God in the Bible will make a covenant with his people, and you think that since he’s made the sale, the book will end. But then the Bible stories keep coming. In part 1, we saw how God made covenants with Noah and then Abraham. After each one, you’re ready to read The End or “And they lived happily ever after” or some other wrapup. Perhaps after the covenant with Abraham we’re finally finished?
Nope—God wants to reboot this story yet again.
The Bible, take three (Moses)
Abraham begets Isaac, who begets Jacob, who then begets twelve sons, one of whom is Joseph. Joseph is annoying, and his brothers sell him into slavery. Joseph winds up in Egypt, but you can’t keep God’s man down, and God makes Joseph the Pharaoh’s right-hand man. That’s a nice bit of luck, because famine forces Jacob and sons to Egypt.
Generations go by, with Jacob’s descendants happily living in Egypt, still divided into twelve tribes according to the lineage of Jacob’s sons. But somehow the Israelites go from being guests to slaves.
And then Moses is born. He goes from the child of slaves to member of the royal household when he’s found floating in a basket (as coincidentally happened to Sargon, the founder of the Akkadian Empire, centuries before).
Moses first hears from God through a burning bush. Now on a mission from God, Moses and his brother Aaron haggle with Pharaoh for the freedom of the Israelites. The ten plagues helped. Weighed down with gold and silver taken from the Egyptians, they’re off for a quick trip across the Sinai to Canaan that takes forty years.
At Mount Sinai, God tells the Israelites (Exodus 19), “If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession,” and the people agree. One chapter later, God gives what’s popularly known as the Ten Commandments. The covenant is confirmed with sacrifices and blood sprinkled on the people (Exodus 24).
So we’re good?
Nope—we need lots more laws and rules. Moses is finally ready to return from Mount Sinai, but by this time the impatient and fearful Israelites (with Aaron’s help) have made a golden calf to comfort them. God wants to press the Big Reset Button in the Sky again, but Moses talks him out of it by referring to the perpetual Abrahamic covenant. (It must not have been that great a plan if God let himself be talked out of it.)
Moses smashes the stone tablets of the Law on the golden idol. The people are punished, and Moses goes back up for a duplicate set of Ten Commandments (which isn’t even close to being the same set), and that set is stored in the Ark of the Covenant.
There’s plenty more about the Mosaic covenant being a perpetual contract. The priesthood of Aaron’s descendants is “permanent” (Numbers 25:13, also Exodus 40:15), the Day of Atonement is a “lasting ordinance” (Leviticus 16:34), God says about the laws, “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of Yahweh your God that I give you” (Deuteronomy 4:2), and so on.
Finally. Now we’re done, right?
The Bible, take four (Jesus)
You’d think that if Jesus were the point of God’s story, if he were the person necessary for people to avoid hell, Jesus would be in Genesis 1, and it wouldn’t take a bunch of reboots and irrelevant covenants to get here. As it is, the Old Testament becomes just long-winded throat clearing, and much of the New Testament must rationalize away the incompatibility.
We read in the Law, “All your words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal” (Psalm 119:160). But God’s words aren’t particularly eternal according to the author of Hebrews, which weaves a legal case that Jesus was a priest “in the order of Melchizedek.” Since Abraham honored Melchizedek long before Moses, Jesus trumps the Levitical priesthood that was created from the Mosaic covenant. Or something.
This New Testament reboot upsets a lot of assumptions from before. What does it say about God that Jesus had to come down to straighten out his story? You’d think that an omniscient creator of the universe could convey things clearly. Here are a few things Jesus had to clarify.
- The afterlife is no longer a vague existence in Sheol but is either bliss or torment, depending on your beliefs (or works).
- God isn’t just a monotheistic Yahweh but has become a Trinity (in Christianity though not in the New Testament).
- In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes a number of corrections of the “You have heard it said . . . , but I tell you” form. Jesus redefines murder, adultery, divorce, the correct response to injustice, prayer, and so on, making one wonder why God needed to be corrected.
- The “death” of Jesus is said to be the sacrifice to (literally) end all sacrifices. (Let’s ignore the fact that no provision in the Law is ever given to permit the sacrifice of a human; Jesus wasn’t burned, which was required for any sacrifice; Jesus wasn’t part of any tribe and so couldn’t hold the office of Levitical priest to offer a sacrifice; and Jesus wasn’t physically unblemished, as was required for any sacrifice.)
- And that whole Chosen People thing for the Jews? No—Yahweh is now everyone’s god.
But surely this is the last reboot, right?
Nope—Islam was another reboot, and Mormonism was another. Christians can’t criticize reboots when their own religion is built on them.
What explains this?
There are at least three possible explanations for why we see these reboots in God’s instruction manual.
First, God kept changing his mind. This doesn’t put omniscient God in a good light if he kept forgetting the point or changing his mind.
Second, the fault is with the human scribes and keepers of the Bible, and if it had just been written and copied correctly, it would make sense. One wonders, then, why God would allow his message to become so muddled.
Third, God doesn’t exist, and the Bible is just the blog of a desert tribe from long ago. It’s no more accurate than the pre-scientific musings of hundreds of other religions.
I think this last interpretation paints the most dignified picture of God. Instead of a forgetful dolt or an inept manager, God was just the best explanation that one tribe could put together in a frightening and insecure time.
- Simplicity: the Trait Missing from Christianity
- Contradictions in the Bible? No, It’s Progressive Revelation!
is that they don’t allow questions.
— seen on the internet
Image via Gabriel White, CC license