The Bible: Samuel 1

With all the horrible things that happen in the bible, it’s been easy to forget how funny it is sometimes. I find myself chortling a bit.

In chapter 3, young Samuel is dedicated to the temple and is very devoted in his duties to the elderly priest Eli. Samuel is still quite young when God first reaches out to make him a prophet.

One night, God calls to him: “Samuel.”

And Samuel leaps out of bed and to Eli’s bedside: “I am here! You have summoned me!”

And Elis says, “No, I didn’t. Go back to bed and get some sleep.”

So Samuel goes back to bed, but then God calls out to him again, “Samuel.”

And Samuel leaps up and to Eli’s side, and once more Eli sends him back to bed.

The third time, though, God calls, Samuel goes to Eli, Eli (who is in his nineties at this point and dealing with an eager young devotee “realizes” what must be happening and tells Samuel: “It must be God calling you. So next time you hear someone call your name, stay in bed, and say, “I hear you, Lord! I am listening.” And then you can tell me all about it in the morning.”

😀

This works admirably.

And so God talks to Samuel and tells him that something big is going to happen soon.

The Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” — Samuel 3:11

“… make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” That just… hee! There are bound to be some parts of the bible that get a bit mixed up in translation, but there’s only so far off it can be.

😀

In chapter 8, the people of Israel offend God by asking for a king. Samuel is an elderly priest by this point, and tries to convince them against this (his arguments come down to the idea that God is their king and is offended that they would want anyone else; their arguments come from wanting an actual physical person who can do people things like interact with people who are not the head priest.) God is offended, but does the passive aggressive thing where he’s, like, oh, I’ll show you, I’ll give you what you’ve asked for and then you’ll see how wrong it all goes!

So this does not speak well of the future king, and you’ll notice that while the people are demanding a king, none of them are exactly volunteering for the position. And thus along comes Saul, in chapter 9, who’s searching for a pair of goats who wandered away from the herd. In chapter 10, Samuel waylays poor Saul, strong arms him into having dinner with him, and then anoints him the new king of Israel.

Afterwards Saul sneaks off, gets his goats, and returns home hoping to never speak of these events again.

😀

It doesn’t really work, though, and in chapter 11, Saul is forced to take up the kingship in a more practical sense, ie, raising an army and defeating the enemies of Israel.

Chapter 14 is pretty hilarious too, not so much intrinsically as because I recognize the storyline from Tamora Pierce’s Alanna: The First Adventure, right down to it being Prince Jonathan who disobeys his father the king to cross a battle line. I’m not sure if it would be funnier if it was pure coincidence or if Pierce was inspired by this.

😀

Anyway, there are more battles after that and much hewing of various people, and David the shepherd is introduced and has his infamous battle with Goliath in chapter 17.

Then seriously, the rest of the book starts reading like a somewhat more developed version of Wiley Coyote and the Road Runner. David gains much renown and Saul becomes jealous and tries to kill him. But David is too clever to be caught and is always running away just out of reach, and occasionally counting coup back on Saul but never makes a serious attack.

Samuel dies at the beginning of chapter 25 (out of 31) of Samuel 1, which is particularly odd because there’s whole second book of Samuel. But the death of Samuel does not stop the somewhat ludicrous chases and ambushes attempted by Saul on David.

There’s still battles against external enemies though (ie, the original inhabitants of the land) and thus both Saul and his armies and David and his roving band of dissidents are having battles with other people. Ultimately, though, David is favored by God and is victorious; Saul is the poor schmuck who was coerced into fulfilling the role of king and thus offending God even in his obedience to God, and thus dies along with all of his sons. (Poor Prince Jonathan!)

And with the death of Samuel ages ago, and Saul more recently, apparently Samuel 2 will be all about David?

Summary: This is kind of a somewhat black slapstick comedy of war and religion and conflict. Samuel is an adorable kid, Saul just wanted to get his goats, and David is the Road Runner.

Moral: Stay away from priests: they can con you into getting a bit too close to God.

Next up: Samuel 2

The Bible: Ruth

This is an extremely short book, only four chapters long. In some ways it reminded me of the Book of Job, since it’s a single story with more developed individual characters. For the first time, this is really a more focused story about family love and loyalty; goodness on the scale of individuals.

It was a much appreciated palate cleanser from the previous few books.

In this story, Naomi was a married woman with two adult sons who had each married. Over time, though, both her husband and her two sons died. While she directs both of her daughters-in-law to return to their families as being better able to care for the widowed women, one of them, Ruth, insisted on staying with Naomi.

Where you go, I will go: where you lodge; I will lodge; your people shall be my people; and your God my God — Ruth 1:16

I had known this quote, of course, but it had always seemed the epitome of romantic and I’d assumed it was spoken by a woman to her husband or lover. I’m actually rather pleased to discover that it is spoken by the widowed Ruth to her mother-in-law. This isn’t about marriage, it’s about found family.

