Sunday, October 05, 2008

1 Chronicles 1 - 9: Chroniclezzzzzz

The first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles trace a geneology from Adam -- remember him? THE Adam, Human #000-00-0001? -- through the descendents of King Saul. It does not mention each and every single human being who was alive during this period, but it sure seems like it does when you are trying to read it. This is a pure, stereotypical kind of Biblical drudgery that I don't believe we've seen since Genesis. Random example:

16 The sons of Levi: Gershon, Kohath and Merari.
17 These are the names of the sons of Gershon: Libni and Shimei.
18 The sons of Kohath: Amram, Izhar, Hebron and Uzziel.
19 The sons of Merari: Mahli and Mushi.

These are the clans of the Levites listed according to their fathers:
20 Of Gershon: Libni his son, Jehath his son, Zimmah his son, 21 Joah his son, Iddo his son, Zerah his son and Jeatherai his son.
22 The descendants of Kohath: Amminadab his son, Korah his son, Assir his son, 23 Elkanah his son, Ebiasaph his son, Assir his son....

Had enough? Sure you have.

For the most part, it's just a family tree in a textual format. On occasion, we are given a detail or two about occupation, location, wealth, or accomplishments, but these are definitely footnotes to the main show. Which is: lineages! It's all about the lineages! Well, some people are into geneology, I guess.

Confusion in the Source Material

There are a lot of literal footnotes in this section too. I haven't talked much about this, but throughout the Bible up to this point there have been occasional footnotes that refer to contradictions in the various source manuscripts. Now, I don't know much about the Biblical source material, but footnotes refer to multiple Hebrew, Septuagint, Syriac, and "Vulgate" sources. As with anybody working with pre-modern or early modern texts for which multiple "originals" exist, the editors of the N.I.V. (or any other Bible) have taken their best shot at reconciling the contradictions into a coherent, consistent single narrative.

This poses another modest technical problem for anyone who would approach the Bible as an absolutely literal document. 1 Chronicles 1:42, for instance, lists:
The sons of Ezer:
Bilhan, Zaavan and Akan.
The sons of Dishan:
Uz and Aran.
OK. But when you chase the footnote down, you find that there's disagreement about the sons of Ezer. The sons as listed above are according to "many Hebrew and Septuagint manuscripts." "Most Hebrew manuscripts," however, say that the sons of Ezer are Zaavan and Jaakan. Moreover, it's unclear about whether Dishan is named "Dishan" or maybe "Dishon."

This is a minor problem from a strictly factual standpoint, of course, because nobody gives a damn who Ezer's sons were. Philosophically, however, it is one of the thousands of loose threads that make strict literalism such a tough gig. If you profess to believe the absolute truth of every word of the Bible, and I ask you who Ezer's sons were, you have a crisis on your hands. You've got two contradictory absolute truths.

There are only so many ways you could respond to this paradox, and none of them are very satisfying. Here are the ones I could think of:

1) You could pick one of the original sources and run with it. Problem is, to pick the RIGHT source with any confidence would be the work of many lifetimes. Have fun in your Syriac class!

2) You could say something like "they must BOTH be right! Ezer must have had FOUR sons!" But that's a cheap out; each text clearly implies that it is a complete list of sons.

3) You could assume that the N.I.V. editors must have been inspired by God, and that therefore the current translation must be correct. Except that, if the current Bible in your hand is always correct, things turn quickly into a textual free-for-all. I could take the N.I.V. and, say, rip all of the pages about Solomon, and hand it to you. Neither you nor I would be in any position to say that I hadn't been inspired by God, and that my new Solomon-free Bible didn't represent a new, unexpected revelation.

4) You could learn of the correct answer through personal revelation. Obviously problematic, since personal revelations aren't known for lining up when more than one person is involved.

Or, 5) I suppose you could acknowledge the contradiction and claim it as a mystery beyond human understanding. According to a logic passing human comprehension, you could say, each of the Biblical sources must be Truth, and the apparent contradiction about Ezer's sons progeny is just something we have to live with. I respect this line of thought, actually, but it too has a problem. Saying that the Bible is true but not always open to human understanding is to claim meaning that is beyond the literal meaning of the text. The same reasoning, after all, could be used to suggest that the Biblical creation story describes, in a way that is not open to direct human understanding, a long process of biological evolution in which human beings emerge after various misadventures from primordial proteins. SO, it is not a gambit that's really open to a literalist.

Did I miss any options? Feel free to jump in here, vast army of beloved readers.

Next Week: More Geneology! Now, with anecdotes! Or, the Return of 1 Samuel!


Anonymous said...

I won't even try to add a plausible explanation to add to your relatively exhaustive list, but since I consider my humble specialty to be neuroscience,I will take another perspective. Human brains are wired to form somewhat firm conclusions using the flimsiest of evidence. This is almost necessary to some degree, otherwise we would always be in a wishy washy state of "wait-but". For example,when face to face with a fierce predator, one of our ancestors might say, "sure this tiger has eaten dozens of my fellow tribesmen, BUT WAIT, maybe this time we can tame him. (the book "6 unbelievable things before breakfast" explains this tendency in great detail). The point is, no matter how full of outrageous absurdities,contradictions,incoherencies,or inconsistencies the bible is, (and I am sure it is), this is not likely to have much of an impact on the fundamentalist inerrant mind of your typical churchgoer.

al said...

But-wait a minute. Humans routinely change their beliefs (sometimes it takes a while) when faced with indisputable contrary evidence. For example--- santa clause, homer, greek and roman mythology. So maybe a realistic goal would be for modernity to overtake superstition sometime in the next 50 years or so. In the meantime, it is great exercise to read the bible in a fair and even-handed way the way Michael is doing it. (THe more accurate book title in my last post is 6 impossible thing before breakfast-the evolutionary origins of belief.) After sitting in a baptist sunday school class for 30 plus years, I can testify to the fact that most fundamentalist christians gloss over contradictions and don't seem to give them a second thought. Keep up the good work

Michael5000 said...

Thanks for the comments! Friends who know what I'm up to with this project but don't follow along -- imagine! -- often ask me about the "absurdities, contradictions, incoherencies, or inconsistencies" I'm finding, and I'm never able to hit them with a quick answer.

For absurdities, after all, there's a perfectly coherent frame of reference that the supernatural is obviously mere superstition, so the whole book is patently absurd. But, there's also the coherent frame that the whole book is a direct message from God, and by definition CAN NOT be absurd. Plus, a million frames in between.

Incoherencies, likewise, are where you find them.

Contradictions and inconsistencies are, as I talked about here, rather a steeper hurdle for someone who would take the Bible completely literally. Having said that, I have to admit that there are not nearly as MANY explicit contradictions as I thought there might be.

What I find most amazing in the whole project is how much the generally-understood Bible differs from what's actually written. This has been striking me ever since the Genesis stories, most of which seem to have a generally-understood meaning and even form that is considerably different from what's actually written. The most IMPORTANT instance, probably, is how this text -- the basis of the great monotheistic religions -- is so offhandedly polytheistic. Kind of amazing, that.

Thanks for reading!