The Bible – a revolutionary handbook

Image from the Book of Kells, a 1200 year old ...

Image from the Book of Kells, a 1200 year old book. Category:Illuminated manuscript images (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It may seem capricious to call the Bible a revolutionary document. Pillar of the establishment, perhaps, the foundation of Western civilisation, in the mouths of those advocating a return to its “traditional” values, even an essential literary and historical document.

To the fundamentalist Christian, of course, it is simply the word of God – though what that means, specifically, is rarely explored adequately­­­. But revolutionary? In a world where the still unapplied methods of Marx and Engels are regarded as hopelessly outmoded barely a century after their death, how can this ragtag assemblage of mythic fables, folk history, poetic visions and harsh regulations devised by a nomadic desert people several thousand years ago have anything at all to say to a world well into a new millenium?

“Thou shalt not kill” appeals to the pacifist but “thou shalt not commit adultery” has absolutely no appeal in a world where instant gratification is the rule of life. Perhaps if both were observed more carefully, we might all be a great deal happier, but from Adam and Eve to the almost psychedelic numerological visions of Revelation, the Bible conjures up a world completely at odds with our own, its stories completely incomprehensible to our supposedly more scientific minds, its teachings seemingly totally irrelevant to our needs.

When what are considered to be its laws are applied rigidly, by the Ayatollahs of Belfast or the Deep South, the result is sectarian violence, ethnic cleansing, and racial and sexual oppression. Its message may be radical, but surely it is overwhelmingly reactionary, even counter-revolutionary.

Wherever people have striven to get up off their knees, from industrial England to apartheid South Africa, at the head of the forces of reaction has been the cleric, Bible in hand, reminding them of St Paul’s instruction that they should “obey them that have the rule over you and submit yourselves” (Hebrews 13: 17), ignoring the context which makes clear he is speaking of rulers of the church, not the world whose standards he castigated so strongly: “. . . for they watch over your souls”.

Yet while it has long been acknowledged that the devil could quote scripture to his own evil ends, the Bible has indeed been read by many over the centuries as a revolutionary handbook. Christopher Hill has recorded how the new Bible translations in the English vernacular provided the theological underpinnings for the revolutionaries of 1640, and it was reading of the “Year of Jubilee” redistribution of land every 50 years in Leviticus that inspired many landless peasants in Latin America to take to armed struggle against their oppressors:

“And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.

“. . . The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.”

(Leviticus 25: 10, 23)

The English peasantry of 1381 were inspired by the picture of life in Eden to sing “When Adam delved and Eve span, where was then the gentleman?”

The revolutionary wing of the Chartists of the 19th Century inscribed on to their banners Christ’s advice that his followers should sell their cloaks and buy swords (Luke 22: 36), much to the chagrin of middle-class Christian socialists like Charles Kingsley, who were perturbed at the thought of a militant working class with weapons in their hands.

All these incitements to revolution are very inspiring, and a valuable counterweight to the countless times the words of the Bible have been used to bolster oppression and injustice. But the impact of the Bible can be more profound than that, for while it is possible to use selective quotation to support radical change, this does not itself constitute its truly revolutionary significance.

There are plenty of revolutionary slogans. Like Marx and Engels (who wrote in the same rabbinical tradition), if the Bible is read properly it will change your very mode of thinking and your understanding of reality itself. The key question is how you read it.

Again, like reading Marx and Engels, if you go seeking dogma it will fossilise your thought and leave you unenlightened. For though composed thousands of years before computers, it is a completely interactive document, or in the words of The Oxford Companion to the Bible, it is dialogic. More radically than any CD-ROM or HTML publication on the World-Wide Web of the Internet, it involves the reader in a conversation, requiring a completely different approach from the standard works of print-based post-Renaissance literacy, where the author lays down the ground rules, and the reader obeys, meekly. If it is indeed the word of God, it is by no means a monologue. We get out of it at least as much as we put into it.

Paul wrote that it was not the letter of its texts which was significant, but the spirit, “for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (II Corinthians 3: 6). There is a dialectic at work here, for how else may we allow the spirit to illuminate the meaning behind the cold printed words on the page except by reading them, and accepting that they mean what they say?

When the claim that it is the word of God is pronounced by those who style themselves fundamentalists, they mean that they find in it a series of dogmatic dicta, commandments which must be obeyed without question (which they use, inevitably, to legimitise their own authority, conveniently ignoring those which do not support their own prejudices). Yet the Bible itself argues against such an approach.

When Jesus was denounced by the legalistic Pharisees for allowing his disciples to work on the Sabbath, he declared that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”. Note: he did not say the old bequest of a day of rest was no longer valid; “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets,” he said. “I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” (Matthew 5: 17)

After his first sermon, based on Isaiah’s good news to the poor (a sermon which so infuriated his fellow villagers that they sought to throw him off a nearby cliff), he concluded: “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your eyes.”

English: Print by Gustave Doré illustrating th...

English: Print by Gustave Doré illustrating the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, from the Gospel of Luke Русский: Притча богач и Лазарь из Евангелия от Луки, художник Гюстав Доре (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his terrible story of the rich man and Lazarus, the beggar at his gate who goes to heaven while the rich man is in torment in hell, the rich man asks that his five brothers should be given warning of the fate that awaits him if they do not treat the poor with more respect and consideration. Comes the stern reply: “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” (Luke 16: 31) One did, and they still have not heard him, for the rich today are still ignoring that terrible warning of wrath to come.