Naomi returns to her homeland accompanied by Ruth but are poor beggers. They work together to identify and then seduce for Ruth a new husband, so that Naomi can have an heir and Ruth can have a household. And they succeed in finding a nice older man who is both wealthy and kind (and flattered at being approached by a younger woman.)

And they all live happily after.

It was nice.

Summary: Widowed Ruth follows her mother-in-law Naomi home to a strange land and, with Naomi’s assistance, finds a kind and wealthy second husband to take care of them both.

Moral: Loyalty and kindness can pay off in a happy ending.

Next up: Samuel 1

The Bible: Judges

So in Deuteronomy I complained about how Moses gave this lecture about how the people of Israel would betray the Lord and be punished for their sins, etc, and it really irritated me. Well, here’s the start of all the crap that’s going to happen to them, and sure enough it’s pretty thoroughly their own fault. Once more, I am reminded of Game of Thrones (a show that I actually don’t watch, but keep up-to-date on via summaries) in the way a bunch of unpleasant people wander around doing awful things to one another.

Plus, this should probably have an NC-17 rating, and more likely just be banned, because it is gruesome. And while previous books have been all pro-genocide, this one is pretty pro-rape.

Four nations* were left alive in order to provide a lesson in warfare to the generations of Israelites, and thus we have a timeline made up of conquerings and rebellions, covering the various “Judges” of Israel. There is no particular explanation of how a Judge is chosen or found, and very little information on some of them. (Footnotes mark the six who actually got stories.)

Bad guy: King Cushanrishathaim of Aram-naharaim conquered for 8 years
Judge: Othniel son of Kenaz judged for 40 years
Bad guy: Eglon of Moab conquered for 18 years
Judge: Ehud son of Gera, the Benjamite judged for 80 years**
Judge: Shamgar son of Anath judged (killed 600 Philistines)
Bad guy: King Jabin of Canaan conquered for 20 years
Judge: Deborah wife of Lappidoth judged for 40 years***
Bad guy (nation): Midian conquered for 7 years
Judge: Gideon, called Jerubbaal, son of Joash judged for 40 years****
(Judge? Bad guy?): Abimelech son of Jerubbaal, conquered? judged? for 3 years+
Judge: Tola son of Puah son of Dodo judged for 23 years
Judge: Jair the Gileadite judged for 22 years
Bad guy (nation): Philistines and Ammonites conquered for 18 years
Judge: Jephthah the Gileadite, bastard son of Gilead judged for 6 years ++
Judge: Ibzan of Bethlehem judged for 7 years
Judge: Elon the Zebulunite judged for 10 years
Judge: Abdon son of Hillel judged for 8 years
Bad guy: Philistines conquered for 40 years
Judge: Samson judged for 20 years +++

After Samson we trail off away from judges and get a random story about Micah who gets wealthy in chapter 17 and then gets it stolen away from him by a bunch of other Israelites in chapter 18.

Then comes the really rape-tastic story of the Benjamites (chapters 19-21), which starts out reminiscent of Lot’s situation in Genesis 19, where he offers his daughters to a mob in Sodom in place of his angelic visitors. Except that in Genesis, Lot’s daughters were not accepted as suitable replacement, while in Judges a mob of Benjamites do wind up accepting a Levite’s concubine in his stead. So they gang rape the concubine to death. In the morning, the Levite cuts his dead concubine into 12 parts and sends the parts to the different tribes of Israel to call up an army. The Benjamites refuse to give up to justice the actual participants in the gang rape and thus a series of remarkably even battles takes place, with the Benjamites eventually losing to the extent that their entire tribe was killed with the exception of 600 soldiers who fled into a particularly inhospitable area. Victory was declared but then they had the problem of 600 males left in the tribe of Benjamin and no women and all the other tribes of Israel had sworn not to give any wives to Benjamin but were also unwilling to just let them die out.

The army that had just slaughtered all the women and children of the Benjamites figured out that they could fix this by invading a Canaanite town, killing all the males and the adult females and delivering the young females to the remaining Benjamites to be their wives. This plan provided 400 young girls to “marry” but wasn’t enough to give each Benjamite soldier a wife of his own. So the army told the remaining Benjamites to just kidnap sufficient girls from the religious celebration happening Shiloh, north of Bethel, and then explain to their unhappy fathers and brothers that at least the oath not to give wives to the Benjamites hadn’t been broken, because the Benjamites had taken the wives by force.

So everything worked out?

Blech.

 

Summary: There were a bunch of people who weren’t as great as Moses or Joshua, but still somehow acquired the title of “Judge.” Occasionally they did stuff (ie, killed people.) Some other people did a lot of raping and sometimes it was bad and other times it was good.

Moral: Hahahahahahaha! “Moral,” you say. Hahahaha! The very last verse in the book is:

In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes. — Judges 21:25


* Philistines, Cananites, Sidonians, Hivites (Judges 3:1-4)


** The Moabite king he killed was so fat that Ehud left the sword in his body, hidden by the layers on fat, as he wandered out past the servants after his assassination of their king.


