Friday, February 19, 2010

Roots TNG 1, Baltzer on the Suffering Servant, Dahood on the Afterlife, Bold Gideon, Apuleius—Meet Melinda Gordon and Jonathan Smith

1. For Black History Month today, I watched the first episode of Roots: The Next Generation. On it, Chicken George’s son, Tom Harvey, tries to help African-Americans in the post-slavery South. He supports a school for African-American children, but he has to appease the influential former Confederate Colonel Frederick Warner (played by Henry Fonda) to get the project off the ground. And Tom’s active in politics, which often requires him to side with the lesser of two evils (as his ornery father, Chicken George, likes to carp on).

Although slavery has ended, we still see the tension that I discussed in my post, Roots 3: Two Mindsets, Adopting a Heritage, Clinging to a Dream. There, I talked about two types of slaves. One type tries to make a good life for himself and his loved ones within the system of slavery. This attempt can be successful, but it’s not fool-proof, for the slave master still has the power to harm his slave. The other kind wants freedom, and is willing to do anything to get it. Sometimes he succeeds; often, he fails. But he goes down fighting.

In the first episode of Roots: The Next Generation, Tom Harvey is trying to make a good life for African-Americans within the racist system. To keep the school open, he feels that he has to compromise to appease Colonel Warner, who wants to fire the highly educated African-American schoolteacher because his son (played by Richard Thomas) wants to marry her. Tom’s daughter, Elizabeth, calls Tom a “Jim Crow,” appealing to Kunta Kinte’s desire for freedom, and asking her father what he has done with the freedom that they now have. There are times when Tom Harvey stands up to the white oppressor, as when a train conductor refuses to seat him in the white section, even though Tom has a first class ticket. But, in the end, what can he do? He feels that he needs to appease the powerful, wealthy whites in order to help his own people.

I talked some about this in my post yesterday, Jesse Owens Story, Righteous Sufferer, The Proof of the Pudding, Priestess of the Household, Evil. Jesse Owens preferred a peaceful approach of dialogue and encouragement of sound living to improve the conditions of African-Americans, and he looked askance at civil disobedience and calls for violence. The African-American investigating him called his approach “waiting for whatever crumbs the white man gives you.” Other African-American leaders, however, preferred to get into the face of the white establishment, disrupting their oppressors’ day-to-day lives until they got what they wanted.

Which works? Gradualism, education, and waiting for people to accept the idea of equality? Or in-your-face disruption? I’m not an African-American, so I can’t really comment on this, except to say that there may be a time and a place for both approaches. And it’s a question that other movements grapple with as well.

Another issue: the afterlife. When Chicken George dies, Tom prays that his father might be received into heaven to be with George’s mother Kizzy and his ancestor from Africa, Kunta Kinte. This puzzles me because I wonder what Tom thinks are the requirements for entrance into heaven. He’s a Christian, right? But, why would Kunta be in heaven, if he’d never accepted Christ as his personal Savior? Kunta said defiantly throughout his episodes of Roots that he was loyal to Allah and would not become a Christian. Does the author of Episode 1 of Roots: The Next Generation misunderstand Christian doctrine?

I’d like to say so, but in a later episode, Simon Haley tells his son, Alex, why he doesn’t like Malcom X: “I’ve always accepted Christ as my personal Savior and feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t.” Simon’s problem was that Malcom was a Muslim, who hadn’t accepted Christ as his personal Savior. Did Tom Harvey have an inclusivist picture of the afterlife? Or perhaps he’s like many people, even those with Christian backgrounds: he either believes that everyone goes to heaven after death, or that being a good person is enough to get one through the pearly gates.

