My view of the “Old Testament” or Hebrew Bible changed drastically over time. For the most part these were things that I came to terms with and incorporated into my faith long before leaving Mormonism. Realizing the Old Testament wasn’t at all what I’d grown up believing it was required some initially uncomfortable paradigm and worldview shifts that I hadn’t expected, but it also came as a significant relief in many ways!
I would argue that viewing the Old Testament as “God-Breathed” or as God’s “inerrant word” is actually kind of a terrifying position to have to defend, and one that could actually create barriers to faith. Let’s face it, some of it is extremely disturbing if you’re working from the assumption that it is all accurate and given of God, or representative of God’s will. What a burden to have to somehow view God as condoning or advocating for genocide, slavery, racism, misogyny, national favoritism, etc. It would require me personally to view God as a being that I suppose I could fear, but could not view as morally decent or worthy of respect, worship, or admiration. Fortunately I found that I didn’t have to. Over time I came to understand that this was simply a collection of writings by people in different time periods doing the best they knew how to approach and explain the divine in relation to themselves and their history. They had their own biases, prejudices, and failures, which make their way into the text. When looked at in that way there were still lessons to be learned from the text, and rich tradition to draw from. I found that many have actually viewed the book this way for quite some time, and still found value in it.
The “Traditional” Views I Started With:
The change in my views was gradual. Like many of you, as a child I was under the impression that the Old Testament stories were for the most part literal and historical. I was under the impression that written records were handed down from the time of Adam, and that these records were then used by Moses who personally wrote Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. At one point I was under the impression that the earth was about 6000 years old. When I was young, I even remember being told once by my Bishop that Dinosaurs had never walked on the earth. Rather, God created the earth 6000 years ago from the remnants of other earths—giving us the fossils that we now see. I was under the impression that the first modern humans existed just 6000 years ago beginning with Adam & Eve, and that any other hominids around were simply inferior cavemen who soon went extinct. I was under the impression that all humans and animals now existing on earth were descended from Noah and his cargo. I was under the impression that the utterly barbaric laws found in the text were directly revealed by the hand of God to his prophets (no big deal, just chalk it up to the meaner “Old Testament God” and the “lower law”).
It seemed to me that none of these things could be denied without simultaneously denying God’s word and scripture. I suspect at this point many LDS children are growing up with somewhat more nuanced views of these issues, but during my childhood I feel like those types of views were absolutely the norm (and I would guess still are for a majority of Mormons). If nothing else, it was only in April of 2015 that Jeffrey R. Holland insisted that the Fall of Adam & Eve must be understood as a very literal event.
The “Traditional” Views Begin To Fall Apart:
After I’d been through enough science courses at BYU I had to start finding new and less literal ways to interpret and explain much of the text, because not even the traditional view of Noah’s flood could hold water 😆. I ultimately felt it was undeniable that evolution was how life on earth had come to be what it was. That upright walking “humans” have been around for over a million years. That by 250,000 years ago they were essentially indistinguishable from us physically. That just 100,000 years ago we were just one of at least 6 human species in existence. That we underwent a cognitive revolution around 70,000 years ago, and an agricultural revolution around 12,000 years ago. I came to know that the earth had formed over billions of years, and that we can see other planets in various stages of formation (through natural processes). Given all of this my views of what it meant to call God the creator had to change drastically. He now had to be more of a programmer or initiator who set in motion a process that then progressed naturally over probably 13 billion years. He was a God who created by initiating and utilizing natural processes. A God who created through evolutionary processes. Of course, all of this raises massively significant theological questions that stewed in my mind quite a bit. But in summary, I had to recognize that much of the Old Testament was simply ancient myth that these civilizations used to explain the world around them as best they knew how, but which were no more literal than the creation myths of the ancient Maya, or Polynesians, or any others. None of this necessarily precluded me from continuing to value this text as an ancient repository of human attempts to explain the divine. A source from which lessons and rich tradition could be drawn.
