Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Second Chance for Korah, Persian Dualism

1. Jacob Neusner, Invitation to Midrash: The Workings of Rabbinic Bible Interpretation (Atlanta: Scholars, 1998) 241-243.

Neusner quotes Talmud Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:4. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) dates to around 400 C.E.

The discussion in Sanhedrin 10:4 concerns whether or not the generation of the wilderness will enter the World to Come.

The arguments for the "no" side:

Numbers 14:35 states, "In this wilderness they shall be consumed and there they shall die." Because many rabbis didn't believe God was redundant, they argued that "they shall be consumed" and "there they shall die" had to refer to two separate things. According to one of the rabbis, "they shall be consumed" refers to the fate of the wilderness generation in this world, whereas "there they shall die" is talking about their fate in the World to Come. The same goes for Numbers 16:33, which states that "the earth closed over [the party of Korah], and they perished from the midst of assembly." Again, many rabbis didn't believe God would be redundant, so they maintained that "the earth closed over them" refers to what happened to the sons of Korah in this world, whereas "and they perished from the midst of the assembly" concerns their fate in the World to Come. Add to that Psalm 95:11's solemn declaration that the wilderness generation will not enter God's rest, and you have a case that it won't inherit a place in the World to Come.

The arguments for the "yes" side:

Isaiah 27:13 prophesies: "And in that day a great trumpet will be blown, and those who were lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out of the land of Egypt will come and worship the Lord on the holy mountain at Jerusalem." For Rabbi, those "lost in the land of Assyria" refer to the lost ten tribes, while "those who were driven out of the land of Egypt" are the wilderness generation, who left Egypt at the Exodus.

Psalm 119:176 is also cited: "I have gone away like a lost sheep; seek thy servant and do not forget thy commandments." A rabbi applies this to God searching for the wilderness generation, on the basis of a common word between Numbers 16:33 and Psalm 119:176: avad. Numbers 16:33 uses that word to say that Korah and his party "perished," whereas Psalm 119:176 uses it to mean "lost." Because the same word appears in both verses, a rabbi connects them, concluding that God will seek and save lost Korah and his party.

The question is then asked: Who will pray for Korah and his men so that they'll enter the World to Come? Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman answers "Moses" because Moses in Deuteronomy 33:6 asks God to preserve and bless Reuben, the tribe of some prominent people in Korah's revolt (Numbers 16:1). Rabbi Joshua b. Levi answers "Hannah": "Thus did the party of Korach sink ever downward, until Hannah went and prayed for them and said, The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up (1 Sam 2:6)." Hannah prays that God might resurrect the sinful party of Korah whom God killed, allowing them to enter the World to Come.

This reminds me of certain features of Armstrongite doctrine: a chance to be saved in the afterlife, applying prophecies about Israel's restoration to that concept, and annihilation of the wicked. Note to self: Tosefta Sanhedrin 13 is an extensive discussion of who will be barred from the World to Come.

2. Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and Gnosticism (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1977) 19.

...dualism cannot be ruled out completely as a characteristic of early Persian religion. A fragment of Aristotle's peri philosophias cited by Diogenes Laertius reports that the Magi believed in two opposing moral principles.

The most I could find was the following quote of Diogenes Laertius Proem I:8 (6), according to D. Ross' translation:

Aristotle in the first book of his work On Philosophy says that the Magi are more ancient even than the Egyptians, and that according to them there are two first principles, a good spirit and an evil spirit, one called Zeus and Oromasdes, the other Hades and Areimanius.

According to Segal, Isaiah 45:7 may very well be a polemic against Persian dualism: "I form light and create darkness, make weal and create woe, I, YHWH, do all these things." Segal states that Second Isaiah's statement here departs from Genesis 1, which affirms that God created light, but not darkness.

What's at stake for Second Isaiah was probably the power of God: He wanted to portray God as totally in control, meaning God didn't have to fight evil forces to accomplish his purposes. Israel suffered because she sinned and God was punishing her, not because an evil force happened to be winning at the moment.

I'm not sure if the Persians believed that good and evil would always strive, with neither emerging as a clear winner. C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity appeared to criticize dualism on these grounds, assuming that it held this view. Mary Boyce's History of Zoroastrianism (p. 281) says, however, that Zoroastrianism thought the good God Ahura Mazda would one day purge the world of imperfection. Zoroastrian dualism overlaps with Christianity, which maintains that good battles evil but that good will eventually triumph. Of course, Armstrongites and other Christians think God doesn't really fight Satan right now but lets him get away with a lot, as God waits for the day when God will intervene in human history and defeat evil once and for all. This view preserves God's opposition to evil as well as his omnipotence and sovereignty.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Protecting Torah?; Did God Need a Partner?

1. Jacob Neusner, Invitation to Midrash: The Workings of Rabbinic Bible Interpretation (Atlanta: Scholars, 1998) 231.

Neusner lists points lacking emphasis in the rabbinic "Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan " (fifth-sixth centuries). One of them is "an assertion that one should study the Torah and other things will take care of themselves[.]" I've encountered such an idea in rabbinic literature, though I'm a little hazy right now as to where. In this view, the study of the Torah can protect a person from evil, and observance of it can help bring about the Messiah.

I've seen a similar attitude in Alcoholics Anonymous. In meetings and the Big Book, recovering alcoholics narrate that, as they went to more meetings and did the Twelve Steps, their higher power started doing things for them that they couldn't do for themselves. He provided them with a job despite their criminal record, or he gave them confidence, growth in character, or a loving family. As far as they're concerned, God has blessed them for doing the right thing.

Is this always true? Many Jews died in the Holocaust, including those who were devout students of the Torah. Why didn't their Torah study protect them?

I'd like to believe that there is protection and blessing in studying the Bible and cultivating a relationship with God. I need something to hold on to for assurance. As a person once told me, "If you don't trust a higher power who will take care of you, you're screwed!" In a sense, he's right, since life is so fickle, and bad or hard things happen. I need to trust that things occur for a reason and that God is taking care of me.

But what about the people God doesn't appear to take care of: the starving, the diseased, the dying? That's why I believe in an afterlife. And, while conservative Christianity teaches that only those who believe in Jesus will enter the good afterlife, I try to take God's warnings seriously, while also being open to the possibility that God's mercy may extend even to non-Christians, after a period of purgation, or teaching, or God simply choosing to show mercy.

At the same time, I'm against being so heavenly minded that I do no earthly good, since part of God's judgment of me in the afterlife will concern how I treated the poor, the sick, and the needy (Matthew 25; James 2). God has a plan, part of which involves his temporary toleration of evil. But that doesn't mean that he likes evil. He hates it, and he wants to work with us to do something about it. Maybe that has to do with his desire for our character development, or for everyone to enjoy some quality of life.

Overall, I look for inner peace and security in God and his word. Hopefully, however, the word also stimulates me to have a vision that helps others besides myself.

2. Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and Gnosticism (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1977) 8-9.

Sifre Deuteronomy dates to the late third century C.E. Segal states the following:

Sifre Dt. 329...mentions those who believe in "no power in heaven," followed by those who believe in "two powers in heaven," and finally, those who believe that God has "neither the power to kill nor to preserve."

If I'm correct in my interpretation of this passage, then atheists existed in antiquity, notwithstanding the attempts of some to portray atheism as something that emerged during the Enlightenment.

As far as the "two powers in heaven" go, that's the topic of Segal's book. My impression at this point is that he thinks the term could apply to Christians and the Gnostics. He may even think they overlapped. I'll have to see! There is somewhat of a difference in how they conceived of the two powers: the Christians believed the Logos who became Jesus Christ cooperated with God the Father in the act of creation, whereas the Gnostics thought that the top God and the creator Demiurge were at odds with one another. In Tosefta Sanhedrin 8:7, which dates to the third century C.E., we encounter an emphatic denial that God had a partner in the work of creation.

The view that God hasn't the power to kill or preserve may be Epicureanism, which held that the gods were unconcerned about human beings.

I can understand why the rabbis were concerned about many of these views: atheism negates God, Gnosticism says the God of the Hebrew Bible is evil, and Epicureanism denies divine providence, the very basis for reward and punishment in this world. But why would the Logos cooperating with the Father be a threat, especially when both of them are on the same page? Does a belief in Jesus detract from the glory that God alone should receive? Many Jews would answer "yes," since it makes a limited man God. Both Jews and Muslims ask if Christians believe God had to have his diapers changed! But what about Jesus in his pre-existent state? Did his cooperation with God in creation detract from God's glory?

Those who view Jesus as God would say "no." When Isaiah 44:24 says that the LORD alone created all things, or when Second Isaiah in general affirms that the LORD is the only God and that there is no other (Isaiah 45-46), they deny that these passages preclude the existence of a a second member of the Godhead who helped God in creation. Rather, these passages were fighting a polytheism that asserted multiple deities who were in opposition to each other and had unrighteous characteristics, not two righteous members of the Godhead cooperating with one another.

