In my opinion, the Hebrew Bible, regardless of religious assumptions (without assuming that the Hebrew Bible is Divinely revealed or inspired), is the greatest and most influential piece of literature ever written (at least in the western world). In spite of the enormous influence of the Hebrew Bible upon western civilization, nevertheless the Hebrew Bible is, in my view, a widely misunderstood document. The great revolution of the Hebrew Bible is not – as is widely and mistakenly thought – a theological and orthodox (correct belief) revolution in conceiving of God in a monotheistic sense and in conceiving of the essence of religion as faith in one God. Rather, the great revolution of the Hebrew Bible is a moral and orthoprax (correct practice) revolution in conceiving of God as a moral God who demands moral action, and in conceiving of the essence of religion as moral character and moral action – a revolutionary conception of God and religion in the ancient Biblical world; and a revolutionary conception of religion even still today when so many, at least in the western world, think of the essence of religion as faith in God or as ritual.
The term Hebrew Bible
I am intentionally using the term Hebrew Bible, and not the term Old Testament, because the term Old Testament is a Christian term necessarily implying a New Testament of Christianity replacing the Old Testament of Judaism. The term testament is a translation of a central Hebrew word in the Hebrew Bible, meaning covenant. The term New Testament then implies that the new covenant of Jesus and Christianity has replaced the old covenants of Judaism of Abraham and Moses. While the term Old Testament reflects Christian religious ideology, the term Hebrew Bible does not, by contrast, necessarily reflect Jewish religious ideology. Rather, the term Hebrew Bible merely describes the nature of the Hebrew Bible from a factual point of view in two senses. First, the Hebrew Bible is written for the most part in the language of ancient Hebrew, except for a few passages or words in several different books that are written in ancient Aramaic. Second, the Hebrew Bible is a product of an ancient Hebrew culture – at least indirectly. The Hebrew Bible is more accurately a product in a direct sense of an ancient Israelite and Jewish culture. However, the people Israel, the Jewish people, were according to the Biblical account descendants of Hebrews – of the families and clans of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The term orthoprax
The meaning of the term orthoprax is obviously in distinction to the term orthodox, which are both Latin terms not indigenous to the Jewish tradition. The term orthodox, representing an influence of Christianity, literally means correct doctrine implying that religion requires correct doctrine in addition to right behavior. Such a conception of religion as implied in the literal meaning of the term orthodox is compatible with Christianity – as Christianity is a religion in the sense of a faith commitment (faith not just in God but in Jesus as the messiah). By contrast, traditional Judaism based upon the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud is a religion not in the sense of a faith commitment but a way of life of the Jewish people – reflected in the Biblical covenants of Abraham (peoplehood) and Moses (religion in the sense of a way of life). In my view, the nature of the Bible and traditional Talmudic Judaism, if we insist upon using Latin terms, is orthoprax, which literally means correct practice, implying that religion demands right behavior (ethically and ritually) but no formal theological dogma. The term orthoprax also implies more broadly a pragmatic emphasis upon good deeds (ethically and ritually) as the essence of religion rather than faith – and a pragmatic and psychological rather than theological conception of faith. The term orthoprax does not mean that the Hebrew Bible and traditional Talmudic Judaism are not concerned with inward feeling or motivation, or that they are absent of philosophic ideas. Rather, the Hebrew Bible and traditional Talmudic Judaism are clearly concerned with inward motivation, and filled with deeply profound philosophic ideas, but are orthoprax in nature in that they formulate no formal, binding theological creed that one must accept, and emphasize the importance of good deeds over faith.
The orthoprax and anti-theological nature of the Hebrew Bible is characterized by a psychological conception of faith necessarily expressing itself in proper behavior as opposed to a philosophic conception of faith in which faith is divorced from behavior. Philosophic faith (such as the belief that God exists) is of an abstract, intellectual nature (based upon reason) and divorced from deeds – one may believe philosophically that God exists and yet act in an evil way; or, conversely, one may believe philosophically that God doesn’t exist and act in a righteous way. From an orthoprax (pragmatic) point of view, philosophic faith in being divorced from deeds is not true faith. Psychological faith (in the sense of loyalty and commitment to God who in the Biblical conception demands morality) is a disposition of character in an emotional and moral sense (a matter of the heart with no connection to theological beliefs), which necessarily expresses itself in good deeds. Righteous behavior is a sign of loyalty or commitment to God in the heart even though one may believe and declare that God does not exist from a metaphysical point of view; and evil behavior is a sign of disloyalty and a lack of commitment to God in the heart even though one may believe and declare that God exists from a metaphysical point of view. Psychological faith of the heart is revealed in actions and not philosophic declarations. The distinction between these two types of faith, psychological and philosophic, is essential in understanding the nature of Biblical theology, which is actually anti-theological and anti-philosophical in nature.
The term faith not a central religious concept in the Bible
The term faith or belief in God is simply not a central, religious concept in the Torah, the 5 Books of Moses, which constitutes a source of moral and spiritual guidance, and a legal constitution of the Jewish people containing mitzvot (commandments) that are the basis of the Jewish law. I think that it would be fair to say that the concept most associated with religion in the western world would be the concept of faith in God. Yet, shockingly, the term faith in God hardly appears in the Torah, and the few places where it does appear are not passages that stand out as being of great importance. The term faith (or belief) in God is absent from such central passages as the story of the binding of Isaac and the so-called ten commandments (which are referred to in the Torah and by the Talmudic rabbis as the ten statements). The commandments of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) are, according to Jewish tradition, divided into two broad categories of positive obligations and negative prohibitions. The terms here in Hebrew are revealing for they literally mean positive and negative commandments of action. In the plain meaning of the Torah, the commandments actually regulate both behavior and feeling (as feelings are really a matter of moral character traits necessarily expressing themselves in behavior), but characteristic of the orthoprax and anti-theological nature of the Torah and Hebrew Bible they do not regulate abstract philosophic or theological thought or belief.
The term faith in God (aside from hardly appearing at all in the Torah, and not in important passages) does not appear one time in the Torah in the form of an explicit command to believe that God exists – nor is there any explicit command to believe any other theological or philosophic proposition, nor any philosophic argument attempting to prove the existence of God or any other theological or philosophic proposition. The term faith in God is not used in the command form. For example, regarding Abraham the term is used in the past tense – “And he believed in the Lord, and it was counted to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15, 6) where the context is that God has promised Abraham that he will have a son who will continue his lineage, and Abraham is expressing his own trust in God to fulfill the promise made to him. The verse, though, tells us nothing whatsoever as to whether God actually exists or is truly trustworthy. The verse is revealing Abraham’s psychological and moral character (and nothing about the existence or nature of God), as indicated in the continuation of the verse, in which Abraham’s faith is “counted to him for righteousness”. If the verse was describing the faith of Abraham in a philosophic sense, then his faith would be counted to him as truth or knowledge and not righteousness. Abraham’s faith is an expression of his moral character and righteousness – the verse “And he believed in the Lord” is an expression of Abraham’s optimistic psychological attitude of hope and trust, and his refusal to despair (in not having children), revealing his righteous character as a person. The verse “And he believed in the Lord” reveals nothing at all about Abraham’s personal theological or philosophical beliefs. Actually very little, if anything, is revealed to us about Abraham’s theological beliefs in the stories told of Abraham in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), which in a consistent way emphasize Abraham’s moral character and actions (reflecting the orthoprax and anti-theological emphasis of the Hebrew Bible upon moral character and actions above that of faith and theology).
The term faith in God throughout the Hebrew Bible is used in a psychological sense of trust in, or loyalty to, God that expresses itself in proper behavior or in an optimistic attitude of hope, thankfulness and appreciation. There are rabbinic commentaries that portray Abraham as the founder of monotheism. Such rabbinic commentaries portray Abraham as a kind of philosopher who on the basis of his own independent philosophic analysis arrives at a monotheistic (orthodox) conception. However, there is no textual support in the Hebrew Bible whatsoever for such rabbinic commentaries, and there is actually textual support for concluding that Abraham was not a monotheist. For example, Abraham says (Genesis 14, 22) “I have raised my hand to the Lord (YHVH), the most high God” (the Hebrew letters YHVH, translated as “the Lord”, constitute the unpronounceable name of God). The concept of a “most high God”, which appears in other places in the Hebrew Bible as well, clearly implies that other gods, besides YHVH (the Lord), exist, and that YHVH is the highest God among a pantheon of gods. Leaving aside the issue of monotheism at this point (to be pursued further shortly), I merely want to indicate that the Torah itself does not tell us very much at all about Abraham’s theological beliefs, and consistently emphasizes and describes his moral character and actions.
Thus, the obvious conclusion to be drawn from such literary evidence is that the term faith in God is not a central, religious concept in the Torah. It appears as a central, religious concept in the Hebrew Bible only in the Book of Psalms where the term faith in God is used along with other synonyms (such as trust), but in an anti-theological (orthoprax) and psychological sense. The obvious question from a literary point of view that demands explanation is why faith in God is a central religious concept in the Book of Psalms and not in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses)!
The central religious concepts of the Torah
In order to understand why the concept of faith in God is a central religious concept in the Book of Psalms, and not in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), I want to discuss the central, religious concepts of the Torah – service, love and fear of God (in distinction to the Book of Psalms where the term faith in God is a central religious concept). The terms service of God, and love and fear of God, appear often throughout the Torah, appear in the form of explicit commands and appear in important passages. The relationship between these three concepts (service, love and fear of God) provides the very same orthoprax and psychological-behavioral paradigm as implied in the Biblical conception of faith. Just as faith in the Biblical literature is conceived in a psychological and anti-theological sense as necessarily expressing itself in proper actions, so too love and fear of God are psychological and anti-theological concepts that necessarily express themselves in proper behavior – which constitutes the service of God. In the Book of Exodus, God tells Moses that the purpose of redeeming the people Israel from slavery is that they serve God – “when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain” (Exodus 3, 12). The term serve in the verse, like the term service of God, is from the same root as the word slave or servant. The people Israel are freed from slavery in Egypt to be servants to God in order to perform the service of God – “For to Me the children of Israel are servants; they are My servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 25, 55). The exodus from Egypt, the first mass slave escape in recorded history, marking the birth of the Jewish people, is not an end in and of itself. Rather, the physical freedom of the people Israel from oppression and persecution is for the sake of serving God morally and spiritually on Sinai, representing the birth of the Jewish religion. Sinai is the place of the covenant of Moses between God and the people Israel (Exodus 19 – 24), in which God commands the people Israel commandments that are in nature moral and ritual (expressing moral ideals) constituting the service of God.
Love and fear of God are the psychological motivations that express themselves in the service of God, which flow from the image of God as a slave owner or master. The relationship of a slave to a slave owner or master is one of contrary feelings and motivations. On the one hand, a slave is drawn to a master out of love and gratitude for taking care of the basic needs of the slave (the slave representing property of the slave owner or master who has a vested financial interest in taking care of the basic needs of the slave), and the slave then feels a positive motivation to do the will of the master in performing the service that the master demands. On the other hand, a slave feels a distance from a master, out of fear of the power of the master to punish disobedience, and feels a negative motivation not to transgress the will of the master. Thus, in the religious conception of the Torah, love of God is the positive motivation to do the service of the Master who demands proper behavior, while fear of God is the negative motivation not to transgress the moral will of the Master in behaving improperly.
The reason for the difference in terminology between the Torah (service, love and fear of God) and the Book of Psalms (faith in God), despite that in both cases the religious paradigm is essentially the same orthoprax paradigm of psychological concepts expressing themselves in proper behavior, is connected to the different natures of the works literarily. The Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) is the classic work of prophetic literature in the Hebrew Bible, which is characterized by the revelation of God’s moral will from Above to below. The essence of God’s revelation to Moses (and the other prophets as well) from Above to below is the moral imperative of God, which constitutes the service of God (including both ethical and ritual commands, as even ritual commands express moral ideals), and the responses to the moral imperative of God are the contradictory and complementary feelings of love and fear of God (as the Master of the universe) that are the motivation for performing the service of God. By contrast, the Book of Psalms is not prophetic literature but is the classic work of the Writings (the third part of the Hebrew Bible, in addition to the Torah and Prophets), and represents writings that are inspired by religious feelings and ideas from within, or by the Divine Spirit, in which the direction is from below to Above. The term faith that is central in the Book of Psalms is not a response to a moral imperative from Above to below, but an expression of feelings from within that express themselves not only in proper behavior but also in an optimistic attitude of hope, thankfulness and appreciation.
Monotheism and the Torah
Maimonides (the great legal scholar and philosopher of the 12th century) attempts to base his philosophic conception of faith upon the Torah. For example, in codifying monotheism as a fundamental, philosophic principle in his law code, he writes (“the Foundations of the Torah” 1, 6):
The knowledge of this matter (the existence of a First Existent, God) is an affirmative precept, as it is said, “I am the Lord your God” (Exodus 20, 2 and Deuteronomy 5, 6). And whoever permits the thought to enter his mind that there is another deity besides this God violates a prohibition, as it is said, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20, 3 and Deuteronomy 5, 7), and denies the fundamental principle (of monotheism) – this being the great principle upon which everything depends.
Maimonides here delineates the positive and negative sides of monotheism – the affirmation that God exists, and the denial of the existence of other gods. He codifies this monotheistic principle on the basis of the opening statements of the so-called ten commandments (which, again, are referred to in the Torah and by the Talmudic rabbis as the ten statements). However, in the plain meaning of the first statement of the ten statements there is no commandment at all but, rather a declaration in which God as a character in the story introduces the people Israel to God (the God of Israel) – “I am the Lord your God, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”. The declaration in its plain meaning says nothing concerning faith or belief in God, or whether or not God truly exists in reality (and there is no demand to believe or know in a philosophic sense that God truly exists in reality, nor any philosophic arguments attempting to prove the existence of God throughout the entire Torah or Hebrew Bible).
It is not by accident that Maimonides, in codifying this verse as a commandment in his law code, did not quote the verse in its entirety. This is a classic case, in my view, in which Maimonides as a philosopher characteristically and systematically uproots Biblical (and rabbinic) sources from their context, and distorts them in order to fit his philosophic preconceptions. Maimonides, in this particular case, quotes only the first part of the verse (“I am the Lord your God”) and omits the obvious nationalistic element of the verse which clearly indicates that the verse is directed to the people Israel (“who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”). In so doing he transforms the declaration to a particular people into a commandment of a universal nature requiring acknowledgment that one God and one God alone exists, which fits his conception of universal philosophic knowledge as the foundation not just of Judaism in particular but of religion in general. The opening statements of the ten statements do not express a monotheistic principle, but declare that YHVH (the Hebrew letters constituting the unpronounceable name of God) is the God of Israel and that the people Israel are not to serve other gods – “I am the Lord (YHVH) your God” and “You shall have no other gods before Me”. The demand here of loyalty to one God (YHVH) is directed to a particular people, the people Israel, and there is no denial of the existence of other gods of other peoples.
Indeed, the Torah, in these opening statements of the ten statements and in general, presupposes the existence of other gods of other peoples rather than denying their existence. The statement “I am the Lord your God” declares that YHVH is the God of Israel (to whom the people Israel are to be loyal) among the many gods that are presumed to exist; while the statement “You shall have no other gods before Me” is a demand of the people Israel to serve YHVH alone without denying the existence of other gods of other peoples. I already indicated that Abraham refers to YHVH as the “most high God” implying that YHVH is the greatest God among a pantheon of gods. After the crossing of the Reed Sea (the Hebrew term in the Torah is Reed Sea and not Red Sea), in the song of the sea, it is written, “Who is like unto You, O Lord (YHVH) among the gods?” (Exodus 15, 11). The verse presupposes the existence of other gods who cannot be compared to YHVH. In addition, in the ten statements YHVH is referred to as a “jealous God” (Exodus 20, 5 and Deuteronomy 5, 9) who demands exclusive worship (service) and loyalty. Of whom is YHVH jealous if no other gods exist?
Furthermore, in light of this (that the Torah actually presupposes the existence of other gods of other peoples) it is also possible to understand the original meaning, historically, of the verse Shema (Hear), the great declaration of faith of traditional Judaism, which is often understood as a declaration of monotheism, and usually translated – “Hear O Israel, the Lord (YHVH) our God, the Lord (YHVH) is one” (Deuteronomy 6, 4). However, the original meaning of the verse in the Torah is not philosophic and not monotheistic (orthodox) in its conception. The Hebrew word usually translated as one is so translated according to a later monotheistic conception, but it can also mean alone in Biblical Hebrew. The preferable translation of the verse (in light of the verses in the Torah that I previously cited which presuppose the existence of other gods of other peoples) is, as the Rashbam, the great commentator of the 12th century, understood – “Hear O Israel, the Lord (YHVH) is our God, the Lord (YHVH) alone”. The verse is then in accordance with the conception reflected in the opening of the ten statements – “I am the Lord (YHVH) your God” and “You shall have no other gods before Me”. In both cases (the opening of the ten statements and the verse Shema) the conception is that YHVH is the God of Israel, and the people Israel are to serve and be loyal to only one God, YHVH and YHVH alone, among the many gods (and, significantly, the existence of other gods of other peoples is not denied but presupposed).
Moreover, the verse Shema must be viewed in the context of the Book of Deuteronomy as a whole. From a literary point of view, the Book of Deuteronomy is written in the form of a speech given by Moses to the Israelites in the plains of Moab prior to entering the land of Canaan. Moses is clearly functioning not as a philosopher or theologian, but as a political and religious leader. Moses, in the Book of Deuteronomy, is preparing the people Israel for their entering the land of Canaan that was dominated by Canaanite city-states that were superior to the nomadic Israelites militarily and technologically. The message that Moses, as a political and religious leader, is delivering to the people Israel is that the only thing that can maintain their unity as a people, without a land of their own, and upon entering the land of Canaan dominated by powerful Canaanite city-states and cultures, is their voluntary loyalty and devotion to YHVH, the God of Israel. For the Israelites then there can be no other gods besides YHVH – “To you it was shown, that you might know…there is none else beside Him (Deuteronomy 4, 35)”. In the absence of a land of their own, it is only their religion, and worship of YHVH, the God of Israel, that can hold the people of Israel together and allow them to survive.
Thus, the message of Moses is not that of a philosopher or theologian but of a political and religious leader whose message is directed to a particular people, arising out of a concern for their survival and welfare. The verse Shema express the loyalty and commitment of the Israelites to YHVH, the God of Israel. The original meaning of the verse Shema in the Torah is not a philosophic (orthodox) proposition, but an orthoprax expression of loyalty and moral commitment. The verse expresses the idea that the people Israel are to be loyal to YHVH alone, and is a moral commitment to fulfill the moral will of YHVH, the God of Israel – such a moral commitment flowing from being loyal to YHVH who demands morality. Notice also in the verse Shema the two different terms for God, which are a key to understanding Biblical (and rabbinic) theology – YHVH (usually translated as the Lord) and Elohim (usually translated as God).
The two terms for God in the Bible – YHVH and Elohim
The differing terms for God in the Bible are reflected in the two opening accounts of creation. In the opening account of the creation of the universe (Genesis 1, 1 – 2, 3), Elohim is depicted as the transcendent God of power who has created the universe, as reflected in the opening verse of the story (Genesis 1, 1) – “In the beginning God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth”. In the following account of the creation of the primordial human being (Adam) and the eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2, 4 – 3, 24) YHVH is depicted as a source of morality, in which the terms for God are joined YHVH Elohim, as reflected in the opening verse of the second story (Genesis 2, 4) – “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day the Lord God (YHVH Elohim) made the earth and the heavens”. Also, in the opening verse of the ten statements, “I am the Lord (YHVH), your God (Elohim)”, the terms YHVH and Elohim are highly significant as well.
The term YHVH represents the very name of God. The essence of the name YHVH is that YHVH demands morality, as expressed in Psalm 23 – “the Lord (YHVH) is my shepherd…He restores my soul, He leads me in paths of righteousness for the sake of His name” (Psalm 23, 1-3). This is the essence of the revelation to Moses at the burning bush (that YHVH demands morality) where God first reveals God’s nature as a God of history and redemption as opposed to a power of nature – “Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, the Lord (YHVH) God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is My name for ever…I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt” (Exodus 3, 15-18). YHVH, in the verse here, is depicted as having seen the oppression and persecution that the people Israel have suffered in Egypt, and the mentioning that YHVH is the name of God in the verse signifies God’s moral opposition to such oppression and persecution.
YHVH is presented at the burning bush (and in the ten statements) not as a universal God, but as the God of Israel, who says to Moses, “I have surely seen the affliction of My people” (Exodus 3, 7). From the fact that, according to the Torah and Hebrew Bible, YHVH acts in history to redeem the people Israel from affliction, it is possible to mistakenly infer that YHVH is merely a national God, the God of Israel. However, this is a misconception as is clear in the story of Adam and Eve when YHVH is presented as a God of morality, even prior to the birth of the people Israel. God demands that Adam and Eve not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – “And the Lord (YHVH) God commanded…of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it” (Genesis 2, 16-17). The story is an allegory, in my view, of the acquiring by human beings (and not only the people Israel) of the Divine trait of distinguishing between good and evil, as in the continuation of the story the serpent tells them – “God knows that on the day that you eat of it, then your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as God knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3, 5).
In addition, in the story of Bilaam, a non-Israelite, the Torah records that Bilaam achieved a degree of prophecy as it is written “and the spirit of God came upon him” (Numbers 24, 2). At the beginning of the story, Bilaam says, “I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord (YHVH) my God to do anything, great or small” (Numbers 22, 18). There is also a striking passage in the Book of Joshua in which Joshua, near Jericho, is confronted by a man standing in front of him with his sword drawn (Joshua 5, 13-15). Joshua asks the man: “Are you for us, or for our enemies?”. The man strikingly answers “No”, which apparently makes no sense given that Joshua had asked him an either-or rather than yes-no question. The man then explains to Joshua – “I am captain of the host (army) of the Lord (YHVH)”. I want to suggest that the captain of the host of the Lord is revealing to Joshua that he is not necessarily on the side of the Israelites or that of their enemies; rather the captain of the host of the Lord is on the side of morality that YHVH demands. YHVH is revealed as the God of the Jewish people but is not exclusively the God of the Jewish people. The primary characteristic, above all else, which represents the essential nature of YHVH as a God, is that YHVH demands morality.
Thus, Elohim is conceived as the transcendent and universal God of nature and power who has created the entire universe; while YHVH, by contrast, is conceived as the God who acts in the world (within history) as a God of revelation and redemption (redeeming the people Israel from slavery and giving them commandments on Sinai to guide them), and most importantly demands morality. In Hebrew, letters have a numerical value, and words have a numerical value, called gematria, based upon the sum total of the letters of the word. The gematria, numerical value, of Elohim is 86, and the numerical value of the Hebrew word for nature that God has created is 86.
There is also gematria in support of the idea that the essence of the term YHVH is morality. Nachmanides, the great commentator of the 13th century, points out that the verse, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19, 18), is not grammatical. The literal translation is “And you shall love to your neighbor as yourself”. Thus, the verse does not literally or actually require that we love our neighbor but that we give love to our neighbor in a moral sense. The command applies to any relationship (and not just intimate relationships), even if we do not know our neighbor at all (and do not love our neighbor in a personal sense). It requires simply that we treat our neighbor as we ourselves would want to be treated. The Hebrew word for love has a numerical value of 13; and thus, on the basis of the verse “love to your neighbor as yourself”, when there is love (13) in a moral sense between two people (13 x 2), then the continuation of the verse is fulfilled, “I am the Lord (YHVH)” – as the numerical value of YHVH is 26. That is, YHVH, the God of revelation and redemption, is revealed in the world, and redemption is experienced, when there is love in a moral sense between human beings.
We are obviously not dealing in the Hebrew Bible with two separate and distinct gods. One of the most important phrases that occurs throughout the Hebrew Bible is that “YHVH is God (Elohim)”. The idea expressed here, which is also expressed in the second story of creation (Genesis 2, 4) in the joining of the terms for God, YHVH Elohim (the Lord God), is that the true God (Elohim) who has created (and has dominion over) nature and the entire universe is a moral God (YHVH), who demands morality. This is an experiential (orthoprax) expression of moral commitment to live a moral way of life that God (YHVH) demands, rather than a philosophic (orthodox) affirmation; and, comes in response to an experiential question as to who is truly God, and deserving of loyalty and worship among the many gods demanding loyalty and worship.
The true revolution of the Torah and Hebrew Bible
The opening verse of the ten statements “I am the Lord your God who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” is shocking. The Torah opens with a story in which God is depicted as the Creator and Ruler of the entire universe and the obvious question that arises in the opening of the ten statements is why God is presented merely as the God of Israel and redemption (who has redeemed the people Israel from slavery) rather than as the Creator and Ruler of the universe! I want to suggest that the true revolution of the Torah and Hebrew Bible, which I emphasize is not monotheism, is reflected here in the opening statement of the ten statements.
From the story of the creation we can infer only that God is necessarily powerful in having created the entire universe, but not that God is necessarily moral. It may be (from a purely logical point of view) that an evil and powerful god (or evil and powerful gods) created the universe. Indeed, in the opening account of creation there is no moral demand from God to human beings. God blesses human beings that they should “be fruitful and multiply” – “And God blessed them, and God said to them, be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1, 28). There were those among the Talmudic rabbis who understood this to be a blessing and not a commandment, and they derived the commandment, to “be fruitful and multiply”, from the story of Noah (Genesis 9, 7). It is proclaimed five times by the Torah after various acts of creation “and God saw that it was good”, and after the creation as a whole it is proclaimed “behold, it is very good”. However, aside from such value judgment, the story of creation is absent of any moral aspect in the sense that there isn’t any moral demand at all from God regarding human behavior.
The great revolution of the Torah and Hebrew Bible is not monotheism, but the way in which God is conceived (as a moral God who demands morality), as reflected in the opening statement of the ten statements in which God is presented not as the Creator and Ruler of the universe (as a God of power), but as the God of Israel who demands morality in redeeming the people Israel from slavery and oppression (“I am the Lord your God who has brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”). From this, that God acts within history to redeem the people Israel from oppression, we infer that God necessarily demands morality. Immediately following this declaration in the opening of the ten statements come the moral demands and commandments of God that are incumbent upon the people Israel.
According to many historians, monotheism develops in ancient Israel during the Biblical period as part of an evolutionary, gradual process (and not as a revolution) in which YHVH, the God of Israel, comes to be seen as the one God of all peoples (rather than as the highest God among a pantheon of gods). Also, apparently some form of monotheism may have emerged in ancient Egypt even prior to the period of Moses and the Israelites. An Egyptian Pharaoh, Akhnaton, instituted a worship of one deity – a sun god. Rabbi Hertz (the chief Rabbi of England in the 20th century) in his commentary to the Torah (Hertz Commentary, p. 396), points out that the monotheistic revolution of Akhnaton was a failure, and the form of monotheism that he instituted did not survive. However, I want to suggest that even were his revolution not a failure (in the sense of not surviving), the conception of God in Akhnaton’s monotheistic revolution was not revolutionary. That is, the nature of the one deity in Akhnaton’s religion was that of a sun god (of a force or power of nature that is powerful but not inherently moral), and thus no different in nature than that of the prevailing conception of gods in the surrounding pagan cultures, in which the gods were conceived of as forces or powers of nature.
In the surrounding pagan cultures in the ancient, Biblical world, the gods were conceived of as forces or powers of nature that were powerful, but not inherently or necessarily moral – and thus act within nature, and influence human affairs, not as an expression of moral will but as an expression of their power. The gods in the pagan conception can be influenced or appeased by offering sacrifices, or by performing some other ritual practice, and ritual practice is conceived as the very essence of religion. The great revolution of the Torah and Hebrew Bible is that for the first time in human history God is conceived of as a God who acts in within nature, and within history, as an expression of moral will in order to redeem (as a God of revelation and redemption), and demands morality as an inherent part of God’s nature. This is the basis of Abraham’s remarkable question, “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Genesis 18, 25) – a question which assumes that God is inherently moral. Thus, for the first time in human history, there is a necessary connection between religion and morality, in which the very essence of religion is conceived to be moral character and moral action rather than ritual practice. In the Biblical conception, ritual is not in order to influence God but in order to transform ourselves morally and spiritually as human beings. Moreover, ritual practice as an attempt to influence or appease God is seen in the Biblical conception as magic. The story and satire of Bilaam, the magician, (Numbers 22-24), reflects the Biblical opposition to magic, which is forbidden and an abomination according to the Torah (Deuteronomy 18, 9-13). While Bilaam, the magician, attempts to influence God by the performance of sacrifices and ritual practice; Abraham, as an expression of his righteousness and moral character, attempts to influence God in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18) by moral and rational argument! Moses, as well, after the making of the golden calf (Exodus 32, 11-14) when God is determined to destroy the Israelite people, argues with God giving reasons why it is wrong and unfair for God to destroy the Israelite people!
Widespread not just in the Jewish world but in the western culture God is conceived primarily as a God of creation (as a God of power) without awareness that such a conception is actually pagan – and such a pagan conception of God leads not only to exaggerated importance being given to ritual as the essence of religion but to a pagan conception in which ritual practices (including prayer and reciting of psalms) are performed in order to influence God (for health or for sustenance). In the Biblical conception, ritual is not in order to influence or appease God but in order to transform ourselves morally and spiritually – and, it is a consistent theme of the Bible that morality takes precedence over ritual as the essence of religion. Yet, unfortunately (in my eyes), on a widespread basis in the western culture, when people speak of religion or religiosity they speak of faith and the observance of ritual. There is widespread ignorance regarding the true revolution of the Hebrew Bible that God is primarily a moral God who demands morality; and, morality as opposed to being the very essence of religion as in the Biblical conception is often widely misperceived (from the Biblical perspective) as a secular rather than religious concern in viewing true religiosity as faith and ritual.
