In The Beginning
January 4, 2012 10 Comments
My New Year’s resolution for 2012 is to read the Bible in a year. I suppose I’m not off to a great start considering it’s January 3, but I’ll do two days of reading today and two days of reading tomorrow, and we’ll just plug through. One of my Catholic friends suggested that I keep a blog of this endeavor. I aim to please (kind of), so here it is. The way I see it, this could either turn out to be really interesting or really boring. Only time will tell.
I asked around for some suggested one-year reading schedules, and I’ve more or less arbitrarily picked this one. I like that it goes through the Old Testament (hereafter OT) and New Testament (NT) simultaneously. I’m itching to get to the Jesus stuff, so this way I don’t have to be impatient about that for most of the year. Besides, I’ve tried reading the Bible front-to-back a couple times before, and I always just feel exhausted after all the begatting in Genesis.
So, without further ado, let’s jump into…
OT: Genesis 1-4
I really don’t want this to turn into a stereotypical atheist rampage of stupid scientific minutiae, but in all honesty, I have to admit that my very first thought about Genesis 1:2-3 was chemical in nature. There is obviously a lot to be said about the age of the earth and the nebular hypothesis and evolution and all that jazz, but we’ve heard all that before. One criticism I haven’t heard before – and the one that jumped out at me immediately – involves the order of creation of water and light. In the second verse, “it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters”; it’s not until the third verse that “God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And so light appeared.” Chemistry isn’t my strong suit, but I do know that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, and I know that oxygen couldn’t exist until it was created through nuclear fusion inside stars. And I know that stars make light. In other words, you can’t have water before you have light.
Obviously none of that matters if you take Genesis metaphorically. One of the reasons that the nitpicky science-obsessed skeptics never get very far with moderate Christians is that the atheists don’t seem to understand that many Christians take large portions of the Bible metaphorically, and so aren’t at all bothered by supposed “errors” in the science therein. After all, as Galileo argued, quoting Cardinal Baronius, “The Bible was written to show us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” I can easily accept that idea – although, frankly, I can’t see how it would have been too much more trouble for God to throw some scientific facts in just to bolster everyone’s confidence. But we’ll let that slide.
Even assuming huge swaths of the Bible are meant to be taken metaphorically, the challenge that ensues is to separate the metaphors from the literal bits. I’ve tried to figure out how this is done, but it eludes me. I and several other non-religious students brought up this issue in a discussion with a Christian student group last summer, and the “answer” we kept getting back was basically “you’ll know it when you see it.” Another pro tip I’ve heard for biblical exegesis is that prayer will elucidate the text, but I haven’t exactly had smashing success on that front, so I’m going to need a different strategy. I’m hoping that this year I’ll get better at magically knowing metaphorical truth from literal truth. And I’m always open to tips, so feel free to comment below.
So, back to creation. Most people know what happens here – God makes everything and sees how good it is. I’m brought back, inexorably, to the Euthyphro dilemma: are good things good because God likes them, or does God like good things because they are good? What does it really mean to say that “God saw how good it was” (Genesis 1:10 et alia) that he had separated the waters from each other and so on?
Genesis 1: Creation of earth, seas, heavens, plants, animals, in the wrong order.
Genesis 2: Creation retold in a slightly different but still incorrect order, with a focus on on Eden and humans. God makes Adam, gives him all the plants in Eden to eat except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God makes animals to be helpers for Adam, but none of them is the perfect helper for him, so God anesthetizes Adam, removes a rib and sutures the wound, and turns the rib into Eve, who is finally the perfect helper for Adam. Adam and Eve are down with nudity.
Genesis 3: The snake, “the most intelligent of all the wild animals that the LORD God had made” (Genesis 3:1 – apparently intelligence is a bad thing, just like knowledge of good and evil?), tells Eve that she should eat the forbidden fruit. The snake claims the only reason God told humans not to eat the fruit is that it would make them “like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4 – Prometheus, anyone?). Adam and Eve eat the fruit, and then suddenly figure out that they’re naked and flip a shit, because apparently knowing good from evil means being infected with stupid social taboos stemming from fear and ignorance of our own bodies. Adam and Eve make themselves fig leaf panties and hide from God, which seems like a pointless exercise if there ever was one. God punishes everybody (a tradition he will continue throughout the OT, if I’m not mistaken): he makes the snake slither on its belly, he makes women endure painful childbirth and submit to their husbands, and he makes the fields less fertile so men will have to learn agriculture and work for their food. (One of these things is not like the others….) God makes better clothes for the humans and kicks them out of Eden so they can’t become immortal like him by eating from the tree of life. God is really invested in his own monotheism, I guess, because so far everything he’s done in relation to humans seems to be about keeping them down and preventing them from ascending to godliness – first by denying them knowledge, then by denying them immortality. That’s kind of lousy and selfish, IMHO.