What was this message of Moses and the prophets, and how did it come to be assembled? The structure of the Bible, beginning the Old Testament with the story of the Creation, concluded in the New with events taking place billions of years later, suggests that they were written in that order, but that is far from the truth. For a start, the Bible is not actually a book; it’s a library (the Greek word, biblia, simply means “books”). Each of the books in this collection has a different emphasis from the rest: the first 17 are historical, the next five are poetical, and the last 17 of the Old Testament are prophetic (according to Christians, many of the latter include precise predictions of the coming of Christ).

But while the historical books are sufficiently authentic to provide the data upon which Lewis Henry Morgan based much of his work on Ancient Society (and thus to Frederick Engels, much of whose Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State is based upon Morgan) their purpose is not history as we understand it today.

Whether such figures as Abraham, Moses and David actually led the Jewish people in the way that the Bible narrates is not significant in itself, because the communication is always in the present tense. Each story has a contemporary relevance, and this will, of course, shift, according to when it is being read.

For instance, take the genealogical tables which are such a feature of both Testaments, and which are so often skipped by modern believers, who dismiss “all those begats” as irrelevant to their needs today. Yet the first century rabbi, Ben Azzai, described “the book of the generations of Adam” as “an even greater principle” than the commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves, which Jesus said was the equivalent to loving God, and hence the greatest of all.

A medieval rabbi made the genealogy also equivalent to love of neighbours: “. . . you should not say, since I have been held in contempt, let my neighbour be held in contempt with me . . . If you act so, know whom you hold in contempt — ‘In the image of God he made him’.” The final quotation is from Genesis 1:27.

A modern comparison between rabbinical and Christian teachings explains:

“. . . in the fact that God created us we can understand the individual value of every human being and the common unity of all humanity . . . the statement ‘This is the book of the generations of Adam’ is telling us that this is a Torah” (or Law) “which applies to the whole of humanity made in the image of God. (The word adam, as well as being a name, is Hebrew for ‘mankind’.)”

(The Gospels and Rabbinical Judaism, by Rabbi Michael Hilton with Father Gordian Marshall, OP, SCM Press, London, 1988, pp. 14-16)

The universalism of this vision is remarkable when one considers the circumstances when the diverse oral traditions of the Jews were codified into a written record during the exile in Babylonia (there may have been previous written records, but if so these were probably destroyed during the sack of Jerusalem, as so many precious manuscripts were to be destroyed once again with the Roman attack upon the city, nine centuries later).

It was a time when the Jews first became aware of themselves as a persecuted people, a time when a certain nationalistic fervour would be understandable. At this stage in national development, gods are usually seen as tribal deities, fighting alongside their peoples in war, suffering victory or defeat as their people’s fortunes wax or wane. This element is present in the scriptures as written down in Babylon, but what is revolutionary is that alongside the nationalistic pride is the concept of the Jewish god as one for all peoples.

At the same time that the patriarch, Abraham, is promised a special blessing upon him and his descendants, he is also told that “in thy seed shall all the nations be blessed” (Genesis 18: 18). As if to ensure that this lesson strikes home, it appears three times.

Later, Isaiah was to describe God’s servant, in words often believed to foretell the coming of Jesus but also applicable to the promised role of the Jewish nation, as “a light unto the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42: 6), or non-Jews. This was written after the return from exile, when a certain triumphalism might be more to be expected. It is astonishing for a patriotic rallying cry to be so even-handed in commending the hostile nations surrounding them, even those who became their oppressors.

This theme is developed in the story of the liberation from Babylon, which is ascribed to the Persian king, Cyrus, ruler of the Achemenid empire from 559 to 530 BC. He was probably a fire-worshipping Zaroastrian, but is described by Isaiah as “the anointed one” (messiah, in Hebrew), a term later applied to Jesus. While he was an enlightened and tolerant king, his conquest of Babylon still rankled 25 centuries later, when I was in Baghdad in 1986. Iraqi foreign ministry officials quite straight-facedly traced the animosity between Iraq and Iran to Cyrus, and pointed out to me the ruins of buildings hit by Iranian missiles in recent months as evidence of this.

English: Bible of Lilienfeld

English: Bible of Lilienfeld (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The world-famous gardens of Babylon were probably the inspiration for the description of Eden, which is seen very much as a walled garden, in the Babylonian style. Indeed, Genesis locates it “in the east” (Genesis 2:8), meaning Mesopotamia, now Iraq. Dennis T. Olson, assistant professor of Old Testament studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, New Jersey, points out that “the garden is not simply a luxurious paradise but a place created by God in which human beings live and eat and work (Genesis 2: 15)” (my emphasis). He continues:

“Eden functioned as a paradigm of the unbroken relationships between god and humans, and between humans and nature, which no longer obtained after the first couple’s disobedience.”

(Oxford Companion to the Bible, OUP, 1993, p. 178)

A Spanish Jesuit and liberation theologian working among the poor in Venezuela sees the garden of Eden as “not pure fantasy, but real possibility”. He goes on:

“. . . there actually were gardens full of tame animals and fruit trees, all profusely watered and carefully cultivated; just as in the sacred account. They belonged to kings and their mighty retinue, who thought of themselves as having become as gods. They belonged to the self-styled images of God and their familiars — individuals few and far between on the face of the earth, with the rest of the inhabitants of that earth constituting its dust indeed.”

(Pedro Trigo, Creation and History – Liberation & Theology, pp. 128-129)

He goes on to compare the millenarian imagery of Eden with the brutality of the construction of Babel, the towering ziggurat by which the Babylonian ruling class sought to aggrandise itself, pointing out that

“Babel stands for a strongly hierarchised and massified society, whose planners and controllers dominate the supposedly common work. The leaders cultivate fame, and reach the very skies on their pedestal of numberless ants who live only to work for them in exchange for the right to live. We see a mighty development of productive forces, but its purpose is the power and glory of the leaders, not the life of each and all.”

