I find it difficult being an “out” atheist. On the internet it’s safe, we’re a loud minority here. But out there it’s still a WASP’s country, and being public about one’s atheism is hard.
I’ll speak for myself, since others may have different experiences, but I find it hard in at least 2 ways: in the first place, it’s hard because there aren’t a lot of little ways in which I can sneak my atheism into conversations the way religious people do with their beliefs. “Thank God,” they say, or “I’m praying for” something. These are basically meaningless expressions for a lot of people, idioms really, and it would be perfectly possible for an atheist to use them without ascribing anything truly supernatural to them. But I don’t like to use them because I don’t like to co-opt the language of religion to express basic feelings of relief, sympathy, etc that are common to all people regardless of religious orientation. But there aren’t equivalent expressions that reveal the atheism of the speaker, so in public my atheism ofof an absence of certain idioms.
Another way in which it is difficult being an “out” atheist is that it weirds people out! It’s not an answer most people expect when they ask what my religion is or whether I go to church. If I post something atheism-related on my Facebook once in a while, as I did with this article, it could (as has happened with me in the past) prompt messages of disapproval and concern from extended, religious family members.
I don’t know what I would do if I was asked something as awkward as what Wolf Blitzer asked an Oklahoma tornado survivor. “Do you thank the Lord?” At this point I guess I would have : 1) say yes just to get out of it without drawing unwanted attention to my atheism, 2) come up with some sort of neutral comment or joke to avoid the question (I’ve done this a number of times in real life in response to similar questions or comments), or 3) be brave and do what this woman in Oklahoma did, even though it creates an awkward situation and outs her on global television and could put her and her family at risk of harassment by their friends, family, neighbors, and complete strangers watching the broadcast. The second option is hard for people like me who can’t always think quickly on their feet, but the third option is still harder.
I’ll keep this woman’s courage and conviction in mind if I’m ever confronted with such a situation.
“If in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess someone is found slain, lying in the open country, and it is not known who killed him, then your elders and your judges shall come out, and they shall measure the distance to the surrounding cities. And the elders of the city that is nearest. . . shall take a heifer that has never been worked and that has not pulled a yoke. . . and shall break the heifer’s neck. . . And all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, and they shall testify, ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it shed. Accept atonement, O LORD, for your people Israel. . . and do not set the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel, so that their blood guilt be atoned for.’ So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst. . . – Deuteronomy 21:1-9
This portion of Deuteronomy is like “CSI: Holy Land” meets “CSPAN.” We get a glimpse into early crime scene investigation as well as lessons on public administration.
Unsolved murders must have accounted for a high proportion of murders thousands of years ago. If nobody came forth with information and the deceased had no obvious enemies, how could authorities proceed short of relying on unsound tactics like the torture of potential informants? Happily, that is not what Moses suggests. In fact, he doesn’t suggest conducting an investigation at all. Maybe the investigation part goes without saying, but a literal reading of the passage quoted at the top of this post would seem to indicate that no investigation is necessary. Instead, authorities with a murdered body on their hands should make a sacrifice, declare their ignorance of the murderer’s identity, and ask God to forgive the people for this shedding of innocent blood. Through these actions, the leaders atone for the spilling of innocent blood and protect society from God’s vengeance.
While I think this approach to unsolved murders makes a fair amount sense in the context of the time period, it begs the philosophical question of why God would punish all of society for the murder rather than just the murderer. That would not only seem to be more fair, it would also solve the crime by default. Perhaps God wants his people to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to managing their civil affairs, but reserves the right to punish them as a collective if they fall so woefully short as to allow murderers to roam free without atonement. I dunno, that analysis seems like a stretch. But it does seem clear that the leaders of early Israel have an ethical obligation to respond to crimes, even unsolvable ones, in order to protect the safety of the populace. That’s a progressive message, even if 21st century readers don’t agree 100% with the policework there.
A segment on the duties of Israel’s kings provides another indication that early Hebrew government was supposed to serve the interests of the people rather than the leaders. A king “must not acquire many horses for himself. . . And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold,” says Deuteronomy 17:16-17. But shunning excessive wealth alone does not a good king make. “And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom,” the chapter says in verses 18-19, “he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law. . . And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them.” A king, apparently, was to be a sort of religious student-in-chief. This is very different than if the king were the high priest or the head of the church as one might expect in a true theocracy. According to Moses’s law, only Levites serve as religious authority figures. A king’s religious role, like that of the average citizen, is to be a devout follower of God’s word. This may not constitute a complete separation of church and state, but it is not exactly a perfect religious dictatorship, either.
