The Bible is one of the most important books of humanity, or who knows, maybe even the most important. We could list many reasons for this, apart from the religious ones. Among them, the fact that it shaped our thinking and sensibility is the most important. Certainly, we are not even aware of this influence. Maybe, due to this lack of awareness, the question ‘what is the biblical meaning of faith?’ is a constant one for us: it seems to us that biblical characters had a different experience of faith and reality than we.
However, due to the aforementioned influence, the creationist myth of the Bible has made our scientists imagine or conceive theories that explain the Universe as beginning with an initial singularity, the Bing Bang. Other cultures and civilizations imagined the world as evolving in cycles, as deploying in a never-ending recurrence. Contrarily, the Jewish-Christian representation of the world imposed on the Western mentality the idea of an initial moment when the world began.
The Old Testament and Egypt: the Origin of the Biblical Faith
The Old Testament, the first part of the Bible, is the religious creation of the Jewish people. How was it possible that the fundamental text of a small, relatively isolated people living in the vast Roman Empire could gain such notoriety in the whole world?
The Jews did not live only in Judea; the history of the Jewish people also included Egypt, among other ancient provinces. A large community of Jews continued to live in Egypt, after the so-called Exodus. Living for such a long time in exile, this Diaspora community forgot Hebrew. However, they did not renounce their religion and traditions.
In the 3rd century B. C. in Egypt one of the common languages was Greek. Therefore, the Jews in Alexandria initiated a Greek translation of the Old Testament in order to be able to understand the divine commands of their God.
[If you are interested in learning ancient Greek and read the Septuagint in original, the version prepared for the Jewish ancient diaspora, read here my article on this topic.]
Traditionally, the first books of the Old Testament were attributed to Moses, the Jewish boy who was adopted by the Egyptian Pharaoh’s daughter, becoming thus an Egyptian prince. However, this view is no longer supported by the scientific community, which considers that those books were developed and written over several centuries, between the 9th and the 5th centuries BC, and even that they were a later compilation of documents belonging to an earlier tradition.
We must admit that ancient people did not have an accurate method of recording history, especially since they lacked literacy, as was the case of the early Jews who were mainly shepherds. Only major empires of the past, like the Egyptian one, were able to record history, preserve documents and thus transmit to the subsequent generations descriptions of previous events and characters.
All other people conveyed their traditions mostly through oral transmission. However, indeed, those who were charged with this mission had outstanding memories: we might think of the Greek Homeric singers, who were able to render thousands of verses by heart.
They also lacked what modernity (starting from Hegel) called ‘historical consciousness,’ namely the interest in understanding every part of the present culture as evolving from some preexisting knowledge and ways of understanding and thinking. Ancient people were interested not in the accuracy of information, but in its spiritual meaning, in the relevance of those pieces of knowledge for human life. This aspect put the question ‘what is the biblical meaning of faith’ in a different light. Those people searched for a guideline for how to live their lives, for how to behave and what to expect from their gods as a consequence of their behaviors. They lived far less in time than in a timeless consciousness.
Experience of Time
It is said that time-consciousness is mainly a consequence of the Christian religious view. We might recall in this sense the association made by Max Weber between the capitalist spirit and the protestant ethic: in the view of this German scholar, Western capitalism was mainly the result of the protestant ethic. According to this ethic, although one was required not to enjoy worldly wealth and to live amidst the greatest wealth as if one owned nothing, one could measure God’s benevolence toward someone by taking into account his wealth: the wealthier one is, the more benevolent is God toward him.
Thus, protestants endeavored to become increasingly wealthy, but (initially, at least) not because of a selfish desire to grow rich, but as a means of a religious confirmation of their faith. Then, everything that contributed to this enrichment was taken into account, especially time.
The common statement ‘time is money’, as one of the main expressions of the capitalist attitude, receives thus a different meaning. It is true, on the other hand, that this consciousness of time evolved slowly in the previous Christian era, when Christians were called permanently to probe into their own souls and search for hidden wicked intentions that could hinder them from achieving their salvation. And if they considered themselves sinful, nothing could be more reasonable than fleeing from the coming Doomsday.
What Is the Biblical Meaning of Faith? Jewish Prophetism
One of the defining features of the Jewish religion is its prophetism. This feature has radically influenced Western history, orienting it forever towards a feverish awaiting of the future. The Jewish people were confronted with several intellectual elements that favored this prophetism.
