Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Gen 6 - 9:17: A-Boatin' We Will Go!

OK, pop quiz. How many of each animal did Noah bring on the ark?

Jan Brueghel the Elder: The Entry of the Animals Into Noah's Ark

The answer depends a little on where you look. In Gen 6:19-20, God tells Noah to bring two of each kind of animal. Then, in Gen 7:2-3, it's seven apiece of clean animals (cats, one often hears, are very clean animals) and two apiece of unclean animals. Then, in the footnotes, my particular Bible says that seven probably means seven pairs.

Did you know about this? It's a big surprise to me. Two is such a, um, intuitive number of species-preserving animals to pack for a long trip. Seven (or fourteen), although definitely superior from a genetic-diversity point of view, seems kind of random.

The Flood

OK, one of the key questions I'm wrestling with in these scribblings is "Is God good?" Since the mere posing of this question suggests the possibility of judgement, and of a finding in the negative, an immediate corrolary question is "What if God isn't good, huh? What then, wiseass?"

And indeed, what then? Is it right, in the face of a universe-creating power, to merely gape in awe, to live as it were in dread of God? If one feels that God has misbehaved, should one mention this to him? Is it polite? Is it safe? How about mentioning it in a blog? Is that a one-way ticket to eternal damnation? Hope not.

There is the school of thought, of course, that God and good are inseperable concepts, and that if God did it, it must be right. We are quite incapable of outthinking God, the reasoning runs -- have some humility in the face of a power that is infinitely, unthinkably greater than yourself, and give the back-seat driving a rest.

And actually, this arguement makes a certain amount of sense to me, intellectually. But, for better or worse, I've never been able to turn off the facility of judgement that I was somehow (ahem) created with. If I am indeed a product of God, he made something with the (insignificantly tiny) ability to talk back. If he doesn't like it, he has no one to blame but himself.

I bring this up because the Flood seems a bit excessive for my tastes. To be fair, we aren't told just what humans were up to that so irked God -- just that the Lord saw how great man's wickedness on the Earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time (6:5). Or, to say it circularly: God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways (6:12).

One specific is given: people are full of violence (6:11). So, God decides that I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth (6:13).

Talk about circular. Humans are violent -- so God decides to waste 'em. The earth is tainted by human violence -- so God is going to smash it to bits. As a moral statement, this seems neither consistant nor coherent, and frankly I was hoping for better leadership. God seems to be operating here with the logic of petulant children and dangerous drunks.

Or, maybe that is only true if you presuppose that humans are morally significant in God's eyes. Without that assumption, from the dread-of-God perspective, God's decision could be as utilitarian as a carpenter saying "damn, this 2 x 4 is infested with termites. Into the burn-barrel it goes." ("...except for this one cute little termite, I'll spare him...")


God as Republican shows up again in Genesis 9, which begins with another restatement and amplification of the now-familiar "everything on Earth belongs to you humans, knock yourself out" speech (1-3). Immediately following this is an absolutely cut-and-dry mandate for the death penalty: whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God has God made man (9:6).

Family values are not addressed as such in this section -- although, wait 'til next week -- but there is a passing condemnation of humanity that is a bit stinging in its casualness: The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma (Mmmm! burnt sacrifice!) and said in his heart: "Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. (9:21)" Ouch!

The Afterlife has been mentioned in these very key first nine chapters of the Bible.... not at all!

Details, Details....

The Noah story is really the first so far that is long enough to have any real narrative line. The most charming thing about it as a story is the wild inconsistancy of detail. In places, there is sudden abundance of precision -- the dimensions of the boat, the exact day of Noah's life on which it started raining, and the elaborate process of releasing birds to search for dry land. Of other areas that spark a readers interest -- what is is like to live on a boat for hundreds of days with only your immediate family and the Bronx Zoo for company? what did people do to deserve this, that we might avoid making the same mistakes in the future? was the rise in water level concomitant with sudden dramatic melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets? -- there is not a word.

Then, there is a nice piece of poetry that ends Genesis 8 on a hopeful note. The floodwaters receding, God is pleased by Noah and his family, and decides that one destruction of the world is enough:

As long as the earth endures,seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,summer and winter,day and nightwill never cease. (8:22)

NEXT: "The Tower of Babel," or, Nxhggl mnzzch gilllm ba fortiax!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Gen 4 - 5 -- After the Fall, Before the Flood

All right, let's get back into this Bible thing. I've been travelling a lot, which has really cut into progress here. My apologies.

