31 December 2010

Last thoughts

I made it! I read through and blogged the whole Bible. Here are my closing thoughts, in no particular order.

Was it worth it?

This project started as a whim; a bubble of an idea inspired by my shiny new Kindle (which I still love). I probably averaged around 45 minutes per day of reading, writing, and background research (not counting the time spent reading books about the Bible), so there were many times when I wanted to just drop the whole project and reclaim my time. 

But overall, it was worth it. Independent of the subject I chose to study, it was good to set a goal of blogging daily and follow through on it. Having a project that required daily output provided a good opportunity to show myself how much I could accomplish in a year. I have no idea how many words I wrote, but I am guessing it averaged at least several hundred per day. To just pick a number, 300 words a day for a year is over 100,000 words, enough, according to the internet, to make an average length novel.

As for choosing to read the Bible, it was as good a topic as any, and probably better than many. I learned a lot about the Bible's origins and its content. Given that I live in a predominantly Christian culture, knowing the Bible is useful. To some degree, the benefits have been immediate; there were at least two times this year that I understood a literary allusion that would have gone over my head if not for my Bible project.

Was it interesting?

Overall, no. The Bible has some good passages and stories, but those, for the most part, are the sections that you are already familiar with (Judges and selected passages of the prophets provide the main sources of surprisingly interesting text).

However, a lot of the Bible is dull and repetitive. If we could have skipped the detailed descriptions of buildings (temple, tabernacle, a palace or two) and the clothing of priests, we could have cut at least a couple weeks off of the readings. Probably a month. Another week could be dropped if genealogies were skipped. Dropping the passages that were word for word reproductions of other parts of the Bible would get back at least another week (Chronicles and Samuel/Kings, I am looking at you; synoptic gospels, you also get a glance).

Much of the rest of the Bible contains repetition that is more justifiable. Although the histories of Chronicles and Samuel/Kings sometimes share text verbatim, at other times they give different perspectives on the same issue. The same can be said for the gospels, prophets, and letters of Paul (in short, the vast majority of the Bible). But still, much of the repetition seems to provide little or no value.

In short, God needs a better editor.

Did this project change my opinion of the Bible?

To be honest, I haven't the foggiest idea. It did not fundamentally change my opinion of the Bible, but it's hard to remember the details of the opinions that I held then for comparison to those I hold now.

For example, I am strongly of the opinion that the authors of the books of the Bible believed that they were communicating messages they received from God. The prophets probably really saw visions (even though, like with dreams, most of the details were filled in during the retelling). The people who wrote books in the names of others probably really thought that the person they were attributing their words to would have held the same ideas in similar contexts. However, I cannot remember what I felt about this topic last January.

The gist of my opinion of the Bible as a holy book has not changed. It can still be summed up with "Is this the best you can do?" As the words of different people trying to find their place in the world, the Bible is a fascinating piece of literature. As a holy book, something meant to convey universal truths and/or instruction, it is a failure.

I have heard or been told many times that the words of the Bible are convincing. That if non-believers would just read the Bible with an open heart and an open mind, they would come away seeing its truth. Those people obviously have not read the Bible. I started this project with, I believe, a heart and mind as open as a doubter could have and have come away only strengthened in my opinion one of the worst things a doubter could do to convince them of the truth of the Bible is to seriously read the whole thing.

What stuck out the most?

I have been harping on this a lot lately, but I feel the need to take one last opportunity to say how selectively the Bible is used, both within the Bible and by modern day readers of the Bible.

Within the Bible, the authors of the New Testament books selectively apply the Hebrew scriptures. Suppose we are generous and grant that the authors of the Hebrew scriptures were writing words with double meanings that even they would be surprised at. Even then, when you look at the original context of the fragments of Hebrew scripture quoted by New Testament authors, you can see that most of the time, those fragments, which seem so applicable when quoted, are surrounded by other verses that have no applicability to the point the NT author is trying to make. Sometimes, they even contradict the point those authors are trying to make.

Reading the whole Bible also highlights how selective modern day readers tend to be when they quote the Bible. The worst source of offence is the psalms. Time and time again, I would read a psalm and see some familiar verses just to learn that they are surrounded by verses about God's wrath, requests for revenge upon enemies, etc. But this tendency is not limited to the psalms. Familiar verses are often surrounded by verses that are not just unfamiliar but which are downright at odds with modern beliefs about God and/or Christianity.

