Sunday, May 31, 2009

Does "Sabbath" Mean "Week"?

In my post for last year's Pentecost, Pentecost 2008, I discussed the different Jewish reckonings of the Feast of Weeks. To quote my post:

"Here's the deal: Leviticus 23:11-16 tells the Israelites to present a wave sheaf offering to God on the day after the Sabbath. According to the passage, Pentecost occurs fifty days after that. The debate within first century Judaism was, 'Which Sabbath is Leviticus 23:11-16 talking about? Exactly when should we start counting to fifty?'"

The Pharisees interpreted the "Sabbath" to be the first Day of Unleavened Bread, so their Pentecost occurred fifty days after that and could fall on any day of the week. The Sadducees, however, treated the "Sabbath" as the weekly Sabbath (Saturday) during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, so their Pentecost always fell on a Sunday.

I've often assumed that there was no way to arbitrate this disagreement, but Ron Dart's program pointed something out that dramatically challenges the Pharisaic position. According to Leviticus 23:16, "You shall count until the day after the seventh sabbath, fifty days; then you shall present an offering of new grain to the LORD" (NRSV). In this passage, the fiftieth day (Pentecost) is the day after the seventh Sabbath. If that's the weekly Sabbath, then the day after it must be Sunday.

How do rabbinic Jews explain this? I don't know. Rashi (who refers to rabbinic traditions) doesn't explicitly deal with the issue, and I could not find a reference to Leviticus 23:16 in my Mishnah and Tosefta. My Jewish Study Bible and Jacob Milgrom's JPS commentary on Leviticus both agree that Pentecost was on a Sunday. Milgrom refers to Sifra 'Emor and Targum Onkelos, but I lack immediate access to those sources.

The impression I'm getting is that the rabbis interpreted "sabbath" in Leviticus 23:16 to mean a "week," not a weekly Sabbath. Milgrom states that. He also refers to the Septuagint, which translates Sabbath as "week" (Greek, hebdomados), thereby endorsing the position that the Pharisees later adopted. The Jewish Publication Society's Tanakh also translates Sabbath as "week," in accordance with the rabbinic practice that Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews follow.

My problem is that the Hebrew already has a word for week, shavua. As a matter of fact, the Torah calls Pentecost the Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot (Exodus 34:22; Deuteronomy 16:10, 16). I cannot find a place where "Sabbath" means "week," but I could be wrong on this. Certainly the rabbis had some basis for their Pentecost reckoning, don't you think?

Joab, Abner, and Torture

For my daily quiet time this week, I read II Samuel 3.

Here's the situation: King Saul of Israel has died, and the kingdom is divided two ways. Under the direction of Abner, Saul's captain of the guard, Saul's son Ish-bosheth becomes king of the North. Meanwhile, David rules Judah in the city of Hebron. There is civil war between the two camps.

Joab is David's nephew (I Chronicles 2:15-16) and the captain of his army. One day, Joab's brother, Asahel, chases Abner in battle. Abner tells Asahel to stop chasing him, since Abner doesn't want to kill him and anger Joab. But Asahel keeps on pursuing, and Abner ends up killing him.

Ish-bosheth accuses Abner of sleeping with Saul's concubine, an act that's often an attempt to seize the throne (I Kings 2:21-22). Outraged at Ish-bosheth's lack of appreciation for all he had done for him, Abner leaves Ish-bosheth to support David. In the process, Abner acknowledges that God had promised David the throne of Israel (I Samuel 3:9-10).

Abner and David make an agreement, and Abner promotes David before his own tribe of Benjamin as well as the elders of Israel. Joab is upset, however, claiming that Abner is only a spy who wants to monitor the activity of David and his army. Joab then kills Abner out of revenge for Abner's killing of his brother Asahel. Joab does so in Hebron, a city of refuge (Joshua 20:7), where blood vengeance is not allowed, at least not for manslaughter (Numbers 35).

David goes out of his way to show the Israelites that he had nothing to do with Abner's death. When David fasts, all Israel takes note and concludes that he was not involved (II Samuel 3:36-37). This was presumably a political attempt on David's part to demonstrate to the Northern Israelites that he did not kill their hero right after making peace with him, since that would be treacherous.

In II Samuel 3:33-34, David laments that Abner died like a fool (the Septuagint has "Nabal"), a fate that he did not deserve, according to David. In I Kings 2:5, David says that Job shed the blood of war in a time of peace. In II Samuel 3, David wishes for disease to fall upon Joab. In I Kings 2, Solomon orders Joab's death.

Both the biblical text and also Christian preachers seem to side with David and Abner in this controversy. Personally, I can see where Joab is coming from, and I'm surprised by David's lack of empathy for Joab's feelings. Abner had killed Joab's brother and David's nephew! "But it was in a battle, and that doesn't count as murder," Christian preachers like to say. Oh really? Then why did Abner express fear that Joab would pursue him for killing Asahel? That's why Abner was initially reluctant to do it! Abner knew the rules of the game: If he killed Joab's brother, then he would have to deal with Joab, even if the murder of Asahel occurred in battle. That's how things were done in those days.

And why should we assume that Joab was wrong to be skeptical of the David-Abner truce? How would anyone know that Abner was not a spy? Maybe Joab was looking out for David's well-being. He at least deserved some sympathy or gratitude from David, not a harsh curse!

Did Joab violate the rules about the city of refuge? Not technically. The city of refuge protected those accused of manslaughter, whereas Abner killed Asahel deliberately, in cold blood. At the same time, maybe Abner could have made a case for self-defense. It's not as if he plotted to kill Asahel.

In David's Secret Demons, Baruch Halpern argues that I-II Samuel was Davidic propaganda designed to exonerate David of accusations against him. For Halpern (as I understand his thesis), Saul supporters who opposed David alleged that David was responsible for killing Saul, Jonathan, and Abner in a brutal attempt to usurp the throne. That's why the text protests vehemently that David loved Saul, Jonathan, and Abner, Halpern contends!

For Saul and Jonathan, I think there's some sincerity in David, for I can envision myself honoring the good deeds of my enemies (on my good days, at least). But even conservative commentators and preachers were sounding like Halpern in their treatment of II Samuel 3: they said David and the chapter were trying to show that David was not responsible for Abner's death. David is concerned about his PR here!

Maybe that was part of it. At the same time, David did allow Joab to live and left judgment up to God, at least until he delegated it to Solomon. And it's amazing that Joab's deed stayed with David up to the time of his (David's) death. He just couldn't fathom Joab's bloodthirsty deed. So maybe there was more to this issue than David's PR before the pro-Saulites.

But what should Joab have done? Should he have waited for Abner to have his day in court? Should he have forgiven Abner, or at least realized that Abner did not want to kill Asahel, but only did so out of self-defense?

For my news last night, I watched Bill Moyers' Journal, which featured a critical documentary on torture. Are issues in II Samuel 3 relevant to that debate? A conservative can argue that America is like Abner: As Abner killed in an act of self-defense, our leaders reluctantly sanctioned violence in an attempt to protect our country. Consequently, in this view, people should give our leaders the benefit of a doubt rather than seeking to prosecute them for war crimes. A liberal, however, may view America more as Joab: Joab had no right to dehumanize Abner by killing him in a city of refuge, even if he was mad at Abner for killing his brother and deemed him a threat to Judah's national security. There are such things as humanity and the rule of law, which should keep us in check! Liberals could argue that revenge over 9/11 and a concern for national security did not justify torture, meaning we should have sought information using other means.

Pentecost 2009

Today is the Feast of Pentecost. For my reflections last year, see Pentecost 2008.

What's interesting is that a lot of churches are celebrating Pentecost today, not just the Armstrongites. At my Latin mass this morning, the church bulletin was about Acts 2, and the homily concerned the Holy Spirit.

The priest said that the Holy Spirit was not about eccentric manifestations, but rather us becoming more understanding of the people around us. He was making a possible jab at Pentecostalism here, but his point inspires me to ask: What's the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer?

I once heard Ron Dart say that the Holy Spirit was not given solely to inspire and enlighten us in our personal relationship with God, for it also equips us for our Christian mission and enables us to get along with one another. This was interesting, for Dart is often quite individualistic in his conception of the Christian life.

The Armstrongite movement was not really about "feeling" God. Religious emotionalism was often mocked, as was Pentecostalism. While I agree with Dart that the Holy Spirit is not only about us feeling good in our personal relationship with God, I don't exclude feelings from the equation. In Acts 10:46, the Gentiles receive the Holy Spirit and praise God as they speak in tongues. The feeling of warmth and peace that Pentecostals get when they're baptized with the Holy Spirit is not a bad thing. It may very well be biblical!

