Tag Archives: Great Bible Read

Bible Read: Ecclesiastes

An intriguing, cryptic book, very un-dogmatic, the polar opposite of Leviticus. Difficult and sometimes depressing, and surprisingly unorthodox. Definitely my favorite book so far.

Also seems to be the most Buddhist book of the Bible. Practically everything in Ecclesiastes could have come from the Buddha’s mouth.

Books we’ve read so far:

  • Genesis
  • Exodus
  • Gospel of John
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • 2 Thessalonians
  • Gospel of Mark
  • Leviticus
  • Galatians

Up next:

  • Daniel

Current Happenings

  • Betsy and I assembled a sort of hanging/swinging motorized baby rocker device yesterday (evidently I need to brush up on baby tech nomenclature). Packages ordered from our registry are appearing on our front porch with alarming regularity.
  • Betsy now answers the questions “How are you feeling?”, “When are you due?”, and “Boy or girl?” approximately 735 times per day. I have postulated that learning a person’s emotional state by asking how they’re feeling is like learning a quantum particle’s position: The act of measuring changes the status.
  • Baby shower coming up this weekend. Just like in that song: “Hallelujah, it’s raining men babies.”
  • Why do we give plush toy bears to babies? The bear is the baby’s natural predator.
  • Recently ripped the carpet off the front porch. (Yes, there was carpet on our front porch. No, we didn’t put it there, but we did leave it on for about five years longer than we should have.) Now I’m midway through the much more difficult process of scraping off the carpet glue using a de-gooping agent (the technical term).
  • Now that Trump is officially the nominee, I’ve started putting real thought into what I can do to oppose him. I’ve got a small project in the works that I hope to unveil next week. Nothing amazing, but hopefully a start. Not that I’m crazy about Hillary or anything, but I really don’t want to explain to my kids someday how Trump became President and I didn’t do anything to try to stop it.
  • Speaking of which – I don’t have too many nice things to say about Ted Cruz, but his non-endorsement of Trump was pretty great.
  • Star Trek Beyond (coming out tomorrow) is currently at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is about 90% higher than I would have guessed, based on the initial trailer. Always glad to be wrong about things like this.
  • I’m seeing that Batman Killing Joke animated movie on Monday. I don’t have high hopes for that (although I liked the graphic novel), but – as with Star Trek – I would love to be wrong.
  • My Great Bible Read (with Betsy) continues apace. We recently finished Leviticus, which is a truly horrifying book if you take it at all seriously. Leviticus 21:9 has God himself explicitly ordering people to be burned to death. As a Christian, you have two choices: Believe in a God who commands people to be tortured to death, or believe that not everything in the Bible is the word of God. If I were a Christian, I’d go emphatically with the latter.
  • We’re on to Galatians now.
  • The Ohio chapter of the EFA (which I’m the coordinator of) recently had its third meeting. Lots of exciting plans in the works, including some strategies for recruiting new members.
  • I’ve stopped putting the hyphen in “email,” upending a decade of personal tradition. TIMES CHANGE AND WE MUST ALL CHANGE WITH THEM.
  • Yesterday I finished reading Bart D. Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God. Regardless of your religious beliefs, it’s a fascinating historical study that will open your eyes to all kinds of important but seldom-discussed information about the theological development of the early Church.
  • Still doing a bunch of copyediting for Dragonfly Editorial. I have thought more about hyphens and dashes in the past twelve months than in the rest of my life combined.
  • Congrats to Ben Trube. He knows why.

Your Move, Leviticus

I haven’t written about it lately, but Betsy and I are still doing our Great Bible Read, working our way through the Book (or rather, books) one chapter at a time. Right now we’re reading Leviticus, which is a fascinating, enlightening, and surreal experience.

A few days ago we came to Leviticus 18:22.

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

Thoughtful pause, and then Betsy said:

“So I guess that doesn’t rule out girl-on-girl, huh?”

