Friday, August 31, 2007

Wide Awake

Wide Awake is a 1998 movie written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who gave us the Sixth Sense, Signs, Unbreakable, The Village, and Lady in the Water. It is not as famous as his other movies, and it also does not have their mysterious character. Still, it is a sweet and thoughtful film about a young boy's quest for God at a Catholic school.

As far as actors go, there are familiar faces. While I am not a fan of Rosie O' Donnell's leftist politics, she does a good job portraying the compassionate nun with a love for baseball. Dan Lauria of the Wonder Years plays a priest, who is rather different from Jack Arnold. I was expecting him to say "hmmmmm?" in a gruff manner and he did not do so. A young Julia Stiles plays the little boy's teenage sister, and Robert Loggia plays his grandfather.

I cannot do justice to this movie in one setting, and I will probably get more out of it the more I see it. Basically, a boy's grandfather is dying of cancer, and the boy is inspired to search for God. Here are some of my favorite scenes:

At the beginning, Rosie is teaching a class, and the boy asks her about the Catholic church's teaching on baptism. He asks if people need to be baptized to be saved, and she says yes. He then mentions his relatives who are not baptized and asks if they are going to hell. Suddenly, the entire class mentions unbaptized relatives and neighbors, including some of different religions. Rosie responds, "No one is going to hell!" This scene reminds me that a lot of people do not always follow the ramifications of their beliefs, especially one as uncomfortable as hell. There are evangelicals who do follow the ramifications and evangelize, but many go through days and weeks and do not think about this belief. Whether that is good or bad, I do not know, but how are Christians supposed to respond to the doctrine that most people around them are headed for post-mortem punishment?

Another part of the movie was where Dan Lauria (the priest) was talking with the boy about faith. The boy asked the priest for a straight answer, not the sort of answer that he would give a kid. Dan Lauria agreed, and the boy asked him how he goes through life without knowing for sure that God is real. Lauria says that this is true with every journey--there is some doubt. The boy asks the priest to tell him once he finds something, and Lauria responds, "You'll be the first to know." I think that the answer occurs a little later in the movie, when Lauria is telling the congregation to sing together and loudly so that God can hear. He then winks at the boy, who afterwards sings with excitement. I think that this is supposed to be the priest's answer to the boy's question, but how it was an answer is something that deserves more thought.

Another interesting scene was when the boy was walking with his grandfather, a devout Catholic. The grandfather assures the boy that God will take care of him after he dies, and the boy asks him how he can be sure that there is a God. The grandfather asks where the snow came from, and the boy answers that snow is frozen vapor. The grandfather inquires, "Where'd you learn that?" In the next scene, the boy looks outside his window and admires the falling snowflakes. These scenes can inspire discussions on science, mystery, and beauty.

In another scene, the boy is talking with his friend. His friend asks if God has shown himself to him, and the boy responds "no" (though, at the end of the movie, he will see that one of the other children at the school is actually an angel). The friend says that there are two possibilities: either there is no God, or God does exist and does not care that someone is looking for him. That question is in the back of many seekers' minds: Is there a God, and does he care?

Near the end of the movie, the boy reads an essay to his class. His essay is about his changed perspective. At the beginning of the school year, he says, he thought that bullies were just bullies, that weirdos were just weird, and that the people he loved would stay with him forever. Now, he is wide awake. What he says is true--often I do not ask why people around me are the way that they are. I may have to see the movie again to identify how he learned the first two lessons.

I admire M. Night Shyamalan for making movies about faith. He definitely makes a much-needed contribution to the world of movies and entertainment.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Meditating on the Law

In Psalm 1:2, the Psalmist says that the righteous delight in God's law and meditate on it day and night. What does that mean?

When I was growing up in an offshoot of the Worldwide Church of God, I heard two explanations. Garner Ted Armstrong said that meditation on the law consisted of the following: Consider the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" (or steal, or commit adultery). Now, imagine what the world would be like if everyone observed that commandment. It would be paradise! Whether he realized it or not, Garner Ted was reversing the Kantian imperative, which asks people to think about what life would be like if everyone did a particular wrong deed (or so Kant has been explained to me). Garner Ted's approach to meditation on the law certainly helps me to see the law's value.

