Saturday, October 31, 2009

I Kings 1: Abiathar's Raw Deal? Solomon the Female?

I read I Kings 1 for my weekly quiet time this week. There were two items of interest to me:

1. Joab and Abiathar the priest join Adonijah's plot to become king. David had vowed to anoint his son Solomon to the position, and his other son, Adonijah, tries to usurp it for himself. And so Adonijah curries favor with influential figures, like Joab and Abiathar, and his charisma and good looks get him a following.

Virtually every commentary that I read today---Christian, Jewish, and scholarly---asserted that Joab and Abiathar joined Adonijah because they felt that they wouldn't have a place under Solomon's reign. So why shouldn't they make another candidate for the monarchy beholden to them?

Joab realized that David didn't care for him that much because he had brought David a bad reputation through his (Joab's) bloodthirstiness. David cursed Joab (II Samuel 3:29) and eventually replaced him with Amasa for the position of captain of the guard, which Amasa held until, well, Joab killed him (II Samuel 20). And Abiathar knew that his priesthood would come to an end at some point, for God predicted decades earlier the fall of Eli's priestly dynasty, of which Abiathar was a part (I Samuel 2:35; I Kings 2:26-27). David may have been gently moving events in that direction, for he had two priests: Abiathar and Zadok (II Samuel 8:17). Was David preparing and expecting Zadok to replace Abiathar, at some point in time?

I somewhat sympathize with Joab and Abiathar, for they were people who thought there'd be nothing for them under Solomon, so they tried to hold on to what they had. Unfortunately, they were opposing God in the process, and that only made matters worse. Once Solomon came to the throne, they were officially traitors (I Kings 2). Suppose they had yielded themselves to God's will by supporting Solomon. Would they have received a lighter "sentence," if you will? Solomon didn't kill Shimei, even though David had told him to do so, but instead he put him on house-arrest. And even Abiathar wasn't put to death, for Solomon acknowledged that he deserved respect because he carried the ark during David's reign and stuck with David through thick and thin. Rather, Solomon removed Abiathar from the priesthood and sent him to his hometown of Anathoth.

I wish that Joab had received some mercy, for, even though he had clear character flaws, he stuck with David through thick and thin. But David and God felt Joab needed to be punished for killing people in cold blood. And, although Abiathar was a fairly decent fellow, that didn't revoke God's decree against his priesthood.

Or was Abiathar a decent fellow? Zadok was sticking with David's chosen successor, Solomon, while Abiathar went with Adonijah. If Adonijah were to win, he'd probably execute Solomon and his supporters (I Kings 1:21), including Zadok. Was Abiathar joining with Adonijah because he wanted Zadok to be put out of the way, leaving the priesthood to him? At least Solomon showed some mercy to his political opponents after he triumphed: Joab got executed without delay, but others (including Adonijah) were spared, as long as they kept the terms of their probation, or didn't attempt to take over the throne. Was Abiathar choosing a merciless, Satanic sort of rebel rather than God's choice, who was more merciful, all in an attempt to hold on to his position?

2. Solomon was to ride on the mule of David to demonstrate against detractors his legitimacy as David's successor (I Kings 1:33, 38, 44). The mule here is female. Absalom rode on a mule, but that was male (II Samuel 13:29). Zechariah 9:9 says that the king of Israel (whom Christians see as Jesus) will ride on a donkey, and that's male.

I wonder if there's any significance in Solomon riding on a female mule. One thought that came to my mind (which may strike people as stereotypical or allegorical) is that Adonijah was trying to take the throne in an Alpha-male fashion: woo people with his good looks, make the right connections, and take over! Solomon, however, was much more passive (female) in his approach. At the same time, to be fair, I guess Solomon already had good connections, since his father gave them to him. Plus, Solomon was a favorite of the prophet Nathan from the time of his birth (II Samuel 12:25).

People had to act to make Solomon king, especially when Adonijah was in the act of taking over the throne. That's why Nathan and Bathsheba got David to anoint Solomon and organized their own ordination ceremony. But Solomon passively let things happen for his own good: it was God's will, and God brought it to pass. He didn't have to strive to make things happen.

I'm sure there's a lesson here somewhere, about not striving, and yet still acting.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Tov on the Aramaic/Assyrian Script

Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001) 218-219.

When you open an Old Testament/Hebrew Bible in Hebrew (say, a BHS), the letters' script that you see is known in rabbinic sources as the Assyrian "square" script, and among many scholars as the Aramaic script. That's also the script that you'll see in synagogues. But the Hebrew Bible wasn't always written in that. As Tov states, "Originally, the biblical books were written in the 'early' Hebrew script which developed from the proto-Canaanite script in the tenth or ninth centuries B.C.E." You can see this paleo-Hebrew script when you watch the Ten Commandments, for the commandments on the two tablets are in paleo-Hebrew. Also, Samaritan Pentateuchs that people get in Israel are in the paleo-Hebrew script. To see what the alphabet looks like in paleo-Hebrew, see Paleo-Hebrew alphabet - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

According to Tov, the transition from the Hebrew to the Aramaic script occurred gradually during the Second Temple Period, which encompasses the time from Ezra (fifth century B.C.E.) to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E. My guess is that the Jews adopted the Aramaic script because Aramaic was the lingua franca of their day. Why did the rabbis call it the Assyrian script, rather than the Aramaic script, or (since the rabbinic B.T. Sanhedrin 21b says Ezra brought it from the Babylon captivity) the Babylonian script? Here's the answer that Tov gives, though I can't say I understand it: "...it is called the 'Assyrian script' due to the fact that its ancestor, the Aramaic script, was in use in the Assyrian empire." In the biblical story about Hezekiah and the Assyrian King Sennacherib's attempted conquest of Jerusalem, Hezekiah's officials know that the Assyrians can speak Aramaic (II Kings 18:26; Isaiah 36:11). Maybe rabbinic Judaism associated Aramaic with Assyria because Assyria was the first big-time conqueror of Israel, so it loomed large in Jewish memory.

There are rabbinic references that say God originally gave the Torah in paleo-Hebrew, but Ezra introduced the idea of conveying it in the Aramaic script. Israel then "selected the Assyrian script and the Hebrew language, leaving the Hebrew characters and Aramaic language for the [ordinary people]" (B.T. Sanhedrin 21b). Tov also refers the reader to Origen, Epiphanius, and Jerome for this point.

But B.T. Sanhedrin 22a presents another point of view: God originally gave the Torah in the Aramaic script, but Israel sinned, so the beautiful Aramaic script became the broken paleo-Hebrew script. The idea that the Aramaic script was God's chosen script for the Torah may explain why there are elements of Judaism that seek deep significance in the shapes of the Aramaic letters. See Yosef's comment under my post, Category or Spiritual Path?.

Theological Correction

Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001) 176, 191.

Tov says that there are a variety of texts for the Hebrew Bible that were found at Qumran. There are proto-Masoretic texts, pre-Samaritan texts, Hebrew texts with content similar to what the Septuagint has, and "non-aligned texts which are not exclusively close to any of these groups" (191). Tov states, "Because of the existence of this latter group of texts, it would appear that for every biblical book one could find an almost unlimited number of texts, differing from each other, sometimes in major details."

The "sometimes in major details" part stood out to me. Somewhere in my Tov reading for today (in a passage I can't find right now), Tov says that the differences among the text are usually not that significant. They may involve spelling, or use of a different word that doesn't fundamentally alter the text's meaning. But there are times when the texts differ from each other in "major details." I'm not sure what "major details" Tov has in mind, but perhaps that will become evident as I continue reading.

Bart Ehrman focuses more on the New Testament, and he argues that the different versions and manuscripts sometimes differ in crucial respects. Some texts try to censor out any trace of adoptionism, the idea that Jesus became divine rather than being an eternal member of the Godhead, even before his incarnation. Some present Jesus in Mark 1:41 as angry when a leper approached him, implying (for Ehrman) that he was mean and impatient, the type who didn't want to be bothered (though, in my humble opinion, maybe Jesus was angry at the existence of disease). Other texts for Mark 1:41 portray a more compassionate Jesus. If my memory serves me correctly, Ehrman thinks that the latter was a correction of the former. But, take heart! Ehrman doesn't always argue that nice Jesus was a scribal correction of mean Jesus, for he thinks that the reverse can occur as well. For example, he contends that many manuscripts leave out Luke 23:34 ("Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do") out of a dislike for Jews, implying that Luke 23:34 (forgiving Jesus) was the earlier reading.

As I shared in my posts, Updating and Text Criticism in Antiquity and A Humble God Who Stands, Our Stance Towards the World, there were rabbis who asserted (either correctly or incorrectly) that certain people revised the Torah. One rabbinic text narrates that the translators who produced the Septuagint tried under divine inspiration to eliminate apparent errors or rewrite passages that could be construed to support heresy (e.g., the notion that there are two powers in heaven, which, for many rabbis, contradicted Jewish monotheism). Another states that scribes changed a passage in Genesis 18 out of respect for God, but the author of that particular rabbinic statement prefers the earlier version because it makes God look humble. According to certain rabbis, changes have been made to the biblical text out of a concern for crucial issues, such as orthodoxy and the honor of God. Some rabbis support the changes, even going so far as to assert that they occur under divine inspiration; others prefer the earlier text.

