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Having been raised and educated in a religious school, it’s pretty surprising to me when I talk to people about the Bible and discover that outside of the story of Christ, the only Bible stories they know are from Genesis.

There are 66 books in the King James Version of the Bible, or 73 if you’re reading from a Catholic version. In both of these, Genesis comes first, and in its short chapters it contains the great bulk of Bible stories from the Old Testament most people are familiar with:

  • The Creation
  • Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden
  • Cain and Abel
  • Noah and the Flood
  • The Tower of Babel
  • Abram/Abraham and Isaac
  • Lot and Sodom and Gommorah
  • Jacob and Esau
  • Jacob’s Ladder
  • Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors
  • Joseph and Pharaoah

Most people with a passing familiarity with the Bible would probably also mention the story of Moses (seeing and hearing Charlton Heston in their mind’s eye the entire time)– but that’s the next book, Exodus.  Taken together, these two books have a definite narrative arc: Genesis goes from the creation of the world to the establishment of the twelve tribes of Israel in Egypt. Exodus traces the nation’s enslavement in Egypt, their liberation by Moses, and their wandering towards the promised land.

Together they make up the “how did we get here?” portion of the Israelite story (Deuteronomy and Numbers, for the most part, cover the “What do we believe?” and “How shall we live?”– but we’re not going through the entire Bible in the BOAT reading list.) The Old Testament, as a whole, deals with the trials and tribulations of the nation of Israel.

Reading The Bible

I read the Bible very often at school when I was young. It was a Catholic school, so the translation was not the King James Version, but some neutered edition for children that avoided very hard words and skipped all the sex, incest, and bloodthirstiness.

The nuns drilled it into us that the Bible was the greatest book ever written, that it contained the word of God and must be treated with respect according to protocols more elaborate than the Flag Code.

You shouldn’t stack other books on top of a Bible. You shouldn’t write in it, except to write your name on the inside cover. You shouldn’t fold down the pages, or tear them, or use inappropriate bookmarks with cartoon characters on them (Sister Raymond Mary said this while eyeing my Snoopy bookmark pointedly), or store other papers inside of it. You shouldn’t stand on it, sit on it, let it get wet or dirty or lie on the floor, or use it to prop something up. Above all, you shouldn’t let it get dusty. Because that means you’re not reading it. Har har.

I have several Bibles in the house now. One’s a St. Joseph Textbook Edition from the 50’s that was my Dad’s when he was in high school. One’s a KJV with the words of Christ in red ink that was my husband’s grandfather’s. And one is a paperback KJV I bought a while ago when I was into reading the Bible and the Apocryphal Gospels. I’m not observant anymore. And intellectually, I know they are just books.

However, I’ve made notes in the margins of all my other books, and highlighted passages, and used receipts and index cards as bookmarks. I can’t bring myself to write in my cheap paperback KJV. I can’t dog-ear the pages, either. It has a ribbon for a bookmark. And when I put it away at night, I make sure it’s on top of the stack of books on my nightstand.

Nuns. They get to you.

Getting Biblical

For the next few weeks, I’ll be reading some of the most widely-quoted and alluded-to books of (what we Christians call) the Old Testament.

After that, I’m off to the races on a number of other sacred writings in cultures that I, frankly, have little to no experience with. So if I say something profoundly ignorant, I hope someone will understand that this is because I am profoundly ignorant, and come along and explain, as gently as possible, why that’s the case.

Hesiod Wrap-Up

ZOMG, time to plow!

As you probably gathered from the last post, I found Works and Days sort of hilarious. It’s basically this tract of unsolicited advice, aimed at the author’s no-good brother. It goes off on several tangents about Prometheus and Pandora (whose box was actually a jar), and then details exactly how and when to farm your land.

It all sounds very mystical, with Hesiod telling you to do this when the Pleiades are risen, and this when Sirius is high in the sky, and how to talk to your laborers and which women are best to hire for which bits of scut-work. It is somewhere between a Farmer’s Almanac and Emily Post’s Etiquette, in that it instructs about husbandry and maintaining a well-managed house for yourself, your family, and guests. And, obviously, the references to the stars are not mystical at all, but practical for a time without clocks, thermometers, and calendars (at least, not calendars as we know them).

This is why Hesiod is valuable: not necessarily because of his great writing– it isn’t particularly great, at least not compared to Homer– but because of what we have preserved by preserving his writing: a clear explanation of the cosmological myths and mythological characters many Ancient Greeks held dear. And a picture of rural life nearly three thousand years in the past, with a glimpse of the values and superstitions held by people long vanished.

