I recently started poking around in the Bible as research for a personal project. I’m an atheist, but I was raised a Christian and went to religious schools and then I struggled with my spirituality for awhile, so I’ve actually read the Bible quite a lot. It’s been maybe fifteen years since I last looked at it, and I’ve been enjoying it this time around.
I think previously when I read the Bible, it was too fraught for me to find it entertaining, but now that I’m past all that, I can appreciate how enjoyable the Bible can be, if you overlook all the awfulness. I don’t think many people actually read the Old Testament, so I thought I’d blog about it as I go along.
And so. GENESIS. Where it all began.
I don’t know anything about the Bible, let me say that right off. I just googled who wrote it so I can tell you, and Genesis was combined from a bunch of different sources of the same stories written between about 5 and 10 B.C. It was written in Hebrew, and I am reading the King James translation because that’s the one I was raised on. According to religious tradition, Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament (the Torah or Pentateuch), but he didn’t really, as it was written long after his time. We’ll get to Moses later, but one thing you really did not want if you were a Jewish man living in Old Testament times was to attract God’s attention and become one of his special projects. Unfortunately, Moses was beloved by God and thus his life was about as bad as it gets.
Everyone is pretty familiar with the beginning of Genesis: God creates the world in six days (motives unclear), rests on the seventh, makes a garden in Eden and puts the first man, Adam, in it. He also plants two trees: the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The latter is the one Adam isn’t supposed to eat from or even touch (first red flag re: God). God knocks Adam out, removes one of his ribs, and makes a woman for Adam.
Then the serpent (interestingly, Genesis doesn’t actually say the serpent is the devil or anything; it just introduces him as a regular old serpent, but wily) suggests to Woman that the reason God doesn’t want them to eat from the Knowledge tree is because then they’d know what God knows and basically be gods. So, they do eat from it, obviously, and it’s interesting that the only thing they then realize is that they’re naked. Apparently knowing about nudity was the only special knowledge God was hoarding (granted, he had only just made the world so there wasn’t much yet to know).
God gets mad, curses Woman with childbirth, Adam with having to work for a living, and the serpent with being a serpent. Adam figures if Woman is going to be a mom, she deserves an actual name, so he calls her Eve. And God realizes that now that Adam knows about nudity, if he eats from the Tree of Life, he’ll be both all-knowing and immortal, so he kicks them both out of the garden.
If Adam and Eve could have become gods equivalent to God himself, I wonder why God didn’t just go ahead and make a bunch of gods to keep him company? But he didn’t want that. He wanted to be the only one. He didn’t want his creations to be his friends, he wanted them to be his subjects. He spends the rest of the Old Testament insisting over and over that everyone acknowledge him as the only God. This is the really unique thing about this particular God, because all previous divine iterations had been big merry casts of gods with more interpersonal drama with each other than Melrose Place, and they therefore weren’t all that focused on us ugly boring humans, but the God of the Old Testament is a completely solitary megalomaniac who is singularly obsessed with toying with human beings.
Anyway, Eve and Adam have Cain and Abel. Abel keeps sheep and Cain farms. Both of them give God a nice present, but God’s an ungrateful asshole about Cain’s vegetables (no one likes vegans), so Cain feels impotent and kills Abel since he can’t kill God. God curses Cain to poverty and exile, but he puts a mark on his forehead so no one will kill him. None of this really makes much sense, but generations of people have used it to justify racism. They interpret the mark of Cain as blackness, even though all these people were Middle Eastern, and anyway the mark of Cain is a sign of God’s protection and God specifically says that anyone who fucks with Cain will get the business end of divine wrath.
One really interesting thing about reading the Bible is it also functions as a sort of meta-narrative of all the bad ideas humanity has ever had. As you read the Bible, you’re also simultaneously reading what people have used the Bible to justify, and this knowledge enriches the story by quite a lot, because if you just read the Bible itself without bringing any cultural baggage to it, it’s fairly meaningless. The Bible itself is just a sort of rough outline of a story (it’s hardly even comprehensible in parts), and all sorts of people have been coloring it in ever since. It’s fascinating to me that all of humanity’s most evil impulses are also moral values that people have rationalized through the interpretation of extremely vague religious texts.
Another thing that makes no sense and has baffled people for ages is that while he is in exile, Cain gets married in another land. But…where did she come from? The usual answer is that she’s his sister, but that doesn’t explain how she got to another land. Women most definitely did not travel around by themselves; she would have been home with Adam and Eve marrying whatever brother wasn’t an outcast.
Then everybody just spends hundreds of years having tons of kids, so the story has some characters to go forward with.
Except it doesn’t because God abruptly decides that all these people are wicked and he needs to wipe out the entire project, kill everyone involved, and start over again. But rather than start from scratch, he has the one guy he still likes, Noah, build a boat and pile it full of children and animals before God floods the whole earth.
With the Ark, we have our first glimpse of God’s tendency to micromanage the design of buildings and clothes. The Old Testament God is absolutely obsessed with design. He loves nothing so much as sketching out plans for buildings and clothes in fabulous detail and having whatever unfortunate man he’s currently obsessed with build them to his exacting specifications. He only gives Noah a handful of instructions as to the Ark — what kind of wood and pitch to use, where the windows should go and what they should look like, and how high the doors should be. But he’s just warming up; he’ll get into some bigger projects later on.
So God floods the earth and kills everyone and everything, but he apologizes to Noah after and promises never to do it again. Everyone gets to multiplying again.
And here allow me a digression: before the flood, people in the Bible lived like a thousand years each. After, they had more modest lifetimes of ~150 years or so. When I went to school, I was taught that this was because there was originally a “vapor canopy” over the whole world that held in moisture and protected men and beasts from radiation, resulting in all the people and animals growing to enormous sizes (this was also the explanation for the “dinosaurs”, which we were taught were actually just really huge elephants and hippos) and living for centuries. With the flood, the vapor canopy was rained down and so our lifespans and heights have reduced ever since. Given their obsession with the ozone layer, it’s surprising that young earth creationists are not typically environmental activists. But then, it’s also not so surprising, since they also believe that this world is just a temporary disposable purgatory that we have to endure until the rapture comes and we all get to exist eternally with Jesus.
God seems to make himself scarce for awhile, but after a few more centuries, he takes an interest in a man named Abram, and he tells him to go on a walkabout and at some point, God will make him a great nation. So Abram and his family wander around for awhile and eventually they go to Egypt, and Abram says to his wife, Sarai, “you’re really hot, and if the Egyptians think you’re my wife, they’ll kill me. So say you’re my sister.” So she does, and her hotness is indeed noticed immediately and she gets carried off to Pharoah’s palace to get raped, which works out great for Abram, because Pharaoh rewards him with all kinds of servants and livestock because his sister’s such a honey. But God doesn’t like it so much and sends a bunch of plagues on Pharoah’s house, and Pharaoh is like, “WTF, why didn’t you just say she was your wife? Take your wife back and get out of Egypt.” So, they all leave Egypt and they’re now very rich.
Then, Abram and God have a lot of negotiations around how much land Abram’s going to have and exactly where, and how many kids Abram’s going to have, and that goes on for a long time, and somewhere in there God renames Abram Abraham and Sarai Sarah. Infertile Sarah instructs Abraham to rape her slave, Hagar, so they can have a kid, and Hagar has Ishmael, but then Sarah feels jealous of Hagar. Abraham says, well, she’s your slave, beat her up if it’ll make you feel better, so Sarah does, and Hagar runs away with her son, but God tells her she has to go back.
Aren’t these people awesome?
Then, God tells Abraham that he really is going to fulfill all his promises to him (any second now), but first they have to make a covenant. And the covenant is, Abraham has to cut his foreskin off, and promise to cut off the foreskins of all his sons and grandsons and so on forever, and do it to all their slaves too, and that’s how they’ll be recognized as God’s people. Well, what’s Abraham going to say to that?
God’s clearly entertaining himself here, and I hate Abraham, so I’m down for it.
“And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house; and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him.”
