Genesis

Duck and cover: What was the worst misuse of the Bible in history?

Duck and cover: What was the worst misuse of the Bible in history?

THE QUESTION:

Across the ages, what passage in the Bible was the subject of the most heinous misinterpretation and application?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Without doubt, the answer is Genesis 9:18-27.

The use of those verses as biblical support for black slavery was “devastating, and patently false,” says David M. Goldenberg, who wrote the important studies “The Curse of Ham” (2005) and “Black and Slave” (2017). Black History Month is an appropriate season to contemplate a perverse biblical claim long perpetrated by various Christians, Jews and, from a different tradition, Muslims.

This Genesis passage, aptly called “obscure” and “enigmatic” by scholars, records a sordid incident in primeval times. After surviving the great Flood, Noah planted grapes and then (possibly by mistake) became drunk with wine. As Noah lay uncovered in a stupor, his son Ham “saw the nakedness of his father” and reported this to his brothers Shem and Japheth, who then took care to cover Noah without looking upon his naked body.

When Noah awoke and learned what had happened, he cursed Ham’s son Canaan, saying “a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”

So this was not a “curse of Ham” so often spoken of, but upon Noah’s grandson Canaan. We are not told that God cursed Canaan, only that Noah did so. Noah then asked God to bless his sons Shem and Japheth while omitting Ham, but God had previously blessed all three brothers equally (Genesis 9:1).

“The Bible says nothing about skin color in the story of Noah,” Goldenberg observes, and others agree. Analysts differ on the geography and ethnicity that might be indicated in the genealogy that follows in Genesis chapter 10 but do agree on one obvious point. The Bible identified Canaan as the ancestor of the Canaanites, Israel’s pagan rivals. The family line in Genesis 11:10-31 designated another of Noah’s sons, Shem, as the ancestor of Abraham and thus the Israelites, as he was also to be of Ishmael and the Arabs.

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For High Holy Days coverage, consider a look at major Jewish thinker -- Leon Kass

For High Holy Days coverage, consider a look at major Jewish thinker -- Leon Kass

If you’re scouting for a feature pegged to Judaism’s High Holy Days that begin at sundown Sept. 9, consider a high-end piece profiling what they used to call a “public intellectual,” now often thought to be a dying breed.

The Religion Guy is thinking of Jewish philosopher Leon R. Kass and his recent book “Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times” (Encounter), certainly a timely Holy Days theme. These essays are lauded in National Review as “a crowning achievement” that caps this polymath’s decades of reflection. Topics include love and courtship, friendship, the Internet, biotechnology and scientific peril, death and mercy-killing, and of course religion.

The 72-year-old retiree long taught at the University of Chicago’s elite Committee on Social Thought, where he pursued the book’s title mostly through analyzing literary classics. Though he’s not a credentialed Bible scholar, he added  years of informal student seminars and then a not-for-credit course on the biblical Book of Genesis. His approach is unorthodox, indeed un-Orthodox.

The result was “The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis” (Free Press, 2003), praised by Kirkus Reviews as “wonderfully intelligent.” Rather than focusing on matters of faith that are central for Bible believers, Kass’s philosophical approach asks us to ponder what ancient Jewish tradition provides for modern-day justice, sanity and contentment. That feeds into his other writings that seek human happiness through recovery of the West’s old-fashioned values and verities.

Kass says he was raised in a Yiddish-speaking but “strictly secular home without contact with scripture.” There’s considerable unexplained turf an interviewer could pursue regarding Kass’s own personal belief and practice, and whether and how the specifically religious aspect of the Jewish heritage might remain relevant in the 21st Century. 

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) posts a good essay about Kass that can guide journalists. A bit of the basic bio: Kass earned bachelor’s and medical degrees at the University of Chicago, where he met his late wife and intellectual collaborator Amy, and then migrated to Harvard for a second doctorate in biochemistry.

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Latest Bible battle: Three evangelical experts carefully go revisionist on Noah's flood

Latest Bible battle: Three evangelical experts carefully go revisionist on Noah's flood

For Protestants who interpret the early chapters of the biblical Book of Genesis literally, Noah’s flood is a major test of faith.

Witness Kentucky’s Ark Encounter with its 170-yard-long watercraft on display. Witness Hollywood explorations of the topic that fold in bizarre non-biblical myths or multiplex-level humor. Such popular interest commends news coverage when something flood-wise erupts.

Something just has.

Journalists will find story potential in reactions to the eyebrow-raising book “The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate” (InterVarsity Press). The co-authors are evangelical Old Testament Professors Tremper Longman III of Westmont College and John H. Walton of Wheaton College (Illinois).

