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When writing about literature, my late friend Christopher Hitchens demonstrated a basic generosity of spirit combined with flawless judgment. On politics, Hitch got it right, I always felt, about half the time–and that half often enough required him to demonstrate real bravery, defying fellow members of the Left. But on religion? Hitch could be unfair–willfully so–and quite capable of presenting as fresh and new arguments that had grown stale a century ago. What I hadn’t quite realized, though, was that Hitch was also deeply ignorant–in particular, that in discussing the scriptures Hitch simply had no idea what he was talking about.
I hadn’t quite realized this, I say, until looking at “Christopher Hitchens’ lies do atheism no favors,”an article by Curtis White that appeared today on the website of Salon–and that in turn referred to “Christopher Hitchens on the Bible,” a long and completely engrossing review of Hitch’s book, God is Not Great, by William J. Hamblin.
One of many passages in which Hamblin, marshaling Biblical scholarship, demonstrates that Hitch had failed to perform even the most rudimentary homework:
In discussing the exodus, Hitchens dogmatically asserts: “There was no flight from Egypt, no wandering in the desert . . . , and no dramatic conquest of the Promised Land. It was all, quite simply and very ineptly, made up at a much later date. No Egyptian chronicle mentions this episode either, even in passing. . . . All the Mosaic myths can be safely and easily discarded.” These narratives can be “easily discarded” by Hitchens only because he has failed to do even a superficial survey of the evidence in favor of the historicity of the biblical traditions. Might we suggest that Hitchens begin with Hoffmeier’s Israel in Egypt and Ancient Israel in Sinai? It should be noted that Hoffmeier’s books were not published by some small evangelical theological press but by Oxford University—hardly a bastion of regressive fundamentalist apologetics. Hitchens’s claim that “no Egyptian chronicle mentions this episode [of Moses and the Israelites] either, even in passing” is simply polemical balderdash.
Setting aside the fact that Egyptian chronicles almost never mention the defeat of a pharaoh–a fact that demonstrates, by the way, the superiority of biblical historicity with its very flawed and human kings–Egyptian chronicles do, in fact, mention nascent Israel in the famous “Israel Stele”…now in the Cairo National Museum. It has been widely translated and photographed, and it is astonishing that Hitchens is unaware of it….
The Hamblin article is, as I say engrossing–and so full of erudition that it represents something of a biblical education in itself. If you have the time to read it in full, you’ll see that by the end there is very little left of Hitch’s arguments–but that the Bible he so denigrated remains entirely worthy of study and, indeed, awe.