Sunday, August 31, 2008

My 50th Post for the Month

I'm writing this so I'll have 50 posts for this month. Here are some ideas for the coming week:

1. Were the Maccabees descended from Aaron? I read in the Catholic Study Bible that they were not. We know that the Qumran people left Jerusalem out of some concern for priestly lineage. What was it?

2. Hopefully, weather permitting, the Republican National Convention will start tomorrow. I'll be sharing my top ten favorite moments from convention history.

3. I read something fascinating in Michael Fishbane's Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel--about how Deutero-Isaiah argues against Genesis 1. I'll write about that sometime this week, and it will hopefully help me on a paper I'm writing about the book.

Stay tuned!

Maccabees and the Substitutionary Atonement

II Maccabees somewhat hints at a doctrine of substitutionary atonement, in which a righteous person endures God's wrath in place of sinners. And IV Maccabees explicitly states it.

In II Maccabees, God punishes Israel for adopting Greek customs (II Maccabees 4:11-17). That's why Antiochus Epiphanes violently enters Jerusalem, desecrates the temple, imposes the death penalty for Sabbath-observance and circumcision, forces Jews to eat pork, and kills a bunch of Israelites. Antiochus is God's punishment!

But there are martyrs who stand by God in the midst of Antiochus' persecution. In II Maccabees 7, a mother and her seven sons die rather than eating the king's pork. The last son boldly says to King Antiochus:

"I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by trials and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation" (NRSV).

The son thought that his death would appease God's wrath and influence God to show mercy on his nation.

IV Maccabees is explicit about the blood of the martyrs bringing atonement for the holy land:

1:11: "All people, even their torturers, marveled at their courage and endurance, and they became the cause of the downfall of tyranny over their nation. By their endurance they conquered the tyrant, and thus their native land was purified through them."

6:28-29: "Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs."

17:9-10: "Here lie buried an aged priest and an aged woman and seven sons, because of the violence of the tyrant who wished to destroy the way of life of the Hebrews. They vindicated their nation, looking to God and enduring torture even to death."

17:20-22: "These, then, who have been consecrated for the sake of God, are honored, not only with this honor, but also by the fact that because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified-- they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an atoning sacrifice, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated."

The martyrs appeased God through their stand for God's law. That's why God then assisted the Maccabees in their fight against the tyrant Antiochus.

I have mixed feelings about this motif in Maccabees:

1. One quote that comes to my mind is something Charlton Heston said on the Ten Commandments: "Does this God require a bruised back as a sign of his service?" (I know I'm leaving something out!) Here God is in II and IV Maccabees, punishing the Israelites for their sins. Then he's finally happy when a select group gets martyred for his laws.

I don't really have a problem with the vicarious atonement in Christianity, since, in that case, God proactively sends his Son to die for the sins of the world. There, God actively pursues reconciliation. In the Maccabean scenario, by contrast, it seems like God just sits around waiting to be impressed.

2. How sad it is that the righteous must suffer for the sins of the wicked. God was punishing Israel for adopting Greek customs and forsaking the Torah, but the ones who suffered the most were those who were faithful to God. I guess that the Hellenizing priest, Jason, suffered when Antiochus found out about the revolt he was leading (II Maccabees 5), but, overall, those who went with the flow and abandoned the Torah didn't experience much pain at the hands of Antiochus. It reminds me of those who claim that God sent the Holocaust to punish the Jews for Reform Judaism, which they think compromises God's Torah. If that were true, then why did so many Orthodox Jews suffer at the hands of Adolf Hitler?

3. At the same time, there's something inspiring about people triumphing over their enemies through something other than the force of arms. The martyrs displayed conviction to the awe of their enemies, and they won over a God who actually cared about what his nation did. God may have been waiting to see if there was something redemptive about his nation--a sign that someone cared about his laws and his covenant. When the martyrs died for their faith, God realized that he could work with his people. Not all was lost! They hadn't totally forsaken him. On the basis of these few martyrs, he could work with an entire nation.

The Waltons: Let It Go!

I'm not sure what season I'm in for the Waltons. I taped some of these episodes out of order. Last week, I watched Mary Ellen's wedding to a country doctor. Today, Mary Ellen doesn't even want to get married.

One message I get from the Waltons is this: Let it go! For example, Mary Ellen didn't want to get married, since she wanted to do other things with her life. But Grandma Walton wanted her to find a man, so she set up a "quilt" gathering of women, which somehow conveys the message that Mary Ellen is "on the market" (Mary Ellen's words, not mine). And Ma Walton (Olivia) wants Mary Ellen to make her own decisions, so there's conflict between Olivia and Grandma.

Mary Ellen sulks and refuses to go to the "quilt," until John-boy tells her to think about someone other than herself, since Mary Ellen is creating strife between her mother and her grandmother. And so Mary Ellen goes to the quilt, and she puts up with little old ladies talking about how Mary Ellen should get a man. Mary Ellen still doesn't plan to get a man any time soon, since she has to run her own life. But she's willing to let things go for the sake of peace.

There was another episode a while back. John-boy got his own shed, and Mary Ellen wanted it, presumably to see her boyfriends and to have a little privacy. She and John-boy fought over it. Pa Walton then talked with John-boy and told him that it was his shed, and he could do what he wanted with it. But it would be nice if he let Mary Ellen have it.

I don't think we should let others walk all over us. I agree with Steven Covey, who said that we should seek "win-win" solutions that make both sides happy. But there are times when it helps everyone for us to let go of having our own way--to think about someone other than ourselves, regardless of what our "rights" may be.

There was one more detail on the Waltons that I really liked: Grandma was writing an advertising slogan for a soap company contest, and she won. The jingle said that the soap does what it's supposed to do, which not many things do these days. Amen to that, Grandma Walton! Some days, I feel it would be nice if anything worked.

More on Maccabees and Theodicy

In my post, Theodicy and Maccabees, I talked about the bad things that happen to good people in I-II Maccabees. One such incident was the death of Judah the Maccabee in battle. I said the following:

"Moreover, God doesn't always intervene on behalf of each and every individual. A puzzling passage is Deuteronomy 20:5-6, where it's acknowledged that Israelites can actually die in battle, even when God is with the Israelite army. But shouldn't each and every Israelite soldier be invincible? It doesn't necessarily work that way. So is it really a surprise that Judas died in battle?"

As I read through II Maccabees again, however, I saw that God indeed could protect individuals in battle, as far as II Maccabees is concerned. In II Maccabees 10:29-30, we read the following:

"When the battle became fierce, there appeared to the enemy from heaven five resplendent men on horses with golden bridles, and they were leading the Jews.
Two of them took Maccabeus between them, and shielding him with their own armor and weapons, they kept him from being wounded. They showered arrows and thunderbolts on the enemy, so that, confused and blinded, they were thrown into disorder and cut to pieces" (NRSV).

In this passage, God sent his angels to protect Judah from the enemy's arrows.

And, conversely, God could strike down people who sinned against him. II Maccabees 12:40 states about a group of fallen Jewish soldiers: "Then under the tunic of each one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was the reason these men had fallen."

In this case, God ensured that certain soldiers died in battle on account of their sin.

And so God's providence extends to each and every individual. We see something similar in Exodus 12:12-13: "Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee." According to this passage, was seems to be an accident is actually an act of God.

So why did Judah the Maccabee die in battle? Why did Jonathan get kidnapped and murdered? Why did God protect Judah in one battle, but not in another?

II Maccabees doesn't seem to deal with that, for it doesn't go as far as I Maccabees in its story. II Maccabees is like Episode IV of Star Wars: You'd think that good has totally triumphed over evil, if you watched that movie alone. But I Maccabees is like Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back put together: good wins initially, but then evil makes a powerful comeback, and it just keeps on striking.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Reflections on the 2008 DNC

I was so excited about Palin yesterday that I didn't comment on the Democratic National Convention. Here are some points:

1. It had some really moving videos. I liked the one about Michelle Obama, in which her mom said that Michelle's dad lives on through her. That actually moved me to tears! My only qualm was with its narration of Barack pursuing Michelle. He finally won her over by taking her out for ice cream. How climactic! Oh well. I guess real life isn't as exciting as the movies.

2. The video on Ted Kennedy was all right, too. His wife is kind of cute. I don't think he's evil. What he did at Chappaquiddick may have been questionable, but I wouldn't be surprised if that haunts him to this day. Maybe that's why he goes out of his way to be unselfish now--to fight for policies that help the poor and the vulnerable (according to his ideology).

3. Michelle's speech and the Obama family moment had its effect. I liked it when Michelle said, "He's the same man who drove me and our new baby daughter home from the hospital ten years ago this summer, inching along at a snail's pace, peering anxiously at us in the rearview mirror, feeling the whole weight of her future in his hands, determined to give her everything he'd struggled so hard for himself, determined to give her what he never had: the affirming embrace of a father's love." I can picture Barack, driving the car from the hospital and looking back every few minutes. And their kids are cute, you have to admit that!

4. I think Joe Biden talked too much. Isn't the VP nominee supposed to give one speech? He gave at least two.

5. I don't remember much that Bill Clinton said. I just remember that Michelle Obama looked a little tense when he spoke--like she was applauding just to be polite. Maybe that's because he said the day before that Obama is "Candidate X," who agrees with him on everything yet can't deliver on anything.

6. Hillary's speech had one noteworthy line: "I want you to ask yourselves: Were you in this campaign just for me? Or were you in it for that young Marine and others like him? Were you in it for that mom struggling with cancer while raising her kids? Were you in it for that boy and his mom surviving on the minimum wage? Were you in it for all the people in this country who feel invisible?" I hope she sincerely believes that way and isn't just saying it for show. And her statement challenges me to think beyond myself: there is more to life than my glory.

7. At first, I watched the convention on Fox, but it wasn't showing too many of the speeches. That's why I switched to C-Span: It just puts the camera on the podium and leaves it there! One speech I wish I heard was that of Jim Leach, a former Republican congressman from Iowa. From what I could hear, he appeared to give a learned narration of American history, as he mentioned such Republican notables as Everett Dirksen, who cooperated with Lyndon Johnson on the Civil Rights Act. I just read the speech, and it now strikes me as the usual Democratic Party rhetoric (e.g., "we attacked a country that didn't attack us"), but it's still quite eloquent (see here).

8. The convention was trying to showcase a lot of Republicans who are planning to vote for Obama this year. To be honest, the part of the convention that impacted me most was not the speeches of John Kerry, Hillary, Bill, Biden, and Al Gore. It was the speeches of the ordinary people. There was the pet store owner, who worked two jobs and yet couldn't afford health insurance. There was Debbie, a Republican woman from the midwest, whose husband had open-heart surgery and was laid off from his job, meaning they had crushing medical bills. There was Barney Smith, a Republican whose manufacturing job was outsourced. His notable line was that he was looking for a leader who looked out for Barney Smith, not Smith Barney. As he exited the podium, the crowd chanted "Barney! Barney!"

I wonder how many Republicans are leaving the GOP for the Democratic Party. As early as 1964, the Democrats could find Republicans who criticized their own party. I saw a video of a Johnson ad, in which a "thoughtful" Republican expressed concern about how extreme Goldwater was.

But what's interesting about recent times is the high profile conservatives who dislike Bush. Jude Wanniski was one of the founders of supply-side economics, yet he actually endorsed John Kerry in 2004. Arthur Laffer of "Laffer curve" fame supported Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. Richard Viguerie, a huge figure of the New Right of the 1970's and 1980's, has written a book that's critical of Bush. Other Bush-critics are conservatives from Ronald Reagan's Treasury Department: Paul Craig Roberts and Bruce Bartlett. Is there an unprecedented exodus from the GOP?

Also, I was struck by how the ordinary people looked to Obama as a Messiah figure, who would save them from all of their problems. Many of us think that things would be all right if we could get the right man in office. It would be nice if a President Obama had the courage and political skills to take on the special interests and reform the American health care system. Time will tell if that's the case. As far as outsourcing is concerned, I wonder what we can do to correct that. Can we turn back the clock? Should we embrace protectionism? That will only lead to high prices and a lack of competition.

9. There was a veteran from the Iraq War, who was criticizing John McCain's plan to give veterans a card as an alternative to the current VA health care system. She also didn't like his plan to privatize the VA hospitals. But she herself wasn't satisfied with how the government handles it, with all its bureaucracy and inefficiency and red tape. What's wrong with pursuing a different route?

10. And last but not least, Obama's speech. Some are comparing him to Lincoln, and the list of pundits doing this includes Pat Buchanan and Dick Morris. Others counter that his speech was angry, typical of the politics of attack, and laden with the same old Obama cliches. Personally, I liked it when he said that his grandmother poured herself into him, and that she is his hero. That reminds me of what people in my own family have done for me.

Also, I didn't think that he was too hard on McCain. He acknowledged McCain's public service, but he said that the Republican nominee doesn't "get it." Democrats disagree with Republicans. There's nothing wrong with pointing that out.

But I thought that he distorted parts of McCain's record. He said that McCain's education plan won't help families pay for college, and that McCain fails to offer a penny of tax relief to a hundred million people. Actually, McCain says that he supports increasing Pell grants and Stafford loans for students, as well as lowering taxes for those making under $150,000 a year (see here).

But Obama at least gave some details about his own policies. Most of the convention wasn't about solutions, but about problems. And, no, chanting "Yes we can!" to Stevie Wonder doesn't count as a solution!

One more thing: I saw Jin from Lost in the audience! I wonder if the Republicans will have any celebrities. I read that the Governator won't show up, since he's in a budget battle in California. But his wife was at the Democratic one. Too bad Britney Spears can't sing at the Republican convention. She's a Republican, yet the religious right doesn't like her.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Palin on the Environment

While I'm on my Palin-kick, there are a few more things that I want to note. This post is about the environment. Those who were sitting on the edges of their seats waiting for my next Maccabees post, relax! I plan to post on Maccabees tomorrow, or Sunday.

I said in McCain's Running Mate that Palin is concerned about climate change and greenhouse emissions. In a way, that's true. Let me post a link to an article before some liberal deletes it from wikipedia: State aims to reduce emissions. At the same time, she expressed doubt to Newsmax that global warming is man-made: See Palin Speaks to Newsmax About McCain, Abortion, Climate Change.

I'm not sure how she reconciles the two. Maybe she wants to move in the direction of less dependence on oil. Liberals are making her out to be a drill-nut, and, while she does support drilling in ANWR (and rightfully so), she's all for alternative sources of fuel. The documented wikipedia article states (at least at the present moment):

"In March 2007, Palin presented the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act (AGIA) as the new legal vehicle for building a natural gas pipeline from the state's North Slope.[34] " And Palin overlaps with Barack Obama on this issue (see here). Naturally so, since energy is a social justice concern. As Palin has noted, there are many Alaskans who must choose between feeding their families and heating their homes, and this should not be so (see here).

Where the Left has been dishonest is in its attack on Palin as a "wolf-killer." Here's a quote from the wikipedia article:

"In 2007, Palin agreed with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to allow Alaska state biologists to hunt wolves from helicopters as part of a 'predator control' program which was allowed under a provision in a 35 year-old federal ban on the practice granting 700 permits to the state of Alaska.[41] The program was heavily criticized by Defenders of Wildlife and predator control opponents[41], and prompted California State Representative George Miller to introduce a federal bill making the practice illegal.[41]"

Yep, she just hates wolves. She must have had a trauma as a child!

Actually, she implemented this policy because there are lots of wolves in certain areas, and they threaten the caribou and moose, which natives hunt for their subsistence (see here). She's not a fanatic who wants to turn Alaska into a parking lot. She's trying to preserve the circle of life!

Interestingly, I found more balanced articles on Palin this morning, when it was just announced that she was McCain's VP pick. Now, I see that the radical Left has had time to inundate the Net with its stuff. For shame!

Palin and the Bridge to Nowhere

I may have spoken a little hastily about Sarah Palin killing the Bridge to Nowhere. That's technically true, but liberals and others are pointing out that there's more nuance to the situation.

Palin said in her speech today: "And I championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress. In fact, I told Congress -- I told Congress, 'Thanks, but no thanks,' on that bridge to nowhere. If our state wanted a bridge, I said we'd build it ourselves" (see here).

Wikipedia has the following, with documentation from articles at the time:

"Though she initially expressed support for the Gravina Island Bridge project,[21] once it had become a nationwide symbol of wasteful earmark spending and federal funding was lost, Palin decided against filling the $320 million gap with state money.[22][23]"

So she technically killed it, but that was after the federal government didn't provide enough funds. Also, the money was then put for other uses in Alaska.

According to an article that she wrote in March 5, she's not even against all earmarks. She says that her "administration has recommended funding for specific projects and programs when there is an important federal purpose and strong citizen support."