Yet, many Jews might say that the Jesus of Christianity is unlike the God they know, in that the Christian Jesus was a human with limitations, abrogated God's eternal Torah, and ditched God's covenant people Israel in favor of the church, the persecutor of the Jews. So some Jews may contend that the God of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Jesus are opposed to each other, meaning Christians are promoting the worship of someone other than the one true God. But there are Christians who would come back and say that the Torah was a preparation for a more mature stage of God's plan.

Then, there could be another issue in the rabbis' opposition to God having a partner. If God needed help in creating the universe, what's that say about God? Couldn't he do it by himself? Wasn't he powerful enough? Christians can perhaps respond that God may like working with others, since he's a being of love and cooperation.

Katie Couric's Interview with Glenn Beck

Here is Katie Couric’s interview with Glenn Beck. It’s a civil and intelligent discussion, and it lasts for 44 minutes.

Glenn Beck – CBS News Video

I appreciated what he said about the race issue and the right-wing marches. He said that there are racists who march in these demonstrations, but most are reacting against an unresponsive government. I think this is an important point. I watch Chris Matthews, and I’m tired of how he paints the entire anti-Obama movement as racist. The same goes for ex-President Jimmy Carter’s comments. I’ve seen pictures of the march on Washington, and there were African-Americans holding up anti-government, anti-Obama signs.

I also thought that Glenn’s thoughts about government are important, even if I don’t agree with them entirely. He quoted George Washington, who said that the government is like fire: it can help you, and it can hurt you. That’s why Glenn was critical of the Patriot Act: he was against giving any President that much power, for power can be abused.

I can see the point of Glenn Beck’s critics, though: he portrays things in such an apocalyptic fashion that he may incite people to hate President Obama, seeing him as a threat to freedom. I think it’s all right to criticize the President, whoever he may be. But I hope people will express their criticisms in a peaceful manner: by trying to convince people of their point-of-view so they will vote at the ballot box, or contact their elected officials.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Day of Atonement 2009

One good Day of Atonement that I remember occurred when I was living in New York. I liked holy days because they were time off from school and homework, and that was the case with the Day of Atonement, even though I disliked the fasting element. Before the sun set and the Day of Atonement was upon me, I went to Blockbuster and checked out two movies for the night: Stephen King's Needful Things, and Whitewash: The Clarence Brandley Story.

Needful Things is about a demonic old man who sets up a shop in a small town. He offers everyone who comes into his store a "needful thing," something that the customer desires, like a rare baseball card, or a device that predicts the outcome of horse races. But the old man requires customers to do something mischievous and harmful to get their "needful thing." Before you know it, the people in the town are at each others' throats, and murders occur in the process.

Whitewash: The Clarence Brandley Story is about an African-American janitor who was wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in the 1980's. The Native-American judge was expected to give him a fair case, but instead he collaborated with the prosecution. And racism was a huge factor in Clarence Brandley's conviction.

I prayed after watching those movies, and it was the sort of prayer that went into preaching mode, as one idea generated the next. I was tying those movies into Day of Atonement themes: sin, deception by the devil, injustice. I may have been going to Redeemer Presbyterian Church at the time, for Tim Keller's definition of sin was going through my mind: Tim Keller defines sin as worshiping and rooting our sense of self-worth in anything other than God, whether it be the approval of others, sex, money, power, fame, etc. And that's what I saw in these movies. In Needful Things, people were throwing their moral values out the window to get the object of their desire, their "needful thing." And in Whitewash: The Clarence Brandley Story, the Native American judge acted unjustly in his pursuit of acceptance by the white legal community.

Many people observing the Day of Atonement wouldn't watch television on that holiest of days. But I found that I got more out of the day by seeing those two movies.

Although I didn't pray for a long time last night, television once again made me think about the Day of Atonement. On the season premier of Desperate Housewives, Mary Alice Young (the narrator) was drawing a distinction between sin and evil. She said that there was secret sin in the superbs, and she showed examples: there was Bree, who was reluctantly cheating on her husband Orson because he had embarrassed her and was trapping her in their marriage. There was Katherine, who was plotting against Susan for stealing her boyfriend Mike (Susan's ex-husband). And there was Lynette, whose children were out of the house and who found herself pregnant, even though she didn't want more kids. Mary Alice called these "sins." Then we saw a new boy in the neighborhood who was choking Susan's daughter. Mary Alice referred to that as "evil."

I can understand why Mary Alice distinguishes between sin and evil. There are character flaws, like resentment, jealousy, and a reluctance to love more children. Many people have these at some points in their lives. And then there is evil, such as taking hatred to the next level and actually murdering someone. Many evangelicals would say that all sin is evil. Others would make distinctions.

What's interesting about Needful Things and Whitewash is that they present character flaws leading to evil. People make something other than God the center of their universe, and they end up throwing righteousness out of the window in their pursuit of a "needful thing." An outsider judge wants to fit in with his colleagues, so he commits an act of injustice. Character flaws that appear rather innocuous can lead to evil acts that harm other people.

I'm not for beating myself up over my character defects, but I need to take heed that they don't erupt into actual evil. That's why I need to lessen my hatred and fill my mind with something positive. And I also should take heed not to do evil in the future, as in hurting other people's feelings when there are more tactful ways to go about a situation.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ghosts, Frog-Zilla, Loving the Pushy, William Safire

This will be one of my multiple blogs, where I blog on more than one topic in one post. I'm trying to get things done before the Day of Atonement. I'll still be blogging on that day, but I want to get my blogging on my academic reading and church out of the way. Plus, I just found out that William Safire passed away, so I'll say a few words to honor him.

1. The book I'm quoting is Jacob Neusner's Invitation to Midrash (Atlanta: Scholars, 1998). On page 218, Neusner quotes from the Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan (fifth-sixth centuries C.E.) 12:2:

It is not the soul of Moses alone that is stored away under the throne of glory, but the souls of the righteous are stored under the throne of glory, as it is said, Yet the soul of my Lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with the Lord your God (1 Sam 25:29). Is it possible to imagine that that is the case also with the souls of the wicked? Scripture says, And the souls of your enemies, those he shall sling out as from the hollow of a sling (1 Sam 25:29). For even though one is tossed from place to place, it does not know on what to come to rest. So too the souls of the wicked go roving and fluttering about the world and do not know where to come to rest.

The part about the souls of the righteous being beneath the throne of glory reminds me of Revelation 6:9, only Revelation says that the souls of the righteous martyrs are underneath the heavenly altar.

I'm interested in the part about the wicked souls restlessly wandering the earth because I watched Celebrity Ghost Stories last night, and one of the people interviewed talked about a ghost who was caught between two worlds: the man died, yet his spirit didn't know where to go, so he went to the house where he was most comfortable. At least one rabbinic document appears to account for ghosts.

But are all ghosts evil, as the rabbinic document seems to claim? Another celebrity talked about the ghost of his dead mother, who intervened a few times to help her children. Was she wicked? Or can wicked ghosts do good, since even bad people can love their families?

2. Richard S. Sarason, "Interpreting Rabbinic Biblical Interpretation: The Problem of Midrash, Again," Hesed Ve-Emet: Studies in Honor of Ernest S. Frerichs, ed. Shaye J.D. Cohen (Atlanta: Scholars, 1998) 141.

...the fanciful interpretation of Exod 8:6, And the frog (sing.) came up, and covered the land of Egypt, ascribed to Akiva, that this refers to a single frog that filled the entire land of Egypt, is greeted by this pointed response attributed to a colleague: "Akiva, what business do you have expounding aggadah? Cease your words and go study the laws of Nehaim and Ohalot!" (b. Sanh 67b and parallels).

Exodus 8:6 does use the singular for "frog," whereas the other verses in Exodus 8 have the plural for that word (vv 1, 3-5, 7-9). According to Dr. Sarason, Akiva interpreted this to mean that there was one frog that filled the whole land of Egypt. The thought that entered my mind when I read this was "Frog-zilla," a giant frog who filled Egypt. In Genesis Rabbah 10:4, however, Akiva appears more reasonable, for he says there was one frog who "bred so rapidly that it filled the land of Egypt" (translation on my Judaic Classics Library). And his colleague responds that the one frog croaked for others to come, after telling Akiva to stay out of aggadah.

I don't see why the colleague responds in this way, since Akiva's position appears reasonable. But if Akiva had claimed that a giant frog covered Egypt, I'd understand the colleague's reaction. In b. Sanh 67b, Akiva just says that one frog covered Egypt, and the Judaic Classics Library translation inserts "by breeding" in brackets, meaning it's not part of the text. So perhaps his colleague misunderstood, thinking Akiva was talking about a Frog-zilla!

3. At my Latin mass this morning, we didn't have the priest who talks about philosophy and patristics, nor did we have the priest who discusses politics and the culture wars. Rather, we had the one who talks about love in a grandiose voice. I don't learn much from his sermons, but they do encourage me to become a better person.