Tov discusses a possible alteration of the text over a theological issue, but he isn't particularly dogmatic about this. There are two versions of I Samuel 1:23. The context of the passage is that Hannah has just given birth to Samuel, whom she promised to give to God in her prayer for a son. Hannah does not want to take baby Samuel to the sanctuary in his first year, for he's not been weaned yet. Her husband Elkanah then tells her to do what she deems to be good, and to go ahead and wait for the child to be weaned. According to the Masoretic Text, Elkanah then says, "May the LORD fulfill His word." In Qumran text 4QSamA, he says, "[May the LO]RD [fulfill] that which comes out of your mouth."

What's going on here? Why do these two different versions exist? Are both of the texts "original texts," with neither being derived from the other? Or do two texts exist because one of them was a new version that sought to "correct" the other? Did the Qumran text aim to correct the MT's "His word" to "that which comes out of your mouth" because the story of Hannah never mentions the word of the LORD, but only Hannah's vow? Plus, the topic of vv 22-23 was Hannah's vow to take her child to the sanctuary. Or was the MT's "His word" a pious attempt to correct the Qumran text, since "the mentioning of the 'word' of God reflects more reverence towards God than the vow of a mere mortal, Hannah" (176). Although Tov is agnostic about which possibility is correct, he acknowledges that some variations in texts can have a theological underpinning, even though the issue here isn't as crucial as whether or not there are two powers in heaven!

Then, historical-critics would argue that the Bible is full of new ideas rejecting or modifying older concepts, and yet both are in the Bible. But that's a big issue by itself!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tov the Destabilizer

Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001).

I didn't put a page number beside the bibliographic reference because I don't have one specific quote on which to comment. There are so many!

The topic that came up in my reading today was the Urtext, the original text of the Bible. Some believe that there was an original text, and all the different versions are corruptions descending from it. Others don't believe that, however. They think there are a variety of legitimate readings. Tov refers to Greenberg, who compared the MT and the LXX of Ezekiel and demonstrated that "various details in both texts are equally valid at the exegetical level and that each of them has an internal logic, so that in his mind they are original to the same extent" (173-174). One criterion that a reading is valid is that it makes some sense: the passage has an internal logic and makes sense within its context. But what happens when two different versions fit this criterion? For Greenberg, both were "original texts," if you will, notwithstanding their differences.

I'm somewhat of a linear thinker, perhaps because that's easiest for me. So it makes some sense to me that there was one original text. I mean, there had to be, right? When Jeremiah wrote his prophecy, for example, that was the original text! Soon afterwards, the text may have gotten miscopied, and things may have gotten lost or added in transmission. But there was still an original text, right?

But then, Tov brings up that "Most of the biblical books were not written by one person nor at one particular time, but rather contain compositional layers written during many generations" (169). He sites the example of the Deuteronomist, who made additions and revisions to Joshua-Kings and Jeremiah. That's what the paper I'm about to finish is about, only it focuses on II Samuel 7 and I Kings 8:1-30 (as my most devoted readers realize!). So, in the eyes of many critical scholars, it's not so much the case that one prophet named Jeremiah wrote all of the book that bore his name. People added to it and interpreted it, and their interpretations and additions became part of the book itself. What if different communities were doing this? Then you end up with different versions. So, with this being the case, I can see how the text was fluid. But didn't there have to be one original text, what Jeremiah wrote? I can't get away from that linear thinking!

Then there's the question of how to define "original text." According to Tov, many scholars don't conceive of the original text as, say, what Jeremiah put to the scroll. Rather, they define it as the text or edition that "contained the finished literary product and which stood at the beginning of the process of textual transmission" (171). But who says that the process of textual transmission couldn't have begun before the book was even finished? Tov states that "sections of the earlier formulations of the biblical books which were circulated at the time have coincidentally been preserved in textual witnesses" (169).

And, despite the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date to the second century B.C.E., the early biblical manuscripts among these scrolls are not always early enough. Tov says that, in general, "we still have no knowledge of copies of biblical books that were written in the first stage of their textual transmission, nor even of texts which were close to that time..." Yet, Tov lists exceptions. The Book of Daniel at Qumran dates close to when the book was initially written, assuming its date was the time of the Maccabees (second century B.C.E.). And the copies of the Septuagint for the late biblical books are close in time to the earliest LXX translations for those books (second century B.C.E.). But the Qumran texts differ from the Septuagint texts, and the biblical texts may have been more fluid before the third century B.C.E. So, for Tov, we really can't say that the biblical texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls contain the exact same stuff as the original texts.

Yet, Tov says elsewhere that the use of the proto-Masoretic texts was widespread in Second Temple and later Judaism (28): Since M contains a carefully transmitted text, which is well-documented in a large number of copies, and since it is reflected in the rabbinic literature as well as in the Targumim and many of the Jewish-Greek revisions of G, it may be surmised that it originated in the spiritual and authoritative center of Judaism (later to be known as that of the Pharisees), possibly in the temple circles. I remember reading in the newspaper a long time ago that the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic Text are overwhelmingly similar, demonstrating the consistency of the biblical text in its transmission.

But could the biblical texts have been messy and diverse and later become standardized and more consistent? That may be the crux of a scholarly debate: did the biblical texts become messier with time, or more consistent?

I guess this post reflects more of the destablizing elements of Tov. But he does try to present conservative and liberal arguments. In light of all this, I try to trust the living God to guide me, whether the Bible in front of me is like the original text or not, if there even was an original text!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Moses' Uncircumcised Lips, Emotional Yet Recited Prayer

1. Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001) 126.

In Exodus 6:12 (NRSV), Moses says to God, who wants him to speak to Pharaoh: "The Israelites have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh listen to me, poor speaker that I am?" I learned from Tov that the phrase translated as "poor speaker" is "foreskin of lips" in the Hebrew. Moses was saying that he was of uncircumcised lips.

I wondered if Moses was saying Pharaoh wouldn't take him seriously, since Moses was flawed. "Uncircumcised heart" often means a heart that is unreceptive to God or sinful(Jeremiah 9:26; Ezekiel 44:7, 9; Acts 7:51). Could "uncircumcised lips" imply something similar?

I couldn't find rabbinic wrestlings with this issue, but here's what Rashi says about the phrase:

closed lips: Heb. עִרַל שְׂפָתָיִם, Literally, of “closed” lips. Similarly, every expression of (עָרְלָה) I say, denotes a closure: e.g., “their ear is clogged (עִרֵלָה) ” (Jer. 6:10), [meaning] clogged to prevent hearing; “of uncircumcised (עַרְלֵי) hearts” (Jer. 9:25), [meaning] clogged to prevent understanding; “You too drink and become clogged up (וְהֵעָרֵל) ” (Hab. 2:16), [which means] and become clogged up from the intoxication of the cup of the curse; עָרְלַתבָּשָָׂר, the foreskin of the flesh, by which the male membrum is closed up and covered; “and you shall treat its fruit as forbidden (וְעִרַלְךְתֶּם עָרְלָתוֹ) ” (Lev. 19:23), [i. e.,] make for it a closure and a covering of prohibition, which will create a barrier that will prevent you from eating it. “For three years, it shall be closed up [forbidden] (עִרֵלִים) for you” (Lev. 19:23), [i.e.,] closed up, covered, and separated from eating it.

For Rashi, uncircumcised lips means lips that are clogged, indicating that Moses was slow of speech. Similarly, an uncircumcised heart is one that is clogged and thus dense to the voice of God. And the literal foreskin closes over the you-know-what.

2. Gerson Cohen, “The Talmudic Age,” Great Ideas and Ages of the Jewish People, ed. Leo Schwarz (New York: Random House, 1956) 194.

Cohen calls the Jewish prayers of the rabbinic period "supplicatory and emotional," like Hosea rather than Leviticus. I'd characterize evangelical prayers that way---you know, the type you say in a prayer circle, where you squeeze the hand of the person next to you to let him know it's his turn to pray. But I have a hard time characterizing Jewish prayers that way. That seems to be gathering and saying rote prayers in another language. But who knows? Maybe many Jews say those prayers in an emotional way. Even if the prayers are not words coming directly from their hearts, they sincerely mean every single word that they are reciting. In addition, a classmate of mine, a rabbi, wrote about a healing service that her temple had---which included prayers for physical and spiritual healing. That sounds rather charismatic, but it's occurring in a Jewish house of worship!

Judging: Three Thoughts

Over the past few weeks, three things have brought to my mind the issue of judging.

1. First, there was my daily Ellen White reading. (My Adventist friends would probably be shocked to read much of what I have to say on this blog, but they'd be happy that I still read Ellen White!) In Matthew 7:3-5, Jesus says (NRSV): Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye.

This verse has often puzzled me. Is it saying we have to be morally perfect before we can notice people's flaws or help them deal with them? Some argue that, if we overcome a particular sin ourselves, then that will qualify us to help others overcome it. In many cases, that can work, but it doesn't always, because people's situations and personalities are different. There aren't too many "one size fits all" approaches that work for everybody, so, while I try to be open to advice, I'm a little wary of those who act like they're experts on my problems just because they've conquered something similar in their own lives. Sometimes, I'm not looking for "experts" eager to blow off my problems with their advice; I'm looking for someone to listen.

