Another Bible Story

Wed, 20 Mar 2013 | norman

A story of how the Bible came about

A Bible Story

A long time ago there was nothing except God. God is infinite. He can do anything. And He knows everything, even before it happens. He is so infinitely big, and so infinitely complicated, that nobody can ever understand Him.

If you think a Swiss watch, lying on a beach, is complicated, then imagine a stadium filled completely with Swiss watches, all working together as a single entity. Then imagine a planet made out of stadiums like that one, still all one thing. Then imagine a solar system of planets like that one. And a galaxy of solar systems like that. And a supercluster of galaxies like that. And a universe of superclusters. And you still wouldn't even be close, because God is infinitely big, infinitely complex, and infinitely clever.

He came up with a plan, for everything. He planned it perfectly, down to every fluctuation of energy, every subatomic particle. And then, in a massive explosion, He put His plan into action. Over 13.7 billion years, that unimaginable amount of energy turned into the universe that surrounds us today.

The Earth formed about four billion years ago. About three billion years ago, the first life forms came about. One and a half billion years after that, multicellular life forms evolved. Plants and sea animals, then land animals, then birds. About 2 million years ago some primates had started to walk upright. About 200 000 years ago some of their descendents had evolved into people like us. Between 125 000 and 60 000 years ago some of them migrated from Africa into the Middle East, Europe and Asia. All part of God's perfect plan.

In the Middle East, in modern day Iraq, there was a garden called Eden. In that garden lived two people, who some consider to be the first man and the first woman. The man's name was Adam, and the woman was called Eve. They were vegetarians and they didn't wear clothes, because they didn't realise they were naked. God would walk in the garden with them -- in those days He was like a regular guy -- and Adam would name all the plants and animals. God said they could eat any fruit they wanted, except the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and the fruit of the Tree of Life. One day an evil angel disguised as a talking snake convinced Eve to eat the knowledge fruit, and Eve convinced Adam. Then they realised they were naked, and they made clothes out of leaves. They were also afraid of God because they'd disobeyed Him, so they hid. God pretended He couldn't find them. When He did, we was very, very angry. He cursed them with some very serious curses, most importantly that he would hold every single one of their descendants guilty of the disobedience of Eve. They would be born guilty, even though they, themselves, hadn't done anything. All part of God's perfect plan. God put angels around the Tree of Life to guard it, and kicked Adam and Eve out of the garden.

As time passed, God introduced Himself to a few special people, like Noah. He saved Noah's family, and He killed everybody else in the whole world by drowning them; all part of the perfect plan. Then just after Noah had saved a whole lot of animals in a very big boat, God told him that he was allowed to eat animals. Also, Noah invented the first alcoholic beverage, and got horribly drunk. I can't say I blame him; it all must have been pretty traumatic.

God also introduced himself to Abraham. Except, like with Noah, He didn't tell Abraham His name. Nobody knew His name. Abraham just called Him "God". God told Abraham to kill his son, but just before he did it, God gave him a ram instead.

And God introduced himself to Moses, by talking out of a burning plant. Moses was the first person God ever told His name to. It is "Yahweh". He told Moses that He liked Jews better than any other people. He gave the Jews a bunch of rules, and told them that as long as they obeyed those rules, Yahweh would give them land and help them kill people, but if they disobeyed Yahweh's rules, then other people would kill them, and they would lose the land.

There were good times and bad times. The Jews had two kingdoms; Israel in the north and Judah in the south. At different times the kingdoms were invaded by Babylonians, Assyrians and Persians. For a while some of the Jews were captured and taken to Babylon as slaves, but later the Babylonians let them go, because they had bigger problems on their hands.

After a long while Yahweh decided to send His Son, Jesus, to the Jews, for them to kill Jesus as a human sacrifice to Himself, and then He would forgive them, well, some of them, for when Eve disobeyed him by eating the forbidden fruit. All part of the perfect plan.

