MANY PEOPLE WOULD RATHER DIE THAN THINK; IN FACT, MOST DO. — BERTRAND RUSSELL

Biblical deconstruction I: In exordium

Here begins a new series on the Bible. One might ask: if I don’t follow or believe in the Bible, why would I do this? Well, for the same reason others have devoted much time and effort to debunking religion for hundreds of years. Because it is still so pervasive and influential, even here in modern America, in fact, especially in modern America. The Bible, as much and probably more so than the Koran (since the Bible is older), has been the central cause of more human suffering and misery than I care to contemplate. God himself, if he existed, would be on the hook for at least 2.476 million people, not counting the flood, first-born Egyptians killed, etc. Thousands of his followers have millions more on their hands, from the Crusades, to Native Americans, to Africans dying from not having access to condoms (thanks to the Catholic church), to the Salem Witch Trials, to … it goes on.

Modern readers might object: “But wait, we aren’t like that. Those were older societies in more brutal times.” That is true in modern nations, of course, but modern believers aren’t exactly blameless. How more moral is it to teach children that if they don’t follow Jesus, they will burn forever? How moral is it to potentially give children nightmares by summoning images of hell and brimstone or taking them to hell-themed haunted houses at Halloween? How ethical is it to tell them to follow a book in which the protagonist himself, God, cuts a path of human destruction through the Bible’s pages that are matched only by the likes of Genghis Kahn and Hitler? How moral is it to either oppose or actively help to stop stem cell research, when stem cells hold enormous promise in improving the lives of millions of people suffering from severe and incurable illnesses? How ethical is it to deny two people of the same sex who genuinely love each other the same tax benefits as every one else? Admittedly, that is a giant improvement over the Bible’s stance on homosexuality. And how ethical, finally, is it to present children with the pseudoscience of creation and intelligent design when a real science already exists that more beautifully and completely explains nature and the progression of life from simple to more complex forms. The times may have changed, but the primitive ideas remain.

I have chosen the title carefully. “Biblical” as an adjective (as in, “biblical” proportions) implies something on an especially large scale or something that might infer an event in the Bible, like long beards or plagues. “Deconstruction” is a little trickier. I am, and have been, heavily critical of the Bible, the ethical codes that it seems to condone, the immoral notion of vicarious redemption, the commands to burn witches (which are non-existent), tales about 42 children and the two bears right down to the good book’s position on slavery, homosexuality, women and, well, mankind in general. So, in one sense, “deconstruction” means that I will attempt to highlight some of the more erroneous and contradictory passages in the Bible to make the case that this is not a book anyone should feel deserves our respect or devotion and certainly not a text one should base one’s life upon, and further, that it is of manmade origin, reading precisely as it should if it were written by primitive, superstitious, myth-soaked people.

Second, I am using “deconstruction” in a more philosophical and literary sense. The word was popularized by Jacques Derrida in “Of Grammatology.” Derrida famously said “there is nothing outside the text.” With that in mind, and while I could analyze the Bible’s claims from an historical view (Does evidence exist that the Israelites ever wandered through the desert or was a “worldwide census” ever taken, as claimed in the early part of Luke?), I will attempt instead to mainly deal with the text itself. If you have ever read parts of “Of Grammatology,” you well know that deciphering Derrida is no small task. Here then, I will use Paul Ricoeur’s definition of “deconstruction” as examined by Anne Klein in “Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self”:

Paul Ricoeur once said that although in the United States the postmodern strategy of deconstruction has become especially prominent among literary critics, it is a particularly useful way of addressing religious issues. In this context, he described deconstruction as a way of unmasking the questions behind the answers of a text or tradition.

The Bible, as we well know, claims to provide many “answers” about birth and death and everything in between. My goal will be to unmask the questions.

I don’t know at this point of how many parts this series will consist. I have written series in the past, most recently on apologetics (Here is the first part), but this will be a larger undertaking and an attempt to comment on most of the Bible, story-by-story. I will likely skip the various genealogies, except for those in Matthew and Luke and long edicts on arcane laws in the Old Testament that few, if anyone, in modern times actually follow, further cementing the fact that most modern people don’t take their morals from the Bible; in fact, they often find ways to act morally in spite of what the Bible says to the contrary. I may also tread lightly through Song of Songs, Psalms, Proverbs and Revelation, since I’m more concerned with the biblical narrative as a whole rather than the more poetic parts (Song of Songs and Psalms) or the LSD trip of Revelation. I understand that Song of Songs is traditionally thought to be some kind of allegory about God’s relationship with man or the church’s relationship with Christ, albeit presented rather lewdly in my view, but it does little to further the larger narrative. Neither does Revelation. The other parts of the New Testament are quite enough to inform us that failing to follow Christ would culminate in bad news for the heathens. We get it. So, with the gloomy notion of total annihilation firmly in our brains, let’s proceed to the beginning.

