Zikr’e Wegayehu – Part III

April 2, 2009 at 5:48 pm 4 comments

If you, like me, have been confused by the inconsistencies in the bible; can’t help noticing how the Hebrew God sounds like a dictator with a bad self-esteem; and more than once felt that you and Esau have more in common than drawing the short-straw in the selection process for the Almighty’s-favour; then you should pay the Barnes & Nobles book store near you and check out “The Good Book” (The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible), by David Plotz. An honest, and most hillarious, work that tries to make [a logical] sense of the old testament [stories, characters and God’s treatment of them]; the book has no answer to give. But it makes reading, the and about, the bible fun — for once.

[“The Good Book” isn’t recommended for the Faithful.]

Here is an introduction by Slate Magazine.

I have always been a proud Jew, but never a terribly observant one. Several weeks ago, I made a rare visit to synagogue for a cousin’s bat mitzvah and, as usual, found myself confused (and bored) by a Hebrew service I couldn’t understand. During the second hour of what would be a ceremony of NFL-game-plus-overtime-length, I picked up the Torah in the pew-back, opened it at random, and started reading (the English translation, that is).

I was soon engrossed in a story I didn’t know, Genesis Chapter 34. It begins with the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah by Shechem, the son of a local chief named Hamor. Shechem and Hamor visit Jacob and his brothers to resolve the mess. Hamor begs on Shechem’s behalf: Shechem loves Dinah, he says, and yearns to marry her. Hamor and Shechem offer to share their land with Jacob’s family and pay any bride price if only Dinah would be Shechem’s wife.

Jacob’s sons pretend to agree to this proposal, but they insist that Shechem and all the other men of his town get circumcised before the marriage. Shechem and his father accept the demand. They and their fellow townsmen get circumcised. Three days after the circumcision, “when they were in pain,” Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi (who are Dinah’s full brothers) enter the town, murder all the men, and take Dinah away. After this slaughter, Jacob’s other sons plunder the town, seize the livestock and property, and take the women and children as slaves. Jacob, who hasn’t said a word in the chapter till now, complains to Simeon and Levi that other neighboring tribes won’t trust him anymore. “But they answered, ‘Should our sister be treated like a whore?’ ”

This is not a story they taught me at Temple Sinai’s Hebrew School in 1980: The founding fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel lie, breach a contract, encourage pagans to convert to Judaism only in order to incapacitate them for slaughter, murder some innocents and enslave others, pillage and profiteer, and then justify it all with an appeal to their sister’s defiled honor. (Which, incidentally, may not have been defiled at all: Some commentators, their views dramatized in Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, think Dinah went with Shechem willingly, and even the language in the two translations I looked at is ambiguous. One says Shechem “lay with her by force,” while the King James say he “lay with her, and defiled her.”)

Like many lax but well-educated Jews (and Christians), I have long assumed I knew what was in the Bible—more or less. I read parts of the Torah as a child in Hebrew school, then attended a rigorous Christian high school where I had to study the Old and New Testaments. Many of the highlights stuck in my head—Adam and Eve, Cain vs., Abel, Jacob vs. Esau, Jonah vs. whale, 40 days and nights, 10 plagues and Commandments, 12 tribes and apostles, Red Sea walked under, Galilee Sea walked on, bush into fire, rock into water, water into wine. And, of course, I absorbed other bits of Bible everywhere—from stories I heard in churches and synagogues, movies and TV shows, tidbits my parents and teachers told me. All this left me with a general sense that I knew the Good Book well enough, and that it was a font of crackling stories, Jewish heroes, and moral lessons.

So, the tale of Dinah unsettled me, to say the least. If this story was strutting cheerfully through the back half of Genesis, what else had I forgotten or never learned? I decided I would, for the first time as an adult, read the Bible. And I would blog about it as I went along. For the millions of Jews and Christians who know the Bible intimately, this may seem obscene: Why should an ignoramus write about the stories and lessons that you know by heart and understand well? I don’t intend any kind of insult. My goal is not to find contradictions, mock impossible events, or scoff at hypocrisy. Nor am I quite stupid enough to pretend that Judaism (or Christianity) is just the Bible. Jews are not only the People of the Book but the People of Many Books. There is the rest of the Hebrew Bible—the Prophets and Writings, the vast commentary of the Talmud, the stories of the midrashim, and thousands and thousands of years of other law and story and commentary. This 4,000years’ worth of delving and discussion is totally unfamiliar to me—I can’t hope to compete with its wisdom. Nor is there any shortage of modern advice on how to read the Bible. (Just look up “How to read the Bible” on Amazon.) There are experts to tell you why the Bible is literally true, others to advise you how to analyze it as history, and still others to help you read it as literature. You can learn how to approach it as a Jew, a Catholic, an evangelical Protestant, a feminist, a lawyer, a teenager.

