The Anti-Theological Nature of Biblical Faith and Theology in the Context of the Biblical Culture

My main argument in my book on the Hebrew Bible “Reconciling a Contradictory Abraham” concerns the nature of Biblical faith and theology. I argue that the Bible from a literary point of view is characterized not by an orthodox (correct belief) concern with abstract, philosophic thought of the rational mind but an orthoprax (right deeds) concern with moral character traits of the heart and right living (behavior). Biblical faith is pragmatic and anti-theological in nature – and, not abstract and theological in nature.

 

The Hebrew Bible, regardless of religious assumptions (without assuming that the Bible is Divinely revealed or inspired), is the most influential piece of literature ever written (at least in the western world). Yet, in spite of its enormous influence upon western culture, nevertheless the Bible is, in my view, a widely misunderstood document. The great revolution of the Bible is not, as is widely and (in my eyes) mistakenly thought, an orthodox and theological 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 Bible is an orthoprax and pragmatic 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.

 

Monotheism and theology are read into Biblical texts that are not monotheistic or theological in their plain meaning because people read Biblical texts through the lens of an orthodox and theological perspective that is foreign to the Bible and Biblical culture. Monotheism is a theological belief that one God alone exists, and the existence of other gods is denied. In the Bible not only is there no monotheistic, theological conception – but, the existence of other gods of other peoples is presupposed rather than denied.

 

In the opening of the ten statements (the Biblical term is ten statements and not commandments), 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 – and, the statement “You shall have no other gods before Me” is a demand of the people Israel to serve (worship) YHVH alone without denying the existence of other gods of other peoples. After the crossing of the Reed Sea (the Biblical term is Reed Sea and not Red 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 service (worship) and loyalty.  Of whom is YHVH jealous if no other gods exist?

 

The Biblical verse Shema (Deuteronomy 6, 4) is widely misunderstood as a monotheistic statement, and widely mistranslated as “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”. However, the Hebrew word that is translated as one can also mean alone, which is the meaning in the verse Shema (as Rashbam, a great commentator of the 12th century understood) – and, the correct translation then of the verse Shema is “Hear O Israel, the Lord (YHVH) is our God, the Lord (YHVH) alone“. The verse is then in accordance with the conception of 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).

 

The Biblical verse (Deuteronomy 4, 35), “To you it was shown, that you might know that the Lord (YHVH), He is God (Elohim), there is none else beside Him” apparently expresses a monotheistic conception. However, the verse must be viewed in the context of the Book of Deuteronomy as a whole in order to properly understand the concern of the verse – and, this is true of the verse Shema as well. 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”. 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, both in the case of this verse in the Book of Deuteronomy (4, 35) and the verse Shema (Deuteronomy 6, 4), 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. Both verses express the loyalty and commitment of the Israelites to YHVH, the God of Israel.

 

The Bible is completely absent of any systematic theology. In the plain meaning of Scripture, there are no theological beliefs that must be accepted, no theological analysis and no theological arguments to prove the existence of God. By the way, God appears throughout the 5 Books of Moses as a character – just as Moses is a character. Nowhere in the Bible is there any discussion regarding the question as to whether Moses really existed as an actual, historical figure (and, in terms of academic scholarship there is no evidence external to the Bible indicating that there was such a figure). Such a historical question of whether Moses existed is not a religious concern of the Bible. Similarly, nowhere in the Bible is there any discussion whatsoever regarding the question of whether God exists. Such a theological question of whether God exists, like the historical question of whether Moses existed, is simply not a religious concern of the Bible.

 

The historical background, which explains the complete absence of systematic theology in the Bible, is that systematic philosophy in the western world originated in ancient Greece toward the end of the Biblical period. The Biblical authors were unfamiliar with systematic philosophy living prior to the spread of Greek culture throughout the ancient near east during the later Hellenistic period – and, systematic philosophic thinking is foreign to the Biblical culture. The Biblical culture as reflected in the Biblical literature is an oriental, near eastern culture in which systematic philosophy does not exist. Biblical thought is concrete and pragmatic, and not abstract and philosophical.

 

I will give an analogy to illustrate the difference between pragmatic thinking, such as is characteristic of the Bible, and abstract, philosophic thinking that in the western world originated in ancient Greece. I will give the analogy of me entering the home of another person in which there are several different kinds of chairs in the living room. The analogy has two parts.

 

In the first part of the analogy, illustrating abstract, philosophic thinking, I enter the home of this other person and I point to one of the chairs in the living room asking – “does this chair really exist?”. In all likelihood this other person will look at me as if I am crazy – even though the person will have no problem understanding my question. Notice that from a philosophic point of view, my question is a serious and interesting question. We both perceive the chair through our senses. However, how can we transcend our sensory perceptions and determine whether the chair actually exists independent and apart from our sensory perceptions? Even more important, notice that this abstract, philosophic question of whether the chair really exists has no practical implications whatsoever on how we will live our lives – and, I will certainly be willing to sit on the chair even though I may not be certain, or able to demonstrate, from a philosophic point of view that the chair actually exists (and, it would be absurd if I were to say that I will sit on this chair because I believe it exists) . My question is a completely abstract question divorced from, and irrelevant to, any particular, concrete problem in living.

