No, I’m not asking the old (but good) question of whether the New Testament gives Jews a bum rap. I want to make the argument that the process of unfairly condemning Jews, or Israelites, already begins in the Old Testament. We still read in Jewish as well as Christian writers, even ecumenically sensitive ones, about “the Israelites’ tragic tendency to welsh on their covenantal duties to God.” But what evidence is there for this sorry record? It is useful as a foil, a bad example to wield in order to shame Jews and Christians and guilt them into greater piety. But I believe it is also slander–not of modern Jews but of ancient ones.
My basic point is that Jewish “orthodoxy” keeps getting revised throughout the Bible. Invariably, people of the past get blamed for not keeping up with the present. They are casualties of theological revisionism and ritual evolution. Their imagined crimes are committed against laws and doctrines they could never have known about. Why and how? Because, as Julius Wellhausen showed so long ago, as the priests and scribes “reformed” Israel’s religion, they sought to avoid the charge of novelty and modernism by rewriting history: pretending, a la the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984, that these new stipulations and doctrines had been in force from the very beginning. The goal was to secure (or rather, fabricate) an ancient and authoritative pedigree.
It was well known, however, that these were not in fact the old ways. Everybody knew their ancestors had not thus practiced the faith of Israel. So their ancestors (and their contemporary descendants in the time of the reforms) had to be retrospectively portrayed as apostates and backsliders who already knew good and well, for instance, that there was only one single deity and that he alone should be worshiped. Since all knew that Israelites had always worshiped many gods, they must have been lapsing from an already-existing monotheism, “whoring after the heathen” ways of their Canaanite neighbors. How wicked of them to have offered sacrifices on the hilltop shrines (“high places”), in the sacred groves, and at the graves of sainted ancestors! But in their day, nothing was considered wrong with that. The Bible itself mentions approvingly various sacred groves (Genesis 12:6-7; 13:18; 18:1) and saints’ graves (Genesis 35:8, 19-22). But once King Josiah outlawed them, not only were his subjects who might continue to patronize them viewed as heretical outlaws, so were the people who had worshiped there back when it was thought legitimate. These long-dead people were being tried at the court of their future and condemned for failing to observe its laws—which didn’t exist yet.
Ever wondered how the Sun King Solomon, lauded in the Bible for esteeming divine wisdom over worldly riches, nevertheless turned into a bum? How he went down in Bible history as an apostate? How could that have happened, especially to a guy who, possessing the very wisdom of God, should have known better? Well, you ask, what did he do? What was his crime? Nothing at all, in his own eyes or those of anyone else alive at the time. True, he made marriage alliances with scores of petty kings, marrying their daughters and building shrines in Jerusalem for their familiar gods so they’d feel at home away from home. (For the same reason, when Hellenized Diaspora Jews moved to the Holy Land in the first century c. e., one might have thought they would be glad to worship only at the Jerusalem temple, leaving their local synagogues behind. Now they had the real thing. But they had been away from “home” too long! They missed their synagogues, so new ones were erected for them in Hellenized Galilean cities like Caesarea Philippi, the only Galilean synagogues we know of in the ostensible time of Jesus.)
But–you guessed it–once history went on and the official Israelite religion became monotheistic, Solomon started looking like some kind of an idolater, albeit anachronistically.
All that stuff about Israel getting corrupted by the Canaanites? More of the same. Archaeology has made clear that the ancient Israelites simply were Canaanites (something already clear enough from all those Genesis tales explaining how the ancestors of Israel, the Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, etc., were all close blood relatives). There was never any sojourn in Egypt nor exodus out of it; that’s certain. There are no remains of such a mass movement of people and cattle, no matter which proposed exodus route you favor. (Did God send angels down with vacuum cleaners? Did Satan plant fake dinosaur bones to make us doubt Genesis? One scenario is about as likely as the other.) There was never any Israelite conquest of Canaan, no genocidal extermination of Canaanite nations. The Israelites practiced pretty much the same Baal worship as their Canaanite brethren not because they copied it from them, but because that was their own native religion. It was only later Jewish writers, having moved toward monotheism, the centralization of sacrifice in Jerusalem, and the outlawing of spirit mediums and sacred hookers, who looked back on the old ways with pious disgust. They couldn’t deny that their own forebears had shared that worship, but since they were “retrojecting” much later theology back into the mythical time of Moses, they simply inferred (pretended) that their ancestors must have known better. And so the ancients became backsliding sinners!
The scribes and priests kept retrojecting new versions of Israelite religion into the mythic past in order to provide a venerable pedigree. This made the ancients look like transgressors of a covenant that hadn’t actually existed in their day. It’s just the same when Christians look back and wonder what the hell was wrong with “those Jews” who should have defined the Messiah as Christians do now and should therefore have recognized Jesus as such. It’s a theological optical illusion, dangerous hindsight.
