Monday, November 30, 2009

Stereotyping Isaiah

I'm back to blogging, after a two-day hiatus! Yesterday and the day before, my mom and her husband were helping me clean my moldy basement apartment, as well as teaching me how to keep it clean. My mom's husband was also installing for me a faster computer that has significantly more space. It also has a wider screen, so I no longer need to click on "New Post" (on my blogger blog) anytime I want to log out!

For my comps reading, I started on The Hebrew Bible Today: An Introduction to Critical Issues. I began John Van Seter's chapter on the Pentateuch, but I did not get very far. What stood out to me was a statement he made on page 17:

It is clear that Deuteronomy contains a body of traditional material about Moses, the exodus, the wilderness journey, the conquest of the land, and a body of laws, all of which were not invented in the seventh century. Furthermore, it is doubtful that these traditions could have originated in Judah and Jerusalem. The prophecy of Isaiah of Jerusalem about a century before Josiah makes no mention of the exodus and covenant traditions. Also, in all his criticism of temple worship and sacrifices and his catalogue of social sins Isaiah says nothing about disobedience to God's laws.

According to Van Seters, the northern Israelite book of Hosea actually does refer to themes that later appear in Deuteronomy: the exodus and wilderness traditions, God's laws, etc. Consequently, many scholars hold that "traditions behind Deuteronomy have a northern origin," not a southern one. And that accords with what Moshe Weinfeld says in his work on Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic School: the school originated in northern Israel and came to the South (Judah) after northern Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E.

I did a search of such terms as "covenant," "laws," "law," "wilderness," and "Egypt" on my Bibleworks, using the New Revised Standard Version. I was testing Van Seter's statement that these ideas don't occur in the writings of Isaiah of Jerusalem (which exclude Isaiah 40-66). For "covenant" and "laws," the only verse I could find was Isaiah 24:5:

"The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants, for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant."

Here, "laws," "statutes," and "covenant" don't seem to mean the covenant of the Torah that Israel received at Sinai, for they refer to something universal: the inhabitants of the earth will be destroyed because they have disobeyed God's commands for humanity. Plus, many scholars don't deem Isaiah 24-27 to be from Isaiah of Jerusalem anyway, for they call it the "Little Apocalypse," which many date to post-exilic times. So Van Seters may have a point here.

The Exodus, however, appears a few times in First Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39). Isaiah 10:24-26 says that God will deal with the Assyrians as he dealt with the Egyptians, Israel's previous oppressors. V 26 even affirms that God's staff will be over the sea, which God will lift up as he did in Egypt. This calls to mind the splitting of the Red Sea, or Sea of Reeds.

And Isaiah 11:11-16 also refers to the Exodus: God will return the exiled Israelites from their lands, splitting the sea as he did during the Exodus. V 16 explicitly mentions Israel (in her past) coming from the land of Egypt.

I don't know how Van Seters would interact with such passages. Maybe he thinks that they're not authentic to Isaiah of Jerusalem. But my question is "Why not?" They speak to a time of Assyrian power, which was the political situation during the time of Isaiah of Jerusalem. Why couldn't they be from him?

Personally, I don't like it when scholars stereotype biblical writings. I once heard a professor say that Isaiah (in contrast to Amos) wasn't concerned about social justice, for he was a prophet employed in the service of the king. But even Van Seters acknowledges that Isaiah of Jerusalem criticized "social sins"!

At the same time, I think it's good to have an eye for nuance. From my point of view, the Bible is interesting because its authors have different perspectives on certain issues. Isaiah has his interests, and other prophets have theirs. For me, the Bible would be boring if all of it carried the exact same message!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Impractical Laws, Part II

Last night, I finished Moshe Weinfeld's Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East. Today, I want to follow up on yesterday's post, Impractical Laws?. The relevant pages are 156 and 177.

In my post yesterday, I discussed the scholarly view that the Torah's remission of debts every seven years and the Jubilee were impractical laws and were not practiced in ancient Israel. Weinfeld says this about these laws and the one freeing Hebrew slaves every seventh and fiftieth year:

The background of these laws is ancient and they are rooted in the reality of the Ancient Near East, but they are permeated with idealistic-utopian elements, as one can learn from Leviticus 25:20-42 and Deuteronomy 15:7-11. We find a similar situation in Mesopotamia, where there was no accord between the laws and the legal documents which reflected the actual conditions. In Israel, as in Mesopotamia, the collections of laws were edited by scribes whose object was to present the desirable rather than the actual and hence the gap between the laws and the legal documents, which reflected the actual reality.

On page 177, however, Weinfeld states that these laws were practiced "in tribal society of the pre-monarchical period," but that "during the monarchical period, when the patriarchal-tribal framework continually weakened, it became increasingly difficult to maintain these institutions." Weinfeld makes the same sort of argument that Mark Smith does about polytheism in ancient Israel (see God's Size, Differences, Three Stages, Moving to the City, Dying and Rising Gods, the King as God, Renegade Priest in Eden): changes occurred in Israelite religion as Israelite life shifted from rural to urban. And I still have the same sort of question: If urban areas of the ancient Near East remitted debts and allowed people to return to their lands, why couldn't ancient Israel when she became more urban?

Weinfeld says that Israel under the monarchy still nodded to these institutions. Zedekiah, for example, freed Hebrew slaves and claimed he was following the Torah, even though there's no indication that it was the seventh year when Zedekiah did this; rather, Zedekiah covenanted to free the slaves out of political motives (Jeremiah 34). When Zedekiah re-enslaved them, God through Jeremiah accused him of violating the law about the seventh year. According to Weinfeld, righteous kings in Israel tried to follow the principle of remission of debt, even though they didn't obey the strict letter of the law.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Impractical Laws?

Yesterday, I read more of Moshe Weinfeld's Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East. It referred to parallels between Israel and other nations in the ancient Near East, as well as Greece. In the Torah, God commands Israel to forgive the debts of Israelites every seven years (Deuteronomy 15). There's also a year of Jubilee, which occurs every fifty years. At that time, sold land reverts back to its original owner (Leviticus 25). According to Weinfeld, other nations had the cancellation of debt and the return of land to its original owner.

I've heard more than one academic assert that the Torah's laws on the forgiveness of debt and the Jubilee were not put into practice, since they were, well, impractical. Rabbi Hillel in the first century actually came up with a way to circumvent these laws, seeing credit as a necessary part of society. But I wonder how skeptics would address the existence of such laws in the ancient Near East and Greece? Would they say that the forgiveness of debts didn't occur as often in those places, so its occurrence wasn't as problematic as a seventh year release would be? I know that Michael Fishbane refers to scholarship that says that many ancient Near Eastern law codes weren't intended to be applied to real life, but I'm not sure if such can be said about (say) the reforms by Solon in ancient Greece.

That said, the Sabbatical year and the year of Jubilee were supposed to be times of celebration in ancient Israel---when people got a fresh start. Today is also a day of celebration: Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Serpent in Paradise, Solomon's Error

I continued through Moshe Weinfeld's Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East, and I also listened to the sermon that I mentioned in my post, Was Solomon Wrong to Ask for Wisdom? Here are some thoughts:

1. For Weinfeld, one of the chapters I read was about eschatological expectations in the ancient Near East: cultures other than Israel believed in a future king who would rule in justice and create paradise on earth. What stood out to me was his discussion of the Sibylline Oracles, which date to the Hellenistic and the Roman periods. Weinfeld cited passages that talk about the serpent. Oracle III, 741-795 affirms that "serpents and asps will sleep with babies and will not harm them," and Virgil's fourth Eclogue states that "the serpent too shall perish; and the false poison plant shall perish." This is similar to Isaiah 11:8, which says that the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp. And Isaiah 65:25 also mentions the serpent in its prediction of a future paradise: dust shall be the serpent's meat.

Genesis 3:15 says that God will create enmity between the woman and the serpent, and between her seed and his seed, with both sides bruising one another. Christians have interpreted this verse in reference to the battle between Christ and Satan, but others have applied it to the alienation between humans and snakes. The latter is what I get out of the Sibylline Oracles and Isaiah 11:8: snakes made the world unsafe because they poisoned people, but the future paradise will not have that problem.

But could a Christian interpreter embrace both interpretations? I've heard Christians say that God punished the snake because he was a vessel of Satan. God made the snake crawl on his belly to symbolize the punishment that Satan will receive, in their view. So maybe Genesis 3:15 can apply to the snake and also to Satan.

2. The sermon I listened to was entitled "Solomon's Error," and it was by Lee Stocker. Lee had interesting thoughts. For example, he said that Solomon requested wisdom in I Kings 3 so he'd know how to get rid of his political enemies, namely, Joab, Abiathar, and Shimei. After all, David in I Kings 2:5, 9 instructed Solomon to act according to his wisdom by getting rid of those people. According to Lee, David wanted Solomon to get rid of them through cunning rather than brute force. This reminded me of Looney's comment under my post, I Kings 1: Abiathar's Raw Deal? Solomon the Female?: Solomon was tripping his enemies up rather than going for the kill at the outset.

Lee's thesis was this: Solomon's wisdom was flawed because it lacked a love for God. Solomon had a high IQ: he could think outside of the box and make good judicial decisions (see the story of the two harlots in I Kings 3), and he knew a lot about nature (I Kings 4:33). He was also able to answer the Queen of Sheba's hard questions (I Kings 10). Yet, his insatiable appetite for knowledge led to his downfall. Ecclesiastes 2 says that he tasted all the good things of life and found them to be vanity. Lee connects this with I Kings 11, in which Solomon loves many foreign women who turn him from the LORD. Solomon's wisdom was the "earthly," "sensual" kind criticized in James 3:15, for it was primarily intelligence and knowledge about things on earth, as well as a desire to learn about all of life's pleasures. But, as Ecclesiastes relates, Solomon learned (maybe when it was too late) that earthly knowledge couldn't satisfy him, for only God could do that. For Lee, Solomon should have asked God for both wisdom and the love of God that David his father had.

I wondered how the sermon would interact with Ecclesiastes' premise that this life is all there is, a big reason that its author believes that all is vanity. Lee didn't explicitly interact with that, but he did say that "you can't take it with you." You can attain wealth and knowledge, but you will still die like everyone else. I'm sure Lee believes in an afterlife, but his point seems to be that knowledge by itself is not what leads to satisfaction in this life and a place in the next: rather, it's the love of God that does that.

I can identify somewhat with what Lee is saying. It reminds me of the evangelicals at Harvard who prayed that students might find their thirst quenched through Jesus. They often remarked that the students were trying to quench their thirst through knowledge, but were unsuccessful. At the present time, I enjoy learning new things, and I wouldn't trade that for a "love of God" that says I must limit myself to the usual fundamentalist mindset. Still, knowing a bunch of facts doesn't satisfy me entirely, for I need the conviction that I am loved by the highest being in the universe.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Did Second Isaiah Misunderstand Idolatry?; Greek Sodom and Gomorrah Story

Yesterday, I finished Mark Smith's The Origins of Biblical Monotheism and started Moshe Weinfeld's Social Justice in Ancient Israel and the Ancient Near East.

1. For Smith's book, what stood out to me was his discussion of the conception of idols in the ancient Near East. Second Isaiah (a monotheistic document in the Hebrew Bible) equates the idol with the god. Isaiah 44 ridicules idolaters who cut down a tree, use half of it for a fire, and construct an idol for worship with the other half. The implication is that the idol is the god, and why would people worship a mere piece of wood that they themselves fashioned? For Second Isaiah, idolatry is ridiculous.

In Isaiah 46, Second Isaiah contrasts the Babylonian gods with the God of Israel. Whereas the gods of Babylon (the idols) are carried in procession, God carries the Jewish people, so the God of Israel is the one true God. Again, Second Isaiah equates foreign gods with the idols that are used in their worship.

Historical-critics have argued that the Israelites misunderstood idolatry, for the people of the ancient Near East never equated their gods with the idols that represented or housed them. After all, the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish presents Marduk creating the cosmos, so the Babylonians obviously believed that Marduk was more than a statue. Marduk existed before the statue was even made!

But Smith cites examples in ancient Near Eastern literature that actually do identify the god with the idol. At the same time, he also refers to a passage affirming that "Without mouth-opening this image does not smell incense, eat food or drink water" (STT 200). The mouth of the image needs to be opened for it to become the god, who will eat, drink, and smell incense in worship; otherwise, it's a lifeless statue. So the ancients didn't totally identify the god with the statue, but they did hold that the statue could become the god at certain points in time.

Was Second Isaiah aware of this? My impression is that Smith tries to rescue Second Isaiah from the charge that it misconstrues idolatry. Isaiah 44:9-10 denies that idols can look, think, or benefit people, so Second Isaiah may realize that foreigners believe their idols have consciousness. And Smith states that, if there's only one God (the God of Israel), then no god inhabits the idols, and so Second Isaiah is correct to say that the idols are mere pieces of wood (192).

I'm not sure where I stand on this. Second Isaiah apparently expects his Israelite audience to see the idols as mere pieces of wood. My impression is that he doesn't expect them to say, "But wait a minute, the idol is not the god, but is inhabited by the god, so your point that the Babylonian gods are weak because they are carried is null and void!" Did Second Isaiah really believe that foreigners were so foolish as to worship a mere piece of wood as if it were a god? We see in biblical literature that some Israelites realized that foreigners didn't limit the god to the idol. If Genesis 1 responds to Enuma Elish, for example, then the priestly author knew the story of Marduk creating the cosmos. And, in I Kings 18, the prophets of Baal ask their god to bring rain, and Elijah responds that perhaps Baal is on a journey. So Baal is not an idol, but is a deity who can move about.

Perhaps the Israelite idolaters in some sense did equate the god with the idol, though: they had heard from the foreigners that the idol had consciousness, and they believed them.

2. In a footnote on page 30, Weinfeld refers to Greek parallels to the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah stories (Genesis 18-19; Ezekiel 16:49). Hesiod's Works and Days, Homer's Odyssey (XVII, 485-487), and Ovid's Metamorphoses (VIII 611-712) discuss cities and nations that were destroyed on account of their subversion of justice, as well as immortal gods walking among men to learn of such subversion. This is like the Sodom and Gomorrah story, in which Sodom was destroyed in part for its lack of justice, and angels (maybe even God himself) went to Sodom to see for themselves if the city was as wicked as it was reputed to be.

In my first semester at Jewish Theological Seminary, I first learned about parallels between the Bible and Greek legend. A speaker I heard compared Samson to the muscle-men of Greek lore. And Tikva Frymer-Kensky referred in passing to Greek parallels to the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah story.

I wasn't sure what their point was. Were they saying that the Bible borrowed from Greek mythology, or that Greek mythology borrowed from the Bible? I have heard that there were connections between Israel and the Aegeans in pre-exilic times, so there may have been a sharing of stories that occurred through trade.

Monday, November 23, 2009

God's Size, Differences, Three Stages, Moving to the City, Dying and Rising Gods, the King as God, Renegade Priest in Eden

I found some jewels in my reading yesterday of Mark Smith's The Origins of Biblical Monotheism:

1. Smith talks about how certain gods in Ugaritic literature are said to have a large physical size. Smith sees a biblical parallel to this in Isaiah 6:1, in which the skirt of the LORD's robe fills the temple. I was discussing the issue of "How big is God?" with a relative a few weeks ago. Keep in mind that Armstrongism actually believes in a corporeal God.

2. I've written a lot on this blog about the parallels between ancient Israelite religion and the religion of the ancient Near East. But there are some differences between the two, at least when one looks at particular strands of ancient Israelite religion, as it is manifest in the Hebrew Bible. Unlike the religion that we encounter in Ugaritic literature, Yahweh of Israelite monotheism didn't have a large pantheon or family of gods, and he appears to have had no sex. There also isn't much in the Hebrew Bible about him defeating death, in contrast to Ugaritic legends about Baal. Smith sees remnants of this kind of mythology (i.e., a pantheon, YHWH wrestles with death, etc.) in the Hebrew Bible, but he believes that priests edited a lot of that stuff out.

3. Smith posits three stages of development in ancient Israelite religion. In the first stage, El was the god of Israel. After all, Smith points out, "Israel" has the name of El! In the second stage, El was the head of the Israelite pantheon, and YHWH was his warrior god. Smith cites Genesis 49, Numbers 23-24, Deuteronomy 32:8-9, and Psalm 82 as evidence that there was a stage of Israelite religion that viewed El and YHWH was two separate figures. According to Smith, YHWH was a god in the south---in Edom, Midian, Teman, Paran, and Sinai (see Deuteronomy 33:2; Judges 5:4-5; Psalm 68:9; Habakkuk 3:3)----whereas worship of El occurred more in the north. At the same time, Smith also argues that the Israelites who left Egypt brought El-worship with them---into the sanctuary at Shiloh. He notes that the stories about Shiloh in the Hebrew Bible appear to have a preference for the name of "El" (Judges 18:31; cf. 17:5; Psalm 78), and that the "tent tradition associated with Shiloh (Psalm 78:60; Joshua 18:1; I Samuel 2:22) conforms to the Ugaritic description of El's abode as a tent" (140). And from where did the priesthood of Shiloh come? For Smith, the answer is "Egypt," for the "various Egyptian names in Shilohite lineage (Moses, Phinehas, Hopni, and Merari) may point to the Egyptian background of the Levitical Shilohite priesthood" (147). So Smith believes in some sort of Exodus.

In the third stage, El and YHWH were merged into one deity. Smith sees this process as gradual, but he believes that it took place as early as Israel's pre-monarchic period, for Judges 5 (which probably dates to that time) appears to combine the two. Moreover, Exodus 6:2-3 explicitly identifies El Shaddai with YHWH, perhaps indicating that it was responding to the view that the two were separate deities.

Do I agree with Smith? I'm not too convinced that there was a Stage 2, in which El and YHWH were deemed to be separate. Perhaps the passages that Smith cites for that stage are using "El" and "YHWH" interchangeably, to refer to the same God.