2. In Ancient Israelite Religion, I read Klaus Baltzer’s “Liberation from Debt Slavery After the Exile in Second Isaiah and Nehemiah.” On page 478, he seems to interpret the servant of Second Isaiah as Israel. This somewhat surprised me, for, in his Hermeneia commentary on Second Isaiah, Baltzer interprets the servant as Moses. In Exodus 32:32-33, Moses is interceding with the Israelites after they had worshipped the Golden Calf. Moses asks God to blot his name from the book that God has written—to take Moses’ life instead of that of the Israelites. God responds that God doesn’t work that way: he blots out the names of those who have sinned.

According to Baltzer, the Servant Songs of Second Isaiah are about God allowing Moses to die in place of Israel, enabling Israel’s redemption. The result is that the servant is not named, indicating that Moses’ name has been blotted out of God’s book.

I’m not sure what the implications of this are, if I’m even understanding Baltzer correctly. Baltzer views Second Isaiah as like a play. He may be arguing that, within that play, you have the character of Moses, who delivers Israel out of bondage to take her to the Promised Land, offering to die in the people’s place when they sin. But the referent to the play is, not the Exodus, but a similar situation: God delivering Israel from Babylonian captivity and taking her to the Promised Land.

3. In Psalms II: 51-100, Mitchell Dahood says that he has an unconventional view on the issue of the Psalms and eternal life. Many scholars contend that, when the Psalmist asks God to redeem him from the pit, he’s talking about God saving him from a near-death experience, not resurrection or blissful immortality. Dahood offers some references where he comments on this issue, so, in this post, I’ll see what he has to say.

I didn’t look at all of Dahood’s references, but only the ones in volume 2. His argument appears to be that, in Ugaritic literature, a god’s court or mountain or house can refer to his abode outside of the earthly realm, what many of us would call “heaven.” So, for Dahood, when the Psalmist asks to dwell in these places forever, he’s talking about entering a celestial Paradise and being with God after death. And there are precedents for this, Dahood says, for God took Enoch and Elijah to heaven. Moreover, in Ugaritic literature, there are people who almost attain eternal life or who actually succeed (Utnapishtim, the Noah figure in the Epic of Gligamesh).

Sure, in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East, we see the concept that people after death go to the Underworld. But could Dahood be correct that the Psalmist hoped for something different—to be with God in the celestial realm and to live forever, as did Enoch and Elijah, and (at least in terms of eternal life) certain ancient Near Eastern figures?

4. On page 147 of Narrative History and Ethnic Boundaries, Theodore Mullen says the following about Gideon: The narrative now returns to the issue of the oppressive activities of the Midianites and the need for deliverance that introduced this series of accounts. If the foreign god could be overcome, then surely the foreign oppressor could also be defeated.

I wondered if Mullen was mistaken about the Midianites worshipping Baal, until I remembered that they promoted the worship of the Baal of Peor in Numbers 25.

Mullen’s statement helps me to appreciate the weight of what Gideon did when he tore down the altar of Baal. In those days, people believed that dishonoring a god’s holy place could lead that god to make the defiler’s life a living hell, if the god didn’t kill him first. That’s why overcoming the god was considered almost as significant as defeating flesh-and-blood oppressors. Gideon must have had strong faith that his God was more powerful than Baal, or was existent whereas Baal was not.

5. In the Middle Platonists, on pages 318-319, John Dillon discusses the views of the second century C.E. philosopher Apuleius. Dillon refers to the ancient belief that daemons were in the air. This stood out to me because Ephesians 2:2 refers to Satan as the prince of the power of the air. Granted, the ancients didn’t necessarily see daemons as evil spirits, but rather as helpful guides and intermediaries between humans and the divine. But perhaps early Christianity saw them as demons, the same way that Paul called the gods of the other nations devils (I Corinthians 10:20-21).

On another topic, Apuleius said that good souls departing from their bodies “are entrusted with the care of definite parts of the earth, and even with individual households.” But those “who have died in sin, on the other hand, wander over the world in a sort of exile, causing what havoc they can.” For Apuleius, these ghosts can be used to punish wicked men, “but should not cause alarm to the good.”