Cain and Abel

Genesis 4 is all about Cain and Abel. This is another story that everybody knows in outline. You are even now thinking to yourself, "yeah, there's Cain, and he kills his brother, and God gets angry at him." And that's exactly right. The surprising thing -- the strange thing -- is that you've pretty much got the whole story right there. That's really all there is to the story.

As the chapter starts, Eve gives birth to Cain. "With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man," she says, in a voice no doubt dripping with irony -- it has only been nine verses since God served notice that he was going to "greatly increase your pains in childbearing." Then Abel comes along, and soon the two brothers have pursued their separate career paths, Abel in ranching and Cain in farming.

In a while, they both produce offerings to God. Abel, naturally, brings meat; Cain, veggies. God likes the meat, but did not look with favor on Cain's veggies. "Why not?" you ask. Yes, that seemed like an important point to me too. But -- and this is the strange part, to my eyes -- no reason is given. None. The OCB, in a nice piece of understatement, notes that "this appears to be a literary gap." Yes indeed it does, and it's a gap that renders the story, however well known, to be completely meaningless for all intents and purposes.

Cain kills Abel in a fit of jealousy, God confronts Cain, Cain gets to say his money line, and then God curses him and banishes him. Adam must be pleased to see his boy take after him so closely; in my edition of the Bible, both father and son are in turn cursed and outcast on the very same page.

The OCB notes that "many themes appear in this story, including sibling rivalry, the attraction of sin, crime met with punishment, the futility of pretense before God, and the moral distinction between civilization and barbarism." Which is all true, I suppose, but it's also giving the story much more than its literary due. These themes are evoked, but not developed, so while the story packs a certain cultural punch by virtue of being extremely well known (which is, let's face it, only because it's so close to the beginning) it doesn't really say much.

Begin the Begittin'

After Cain's expulsion, he, ahem, lays with his wife -- I'll avoid the obvious and age-old question of where she wandered in from -- and they begit Enoch. "Cain was then building a city," we are told, in a casual aside, "and he named it after his son Enoch." Five more generations pass without comment until we get to Lamech, who has two wives and three sons. Interesting boys, Lamech's sons: one is "the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock," one is "the father of all who play the harp and flute," and one "forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron." Presumably, this is a metaphorical fatherhood -- is that allowed by the fundamentalists? -- similar to calling George Washington "the father of his country" without implying that he literally, um, begat us all.

This is all readable, I suppose, as a quick-and-dirty social history of human society up through the bronze age. First there were horticulturalists and herders, and God (from the perspective of the authors) liked herders better. Then the horticulturalists built cities, horned into the ranching biz, developed a fancy urban culture, and developed protoindustries. And yeah, that's basically what really happened. Kind of interesting. I'm not sure it gets us anywhere, though.

After Lamech's five verses of fame, the story jumps back to Adam and Eve, who have a second son, Seth. It is implied that this is their third and last child, which again brings up the question of Whence the Womenfolk? -- but I promised to ignore that one.

Genesis 5

Genesis 5 starts with a very brief third statement of the creation. Then begins a series of begettings, from Adam to Seth to Enosh to Kenan, etc., etc. They all live 900 or so years, with Methuselah setting the record at a spry 969. This goes on until the introduction of Noah, father of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, at the end of the chapter.

What's up, you have to wonder, about those uberLifespans? This is explained, kinda, in the first three verses of Genesis 6: When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the Lord said, "My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years."

I would be curious, gentle readers, what you make of this passage. My first thought was that God is said to be cutting way back on the human lifespan as a guard against overpopulation, but that seems like a bit of a turnaround from the whole Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it concept in Genesis 1. Any other thoughts? 'Cause if I only get 120 years instead of 900, I'd like to know why.

Next up: "Hey, who put the unicorns in the same berth with the tigers?" or, Lord, Here Comes the Flood.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Gen 3: The Fall of Man, man.

Let me start by thanking everybody who has read the first few posts, and has said supportive things to me about this project. Many people have Emailed me directly, and I have fought the temptation to make private messages public by inserting them as comments... except in the case of one friend, whose lengthy and, I think, brilliant thoughts on the original set of questions deserved public life. With permission, I added them to the original post, and encourage you to go check them out posthaste.