One point the priest made: he said a psychologist came up to him and offered to give him advice that would make him a better priest. He declined to listen to her and walked away, and he said he later realized that he missed an opportunity to reach out to a person in love.

All sorts of people sell things or want something. People like to offer advice, and it's easy to feel put-down if someone is telling you what to do. But, as the priest said, everyone is made in God's image, meaning there is some imprint of the divine on his or her soul. Is there a way to say "no" to pushy people while being respectful? And there may be cases when listening to someone's unwanted advice may not be so bad, since that can make the other person feel useful. But the person offering advice should realize that we always have the right to do differently from what he or she suggests.

4. I just read that William Safire has passed away. Safire was a Nixon speechwriter and a conservative syndicated columnist. I first encountered his name in David J. Smith's Newswatch, an ultra-right wing publication of the Church of God (Evangelistic Association), a splinter group from the Armstrong movement. Smith's group focused on conspiracies to create a one-world dictatorship. Newswatch was reprinting a William Safire column in favor of civil liberties. I don't remember the exact issue that Safire was commenting on, but Newswatch was trying to tie what Safire was criticizing to the mark of the Beast. It may have been a national ID card, or something the government was proposing that would infringe on privacy rights. Years after this article, Safire opposed the Patriot Act, so he favored protecting individuals from their government, regardless of whether that government was run by the Right or the Left.

The second time I encountered Bill Safire's name was in 1996, when Pat Buchanan was running for President. Safire had worked with Buchanan in the Nixon Presidency, and he said that Pat was anti-Semitic. That was his impression. There are other Jews who have worked with Pat Buchanan who have a different view, however.

I also saw a book by William Safire on the Book of Job, but I've not read it.

R.I.P., William Safire.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Stopped in My Tracks, God in My Life

I studied II Samuel 20 for my weekly quiet time this week. Here are two lessons I got out of it:

1. David replaced Joab with Amasa for the job of commander of the king's army. The reason was probably that Joab had killed David's son, Absalom. In II Samuel 20, Joab murders Amasa, his very own cousin. Joab acts friendly to Amasa, pretends that he's about to kiss him, then rams him with a sword. And he rams him only once, leaving Amasa to die slowly and painfully as he rolled around in his own blood. Somebody stands by Amasa to tell others not to be alarmed but to follow Joab. But people are alarmed by Amasa's corpse, so the person guarding it covers it up and move it out of sight.

A Benjaminite named Sheba is leading a revolt against King David, and he flees to Abel-Bethmacha, an city way up north in Israel. As Joab and his forces try to tear down the city wall, a wise woman from inside of the city requests to speak with Joab. When Joab grants her an audience, she tells him that she's peaceful. She then reminds Joab of Abel-Bethmacha's reputation for wisdom, and asks him why he wants to kill a bunch of innocent people. Joab replies that his intention is neither to swallow up nor to destroy, but he's only after Sheba. And so the woman has Sheba's head thrown over the city wall, and Joab and his forces go home.

Joab had just dehumanized Amasa on account of his resentment and jealousy, to the point that he murdered his own cousin in a cruel manner. He didn't want to deal with his victim's corpse, so he ordered someone else to handle it while he went about his way. He was on a roll of kill, kill, kill, such that he was prepared to destroy an entire city to capture Sheba. But it took a wise lady to remind him of his own humanity and the humanity of the people he was about to destroy.

Sometimes, we need God to stop us in our tracks, to hold a mirror to our faces so that we become convicted and try to be better people. I'm not going to murder anyone, but, like Joab, I tend to dehumanize people: liberals, evangelical Christians, beautiful women. But when I read a news story about a man who went into a Unitarian-Universalist church to shoot the liberals he believed were ruining the country, or one about a young man with resentment against Christians opening fire against evangelicals, or one about a man who shot women in a health club because of his own sexual frustrations, that convicts me of my own dehumanization of people. It reminds me that even those I dehumanize have their likes and dislikes, people who care for them, their hopes, pains, and fears.

I don't think God caused those events to convict me of sin, but my experience is similar to Joab's: I dehumanize others, I plough forward with my dehumanization in the name of "standing for truth" or "my enemies dehumanize people too," and I'm stopped in my tracks with the realization of my own humanity and that of others. And I get stopped in my tracks in other areas as well.

2. In one of the sermons that I heard today, the preacher said that David experienced a lot of pain and turbulence, but he found refuge in God and looked for God's hand in the midst of his afflictions. That was an important message for me today, since I was in a brooding, "I hate my life" mood. My life often isn't what I want or like, but I believe that God's hand is in it, in some way, shape, and form.

Patty Duke Reunion Movie (1999)

So why do I want to see the 1999 reunion movie for the Patty Duke Show? Here are my reasons:

1. I've been watching the Patty Duke Show this week to get it off my DVR. I want to see how they are and how they interact all grown up, or (in the case of the parents) older.

2. I've seen Patty Duke as an adult actress, and she doesn't really remind me of her younger self. And I've seen William Schallert by himself before I even saw him on Patty Duke. So I want to see how the adult, mature, authoritative, matriarchal, somewhat cranky Patty Duke interacts with the fatherly William Schallert.

3. I saw parts of the reunion movie, and I see how Ross is all grown up. He doesn't even look like his younger self! And I saw what the mom looks like after thirty years. But I haven't yet seen Richard, Patty's boyfriend. He's on it somewhere. I wonder if he still has that nasally voice along with that likable caveman quality.

4. I want to see William Schallert acting as a white-haired old man. In most of what I've seen him in (e.g., Torkelsons, Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, Quantum Leap, the 1980's Twilight Zone), he had black hair. I saw him with white hair on Desperate Housewives last season, but I didn't know that was him. So I want to see the William Schallert I haven't seen much of.

5. I want to see how Patty Duke plays Cathy. I've seen pieces. To be honest, the distinction between Patty and Cathy in this movie and the Social Security commercial isn't as pronounced as it was in the 1960's series. At least that's my impression. But I'll see more.

I ordered Patty Duke's 1988 autobiography for a penny off of Amazon, and the bookstore thinks I want her book on manic depression. So I'm trying to cancel my order. Maybe I'll check out her autobiography from my public library, which has it. I want to see her views on the show and its cast.

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Religion of the Book?

William Scott Green, "Writing with Scripture: The Rabbinic Uses of the Hebrew Bible," Writing with Scripture: The Authority and Uses of the Hebrew Bible in Formative Judaism, ed. Jacob Neusner (Philadelphia, 1989; Atlanta, 1993) 16.

...rabbis reinforced the impression of scripture's autonomy and centrality by making ownership of a sefer Torah a religious obligation for every Jew. From a rabbinic perspective, scripture was not only the distinctive possession of all Israel; more important, it was the personal property of each individual Israelite.

This seems to imply that most Jews in rabbinic times were literate. This is a debated issue within scholarship, as a past post of mine and Steph's comments under it indicate: Jesus the Literate, Slavery, Had Adam and Eve Done It Right.

I like the idea of every Israelite having access to the nourishment of Scripture. But Green also states that Judaism was not always or solely a "religion of the book," for the temple played a huge role in Jewish religious life.

This reminds me of a discussion I once had at Harvard. I was in William Abraham's class on "Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation," which had a number of evangelical students. I was a fundamentalist at the time, so I was affirming the inerrancy of the Bible and its vitality in the Christian religious life. The Bible is God's communication to humanity, after all! One of the evangelical students was taking issue with my stance. He said that people in the evangelical sub-culture are used to rituals like daily quiet times, which involve the reading of Scripture. But he wondered if ancient Israel had that same preoccupation. The public reading of the Torah occurred every seven years (Deuteronomy 31:10), which isn't exactly a "daily" or "weekly" quiet time. While I pointed out that the Israelites taught their kids God's commandments and wrote biblical passages on their homes and their gates (Deuteronomy 6:6-9), I now wonder if that constitutes "Bible study" in the modern evangelical sense of the word, since people debate about what exactly the Israelites passed on to their children or wrote on their homes and gates. Was it the shema? The ten commandments? The entire Book of Deuteronomy, or at least the legal parts?

I think that Torah study existed in some way, shape, or form in ancient Israel, since the Psalms talk about meditation on God's law (Psalm 1; 119; etc.). When this occurred in the history of Israelite religion and how widespread it was, I do not know. Maybe the idea of Deuteronomy is that the Israelite people would learn by doing, as the central sanctuary and the courts kept them informed about their obligations. If things ran as they were supposed to run, the Israelites would be part of a culture with rituals and laws, so they'd know what to do. But they'd still need to hear the Torah every seven years for inspiration and to refresh their memories about what specifically God wanted from them. At some point, a more regular meditation/recitation of God's "teaching" was encouraged.

The Rabbis Wrestle with God

Jacob Neusner, Invitation to Midrash: The Workings of Rabbinic Bible Interpretation (Atlanta: Scholars, 1998) 172, 192.

Like a lot of people, I've encountered village atheists in my lifetime. What's interesting is that, today, I found their objections in some rabbinic writings that I was reading in Neusner.