Ronald Dart, another ex-WCG minister, had another approach. He said that we should meditate on the law (meaning the Pentateuch) to derive principles that can guide our lives. For example, the laws on oxen and fences on roofs do not literally apply to most people in the United States, but they can still discern principles in the law about respect for others' safety. The apostle Paul himself saw deeper meaning and application in the law, for, in I Corinthians 9:9, he applies the law about consideration of an ox to the principle of supporting ministers. Paul sought the basic principle in the law and encouraged people to follow it.

When I was taking a Psalms class at Jewish Theological Seminary, I saw that the word translated as "meditate" is from the root h-g-h, which means "roar," "growl," "groan," "utter," "speak," "meditate," "devise," "muse," and "imagine" (according to Strong's, but BDB has many of the same definitions). Meditation of the law may have been recitation and repetition of it. Interestingly, that is not too different from what many evangelicals do when they try to memorize Scripture. After all, the Psalmist says in Psalm 119:11 that he hid God's word in his heart that he might not sin against him.

How do you meditate on God's law?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Protected by the Word, Part 3: Meaning of the Law

In my first two "Protected by the Word" posts, I discussed how people protected themselves through their obedience to God's word. For the catastrophes in 587 B.C.E. and 70 C.E., God gave his people commands that saved their lives.

I both cases, God's word was practical. I like that. Seeing a practical goal or objective in God's commands certainly strengthens my love for them. God really does aim for our good. As one radio preacher told me when I called into his program, "The Bible is for you."

Years ago, I read N.T. Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God, and I was impressed when he tied Jesus' Sermon on the Mount to the political situation of first century Judea. According to Wright, Jesus was commanding his contemporaries not to resist their Roman enemies but to turn the other cheek. We know from history what happened to Jerusalem when many Jews tried to retaliate against the Romans. For Wright, Jesus' commands had a relevant, practical objective.

Practically speaking, many of us can see benefits from keeping God's law (the commands throughout the Bible). One book that has been popular over the years is S.I. McMillen's None of These Diseases, which contends that obedience to God's law is actually healthy. This is true with regard to avoiding sexually-transmitted diseases or ulcers that can result from anxiety or bitterness.

Many might object to such an anthropocentric understanding of the law, and they would have a point. God's law is God's standard. God's attitude to the law is not, "Well, you can keep it if you want to be healthy and live, but I do not require obedience." God's law is not really in the same category as avoiding fatty foods or smoking. God's law is holy, and so God punishes sin.

Moreover, the law is in some sense a transcript of God's character. Jesus told his contemporaries to turn the other cheek, and that would have helped Judeans in their relationship with the Romans, but his command went far beyond that situation. Not surprisingly, this sort of command is repeated in other places in the New Testament, such as Romans 12:19-21 and II Peter 2:18ff. One reason that we forgive and love our enemies is that God in Christ has forgiven us, and God (for his own reasons) wants to move us beyond a carnal approach to life so that we can become more like Jesus.

The issue of whether or not the commandments have practical or rational meaning has been debated within Judaism. Some, such as Maimonides (twelfth-thirteenth century C.E.), sought rational reasons for as many of the commandments as possible. Others have argued that some of the commands have no apparent meaning. Examples of such laws (according to those who argue this) would include the laws about unclean meats and not mixing different fabrics. For this group, pigs are not unhealthy, and there is nothing inherently harmful about wearing a mixed garment, so the laws' meaning is a mystery. Ironically, even people who do not seek a reason for such commands still assert that they have a practical value: to encourage us to obey God our master, whether or not we see any apparent meaning in his laws. In short, God, not our rational understanding, is to be our boss.

The issue of meaning came up in my class on intertextuality yesterday, only from a different angle. The comment was made that many of the customs that made their way into the Hebrew Bible may not have had a deep meaning. They could have been customs that people just did. Even in that context, though, there seemed to be a desire to attach to them a purpose, namely, to bring people together.

How do you see God's commands? Is your attitude "God said it, I do it, and that settles it for me"? Or do you seek practical or rational reasons that God gave them?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

First Day of School

Today was my first day of school, for the 2007-2008 school year, that is. I am only taking two classes, since I will be spending a lot of time preparing for my comprehensive exams. My classes look excellent. One is on intertextuality, and we will be reading Michael Fishbane's Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel. The topic concerns how biblical authors interpreted and used earlier writings that made their way into the Hebrew Bible.

