In my opinion, the Hebrew Bible, regardless of religious assumptions (without assuming that the Hebrew Bible is Divinely revealed or inspired), is the greatest and most influential piece of literature ever written (at least in the western world). In spite of the enormous influence of the Hebrew Bible upon western civilization, nevertheless the Hebrew Bible is, in my view, a widely misunderstood document. The great revolution of the Hebrew Bible is not – as is widely and mistakenly thought – a theological and orthodox (correct belief) 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 Hebrew Bible is a moral and orthoprax (correct practice) 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.
I am intentionally using the term Hebrew Bible, and not the term Old Testament, because the term Old Testament is a Christian term necessarily implying a New Testament of Christianity replacing the Old Testament of Judaism. The term testament is a translation of a central Hebrew word in the Hebrew Bible, meaning covenant. The term New Testament then implies that the new covenant of Jesus and Christianity has replaced the old covenants of Judaism of Abraham and Moses. While the term Old Testament reflects Christian religious ideology, the term Hebrew Bible does not, by contrast, necessarily reflect Jewish religious ideology. Rather, the term Hebrew Bible merely describes the nature of the Hebrew Bible from a factual point of view in two senses. First, the Hebrew Bible is written for the most part in the language of ancient Hebrew, except for a few passages or words in several different books that are written in ancient Aramaic. Second, the Hebrew Bible is a product of an ancient Hebrew culture – at least indirectly. The Hebrew Bible is more accurately a product in a direct sense of an ancient Israelite and Jewish culture. However, the people Israel, the Jewish people, were according to the Biblical account descendants of Hebrews – of the families and clans of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The term faith or belief in God is simply not a central, religious concept in the Torah, the 5 Books of Moses, which constitutes a source of moral and spiritual guidance, and a legal constitution of the Jewish people containing commandments (mitzvot) that are the basis of the Jewish law. I think that it would be fair to say that the concept most associated with religion in the western world would be the concept of faith in God. Yet, shockingly, the term faith in God hardly appears in the Torah, and the few places where it does appear are not passages that stand out as being of great importance. The term faith (or belief) in God is absent from such central passages as the story of the binding of Isaac and the so-called ten commandments (which are referred to in the Torah and by the Talmudic rabbis as the ten statements). The commandments of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) are, according to Jewish tradition, divided into two broad categories of positive obligations and negative prohibitions. The terms in Hebrew are revealing for they literally mean positive and negative commandments of action. In the plain meaning of the Torah, the commandments actually regulate both behavior and feeling (as feelings are really a matter of moral character traits necessarily expressing themselves in behavior), but characteristic of the orthoprax and anti-theological nature of the Torah and Hebrew Bible they do not regulate abstract philosophic or theological thought or belief.
The term faith in God (aside from hardly appearing in the Torah, and not in important passages) does not appear one time in the Torah in the form of an explicit command to believe that God exists – nor is there any explicit command to believe any other theological or philosophic proposition, nor any philosophic argument attempting to prove the existence of God or any other theological or philosophic proposition. The term faith in God is not used in the command form. The term faith in God throughout the Hebrew Bible is used in a psychological and orthoprax sense of trust in, or loyalty to, God that expresses itself in proper behavior or in an optimistic attitude of hope, thankfulness and appreciation.
There are rabbinic commentaries that portray Abraham as the founder of monotheism. Such rabbinic commentaries portray Abraham as a kind of philosopher who on the basis of his own independent philosophic analysis arrives at a monotheistic (orthodox) conception. However, there is no textual support in the Hebrew Bible whatsoever for such rabbinic commentaries, and there is actually textual support for concluding that Abraham was not a monotheist. For example, Abraham says (Genesis 14, 22) “I have raised my hand to the Lord (YHVH), the most high God” (the Hebrew letters YHVH, translated as “the Lord”, constitute the unpronounceable name of God). The concept of a “most high God”, which appears in other places in the Hebrew Bible as well, clearly implies that other gods, besides YHVH (the Lord), exist, and that YHVH is the highest God among a pantheon of gods.
Indeed, the Torah, in the opening statements of the ten statements and in general, presupposes the existence of other gods of other peoples rather than denying their existence. 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; while the statement “You shall have no other gods before Me” is a demand of the people Israel to serve YHVH alone without denying the existence of other gods of other peoples. I just indicated that Abraham refers to YHVH as the “most high God” implying that YHVH is the greatest God among a pantheon of gods. After the crossing of the Reed Sea (the Hebrew term in the Torah is Reed Sea and not Red Sea), in the song of the 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 worship (service) and loyalty. Of whom is YHVH jealous if no other gods exist?
The opening verse of the ten statements “I am the Lord your God who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” is shocking. The Torah opens with a story in which God is depicted as the Creator and Ruler of the entire universe and the obvious question that arises in the opening of the ten statements is why God is presented merely as the God of Israel and redemption (who has redeemed the people Israel from slavery) rather than as the Creator and Ruler of the universe! I want to suggest that the true revolution of the Torah and Hebrew Bible, which I emphasize is not monotheism, is reflected here in the opening statement of the ten statements.