But she still acknowledges that Congress and the Bush Administration "have told us that the number of earmarks in the federal budget will be reduced and that there must be a strong federal purpose underlying each request." Consequently, she states:

"This year, we have requested 31 earmarks, down from 54 in 2007. Of these, 27 involve continuing or previous appropriations and four are new requests. The total dollar amount of these requests has been reduced from approximately $550 million in the previous year to just less than $200 million" (see here).

Also, here are the words of the oracular New York Times, dated January 22, 2008: "Even in Alaska, long dependent on federal largess, officials are trying to wean the state off earmarks. In her State of the State address last week, Gov. Sarah Palin, a Republican, said, 'We cannot and must not rely so heavily on federal government earmarks'” (see here).

So her speech was correct, in a manner of speaking: she's trying to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. But she's not as good as certain Republicans in Arizona, which ranks last in the number of earmarks it receives. USA Today states: "But when it comes to pork-barrel spending, otherwise known as earmarks, the state ranks last. That's mostly because three of the state's 10 lawmakers in Washington — McCain and House Republicans Jeff Flake and John Shadegg — refuse to ask for any federal money for local projects. Another Arizona Republican, Sen. Jon Kyl, strictly limits his earmark requests" (see here).

I still love Sarah Palin, especially as I read more about her. But she's not entirely a Jeff Flake, or a John Shadegg.

Why I Love Sarah Palin

I have Sean Hannity on right now, and Newt Gingrich commented on McCain's choice for VP, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. I also read more about her in AP articles.

I love this woman!

Actually, in my last post, I neglected to mention that I had heard of her before today. On my Christian dating site, I met a woman who worked on Palin's transition team in 2006.

Here are some things that I love about Governor Palin:

1. She has opposed corruption within her own party. As Newt Gingrich asked, when has Biden ever done that?

2. She supports drilling, yet she's not in the pocket of the oil business. She took on the oil industry as governor! We need leaders who will not yield to special interests.

3. Like Senator McCain, she has a son who will serve in Iraq. Unlike Bush and the neo-cons, war is not an abstraction for her. Her son is willing to fight for his country!

4. Her husband is a blue-collar worker and an eighth Native American. She sounds to me like a regular person! I like Bush, but I'm a little worn out by the Clinton and Bush elites.

5. She has a child with Down Syndrome. She differs from the "pro-life" Libertarian candidate for President, Bob Barr, who paid for his wife's abortion. This lady walks the pro-life walk, not just talks the pro-life talk. She had the child, when many women would deem it to be too difficult. And she knows what it's like to raise a child with a disability. That encourages me, as a person with Asperger's Syndrome.

6. She didn't go to Harvard or Yale. Newt Gingrich said that the Left will point that out as a liability. Bring it on! I went to the Ivy League for three years, and I wouldn't entrust this country to a lot of Harvard graduates (maybe a select few).

7. She has nothing to hide. She's been accused of trying to have her brother-in-law fired because he was divorcing her sister, but she's not giving us Clintonian spin, or Nixonian cover-up, or whatever Bush does to hide his dirt. She welcomes an investigation!

8. She's a conservative woman. I love it when the Republican Party is diverse. We should be the party of more people than rich white males. And we are the party of a variety of people. We should feel free to show that off!

9. She told the federal government to take its Bridge to Nowhere and shove it! Well, not exactly in those words. But she's against pork barrel spending, even when it comes to her state. Can we say the same about Barack Obama, who made money off of the backs of taxpayers, along with his buddy, Tony Rezco?

(UPDATE: See Palin and the Bridge to Nowhere.)

10. As a mayor, she actually cut her own salary. How many politicians do that?

I've commented before about how I've often voted for scum just because I agreed with their policies. Now, I get to vote for a good person with conservative, small-town values.

Sources: AP articles and Sarah Palin - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (which is changing every time I look at it!).

McCain's Running Mate

The AP has reported that John McCain has selected Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. She is a solid conservative--pro-life, pro-marriage amendment, pro-fiscal restraint, and pro-drilling. Yet, she is balanced. She has crusaded against corruption, recognizes the dignity of gays and lesbians, and established a committee on climate change.

I've read things by liberals that say "McCain only chose her because she's a woman." Give me a break! They're the people who always brag about how diverse they are. "The Democratic Party has a woman, an African-American, and a Latino running for President," both Obama and Hillary said during the primaries. Yet, when President Bush or John McCain give women and minorities a shot, they're accused of tokenism. Maybe the Republican Party is diverse, too, and not all women and minorities feel that the radical left speaks for them.

As far as her experience goes, that's a concern of mine, but she appears to have gotten things done as governor. She got an ethics bill passed and killed the notorious Bridge to Nowhere, a symbol of pork-barrel spending. And she's somewhat of an underdog. She won the Republican nomination for governor with little support from the party establishment, and she beat a Democratic incumbent who was vastly outspending her.

Plus, she's not bad to look at.

I'm looking forward to seeing this lady pound that pompous jerk, Joe Biden, in the Vice-Presidential debates.

Way to go, John!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

II Maccabees 12, Purgatory, Catholicism, Idolatry

II Maccabees 12 is a big Roman Catholic proof-text for purgatory. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines purgatory as follows:

"All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven" (1030).

1032 states, "This teaching is based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: 'Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin." The quote is from II Maccabees 12:46, showing the book is important for Catholic doctrine.

The problem is this: Roman Catholicism asserts that purgatory is for believers who have committed "lesser faults." What was the fault of the soldiers for whom Judah the Maccabee was praying? In II Maccabees 12:40, we read: "Then under the tunic of each one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was the reason these men had fallen" (NRSV). Their fault was idolatry.

But Roman Catholicism doesn't deem idolatry to be a "lesser fault." It takes seriously such verses as I Corinthians 6:9-10 and Galatians 5:20-21, which categorically declare that idolaters will not inherit the kingdom of God. The Catholic Encyclopedia states that idolatry--and even the simulation of idolatry to escape persecution--are serious mortal sins (see here). And people aren't cleansed of mortal sin in purgatory (see Thomas Aquinas' words here).

How do Catholics reconcile this? I'm not sure how the church officially does so, but I found the following answers on Purgatory and 2 Maccabees - Catholic Answers Forums:

"IT is an example of praying and offering a sacrifice for those who have died, for God's Mercy. No individual ever knows the fate of another individual. There was simply hope."

"We can debate whether or not the sinful soldiers were actually aided by this sacrifice or not, in light of the severity of this sin. However, what is not up for debate is that Judas thought it wise to offer such a sacrifice for these dead soldiers, in the hopes that this sacrifice for the dead would help them in transition from this life into heaven (Judas undeniabl[y] believed in purgatory.) And that his belief here is scripturally commended as 'holy and pious.'"

"There is nothing in this passage that indicates that these men were guilty of mortal sin. The wearing of amulets in itself is not necessarily an indication that these men were engaging in full-blown idolatry -- they could have been guilty of something as simple of simple superstition or 'hedging their bets' by wearing these amulets as good luck charms. Judas and his men, in any case, are (after the fact) in no position to know the mindset of these men. All they know is that these men are guilty of at least superstition and offered prayer and sacrifice for this purpose. These men did not presume the dead soldiers were guilty of mortal sin, just as we Christians should not, who pray for the repose of the souls of our loved ones."

The last explanation is probably the best. According to What is a Mortal Sin? on the Catholic site, www.saintaquinas.com, mortal sins are deliberate. Or, as the Catechism states in 1859, "Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent." Were the soldiers in II Maccabees 12 deliberately worshipping idols with the full knowledge that there is only one God, meaning that idols are useless? Maybe. Maybe not. You'd expect them to know better, since they lived in a Jewish culture that recognized the one true God and the uselessness of idols. But perhaps they thought that God wasn't enough to protect them in battle, so they resorted to idolatry. They were ignorant in that they didn't know God's full power.

But if ignorance is an excuse, doesn't that release most idolaters of guilt? Most people who worship idols sincerely believe in their efficacy. Otherwise, why would they do it?

Also, the Bible is mixed about whether idolatry is a sin of ignorance, or one committed in full knowledge of who God is. Speaking about idolatry, Paul affirms in Acts 17:30 that "God has overlooked the times of human ignorance." Yet, in Romans 1:20-23, Paul says that the Gentiles knew God because they could see his power and deity through nature, but they chose not to acknowledge him, which led them into idolatry.

