Parody of Religion

There is a commonly held belief that the Bible is the oldest book in the world. Among the larger set of easily debunked folk tales, there is nothing particularly superlative about this belief. But when that belief is present, perhaps unspoken, other, harder to debunk beliefs can set in about the importance or authority of the Bible. Familiarity with the content of the Bible is not a requirement to believe in its authority, but someone who believes the Bible is the oldest book in the world might not question its authority.

This is relevant in the context of Louisiana legislating the “Ten Commandments” to be posted in every classroom. This recalls the 1956 Cecil B. Demille classic “The Ten Commandments”, which told the exciting epic of Moses the Redeemer based on the book of Exodus and at least three (other) works of historical fiction. The associated promotional tour put stone markers emblazoned with “The Ten Commandments” on statehouse grounds around the country, and it is this promotional version of the biblical text that has been sanctified by Louisiana law. Folks who are unfamiliar with the content of the Bible, or the history of how the Bible has been used, probably won’t notice that this is a parody of religion and take it at face value that this is the Ancient Law.

Modern analysis of the Old Testament writings, especially the first five books, indicates a series of date ranges associated with each author or editor of the biblical text, so we can confidently say that neither at the beginning or the end of this process were these the oldest books in the world. Many of the stories speak of quite ancient times, and some claim to know the state of the world at its beginning. The oldest phrases from the oldest stories were carried forward from conflicts and catastrophes before the Iron Age. It’s not that the old stories don’t speak of events in antiquity, it’s just that none of the scrolls as we have them were written quite that far back.

The stories of Moses that comprise the book of Exodus speak of a time already ancient, so we should already know not to look to them for eyewitness reportage. Instead, these are collections of tales and legends shared by several communities and brought together as though a single hero united all the peoples of the Levant. In the biblical stories, Moses is shown as something of a demigod who can speak directly to the gods and even Pharaoh, and could negotiate the status of the Hebrews out from under Egyptian suzerainty, guide them through a period of transformation into Israelites, and lead them until they were within sight of the Promised Land.

Exodus repeatedly stresses that the itinerant Hebrews were not without their own religious practices and favorite deities. While Moses was conferring with his god on the mountain, the people encamped below created a statue of a calf out of the gold and jewelry they had stolen from Pharoah: the Hebrew people had both the means and motivation to perform religious acts that had nothing to do with Moses. Moses is not shown giving the Hebrews the idea of god or the technology of worship, but instead cajoling them into following the rules for worshiping a specific god in exchange for the rights to a particular bit of land. 

The Ten Commandments appear during the period of Hebrew transformation to Israelites, while they were “lost in the wilderness”. The story was so important, it was told twice. The collection of commandments referenced as the “Ten Commandments” were translated from a language composed of thunder and fire. God said this and God said that, but all anyone heard was explosive volcano noises. This is followed up by another set of commands uttered by Moses, which presumably would have been better understood. God wrote a third set of commands upon stone tablets, but Moses destroyed these and created a fourth set as the “Tablets of Law” instead. When the “Ten Commandments” are referenced in the Bible, it is this final set created by Moses that is intended.

What Moses offers that is unique to the Hebrew people is a written covenant with his god. They initially reject this, but the transactional nature of the covenant, such that they would gain a homeland, won them over through time. Acceptance of this covenant, of these rules, was a key moment in their transformation, as it marked the time when they became a people with written laws. As such, the commandments of the lord as they appear in the Bible were explicitly binding only on the people in the story who agreed to the covenant. One could summarize the book of Exodus as a list of laws that the Hebrews followed, and a general statement that they agreed to them. 

The idea of a written law would have been quite novel at the time, yet not unheard of. History still rings with Sargon’s legendary rule of law, and the Magna Carta continues to represent the power of law over kings. Getting a tyrant to agree to setting their rules down in writing was an incredible concession, as it would force them to set the boundary conditions of their own power. It was a big deal to the Persians that they were a people ruled by written law, and they considered cultures without it to be undeveloped and untrustworthy. 

There is a story that I know – I won’t call it “history” – that explains a little about why the holy writings of the Hebrew peoples ended up in the Christian Bible. In the story, the Persians had taken control of the lands held by the Babylonian and the Assyrians – both of whom had a habit of forcing the top families in every area to move close to their capitol to keep them under control. So when they took power, the Persians took stock of all who were around them, saying that anyone who could show that they had been given written laws could serve them and return to their homeland. The exiled Hebrews showed their scrolls in which the commandments of covenant were written. Thus they became the right hand of the Persians in the Levant when they were moved to Jerusalem. The temple which they built became the source of spiritual (and occasionally political) authority in the area.