4. On page 164, Smith offers sociological explanations for the shift from polytheism to monotheism in ancient Israelite religion. In the eighth-sixth centuries B.C.E., Smith points out, the traditional family structure declined in ancient Israel. Royal power had a deleterious effect on traditional patriarchal authority, a growing upper class purchased family lands, warfare devastated the countryside, and exile resulted in a loss of land, and with it the "traditional strength of family and inheritance." As the family declined in ancient Israel, its religion ceased to believe in a family of gods, Smith contends.

Some of this makes sense to me. Scholars have often cited a shift from rural to urban in ancient Israel to explain certain changes in Israelite religion. For example, Smith refers to the belief that children would no longer be punished for the sins of their fathers (Deuteronomy 24:16; Jeremiah 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18), which contrasts with the earlier view that divine punishment could be passed on to the sinner's children and grandchildren (Exodus 20:5; 34:7; Numbers 14:18). With the decline of the land-based traditional family in ancient Israel, there was a tendency to see people as individuals, not as members of a group. And a professor I once met in Israel said that the shift from rural to urban also illuminates Proverbs 18:24, which concerns the importance of making friends: with the decline of traditional communities (the family, the clan, the tribe), people in the cities were lonely and needed friends to survive.

I still have a question, though. Whenever I read commentaries about Zelophehad's daughters (Numbers 26-27, 31), I come across the argument that other ancient Near Eastern cultures were more egalitarian than ancient Israel in their inheritance laws because they were urban, whereas ancient Israel was rural and patriarchal. Ancient Israel wanted to keep land in the family, so it only allowed men to inherit property, since women who inherit could marry someone outside of the tribe and the tribe would lose its land; when Numbers 31 allowed daughters to inherit whenever the father had no sons, it tried to address this concern. Other ancient Near Eastern cultures didn't have this problem, however, for they were more urban and didn't focus on tribes. My question is this: if other ancient Near Eastern cultures were urban yet believed in a pantheon of gods, why couldn't Israel when she was becoming urban? There doesn't seem to be a necessary connection between being rural and believing in a pantheon, or being urban and embracing monotheism. At the same time, what people do can't always be determined by sociological laws, for people are messy.

5. Smith discusses the "dying and rising gods." He doesn't particularly care for that term, but he does cite Ugaritic texts in which Baal is missing and people are looking for him (cp. I Kings 18:27), or Baal actually dies. Smith ties this to nature and to politics. Baal was needed for agriculture, since he was the storm god, so his return or resurrection was desired. And, whenever a king died, people wanted assurance that the dynasty would go on, for it was continually under threat from rebels and foreign aggressors. The death and resurrection (if you will) of a god addressed this sort of concern. I like this chapter because it interacts with data about the "dying and rising god." I've long wanted to address that topic on this blog because some have sought to connect it with the death and resurrection of Jesus. But I knew that there are plenty of scholars who deem such a comparison to be misplaced, so I didn't comment on it because I didn't know that much.

6. Isaiah 9:5 calls the Davidic king "mighty God," and Psalm 45:7 refers to the king as Elohim. This is significant in debates between Jewish and Christian apologists, for Christian apologists have argued from such texts that the Messiah would be God (cp. Hebrews 1:8), a view that Jewish apologists deny.

Smith points to Ugaritic passages in which a king is portrayed as a representative of the divine, with divine characteristics (159). And he refers to a comment by J.R. Porter, who states: "[A]t 2 Sam. xiv.17, David is called the Angel of God because he is able to [hear good and evil]: this recalls Gen. iii. 22 [to know good and evil], and it was precisely this knowledge which placed Adam among the [gods]" (161). Are Isaiah 9:5 and Psalm 45:7 saying that a future Messiah would be God, or is there a way to understand them within their ancient Near Eastern context: they mean that the Davidic king is a representative of God, who executes the divine mission to defeat evil and bring forth justice, and who also possesses certain divine attributes (e.g., the ability to distinguish good from evil)?

7. On pages 171-172, Smith interacts with Ezekiel 28, which likens Tyre to a beautiful figure within the garden of God who gets expelled. The figure wears precious stones, and v 14 refers to a cherub.

My church background assumes that this is talking about the fall of Satan, an angel who turns to the dark side. Historical-critics I've read, however, apply it to the fall of Adam in Genesis 3.

Smith discusses a third option: it refers to a bad priest. Smith refers to parallels between the Garden of Eden and the temple: cherubim, trees, the divine presence, and rivers. Plus, the high priest wore precious stones on his breast-piece. So could the bad guy of Ezekiel 28 be the high priest? Ezekiel often criticizes the establishment (e.g., Ezekiel 22:26 lambastes the priests).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Counterfeit Gods, by Tim Keller

For my Sabbath reading yesterday, I read Tim Keller's Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. Tim Keller is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

His premise was what I heard several times in Redeemer: that those who base their happiness on anything other than God and God's love in Jesus Christ (e.g., money, sex, power, relationships, approval from others, etc.) are practicing idolatry and are setting themselves up for disappointment, if not despair. The reason for this is not only that these things cannot satisfy us, but also that they're unreliable: there are so many factors beyond our control, as the recent financial catastrophe indicates.

As I read the early pages of the book, I thought it was the "same old, same old" that I'd heard hundreds of times at Redeemer and other evangelical outlets. But I soon found myself enjoying the book. Part of it was because Tim Keller is so well-read, so I'm able to get a crash course on (say) Reinhold Niebuhr by reading Tim Keller. I also enjoyed his references to current events, movies, and books: he convincingly shows that many people set themselves up for a fall when they root their happiness in something other than God. Bernie Madoff, for instance, said that he did his ponzi scheme out of pride, in an attempt to save face and cover up his financial failure: he was rooting his identity in something other than God (his reputation), with disastrous results. And even Tim Keller's biblical references show the danger of idolatry: Jacob rooted his sense of worth in having a hot wife (Rachel), with the result that he neglected his not-so-attractive wife (Leah) and her children. This led to them selling Joseph into Egypt, etc.

I also appreciated Tim Keller's political critique, for it's about where I am right now politically. I am so sick of conservative evangelicals who act like God is a Republican. I've seen some of them say to Christians with liberal politics, "Do you really know the LORD?", as if being a true Christian entails embracing a narrow right-wing political ideology. But Tim Keller takes on the current polarization in America's political discourse, attributing that to idolatry. He says that both the left and the right can learn from one another, for there are positives and negatives in their perspectives. Socialism, for instance, tends to penalize the successful through high taxes, but the lack of it can restrict education and quality health care to a privileged few. Tim Keller also criticizes the current hatred for Barack Obama, quoting his eighty-four-year-old mother: "It used to be that whoever was elected as your president, even if he wasn't the one you voted for, he was still your president. That doesn't seem to be the case any longer." The same can apply to the left's hatred of George W. Bush. If God has a standard, then I hope it's above political partisanship, with its "us vs. them" mentality.

Tim Keller also says that idolatry can exist in religious communities, as they idolize having correct doctrine over accepting the love and grace of God through Jesus Christ. I like the fact that Tim Keller is an evangelical---one who emphasizes God's love and grace through Jesus Christ, as well as the importance of Christians serving others---and yet he's not bound to the aspects of conservative Christianity that turn me and many others off (e.g., spiritual pride, focusing on who's in and who's out, commitment to the G.O.P. as if it's God's political party on earth, a belief that the United States is God's country and can do no wrong, etc.).

Keller says that the cure for idolatry is explained in Colossians 3:1-5, which actually calls greed "idolatry": we set our minds on things above, not on earthly things. This includes rejoicing in God's grace to us through Christ, worship, prayer, and meditation. I pray every day, but I still have problems: I am afraid of people's disapproval, I'm shy, etc. I've often felt guilty about rejoicing in God and believing in his love for me because I have such problems---and there are plenty of Christians who act like I'm not truly one of them because I don't reach out to people all that well. "Lordship salvation" advocates assume that those who don't "follow Christ" (e.g., reach out to others in love) cannot claim to be recipients of God's grace. Perhaps I should tell them to "shut up" in my mind and celebrate God's love for me, regardless of what they think. That may be the path to producing spiritual fruit, as opposed to trying to pull myself up by my spiritual boot-straps through obedience to rules.

There were a few problems that I had with Keller's book. First of all, he acts like idolatry is a sin that Christians cannot totally eradicate within themselves; rather, they keep on drilling for reliable bedrock, although they'll never really reach it in this life (176). This makes some sense, for everyone---Christian and non-Christian---is an idolater on some level, for who does not rest his or her happiness on something other than God? It's easier to root our sense of worth in things we can see, as opposed to a being whom we cannot see! But the Bible on a few occasions says that idolaters will not enter the kingdom of God (I Corinthians 6:9; Galatians 5:20; Revelation 21:8). I think that Tim Keller does well to point out the biblical passages in which idolatry is more than bowing down to statues, but encompasses relying on one's own strength for security and self-worth (Habakkuk 1:11, 16), or Israel seeking protection from nations rather than from God (Jeremiah 2-3; Ezekiel 16), or Saul's arrogant disobedience to the LORD (I Samuel 15:23). But, if this is idolatry, then who among us is not an idolater, on the path to hell-fire? I'd like to believe in Tim Keller's God of grace---a God who recognizes that we all have weaknesses, loves us anyway, and tries to pull us away from those weaknesses through his love and grace. But I wonder if that picture is consistent with certain passages of the Bible, which warn that people (Christians included) can end up in hell for their weaknesses.