I don't think, however, that we should judge those who are not outgoing or happy or eerily at peace. That's my problem with a lot of evangelicals! Many of them make acting happy into a legalistic requirement, as church becomes a place where people compete to show off how cheerful they are, thereby parading their (self-)righteousness. It's kind of sickening!

The Holy Spirit was indeed about mission, in that he equipped the apostles to spread the Gospel to the world. We also see in Romans 12 and I Corinthians that the Holy Spirit enables Christians to edify one another within the context of the church.

I personally don't see my life in terms of mission. Nick Norelli was commenting on his blog about Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life, and he asked us what we thought our purpose was (The Purpose Driven Life). Many commented on enjoying and serving God, but my response was, "To get through the day with some degree of happiness, not to hurt others, and to help people when I can (or the opportunity presents itself)."

I don't know what serving God means, to be honest. I really have no desire to convince people to love or believe in God, since there are many times when I cannot stand God. At the same time, I don't want to persuade people not to believe in God, since who am I to say that faith doesn't help others live good, fulfilling lives? I guess all I can do is tell my story and be honest about what I think. When that can edify people or bring them closer to God, great! But I'm not God's salesman.

Where the Holy Spirit comes into all that, I have no idea. Is the Holy Spirit responsible for whatever edifying insights I present? Maybe. At the same time, I'm reluctant to say so because that would imply that my insights are infallible, which is far from being the case. I have the same issue with those who claim that the Holy Spirit inspired them to arrive at certain interpretations of Scripture. "I don't need to know Greek, since I have the Holy Spirit guiding me," they say. In some cases, they present an off-the-wall interpretation that does violence to the Greek! I'm reluctant to attribute someone's subjective insights to the Holy Spirit--even my own! And yet, I'm equally hesitant to say that God doesn't lead, guide, and inspire his children. Christ promised not to leave us orphans, after all!

Does the Holy Spirit enable us to get along with people? He doesn't for me, I can tell you that much! But maybe I'd be worse without the Holy Spirit. I don't know.

In any case, have a happy Pentecost! I'm taking today off, which is why I didn't write about my comps reading.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Plural Elohim, Plural Verb

A while back, I wrote a post entitled Judges 16:23-24: Plural God, Singular Verb. In it, I cited a verse in which the word "Elohim" appears with a singular verb and refers to a pagan deity, namely, Dagon. I cautioned against the tendency of many Christians to see the Trinity in the word "Elohim," since, although it is plural, it can be used to refer to a single non-Israelite god. And we all know that Dagon was only one person, not a Trinity!

I wondered how Nick Norelli would respond to this sort of argument, since he is an apologist for the Trinity. And indeed, in his article Elohim, he cites other examples in which "Elohim" refers to individual pagan gods (see Judges 11:24; I Samuel 5:7; I Kings 18:24).

What intrigued me was that Nick also cited examples in which "Elohim" is used with a plural verb to refer to the God of Israel. There are many times when the Hebrew Bible uses a plural noun for a singular person or object, but it mostly employs a singular verb when it does so (see Gesenius 145.3). But Nick was pointing out some notable examples in which God is described as a plural, with a plural noun and a plural verb:

Genesis 20:13
English Translation: God caused me to wander
Hebrew: הִתְעוּ אֹתִי, אֱלֹהִים
Literally: They caused me to wander

Genesis 35:7
English Translation: God appeared
Hebrew: נִגְלוּ אֵלָיו הָאֱלֹהִים
Literally: They appeared

2Samuel 7:23
English Translation: God went
Hebrew: הָלְכוּ-אֱלֹהִים
Literally: They went

Psalms 58:12
English Translation: God that judges
Hebrew: אֱלֹהִים שֹׁפְטִים
Literally: Gods that judge

Nick sees Trinitarianism in these passages, but I wonder if the Hebrew Bible elsewhere uses a plural noun with a plural verb to refer to a singular person or object. That would show that the passages above reflect a feature of the Hebrew language, meaning that they don't necessarily support the Trinity.

I don't know the answer to this. But here's something I can say: If such a phenomenon does exist in the Hebrew language, then some prominent biblical scholars are not appealing to it to explain the sorts of passages that Nick cites!

For example, Gesenius states regarding these passages that they are "an acquiescence in a polytheistic form of expression" (145.3). I'm not sure what he means by that. Some argue that Abraham speaks like a polytheist when he's talking to polytheists, or when he refers back to his polytheist days. So Gesenius does not appeal to a rule that allows a plural noun with a plural verb to refer to a singular person or object.

On Genesis 35:7, Nahum Sarna in his JPS Genesis commentary says that Elohim with the plural verb "means here 'divine beings' and refers to Jacob's dream of angels ascending and descending." Sarna continues to state, "The unresolved difficulty is that these angels did not 'reveal' themselves, that is, address him, unless the present text represents some tradition not told in 28:12." Sarna is baffled by the use of Elohim with a plural verb to refer to the Israelite god, but he doesn't appeal to anything in the Hebrew language to explain the anomaly.

A.A. Anderson wrestles with II Samuel 7:23 in his Word Commentary on II Samuel. He attributes the plural verb halchu to "a misreading of the missing definite article before [Elohim] 'God.'" He also refers to P. Kyle McCarter's reading of the verb as holoko, "he lead him along." So McCarter tries to make the plural verb singular. He doesn't say that a plural noun and a plural verb can be used for someone singular.

Another text that entered my mind was Exodus 32:4, which concerns the golden calf: "[Aaron] took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" (NRSV). In the Hebrew, "gods" and "brought" are both plural, yet they seem to refer to only one calf. Many scholars try to tie this story to I Kings 12:28, where Jeroboam says about two calves that he built, "Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt." The idea that a plural noun and a plural verb can refer to something singular does not seem to enter these scholars' minds.

Interestingly, even biblical authors may have had problems with these kinds of texts. According to Gesenius, I Chronicles 17:21 is a revision of II Samuel 7:23 in that it uses a singular verb to describe God going with his people. And Nehemiah 9:18 redoes Exodus 32:4, saying instead, "This is your God who brought (singular) you up out of Egypt[.]." (Emphasis mine.) Both use the plural Elohim, yet they also employ a singular verb, possibly to avoid any impression that there is more than one God. So biblical authors may have had the same problems with the text as a lot of modern biblical scholars!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Cosmos from Chaos

G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy: The Schools of the Imperial Age, trans. John R. Catan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990) 188.

Actually many scholars maintain that Philo gave more weight to the narration of [Plato's] Timaeus than to that of the Bible, and that in a certain way he considered matter eternal (at least implicitly) and had hence reduced in the ultimate analysis the creative activity of God to a demiurgic activity, that is, to an organizing activity of a pre-existent material. In point of fact such is not the case. Philo pushed well beyond the Timaeus, even if he did not achieve and even if he did not ground the theory of creation with all the clarity that we might desire (having been the beneficiaries of successive elaborations by Christian thought).

For Plato, the Demiurge was someone who fashioned the cosmos out of chaotic matter. As far as Plato was concerned, the Demiurge did not create the matter out of nothing, but he organized it into the world that we see today. Plato holds that this explains why the world is good yet imperfect: the Demiurge fashioned the world in an orderly manner, but the material that he used was flawed.

Reale seems to distinguish Plato's idea from the biblical accounts of creation, but many biblical scholars would say, "Not so fast!" One interpretation of Genesis 1 says that God created the heavens and the earth out of tohu and bohu, which is chaotic matter. And such is the model of "creation" that we encounter in other ancient Near Eastern writings, such as Enuma Elish. A religion professor of mine once said that this model presents God as a CEO who heads and organizes things, not as an omnipotent creator who made everything out of nothing (creation ex nihilo).

The rabbis held fast to creation ex nihilo, as we see in Genesis Rabbah 1:9: A certain philosopher asked R. Gamaliel, saying to him: Your God was indeed a great artist, but sureIy He found good materials which assisted Him? What are they, said he to him? ' Tohu, bohu, darkness, water, wind (ruah), and the deep, replied he. Woe to that man, he exc1aimed. The term "creation" is used by Scripture in connection with all of them. Tohu and bohu: I make peace and create evil (Isa. XLV, 7). darkness: I form the light, and create darkness (ib.); water: Praise Him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that are above the heavens (Ps. CXLVIII, 4)-wherefore? For He commanded, and they were created (ib. 5); wind: For, lo, He that formeth the mountains, and createth the wind (Amos IV, 13); the depths: When there were no depths, I was brought forth (Prov. VIII, 24).

