Category Archives: Books

Reflections on Volume 3 – Part II

Imagine if Moses had told the whole truth about that “big bright round thing in the sky…”



As noted in “Part I,” I ended Volume 2 with a post on a liberal interpretation of “Sabbath day’s journey.”   I began Volume 3 with a discussion of Jesus in Hell.  (For the rest of the story about the painting above – of Moses getting stoned – see the notes below.)

That column – about Jesus in Hell – discussed the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell.   It also spoke of the Bible as a rich source of universal “stories, themes, metaphors, and characterizations.”  That is, the Bible contains a number of “literary forms and genres,” including “poetry, narratives, epistles, proverbs, parables, satire, and visionary writing.”

All of which – I argued – provides yet another reason for studying the Bible.  “To find grist for becoming a better, more-productive and more fascinating artist or member of the “Literati.

Another note:  In reading this blog you need to keep in mind that to most reasonable people the Bible is not a history book in the modern sense.  For one thing, “its writers lacked the benefit of modern archaeological techniques, did not have our concept of dating and documentation, and had different standards of what was and not significant in history.” (Asimov, 8)

Then too it’s important to keep in mind that the guys who wrote the Bible had to focus on their immediate, primary audience.  For Moses – writing the first five books or Torah – that meant his fellow Hebrews who had far less education than he did.  In turn that meant Moses had to write very carefully, mostly so his main audience would listen to him in the first place.  But he also didn’t want to get burned at the stake for heresy, or tarred and feathered.

Which led to a question: How would those primitive, backward Hebrews have reacted to Moses telling them things we now take for granted?  How would they have reacted to being told:

“You see that big bright round thing in the sky?  The thing that disappears when it gets dark, to be replaced by a smaller not-so-bright round thing?  Well, it looks like it revolves around us, but really, we live on this other big round thing, which is hurtling though space, and our big round thing actually revolves around that other Big Bright Round Thing In The Sky, not the other way around like we’ve been thinking all these years…”

The chances are good that if Moses had said that to his fellow Hebrews – primitive, backward and ignorant as they were at the time – he would have ended up either burned at the stake or tarred and feathered.  (Or maybe both.)

(See for one example, Exodus 17:4, where Moses said to God, “What am I to do with these people?  They are almost ready to stone me.”)

The point is this:  When Moses first told his Story of Creation to his fellow Hebrews, he had to use language and concepts that his “relatively-pea-brained contemporary audience” could understand.  In other words, Moses’ ability to “tell the story he wanted was limited to his audience’s ability to comprehend.”  (See The readings for June 15 – Part I.)

Which is appropriate, because that’s the same problem God has when He tries to communicate with us.  (Or, the problem we have in trying to communicate with Him.)  See e.g. Isaiah 55:8-9:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

(TLB, emphasis added.)  See also John 3:12, where Jesus said, “if you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things, how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

All of which is a good reason why I say, “You’re only cheating yourself if you read the Bible in a too-strict, too-narrow, or too-fundamental way.”   You risk creating God in the image of you, not the other way around.  See for example, Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 5:1.   (And by the way, maybe that’s what Oscar Wilde was talking about when he said that people “fashion their God after their own understanding.”  Maybe he just recognized that it’s an ongoing problem…)

And there’s another ongoing problem to keep in mind as you read the Bible, or this blog.  The idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun was never “contrary to Scripture.”   It was only contrary to a too-conservative, too-literal interpretation of that Scripture…



The upper image is courtesy of Stoning – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The caption:  “The Punishment of Korah and the Stoning of Moses and Aaron (1480–1482), by Sandro Botticelli, Sistine Chapel, Rome.”  See also Heresy – WikipediaThe “stoning” article said this of the painting:

The painting … tells of a rebellion by the Hebrews against Moses and Aaron.  On the right the rebels attempt to stone Moses after becoming disenchanted by their trials on their emigration from Egypt.  Joshua has placed himself between the rebels and Moses, protecting him from the stoning

Which raises anew the question:  “What would those backward, ignorant, sons-of-the-desert have done to Moses if he’d told them the truth about that ‘big bright round thing in the sky?'”

For one possible answer, consider the lower image – Cristiano Banti‘s 1857 painting Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition” – courtesy of the article, Heresy – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

Galileo Galilei was brought before the Inquisition for heresy, but abjured his views and was sentenced to house arrest, under which he spent the rest of his life. Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy”, namely of having held the opinions that the Sun lies motionless at the centre of the universe, that the Earth is not at its centre and moves, and that one may hold and defend an opinion as probable after it has been declared contrary to Holy Scripture.  He was required to “abjure, curse and detest” those opinions. (E.A.)

Re: Genesis 1:27Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary added that “It is the soul of man that especially bears God’s image.”  (E.A.)  The complete citations: Genesis 1:27 So God created mankind in his own image, and Genesis 5:1 This is the written account of Adam’s family.

