Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tower of Babel

Genesis 11 opens with the well known story of the Tower of Babel. Basically, it tries to explain why people all over the world speak different languages. It seems that at some point between Noah and Abraham, the people tried to build a city with a tower that would reach up to heaven.
But rather than snickering at the impossibility of this feat, we then have God becoming seriously concerned that they might pull it off. And thus deciding that it would be a bad thing, he sets out to screw up their plans by “confusing their language” and scattering them to the four corners of the earth.
I find the quote from God to be particularly interesting:
The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
First off, that sounds like a heavenly endorsement of a one-world government. If we all cooperate and work together then nothing will be impossible for us. Wow. But for some reason God didn’t like this and takes steps to prevent it from happening.
Today, the story is seen as a warning against man becoming too arrogant and trying to be too much like God. But Biblical literalists and creationists have taken the story at face value even though it flies in the face of everything we know about linguistic history.
University of Texas Professor Robert Pennock has authored an excellent book - Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism - that shreds most of the creationist musings on this subject.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

More long lineages

We next go into another long lineage of descendants of the sons of Noah - Shem, Ham and Japheth.
But first, let me go back briefly to Genesis 9 and comment on a famous passage that has long served as the Biblical underpinnings for the death penalty.
After God blesses Noah, he announces that Noah and his descendants will have dominion over the earth and all the animals and plants therein. However, without explanation, he also throws in a caveat about not eating meat that still has lifeblood in it. Is this another test like the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden?
And then, almost as an afterthought, God throws in that he will also demand an accounting from any animals that take man's lifeblood. And then as an afterthought to an afterthought, he throws in that he will likewise punish any man who kills another man and then makes this pronouncement:
“Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made man.”
So there you have it. Shed the blood of man and you will have your blood shed by man. Presumably then, the person who sheds your blood in payment for the first killing will be exempt from the rule, but that is not made clear. And we will see time and time again how this rule is not followed later on in the Bible.
Furthermore, I would argue that this rule is superseded by Christ in the New Testament when he stops a mob from killing a prostitute (a capital offense at the time) and later becomes a victim of a state-sponsored execution.
And speaking of not following rules, what about God’s announcement in Genesis 6:3 that he will no longer abide men living past the age of 120? Because shortly afterward we are told that Noah lived to be 950. Was he grandfathered in?
And while Noah’s children and immediate descendants don’t live as long as the immediate descendants of Adam, they don’t come anywhere close to kicking off at the 120 mark. Most live to be well into their 400s.
But we get two separate accountings of the descendants of Noah, first in Genesis 10 we get a full rundown of all the tribes and their links to the three sons, and then again in Genesis 11 with more detail we get the specific lineage that takes us from Shem to Abram. This becomes important later as we learn from the Sunday School song that “Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham.....”

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Covenants and curses

It would have been nice if the Noah story had ended with the beautiful image of the rainbow and God’s promise to never destroy the earth again.
Unfortunately, towards the end of Genesis 9 we have this awful story of the curse of Canaan which I could very well have done without.
It seems that after getting off the ark, one of the first things Noah did was to get completely drunk, take all his clothes off and then pass out in his tent naked. Noah’s son Ham then had the bad luck to stumble upon his father in this condition. Ham’s mistake at this point, supposedly, was to go and tell his brothers what he saw. Thus forewarned, the brothers then enter the tent backwards with a blanket over their shoulders and cover their father’s nakedness without looking at him.
The next part of the story is so astoundingly appalling by today’s standards as to be nonsensical. When Noah finally awakens from his drunken stupor and learns that his son Ham saw him in that condition he reacts by cursing Ham’s son (and Noah’s grandson) Canaan.

“Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers.”

So, even though Noah is the one who gets drunk and makes a complete ass of himself; and even though Ham is the one who offends Noah by seeing him in this condition, it is the innocent Canaan and all of his descendents who must suffer Noah’s wrath for all eternity.
Horrible. Just horrible.
So naturally I reject this story outright. I refuse to believe that it happened this way. I think it is a slander on poor Noah meant to explain why some people are enslaved later on in history. I think a lot of the stories in the Old Testament are parables meant to explain certain conditions that existed at the time the Bible was written.
Telling people who are slaves that they are slaves because God wills it was probably a good way to keep them in line. But I reject the idea that God ever intended for men to enslave one another.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Flood

I’ve always had a kind of love-hate relationship with the story of Noah’s Ark. It’s a great story, no doubt, and entices people at a very early age. It is a favorite to teach children in Sunday School classes. My kids have a wall hanging showing animals coming off the ark hanging in their bedroom and they have numerous ark-related toys.
But at the same time it is a terrible story that I think puts God in a bad light. Other than being told that wickedness had spread across the world, we don’t really get what God was so upset about. What evil things did the people do to merit such harsh punishment? The Bible does not say. And why wipe out all the animals and birds too? Talk about overkill!
How are we supposed to know how to behave ourselves if we don’t know what the people did wrong? And what did Noah do that was so right? So far, obeying God seems to be the only thing on which to base personal ethics. Do what God wants - shower him with praise and appropriate sacrifices - and you might be OK. Don’t do what God wants and prepare to be harshly punished. And determining what God wanted you to do must have been difficult since at this point we have not yet had the Ten Commandments or any of the prophets.
Up to this point and immediately afterward, I find it difficult to “like” God in these stories. God comes across much of the time as being very vane, petty, egotistical, vindictive, cruel and callous. No doubt he shared many of the same characteristics of people back then as well as today.
I used to wonder about the term “God-fearing”, but it seems clear in the Old Testament days that “fear” was a big part of the reason why people chose to worship God in the first place. Not so much because they loved God, but because they were afraid of what would happen if they did not.
And while Noah and the Ark is a great story, it does not make a lot of sense in the context of what we have just read. If it took God only six days to create the earth, why is it going to take him 180 days to wipe it all out? And why go through this elaborate ordeal of building a huge boat and collecting two of every animal if God can simply create all the animals in one fell swoop all in one day like he did in Chapter 1?
Young Earth Creationists have latched on to the story of the great flood to help prop up their belief in a planet that is only 6,000 years old. By their reasoning, if one can call it that, the flood waters somehow altered things in such a way as to only make it look as if the world is billions of years old rather than just a few thousand. Nevermind that the ancient Egyptians living at the same time as when the flood was supposed to have taken place appear to have been unaffected and have no record of it. However, it is entirely reasonable to believe that there was some kind of regional flooding event upon which the Noah story is based. But whether the story of Noah was a historical reality or an entertaining parable should not be the deciding factor in one’s religious faith.
I personally believe that much if not all of the Genesis stories were just that - stories, parables and myths that taught important lessons and gave people a sense of their relationship with God. In those early days, I think people still had a very child-like perception of God that will become more mature by the time we get to the New Testament.

Sons of God

What are the Nephilim? This is new to me. At the beginning of Genesis 6, there is this bizarre and all-too brief reference to the Nephilim, also referred to as the “sons of God,” who married the “daughters of men” and had children who grew up to become the “heroes of old, men of renown.”
It sounds like the authors of the Old Testament picked that bit up straight out of Greek mythology (aka Hercules). A quick Google search reveals much speculation about what this passage meant. Some think it refers to fallen angels who mated with human females and created a race of giants and superheroes like Samson and Goliath.
The passage also says that they “were on the earth in those days—and also afterward” giving the impression that they somehow survived the flood since they are referenced again later on in the Bible. In the middle of the passage, we also have God suddenly deciding to limit the maximum age of man to 120 years, so no more Methuzalahs after that. But why did God do that and was it supposed to have something to do with the Nephilim? One can only speculate.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Long Lineage

Genesis 5 gives us a long lineage of people linking Adam through his third son Seth all the way to Noah. Why we need all this information, especially in light of the pending flood is not at all clear.
What is most interesting about the passage is the chronological ages it claims for each individual ranging from 777 years for Lamech (Noah’s father) to 969 years for the long-lived Methuselah (Noah’s grandfather).
And there was also Enoch who only lived to the tender age of 365 because he “walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.” Yikes!!!
Biblical literalists have taken these ages at face value, added them all up, and determined that Adam and Eve lived approximately 6,000 years ago. This is what is known today as Young Earth Creationism and it presupposes that dinosaurs and humans were around at the same time since they couldn’t have been around any earlier.
Others have speculated that there was some misinterpretation in the scriptures and that months was mistranslated to read years, in which case the ages would be more reasonable with Enoch going away with God at age 30 and Methuselah living to the ripe old age of 80.
But that would also mean for the literalists that the Earth is even younger than the 6,000 years they already granted it.
But other Biblical scholars have suggested that these Old Testament chronologies were never meant to be a complete record of everyone born in every generation, but rather a quick reference that skips untold generations and focuses on key individuals throughout history.
Either way, it certainly skips over all the women. So far in the Good Book Eve is the only woman mentioned by name with the rest being dismissed as just “wife” or “daughter”.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Cain and Abel

Adam raised a Cain. That's a line from a great Bruce Springsteen song. It makes the point that even Adam, the first man created by God, was unable to raise perfect children.
But why was Cain so bad? I mean, here we are not more than a page or two into the Good Book and we already have our first killing. What happened? What went wrong?
Well, it seems that the problem was jealousy over God's favor. Cain was a farmer while Abel was a rancher. And when they made their offerings to God, God decided for whatever reason to play favorites by rejecting Cain's offering of fruits and vegetables while smiling upon Abel's offering of a fatted calf.
So what are we supposed to make of that? Is God a bloodthirsty carnivore? Why did he play favorites? Was it another test? One that we would fail yet again?
Immediately after rejecting Cain's offering, God spoke to him giving him somewhat of a pep talk and warning him against sin. But what was so sinful about what Cain did? Why was his offering rejected?
But regardless of what God said, it only made Cain more angry because he next took Abel into a field and whacked him. Then, later on, when the apparently non-omnicient God finally finds out, Cain delivers one of the first classic lines from the Bible: "Am I My Brother's Keeper?"
So God lays down another harsh punishment causing him to be doubly exiled.
At this point we get to meet Cain's wife, and one might wonder where did she come from? And what about all those people that Cain is afraid will try to kill him once he is forced to wander the land?
So was Adam not really the first man if there are already all of these people out there populating the earth? Eve's third-born Seth hasn't even been announced at this point, Abel is dead and Cain is afraid of what the Others might do to him. So apparently we are not getting the full and complete story here.
But, as it turns out, we won't have to worry about these other people for long because very shortly they will all be drowned.

In the beginning...

I think everyone is familiar with the creation story in the Bible. What may surprise people, however, is that there are actually two distinct creation stories that don’t particularly agree with one another. We generally just mesh these two together and overlook the inconsistencies. But when you are trying to read the Bible straight through in the context of it being a literal document, then problems start to pop up.
The first creation story is the one that sets out the six days timeframe with man being one of the last creations on the sixth day. Up until that point, God seems to be creating things on a grand scale - all the plants one day, all the animals the next, and so on. It is not spelled out very clearly, but it seems that on the sixth day God creates a whole bunch of men and women all at once and tells them to go forth and multiply and rein over the animals of the earth.
But then when we come to Chapter 2 it’s like we hit rewind and start over. Now suddenly we are back to a barren earth with no plants and no water. And this time one of the first things God does is to make Adam out of the dust.
I’ve always thought it was interesting in the way that the creation of Adam is described, especially in light of the fundamentalist views of abortion opponents that life begins at conception. That is because God waits until after he has formed Adam’s body out of the mud and dirt before he breathes life into him. So Adam is not “alive” until after his body has been fully formed. Likewise with Eve who is made using one of Adam’s ribs. God does not breathe life into the dirt and then make Adam. Nor does he breathe life into the rib before making Eve. So, based on a literal interpretation of the Genesis story, one might assume that life begins at birth, when a child takes its first breath, and not at conception.
But back to the second creation story, we next have God placing Adam in the Garden of Eden which is then described in some detail including a whole paragraph on four rivers that converge in Eden. Then God gives Adam the tour of the garden along with the dire warning that he is NOT to eat from the tree of knowledge on pain of death. Interestingly enough, Eve is not even around at this point to hear the warning. Because the next thing that happens is God determining that Adam needs a helper to work with him while tending the garden. Here the story gets a little strange because then God goes and starts showing Adam all the animals as potential companions. It is not entirely clear to me whether God is creating the animals at this point (which would be inconsistent with the first creation story in Chapter 1) or if they were created earlier. But only after all of these animals are rejected by Adam does God decide to take a more serious step - putting Adam to sleep and then performing some kind of holy surgery to remove a rib bone which he then uses to fashion Eve.
Of course, we all know what happens next. Eve is tempted by the snake to eat fruit from the tree of knowledge and then she gets Adam to do the same. The newly knowledgable Adam and Eve are immediately shamed by their nakedness and seek to hide when God comes back to the garden looking for them. (Where did God go? Isn’t he supposed to be omnicient and all-knowing?)
Once God learns that his children have disobeyed him the accusations start to fly - Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the snake and then everyone suffers harsh, eternal punishments. The snake and all of its future progeny is forced to go legless and crawl in the dirt. Eve is cursed with painful child births. And Adam now has to toil the land and struggle to get good crops whereas before it was apparently quite easy. And they are all banished from the Garden of Eden and cast out into the rest of the world.
OK, so a few questions. If God made the world and determined that it was good, why is it considered punishment for Adam and Eve to have to go out into it?
Didn’t the snake tell the truth in that Eve would not die if she ate from the tree of knowledge? And, consequently, did God tell a lie?
Furthermore, doesn’t God share some of the responsibility for “the fall of man,” since he seems to have set the whole situation up with the forbidden fruit in the center of the garden and then by creating the crafty snake to provide the temptation? Was it a test? And why does all mankind have to suffer and not just Adam and Eve? It hardly seems fair.
But this won’t be the first time that things don’t seem to be fair in the Bible, especially the Old Testament.


I attend University United Methodist Church in San Antonio, Texas. Recently, the sunday school class that my wife and I attend has decided to read the entire Bible from cover to cover as part of the class. So I have decided to start a blog where I can post my thoughts and comments as I attempt to pursue this reading plan with the class.

Although I have been going to church my entire life (I’m 45), I have never read the Bible in full. So this should be an interesting and educational experience.
I consider myself now, and always have, to be a Christian. But I am not what one might call a “conservative Christian” or a fundamentalist. Instead, I take a very philosophical approach to religion, refusing to be locked in to any particular church doctrines.

I am looking forward to the project and since I don’t always get to speak my mind in class, I will use this blog as an outlet where I can hash out my thoughts.