(ibid, p. 130)

In contrast,

“Eden cultivates the full potential of human being and earth together, in a symbiosis, with time and space for a gratifying leisure”

How many times have believers and unbelievers argued about whether there was actually such a place as Eden, stumbling over the letter, but ignoring the liberating spirit of its vision. Actually, independent evidence for the construction of the Babel tower occurs in the Enuma Elish, Babylonian tablets dating back to 1400 years before the exile, and their record is designed to tell a different story, that humanity was created to labour for the glory of the gods:

“Blood I will mass and cause bones to be, I will establish a savage, ‘man’ shall be his name. Verily, savage man I will create. He shall be charged with the service of the gods, that they might be at ease.”

(Sacred Texts of the World, p. 7)

According to the Bible, the construction of Babel was an act of human self-aggrandisement:

“And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

(Genesis 11: 4)

But the Enuma Elish makes clearer the class basis of the labour:

“Now, O Lord, thou who hast caused our deliverance, What shall our homage be to thee? Let us build a shrine whose name shall be called ‘Lo, a chamber for our nightly rest’ . . . . . . When Marduk heard this, Brightly glowed his features, like the day: ‘Like that of lofty Babylon, whose building you have requested, Let its brickwork be fashioned. You shall name it ‘The Sanctuary’. . . . . . May the subjects ever bear in mind their god, And may they at his word pay heed to the goddess. May food-offerings be bone for their gods and goddesses. Without fail let them support their gods!” According to the modern commentary on this text, “This narrative may have served in the ancient Babylonian New Year festival as the liturgy of the king, who each year became Marduk, vanquished the enemies of the gods, and set the Tablets of Fate for the coming year.”

Brecht reminds us of how much human sweat and toil was invested in the great monuments of the ancient world:

“Who built the ancient gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with the names of kings.
Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed,
Who built the city up each time?”

(Questions from a Worker-Reader)

To the Babylonian, thus, the alienation of human labour was something intrinsic, for which humanity was created. The Biblical perspective is different, for while it is clear that “Adam delved” in the garden, it was only as the result of the expulsion that labour became toil:

“. . . cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shall thou eat of it all the days of thy life.

“Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field.

“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

(Genesis 3: 17-19)

Here we find the second, even more revolutionary aspect of the Biblical revolution, so much a part of our modern culture today that it no longer strikes us as remarkable, namely that we live in a causative universe, in which people make choices, and all actions have consequences, and we cannot escape the consequences of what we do, even “unto the third and fourth generation” (Genesis 20:5).

This perception is the foundation of modern science, and it also throws upon human beings the task of ameliorating their condition, as the Puritan revolutionaries perceived:

“Now that it is come to extremity, we will also prove extremity: rend down every hedge, fill up ditches, make way for every man into the comon pasture.”

(Richard Woods: Norfolkes Furies or a View of Ketts Campe, 1615, quoted Christopher Hill, p.130)

At the time of the enclosures of common land, the vision of a return to Eden meant the breaking down of walls, not merely admission to the privatised commons. Only thus, said the Digger Gerrard Winstanley, could “Adam himself, or that living flesh, mankind” become “a garden which God hath made for his own delight to walk in”.

(The Mysterie of God concerning the whole Creation, Mankind, 1648, quoted Hill, p. 133)

There is, however, another dialectic at work here (and as we have already seen, and shall see again and again, dialectic is the very stuff of the Bible). It was seeking to be “like gods” that earned Adam and Eve their expulsion in the first place, as the owners of Babel sought to reach heaven by the toil of their bricklayers, all seeking to elevate themselves by human will alone, an idealistic impossibility against which Jesus warned his followers:

“Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit to his stature?”

(Matthew 6: 27)

Like many revolutionaries after them, whose “time was not yet”, the Puritans had to learn from hard experience that merely deciding to do so would not return them to the garden, a lesson the 20th Century has demonstrated many times, in Russia and elsewhere. As the Psalmist puts it:

“Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.”

(Psalm 127: 1)

And here lies the third and most revolutionary message of the Bible: that nothing can be accomplished in violation of the laws of reality, which we must strive to understand, even as we acknowledge that their totality is beyond our comprehension. Many religions treat matter as an illusion to be transcended, and while Biblical reality has its transcendant aspects, represented by the image of an all-powerful and interventionist God profoundly concerned with his Creation, humanity’s experience of this reality is totally material.

This materialism is emphasised during the creation accounts, which certainly date from the exilic period: it is notable that at a time of oppression they should notate and preserve oral testimony that God looked upon his material world and saw that it was good. And despite being dragged from their homes and persecuted by fellow humans, their God looks upon created humanity and pronounces it “very good”. This is why the paradise of Eden is located so precisely: not in some never-never land of the hereafter, but in Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and the Euphrates (and two other rivers, less easy to indentify, though one of them appears to rise in Jerusalem itself).

The entire history of the Jewish people is used as a very concrete demonstration of the lessons it aims to teach: the necessarily tentative nature of all human conceptualising, the folly of believing that religious observances have any value in themselves unless they are accompanied by appropriate changes in human behaviour, the danger of entrusting too much power to human leaders, who will usurp worship due to God (most of the Bible is fiercely republican), the value of ordinary people (Moses with his stammer, the slight-statured David’s victory over the mighty Goliath, Isaiah’s suffering servant, who will liberate his people, the helpless baby Jesus, known also as Immanuel, or “God with us”).

Of course, these ideas do not spring full-grown from the Jewish mind, and it is not surprising that there is an admixture of legends from the surrounding regions (though the flow may have been in the opposite direction). There are many other writings from around the Mediterranean which may be regarded as antecedents or analogues of the Biblical stories.

The laws of Hammurabi, compiled between 2084 and 2081 BC according to Dr L.W. King’s reckoning, have statutes which bear upon the story of Abram and Sarai in the Bible, which not only permitted Abram to have a child by a slave rather than his barren wife, but required it:

“If a man has married a priestess, and she has given to her husband a female slave, who bears children; and afterwards that slave ranks herself with her mistress, because she has borne children, her mistress may not sell her for silver.”

(Law 146, quoted in The World’s Earliest Laws, by Chilperic Edwards, Watts & Co., London, 1934, p. 34)

The story of a world-wide flood is echoed in the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, in which the god Ea warns Utnapishtim that the gods are about to destroy humanity:

“O man of Shuruuppak, son of Ubar-Tutu, tear down thy house; build a ship; abandon wealth; seek after life; scorn posessions, save thy life. Bring up the seeds of all kinds of living things into the ship: the ship which thou shalt build. Let its dimensions be well measured.”

Since the Jews were taken into exile into Babylonia, and much of the codification of their great oral teachings into the written form that we now know as the Bible took place during that exile, it is not surprising that elements between their teachings and those of their captors have things in common, especially if, as is likely, both traditions refer to actual incidents.

English: "The Deluge", Frontispiece ...

English: “The Deluge”, Frontispiece to Doré’s illustrated edition of the Bible. Based on the story of Noah’s Ark, this shows humans and a tiger doomed by the flood futilely attempting to save their children and cubs. Français : “Le Déluge”, Frontispice de l’édition illustrée par Gustave Doré de la Bible. Basé sur l’histoire de l’Arche de Noé, la gravure montre des humains et un tigre tentant en vain de sauver leur progéniture. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The flood stories of Noah and Utnapishtim both refer to climatic events which are not unknown in the Babylonian delta, especially the final detail in the Gilgamesh tale, that the “the ground was flat like a roof”, suggesting that alluvial mud had been spread over the area where the Tigris and Euphrates pour into the Persian Gulf.

But there is an important difference between the two tales. In the Biblical story, the disaster is the occasion for a promise:

“ . . . the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake . . .

“And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.

“And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.

“And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.”

(Genesis 8:21, 9:11-15)

It is significant that the word for the rainbow, translated here as “token” is the same in the original as the word translated earlier for the mark which God set upon the brow of Cain, the first murderer, “lest any finding him should kill him” (Genesis 4:15). Strong’s Hebrew and Chaldean Dictionary defines the original ’owth or oth as “a signal (lit. or fig.), as a flag, beacon, monument, omen, prodigy, evidence, etc.:–mark, miracle, (en-) sign, token”. Typically, conventional wisdom has got the mark of Cain wrong: far from being a symbol of condemnation; as the parallel use of the same word in the story of Noah indicates, it is one of God’s protection.

None of the wrathful non-Judaic gods of the era could have acted towards their errant followers with such compassion. And only in the words of the Chinese sage Lao Tzu, introducing his great work, Tao Te Ching, written down at about the same time as the Babylonian exile, was the folly of religious notions made so explicit in any work of spirituality:

“The way that can be followed
Is not the eternal way;
The name that can be named
Is not the eternal name.”

Indeed, as we shall see, the second commandment of the Judaic decalogue is expressed by his next words:

“That which is without name is of heaven and earth the beginning;
That which is nameable is of the ten thousand things the mother.”

That implicit critique in the Tao of the religious tendency to name things and turn the names into fetishes to be worshipped, rather than the profound realities to which they refer, is made explicit in the Bible, which prohibits the naming of God (the acronym JVWH, pronounced Yahweh, anglicised as Jehovah, is not a name: it means “the name of he who must not be named”).

For what is remarkable about this collection of sacred writings is its anti-religious nature. The entire Old Testament story is of a “stiff-necked people” who try over and over again to find the rules that will admit them to heaven, only to fail, repeatedly. The basis of their insoluble riddle is forecast by Isaiah, who likened these religious ones to heylel, or Lucifer, the brightest and most boastful of the angels:

“. . . thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north”

(Isaiah 14:12)

Remember that this was the sin of Adam and Eve, whose disobedience was caused by the desire to be like gods, and also of the builders of Babel (“confusion”), or Babylon, who caused others to sweat to build themselves a tower to heaven. Not only are such efforts ineffective, but they are counter-productive, expelling the first sinners from the paradise of Eden into a world where work is no longer a joy but a torment, and each is set against each.

It is significant that religious observances are not described in the earliest Biblical episodes. Yes, Cain and Abel made thank offerings for success in the hunt and in agriculture, and Noah gave similar thanks for deliverance from the flood, but it is later, in Genesis 4:26, that we read: “then began men to call upon the name of the Lord”, as if this were a brand new thing, perhaps borrowed from the surrounding peoples. And perhaps it was, since later we read:

“. . . the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose”

(Genesis 6:2).

