Saturday, September 3, 2011

The weirdest thing I didn't know was in The Book of Genesis

Recently I've been keeping the Bible in the bathroom and alternating between reading it and some of the trashier literature I like to read (Star Trek novels, profiles of famous murderers, all of that stuff I should be embarrassed to mention here), very slowly, a page or three whenever I step to answer one or the other necessity of nature. I've never actually read any of the Bible before, except for a weird arty translation of Ruth in college, so it's been instructive. I figure every once in a while, when I finish a book (which I've been doing about once every two months so far, though I've only finished two so far), I'll post a little "who knew?" post about it.

So, the weirdest thing I didn't know about Genesis, aside from the fact that it was the chronicle of a family of assholes becoming bigger and bigger assholes throughout the generations, culminating in one of them enslaving all of Egypt for the Pharaoh, was that at least four times, a husband and wife will settle down in a place they haven't lived before, and the husband will think "Oh, my wife is so beautiful that all the men here will kill me and steal her away," so he'll pretend that they're brother and sister, but then all the men in the new place are like, "Oh, she's unattached" so they start sleeping with her (she, of course, voices neither approval nor disapproval of all this), and then the husband finds out, and says "Oh woe, you're sleeping with my wife" and the other men are like "Oh, she's your wife? Why did you say she was your sister? If we'd known we would have left her alone!" and then God has to forgive people all over the place, as he sees fit.

What's weirdest to me is that the entire sequence is exactly the same every time, and that it's not the same person over and over, nor is it different people every time (I think Abraham does it twice). If the details changed a little, or everybody just did it once and then learned their lesson, or if the same numbskull did it over and over again, then I think I could understand it, but none of those is the case.

Exodus coming whenever I feel like it.


Richard said...

That's funny. Which version are you reading? I've read very little of the Bible, dipping into it sporadically too....

Incidentally, for what it's worth, Josipovici's The Book of God, as well as the first three essays in Singer on the Shore, really helped be appreciate the Bible's mode, what it's there for, attempting to do, etc.

Jonathan Versen said...

Normal people read D. H. Lawrence or In Touch magazine in their bathrooms, or so I've been told.

antonello said...

"The whole history of these books is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills." - Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, (24 January 1814)

He said "dunghills" [Butthead laugh].

For that matter, one imagines the author of Genesis making a Homer Simpson "D'oh!" if someone asked "Where did the sons of Adam and Eve get their wives?" A bit of a plot-hole, that. Perhaps it wouldn't have mattered to the author. He was doing his best, as a mere human, with what he knew and didn't know. The sun revolves around the earth. Whatever.

I haven't been much of a Bible reader, either, although I once knew a self-proclaimed satanist who claimed to have read it several times. Know thy enemy, I suppose. But a passage that leaves me almost spitless is 2 Kings 2:23-24. The prophet Elisha is snickered at by some kids. "Go up, thou bald head" they say to him. (Is "Go up" like "Fuck you"?) Elisha gets a bit testy about this and lobs a curse at them in the name of Jehovah. Suddenly two bears appear and kill forty-two children. It's hard to say what's more impressive here: the barbarism or the stupidity. How did forty-two kids get killed by two bears? Did they stand in line and wait their turn?

James N. said...

Ethan, I'd recommend checking out Jack Miles's "God: A Biography" if you're into stuff like this. It's very readable and has some nice treatment both of how these repetitions came to exist in the text, and what they tell us about Yahweh's relationship with people.

Mile's take on this episode is that Abram / Abraham is basically pissing away God's promise of fertility. The bit with Sarai/Sarah acting as, I don't know, sexual blackmail or something, occurs in the context of God repeatedly promising Abram/Sarai that they will have shitloads of children, even though they're barren. There's this whole crazy thing with circumcision showing up, and all this stuff, that's basically Yahweh trying to take credit/responsibility for human reproduction. And so when Abram & Sarai go on their world tour, and Abram is whoring her out, Abram is giving this big "Fuck you, buddy!" to God.

