Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Necessity of Reading These Essays Cannot Be Overstated

The next two or so days, I'm going to go over a long passage from Marilynne Robinson's essay,  "The Fate of Ideas:  Moses".   I'm not really prepared to discuss it in full because, just as reading her essays on Calvinism forced a total reconsideration of everything I was taught about Calvinism in college and through reading*  what is purported to be serious writing on that topic, so it is with her two essays on Moses.  There is so much to unlearn that I used to think was learned, since most of what one gets from such a preparation isn't based on an honest consideration of what the texts say and in comparison with other texts and in the context in which it was said.  I did, occasionally do a little of that revising before I read the essays in question, such as on the absurd things said about the story of Abraham and Isaac, but the question of Moses goes to the heart of the matter.

Before typing out the first passages, I'll point out that Robinson makes it clear what she is talking about when she says, "Moses", she means " the ethos and spirit of Mosaic law, however it came to be articulated".


In his Utopia,Thomas More, the sixteenth-century statesman and scholar, notes one great difference between the regime of Christian England and the laws laid down by Moses.  English thieves were hanged in great numbers, sometimes twenty on a scaffold, whereas "to be short, Moses' law, though it were ungentle and sharp, as a law that was given to bondmen, yea, and them very obstinate, stubborn and stiff-necked, yet it punished theft by the purse, and not with death [emphasis mine].   And let us not think that God in the new law of clemency and mercy, under which He ruleth us with fatherly gentleness, as his dear children, hath given us greater scope and license to the execution of cruelty upon one another.'  More wrote his book in Latin, and the learned could not be hanged (if they were male) -- this is the actual meaning of the phrase "benefit of clergy" -- so those to whom his thoughts would have been of pressing interest would not have been among his readers.  But a very valuable point is made here, which is seldom made, and which, if we were honest, would force us to consider many things.  

Moses (by whom I mean the ethos and spirit of Mosaic law, however it came to be articulated) in fact does not authorize any physical punishment for crimes of property.  The entire economic and social history of Christendom would have been transformed if Moses had been harkened to only in this one particular.  Feudalism, not to mention early capitalism, is hardly to be imagined where such restraint was observed in defense of the rights of ownership.   Anyone familiar with European history is aware of the zeal for brutal punishment., the terrible ingenuity with which the human body was tormented and insulted through the eighteenth century at least, very often to deter theft on the part of the wretched.  Moses authorizes nothing of the kind, nor indeed does he countenance any oppression of the poor.   More is entirely conventional, as he would still, in describing the law of Moses as "sharp" beside the merciful governance of Christ.  But how could Europe have been more effectively Christianized - understand the sense in which I use the word - than by adherence to these laws of Moses?   Granting the severity of the holiness codes in the Torah,  they do not compare unfavorably with laws touching on religious matters in more's England.  More himself called for the burning of William Tyndale, the great early translator of the Bible into English, who was in fact burned.  It is often said that Eurpoeans learned religious intolerance from the Old Testament.  Then how did we happen to skip over the parts where the laws protect and provide for the poor, and where oppression of them is most fiercely forbidden?  It is surely dishonest to suggest we learned anything at all from the Torah, if we have not learned anything good from it.  Better to say our vices are our own than to try to exculpate ourselves by implying that our attention strayed during the humane and visionary passages.  The law of Moses puts liberation theology to shame in its passionate loyalty to the poor.  Why do we not know this yet? 

Utopia describes the consequences of the nightmarish policy of clearance and enclosure, persisted in for centuries, which drove the rural poor out of the English countryside. 

"For look in what parts of the realm doth grow the finest and therefore 
dearest wool, where noblemen and gentlemen, yea and certain abbots, 
 holy men no doubt much annoying the public weal,  leave no room for 
tillage.  They enclose all into pastures; they throw down houses, they 
pluck  down towns, and leave nothing standing but a church to be made 
a sheep-house.  .... [The poor] must needs depart away, poor, silly, 
wretched souls, men women, husbands, wives, fatherless children, 
widows, woeful mothers with their young babes .... Away they trudge,  
I say, out of their known and accustomed houses, finding no place 
to rest in ... [ When they have sold whatever they have ] what can 
they else do but to steal,  and then justly be hanged, or else go about 
a-begging?   And yet then also they can be cast into prison as 
vagabonds, because they go out and work not, whom no man will set 
a-work, though they never so willingly proffer themselves thereto."

As I will demonstrate from the text, all this violates the laws of Moses, in letter and in spirit.  How is it to be reconciled with any conceivable intention of Jesus I cannot imagine, but that is not the issue here.  In fact, the laws of Moses establish a highly coherent system of minimizing and alleviating poverty, a brilliant economics based in a religious ethic marked by nothing more strongly than by an anxious solicitude for the well-being of the needy and the vulnerable.   