See also Genesis creation narrative – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Re: Isaac Asimov.  The quote – about the Bible not being a history book “in the modern sense” – is from Asimov’s Guide to the Bible (Two Volumes in One),  Avenel Books (1981), at page 7.  (The same page that noted the Bible was and is “the most influential, the most published, the most widely read book in the history of the world.”)   Asimov (1920-1992) was “an American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University, best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books.  Asimov was one of the most prolific writers of all time, having written or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards.”  His list of books included those on “astronomy, mathematics, the Bible, William Shakespeare’s writing, and chemistry.”  He was a long-time member of Mensa, “albeit reluctantly;  he described some members of that organization as ‘brain-proud and aggressive about their IQs.’”  See Isaac Asimov – Wikipedia.

On donkey travel – and sluts

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February 6, 2015 – I recently learned that one of my all-time favorite travel books – Travels With Charley – was based on an earlier work by Robert Louis Stevenson.  It seems John Steinbeck – who wrote “TWC” – was doubly impressed by Stevenson’s earlier pilgrimage:

In the John Steinbeck novel The Pastures of Heaven, one of the characters regards Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes as one of the single greatest works of English literature and eventually names his infant son Robert Louis.  Later on, Steinbeck and his wife Elain[e] were inspired by Stevenson in choosing the title Travels With Charley.

See Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879) – Wikipedia, and also Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – Reading, Writing, Working, Playing.

That piqued my interest, so I got a copy from the local library and started reading.  (It was the 1923 edition of the book originally published in 1905 by Scribner’s.)

The first part of Travels with a Donkey – preparing for the trip – sounded a lot like the first part  of Travels with Charley.  (Or vice-versa.  Steinbeck “packed up” Rocinante, shown below.)

Incidentally, Travels with a Donkey was preceded by a year-earlier An Inland Voyage.  That earlier book described “a canoe trip through France and Belgium in 1876,” with Stevenson accompanied by Sir Walter Simpson.   (See also On coming home from a pilgrimage, on my own voyage, “eight days to canoe out to some offshore islands in the Gulf of Mexico – 10 or 12 miles offshore – including Half-moon Island, Cat Island and Ship Island(s).”)

Here’s what Stevenson wrote about travel, after the preface by his wife for the 1923 edition:

The journey which this little book is to describe was very agreeable…   After an uncouth beginning, I had the best of luck to the end.  But we are all travelers in what John Bunyan called the wilderness of the world … and the best that we find in our travels is an honest friend.  He is a fortunate voyager who finds many.  We travel, indeed, to find them…

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The first of five chapters is titled Velay, referring to a “township” in south-central France near the Loire river.   (All five chapters are divided further, and the fifth is divided into eight sub-chapters.)  That first chapter discussed Stevenson’s pack donkey (“Modestine”), along with a description of his own pack and the donkey’s pack-saddle.  It also discussed him as “green donkey-driver,” while the third sub-chapter was titled, “I have a goad.”

It seems that Stevenson’s chosen method of travel – with a donkey carrying most of his baggage – posed some problems.  The worst was Modestine’s slow pace.  That pace increased not a whit, even with the frequent application of a switch, cudgel or “bastinado:”

I promise you the stick was not idle;  I think every decent step that Modestine took must have cost me at least two emphatic blows.  There was not another sound in the neighborhood but that of my unwearying bastinado.

(24)*    But eventually he found a solution, after spending the night at a primitive inn.

For starters, the innkeeper was “astonishingly ignorant,” and his wife told him so; “My man knows nothing … he like the beasts.”  At which the husband nodded:  “There was no contempt on her part, and no shame on his.”  So anyway, the solution to Stevenson’s problem with Modestine came next morning when he had breakfast.  He asked the wife where “monsieur” was.  “‘The master of the house is upstairs,’ she answered, ‘making you a goad.”

Leaving aside sarcasm, Stevenson went on to “wax eloquently” on such goads:

Blessed be the man who invented goads!  Blessed the innkeeper of Bouchet-Saint-Nicolas, who introduced me to their use!  This plain wand, with an eighth of an inch of pin, was indeed a sceptre when he put it in my hands.  Thenceforward Modestine was my slave…  A prick, and she broke forth into a gallant little trotlet that devoured the miles.  It was not a remarkable speed…  But what a heavenly change…  No more wielding of the ugly cudgel; no more flailing with an aching arm…

(30-34)  All of which reminded me of Acts 26:14, about the Apostle Paul’s literal and original Damascus road experience.  “When we had all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?  It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’”  (Paul was originally named Saul.)  

Bible Hub provided alternate translations, as in “it is hard for you to kick against the pricks.”

