Saturday, June 24, 2017

An Open Letter to Dr. Jordan B. Peterson

Dear Dr. Peterson,

I’ve been enjoying immensely your online lecture series on The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories. Hearing you reframe these familiar truths and ancient tropes in the terminology of psychology and mythology — and occasionally in plain secular language, rather than religiously and liturgically — has lit up the OT landscape for me in a new way. As you mentioned in your fourth lecture, a hypothesis that works itself out in human experience on multiple levels is that much more likely to represent the real state of things.

So thanks for sharing your many insights and for the considerable effort involved in putting these lectures on and getting this content out into the world. The sight of hundreds of people standing on the sidewalk outside the theatre last week waiting to hear a psychologist discuss an ancient (and some would incorrectly claim ‘irrelevant’) book is inspiring in its own way and a surprising testimony to an unexpected appetite for truth in the general population that our present culture has demonstrated it is wholly unable to satisfy.

The Sinai Hypothesis

I’m mulling over something you said in (I think) your third lecture. I apologize in advance if I am misstating your position, but I’m unable to find precisely where you said it. (Searching transcripts online is so much easier than searching digital video.)

If I recall correctly, you were speaking about the law associated with Moses and the story of Israel’s experience at Sinai. In keeping with the rationalistic perspective you are assuming for the purpose of these lectures, you suggested that what was happening there was that the law was largely (if not entirely) an encoding of the Israelite nation’s existing practices rather than something revelatory. I believe the reason you gave was that no nation could be expected to adopt and live by a set of rules that was entirely new to them or that did not seem reasonable to them on the basis of their existing moral frame.

Does that sound more or less in the ballpark?

Terms of Discussion

I believe there is a certain amount of truth in what you seem to be suggesting, but I would encourage you to work this angle a little more and see where it leads.

If you don’t mind, in discussing this I’m going to take the position that the record of the giving of the law is literal and historical, partly because that’s what I actually believe, but also because I can quickly see from the way you speak about the Old Testament that even if you and I don’t believe precisely the same things, we both agree that these words have been chewed over and written and rewritten and edited and re-edited many times over the last 4,000 years, and that nothing remains in these records by mere happenstance. Everything that is there is present for a reason, and everything that has been excluded has been excluded for a reason. This means that even if we are not speaking about literal history, we are at least speaking of something that is fully internally coherent. If the rules and regulations that come from Sinai do not immediately make sense to us, we must at least concede that they made sense to the original audience. If they hadn’t, they would not be with us today.

So, back to your theory.

Where It Works

Where your hypothesis certainly seems workable to me is insofar as it relates to commandments like those governing sexual morality. That commends itself to me as solid fact. For example, long before the journey to Egypt, Jacob’s family had internalized a moral code that went back at least to Abraham and maybe even to Adam, if I can put it that way. The fact that the code may have been largely or entirely orally transmitted does not make it any less real or less binding or less powerfully relevant to those who lived by it.

I’m thinking here particularly of the rape of Dinah found in Genesis 34, where we come across the intriguing editorial comment in the narrative that “the men were indignant and very angry, because [Shechem] had done an outrageous thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing must not be done.”

The words “in Israel” suggest our narrator is looking back at these events from hundreds of years down the road: surely nobody in Jacob’s immediate family would have thought of themselves as “in Israel” at that point in history.

A Shared View of Evil

But regardless of the distance in time and developing morality from events to narration, the phrase presupposes a shared view of the evil of rape. Dinah’s brothers were “indignant”. The thing was “outrageous”. There was no doubt about that. Further, I suspect it was not simply normal tribal resentment over something that had been done TO the family of Israel (though that was likely part of it too), but a rejection of rape itself as wrong IN Israel. It was not an acceptable act under the existing moral code that Jacob’s family adhered to while sojourning among the Hivites. It was not how things were done. It reads to me as if this act might well have been just as repulsive even if it had been performed by another Israelite. The brothers’ objection was not that Shechem was a foreigner, but that he had treated their sister “like a prostitute”.

There’s a very strong moral impulse at work there (along with lots of pettier and baser impulses, of course), and I’m pretty sure we could find plenty of other examples like this one to advance your theory that many of the commandments given from Sinai were based on extant beliefs about right and wrong already cherished by the seed of Abraham.

So I’m with you there, Dr. Peterson.

Where It Really Doesn’t

Where I think your hypothesis gets a bit dodgier is if we try to apply it to the entire law, including Leviticus and on. I believe rabbinical tradition counts 613 commandments or thereabouts, and it seems impossible to me that none of these was either new or revelatory. I suspect many of them were quite shocking to the people who first heard them and went very much against their moral “grain”. I am convinced they did not develop these laws themselves, but had them handed to them.