While Jesus was alive, He taught the Jews that the most important commandments of Yahweh are to love Yahweh, and to love each other. Which, interestingly, is very much in line with the teachings of a contemporary of Jesus, Rabbi Hillell, but Rabbi Hillell isn't mentioned in the Bible.

Jesus upset a lot of people, and when He was only about 35, he was arrested, flogged, and crucified, which is a form of lethal torture. Matthew Maslen and Piers D Mitchell in "Medical theories on the cause of death in crucifixion" published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 99, April 2006, found support for several possible causes of death: cardiac rupture, heart failure, hypovolemic shock, acidosis, asphyxia, arrhythmia, and pulmonary embolism. None of those are nice. But whichever one of those ended the life of Jesus, it was all part of His Dad's perfect plan.

But then Jesus came back from the dead! At first His best friends didn't recognise Him, but apparently when you die you get a new body. His new body still had the wounds from His old body to prove He really was Jesus. He told all his friends that if they believe that He really is Jesus, back from the dead, and that He died to save them from His Dad, Yahweh's, punishment for eating the knowledge fruit, then His Dad would forgive them and let them into heaven when they died. He also said they must convince everyone in the world to believe this too, not just Jews. Then He told them He was going back to heaven for a little while, but He would be back soon; in fact before the last of them had died. Soon after that He lifted up into the sky, and disappeared behind some clouds.

Since then, they have all died, and He hasn't come back yet. A Christian called John, but not the apostle John, wrote about a dream he had, about when Jesus would come back. We will know that it's Jesus because it will be obvious; He will come out of the clouds, and angels will blow trumpets.

A lot of people think it's going to happen very soon. We're poisoning the oceans, which is where a lot of our food comes from, and many parts of the world are going to start running out of drinking water. A lot of Christians are spending a lot of effort pleading with Yahweh to fix things, but less effort cleaning up and preventing pollution, making and implementing plans to cater for climate change, or ensuring our growing demand for food is met with sufficient food supply. If Jesus takes much longer, things could get ugly.

Another Bible Story

Prior to 13.7 billion years ago, there was nothing, not even space ...

... except for stuff that doesn't exist in the way that you and I exist, because it is abstract, like mathematics. And, in a slightly less abstract way, the application of mathematics; the laws of physics.

As a result of the laws of physics, the details of which we don't yet understand, but we are getting closer and closer to understanding, about 13.77 billion years ago an enormous amount of energy started expanding very rapidly.

After about 377 000 years, the universe was cool enough for hydrogen and helium atoms to form, and the universe became transparent. It took 150 million to 1 billion years of darkness for gravity to pull those atoms together to form the first stars. After a billion years galaxies were forming. The thin disk of our own galaxy formed when the universe was about 4.9 billion years old.

Our solar system began forming when the universe was about 9 billion years old. Our solar system includes matter created by earlier generations of stars. You and I are made from stars.

About 3.6 billion years ago, the first simple-celled life formed. 200 million years later, little things called stromatolites were the first life forms to use photosynthesis to harvest sunlight, generating oxygen as a byproduct. It took 1.4 billion more years before complex cells evolved, and another billion years for multicellular life.

Just 600 million years ago the first simple animals evolved. By 30 million years after that, some of the descendents, called arthropods, of those simple animals had developed jointed legs, and are the ancient ancestors of insects, crabs and spiders. Other descendents of those simple animals, a million years later, were fish.

Plants started growing on land. Insects evolved from those arthropods, and amphibians appeared, and then reptiles. Dinosaurs evolved from those first reptiles.

200 million years ago, mammals arrived. The first mammals looked a bit like mice. About 50 million years later, some reptiles has evolved into birds.

130 million years ago plants evolved flowers to attract flying insects to pollinate them.

65 million years ago a variety of changes had resulted in a decrease in the number of dinosaurs, but the coup de grâce was a massive asteroid that crashed into the Earth off the north-east coast of South America. It triggered earthquakes and eruptions, and dramatically affected the weather for years. By the end, the dinosaurs were extinct.

About 2 million years ago some primates had started to walk upright. About 200 000 years ago some of their descendents had evolved into people like us. Between 125 000 and 60 000 years ago some of them migrated from Africa into the Middle East, Europe and Asia.

Humans are called Homo sapiens (which means "wise man"). But we were not always the only kind of man. Neanderthal man went extinct about 25 000 years ago. In southern Europe, the Middle East and western Asia, Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalis would have met each other. Denisovans lived in north-east Asia, and humans would have met them too. And there's Homo floresiensis, Flores man, nicknamed the Hobbit, who lived on the island of Flores in Indonesia. They went extinct about 13 000 years ago. They were the last of our fellow members of the genus Homo to die out. There may be evidence of a small number of cases of interbreeding between humans and both Neanderthals and Denisovans (in different places, at different times, of course). It just goes to show that our family tree might be a little more complicated than one might think.

Neanderthals buried their dead with possessions. They might have had a sense of spirituality, maybe even a story about the afterlife.

Humans lived in clans of up to about 150 individuals. They had the ability to identify cause-and-effect relationships, imagine hypothetical scenarios, and collaborate very effectively using complex language. Unlike Neanderthals, who hunted in small groups with hand-held weapons, humans hunted in larger groups, and they developed throwing weapons, and weapons made of multiple parts. Already humans had theories about things they didn't understand. These theories included what happened to their ancestors after they died, and causes for the weather.

We need to fast-forward through the migration from Africa into the Middle East, Europe and Asia, and from Asia into the Americas and Polynesia.

In around 8 000 BCE humans in the Middle East, who were living in close proximity to rolling hills of wheat, learned to harvest the wheat with ears that had not burst to distribute their seeds, and to replant some of those seeds. This resulted in domesticated wheat, and the advent of farming and agriculture. It allowed for denser human populations (despite the fact that many of them had poorer diets than their nomadic and hunter-gatherer ancestors), and far more hierarchical social structures, with classes. Clans used to have chiefs, but now towns developed into cities, with kings. And kingdoms overthrew kingdoms, and empires emerged, with emperors. Kingdoms and empires needed administration, and eventually writing was invented to record events, decisions and laws. Two mutually-beneficial classes dominated society; the wealthy and the knowledgeable. The wealthy were politically dominant, but they benefited from the knowledgeable, and the knowledgeable knew how to keep themselves in the money.

Knowledge and creativity have always been associated with religion. Gods were considered the source of both knowledge and inspiration. And those who represented the gods, their intercessors, were the priests. At the time, they were the equivalent of scientists today. As human societies suppressed or absorbed or resisted other societies, so their beliefs spread or developed, from the beliefs of other societies and the interchange of ideas.

These ideas were passed on by word of mouth. Then, as today, message was often carried by narrative. Sometimes these stories were compiled and written down. One example is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Originally five poems about "Bilgamesh" with a "B", the king of the city of Uruk, it was first compiled in the 18th century BCE in Babylon under the title "Surpassing All Other Kings", and later in the 13th to 10th centuries BCE as "He who Saw the Deep". The epic tells the story of Gilgamesh and his friendship with Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods to distract Gilgamesh from oppressing his subjects. The two of them journey to the Cedar Mountain to defeat the guardian of the mountain, a monster called Humbaba. For that, and for killing the Bull of Heaven, which the goddess Ishtar had sent to punish Gilgamesh for declining her passes, the gods put Enkidu to death. The second half of the epic focuses on Gigamesh's mourning the death of Enkidu, and his quest for immortality. In the second version of the epic, Utnapishtim, a hero who survived a flood sent by the gods to destroy the world, tells Gilgamesh, "When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping." But Gilgamesh achieves immortality through his great building projects, and his account of what Utnapishtim had told him happened during the Great Flood.

The Epic of Gilgamesh draws on another epic, the Epic of Atra-Hasis, also from Babylon. It starts with a creation myth, how the gods Anu, Enlil and Enki divide the realms of sky, wind and water among each other. The goddess Mami is assigned the task of creating humans to be labourers, which she does by forming the humans from clay. Later, because of over-population, Enlil decides to destroy mankind with a flood. But Enki warnes Atrahasis of the plan, and tells him to make a big boat, and to save his family and the animals. After the flood Enlil is furious with Enki for warning Atrahasis, but Enki defends his decision by stating that he has preserved life. The two gods agree not to use a flood again to control population.

If any of that sounds familiar, that is not a coincidence. During the 18th century BCE, Babylon became the biggest city in the world, and as a result, a hive of creativity, a nexus of ideas, and a stew of cultures. Among its slaves were writers of the Bible. More on that in a little bit. First, I want to introduce you to E.

We don't know E's real name. He is given the nomenclature of "E" after the name he uses for God, "El", which simply means "God", or "Elohim" which can be translated as both "God" or "Gods". But I'm going to call him "Elliot", definitely not because E was Scottish, but rather just because it also starts with "E". And I'm going to make up a story about him, but one that could be true.

The Hebrew-speaking people lived in Canaan, and from what we know archeologically, they always had. Politically, they were divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom was Israel, and the southern, Judah. Like all peoples, they had a rich oral tradition that included myths about their gods, and legends about their heroes. Their heroes had lived hundreds of years prior, and without any written records of their lives, the stories grew embellished, and diverged when the story-tellers were geographically separated, or when the stories were repurposed to include a new or different message.

I am going to tell you a story about Elliot because there is solid evidence of what he did. I am not going to tell you about Abraham, because there are sufficiently large discrepancies---Did he kill his son or not? How could he have met the Chaldeans when the Chaldeans were only there a millennium after Abraham was alleged to be alive?---to lead us to believe that he is a character like the Greek's Odysseus, or the Babylonian's Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim. Similarly, the story of Moses probably originated in Judah about a group of Judeans released from Egyptian captivity at a period when their empire waned. But it was never an event as calamitous as the one in the Bible. If it was, the Egyptians would have been sure to mention it, considering all the less significant events they did record.

There is debate about when Elliot was alive, and where he was writing, but we do know that Elliot's family came from the northern kingdom, and I'm just going to guess the other facts about his life. Before Elliot was born, Israel was the richer of the two kingdoms. In 722 BCE Israel was conquered by the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Elliot was a child, and he and his parents moved to Judah as refugees. Elliot was intelligent and very insightful. His parents raised him in the traditions, and with the stories, of the north, and his heroes were Northern Kingdom heroes, like Joshua, and Joseph. Growing up as a refugee was not easy. He was picked on by other boys, and as he grew older, the chip on his shoulder turned into a life mission; to assert the Northern Kingdom traditions, and in particular, the most important of his family's beliefs. He would do this by writing them down, and writing them well. His family was one who believed in a powerful idea. One that, once other people understood it, they couldn't dismiss it.

It is important to know that not all Hebrews believed in only one god. In fact there is evidence to suggest that the goddess Asherah, Yahweh's wife, had a statue in the temple built by King Solomon for quite a while.

But Elliot believed that the world could be explained without the need for lots of gods. It could be that God was a collective. But it made sense to him that God was an individual. Just one individual. One supremely powerful individual, and all those other gods that people believed in, they were his subordinates. They were just angels. They did his bidding, like delivering messages, or administrating the afterlife.

Elliot also realised that his knowledge, and he was sure it was knowledge, had been given to him by God, for the benefit of his people. God had been blessing Israelites all along. The stories of Abraham, and how he killed his son Isaac to prove his devotion to God, and of Joseph, to whom God revealed His plans by allowing him to interpret the dreams of others; these proved to Elliot that God was on the side of the Israelites, and it was Elliot's duty to write down the truth about God.

And this he did. He compiled the stories of all the tribes of Israel, with special attention given to the tribe of Ephrain, of which the kings of Israel were born, and to the Levites, the order of priests to which he belonged. He was meticulous in his narrative, making sure not to reveal the name of God until God himself had revealed it to Moses. His work was rewarded with the ultimate prize; what Elliot wrote would much later become part of the Torah. And people would consider his words to be the words of God Himself.

Another author whose work would be incorporated into the Torah was J. He is assigned the nomenclature "J" because he uses the name "Jahweh" for God. I will pick a name for him along the same lines as Elliot; I'll call him Jack.

Jack was born in captivity, in the city of Babylon. His parents were slaves. His mother was a house slave but his father was educated, and worked as a scribe. His family was devout, and observant of the traditions of Judah. His father taught Jack to read and to write, and Jack was a quick learner. He grew up in a community of slaves from Judah, and they all observed Judean traditions. Some of the men would gather regularly and discuss the meaning of their exile in Babylon. It was a very difficult thing to grapple with. Their stories and legends established that their god, Yahweh, had helped them escape slavery in Egypt; He had won for them a home in Canaan by killing swathes of Canaanites when the Hebrews were terrifyingly outnumbered. Why, then, were they living as slaves in Babylon? Could it be that Yahweh had abandoned them? Could it be that Marduk, the god of Babylon and according to Babylonians the most powerful of all gods, was more powerful than Yahweh?

Jack reached an understanding about the relationship between Yahweh and his people. And he wrote what would later become most of Genesis, starting with the story of Adam and Eve, and more than half of Exodus.

Jack and Elliot's work provided a bedrock on which Judaism, and later Christianity and Islam would be built. They lived in different places and at different times. The later work that brought about the Torah and Old Testament that we know today were written by two groups of people that both spanned generations. "P", the Priestly source, wrote down the information that was important to the priests, including genealogies and ancestry, the specifics of the tabernacle, and the book of Leviticus. "D", the Deuteronomists, were not priests, and were probably patronised by wealthy gentry. They wrote about the covenant between Israel and Yahweh; that Yahweh has chosen Israel as His people, but in return they must follow His commandments. When they obey Him, He will reward them with His favour, but when they do not, they will fall to their enemies. The Deuteronomists also focused on social concerns, the support of the poor and of widows. But this equality and sense of humanity did not extend as far as foreigners.

We would have to wait a few more centuries before a band of rebel Jews would apply the concept of love beyond their own ethic group.

The Moral of the Story

The Bible was written by men, who, despite their intelligence, and wisdom often beyond that of their contemporaries, were not inspired by a divine omniscience, beyond, say, the extent to which a teacher writing a geometry text book is inspired by mathematics.

But that does not mean that the Bible is not important. It is important as a catalogue of Bronze Age social concerns, and how men tried to address them.

Both Elliot and Jack dedicated their lives to passing on their monotheist, and ethical insights.

With the exception of my allusion in the last paragraph, I have omitted Jesus entirely. I think Jesus has had plenty written about him already. But I do want to say that, regardless of how much of what was written of his life in the Bible is literal or fictitious, the story of his life remains, in the most part, an example worth following. He and his followers applied the Golden Rule, "Love your neighbour as yourself," not only to their own social or ethnic group, but to everyone. He also stood up to the religious order of his day where he saw that they were not applying this rule.

That is what we should be doing. We have a non-theist, and ethical insight, based on knowledge, and dare I say wisdom, beyond that of many of our contemporaries. The Golden Rule must be our rule. And any organisation, religious or secular, that denies the equality and liberty that the rule implies, based on gender, wealth, race, nationality, or any other discriminating factor, must be confronted and corrected. And because no divinity is going to do it for us, we must do it ourselves.

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