But yeah, a whole bunch of the patriarchs in the Old Testament are, at best, assholes and at worst genocidal monsters. They're all just disgusting! And Miles's point is that their problems are front and center, and meant to disquiet us. We're not supposed to be "cool" with God or anything he's done.

Ethan said...

Richard: I'm reading the NRSV, because I accidentally stole a copy of it from a friend years ago; nary a "thou" to be found. The Book of God is already high up on my list, so hopefully I should be getting to it any rate before I get anywhere close to finished with the Bible itself at the rate I'm going.

Jonathan: Is Mommie Dearest normal enough? It's what I've got going now. Also a very weird book.

antonello: Jefferson himself was a bit of a dunghill, but he seems to have had an interesting relationship with the Bible--I like his idea of creating a version of the Gospels with the miracles taken out. As far as Genesis and Homer Simpson, you could think of it as a plot hole, but to me the fact that there are two utterly different, not (literally) compatible accounts of creation one right after another right at the beginning tells me that there isn't really a "plot" at all, let alone holes in it. To me it reads as if we're not supposed to think God ever stopped creating.

A friend of mine is obsessed with the bear part, and you left out his favorite detail: they're not just bears, but she-bears, which is just a hilarious compound noun no matter how you look at it.

James: That's really interesting! I think I've seen God: A Biography advertised around, it always struck me (without looking into it any further) as looking about as worthwhile as a Freakonomics book, but from what you say it certainly sounds much better than that.

When you say "meant" and "supposed," do you mean that that's Miles saying "This is how it strikes me," or is his argument more that, no, really, this is what this text would have meant to its original audience?

antonello said...

Is Mommie Dearest normal enough? It's what I've got going now. Also a very weird book.

And Mommie said: use thou not the wire hanger; it is abomination in my sight.

Ethan said...


James N. said...


I haven't read Freakonomics, so I can't compare. God: A Biography is not hard-core Bible scholarship and doesn't pretend to be. The author apparently does have some chops in this area, but that's not the type of book he's writing.

It's light literary analysis, but always interesting and often thought-provoking. (For me, as a non-believer with osmotic familiarity with this material. YMMV.) There are points where I think Miles's interpretation of God-as-a-character is a little bit strained, but those points aren't crucial to the main strand of his argument.

Certainly Miles's view, as a modern man, is that God and the patriarchs are often repulsive characters, even within their pseudo-historical context.

But he also argues that the people compiling the Bible likely felt revolted by these guys too. Stuff like Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac, or the story of Job, are scandalous. But it's precisely because they're scandalous that they are so compelling. It's impossible to read these stories without feelings of horrified dissent.

Miles gives the authors/compilers/editors credit for recognizing this, and reads the stories accordingly.

Anyway, I thought it was interesting.

Christopher M. said...

The repetitions you note come from the fact that the various stories in Genesis - and throughout the Bible, really, but especially in the Torah and the Hebrew Bible/OT generally - basically come from dozens of preexisting myths, stories, fables, narratives, and court histories that were edited together multiple times over the course of various centuries. The "my wife is my sister" business, for instance, is the kind of story that apparently became popular enough to be attributed to multiple patriarchs; when their stories got stitched together, the multiple recurring stories were left repeating.

These weren't stories that were initially designed to be told as some single, coherent narrative, and they certainly don't read as such today - assuming you make it as far as Samuel and Kings, for instance, you'll make it to books that openly acknowledge that big chunks of the narrative are missing, as the death of each Israelite king is marked with a citation telling you which no-longer-extant ancient document his story was lifted from, and as one chapter from one source portrays one king as an evil and treacherous dullard, while the next, taken from another, portrays him as a competent and magnanimous leader.

Soj said...

I recommend you check out the "Brick Testament", a website in which the author "re-enacts" certain scenes from the Bible using Lego.

As for Genesis specifically, please understand that it is mostly a rehash of Babylonian and Sumerian stories, hence some of the repetition in motifs.