The Documentary Hypothesis:
My interest in historical theology started giving me some small tastes of critical biblical scholarship, and I gradually began to see what I consider to be undeniable evidence that this text was not created in the way that I had understood it to have been created. I found undeniable truth in the “Documentary Hypothesis”—although we certainly could debate details and various versions of it all day long. I won’t bore you with a lot of detail. In short, there is powerful evidence in the text itself that shows that the Books of Moses we have today were produced by taking multiple existing written narratives, written by different people, and combining (and sometimes editing) them in an attempt to form a single cohesive text.
As just one very simple introductory example of evidence for the documentary hypothesis, let’s take Genesis 1 and 2—the creation story. It is clear that there are actually 2 different creation accounts there that were combined together. It isn’t as evident to us as we read the King James Version—partly because the grammar and the verse and chapter breaks were not in the original Hebrew. They were added in by translators—and their placement obscures these things for us. However, modern translations like the NRSV and the Jewish Study Bible acknowledge that the first account ends halfway through chapter 2 verse 4, and a whole new creation account begins. The first account refers to God as Elohim, the second as Yahweh, further suggesting two different authors. The two accounts also seem to differ in their views of God (one viewing God as more anthropomorphic). It’s interesting to compare the KJV translation with the NRSV or Jewish Study Bible to see how they place a break between the two accounts:
There are countless very interesting examples of this kind of thing happening throughout the text that can be explored. One great source that came from an LDS background is David Bokovoy’s book “Authoring the Old Testament” if anyone cares to explore these issues further.
In any case, if this text really is a combination and editing of several documentary sources, what does this mean for us as we look at the text? Well for one thing some of the examples make clear that there are contradictions in accounts that should preclude us from viewing this text as infallible. In addition I would say it should preclude us from assuming that any given portion of the text came directly from the mouth of Moses (or any other prophet), and thus we should not necessarily read too much meaning into any particular phrasing as if it came from the prophet himself.
Borrowing From Sumerian/Mesopotamian Myths
Another major eye opener was when I realized that the Hebrews had ripped off much of Genesis and Exodus from older Sumerian/Mesopotamian traditions! Mesopotamia was the “cradle of civilization.” It seems that the originally nomadic Hebrews were envious of the rich and powerful stories the Sumerians left behind, and they wanted their own tradition–or wanted to tie themselves in with this existing tradition. They took this Near Eastern “history” or “myth,” and rewrote it with their own patriarchs in the stories. Enki’s paradise becomes Adam’s paradise. Ziusudra, the hero of the flood epic becomes Noah. King Sargon of Akkad becomes Moses. Let’s take Moses as our example here:
In Exodus 1 and 2 we learn that Moses was born of two Levite (priestly) parents. His birth involved secrecy because the male children were being killed, so his mother had to hide him. He never knew his parents, because after 3 months of hiding him, she attempts to save his life by placing him in a basket sealed with pitch, and floating him down the river. Pharoah’s daughter finds him, and adopts him as her son.
Now compare this with the story of the Mesopotamian King Sargon:
I am Sargon the great king, the king of Agade.
My mother was a high priestess, I did not know my father…
My mother, the high priestess, conceived me, she bore me in secret.
She placed me in a reed basket, she sealed my hatch with pitch.
She left me to the river, whence I could not come up.
The river carried me off, it brought me to Aqqi, drawer of water.
Aqqi, drawer of water, brought me up as he dipped his bucket.
Aqqi, drawer of water, raised me as his adopted son.
Much of the content of the “Books of Moses” is adapted from much older Sumerian myth. They wrote themselves into some of the existing Near Eastern tradition. Now, were some of these people real? Moses for example? It’s possible, but even if they were, I’m not counting on their history being accurate when reported through oral tradition or adaptation many centuries later. Was King Arthur a real person? Possible. Is the “history” we have of him real? Not so much. Can it still inspire us and teach us lessons and give us rich tradition to draw from? Sure it can.
A comment came up asking why we know the Israelites borrowed these traditions, and not the other way around. My answer was as follows:
Although the King Sargon tradition I posted might have been written as late as the 7th century BCE, most of the other Sumerian myths that show direct parallels with Genesis (Enuma Elish, Epic of Gilgamesh, etc) are dated between 1800BCE, and 1200BCE at the latest. Now, we’ll compare this with the Bible.
