Monday, January 26, 2009

Bible beauty & ugliness

Some Bible passages contain beauty unsurpassed among the greatest spiritual writings of all time. One that withstands prosperous times and scarcity is Mathew 6: 19-34, which begins, “Do not lay up for yourselves an earthly treasure. Moths and rust corrode; thieves break in and steal.” It tells us not to worry about our livelihood, and holds up as examples the birds of the air and lilies of the field—“not even Solomon in all his splendor was arrayed like one of these.” We’re told, “Let tomorrow take care of itself. Today has troubles of its own.”

These lines speak to me of the Eternal Now, and no wonder. The Nazarene to whom they are attributed had a mystical connection with what he termed the Reign of God. This passage has fed me for years, and today it has particular consoling relevance for our country and the world.

But the Bible also contains passages that horrify our more evolved consciousness of today. Genesis 19 tells the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, well known because it ends with Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt. The beginning of this story is more startling and rarely told. Men in Lot’s town come to his door demanding that he give his male guests to them for sexual play. Here is his answer:
“I beg you, my brothers, not to do this wicked thing. I have two daughters who have never had intercourse with men. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please.” Apparently approving of his behavior, “the Lord” guides Lot’s family to safety before raining down destruction on Sodom and Gomorrah.

Here we have it—homosexuality is unacceptable but abuse of women and girls is acceptable. It’s fair to say this is the Bible’s moral standard on sexuality, at least in the first Testament. Passages about homosexuality are rare, but those describing women as property to be used by husbands or fathers as they wish are abundant.

This story knocks out support for the argument that homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says so. And it knocks out the argument that God authored the Bible. Because the Bible’s scandalous morality is little known, I offer another example.

In Numbers 31, the Israelite army wages war against the Medianites, as “the Lord” commands Moses, and they kill every male. The women and little ones they take captive along with their goods and animals as booty. Moses angrily asks the returning army, “Have you allowed all the women to live? . . . Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves.”

Today the words “genocide” and “rape” come to mind. Can anyone doubt that the denial of legal, economic, and political rights to women until the twentieth century stems from Bible passages like this? And to what extent are these passages at the base of the Arab world’s vicious treatment of women? Muslims also revere the Bible. To be fair, women received no better treatment in cultures that have different sacred scriptures. It’s unpleasant to look at these things. But enlightening.

These passages do NOT prove that the Bible is just religious nonsense and lacks inspiration. Among the in-spirited passages are the poetic psalms, the best known Psalm 23:
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil
For you are at my side
With your rod and your staff
That give me courage.

We all need courage and comfort in these troubled times.

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