While “truthy”, I have no idea if this story is true, but I do know that it matches closely with what happened to the leading Israelite families in the Bible. We presume that during their time “in exile”, the well educated and literate Israelites absorbed a number of stories and attitudes from the Persians. While they retained their primary identity as Hebrews, it is obvious from a number of features that they took on a significant fraction of Persian culture as their own. We know that the Persians allowed the Israelites to travel to the Levant and helped pay for temple construction, and we can divine that having these Persianized Israelites in control of the area was an arrangement that worked well for the Persians.

Of all the Hebrew writings in the Bible, the oldest are the poems and songs presented as having been written in the Levant. The histories of the Houses of Saul & David, and the prophecies, were likely written in exile, possibly based on contemporary written histories, while the histories of the returnees were likely penned not long after the events occurred. Among the last things completed were the Five Books of Moses that generally sit at the top of the collection: Genesis through Deuteronomy.

The Hebrew literary tradition includes a kind of structure where stories from the past were told to make a statement about current events. The “Five Books of Moses” carried this tradition, describing Israelites returning from Egyptian exile and taking charge of the area and thus mapping the cultures of those returning from Persia upon those who had traveled with Moses. The Iron-Age era stories in Genesis make a claim on a specific area near the Jordan River and explains why the chief families moved away, as a way to explain why the Persian Israelites had been in exile. Exodus talks about these families being in exile and their triumphant return to the area of the Jordan River, again reflecting that authority upon the returning Israelites from Persia. 

Leviticus set forth the rule of Temple and Priest, while Numbers and Deuteronomy presented the rule of the people and the authority of the Temple. What these books laid out was the laws and legal basis for the Israelites enforcing those laws upon the Canaanites in their region. The Israelites from Persia were informing their new subjects of their new responsibilities. Given their Persian experience, it would have been obvious to the returning Israelites that such a set of stories, and the might of Persia behind them, was all one needed to take charge.

These stories were presented to the Levantine Arameans to underscore the spiritual authority of the Israelites from Persia to dominate the area of the Levant. Their ancient ancestors had been exiled to Egypt, but later returned to power, now they return from Persia and again assume power. All as the gods intended. But given that the intention of this set of stories is to convince people of something, that shifts the material out of the realm of “historical” and deeply into the world of “propaganda”.

Specifically, there is an assertion being made that at some point, there was a group of people who followed the Covenant of God, i.e. the “Ten Commandments”. However, it’s not clear that this has ever been the case. Archeological attempts to locate evidence of anything from the Bible have collectively been disappointing. Indications of a peoples called “Israel” and a king named “David” have been found in ancient inscriptions in neighboring areas, but the remains of buildings in the Levant from that era show a widespread and relatively consistent “Canaanite” culture that looks nothing like what was described in Judges or Kings.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the golden age of Hebrew monotheism appears to be entirely fictitious. Which means the Commands of the Covenant were part of a nice story, but not something anyone at the time knew anything about. Within the context of modern Jewish practice, the “Ten Commandments” isn’t really a thing on its own, but one of many, because their understanding of their tradition isn’t limited to the Torah. It would be out of character to see a Jewish teacher get hung up on the “Ten Commandments” except as something representative of their covenant as a whole. 

Even in the Gospels, the Temple authorities try to trick Jesus by asking him to select the greatest of the Lord’s Commandments. Jesus presented a new covenant by summarizing the essence of these commands, counting them as two. It is clear that for Jesus, the “Commandments of Covenant” of Exodus and Deuteronomy weren’t entirely sacrosanct. Further, it is a key element of Christian theology and belief that the law of the New Testament supercede that of the Old, so regardless of that status of the “Ten Commandments” in the Old Testament, they have been entirely set aside by the Christians of the New Testament, abrogated, and largely forgotten. With the creation of the New Testament, Hebrew law was rendered irrelevant, and was replaced by the new law – Roman law.

This is such an important idea within the development of Christianity that great conflict arose over the degree to which Christianity depended upon Judaism – and it was decided that the answer should be: “none at all”. Specific actions were taken to remove the Jewish residue from the Christian faith. Anyone who expressed a preference for Hebrew traditions was called a “Judaizer” and rebuked by the Bishops. Anti-semitism was the reinforced concrete upon which Christianity was originally built, and was iron-clad by the Bishops of the 5th Century. 

By placing the Ten Commandments on a pedestal, one elevates Hebrew Law over all others, and denies the teachings, the sacrifice and triumph of Christ. A Christian who demands people follow Hebrew law is denying Christ and repudiating his own faith. By signing into law a rule that the Ten Commandments must be displayed in every classroom, the Governor of Louisiana has made a mockery of Christianity and elevated himself as the new anti-Christ. He has become a parody of everything he claims to stand for, which is consistent with everything we have come to expect from Republicans.


One response to “Parody of Religion”

  1. Katrina Avatar

    Interesting. Yes, so weird that the Christian Beatitudes– supposedly the words of Jesus– aren’t required by these radicals to be in every classroom instead of the 10 commandments.

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