Christopher's Bible Blog

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Location: Colorado Springs, Colorado, United States

Friday, June 30, 2006

Singing In the Rain (or, 150 days of indoor fun)

From the tone of my first entry, you might think you can guess what I'm going to say about the Flood--but then, I did say it was trickier. I hope you've been able to handle the suspense.

The historicity of the flood is a mess, from what I can see. It always seemed like an out-and-out fable to me. In college, when I read The Epic of Gilgamesh and found a very similar story starring someone named Utnapishtim, I felt vindicated. Clearly, either (a) someone had plagiarized, or (b) there was some kind of flood that covered a lot of Mesopotamia, and it was important enough to the early humans that it was recorded as part of cultural heritage.

It turns out, though, that many, many early civilizations have stories about a great flood that wiped out all but a handful of people, and all over the world. Check 'em out here. It's kinda freaky.

Now it's time to figure out what the heck happened, and I'm going to be asking for a lot of help. Yeah, I'm pretty sure it didn't happen the way the Bible says it happened. Really sure, in fact. Again, this skepticism stems from information the writers didn't have. Enough water would have to have been generated to raise the level of the sea over the surface of a planet 510,000,000 square kilometers in surface area, an average of 750 feet a day. Someone with a good scientific calculator can figure out how much water that is, but it's a lot, and it all had to have gone somewhere, which it demonstrably did not. Add to that the problem of collecting animals from various continents (if God flew them to Saudi Arabia personally, I would think that would be a sensational enough sight to make it into the narrative), and the logistics are beyond miraculous. I know someone will say there's no such thing, but seriously, where did the water go? A wind blew it away, evidently (8:1)--it must have been transdimensional or something.

KJV, which I happen to have handy as I type this, says "all the high hills that were under the whole heaven were covered" (7:19). Nonetheless, the account itself seems to admit, albeit unwittingly, the dubiousness of that claim. After all, the fact that the ark comes to rest so close to its point of departure suggests that Noah and crew didn't sail past the Himalaya to see what was going on there, and no one else survived to give report.

Regardless of the historicity of the deluge itself, its clear moral, which isn't a bad one, is "don't mess with God." The effects are far-reaching: it is after this point, in fact, that the spirit of God leaves humans and thus stops allowing them to live so long (can't find the reference at the moment). It gives a nifty origin story for rainbows.

More importantly as we go forward, it establishes the precedent of God's prerogative to change his mind as he sees fit. In 6:6, he second-guesses the creation of man, which is how he devises the flood, and in 8:21 the smell of burning sacrifice brings him to his senses, and he promises not to do that again.

Anyway, the historicity is a problem. Clearly there was widespread flooding, perhaps at the end of the last ice age (makes sense to me, anyway), but how did all our species survive it? We have an awful lot of biodiversity nowadays, and for all of it to be postdiluvian deems far-fetched to me also. If only low-lying areas around the world were flooded, as seems more likely, that would partially explain it--but still, a few thousand years doesn't seem long enough to evolve new species to fill the erstwhile seas (the aforementioned low-lying areas, in case I got too highfalutin for a second).

I guess what I'm saying is that this story, of everything in the Bible, because of its corroboration by numerous independent sources, seems to imply divine intervention. We have to make a couple of assumptions to get to the impasse, but the impasse is real to me nonetheless--wouldn't it take a god to see all us organisms make it this far?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Genesis Chs. 1-5 and 10-11: Everything but the flood

Since I’m reading the Bible from start to finish, I unfortunately have to start with one of the most controversial things, from a certain viewpoint anyway, that I hope I’ll wind up saying. At Chapter 12, the book abruptly shifts in scope, tone, detail and pretty much every other way possible—it begins to cover the history of Abraham and his next few generations. In other words, it settles into a whole different literary genre.

The genre into which the first 11 chapters fall is folklore, and pretty clearly.

To refresh, these chapters cover creation (1-2), the fall (3), the first murder and interstitial genealogy (4-5), the flood (6-9), and more genealogy followed by the tower of Babel (10-11).

These stories resemble the oral tradition of pretty much any ancient society. Any group of people with decent stability will concoct a story of where the world came from; in this case the story, written by Jews, naturally connects those people with the creator of the universe. What better endorsement is there?

This is the story that Abraham would have told a precocious young Isaac when he asked, as children do—not necessarily even because he believed it, but because that was the best he had to offer; it’s what he would have been told when he asked his father, Terah.

It’s unfortunate that we’ll never be able to confront the OT writers with the mountains of evidence supporting evolution theory, to see if the story would change. Nonetheless, we know that they didn’t have access to that information, and the credibility of a 144-hour creation process is necessarily weakened because of this.

For another interesting take, read Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, which posits that the Judeo-Christian creation story was originally written not by the Jews, but by a hunting-gathering people vanquished by the early farmers.

