In the Beginning: Creation

Chapter one of Genesis sets the scene. The creation story is filled with beautiful imagery. My favorite line is before God actually creates anything. “And the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2 ESV) Because I liked it so much, I found it interesting to see how this line was translated in the different versions:
                    NABRE: And a mighty wind sweeping over the waters.
                    NRSV: While a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
                    kjv: And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
Personally, I like the ESV best.
The style is formulaic with a certain set of ingredients on each of 6 creation days: 1) the announcement “and God said,” 2) a divine command beginning with “let” 3) the report “and it was so” 4) an evaluation “God saw that it was good” and 5) placement in time “there was evening and there was morning, the _______ day.” [1]
There is only one character in the chapter – God – and very little is said about who he is…only what he does. What we should think of God? He created the earth, but was he omnipotent? What were his reasons? Who was God? These issues are left a mystery. Most people already have an idea of who they think God is before starting the Bible. Is this why God was left a mystery? Or is it because God is a mystery?
[1] Ryken, Leland. Ryken, Philip.(2001) The Literary Study Bible, Wheaton, IL, Good News Publishers.

The Last Week, by Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan

The Last Week, by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan
Narrated by John Pruden
The Last Week brings to light the historical meaning (as Borg and Crossan see it) of the last week of Jesus as told in the Gospel of Mark. This book was very interesting, though lacked the power of The First Christmas, which I reviewed previously. The main reason for this difference is that The First Christmas told the story of Christmas by comparing all the Gospel stories, as opposed to focusing on just one. Borg and Crossan chose to focus on Mark because he’s the only one to have described the entire week in detail. However it made for a much less interesting, and more repetitive, book. Another difference was that in The First Christmas, Borg and Crossan focused a lot on why they thought some passages were parable rather than literal, and why others should be taken literally. The Last Week focused a lot less on this subject, and spent the bulk of the book simply interpreting the historical background of Mark’s Gospel for our modern times. This, of course, is a very interesting subject, but the lack of that added myth vs. literal aspect made for a much less meaty book. 

All in all, I’d say each of these books has its own merits, and which you read would depend on what you’re looking for. Borg and Crossan are knowledgeable and well-researched historical Jesus scholars. So if you take the Bible quite literally and are looking to understand the historical background of the Passion of Jesus, The Last Week is the book for you. However, if you find the little “inconsistencies” of the Gospels interesting, then The First Christmas is the book for you. If you are at all interested in the subject, I would recommend one or the other (or both) of these books. 

The First Christmas, by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan

The First Christmas: What the Gospels really Teach About Jesus’ Birth
by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan
Narrated by John Pruden

In this fascinating little book, Borg and Crossan explore the historical meaning behind the birth-of-Jesus story. They first point out the factual differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the birth story. Then they explain how, after the Enlightenment, many people want everything to be either literally true or false. Many Christians are in denial of the “factual inconsistencies” in the Bible, and the ones who are aware of the inconsistencies often feel a little uncomfortable and don’t know quite what to think about them. Borg and Crossan point out that the stories are meant to be parables. They were not meant to be taken as literal truth. They explore a deeper truth within the limits of historical culture. 

Borg and Crossan study (practically line-by-line at times) each birth story separately, explaining the cultural, literary, or mythological meaning of the Biblical text. For instance, in his story of the Magi and Herod, Matthew was bringing to mind parallels to the Moses story in his Gospel. Like Pharaoh, Herod wanted to kill all the baby boys because he’d heard that one was born who would overthrow him. As with the parents of Moses, Jesus’ parents had divine inspiration to have a child despite great obstacles – in the case of Moses’ parents, they had to have faith that their son wouldn’t die; in the case of Joseph, he had to have faith that Mary was yet a virgin. Against all odds, both boys survived and became great leaders. Such parallels to the Moses story would help justify to first century Christians the divinely-inspired leadership of Jesus. 

I really enjoyed learning about the cultural reasons for the choices Matthew and Luke made while writing their gospels. At times, I felt the book didn’t translate well to audio, though, because the authors went into great detail in their lists of gospel references (for instance, every reference of to Jesus as “light,” and what the word “light” meant in that sense). The lists didn’t translate well to audio since they were something I would normally either skim over or use as a Bible study guide. Neither could be done in an audiobook. Regardless, I’m glad I had the chance to listen to this book, and I hope to read their first book The Last Week. I’ll save that one for Easter, though.


