Saturday, July 28, 2012

So you want to take the Bible literally, eh? To justify Creationism and bans on gay marriage. You might be denying Christ and accusing God of having sex with a sea monster by doing so...

So, you want to interpret the Bible literally? Perhaps you want to use this to justify a ban on gay marriage or to teach creationism in schools. But have you really considered the full ramifications of a literal interpretation of the Bible?

I am not a Christian. I do hold a doctoral degree in myth and comparative religion though, with a fairly major focus on the religions of the ancient near east. Some of what I am about to say may surprise you, but ironically just about every biblical scholar, whether he or she be an atheist, agnostic, Jewish Rabbinical scholar or Christian seminarian would agree with me, except maybe a few far right wing groups who don’t even study inside the normal seminarian system. Scholarship does not develop in a vacuum, and, in fact, a great deal of what I am going to say here is only possible because of the work of predecessors and peers, many of whom are people of faith.

Most people do not take the Bible literally. Most Christians don’t even take the Bible literally. This might surprise you. And it’s not a symptom of sheep straying from the flock. Outside of America, few Christians believe in biblical literalism. They can be staunchly, even conservatively Christian, but the key ingredients in their faith have to do with Yahweh, Jesus, the church, the community, and the fate of their own soul, with the Bible understood as a traditional text, written by their fellow Christians, albeit in times past, which can help illuminate the faith. Jews and Muslims have referred to their holy books as “thickets of reeds” which will “tear at your skin” and only become things of value with a human mind to interpret them. This is actually pretty common in most of the world, and actually, even for most of the history of American Christianity.

Biblical literalism is pretty recent actually. The theory of evolution, which actually goes back before Charles Darwin, is ironically older than Biblical literalism (Of course not older than creation myth itself, but older than literal understanding of Genesis as a sequential description of historical events)

The earliest Christians were not literalists. They had a clear understanding of parable and metaphor. In fact most of the ancients, pagan, Christian, or otherwise understood myth as a story that was true even though it didn’t happen. They believed in the gods and angels the story contained, and believed in the truth of story, even if the narrative didn’t occur.

For example, the story Jesus tells in the New Testament of the Good Samaritan. The apostles knew there wasn’t really a Samaritan who came to the aid a man who had been robbed. Was Jesus lying to them? Jesus never wanted them to literally believe in the Samaritan as a person who actually lived X years before their time, Y miles away. He was open about the fact that this was a parable, but, the teaching in it is what he wanted them to understand as truth, granted there is some theological debate as to what that truth is.
In addition to faith, this actually does show Jesus assumed the apostles also had some basic intellectual processing to discern metaphor from the literal. And the canonical gospels of Matthew and Mark, along with the gnostic gospel of Thomas, which collectively are considered the three most ancient and historically plausible Christian texts, all contain multiple instances of Jesus using parables.

This tells us something profound. Among the few things that can be generally agreed on about the historical Jesus, such as the crucifixion and Jesus’s affiliation with John the Baptist, is Jesus’s continual use of parables. The historical record attests to this in the sources cited above, sources which are accepted as reliable, by the way, even by scholars such as myself who believe in nothing supernatural about Jesus.

This tells us Jesus taught to people who he assumed has some rudimentary understanding of critical thinking and literary versus metaphorical discernement. I won’t say this is a historical fact, but, pretty much a reasonable and ‘more than likely’ historical assumption and extrapolation.

But let’s talk about the theological Jesus for a moment, and not necessarily the historical one. Let’s discuss the theological Jesus who dies on the cross to make the perfect sacrifice to cleanse man of original sin so he can be redeemed, since no man can ever expect to follow the Law perfectly. We’re all familiar with this idea whether we believe it or not.

We’ll get back to Jesus in a minute, but, let’s talk about some Christians being anti-gay and literalism and the old Jewish law. The famous quote condemning homosexuality from Leviticus is often read in English as “A man shall not lie with a man as he does a woman. It is an abomination” - the actual text reads “You shall not lie with a male [on] the beds of a woman (or wife), it is a despising.”

Now, this was written by a figure known as the Priestly Author. The Priestly Author lived during the time of the Babylonian exile, when the Israelites were forced to live in Babylon as part of Babylon’s program of relocating conquered peoples from their homelands. This is history. It’s hard to say if he was condemning homosexuality as we understand it today.

The ancients certainly had a wide array of sexual appetites and practices just as we do today. In some societies some things were accepted, and in others they were condemned. But the ancients did not divide the spectrum of sexual tastes quite the way we did.. gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, bicurious, etc.