(The translation is the one on my Judaic Classics Library.)

Here, a philosopher is saying to Rabbi Gamaliel that the universe is so awesome because God was using good materials. It has little to do with God's greatness! Indeed, Genesis 1 presents tohu and bohu, darkness, water, and the deep existing before God said "Let there be light," and that could lead one to conclude that they always existed, even before God's act of "creation" (or, more accurately, organization). But Rabbi Gamaliel shows from other biblical passages that God created these materials out of nothing, even though the rabbi kind of stretches things when it comes to tohu and bohu.

On another occasion, a rabbi is embarrassed by the materials God used in creation. Genesis Rabbah 1:5 states:

In human practice, when an earthly monarch builds a palace on a site of sewers, dunghills, and garbage, if one says, This palace is built on a site of sewers, dunghills, and garbage, does he not discredit it? Thus, whoever comes to say that this world was created out of tohu and bohu and darkness, does he not indeed impair [God's glory]! R. Huna said in Bar Kappara's name: If the matter were not written, it would be impossible to say it, viz., GOD CREATED HEAVEN AND EARTH; out of what? Out of NOW THE EARTH WAS TOHU AND BOHU (I, 2).

In Genesis Rabbah 1:9, Rabbi Gamaliel was countering those who said that God had used good materials. In 1:5, however, there is an acknowledgement that the materials are pretty bad. Tohu and bohu are chaos, after all! What kind of king would build a palace on a site of garbage? Doesn't that undermine the majesty of God? Rabbi Huna in the name of Bar Kappara seems to resort to "Let's have faith" in response to this puzzle.

Personally, I think that organizing chaos into a life-sustaining cosmos is a remarkable feat, whether or not God created the raw materials that he used. Also, I'm inspired by the notion that God brings order out of chaos, since there is a lot of chaos in this world, including in my life. God's activity and laws can hopefully lessen some of that. That's why many in Alcoholics Anonymous say that "God" stands for "Good orderly direction."

Thursday, May 28, 2009


Ruairidh Boid (M.N. Saraf), "Use, Authority and Exegesis of Mikra in the Samaritan Tradition," Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 608-609.

Whether some Samaritans denied any life at all beyond death is hard to tell from the sources. A denial of resurrection is not the same as a denial of some future life. One could, for example, think of re-incarnation, which can be demonstrated from the Tora much more easily than resurrection, individual or collective. The standard Jewish proof for re-incarnation is from such verses as Exod 20:5-6, where it does not say 'to thousands of generations', but only 'to thousands'; if they are not generations they can only be lifetimes; and the visiting of the sins of the sons on the fathers must have the same meaning, otherwise there would be a denial of justice.

I don't entirely understand the exegesis of Exodus 20:5-6 here. Exodus 20:5 says that God visits the iniquity of the fathers on the sons, so I don't see reincarnation here, but rather transgenerational punishment: God punishes the sons for the sins of the fathers. Are Jewish proponents of reincarnation saying that the sinner is punished over three or four of his lifetimes, meaning that the same man can be reincarnated as his son (or descendants, perhaps)?

Regarding Judaism and reincarnation, I've mostly encountered it in medieval Judaism: Nahmanides, the Zohar, etc. (see Reincarnation and Jewish Tradition). A preacher I knew once claimed that there were Jews of Christ's day who believed in reincarnation, since the disciples asked Jesus about a man who was born blind: "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:2 NRSV). If the man was born blind, and his blindness was a result of his own sin, then he had to sin before his birth, according to the mentality of the disciples when they asked their question. So argued my preacher friend.

I don't know. Josephus doesn't say there were Jews in the first century who believed in reincarnation, at least not in my recollection. And a professor once told me that there were Jews who thought it was possible to sin in the womb, and that could have been the mindset behind the disciple's inquiry.

I'd like to believe in reincarnation, since the concept of God giving people multiple chances to grow appeals to me more than God basing our eternal destinies on this life alone. But Hebrews 9:27 seems to exclude reincarnation: "And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment[.]" It says die once, not die more than once (reincarnation).

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Philo, Reason, and Revelation

G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy: The Schools of the Imperial Age, trans. John R. Catan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990) 179.

The foundation of the wisdom of which Philo speaks is faith, understood as firm and unshakeable confidence which is opposed to the uncertainty of human reasoning.

According to Reale, Philo (first century C.E.) drew from the Skeptics in that he acknowledged that human reasoning had its limitations. Reale states that Philo differed from Plato, who thought that rational dialectic was the path to true wisdom.

I can somewhat understand Plato's perspective, since Plato was looking for something iron-clad, that is, rooted in reason. I'm not sure why Philo believed that human reasoning had its limitations, though. Was it because there are competing claims about what is reasonable, or that there are many things that we don't take into consideration when we reason, subjective beings that we are?

Is the faith that Philo advocates blind, in the sense of believing in something without proof? How is this more certain than human reasoning? And doesn't one need human reasoning in order to interpret and understand the divine revelation? Is that what Philo does when he seeks to reconcile the Torah with Greek philosophy? If reason is limited, as the Skeptics argued, how would it be reliable in helping us to understand the divine revelation? I vaguely recall from Yehoshua Amir's article on Philo in Mikra that Philo believed in divine illumination. Yet, I recall reading somewhere that Philo also didn't really hold to divine dictation, so he thought that Moses' reason played some role in his reception and communication of the divine revelation.

Reason may be flawed, but we can't exactly escape it, since it's how people understand the world around them, which includes their books (such as the Bible).

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

How Much Did David Pay?

Rimon Kasher, "The Interpretation of Scripture in Rabbinic Literature," Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 581.

Thus, the contradiction between 2 Sam 24:24, which states the price David paid for the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite as fifty shekels of silver, while 1 Chr 21:25 mentions a price of 600 shekels of gold, is resolved by explaining that, whereas the Book of Samuel refers to the site of the altar alone, Chronicles refers to the price of the entire threshing floor.

This attempt at harmonization comes from Sifrei Numbers, which may date to the third century C.E. I've heard this particular harmonization before. On my Christian dating site, I once remarked that the Bible has contradictions, to which a Christian conservative replied, "Yeah, such as?" Remembering the contradiction between II Samuel 24:24 and I Chronicles 21:25 from an article Samuele Bacchiocchi wrote against biblical inerrancy, I presented him with that one. And so the conservative Christian consulted some commentaries and gave me what also shows up in Sifrei Numbers: the fifty shekels of silver were for the altar, whereas the 600 shekels of gold were for the entire area.

What was interesting was that, when I tried to engage him further, he responded that he'd get back to me, but he went on to say that reconciling biblical contradictions was not one of his favorite topics. He did get back to me, and I let him have the last word. But his aversion to the topic makes me wonder if the spiritual power of Scripture rests on whether it's consistent in every detail. As Paul Achtemeier once said, harmonizing Scriptural contradictions can become a matter of straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! A lot of conservatives resort to harmonization because they want to believe that the Bible is true and without error, since that's the only way they think they can rely on it. And, for them, a document cannot be simultaneously true and internally contradictory.

I'm not overly satisfied with the rabbinic harmonization of the two texts. For one, both texts say that the price was for the threshing floor, so I don't understand how Sifrei Numbers can say that one text relates to the altar, whereas the other is about the entire area. And second, how do conservatives believe that David paid for the location? Do they claim that he gave fifty shekels of silver for the altar, and an additional 600 shekels of gold for the entire place? If David's 600 shekels of gold pays for the entire place, which includes the altar, then why does he need to pay fifty shekels of silver for the altar?

I vaguely recall that many biblical scholars hold that Chronicles tends to exaggerate the numbers of the Samuel history. After all, the temple is important, so David certainly paid more than fifty shekels of silver to purchase the land for it! Can we honor the value that the Chronicle placed on the temple, without demanding that he be consistent with Samuel in every detail? Would the former be a way to respect Chronicles as sacred Scripture?

Judge Sotomayor on Church/State Separation

Jay Sekulow of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) claims that Judge Sotomayor is strict on the separation of church and state, meaning she would've voted against allowing the display of the Ten Commandments on public property had she been on the high court. Jay did not cite any cases to support his position, and it will be interesting to see what he gives us. But, according to this New York Times article, in 1993, "she struck down as unconstitutional a White Plains law that prohibited the displaying of a menorah in a city park." So she doesn't seem to be someone who wants to ban religion from the public life.