1. In high school, there was an atheist student who was taking a "Bible as literature" course. He said he was doing so to "learn the other side." The class got into a discussion about who was at fault in the Adam and Eve story. Was it Adam? Or Eve? Or the deceitful serpent? The atheist student replied, "God, because he put the tree there!"

We see a similar point in Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan 1:13 (fifth-sixth centuries C.E.). A man puts a scorpion in a jar and tells his wife that she is under no circumstances to touch the jar. He leaves, the wife opens the jar and gets stung, then the husband finds out and divorces her. Rabbi Simeon b. Yohai compares this story to that of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit.

Neusner remarks: Simeon's point is that by giving Man the commandment, God aroused human interest in that tree and led humans to do what they did. So God bears a measure of guilt for the fall of humanity.

That's what the atheist student was driving at.

2. When I was in college, I encouraged an atheist friend of mine to read the Bible, hoping that the Holy Spirit would speak to him through the inherent power of Scripture. And so he read the Bible that summer, and he wrote me a letter with a list of objections. When we talked at the beginning of the school year, he fleshed some of those out.

One of his objections concerned the flood. In Genesis 8-9, God promises never again to destroy humanity. "But doesn't that contradict the whole point of the Book of Revelation?," he asked. When I replied that God won't destroy all of humanity in the end time but will preserve the righteous people, my friend asked how that's different from the flood, when God saved the lives of eight people on account of Noah's righteousness. And when another Christian in the discussion remarked that Genesis 8-9 promises not to destroy the earth with a flood, my atheist friend thought that was a stretch: God promises he won't destroy the earth with water, but he'll destroy it with fire? Does that make any sense?

Interestingly, Pesikta de-Rab Kahana 19:3 has the same objection. Pesikta de-Rab Kahana dates to the fifth century C.E. Here is one of its expansions of God's discussion with Abraham as God prepares to destroy Sodom:

You will find that before the Holy One, blessed by He, brought the flood on the Sodomites, our father Abraham said before the Holy One, blessed be He, "Lord of the ages, you have bound yourself by an oath not to bring a flood upon the world. What verse of Scripture indicates it? These days recall for me the days of Noah, as I swore that the waters of Noah's flood should never again pour over the earth, [so now I swear to you never again to be angry with you or reproach you] (Is. 54:9). True enough, you are not going to bring a flood of water, but you are going to bring a flood of fire. Are you now going to act deceitfully against the clear intent of that oath?

Abraham says that God's destruction of Sodom would violate his oath not to destroy the earth with a flood, since God planned to send Sodom a flood of fire.

It's refreshing that the rabbis could wrestle with the text and ask critical (if not skeptical) questions, all while retaining their faith and commitment to God. This especially stands out to me today, in light of posts by John Hobbins (Why believers must complain about and criticize biblical texts) and James McGrath (Wrestling with the Bible).

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Caught Up on Brothers and Sisters (Sort Of)

I technically got caught up on Brothers and Sisters today, not in the sense that I watched every single episode of Season 3, but rather in the sense that I saw enough of Season 3 to watch the first episode of Season 4 this coming Sunday night and not feel lost.

I've been waiting for Season 3 to arrive at my public library for a long time, but I can't seem to get my hands on it. People have it on hold or are checking it out! But I had four episodes on my DVR, and I decided to watch those (while reading and translating, of course) to see where I was lost, how much I could understand, etc.

Fortunately, the first episode I taped was half-brother Ryan's introduction to the Walker family, as well as Nora first learning that her son Tommy had embezzled money. This was helpful to me, since I myself was meeting Ryan for the very first time, plus I was first learning about Tommy's embezzlement from his late father's fruit company. So, although I'm fuzzy about many of the details, I feel somewhat caught up. I also enjoyed hanging out with the characters, even though I hadn't seen all of their Season 3 experiences. I got grossed out, though, when Kevin kissed his husband, which tells me that I haven't seen the show for a long time.

I was thinking about the character of Tommy. I didn't know all of the details, but I was fairly certain that Tommy didn't embezzle the money out of greed. He's weak, not deliberately evil, as when he cheated on his wife when his marriage was on the rocks (Season 2). It turns out that he was embezzling to force his late father's mistress, Holly, out of the family business. Tommy never struck me as deliberately evil, but he often appeared to me to be self-centered. That changed a little in the Season finale, when he was in Mexico helping a village get water. I loved his warm, peaceful expression when he saw his family in Mexico, when they came looking for him. I was expecting him to tell them to buzz off, but he had apparently found peace in his time there.

I'm looking forward to Season 4 of Brothers and Sisters, as well as a new season of Desperate Housewives! I heard that Kathryn Joosten (Mrs. Landingham on the West Wing, Old Lady God on Joan of Arcadia, and Ms. McKloskey on Desperate Housewives) has cancer from her years of smoking, but I hope she'll still be able to be on the show. Rumor has it that Orson Bean (Beevis on the Twilight Zone, Loren on Dr. Quinn, married to the mom on the Wonder Years, good Republican, even though he was supposedly blacklisted in the 1950's) will be her love interest on Desperate Housewives, and I don't want that to get written out!

Cross, Dtr, and II Samuel 7

In this post, I want to highlight the parts of II Samuel 7 that Frank Moore Cross believes are Deuteronomistic, according to his Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. But I'm not going to highlight every part he deems Deuteronomistic, but only the parts that correspond with the Book of Deuteronomy. I'll color the Deuteronomist parts in red. After the red part, I'll cite in parenthesis the Hebrew phrase, as well as the corresponding passages from Deuteronomy. I'll include comments in purple. The translation is the New Revised Standard Version.

2 Samuel 7:1 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him,
2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent."
3 Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you (immach; Deuteronomy 31:8, 23)." I don't think that makes this passage Deuteronomistic, for immach occurs all over Genesis and in Exodus 3:12 and 18:19.
4 But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan:
5 Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?
6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about (mithalech; Deuteronomy 23:15) in a tent and a tabernacle. Cross also cites Genesis 3:8 and Leviticus 26:12, so this is not uniquely Deuteronomistic. But how's Deuteronomy 23:15's claim that God walks amidst the camp of Israel jive with the argument that Deuteronomy is anti-anthropomorphism when it comes to God, which is why it says God's name and not God himself lives in the temple? Maybe the Deuteronomist had no problem with God visiting and moving about the Israelites to help them in battle, but he thought saying God was limited to an earthly sanctuary went too far (I Kings 8:27).
7 Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?"
8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel;
9 and I have been with you (see v 3) wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth.
10 And I will appoint a place (ve-samti maqom; Deuteronomy 1:33) for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more (ve-lo yosiphu bene-avlah le-anoto; Deuteronomy 26:6), as formerly, These passages in Deuteronomy don't use all of these words, only maqom and anah, the word for "afflict." I'm not in the mood to do a word-study on these words. This is a passage that McCarter also says is Deuteronomistic, though.
11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house.
12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.
13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings.
15 But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you.
16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
17 In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David.
18 Then King David went in and sat before the LORD, and said, "Who am I, O Lord GOD, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?
19 And yet this was a small thing in your eyes, O Lord GOD; you have spoken also of your servant's house for a great while to come. May this be instruction for the people, O Lord GOD!
20 And what more can David say to you? For you know your servant, O Lord GOD!
21 Because of your promise, and according to your own heart, you have wrought all this greatness, so that your servant may know it.
22 Therefore you are great, O LORD God; for there is no one like you, and there is no God besides you, according to all that we have heard with our ears.
23 Who is like your people, like Israel? Is there another nation on earth whose God went to redeem it as a people, and to make a name for himself, doing great and awesome things for them, by driving out before his people nations and their gods?
24 And you established your people Israel for yourself to be your people forever; and you, O LORD, became their God.
25 And now, O LORD God, as for the word that you have spoken concerning your servant and concerning his house, confirm it forever; do as you have promised.
26 Thus your name will be magnified forever in the saying, 'The LORD of hosts is God over Israel'; and the house of your servant David will be established before you.
27 For you, O LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, have made this revelation to your servant, saying, 'I will build you a house'; therefore your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to you.
28 And now, O Lord GOD, you are God, and your words are true, and you have promised this good thing to your servant;
29 now therefore may it please you (Deuteronomy 1:5 uses this word to refer to Moses, not God) to bless the house of your servant, so that it may continue forever before you; for you, O Lord GOD, have spoken, and with your blessing shall the house of your servant be blessed forever."

Okay, I didn't do everything I said I would. I looked more at the passages that Cross views as Deuteronomistic but that McCarter does not. I don't think those passages are necessarily Deuteronomistic, since their phraseology occurs in non-Deuteronomistic sections of the Pentateuch.


Philip S. Alexander, "Midrash," A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, ed. R.J. Coggins and J.L. Houldin (SCM Press, Trinity Press, 1990) 454, 458.