That said, Ellen White offers a different interpretation of Matthew 7:3-5 in her book, Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing (see here, pp. 125-126):

His words describe one who is swift to discern a defect in others. When he thinks he has detected a flaw in the character or the life he is exceedingly zealous in trying to point it out; but Jesus declares that the very trait of character developed in doing this un-Christlike work, is, in comparison with the fault criticized, as a beam in proportion to a mote. It is one's own lack of the spirit of forbearance and love that leads him to make a world of an atom. Those who have never experienced the contrition of an entire surrender to Christ do not in their life make manifest the softening influence of the Saviour's love. They misrepresent the gentle, courteous spirit of the gospel and wound precious souls, for whom Christ died. According to the figure that our Saviour uses, he who indulges a censorious spirit is guilty of greater sin than is the one he accuses, for he not only commits the same sin, but adds to it conceit and censoriousness.

Christ is the only true standard of character, and he who sets himself up as a standard for others is putting himself in the place of Christ. And since the Father "hath committed all judgment unto the Son" (John 5:22), whoever presumes to judge the motives of others is again usurping the prerogative of the Son of God. These would-be judges and critics are placing themselves on the side of antichrist, "who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshiped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God." 2 Thessalonians 2:4.

For Ellen White, the "beam in our eye" is not so much us having the same defect as the person we're criticizing, or us being sinners, since we're all that; rather, it's the judgmental, critical attitude that accompanies our tendency to continually note "specks" in other people's eyes. While Ellen White may be going too far when she likens such an attitude to that of the Antichrist, it's not a good attitude to have, for it's a far cry from the love and compassion that Jesus Christ desires for us.

I can easily point out people whom I think deserve this message! Some Christians try hard to be righteous, and the result is often that they look down on those not as successful in their Christian walks, or their lifestyles period. "Oh, he appeared rather introverted. He didn't make a good impression on me! He's obviously not an others-oriented person!" "He's not a mature Christian, like I am." "Something's wrong! There are things that I don't think are true in your life." I don't detect much compassion in those sorts of statements, which I've actually heard from the mouths of evangelicals.

But, then, am I allowed to criticize them for that? When do I cease to offer constructive criticism, and instead become the censorious, judgmental, carping, hateful person that the Bible and Ellen White bemoan? To be honest with you, it's hard for me to love the self-righteous! And, while it would be nice to believe that all evangelicals are completely open to self-examination in light of those who rebuke them, that's not necessarily the case. Things are so polarizing these days, that criticism often leads people of many persuasions to become defensive, to attack their critics, or simply to ignore them.

2. That brings me to my next point: Can I stereotype people? I'll probably continue to do so on this blog, but should I? Much of my life has been spent resenting certain groups. For a long time, it was, "Oh, those evil, hateful, self-righteous liberals! They're such hypocrites! And smug at that!" Now, take out the word "liberal" and insert in its place "evangelical," and you've got my current mindset.

It's not that stereotypes are totally without basis. People who resent liberals do so on the basis of the liberals they know. The same goes with those who dislike conservative Christianity. Many of us have met people who are self-righteous and not particularly loving, and their religion or political ideology seems to make them worse, not better!

But two things I read tended to challenge some of my stereotypes. One was by a conservative Christian, the other by an ex-Christian freethinker.

Lawson Stone is a professor at Asbury Seminary, which is fairly conservative. In his post, Day 217: A Day of Stories, he discusses stories he heard from seminarians about their experiences:

One student spends his summers in Southeast Asia working with women rescued from the sex trade. Another serves in a depressed town in Pennsylvania helping his parishioners cope with under-employment and sinking hopes as their life-long trades fall victim to changing economic times. Another is launching a work in a midwestern medium sized city to reach people with no former church involvement, who are alienated from church in general.

I tend to stereotype conservative evangelicals as people who are preoccupied with climbing the conservative social ladder and think little about social justice (even though I know plenty who are deeply concerned about it), as people who could care less about me and my concerns. But there are plenty of conservative evangelicals who are deeply concerned about the problems around them, beyond the usual hot-button issues of abortion and homosexuality. They take seriously the Bible's regard for the poor and the struggling.

The other thing I read was from ex-fundamentalist Ken Pulliam's blog. It was a guest post from a former evangelical apologist who worked with the late Walter Martin, Howard Pepper (Another Former Evangelical Tells His Story). For a long time, Howard was in the fundamentalist subculture, until he went to the liberal Claremont School of Theology to broaden his horizons. There were plenty of conservatives there, but, for the first time, he had exposure to theological liberals. Here was his reaction:

...I realized that I had created caricatures (with a lot of help from things Evangelicals wrote and my profs and friends said) of liberals and "liberalism." They hardly resembled, at least at Claremont, what I'd come to expect. Rather, they tended to be consistent in applying "tolerance" (better put as inclusiveness, though with limits), being respectful of me and my views, as well as other conservatives. They were seemingly as devout and spiritually minded as Evangelicals. They liked to pray, worship, etc. But their theology was clearly very different and they were comfortable in it, and excited. (None of which makes it right, of course--for the still-Evangelicals looking in.)

Like Pepper, I went to a liberal seminary: Harvard Divinity School. And I had my stereotypes of liberals. "Oh, liberals claim to be tolerant, but they are some of the most closed-minded, intolerant people on the face of the earth!" "Mainline Protestants are spiritually dead. Do they even have a relationship with God? They probably focus more on their political activism, while leaving God out of the picture!" Then, when I encountered liberal Protestants who prayed regularly and had deep, profound thoughts about God and Christianity, what went through my mind was, "Well, these people only think they know God! Only evangelicals have the real thing, though! They're the ones to whom God speaks!"

Even when I left Harvard, I still had those stereotypes. And, yes, I met plenty of liberals who were closed-minded and cared little about having a relationship with God, focusing instead on politics (e.g., feminism, justice issues, etc.). But, as I think back, especially with the help of Pepper's post, I realize that my stereotypes were a little off-base. There were plenty of liberals I met who were actually open to hearing other points of view, even ones to the right. Some found that refreshing. Some were just nice people!

But here's another thought: perhaps I learned that I shouldn't stereotype all people in a particular group, be it evangelical, liberal, conservative, etc. But I'd also be off-base to stereotype individuals, especially those I dislike. Their characteristics that turn me off are only one aspect of their personality. They may also have good things about them! I don't know. Who am I to judge? Shouldn't I just love them?

3. Finally, there was the Desperate Housewives episode a few days ago, which was specifically about judging. Gabrielle was judging people in her neighborhood, then she was judged when one of the neighbor's kids got hurt in her backyard, and the neighbor was telling everyone that Gabby was an unfit parent, who didn't supervise her children and their guests! Orson Bean thought that Tom was letting Lynette emasculate him because Tom was always giving in to her, until Tom explained to him that he does that intentionally because she needs to feel she has control in a world that's not always controllable.

But the most thought-provoking story-line involved Bree. Because her husband Orson embarrassed her last season and is blackmailing her to stay in the marriage (though I forget what he's using against her), Bree has been having an affair with her divorce attorney, Susan's sleazy ex-husband. This is disappointing, since Bree is a devout Christian and a conservative Republican. I was wondering if she was even listening to God, or at the very least her conscience!

But then, Bree hears what I call the voice of God: a Carribbean maid in the motel where Bree and the lawyer are having their fling. When the maid hears Bree talking on the cell-phone with her husband, she concludes that Orson must be a good man, since he's going to the store for Bree. When did her man ever do that for her? She needles Bree about her affair and advises her to read her Bible in the motel nightstand. When Bree asks her about her own story, the maid replies that she once had a loving husband and decided one day to have some fun in an affair. But the affair didn't last, and she was left with nothing in the end. And so she pities those having a good time in their adultery, for she fears that they too will be left with nothing.

Bree acknowledges that she feels guilt, especially because Orson is a decent husband, who greets her every day with hope in his eyes about their marriage getting better. At the end, Bree is evaluating her own behavior, and she's reading the Bible. But, alas, she gives into temptation, and the affair continues.

Was the maid judging Bree? There are times when we may need to tell others about the speck in their eye, to wake them up, to inform them of the potential consequences of their wrongdoing. Being hyper-critical? No. Trying to shove things down their throat? Probably not a good idea. But informative criticism out of a concern for their well-being? That's probably a good thing.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Gerizim, JW Standing During the Pledge

I am very upset right now, since I just lost a post that I worked about an hour on. But I’ll give you the gist.

1. Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001) 94-95.

Tov talks about how the Samaritans viewed Mount Gerizim as the site of the central sanctuary. Mount Gerizim was in Shechem, in the lower part of the tribe of Manasseh, in what is today called the “West Bank.” The reason they consider it holy is because Genesis 12:26 and 33:18-20 present the patriarchs Abraham and Jacob (respectively) building an altar in Shechem.

When I did my weekly quiet time in Joshua, I learned that there are scholars who believe the central sanctuary was once in Shechem (see Joshua 24 for Shechem's importance), but it got moved to Shiloh, probably because Shechem was destroyed by Abimelech in Judges 9. That shows me the Samaritans may have a basis for their claim that once all Israel honored Shechem, but they left for another sanctuary.

