Yes, I have moved beyond Sophisticated Theology™ to the horses’s mouth: the King James Bible (and believe me, it’s embarrassing to sit on a plane and be observed reading the thing). I’ve read sections of it over the years, but am now required (by myself) to start at the beginning and plow right though. I wonder how many visitors here have actually read the damn thing. And although I dislike it, I feel that in some way I’ll benefit from it, for I’ll get to see how contrived, how man-made, and how truly stifling the book is to the human spirit. And I hope I’ll better understand the delusions that afflict my countrymen.
The book is not pleasant—at least 150 pages in. And when I think that I have 950 pages to go, my heart sinks to my metatarsals.
I know that Richard Dawkins and others tout the Bible’s beautiful poetry, and indeed, there is some, but I wonder how much of that poetry was in the original, and how much was value added by King James’s group of translators. Now I’ve read only 150 pages (to Numbers 23) but there is precious little poetry in there. In fact, almost none. If you regard the Bible as a book of fiction, one to be treasured for its beauty, you’d put it down before you ever got through Genesis. No, if one must read the Bible, read it not for the beauty of its prose but as a work of fiction that has deeply influenced our culture: as a way of understanding our enemies. If someone found this book in a used bookstore and it hadn’t become the basis of a religion, they would not prize it as a wonderful story. I’d love to see it reviewed purely as a work of fiction, without any religious connotations.
Here is my take so far:
- The early part of the Bible is unbearably tedious. Besides the long lists of genealogies, heads of clans, and so forth, there are excruciatingly painful descriptions of how God wants the ark of the tabernacle to be built. Stuff like this, for example (from Exodus 26):
1 Moreover thou shalt make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen, and blue, and purple, and scarlet: with cherubims of cunning work shalt thou make them.
2 The length of one curtain shall be eight and twenty cubits, and the breadth of one curtain four cubits: and every one of the curtains shall have one measure.
3 The five curtains shall be coupled together one to another; and other five curtains shall be coupled one to another.
4 And thou shalt make loops of blue upon the edge of the one curtain from the selvedge in the coupling; and likewise shalt thou make in the uttermost edge of another curtain, in the coupling of the second.
5 Fifty loops shalt thou make in the one curtain, and fifty loops shalt thou make in the edge of the curtain that is in the coupling of the second; that the loops may take hold one of another.
6 And thou shalt make fifty taches of gold, and couple the curtains together with the taches: and it shall be one tabernacle.
7 And thou shalt make curtains of goats’ hair to be a covering upon the tabernacle: eleven curtains shalt thou make.
8 The length of one curtain shall be thirty cubits, and the breadth of one curtain four cubits: and the eleven curtains shall be all of one measure.
9 And thou shalt couple five curtains by themselves, and six curtains by themselves, and shalt double the sixth curtain in the forefront of the tabernacle.
10 And thou shalt make fifty loops on the edge of the one curtain that is outmost in the coupling, and fifty loops in the edge of the curtain which coupleth the second.
11 And thou shalt make fifty taches of brass, and put the taches into the loops, and couple the tent together, that it may be one.
12 And the remnant that remaineth of the curtains of the tent, the half curtain that remaineth, shall hang over the backside of the tabernacle.
13 And a cubit on the one side, and a cubit on the other side of that which remaineth in the length of the curtains of the tent, it shall hang over the sides of the tabernacle on this side and on that side, to cover it.
14 And thou shalt make a covering for the tent of rams’ skins dyed red, and a covering above of badgers’ skins.
15 And thou shalt make boards for the tabernacle of shittim wood standing up.
16 Ten cubits shall be the length of a board, and a cubit and a half shall be the breadth of one board.
17 Two tenons shall there be in one board, set in order one against another: thus shalt thou make for all the boards of the tabernacle.
18 And thou shalt make the boards for the tabernacle, twenty boards on the south side southward.
And that’s just a sample. This anal description of how God wants his words encased goes on for pages! Equally tedious are the many parts where God orders sacrifices to himself, and gives minute instructions about how the various parts of an ox should be disposed of: the head, the fat, the dung, and so on. It’s not good literature—not at all.