The reason the midrashim have this anonymous character is basically ideological. The darshanim saw themselves as engaged in a collective enterprise, as working within a tradition. Their task was to pass on what they received, and to contribute to the development of the oral Torah. This left little scope for individuality or idiosyncrasy. The darshanim did not set great store by originality, and if innovation were required it had to be done in terms of pre-existent tradition. Nor did they have a strong proprietorial attitude towards their ideas: whatever they contributed to the sum of the tradition became at once public property and could be used freely and adapted by others. (454)

The darshan does not stand before the text of scripture with absolute freedom. He must work within that tradition. He is forbidden to disclose in scripture aspects which are not in accordance with the halakhah. He can only interpret scripture aright if he has studied in the right schools, with the right masters who stand in an unbroken line of tradition going back to Moses himself. (458)

This is different from modern academia, and yet similar. Modern academia encourages originality, yet it wants students to interact with the thoughts that have come before.

I've heard the thoughts in these quotes before, but not in a long time. Some professors have maintained that ancient interpreters tried to create something new while appearing continuous with the old. After all, if they thought that the old was sufficient, then why'd they see the need to write the new? Some may say that they were merely trying to clarify the ambiguous old. The question then becomes, "When do they do that, and to what extent?" I think James Kugel does well to point out examples in which ancient interpreters aimed to clarify the ambiguities of Scripture, although there are times when the ambiguities he claims to identify appear rather artificial. At the same time, was I Enoch designed to clarify an ambiguity? It basically takes a character from Genesis 5 and runs with him, using him as a launch-pad for its own agenda! I Enoch's connection with the "old" looks pretty thin indeed!

A Rabbi Disagreeing with a Prophet?

Jacob Neusner, Invitation to Midrash: The Workings of Rabbinic Bible Interpretation (Atlanta: Scholars, 1998) 153.

Leviticus Rabbah dates to the fifth century C.E. Neusner quotes and discusses LR 27:8, which comments on Isaiah 1:3. The quote is as follows:

Said R. Judah b. R. Simon, "It is written, An ox knows its owner, and an ass its master's crib, but Israel does not know (Is. 1:3). Did they not really know? Rather, they trampled under heel [God's commandments]. [They did not pay adequate attention and sinned by inadvertence.] Along these same lines: For my people is foolish. Me they have not known (Jer. 4:22). Did they not know? Rather, they trampled under heel. Along these same lines: And she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, wine, and oil (Hos. 2:8). Did she not know? Rather, she trampled under heel.

Neusner comments about this passage: [It] carries forward the view that the prophets exaggerated Israel's guilt, but in fact Israel was not sinning at all. It is not that they were worse than beasts but rather that they paid no attention and so sinned through inadvertence.

At first, Neusner's interpretation made no sense to me. The passage seemed to me to be saying this: the prophets say that Israel is foolish and does not know God, but that's not the case, for Israel breaks God's commandments willfully, knowingly, and defiantly. As far as I could see, the passage was saying that the prophets downplayed Israel's sins, making Israel appear better than she actually was. But Neusner says the opposite: the Leviticus Rabbah passage exaggerates Israel's sin and makes her look worse than she really was.

Neusner's interpretation makes sense in light of the context. The previous two passages in Leviticus Rabbah 27:8 say that God has forgotten Israel's sin with the Golden Calf, and that the true Israelites were not responsible for the sin, for the proselytes of the mixed multitude (Exodus 12:38) were the ones who made and worshiped the calf. Since the first two passages in Leviticus 27:8 try to encourage Israel and portray her in a positive light, it would make sense that the third passage does so as well.

I checked my Judaic Classics Library, and it offers the following note: They trampled upon God's commandment by not protesting but permitting these proselytes to make the Calf, though they did not actually take part in it themselves (Radal, ‘E.J.).

What I get is this: the third passage is saying that the Israelites were not foolish like beasts, for they definitely knew God. But they trampled God's commandments through their weakness and cowardice in not confronting the Gentile worshipers of the Golden Calf. So the prophets made Israel look worse than she really was.

It's interesting that this rabbinic passage actually disagrees with the prophetical writings. This corresponds with a post I wrote a few days ago, More or Less Authoritative, in which I say (based upon things I've read and heard) that the rabbis believed the Torah was more authoritative than the Prophets and the Writings. I recently asked a professor how the rabbis reconciled Deuteronomy 23's exclusion of certain people from the LORD's congregation with Isaiah 56's picture of God's temple being a house of prayer for all people (including eunuchs, whom Deuteronomy 23 barred). He replied that he couldn't recall a passage in which they did attempt to reconcile them, for their focus was mostly on defining the terms of Deuteronomy 23, even though they did seek to harmonize the inclusion of Ruth the Moabitess with Deuteronomy. I vaguely recall him saying that the rabbis didn't take Isaiah 56 all that seriously.

At the same time, the rabbis did cite scriptures from the Prophets and the Writings in their attempt to interpret the Torah. Were there different rabbinic viewpoints on the authority of the non-Pentateuchal portions of Scripture, or was their position nuanced?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ha-Olam in the Heart

Michael Fishbane, The Exegetical Imagination: On Jewish Thought and Theology (Cambridge, 1998) 19.

...Koheleth said that God created each thing for its proper time, "and even put the world (ha-'olam) in their hearts[.]" Reading ha-olam in [Koheleth] as he-'elem ("the youth"), Rabbi Berekhiah re-read Ecclesiastes to mean that God has even put fathers' "love for their children ('olelim) in their hearts."...Others, however, preferred to interpret Koheleth as meaning that God "concealed (he-'elim) the day of death...from His creatures[.]"

Ecclesiastes 3:11 states that God put ha-olam in the human heart. Ha-olam can be translated as "world" or "eternity." How did the rabbis interpret this verse? The passage that Fishbane quotes from Midrash Shoher Tov revocalizes ha-olam so that it means "the youth," "love for children," or "concealed."

Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:15 offers other interpretations of ha-olam in Ecclesiastes 3:11: God put a love for the world in people's hearts; he instilled in their hearts a fear of death so they'd get on the ball and have kids to perpetuate their name; God put the evil inclination in people's hearts so they'd build a house, marry, and have kids, all of which may involve man's rivalry with his neighbor; God put a love for the world and children in people's hearts; ha-olam should be revocalized as ha-ulam ("concealed"), meaning God concealed the powerful divine name from human beings so they wouldn't use it to hurt others; ha-olam is really he-elem ("concealment"), affirming that God has concealed from human beings his work from beginning to end.

After its statement about God putting ha-olam in the human heart, Ecclesiastes 3:11 states that man does not discover the work God has done from the beginning to the end. Translations differ as to how to tie these two ideas together. Some say God put ha-olam in the human heart, yet humans don't know what God is doing from beginning to end. Others say he did so in order that they wouldn't know. The Septuagint goes with the latter view.

So what does the passage mean? Peter Machinist states in the Jewish Study Bible that it means God has "given humans a sense that divine activity determines events beyond what they can see and understand, and so defines for them the limits of their reason." Yet, Machinist continues, vv 12-13 go on to affirm that God has allowed them to enjoy their labor and the fruit thereof. In the HarperCollins Study Bible, Raymond C. Van Leeuwen says that the "quest to know all things ('the world') cannot be attained (1.12-13; 7.25; 8.17; 11.5)", yet, in the face of our limits, Ecclesiastes teaches us to enjoy work and play as God's gift.

I like the following summary of an article on the topic by Brian Gault, who discusses the revocalization of ha-olam to mean "darkness" (Eternity in the heart):

The point is that God makes the world obscure to man, a theme that runs throughout Ecclesiastes. This is the reason why man can never entirely know what God is up to. Instead of seeking comprehensive knowledge, which God makes impossible, we should simply trust him, and devote ourselves to the work He has put right in front of us.

The Nations Against Fornication

Jacob Neusner, Invitation to Midrash: The Workings of Rabbinic Bible Interpretation (Atlanta: Scholars, 1998) 120.

Genesis Rabbah was completed around 400 C.E. Neusner quotes Genesis Rabbah 70:12, which is interpreting Genesis 29:11. Genesis 29:11 states that Jacob kissed Rachel and wept. The rabbis want to know why Jacob wept. Here is one answer:

Why did Jacob weep? Because he saw that men were whispering with one another, saying, "Has this one now come to create an innovation in sexual licentiousness among us? [That is something we cannot permit.]" For from the moment that the world had been smitten on account of the generation of the flood, the nations of the world had gone and fenced themselves away from fornication. That is in line with what people say: "People of the east are meticulous about sexual purity."

The passage states that, after the flood, the nations of the world took a stance against fornication.

This reminds me of something Tim Keller once said when he was preaching against sex outside of marriage: "You know how some say we should come together and celebrate what all religions and cultures have in common? This happens to be one of those things. Most cultures in the world are against sex outside of marriage." This isn't an exact quote, and there are plenty of countries that are liberal on sex, especially in Europe. But there are also many that are quite traditional.

