Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Silly Parts of the Bible, Part I

I've read the bible. I spent twelve years going to Sunday School. I had to sit, stand, and kneel through countless masses, completely bored out of my skull. I was even Confirmed as a Catholic, for whatever that's worth. So I've earned the right to say this out loud: There are many silly parts of the bible. No serious person could claim otherwise. Try as they might, anyone worth anything would agree that there are some silly parts of the bible. I'm not trying to ridicule them or anything. I would just like an honest acknowledgement that some parts of the bible are a bit loony. I'm not necessarily saying that this casts any doubt on any other particular parts of the bible. I'm just saying that these particular parts are silly. And this is simply undeniable.

With that in mind, I am going to attempt to give some kind of overview of these parts in a series titled "Silly Parts of the Bible". It's quite possible that I'll never write another one of these again, so don't cry if this doesn't make it as a recurring series.

For tonight's episode, I'll be shooting fish in a barrel by reading from our beloved Deuteronomy. For anyone who missed it, I've gone over this turf before with This Gay Thing back in April; but this time, I wanted to go ahead with a full focus on this crazy nightmare of a book. But before doing so, let me just say that I really am a true believer in Moral Relativity; as is everyone else, whether they acknowledge it or not. I'm not talking about the childish "Anything Goes" version of Moral Relativity that the political parsons spout off about, blaming liberals for 9/11 and child-raping priests; both incidents involving Moral Absolutists going a bit haywire, I might add. I'm talking about the idea that different people in different situations use a different code of ethics, depending upon the situation they are in. That's what Moral Relativity means. It's just a basic acknowledgement that there are no catch-all rules and that every action must be judged based upon the intent and situation of the actor. This is a truth that everyone inherently knows and uses. "There, but for the grace of God, goes I" is a familiar phrase that comes to mind.

After all, if a group is trapped on a mountain peak or desert island, we might be a tad bit more understanding of them for eating one of their dead, than if it had been a Sunday BBQ in the Hamptons. That's just a fact. And there's a different set of rules that apply when you're camping in the wilderness than when you're at your local Piggly Wiggly. Foraging, for example, is considered a big no-no at the supermarket. Everyone knows that. And curse words which might get you labeled "Immoral" if used in a bible study or kindergarten classroom might later win you admission to an exclusive club or activity. That's only natural, and everyone works by these rules.

And that idea can certainly be extended to all morality. After all, the difference between "killing" someone and "murdering" them is based entirely on the circumstances. And that applies to everything else. And as we shall discover this evening, the laws laid out in Deuteronomy are not the kind of thing that any modern society should adopt. Not only do they seem absurd, arbitrary, and cruel; many of them will land you straight in jail. Even the Honorable Roy Moore might disagree with you if you pitilessly cut off the hand of a dude's wife because she grabbed your testicles when you were fighting her husband. You can quote Deuteronomy 24:11 all you want, but the good judge just won't have it. Or at least we should certainly hope he won't.

A Brief Summary

As a brief summary for you damn dirty atheists out there who don't already know about Deuty, here's the description that it gives itself: "This book records Moses' address to the people of Israel when they were camped in the valley of the Arabah in the wilderness of Moab, east of the Jordan River. The speech was given on February 15, forty years after the people of Israel left Mount Horeb--though it takes only eleven days to travel by foot from Mount Horeb to Kadesh-barnea, going by way of Mount Seir! (skipping ahead) Here, then, is Moses' address to Israel, stating all the laws God had commanded him to pass on to them:" This might not be exactly what your bible says, but I'm just quoting from my Catholic Living Bible, which is a "Thought-for-Thought Translation". Much better than that crusty old King James stuff that's harder to read than Shakespeare. And if you don't have a good bible, get one. I got this as a Confirmation present from my Confirmation sponsor, and it even has my name inscribed on the cover in gold; so I know it's got to be good.

It goes on and states a bunch of laws. And to give some further context, here's what Isaac Asimov has to say about it in Asimov's Guide to the Bible. And if I haven't mentioned it before, Asimov's Guide is an absolute must-read. I can't stress enough how much you need to read that book cover to cover a few times before you say anything about the bible. I'm serious. It's that important. You don't have to read it all in one sitting, and I actually recommend against it; but if you can understand the full thing, you'll be a much better person. I guarantee it! If you're too cheap to buy it, most libraries have a copy. You won't regret it.

According to Isaac: The book does not advance Israelite history but purports to be the record of a series of addresses given by Moses on the eve of his death and of the Israelite entry into Canaan. These addresses recapitulate the events of the Exodus and restate key portions of the law as it was received from Sinai.

But Asimov casts doubt on the idea that these were actually Moses' laws. It is more likely that these were the cumulative laws, as of 621 B.C.; which is when they were discovered and made into the law of the land. After all, Moses was born about 600 years earlier. Are we really supposed to believe that no one thought to change any of these laws in over 600 years? They didn't even try to muck with this thing once? Seems unlikely to me. And look at Deuty 24:11 above. Are they really trying to tell us that that was part of the law that God passed to Moses? Really? I'm sorry, but that really kind of sounds like something they came up with on the fly. Some woman grabbed a dude's testicles during a fight, and they came up with a rule that said her hand had to come off. And frankly, I don't necessarily blame them for that. Some things are always taboo.

Or take Deuty 22:10, about not plowing with an ox and a donkey harnessed together; or 22:11, which warns about not wearing clothes which were made of two kinds of thread, like wool and linen. I know the Lord is all-knowing and everything, but that really sounds a bit on the micro-managing side of things. Call me a heretic, but I don't think these were actually Moses laws. I think someone might have added them at some point in the 600 years before they were given to Josiah and he made them the law of all Judah. I don't think that diminishes their importance, I just want a bit of perspective on this stuff.

But back to Asimov: This came at a time when there was periodic strife between the temporal and spiritual power in the kingdom and when there had been two recent reigns that were disastrous for the Yahvists. On the other hand, there was now an impressionable young king on the throne, Josiah.
Perhaps it occurred to some among the priesthood to prepare an organized exposition of the laws which, in Yahvist eyes, ought to govern the king and the people, writing into it a clear spiritual supremacy. This writing, as the "book of the law" was then providentially "discovered" in the Temple and brought to the king. The doctrine, placed in the mouth of Moses, treated as of great antiquity, and put forward most eloquently, was bound to impress the king.
It did, and the priestly plan succeeded in full. Until then, Yahvism had been a minority sect, often persecuted, and sometimes in danger of being wiped out altogether. Now, for the first time, it assumed an ascendancy, and, thanks to the enthusiastic co-operation of Josiah, it was made the official religion of the land.
There had been backsliding after Josiah's death, but Yahvism had been made powerful enough to meet the challenge of the Exile, which followed soon after. The Yahvistic priests, during the Exile, as they edited the old traditions and codified the laws, incorporated Deuteronomy virtually intact into the Hexateuch.
After the Exile, Yahvism, the minority sect, had become Judaism, the national religion of the people. Through its daughter religions, Christianity and Islam, Yahvism came to dominate the religious life of well over a billion people in the time that has passed since then. If Deuteronomy is dealt with briefly in this book because it is not primarily concerned with history, that does not mean it may not be the most important part of the bible in some ways; or even the most important piece of writing in the world.

And thus some context on Deuteronomy.

Ah fuck it, this was only meant to be a fun little segment pointing out a few obviously silly parts in the bible, and I went ahead and wrote a whole fucking post. That's my old liberal demon always trying to give context and understanding to even the most childish and entertaining endeavors.

Oh well, I don't feel like cheapening this post by going ahead with my original idea, so I guess I'll just end it here. Maybe I'll get around to writing this stuff after all, though this is actually my second try at it, and I just can't seem to get the hang of it. I'm just trying to have a little fun, but I can't seem to stop writing. So maybe you'll see the piece I was planning to write, or maybe you won't. I think I'm giving up on it for now, but if you want to do some independent reading, find Deuteronomy in your bible and scan through it randomly. You'll find stuff there that makes Charlie Manson almost sound reasonable. Just try it, it's fun.

I'll just leave you with this nugget, found at Deuteronomy 21:18-21:
"If a man has a stubborn, rebellious son who will not obey his father or mother, even though they punish him, then his father and mother shall take him before the elders of the city and declare, "This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious and won't obey; he is a worthless drunkard." Then the men of the city shall stone him to death. In this way you shall put away this evil from among you, and all the young men of Israel will hear about what happened and will be afraid."

Once again, you can try this one out on your local Ten Commandments toting judge, but you'll probably be a little hard-pressed at making it stick. Even the elders are a little reluctant about the whole "Stoning the Drunkard" method of child-rearing these days, and often don't even put their hearts into it when they're pummelling your son to death with large rocks. But maybe that's just the old devil Moral Relativity sucking the life out of them. Maybe if we could put a little less emphasis on rock & roll and sex, and a little more emphasis on family values and Absolutist Morality, we'll have more successful stonings of our stubborn and rebellious drunks. And God will surely smile on America then. Or smite us. You never can tell.

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