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Reading The Bible Backwards

David Cowles

May 23, 2024

“We struggle for freedom from the prisons others build for us, from the prisons we build for others, and from the prisons we build for ourselves.”

We are accustomed to reading books from cover to cover in the order determined by the author/editor(s). Take the Old Testament: Genesis through Malachi

The order makes sense. Creation had to come before Exodus, which had to precede Monarchy, preceding Exile and the erection and destruction of the Second Temple. 

Of course, this order is not necessarily the order in which the texts themselves were written. Some of the material in Job and Exodus, for example, is much older than anything in Genesis

The modern Bible groups the books of the Old Testament into four categories: Law (Torah), History, Wisdom, and Prophesy. Read this way, the Old Testament tells a perfectly coherent story.

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

History: The transition from Theocracy (Leviticus) to Anarchy (Judges) to Monarchy (Samuel) to Tyranny (Kings, Chronicles, et al.) and ultimately to Captivity (Daniel, Ezekiel) in Babylon (6th century BCE) and Repatriation. 

Wisdom: The Wisdom Writers paint with a broad brush; they are the ‘big picture’ guys. They write at the level of cosmology, ontology, and metaphysics. They condemn all manifestations of secularism: idolatry, materialism, even consumerism. As they do so, they outline an alternative world order. 

Prophesy: If wisdom is big picture, prophesy is laser focused. Prophets react to the socio-economic conditions and events of their own time. They write at the level of journalism. Recurring peeves: concentration of wealth, abuse of power, lax observance of Torah and ever increasing secularism. 

Wait! Something’s not quite right about this picture. The Old Testament was edited and assembled in the time of the Prophets. Wisdom, History, and Torah (Creation & Law) should be viewed from that perspective. But we don’t read the Bible that way, do we?

We start with Creation and, well, you know the rest. Doing so makes it seem as though history is a chain of semi-logical deductions with today as its ‘theorem du jour’. In fact, however, we build our past based on empirical inductions beginning with today.   

Make no mistake: Judeo-Christianity is a revolutionary idea! It was revolutionary when Abraham left UR, when Moses confronted Pharaoh, when Joshua conquered Jericho, and when Canaan lived in relative peace during 250 years of Theocratic Anarchy under the Judges. 

It was revolutionary when Jesus fought a war on two fronts, confronting the twin authorities of Rome and Jerusalem, and when Paul planted the seeds that undermined the Roman Empire. It is just as revolutionary today and fortunately, since 1776, we’ve learned a bit about revolutions. 

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

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

  2. A clear vision of things as they could be (utopia).

  3. A practical program to get from point A to point B.

We find all three in the Old Testament…but not in the ‘right’ order! 

The Prophets condemned the immorality, corruption and tyranny that had taken over Palestine. But a critique of current injustice, by itself, doesn’t get the job done. It takes three legs to make a tripod. 

Critique only bites if it is powered by a vision of ‘what might have been and could still be’. That’s the job of the Wisdom Writers. 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 on the futility of any human endeavor that lacks God as its guiding principle. 

Hijacking the words of Robert Kennedy, Prophets “see things as they are and ask why?” Wisdom Writers “dream of things that never were and ask why not?” 

Which brings us to the third leg of our tripod: Praxis. It’s how we get from A to B. If Prophesy answers the what, and Wisdom answers the why, Praxis offers the how. Praxis has two sides: History and Strategy. What’s been tried and how did that work out for us? What practical steps must we take now to realize our vision (Wisdom)? 

We need to begin with a practical political platform – like the Party manifestos in the UK…only realer and truer. But for us, this turns out to be the easy part! Long before there were prophets and wise guys, there was already a detailed political program to redeem an alienated world – it’s called Torah: 

613 rules of conduct - time tested in the crucible of Sinai, at the great wall of Jericho, and during the time of the Judges - guaranteed by God to promote health, prosperity, justice, and peace. Wait! 613 rules of conduct? What am I, 8? 

613 rules, yes; 8 years old, you wish! But don’t fuss, there’s a secret, shh! Lean in and I’ll whisper it to you: “Torah includes its own Cliff’s Notes. You just have to know where to look.” (If only Tolstoy, Dickens and Thackery had been as considerate.) 

The Torah consists of 613 laws (above), 611 of which are specific laws applicable to specific behaviors in specific situations; but the other two are general laws, applicable to all things in all situations, and as it turns out: these two laws perfectly summarize the other 611. Therefore these two general laws, collectively known as the Great Commandment (Mt. 22: 37-40), summarize the other 611 (tactics) and form the core of our revolutionary 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) To which Jesus adds, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Mt. 22: 40)

We struggle for freedom: freedom from the prisons others build for us (prophesy), freedom from the prisons we build for others (praxis), freedom from the prisons we build for ourselves (wisdom).


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