Touché.

side effects may include

Postmortem: Exodus

Betsy and I are still making our way through the Bible, one chapter at a time. A couple days ago we finished Exodus. Some brief thoughts…

Whereas the God of Genesis does a lot of killing in vast and dramatic ways (genocidal Flood, raining fire on Sodom and Gomorrah), the God of Exodus seems smaller, more spiteful and cruel. Examples:

  • He repeatedly “hardens the heart” of the Pharaoh – who would otherwise have let the Israelites go free – explicitly for the sake of his own glory (e.g. Exodus 10:1).
  • He punishes the Levites by having them get out swords and run around and “each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.” They do, and three thousand die. (32:27-28)
  • He believes in “visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (34:7)
  • He orders that anyone who works on the Sabbath must be executed. (35:2)
  • etc.

Readers have commented for centuries that the God of the Old Testament seems shockingly bloodthirsty compared to the God of the New Testament, and I knew most of these examples already, so it’s not like this was a surprise. Still, it’s striking to see it spelled out so clearly in black and white.

I was surprised, however, to find that the golden calf created by the Israelites is so ambiguous in nature. I always thought of it as simply an idol worshiped instead of God, and in some respects that is how it’s described. But we’re also told: “When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it [the golden calf]; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord [YHWH].’ They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.” (32:5-6)

In other words, the calf-centered festival where they offered sacrifices was still considered a festival to their original God (at least in Aaron’s mind). I had never heard that before.

The revelation of the divine name “I Am” to Moses is poetic and beautiful, and seems fitting.

I’ve heard people claim that slavery in the Old Testament isn’t wrong, because it’s not like the Southern pre-Civil War slavery we think of today. Well, it may not be the same, but read this divine law and judge its morality for yourself: “When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.” (21:20)

That is, it’s okay to beat your slaves to death, as long as it takes them at least twenty-four hours to die of their wounds.

There’s a single sentence that is ten verses long (35:10-19). I wonder if that’s the record, or if there are any longer sentences later.

A surprising amount of time is spent going over the precise physical details of the Ark, Tabernacle, altar, and so on. I mean, it’s really intense. Six chapters of description (25-30) of the design, followed by five chapters (36-40) of the construction, which is basically a near-verbatim repetition of the design part, except it’s what they built instead of what they’re planning to build.

I noticed, too, that Exodus had much less emphasis on women than Genesis. There was Miriam (sister of Moses and Aaron) and Pharoah’s daughter, and a few others, but all had brief and minor roles. Contrast with the roles of Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah.

I’ve been very critical of Exodus, but I have to stress that my criticism (and, let’s be honest, anger) is not from any dislike of Christianity. It’s the opposite. Because I respect Christianity and expect good things from it, I get very frustrated to see holy books that glorify death and cruelty. I think Betsy feels something similar.

It is a credit to Christians around the world that they can transform even books like these into a force for peace and love. (I feel similarly about nearly all other religious texts, by the way.)

Anyway – as mentioned before, we’re heading to Matthew next. A little New Testament reading will be a nice palate cleanser before we plunge back into the Old Testament again, and Leviticus in particular.

Postmortem: Genesis

Betsy and I just finished Genesis. It’s … a strange book.

Chapters 1-11 cover primeval, mythic-type events: Creation, expulsion from Eden, the first murder, the Flood, the Tower of Babel. A lot of the best-known Genesis stories come from these early chapters.

But the vast majority of the book, chapters 12-50, are about four generations of rich patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (Israel), and Joseph, along with their families.

It’s striking, first of all, how amoral this section of Genesis is. People do all kinds of things – killing, threatening to kill, enslaving, banishing, lying, cheating, sleeping around – with very little judgment from the text on what is and isn’t okay. In some cases, as when Abraham lies to Pharaoh and calls Sarah his sister, we get the impression it’s a bad thing. Other cases, like when Jacob cheats Esau out of his blessing, feel more positive. In still other cases, as when Lot’s daughters get him drunk and sleep with him, there seems to be no textual judgment at all, positive or negative; it’s just something that happens. Such lack of judgment would make sense in a work of fiction, but in the Bible – which people use as a source of moral guidance – it’s more surprising.