***

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness [was] upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that [it was] good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

Whomever wrote Genesis apparently didn’t see a problem with light being created before there were stars to provide the light. Stars and the moon, as it happens, don’t come along until the fourth day. I once heard the case that the “light” and “dark” in the first few verses of the Bible actually refer to good and evil, rather than physical light, as in the emission of photons. But this can’t be the case because up to this point in the creation story, the author has said nothing about the spiritual battle that would eventually ensue between God and Satan. This would also make God the author of evil itself, since he created both “lightness” and “darkness” in this interpretation, rather than the more salient argument — salient at least within context — that Satan attempted to usurp God’s authority. Thus, from a doctrinal standpoint, God didn’t necessary create evil; Satan simply chose to rebel, thus ultimately bringing evil into the world by coaxing Adam and Eve into disobeying God. That notwithstanding, the early verses of Genesis clearly imply that the author is speaking of a physical creation of the world.

Other problems follow: God creates fruit trees, grass and the like on the third day. Water is present, so that makes sense. What doesn’t make sense, again, is the absence of a sun. Stars, remember, are not made until the fourth day. Are we to assume that plants flourished in this environment only on God’s eminence? If so, why create plants or humans or any of it? Why not just let the earth live solely off God’s all-encompassing power, a power surely mightier than our puny sun?

God proceeds to make sea-dwelling animals and birds on day five and other animals, presumably including insects and all mammals on the next day, including first man. Lucretius, writing in the first century B.C., provided some lucid commentary on the phenomenon of animals just springing from the ground:

Nothing from nothing ever yet was born.
Fear holds dominion over mortality
Only because, seeing in land and sky
So much the cause whereof no wise they know,
Men think Divinities are working there.
Meantime, when once we know from nothing still
Nothing can be create, we shall divine
More clearly what we seek: those elements
From which alone all things created are,
And how accomplished by no tool of Gods.
Suppose all sprang from all things: any kind
Might take its origin from any thing,
No fixed seed required. Men from the sea
Might rise, and from the land the scaly breed,
And, fowl full fledged come bursting from the sky;
The horned cattle, the herds and all the wild
Would haunt with varying offspring tilth and waste;
Nor would the same fruits keep their olden trees,
But each might grow from any stock or limb
By chance and change.

Following the creation of the “beast of the earth,” God then uses the personal pronoun “us” to make man in their (?) image. Who is “us”? Presumably, this, according to doctrine, refers to God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Commentaries found here admit of the plurality of God’s nature. Christians would later dub this triad the Trinity, which is a concept nowhere else mentioned in the Bible, completely rejected by Jews and a concept that would have obviously been foreign to Genesis’ author. Here is Hebrew scholar Wilhelm Gesenius on the verse:

The Jewish grammarians call such plurals רִבּוּי הַכֹּחוֹת‎ plur. virium or virtutum; later grammarians call them plur. excellentiae, magnitudinis, orplur. maiestaticus. This last name may have been suggested by the we used by kings when speaking of themselves (cf. already 1 Macc. 1019,1131); and the plural used by God in Gn 126117, Is 68 has been incorrectly explained in this way. It is, however, either communicative (including the attendant angels; so at all events in Is 68, cf. also Gn 322), or according to others, an indication of the fullness of power and might implied inאֱלֹהִים‎ (see Dillmann on Gn 126); but it is best explained as a plural of self-deliberation. The use of the plural as a form of respectful address is quite foreign to Hebrew.

Here is a link to another attempted explanation of the passage, which considers the various possibilities. In any case, I have serious problems with the idea of the Trinity in the first place within the context of a supposed monotheistic religion, not to mention the fact that it’s a product of the church, but this issue will no doubt surface later in the series.

I’m sure the series will move more swiftly once we get past these earlier chapters of Genesis, since the first few chapters are so critical to the furtherance of Christian doctrine. I will argue that because the garden never existed, and neither did Adam and Eve, the rest of the atonement story can just be scrapped. Some more liberal Christians, paradoxically it seems, don’t believe the garden story actually happened either but persist in believing in Christ and in the need for their own redemption. Why, I can’t quite explain, since if first man never sinned, then where is the need for salvation? Is man born into original sin by fiat with or without the need for Adam and Eve to actually exist, thus negating the infamous and all-inclusive curse in Genesis? What would be the originating source of the sin?

Here is a fairly recent report from NPR about some evangelicals who do continue to believe, yet deny the garden tale. According to the article:

(Albert) Mohler (president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville) says the Adam and Eve story is not just about a fall from paradise: It goes to the heart of Christianity. He notes that the Apostle Paul (in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15) argued that the whole point of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection was to undo Adam’s original sin.

“Without Adam, the work of Christ makes no sense whatsoever in Paul’s description of the Gospel, which is the classic description of the Gospel we have in the New Testament,” Mohler says.

That’s only true if you read the Bible literally, says Dennis Venema at Trinity Western University. But if you read the Bible as poetry and allegory as well as history, you can see God’s hand in nature — and in evolution.

“There’s nothing to be scared of here,” Venema says. “There is nothing to be alarmed about. It’s actually an opportunity to have an increasingly accurate understanding of the world — and from a Christian perspective, that’s an increasingly accurate understanding of how God brought us into existence.”

But not of how God brought about the need for atonement without first man as the catalyst.

About the Author

Jeremy Styron
Jeremy Styron
I am a newspaper editor, op-ed columnist and reporter working in the greater Knoxville area. This is a personal blog. Views expressed here are mine and mine alone.

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