Thanks also for the contribution and forbearance of Sue, whose remark when she saw me heading out to the reading porch tonight with a Bible, a notebook, and a can of Hamm's -- "Oooh! Hamm's and Japheth's!" -- is yet another excellent illustration of why I married her.

But, back to business. My friend Tom, the closest thing I have to a clergyman, tells me that he took a semester on Genesis in seminary, and they never got past Genesis 1. Similarly, I saw an ad earlier tonight for lectures-on-tape on the Old Testament; of 24 tapes, a whopping 7 of them are on Genesis. Nearly 1/3 the material on 1 out of 40ish books.

What I'm saying is, it's hard to get a lot of momentum going here at the beginning of the Bible. It's like when you set out on that long three-week road trip, but you still have to fight through traffic to get out of your own city. I long for the open road of books like "2 Kings" or "Esther" or "Obadiah," books about which I know literally nothing. Everything will be fresh and novel, and I'll presumably be learning new stuff instead of rethinking old stuff.

In the meantime, Genesis 3: Adam and Eve, the Snake, the Garden, the Expulsion. Not exactly a story I've never encountered before.

Genesis 3

Now, the most interesting thing about the story of Adam and Eve is that it is only a few paragraphs long. Considering its ENORMOUS place in our mythic and psychological world, you kind of expect it to be strung out over many pages, to occupy vastly more textual room than, well, whatever happens in 2 Kings. But no. It's tiny.

Moreover, it's half curse. After the key events (God sets tree off limit, snake tempts Eve, Eve eats and shares with Adam), God does some really, really serious cursing. Actually, the snake gets it first: has to crawl on belly, eat dirt, and be repulsive to humans. Then, women: pain of childbirth, and your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you" (3:16).

Time out. This curse is somewhat redundant, since Adam seemed pretty much the boss of his "helper" by the end of last week's installment. But where the end of Genesis 2 had man implicitly above woman in the pecking order, G3:16 really throws it right in your face. Hard to argue with he will rule over you. ("Your desire will be for your husband" seems like unwelcome news in the lesbian community, for that matter.) All in all, it's a difficult couple of clauses for us fans of inclusive family values.

Back to the curses. Since Adam is the boss of the humans, the curses that apply to all humanity are addressed to him. The upshot of these is that, instead of effortlessly receiving the garden's abundance, everybody is going to have to work through painful toil... by the sweat of your brow... or the earth will produce thorns and thistles. (cf: "I'm a-going to stay where you sleep all day, where they hung the jerk who invented work, in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.") With a goodbye present of a change of clothing, the first couple are sent out from the Garden to learn agriculture by doing.

Harsh! Dude! Harsh! The punishment does not, to my way of thinking, fit the crime. A single piece of purloined fruit does not, in most human schemes of justice, merit exile and complete loss of a lifestyle to which one has become accustomed for both the perpitrators and all of their descendents, in perpetuity. Indeed, this might be our first encounter with the most troubling question on the table: is God good to lay out this extravagent round of curses?

But I have a hard time taking that question seriously, for the simple reason that I have a hard time making head or tails of G3. The key point of confusion, for my money, is "what is the nature of that piece of fruit?" This is VERY murky. It's certainly not like any fruit I'm familiar with, not even starfruit.

What's in that fruit, anyway?

Clue I (3:3): Eve says that God said that she and Adam weren't to eat or even touch the fruit, or they would die. (This turns out not to be true, so Eve either lied about it, misunderstood God, or was fibbed to by God.)

Clue II (3:4-5): The snake says "No, you won't die; you'll become more like God, and know the difference between good and evil." (We are clearly not supposed to think much of the snake, but everything he says turns out to be correct.)

Clue III (3:7): The fruit is super-tasty. Once eaten, A & E know the difference between Good and Evil (3:22). This knowledge, specifically, seems to consist of awareness that they are naked, and that being naked is shameful and bad. (This seems extremely hard on sexuality, not to mention my aversion to pajamas).

Clue IV (3:22): God is afraid that if the fruit is eaten again -- or perhaps if the fruit from another tree, the "tree of life," is eaten, it's not entirely clear which -- that humans will become immortal, and live forever. This would be very bad, and is why humans are banished from the Garden. (Why this would be bad is not addressed.)

