Many people set out to “read the [Christian] Bible,” to “start at the beginning, go on to the end, then stop.” I’ve almost made it, a few times, though Paul usually defeats me!
Anyway, there’s this rough chronological order through most of these books… getting confusing when one reaches the prophets (whose material was, if I have this right, arranged in “longest first” order– not chronological– as a way of conserving space on long, expensive, scrolls.)
But most of the time there seems to be a clear story line… There are non sequiturs, loose ends, a multitude of unfamiliar names– But one’s mind works through this material, assuming that one big series of things has happened, and that what we’re reading is a somewhat bewildering account of it.
It isn’t there!
What is there… is something more like William Burroughs’ old literary cut-ups. Several texts (including oral works) that went through a blender. Some places, you think you’ve got one story with discrepancies… and it turns out to be a mixture of two or more.
It’s a lot like what Christians have done with the nativity and resurrection stories from the Gospels: One takes a little from Matthew and a little from Luke… and one gets one story with angels, shepherds, visiting Persian astrologers and an urgent flight to Egypt followed by a massacre of all the children of Bethlehem– plus a leisurely trip directly to Jerusalem & on to Nazareth, where Mary and Joseph either eventually settled down, or had been residents all along. Given two stories, both considered sacred, both differing greatly on details like where the parents lived, why they were in Bethlehem, what happened there and what they did afterwards, we mentally construct a history containing an impossible mixture of both. People have written & performed such composites many many times, never seeing any contradiction until they find some reason to carefully compare details.
Even then, if they tend to believe that both stories are “The Word of God,” must necessarily be error-free, etc… they are likely to construct a really elaborate story that “explains” the contradictions–something only a Believer could find plausible.
Every week, I and a few friends have been reading our way through some pretty cogent analysis of Biblical stories, and everywhere we find: 1) The same things keep happening to the same people in different places, or to different people (as you’ve no doubt noticed) in a manner that strongly suggests that the tellers have recycled traditional stories more than once, filling in the blanks as needed. 2) The customs taken for granted in these stories are space-alien weird much of the time, when they aren’t just savage and ugly. 3) What looks like simple redundancy is often the alternation of two or more accounts of one incident, each account reflecting the tribal patriotism or institutional politics of a different group. 4) Comparison with archeological finds, mythologies & records from neighboring peoples (written on more durable materials) shows up much of what was supposed to be Biblical history as legendary at best. The Exodus goes through places that didn’t exist at the time, as if we told stories of General Washington fighting the British at Hollywood. Signs (that ought to be there) of an immense multitude traveling from Egypt to Israel… aren’t there. We have one tribe (the Levites) with Egyptian names; the other tribes seem to have adopted and improved that tribe’s history when they formed a loose alliance against Egyptian domination of Palestine. No doubt those Levites had some miraculous good fortune in the course of their escape… and to that extent, what we read in Exodus is faithful to the meaning they saw in those events. But it’s all stories-about, not factual accounts.
So. Why have people throughout subsequent history– read this highly inaccurate book to find out what God is like, what God is doing with the world, what God wants of us?
Should we, can we still, read it for those purposes?
I believe we can, but it isn’t the blithe and simple enterprise we’ve been told– and I’m having a little trouble justifying the effort.