For the past sets of years I have been slowly going through various elements of what might be considered the western ‘Cannon’. The great books that exist both as depositories of information themselves, and as important works for how they informed people in various times of history. One of the big ones of course, is the Bible and as an exercise for myself, I’ve committed to reading the whole thing, including the Apocrypha by the end of the year.
Thankfully, there are a whole host of bible reading tools on-line to helpfully break up the thing into manageable chunks. So, over the course the year, I’ll be posting periodically about what I’ve read. Now to be clear, I’m not a believer, so I won’t be looking at the book in that manner. Instead I’ll be looking at it both as a text of literature, and as a historical document. In the later case I’ll be talking about how the book presents what it’s talking about in terms of historical events and such, but also how particular stories, passages and so forth have impacted the history of those who have read, studied, or been told it.
I’m reading the King James Edition, as it was the most popular translation for a considerable length of time, and it’s prominence as a state authorized text in England and it’s colonies for so long gives it a fare degree of historical weight. Sadly my Latin and Greek are no-where near sufficient to attempt a solid reading of either the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox renditions.
So Genesis. The First book of the bible is also one of the lengthier of the books. Not nearly as long as Psalms, but longer, at least in chapter count, than several of the books that follow. It’s broken down into the creation story, and than puncutated in a particular patterns. Basically going; Genealogy-Story-Geneology-Story. Many of the bible stories I already know from general cultural osmosis are here. The creation myth. The Garden of Eden and the ‘fall from grace’. The Serpent, the Apple, Adam& Eve. Later on Cain and Abel. Noah. Lot. Sodom and Gomorra. Joseph of Dreamcoat fame.
Without going too deeply into the scholarship of the bible, it is obvious it has multiple authors and indeed it seems reasonably obvious that it is an amalgam work of various stories. There are self-contradictory passages in very close proximity to each other; the two creation stores for example in which animals are created before Man in one, after man in the other. The very language has particular patterns(Granted, in translation to English) that suggest renditions of particular myths. To my eyes it reads very similar to many other ancient texts, in that is acts as a record of events, but also a set of mythological structures to impact lessons. The Lessons here seeming to be ‘obey God’. Adam and Eve. The Flood and Noah. Lots Wife turning to salt. Abrahams sacrifice of his son. All have a moral structure based around obedience to Gods Authority. Others have structures about obedience to authority in general, mostly parental.
The things that struck me on the reading were examinations of the cultural gulf between the authors and me. This is a book in which the idea of offering your daughters to a rapine mob is scene as an act available to the only moral man in a city. Where it’s always women who are barren, and where in more than one instance they ‘give’ their husbands their ‘handmaids’ in order to produce children by them. Where in more than one story, a man pretends his wife is his sister, with the connotations being I think that when they come to Egypt, or where-ever they are travelling through, they won’t be killed to get at their wives or some such? It’s a bizarre deception and it’s outcome has a feel of ‘this would make sense were I a BCE shepherd’. It’s hard to guess how much of this book is meant to be taken either as parable or history, and like much mythology I think the distinction is a modern one that the authors would not have understood.
Genesis I think might be, with the possible exception of the Gospels, the most well known part of the bible. It’s stories are readily taught to children in sunday schools. Historically references to it are replete in poetry, in literature, and in politics. Several sections, that of Abel and Cain, that of the Sons of Abraham, the tale of Rebecca, has been used as justification for the morality of slavery for example. Passages with regard Mankind being given dominion over animals has been used both to justify the exploitation of animals and resources, and as an argument for ‘stewardship’. Of course it has been used to justify Sexism, and the text itself has some serious issues in this regard. Births of Sons are recorded in elaborate detail, but not so daughters. Women seem to show up to act only when those actions are bad; Eve taking the apple, Potiphar’s Wife trying to seduce Joseph and than falsely accusing him of rape, Lots daughters basically raping their father while he’s drunk. We hear of other women mostly in the context of who they are married to and who they are mothers of; such as Josephs’ Wife in Egypt.
I could go on at length about how this book has interacted with history. As an ‘origin story’ it has been used and shaped by various people and peoples to justify every manner of political system and political act. As a source of stories it has served as a cultural touch-stone through much of European and their Colonial successor states respectively.