I am also taking a class on 4 Maccabees. That class was interesting because of two issues that were discussed today: hell and the different biblical canons. I have been thinking about hell for a while because I have interacted with a Christian universalist, who asserts that hell in the Bible is not eternal. She argues that the Greek word "aionios" does not mean forever, but my finding is that the words olam (in Hebrew), aion, and aionios can mean forever, but not in every case. Anyway, my class was discussing the immortality of the soul and the resurrection in Hellenistic Judaism. Hellenistic Judaism sometimes has the concept of eternal torment in hell, but there is also the idea that an unvirtuous soul will suffer for a while and then be extinguished. The implication of the latter view is that only the virtuous soul lives forever.

Regarding the different Christian canons, this issue interests me because of my discussions with Roman Catholics. When I listen to Catholics, I get the impression that they see the deuterocanonical books as equal in inspiration to the books that Jews and Protestants accept. The impression I got from class today, however (and my impression may be wrong), was that the term deuterocanonical means that the books under this category were deemed second in importance by the Catholic church. This means that they could be read in church, but they are not authoritative for doctrine. This is an important issue, since Protestants accuse Catholics of basing the doctrine of purgatory on a text in Maccabees (one of them).

Any thoughts? Insights? Info?

Protected by the Word, Part 2: Children

In my last post, I referred to Jonathan Edwards, who cites Ezekiel 9:6 in support of infant damnation. Edwards observes that God slaughters little children and protects the righteous, so he concludes that the little children obviously must not be righteous. Rather, for Edwards, they are sinners and deserve divine wrath.

Within Christianity, various arguments have been made against infant damnation. In Deuteronomy 1:39, God does not punish the children of the sinning Israelite generation because they did not know good and evil. According to Paul, Esau and Jacob did not do good or bad when they were in the womb (Romans 9:11), and Paul says earlier that God judges people according to their deeds (Romans 2:6). Many opponents of infant damnation conclude that original sin by itself cannot damn a person, but conscious evil deeds are what lead to condemnation in the last judgment.

God's slaughter of children is quite troubling, especially if they are technically innocent (though not righteous). An apologist could respond, "Well, what would happen to the children if they were spared?" That is a good question. Once God punishes every sinful parent, what would happen to all of the orphans if God chose to spare them? Would there be enough righteous people to take care of them? Is God's slaughter of the little children an act of mercy? This is a tough issue, in my opinion.

There is a probability that some infants were spared: the children of righteous parents. How? In my last post, I pointed out that the righteous were protected through their obedience to God's word. In the sixth century B.C.E., God told the Judeans to surrender to the Babylonians. In obedience to God's message, the righteous willingly went into exile, and they saved their lives in so doing. The wicked, however, chose to stay and fight the Babylonians. Most likely, when the righteous went into exile, they took their children with them. The children who died had disobedient parents, who put themselves and their own children at risk because they refused to heed God's message.

I wonder if there will be a similar scenario when Christ returns. Paul says in I Corinthians 7 that a believing wife can sanctify and save her unbelieving husband and children. There are various ways to interpret this passage, but I ask if some act of obedience on the part of a believing wife will protect her and her entire family in the end times (assuming a pre-millennial eschatology). Interestingly, in Revelation 7:3, God tells his angels to seal the servants of God before he executes his wrath, as he does in Ezekiel 9. I argued in my last post that Ezekiel 9 is metaphorical, since God actually did not directly slaughter the inhabitants of Jerusalem (as Ezekiel 9 depicts) but sent the Babylonians to do so. Does Revelation 7 describe God's literal and direct destruction of the earth and sparing of his servants? Or does the seal represent some act of obedience through which God's servants will protect themselves, and perhaps even their families?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Protected by the Word, Part 1

In Ezekiel 9, God has two sets of instructions. On one hand, he tells a man (angel) clothed in linen to mark everyone in Jerusalem who sighs and groans over the abominations in the city. On the other hand, he commands six men (angels) to slaughter people who do not have the protective mark. These people include young men, old men, women, and children.

This chapter has been the topic of interesting discussion. In a rabbinic source known as the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, the writer observes that the man in linen reports back to God, whereas the six executioners do not. Only the being who protected God's people reports back to God. The writer concludes that God is more interested in protection and love than in slaughter. This implies that God's punishment of Jerusalem was reluctant and, in a sense, out of character.

