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On Torah

Finally finished reading Torah -the first five books of the Old Testament/Tanakh; the only books attributed to Prophet Mosheh/Moses/Musa (a claim that is contradicted by Torah itself; the usual scholarly consensus is that Torah is a collection of fragmentary oral and written narratives that were compiled and edited/redacted by 4 separate groups of authors: Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly, and Deuteronomist (not their names but their modern designations), between 950 B.C.E. and 500 B.C.E.; earliest oral narratives were of even earlier provenance, and the last redaction was attempted around 500 B.C.E. during, and soon after, the Babylonian exile). Some thoughts:

1. What I found most surprising was that there is absolutely no Satan/devil, nor any conception of heaven or hell, in Torah. Instead, there is Sheol -a subterranean underworld where the souls of the dead live a shadowy existence; a concept that corresponds to the depiction of afterlife in both ancient Greek and Mesopotamian myths. Eve is not tempted to eat the apple of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” by Satan, who doesn’t exist in Torah, but instead by a snake acting on its own behest. There is no mention of sin in the story, nor any casting of Eve and Adam from the heavens to the earth; instead it is an etiological story attempting to explain how humans gained wisdom -the knowledge of good and evil. And heavens in Torah is merely an abode of gods -again a concept that fits with most ancient myths.

2. Not monotheism, but monolatry: Again and again, authors of Torah emphasize that their God (called YHWH/Elohim/El Shaddai/Elyon among other names) is the God of the Hebrews, and that He is a god among many gods. He is indeed the mightiest, the most powerful -as was customary in the ancient world to claim that the god representing your city/ethnic community is the most powerful; but He is definitely only the god of the Hebrews. How could a God for all mankind, a just God, decimate the entire land of Egypt “with festering boils on every human and animal,” annihilate all the Canaanites, including women and children, for the sake of a select few?

3. The names given to patriarchs/prophets in Torah are literary conceits/wordplays -a reflection of the person’s role in the story. Thus, Abram means the “the exalted ancestor” and Abraham (Prophet Ibrahim) means “ancestor of the multitudes;” Isaac (Prophet Ishaq) means “he laughs” since his parents laughed when he was predicted; Ishmael (Prophet Ismail) means “he hears” since God later hears his mother Hagar/Hajra’s lamentations; Jacob (Prophet Yaqub) means “he supplants” since he later supplants, through trickery, the inheritance of his twin brother Esau; Joseph (Prophet Yusef) means “he is taken away” since he gets taken away to Egypt; Prophet Mosheh/Moses/Musa means “he who draws out” since he later draws his people out through the sea. Ditto for place names and names of tribes. Tribes are retroactively connected to names and origin stories in order to proclaim the supremacy of the tribes of Israel, and ultimately, the tribe of Judah. So, Esau, whose name means “hairy,” and is shown as a buffoon who’s fond of hunting, is said to be the ancestor of Edoms -a tribe that rebelled against Judah. Arabs are descendants of Abraham’s second concubine, Keturah. The Moabs and Ammons, two of Israel’s closest neighbors and fiercest enemies, are borne out of an incestuous relationship between Lot (Prophet Loot) and his two daughters.

4. With every succeeding commandment and exploit of the God of Old Testament, I couldn’t help but think of Donald Trump. Hear me out: The Lord of Old Testament commands that every sacrifice to Him must be of an absolutely unblemished animal who must be male and exactly one year old; He commands that His temple must be built with the most precious stones and almost all furnishings inside the inner sanctum must be made of pure gold; He causes “festering boils on humans and animals throughout the whole land of Egypt,” after He himself claims, repeatedly, that it is He who “hardens the heart of Pharaoh” because He desires to show-off His miracles and His glory to the Egyptians; He first brings the Israels to a land with no water or food, then punishes them for the audacity to ask for water and food; He massacres 3000 Jews for building a harmless golden calf, then 14,700 for questioning Moses, then 24,000 (impaling all the chiefs) for marrying Moabite women and bowing to their gods, and then makes sure that all of the 2 million+ Israels (a highly questionable number, if not the event of Exodus itself) who He had led out of Egypt with promises of a wonderland “flowing with milk and honey,” would wander in the wilderness for 40 years and die before seeing the promised land (the land that is not empty but inhabited by thousands of poor Canaanites who’re about to be slaughtered); punishment for abandoning Him (He keeps repeating that “He is indeed a jealous God”) or blasphemy or even working on the day of Sabbath is death; He kills two sons of Aaron (Prophet Haroon) for offering incense to Him but before His authorization, and then commands Aaron not to mourn them. If this is not fascism, then I don’t know what is.

5. Many patriarchs who are thought to be prophets in Islamic tradition (Loot, Ishaq, Ismael, Yaqub, Haroon) are merely patriarchs/ancestors in Torah. Yet, it speaks of a female prophet: Prophet Miriam, the sister of Aaron, who, after Moses had led Israels out of the Red Sea (or the Sea of Reeds) “took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourine and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them” of the glory of Lord. (If only they knew what was in store for them!)

