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Fake News and the Bible: Which word is credible?

Vincenzo Anselmo, SJ - La Civiltà cattolica - Wed, Jul 31st 2019

Vincenzo Anselmo, SJThe internet allows us to access a wealth of information that was unthinkable a few decades ago. On the web and on social networks this information is created and exchanged in real time. A user may be disoriented when faced with such a quantity of news and data that corresponds to multiple points of view, each of which attempts to establish itself as truth. In this chaos, the news that makes the most noise and the opinions that acquire greater consensus and more “likes” are considered to be true. In a quagmire from which it is difficult to extricate oneself, how is it possible to authentically discern truth from falsehood? The skein is tangled, to say the very least, and misleading and false information that often manipulates people’s awareness is lurking on the internet.[1]

The pope dedicated his message for the 52nd World Communications Day to the “fake news” phenomenon. According to Pope Francis, “the effectiveness of fake news is primarily due to its ability to mimic real news, to seem plausible. Secondly, this false but believable news is ‘captious,’ inasmuch as it grasps people’s attention by appealing to stereotypes and common social prejudices, and by exploiting instantaneous emotions like anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration.”[2]

The viral and epidemic nature of false or manipulative news bouncing around the web and social networks from one end of the world to the other makes discernment and recognition of the truth more difficult. However, fake news is not a recent phenomenon.

 The narrative model of the Bible

From the beginning, the biblical story warns the reader about the great danger arising from distorted truths and from false and counterfeit information. The consequences are dramatic for those who rely on fake news and get carried away with their concerns and fears, without putting their faith in the Word of God, which is always true. For the reader, the biblical narrative can become a real exercise in discernment for learning how to distinguish what is precious from what is vile (cf. Jer 15:19). In reading, we are all called to discern the source of information, what is reliable and what is not, in order not to be misled.

Inside the storytelling world, the narrator carries out the task of presenting the story.[3] We could say this is his prerogative. The narrator must be considered as a literary presence in the text, not to be confused with the real authors. For example, the Book of Exodus begins: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household” (Ex 1:1). This is the narrator’s voice that is speaking.

First of all, in the Bible the narrator is omniscient, knowing everything in the story being told and also accessing the feelings and thoughts of the characters, including the inner life of God. Another characteristic of the narrator is reliability, telling the reader the correct and reliable version of history. The biblical narrator is also anonymous, located behind the text and not coming into the foreground. Rarely, but significantly, the narrator expresses judgments or gives assessments about a character or a situation.

In the Bible, therefore, the story is told by an omniscient and reliable narrator. God’s point of view is reliable, while that of other characters is not only partial and limited, but can even be false and misleading (fake). The presence in the biblical story of a large cast multiplies the points of view so that the reader becomes oriented in the narration through the experience of differing perspectives.

Some examples may help us understand how the Bible helps the reader to weigh the various points of view and their degree of reliability, recognizing words that give life and the lies that lead to death.

The word of God and that of the serpent

The two stories in Gen 1 and in Gen 2-3, read in sequence, are two complementary accounts of creation, despite the tensions that exist between the two texts of differing origin. The voice of the narrator has the privilege of telling, in its omniscience, even the creation of the world: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1-2). It reports not only what God says “Let there be light” – but also what God feels within: “And God saw that the light was good” (Gen 1:4).

From the very first pages of the Bible, the reader is invited to enter into a covenant relationship with the narrator, the latter claiming credibility and the former attaining confidence in what is being told. God says in verse 26: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,”[4] and in verse 27 the narrator confirms: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The information coming from the narrator and from God is reliable, and the two points of view agree.

Chapters 2 and 3 can be read in continuity with the preceding one. Gen 2-3 may be understood narratively as a zoom narrative about the creation of Adam, male and female. According to Jan P. Fokkelman, “the tale of paradise, Gen 2:4b-3:24, strictly speaking, is not a second account of creation, but a more careful study of the human being that was created, its origins and its fundamental relationship with God and with the world.”[5]

In Gen 2:8-9 the narrator indicates to the reader that God planted a garden in Eden where the man who was created was placed: “Out of the ground, the Lord God made grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:9). The Lord entrusts to the man the dual responsibility of cultivating and maintaining the garden (cf. Gen2:15). At this point God delivers a double commandment: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen2:16-17).

Above all, God’s speech highlights the positive dimension of the gift. As to the divine command, André Wénin states: “This order is twofold and, often forgotten, its first part has nothing to do with a prohibition. It is a positive precept that orders humans to eat from every tree in the garden.”[6] It gave everything to Adam; he is the king of the garden, at the center of which is located the tree of life (cf. Gen 2:9).

