Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Adding a Little Chaos to the Confusion

I read a chapter of the Bible daily. Because of this, it's rather slow going, but I notice things and think thoughts that I haven't before. So, yesterday I read 2 Kings 21 (or, for those of us playing with the Protestant Bible, 2 Samuel 21).

1Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David sought the presence of the LORD. And the LORD said, "It is for Saul and his bloody house, because he put the Gibeonites to death." 2So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them (now the Gibeonites were not of the sons of Israel but of the remnant of the Amorites, and the sons of Israel made a covenant with them, but Saul had sought to kill them in his zeal for the sons of Israel and Judah). 3Thus David said to the Gibeonites, "What should I do for you? And how can I make atonement that you may bless the inheritance of the LORD?" 4Then the Gibeonites said to him, "We have no concern of silver or gold with Saul or his house, nor is it for us to put any man to death in Israel." And he said, "I will do for you whatever you say."

5So they said to the king, "The man who consumed us and who planned to exterminate us from remaining within any border of Israel, 6let seven men from his sons be given to us, and we will hang them before the LORD in Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the LORD." And the king said, "I will give them." 7But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan the son of Saul, because of the oath of the LORD which was between them, between David and Saul's son Jonathan.

8So the king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, Armoni and Mephibosheth whom she had borne to Saul, and the five sons of Merab the daughter of Saul, whom she had borne to Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite. 9Then he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them in the mountain before the LORD, so that the seven of them fell together; and they were put to death in the first days of harvest at the beginning of barley harvest.

Which got me to thinking. How is this any different from the human sacrifices done by pagan cultures to please or appease the gods? How?

Come to that, how is anything that we do different from pagan practice, in essence? We do what we believe God has told us to do, but that's what they did, as well. The older religions were just more bloody. Religion has evolved into a more peaceful, internal thing. But still, the thought remains. How is what we do any different?

We do what we do because we believe that God wants us to do it. We do it, ostensibly, because we believe that God is good, and therefore, what God desires for us to do is good, and gives him glory. But also, we believe that, should we do as we are told, we will be rewarded in the end. And we believe that if we *don't* do as we're told, we'll be punished. So we do what we're told in the expectation that it will give us a positive result.

Religion can be looked at as an attempt to control and explain the environment around us. We're the only animals with self awareness, that we know of. We look around, and we wonder 'why' and 'how' and we want to control the things around us so that they're not so scary and harmful and *random*. People love order and patterns. Even if it looks like chaos to other people, every person has a pattern to their life. And it's comforting. We know that if we do (a), (b) will occur. And we do things in the same order, over and over and over again. We impose artificial order on what looks, to us, to be natures chaos. Which is, of course, not true, since nature has it's own order. It's just not one that we can manipulate and control, so we impose our own on it, whereby we can manipulate and control it, to a certain degree.

Volcano explodes. The people who survive wonder why, and someone has a dream, or an idea, that it's because the gods are angry. And the people are terrified. They can't do anything about volcanoes! You can't build a wall to stop the lava flow, and even if you could, there's the ash and the fumes and everything else! So they want to know what they can do to keep the gods from being angry and setting off the volcano again. And someone tells them to do yadda. Sacrifice x to the gods, and they will be appeased. So the people do, and it seems to work. The volcano doesn't erupt again. And they connect the two, and believe that their sacrifice worked. So they keep doing it. Of course, there is no real cause and effect connection there. Not really. But the people don't understand how volcanoes work, and they feel like now they have some control over the gods. 'As long as we keep them happy, they won't wipe us out!'

Even the concept of an afterlife may only exist because we can't imagine non-existence. You may recall my assertion that words have no meaning without context. We can conceive that we exist, and we know that that state changes, when we die. We understand, conceptually, the difference between alive and dead. What we don't understand is what 'dead' is like. We've never been there, so we can't say, death is like 'this'. When we contemplate what death is, we must come up against the idea that there may simple be nothing. And that is terrifying. On a personal level, how do you cope with the concept that *you*, all your thoughts, all your life, everything that you are, will simply *blip* out the moment you die? It is *horrific*. How do you contemplate your own non-existence?

You don't. Not easily, at any rate. So the after life. Heaven and hell. We paste images of what we think it must be like, cribbed from the physical reality around us on it, idealized, and declare that that will be what is. But we don't really know. We just shy away from the horror of nothingness and declare that there must be something.

Note: I don't want anyone to think I've gone off the rails and lost my faith or anything. I can think thoughts like this and not fall 'off the wagon', as it were. It should be possible for people to contemplate 'what if' scenarios.


  1. Weird. I've been having some very similar thoughts lately. Must be something in the water. Or the fact that I've been reading books that have challenged my views on some things.

    This accepting things by faith isn't always easy. I, too, have wondered "why isn't God any better than the pagans' gods?"

    And, yeah, re: death, I don't care so much that I will become nothing. I guess the idea of forever losing someone I dearly love is what saddens me the most. Of course if we all go to nothingness, I'll get over that sadness when I die.


    It just seems pointless to exist. What's stopping me from eating, drinking and being merry?

  2. Amber, I really enjoyed this post. It is not easy to confront your own fears. This is a timely post for me as well because just a couple of days ago (when I was depressed over children dying in Africa) I had this thought - what if we just poof away?

    It really upset me and I thought how much time I waste worrying about trying to understand this and that. If I will blip away then I rather leave a mark upon humanity now, here, rather than worry about this and that religion.

    It isn't easy. It is a very sad thought and very terrifying. And yet the concept of heaven and hell is as old as humanity which may mean it is a figment of our willing imagination.

    For what is eternity? What is even faith? Everything is relative. Everything is nothing without a context.