Likewise, there isn’t much about what kind of relationship humanity should have with God. God actually doesn’t appear too often in these chapters, and when he does, his exchanges with humans are very transactional: command and obey, request and provide. Unlike Noah, who was chosen for his righteousness, Abraham seems to be chosen without any clear reason. God simply says, without explanation or preamble: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great” (Gen 12:2). Likewise, Abraham’s descendants seem to inherit his blessing through blood, rather than virtue. Why has God chosen these people in particular? Why would God choose any people in particular? We’re never told, at least not in Genesis. Instead, God seems to be on Abraham’s side because, well, he’s Abraham.

So if Genesis isn’t primarily about laws, morals, or God, what is it about?

Mostly, it’s about inheritance. A lot of time and detail is spent on who marries who, who sleeps with who, sterility and fertility, birth order and birthright, the blessings of the father, and where people are buried. All this establishes the lineage and origin of the twelve tribes of Israel (and other tribes), the ancestors of King David, the blessings of God, and claims to ownership of various lands. It’s practical: I get this land, this blessing, this authority, not you.

From an ancient viewpoint, Genesis makes sense. People want origin stories, and they want to establish claims to what they have. For a modern Christian reader, though, the purpose of Genesis is less clear. A few passages are instructive (albeit troubling), like the Flood and Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. And the book does provide important historical and cultural perspective for interpreting the rest of the Bible, including the teachings of Jesus.

But as a standalone book, it’s … well, it’s odd. Interesting and significant, of course, but odd.

That’s my, ahem, professional opinion.

On to Exodus!

Bible Read: Descendants of Eve

So you’re reading Genesis, and you’re out of the Garden of Eden. What’s next?

An important milestone

Everyone knows about the first day and night, the first man and woman, the first murder (Cain and Abel). But never have I heard anyone mention the milestone that came just after:

The first sarcasm.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
Genesis 4:9

On a more serious note, the Cain and Abel story – rather than the Adam and Eve story – is the first instance of the word “sin” in the Bible (Gen 4:7). God describes sin as something like a wild animal, “lurking at the door.” Abel’s death is described in likewise evocative terms; his blood “is crying out” to God from the ground (Gen 4:10).

Wives wanted

Cain is cast out to the land of Nod, and then we read:

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch…
Genesis 4:17

Back the train up.

So far, in the entire world, we have (counts on fingers) Eve, Adam, Cain…yep, that’s a total of three living humans on the planet. Who exactly is this wife of Cain’s, never introduced or named, casually first mentioned in the act of intercourse?

The simplest explanation, to me, is that other humans were around besides Adam’s immediate family. If you want the story to be literally true, you have to accept brother-sister incest, as well as a disjointed narrative, because Eve’s daughters haven’t been mentioned yet (Gen 5:4, Adam has “other sons and daughters”).

And you thought these guys had it rough.

Don’t forget about Seth

Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel. Everybody knows those names. But Seth remains far more obscure.

Which is odd, really, because Seth – Eve’s third child, the only one besides Cain and Abel mentioned by name – is the ancestor (through Noah) of every human alive.

Also, compare the descendants of Cain with the descendants of Seth. In order, they are:

Cain

  • Enoch
  • Irad
  • Mehujael
  • Methushael
  • Lamech

Seth

  • Enosh
  • Kenan
  • Mehalalel
  • Jared
  • Enoch
  • Methuselah
  • Lamech

These lists of descendants are awfully similar. Cain and Seth have similar-named sons (Enoch, Enosh). “Irad” sounds like “Jared.” And they both end with Methushael/Methuselah, followed by Lamech.

This is another case where the literal interpretation (the names happen to be similar) differs from what I’d consider the simple explanation (both are variants of a single traditional story).

Enoch and Methuselah

We’re talking about Enoch the descendant of Seth, here, not Enoch the son of Cain.