*** Deborah gets a song in addition to a rather convoluted story of manipulations.


**** Gideon makes God prove himself and then raises an army of some 20,000 people, but God decides that it’s too even a battle to really show God’s might, so has Gideon send 19,700 of them away, keeping only the soldiers who lap up water from the river like dogs.


+ It didn’t even seem clear to the narrator whether this guy was a good guy or a bad guy. He’s the son of Gideon, a previous judge, but he also killed his 70 brothers in order to inherit and winds up getting cursed and dying.


++ First occasion of human sacrifice: Jephthah sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering.


+++ Samson gets four whole chapters (13-16) and is an idiot and an ass. Among other things, he makes a bet that he can’t afford, and when he loses, he goes out and kills some local townspeople to take their stuff so he can pay off his bet. And, of course, there’s the famous story of him and his hair and his wife Delilah who cuts it off to weaken him. Four times (4 times!) Delilah asks Samson what will weaken him, and then does it, and calls his enemies in. The first three times, Samson lies to her, breaks his bindings and kills his enemies. The fourth time he decided to tell the truth???

 

 

Next up: Ruth

The Bible: Joshua

I had not expected reading the bible to be such a strong argument for atheism. I can certainly understand why there was such a long time when priests prevented their congregations from reading it themselves and insisted that a priest had to interpret it for them. Because this is just sort of miserable.

Current events are not helping, given:

Generally speaking my faith in humanity is at a definite low point right now, and Joshua did not help at all.

The Book of Joshua

Joshua is a warlord. This book starts off with the details of the battles Joshua led as the Israelite army crosses the Jordan and starts to take over the land.

After the first few battles, though, the descriptions change to just lists. Here are all the cities who were invaded and the people who were killed, because there were too many to describe.

The third and largest part of this book gives detailed descriptions of how exactly the conquered land is divided among the people of Israel.

There’s also a call-out to the magician Balaam, mentioned in Numbers. In Numbers, he was hired to curse the Israel people but blessed them instead, and then gave a speech about the greatness and virtue of God. (It made me laugh.) Well, in Joshua, the army of Israel killed him. “Along with the rest of those put to death, the Israelites also put to the sword Balaam son of Beor, who practiced divination.” (Joshua 13:22)

Since the rest of my description is rather long, I’m going to put the rest under a cut: Continue reading

The Bible: Deuteronomy

First: urg, this is literally Moses giving speeches recounting the events and rules of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. It is called Deuteronomy because it’s the second telling. Urg.

Second: There is more than a bit of revisionist history going on here, not so much regarding the major events themselves as the motivations and details of intent and blame.

Third: Some of the rules that hadn’t been mentioned before are surprisingly specific. For instance:

Deutronomy 25:11-12:

If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity.

It sounds to me like there’s a story there, possibly involving Moses fighting with a married man and getting grabbed by the wife.

Fourth: Oh the genocide. The amount of genocide that god is demanding is more than a little disturbing. It is explicit that God is “giving” the Israelites land that is already inhabited by other peoples and plans to either kill or enslave the current inhabitants. The killing of all the current inhabitants is a recurring theme throughout the whole book, but chapter 20 is particularly specific. For instance:

Deuteronomy 20:10-13:

When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. If it accepts our terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you at forced labor. If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword.

And

Deuteronomy 20:16-17:

But as for the towns of those peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them – the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites – just as the Lord your God has commanded,

Fifth: In the U.S. we have (in theory at least) a rule of “innocent until proven guilty.” In Deuteronomy 31-32, by contrast, there appears to be the rule of “guilty even before you are guilty.” Moses, and in his recounting God as well, do this thing that I find extremely irritating: They go off on what their audience is going to do and how mad they (Moses and God) are with their audience regarding what they (the audience) are going to do. Moses is giving this speech to the Israelites before they cross the river Jordan in order to take over the lands (and commit a minimum of six different genocides*), but apparently they’re going to get rich and fat off the land and forget the lord their god and worship other idols and God is going to be so furious with them that he’ll cast them out of the land and let their enemies defeat them, while sending plagues and disasters to bring the Israelites down. Moses even makes up a song all about the disasters God is going to bring down on the disrespectful heads of the Israelites after they betray God after they’ve grown fat and forgetful in the land that they haven’t even entered yet.

I’m not quite sure how this message is supposed to be taken: Don’t worry about the future? Because the immediate future is going to be so wonderful that you’ll forget about your extremely temperamental God and in the long run he is going to beat you down into the dirt?

Anyway:

Sixth: God treats the Nation of Israel as a single entity rather than as a group of individuals. It’s possible (likely) that I’m biased by living in a society that focuses so much attention on individuality, but it’s kind of disturbing how little the concept of individuals seems to mean to this god, as anything other than a part of the whole. Thus, one person acting in a displeasing manner can cause God to abandon the whole Nation, while one person acting in a pleasing manner can cause God to change his mind. But, even more to the point, God has promised to make of Israel a great nation, but also seems to think that as long as there is one survivor, it doesn’t matter how many of them he kills, because he can just rebuild the bloodline from the single survivor. Not only does this point towards the necessity of unpleasant levels of incest (something that God had just made illegal!), but also seems to imply that God figured the whole flood/Noah/ark thing was a great idea and could definitely be repeated, by means of plague this time, because he wouldn’t be breaking any promises as long as there is a single surviving descendant.

