Category: The Bible as literature

71. The Holy Bible. The Old Testament. The Book of Psalms.

71. The Holy Bible. The Old Testament. The Book of Psalms.

150 prayers and songs of praise, about half of these doubtfully attributed to King David.

My thoughts : It is probably a truism that the best of a large set of anything will inevitably also be the best known to the novice. Beethoven’s Fifth, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. And in this case, Psalm 23. It is so superior to the rest of the Psalms, in both a literary and emotional sense. For anyone not knowing it by its number, you will surely recognize it from the image at the top of the post.

I must admit myself hugely disappointed with most of the rest of the Psalms. Many seem to exist just as much to beseech God’s protection from enemies as to praise Him. Indeed, the praising of God in these Psalms seems to be largely a means to winning His assistance in raising up the author and bringing down his adversaries. Psalm 13 is almost petulant while Psalm 44 is quite demanding in their appeals to God. Psalms 96-100 and 145-150 do solely offer up praise but it is a long read to get to them, and I admit after the first hundred, I started to skim over the remaining Psalms and skipped those which focused on seeking retribution or salvation from enemies.

Some also switch back and forth addressing both the Lord and David’s enemies in the same Psalm, or seem to change voice from the psalter to the Lord and back, making the reading more difficult and causing much re-reading on my part.

No doubt I could have learned more by studying each Psalm with the help of one of hundreds of online Bible study websites, but I think I got the overall flavour of the Book of Psalms,  and am now ready to move on.

Favourite lines/passages: Other than Psalm 23, my favourite Psalms were 104 and 121. Psalm 104 was my overall favourite probably because it dwells on the creation and wonders of the natural world. Psalm 104 is one of the longer Psalms but well worth the read and I couldn’t pick out particular lines to highlight so I simply recommend it to you.

Psalm 121 starts with

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made Heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved; he that keepeth thee will not slumber ….. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil; he shall preserve thy soul. The Lord shall preserve thy going out, and thy coming in, from this time forth, and even for evermore.”

The beginning of Psalm 69 resonated for me as well from its depiction of sheer despair…

“Save me, O God, for the waters are come in unto my soul. I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing; I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me. I am weary of my crying; my throat is dried; mine eyes fail while I wait for my God.”

… but then it too began to seek relief from enemies.

“They that hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of mine head ; they that would destroy me, being mine enemies wrongfully are mighty….”

Diversions and digressions:  The word selah appears many times within individual Psalms. The meaning of the word is not known for certain, but a case can be made for either “pause”, being an instruction to the singers or musicians, or “praise”, or a practical combination of the two.

Personal rating varied from many 1 or 2 to a very few 6, so I will give it an average of 3.

Next : I was going to continue with The Old Testament, specifically The Book of Proverbs, but I think something else might be more palatable right now so I will draw a deep breath and opt for the early Socratic dialogues of Plato, comprising Charmides, Ion, Laches, Lysis, Hippias Major and Hippias Minor, and Euthydemus . Frying pan? Fire?

 

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70. The Holy Bible : The Old Testament : The Book of Job

70. The Holy Bible : The Old Testament : The Book of Job

This post and the next few will cover the Books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and The Song of Solomon. For the earlier books of the Old Testament, see posts 22 and 47.

My thoughts

After Genesis and Exodus, these are probably the books I was most looking forward to. Which makes my initial foray into Job such a disappointment as I found it very hard going.

Job is the most righteous man alive, worshiping God and shunning evil. He is also very wealthy, blessed with family and large numbers of livestock and slaves. God asks Satan if he has seen anyone in his travels as worthy, and Satan remarks that if  all of Job’s wealth was removed, Job would soon turn to cursing God. God allows Satan to take everything away from Job and kill his sons, yet Job remains worshipful.

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away – blessed be the name of the Lord.”       Job, 1:21

Again Satan asks God to test Job by taking away his health, and God allows Satan to cover Job with boils, and yet he still stays faithful.

“Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?”      Job, 2:10

Job is then visited by three ‘friends’ : Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, who remonstrate with him that he must have sinned against God and he should now repent, as God would not punish the innocent so.

And here is where I started to lose the thread of the arguments, for now Job appears to question God’s actions and demand an explanation. God’s voice comes out of a whirlwind and describes His own wisdom and omnipotence without explaining why Job has been made to suffer. Nevertheless Job repents and admits his lack of wisdom and is restored to health, wealth and family.

Since Job is synonymous with patience, I expected some sort of superhuman endurance and resistance by Job to all the misfortune suffered, which he does demonstrate until his ‘friends’ arrive on the scene. The arguments of his three ‘friends’ and the mysterious fourth commentator Elihu are confounding and I had to look for explanation elsewhere. Luckily one of my staff is a Bible scholar and happened to be studying Job this week, so we have had a few chats about it.

I found it interesting that Satan could tempt God into allowing him to test Job. Surely God would be immune to Satan’s tricks and temptations?

Favourite lines/passages

“for the arrows of the Almighty are within me, the poison whereof drinketh up my spirit ; the terrors of God do set themselves in array against me”                                                  Job, 6:4

“For we are but of yesterday, and know nothing, because our days upon earth are a shadow”                                                                                                                                                    Job, 8:9

and the rather obscure pronouncement from Job

“I am a brother to dragons and a companion to owls”                                                       Job, 30: 29

Diversions/digressions

Who was the shortest man in the Bible?  Bildad the Shuhite 😉

Personal rating : 3

Next:  The Book of Psalms

 

47. The Holy Bible : The Old Testament : part 2 : the Historical Books (King James version)

47. The Holy Bible : The Old Testament : part 2 : the Historical Books (King James version)

This section covers the Books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther. For the earlier five books, see post numbered 22.

My thoughts : As said previously, I will not comment on the text as religion, merely my experiences in dealing with the books as literature and evidence of life and customs in the ancient world.

Here there comes a real divergence in structure between the Hebrew, Protestant, Catholic and Eastern orthodox versions of the Old Testament. Some versions have more or less books than those listed above, but I will be sticking with the Protestant canon, and specifically the King James version.

The Book of Joshua starts where the book of Moses finished;  with the recognition of Joshua as Moses’ successor. Joshua leads the invading army of Israelites across the Jordan (when the waters part in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant) to destroy all the peoples already living in the Promised Land, and divides the land between the tribes of Israel.

Not that I am a regular church goer by any stretch, but very little of the people and events in Judges had I ever heard of : Judah, Othniel, Deborah and Barak, Gideon, Abimelech, Jotham, or Jephthah, until we finally get to Samson and Delilah (Chapters 14-16).

Likewise in the Books of Samuel,  I was unfamiliar with much about Samuel or Saul until I reached David, and his defeat of Goliath (“whose height was six cubits and a span”, or eleven and a half feet tall!) using his sling and a stone. Eventually David becomes King of Israel, defeating Saul and his sons. (God had turned away and forsaken Saul because he had disobeyed the strict instructions to kill not only all the men, women and children, but also all the livestock, and kept the best sheep and cows to offer as sacrifice to the Lord)

David is the closest person to a modern idea of a Christian (of course, the term Christian has little meaning at this stage when the devout obey God’s law, while the heathen do not) but he shows remorse for his actions (such as having Bethsheba’s husband sent into the front line to be killed so he can have her) and is willing to forgive his enemies. The most heartbreaking section was Absalom turning on his father King David to wrest Israel from him, and despite this treachery, David’s heartache and grief when Absalom is killed (2 Samuel 18)

The two Books of Kings are a long stretch of the history of the Kings of Israel and Judah, many of whom turned away from God, and worshipped idols, causing their peoples’ eventual exile from their land. Notable in this section were the abilities of Elisha which foreshadowed Jesus’ miracles (raising the dead, feeding the multitudes, curing leprosy). The following two Books of Chronicles repeats much of the history content of the Books of Kings, finishing again with the overthrow of the Israelites by King Nebuchadnezzar, and the people being taken captive to Babylon.

The Books of Ezra and Nememiah start with the Lord stirring up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia (who we were introduced to by Herodotus when he spared the life of King Croesus) to rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, and release the people to return there. In Ezra (the priest)  and Nememiah (the governor), the text moves in and out of first-person, as if it has been clumsily edited together, which raises the whole issue of exactly how many authors produced the Old Testament – I have heard more than forty suggested. One good editor amongst them wouldn’t have gone amiss!

Different again is the Book of Esther, which reads more like a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm ; not mentioning the Lord or scriptures at all, but describing a Cinderella-like girl who becomes Queen to King Ahasuerus (who ruled the lands from India to Ethiopia) defeating the looming threat of the genocide of the Jews, including her foster parent Mordecai, from the scheming court official Haman, who ends up hanged from the very scaffold he had built to execute Mordecai. But true to Old Testament form, the slaughter is reversed so that the Jews instead kill all their enemies.

Things I learnt from this section of the Old Testament

  • It wasn’t the sound of the trumpets which destroyed the walls of Jericho, but the final shout of the Israelite army after the walls had been circled seven times and the trumpets blown.
  • The continuing and repeated times the Israelites turned away from God and worshipped idols
  • When Samson brings down the building, killing himself and the Philistines within, there were also three thousand Philistines on the roof watching his ridicule, who presumably perished with the rest
  • Saul seeking out a witch to raise the spirit of Samuel to seek advice – ghosts in the Bible?!
  • “For the battle was there scattered over the face of all the country: and the wood devoured more people that day than the sword devoured.” At first I took this to mean that the trees came alive in some way, which seemed reinforced by the way Absalom being caught by the neck and lifted off his mule by the tree branch, but then perhaps I just read too much Tolkien, and it simply refers to the rough terrain impeding the flight of Absalom’s forces (2 Samuel 18 : 8-10)
  • Goliath had four sons, all giants, and all slain by the soldiers of Israel
  • David took a census of the Israelites, which angered God (was this a prideful act on David’s part?) so much that He sent a plague on the Israelites
  • Elisha mocked by little children, turns and curses them, and then two bears come out of the wood and ate them (although some scholars interpret children in this passage to mean uneducated people, which is not much of an improvement!)

The language of the King James version in these histories, particularly the Books of Samuel, was hard to decipher at times, and I just had to keep reading until further events clarified what had happened.

Favourite lines/passages

The Lord maketh poor and maketh rich : he bringeth low, and lifteth up. He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory, for the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s and he hath set the world upon them.                                                                                                 1 Samuel 2 : 7-8

For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers; our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding.                                          1 Chronicles 29 : 15 

Personal rating : I didn’t feel I gained much at all from this reading. Just a 2.

Next :  From the not-quite-sublime to the ridiculous?  The Wasps by Aristophanes

22. The Holy Bible : The Old Testament books 1-5

The Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)
covering from the creation of the Heavens and the Earth, to the death of Moses.

