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The Old Testament

David Cowles

Apr 5, 2023

“Even the most ardent atheist will find a treasure trove of information and wisdom in this anthology.”

Once upon a time, nearly everyone in Europe and the Americas was either a Christian or a Jew. The smattering of atheists, agnostics, and members of other faiths did not move the needle. In those days, it was customary to read the Bible’s Old Testament, searching for spiritual guidance, ethical norms, historical details, and cosmological insights.

Today…not so much! Theological Judeo-Christianity, distinguished from its Cultural and Ideological variants, is in free fall. For better or worse, most of us no longer look to the Old Testament for spirituality, ethics, history, or cosmology, and so we don’t bother with it at all. 

This is a mistake! Even the most ardent atheist will find a treasure trove of information and wisdom in this anthology. Recently, a contemporary British philosopher and atheist, Julian Baggini, published The Godless Gospel. In part, this book is a synthesis of the works of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -  with all references to ‘matters divine’ (e.g., God) scrubbed out. I wish this author would do the same for the Old Testament.

Now that you’re here, can I give you a quick tour? I promise to have you home in less than five minutes:

  • We’ll begin with Genesis – NOT! Even though I think a persuasive argument can be made that Genesis is at least compatible with contemporary astronomy and evolutionary biology, it’s way too much of a hot potato…and I promised to get you home.

  • Instead, we’ll begin with the first successful and fully documented slave rebellion in Western history (Exodus). Job One: Escape from Pharaoh! Follow Moses and Aaron as they first ignite, then curate national and class consciousness in the Hebrew community.

  • Then we’ll follow these newly liberated people during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness of Sinai. This is as close as we’re ever likely to get to an historically documented version of Rousseau’s State of Nature. Our physical scientists have their precious laboratories; but what do social scientists have? They have the Sinai.

With no tradition of self-government to fall back on (they were slaves), the Hebrews spent 40 years in the desert, learning to live with one another and with nature. Job Two: Devise a Social Contract (aka a Covenant): it’s called Torah

Rousseau & Co. speculated about the choices that folks would make in the State of Nature. Why speculate? The Hebrews painstakingly recorded their entire ‘state of nature’ experience in the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses); they presented their conclusions in 613 mitzvah (rules of the road) that cover everything from the periodic redistribution of wealth to the washing of pots. It’s a masterpiece of social engineering. (Lenin & Mao, eat your hearts out!) Any study of Western political philosophy must begin here.

  • Now the Hebrews are camped at the edge of Canaan, the promised land…but there’s a problem: How do we take possession of this land from its more numerous, more prosperous, and better armed inhabitants? A polite, ‘we’re here now, please step aside’ probably would not have worked; neither would a full-frontal assault.

So Joshua devised a plan to exploit the social injustice embedded in Middle Eastern societies during the second millennium (BCE). He identified Jericho’s potentially revolutionary class and mobilized it with the promise of a new society, founded on the principles of Torah: i.e., robust human rights (including the right to property), a resilient social safety net, and periodic redistributions of wealth. It wasn’t a hard sell!

Job Three: Capture the megalopolis known as Jericho, the Gotham of its day. Joshua used spies and ‘outside agitators’ to gather intelligence and sow dissent. Then over the course of seven days, he ‘acted out’ the key provisions of the Torah in history’s first recorded performance of Guerilla Theater. Ultimately, the city fell (‘its walls came tumbling down’) without a single ‘shot’ being fired.    

  • According to the Imperialist Playbook, once you conquer a country, you immediately co-opt its existing institutions. Your goal: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” There was every reason for Israel to follow this path…but it didn’t! It stayed true to Torah and delivered on its revolutionary socio-economic agenda…unlike political parties today.

  • Instead of seizing the reins of authority, Joshua cut them. Instead of controlling the levers of power, he smashed them. But now what? Job Four: Govern! Govern without a king, without an oligarchy, without an aristocracy, without a ruling class (lie quiet, Marx), without a legislative body. How then? With a succession of charismatic leaders, designated ad hoc as Judges; in other words, Anarchism

You’re laughing, “How long could that experiment possibly have lasted? Let’s see, the Paris Commune of 1871 lasted 71 days, but I’ll be generous, I’ll give this ‘new’ model government six months…tops.”

But you would be wrong, as usual. (Is it ‘best practices’ to insult your readers? Probably not…but I promised to get you home…now in two minutes.) So let it go. Six months was not a very good guess. The correct answer: 250 years!

Then what? Well, here’s where I say, “Pick up the book and see for yourself;” but I do have time left for a preview of coming attractions:

  • Sit in on a decades-long debate between anarchists and monarchists, at the close of the period of Judges. 

  • Follow the triumphs and tragedies of Israel’s kings, ultimately leading to secession, conquest, and exile. 

  • Hear nearly two dozen ‘populist prophets’ speak truth to power.

  • Meditate on the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, made famous by the Byrds, and of the eponymous Book of Wisdom.

  • Revel in the gorgeous poetry of Psalms and Songs.

How’d I do? Did I keep to my timeline? You’ve got some reading ahead of you. Enjoy!


Image: Francis Danby, "The Delivery of Israel out of Egypt," 1825. Oil on canvas. Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston, U.K.

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