Friday, October 31, 2008

Which Source Is Earlier?

Sources: Jacob Neusner's Introduction to Rabbinic Literature, and Judith Hauptman's "Mishnah As a Response to 'Tosefta,'" which is in Specific Problems in Rabbinic Literature.

What influenced what? That seems to be where Neusner and Hauptman disagree. According to Neusner, the Tosefta was like an early version of the Talmud in that it served as a commentary on the Mishnah. Hauptman, however, contends that the final form of the Mishnah came after the Tosefta.

Both use a similar argument for their positions. According to Neusner, there are parts of the Tosefta that make absolutely no sense without the context of the Mishnah, so the Tosefta was designed to supplement the Mishnah. Consequently, the Mishnah came first. According to Hauptman, however, there are parts of the Mishnah that make absolutely no sense without the details of the Tosefta, so the compiler of the Mishnah must have assumed that his audience already knew the Tosefta.

Personally, I would need an encyclopedic knowledge of both documents to interact with these scholars' claims. What I find interesting is Hauptman's argument that the detailed Tosefta had to precede the not-so-detailed Mishnah. She acknowledges that people can take an opposite track, by saying that the Tosefta is more detailed because it tries to clarify and explain the Mishnah. But she doesn't go that route.

This is relevant to Fishbane, who believes that biblical authors clarified and sought to explain other biblical texts. As far as he's concerned, the texts that seek to clarify are later than the texts that are supposedly being clarified. But is that necessarily the case? Hauptman's model of the Mishnah and Tosefta screams "not always!"

I'm reminded of something N.T. Wright said in a class I took with him on the resurrection of Jesus. Many New Testament scholars maintain that Matthew and Luke interpreted Mark and Q (a source of Jesus' sayings). After all, Mark is bare-bones on Jesus' life and activity! But N.T. Wright asked why we should assume that model. Maybe Mark was intended to be a condensed version of the other two Gospels! Can we be dogmatic about what source preceded what?

Pity and Plato

Source: Martha C. Nussbaum, "Philosophy and Literature," The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy, ed. David Sedley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 226.

"[Plato's] Republic x takes an even stronger stance against tragic poetry...Once again, the ethical objection raised against tragedy is that it shows good people encountering reversals in fortune and grieving as if these had great significance. Again, the unseemly behavior of the tragic hero is contrasted with the self-sufficient calm demeanor of the truly good man, who recognizes that 'nothing among human beings is worth much seriousness' (604b). Here pity is central to the analysis. Socrates points out that tragic poetry leads to fellow-feeling, and 'nourishes the element of pity in us, making it strong' (606b). This makes it more difficult, he alleges, to achieve a calm demeanor in one's own sufferings."

Plato seems to foreshadow the Stoics, who believed people should eliminate their passions. His view, at least as I read it here, differs from what we see in the Hebrew Bible, Judaism, and Christianity, which exhort people to have compassion for one another other. But there are similarities, believe it or not. I think of my quiet time in IV Maccabees a few weeks ago, and how that Hellenistic Jewish document could find examples in the Hebrew Bible of biblical heroes suppressing their passions to do the will of God: Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son, Joseph resisting Potiphar's wife, etc. I can name other examples that the author of IV Maccabees did not include: the Levites slaughtering their fellow Israelites in the golden calf scene, the Conquest, etc. In those cases, God didn't want his people to pity their fellow human beings.

On Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (which is my favorite Star Trek movie, even though critics shredded it to pieces), a fanatical Vulcan named Sybok gains followers by taking away their pain. Dr. McCoy, for example, had the burden of putting his sick father to sleep several years before. Spock felt sad because his father never accepted him. Sybok gave them release from that "pain."

But Captain Kirk didn't want to play along. He said that our pain makes us who we are. "I don't want you to take away my pain--I need my pain!," he said.

Human beings have feelings. On one hand, they are appropriate. There's nothing wrong with feeling sad for another person, since the fact that we're even thinking of someone other than ourselves is what God wants. On the other hand, passions can lead us down a wrong path if we let them control us too much. This was why Plato and the Stoics were critical of sadness, anger, and lust. They wanted a strong human being, one who was above all these base passions. I sympathize with the Stoics whenever I get a crush on a girl: I wish I didn't have that emotion dragging me down, taking my mind off more important things.

Christianity is mixed on this. The happy-clappy evangelical brand tells us that we should never feel mad or sad, since that's a sign that we're not praising God enough. At the same time, Christianity has given us examples of really emotional people: Jesus, Augustine, Spurgeon, and so on.

As far as literature is concerned, I cry a lot. The crying can be involuntary, as when I watch Desperate Housewives or Joan of Arcadia. It's a catharsis for me.

Halloween 2008

Today is Halloween. To read my Halloween reflections for last year, see Halloween 2007.

I'd like to spend tonight watching horror movies, but I checked out some more Joan of Arcadia DVDs, and I want to watch those before they're due. Maybe I'll watch Dracula sometime today--the one with Keanu Reeves, Anthony Hopkins, Winona Ryder, and Gary Oldman. I saw it several years ago, and it was scary!

I guess I don't have too many Halloween reflections this year! I live inside an apartment complex, so trick-or-treaters don't come to my door. I'm also not going to any parties tonight. In many respects, this is just another day.

It would be nice if TV ran some of my favorite Halloween specials. There's the cheesy Highway to Heaven in which Michael Landon turned into a werewolf. (Of course, I won't be surprised if the original classic will be on today). Or the Little House episode in which Laura thought Mr. Oleson cut off Mrs. Oleson's head. I think there were a few Quantum Leap Halloween specials.

In any case, I'll flip through the channels to see what's on. And, of course, I'll do some reading in the meantime.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Barack's Infomercial

I wrote a post yesterday about Barack Obama's infomercial, but it got lost. I hate it when that happens!

Basically, I said that Obama tried to present himself as a new Ronald Reagan. He didn't use those exact words, mind you, but his inspiring appeal to family, Americanism, tax cuts, fiscal responsibility, and the average American evoked that image. At the same time, his talk about all those new programs he would create was not Reaganesque at all. That was Clintonesque.

Rather than attacking John McCain, Obama is working extra hard to distance himself from liberalism. He sees a need to repeat over and over that he is for tax cuts, since he's confronting a strong political current that views the Democrats as tax increasers (since, well, that's what they are).

I said in my post that I never felt about any Democratic Presidential candidate the way that I feel about Barack Obama. I like this guy! He tries to inspire us. Like Reagan, he's a master at stagecraft. Obama appeals to the part of me that wishes real life were like the West Wing or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. John McCain tried that approach when he picked Sarah Palin as his running mate--a woman with a compelling story rife with populism and taking on city hall (and winning). But that strategy is fizzing out.

I don't think the world will necessarily come to an end if Barack Obama is elected President. Because he is popular with much of the world, he may be able to rebuild bridges with other countries. And his charisma could inspire and motivate Americans in hard times, as Reagan's did.

Of course, on the foreign affairs deal, he may alienate people if he chose to bomb Pakistan without its permission. That's something George W. Bush would do. Wait, it's something George W. Bush is doing! (I know I defended it, but we've not yet seen its full fallout in terms of our relationship with Pakistan.) And yet, Obama has a soothing, rational personality, and that may serve him well on the international front.

But I will still vote for John McCain because Barack Obama has a record as a tax increaser, and we don't need more taxes when the economy is doing so badly. And Joe Biden didn't make me feel better when he defined rich as anyone making over $150,000 a year!

Harmonizing on Sanctuary

Source: Michael Fishbane's Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (New York: Oxford, 1988) 251-252.

Exodus 20:24 states: "You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you" (NRSV).

Deuteronomy 12:5-6, however, has: "But you shall seek the place that the LORD your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there. You shall go there, bringing there your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and your donations, your votive gifts, your freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks."

For Fishbane, these two passages are contradictory. The first one permits Israelites to set up altars in all sorts of locations, whereas the second restricts worship to a central sanctuary.

Fishbane contends that someone inserted vv 8-9 into Deuteronomy 12 to harmonize the two passages:

"You shall not act as we are acting here today, all of us according to our own desires, for you have not yet come into the rest and the possession that the LORD your God is giving you."

According to Fishbane, vv 8-9 solves the dilemma by asserting that the laissez-faire, Exodus 20:24 approach only applied to the time before Israel entered Canaan. Afterwards, the central sanctuary rule took effect.

Maybe. We see an altar in Joshua 8, after all. Something else to note is that Exodus 20:24 talks about an altar of earth, whereas the official altar of the central sanctuary was one of bronze.

But the bronze altar existed before Israel entered the land, so shouldn't the conflict between the central sanctuary and the earthen altar precede the Conquest? Wouldn't one be more accurate to assert that the earthen altar rule was for the time before the creation of the Tabernacle, which occurred in the wilderness (in the biblical narrative)? Perhaps. At the same time, even if Deuteronomy 12:8-9 is a bad harmonization, that doesn't mean it's not an attempt at harmonization. I've seen fundamentalists and conservative Christians make all sorts of funny moves to reconcile biblical contradictions (or apparent contradictions).

One problem I have: Was Israel acting according to what was right in her own eyes by following Exodus 20:24? Weren't they doing what was right in God's eyes, since he gave the command? Maybe Deuteronomy 12:8-9 means that God allowed Israel to set up altars anywhere she saw fit prior to the Conquest. Still, Exodus 20:24 says God will come to where he (God) causes his name to be remembered. So who's taking the initiative?

Fishbane then contradicts himself, saying, "Since 'in any site' may be understood distributively (i.e., 'in whatever particular site'), the exegete of Deut. 12:8-9 may have felt that he was not so much rejecting the rule in Exodus 20:2[4] as specifying its underlying intent."

So is Fishbane saying that the author of Deuteronomy 12:8-9 was upholding Exodus 20:24, in the sense that the latter emphasized a place where God put his name, as Deuteronomy does? What's that do to the idea that Deuteronomy 12:8-9 considers the Exodus 20:24 law temporary--as the Israelites doing what was right in their own eyes?

Neusner on the Substance of the Mishnah

Source: Jacob Neusner's Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah, page 282.

"The Mishnah's evidence presents a Judaism which at its foundations and through all of its parts deals with a single fundamental question: What can a man do? The evidence of the Mishnah points to a Judaism which answers the question simply: Man, like God, makes the world work. If man wills it, nothing is impossible. When man wills it, all things fall subject to that web of intangible status and incorporeal reality, with a right place for all things, each after its own kind, all bearing their proper names, described by the simple word, sanctification. The world is inert and neutral. Man by his will and word initiates the processes which force things to find their rightful place on one side or the other of the frontier, the definitive category, holiness. That is the substance of the Judaism of the Mishnah."

The Mishnah is about organizing the creation according to what God wants, yet Neusner points out that the individual Jew has some autonomy in what he declares holy and unholy. Is this a contradiction? Can human autonomy contradict God's will?

At the same time, the priest had a certain degree of autonomy in the Hebrew Bible, meaning that his declarations made a person or thing clean or unclean.

Pre-existent Souls?

Source: A.A. Long, "Roman Philosophy," The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy, ed. David Sedley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 210.

"Tertullian in his work On the Soul draws heavily on Stoicism, aligning himself against Plato with the Stoics' identification of the soul with 'breath' and also with that school's doctrine that the soul originates at birth."

Did we pre-exist? That's something I've always wondered. Suppose I were not born to my parents, either because they didn't meet or the James Pate sperm didn't make it to my mom's egg. Would my soul be someplace else? Because I have an elevated sense of my own importance (unfortunately), I'd like to think I'm not the product of chance or other people's decisions.

Plato believed that the soul is immortal, meaning it pre-existed our birth and survives our death. He talks about this in Phaedo and the Republic. But the Stoics apparently maintained that our existence originated at birth, and the Christian father Tertullian picked that up. I wonder what other Christians thought about this issue.

What's the Bible say about this? The King James Version of Ecclesiastes 12:7 states that "the spirit shall return unto God who gave it." Is the spirit the soul? Or is it the breath of life, which God gave to each human being when he animated him or her in the womb? Maybe it can be either one.

In either case, God is intimately involved in our creation, meaning we're not accidents, whether our souls pre-existed our births or not.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

An Addition in Exodus 22:25-27: Part 2

Source: Michael Fishbane's Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (New York: Oxford, 1988) 175.

Here's Exodus 22:20-27. I've colored in blue the most important verses for this discussion, and in red what Fishbane deems to be a later addition:

"20 Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the LORD alone, shall be devoted to destruction.
"21 You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
"22 You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.
"23 If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry;
"24 my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
"25 If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.
"26 If you take your neighbor's cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down;
"27 for it may be your neighbor's only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate"

Here's Deuteronomy 24:10-18, which Fishbane believes is based on Exodus 22:20-27:

"10 When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge.
"11 You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you.
"12 If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge.
"13 You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the LORD your God.
"14 You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.
"15 You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt.
"16 Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death.
"17 You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow's garment in pledge.
"18 Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this."

According to Fishbane, we see a similarity between the two passages. Both discuss loans, right before telling the Israelites not to take a brother's coat as a pledge.

For Fishbane, Deuteronomy was working with the version of Exodus 22:25 that lacked the red part. Deuteronomy does not talk about interest, but it offers its own explanation of how to make a proper loan: do not go into a house to take a pledge.

Does this necessarily follow, however? Deuteronomy 24 doesn't present every law in the same order that Exodus 22 does, so perhaps its author was flexible. He chose not to quote the part about interest, for he wanted to focus on not entering a house to take a pledge.

Was Deuteronomy 24 even interpreting or interacting with Exodus 22? Maybe. I don't know. I have a hard time believing both have loans laws in the same order by sheer coincidence. But maybe they were clustered together in the cultural repertoire, meaning Deuteronomy 24's author may not have had Exodus 22 in mind.

Unclean Exile

My source today is Jacob Neusner's Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah. I'm not in the mood to look for the date.

Here are a few sentences that intrigued me:

"Uncleanness, which above all endangers the cult and must be kept away from the Temple, is what characterizes all lands but the holy Land...The lands of the Gentiles are unclean with corpse uncleanness. So death lies outside the holy Land, with consequent uncleanness" (225).

I remember reading something similar in Fishbane's Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel, but I forget where exactly.

So do Jews believe they are unclean in exile? This is an important question, since they've been in exile for a long time. For years, numerous Jews have managed to make their home outside of the holy land--in biblical, Hellenistic, rabbinic, medieval, and modern periods. What's their religious status, according to Judaism? I'm not sure if the Mishnah offers answers, for it related to the land of Palestine. The Talmud may. I don't know.

Whom to Imitate: Adults or Kids?

Source: Jacques Brunschwig and David Sedley, "Hellenistic Philosophy," The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy, ed. David Sedley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 161.

"Unlike Aristotle, who looked to the mature adult as the best judge of what is good, Epicurus appeals to the new-born infant, still blissfully free of whatever value system its family and culture will in due course impose on it, and therefore the true voice of nature's own values. And, so Epicurus argues, what guides the new-born from the first is visibly the pursuit of pleasant feelings and the avoidance of painful ones."

This quote reminds me of a few things. First, when I was at Harvard Divinity School, I took a class on how to design a religious studies curriculum for public schools. One of the books we read offered an idea, and I remarked that it sounded too Unitarian-Universalist for my taste. A gay UU then responded that he liked the proposed curriculum, since he'd love for students to learn tolerance before they're conditioned to accept religious barriers.

I'm not sure what to say about that. As a Christian, I have to believe in religious barriers, since the religions of the Bible aren't exactly all that tolerant. "Kill all the prophets of Baal," the Mendelssohn song goes. At the same time, I realize that barriers have contributed to wars and strife. And yet, do we want to eliminate diversity and make everyone the same, just so we can have peace? Can't we arrive at peace with religious barriers?

Second, the New Testament is divided on whom we should imitate: adults or children. Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs" (Mark 10:14), and "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3 NRSV). Paul, on the other hand, remarked: "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways" (I Corinthians 13:11). So are we supposed to become like adults, or little kids?

The "little kids" side will point to the innocence of childhood. I've seen shows in which adults are bigoted, yet their children play with kids of other races. They've not yet been conditioned by society's barriers! At the same time, Augustine did well to point out that babies can be quite obnoxious and self-centered. There's a reason that "immature" generally equals "bad."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Last Great Day Leftovers

In My Jesus Year: A Rabbi's Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith, Benyamin Cohen reminded me of a Jewish interpretation of the Last Great Day, which I had long forgotten. The Last Great Day is the eighth day of the seven-day Feast of Tabernacles. Cohen writes:

"The eighth day, known as Shemini Atzeret in Hebrew, is the one Jewish holiday in the entire year that does not have any special commandments associated with it. We are no longer required to live in the hut. We don't light a seven-branched candelabra. We don't eat special foods. This holiday is simply a time for God and humans to enjoy each other's company. It's His paternal way of saying to His children, Don't go yet...Picture Sukkot as one weeklong party hosted by the Big Man Upstairs. Stick around after everyone else leaves, God says. That's when I'm breaking out the good stuff" (115-116).

God loves to fellowship with us! I love this quote for pointing that out so beautifully! I also like it because it reminds me of the good times I've had with God. There have been times when I've not wanted my praise and worship to end, or when I linger on in my prayer time because I find myself enjoying God's presence. That doesn't happen all (or even most) of the time, but I'm grateful when it does.

Sensitive Holy Spirit

In II Hermas 5, the divine messenger tells Hermas that the Holy Spirit won't dwell in a person who's bitter and angry. The Holy Spirit is sensitive and gentle, after all, so he can't inhabit the same place as a rancorous spirit! And anger mixed with forebearance makes a person's prayer unacceptable to God.

I don't like this part of Hermas! The reason is that I myself am bitter about many things. I'd like to think that God reaches out to me in compassion when I'm angry, rather than standing aloof on account of my human frailties. And why's the Holy Spirit have to leave because I'm not perfect? Isn't he powerful enough? Christians are told to love (or at least tolerate) complete jerks. Why can't the Holy Spirit?

Hermas reminds me of a book I read by Charles Haddon Spurgeon several years ago: The Saint and His Savior. I love Spurgeon's sermons, but I hated that book! It reeked of "A true Christian should feel this, and not that," and I found that I didn't feel the way Spurgeon wanted. I vaguely recall a few passages in which he said that the Holy Spirit could leave if a person didn't do such-and-such, which was strange, considering Spurgeon embraced Calvinism precisely because it says God's grace is constant for the elect, not dependant on our emotions. So the book was not all that comforting!

At the same time, I can somewhat understand the point Hermas and Spurgeon are trying to make. For one, God is a gentleman. He's not going to force himself on people. I like that, especially since I hate the way some Christians try to shove their religion down people's throats. So, if the Holy Spirit is definitely not wanted, why should he stay?

Second, the Holy Spirit can have a fuller influence if we're not contaminated with bitterness and anger--if we instead rejoice in God and his goodness.

Personally, I'm not going to stop praying just because I have bitterness. I pray to God because I'm imperfect, not because I always feel the right way. And there have been times when God has reached out to me in the midst of my rants, like he's saying, "Now, here's something constructive to think about."

II Hermas 6 is more understanding of human flaws, in my opinion, for there the divine messenger says that Hermas has both the works of the gentle angel of righteousness, and also those of the wicked angel of iniquity. Hermas is exhorted to embrace the angel of righteousness. It's like my Grandpa Pate has said, we need to yield to that right spirit!

Shepherd of Hermas on Divorce

Divorce is a pretty thorny issue for Christians, to say the least. I see that on my Christian dating site, which has a lot of divorced members. I wonder how they justify seeking another mate, when the New Testament has strong words against divorce and remarriage (Matthew 5:31-32; 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12). They usually respond to that question in one of two ways (sometimes both):

1. Their spouse cheated on them, and Jesus allows divorce in cases of sexual immorality (see Matthew 19:9).

2. Their spouse was an unbeliever who did not want to live with them. In that case, the Christian marriage partner is "unbound" (I Corinthians 7:15).

For many Christians, the dissolution of the marriage means that the parties are free to marry someone else.

II Hermas 4 (second century C.E.) appears to comment on this issue. Hermes asks a divine messenger if a Christian man sins by living with a loose wife. The messenger responds that the man is not guilty if he's unaware that his wife's playing around. If he does know about it, however, and the wife chooses not to repent, then he participates in adultery by staying married to her, so he must put her away. At the same time, if he marries another woman, then he commits adultery. If his ex-wife repents of her adulterous behavior, the husband has to take her back, but he can't do so again and again. If a woman worships idols, the man is to put her away, especially if she's not repentant. But the man cannot remarry because there's always the chance that the woman might repent. And this law applies to both men and women, meaning that men can't cheat on their wives.

Here are some thoughts:

1. It's amazing that this law requires the man to put away his adulterous wife, or to take her back. I remember hearing Garner Ted Armstrong comment on Jesus' commands, and he said that the man had a choice: if he found his wife in bed with another man, he could either forgive her, or he could put her away. The ball was in his court. The Shepherd of Hermas, however, says that the man doesn't have a choice: there are rules about what he should do.

2. As far as I can see, Shepherd of Hermas doesn't allow remarriage to someone else after a divorce. After all, the offending spouse may change, so the offended should always be ready to take him or her back. Should this influence our interpretation of the New Testament? I think it's relevant, since it's how early Christians understood the divorce command, and they were closer to the historical context of Jesus than we are. At the same time, I don't know if this is the only view on divorce and remarriage in early Christianity.

3. A man couldn't take his wife back more than once. After all, if he has to do that, then she's probably not repentant, since she keeps doing the same sin over and over. I have problems with this, since how will a man know that a woman won't sin against him in the future? He's not a fortune teller! Also, didn't Jesus tell us to forgive seventy-times-seven (Matthew 18:21-22)?

But I can somewhat see the Shepherd's point. I can envision a wife beater or adulterer continually telling his wife that he's so sorry and it won't happen again, but it does--over and over. Is she supposed to put up with that? Shouldn't there be proof in the pudding that repentance has occurred?

4. On adultery, Christianity is more egalitarian than Judaism. The Hebrew religion allowed men to have multiple wives, while women could only sleep with their one husband. Judaism allowed a man to divorce his wife, but not vice versa (even though some rules enabled a woman to compel her husband to divorce her). In this arrangement, adultery was a one way street: the woman committed adultery by sleeping around, but the man didn't. But Jesus gives a different command: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her" (Mark 10:11). For Jesus, a man had to be faithful to his wife. And that's the rule the Shepherd of Hermas takes up.

An Addition in Exodus 22:25-27: Part 1

Source: Michael Fishbane's Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (New York: Oxford, 1988) 174.

Exodus 22:25-27 states:

"25 If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.
"26 If you take your neighbor's cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down;
"27 for it may be your neighbor's only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate" (NRSV).

According to Fishbane, the phrase "you shall not exact interest from them" is a secondary, later addition, which was intended to clarify what a creditor does. One reason he feels this way is that this phrase has a second person plural verb, whereas the surrounding phrases use verbs in the second person singular.

He may have a point here. And this is a significant criterion he uses to identify glosses or additions: does something stand out or appear awkward?

At the same time, is it inconceivable that a single author could have written all of it? He's speaking to each person in the community, which may explain the second person singulars, but he's also exhorting a bunch of people. Also, why wouldn't a single author want to clarify what he said? Single authors can be redundant. But I guess that's a personal judgment call!

Tomorrow, we'll look at another argument Fishbane gives for v25b being a secondary addition.

Uninspired Canonical Books?

Source: Sid Z. Leiman, The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture: The Talmudic and Midrashic Evidence (Hamden: Archon, 1976).

The rabbis distinguished between books of the Bible that defile the hands and those that do not. Many argue that they were disputing which books were canonical--the canonical books defile the hands, whereas the non-canonical ones don't. The problem with this view is that a rabbi who denies that (say) Ecclesiastes defiles the hands may elsewhere quote Ecclesiastes as authoritative. We see this sort of phenomenon in rabbinic literature. Ergo, Leiman contends that the issue is not canonicity, but inspiration. The inspired books defile the hands, whereas the uninspired books do not.

I wonder how "uninspired" books made it into the canon. Was it because the rabbis (or the Jewish community) believed they had something to teach us, even if they're not the direct word of God? Ecclesiastes, for example, is a profound look at how a rich man coped with his own mortality. His skepticism about an afterlife doesn't have to be authoritative for us doctrinally, however, since Ecclesiastes is not the word of God (in Leiman's interpretation of one rabbinic perspective).

This is one rabbinic view, but I'm not sure if it's the Christian one. II Timothy 3:16 says, "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (NRSV). Paul (or, for liberal scholars, "Paul") apparently doesn't distinguish canonicity from inspiration, as if there are uninspired books in the biblical canon. As far as he's concerned, all the canonical books are inspired.

Aristotle's God

Source: John M. Cooper, "Aristotle," The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy, ed. David Sedley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 141-142.

"Aristotle's conception of god as the absolutely first cause and principle greatly influenced the development of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theology during late antiquity and the Middle Ages. Modern readers coming from those traditions have to understand, however, that Aristotle's god or divinity is not to be conceived as a person--a father or mother who loves and, as such, is concerned in some personal way with what happens to human beings and the rest of nature, and has hopes and expectations, or who has any power of punishment in case something happens that he or she disapproves of or has forbidden. God for Aristotle is an eternally existing, extraphysical and non-material entity, whose activity is the original and fundamental model of what it is to be in any way or respect, and which as such serves as the foundation for the being of everything in the physical world--and as the source of the constantly renewing series of changes that keep the world unified and functioning as a single whole over the vast expanse of time...[I]ts activity is that of pure knowing, knowing about itself as the source of being to everything else."