We should probably take into consideration that the children of Israel had just spent hundreds of years as slaves in Egypt, and that they were far from the only slaves living there. The King James speaks of a “mixt multitude” (I love that phrase) that had come out of Egypt with Israel after that final, devastating Passover night. While Israel clearly retained a strong sense of national identity and some shared memory of the story of God’s covenant with Abraham and its accompanying moral obligations, it is hard to imagine that the heathen practices, immorality and religious habits of the foreigners all around them (including the dominant Egyptian culture) had no influence at all on Israel’s developing sense of right and wrong.

No Other Gods

In fact, we know this is not the case. Israel was very much influenced for the worse by their surroundings. For evidence we need look no further than the golden calf episode (Exodus 32), which demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that at very least the command “You shall have no other gods before me” cannot possibly have arisen organically from consensus Israelite moral impulses. Monotheism, let alone the worship of YHWH, was not the least bit instinctive to a nation of newly-freed Hebrew slaves. So at the very first possible opportunity the people blithely hurled the first and most absolutely fundamental thing God had instructed them right out the window and carried on with what seem to be learned behaviours from Egyptian slavery.

But there’s more than this. Prior to Moses going up the mountain to receive the rest of the law and the tablets of stone, we have recorded a full four chapters of law (Exodus 20-23), which include not just the Ten Commandments but such apparent miscellany as not hewing the stones of altars, marital rights of slaves, how to deal justly with the aftermath of an ox goring, which farmer should be obliged to pay for a burnt field of grain, the death penalty for sorceresses, what to do with flesh torn by beasts, the Sabbath, how to treat sojourners and so on.

Some of these new pronouncements about justice and moral social order we may reasonably put down to hard lessons learned in Egypt: how to treat foreigners (that is to say, not like Israel had been treated); what to do with practitioners of witchcraft; and so on.

Other rules found in these four chapters might reasonably be put down to simple common sense and wisdom acquired over centuries: taking a break once a week, not murdering people, honoring your father and mother, not lying, not stealing or coveting. Much of the Ten Commandments falls into this category and might well have been an encoding of morality developed much earlier, like the aforementioned proscription against rape.

A Slave Nation with a Corrupted Culture

But that’s not the full extent of the law delivered (or if you prefer, “developed”) prior to the ascent up Sinai.

If we accept that Israel was really a slave nation with a culture corrupted by its fellow slaves and its masters; a people who had been worked nearly to death by their Egyptian oppressors for at least a generation with little or no leisure time of their own; a people who for years prior to their enslavement had been sojourners in someone else’s country; and a people who prior to the Egyptian sojourn had been sojourners in Canaan, then how do we explain the mysterious fact that at such an early stage this new nation seems already to exhibit very defined notions about the rights and wrongs of property ownership, land disputes, slave rights, altar construction, kidnapping, social justice, donkeys falling into pits, agriculture management, borrowing and lending, the conduct of lawsuits, annual feast rituals and harvest tithing?

Does that seem at all intuitive to you, Dr. Peterson, especially only sixty days into a wilderness journey? Because it doesn’t to me. I mean, who came up with all this? Were the Israelites engaging in philosophical debates and discussions about civic propriety all those years as they ran around Egypt looking for straw to make bricks for Pharaoh’s pyramids? Or did they derive their principles of justice from the Canaanites, Arameans and Egyptians around them? Both options seem highly unlikely. Rather, it looks to me as if the blueprint for life in the Promised Land was handed in its totality to a people who were at the time morally and intellectually ill-equipped to develop it themselves.

Dropped in out of Nowhere

This does not even begin to take into account the Levitical law, the rules for the priesthood, for sacrifice and the design of the tabernacle, which all seem suspiciously like they dropped into Israelite society out of nowhere (or perhaps out of heaven) rather than arising organically out of centuries of community life.

Thus it seems to me that a huge portion of the Mosaic law doesn’t fit all that well into your hypothesis.

Now, there may be a perfectly logical explanation for this in your way of thinking. Perhaps the Sinai story is mythical or archetypal rather than literal. Perhaps the civic and religious laws actually did develop organically after years of life in the Promised Land, and the various writer(s)/editor(s) of Exodus simply assigned their origins to a much earlier period for their own reasons, one of which might be to invest them with greater authority than they’d have if they were merely learned human wisdom.

That one doesn’t work for me, and I have a sneaking suspicion it may not work for you either given your very clear rejection of the “pious fraud” hypothesis in your fourth lecture.

Dr. Peterson, I am very much looking forward to seeing what you do with these chapters when you come to them. I find this all very exciting.

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