Many assume and will claim that Genesis and Exodus were written in the time that Moses would have lived (around 1350BCE). Although some books such as Isaiah (really just parts of it), Hosea, and Nahum may go back as far as 800 to 700BCE, there is very broad consensus among biblical scholars—even the faithful ones—that Genesis and Exodus were actually created/compiled during the Babylonian exile (after 586BCE), and probably didn’t reach their current form until around 536BCE. If we want to be really generous, we could say that it is possible that some fragmentary traditions that were ultimately brought together to form Genesis could have existed in written form as early as 800 to 700BC. I can’t scratch the surface of all the reasons for all this here, but here are a few quick considerations:
I suppose the most foundational reason is that the Israelites who gave us these records don’t even seem to have arisen and gained identity until just before 1200 BC–at least 100 or 150 years after Moses would have lived. They are thought to have arisen out of a group of local Canaanites (perhaps a lower class who rebelled) who came together and began to create a new identity as the centralized Canaanite civilization was falling apart. The Canaanite religion they came out of was of course based on the Sumerian traditions and gods. Thus, it isn’t surprising that although the religion they began developing was distinct and different in many key ways from the earlier Canaanite versions, it did retain much of the older structure and myth.
Another key is that we can trace the development of the Hebrew language, and it can give us a good idea when things were written. Even in the 10th century BCE, the Hebrew language was only in early development, and was based primarily on Canaanite/Phoenician language, and could not really be considered fully developed “Hebrew” yet. What we consider Hebrew wasn’t really beginning to be developed until after 800BCE—which is when the earliest biblical fragmentary content may have begun to be written. Thus, if Moses actually wrote the Books of Moses, he sure didn’t write them in Hebrew. David Bokovoy’s book “Authoring the Old Testament” gives good sources for all these issues. He notes: “Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses,…most likely didn’t have a written language. If they did, it certainly would not have been Hebrew….and the production of written scriptural texts was not an important feature of early Israel.” Thus, if the traditions in the Books of Moses truly were handed down, it would have been through oral tradition.
Consider also that there are many powerful reasons to acknowledge that the Books of Moses were not written until the Babylonian captivity (after 586AD)—and were written in direct response (seemingly even as a refutation) to the Babylonian traditions around them which were highly connected with the Sumerian religion. However, because these Israelites had themselves grown out of Sumerian traditions when they formed their own very distinct religion, they actually agreed with just enough motifs of the Babylonian tradition that they didn’t feel they had to start completely from scratch as they created the Genesis accounts. Rather, there is evidence that they were directly following the existing structure of the Babylonian traditions (such as the Enuma Elish) as they wrote their own accounts (for example, the creation myth follows the same basic pattern). Etymological studies also show that the Genesis authors are sometimes doing a sort of wordplay on the already existing Babylonian texts a they write their own. In a sense, they were taking the traditions and specific written records around them, and re-writing them so as to correct them to fit the traditions they had developed over the past 500+ years. Even Pope Benedict XVI (Cardinal Ratzinger) acknowledged much of this in his “In the Beginning.” Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco gave a nice commentary on those writings:
“…a study of the origins of the Hexaemeron, the six-day account of creation, found in the first chapter of Genesis reveals that it was written to respond to the seemingly victorious Babylonian civilization confronted by the Israelites several centuries before their encounter with the Greeks. Here, the human author of the sacred text used images familiar to their pagan contemporaries to refute the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation account…Thus, as Cardinal Ratzinger points out, it is not surprising that nearly every word of the first creation account addresses a particular confusion of the Babylonian age…” (http://catholibertarian.com/2013/04/25/reading-genesis/)
As long as this is, it barely scratches the surface of why there is such broad consensus among scholars on this issue. For me it’s very clear that many of these biblical traditions grew out of much older mythical traditions–and that they are thus not truly historical in nature. But as I noted at the beginning, when considering these issues alone there are still plenty of ways people can view all this from a faithful perspective, and to appreciate the biblical text. The stories can be mythically based in some cases, but one could still believe that God could have just used their existing mythical traditions as a medium through which to speak to them about his nature, and about how they should live—which would be the things that really matter. D&C 1 says, they “were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” Playing on this, some LDS folks feel that even if some of these figures or stories are fictional, God could have used Joseph’s existing cultural beliefs as a means through which to communicate various more important truths—but all of this certainly still hugely changes the way one views and interprets scripture and its authority.
