On Re-reading the Bible

By October 2, 2000 No Comments

There are a few books that should be re-read every few years, only because there is either always something fresh in them, or because the lessons — or warnings — they offer need to be kept current.

A list that would come highly recommend ought to include Norm Dixon’s The Psychology of Military Incompetence, because it provides a constant warning on complacency in human institutions. George Orwell’s 1984 and Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom should always be there too, just to keep one alert to the techniques of totalitarianism.

For pleasure, this list should include a selection of Shakespeare’s plays – just because language should be a toy as well as a tool. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and a selection of poetry belong on the list too… just because one can never discover everything in the superbly written fantasy trilogy, or in the works of any single poet.

Finally, there is always the Bible. It is sometimes hard to pick up and is certainly difficult to read consecutively, but there is always something in it. Perhaps many of the stories and verses are already well known, but reading it always sets trains of thought in motion. It is not a comfortable book to read for that reason alone.

Reading the Bible from the perspective of one interested in organized violence and political instability is an interesting exercise.

First off, God can be really hard to work with. Notwithstanding the casual cruelty of the testing God in Job, but one wonders at the horrible cruelty of the plagues in Egypt or the Massacre of the Innocents in Judea after Christ’s birth. The homicidal enthusiasm of the People of Israel as they entered into their new land makes for unpleasant reading too – but the military historian can mine a lot out of these passages.

One of the simplest arguments against the existence of God is to ask: “Why, if God is supposed to be so good, did he permit [insert atrocity here] to happen?” Actually, God is not the guilty party here.

The disasters that attended the Egypt of the stubborn Pharoah, including the deaths of all the first-born (remember that chilling depiction of this plague in the movie version of the Ten Commandments?) were not God’s handiwork. It all could have been avoided if the King of Egypt had indeed let Moses’ people go, but he didn’t despite ample warning.

Twice in the Bible, before Moses’ birth and that of Christ, there were massacres of children. Again, this is the handiwork of men who sought to circumvent God’s will. It is man who is crueler than God, and the 20th Century can provide ample evidence of this – it is interesting that both the Nazis and the Soviets denied God’s existence. Both were developed into the most murderous creeds we have ever known. While the cruelty of men who claim they are acting for God can also be stunning, Muslim and Christian crusaders were usually on the make for themselves, and still never managed the callousness that the 20th Century has seen.

Pope John Paul II, in another of the re-definitions and re-working of the Catholic Church’s teachings stated that Hell is existence in the absence of God. This leads to the comforting daydream that perhaps the instigators of the 20th Century’s worst moments may get to spend an eternity in the very hell that they created… One can imagine Hitler scrabbling at the doors of a gas chamber or a starving Stalin forever waist-deep in ice water in a Kolyma mineshaft.

Another point of interest from the massacres of children in Exodus and the Gospels… both Moses and the Holy Family ended up as refugees. Moses fled from justice after killing an overseer who was abusing a Hebrew slave, and the Holy Family went as refugees to escape Herod’s attempt to short-circuit prophecy through mass infanticide.

Any Canadian who gets fed-up with the repeated abuse of our refugee system might want to take the Bible as a point of interest. There were a few false claims filed there by someone seeking escape from trouble too. No matter how badly our system becomes abused, it may be that accepting refugees is pleasing to the Almighty. However, it should also be pointed out that Biblical refugees usually returned home as soon as it was safe to do so.

This leads to another point. Anyone can be kind or charitable to their family, friends and even their neighbors… this is all well and good. Yet God seems to regard kindness to strangers even more highly. The story of the Good Samaritan for example, still has much to say on this point. The wounded and destitute wayfarer was totally ignored by two leading members of society, to be picked up by a complete pariah. One can imagine a homeless beggar (never mind why he is there but he is there nonetheless) being passed by a politician who then sternly resolves to do something on homelessness and a citizen who flips a dollar at the beggar and regards her duty as done. But the volunteer – or concerned passer-by who pulls the inebriated pan-handler out of a doorway on a night of freezing rain and escorts him to a shelter has done that which is most pleasing to God.

Kindness to strangers might not just be its own reward, it might also save your life. The Jewish spies in Jericho who were saved by a prostitute saw to it that her family subsequently survived the destruction of the city. Another question to mull over is whether God was as annoyed with the sexual practices in Sodom as he was with their atrocious sense of hospitality and the abuse they offered his messenger. Considering Christ’s tolerance for riff-raff like anarchist rebels, prostitutes, and Quisling-like tax collectors, one might well wonder.

A trained theologian might take issue with this suggestion, but perhaps the greatest sins are these: The denial of dignity (and individual worth) to others – perhaps by type-casting them into roles that make each individual less than human; and denying or suppressing your own humanity and thus passing opportunities to enhance that of other people. Perhaps, then, the most perfect form of freedom begins by acknowledging that all people are individuals – and that each of them deserves as much respect and attention as you do. In the end, the Bible contains a revolutionary manifesto and a simple idea that is so stunningly easy, we still have not got it figured out.