Storytelling: The old testament


The other day I happened to look at the College Tour. The College tour is a Dutch program in which the host Twan Huys invites famous people to talk about what made them famous and allow the audience(students mostly) to ask them questions. In this particular episode the guest was John Cleese. During this interview someone asked Cleese about his lectures on creativity. Cleese told that he has been fascinated by creativity for a long time and it was his observation that creativity came from the subconscious, for if creativity was something that logic and intelligence brought about, than it would stand to reason that people of logic and intelligence would be the most creative. And that is certainly not always the case(:P).

This remark gave me a flash of insight, for I have always been fascinated by stories, specifically stories that are combined with pictures. Now I realize that many of the things that I posted here, such as my first post for the sl scrapbook, fascinate me because of their story like qualities. In Second Life you get, if you listen, to hear a lot of stories and some perhaps are as close to the truth as can be possible in a virtual world and others are totally fabricated, sometimes without the teller actually realizing this.

One of the things about a place like Second Life is that truth and lies are so mixed up that it is hard to tell where one starts and the other begins. In fact, if you were of a very negative mindset you might say: it is all lies, as it is a make-believe world in which people live make-believe lives and claim make-believe qualities and experiences. Or even: they believe perhaps that which did not happen did happen. The mind can be a great tool for deception!  Specifically when it is convenient and  the deception is helped along through imagery, sounds, mood, education and social pressure. But perhaps instead of looking at things in terms or lies and truth, one can look at these things as stories, which might be true, but perhaps not. but are mostly aimed at conveying a story instead of a truth of one kind or another.

Recently I became interested in the stories that were told in the bible and therefore I borrowed this Bible for the Youth from the library(see below for the source:*) . Next to having pictures, I thought that a bible for youth might be interesting because when you tell something to young people you have to make it pretty engaging and to the point. And this is something the translators  have been trying according to their introduction. In addition they claim to provide facts too. Which will be interesting.

Let’s have a look at the first part of the bible: the old testament.

Abraham gets to see the promised land before dying
Abraham gets to see the promised land before dying.

Above is the first  large picture you see in the book and it shows Abraham looking at the promised land before dying.  He was called Abram first, but his name was changed to Abraham when Yahweh* decided to make him the founding father of Israel. The story itself, to which this picture belongs, is further into the book after the creation stories.  I wanted to show this picture because it is the first big picture in the book. The book is A4 in size and the style of drawing is the one you see above.

*(a side note on the use of the words god, God and Yahweh.  We have been learned in the west to write the name of the god of the Christians with a capital to differ him from all the other gods. I will not follow this practice because it comes from a Christian centrist world view. In this view  God defines just the one specific Christian god and if you are not part of that world you would not use God to describe the christian god. Since continuing this would be disrespectful to other people and would lead to confusion I use the name Yahweh to denote the christian god. )

The bible: a very short introduction.

The bible is a collection of writings of different sources spit in two parts. One is called the old testament and has the Jewish people and (the relation to) their god as central themes to unite the writings. The other part is called the new testament and basically tells about Jesus and some of his followers, notably Paul. The two parts are roughly equal in size in this version of the bible, thus Jesus gets as much space as the Jewish tribes and their history. This shows how important Jesus is in the christian faith.
While the new testament has a kind of plot structure, the old testament has nothing of the kind. It seems like a loose collection of anecdotes and there is no specific purpose in the story or even a clue or a dramatic moment to work towards.  In fact you might think that the old testament would lead inevitably to the new testament, but there is nothing that connects the two because there is a gap of almost four hundreds of years between when the old testament stops and the new testament picks up.

The old testament

The old testament is split in various sections that bundle certain writings. The first part sets up the scene with the creation of the universe, the creation of earth and the creation of mankind. The next part covers the birth of the Jewish people with Abraham/Abram and  the move to their homeland, which seems to be called Canaan  The next part is mostly about Egypt, how they get to leave Canaan, become slaves and then finally escape their slavery and Egypt. The last part covers the life and times of the Jews in their land including a moment in which they are forced to leave their country.  In the first part of this section they are mostly at war with the Philistines, later on the stories mostly tell about confrontations with the various big empires that emerged in the Middle-East such as the Babylonians, Assyrians and the Persians.  These were powerful nations against which the Jews stood no chance.
What general picture emerges from the Old Testament according to the Bible for the Youth?