But we'll learn more in the coming weeks.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor

Today, President Obama is announcing his selection of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.

Judge Sotomayor has a compelling story. According to the AP (see here):

Sotomayor is a self-described "Newyorkrican" who grew up in a Bronx housing project after her parents moved to New York from Puerto Rico. She has dealt with diabetes since age 8 and lost her father at age 9, growing up under the care of her mother in humble surroundings. As a girl, inspired by the Perry Mason television show, she knew she wanted to be a judge.

A graduate of Princeton University and Yale Law School, a former prosecutor and private attorney, Sotomayor became a federal judge for the Southern District of New York in 1992.

As a judge, she has a bipartisan pedigree. She was first appointed by a Republican, President George H.W. Bush, then named an appeals judge by President Bill Clinton in 1997.

At her Senate confirmation hearing more than a decade ago, she said, "I don't believe we should bend the Constitution under any circumstance. It says what it says. We should do honor to it."

As far as her judicial philosophy goes, I'm sure we'll find out more about it in the coming weeks. Here is a good article that details some of her court decisions.

From my perspective, her record is a mixture of good and bad. On a positive note, she dismissed a pro-choice group's challenge to President Bush's Mexico City Policy, which prohibited overseas recipients of federal funds to promote abortion. So at least she's not a pro-abortion fanatic! She also upheld a Muslim inmate's right to practice his religion. I like that because of my own background as a religious minority. When I practiced Armstrongism, I often went against the grain of society in my desire to obey what I considered "God's command." It will be good to have someone on the Supreme Court who understands that predicament.

As a person with Asperger's, I'm concerned about the rights of the disabled, yet I also don't want the government to impose unreasonable burdens on businesses. On disability rights, Sotomayor seems to side with the plaintiff most of the time, but she's not ridiculous about it, for she's somewhat of a stickler in terms of the law.

Sotomayor does look at the decisions of courts in other countries, and that will be of concern to conservatives. At the same time, the example the article cites of her doing this involved interpretation of an international agreement, which was devised in part by people in other countries. So I don't think it's wrong to look at their original intent!

Her record on gun rights could be better. My understanding is that she thinks the Second Amendment applies to the federal government, not the states.

I also don't care for her record on Affirmative Action. For example, in a prominent case, she upheld New Haven's invalidation of a firefighters' exam because not enough minorities did well on it. Obama is looking for a judge who understands how court decisions affect real life. Well, how about the effect of her decision on the firefighters who didn't get promoted?

One conservative article I read called her a "bully," but that doesn't concern me. I'm sure Scalia can take it!

Overall, I think that Sotomayor is a good choice for Obama. Liberals tried to encourage George W. Bush to appoint her as his replacement for Sandra Day O'Connor, and I wouldn't have liked that, since I wanted Bush to appoint a conservative. But, considering that we don't have a conservative President right now, Sotomayor looks fine, at least right now.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Two Memorial Day Reflections

Here are two Memorial Day reflections. I'll just post the quotes, without commenting on them in depth. At the outset, let me say that I agree with the first reflection, whereas I agree and disagree with the second one.

1. I read the first reflection in an AP article: Memorial Day compromise. It quotes lines from President Obama's Memorial Day address:

Why in an age when so many have acted only in pursuit of narrowest self-interest have the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of this generation volunteered all that they have on behalf of others. Why have they been willing to bear the heaviest burden? Whatever it is, they felt some tug. They answered a call. They said "I'll go." That is why they are the best of America. That is what separates them from those who have not served in uniform, their extraordinary willingness to risk their lives for people they never met.

2. The second reflection is from Bill Moyers' Journal (see here):

Finally, this week, my friend Louis Bickford spends his days, and often his nights, on the healing and prevention of atrocities and crimes against humanity. Cruelty, horror, and misery are part of his portfolio at the International Center for Transitional Justice, along with the power of memory.

On The Huffington Post, Louis has an essay in which he says that Memorial Day is meant to remind us of the hardship of war. But he goes on to ask, "What does it mean to choose how to remember?" What does it say about us, for example, if "...we choose to remember the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, more in terms of heroism than error..." This, he reminds us, is the "...tendency of all nations."

Louis got me to thinking that when we meditate on war this weekend--our recent wars that is--will we overlook the suicides? Sweep under history's rug the recent murder in Iraq of five American soldiers by a comrade who may have been driven mad by the horrors around him? Will we forget the death from friendly fire of a Pat Tillman and the shameful cover-up by the brass, including the role of the very general who now heads our operations in Afghanistan?

What of all those villagers killed by drones remotely fired in our name? Why aren't they part of the narrative we tell ourselves about war? Louis Bickford wonders if we'll ever remember, "...that there was a place called Abu Ghraib on the dusty outskirts of Baghdad, and that torture took place there, for which we were responsible?" After all, he says, it was the complicity of Republicans, Democrats, journalists and lawyers--some of them scholars--that allowed us to ignore international and American law prohibiting torture.

Over some 40 years now it has seemed to me that as time goes by we tend to remember wars, and the suffering they bring, as if they were inevitable, natural acts of history, rather than politically inspired choices. But war, as was famously said, is politics by another means--the lethal legacy of failed leadership, enabled, even ennobled, by propaganda, the partisan opiate of politics. It is good to be reminded, as my friend Louis so eloquently reminds us, that war is too important to forget, and that's one reason to observe Memorial Day. There is another--to hold before our face a mirror, so that we might see the images of war reflected in our own eyes.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Self-Contradiction of Relativism

G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy: The Schools of the Imperial Age, trans. John R. Catan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990) 141.

Reale quotes Sextus, a Neo-Skeptic who lived in the second century C.E.:

So also when we say that no proof exists we imply in our statement the exception of the argument which proves that proof does not exist; for this alone is proof. And even if it does banish itself, the existence of proof is not thereby confirmed. For there are many things which produce the same effect on themselves that they produce on other things. Just as, for example, fire after consuming the fuel destroys also itself, and like purgatives after driving the fluids out of the bodies expel themselves as well, so too the argument against proof, after abolishing every proof, can cancel itself also!

In most arguments about relativism and post-modernism that I've encountered, the "pro" side claims that there are no absolutes and holds that metanarratives are subjective stories rather than objective fact, and the "anti" side then retorts that the relativist or post-modernist is positing his own "absolute truth" and metanarrative. I once read a Christian book that casually dismissed relativism in this manner: "You say, O relativist, that there is no absolute truth. Well, you obviously believe that relativism is absolute truth, since you're saying that there are no absolutes! So your system of thought contradicts itself, and is therefore invalid." The skeptic Sextus had to deal with this argument in the second century C.E.!

Granted, relativism is self-contradictory in that it makes its own set of truth-claims, but does that mean that it's totally wrong? There are many things that we say or think that are rooted in our perceptions, culture, and biases, all of which color our view of humanity. What was "absolute truth" yesterday is not considered "absolute truth" today, so why should we be so dogmatic?

At the same time, it would be nice to see relativists showing humility themselves rather than replacing one dogmatism with another: their own.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Songs in The Stand

I was watching some of Stephen King's 1994 miniseries The Stand last night, and I was a little disappointed with my VHS tape of the first half. The picture is fine, but the sound gets loud, then soft, then loud again. I wouldn't mind either sound quality, as long as the sound stayed the same!

I'm posting here two of my favorite parts from the movie so I can access them anytime I want.

1. The Stand, intro (Don't fear the reaper)

This is from the opening scene of the whole miniseries, and it is powerful for three reasons. First, although I don't believe in suicide, I like the song "Don't Fear the Reaper"--in terms of the music, not the words. Second, the scene really hits home the effects of the "Captain Tripps" virus. Here were ordinary people who died in the midst of their day-to-day routine, and in great numbers, too. It was sad, and yet, in a sense, some of them had brought it upon themselves, since they were part of the government facility that had created the virus. And, third, I liked watching the list of actors. Some were established veteran actors in their own right (Ray Walston, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis). Some were becoming famous at the time (Gary Sinise for Forrest Gump). Some were famous for a role that they had played in the past (Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club, Max Wright in ALF). And some would become famous sometime after The Stand (Laura San Giacoma for Just Shoot Me, Rob Lowe for The West Wing).

