Old deteriorated Bibles still bear the word of God and the name of God in them. They are old and worn, but they are still vessels of the holy, and so they cannot be disposed of in the garbage with yesterday’s green bean casserole.
Because old Bibles “still bear the word of God and the name of God in them,” the Rabbi suggested that old Bibles should “be covered and buried respectfully though not necessarily in a cemetery. They should be covered and then buried. ‘Dust to dust’ refers to the disposal of all holy vessels.”
The act of giving a proper burial to sacred texts was an ancient practice of Judaism. Jewish synagogues had a store-room called “the genizah” where old and deteriorated sacred texts were kept for proper disposal. The role of the genizah in Judaism is explained in an article in the Wikipedia:
A genizah is the store-room or depository in a synagogue (or cemetery), usually specifically for worn-out Hebrew-language books and papers on religious topics that were stored there before they could receive a proper cemetery burial, it being forbidden to throw away writings containing the name of God (even personal letters and legal contracts could open with an invocation of God).
The writing of Sacred Scriptures in Judaism was done with much reverence and care. Manuscripts were written by scribes trained for this special ministry. One article describing the making of a scroll of the Torah says that scribes must use sheets of parchment that come from a kosher animal and must use quills for writing the manuscripts and the quills must come from a kosher bird. The writing of the manuscript begins after the scribe “visits the mikveh in preparation for such holy work, and prays that the holy work about to be undertaken will be imbued with the sanctity in the scribe’s heart.”
A scroll of the Torah “may contain no errors whatsoever. While some mistakes may be corrected by scraping off the ink of a letter made in error and rewriting it, if a mistake is made in writing any of the names of God, no correction may be made because God’s name may not be erased. The entire sheet of parchment must be buried or placed in a genizah, and the scribe must begin that section of the Torah again.”
All this reverence and sacredness in Judaism for the written Word of God brings me back to my original question: how to dispose of old Bibles?
I have an old Bible that I have used for more than 25 years. It is my teaching Bible. The Bible has been rebound because its covers were falling apart. I have marked the Bible with red, blue, and black ink. I have underlined the text and written notes in the margins. This old Bible bears the word of God and carries the name of God in it. Is writing on and marking the Bible desecrating God’s Word? Is the printed Bible as sacred as the written manuscript? If old Bibles need to be disposed of, should these Bibles “be covered and buried respectfully”?
I have a copy of the Revised Standard Bible on cassettes. Is the Bible on cassettes still the Word of God? The magnetic tape in one of the cassettes is broken. Should I also bury the cassettes because they bear God’s Word?
The other day I bought a new Bible and inside the Bible there was a CD containing the Gospel of John. Since I did not want the CD, I threw the CD away in the trash can, not with “yesterday’s green bean casserole,” but in the garbage with other garbage. Is the Bible on CD still the Bible? Should I have buried the CD?
These questions are not meant to ridicule the Bible because I believe that the Bible is the Word of God. And I believe Christians should treat the Word of God with respect. However, when disposing of an old Bible, should I bury the book? Is the book holy because it is the Bible? Where should I bury old Bibles? In my backyard? Behind the church? In a cemetery?
This question became relevant a few days ago, when about 200 New Testaments were burned by some Jewish teenagers in Or-Yehuda, a city near Tel-Aviv. A news report circulated by CNN says that “News accounts in Israel have quoted Uzi Aharon, the deputy mayor of Or-Yehuda, as saying he organized students who burned several hundred copies of the New Testament.”
Burning New Testaments is not a demonstration of respect for books that bear the word of God. The Jewish Anti-Defamation League has issued a statement criticizing the burning of New Testaments. The statement reads: “We condemn this heinous act as a violation of the basic Jewish principles and values. It is essential that we respect the sacred texts of other faiths. The Jewish people can never forget the tragic burning of sacred Jewish volumes at many points in history.”
Aharon told CNN that he collected New Testaments in order to dispose of them. I wonder whether he was planning to give those New Testaments a decent and respectful burial.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary