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The Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament)

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Genesis, first page, 1455First page of Genesis in Gutenberg Bible, 1455
By various authors
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication
c.1200–100 BCE

Literature form
Prose and poetry

Religious, historical

Writing languages
Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek

Authors' places
Judah, Israel, Babylon, Egypt

Approx. 632,500 words (Old Testament, King James Version)

The jealous, vengeful, violent and occasionally loving word of God

What wrecks the Bible as literature is too much God.

On the surface this may sound like an ignorant comment, prompting the response, "Well, what did you expect? It's a religious text and isn't religion all about gods?"

But if we are indeed looking at The Hebrew Bible or Old Testament as a purported literary classic—from which all Western literature is sometimes said to spring—this may stand as an appropriately succinct criticism.

Yes, the Bible is a religious volume, believed by some to be the word of God and bound to have a lot of references to divinity. But we're not looking at it as a theological tome here. We're approaching it similarly to how we read other ancient works, like the Babylonian Gilgamesh or the Homeric epics. And as we plow through the chapters and verses of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, we find the message from on high repeated continually: I am your God. Worship me. Love me. Do what I say. Obey my laws in excruciating detail. Punish those who don't. Wipe out their cities, decimate their families....

Granted, there's some of that in all the great old epics. The Iliad and The Odyssey, for example, do have their Hellenic gods interfering in earthly affairs, being wooed with offerings, sparking wars, and plotting against each other, much like the petty humans who worship them. From time to time.

Imagine, though, if on nearly every page of these ancient tales, Zeus or some other deity were seeking worship, demanding sacrifices, making rules, enforcing obeisance, threatening punishment, or carrying out massacres. On nearly every page. I'm guessing those stories wouldn't be universally recognized as great literary works today.

Yet that's what we have with the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament. Whether you believe in the Jewish and Christian God, whatever your understanding of that being, any thorough reading requires continual wading through the continual propaganda to join Team God.

Let me repeat: yes, the book is appreciated primarily as a religious document and so religious dogma is to be expected. But we're weighing it here as a work of creative literature.

By the way, this is not to conflate The Hebrew Bible (also called in Hebrew the Tanakh or Miqra) and The Old Testament. Their contents vary, the arrangements of books within them differ, and their textual interpretations can be widely diverse. Yet the critiques being made here generally apply to both equally.

The Old Testament test

So what about all those Biblical stories that anyone raised in a Judeo-Christian culture knows by heart? Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Cain and Abel. Noah's Ark. David and Goliath. The exodus from Egypt. Daniel in the lion's den. Jonah and the Whale. A score of others. They're all appealing fables for their times. (Even if the moral is always the same: some variation on "Have faith in God".)

Picking out these well-known fables from the larger text might give you the idea the Bible is a collection of catchy stories. These brief tales are all of the Old Testament known to most people—including the great majority of believers who have never managed to read the Bible right through.

So try this test. Take an Old Testament volume and let it fall open anywhere. Read whatever chapter your eyes fall on. Chances are you won't land on any of those famous stories. More than likely you'll find yourself bogged down in long passages of divine commands being issued, prophets warning of doom, evocations to worship, family trees, lists of kings, census figures, detailed building instructions, litanies for religious services, and so on.

The great bulk of the text is these kinds of passages that are of little interest to readers looking for compelling stories, engaging characters or intriguing insights into the human condition. You know, all those literary values that make reading worthwhile. They are there in the book, but buried among all that other verbiage.

A related problem for considering the Bible as literature is that it's a patch-up job of works from many different authors over many centuries (leaving aside the fundamentalist claim that it's all written or inspired by God). And the patching is not particularly smooth.

The Canadian literary theorist Northrop Frye summed up the difficulty this way:

The Bible is...first of all a mosaic: a pattern of commandments, aphorisms, epigrams, proverbs, parables, riddles, pericopes [extracts], parallel couplets, formulaic phrases, folktales, oracles, epiphanies, Gattungen [division into kinds], Logia [sayings], bits of occasional verse, marginal glosses, legends, snippets from historical documents, laws, letters, sermons, hymns, ecstatic visions, rituals, fables, genealogical lists, and so on almost indefinitely. All these elements are...contiguous and not continuous, and it is no good looking for continuous consistency of the sort that we get in verse or prose controlled by a single mind.

Yet Frye was one of the most renowned academic proponents of uncovering order and meaning in the Bible, as in the densely argued book from which the above quote is taken, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature.

How did he and others do this? How have they found overarching consistent messages, the Bible's so-called code?

Partly they do it by positing the Hebrew Bible's Christian sequel, The New Testament, as a conclusion or answer to the Old. The newer compendium calls back narratively and symbolically to the earlier one, they claim with some justification. Though that doesn't help us when we're considering just the older work.

Awesome story arc

But even within the Old Testament, which is more than three times longer than the New, scholars manage to find continuity, particularly if they consider it mainly as the Hebrew bible—that is, as the story of one people's relations with God.