The whole "pretend your my sister" deal is far too complicated for me to expound upon here in the comments for now though :P

Ethan said...

James--Freakonomics is just my go-to example of a crappy popularization of a specialized field that's more mystification than the explication it pretends to be. But yeah, definitely seems interesting, and I've put it on my list. (My extremely long list, so I don't know when I'll get to it.)

Christopher, Soj--true, it is an awkwardly compiled collection of other stories--I was kind of half-forgetting that. Still, I'm interested also in what people get out of these stories, why they're told and retold, and especially what people get out of them today. In that sense it's still an utterly mystifying thing to be there.

antonello said...

"No public man in these islands ever believes that the Bible means what it says: he is always convinced that it says what he means." - George Bernard Shaw

The peculiarities of the Bible — arbitrariness, confusion, irrelevance, redundancy, and so on — are a part of the overall message: Don't try to make sense of it all; just do as you're told.

The authors of the Bible tell us, with a sort of gloating insistence, that the ways of God cannot be understood. Fair enough, one could argue: life is hard to understand. It seems, all the same, that people believe in the Bible, not in spite of its arbitrariness, but because of it. If the Bible only said what was sensible and just, people would know they can do without it; they could get as much from their own intelligence, from their own consciences. People who are baffled by the circumstances of their lives — i.e., most people — can be comforted, perhaps unconsciously, by a religion that reflect this very bafflement. The ways of God, they say, are mysterious. Life seems unfair, they admit, but it's all a design that only God can know. If religion stopped at this point, at the mysteries of existence, I would be more empathetic. I'm an agnostic who believes that life is a mystery as well.

Sooner or later, though, believers want answers. They insist that religion supplies them. They want to know why their 5-year-old has died of leukemia. What do they get in response? "Well, you see, God loves your little girl so much that He wants her to be with Him in Heaven. She's happy now. Nothing more can hurt her." If people are consoled by this, I would be a troll to dispute them. The stricken get their comforts where they can. Believers tend, however, to want everybody to go along with the plan. The Bible can't only be good for them: it must be good for everyone else. To stop short of this would be to admit that the Bible is inadequate. My unbelief is a threat to their belief. I've known many believers who are not like this, but they tend to stand by passively while their faith is represented by fanatics. Where is the movement of believers who resist the theocrats?

What concerns me most about the religion of the Bible is that its morality is so externally based. Biblical characters don't seem to have a conscience as we would describe it. They only know they've done wrong when they're punished. David desires Bathsheba and wants her for his own. Bathsheba is married to Uriah, one of David's generals. David wants Uriah out of the picture. He sends Uriah on a dangerous mission. Uriah ends up dead. David marries Bathsheba. They have a child. God causes the child to die. David is made aware that the death of the child was a punishment for conniving at the death of Uriah. Conscience, as depicted in the Bible, is little more than obedience to divinely claimed laws. Keep the word of God within you and make it your light. You'll know you've done wrong when you suffer; either that or you're being tested. As for the evil who do not suffer, rest assured that their punishment awaits them in hell.

I've gone on too long. The muddle of the Bible is sometimes comic, sometimes maddening. It's maddening when it abets the muddleheadness of its adherents. The Bible is full of commandments that no one is interested in enforcing. They don't see this as an obstacle to enforcing whatever ones they like. "But the Bible says, a man shall not lie with a man..."

Richard said...

"What concerns me most about the religion of the Bible is that its morality is so externally based."

I think you'll find that this is true of all of the ancient texts--look at Greek tragedy, for example.

Ethan said...

Yeah, there's something about the ancients in general that you're hitting on here. It's what Julian Jaynes is writing about in The Origin of Consciousness, though I suspect that his conclusions are a bit toward the sci-fi end of things. I gotta re-read that book.

antonello said...

People believe in a god who presides over all and has a general plan; but they also believe they're essentially free agents. They're offended by anything that seems like determinism. They're not against the most merciless determinism in practice, but they fervently hate it in theory. They don't dwell on the implicit contradictions of what they believe. They run smack up against these paradoxes in ancient texts.

The gods decide that a particular man is to suffer. They create a situation in which he cannot help but do wrong. This brings about his downfall and punishment. He suffers as he was intended to suffer. It's not unlike Calvinism: who will be saved or damned has been decided before they were born. I've read a little of Calvin; his logic is impeccable.

The Bible, by contrast, allows for free will; but Jehovah suspends the rules whenever he feels like it. He "hardens" the heart of Pharaoh against the Israelites. At the Last Supper, Jesus announces that one of the disciples will betray him. Which one of us? The one who next dips his bread into the bowl, says Jesus. Judas then goes ahead and does just that. Whenever I've seen this portrayed, it creeps me out. Suddenly they're no longer people; they're only puppets in a show.

Brian M said...

Ethan: That bicameral mind stuff has always fascinated me. I've only read snippets and extracts and I know there is no proof, there...yet it seems to have some explanatory power.

Ethan said...

Brian, I'm probably going to be rereading it (I read it when I was like twelve, so I don't know if I should even consider this a reread, but whatever) pretty soon anyway, so there might be some talkin' here...though keep in mind that when I say "soon" I mean "probably before 2013."

antonello--Just last night I read a scene in Doctor Faustus with a bunch of theology students talking about freedom and determinism, and saying that what "freedom" really means is freedom to sin, and those who love God most are those who use freedom, His most precious gift, least. Who knows. I think for the religiously minded, paradoxes are the clearest signs of divinity. I find them interesting, myself, at least as far as I'm interested in what people get out of them (as I said before). Certainly many people have gotten quite the message of freedom out of the Bible--the millennarians of the 15-17th centuries, say. (By the way, you've mentioned already what I'm planning on talking about in Exodus).

Soj said...

You asked what do people get out of these stories.

Super brief version - after a brief heyday (Solomon/David), 90% of the kingdom of Israel is utterly smashed and destroyed by enemy powers ("lost" 10 tribes).

A short while later, the Babylonians come and snatch up everybody that's left and ship them en masse to "Siberia" (as far as they're concerned) and everyone is wondering WTF is the point of being Jewish.

In a last minute "twist" (again, modern parlance), the Persian/Babylonians let them go home as a kind of independent satellite state. Therefore the authors of the OT, now having learned to write things down very well, have a very interesting dilemma very similar to (USA) Marbury v. Madison

That is, the religious Jewish leaders have been given nominal legal authority over a broken ragtag people but not much actual, day to day authority. Most of their subjects don't give a hoot about being Jewish (the "right way") and care more about mundane things like food to eat, etc.

So the religious leaders do three things:

1) Intertwine the cosmogony stories their people already know with a glorious and epic future promise of the awesomeness of the Jewish people

2) Write a new book out of thin air (Deuteronomy), attributing it to the greatest Jew in oral legend (Moses) to give the religious leaders more weight and justification for their authority.

3) Re-write recent history ("retcon" in modern parlance) to show that anything bad that ever happened was due to lack of following the rules and everything good was due to following the rules. See the endless books of the prophets for multiple examples of this.

Although we in modern times read the Bible in the published order, chronologically it's Nehemiah that's the "current" book (at time of writing OT) and most of the rest is the "back story", amended and revised to shore up points 1-3. Essentially the entire OT was written down at one time, therefore you/we are getting the viewpoint of one particular faction at one particular time in history.

By the time we catch up to the "New Testament" (again, modern parlance), the religious rulers have now fractured along "party lines", exploited by Jesus + Company and delineated by such terms as Pharisees, Sadducees, etc.

Hope this helps!

Jack Crow said...

That's a good myth, Soj. Too bad it didn't happen that way. Only people taken into exile, and even if that, were the aristocracy of a kingdom of tents. Warchiefs and tribal hetmen.