Barriers to Belief: The Word of God and the Condescending Truth

The previous post outlined how the strict literalistic view of the Word of God is a barrier to belief. It noted the irony that when a literal meaning is imposing on a text rather than being drawn from it the meaning is distorted and undermines rather than reinforces the Word of God.

This post examines another irony — the modern condescending view of the original ancient audience.

The unspoken assumption by many is that the biblical text should be taken literally because the original readers did. Again, this view of ancient people is a construct of the modern secular mind which sees the ancient world as a time when humanity was in its adolescence. To put it bluntly, the implication is that ancient people were naïve and unsophisticated simpletons who saw their world in a strictly literal manner and took everything at face value.

Nothing could be further than the truth.

In day-to-day terms, ancient people were confronted with the reality of life the degree to which most in the modern world are shielded. The ancient world was an extremely violent place; the sheer brutality of cultures such as the Assyrians rivals anything the modern world has produced in all but scale. Death was ever present and the stench of rotting corpses a constant reminder. The knew what was real and what was not. While it is true that the ancient world was rife with superstition, the same can be said of the modern world. We simply have different names for it. Conspiracy theories, for example, are a type of superstition and found in abundance in the modern world.

Then, there is something called scientific mythology.

There isn’t space here to drill into the topic in any detail, but, to start, the common modern view of the ancient world can be summed up in this statement from The Grand Design, by Leonard Mlodinow and Stephen Hawking.

Ignorance of nature’s ways led people in ancient times to invent gods to lord it over every aspect of human life.

Educated at Oxford and Cambridge, Hawking was one of the most renown physicists of the twentieth century. By all accounts he was a brilliant man and yet wrote the following later in the same book,

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.

Another brilliant mind, John Lennox, professor of mathematics at Oxford, had this to say about Hawking’s statement:

What Hawking says in his book The Grand Design is the universe exists because it needed to exist, and because it needed to exist, it therefore created itself. His conclusion merely restates his premise, which means his argument is circular. Nonsense is nonsense, even when spoken by famous scientist.

Nonsense indeed. Hawking is guilty of his own charge. He has invented a God of Gravity to “lord over” the mechanical universe and endowed it the god-like power to allow the universe to create itself — or, something to that effect. While the modern mind scoffs and rolls its collective eyes at the mythological views of the ancient world, the reverse is also true. Drag someone from the first century into the twenty-first and explain Hawking’s view that something can create itself. The ancient mind would return the favor, either scoffing and rolling its collective eyes at such superstition or adding Hawking’s God of Gravity to its own pantheon. In either case it’s the same thing, so call it what it is: scientific mythology.

Lennox again,

Stephen Hawking was just ahead of me at Cambridge, I can remember him quite well although I didn’t know him. I was rather amused when The Times interviewed him and asked him about religion; he said “religion is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.“ I was asked to comment, so I said “atheism is a fairy story for people afraid of the light.“

The fact of the matter is that no one, ancient or modern, really knows how all this works — how it really works. There are ideas and theories but they are all speculative and on closer examination they all end in irrationalities and absurdities such as Hawking’s notion of a self-creating universe. There is an innate human impulse that seeks answers to the deeper questions of life and modern world’s ruse is that it has it all nailed down except for a few “minor” details here and there, such as who or what started it all. The modern mind looks down on the ancient view of things when, in fact, it has no better an understanding or explanation. There is a name for that: condescension.

This is the problem the modern mind has with reading the Bible, especially the Old Testament. Because it tries to shoehorn the text into a modernist mindset rather than reading it on its own terms the modern mind is perplexed at what is read. If the modern mind were to gain some humility, get past its superiority complex and see things from a different perspective the ancient world can be viewed afresh.

Ancient people saw the world as it appeared to them but understood and described it differently. This doesn’t mean they were unsophisticated and couldn’t grasp any sort of complexity. It means they understood things in a different manner as a thorough reading of Old and New Testaments texts reveals. So, perhaps there is more than one avenue to the truth than the modern one and the ancient path has some validity and offers something that we can learn from. Or, perhaps the ancient world remembers something the modern world has forgotten or lost. There are some veins of thought in the modern world looking at this ancient path with something to learn. See, for example, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by noted sociologist Jonathan Haidt.

To start, the modern mind must treat the biblical texts not as works of modern science or history but as literature. Those who have examined the Bible as literature have found surprising sophistication and complexity — sophistication and complexity that are hiding in plain sight. See, for example, The Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode. See also, The Art of Biblical Poetry and The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter.

There are a number of concepts of language and thought relating to the ancient texts that the modern world simply misreads: concrete vs. abstract thinking, block logic, chiasm, and ring composition, to name a few. We will explore them briefly here.

First, the modern mind is accustomed to dealing with abstractions rather than concrete images. Written by an ancient mind for an ancient mind, the opening chapters of Genesis are filled with concrete images of God “speaking” order into existence, walking in the garden, planting a tree of life and a tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and so on.