In the second part of the commandment, God inserts a limit, giving the man a warning: “but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen 2:17).[7] What will Adam do when faced with the divine command? How will he interpret the word of God? Will he know how to listen deeply, or will he misunderstand what has been said to him?

In Gen 3, the first words of the serpent insinuate doubt about the good intentions of the one who has placed the man in the Garden of Eden. The snake addresses the woman with a provocative and deceptive question that distorts the truth: “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Gen 3:1). With his words, the snake conveys the image of a despotic and tyrannical God, who even wants to starve his very creatures, depriving them of food needed for sustenance.[8] The reader, however, knows that the serpent’s words do not correspond to the truth, because God never gave such a command; rather, he did something totally different, giving to the man all, except for one thing. Moreover, if God denied the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, it was done so that the man, by not eating from this tree, would not die. The priority of God is that the man remains alive, not the prohibition of eating from the tree.

The woman responds, timidly trying to deny the claims of the serpent: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die’” (Gen 3:2-3). Eve’s perspective appears to be distorted. The woman does not agree with the serpent, but she also alters the words of God, making the prohibition more important than the gift.

Moreover, the prohibition of eating now expands to one of touching. From the point of view of Eve, the prohibition is even more rigorous. Additionally, from the woman’s perspective, the forbidden tree is placed alone in the center of the garden, while God had placed both trees there.[9] According to Wénin, “the forbidden tree takes up the entire spot and becomes precisely the tree that hides the forest containing all that has been given.”[10]

The snake has muddied the waters to confuse the woman. In the game of multiple points of view, it is easy to get lost if the reader does not remain vigilant in weighing the diverse perspectives and having the words of the narrator and those of God as a measuring stick to discern what is true. The serpent’s fake news trap is not limited to disorienting and confusing Eve: the intended effect is to manipulate and seduce Eve, to lead her into transgression against the divine Word. The last poison instilled by the serpent is a word that engenders the image of an envious God who wants to keep the man and the woman in a lesser and submissive state: “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4-5).

Even these words are false. The voice of God and the narrator had already told the reader that Adam, male and female, is created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27). The man and the woman do not need to struggle to become what they already are. There is no order to subvert and no opponent to knock down in order to take their place. But Eve falls into the trap of the snake and no longer trusts in God. In the words of Paul Ricœur, “the era of suspicion had opened, a crack had been introduced into the most fundamental condition of language, that is, the relationship of trust that linguists refer to as the ‘sincerity clause.’”[11]

“The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Gen 3:6). At the center of the woman’s thoughts and desires is the forbidden fruit only, while the other trees, also beautiful and good, disappeared from her view (cf. Gen 2:9). The serpent built the false image of a despotic and arbitrary God, the enemy of the man and of the woman, instilling doubt and suspicion about the goodness of his word and of his gift. Pope Francis writes: “This biblical episode brings to light an essential element: there is no such thing as harmless disinformation; on the contrary, trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences. Even a seemingly slight distortion of the truth can have dangerous effects.”[12]

Is the majority always right? (Numbers 13–14)

Later in the biblical account we meet the people of Israel on the difficult and uncertain journey toward the land of Canaan. They have to decide whether to trust in the Lord’s promise or whether to rely on their fears and concerns. To which voice will Israel listen? Will the people fall for false and defeatist words or will they listen to the word of God? This time an external entity like the snake does not come into play; rather, the people themselves are the authors of the lie that discredits the Promised Land and weakens the spirit of those who are on the journey.

When we find ourselves in Chapters 12-13 of the Book of Numbers, Israel is now on the threshold of the land of Canaan after journeying through the desert. During the journey, the Lord had taken care of and fed his people. God commands Moses to send some men to explore the land of Canaan, reaffirming his will to give it to Israel (cf. Num 13:1-2). The Lord’s word is trustworthy and makes his intentions toward the people clear and unequivocal. God requires that each tribe have its own representative among the explorers, chosen from among the leaders. Thus they will be men who have authority and enjoy credibility before the people.

Moses sends out the explorers and gives them thorough instructions. After 40 days they return to the people of Israel and tell about all that they had seen in Canaan, showing the fruits that they had collected in the land. At this point, the narrative presents several speeches that reflect different points of view, openly in contrast with each other. What words will the people deem to be credible? Which speech tells the truth, and which is false? The omniscient narrator and the word of God will be the compass for the reader to understand where the truth lies.

