mapping the Bible, gene by gene

In my last post I was talking about reading the Bible as though decoding a genome—the genome of Western Christendom (to use Arnold J. Toynbee’s label for our Western civilization). I am currently making my way through Chromosome 6 of that genome: the Book of Joshua.

But if the books of the Bible constitute the chromosomes of Western civilization, then what are the actual genes—the individual active components of the genome, its working parts? My hypothesis is that the genes are represented by the individual episodes of the Bible’s books.

I use the word episode somewhat loosely. My basic idea is that the episode is a relatively self-contained incident or story, one that has its own point to make. This point, which forms the moral or theme of the episode, constitutes a kind of principle or rule—a biblical truth, if you like. I’m suggesting that these points or rules form the “instruction set” of Western civilization: the spiritual warrant for the basic ideas that underlie it.

Reach out and . . .

Let’s take a look at one. Let’s start at the beginning, at Chromosome 1 (the Book of Genesis), episode 1. I have identified the episode (gene) 1 as running from Gen 1:1 to Gen 2:3—a stretch of 34 verses that begins with: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. . . .” and concludes with: “And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.”

This is a distinct episode; it has its own beginning, middle, and end. It also has its own point or points to make, which I have summarized thus:

God, a bachelor male, is the ultimate and all-powerful reality, and the final answer to all questions about the world. The institutions of the 7-day week and the Sabbath are holy.

I’m suggesting that this is a basic rule for Western Christendom. Any institution that is established in defiance of this rule is violating a fundamental spiritual principle of the civilization, and is in disharmony with it to that extent.

And what about Gene 2 = Episode 2? What is that? This gene is much shorter: it is the stretch of 6 verses running from Gen 2:4 to 2:9. Instead of quoting them I’ll give my own summary:

God has created every plant, but nothing grows because there is no water for the seeds, and no man to till the soil, so God causes the ground to be watered, and forms a man from soil, and places him in a garden in Eden, which contains every plant good to eat, plus the trees of life and of knowledge of good and evil.

And what is the point or theme of this episode? This is what I came up with:

Man is God’s creature and servant. His original and proper place is not in nature but in an enclosure devoted to the cultivation of food plants.

I hope it goes without saying that these are all drafts; they don’t represent my final determination of the content and meanings of the Bible’s episodes. Indeed, I think I’ve improved in my ability to summarize the episodes and to isolate their meanings as I have continued on. But these still give a pretty good picture.

Now one more step. When I finish a book of the Bible—a chromosome—I try to summarize its meaning as a whole. For it seems logical to me that each chromosome will have a meaning of its own that arches above the meanings of its individual episodes. When I finished the Book of Genesis, a book of 50 chapters, I found that it contained 118 episodes. What story are they telling? What is the meaning of Genesis as a whole, from a storytelling perspective?

This is what I came up with:

Genesis is the story of beginnings, from the world as it was fashioned by God, through the foundation of Israel in Jacob, to the formation of the perfect Israelite in Joseph. God’s chosen people now have their epitome and their paragon.

Personally, I think I’m on to something here. The Bible, of course, has already been extensively studied; indeed it is surely, by far, the most studied document on Earth. But an encounter with a work of literature, including sacred literature, is always a personal matter. Its quality is unique to the parties involved, just like a meeting between two people. I’m not a Jew or a Christian, and was not raised as either of these things, but I am a citizen of Western Christendom, and so I have as much skin in the game here as anyone. Purely by virtue of my place and time of birth, I have a stake in the Bible, and it has a stake in me, whether I wish it so or not. I have every reason to come to my own understanding of this document.

So that’s what I’m doing—and I’ve found my own way of doing it. It’s got me reading deeply and carefully, and I will be happy to share my discoveries along the way.

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