The above Facebook post from “Sad Jesus” made me think about the Bible, a book that’s had a considerable influence in shaping Western culture. It’s often claimed in the Bible’s favour that, by and large, it has provided the moral foundation on which this culture rests. Unquestionably, chapters and verses can be quoted in which there’s explicit encouragement (often at pain of eternal damnation) to avoid the “7 Deadly Sins” referred to above, along with lots of others.
What strikes me, however, as a Bible reader, is that page after page of ‘the Good Book’ provides examples, in the behaviour of some of its leading figures, of every one of these ‘deadly sins’ listed. And often, if one reads with careful, open-minded attention, one finds no explicit criticism or condemnation of such behaviour, either from the Bible writers, or from their God. Sometimes, indeed, such “apathy, cruelty, duplicity, hypocrisy, false morality, abuse of power and cultivated ignorance” actually advance God’s personal purposes and plans!
To take just two examples, God decides, (for reasons known only to himself), that Isaac’s younger son, Jacob, should ‘inherit’ God’s promise of land, descendants and blessing, rather than the first-born son Esau. What follows is a contrived rigmarole ‘cooked up’ by Jacob and his mother, involving opportunistic contrivances that include downright lies, cheating and deceit, to bring this about, but there’s no hint in the text of disapproval, nor of condemnation ‘from above’. Or there’s the Israelite King Jephtha who, having defeated the Ammonites in battle, vowed in celebration to sacrifice to God whatever came out of his house first. It was his daughter. She was duly sacrificed, and neither do the writers condemn him, nor does God intervene to halt such horrific stupidity and senseless cruelty.
This is where, although it may upset some people, I see a link with the stories of the Greek divinities on Mount Olympus, in their relationships with one another, and with various human beings ‘down below’. Sometimes their attitudes and behaviour are exemplary – thoughtful, considerate, courteous, cooperative and helpful. Sometimes they are appalling – thoughtless, inconsiderate, discourteous, divisive and disastrous. There’s the breaking of promises, betrayal of trust, unwanted interference in others’ affairs, unnecessary stirring up of trouble, not to mention theft, violence, murder and rape. And what we get in the Greek myths, we can find in the Bible as well, if we read it all rather than just the standard comfortable and comforting quotes, like John 3:16 etc.
Again, although it might upset some, for me it’s helpful to recognise that, in the Bible stories, which were written by human beings, God is one of the characters, if not the leading one, in the ongoing drama. Sometimes his portrayed behaviour is admirable, and sometimes it is unforgivable. He commits genocide in a universal flood. He commits mass murder of all the first-born children in Egypt. He kills thousands of his own people with plague and pestilence if they put a foot wrong. And yet, in Jekyll and Hyde fashion, he can be pictured as patient, considerate, thoughtful, merciful, forgiving, faithful and loving.
To me, the Bible is a marvellously, and essentially, readable book, but not because it’s authoritatively factual or historical or biographical, which, in my view, leads us astray into John Bunyan’s ‘bypath meadow’, that’s filled with futile argumentation. Rather, it’s because, like other great works, such as those of Homer and Hesiod, it’s a priceless ‘work of art’. As long as we don’t simply take it at face value, but realise that its language is mostly mythical, symbolic, figurative, and metaphorical, then like all works of art, it shows us not only how best we can live and behave, but also how we ought not to live and behave.
As far as reading it is concerned, the King James Version may well be ok for an occasional tasting, like some old, well matured, fine wine. Very fresh, readable and easily understandable, however, is the Contemporary English Version. Why not give it a go?