Religion, Feminism, and Freedom of Conscience
Edited by George D. Smith

Chapter 3.
Secular and Religious Interpretations of Scripture
Gerald A. Larue

[p.17]My intent is to compare secular and religious interpretations of Jewish scriptures, writings Christians title “The Old Testament.” The word “old” is pejorative and connotes a prelude to superior Christian scriptures, “The New Testament.” I use a term employed by Jewish scholars to identify their sacred writings: Ta-Na-K—which stands for Torah (Law), Nebhiim (Prophets), and Kethubhim (Writings).

My approach is three-fold: literary-historical, archaeological, and what I call “common sense” analysis. Even as I employ critical methodology, I am aware that for many the literature under consideration is accepted as a divinely revealed holy work to be treated as separate and apart from secular writings. Indeed, the Torah is considered to constitute the foundation of Judaism, embodying regulations revealed to Moses. Both Jews and Christians approach these writings seeking understanding of their religious heritage, insight into the nature of God, and guidance and succor for life. Many Jews and Christians do not engage in critical analysis. When questions arise, they are answered by denominational leaders from a faith position rather than from the findings of scholars.

Nevertheless, Tanak is literature and subject to various forms of literary-historical analysis.1 It is important to note that critical [p.18]analyses are not employed uniquely by secular researchers, but from the beginning have been developed and used by religious savants.

The literary-historical approach to Tanak, which has been conducted primarily by religious scholars, seeks to determine when and where a writing was produced, by whom, for whom, and under what circumstances. The inquirer seeks to determine the kind of writing involved, to discern whether the document is a letter, a sermon, a fable, and so forth. Biblical scholar William Dever notes that as a result of literary analysis

It has been demonstrated that the Bible is a composite of diverse genres including myths, folktales, epics, prose and poetic narratives, court annals, nationalistic propaganda, historical novellas, genealogies, cult legends, liturgical formulas, songs and psalms, private prayers, legal corpora, oracles and prophecy, homily and didactic materials, belle lettres, erotic poetry, apocalyptic and so on.2

Now that is quite a list! It warns us not to approach biblical writings uncritically and simply as divinely revealed history.

Biblical literary analysis began about 500 C.E. when a Jewish scholar, writing in the Talmud, challenged the claim that Moses wrote the entire Torah or Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible. He noted that the final eight verses of Deuteronomy not only described Moses’ death and burial but claimed that “there has not risen a prophet since in Israel like Moses.” He suggested that “Joshua wrote eight verses of the law” (Baba Bathra 14b-15a).

Over the centuries, Bible readers found other discrepancies in the Torah. They noted that despite Jewish and Christian belief in Mosaic authorship, nowhere does the Torah make this claim. In [p.19]response, Christians pointed out that in the gospels Jesus made reference to “the things Moses commanded”; obviously Jesus believed that Moses was the author (Matt. 8:4, Mark 1:44, and so on).

But there were other problems. In Genesis 14:14 Abram is said to have led a group of men to the city of Dan; but Dan did not come into being until the time of the judges (Jdg. 18:29). The fundamentalist Christians argue that a later editor wanted to make clear that the Canaanite city of Laish of the time of Abram was the same as the Hebrew city of Dan. This explanation simply added to the evidence that some scribe had tampered with Moses’ words.

A number of passages refer to places located “beyond the Jordan” which is to say on the east side of the Jordan River (cf. Gen. 50:10, Num. 35:14, Deut. 1:1, 5, 3:8, 4:46). Obviously the writers of those words were located on the western side, in Israel, a land that Moses never entered (Deut. 34).

Could Moses, as author, contradict himself?. According to Numbers 35:6-7, the Levites were to receive territorial inheritances, but Deuteronomy 18:1 makes it clear that they were to have no inheritance. According to Exodus 3:13-15 and Exodus 6:2-3, the personal name of the deity, “Yahweh,” was revealed for the first time to Moses on the holy mountain. Prior to this revelation, Yahweh was known only as “Elohim” or “El Shaddai.” But Genesis 4:26 indicates that early patriarchs employed the personal name of the deity, “Yahweh” (cf. Gen. 22:14, 26:25, 27:20, 28:13). Would a single writer make so many contradictory statements?

Scholars soon came to realize that Moses did not write the Torah but that a number of writers, whose handiwork can be recognized and traced, contributed to the first five books of the Bible. It also became clear that the initial writings in the Torah did not originate when the Hebrews were wandering about in the desert, but began in the tenth century B.C.E. during the reign of Solomon. The final editing of the Torah was done during the fifth century B.C.E. During the 500 years between the Solomonic period and the final editing in the time of Ezra, many hands were at work editing, revising, and adding to the contents.

Further historical-literary research revealed that added to the words of Isaiah of Jerusalem, who lived in the eighth century B.C.E., were the teachings of an unknown author who lived in Babylon [20] during the sixth century B.C.E.3 This meant that Isaiah did not predict the release of Jews enslaved in Babylon two centuries after he lived. He did not receive divine insight that provided him with the name of the Persian deliverer—a king named Cyrus—long before the Persian kingdom came into being. That information was provided by someone who lived while Cyrus was alive and when the freeing of captive Jews was in progress (Isa. 45). Similiar studies demonstrated that additions had been made to the work of other prophets, that David did not write the psalms attributed to him, that Solomon did not write Ecclesiastes or the Song of Songs, and so on.

What Christian and Jewish scholars have demonstrated beyond any doubt is that Tanak was a product of the temple. Its contents were either composed by priests and prophets and wise men associated with the temple or were given authority as divinely revealed documents by temple priests.4

I admit that I am making dramatic statements without providing evidence to prove my points. Fortunately, there are available in our libraries volume after volume of critical analysis by competent scholars, most of whom are Jewish or Christian. Their writings provide the needed supporting evidence.5

[p.21]Both Near Eastern archaeology and comparative religion studies have contributed to biblical analysis. One of the best examples can be found in the creation narratives. For a long time readers of the Bible struggled over the fact that there appeared to be two different accounts of the creation in Genesis. In one story—which extends from Genesis 2:4b to the end of chapter 3—the reader is introduced to a lifeless world, where the only moisture came from a mist that dampened the soil and made it malleable.6 Analysts attribute this account to a writer called “J.”7 Yahweh took the malleable clay (Hebrew: adamah, feminine) and formed a male figure. The clay was animated when, like an Arab midwife, Yahweh blew into the nostrils and caused the clay figure to breathe. Yahweh’s next act was to plant a garden or an orchard, and the animated figure, now identified as a man (Hebrew: adam), was put in the garden to tend the plants.

Because the man was lonely, Yahweh once again took dampened earth to create a suitable companion. What he produced was an interminable collection of animals, birds, and insects which, like a proud artist, he presented, one by one, to the human for reaction. One by one they were named or given identities and rejected—camels and polar bears, lizards and hippopotami, mosquitoes and butterflies, apes and gorillas, penguins, ostriches, geese and pigeons—not one was acceptable as a companion.

Finally Yahweh put the man to sleep, removed a rib from his side, and from it fashioned a potential companion. The man’s reaction was ecstasy: “At last!” he exclaimed, “this is it!” and so woman came into being.

Apparently the animals and humans lived amicably and were able to communicate. The snake, which was wiser and smarter than all [p.22]other creatures (including the man), revealed to the woman one of Yahweh’s secrets: the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would not produce instantaneous death as Yahweh had claimed (“the day you eat, you die”), it would empower them with the capacity to make moral judgments and thereby elevate them above the simple animal realm into the category of human beings which was much closer to the status of deity (Gen. 3:4-5). The serpent spoke the truth: Yahweh had lied.8

When his deception was disclosed, Yahweh was angry. He realized that only immortality separated humans from becoming divine creatures, and because the wondrous tree of immortal life was also in his garden, he ejected the two humans (and apparently all of the animals) from the garden. To prevent reentry, he posted at the gateway cherubim and a flaming sword empowered to turn in any direction.

From that moment on, humans were to be on their own in a hostile environment. When they planted gardens, weeds vied with life-sustaining plants. They lived by the sweat of their brow—a concept that provides a biblical basis for the western work ethic. The harmonious relationship between animals and humans was broken forever because Yahweh killed animals and used their hides to make coverings for the couple.

The J creation account was composed as temple literature during the reign of King Solomon. Why? Because every temple in the various cultures of the Near Eastern world had its own creation myth to explain how their particular deity or deities created life, and to delineate the place and function of humans in the world. Like other Near Eastern creation accounts, the J myth taught that humans were [p.23]primarily created to be servants of the deity. So far as the ultimate meaning of human existence was concerned, J focused on agriculture and the struggle of human beings to produce food. Human beings were not immortal; they would return to the earth (adamah) from whence they came.

From excavations in Sumeria, archaeologists have recovered clay tablets that inform us that Sumerians, who existed millennia before the Hebrews, believed that in the beginning the earth was a desolate waste. Their gods shaped humans from day to serve divine needs.9 The same pattern appears in the Babylonian creation myth. A similar motif is found in the Egyptian story of the creation of humans from day on a potter’s wheel by the god Khnum. In other words, the biblical J account employed ideas that were present in surrounding cultures. The Hebrew story attributed creation to their god Yahweh and tied their myth to agricultural life in Canaan.

So far as the cherubim are concerned, they are not to be thought of as chubby figures of Renaissance art. They are like the Assyrian kerubim, monstrous winged animal creatures with human faces, crowns of horns, and bodies that combined the power of the lion and the bull. Such figures can be seen in the Assyrian section of the British Museum. When they were excavated, they were found to have been placed as protective figures at the entrances to palace precincts.

The other biblical creation myth, which opens the book of Genesis (1:1 to 2:4a), stands in stark contrast to the J account. This myth was composed between the sixth and fifth centuries and drew directly from the Babylonian creation account called enuma elish. Enurna elish first became known to the modern world when in 1876 a British scholar named George Smith translated it from day tablets in the British Museum that had been recovered during excavations at Nineveh.10

[p.24]In this new Hebrew creation myth, the image of the god molding humans out of day was abandoned. Now humans were created by God’s “word.” The order of creation in Genesis 1 follows that of the Babylonian account and introduces the notion of a primeval ocean in which the world exists. The world was thought of as a flat disc overarched by a hard firmament which kept out the waters above. The earth prevented the waters from below from surging up within the hemisphere. In contrast to the J story, in this new account birds, sea creatures, and animals are all created before human beings.

Apparently Jewish leaders held captive in Babylon found the Babylonian account to be more sophisticated than the earlier J version, but because the J story had been accorded authority in the temple, they did not discard it. They simply placed the new myth in front of the old one and let both stand.11

This revised biblical creation account, which scholars call “P” for “priest,” borrowed motifs that were current in surrounding cultures. Creation by word had been attributed to the god Ptah of Egypt for centuries. The idea of primeval waters and a flat earth overarched by a solid heaven had been accepted for millennia in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The fact that two different creation myths could stand side by side is paralleled in Egypt where several authoritative creation myths existed simultaneously.

Perhaps one more example of the multiple authorship and of borrowing from other cultures will suffice.12 Archaeological excavation has produced tablets providing the oldest known form of the Near Eastern flood story. In this third millennium B.C.E. Sumerian tale a priest-king named Ziusudra is the hero. From the fragmented text we learn that after the flood he offered animal sacrifices to the gods. A more complete flood myth was included in the Babylonian [p.25]legend of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, who learned of the flood from an ancestor named Utnapishtim. It seems that Utnapishtim had been warned that the gods were going to destroy the world by flood. He was instructed to build an ark and to take aboard one pair of each living life form. After the flood, because he had saved the “seed of life,” he was awarded immortality. Motifs in Utnapishtim’s account of the flood are echoed in the biblical story. Utnapishtim sent out birds—in his story it was the raven that did not come back thus signaling that it was time to unload the ark. The ark was grounded on a mountain named Mount Nisir (Pir Omar Gudun). Upon landing, Utnapishtim offered sacrifices to the gods.

