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Forbes: The Jewish bible and the appropriation of another's religion

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Christians have attempted to lay claim to the Hebrew Bible much as modern-day "New Age" people lay claim to Native American ceremonies and other practices. Appropriating someone else's religious traditions is not new.

The Christians who invaded America after 1492 offered "the Bible" (Protestants) or the "Sacraments" (Catholics) to the American nations in exchange for their lands, their freedom, and their wealth. Usually the Europeans refused to discuss the controversies surrounding their religious traditions, but instead presented their "holy book" or "holy mass" to the often unsuspecting Americans as proven truths with no questions allowed. Often children were taken from their parents and indoctrinated without having any way of determining the validity of what was being presented.

This process still goes on today, with well-financed missionaries presenting "the Bible" to tribes everywhere as "the word of God." It seems important that First Nations peoples become acquainted with scholarship surrounding the texts currently known as "the Bible".

The Bible is not one single book at all. It is made up of many different books or writings and often each one of these is, in turn, a compilation of several texts or sources, often derived from different time periods and geographical areas. The main division is between texts written by Christians after about 40-50 CE (AD) and the Hebrew or Jewish Bible, put together for Israelite use between about the 600s BCE (BC) and 200-300 BCE, with older material as well.

What Christians term the "Old Testament" is actually the Jewish or Hebrew Bible. It was developed by Jews for Jewish use (although some material, such as parts of Genesis, may have been borrowed from the Jews' Canaanitish relatives or other Semitic peoples). In the earliest days of the Christian movement, when there were many different opinions and no powerful hierarchy had developed, the Christians' only sacred writings were the texts of the Hebrew Bible, known to them primarily in a Greek language translation, called the Septuagint. This gradually changed between about 50 and 300 CE, as the Christian leadership began to develop "official" compilations of their own writings, now known as the "New Testament."

The Hebrew Bible was, however, put together by Jews for their own use and not for the use of those who eventually departed from the Israelite fold. I believe that we should respect that fact and not attempt to appropriate the Israelite legacy, even though both Christians and Muslims, as well as others, might respect the information therein. Above all, we must remember that the Hebrew Bible was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, two closely-related Semitic tongues, and that the Hebrew-Aramaic text must be seen as the authoritative one, not an English translation, and especially not the so-called King James Version.

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It is strange to see fundamentalist Christians arguing over some passage from the Hebrew Bible, using the language of "jolly old England." If one cannot read Hebrew, then the next best thing is to go to a modern Jewish translation of the Bible (since new manuscript versions of the Hebrew Bible have been found in the caves along the Dead Sea, versions much older than any previous manuscript and perhaps more accurate than the Greek version which the Christian church depended upon for many centuries).

In short, we need to see the Hebrew Bible in the same way that we might look at traditional Navajo, Lakota, or other texts, texts which must always be primarily interpreted by speakers of the appropriate language, except where word-for-word linear translations are available. Of course, some Christians have argued that "God" has guaranteed that all translations of "the Bible" are absolutely accurate, thus making it unnecessary to study the original languages. However, the many discrepancies between different manuscripts and translations proves that humans have been in charge all along, I would argue.

It is a marvel to see how some Christians often misuse the Hebrew Bible, as when they might quote a passage which states that for one man to lay with another would be an "abomination." What is peculiar about their usage of passages in the older books of the Hebrew Bible is that they will completely ignore nearby passages which require that land be allowed to rest fallow every seven years, and that all debts must be forgiven, and that gleanings must be shared with the poor, and countless other equalitarian injunctions which modern-day "conservatives" abhor. And, of course, they also ignore the popular Christian belief that the "Law" of the Jews was set aside by Yahshua (Yeshwa, or Jesus).

The first five books of the Hebrew Bible are called "Torah" (Law) and ultra-orthodox Jews believe that they stem from Moshe (Moses) and through him from Deity. In actuality, Moshe's death occurs in these writings and thus he could not have been the author. Also two separate texts (an "E" text using the term Elohim for Deity, and a "J" text, using YHWH as a symbolic name for Deity) along with other material make up Torah.

One fascinating thing about the two versions of Genesis found in Torah is that the Elohim version points towards a theological view identical with many American nations, since Elohim is the plural form of El and Eloy (Deity) and points towards a Spiritual Plurality of Creative Power or a male-female, Grandfather-Grandmother Creative Power! There are many other things to be learned about the Hebrew Bible. I cannot claim to be an expert, but I have been researching the subject for years because it has played such an important role in American Native history.

Jack Forbes is the author of Only Approved Indians, a collection of stories published by University of Oklahoma Press, and other books, including Red Blood, Apache, Navaho and Spaniard, and Native Americans of California and Nevada. He is the writer of a regular column entitled Native Intelligence.