But I wondered why the Samaritans honored Mount Gerizim, especially when God commands the Israelites to build an altar on Mount Ebal, also in Shechem (Deuteronomy 27). My guess was that they chose Gerizim because it was the mountain on which the Israelites pronounced blessings for obedience to God’s law, whereas they chanted the curses for disobedience on Ebal. So why not focus on the blessings mountain, since God is a good God?

I also wondered why Samaritans say Gerizim is God’s only sanctuary on the basis of Genesis 12:26 and 33:18-20, when the patriarchs built altars in other places as well, including in Bethel (Genesis 12; 28), which Jeroboam honored (I Kings 12).

2. Gerson Cohen, “The Talmudic Age,” Great Ideas and Ages of the Jewish People, ed. Leo Schwarz (New York: Random House, 1956) 184-185.

Cohen describes how the Jews stood out because their customs were so different, and they ended up offending Gentiles, not because they necessarily aimed to, but because their monotheism discouraged them from participating in Gentile customs.

Cohen compares the Jews to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and he cites the story of Esther, in which Mordecai refused to bow to Haman while everyone else around him was paying him that honor.

I referred to a discussion I had with an atheist/agnostic under my WordPress post, Deism, Separation of Church and State. He was arguing for government neutrality in the area of religion, and he cited the example of an evangelical friend of his in Hawaii. At a high school football game, everyone was encouraged to stand for prayer, and the prayer turned out to be Buddhist, because of the large Buddhist population of that state.

I recalled a Jehovah’s Witness kid in elementary school who couldn’t say the Pledge of Allegiance, since JWs consider it a form of idolatry. Yet, his teachers still wanted him to stand for the Pledge, even if he didn’t say it with the rest of the class. I wondered if that was pressuring him to honor an idol, according to the mindset of his parents.

Then, I said that I could sympathize with the anti-school prayer argument that says school prayer pressures people to violate their beliefs, to honor what they do not honor. Yet, I also said I didn’t sympathize with the view of some atheists that they have a right never to be offended, which is why some of them seek to remove religion from publically-owned places. Where is their sympathy for the Christians offended by evolution or sex ed in schools?

That’s the gist.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

V (2009): Coming Soon!

I'm looking forward to the new V on Tuesday, November 3, on ABC! Not only did I like the original miniseries, and not only does this remake look awesome, but it has some of my favorite actors from some of my favorite shows! Elizabeth Mitchell ("Juliet") from Lost will be on it, as will Joel Gretsch ("Tom Baldwin" from 4400 and "Owen Crawford" from Taken) and Laura Vandervoort ("Kara") from Season 7 of Smallville. Moreover, one of the executive producers of this series is the creator of the 4400, Scott Peters!

Samaritan Self-Identity, Atonement Tensions, Usury

1. Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001) 82-83.

…the historical data on the origin of the Samaritan community do not point to an exceptionally early date, and thus do not support the claims of the Samaritans that their texts are very ancient. The colophon—a note by a scribe that gives information on himself and the time of writing—in the Abisha scroll of [the Samaritan text] ascribes the writing of this scroll to Abisha son of Phineas, the priest who lived at the time of Joshua, but scholars believe that this scroll was written in the twelfth or thirteenth century. According to Samaritan tradition, their community originated at the beginning of the Israelite nation, and in their view they preserve the authentic Israelite tradition. The Samaritans believe that the Jews, rather than they, separated from the central stream of Judaism at the time of the priest Eli in the eleventh century BCE…A completely different view is found in 2 Kg 17:24-34 according to which the Samaritans were not related to the Israelites, but were people brought to Samaria by the Assyrians in the eighth century BCE, after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom. In the Talmud they are indeed named “Kutim,” that is, people from Kutah, a region in Assyria (cf. 2 Kgs 17:24).

This interested me because of the narrative I was fed about the Samaritans for many years. “The Jews of Jesus’ day did not like the Samaritans because they considered them half-breeds. The Samaritans were descended from intermarriages between the native Israelites and the foreigners whom the Assyrians brought to Israel.” Actually, from what I read in II Kings 17:24-34, the Israelite narrative indicated that the Samaritans weren’t even half-breeds! As far as they were concerned, the Samaritans were non-Israelite foreigners, pure and simple (unless I’m overlooking something).

I rarely (if ever) asked if the Samaritans viewed themselves according to that narrative. I had my list of facts about who the Samaritans were and what they believed: they were descended from the foreigners whom the Assyrians imported into Israel, and they believed that Mount Gerizim was the place of God’s sanctuary. And they altered the Pentateuch to highlight the importance of Mount Gerizim. For some reason, I never asked how this stuff fit together, probably because I have enough things on my mind as is! Come to think of it, it doesn’t make sense that the Samaritans would view themselves as non-Israelites, since they valued Israelite culture so much.

But Tov shed a little light on the issue: the Samaritans believed they were part of Israel from the very beginning, but the Israelites left them. Maybe they thought that the Israelites all worshipped atMount Gerizim at some point, but a number of them left for another sanctuary, leaving the Samaritans behind as the die-hards for the old way (which God supported).

There was a time before today when I got a glimpse into a Samaritan perspective. I once attended a Messianic synagogue, and one of the members was returning from Israel. He had in his hands a Samaritan Torah Scroll, with old Hebrew script. I asked him if the Samaritans there believed that their ancestors were the ones who opposed and hindered the attempts by Ezra to rebuild the temple and the Israelite community, and he replied, “No, they say that was another group, not them!” In this case, they appear to agree with the biblical history, which does not appear to be the case with their attitude towards II Kings 17, the mainsteam Israelite story about their origins; for that, they have their own narrative, which makes them out to be native Israelites. But they accept the Book of Ezra’s history, and, even if they thought Ezra’s temple was illegitimate before God, they didn’t believe they were hostiles who picked fights with Ezra’s community. As far as they were concerned, their goal was to live in peace with their neighbors.

2. Gerson Cohen, “The Talmudic Age,” Great Ideas and Ages of the Jewish People, ed. Leo Schwarz (New York: Random House, 1956) 174.

It is idle to ask: What does Judaism have to say about the nature of man, about sin, about the world to come, about God himself? The question is as idle when put to the Rabbinic literature as it is unhistorical when put to its Biblical antecedents. The Bible has incorporated within its canon a number of views of God, a number of conceptions of sin, retribution, love, justice, and so forth. The dogmatic theologian and the religiously committed must somehow try to harmonize contradictions and elicit a unitary point of view. The Rabbis could not avoid either the demand of their own minds or the demand of others for basic consistency. However, the structure of the religious community, with its lack of any formalized hierarchy, prevented the definitive resolution of conflicting views on any but the most crucial questions. For the most part, different teachers expounded different solutions, and as in Scripture itself, they were recorded side by side. All later efforts to reduce Judaism to an integrated system of ideas and values—Maimonides is an excellent case in point—were held in no higher respect than the teachings of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Rabbi Akiba, Rabbi Ishmael, or hundreds of other commentator-teachers.

When I read this, two things came to mind. First of all, the rabbis contradict themselves and, in some cases, the biblical narrative. I can’t think of too many examples right now, but there are times when they are interpreting a biblical passage, and their exegesis contradicts what another passage of the Bible says, or an argument that is made elsewhere in the rabbinic literature. When I asked my midrash professor how they reconciled the disrepancies, he replied, “They weren’t playing that game in this case.” One example that comes to my mind is their treatment of Deuteronomy 23: they upheld the Torah’s exclusion of certain foreigners, mamzerim, and people with crushed testicles from the Israelite community. But didn’t Isaiah 56 say God’s house was to be for all people, including eunuchs? How did they handle that? The answer I often got for a lot of topics was, “They didn’t.” Granted, there were plenty of biblical contradictions that they sought to harmonize, but many of them did not reach their radar.

Second, I thought about the issue of biblical diversity, especially in light of my post yesterday, II Samuel 24: Security in Religion, Debt, Faith, Works, Etc.. In the Bible, there is a diversity of viewpoints about sin and atonement. Some voices believe that sin carries an irrevocable penalty. According to one strand of this point of view, a person can repent of his sin and be forgiven by God, but his penalty will be passed down to his children and his children’s children (I Kings 21:29; II Kings 23:26). In another strand, however, God gives Israel a fresh start after he purifies her through punishment (e.g., Deuteronomy 30; Isaiah 40:2). God may even want Israel to be punished so he can purify her and start all over again with holy people, so he hinders her repentance (Isaiah 6:10-13). For these voices, there is a debt that needs to be paid, and God will collect at some point in time.

Other voices portray God forgiving people, as in cancelling their debt so they don’t have to pay it anymore (Matthew 18:27; Luke 7:41-43). Isaiah 53, meanwhile, appears to present a form of vicarious sacrifice, in which a Suffering Servant dies in place of others, thereby clearing them of guilt. Romans 6-7 offers a different view of the atonement, in which Christ doesn’t die in our place, but rather we die with Christ and rise again as new creatures, forgiven and changed. And then there are voices that are emphatically against one person dying in place of another (Exodus 32:33). Some voices believe people can be punished for the sins of their ancestors (Exodus 20:5); others emphatically deny transgenerational punishment, affirming that God only punishes people for their own sins (Ezekiel 18). Some believe in blood atonement (Leviticus 16); others present repentance as the way to receive God’s forgiveness, without even mentioning blood (Ezekiel 18; Jonah).

