In my book on the Hebrew Bible, Reconciling a Contradictory Abraham, I argue that, in spite of the enormous influence of the Hebrew Bible upon western culture, the Hebrew Bible is a widely misunderstood document. On a widespread basis, and as an influence of Christianity, the Hebrew Bible is read through the spectacles of an orthodox (correct belief) and propositional conception of faith that is completely foreign to the Hebrew Bible. Christianity is a religion in an orthodox sense of a faith commitment – faith not just in God but in Jesus as the messiah. Traditional Judaism based upon the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud is a religion in an orthoprax (right deeds) sense of a way of life of the Jewish people. The Hebrew Bible is orthoprax and anti-theological in nature.
This problem of misunderstanding of the Hebrew Bible is also a problem of translation especially concerning the Hebrew term emunah, which is very inadequately translated as faith or belief. The term emunah hardly appears in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) and not in places that stand out in terms of importance – the term does not appear in the binding of Isaac or in the ten statements (the Biblical term is ten statements and not ten commandments). The term emunah is a central concept in the Bible only in the Book of Psalms, and in the Book of Psalms, as in the Bible as a whole, the term emunah does not mean belief in an orthodox (theological) and propositional sense – such as believing that God exists or that God is provident. Emunah in the Bible is used consistently, without exception, in an orthoprax (pragmatic) and psychological sense of loyalty and commitment to God who is conceived of as most importantly a moral God who demands morality – and, emunah expresses itself in moral behavior and not in proper theological belief.
The Biblical culture as reflected in the Biblical literature is an oriental, near eastern culture in which systematic philosophy does not exist – and, Biblical thought is not abstract but concrete. For example, the words faith and belief in English are abstract terms, and have no connection to anything in our concrete existence – and, no picture or image is called to mind in using such terms. The Hebrew word emunah is concrete, and from the same root as the Hebrew words art and practice – and, the term emunah then calls to mind a picture or image, among other things, of an artist or artisan.
The terms faith or belief in English, as an influence of the ancient Greek culture in which systematic philosophy originated, are usually understood in an abstract, philosophic and propositional sense of rational belief – of believing that some proposition is true, which is a matter of the rational mind. In the Biblical literature, no such philosophic conception of faith or belief exists. There is no word faith or belief in a philosophic and propositional sense in the Biblical literature and culture – as the term emunah is a matter of the heart, and means loyalty or trust in English. The question of whether God exists is an abstract question that is completely foreign to the Biblical literature and culture.
The Bible is completely absent not only of a binding theological dogma, and of theological propositions that must be accepted, but also of any systematic theological analysis and argument. By the way, God appears throughout the Torah (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 at all external to the Bible indicating that there was such a figure). Such a historical question of whether Moses existed is simply not a religious concern of the Bible. Similarly, nowhere in the Bible is there any discussion whatsoever regarding the question of whether God truly exists in reality. 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.
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) – “how long will you go limping between two opinions”. The translation to English is extremely problematic especially in the use of the term opinions, which has connotations of belief in a rational and propositional sense – and, notice that no image is called to mind by such a translation. The Hebrew word that is translated as opinions has a very concrete meaning of a branch of a tree – and, the verse literally means how long will you leap between branches, which calls to mind a very clear and concrete image. Further, notice that according to the literal translation, and the image reflected in it, the question is not metaphysical of which branch truly exists – and, significantly, all the branches are presumed to exist.
In the Biblical culture God is not presumed to exist – gods (such as YHVH and Ba’al) are presumed to exist. Or, 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 experiential 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 metaphysics of whether Ba’al truly exists or whether YHVH truly exists – he is asking a psychological and experiential question. He is asking 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 or philosophic atheist who is moral and as a matter of theology or philosophy holds that God does not exist. 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.