Ancient Israelites used to rely heavily on biblical writings for information about the world, such writings constituted a Holy Answer Book to questions both large and small:
How did heaven and earth and the things in them come to be? See the Creation story.
Why do the sexes love each other so much? Why do women experience great pain during childbirth? Why does it take so much effort to grow crops to feed ourselves instead of us being able to live in a luxurious garden with fruit and green plants we can pluck and eat at will? Why do snakes go on their bellies? Why do humans hate them so much? Where did death come from? Why do humans have the god-like attribute of great knowledge but return to the dust like animals instead of enjoying the other god-like attribute, immortality? Why do humans wear clothes? See the Garden of Eden story.
Where do rainbows come from? See the Flood story.
Will there ever be another Flood like the one in Noahʼs day? —a question of grave concern to people who believed that creation arose in the midst of primeval waters and continued to be surrounded on all sides by water that was held back by divine power, and should that divine power release its grip then creation would be reduced again to its original watery “empty and void” state. See the Creation and Flood stories.
Why are there so many different languages and tribes spread out upon the earth? See the Tower of Babel story.
How did Israel come to have this glorious land of Canaan? See the Exodus story.
Non-Israelite nations invented their own legendary answers as to why the world was the way it was. Where do rainbows come from? A Babylonian legend in The Epic of Gilgamesh says rainbows are the lapis lazuli necklace of Ishtar that she placed in the sky to remind her never to flood the world again. Why do spiders spin webs? Because a seamstress named Arachne challenged the Greek goddess Athena to a spinning contest which the mortal won, but was a little too sassy about it, so the goddess changed her into the very first spider, and said, “O.K., now you can spin all you want.”
Additional answers provided by Israelite legends include the following:
Why are there two great lights (literal Heb. “great lamps”) in the sky that appear and disappear at regular intervals? God provided them so we can measure the time between religious festivals (the Hebrew word for “seasons” in Genesis 1 is used in the Pentateuch to denote religious festivals). The Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish, explains the lights in the sky the same way, as timekeepers put there by their high god, Marduk, so that humans can tell when the next religious festival in his honor was due to be celebrated.
Why is every seventh day a sacred day of rest? Because God rested on the seventh day of creation.
Biblical writings also provided answers to questions like, Why are we at odds with a particular nation? Because itʼs in their blood, their eponymous ancestors behaved badly toward us so itʼs little wonder that their descendants still do. Why did we kill and enslave people living in the land of Canaan? Because the alleged son of a son of Noah, named “Canaan” was allegedly cursed along with all of his descendants, the Canaanites, to be the slaves to Noahʼs other sons.
Hermann Gunkel (1862—1932), a German Old Testament scholar, wrote The Legends of Genesis, the first part of his massive commentary on Genesis, in which he points out many cases of OT authors attempting to produce answers to questions of both a global and tribal nature, “The Varieties Of Legends In Genesis”
“The answers to such questions constitute the real content of the respective legends…
“Why has Japhet such an extended territory? Why do the children of Lot dwell in the inhospitable East? How does it come that Reuben has lost his birthright? Why is Gilead the border between Israel and the Aramæans? Why does Beersheba belong to us and not to the people of Gerar? Why is Shechem in possession of Joseph? Why have we a right to the holy places at Shechem and Machpelah? Why has Ishmael become a Bedouin people with just this territory and this God? How does it come that the Egyptian peasants have to bear the heavy tax of the fifth, while the fields of the priests are exempt? The usual nature of the answer given to these questions by our legends is that the present relations are due to some transaction of the patriarchs: the tribal ancestor bought the holy place, and accordingly it belongs to us, his heirs; the ancestors of Israel and Aram established Gilead as their mutual boundary, and so on. A favorite way is to find the explanation in a miraculous utterance of God or some of the patriarchs, and the legend has to tell how this miraculous utterance came to be made in olden times. And this sort of explanation was regarded as completely satisfactory, so that there came to be later a distinct literary variety of ‘charm’ or ‘blessing.’”
“Along with the above we find etymological legends or features of legends, as it were, beginnings of the science of language… Ancient Israel spent much thought upon the origin and the real meaning of the names of races, mountains, wells, sanctuaries, and cities. To them names were not so unimportant as to us, for they were convinced that names were somehow closely related to the things. It was quite impossible in many cases for the ancient people to give the correct explanation, for names were, with Israel as with other nations, among the most ancient possessions of the people, coming down from extinct races or from far away stages of the national language… Early Israel as a matter of course explains such names without any scientific spirit and wholly on the basis of the language as it stood. It identifies the old name with a modern one which sounds more or less like it, and proceeds to tell a little story explaining why this particular word was uttered under these circumstances and was adopted as the name. We too have our popular etymologies. How many there are who believe that the noble river which runs down between New Hampshire and Vermont and across Massachusetts and Connecticut is so named because it ‘connects’ the first two and ‘cuts’ the latter two states! Manhattan Island, it is said, was named from the exclamation of a savage who was struck by the size of a Dutch hat worn by an early burgher, ‘Man hat on!’… Similar legends are numerous in Genesis and in later works. The city of Babel is named from the fact that God there confused human tongues (balal, Gen 11: 9); Jacob is interpreted as ‘heelholder’ because at birth he held his brother, whom he robbed of the birthright, by the heel (Gen 25:26); Zoar means ‘trifle,’ because Lot said appealingly, ‘It is only a trifle’ (Gen 19:20,22); Beersheba is ‘the well of seven,’ because Abraham there gave Abimelech seven lambs (21:28 ff.); Isaac (Jishak) is said to have his name from the fact that his mother laughed (sahak) when his birth was foretold to her (18:12), and so forth.