(Arbitrary) killing

Some detractors of the bible point out, sometimes with glee, how the bible is full of killing. And it is. This bible of the youth, of which you would expect it to be moderated somewhat, fills the pages with Yahweh or people  killing people or planning to kill them.
There are other stories full of death and killing, but in the bible this borders on the deranged as it is mentioned in  such an off hand way as if killing is a normal reaction to any kind of conflict. Strife between people, notably brothers, often leads to murder or the planning of murder. Kain kills Abel. Esau plans to kill Jacob after the latter cheated the first out of his first born child privileges. Twelve brothers plan to kill Josef out of jealousy because he is favored by his father and he narrowly escapes this fate by being sold off.  Saul is jealous of David and tries to kill him on several occasions. Whole peoples get slaughtered simply on a the flimsiest of pretexts. The whole earth gets flooded because people sinned. Sodom and Gomorrah get leveled because they sinned.
Killing is so normal that after a while I found myself even accepting this reaction.  An example is for instance the story of Mozes. At some point it is told that an Egyptian is flogging a Jewish slave..Mozes kills him for it.
At various points people get killed because they are at the wrong place at the wrong time. Jephthah promises to offer the first thing he meets when he gets home if he wins in a certain war. And the first thing he meets is his daughter.  David lusts after a woman called Bathsheba, her husband is in the way so he is ordered into battle to certain death. Then Yaweh gets angry with David because of this and communicates via Natan that the child he will get with Bathsheba will be killed because of this. And so it happens.
(Sidenote: It seems that the bible is even more bloody than this Bible of the Youth, so yes they actually did moderate the bible. An example is the two evil sons of Eli. They get killed for their evilness in the bible. In the Bible for the Youth they are just mentioned to be evil but their deaths is not mentioned). 

Jefta promises Yahweh to offer the first thing he meets when he gets home and it happens to be his daughter.
Jephthah promises Yaweh to offer the first thing he meets when he gets home and it happens to be his daughter.

Lack of compassion

The bible is full of stories about strife, punishments and destruction and it pained me to read how little compassion there is for those who get in the way. The earth gets flooded because the people have sinned and there seems to be no way for the sinners to redeem themselves. Sodom and Gomorrah gets destroyed and again there is no option for people to make amends. In fact, in both cases it is not even clear whether the people who were about to be destroyed were aware of their impending fate. This gets even more disconcerting if you think that Yaweh is the god of Israel and seems to be only interested in  the tribes of Israel, yet he does drown the world in water killing a lot of people who have never even heard of him..
An example of this lack of compassion is in the Mozes story. When Mozes returns from the mount Sinai, after he received the ten commandments,  he finds out that the people made an image of a golden calf to worship. This results in Mozes killing everyone who worships the statue. There is no compassion from either him or Yahweh for these people  and although they get a chance to return to god, those who refused  to do so were killed. Mozes is not one for tolerance, nor is Yahweh.

Disloyalty towards god

One thing that surprised me  is how often the Jews, Yahweh’s chosen people, turn away from their god. At various moments it is told that the Jews start to worship some other entity and grieve Yahweh by not living according to his commands.  An interest aspect of this is what is told about King Josiah: a prophet tells hat Yaweh would have punished the Jews if it was not for their King Josiah who was good man and thus loved by Yaweh and as long as Josiah lives  the Jews did not need to fear their god. It is interesting in that in many cultures a king is often presented as a go-between a god and their people. It is of course a neat way to strengthen their rule and it still is done today. Coronations are usually also religious ceremonies to underscore that a god approves of the rule and that whomever rebels should fear the wrath of the god as they are of course rebelling against a god approved ruler.
A very interesting parallel can be found in the Roman empire in which the various worldly positions are tied in with religious functions.  One such function is that of the Pontifex Maximus: the highest priest. The Pontifex Maximus associated the emperor with the god(s) and is therefore one of the pillars on which power of these rulers rested. In fact, insulting the emperor could get you convicted for violating the majesty of the ruler. This usually meant death.

Yahweh loves men, not women

Women are not men and thus, with perhaps the exception of Esther , women only function in the context of a male, just like Eve was made for Adam. Even Esther, who gets a book named after her, has only a role to play because she is married to Ahasveros, the King of Kings  of Persia and can influence him because she is pretty.  The Queen of Sheba appears in the bible only to admire Solomon. The good qualities of women are to be pretty(and young) or rear children(when they get older). Men have friendships, companions and kindred spirits. Men can love their fellow men and most of all they can have a relation with god.  Women have  almost no relations of any kind with other women with the exception of being sisters or daughters.  But these are only of importance because there is a man involved. The only exception seems to be the tale of Noomi and Ruth, but even that tale ends with finding a husband. No woman talks to god directly nor does god ever talk to a woman. Nowhere in the bible of the youth is written that god loves a woman.
Women do appear as evil at times. Such as the famous Deliah, who causes Samson’s downfall.