For example, in the Rome of Augustus, a man was ‘heterosexual’ even if he had male and female lovers, provided he was the one penetrating, and not being penetrated. Having sex with a woman was even frowned on in Rome if she was on top and worked her hips in a certain way that got her too much clitoral stimulation.

So the author of Leviticus is condemning something similar to homosexuality even if not quite the way we think of it today. He also condemns eating pork or shellfish, wearing clothing of two different types of thread, and shaving on the wrong days.

Why?

Because the Israelites were trying to preserve their culture in exile. The Babylonians of the time loved pork as a sacred meat of the Goddess Inanna, embraced bisexuality, and had developed composite fabric threads. Forget the stuff you heard about pork being dangerous to eat in ancient times.

These things all say “Be a Jew. Do not be Babylonian. You have your own culture, and one day we’ll get out of here”.

It’s perfectly understandable why the Priestly Author wrote this stuff. You might too in his shoes.

Now there are alot of other parts of the Jewish law too written in other times and places. It’s a pretty big law code all told.

It starts with Adam being told not to eat from the tree, then Noah being given seven simple commandments after the flood, and by the end of the Old Testament, there are hundreds, if not thousands of laws.

Each new set of law codes augments and adds to the old covenants before it. It does not replace the old ones.

But the question for Christians is, when they accept what for them is the final covenant, the perfect sacrifice of Christ, do they follow the Jewish law and accept Jesus as their personal savior, or, does the acceptance of Jesus liberate them from the old Jewish law?

There are Christians on both sides of this. Always have been. St. Paul tried to mediate debates about whether Christians needed to be circumcised or not.

But the problem lies herein... Like eating shellfish... homosexuality is only ever condemned in the Old Testament. We’re taking the Bible literally now remember.

So, you could say being gay is a sin, and you also don’t work on the Sabbath, you don’t eat pork, you stone your children to death when they act up, you sell your daughter into slavery, and the like. If you were a Christian who followed all these laws, I would honestly think you were an awful person, but I wouldn’t accuse you of hypocrisy.

But... you happily eat shrimp cocktail. You shave daily. You’re a woman who wears pants. But it’s okay to do these things, because you’ve accepted Jesus as your savior and you fall into the camp that thinks Jesus is the new covenant and liberates you from the old law.

Okay. No problemo... Well, you have to say being gay isn’t a sin anymore either than.

It’s either no man-love and no-shrimp cocktail or man-lovin’ and shrimp cocktail til the cows come home.

If you pick and choose, you aren’t being literal. You’re not accepting the Bible as literal truth. Or maybe you’ve never read it. A survey recently suggested that more Christians have read Harry Potter cover to cover than the Bible cover to cover. If you thought this book was the literal word of God, wouldn’t you want to read it? Hell, I’ve read it and I am as heathen and unsaved as it gets.

Or... maybe you’re just a hypocrite if you say being gay is a sin but then you ignore the other laws...

The only other possibility is you don’t so much think Jesus endured infinite suffering and completed the perfect sacrifice to save all the world, but, you think the Jesus of theology failed. He came close, but, no cigar. He endured pretty-bad suffering and made a decent sacrifice for a reasonable portion of the worlds sins.

So... if you are a Biblical literalist who says homosexuality is a sin but you ignore the rest of the law, either you’re a hypocrite and not a true Christian, or, you believe Jesus just... well... fucked up when he was so close to finishing his mission.

Sure you still want to be literal? We haven’t even gotten to Creationism yet.

The book of Genesis is a recording of a creation myth. It’s important to remember that lots of cultures had creation myths or epcs, and, the people did believe them at some points in time going back to the middle Bronze age. The ancient near east is full of stories of gods making people out of clay.

Now earlier I told you Biblical literalism is a relatively new thing, and, here, when I tell you people did once believe the contents of creation myths as narratives of what happened to explain the origin of the world, I seem to be contradicting myself.

Let me explain the difference;
i) Most ancient people did not have an ‘official’ version of what happened. There were many versions of the creation myths.
ii) Even with written accounts, such as the Hebrew Genesis or the Sumerian Enuma Elish, were not subject to an official heterodox versus orthodox interpretation, the deviation from which was deemed heresy.
iii) There were no models of a ‘scientific’ origin of the world available for people to contrast this to until about 200 BC when the Indian and Greek civilizations first conceived of ideas of natural law.

