Book Review: The Old Ones in the Old Book
I recently had the pleasure of reading a really unique book. For years I've been fascinated by the tidbits about ancient pagan spiritual practice that are scattered throughout the Bible's Old Testament, a.k.a. the Tanakh. But I was never able to put those bits together into a cohesive picture of what that spirituality might have looked like. Then I read The Old Ones in the Old Book by Philip West. And it turns out, the world of the Old Testament wasn't nearly as monotheistic as many people would like us to believe.
West is a biblical scholar but the book isn't at all stuffy. In fact, it's fascinating. He begins by explaining what the Old Testament is - who wrote its parts as well as how, why, and when it was all put together. I had read some of this information before but West puts it all together in a way that gives context to the literature. In other words, now I understand where it all came from.
West then goes on to explain not just the pagan references in the Bible but the culture and history that those practices came from. His fascinating, detailed explanations fall into six categories, each one with its own chapter: The Religion of the Patriarchs; Yahweh, Mount Sinai and Moses; Religion in Canaan before King David; Jersualem, King and Temple; Divided Kingdoms and Hebrew Goddesses; and By the Waters of Babylon.
The way West organizes the chapters helps to make the information clear and understandable. Instead of an examination of the books of the Old Testament one by one, he follows the threads of the narrative that tells the story of the Hebrew people. So in addition to discovering all sorts of fascinating information about the polytheistic culture of that time and region, I also developed a much better understanding of the whole Old Testament story arc. The linguist in me also appreciates that West does his own translations of pertinent Bible passages and explains the way the Hebrew words work so I'm clear on exactly what was written and what it means.
He finishes up the book with a chapter about polytheism versus monotheism, falling squarely on the side of polytheism. I expected to glide through that chapter with a preaching-to-the-choir attitude, but he brought up some issues I really hadn't thought about in terms of the flexibility and helpfulness of the different worldviews for making the world a better place. So even that bit added to my reading experience.
In the West, we're eyeball-deep in a culture that's permeated by Biblical concepts. Even if we don't follow any of the Abrahamic paths, we can't avoid coming into contact with the stories and ideas from the Bible. This book helps to put them in context and helps to clear up some misconceptions about what the tales really say. And what they say is that the Old Ones - the gods and goddesses of Mesopotamia and the Levant - had a much bigger part to play in the Bible than most people realize.