Friday, November 14, 2008

Killing for the Written Word

I have found the Book of the Law in the Temple of Yahweh.
--Hilkiah, 622 BCE, in 2 Kings 22

The lawyer shows you the papers. They're over a hundred years old but undeniably authentic. No one had known of their existence but it doesn't matter: you're in violation of their provisions. You will have to leave your home. It is going to be razed.

According to the Hebrew Bible, that was the situation facing King Josiah in 622 BCE. During renovations of the temple of Yahweh, the high priest Hilkiah had found an old scroll of the Law (sefer torah). No one had known of its existence either, but for centuries the kings of Israel and Judah had condoned practices that were explicitly forbidden. And forbidden, it was now clear, in writing.

Josiah was a young man, only twenty-six, and as the long-lost scroll was being read to him, he could only imagine how angry Yahweh had become. When the reading was done, he tore his garments and wept.

In Josiah's time, teachings that had once been spoken were now being written down. The Israelites and Judahites were becoming, as the Qur'an said later, a "People of the Book." The teachings were becoming scripture. What difference did writing make? Karen Armstrong:
The switch from the oral transmission of religion to a written text was a shock. Here--as elsewhere in the Bible--it evoked a sense of dismay, guilt, and inadequacy. Religious truth sounded completely different when presented in this way. Everything was clear, cut-and-dried--very different from the more elusive "knowledge" imparted by oral transmission.
There was a curious aspect to the newly discovered sefer torah. The scribes said the Law it contained had always been in writing. That was the form of the Law from the very beginning.

The beginning, of course, was Moses on the mountain. In the narrative found in Deuteronomy, Moses hears the Law being spoken but doesn't leave without a written copy--etched in tablets of stone, no less. When he breaks those tablets, God inscribes a second set. They contain the abridged form of the Law, the Ten Commandments. We learn of the complete edition later, in a long speech that Moses delivers just before he dies. The detail is endless but, according to the story, Moses manages to write all of it down. This is the text, lost for centuries, that the high priest finds in Josiah's time.

Or did he find it? Many scholars believe that the text--contained in the present book of Deuteronomy--was assembled well after the death of Moses. Some suggest it was a "pious fraud," put together on the spot, even in collaboration with Josiah. To launch the reforms he desired, Josiah needed the authority of writing. You create the writing now, you say it dates from back then.

The practice was nothing new. It was customary for writers of the time to attribute their teaching to great figures of the past. Even today it is a reflection of the normal way autobiographical memory works. The effect of saying always and from the beginning is to add clarity, certainty, and authority.

However the sefer torah originated, the impact of its "discovery" was enormous. With newfound conviction, Josiah tore down shrines, burned effigies, smashed sacred pillars, demolished temples, burned human bones on altars, and slaughtered priests. Then he celebrated a magnificent Passover in Jerusalem. The Law had been re-established.

This was but one event in a long, complicated transition to writing. How typical it was I cannot say, but it does show how misplaced clarity can be used to legitimate violence. Writing, in the case of Josiah, made it easier to kill for a Law, to kill for a Story.

Note: More of the transition to writing in Judaism will be discussed this coming Tuesday, November 18, in Nova's The Bible's Buried Secrets. The program's web site is already available.




Gary Kirby said...

One of the most powerful articles I have ever read, self-confirming the power of the word, of the story. Congratulations John. My jaw dropped. I would kill to write like that.


Anonymous said...

Last two posts were especially good, John. And timely, of course. And what about our stories of racial superiority, states' rights, etc., now that we have elected an African American president. I am so dismayed at the (mostly) southern reaction and the resurgence of hate groups!