When we think about how the Bible proves itself to be the Word of God, we usually think about the miracles and fulfilled prophecies of the Bible. We might also think in terms of the wisdom, unity and the power of the Bible to change lives. There is even a powerful case to be made for how biblical revelation had anticipated the findings of science and archeology. In addition to these evidences, the Bible contains much that would not have been written by the Israelites. In many respects, the Bible is a collection of writings that humans would not have been motivated to write. Let me try to present several examples:
1. THE PATRIARCHS: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the forefathers of Judaism, were certainly not role-models. Instead, the Bible reveals that they were cowards, deceivers, liars and worse. We humans don’t create or select such role models, least of all those who we identify as the fathers of our faith.
Instead, the human tendency is to fashion them into the saints with whom others would want to identify. This is exactly what the Talmud did with the Patriarchs. It sanitized the Bible’s depiction of them, and made them virtually sinless. In contrast, the Bible’s portraits sharply conflict with what we’d create – so much so, that we feel compelled to modify them.
For instance, the Bible gives us the portrait of a spineless Abraham who twice passed off his beautiful wife Sarah as his sister so that no one would kill him in order to have her.
Similarly, the Bible presents Israel’s greatest King – David – as an adulterer and a murderer. However, an orthodox Jew informed me that the Talmud had so cleaned up David that his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah were both righteous acts. This is precisely how we humans write our religious books!
2. MOSES: Even the greatest of all Israelites had been forbidden entry into the Promised Land because he had sinned. Aaron also is presented as a humiliated sinner. What hope therefore could the average Israelite entertain about his own future welfare? Not much! Such a revelation could not have been the invention of humans who’d naturally want to maintain a zealous following.
By contrast, in ancient literature, no historian presents his king in a negative light lest he forego his life!
3. THE ISRAELITES: They are not portrayed as faithful to God, but as stubborn and unfaithful. On numerous occasions, Moses warned the Israelites to not think themselves better or more deserving than others. Meanwhile, the Talmud characterizes the Jewish people as spiritually superior, the very thing that the Bible warns against:
“After the LORD your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people” (Deut. 9:4-6).
In fact, we cannot find one verse in the Hebrew Scriptures that suggests that the Israelites were superior to or more deserving than others.
On the contrary, almost all the prophets denounce Israel, so much so that if we didn’t know better, we might conclude that these Scriptures represent the heights of anti-Semitism. Often, Israel is indicted more extensively than any other people. The first chapter of Isaiah is representative of what we find in the writings of the other Israelite prophets:
“I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. Woe to the sinful nation, a people whose guilt is great, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the Lord; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him” (Isa. 1:2-4).
We humans don’t characteristically write such disparaging things about ourselves and our people, especially if these writings form the core of our self-identity – our significance and reason-for-being. How is it that the Jewish people would canonize such thoroughly condemning writings? They must have been convinced that they had no other choice, lest they oppose God.
4. MOSAIC LAWS: While much of Moses’ commands resemble those of other legal systems from that period, notably Hammurabi’s Code, much of it is not characteristic of anything else we find in the ancient Near East. For instance:
The covenant was transacted with all the people, not just the king – an oddity in its day. Kings wrote the laws, and these laws reflected the fact that the king was morally and religiously above everyone else.
The king was required to read the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) to remind him that he was no better than other people (Deut. 17).
A day of rest was mandatory for even animals and foreigners (Exodus 20:10). Such concern does not come from the ruling class but from God who created all!
The Sabbath (7th) year required the cancellation of debts to protect the poor (Deut. 15:1, 4) – certainly not something that people who make the laws – the power elite – would tolerate!
The Jubilee (50th) year required that the land be returned to its original owners. In fact, this law was so radical – so counter to human economics – that there is no evidence that Israel ever obeyed it:
“Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines” (Lev. 25:9-11).
It should be noted that such a law depended upon a supreme trust in God to provide in the absence of sowing.
The priestly caste was denied true wealth – land. Instead, God was to be their inheritance. What powerful caste would willingly place themselves in such a disadvantageous position?
