Most of what Jehovah’s Witnesses “know” about the Hebrew Bible, more commonly referred to as the “Old Testament” or the “Hebrew Scriptures,” is simply “not so.”
They know much that “ain’t so” because they live in an insulated world where their references to it are prolific, giving them a false sense of familiarity.
They also know too little because they’ve allowed others to read and interpret it for them through the filtering lens of an unchallenged theology. Their “knowledge” is based on misconceptions created by their own rigid theology.
Fact: the Hebrew Bible is not a book. It wasn’t written by a single author in one time and place. It’s a small library of books that were composed and edited over a period of a thousand years by people responding to a wide range of local issues and historical circumstances. Because it’s not a book (the name “Bible” comes from the plural Greek form ta biblia, meaning “the books”), it does not have a uniform style or a common message.
As would be true with any collection of books by several authors writing in different centuries, the books often contradict one another. These contradictions are the result of multiple strands of tradition being woven together to create the books. For example, the compiler of Genesis placed side by side two creation stories that use dramatically different details, vocabulary, and literary styles. A few chapters later two contradictory stories of the “Great Flood” are woven together.
The book of Proverbs extols wisdom, but Ecclesiastes scoffs at its folly. Deuteronomy harps on God’s retributive justice, while Job arrives at the bittersweet conclusion that despite the lack of divine justice, we are not excused from moral living. Ancient readers viewed this anthology—what would become the Hebrew Bible—as worthy of preservation without a requirement that they agree with one another.
The Hebrew Bible is not a book about the divine delivering eternal truths, despite the fact that at a much later time, complex systems of theology would be spun from particular interpretations of biblical passages. Rather, its narrative materials give an account of the journey of the ancient Israelites as they struggled to make sense of their history and tried to maintain a relationship with their god. Yes, the Bible addresses moral questions, but those few instances are few and far between.
Reading the Bible along with parallel materials from the many cultures of the ancient Near East is a revelation, as the ancient Israelites borrowed shamelessly from the outside world. They adopted and adapted literary styles and stories from other cultures, but in the process produced richer, more coherent readings of the biblical text than would have been otherwise possible.
The narratives of the Hebrew Bible are not pious parables about saints, nor are they G-rated tales easily understood by children. Biblical narratives are stories about human beings whose behavior was often obscene, mean-spirited and violent. But, biblical characters could also change and act with justice and compassion.
Yale University’s Christine Hayes’ Overview of the Old Testament
The unfounded expectation that biblical characters are models for our own conduct causes many readers to try to vindicate those characters, just because they are biblical characters. But if we attribute to these characters the reputation for piety actually manufactured by later religious traditions, if we whitewash their flaws, then we miss the real moral complexities and the psychological insights that have made these often R-rated stories of timeless interest. Biblical narratives place serious demands on readers. They explore moral issues by inserting biblical characters into moral dilemmas, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.
The god of the first five books of the Bible should not be confused with the god of western theological speculation. The attributes assigned to “God” by post-biblical theologians, such as his “knowing all things,” are not attributes possessed by Jehovah in the Pentateuch. On several occasions this Hebrew god changes his mind, because when it comes to human beings his learning curve is steep. Humans have free will; they act in ways that surprise him and many times he must change course and respond. One of the greatest challenges for modern, objective readers of the Hebrew Bible is to allow the text to mean what it says, even when what it says flies in the face of doctrines that actually emerged centuries later during philosophical debates about “God” really meant.
If current and former Jehovah’s Witnesses could open their minds and acknowledge these misconceptions about the Hebrew Bible, it would enable them to encounter and struggle with the Hebrew Bible with all of its rich complexity, its grandeur and sophistication, its self-contradiction and mediocrity, its sense of sorrow and pain, and yes – even its humor. Perhaps a closer second look that is not filtered by modern theological bias or a “my way or the highway” attitude, might help them arrive at a compassionate, non-confrontational, and deeper understanding of the real Hebrew Bible.
Author’s note: If you would like to know more about the Hebrew Bible, I suggest Christine Hayes’ Introduction to the Bible (The Open Yale Courses Series). Her book is well-researched and a fascinating read. I admit that I shamelessly borrowed from her book when writing this article.