Scriptures: The Hebrew Canon

I have written a lot about scripture.

It ain’t necessarily so…

For me, it was a huge step to acknowledge that the stories in the bible might not be literal accounts of actual events. Thinking about my own relationship with scripture reminds me of a This American Life story I heard a few months back (Act I of this broadcast). The story’s narrator (Alex Blumberg) begins by saying, “Most of the common childhood myths, like that babies come from storks, get corrected sooner or later. They’re not obscure enough to sneak into adulthood unscrutinized. But occasionally, even a very popular childhood myth can make it through, like unicorns.” His interview with Kristy Kruger (punctuated by narrative asides) continues,

Kristy Kruger: In my head, a unicorn wasn’t really any different than a zebra. … I mean, in terms of believability, I think the unicorn is really ahead of the dinosaur.

AB: What do you mean?

KK: Well, I mean, when you think about a dinosaur from a kid’s perspective, a dinosaur is these really large, monstrous animals roaming the Earth. And then you have a unicorn, which is basically just a horse with a horn.

AB <narrative aside>: As Kristy Kruger grew up, she says that if she ever thought about unicorns, they were on a grassy plane somewhere in Africa, drinking from a watering hole with the wildebeest and the impala. And then one night, she found herself in a conversation at a party.

KK: It was about a group of five to seven people, kind of standing around the keg, just talking. And somehow a discussion of endangered species came up, in which I posed the question, is the unicorn endangered or extinct? And basically, there was a big gap of silence.

AB <narrative aside>: As you might be gathering, at some point in all these stories, you come to a big gap of silence.

KK: And then everybody laughed. And then that laughter was followed by more silence when they realized I wasn’t laughing. And I was like, yeah, oh God, unicorns aren’t real? Oh no.

When I think that I ever believed in a literal reading of Noah’s ark or the Garden of Eden… my mind slides into one of those “big gaps of silence” — awestruck by the magnitude of my own credulity. The biblical myths lived “on a grassy plane” somewhere in my mind totally removed from my normal understanding of the world. In my defense, I was surrounded by people who believed — or at least claimed to believe — the same stories. Perhaps I had been trained well to not prod too hard at the tenuous logic that connected them all together.

I’m going to focus on the story of Noah’s ark, but what I write applies equally well to huge swaths of the ancient books of the Bible.

In preparing for this post, I went back and looked at the LDS Institute manual for the “Old Testament” (a term for the Hebrew canon that I’m actually less and less comfortable with… but that might be a post for another day). I was thinking that surely the highest level of church instruction would add some degree of nuance to the story. Boy… was I ever wrong. Here are a few gems:

From Mark E. Petersen:

Noah, who built the ark, was one of God’s greatest servants, chosen before he was born as were others of the prophets. He was no eccentric, as many have supposed. Neither was he a mythical figure created only in legend. Noah was real.

A long one from John Taylor:

I would like to know by what known law the immersion of the globe could be accomplished. It is explained here in a few words: ‘The windows of heaven were opened’ that is, the waters that exist throughout the space surrounding the earth from whence come these clouds from which the rain descends. That was one cause. Another cause was ‘the fountains of the great deep were broken up’—that is something beyond the oceans, something outside of the seas, some reservoirs of which we have no knowledge, were made to contribute to this event, and the waters were let loose by the hand and by the power of God; for God said He would bring a flood upon the earth and He brought it, but He had to let loose the fountains of the great deep, and pour out the waters from there, and when the flood commenced to subside, we are told ‘that the fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained, and the waters returned from off the earth.’ Where did they go to? From whence they came. Now, I will show you something else on the back of that. Some people talk very philosophically about tidal waves coming along. But the question is—How could you get a tidal wave out of the Pacific ocean, say, to cover the Sierra Nevadas? But the Bible does not tell us it was a tidal wave. It simply tells that ‘all the high hills that were under the whole heaven were covered. Fifteen cubits upwards did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.’ That is, the earth was immersed. It was a period of baptism.

And from Joseph Fielding Smith:

We read that it was in the seventeenth day of the second month when the great deep was broken up, and the rain was forty days. The Ark landed at Ararat on the seventeenth day of the seventh month, therefore there were five full months of travel when the Lord drove the Ark to its final destiny. Without any question a considerable distance separated the point where the Ark commenced the journey and where it landed. There can be no question to contradict the fact that during the flood great changes were made on the face of the earth. The land surface was in the process of division into continents. The rivers mentioned in Genesis were rivers that existed in the garden of Eden long before the land was divided into continents and islands.

Wow.