Is it possible to see these different viewpoints as diverse facets of a larger truth? I’ve gone with this approach, for my belief in penal substitution (Christ pays the penalty for sins by dying in place of sinners) absorbed the biblical beliefs that sin created a debt, that God releases us from having to pay it, that the Suffering Servant died vicariously for sinners, and that blood atones. Moreover, because the Gospels stressed repentance and faith as the means to receive God’s forgiveness (e.g., Acts 2:38), I viewed them as the conduit through which Christ’s death is applied to our lives. Christ died for our sins and paid the penalty, but that “cancelled debt” only comes when we believe in Christ and his work on the cross.

But then I wonder: here things are, conveniently fitting together, or so it seems! There’s that pesky passage that appears to deny penal substitution in its affirmation that people die for their own sins (Exodus 32:33), implying that one person can’t die in place of another. Moreover, am I compromising each motif in my attempt to unite the various ideas into one coherent picture?

And this stuff can have practical implications, too! For example, in my post yesterday about II Samuel 24 and how sin is so serious that God must punish it, was I encouraging people to feel guilty? Sure, God punished David and his people for the census even after David had repented, but there are also plenty of passages in which God graciously forgets the sins of his people and allows them to move on, cleansed and with a fresh start (Jeremiah 31:34; Micah 7:19). These passages have given comfort to numerous people.

As BryanL says in his post, Tension is Overrated, the existence of tension in theology doesn’t necessarily sit well with those in the pew. When John Anderson praised the existence of tension in the Hebrew Bible, Bryan asked him if he prayed to a God with contradictory attributes. That’s a fair question. I listed all these different biblical views on sin and atonement, but what’s that have to do with the God I pray to, the one I carry around in my head on a day-to-day basis? I tend to prioritize God’s love and mercy, for even the harsh passages on the Bible do so. As we saw yesterday in II Samuel 24, David believed that God was fundamentally merciful at his base, and that turned out to be true. As far as punishment is concerned, I tend to see it as corrective rather than merely punitive. But that’s an issue for another day!

3. Gerson Cohen, “The Talmudic Age,” Great Ideas and Ages of the Jewish People, ed. Leo Schwarz (New York: Random House, 1956) 176.

For centuries[,] the Christian Church, which forbade usury among Christians, provided for an uninterrupted source of capital loans by reinterpreting the Deuteronomic law so as to make it apply to Christian creditors, but not to Jews lending money to Christians. Beginning with the Crusades, the Schoolmen argued against this traditional dichotomy and against any form of usury by appealing to other Biblical texts which might prove that Christians and Jews were not “strangers” in the Scriptural sense. When the sixteenth century Calvin undermined the age-old restrictions against usury and thus smoothed the progress of capitalism, he could do so only by reinterpreting the Biblical verses and “proving” that they were no longer applicable. The history of the European economy is thus intimately bound up with the history of the interpretation of two verses in Deuteronomy that were set down in writing in Palestine seven centuries before the Christian era.

I have three points today because I read something else in Cohen that was so interesting I couldn’t pass it up. The above quote interests me because it demonstrates Christian attitudes about the law of Moses along with their practical effects. Some schools asserted that the Torah’s prohibition on usury was authoritative for Christians, whereas John Calvin said that the law against it was no longer applicable (even though he was as pro-Torah a Christian as they come! I’d research that today if I had more time). What’s interesting is that, at some point in time, there ruled a Christian interpretation of the Torah that viewed it as applicable to both Jews and Christians. Deuteronomy 23:21 bans Israelites from charging interest to their fellow Israelites, but they could charge it to a foreigner (nochri). For certain Christian interpreters, this meant Jews could charge interest to Christians. The narrative I always heard was that Christian society forced Jews to violate their own Torah and become usurers, but that may not have been the case. Actually, Christian society wanted to find a way for the Jews to charge usury in a manner that was consistent with their own Torah. And it wasn’t hard to find!

I’m not sure why Christians wanted Jews to charge them interest. It was probably beneficial to the economy in some manner.

Deism, Separation of Church and State

At Latin mass this morning, the priest (philosopher guy) spoke about the separation of church and state. Or, more accurately, he spoke against it. He quoted a statement by Pope Benedict (I think) that said removing God from the public sphere deprives people of the strength and hope that can come through religion. The priest also said that states can establish a religion, although the First Amendment prohibits the U.S. Congress from doing so. He mentioned the possibility of a “Catholic nation” (which would probably scare Seventh-Day Adventists), even though, earlier in his homily, he denied that Jesus wanted to establish a theocracy. While he said that he didn’t want the pope to directly dictate to Catholic politicians how to vote, he did affirm that Catholic politicians should be guided by Catholic principles, which are in accord with natural law. And he warned that the separation of church and state could harm the church, which occurs whenever the IRS has problems with the Catholic church being involved in politics.

To his credit, the priest didn’t regurgitate the usual “religious right” narrative of American history, in which all of the founding fathers were devout Christians attempting to establish a Christian nation. Rather, he said that the founding fathers were deists, who believed that God created the world and then walked away from it. The priest also acknowledged that America’s civil religion has a history of anti-Catholicism. He was probably responding to those who wonder why there are Catholics on the side of the “religious right,” when America wasn’t exactly friendly to Catholics in its “Christian nation” days. But the priest said that the founding fathers at least believed in God, so we shouldn’t remove religion from public life.

Here are some reactions:

1. Did the deist founding fathers believe that God created the world and had nothing to do with it afterwards? I have problems buying this. Thomas Jefferson was supposedly a deist, and he wrote the Declaration of Independence, which committed the cause of the American colonists to the care of divine providence. The word “providence” implies God’s continued involvement in the world.

At the same time, as I look through Thomas Paine’s anti-Christian, pro-deist book, The Age of Reason, I get mixed feelings about deist beliefs regarding God’s relationship with the world. Paine clearly believes that one can know God through God’s creation. As he beautifully affirms in Chapter 9:

Do we want to contemplate his power? We see it in the immensity of the creation. Do we want to contemplate his wisdom? We see it in the unchangeable order by which the incomprehensible Whole is governed. Do we want to contemplate his munificence? We see it in the abundance with which he fills the earth. Do we want to contemplate his mercy? We see it in his not withholding that abundance even from the unthankful. In fine, do we want to know what God is? Search not the book called the scripture, which any human hand might make, but the scripture called the Creation.

Does he believe that God continues to provide for his creation? Perhaps. He said above that God doesn’t withhold abundance from the unthankful. And, in Chapter 10, he offers mild praise for something Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

The only passage that occurs to me, that has any reference to the works of God, by which only his power and wisdom can be known, is related to have been spoken by Jesus Christ, as a remedy against distrustful care. “Behold the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin.”

So Paine seems to believe that God takes care of his creation. But Paine also says this:

The Almighty lecturer, by displaying the principles of science in the structure of the universe, has invited man to study and to imitation. It is as if he had said to the inhabitants of this globe that we call ours, “I have made an earth for man to dwell upon, and I have rendered the starry heavens visible, to teach him science and the arts. He can now provide for his own comfort, AND LEARN FROM MY MUNIFICENCE TO ALL, TO BE KIND TO EACH OTHER.”

That seems to imply that God made a universe that benefits human beings, so people don’t need God’s continual intervention. The universe already is beneficial to people, in a built-in sort of way. In this mindset, God’s act of love that should inspire our ethics occurred when he gave us such a good cosmos.

2. Where do I stand on the separation of church and state? I don’t agree with removing religion from public life, so I have no problem with the Ten Commandments being in courthouses. In this area, the ACLU and American Atheists should get a life. I also have no problem with religion being a sort of conscience to the nation. To its credit, the religious right does this when it comes to the lives of the unborn, but the well-being of other vulnerable people in America doesn’t quite make its radar. Sure, many of them are quite generous when it comes to charitable donations, but they’re not as interested in addressing larger social problems. Their charitable donations are like their characterization of welfare: the poor get a check, but the problems that keep the poor down remain. While the religious right does well to ask if the government addresses problems or only makes things worse, they should be more than the “Just say no” people: if something doesn’t work, they should explain where the weakness lies and offer an alternative.

In my times of personal revolt against evangelical Christianity, I can somewhat understand the concerns of gays and lesbians. They wonder why Christian beliefs against homosexuality should be manifest in a public policy that works against them, when they themselves don’t adhere to those beliefs. They believe that the state recognizing gay marriage is consistent with the American tradition of pluralism.

But I also recoil from the line of “What I do in the privacy of my own home is my business, and nobody else’s.” Take, for instance, the religious right’s opposition to pornography. Many believe that they should be able to read and watch what they want without being told what to do by a bunch of prudes. But I do think that the church should be a conscience that speaks against the dehumanization of women and the cheapening of sex that pornography promotes. Our sexually laissez-faire attitude hasn’t helped this nation, as the number of unwanted pregnancies and STD’s make clear. But should we legislate morality? Or a more appropriate question would be, “Can we legislate morality?” More appropriate still: “When should we legislate morality?”, since any law we pass makes a moral judgment.

II Samuel 24: Security in Religion, Debt, Faith, Works, Etc.

My weekly quiet time this week was on II Samuel 24, in which David takes a census of the people of Israel, leading God to punish him by sending a pestilence upon the nation. Here are a couple of points:

1. One quote that stood out to me was by E.A. Speiser, which appears in P. Kyle McCarter’s Anchor Bible commentary on II Samuel (pp. 512-513). Speiser refers to Exodus 30:12-13, which states (NRSV): When you take a census of the Israelites to register them, at registration all of them shall give a ransom for their lives to the LORD, so that no plague may come upon them for being registered. This is what each one who is registered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the LORD. When the Israelites were numbered, they were supposed to pay money as a ransom for their lives, so that no plague would come upon them.

According to Speiser, the “Middle Bronze Age city of Mari in northwestern Mesopotamia” also had ritual purification whenever it conducted a census. Why? For Speiser, it had to do with feelings of insecurity that came upon people when they were enrolled for the military draft (a big purpose behind the census). With these sentiments, people felt a need to appease the gods to receive protection. As Speiser states:

There must have been a time when the Near Easterner shrank from the thought of having his name recorded in lists that might be put to unpredictable uses. Military conscription was an ominous process because it might place the life of the enrolled in jeopardy. The connection between the cosmic “books” of life and death might have been much too close for one’s peace of mind. It would be natural in these circumstances to propitiate unknown powers, or seek expiation as a general precaution.

A big role of religion for many people is to give them a sense of security. It’s always been that way. It’s that way for me. I may not understand why bad things happen, but I try to trust that God has a purpose. And, even if things don’t turn out well in this life, I have the hope of an afterlife. As Paul affirms, ”For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

2. There are many tensions in this chapter (sorry for using that word, BryanL!). God incites David to conduct the census because God’s mad at Israel and wants an excuse to afflict her (II Samuel 24:1); yet, if Israel is guilty of something, David obviously doesn’t know anything about it, for he asks God to spare Israel and punish him and his house instead because he’s the sinner, whereas the Israelites are innocent (II Samuel 24:17).

I’ve been reading ex-fundamentalist Ken Pulliam’s critiques of penal substitution, the doctrine that Christ’s death paid the penalty for our sins. One of his posts that I read today was Penal Substitutionary Atonement Eliminates True Forgiveness. According to Pulliam (who has a Ph.D. from Bob Jones University and was a fundamentalist intellectual for years, before he became an agnostic), penal substitution is not compatible with forgiveness, for, in the former, Jesus pays the debt of our sins; in the latter, God cancels the debt so nobody has to pay it.

When I was at DePauw, I met with the Intervarsity leader on the campus, and he was really big on penal substitution. He believed that we owed a debt to God because of our sins, and God couldn’t just remove that debt without the price being paid. When I asked him “Why not?,” he replied: “Suppose someone destroyed your car with a sledgehammer and then said he was sorry. Would you let him off?” I said “no,” for I’d want him or somebody else to pay for my car. His point was made: sin is so evil and destructive, that God would be trivializing it were he to simply let sinners off. A debt needs to be paid, and, for him, that’s what Jesus Christ did on the cross.

Even Ken Pulliam is sensitive to this, for he states in the comments under his post, Controversy over PST in the UK Evangelical Alliance: I think the biblical picture is this: Retribution (payment) has to take place first before there can be restoration of relationship. To try to restore the relationship before retribution or payment is made is impossible as I understand the Bible. When we do something against God or somebody else, it’s not enough for us to simply say we’re sorry. There’s a “debt” in the relationship, and it needs to be paid through some form of restitution.

In II Samuel 24, we clearly see a debt. David sins against the LORD when he conducts a census, and the results were most likely damaging. According to some scholars, David (through the census) was basically broadcasting to the people of Israel and the surrounding nations that he did not trust God: that he had to make sure Israel had a lot of people for her army, indicating that he trusted in numbers rather than God for victory and security. This, even though I Samuel 14:6 says God can deliver by many or by few. Numbers don’t matter to God! But David was saying that God was not enough for his nation’s security, and he didn’t even acknowledge his nation’s dependence on God by paying the money that was supposed to accompany the census (Exodus 30:12-13).

It would be one thing if David were an average Israelite and didn’t trust God, but he was the leader of Israel, so his words and deeds carried weight! When Israelites saw that he was conducting a census, perhaps they’d conclude that they could trust their nation’s military might rather than God, since their leader was doing so. And what about the surrounding nations? They were probably thinking: “David was always blowing off about how great his God is, but it doesn’t look to us like he’s trusting his God! He may talk about God, but, when the rubber hits the road, he trusts his military might. So maybe his God’s not so powerful, after all!” So David’s act had damaging results.

And David was convicted of sin right after the census. II Samuel 24:10 says: But afterward, David was stricken to the heart because he had numbered the people. David said to the LORD, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O LORD, I pray you, take away the guilt of your servant; for I have done very foolishly.” God is often moved by the repentant, but he didn’t feel that he could simply let David off. The damage was too great, and the debt was too high. And so God punished Israel with a pestilence, upholding his reputation as the all-powerful God.

But we see a co-existence between the polarities of God’s justice and mercy: God punishes David and Israel, yet, when God offers David a choice of punishment, David chooses the penalty of pestilence over falling into the hands of his enemies, for God is the one who will conduct the pestilence (through an angel). David realizes that God, unlike human beings, is merciful. There is a debt, but God’s mercy exists in his collecting.

Another tension in the chapter is between grace through faith and works. David’s sin is that he relies on his own military strength (his works) rather than God’s strength. When David wants to conduct the census, his commander Joab is skeptical, saying (II Samuel 24:3): “May the LORD your God increase the number of the people a hundredfold, while the eyes of my lord the king can still see it! But why does my lord the king want to do this?” Joab is exhorting David that God will take care of him and his nation. God will give it the big numbers! Why does David need to see how many people his nation has? He should simply trust in God, rather than worrying about those kinds of details!

Yet, when David’s seer, Gad, tells David to build an altar on the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite and offer animals on it so as to supplicate the LORD, and Araunah offers David the floor and some animals for free, David refuses, saying (II Samuel 24:24): “No, but I will buy them from you for a price; I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing.” David wants to participate in his own salvation and that of Israel. He doesn’t want grace to be free. He has an attitude similar to James McGrath when he criticized penal substitution, in his post What Do You Say That I Did?:

For Paul, the key meaning of Jesus’ death is summed up well in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15: “one died for all, and therefore all died”. That’s almost the exact opposite of the popular Evangelical message, “one died instead of all, so that they might not have to die”. Even if we conclude that Paul’s language of “dying with Christ” is just another way of talking metaphorically about denying ourselves and self-sacrifice, it nevertheless makes clear that the Christian view of “salvation” expressed here is not about Jesus doing something instead of us, but of something that involves us and happens to us and in us. Ironically, while some feel they are glorifying God by making atonement something that involves no action or effort on our part, they’ve also radically departed from a central component of early Christian belief.

Or he’s like the Susan Sarandon character (Sister Helen Prejean) in Dead Man Walking. A murderer (played by Sean Penn) said that, after his execution, he’d go to heaven, say he believed in Jesus, and immediately enter the pearly gates, no questions asked! But Sister Prejean told him that Christianity is not a free-pass to heaven, for he had to participate in his own salvation through repentance. Similarly, David realized that God was offering salvation to his nation, but he felt the need to participate in it, meaning there had to be some cost on his part. Otherwise, the salvation would be cheap. And sin is too serious a matter for salvation to be cheap!

Debt. Justice. Mercy. Forgiveness. Sparing people at the last minute. Trusting in God rather than self, yet participating in one’s own salvation and that of one’s people. There is tension in this chapter, and there are non-Christians (like Ken Pulliam in Can one be “saved” by just reading the Bible?) who believe that tension in the Bible is a reason to reject it. I disagree, for many of these concepts in tension with one another look like they have value, that they’re inherently righteous, that they’re making an important point about who God is and what he is like, and who we are in relationship to him.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Humble God Who Stands, Our Stance Towards the World

1. Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001) 66.

Tov quotes Genesis Rabbah 49:7, which states:

“The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD (Gen 18:22…). R. Simon said: “This is a correction of the scribes for the Shekhinah was actually waiting for Abraham.”

According to this passage, Genesis 18:22 originally said that God stood before Abraham, but the scribes corrected it to say that Abraham stood before God. Presumably, the scribes made their correction because the original verse detracted from God’s dignity: the superior is supposed to sit while the inferior stands at his behest, so it’s more appropriate for Abraham to stand before God than for God to stand before Abraham. Exodus Rabbah 41:4 likes the original reading, however, for it presents God as humble.

Tov thinks it “unlikely that the original text would have read ‘while the LORD remained standing before Abraham”, yet he acknowledges that “the practice of correcting a text out of respect for a god or gods is…known in the Hellenistic world” (66). In a footnote, he refers to the Greek grammarian Zenodotus (third century B.C.E.), who thought “it was not befitting for Aphrodite to carry a chair for Helen and thus he deliberately altered the text of Iliad III 423-426…”

God is worthy of respect, for he is the most dignified being in all the universe. There are plenty of times when he reminds us of that, for he often says, “And they shall know that I am the LORD.” Yet, he is also humble, and he brings himself low to help us out. In Christianity, Jesus exemplifies this, for he gave up his riches to become poor, that we through his poverty might become rich (II Corinthians 8:9).

2. Gerson Cohen, “The Talmudic Age,” Great Ideas and Ages of the Jewish People, ed. Leo Schwarz (New York: Random House, 1956) 163.

…the Jewish community owed its survival largely to the Roman policy of toleration. Jewish tradition does not speak kindly of Rome or of most of its emperors. One cannot expect the Rabbis to be neutral to a Titus who felt that the Temple must be destroyed, “so that the Jewish religion might be utterly eliminated; for with the removal of its source, the trunk [i.e., the Jewish people] would speedily wither.” Nor could they take lightly the offensive tax to Jupiter Capitolinus imposed on them as a punitive measure. Yet, in the retrospect of nineteen centuries, Rome must candidly be acknowledged to have dealt with the Jews harshly but not viciously. At no point did it proscribe the Jewish religion, and barring the short period of martial law during the insurrection of Bar Kokhba, it never attempted to prohibit the Jews from congregating and pursuing their religious curriculum. Synagogues arose and were given imperial protection throughout the empire. Rome adhered to its traditional policy of rule by law and of full toleration for ancient religious associations.

When I read this paragraph, I thought about the Beast in Revelation 13. Most biblical scholars say that the Beast was an oppressive Roman emperor, perhaps Nero (54-68 C.E.) or Domitian (81-96 C.E.), who was heralded as the resurrected Nero (see Revelation 13:3). But, if the Roman empire tolerated the worship of the one true God, could it have been the Beast power? Revelation 13 says that all the world worshipped the Beast, except those written in the Book of Life (Christians), and that those who refused to worship the Beast’s image were killed. Sure, the Roman empire killed Christians for not participating in the emperor cult, but the Jews were exempt from that requirement, for the Roman empire only required them to sacrifice on behalf of the emperor, not to him or the Roman gods. The Jews made those sacrifices to their own God. Would the Beast of Revelation 13 be this tolerant of the Jews’ worship?

Or did the author of Revelation believe that, in some sense, many of the non-Christian Jews were allied with the Beast and worshipping his image, and that their worship of the one true God was not legitimate? Revelation 2:9 states: “I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (NRSV). Could there have been a Christian belief that many of the Jews who did not believe in Jesus had ditched God in favor of the beastly Roman Caesar? John 19:15 presents the Jewish leaders as saying, “We have no king but the emperor.” Was there a sense among certain Christians that many non-Christian Jews were too cozy with the Beast?

At the same time, Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount argued against Jews resisting the Romans. And Jews under a foreign power were supposed to honor their captors, as Jeremiah 29:7 affirms: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” But perhaps the lesson in all of this is that there’s a difference between being in the world and of the world. One should seek the welfare of the city in which we live, but our primary loyalty should be to God. Perhaps certain early Christians believed that many non-Christian Jews had sold out to the world. This, even though, paradoxically, many Jews also caused Rome a lot of trouble through their insurrections!

There is being too cozy with the world, mounting insurrection against the world, and God’s way. The third path looks rather murky, and I can’t define it totally, but I think it includes Christians being meek and loving to the world, while also remembering that they have another country, whose values are often different from the world’s. You’d expect this third path to be persecution-proof, but it’s drawn its share of persecution throughout the ages!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Majority Report, Historical Connection

1. Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001) 32-33.

Tov quotes Jerusalem Talmud Taanit 4.68a, which says there were three versions of the Torah in the temple. Here is Neusner’s translation:

Three scrolls did they find in the Temple courtyard. These were the Maon-scroll ["Dwelling"], the Zaatuti-scroll ["Little ones"], and the He-scroll. In one of these scrolls they found it written, “The eternal God is your dwelling place (maon)” (Deut. 33:27…). And in two of the scrolls it was written, “The eternal God is your dwelling place” (meonah[, which is in the MT]). They confirmed the reading found in the two and abrogated the others. In one of them they found written, “They sent the little ones of the people of Israel” (Ex. 24:5…). And in two it was written, “They sent young men…” [(MT)]. They confirmed the two and abrogated the other. In one of them they found written, “He [he written in the feminine spelling] nine times, and in two, they found it written that way eleven times.” They confirmed the reading found in the two and abrogated the other.

This stood out to me because of the Letter of Aristeas’ statement that there was a Hebrew book of the Torah in the temple, which the LXX translators used to produce their Greek Torah text. I wondered if Judaism tried to reconcile the presence of an authoritative scroll in the temple with the existence of different manuscripts and versions. It turns out that at least one tradition thought that there were three different versions of the Torah in the temple. Scribes would look at the three manuscripts and go with the majority reading as the authoritative one. Our Talmud passage does not suggest that one of the manuscripts is perfect, however, for a version could conceivably be in the majority for one reading, and in the minority for another.

This reminds me of the movie Minority Report, in which three psychics foresaw crimes that people were about to commit. They did not all see the same thing all of the time, but at least two of them would have the same vision.

But back to the three Torah versions in the temple. The majority reading usually turned out to be the one in the Masoretic Text, which shows the popularity and authority of this version by the time of the Jerusalem Talmud (fourth century C.E.). In the letter of Aristeas (second century B.C.E.), the Torah scroll in the temple was assumed to match the Septuagint. The MT and the LXX diverge in a number of areas, so both the Jerusalem Talmud and the Letter of Aristeas probably assumed that the authoritative version in the temple was the one that they believed in.

The differences among the three versions of the Torah in the Jerusalem Talmud’s story look rather minor, but some rabbis didn’t deem minor details in the Torah to be unimportant. Tov quotes R. Ishmael, who says in Babylonian Talmud Sotah 20a, “should you omit (even) one letter or add (even) one letter [in transmitting Torah], the whole world would be destroyed.” Heavy!

Interestingly, Tov doesn’t agree with going with the majority version to arrive at the authoritative reading. He states the following:

The broad basis of the textual attestation of some readings as against the narrow basis of other readings is immaterial. Since a large number of manuscripts could have been copied from a single source, well-attested readings do not necessarily have more weight than singly attested readings. Therefore one should take into consideration the intrinsic value of each reading rather than the number of manuscripts in which it is attested. In this context, scholars usually quote the methodological rule formulated as manuscripta ponderantur, non numerantur, “manuscripts are to be considered according to their worth and not reckoned according to their number” (39).

For Tov, a majority reading isn’t necessarily correct, for scribes could have made lots of copies of a wrong manuscript. I’m interested to see his criteria of “worth” in evaluating different readings.

2. Gerson Cohen, “The Talmudic Age,” Great Ideas and Ages of the Jewish People, ed. Leo Schwarz (New York: Random House, 1956) 147.

Is it possible, then, to speak of a “Talmudic civilization,” a single Jewish culture pattern that includes the major motifs of life of all the Jewish communities throughout eight centuries? Our answer is yes, and is perhaps best explained by an analogy. Just as it is possible to speak of an American pattern, and to include in that category the environment and culture of such contrasting types as the Bostonian aristocrat, the sharecropper of Georgia, and the factory worker of Detriot as representing, through all their distinct differences, a distinct civilization quite different from the culture of England, so it is possible to formulate real and pertinent characterizations of the Talmudic period as a whole.

This gave me a cozy sort of feeling. Not only did it evoke the America of the 1950’s, but I liked what it had to say about the Jewish people. They may be different among one another throughout the past and in the present, but there is still something that connects them all.

Growing up as an Armstrongite, did I have that sort of historical connection? After all, we were a Protestant sect of the twentieth century, splitting off from another Protestant sect. Believe it or not, I think that I did. For one, I felt somewhat of a bond with others in the movement, since they were keeping the same strange customs that I did. And, second, I often got a feeling of coziness when I read histories about the Sabbatarians, though I now know that some of them may not have been completely accurate (e.g., the Waldensians may not have kept the Seventh-Day Sabbath).

Are there commonalities among everyone in the human race that should encourage mutual understanding and lessen our selfishness and hatred for one another? I’d like to focus on those, as hard as it may be to do so!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

One-Year-Old Saul, Cain Blames God

1. Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001) 10.

According to Tov, one way to identify a textual error in a biblical text is to compare it with other versions or manuscripts. A few times, however, one can recognize a mistake through content analysis. The example that Tov cites for the latter is I Samuel 13:1, which states that Saul was one year old when he began to reign over Israel and reigned two years. For Tov, because that’s so absurd, it must be a textual error.

The medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, however, took a different approach:

Saul was a year in his reign: (lit., a year old.) Our Rabbis of sainted memory said: Like a one year old, who did not experience the taste of sin (Yoma 22b). It may also be interpreted thus: Saul was a year in his reign, i.e., in the first year in which he was made king (and he reigned two years over Israel), and in the first year, immediately, Saul chose for himself three thousand.

Rashi quotes a rabbinic text that suggests that Saul was “one year old” when he began to reign in the sense that he was spiritually innocent, like a one year old. Rashi then posits a more literal interpretation: Saul, who reigned for a total of two years over Israel, in his first year chose three thousand Israelites for war against the Philistines.

The rabbinic text that Rashi cites is pretty interesting in itself. It’s Babylonian Talmud Yoma 22b:

Saul was a year old when he began to reign. R. Huna said: Like an infant of one year, who had not tasted the taste of sin. R. Nahman b. Isaac demurred to this: Say perhaps: Like an infant of one year old that is filthy with mud and excrement? R. Nahman thereupon was shown a frightening vision in his dream, whereupon he said: I beg your pardon, bones of Saul, son of Kish. But he saw again a frightening vision in his dream, whereupon he said: I beg your pardon, bones of Saul, son of Kish, King in Israel.

