Friday, August 03, 2007

Genesis 9:18-28: A Theistic Response

The broad range of the human condition contained in the Bible is one of the things that makes it personally significant to individuals and allows for a dialogical approach* to reading the Bible. Basically, everything's in there. So Noah was a drunk...

"Now, this is obviously one of the most bizarre stories in the Bible. It makes Noah appear to be insane, and, while it doesn't explicitly endorse Noah's actions, it does make God look bad (not for the first time!) because he singled out Noah as the last righteous man and here he is behaving like a total lunatic."

Sometimes I just don't know what to say here. I could try to come up with a little theodicy** for every passage in the Bible, but in my mind, it seems like I'm repeating myself all of the time. But that's not necessarily bad, I mean, I suppose that indicates some unity of thought...

"Noah gets drunk and passes out naked in his tent, Ham accidentally sees him in this state and tells his brothers, and in response, Noah makes Ham's son Canaan - who apparently had nothing to do with the whole thing - the slave of his brothers. In later years, Christians decided that Ham was the father of the Africans and used this story to justify slavery. Fortunately, I don't have to try to explain this weirdness because Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope has done it for me, in two parts, here, and here."

Cervantes has a highly refined bullshit detector and, atheist though he is, he recognizes bad theology when he sees it. So I want to talk about that, but I want to take it out of the Biblical context for a moment. It is not unusual for a good symbol to be used for bad purpose. Our American flag, for instance, is heavily loaded with symbolic meaning for most Americans. Most of it good; equality, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, freedom, land of the free, home of the brave. It is also heavily used to sell everything from politicians to cars.

Discernment, then, becomes important. Being able to separate the symbolism and it's associated meanings from the thing using that symbol to sell you a bag of goods.

If someone wants to do something really bad, especially on a really large scale, they will usurp and propagandize every good symbol and association they can to meet their ends.

So, to justify slavery, why not use the Bible? To justify the crusades, why not use the Bible? To justify killing Western infidels, why not use the Quran?

When people begin turning up in mass graves, you can be sure every tool was used to get them there, including God.

This doesn't mean God or the Bible or the Quran are bad things. It means bad people have usurped something good to justify their ends. We would be much poorer if we threw out what was good about culture, society, humanism--simply because they had the potential to be used for bad ends.

For centuries people have tried to use different passages of the Bible as prooftext to justify bad behavior. The best way to reach discernment when it comes to the Bible is to look at the Whole. Of course, three layers of tradition must be acknowledged: oral, written, and edited.

"There are two basic points: This story comes from an earlier oral tradition, and when it got written down, something was left out, perhaps something too embarrassing for the written record such as a sex act; and the later interpretation justifying black slavery was just pure bullshit, like most interpretations of the Bible, which are made to justify foregone conclusions. As I have said many times, there are innumerable ambiguities, self-contradictions, and vague metaphors in the Bible and it's easy to decide that it means whatever you want it to mean. This may be the ultimate proof."

Basically there are points here where we agree and where we disagree. I will hold with this paragraph up to and including the word "bullshit."

I still consider the Bible to be a record of Divine Revelation, no less than other sacred writings, no less than the oral or pagan traditions which preceded it. They are all an attempt to understand the Divine as revealed to human understanding. The fact that humans have been trying to do this for all of recorded history, and arguably pre recorded history, does not mean there is no Divine. On the contrary, it points up an interesting aspect of our evolution that we have yet to explain scientifically--why do we seek the Divine? Why do we believe God exists? Somehow we grasp that there is a perfection, ephemeral though it is, in the human being. These layers of faith tradition are all an attempt to define human culture and best practices in relation to the world. And really, the overwhelming message that comes through when you look at the gestalt of all faiths is this: don't be shitty to one another. This is the ultimate tool of discernment. If your interpretation contradicts this, you must be twisting it or reading it wrong. And if you don't get that, you haven't read enough.

*Link added as post script.
**Okay, for what it's worth, here's my thirty second theodicy of this passage utilizing the dialogical approach. "So, you're an asshole? You're a drunk? You think God couldn't use you? Well, just remember, Noah was a drunk."

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