Article I in a Series About a Book so Important They Called it “The Book”
The Bible, were it literally illumined upon the silver screen, would be the most sensationalistic, X-rated expose in history. The Tennessee General Assembly would ban it. No one under the age of 18 would be allowed to view it. The Westboro Baptist Church would picket the premiere at Mann’s Chinese Theatre. Trey Parker and Matt Stone would kick themselves repeatedly for not having produced it. And Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham would hold a joint press conference to declare that God’s judgment was drawing nigh for depicting God’s judgment drawing nigh.
Yet this same book is the sacred text of two major world religions—semi-beloved by at least another—and is considered by one-third of the planet to be the Word of God. Right or wrong, the Bible (or at least the smiley face parts) is also the Public Policy Yellow Pages for millions of staunchly conservative Americans.
Aye, there’s the rub.
Last week, I published an article on the biblical definitions of marriage which prompted commentary on both sides of the political spectrum. To some, I was the mouthpiece of Beelzebub for quoting Bible passages about incest, polygamy and Levites chopping their so-called beloved concubines into fish bait. To others, I had paid pointless heed to a tired book irrelevant to 21st-century life.
The feedback down the middle, however, demonstrated that people are eager to learn more about this ancient, complex text. So I am going to stick with this theme and communicate what seem like essential historical, literary and religious perspectives about the Bible in a series of articles.
But…this will not be your average Sunday morning Bible lesson. There will be sex, lots of sex. And violence that makes The Walking Dead seem bucolic. Not even Dexter has shown a person being sizzled in a frying pan, but the Bible does. Beyond such titillation and terror will be some interesting canonical whodunits about how the Bible survived into the 21st century. In all, a bit of RoboCop, a bit of Basic Instinct, and a dash of whip-cracking Indiana Jones.
Yet at the center of this scandalous literary rolling stone can be found supreme guidance for ethical living. Even Thomas Jefferson thought so—though he thought that Native Americans needed this guidance more than he did. More on that in a bit.
The Bible: A Political Tool Used by Political Tools
I respect the viewpoint of those who insist the Bible should not be turned into Public Policy for Dummies (I agree) and who pay it no heed as a religious text or even as an ethical guide. Yet to discount the Bible as “an old book of fairytales” and to ignore its primacy as a conservative political tool , to my mind, is a terrible pragmatic mistake.
The average progressive is justifiably suspicious when members of the Religious Right force Scripture to align with the corporate missions of Monsanto, Hobby Lobby and Lockheed Martin. Yet it is one thing to sense people are acting as charlatans and thumb memes at them, and another thing entirely to swipe away their political poleaxe and pummel their armor with it.
I mean, wouldn’t it be great to lay at the feet of a Bible-thumping, Koch-touting megachurcher the evidence as presented in Acts 4 and 5 that the model for Christian living appears to be socialism? “No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had” (Acts 4:32). Beyond this, how does one interpret the fact that God apparently struck dead anyone who held back funds from the Christian collective (Acts 5:1-10)?
As a Christian, it would certainly make me think twice before applying an anti-social reform bumper sticker to my Lexus. (It would even make me think twice before buying a Lexus!)
You might not win every argument against fundamentalists by using the Bible, but you will definitely shift the course of the dialogue as well as the burden of proof. More importantly, you might get fundamentalists to begin rethinking their views. And that promotes progress.
By the way, this worked for me. The scales of fundamentalism fell from my eyes only because others were willing to chip away at my closed religious and political worldview for years. And they used the Bible, as well as Christian history, to point out the godawful interpretations to which I adhered. To these people, I am grateful.
In short, the Bible, like any text, is a tool. Our political enemies use it to construct destructive policies. Why shouldn’t we use it to expose hypocrisy and tear those policies down?
The Bible: A Book of Omissions and Emissions
Christian fundamentalists might not be particularly keen when someone likens the Bible to “an X-rated expose” and publicly airs holy writ laundry. But when was the last time you saw Ezekiel 23:20 placed upon a Sunday School flannelgraph?:
“There [Oholibah] lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkey and whose emission [זִרְמַת, zirmah] was like that of horses.”
Almost across the board, 21st-century biblical translators have chosen “emission” or “issue” to describe what we all know Ezekiel meant—and what one daring biblical commentary describes as “a gushing of sperm.”
However, the New American Bible, which has pontifical scholarly strength and is based on the heralded Novum Testamentum Graece as well as many legitimate ancient manuscripts, herein displays some real translational disappointment—or comic relief, depending on one’s point of view—with the phrase “whose heat is like those of stallions.”
Well, as the old Marilyn Monroe movie title suggests, some like it hot.
Really, though, there’s no getting around the fact that Ezekiel, son of Buzi, is using the language of Larry Flynt to describe unfaithfulness to God as exhibited by the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. But if the NAB translators are going to act so stiffly, someone ought to offer an antipodal translation like “whose Gamete Gatorade was like that of a Kentucky Derby after-party.”
Frankly, I take comfort in the fact that my holy writ does not treat the subject of unfaithfulness as though it were a Lifetime Channel special starring Melissa Gilbert. Anyone who has been through the mess of a marital affair can empathize with Ezekiel’s phrasing. So could this man, unfortunately.
Also seemingly confused by the message of Ezekiel are the paraphrasing editors at Parragon Books, publishers of My First Bible, a cutesy kid’s Bible with Precious Moments-like illustrations of popular biblical tales which, unfortunately, acknowledges nothing of the Old Testament major prophets other than a scant reference to Isaiah. And you can bet your bottom dollar, literally, that of Isaiah’s 66 chapters, Parragon wasn’t about to cover (pun intended) Isaiah 20, which recounts the tale of poor Isaiah, ordered by Jehovah to preach naked for three years just to make a prediction that “Egyptian captives and Cushite exiles” would soon be led into bared-buttock exile.
Parragon instead devotes two pages to Isaiah 9 and 11, which includes the classic messianic prophecy: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” (Isaiah 9:6). Yet nowhere in My First Bible, nor in Handel’s Messiah for that matter, do we spy references to bearded, flashing prophets. Even so, Parragon assures us: “Everything that Isaiah promised came true.”
But dang if the folks at Parragon didn’t skip one section of Isaiah that I want my child to learn:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)
I shouldn’t give Parragon Books such a hard time. While they refuse to show full frontal shots of Adam and Eve (genitals are classically ensconced behind bushes), there is a daring derriere illustration of the primary pair before the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil. That is progress, as I guarantee we did not see Naked & Afraid-style engravings in Peter Brynberg’s 1797 edition of The Holy Bible Abridged; Or, The History of the Old and New Testament. Illustrated with notes, and adorned with cuts, for the use of children.
Holy Septuagint! Just look at the scriptural stew thus stirred, yet we have only touched two tiny sections of an endlessly complex book that spans thousands of years of history, imagined and real.
By the way, the point of the above was not just to show you that the Bible contains references to horse loads and naked prophets, but to demonstrate that whether or not the Bible smells of Divine breath, it is inarguably a human construct. People have always decided what words and passages you can and should see. This is not always a bad thing; sometimes it’s an inevitable product of translation. The same problems exist in general literature; imagine being the guy in Finland stuck translating the term “Catch-22.”
And here the Florida League of the South would have you believe that biblical interpretation is so simple. Sigh.
Conclusion and Confession
Well, our time today has expired. We will have to save Mr. Jefferson and his unique biblical translation for the next article in the series. It’s a great story; hope to see you there.
In closing, I have a confession to make. I used the New International Version to quote the above scriptural passages. I am aware of the NIV’s scholarly limitations. Yet my personal childhood NIV Bible is signed by Astronaut Charlie Duke, and I find it impossible to resist using a copy of holy writ touched by one of the few human beings to set foot on another celestial sphere. I think of it as antiquarian props to Galileo. Also, it demonstrates that I’m no different than anyone else: just another human being bringing subjectivity to the hermeneutic table.
I hope this introduction serves a productive purpose for both sides of the political spectrum. The Bible is a work of immense vastness and fascinating complexity. The Bible minces no words to describe human behavior at its worst and best, and it embraces conundrums at every turn. For millions, the Bible also contains the basis for moral living, and along with that comes the temptation by many to use it inappropriately as a tool for theocracy-building. Yet the Bible also can be used as a tool to remind everyone who preaches it to behave and balance themselves.
And all I did was scratch the surface.
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