It seems like I always hear negative things about Deuteronomy, but so far I’ve enjoyed it quite a lot. The chapters are short, too, so it’s going pretty fast. On I go.
Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you. . . – Deuteronomy 9:4-5
In my last entry I wrote that Numbers 33 is a great place to go for a synopsis of the second, third, and fourth books of the Bible. Well, if you’ve got some curiosity left after that but still don’t want to read the whole thing, flip to the book of Deuteronomy. I’m 9 chapters in, and so far it’s all recap. But more than that, it’s well-written recap. In fact, it’s the best writing I think I’ve seen in the English Standard Version since Genesis.
I initially wanted to read the King James version because I had heard that it was particularly well-written, but a free version wasn’t available through my Kindle app. The ESV has, so far, not nearly overwhelmed me with artful prose. I don’t doubt that the style will pick up after these first five ancient books, with which translators through the ages may have been somewhat reluctant to take colorful liberties.
Compared to what I’ve read so far, a few lines in the first part of Deuteronomy stood out to me for their literary quality. Chapter 8 verses 11-16 have Moses saying to his followers:
“Take care. . . lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble and test you, to do good in the end.”
As Moses speaks I see in my mind the future and the past of his large tribe. I see their gold and silver, their future farms and cities of plenty, and their self-satisfaction. I see that contrasted with their past in “the house of slavery.” I see their harrowing trials against “fiery serpents and scorpions,” beasts I don’t remember at all from the previous books. I can envision a “thirsty ground” and a “flinty rock” from which water flows. Those two phrases remind me of the indelible imagery of the well scene near the beginning of one of my favorite films, Lawrence of Arabia. Passages with transporting, virtually panoramic writing like this are what I hoped to see a lot of while reading the Bible, and what I anticipate a lot more of once I get further along.
Another interesting passage in the early part of Deuteronomy is 9:4-5, quoted at the top of this post. Don’t get full of yourselves, Moses warns his people. You will not succeed at capturing the promised land and creating a great civilization because you are righteous. You are not righteous, he tells them elsewhere; you defied the wishes of God on numerous occasions, and have been “stubborn” at every step of the way. But God has promised to help you, so he will. This seems like a good passage for everyone, religious or otherwise, to keep in mind. Even atheists such as myself can benefit from remembering that success does not often come from one’s own intelligence and hard work alone. Outside help nearly always plays an important role. “You didn’t build that,” Moses is effectively telling his people.
Oh, and it helps that your enemies are wicked. This part I find a little harder to understand. Are the enemies of the Hebrews more wicked than the Hebrews themselves? I suppose so, especially since they don’t worship the same god. But doesn’t this imply that the future, self-assured Israelites would be justified in attributing their success to at least some degree of righteousness on their own part, at least relative to the righteousness of other peoples? I can’t help but feel that there’s some contradiction here, although the main message is clear enough: other people are bad, but always remember that you’re not much better.
I can’t close this post without referencing my favorite song from the musical Cats:
Old Deuteronomy’s lived a long time
He’s a cat who has lived many lives in succession
He was famous in proverb and famous in rhyme
A long while before Queen Victoria’s accession
Old Deuteronomy’s buried nine wives
And more; I am tempted to say ninety-nine
And his numerous progeny prospers and thrives
And the village is proud of him in his decline
At the sight of that placid and bland physiognomy
When he sits in the sun on the vicarage wall
The oldest inhabitant croaks
Well, of all things, can it be really?
Yes, no, ho-hi, oh my eye!
My mind may be wandering, but I confess
I believe it is Old Deuteronomy
Really quite a touching song, if you ask me.
So the people of Gad and the people of Reuben came and said to Moses and to Eleazar the priest and to the chiefs of the congregation “. . .the land that the Lord struck down before the congregation of Israel, is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock.” And they said, “If we have found favor in your sight, let this land be given to your servants for a possession. Do not take us across the Jordan.” – Numbers 32:2-5
This is the last entry for Numbers, but who’s counting? Eh? Eh?