 

Similarly, the abstract, theological question of whether God exists is a question that cannot be answered, as we cannot transcend our sensory perceptions and determine whether there is such a thing as God apart from our sensory perceptions – and, the abstract, theological question of whether God exists is absent of any practical implications for our lives. One can believe that God exists, and yet live an immoral life – and, conversely, one can deny the existence of God, and yet live a righteous life. A Jew can believe that God exists, and yet not live a traditional lifestyle of Jewish law and ritual practice – and, conversely, a Jew can deny the existence of God, and yet live a traditional lifestyle of Jewish law and ritual practice as an expression of Jewish identity and culture.

 

In the second part of the analogy, illustrating pragmatic thinking, I enter the living room of this other person and I ask – “which of these chairs will be the most comfortable for me to sit on?”. Under no circumstances will this other person look at me as if I am crazy. This pragmatic question clearly has practical implications – as the question is relevant to my deciding and choosing which of the several different kinds of chairs in the living room I will sit on (and, it would be entirely reasonable for me to say that I will sit on this particular chair because I believe it will be the most comfortable).

 

In the Biblical culture gods exist, and gods have personal and concrete names such as Ba’al and Ashtarte in the Canaanite culture, and YHVH in the Israelite culture. Notice the question of Eliyahu (1 Kings 18, 21), which I will translate literally – “how long will you leap between the two branches (YHVH and Ba’al)”. The verse calls to mind a very clear and concrete image. Further, the question is not theological of which branch truly exists – and, significantly, both branches are presumed to exist (just as in the analogy, when I ask which chair will be most comfortable to sit on, I am not asking a philosophic question but a pragmatic question in which the different chairs in the living room are presumed to exist).

 

In the Biblical culture God is not presumed to exist – gods such as YHVH of the Israelites and Ba’al of the Canaanites are presumed to exist. YHVH, in the Biblical conception, is presumed to exist among the many gods presumed to exist – and, the Bible demands of the people Israel to be loyal to YHVH among the many gods demanding loyalty. Eliyahu’s question is pragmatic of which branch you will choose to sit upon – a matter of loyalty that will necessarily express itself in a certain way of life. Loyalty to Ba’al will necessarily express itself in a fertility cult in which the essence of religion is ritual practice, whereas loyalty to YHVH will express itself in a life of obedience to the moral will of YHVH in which the essence of religion is morality and not ritual. Thus, Eliyahu is not asking a question of systematic theology of whether Ba’al truly exists or YHVH truly exists. He is asking a pragmatic question to whom the Israelites will be loyal – Ba’al or YHVH.

 

Also notice that in psalm 14, 1 and psalm 53, 1 an atheist is condemned – “the fool says in his heart there is no God”. However, this verse is not referring to a theological atheist who is moral and holds that God does not exist from a philosophic point of view. In the psalm the emphasis is upon the wicked behavior of the atheist who is denying God not in a philosophic sense but in a behavioral sense – it is the wicked behavior of this behavioral atheist that testifies that this person denies God in the heart. Moreover, the word in Hebrew (naval), which is translated as fool in the verse, does not mean fool in a philosophic sense – this is an example of a very poor translation. The word means despicable in a moral sense.

 

The concern of the Bible is an orthoprax concern with behavior – and, not an orthodox concern with theological belief. Nowhere in the Bible is there any discussion of a philosophic atheist who denies God as a matter of philosophic belief and is moral. The Bible is not concerned at all in an orthodox (belief) sense with someone who denies God by believing a wrong theological doctrine – the Bible is concerned in an orthoprax (deeds) sense only with someone who denies God in the heart by acting immorally.

 

Most important, the central religious concepts of the Hebrew Bible (service of God, fear of God, love of God, knowledge of God and faith in God) are not orthodox, theological concepts concerned with belief in a philosophic sense but orthoprax, pragmatic concepts concerned with moral character and moral behavior. The concept of service of God is a behavioral concept referring to moral and ritual action that constitutes service of God (and, in the Biblical conception, morality takes precedence over ritual as the essence of religion). Fear of God and love of God are not theological concepts – as love and fear are feelings or attitudes of the heart. Fear of God and love of God are moral character traits necessarily expressing themselves in proper behavior constituting the service of God.

 

These concepts of service of God, fear of God and love of God are connected in the Bible, and flow from the image of God as a slave owner or master – and, these three concepts are the central religious concepts of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses). 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).