Genesis 4: Adam and Eve get it on and produce Cain, a farmer, and Abel, a shepherd. Each one sacrifices one of his products to God, but God arbitrarily decides Abel’s gift is great and Cain’s sucks. Cain is understandably upset, but God berates him and tells him to “do the right thing” (confirming my suspicion that Spike Lee is God). God warns Cain that “if you don’t do the right thing, sin will be waiting at the door ready to strike!” (Genesis 4:7) but doesn’t at all explain the concept of “sin” for Cain’s benefit. This is where, if the Bible were an essay I was grading, I would scribble “Define your terms” in the margin in judgmental red ink. Cain takes Abel outside and kills him, which is admittedly an overreaction. God asks Cain where Abel is (even though he must know, right? so I guess it’s a test?), at which point Cain invents the snotty teenage retort: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s guardian?” (Genesis 4:9). And then I miss the King James Version’s more eloquent “my brother’s keeper” but keep reading the Common English Bible because that’s what my friend’s pastor’s church’s reading group is doing. God punishes Cain by making him a nomad, and Cain complains that “anyone who finds me will kill me” (Genesis 4:14), which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense since the only other people on earth at this point are Cain’s parents, Adam and Eve. But apparently it makes sense to God, who marks Cain and decides that anybody who wrongs him will be punished sevenfold. Cain then “settled down in the land of Nod” (Genesis 4:16), which totally contradicts God’s announcement about thirty seconds earlier that Cain “will become a roving nomad on the earth” (Genesis 4:12). After Cain settles down, he gets it on with his wife (with no clues as to who his wife is or where she came from, but she can only possibly be either his mother or his sister since nobody existed before his parents, which leads me to conclude that the land of Nod is in West Virginia). Cain and his mystery wife have an inbred son named Enoch. Everybody proceeds to have too many kids to keep track of. Lamech confusingly tells his wives that he killed two people and therefore Cain (his great-great-great-grandfather, I believe) will be punished sevenfold and he himself will be punished seventy-sevenfold. I’m completely in the dark on this part. Anyway, Adam and Eve have Seth, their third son, and after Seth has a son, “people began to worship in the LORD’s name” (Genesis 4:26), which I guess they hadn’t been doing before, even though they’d all been having cozy chats with God.
I love when Adam calls Eve “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh” in Genesis 2:23. We would do well to remember that, genetically, we’re all 99.9% bone of each other’s bones, flesh of each other’s flesh. And non-human organisms aren’t too far removed. Our biological interconnectedness should remind us to take a wider view of the family. Think how much more pleasant the world would be if everybody perceived their kinship with every other organism on the planet.
Genesis 1:27 is a hotbed of injustice and backwardness. “God created humanity in God’s own image,” thereby inflating everybody’s egos and dooming all non-human organisms to second-class citizenship and general mistreatment; then, to make matters worse, “male and female God created them,” thereby enshrining the bigoted, socially constructed heteronormative gender binary in scripture. This verse is an epic fail all around.
NT: Matthew 1-2
Matthew 1: Most of this chapter is literally just a list of Jesus’s paternal ancestry. I’m too tired to check the math right now, but supposedly “there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen generations from the exile to Babylon to the Christ” (Matthew 1:17). Then follows an account of the nativity that’s a little different from what I’ve heard before. Mary and Joseph were engaged – not married – when Mary got preggers “by the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18). Joseph is nice and doesn’t want to “humiliate” Mary, so he plans to “call off their engagement quietly” (Matthew 1:19). But before he gets around to it, an angel appears to him in a dream and tells him Mary is a virgin pregnant with God’s kid and he should marry her and raise the kid, who will be awesome and “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). This is all in fulfillment of a prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 which said that a virgin would give birth to a son called Emmanuel (meaning “God with us”). Joseph does as he’s told and marries Mary, but doesn’t get jiggy with her until after she squeezes out Jesus.
Matthew 2: After Jesus is born, the magi come to Jerusalem and ask Herod where “the newborn king of the Jews” is (Matthew 2:2). Herod and everybody else in Jerusalem is “troubled,” but “all the chief priests and the legal experts” (Matthew 2:4) set everyone at ease by explaining that, according to OT prophecies, the Christ must be born in the town of Bethlehem in the territory of Judea. Herod tells the magi to go find Jesus and report back so he can go honor him too. The magi follow the star to Jesus and give him birthday presents, but are “warned in a dream not to return to Herod” (Matthew 2:12), so they go home by a different route. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream (like always) and tells him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt, because Herod secretly wanted to kill Jesus, not honor him. You sneaky Herod! This apparently fulfills another prophecy. When Herod finds out the magi betrayed him, he has all the boys in Judea aged 2 and under killed, which fulfills yet another prophecy. When Herod dies, another angel appears to Joseph in another dream and tells him the coast is clear. He takes Mary and Jesus to the city of Nazareth in Galilee so that Jesus, according to prophecy, can be a Nazarene.
It’s nice to know Joseph was such a gentleman.
Also, one of the many prophetic fulfillments in Matthew 2 actually fulfills two OT prophecies: Micah 5:2 and 2 Samuel 5:2. It’s sort of cool that the same prophecy is in the same chapter and verse of each of those two books, I guess.
Genocide. I still don’t understand why it is allowed to happen under the rule of a benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent God. God couldn’t hide all the Judean toddlers until Herod died or something?