These stories were oral traditions that someone recorded. To understand a little bit more, let’s establish some things.

Judaism as we understand it today did not exist at the beginning of the Bronze age. Across the ancient near east, there were common themes in the creation myths. A self created male god who begins making everything, sometimes preceded by and other times followed by, an era of chaos where a primal female deity is sometimes subdued representing the taming of nature, the coming of man, man separating from the gods and getting farther from them, a time of great heroic people, a flood, and then the time of normal ‘history starting’.

This might sound like myths you’ve read like other places, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, and you probably see some pieces of Genesis in it. If you’re wondering where the subduing of the primal female entity is in Genesis, it’s reduced down to the part about God striking order into the waters.

Now, let’s get back to the Israelites. Remember those enemies of the Israelites from the Bible, the Philistines? Well, long ago, they were one people. I know this is a very different origin for the Israelites than the one you read in the Bible, but, this is history. If you don’t trust me, you can check with all the top archaeologists in Israel today. They, many if not most of them practicing Jews, but who are not literalists, would also state some similar view of this narrative which follows.

A people we call the Ugarits had a pantheon of gods headed by a god called El. El had lots of sons and daughters, among them two brothers named Yahweh and Ba’al (or Hadad). Each of these gods had a core group of worshippers. Each set of worshippers imagined a scenario where El passed the Kingship of Heaven on to one of his sons.

The Ba’al cult imagined that Yahweh temporarily got this kingship by kidnapping the Goddess Asherah, until Ba’al, after a series of adventures, defeated and killed Yahweh and took the kingship. Yahweh was reduced to a defeated, angry judgmental being called Judge Nahar, and largely marginalized.

The cult of Yahweh on the other hand took another path. A group of folks called the Hyskos lived in Egypt. Like the Ugarits, they were Semites. The Hyskos lived in Egypt during a very special time. Under the Pharaoh Akhenaten, who created the first, but very short lived, monotheistic religion when he reduced the worship of Egypt’s multitude of gods to one god called the Aten.

The Hyskos left Egypt (This is the historical event behind the Exodus) and brought the idea of monotheism to the Yahwist portion of the Ugarits. Slowly, Yahweh and El were merged into one God, and the rest of the Elohim, or gods, became subservient. The Bible even tells us in Psalms Yahweh has no equal among the Gods.

Eventually it was thought there were other gods, but they should not be worshipped. Then finally other gods either became angels or were just empty idols.

Now, the Bible tells us different stories that come from all portions and stages of this time. That’s why we are told Yahweh is first among gods sometimes, the only one to be worshipped at others, and the only one period at others. And this change isn’t in order of the books. It’s all mishmashed. Genesis is not the oldest book of the Bible, actually, even though it accounts the beginning of the world. That honor goes to the book of Job. Remember that the original authors of both the New and Old Testament books never knew nor intended that centuries later their works would be put together with other books by other authors with other agendas. Like me writing this piece right now, they hoped their work could stand on it’s own merit.

Now, go get your Bible. Look at Genesis 1 and 2. In Genesis 1, God is called God. In Genesis 2, the Lord.

This is the respective common English translations for El and Yahweh, respectively.

In Genesis 1, El creates the world, then Man and Woman together, then the animals. In Genesis 2, Yahweh creates the world, then animals, then Man by himself, then woman from man’s rib. It’s two different creation accounts that simply can’t be compatible.

But even if you accept the justifications apologists have come up with over the years to try to reconcile this problem, and you ignore the facts of evolution, because you insist the Bible is the perfect word of God, you create some real problems for yourself when you need to take the rest of the Bible literally.

Do you want to assume that rain comes when Yahweh opens the sluice gate windows to his castle on the top of the seventh heaven mountain and waters from the firmament (the second ocean above the sky) pour through onto the Earth? And that the Earth is flat?

The Bible says so. Maybe you’re okay with that.

How about the book of Judges, when, after years of war, the Moabites and Israelites loom on the eve of another conflict. The Moabites have mountain lands, where the god Chemosh was thought to have power. The Israelites open lands, which favored Yahweh. The Israelites propose to the Moabites “Shouldn't you take possession of what your god Chemosh took for you? Shouldn't we take everything the Yahweh took for us?” Judges 11:24.

God can give you anything, unless another God has promised it to someone else, in other words. Watch out for Chemosh. He’s Yahweh’s equal, apparently.

Remember, Judges 11:24 must be literally true like everything else.

But here is the kicker.

Psalm 104:26.

