[Originally posted 27 February 2011]
hen I was a child, and thought as a child, I read as a child, voraciously and without discrimination. The adventures of Freddy the Pig and his friends, the Dr. Dolittle stories, Pogo, Mad Magazine, and Sherlock Holmes, Charles Darwin and Samuel Johnson, Henry Kuttner and Willy Ley, Frank Edwards and Edith Nesbit, Middle Earth and Narnia, myths and legends of all nations—Greek, Norse, Sumerian, Judean, the matter of Britain, native American legends—it was all grist to my mill. I read quickly, taking in an ordinary volume in an hour or so, and having the sponge-like mind of a child, I absorbed all this crap with an ease and facility that I can only envy now, with my sixtieth [now sixty-sixth] birthday looming.
From somewhere I had an old King James Bible—this isn’t the one the Gideons gave me in sixth grade that I think I’ve written about elsewhere—that had endless stupid questions at the end that could supposedly be answered by cited Biblical verses. (One of my favorites was How can I know the Bible is true? which was answered by a string of verses, the compiler seemingly oblivious of the obvious difficulty of a book testifying to its own veracity.) I occasionally read some in it—the stories of Lot and Moses and Joshua and Samson come to mind—it never really interested me that much. The New Testament—Paul’s letters in particular—seemed so bizarre and alien to me that I never looked seriously at it. The title of one section—“Jesus curses a fig tree”—kind of summed up the thing for me. Baffling and pointless.
And I have to say that a lot of kids in my approximate age range wouldn’t have stuck it out as long as I did. The Bible is not really a kid-friendly book, especially the King James Version. (The Rheims-Douay translation, which my mother would let us borrow from her so long as we handled it with kid gloves, wasn’t any better as far as I could tell.)
Take the story of Lot, for example (Genesis 19). Recognizably an ancient variation on the tale of Baucis and Philemon, with two angels standing in for Zeus and Hermes, it was in every way inferior. (No self-refilling pitcher, for one thing.) Lot takes in two visitors whom he obviously recognizes as supernatural, from his behavior, “and they turned in unto him, and entered into his house, and he made them a feast…” For some reason the people of Sodom take offense at this and they “compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter.” They demand that Lot give them up to them, but Lot (and this is the verse that turned my stomach) offers instead his “two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes…” The citizens don’t go for it; they reiterate their demand for the strangers and for Lot as well, at which point the two angels solve the problem by striking the citizens blind. (Well, as Mark Twain might have observed, they were angels, and didn’t know any better.) They then warn Lot to get the hell out of Sodom, as they’re going to destroy it, and he does, and they do, hurling brimstone and fire on it and on Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboim as well, apparently through guilt by association. (Hermes and Zeus at least drowned only the city that had shown them no hospitality, rather than burning to death everybody in the surrounding countryside.) Warned not to look back, Lot’s unnamed wife does so anyway and is turned into a pillar of salt. (Baucis and Philemon at least got to live out the rest of their lives before being turned into trees.) And then, to cap it all off, Lot’s two daughters get their father drunk so they can have sex with him, and so become the ancestors of the Moabites and the Ammonites.
There’s no entertainment here, nothing edifying, nothing thought-provoking—it’s just garbage. And generally this was true across the board—Moses competing with the Egyptian magicians to show Pharaoh who could do the best magic tricks, Elijah’s lame stunt of pouring “water” from prepared jugs onto wood before “miraculously” igniting it, David’s sending a man out to be killed in battle so he can steal his wife, Solomon’s foolish and wasteful expenditures on his house and temple at the expense of his people (who promptly rebelled the moment he was out of the way), the thoroughly disgusting story of Samson, which has not one redeeming feature from one end to the other—it was all of a likeness to Jesus using his magic powers to curse a fig tree for not producing figs—out of season. What a bunch of thugs, con-men, and out-and-out bastards.
Which is why, when I read a statement like
…all must concede that the Bible presents the grandest characters in all history, and that through an acquaintance with those characters, gained in their daily school life, pupils may be stimulated to emulate them
I have to wonder, are they reading the same book?