But II Maccabees 12:45 says that Judah offered the sin offering for the dead Jewish idolaters because "he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness." Does that imply that they died in a state of godliness? Maybe they weren't completely bad--only imperfect, in that they clung to good luck charms in a vain attempt to keep themselves alive. But at least they were willing to fight for God and his laws, and that says a lot.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Maccabees and the Gentiles

The Catholic Study Bible treats I Maccabees as a foil for the New Testament, especially in its treatment of the Gentiles. It states:

"I Maccabees has importance also for the New Testament. Salvation is paralleled with Jewish national aspirations (1 Mc 4, 46-14, 41), in contrast to the universal reign of God taught by Christ in the Gospel (Mt 13, 47-50; 22, 1-14). Also, destruction of the wall of the temple separating Jew and Gentile is an act of desecration in 1 Mc 9, 54, but in Eph 2, 14, an act of redemption and unification of both through Christ" (550).

And that's the impression I get from I Maccabees: the Gentiles are double-crossers. The author is slightly disposed to the Romans, for he says in I Maccabees 8 that their leaders did not display any pomposity, and that there was no jealousy or envy within their Senate ("Yeah, right!," say many historians). But, overall, the Maccabees do not care a great deal for the Gentiles. In I Maccabees, Israel is basically fighting for its own national traditions--for the laws that God gave to Israel when he set her apart.

In contrast, the early Christians actually cared about their Gentile oppressors. When they were dragged before governors and kings, the Holy Spirit enabled them to testify to the nations (Matthew 10:18-20). In I Timothy 2:1-4, Paul (or, for liberal scholars, "Paul") tells Timothy to pray for kings, since God desires for all to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. It's not "Look at me! I'm dying for these customs that God gave to my nation. May God destroy you, you filthy heathens!" Rather, the Christian martyrs hoped that their persecutors would come to know Christ as Lord. And, as the old saying goes, "The blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church."

By contrast, the Catholic Study Bible says that II Maccabees is more positive about the Gentiles:

"...as opposed to the Greeks as 2 Maccabees is, it is not simplistic in the way it deals with Jews and Greeks. It presents some Greeks as sympathetic to the Jews. Antiochus even converts on his deathbed (9, 11-18). Clearly the Jews do not object to the rule of the Gentiles as such. The Jews can be good citizens. What they do object to are the abuses that came with Antiochus" (RG 228).

And that is true. In II Maccabees 3, when God struck down the Seleucid Heliodorus for trying to rob the temple, the righteous priest Onias III offered an atonement sacrifice for the man's recovery (partly so the Seleucids wouldn't think there was foul play). Heliodorus then worshipped God and bid Onias farewell.

Antiochus Epiphanes gets angry when Onias III is murdered, so he executes the killer (II Maccabees 4:38).

When the Seleucid general Nicanor is about to slaughter Jews on the Sabbath, some Jews ask him to honor God's holy day (II Maccabees 15:1-5). Maybe this passage means that Gentiles should observe the Sabbath. Or maybe it's just saying that Nicanor should revere the day that God gave to the Jews, since God is supreme, and anything associated with him deserves respect. Either way, Nicanor is expected to honor the God of the Jews. That differs from what seems to be I Maccabees' message, which is that God is on the side of the Jews, and (presumably) no one else.

And Nicanor eventually becomes friends with Judah the Maccabee, even though he's constrained by the Seleucids to turn against him in the end (II Maccabees 15:17ff.).

II Maccabees treats the Gentiles much like the New Testament does: they have the potential for virtue and piety. Similarly, Jesus in Luke's Gospel appealed to the Old Testament example of Naaman as a righteous Gentile (Luke 4:27), and he praised the Gentiles who demonstrated more faith than did many Israelites (Luke 7:9).

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Theodicy and Maccabees

This post will be an example of James' Thoughts and Ramblings, but it will have some good stuff. I promise.

In II Kings 23:29, the righteous king Josiah is killed by Pharaoh Neco of Egypt.

The Chronicler had a problem with this story, for he believed that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. In his mind, if Josiah died in a battle, then he must have deserved it. And so the Chronicler has an explanation: God warned Josiah through Pharaoh Neco not to fight the Egyptian army, since Neco wasn't specifically coming against Judah (II Chronicles 35:20-26). But Josiah let his pride get in the way, and he died as a result.

The thing is that the author of II Kings (the Deuteronomist) also believed in divine retribution. In Deuteronomy 7, God promises to bless Israel if she obeys him, and to curse her if she disobeys. And the schema of blessings and curses applies to individual Israelites, not just the collective. Deuteronomy 24 says, for example, that God will bless those who return their debtor's cloak and leave sheaves for the poor to gather. Yet, in the case of Josiah, the Deuteronomist presents an incident in which a righteous man suffers an evil, without any attempt to explain how that's fair. Why? Did the Deuteronomist believe that divine retribution was mostly a collective issue?

A similar issue: How do I-II Maccabees handle theodicy? Do they believe that life is fair because God is just, and God consistently rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked?

Yes and no. On the "no" side, righteous people die. The righteous priest, Onias III, is deprived of his priesthood and killed (II Maccabees 4). Judas the Maccabee perishes in the battle of Elasa (I Maccabees 9). Jonathan is kidnapped and murdered by the Seleucid Trypho (I Maccabees 13). And Simon and his sons are slaughtered after being lured to a banquet (I Maccabees 16). A righteous lifestyle doesn't mean invulnerability, as far as the authors of Maccabees are concerned. Moreover, the nation of Israel never gets completely free from oppression, at least in the Book of I Maccabees.

On the "yes" side, many of the wicked characters get their come-uppance. The Hellenizing priest Jason slaughters his own people, and he ends up fleeing from city to city, with nobody to welcome him. He dies in exile, unburied and unmourned (II Maccabees 5:1-10). Andronicus, the murderer of Onias III, is executed by Antiochus Epiphanes, who occasionally did the right thing (II Maccabees 4:30-38). God also motivated Antiochus to put to death Menelaus, a corrupt high priest, by having him thrown down a tower (II Maccabees 13:3-8). And one story relates that Antiochus Epiphanes got a horrible disease, prompting him to acknowledge the God of Israel at the end of his life (II Maccabees 9).

Also on the "yes" side, there's a belief that Antiochus' oppression of Israel was God's punishment of his people for succumbing to Hellenism and neglecting his law (II Maccabees 4:7-17; 5:17; 7:18). Yet, on the "no" side, even after many Israelites fought for God's law, they still had to wrestle with enemies. But, on the "yes" side, a poem in I Maccabees 14:4-15 presents life under Simon Maccabeus as a paradise.

In I Maccabees, the Maccabees win battle after battle, often against overwhelming odds. On one occasion, however, 2,000 righteous Israelites fall in battle. I Maccabees 5:57-62 says that they died for not listening to Judas' instructions in their zeal for glory, and also because they "did not belong to the family of those men through whom deliverance was given to Israel" (v 62, NRSV). In this case, the author tries to explain away why bad things happen. But I-II Maccabees don't really do this for the deaths of Judas, Jonathan, and Simon.

Theodicy is hard because life is not neat. There are many times when the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper. Yet, the wicked coming to a bad end does not exactly surprise me, since wickedness sometimes contains the seeds of its own destruction. Plus, there's always the possibility that even innocent people will suffer when God punishes a nation. And our own pride and foolishness can often lead to our downfall, as it did for Josiah and those 2,000 Israelites. Yet, this doesn't necessarily limit God, for Jacob botched a lot of things up, and his life turned out all right in the end (sort of).

Moreover, God doesn't always intervene on behalf of each and every individual. A puzzling passage is Deuteronomy 20:5-6, where it's acknowledged that Israelites can actually die in battle, even when God is with the Israelite army. But shouldn't each and every Israelite soldier be invincible? It doesn't necessarily work that way. So is it really a surprise that Judas died in battle?

But God still fought on the side of the Maccabees, and Judaism was preserved from forces that tried to destroy it. This fulfilled God's purposes, for God wanted to build on the foundation of the Torah when Jesus Christ came to earth.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Democratic National Convention

The Democratic National Convention starts tonight in Denver. I said in my post, It's My Blog's Birthday!, that the Democratic conventions don't thrill me as much as the Republican ones. I'm sure this puzzles a lot of people, including yours truly (who doesn't understand half of his emotional reactions to things). After all, the Democratic conventions are probably the most noteworthy in American history. You have William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech. There were the riots at the 1968 convention in Chicago, in which Dan Rather got ruffled, and Mayor Daley had a smug look on his face, while his cops beat up on anti-war protesters. Then there was the one in 1996, when we found out that Clinton aide Dick Morris was paying for the services of a prostitute.

But the Republican ones are much more fun! Only they would allow someone as colorful as Pat Buchanan to speak on the stage (even though he was axed after 1992).