What does it mean that all of Enoch’s ancestors “died,” but Enoch “walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him”? (Gen 5:24)

The explanation I was taught growing up was that, because Enoch was righteous, God physically took him up into heaven rather than letting him die. This seems to be a common interpretation. If accurate, it puts Enoch in pretty exclusive company. If you go by what the Bible explicitly says, the only other person I know who was taken permanently, bodily into heaven, is Jesus.

How or why was Enoch so righteous? In what way did he walk with God? Why is it that Noah, who a bit later is described as “righteous” and “blameless” and who likewise “walked with God” (Gen 6:9), did not receive a similar honor, as far as we know? Like so many other curious fragments in the Bible, we simply don’t get much explanation.

By the way, Enoch’s son Methuselah is famous as the oldest man in the Bible, dying at age 969. It’s interesting, though, that the Genesis narrative itself doesn’t say anything special about him at all; it doesn’t mention that he is the oldest, or give any extra details about him. And Methuselah, by the way, had only thirty-nine more birthdays than Adam.

And now for something completely different

You’re reading Genesis. Creation, sin, descendants of Cain, descendants of Seth, okay, following the story so far…

And then you get to Genesis 6.

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.
Genesis 6:1-4

What?

Sorry, I meant WHAT?

This passage comes with absolutely no introduction, explanation, or follow-up, so that little block of text is about all you get. And I have questions. So, so many questions. Questions like:

  • Who or what are the Nephilim?
  • Who or what are the “sons of God”?
  • What is the relationship, if any, between the two groups?
  • Just what, exactly, is going on here?

…to name only a few.

The most literal and obvious meaning of “sons of God” would seem to be angels, and indeed, this is the meaning assumed by the Oxford Annotated footnotes. Biblical context supports this. The same Hebrew phrase (or close variations of it) appears only a few other places, as far as I can discover: several times in Job, and once in Psalm 29. In all cases it appears to be talking about angels.

But if angels are really marrying human women and having children – I mean, wow, right? That’s certainly a striking little fact that doesn’t get much attention.

Incidentally, Jesus implies in Matthew 22:30 that “angels in heaven” do not marry. But maybe these angels, having descended to earth, no longer follow heavenly rules. Or maybe they’re fallen angels – that is, demons. That interpretation, by the way, is the origin of the incubus and succubus myths.

If all this sounds a little unorthodox, that’s because it is. These days, the standard Christian (and Jewish) interpretation is that “sons of God” refers to righteous men – that is, the descendants of Seth – marrying corrupt women, the “daughters of humans” – that is, the descendants of Cain.

The Nephilim are slightly less mysterious (but only slightly). They are explicitly mentioned in just one other place, Numbers 13:33, as giants, and “giants” is the standard English translation for this term.

But how do the Nephilim fit into the story? They seem to be distinct from the “sons of God.” But are they the offspring mentioned, the “warriors of renown,” as most interpretations seem to believe? Or are they a separate group altogether, as the Oxford Annotated claims?

For me, this little story is just the most striking example (so far) of a phenomenon all throughout Genesis, and indeed, throughout the Bible. The text says very curious, very difficult, very ambiguous things, often with little or no explanation. As readers, we must also be detectives, piecing together the clues as best we can.

Whatever their logical explanation, however, many such fragments are starkly beautiful, in part because of their mystery. I’ve already incorporated a passage from Genesis 6 into my current draft of The Crane Girl.

Next up: the Flood.

Game Theory and the Garden of Eden

Look – I’m a logical guy. I’m a programmer, a copyeditor, and a math tutor. I have a signed, framed print of an xkcd comic on my dining room wall. I follow rules, and I create rules, and I like things to make sense.

So when I come across something puzzling in the Bible, I get…curious.

The discussion that follows is based on a reading of Genesis that’s probably too literal. I’m not trying for serious literary or theological analysis. I’m just letting my logical brain do its thing.

With that in mind, let me ask you: what would’ve happened if Eve and Adam hadn’t eaten from the Tree of Knowledge?