Clue V: (3:22): Having eaten the fruit, humans are, according to God, "now become like one of us, knowing good and evil."

Help me out here, folks. Is this an elaborate story about sex, cleaned up for the kids through a self-referential concern for the dirty nastiness of the subject? But if so, what are the implications for the literal truth of the Bible, not to say its coherence?

But, if the story doesn't really make a lot of sense on its own merits, it does rock the house in the imagery department. That piece of fruit is an unbeatable evocation of temptation, and the serpant out-mephistopholeses Mephistopholes. If you follow me. The fig leaves are classic. (Interestingly, the chapter ends on an image that's a bit of a clunker, almost universally forgotten: After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.(3:24))

Genesis 3 also contains one of my favorite phrases in the Bible, when A&E hear the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day (3:8). If we are indeed like God, it is hopeful to me that we are like the God who enjoys a stroll in the garden, before it gets too hot.

Thanks for reading, friend. Next up: "Sibling Rivalry of the Old School," or, Raising Cain.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Gen 1-2: In the Beginning...

And I'm off! I've read two chapters of the Bible, and have... um... 1198 or so to go. This is the feeling I have had after one block of the marathon, or when passing the Belmont Dairy Zupans on my bicycle trip to Bandon, the feeling of "oh man, this is going to be a lot of work."

I had heard about this before, maybe even studied it at some point: Genesis 1 is the story of the creation. Genesis 2 is also the story of the creation. But the two are extremely different in tone and emphasis, and even seem to contradict in some specifics. In Genesis 1, God creates plants on Day Three and humans on Day Six. In Genesis 2, God creates Adam at a point when no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up (2:5). Not that I intend this to be the "Michael Sharpshoots the Bible" blog, but it does appear to put early points on the board for those college Sophomores who say "the Bible is just, like, totally full of contradictions."

Fun fact: in Genesis 1, night and day predate the sun. Let there be light happens at 1:3, and the separation of light and dark into night and day happens immediately afterwards, starting the cycle of nights and days. Sun and moon get set up to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness (1:18) only on Day Four.

In Genesis 1, God proceeds day to day, creating everything in the world from whole cloth in a great series of categories. Plants, fish, birds, and domestic and wild animals -- all are created "according to their kinds," a phrase that is repeated at least nine times. Indeed, creation is so systematic in its execution that it's surprising, in retrospect, that it took Linnaeus so long to take advantage of the headstart. Having everything sorted "according to its kind" from the get-go certainly telegraphs an awfully tidy worldview; the Oxford Companion to the Bible (let's call it OCB) notes that authors of the entire rest of the Bible are going to "presuppose a comprehensive world order to which they summon men and women to conform." Uh-0h.

In Genesis 2, I've always been fascinated by the naming process. God brings all of the animals to Adam, who gets to name them. By this time, there have already been two explicit statements that humans are going to be the boss of the rest of the animals, but the symbolism of this episode really drives the point home. The one who makes up the names is usually the one in charge.

Curiously, the naming-of-the-animals incident is presented as part of an attempt by God to find a helper suitable for Adam. Like many dating services since, this one doesn't produce results for its client, and it is only after the last, newly-christened beast slouches off that God decides to make "a woman" from Adam's rib. She doesn't have a name at this point -- looking ahead, I see that she'll become Eve at 3:20. Guess who does the naming!

A few points on the key questions, and we'll call it a night:

1. Is God a Republican? Well, he sounds like a property-rights activist in 1:28: ...increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground. 'Course, whole forests have been felled to print the debate over whether this injunction is a grant of dominion or a call to stewardship. I'm a stewardship man, myself.

2. Is God good? As the happy inhabitant of a world whose beauties can usually, on any given day, render me dizzy with happiness -- and as a member of the species who is basically given the keys to the whole shebang -- I've got no complaints so far.

3. An afterlife? Now, this is interesting. We've got the scheme of creation all laid out, but there is no mention of a heaven or a hell, and if one were going to get persnickity, no "place" literal or figurative for them to be. Hmmmm....

4. Family Values. OK, so God anaesthetizes Adam, extracts a rib, and forms it into a woman. Adam, groggy after his surgery, says "this is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman' for she was taken out of man," this later clause apparently being a real knee-slapper pun in Hebrew.