The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels, by Alexander Heidel

This classic book published in 1946 begins with a short introduction to The Epic of Gilgamesh, gives Heidel’s translation of the Epic, and finally provides a comparison of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and other Mesopotamian tablets with similar stories. Heidel’s translation is organized into tablet format, with fragments and unsure translations represented with an ellipsis and brackets.
Heidel begins his comparison with a chapter about death and the afterlife. In Mesopotamian literature, gods can die, evil was innate because humans were formed from the blood of a “bad” god, and there was an afterlife in which a person carried the objects buried with him into the afterlife. In Hebrew tradition, the one God can not die – he lives forever. However, there is a concept of original sin, similar to the Mesopotamian belief of innate evil. There seems to be some contradiction about whether Hebrews believed that there was an afterlife or not – most likely because of different beliefs of different sects.
The Mesopotamians partook in ancestor worship, which suggested that the ancestors could somehow intercede on behalf of their descendants. On the other hand, in Hebrew culture, there doesn’t seem to be any contact between the spirits of the dead and the living people.
The second, and final, chapter of Heidel’s book compares the Utnapishtim’s flood story that took place in the Epic of Gilgamesh with Noah’s flood story that took place in the Old Testament. There are obvious similarities. Utnapishtim and Noah both built ships to save them from a massive flood that the gods (or God) unleashed on the earth. They collected a male and female of every animal so that they could repopulate the earth. And at the end they released birds to let them know if the flood had subsided. Both the gods and the one God promised never to kill off humanity with such a calamity again.
But there were some interesting differences. First of all, Utnapishtim was not directly told of the flood. Nobody was meant to be told. But a god that favored Utnapishtim whispered to him through the wall of his home while Utnapishtim was sleeping. He told Utnapishtim to lie to the people around him – saying that one of the gods hated him, and that in order to save the entire community, he must leave in a ship. If the community helped Utnapishtim build the ship, they would be rewarded with a season of plenty, which would start with a “wheat-rain.” The community built the ship. Utnapishtim loaded on his family and his entire household of servants. At the end of the story, not all of humanity had died – just most of them. Some had survived the flood.
In the Old Testament, Noah was told directly by God to build a ship. He was asked to warn the community – telling them they must repent. The community did not repent. Noah built the ship and took only his family with him. All of humanity died.
Finally, Heidel discussed arguments of whether the Old Testament story had been derived directly from the Gilgamesh Epic, or if they had the same origins from a different source. He also wrote an interesting, though incredibly theoretical discussion about whether the flood really did happen, and what could have caused such a flood.
In the end, this book was very interesting, though I was hoping for a little more from it. However, I’m not quite certain what I expected, or why I expected it. After all, it delivered what was promised in the title. I think part of my higher expectations came from the fact that pretty much every list of references for studying the Gilgamesh Epic included this book.
Besides the rather silly overly-detailed theoretical discussions about the origins of the flood, one other thing I found annoying about this book was his over-use of the word “obviously.” These points were certainly not obvious to me, so why did he keep using that word? Perhaps his target audience was nothing like me.
3.5 stars for excellent research and being a classic reference book for Gilgamesh Epic.

Jesus, the Middle Eastern Storyteller, by Gary M. Burge

Jesus, the Middle Eastern Storyteller, by Gary M. Burge

Genre: Ancient History / Bible Studies

Reason for reading: This year, I’m studying Jesus and the New Testament. This book was loaned to me by Elizabeth, a friend from work. It was given to her by a friend because the author was her professor.

Synopsis: In this short book, Burge guides the reader to interpret Jesus as a storyteller – a teacher who uses allegory and hyperbole to make important points within his own social context. The book is filled with beautiful pictures and several examples of Jesus’ use of hyperbole to teach an important point. Burge provides historical and cultural insight into what Jesus may have been talking about when telling his parables. 

My thoughts: I was surprised at how fun this book was. Although it’s quite short, and half of it was pictures, it made me look at Jesus from a interesting new perspective. Of course, I already knew that Jesus used parables and hyperbole to make points, but it was really interesting to read Burge’s cultural analysis of those parables. 

The story I found most enlightening was Burge’s interpretation of the fig tree incident. For those of you who don’t recall, the story is related in Mark 11:12-14, 11:20-25; and in Matthew 21:18-22. In my unromantic version, Jesus is hungry, and he sees a fig tree by the road. It’s not fig season, so the tree isn’t bearing any fruit. Jesus curses the poor tree and it withers. I’ve always disliked that story. Despite my cousin Steve’s insistence that fig trees don’t have feelings, and I shouldn’t take the story so literally, I always felt sorry for the tree. Why’d Jesus curse a tree just because it wasn’t bearing fruit in the off-season? (And, yes, Mark clearly states that it wasn’t the season for figs.) 

Burge pointed out that the fig tree represented the Jewish state and religion. Throughout the New Testament Jesus repeatedly pointed out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who made a public spectacle of themselves fasting, praying, and giving alms; but who did not keep the spirit of religion in their hearts. They prayed for the approval of the people, not for the approval of God. Thus, they were not “bearing fruit.” 

