens in his prime. The ancient text itself, and recent archeological findings, provide plenty of low hanging fruit for Hitchens to take a whack at.

His task is to demonstrate that the "sacred" texts were written by men—with human intentions—and that god was created to suit man’s needs. He begins by pointing out that the main texts that define the Judaic religion were not written by Moses, but by a person or persons later than 700 BCE. The events surrounding Moses would have had to occur around 1300 BCE. Furthermore, many of the events described in those texts seem to never have happened. Hitchens hints that a likely explanation for the production, at that time, of a relatively coherent religious framework from a collection of myths and legends is that a ruler or high priest wanted to create a context in which the current kingdom would appear to be the culmination of an illustrious history. A ruler would further wish to define a God who would approve of whatever actions he might wish to take, and who would frighten his subjects into being obedient.

The presentation of the Ten Commandments, as described in the book of Exodus, receives the following treatment.
"It would be hard to find an easier proof that religion is manmade. There is, first, the monarchical growling about respect and fear, accompanied by a stern reminder of omnipotence and limitless revenge, of the sort with which a Babylonian or Assyrian emperor might have ordered the scribes to begin a proclamation. There is then a sharp reminder to keep working and only to relax when the absolutist says so. A few crisp, legalistic reminders follow…No society ever discovered has failed to protect itself from self-evident crimes like those supposedly stipulated at Mount Sinai. Finally, instead of the condemnation of evil actions, there is an oddly phrased condemnation of impure thoughts….One may be forcibly restrained from wicked actions, or barred from committing them, but to forbid people from contemplating them is too much."One can forgive the Judeans for not understanding brain function—but God?
"If god really wanted people to be free of such thoughts, he should have taken more care to invent a different species."Hitchens is the most persuasive when he describes the God that is presented by whoever wrote these Old Testament documents. Continuing with the discussion of the commandments:
"Then there is the very salient question of what the commandments do not say. Is it too modern to notice that there is nothing about the protection of children from cruelty, nothing about rape, nothing about slavery, and nothing about genocide? Or is it too exactingly ‘in context’ to notice that some of these very offenses are about to be positively recommended? In verse 2 of the immediately following chapter, god tells Moses to instruct his followers about the conditions under which they may buy or sell slaves (or bore their ears through with an awl) and the rules governing the sale of their daughters."The image Hitchens, and the Old Testament, presents is that of a god who approved of practices that were common around the seventh century BCE, but would be considered crimes against humanity today, thus supporting his thesis that man created God in its own image.
"Then we must come to those things which probably did not happen and which we must be glad did not. In Deuteronomy Moses gives orders for parents to have their children stoned to death for indiscipline (which seems to violate at least one of the commandments) and continually makes demented pronouncements (‘He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord’). In Numbers, he addresses his generals after a battle and rages at them for sparing so many civilians:

‘Now, therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known a man by lying with him. But all the women-children that hath not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.’

This is certainly not the worst of the genocidal incitements that occur in the Old Testament (Israeli rabbis solemnly debate to this day whether the demand to exterminate the Amelikites is a coded commandment to do away with the Palestinians), but it has an element of lasciviousness that makes it slightly too obvious what the rewards of a freebooting soldier could be."
And then there is God condemning half of his creation to lives of discrimination and servitude, if not outright slavery, where violence is always a threat.
"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."No one seemed concerned about wizards. This was the justification for centuries of Christian murder of women who chose to be, or were accused of being, "different." He contributed the following to the canonization of male-female inequality, and provided permission for several millennia of violence against women.
"If a man takes a wife and after lying with her, dislikes her and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, ‘I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity,’ then the girl’s father and mother....shall display the cloth [that the couple slept on] before the elders of the town....If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death."In other words, God appeared to be a man of the times.

Now let us see what archeology tells us of the veracity of the Old Testament stories.

Hitchens uses a book by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (2001). I have not read that book. What I will reference is a review of the subject, in general, and of the book, in particular, by Sarah Belle Dougherty, Fiat Lux: Archeology and the Old Testament (2003). Material in double quotes will be from Dougherty. Excerpts in single quotes will be Dougherty referencing text from the book.
"The Bible Unearthed.....shows why, although ‘no archeologist can deny that the Bible contains legends, characters, and story fragments that reach far back in time....archeology can show that the Torah and the Deuteronomistic History bear unmistakable hallmarks of their initial compilation in the seventh century BCE’."

