03/04/2014 10:27 BST | Updated 01/06/2014 06:59 BST

It's (Not) Just a Load of Fairy Stories

"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

So writes Richard Dawkins in his book, The God Delusion.

Dawkins' views, as extreme and uniformed by any real biblical exegesis as they are, are widely held and passively accepted in our society. The Old Testament and its God are seen as cruel, fickle and vengeful.

This misapprehension of the biblical text is, at its heart, dangerous for our society. It simplifies complex ideas, dulls our ability to understand and interact with different faith traditions and cuts us off from a vast cultural reservoir, rich in beauty and power.

The idea of these blog posts is to dispel common myths about the Old Testament. I wish to show how the texts that make up the Hebrew Bible are fundamentally misconstrued by most modern commentators and suggest more fruitful ways of thinking about the text. Finally I want to show how the study of the Old Testament can be an asset to any global citizen living in the 21st century.

Where to begin?

The first basic and fatal mistake most people make when approaching the Old Testament is also the easiest and simplest. It is the 'category error'. Essentially this means mistaking one thing for another. Imagine reading a complex article on quantum theory from a scientific journal to a room full of toddlers settling down for story time. After a minute the teacher may stop you and ask you to leave. The text and figures in your hands, though not incorrect, are clearly being used incorrectly and inappropriately. A scientific article is not a children's bedtime story.

This example can be easily transposed into a biblical sphere. The rabid Christian lobby in the United States, determined to force evolution out of scientific education, commit the same error. They look at a text like Genesis and understand and use it as something it is not.

'Aha!' You might say, 'but how do we truly know the genre of biblical texts?'

The problem is, admittedly, a difficult one. The Hebrew Bible does not always point out how one should understand its different sections. There are few signposts saying 'read this bit as history', 'this is a myth,' or 'Allegory alert!'

The difficulty seems intractable - how can we know how to read certain texts? We know that finding appropriate categories and genres is important; indeed the truth of the texts hangs upon it.

One way of proceeding might be to pay close attention to the way the texts are constructed.

This incidentally is where we may leave the commentaries of the 'New Atheists' behind. They are many things to the biblical texts but attentive is definitely not one of them!

The conventions within the text can help us determine its nature. As an example, let us take the Exodus narrative and note a few obvious yet pertinent things about it. For one, everyone in the narrative speaks clear and flowing biblical Hebrew. This is a surprise if one wishes to use the text in a historical sense; surely the Egyptians would have spoken ancient Egyptian? Furthermore the camera or 'eye of the narrator' sweeps back and forth and around the characters; from intimate scenes in Pharaoh's innermost courts, to the thoughts of God himself (who also speaks eloquent classical Hebrew.) This seems plain bizarre if we decide to understand the text as 'history'. Who writes 'history' like this?

One move might be to say that the Exodus text is not 'history', at least in the sense that modernity understands it. The writers of Exodus are following narratological convention in having characters think and speak in Hebrew and by having the eye of the reader and narrator rove freely over the action. We see this convention in modern films portraying the Second World War where German soldiers speak English and the camera switches from German High Command to London without causing the viewer any existential problems.

These are just a few examples of how the biblical text can actually help us out in terms of working out its genre. And working out its genre is crucial to discovering the concerns of the text and its meaning or meanings.

So where does this leave us?

Caution seems to be the perfect watchword for all to bear in mind when approaching the Hebrew Bible. Yet caution, and its cousin attentiveness, are qualities in short supply in the modern world. The biblical texts are not easy to read or understand. But they are worth engaging with - and that will be the subject of my next blog.