Of course, I realize that this insight about the fig tree and the Pharisees is not uniquely Burge’s – in fact I found some interesting articles on the subject after reading Burge’s book (here’s a good one). What’s important is that Jesus, the Middle Eastern Storyteller introduced me to some interesting interpretations that I could look into in more detail later. In that way, this book was a valuable resource for me.


Abraham, by Bruce Feiler


2012 Book 105: Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, by Bruce Feiler (7/11/2012)

Reason for Reading: It fit into Reading Globally’s Middle Eastern literature theme. 

My Review 3.5 stars
In this short work, Feiler reviews the Biblical story of Abraham and then describes how the myth of Abraham has changed over time and between the Abrahamic religions. It is well-written and interesting, and its length is well-suited for the amount of information Feiler wishes to convey. (There were no lengthy speculations in order to add bulk!) I enjoyed it and learned a little bit, too!

The Bronze Bow, by Elizabeth George Speare

2012 Book 98: The Bronze Bow, by Elizabeth George Speare (6/30/2012)

Reason for Reading: I’m participating in the Middle Eastern literature theme read, and this book fits the theme because it takes place in Israel; however, I’m not sure they’re really interested in children’s literature, so this was really for my own edification.

My Review 5/5 stars
Daniel has been living for years as a member of a band of Zealots who wish to free the Israelis from Roman oppression. When he meets a preacher named Jesus, he realizes that perhaps his path of violence and thievery isn’t quite as logical as he’d thought it was. This is a fun book for kids, with adventure, interesting moral lessons, and new friendships. Although Jesus is a character in the book, he is only a minor one–the book is mainly historical fiction, and I think the lessons Daniel learns (violence, thievery, and hatred don’t accomplish anything good) are appropriate for kids of all religions or lack thereof. This is a must-read.

A controversial side-note: This book has been banned from many public school library on the following charges: 1) It’s too Christian, 2) It promotes bigotry against Jews, and 3) It suggests that Christianity is “right” and Judaism is “wrong.” I thought I’d address these issues. 

1)Too Christian: Kids are intelligent, we need to have more faith in them. They are not going to convert to Christianity just because they read one Christian fiction book. This book isn’t even Christian fiction, though it does get close. Kids will be better people in the end if they are introduced to all world religions, as well as many different cultural ways of looking at the world…it will make them LESS racist and more empathetic towards people with different beliefs. 

2) Hostile towards Jews: I’m not sure how? I’ve read a few arguments on this subject, and the people who claim that it promotes bigotry or that it is hostile towards Jews don’t provide examples. Or, when they do provide examples, they quote the book out of context to such extremes that it seems purposeful. But I’m going to assume that SOMEONE (who is actually honest) must have been insulted by this book at some point? I see only two reasons why that would be. 

First, the characters in the book are mostly Zealots who are angry about the oppressive Roman regime. It could be perceived as portraying Jews as angry or racist. However, the book did a good job of showing that this anger is rightfully aimed at an oppressive regime. People under oppressive regimes get angry. That’s a fact. So this book is both sociologically and historically accurate when it portrays some of its characters this way. Furthermore, the book is very sympathetic towards the characters and is rather more hostile towards Romans than Jews.

Second, there was a very short (maybe 3 sentence) passage in which it said that the priests from the synagogue were angry at Jesus and might try to get him killed. I understand that this pokes at the let’s-blame-the-Jews-for-the-death-of-Jesus wound that is still open and festering among some Jewish people (and some Christians???). I’m truly sorry about this open festering wound, but the passage in The Bronze Bow was very short and there’s no way it will encourage kids to blame currently living Jews for the death of Jesus. 

I grew up hearing these stories for my entire life, and I never realized this was an open, festering wound until I was 23 and talking to a rather onerous Israeli friend who (for reason still unknown to me) was trying to start an argument. He said to me: “You should hate me because, after all, I’m Jewish and we killed Jesus.” I was completely floored by this comment because the idea of blaming the Jews for Jesus’ death was foreign to me. I answered “But the Romans killed Jesus.” I had a Catholic education, heard all the stories from the Bible and still never considered the idea that Jewish people alive today could be blamed for the death of Jesus. It seemed preposterous. As far as I was concerned, Jesus was killed by Romans for political reasons that I didn’t quite understand. Though I know now that this is not just an issue with my Israeli friend…I came across the same idea in the book The Faith Club

I think that books like this with very short passages that reference well-known stories out of the New Testament aren’t going to encourage kids to be bigoted. It’s bigoted parents, teachers, and role models that will encourage kids to be bigots, not The Bronze Bow.

3) Christianity is right, Judaism is wrong: Well, it DOES imply that Christianity is right. That doesn’t mean that it implies Judaism is wrong. It never says that anywhere. There are scenes when the kids break rules, like washing hands before eating…but if kids breaking rules proves that they’re right to do so, then the Harry Potter books imply that kids are “right” and schools are “wrong.”