The Old Testament As Eonic Data
Let’s face it: the Old Testament is a remarkable book. But it spoiled monotheism at the start with its confusions over theistic myth, ethnocentrism, and the epic sagas it lards its first sections with. It never quite made it to monotheism at all, and the pop theism of later times emerged early to swamp the now lost legacy of the ‘unnamed ‘god’, IHVH, whatever that was.
It should be considered that the Old Testament is thus idolatrous, but still of deepest interest. It has a direct parallel in the emergence of the Iliad/Odyssey in Greece: the Axial Age crystallizations of epics in parallel places and synchronous times is uncanny. Just as Achilles and Agamemnon turned out to have historical counterparts, mythologized, behind the Iliadic depictions, so it is most likely the figures of Abraham or Moses likewise refer to something like ‘real people’, factual histories unknown.
We have forgotten how remarkable was the case of ancient Israel/Judah, or Canaan, ditto for Archaic Greece, and tend to be confused by the mythological addons. Most of the text is from the period just before the Exile, and much has been simply made up to serve the ‘state theocratic propaganda’ of the remnant Israel. The final version comes about two centuries later.
We need to consider several issues:
The whole of the early history is simply monotheistic myth. The ‘history’ aspect begins, but marginally, with Abraham, who may also be myth, and takes on something like historical characteristics, albeit still mythical saga, in the Mosaic tale, the Exodus tale, the Sinai tale, the Joshua tale, and then in the record of kingdoms, Judah and Israel, after the period of Solomon/David, borderline history (?)
The record of those kingdoms, from about -900 to the Exile, at first less dramatic than the earlier epic, is thus the core history of the Old Testament, and it is here (as with the appearance of the Prophets) that we have the real historical near-miracle of the Bible, which the Bible has lost. But the Bible does sense that ‘god’ is an process acting across history via transmission zone, or geographical region. We have this remarkable insight of the Old Testament world recorded, but then distorted, in Biblical recounting.
The point I am making is that we have the first recorded account of an Axial Age transition, and the primitive Israelites did the best they could, but confused the action of this transition with the product of that transition, i.e. monotheism.
We can see the same phenomenon replicated across Eurasia in the Axial period, from Rome, to Greece, to Persia, India and China. But the Israelite stream, beside the Greek, transformed the Occident, as it spawned a set of world religions. This is the confusion over an age of revelation. The effect was very real, but not what we think.
The Israelites were so intoxicated by myths of Jehovah that they lost the original insight. And it points to something that should give ‘secularists’ pause: there is no simple way to explain the way two monotheisms, Israelite and Zoroastrian, gestated in parallel and then blended into a common core, during the Exile.
This could be taken as coincidence, but that seems a stretch. It defies standard sociological stream thinking.
And we must suspect that much of the streamlining of monotheism took place under this Persian influence, which was then lost to view, in the misleading (we suspect) face of Hebrew (really Zoroastrian monotheism). Whether that is true or not, the tandem hybridization of two parallel streams is part of the more general miracle of the Axial Age, when this parallel emergence effect occurs over and over again.
The Old Testament is so muddled that we can’t quite make out what really happened. It can be helpful to study the remarkable parallels with the Greek Archaic case, what Bertrand Russell called the Greek Miracle. The clearer record, untampered with by theological mythmakers, shows something like what might have happened in acient Canaan. But only in the most general terms. The actual case of the twin kingdoms in relation to the Assyrian empire, and blinking out, to disappear, in the sage of a religion that was ethnic, to become global, and culture free, is a pretty spectacular effect. But it is all spoiled in the chauvinistic ethnocentrism of the Israelite national literature, which never really got updated later.
In any case, the real miracle of the Israelites is, strangely, unknown to the Old Testament, a primitive concoction with a deep riddle, one that will prove more interesting to the secularist in the end.