Morality as the essence of religion in the Biblical conception
I want to single out one verse in particular from the Torah which, in my opinion, is not only representative of the orthoprax (pragmatic) and anti-theological nature of Biblical theology but captures the Biblical conception of the essence of religion perhaps more than any other verse in the Torah. The verse appears in the Book of Deuteronomy – “And you shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6, 18). I want to point out two things that stand out in relation to this verse. First, the word “do” reveals the orthoprax and anti-theological emphasis of the Torah upon proper behavior. The essence of Biblical religion, reflected here in the verse, is not faith in God but good deeds. Good deeds, as the essence of religion, are seen in this verse and in the Biblical conception as reflecting the moral will of God; but, nonetheless, the essence of religion is good deeds and not faith in God. Second, the words “that which is right and good” reveal not only an emphasis upon morality above ritual (as reflected in the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible), but a meta-Halachic (non-legal), moral demand of proper behavior above and beyond the fulfillment of commandments in a legal sense. Indeed, the previous verse demands observance of commandments in a legal sense – “You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and His testimonies and His statutes, which He has commanded you” (Deuteronomy 6, 17). The demand to do “that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord” is evidently then a general moral demand beyond the observance of specific commandments. That is, the observance of specific commandments (Deuteronomy 6, 17) is an expression of the righteousness and goodness that God demands in general (Deuteronomy 6, 18).
In the Biblical conception, morality is the essence of religion, and religion is dependent upon morality, which explains the prophetic moral and social criticism so characteristic of the Bible not just of foreign cults but also of Israelite ritual practice. In the case of Israelite ritual practices, even though in accordance with Divine commands, they have no justification, religious significance or influence upon God (and cannot appease God) if practiced amidst rampant immorality, injustice and inequality. In the words of Isaiah that are part of the prophetic reading on Yom Hakippurim (Isaiah 58, 3-8):
Behold, in the day of your fast you pursue your business, and exact all your payments. Behold, you fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: You fast not this day to make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I have chosen? A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is not this rather the fast that I have chosen? To loose the chains of wickedness, to undo the bonds of the yoke, and let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring the poor that are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you hide not yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the morning…
I also want to point out that there is a fundamental idea in the Jewish tradition, which is deeply rooted in the spirit of the Hebrew Bible, of “Tikkun Olam” – literally, the repair of the world. The concept of repair of the world implies an image of a world of broken, shattered glass, and that we, as human beings, must repair the broken glass of the world. That is, it is a world of hatred, injustice and cruelty, and we must repair the broken, shattered world that we live in (and the concept also implies the use of scientific knowledge and technology in order to improve the world in a physical or material sense as well). The concept of repair of the world is an expression of the moral and social criticism that so characterizes the Hebrew Bible – flowing from the Biblical conception of God in which God is conceived as a moral God who demands morality. Professor Huston Smith, a scholar of philosophy, makes clear the fundamental distinction in this regard between the Biblical conception of religion and the prevailing conception of religion in the surrounding cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia (the Religions of Man, P. 237-238):
The nature religions of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the other Mediterranean folk…For these, man’s destination was not beyond history; it was in history all right but in history as it was currently manifesting itself, not in history as amenable to improvement. We can see why not. If one’s attention is on nature, as the nature polytheist’s always was, one does not look beyond nature for fulfillment. But neither – and this is the point – does one look for improvement in the natural order. The idea of an improved nature scarcely suggests itself to man, for the matter seems completely out of his hands. The Egyptian no more asked whether the sun god Ra was shining as he should than the modern astronomer asks whether sunlight travels at a proper speed. In nature the emphasis is on what is rather than on what ought to be…The nature polytheisms that surrounded Judaism all buttressed the status quo. Conditions might not be all the heart would wish, but what impressed the polytheist was that they might be a great deal worse…religion’s attention was directed toward keeping things as they were…Small wonder that no nature polytheism has ever produced a major social revolution fired by a high concept of social justice…In Judaism, by contrast, history is in tension between its divine potentialities and its present frustrations. There is a profound disharmony between God’s (moral) will and the existing social order. As a consequence, more than any other religion of the time Judaism laid the groundwork for social protest.
Problematic passages from a moral point of view (in which God commands something apparently immoral) do not contradict the idea that in the religious conception of the Torah and Hebrew Bible God’s essential nature is moral. First, such commandments as those to exterminate the indigenous Canaanite populations and destroy their cultures (see for example Deuteronomy 9, 1-3 and 12, 2-4), which clearly offend modern moral sensibilities, were viewed by the ancient Israelites as representing the very will of God (just as white Europeans in recent centuries saw the conquest of Native American peoples and cultures as reflecting “manifest destiny” and the will of God). This is not to condone such behavior of the Israelites but merely to point out that such commandments to exterminate Canaanite peoples and their cultures (which violate contemporary moral sensibilities) are not necessarily considered immoral in the Torah from a literary point of view.
Second, and even more importantly, in the religious conception of the Torah and Hebrew Bible it is God’s essential nature or character which is seen to be moral, and not necessarily specific actions (or commandments and decrees) of God; and, thus, there is room for Abraham’s question regarding a specific decree of God – “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?”. By way of analogy, when we speak of a particular individual as moral (referring to his or her character) we clearly do not mean that such a person never commits a wrong or immoral act, and is above criticism. We are referring instead to the person’s moral character traits and intentions that ideally should express themselves in proper behavior morally. The Biblical conception of God is anthropomorphic (human) in which God is conceived of in human form (a characteristic feature of the orthoprax and anti-theological nature of Biblical theology). In the Biblical conception, God is depicted as displaying an entire range of human emotions and character traits (such as sadness, anger, jealousy, vengefulness, compassion and goodness). However, just as we generalize regarding an individual’s character in describing him or her as moral, even though he or she displays a full range of emotions and traits (as well as a variety of actions both good and bad), so too in the Biblical conception God’s character is viewed as essentially moral in spite of displaying a full range of emotions and traits.