Now. Take a moment, and just imagine this day. Abraham — who is 100 years old at this point — comes home from a walk in the woods and says, “hey everybody! Family meeting. I’ve been talking to God again, and you know how he’s been saying for decades now that he’s going to make me really famous? Well, he’s really ready to get started now, for real this time, but first, he just wants us all to cut part of our dicks off. Just a portion. You know. To symbolize that we’re in tight with him. I think it’s reasonable!” And then…they all just line up and do it? I’m in middle management, so I know firsthand how hard it is to sell unpopular decisions that come down from on high, and I have to say, I do not understand how Abraham pulled off this massive piece of change management in a single afternoon. He must truly have been an incredible leader.
Next, we take a little digression over to Lot, for the horrible Sodom story. Earlier, Abram had a fight with his nephew Lot, and Lot went off on his own and now he lives in Sodom (the first Boystown). A couple of angels arrive and stay overnight at Lot’s house and the entire town of Sodom, young and old, go pound on the door and request that Lot toss the two men out to them so they can rape them, and Lot says (we’re supposed to be on Lot’s side here) ‘please don’t rape my houseguests, let me throw my two virgin daughters out to you instead and you can do whatever you want to them.’ The town doesn’t take that deal, so the angels become enraged and destroy the city, and Lot and his family leave, and because Lot’s wife looks back once, God turns her into a pillar of salt. Lot and his two daughters end up living in a cave, and the daughters decided to get their dad drunk and rape him (which, fair enough given his treatment of them, not that two rapes make a right), and they both get pregnant and have kids. There’s nothing redeemable in this entire story, and it’s been used to justify the horrific treatment of gay people ever since, so let’s not linger on it further.
Meanwhile, back to Abraham and Sarah who suddenly look a lot less awful by comparison: they go traveling again, and Abraham says that Sarah is his sister again (which why wouldn’t he, it worked out great for him last time), and although Sarah is now in her 90s, the king of some other country just has to have her, so he takes her. But God intervenes before he actually rapes her, and he makes all the women in the king’s family barren. And so this king goes back to Abraham and is like “WTF, why didn’t you say she was your wife” and Abraham says, “because I assumed you godless people would kill me for my hot wife, and anyway she is technically my half-sister, so I was not lying about that.” So the king gives Abraham a ton of money and livestock and God takes back the barren thing.
After decades of false promises and teasing from God, Sarah finally gives birth to a child of her own, Isaac, so she finally kicks poor old Hagar and her kid out for good, and then God does that hilarious prank where he tests Abraham to see if he’ll kill his son for him. We all remember that one. Here’s what I think about it: if any god ever asks you to kill your child to prove your loyalty to him (whether he means it or not), do not worship that god. That’s a bad god!
When Sarah dies, there’s a long transactional thing where Abraham tries to negotiate a burial cave with some characters we haven’t been introduced to. And then Abraham makes his servant rub his thigh (there’s a lot of thigh rubbing in Genesis, and it means a lot of different things; it seems somewhat equivalent to a handshake) and promise him that he’ll take Isaac back to the homeland to get him a wife and not let him marry one of the dirty foreigners they live among. So the servant goes and creeps at a well. He decides that the first woman he sees, he’ll say that’s a sign from god that she’s the one, so he can tie this errand up and go on home. He sees Rebekah, and it is no problem to fix it with her and her family that she’ll come along with a random servant and marry a man she’s never met.
Abraham gets remarried to a woman named Keturah and they have a bunch of kids, and he also has a bunch of kids with his concubines, but he only cares about Isaac. Then Abraham dies, and Rebekah has twins — hairy red-headed hunter Esau and bookish mama’s boy Jacob. Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a pot of lentils.
Then, it gets repetitive — there’s more famine and they have to move around more, and Isaac, being a chip off the old block, tells people in the new land that Rebekah is his sister. But things turn out a bit differently this time! Before anybody gets around to raping Rebekah, the king, Abimelech, looks out his window and sees Jacob and Rebekah “sporting” and so realizes they’re married. I want to know what the Hebrew word meant here that was translated into “sporting.” Anyway, Abimelech gets mad because any of his people might have chatted up Isaac’s wife in good faith and so he considers this entrapment, just like every foreign king does when the men of this family pull this con every year, but it works out great again because he just threatens all his people that if any of them touch Isaac or Rebekah, they’ll be put to death.