I was also amazed to discover how non-biblical much modern Christian thought is. This includes modern beliefs that have little to no biblical basis (e.g., most beliefs about heaven, hell, and angels) and ideas that are expressed in the Bible and ignored by modern believers. The later category is harder to give an example for since most examples are noticed by some people and ignored by others. Thus, some Christians both listen to and try to live by Jesus' words on wealth redistribution while others would likely be surprised to learn they are there.

This ties in with the final thing that stuck out to me: it would be hard to build a coherent belief system that truly took all of the Bible into account. This is to be expected in a book that is large in words, historical scope, and variety of authors. However, for those who believe that the Bible does contain a coherent belief system, this ought to be more worrisome than it seems to be. Almost any belief a Christian holds is challenged somewhere in the Bible. Yet few and far between are the Christians who avoid the trap of certainty.

This tendency is even worse, in my opinion, when some churches claim to know that other churches are flat out wrong. For most conflicts about biblical validity of beliefs within the church, the Bible allows both sides to make a case. Very, very few things can be said to have unambiguous biblical support when the Bible is considered holistically.

Would I do it again?


Well, maybe. There are Bibles which order the texts chronologically. I might be interesting to read through one of those. But I probably wouldn't bother to blog it.

In any case, if you base you beliefs on the Bible and haven't read through the whole thing, you definitely should do so. Even if you don't expect to understand it all (and you certainly shouldn't expect to), it's good to know what you are basing your life on.

Dec 31

Reference links:
Old Testament

We have reached the last day! I will have a post or two summing up some thoughts, but first, let's finish this thing.

Amongst other reasons, Christians reordered the Jewish scriptures so that the Old Testament would end with what could be considered a messianic prophecy. Let's see whether today's reading, the last in Malachi and the last in the Old Testament, manages to pull that off.

Today's reading talks all about the end times, the day of judgment, and the coming of the Lord. That coming is described at length:
But who will be able to endure it when [the Lord who follows the messenger] comes? Who will be able to stand and face him when he appears? For he will be like a blazing fire that refines metal, or like a strong soap that bleaches clothes. He will sit like a refiner of silver, burning away the dross. He will purify the Levites, refining them like gold and silver, so that they may once again offer acceptable sacrifices to the Lord. Then once more the Lord will accept the offerings brought to him by the people of Judah and Jerusalem, as he did in the past.
Certainly, this does not refer to the life of Jesus as described in the New Testament. Jesus the man certainly cannot live up to the description above. But the New Testament makes clear that Levites and sacrifices will not be the issue of the day when their visions of Jesus are fulfilled. Thus, taken as a whole, Jesus seems like a week candidate for filling the role of Malachi's returned Lord.

This is followed by a exchange where God accuses the people of leaving him, cheating him, and saying terrible things about him, they deny it, and he illustrates how they have.

The OT ends with a declaration that the day of judgment is coming to consume the wicked. The righteous will be blessed and the wicked destroyed. And, just to provide one more illustration of how the New Testament does not really fit the bill as a fulfillment of the Old Testament, the penultimate declaration of the Old Testament is
Remember to obey the Law of Moses, my servant—all the decrees and regulations that I gave him on Mount Sinai for all Israel.
The people are told to remember to obey the Law of Moses, the law that was considered obsolete in much New Testament thought (especially from Paul). By contrast, the reading, book, and OT end with a NT cited statement that Elijah will be sent before the day of the Lord comes.

Thus, our Old Testament readings end with yet another illustration of the the pervasive theme of selective application of the Hebrew scriptures by the early Christian authors.

New Testament

The end of Revelation continues its cheery tone (well, cheery for those who did not die horrible and painful deaths or get condemned to eternal torture). The speaker sees a river filled with the water of life and two trees of life whose leaves bring healing. Past curses are removed, and everyone remaining will live in the light of God.

This is followed by a postscript from the author. John declares that he is the one who heard and saw these things and was told to share his vision for the end times are near. The message John received is declared to be from Jesus. A warning is given not to change the words of this book. And the book is closed and the Bible ends.

Thus, the NT, like the old, ends on a theme that we have seen throughout the year: the NT authors consistently declare the end times to be near.

Psalms and Proverbs

Our readings end on kind of a random note: the rest of the proverbial poem about the virtues of a good wife.

30 December 2010

Dec 30

Reference links:
Old Testament

It's the very last book in the Christian ordering of the Old Testament books. It seems odd to think that after a year, we are almost done. What will our last book be about?
Contrasting foreign nations that honor Yahweh with Judah's apathetic sacrificial cult, the prophet Malachi instructs a disspirited, disorganized audience of Judeans on how to please their God and predicts the future Day of Yahweh, evoking the reappearance of Elijah and the coming of Yahweh's irresistible messenger of the covenant. 
... In Protestant and Catholic bibles, Malachi appears as the last book of the Old Testament, an appropriate placement because the book concludes with a prediction that Yahweh will send a "messenger" who will prepare his people for the climatic event of history, the Day of Yahweh. The title of the book, Malachi, means "my messenger"; it may have been taken from the reference at 3:1 and may not be the name of a historical prophet. Although the text gives no information about the writer or the time of composition, the book is customarily dated in the fifth century BCE, shortly before the time when traditional prophecy in Israel is thought to have ceased. 
When we get to today's reading, we see that the "apathetic sacrificial cult" that Harris refers to brings up one of those topics that are uncomfortable for moderns. If, as other prophets claim, it is the state of the heart of the one who gives the offering that matters, why is God so obsessed with physical perfection of the sacrificial animals? Perhaps, one might claim, the problem is that these animals are being given as sacrifices just to get rid of them. However, that stands rather in contrast to prophet's reasoning as to why such sacrifices are bad:
When you give blind animals as sacrifices, isn’t that wrong? And isn’t it wrong to offer animals that are crippled and diseased? Try giving gifts like that to your governor, and see how pleased he is!” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
Are we to be expected to believe that a governor cares about the state of heart of those who give him gifts? No! He just cares about the quality goods. By analogy, that is what the prophet is implying about God. A later statement further supports the "you should give me good things because I am powerful" view of Malachi's God:
“Cursed is the cheat who promises to give a fine ram from his flock but then sacrifices a defective one to the Lord. For I am a great king,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “and my name is feared among the nations!"

The next interesting bit is Malachi's claim that other nations honor Yahweh:
But my name is honored by people of other nations from morning till night. All around the world they offer sweet incense and pure offerings in honor of my name.
Is this a claim that other people were honoring the God of Israel, or is it a claim for the more universalist belief that other people worshiping their gods purely were actually honoring the one true God claimed as the God of Israel?

This discussion is followed by a stern warning to the Levites to shape up.

The next section starts with a rather quotable bit:
Are we not all children of the same Father? Are we not all created by the same God? Then why do we betray each other, violating the covenant of our ancestors?
As is usually the case with quotable passages of the Bible, this is followed by some bits that do not seem to have quite as much continuing relevance. In this case, the author rants against men who marry women who worship idols. The following bit ranting against men who are unfaithful to their wives and against divorce have greater continued relevant. The bit about divorce is, in fact often quoted at length.

Tomorrow we finish Malachi and the Bible.

New Testament

Today's reading starts with a verse that implies that the author of Revelation believed, or at least was willing to assume, the ancient Jewish cosmology of the earth and heavens existing in the midst of a primordial ocean:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone.
At this point everything, including Jerusalem, is renewed, and God will live among his people. Everyone good and victorious will receive blessings and all who are evil or do not believe will be thrown into the fiery lake.

The renewed Jerusalem is presented as the bride of the lamb, and it has all sorts of symbolic construction details. It is from this description that we get popular depictions of heaven as a place full of things like streets of gold.

Psalms and Proverbs

Today's proverbs are all about the value and skills of a virtuous wife.

29 December 2010

Dec 29

Reference links:
Old Testament

Last day of Zechariah. The day of the Lord is coming, and bad things will happen in Jerusalem. Half the population will be taken into captivity. Wait, didn't that already happen? So the day of the Lord is going to be a repeat of Babylon's conquering of the city? That's not very creative of Zechariah.

But this time the Lord jumps into the fray. Amongst other things, he will divide a mountain for people to flee through. Is that more or less impressive than splitting a sea? A mountain is harder to split, but a sea is harder to keep split.

After the Lord takes action, good things happen in Jerusalem: it will always be light without the aid of the sun and the moon (actually, I think that would be freaky, but it's meant to be taken as good), life-giving waters will flow from Jerusalem, and the Lord will be worshiped over all the earth. The population of Jerusalem will grow. And the nations which fought against Jerusalem will suffer from plague.
Their people will become like walking corpses, their flesh rotting away. Their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths.
Oh wait, that last one is only good if you believe that Israel is the only nation that is worth anything to God.

And people will panic and fight their neighbors and lose wealth and livestock... these continue to be things that are not good. The nations will eventually come to worship the Lord through blackmail: any nation that does not worship him will suffer from droughts and plagues.