The Gilgamesh epic circulated for centuries in the Near East and was known in Palestine before the coming of the Hebrews.13

Like Utnapishtim, Noah was warned of the impending flood, told to build an ark and bring aboard pairs of all living creatures. Like Utnapishtim, Noah’s boat landed on a mountain (“amidst the mountains of Ararat,” not on Mount Ararat). Like Utnapishtim Noah sent out birds and like the Babylonian hero Noah offered sacrifice after exiting the ark.

During the fifth century priestly writers overwrote the earlier J flood account. In the J story, Noah took on board seven pair of those animals which, according to Hebrew law, were considered to be ritually clean, but only one pair of unclean animals. There was good reason for this difference in numbers. At the end of the J story, Noah, like Utnapishtim, offered animal sacrifice to Yahweh. If only one pair of each had been taken aboard, all clean animals would have perished.

Priestly writers also argued that from the time of creation up to the post-flood era, humans were vegetarians. It was only after the flood that humans could eat animals and birds and fish (Gen. 9:1-4). Further, because priestly writers were enamored of the idea of covenants between god and people, they included a covenant [p.26]agreement whereby god promised to never again destroy life on earth by flood. To remind himself of his promise not to flood the earth again, the deity placed the rainbow in the sky (Gen. 9:13-16).

Archaeological research has provided some evidence that enhances our understanding of Near Eastern flood mythology. There is clear evidence that in Mesopotamia, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers have, from time to time, overflowed their banks and inundated nearby communities. For example, Sir Leonard Woolley in his excavations of ancient al Ubaid found deep levels of river silt covering habitation, indicating that the site had been completely covered by water. Above the silt levels community living began again.14 It is possible that the flood myth developed out of such recurring flood experiences. Such a myth would not normally develop in Israel where the only river, the Jordan, flows below sea level. Obviously the Hebrew tale is borrowed.15

Finally, I would like to suggest that one does not need to be a biblical scholar, an expert in comparative religions, or an archaeologist to become aware of discrepancies in the Bible. One need only use common sense and employ a critical eye. The secularist is able to approach the Bible with common sense partly because he or she does not read through the eyes of faith seeking spiritual guidance or insight. The secularist reads because the magnificent prose and poetry of Tanak has contributed metaphors to our language and has impacted in important ways the arts, societal attitudes, and conduct. [p.27]Like the religious scholar, the secularist asks: Where did this literature come from? Who wrote it? When? Why? But then adds: Why do so many people accept it literally and uncritically or believe it to be divinely revealed? And, does it make sense?

For the secularist reader, using the common sense approach, the creation myth in Genesis 1 makes no sense. The secularist asks: How can there be three days of day and night before the sun is created on the fourth day? The answer from scholars is: That is the way the account read in the Babylonian myth from which the Hebrews borrowed the pattern. To understand it we have to ask how the Babylonians reached such a confusion—but no one seems to care much about what the Babylonians thought.

In the J creation myth, the formation of man, then animals, and then woman, makes no sense in terms of the evolution of species. The idea that woman was formed from man may imply a romantic reality suggesting that many of us males feel incomplete until we have found our missing rib, but this is not scientific reality.

The flood story makes no sense. The idea that the earth is a flat disc and that earth and sky meet at the horizon is an optical illusion. There is no firmament above keeping out waters above, nor are there windows in the sky for the deity to open and cause a flood. There never was a worldwide flood that covered Mount Everest. Noah’s wooden boat, which was three times larger than any wooden craft ever built and which was one-and-a-half times the length of a modern football field, would have broken apart—wood is not strong enough to build such a huge sea-going vessel.

The gathering of animals is also nonsense. First, Noah’s boat would never hold all of the species—even Sir Walter Raleigh realized that back in the seventeenth century when he wrote his two-volume History of the World. Moreover, the idea of polar bears and penguins, American buffalo and llamas, kangaroos from Australia—none of which were known to the ancients—journeying all the way to Palestine is fantasy. The idea of a rainbowless antedeluvian sky makes no sense since it suggests that the laws of refraction were different before the flood than after.16

[p.28]Secularists find it difficult to grasp that Joshua could have made the sun sand still by holding up his arms, that more than a million Hebrews could have wandered for forty years in the Sinai and survived primarily on manna (pea-sized granules produced on tamarisk bushes one month each year), or that Joshua and his priests blowing on ram’s horns or shofars could have caused the huge walls of Jericho to collapse. Indeed, those walls were collapsed by earthquake and the city abandoned more than a century before the coming of the Hebrews.

What we learn from an open-minded inquiry into biblical literature is that these writings, like all other writings, reflect the time in which they were produced. In biblical times the world was believed to be inhabited by spirits or powers both benevolent (angelic) and malevolent (demonic). The writings are considered to be holy or divinely revealed because temple priests whio lived 2,000-3,000 years ago said they were. When we recognize that biblical literature is simply literature, we are able to recognize and separate myth from court history, legend from fable, fantasy thinking from reality, and so forth. We are also able to recognize that the attitudes and viewpoints presented in these writings represent what men and women once believed.

Biblical attitudes toward women and homosexuals represent the narrow, patriarchal thinking of the people in those ancient times. Unfortunately, by giving these time-limited writs divine authority, ancient bigotry and discrimination continue to function in our own times, thereby limiting the freedom, rights, creativity, and potentials of women and homosexuals.

So long as these writings are accorded divine authority, students in public schools will be handicapped by those who insist that non-scientific biblical creationism be given scientific status in school curricula. Already their contentiousness has resulted in a tendency to avoid the use of the scientific term “evolution” in texts and teaching. Like women and homosexuals, native American Indians, [p.29]African Americans, Asian Americans, and others will be evaluated, stigmatized, and socially segregated on the basis of biblical passages. Their efforts to experience full recognition as human beings and as Americans will be thwarted and frustrated.

Our intent as rational investigators of biblical literature is not to offend “true believers”; our concern is to present the best findings of critical scholarship. As educators, and in keeping with the highest aims of our profession, we seek to free students from whatever tends to limit their thinking and spirit of open inquiry in the hope that we make some contribution toward lifting human life a bit closer to its highest potential. Unexamined ideas, whether assumptions or beliefs, confine the spirit and mind.

I do not deny that many kind and gracious acts and programs have been motivated by biblical teachings and commandments. I find no fault with those who reach out to others in need because they are told that this is what their deity requires of them or because they believe they will be judged in an afterlife on the basis of obedience to such commands. Helping others is always honorable, noble, and in accord with the highest humanistic ideals.

When secularists make humanistic and humanitarian outreaches, they do not act because they are commanded or required to do so by religious scriptures. Humanists respond to need, to hurt, to sorrow out of compassion, caring, love, and responsibility for others—feelings that well up from within the human psyche. We are free spirits who seek to respond to our highest dreams and achieve our noblest potentials, not because we are told we must, but because we care and because we freely choose to act on the basis of our own caring. Such choice places us in control of our own destinies and helps us to become aware of our human potential for making moral and ethical judgments.

If Jews, Christians, and Mormons have a message for this troubled world, so do secular humanists. Our message does not come from writings assumed to be sacred. We are concerned with life-giving freedom, with life-sustaining power, with exploration of the human potentials for peace and goodwill and harmony, with fulfillment of the highest human ideals for justice, truth, beauty, and love, in all the changing contexts of life and society. We are eager to expand the horizons of human learning and human understanding and our [p.30]motivation comes from within, from those deep well-springs of love and caring. Therefore, when we approach authoritative scripture, whether it be the Bible or the Book of Mormon, we do not abandon critical faculties. We bring to our examination the best analytical tools of our professions whether they be literary and historical analysis, or the fruits of archaeological research and studies in comparative religion, or simply good old common sense. Our commitment is not only to call forth the caring and feeling and responding human being, but also to empower the rational human being.

Gerald Larue is Professor Emeritus of Archaeology and Biblical Studies at the University of Southern California.


1. The scriptures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, notably the Book of Mormon, are also subject to such inquiry. See Brent Lee Metcalfe, ed., New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993).