Jonathan Edwards also appealed to Ezekiel 9, only he emphasized God's wrath. In Original Sin, Edwards observes that God ordered the slaughter of infants. Since God protects the righteous in the chapter, Edwards argues, then the infants must be tainted with sin and deserving of their punishment. Edwards used Ezekiel 9 to justify infant damnation.

What I want to look at today is the means that God used to protect his people. Essentially, Ezekiel 9 is a metaphor of what happened to Jerusalem. Jerusalem did not fall through a literal angelic slaughter of unmarked inhabitants. Rather, Jerusalem fell at the hands of the Babylonians. God's command to the six executioners symbolizes that God was behind the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem. The Babylonian invasion was God's expression of his just wrath.

What does the marking of the righteous symbolize? How were the righteous preserved? While I will continue to read Ezekiel to see if he answers those questions, I notice that Jeremiah actually presents a scenario: the righteous were preserved through obedience to God's word. Jeremiah told the Judeans that they should surrender to Babylon and go into exile. Those who did so saved their own lives. Many who refused were slaughtered.

History actually repeated itself in 70 C.E. Jesus told his disciples (who in turn told other Christians) to flee to the mountains when they saw the abomination of desolation in the temple (Mark 13:14). Those who obeyed saved their lives. Those who did not were mostly killed.

In both cases, the Judeans had to destroy some idols in their hearts in order to obey God. In the sixth century B.C.E., many Judeans wanted to hold on to their nation and its long-standing institutions. Jeremiah said that God wanted to purify them and offer a new beginning, but they clung to the past. In 70 C.E., there were Judeans who desperately wanted independence from Rome. Most longed for the good old days, while the Christian survivors forsook the "good old days" in favor of what God wanted them to do.

Obedience to God required devotion. In Ezekiel 9, God tells the man in linen to mark those who are disturbed by the immorality and idolatry in the land. These people are sensitive to God. They love what he loves and they hate what he hates. Popular opinion does not influence their decisions. These were the people who obeyed God's message when the Babylonians invaded. Most of the Judeans tried to hold on to their national institutions, and surrender to Babylon was largely viewed as treasonous. Devotion to God was needed for the Judean minority to disregard peer pressure, obey, and (as a result) save their own lives. The righteous Judeans were protected through their obedience to God's word.

Later this week, we will discuss some implications of this. Stay tuned!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

What Were They Feeling?

Hello everyone!

For my daily quiet time, I am reading the Book of Ezekiel. Two verses that intrigue me are Ezekiel 8:12 and 9:9. In chapter 8, Ezekiel sees the elders of Judah secretly worshipping images in Jerusalem. In v 12, God says, "Mortal, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the dark, each in his room of images? For they say, 'The LORD does not see us, the LORD has forsaken the land'" (NRSV). In 9:9, God says, "The guilt of the house of Israel and Judah is exceedingly great; the land is full of bloodshed and the city full of perversity; for they say, 'The LORD has forsaken the land, and the LORD does not see.'"

In these verses, the elders and the people of Jerusalem sin because they believe that God has forsaken them. This is interesting, because I always thought that God forsook them (temporarily) because of their sin, not that they sinned as a result of God forsaking them. The people making this statement were probably incorrect in their assessment and sought an excuse for their behavior, even going so far as to blame God for their own sin. I have not checked commentaries on these verses, but I think that there are at least two possible explanations for their statement. One is that they thought that God had forsaken them and so they sought the help of other gods. The other is that they thought that God had forsaken them and so there was no point in doing good, since God was not going to take notice anyway.

What would have led them to conclude that God had forsaken them? Ezekiel wrote during the exile of King Jehoiachin. Perhaps the exile of the king and other Judeans convinced many in Judah that God had forsaken their nation. What puzzles me is that Jeremiah seems to present a different picture of what many Judeans felt. According to Jeremiah, false prophets (such as Hananiah) were predicting that the LORD would return Jehoiachin, the other Judean exiles, and the temple vessels to Judah (Jeremiah 28:3-4). There is another passage in Jeremiah (which I cannot find at the moment) in which Zedekiah (or someone else) says that the LORD will deliver Judah as he has in the past. In any case, Ezekiel presents many Judeans as thinking that the LORD has forsaken Judah, whereas Jeremiah says that there was a strong tendency among Judeans to trust that the LORD would deliver them (despite their sins).