R. Huna offered the line of “Saul was a one year old when he became king in a spiritual sense, for he was pure,” and R. Nahman b. Isaac disagreed, noting that children are not entirely clean and innocent. R. Nahman was then haunted in his dreams by the bones of Saul, and he learned to respect the dead.

I like the rabbinic interpretation better than Tov’s textual critical approach. Sure, I’ll put down Tov’s approach if I’m ever asked on a test to comment on I Samuel 13:1, or if I’m writing a commentary on I Samuel. But which is more exciting? Which makes you feel cozier? A nice bedtime story about how one rabbi said Saul was spiritually pure when he began to reign, and a dissenting rabbi was haunted by the bones of Saul for dishonoring Saul’s name? Or simply saying “It’s a textual error.” For the latter, I say “BORING!!!”

There’s something about faith approaches to the Bible that are so magical—ghost stories, the idea that even an apparent error can contain a spiritual truth, etc.

2. Barry W. Holtz, “Midrash,” Back to the Sources (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984) 195.

Holtz quotes Midrash Tanhuma, on the Torah reading for Genesis, Chapter 9, which is about Cain and Abel. The passage puts the following words in the mouth of Cain, who tries to avoid responsibility for his murder of Abel. Basically, Cain says God is to blame:

You God watch over all creation and you’re blaming me! This is like a thief who steals things at night and gets away with it. In the morning the watchman grabs him and says ”Why did you steal those things?” He replied: “I’m a thief; I haven’t been remiss in doing my trade, but you’re a guard; why did you fail in your duties?” Then Cain said: “I killed him, true, but You created me with the evil urge in me. You watch over everything and You let me kill him. You killed him! You didn’t accept my sacrifice and I was jealous.” God answered, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood calls out…”

Cain tries to blame God for his murder of Abel on three grounds. First, God could have stopped the murder but didn’t. Maybe he could have thundered from heaven and told Cain and Abel to stop fighting, for they were brothers! Second, God created Cain’s evil inclination, so why’s Cain at fault for acting according to his nature? And, third, God made Cain want to kill Abel by favoring Abel’s offering and not his. But God doesn’t buy Cain’s excuses. He simply responds, “What have you done?”

According to Holtz, this passage was responding to Rabbi Shimon, who in Genesis Rabbah 22:9 faults God for not stopping Cain’s murder. R. Shimon interprets God to say in Genesis 4:10 that Abel’s blood cries at him, accusing God of negligence.

These passages remind me of a couple of things. First, there’s the theodicy and free will issue. Why doesn’t God intervene with a voice from heaven to stop us from doing wrong? But that would be treating us as children, and God wants us to be adults: people who learn what’s right and act according to it, without having to be monitored by a divine super-cop every second. Yet, when things get out of hand, God will step into the situation and punish the guilty, usually after he’s allowed free will to run its course.

Then there’s the issue of original sin, a tendency towards evil that Christian doctrine says we all got at birth. I’m not the first to wonder how God can judge us for acting according to a nature that we did not ask for. Cain seems to make this same sort of argument. But the Jewish notion of the evil inclination is not entirely the same as how Christians define original sin. For the rabbis, we have a good inclination as well, so we possess the ability to make moral choices.

And Genesis 4:7 seems to support the rabbinic position. After God rejects Cain’s sacrifice, he tries to reason with Cain, saying (NRSV): “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” God is telling Cain that he can master sin. Some Christians try to argue that the “sin” here is actually a sin offering, since the same word is used for both in Scripture. For them, God is telling Cain to sacrifice an animal to atone for his sin. But why would God tell Cain that an animal’s desire is for him, and Cain must master it? It makes more sense to say that God wants Cain to master sin, not a sin offering.

The attitude behind Genesis 4:7 here does not seem to be that of the apostle Paul, who says that the flesh is too weak to overcome sin (Romans 7; 8:3). At the same time, Paul assumes that people can conquer sin, through the power of God’s Holy Spirit! Was the Holy Spirit available to Cain, on some level?

Ultimately, whatever our nature may be, I don’t think that we’re so utterly bad that we can’t make any moral choices. Even Calvinists who believe in total depravity tell me that they don’t think their doctrine means everyone is a serial killer, for there are variations in how bad we can be. That may be why we’re responsible for much of what we do.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Jerome Violates His Rule, Decoding the Voice of God

1. Jennifer M. Dines, The Septuagint (New York: T&T Clark, 2004) 145-146.

Early Christian writers followed certain basic principles. When the NT writings were definitively collected, both they and the earlier Scriptures were regarded as one unified corpus. The NT, however, was the point of departure for understanding the OT, and in instances of textual discordance the NT was always given precedence. For example, both the LXX and the MT of Amos 5.27 read: ‘And I will take you into exile beyond Damascus.’ The NT, however, in Acts 7. 43 has ‘beyond Babylon‘ (emphases added). Although patently odd, this reading is upheld as correct, simply because it is in the NT and ‘the first martyr could not have made a mistake’ (Jerome, In Amos…)

This was interesting to me because of something Dines said earlier about Jerome (fourth-fifth centuries C.E.). She refers to “Jerome’s claim that the Hebrew text should form the basis for new translations because it was earlier and more authentic than the LXX” (77). On what basis, then, does he say that we should accept the LXX for Amos 5:27 rather than the Hebrew? Because the New Testament goes with the LXX? Why does the NT do this, when the Hebrew text is earlier and more authentic? I wonder if Jerome addresses these sorts of questions.

2. Folker Siegert, “Early Jewish Interpretation in a Hellenistic Style,” Hebrew Bible, Old Testament: The History of Interpretation I/1: Antiquity, ed. Magne Saebo (1996) 187.

The basic rule [of ancient allegorism] is: things which have something in common are ispo facto a reference to each other. Thus the whole cosmos becomes a universe of cross-references. For modern readers wanting to understand Philo it is crucial to free themselves from the monopoly of causal thinking which has become undisputed since the great successes of experimental science. But in ancient thought—and in poetry of all times—things may be interconnected by a relationship of meaning without acting on each other.

A few years ago, I was talking with a graduate student who took a class at HUC about Philo. This was his first class on ancient allegory, and he wasn’t sure what to do with it. When he read Philo’s attempts to treat the Bible as a symbol for the abstract truths of Greek philosophy, he wondered where exactly Philo was getting his interpretations. On what was he basing them? “Was he making this stuff up?,” he asked.

A few years later, I asked the professor this question. He replied that the allegorical method of the ancients was not arbitrary, for they believed there was a system behind it. Much of allegory was based on the meaning of names. For example, Siegert has a list of biblical names along with their meanings. Sarah, for example, is equated with “virtue” or “wisdom” (in Philo’s mind), while Isaac means “laughter.” Isaac was a supernatural gift from God. The lesson from all this is that practicing virtue will lead to happiness, which will be given by God.

The quote from Siegert sheds more light on the ancient basis for allegory. For many in the ancient world, two things that had something in common were related to one another, whether or not one actually caused the other. That’s how people could make associations between, say, the character of Sarah and virtue, or Isaac and the divine gift of laughter.

I wonder if the ancients’ belief in God or a cosmic order was the primary foundation for this outlook. If God is the author of everything, or if there is an order that permeates the cosmos (Stoicism), then there are no accidents or coincidences. Two things that resemble one another do so for a reason. We’re supposed to take notice!

This reminds me of two things. First of all, in the movie Lady in the Water, residents in an apartment complex are trying to get a “narf” named Story back to her own world. One of the characters who’s supposed to help with this is called “the Symbolist.” The Symbolist’s role is to decode the voice of God from the things around him, thereby learning how to return Story to her world. At first, a man who works crossword puzzles believes that he’s the Symbolist, and, although he tries to determine God’s strategy by making connections, his plan fails. But the Symbolist turns out to be his son, who decodes the voice of God from cereal boxes.

Although Roger Ebert viciously shreds this movie, he somewhat likes the concept of decoding the voice of God from the ordinary:

There’s a ridiculous scene (in a not altogether bad way), where Jeffrey Wright (standing in for the auteur?) tries to extrapolate clues from a folded newspaper, prompting one of the tenants to exclaim: “Wow! He’s hearing the voice of god from a crossword puzzle!” This is the closest “Lady in the Water” gets to a solid, provocative idea — that we humans are stumbling in the dark, looking for signs and stories we can interpret to give meaning to a meaningless existence…

Second, I’m reminded of Frank Peretti’s The Visitation. When Travis Jordan was younger, he was trying to decode God’s will for his life. On the basis of “signs” that he saw (e.g., words on a truck, etc.), he concluded that he was supposed to play the banjo at Billy Graham’s Crusade and marry his high school sweetheart. What happened instead was that the Billy Graham people turned him away, and his girlfriend became a Unitarian Universalist who married someone else. So much for decoding the voice of God from the ordinary!

Some Christians believe that there’s a way to know the will of God. Such knowledge can come when our reading of Scripture, circumstances, our inward pull, and what other people tell us line up and agree. Henry Blackaby made this point in Experiencing God. So maybe there are times when decoding God’s voice from the ordinary doesn’t work, meaning we’re stumbling in the dark. But perhaps there’s a way for it to work.

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