I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city.
In chapter 7, “Revelation: The Nightmare of the 'Old' Testament,” Hitchens addresses religion’s claim to authority based on supernatural encounters between God and special men. He reminds the reader that the three major western religions all trace their roots to the Hebrew Bible, and subsequently attempts to debunk the Pentateuch as divine revelation. He uses three main arguments: (1) the laws in the Pentateuch are obviously man-made, (2) the teachings of the Hebrew Bible are immoral, and (3) arguments (1) and (2) don’t matter because none of it happened anyway.
The laws of the Pentateuch are obviously man-made. Hitchens singles out the Ten Commandments as “obviously man-made.” The first three commandments amount to little more than “monarchial growling about respect and fear, accompanied by a stern reminder of omnipotence and limitless revenge.” Then, there is a command “to keep working and only to relax when the absolutist says so.” There is a charge to honor your parents, and then four self-evident ethical admonitions against murder, adultery, theft, and false witness. Finally, there is an absurd command not to desire the things that your neighbor has. We could probably categorize the commandments into three groups: (1) those that put the people in their place, (2) self-evident ethics necessary for a stable society, and (3) and absurd command not to covet that obviously didn’t come from a wise God.
Hitchens reasoning is circular. The premise to be proven is: The Ten Commandments are man-made. The Ten Commandments are consistent with what Hitchens thinks man-made commandments might look like. Therefore, the Ten Commandments are definitely man-made. This is petitio principii, or begging the question.
What would a commandment look like that was definitely not man-made? Love your enemies, perhaps?
The teachings of the Hebrew Bible are immoral. Hitchens cites a number of passages from the Old Testament that are hard for us to read. One will suffice for illustration—Numbers 31:17–18. In the passage, Israel had gone out to battle Midian in retaliation to their leading them into idolatry. The Israelites went out and killed every adult male, and took the women and children captive. Moses was angry with the military officials for sparing the women and male children, and he said to them, “Now therefore kill every boy, and kill every woman who has had sexual intercourse with a man. But all the young women who have not had sexual intercourse with a man will be yours” (NET). Kill the women. Kill the boys. Keep the young girls, presumably as concubines.
Let’s be honest—that’s horrible. But let’s also be honest about war—as General Sherman said, “War is Hell.” Do we think our wars are any more civilized than ancient wars? Is it somehow more moral to bomb innocent women and children than it is to run them through with a sword? Are we really so naïve as to think that there is no collateral damage in modern wars?
Don’t get me wrong, divine ordained Holy War bothers me. It’s one part of the Bible that I don’t “get.” But I accept it as part of our story, even if a puzzling part of the story.
None of the events described in the Pentateuch actually happened. Hitchens writes, “The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals.” (A very well written sentence, I might add, and it’s not surprising how well this book has been received.)
Before I get into Hitchens’ critiques of the Old Testament, I do want to mention that theism does not stand or fall with the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. I believe in the inerrancy of the Scriptures, but if that were to be disproven I would not walk away from the faith.
That being said, the specific event that Hitchens attacks is the Exodus. I would probably include the Exodus as one of the “big” historical events, the historicity of which is necessary for faith. Hitchens even quotes Roland de Vaux, “if the historical faith of Israel is not founded in history, such faith is erroneous, and therefore, our faith is also.” If the Exodus were proven to be ahistorical, one would have to seriously reconsider the truth of the Christian religion.
Hitchens cites a study by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman that has “proven” that none of the events of the Pentateuch—from the Exodus, to the wilderness wanderings and the giving of the law, to the conquest of Canaan—ever happened. I had never heard of the study, so I asked my friend John, who has a PhD in Old Testament (from Cambridge, no less) and who teaches Old Testament at a seminary, what he thought of it.
John told me that while Finkelstein’s work represents the opinion of a large number of Old Testament scholars, it is not universally accepted. He referred me to some studies done by James K. Hoffmeier (Israel in Egypt: The Evidence of the Authenticity of the Exodus Traditions and Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition) that best defend the authenticity of the biblical accounts.
While Hitchens claims that there is “no” extra-biblical evidence for the Exodus, John asks what kind of evidence we would expect to find. For instance, Ramses II of Egypt was defeated in a battle at Qadesh, yet the Egyptian accounts of the battle spin it as a victory. Why would we expect these same Egyptians to agree with the biblical account of the Exodus? Further, much of the archeological material left behind by the patriarchs would have been under the water table, and have thus been destroyed.
I don’t know enough about these issues to offer a definitive opinion, but what John told me is consistent with what I see in issues related to the New Testament—there are some places in which the historicity of the text is disputed, even some cases where it is widely disputed, but questions of method and what constitutes “proof” prevent a consensus one way or the other. After all, history is not a "hard" science.
Hitchens goes too far in saying that the Exodus has been disproven. Are there difficulties with the biblical account? Yes. But are there problems with rival reconstructions? Yes. That’s why we will continue to have historical inquiry. John pointed out that in many cases the Bible gives a better explanation of the data than rival reconstructions, and much of what we know about the ancient near east is consistent with what we read in the Bible.
Our faith is based on real history, and we need to continue studying that history to evaluate our faith. If our faith is true, then we have nothing to be afraid of. I, for one, prefer to acknowledge and grapple with difficulties of this nature rather than sweeping them under the rug and pretending they’re not there. Every time we ignore legitimate problems, skeptics bring them back up in books like Hitchens’.
[I previously reacted to the chapters 8 and 10 of God is not Great. Chapter 9 is an attack on Islam. I’m not going to include a reaction to that on this blog, so I will pick up in chapter 11 next time.]
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