Booknotes: The Bible

Booknotes: The Bible

A collection of notes from a bunch of separate posts from my read-through of The Bible.


I've been reading through the Bible (as you do), and though I'm still mired in the early Old Testament, it's interesting to see what stands out. Most of the narrative is recognisable, but some specific ideas and concepts seem important yet unfamiliar because they just don't get the sermons, despite being given what seems to be very prominent billing.

For those of you who aren't familiar, some of the early books of the Bible—Leviticus, famously, but also Exodus, Deuteronomy, Numbers... lots of them, anyway—mix the story of the Twelve Tribes of Israel with all the many, many, many, many, many rules that God wants them to follow. As I say, Leviticus is probably the best known for this, partly becuse it contains a lot of the rules which are more problematic in a modern context but mostly because there is almost nothing in the way of narrative framing to it, just pages and pages of "under these circumstances, give this bit of the calf to the priests and burn the fat on the altar." This is where I gave up the last time I attempted a readthrough of the Bible because frankly, it's really boring. But once you get past it and into Numbers, some more interesting things start to pop up. I'm talking about the Cities of Refuge and the Avenger of Blood.

Now, I don't think I can remember ever being told about the Avenger of Blood, to the best of my recollection. A name like that tends to stick in the mind, y'know? It's been mentioned three times as far as I've got: once in Numbers, once in Deuteronomy and once in Joshua. The rules-story mix seems to get more dilute the further in I get, so the fact that this set of rules and directions has been repeated in some form three times seems to suggest it's quite important. Per the text, if someone commits manslaughter then they can go and hide out in one of a few specified Cities of Refuge, where they will be safe from someone or something only described as "the Avenger of Blood".

Now, with a name like that you can fill in some of the blanks yourself, but it's never explicity explained who the Avenger of Blood is. The situation and circumstances under which they're allowed to kill the accused, sure, but what exactly is an Avenger of Blood? Looking it up, it appears to be a specific instance of goel, or redeemer (that one might be a bit more familiar from later on), which is traditionally used to refer to someone's nearest relative who would be, under certain circumstances, given certain duties. If someone's relative had got themselves enslaved, the goel's job is to buy them out; if they die and leave a wife behind, it's the goel's job to marry the wife. ; if they're killed by accident, it's the goel's job to hunt down the killer. Under those circumstances specifically, it's translated as "Avenger of Blood"

I will say again: three times this has been mentioned, across three different books. It has stuck out more than pretty much anything else so far.

The threshing floor

I still get hung up on the fact that my familiarity with this material is very much pooled in certain sections that I guess lend themselves well to sermons? There's lots of other stuff that was evidently important enough to the authors to be included but doesn't really get much of a look-in when it comes to teaching because it seems to some extent weird or incomprehensible. You get the little bits of what I presume are some kind of idiomatic Hebrew—"May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely" is one that starts to crop up a lot once you get into the historical books. Some parts might require heavy cultural context, others are trying to impart a moral lesson from a since-supplanted system of morals. Separating out the useful from the non-useful is something that comes up frequently in the text itself, in the form of "the threshing floor". This would be an exposed, flat area where you could trample or flail the sheaves, the grain would remain and the husks would be carried away by the wind. They're where Ruth goes to be "redeemed" by Boaz, where David erects an altar to the Lord. The idiom of separating the wheat from the chaff has remained but the significance of the site itself has faded somewhat.

This is making me think that by the time I've finished this current reading (which should happen about Easter, if I keep this up), I'd like to take a run at David Bentley Hart's translation of the New Testament, which sounds quite interesting.


I can sometimes, especially when tired, be quite an inattentive reader, letting my eyes slide over the text with nothing going in. I find myself reading and re-reading pages with a dim sense of familiarity, before giving up and going to sleep. I had precisely that sensation when reading through Chronicles—haven't I already read this bit? I swear I remember reading this?—but I knew for a fact I hadn't recently because I'm following a reading plan. Then I thought maybe my app was malfunctioning and giving me the text of Samuel in the wrong book. But nope, Chronicles is just a straight retread of Samuel and Kings. Not really sure what the deal with that is, to be honest—again, just something I'd never realised.

Three more for the Things That Stand Out list:

1) Asherah poles, which (trite as it is to say these days) would, imo, be a good name for a band, and from a quick Google apparently isn't currently. This one is a bit like the avenger of blood where we're assumed to know what it is: the answer, apparently, is some sort of religiously significant pole or tree (though apparently the word "pole" was added here for basically no reason) that God doesn't like much.

2) The Chronicles Of The Kings Of Israel. I feel like I'm annoying the writer at points, the frustration embedded in the phrase "are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel?" is palpable. A book that gets referenced a lot, but isn't around any more.

3) The high places. Blaze, etc. Well, it refers to the holy places where offerings were burnt, so.


Man, Psalms goes on for a while, doesn't it?

  • "To the tune of 'Do Not Destroy'"—I don't imagine it's survived, but I'm sure it was a banger.
  • "In the shadow of your wings"—This makes me think of something I read a while back (but despite extensive searching, don't seem to be able to find—I think it was on Aeon, but could be mistaken) about when people stopped thinking of the supernatural as physical phenomenon and start thinking about them as somehow apart, separate, in a different plane or what-have-you. Helpfully, I've forgotten most of the stuff about the article, its conclusions etc, but the idea of God as having wings seemed an interesting one to me.
  • The cedars of Lebanon—another good band name, imo.

Psalms are often most familiar to people because they get turned into hymns, so obviously there was a lot of familiar stuff in here. I'll admit, though, that I didn't read this as closely as I might have because I have a real aversion to translated verse—it just makes my eyes slide off. Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs have similar issues, but they at least are entertainingly cranky and thirsty respectively; Proverbs is a bit too much the kind of thing that you'd see posted with a picture of a Minion on Facebook for me, to be honest. Anyway: only a few prophets left to go, then I get on to the Really Good Stuff.

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