How can one resolve these differences? Perhaps some believed one thing and others believed something else. Or there could have been contradictions within the people themselves. In Jeremiah 42, for example, the Judeans ask Jeremiah to consult the LORD, as if they genuinely care about what God thinks. By chapter 44, however, they make clear that they do not accept Jeremiah's revelation, and they say that their problems started when they stopped worshipping the queen of heaven. People can be strange!

Maybe many Judeans were basing their faith in God on outward circumstances. In Jeremiah 37:5, Babylon retreated from Jerusalem when it heard that Egypt was coming. There were good times and there were bad times, and Judeans may have trusted in God's deliverance when events seemed to be hopeful. At the same time, even as the Babylonians were taking over Jerusalem and had already done so, many Judeans did not heed Jeremiah's message but had some hope that Judah and the Davidic dynasty would be immediately restored.

Are there other solutions that come to your mind?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

A No Witness (or One Witness) Trial?

Hi folks!

Here is another question about Deuteronomy 22:

In Deuteronomy 22:23-27, there are laws about rape. If a man rapes a betrothed woman in town, both the man and the woman are executed, since the woman could have cried to others for help but did not do so. If a man rapes a betrothed woman in an open field, however, then only the man is executed, since the rape occurred in a field where there was no one to help her.

How can this be reconciled with Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15, which says that a matter must be established at the mouth of two or three witnesses before a defendant is executed? If there was no one in the open field to help the woman, then presumably there were not two other people there who witnessed the rape. While Deuteronomy 17:6 relates to apostacy cases, 19:15 appears to be broader in scope, since it appears in a chapter about homicide, manslaughter, and landmark cases, and it also says that two or more witnesses are needed to establish guilt regarding all sin and iniquity. In the case of rape in the open field, is the case basically decided on the basis of the woman's word against the man?

Divorce and Virginity in Deuteronomy 22

One of my goals on this blog is to share my thoughts, but I also hope to learn from you. Consequently, some of my entries will not be me giving a decisive opinion, but rather me asking questions. This is one of those entries.

I study a chapter of Scripture every Friday night, and this evening I went through Deuteronomy 22. I have questions about divorce in this chapter and the Book of Deuteronomy in general. I would like to ask about other issues as well, but that will have to wait for future blog entries. Here are my questions, and I appreciate any insight that you can give me (on any of the questions):

1. In Deuteronomy 22:13-22, there is the scenario of a man who suspects that his wife was not a virgin before he married her. The man hates her, and her parents are required to produce evidence of the girl's pre-marital virginity before the elders. If the parents do so, then the accuser is chastised and must pay the parents 100 silver shekels. Also, he is not allowed to divorce the woman for the rest of his life. If the girl was not a virgin, then the men of the town stone her to death. I guess my question is, If the man hated this woman, then why didn't he just divorce her according to the law of Deuteronomy 24? I was thinking that he may have been upset because he paid for a non-virgin at a virgin's price, but he does not get financially compensated once the women is found to have been a non-virgin. Maybe the answer to this is that he simply hated her and wanted to tarnish her reputation.

2. I also wonder why God/Deuteronomy allowed divorce in some cases but not in others. I understand why God would forbid a man who slandered his wife from divorcing her, since he may want to deter that sort of act. But I wonder why he prohibits a man who seduces and then marries a woman from ever divorcing her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Sure, the seducer violated the woman and made her a former virgin (meaning that she would not be worth as much as far as dowry goes), but the man of Deuteronomy 24 also had relations with his wife, yet he is permitted to divorce her. Moreover, a man who took a foreign female captive is allowed to put her away when she displeases him, even though he violated her (Deuteronomy 21:14, which has the same word, ana, that appears in Deuteronomy 22:29). What is the difference among these cases? One thought that came to me was that God wants to discourage men from impulsively acting on their passions. The man in Deuteronomy 21 at least had to wait 30 days before he could marry the foreign captive, so he was not exactly impulsive. Maybe that is a solution, but I wonder if anyone has a better proposal.

3. On a side note, why did the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East place such value on a woman being a virgin before she got married, since virgins required a higher price than non-virgins? A homiletical solution would be to say that the ancient world thought that "true love waits," but I wonder if there is a better explanation, one that considers the culture of the ancient world on its own terms.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Should Josephus Be Used in Biblical Studies?

I was going to save this post for a rainy day, but I am so excited about my new blog that I am in the mood to post it now. Let's hope that I come up with new thoughts for future posts!

