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 – Wikipedia. The “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 1:27. Matthew 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.