Time elevates the stilted, quaint, quotidian material into something else. Plenty of current fiction deals with this tendency of ours to spin straw into gold, just because it is vintage straw. I have the feeling I’ll run into this a lot as I progress through the books. Human beings have a compulsion to put things in order and ascribe hugely important meaning to trivia– and they’ve done this since before celebrity journalism.

And it may be a function of higher-order thinking, who knows? Those sentient cockroaches, if they find my 8th-grade diary somehow, may treasure it the way we do this compilation of stories and folk wisdom from a dead farmer.

It would certainly be better for them to study that than, say, the TV series Friends.

posideon

Posideon, who will mess up your business: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

Dear Ancient Greek Farmer:

I’m working in my dream career, but now it’s a nightmare. Sometimes it feels like my life is just work, work, work. I never see my family. I lie awake worrying about what needs to get done at the office the next morning, and then imagine it going all wrong when I’m asleep. I cringe when the phone rings. I avoid my e-mail inbox. It’s getting to the point where I feel sick and panicky on Sunday– if I haven’t been working that day, that is. Please help.

–Executive Stressed

Dear Executive:

Sing, you muses, of Zeus your father and his mighty works! For verily when he sent Pandora (that is “all-gift”), to men, she let loose upon the world many evils, strife upon strife. But not all struggle is a misfortune! There is a kind of struggle that sets potter against potter, singer against singer, and rouses even the most workshy slug-a-bed (like, for instance, my brother Perses) to earn his living through honest labor.

Rejoice, o counsel-seeker, that you have means to turn your hand to the till and provide your family with Demeter’s bounty. Great prosperity can be a burden, such as when the seafaring season is upon you, and you must brave the sea and Poseidon’s wrath– in this, I myself am ill-instructed, although I do it anyway, Perses– but imagine the far more onerous burden of soul-destroying poverty!

Dear Ancient Greek Farmer,

What is it with people nowadays? The young people I know are selfish, rude, and demanding. The ones I don’t are even worse. The other day I was at the mall, and a group of teenagers were taunting a boy in a wheelchair! What’s to be done?

Raised With The Golden Rule, Not In The Golden Age

Dear Rule,

Lamentable generation! We are long removed from the golden age of men, who lived and behaved as the gods do, free from toil and strife and warfare. We are even far removed from the warlike bronze age, whom the flood destroyed (save for clever Deucalion).

Nay, it is an age of iron— iron wills, iron hearts, and iron heads. When even brothers will make quarrel over an inheritance and gobble up tracts of land unfairly (sound familiar, PERSES?!), there is little to do but hold fast to Hope, which fortunately is still left with us.

Dear Ancient Greek Farmer,

I have a problem most men would kill for: my wife is ALWAYS gagging for it. She’s ready and willing pretty much any time of day and anywhere we go. The problem? I’m exhausted! And sometimes I just want to read a book when I’m in bed. It’s getting to the point where I stay up late just so I can sneak into bed when she’s already asleep. I’ve tried everything, even the old “not tonight, dear, I have a headache” excuse. What can I do?

Mr. Maenad

Dear Mr. Maenad

Women! A blessing and a scourge. They give to us children, fine sons and daughters of the house. But they also bring tongue-lashings, snatch more food than they are allotted, and befoul the marital bed with their vile fluxes. If you cannot bring your wife to heel, be sure to avoid sowing your stock after a funeral, and on no account allow yourself to pass before a fire while your nethers are stained with semen!

I was kind of pleased with that phrase from the last post, and started thinking about how there might actually be a literal cult of Aaron Spelling characters someday, after we’ve all died from watering our plants with Brawndo and the cockroaches reach sentience and find tapes of Dynasty and Beverly Hills 90210.

It seemed to me that this would be the just fate for our current culture. It also seemed to me that there was one logical choice for the chief deity of this pantheon:

Alexis Colby from "Dynasty"

You could even address her Homerically: “Taut-browed love goddess, Alexis who weareth the turban”.

However, I have been beaten to the punch: she is already a cult figure elsewhere.

Poop.

The Creation, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot

Creation myths are like opinions: everybody’s got one. Every culture, anyway. I’ve been reading two of them in Hesiod’s Theogony and Genesis, which is the first book of both the Christian and Jewish bibles.

I’m thinking of starting a creation myths matrix for the books covered in this blog, since I know there are a lot more of them on the way. Also, it gives me a good excuse to go back through the previous titles (Gilgamesh, Book of the Dead) and see what they have to say about how all this… stuff… came to happen.

So I’ll get started on that, now that I’ve digested all of my Christmas cookies, and post that sometime in the new year.

Meanwhile, I have these two stories to compare.

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