The modern mind treats the same subject matter in more abstract terms. The science of cosmology deals with the question, how did the order found in nature come about (“speaking” order). Philosophy and metaphysics deal with the transcendence vs. the immanence of God (walking in the garden). Ethics deals with questions of morality (trees of good and evil). Setting aside the modern mind’s question of the degree to which these are to be taken literally new questions emerge — puzzling questions to which the ancient mind had no answer. Neither does the modern mind.

Why did God plant a tree and not allow humans to eat from it? Why entice them? Does this tell us anything about the nature of God or the nature of humans? Or, both? Or, is it about the nature of human desire? The tree of life is a well known image in the ancient world but the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is apparently unique to the Bible. What exactly does it represent? Given the choice, why did humans eat from it rather than the tree of life? Ancient or modern, the questions remain.

Second, the modern mind is accustomed to a chronological or step-by-step flow of logic. This happened, then that, then another thing, and so on. The ancient mind used block logic to a describe the beginning not as a chronological account but as a functional account as John Walton describes in The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. For example, on the first three days of creation God separated one thing from another.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light…And God separated the light from the darkness…and there was morning, the first day. And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters”…And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together [i.e., separate the waters] into one place, and let the dry land appear”… And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

Genesis 1:3-13 ESV

On the next three days he filled what he had just separated.

And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness…And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens“… And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds”…Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

‭‭Genesis‬ ‭1:14-31‬ ‭ESV

The universe is created and is “formless and void” in the beginning and prior to day one. Full stop. First, order is brought forth first by separating or dividing on days one through three. Full stop. Then, that which was separated on the first three days is filled on days four through six. Full stop. This is known as block logic and it is found in the organizational structure throughout the Old Testament. Many of the books of the Old Testament are arranged as such rather than chronologically. This is not how the modern mind understands or describes things but how ancient people did.

Third is chiasm, a poetic convention by which certain phrases are repeated. There is some confusion about this even to the ancient mind. In the New Testament book of Matthew Jesus is depicted as riding into Jerusalem on two animals.

[Jesus said to] them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet [Zechariah], saying, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”

Matthew 21:2-5 ESV

The Message Bible translates the passage in Zechariah as follows.

Shout and cheer, Daughter Zion!
    Raise your voice, Daughter Jerusalem!
Your king is coming!
    a good king who makes all things right,
    a humble king riding a donkey,
    a mere colt of a donkey.
I’ve had it with war—no more chariots in Ephraim,
    no more war horses in Jerusalem,
    no more swords and spears, bows and arrows.
He will offer peace to the nations,
    a peaceful rule worldwide,
    from the four winds to the seven seas.

Zechariah 9:9-10

All four Gospels, the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, mention this but only Matthew depicts Jesus riding both a donkey and a colt. Matthew (or an early scribe copying Matthew) seems to have taken the poetic language literally. The ancient mind too was susceptible to misunderstanding their own texts.

Fourth, is ring composition. The literary structure of narratives in the modern world almost exclusively builds from an incident at the beginning to a resolution at the end with various trials, tribulations and setbacks in-between. A murder mystery, for example, starts with a crime and works its way through false leads to solve the crime at the end. Essentially, ring composition is a narrative form in which the climax is in the middle rather than at the end of the story. Events on either side of the climax parallel each other. In her book, Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition, anthropologist Mary Douglas provides examples from the literature of the ancient world to demonstrate.

There two ways to envision ring composition. One is that the story begins and ends at the same place with the story “going out” from the beginning and “circling back” to the beginning with the climax halfway through– thus, the “ring” in ring composition. Another is the pedimental view, in which the story begins at the bottom and “ascends” to a climax in the middle of the narrative and then “descends” to the conclusion like climbing up a mountain and coming down the other side. The story of Israel begins with Abraham in Canaan and the promise to make of him a great nation and ends with that promise fulfilled with the establishment of the nation of Israel back in Canaan. The end reflects the beginning.

There can also be rings within rings. The history of the Jew as a people begins with the escape from Egypt and ends with their entry into Canaan with the receipt of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai in the middle. The episodes throughout have a parallel on the opposite side of Mount Sinai. For example, the crossing of the Red Sea marks the entrance into the wilderness is mirrored by the crossing of the Jordan River into the promised land as a exit. This sort of ring composition can be found throughout the Old Testament and the difficulty for the modern reader to unpack the books of the Old Testament is due, in part, to the inability to recognize this structure.

There is much more to the concepts of concrete vs. abstract language, block logic, chiasm and ring composition than can be addressed here. The net effect of the combination of these concepts is what renders the Bible and especially the Old Testament so difficult for the modern mind to grasp. The irony is that the modern ignorance of ancient modes of thought and expression is what drives the modern world’s condescending view of ancient world in the first place. A further irony is that there are avenues for the modern mind to open up and explore the ancient world. Modern thinkers such as Haidt, Alter, Walton and Douglas have done a great deal of work to do so but are largely neglected.

The condescending view of the ancient world is a barrier to belief. To overcome this barrier the modern world needs to recognize that, in the end, the ancient world dealt with the same sort of issues as the modern world but in a different manner.

Next, the Word of God and the typological puzzle.

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