Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Chapter 12

What if the Bible, instead of starting with the first eleven chapters of Genesis, started with Chapter 12?

This isn't as unusual of a question as it might seem. The first eleven chapters are almost purely "mythological," while the rest of Genesis is "historical." This means that the first eleven are interesting to humanity in a universal way, while the rest of the book (and most of the rest of the "Old Testament") simply isn't. Beginning the book with Chapter 12 would start the book more properly, without misleading us into thinking it's about something that it isn't, and it would help eliminate many of the needless "controversies" surrounding education, science, and the way we think about and live our lives.

As a reminder of what occurs in the first eleven chapters, Genesis 1 gives us the famous six day creation story. Chapters 2-3 gives us an almost completely different creation story involving Adam, Eve, the serpent, and the forbidden fruit. Chapter 4 is Cain killing Abel and other murder stories. Chapter 5 (not mythological) is the lineage of Adam to Noah and his sons. Chapters 6-9 is Noah's ark and the re-boot of humanity after the flood. Chapter 10 (also not mythological) is the lineage of Noah's sons. Chapter 11 is the Tower of Babel and the scattering of people and languages, with some additional non-mythological lineage thrown in at the end of the chapter.

These scant chapters of Genesis (only 8 1/2 if you take out the lineages) are some of the main things we remember and care about when we think of not only this first book but of the entire Bible. In these chapters, we learn where the world and humanity come from (two versions: take your pick, or force-merge if you like), where sin and evil and death come from, the notion that the planet -- at one point in its history -- became so wicked that it had to be destroyed by water and begun anew, where rainbows come from, where language comes from, where races come from, and more.

Unfortunately, the book of Genesis -- in a rush to get to what it really wants to talk about (which I'll explain soon) -- rushes through all of these large ideas haphazardly, confusingly, wrongly, ignorantly, immorally, and every other negative "ly" you wish you add. So now we live with the God-given "facts" that the universe (which apparently only reaches to the visible sky) takes a week to make and is only a few thousand years old, evil and death come from a magic fruit that we ate, "sin" is something we're born with and inherit, women come from a man's rib, man is the ruler of woman and animals, a sampling of every species in the world once fit on a boat and were saved from a world flood, different languages are punishment for humanity working together to make a great city and building, and so on.

We're stuck with these idiotic ideas, even after the Age of Enlightenment, even after Darwin, even after we landed on the moon, even in the 21st century where the Bible is proven false while science fiction novels become truer every year. If these unnecessary eleven chapters were gone, we may not have some of these stupid problems and misguided notions--or at least not to such a degree.

So what was the big rush? What did the Bible really want to say when it was skimming through the less-important "How did we get here and what is the meaning of life?" stuff? The answer begins in Chapter 12, which is when God -- after several generations and do-overs -- reveals himself to Abraham (then called Abram) and decides that he wants to give Abraham and his family... some land.

That's it! Most of the Hebrew Scriptures, the "Old Testament," is about God giving a somewhat arbitrary family some property and power.

So it didn't really matter where humanity came from or why people were evil (Abraham and his descendants are, by the way, some of the most evil characters you'll ever encounter) or why we have different languages or any of that. Those things were just leftovers from older mythologies that cared about universal questions. The much older Epic of Gilgamesh, for example (which thoughtfully examines our desire for eternal life, ultimately rejecting the possibility), has a flood story, so Genesis feels the need to copy it and replace Gilgamesh's gods with its God. The Babylonian creation myth has Marduk creating humans in order to take care of the earth, so Genesis makes its God do that now. Even Marduk's powerful ziggurat, the gateway to heaven, is converted into the Tower of Babel as a negative. The first eleven chapters exist in order to re-write mythology, inserting Yahweh in place of the old gods, pretending that he was the only one there the whole time and that every other god is a lie.

But the real plot of the Bible is God giving land, slaves, animals, wells, women, etc. to Abraham's descendants (only the male ones, of course, and usually the first-born: another reason the story isn't universal), all the time making sure that those descendants know that God is the one giving it to them--else they get punished by having their land taken away. It's a materialistic message and nothing more. I guess the "prosperity gospel" Christians got it right.

You can read the rest of the chapters and books if you like. Abraham gets some additional property by tricking Egypt and then by defeating an army in a battle. Abraham disturbs his all-powerful lineage by getting a slave woman pregnant rather than waiting for his wife to have a baby. When this baby is finally born, God "tests" Abraham by telling him to kill the son. When Abraham passes the test, God promises again that he'll have land and power. Genesis plagiarizes itself when Isaac has almost exactly the same story as his dad. There's some trouble over inheritance with Isaac's boys, including Jacob, who gives birth to Joseph, who becomes even more powerful through a series of misadventures. Egypt takes over for a while and Moses has to rescue the family so that they can flee slavery and establish laws (one that lets the family have slaves, of course). All the laws are in aid of this family line having land and power. Joshua attempts to take over the land God promised, which ultimately happens in the book of Judges. Little side-stories like Ruth slip in there, which are mostly about whether anyone can marry into this powerful, land-owning family or not. On and on: one bloody land-grab story after another.

Even poetic books like Psalms are mostly about pleasing God so that land can be kept, or about asking God to defeat enemies who want their land. Same thing for the prophets like Isaiah. "Morality" plays, such as Job, end up having more to do with whether or not you submit to God unquestioningly or not... so that you can have a new wife and family and cattle if God kills your first set for no good reason. Same for Proverbs. In fact, only two books -- the Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes -- seem to provide the reader with love, humanity, romance, humility, and true wisdom. I'm not sure how they were snuck into this otherwise materialistic anthology.