“There go the ships. There goes Levithan who made, O Lord, to sport in the sea”.

Nothing big, right?

The literal translation is this.

“There go the ships. There goes Levithan (A sea serpent) who you (Yahweh) made to have recreational sex with in the deep waters”.

Or an accurate modern English translation.

“There go the ships. There goes the sea monster Yahweh made to be his sexual playmate”. (see W. Hargrove - Mythologies Last Gods for the full translation).

Why does the Psalmist have God have sex with a sea serpent? What could be more blasphemous?

It makes sense if you consider something.

See, there used to be these powerful female creation goddesses in one form or another worshipped across the ancient near east. As a cultural shift occurred toward male deities, these once divine female chaos serpents became seen as monsters that threatened kingship and civilization. So, stories were told of male sky gods slaying these beasts of old. Marduk slew Tiamat. Ra slew Apep. Ba’al slew Lotan (the same being as Levithan).

But the Psalmist wanted Yahweh to do better than the other male gods did. Now, the Psalmist (this is what this author is referred to as since his personal name has been lost to time) lived during a period when Yahweh was first among the gods, but no one was ready to say there weren’t other gods yet.

So the Psalmist is telling us, unlike Ba’al who came after Lotan, Yahweh comes before Levithan. Ba’al had to fight Lotan. Yahweh is so much more powerful than Ba’al, he does not have battle Levithan, in fact, he created her. For his own pleasure. The fierce sea goddess is just his plaything. She would never dream of battling him. She knows her place because Yahweh has kingship of the Universe.

The Psalmist does not live at a time yet when he can say there is no other god and no Levithan, so, he glorifies Yahweh as so much greater than Levithan, and so much greater than his counterparts who struggle against their equivalents of Levithan. Yahweh makes her and for his own benefit.

He is not being sacrilegious at all. He is singing (literally psalms are songs) the power, glory, authority, and absoluteness of Yahweh, in a way that was understood in his day.

Thousands of Christians and Jews who study these texts but don’t take the Bible literally understand this, and understand this as part of the forces that one day gave birth to the faith that informs their lives. They don’t feel threatened at all.

But as a literalist, you don’t have this option.

You’re left with a God who fucks sea serpents, along with either your own hypocrisy and your insult to the theological version of Jesus and his mission.

So if you want to keep using your literal interpretation of the Bible to teach creationism and oppress gays... go ahead... and enjoy all the baggage that comes with it.

If you want to join the majority of the faithful and rational society as a whole... you know where to find us.











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Captain Travis said...

Um, I'm looking at a bunch of comments by an "Anonymous" who says a bunch of things that seems to imply he takes your blog post non-literally. Ahem.

I began reading your post but when you started talking about the history of Biblical literalism, you immediately blundered and I only skimmed through the rest of what you had to say.

You absolutely have no idea what Biblical literalism IS and how old it is. For an FYI, Augustine in City of God (4th Century) said that the Bible had both literal meanings and symbolic ones, but the literal ones mattered most. So the Theory of Evolution being older than Biblical literalism is complete claptrap and shows you don't know the history of Christianity very well.

I could cite numerous other examples of Biblical literalism among Christian believers over the centuries--but first off, there is NO ONE who believes in absolute Biblical literalism NOW. Even modern Christian Fundamentalists state the Bible contains poetic imagery in places that should not be taken literally. Though they regulate the poetic parts of the Bible to as small of a set as possible. Anything not strictly poetic is to be taken literally. And clearly laws governing human actions are not poetry.

So your argument is not only ignorant of Christian history, it also is a "straw man" argument, attacking a position that does not really exist. FYI.

tom watson said...

Captain Travis,
you do not speak for me and millions of other True Saved Christians, We take the bible 100% literally.
All true born again Christians do, you cannot contradict
what the bible says and say you're a Christian because
"well I believe in some parts, others aren't really to be
taken seriously" ... it was written by men inspired by God,
and therefore it is 100% fact and True... any person on here,
any one with a gay agenda ( or who'd rather fashion a God of their own understanding so that they don't have to feel accountable for their sin or feel guilty, because believe me, there is a hell. The wisdom of man will not
change God's word... "for the preaching of the cross is
foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are
being saved, it is the power of God". if you're not "saved"
you may want to consider watching this video and knowing there
will be a judgment for those who reject Jesus Christ, whether
you want to "believe" it or not, that's up to you, but it won't
change God's word.. He is the same yesterday, Today, and Forever.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WttHEoX3ZoI