Bible Read Backwards

David Cowles

Oct 15, 2022

What would happen if we read the Old Testament in reverse order? From back to front. What if we began with Malachi and ended with Genesis?

We are accustomed to reading the Old Testament (OT) ‘in order,’ i.e., from Genesis through Malachi, from the Torah (Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, traditionally ascribed to Moses) through the Prophets. The modern Bible groups the 46 books of OT into four categories: five books of Law (Torah), 16 books of History, seven books of Wisdom, and 18 books of Prophecy. Read this way, the Old Testament tells a coherent story.


First (Torah): Creation (Genesis), Liberation (Exodus), Theocracy (Leviticus).


Second (History): The transition from Covenant (Exodus) to Theocracy (Leviticus) to Anarchy (Judges) to Monarchy (Samuel) to Tyranny (Kings, Chronicles, et al.), and ultimately to Captivity (Daniel, Ezekiel) in Babylon (c. 600 – 500 B.C.).


Third (Prophecy): Even before the exile, social discontent was cresting in Israel and Judea. Power and wealth were concentrated in the hands of a few, and the authority of the state was frequently abused for personal gain.


Prophets emerged. They condemned the immorality, the corruption, and the tyranny that had taken over Israel and Judea. They were the revolutionaries of their time. Today, we recognize the same prophetic spirit in St. Paul, Mohammed, Martin Luther, Karl Marx, Martin Luther King…and even Barry Goldwater (“Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue”).


Fourth (Wisdom): The prophets’ specific condemnation of the historical situation in which they found themselves is paralleled by the Wisdom Writers’ general condemnation of secular ideology. Both offer a critique of the status quo; both offer a vision of a better future.


The period between the repatriation of the Judeans and the birth of Jesus was rich in ‘Wisdom Literature.’ Wisdom material stretches back to Job, David, and Solomon and forward to the time of Jesus, perhaps even including some books of the New Testament (e.g., John, Ephesians, Hebrews, Revelation).


Repatriation following the Babylonian Exile gave the Hebrews a chance to start over – a revolutionary’s dream. Just as the first Israelites had formed a social structure ex nihilo in the Wilderness of Sanai, so their descendants would now have an opportunity to do the same. But how? Pick up where they’d left off c. 600 B.C? No way! Return to the values, practices, and social structures characteristic of Israel’s glory days? Way!


Since 1776, we have learned a great deal about revolutionary theory and praxis. This period (250 years) will be characterized by future historians not only as the Age of Science, Reason and Technology, but also as the Age of Revolution.


We have learned, for example, that all revolutions require three things:


(A) A searing indictment of things as they are (status quo).

(B) A clear vision of a better world to come (utopia).

(C) A practical program to get from point A to point B.


Sidebar: Indictment and vision are not just prerequisites for revolution; they are prerequisites for everything, i.e., for all ‘actual entities,’ all events. After all, revolution is an event! All novelty is a reaction against what is, coupled with a vision of what might be. An event builds toward that vision by incorporating other actual entities along the way according to its ‘road map.’ That road map is Torah.


In the words of Bobby Kennedy, prophets “see things as they are and ask why?” (Their answer: idolatry, immorality, injustice, and exploitation.) Wisdom writers “dream of things that never were and ask why not?” (Same answer: idolatry, immorality, injustice, and exploitation.)


The Prophets and the Wisdom writers tell the same story but from different perspectives…and we need them both: the Prophets focus on the specific historical and political situation; the Wisdom writers focus on the futility of a life without God as its guiding principle. The struggle for freedom is ongoing, and it is always waged on two fronts: freedom from the prisons others build for us (prophesy) and freedom from the prisons we build for ourselves (wisdom).


But what of revolutionary praxis? How do we get from A to B? This is where most revolutionary programs fail. They get the critique and the vision parts right, but they fall short when it comes to praxis. (Dictatorship of the proletariat? You’ve got to be kidding!)


For us, praxis turns out to be the easy part! Long before there were critics and visionaries (prophets and wise guys), there was already a detailed political program to redeem an alienated world – it’s called Torah: 613 rules of conduct designed to promote the general welfare - health, prosperity, justice, and peace.


613 rules? What am I, eight? You call that easy? Are you kidding?


613 rules, yes; eight-years-old old, I wish; easy, you bet; kidding, not one bit! Because there’s a secret, shh! Lean in, and I’ll whisper it to you: “Torah comes with its own Cliffs Notes built in.” (If only Tolstoy, Dickens, and Thackery had been as thoughtful.)


The Torah consists of 613 laws (above), 611 of them are specific laws applicable to specific things or in specific situations; 2 of them are general laws, applicable to all things and all situations. Therefore, these two general laws, collectively known as the Great Commandment (Mt. 22: 37-40), summarize the other 611 (tactics) and situate them in the context of a broader strategy:


⮚ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Deut. 6: 5)

⮚ “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19: 18b)


The genius of the New Testament contribution to this discussion lies in Jesus’ insertion of six keywords between ‘Deuteronomy’ and ‘Leviticus’ (above): “And a second is like it.” There are not two general laws; there is only one, and its two ‘halves’ are mirror images of one another. “On these two commandments, hang all the law and the prophets.” (Mt. 22:40)


E pluribus unum! We have distilled the 613 commandments of the Torah down to just one: the Great Commandment. Bottom line: There is no love of God without love of neighbor, and there is no love of neighbor without love of God. To paraphrase poet John Keats, “That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know!”