It would be fair for us to consider the use of capital punishment for property crimes didn't diminish in the period called and lauded as The Enlightenment but actually became more severe under the Bloody Code in England and in the American colonies.  And that during the 18th century, under the intellectual regime of the Enlightenment, the number of crimes punished by execution in Britain increased several fold.  I have not looked at the legal codes in other places, primarily because as an American, the influence of that British law to my country is so great.  It would be extremely interesting to know about the use of capital punishment in other "enlightened" countries.

In her other great essay defending The Law,  Robinson points out that in the universally condemned harshness of Puritan Massachusetts, following the understanding of The Law of the Hebrew Bible that is contained in Calvin's commentary on it, the use of capital punishment was far less than in virtually every other place and, as well, no property crime was punished with death.  And, as important, the treatment of the poor and destitute was at least in legal theory, far more liberal than it is in many places today.  It was only in the period after the restoration of the monarchy, after the Commonwealth, that the liberality of the law in Massachusetts was altered to conform more to British practice.

Taken as a group, Jews are about the most liberal of all Americans, something which would be no mystery if the liberality of The Law, its establishment of mandatory equality and justice were to be taken into account. Even among those who might disdain the religion of their ancestors could still benefit from the familial and cultural vestiges of the thinking learned from it.  Which could also account, to some extent, why Massachusetts, under influences and politicians who could hardly be considered liberals, retains something of an identity as among the most liberal of states.  I don't think that either phenomenon just happened in the places and among the people who comprise the phenomenon. Their thinking does actually have a role in explaining their cultures, it isn't a physical occurrence unrelated to their minds.


I don't know of any single essay other than the one I'm excerpting that does more to overturn the innumerable holdings of anti-Semitism and stereotyping than this one by Robinson. Together with "Open Thy Hand Wide:  Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism" she demolishes both the most vulgar and crude form of anti-Semitism, taken as anti-Semitism, proper, and what is probably as insidious, the genteel anti-Semitism that is still common in academia and, as I've noted recently, is embedded in much of the anti-religious content of evolutionary-psychology and even what is held to be comedy.

Robinson continues with that, perhaps, unintended project of wrecking the common received knowledge about the Mosaic tradition which is a major part of the stock and trade of ideological atheism.

Ah, but the people Moses brought out of slavery invaded and took the land of the Canaanites!  The Israelites are much abused these days for their treatment of the Canaanites.  The historicity of the invasion stories as they occur in Joshua is questionable;  archaeology does not confirm them.  Nor does the book of Judges, which names the peoples "the Lord left" in Canaan: Philistines, Sidonians, Hivites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, and Jebusites (Judges 3:3-5).  The Israelites may well have been Canaanites themselves, or a mixed population of those who were slaves in Egypt rather than a tribe or people.   The number of those who left Egypt may have been small and have grown in retrospect, like the French resistance [Robinson's sense of humor is subtle but never wasted through unnecessary use.],  Possession of Canaan was never complete.  Other inhabitants, for example Hittites and Philistines were also invaders.  Ancient Near Eastern records often describe the defeat of enemies as their extermination;  in fact the one known mention of Israel in Egyptian writing, dated about 1230 BCE, boasts that "Israel is laid waste, his seed is not."   In any case, whatever happened in Canaan, a violent epic was made of it which is the basis of much vilification of "the Jewish God."

As ancient narrative, and as history, this story of conquest is certainly the least remarkable part of the Bible, and a very modest event as conquests go,  the gradual claiming of an enclave in a territory that would be utterly negligible by the lights of the real conquerors such as Alexander the Great or Augustus Caesar or even Ashurbanipal.  The suggestion that God was behind it maybe makes it worse than the campaigns of self-aggrandizement that destroyed many larger and greater cities, though it is not clear to me that it should.  A consequence which follows from God's role in the conquest of Canaan, asserted with terrible emphasis in Leviticus and elsewhere, is that God will deal with the Israelites exactly as he has dealt with the Canaanites, casting them out of the land in their turn if they cease to deserve it.  Abraham is told in a dream that possession of the promised land will be delayed an astonishing four hundred years until, in effect, the Amorites (that is, Canaanites) have lost their right to it.  We Anglo-European invaders do not know yet if we will have four hundred years in this land. 