2. William G. Dever, “Archaeology and the Bible,” Biblical Archaeology Review 16 (May/June 1990), 3:52-58. For an extended discussion of the relationship between the Bible and archaeology, see Dever, Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990).

3. The eight-century B.C.E. writings of Isaiah of Jerusalem are confined to the first thirty-nine chapters of the book. The writings from the sixth century and later appear in Isaiah 40-66.

4. Dever, “Archaeology and the Bible,” 53, notes: “Ultimately, the Bible as we have it is almost entirely a product of the royal court and the priestly establishment in Jerusalem.”

5. For example, Bernard Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: 1986). For a sampling of more detailed studies, see Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, eds., The Literary Guide to the Bible (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987); Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973); William H. Stiebing, Jr., Out of the Desert? Archaeology and the Exodus/Conquest Narratives (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1989); Ernst Wurthwein, The Text of the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Biblia Hebraica, trans. Erroll F. Rhodes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979). Even conservative treatments admit pseudonymous authorship, later embellishment, and redaction. See, for example, David Ewert, From Ancient Tablets to Modern Translations: A General Introduction to the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983).

6. Gen. 2:10-14, which clearly interrupt the flow of the story, were added later by some unknown editor. There was no reference to “rivers” in the earlier version.

7. the source is called “J” because of the German spelling of the name of the Hebrew god “Yahweh” as “Jahveh.”

8. Delierate deception by lying is not an uncommon motif in the early writings. Cain lied when asked where his brother Abel was (Gen. 4:9); Abram and Sarah lied about their marital relationship (Gen. 12:10-20; 20:1-8), as did Isaac regarding Rebekah (Gen. 26:6-11); Sarah lied when Yahweh accused her of laughing (Gen. 18:9-15); both Rebekah and Jacob lied to Jacob (Gen. 27); Laban deceived Jacob (Gen. 29:15-30); Rachel lied to her father Laban (Gen. 31:34-35) and so on. It seems that the most important moral requirement was to not be caught lying and, if caught, to justify the lie.

9. For an extended discussion on the Near Eastern creation myths, see Gerald A. Larue, Ancient Myth and Modern Life (Long Beach: Centerline Press, 1988), chap. 2

10. James B. Pritchard, ed., “The Creation Epic,” Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, trans. E. A. Speiser (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950), 60-72.

11. See Alexander Heidel, The Babylionian Genesis, 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicagto Press, 1951). See also Larue, Ancient Myth, 63ff.

12. I choose this example deliberately because of the brouhaha that has occurred as a result of the hoax Sun International of Utah attempted to press on the public through their television film “The Amazing Discovery of Noah’s Ark”—a discovery that was never made! See Free Inquiry 13 (Spring 1993); Time, 5 July 1993, 51.

13. D. J. Wiseman, Illustrations from Biblical Archaeology (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmanns, 1958), 13, notes that a fragment of the Gilgamesh Epic was found in the fourteenth-century B.C.E. level in the excavation at Megiddo.

14. L. Woolley, Ur of the Chaldees (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1950), chap. 1; A. Parrot, The Flood and Noah’s Ark, trans. E. Hudson (New York: Philosophical Library, 1955), 13ff.

15. Other borrowings include the Hebrew temple modelled on Canaanite temples; the language of many of the psalms which echoes the ritual language of ancient Canaanite religion recorded on clay tablets from the Ras es-Shamra excavations; a fourteenth-century Egyptian hymn to the sun-god Aton (cf. Psalms 114); Proverbs 22:17-24 attributed to Solomon but borrowed from the wisdom of Amen-em-opet of Egypt; the imagery of the suffering servant in Isaiah 52:13-53 formulated from a ceremony of ritual cleansing that was part of the Babylonian Akitu festival; and the apocalyptic echatology of the book of Daniel drawn from end-of-the-age imagery of Zoroastrian religion.

16. And, I might add, that despite the claim made in the Sun production, there is no destructive flood myth found in ancient Egyptian literature, nor are they accurate when they state that flood stories “worldwide” accord with the biblical account.