The first report of the explorers seems positive: “We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. Yet the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there” (Num 13:27-28). In fact, these words are carefully crafted to draw the people into a trap.[13] The explorers confirm the bounty of the land that they had visited, but at the same time insinuate that Israel cannot compete with those who live there, who are stronger and better equipped. Between the lines, the speech from the explorers is constructed to manipulate the people and to lead them away from what God has promised. They speak a truth (“the land is good”) and then undermine the fact that the goal is accessible and close at hand (“Yet the people who live in the land are strong”). The result is to discourage Israel, weakening its trust in God, so that the people are afraid to enter into the land of Canaan.

At this point, Caleb, one of the explorers, tries to intervene, acting as a counterbalance to what was said by the others and encouraging the people to persist in their intent to enter Canaan: “Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, ‘Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.’ Then the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than us’” (Num 13:30-31). Caleb finds himself alone while the other explorers are even more overt in discouraging and weakening the spirit of the people.

In this conflict between diametrically opposed points of view the reliable and omniscient narrator intervenes. His interventions orient the reader, who risks getting lost in the game of opposing perspectives, and express a clear and unequivocal judgment on the words of the explorers: “So they brought to the Israelites an unfavorable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, ‘The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the giants, the descendants of the Anakites, the race of giants; and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them’” (Num 13:32-33).

The scouts spread a false report about the land which God was giving to Israel (cf. Num 13:1-2). The narrator reports the unfounded and distorted information that they gave. The speech is hyperbolic and grotesque, full of exaggerations and contradictions. First of all, the country that they had previously described as the place where milk and honey flow had now become the land that devours its inhabitants.[14] The explorers again mention the descendants of Anak, but this time they are described as belonging to the race of giants.[15] The country is no longer something beautiful and good, but appears as a hostile and malicious mythological entity, like a formless wasteland, like the abyss prior to creation (cf. Gen 1:2), while the inhabitants of Canaan are described as primordial monsters, demi-gods fallen to earth (cf. Gen 6:4).

The explorers emphasize details and make their narrative colorful to deceive Israel and manipulate the decision. They disseminate unfounded information and tell tall tales, distorting those same words they had used earlier. In other words, the leaders of the people, under the cloak of supposed authority, provide misinformation, instilling fear and discouragement in the people. The explorers play upon fear of the unknown and prejudice toward what is different and not known. In the end they project their point of view, dictated by fear, onto the people of Canaan. Israel’s leaders feel small and think that the others see them in the same way.

Unfortunately, the people are influenced by the words and the fear transmitted by the explorers and give credibility to their lies. The opinion of the majority of the leaders prevails over Caleb’s isolated voice. Thus, the only non-defeatist opinion is stifled. The people shout and cry, expressing their fear, and begin to grumble, expressing discontent and impatience against Moses and Aaron.

There were already other times in the desert when Israel had complained: in Marah for the lack of potable water (cf. Ex 15:24); later, regretting the pot of meat and bread they ate in Egypt (cf. Ex 16:2, 7-8) and again because of the lack of water (cf. Ex 17:3). On this occasion, however, there is something new in the intentions of the people: “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt” (Num 14:4). What could have been called “nostalgia for Egypt” now becomes a desire to return. The people of Israel reverse all that the Lord had done by freeing them from slavery and call into question the authority of Moses and, ultimately, that of God.

Caleb, and with him Joshua, bravely oppose this attempted “coup” and remind Israel of the name of God on which their hope is based[16]: “Only, do not rebel against the Lord; and do not fear the people of the land, for they are no more than bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them” (Num 14:9). The invitation not to be afraid has no effect, because the mass of the people is blinded by panic and anger and intends to stone those who want to waken them from this slumber and reason with them.

The lie led to fear, and fear led to the threshold of violence, until the intervention of God puts a stop to the madness of the people. As a result, the entry into Canaan is postponed to the next generation, while Israel spends another 40 years wandering in the desert before they see the land that the Lord intends to give them (cf.Num 14:29-30).

At the beginning of the story, the word of God had announced that the land of Canaan would belong to Israel. This soft but reliable voice sounded faintly in the ears of the people, who preferred to listen to the rants of the explorers, full of pretentious words. Thus, fear prevailed over trust. When the contrast between the different perspectives could have made it difficult for the reader, the narrator intervened to clarify with a reliable assessment. The narrator guided the reader to discern the lies supported by the majority from the truth affirmed by only two people, Caleb and Joshua.

Conclusions

Can it be said that the more persuasive and convincing a speech is, the worthier it is of credence? Are the strongest and most grandiose words also the most reliable? Is an opinion that is supported by the majority automatically true? The accounts in Genesis 3 and Numbers 13-14 demonstrate how distortion of the truth poses a problem of discernment for the reader related to with which word they should form an alliance. Which word is true and leads to life?