Second, I was glad that Tim Keller didn't harp on idolatry being what he and others have defined it as: as believing in a "God" who is not the God of the Bible, but is the product of one's own imagination, or of picking and choosing from elements of the Bible. He does make that sort of comment in an endnote, though (200-201). Whenever one chooses not to believe in a God who burns people forever and ever in hell, or who commands mass genocide, there are Christians who are quick to tell that person, "Well, you're picking and choosing from the Bible, so you're fashioning your own God and are thus an idolater." Tim Keller said in a few sermons that worshipping a God that you've made up cannot offer you comfort or security (though, to be fair, he doesn't really define hell as a fire, but rather as spiritual separation from God, which people choose for themselves).

Personally, I agree that I should see God as a God of justice and of mercy, rather than believing in God's love while ignoring the wrath aspect of God's character. But I don't think that means I have to view God as an ogre, or that I must think, "Well, my picture of God is too loving right now! I'd better focus on some wrath passages!" All of us have a picture of God that is not totally like the real thing, so, if having an incorrect picture of God is idolatry, then all of us are idolaters! It's that simple. And we're all making up our own picture of God, for how much wrath and mercy we attribute to him is our judgment call. To those who think that "making up" a loving picture of God is idolatry and cannot work for people, look, it works for people in AA all of the time, so who's to say it doesn't work?

And why does justice have to mean sinners experiencing a hopeless eternity in hell? God is just when he disciplines and chastises sinners to encourage them to repent, for God is not giving them a free ride in that case, but is upholding a righteous standard. One more thing: the Bible itself gives me permission to prioritize God's love and mercy over his wrath in my conception of him (Psalm 30:5; James 2:13). So maybe those who have a problem with that are the ones who are disregarding the Bible.

Third, Tim Keller says that the successful should see their success as a gift from God rather than being proud, and that's true, for our talents and our opportunities are things that we've received (I Corinthians 4:7). I like this because it shows how Christianity is so different from the Republican "you make your own luck" concept. As Tim Keller notes, a person in a poor foreign country cannot be whatever he wants to be, for his opportunities are limited. But I wonder why God allows things to be that way. And how can I trust in a God who doesn't appear to bless or take care of everybody? I wish that Tim Keller had wrestled with these questions, at least in an end-note.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Emergence of Monotheism, Drunken El, Antichrist Defeats the Hosts, Palin on O'Reilly

Here are some odds and ends:

1. I read more of Mark Smith The Origins of Biblical Monotheism yesterday, and page 49 is crucial because it offers insight as to when Smith thinks the shift from polytheism to monotheism occurred within ancient Israel. According to Smith, Israelite religion was initially tolerant of the idea that YHWH was for Israel whereas other gods had domain over the Gentile nations (Deuteronomy 32). The reason was that, at the time, foreign religions did not threaten the worship of YHWH in Israel. This began to change in the eighth century B.C.E., however, when the neo-Assyrian empire was promoting and creating a new world order under its dominion. In response, ancient Israelite religion became more monotheistic, affirming that YHWH should be worshipped by Israel and the other nations as well.

I hope Smith fleshes this out more in the course of his book. What I've heard in my classes is that Assyria and Babylon did not force the nations they conquered to abandon their national religion. In some cases, the imperial powers actually honored the gods of the nations they conquered. But could it have been the case that Assyria and Babylon were still promulgating Assyrian and Babylonian religion, thereby challenging Israelite religion with another way to see the world? "Yes, we'll tolerate you, and your god does exist," the imperial powers may have told Israel, "But our god is still the most powerful, for we are in control of so much of the world."

2. On page 44, Smith refers to a Ugaritic document in which two pious sons hold the hand of the drunken god El. I've not read the Ugaritic source, but what Smith says reminds me of the story of Noah in Genesis 9: Noah gets drunk and lies down naked, and his sons Shem and Japheth cover him up. I wonder if this story-line was a common motif in the ancient Near East.

3. Smith talks about how many ancient Near Eastern deities in Ugaritic literature were seen as stars. Such a belief occurs in the Bible (e.g., Isaiah 14:13). Smith cites a passage that somewhat baffles me, indicating that perhaps I should see what some commentaries have to say: Daniel 8:9-11 states that the little horn (Antiochus Epiphanes) grew to the hosts of heaven and cast some of them down. I wonder how the author of Daniel believes that the little horn did that. What goes through my mind is II Thessalonians 2:4, which states that the man of sin will exalt himself above all that is called god, sitting in God's temple as if he is God. Maybe the Antichrist (if you want to call him that) will cast down the hosts of heaven by undermining their authority and banning their worship, as he demands worship only for himself. Also, he may discredit the gods of other nations as he conquers their countries.

4. I watched some of the Bill O'Reilly interview with Sarah Palin on Greta. O'Reilly was grilling Palin over her lack of governmental experience, and she replied, "I never heard you criticize Joe Biden's lack of experience." O'Reilly replied, "But Joe Biden has lots of experience."

Palin seemed to be talking to O'Reilly like he was part of the liberal media, even though many consider him to be a conservative voice. Also, her reference to Joe Biden was kind of a goof-up on her part. Good thing that O'Reilly gave her a hard interview. She'll need practice on that.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Thaw Among Physicists?

I started Mark Smith's The Origins of Biblical Monotheism yesterday. The part that stuck out to me was on page 3:

Although discourse about God and the notion of belief has become increasingly problematic in departments of religion and divinity schools, theists elsewhere in the university are scarcely in full retreat. For example, a survey of American scientists on one campus, the University of Georgia, conducted by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of science Edward Larson, hardly indicates a lack of belief; if anything, the opposite is the case. Moreover, the topic of God has enjoyed a remarkable resurgence in contemporary Western culture by way of the field of physics...So, at the start of a new millennium, faith is increasingly questioned in religion and divinity faculties even as it is affirmed in other quarters of American universities.

I've seen numerous movies and TV shows in which a character says, "I don't believe in God---I'm a scientist," as if the two are mutually contradictory. In high school, I looked through a book in my school library, which was a publication of responses by celebrities to a child's question, "Do you believe in God?" In the book, you got Oral Roberts' dramatic narration of a vision he supposedly had, along with Andy Rooney's blunt answer of "no---sincerely, Andy Rooney." But the responses by the scientists were largely negative. As far as they were concerned, they couldn't see God, so they didn't believe in his existence.

A few years later, at DePauw, I read an article somewhere on the Internet, which said that physicists were more open to the existence of God than biologists. The reason was that biologists felt that they could account for biological phenomena naturalistically, through an appeal to evolution by natural selection. Physicists, however, realized that there were so many constants that had to be "just right" for life to exist on earth. Many of them, therefore, were open to the notion that a supernatural being created the cosmos and set in place the constants that were necessary for life. Is there a thawing in the physics community to the idea that God exists?

I also think of the pilot episode to Joan of Arcadia. On it was Joan's geeky scientist brother, Luke, who said that the existence of God was theoretically possible, since light could have consciousness. The creator of the show, Barbara Hall, said that she had read many books on physics, for she was interested in the interrelation between physics and religion. Is Luke's idea the sort of thing that Mark Smith is talking about when he says that physicists are writing about religion?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Was Solomon Wrong to Ask for Wisdom?

I finished David Carr's From D to Q yesterday. I made an error in my last post: I said that Carr thought that the Deuteronomist inserted the part of I Kings 3 in which Solomon goes to Jerusalem to sacrifice. Actually, he says that an Adonai editor did that. The Adonai editor overlaps with the Deuteronomist in areas, but they're not the same.

What stuck out to me yesterday was Carr's treatment of the Book of Ecclesiastes. According to Carr, Ecclesiastes is a "counter-textual" reading of I Kings 3. In I Kings 3, Solomon asks for wisdom rather than riches, and God applauds his request. In Ecclesiastes, however, the author (who may purport to be Solomon) says that wisdom isn't all it's cracked up to be. I glanced over Ecclesiastes 1-2 to see what he means, and there's a sense that wisdom leads to despair. Moreover, the author wonders why wisdom is so great, when everyone is going to die anyway, both the wise and the fools.

This reminds me of a sermon that I heard many years ago. The speaker was at David Antion's church, and his argument was that perhaps Solomon erred when he asked God for wisdom. Many in my family loved the sermon because it thought outside of the box. I thought it was off-base, though, because God explicitly told Solomon in I Kings 3 that God approved of Solomon's request. But the idea that there were different perspectives in the Bible wasn't on my radar at the time.

I may ask my dad if he still has that sermon when I go home for Thanksgiving. Why did the preacher of that sermon think that wisdom was flawed? Critical scholars of the Bible maintain that the author of Ecclesiastes did not believe in an afterlife, and that's why he thought life was so futile and adopted an "eat, drink, be merry, and enjoy God while you're alive" sort of attitude. But I don't think ministers in the Armstrongite tradition had that interpretation of Ecclesiastes. Maybe the preacher of the sermon said that Solomon's wisdom led to despair because he saw how pointless so many things are: Solomon got bored.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Vorlage to I Kings 3, Palin on Oprah, Stupack Interview

Here are three items:

1. I'm continuing to make my way through David Carr's From D to Q, which is about Solomon's dream at Gibeon in I Kings 3, as well as early Jewish interpretations of it. Yesterday, I was reading about the pre-Deuteronomistic Vorlage to the story: the story as it existed before the Deuteronomist added his contribution. My impression (which could be wrong) is that Carr believes the original story was (at least in part) a justification for the sanctuary at Gibeon. Solomon had a dream there, and God appears to people in dreams or epiphanies at sanctuaries that he recognizes: Shechem (Genesis 12:6-9), Mamre (Genesis 18:1-16), Beer-lahai-roi (Genesis 16:7-13), Gerar (Genesis 26:2-5), Beersheba (Genesis 26:24-25), Bethel (Genesis 28:10-22), Shiloh (I Samuel 3:10-14), and Jerusalem (II Samuel 24:15-25; I Chronicles 22:1; II Chronicles 3:1).

The Deuteronomist has a slight problem with Solomon worshipping at Gibeon, for he believes that Jerusalem is the place God chose to place his name, and is thus the only legitimate sanctuary. Consequently, in I Kings 3, he sees a need to apologize for Solomon's activity at Gibeon: people worshipped at high places at the time, for Solomon hadn't yet built the temple for God's name. It's ironic that the Deuteronomist feels he has to apologize for Solomon's behavior, for his general stance is that God let the Israelites do what was right in their own eyes before the time of the temple (Deuteronomy 12).

Carr believes that parts of I Kings 3:15 belong to the pre-Deuteronomistic Vorlage. There, Solomon goes to Jerusalem where the Ark of the Covenant is located and offers sacrifices. Carr maintains that the part about Solomon offering sacrifices is from the hand of the Vorlage, whereas the part about Solomon doing so in Jerusalem is the contribution of the Deuteronomist. If this is true, it sort of ruins an interesting thought I read in a commentary during my weekly quiet time on I Kings 3: God gave Solomon wisdom, and he immediately decided to worship at Jerusalem instead of the high places.

2. I watched Sarah Palin on Oprah a few days ago, and I thought Sarah did an awesome job. She was articulate and glib. She answered Oprah's questions. Oprah conducted herself professionally, but she appeared uncomfortable. My favorite part of the interview was when Oprah asked Sarah if she felt snubbed because Oprah didn't invite her onto the show during the campaign. Sarah replied that she didn't have time to think about it at the time. I loved it! Not everyone thinks Oprah is the center of the universe? Say it ain't so!

3. I've found myself cussing Chris Matthews out a couple of times this week. I like his show because Pat Buchanan is on it, and I also enjoyed Chris' interview of Congressman Stupack, the Democrat whose amendment to the health care bill would ban federal funding for abortion. Stupack sounded level-headed and reasonable, and he answered Chris' questions in a forthright manner. Chris often tries to corner people and read sinister things into what people (particularly conservatives) say. But he appeared a lot more serious and a lot less self-righteous in the Stupack interview.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mesha in Jewish Interpretation; Helpful Guide or Authority?

Yesterday, I finished Shalom Spiegel's The Last Trial and began a book by David Carr, From D to Q: A Study of Early Jewish Interpretations of Solomon's Dream at Gibeon. I was about to return the Carr book, since (for some reason) I checked it out for my paper on the Deuteronomist's contribution to II Samuel 7 and I Kings 8:1-30, a paper I've finished (finally). But the book looked interesting, for it wrestles with the whole issue of Solomon at Gibeon, in terms of the Deuteronomistic contribution to I Kings 3 and the interpretation of the scene in other biblical writings and in Jewish exegesis. And, as devoted readers of mine know, I wrestled with I Kings 3 for my weekly quiet time last Sabbath. (I'd post the link, but, for some reason, I can't paste right now on this computer!)

1. For Spiegel, the topic that stood out to me concerned II Kings 3. In that chapter, Ahab king of Israel, Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and the king of Edom form an alliance to defeat Moab, which is rebelling against Israel. A prophet tells Ahab that God doesn't care much for his behavior as king, but that God will still deliver Moab into his hands. When the battle is looking bleak for Moab, its king, Mesha, offers his eldest son as a burnt offering against the wall. Then, there is "wrath upon (or against) Israel" (v 27), and Ahab and his alliance withdraw.

Scholars have pointed to this story to argue that the ancient Israelites believed in the efficacy of human sacrifice. After all, it worked for Mesha, right? He offered his eldest son, his most prized possession; a god was appeased; and Israel withdrew from the battle.

I once asked how the rabbis dealt with this passage, since many of them went out of their way to argue against human sacrifice. For example, some contended that Jephthah did not actually sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering, but that he devoted her to the local sanctuary, the same way that Hannah gave up Samuel. So how would the rabbis deal with a passage in which human sacrifice actually works?

The answer I was given was that they don't deal with the passage. But it turns out that they do, or at least medieval interpreters address the problem. On pages 78-81, Spiegel says that the rabbis went out of their way to say that Mesha's sacrifice of his eldest son wasn't God's idea. As far as the efficacy of human sacrifice is concerned, medieval Jewish interpreters contended that the "wrath upon Israel" was not God's wrath, but rather the wrath of Israel: When Israel saw that Mesha sacrificed his own son, she left the battle in disgust. Why have more bloodshed after that horrible sight?

2. Carr wrestles with the issue of historical-criticism and faith: How can the Bible speak to us, when it comes from a culture that is quite different from ours? He mentions the issue of women: Western societies today claim to champion egalitarianism, whereas the ancients did not do so that much. But there are other issues we can add to the mix, such as slavery, or the ancient belief that the earth had four corners.

On page 4, Carr states: Indeed, historical-critical method has enabled modern readers to engage in a bi-directional interaction with the Biblical tradition: they relativize some aspects of the Biblical text as mere artifacts of its ancient origin, while allowing other aspects of the Bible's quite different perspective to call their modern pre-suppositions into question. Though the modern interpreter remains in ultimate control of the process, through it the Bible can (at least initially) speak a new word over against the reader as never before.

This is how I approach the text, in a sense: I may not adopt the ancient perspective in its entirety, but can it teach me certain values? A point I've often made to feminists who critique Scripture is that feminism isn't that great itself! It has driven mothers from the home, prioritizing financial success over family. And it has also promoted abortion, which gets rid of those deemed inconvenient. At least the ancients valued family and community.

But where things get thorny is that, as Carr says, "the modern interpreter remains in ultimate control of the process." I as the interpreter get to determine what lessons apply to me. Maybe the Bible can be a helpful guide with that approach: it can give me suggestions on how to live, or offer me new ways of looking at life. But can it function as an authority?

Monday, November 16, 2009


I'm reading Shalom Spiegel's The Last Trial right now. It's about Jewish legends concerning the akedah, Abraham's binding and near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac, in Genesis 22.

The book has several interesting details, such as parallels to the akedah in Greek legends, in which someone is about to sacrifice his child and ends up offering an animal instead. Or Jewish explanations for why Genesis 22 states that, after the akedah, Abraham returned to his servants, without even mentioning Isaac. Or attempts to provide a rationale behind human sacrifice, which usually concerns a desire for a good harvest and protection of the community.

What stood out to me was a passage in Sekel Tob (p. 64), whose date I do not know. In rabbinic midrash (at least in one view), Isaac's age at the akedah is calculated according to the time of Sarah's death. The rationale is that Sarah died in sorrow and horror when she heard what Abraham had done. One story says that an evil demon, Samael, told Sarah about the akedah, causing her to drop dead. In Sekel Tob, Isaac's soul leaves his body during the time of the akedah, and he sees his mother in Paradise. But the soul returns.

The point of the story may be that Isaac faithfully went through with the akedah, even after learning that his mother was dead after hearing of Abraham's deed. His devotion to God was that great! I'd like to think, however, that the story is about closure. The story of Sarah dropping dead after learning about the akedah has often made me sad. Abraham lost his wife, and Isaac lost his mother, all because of a test that God gave to Abraham. Was the test worth all that, even if Abraham didn't end up killing Isaac? I'd like to think that Isaac in Paradise let his mom know he was okay, and that Sarah perhaps understood that it was all a test: that God wouldn't really make Abraham go through with the sacrifice. Maybe she understood things from God's perspective, whatever that was.

An afterlife can create potential for closure. I think of the movie, the Sixth Sense, in which the boy who sees dead people comforts his mom that her dead mother is proud of her every day. He saw his late grandmother appearing to him as a ghost.

At the same time, it's also important to make peace with people now, while they're still around.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


My Latin mass write-up and my write-up on Martin S. Jaffee's Torah in the Mouth will overlap today.

At my Latin mass, we had political priest, and he delivered a homily on Jesus' parable of the mustard seed, which was really, really small yet grew up to be a really, really big tree, one that offered shade to birds. The priest applied that to Jesus and the church, who started off small and insignificant yet eventually became widespread and well-known, offering spiritual shade and rest to anyone who wanted it.