The first Democratic convention that I watched was in 1988, when I was starting to become interested in politics. I clenched my fist when Ann Richards proclaimed, "Po' George--he has a silver foot in his mouth!" Well, at least George, Jr. showed her who's boss in 1994!

Then, there was Barbara Jordan, a sweet, grandmotherly, African-American lady who seemed to be the respected matriarch of the event. She reminded me somewhat of my own great-grandma. And I liked it when she addressed the delegates as "Democrats."

There aren't too many defining moments that stand out to me in these conventions, but here are some that come to mind:

1. I was watching the movie George Wallace, in which Gary Sinise played the controversial segregationist governor (or Guvnah) of Alabama. It presented Wallace speaking at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, saying, "Why do we send foreign aid to every country from A to Z, when they oppose us on the Vietnam War." "Good question," I thought. But I was surprised that he was speaking at McGovern's convention--you know, anti-war radicals, pot-smokers, socialists. You get the picture! And, not surprisingly, they were booing him.

2. Al Gore's speech in 1992 comes to mind. It was actually quite good, and I was somber when he talked about his son being hit by a car. Over time, I came to regard such anecdotes with more cynicism, especially when I discovered that Gore received lots of money from tobacco companies, after telling touching stories about his sister dying of lung cancer. Plus, Democrat after Democrat seemed to act as if suffering a personal tragedy made them qualified to lead the free world. Believe me, I feel for them, but aren't they exploiting their tragedies for political purposes? But I guess there are other ways to look at this issue!

3. I remember Bill Clinton's 1996 speech. I could tell he was going to win when he said (my paraphrase): "Bob Dole talked in his speech about a bridge to the past. I want to talk to you about a bridge to the future." Smooth! Also, I liked it when he was talking about charter schools, and the teacher's union people didn't look too happy when they heard about that! The audience in general had puzzled looks on their faces! But Bill Clinton wasn't just speaking to them. He was trying to convince us--the American people--that he wasn't your typical leftist ideologue.

4. I remember the one in 2000 when Al Gore's daughter was speaking. She was talking about how her dad liked Star Trek and welcomed her and a friend to the house for hot cocoa after they returned from a fantasy eskimo expedition (the details are fuzzy to me!). Then, Al Gore came out to hug his daughter, a few days before he was scheduled to speak. The goal of all this was to make Al Gore look a little more human and a little less robotic. And it worked. I actually liked Al Gore at that moment!

5. Overall, the Democratic National Convention is a little scary to me. These are people who don't believe the same way I do, and their goal is to bash my heroes day-in and day-out. I mean, how many "potatoe" jokes did we need to hear in 1992? I don't feel at home when I watch their conventions--that's what I'm trying to say. But that changed a little in 2004. I turned on my radio to listen to Sean Hannity, and he was actually at the Democratic convention! He was grilling Democratic celebrities, and receiving all kinds of abuse from people on the floor. He was even ready to go against Martin Sheen, who played a know-it-all liberal President on the West Wing. Later that evening, Laura Ingraham was at the convention! It was amazing! I was comforted. It's like going into a scary social situation, and seeing you have a friend there.

Enjoy the convention! I'll write some posts if anything interesting comes up, which is always possible, even for this convention.

Maccabees and Suicide

I'm doing my Maccabees quiet time in a rather ad hoc fashion. When I was reading the books from the Jewish-Protestant canon, I'd read a chapter or a section and then pray about it for an hour (or at least that's what I tried to do). But I don't do that for my Maccabees quiet time, since the chapters are too long, plus I want to familiarize myself with the material. And so I read all of I-II Maccabees in a couple of settings, and I'll be spending 31 hours in reading, study, prayer, and meditation on both books, since that's their combined number of chapters. And the reading that I did in those two settings counts towards my hours. Technically, I'm doing I Maccabees right now, but I've already read II Maccabees, so I'll be discussing a part of that in this post.

In II Maccabees 14:37-46, we encounter the story of Razis, a devout Jew who committed suicide. He was so highly regarded that people called him "a father of the Jews." Consequently, the Seleucid general Nicanor decided to teach the Jews a lesson by sending 500 soldiers to arrest him. But vv 41-42 says, "Being surrounded, Razis fell upon his own sword, preferring to die nobly rather than to fall into the hands of sinners and suffer outrages unworthy of his noble birth." Razis jumped out of a building, fell on the crowd, and ripped out his entrails from his bloody body, praying that God would restore it at the resurrection.

That got me thinking about suicide in the Bible. In II Maccabees, it appears to be a heroic thing. And the same is true in Josephus' Wars 7:389-406, where the Jewish rebels at Masada commit suicide (or, more accurately, kill each other) rather than falling into the hands of the Romans. The assumption may be that no man hates his own body (Ephesians 5:29), so a person is being pretty brave when he takes his life.

But the Bible mostly presents suicide as a bad thing. The characters who do it are not good people: Abimelech the tyrant (Judges 9:54), Saul the maniacal king (I Samuel 31:4), Ahithophel the traitor (II Samuel 17:23), and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed the very Son of God (Matthew 27:5). Abimelech and Saul killed themselves to avoid posthumous shame. Ahithophel's feelings were hurt because Absalom didn't follow his advice. And Judas felt guilty for betraying Jesus, even though Peter also denied Jesus, was forgiven, and become a powerful vessel for God.

Probably the only place where suicide is presented favorably is the story of Samson. Samson prayed, "Let me die with the Philistines," and he killed himself and tons of Philistines by destroying the temple of Dagon (Judges 16:30). But that was an act that helped others. As far as Samson was concerned, he'd might as well die doing something good for his people, rather than spending the rest of his life pushing a treadmill for the Philistines.

But the acts of Razis and the Jewish rebels at Masada don't strike me as overly altruistic. They were seeking to preserve their honor. Granted, the people at Masada didn't want their children to endure slavery at the hands of the Romans, and that may be somewhat altruistic. But I think there's a better way to look at the situation.

My mind turns to the apostle Paul, who didn't care what situation he found himself in. As far as he was concerned, God could use him anywhere. Even when he was in prison, he managed to encourage the church and win people to Christ, including some from Caesar's household (Philippians 4:22). Paul wouldn't commit suicide to avoid suffering or preserve his honor. In his mind, earthly honors were refuse compared to knowing Christ, who loved him in spite of his horrible past; and Paul realized that knowledge of Christ came through suffering (Philippians 3). Paul wouldn't kill himself because he was too noble to fall into the hands of sinners, and he wasn't afraid of slavery at the hands of Gentiles. For Paul, such situations would be opportunities for God to use him--to present Christ to people who otherwise did not know him.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Alliances in I Maccabees: Good or Bad?

In I Maccabees 12:8-10, we read the following:

"Onias welcomed the envoy with honor, and received the letter, which contained a clear declaration of alliance and friendship. Therefore, though we have no need of these things, since we have as encouragement the holy books that are in our hands, we have undertaken to send to renew our family ties and friendship with you, so that we may not become estranged from you, for considerable time has passed since you sent your letter to us" (NRSV).

In this passage, the high priest Jonathan wants to form an alliance with Sparta, even though he doesn't feel Israel needs an alliance, since it has the Scriptures.

Throughout I Maccabees, the Maccabean priests try to make deals with nations for Israel's advantage. For instance, Jonathan sent Jewish soldiers to fight for the Seleucid king Demetrius in Antioch, so that Demetrius would withdraw his troops from Jerusalem (I Maccabees 11:41-51). Before that incident, he formed an alliance with Alexander, the rival of Demetrius' father (I Maccabees 10:46). In I Maccabees 8, Israel signs a treaty with the powerful nation of Rome, which intimidates the Seleucids, and Rome promised to assist Israel if other nations attacked her.

In the Hebrew Bible, alliances are often presented as a bad thing. The prophets criticize Judah for seeking military assistance from Egypt, for they see that as a lack of trust in God's protective power (Isaiah 30-31; Jeremiah 2:18; Ezekiel 17:15; et. al.).

That may be why Jonathan stresses that he doesn't really need alliances, since he has the Torah. If Israel obeys God, then God will protect her, his reasoning goes. Still, that doesn't stop him from making alliances.