What deceived the woman were the doubts that crept in from the snake with its persuasive and captivating voice, together with the seductive promise of becoming like God. But the narrator unmasked the lies and machinations, communicating to the reader the true and reliable word of God. In the story from the Book of Numbers, the deception is based on the frustration of the people, fomenting illusions and fears and fueling concerns in the face of novelty and terror toward the stranger, who is seen as a monstrous danger. In the dynamism of the story, the attentive reader is able to recognize the play of opposing viewpoints, trusting the narrator and the promise of God.

Even today these narratives can help the reader identify, among so many words that claim to be true, those that are most worthy of belief, recognizing those mechanisms that distort reality and manipulate judgment by focusing on easily aroused emotions. The Book of Proverbs affirms: “The mind of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil” (Prov 15:28). In a world frantically producing news and opinions, the Bible invites us not to be overwhelmed, but to stop, think and reflect, not allowing ourselves to be carried away by the immediacy of the slogan that preys on fear or gives enticing but empty promises.

In Hebrew, the word emet, “truth,” comes from the verb ’mn and it means “to be firm, stable, solid and faithful,” and therefore “to be safe, certain, true.” This confidence is placed only in God, who is faithful to the people and is the guarantor of authentic life and freedom.

 


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 1, article 1, Jan. 19: 10.32009/22072446.1901.1

[1].On this topic, see also F. Occhetta, “Tempo di post-verità o di post-coscienza?” in Civ.Catt. 2017 II 215-223.

[2].Francis, Message for World Communications Day. “The truth will set you free (Jn 8:32). Fake news and journalism for peace,” in w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/
messages/communications/documents/papafrancesco_20180124_messaggio-comunicazioni-sociali.html.

[3].For a broad examination of the narrative model of the Bible, cf. J.- P. Sonnet, “L’analisi narrative dei racconti biblici,” in M. Bauks – C. Nihan (eds), Manuale di esegesi dell’Antico Testamento, Bologna, EDB, 2010, 45-85.

[4].The proposed translations generally follow the version from the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI) 2008, with some variations that intend to make the text more faithful to the original Hebrew.

[5].J. P. Fokkelman, Come leggere un racconto biblico, Bologna, EDB, 2015, 132.

[6].A. Wénin, Da Adamo ad Abramo o l’errare dell’uomo. Lettura narrativa e antropologica della Genesi. I. Gen 1,1–12,4, Bologna, EDB, 2008, 45.

[7].According to T. N. D. Mettinger, the text of Gen 2:17 refers to a warning of danger of death, rather than a formal sentence of condemnation (cf. T. N. D. Mettinger, The Eden Narrative: A Literary and Religio–historical Study of Genesis 2–3, Winona Lake [IN], Eisenbrauns, 2007, 22).

[8].In the stories of creation, God says: “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food” (Gen 1:29). On this point, cf. A. Wénin, Da Adamo ad Abramo o l’errare dell’uomo…, op. cit., 30-32.

[9].According to Paul Joüon, the expression “the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:9) contains a chain of terms coordinated with each other, but divided by an intrusive element: “in the midst of the garden.” Therefore, both trees would be at the center of Eden (see P. Joüon – T. Muraoka, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, Rome, Gregorian and Biblical Press, 20112, 117t).

[10].A. Wénin, Da Adamo ad Abramo o l’errare dell’uomo…, op. cit., 69.

[11].A. LaCocque – P. Ricœur, Come pensa la Bibbia. Studi esegetici ed ermeneutici, Brescia, Paideia, 2002, 60.

[12].Francis, Message for World Communications Day…, op. cit., No. 2.

[13].According to D. T. Olson, in their first report, the explorers were not unfair and did not express judgments. If this had been the case, the differences and contradictions between the two speeches they gave would have been even more evident: cf. D. T. Olson, Numeri, Turin, Claudiana, 2006, 93.

[14].Cf. Ibid., 94.

[15].The Greek version refers to the term “giants,” while in Hebrew it is the nefilim, meaning “the fallen,” from the verb nfl, “to fall.” According to Gen 6:4, they are considered to be mythological beings probably born from the union of the sons of God with the daughters of humans, but the text is unclear. These demi-gods should have been extinct with the flood, all the more reason not to believe the words of the explorers (on nefilim see R. S. Hendel, “Of Demigods and the Deluge: Toward an Interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 106 [1987] 13-26).

[16].Caleb and Joshua do not give in to group pressure and do not conform to the opinion chosen by the majority. In a sense they show their independence from the social psychology known as the “Asch effect,” which occurs when an erroneous belief, sustained by the majority, influences the opinion of another person who assimilates his or her own view into that of the majority. On the Asch effect, see R. Kreitner – A. Kinicki, Comportamento organizzativo, Milan, Apogeo, 2004, 402-404.

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