The absence of systematic philosophy in the Bible
The Hebrew Bible is completely absent of any systematic theological and philosophic analysis and argument. This is not to say that the Hebrew Bible does not present theological and philosophic ideas. The Hebrew Bible presents us with many important and remarkable theological and philosophical ideas and conceptions – although again Biblical theology can best be described as anti-theological in that the essence of religion is conceived in an orthoprax sense of morality rather than faith, and faith is conceived in a psychological (orthoprax) rather than theological (orthodox) sense. The ideas and conceptions of the Hebrew Bible are not presented as part of, or as the result of, systematic philosophic analysis and argument. The ideas and conceptions of the Hebrew Bible are presented poetically and literarily – in the main, as reflected in stories, or in other non-philosophic material of the Biblical literature (and even reflected in legal material as well). Even the two books of the Hebrew Bible that stand out as seemingly responding to philosophic questions – the Book of Job and the Book of Ecclesiastes – do not contain any systematic, philosophic analysis and argument whatsoever. The Book of Job is written in the form of a long, extended poem, probably the worst form that could be chosen for clarifying and analyzing philosophic questions and issues. Similarly, the Book of Ecclesiastes, containing no systematic analysis or argument, is written in an artistic rather than philosophic form (filled with internal contradictions, the antithesis of systematic philosophic analysis and clarification).
The Hebrew Bible presents us with no arguments of a philosophic nature attempting to demonstrate or prove the existence of God, nor philosophic analysis concerning the nature of God. This is especially striking because while I take for granted that other people exist on the basis of my sensory perceptions of them, it cannot so be taken for granted that God exists, if God is conceived of in the sense of a transcendent Being or power (beyond our sensory perception). Maimonides (the great legal scholar and philosopher of the 12th century) opens his law code with arguments attempting to demonstrate, or provide support for, the existence of God because his conception of faith is philosophic, and thus the philosophic proposition that God exists must be demonstrated or supported by philosophic arguments attempting to prove or suggest the existence of God. By contrast, in the Biblical conception, the existence of God in a theological or philosophic sense is not a concern, and philosophic arguments demonstrating the existence of God are superfluous – for, the essence of Biblical religion is not the demonstration or teaching of philosophic propositions, but moral character and moral action that is seen as the fulfillment of the moral will of God (whether or not God actually exists from a philosophic or metaphysical point of view). Philosophic knowledge or belief is simply not an essential element of a religious life in the Biblical conception.
Philosophers and theologians attempt to clarify and analyze the nature of God, and through the ages they have attributed such attributes as omnipotence, omniscience and benevolence to God. Such a philosophic conception of God is completely foreign to the Hebrew Bible. As reflected in the verse, “You shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord“, God is depicted in the Hebrew Bible in crass anthropomorphic (human) terms, and such a depiction is a very primitive conception of God from a philosophic point of view. From a historical point of view, systematic philosophic analysis, which is a foundation of the western culture, only begins in ancient Greece at a relatively late period, in the 6th century BCE toward the end of the Biblical period. The Hebrew Bible is a product of an oriental or near eastern Israelite culture in which systematic philosophy did not exist, and therefore understandably the Hebrew Bible is completely absent of systematic, philosophic analysis and argument. This is the historical background of the anti-theological nature of Biblical theology.
The questions that the Bible responds to
The questions that Biblical authors and texts respond to are not questions of systematic philosophy and theology at all. Such a philosophic question as whether or not God exists did not concern Biblical authors living in an ancient Israelite culture in which systematic philosophy did not exist. The central questions that Biblical authors and texts respond to are experiential questions as to who is God and what God demands. A classic passage where this is manifested is the story of the contest between the prophets of Ba’al and Elijah the prophet (1 Kings 18) in which Elijah the prophet demands of the people Israel, who have been worshipping both YHVH (the God of Israel) and Ba’al (the god of the Canaanites) to choose between them: “How long will you go limping between two opinions? – if the Lord (YHVH) is God, go after Him, but if Ba’al, go after him” (1 Kings 18, 21). Elijah’s question is not philosophic in nature as to whether YHVH or Ba’al truly exists. Rather, the question is an experiential question of who is God – a question of worship and way of life. Elijah is asking the people Israel to whom they will be loyal, YHVH or Ba’al, and the intent is that such loyalty and commitment will express itself in very different lifestyles, depending upon who is worshipped.
The worship of Ba’al was a fertility cult characterized by crass materialism, sensuality and sexual orgy, and Elijah, in asking the people Israel to choose between YHVH and Ba’al, is asking them in essence to choose a life of morality and spirituality as demanded by YHVH or a life of materialism and sensuality, as part of the fertility rites of Ba’al. However, it should be pointed out that the moral demand of YHVH does not appear explicitly in this story, as the stories of Elijah represent a very early stage prior to the development of classical (moral) prophecy in ancient Israel. In the story of Elijah, the people Israel are shown that YHVH is truly God, and not Ba’al, when Elijah performs a miracle in which his sacrifice is consumed by fire from heaven, and the sacrifice of the prophets of Ba’al is not consumed. The later classic (moral) prophets (especially Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel) emphasize and make explicit the moral demand of YHVH, as in the passage from the Book of Micah (6, 6-8):
With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord (YHVH) demands of you, but to do justice, to love lovingkindness, and to walk humbly with your God.