The things that you’re li’ble to read in the Bible…

On its surface, the story of Noah’s ark is one of those rather innocuous biblical myths. It is fun to think of all the animals, and the forty days on the boat, the doves, the rainbow, etc. On closer inspection, the story loses its innocence altogether.

Without even considering the looming logical inconsistencies that immediately confront even the most casual reader of this story (which are so absurd on their face that I won’t spend any time knocking them down), the idea of a global flood is a staggeringly terrifying from a moral point of view. The authors of the manual cited above try to cast the flood in terms of the earth’s “baptism,” and they make the claim that the flood was really an “act of love.”

Another gem from John Taylor:

But, says the caviller, is it right that a just God should sweep off so many people? Is that in accordance with mercy? Yes, it was just to those spirits that had not received their bodies, and it was just and merciful too to those people guilty of the iniquity. Why? Because by taking away their earthly existence he prevented them from entailing their sins upon their posterity and degenerating them, and also prevented them from committing further acts of wickedness.

Let’s not dwell too much on the implications of this grim theology…

A faint silver lining?

As I’ve said before, I think there is some value that comes from engaging seriously with the scriptural texts. If nothing else, it forces the reader into a kind of mental discipline. Deep meditation on almost any text can lead us toward something higher than the words on the page. We can torture a moral message out of most any story if we try hard enough and squint long enough.

As the quotes above make clear, one approach to theology assumes the truth and goodness of the texts from the beginning and works backward toward a moral. Using an irrefutable syllogistic logic, we are taken from the ‘fact’ of God’s goodness, to the ‘fact’ that God sent a global flood, to the inevitable conclusion that the ‘flood’ was an act of mercy.

It can be helpful for us to be shocked out of our usual modes of thinking, and these kinds of stories — when we seriously engage them — might facilitate some kind of useful insight.

That all said, some texts are more helpful than others.

The function of the skeptic

Our hometeachers visited us this past Sunday and shared with us a message from a talk by Quintin Cook. In the talk, Cook says,

We also recognize that many individuals are not in tune with sacred things. Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks of England, speaking to Roman Catholic leaders last December at the Pontifical Gregorian University, noted how secular some parts of the world have become. He stated that one culprit is “an aggressive scientific atheism tone deaf to the music of faith.”

I’m not a big fan of the ‘new atheists’ — I think they end up doing some harm to the secular cause with their aggressive tone — but I do think they can serve as a useful check against the overly credulous tendency of the faithful. The curt dismissal of spiritual things by some in the secular community is mirrored by a total unwillingness to engage with problematic readings of scripture by the believing community.

Recently Dan Savage gave a talk to high school students where he said,

We can learn to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people. The same way, the same way we have learned to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity, about masturbation…

Predictably, his remarks were met with some criticism.

While I may have chosen different language, I think believers would be well served to take seriously the critiques of outsiders (just as I think that nonbelievers have a great deal to learn from believers). This is a two-way street.

I want to return to the idea of Zion as a ‘tent.’ As I’ve been thinking about that metaphor, I have been struck by the idea that a tent requires tension. The stakes are driven into the earth and connected to lines that are pulled taught. Without the tension, the whole thing collapses.

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About Brad

I am a rather typical — or perhaps just not atypical — example of a 21st century, “uncorrelated” Mormon. My “Mormon Story” is (I have learned) rather cliche. I was raised by goodly parents, we went to church, followed the letter of the word of wisdom, abstained from the baser elements of the culture, etc. I served an honorable mission, enrolled at BYU, got married in the temple, and never seriously doubted until beginning a PhD program far beyond the Mormon corridor.

2 responses to “Scriptures: The Hebrew Canon”

  1. Kent says :

    Appreciated your thoughts. I’ve never felt good about literalistic interpretations of scripture because it detracts from the essence of the moral or intent of the parable to be learned by the reader. Jesus, when he taught, obviously preferred to be figurative or metaphorical in conveying important eternal truths to a varied audience. I also think that many of the scriptural accounts become misinterpreted in the absence of proper understanding of cultural constructs of the time period when such accounts were rendered. I often think about all of the modern day allusions to our politics in the nightly comedy shows and how little they would make sense to a viewer who does not keep up with the political commentaries.

    • Brad says :

      Kent, I think you make a really important point about there being some unbridgeable gap between our current cultural-political-historical position and the conditions that existed when the scriptures were produced, and this is one area where I see so much promise in certain strands of Mormon thought. We have many documented cases of Joseph Smith revising his revelations to fit his evolving ideas about God, but we seem to default to a literalist reading of all scripture… even when that literalism puts into impossible places (like the Babylonian cosmology that seemed to depend on there being actual windows in heaven that could open and cause a global flood…)

      Thanks for your comment!

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