I have lately been reading Homer’s epic poems: first The Iliad, and now I am nearly done with The Odyssey.
I figure there isn’t anyone alive today that believes that Zeus literally caused thunder in answer to a prayer, or that Athene really transformed Ulysses between having a youthful and an aged physical appearance at a whim.
Despite our understanding that these poems don’t reflect a literal truth, we still find meaning and truth in them. It is for this reason that they are read by high school and college students all over the world. This same reason drives our reading of more modern plays and novels — everything from King Lear to Catcher in the Rye. We learn something of the author’s world, something about our world, and if we are truly lucky, a deeper understanding of the universal truths of human life.
And it is with that preface that I suggest that the Old Testament — or parts of it, at least — ought to be read in the same manner.
Modern Christianity speaks of a loving, caring God, one who is deeply concerned for the wellbeing of all. Under this understanding, forgiveness is more desired than retribution, and helping the week is better than enslaving them. How then can one square that with a literal reading of the Old Testament?
This was a key question I asked over a span of perhaps 15 years. I was perplexed that the God of Love ought to turn someone into a pillar of salt for turning her head the right way, that almost all life on earth might be extinguished by a flood, that slavery is condoned and regulated, and all sorts of people being stoned to death, animals killed for no reason. In short, the God of the Torah, at least, didn’t seem to me to be even the same person as the God the Church talks about.
I raised this question with many people, and there was even a seminar on it at a convention I went to in 2001. The answers I got usually were of one of two types: 1) God is beyond our comprehension, and this is one of the mysteries we will never understand because that’s just the way it is; or 2) the arrival of Jesus changed things, and it’s impossible for a modern person to fully appreciate the laws as they existed prior to that. These are really two sides of the same stick: they’re both saying, “Yep, that’s odd. But we have to believe that the Bible is inerrant and literally true, so we just have to accept the mystery and move on.”
Except I’m not so good at accepting mysteries and moving on.
It strikes me as odd that nobody even mentioned the third option: that some of the stuff in the Old Testament is, to be blunt, made up. This even though I have come to learn later that some of those people probably believed this to be the most correct explanation.
Now, that doesn’t mean it has no value or that is doesn’t show us truth. Romeo & Juliet was made up, but we learn from it.
A typical example of this is the creation myth. There are some that are very defensive about it, perhaps thinking that it weakens their religion to admit it might not be literally true. To me, I find that insisting upon its literal truth weakens the religion; can we not see how a piece of literature speaks to us today and leave it at that? Need we say that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is an inferior play because it is a work of historical fiction?
The position I suggest here is not some crazy nutjob position. Wikipedia has a concise overview of some of the scholarship surrounding these ideas.
I now count myself as somewhat inspired by Homer to read the Old Testament in the same way that I read Homer: as a story that can speak to us today, one that inspired a nation in captivity and after, and launched perhaps the most amazing religious movement in history.
I only wish that more people would admit the possibility of a non-literal reading of the Bible. This return to an earlier era of Christianity is, in my mind, the only way that Christianity can maintain its relevance in this age.
Update: A note I received suggests I ought to make a bit of a clarification. I am not bothered by the fact that people have differing opinions about the historicity of Genesis. I’m all for putting all the opinions out there for sure. I think that really the concern over whether Genesis is literally true or not is mostly irrelevant. I have no problem with Christians that find Genesis to be literally true. What I’m lamenting is the attitude that “you’re not Christian if you’re not sure that Genesis is literally true” or “saying anything else about Genesis undermines Christianity.” I believe neither of those statements, and would really rather that we collectively got past the creationism vs. evolution debate already.
Update 2: It appears that my use of a bit of technical language has caused some confusion. A creation myth can be defined as “a supernatural story or explanation that describes the beginnings of humanity, earth, life, and the universe (cosmogony), often as a deliberate act by one or more deities.” It is a category of explanations. Simply calling the Genesis story a “creation myth” is an act of categorization only, and doesn’t imply anything about its accuracy or value.