A  source of amorality

If we set aside Yahweh as the inspiration of actions and assume that these are the actions of men -and non other than men – then what picture does emerge from the Bible for the Youth?
We get a shocking display of amoral behavior. People trick people(read about how Jacob tricks his near blind father in blessing him to be his successor). People steal other peoples wives(David). People commit suicide(Saul).  Men have multiple wives(almost all of them). People make their servants pregnant(Jacob). Kings break the laws the are meant to uphold(Saul).. and so on.
One particular dubious story is that of the prophet Elisha. One day he is offered hospitality by a rich woman(without a name, because women do not matter, see above) in a place called Sunem and one day she complains to Elisha that she likes to have a child but that her husband is too old. Well, Elisha predicts that she will deliver a son. And she gets one. One he even saves from death. Probably because it was his son(my interpretation).

Elisha predicts that his hostess will get a son within the year. A miracle happens: she does get a son and it dies, but gets resurrected by Elisha.

By the way Elisha is also the guy who has a group of kids killed by two bears for mocking his baldness. This is told in the sideline as the tale itself will probably raise to many awkward questions.
It is curious that non of the figures that feature in the stories actually display any of the moral qualities that are attributed to them. Successors to kings are often chosen on the ground that Yaweh wants this or that person to succeed or because they are sons. It is seldom that it is said that a person should be king because of their leadership abilities or because they are elected by the people.
Sometimes you get a peek at the underlying reality of the story. For instance in the story of Samuel. He is the adoptive son of Eli, a high priest, and Samuel is good and the two sons(unnamed) are evil. It almost feels like we are witnessing some kind of rivalry in which Samuel had to prop up his position as successor to Eli by describing that his two sons were evil and he was good(a man of god). It is probably remains of a fight for supremacy in which the victor’s side of the story is the only  story left to us.
Even more interesting are all the claims that are unfounded. For instance Solomon is described as being wise and  for once in the bible we get a display of a claimed quality. In this  bible no quality is otherwise demonstrated or proven. You just have to accept the bible for being true. The sole exception is Solomon. His wisdom is demonstrated  by his judgement of two women who claim to be the mother of the same child.  To figure this out he threatens to have the kid chopped in half. The argument is that a real mother would not want her child killed while the false mother would settle for half because it would be dead and nobody would get it.  And so it happens. And this then is the demonstration of his wisdom.
This is so obviously fake because only retard  would fall for this trick and it shows how badly the writers think of women in general. They are retards. But in addition. Let us look at the picture that comes with this grand tale of wisdom:

Solomon's wisdom
Solomon’s wisdom: threatening to chop a kid in half to find out who the real mother is.

So a kid gets hold up by it’s feet and threatened in be cut in half. How more brutal can you be? The whole judgement has nothing to do with wisdom, but with violence and making women out to be retards. And this is then the showcase example of the wisdom of Solomon as given in the Bible for the Youth.

No fun

If there is one thing that simple lacks in the Old Testament then it is any kind of fun.  It reminds me of the Name of The Rose in which people get killed because they come in contact with a work of Aristotle that discusses humor. Humor makes life bearable, but the murderer kills the people because knows that humor (notably mockers) also reduced the fear for Yahweh. Nobody should laugh at him.  And perhaps that is the reason why there is no humor whatsoever in the bible. Except unintentionally. It is a dry dreary tale lacking any sense of gaiety

To summarize

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” (Richard Dawkins)

Richard Dawkins’ statement is actually not entirely correct. Read on.

Reading the old testament as presented in the Bible for the Youth is an awful experience. The blurb on the back of the book promises to give us all the important stories of the bible. I assume this claim to be true.  The bible is a cavalcade of unlikable characters and non of them have any redeeming qualities. Most have no personality to speak off, those that do are abject people. I don’t mean people with their strengths and weaknesses, but just abject people. They are nasty, selfish, petty, cheats, dishonest, bloodthirsty killers. Some were  obvious confidence tricksters, like the prophets Elijah and Elisha.
And this is why Dawkins statement is’t entirely correct. This statement is about  Yahweh, but  as said before.. if we assume that there is no Yaweh this means that all the acts are done by the people that are in the bible. They are petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freaks; vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleansers; misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bullies.

The Old Testament as a great tool for story telling.

While the Old Testament  is an awful book, it is however a supreme book for story telling. This sounds like a complete reversal of what is said above, but allow me to explain.
The Old Testament reads as if someone quickly penned down a series of sketchy plots without filling in the details. It is like a bare-bones framework. As such it can be a great source for developing stories and it should perhaps be read in that fashion. Shakespeare’s plays are full of murder and mayhem and people think his works are  among the best that English literature has to offer.  The Old Testament itself is a crude storybook, but I can very well imagine how it has been used throughout the ages as a means to tell stories that adapted over time.  In this perhaps the Old Testament’s strength is the same as it’s weakness.

(*Source: De bijbel voor jongeren. Verhalen en feiten in woord en beeld. Naverteld door Selina Hastings met illustraties van Eric Thomas..)

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