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Book Review: The Bible

July 17, 2011

I thought it would be educational to read the Bible, a process which took roughly two months of train journeys to and from work. There were a number of motivations for this:

  1. To have a better grasp of its contents.
  2. To recognise figures of speech and literary allusions which have a Biblical origin.
  3. To form my own understanding of God.
  4. To try to understand what Christians see in it.

I shall tackle these in order.

Getting a better grasp of the contents of the Bible

The Bible, as most people know (i.e. even I knew this before I started), is split into two parts. The Old Testament is basically a written-down version of the Israelites’ folk stories about their origin, and various prophesies. The New Testament is all the stories about Jesus and the invention of Christianity, mostly by Paul. My King James edition has 1235 pages, of which the first 943 are the Old Testament.

The Bible is a long narrative, written by persons known and unknown; there’s no named author for much of the Old Testament, and authorship of bits of the New Testament is disputed. It is important to realise that the Bible we have today is not a collection of these texts as they originally existed. There must, logically, have been a first time each book, chapter and verse of the Bible was committed to manuscript, but we don’t have these scripts. We have copies of copies and we know that they have suffered additions, deletions and edits, also by persons unknown, since their original creation. We know this because there are a number of fairly old surviving manuscripts of the Bible and they have a great many differences.

One example of this is in relation to the Ten Commandments which Moses is gifted in Exodus. The commandments are set out in chapter 20, which ends with Moses being instructed to build an altar. Then, suddenly, chapters 21, 22 and possibly 23 go into lots of low-level detail about punishments for various crimes and misdemeanors (e.g. if an ox gores a man then the ox is killed but not the owner, unless the owner knew that the ox had such tendencies, the owner is to be put to death too). Then we return to the scheduled programme. It could be that God is indulging in his enthusiasm for micro-managing everything (of which more later), but a more probable explanation might be that at some point a community decided that their laws needed a bit more divine authority, so they were simply inserted into their copy of the Bible at what seemed like a sensible place. Thus we have the famous “eye for eye, tooth for tooth“.

A lot of the Bible is pretty tough going and it is a little hard to stop one’s eyes glazing over at times. For example, Numbers 7:12-83 consists of almost twelve almost identical blocks of 6 lines, each of which details the offering made by one of the 12 tribes of Israel. These are all the same, apart from minor wording differences (e.g “One spoon of ten shekels of gold” vs “One spoon of gold of ten shekels”) and the name of the person doing the offering (“Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur, prince of the children of Manasseh”, “Abidan the son of Gideoni, prince of the children of Benjamin” etc.) Then, to add insult to injury, verses 84-88 sum up the total offering! Massively tedious.

The New Testament is a little better. It starts out with the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). Written a long time after the events they purport to describe took place, they tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth, a troublesome preacher with some radical ideas. In particular, he was critical of the dogmatic beliefs espoused by the priests of the time. Then he’s put to death and Paul, of “road to Damascus” fame, starts furiously writing letters about him thus starting a cult of personality which we know today as Christianity.

When asked by a friend during this project which bit of the Bible was my favourite, I said “the end”. This was semi-serious – Revelation was all jolly good fun.

Figures of speech and literary allusions

This aspect of reading the Bible was reasonably successful. Expressions of which I (at least) was ignorant of the origin include:

Also, of course, the lyrics of Hallelujah have various Biblical references (2 Samuel 11:2, for example), and now that I have an understanding of the story of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat I have a much better appreciation of how crass it is as a musical.

I noted with interest and amusement that the word “piss” appears several times in the Bible. It’s used to describe a group of people that “pisseth against the wall” (e.g. 1 Samuel 25:22), and in 2 Kings 18:27 in a description of people who “eat their own dung and drink their own piss”. Coprophilia in the Good Book – do they allow children to read this filth?

Personal understanding of God

To be precise – a personal understanding of how other people have understood God. I take it as read that it doesn’t exist (for the sake of readibility, I’ll use “he” or “his” but note here that it seems odd to assign a gender to a non-existent being) and so I’m more interested in his portrayal. Winston Churchill’s son Randolph once decided to read the Bible in a fortnight for a bet and observed “isn’t God a shit?“. I think this is an analysis which stands up well.

It seems clear that God was a hypothesis invented by the people of Israel to account for their origins and the trials and tribulations they encountered in their history. As their fortunes waxed and waned, God was either on their side or had turned against them and, since fortune is unpredictable, it follows that God must be capricious and flighty. But, nonetheless, they were compelled to understand the reasons why God had chosen either to favour or forsake them and tried to deduce which aspects of their behaviour would tip him one way or the other.