So, what can I possibly do? My goal is pretty simple. I want to find out what happens when an ignorant person actually reads the book on which his religion is based. I think I’m in the same position as many other lazy but faithful people (Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus). I love Judaism; I love (most of) the lessons it has taught me about how to live in the world; and yet I realized I am fundamentally ignorant about its foundation, its essential document. So, what will happen if I approach my Bible empty, unmediated by teachers or rabbis or parents? What will delight and horrify me? How will the Bible relate to the religion I practice, and the lessons I thought I learned in synagogue and Hebrew School?

I’ll spend the next few weeks (or months) finding out. I’ll begin with “in the beginning” and see how far I get. My wife, struck by my new biblical obsession, gave me a wonderful Torah translation and commentary for Hannukah, the Etz Hayim, which was prepared by conservative Jewish scholars. I’ll read that and dip into the King James and other translations on occasion. (But I’ll avoid most commentary, since the whole point is to read the Bible fresh.) I’m sure I’ll repeat obvious points made by thousands of biblical commentators before; I’ll misunderstand some passages and distort others—hey, that’ll be part of the fun.

And, ofcourse, the next 10 chapters of FiQir Eske MeQabir – Wegayehu endeterekew: Chapter 12, Chapter 13, Chapter 14, Chapter 15, Chapter 16, Chapter 17, Chapter 18, Chapter 19, Chapter 20 & Chapter 21 (Yes, Chapter 11 is missing).

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Zikr’e Wegayehu – Part II Week 2

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. trends watch  |  April 2, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    trend watch : Zikr’e Wegayehu – Part III « My e-Shoe Box…

    …For the millions of Jews and Christians who know the Bible intimately, this may seem obscene: Why should an ignoramus write about the stories and less……

  • 2. Mazzi  |  April 3, 2009 at 10:08 am

    The book you mentioned in this post sounds very interesting and probably very amusing too. I bet it is more for the curious and not for the faithful, however. I wonder how many people can claim they have read the bible from cover to cover (what ever version) instead of reading selective passages and chapters in bits and pieces to reinforce a belief they already have.

    Besides the fact that the bible is simply a collection of books written by mere mortal men from their own recollection of recent and not so recent past events and oral history (as opposed to it being directly or indirectly dictated by God), I think there is another explanation for the many inconsistencies in “the good book.” Despite the popular and accepted dogma from “the good book” that God created ‘man’ in His image, I truly believe that it was ‘MAN’ who created ‘god(s)’ in his image out of ‘his’ need to explain ‘his’ existence and ‘his’ environment!

    That in a nut shell is why in spite of having ‘godly’ characteristics (like being omnipotent, omnipresent, all knowing, all seeing etc…) the god depicted in the bible (especially the Old Testament god) ALSO has many typical human characteristics and shortcomings such as being a jealous, punitive, vindictive, bias, illogical, inconsistent, and selective god besides often having bad self esteem on top of it all! Talk about a paradox. So who seems more like whom? If we are to believe the many stories in the bible, more often than not, it is ‘god’ that comes across like ‘man’ more than ‘man’ coming across like ‘god’ despite man supposedly being created in god’s image.

    Of course this is not unique to Judaism, Christianity, or Islam alone. From the beginning of time, ‘man’ has been creating his ‘god(s)’ in his image all the way to the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilization prior to the creation of the Judeo/Christian/Islam god. Considering that no one has reinvented the wheel since god knows when (no pun intended), creation myths and the various mythologies surrounding the many gods from these ancient civilizations are not really that far removed from the Judeo/Christian/Islam mythologies and creation stories with the exception of the introduction and later on the imposition of monotheism, the belief in one God as opposed to many gods, on believers.