How does this rabbinic passage fit with the Scriptures? Pharaoh and Abimelech didn't believe in adultery, for they were upset when they found out they almost slept with Abraham's wife (Genesis 12; 20). I suppose the people of Sodom and Gomorrah weren't all that chaste, since they tried to gang-rape Lot's guests (Genesis 19). Leviticus 18 lists a bunch of bizarre sexual acts and says they were practiced by the Egyptians and the Canaanites. Maybe the nations were against fornication for a while and eventually gave in to their flesh. But, by and large, the Gentile nations were against adultery. That's why the Israelites were especially bad when they were neighing after their neighbors' wives (Jeremiah 5:8)!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Dates: Tannaim and Amoraim

David Stern, "Midrash," Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, ed. Arthur Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr (New York, 1987) 616-617.

The tannaitic collections, called after the tannaim, the sages who lived between 70 C.E. and 220 C.E...

...the amoraim, the sages who lived between 220 C.E. and the end of the fifth century...The major amoraic collections, edited between the late fifth and eighth centuries...

These are good dates for me to know.

The Bright Spot and Skin Color

Jacob Neusner, Invitation to Midrash: The Workings of Rabbinic Bible Interpretation (Atlanta: Scholars, 1998) 73.

Neusner discusses a passage from the Sifra (third century C.E.), specifically Negaim 1:4. The topic is the laws in Leviticus about the leper, or whatever the disease in question was (Leviticus 13-14).

We therefore find that the specification of colors of plagues are meant to produce a lenient ruling, but not to produce a strict ruling. One therefore examines the German in accord with his skin tone to produce a lenient ruling...And the Ethiopian is adjudged in accord with the intermediate pigment to produce a lenient ruling.

Neusner puts this in bold-face to indicate that the passage also occurs in the Mishnah and the Tosefta.

I can't find the passage in the Tosefta, but the Mishnah passage is Negaim 2:1. Here's Danby's translation of parts of it:

In a German the Bright Spot appears as dull white, and in an Ethiopian what is dull white appears as bright white. R. Ishmael says: The Children of Israel...are like boxwood, neither black nor white, but of the intermediate shade...R. Judah says[:] let a German be judged leniently by [the standard of the colour of] his own skin, and let an Ethiopian be judged leniently by [the standard of colour of] the intermediate shade. But the Sages say: Let both be judged by [the standard of colour of] the intermediate shade.

I can get pieces of what's going on here. The issue is the bright spot that indicates leprosy, which the priest looks at to determine if the leprosy is present, receding, or absent. If the leper is clean, then he can rejoin the Israelite community. On a white German, the Bright Spot appears as a dull white, whereas on an Ethiopian it is bright white. The Israelites, however, are of an intermediate shade between white and black, so the Bright Spot appears in a certain way on them.

The priests make their verdict on the condition of the leper based on the color of the Bright Spot. Leviticus 13:39 states, for example, that if the bright spot is dark white, then the leper is clean. But what is "dark white"? On a German, the Bright Spot is dull anyway! And on an African it will always be lighter than his own skin. So the debate seems to be this: Should the priest judge the German and African based on their own skin color, or on that of most Israelites?

That's my impression, and I may be wrong. Maybe the view that the priest should judge the African based on Israelite skin-color is saying that the Bright Spot stands out on black skin, so the priest can easily monitor if it becomes lighter or darker. With a German, however, that poses more of a problem, since the Bright Spot always appears darker, with the German being so white. Consequently, Rabbi Judah says the German should be judged according to the standard of German skin-color. The Sages, however, maintain that the priest should judge the German too according to Israelite skin-color. I don't understand this position.

Who are these Germans and Ethiopians? Are they resident aliens in Israel, gerim? Or are they people coming to Jerusalem for a festival, like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8? I opt for the former because Leviticus 13-14 is about purity in the land of Israel: the residents of Israel need to be purified so that God will continue to dwell in their midst.

Monday, September 21, 2009

More or Less Authoritative

Jacob Neusner, Invitation to Midrash: The Workings of Rabbinic Bible Interpretation (Atlanta: Scholars, 1998) 49.

...the Talmud of the land of Israel, subordinate as it is to the Mishnah, regards the Mishnah as subordinate to, and contingent upon, Scripture.

The Talmud is an interpretation of the Mishnah, a Jewish law code/educational manual that was completed in 200 C.E. (except for the parts that were added later). The Mishnah doesn't always support its statements with Scripture, but the Talmud tries to connect them with biblical verses, Neusner argues. In the same way that the authors and compilers of the Talmud viewed themselves as subordinate to the Mishnah, they believed that the Mishnah was subordinate to the Scriptures.

How can this be, if Pirke Avot (250 C.E.) declared that the Mishnah was given at Sinai? Wouldn't that make it authoritative, period?

During my time at Hebrew Union College, I've heard that Jewish religion has a hierarchy of authority. The later Amoraic rabbis are deemed less authoritative than the earlier Tannaitic rabbis. The rabbis are subordinate to the Scriptures. And there's a hierarchy of authority within the Scriptures, as the Torah outranks the Prophets and the Writings.

I wonder how something can be "more" or "less" authoritative. This may be the fundamentalist part of me speaking, but either something is totally true and authoritative, or we can't be certain about what is true and authoritative, right?

At the same time, even fundamentalism has its hierarchy, for it says that we should interpret the obscure passages of Scripture in light of the clearer passages. Is that how the rabbis are treating the Jewish tradition? Sure, we can somewhat trust the Prophets, the Writings, and the Rabbis, they may be thinking, but we can only absolutely trust the written Torah. So we go with the less authoritative traditions, unless there's a conflict with more authoritative traditions, and ultimately the written Torah.

One should remember, though, that rabbinic Judaism isn't necessarily afraid of being wrong. Because God has given the rabbis the authority to make decisions, what they say goes, even if a voice from heaven contradicts them (according to the Babylonian Talmud). But their decisions are not arbitrary, for they want to be faithful to the tradition as they seek God's will. They desire some degree of certainty, and that's why they try to tie the Mishnah with Scripture, or uphold a hierarchy of authority (i.e., such-and-such is fairly reliable, but this is more reliable).

Sunday, September 20, 2009

For Whom Were the Midrashim?

Richard Sarason, "Toward a New Agendum for the Study of Rabbinic Midrashic Literature," Studies in Aggadah, Targum and Jewish Liturgy in Memory of Joseph Heinemann, ed. Jakob Petuchowski and Ezra Fleischer (Jerusalem, 1981) 66.

More fundamentally at issue here between Heinemann and myself is a historical model of the relationship between the rabbis and other Jews during this period. Heinemann's conception...might be characterized as volkisch: the rabbis are leaders of 'the people' and, in their midrashic activity, essentially popular preachers. I am more convinced by Neusner's model (in A History of the Jews in Babylonia) of a caste-like group that aspires to leadership, but is also preoccupied with its own internal 'Torah of being a rabbi', and with its own salvific rituals of study and ordering of the inherited rabbinic tradition. I suspect (although I cannot be certain) that this description would apply mutatis mutandis to the rabbinical group in contemporary Palestine as well. In this framework, rabbinic homilies in the documents before us could equally (or more) plausibly be construed as being primarily for internal rabbinic consumption and edification--particularly when the literary characteristics of the materials tend to support this construction...[I]t is interesting to note that the later homiletical midrashim, from the period of the Arab conquest (Pesiqta Rabbati and other Tanhuma-type compilations), contain considerably fewer attributions...I do not know how to interpret this fact, but it certainly reflects a shift of concerns on the part of the compilers of the documents.

For whom were the rabbinic midrashim in the Amoraic period (fifth-sixth century, maybe beyond)? Were they homilies delivered in synagogues? Or were they for the internal "consumption and edification" of the rabbinic academy? Rabbinic midrashim tend to be concerned about citing sources, of specifying which rabbi is making a particular point. Later homiletical midrashim, however, are not as preoccupied with this, and Dr. Sarason appears to conclude that the later midrashim were preached in the synagogues.

Dr. Sarason's perspective clarifies for me his position in his article, "The Petichtot in Leviticus Rabbah: 'Oral Homilies' or Redactional Constructions?" in the Journal of Jewish Studies 33 (1981). Dr. Sarason discusses the petichta. What's a "petichta"? The midrash cites a verse from the Pentateuch to expound, and it starts its exposition by referring to a verse that's not from the Pentateuch. This non-Pentateuchal verse is called the "petichta." Through the course of its exposition, the midrash tries to tie the petichta verse back to the verse from the Pentateuch. Midrashim can also have composite petichtot, in which there's a petichta verse, another verse cited, and an attempt to tie that other verse to the petichta verse. So a petichta can be inside of a petichta!