Anyway, Chapter 33 is great because it’s just a recap of Exodus through Numbers. You could read Genesis and then Numbers 33 and pretty much have the whole story so far. Maybe that’s what monks did to cram for Bible tests before Wikipedia.
Numbers 31 is a sort of bloody chapter in which the Hebrews kill some of their enemies, including someone named Balaam, but I’m not 100% sure it’s the same Balaam as I wrote about in the previous entry. If so, though, that ties up a loose end, which is somewhat unexpected but not unwelcome. Still, it seems like a raw deal for poor Balaam, who after all refused to try to hinder the Hebrew’s march into the Holy Land. The conquering Hebrews take no prisoners except “all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him.” These individuals they absorb into their ranks. (Numbers 31:18). One wonders if these young girls considered themselves fortunate. I suspect some did and others did not, depending on the circumstances of their previous lives and the specific Hebrews they encountered. Religiously and culturally (and linguistically?), I wonder how they negotiated the process of assimilation.
For me, with my interests in landownership and genealogy, the most interesting chapter was Numbers 32 in which two branches of the Hebrews chose to settle not in the promised land across the Jordan with the rest of the tribes, but on their own in a land called Gilead. This land of Gilead was good for livestock, and apparently the families of Reuben and Gad had a lot of livestock, so they wanted to put down roots there. Moses was angry with this request because he wanted to ensure that Reuben and Gad continued to carry out their military duties as the Hebrews advanced. So they agreed to help carry the fight across the Jordan in exchange for being allowed to return to Gilead afterward to settle. They would also give up their share of the promised land across the Jordan. Moses found this solution agreeable. This story reminds me of doing family history research. One of my ancestors who immigrated to the U.S. left at least one sibling behind in the old country, according to some sources, so it’s interesting to think about the distant relatives I may still have across the ocean. As in the 19th century, cutting ties with your family by settling apart from them must have been a big deal in Biblical times. If there is any truth to this story, I suspect that the descendants of Reuben and Gad developed along a very different trajectory than the main body of Israelites.
For Reuben and Gad, economic motives seem to have been powerful enough to override considerations of blood, language, and cultural affiliation. Their best chance at prosperity seemed to require them to take a different path, one that led them away from their brothers, sisters, and cousins. I sympathize with their decision and admire their willingness to diverge from Moses’s plan for the Hebrew people. Moses deserves credit for allowing Reuben and Gad to follow their best judgment, even if he did it begrudgingly. I wonder what message people in previous millennia took away from this chapter.
On to Deuteronomy!
“God brings them out of Egypt and is for them like the horns of the wild ox. For there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel; now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel, ‘What has God wrought!’ Behold, a people! As a lioness it rises up and as a lion it lifts itself; it does not lie down until it has devoured the prey and drunk the blood of the slain.” – Numbers 23:22-24
The books of the Torah must have been written at a time when the Hebrew people were in a position of strength relative to other cultures if this passage is any indication of how they saw themselves. When the author or authors of this passage looked back on the chosen people’s history and told the story of their arrival in the promised land, the simile that was most apt was a lioness or lion on the hunt. The nascent nation of Israel had succeeded, it seemed, because it had been powerful in aggression. It had also been like a wild ox, and the power of its god had been the ox’s horns. Such was once a writer’s description of Moses’s followers.
If the story this passage tells is true, such was the description that a pious non-Hebrew named Balaam gave to a fellow non-Hebrew named Balak about Moses’s approaching army of ex-slaves. At this point the Hebrews had already overrun several local kingdoms and Balak feared he was next in line. He sent for Balaam in the belief that Balaam had the power to communicate with God and issue a holy curse on the oncoming host. Balaam could indeed speak to God, but what God told him to say was not what Balak wanted to hear.
God first gives Balaam a display of power by sending an angel to frighten his donkey, but the text gives no indication that such a display was necessary. From the beginning Balaam seems unimpeachably devout and committed to conveying God’s messages. This he does when Balak asks him to curse the people of Israel. Balaam speaks with God and then tells Balak, in essence, that resistance is futile.
Balak asks again, and Balaam gives a similar answer. Israel is like a hungry lion, Balaam says to Balak, and you’re the prey. Israel is a wild ox, so prepare to be gored. Balak demands a third opinion, but Balaam sticks to his story. The fourth iteration, the “final oracle,” leaves just as little room for doubt as the first three. Chapter 24 concludes with Balaam and Balak each going their way. Chapter 25 is not about them, so I guess we’ll hear no more from them.
The story of Balaam and Balak provides a welcome shift of narrative perspective. Suddenly in the midst of Numbers, in the middle of the story that began two books ago in Exodus, we leave Moses and the Israelites and see their progress through the eyes of their victims. I did not expect that. One could argue that this is a refreshing, creative example of subjectivism that breaks the monotonous and sometimes xenophobic (murders of non-Hebrews have taken place) contents of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Or one could argue that this story, despite a temporary change of cast, is still objectivist and nationalistic because it is the Hebrew god who speaks to Balaam and it is the Israeli army that has God on its side. Both interpretations are correct. I prefer the former, but in any case I enjoyed these passages greatly. Like the spy story I wrote about in my previous blog entry, Balaam’s tale was a welcome change of pace and an engaging narrative. Unfortunately, it lacks closure, as I have not yet read anything about Balaam’s fate. Does God protect him from the Israelites, and do the Israelites treat him well? They seem to worship the same God. Then again, we all know how much that counts for in the Holy Land.
And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and they said, “We will not come up. Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us? Moreover, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you put our the eyes of these men? We will not come up.” – Numbers 16:12-14
But on the next day all the congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of the LORD.” – Numbers 16:41
I’m really glad the people of Israel brought this issue—Moses’s apparent culpability for their suffering and death—into the open, because I don’t think I would have chosen to bring it up on my own.
But first, a word about spies.
The espionage thriller is one of my favorite genres of fiction. I prefer them wordy, historical, and without too much action. The 1979 BBC miniseries adaptation of John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Alec Guinness (with a Patrick Stewart cameo, no less! Obi-Wan and Picard in the same room!) is the kind of thing I have in mind. I like when a story requires me to strain to hear every whispered word and to scrutinize every sideways glance and arched eyebrow to try to keep up with what’s going on and figure out who the mole is, or what the Russians are planning, or who killed our operative in Biafra and why. I always thought the spy story was a modern invention, possibly dating to the 1700s at the earliest but lacking any ancient counterpart. So much of a spy’s motivations seem to depend on what Rudyard Kipling called “the Great Game,” the attempt by every great empire or nation to stay one step ahead of its rivals. I suppose ancient empires and medieval courts both had their spies, but spy fiction, I assumed, could be no more than a couple of hundred years old.
So I was surprised to come across a veritable espionage saga right in the middle of the book of Numbers. And just as I was starting to lose hope that anything interesting would happen in this book, too.
God is the spymaster, and commands Moses to “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel” (Numbers 13:1-2). The spies’ names are Shammua, Shaphat, Caleb, Igal, Hoshea (called Joshua), Palti, Gaddiel, Gaddi, Ammiel, Sethur, Nahbi, and Geuel. Someone should write a spy story in which these are the code names. (Wouldn’t it be awesome if the Mossad or something had already used them as code names in real life?) Anyway, this group of spies is tasked with pre-invasion reconnaissance. They’re supposed to scope out the lay of the land in Canaan and determine the strength of Canaan’s current inhabitants, since the nation of Israel plans to move in and dispossess them in accordance with their divine mandate.
The plot thickens when the spies come back with conflicting reports. The spy Caleb tells the Isralites that Canaan is fruitful and ripe for the taking. But the other spies “brought to the people a bad report.” According to them, Canaan “is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height.” Of such great height they were that the spies had felt “like grasshoppers” in comparison (Numbers 13:32-33).
The people react badly to the spies’ “bad report” and nearly riot, at which point Hoshea (called Joshua) changes his story and sides with Caleb. So now it’s two spies against ten.
With his intelligence community publicly divided, Moses faces an intense backlash from the people. Some of his most high-profile critics accuse Moses of wielding arbitrary power and suggest that he lacks a long-term plan for the welfare of the nation (see first quote at the top of this entry), and soon they and their families meet violent deaths. This incident only makes the people angrier, and they openly blame Moses for his critics’ deaths (see second quote at the top of this entry). When I got to this part I thought to myself, “Thank goodness somebody said it.”
