The Bible for Dummies

So, a couple of weeks ago, I had to return my copy of the Bible to the library because I ran out of renewals. Unlike the last time this happened, I couldn’t find another copy of the exact same Bible on the shelf. I wanted to keep reading the same version (NRSV), so I decided I’d just wait until the next time I came to the library to get one (probably the exact same copy I’d just returned, hehe). Basically the same thing happened with my copy of the Qur’an, except that I couldn’t even find the shelf with the Qur’ans on it. That bothered me because obviously I’d been able to find it before, and I knew I was looking in the right part of the library. Well, I guess it’s a lot harder to find a book when the various available copies take up at most one shelf, rather than several bookshelves. I did find it on a later trip to the library, but the only copies there were the one I’d checked out before (which I wasn’t sure how well I liked) and a handful of copies which were very large and heavy. Honestly, the most important factor in picking out a version of a holy book, to me (aside from obvious things like it being in a language that I am fluent in), is that it be comfortable to hold in my hands, so it is easy to carry around and read. So, I decided not to get a copy of the Qur’an from the library on that particular visit. I also passed on checking out a copy of the Bible because I already had several books checked out, and I hadn’t finished any of them, yet.

Anyway, having returned both my copy of the Bible and of the Qur’an without checking out replacement copies, I decided to get some different books from the library. I skimmed through an interesting book on Wicca but ending up checking out a book about Shinto, a book about Hinduism, a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, and a copy of The Bible for Dummies. The Bible for Dummies had some information about where the Bible comes from, and that was what I was most interested in. I finally got around to poking through The Bible for Dummies today, and I was somewhat disappointed. Although it had some good information, I didn’t learn as much as I had hoped about the origins of the Bible and the various translations available. I think what I really want is a more detailed, more scholarly work on the subject, as opposed to an introductory volume which only dedicates one chapter to the subject.

The section they wrote about how to choose which translation of the Bible to read got me thinking, though. They talked about literal vs. paraphrased versions, among other things, and their primary focus was on which type of translation might be more suited for which sort of reason for reading the Bible. The generic reasons they offered as being common ones to read the Bible didn’t really match up with my reasons for reading it. What exactly do I want to get out of reading the Bible, anyway? In my project of learning about religion, I suppose there are at least three things I am looking for. One is reading various holy texts for myself to see what they actually say and to form my own opinions and ideas about them. Another is to read about religious people’s own views of their religion. In this context, believers’ interpretations of their holy text(s) are more interesting than the texts themselves (for religions which have holy texts). The last thing I am looking for is outsider views of the religion and its adherents. It’s really easy to find outsider views on, say, Islam in a majority Christian nation (books on Islam written from outsider perspectives absolutely dominate my local library’s shelves in the section on Islam), but it’s a lot harder to find outsider views on Christianity in said majority Christian nation. For instance, I found dozens of books explaining the basics of Islam without assuming any prior knowledge, but I couldn’t find any similar 101 type books about Christianity.

I guess I was hoping I’d found something of a Christianity 101 book when I found The Bible for Dummies, but it’s mostly just a Bible 101 book. The majority of the book seems to be a Cliff’s Notes version of the Bible which also explains various common interpretations of (and even objections to) Bible passages. This could be interesting to me because it’s information about how people interpret the Bible. Then again, it’s written by Bible scholars, and it’s probably not going to tell me that much about the beliefs of the average Christian, who has probably only read a fraction of the Bible. In other words, Christianity 101 and Bible 101 are very different subjects, even though they overlap.

I think I’m basically done with The Bible for Dummies, and when I return it, I’ll check out another NRSV version of the Bible and perhaps a book with more in depth information on the origins of the Bible. In the mean time, I have some books about Hinduism to read, and I’m eager to dig in to those. I barely know anything about Hinduism, and it’s also my first substantial introduction to a polytheistic religion.

Thoughts on Genesis

So, I finally finished reading Genesis, and I’ve only had a copy of the Bible checked out from the library for four months now! Yea, I know, I’m such a fast reader. Well, the only library books I have out from the library at the moment are the Bible, the Qur’an, and a book about the Hadith, so that means I will actually be spending most of my reading time tackling those big, thick holy books, now. I’ll still probably end up returning and checking out a different copy of the exact same Bible a couple of times due to running out of renewals, though. That thing is like 1200 pages, and, well, while it does have its exciting stories, it also has things like incredibly boring and long lists of names and genealogy stuff. It’s not really the sort of book that’s easy to just sit down on the couch and read for five hours straight. I want to say it’s boring because that’s what I always wanted to say when I was a kid but didn’t because it felt like it was wrong to think/say that. Only, the Bible really isn’t all boring. The story of Joseph, for example, is a really great story. It’s got a great deal of irony, and I love irony. I actually didn’t want to put the book down at all when I was reading that story, yesterday, because it was the opposite of boring.

So anyway, one thing I kept noticing while reading through Genesis is how incredibly sexist it is. Women are just not considered to be as important as men. For instance, when genealogy is listed, they pretty much just concentrate on the men. Jacob’s children are listed out multiple times. He had twelve sons, in total. Only one daughter is ever mentioned. It seems far more likely that this is because daughters were not thought to be worth mentioning, rather than that a person had 13 children and only one of them was female. If I am doing my math correctly, then, assuming that a child is equally as likely to be male as to be female, the chance that only one child out of 13 will be female is 0.16%. Now, if this were the only example of this, I might be jumping to conclusions by saying that they usually only bother to mention people’s sons by name. It is a little more difficult to tell in cases where only a list of names is mentioned, because I don’t know how to tell which names are female and which are male and which, if any, can be either male or female. However, some of these lists of names have enough context provided to tell which ones are sons and which are daughters. In the section where the children of the children of Jacob are listed, Joseph has two children listed, both male, and Judah has five children listed, again all male. Noah has three sons; no daughters are mentioned. The three children of Adam that are mentioned by name are all male, although it is said that he had other sons and daughters. Lot had two (unnamed) daughters and no sons… until his daughters got pregnant by him and give birth to two (named) sons. Oh, and that one daughter of Jacob that is even mentioned by name? Her entire role in the story consists of getting raped.

Which brings me right to some of the really scary social norms in the book of Genesis. Women are “given” to be people’s wives. Slavery is totally normal. It’s perfectly ok for men to marry more than one wife (I’m not saying anything about polyamory, but polygamy in a highly patriarchal system tends to work out less than wonderfully for the women). When two of Jacob’s sons kill all of the male inhabitants of a city in revenge for the rape of their sister (the rapist asked to be given their sister as his wife after he raped her… just… what the fuck?), Jacob rebukes them, not for being mass-murderers, but because the other inhabitants in the region outnumber them and would totally destroy them if they attacked. The other brothers loot the city, taking all of the wealth, livestock, children, and wives (the latter two groups, presumably, as slaves).

Now, I understand that people have had different standards of what is considered right and wrong in different times and places and cultures, and I’m sure my own culture has some truly vile social norms that will be pointed out in other times and places (and some of them even in the here and now). However, just because a thing was considered normal at some point in time does not even remotely imply that it is ok. And, worse, this stuff is not just a few examples of ugly, vile social norms that were not unusual in their time and place, these are stories in a book that is considered to be holy and is held up as the ultimate source of morality. These vile social norms are not pointed out in the stories as being in any way bad. They’re just mentioned like they’re… normal. I understand that the Old Testament is usually considered to be less important or less relevant or something to Christians than the New Testament, but it is still used to justify things (e.g. bits of Leviticus are used to justify homophobia) and figures like Abraham (the one who was willing to murder his own son for his god–he also owned slaves) are still held up as role models.

Genesis 1-20

I’m about halfway through Genesis, now. Lots of interesting stories. I decided to summarize what I read and then share my reaction to it below.

God makes the world in seven days. Adam and Eve live in Eden until they eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. God curses Adam and Eve and the snake that tempted them (which seems to be a literal talking snake in this story, although I’ve always been taught that they were tempted by Satan, or something), and he throws them out of Eden so they won’t be able to eat from the tree of life and live forever.

Adam and Eve have two sons, Cain and Abel. God likes Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s, and Cain kills Abel. God curses Cain but also puts a mark on him so that no one will kill him.

There’s a long bit about who fathered who, almost exclusively focusing on fathers and sons. It also mentions who lived how long, with most of them living to be almost a thousand and few only living to be a few hundred years old. Eventually the genealogy stuff gets to Noah. God decides he is going to wipe out the human race because they are all so wicked, but he decides to spare Noah and his family because Noah is righteous. He tells Noah to build a boat and gather his family and a pair of each kind of animal on it. Then it rains for forty days and nights, flooding the whole earth and even covering the mountains, wiping out everything that breathes that isn’t on that boat. Eventually, the waters recede, and God promises that he will never again flood the entire earth.

Noah gets drunk and ends up lying naked in his tent. One of his sons sees his nakedness, but his two other sons cover him up while being very careful not to look. When Noah wakes, he curses the one son and blesses the other two, saying that the one shall be the slave of the others.

There’s another bit about genealogy, which again focuses on fathers and sons.

Some people get together to build a city and really tall tower, and God decides to confuse their languages (they all spoke the same language before), so they can’t all work together to accomplish anything they wish.

More genealogy stuff, just mentioning firstborn sons’ names, this time. It starts with Noah’s son Shem and ends with Terah’s sons, including Abram. God tells Abram he will make a great nation out of him. Abram goes where God tells him and he is shown a land that will belong to his offspring. Abram and his wife Sarai go to Egypt to avoid a famine. Abram is worried that he will be killed because his wife is so beautiful, so they decide to pretend that she is his sister. Pharaoh decides to take Sarai as his wife, but he is afflicted with plagues. When Pharaoh finds out Sarai is Abram’s wife, he demands that they leave.

Abram and his nephew Lot decide to split up because they have so much livestock that the land can’t support them both together and their herders don’t get along with each other. God shows Abram more of the land he will give to his offspring. Lot is captured in a war, and when Abram hears about it, he leads the men of his household against them and rescues his nephew. Abram complains that he is childless and that one of his slaves is his heir, and God tells him he will give him countless descendants. He says they will be slaves in another land for four hundred years, but they will come out of it, and he will give them the land he showed Abram.

Abram has a child with his wife’s slave, Hagar, at his wife’s suggestion. Hagar gets pregnant and looks with contempt upon her mistress. Sarai complains to Abram, and Abram tells her to do what she wants with her slave, so Sarai treats her badly, until she runs away. God tells the slave-girl to return and submit to her mistress and that she will have countless offspring through her son Ishmael.

God tells Abram again about the many countless offspring he will have. He tells him that his name will be Abraham, now, and his wife’s name will be Sarah. He tells Abraham that every male of his people, including the slaves, must be circumcised. He tells Abraham that he and Sarah will have a child, and Abraham laughs at the idea of having a child when they are both so old. Then Abraham circumcises himself and his son Ishmael and all of his male slaves. God tells Abraham again about how he and Sarah will have a son, and Sarah laughs.

God decides to destroy Sodom, and Abraham pleads with him, asking if he will spare the city if he can find only 50 righteous men in it. God says he will. Abraham continues to plead, reducing the number bit by bit, until he asks if God will spare the city for ten, and God says he will. Two angels go to Sodom, and Lot convinces them to stay at his house. The men of the city want to rape these two newcomers, and Lot pleads with them, saying he would let them do what they wish with his two virgin daughters, instead. They attack Lot, but the two angels rescue him and tell him to leave the city with his family and not look back because they were sent to destroy the city. His future sons-in-law think he is joking, so Lot leaves with only his wife and two daughters. God rains sulfur and fire on the whole area, except for the city that Lot fled to, but Lot’s wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt.

Lot moves into the hills with his two daughters. His two daughters despair of ever having children, so they get him drunk and get pregnant by him.

This seems pretty sexist and pro-slavery to me. It’s like women just aren’t worth mentioning most of the time, and slavery is just a normal thing, as if it’s a matter of course that Abraham owns slaves. God doesn’t seem have a problem with slavery; when Hagar runs away, he tells her to return. Abraham literally tells Sarah, when she is angry with her slave, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” And how is it ok for Lot to offer his own daughters to be raped instead of two strangers? I mean, obviously it’s a good thing to try to prevent two people from being raped, but to offer his own daughters?

There is a lot of smiting of the wicked going on here, although, especially in the case of the flood, it doesn’t really say much about what people do that makes God decide they are wicked or righteous. Some of the punishments seem fairly arbitrary to me. Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt merely for looking back when she was told not to, while Cain wasn’t even killed for murdering his own brother.

God talks directly to quite a few people in Genesis. This doesn’t seem to happen nowadays, though, and that always bugged me when I was Christian. I mean, people talk about how they ‘feel’ God is telling them something, but that’s hardly the same as a literal conversation with literal responses. I have to say, if God talked directly to me, I wouldn’t have any trouble believing in him. Believing that a person exists while I am in the middle of having a conversation with them is a matter of course.

Update on Reading the Bible

Well, I’ve almost started reading the bible. I finally got my hands on a copy, anyway. I asked my brother if he had a spare I could borrow, and he said they probably have one and that he’d look for it, but I haven’t heard back from him yet. I asked to borrow one from my roommate, but she said her spare was only the new testament. One of the commenters on the previous post offered to send me a copy in the mail, free of charge, but I’d really rather borrow one. I don’t like having my own copy of a book unless I think I’m going to either read it multiple times or use frequently it as a reference (my parents are pack rats, and that’s one particular trait that I have been trying very hard to not emulate). I suppose I could read the bible on the internet or in ebook form, but I really do prefer having a hard copy when I’m reading a book. As per usual, the combination of my desire to not own many books and my strong preference for reading physical books led me to the library.

I like the library. I live within walking distance of a fairly large public library. I don’t think there has been a single day when I have not had books checked out of the library since I moved here. Every time I go to return the books I have out, I can’t seem to make it out of the building without a whole new pile of books. Libraries are awesome. They have tons and tons of books, and they just encourage you to read and borrow them, free of charge (aside from overdue fees. oops).

Well anyway, today I decided I should get on with this bible reading thing, so as not to disappoint my readers (hey, that’s right, I actually have readers, plural, now). So I looked up the call number for the bible (220-ish), and headed off for the library. There were quite a few shelves to sort through, both with bibles and with books about the bible. I ended up picking up a copy of “The Green Bible”, which is a New Revised Standard Version with a bit of stuff about environmentalism thrown in for an introduction. It met my very strict criterion for picking out a bible- it’s the whole book (both new testament and old), it fits nicely in my hands (it’s not too heavy or bulky), and there were two copies on the shelf (so I shouldn’t have to worry about returning it early without using the maximum number of renewals if someone puts a hold on it or something).

One of the nice things about going to the library and browsing for a book, is that you also get to look at a variety of related books. I also picked up a copy of “The Bible: A Very Short Introduction” by John Riches, which talks about a variety of things, such as how the bible was written and its influence on culture and politics. Then I got the idea in my head to also check out a copy of Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” because I keep hearing people mention it in the atheosphere. Sadly, all of the copies were checked out. They did have “The Dawkins Delusion” on the shelf, which might be interesting to read, just to see what criticisms people have about Dawkins’ book, but not if I can’t also read Dawkins’ book for myself. Instead, I ended up checking out “A Short History of Western Atheism” by James Thrower, “The Atheist Debater’s Handbook” by B.C. Johnson, and “The Atheist’s Handbook to Modern Materialism” by Philip A. Stahl. Should be interesting stuff. I really have not done much reading about atheism, aside from a few blogs. I’m especially looking forward to the book about materialism since, unlike the majority of atheists, I am not actually a materialist (although it is most certainly a very useful viewpoint for accomplishing practical things like, say, science).

Well, I have a very large pile of books to be reading, considering I didn’t even return the previous pile of books before getting the new pile, this time. I think I’ll get started on that, now.

I’m Going to Read the Bible

I have a strange desire to read the Bible from cover to cover. Because I’m an atheist. That just seems so odd to me, on the face of it. I mean, plenty of atheists read the Bible in order to be able to argue better with Christians or to point out inconsistencies or whatnot, but I’ve been figuring, as an atheist, I don’t have any obligation to read anyone else’s holy book.

It’s just that this particular holy book has always been such a big deal in my life, whether I want it to be or not. As a kid, I would read the Bible because it was the Good thing to do, and I would read it as the Holy Word of God, not as simply a book. I read the part about the Israelites committing genocide at god’s command and filed this away as the Right Thing to Do because God Said So, instead of considering the implications of a “loving” god who wants an entire people to be wiped out, including innocent newborn babies. I was reading the book with a basic assumption that I’d inherited from my parents, that “the Bible says so” is a good reason to do something or believe something or a way to demonstrate the truth of something. With that assumption, the book can’t be wrong, because it is right. With that assumption, I couldn’t see the inconsistencies because the assumption was that there aren’t any. If it seemed inconsistent, then it must be because I was wrong about something.

I did notice some inconsistency though, but it wasn’t in the book, it was in real life. Like, if we claim to be followers of Jesus, shouldn’t we be out sharing the word and healing people and stuff? Why weren’t we dedicating our entire lives to these endeavors, like the early followers of Jesus? If we really believed this stuff, shouldn’t we be doing stuff about it, besides just sitting in church listening to a guy talk and then doing some singing every Sunday? The Bible says that if we have faith, we can move mountains, so why weren’t we moving mountains? And I’ve never understood why there are so many different varieties of Christianity. If we are all following the same god, shouldn’t we all be working together?

I remember one time, while I was with my family waiting outside a restaurant until we could get seated, I saw another little girl, but she was in a wheel chair. I thought, I should ask god to heal her. If I had faith, it would happen. It should be something that Christians do, because that’s how it is in the Bible. I could just walk up to her and say ‘be healed’ or something and she would be able to walk again. But I hesitated. And hesitated. Because I wasn’t really so sure that it would work and just kept thinking how awful it would be (incredibly embarrassing for me, and really rude to her) if it didn’t work, and I felt like a bad person because I wasn’t following the teachings of Jesus wholeheartedly.

And another thing, if we Christians believed that we went to heaven when they died, why were we so sad when other believers died? Weren’t they in a better place? Wouldn’t we see them again when we died? Why were we still afraid to die? If a person really believes that they will go to a wonderful paradise when they die and that life is nothing more than a short test, they why should death be the least bit scary?

But, even with all these uncertainties just below the surface (I never dared to voice them out loud, only barely daring to think them), it never occurred to me to question the holy book itself, only the actions of those who claimed to follow it. The book remained firmly on a pedestal, untouchable. Rejecting the pedestal, rejecting the book which was the core of my parents’ beliefs, would be tantamount to rejecting my parents themselves, something wholly unthinkable to a child.

I made it my goal, at one point, to read the whole thing from cover to cover. I didn’t quite make it all the way through, but I’m pretty sure I read all of the new testament at least once and probably got half or two thirds of the way through the old testament before just giving up due to boredom. I want to make this my goal again, only this time without the assumption that it is right because it is right. I want to read it to see what it actually says. I want to read it so I can get over the way it was held to be above everything else when I was a child. I want to get over the way I step carefully around it even now. I want to be wholehearted and consistent between my beliefs and my actions. If I really don’t believe that god exists, then why I am still tiptoeing around this old book? If I’m right and this old book is just stuff made up by humans who believed odd things, then giving it a fair read through will only strengthen my (un)belief.