They contend that the narrative in Genesis: Chapters 6–9 is not a fable or “myth” but stems from some actual catastrophe during primeval human history. However, they dismantle the literal interpretation.

That's interesting, in terms of academics. Note that Wheaton faculty members affirm that all the Bible’s books “are verbally inspired by God and inerrant in the original writing.” Moody Bible Institute, where Walton previously taught for two decades, believes the biblical texts “were verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit.” Longman’s Westmont proclaims the Bible to be “God-breathed and true, without error in all that it teaches.”

In the book, Longman and Walton say “the Bible is indeed inerrant in all that it intends to teach,” but analysis of intent allows room for their flood revisionism.

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Polls can be problematic, but journalistic blessings upon Gallup's long, long religion trend lines

Polls can be problematic, but journalistic blessings upon Gallup's long, long religion trend lines

Let’s admit it. The news media are poll-obsessed, especially with politics. But don’t blame pollsters if journalists over-work surveys or neglect necessary caveats.

Take Michigan’s presidential vote. A November 3 poll for Detroit’s Fox2 put Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by 46 to 41 percent.

Did news reports mention the “margin of error” of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points? With that factored in, Trump could actually have been slightly ahead, and in fact he won Michigan by three-tenths of a percent.

In “Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith,” sociologist Robert Wuthnow doubted any polls are representative nowadays since “response rates” among randomly selected respondents are so low. GOP pollster John McLaughlin pursues another complaint, that sampling techniques consistently undercount Republicans. 

So religion scribes must be wary. Nonetheless, blest be the Gallup Poll, especially for trend-tracking because it has posed the same questions across years and decades, e.g. the famous “did you, yourself, happen to attend” worship this week?

Sure, fibs and faulty memories may inflate the results, but the downward trend line is noteworthy.  

Gallup’s annual “Values and Beliefs” poll in May finds the most permissive U.S. views to date on 10 of 19 moral issues -- though adultery still gets mere 9 percent acceptance. That got more coverage than Gallup’s subsequent report on the poll’s responses about the Bible that presumably shape moral opinions. (Note the sampling error of plus or minus 4 points, with no “response rate” in the fine print.)

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Was the Bible’s Abraham a real person or only a fictional character?

Was the Bible’s Abraham a real person or only a fictional character?

MARK’S QUESTION:

Liberal biblical scholars say Abraham never lived and was a literary invention of “priestly” writers in exile in Babylon. Since we have no archaeological data on him, how do we know he really lived?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The patriarch Abraham is all-important as the revered founding forefather and exemplar of faith in the one God, this not only for Jews and Christians but Muslims, whose Quran parallels some of the biblical account on him in Genesis 11–25. Islam believes Abraham was a prophet in the line that concluded with Muhammad. He is also Muhammad’s ancestor, just as the New Testament lists Abraham in the genealogy of Jesus.

For Orthodox Judaism, traditional Christianity, and the entirety of Islam, it’s unthinkable that Abraham would have been a fictional character. The stakes are high for the Bible, which presents the Abraham material in extensive narrative history, not obvious mythology. Even scholars who see Genesis 1-10 as mythological may think actual history begins with the patriarchs while, as Mark states, liberal religious and secular scholars question his existence.

In pondering such questions, the archaeologist’s well-worn maxim is that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Yes, no texts about Abraham apart from the Bible survived. The “Aburahana” in Egyptian texts from 1900 BC(E) is thought to be someone else. But that doesn’t prove he never lived. Remains from such a long-ago epoch are necessarily scattershot, even for grand potentates with court scribes much less Abraham, a relatively obscure figure during his lifetime and a semi-nomad who moved among locations.

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How does U.S. Islam fit into the intensely religious gay-rights debates?

How does U.S. Islam fit into the intensely religious gay-rights debates?

America’s two dominant religious blocs, conservative Protestantism and the Catholic Church, face increasing hostility over their longstanding opposition to same-sex behavior and marriages, shared with Eastern Orthodoxy, the Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”), Jewish traditionalists, and other faiths.

Mainstream news media have largely ignored that U.S. Islam agrees. Partly that’s because its leaders and organizations tend to shun the public debate, perhaps due to immigrant reticence, leaving adherents of the other faiths to pursue the politicking and legal
appeals.

In societies where Islam dominates, dictates of the holy Quran and Hadith (collected teachings of the Prophet Muhammad) often define civil law. The Washington Post reports homosexuality can be punishable by death in Iran, Iraq, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Iran’s Khomeini-ite theocracy has executed thousands of gays, and prison sentences ranging from 3 to 20 years are prescribed in other Muslim countries.

