I am reading the deliciously brilliant and epic one volume history of Europe by Norman Davies. I chew through its 1300 pages while wife-unit bakes, or brushes her teeth or fights back the bears that attack her or goes to sleep. Basically, whenever I can pick it up, I stick my nose in its thick maze of maps and charts and lineages and history. Good old little Russia, Ukraine, plays an endearingly huge part in every section of history. I understand their nationalism a little bit more and fail to understand their affiliation with Russia a little more too.
Anyway, often on the interweb or in pubs or after church on Sunday or wherever it is likely to be discussed, I keep hearing that reading the Bible is “all about interpretation”. It’s all in how you read it, allegedly. I never understood how this differentiates the Bible from any published material at all. I have to interpret the back of my cereal box with care because it apparently tells me that there is nothing healthier than the chocolate covered rice puffs I feast on. I interpreted Animal Farm very differently when I first read it as a child who saw a cartoon about funny farmyard animals taking over and as a teenager getting all het up on socialism. And so to lament that the Bible needs to be interpreted sounds to me like someone who refuses to buy trainers because the laces have to be tied.
Davies is talking about the first great transition in humanity’s history, when we moved to agriculture. The Greeks, heirs to the Minoan civilisation destroyed in part by a volcano were aware of the need for environmental stewardship. This concept became pressingly important for any human tribe who began to cultivate the land but we can read of Plato describing how the once fat and soft earth of North Africa had become “like a skeleton of a sick man”.
In passing, without warning, Davies comments that the:
Judeo-Christian tradition which was destined to triumph in Europe, derived from the era of the ‘First Transition’. It stressed Man’s supremacy over the rest of Creation…
He goes on to quote tiny slices from Genesis 9 where Noah is exhorted to get it on as much as he likes and make little Noahs until the cows come home, Psalm 8 where we sing of the image-bearing nature of humanity, (skipping the best verse which can be paraphrased as, “Nursing infants gurgle choruses about you; toddlers shout the songs that drown out enemy talk, and silence atheist babble.”) and from Psalm 115.
Then without any further discussion he editorialises:
Dissident thinkers such as Maimonides or St. Francis, who rejected these exploitative nostrums must be counted a distinct minority.
Excuse me, but what you talkin’ ’bout Davies! Where is the exploitation?! What the hell is a nostrum! Davies gets the gist of the Hebrew Scriptures totally wrong, but of course he does, since he doesn’t even try to do justice to them. How different each of these passages are when looked at with even a modicum of care. No need to be a Christian or a scholar (even the man on the street can see) to notice that in Genesis 9, God is talking to Noah at the end of a cataclysmic flood brought about as punishment for humanity’s evil. The words that Davies quotes, within the context of the narrative, (no clever hermunetical trickery needed) are indicative, not prescriptive. “This is the way it is”, not “Go then and make it so!”. The Psalms are fecking musical songs. There are 150 of them in the Canon. It stretches it a bit to blame environmental devastation on two lines of Hebrew poems. Nostrum or not, both of these poems deal with the glory of God, not the way we should treat the Earth.
The Bible definitely does need to be interpreted. This isn’t a design flaw. It only becomes an incoherent mess, it only becomes a jumble of meaningless gibba-jabber when we decide to pick it to pieces, fit it inside a pre-determined framework we had in mind and then point out that this so-called God can’t actually be all that good if he tells you to rape the Earth.
Davies doesn’t do that mind. He leaves his crimes against the text at bad interpretation but resists the urge towards bad application (beyond the weird statements that the Roman Catholic Francis was somehow a minority dissident voice…). But it was a classic example for me of how common it is to see the Bible read without “any interpretation”, which really means a totally biased interpretation and therefore butchered.
Your Correspondent, They don’t know it, but the Americans are actually all gonna be giving thanks to me.