Interestingly, the deals that Israel makes with other countries don't help her out much. Throughout I Maccabees, Seleucid leaders break their agreements with the Israelites (I Maccabees 6:62; 11:53; 13:19; 15:27). The book even closes with a double-cross, for the Gentile governor Ptolemy lures Simon Maccabee and his sons to a banquet, only to have them killed (I Maccabees 16:11-17). And Israel's alliance with the Romans didn't result in her protection. The Seleucids still bully Israel after I Maccabees 8, the chapter in which Israel makes her treaty with Rome. And the bullying continues even after she renews the Roman alliance (I Maccabees 15:15ff.). Rome's not much help! We observe in I Maccabees that alliances have their limits, since Israel makes them with selfish people. Some nations are hostile and power-hungry. Others are too self-absorbed to lift a finger to help.

What is I Maccabees' view on the alliances? It seems to think that the high priests meant well when they made them. In I Maccabees 15, the book presents a decree that brags about Simon's accomplishments. Vv 38-40 state: "In view of these things King Demetrius confirmed him in the high priesthood, made him one of his Friends, and paid him high honors. For he had heard that the Jews were addressed by the Romans as friends and allies and brothers, and that the Romans had received the envoys of Simon with honor." Simon is a smooth operator! He makes a treaty with Rome, and that gets him influence with the Seleucid king, Demetrius.

According to Daniel Harrington's article on I Maccabees in the HarperCollins Study Bible, I Maccabees was most likely propaganda for the Maccabean priesthood. When it presents the Gentile powers double-crossing the Israelites, maybe it's not saying that the priests were wrong to make alliances. They were trying to help their nation out! Its message may be that the Gentiles were evil.

Two more points:

1. I Maccabees contains a certain perspective about the Maccabean priesthood: that it was concerned for the well-being of Israel, even to the point of self-sacrifice (since many of the Maccabean leaders got killed). But could it be that the villains of the book were also trying to help their country out? The Jews who embraced Hellenism, for example, did so to prevent further evils from befalling their nation (I Maccabees 1:11). In their mind, if you can't beat the Gentiles, join them! Why allow a bunch of archaic rituals to stand in the way? Plus, the Seleucid empire gave benefits to the cities that converted to polises, which Jerusalem became when it built a gymnasium (II Maccabees 4:9). But did the alliances pursued by the Hellenizers and the Maccabees help out their nation? No, for the Seleucids broke them in their pursuit of power.

2. Alliances led to Israel's downfall. In the first century B.C.E., Rome intervened to resolve a dispute within the Hasmonean priesthood, after both brothers invited her into their conflict. The ultimate result was Rome's crushing rule over Judea. The Israelites may have been more faithful to the Torah at that point, as compared to pre-exilic times. But they hadn't conquered the sin of selfishness, and that culminated in disaster. Maybe they should have stuck with the Scriptures instead of seeking foreign assistance!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Law: Battle-Guide for the Maccabees

I started my daily quiet time in I Maccabees today. I began by reading through the entire book. For other books of the Bible, I already have a rough idea of what they say, and I read them to see things that I had not noticed before. But the apocrypha is rather new to me, so I saw a need to familiarize myself with it. Now that I have the overall plot of I Maccabees in my mind, I'll meditate on its specific details throughout the week.

An intriguing verse is I Maccabees 3:48. The Jews are preparing to fight the armies of Antiochus Epiphanes, the tyrant of the Seleucid empire. According to this passage, in the midst of all their prayer and anxiety, "they opened the book of the law to inquire into those matters about which the Gentiles consulted the likenesses of their gods" (NRSV).

This verse baffled me because I never thought that the Torah could offer God's guidance for battle. Sure, it contained God's general will for how Israel should live, but specific battle plans? I didn't think so.

In the Hebrew Bible, people didn't really go to the Bible for God's specific instructions. For example, the Israelites inquire of God which of their tribes should go up first to battle (Judges 1:2; 20:18), and whether or not they should fight the Benjamites (Judges 20). David asked God twice if he should attack the Philistines in Keilah (I Samuel 23:1-4). These applied to very specific situations, which the Bible does not explicitly address. You won't find a Torah passage that says "Attack Benjamin." As Rick Joyner states, the Bible contains God's general will, but he gives people direct guidance in terms of his battle plans.

But the Maccabees are going to the law for specific instructions. And they do learn how to fight a battle God's way, for I Maccabees 3:55-56 states that Judah the Maccabee followed Exodus 18:21, 25; Deuteronomy 1:15; and Deuteronomy 20:5-8: "After this Judas appointed leaders of the people, in charge of thousands and hundreds and fifties and tens. Those who were building houses, or were about to be married, or were planting a vineyard, or were fainthearted, he told to go home again, according to the law." They needed God's help to succeed against overwhelming odds, and one way to gain that was to obey God wherever they could.

But is it possible that they also sought God's will outside of the Pentateuch? There are places in the New Testament that refer to non-Pentateuchal books as "the law" (e.g., John 10:34--Psalm 82:6; John 15:25--Psalm 35:19). Maybe the Maccabees consulted those too when they searched "the book of the law" for guidance. We see that Scripture played a big role in how they viewed and executed their battles. When the Seleucid soldiers vastly outnumbered those of the Israelites, Judah the Maccabee alluded to I Samuel 14, in which Jonathan and his armor-bearer defeat an entire Philistine garrison (I Maccabees 4:30). And we see in I Maccabees 4:20 the same type of battle plan that we find in Joshua 8 and Judges 20: in which the Israelites drew their enemy away from its location with one group of men, then sent another group to set that location on fire.

Perhaps we see a movement in the direction of Pirkei Avot 5:22: "Ben Bag-Bag said: Turn it and turn it again for everything is in it..." (Herbert Danby's translation of the Mishnah). In this view, you can find all sorts of things in the Torah. According to the Greek philosopher Strabo (first century B.C.E.), there were people who consulted the Homeric epics for insight into generalship, agriculture, and rhetoric. Were the Maccabees doing that when they treated Scripture as a sort of oracle?

A possible reason that they leaned so heavily on Scripture was the absence of other forms of divine revelation. I Maccabees 9:27 is clear that "prophets ceased to appear among them." The author is not exactly a cessationist, for he holds that God can send a prophet to Israel anytime in the future (I Maccabees 4:46; 14:41). But he doesn't think God was communicating through prophets that much in the time of the Maccabees.

Also absent were the Urim and the Thummim, which were a source of divine guidance throughout Israel's history. The first-century C.E. historian Josephus says that these oracular stones shone when Israel went to battle, indicating God's presence with his people. But he continues to state that they "left off shining two hundred years before I composed this book, God having been displeased at the transgression of his laws" (Antiquities 3:218; Whiston's translation). And the Bible and the Talmud both indicate that they may have been lost much earlier than that (Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65; Sotah 9:10; Yoma 21b; Tamid 65b in the Jerusalem Talmud).

So the Maccabees were pretty much limited to Scripture when they sought God's will. That must have been hard for them, for I Maccabees 9:27 indicates that the absence of prophecy was a cause of their distress. Maybe they were trying to hold fast to the Torah so God would favor them with direct guidance, as he did in the days of old.

At the same time, even though they tried to please God by observing his laws, they could be flexible when circumstances demanded it. When the Seleucids killed devout Jews who refused to fight on the Sabbath, the priest Mattathias declared, "Let us fight against anyone who comes to attack us on the sabbath day" (I Maccabees 2:32-41). They were willing to follow the law to a T, except in cases where it was foolish to do so.

Still, there were times when God blessed Israel's obedience of an inconvenient law. In I Maccabees 6, the Seleucid king is besieging Jerusalem as well as the Jewish town of Beth-Zur. His sieges are quite effective, since that is the sabbatical year, when the Jews aren't allowed to plant any crops. As v 53 narrates, "But they had no food in storage, because it was the seventh year; those who had found safety in Judea from the Gentiles had consumed the last of the stores." I thought God promised in Leviticus 25:21-22: "I will order my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it will yield a crop for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating from the old crop; until the ninth year, when its produce comes in, you shall eat the old." I guess that's hard when a bunch of people are taking refuge in Jerusalem, eating whatever food is lying around.

But God intervened. When the Seleucid official Lysias learned that a competitor was taking over the government of Seleucia, he left Judea and let the Jews live according to their laws. Also, the famine was hurting his side, too (I Maccabees 6:55-63). So I guess God honors obedience of an inconvenient law in some cases, but not in others.

Friday, August 22, 2008

It's My Blog's Birthday!

One year ago today, I created James' Thoughts and Musings. See Hello! I Can Create a Blog! for my very first post.

So why did I give my first post that title? Because I didn't know creating a blog was that easy! I thought I'd have to pay money I didn't have. But I had a Blogger account, which I used when I commented on Ben Witherington's site. And that account was my gateway into the blogosphere!

A lot of people have switched to Wordpress, which seems to get more hits and responses. But there's a soft spot in my heart for Blogger. For one, I like the way it looks. And, second, it's so user-friendly. I once started a web site for political articles, and things I typed would mysteriously get lost! But Blogger automatically saves what I type, even before I finish a post.

From the beginning, I was blessed. Jim West got the word out about my blog. And I think that several people have learned of my blog through John Hobbins' site, Ancient Hebrew Poetry. After that, others found out about it and added me to their blogrolls. And I met all kinds of people.

My blog is labelled a "biblioblog," and it's partly that. It's not exactly the most scholarly blog in the world, since most of my discussion on the Bible revolves around my daily and weekly quiet times. But I do bring in scholarly insights every now and then, even though my focus is largely devotional. I've written political posts, which have gotten various reactions from all over the political spectrum. And I've talked about my favorite television shows: 7th Heaven, Lost, Smallville, etc., etc. So it's partly a biblioblog, I guess. Let's call it "biblio-plus"!

Have things occurred according to my expectations? Yes and no. Like most bloggers, I hope to get more readers this coming year, but you know the old cliche: "Be careful what you wish for." I may not have time in the future to read tons of comments! I'm not sure if I expected to write about my Asperger's when I first started my blog, but that's exactly what happened. Some may not like me whining about my life, while others may actually appreciate those posts. In any case, I write every now and then about my struggles, even though I don't make every post a whine-fest. I also didn't expect to talk about Alcoholics Anonymous, since quitting drinking was not even on my radar at the time. But AA has given me a lot of spiritual food, and it's allowed me to meet interesting people.

A big reason I started my blog was to give myself a voice. It always seems as if everyone else has opinions, while I have difficulty getting mine out (due to timidity or poor social skills). Now, my beliefs are out there, for everyone to see.

I also like the way that my blog has led to dialogue within my family. Now, my family gets to know what I'm thinking. And they also talk more with each other about issues.

What should you expect to read this following year? Well, the conventions are coming up, and I'll be writing a "Top-10 Best Moments" for the Republican National Convention. I may do a "Top-5" for the Democrats, but I can't think of anything from their conventions that actually thrilled me.

I may get more into academics this coming year. I'll be reading for my comps, and I'm looking for a way to absorb what I'm reading. To be honest with you, I hate academic books! Leave it to an academic to make a compelling subject like religion into the sort of stuff you'd find in a technical manual. But I need to find a way to read actively rather than passively, and I may do so by commenting on what I read.

For my daily quiet times, I'm moving into the apocrypha. I'm hesitant to move outside of my Jewish-Protestant canon, but I think that knowing the apocrypha can help me as a scholar. The last time I tried to read the apocrypha in my daily quiet time, I gave up somewhere in Maccabees. I simply didn't know what to say about it! And I usually did those quiet times at night, when I struggled to stay awake. Now, however, I'll be starting with Maccabees to get it over with. And I may read it with more alertness, since I don't drink alcohol anymore.

I'll most likely get a job this coming year, and when you add to that my schoolwork, the result will be shorter posts. But I may save my long, elaborate posts for Saturdays.

And I'll continue to write about my life. You know, being shy and introverted, I'm surprised I have as many stories as I do. I often feel as if I'm all alone--as if I don't know anybody, and nobody knows me. But I've learned through the course of this blog that I have all sorts of anecdotes. And I'm gaining more of them as time goes on.

It's been a good year, and I'm thankful for all the friends I've met here. I'm looking forward to another year of James' Thoughts and Musings!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

My True Self, Universalism

In George MacDonald's The Baron's Apprenticeship, a bookbinder named Richard discovers he's the son of a baron. The baron is a sordid fellow, who embraces Richard just to make his second wife mad by disowning her children as potential heirs.

Near the end of the book, the baron dies, and we get some insight into George MacDonald's view on life after death. It's expressed through Thomas Wingfold, the local minister.

Richard exclaims, "[O]h, how I wish I would have loved him if he would have let me!"

Wingfold responds: "And how you will love him!...[A]nd he will love you. They are getting him ready now. He had begun to love you before he went. But he was the slave of the nature he had enfeebled and corrupted. I hope for him--though God only knows how long it may take, even after the change is begun, to bring men like him back to their true selves" (209).

This is an example of MacDonald's universalism, which affirms that God will purify people in the afterlife.

The part about the true self reminds me of C.S. Lewis. According to Lewis, Christianity is not about making us something we're not, or forcing us to become Christian clones. Rather, it alone enables us to be our authentic selves.

Do I buy this? Does Christianity exemplify the real me? On some level, yes, for underneath this lustful, bitter, shy, introverted bunch of nerves is someone who wants to love and help others, but does not know how. I can tell you one thing: I'm actually quite extroverted in my dreams!

I'm not sure if that idea squares with the Bible, though. According to Romans 8, "[T]he carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be" (KJV). And Colossians 3 talks about Christians putting off the old self of sin as they clothe themselves with a new self of righteousness. Those passages seem to indicate that our true selves are hostile to good. And I can't entirely deny that, for much of what Colossians 3 attributes to the "old self" (e.g., malice, lust, etc.) is present in me.

At the same time, isn't there something abnormal about evil--in the sense that it's outside of the mainstream? There are a lot of people who love their wives, their kids, and their fellow man, albeit not perfectly. But in the case of the baron, how can someone become so jaded and cynical, that he embraces his long lost son specifically to hurt his wife? Was he born that way? Did he become that way through bad experiences?

I'm reminded of an article I read on N.T. Wright and hell. N.T. Wright defended the existence of hell by appealing to humanity's worst specimens: sex traffickers, child rapists, mass murderers, etc. The article responds:

"Wright, I think, is too quick to demonise the humanity of the Other in these examples. I don't know if he has spent much time with such people, but I wonder how that might change his views. You see, because I have had the opportunity to personally journey alongside of many of these people, I have had a chance to see that most of them had little or no chance to be something other than what they are. Some were born broken, others were so broken when they were young that they never had a chance to develop into anything else (remember most of those who sexually abuse kids, were sexually abused as children -- this is not to suggest that all those who are sexually abused as kids go on to abuse others, but it is a large factor, and I think other circumstances in one's life go a long way to determining whether or not one goes on to abuse others or not). Ultimately, contra Wright, I don't think that it is the human Other that becomes ex-human and is damned. Rather, I think it is the forces that dehumanise the Other -- forces of sickness, of structural evil, and so on -- that are damned, while the person is restored to their fully human status in Christ" (see here).

My problem with this article is that it seems to absolve evildoers of moral responsibility, but it still raises a valuable point: are people who do wrong truly evil? Many of them are people, like you and me. And some of them have had hard lives.

I'm reminded of a character from Lost: Mr. Eko. Eko's life of crime began in his childhood, when he stole bread to feed himself and his brother, and when he killed someone so his brother wouldn't have to (a bunch of thugs were telling him to do so). He became involved in the drug trade so that the drugs wouldn't be in his own country, Nigeria. On the island, he's asked if he is sorry for his sins, and he replies that he did what he could to survive, according to the options that were available to him.

What am I saying here? I don't know. Maybe this blog should be called James' Thoughts and Ramblings! I acknowledge that all humans have selfishness and sin, yet I also see some goodness within them. As one lady from AA told me, "There's bad in the best of us, and good in the worst of us." Yet, we can't excuse wrongdoing, since evil must be punished. Otherwise, we'd have chaos.

I also wonder this about MacDonald's universalism: how will God disciplining a person in the afterlife restore him to his true self? How does getting a long spanking make someone a better person?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Why I Dislike I John So Far

For my daily quiet time, I'm in John's first epistle to...Christians, I guess. The book doesn't specify the exact location of its audience.

I still have other write-ups to do for my daily quiet times. There are Luke topics that I want to write about, but I haven't gotten to them yet.

Yesterday, I read I John 1. Today, I read I John 2-3. I'm somewhat of a Paul-man myself, or a "Paul as Martin Luther interprets him" man. I need to believe in God's free grace and unconditional love, since I have a lot of sins, plus my deeds are not good enough to please God.

But the Epistle of James looks good next to I John! And, to be honest, I actually like the Epistle of James (Martin Luther's opinion notwithstanding), and it's not only because its author shares my name. I like it because James seems to meet people where they are. Consider the following verses:

James 1:5: "If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you" (NRSV).

James 3:3, 8: "For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle...but no one can tame the tongue-- a restless evil, full of deadly poison."

James 3:14: "But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth."

James 4:7-10: "Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you."

James 5:13: "Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise."