In their religion, God promised to give them a holy land, in exchange for their submission to His commands. However, the promise required, above all, faith. We can see this especially if we take into account that, a while after settling down in Egypt, the Jews became slaves. The Egyptian part of the story of Moses reflects their mistrust and hesitation to act based on the divine promise: the Jewish people had to embrace, unconditionally, the adventure of obeying God’s word and calling in order to reach the promised land.
They had to leave Egypt – where they lived a difficult life, to be sure, but a quite secure life given the circumstances – for something that sounded inspiring but was utterly uncertain. They were forced to test God’s trustworthiness. In the desert, they needed faith; otherwise they could not escape. We might think of their forty years of wandering through the desert as a divine punishment for their disobedience.
The Hebrews are known as the ‘chosen people.’ However, this chosenness was not a stroll in the park. It was not as if a deity, a superhuman being, had decided to offer them every blessing, expecting nothing in exchange. This divine election was not undertaken according to human criteria but to divine, incomprehensible ones. In the Bible, God repeats many times that His thoughts are not like human thoughts. We may say that the Old Testament’s Hebrews were elected not to live their own life, but to play in a divine drama that wasn’t written for them, but for the whole of humankind. Their present was charged with future, with future history.
And of course, they – like we today – were unaware of this double plan in which they lived. Assuredly, in this perspective, we may think of God as an almighty puppeteer – which doesn’t sound very reassuring. It is as if someone were experimenting with us, against our own will. However, we should consider that humanity is more than the sum of the individuals that comprise it; large totalities start to develop specific structures, mechanisms, and processes that inevitably exceed their individual components. Human society is not at all a simple, mechanical collection of individuals, but an organic unity that both determines, and is determined by these individuals.
As it is said, there is a ‘dialectical relationship’ between the individual and society. Due to this relationship, the consequences of implementing in society the decision of an individual, a decision that was taken based on the individual’s will, always differ from his primary intention. It is not surprising then that the same individuals very often, seeing the results, exclaim that they had never meant this. The saying that the way to hell is paved with good intentions reflects this perplexity caused by the seeing of difference between intentions and results.
We may say that the human being has always had the feeling that he cannot be the master of his destiny, either as an individual or as a community. The course of his life is a compound of what he decides and what he is forced to accept against his own will. Despite the fact that he is usually able to decide freely, he may contemplate quite soon how perverse the consequences of his decisions are. (Maybe it was due to the awareness of this painful experience that the Hindus recommended renouncing the fruits of one’s own deeds.)
It’s possible that the Jewish people have integrated this general human experience into their representation of God. Their scholars could contemplate how meandering and incomprehensible history was and how small events could radically transform large societies. And maybe it was precisely this sight of chaotic historical movements that encouraged them to believe not only that the negative consequences are possible, but also that the positive ones are: because when everything is possible, then this possibility needs also to include the Good.
Optimism Versus Religious Realism
Were they optimistic? It seems they were. However, their optimism did not dismiss the reality of suffering, but this suffering was no longer a simple fact, an empty piece of evidence: rather it was charged with meaning. What seemed to be evil was transformed into a step towards a much larger reality: God’s intended reality of the future. And they felt themselves to be an active part of the creation of this future; their sacrifices contributed to its rise.
Some could say that by having understood themselves as the chosen people, the Hebrews manifested an inflated Ego, considering themselves as the kernel of history around which everything gravitated. Contrarily, we could say that they discovered a way of dealing with time, of not only feeling that they were caught in the hands of the Almighty but, in a way, that they were His hands. Reality, according to their view, was not a simple puppet show in which the individual will had no meaning. It was a sort of intertwining between the wills of man and God. It was a sort of ‘wrestling with the angel,’ through which the human person could assert themselves.
Thus, the Hebrews created a sort of thinking that later was taken over by Christianity and brought into modernity. This thinking involved continuous tension between free will and complete predestination. A cyclical interpretation of reality, as we meet it in other ancient populations, in Greeks for example, would have been equivalent to such a fatalism.
It is true that the Hebrews were chosen, but their chosenness was associated with their continuous insubordination to God’s will, because, paradoxically, it implied a terrible demand to sacrifice their free will based on their free decision They had to become more than they could have imagined about themselves. They had to admit that within themselves there lay possibilities that they could not comprehend, but that they were forced to actualize. And this is almost impossible for everyone to accept.
Yes, Hebrews and Christians still think that history is a game played only for them. But at least they choose the full half of the glass, whereas those who consider that there is no meaning in this chaotic history, prefer the empty half of it. If both of the parties are metaphysical dreamers, then the latter live in a nightmare from which they cannot awake, whereas the former still keep the chance of winning the metaphysical wager.