I think scholars of other traditions are more open to the idea of many biblical figures not being literal historical figures, but rather adaptations from Sumerian traditions around them. However, this is a bit more complicated in the LDS tradition, because Joseph Smith claimed to have met many of these people!
Archeology is not always clear. Much can be debated. It is always developing. However, I feel we should at least be aware of the general picture we currently get from archeologists compared to the picture we get from the Bible.
The Bible version of the establishment of Israel:
- The Israelites are outsiders—not from Canaan (Abraham comes from Mesopotamia to the Holy Land which is Canaan)
- Israelites are taken to and enslaved in Egypt
- Israelite have their exodus from Egypt
- They wander 40 years in the wilderness
- Joshua conquers numerous Canaanite cities in a miraculous and powerful manner—thus re-entering and re-claiming the Holy Land again for Israel
The Archeology version of the establishment of Israel:
- The Israelites are primarily disenfranchised local Canaanites (not outsiders) who are seeking a new identity after the collapse of the many city-states in the region shortly before 1200BC, and a wider dispersal of the people throughout the land.
- There is no evidence of any Israelites (let alone 600,000) ever being enslaved in Egypt.
- Though there is no evidence for it, it is possible that a small group of Canaanite slaves could have left Egypt and joined the people in Canaan—possibly learning of Yahweh (YWH or Yahu) while passing through Midian and sparking some of this tradition (again, there is no archeological evidence).
- At this point the Israelites may be a “mixed multitude”—some disenfranchised Canaanites, possibly some escaped slaves from Egypt if we want to assume there were some, and some nomads looking to settle down.
- They eventually built a new identity and sense of national pride around stories of being miraculously freed from bondage in Egypt, and then miraculously conquering numerous Canaanite cities with the help of their God—who was more powerful than the Gods of their neighbors.
- The numerous Canaanite cities supposedly miraculously conquered by Joshua as they reclaimed the Holy Land (according to the Bible) were actually destroyed at many different time periods—often very far apart. Some don’t seem to have ever been destroyed at all. So these stories do not seem to hold up even though they would have been very helpful in helping Israel establish national pride and sense of identity.
I suppose the origins of the Israelites could be up for debate to some degree, but we should at least acknowledge that there is very strong reason to question the captivity and exodus from Egypt, and certainly the stories of the conquering of Canaan. At very least I think we have to admit that these stories seem to be greatly exaggerated and sensationalized in the Bible in order to give the Israelites a sense of pride, identity, and strength to rally around.
I’ll add a brief side-note that the text not only sensationalizes Israelite history to promote positive identity and national pride, it also takes the opportunity to present history in such a way as to degrade their enemies. Should we be all that surprised that the text presents the origins of the Ammonites and the Moabites and other Canaanite enemies of Israel as having come about when two daughters decided to get their father drunk and then sleep with him? Even if this was a real historical event, did it need to be included in this religious record, or is it propaganda intended to demean their enemies?
Considerations Regarding the Timing of the Compilation of the Text
There are historical and textual clues that give us an idea of the time periods in which various parts of the Bible were written. Taking these things into consideration can really help us set reasonable expectations regarding how historical we should expect various parts of the Bible to be.
The following is just a very quick and dirty introduction to the general consensus among scholars regarding when various biblical books were written:
First, Moses didn’t write the “Books of Moses.” Mind blown, right? Some fragments of the Old Testament may have started forming around 1000 BCE at the earliest. For reference, traditional views of Moses have him writing his books somewhere in the ballpark of around 1300 BCE.
At the earliest, it was probably around 800 to 700 BCE that the first four Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers) began taking some form as various earlier sources and oral traditions were being combined together. However, these books likely didn’t reach their final form for at least another 200 years.
