The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

The Screwtape Letters
by C. S. Lewis

Having enjoyed The Great Divorce and found it extremely thought-provoking and had a casual book club with various members of my family, it was proposed that we read The Screwtape Letters next. It was just as thought provoking, if not more so, although somewhat less enjoyable. It consists of 31 chapters/letters plus one toast, and it’s all told from the perspective of a demon, the titular Screwtape, who is giving advice on how to lure humans into sin.

Despite having been written 80 years ago, it is decidedly timely today, as it addresses the devil’s goal of keeping humans constantly focused on doom scrolling and headlines and thoughtless denigration of anyone who disagrees with you, while avoiding humility, charity, respect, or thoughtful consideration. I felt decidedly called out at various points. I should be better! I will try to be more thoughtful and focused and enjoy the pleasures that are available to me in the present and worry less.

At other points, however, it feels dated in the way that it appears to be arguing about social trends that I’m not even aware of. At one point the devil is recommending that people should stay focused on government policies rather than prayers since those are so much less important and I really hope that Lewis had no expectation of “thoughts and prayers” becoming such a catch phrase for politicians refusing to update policies. As Screwtape presents himself as the arbiter of what is evil, Lewis comes across as an arbiter of what is good, and that is, occasionally, rough. Historians, modern artists, and unions are all mentioned as being misleading to Good Christians.

Lewis definitely takes the opportunity to call out some of his personal most and least favored theologians, placing them either as godly agents or thoroughly controlled by the devils’ temptations to sin. This book also has a nearly Ayn Randian Objectivist perspective on the world: what is Good is very clear and natural and unaffected by different lives, perspectives or understandings. Devils provide temptation and people provide false information but a Good Christian will just know what is right due to God, much the same way that Ayn Rand’s protagonists will know what is right due to Logic, despite any lack of education or resources for either. Peak individualism, despite the differences in both methods and goals.  

I found that I needed to read this book one chapter at a time and take at least a little break between. They were thought provoking and inspiring and occasionally quite funny, but they were also quite dense and more than occasionally rather florid.

This book also made me think that I should get around to reading Lolita, at some point, as the only other book I can think of that has the protagonist/narrator also be the unrepentant villain of the story. I did wonder how many people read this book and think Screwtape is an anti-hero instead. Some of his advice came across as fitting right in with big business and some of my least favorite managers at my job, so it’s not out of the question.

I got a lot out of this book and enjoyed talking about it with Anna as we progressed through, but the book started out strong and then got progressively more wearying as it continued. It’s worth reading, but be prepared to decide what you take seriously. (Note: Cherry-picking what to take seriously is also advice that Screwtape would offer a human and C.S. Lewis specifically rejects when it comes to religious contemplation. So, you know: Enjoy!)

The Screwtape Letters

By C.S. Lewis

Rebecca and I both enjoyed The Great Divorce so much that we decided to read The Screwtape Letters, another Christian fantasy by C.S. Lewis (her review to follow). This novel is a collection of letters from Screwtape, a demon, giving guidance to his nephew on how to corrupt people’s souls. And it comes out of the gate swinging!

“Your business is to fix his attention on the stream [of immediate sense experiences]. Teach him to call it ‘real life’ and don’t let him ask what he means by ‘real’.” (p. 2!)

C.S. Lewis is scolding me for wasting time on social media from beyond the grave!

“But the best of all is to let him read not science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is ‘the results of modern investigation’. (p. 3)

80 years ago, C.S. Lewis was dunking on do-your-own-research guys!

So, it’s been a real eye-opening seeing the ever-green traits of humanity that I used to ascribe to the digital age. I initially enjoyed the novelty of it, but the narrative structure of letters leads to far more proselytizing than The Great Divorce, which took a more show-don’t-tell approach. As Screwtape enumerates all things that can lead a person to hell, the path to heaven becomes narrower and harder to define. The reader gets all sorts of negatives (just going through the religious motions will surely lead you to hell, but so too will interrogating your faith too thoroughly), and no positive directions, as far as I can tell.

Of course, this falls in well with the conceit of letters from a demon. Lewis even gives himself a clever and all-encompassing disclaimer in his preface by saying that all demons lie and even have their own bias, so any issues with the letter lie solely with the fictional demonic letter-writer. So, while it’s hard to argue with this, Lewis clearly intends the book for Christian instruction, and for me, at least, this type of negative direction is not so helpful.