 

Love and fear of God are the psychological motivations that express themselves in the service of God. 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 Bible, 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 Biblical concept of knowledge of God is a moral character trait – and, not a theological concept. The term knowledge is not used in the Bible in a philosophic sense but in a pragmatic sense of the heart, such as in the verse, “And Adam knew Eve his wife” (Genesis 4, 1) – the knowledge is clearly not of a Platonic or philosophic nature (seeing as it results in the birth of a child), and means that Adam knew Eve intimately (in the heart), expressing itself in sexual relations. Likewise, regarding the verse from the Book of Jeremiah (9, 22-23), “let him that glories, glory in this that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, judgment and righteousness in the earth”, the phrase “understands and knows Me” is not abstract and philosophical but pragmatic in nature that necessarily expresses itself in moral character and moral action, as reflected in the continuation of the verse – “he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, judgment and righteousness”.

 

The Biblical concept of faith is not a theological concept but a pragmatic concept. The Biblical term (emunah) that is often mistakenly translated and misunderstood as faith or belief is a moral character trait of the heart and means faithfulness, loyalty or trust. In the case of the Biblical verse (Genesis 15, 6) regarding Abraham “And he believed in the Lord” where the context is that God has promised Abraham that he will have a son who will continue his lineage, 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 – and, the verse tells us nothing about Abraham’s theological beliefs. The verse is revealing Abraham’s moral character (and nothing about the existence or nature of God, and nothing about Abraham’s theology), 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 wisdom and not righteousness. Abraham’s faith is an expression of his moral character and righteousness – and, the verse “And he believed in the Lord” is an expression of Abraham’s optimistic attitude of hope and trust, and his refusal to despair (in not having children), revealing his righteous character as a person.

 

People often argue that in spite of the complete absence of systematic theology in the Hebrew Bible, nevertheless the existence of God, and belief in the existence of God, are assumed to be important in the Bible. People often argue that the central religious concepts of the Bible (service of God, fear of God, love of God, knowledge of God and faith in God) presuppose the existence of God, and belief in the existence of God. However, this is faulty logic.

 

In order to argue that the existence of God and belief in the existence of God are important in the Biblical conception, one must have some textual support for such an argument – otherwise the argument merely represents what one would like the Bible to be teaching. The argument that the central religious concepts of the Bible presuppose the existence of God and belief in the existence of God represents faulty logic by begging the question in making a prior assumption that theology is important in the Biblical conception (in spite of the complete absence of theology in the Bible) – and, this prior assumption is mistaken.

 

Not only is theology not important in the Biblical conception, and completely absent in the Biblical literature – but, theological thinking is completely foreign to the Bible. The central religious concepts of the Bible are pragmatic concepts not dependent upon theology. In the Biblical conception, if one is truly faithful to God, or if one truly fears God, or truly loves God or truly knows God, or truly serves God – one will live a moral life in accordance with the moral will of God. It is simply irrelevant and not important in the Biblical conception whether God actually exists, or whether God truly has conscious, moral will like a human being – and, the Bible never examines such theological questions as such theological thinking is foreign to the Bible.

 

In the Biblical conception, regarding one who behaves morally, the moral behavior is testimony that this person truly is faithful to God (or truly fears, loves, knows and serves God) – even if such a person is a devout atheist denying the existence of God. Conversely, regarding one who behaves immorally, the immoral behavior is testimony that this person is not faithful to God (or does not truly fear, love, know and serve God) – even if such a person is a devout believer in the existence of God.

 

I will cite two Biblical sources relating to the notion of fear of God as support that the central religious concepts of the Bible do not presuppose the existence of God and belief in the existence of God.

 

First, in the story of the midwives of the Hebrews (in which it is clear that the midwives in the plain meaning of Scripture are Egyptian as their names are Egyptian) the midwives refuse to murder male, Israelite babies in accordance with the command of Pharaoh (Exodus 1, 15-17) – and, the midwives are described as displaying the fear of God. It is clear in the context of the passage and in the context of the Bible as a whole (absent of theology) that the fear of God is not referring, and has no connection, to their theological beliefs but is referring to their moral behavior that is testimony that in their hearts they have fear of God (even if, living prior to Sinai, they believed theologically in the existence of a pantheon of gods).

 

Second, the Book of Proverbs (Proverbs 8, 13) gives a truly remarkable definition of the Biblical concept of fear of God – “fear of God is the hatred of evil”. Notice that the definition does not in any way assume or presuppose that God actually exists and does not in any way assume or presuppose that one must believe in the existence of God in order to hate evil. A devout believer who believes that God exists can act immorally and not have a hatred of evil, and a devout atheist who denies the existence of God can hate evil and live a moral life.

 

The religious concern of the Bible is an orthoprax concern with the heart (character traits) and behavior – and. not an orthodox concern with correct theological belief (the rational mind). In the Biblical conception whether one is truly faithful to God (or truly fears, loves, knows and serves God) is revealed not in theological declarations or beliefs but in behavior – whether moral or immoral.

 

Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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