Sunday, December 21, 2008

Asimov's Guide to the Bible

Asimov's Guide to the Bible - Volume I
© Isaac Asimov 1968
677 pages plus indices


This week I read volume one of Isaac Asimov's two-volume guide to the bible. The first volume is on what Christians call the "Old Testament". The books Asimov uses come directly from the Protestant tradition: there are no books of the Maccabees here. Given the religious importance of the Hebrew scriptures in various religions, an introduction to the author and his religious views is in order. Although Asimov is technically Jewish, his parents were completely secular. According to Asimov, his only exposure to Judaism came through interaction with other Jews and in learning Hebrew, which he did when his father took up a position in a Hebrew school. Because he was not really segregated from the rest of American society (as he would have been had he been raised as Orthodox), he was shaped by the Christian-influenced culture of the early-mid-20th century. He acknowledges that some Christian mythology worked its way into his Foundation series when he created a religion there. In his biography, Asimov commented that his two-volume set on the Bible was written with the perspective of a "secular humanist". In the introduction of the volume I read this week, he describes the series as 'a consideration of the secular aspects of the Bible.' He maintains that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures have secular worth in that they contain history, literature, and so on.

This is a view I agree with, although until this week I have never regarded the Hebrew writings as reliable history -- wholly because I had never read an account like this, where the history as recorded in the Hebrew (I use that term in lieu of Jewish: our ideas of what Jewishness is are western, and the people of the "Old Testament" are not western.) scriptures was compared to other historical accounts. I was raised in a strict Christian tradition wherein the Bible was taken as literal fact, but even as a believing child I always found myself surprised when I spotted shreds of "real" history in the Bible history -- and felt vindicated when history books referenced the Bible. The first time this happened was in sixth grade, when Moses appeared in my world history book.

Asimov works his way through the "Old Testament" (a term I don't like using, but one which is more convenient than "the Hebrew scriptures", and is more easily understood by the reader), beginning with Genesis and ending with the last so-called prophet, Malachi. Because Biblical Hebrew serves as the international language of Jews, Asimov -- thanks to being forced to learn Hebrew as an older child -- can convey the meanings of the actual Hebrew words instead of relying on their significantly biased English translations. Asimov is not exempt from allowing his biases to impact his interpretation of what a word might mean, but unlike King James, he is not creating a Bible that will justify a particular religious domination's dogmas. I am acutely aware of humanistic viewpoints when I spot them, and this book -- while focusing on the secular aspects of the Old Testament -- doesn't scream "humanist bias" to me. It did probably infuriate Bible literalists, but then again those who chuckle at the idea of a talking snake infuriate the literalists.

Asimov relies on his knowledge of Hebrew, his knowledge of world history, and the work of others gone before him (those who have located and translated Assyrian and Egyptian documents, for instance). He uses that knowledge and the records of the empires surrounding Palestine to fit the historical happenings of the Bible into the historical events recorded in other accounts. Generally, the amount he writes is proportional to the length of the book. Genesis and Isaiah are long "books", and the time he spends on them is appropriatly long. Some books are quite short (like Habbukkuk) and only merit a page or two. Habbukkuk got a paragraph. Some books are lengthy but deal with the same material over and over. Levitucis, for instance, is a book of rituals and describes in great detail the minituia of Hebrew law, most of which is incomprehensible to the modern mind. The Hebrews were like the people surrounding them fairly primitive by our standards, and their laws are bizaare. Other books, while lengthy, don't get a lot of commentary: Psalms and Proverbs are examples. The Book of Proverbs is compared to other "Wisdom Books" of the Hebrews and other cultures.

Each book of the Old Testament merits a chapter, and in each Asimov sums up the time period the book concerns, when it was probably written, when it worked its way into the canon, and what the book concerns. He spends a lot of time investigating what particular words mean. One book might contain a name-reference that is not mentioned in another book, but Asimov will glean the meaning of it by looking at the original Hebrew word and commenting on the way it might have been a mistranslated form of another word that makes sense. There are no great leaps of faith here -- the overwhelming majority of these place-names do look like common mistake in the original writing or in the translating process: compare Nebuchadnezzer to Nebuchadrezzer, for instance.

One technique of Asimov is to date books by the references within them, and this sometimes brings him to the conclusion that the date given by the author is misleading. For instance, in the book of Jonah, the author describes the stoy as being set during the reign of Jeroboam II, but at the same time references that Nineveh was the great city of the mighty Assyrian empire. The problem is that during the reign of Jeroboam, the Assyrian empire was nonexistant, and Nineveh was a podunk town of no significance. He often looks for anachronisms.

To read this book is to become versed in the etymology of various words, to read about the history of the ancient and early classical world, to learn about the history of the early Jewish faith (which Asimov terms "Yahvism", after Yahveh), and to learn about Jewish mythology. Bible literalists would object to that description, but the Bible has giants, "unicorns", angels, and takes seriously astrological tales. I see no problem in dealing with Jewish religious instruction and Jewish mythology as two seperate elements of the same culture that subsequently influence one another someway.

My lone complaint about the book is that Asimov tends to romanticize particular elements. I am thinking of his treatment of the prophets in particular, who he persisently describes as religious personalities outside the priesthood who railed against the excesses of the priesthood and who stood up for the poor and oppressed. He compares them to the uncaring priests who are obsessed with ritual. Perhaps prophets like Elisha did stand up the poor, but I am not so much of a romantic that I think that was their only concern. They had their dogmas they wanted to be uniform: these were men who advocated the murder (or killing-of, if you resent that connotation) of people of differening religious faiths. I liken them to people like Lenin: idealists in their speech, but dogmatic and ambitious for power in reality.

All in all, quite an interesting read. The book has limited appeal, of course. Only those interested in the Bible will be interested. I was raised with a strict literalist perspective and had "Sunday school teachers" who taught me the stories -- brutal as they were -- of the Old Testament, so this book was a bit like returning to the days of my childhood, albiet with a much different perspective. Whereas once I read the stories and feared a god, I now read the stories and marvel at the combined beauty and brutality that humanity is capable of.

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