For this reason, the text continues, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (2:23-24) Say what? "For this reason"? Either I am missing some kind of logical connection between cause and effect, or this is a distinctly alien form of reasoning. Not surprising, since this is a text written in a radically different culture from my own, but it's a point worth making at the outset: the logic of why a practice or custom follows from an initial cause in the Bible is not neccessarily a logic that we modern types will easily accept.

Having said that, it's hard not to see this one as a scriptural coup for the Marriage = One Man + One Woman set.

Coming Next: "The Fall of Man", or, One Bad Apple Spoils the Whole Party

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Ground Rules

OK, let's start with some ground rules to keep me honest.

Rules for me.

I: I'll be reading the New International Version of the Christian Bible, Old and New Testaments. (Specifically, I'll be reading the copy that was given to graduating seniors by the ministerial association of my small hometown 20 years ago. Not terribly long ago, but I'm sure they didn't anticipate its use as blogfodder. Thanks for the Bible, guys.)

II: I will keep the Oxford Companion to the Bible at hand, and may (or may not) peek into it or other sources as I go.

III: There are a little fewer than 1200 chapters in the Bible. I must, at a minimum, make a blog entry for every 10 chapters read.

IV: I must not be deliberately offensive. This is tricky, since a) the entire enterprise will be offensive to some, and b) I have a fairly, um, irreverent attitude towards piety and received opinions about anything, for instance religion or the nature of God. I certainly can't promise that a reader won't be horrified by my thinking or my attitude. I will endeavor mightily, however, to avoid disparaging others, or taking mean-spirited shots at the opinions of others -- especially others whom I know to be following the blog.

V: If I find out that others don't share my beliefs, I resolve not to act all shocked about it. I already knew that others didn't share my beliefs.

VI: The timeline is loose. I don't intend to put down all other reading while I'm working on this, and the writing process will slow things down. I'm guessing it will take more than a year, all told.

Rules for Anyone Who Decides to Comment

I: No, I'm not trying to get you to read the Bible along with me, although that might be fun. Comment is welcome from deeply informed perspectives, or off the cuff.

II: First names only, please, and no overtly identifying information. It's a public forum.

III: Be civil. Feel free to tell me I'm full of shit, but try not to hurt my feelings while you're doing it. Even more so, don't go after other commenters. Be light of heart and generous.


That's enough for now. Michael Reads the Bible, starting, well... soon. See ya then.

The Original Letter

Hello, Friends,

Having survived my summer bicycle trip, I've been contemplating my next exercise in endurance. It’s going to be another one of those things I have always wanted to do someday. But, instead of the roads of Western Oregon, this time I'm taking on the great sacred text of European civilization. That's right: over the next year or so, I’m gonna read the Bible.

In order to keep myself focused, reflective, and moving forward, I am going to blog this experience. I’m certainly not promising to have any great and riveting insights or anything like that. But, if you are interested in this sort of thing, I'm inviting you, my brilliant, insightful, and (one hopes) patient friends, to take part if you would like -- to read, to comment, and to tell me when I'm full of crap.

I am particularly interested in a few specific questions:

1. Is God a Republican? That's certainly the impression one gets from many of his most vocal advocates. Are they right? This seems important.
2. Is God good? If you're shocked to read the question, I'm awfully shocked to be writing it. But I have vague notions that there's a ton of smiting in the Bible. And, as a rule, I'm strongly anti-smiting. How does that kind of thing get resolved?
3. An afterlife? Really? This whole "hell" thing, in particular, seems like a real stretch to me. Let's take a look.
4. What are God’s family values? Does God really, as the Rev. Fred Phelps used to tell us in Kansas, "hate fags"? Is monogamous heterosexual marriage really the only way to fly? Inquiring minds want to know.

I suppose these are all really facets of a simpler question: Am I a Christian? I've been fairly content with my stock answer for while now -- "I'm one part Quaker, two parts gardener" -- but that is pretty flip, and holds questions like the ones above rather at arm’s length. I'm ready to put them under the microscope, and engage with some sacred text.

Care to join me? This subject matter isn't for everyone, and obviously neither is reading my personal prose stylings/rantings. But if you are interested in participating in the experience, or in just following along, here's the URL: