Monday, February 28, 2011

Concluding Sperling

I finished S. David Sperling's The Original Torah. In this post, I'll talk about Sperling's views on Aaron and Moses.

1. I've been waiting for a long time to read Sperling's views on Aaron. They pretty much go as follows: In early traditions, Aaron was not the brother of Moses or a priest, for Micah 5:4 (from the eighth century B.C.E.) does not say that Aaron was related to Moses. For Sperling, Aaron was a wonder-worker, who accompanied Moses to Egypt and performed wonders, which helped bring about the Exodus.

Later, according to Sperling, Jeroboam I decided to use the figure of Aaron to justify his Golden Calf cult, and, at this stage of tradition, Aaron was a priest. Sperling agrees with Moses Aberbach and Leivy Smolar that there are similarities between Jeroboam and Aaron: both make a golden calf, which is introduced to the Israelites with the phrase "These are your gods, who brought you out of Egypt"; both build altars and institute festivals; and both have children with similar sounding names (Aaron's sons are Nadab and Abihu, and Aaron's sons are Nadab and Abijah). For Sperling, Aaron's statement in Exodus 32:24---that he threw gold into the fire, and out came the calf---was not a poor excuse on Aaron's part, but was rather a positive statement. In thirteenth century B.C.E. Ugaritic texts, fire consumes the gold and the silver that were intended for the construction of Baal's house, then the house spontaneously appears, in a completed state! Sperling's argument is that, originally, Aaron in Exodus 32:24 was describing the miracle of how the Golden Calf came to exist.

But the story came South after the destruction of Northern Israel in 720 B.C.E., and the South added its negative spin on it, making Aaron and the Golden Calf look bad. At some point, however, the image of Aaron was rehabilitated, and "certain elements of the second temple priesthood" claimed descent from Aaron, who was not even a historical figure (unlike the competing sons of Korah, for whom we have actual archaeological evidence, Sperling notes). According to Sperling, we know that the requirement that all priests be descended from Aaron emerged in the sixth century, for Exodus 28:42-43 says that the new priesthood must wear pants, which were invented by the Persians and first appear in Persian reliefs in the sixth century B.C.E., "precisely when Jews began coming into contact with Iranians." During the sixth century B.C.E., there was only one sanctuary in Yehud---the one in Jerusalem---and so there was a limited number of spots for priests. Many agreed that the sons of Aaron should fulfill the role, and yet the sons of Korah were unhappy with this arrangement. Thus, we have stories in Numbers about God elevating Aaron and putting down the sons of Korah!

Here are my reactions:

First, I'm a little confused by Sperling's chronology of sources. He says on page 104 that that the early traditions about Aaron come from the eighth century B.C.E., and that they don't present Aaron as a priest, or as Moses' brother. Yet, he says on page 109 that Aaron was a priest in the Golden Calf story, and Jeroboam I ruled in the tenth century B.C.E. Is Sperling's view that the Golden Calf story was written after the reign of Jeroboam I---to justify the Bethel cult against detractors (perhaps Hosea in Hosea 8:5-6)?

Second, there are places in the Exodus story itself in which Aaron is called Moses' brother (Exodus 4:14; 7:1-2). As far as I could see, Sperling doesn't address those passages. If his view is that a later interpolator inserted the part about Aaron being Moses' brother---meaning that it's not part of the original story---then I'll just sigh, since it seems to me at this point that one can defend any proposition with the interpolation card (not that Sperling plays it).

Third, regarding pants, James Hoffmeier refers to the use of pants before the Persian period, as I discuss in my post here.

But Sperling's scenario may still have truth in it.

2. Regarding Moses, Sperling sees him as an allegory for Saul, who, like Aaron, later got a bum rap by someone with political interests (in Saul's case, David). Both Moses and Saul defeated the Amalekites, had sympathy for Kenites (whom Genesis 15:17-20 lists among the bad people of Canaan), and consolidated Israel. Moreover, I Samuel 14:35 says that Saul was the first to build an altar to the LORD---which many English translations obscure, and which Leviticus Rabbah tries to explain away. On page 134, Sperling says that "the traditions concerning David, even those that speak of the Exodus, make no reference at all to the figure of Moses", the reason being that Moses was a character created (I think) by pro-Saulides to promote Saul.

That said, I want to talk briefly about the "Saul among the prophets" stories in I Samuel 10 and 19, which Sperling discusses on pages 124-125. Sperling says that the story in I Samuel 10 is positive---"His inclusion among the prophets is a sign that God has given him 'another heart'; he has been changed from an ordinary human being into someone divinely chosen to lead Israel." Then what about I Samuel 19, in which Saul experiences the same thing, only while he is pursuing David (which is an evil deed in the story)? For Sperling, Saul in that story is a naked madman, utterly unfit "for royal office."

Robert Alter discusses these stories on page 89 of The Art of Biblical Narrative. He states:

"One can, of course, argue for a certain purposeful pattern even in such a repetition: the same divine power that makes Saul different from himself and enables him for the kingship later strips and reduces him as the divine election shifts from Saul to David. There is, however, at least a suspicion of narrative improbability in this identical bizarre action recurring in such different contexts, and one may reasonably conclude that the pressure of competing etiologies for the enigmatic folk-saying determined the repetition more than any artful treatment of character and theme."

When I have read I Samuel 10 and 19 for my quiet times, I have wondered why the story of Saul's ecstasy appears twice---when Saul becomes king, and when he pursues David. When I checked commentaries, they usually took the approach that Alter takes above---that they are two alternative etiologies for the saying "Is Saul also among the prophets?" (This is uncharacteristic for Alter, who usually employs a synchronic approach, rather than a diachronic one. Personally, I think that a synchronic approach can work here, for, even if the two stories are alternative etiologies, they are both put into the narrative---and I'd like to think that's for a reason.) But that did not satisfy me---maybe because I preferred deeper reasons than "there are different traditions." I learned that I Samuel 10 is about God's spiritual anointing (to draw from charismatic terminology) of Saul for the kingship, but then I wondered why Saul would get anointed later, while he is pursuing David. I thought that maybe God was trying to remind Saul of his spiritual experience years before, to make Saul lament the heights from which he had descended, and to encourage him to come back to God. That could be, but I can understand the view that God was seeking to humiliate Saul in I Samuel 19.

I'll stop here.

"Last Words"

In Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, I read Chapter 17, "Last Words." This is the final chapter of the book.

I have two points. First of all, Booker T. Washington talks about "several severe race riots which had occurred at different points in the South." But he doesn't really elaborate on this. Most of this chapter is about how he's come a long way from his slavery days (or I think that I read that point again), how he's been received well by white audiences, how good it is to devote one's life to a cause, the importance of manual labor---basically, Booker T. Washington's greatest hits. Washington tries to give us a sunny picture of race relations, but there are times when we see that there's another story as well---that racism and discontent are still alive.

I can't say that Booker T. Washington ignores racism, though, for he says that racists are hurting themselves, and he argues against those who hold that African-Americans are immoral. But he remains ever the optimist, for he deeply feels that he has the solution to racial problems: African-Americans should work hard and gain the respect of white society. He thought that whites would respect merit, for that is a part of human nature. W.E.B. Du Bois may have been a little more skeptical, however.

Second, Washington gives us the schedule of the typical day for a Tuskegee student:

"5 A.M., rising bell; 5.50 A.M., warning breakfast bell; 6 A.M., breakfast bell; 6.20 A.M., breakfast over; 6.20 to 6.50 A.M., rooms are cleaned; 6.50, work bell; 7.30, morning study hour; 8.20, morning school bell; 8.25, inspection of young men’s toilet in ranks; 8.40, devotional exercises in chapel; 8.55, “five minutes with the daily news;” 9 A.M., class work begins; 12, class work closes; 12.15 P.M., dinner; 1 P.M., work bell; 1.30 P.M., class work begins; 3.30 P.M., class work ends; 5.30 P.M., bell to “knock off” work; 6 P.M., supper; 7.10 P.M., evening prayers; 7.30 P.M., evening study hour; 8.45 P.M., evening study hour closes; 9.20 P.M., warning retiring bell; 9.30 P.M., retiring bell."

This took me aback because, on more than one occasion, Booker T. Washington says that Tuskegee students were required to spend huge parts of the day in manual labor---such as brick-making. But I don't see much manual labor on this schedule. Is manual labor included under "class work"?

I've enjoyed reading and blogging through the writings of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois during this Black History Month! Tomorrow, I will be starting a book for Women's History Month, and yet it overlaps with African-American issues. Stay tuned!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Fear and Encouragement

I really enjoyed the service at the Presbyterian church this morning, for it related to issues that I especially went through this week: worry, and how to handle criticism.

I thought that the pastor presented constructive ways of looking at those things, especially with his anecdotes. For example, he told us about Jay Leno, who years ago was rehearsing to host the Tonight Show, and Johnny Carson didn't think he'd be right for the job, since Jay didn't have enough jokes. Jay was devastated and resentful, but he went back and honed his material.

The pastor referred to a lady who concluded that most of her worries were needless---for, often, the things that she worried about did not happen. There may be a degree of wisdom to this, but I've found that I've worried about things that actually do happen, such as alienation in social situations, and other things. Are situations usually as bad as I think? Maybe not. But I think that worry is an understandable emotion, not something that's unrealistic. As the pastor himself said, there are things in this life that make us insecure. He told a story about a kid who was scared on his first day of school, and how worries increase in adulthood, as we wrestle with anxieties about finances, health, family, etc. Personally, even as an adult, the first day of school frightened me---as did every subsequent day of school. (That's why I appreciated that the pastor referred to people who get psychotherapy to deal with their worries: there are people like me who have needed help!) And there are tragedies in this life. I know of two people who died in their late 50's this week---and one of them was a social studies teacher I had in junior high school. How can I not worry, when life is so fragile---for me and my loved ones?

The pastor told a story that I had heard before, but I appreciated hearing it this time around because it overlapped with my study of the Psalms (and, by the way, at the service this morning, one of the liturgists said some beautiful and authentic things about the role of the Psalms in her personal faith). In Cologne, Germany, during World War II, in a place where Jews had hidden, something was found written on the wall: "I believe in the sun, even when it isn’t shining. I believe in love, even when I am alone. I believe in God, even when he is silent." The pastor said that we do not know what happened to the people who wrote that---if they were captured by the Nazis, if they were safe, etc. But the pastor said he believed that they faced their situation with courage, on account of their faith in God.

I've often wondered why I should believe in a God who will make everything turn out all right, especially when there are so many things in the world that are far from all right. If God doesn't appear to take care of those situations, then why should I believe that he'll take care of me? But, as I've read the Psalms, the conclusion I've reached is that I may not know how things will turn out, but I can find security in the presence of God and live one day at a time. The Psalmist expected God to make things all right, and yet, in the midst of a situation in which he was extremely vulnerable, he chose to stay in the presence of God (in the sanctuary) rather than fleeing to the mountains. (Many have interpreted Psalm 11 in this manner.) His outlook was changed by being in the presence of God. That's what happens when I receive strength: the world is still out there, with all of its problems, and yet I am a little bit stronger.

"Europe"

In Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, I read Chapter 16, "Europe." In this chapter, Booker T. Washington talks about his pride in his children, his sadness at not being able to spend a lot of time with them, his paid trip to Europe, the famous people he met (i.e., Mark Twain, ex-President Benjamin Harrison, etc.), and the gracious reception he received from several people, including white Southerners. After he read about Frederick Douglass' ill-treatment on a ship, and compared that to the treatment that he himself received, Booker T. Washington marvels, "And yet there are people who are bold enough to say that race feeling in America is not growing less intense!"

This reminded me of Jesse Owens on the Jesse Owens Story, when Jesse Owens was talking to a prominent organization of African-Americans who championed Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Olympic winners who gave a Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics. Jesse Owens wanted Smith and Carlos to deliver a formal apology, but the African-American organization thought they should stick to their guns, to protest the discrimination that African-Americans continued to experience. Jesse Owens then talked about the advancement that African-Americans had made, and the organization dismissed that as not good enough. "But it's a beginning!", Jesse Owens replied. Jesse Owens, like Booker T. Washington (whom he admired), wanted to focus on the progress that African-Americans had made, and did not desire for African-Americans to alienate white society through a provocative statement of protest.

But back to Booker T. Washington's trip to Europe! Washington gives his impression of the French and the English. For some reason, he views the French as a foil for the African-American race:

"The love of pleasure and excitement which seems in a large measure to possess the French people impressed itself upon me. I think they are more noted in this respect than is true of the people of my own race. In point of morality and moral earnestness I do not believe that the French are ahead of my own race in America. Severe competition and the great stress of life have led them to learn to do things more thoroughly and to exercise greater economy; but time, I think, will bring my race to the same point. In the matter of truth and high honour I do not believe that the average Frenchman is ahead of the American Negro; while so far as mercy and kindness to dumb animals go, I believe that my race is far ahead. In fact, when I left France, I had more faith in the future of the black man in America than I had ever possessed."

Then there's the following puzzling statement about the English:

"On various occasions Mrs. Washington and I were the guests of Englishmen in their country homes, where, I think, one sees the Englishman at his best. In one thing, at least, I feel sure that the English are ahead of Americans, and that is, that they have learned how to get more out of life. The home life of the English seems to me to be about as perfect as anything can be. Everything moves like clockwork. I was impressed, too, with the deference that the servants show to their 'masters' and 'mistresses,'—terms which I suppose would not be tolerated in America. The English servant expects, as a rule, to be nothing but a servant, and so he perfects himself in the art to a degree that no class of servants in America has yet reached. In our country the servant expects to become, in a few years, a 'master' himself. Which system is preferable? I will not venture an answer."

This is odd, coming from a former slave.

And, while Booker T. Washington often champions hard work and talks about his busy schedule, he admires the English for their slow-pace:

"The Englishmen, I found, took plenty of time for eating, as for everything else. I am not sure if, in the long run, they do not accomplish as much or more than rushing, nervous Americans do."

Yet, this is not necessarily a contradiction of other things that Booker T. Washington has written in this book. Washington admires the thoroughness of the English, and he himself talks about the value of being thorough in one's work. Moreover, Washington has talked about patience.

Booker T. Washington refers to a famous African-American painter he met, Henry C. Tanner, then he launches into his usual lecture about how African-Americans can be received by white society if they do quality work, for all races respect that.

And so this chapter contains Booker T. Washington's customary optimism, along with some other interesting (and sometimes puzzling) thoughts.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Psalm 13

For my weekly quiet time today, we'll look at Psalm 13 and its interpreters. In Psalm 13, the vexed Psalmist asks God how long God will forget him.

1. In v 3, the Psalmist asks God to brighten his eyes, so that he will not sleep the sleep of death. What does brightening the eyes mean? One view is that the revival of the depressed spirit brightens the eyes. Job says in Job 17:7 that his eyes are dim from grief, and weary Jonathan's eyes are brightened in I Samuel 14:27 after he takes a taste of honey. In Ezra 9:8, Ezra describes God's restoration of Judah from exile as the brightening of the Jews' eyes. Dim eyes can indicate depression, whereas the brightening of the eyes comes when a person is encouraged---something gives the depressed person strength. Speaking of depression, the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll's interpretation of Psalm 13:2 caught my eye. In v 2, the Psalmist says that he has grief in his heart by day. Why does the Psalmist mention the daytime? According to the Artscroll, in this situation, the Psalmist's daytime activities are not "sufficiently distracting to suppress melancholy feelings..."

Another view is that the dimming of the vision occurs when a person is coming close to death. In Psalm 38:10, the Psalmist says that his strength is failing and the light of his eyes is not in him. Deuteronomy 34:7 says that, when Moses died, his eye was not dim, and his natural vigor had not departed. Yes, Moses' eyes were bright even as he was nearing death, but my point is this: dim eyes in the Hebrew Bible can indicate becoming weak and approaching death, whereas bright eyes are signs of health and vitality (which Moses had even when he was dying). I think that this is what brightening of the eyes means in Psalm 13:3, for the Psalmist says in that verse that he does not want to die.

But there is a third interpretation that is prominent: the brightening of the eyes is spiritual enlightenment, or it serves to counter sin and its effects. Augustine spiritualizes Psalm 13, interpreting it as the Psalmist's lament that God has not given to him the knowledge of God. For Augustine, v 3 is talking about how sin closes the eyes of the heart. Is there biblical justification for viewing the brightening of the eyes as spiritual enlightenment? Indeed, Psalm 19:3 says that God's commandment brightens the eyes. But I think that this just means that it encourages people, since the parallel line affirms that God's statutes bring joy to the heart.

Theodore of Mopsuestia, a fourth-fifth century C.E. Christian thinker, relates Psalm 3:3 to guilt darkening the heart, and David's desire for God to bring him joy. For Theodore, this Psalm is about David's flight from Absalom, which was God's punishment of David for his sin with Bathsheba. God has forgiven David, and yet God chastises him so that he'll be more careful to avoid sin in the future. David realizes that there is spiritual and moral benefit from recalling his past guilt even after he has been forgiven, for that can discourage future sin. And yet, David does not want feelings of guilt to crush his spirit, and he desires reconciliation with God.

In his commentary on the Psalms, W.O.E. Oesterley states that suffering can be "the sufferer's own fault, which in his blindness he does not realize..." Oesterley goes with a combination of the first two interpretations of brightening the eyes, which have to do with encouragement and health. But, in his spiritual application section, he appears to apply Psalm 3:3 to one's blindness about how his own actions are contributing to his suffering.

There is debate about whether or not Psalm 13 is saying that the Psalmist is suffering on account of his sins. In the Jewish Study Bible, Adele Berlin and Marc Brettler say that God's hiddenness in Psalm 13:2-3 is due to divine neglect. The Psalmist suffering due to God's neglect to pay attention to him is different from God punishing the Psalmist for his sins.

But John Gill notes something interesting: In Psalm 13, the Psalmist humbly throws himself on God's mercy. In other Psalms, the Psalmist asks God to take into account his righteousness and innocence, but the Psalmist does not do that here. According to Gill, the Psalms in which David appeals to his own righteousness occur during his flight from Saul, when David had done nothing wrong. Psalm 13, however, is set during David's flight from Absalom, which was God's punishment for David's sin. In that case, David could not appeal to his own righteousness to convince God to deliver him. All he could do was throw himself on God's mercy.

2. John Walton refers to a "Sumerian Lament over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur," which asks a deity how long the enemy will triumph. That resembles the plea of the Psalmist in Psalm 13, which asks "How long?". Moreover, Sigmund Mowinkel says that there are parallels between Psalm 13 and Babylonian laments. Mowinkel says something similar about Psalm 12, in which God appears to answer the petitioner through an intermediary: that Babylonian Psalms had that kind of phenomenon. There are significant areas in which the biblical Psalms overlap with other Psalms in the ancient Near East. Could God have been hearing and answering prayers in other cultures, besides ancient Israel?

Not Much on Segregation?

In Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, I read Chapter 15, "The Secret of Success in Public Speaking."

This chapter covered a lot of topics. It's like "Everything you wanted to know about Booker T. Washington" (my words): his hobbies, what he likes to read, the games he likes to play, how he takes short power naps, how he enjoyed molasses on Sundays when he was a kid, etc.

His advice on public speaking is essentially what my Dad told me one time: have something to say! Also, speak from the heart. My problem in the days when I was delivering sermons was that I didn't have anything to say! Or let me say this: I wasn't enthusiastic about preaching what the church liked to emphasize (e.g., evangelism). Plus, my own spiritual house was not in order, so how could I tell others what to do? And so I really couldn't speak from the heart, either. But those were the days when I felt that I had to believe in a certain way, and I wasn't overly comfortable with the doctrines I thought I had to accept. It's one thing to believe in doctrines because I think that I have to accept them, since they're from God. It's another thing entirely for me to become enthusiastic about proclaiming those doctrines, especially when I feel that there's no evidence for them that would convince anyone who doesn't already believe in them. Often, it seemed that churches and Christian movements were trying to pressure me to do precisely that.

But Booker T. Washington had something to say. He had strong ideas about the advancement of African-Americans, based on his experience. And he thought that the advancement of African-Americans coincided with the well-being of society as a whole---an attitude that I also encountered when reading W.E.B. Du Bois. So he was sharing something valuable.

On my blog, do I have something to say? To be honest, I really don't care. I like to write, and so I write. I don't need to justify my blog's existence to anyone, including myself. I doubt that the world would be a worse place if people did not read my posts on, say, biblical criticism. But, all in all, I do find a need to express myself---at the very least for my own benefit. And I hope also that people can get from my blog that things aren't clear-cut all of the time---that there are shades of gray.

One line that stood out to me in my reading was James Creelman's quote of a speech by Booker T. Washington, which said, "In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." Was Booker T. Washington tolerating segregation? After I read that quote, I asked myself, "Have I read much about segregation in the writings of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois?" To be honest, I don't think that I have. That's my impression, and it could be wrong. But it's interesting that segregation---the issue that was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's---does not loom large as an issue in the writings of two great African-American leaders at the turn of the century (the early 1900's).

Both of them think that social interaction between the races is important, however. W.E.B. Du Bois said that one problem that contributes to discriminatory attitudes is that whites and African-Americans do not really know one another; although Du Bois detests slavery, he points out that at least there was interaction between the races in slavery days (see here). Booker T. Washington makes a similar point---when he reminds his white audiences that slaves fought to protect their masters and masters' families. And Booker T. Washington also encourages Tuskegee students to get to know their white neighbors, to seek their advice on how to vote, and to impress their white neighbors with their intelligent contribution to the larger community. For Booker T. Washington, that is how African-Americans advance in society. Throughout the book, Booker T. Washington talks about the morality of African-Americans because there is an attitude within white society that they, as a race, are immoral. Washington actually says that in this chapter! But Washington believes that white society does not really know African-Americans.

Back to the issue of segregation. Come to think of it, there are times when Du Bois and Washington talk about African-Americans being excluded from certain things (e.g., hotels, etc.) on account of their race. Du Bois tells these sorts of stories with an attitude of sadness and dejection, whereas Washington tries to maintain his sunny "Don't let this get you down" attitude (my words). But, overall, my impression is that both of them focus on African-American success, rather than the integration of African-Americans into white society. Du Bois desires that African-Americans vote so that white society is not unjustly infringing upon their progress through legal means, and Washington encourages African-Americans to learn skills so as to become self-supporting. It's a somewhat insular approach, and yet Du Bois and Washington are emphatic that such is not the case, for they believe that African-Americans have, can, and should contribute to all of society---African-American, white, etc.

This is just my take on the two thinkers, and I could be mistaken.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Beginning Sperling

I started S. David Sperling's The Original Torah. Sperling's argument is that many stories in the Torah are political allegories---they stand for a political situation on which they are commenting. This isn't too different from Richard Elliott Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible?, as Friedman argued that J was supporting the South, whereas E was supporting the North. But, at least so far, Sperling hasn't made much use of the Documentary Hypothesis. But, like Friedman, he does think that the stories are making political points.

In this post, I'll refer to specific stories that Sperling covers, as well as the political point that he believes they were making. I'll also toss in some really cool points that Sperling makes.

1. Sperling dates the Adam and Eve story in Genesis 2-3 to the time of Assyrian hegemony---specifically the twelfth-eighth centuries B.C.E.---for the Assyrians were known for their royal pleasure gardens, and, "In the ancient world, it was common to assign the powers and perquisites enjoyed by human royalty to the great gods who populate the myths" (page 38). According to Sperling, that's what's going on in Genesis 2-3: God has his own pleasure garden, as the kings of Assyria had.

I guess this isn't an allegory, but it's a cool point!

2. Moving on to another cool point, before I get into an allegory, Sperling speculates on page 78 about the origin of the Abraham tradition. In the thirteenth century B.C.E., Pharaoh Seti I referred to "aggressors against the Raham group" who "were defeated by the Egyptians" (Sperling's words). What if the Raham group became part of Israel, and the Israelites gave it an ancestor---Ab-Raham (father of Raham)? Over time, the name "Abraham" came to mean "father of a multitude of nations," and its original meaning was forgotten.

Now for some allegory! In Genesis 14, Abram unites with some Amorites to defeat a group of kings. Sperling doesn't consider this story to be historical because v 14 mentions Dan, which did not exist in the time of Abraham. Plus, some of the names appear to be literary (Bera means "In Evil" and Birsha means "In Wickedness"), and there's no external evidence for the battle in Genesis 14. Sperling notes that the last verse of Genesis 13 mentions Abram's residence in Hebron, which was "David's capital for seven years" (page 83), and that Genesis 14 refers to cities that were built in the time of King Solomon. For Sperling, Genesis 14 was a story from the Solomonic period, which sought to justify David. Sperling cites an argument by Yochanan Muffs that there are parallels between Genesis 14 and a story about David in I Samuel 30. Sperling also says that Abram's alliance with Amorites served to justify David's alliance with the Philistines, which was controversial, considering that the Philistines were enemies of Israel. And the honor that Abraham shows to Melchizadek, the king of Salem, served to defend the status of Jerusalem as a holy site, for David had relocated the Israelite cult to Jerusalem.

Sperling argues that something similar is going on in Genesis 21, where Abraham makes a covenant with the Philistines (which, according to Sperling, is anachronistic, since the first reference to the Philistines is from Pharaoh Ramses III, who identifies them as a group that came to the Levant in the twelfth century B.C.E., after the time that Abraham supposedly lived). According to Sperling, the Davidic kingdom was defending David's relationship with the Philistines by saying that Abraham had a covenant with them. At the same time, the story is assuring Israel that David will fight for Israel if necessary, as Abraham stood up to the Philistines to safeguard his water-rights.

3. Like R.N. Whybray, Sperling believes that Hosea 12's picture of Joseph is different from that in Genesis. In Hosea 12, Jacob cheats his brother in the womb, fights with a spirit named Bethel, foolishly worships Bethel after beating him, and establishes a sanctuary that Hosea calls "Delusionville." According to Sperling, Genesis 27 defends Jacob and Bethel, a religious site in the time of Jeroboam. I agree that Genesis 27 is not as negative about Jacob as Sperling's reading of Hosea 12!

4. For Sperling, the Joseph story justifies Jeroboam. Like Jeroboam I, Joseph spent time in Egypt and then gained a position of prominence. And like Jeroboam II, Joseph ruled over Judah. (According to II Kings 14:8-14, Northern Israel defeated Judah shortly before Jeroboam II came into power.) But Sperling believes that Ezekiel 37 reverses the Joseph story to favor Judah: it agrees with the Joseph story that the tribes of Israel will come together after a period of exile and separation, but, unlike the Joseph story, Ezekiel 37 thinks that the tribe of Judah will be boss!

5. According to Sperling, the Exodus was an allegory for Canaanite peasants becoming liberated from Canaanite city-states, which were supervised by Egypt. We know from the fourteenth century B.C.E. Amarna letters (which concern Egyptian control of Canaan) that there was discontent among Canaanite workers. Moreover, Exodus 1:11 uses the term mas in describing Israelite servitude, and the word mas appears in El Amarna letter 365. Exodus 12:40 says that the Israelites served in Egypt for 430 years, which was roughly the amount of time that Egypt controlled Canaan. There is also overlap between what is seen in the Iron I central hill (Israelite) sites and Canaanite language and material culture, and these sites appear in the thirteenth century B.C.E., after a period of turbulence. For Sperling, Israel was a nation of Canaanites, who were previously discontent workers in an Egyptian-run society.

But why would the Israelites tell a story that presented them as outsiders entering Canaan to take over the land? As Sperling asks, wouldn't they want to present themselves as native Canaanites, since that would entitle them to Canaan? As far as I could tell, Sperling did not answer this question straightforwardly. He noted that the Israelites try in the Torah to distinguish themselves from the Canaanites---presenting the Canaanites (and the Egyptians) as immoral perverts. He says that sole devotion to YHWH is a characteristic of virtually all of the biblical writings---from the time when Israel believed in the existence of multiple gods, to the time of her monotheism---so he believes that it was an integral part of the formation of Israelite identity. On page 71, Sperling states that "contemporary scholarship is virtually unanimous in viewing Israel as an ethnically diverse group that arose within Canaan", so perhaps he believes that Israel tried to differentiate herself from the other Canaanites and highlighted the sole worship of YHWH in order to unite disparate groups into a single nation.

6. Numbers 21 is about Israel's defeat of the Amorites in Moab, as Israel took possession of some towns there, along with the city of Heshbon. Sperling does not consider this story to be historical, for there was no royal city of Heshbon in the Late Bronze Age---only "flimsy architectural remains". But Sperling views Numbers 21 as an allegory for "a historical military push by King Omri and his son Ahab into Transjordan early in the ninth century" (page 59). Israelites were making claims to areas in Moab. There was even an Israelite presence there, for the Mesha Stele says that the Gadites had been in Moab forever, and that Omri built them a city. But Moabites were making counter-claims. Israel defended its claims by saying that the Israelites, years before, had taken the property from the Amorites, not the Moabites, and so Israel had dibs on the land.

7. I'm just including this so I have more than six items, as I'm superstitious about the number six!

Booker T. Washington's Approach in a Nut-Shell

In Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, I read Chapter 14, "The Atlanta Exposition Address." In my opinion, this is the most important chapter in the book (although I say this with the realization that I still have three chapters to read before I'm finished). Here, Booker T. Washington expresses the viewpoint that was criticized by W.E.B. Du Bois and others (see my post, "Of Booker T. Washington and Others"). And Washington's view flows quite well from the ideas that he has conveyed earlier in his book.

Here is a quote from the Atlanta Exposition Address, which is in this chapter:

"The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing. No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized. It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercises of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house."

Booker T. Washington then refers to those who were concerned about his remarks: "But after the first burst of enthusiasm began to die away, and the coloured people began reading the speech in cold type, some of them seemed to feel that they had been hypnotized. They seemed to feel that I had been too liberal in my remarks toward the Southern whites, and that I had not spoken out strongly enough for what they termed the 'rights' of the race. For a while there was a reaction, so far as a certain element of my own race was concerned, but later these reactionary ones seemed to have been won over to my way of believing and acting."

And yet, Booker T. Washington feels compelled to justify his remarks:

"I am often asked to express myself more freely than I do upon the political condition and the political future of my race. These recollections of my experience in Atlanta give me the opportunity to do so briefly. My own belief is, although I have never before said so in so many words, that the time will come when the Negro in the South will be accorded all the political rights which his ability, character, and material possessions entitle him to. I think, though, that the opportunity to freely exercise such political rights will not come in any large degree through outside or artificial forcing, but will be accorded to the Negro by the Southern white people themselves, and that they will protect him in the exercise of those rights. Just as soon as the South gets over the old feeling that it is being forced by 'foreigners,' or 'aliens,' to do something which it does not want to do, I believe that the change in the direction that I haveindicated is going to begin. In fact, there are indications that it is already beginning in a slight degree."

He then cites himself as an example: He worked hard and did meritorious things, and so whites gave him the honor of having a prominent public platform, which was unprecedented for African-Americans. As Booker T. Washington affirms, "Say what we will, there is something in human nature which we cannot blot out, which makes one man, in the end, recognize and reward merit in another, regardless of colour or race." In my opinion, Booker T. Washington's telling of his life story is an expression of his philosophy: if African-Americans work hard like he did, then that will impress white society and convince them to treat African-Americans as equals.

The following passage explicitly states that African-Americans shouldn't fight so hard in the political realm, even though they should vote:

"I believe it is the duty of the Negro—as the greater part of the race is already doing—to deport himself modestly in regard to political claims, depending upon the slow but sure influences that proceed from the possession of property, intelligence, and high character for the full recognition of his political rights. I think that the according of the full exercise of political rights is going to be a matter of natural, slow growth, not an over-night, gourd-vine affair. I do not believe that the Negro should cease voting, for a man cannot learn the exercise of self-government by ceasing to vote any more than a boy can learn to swim by keeping out of the water, but I do believe that in his voting he should more and more be influenced by those of intelligence and character who are his next-door neighbours."

But don't get Booker T. Washington wrong! He's against political discrimination. But, as he has said repeatedly in his book, discrimination hurts those who discriminate, as well as society in general, which may be why Booker T. Washington believes that racial discrimination will eventually fall by the wayside, without African-Americans having to fight for their rights:

"I do not believe that any state should make a law that permits an ignorant and poverty-stricken white man to vote, and prevents a black man in the same condition from voting. Such a law is not only unjust, but it will react, as all unjust laws do, in time; for the effect of such a law is to encourage the Negro to secure education and property, and at the same time it encourages the white man to remain in ignorance and poverty. I believe that in time, through the operation of intelligence and friendly race relations, all cheating at the ballot-box in the South will cease. It will become apparent that the white man who begins by cheating a Negro out of his ballot soon learns to cheat a white man out of his, and that the man who does this ends his career of dishonesty by the theft of property or by some equally serious crime. In my opinion, the time will come when the South will encourage all of its citizens to vote. It will see that it pays better, from every standpoint, to have healthy, vigorous life than to have that political stagnation which always results when one-half of the population has no share and no interest in the Government."

And so this chapter contains Booker T. Washington's controversial approach in a nut-shell. And there has long been debate between Booker T. Washington's "Work hard, and white society will come around" approach, and W.E.B. Du Bois' "fight for your political rights" method. (Neither of these are direct quotes, but represent my summaries of their positions.)

Another interesting point is that Booker T. Washington lauds President Grover Cleveland as a humble man, who treated all with respect, regardless of their race or class. I vaguely recall reading in Bruce Bartlett's Wrong on Race, however, that Cleveland had some racist ideas. It's interesting how complex human nature can be. Grover Cleveland may have had racist ideas, but Booker T. Washington saw a different side to Cleveland when he met him. I think also of J. Edgar Hoover: people call him a racist, and yet Thurgood Marshall's impression of him was quite different.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Numbers 16: Three Approaches

In my write-up today of Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative, I want to talk about Alter's approach to Numbers 16, which is about the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Before I get into Alter's literary treatment of the chapter, however, I'll summarize Richard Elliott Friedman's source-critical division of it in Who Wrote the Bible? I'll also refer to R.N. Whybray's treatment of the chapter in Making of the Pentateuch.

Here's Friedman's source-critical division of Numbers 16:

In JE, Dathan, Abiram and On, from the tribe of Reuben, rise up against Moses. Moses calls them, and they refuse to come up. They accuse Moses of lording it over Israel, and they say that he has failed to bring Israel into the land flowing with milk and honey. Moses beseeches the LORD not to accept their offering, and Moses contends to the LORD that he has not taken any Israelite's donkey, nor has he wronged any of them.

Moses and the elders of Israel go to Dathan and Abiram, and Dathan and Abiram go outside and stand at the entrance of their tents, with their wives and children. Moses vindicates his own authority by calling on the earth to swallow Dathan, Abiram, and all that belongs to them, and the earth does so. The Israelites are then afraid.

In P, Korah---who is a Levite---and 250 princes of Israel gather against Moses. They ask why Moses and Aaron exalt themselves over the LORD's community, when all of the congregation is holy. Moses instructs Korah and the congregation to take incense-burners, to put fire in them, and to set them before the LORD the next day---and the LORD will demonstrate who is holy. Moses then chastises the sons of Levi for seeking the priesthood, after the LORD had separated them to be close to the LORD, to perform the service of the Tabernacle, and to serve the LORD's congregation.

The next day, the 250 men and Aaron take their incense-burners and add fire and incense to them. The glory of the LORD appears, and the LORD instructs Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the congregation, for the LORD will consume the congregation instantaneously. Moses and Aaron intercede for the congregation, asking God if he will be angry at the entire congregation for the sin of one man. The LORD then tells Moses to instruct the congregation to get away from the tabernacle of Korah. Moses does so, warning that, if they do not obey his instruction, the Israelites will be destroyed with the sinners. The congregation obeys, and a fire from the LORD then goes out and consumes the 250 princes offering the incense.

Now on to Whybray, a critic of the Documentary Hypothesis (of the sort that Friedman champions). Whybray states the following about Number 16, on pages 90-91:

"And there are clear inconsistencies which appear to be due to the combination of two originally separate stories concerning Korah and his associates on the one hand and Dathan and Abiram on the other, but here again conventional documentary analysis does not solve the problem of composition. The documentary critics agreed that the evidence for a separate E strand here is of a very insubstantial nature: the analysis of J and E 'can only be carried into detail in the most tentative way' (Gray, p. 190). Yet on the other hand they agree that the remainder, although attributed to P, is not straightforward and can best be explained on the hypothesis either of a double source or of a later redaction of an original P. Thus the discrepancies in this narrative seem to suggest the presence not of the three 'classical' documents but rather of a quite different set of elements or traditions peculiar to this chapter, the history of whose composition remains obscure."

There's a lot that I don't know about the scholarly debates about this chapter, but I'll just say my impressions, before I move on to Alter. JE appears to be a continuous narrative in Numbers 16, and that may be why source critics find it difficult to separate J from E, in this case. P, however, looks rather bumpy. There appear to be two conflicts in P. First, there's a competition over the priesthood between the Levites and Aaron. Second, Korah leads 250 princes (who are not identified as Levites) against Moses, with the proclamation that all of Israel is holy, not just Moses and Aaron. So what is the conflict in the priestly source of Numbers 16 about? Is it about whether the Levites or Aaron should have the priesthood, or whether all of the congregation of Israel is holy, meaning that Moses and Aaron should not exalt themselves as special? I can see why there are scholars who divide up P in Numbers 16.

Now, on to Alter. I appreciated Alter's citation of the twelfth century Jewish exegete, Abraham Ibn Ezra, who tries to solve problems in Numbers 16. Abraham Ibn Ezra states:

"Some say that Korah was among those swallowed up, and the proof is 'The earth swallowed them up, and Korah' (Num. 26:10). Others say he was incinerated, and their evidence is 'And Korah, when the congregation perished, when the fire consumed'...And our sages of blessed memory say that he was both incinerated and swallowed up. But in my opinion, only in the place of Dathan and Abiram did the earth split open, for Korah is not mentioned there; in fact, Korah was standing with the chieftains who were offering the incense."

The rabbis' harmonization---that Korah was both incinerated and swallowed up---reminds me somewhat of how some Christian fundamentalists have sought to reconcile Matthew 27:5---which says that Judas hung himself---with Acts 1:18---which says that he fell and burst open, as his bowels gushed out: that his bowels gushed out after he hung himself.

I liked that Alter pointed out that the revolt of Dathan and Abiram was a claim of political authority---"appropriately enough, if one recalls that Reuben is the firstborn of Jacob" (page 134).

But let's look at Alter's approach. Alter attempts a synchronic reading of Numbers 16 in three ways:

First, he argues that there is "evidence of some careful aesthetic and thematic structuring in the story" (page 136). The Korahite rebellion begins with the phrase "It's too much for you," and Moses replies to Korah, "Isn't it too much for you?" The "Reubenite speech of rebellion" also begins with "Isn't it enough?" So a common phrase is in both stories. Another example: "the recurrent thematic key-word" in the Dathan and Abiram story is "to go up," and, at the end of that story, Dathan and Abiram "go down" into the underworld. In the story about Korah, we see the Leitworter "to take" and "to come [or bring] close," which are "terms of horizontal movement toward the center of the cult instead of vertical movement toward or away from dominion."

I'm not clear about what implications Alter's observations have for the authorship of Numbers 16. Do these parallels mean that one person wrote all of Numbers 16, or that one story copied the structure of the other? Alter appears to believe that the two stories are from separate sources, so does he think that the redactor put the parallels into the two stories? But these parallels appear to be fairly integral to the stories, so I have a hard time seeing them as later additions. Or maybe the two stories existed in general forms, and a Hebrew writer brought them together, phrasing them in his own words and connecting them together. Alter calls him the "Hebrew writer" here, not a redactor.

Second, Alter raises the possibility that the punishments in the two stories echo other biblical tales. The earth swallowing up Dathan and Abiram may echo the earth swallowing up the blood of Abel---in response to the first act of human violence. And the consuming fire from heaven may refer back to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah with fire from heaven---Sodom and Gomorrah being a society "utterly pervaded by corruption" (page 136). So the two stories of Numbers 16 are united in their appeal to archetypical stories about human evil (that's my impression of what Alter is saying).

Third, Alter states that the Hebrew writer perhaps brought the two stories together to say that political rebellion and an attempt to subvert the priesthood are both acts that challenge the authority of God, "and so both must be told as one tale" (page 136).

Alter's point is that a Hebrew writer brought the stories together for some reason---and so he seeks to identify that reason, rather than merely pointing out the existence of different sources.

"Two Thousand Miles for a Five Minute Speech"

In Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, I read Chapter 13, "Two Thousand Miles for a Five Minute Speech."

In this chapter, we see some of the usual themes that appear throughout the book, in some way, shape, or form: that African-Americans should acknowledge the efforts of white Southerners on their behalf, rather than alienating them by badmouthing the South in the North; that white Southerners who discriminate against African-Americans are only hurting themselves, and they are standing in the way of society's inevitable progress (Booker T. certainly was an optimist!); and that African-Americans can build better relationships with the white community by working hard and becoming indispensable to it. For the latter point, Booker T. Washington tells the story of a Tuskegee graduate who dramatically increased the production of sweet potatoes, "by reason of his knowledge of the chemistry of the soil and by his knowledge of improved methods of agriculture." As a result, white farmers respected him and came to him for advice on how to raise sweet potatoes.

Although, thus far in the book, Booker T. Washington's approach has been for African-Americans to help their own local areas---rather than looking for opportunity in the North---in this chapter, he slightly backtracks on that point. He states: "I explained that my theory of education for the Negro would not, for example, confine him for all time to farm life—to the production of the best and the most sweet potatoes—but that, if he succeeded in this line of industry, he could lay the foundations upon which his children and grandchildren could grow to higher and more important things in life." So, in a sense, he wants African-Americans at some point to reach for the stars; he may just think that a solid economic foundation needs to be laid before this can become realistic.

In a sense, this chapter is about Booker T. Washington's response to criticisms---not entirely, but in part. Throughout my posts on Washington's book, I have wondered where it fits into his differences with W.E.B. Du Bois: was the book written before Du Bois' criticism of Washington, or after it? (See my post on Du Bois' criticisms here.) Du Bois said that Booker T. Washington encouraged African-Americans to neglect their pursuit of political equality, and to focus instead on industrial education. What has puzzled me is that I do not see that sort of attitude in Booker T. Washington's book up to this point: ultimately, Washington champions African-American suffrage and participation in politics, although he acknowledges that the right to vote was misused in the past.

Well, Chapter 13 is where Booker T. Washington talks about his 1895 Atlanta Cotton speech, which he says "perhaps went further than anything else in giving me a reputation that in a sense might be called National." My understanding is that this was the speech in which Washington made his controversial remarks. A full transcript of the speech is in Chapter 14, but, in our present chapter, Booker T. Washington states that his message was as follows:

"I tried to emphasize the fact that while the Negro should not be deprived by unfair means of the franchise, political agitation alone would not save him, and that back of the ballot he must have property, industry, skill, economy, intelligence, and character, and that no race without these elements could permanently succeed. I said that in granting the appropriation Congress could do something that would prove to be of real and lasting value to both races, and that it was the first great opportunity of the kind that had been presented since the close of the Civil War."

Was Booker T. Washington prioritizing industrial education over political activity, or was he saying that education can prepare African-Americans to participate better in the political process? Was his sub-text that African-Americans should stop fighting an unjust political system, and should instead focus on bettering themselves economically, which could impress white society and lay a foundation for their political inclusion? I'm not sure.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Starting Alter

I started Robert Alter's Art of Biblical Narrative. Here are some issues:

1. The book has some definitions, which I may want to review in the future.

On page 12, Alter defines "literary analysis": "the manifold varieties of minutely discriminating attention to the artful use of language, to the shifting play of ideas, conventions, tone, sound, imagery, syntax, narrative viewpoint, compositional units, and much else..."

On page 95, Alter defines "Leitwort" as follows: "Through abundant repetition, the semantic range of the word-root is explored, different forms of the root are deployed, branching off at times into phonetic relatives (that is, word-play), synonymity, and antonymity..."

Motif (page 95): "A concrete image, sensory quality, action, or object" that "recurs through a particular narrative." Examples that Alter cites include "fire in the Samson story; stones and the color white and red in the Jacob story; water in the Moses cycle; dreams, prisons and pits, silver in the Joseph story."

Theme (page 95): This too recurs in the narrative, but it is "An idea that is part of the value-system of the narrative---it may be moral, moral-psychological, legal, political, historiographical, theological..." Examples: "the reversal of primogeniture in Genesis; obedience versus rebellion in the Wilderness stories; knowledge in the Joseph story; exile and promised land; the rejection and election of the monarch in Samuel and Kings."

Sequence of actions (pages 95-96): "three consecutive repetitions, or three plus one, with some intensification..." Examples: "the three captains and their companies threatened with fiery destruction in 2 Kings 1; the three catastrophes that destroy Job's possessions, followed by a fourth in which his children are killed; Balaam's failure to direct the ass three times."

Type-scene (page 96): "This is an episode occurring at portentous moment in the career of the hero which is composed of a fixed sequence of motifs." Examples: "the annunciation of the birth of the hero, the betrothal by the well, the trial in the wilderness."

2. Alter contrasts the literary approach with rabbinic methods. One difference is that midrash is more atomistic---it looks at the details of the text, but it does not treat the story as a continuous, unfolding narrative. Rather, it tries to draw grand lessons from individual details. Another difference occurs in the Jacob and Esau story, which treats the two characters as moral opposites---Jacob is the good ancestor of the Israelites, and Esau is the evil ancestor of Edom---rather than as complex characters.

I agree with Alter in a big-picture sense, but not on details, so much. For example, Alter associates the death of Judah's sons in Genesis 38 with what occurs in Genesis 37---Judah participates in faking Joseph's death. I'm not sure if the rabbis go this route on Genesis 38, but I have seen them interpret certain misfortunes that befall a character as punishment for his sins, as the punishments fit the crimes. I have also seen the rabbis interpret actions of righteous biblical heroes as inappropriate---and, yes, this may be homiletical on their part rather than a literary character study, but it still acknowledges that even good people can mess up, which recognizes a degree of complexity in characters. Even Alter refers to a midrash that notes irony in the text (Balaam wants "a sword to kill an ass when he has set out to destroy a whole nation with his words alone"). So there is overlap between midrash and the literary approach, but also differences.

3. On page 12, Alter states: "The implicit theology of the Hebrew Bible dictates a complex moral and psychological realism in biblical narrative because God's purposes are always entrammeled in history, dependent on the acts of individual men and women for their continuing realization. To scrutinize biblical personages as fictional characters is to see them more sharply in the multifaceted, contradictory aspects of their human individuality, which is the biblical God's chosen medium for His experiment with Israel and history."

On page 20, he states that "most of us no longer accept" "far-reaching assumptions about the text as literal revelation..."

On page 33, Alter states: "What the Bible offers us is an uneven continuum and a constant interweaving of factual historical detail (especially, but by no means exclusively, for the later periods) with purely legendary 'history'; occasional enigmatic vestiges of mythological lore; etiological stories; etiological fictions of the founding fathers of the nation; folktales of heroes and wonder-working men of God, verisimilar inventions of wholly fictional personages attached to the progress of national history; and fictionalized versions of known historical figures."

My impression from all of this is that Alter views the Hebrew Bible as a religious account of Israel's history, which contains fiction (even though Alter says that all of the narratives, except for Job and Jonah, "are presented as history"). Since Alter sees the text as religious, does he view it as didactic? I don't know. Alter does act as if the text criticizes certain characters---such as Balaam, who is about to kill an entire nation with his words---and that would be a moral judgment on the narrator's part. But I haven't seen much of a didactic approach in Alter's approach---unless I'm missing something. Rather, he focuses on the text telling a good story---with complex characters and unfolding events. But what are we supposed to get from the text? Are we supposed to learn any lessons? Or is the lesson that God interacts with human beings, in all their messiness?

"Raising Money"

In Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, I read Chapter 12, "Raising Money." Booker T. Washington talks about his attempts to raise money for the Tuskegee Institute.

This chapter reminded me of an experience that I once had. I was at a church, and it had the dream of refurbishing its basement so that it could have programs that would help the community. But someone at the church told me that it was going about it in the wrong way: rather than refurbishing the basement, and then developing the programs, he said, the church should set up the programs first, and then try to raise money to refurbish the basement. When potential donors see that there are real programs, but that there isn't a lot of room for them, then they'd be more likely to donate money to refurbish the basement.

This chapter was about that sort of thing: Tuskegee already existed as an institution, and it was teaching African-Americans skills that would help them to succeed. But it needed money. And Booker T. Washington sought to convince potential donors that Tuskegee was worth supporting.

Actually, some to think of it, Washington told a story that was really similar to my church experience---with its lesson of "Have the programs first, and then ask for money." Booker T. Washington told Andrew Carnegie that Tuskegee had a lot of books, but not enough room for them. And so Carnegie gave the school money for a library! And, according to Washington, Carnegie wasn't the easiest person to ask for a donation!

This chapter had good stories, with valuable lessons. Washington says, for example, that he met with a person who, at the time, had no intention of donating to the school. But Washington met with him anyway, and, two years later, the person donated $10,000 to Tuskegee, as he recalled the chat that he had with Booker T. And so Booker concluded that time spent with someone is hardly a waste, even if that person initially appears unresponsive.

Booker also stresses that Tuskegee was not 'just lucky" (my words) in terms of the donations that it received, but it got those donations through hard work. Washington would probably agree with Desperate Housewives' Bree Hodge that people make their own luck! I don't buy into that as an absolute, but there is something to be said for hard work!

Booker also defended rich people who are accused of not giving enough to charity. He said that they're bombarded with numerous requests, and that many of them do give a lot of money away---albeit in secret. He also made somewhat of a defense of capitalism: "In the first place, those who are guilty of such sweeping criticisms do not know how many people would be made poor, and how much suffering would result, if wealthy people were to part all at once with any large proportion of their wealth in a way to disorganize and cripple great business enterprises."

In a previous post, I wondered if Booker T. Washington was hostile to Tuskegee receiving government assistance. After reading today's chapter, I'd say "no," for he happily reports that the state of Alabama increased its funds for Tuskegee.

Booker believes that Tuskegee received the help that it did by working to become the sort of institution that deserves help, even as he lauds the magnanimity of its supporters.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

DtrH: Did Noth Overlook Stuff?

I read Martin Noth's The Deuteronomistic History. The reason I read it was that I wasn't completely sold on Richard Elliott Friedman's narration of the history of biblical scholarship regarding the Deuteronomist, in Who Wrote the Bible? The way Friedman tells it, Noth believed that the Deuteronomistic History was written in exile, after the monarchy had ended. And yet, this was problematic, for the History contained statements that the Davidic dynasty would be eternal---which the exile basically shot down. Therefore, for Friedman, there must have been a pre-exilic Deuteronomist, who wrote before the fall of Judah in 587 B.C.E. Then, an exilic Deuteronomist added some finishing touches. (And Friedman thinks that both of them were Jeremiah, or Jeremiah working with Baruch.)

This isn't Friedman's only argument for the existence of a pre-exilic Deuteronomist, for he also thinks that the exaltation of King Josiah in the work signals that the History was originally intended to culminate in Josiah, meaning that its first stage was put together when Josiah was king.

Moreover, on page 107, Friedman makes a big deal about the "to this day" passages in the Deuteronomistic History---which refer to things that existed when the kingdom was still standing. Citing Frank Moore Cross, Friedman challenges Noth: "Why would someone writing a history in, say, 560 B.C. refer to something as existing 'to this day,' when that something had ended back in 587? For example, 1 Kings 8:8 refers to poles that were placed inside the Temple of Solomon on the day it was dedicated and that 'they have been there unto this day.' Why would someone write these words after the Temple had burned down? Even if the words were not his own, but rather appeared already in one of his sources, why would he leave them in? Why not edit them out?" Friedman thinks that at least a stage of the Deuteronomistic History had to be pre-exilic, for it referred to things as still existing, which did not exist after 587 B.C.E.

I guess my problem with Friedman's argument was this: Noth knows his Bible! I'm sure that Noth realized that there were parts of the Deuteronomistic History that talked about an eternal Davidic dynasty. I seriously doubt that he totally missed that part in his study of the Bible, leaving it to be discovered by a more observant scholarly successor. The same goes for the "to this day" passages in the Deuteronomistic History. Does Friedman seriously believe that a serious biblical scholar like Martin Noth overlooked those passages?

And so I decided to read Noth's work to see if he actually interacted with those passages. And, for some of them, he did. But, first, I want to quote something that Noth says about the view that there were two stages of the Deuteronomistic History's redaction---the view that Friedman defends years later:

"Recently the notion that there were two phases of 'Deuteronomistic redaction' of the books Joshua-Kings has become popular. But the assumption that the material was first edited in Deuteronomistic style before the exile is based on a mistaken attribution, to this first editor, of all sorts of traditional materials, which in fact come from Dtr.'s sources." (Page 139)

Noth's point is that the exilic Deuteronomist used pre-exilic sources, which were not Deuteronomistic. That should take care of Friedman's argument: the "to this day" passages were from the exilic Deuteronomist's pre-exilic sources, as was the promise of an eternal Davidic dynasty. Friedman asks why an exilic Deuteronomist wouldn't have edited that embarrassing stuff out. Well, in the aftermath of having read Whybray, let me use Friedman's argument against the point that Friedman's trying to make: In Friedman's scenario, there were two Deuteronomists---a pre-exilic one, and a final exilic one. Why doesn't Friedman think that the exilic one edited that embarrassing pre-exilic stuff out? And, if his exilic Deuteronomist could leave that stuff in, why couldn't Noth's?

On a side note, I Chronicles 17:5; II Chronicles 5:9; and 10:19 also are "to this day" passages---and they refer to situations that existed only before Judah's exile. And I Chronicles 17 has God's promise through Nathan of an eternal Davidic dynasty. I think that the vast majority of scholars date the Chronicler to Judah's post-exilic period. So why didn't the Chronicler edit out this embarrassing material? Maybe he respected his sources too much. Or maybe, regarding the eternal Davidic dynasty, he eagerly anticipated its resurrection. Perhaps he felt that he couldn't edit out the promise of an eternal Davidic dynasty, since his audience was aware of it. And that could also be a reason that an exilic Deuteronomist wouldn't edit it out: his audience knew about it, and so he had to address it somehow. (His approach was to say that it was conditional on obedience to God---I Kings 8:25; 9:5.)

But back to Noth! For the "to this day" passages, Noth appears to argue that these came from the sources that the Deuteronomist was using. He says that I Kings 8:1-13 (Friedman refers to I Kings 8:8's "to this day" to make his argument) is one of the Deuteronomist's sources, for example.

Regarding II Samuel 7, Noth holds that v 13a and vv22-24 are the Deuteronomist's insertions into that chapter. That means that the promise of an eternal Davidic dynasty was not from the Deuteronomist, but from his source. According to Noth, the effect of the Deuteronomistic insertions is that the promise is applied to the Israel of the past, not the Israel of the future. After all, the verses mention Solomon, the Exodus, and the Conquest.

I think that Friedman should have actually argued that the "to this day" passages and the passages about an eternal Davidic dynasty were from the Deuteronomist, rather than just assuming it and making Noth come across like a Bible illiterate. That's just my opinion, and I intend no offense.

"Making Their Beds Before They Could Lie on Them"

In Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, I read Chapter 11, "Making Their Beds Before They Could Lie on Them." In this chapter, I encountered some of the same themes that I've noticed in previous chapters---only, in some cases, Booker T. Washington elaborated on those themes a little more in Chapter 11.

Booker talked about the importance of personal hygiene and how he taught it to the students at Tuskegee, a theme that I have encountered in previous chapters. Another topic is labor unions. In a prior chapter, Washington bashed "professional labour agitators" because their strikes took workers away from their jobs, depriving them of an income; in Chapter 11, Washington again brings up the topic of employer-employee relations, proposing a solution, based on his own experiences in discussing with students their issues with the school: "When I have read of labour troubles between employers and employees, I have often thought that many strikes and similar disturbances might be avoided if the employers would cultivate the habit of getting nearer to their employees, of consulting and advising with them, and letting them feel that the interests of the two are the same." Washington's comments bring to my mind the slogan of Jesse Owens in the Jesse Owens Story: "If we walk far enough and talk long enough, eventually, we'll reach an understanding." I wouldn't be surprised if Jesse Owens got this philosophy from Booker T. Washington, whom Owens greatly admired.

Washington praises General Armstrong (who presided over Hampton, which was where Booker went to school) for his kindness even to white Southerners. Even though General Armstrong had fought the South in the Civil War, and helped freed slaves to receive an education during and after Reconstruction, he did not have any contempt or hostility towards the South. Booker then says that white people in the South only hurt themselves when they dishonestly deprive African-Americans of suffrage, or when they lynch African-Americans, for those who do such things are only corrupting their own character. Booker T. Washington may be encouraging white society to help African-Americans, while at the same time encouraging his fellow African-Americans not to allow bitterness to corrupt their own characters.

I'd like to use this opportunity to share what I read about General Samuel C. Armstrong on wikipedia---which I'm not treating as infallible, by any means, but which I'm only using to get some introductory information on who General Armstrong was. See here. The article narrates that Armstrong was concerned about the well-being of African-Americans, both during and after the Civil War. And yet, it depicts some of his attitudes as patronizing. He felt, for instance, that African-Americans should not participate in politics until they had been civilized through religious and moral development---which he believed would take several generations.

Booker T. Washington absorbed General Armstrong's commitment to teaching African-Americans the importance and the skills of manual labor. In Chapter 11, Washington praises Armstrong's concept of industrial education. But my impression is that Booker T. Washington does not fully agree with General Armstrong on African-American participation in the political process. So far, he has not mentioned General Armstrong's views on this issue, for he has expressed nothing but praise for him. But Booker T. does champion the right of African-Americans to vote. While he acknowledges that people of his race misused that right in the past, he believes that the race has evolved to the point where African-Americans can vote for the general welfare of all people in the South, white and African-American.

My impression is that Washington is trying to counter stereotypes that his race is morally inferior. As he talks about the respect that his students have shown to him, he remarks: "I have heard it stated more than once, both in the North and in the South, that coloured people would not obey and respect each other when one member of the race is placed in a position of authority over others." Washington is obviously responding to a snide stereotype. And I wonder if that underlies several other points that he makes in his book: that African-Americans reached out to Native Americans, whereas whites treat other races shabbily; that the students of Tuskegee spent their holidays helping the less-fortunate; that his students were eager to learn, etc. Booker T. Washington observes character in his students, and he resents the view among whites that African-Americans are morally inferior, or shiftless.

Booker T. Washington continually encourages African-Americans to contribute to their communities---both whites and African-Americans---in order to make a good impression, and also because it's the right thing to do. And he doesn't think that such hard work will go unrewarded, for he tells a story about white people from Georgia shaking his hand and thanking him for what he's done for the South, when he was on a train. Whereas W.E.B. Du Bois seems to struggle to hold on to hope---as he talks about continued discrimination and injustice---Booker T. Washington believes that real progress is being made. But would Du Bois and Washington agree on what constitutes progress?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Completing Whybray

I finished R.N. Whybray's The Making of the Pentateuch. In this post, I want to discuss two issues: Moses and oral tradition, and Whybray's dating of the Pentateuch to the sixth century B.C.E.

1. On page 219, a criticism of tradition criticism (looking for ancient oral traditions in the biblical text) that Whybray offers is this: "The fact that scholars like Noth and Fohrer have reached quite different conclusions on important aspects of of the tradition-history owing to their different historical, religio-historical and other presuppositions serves to underline the high degree of subjectivism and conjecture involved in what is ostensibly a 'scientific' method."

An area where North and Fohrer differed was on the historicity of certain Moses stories. One of Olrik's laws on how to identify ancient oral traditions was that they did not have too many characters, but rather limited themselves to "two to a scene." Because certain stories about Moses in the Pentateuch had too many characters, Noth said that Moses and others (i.e., Aaron) originally were not in them; rather, in the early traditions, the seventy elders were Israel's leaders at the Exodus and at Sinai. As evidence, Noth refers to passages in which the elders exercise a degree of prominence or authority, as when they "negotiate with Pharaoh in Moses' absence" (Exodus 5:6-19). And so, for Noth, the earliest stories---the most ancient oral traditions---about the Exodus and Sinai lack the character of Moses.

Noth is skeptical about the early nature or historicity of the Moses stories that neatly fit into a larger narrative, probably because early oral traditions (according to Orlik) are short and self-contained. Noth, like many scholars, dismissed the "birth and abandonment of the child Moses" as "secondary," but he also "held the flight to Midian and the encounter with God at the mountain to be merely 'an anticipatory elaboration of Exod. 18.1-12', and the stories of the Plagues and the Passover to be later developments of the tradition"(page 197). For Noth, these stories are not the earliest traditions, but they were inserted later in order to foster connectivity and continuity, as different pieces were being brought together into a larger narrative. Moreover, while scholars who believe in the historicity of Moses have appealed to the Egyptian nature of the name "Moses" (think Thut-Mosis), Noth "argued that it could be accounted for in other ways than by supposing him ever to have been in Egypt."

But Noth accepts the historicity of something about Moses: that Moses had a foreign wife. According to Noth, there are three independent traditions about this---Exodus 18, Numbers 12:1, and Judges 1:16; 4:11. They are different versions, and, for Noth, they are variations of an original tradition: that Moses had a foreign wife. Whybray does not find Noth's approach to the historicity of Moses traditions to be all that scientific!

Fohrer disagrees with Noth, for Fohrer believes that Moses was an integral part of the Moses stories. In Fohrer's words, "religion is seen to be grounded not in an anonymous collective and its traditions, but in the experiences of a single person: it is the work of a founder" (page 205 of Whybray's book). Fohrer also believes that "Exodus and Sinai traditions form a single tradition-complex." Whybray says that the "traditio-historical method" of Noth and Fohrer are the same, but this confuses me. My impression is that Noth views the original traditions as short, self-contained units that contain few characters---in the spirit of Olrik. If Fohrer thinks that the Exodus and Sinai traditions are all one tradition unit, then he's not echoing Olrik, for this unit is long and has many scenes and characters. I could be wrong on this point, though, for Noth doesn't actually mention anything about self-contained units (at least not in what Whybray shared). But Olrik does, and the concept seems to elucidate Noth's approach of dismissing traditions that appear to coincide with the larger narrative.

2. Whybray believes that the Pentateuch was written in the sixth century B.C.E., which was when Judah was exiled. One reason that he presents three times in his book (pages 48-49, 103-104, and 238) is that pre-exilic biblical literature does not know about the stories of J and E, and so J and E were most likely not pre-exilic. Rendtorff thought that "the failure of the pre-exilic literature and especially of the pre-exilic prophets, for whom God's activity was so important, to make use of this material" is astounding---unless we date the material late. Whybray concurs with Rendtorff that Abraham became prominent during the exile---to encourage the exiles that God had promised the land to their ancestor, and so they would one day get it back. (And, indeed, when I look up "Abraham" on Blue Letter Bible, his name in prophetic literature does appear primarily to comfort Israel.) While Whybray acknowledges that Hosea 12 (which is pre-exilic) refers to stories about Jacob, he says that they're unlike what we have in the Pentateuch, and so Hosea 12 probably wasn't drawing from J or E. When the patriarchs or Moses appear in Joshua-II Kings, Whybray contends, that's due to the Deuteronomistic editor, whom I presume Whybray dates to the exile. And so Whybray does not believe that the Pentateuchal stories were written down in Israel's pre-exilic period, but that they were written later---in the sixth century B.C.E.

What frustrates me about certain forms of biblical scholarship is that they appear to be circular, at times. "Israel's pre-exilic literature doesn't mention this person." "Well, what about this passage, which does mention him?" "Oh, that's a later exilic insertion." How can one test that? And Hosea 12 does remind me of stuff in Genesis---Jacob wrestles with God, fled to Syria, served for a wife, kept sheep. I guess the only detail that differs is Hosea 12:4's statement that Jacob wept to the angel with whom he wrestled, which is not in Genesis 32. But, if preachers can add details when they tell the stories of the Bible---for dramatic effect---why can't Hosea do this for Genesis 32?

Second, Whybray expresses difficulty with the notion that Israel could have produced a history in the pre-exilic period---especially since the genre was not known then among other ancient Near Eastern nations (page 48). But Whybray acknowledges on page 48 that there could have been narrative prose before the Deuteronomist. And, as Whybray mentions on page 54, Von Rad compared the Joseph story to the Egyptian novella. I see that Jan Assman in the Anchor Bible Dictionary article on "Egyptian Literature" says that the Egyptian royal novella existed from the First Intermediate Period until the Late period---which encompasses the second-first millennia B.C.E. If Egypt could write a story with characters prior to Judah's exile, why couldn't pre-exilic Israel take that a step further and compose a grand story about the nation of Israel? And, when Whybray is arguing against the traditio-critical view that writing was done late in ancient Israel, and that in her early days she just told stories orally, he states:

"Whether the Pentateuchal narratives would have been regarded as worthy of committal to writing at an early stage we have no means of judging: they are unique among extant ancient Near Eastern literature, and if they are indeed of very early origin it would be surprising if they had not acquired considerable status as important religious works at an early stage, since otherwise it would be difficult to account for the very high status which was accorded to them later" (page 142).

Here, Whybray appears to argue that Israel could have written Pentateuchal stuff at an early stage.

I enjoyed Whybray's pounding of the Documentary Hypothesis as well as other sacred cows of biblical scholarship. Unfortunately, my impression was that he did some of the very things that he accused other scholars of doing: being inconsistent, and upholding criteria that are based on debatable premises (e.g., he says that the stuff about Moses in the Deuteronomistic History is exilic, assuming that the Deuteronomistic editor was from that time period, when there are scholars who believe there was also a pre-exilic Deuteronomist). But I definitely recommend this book. Richard Elliott Friedman should have dealt more with its contents, instead of just acting as if the Documentary Hypothesis (or his version of it) is so obvious!

"A Harder Task Than Making Bricks Without Straw"

In Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, I read chapter 10, "A Harder Task Than Making Bricks Without Straw."

Three points stood out to me in today's reading:

1. Washington said that he had the students of Tuskegee build the school's buildings. Not only did this teach the students skills, but it also engendered in them respect for the buildings. As Washington says, "Not a few times, when a new student has been led into the temptation of marring the looks of some building by leadpencil marks or by the cuts of a jack-knife, I have heard an old student remind him: 'Don’t do that. That is our building. I helped put it up.'”

This reminds me of arguments for an "ownership society," or claims by conservative environmentalists that privatizing land will result in a decline in water pollution and deforestation: if businesses own the land, then they'll treat it better than if they're using public property. After all, if they own the land, they'll have to replace the trees that they cut down. And maybe they'll want to make their property into a park that people would pay to visit. Having a personal stake in something gives one a motivation to treat it better. In the case of Tuskegee, the students had a sense of pride in the contribution that they made to building the school's buildings.

2. The students also made and sold bricks. Eventually, white people in the South bought them, realizing that Tuskegee students made quality bricks. From this experience, Booker T. Washington learned something about race relations:

"The making of these bricks taught me an important lesson in regard to the relations of the two races in the South. Many white people who had had no contact with the school, and perhaps no sympathy with it, came to us to buy bricks because they found out that ours were good bricks. They discovered that we were supplying a real want in the community. The making of these bricks caused many of the white residents of the neighbourhood to begin to feel that the education of the Negro was not making him worthless, but that in educating our students we were adding something to the wealth and comfort of the community. As the people of the neighbourhood came to us to buy bricks, we got acquainted with them; they traded with us and we with them. Our business interests became intermingled. We had something which they wanted; they had something which we wanted. This, in a large measure, helped to lay the foundation for the pleasant relations that have continued to exist between us and the white people in that section, and which now extend throughout the South.

"Wherever one of our brickmakers has gone in the South, we find that he has something to contribute to the well-being of the community into which he has gone; something that has made the community feel that, in a degree, it is indebted to him, and perhaps, to a certain extent, dependent upon him. In this way pleasant relations between the races have been stimulated.

"My experience is that there is something in human nature which always makes an individual recognize and reward merit, no matter under what colour of skin merit is found. I have found, too, that it is the visible, the tangible, that goes a long ways in softening prejudices. The actual sight of a first-class house that a Negro has built is ten times more potent than pages of discussion about a house that he ought to build, or perhaps could build."

That was Booker T. Washington's view on race relations: that African-Americans should work hard, contribute to the wider community (which includes whites, African-Americans, and others), and earn the respect of whites. In a way, this is the Will Palmer approach---to bring into the discussion Alex Haley's grandfather, Will Palmer. In Roots: The Next Generation, Will Palmer practically ran the lumberyard because its manager was a drunk, and that earned him the respect of the white establishment, who then gave Will the lumberyard. Will had no intention of appeasing white society, however, for he said that he intended to make the lumberyard a success so that he'd owe the white man nothing!

Some may like Booker T. Washington's approach, whereas others may view it as too idealistic. Both sides probably have elements of truth, and situations may vary.

3. Washington is still talking about the humble days of Tuskegee. Washington said, "In fact in those earlier years I was constantly embarrassed because people seemed to have more faith in me than I had in myself." I admire Washington for continuing to try even when he didn't have much faith in himself. And I appreciate it when people have faith in me, when my faith in myself is lacking. That motivates me.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

God's Indwelling Presence

After church this morning, I feel at peace. I'm not sure why. Was it because the service was about peace? But I also heard things that ordinarily push my buttons---such as Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that I should love people who don't like me (the Sermon on the Mount pushes my buttons, period), an exhortation to go out into the world to love people and tell them about God (I'm a shy introvert), and maybe even the definition of peace as wholeness and unity (I've heard Christians---not at this church, but elsewhere---use the "unity" banner to push group-think and to suppress individuality, dissent, and questions).

But the whole thing about harmony did appeal to me, since I get sick of strife---strife within myself, and strife with others. I don't feel compelled right now to go to my enemies to try to get them to like me. I don't want to give them that satisfaction, and, quite frankly, I'm too shy and awkward to do so. I guess I could work myself up with guilt over disobeying Christ's command to be reconciled with my brother, but what's the point? Not everyone's going to like me in this world. And, yes, there are things that I could have done differently in the past. But I see no need to develop a relationship with my enemies. For me, perhaps harmony is letting me be me (even as I try to improve, in some manner), and letting others be them.

I also appreciated the part of the service that emphasized God's presence everywhere---at school, at work, inside of us. I'm not sure if the pastor was saying that God is in everyone on the face of the earth---I hear that sort of thing in a lot of places. I don't see it as biblical, since Paul's point is that believers are the ones with God's Holy Spirit. But I think it's consistent with Christianity to believe that we all contain a trace of God, since we're made in God's image. I couldn't tell if the pastor told his puppet, Jake, that we should tell others that God could come into them (implying that God would do so if they accepted Christ), or already was in them.

I prefer the latter myself, even if it's not biblical. Once you start attaching conditions to God's indwelling presence, then the question becomes, "Have I truly fulfilled the conditions, and is God really in me? Am I truly believing? Am I truly obeying? And, if God is really in me, why is there so much sin inside of myself---anger, and bitterness, and repulsion at Christian doctrines?" But, if God is in me because he's in everyone, then God is in me, period---even if I fail to fulfill certain conditions, or if I fall short, or if my mind doesn't go on an orthodox route.

Service on the Holidays

In Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, I read Chapter 9, "Anxious Days and Sleepless Nights." It was about the respect and support that the Tuskegee Institute got from whites and African-Americans. And Booker encouraged the students of Tuskegee to make friends with their neighbors, whomever they might be.

I liked the following passage, which is about service on the holidays:

"At the present time one of the most satisfactory features of the Christmas and Thanksgiving seasons at Tuskegee is the unselfish and beautiful way in which our graduates and students spend their time in administering to the comfort and happiness of others, especially the unfortunate. Not long ago some of our young men spent a holiday in rebuilding a cabin for a helpless coloured woman who is about seventy-five years old. At another time I remember that I made it known in chapel, one night, that a very poor student was suffering from cold, because he needed a coat. The next morning two coats were sent to my office for him."

I also learned that Booker T. Washington had a first wife, Fannie Smith, who also worked with the school. She passed on in 1884. In 1885, he married Olivia Davidson, who taught at the school.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Psalm 12: The Words of the Lord Are Pure

For my weekly quiet time this Sabbath, we will study Psalm 12.

I'll open this post with a quote from the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll on the Book of Psalms. I often like how the Artscroll summarizes particular Psalms.

"Only God protects and saves. People who profess friendship and loyalty are often treacherous, but Divine assurances are pure and enduring."

V 6 says (as I draw from the King James Version) that "the words of the LORD are pure words, as silver tried in the furnace of the earth, purified seven times."

What's this talking about? The Bible, as the Psalmist understood it? I have mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, my reaction is rather negative, for I wonder if the Bible is perfect and actually "works" in people's lives. Does it work in the life of a struggling homosexual, who tries in vain to subdue her desires and feels that she must remain celibate for the rest of her natural life, on account of what a book says? And then I wonder how pure and tested the Bible really is when its alleged inerrancy can be so easily challenged---by science, by archaeology, by reading the Bible and seeing its contradictions, and even by real life. For example, throughout the Hebrew Bible, we see a belief in divine retribution among its authors, and Job's friends express that view as they attempt to account for Job's suffering in light of their own religious mindset---which contains views that have made their way into Deuteronomy, Proverbs, and the Psalms. But, as Job points out in Job 21, in his experience of the world, wicked oppressors have lived full, happy lives, and have died without anything bad happening to them. The words of the LORD are pure and tested? Not according to Job, who did not see evidence of divine retribution in the world!

As I read v 6, I thought about the "imminent eschatology" passages in the synoptic Gospels. Jesus says in Matthew 16:28 and Mark 9:1 that some of his disciples will not taste death, before they have seen the coming of the Son of Man in his kingdom. In Matthew 10:23, Jesus tells his disciples to flee to another city when they are persecuted, and he encourages them that the Son of Man will come before they have gone through the cities of Israel. Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30, and Luke 21:32 say that the Son of Man will come before "this generation" has passed away. Yet, all of these things have passed, and Jesus is still not ruling on earth! Some may argue that Jesus' coming is not necessarily the Second Coming of Christ, but can refer to God's judgment of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. (see Genesis 11:7 and Exodus 3:8, where God's coming refers to an act of divine judgment in history, not an eschatological event) or to the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. But, in the synoptic Gospels, the coming of the Son of Man refers to the Son of Man coming and judging the entire earth in righteousness, which is an eschatological event---one that surpasses the judgment of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 (Matthew 25). Some try to redefine "this generation" as something other than the generation of Jesus' day, even though "this generation" throughout the synoptic Gospels refers to the generation of Jesus' day (e.g., Matthew 11:16; 12:41-42; Mark 8:12; Luke 11:30-32, 50-51; 17:25). The words of the Bible are pure and tested? I can understand why some people may look at these promises of Jesus and conclude that they have failed the test!

On the other hand, the teachings of the Bible have worked in the lives of many people. They have made many people happy, serene, and loving---even though that doesn't seem to have been the case for everyone. And, although the Christian insistence that one should have sex with only one person throughout his natural life (except when that person's spouse dies, or he gets a legitimate, biblically permissible divorce) appears unrealistic, it's obvious to me and others that our current culture of cheap sex is problematic---and is often harmful to children (see Retriever's comment under my post, Wired for Monogamy). Perhaps the Bible has been tested in that many people throughout the ages have benefited from applying its precepts. There's something to be said for a literature that survives throughout the ages---something must be keeping it going! It must be working for enough people, if they're continuing to believe in it and to draw wisdom from it! I can identify with a relative of mine, who does not see the Bible as inerrant, but who thinks that it contains a lot of common-sense wisdom. Is it wise to casually dismiss the insights of anybody---which he or she has gained from the experience of living life and seeing what works, and what doesn't? The Bible is a compendium of those insights. Sure, one can arrive at different conclusions, but I think that it's good at least to listen to the wisdom of the ages.

Many commentators whom I read said that the Psalmist is contrasting the pure, tested words of God with the deceit, the insincere flattery (with an intent to harm), and the slander that were rampant around him. The Psalmist is looking for something solid---something that he can trust. But is the Bible free of speech that deceives or that harms? The Bible has been used to put down women and slaves and to uphold unjust power structures. While some may argue that this is an indictment of the misuse of the Bible, and not of the Bible itself, what if the biblical writings themselves emerged from attempts to justify the ambitions to power of certain groups, who claimed to be carrying out God's will? Historical critics claim to see this behind certain biblical writings---such as those that address competition for the priesthood. And the biblical writings themselves emerged from societies that were patriarchal and that condoned slavery. In the medieval Midrash on the Psalms, there is a view that interprets Psalm 12:6 to mean that the Lord's words concerning purity are committed to people who are as pure as silver (Malachi 3:3). One can point out that the biblical writings did not originate from people who were pure, and that there are people who handle them who are not pure. But there are good things in the Bible---which promote love and compassion---and perhaps teachers who are loving and compassionate can use the Bible in a manner that is good, not evil.

But many commentators argue that Psalm 12:6 is not even about Scriptures, but rather a direct revelation from God in the temple. The Psalmist is lamenting about the evil speech and the oppression that are rampant in his society, and then, in v 5, God in the first-person promises to arise and to vindicate the oppressed poor. The Psalmist regards God's words in v 5 as pure, and maybe even tested---even though he may be saying that he can trust this word of God because all of the words of God are trustworthy. But I wonder if the Psalmist is wholly convinced by God's promise, for, although in v 7 he expresses faith that God will preserve the oppressed poor in that wicked generation, he notes in v 8 that the wicked are everywhere, and the vile are exalted. I often have problems with Christians who tell people to disregard their experiences and their senses and to accept what the Bible says. "Women are just as intelligent as men? Big deal! The Bible says they must be submissive to their husbands, and that they can't be pastors!" "You know unbelievers who are good people? So what! The Bible says that humanity is desperately wicked!" But I think there are cases when faith needs to trump sight, for us to have any hope at all---to believe in a good God, even when he appears to be silent.

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