The priest also applied the parable to looking for the good in people, however small that good may be. He gave us the example of Thomas Aquinas, who was called a "dumb ox" by many of his fellow students, and yet a mentor dared to see the good in him. As a result, St. Thomas Aquinas became one of the most renowned theologians in history. Talk about a small seed of overlooked intelligence becoming a vast body of theological insight!

How's this overlap with my reading of Jaffee? According to Jaffee, the rabbis wanted to keep the oral Torah oral because they sought to preserve it within a scholastic community. They desired for students to memorize the oral tradition so that it might change them. They also thought students should learn their oral traditions by following a teacher, who would instruct them through his knowledge and his example. Even if a teacher died, the students would be able to recite his teaching, so he'd still be present in the community in some way, shape, or form. But if the oral Torah got written down (as it eventually did), that could endanger the learning within community that keeping the oral tradition oral had fostered. Literate people outside of the scholastic community would have access to it, including (gasp!) Christians. Things didn't exactly pan out that way, for many Jews even today study written texts in communal settings. But many rabbis sought to keep the oral tradition oral because that engendered mentorship, respect for a teacher, etc.

I learn a lot from books, and that's all well and good. But it's also good to have mentors, in both academia and my spiritual life. And, although I'm as much of a loner as you can get, I'm fortunate to have people in my life who offer me guidance, from their wisdom and their example.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

I Kings 3: At the Library

I'm at the downtown public library right now. Because my own computer has broken down, I'm doing my weekly quiet time and weekly quiet time write-up at the library. I realize that several of you can't make it without my weekly quiet time write-up, so I'd be selfish not to write it, right?!

In some cases this Sabbath, I used different sources from what I ordinarily use. Most Sabbaths on my computer, I consult John Gill, John MacArthur, and the Nelson's Study Bible, and I listen to Calvary Chapel sermons and sermons from a Calvinist web site. Today, however, I read commentaries, mostly scholarly ones that have a Christian, homiletical twist.

One thing I ordinarily miss out on in my weekly quiet times is the ancient Near Eastern parallels. I'd like to correct that somewhat when I return to my usual manner of doing my weekly quiet times, without adding tons of commentaries to my reading list. I may scan the Anchor Bible each Sabbath or order a cheap copy of the IVP Bible Background Commentary.

What were some of the parallels between I Kings 3 and other ancient Near Eastern writings, or literature from other cultures? In both I Kings 3 and other areas of the ancient Near East, a king humbly asks a deity for wisdom, while taking the stance of a small child. His goal is often to protect the most vulnerable members of society. Wisdom is also called "hearing" in both I Kings 3 and ancient Near Eastern literature, implying perhaps that we are wise when we listen to God and to other people. The story of someone in authority proposing to divide a child in half to see which professing mother is the true one also has parallels, which have a similar theme but aren't exactly like the story in I Kings 3. Probably the closest parallel is a story from India.

Do the parallels between I Kings 3 and other cultures mean that God was at work in non-Israelite religions? Perhaps. The view that Israel was righteous because of her religion whereas other nations were carnal and selfish is an over-simplification. At the same time, one theme that most of the commentaries harped on was the complexity of Solomon as a character: he could be carnal and selfish, but also spiritual and selfless. The commentaries treat Solomon as bad where I (and also the biblical text) tend to give him the benefit of a doubt. They present the Solomon of I Kings 1-2 as a blood-thirsty power-grabber who ruthlessly eliminated his political opponents, but, as far as I can see, Solomon tried to be merciful to his political opponents, in some cases being more merciful than his father David wanted him to be! Only when they abused his mercy did Solomon take drastic action. And Solomon had to do so, since how could he govern the nation if people were continually seeking to overthrow him? The exception to Solomon's policy of mercy would be Joab, whom Solomon put to death without hesitation. But I Kings 2 treats this as justice for Joab's shedding of innocent blood.

But the commentaries draw a contrast between the ruthless politician Solomon of I Kings 1-2 and the meek, humble, spiritual, "put his nation above himself" Solomon of I Kings 3. I agree with their view that Solomon made poor decisions even before he turned to the dark side. Last week, I talked about how Solomon in I Kings 2 had Joab killed in the holy place, showing no concern for God's laws of purity, which seek to separate the contamination of human death from the sanctuary. I said that such an attitude set the stage for Solomon's later disregard for God. So I agree with the commentaries' overall point, even though I disagree with how they support it.

I thought about the complexity of Solomon last night as I watched Mysteries of the Bible. According to the episode that I saw, Solomon put the glory of his kingdom, his building projects, and his foreign wives ahead of God and the nation of Israel, which was why most of Israel revolted against his son and seceded from the union. In I Kings, we see that Solomon made Israelites into corvee laborers and imposed heavy taxes. That contrasts with the Solomon of I Kings 3, who put his nation before himself by asking God for wisdom rather than wealth and glory, and who also heard the case of two prostitutes, who were in one of the most vulnerable and disdained groups of Israelite society.

I struggled a little with I Kings 3:1, which states that Solomon married the Pharaoh's daughter and let her stay in Jerusalem until he finished building his own house, the temple, and the walls of Jerusalem. Commentaries came down hard on Solomon for this. Some said that he was delaying the construction of the temple, or that he placed his own palace or Egyptian bride before God's house and the security of the nation. I don't sympathize much with the claim that he didn't build the temple fast enough, since, heck, he had just come into power! Give the man some time! Maybe there's something to the argument that he prioritized his palace over the temple, for I Kings 3:1 mentions the palace before the temple. And, although I Kings 6-7 discusses Solomon's construction of the temple before that of his palace, it also says that Solomon spent more years on his palace.

I think the point of I Kings 3:1 is that Solomon let Pharaoh's daughter stay in Jerusalem (the holy city) because she didn't have another place to crash. Things were pretty chaotic at that time, for Solomon hadn't yet launched his massive building projects. The following verses illustrate this point further, for they say that the Israelites and Solomon sacrificed at the high places, for there was not yet a temple in Jerusalem. When Solomon launched his building projects, he made a house for his Egyptian wife and moved her out of Jerusalem (I Kings 7:8; 9:24). Before that time, things were pretty disorganized! I Kings 3:1 may be trying to justify Solomon letting an Egyptian live in God's holy city, something that interpreters (including the Septuagint) considered scandalous.

While I Kings 11:1 criticizes Solomon marrying an Egyptian and other foreign women, for the reason that they turned him from God, Solomon actually strikes me as rather magnanimous. According to the commentaries that I read, the Pharaoh usually didn't marry his daughters off to foreigners (Amarna Letter no. 14 ln. 14), so he must have been pretty desperate to give his daughter to Solomon. Commentaries speculate that Egypt was weak in the tenth century B.C.E., so it sought an alliance with Israel, a power to its north. And Solomon helped her out as the friendly neighbor that he was! But, while it's good to help people out, there may be a need to be careful.

I also struggled some with the issue of high places. I Kings 3 goes out of its way to apologize for Solomon worshipping at the high place of Gibeon, but I Chronicles 1 says that the Tabernacle and the bronze altar were at that location. There are scholars who may argue that Chronicles is trying to make Solomon look more godly than I Kings 3 presents, but I have problems with that idea. Joshua 9:27 portrays the Gibeonites as helpers in the sanctuary, possibly implying that the sanctuary at Gibeon was considered legitimate. And II Samuel 6:27 says that David built a tent for the ark in Jerusalem, which indicates that the Tabernacle had to be elsewhere, since it wasn't covering the ark in Jerusalem. Why else would David build a tent? Would the Tabernacle have been if Gibeon? But if that were the case, then why's I Kings 3 so uncomfortable with Solomon sacrificing there ("but he still loved the LORD...")?

These are my thoughts on I Kings 3! The next two weeks, I won't be doing my weekly quiet time, since I'll be in Indiana, and I don't want to lug all my books back there. But I have a book by Mary Gordon on Jesus, and one by Tim Keller about idolatry, so I'll be doing some Sabbath spiritual write-ups. Stay tuned!

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Mishnah: Tithes from Ammon and Moab

Yesterday, I started Martin Jaffee's Torah in the Mouth: Writing and Oral Tradition in Palestinian Judaism, 200 BCE-400 CE (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). What stood out to me was Mishnah Yadayim 4:3, which Jaffee partially quotes on page 80. So I read the passage in my trusty Danby Mishnah, along with Danby's notes.

