Friday, February 1, 2013

Reading the Whole Bible—Update

Part of a series on Reading the Whole Bible.

We should shine a light on
A light on...
And the book of right-on's right on—
It was right on.

—"The Book of Right-On," Joanna Newsom

So, I'm reading the Bible cover to cover (currently on page 317 out of 2089—starting the book of Joshua). It's going a little slower than I thought it would, but I'm content to blame that on having much less free time at work than usual these last few weeks.

The fact that I'm in Joshua means that I'm finished with the first five books, an important segment of the Bible that Christians and many scholars often call the Pentateuch (from the Greek penta "five" + teuch "books at the beginning of the Bible"*) and that Jews and other cool people call the Torah (Hebrew for "teaching" or "instruction"). For Jews, the first five books are the most important part of the Bible, as they contain the story of their ancestors and origins as a people (in the first book, Genesis), the story of the beginning of their relationship to God (in the second book, Exodus), and all the commandments that they are to follow (in Exodus and the other three books, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy)—though different groups disagree on whether to obey all of the commandments in the Torah, including things like not mixing different kinds of fibers in your clothes, or just the ones about morality, like honoring one's parents. For Christians, they are important because they describe things like God's creation of the world (Genesis 1), humanity's fall from a state of innocence (Genesis 2), the beginning of God's relationship with human beings (Genesis), and the moral code that forms the foundation of proper living (the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20).

A friend asked recently if I had achieved any big insights so far in my reading. My honest first reaction was, "Well, no. Not really." And I didn't decide to do this in order to discover things or change my worldview; I'm doing it because it's interesting, and because I think it's important for a Christian to do it if he or she can.

But my honest first reaction was also an unconsidered one. I have had a couple insights.

First, on the down side: since I've never read these books whole, nor in a sustained fashion, this is the first time I've ever been directly exposed to the way they depict God for an extended period. And while I've always known that the God of the Hebrew Bible, and these books in particular, is often brutal and capricious, knowing that is different than seeing it, over and over in some places.  This hasn't led to any big epiphanies, but it does confirm my belief that the Bible cannot be an infallible record or be wholly relied upon. I feel strongly that God's capriciousness and brutality in these books cannot be reconciled with God's being a loving parent, concerned with the well-being of God's creation. I believe that the authors of these books confused the history of their ancestors' often violent activity with the will of the God that they worshiped. It has also led me to sympathize, though not agree, with various heretical groups who have tried to reconcile the problem in even more drastic ways, like claiming that the God of the Hebrew Bible is a separate, lower deity than the God of the Christian New Testament (AKA Marcionism).

On the up side, though, my reading so far has yielded lots of little insights, small details to ponder over and wonder at. And I have enjoyed these immensely. I particularly enjoy trying to connect what I'm reading with what I already know about later parts of the Bible. For example: when I read in Leviticus about things that caused ritual impurity or "unclean"-ness, I came across a passage (Leviticus 15:25-27) describing what happens if someone has a constant hemorrhage that never goes away (they are "unclean," as is anyone who touches them and everything they sit or lie on, which is pretty intense) and I realized that the life of the woman with this problem in the gospels (Mark 5:25-34, Matthew 9:20-23, Luke 8:43-48) was way tougher and lonelier than I had previously understood. You basically couldn't be with her and be an acceptable part of society. I also wondered if there's a connection between the ceremony for refusing to perform levirate marriage (the woman takes the man out in public, takes off his sandal, and spits on him [Deuteronomy 25:5-10]) to the ceremony performed by Boaz when he wants to marry his relative's widow, Ruth (Boaz asks Ruth's less-distant relative if he will marry her, and then takes his sandal as confirmation that he doesn't want to [Ruth 4]). There's tons of this stuff, and I love thinking about it and trying to make connections. 

The other big up side is that, like I talked about a little last week, much of this book is undeniably beautiful. And even the parts that are not have started to seem lovely, or at least familiar and interesting. By the time I hit Deuteronomy, I had gotten so into the rhythm of reading Biblical laws that I was actually enjoying reading the law parts of Deuteronomy, which are not only interesting in themselves, but are in fact often a revision or updating of laws earlier in the Bible. Deuteronomy changes the laws in a couple of ways, but the coolest way is that it makes an explicit place in the law for widows, orphans, the poor, and foreigners, with a thoroughness that is totally unlike law codes in other Biblical books. 

So the project proceeds apace, for good or for ill. Mostly, it's been good.

*Okay, not really; it's from Πεντατευχος (penta + teuchos), the Greek word for five plus the word for tool, vessel, or book.

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1 comment:

  1. Courageous, honest, open; I like it. Two responses: go with the "singular they" with provenance since the 15th century. Seriously.

    Also, here are a couple of books you might find helpful to read alongside (they are on my current reading list), one for Joshua, the other for, well, near the end.

    The Violence of Scripture

    Raising Hell