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Ancient Israel, Religious Delusions and Growing Up

It has been quite a long time since I’ve actually written a post here or, for that matter, anywhere else. The quick answer to those of you who have written to inquire is that I had major surgery to rebuild my right shoulder back in April and went into a serious health decline after, probably due to stress and years of neglecting my health. By mid-July, I knew I had to either give it up or do something serious and I started a program of rejuvenation on August 2nd which has been remarkably successful. After one month of following the program, I felt like I had dropped 15 years! After being in pain most of my life (I developed arthritis at the age of 9), it is great to go through most days pain free!

For the past few years I have been, little by little, handing over many of my website responsibilities to others. Signs of the Times has been in the hands of its international editors for some time now, so that by the time I went into the hospital, there wasn’t much to worry about in that respect. Of course, there was the Higher Balance Institute/Eric Pepin lawsuit (and that is still running in the background) and that produced a certain amount of stress, mainly because it has been so extraordinarily costly. But, as I have pointed out, if I caved in to that silly temper tantrum, it would just encourage other, similar tantrums by other petty tyrants all over the internet. It IS about free speech and the right to comment on news and products and the people behind them, and letting Pepin and his gang get away with their nonsense would set a dangerous precedent for others.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. As it happens, during my convalescence, I was able to turn my attention back to my real loves: psychology, history and history of religion. (Believe it or not, my only real interest in politics is that it is history in real time!) I have been just glutting myself with reading and watching videos while in therapy.

Some months ago I pre-ordered (from amazon.com), Niels Peter Lemche’s new book “The Old Testament Between Theology and History.” After reading all the available books by Thomas L. Thompson, Philip R. Davies, Garbini, Mack, Cryer, Cline, Whitelam, Van Seters and others, I was anxiously awaiting the release of this volume. It arrived yesterday morning. For me, it was like being a child with a new pair of patent leather shoes! I actually took it to bed with me even though I wasn’t going to read last night. (My husband, Ark, and I have been watching the old Perry Mason series every night – we find it to be very relaxing before going to sleep and with the new health kick I’m on, I’m all about relaxing at bedtime!)

This morning, I was up at 6:30 to get in some quiet reading time. At breakfast, (eggs laid this morning by our free range chickens!), Ark asked me what the new book was about. I told him that it was the new volume by one of my favorite scholars/authors and that the topic was the history of religion. He asked me if Lemche wrote “without mercy”, (he knows what I like!) and I said, “yes, indeed! And that’s why he’s one of my favorite people!” Ark understood what I meant: I admire people who can be ruthless with themselves and constantly strive for my own personal objectivity. I don’t always succeed, but I consider it a virtue to not be self-deceived as so many people are who want only to live without conscience.

What is interesting in the introduction to this book is that Lemche outlines briefly the development of his views of the Old Testament. In 1984, his book “Ancient Israel: A New History of Israelite Society” was published and it was quite a new thing in this particular field of study, being a synthesis of Israelite history and religion written from the perspective of social anthropology. The main thesis of this book was:

  • Israel emerged as the result of a social development within Canaanite society in Palestine in the last half of the second millennium BCE. It was not a consequence of an “Israelite” migration from the desert.
  • Israelite religion was “originally” a Canaanite religion. Only toward the middle of the first millennium did it assume the particular characteristics normally considered “Jewish” monotheism.
  • The Old Testament includes practiccally no historical sources older than, say, the sevent-sixth centuries BCE. It is accordingly not possible on the basis of the narratives in the Old Testament to reconstruct any Israelite history dating back before 1000 BCE. If such a history can be constructed, it demands the inclusion of written and archaeological sources not found in the Old Testament.
  • The idea of history in the Old Testament arose as a consequence of political catastrophes that hit the historical Israel toward the middle of the first millennium BCE.

It is interesting to me to note that this book was adopted by theological students and was translated into English in 1988. At that time, some scholars even thought that some of the ideas were obsolete! That means that there are a lot of theological types out there who are fully aware of this view of the Old Testament, but somehow that does not translate into knowledge generally disseminated among the “believers” – at least, certainly not in the large majority of American churches.