    I personally think the introduction of monotheism is essentially at the root of many age old religious feuds/wars where the belief that there is only one god, and anyone believing in any other god is in the wrong and doomed to eternal damnation unless willing/forced to abandon his/her own god(s) into believing in the god of which ever religion is ruling or having the upper hand. I don’t know much about eastern religions, but I am willing to bet they follow similar patterns with western religions in their roles of how they help man explain his existence and environment, and the belief by their followers that they too are the only true religion.

    If ever you have some time to waste on the net checking out things/videos of peculiar interest (author’s views to be taken on face value, nothing too deep), check out this very interesting video on Google. I personally enjoyed checking it out.

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-594683847743189197
    (Zeitgeist, The Movie)

    According to the movie’s official website description, this movie “ … focuses on suppressed historical & modern information about currently dominant social institutions [including religion], while also exploring what could be in store for humanity if the power structures at large continue their patterns of self-interest, corruption, and consolidation.”

    Thanks again for sharing more chapters from Fiqir Eske Meqabir’s audio files. For some reason, unlike the others chapter 15 does not open with Windows Microsoft Media player. If you think it has some problem as well, could you please upload it again hoping that might fix the problem? And if ever the missing chapter 11 surfaces, please let us know as well :-).

    Enjoy the above video.

  • 3. abesheet  |  April 3, 2009 at 7:22 pm

    How intuitive Mazzie.

    I went to Barnes & Nobles on Tuesday to buy Chris a wallet that I saw when i was there last (it was not only his birthday but had secured his dream job 2 days after my arrival. So it was two birds with one stone thingy). Anywho, when I went into the book store, ofcourse, I couldn’t resist poking around the rows after rows of “worlds contained within the covers”. The first spot I checked was the hot new releases section. There I saw “The Good book”, whose writer was being interviewed, tortued, on “The Colbert Report” only the evening before. I recalled Chris saying “I’d like to read this book”. So I took it, went to a corner and started reading. I didn’t intend to stay there for more than an hour, since I had to walk back by myself and this was America (“Tell them you are calling 911, and they’d leave you alone” was the warning Chris gave me after hours and hours of argument on my need to figure out the ins and outs of the neighborhood and his fear my vulnerability would attract villains). However, 3 hours have passed before I looked up and decided to walk over to the Starbucks counter to ask if they’d take a cash from someone ordering a drink.

    For someone deep rooted in the bible, all the stories mentioned in the few chapters I read were nostalgic and entertaining (no, I haven’t read the bible from cover to cover; hated Revelation, panicked with the “prophesy of doom” in the Nevi’im and loathed Deuteronomy and Leviticus’ attitude towards women. But I can confidently say I’ve read more than the average Christian and would have made the type of teacher that would make her mother proud were I “theologically” inclined). What I enjoyed most about the chapters I read, however, is the “human touch?” in it. I’ve wondered, secretly and in the privacy of my inner most heart, that God does sound like a maniac in his treatment of those whom the Israelites came across (something we tried to justify with other quotes from the bible: “Qenategna amlalk”, “Yemibala essat”, etecetra). I’ve wondered, begging for forgiveness and fearing divine retribution, what them “wee ones” did when God struck the first borne of the Egyptians. And Jehovah’s rejection of Esau, “YaQobin wededku, Esauwn gin Telahu”, was what finally made me rebel against the Hebrew God in the end. That’s exactly how Plotz’s wonderings run in his book. It’s like an intimate conversation between the reader and the writer, an honest conversation with no other agenda than to get to the truth or atleast make a logical sense of it. A whisper, so to say, no other writer who took the job of discussing the subjects in the bible upon himself (and isn’t an atheist or member of a rival religion trying to discredit it), dared whisper. Upon discussing it with him later, Chris has assured me the movie “Religulous” has the same theme. For me, though, it’s a warm water I could stretch my naked legs in and relax. I strongly recommend you, atleast, check it out.

    Thanks for the video recommendation. Will watch it at earliest convenience and report.

  • 4. Mazzi  |  April 3, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    Happy belated birthday to Chris, and congratulations to him for landing on a new job, and a dream job at that! Way to go Chris! Hope the new job is living up to his great expectation, and has a vast potential for a fulfilling, lasting, and stable job especially in this crazy job market. So I wish him (you both) all the best.