Anyway, my definition of folklore basically implies a series of implausible events that explains how something came to be. It is passed down orally over many generations until the identity of the writers is unknown, and it becomes true not because it was ever actually true, but just because everyone knows it to be.

The creation, fall, first murder and Tower of Babel stories are well enough known that I won’t recount them here—I’ll just say that they fit well within that definition of folklore and leave it at that. These same passages are the only ones in the Bible that mention people living nearly a millennium, led by Methuselah, who evidently made it to 969.

The flood is a little trickier, so I’ll leave it for the next entry.

My wife read this installment and said that I’ve already failed in my stated goal of objectivity. The thing is, I don’t think that’s what I meant. I’m reading the book to see what it says to me, and that’s my overwhelming impression. When all is done, I hope to come to a knowledge of two wonderful and widespread world religions that doesn’t require the complete abandonment of my understanding of how the world works—and I would imagine there are plenty of others who would like that as well.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A quick note on commenting

Please don't make me moderate comments, which would quickly make this not at all fun. Be sure to include your name, and no matter what, be sure to be respectful. Thanks.

In the beginning... (or, read me first)

So, I'm reading the Bible, and blogging about it. I'm sure it's been done before, though I don't have time to check by whom or how many. After all, I'm a rock musician, a perhaps-soon-to-be novelist, a husband, dog-walker, dish-washer, and oh yeah--forty hours a week, I'm an editorial assistant. This will likely be a long-term project.

So why am I reading the Bible and blogging about it? Let's start with the second part of the question.

In addition to the above list, I am a Discordian, a Buddhist, and an agnostic. You can be all three--I checked. I was raised in a Baptist church, in a Baptist household. I was fed Bible verses and stories out of sequence and out of context for quite some time, and at the age of twelve I walked away. I am probably the youngest person I know to look Baptist dogma in the eye and determine it wasn't for me, a fact I've shared with some pride for a while.

As a result of this personal history, nearly everyone I know fits into one of two categories. There are the biblical literalists, comprising my family, my wife's family, countless generations before them, and pretty much everyone they voluntarily associate with on a regular basis. Post-faith-loss, there are the atheists, close friends all, who believe that the Bible is wholly or in large part bogus, a book full of quaint morals mixed with abominable policies, all in all irrelevant to their lives.

Somewhere in the middle is me, which brings me to the first part of that first question. I'm reading the Bible because I'm curious.

A few Wikipedia searches brought me the knowledge that there exists a modern translation of the Bible, the New Revised Standard Version, prepared by an ecumenical council including at least one real live Jew. The motto of this group was "as literal as possible, as free as necessary," and the result is a readable but precise version of the Scriptures, as nearly as I can tell thus far. Furthermore, it incorporates the latest (and oldest) manuscripts, which ensure the highest possible degree of accuracy. Further furthermore, Oxford University Press, a publisher with which I am familiar and in which I trust in pretty much all scholarly matters, has an edition (look for it here if you'd like to read along), annotated, prefaced, and including those mysterious deuterocanonical/apocryphal books I've always heard about but never read any part of.

If such a version existed, by golly, it was my duty to read it. After all, divinely inspired or not, no one can really argue against the Bible's status as the book with the most prominent role in shaping our modern western society.

So here's what I hope to accomplish with this blog. I am a guy with at least a minor in English (exactly a minor, to be more precise), and someone who has read a fair amount of literature of both the antiquated and modern varieties. I possess a critical eye, and almost no agenda--that is to say, naturally, I start the reading with some preconceived notions, but I'm doing my best to lay them aside as I progress.

I shall be inviting people in both of the above categories to share in this project with me, and asking frequently for clarification regarding the historical context of the passages I read. I shall be giving my impressions of each book as I read it, and welcoming commentary from anyone who cares to offer it. I'd like to provide jumping-off points for discussions between the literalists and the atheists, who all too often either vehemently argue or settle for an uneasy silence when they meet, and everyone in between.

Perhaps the most important thing for readers to know before we start the long main event is the baseline understanding with which I'm setting forth. The Hebrew Bible, which I will henceforth refer to by its more familiar, if somewhat derogatory, name, the Old Testament or OT, is a history, written by the timelessly oppressed Jewish people, of both their forebears and the God who has brought them safe thus far. The New Testament was written by early Christians to explain the life and significance of Jesus, their Christ, and to convert whoever reads it. Christian salvation relies solely on the believer's belief that (a) the historical Jesus was God's son, (b) he died for mankind's sins and came back to life, and (c) he currently resides in Heaven, accepting anyone who believes (a) and (b).

As you will quickly learn, I don't believe that a subpoint (d), "the Bible is true in every word," belongs on that list--but like everything you read here, this will be open for discussion. Thanks for joining me.