eden
My thoughts : As said previously, I will not comment on the text as religion, merely my experiences in dealing with the books as literature and evidence of life and customs in the ancient world.
I have not read the Bible in detail before, but having grown up in a Christian environment and done my fair share of Sunday School classes, the basic stories were familiar : the Creation, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Abel and Cain, Noah and his Ark, the Tower of Babel, Lot escaping from Sodom and Gomorrah, and the story of Moses from being found as a babe in the bullrushes beside the Nile, through the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and the 40 years in the wilderness.
Reading the complete books was quite laborious with so much repetition (Deuteronomy was almost entirely repetition of earlier sections), family histories, and detail of sacrifices (reminiscent of the offerings to the Gods in Homer’s Iliad). There was quite a long section inserted in the story of Moses to proscribe laws, not a little unlike the Laws of Hammurabi to protect society and provide guidelines for conduct. But I did learn some details to the above stories, at least by my interpretation of the text
• Man was meant to be a vegetarian, but had come to eating meat by the time of Noah
• There were two trees in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve and Adam ate of the latter, and God banished them from the Garden in case they also ate of the Tree of Life and became immortal
• The mark put on Cain was to warn others not to kill him so he would long suffer for his sin
• There were giants in the days of Methuselah
• Noah collected seven pairs of each type of clean (edible) animal and one pair of each type of unclean animal. It rained for 40 days but the flood stayed on the earth for 150 days.
• Esau the hairy man and hunter, and his untrustworthy brother Jacob. Esau reminded me of Enkidu from the Gilgamesh epic. His description here seems too much for coincidence.
• There was a second set of tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed presented to Noah by God after the first were smashed
• The dietary restrictions other than pigs, such as rabbits, swans and seafood
• The Israelites’ forty years wandering in the wilderness was to ensure none of that generation, who had disobeyed and angered God, survived to see the promised land of milk and honey
There were also some things that disturbed me. The severity of God’s punishments, and his favouritism of the Israelites (despite their repeated transgressions) over the Canaanites, the Amorites and other tribes, was difficult to connect with the loving God of the New Testament. Lot offering up his daughters to the mob that visited his house to sodomise his guests. The plagues inflicted on the Egyptians as a result of Pharoah’s refusal to release the Israelites, yet it was God himself who repeatedly hardened Pharoah’s heart so He had reason to continue demonstrating His powers, even to killing the first born of every Egyptian family. The war against the Midianites, where Moses insisted after the battle that his soldiers kill all the women and male children, and enslave the girl children. The God of the Old Testament is indeed a jealous God and one ready to demand love through fear.

The Book of Deuteronomy ends with the Song of Moses, which has some vivid imagery in stark contrast to the tedious repetition of the preceding chapters.

“My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass” Deut. 32 : 2

“For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah; their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter, their wine is the poison of dragons and the cruel venom of asps.” Deut 32 : 32-33.

Favourite lines/passages : The lines that immediately resonated with me were those that have been quoted so often since, notably “I have been a stranger in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22) and “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live (Exodus 22 : 18) but my favourite was very reassuring on a personal level in the section about lepers “And the man whose hair is fallen off his head, he is bald yet he is clean” (Leviticus 13 : 40) Phew!

Personal rating : As the source of literary themes and background, Genesis and Exodus were worthwhile reading. The other three books were a disagreeable and diminishing experience to read. 3/10

Next : I need a break before tacking more Old Testament, so I will move onto the Odes of Pindar.

The Holy Bible : include or not? how and when?

One of the early decision points on this blog was whether to include the Bible, and if so how and when?

Firstly, I am not going to start an argument about whether The Bible is fiction or not. This is a literature blog. The Bible makes inspiring and interesting literature, just as the other sacred works, science and history texts which i will be reading, and that’s good enough for me. Besides, I haven’t read much of it, so this is a good way to ensure I do cover it. It is obviously a major influence on Western literature and history, so reading it will provide the background and understanding of a wealth of references which I am only partially familiar with now.

Secondly, how to read it? There are many Internet sites that guide readers through the Bible-in-a-year, Bible-in -90-days etc, reading plans, so you may want to look at some of those and tackle the Bible a few verses at a time over a long period. I have decided I don’t want to read the whole Bible in one stretch, so I will read a group  of ‘Books’ or chapters at a time, starting around October with the first five Books (also known as the Pentateuch).

Thirdly, like many ancient texts, there are differing opinions on when each Book was written, so my allocation against other works is a little arbitrary. Apologies to those even more orderly than I am. Also, I have decided to read the Books in their order within the Old Testament, as some scholars believe different Books were written down in different orders, but for me it makes sense to start with Genesis and move forward from there.