2. Stephen King's The Stand ~ Crowded House

This is from the opening scene for Part II, "The Dreams." Fran's father had just passed away, and Harold Lauder came to comfort her. Harold had always had a crush on Fran, but she had gently rejected him because he was a nerd--she preferred the rough, motorcycle-riding type! Now, Harold and Fran are the only two survivors in their town, the rest of which was wiped out by the plague. As the Crowded House song plays, Fran lays her head on Harold, who doesn't quite know what to do. He hesitates to put his hand on her. Then, the scene surveys the effects of the plague on a broader scale.

Friday, May 22, 2009


Peter W. van der Horst, "The Interpretation of the Bible by the Minor Hellenistic Jewish Authors," Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 531-532.

van der Horst discusses Demetrius the Chronographer, who lived in the third century B.C.E. Demetrius held that Moses' wife, Zipporah, was the descendant of Abraham and Keturah. Demetrius also maintains that Zipporah was the same woman as Moses' Ethiopian wife in Numbers 12:1. According to van der Horst, Demetrius was trying to show that Moses was not polygamous. This possibly indicates that polygamy was frowned upon within the Judaism (or a Judaism) of Demetrius' day.

A lot of western Christians are puzzled by the existence of polygamy in the Hebrew Bible, probably because it's a marked contrast from their own monogamous culture. Moreover, since it's done by holy men in the Bible, they wonder if God himself sanctions it.

On the "no" side, we see a lot of strife when a man takes two wives, particularly in the case of Jacob (Genesis 29). Leah and Rachel were often at each other's throats, and anti-polygamists affirm that this shows it was not God's will for a man to have more than one wife, even though God may have tolerated it (see Deuteronomy 21:15).

On the "yes" side, God says to David through Nathan in II Samuel 12:8: "I gave you your master's house, and your master's wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more" (NRSV). Here, God not only appears to tolerate polygamy: he actually blesses David with more than one wife!

Some evangelicals argue that Jesus abolishes God's tolerance for polygamy in the New Testament. Jesus says in Mark 10:11-12: "He said to them, 'Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." This is a radical passage in light of the Hebrew Bible, in which a man could have lots of women simultaneously, whereas women could only have relations with one man (at a time, that is--women were allowed to remarry as widows or divorcees). Here, Jesus affirms that a husband can actually commit adultery against his wife by leaving her for another woman. Is this the prelude to a Christian ban on polygamy and insistence on monogamy? Perhaps.

Moreover, in I Timothy 3:2, 12, "Paul" mandates that bishops and deacons be the husband of one wife. Polygamy looks less than ideal in God's eyes, as far as this passage is concerned.

As far as Judaism goes, the Encyclopedia Judaica and the Jewish Encyclopedia (see here) maintain that rabbinic Judaism frowned on polygamy yet permitted it, provided that the husband took care of all of his wives. Only in the tenth century did Judaism officially ban polygamy.

Demetrius may have disapproved of polygamy years earlier, in the third century B.C.E. Even if Judaism allowed it, it was still distasteful to a number of Jews, and Demetrius possibly wanted to show that a man as illustrious as Moses did not engage in that kind of behavior. But how did he explain away the polygamy of Abraham and Jacob, who were patriarchs? I don't know.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy: The Schools of the Imperial Age, trans. John R. Catan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990) 111.

Reale discusses Aenesidemus, whom he dates to the first century B.C.E. Aenesidemus was a significant figure in the rebirth of Pyrrhonism, which is a form of skepticism. Thus, Aenesidemus appears in Reale's section on Neo-Skepticism.

Here is a quote: the same individual not only are the structures of the senses different but so are the dispositions, conditions, states of mind different and changeable, all of which consequently condition the representations. It all verifies the conclusion that our representations differ according to whether we are happy or ill, young or old, in our right mind or out of it, happy or unhappy and thus as a consequence, for this reason as well, we must suspend judgment.

How well can human beings understand and conceptualize the outside world? We look at this world from our own perspectives, and our conclusions about what we see can be different. Some people notice one detail, while others observe another. And then there is the question about whether people are interpreting the detail that they see in a correct manner.

Memory can also be flawed. I once saw an episode of Frasier in which Frasier and Niles remembered an event quite differently. The event was this: Niles said that he was content as he put his arm around Daphne, and Martin said he was too as he put his arm around Ronnie (Martin's girlfriend, aka Nina on Just Shoot Me). And, in Nile's recollection, he and Martin made those remarks in a normal voice. But Frasier remembered them saying it in a snide manner, as if they were bragging about their own success in love as compared to Frasier's failure. Frasier heard "Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah" in his recollection. There's one event, but two different recollections.

It often baffles me how I can mis-remember things that I see and hear. When I watch something on TV, I remember what I see in a specific way: this person said this in this manner as he was standing here, looking like this. Then, I watch the same scene months or years later, and what I see is not what I remember. You'd expect the pictures in my head to be accurate, but that's not always the case!

In my understanding, post-modernism says that we can't objectively know the outside world, since we look at it through our own culture, biases, etc. I do not consider myself to be a hard post-modernist, for I agree with something that Jon Levenson said when I was at Harvard: Sure, there is subjectivity, but that doesn't mean that there's nothing but subjectivity. We can know some things with a degree of accuracy, even if our knowledge is not perfect.

At the same time, there is a lot of subjectivity! Academia, for example, has a great deal of group think. One reason that people like the New Perspective on Paul and Judaism (i.e., the view that Judaism was not legalistic) is that they want to avoid Christian supersessionism, which led to the Holocaust. But the scholars before them had the opposite kind of group think: they were influenced by the New Testament to view Judaism as legalistic, a religion that promoted a works-based salvation, in contrast to Paul's emphasis on God's love and grace. One idea is the fad now, whereas another idea was the fad not that long ago.

I've heard scholars of Judaism claim that you can't use the Mishnah to understand the first century Pharisees, since the Mishnah is a later document. In a class I once took, a student tried to understand the Gospel story of the disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath in light of the Mishnah's rule prohibiting harvesting on that day, and the professor criticized him for that. "The Mishnah was later than the New Testament." But I've often seen scholars use later sources to understand earlier ones. Both are from the ancient world, so, with the Mishnah and the New Testament, why can't a person use one source (the Mishnah) to understand another source that was written only slightly earlier (the New Testament)? The answer: academia has its fads that we're supposed to honor (for whatever reason)! We're told that scholarship is all about finding an objective truth, but academia is conditioned by its own culture, perspectives, group think, etc.

But that's just my view, based on my own experiences. Others may argue that reality is more complex than that!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Gifted Young Josephus

Louis H. Feldman, "Use, Authority and Exegesis of Mikra in the Writings of Josephus," Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 507.

The fact that Josephus boasts (Life 9) that, while a mere lad...of fourteen, the chief priest and the leading men of the great city of Jerusalem used to come to him constantly for information on particular laws shows that he regarded himself as eminently well qualified to comment on the legal code.

A professor of mine once tied what Josephus says in Life 9 to Luke 2:46-47, which describes the activity of the twelve-year-old Jesus: "After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers" (NRSV).

I'm not sure how the professor believed the passages were connected. Did he think that Luke used Josephus' story? I doubt he thought that Josephus drew on Luke, since he was trying to argue that the scene of young Jesus in the temple was not historically accurate. Perhaps his contention was that Luke uses a common storyline about great people in antiquity: that they were prodigies in their youth.

Perhaps. I'm not versed enough in ancient literature to know if it has lots of stories about young prodigies. I wouldn't be surprised if it did. The thing about Josephus' account is that it's not just the story of a great man who was once a gifted child. It's Josephus' autobiography, in which he professes to narrate his own life experiences. Would Josephus draw on a literary motif to embellish his life-story? Did people make things up when they wrote autobiographies?

Maybe Josephus actually was gifted as a youngster and prominent people consulted his knowledge of the laws. There are prodigies even today, so it's not a stretch to believe that they existed back then as well. But Josephus may remember what happened to him incorrectly, exaggerating the importance of the men who came to see him. I don't know.

What Feldman discusses in this section is the issue of Josephus' knowledge of the law. Josephus tends to get things wrong in his books, and Feldman discusses whether Josephus has become less exact with age, or if his errors are deliberate, as part of an attempt to make Judaism look good to the Romans.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

God's Offspring

G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy: The Schools of the Imperial Age, trans. John R. Catan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990) 84-87.

