Friday, April 20, 2012

A testament

Around the time that I was becoming aware that I was going to become deeply involved in Zen Buddhism, I decided to start reading the Bible.  Not its greatest hits, not passages I could remember from chapel at school, but the whole damn thing from beginning to end (in translation, admittedly).  I figured that if I read a book a weekend, I could be done in about a year.  Why did I decide to do this?  A range of reasons.  I had a copy of the book at home, and don't have enough money to buy new books (especially Buddhist books, which are always pricey).  It's undoubtedly one of the classics of world culture, so I thought I should have some familiarity with it.  It might teach me more about the ancient societies of the Near East and so help me put my own work on classical Greece into perspective.  Finally, I was expecting it to be, if not the good book, at least a good book, full of memorable tales, powerful phrases, and ageless wisdom.

It's been about a year and a half, and I've now finished reading through the whole of the Old Testament, so I thought I'd tell you how it went.  To sum up, the Old Testament is rubbish.  More precisely, it is terrible, since 'rubbish' captures the wearying incompetence but fails to communicate the active maliciousness radiating from many of its pages.  I remember reading a quotation to the effect that the God of the Old Testament was the most unpleasant character in any work of world literature.  It struck me at the time as the sort of exaggeratedly aggressive claim made by atheists with an axe to grind.  But after reading through the whole book, I must say that it strikes me as true.  Yahweh hates everyone but his chosen people, and takes a childish joy in annihilating his enemies.  He wreaks horrible revenge even on his own people for petty transgressions of his pathologically fussy law, killing people for collecting firewood on the Sabbath, for example.

There are a few passages in the Old Testament that unambiguously condemn homsexuality (like Leviticus 18:23).  There are many more which are clearly misogynistic (like Leviticus 12:1-6, in which a woman is said to be twice as unclean after giving birth to a daughter than to a son).  Granted, most ancient societies were misogynistic (though the Greeks rarely had problems with homosexuality), so perhaps we should judge the people of the Old Testament by the old standards of their time.  But even in this perspective, they and their God seem peculiarly vicious, for example in several times putting to death everyone, without exception, in the cities they conquer (Deut. 2:34; the Greeks tended to kill all the men and let the women and children live on as slaves).  Among all the sacred slaughter and self-righteous hatred, a few episodes of bizarre cruelty distinguish themselves by their sheer randomness, like David's wedding-gift to Saul of two hundred freshly plucked Philistine foreskins (1 Samuel 18:27).

But the problem is not only that the people and God the Old Testament describes are pathological, but also that for the most part the Old Testament simply does not work as literature, let alone as transcendent revelation.  It is incoherent, patchy, and all in all shabbily written.  Why does the Lord put a mark on Cain, 'in order that anyone meeting him should not kill him', (Genesis 4:16) when there is nobody else around on earth yet?  Why do we need to know, in the midst of one of the interminable lists of names that the Old Testament goes in for, that 'this is the Anah who found some mules in the wilderness while he was tending the asses of his father Zibeon' (Gen. 36:26)?  Even as ancient history, the Old Testament does not really work: its ideological biases are painfully obvious, it jumps around between equally repetitive accounts of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, and written as it is from the often confused and inevitably parrochial Jewish perspective, it fails to give any clear idea of what exactly is going on.  Jerusalem is often taken, but it is usually hard to know who has taken it.

I should make clear at this point that I don't write any of this with pleasure.  I have an interest in religious syncretism, and am attracted to the idea that all the great religions say more or less the same thing once we look beyond the particular words in which they are saying it.  So I was hoping that the Old Testament would help me relate the Christianity of my youth to the Buddhism that's become my daily practice.  But there's no use mincing words or shrinking away from my own impressions: the Old Testament is on the whole a boring, confused, and evil book, and the less time you spend with it the better.  This is doubly disappointing to me because there are so many Jews in Buddhist groups in San Francisco who keep up a dual practice in the temple and the synagogue and who build bridges between monotheistic and atheistic religions (like Tova Green at SFZC).  I am forced to believe that the modern Jews I know who are open-minded and generous have become that way not because of their sacred text but in spite of it. 

I also want to add that I haven't posted this in a spirit of religious one-upmanship.  I haven't had time to read through many of the ancient Buddhist scriptures, but I have no doubt that they contain an equal or greater amount of inconsistency, randomness, and sheer nonsense as their Jewish counterpart (partly, admittedly, because they are so much longer).  I doubt that they contain quite as much malicious war-mongering, but I'm well aware that Buddhist societies have inflicted their fair share of that all-too human brand of suffering.  Nonetheless, I would notice here that the undisputed centrality of the Old Testament (or at least the Torah or the Pentateuch) means that its deficiencies drag down Judaism with it to a much greater degree than any specific sutra can ever drag down Buddhism.  It may not be fair, but Buddhism's lack of a stable hierarchy of texts allows it to slip out of accusations against any single passage.  Judaism doesn't have that luxury; and nor does Christianity.  But that is for another day, and another post.

I should end with some exceptions to what I have said above.  There are a few books of the Old Testament which are readable (Ruth), exciting (Daniel), or even profound (Job).  But the most spectacular exception of all is Ecclesiastes, a 3rd-century BC treatise traditionally attributed to Solomon.  If I had any rabbinical authority (I don't unfortunately - can you tell?), I would reccommend tearing out all the other books of the Old Testament and letting this book stand on its own.  'Emptiness, emptiness, all is empty' it begins, like the Bodhidarma in the first koan in the Book of Serenity.  'The end of all man's toil is but to fill his belly, yet his appetite is never satisfied' it goes on, like the Buddha in the Dhammapada.  It continues: 'Better one hand full and peace of mind, than both fists full and toil that is chasing the wind'.  Solomon reccommends hard work and feasting as the only real response to the all pervading emptiness, not meditation and oryoki, but it is hard not to see in his brief letter the very spirit of Zen. 

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