Reading the Bible: Year 1

Last year, my New Years resolution was to read the Bible cover to cover, one chapter per day. Starting with Genesis 1 on January 1, I’d gotten up to 1 Chronicles 26 by the end of the year – from Creation to the first mention of Satan by name. It was the easiest and most enjoyable resolution I’ve ever held to, though I did not expect it at the time.

Raised Catholic, of course I had read the Bible before – approved bits and pieces of it, anyway. During my years away from the Church, I became adept at looking up verses to support whatever (usually heretical) position I wanted to take. In particular, I quickly developed the habit of actually looking up references preachers would give out after discovering that most TV evangelists pulled them out of context, interpreting them to fit their own theology just as often as Catholic priests did.

I had only read Genesis all the way through once before. Ironically, it was as a comic book illustrated by Robert Crumb (which I highly recommend). The problem was that the rich Shakespearean language of King James is beautiful and evocative, but impossible to read as a story. Just getting through the “thees” and “thous” was a chore.

My solution was to start with a modern Jewish translation of the Torah published in 1962. For one thing, I wanted a conservative Jewish perspective on what is the essential core of the faith. And secondly, I wanted an easy to read but accurate translation. After that, I have continued with the Revised English Bible, which is also quite readable, and for variant readings, regularly consult a parallel Bible.

And what a story it is! The Bible is an epic unmatched in world literature. Though it deals only with a small group of people – the patriarchs and ancestors of the Jews – the rise of civilization can be sensed in the background, and the individual stories themselves are fascinating.

What most interests me as a mystic, however, is the evolution of God, and not just human concepts of him. Jehovah starts out appearing much as a man in the Garden; only after sin enters the world does he start to take on the stern, powerful aspects we associate with divinity. Throughout the tales of the patriarchs, as mankind grows more sinful and lifetimes decline, God displays an ever-more intense, impatient, and intolerant aura. The gloves come off with Noah and the Flood, which show his wrath, but God continues to appear as more-or-less human with Abraham and his family until Moses. He is consistent, however, always going on about covenants and the evils of idolatry. And the patriarchs are not given any choice – when God wants an agreement, the men cannot argue, only agree.

But with the Exodus, God is revealed to be alien – that is, not much like us at all (more on that in future posts). Moreover, he is shown as righteous beyond human capabilities and utterly unyielding. He condemns his faithful servant Moses to dying in the desert for striking a rock twice in irritation to get water, for instance, instead of simply commanding it to come forth (Numbers 20:12). It’s easy to see why the Gnostics thought he was an evil false creator.

Yet once he gets his Chosen People into the Promised Land, God goes away. He leaves the conquest entirely in the hands of angels and is gone, well, God knows where. Maybe there was a situation in an Arp Galaxy somewhere that required his immediate attention. In any case, the timespan of Judges was Israel’s Wild West period where as the book said, “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 17:6)

For instance, a man named Micah had silver idols made and hired his own priests without any condemnation, although the images were stolen by a war-party of Danites for their own uses (Judges 17-18). No fire from heaven fell; no fierce denunciation came – possibly because there were no prophets at the time.

When God finally returns, there are no further physical manifestations. Only in the form of the Holy Spirit does he interact with humans until Christ. It begins quietly after Samuel’s mother dedicates him to the Lord from before birth. Sammy’s raised by a (pretty much worthless) priest and becomes the second prophet, the first since Moses. But then, through him, prophecy really takes off. Before you know there are prophets spouting off everywhere, especially under Nathan.

At one point, David’s wife Michal hides the image of a household god in David’s bed so he can escape her father (1 Samuel 19:13-17). (Yes, God’s fair-haired favorite lad had his own life-sized idol, something surely not mentioned any more often in Protestant Sunday Schools than it was in my Catholic religion class, which is to say, never.) Shortly afterwards, the Spirit proved contagious, taking over several groups of soldiers sent to fetch Samuel, even King Saul: “And he too stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel, and lay naked all that day and all that night. Hence it is said, ‘Is Saul also among the prophets?'” (1 Samuel 19:24)

It’s only later, after the Temple is finally built, that things settle down a bit. But the prophets are not priests, and they seem somewhat at odds with the priestly class. Without a doubt, the greatest of all prophets since Moses is Elijah, but the Bible says very little about his origin. His deeds, though, are quite well-known – especially his fiery smackdown of 450 priests of Baal in a contest to see who can call down fire from Heaven (1 Kings 18) and his later flaming of two groups of soldiers come to fetch him (2 Kings 1). Interestingly, Elijah not only knew that God was going to haul him off to Heaven in a whirlwind, but his successor Elisha was also prepared and in fact, a company of 50 prophets from Jericho followed them to witness it (2 Kings 2).

I’m not sure what we are to make of all this, other than the spiritual world and prophecy is a lot weirder and magickal than we modern rationalists tend to think. But it is clear that above all else, the Bible is a record of mankind’s encounters with a non-human intelligence of the highest order. The whole point of it is not to build up Hebrew nationalism which is only a means to an end: to provide a home on Earth for God. Rather, the Bible seems to have been written to carefully chronicle the detailed interactions of the Spirit with the world of humanity. The story from start to finish seems to be that of the slow withdrawal of God over time from his creation – and warning of his return.

The picture is intriguing and raises many unanswerable questions. Did God withdraw due to human sin? Why is death the result of sin from the start – and how is it that the blood of an animal can “cover” sins? What is God’s relationship to other gods/goddesses? Why is he so concerned with bloodlines? Why go through all that effort?

Beats me. But there are a lot of things I have noticed that are worth considering in the months to come which I plan to write about here. Stay tuned. Though I’ve read plenty of spoilers, I can’t wait to see how the story ends! 😉