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: