07 March 2009

Personal Bible Reading Challenge: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus

Someone please tell me that Leviticus (and the later chapters of Exodus) is as boring as it gets. An abridged version would feel like cheating, but I’m still itching to clear out all those redundancies and thinking wistfully of how much less tedious a trimmed-down edition would be. Well, I am calling it a challenge . . . The genealogical listings of Genesis weren’t so bad - all those exotic names have a lovely rhythm to them, as does after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations, a repetition I didn’t at all mind. But the finicky, long-winded details of the construction of the tabernacle and contents drove me nuts. For someone who had earlier expressed a preference for altars of earth or unhewn stone, the Lord demanded an extravagant array of precious metals and fine cloth (the former stolen from the Egyptians on the eve of the exodus, perhaps?). And all that ram- and bullock-butchering! In a Middle Eastern summer, that tabernacle must’ve stunk.

Aside from the bouts of eye-glazing dullness, the most challenging thing has been trying to get the scientific part of my brain to shut up. I read the opening verses of Genesis, it’s saying, No way!. I arrive at the Red Sea, and it begins chuckling at the notion of a wind that’s strong enough to move oceans yet doesn’t blow anyone away, and wonders if it’s possible for nature to produce a bi-directional tsunami (and then thinks of the parting of the tomato soup in Bruce Almighty). Moses heads up Mount Sinai, and it starts scouring my memory for any knowledge of ancient volcanoes in the Middle East. Leviticus prescribes the same treatment for leprosy and rising damp, and it gapes at the absurdity. I make a constant effort to treat this as I would any other mythology, but when the writing is difficult to enjoy, and the religion in question is still alive and kicking, it’s hard to just go with the story. The knowledge is ever present that these are not dead myths from a world long gone, that countless people still worship this deity who regarded as righteous people willing to hand over unconsenting women under their authority for the use of men (Sarah, Rachel, Leah, Lot - I found it absolutely sickening). I promised to keep an open mind, but I cannot forget the position I’m coming from - that of a lifelong atheist who holds several strong values to which the Bible and/or some of its adherents are staunchly opposed. All I can do is try not to let my irritation and distaste obscure the good that is in here.

And there is some good. If you could take the rules of Leviticus and weed out the irrelevant, the intolerant, and the misogynistic, you’d be left with a set of sound common sense which, if applied by everyone, would make life much more pleasant. Along with their less appealing traits, there are characters who display admirable quantities of patience, ingenuity, leadership, and courage. And while I may have zero faith myself, it’s easy to see how people fell under the sway of these stories and the god of which they tell. The lure of a place among the chosen and better things ahead for those who believe and obey, the threat of ostracism and exile, defeat and death, for those who don’t - in a world of poverty and survival in numbers, what other choice would you make? Even if your new god demands unquestioning faith from his followers, yet does not himself put much faith in them, not trusting them not to abandon him if exposed to the gods of any other people. (It strikes me that God has a serious god complex.)

By the time I was halfway through Exodus there was an unexpected side effect - I have become very curious about how these books came to be written, and when and by whom, and how they were put together in this way. What earlier legends were there which might have formed the origin of these new myths? What evidence is there for the historical veracity (or lack thereof) of the people and events depicted? And sardius, ligure, stacte, onycha, galbanum, shittim wood - what are these things whose names have died out of the language? There’s a whole new world of things to be learned, and I can’t wait to get started.

What I’ve learned so far: the origin of the terms ‘Jacob’s ladder’ and ‘burning bush’; the number and nature of the plagues of Egypt; what the ark of the covenant was; what Passover commemorates.


Amy said...

It is interesting to read your perspective since I am one of those people who still believe in this God and who believes in, say,miracles. ;)

I think that yes, you'll be happier once you get to Deuteronomy. Are you reading the whole Bible? If so I also look forward to your thoughts on some of the poetic books...there really is some beautiful language to be found.

Amat Libris said...

I am reading the whole Bible . . . though I still wish I'd known beforehand that Deuteronomy was basically a recap of the last three books! I might have been tempted to cheat if I had.

And I'm very much looking forward to the poetry - I think it'll make the duller bits worthwhile.

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776