Dave Sim's blogandmail #405 (October 21st, 2007)
Hey remember the letter from Adam Richards earlier in the week about COLLECTED LETTERS? Here's the Sunday Edition part I was talking about.
"I was particularly struck by the pertinence of your penultimate letter to B.E. – the one about life's checklist. It rang some great home truths as that was very much my modus operandi for several decades (I'm 42 so sort of a contemporary to yourself – although I will doff my cap to your seniority). Anyway, I've come to the God Crux and want to find out more. I thought that an easy way to understand scripture to begin with is one of the Bible-as-novel affairs that were popular a few years ago. Luckily found one – Story of Stories by Karen C. Hinkley – that has certainly been interesting and has shown me a path of sorts to follow. I'm on the cusp of reading the real thing now. Do I start from the start? Questions, questions. What are your views on the importance of reading aloud? I know you cover some of this in the letters, but I was interested what your first experiences of scripture were like?"
My own experience was to just buy the facsimile of the 1611 King James and read it as if it was a novel, just start at the beginning and read it. My biggest concern was just getting through it, so it was all forward momentum the first time. I assumed it would be the first and only time. The second time through, I read it a bit slower and doubled back anytime I didn't understand anything. Most of the time, I still didn't understand but I was at least able to mentally "flag" where the large questions were. My experience in reading it as narrative is that it functions admirably in that role right up to the points where it doesn't. The nearly universal experience among secularists (as I later found out) was to let the genealogy throw them. Adam lived x number of years and begat Sheth and lived x number of years and begat sons and daughters and then he died and Sheth lived x number of years and begat, etc. The bias in narrative is that if the narrator introduces a new character you're supposed to remember who that is because he becomes important later on. So, suddenly you have twenty or thirty characters all introduced in a single chapter. At that point most people give up or flip past it and start the next chapter. The genealogy is important but only because it establishes a link to the beginning of the epoch in which we find ourselves when men lived for roughly 1,000 years each. That's really all that you need to know (as far as I know: I could be wrong). The idea is to establish that this epoch started with Adam and then, basically skip ahead to Noah. And then you read the story of Noah and the flood and then you get another genealogy that takes you up to Abraham and there the narrative actually stops and considers each generation in sequence. Abraham "begets" Ishmael and Isaac but instead of just telling us that and moving on, the narrative tells us about Abraham, his wife Sarah, then it tells us about Ishmael and then it tells us about Isaac, and then it tells us about Isaac's wife, then it tells us about their two sons, Jacob and Esau and then it tells us about Jacob's two wives and the twelve children they have between them and then it tells us about the fate of one of the children, Joseph and how he gets sold into slavery in Egypt and then the whole family ends up moving to Egypt, Jacob dies and that's the end of the First Book of Moshe. All of it pure narrative from the genealogy up to and including Abraham onward to the end of the book. The Second Book of Moshe (what the goyim call Exodus) takes up the story years later when the twelve sons of Jacob have procreated like crazy in Egypt but are now complete slaves of the Egyptians and picks up with Moshe and Aaron, descendants of Levi (one of the twelve sons of Jacob) and the whole Charlton Heston gig. Whatever you do, don't treat THE TEN COMMANDMENTS movie as scripture, but that's the story. Then about halfway through, the whole thing goes off the rails insofar as narrative is concerned and only intermittently turns back into narrative through the rest of the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moshe. There really are no definitive answers to Why That Is. I have my own theories which I got into in LATTER DAYS. The Talmud is essentially the officially orthodox Jewish theory which (rough distillation) holds that when everything goes off the rails, that's The Law, i.e. God's Law and it was the job of the wisest scholars to extrapolate subordinate laws from the Primary Law as it's contained in the five books. As an example (thanks to Lenny Cooper for this one) the reason that a cheeseburger isn't a kosher (i.e. lawful meal) is because it mixes dairy and meat. And that's extrapolated from a verse which instructs "Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother's milk" (an instruction which actually appears twice). To me, that's stretching a point. It might mean that you shouldn't mix meat and dairy, but it might also mean that it's okay "to seethe a kid in milk…as long as it isn't its mother's". All you have to do is put "mother's" in italics and that is, indeed, what it means.
I think all that can be said is that your soul is at stake so you might as well read the rulebook. But, if you're looking for definitive answers, I can tell you right now they aren't out there. There are, I'm sure, devout reformist Jews who lead impeccable lives and eat cheeseburgers now and then. To ORTHODOX Jews, they're breaking God's Law and they'll have to pay the price for it. And that's just one instruction. There are literally dozens if not hundreds of them in the five books. Strict observance is going to be tough because a lot of it involves the ritual sacrifice of animals. Unless you have two turtle doves or two young pigeons kicking around your place and a Temple to sacrifice them in, you're already outside God's Law. You can go to a rabbi if you want and find out what they have now that replaces Temple worship (and has replaced Temple worship for roughly two thousands years), but what you will get is an extrapolation that is maybe a thousand years old. If the thousand-year-old extrapolation (most of the time it will be from Maimonides) is accurate in God's eyes, then you're fine. If it isn't accurate both you and a whole lot of observant Jews over the last thousand years are "not so fine".
I actually didn't start reading scripture aloud for a long time. I finally started doing it because I could feel my concentration lapsing. By the time you're reading the same material for the twelfth time that's going to happen. It might just be my own experience but it seemed to me more of my attention was engaged that way. If you read a word aloud the wrong way, you'll hear it right away. If you're just hearing it in your head, it's not as noticeable. Your brain is working your mouth and larynx to enunciate the words properly, your ears are hearing the words at the same time your eyes are seeing the words so your brain is receiving the information two ways out once. There's also no "skimming" when you're reading aloud. During Ramadan I can usually get through the entire Koran at least twice during the 30 days.
Bring your best self to the material and decide for yourself what it is that it's telling you to do. As I say, it's your soul that's at stake.
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