From the story of the creation we can infer only that God is necessarily powerful in having created the entire universe, but not that God is necessarily moral. It may be (from a purely logical point of view) that an evil and powerful god (or evil and powerful gods) created the universe. Indeed, in the opening account of creation there is no moral demand from God to human beings. It is proclaimed five times by the Torah after various acts of creation “and God saw that it was good”, and after the creation as a whole it is proclaimed “behold, it is very good”. However, aside from such value judgment, the story of creation is absent of any moral aspect in the sense that there isn’t any moral demand at all from God regarding human behavior.
The great revolution of the Torah and Hebrew Bible is not monotheism, but the way in which God is conceived (as a moral God who demands morality), as reflected in the opening statement of the ten statements in which God is presented not as the Creator and Ruler of the universe (as a God of power), but as the God of Israel who demands morality in redeeming the people Israel from slavery and oppression (“I am the Lord your God who has brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”). From this, that God acts within history to redeem the people Israel from oppression, we infer that God necessarily demands morality. Immediately following this declaration in the opening of the ten statements come the moral demands and commandments of God that are incumbent upon the people Israel.
According to many historians, monotheism develops in ancient Israel during the Biblical period as part of an evolutionary, gradual process (and not as a revolution) in which YHVH, the God of Israel, comes to be seen as the one God of all peoples (rather than as the highest God among a pantheon of gods). Also, apparently some form of monotheism may have emerged in ancient Egypt even prior to the period of Moses and the Israelites. An Egyptian Pharaoh, Akhnaton, instituted a worship of one deity – a sun god. Rabbi Hertz (the chief Rabbi of England in the 20th century) in his commentary to the Torah (Hertz Commentary, p. 396), points out that the monotheistic revolution of Akhnaton was a failure, and the form of monotheism that he instituted did not survive. However, I want to suggest that even were his revolution not a failure (in the sense of not surviving), the conception of God in Akhnaton’s monotheistic revolution was not revolutionary. That is, the nature of the one deity in Akhnaton’s religion was that of a sun god (of a force or power of nature that is powerful but not inherently moral), and thus no different in nature than that of the prevailing conception of gods in the surrounding pagan cultures, in which the gods were conceived of as forces or powers of nature.
In the surrounding pagan cultures in the ancient, Biblical world, the gods were conceived of as forces or powers of nature that were powerful, but not inherently or necessarily moral – and thus act within nature, and influence human affairs, not as an expression of moral will but as an expression of their power. The gods in the pagan conception can be influenced or appeased by offering sacrifices, or by performing some other ritual practice, and ritual practice is conceived as the very essence of religion.
The great revolution of the Torah and Hebrew Bible is that for the first time in human history God is conceived of as a God who acts within nature, and within history, as an expression of moral will in order to redeem (as a God of revelation and redemption), and demands morality as an inherent part of God’s nature. This is the basis of Abraham’s remarkable question, “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Genesis 18, 25) – a question which assumes that God is inherently moral. Thus, for the first time in human history, there is a necessary connection between religion and morality, in which the very essence of religion is conceived to be moral character and moral action rather than ritual practice. In the Biblical conception, ritual is not in order to influence God but in order to transform ourselves morally and spiritually as human beings. Moreover, ritual practice as an attempt to influence or appease God is seen in the Biblical conception as magic. The story and satire of Bilaam, the magician, (Numbers 22-24), reflects the Biblical opposition to magic, which is forbidden and an abomination according to the Torah (Deuteronomy 18, 9-13). While Bilaam, the magician, attempts to influence God by the performance of sacrifices and ritual practice; Abraham, as an expression of his righteousness and moral character, attempts to influence God in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18) by moral and rational argument! Moses, as well, after the making of the golden calf (Exodus 32, 11-14) when God is determined to destroy the Israelite people, argues with God giving reasons why it is wrong and unfair for God to destroy the Israelite people!
Widespread not just in the Jewish world but in the western culture God is conceived primarily as a God of creation (as a God of power) without awareness that such a conception is actually pagan – and such a pagan conception of God leads not only to exaggerated importance being given to ritual as the essence of religion but to a pagan conception in which ritual practices (including prayer and reciting of psalms) are performed in order to influence God (for health or for sustenance). In the Biblical conception, ritual is not in order to influence or appease God but in order to transform ourselves morally and spiritually – and, it is a consistent theme of the Bible that morality takes precedence over ritual as the essence of religion. Yet, unfortunately (in my eyes), on a widespread basis in the western culture, when people speak of religion or religiosity they speak of faith and the observance of ritual. There is widespread ignorance regarding the true revolution of the Hebrew Bible that God is primarily a moral God who demands morality; and, morality as opposed to being the very essence of religion as in the Biblical conception is often widely misperceived (from the Biblical perspective) as a secular rather than religious concern in viewing true religiosity as faith and ritual.
Note — This blog post is a summary of my main argument concerning Biblical theology in my book on the Hebrew Bible that has been recently published: Reconciling a Contradictory Abraham. My book has been written from heart as a an expression of my great love for the Bible.