"Archeologists, many of them churchmen, have searched intensely for evidence of the historical patriarchs because they felt that unless these people actually existed, their own religious faith would be erroneous. Although the Bible provides a great deal of specific information, the search has proved unsuccessful....Excavations of several sites mentioned as prominent in Genesis sometimes show that in the early Iron Age they were insignificant or nonexistent, but by the late eighth and seventh century BCE had become important."

‘It is now evident that the selection of Abraham, with his close connection to Hebron, Judah’s earliest royal city, and to Jerusalem....was meant also to emphasize the primacy of Judah even in the earliest eras of Israel’s history. It is almost as if an American scripture describing pre-Columbian history placed inordinate attention on Manhattan Island or on the tract of land that would later become Washington, D.C. The pointed political meaning of the inclusion of such a detail in a larger narrative at least calls into question its historical credibility.’

"Rather than a chronicle or history, evidence indicates that this part of Genesis was a national epic created in the seventh century BCE which successfully joined many regional legendary ancestors into one unified tradition."
The story of Moses leading 600,000 people and wandering forty years in the wilderness appears to never have happened. These events would have had to take place in the late thirteenth century BCE. The region in which this wandering was supposed to take place was closely observed by the Egyptians who kept detailed records of events. There is no mention of Israelites or any other ethnic group living or moving around in that area.
"Sites mentioned in the Exodus narrative are real. A few were well known and apparently occupied in much earlier periods and much later periods—after the kingdom of Judah was established, when the text of the biblical narrative was set down in writing for the first time. Unfortunately for those seeking an historical Exodus, they were unoccupied precisely at the time they reportedly played a role in the events of the wandering of the children of Israel in the wilderness."Existing Egyptian documents tell of Canaanite cities being small and unfortified, and of a Canaanite population that was probably less than 100,000. It was not clear that Jericho was populated at the time when Joshua supposedly captured the city.

Egyptian history does tell of Canaanite immigrants who settled in Egypt and were expelled around 1570 BCE. This could provide an explanation, although an ironic one, for the origins of these myths.
"But if the Israelites did not flee Egypt and invade Canaan, who were they?....the discovery of the remains of a dense network of highland villages—all apparently established within the span of a few generations—indicated that a dramatic social transformation had taken place in the central hill country of Canaan around 1200 BCE. There was no sign of violent invasion or even the infiltration of a clearly defined ethnic group. Instead it seemed to be a revolution in lifestyle....far from the Canaanite cities that were in the process of collapse and disintegration, about two-hundred fifty hilltop communities suddenly sprang up. Here were the first Israelites."

‘The emergence of early Israel was an outcome of the collapse of the Canaanite culture, not its cause. And most of the Israelites did not come from outside Canaan—they emerged from within it. There was no mass exodus from Egypt. There was no violent conquest of Canaan....The early Israelites were—irony of ironies—themselves originally Canaanites!’

"As far as we can see on the basis of archeological surveys, Judah remained relatively empty of permanent population, quite isolated, and very marginal right up to and past the presumed time of David and Solomon, with no major urban centers and no pronounced hierarchy of hamlets, villages and towns."

"There is no trace of written documents or inscriptions, nor of the Temple or palace of Solomon, and buildings once identified with Solomon have been shown to date from other periods. Current evidence refutes the existence of a unified kingdom: ‘The glorious epic of a united monarchy was—like the stories of the patriarchs and the sagas of the Exodus and conquest—a brilliant composition that wove together ancient heroic tales and legends into a coherent and persuasive prophecy for the people of Israel in the seventh century BCE’."
People will make of this information what they wish, but the data is consistent with Hitchens’ claims. Since we started with him, let us give him the last word.
"Mediocre individuals engage in single combat or one-on-one argument with god or his emissaries, raising afresh the whole question of divine omnipotence or even divine common sense, and the ground is forever soaked with the blood of the innocent. Moreover, the context is oppressively confined and local. None of these provincials, or their deity, seems to have any idea of a world beyond the desert, the flocks and herds, and the imperatives of nomadic subsistence. This is forgivable on the part of the provincial yokels, obviously, but then what of their supreme guide and wrathful tyrant? Perhaps he was made in their image, even if not graven?"

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