Ever read the Book of Judges? It is a long list of object lessons on how, as long as Israel keeps its covenant obligations of Torah observance, all will go swimmingly. But as soon as the Israelites start cheating and backsliding, God will yank the rug out from under them and put them into the hands of foreign oppressors. When they repent, God will send a deliverer to free them from their conquerors. But, as Old Testament scholars know well, this structure is entirely artificial. The Deuteronomic redactor has shoehorned what were originally stories of how this or that Israelite tribe (or group of tribes) managed to win first-time independence from local overlords. They are stories of piety and valor, not of apostasy and repentance. This is simply another case of vilifying one’s Hebrew ancestors in order to promote a later theology, of scapegoating the past.
How about the “murmuring,” the incessant grumbling of the Israelites against Moses? No matter how many miracles they witnessed, they always believed they were doomed, and as a result they were full of complaints against Moses and his divine patron. But these stories are fictions, and the murmuring is a classic case of the skepticism motif intrinsic to miracle stories. It is merely a literary device to raise the bar for the miracle-worker to jump over, to make his feat look all the more spectacular. Again, no sinful Israelites here.
There is another group of texts in the Bible that vilify ancient Jews and Israelites in order to justify the ways of God (Romans 3:4). The biblical narrators had to get God off the hook: hadn’t he pledged himself to protect them? “He who guards Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Psalm 121:4). But then how come Israel in the north
got devoured by the Assyrian empire? Why did Judah in the south get chewed up by the Babylonian Empire? Uh, they must have deserved it! Yeah, that’s the ticket. It’s just like Job’s comforters, completely deductive: “We know God afflicts the wicked, not the righteous, so you must deserve what you’re getting!” (Cf. Job 4:7-9). God couldn’t have failed, so we must have. That may be a bitter pill to swallow, but would you rather believe your God is asleep at the switch? You can also see here how Sodom and Gomorrah got such a bad reputation. They were obliterated by volcanic activity. So people said, “Wow! They must have done something to royally piss off the Almighty! What do you suppose it was?” And then speculation begat object lessons, “Men, don’t let this happen to you!”
But don’t we have solid evidence of Israelite wickedness in the books of the Prophets? Doesn’t Isaiah (at 1:11-18) skewer the religious crowd for hypocrisy? He tells them God isn’t interested in their fancy litanies and sacrifices as long as they are cheating customers and defrauding employees the rest of the week! Get out of here and clean up your act, and then maybe we’ll talk (“Come, let us reason together.”). But keep something in mind: historically, people had made no connection between moral wrongs done to fellow human beings and “sins” committed uniquely against God. Sins were ritual infractions, as when hapless Israelites get executed for gathering kindling on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36), getting the incense recipe wrong (Leviticus 10:1-3), or steadying the Ark of the Covenant so it didn’t fall in the ditch but without proper ritual preparation (2 Samuel 6:6-7). Even dietary infractions like eating pork weren’t considered moral wrongs—whom did they hurt? In all these things, you were affronting God, who had laid down the law on matters of ritual and ceremonial uncleanness. Sins were purely religious in nature. The Prophets were in the vanguard of what Karl Jaspers called “the Axial Age,” when religion worldwide became interiorized, moralized, rationalized. Originally the “holiness of God” had denoted his mind-blowing Otherness, but later it came to denote his moral righteousness. In the same way, the category of sin was moralized to include wicked deeds done to fellow mortals. These became just as much an offense to God as, say, eating a goat boiled in goat’s milk.
So, as I understand it, Isaiah was holding his public responsible for “violating” standards that they had never heard of, such as Moses coming down from Sinai with the news that you mustn’t worship idols and getting furious at finding the people worshiping the Golden Calf. How did they know they weren’t supposed to doing that? One can only imagine the surprise at Moses’s or Isaiah’s rebukes. What were they doing wrong? Of course, the moralizing transformation of sin was a good and important development, but it isn’t exactly fair to blame an older generation for not being on Isaiah’s wavelength earlier. It was always degrading and wrong to be a racist, but it looks a bit different before and after Dr. King. You know: “Where there is no law, sin is not reckoned” (Romans 4:16).
Admittedly, the people I am talking about are long dead. But it bothers me to keep seeing the biblical Israelites reduced to a homiletical piñata when there is no reason to regard them as any more “sinful” or “faithless” than anybody else. It’s all a bum rap. And I suspect it’s a bum rap that makes it easier for those inclined to vilify modern Israel and Jews today.
Robert M. Price is professor of theology and scriptural studies at Colemon Theological Seminary and a research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. He is the host of CFI’s podcast The Human Bible and the author of Secret Scrolls: Revelations from the Lost Gospels (Wipf and Stock, 2010).