After a while, as the ways humans stray kept piling up, I started bracing myself for some ugly prejudice or another to rear its head. However, nothing overt emerged, though Lewis is pretty dismissive of women, when he gives them any thought at all, and it’s probably all for the best that he doesn’t give any thought to anyone non-white, non-Christian, or even non-English. It was hard to escape the feeling of just being constantly scolded, though.

The book contains 31 letters in all, each only being 3-5 pages, and it made me wonder if it was intended to read one letter a day, to allow the reader some time to really think through each one. But Rebecca read that they were originally released in serial on a weekly basis, which is an even better, longer break between each one! It ends with a longer essay, Screwtape Proposes a Toast, which Lewis wrote years later, and in which Screwtape is addresses a new graduating class of demonic tempters. In it, Lewis once again expresses a surprisingly current sentiment, though more retrograde with a “kids these days, with their participation trophies” hack.

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

The Great Divorce
by C.S. Lewis

I’ve been having trouble getting into any of my usual genre books and then my aunt recommended this book, which felt like a bit of a palate cleanser. It’s a fascinating premise with a somewhat disinterested perspective and it gave me so many thoughts. I really enjoyed it. It’s fourteen chapters across only 128 pages, but took several days to read because I had to pause and think about it periodically, to give each character their due.

The premise is that the narrator is on a bus trip from hell to heaven. It’s a regular bus route and anyone is welcome. Many are even eagerly awaited by those in heaven. And yet, very few of the travelers choose to stay. Each character is unique in their circumstances, but also the same in the way they consider themselves to have been in the right, and yet their self-defense is also their condemnation.

It gave me so many thoughts.

I’m going to make a cut here more for length than spoilers. In part because I think the experience of this book is not something that can be spoiled by advance knowledge. It’s not exactly plot driven. It’s characters and perspectives and metaphors. They’re fascinating and I want to talk about them.

Continue reading

Saint Young Men

By Hikaru Nakamura

With the premise of Jesus and Buddha taking a “gap year” from their divine existence to share an apartment in modern day Tokyo, I knew I had to check it out!  I was able to get a collected volume of the first 15 chapters at my local library, which has now opened for curbside pickup. According to the forward written by the Curator of Japanese Arts at the British Museum, it has been very popular in Japan for years, but has only been published in English last year. The British Museum was actually instrumental in the translation, and the forward describes the challenge of trying to accurately capture the puns and word plays.

The English edition is bristling with inline notes translating t-shirt slogans and other Japanese text within the illustrations, and post-chapter endnotes giving more extensive context for scenes, often explaining key elements of Christianity, Buddhism, and modern Japanese culture. In the end, it was these ‘translation notes’ that I found the most interesting.

At first description, I had imagined Saint Young Men as a comic book, with a single earthly adventure each issue, but it is more like a collection of comic strips with setups and punch lines every page or two. Which, there’s nothing wrong with that, but the forward was right, that it makes it a lot harder to translate. In addition to the language itself, there are such strong cultural elements to humor that I have to admit that I was often more confused than amused. So, it wasn’t so much the funny pages for me, but really interesting to read a light-hearted take on two religions, one of which I’m a lot more familiar with than the other.

The notes on Christianity tended to be fairly basic elements, almost all of which I already knew (think allusions to ‘loaves and fishes’ and the like), and I have to assume the Buddhist ones are similarly basic, but they were almost entirely new to me (his hair is tightly curled due to his divinity – though some quick research said that at least on some statues, those curls might be snails). About halfway through the book, I wondered if I should be a bit offended that Jesus is a hyperactive, low-attention-span man-child while Buddha is more sober and reflective, but Rebecca proposed that “odd couple” setup might be a manga trope that I’m also just not that familiar with.

All in all, I don’t know that I really ‘got’ the comic the way it is intended, but I did find it a fascinating read, so it is worth it for that, if you are interested in the niche cross-section of religions and manga. When looking for a cover image, I ran across some subtitled animated scenes from the book, which give a pretty good preview of the culture-clash-based humor.

The Bible: Psalms

I had actually been really looking forward to Psalms because I thought there would be some good poetry here. I’m not a big poetry reader, not because I dislike it but because I am incredibly picky about it. But I like John Donne’s poetry, and Rita Dove’s poetry, and Ramprasad Sen’s poetry, and I’ve been getting a kick out of the “I lik the bred” poetry meme. As it turns out, I’m not a big fan of King David’s, King Solomon’s, or various other poets’ poetry that wound up in Psalms.

The introduction on the audio book version also raised expectations because apparently a lot of these are lyrics, intended to be set to music, and the original text includes instructions on the music. Cool!* If nothing else, I was going to amuse myself by trying to find Christian rock bands who had put the Psalms to music in a modern fashion. But the results are pretty rough. I mean, the music is fine, less rock and more spiritual/celtic maybe, which is disappointing, but the lyrics…

Just, wow, the Pslams are whiney. Either whiney or really blatantly hypocritical. Often, they’re both whiney and hypocritical. Just oof. I was disappointed. There’s just a lot of “these people are being mean to me, you need to beat them up” along with “you hate people who do violent things but love people who obey you, so let’s all do violent things to the people who don’t obey you.”

So just, nope.

Now, keep in mind that Psalms is broken into 5 sections and 150 poems, from a variety of poets discussing a variety of issues, so while I didn’t like the vast majority of it, that isn’t to say there aren’t a few exceptions.

There are some individual verses that ring out with power and touch the heart… but there’s always another verse that pretty much delivers the opposite message.

A couple of verses that spoke to me particularly strongly given the current political situation in the US are:

Psalm 94:20-21:

But you are opposed to dishonest lawmakers
Who gang up to murder innocent victims

Psalm 101:6-7 (by King David):

I will find trustworthy people to serve as my advisors
And only an honest person will serve as an official
No one who cheats or lies
Will have a position in my royal court

So, for a moment, it was a salve to my soul, a bit like watching West Wing.

But then there’s Psalm 106:34-35:

Our Lord, they disobeyed you
By refusing to destroy the nations.
Instead they were friendly
With those foreigners and followed their customers

So there really is something for everyone in these psalms, including the pro-genocide bigots. That is not a good thing.

But if you ever want to have a bible verse to support your position on any given issue, Psalms probably has you covered. You just have to decide to ignore all the context and hypocrisy.

Summary: A book of poetry that varies between emo whining and questionable historical accounts.

Moral: If you alternate between flattering and whining to a powerful being, they might be willing to act on your behalf.

* Especially cool since I have recently run across a lot of interesting discussions of how versatile hip-hop is, and how versatile Shakespeare is in much the same vein as hip-hop, and I just had high expectations.

Next Up: Proverbs

The Bible: Esther

I read a YA novel based on this story back in grade school (High school? Middle school?), but let this be a friendly reminder that the Bible is not a book intended for young adults with modern sensibilities, and those YA books are to this as Disney fairytales are to Grimms’ fairytales.

In the story, as I originally learned it, the king’s advisor Hamann slandered the Jewish people to King Ahasuerus, who agreed that they should all be killed. Meanwhile the beautiful Jewish maiden Esther married the king, begged for her people to be spared, and revealed Hamann for a slanderer at the same time. The Jewish people were spared, Hamann was cast from favor, and King Ahasuerus and Queen Esther lived happily ever after.

So, you know, aside from King Ahasuerus’ genocidal tendencies (a rather big aside, in my opinion), a relatively benign YA plot.

Of course, then we get to the source material here, and wow were there some details that were left out.

So, first of all, King Ahasuerus had cast off his original queen, Queen Vashti, because she refused to obey him when he was drunk and wanted her to strip in a public gathering so he could show off how beautiful she was. In response to her refusal, she was cast off and he had all the beautiful young virgin girls* in the land to be brought to him so that he could sleep with one each night and then keep them isolated in his house of wives ever after and never see them again.** There were a lot of girls in the running, though, because it took more than a year for the king to get to Esther.

During that year, Esther courted the favor of the king’s chamberlain who gave her preferential treatment and told her how to seduce the king in turn, such that her night with him pleased him so much that he declared her queen in Vashti’s stead.***

Meanwhile, Hamann is the king’s advisor who’s way too full of himself and decided that Esther’s uncle Mordecai**** hadn’t bowed low enough to him when they passed on the street, and thus Mordecai and all of his people should be killed. The king is apparently too taken with his stream of wives to care about things like statescraft or genocide, so essentially tells Hamann to do whatever he wants. Hamann immediately creates a proclamation that all the Jews are to be killed and their possessions stolen on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month.+

Now, there’s a whole complicated subplot going on between Mordecai and Hamann, but honestly it fits in pretty well in a YA book because it is just that type of juvenile dispute about showing the proper deference and refusing to bow down, etc, except with threats of death and genocide.

But meanwhile, Esther risks being killed for interrupting the king in order to invite the king and Hamann to a fancy dinner. She survives and the king is delighted.++ The first dinner party goes so well, that the king asks Esther what she would like as a boon? She says a second dinner party and the king is once more delighted. The second dinner party is also wonderful and the king again asks what boon he can grant her and this time she’s like, you can save my life and the lives of my people.

The king is horrified that anyone has threatened to kill Esther, his favorite wife, and her people. She directs him to Hamann as the threat.+++ Hamann begs Esther for mercy, but the king sees Hamann near Esther and thinks he’s trying to rape her and has him immediately executed on the gallows Hamann himself had prepared for executing Mordecai. It’s all very dramatic.

However, while all of these events took place in the third month, Hamann’s proclamation about the genocide scheduled for the twelfth month have already gone out. But rather than rescind that proclamation++++, King Ahasuerus was apparently the type who would have enjoyed watching The Purge movies because he makes a second proclamation saying that on the same day that the people were supposed to kill the Jewish people, the Jewish people are granted the right to gather together and kill any of their enemies and take all of their possessions. So, essentially a free-for-all of death and theft on the thirteenth of the twelfth month.

The king asked if Esther wanted anything else and she asked for a second day for the Jews to kill their enemies, plus could all of Hamann’s ten sons also be killed specifically? The king was like, okay.

So the fourteenth of the twelfth month was also a bloodbath, while the fifteenth was feasting and celebration.

And thus the annual celebration of Purim, for surviving Hamann’s plot. And Mordecai goes on to take Hamann’s place as a high counselor and everyone is all very happy.

The End.

Summary: Hamann manipulates the king into ordering the genocide of the Jewish people, but Esther manipulates the king right back into killing Hamann and allowing the Jewish people to kill their enemies.

Moral: Kings can be super easy to manipulate but you’d better be on your guard against someone else manipulating your same king?

* I can only assume that a lot of beautiful young girls heard this proclamation and had an sudden interest in having sex, pronto, with someone in their home villages.
** It’s kind of super similar to Sheherazade’s story, except without the actual death threat to the new brides. Just a single rape-night and then eternal isolation and captivity. So, there’s that.
*** This is a triumph, in case your wondering if it’s actually a good thing or a bad thing.
**** Not that anyone knows that Mordecai is Esther’s uncle, because who would care about keeping track of the relatives of that many wives.
+ I feel like there are practical problems with making a public proclamation that whole communities of people are to be slaughtered on a specific day in the future. Like, I realize it’s important for the death squads to have time to prepare, but I feel like it’s a bit much to expect the intended victims to just accept that their fate is sealed because the king said so.
++ Maybe none of his other wives invite him to spend extra time with them just because he keeps on threatening to kill them? So he’s very flattered that this beautiful woman is interested in him.
+++ Very politically stated, in my opinion, since it was the king himself who gave Hamann the right to threaten them.
++++ I’m actually not sure if it was possible for a proclamation to be rescinded. It might have been that once it was made permanent record, that was it, to avoid confusion with knowing if an official document was valid or not. It might always be valid.

Next up: Psalms

The Bible: Nehemiah

Nehemiah (the character) is introduced (at the beginning of his book even!) as an Israelite serving as the cup bearer for the king of Persia. I’m not sure how one gets to be a cup bearer for a king, but it seems like a pretty sweet position, actually, since you’re essentially part of the king’s entourage without being an advisor with responsibilities other than making sure there’s always wine for the king. Thus, the king tends to really like the cup bearer.

So Nehemiah looks sad for a couple of days, the king (Artaxerxes, aka Ar’tax-erx’-es*) asks him what’s up, and he explains that he worries about how the Israelites are doing in Jerusalem. After some questions about how long a trip there and back would take, Artaxerxes gives Nehemiah funds and permission to go over to Jerusalem and check out the situation. He inspects Jerusalem (a la undercover boss) and then inspires the workers to do more. There was a wall around the city with many gates and many people working on those gates, and they’re all named in chapter 3.

In chapter 4, however, are the neighboring city-states who are a more than a bit suspicious of the Israelite refugees fortifying their town. After some escalation, the Israelites start guarding the half-finished wall, 24-7, until it is complete

Chapter 5 is anger over taxation and whatnot. It sounds all very modern, just with unfamiliar specifics. But why should we have to pay for someone else to eat? What about our children? Is this governor better or worse than the last governor? It’s possible that the reason why I have trouble tracking this chapter is that I’m so tired of the US election arguments.

Chapter 6: The neighbors really don’t like that fortified wall.

Chapter 7: Now that the wall is built, it must now be guarded. Also, time for a census: and you’d better be able to prove your decent, because at least some people were viewed with deep suspicion for claiming to be priests but unable to prove it.***

Chapter 8: Ezra**** lectures the people about the laws, but what’s particularly interesting here is that the chapter itself doesn’t recount the laws. (thank god: Leviticus and Deuteronomy and a whole bunch of other books already took care of that) and instead was like, he read the laws and the people understood them. And then everyone celebrated. Hurrah!

Chapter 9: all the children of Israel attend Sunday school and the highpoints of the entire previous portion of the Bible are recounted in 38 verses or less.*****

So, Nehemiah 9:38 gets us caught up to actual events happening now and is a summary of chapter 10, in which, sure enough “our princes, Levites, and priests seal unto [the covenant]”. I.e, a bunch of named people agree that there are certain rules of this town that everyone has to abide by, mostly involving observing the Sabbath and giving offerings to the church.

In chapters 11 and 12, the people cast lots to see who actually gets to live in the fortified and highly-regulated city. Because all the rules live there, but only one in ten of the regular people do. And we get a list of those one in ten. There’s just no escaping intermittent lists of begats.****** Also, there’s some more celebration in dedication of the city of Jerusalem.

And then in Chapter 13 hits like a load of bricks. It’s back into first person and the narrator (Nehemiah?) is dedicated to his religion and terrible for politics and economics. Keep in mind that most of God’s laws have been previously forgotten because all the Jews were scattered into other lands, and are only now returning to Jerusalem as refugees under the Persian king’s protection. So everyone is attending Sunday school to learn the rules, and the narrator learns that God doesn’t like the Moabites, but apparently the head priest had an alliance with the Moabites and had even prepared them some diplomatic chambers to stay in. So the narrator has those chambers stripped and all of the Moabite’s possessions cast out. And then he discovers that farmers and vintners were working on the Sabbath so he testified against them. And then there were merchants and sellers who sold their goods on the Sabbath so he testified against them too. And then he discovered that some people were still marrying outside of the Jewish religion and so he smote them and plucked off their hair (13:25). And he generally makes everything worse for everyone and expects praise from god for this cleansing.

Summary: These refugees have their new city with their fortified wall but they’re pretty plagued by outsiders being suspicious and insiders forcing them to obey strict religious law.

Moral: If you’re the friend of the King of Persia, you can get support in being an incredible busy-body.

* T
he King James translation uses a lot of hyphens and apostrophes in the names of various people. Artaxerxes is written as Ar’tax-erx’-es, Nehemiah, the titular character of this book, is written as Ne-he-mi’-ah. And there are plenty of other names with similar presentations: San-bal’-lat, Za’-dok, Me-ron’-o-thite, etc. I’m not sure what the apostrophe stands for, but I’m assuming at this point that the dashes are between syllables. So, it’s essentially a little pronunciation guide that also makes the names look just that much more foreign to my poor sheltered eyes. It feels very disconcerting, though, since I’d previously considered it a sci-fi/fantasy trope to make alien names using excess punctuation and random letter mash-ups. It feels very unexpected to see it happen in the Bible. From my perspective a name has a one-punctuation-mark maximum limit before it looks like it’s trying too hard.**

** If there’s any reader out there with a first name with more than one punctuation mark in it, let me know that I might learn something, but I’m going to want to know the story behind your name and its spelling.

*** They were considered “polluted” and didn’t get to eat the holy food of the priesthood unless and until they can prove they’re actually priests. (Nehemiah 7:64-5)

**** Introduced previously as the moral law scholar that the King of Persia was asshole enough to inflict upon the refugees trying to settle. Now the refugees have to try and learn and abide by all the laws of a very specific god.

***** Seriously? Yes, seriously. If you want a children’s book version of the pervious parts of the bible, just read Nehemiha 9:6-38

****** Although, kind of cool is the fact that some of the begats include professions as well as lineages (although I’m fairly sure their hereditary professions, so there’s that). The professions include, but are not limited to: those who had oversite of the outward business of the house of god (11:16), porters and keepers of the gate (11:19), singers (11:22), those given to praise and give thanks (12:24), those with the musical instruments (12:36)

Next up: Esther

The Bible: Ezra

One of my cousins recently graduated from divinity school and he recounted something one of his teachers told him that really stuck with him and now sticks with me: “when giving a sermon, hold the scriptures in one hand and a newspaper in the other.” Given the issues with racism and refugee problems I’ve been seeing in the news recently, this book is particularly on-topic, although not particularly helpful with its conclusions.

This book starts off with Cyrus, King of Persia, having an inspiration. In theory, the idea is god wants a house built for him in Jerusalem; in practice Cyrus bribes Israelite refugees to go over to Jerusalem rather than stay in Persia. And not even with his own funds, just telling the populace, they must give silver, gold, and other goods and livestock to any Israelite from Persia traveling to Jerusalem.

And then we get a massive list of who all the refugees were, where they were from, where they went, and how many they numbered. One thing about reading these books is a reminder of the sheer numbers being dealt with. We’re talking about people in the hundred and thousands and hundreds of thousands.

And then there was a bunch of celebration and prayer and burnt offerings.

Those were chapters 1, 2, and 3. In chapters 4, 5, and 6, however, we discover that bureaucracy is eternal and it turns out various other governing units are not particularly happy with Cyrus’ plan to shift refugees elsewhere, and did anyone actually have a copy of the authorizing letter Cyrus had sent out regarding building the temple? As it turns out, the answer to that last question is “yes,” and if you try to ignore it again King Darius of Persia will have your house torn down and you hung on the scaffold built in its place. So, you know, building that temple continued.

It isn’t until chapter 7 (out of just 10, in the Book of Ezra) that Ezra is introduced as a character. But he’s a scribe in the law of Moses, and under the ongoing patronage of Artaxerxes, kind of Persia.* He’s essentially sent to be a magistrate and enforce god’s law on the people of Jerusalem.

Now chapter 7 is also interesting for being written in the first person, due to most of it being a decree of Artaxerxes, kind of Persia. However, chapter 8 is also in first-person but I’m confused about who exactly it is. Is it safe to assume Ezra? Whoever it is, they gathered a bunch of people – listed in detail – to the river that runneth to Ahava and then contemplated the issue of all of them carrying a bunch of gold through a bandit heavy area. I really enjoyed Ezra 8:22, in which the narrator really doesn’t want to contact the King of Persia to ask for guards for the gold, after having spoken about how great and powerful their god is. Like, that’s just embarrassing. Hahahaha! Anyway, they split up and transport the gold in 12 packages and it all goes well.

In chapter 9, Ezra (I’m assuming) is deeply disturbed about how the Israelites continue to inter-marry and have children with the people who were already living in the lands.

In chapter 10, Ezra (we’re back to the more regular third-person narration) continues to be deeply disturbed by the Israelites having married foreigners, and gathers all the men to discuss the issue. Verses Ezra 10:18-43 list the various males who had taken foreign wives, and even had children by them. But they all promised to “put away their wives” in addition to offering a ram of the flock for their trespass. So… there’s that.

And thus ends the book of Ezra.

Summary: Bureaucracy, racism, and problems with refugees all have long and illustrious histories.

Moral: Yes, money can buy you out of troubles? (Especially other people’s money.) Don’t marry foreigners?

*I’m more than a bit confused by all the Kings of Persia (and/or Babylon – are they the same thing? Is one a subset of the other?), who I assume are ruling sequentially, but the book is a bit coy about the timeline for all of this, which is decidedly unusual, given how specific the books of Kings and the books of Chronicles were. But there are casual and mentions of King Cyrus of Persia and/or Babylon, King Darius of Persia and/or Babylon, and King Artaxerxes of Persia and/or Babylon.

Next up: Nehemiah

The Bible: Chronicles 2

I am fast approaching the two-year anniversary of when I decided to read the bible within a year. And this is the 15th book (out of 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament). So, you know, kudos to all those amazing people who actually manage to make it through the whole thing in a year. In contrast, I (very, very slowly) trek onwards.

You know how sometimes two books will be published as a book and its sequel, but in reading them you realize that they were actually intended to be one book and the publisher just cut that book in half for reasons of their own? So, yeah, Chronicles 2, the second scroll of Chronicles. It’s the same thing as the first one, with an extremely nominal break.

King David is dead, and his son Solomon is now king of Israel. After the funeral and 1,000 burnt sacrifices, God appears to Solomon asking what he wants. Seriously. (Chronicles 2 1:7) Solomon asks for the wisdom and knowledge needed to lead the people of Israel, which is actually a pretty good answer. God says that since Solomon didn’t ask for wealth, honor, death to his enemies, or long life, God will give Solomon not only the wisdom and knowledge he asked for but all the other stuff as well. Sweet!

Now recall how, in Chronicles 1 16-22 and 28-29, there are detailed descriptions of the temple that King David really wanted to build? Well, in Chronicles 2 chapters 2-4 Solomon has the temple built, with more descriptions, and in chapters 5-7, the temple is consecrated and God enters it as fire from heaven and there’s a lot of descriptions of how the temple is to be used, mostly in the form of “If X, then Y” statements.

And then we switch over the wonderful successes of Solomon:
In chapter 8, he builds a lot of towns and was generally so religious that he built a special house for his wife, the daughter of Pharaoh because he didn’t want his own house tainted with her presence.
In the first half of chapter 9, the Queen of Sheba comes to visit and inspect the situation and is so impressed that she gives him all sorts of presents and he is so taken with her that he gives her anything she wants, and then she goes away. (Verses 1-12)
In the second half of chapter 10 (verses 13-31), a bunch of other important people give Solomon a bunch of expensive presents because he is just that amazing. And then he dies.

Chapters 10-12 follow the next king, Rehoboam, son of Solomon, generally being an ass (essentially telling the people: don’t complain to me, or I’ll give you something to complain about)

Chapter 13: King Abijah reigned for three years, and there are battles and rousing speeches, and much calling out to the Lord. Also, he took fourteen wives, and fathered twenty-two sons and sixteen daughters.*

Chapters 14-16: King Asa did what was good and right, mostly by destroying the items of any other religion, including casting out his own mother. However he still ended sinful by relying on political allies at wartime and physicians when he got sick rather than on the Lord.

At this point we’re have caught up with the timeline told in the second book of Kings and there is a lot of repetition. Do you remember the list of the Kings of Judah, as recounted in Kings 2? Well, here they are again in Chronicles 2. Enjoy:

Chapter 17-20: King Jeshoshaphat
Chapter 21: King Jehoram, who died in great agony from a bowel infection and no one mourned him. Ouch.
Chapter 22: King Ahaziah dies, his mother Athaliah tries to kill the rest of the family in order to rule herself
Chapter 23: The downfall of Athaliah: there was a mutiny, she called treason, they decided it wasn’t right to kill her in the king’s house, so had her removed in order to kill her.
Chapter 24: King Joash
Chapter 25: King Amaziah
Chapter 26: King Ussiah
Chapter 27: King Jotham
Chapter 28: King Ahaz
Chapters 29-32: King Hezekiah
Chapter 33: King Manasseh and King Amon**
Chapters 34-35: King Josiah
Chapter 36: King Jehoahaz, King Jehoiakim, King Jehoiachin, King Zedekiah, and generally the downfall of the kings of Judah, with a bit of a teaser at the end for King Cyrus of Persia building the house of Jerusalem again.

Almost all of these chapters start with something along the lines of
“_____ began to reign when he was ____ years old; he reigned _____ years in the city of (Jerusalem/David).”***
and end with something along the lines of
“____ slept with this ancestors and they buried him in the city of _____. His son ____ succeeded him.”

Summary: Oh the repetition: there are a lot of kings who got up to a lot of things, but really, there aren’t any more kings than previously mentioned.

Moral: All things come in cycles, the rise and fall of kings, the good and evil of kings, and there’s no particularly good way to tell the difference between good and evil.

* Let’s pause a minute for the math: 22 sons + 16 daughters = 38 children. 38 children / 14 wives = 2.7 children per wife. And all of this in three years? It’s possible, but the timing is certainly tight. Especially given the number of battles and ambushes, rousing speeches and sacrifices to the Lord. And apparently his other behaviors and deeds were written up in the story of Iddo. So Abijah may not have lived long, but wow did he live intensely.
** Poor King Amon got four versus as a tag at the end of his father’s chapter before his son’s chapter. On the other hand, he was apparently evil and only ruled for two years, so screw him anyway.
*** A surprising number of times, it also includes “His mother’s named was ____ daughter of ______” which is kind of cool.

Next up: Ezra

The Bible: Chronicles 1

This broke me. Not the book itself, although it took an audiotape and a long drive to get through it, but the write up. I had originally planned to illustrate it with a family tree. Except that the first four verses of the first chapter are a vertical family tree through thirteen generations from Adam to Japheth. The fifth verse lists Japheth’s seven sons. Verses six and seven list the sons of two of Japheth’s seven sons, one of whom had three sons and the other four. And it just keeps going.

There are more than a hundred names (although only approximately 75 unique individuals because of course every father is listed twice, once as a “son of” and then again as a “father of”) within the first 26 verses of chapter 1, at which point we get to the sons of Abraham: Isaac and Ishmael, who at least are names I recognize. After that, there are a lot more names that I don’t recognize at all. A lot.

The first chapter has 54 verses. The book as a whole has 29 chapters. And it’s the first of two scrolls that make up Chronicles 1 and Chronicles 2 respectively.

What do you even do with this?

Although as a baby name book, it’s pretty excellent. If you can get over some of the names themselves. I do feel like no one should be named after Ham (1:4), but then there’s Tilgathpilneser (king of Assyria, listed in 5:6 and again in 5:26 because why make things easy to keep track of?), since that is a bitching name.

“I wanted to give my son a biblical name, but also a unique one.”

“So, little baby Tilgathpilneser?”

“We call him Tilgy.”

(Also, rather than just a name in a list, like so many are, we learn that God roused Tilgathpilneser’s spirit in order to punish the Israelites – even the Reubenites! – so… there’s that? 5:26)

The family trees just keep going, but we do occasionally get some few verses dotted here and there giving a few details about what’s actually happening with and to at least some of these people.

There’s also the occasional woman mentioned, such as Hammoleketh who bore three children of unspecified gender (but certainly not unspecified name!) listed in 7:18. And then there’s Sherah (7:24) who makes me grin because Shera! Princess of Power! which was a favorite cartoon that dates me horribly (and also aged horribly.)

We also get to a few parts where the people don’t always have names, but do have hereditary positions of employment such as porters of various quarters, overseers of vessels, cooks, and singers. Of course, sometimes they do have names, and those many, many names are listed. (chapter 9.)

And, sometimes there isn’t familial connections, just being in the same battle but still needing a chapter devoted to the roll call of those valiant warriors. (chapter 11).

By chapters 15, it became too much for the original writer apparently because it breaks down into numbers rather than lists of names, or at least lists of names associated with the number of children rather than lists of names associated with lists other lists of names.

Chapters 16-22 actually get back to story telling with King David and the ark of the covenant, a list of rules of behaviors, and the temple that David really wants to build and has very specific ideas about but that can’t be built within his lifetime because God says so and thus needs to be described to his son Solomon for him to do later.

After that break, chapters 23-27 are back to genealogies and employment records.

Chapters 28-29 are a rousing speech that King David gives, somewhat about the greatness of the Lord but mostly about exactly what the temple he wants built after he dies to look like, described in extremely excruciating detailed instructions. It all finally ends with a quick summary of King David’s reign (good) and his biographies (three of them)  and mention that King Solomon is the next king.

Summary: There are a lot of people and population increases geometrically over time if couple has more than two kids. They’re mostly employed being porters, priests, singers, cooks, warriors, and kings. And wow, does King David want to be in charge of building his temple even if it can’t be started until after he dies.

Moral: As time goes by, being one more name in a long list of names is not a great legacy, in my ever so humble opinion.

Next up: Chronicles 2