One of the last of the Old Testament prophets taught that there would come a “new testament” (literally, a new promise or bequest) when such observances would no longer be necessary:

“And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord”

(Jeremiah 31: 34)

In other words, religious observance is something associated with a particular phase in human history, something imported into Jewish culture from outside, during exogamous marriage. Most of the Bible’s strongest condemnations are for such importations; many of the sexual prohibitions which self-styled fundamentalists strive so hard to get adopted as law today are based on disgust at the ritual prostitution of males and females in the fertility religions of the Mediterranean basin which turned human beings’ bodies (dwelling places of the Holy Spirit in both Old and New Testaments) into objects of debasement, in the hopes that such ceremonial copulation would force the gods to make the land fertile and productive.

The folly of religious practices is made clear from the opening words of the Bible. The words “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (in Hebrew re’shiyth ‘elohiym bara’. shamayim . . ‘erets) set out the most significant element in its story, repeated over and over again, but still entirely or at best partially misunderstood, mainly because people approach it with preconceptions as to what it means, which is precisely what it implicitly forbids. Later, in the Decalogue, this is made explicit in the first two of the ten Commandments.

According to Strong’s great Biblical concordance of 1890, the opening word of the text, re’shiyth (ray-sheeth’) means “the first, in place, time, order or rank (spec. a firstfruit):–beginning, chief (-est), first (-fruits, part, time), principal thing”. The New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance (NASC) gives a similar list of definitions: “beginning, chief:- beginning(19), choice(2), choicest(3), finest(2), first(16), first fruits(7), foremost(2)”. It will be noted that most of the definitions in each list do not refer to time, and it must be realised that since the situation being described is perceived to be outside of time (a point modern cosmological theory confirms, since time is held not to have existed before the “big bang”), the other definitions must therefore apply.

What is being described as “principal” (Strong) or “foremost” (NASC)? Clearly, the second word in the narrative, ‘elohiym, or God. This is an interesting word, if only because it is not singular, but plural. Unitarians, Muslims and others who seek for a single explanation of the world take heed: “there are more things” (plural!) “in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. The “philosophy” referred to by Hamlet was that taught to him and his fellow-student, Horatio, at the University of Wittenberg, the new rationalism; indeed the tragedy of the story is of a man standing between two ages, the sacralised world of pre-capitalist modes of thought, where the community imposed certain duties and behaviour, such as revenge, upon its people, of whatever station, and the new individualism, which left them alone, to work out a morality on the hoof.

In the first song in his great sacred concert, Duke Ellington constructs a whole lyric upon the first four words of the King James translation, putting a comma before the last, which is completely in keeping with the foregoing: “In the beginning, God”. God, whatever that three-letter shorthand may mean (as in Alcoholics Anonymous’s “good orderly direction”), is the supreme reality. And if we truly attempt to put ourselves into that time before time, before any human conceptualisms could limit our thinking, then what this is saying is that the principle, the foremost thing to be understood about reality is that we are contained within it, and it cannot be contained within our thinking.

Forget, for a moment, any personalising of that reality associated (quite legitimately, as we shall see) with conventional understanding of the word God. It says: reality exists, and this is the supreme fact of our existence. This is the basic premise upon which is constructed all that follows, like the first proposition of a Euclidean theorem: let there be a reality, whose existence is not contingent upon our understanding; therefore . . .

It is not the only legitimate proposition. There is another, equally valid: reality does not exist, or it is so random in its behaviour that it is not possible to understand with any precision what will happen, and everything is “part of a series of accidents, as are we all”, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut.

But we have stumbled once again upon the other, most significant element in the entire Bible, its embracing of the contradictory nature of reality: in short, it is dialectical.

Let us examine what those first two Hebrew words really mean, to appreciate their underlying contradiction: the principle fact we must understand about reality is that it is beyond our understanding. The rest of the Bible then proceeds to attempt this seemingly impossible task of conveying understanding.

As Einstein famously said, the hardest thing to understand about the universe is why human beings should seek to understand it.

It is all very well for Exodus to tell us that “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”, nor “any likeness of any thing”, nor “bow down thyself to them, nor serve them”, but however we try we cannot obey, since this is the way we think. In the Eden story, Adam and Eve are expelled because they sought to be “like gods”, by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Their first act after eating was to look upon themselves with new eyes, and to see that they were naked. They had become human, and the “original sin” which so torments us is our desire to know, and our frustration that the more we know, the wider is the boundary of our ignorance.

We engage with reality by adopting a hypothesis about what we experience, and we incorporate it into our very being, so that in time it becomes as precious to us as life, even life itself to us. It becomes our god, a false deity, before which we bow down and worship. This is as true of secular concepts like evolution or materialism as it is of illusions that we can ever truly understand the mind of God, whoever he may be. We strive to predict the future, to understand the consequences of what we do, and our desire is frustrated by the ideological baggage we carry with us.

Einstein again:

“The simplest picture one can form about the creation of an empirical science is along the lines of an inductive method. Individual facts are selected and grouped together so that the laws that connect them become apparent… However, the big advances in scientific knowledge originated in this way only to a small degree… The truly great advances in our understanding of nature originated in a way almost diametrically opposed to induction. The intuitive grasp of the essentials of a large complex of facts leads the scientist to the postulation of a hypothetical basic law or laws. From these laws, he derives his conclusions.”

(Einstein, Induction and Deduction in Physics, Berliner Togeblatt, Dec. 25, 1919)

Yet we must attempt this impossibility, even though we die in the attempt. Why else are there martyrs, agitators who struggle for doomed causes, John Balls and Joe Hills, yes and even Jesus Christs, who fight for things that cannot yet be, if indeed they ever will, since in the oft-repeated words of Jesus, his time is not yet? Why else does a child try to walk, when common sense indicates that falling is the natural result of the attempt? The dialectic of the Bible is that it acknowledges this basic fact of human existence: we do not know how to walk, but we keep on trying, and we shall only succeed by learning from our failures.