At DePauw, I took a philosophy class that covered Aristotle. As the professor told us about Aristotle's conception of God and noticed our puzzled expressions, he said, "This is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." And, like Cooper, he said that Aristotle's God spends time thinking about himself.

I'm not sure what the content of this God's thoughts would be. One can only think about his role as the source of being for so much time. One needs variety in his thought life!

Another point: I took a class on medieval Jewish philosophy here at HUC, and the professor said that Aristotle sees God as the first cause, while maintaining that the universe has always existed. I asked the professor how both can be true: Doesn't the universe need to have a beginning for God to cause it? My professor responded that Aristotle doesn't see God as a first cause in the sense of creating a universe that did not previously exist. Rather, Aristotle's God is the basis for all existence--like the power source that causes everything else to exist and run.

I like this quote from Cooper because it actually defines the Judeo-Christian conception of God. I walk around with this view of God in my mind, but it's often vague in my thoughts, so it's nice when someone puts it into words.

Also, while I prefer a God who is more personal than the one Aristotle presents, I can still appreciate a God who eternally exists and sustains an orderly universe.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Psalm 78 and Manna

Source: Michael Fishbane's Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (New York: Oxford, 1988) 327.

"A reflex of [the Exodus 16 manna] tradition is incorporated into a historiographical psalm, Psalm 78, amidst a catena of instances where Israel disregarded the manifest goodness of God towards Israel...While the author of this Psalm may have known the manna and quail tradition of Num. 11 (and possibly even a different sequence of the desert traditions from that found in its received Pentateuchal form), the explicit reference in Ps. 78:24 to the manna raining from heaven, and the description of the manna in Ps. 78:24-5 as a heavenly good, strongly suggest that the composer was in some manner dependent upon the formulation preserved in Exod. 16. An inverted witness to this dependency is the transformation of the original act of divine testing (cf. Exod. 16:4) into one whereby Israel tested and rebelled against YHWH (cf. Ps. 78:18). No testing tradition is referred to in Num. 11."

I don't know. Psalm 78 also refers to God's destruction of Israelites in the context of the manna story. That doesn't appear in Exodus 16, as far as I can see, but it is in Numbers 11. The problem, of course, is what Fishbane cites: Psalm 78 focuses on manna, not quail. Numbers 11 talks about quail, whereas Exodus 16's concern is mainly manna. So which chapter is it interpreting? Perhaps Psalm 78 is conflating details from Exodus 16 with those in Numbers 11, as if he's concerned with God's actions, not necessarily the order in which God did them.

Or could Psalm 78 be referring to a story that circulated in the culture rather than specific texts? Fishbane denies that every prophetic reference to Sodom and Gomorrah has to have Genesis 18-19 in mind. So why does Psalm 78's reference to manna have to be an interpretation of Exodus 16?

If Psalm 78 conflates a variety of traditions, why must we assume that it's reversing Exodus 16's story about testing, making it Israel testing God rather than God testing Israel? There are stories in the Pentateuch in which Israel tests God (see Exodus 17:7; Numbers 14:22; Deuteronomy 6:16; 33:8). Rather than reversing an Exodus 16 theme, maybe Psalm 78 is saying that Israel also tested God by asking for food.

The Cosmos' Cycles, According to Plato

Source: Christopher Rowe, "Plato," The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy, ed. David Sedley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 111.

Christopher Rowe refers to Plato's Statesman, in which the character Socrates discusses a view on the cosmos' cycles. In this view, there are "two recurring eras in world history, one golden, belonging to Cronos, and one belonging to Zeus, in which we ourselves live; and these two eras are separated by a shorter period of reversal, when the deity has 'let go of the steering oars of the universe', at the appointed time. In this period, which begins and ends with great destruction, dead bodies come back to life from the earth, and get smaller as time goes by, until they disappear altogether."

There are two explanations for how this disintegration occurs. One is that the cosmos is dynamic and can't stay the same forever. Another is that the universe wants to be free from the restrictions of the deity, so it breaks loose temporarily. In this model, it eventually remembers the deity who organized it, and "it returns to its proper course."

And the universe is a parallel to the human soul, according to Plato. In the same way that people need to subordinate their unbridled passions to reason, so must the universe embrace rationality, notwithstanding its desire to break free.

This reminds me of two things:

First, in the Hebrew Bible, God often has to fight chaos in his attempt to restore justice and order. The ancients realized that the earth has order, as proponents of Intelligent Design like to point out. Yet, it also has a lot of chaos, which can be quite destructive.

Second, it reminds me of an Amish ritual--the one where Amish teenagers take a vacation from their religion to do their own thing. Many come back to the Amish lifestyle. Many don't. Those who do probably get tired of the chaos of modern-day life. The same is true for people who sow their wild oats when they're younger, yet become more responsible as they mature.

I guess Plato believed that the universe needs a vacation from order every now and then. I don't know how often he thought this disintegration took place.

Second Degree Impure Food

Source: Sid Z. Leiman, The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture: The Talmudic and Midrashic Evidence (Hamden: Archon, 1976) 103-104.

According to the rabbis, a person who touches an impure object gains second degree impurity with respect to his hands. One removes such impurity through ritually washing them. Leiman states: "If the hands are not ritually washed, they in turn defile the priestly gifts (terumah) which they touch. Such priestly gifts may no longer be eaten and must be burned." Eventually, unwashed hands defiled all food that they touched, not only that of priests. This may be because the rabbis were trying to make ordinary meals an experience of the divine.

This rabbinic ritual may go back to New Testament times, since the Pharisees criticized Jesus' disciples for not washing their hands. For them, unwashed hands rendered the food defiling to the one who eats it (Matthew 15; Mark 7).

I remember reading an article from the Worldwide Church of God on clean and unclean meats. In Acts 10:14, Peter said he never ate food that was common or unclean. According to the article, the unclean meats referred to those prohibited in Leviticus 11, whereas the common ones were meats defiled through unwashed hands. That may be true, since there seems to be a distinction between common and unclean food in the verse.

Judaism and the Prosperity Gospel

In My Jesus Year: A Rabbi's Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith, Benyamin Cohen says the following about the prosperity Gospel:

"Although Judaism has similar notions about prosperity--our prayers often ask for sustenance--it is, by far, not the highlight of our service. We do not worship the almighty dollar. If we're asking for anything, it's usually for stuff like health or good tidings. But the focus of most of our prayers is praising God and actually has nothing to do with our wants and needs" (67).

I think there needs to be balance. When I watch Joel Osteen, for instance, I'm usually encouraged by his messages, since he gives good advice on how I should live my life. But he mostly focuses on giving us tips, which he often supports with Scripture. I don't see much about praising God. I think it's good to offer people hope that God will make a breakthrough in their lives. But focusing entirely on how God can bless me and make me prosperous can get pretty empty after a while, in my humble opinion.

A Transformative Word

I'm reading an excellent book right now, Benyamin Cohen's My Jesus Year: A Rabbi's Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith. It's about an orthodox Jew who grows tired of Judaism and decides to sample the evangelical sub-culture. In the end, he becomes a better Jew.

In the chapter, "Getting High on the High Holidays," Cohen talks about how he always considered the high holidays to be a big chore. He also had problems with Abraham, who got up early to offer his son. Sure, the offering his son part was pretty offensive, but Cohen didn't identify with Abraham getting up early. Abraham was such a religious overachiever, who was eager to do the commands of God. Cohen, by contrast, dragged his feet when it came to the rituals of Judaism.

One Rosh Hoshanah, however, he hears a sermon that transforms his mindset. It asked why Genesis 22 specifically mentions that the ram was caught in the thicket by his horns. The lesson was that Abraham grabbed his faith by the horns: he didn't wait for everything to come to him, but he proactively sought out an experience with God.

This led Cohen to think about his wife's grandmother. His wife is a convert to Judaism from evangelical Christianity, and her mom is quite evangelical (and Pentecostal, at that). She's deeply interested in the spiritual side of life, and she tries to read everything she can about Judaism. She also stumps Benyamin with tons of questions.

Cohen concludes that this is the type of person who experiences God: not the one who passively waits for God to lay a revelation on his lap, but the person who grabs faith by the horns--who is proactive in his or her spiritual search. Cohen then says that he's sad Rosh Hoshanah only comes once a year, since he really got something spiritual out of that particular service. And this was a guy who previously dragged his feet at celebrating the high holidays!

I like it when the word of God is transformative--when it changes one's perspective, which leads to obedience out of love rather than mere obligation. I remember reading on Bryan's blog a while back that Bryan usually has to have his thinking transformed before he can even think about changing his actions. And that's the way I am: I can go through the motions of changing my actions, but that makes what I'm doing a burden. I need a different mindset and attitude to make the obedience more natural. Unfortunately, sermons mostly focus on "do this and don't do that."

For my daily quiet time right now, I'm reading the Shepherd of Hermas, a second century book that was considered Scripture in some Christian circles, but not in others. Hermas encounters an old woman who becomes middle-aged the next time he sees her, and a hot young babe the next time she appears to him. Essentially, she was a mirror of his own spiritual life. Hermas was tired and worn out with Christianity, but God gave him a transformative message that encouraged and strengthened him to do the right thing.

We all need these kinds of messages, since they can keep us going. Personally, I get them from the Bible, books, and television.


On my Christian dating site, someone posted an article that critiqued atheists, particularly Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher. It cited surveys that showed religious people are healthier and happier than those who are non-religious.

In the course of the discussion, the person who posted the article made the following comment:

"I know God loves these atheists and desires them to repent and come to Him. But when I hear them talk, I always come away thinking: I have never met, known, or heard an atheist whose attitude or character was anything I would ever want to emulate. And it makes me wonder, why would anyone be attracted to them?"

I like this person, so I didn't want to challenge him on the dating site. And there's a part of me that actually likes his comment. Atheists always like to point out the bad apples of Christianity. A decent response is, "Well, what makes you so special, oh self-righteous atheist?"

But I thought that my friend's comment was rather smug. Indeed, there really aren't too many atheists I want to emulate. Sure, I can understand where they're coming from, but I don't exactly say to myself, "Man, I want to be like this atheist." But, to be honest, there aren't a lot of Christians I want to be like, either. So many Christians are smug, self-righteous, and judgmental. Even if their way has something to it, I don't desire to be like them.

And let me say this: I don't expect people to want to be like me. That's what I hate about Christianity: it says I have to act perfectly so people will see in me something that they want, which will open the door for me to share the evangelical Jesus-spiel. But I don't want people to be like me. I'm scared of my own shadow! I have so much resentment inside of me. I'm not perfect. I have issues to work through. I'm a burden enough to myself. Don't ask me to be burdened with other people's souls and lives!

After I read my friend's comment, I asked myself, "Is there anyone I want to emulate?" Personally, I think there are things to admire and hate in all sorts of people: Christians and atheists. But so many people are regular: they just try to make it through the day.

There is one person whose character I admire: a Buddhist monk I knew at Harvard. He was a friendly, open person--to everyone with whom he came into contact. He didn't seem to have any resentments or cliques or hidden agendas: he manifested what C.S. Lewis said about humility in Mere Christianity--he was genuinely interested in what I had to say. And we had a lot of good talks on religion, as I shared with him my Christianity.

One time, he shared with me some of his Zen Buddhist beliefs. He told me about a monk who was on the mountaintop meditating, and he decided to go down the mountain into the marketplace. After days of meditation, he thought he had enough inner peace to handle anything! Then, someone in the market insulted him, and the monk got mad. He then realized that he had to go back up the mountain to meditate again!

I liked this story because it was so unpretentious: it recognized that life and humanity presents their share of challenges. I've heard Christians beat up on themselves for their imperfections, but I detect a lot of pride in that: Christianity says it's good to be humble, so Christians try to show how much better they are than everyone else by playing their "humility" to the max. But my Buddhist friend was not like that: he saw that living a good life is a process.

I want to close this post by citing a Desperate Housewives episode, from the second season. Carlos Solis was in jail because he assaulted his wife's teenage lover. His wife is named Gabrielle. A pretty nun helps Carlos get out of prison, and he decides to turn his life around: for years, he was a selfish, materialistic, rich guy, and now he seeks to follow God and give to the world. Gabrielle doesn't like the nun because she's attractive, and the nun (for whatever reason) wants Carlos to leave Gabrielle.

There's a funny scene that takes place in a church. Gabrielle pays for the nun to go to Africa, since she wants to keep the lady away from her husband. The nun then arranges for Carlos to come to Africa with her. In the church, as the three of them discuss their plans, Carlos says, "What you don't realize, Gabby, is that there are dying people in the world." Gabrielle responds, "And there are going to be dying people in this church if you don't wipe that patronizing look off your face!"

The nun disappointed me, since she seems like such a nice person: as someone who should love Gabrielle rather than seeking to undermine her. But people don't always live up to their faith. Why does religion lead so often to pride and being patronizing, rather than love and humility?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Fishbane on Nehemiah 8

Source: Michael Fishbane's Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (New York: Oxford, 1988) 110-111.

In my post, Apologetics, Shamar, I write:

"Nehemiah 8:14-15: 'And they found it written in the law, which the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the people of Israel should live in booths during the festival of the seventh month, and that they should publish and proclaim in all their towns and in Jerusalem as follows, 'Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.'' The problem is that Leviticus 23:39-43 doesn't tell the Israelites to make booths out of those materials; it merely says to rejoice with them. Was Nehemiah's 'law of Moses' different from what we have in our Bibles?"

Fishbane actually comments on this in his book. He disputes that Nehemiah 8:14-15 is a direct exegesis of Leviticus 23:40-42 and Deuteronomy 16:13-15, since there are clear differences. For example, Leviticus 23 talks about four species of vegetation, whereas Nehemiah 8 mentions five. This highlights one major criterion of how Fishbane identifies inner-biblical exegesis: is there similarity between the two passages?

But Fishbane still maintains that there is some exegesis going on here. He doesn't seem to think that Nehemiah is appealing to a different law of Moses from what is in our Bibles. According to him, succoth is from the Hebrew sck, which means "to cover over" with branches. Fishbane states, "On this basis they interpreted the Torah command to dwell in booths as implying that one must dwell in 'branched' shelters--hence the directive to go to the forests and hills to gather representative tree species wherewith to build the booths."

That could be. I don't know. Does Fishbane think Nehemiah wanted the Israelites to rejoice with the tree branches, while making succoth out of them?

Blind and Deaf, Mischievous Rabbis, Tolerant Rabbis

The source for this post is Discoveries in the Judean Desert X. I'm not in the mood to look up all of the bibliographic information right now. The part I read concerns Miksat Maasei Ha-Torah. Here are a few things that stood out to me:

1. The MMT bans the blind and the deaf from the Temple. Here's what the book says about the rabbis:

"The rabbis did not treat the blind and the deaf as forming a single category. A deaf person was treated as mindless (in the same category as an imbecile or a minor). The blind were not seen as mindless, but merely as incapable of carrying out certain practices.

"As regards the deaf, the Mishna in Terumot 1:1 states that a deaf man may not set aside Teruma, and that if he does his act is not valid. The Tosepta in Terumot 1:1 adds that the deaf may have access to the pure food eaten in Jerusalem" (161).

That's not nice--how the rabbis regard the deaf. The deaf aren't stupid. They just can't hear. And the MMT is too strict, especially since the Torah allows handicapped priests to eat from the holy food (Leviticus 21:22).

2. The Sadducees believed that the only one who could prepare the red heifer was a priest on whom the sun had set after his immersion; the rabbis disagreed. According to the book, "we read in m. Para 3:7 that the rabbis intentionally defiled the priest who was to burn the cow, and then immersed him; immediately thereafter he had to perform his task without waiting for sunset" (152). Man, that's taking a belief pretty seriously, isn't it?

3. At the same time, the rabbis could be tolerant. The authors of MMT bolted the Jerusalem community over halakhic differences, but the rabbis allowed Hillelites and Shammaites to intermarry, even though the two groups disagreed on purity rules (m. Yebam. 1:4). That puzzles me somewhat, since I'd expect them to consider purity rules more important. What if a man defiled his spouse, thinking that he wasn't defiling her? Defilement determined whether or not God abode in the community. I'm surprised that more people didn't bolt the community over halakah.

Sophists, Socrates, Morality

Source: Sarah Broadie, "The Sophists and Socrates," The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy, ed. David Sedley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 73-97.

I don't know this chapter cold, so there will be some gaps in this. High school and college students who are searching the web to research for a paper: Don't use this post!

From what I gathered, the Sophists did not believe in morality and justice, and they treated the gods as mere human constructs. Some of what I read about the Sophists reminded me of Kant, in that they viewed reality as something we construct with our minds (or something like that). Socrates, by contrast, believed in morality and truth, and he maintained that people harm themselves when they are unjust.

This struggle reminds me of things I've encountered this week. I get mad at God a lot, but, if God does not exist, what hope do we have? All we've got is a loveless universe. Atheists may respond that we should look to humanity, but I don't have much faith in people. Sure, they can do good, but they are also cliquish, judgmental, selfish, and cruel. At the same time, I agree with what Mary Alice Young said on an episode of Desperate Housewives (from its second season): it's hard to distinguish between good guys and bad guys, since we all possess within us tendencies for goodness and cruelty.

In the sermon I heard today at mass, the priest was saying it's wrong to live as if there's no God. In a sense, that's true. The Sophists focused on people advancing themselves through manipulation and rhetoric. That's the way many people are: self-seeking. We need a moral structure--a system of love and justice that can inspire us. At the same time, I don't think atheists are necessarily immoral. Justice helps society and individuals. I can understand why even a complete secularist would support laws that uphold justice and righteousness.

The priest also referred to people who become worn out with sin. That caught my attention. At times, Christianity strikes me as too strict, with its commands against lust and sex outside of marriage. But doing that too much can lead to feelings of bankruptcy and meaningless. It's like I used to feel after being drunk: thirsty, inwardly empty, etc.

In any case, these are just my thoughts. Some may disagree with me, but it's how I feel right now.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Why Chief Girardi Has Problems with God

On Joan of Arcadia, Joan asks her dad, Will Girardi, if he believes in God. Will responds that his parents continually tried to shove religion down his throat, but he always wondered something: Why's God beat up on him, when God's the one who made us flawed?

We learn in other episodes that Will was raised a Catholic. I often hear the words "Catholic" and "guilt" in the same sentence, which may explain why Will felt God "beat up" on him. At DePauw, I had a class with a student who called himself a "recovering Catholic," and my professor replied, "That's the best kind." Personally, I've felt more guilty in evangelical settings than I do at Catholic mass, but that's just me.

But, in any case, Will's comments reminded me of something I read on an atheist web site, which has forums for ex-Christians. On the "lust and pride" forum, someone says the following:

"I don't know whether to put this in the rants section or here, but I think I'll put it here just because I think it makes absolutely NO F[***]ING SENSE why one should be made guilty for experiencing things we were programmed to feel.

"Honestly, out of all the things that make me RAGING MAD about religion, this would be at the top. When a man sees a good looking female, he's going to get excited if you know what I mean. He's going to experience sexual feelings and he may even want to act on them. And I'm sure the same could be said for females.

"Now Christians will say that we all acted on our desires, we would be out raping and killing. THAT'S NOT WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT HERE. I'm talking about 'thought' sins which harm absolutely NO ONE. NO ONE IS HARMED BY FANTASIES UNLESS THEY ACTUALLY ACT ON SOME OF THEM. Next, we have the sin of pride, another one which seems to be at the top of some Christians list (at least the ones I experienced). Now, obviously prideful, arrogant people who brag about all their accomplishments can get annoying, but according to some of the religious, if you even give yourself credit or feel good about something you did without a[cknowledging] god, that falls under 'pride'. The only way not to feel pride is to consider yourself so lowly that you're dirt compared to the almighty.

"Of course, these are both extreme examples, but that's the point. NOT EVERYONE IS THE SAME, THERE'S ALWAYS SOMEONE BETTER OR WORSE THAN ANOTHER. It's like a speedomiter, if you press the gas pedal just a little bit, you're not going to be going 100MPH. You can go 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100, or anywhere over or in between. I could never fathom a world with no moderation because that world DOES NOT EXIST!!! Yet according to most Christians, one who looks at a woman lustfully is no better than a serial rapist.

"What crap! And oh yeah, just to clarify, I know the answer that will surely come my way, Jesus already paid for our sins, yadda yadda yadda. Well, that could start an entirely different thread, but that's out of this question. Even with Jesus, the belief is still the same, all sins, even the small ones, merit the same fate, eternal damnation. So we shouldn't even try to do good. What a crock of s[**]t."

See Lust And Pride.

I think atheists can be pretty dogmatic and narrow-minded themselves, but this quote resonated with me. I know there are Old Testament and Jewish quotes that criticize pride and lust, but I like the way that Judaism emphasizes correct behavior as opposed to having the exact right motivation, and also its acknowledgement of human nature. There's one midrash that says God gave humans the yezer ha-ra (the evil inclination), since, without it, they wouldn't have children or start businesses. My impression is that Judaism says we should keep our base nature under control, whereas Christianity believes humans need to kill that nature by embracing Christ or receiving baptism. I think Judaism is more realistic about how humans actually are. I've not seen too many Christians who lack a sinful nature!

A Disappointing God in Joan of Arcadia

Believe it or not, I watched ten episodes of Joan of Arcadia yesterday. I did other things while I was watching it--schoolwork, weekly quiet time reading, etc.--but I spent a lot of time with those characters. I'm used to them by now. I like them--even though I see Kevin as a narcissistic jock who thinks the whole world revolves around him and his handicap. But I'll write a separate post on this soon, since he's gotten me to think about my own handicap.

In this post, I want to comment on a few episodes in which God disappointed me.

1. On one, God told Joan to make sure her friend Andy's sculpture doesn't enter the school art show. Joan thinks this may be a message from Satan, since God wouldn't tell her to steal a sculpture that's not hers, right? So she leaves the sculpture in the show, and her friend wins $500. He then decides that he doesn't need to stay in school anymore, since he can make money off his junk art.

Joan doesn't know what to do. She doesn't want to steal the sculpture, since stealing is wrong. She asks God for guidance, and she (in this particular guise) tells Joan to use some imagination. Eventually, Joan concludes that all she can do is smash the sculpture. She does so, and her friend Andy doesn't speak to her for weeks. Her family wonders why she did it, and she can't tell them that God speaks to her, since they'll think she's crazy. When she asks her mom what she should have done, she's told about other options: the mom could have talked to Andy's dad, etc.

In my opinion, God let Joan down! It's not obvious to everyone what his or her options are. Not everyone has imagination. It would be helpful if God had guided Joan rather than faulting her for having an idea-deficit. I was hoping Joan would give God a verbal thrashing the next time she saw him, but she didn't, because she blamed herself.

Maybe the point is that Joan should have consulted others for advice. On a previous episode, God tells Joan that being alone is hell, which is why we should reach out to others. Perhaps Joan wasn't expected to rely solely on her own imagination. But the show didn't make that point explicitly.

That highlights an image of God that I have in my mind: that he leaves people hanging. I'm not the only one who feels that way. Many of you have heard the story of the man hanging by a thread over a cliff, and he hears a voice offering to help. The voice claims to be God, and the man responds, "Is there anyone else up there?"

I think of the movie, The Rapture, in which Mimi Rogers waits for God to rapture her and her daughter. God doesn't, they steal to eat, and Mimi shoots her little girl. God finally intervenes...when it's too late.

Maybe we have this lingering distrust of God because we wonder if he's there at all, or we don't see him, or we see so many bad things that he allows. I don't know.

2. On another one, God tells Joan to go to the dance with the school bully. God commands Joan to do a lot of things on the show: to join the cheerleading squad, to enroll in AP chemistry (even though she's a C-student), etc. But, here, he wants her to go out with a disturbed young man.

This was a particularly gut-wrenching, tear-jerking episode, since I could identify with the school bully. He was alone and angry. He felt as if no one liked him. I have these sorts of anger issues myself! But Joan could reach out to him and recognize his inner humanity.

Joan takes him to the dance, and he gets in trouble because he brings alcohol. Near the end, he points a gun at Joan's police chief father, and he goes to jail. Joan wonders what exactly she accomplished! And she gets in trouble with her parents because she put herself and others in danger. She can't tell them that God speaks to her, so she accepts her punishment: she gets grounded.

You know, I wanted Joan to give God a tongue-lashing. I would have given the character of God one myself if he appeared to Joan as a wise-guy janitor or a security guard or a cafeteria worker. But God appeared to her as Mrs. Landingham from the West Wing, and I can't be mad at Mrs. Landingham. She's a familiar face. I spend every Sunday with her when I watch Desperate Housewives. I see her on all sorts of commercials. I was glad that she was the one who would give Joan wisdom in this perplexing situation.

And God in the guise of Mrs. Landingham told Joan that she prevented a worse evil: without Joan's presence in his life, the bully would have shot the assistant principal, over a dozen kids, and finally himself. The episode closes with Joan and Mrs. Landingham solemnly surveying the hallway. So God was disappointing at first on this particular episode, but I liked him (or her) more by the end.

Let's Get an Investigation Going!

The AP has a story, Goalie hurt by Palin walkway.

It wasn't her fault! Pick, pick, pick.

People will probably tell me I'm overreacting, and it's just a story about something interesting that happened. I'm sorry--the media have nitpicked Sarah Palin for so long, that I see all sorts of stories as partisan attacks.

Kristina Chew and ABFH on John McCain's Autism Policy

I'm composing this here because I usually sound more rational when I'm writing on my own blog. It makes me actually have to look at what a person is saying as I formulate my response. When I reply to people on other blogs, I can easily come across as mentally insane: someone who'll get into the gutter and launch personal attacks without shame. Granted, there are people here who tick me off, but I'm better on my own blog.

I was reading a post by ABFH on Whose Planet Is It Anyway?. (I'll let the reader visit her site to find out what ABFH means, since James' Thoughts and Musings tries to be G-rated.) The post is entitled, "Kristina Chew on John McCain's Autism Policy". Kristina Chew has a son with autism, and she says in an interview with Newsweek that John McCain is pandering to parents of special needs children, while ignoring the needs of adults with autism. ABFH comments that McCain hasn't yet released policy proposals on disabilities.

I just loved the responses ABFH got! Here's a sample, with yours truly being the source for the last quote:

"Did Ms. Chew suggest that an autistic adult might be a better person to interview than herself in regards to the needs of autistic adults? Or do we continue to be happy with the crumbs we are given? I'm sick of this crap of non-autistics speaking for autistics."

"i'm wondering if we are in fact going to be better off or worse off with the government programs obama is proposing that are supposedly going to help disabled people become more independent. i ask the same question of mccain's plan if cutting programs will help or hurt us in the long run of becoming more independent. the reason i ask is because i don't want to have a self fulfilling prophecy, set forth by autism speaks and the like, where we down the line become a burden and dependent to the government because of the social programs obama wants to put in place. i ask this because i don't want neurodiversity sending us backwards unintentionally."

"I'm personally growing very tired of non-autistics professing to know what autistics want and/or need."

"How many prepared statements does John McCain need to prepare? You gave us a link in the past, ABFH, in which McCain said he was committed to autism research and helping people with autism do well in life. Does he need to prepare a statement every week?"

I like these quotes because they highlight how I feel: I am tired of people claiming to speak for me, when their views don't represent mine at all. I can sympathize with people in the African-American community who look at their self-appointed "leaders" and say, "Look, these guys don't speak for me!" We're all individuals. As the comments reveal, there are people on the spectrum who are conservative, moderate, liberal, and outside-the-box. Self-appointed "experts" and spokespersons do not speak for me. I speak for me.

That being said, here are some points:

1. It's ironic that ABFH is presenting Kristina Chew as the person we should consult for guidance. Dr. Chew spoke highly of Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries. ABFH, by contrast, views Hillary Clinton as a Nazi who wants to eliminate autism.

2. ABFH is wrong to suggest that John McCain hasn't thought about the autism issue. She herself included a link on her website, in which John McCain talked about his policies for children and adults with autism, as well as acknowledged that autism is a "spectrum" condition that impacts people in a variety of ways (here). This latter point is important because, in her post "Obama and McCain on Autism," Chew seemed to present Obama as so enlightened because he recognized autism as a spectrum. So does John McCain!

Also, in ABFH's post that linked to McCain's letter, ABFH was very selective in quoting John McCain (see "Comparing the Presidential Candidates' Views on Autism"). She obviously wanted to make Barack Obama look better, which is fine, since she supports Barack Obama. But the picture she presents is not entirely accurate.

3. Many of the concerns that Chew raised to Newsweek have been resolved since that interview, in my opinion. In the interview, Chew said that Palin hasn't been specific on her policy proposals for special needs children, that she doesn't seem to distinguish between autistic kids and those with Down Syndrome, and that John McCain's proposed spending freeze will hurt people with autism. In her posts, Sarah Palin Interview: Comments on Special Needs and The Autism “Debates”, however, Chew contains links on Palin's policy proposals, points out that Palin's sister has an autistic child, and says that McCain will exempt special needs funding from the spending freeze. Chew also said that McCain ignored adults with autism, but, as McCain's letter that I linked to above demonstrates, he doesn't do that.

But what do I know? I need people to speak for me!

Pakistan's Starting to Step Forward...Finally

The AP has an article this morning, Pakistan troops capture militant stronghold, commander says.

Bush seems to be doing something right. Sure, Pakistan doesn't like us striking at militant hideouts in its country, but at least it's encouraging the Pakistanis to get off their hides and confront the militants themselves. It is sad that 95 civilians died, presumably through our airstrikes. At the same time, undermining the militants' safe haven has reduced violence on the Afghan side of the border, according to U.S. officials.

I agree with Barack Obama on this: John McCain says he'll capture Osama bin Laden if he has to go to the gates of hell. But he criticizes Obama for wanting to take him out in Pakistan? It looks like Bush is following Obama's idea.

Friday, October 24, 2008

NYT on Palin's Early Years

This is a pretty good article, so I'm putting it here to have access to it. My bookmarks are pretty crowded!

"Little-Noticed College Student to Star Politician
"To many who knew a young Sarah Palin, the woman onstage at rallies sounds nothing like the one they recall."

Joan of Arcadia on Miracles

At the library on Thursday, I checked out volumes 1-3 of Joan of Arcadia: Season 1. It's an awesome show! I'm not really in the mood to write all of my reactions to it right now, so I'll comment on one subject it discusses: miracles.

Joan is a 16 year-old girl who gets revelations from God, who appears to her in many guises (cute guy, cafeteria lady, little girl, post-mistress, garbage man, Mrs. Landingham from the West Wing, etc.). Her older brother Kevin--played by the guy who depicted Jeb Bush in Oliver Stone's W--became a paraplegic after a car accident, thus losing out on his athletic scholarship. He has a lot of self-pity, which makes me want to chant "whine, whine, whine," especially after the sixth episode. Then, I remember my own self-pity.

Joan asks God why he won't heal her brother, and God essentially says that he doesn't do miracles. Sure, he'll use Joan to make her brother's life better, which is what he's done so far--by reconciling Kevin with his dad, by encouraging him to get a job, etc. But God won't make him walk again. In God's words, he made rules to benefit all creation, and, if he heals one person, then he has to heal everyone.

That should settle the matter, since it's God's word. But the show seems to convey other messages. A psychic, who astutely recognizes that Joan is "in touch with the universe," whispers in Kevin's ear that he'll dance at his wedding. And the mom, played by Mary Steenburgen, keeps up her hope that God will heal her son, notwithstanding her husband's skepticism.

I wonder if the show is unthinkingly contradicting itself, which happens in a lot of shows. (I've read about some Waltons whoppers. Old John-Boy says Grandma died before Grandpa, but that's not what happened!). Or maybe it's trying to say something: God ordinarily follows set-rules, but people can persuade him to change his mind and to make an exception.

Personally, I don't think it would be so horrible if God healed everyone. Won't he do that when he sets up his kingdom? The fact is that he doesn't right now, for whatever reason. But he does heal some people, so it's not as if he's bound by a rule that says "Thou shalt not heal." And he doesn't just heal to confirm the Gospel. He also does so out of compassion (Matthew 20:34; Luke 7:13).

So "God" on Joan of Arcadia tried to come up with a consistent theodicy, but it's not exactly biblical. I'm not saying "Burn the show"--I just don't agree with what God the little kid said about miracles.

Intelligent Quote of the Day: Brett

My friend Felix has a feature on his blog called "Intelligent Quote of the Day." I also have an intelligent quote for you: this is under BryanL's post, Changing Your Mind, and it's by Brett:

"I used to be a cessationist until I witness healings taking place and saw the gifts worked out. So the experience changed my stance. I used to be a Calvinist until I had people in my life who had horrific tragedies, and until I had somebody from the other side explain their perspective to me, and I changed my mind. I just couldn’t accept the 'It’s all for God’s glory and good pleasure' crap that I always heard [John] Piper say. It was just too barbaric and my conscience would not allow me to believe that it was as simple as this.

"I would like to say, though, that I think when you’ve been on one side of the coin and you switch to the other, chances are you’re probably not going to switch back. I was once a Calvinist, and I honestly do not ever see myself ever going back. Scripture is just too gray and my experience will not allow me to, even if someone I respected changed their views on it.

"But, my opinion still stands, an extremely respected individual and one you look at as a leader changed his mind about a doctrine you believe in, and personal experience are two key factors. Evidence (scriptural/exegetical) is another one, but I don’t believe it’s as strong as the first two. For me personally, at the bottom of my list is historical theology. This is the first on many people’s lists (they act like the church fathers already have everything figured out so we should just believe them, and none of them are really consistent with this but they talk like they are). I frankly could care less what the most important (or popular) church history fathers said about something. I actually think the extreme zeal many in my life have had towards historical theology has led me to disrespect it greatly. There is too much darkness and sin behind the curtains (Augustine was a jerk, Luther was a jerk, Calvin was the biggest jerk of all…why would I want to get all my theology from jerks?)"

An Old View on Evolution

Source: Malcom Schofield, "The Presocratics," The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy, ed. David Sedley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 71-72.

Empedocles was a fifth century B.C.E., pre-Socratic philosopher. And he believed in some form of evolution:

"Empedocles' most memorable contribution to speculation about nature was his theory of the origin of species. He posited a sequence of stages (much debated by scholars) in the emergence of animal forms, starting at a point when Strife was even more dominant than it is now. First came a phase when 'many faces sprung up without necks, arms wandered without shoulders, unattached, and eyes strayed alone, in need of foreheads'...This was followed by a generation of monsters, such as bulls with human faces and 'ox-headed offspring of man'. After that the picture is less clear. What is well attested is Empedocles' frequent appeal to chance in spelling this theory out; and Aristotle suggests that he proposed an idea of the survival of the fittest: from amongst the monsters of the second generation, only those who happened to be biologically viable survived and reproduced in kind. Aristotle had greater admiration for Empedocles' perception of homologous functions in the living beings of our present zoological phase..."

Odd transitional forms? Survival of the fittest? Commonalities among different living things? Sounds like the theory of evolution! I wonder if Henry Morris mentions Empedocles in his The Long War Against God: The History and Impact of the Creation/Evolution Conflict, in which he claims to examine evolution in ancient religions.

Women in the Image of God?

Source: Judith Romney Wegner, Chattel or Person? The Status of Women in the Mishnah (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) 179, 197.

"The ambivalence toward women, perceived as somewhat like men yet somehow different, is by no means unique to the Mishnah. The same conflict--between, on the one hand, the Hellenistic perception of female inferiority and, on the other, Scripture's assertion that man and woman alike reflect God's image (Gen. 1:27)--troubled the patristic writers no less than the Mishnah's framers. Augustine in particular found himself unable to reconcile Gen. 1:27 with 1 Cor. 11:7, in which Paul (adopting the Aristotelian view of soul and intellect as masculine attributes) asserts that only man and not woman is created in God's image. Augustine believed that insofar as woman is homo, she must reflect the image of God in her rational soul. But insofar as she is femina, she does not reflect this image."

"Scripture's statement that God created man and woman alike in his image: 'And God created man in his image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them' (Gen. 1:27). Although one modern scholar, Phyllis Bird, has argued convincingly that this reading of Scripture almost certainly depends on a fortuitous mispunctuation of the masoretic text, the adopted reading was certainly taken very seriously. The problem of women's equality was considered not only by Jewish sages, but also by early patristic writers, who likewise experienced difficulty in coming to terms with a notion so alien to the dominant culture of the day and so much at odds with their own patriarchal stance."

Wegner's thesis is that the rabbis' had a hard time with ambiguity, since they liked to place things in neat categories. But women posed a problem for them. On one hand, the rabbis could acknowledge that women were like men in certain areas, so many of their rules treat them as responsible, intelligent human beings. On the other hand, they believed that women were inferior, so they also had rules that viewed them as chattel. Apparently, Augustine had the same sort of issue, for he used mental gymnastics in his attempt to harmonize Paul with Genesis.

I'm intrigued by how Scripture could challenge a dominant cultural mindset such as patriarchy. People act like hermeneutics is totally subjective, as if interpreters can mold the text any way they wish. Not necessarily, for they couldn't read egalitarianism out of Genesis 1:26.

At the same time, I have problems with the "Bible was way ahead of its time" approach, which you see in Jewish and Christian apologetics. You can find patriarchy and egalitarianism probably in every culture. The ancient Near East regarded men as superior, yet it was liberal in allowing women to inherit property--more so than the biblical religion. Greco-Roman culture viewed women as inferiors, but it had mythology with strong women and goddesses. Were interpreters of the Bible challenged only by Genesis 1, or also by real life, in which women demonstrated their power, resourcefulness, and intelligence?

Fishbane's Chronology of Sources 2

In Fishbane's Chronology of Sources, I said that today I'd look at times when Michael Fishbane seems to contradict his usual chronology of which sources preceded what. Remember that my source is Michael Fishbane's Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (New York: Oxford, 1988):

Here's an example:

According to Fishbane, "Exodus 22:24 is both the source of one deuteronomic rule and the beneficiary of another; in totality, it is a harmonization of two independent Pentateuchal rules within the Pentateuch itself" (177). What Fishbane means is that a later reviser incorporated a deuteronomic prohibition on interest into Exodus' covenant code. Usually, Fishbane assumes that the covenant code preceded Deuteronomy. Here, he says that a later hand can put a deuteronomic law into the covenant code.

But Fishbane has a whole chapter on glosses. He also says that scribes could incorporate their traditio into the traditum. Is chronology meaningless, then, since a later hand can always insert his stuff? Maybe. But Fishbane has criteria to determine when one source uses another.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Original Mavericks

This is my favorite election ad. I love the soundtrack and the content! I'm putting it here so I'll have access to it any time I want. Hopefully, it stays on YouTube after the election.

Original Mavericks

It Breaks My Heart, But It's Funny!

Opie, Andy Griffith and the Fonz endorse Obama with skit

My Dawkins Mood (and It's Unrelated to Dating)

Source: Malcom Schofield, "The Presocratics," The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy, ed. David Sedley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 52:

"One clue to the distinctive focus of the Pythagorean way of life is the fact that Herodotus associated it with the rites and writings of Orphic religion. By the fifth century BC the name of Orpheus had become attached to the doctrine that the body is a prison in which the soul serves out its punishment for sin, and to practices designed to purify initiates and ensure their happiness before and after death (these included renunciation of animal sacrifice). A similar belief as to how and why the soul must be purified if it is to achieve ultimate escape from the cycle of reincarnation is what seems to have animated Pythagoreanism."

That's one view of life and the afterlife. And how do we know it's wrong?

I'm sorry. I'm in a skeptical mood today.

I was thinking today about different beliefs about the afterlife. To be honest, none of them really satisfy me. I'll state my reason before I go into them: there are people who die at birth. Infant mortality exists here and in other parts of the world. Okay, now let's see how this poses a problem for various views on the afterlife:

Evangelical view: God either sends the babies to hell, or he lets them into heaven because they didn't reach the age of accountability. Why would God create them if they were going to die so quickly?

Armstrongite view: God will give them a chance to receive salvation after their resurrection. Why couldn't God have given them a chance the first time around--by allowing them to grow up?

Reincarnation view: The souls are in the body to learn lessons, and their afterlife depends on how they do in this life. Well, well, well. The souls sure had a short stay when they were in the bodies of the babies who died. They're in, then they're out. Hasta la vista!

No afterlife religious view: Here, I think of Ben Sira, much of the Hebrew Bible, and various strands of Judaism, which don't really believe in an afterlife. According to this view, God created human beings and rewards or punishes them in this life. But why would God create someone who would die at birth? It makes absolutely no sense!

I just feel sometimes that religions try to get around the absurdity of life. They act like they're making sense of everything, or that they're needed for life to make sense. Actually, it seems like they're trying to add meaning to a reality that's absurd.

That's my first point. Here's my second one:

You know, people for generations have had various ideas about life and the afterlife. Why should I assume that they're wrong, while embracing a belief system that is 2,000 years old--Christianity? I get so sick of Christian dogmatism, when it seems that Christianity is one belief among many in the history of ideas. And its ideas are historically placed. You don't see much about bodily resurrection in many parts of the Hebrew Bible. But Daniel talks about it, the Pharisees picked it up, and the belief formed part of the cultural context in which Christianity emerged. Christianity looks like it was floating on the currents of its historical context--at least in this case. It absorbs an idea from its time, which wasn't held in every era of biblical composition. What's that do to the idea of the entire Bible conveying one absolute truth from beginning to end?

Don't worry, folks. I'm not an atheist. I just have questions every now and then.

Women and Cultic Purity

Source: Judith Romney Wegner, Chattel or Person? The Status of Women in the Mishnah (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) 4.

"The stress on cultic purity extended to every detail of daily life; the sages aimed to preserve not only the sanctity of sacred space and time--the Land of Israel and the sabbaths and festivals ordained in Scripture--but also the purity of people, places, and objects involved in sacred rites. Crucial to the system was the preservation of sanctity in human relationships, above all in matters of family law. Cultic purity required the avoidance of illicit unions with women who belonged to other men. So the Mishnah focused on the sanctity of Israelite life at bed and board as well as in courthouse and marketplace, synagogue and study house."

What does marriage law have to do with cultic purity? Is it that God won't want to deal with Israel if she has flagrant adulterers in her midst? Cult may mean temple, but it could also relate to the purity of the meal-table, where rabbinic Jews believed they experienced God.

This quote gives a good summary of what the Mishnah is trying to accomplish in its laws about various facets of Jewish life. And it underlies a thesis that Wegner repeats over and over: that the rabbis treated women as chattel whenever they wanted to control her sexuality. When her sexuality was not an issue, as when she was divorced or widowed, she was rather independent. But I wish she'd say more about cultic purity, since her book doesn't delve deeply into the ideology behind the Mishnah's treatment of women. At least that's my impression.

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