Bibliolatry’s Beginnings

In previous postings, I argued against the notion that “The Word of God” means the written Bible. In the first, here:
I argued that the Bible itself says that it is more the spoken word that is portrayed in the Bible as carrying divine power. In a second installment, here:
I said that the written Bible represents a “static” form of the dynamic “Word”, which can sometimes choke the life out of any new, living, developing, growing expressions of divine power.

Taking a scholarly/critical approach to the Bible, I think we can see a few examples of this occurring. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll simplify the scholarship somewhat, and assume that the scholars know what they are talking about. If time permits, I’d like to examine more of the evidence for the multiple sources in the Old Testament.

In 410 BC, on the Egyptian island of Elephantine, a group of Jews sent a rather peculiar letter to the Persian governor of Judah asking for authorization to rebuild the temple of Yahu (Yahweh) on Elephantine, which had been destroyed by jealous priests of a rival temple. This temple was apparently built shortly after the immigration of a garrison of Jewish soldiers to the island during the reign of Manasseh of Judah (son of Hezekiah). The Jews there not only worshiped Yahu, but also several other deities, including Yahu’s female consort. They express puzzlement in their letter that the Jewish leadership of Jerusalem, to whom they have written, haven’t answered them.

To modern readers who take the Bible as history, this is confusing. Didn’t these Jews know that the laws of Moses commanded the offering of sacrifice in only a single location, and that the prophets had said the temple at Jerusalem was this location? Didn’t they know that the laws of Moses dictated that only descendents of Aaron could be priests, and only Levites could assist them? Didn’t they know that ONLY Yahweh should be worshipped, and that he did not have a consort? No, apparently they didn’t know these things.

The reason they didn’t know these things is that the Law of Moses and most of the rest of the Old Testament is apparently a bit of revisionist history. It projects backwards into the ancient past – laws and regulations that were developed very late in the history of Israel and Judah, by two groups of what could be described as religious fundamentalists. Ironically, while these two groups (one from the Northern Kingdom and one from the Southern) not only disagreed with the popular religious practice of nearly everyone – they also disagreed quite strongly with each OTHER. These two groups were the Levite (Mushite) priests of Shiloh in the North, and the Aaronid priests of Jerusalem in the South.

At two periods in time, during the reigns of Hezekiah and later Josiah – each of these groups was able to alternately put “their man” onto the throne, to institute a religious reform according to their group’s ideas, and attempting to destroy all competing religious ideas and practices. We might think of this as the Jewish version of England’s enforced Puritanism under Cromwell – except that it happened twice, with a different group in charge each time.

In each case, the reforms probably centered around a written guideline – which was passed off as being “The Law given to Moses”. In Hezekiah’s case, this was probably a document that scholars call “P”, the “Priestly source” of the Old Testament. It’s showpiece is the book of Leviticus, but it includes other parts of the Old Testament, including the Genesis 1 and part of the flood story. P focused on priestly laws, systems of sacrifice, specific instructions for religious observance. It implied that the Jerusalem temple was the only proper place to sacrifice, and that only descendents of Aaron could be priests. Aaron was the hero of “P” and Moses role was downplayed slightly. “P” was written partly in response to several earlier collections of sacred writings which had begun to circulate. Apparently the “P” source felt these earlier sources had problems. This is not to say that the “P” writer necessarily acted dishonestly. He may have been assembling older traditions of his priestly family – traditions which had been legendarily created by Moses as part of the Law.

The other religiously zealous group – the priests of Shiloh, were not entirely pleased. They were Levites, and believed that ALL Levites were proper priests, not just the sons of Aaron. They believed themselves to be descendents of Moses, and superior to Aaron. Hezekiah had destroyed one of their most precious religious artifacts when he destroyed the brass serpent of Moses that was kept in the temple. The Shiloh priests were also the ones who had produced some of the writings that “P” was written as a “rebuttal” to.

One of these Shiloh was Jeremiah. Read carefully what he says in his book of prophecies.

Jer 7:21-22 WEB
(21) Thus says Yahweh of Armies, the God of Israel: Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices, and eat meat.
(22) For I didnt speak to your fathers, nor command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices:

In other words, Jeremiah is saying that this new “P” document, which is circulating, claiming to be the Law of Moses, and commanding all sorts of sacrifice, is a fraud. He’s even clearer in this scripture

Jer 8:8 WEB
(8) How do you say, We are wise, and the law of Yahweh is with us? But, behold, the false pen of the scribes has worked falsely.

The false scribes Jeremiah rants about were the authors of Leviticus.

The Shiloh priest waited their turn. Hezekiah died and his reforms were quickly overturned by a population that had no taste for the priestly religion. Several generations later, king Josiah comes onto the scene. He is raised from boyhood by the priests of Shiloh. When he is a man, he begins a reconstruction project on the temple, under the direction of the priests of Shiloh, who are now the favored group. Lo and behold, one of them “finds” in some dark corner of the temple, a book – “The book of the Law”, which they bring and show to Josiah. He is horrified at all the laws his people are breaking, and begins another purge, this time focusing on the particular enemies of the Shiloh priesthood.

Scholars are reasonably sure that the “book” Josiah was given was Deuteronomy – the law book of the Shiloh priests. Some scholars, such as Richard Friedman, believe the author of this book – or at least its editor, was Jeremiah himself. Again, Jeremiah wasn’t necessarily acting deceitfully. The Law code he wrote down may well have been passed down to him as having come from Moses. The act of “finding” the book in the temple, however, was probably a ruse. This source, called “D”, eventually included a longer history of Israel from the view of the Shiloh priests.

Josiah died young in a battle and his reform quickly died with him. It was not until the return from captivity that a scribe, most likely the Aaronid priest Ezra, assembled the various sacred sources, including “P” and “D” into one book of the “Law of Moses”. Ezra was sent back to Jerusalem with this book under his arm, and with authority from the Persians to enforce the rules of the book on the returning Jewish population.

It was in THIS third age of “bibliolatry” that the priests of Elephantine wrote to Jerusalem asking for help rebuilding their temple. This group, which left Jerusalem in the reign of Manasseh, apparently had no idea that Judaism had been totally transformed by Ezra into a religion of the book. To them, the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah had been brief, odd blips in history. But as a result of the new books of Moses, the Elephantines with their multiple temples, multiple gods and “illegitimate” priests were now arch-heretics.

In summary then, while at various times in Bible history, the idea of a written Book as the authoritative “Word of God” was promoted, there was much controversy about such claims by rival groups, by the prophets, and as I said earlier, by Jesus himself. The Bible actually represents a compilation of several, somewhat contradictory written sources from various periods, each having a point of view and each claiming to come more or less directly from God.

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