What's the common theme in these verses? To me, it's that we shouldn't lose hope if we find spiritual flaws within us. If we lack wisdom, we should ask God for it, and he's eager to help us! We should come clean if we have bitter envy and selfish ambition, rather than patting ourselves on the back. We all make mistakes with our tongues, and only God can tame them. We should draw near to God if we find ourselves in a spiritual ditch. And we should pray when we are suffering. James meets people where they are.

Granted, James still has his perfectionist tendencies. In James 1:6-7, he states: "But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord." My problem with this passage is that I will always have some doubt when I pray to God. I'm not perfect! James would encourage me a lot more if he said that God is faithful in spite of my doubts.

James also affirms that faith without works cannot save a person (John 2:14). My question here is, "How many good works must I do before I can finally be assured of salvation?" It's not that I fail to see James' overall point. James says, for example, that belief in one God is not sufficient to save (James 2:19), and that makes sense. If I believe in one God, yet I don't have any desire to live a holy life, then what's so meritorious about my faith?

But, overall, James presents the reader with a place to go, or more accurately, someone to go to. He offers hope, even though he includes works in the salvation process.

I John, however, is more like: "Look, these are the characteristics of a true Christian, and, if you don't have them, then you're not really saved."

There are a variety of texts that indicate this (I John 2:3-4; 3:14, et. al.). But what really disturbed me was I John 1. In vv 6-10, we read the following:

"If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us."

My problem is this: in order to be assured that I am saved, I need to be walking in the light. But if I say that I have no sin, then I'm a liar. So I just can't win! I must convince myself that I'm a righteous person in order to have any assurance of salvation, but I also have to see myself as a sinner.

Also, I John presents things as so automatic. If we have a relationship with God, then we're walking in the light. If we're walking in the light, then we have fellowship with other believers. But are things that automatic? Does having a relationship with God necessarily mean that I will click with other believers, or fit into their nice little Christian cliques? For me, "fellowship" means Christians socializing. But if one struggles with social skills, then that shuts him out of fellowship!

But maybe I John offers some hope. He calls his readers "forgiven" (I John 2:11-14), so he seems to assume that they're saved. But not all of them are carrying out the implications of their salvation. On the other hand, he appears to manifest a Calvinist sort of approach, the "there are true believers and false professors" school of thought. He says in I John 2:19: "They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us."

Another possible verse of hope is I John 2:8: "Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining." Is this saying that the people in John's audience are on the path to holiness, as God sweeps away the darkness within them that there might be light?

Overall, however, I John's message seems to be that we need to be righteous before we can have assurance of salvation. But how righteous do I have to be?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Rituals: Something to Hold On To

I've been blogging over the last week about Christians and the Mosaic law. In my post, Why the Sabbath Blogs?, I said I like the Sabbath and the holy days because they are concrete things that I can do at predictable times. I have problems, however, with abstract concepts, such as finding rest in Christ.

I'm not the only one who feels this way. Years ago, I attended a small Armstrongite church on the first Day of Unleavened Bread, and the speaker said God gave us the holy days because "they're something to hold on to."

And this sort of view exists outside of the Sabbatarian tradition. On my Christian dating site, a Protestant was bashing Roman Catholicism for its ritualism and traditions. Someone then responded:

"It is part of being human to give value to semiotics. Some persons find it sufficient to entertain the Lord mentally and live beautiful pious lives. Others need that outward reaffirmation to achieve the same. That said, assuage that hurt you foster and count how marvelous you are in the Lord's eyes that you do not need ritual or tradition. But reach angelic heights by allowing the lesser of your brethre[n] those rituals and traditions that have an abundance and richness of meaning in their spirituality and covenant with the Almighty. I say this most respectfully."

I still chuckle at how the anti-Catholic guy reacted:

"You speak very intel[l]ectually, and yet you seem to understand so little of Christ's [f]reedom especially taught to us by Paul in Galati[a]ns. Paul spent his whole life trying to free Jewish Christians from Jewish [t]radition which also were shadows and types of Christ in order that they might know the [f]reedom that comes from [k]nowing Christ [i]ntimately. No longer do we need shadows and types to understand God for God has given us 'The Real Thing[,]' His [o]nly Son Jesus[.] I can speak with authority when I say that the [t]raditions of men do not bring men closer to God, but keep them at a distance. You may feel that these traditions have enhanced your Faith, but I would liken it to a boxer fighting with one hand tied behind his back...If we want [t]rue [t]radition then let's all go back to Judaism and [b]uild another Temple to [w]orship God, and [s]acrifice [b]ulls and [g]oats again!"

I thought about this interaction after I attended my Latin mass a few weeks ago. The priest was talking about how Christians are not under the Mosaic law, since it was a disciplinarian that foreshadowed Christ. Now that we have the real thing, he argued, we no longer need the rituals that pointed to him. Yet, the priest was trying to explain why the rituals of the Catholic church are still important. Why did God replace one set of rituals with another?

Eventually, the priest resorted to the "Because Christ gave Peter the power to bind and loose, so we obey the pope's decisions" answer. But, before that, he said that the law's rituals helped the Israelites get to heaven, as it kept them from sin through its civil, ceremonial, and moral structures. In essence, it gave them continual reminders of God and sensitized them to right and wrong. Justin Martyr made a similar argument in his Dialogue with Trypho, for he said that the Israelites were so prone to idolatry and sin that God needed to provide them with rituals that elevated their thoughts to God in their day-to-day lives (chapters 19-22). The priest did not mention Justin Martyr, but he contended that the Catholic rituals served a similar purpose to that of the Mosaic law: to give believers physical reminders that can help them focus on God.

As the debate on my Christian dating site made clear, Christians disagree about the value of rituals. Some believe that they are absolutely necessary to remind us of God. Others maintain that ceremonialism indicates spiritual immaturity and a weakness of faith. They don't like ceremonies because they seem to form a buffer between the believer and Christ.

In the debate over the Sabbath and the holy days, both the anti-law and the pro-law sides get on my nerves. The anti-law side often says: "Paul in Romans 14 treats the celebration of days as a weakness of faith. He tells the stronger Christians to tolerate the weaker ones, yet he hopes that the weak Christians will eventually grow up and stop keeping the Sabbath."

I have a few problems with this approach! For one, as I indicated in my post, Why the Sabbath Blogs?, it's not easy for everyone to rely on abstract concepts each and every day. Sometimes I feel that God loves me, and sometimes I do not, but when the Sabbath rolls around, that's my time with God. My faith is not always solid, but the ritual is. I have a hard time limiting my religion to the mental, since my mentality can swing in all sorts of directions!

Also, some people need rituals as reminders. Not everyone is able to think about spiritual things on a 24-7 basis. There are many people who work a lot, or they're entangled in the hustle-and-bustle of everyday life. It's good for them to have time to stop, relax, and contemplate spiritual things. And the holy days are good because each one lets us look at a specific aspect of God's plan.

But the pro-Sabbatarians also annoy me. I've heard them say, "Well, if that guy doesn't need the Sabbath or the holy days, that's his business. Personally, I need all the help I can get to live a Christian life!" One Sabbatarian who keeps the holy days was telling me about a Sabbatarian lady who did not. The lady said to him, "I don't need the Day of Atonement--Christ is my atonement." He thought to himself, "Yeah, but how often do you think about the atonement? Rarely? That's why you need the day."

And then there was an Armstongite who boldly asked, "How can you enter the Kingdom of God if you don't keep the holy days?" He then elaborated, "If you're not keeping the Days of Unleavened Bread, then you don't understand putting sin out of your life and taking Christ in. Without the Feast of Trumpets, you lack the idea of Christ's return."

I have problems with this approach as well! For one, it's a religion of one-upsmanship. Many anti-Sabbatarians convey a message of "I'm so much better than you because I don't need rituals." And the pro-Sabbatarian responds, "And I'm so much better than you because I'm humble enough to see that I do need rituals." There's not much humility in either approach, since it reeks of "Thank God I'm not like other men" (Luke 18:11).

Second, not everyone needs the Day of Atonement to think about the atonement. While I find that concrete rituals are useful for me, I actually think about Christ each and every day. Christianity has some pretty basic concepts: Christ's death and resurrection, morality, the second coming of Christ, etc., etc. Not everyone has to celebrate a day to keep those things in mind! They can hold onto them on a continual basis.

And, third, just because one does not keep a day that highlights a particular theme, that doesn't mean he lacks understanding of that theme. Why should it mean that?

Some people like rituals. Some people do not. People should let others do as they wish without thinking everyone has to do things their way.

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