A body of antiquated dogma and myth, a source of repression, paean to patriarchy, bulwark of hierarchy. That’s how many would summarise the bible, and there are more than enough juicily quotable biblical passages to justify that view. But there’s much more to this book – or rather, this collection of texts by various hands – than either its detractors or devotees often suppose.
Take 1 Samuel, Chapter 8, where the elders of Israel come to the sage-judge Samuel and ask him to appoint a king ‘to govern us like all other nations’. Samuel, after consulting with God, warns them to be careful what they wish for. Under a king, their sons will be conscripted ‘for his chariots and his horsemen’ and made ‘to reap his harvest and to make his instruments of war’. Their daughters will be forced to work in the king’s kitchens. Their vineyards and olive groves will be seized and given to the king’s cronies. To support the army and bureaucracy they will be taxed to the tune of 10 per cent of everything they produce. Nonetheless the elders insist on having a king, to be ‘like all other nations’.
That the Jews should become like other nations (‘normalised’, with a territory, state and army of their own) was one of the earliest Zionist arguments. But here, at the founding of what many see as the first ‘Jewish state’, the biblical author raises troubling questions about the whole idea of statehood. In the work of the prophets, who were mostly critics of the monarchy, these questions would be amplified.
The Hebrew bible embraces contending voices and visions, even within a single text attributed to a single author. It incorporates ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ narratives, temple orthodoxy and subaltern dissent, laudatory regime chronicles and savage critiques of those regimes. Most of it was composed between 750-500 BCE by authors living in small, poor states in the isolated highlands west of the Jordan – a frontier region between the competing empires of the Nile and Mesopotamia. The strategic situation was perpetually vulnerable and state authority uncertain. Ironically, these weaknesses meant that there was more space for the clash of ideas and for self-critical perspectives than in the monolithic empires to the north, east and south.
Some prophets oppose all imperial entanglements; others urge tactical submission or collaboration. In parts of the bible, the great empires are depicted as brute instruments of God’s judgement. Their capacity for destruction is vividly evoked, but so is their ephemeral nature. In the fate of empires, biblical authors saw the possibility of an epochal overturning of hierarchies:
‘He humbles those who dwell on high, he lays the lofty city low; he levels it to the ground and casts it down to the dust. Feet trample it down – the feet of the oppressed, the footsteps of the poor.’ (Isaiah 26:5-7)
The best of the prophets
Although the bible includes reams of ritual prescriptions, it also includes criticism of the emptiness and hypocrisy of ritual. Against the legalistic regime of the priests, the best of the prophets posited an ethical and spiritual religion, a credo of social conscience. In Isaiah 58:6-9, God makes clear what kind of worship he prefers:
‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter, when you see the naked, to clothe them?’
Malachi denounces the ‘rulers of Israel, who despise justice and distort all that is right; who build Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with wickedness.’ Similarly, Micah comes ‘to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his sin’. He resists the siren voices of the establishment: ‘I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’
‘Justice’ means above all justice for the poor and vulnerable. The greatest criminals, Isaiah argues, are those who ‘deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.’ New Labour may have been ‘intensely relaxed’ about the accumulation of great private wealth, but many of the biblical authors are anything but.
Isaiah (3:13-15) cries out: ‘What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?’ And Proverbs 28:11 archly observes: ‘The rich are wise in their own eyes; one who is poor and discerning sees how deluded they are.’
Amos excoriates traders for ‘skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales.’ Israel will be destroyed, he says, because: ‘They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.’ In particular, Amos warns that God will be ‘quick to testify’ against ‘those who defraud labourers of their wages... and deprive the foreigners among you of justice.’
Amos and other prophets influenced the later writers who drew up the social codes contained in the first five books of the bible. These include restrictions on the rich that would be regarded as intolerable by current economic orthodoxy. ‘If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest.’ ‘The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.’ ‘Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it.’
This social vision had its contradictions. Much of the Hebrew bible takes for granted the justice of collective punishment, extending even into unborn generations.
However, in the wake of the final destruction of the ancient Hebrew state and the deportation to Babylon, biblical authors stressed individual salvation and reshaped their God as a comforter in exile and distress (thus laying the basis for the New Testament).
The Book of Job, composed some decades after the exile, turns the justice debate on its head. Job is a just man who suffers injustice. In his complaint, the suffering of the innocent is laid at God’s feet. Job’s friends, who come as comforters but speak as defenders of orthodoxy, are appalled: ‘Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right?’
Yes, Job insists, he does: ‘God has wronged me and drawn his net around me. Though I cry, ‘Violence!’ I get no response; though I call for help, there is no justice.’ Job refuses to compromise his ‘integrity’ by accepting that he is to blame. God’s response, ‘the voice out of the whirlwind’, is a poetic triumph, imagining the cosmos from a non-human perspective, and though it over-awes Job, it really answers none of his questions.
Like other biblical texts, Job is puzzling and open-ended. It demands interpretation, calls for a response, even if that response is a rejection of monotheism and its internal contradictions. The best of the bible writers leap across time and space to question us with intimacy and urgency. What they’d have to say about the deficit-chopping governments of Europe would probably get them pulled from the internet.
Mike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.