Its nine hundred chapters can be rearranged along a timeline starting with the creation of the world and moving through the forming of God's covenant with the Jewish people, the (mythical) Egyptian captivity, the escape, the founding of Israel, and the (real) Babylonian exile. After six hundred thousand-plus words, it ends with the Jews being returned from Babylon to Israel.

This bare outline represents an awesome overarching story, comparable to any great intergenerational historical epic.

But in the detailing of this supposed history, the same plot elements occur over and over again. The Lord makes a covenant with his people to protect them as long as they follow his commands. With the Lord's support they thrive or win some victory over other peoples. Then they fall back into breaking the Lord's laws—usually worshipping idols or competing deities. The Lord is wrathful and threatens to wipe them out. A faithful prophet intercedes with the Lord on the people's behalf, promising they'll repent, and the Lord spares them. The covenant is renewed. Until the next time.

The same subplot is repeated more or less throughout The Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. So much so, that even a non-believer reading this wants to scream at the Israelis of the book: for god's sake, stop it with all the idol worship! It just doesn't make narrative sense that they have this amazing superbeing on their side, vanquishing their enemies, sustaining them, and saving them from all manner of evils—and yet as soon as things start looking up, they turn their backs on their god, and it's back to Ba'al and the golden calves. Over and over.

And what's with this omniscient God repeatedly falling for the same old tricks from his chosen people?

How many one true gods?

With the Bible comprising the works of many writers, copiers and translators over many centuries, if not millennia, several different deities are rolled into God, Lord, Master, Yahweh, Jehovah, Elohim, Adonai, or whatever various interpretations and sects call the god of the Jews.

Religious dogmatists may disagree, pointing out the many places the God of the Bible insists on being the only one true god. But any normally sharp reader can detect in the volume at least four gods that historically were accepted as the supreme being by the nomadic Semitic people who settled in Canaan and became the Israelis of the Hebrew Bible. And not all were monotheistic. This goes some way toward explaining many of the contradictions in the character and behaviour of the Old Testament's lead figure, as well as the confusion at times over whether he is demanding to be treated as the only god or as the greatest among the multiple gods.

So, if the Bible is too erratic to stand as a standalone literary work in its own right, can it still be considered seminal literature in the Western canon and beyond?


Biblical themes of faith, sacrifice, judgment, love, mercy, and good versus evil can be found in writing in all parts of the world influenced by the three great Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam with their roots in The Hebrew Bible.

The narratives embedded in the Bible are known around the globe and have found their analogs in various cultures' writing up to the present day—in both religious and secular contexts. Think of all the modern works that dwell on the dangers of eating from the tree of knowledge (starting with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and continuing with countless science fiction dystopias). Think of how often the story of Cain and Abel has been played out in contemporary dress (John Steinbeck's East of Eden coming to mind). Or how often in our writing we use metaphorical references to those stories, such as when a "David and Goliath" conflict is described, when a character is said to "enter the lions' den", when a leader of the oppressed urges to "let my people go", or when a rainbow is invoked as a promise of hope.

The words of God

Now, those stories are not necessarily new to the Bible. Many of them have been traced back to earlier sources in Mesopotamia. The Bible's scribes picked up tales from the works of Babylon, Sumer, Assyria and other civilizations in the neighbourhood.

Nothing wrong with that. The ancient Israeli writers should be credited with preserving, elaborating and popularizing these stories, just as ancient Greek poets and playwrights developed Hellenic mythology over several centuries.

The Bible, secondly only to Shakespeare's work, has shaped our lexicons. The Bible—especially the King James Version of the Old Testament (also created during Shakespeare's time)—has introduced myriad phrases that are still used every day: "forbidden fruit", "by the sweat of your brow", "milk and honey", "salt of the earth", "an eye for an eye", "head on a platter", "pride before fall", "bite the dust", "lamb to the slaughter". Hundreds more.

Another literary contribution of The Hebrew Bible or Old Testament is its preservation of some ancient poetry, most of it scattered piecemeal throughout the books and most of it continuing the God-worshipping themes of the prose chapters.

But one book in the Bible is unique in presenting decidedly secular sentiments in poetic form. "The Song of Solomon", also known as "Song of Songs", is best described as erotic poetry. It proceeds languorously from "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine", concludes urgently with "Make haste, my beloved, and be thou like to a roe or to a young hart upon the mountains of spices", and rises to more explicit heights in-between.

Thusly the poem presents a mystery. How did this paean to sensual love ever make it into the Judaic and Christian Bibles?

Some commentators have tried to spin that horny book as representing the love of God for his people, or the people for God. But nobody outside of their religious circles is buying that.

Whatever the explanation, many a reader can be glad it's there, as a refreshing literary break from the repetitive, violent, God-obsessed, sin-and-punishment serials of the rest of the Old Testament.

— Eric


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