“In order to realize the utter naĩveté of most of these interpretations, consider that the Hebrew legend calmly explains the Babylonian name Babel from the Hebrew vocabulary, and that the writers are often satisfied with merely approximate similarities of sounds: for instance, “Cain” (Kajin) sounds like the Hebrew for “gotten” (kaniti, ‘I have acquired/gotten,’ hence the legend arose that when Cain was born to Eve she said, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord” (Gen 4:1); Reuben from rah beonji, ‘he hath regarded my misery’ (Gen 29:32), etc. Every student of Hebrew knows that these are not satisfactory etymologies…
“More important than these etymological legends are those whose purpose is to explain the regulations of religious ceremonials… [For instance, circumcision was common in the ancient world but we Israelites] perform the rite of circumcision in memory of an alleged covenant between our God and our eponymous ancestor Abraham, and also in memory of a story involving Moses, whose firstborn was circumcised as a redemption for Moses whose blood God demanded (Ex 4:24 ff.)… The stone at Bethel was first anointed by Jacob because it was his pillow in the night when God appeared to him (Gen 28.11 ff.), therefore we continue to anoint it today. At Jeruel—the name of the scene of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, Gen 22:1-19—God at first demanded of Abraham his child, but afterward accepted a ram, so we likewise sacrifice animals to redeem our first born. And so on…
“Why is this particular place and this sacred memorial so especially sacred? The regular answer to this question was, Because in this place the divinity appeared to our ancestor. In commemoration of this theophany we worship God in this place. Now in the history of religion it is of great significance that the ceremonial legend comes from a time when religious feeling no longer perceived as self-evident the divinity of the locality and the natural monument and had forgotten the significance of the sacred ceremony. Accordingly the legend has to supply an explanation of how it came about that the God and the tribal ancestor met in this particular place. Abraham happened to be sitting under the tree in the noonday heat just as the men appeared to him, and for this reason the tree is sacred (Gen 19:1 ff.). The well in the desert, Lacha-roi, became the sanctuary of Ishmael because his mother in her flight into the desert met at this well the God who comforted her (Gen 16:7 ff.). Jacob happened to be passing the night in a certain place and resting his head upon a stone when he saw the heavenly ladder; therefore this stone is our sanctuary (Gen 28:10 ff). Moses chanced to come with his flocks to the holy mountain and the thorn bush (Ex 3:1 ff.). Probably every one of the greater sanctuaries of Israel had some similar legend of its origin.
“Other sorts of legends… undertake to explain the origin of a locality. Whence comes the Dead Sea with its dreadful desert? The region was cursed by God on account of the terrible sin of its inhabitants. Whence comes the pillar of salt yonder with its resemblance to a woman? That is a woman, Lotʼs wife, turned into a pillar of salt in punishment for attempting to spy out the mystery of God (Gen 19:26). But whence does it come that the bit of territory about Zoar is an exception to the general desolation? Because God spared it as a refuge for Lot (19:17-22).”
“Answers” like those above are no longer assumed to be true.
We moderns have learned the benefits of investigating questions using all possible comparative historical, linguistic, and scientific means, even leaving questions open if those means fail us.
Instead of relying primarily on biblical writings to supply answers, moderns rely on electronic devices that connect us with countless scholarly resources, a worldwide library of ancient and modern writings and images at our fingertips, including sights from space and deep inside matter. Such devices show us the outermost regions of the cosmos as well as whatʼs inside our bodies, illustrating how it works, and even tell us the weather a week in advance. Such devices teach as well as entertain (functions more often served in the past by biblical stories). They also keep us in touch with one another. They have become humanityʼs new place to turn to, like Bibles used to be. Thereʼs much more to read about today and learn than what the Bible says.
Ever since investigations of nature via observation and experimentation, and later, since the invention of telescopes and microscopes, we have turned more toward the cosmos as something that can continually expand our minds and lead to never ending exploration. Studying the book of nature has proven to be a far more fascinating and mind-expanding experience for far more educated people today, than, say, studying the books of the Bible.
We continue to discover new Lego-like ways to stick atoms together and produced new chemicals, new organisms, as well as new machines, new computing devices and robots.
We continue to discover new ways to smash together sub-atomic particles and explore the results.
We continue to discover new ways to gaze upon and measure the effects of stellar explosions, the effects of galaxies colliding with one another, even the effects of entire clusters of galaxies colliding with one another, to discover new energies and forces at work and how they interact.
We continue to discover new ways to study the past, as well as new ways to think about the cosmos and its possible futures.
We also continue to discover new Lego-like ways to stick together stories and characters from the worldʼs writings both past and present to forge fascinating new ones.
Those are what expand the minds of educated moderns today.
Or, as Robert G. Ingersoll, Americaʼs “Great Agnostic” put it to conservative Christians in his day, “We have heard talk enough. We have listened to all the drowsy, idealess, vapid sermons that we wish to hear. We have read your Bible and the works of your best minds. We have heard your prayers, your solemn groans and your reverential amens. All these amount to less than nothing. We want one fact. We beg at the doors of your churches for just one little fact. We pass our hats along your pews and under your pulpits and implore you for just one fact. We know all about your moldy wonders and your stale miracles. We want a this yearʼs fact. We ask only one. Give us one fact for charity. Your miracles are too ancient. The witnesses have been dead for nearly two thousand years.” (“The Gods,” 1872)
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