The Wisdom writers and the Prophets both call on Israel to return to the ‘glory days’ of Moses, Joshua, the Judges, and King David, but they base their appeals on two very different arguments.


The Wisdom writers point out the absurdity inherent in living a totally secular life. Not until the 20th century do we encounter as lucid a presentation of L’absurde as we do in Ecclesiastes (3rd century B.C.). For example: “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity…I have seen all things that are done under the sun, and behold all is vanity and a chase after wind.” (1:2 – 2:26)


It is important to note that the Hebrew word hebel, translated as ‘vanity,’ also means emptiness, futility, and absurdity. Welcome to the 20th century!


We don’t need the Written Torah to tell us what’s right or wrong. It is written clearly in the patterns of nature (Oral Torah) and in our hearts. Today, we would say that the Wisdom writers based their argument on Natural Law.


The Roman Catholic Church (and many other Christian denominations) embraces the Wisdom thesis: we can learn the will of God by studying nature and by listening to the ‘still small voice’ within us. The Law is written in the Pentateuch…and in the cosmos...and in our hearts.


Have you seen the TV series, Young Sheldon? Sheldon, a pre-teen boy, is growing up in an evangelical Christian family in rural Texas in the 1970s. The only problem: Sheldon does not believe in God; he believes in science. What could possibly go wrong?


The Wisdom writers confronted an early version of this mindset 2,500 years before the first televisions began appearing in American living rooms. The key to Young Sheldon is the idea that religion and science are mutually exclusive. They are not! In fact, as the Wisdom writers make clear, they are two sides of one coin.


The Prophets, on the other hand, based their appeal, not on nature but on revelation. God may have written his law into the fabric of the cosmos and study of the cosmos may give us some insights into the law, but there’s no need for telescopes or Bunsen burners. God revealed his law to Moses and the people in the Torah.


Isaiah, Jeremiah, et al. call on the Israelites to return to the ways of their ancestors, to rediscover, acknowledge, and observe God’s law as it is revealed in Torah. Natural Law and Revelation go hand in hand. God’s Law is written macroscopically in the cosmos, microscopically in Torah, and nanoscopically in every human heart.


But suppose today is a backwards day…


What would happen if we read the Old Testament in reverse order? From back to front. What if we began with Malachi and ended with Genesis?


The Prophets painstakingly dissect the evils of contemporary society. The Wisdom writers point out the absurdity of living one’s life according to the prevailing, secular ideology.


Both the Prophets and the Wisdom writers intersperse visions of a post-revolutionary utopia, best summarized by Isaiah 11: 6 - 9: “The wolf will live with the lamb and the leopard will lie down with the kid...the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain…”


So, between the Prophets and the Wisdom writers, we have two of the elements we need for a successful revolution. We have a searing critique of things as they are and a clear and compelling vision of things as they could be.


As we have learned repeatedly over the past four centuries, a purely negative critique is unlikely to succeed unless it is accompanied by an appealing vision of an alternative future. Successful revolutions are rarely based on despair; they are almost always based on hope. (That’s why we call them ‘Revolutions of Rising Expectations.’)


During the periods of Prophesy and Wisdom, Israel was an absolute monarchy, but its rulers, its kings, were not cut from the same cloth as King David. To overgeneralize, they were incompetent, ineffective, greedy, and corrupt. Reading OT backwards, we move from dictatorship and tyranny to a constitutional monarchy (Solomon, David and Saul), from monarchy to what might best be called ‘benevolent anarchism’ (Judges), and finally from anarchism to Theocracy (Joshua and the Torah).


The goal of every revolutionary program is the same (though often expressed in very different terms): “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What else is there? What else could there be?


Here is where praxis comes into play for individuals, as well as for nations: learn the will of God and conform to it! The contemporary revolutionary may elect to follow the 611 specific commandments of Torah or just the two general commandments (i.e., the Great Commandment).


Both strategies lead to the same result: the Kingdom of God on Earth. And what is that Kingdom? Reading the Bible backwards, i.e., from Malachi 3:34 through Genesis 1:1, the Kingdom of God is the Garden of Eden! In this reading, Paradise is not a primordial state from which we fell; it is the eschaton for which we strive.


So, the Old Testament is the ultimate palindrome. It is the same, whether you read it backwards or forwards. And what of the New Testament? Well, reading the New Testament (NT) in order, i.e., from Matthew through Revelation, is the same as reading the Old Testament from Malachi through Genesis.

NT begins with a searing critique of Israel under Roman rule (the synoptic Gospels), and it offers its own foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven (Revelation). And its revolutionary praxis? “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13: 34)


 

David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at david@aletheiatoday.com.

Have a comment about this ATM essay Join the conversation, and share your thoughts today..