Allow me to give some background information for my question. On another forum, a skeptic argued that Ezekiel made a false prophecy about Tyre and Egypt. Ezekiel prophesied that Tyre and Egypt would fall to the Babylonians, that did not happen, and so Ezekiel was technically a false prophet according to Deuteronomy 18:22 (or so the skeptic argued).

I thought about this issue some more when I was doing my daily reading and meditation on the Book of Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 43 and 46, Jeremiah predicts that Babylon under Nebuchadrezzar will conquer Egypt. My HarperCollins Study Bible, my Jewish Study Bible, and my Anchor Bible Dictionary all tell me that this did not happen, for Nebuchadrezzar failed in his attempt at conquest. On what do they base this claim? They do not say. But I did a search on the Internet (not that I rely on the Internet alone for my scholarly endeavors), and I found the claim that the Babylonians did not record that they successfully invaded Egypt. For many scholars, such an omission would indicate that they most likely did not, since conquerors in the ancient world tended to boast about their accomplishments.

But here is the interesting part: Josephus says that Nebuchadrezzar did succeed in his endeavor (Antiquities 10:182, 195). One may argue that Josephus was basing his account on the biblical prediction, but, in Against Apion 1:132-133, he says that Berosus presents Nebuchadrezzar as a conqueror of Egypt. According to Josephus, Berosus was a Chaldean who followed the ancient records of his nation in composing a history of Babylonia.

But the plot thickens: I can envision someone saying that neither Josephus nor Berosus can be trusted, since they lived long after the time of Nebuchadrezzar (at least that was a possible objection that entered my mind). But, in an article on "Edom" in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, scholar J.R. Bartlett uses Josephus (along with other sources) to draw conclusions about the relationship between Babylon and Edom in the sixth century B.C.E. (ABD, volume 2, p. 293). Josephus lived long after that time, and yet at least one biblical scholar seems to think that his works can be helpful for biblical studies (at least on this occasion).

I have not done research to see how many biblical scholars use Josephus, but my question is: Is it acceptable? Why or why not?

J.I. Packer and Ecclesiastes

I am currently reading J.I. Packer's Knowing God, and I am going through it slowly. It is a book that I want to digest rather than read in one sitting (even though school will start soon and I will not have as much time for pleasure reading).

What interested me last night was J.I. Packer's presentation of the Book of Ecclesiastes. First of all, I was surprised by Packer's openness to the different dates that scholars assign to the book. Usually, he seems to be dismissive of liberal historical-critical scholarship, so his statement that even conservative biblical scholars argue that the book was written far later than Solomon was unexpected. Packer still believes that the book reflects Solomon's views, but he is open to the possibility that Solomon did not write it. I have not read the conservative scholars he named, but they probably believe that Ecclesiastes is late because of its late Hebrew.

Second, Packer offers his view of Ecclesiastes in his chapter on God's wisdom and ours. His overall point is that Christian wisdom does not mean that Christians understand why everything happens or why God does things the way that he does. Actually, when we look at life, it looks on the surface to be rather meaningless, redundant, and empty, as Qoheleth says on a number of occasions. The reason that life appears this way, according to Packer, is that God does not openly intervene in the world, at least not in a manner that is always obvious to us; rather, God hides himself in many instances. For Packer, Christians do not necessarily know the "big picture" that accounts for every detail of life, but God has given them rules on how to navigate their way through the journey. He compares wise Christians to drivers, who do not understand everything on the road, and yet they have skills and instincts that help them get to their destination in a safe manner. Packer believes that Ecclesiastes teaches this point because it talks about the apparent meaninglessness and redundancy of life and yet ends with an exhortation to fear God and obey his commandments.

What do I think about this? I do not thoroughly dismiss it, since we do not understand why every detail of life occurs or exists. Natural disasters and accidents seem to take the lives of the good and the bad, and yet I have still heard people give testimonies that convince me that a supreme being watches over us and is involved in our lives. Moreover, even the secular world acknowledges some standard of right and wrong, of good and bad, even though life can appear random at times.

I wonder what Packer means when he says that God's laws help us to navigate our way through life. He observes that Ecclesiastes acknowledges the fact that the wicked sometimes prosper while the good suffer or meet a bad end. Of course, Packer believes that the highest goal in life is knowledge of God within a relationship, not necessarily earthly success, so maybe he does not believe that God's laws will always preserve our lives or bring us gain in the here and now.