    I think it is great you have an adventurous spirit and enjoy discovering the ins and outs of your new surrounding. It is sweet of Chris to be concerned for your safety considering you are new to the place, but I think you will do just fine exploring as long as you play it safe. Book stores are indeed cool places to hang out, how wonderful they let people browse the books inside even if they can’t afford to buy them in the end. The story of my life these days :-(. I might just check out or browse “The Good Book” at a local book store since it sounds very interesting and probably written from an angle I might appreciate or can relate very well after years of bible centered Catholic schooling and Orthodox upbringing.

    Religion is a very sensitive topic, and as often as I question the many values I had been taught as a Christian, I don’t believe in religion bashing of any kind especially by extreme atheists either. It is sad to see some religious people bashing and condescending to atheists and believers of other faiths; the same way some atheists love bashing and condescending to religious people. At the end of the day, religion in one form or another serves some purpose for the human psyche. Why else would it have been there since time immemorial in every single culture?

    Religious books or values could be put to question by three kinds of people. It can either be by insiders like the author for the above book who only wants to understand further the very book and values his religion and life style is based on, or by believers of another faith who want to discredit the religion they are questioning in hopes of promoting their own religion as the preferred faith. And then there are the third kinds who are complete atheists who want to bash and discredit all faiths. Though the movie “Religulous” might be of similar theme as the mentioned book, I think the approach is rather from the angle of an atheist pointing out the inconsistencies in many religions with a bit of condescending attitude in order to discredit them. It might even come across as disrespectful to believers. So it might lack the kind of tact and humor as the above book.

    I can’t say I have read the bible extensively, but I have read enough to make up my mind what religious value I want to give it in my life (very little really) and move on. But I find it to be a very fascinating book from an ‘intellectual’ point of view, its historical development and significance, its uniqueness in weaving facts, legends, and myths in creating some of the greatest stories ever told, and for its capacity to be interpreted in just about any which way to support already favored life values. I am sure many other religious books fit the same description as well. When I left Catholic school, I also left behind the living fear of God that was instilled in me; and the notion that Christianity is a superior religion and unless one accepts the teachings of Jesus he/she will be wallowing in hell for eternity. By that formula, a good portion of the world’s population will be wasting away in the so called after life. If there is only one creator, aren’t non-Christians equally God’s children?

    When I was being taught about the bible extensively in grade school, what bothered me the most about the Old Testament God was his need for constant reassurance that we still believe in him and pass through bizarre tests to prove our loyalty, his extreme punitive nature (a recurring theme in the Old Testament bible: kill or wipe out a whole bunch of people including women and children to teach some lesson to few ‘guilty’ souls), and his extreme bias towards ‘his chosen’ children! The concept of “the chosen people” anyone?! If ever third world war starts, it shall have something to do with the standing conflict between the so called “chosen people” and not so chosen people. It does not help that in the many cultures mentioned in the bible males were clearly preferred and revered at the expense of females to add fuel to the fire. So much for all of us being the children of God. Apparently, any of us who are not Israelites are basically after thoughts and easily expendable.

    I already was suffering in my young life for not being the preferred child in the eyes of my earthly father on account of being a female, and I did not need another ‘heavenly father’ making me feel the same way!! So as a teenager, I made the conscious decision not to be limited by my Christian upbringing in understanding or defining the concept of god. Luckily, the high school I went to was not loyal to any particular faith and in fact celebrated and revered all faiths represented by the diverse student body. It was a wonderful place for opening up one’s mind as there were kids from all kinds of faiths I did not even know existed!! What freedom that was to know that there are many paths to ‘god’ which ever way we define him/her/it and there is room for all of us. As long as nobody is shoving one’s faith or belief down other people’s throats of course ;-).

    I am glad I still believe in something out there despite all the uncertainties I feel. And if my view of what is out there is influenced by my Christian upbringing in defining it as the familiar Judeo/Christian God, I am OK with that too. I am just happy that I am no longer conflicted about religion of any kind! Long way from where I started in Catholic school ;-).

    OK enough rambling about religion. Do check out the video link I posted in my previous comment when you get the time. It is not as boring and dry as its official description from the movie’s website. Even if no one should take what is stated by the author in that video as absolute facts, it still is a very fascinating look of how and why we ‘create’ and define our religion over the ages. The video is a little too long for my taste, but definitely worth the ride! So enjoy….

    Cheers!

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