Cruel and unusual: Deuteronomy 13

Sometimes it’s good to go back to the Bible itself in order to refresh your memory of just what it says. You can read the whole thing – more than once, even – and still not recall passages like this one with more than a vague distaste. It’s surely among the most despicable and illiberal in a book not known for its openness to plurality of opinion. No discussion of biblical morality is complete without it.

1: If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder,

2: And the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them; 

3: Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the LORD your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 

4: Ye shall walk after the LORD your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and ye shall serve him, and cleave unto him. 

5: And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he hath spoken to turn you away from the LORD your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to thrust thee out of the way which the LORD thy God commanded thee to walk in. So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee. 

6: If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; 

7: Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; 

8: Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: 

9: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. 

10: And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. 

11: And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and shall do no more any such wickedness* as this is among you. 

* The use of “wickedness” by the author(s) of this passage is pure, unadulterated chutzpah. Weep, O Israel.

An insult to language

I haven’t read Susan Jacoby’s “Spirited Atheist” column in a month or two, but today I found an absolutely wonderful article on A.C. Grayling’s The Good Book: A Humanist/Secular Bible. Suffice to say the first time I read any of Grayling’s souped-up anthology I thought it sounded awful, like one of the umpteen translations of Genesis that try too hard at saying the same well-worn phrases in novel ways. But how many ways can you find to write, “In the beginning…?” They all just end up sounding vaguely “biblical” no matter how you rearrange the words (which is likely the point.) Here’s Jacoby:

Let me quote from the first chapter of the first “book” (again, modeled after the format of a standard bible), called—what else?—Genesis.“In the garden stands a tree. In springtime it bears flowers; in the autumn, fruit. The fruit is knowledge, teaching the good gardener how to understand the world…When Newton sat in his garden, and saw what no one had ever seen before: that an apple draws the earth to itself, and the earth the apple….”

You can’t satirize this stuff. Forget the vapidity of the language. It’s not even factually accurate, which, at a minimum, a secular bible ought to be. Another chapter (9:18) has arteries carrying “nascent blood,” while “lengthening veins return the crimson flood.” Wrong again. Arteries carry bright red blood, because it is fully oxygenated, away from the heart, while the returning blood in veins is much darker because it is generally deoxygenated.

Apart from my initial sense of enthusiasm on hearing about Grayling’s Good Book, I’ve had some reservations about it (I generally enjoy Grayling’s work). I’m not sure how homogenizing 3000 years of wisdom into an authorless mish-mash of slightly “elevated” (read: biblical) language serves any purpose – especially if one’s purpose is to offer an alternative to the Bible. One thing I love about literature is knowing who wrote what, when. I think that really does matter in the end. And unless the intent is satire, I don’t think many atheists/secularists will be drawn to a book based chapter-and-verse on another book we’ve read – and often trashed – the Bible.

Jacoby sums up:

There has already been a good deal written, particularly in England, about whether Grayling’s bible insults religion. This is utterly beside the point, since the book is an insult to language, to authors who deserve credit for their words, to translators who deserve credit for translating those words, and, above all, to the intelligence of secular readers. We don’t have one Good Book. We have good books, thousands of years of them, and the real Euripides, Shakespeare, Spinoza and Darwin are all available to provide a genuine humanistic education.

Exactly. Who the hell needs a sterilized version of Shakespeare, anyway?

A Bible in Every Home

The Klansmen up north now want to make sure every home has a bible in it, at least in their jurisdiction. Re-christianization? You’d think there were menorahs in every public place and synagogues a-go-go, or perhaps the piercing cry of a muezzin penetrating the whine of the baby Jesus on Christmas day. Just what are these people fighting for, and against? They already live in a society that protects their religion on a silver platter, with a separate clause in the Constitution just for them. Now they want to throw out all the immigrants (non-Christians, or just “non-whites?”) and enrich the bookshelves of those allowed to stay with a book they probably haven’t even read themselves.

I agree that every person should read the bible at least once. Only then can they grasp the madness that drives such crusades as this.

The Year of Living Jesusly

There is a new book out by Rev. Ed Dobson, who tried to live like Jesus for a year. Apparently the question WWJD was unanswerable, so he decided to take the matter into his own hands. Of course the good Rev. is following in the wake of A.J. Jacobs’s Year of Living Biblically and Benyamin Cohen’s My Jesus Year, both wholehearted attempts (well, not exactly) to come to grips with the “reality” of the Bible and/or its most famous son in the twenty-first century. I read Jacobs’s book, which was at times funny, insightful and gratifying – enough so that I feel I can skip the other two and any others that might crop up in their wake.

Anyway, this book has some pretty poorly researched marketing. Read on: “Live one year as Jesus lived. Eat as Jesus ate. Pray as Jesus prayed. Observe the sabbath as Jesus observed. Attend the Jewish festivals as Jesus attended. Read the Gospels every week.”

Read the Gospels? Maybe it’s just me, but isn’t the whole point of the Gospels that, by the time they were written, Jesus was already dead? Or does Jesus read them in heaven? If so, I hope he’s learned Greek by now.

Well, I’m saving up my energy for my first book, My Year of Impersonating Muhammad. I hope nobody’s thought of that one yet. It should be a wild romp!