6. Moses at the mountain: It’s intriguing to me how one narrative gets accentuated in subsequent traditions from a book of competing narratives. So, Quran, in Surah al-A’raf verse 143, narrates that when God appeared to Moses on the mountain Toor, “the mountain crumbled down and Moses fell unconscious.” In Torah, in Exodus 33:21-23, that story appears with a slightly different version of events: The God says to Moses, “there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” But earlier, Exodus 33:11 narrates: “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” In fact, the whole conception of God in Torah is entirely different from the Islamic tradition. In Torah, God physically appears to Abraham along with two angels; God fights a hand-to-hand combat with the patriarch Isaac, and then anoints him, Israel (which means “the one who wrestles with God”); God asks Moses to bring 70 elders of Israel to visit Him at the top of the mountain Sinai; God actually physically resides, as a pillar of cloud, with the Israels in the tent dedicated to Him, and physically leads Israels in their wars against other nations; and the covenant that He establishes with Israels is precisely that He will continue to physically reside with the Israels as long as they continue to abide by His decrees and commandments. (This is analogous to ancient Mesopotamian religions where a god physically resided inside the temple dedicated to him and led his nation in wars against other nations. It was dreaded that if the god of the town/temple was not kept happy through daily sacrifices, or if his commandments were not diligently observed, he’d abandon them.)

7. To anyone interested in reading, I’d highly recommend The New Oxford Annotated Bible. It is translated using the oldest extant manuscripts of Torah, and in accordance with the subtleties of Hebrew that was used in the first millennium B.C.E. It points out the contradictions, passages attributed to each of the four possible groups of authors/editors, and the narratives that corresponds to the myths, laws, and events narrated in ancient Canaanite, Egyptian, Hittite, Ugaritic, and Mesopotamian steles, law codes, tablets, and manuscripts. All of this is extremely important since up till the 20th century the world was hardly aware of these ancient civilizations, nor had any of these ancient languages been translated. The world’s only source for any pre-Greek history was the Torah/Bible. Now that these ancient texts are being discovered and deciphered, the world’s perception of events and narratives that surround Torah/Bible has substantially changed. So, for example, close to the end of Torah, Deuteronomy 28:15 to 28:68, is a long list of curses that God promises to cast upon Israels if they would not “diligently observe all His commandments and decrees.” Bear in mind that this means that every single member of the nation of Israels must obey almost a 100 pages of these decrees, and if a single one of them slips in any one commandment, then unless he/she is accordingly punished or exiled, the entire nation will suffer. These curses include, 28:30, “you shall become engaged to a woman, but another man shall lie with her,” 28:53, “you will eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your own sons and daughters,” 28:61, “every other malady and affliction, even though not recorded in the book of this law, the Lord will inflict on you until you are destroyed,” 28:63, “so the Lord will take delight in bringing you to ruin and destruction,” and finally, 28:64, “The Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other.” Up till the 20th century, most followers of Abrahamic religions believed that the Jews suffered their two major exiles, the Babylonian exile in the 6th century B.C.E and the Roman exile in 70 C.E, because they didn’t remain faithful to the Lord’s commandments. But now that we have several law codes from the ancient world, from the Hittites to the Sumerians, we know that it was customary to include a long list of curses, as a prior warning, at the end of every law code and treaty. In fact, the curses outlined in Deuteronomy, including 28:30 and the threat of deportation at 28:64, parallels the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon, a Neo-Assyrian treaty from 672 B.C.E. We know that the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, including at least 10 other kingdoms, were vassals of Assyria. Moreover, we now know that it was customary for most ancient armies, especially the Assyrians and Babylonians, and to some extent, Romans, to deport their subject populations after defeating them. The tragedy of the Israels was that they were sandwiched inside a narrow strip of Levant (the promised land) between the two far wealthier regions of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

8. I remembered listening to this ages ago, I found references to wine at so many places in Torah that I had to look this video up. And as expected, either Dr. Naik has never read the Bible, and just selectively searched and found these two verses, or he is deliberately misleading his audience. There are dozens of places in Bible where God not only expects His audience to enjoy wine during festivals, but also to include wine in their sacrifices to Him. As He proclaims, the smell of wine “is a pleasing odor to the Lord” (Numbers 15:10). It seems that he is misleading because he not only quotes these verses out of their contexts but cuts them down to the few words that he needs. Proverbs are not commandments by God, but a collection of oral “proverbs.” 20:1 is a warning against excessive drinking; its correct translation is, “wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” Similarly, 23:20 states, “Do not be among winebibbers, or among gluttonous eaters of meat,” this doesn’t mean that meat is prohibited; or 19:13, “and a wife’s quarreling is a continual dripping of rain;” or 23:13, “Do not withhold discipline from your children; if you beat them with a rod, they will not die.” Similarly, Ephesians 5:18 is from a list of instructions written by Saint Paul to a congregation of churchgoers about how to comport themselves inside a church. It doesn’t prohibit them from drinking wine inside a church, but from drinking immoderately so as to not get drunk during a congregation. The whole verse is, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves.”

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