Isaac gets super rich and moves around a lot, digging a lot of wells. Esau marries two foreign women, which grieves Isaac and Rebekah. Isaac is dying and asks Esau to kill a deer for him and make venison, but Rebekah decided to dress up her favorite Jacob and send him in to pretend to be Esau, so he gets the blessing instead. Everyone fights and they send Jacob off for his own safety because Esau wants to kill him (but first they make him promise not to marry any foreigners). Then, Jacob heads off to stay with his uncle Laban (spoiler: they do not end up getting along) and he wants to marry his cousin Rachel, but he has to work for Laban for seven years to marry her. But then Laban sneaks her sister, Leah, into Jacob’s bedroom on the wedding night so he sleeps with her without knowing it (?) and then is married to her instead. So he has to work seven more years for Rachel.
God feels bad for Leah because her husband hates her, so he makes Rachel barren and gives Leah four sons. This is so out of character for God! Granted, it’s a real shit move on his part because it’s not like Rachel deserves this, but it’s more empathy than he has demonstrated at any point up until now, so I’ll take it. By this point, Moses has written only half of one book, but he is already just straight up recycling plot lines like it’s nothing: Rachel has Jacob rape her servant, so she can have a kid, and she has a couple sons, and then Leah is like, oh hell no, and she has Jacob rape HER servant too, and SHE has a couple sons. Rachel and Leah continue on in this game of reproductive escalation for some time, and eventually there are just oodles of kids around (at some point, God forgives Rachel and she also has some of her own).
Then there’s a long bit about Jacob magicking a big sheep con based on the placement of sticks. This is just more Jacob/Laban sitcom rivalry fuckery that’s not worth explaining, but when they make up with each other, they make a rock heap to commemorate the apology and “Laban called it Jegarsahadutha: but Jacob called it Galeed.” I mean, they just reconciled and here they’re already squabbling over what to name their stone pile.
High on the power of forgiveness, Jacob heads home and makes up with Esau. On the way he wrestles an angel and there’s more thigh-touching.
They all get to Esau-land and make nice, but then Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, goes out for a walk and gets raped by a prince, and everyone gets mad. Not because of rape obviously, but because of miscegenation. The prince proposes that their two (countries? Camps? Families? Gangs?) should intermarry and join forces.
And here comes the best story in all of Genesis. Get ready. I sincerely love this one. Dinah’s brothers tell the prince, look, circumcision is a big deal to us, but if you and every man in your (gang?) is circumcised, then we’ll commingle and we’ll be one big happy unconquerable family. So, the prince proposes this to all his people, and are they cool with this arrangement? Of course they’re cool with it! If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the Mesopotamian region around 1800 BC, it’s that whole nations full of men were totally chill about cutting pieces of their dicks off whenever anyone suggested it as a possible activity. On the third day after the mass circumcision when all the men are lying around sore (yes, it actually says this), Dinah’s brothers go in and murder them all!
This. Is. Epic. I really didn’t see it coming. Ice cold! The sons of Jacob are chaos agents! Don’t fuck with their sister (unless you’re also a relative).
They also take all their stuff and enslave the children and rape and enslave the women.
After this, God shows up again, renames Jacob “Israel” and tells him he is his special guy now (be afraid, Israel). Rachel has one more son and dies. Reuben sleeps with his dad’s concubine and Israel hears them. This is briefly mentioned, for seemingly no reason, but it turns out to be intentionally planted for a later payoff: many, many years after this, at the very end of Genesis when Israel is dying, he strips Reuban of his rank of firstborn because of this. Israel never forgets!
Isaac finally dies, which is surprisingly delayed given that he was on his death bed like 25 years earlier when Jacob pretended to be Esau back before he went off and “married” half the world.