“It is hard for you to kick against the pricks” was a Greek proverb, but it was also familiar to the Jews and anyone who made a living in agriculture.  An ox goad was a stick with a pointed piece of iron on its tip used to prod the oxen when plowing. The farmer would prick the animal to steer it in the right direction.  Sometimes the animal would rebel by kicking out at the prick, and this would result in the prick being driven even further into its flesh.  In essence, the more an ox rebelled, the more it suffered.

See What does it mean to kick against the pricks? – (E.A.).

Moving on to “Upper Gevaudan – A Camp in the Dark,” Stevenson was trying to get to Cheylard.  Unfortunately there was no direct route, but he left Sagnerousse, “rejoicing in a sure point of departure.”  From there he got lost, just as Steinbeck was prone to do.  See TWC, 54:

“Don’t ever ask directions of a Maine native,” I was told.  “Why ever not?”  “Somehow we think it is funny…”  I wonder if that is true.  I could never test it, because through my own efforts I am lost most of the time without any help from anyone.

Stevenson ended up tacking through a bog when he saw a group of local villagers (location unknown), including children.  But when he moved toward them to ask directions, “children and cattle began to disperse, until only a pair of [12-year-old] girls remained behind.”   The local peasants were “but little disposed to counsel a wayfarer,” and one “old devil simply retired into his house, and barricaded the door.”  That left him only one source of guidance:

As for these two girls, they were a pair of impudent sly sluts, with not a thought but mischief.  One put out her tongue at me, the other bade me follow the cows; and they both giggled and jogged each other’s elbows.

(41-44)  That sounded like a possible anachronism(Did  he mean they were “promiscuous?”)  So I did a little Googling and sure enough, the term had a different meaning in the years from 1375 to 1425 (and apparently up to 1878-79).  From the “late Middle English slutte; compare dial. slut mud, Norwegian (dial.) slutr,” which translated to “sleet” or “impure liquid:”

Slut first appeared in the written language in 1402, according to the Oxford English Dictionary…   At that time, slut meant roughly what one sense of slattern means today: a slovenly, untidy woman or girl.  It also apparently meant “kitchen maid” (”She is a cheerful slut who keeps the pots scrubbed and the fires hot.”).

Slut at  So Stevenson’s use of the word slut seemed grammatically correct.

Thus endeth the word-lesson of the day…

Which is being interpreted:  Thus far I’ve read to page 50 of the 197 pages.  Unfortunately that seems still to be a part of the “uncouth beginning” that Stevenson noted above.

The next review will begin with Stevenson referring to the infamous Beast of Gévaudan.

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The upper image is courtesy of Robert Louis Stevenson Trail – Walking in France.

The lower image is courtesy of John Steinbeck – Wikipedia, with the caption:  “Rocinante, [the] camper truck in which Steinbeck traveled across the United States in 1960.”

*  The page-citations – as in “(24)” – are to the 1923 “Biographical Edition” of Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (with a preface by Mrs. Stevenson), Charles Scribner’s Sons (NY).  The “being lost” reference came from Travels with Charley, Penguin Books (1980), at page 54.  I discussed Steinbeck’s take on a dead Sinclair Lewis being “good for tourism” in Oscar Wilde and Psalm 130.

Re: “Elain” as the name of John Steinbeck’s third wife.  “In June 1949, Steinbeck met stage-manager Elaine Scott at a restaurant in Carmel, California.  Steinbeck and Scott eventually began a relationship…  This third (and final) marriage for Steinbeck lasted until his death in 1968.” John Steinbeck – Wikipedia.

For further information see also Outdoor literature – Wikipedia.

Re: “wilderness of the world.”  For some interesting reading, type that phrase into your search engine.  That should lead to sites as varied as Historical Baptist Quotes on the Separation of Church and State, and The Wilderness of the World: Thirty-seven Wilderness Areas.

Re: 12-year-old girls.  See On St. Agnes and 12-year-old girls.  The age of the girls is approximate.

Full citations of references “shortened for content and spacing:” 

An Inland Voyage – Wikipedia.

Column (periodical) – Wikipedia:

A column is a recurring piece or article in a newspaper, magazine or other publication. Columns are written by columnistsWhat differentiates a column from other forms of journalism is that is a regular feature in a publication and that it explicitly contains the author’s opinion or point of view.

Personally I prefer the term “column” instead of “post,” as in “blog-post.”  It just sounds better…

Rocinante (disambiguation) – Wikipedia.

What is the Damascus road experience –

Le Cheylard – Wikipedia.  (See also Cheylard-l’Évêque – Wikipedia, as to the location of Sagnerousse.)

“Velay” is actually and fully Le Puy-en-Velay – Wikipedia.

Le Bouchet-Saint-Nicolas – Wikipedia.

Anachronism – Wikipedia.