The devil told Jesus to cast himself from the top of the temple, and God would protect him from falling to his death; today, anyone can do it without divine intervention, if they strap on a paraglider. The Bishop at Ulm, who affirmed that people would never fly, was wrong, but his error was based on the conviction that nothing existed outside his perceptions of it; the inquisitors of Galileo committed the same sin against the Bible, and so do we, if we stop up our willingness to be changed by new experience. And these two opening words are also telling us how we should read what follows so that we may experience that change.

We have already seen that we cannot understand those two words if we bring to them our preconceptions about what is meant by either of them: by acknowledging what they say, the dialectic of the Bible enables us to do what it says we cannot, we must not do: to understand something more about the nature of reality, of this seemingly unknowable God within which we are contained. The part cannot contain the whole, and our understanding of it is limited by our perceptions. We stand in the plains of reality, and the foothills ahead seem like mountains; yet when we climb them, we see the veritable Himalayas of greater peaks awaiting our ascent, and above them the skies, the universe.

Many accept the opening words in their entirety as the bedrock of their beliefs, as many who reject them make their rejection the bedrock of their disbelief. God created the world, says one. No he didn’t, since he doesn’t exist, says the other. Actually, there is more logic in the latter proposition, as I have tried to show elsewhere (Against Religion 1: In praise of atheism), if we are engaging with the question as a matter of which belief-system we embrace.

All belief-systems are essentially religious, and all are founded on a leap of faith, the basic proposition upon which all else is founded. “All is chance” is equally valid as “all is understandable”, and equally invalid. We may choose to reject the first because it reduces all description of experience to mere statistics, a cosmic philately which just delineates what is seen without drawing any conclusions; the moment we do the latter, we are moving from one world-view to its opposite; the confusion in modern science is largely because it tries simultaneously to accept both contradictory propositions. If we accept the dialectic of this modern Hamlet’s dilemma, we end up rejecting the aleatory position, and opt for the knowability of reality, here called God.

Rationalists fly away in horror at this three-letter shorthand because it smacks of superstitious concentration upon a mythical afterlife, but the remarkable thing about the Bible is that there is little concept of life after death, except in the sense of retribution for the unjust. Of course, the picture of hell changes, in keeping with dialectical, shifting nature of the Bible’s response to changing times and circumstances. Sometimes it is a metaphor, sometimes a picture of punishment in this life, sometimes states of mind, sometimes a sort of holding place for those awaiting the final judgement, most often part of the causative nature of reality. Hell and heaven are most often experienced in the here and now, in the material world, part of the Bible’s great pattern of act and consequence, which we have turned into crime and punishment, submission and reward.

The earliest reference to hell is in Deuteronomy, that rhapsodic commentary upon the law, and it is used as a metaphorical reference to the lowest place:

“For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell, and shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains.”

(Deuteronomy 32: 22)

In the book of Samuel (repeated in the Psalms), the real-world nature of hell’s suffering is made plain:

“The sorrows of hell compassed me about; the snares of death prevented me.”

(II Samuel 22: 6)

(The original meaning of “prevent” was to come before; this is why we need modern translations, even if the poetry of the King James version is lost, for words change their meaning, sometimes into their opposites.)

Nor is hell something outside of God’s kingdom (a point the significance of which will become plain if we examine the nature of good and evil, and the Bible’s uncompromising opposition to the dualism that directs so much church teaching today). The Psalmist makes it clear that nowhere is out of the reality constituted by God:

“If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.”

(Psalm 139: 8)

And after he died, Jesus “descended into hell” as the creed in the Book of Common Prayer has it, to liberate those imprisoned in it.

The idea of hell as a place of perpetual punishment is foreign to the Bible, for being there, God can redeem even the condemned:

“Hell from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming: it stirreth up the dead for thee, even all the chief ones of the earth; it hath raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations.”

(Isaiah 14: 9)

Note that it is the “chief ones of the earth” that are its main inhabitants, not the poor and the lowly, whose hell has been on earth.

One is reminded of the ballad of The Coal-owner and the Pitman’s Wife for a similar trope:

Good morning Lord Firedamp, this woman she said
I’ll do you no harm, Sir, so don’t be afraid
If you’d been where I’d been the most of my life
You wouldn’t turn pale at a poor pitman’s wife

Then where do you come from, the owner he cries
I come from Hell, the woman replies
If you come from hell, then tell me right plain
How you contrived to get out again

Aye the way I got out, the truth I will tell
They’re turning the poor folk all out of Hell
This to make room for the rich wicked race
For there is a great number of them in that place

The Proverbs make clear that hell is not so much a punishment as a consequence, especially as a result of conformity to the anti-human and exploitative nature of the religions of the neighbouring peoples. Speaking of the temptations of a pagan temple prostitute, it says:

“Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on hell”

(Proverbs 5:5)


“Her house is the way to hell, going down to the chambers of death”

(Proverbs 7: 27).

Most particularly, hell is the consequence of the injustice of the rich and proud:

“Therefore hell hath enlarged herself, and opened her mouth without measure: and their glory, and their multitude, and their pomp, and he that rejoiceth, shall descend into it.”

(Isaiah 5: 14)

The idea of punishment and reward comes into the picture in Ezekiel, the great prophet of Israel’s exile and reinstatement, when it must be read in relation to their oppressor, and the promised (and imminent) liberation, in a lovely picture of the flowering of the desert:

“I made the nations to shake at the sound of his fall, when I cast him down to hell with them that descend into the pit: and all the trees of Eden,”

(which, remember, is situated in Mesopotamia, the place of their exile)

“the choice and best of Lebanon, all that drink water, shall be comforted in the nether parts of the earth.