Does he do justice to Ecclesiastes? I do not know, for Qoheleth is complex. The way I have read this book of the Bible is as follows: the author does not believe in an afterlife (which was interesting in light of the Hellenistic context that many scholars assign to the book), making many aspects of life meaningless, empty, and unfulfilling. People inevitably die, and that gives him a new perspective on the things that he has been chasing. And, while he is discussing meaninglessness, he observes other things beyond his temporary pleasures (dulled by the inevitable prospect of death) that lead him to ask "What is the point?" There are things in the natural world that appear meaningless, as if they are going nowhere. The world does not appear to be a just place, since the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Qoheleth's conclusion is that we should enjoy life while we can and fulfill our function of fearing God and doing his commandments. Then, right when I think that I have figured out the book, he says that God will bring all things into judgment. Here, he may be open to an afterlife, since he does not think that God always judges people in the here and now. So how am I now supposed to understand the "all is vanity" parts, or the parts that say that human beings have the same fate as beasts (death)? Many scholars argue that Qoheleth was pessimistic and that some editor added the more optimistic ending. Maybe, but I want to understand the message of the book as a finished product. I am not sure how convinced I am by Packer's model, but at least he tries to show how a single author could be frustrated and yet hopeful at the end.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Hello! I Can Create a Blog!

Hello everyone!

Welcome to my new blog. This is my place to meet people, discuss ideas, ask questions, express thoughts, vent, learn from others, and hopefully improve my writing skills.

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is James Pate. I live in Cincinnati, OH, where I attend Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. My field of study is the History of Biblical Interpretation, which concerns Jewish and Christian interpretations of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. I am entering my fourth year in the doctoral program, and I will be studying for my comprehensive exams, which I will take some time next summer. Previously, I studied at DePauw University, Harvard Divinity School, and Jewish Theological Seminary. And, yet, I am not entirely Jewish!

So what should you expect to find here, as far as topics go? Well, I am interested in politics and religion. From a political standpoint, you will find that I am rather conservative. In fact, one of my hobbies has been to search for statistics that refute liberal arguments, to look more carefully at documents that liberals cite as smoking guns, and to use liberal articles to substantiate a conservative point. For example, we always hear about the Downing Street Memo and how it shows that Bush and Blaire were deceiving the public to promote the Iraq War. Well, guess what? The Downing Street Memo expressed fear that Iraq would use weapons of mass destruction. So much for the "Bush lied" rhetoric!

Religiously, I consider myself a Christian searcher. I read the Bible every day and try to understand it. I have not really felt comfortable in evangelical small groups in the past, and yet I enjoy reading evangelical books. I believe that the Bible is divinely-inspired and is God's self-revelation, and yet, in my scholarly work, I try to be honest. What that means is that I do not do mental gymnastics to harmonize biblical contradictions, and, if there is an apparent difference between the biblical account and the archaeological record, I acknowledge that difference. At the same time, I acknowledge that there are many things that we do not currently know. And, needless to say, there are many things that I--James Pate--do not know at the moment. In my scholarship, I can only present what makes sense to me at the present time.

As a Christian, I believe that both the Old and the New Testament point to Jesus Christ. At the same time, I do not think that everything in the Bible has to relate to the substitutionary atonement or the reconciliation between God's justice and mercy on the cross. I believe in the substitutionary atonement, since I am saved through faith in Christ's death and resurrection, and yet I also try to understand the Old Testament writings in light of their own contexts. I also consult Jewish interpretations, since they are sensitive to certain details of the text (e.g., specific laws, anomalies, why something is phrased the way it is, etc.) that interest me as a reader.

As far as church attendance is concerned, I have been to a variety of places. I grew up in an offshoot of the Worldwide Church of God, which was a Christian denomination that observed Old Testament customs. As an undergraduate, a student at Harvard, and a Jewish Theological Seminary student, I attended Seventh-Day Adventist churches. I also went to Redeemer Presbyterian Church when I lived in New York, and I found Tim Keller to be an awesome and scholarly preacher. There is an article about him on wikipedia. Check it out! I did not go to church for about three years, but I have started to attend Catholic mass every week, mainly to hear the sermons.

I will also write about movies and TV shows that I like. What I like in those areas will come out as this blog progresses. Let me say right now, though, that I have somewhat of a Lady in the Water fetish.

Well, time for me to get back to work! I'm looking forward to discussing ideas!

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