I recently set out to read through the entire Bible, from “In the beginning” to “Come, Lord Jesus,” in 90 days. It’s a rite of Christian passage that I have never seen all the way through, despite my lifelong tether to the Church and the mainspring of my faith-walk (however migratory it has been).
Having settled into – and recently become vocal about – a conviction that the Bible is not a singular, supreme informant to the spiritual life, but rather one of many ways in which we beings of flesh and blood encounter the divine/supernatural/other-dimensional, it seemed fitting that perhaps I actually take the time to read the Book in its entirety at least once.
So, it’s officially day 15 and I’ve finished laboring through the first five books, also known as the Pentateuch (Torah, if you’re Jewish): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And I do mean “laboring.” While a great deal of action and some of the Bible’s best-known stories are contained in these books, there are also pages and pages of law, genealogies, and tabernacle blueprints.
It is precisely due to the coma-inducing detail of how one implements a practice of worship whilst roaming the wilderness for forty years that I never made it past Numbers in any previous attempt to read the Bible from cover to cover. So I’m very, very happy to have them in my rearview, so to speak. But before moving into the conquest of the Holy Land, I wanted to reflect on some key lessons that surfaced in reading this sacred Hebraic origin story.
Disclaimer: If this is the first time you’re encountering my particular tongue-in-cheek style of writing about an incredibly complex and layered issue, all I can do is remind you that, at the end of the day, I’m just a guy writing a blog. I offer nothing more than one (slightly irreverent) perspective on a speed-read through the world’s oldest bestseller. Let he among you without a sense of humor cast the first stone…
Sorry You Have a Vagina
In all sincerity, one of the most persistent ideas that the Bible’s opening books reinforce is a marked inequality between men and their women. Every woman is essentially another man’s property. She belongs to her father, or her brothers, or her husband, or her dead husband’s brother, or her female owner’s husband. With a few notable exceptions, a woman’s value seems to hinge entirely on one of two things: either 1) her virginity, or 2) her ability to bear and raise children.
Presumably, the laws related to how women are to be treated in society actually improved upon the reality of the day. I’ve heard many people make this argument. Regardless, I need point you no further than Numbers 5 to demonstrate why I firmly believe we must rely on reason just as much as (if not more than) the Bible when living the spiritual life. “A Test for Adultery” was the way the translators of my version titled the section in which a husband is permitted to drag his wife through a visceral and frightening ritual to prove her faithfulness with literally no evidence required whatsoever for her alleged extra-marital activity. All he had to say to the priest was, “I’m jealous.” It’s essentially the equivalent of a good old-fashioned American witch hunt.
That said, the women of the Pentateuch often provide a significant amount of the emotional heft of the narrative. The tragic story of Dinah, the powerful scene with Hagar and her son in the desert, Sarai laughing at the strange visitors’ prophecy, Rebekah’s manipulation of her husband, Miriam’s boldness in approaching the Egyptian princess who pulled her baby brother from the water. Most of my favorite parts of the first five books are scenes in which a female is reacting to her crazy circumstances.
I can’t presume to understand what, in the words of Madonna, it feels like for a girl. I’m only certain that while we’ve come a long way toward mutuality since the days of the Israelite wanderings, the outcome of treating the Bible as though its every precept is immutable truth still makes for an inequitable Church today.
Fabulous Joseph and His Pride Fashionwear
I have absolutely no logical argument for why I believe that he of the coat of many colors was gay. But I do. And it’s more than just his rainbow outerwear (though that’s pretty much a dead giveaway, right?).
It’s just something that I, a gay man, sensed and resonated with as I relived Joseph’s story. The isolation he felt from his brothers, the favoritism he received from his father, the striving to fit in, the ease with which he resisted the advances of that sexy cougar wife of Potiphar, the creative approach to dream interpretation, the reconciliation with his family late in life, especially Benjamin. All signs point to one flaming ruler of Egypt.
And it just makes his story that much more inspiring to me.
Moses Is More Humble Than You (And He Knows It)
Moses, who most scholars agree is the author of the Torah, calls himself “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” when encountering some opposition from his own siblings in Numbers 12. Which is, of course, a hilarious irony that I greatly appreciate.
It Takes Balls to Be a Priest
Literally. Leviticus 21:20. Born into the tribe of priests, the Levites? Crushed your testicle during a childhood game of “let’s stone the Sabbath-breaker?” You’re straight out of luck – no priesthood for you!
You Scratch God’s Back, He’ll Scratch Yours
There is an unspoken, yet undeniable, law of reciprocity woven throughout the entire first five narrative. Be good, and God will give you what you want. Be bad, and God will literally wipe you off the face of the earth. Which, incidentally, comes in handy when…
We’re Building a Society Here, People
The thought I had at the end of these first five books is that it’s tough to build a society. People are unruly and selfish. How do you compel them to live in peace with each other, much less motivate them toward a shared vision of nationhood that requires they violently eject all the resident people of the “promised land?”
I guess the fear of God is a pretty good incentive.
I’m not saying Moses was a savvy politician who fostered public terror of an unknown, capricious deity, leveraging it to his own advantage. (A role model for the religious right?)
But, reading the Bible through this time around, it certainly seemed plausible that, in an early human effort to establish law and order and something resembling society, it might have been very expedient to build a national identity based on the Hebrew story of having been “chosen” by Yahweh, fathered by Abraham, and promised a land flowing with milk and honey. It doesn’t necessarily mean these things aren’t true – it’s just another way of looking at how this particular record was formed.
Deuteronomy is essentially a giant recap, laying it on thick about how indebted and obligated the people of Israel are to Yahweh and to Moses himself. Frankly, the quid pro quo nature of religious practice really sets up the need for Jesus to come turn the whole system on its head the way he does later on. The entire society was predicated on adherence to the law out of fear of retribution. So, naturally, the ritual becomes meaningless.
As long as I do A, B, and C, I’m ‘safe.’
You didn’t have to “circumcise your heart,” as so many later passages in the Bible plead – just your penis. Despite the sacrifice & pain, it was a one-time deal – not like having to actually think on a daily basis about how to live a life of meaning.
The prophets who come later were simply people who called out the meaningless ritual for what it was. (We have them today. Might be worth listening to them every now & again.)
So, it’s time to move onto Joshua.
While I’m glad to have the Pentateuch behind me, it has certainly given me food for thought. It’s pretty foundational to the rest of the story, obviously. And large parts of it did feel like I was reconnecting with an old friend. I expect I’ll be checking back in from time to time as I finish my 90 days!