And there, after a brief side note about how everything will be holy, ends Zechariah. His vision of the end times certainly strikes me as rather vengeful. The end times, in his view, are simply the time when his God chooses to tyrannically exert the power that he already posses. The only people who really matter are God's chosen people. All others are relevant only in so far as they relate to Jerusalem.

All in all, Zechariah was interesting but did not provide any insights.

New Testament

An angel throws the dragon (Satan) into a pit for 1000 years. For some reason, after that millennium, he must be allowed brief freedom once again. During this 1000 years, the martyred believers rule with Christ (but no one else is resurrected yet).

After the 1000 years, Satan is freed again and goes about to deceive that nations. He gathered an army to attack a city, but fire from heaven defeated them. At this point, Satan is thrown into the lake of fire with the beast and the false prophet.

That whole episode was rather pointless. Why not just throw Satan into the lake of fire in the first place? Obviously, it's because this is all symbolism that I don't get, but from a literary perspective, it's terrible story telling.

This is followed by an entertaining image of the earth and the sky fleeing from a being on a great white throne.

The being on the throne judges all of the dead and all whose name was not recorded in the Book of Life were thrown into the lake of fire with the devil, the beast, and the false prophet. This brings up the ever pertinent question: is it really just to prescribe eternal punishment and torture for the sins of any finite lifetime? I would say no.

Psalms and Proverbs

Today's proverbs contain the good advice to speak up for the poor and helpless:
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves;
ensure justice for those being crushed.
Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless,
and see that they get justice.

28 December 2010

Dec 28

Reference links:
Old Testament

Today's reading contrasts a universal God with a partisan God. The opening of today's reading contains this statement:
This message is from the Lord, who stretched out the heavens, laid the foundations of the earth, and formed the human spirit.
and continues with a lengthy discussion of how God will bless Judah and Jerusalem with military might, and they will defeat everyone else.

We also see what seems to be one of the inspirations for the story of Jesus:
They will look on me whom they have pierced and mourn for him as for an only son.
This is followed by a prediction of the restoration of peace in Israel. A fountain will cleanse all of the people from their sins and the Lord will erase idol worship. Sounds rather like Zechariah is not big on the whole free will thing, but I don't think free will is as Biblical a concept as many moderns make it out to be.

The Lord will also eliminate false prophecy by allowing murder for those who give false prophecy (with particular encouragement for parents to murder their children). Rather an extreme punishment for the crime, in my opinion. Also, one wonders how good life is when parents would murder their children. I certainly would not want to live in a world where the response to dissent was murder by family members. That sounds more like a dystopia than a utopia.

Today's reading ends with a bit of verse that may well have inspired Revelation. It talks of punishment and destruction. During that time, 2/3 of the people will die and 1/3 will live. These proportions should be familiar.

New Testament

Today's reading starts with a bunch of praise because God finally killed off all the evil people.

Then a white horse appears carrying a man who will be a dictator over all the nations. He will be called the
King of all kings and Lord of all lords
This is followed by a gruesome image where vultures are invited to feast on the bodies of humanity.

The man on the white horse defeats the beast and the kings of the earth. The beast and his false prophet were thrown alive into burning lakes, their followers were killed, and the vultures feasted.

One commonality in today's OT and NT readings is that they both present a time where God is reigning with his power, and they both sound like rather unpleasant times to be in. Not just the death and destruction; it is feasible to consider those are unavoidable side effects of getting to peace.

Rather, they sound unpleasant because they emphasize the dictatorial, unbending, restricted nature of those times. The people who are remaining in those times seem to be those who do not mind bending their will to that of an unforgiving leader, but, just in case their are dissenters, there are flaming lakes, vultures, and murderous families to take care of them.

It's as if the authors of these books do not really believe humanity can be reformed; rather, they seem to think the best that can be done is to select for the most obedient members and destroy all who do not toe the line.

Psalms and Proverbs

It's a long readings in proverbs today. According to the chapter heading, we are reading the sayings of King Lemuel. According to Wikipedia, no one really knows who King Lemuel was. Tradition equates him with Solomon, but that is just a hypothesis based on tradition and weak inferences from the meaning of the name Lemuel.

In any case, Lemuel claims that his mother taught him these sayings. The advice starts with a warning against wasting strength on women. If Lemuel was Solomon, he of many wives and concubines, he certainly did not listen to this advice from his mother.

Lemuel is also warned against drinking since it may prevent them from giving justice. Instead, only the dying and those in distress should drink. I am not sure I agree that it is good for those in poverty and distress to drink away their sorrows, but since this was targeted at a king, the point is: don't drink to excess.