Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book Shelf: The Year of Living Biblically

I recently read a blog post entitled "What do Catholics have against birth control, anyway?" (How I got to this blog is a bit of a wander, as are most accidental destinations on the internet.  It started with a link in the comments section of my friend Dwija's blog, House Unseen.)

Spoiler alert: the quick answer is "a lot," and the author of the blog is Catholic.  I attended Catholic schools (and mass) from 4th grade through college, so I wasn't anticipating much in the "surprise" category.

But then she did something I didn't expect, which was invoke not only the famous (or infamous, depending on your POV) imperative to "be fruitful and multiply," (as an aside: the second part of that imperative is “fill the earth and subdue it,” a commandment it’s pretty safe to say we’ve kept in spades.  Earth subdued? Check. Perhaps it’s time to stop before we’ve destroyed it.) but also the story of Onan.


Onan, for those of you not so up to speed on your Genesis, was the guy who spilled his seed.  To fill in the backstory, he spilled his seed to avoid impregnating his brother's wife, Tamar.  Which was totally not adultery, because his brother was dead.  Because God had killed him. 

Now, you might wonder, if Onan didn't want to impregnate his brother's widow why not simply avoid having sex with her?

Because he had been commanded by God to have sex with her, in order to impregnate her, in order to continue his brother's lineage.  But Onan rebelled (though not so much as to turn down sex with Tamar).  He had sex with her, but then "spilled his seed on the ground."

In case you hadn't noticed, the God of the Hebrew scripture was a vengeful god, and not above offing those who displeased him.  So Onan shoulda seen it coming.

What he did was “wicked in the Lord’s sight,” so God struck him down.  This has been interpreted, variously, as an injunction against contraception and/or masturbation and/or any sexual conduct removed from its procreative potential.  Without reading the original, it seems to me it’s difficult to know exactly what the antecedent in question was, and so I would venture than equally valid interpretations would be that Onan’s wickedness was either refusing to continue his brother’s lineage or simply disobeying God’s direct order.

But I quibble.

The story continues--though most people who want to use it as a morality play don't bother to keep reading.  Judah, Onan’s dad, having just lost his two older sons to the wrath of God, is in a bit of a quandary.  His youngest son, Shelah, is too young to marry Tamar, so he commands Tamar to live with him until Shelah is old enough to step up to the plate.  

Eventually, Judah’s wife dies, and after a respectable period of mourning, Judah heads off to shear some sheep with a friend.  Tamar, apparently feeling a bit slighted that Judah still hasn’t married her off to the now-grown Shelah, hatches a plan: she disguises herself as a prostitute and waits by the roadside along Judah’s itinerary.  When Judah passes by, he says (and here, lest you think I am being impertinent, I quote the New International Version of Genesis 38:15) “Come now, let me sleep with you.”

(And lest you think the NIV is being impertinent, how about the King James Version? “And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee.”)

So they negotiate terms (predictably, she gets something from him that will uniquely identify him in the future—his signet, bracelets, and staff, which he thinks he’s giving her as a sort of security deposit until he can return with a goat), and Judah has sex with Tamar.  Several months later, Judah gets word that Tamar is “with child by whoredom” (can’t beat the KJV for the dramatic turn of phrase).  Judah does what any decent father-in-law would do, upon learning that his widowed daughter-in-law is unwed and pregnant.

He orders that she be brought to him.  To be burnt.

Not, you know, metaphorically burnt, like “Wow, we really got burnt in the recent housing market collapse.”  But literally burnt, to death, because that is what you do with your knocked up whore of a daughter-in-law.

Fortunately, Tamar had kept Judah’s personal effects in a safe place, so when they brought her forward to meet her punishment, she was able to show Judah that he, in fact, was the father.

And, duly chastened, he did not burn her to death.  (He also made no attempts to burn himself, since the crime is in being a whore, not having sex with a whore.  Of course.  That's totally fine.  We're talking supply-side morality, here.) Whew.  Well-played, Tamar.

I mention this because I think, really, if you’re going to claim that the story of Onan is a literal lesson from God on the evils of masturbation or contraception (verses 8-10), you have to also accept it as teaching us that a.) God is vengeful and will kill those who do not do his bidding, b.) brothers have a moral obligation (or at least divine permission) to impregnate their widowed sister-in-laws, c.) father-in-laws have a moral obligation to shelter and care for their widowed daughter-in-laws, d.) having sex with a prostitute is fine, e.) but being a prostitute is not, and f.) if you are with child as a result of whoredom, your father-in-law can burn you (and your unborn child) to death (verses 11-26).

But no one ever says that.*

Because that would be crazy.  And mostly illegal.

Which brings us to the book review.  A. J. Jacobs decided to take a year and live BIBLICALLY.  Not obeying just the easy laws (when was the last time you coveted your neighbor’s ass?  Of the donkey variety?) Or the common sense ones (no stealing!) Or the difficult but laudable ones (love thy neighbor).

All of them.  He even tries to stone an adulterer.  In a symbolic sort of way.

Jacobs is an entertaining writer, and the book is by turns funny, insightful, and interesting.  It’s pretty clear that he had no idea what he was getting into when he started, and the most sympathetic character in the book may very well be his wife, who has to endure vicariously the year of living biblically while pregnant.  But the end result is an experiment that yields results much deeper than a simple stunt, or a comedy built around mocking arcane laws.  As Jacobs describes it, the book is

“--An exploration of some of the Bible’s startlingly relevant rules. I tried not to covet, gossip, or lie for a year. I’m a journalist in New York. This was not easy.

--An investigation of the rules that baffle the 21st century brain. How to justify the laws about stoning homosexuals? Or smashing idols? Or sacrificing oxen? And how do you follow those in modern-day Manhattan?

--A look at various fascinating religious groups. I embedded myself among several groups that take the Bible literally in their own way, from creationists to snake handlers, Hasidim to the Amish.

--A critique of fundamentalism. I became the ultra-fundamentalist. I found that fundamentalists may claim to take the Bible literally, but they actually just pick and choose certain rules to follow. By taking fundamentalism extreme, I found that literalism is not the best way to interpret the Bible.

--A spiritual journey. As an agnostic, I’d never seriously explored such things as sacredness and revelation.

--A memoir of my family’s eccentric religious history, including my ex-uncle Gil, who has been, among other things, a Hindu cult leader, an evangelical Christian and an Orthodox Jew.”




And, by the way, I’m not bashing Natural Family Planning.  I practiced it for years, myself.  But there are better ways to defend it than cherry-picking three lines from an Old Testament story that reads more like a particularly sordid episode of The Springer Show than a lesson in sexual mores.  Personally, I think one of the most parsimonious came from Mario Cuomo (a politician, of all things!), who said simply that he believed the sexual act should not be divorced from its procreative potential.


* Except maybe the Taliban.  And Warren Jeffs.



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