Today, I read about the Stoicism of Epictetus, the slave philosopher who lived in approximately 55-135 C.E. What stood out to me was Epictetus' teaching on the brotherhood of man. From what I understand of Epictetus, all human beings are the offspring of God, or Zeus, and that should make us happy. Since Zeus is the father of all men, Epictetus argues, a tyrant should not assume that he's superior to a lowly slave.

A mainline Protestant concept that many conservative Christian fundamentalists love to attack is "the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man." They seem to oppose it on two grounds. First, it sounds a little too "new world orderish" for their taste--the idea that the people of the world should come together as brothers and sisters to live as one. In their reading of Revelation 13, the human figure who will establish a one world government will be the Antichrist, and he's not one of the good guys!

Second, fundamentalists point out that, according to Scripture, non-Christians are not the true children of God. In John 8:44, Jesus calls the Jewish leaders children of the devil, whereas John 1:12 states that Jesus gave to those who received him (Jesus) the power to become children of God. I John 3:10 also distinguishes between children of God and children of the devil, and I John seems to presume that the children of God are those who believe in Jesus and practice righteousness. Likewise, Paul affirms in Romans 8 that those who are led by the Spirit of God (Christians) are God's children.

The idea that "all are God's children" is pretty ubiquitous in America's religious culture, such that even some fundamentalists appear to assume it. A fundamentalist once chastised me for "not loving God's children," even though the person he thought I wasn't loving was not a Christian in his estimation.

I think that the fundamentalist case from Scripture deserves serious consideration, but I also notice another voice: Paul quotes the Stoic "fatherhood of God, brotherhood of man" doctrine in Acts 17:28-29: "For 'In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we too are his offspring.' Since we are God's offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals" (NRSV). Paul appears to agree here with the Stoic notion that human beings are God's offspring.

I like the Stoic doctrine for a variety of reasons: (1.) it holds that God can interact with Christians and non-Christians, which makes God appear inclusive and loving, (2.) I'm not always sure where I stand with Christ, so I'd like to think that I'm God's kid however good or bad I may be, and (3.) I want to see everyone as a child of God, not only those in a Christian clique.

Is there a way to believe that all humans are God's offspring, while taking seriously the Scriptural statements the Christians specifically are the children of God?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Love Your Enemies, Acknowledge Their Goodness!

Louis H. Feldman, "Use, Authority and Exegesis of Mikra in the Writings of Josephus," Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 485, 491, 501.

These three pages discuss Josephus' treatment of Saul in Antiquities 6. In vv 343-350, Josephus praises Saul as courageous because Saul went out to fight the Philistines even after Samuel had told him that he'd die in battle. Josephus also seems to endorse Saul's suicide, since Saul wasn't going to give the Philistines the satisfaction of dishonoring him and his sons in battle! Josephus' view of Saul probably corresponds with his general ideas on valor. For example, Josephus presents the Jews at Masada as heroes, for they committed suicide rather than surrendering to the Romans and serving as their slaves (see here).

At the same time, Josephus cannot escape the biblical narrative's negative depiction of Saul, since Saul did slaughter the priests at Nob (I Samuel 21-22). In Antiquities 6:264ff., Josephus says that even a just man can do bad things once he's accumulated a lot of power, for power corrupts.

These parts of Feldman's article stood out to me because of my weekly quiet time this week, which is now in the book of II Samuel. Saul has died, and, in II Samuel 1:18-27, David sings a song in honor of Saul and Jonathan. It is called the Song of the Bow. E.W. Bullinger speculates that the song has that title because Saul and Jonathan were Benjamites, who were renowned for their skill with the bow (I Chronicles 8:40; 12:2; II Chronicles 14:8; 17:17).

David praises Saul because he was mighty in battle, even when he died. David also mentions that Saul brought prosperity to the daughters of Israel, so they should express their gratitude. Saul cared so much for his people that he didn't go down without a fight.

II Samuel 1 made me think about the question, "Why should I love my enemies?" In my post, Love for Enemies, I argued that there were places in I Samuel in which David didn't really love his enemy Saul, who was trying to kill him. David hoped that God would somehow take Saul's life!

In II Samuel 1, however, David loves Saul much more than he did, for he is sad that Saul has died. His reason for his sadness is not "Well, I have to be pious, so I might as well act as if I love my enemy!" And I disagree with Baruch Halpern's thesis in David's Secret Demons (if I understand it correctly) that the song in II Samuel 1 is trying to masquerade David's long-time plot to kill Saul. I think that David sincerely was sad about Saul's passing because Saul had done some good things in life, and David wanted to honor him for those.

I've heard Christians offer a variety of reasons for why we should love our enemies. Some say that we should do so because we are no better than they are, since we are all sinners. Maybe that's a valid reason. Josephus seems to claim that anyone could become like Saul if he accumulates a lot of power. Similarly, perhaps I'd be like the jerks I dislike if I had their experiences! At the same time, this approach doesn't entirely give me an affectionate attitude towards those I dislike. When I'm trying to be positive in my outlook, the last thing I want to do is reflect on the inherent depravity of all humanity. How warm and fuzzy!

Other Christians contend that we should always believe the best about others and assume that they're acting from the right motivation. Joel Osteen has said this at times, and Garner Ted Armstrong used to interpret I Corinthians 13:7 (love "believes all things") in this manner. Granted, I don't think that I should be quick to condemn people, but I also don't hold that the Bible wants me to be gullible! Jesus told his disciples to be wise as serpents and helpless as doves (Matthew 10:16). In I Samuel, David did not hang around Saul even after Saul had apologized, for David realized that Saul could easily change his mind and resume his attempts to kill him. There is good, and there is evil, and we're well within our rights to keep ourselves safe from evil. We shouldn't be manipulated under "believes all things" to submit to those who desire to exploit or harm us.

In my opinion, one way for me to love my enemies is to remember that even they have some good within them. David felt obligated to honor Saul for the good things he had done, notwithstanding the fact that Saul had also done a lot of evil!

I like this line from the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, page 217:

Shakespeare said, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." He forgot to mention that I was the chief critic. I was always able to see the flaw in every person, every situation...A.A. and acceptance have taught me that there is a bit of good in the best of us and a bit of bad in the best of us; that we are all children of God and we each have a right to be here. When I complain about me or about you, I am complaining about God's handiwork. I am saying that I know better than God.

I don't agree with the part about never complaining, but much of this quote is spot-on, in my opinion. I don't have to assume that everyone (including myself) is thoroughly evil, nor do I need to delude myself that all people are good. Rather, we all are mixtures of good and bad, and God loves each of us.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Musonius' God

G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy: The Schools of the Imperial Age, trans. John R. Catan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990) 72.

The following are quotes from Musonius Rufus (30 C.E.-101 C.E.), whom Reale claims was influenced by Middle Platonism:

In general, man alone among terrestrial beings is an image of God[,] he has virtues similar to him, because not even among the Gods can we suppose anything superior to prudence, to justice, and even to courage and temperance. And as God, by the presence of these virtues, is victorious over pleasure and victorious over immoderation, he is superior to the passions and to envy and jealousy, magnanimous, loving towards man (because it is of such a nature that we imagine God to be); in this way we think that man, who is the image of him, when living according to nature is in the same condition as God, and in this way he is enviable: being enviable, he will himself also be happy, because we only envy the happy.

Your father forbids you to philosophize, but the father of all, men and Gods, Zeus, commands you and imposes it on you. His order, his law is that man be just, noble, beneficent, sober, magnanimous, above fatigue, above pleasures, free of all envy and all deception: to speak briefly the law of Zeus commands all men to be good human beings.

To be honest, this is the second time that I'm reading this book, since I didn't fully comprehend it the first time around. I read that the Middle Platonists believed in man becoming like God, but I didn't know what they meant by that. Did they conceive of God as a personal being? It turns out that they did, and they exhorted people to imitate the gods in virtue, self-control, and happiness.

I've often read that certain philosophers did not like Homer's depiction of the gods, which made them out to be like humans: wrathful, lustful, jealous, etc. That's why they treated Homer as an allegory rather than taking his accounts of the gods literally. What's interesting is that Musonius views Zeus as virtuous, which tends to contradict some of the myths about the gods, and yet he doesn't seem to think that virtue is automatic to the gods. He claims that the gods are "victorious" over pleasure and immoderation. Does that mean that they have desires like humans, yet they have managed to conquer them?

Christianity has this sort of concept because it believes in a God who became a man, Jesus Christ. According to Hebrews, Jesus was tempted in every manner as we are, yet without sin, and he also became perfect through suffering (Hebrews 2:10; 4:15; 5:9).

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Reagan's Speech at Neshoba County

I've been having a discussion (or debate) with Michael Westmoreland-White about Ronald Reagan's 1980 speech at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi (see Star Trek: Science Fiction for Progressives). This was Reagan's first public appearance after the 1980 Republican National Convention, and he made a reference in that speech to "state's rights." The debate is this: Was Reagan trying to court Southern racists through a racist code-phrase? "State's rights," after all, was used by the South to support the "right" of Southern states to have slavery and racial segregation.

I'm not going to discuss the arguments of Reagan's defenders and detractors, but here are some good articles. While most of them are pro-Reagan, there are plenty of anti-Reagan people who comment on them, so what follows is a good sample of the debate:

David Brooks, "History and Calumny (Pro-Reagan)
Bruce Bartlett, "Reagan, Neshoba, and the Politics of Race" (Pro-Reagan)
Lou Cannon, "Reagan's Southern Stumble" (Pro-Reagan)
Larry Elder, "Did Ronald Reagan 'Torture' Blacks?" (Pro-Reagan)
Steven Hayward, "Reagan, Lott, and Race Baiting" (Pro-Reagan)

Joseph Crespino, "Did David Brooks Tell the Full Story About Reagan's Neshoba County Fair Visit" (Anti-Reagan)
Bob Herbert, "Righting Reagan's Wrongs" (Anti-Reagan)
Jed Lewison, "Reagan's revisionists are still lying, and here's why it matters" (Anti-Reagan)

To listen to Reagan's speech at the Neshoba County Fair, click here. To read it, click here.

Reagan talks about a lot of his usual topics: inflation, unemployment, regulations, America's standing in the world, Moscow, Jimmy Carter, etc. What follows is his lead-up into his discussion of state's rights, as well as his use of the phrase:

But I think even more important on a broader scale [is] in doing that, what we will have to do is to bring back to this country what is so evident here: Bring back the recognition that the people of this country can solve the problems, that we don't have anything to be afraid of as long as we have the people of America.

[In] more recent years with the best intention, they have created a vast bureaucracy, or a bureaucratic structure-bureaus and departments and agencies-to try and solve all the problems and eliminate all the things of human misery that they can. They have forgotten that when you create a government bureaucracy, no matter how well intentioned it is, almost instantly its top priority becomes preservation of the bureaucracy.

Today, and I know from our own experience in California when we reformed welfare, I know that one of the great tragedies of welfare in America today, and I don't believe stereotype after what we did, of people in need who are there simply because they prefer to be there. We found the overwhelming majority would like nothing better than to be out, with jobs for the future, and out here in the society with the rest of us. The trouble is, again, that bureaucracy has them so economically trapped that there is no way they can get away. And they're trapped because that bureaucracy needs them as a clientele to preserve the jobs of the bureaucrats themselves.

I believe that there are programs like that, programs like education and others, that should be turned back to the states and the local communities with the tax sources to fund them, and let the people [applause drowns out end of statement]. I believe in state's rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we've distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I'm looking for, I'm going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.

Is Reagan criticizing civil rights for African-Americans in this speech? On the one hand, one can read this line in light of Reagan's overall philosophy of government: that federal bureaucrats cannot solve America's problems as well as the people, states, and local governments. His reference to education may serve to highlight that states and local governments should support their schools rather than looking to the federal government for help. This was significant in 1980 because President Carter had established the Department of Education, which Reagan vowed to abolish. One could argue that Reagan was simply giving your typical Reagan speech, excoriating the evils of big government.

On the other hand, I can understand why Reagan's detractors would see "state's rights" as a code word for allowing the South to keep segregation. Schools were a central issue in the debate over civil rights for African-Americans, ever since the 1954 Brown vs. The Board of Education Supreme Court decision. For two decades, Southern school districts defied or evaded the U.S. Government's order for them to integrate. Only when President Richard Nixon threatened to cut off federal funds to segregated school districts did they begin to get their act together.

But Reagan did not want public schools to depend on the federal government for funding. He felt that states and local communities themselves should handle education and "the tax sources to fund them." That would arguably deprive the federal government of its chief method to enforce integration: withhold federal funding from the school dictricts that failed to integrate. Local school districts would then be able to do what they wanted with the money, which could include supporting segregated schools. Conservatives like to argue that "federal funding means federal control," but, in the area of desegregation, that's precisely what a lot of liberals desired for public schools!

Whether or not Reagan's Neshoba County speech was implicitly criticizing federal desegregation of schools is a subject of debate. I do, however, appreciate his take on welfare in that speech, for he presents welfare recipients as people who are trapped in the system, which is designed to support the bureaucrats rather than those it professes to serve. He adds an element of humanity to the welfare debate.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Seeing Oneself in Scripture

Louis H. Feldman, "Use, Authority and Exegesis of Mikra in the Writings of Josephus," Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 475-476.

In particular, we may note the influence of contemporary events, especially those of Josephus' life, upon his biblical interpretation...Daube has suggested that Josephus identified himself, in particular, with Joseph, who likewise was accused falsely; with Jeremiah, who was a prophet (as Josephus conceived himself because of his accurate prediction that Vespasian would become emperor) and who likewise suffered at the hands of his fellow Jews; Daniel, who likewise suffered for his convictions; Esther and Mordecai, who suffered gladly in order to help their people. To this list we may add Josephus' identification with Saul, whom he viewed as a martyred general like himself. In addition, as van Unnik remarks, the very fact that Josephus omits the name of Shittim (Num 25:1) and Ba'al Pe'or (Num 25:3) means that the story of Israel's sin with the Midianite women is no longer dated but takes on a universal flavour, with contemporary warning to Jewish youth who may be tempted to succumb to sensual temptations.

I've not read enough of Josephus to evaluate this claim. Did Josephus say something like, "This Saul character reminds me of my experience, when I..." I know Martin Luther does that a lot in his commentary on Genesis!

People like to see themselves in the Bible. I once went to a church, and I heard a man remark, "Too many Christians these days want to go out and be like Abraham, when we need shepherds right here for the church." I think he was saying that many Christians he knew were drawn to Christianity out of a desire for adventure, but they were neglecting what he thought the church really needed.

I also knew a pastor who was warmly welcomed back to church by an old woman one moment, then harshly criticized by the same woman later that day. He compared himself to Jesus, who was cheered as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, soon before many in the city called for his crucifixion.

Similarly, one of my relatives once had an employee who likened himself to Joseph. The employee felt that God was grooming him for something significant. When he worked for Burger King and had a mean supervisor, for example, he emplotted her as a harsh taskmaster who was part of God's story for his life.

Many of us would like to think that our lives are important, that God is grooming us for something significant. Whether or not we're heroes in some grand drama, I do not know. There are a lot of ordinary people out there who live ordinary lives, so why should I assume that I'm not one of them? Can everybody be Abraham in the story? At the same time, who is to say that the lives of "ordinary people" are insignificant? They're doing something to touch the lives of others, or at least they have the potential to do so.

When I watch TV shows, I wonder what type of character I would be. Would I be the main character, or would I be part of the supporting cast, or in the background, or what? Part of me wants to be the "main character" in my life--to be prominent in social situations, important in the eyes of others, etc. But someone once told me that I actually am the main character in my own little drama. We all are, as a matter of fact, since we see life through our own two eyes. We are all main characters in our day-to-day lives.

Josephus looked to the Bible for validation, and that's what a lot of people of faith do. But we're also taught to look to the Bible for constructive criticism. I've heard Christians do this. In a Bible study group I was once in, we were reading the story of Jesus falling asleep on a ship during a storm. "I wish I had that kind of faith," someone in the group said. And I recall being in another small group that was studying the story of Jairus' daughter. Jesus was asked by a prominent man to heal his dying daughter, and Jesus allowed himself to get distracted along the way by a woman with hemorrhages. The teacher asked us if we allowed ourselves to be distracted by those who needed help. We can easily identify ourselves with the righteous characters in the Bible in our search for validation, but the Bible can also be a mirror that exposes our flaws.

As I read this quote from Feldman, I also think about Josephus' perception of what he did. Essentially, many felt Josephus was a traitor, since he was a Jewish general who tricked his soldiers into committing suicide, right before he surrendered to the Romans and got a cush life. We can look at that and say "How reprehensible!" But Josephus thought that he was doing the right thing. For him, he was actually helping his people by hindering their revolt and making the Jews look good before the Romans, who would then allow Judaism to survive in some way, shape, and form.