For Dr. Sarason (if I understand him correctly), many composite petichtot were originally independent units, but they were inserted into the midrash's discussion of the Pentateuchal passages. The aim was to make the midrash a repository of rabbinic thought. I wondered what the independent petichtot would be used for prior to their inclusion in the midrashic exposition. Sermons? I have a hard time with that, since (right now) my impression is that sermons were about Pentateuchal passages. A free-flowing exposition of a non-Pentateuchal passage wouldn't count as that! But maybe it was discussed within the academy, and, naturally, an academy would want to preserve that piece of rabbinic thought.

I've not read both sides, but I wonder if sermons before a congregation could also use composite petichtot, as a means to hold the congregants' attention and keep them wondering how the preacher will tie the verses together. Also, I wonder if Dr. Sarason believes there were sermons in the synagogues of the rabbinic period. I may ask him that the next time I meet with him.

Hillel on Self-Interest and Altruism

Jacob Neusner, Invitation to Midrash: The Workings of Rabbinic Bible Interpretation (Atlanta: Scholars, 1998) 10.

Pirke Avoth is a part of the Mishnah dating to 250 C.E. It quotes Hillel (first century C.E.):

If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

This sounds like a reasonable contrast to those who talk like we should completely sacrifice ourselves. Of course we should be for ourselves, but we shouldn't be only for ourselves. "If not now, when?" I read in a sermon that this means there's no time like the present to do works of healing the world. That sounds like a good balance between self-interest and altruism.

How to Respond to the Culture Wars

At my Latin mass this morning, we didn't have our usual priest, but rather the one who likes to talk about politics and the culture wars.

The text he preached on was the one in which Jesus says that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, whereas those who humble themselves will be exalted. The priest went on to criticize Catholics in an office of teaching who publicly supported the ordination of women. They'd been removed from their positions, and the priest applied to them the text: these teachers exalted themselves in thinking that they knew better than their priests and 2,000 years of church tradition led by the Holy Spirit, and so they were humbled.

The priest realized that his position is controversial in today's society, and so he turned his attention to how Christians should respond to the culture wars. He said that apologetics don't really work in this day and age, but that kindness and mercy can. He lamented that, in the eyes of the local newspaper, the Catholic bishops lack moral authority because of how they handled the sexual abuse of children in the church. The priest affirmed that the Catholic clergy needs to repent. Yet, he also offered a note of optimism: he said that, when he first came to our Latin mass, only a few elderly people attended. But now there are a lot of young people interested in traditional Catholicism.

On a related note, Polycarp has a good post today, Leaving the Gay Life Behind. He links to a Christianity Today article that discusses two Christian rock musicians. One came out of the closet after years of struggling with homosexuality, and he affirmed his intention to live the gay lifestyle because that's how God made him and he's tired of self-hatred. The other endured sexual abuse and Christian hypocrisy as a child and turned to the gay lifestyle, but God later gave him an attraction to the woman who became his wife. Although he continues to struggle with homosexual impulses, he's decided not to live the gay lifestyle. Polycarp's point in posting this was that condemnation of homosexuals will get us nowhere, since there may be a story behind why they have their inclination.

Personally, I've not gotten into the culture wars lately. There have been seasons in my blog when I have, but as of late, I've been blogging through my academic readings and weekly quiet times, seeking spiritual lessons in all of them. My religion right now is more or less that there's a loving higher power and that I should try to treat my neighbor with kindness, understanding, and (when necessary) compassion. I'm not really interested in women not being ordained, or in homosexuals having to give up their life partners. I'd feel uncomfortable having to come up with a stance on these issues, for it would probably alienate both the Left and the Right!

But, hopefully, I can show kindness to everyone, and Christians can let homosexuals know that they're there for them if they ever want help. And, by "help," I don't necessarily mean helping homosexuals cease their behavior, though, if homosexuals ever desire advice on how to handle their desires, maybe there are resources Christians can offer that have worked for some. Rather, I'm talking about lending an understanding ear, just showing kindness.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Feast of Trumpets 2009

September 19 is Rosh Hoshanah for this year, or, as Armstrongites and others like to call it, "the Feast of Trumpets."

For Armstrongites, this festival is about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, which will occur with the blast of a trumpet (I Corinthians 15:52; I Thessalonians 4:16; Revelation 9).

I was thinking about the Second Coming of Christ a few times this week. The first was when I was doing the Church of James Pate's Brain a few nights ago. "What's that?," you might be asking. To help me get to sleep, I give sermons to myself in my mind. For the past few weeks, my sermons have been about Jesus Christ. I mostly try to think about cozy things because that's what relaxes me and helps me sleep, but I was in the part of the series about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. And, to be honest, I had a hard time finding anything cozy about it. Jesus comes and slaughters most of the world's population, which is sinful and deceived. Snuggle up, Jimmy-boy!

Not long thereafter, I read a post by Frank Schaeffer, entitled What Defines American Evangelicals These Days? Schaeffer offers a blistering critique of the Left Behind series, by Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins, which covers the rapture of the saints from earth, the Great Tribulation, and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ:

Jenkins and LaHaye (the Left Behind authors) provide the ultimate revenge fantasy for the culturally left behind against the "elite." The Left Behind franchise holds out hope for the self-disenfranchised that at last soon everyone will know "we" were right and "they" were wrong. They'll know because Spaceship Jesus will come back and whisk "us" away, leaving everyone else to ponder just how very lost they are because they refused to say the words, "I accept Jesus as my personal savior" and join our side while there was still time!

For Schaeffer, the Left Behind series is a Christian fantasy in which Christians will get to gloat to an elite that they're right, and everyone else is wrong.

I heard something similar on a radio podcast that my friend Felix linked to: The God Discussion Podcast with Dakota dealing with spiritual abuse. On it, freethinker Dakota O'Leary was discussing her horrible experiences in the Worldwide Church of God, as well as critiquing conservative Christianity. In the course of the discussion, she mentioned the Left Behind series. She said that there are Christians who aren't concerned about helping their neighbors, as much as they are about the world ending in a cosmic conflagration. They want to know how it will happen, when it will be, and how they can escape it!

When I was at Harvard Divinity School, Paul Hanson gave a speech that made a similar point about the Left Behind series. He lamented that it was popular, calling it absurd and narcissistic. He contrasted our century's acceptance of the Left Behind series with the most popular Christian book of the previous century, Charles Sheldon's In His Steps, in which a collapsing homeless man motivates a church to ask "What would Jesus do?" People then imitate Jesus through their deeds of compassion, and the results are amazing.

As someone who's read the Left Behind series (or, for the later books, I listened to an audio version), I think the critiques are a little one-sided. Christians do show compassion in those books, to each other and to non-Christians. One character, Hattie Durham, is an attractive, self-centered non-Christian lady who's thinking of having an abortion, and the Christians tell her that, even though they'd disagree with her decision, they'd always love and accept her.

But I can understand the point that apocalypticism can be about a lot of self-centered things: escape, a desire for revenge on the world, fear, looking for an "inside-track" on the future, etc.

But that's not all it's about. In the Bible, it's about God's overthrow of unjust and oppressive power structures, along with God putting an end to evil and sadness. And it's about God's love and desire for people to repent. When Revelation says that people did not repent of their sins in the midst of God's plagues (Revelation 9:20-21; 16:9-11), what should be noticed is that God's chastising those whom he loves.

Personally, apocalypticism turns me off somewhat, as much as it intrigues me, for it's too "us vs. them" for my taste. But I hope that I can learn and appreciate the positive ideas that it communicates.

Judging Joab and Ahab

In last week's post on II Samuel 18, Ahimaaz's Tidings, I discussed the possible motives of Ahimaaz and Joab when Ahimaaz wanted to run and tell David about his side's victory, while Joab tried to discourage him from doing so. Scholars debate about their motivations. Was Ahimaaz out for a reward from David, or did he want to prepare David for the sad news of Absalom's death? Was Joab afraid that Ahimaaz would tattle to David that Joab had killed Absalom (against David's express wishes), or did he have good motives: the protection of Ahimaaz from David's wrath, or a belief that a priest shouldn't carry that kind of bad news?

I thought about this issue as I read a post by K.W. Leslie this week, The analogy of the sloppy guard. The post is about a scene in I Kings 20:39-40, in which King Ahab orders a prophet (whom he thinks is a soldier) to pay money for a Syrian slave he had lost. The prophet's goal in bringing this fictitious case was to rebuke Ahab for not killing the Syrian king, Ben-hadad.

According to K.W., many commentators portray Ahab's order in a bad light, as if he's hard-harded and merciless. But K.W. says we should give Ahab the benefit of a doubt:

In part this comes out of that commentary I read. I really can’t get past the commentator’s immediate condemnation of Ahab for not being merciful. I get the feeling that it’s entirely based on a dislike for Ahab, or a presupposition that since Ahab is a bad guy—which he’s not—don’t give him the benefit of the doubt; everything he does will automatically be wrong, and it’s okay to condemn him automatically. Is that the proper attitude a Christian should ever have? Yes, people are sinner; yes, there’s such a thing as total depravity—where every inclination of a human is self-centered and sinful. But God calls us to be optimistic. God calls us to be merciful. We’re not to let Ahab’s sins slide, but we’re also not to judge Ahab as sinful without proper evidence.

