Two Pluralistic Texts from Deuteronomy

The relations between different cultural traditions pose opportunities for those traditions to articulate how they view the Other. Human history shows that there is no shortage of ways to demonize and degrade the Other. Here I would like to comment briefly on two biblical texts that illustrate two different ways a pluralistic view of the Other might be articulated. By pluralistic I simply mean a view that accepts the validity of another cultural tradition, or parity of another cultural tradition with one’s own.

The first text is Deuteronomy 2. Here, the Israelites are making their way to the Promised Land and in the process have to cross the land of the Edomites, Moabites, and Ammonites (groups of people that lived in what we now call Jordan). When the Israelites come to the boundary of each group, the god of Israel tells them not to engage with the people because he has given them their land for a possession. There is a lot that could be discussed about this chapter of Deuteronomy, but what is of interest here is this idea that the god of one people (the Israelites) has also made some provision for three other groups (Edomites, Moabites, and Ammonites). It could be said that this is a bit ethnocentric of the biblical author to think that his god has done the same thing for other groups as he did for the Israelites, after all, we know from other texts that those people have their own gods. Be that as it may, it is one way that the biblical texts articulate a reason for NOT destroying the Other.

Another well-known text from Deuteronomy 32:8–9 expresses a recognition of the parity of other groups and their religious traditions. Scholars have commented on this text extensively, so what I will say about it is hardly original, nevertheless, it is interesting when brought into the conversation on religious diversity. The verses are as follows:

“When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; the LORD’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.”

Scholars have long noted a textual problem with the phrase, “the number of the gods.” The traditional Hebrew text (the Masoretic Text) has, “the number of the Israelites,” which doesn’t make great sense here. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Greek version of the Old Testament read as above. This latter reading is most certainly correct. The manuscript evidence is better for it, it makes better sense in context, and the change to “Israelites” seems theologically motivated. Given that the correct reading is “the number of the gods,” this text paints a picture of the high god (El Elyon translated here as Most High) handing out the different groups of people on earth to his children (i.e., the beney elohim), who appear elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Job 1:6; Psalm 82:1; 89:6–7). In this text, the god of Israel (the LORD), gets Jacob (=Israel) as his allotted people. Again, so much could be said about this text, but the key point here is that the biblical text expresses this idea the relationship between the LORD and the Israelites is somehow parallel to that between other groups and their gods.

Both of these text express a certain parity or equality between cultural and religious traditions. You only need read the context of these verses to recognize that this parity or equality is not absolute, and is not see as applying to every group. Nonetheless, both texts hold out the possibility for cultural and religious groups to find a place in their ideology for those who are different.

Reza Aslan’s God: A Human History

Reza Aslan’s new book God: A Human History (Random House, 2017) provides a history of conceptions about the divine world. His working thesis is that humans have a near universal impulse to conceptualize the divine world in human terms that are linked with the social, economic, and political status of their societies. This history moves from the animism of our early cave painting hunter-gatherer ancestors, to those who experienced the agricultural revolution and began to settle into sedentary life, to those who began to dwell in cities and present their gods in the image of their political systems (what he calls politicomorphism, p. 102). The trajectory of human religious thinking will eventually lead to several attempts to be monotheistic (e.g., Akhenaten, Zoroaster, and the Jews), which are not fully successful in dehumanizing God—that is, not describing God in human form.

There are many fascinating twists and turns in the book. His discussion of the ways that cognitive science might provide answers to why humans have so frequently posited the existence of souls in animate and inanimate objects (chapter 3) offers an interesting point of entry into social scientific discussions of religion. The book is impressive in its historical sweep and I think it will be useful as a textbook for introduction to religion classes.

There are some inevitable drawbacks, however, to such a broad ranging scholarly endeavor. The scholars who write such works cannot be an expert in everything they write about . In Aslan’s case, he does an impressive job of bringing together a wide range of scholarship, however, I couldn’t help but notice some of the outdated bibliographic items from the 50s, 60s, and 70s on the Bible and the ancient Near East.

I also couldn’t shake the sense that in his portrayal of human thinking about the divine he followed older anthropological models that understood religion to have evolved in a steady way towards the pinnacle of monotheism, and then perhaps to pantheism if we follow his lead. While I am sure Aslan knows that there are various trajectories in religious history, and that it is difficult to speak of progress in relation to religious concepts, those things did not come across strongly in his book.

At the end of the book, Aslan tells the reader that his own intellectual and spiritual journey have brought him to a pantheistic understanding. God/god is everything. Everything is God/god. A pantheistic understanding resonates with various of the mystical traditions in the major religions. For him, it was the Sufi tradition of Islam that got him there. In his description of various possible ways of understanding pantheism, Aslan states that it is just as possible to understand the Oneness of all things from a materialist perspective (pp. 167–168). This makes me wonder why the need for a specifically religious pantheism rather than a non-religious materialist understanding of the world? As a thoughtful person, I am sure Aslan could provide and answer to that. In fact, he does to some extent when he says that there is no evidence to prove things one way or the other, so we must simply choose (p. 171). I don’t object to this portrayal of the intellectual situation, but it does make me wonder if his next book will document his journey from pantheism to atheism.

In any case, for those wanting a well-written and accessible introduction to the history of the conception of God, Reza Aslan’s new book will provide an excellent point of entry,.

The book can be found at https://www.amazon.com/God-Human-History-Reza-Aslan/dp/055339472X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1522980358&sr=8-1&keywords=God+a+human+history&dpID=41WDjYy3oPL&preST=_SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=srch

 

Doubt, Religion, and Knowledge

In Night, Elie Wiesel’s haunting memoir of the Holocaust, Wiesel reflects on time spent with Moishe the Beadle with whom he discussed the deep things of Jewish spiritual inquiry. In his conversations with Moishe, we are told, “He [Moishe] explained to me, with great emphasis, that every question possessed a power that was lost in the answer . . .” (Wiesel 2006: 4–5). Having read this book with my students many times now, I have always found this part of the narrative important for the story that Wiesel tells and for my own search for knowledge and truth. Answers inevitably mean that a given question is no longer compelling to ask. New questions often arise, but the question you started with no longer holds its potency to drive the questioner towards finding the answer. And thus, the power of the question is totally linked to the answer. In Night, one gets the sneaking suspicion that the question—perhaps I should say, The Question—is the answer. Or in other words, that in the most enduring human issues, predicaments, and trials, the questions we ask are an answer in and of themselves because they keep our attention on what is most important. For Wiesel, the question of how God could allow the Holocaust is a key motif in Night. He eschews easy answers and opts for the stance of protest. In one poignant scene, Wiesel recounts how the men he lived with in Auschwitz speculated on the reasons why God was allowing such horrible things to happen. Some said God worked in mysterious ways. Some said God was judging the Jews for their sins. Others saw it as a test of faith. Wiesel had come to a different conclusion: “As for me, I had ceased to pray. I concurred with Job! I was not denying His existence, but I doubted His absolute justice” (Wiesel 2006: 45). To the question of unjust suffering, Wiesel did not seek to turn to an answer that somehow got God off the hook; rather he doubts God’s justice in allowing such things to happen. Wiesel’s answer to the question, “Why does God allow suffering such as the Holocaust?” is something like, “Why in the world would God allow such suffering to take place?” And perhaps for good effect, it should be repeated several times with an ever-increasing urgency in the voice. The key is the incredulity, the unwillingness of the one who answers the initial question with another question to settle for a simple answer. This impulse seems critically important in religious life and more generally in the search for knowledge. In the face of pressures to find certainty and assurance of the things we hold most dear, it can be unsettling too. And yet, the creative tension, the power of the question as Wiesel puts it, is one of the strongest tools in our intellectual and spiritual toolkits. To embrace it is to accept that our need for certainty is less important than a long quest for understanding driven by unanswered questions.