Now we get to the coat of many colors. Israel loves Joseph best (first born son of his hottest wife) and gives him this coat. And all the thousand other brothers are jealous and hate Joseph. Joseph is the kind of guy who has prophetic dreams wherein his brothers all acknowledge his supremacy and bow down to him and, even though he knows full well that his brothers are sadistic thugs with hair-trigger tempers, he tells them about these dreams. So his brothers throw him in a pit and then sell him into slavery, because again, you do not fuck with the sons of Jacob.
All the other brothers get to marrying, and we come to the famous story that warns against masturbation: Judah has three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. He gets a wife, Tamar, for his oldest son, Er, but Er “was wicked in the sight of the Lord and the Lord slew him,” and I want to know what Er did more than I want to know anything that’s actually detailed in Genesis, but that’s all we get. I mean, by this point, Judah has already participated in a genocide and sold his brother into slavery (that was Judah’s idea specifically) among other things, and God is cool with him, so whatever Er did must have been insane, like maybe he obtained consent from a woman or kept his foreskin or something. Judah, not one to dwell on setbacks, tells Onan to go on in and bang Tamar and get to procreating. Onan doesn’t want to have kids as a proxy for his dead brother, though, so he jerks off onto the ground, and God gets mad at this and slays him, too.
I don’t understand how anyone could read the nonstop rape-and-incest carnival that is Genesis and conclude that poor old Onan here is the only man in it who ever ejaculates anywhere other than directly into a woman’s vagina, or that self-gratification (which Onan wasn’t actually even doing) was what specifically pissed God off about this incident, but somehow many people did get that from it, and as a result we have Catholic shame.
After this fiasco, Judah tells Tamar to sit tight until Shelah is old enough to pass her along to, but then he forgets, and she gets restless. So she puts on a veil and goes and sits on a hill, which apparently at the time is equivalent to donning a vinyl halter dress and standing on a corner in Hell’s Kitchen, so Judah propositions her, not knowing who she is. She quotes him a price (some of his jewelry), he knocks her up, but then she leaves before he can take his jewelry back? Which is weird. It seems like this is the normal transaction for prostitution at this time — the man gives the woman some stuff as a deposit and then afterwards, he takes it back? I do not understand this. But there’s this whole bad dinner theater farce thing where he’s trying to find her to get his stuff back, and everyone tells him there wasn’t ever a harlot in those parts, but that also Tamar has recently gotten pregnant through harlotry, so he arranges to burn Tamar. But then she shows him his jewelry! Hahaha it was her all along! They all have a great big laugh, and she has twins.
You might think based on all this that Judah was just kind of a thug, and the Bible has all sorts. But in fact, at the end of Genesis, Israel blesses Judah above all the others and his tribe becomes the highest status tribe.
Meanwhile, old Joseph has been sold all the way over to Egypt and being clearly favored by God (prosperity gospel!), he rises quickly through the slavery ranks. Then, Joseph’s master’s wife makes a move on him, but when he spurns her, she cries rape (that old chestnut), so Joseph is thrown in jail. Joseph does a lot of conflict mediation and fortune-telling through dream interpretation, and the Egyptians love that, so he climbs back up the ranks again (you cannot keep a good man down). This time, Joseph becomes Pharaoh’s second-in-command and gets really rich. He does this by hoarding all the grain in advance of the famines he predicts in his dreams, and then when the starving people come to buy some, he takes all their money and then he takes their livestock and then he takes their land and turns them into sharecroppers.
Isn’t Joseph a swell guy?
Joseph’s brothers (also starving from famine) show up to buy grain from Joseph the Global Food Hoarder and Enslaver without realizing who he is. Joseph has an excellent time with that, and who can blame him, and it’s a very cathartic and satisfying story in that “big mistake. HUGE.” kind of way. End result: the whole family living happily together in Egypt, super rich, and beloved by Pharaoh. Before he dies, Israel gives each of his sons a special personality that will become the various tribes of Israel, kind of like Hogwarts houses, and everything is great!
Until it isn’t anymore. Next: Exodus.