You see, ever since Exodus I’ve been struck time and time again by how creepily similar Moses is to typical, modern-day religious cult leaders. He appoints his closest relatives advisers, consults in secret with God, and oversees the occasional execution at God’s bidding. When people die, he says it’s because they were disobedient. It’s not hard to imagine this kind of society existing today in a remote desert community—in fact, it DOES happen today in remote desert communities. Eventually Child Protective Services comes in and the cult leader goes to jail for polygamy, rape, fraud, and sometimes murder. Now, believe me, I’m not reading the Bible in order to go on rants about how absurd it all seems from my atheistic perspective. I’m reading it to increase my knowledge of this important text and to find fun and unexpected things to write about, like the spy story. I was NOT going to bring this Moses-as-cult-leader thing up, even though I couldn’t help but think it. Then the people of Israel brought it up for me, and I felt I had to acknowledge it.
Of course, believers have an easy response to the my and the Israelites’ skepticism and accusations: God himself always comes to Moses’s rescue and burns, buries, or sets a plague on the people who are challenging Moses’s leadership. So you see, even if Moses SEEMS like an early David Koresh or Jim Jones, he’s obviously not, because he REALLY has God on his side. It says so right here in print.
Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at. – Numbers 11:4-6
I’m still here!
It’s been a while since I last updated the blog. For half of July I was out of the country on vacation, and when I got back home it took me a while to work up the willpower to click on the Kindle icon on my phone. I had started Numbers before my vacation, but I’d pretty much forgotten everything I’d read so far. I did remember, though, that it was not particularly gripping stuff.
Looking back over it, I remember that I had really high hopes while reading the first chapter of Numbers. If you’ve ever read an Umberto Eco novel such as The Name of the Rose or Foucault’s Pendulum, you might understand why I find lists of arcane names inexplicably intriguing. There are so many little bits of strange lore that are stored in the back of our minds, or my mind at least, and even if we don’t know where we ever heard them or what they mean, we know they refer to something that our distant ancestors thought were important, or frightening, or powerful, or supernatural. Even for confirmed, lifelong atheists and skeptics such as myself, it’s hard not to pay special attention to those sorts of words and feelings. Foucault’s Pendulum is almost a literal encyclopedia of medieval superstitions, and Eco can rattle off dozens of eerie terms that I could swear I heard once before but can’t guess where, like “homunculi” and “Rosicrucians.” It’s a thrilling feeling even if, like Eco, you don’t buy into any of it.
The very name “Numbers” carries suggestions of what I’m talking about. And Numbers 1 starts off in that vein, with a census of the tribes that have followed Moses into the Sinai. “Of the people of Dan, their generations, by their clans, by their father’s houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: those listed of the tribe of Dan were 62,700. Of the people of Asher, their generations, by their clans, by their father’s houses, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war: those listed of the tribe of Asher were 41,500. Of the people of Naphtali, their generations, by their clans, by their father’s houses. . .” and so on and so on (Numbers 1:38-42). I like this kind of writing. There’s nothing obviously meaningful here, no parables or lessons, but the repetition and the ritualistic wording scream significance. The fact that we have to guess at what the significance is only makes it more intriguing.
Unfortunately Numbers dropped off after this. Most of the next several chapters continued God’s list of minute instructions to the Hebrews via Moses about how to arrange their tents and what sorts of fabrics to use and how much restitution to make for certain kinds of wrongdoing. It seems to me that Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers (and, I fear, Deuteronomy, but we shall see) could all have been one large book. I know that the first five books of the Bible are known as the Penteteuch, or the Torah, or the books of Moses, and apart from Genesis and the first few chapters of Exodus they certainly are of a piece. I look forward to comparing them to later books of the Old Testament.
Maybe it’s not too late for Moses’s story to get interesting again. When I opened the Kindle app to review Numbers 1-10 and write this entry, I read Numbers 11 as well. It seems the Hebrews and Moses are getting testy with their Lord, who occasionally consumes some of them with fire and who gives them nothing but manna to eat. Some of the Hebrews are even grumbling that things were better back in Egypt. Moses says to God, “If you will treat me like this, kill me at once” (Numbers 11:15). At the close of the chapter it seems that other leaders are emerging, calling themselves prophets, and preparing for a conflict with Moses. That should be exciting.
By the way, I’ve been reposting older entries from this blog on the Think Atheist forum. This blog will always be the best place to follow along with my project, but feel free to follow me there as well. I decided to use my real name there, for better or worse: http://www.thinkatheist.com/profiles/blog/list?user=2d24z2ulcfcgl