Three things stand out in this passage. First, the central question expressed explicitly here is the experiential question as to what God demands (“He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord demands of you”). Second, the essential demand of YHVH here is morality, and not ritual forms of worship and sacrificial rites. Third, YHVH is referred to as the “high God”, or “elevated God”, implying that YHVH is elevated above other gods (and, again, the passage presupposes the existence of other gods rather than denying their existence). I want to suggest that the last two points are related in that YHVH is elevated above other gods by virtue of the moral nature of YHVH, as expressed in Psalm 97 (9-12):
For You, Lord (YHVH), are high above all the earth. You are exalted far above all gods. You that love the Lord (YHVH), hate evil. He preserves the souls of His pious ones. He delivers them out of the hand of the wicked. Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart. Rejoice in the Lord (YHVH), O you righteous, and give thanks to His holy name.
In the context of this passage from the Book of Psalms, the holiness and essence of the name YHVH is morality, which exalts YHVH “far above all gods”. When God is revealed to Moses at the burning bush, God tells Moses “do not come near; put off your shoes from off your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3, 5). Moses hides his face – “for he was afraid to look upon God” (Exodus 3, 6). God is revealed to Moses not as a transcendent God of mystery but as a God of redemption – “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt…and I have come down to deliver them” (Exodus 3, 7-8). The religious experience of Moses here is not one of mystical union with God but one of moral vision in which Moses hears the voice of God calling him to lead the people Israel out of oppression – “I have also seen the oppression with which Egypt oppresses them…I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people the children of Israel out of Egypt” (Exodus 3, 9-10). Rudolf Otto, the Christian theologian of the 20th century, in his book The Idea of the Holy, defines holiness as the numinous, a Greek term that means that holiness is a mystery and a non-rational experience. However, the holiness connected with God in the revelation to Moses at the burning bush is not holiness in the non-rational sense of mystery but in a moral sense of redeeming the people Israel from injustice.
Incidentally, a central passage of the Torah is Leviticus 19, the Holiness Chapter, as it begins with a command to the people Israel “You shall be holy for I the Lord, your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19, 2). What stands out in the Holiness Chapter is that intermixed are laws that are both ritual (“You shall keep My Sabbaths”) and moral (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”). The passage is revolutionary in its conception that morality is a necessary and essential element of a life of holiness as holiness is usually understood to be connected only to ritual and not to morality. In the view of Isaiah the prophet, holiness expresses itself primarily not in mystery or ritual but in morality – “the God of holiness is sanctified in justice” (Isaiah 5, 16). Likewise, in the passage from the Book of Psalms (Psalm 97, 9-12) the holiness of the name of God is sanctified by righteous behavior, and not ritual – “You that love the Lord (YHVH), hate evil…rejoice in the Lord (YHVH), O you righteous, and give thanks to His holy name”.
In common to the three passages that I have cited – from the story of Elijah, from the Book of Micah, and from the Book of Psalms – is that rather than denying the existence of other gods, the passages imply and assume the existence of other gods. In the passages from the Book of Micah and from the Book of Psalms, God is seen as the high God who demands morality, and thus is elevated above all other gods. In the passage from the Book of Kings, after the performance of the great miracle of Elijah in the contest with the prophets of Ba’al, the people Israel exclaim “the Lord (YHVH) is God (Elohim)” (1 Kings 18, 39), which is the great experiential cry of the Hebrew Bible that YHVH who demands morality is truly God (Elohim) and has created the universe – such a cry appearing from the very beginning of the Torah, implicit in the two stories of creation in the joining of the terms for God in the second story (YHVH Elohim). The statement that “the Lord (YHVH) is God (Elohim)” is not a philosophical statement in response to a philosophic question; but, characteristic of the Hebrew Bible, is an experiential statement of moral commitment, expressing itself in a moral way of life, and comes in response to an experiential question as to who is truly God, and deserving of loyalty and worship among the many gods demanding loyalty and worship.
The relevance of Biblical questions
Such a philosophic question as to whether God exists is seemingly meaningful and relevant to all people, no matter what culture or time period they may live in. Philosophic questions are of an abstract nature, entirely rational and logical, abstracted from any particular cultural and historical context, and universal in nature. Systematic philosophy has its origins, historically, in ancient Greece, yet the discipline itself is entirely rational and universal, transcending its historical origins in ancient Greece. By contrast, the central questions of the Hebrew Bible, as to who is God and what God demands, are seemingly meaningless and irrelevant today, in the 21st century, when polytheism has disappeared in the western world. However, I want to suggest that, paradoxically, the opposite is actually the case from a pragmatic point of view.
An abstract, philosophic question as to whether or not God exists, which generally assumes a certain philosophic conception of God as a transcendent Being or power outside of nature (outside of time and space), may be highly stimulating intellectually, but it is a meaningless and irrelevant question from a pragmatic point of view for two reasons. First, such a metaphysical question of speculation, as to whether or not God exists as a transcendent Being or power, is meaningless because we, as human beings, simply cannot answer such a question. We cannot transcend our senses and verify whether God, as a transcendent Being or power, exists outside of time and space. Second, the question as to whether God exists as a transcendent Being or power is meaningless and irrelevant from a pragmatic point of view in being divorced from action. There are people who believe in a philosophic sense that God exists as a transcendent Being or power, and, yet, act immorally, and live a life of crass materialism. Conversely, there are devout atheists, who deny the existence of a transcendent Being or power philosophically, and who act in a righteous manner, and live a life of self-sacrifice devoted to moral and spiritual ideals.
By contrast, the central questions of the Hebrew Bible, as to who is God and what God demands, are meaningful and relevant from a pragmatic point of view even today in the 21st century. Even though such questions are deeply rooted in a particular cultural and historical context of the polytheistic world of the ancient near east, the questions have a universal aspect transcending their cultural and historical context. The questions as to who is God and what God demands are experiential questions of moral commitment, concerned with the values to which a person is loyal and the lifestyle (moral or immoral, spiritual or materialistic) that a person lives. Such questions are immensely relevant even today when polytheism no longer exists. Idolatry may no longer exist in the western world in the sense of worshipping and serving idols of wood and stone (and in polytheistic cultures idols were not worshipped but merely represented the various gods who were worshipped); yet, idolatry in the Biblical conception is rampant in the western world today in the more fundamental sense of widespread immorality and injustice, and of worshipping and serving crass materialism, sensuality and sexual promiscuity.