As K.W. points out in other posts, there are times when Ahab at least tries to be righteous. He helps Elijah slaughter the prophets of Baal. He treats the Syrian god as powerless in a discussion with the Syrian king. Here's one I'd like to add: later, he has prophets of Yahweh in his court (I Kings 22). Granted, they're false prophets, but at least Ahab's gotten away from worshiping Baal!

And that's what I see in commentators' treatment of Joab. Some act as if he can do nothing right. They assume he must have some selfish, crass, or blood-thirsty motive behind everything that he does. And, indeed, David condemns Joab's bloodthirstiness (II Samuel 3:28-30; I Kings 2:5). But Joab did some good things. He was brave against overwhelming odds, resourceful, and put the ball in God's court to help out his army (II Samuel 10). He was loyal to David, sticking by him when few others did. Like Ahab, Joab was a mixture of good and bad.

And so, from II Samuel 18 and what K.W. has to say about I Kings 20, I get a lesson about not judging people. Sure, there are times when people do bad things, and we should criticize them when they do so. But there are also times when we may assume that a person's motivation is bad when there's a possibility that it's not. In that case, why assume the worst?

II Samuel 19: David Flubs Things Up

My weekly quiet time in II Samuel 19 was somewhat of a struggle. Reading the commentaries went smoothly, for I was actually feeling pumped and inspired as I read the Jewish Study Bible's notes on the chapter, while listening to Madonna's "Material Girl." But when I prayed about what I read, I got confused.

Here's what happens in the chapter: King David weeps over the death of his son, Absalom, who had tried to take over the monarchy of Israel. David's general (and cousin), Joab, tells David to get a grip, for he's disappointing the brave men who fought for him. Joab hints that David's lack of appreciation for their efforts could lead them to revolt. So David thanks his men.

Meanwhile, all the tribes of Israel (except Judah) decide to welcome David back by guiding him across the Jordan. Remember that Israel as a whole sided with Absalom in his rebellion. But the Israelites now realize that David had delivered them from their foreign enemies (e.g., the Philistines) and that Absalom is dead, so they talk about welcoming David back to the throne.

David hears about this talk, and he reaches out to the men of Judah. He reminds them that he is their flesh and blood, since he is from that tribe. And he fires Joab (who killed Absalom) as general and appoints in his place Amasa, a relative of his who'd just led Absalom's forces. Amasa then persuades the people of Judah to accept David and guide him back to his throne.

David encounters Shimei, a Benjamite and a relative of Saul who cursed him a few chapters earlier. Shimei arrives with 1,000 fellow Benjamites and apologizes for treating David so badly when David was down. Although Abishai wants David to execute Shimei, David vows never to take Shimei's life. Years later, when he's old and handing over his kingdom to Solomon, David tells his son to kill Shimei (I Kings 2:8).

Ziba prepares for David's crossing across the Jordan, and David encounters Mephibosheth, Ziba's master, whom Ziba said betrayed the king, leading David to give Mephibosheth's land to Ziba. Mephibosheth accuses Ziba of slander, and he requests that the king do what he thinks is best. David offers to divide the land between Ziba and Mephibosheth, and Mephibosheth lets Ziba have it all, for Mephibosheth is just glad that the king has returned home safely.

David then offers a reward to Barzillai the Gileadite, who gave him provisions when he was fleeing from Absalom. Barzillai says he's too old to enjoy the pleasures that David offers, but he asks David to give them to Chimham, possibly Barzillai's son (I Kings 2:7).

All of Judah and half of Israel guide David to his destination, the throne in Jerusalem. All the men of Israel then come to David with a complaint: they wonder why David asked the men of Judah to guide him home, rather than them. After all, they were the first who offered to do so! The Israelites and the Judeans argue, as the Judeans get fiercer and fiercer. In the next chapter, a Benjamite named Sheba leads Israel in a revolt against David.

The Jewish Study Bible says that David's decisions were political. He appointed Amasa to be general because he wanted to win back Judah. He pardoned Shimei because he wanted Benjamin on his side. And, earlier in the chapter, he appeases his own soldiers because he doesn't want them to revolt.

But, if David's goal were to win supporters and prevent another revolt, he sure had a bone-headed way of going about it! He knew that Israel wanted to welcome him back. So why did he snub the Israelites and ask the people of Judah to guide him back home instead? P. Kyle McCarter says David thought Judah would be tougher to win over, since Absalom's rebellion originated there, and the people of Judah weren't initially talking about giving David a warm welcome. Maybe David took the Israelites for granted, assuming he had their support. Perhaps favoritism inspired his preference for Judah, since that was (after all) his tribe.

David hopes to win friends and hold off another revolt, but he fails. He forgives Shimei to win the tribe of Benjamin, but Israel's revolt in the next chapter gets headed up by a Benjamite. And the Babylonian Talmud (b. Shab. 56a) says that David's division of Mephibosheth's land was unjust and led God to later divide his kingdom between Rehoboam and Jeroboam.

What's the lesson here? God was with David and was bringing him back to the throne, but David's political moves were failing miserably. Should he have consulted God before he made his decisions? Was he trusting too much in his own wits to bring Israel and Judah back to himself?

This is somewhat of a tension in the entire story of David's flight from Absalom: should David trust God, or himself? What's God's role, and what's David's role? In II Samuel 15-17, David recognizes his dependence on God, for, when Absalom hires the wise Ahithophel, David asks God to turn Ahithophel's counsel into foolishness. Yet, David acts practically: he sends a spy, Hushai, into Absalom's camp to turn Absalom from Ahithophel's good counsel. God ensures that Absalom listens to Hushai rather than Ahithophel, so God has a role. But David still acts practically when he has men deliver messages to him about what Absalom is about to do.

In II Samuel 18, David flees to Gilead. He numbers his men, which indicates he puts a lot of stock in his military strength. Yet, it turns out that numbers don't matter in the battle. Absalom's forces outnumber those of David, but Absalom still loses. And David's army doesn't even have to fight that much, for the forest ends up killing many of Absalom's men. Here, David was placing a lot of emphasis on his own role, but God fights David's battles for him.

We should trust God, yet we should do our part. But, even then, our own machinations can fail miserably. Maybe the lesson is that we need guidance from God and from one another. David accepted Joab's advice, and that at least kept his own men from revolting!

Irving Kristol

I read this morning that Irving Kristol, the godfather of neo-conservatism, has passed away. His son is Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard who used to appear on Fox News.

I first heard of Irving Kristol as a high school student. I was in my public library, and I was reading an Opposing Viewpoints pamphlet on political ideologies. There was an article on neo-conservatism by Irving Kristol, and one on neo-liberalism. To be honest, I don't really remember what the Kristol article said, though I do recall that the neo-liberal article was open to allowing a moment of silence in public schools.

Over the years, I've heard various things about neo-conservatism: that many neo-conservatives were former leftists, with backgrounds ranging from the Democratic Party to Communists; that they had a hawkish foreign policy, which was against the Soviet Union and for Israel; that they believed the welfare state wrecked the African-American community; that they were against evolution, but weren't particularly religious; and, during the Bush II Presidency, that they desired to spread democracy throughout the world.

Many of us know the names of prominent neo-cons: Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, etc. But what used to intrigue me was that the late Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was called a "neo-conservative," even though, at first glance, his voting record looked anything but conservative. Yet, he was the one who said that the KKK couldn't have harmed the African-American community worse than the welfare state had.

As I read about Irving Kristol's legacy this morning, I see that this was the big contribution of the neo-cons to conservatism and America's national discourse (that, and perhaps also the pro-Israel stance of conservatism, though evangelicals have also contributed to that). Conservatism before the neo-cons was anti-welfare and anti-Soviet. But, unlike many conservatives of the time, the neo-cons didn't just criticize welfare because it cost a lot and shouldn't be a federal role; rather, they thought it had a bad social effect. But they still wanted the government to help the poor in some way, and perhaps encourage them to do the right things, like work and marry. Some conservatives critique this as paternalistic. Others call it "compassionate conservatism."

I like what Bruce Bartlett has to say: "One of Kristol's most important insights was that there were many academics who had generally liberal views, but came to conservative conclusions on some specific issues like crime, housing, race, labor, taxes and many others. He got them to write articles on these subjects, gradually building an impressive body of research that added depth and breadth to the conservative literature."

When I was at Harvard, I bought Kristol's book, Two Cheers for Capitalism. I never read it, but the wikipedia summary says he only gave capitalism two cheers because capitalism creates a spiritual malaise. Neo-conservatism seemed to have had a solid traditionalist element, one that valued family, faith, and moral values. Yet, I've read that many of its adherents weren't all that religious.

I'm not sure if I'd call myself a neo-con, but I think that Irving Kristol was right to ask the questions that he did. And he did so in an intelligent manner, giving depth to conservatism and allowing liberals to think outside the box.

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