The Children of Israel and the Torah

People who are interested in reading the Bible often start at the beginning and work forward. Seems like a good idea, some great stories in Genesis that say a lot about the relationship between the individual patriarchs and God. Unfortunately after the Exodus readers can get bogged down in miraculous events that require faith, and then some indiscriminate warfare that does not seem to be appropriate for our times or a supposedly peaceful religion. I believe that the Bible should be approached as a library. Take a book at a time, not in chronological order, but research the books to find out what they are about and if they are relevant to you in your life. The Jewish law written down by Moses in the desert is probably the most difficult part of the Bible to read and needs some context.

Picture the scene. Moses was tasked with rescuing the Israelites from the oppressive Pharaoh and returning to the Promised Land. He had spent forty years in the desert pondering on his faults before taking on this task. If we cut past the plagues and the actual Exodus we see a large group of refugees fleeing from the Egyptian army with chariots. Many of us know about the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. But if you look at where the Israelites were, the Geology of the sea floor of the Red Sea and the amount of wind it would take to blow it back, the whole event seems preposterous. The problem is that the Kings James version of the Bible translated 400 years ago, has traditionally referred to the Red Sea as we know it today. There is some doubt about the translation, some learned scholars translate it as the Reed Sea, which would refer to shallow lakes on the Sinai Peninsula. Others would say the Red Sea refers to them as well. Either way, a translation is only as good as the translator and without detailed geographical knowledge, the tradition that had been established has stuck. But the Reed Sea was a shallow lake that would have been much more likely to have been the venue for the miracle. It was on a route that was far more likely and it could have been crossed if the water had subsided. Hollywood epics show great walls of water being held back by the wind and it is quite a lot for people to accept. With faith you can accept anything, but it is better to reason out the truth from scientific methods. If the Children of Israel were caught up against the Reed Sea and the wind blew back the water and they escaped it is easier to believe. There is no point forcing people to try and believe in miracles if they were not actually what happened.

Having escaped the clutches of the Egyptians, the Israelites were in the desert as nomads for forty years. The whole area was nomadic. The tribes in the area would have heard of some sort of escape never achieved before. It may have indicated to them that they had a God capable of performing miracles. What follows is controversial as there are many battles and readers find it uncomfortable. After all one of the main messages of the Bible is peace. But the Israelites had achieved something remarkable, the other tribes would have known that. To stand up to the Israelites was like standing up to God. Moses sent word to the tribes that they wanted to pass through on the way to Canaan. Most opposed them, some did not. The few tribes that did not oppose them were accepted as specially treated allies, those that opposed them lost battles.

It is important to realise that they were living in barbaric times and the value of human life was less. Desert life was harsh, warring tribes was the norm, and living to your mid-thirties was just average. Also Egypt was the most advanced country in the Mediterranean basin due to the fertility of the Nile that produced plenty of wheat. Their culture was not one we could endorse now. The Pharaoh would marry his sister to keep the bloodline pure, interpreting hieroglyphics indicate that there were no sexual rules at all and worst of all, and they practiced human sacrifice to their sun gods.

The desert tribes and the inhabitants of the the Promised Land, the Canaanites were less sophisticated, but still had behaviour you cannot condone. They worshipped fertility gods like Baal and Molech. They would make little statues and dance round fires and sacrifice their children to their non-existent gods.

In one sense the exodus from Egypt was a new beginning for humanity. There was a rejection of the barbarous human sacrifices and lawless behaviour. The Children of Israel could have been a life boat for humanity or even a spiritual evolution. The Jewish code established, in the desert, could not be described as perfect, but they sacrificed animals and in my mind that is better than humans. For Christians, Christ’s sacrifice ended that practice too. The Ten Commandments, that Moses received, were almost the first recorded set of laws in existence. The Assyrians had laws, but they were quite barbaric. There were laws like, if you kill someone’s daughter they could kill yours. The Ten Commandments gave the basis for a legal system ever since. Whether religious or not, I believe this was progress.

There were many other laws Moses gave to the people. There were many to do with family relations. Coming from the licentious Egyptians, the people were being brought back to common sense and back to the patriarchal society necessary for farming. There was a lot of teaching about food. Pork was declared unclean. If you think that people would generally cook on an open fire, in pans maybe. Beef and lamb could be burnt or rare and that would be acceptable. But pork needs to be properly cooked. Gut infections arise out of poorly cooked meat. In the hot desert, with no sanitation and little water, dysentery could wipe out many people. Shellfish were also dangerous and were banned for the same reason I guess.

The point I am trying to make is a practical one. To me what happened from the exodus from Egypt to the settling in what is now Israel, was an evolutionary process. Spiritual, legal, familial and public health issues all improved. In training these chosen people and eradicating human and child sacrifice humanity moved on. It is less about religion and more about its practical application. The three monotheistic religions were born out of this movement of people.

One hundred years ago in England, the church turned against war after the horrors that had happened on the Western Front. But sometimes you have to fight for what is right. The Children of Israel, to me, were a lifeboat for humanity and a leap forward. They were not perfect, but they had the framework to know that.

If you want to look at the Bible, I believe the most important way is to look historically with good common sense. You may be able to explain away the miraculous if you are not comfortable with it. But don’t write it off because other people have told you what the interpretation is. It is translated by dedicated but imperfect people. But it is in your language for you to decide for yourself. It is not the only book of wisdom, but it is an explanation of how God deals with humans in many different situations. Different personalities, cultures, sexualities, races, professions, experiences and religions. And as the enlightenment teaching shows us, the concept of God is out there and can’t just be explained away. What matters is what you believe yourself. Get informed and work it out for yourself.

Conway-Laird (2016)

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