As bosses go, God is a bit of a control freak. For example:

  • Several chapters of Exodus (25-27) are taken up with God describing to Moses the construction of a tabernacle (a large tent of some kind) in which he is to be worshipped.
  • Exodus 28 has God as a fashion designer, creating the uniform for his priests. My favourite aspect of this was the frequent references to the “curious girdle of the ephod” which could be the title of some ghasty prog-rock album.
  • He’s quite particular about the various offerings and sacrifices that are to be made to him: the sin offering, the trespass offering, the meat offering, the wave offering and so forth. And heaven forbid that anyone should try to improvise an offering – Nadab and Abihu the sons of Aaron the priest try, and are burned to death with holy fire for their troubles in Leviticus 10:2.
  • He has an obsession with circumcised penises. It is never really explained why – maybe it was some kind of personal preference of one of the many authors / editors. Nevertheless, I particularly like Jeremiah 4:4 which reads “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart” – it sounds like a bad Country & Western song.
  • He likes to throw his weight around and mess with people, just because he can. Take the plagues of Egypt for example – the Lord smites Egypt with a variety of ailments, and each time the Pharoah fails to let Moses and his Israelites go. But, in Exodus 9:12, we see that Lord is responsible for the Pharoah’s intransigence! God seems to be playing off one side against the other for the sheer hell of it. See also the trials and tribulations of the hapless Job who gets caught in the crossfire of a bet between God and Satan.
  • You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. In Numbers 11:1, people in Moses’ camp complain and this displeases God, who then proceeds to burn them all with fire until the people have words with Moses who prays to God to put the fire out.

Understanding what Christians see in it

This is still something of a mystery to me. I can see how, a long time ago when people were less sophisticated in their reading of texts than we are now, readers might have found it convincing. Certainly, if you assume that it’s all literally true, ignore the contradictions and inconsistencies, and don’t ask any awkward questions, then I imagine that it would all seem rather impressive – the creation of the world in 6 days, the rituals, the divinely-approved genocide, the guy coming back from the dead and so forth. I am at a loss to understand how anybody could possibly take it all literally now, although some people clearly do. I am also rather sceptical about any attempt to derive a system of morality from it – although Jesus said (or is said to have said) some broadly sensible things, it’s not a complete guide and its simplistic prescriptions (thou shalt not kill etc.) have troublesome edge cases (assisted suicide, for example) which weren’t so much of an issue two millenia ago.

I guess the beauty of the Bible is that there’s so much in it that can be {over/mis/re}interpreted to suit whatever ends the interpreter desires. Plenty of people with a misogynistic, narrow and bigoted outlook on life have taken advantage of this to find an interpretation which allows them to claim divine justification for their beliefs.

As an example of the rich pickings available for misogynists, take the story of Vashti, the wife of king Ahasuerus. One day when he’s had a bit to drink, he commands her to be brought forth and shown to all the princes. Vashti refuses and this makes the king “very wroth” so he asks various wise men what he should do with her. A chap called Memucan sees the dire trouble they’re in – if word gets out that Vashti refused to do her husband the king’s bidding, then soon all over the kingdom, wives will be standing up to their husbands. Calamity! So the king writes to all the provinces stressing the importance of the man ruling in his own household. Meanwhile there’s a search for virgins, such that the one who most tickles Ahasuerus’ fancy should be queen instead of Vashti. Thus the first recorded outbreak of feminism is quickly stamped out.

For more casual misogynism we can look at the two occasions where the owner of a house, beset by ruffians who wish to “know” his (male) guests, attempts to mollify the mob by promising them his daughters. This gambit first appears in Genesis 19:8 though we don’t learn if the mob take the man (Lot in this case) up on his offer. The second time this cunning ruse is tried is in Judges 19:24, on which occasion the men are invited to “do with them [the man’s daughter and his guest’s concubine] what seemeth good unto you” which turns out to be “they knew her, and abused her all the night until the morning”. Or there’s the time that Moses orders the slaughter of all non-virginal women, but suggests the soldiers keep any virgins for themselves (Numbers 31:18). I suppose if you really want confirmation that women are disposable second-class citizens, the Bible is a good book to have on your side.

Of course, one of the regular demands that gets brought up by Christians of a certain persuasion is the importance of marriage as it is in the Bible – one man and one woman. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that.

Moving on from hatred of women, there’s the wholesale slaughter to consider. God kills all the firstborn of Egypt (Exodus 12:12). In Numbers 25:17, Moses is urged to smite the Midianites. In Deuteronomy 7:2, God promises to destroy utterly the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites to free up the land for the people of Israel – I believe we’d call that ethnic cleansing in our modern parlance. And, as already mentioned, he’s not above slaughtering his own followers when he’s in a bit of a grump.

One reason for being particularly worried about the Bible and its followers at the moment is that it looks increasingly likely that the next US Republican presidential candidate will be relying on the Bible (or an interpretation thereof) as a guide to policymaking. At the time of writing, Texas Governor Rick Perry is preparing to hold a prayer rally in Houston on 6th August. He appears to be connected with a movement called the New Apostolic Reformation who believe they have a “direct line to God” and take the Book of Joel as a manual for coping with “end-time events“. He will be supported by a variety of interesting individuals, all of whom have their own interesting interpretations of the Bible.

Summary

So, in summary – it’s too long, not very well written, quite dull in many places and generally underwhelming. I failed utterly to be particularly moved by any of it, but it obviously provides sufficient fodder for a variety of crazy (and disturbingly influential people) to justify a range of beliefs from the merely objectionable to the morally abhorrent. Ultimately, it seems rather unfortunate that whatever good ideas Jesus may have had (he’d  probably be branded a dangerous radical if he was around now), Christianity lost its way around the time Paul was writing his letters, and we’ve been stuck with its curious mix of whimsy, cruelty and idiocy ever since.

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One comment

  1. If the Old Testament is the distilled good parts of the Israelite literary tradition, whatever can the rest have been like?



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