 

Summary: Moses is about to die and so he gives three sermons on the past, the present, and the future of the Israeli tribe: how God rescued them from Egypt, the rules of society and sacrifice, and their future of wealth, betrayal, and punishment.

Moral: You (yes: you) are too stubborn to be blindly obedient like you should be, so you’ll be beaten down into the dirt for your sins.

* (1) Hittites, (2) Amorites, (3) Canaanites, (4) Perizzites, (5) Hivites and (6) Jebusites

Next up: Joshua

The Bible: Numbers

While not neatly divided into sections, there are really two themes in the book of Numbers*: ledgers and travelogues. Plus a really disturbingly positive view on genocide.

First: Ledgers

This book is appropriately named Numbers because it’s chock full of them. We have the results of two census, instructions on camp layout, a donation ledger, descriptions of a bunch of maps, plus a lot of additional instructions for how to make sacrifices.

The camp layout and census information was long and detailed enough that I thought it would be useful to create an info graphic, to get a sense of what all the numbers mean. You can see the results below:

 

Numbers

The donations ledger was both detailed and incredibly repetitive. Each day for twelve days, the exact same offerings/sacrifices were made, in the same order and for the same amounts. And over the course of 77 verses, those offerings/sacrifices were listed twelve times. I decided that this needed an infographic too, so I’ve included one below:

Numbers 7

Second: Travelogues

There are also a bunch of stories about different characters. These stories are each so complex and yet so concise that there’s not much point in summarizing them. They include several failed rebellions against Moses’ leadership, several stopped (or at least restricted) massacres by God of the Israelites**, and a foreign magician who is repeatedly hired to curse the Israelites but blesses them each time instead.

The one story that really stood out to me*** was in Numbers 20:14-21. This is the first time I felt any real sense of apprehension about the events. Moses sends a message to the King of Edom requesting permission to pass through the lands of Edom. The message is all nice and sweet, asking for permission and promising to do no harm, and I just thought to myself: say ‘no’, something terrible will happen to you if you say ‘yes’. And luckily Edom said ‘no’—politely, firmly, and without insult or excuse—and the Israelites traveled a different way and I felt so much relief for Edom managing the avoid so many travesties.

Not many other people were able to avoid the repercussions of coming into contact with them.

Keep in mind that at this point the Israelites are a landless, traveling army-nation of between 603,550 and 601,730 warriors along with their families and their herds of cattle, sheep, and goats. God is appearing to them as a fire at night and a dark cloud during the day. When the dark cloud moves, the whole army nation packs up and moves too, settling down only when the dark cloud stops and they can settle the temple around/under God.

And this God has given them many rules to live by but also promised them a land of milk and honey that already belongs to other people, with the instructions that they will simply take that land from those other people.

Which brings us to the prevalence of genocide.

While there’s many examples of genocide in this book, Numbers 21:3**** and Numbers 21:34-35***** are good examples of casual slaughters, Numbers 31 contains the one I find the most horrific because it’s the most specific.

Back in Numbers 25, we discover that some of the men of Israel had started to date some of the women of Moab and been invited into Moab homes and temples. God was infuriated and started a plague that killed 24,000 Israelites and only ended when one of the Israelite priests skewered an Israelite man and a Moabite woman on a spear in the man’s tent.

Well, in Numbers 31, God demands “revenge” on Moab, apparently for their women dating the men of Israel. So Moses calls together a war party of 12,000. These soldiers go into Moab kill every last man and burn to the ground every last town, but took back with them all the treasure they could carry, all the herds of animals, and all the women and children.

When the war party returns to the Israelite encampment, Moses is enraged because the soldiers hadn’t killed enough people. They weren’t supposed to take the women and children captive, they are only allowed to take the female children captive.

Numbers 31:17-18: Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves.

And because this is the Book of Numbers, we know the numbers: once the soldiers were done slaughtering their prisoners, there were still 32,000 virgin girls as prisoners to distribute to the various tribes. Making the (somewhat dubious) assumption that the Moab population consisted of equal numbers of adult men, adult women, male children, and female children, this means that the soldiers invaded and killed 32,000 Moab men in the land of Moab, and then killed an additional 64,000 of their prisoners (adult women and male children) at the border of the Israelite camp.

I’ve actually been researching various genocides of the 20th century for my day job and there are some pretty horrifying details. And knowing the details of some of those genocides gives me a more realistic perspective on these biblical genocides which I might have been able to skim past when I was much younger.

I really want some door-to-door missionaries to come around soon so I can ask them about their take on the Old Testament and then possibly yell at them.

 

Summary: God is a micromanager and the Israelites are a landless army-nation that is traveling across the land killing wherever they go.

Moral: You want as little to do with God as you can get away with.

 

* I’ve switched translations from the English Standard Version Bible (that I was reading on my kindle) over to The New Revised Standard Version Bible (for which I have a hardcopy.)

** The argument that really seems to hold weight with God regarding why he shouldn’t just kill all the Israelites is that so many people saw God claim the Israelites as his own and God would be seen as weak and ungodly if they were to all die. (Numbers 14 and 16)

*** Although Numbers 23:19 actually made me laugh out loud, because Balaam (the magician) speaks his prophesy and talks about how God never changes his mind. God changes his mind all the time, mostly about whether or not to kill all of his chosen people.

**** Numbers 21: 3 The Lord listened to the voice of Israel, and handed over the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their towns; so the place was called Hormah.

***** Numbers 21:34-35: But the Lord said to Moses, “Do not be afraid of him; for I have given him into your hand, with all his people and all his land. You shall do to him as you did to King Shihon of the Amorites, who ruled in Heshbon.” So they killed him, his sons, and all his people, until there was no survivor left; and they took possession of his land.

 

Next up: Deuteronomy

The Bible: Leviticus

I had a road trip recently, so I checked out the book-on-tape version of Leviticus and am quite glad I did so, because, wow, would I have bogged down in this if I had tried to read it. It is pretty much a combination how-to manual for sacrifices and a law-book combined.

Chapters 1 – 9 cover sacrifices. All the sacrifices. There are burnt offerings and grain offerings and incense. There are sacrifices to remove sin, to please the Me, and to make requests. There are all the different animals that can be used (although only those without blemish!) depending on intent and income. And grains and oils. (No yeast. Yeast is bad for sacrifices. God is quite repetitive and adamant on the topic of yeast.)

And then there are the ways in which the sacrifice is to be performed by the priests, and what is to be burned entirely (to make an aroma pleasing to Me) and what can remain to be eaten, and who can eat it and where they can eat it.

(I’ll address Chapter 10 below.)

Chapters 11 – 17 list the many (many, many) reasons for needing to make a sacrifice. There are the many holy days that require celebrating over many days and many sacrifices. And then there are the many ways in which a person naturally becomes unclean (having a rash, women having their period, men having a wet dream, anyone having sex, eating something unclean, touching a dead body, touching something that has touched something unclean, a leader or priest in power becoming unclean, etc.)

Listening to this in the car with the modern translation by the American Bible Society, I was really struck by how much God comes across as a picky kid listing all the things that disgust him. (Bodies. Bodies disgust him. And all the things they do. Age and blemishes and sex and reproduction.) But there’s also the sense that he wants to keep the sacrifices coming on a regular basis, so you’d better keep getting unclean and needing to make regular sacrifices. But don’t worry if you’re not getting unclean often enough: there are still all the holidays and regular sacrifices!

Chapters 18 – 27 still talk some about sacrifices, but focus more on just rules rather than shilling for sacrifices. The rules are many and varied but there’s a large focus on how selling property and slaves works. (It works, incidentally, differently for Israelites than for foreigners, and differently for Levites than for any of the other Israelites, and is all structured around a seven-year cycle, at the end of which purchases of land and people largely disappear and ownership reverts.)

Anyway, Chapter 10 is the only part of this book that involves plot and characters. God once more demonstrates questionable behavior: The high priest Aaron has four sons who are also priests. Two of them manage to burn incense in a manner displeasing to God, so God kills them. Since they were killed for displeasing God, their bodies got dragged out of camp and their father and brothers told they weren’t allowed to mourn for them. Because those guys burned incense incorrectly.*

And finally, I can’t review Leviticus without at least acknowledging the two infamous Leviticus verses:

18:22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

20:13 If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.

These were so embedded in the lists of things that deserve death and/or exile that they lost some of their power, especially as the incorrect usage of incense apparently also deserved death. I think if I were an orthodox Jew who kept strictly kosher, I would need to do some soul searching on these strictures, but I’m not. I agree with the rules against incest** and bestiality, but I come to that agreement from a different motive than just differentiating myself from the Hitites et al (as in chapter 18) or avoiding a stoning (as in chapter 20). I don’t agree with the rule against homosexuality and because I don’t agree with God’s reasons as stated here, I see no reason to not disagree with the rules. It did occur to me for the first time, though, that it’s a very gender-specific law. God has plenty of issues with women and menstruation and childbirth (women must spend about a quarter of their lives “unclean”), but there’s nothing saying they shouldn’t have sex with one another.

Summary: How and why to perform sacrifices. How and for how much, to sell property and people.

Moral: Obedience. Blind obedience or else you will die a horrible death. Wowza.

 

* Admittedly, I kind of assume that the historical basis is that the two priests somehow managed to set their fancy robes on fire while burning the incense.

** Nearly the entirety of Chapter 18 consists of the different forms of incest that are now unlawful. Many of these forms, I recognize as being applauded in Genesis. Hopefully this means that going forward, there will be less incest. Here’s hoping.

Next up: Numbers

The Bible: Exodus

So…

That happened.

I’m familiar with the story, of course, but reading this felt a bit like reading an original Grimm fairy tale after growing up on Disney.

I had three main reactions:

First:

I’m not sure how to say this without being horribly offensive, so I’m just going to say it:

In my opinion, the god in Exodus reads a whole lot more like a demon than a god.

What really got to me in this book was that not one person wanted God’s attention or intervention. God makes demands of and threatens his chosen people and his enemies alike.

The Israelis were unhappy as slaves, but it had been generations since God had paid them any attention at all so they never asked for anything, and when God did decide to intervene, their situation got so much worse that they begged God and Moses to just let them be.

Moses himself was an unwilling prophet. He had committed murder and had run away before he ever met God. Out in the wilderness, God gets to Moses and demands that Moses be his prophet and doesn’t take “no” for an answer.*

Repeatedly, the Israelis tell Moses and God to stop trying to help them.

Instead, God intentionally makes things worse for them in order to demonstrate His power. Every time Pharaoh decides to give in to Moses demands to let the Israelites go, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart** so that Pharaoh refuses to let the Israelites go and God gets the chance to kill more Egyptians in a display of power. The death-toll is both tremendous and also completely intentional.***

Second:

After the Israelites get out of Egypt, Moses goes up Mount Sinai to speak with God and comes back with the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments. That’s pretty common knowledge. I was also already pretty familiar with the rest of the judiciary-type rules stated in Exodus 20-23.

However, somehow I had never before noticed God’s demands in Exodus 25-31 where Moses is given detailed instructions for how God wants his temple to be constructed and what he wants his priests to wear. God has some extremely specific concepts of what he wants and how he wants it. I can only assume that God gave Moses some illustrations in addition to the verbal descriptions written down for me to read, because the instructions for how to take large expanses of cloth and turn them into a tent by means of 50 loops didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

One thing that wasn’t immediately evident from the text but that Anna pointed out when I was talking it through with her later, was that the rules set forth in Exodus 25-31 were revolutionary for the time. They were both revolutionary and extremely liberal, because they defined rule of law. Here is potentially a first step away from a straight-up might-makes-right culture, with God setting down a basic code of laws that everyone must obey, poor and wealthy alike.

But the rules are not actually that long. There’s a lot more time spent describing exactly how the temple was to be constructed and then how it was constructed, along with what the priests were to wear, down to their high quality linen underwear so that they don’t expose themselves in the temple.

And third:

There’s a lot of foreshadowing of future conflict, for all that God promises a land of milk and honey for his Chosen people. He promises this glorious land, but also specifically states that he’s going to run off a whole bunch of other people who were there first.**** I am strongly reminded of Nina Paley’s This Land is Mine animation.

 

Summary: God is playing a game and using all the people as pawns.

Moral: Maybe blind obedience? When a power as strong as God decides to pay attention to you, your best bet is to be unquestioningly obedient because nothing else will help and obedience just might? I don’t know. I’m certainly not a religious scholar. If anyone else has any ideas, please comment and let me know.

 

* Moses apparently really does not like confrontations and gets stage fright too awful to be able to demand anything of anyone. God, who apparently can only work miracles through Moses at this point, assigns his mouthpiece a mouthpiece of his own, and Aaron comes along to speak for Moses who speaks for God.

** That level of mind control also makes me deeply uncomfortable. I couldn’t help but sympathize with Pharaoh who must have felt like he was going insane.† Pharaoh wasn’t capable of making logical decisions or react naturally to events because every time he did something to make himself less evil, God made him change his mind.

† Not that he was particularly sane to begin with. Example: Pharaoh refused Moses’ first few demands because the first few miracles Moses performed were things that Pharaoh’s own magicians were capable of replicating, ie, Pharaoh doubled several of the early plagues by having his magicians duplicate them. Why did he think that was a good idea?

*** God is quite bloodthirsty. Even after the Isrealites have left Egypt behind, when they make God angry, the Levites are the clan to follow Moses’ command to slaughter their friends and families. They killed 3,000 of their own in a single night and are much rewarded for that.

**** Exodus 33:2   And I will send an angel before thee; and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Prizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.

Next up: Leviticus

The Bible: Genesis 12 – 50

Okay, this is going to be broken into two sections: Genesis 12 – 36, and 38 which cover a whole lot of time and people, and Genesis 37, 39 – 50, which focuses on Joseph son of Jacob (AKA Israel) son of Isaac, son of Abraham.

Genesis 12 – 36, and 38

So, this is really difficult to summarize because it read a bit like a summary already. And not just any summary, but like the TV guide version of a really fraught soap opera. Or, given the amount of incest, prostitution, making and breaking of alliances, and the one notable wedding massacre, possibly a summary of Game of Thrones. (Although very little violent rape, which is good. Kind of. Trickery and drugged non-consensual sex: sure; Violent rape: only once and definitely shown as being bad.)

It would be difficult to track who the protagonists are, if this were any other book (my impression from getting regular summaries of Game of Thrones, it’s a bit hard to keep track of who the good guys are there, too.) The way this book is written, though, the good guys are the winners and the winners are the good guys, pretty much by fiat. It’s the opposite of the moral from the Book of Job. If you win, then God must have been on your side. And the God of Genesis is not above being the heavy in a protection racket or supporting some pretty shady characters.

While it is tricky to find a moral here, it is not bad as an entertaining soap opera, and covers a lot of different sexual and political scenarios.

I’m increasingly unimpressed with people who try to use the bible to argue for chastity. Maybe that will come later. But in Genesis, people have sex because they want a child, but they also have sex because they feel like it, or because they want to get something from it, or they’ve been given to the person so that someone else can get something from it. And while there is a sense of sanctity in marriage, it is oddly something that foreigners are expected to respect rather than the protagonists. (Abraham and Isaac both pimped out their respective wives Sarah and Rachel, and then blackmailed the men who took them up on it. And in case a reader develops too much sympathy goes to the wives: Sarah and Rachel, in turn, pimped out their servants as surrogate brood mares to their husbands. At one point, Isaac was doing stud service to four women who traded his nights between them: ah, the fraught soap opera of the women’s quarters.)

Just, wowza.

Anyway, the plot does slow down a bit later, stops skipping through generations, and focuses on a single individual: Joseph.

Genesis 37, 39 – 50

This is not to say that Joseph’s life isn’t a soap opera all on it’s own. So Joseph, the youngest but one of twelve brothers*, gets uppity with his brothers about some dreams he’s having, and how he’s going to be the greatest of them all. So, they decide that rather than killing him, they’ll sell him into slavery and tell Jacob (AKA Israel) that he was mauled to death by a wild animal.

But Joseph succeeds in life and rises in the ranks of his new master’s servants until he’s running the whole estate. Then his master’s wife tries to seduce him and when he refuses, she accuses him of rape and he gets sent to prison. From prison, he gets noticed by the Pharaoh , who elevates him to a position where he rules all of Egypt, second in power only to Pharaoh who doesn’t appear to do much at all.

Then there’s a great famine and Joseph’s brothers come to buy food from Egypt, and Joseph provides very mixed messages regarding his thoughts on his brothers. There is much trickery and lying and wailing and weeping, and eventually it all works out because all the brothers plus father Jacob and their household of 70 all move to Egypt to live with Joseph and his wife and two kids.**

You might think this is more than enough plot to keep the writing pretty adventurous, but there is still a whole lot of repetition. There will literally be a conversation that happens between two characters and then one of those characters will recount the whole of that conversation to a third character, so the reader gets to read the exact same words twice. It’s makes it a bit difficult to keep track of my place in the text.

But anyway, there’s a lot of weeping on the neck and kissing on the face in this section.

Summary: This is a soap opera.***

Moral: I’m really not noticing any type of moral in here. If there’s a moral, it’s like that of Scheherazade’s 1001 Nights: people are people and you shouldn’t believe in stereotypes because each person is an individual who may be good or evil, clever or dumb, violent or peaceful.****

* The begats continue to get to me. Not only have there been many generations, but each generation contains many siblings and a lot of them get named. And they’re so tedious that I hadn’t even noticed before that there are repetitions even in the begat sections. Names aren’t re-used for other people, no, the exact same people get listed multiple times! “Person X’s son are A, B, C, D, E, and F. The sons of person X are A, B, C, D, E, and F. The first born son of person X was A, who fathered G, H, I, J, and K. The second born son of person X was B, who fathered L, M, and N. Thus the sons of person X were A, B, C, D, E, and F.” Yes, I know, I get it already!


** Oh the begats for those 70 people.


*** I’m reminded of a Stargate/NCIS fanfiction, Stardust, in which Daniel Jackson gets amnesia (again) and discovers a bible in the hotel room he’s staying in. Without any of the cultural weight behind it, the book is actually a pretty fascinating story, and all the rest of the characters kind of grin about how enthralled he is by the story.


**** Scheherazade spent some three years telling entertaining stories to her husband, in part to convince him that people were people, some good and some evil, some honorable and some dishonorable, and knowing one honorable man and one dishonorable woman does not mean that all men are honorable or all women dishonorable. The other part of the reason was the more immediate goal of: don’t kill me before I finish the story. Who wants a show canceled on a cliff-hanger?

 

Up Next: Exodus

The Bible: Book of Job

I had actually read the Book of Job before, as a reading assignment in my high school English class.* Reading it again as an adult was a much different experience though. I’m all the more certain that people should not rely on their childhood studies.

I remember being really angry at the story, because God is so incredibly unfair to Job. While the text remains the same, my perspective on both the events and the dialogues gives me a very different interpretation.

The overarching structure of the story is a challenge offered by Satan and accepted by God, to test Job’s faith, but the majority of the text is a series of Plato-esque dialogues between Job and the various people who come to remonstrate with him. While the arguments are long and repetitive, I think the combination of the arguments and Job’s replies offer some seriously important lessons.

First: I’m fairly sure that Job’s wife was suggesting that Job go the Hamlet route, and avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune by killing himself. To which Job replies that good and bad both come from God, and you can’t choose to just get one.

This bit reminded me of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, where he writes:

But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.

Second: Job’s three friends come to tell him that since he’s being punished by God, then he must have done some pretty awful things to deserve that punishment, and maybe it’s time for him to repent and beg forgiveness. To which Job replies that, no, he doesn’t understand why he’s being punished, but he knows that he has only ever acted righteously, and has done nothing to deserve the punishment. The friends get progressively more vicious in their anger at Job’s refusal to admit to culpability. I think the moral of these three arguments and three rebuttals is to not blame the victim.

I think this is an incredibly important lesson. It’s also kind of in direct contradiction to what I’d previously recalled from Bible studies, which tend to be heavily weighed towards the lesson of the good being rewarded and the evil punished. But, no, this book acknowledges that sometimes bad things happen to good people, and that doesn’t mean they deserved it.

Third: God comes in a whirlwind to remonstrate with Job directly, but it’s interesting how the remonstration is focused. God essentially lists a long series of challenges to Job’s understanding and abilities regarding the world. Does Job know about the wild horses or the eagles or the ostriches? Did he make them in all their wildness and does he understand them? They’re all clearly rhetorical questions, and at first I thought that it was just God being something of a bully: I’m powerful, you’re not, so don’t question me. But the more I read and the more thought I gave it, I think instead, it’s more a demonstration that the world is complex, and Job is not the center of it.**

The lesson here is that Job’s punishments are not because of him at all, but part of something greater. We don’t know the full story behind Satan’s challenge to God, and all we see is Job’s part of it, and we can only take on faith that there is a purpose.***

Fourth: After Job apologizes to God about questioning his actions, God then turns to remonstrate the friends for victim-blaming. God lets them know that they’re only going to be forgiven for their sins if Job asks for forgiveness on their behalf.

Keeping in mind that this is the Old Testament, it’s still interesting to see that God’s forgiveness is not all-encompassing. In this case, the friends have been castigating a righteous man and their sin is not going to be forgiven with simple repentance. They need the forgiveness of their victim before God will grant them forgiveness.

And final thing of note: In the beginning, Job had ten children, seven sons and three daughters, who were all massacred along with their families as part of the test of Job’s faith. In the end, Job has ten more children, seven sons and three daughters, who live and prosper. Of his twenty children, only three are named, his three surviving daughters: Jemimah, Keziah, and Keren-happuch, to each of whom Job gives an inheritance to match their brothers’.

One of the things I’m increasingly aware of sexism in the modern era is the way it projects into the past. There was certainly plenty of sexism in the past, but it wasn’t nearly as pervasive as it’s generally thought. Women did many of the same things as men did, they just don’t tend to be described in the history books, and when they are described, they aren’t widely studied. Case in point: the book of Job names three of his daughters even though I had always had the impression that, like in the various begat sections, only the males get named.

I am reminded yet again, of how important it is to read this for myself rather than relying on the generalized sense of the book coming from no particular source.

Anyway, instead of concluding with a recommendation****, I’m going to end with a summation of what I think the moral is (if you disagree, feel free to comment.) The overall moral: Don’t victim-blame. Don’t assume that a victim deserves their suffering or did anything to warrant it.


* We also read the Mahabharata and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Mrs. Fort was going to teach great literature and if the school board disagreed, then they could fire her. They didn’t fire her. She was awesome!

** In addition to the long series of challenging questions about the goat and the ox and the donkey, there’s also long descriptions of the powerful might of the Behemoth and the Leviathan, that mostly left me confused. Okay, God, you created some really tough creatures. Is there a point to this description? If yes, I’m missing it.

*** I’m still not happy with the argument that you shouldn’t question the actions of God. I prefer the relationship that Raprasad Sen has with the divine, demonstrated through his poetry in honor of the Hindu goddess Kali. (Grace and Mercy in Her Wild Hair: Selected Poems to the Mother Goddess, by Ramprasad Sen, Translated by Leonard Nathan and Clinton Seely.) In his case, worship doesn’t mean blindness to faults, nor does devotion mean constant happiness. Like any other love, the pious love can include times when you’re not very pleased with the other person.

**** My overall recommendation is: If you’re a member of one of the religions that sees the Bible as holy script, then read it yourself so you know what it says, rather than relying on anyone else to tell you–if these are God’s words, then let them speak to you, rather than play telephone via someone else. If you live in a society that uses the Bible as a guide, then read it so that you know what’s truly in there and what’s not, and allows you to both understand where arguments are coming from and when they’re wrong. If you’re neither, then it’s probably still a good book to be familiar with, although maybe focus on the religious texts of your own religion and region first.

 

Next up: The remaining three quarters of Genesis.