|Forget the people - save my tree.|
Chapter 1 is called The Argument: In the Beginning Was the Words. Apart from wanting, due to force of habit, to take a red pen and cross out 'was' (surely it should be 'were,' regardless of intended biblical allusions), it's an impressive beginning.
Section 1 contrasts the tendencies to universalism and xenophobic nationalism that yell at each other throughout the biblical narrative. The exemplar offered is one I'd never noticed before, the relative value of human life and woody plants.
No, really. The passages in question are in Deuteronomy and Jonah. Here's the former.
But in the cities which Yahweh gives you as an inheritance, you shall not leave anything that lives. You must destroy them all according to the law of anathema - the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites - as Yahweh, your God, has commanded you, that they may not teach you all those evil things which they have done to honor their gods, for by imitating them you shall sin against Yahweh, your God. If, on attacking a city, you have to lay siege to it for a long time before capturing it, you shall not destroy the fruit trees around it nor cut them with your axe, that you may eat their fruit. Do not cut them, then. Are the trees of the field men that they should also be stricken? (Deut. 20: 16-19)
People can be butchered freely, but for heaven's sake don't touch the fruit trees!
But then, the word of the Lord also came to Jonah, who found shade under a castor oil bush (gourd, KJV) after preaching to the city of Nineveh. The citizens unexpectedly repented and were spared, but Jonah was less than pleased. Yahweh then killed off the shady plant...
When the sun rose, God sent a scorching east wind; the sun blazed down upon Jonah’s head, and he grew faint. His death wish returned and he said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” Then God asked Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the castor-oil plant?” Jonah answered, “I am right to be angry enough to wish to die.” Yahweh said, “You are concerned about a plant which cost you no labor to make it grow. Overnight it sprang up, and overnight it perished. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot distinguish right from left and they have many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned for such a great city?” (Jonah 4: 8-11)
The point being that in scripture there is a conversation going on - a heated conversation that stretches across generations. When we read scripture we're caught up in a debate - a whole series of debates - and not a tidy set of coherent theological positions with handy proof texts. "To put it bluntly: the Bible is an argument - with itself." (p.1) That's not a weakness, in Stark's view, but a strength.
To be continued. Scripture quotations from the Christian Community Bible.