The Feldman quote also stood out to me because of its comment on Saul. Josephus actually viewed Saul as a good guy. So did rabbinic Judaism, for that matter (see here)!

There is so much subjectivity in our approach to the Bible. We can compare ourselves to the righteous Bible characters in our search for validation. This can comfort us, or it can be a tool for our own self-righteousness. Sometimes, what others see as bad may be perfectly all right in our own eyes, as was the case with Josephus' perceptions of his own actions and of Saul. But there are also times when people can get outside of themselves in their reading of the Bible: when the Bible can confront them or encourage them to be something other than they are--to become better, or new, or whatever you want to call it. Maybe that's where the voice of God is in our study of sacred Scripture.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Biblical Esotericism?

G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy: The Schools of the Imperial Age, trans. John R. Catan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990) 22-23.

The lucidity which the preceding age prized was the assett of the exoteric works of Aristotle; in the centuries of the Roman empire they appeared popular. Then men become passionate about the recondite and the mysterious. Effort is the law of style; ideas more than words are valued as are sentences which carry a hidden meaning. The fascination about the Hermetic doctrines of the East had penetrated the Roman spirit. Obscurity does not frighten, rather it fascinates. If the new religions have mysteries for initiates, why not the religion of truth, philosophy? Also, the God of philosophical thinking does not appear to all but only reveals himself to those who merit it, beyond the internal part, in the innermost recesses of the temple. As Pythagoreanism, which is in fashion, so every philosophy must have secret doctrines and sacred 'orgies' of the mind to which only the initiated are admitted...Such a love for the arcane brought gradually to the esoteric works of Aristotle the attention of the later centuries of the declining Classical Age.

Reale is discussing the popularity of the "esoteric" works of Aristotle, the cryptic ones that have a hidden meaning (I think). For Reale, Aristotle's esoteric works were not all that popular for some time, when philosophers preferred Aristotle's clear writings in their own pursuit of clarity and consistency. Later, however, philosophers became attracted to the cryptic, and Aristotle's esoteric writings made a comeback.

Reale talks about why the "esoteric" is so popular. Many like a mystery, and they enjoy being part of a clique that is "in the know." People have characterized the Armstrong movement as like that.

But is there esotericism in the Bible? Some have argued such. When I was at Jewish Theological Seminary, Jacob Milgrom seemed to contend that God was giving Moses inside-knowledge that the other Israelites did not receive. Exodus 3 presents God telling Moses that God's name is "I will be what I will be," but he instructs Moses to inform Israel that is name is merely "I will be." The Israelites were to learn that God exists, but Moses was given an additional nuance of information about the divine that was hidden from the other Israelites.

I don't quite remember what special information Milgrom thought Moses was receiving, but I do recall that he was associating "I will be what I will be" with Exodus 33:19: "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy" (NRSV). Exodus 33-34 is significant because Moses was seeing something of the glory of God, as God proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation" (Exodus 34:6-7).

I've heard Christians interpret Psalm 103:7 in light of esotericism. The passage states that God "made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel." For such Christians, the Israelites got to see God's outward acts, but Moses was clued in about God's ways: his character, his motives, etc. If I'm not mistaken, that's what they think is going on in Exodus 34:6-7.

Maybe there's something to that. I don't know. It seems to me that God didn't want to keep the children of Israel totally in the dark about his ways, however, since much of God's character described in Exodus 34:6-7 also appears in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), which all of Israel presumably knew.

There are clear examples of esotericism in the Bible. For example, Jesus states that he speaks in parables to obscure the truth (Mark 4:11-12). At the same time, I don't think that he wanted the truth to be permanently concealed. After all, we Christians have the Bible, which contains Jesus' decoding of the parables. And Matthew 28 says we are to teach all nations what Jesus taught us, which presumably includes those explanations. So Jesus eventually moved beyond esotericism. In my opinion, God does not forever hide the truth or limit the number of people who know about it, for he wants everyone to hear it.

Shower Thoughts on LOST

Ben is probably a lot more sinister than I give him credit for. Part of me wants to feel sorry for him because he appears to have sought Jacob's validation, only to be rebuffed. But maybe Jacob said "What about you?" to him out of disgust!

My hunch is that Ben has not just been going after Widmore and his men as part of their rivalry to control the Others and the island. Rather, in addition to all that, he has been sending Sayid as a hit-man against what I'll call the "Jacob cult," which we encountered last night.

The woman who captured Sayid works for the man whom Sayid shot on the golf course, and she appears to represent the Jacob cult. She called Richard "Ricardus," which struck me as a "secret society" sort of thing. And Richard gave the right answer to her question "What lies in the shadow of the statue?" when he said "he who will protect/save us all" (see here--no, my Latin is not good enough for me to have understood that myself :D). So Ben may not just be part of some petty rivalry with Widmore. He may be attacking Jacob himself, God of the island! I've heard people equate Ben with Satan. Maybe there's something to that!

But there may be other explanations. Maybe the man at the golf course is one of Widmore's men, and the woman who captured Sayid is trying to hinder the Ben/Widmore feud, or save Sayid from being Ben's tool.

Ideas about Jacob and his Adversary (LOST)

Jacob is something like God: he's trying to bring the best out of people by teaching them to do good and putting them through experiences. He taught young Kate not to steal. He exhorted Sun and Jin at their wedding to keep their love alive. He encouraged Hurley that he was not crazy but was blessed. He gave Jack another way to look at his father's advice after Jack had frozen up during a surgery.

In some places, this interpretation of Jacob does not work. Why did he encourage little James to write his hostile letter to Mr. Sawyer, who had contributed to the deaths of James' parents? Why not teach him to forgive? Was that to set the stage for the other guy to tell young James that "what's done is done," so he should put the past behind him and make a life for himself? That advice stayed with James later in his life, when he chose to stay on the island rather than going back to stop the deaths of his parents.

Why did Jacob cause the death of Sayid's wife? No, he didn't murder her, but he asked Sayid for directions, so Sayid was distracted from saving his wife from getting run over. Does Sayid especially need to learn lessons on the island, and he'd be less willing to go there if he had a happy life in the real world?

Jacob on LOST is more like a Jewish God than a Christian one, in one sense. Jacob's adversary believes that humans are morally corrupt and will only destroy one another once they arrive at the island. Jacob, however, maintains that people can become better. So I guess that Jacob's adversary believes in original sin (a Christian idea), whereas Jacob thinks that people can be encouraged to yield to their good impulses (a Jewish notion).

What is the motive of Jacob's adversary? Why does he want to kill Jacob? My hunch is that he's sick of Jacob bringing people to the island! Jacob is doing so to help people progress, but Jacob's adversary is tired of people coming to his home and messing things up--over and over again.

I think that Jacob's adversary is behind the smoke monster and the apparition of Ben's step-daughter, who told Ben to do whatever John Locke said. There is no more John Locke, since he is dead! The person Ben believed was John Locke turned out to be Jacob's adversary. As for the smoke monster, as I said, Jacob's adversary is sick of people coming to the island, so it makes sense that he'd set up some protection for his valuables (e.g., the temple). It's like Frasier not wanting people to touch his expensive objects when they waltz into his apartment.

Jacob was somewhat like the evangelical or charismatic God at the end of last night's episode. Ben asked Jacob why he had never gotten to meet him, and Ben was also upset because he had cancer, notwithstanding the island's healing properties. Ben had worked so hard for the island and had gotten nothing in return, and his question was, "What about me?" And Jacob's response to Ben was, "What about you?"

How dismissive! That's sometimes how I feel God is in evangelical settings. Some people experience God deeply in that they hear from him, receive answers to prayer, get assignments, etc. And others don't, even if they may try hard to believe and to do the right thing. Does God play favorites? Often I feel that he does. And there are plenty of Christians who are eager to put down a person who asks "What about me?" "The fact that you even ask that question shows you have a pride problem," they imply. That's what I heard in Jacob's response to Ben!

On the other hand, I can also picture the evangelical God being much nicer to Ben, affirming his love for him, even when Ben's path appeared dark. There are evangelical jerks who believe in a cold, stingy God, but there are also evangelicals who hold fast to God's unconditional love. In Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son, the older brother asked his father, "What about me?" He had served his father most of his life and received little reward, so he envied his prodigal brother who had wasted his inheritance and received a warm reception when he returned home. The father's response to the older brother was not "What about you?" Rather, he affirmed his love for the older brother. And that's what I wish Jacob had done for Ben.

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