 American Muslim educator Taha Jabir Alalwani has declared that Sharia (religious law) calls for “painful worldly punishment before the severe punishment of the hereafter.”  But should that apply in the U.S., where Muslims are a small minority? How do imams and mosque attenders view the all-important gay marriage cases the Supreme Court will hear in late April? As liberalization proceeds, will devout Muslims become more isolated from mainstream America?

Reporters should ask.

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Why doesn’t the Bible mention dinosaurs? (Plus, the Religion Guy visits 'Crossroads')

Why doesn’t the Bible mention dinosaurs? (Plus, the Religion Guy visits 'Crossroads')

EDITOR'S NOTE: Check out Richard Ostling's first "Crossroads" podcast, focusing on coverage of Islam and violence. Listen in right here, or subscribe to the podcasts at iTunes.

TOM SAYS:

I am confused when the Bible talks about God creating the world in seven days but there is no evidence of humans living with dinosaurs.

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This problem arises if “creationism” controls Bible interpretation. That term has come to identify those Protestants whose strictly literal reading of the Bible’s Book of Genesis requires a “young earth.” That is, if God created the cosmos and all species 10,000 years ago at most, then humanity and dinosaurs must have lived at the same time.

“Creationism” is a common but simplistic, misleading label because multitudes who worship God as the creator of all nature also accept standard geology’s vastly longer time frame, based on radiometric and other dating techniques of the past two centuries. By this reckoning, dinosaurs first inhabited Earth some 230 million years ago and became extinct 65.5 million years ago, eons before humanity appeared. The most recent report last November said a dinosaur find in southwestern Alberta, Canada, may be 80 million years old.

“Old earth creationists” believe scientists’ long chronology readily fits with faithfulness to the Bible’s account of origins, but criticize Darwin’s theory of evolution. A third camp of self-identified Bible believers embraces both an old earth and “theistic evolution,” seeing Darwin’s scenario as God’s method of forming species while opposing contentions that evolution was random and without purpose or a Creator.

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Another one of those Bible puzzlers: Why did God spurn Cain’s offering?

Another one of those Bible puzzlers: Why did God spurn Cain’s offering?

JANE ASKS:

Why did God spurn Cain’s offering?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Some weeks ago our blog treated the classic Bible question of where Cain, Adam and Eve’s first son, found his wife. In response, The Guy received this about another Cain puzzler from the Book of Genesis, chapter 4.

Here’s the story from  “Genesis: Translation and Commentary” (Norton, 1996), a euphonious (look it up) rendition by Robert Alter. Cain was “a tiller of the soil” who “brought from the fruit of the soil an offering to the LORD. And Abel too had brought from the choice firstlings of his flock, and the LORD regarded Abel and his offering but He did not regard Cain and his offering.”

Then Cain “was very incensed, and his face fell.” God  said: “Why are you incensed, / and why is your face fallen? / For whether you offer well, / or whether you do not, / at the tent flap sin crouches / and for you is its longing / but you will rule over it.” God’s admonition did not overcome Cain’s resentment and he murdered his brother.

The Bible doesn’t state explicitly why God did not “regard” Cain and Cain’s offering.

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A biblical oldie, but goodie: So who was Cain's wife?

A biblical oldie, but goodie: So who was Cain's wife?

LIBBY ASKS:

If human origins began with one couple, Adam and Eve, how did Cain find a wife?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

The famous biblical story of Cain, history’s first murderer, includes this old Bible head-scratcher about who his wife could have been. Genesis 4 tells of Cain’s birth, agricultural vocation, rivalry and killing of his younger brother Abel. God curses Cain to wanderings and hard toil in the fields, yet mercifully grants a mysterious “mark” for protection against those who might want to kill him. Cain enters exile “in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” Only then do we learn that Cain is married (verse 17). John Calvin’s classic commentary from 1554 thought the context indicates Cain married in Eden, though others say a wife from Nod is possible.

In the strictly literal reading, after Abel died there would have been only three true human beings, Adam, Eve, and Cain. So, skeptics demand, who was the wife? 

At the 1925 “Scopes Trial,” pro-evolution lawyer Clarence Darrow used the wife to ridicule his opponent William Jennings Bryan as he quizzed him about Bible details on the witness stand. (Darrow: “Did you ever discover where Cain got his wife?” Bryan: “No, sir. I leave the agnostics to hunt for her.”) Similarly, scientist Carl Sagan’s novel and movie “Contact” employed Cain’s wife to undermine conservative belief in the Bible.

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