Here, allow me to digress a moment. The selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate in the US presidential contest was a revelation. Before this “dark horse” appeared on the scene, many people – myself included – were simply not aware of the Dominionists and their evil Fascist agenda to take over the world and initiate the Eschaton, so to say. Those people are delusional and quite simply crazy as bedbugs. Unfortunately, the DSM-IV does not list religious convictions – no matter how crazy they are – as pathological. At least not the version I read last, the DSM-III. This version defines delusions as “false belief based on an incorrect inference about external reality.” A delusion is an idea that is firmly sustained, despite “incontrovertible proof to the contrary.” The “belief” that one interacts with “spirits” is defined as a “delusion of being controlled, in which feelings, impulses, thoughs or actions are experienced as being not one’s own, as being imposed by some external force.” (Never mind the reams of evidence that people do, in fact, interact with spirits quite often while there is no evidence that anyone ever interacts with “god”!)

Well, to me, that sounds like someone who’s “got religion.” But “religious context” is pointedly EXCLUDED from this diagnosis! The DSM-III went on to say: “This does not include the mere conviction that one is acting as an agent of God.” That’s Sarah Palin and her Dominionist crazies, alright. I always thought it was a bizarre contradiction that psychiatrists (as they express themselves in the DSM volumes) consider it acceptable to be deluded by religion but that it is pathological in any other context.

Anyway, back to Lemche. He goes on to explain the evolution of his thinking on the subject of the Old Testament and how, by the time of the fourth edition of his book some of the theses of the first edition had morphed into:

  • The concept of “Israel” appeared as the result of an ideological reorientation among the people who were deported from Palestine to Mesopotamia in connection with the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the state of Judah.
  • Jewish monotheism came into being in the postexilic period, in competition with other contemporary religious currents that confronted Jewish Yahwism both in Palestine and in the exile. The “old” polytheistic religion did not disappear with the exile but continued to exist down into the postexilic period.
  • The historiography of the Old Testament is hardly to be dated to the seventh or sixth century BCE. It is most likely a product of the postexilic period.

His changing perspectives were the result of the constant development of Old Testament studies including his own researches and examination of the wealth of material being brought to light through various scientific and soft-science disciplines. But this is an ongoing process. As Lemche notes, the theses above did not survive for long either! In 1997 he reformulated his views as follows:

  • “Ancient Israel” is an ideological concept created by modern historians and students of the Bible. It has only a peripheral relationship to the historical states of Israel and Judah in Palestine in the Iron Age.
  • Israelite religion as found in the Old Testament is already interpreted in the light of Judaism. Judaism appeared as a monotheistic movement among several other similar movements in the first millennium BCE. When it appeared, Judaism was able to construct a history of Israel as its national foundation myth.
  • Old Testament writings are mostly to be dated to the Hellenistic period. As a concept and as a canonical collection,the Old Testament hardly predates the appearance of Christianity.

Wow! Lemche made some serious leaps there! And he now says that if he were to present a new edition of his 1984 book, he would have to re-write 90% of it!

Well, anyway, this is what I talked about with my husband at breakfast this morning. I also talked about the fact that I really understand the progress Lemche made because my own emergence from Christianity has followed a similar pattern. In the beginning, I studied the Bible to have a “closer relationship” with the origins of my religion. As time went by, my love for truth trumped blind belief and, little by little I was compelled by merciless objectivity to admit the obvious: it was all a big fraud likely created and perpetrated and perpetuated by pathological individuals.

I really admire people like astronomer, Fred Hoyle, who could apply his scientific brain to the problem of religion at the age of about 14 and conclude that it was only sensible that religion should be subjected to the same standards of proof as anything else in our world, and was then able to blithely discard it as an issue. That was a special case, I think. More problematical are the people who are able to discard the “mysterious” in our world without even a backward glance and take up skepticism as their religion. You have to wonder what lack of emotional depth or soul animates such people.

It wasn’t easy for me to come to many of the views I hold today regarding religions, the consensus reality that is inured in those religious beliefs, and True Reality which can only be seen by subjecting beliefs to the same kinds of tests and challenges that any hypothesis requires. Sometimes giving up our warm, comforting beliefs is a painful, protracted process; but then, so is growing up.

Originally Published 2008_11_18

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