“They also went down into hell with him unto them that be slain with the sword; and they that were his arm, that dwelt under his shadow in the midst of the heathen.”

(Ezekiel 31: 16-17)

This idea is developed in the New Testament teaching on fellowship, in which not merely the persecution by external oppressors, but by those within the fellowship who sit in judgement upon each other, is condemned:

“But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.”

(Matthew 5: 22)

Though in popular parlance hellfire and judgement are associated with the Old Testament, it is in the New that much of its imagery is to be found, in John the Baptist’s peasant metaphors of dead branches being cast into the flames, and in particular the “lake of fire” of Revelation. Yet the Baptist is clearly speaking of retribution due to the oppressors of this world, and their accomplices among the oppressed; the Evangelist promises the fiery lake to hell itself: a classic negation of a negation,

“And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire”

(Revelation 20: 14).

What then of heaven, the reward that is the obverse of condemnation in the control system that the modern church has made of the Bible’s humane teaching? The Old Testament does not recognise this concept: it has only one reference to a human being entering heaven (Ezekiel), and indeed Proverbs mocks the very idea:

“Who hath ascended up into heaven, or descended? who hath gathered the wind in his fists? who hath bound the waters in a garment? who hath established all the ends of the earth? what is his name, and what is his son’s name, if thou canst tell?”

(Proverbs 30: 4)

Heaven is seen as the abode of God, or as the height of human aspirations, as in the story of Babel. But to seek it is to find death:

“ . . . thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north:

“I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.

“Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.”

(Isaiah 14:13-15)

The immediately preceding verse is conventionally believed to apply to Satan:

“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!”

But the earlier verses make it plain that it is the oppressor that the prophet has in mind:

“. . . thou shalt take up this proverb against the king of Babylon, and say, How hath the oppressor ceased! the golden city ceased!

“The Lord hath broken the staff of the wicked, and the sceptre of the rulers.

“Thy pomp is brought down to the grave, and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee.”

(vv 4, 5, 11)

This condemnation is not restricted to the alien oppressor, but is also the reward of what is called “an evil family”, the holy and pious puffed up in their own righteousness:

“. . . they shall bring out the bones of the kings of Judah, and the bones of his princes, and the bones of the priests, and the bones of the prophets, and the bones of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, out of their graves:

“And they shall spread them before the sun, and the moon, and all the host of heaven, whom they have loved, and whom they have served, and after whom they have walked, and whom they have sought, and whom they have worshipped: they shall not be gathered, nor be buried; they shall be for dung upon the face of the earth.

“And death shall be chosen rather than life by all the residue of them that remain of this evil family, which remain in all the places whither I have driven them, saith the Lord of hosts.

“Moreover thou shalt say unto them, Thus saith the Lord; Shall they fall, and not arise? shall he turn away, and not return?”

(Jeremiah 8: 1-4)

This rather like the fact that, despite Lenin’s express wish that nothing be done after his death to turn him into an icon, and Mayakovsky’s fear that

I’m anxious that rituals,
and processions
the honeyed incense
of homage and publicity
Lenin’s essential

I shudder
as I would
if condemned to die
lest Lenin
be falsified
by tinsel beauty.

(Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, 1924)

Lenin’s body was turned into a sacred idol, embalmed and displayed in a marble tomb in Red Square, at which hundreds from all over the country queue for a glimpse of his cosmeticised features, to this day, like gawkers at a waxworks.

Jesus built upon the Bible’s fierce anti-clericalism, for instance reproving the religious bureaucrats for presuming to control who should or should not enter heaven:

“. . . woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men . . .”

(Matthew 23: 13)

This reproof was particularly appropriate, since according to orthodox belief,

“. . . no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven . . .”

(John 3: 13)

Their promises or threats were therefore equally empty.

Not that he disbelieved in the resurrection and after-life (though there was a priestly sect, the Sadducees, who did not), but among those who were unlikely to gain admittance, the religious leaders came high:

“. . . except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. . .”

(Matthew 5: 20)

It was a frequent charge against him that he hung out with drunkards and loose women, and even the despised tax collectors (“publicans”, in the King James translation), stooges of the Roman occupying power and their Herodian quislings, who battened on the poor. But in a notable story he contrasted one such exploiter with a Pharisee, who proudly proclaimed at prayer that he was not like other men, in his scrupulous adherence to the letter of the law. The tax collector, meanwhile, “standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner”.

“I tell you,” declared Jesus, “this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”

We must interpret this story with care, lest we fall into the same snare as the self-righteous Pharisee, pointing the finger at him for his self-righteousness. The modern analogue of the Pharisees would be the leftier-than-thou keepers of the socialist conscience, or their opponents, those who believe that only Tony Blair and his followers had a philosophy for Labour in the modern age. (Indeed, in sitting in judgement upon our contemporary Pharisees, am I not also falling into the same error?)

Christ’s remarks about the unsuitability of rich men for salvation are well-known, but like Paul’s statement about the love of money being the root of all evil (not money per se), his exact words repay careful study:

“Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.

“And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

There were a few rich men (and women, too) among his followers, but the majority were poor workmen; yet

“When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?

“But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.”

(Matthew 19: 23-26)

The message is clear, and it is not particularly about the rich (or, rather, not about the stinking rich, for there are few of us, however poor, who are not tarred with the greed that afflicts our entire society). On our own, none of us could get into heaven. As Hamlet says to Polonius, “Give any man his just deserts, and who shall ’scape whipping?” Or in the words of the Psalmist, “Not one is good, no, not one.” And the early Christians were told the same message:

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

(I John 1: 8)

It is a mistake to see history as a linear tale, with a beginning, a middle, and a beginning – a big bang, entropy and heat death, in scientific terms, or creation, the fall, and redemption to the religious. This is a very mechanical way of regarding reality, that A causes B and C results from B, with a single chain of causality stretching back to the very beginning, “moving in narrow circles, and forever immutable”, as Engels put it (Socialism, Utopian and Scientific).

It is tempting to try to check the Biblical story of the first seven days of the universe against current scientific thinking, and it is true that the Big Bang can be equated to God’s initial command, injecting the stasis of the pre-time chaos with the necessary blast of energy to get the whole thing going: “Let there be light!” Tempting, but dangerous, because we are assuming that the rules of entropy which so upset Friedrich Engels (because they seemed, to him, to require an outside force, a creator, to raise matter to a higher stage of organisation) would have governed pre-time. But Pope Pius XII was on dangerous ground in 1951, when he invoked the Big Bang to justify his claim that “Scientists are beginning to find the fingers of God in the creation of the universe.”

But what scientists see is not the work of creation (or the big bang); they see what has happened since then, according to rules which govern all time since the beginning, which in the words of St Augustine was created “with time, not in time”. This is why Darwin’s observation of The Ascent of Man is so hard to explain, unless there is some intervening force, not only to get it started, but also to continue to do so. But we do not, we cannot know what things were like before the beginning, though scientific conjecture is not so far removed from the Biblical account as you might think. The Bible’s picture is graphic, and concise:

“And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”

(Genesis 1: 2)

It is not dissimilar to Stephen Hawking’s:

“. . . there was a time . . . when the world was infinitismally small, and infinitely dense. Under such conditions all the laws of science, and therefore all ability to predict the future, would break down. . . One may say that time had a beginning at the big bang, in the sense that earlier times simply could not be defined.”

(A Brief History of Time, Bantam Press, London, 1988, pp. 8-9)

“. . . at first there was nothing desirable to be seen, for the world was without form, and void; it was confusion, and emptiness”.

(Matthew Henry)

The Princeton physicist, Freeman Dyson, of the Institute for Advanced Study commented:

“It’s rather silly to think of God’s role in creation as just sitting up there on a platform and pushing the switch.”

(The World of Treasury of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics, Little, Brown, Boston, 1991, p. 385)

There are many holy books, and many of them have something significant to say about the human condition. But the best of them point to the Bible, either wittingly or unwittingly, as the solution to some of the issues they raise. In the Rig Veda, for instance, the 3000-year-old Sanskrit scriptures raise the question of how imperfect humanity may approach the perfection of the ultimate:

“How shall I have communion with my God? What offerings of mine will he accept without anger? When shall I with a glad heart find his mercy? . . . Loose from us the sins of our fathers. Forgive us our own sins, O Lord.”

(Rig Veda VII.86)

The Qur’An expresses great respect for what it calls “the People of the Book” (ie the Bible), and says that all who follow the Jewish scriptures “shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve” (Sura 2: 62). In fact, Islam accepts the Jewish Tanakh (a Judaic acronym for the Torah, or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, the Nevi’im, or Prophets, and the Kethuvim, or Writings, which taken together constitute what the Christian world calls the Old Testament) as being authoritative, though they may differ from some Jewish or Christian interpretations of what is said.

As human beings we have a tendency to read our own previous conceptions into what we read; this is as true of the Bible as any other sacred text, whether it be the writings of Marx or Darwin, or the Qu’Ran or the Baghavid Gita. Thus, for instance, Victorian male obsession with masturbation led them to equate that with so-called “Onanism”, a reference to the act of Onan, who spilled his seed upon the ground:

“Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.

“And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.

And the thing which he did displeased the Lord.”

(Genesis 38: 8-10)

But the sin of Onan was that he did not to fulfil his duty to enter the bed of the wife of his dead brother Er, so that the future of the tribe might be guaranteed, as commanded in Deuteronomy 25: 5 (later, this would have been specifically prohibited as “an unclean thing” in Leviticus 20: 21). In fact, Onan probably practised a form of coitus interruptus, rather than masturbation. So Victorian male obsession with “Onanism” tells us more about their sexual anxiety, nothing about Biblical teaching.

There is a general problem, however, in searching the Bible for prescriptive rules of life, something which has (quite literally) bedevilled Judaism over the millennia, for this collection of holy scripts, of folk tales, poems and songs and historical narratives, is not meant to be read that way, especially when the history of the family is concerned.

We should beware of attempting to graft our modern modes of thought and belief systems (particularly, but not only relating to sexuality) on to any ancient texts, which were composed during and addressed to totally different societal forms. This is especially true of the Biblical narrative, which records remarkably the way the family has changed over the course of human history (and, as we shall see, hinting at our pre-history also), in a way that has provided modern anthropology with data about where we have been, and provided pointers towards where we are going, sexually as in every other way.

Remarkably, among all the sacred books of the world, the Judaeo-Christian Bible (or at least the Pentateuch which became the foundation of the Old Testament) has a historicity denied to the Bhagavad-Gita, for instance, or the Qu’Ran.

But it is not a purely historical text. Like any great work (Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for instance) it speaks (or rather they speak, because it is a chorus rather than a solo voice) to us, individually and collectively, in the present day and about our immediate concerns.

“He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”

(Mark 4:9)

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