So let's look just at the opening of the book to see how misleading it is. Here's Genesis 1: "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters." Right away, we're misled into thinking that we'll be reading about an all-powerful god who created the world out of chaos. Maybe we'll learn something about the true nature of the universe and ourselves.

But no. Contrast Genesis 1 to the true opening of the book, Genesis 12: "Now the Lord said to Abram, 'Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.' "

This is a more honest opening. As readers, we may be interested in reading a potentially-great family epic, but we won't be tricked into thinking we're reading anything spiritual or anything about us. The Chapter 12 opening clearly suggests the story of this very local, specific person named Abram and his personal family god, Yahweh: a very limited god who can only intervene with human affairs in a miniscule way and who seems to be playing within a set of cosmic rules that are beyond his control.

The only reason anyone would want to pay attention to the Genesis 12 story for any reason other than a literary one is because we thought it was about the creator God of Genesis 1 who can do anything. But the god of Abraham isn't the god of Genesis 1. The god of Genesis 1 is a rip-off of the gods of Gilgamesh and of Babylon and of the Greeks and of all the other "pagan," "false" gods that the rest of the Bible spends its time insisting aren't that great: all of the gods (and goddesses!) that the Bible has stolen and meshed into one "God." This new God has nothing to do with humanity, just Abraham's family, and even for them he can only offer material things that don't need divine intervention, since property and power can be gained through good old-fashioned greed, war, and a lack of humanity--which is what Abraham's family excels at.

Okay, yes, but what about the New Testament? Doesn't the Gospel of Jesus have something to offer humanity? Well, yes and no. Jesus does two things, both of which wouldn't be necessary if it weren't for all the nonsense of the Hebrew Bible. One is that he claims to be able to forgive "sin" and -- for reasons having to do with the animal sacrifice established in Moses's law -- he feels the need to be executed in order to truly do so. But "sin," as we've discussed, is a literary invention--one that comes across most clearly (and mythically) in the first few chapters of Genesis (even though the word sin itself isn't used in the Garden of Eden story). When, in Genesis, we learn that humanity let "sin" enter the world by eating fruit, we now need a scapegoat to be forgiven of it, and that scapegoat is Jesus. So without this Eden story, we wouldn't need forgiveness for a thing we didn't do, so Jesus wouldn't be necessary.

The other thing Jesus does is offer us something more in life than just land and power. This is what all the selling all you own to feed the poor is about. This is why we are laying up our treasures in "heaven." The word "heaven," it seems, is Jesus's metaphor for the spiritual life, something "inner," but -- of course -- since we have been trained for thousands of years to value nothing but real estate, this "kingdom" becomes literalized, a new "promised land" to own, to conquer if necessary. So Jesus knew we needed more than land and power -- more than "bread alone" -- to be happy in life (you would imagine that Abraham and company would be miserable despite their riches), but we wouldn't have needed him to tell us that if these books hadn't established that all God has for his chosen people is land and power. (Similarly, Jesus wouldn't have had to destroy and revise the law that was created to uphold this power.)

Paul, in the New Testament, was the one who eventually opened up this religion to those not of Abraham's line, but -- unless I'm missing something -- Paul and Jesus are just gateways to God, and all he can offer us is land (and possibly afterlife "land" in the sky, though this seems to be a misunderstanding). Anything Jesus offers (forgiving ourselves, abolishing nonsensical and outdated laws, finding purpose in our lives) we can do all by ourselves.

So if the Bible had started with Chapter 12, we could have read it (mostly anyway) for the simple story it is: a local god picks a local family to give property and power to in exchange for worship and burned animals (which is, apparently, what gods want--even in the more ancient stories). Nothing to do with the cosmos or our place in the universe or the inner life or morality.

This Chapter 12 version of the book probably would not have connected with the population so strongly and would have faded in popularity, rendering the New Testament unnecessary and un-written. Perhaps we'd now be living in a society with the foundations laid by Greece (as, indeed, the best parts of us currently are), where gods are (or were eventually) recognized as the signifiers they are, not the signified. Thinking and behaving like Plato (for example) would be more important than asking "What's in it for me?" We could, right now, be giggling at this silly god who thought he was God, when he was really just the least imaginative and most violently greedy among the legion of pantheons.

Just 8 1/2 powerful, tiny, misleading chapters at the beginning of a weird anthology. That's all it took.


Q: What does God want?
A: Burned animals and to be adored.
Q: Can he get the animals himself, since he created the world and animals?
A: No, he needs humans to do it for him.

Q: What will God give us if we burn animals for him and adore him?
A: Land, money, power, women, slaves, wells, etc. Material wealth.
Q: Will he give us anything else? Happiness, answers to the "big questions," love, etc.?
A: No. All you need is material wealth.

Q: Can Jesus do anything for us?
A: Yes, he can kill himself so that you can stop burning animals for God, but now you have to adore Jesus.
Q: What do we get if we adore Jesus?
A: Possibly eternal land in the sky, though this is nonsensical, so Jesus was probably using metaphor to offer us something besides just material wealth.

Q: If we figure out what his metaphors mean, do we actually need to adore Jesus or accept his sacrifice in order to get these things: inner peace, happiness beyond material wealth, a self-given purpose in life, etc.? Can't we just do this ourselves?
A: I don't see why not.
Q: Also -- and not that I'd want to do this -- but if I commit myself to be brutal enough to get this kind of material wealth through whatever dishonesty and slaughter necessary, can't I also do that by myself?
A: Again, I don't see why not.

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