I got to thinking about The Bible recently, mainly because I was forwarded an email from my cousin, who sprinkled his message with Biblical references to illustrate some points he was making. I'm not a fan of quote-sprinkling in general, actually, regardless of the source. I know that may come as a surprise to those of you who've known me for a long time, given that one of my older hobbies is quote-collecting. There are just so many great things said by great people that I want to hold on to them. But I don't use them a lot when I speak or write.
If you have an opinion or decide to do something, I believe that your reasoning should be something that you come up with, rather than relying on someone else's ideas. If you want to help your country, do it because you think it's the right thing to do, not because John F. Kennedy told you to. If you want to stand up for freedom of speech, do it because you think it's the right thing to do, not because Voltaire said he would.  If you want to care for the sick and the poor, do it because you think it's the right thing to do, not because Jesus said you should.
Quoting famous people is very attractive, because they tend to be better at wordcraft than most of us. If you rely on quotes to explain yourself, however, you're not only committing a serious Logical Fallacy (Argument From Authority - "Gandhi said it's the right thing to do, so it must be the right thing!"), but you're being intellectually lazy, letting other people do your thinking for you. If it's really important to you, you should be able to use your own words to explain why it's important. You are are the one doing these things, not some moldy old dead guy. Take responsibility, take some time to think about it, and explain it by yourself.
The Bible seems to be the most attractive source of citations, probably because, to those who cite it most often, the Bible is the Inerrant Word of God. It's the biggest Argument From Authority there is - it's in the Bible, therefore God wants it, therefore it is Right - and if you take the position that the Bible is truly God's Word, then there's really no arguing with that. I wouldn't argue that with my cousin anyway, as he is a man who could probably break me in half just by looking at me. He wouldn't, I'm quite sure of that, but he could. He may want to, if he reads this LiveJournal with any regularity.
Anyway, thinking of this got me thinking of the Bible, which I do not believe is the Inerrant Word of God. There's enough evidence out there to prove to me that it is an Errant Work of Humans - some parts are beautiful, some parts are ugly, some of it still applies to us today and some of it is the ignorant superstition of a nomadic culture millennia past. It's an important work of literature, but it is not God's Word. Which means that I have no compunctions about ripping it apart.
The section that came to mind was, for some reason, Exodus. This bit of the Bible always nagged at me, and I'll explain why:
We begin the book with the death of Joseph and his family, and the succession to the throne of a new pharaoh, who promptly enslaved the Israelites.  This went on for 430 years, until Moses drew the short straw and was sent to free his people, whom he hardly knew, having been brought up in the pharaoh's household. First he went to the leaders of the slave nation, and then to the pharaoh, whom he told was to let the Israelites free.
The pharaoh, of course, said no. That's to be expected, really - a slave-holding nation receives certain benefits, as any student of U.S. history knows. The ruling class can reap massive rewards from the exploitation of unpaid labor. The idea that the Israelites should be treated as full citizens would mean that they'd have to get paid, which would mean less money for the ruling class. And if they should leave altogether, it would leave the rich of Egypt to do the dirty work by themselves. Ra forbid!
So, the pharaoh told Moses to get lost, and Moses complained to God, who told him to stand well back and watch the Master at work. Moses and Aaron did the staff-to-snake trick, turned the river to blood, and performed all sorts of other nasty things with animals and insects. Eventually, after the land was filled with flies, pharaoh started to think about giving Moses and his people some leeway, but goes back to his old ways as soon as the flies are gone.
Then we get to Exodus 9:12, which is where we start to see what's really going on:
And the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart, and he did not listen to them, just as the LORD had spoken to Moses.Didja see that? Huh? "The LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart."
Up until this point, the pharaoh had just been stubborn and stupid - I would have told Moses to get the hell out of my country as soon as the frogs showed up. But now, now it's not the pharaoh anymore - it's The LORD. This pattern continues, where Moses performs a miracle and the pharaoh repents of his wicked ways, just to go back to being stubborn and stupid. Only now we can't be sure it's entirely the pharaoh's doing. It happens again in 10:20, 10:27, and 11:10, the prelude to the slaughter of the Firstborn.
What this says to me is, forgive the word, damning. We have no way of knowing what the pharaoh would have done without the influence of God on him - he might have gotten fed up with Moses and Aaron and their Magical Mystery Tour after the plague of Darkness, saving a whole lot of trouble. But we can't know that his will was his own, and that the final plague, the deaths of the firstborn of Egypt, was actually deserved.
The LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart.
After the pharaoh gives Moses and the Israelites permission to leave, God gives him one last poke with the heart-hardening stick (14:4) and leads the pharaoh and his army to their watery deaths.
This led me to wonder: if the pharaoh was willing to make concessions to the Israelites, and possibly to let them go entirely, why did God continue to fuck with him? They were making progress - a few more miracles and Moses and Aaron probably could have hammered out a deal which didn't involve the slaughter of children. So why all the puppeteering?
Because it wasn't about the Egyptians, generations of slavery, or the pharaoh. It never was. It was all about the Israelites, and showing them who was boss. It was so that, later, God could remind the Israelites how much work He had done to get them out of there, because He loved them so much. But He made sure they would always remember what He could do if they pissed Him off.
It puts me in mind of an abusive husband turning to his wife and saying, "You know, I could probably snap your neck like a twig. But I won't. Because I love you."
So, when I hear a Bible citation, especially if it's from the Old Testament, that's pretty much what I think of. The God that's being cited is a manipulative, abusive, murderous bully, and not a God with whom I wish to be associated. This is a God who destroys a good man's life just to prove a point. This is a being who orders parents to kill their children, only to turn around and say, "Gotcha - just kidding!" In fact, the OT-God is a big fan of child murder, my absolute favorite being 2 Kings 2:23-24, wherein He sends two bears to kill 42 children who were making fun of Elisha for being bald. In the end, He lets His own son get killed in what Christians believe to be an act of redemption, but what I see as just standard operating procedure - "Look what I did to my own kid. Because I love you." Again, using guilt and not-so-subtle threats to get what He wants - worship and obedience.
I don't expect my opinion of God, or my reasons for it, to influence anyone else's. I believe that everyone is entitled to their vision of who or what God is, and that since no version of God can be proven to be the right one, any version is as valid as any other. My personal God is a Deist God - God doesn't really care about us. God - also known to me as the Illimitable Beauty of the Natural Universe - doesn't answer prayers, doesn't help football teams, and couldn't care less about you or me or any other individual, nation, or world. God simply is, and will always be, long after we, our beautiful planet, and indeed the rest of the universe as we know it has vanished.
I actually have a Second Theory of God, a slightly more uplifting and optimistic one, but that'll come in a later post - I've gone on long enough as it is.
That concludes the Brain Dump for this evening. It's nice to have that all out of my head so I can go make dinner and watch Mad Men.
 I've read recently that Voltaire's famous, "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" line is not actually his. It was allegedly said by a contemporary, who used it to paraphrase Voltaire's general views on the subject. Whether he said it or someone else did, though, it's still a damn good line.
 Is there any archaeological evidence to support this, by the way? You would think that the enslavement of an entire nation, who practically built your civilization for you and then scampered away across the Red Sea would have deserved at least a mention in the writings of the times. But then again, new dynasties were not fond of remembering the failures of the old, so it wouldn't surprise me if they destroyed every record they could find.