A few other books probably arose at roughly that same time period of 700-800 BCE (Isaiah, Hosea, and Nahum), but most of the rest of the Old Testament was written around 625 BCE or later. As noted in the section about borrowing from Sumerian myths, there are very strong reasons to believe that the Books of Moses as we now have them were written/compiled after the Babylonian exile–because they seem to be responding to specific issues of that period. But it’s possible that at least some parts of it existed in some form prior to that.
As I see it, the books AFTER the books of Moses can be expected to have a higher degree of real historicity to them (real people, kings, events), because (in general) they were written closer to the times that those events occurred. Of course, even these histories can be biased, flawed, or exaggerated (for example, King Josiah’s own scribes likely wrote most of the history of the Kings, and so naturally they make him out to be a hero even though other sources suggest otherwise). Also, we have to keep in mind that even these books are reaching pretty far back for some of their history (ie. back to Kings Saul, David, and Solomon around 1000 BCE), and thus even they may not be as historically accurate as we might like. They would certainly be prone to significant embellishment as traditions grow over time. And of course nations tend to tell their own history in more favorable ways, and tend to paint others in a less favorable light.
As a very simplistic way of summing up this section, if it occurred before about 1000 BCE, I believe it is much less likely to be historically accurate, and more likely to be derived from oral tradition/myth handed down. This would basically include anything before Kings Saul, David, and Solomon.
So, you probably get the idea. The “history” in Genesis and Exodus (but especially Genesis) is not being written concurrent with the events. Even if it does refer to some real people, it is largely oral tradition and myth handed down. The ancients commonly used mythical stories to explain the world around them and their religious experience with God. A comparable example would be the Popol Vuh of the Maya people in Mesoamerica.
Some General Conclusions
There is SO much more powerful evidence to explore. This is really just a brief introduction to some of the major considerations that should inform our views of the “Old Testament” or “Hebrew Bible,” and how it should and should not inform our world view. At this point you’ve probably gathered that even as a believer I came to a point where I did not privilege the Old Testament text in the way that others do. There are certainly historically based portions of the Old Testament, but there is much that is not historical at all. Some will see these things as threatening, but I would argue that ignorant faith is threatening and counterproductive to our progression as individuals and as a society. There are many people of strong faith and devotion who long ago stopped what I consider to be the desperate, uncomfortable, and hopeless battle of trying to defend the literalism, historicity, and even the supposedly “inerrant” nature of the Old Testament.
For me, letting go of those things was actually a relief in many ways–even if it did cause me to rework some paradigms. My feeling is that strict literal views of the Bible hold us back in many ways. First, they can limit our ability to gain knowledge about our world. As an example, evolution has become the keystone that makes sense of all biology. And yet, the need of many to desperately defend an ‘inerrant” Bible has ensured that many students don’t really encounter these issues unless they pursue higher education. I would argue that defending an “inerrant” Bible not only hurts our ability to obtain secular truth, but could also make faith in a divine being more difficult to obtain for those who seek it. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve overheard or been a part of in which those of my faith struggle to reconcile a belief in a mostly inerrant and God-given book of scripture with some of the CRAZY things that are found in the Old Testament. For example, I’m not sure how anyone can be comfortable with the idea that God was truly behind (or condoned) some of the insane laws in the book of Leviticus. Even as a believer I certainly didn’t need to hold on to the burden of defending the Old Testament as “inerrant” and “God-breathed.” Unfortunately, many (not all) in the LDS church are still hostile to the information I am presenting.
For Further Study
For those wanting to explore these issues further or who could use some help becoming comfortable with these things, I’ll offer some podcasts from scholars of three different religious traditions who remain dedicated to their faiths despite seeing the Hebrew Bible for what it is. Scan to the bottom of these pages to find the download link, or find them on itunes podcasts.
Protestant scholar Dr. Peter Enns:
Jewish scholar Dr. Marc Brettler:
LDS scholar Dr. David Bokovoy:
Also see this blog from Bokovoy for more insights:
For a fascinating series on the Old Testament from David Bokovoy and others, begin here and work through the series. The first one starts with an introduction to critical biblical scholarship, and the second one dives into the text itself.