Ever wondered? I had never given it much thought. If you’d asked me, my answer would’ve been something vague: I guess they would’ve stayed in the Garden and been happy. And lived forever, maybe? Not really sure.

It turns out that Genesis gives a surprising amount of detail about the whole situation, though, and there’s enough information that it feels a little like game theory to me. (I know almost nothing technical about game theory, so math majors, don’t cringe too hard.)

You’ve got two “players.” One is God, the other is Adam and Eve. (The serpent is more of an influencer than a player.) Both players want the best outcome for themselves, but their interests don’t necessarily align.

You’ve also got two trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The Tree of Life is simple. You eat its fruit, and you live forever (Gen 3:22). Adam and Eve can eat from this tree whenever they wish, because it’s not forbidden (2:16), but in the Genesis story, they never do. If you don’t eat from this tree, you remain mortal.

The Tree of Knowledge makes you “like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5). It grants other knowledge, too – for instance, they realize they are naked (3:7). In my view, this tree takes you from a childlike state into adulthood.

The way I see it, there are actually four different ways this scenario can play out.

Choice 1: Eat from neither tree.

Adam and Eve don’t sin. They stay in Eden, grow old, die, and presumably go to heaven. It’s implied that sex is a pre-Fall state of affairs, rather than a result of sin (2:23-24), so they will almost certainly have children, and Eden fills with their descendants.

By the way, as more and more people live in Eden over time, it would seem to be ever more likely that someone, sooner or later, will eat from the Tree of Knowledge. From this perspective, the Fall seems almost inevitable.

Choice 2: Eat from the Tree of Knowledge.

This is what happens in Genesis. They disobey, they eat, they become “like God,” they’re kicked out forever, they eventually die. The story we all know.

Choice 3: Eat from the Tree of Life only.

A variation on #1. Adam and Eve stay in Eden, sinless, living forever. They have lots of kids. One wonders if there would have to be some kind of population control after a while, or if Eden grows to accommodate additional residents. Maybe it eventually spreads to cover the whole planet. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Choice 4: Eat from the Tree of Life, then the Tree of Knowledge.

This is where things get really interesting.

See, God doesn’t want them to eat from both trees, because then they would be “like God” in knowing good and evil, and also immortal. (Why God doesn’t want this is not entirely clear.) So, in the Genesis narrative, when they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, he threw them out to be sure they didn’t eat from both trees.

If they eat from the Tree of Life, however, they haven’t broken any rules. That tree is permitted. They’re immortal, and they can still go anywhere in the Garden. And hey, the fruit on that other tree is looking pretty tasty…

God could do several things here.

First, he could do what he did in #2 and wait till after they eat from the Tree of Knowledge to do anything. Then Adam and Eve are both knowledgeable and immortal, which is what he didn’t want. The humans have “defeated” God. What happens after that? No one knows. (Although, if modern science can figure out a way to stop aging – and we seem to be getting closer all the time – then we may one day find out.)

Second, God could step in after they decide to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, but before they actually do, letting them stay immortal but preventing them from becoming “like God” (and presumably kicking them out of Eden). This option is also fascinating, because you’re now in a situation where humans have Fallen (they decided to disobey God) but they’re immortal anyway, and thus don’t need the sacrifice of Jesus to get eternal life. A very odd state of affairs.

Or finally, God could avoid the whole problem by removing or barring the Tree of Knowledge after they become immortal. This actually makes it impossible for Adam and Eve to sin, because there’s no longer any way they can disobey him (unless some new command or situation appears). In other words, the Fall is permanently averted. Adam and Eve “win.” The whole thing could have been avoided if they had just happened to eat from the Tree of Life first.

All three of these possibilities are very strange, yet all three follow directly from the humans taking the simple, obvious, and perfectly acceptable step of eating the fruit that will make them immortal. Funny, isn’t it?

Oh, well. Tomorrow’s post will be about something non-biblical. I promise!