Furthermore, as they approach Canaan, the Hebrews are told they may not take any land of the Edomites or the Moabites because God has already given those people their lands, having driven out former inhabitants (Deuteronomy 2:4-11).  This is not the thinking of racial supremacists, or of people who believe they alone have God's attention.  Certainly it implies that God honors righteousness in those outside the Abrahamic covenant - otherwise the Canaanites could not have held the land while they did.  In any case, only ignorance can excuse the notion that Europeans learned aggression and tribalism while perusing the Bible.  The Peloponnesian Wars by themselves are a sufficient demonstration of that point.

These are only a few of the points Marilynne Robinson makes in powerful essays that overturn some of the most destructive cultural habits of thought that are in full flower among us and still part of our casual academic discourse as certainly as they were in late 19th century Germany and elsewhere, including Britain and the United States.  Earlier in the essay she gently demolishes several modern authors, academic and popular, who push the same form of common popular understanding of The Law and, though more genteelly put than in formerly, the people to whom that law was given.  Her take down of John Shelby Spong was, I will admit, especially gratifying to me, considering how often his nonsense has been brought up to me in approximately the past fifteen years.

In his introduction to the published edition of Our Town, Thornton Wilder was, it seems to me, anxious to put to rest any suspicion that he was violating atheist propriety in the graveyard scene at the end of the play.  I can't find my copy of it this morning but as I recall he sanctifies his use of implications of the afterlife by relating it to classic literature, Dante, perhaps.  He assures us he doesn't believe in such nonsense.   I remember when I first read that it opened my eyes to the fact that atheism is considered a pre-requisite for being taken seriously in much of the academic world and the world of wider culture that takes itself as sophisticated.   That requirement of modernism is what I think is at work in the long term project of distortion, misreading and unequal treatment of, certainly the Hebrew Bible and, to an increasing extent, the Second Testament as well. That is the stuff I have to get past in dealing with the points Marilynne Robinson makes in these essays,  though the use of the death penalty prescribed by those laws is something I am conscience bound to reject entirely, as is the common reading of much of it.

As a gay man, I know it is possible to be good and gay at the same time, though I certainly acknowledge that gay sex can be used to oppress as certainly as straight sex can.  In fact, during the same period, being exposed to massive amounts of gay pornography has taught me that it is gay sex removed from the same moral foundation of equality and dignity that is bound to continue to oppress gay men even if all other legal and social discrimination and oppression of us ends.

The books containing the law and the historical narratives are not easy and contain passages that are troubling and difficult and even, by my own lights, wrong, that concerning witches, for example.  At the same time I have to say that Robinson's hypothesis that American liberalism, the very liberalism that has freed all of us who would otherwise be oppressed, is founded on the very same Law, stands as proven for me, at least.  That freedom didn't come from The Enlightenment, it was present for millenia before that cultural trend, it was culturally far more influential in democratic politics.  The slaves and abolitionists didn't cite the authors of the enlightenment, they cited the Torah in making their arguments.  At the end of the essay, in a passage that was bound to effect me very deeply because it references the Gospel passage I chose to read at my mother's funeral because it was so important to her,  Marilynne Robinson makes a point as to what The Law was to Jesus, what he meant when he talked about The Law, which he said he did not come to overturn in any way.

When Jesus describes Judgment, the famous separation of the sheep from the goats, he does not mention religious affiliation or sexual orientation or family values.  He says, "I was hungry, and ye fed me not" (Matthew 25:42). Whether he was a rabbi, a prophet, or the Second Person of the Trinity, the ethic he invokes comes straight from Moses.

*  As a child I never, once, heard any kind of vilification of Moses or the Mosaic tradition from my Catholic parents, from any Catholic priest or nun.  Everything I got about that I read in things which I suspect my parents and even the Catholic Church would rather I'd chosen not to read.  I think I can safely say that the overwhelming majority of it came from atheists writing in the modernist  and "scientific" modes of discourse, citing other such figures far more often than they did the texts of the Hebrew Bible. 

1 comment:

  1. As usual, I stop at some point to take a breath and make a comment (and first to note I'm glad you're feeling better. Hope that continues.).

    Much of what is said about Moses in the first full paragraph of the quote is what I learned in seminary. It was considered "liberal," too. But my OT professors emphasized the Torah's interest in the poor, an interest echoed by the prophets (who did not arrive there sui generis, no matter what some commentators think). Walter Brueggemann, especially, is quite keen on reading the Hebrew Scriptures as human and compassionate, not a paean to a Cosmic Thunderer (as the most ignorant on-line atheists insist it is, while insisting as well they alone have read those books).

    Well, just a pause, really, to say that Robinson is on very solid ground there, and her thinking is supported by, and the product of, many modern Biblical scholars. I especially like the bit about how the Torah puts liberation theology to shame.