Plus there’s stuff like this (from Numbers, Chapter 13)
1And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
2Send thou men, that they may search the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel: of every tribe of their fathers shall ye send a man, every one a ruler among them.
3And Moses by the commandment of the LORD sent them from the wilderness of Paran: all those men were heads of the children of Israel.
4And these were their names: of the tribe of Reuben, Shammua the son of Zaccur.
5Of the tribe of Simeon, Shaphat the son of Hori.
6Of the tribe of Judah, Caleb the son of Jephunneh.
7Of the tribe of Issachar, Igal the son of Joseph.
8Of the tribe of Ephraim, Oshea the son of Nun.
9Of the tribe of Benjamin, Palti the son of Raphu.
10Of the tribe of Zebulun, Gaddiel the son of Sodi.
11Of the tribe of Joseph, namely, of the tribe of Manasseh, Gaddi the son of Susi.
12Of the tribe of Dan, Ammiel the son of Gemalli.
13Of the tribe of Asher, Sethur the son of Michael.
14Of the tribe of Naphtali, Nahbi the son of Vophsi.
15Of the tribe of Gad, Geuel the son of Machi.
16 These are the names of the men which Moses sent to spy out the land. And Moses called Oshea the son of Nun Jehoshua.
- God is a horrible megalomaniac. I don’t get this at all. He’s GOD, for crying out loud: omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good. Why the hell does he need people to praise him all the time, and why does he kill those who fail to do so? If he’s perfect, he wouldn’t need that kind of constant reinforcement. For example, some of the Israelis, wandering in the desert, are getting sick of eating manna all the time, and kvetch about not having meat. So what does God do? He makes it rain quails—thousands of luscious birds falling from the sky. And then, when the people bite into those toothsome birds, God smites them with the plague for their lust, killing many of them. What? They deserve to die because they want some real food? (Numbers 11:31-33).
As well all know, God is a horrible taskmaster, and mandates death for anyone who works on the Sabbath. This is what happens to some poor schlemiel who wanted wood on Saturday (Numbers, Chapter 15):
32And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day.
33And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation.
34And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him.
35And the LORD said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp.
36 And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the LORD commanded Moses.
What kind of God is that? How can anyone derive morality from such a thing?
The most incongruous passage is this (Numbers 14:18):
The LORD is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.
Yeah, really great mercy. . .
- A lot of it makes no sense. I was amused at Moses’s repeated attempts to get Pharaoh to let the Jews leave Egypt. He repeatedly asks for the exit visa, Pharaoh repeatedly refuses, and so God sends frogs, or boils, or locusts, to afflict the Egyptians. Each time Pharaoh says, “Okay, I give in—you can leave.” But then God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and makes him renege on his promise. The plagues go on, a new and horrible one each time, and each time Pharaoh reneges on his pledge because God has “hardened his heart”. Eventually, after all the Egyptian firstborn are killed in The Great Passover, he gives in for good, but tons of damage has already been done to the Egyptian people and their land. My question is this: why didn’t God soften Pharaoh’s heart so that he’d let the Jews leave? That would have avoided a lot of trouble. This is not a believable plot.
- It’s plainly man-made. For one to take the words literally is unbelievably moronic. Besides the numerous miracles, the story of Noah’s Ark, which makes no sense, there’s the fact that people live to really old ages then. Moses made it to 120, Noah lived to the ripe old age of 950. Do Christians really buy that? Remember that the average life span at the time was certainly less than 40 years.
I know I’m in for some punishment (perhaps by readers as well!), but I’m determined to finish. Perhaps things will get better at Psalms and Proverbs. I’ve already read the four Gospels, so I know what’s to come there (spoiler: Jesus dies), but I’m told that Revelation is insane.
No, you shouldn’t read the Bible because of its poetry. The good bits, I predict, will be far outweighed by the stupid and boring bits. If you want pure good, read Dubliners or Crime and Punishment. You should read the Bible just so you can wonder what all the fuss was about.
Those of you who have read this tome: weigh in with the parts you like or dislike, or your experiences in reading it.