The law granted soldiers permission to leave the army if they feared (Deut. 20). If any nation granted their soldiers such an out, it would loose its army. Therefore, it would be surprising to find such a law in any man-made legal code.
Similarly, there are many other laws that humans, especially from that period of time, would never tolerate. Therefore, it seems more likely that these laws must have come from above!
5. MOSAIC THREATS: The warnings for disobedience were severe and demanding. If an Israelite failed to keep the law in just one respect, he was under a curse (Deut. 27:26). We humans would not accept such a threatening religion. Nor would the Rabbis, who qualified this teaching in several ways. For instance, Gerald Sigal, The Jew and the Christian Missionary, wrote,
“[Deuteronomy 27:26] does not refer to the breaking of the Law by an ordinary individual. It is, as the Rabbis explain, a reference to the authorities in power who fail to enforce the rule of the Law in the land of Israel (J.T. Sotah 7:4). The leadership of the nation is thus charged, under pain of the curse, to set the tone for the nation and make the Law the operative force in the life of the nation.”
Instead, this verse and many others damn every Israelite. This is a state-of-affairs that no people would tolerate. We come to religion for its benefits and not its curses!
6. PROPHECIES: The Prophets uniformly prophesied Israel’s future failure (Deut. 29:4; Joshua 24:19). Moses even taught Israel a song that would serve to continually indict them. Israel would reject their God, and God would bring destruction upon them (Deut 32:15-35). No one would invent a religion foretelling such negative consequences for its own people. And who would follow such a religion?
Perhaps even more offensive to Israel, the Prophets also envisioned the hated Gentile nations enjoying in the end the abundant blessings with Israel. Perhaps the most poignant demonstration of the Israelite consternation to this Divine plan is exhibited by Jonah, who rebelled against God’s call to preach to Nineveh. This is because he feared that his preaching would serve as a vehicle for God to bless the Ninevites. Even Israel’s prophets are characterized as unworthy of their Master!
7. PENTATEUCHAL HOLIDAYS: Of the five prescribed holidays, only one of them is truly commemorative of an historical event – the Passover/Feast of Unleavened Bread. The other four seem to be prophetic. They look forward to God working events to their glorious culmination.
However, this is very unusual – something we humans don’t do! Holidays commemorate past events, like the birthdays or deaths of our significant people, military victories, and even great tragedies like Pearl Harbor Day. They make us remember events that are key to our national and religious identity.
Likewise, all of Israel’s non-divinely-ordained holidays are commemorative. Hanukkah commemorates the cleansing of the Temple and the Maccabean military victories. Purim commemorates the salvation of the Jewish people in Persia. T’sha b’Av commemorates the destruction of the Temple. Simchat Torah commemorates the giving of the Law on Sinai.
8. ASSIGNMENT OF DATES: We assign dates to occasions we want to remember. Not so the Torah (Pentateuch). There is no assignment of a date to the giving of the law, to any military victories or momentous triumphs over an enemy. There is no “Victory over Jericho” day or “Pharaoh’s Defeat in the Red Sea” day. Instead, the dates are those that are important to God. They certainly weren’t important to the Israelites! In fact, Israel was so dumbfounded about the purpose of some of these dates and prescribed holidays that they had to invent rationale for them.
For instance, the purpose for the “Feast of Trumpets” was never specified. Therefore, the Jewish people invented a meaning for it. They called the day “Rosh Hashanah” (the head of the year) or “New Years Day.” How strange not to know the significance of one’s holidays! Had they been humanly ordained, there never would have been any question!
This is only a mere outline of the ways that the Bible is humanly foreign and sometimes repugnant – not the type of thing that we would create if we had the choice. When we survey the Hebrew Bible, we do not find a human landscape with identifiable benchmarks. Instead, we encounter something entirely alien to our expectations and inclinations – something that doesn’t flatter the ego, but instead humbles us, if we are enabled to see this unearthly terrain through unbiased eyes. But it’s this humbling process that prepares us for a Divine encounter that will leave us unsatisfied with the world we had once inhabited.