  3. I can really relate to this post. Although I never knew that there was human sacrifice in Judeo-Christian history! I don't have any answers but hope someone else does, as I'm curious.

    Re afterlife, I think there are good and bad things about believing in it or not. On the one hand, it's nice to think you go to heaven and see all your loved ones again. On the other, it's not nice to worry about either you or them roasting in hell. I believe death is the end of me as an individual and I am comfortable with that, but I question how I will feel if/when I lose someone very close. I wonder if non-believers cope better, worse, or just the same when they lose someone. I suspect if a person is really prepared to accept the idea that death is the end, they will be able to make peace with it.

  4. Two observations:

    1) Under the Old Covenant, the death penalty was in effect. So for people under the New Covenant, it might be shocking, because the standard is different now.

    2) The idea of going poof and ceasing to exist is only horrific if one does not *deeply* understand what it means that God never had to give us life in the first place. Probably that means God expects us all to be prepared to go at any time.

    Which does not at all mean that there is no afterlife. If God says there is, then there is. If God says there isn't, then there isn't.

  5. Susanne,

    Yeah, something in the water. :)

    'I, too, have wondered "why isn't God any better than the pagans' gods?"'

    It's a valid question, I think. True, He doesn't demand blood sacrifices like in the old days, but still. It's all very similar, really. Just more 'grown up' if looked at from a certain angle.

    It's the destruction of self that's disturbing in the view of no afterlife. We are a collection of our experiences, thoughts, etc. If that, if the fundamental core of ourselves doesn't continue after's painful.

  6. Sarah, I thought of you as I was reading "Dying for Heaven" by Ariel Glucklich. Some things he said reminded me of your blog and comments I've read from you. I finished the book today. Kind of depressed now. Or melancholic at least.

  7. Suroor,

    I'm glad you enjoyed the post. :)

    It is depressing, when you contemplate the suffering that so many innocents go through, to think, what if that's all there ever is for them? They lived, they suffered, and they died. No peace, no joy, not in this life, and none in the next, since there is none. Very depressing.

    I think that's why it's so important not to just sit around and look at the problems of the world and sigh, saying, 'well, it's this fallen world. Really nothing to be done. But the *next* life. That'll be better. That's where you'll be rewarded for your pains.' Better to see a problem and do what you can to aliviate suffering here and now.

    'And yet the concept of heaven and hell is as old as humanity which may mean it is a figment of our willing imagination.'

    I sometimes think that we cling to the belief in life after death out of sheer hope. Because the alternative is too painful, really.

    'For what is eternity? What is even faith? Everything is relative. Everything is nothing without a context.'

    *nods* Exactly.

  8. Sarah,

    'Although I never knew that there was human sacrifice in Judeo-Christian history!'

    There isn't. Or, at least, it's unrecorded, if there was ever any. Judaism did away with the thought of human sacrifice with the story of Abraham being stopped from sacrificing Isaac. This, I think, doesn't count as an example of human sacrifice because God didn't demand it. At least not directly. It did, however, mind me of human sacrifice, hence the post. :)

    Though I do question why Saul's grandsons were killed to expiate *Saul's* crimes, and why that should have pleased God. You know what, never mind. It's totally a human sacrifice, whatever they want to say. Hmph.

    I'll be honest and say that I don't think about it. I don't consider who I know who may or may not be in hell. Though I don't view heaven and hell as separate places, but more differing experiences of God, after death, it's still not pleasant to think that a loved one may be suffering while I feel joy.

    'I believe death is the end of me as an individual and I am comfortable with that,'

    Well, truth be told, no matter what really happens (afterlife or no afterlife), there's not much we can do about it, so why worry? :)

    'I wonder if non-believers cope better, worse, or just the same when they lose someone. I suspect if a person is really prepared to accept the idea that death is the end, they will be able to make peace with it.'

    I think it really varies on an individual level, regardless of theological point of view. We all deal with experiences differently, and death is just one of those. Even how the person died can affect the reaction of those around them. Was it unexpected? Was it after a prolonged illness? Were they young, old? Even the person who dies attitude can effect those of the people around them. If they are 'ready', if they have let go, it can ease the emotions of their family.

  9. caraboska,

    1. Actually, the death penalty bothers me not at all, historically or in modern times. I'm a proponent of the use of it. My issue with this, should it even need that term, is more that I don't see that these men were executed for anything that they had done wrong. They appear to be being sacrificed to pay for the sins of their grandfather.

    Though I do have to say, looked at from a strictly military/political point of view, it makes more sense. David was not related to the old king, and basically staged a coup. So, to solidify his hold on the throne, it was best if the descendants of King Saul who could have risen up in opposition to him were dead. Convenient, then, that when David prayed about the famine God said that it was the fault of Saul's breaking the covenant with the Gibeonites, and that the one thing they asked for was the death of people who were politically disadvantageous to David's reign.

    But my point was really that, whatever we believe that God is asking of us, how is that different, in essence, from the culture who believed that their gods demanded blood sacrifice (human or otherwise)? Yes, the echo of human sacrifice in this passage brought it to mind, but it only started the ball rolling.

    2. Maybe for you, that's the case. Should the fact that a gift is freely given make it less horrible should it be taken away? If I give a puppy to a child, wait a few years, and then take it away, is my excuse 'I didn't *have* to give it to you in the first place' any comfort? Whether or not God had to create anything, us included, He did. He started that particular machine and set up the rules. Given that, why create a creature that can understand it's own finite existence, can comprehend and fear the lack of that existence, only to snuff it out once the physical half of the being ceases to function? Even without a God, I would find the lack of existence after physical death horrific. Simply because I hate thinking that all that a person is will be lost.


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