I like what Apuleius says here because it somewhat conforms to the Armstrongite picture of the afterlife: we won’t just be playing a harp in heaven, but will be helping people in some capacity. So this life actually is a preparation for the life thereafter: we’re being prepared for a vocation of humble service.

The fate of the bad souls reminds me of the show, Ghost Whisperer. Melinda’s goal is to cross departed souls into the light, a place of forgiveness and peace and reunion with loved ones. But they have to take care of unfinished business before they can cross. Some spirits, led by a deceased cult leader, prefer to stay behind on earth to gain power and to cause havoc. They’re like the bad souls that Apuleias talks about—only they will probably harm the good people, not just the wicked deserving of punishment. But some are staying behind because they feel that they have to atone for their sins before they cross over. They’re trying to serve humanity to make up for some evil that they did before they died. This differs from Apuleias, who held that the good departed souls were the ones who would serve humanity, not the souls on probation. But I guess that we see the concept of ghosts on probation helping others before they earn their wings in other stories—Highway to Heaven, for example.

I wonder if some of these ideas can be reconciled with the Christian worldview in any way.


  1. In Exodus 32:32-33, Moses is interceding with the Israelites after they had worshipped the Golden Calf. Moses asks God to blot his name from the book that God has written—to take Moses’ life instead of that of the Israelites. God responds that God doesn’t work that way: he blots out the names of those who have sinned.

    I'm not sure where one finds Moses asking God to take his life INSTEAD of the Israelites. Isn't Moses being very clear saying that if the Almighty is going to annihilate the Israelites, then erase his name from the book too? He's not interested in the Almighty's offer of making him into a great nation (Ex 32:9)? I've heard this episode described as a test for Moses. He is exactly the kind of leader that the Almighty wants - one who loves the children of Israel and will never abandom them.

    Ex 32:33 - "Whoever has sinned against Me, I shall erase from my book." And yet the Children of Israel and Moses' names are not erased from the book of Exodus, nor from any of the books. Very intriguing on many levels.

    Can you assist me? I'm lost on where to find the Servant Songs of Second Isaiah. Are you referring to Isaiah 2?

  2. Hi Emet. I'm not sure. I always read this passage to be about Moses offering to die in place of the Israelites. But I can't really disprove that it means Moses being willing to die with the Israelites, and God saying no, since Moses did nothing wrong.

    On the servant songs---they're Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-13; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12.

  3. Thank you for your assistance with Isaiah.

    I have read NIV, NASB, KJ and The Stone Edition Chumash, and Judaica Press and I still don't see how it reads that Moses asked the Almighty to kill him in place of the Israelites. It says if you don't forgive them then erase me from your book now. One might read it as, if you kill them then kill me too, but it doesn't say I'll die in their place.

    But even if you read it that Moses asks for the Almighty to kill him in place of the Children of Israel, doesn't the Almighty reply, "Whoever has sinned against Me, I shall erase from My book." Doesn't that mean that the person who sins will die and that no one can die for another person's sins? Deuteronomy 24:16 and all of Ezekiel 18 are very clear that no dies for another's sins. Ezekiel 18:4 ... The soul that sins - it shall die.

    And of course repentence is stressed. Ezekiel 18:27-28 "And if the wicked man turns away from his wickedness that he did and performs justice and righteousness, he will cause his soul to live. Because he contemplated and repented from all his transgressions that he did he shall surely live; he shall not die."

    I like your blog because it always challenges me to look things up. I always ask myself, how do I know this story? Did someone tell it to me - was it the nuns, the Jesuits, the Evangelical Christian bible studies, the rabbis? Where does my understanding come from? Is it consistent with other bible passages? James, you are making me work.

  4. You keep me on my toes, Emet!

    I'll have to think some about substitutionary atonement in Ex. 32:32-33, if it exists, that is. My Jewish Study Bible says Ramban (thirteenth century) believed Moses offered to die in place of the Israelties, so apparently that's one view. What do your commentaries say about those verses?


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