The passage asks what tithes Israelites in Ammon and Moab must pay in the seventh year. Rabbi Tarfon says they have to pay the Poorman's Tithe, and Rabbi Eleazar b. Azariah decrees that they pay the Second Tithe. Part of the basis for their decisions is the tithe requirement for Israelites living in Egypt and Babylon, which, like Ammon and Moab, are outside of the land of Israel. According to the passage, the rule that Israelites in Egypt pay Poorman's Tithe in the seventh year is the decree of authoritative people known as the elders, whereas the prophets were responsible for the decree that Israelites in Babylon pay the Second Tithe every seventh year. The new elders voting on the policy for the Israelites in Ammon and Moab decide to go with the previous elders rather than with the prophets: they vote for them to pay the Poorman's Tithe every seventh year. When Rabbi Eliezer (different from Rabbi Eleazar b. Azariah) hears the decision, he weeps for joy, for he has a tradition going back to Moses at Mount Sinai that Israelites in Moab and Ammon should pay Poorman's Tithe every seventh year. The deliberations of the elders actually corresponded with God's revelation on Sinai! This passage is an example of what appears to be Jaffee's thesis: that rabbinic literature initially treated halakah as the work of the sages, but they tried over the years to tie it to God's revelation to Moses at Mount Sinai.

Some background information is in order. The Torah mandates two tithes (technically-speaking) for the children of Israel. The first tithe goes to the Levites (Numbers 18:20ff.): it's their due for the work that they do for God, and it also supports them because they don't have an inheritance of land on which they can grow crops or raise animals. In Deuteronomy 14:22-29, we read about the second tithe. The Israelites are to bring the tithe of their corn, wine, oil, flocks, and herds to the central sanctuary, the place that God will choose. If the central sanctuary is too far, then they can convert that stuff into money and take that instead. At the central sanctuary, they are to use the money or tithe to rejoice before God, as they eat, drink, and be merry. But they are supposed to remember the Levite, who has no inheritance. Every three years, they are to devote all of the second tithe to the poor Levite, the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow, all of whom are economically vulnerable and lack the means for self-support. They pool their tithes into a location within their local gates, and the poor come to it to be satisfied.

According to Leviticus 25:1-7, the Israelites in the Promised Land are to let the land lie fallow every seventh year: they are neither to sow nor prune their vineyard. They cannot reap, but they can still eat the increase (which I don't entirely understand), which is also for their servants and the resident alien, who lacks his own land. The land rest of the seventh year and the Jubilee (also in Leviticus 25) both make an important point: the Promised Land belongs to God, so the Israelites are to obey God's instructions regarding it.

Because the Israelites in the Promised Land do not grow anything in the seventh year, they don't pay tithes during that period of time, since ten per cent of zero is, well, zero. But what about the Israelites who live and farm (or ranch) outside of the Promised Land, in Babylon, Egypt, Ammon, or Moab? For them, the rules are different, for they have to pay some tithe. It may be the second tithe, which the Israelites from those locations would preumably bring to the central sanctuary in Israel (if they indeed made that long journey). Or it could be the Poorman's Tithe, meaning perhaps that they'd have to pay it in years 3, 6, and 7 of the seven year cycle.

I thought this was interesting because of the debates over tithing within Armstrongite and ex-Armstrongite circles. Rabbinic literature is sometimes cited in these debates. I remember reading an article in The Journal by Steven Collins (not Eric Camden from 7th Heaven) that cited the Mishnah to support his point of view, which (I think) was that Israel didn't have to pay three tithes, but only one. Some who believe that tithing is not for today have argued that it related solely to the land of Israel. And so it's interesting to see what the Mishnah actually says: it presumes that there's a second tithe (and thus a first one as well) and a "Poorman's Tithe," and it also holds that Israelites outside of the land of Israel need to tithe in some capacity.

As far as my practice goes, I don't pay a full ten percent, but I try to apply the principle of charitable giving, in some way, shape, or form.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Great Is Peace...Even When Israel Worships Idols?

For my Fishbane reading (Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking), a rabbinic passage caught my eye. It's Sif/Num Naso' (H, 46), and it reads as follows (in the English translation that Fishbane uses):

R. Eleazar son of R. Eleazar ha-Qappar says: Great is peace, for even if Israel worships idols but there is peace among them---the Omnipresent said, Satan does not harm them; as it is said, 'Ephraim is bound to idols; leave him alone' (Hos. 4:17). But when they are divided, what is said of them? 'Their heart is divided, let them now be punished' (Hos. 10:2).

In its original context, Hosea 4:17 probably means "leave them alone and let them wallow in their iniquity---so that I might punish them. They're a lost cause!" And Hosea 10:2 may mean that the hearts of the Israelites are not complete and whole, since they worship other things than the God of Israel. But Rabbi Eleazar applies these verses differently, saying that God blesses Israel when she has peace and unity, even if she worships idols.

I agree with Rabbi Eleazar that "Great is peace." There's something that disturbs me when I see strife and hatred. For example, I used to get a kick out of bashing Bill Clinton and seeing others do so, and I was expecting to have the same sort of fun once Barack Obama became President. But things didn't quite turn out that way. I actually get disturbed when Obama is called a "Communist," or when people angrily shout down our elected officials at town-hall meetings.

It's not that I think everyone should agree for the sake of peace. People are different, so they have different opinions. But it's one thing to articulate a disagreement in a respectful and articulate manner. It's another thing to be hateful.

A conservative Christian in the blogosphere has an intriguing web-name: "Truth unites...and divides." It's nice when people can gather together, get along, cooperate, and have fun, without dwelling on the things that divide them. And, in a sense, the Christian faith promotes that, for it advocates love: genuinely valuing the well-being of other people, encouraging them, not being mean or rude, etc. (I Corinthians 13). But, according to Scripture, truth also divides. Exodus 23:2 says we're not supposed to follow a multitude to do evil. Deuteronomy 33:9 praises the Levites because they did not acknowledge their own family, a reference perhaps to the scene in Exodus 32, in which the Levites slaughter their fellow Israelites for worshipping the Golden Calf. Jesus says in Luke 14:26 that those who follow him must hate members of their very own family. It's not the case that Jesus in the Gospels expects his followers to be obnoxious to their family. In many cases, a Christian's family would be the aggressors because of its opposition to the Christian faith (Matthew 10:36).

I have a hard time with how some fundamentalists apply these sorts of passages, particularly when they are stridently "zealous for the truth" without a concern for whose feelings they might hurt, or they start debates and shouting matches with those who disagree with them or live differently than they do. But I like how Brian McClaren applies the passages in A Generous Orthodoxy: there are times when the majority is just wrong, when it's engaged in an activity that hurts others or exploits them. In these situations, I can understand why a Christian may need to make waves and stand against the majority. But that's my bias.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pleroma, Angels Ascending and Descending

For my Fishbane reading today (Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking), two points stood out to me:

1. The Babylonian Talmud Chagigah 12a presents Rab saying, "By ten things the world was created: By Wisdom, by Understanding, by Reason, by Strength, by Roar, by Might, by Righteousness, by Judgment, by Loving kindness, and by Compassion" (243). Fishbane says that, for Rab, these appear to be qualities of God's own nature, rather than things that he creates.

In a comment about a similar statement in 'Abot de-Rabbi Natan, however, Fishbane states that such qualities in the passage "are primordial entitities brought into being by God (as is Wisdom, according to Prov. 8:22), or are some other embodiments of divine attributes that 'serve' God as agents of His cosmic command" (246).

This reminds me of a post I did a while back, Tertullian the (Semi-)Arian? For the church father Tertullian, the Word who became Jesus Christ was the Logos Prophorikos. What's that mean? For Tertullian, God the Father had wisdom inside of him, and that wisdom is called the Logos Endiathekos. But, when God decided to create the cosmos, he emitted that wisdom so that it became a person, the Logos Prophorikos, who later was incarnated as Jesus Christ. In a sense, Jesus is the expression of God's wisdom. God produced a person who had his wisdom to be his agent, who would create the heavens and the earth.

And that appears to be some of the issue in these rabbinic texts. God has all of these good attributes inside of him, but did he create separate beings who embodied particular attributes and mediated them to creation? Is there an angel of justice, and an angel of mercy, etc.? We know from Exodus 12 that there is a death angel, a Mashchit. For many scholars, ha-Satan was a prosecuting attorney, someone who encouraged God to act according to strict justice. Is the rabbinic idea of different entities in a plenorama biblical?

In ancient thought, the Pleroma was a realm of various deities or supernatural beings. What's interesting is that Colossians 2:9 uses that word for Jesus Christ, saying that in him dwells all the Pleroma of the Godhead bodily. The passage may very well mean that there weren't a bunch of sub-deities (or, for certain Jewish thinkers, angels) in a Pleroma whom people had to appease. Rather, there's Jesus Christ.

That brings me to something else that Fishbane says. In commenting on Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer 3, Fishbane states: "The world is thus not the haphazard result of diverse divine attributes (like justice and mercy), but rather the product of reason and deliberation" (243). Many evangelicals define justice as strict punishment, as in burning in hell for all eternity, which people deserve if they aren't covered by the blood of Christ. For them, God punishes people in eternal hell if they aren't morally perfect, and that's God's justice. Mercy, however, is forgiveness. Rabbinic literature assumes this sort of polarity, for there's a passage that says that God did not create the world in strict justice or strict mercy. If there were strict justice, then nobody would be alive, since we're all sinners. If there were strict mercy, then the evildoers would be let off, and evil would be rampant.

But could justice be something other than God sentencing people to eternal hell for their imperfection? In her post, Just to forgive, Jamie Kiley refers to I John 1:9, which affirms that God is just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness. So is justice necessarily the polar opposite of forgiveness? Maybe it's God's righteousness, which is made evident both when he punishes and also when he forgives. And perhaps God does not have a split-personality with two conflicting attributes of justice and mercy (see my post, Does God Have a Split-Personality?), for the two are integrated with each other in some sense. Just a thought!

2. On pages 247-249, Fishbane discusses rabbinic passages about God ascending upon Abraham and Jacob. He brings in peculiar ideas that occur in rabbinic literature, such as the one that there's a heavenly form of Jacob engraved on the Chariot that God rides, and that, in Genesis 33:20, God actually calls Jacob God on earth (Babylonian Talmud Megilliah 18a; also, Genesis Rabbah 47:6; 69:3; 82:13).

I thought about John 1:51, where Jesus tells one of his disciples that he will see angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man. Within the history of biblical interpretation, people have read John 1:51 in light of the story of Jacob's ladder in Genesis 28. There, Jacob is on the run from his brother, Esau, and he sees a ladder that leads to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it.

I found Raymond Brown's comments in the Anchor Bible for John to be quite interesting. Brown states that some have interpreted John 1:51 in light of the passages that Fishbane discusses---the ones about God ascending on Jacob:

In the Midrash Rabbah LXVIII 12 on Genesis xxvii 12, we find that Jacob's true appearance is in heaven while his body lies on the earth, and the angels are traveling back and forth between them. Applying this to John, some suggest that Jesus is really with the Father as Son of Man, and yet he is on earth at the same time; the angels constitute the communication between the heavenly and earthly Jesus...It should be pointed out that the rabbinic source for the theory is no earlier than the third century A.D., although the interpretation of Genesis may be earlier. (90)

A heavenly Jesus and an earthly Jesus existing at the same time? That reminds me somewhat of a conversation I had with Polycarp, whom (if I'm correct) was saying that God was in heaven yet manifesting himself on earth, while being the same person. Polycarp can correct me if I'm misrepresenting him. But the idea also reminds me of something I encountered in the Shepherd of Hermas, an early Christian document from the first-second centuries C.E., if I was interpreting it correctly. See my post, The Shepherd of Hermas' Christology.

Brown discusses other ideas, though, such as the one that Jesus in John 1:51 was referring to himself as the ladder between heaven and earth. Others have asserted that Jesus is the new altar, since Jacob built the altar of Bethel in Genesis 28. The idea of a heavenly Jesus and an earthly Jesus, however, is intriguing to me, even though it looks strange and has a "heresy" feel to it! But perhaps one can still understand John 1:51 in light of certain rabbinic passages: Jacob was God on earth as God's representative (cp. Exodus 7:1), and so was Jesus (though many would argue he was much more than that).

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

God's Home

For my Fishbane reading (in Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking), what stood out to me was the issue of God's location, or, more accurately, the location of his divine glory (Shekinah).

In my post yesterday (A Comforting Presence), I touched a little on the biblical and rabbinic notion that God goes with Israel into exile. There was an earlier rabbinic view, however, that stated that God's presence was perpetually in Jerusalem. That's why Psalm 68:7 says that God brings the solitary ones home, Lamentations Rabbah Petichta 29 argues: God was not with Israel in exile, but he stayed behind in Jerusalem, his resting place. And the rabbis could cite Scriptural passages that supported this position. In Ezra 1:3, for example, the Persian king Cyrus affirms that the LORD is in Jerusalem at that time, even though the Jews are in exile and the temple is in ruins.

I encountered this view here at Hebrew Union College. A professor of mine said there was an ancient view that a God of a country was in some sense confined to his particular country. That's why God in Genesis 12 told Abraham to go to Canaan: that's where God was.

I can think of passages that lean somewhat in that direction. In I Samuel 26:19, David tells Saul that he has driven him out from abiding in the inheritance of the LORD (the land of Israel), telling David in essence to serve other gods. The implication here seems to be that the worship of God is in Israel, God's location, so Saul driving David from that location pushes him away from the true God.

In II Kings 17:24-28, after the Assyrians had conquered Northern Israel, they bring in foreigners to inhabit the land. The foreigners did not fear the LORD, so God sent lions among them. The Assyrians then realize that the foreigners know not the manner of the God of the land, so they get Israelite priests of Bethel to teach it to them. This passage is interesting for the purpose of this post, for it shows that God is attached to the land of Israel, even when his people are not. It's also interesting because it doesn't seem to coincide with other themes of the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua-II Kings), notwithstanding the Deuteronomistic elements of II Kings 17. The Deuteronomists desired to limit worship to Jerusalem, but here, there is some sense that the worship of Northern Israel could be legitimate, even though it wasn't in Jerusalem.

One narrative I've often heard is that the Jewish religion survived whereas other ancient Near Eastern religions did not because the Jewish religion found a way to exist in exile, away from the land of Israel and its temple. Other ancient Near Eastern religions, by contrast, were limited to their lands, so they did not survive. But the Jewish religion said God was everywhere and could be worshipped in any location, even in exile.

This may be true in a big-picture sense, but there are counter-examples. One that Fishbane cites is from the Marduk Prophecy, dated to 1124-1103 B.C.E., in which "we read of three self-determined exiles which the God Marduk underwent (to Hatti, Assyria, and Elam)---leaving Babylon in distress and benefiting the new lands of residence" (144). So other ancient Near Eastern religions believed that their god could survive in exile. And, although there was a notion that the defeat of a nation proved that its god wasn't all that powerful, there was also a view that a god could punish his nation for its sins, so its defeat did not prove his lack of power. Marduk showed that when he benefitted his new lands of residence!

Something else that Fishbane discusses is a rabbinic view that Israel's exile actually casts doubt on God's power (154-155). Granted, God goes with his people into exile, and that's all well and good. But God displays his power when he delivers Israel from her enemies and guarantees her presence in the Promised Land. The relevance of this point to my post here is that God is most at home in Israel, even though he may travel into other countries to be in Israel. But there's another profound message here: According to this view, God at some point has to cease being a wanderer to deserve Israel's worship and the admiration of the nations. This overlaps with my post yesterday, which said that God being with us in our suffering doesn't really solve the theodicy problem. At some point, we need a basis to trust in God's power and love, some hope that things can and will get better and that God will deliver us from our miserable cycles.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Comforting Presence

For my reading of Fishbane yesterday (in Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking), I came across three concepts that stood out to me. They're in rabbinic literature.

1. Exodus 12:41 states that, at the Exodus, "all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt." This probably refers to the Israelites themselves, but Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael Bo' 14 interprets the "hosts" as angels. That's most likely because there are biblical passages that present the hosts as such (e.g., I Kings 22:19).

I like the idea of a host of angels going out with the children of Israel when they left Egypt---going out to be with them, to protect them, to guide them. The children of Israel are not alone as they embark upon an unpredictable journey.

I think about the show Touched by an Angel. Tess once said that the people in the story were surrounded by angels. On an episode in which Satan blew up a building, masses of angels of death dressed in white went into the building to escort the casualties to the afterlife.

When I was in Massachussetts, I was faraway from home for the first time in my life, and I was embarking upon an unpredictable journey. I was lonely and depressed. But my Grandma sent me a book that nourished me, Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul. In one of the stories, a man is walking the streets at night, and some dangerous thugs look like they're going to jump him. But they end up running away instead. The author says that they must've seen protecting angels standing behind him. This story has been in my mind as I've walked streets at night, which I try to avoid nowadays.

In a cartoon after that story, a man is praying at his bedside, and a couple of angels in T-Shirts that say "Help Squad" (or something like that) rush into the room. The man asked for help, and God immediately sent his angels.

Why are angels popular? Maybe because they give us assurance that we're not alone.

2. There's a slight bit of tension within the Bible and rabbinic literature about who delivered the Israelites from Egypt: was it God alone, or one of his angels? When I was at Harvard, someone gave a lecture about Exodus 12: part of the passage says that God himself will go through Egypt and smite the firstborn, whereas another part states that an agent of God (a mashchit, or destroyer) will do so. Jon Levenson saw a theological development here, though I don't remember in which direction: Was it a movement towards monotheism, removing agents of God so God does the work himself? Or was it a move towards seeing God as so great and removed that he uses agents?

In Exodus 33, the Israelites had just upset God by worshipping the Golden Calf. God says that an angel will lead them to the Promised Land, but he himself will not, for they make him sick. But Moses pleads for God himself to accompany the Israelites. There's something comforting about angels being with us, but it's even more reassuring to know that God himself is personally with us, that he cares for us that much.

This reminds me of something I read about St. Augustine. I think it was in one of Philip Yancey's books. Augustine asked us to imagine if we were to go to heaven and hear that we'd experience eternal bliss, but we'd never be able to see God's face. According to Yancey, many of our responses would be "Never???", since we're relational creatures.

I watched a video about the Jehovah's Witnesses' belief about Jesus, and it said that they don't think people during the millennial reign will actually see Jesus. That sounded like a bummer to me, to tell you the truth! There's something reassuring about the Protestant belief that we'll be in heaven with Jesus. As Dauber from Coach said on the Stand, his mom is in heaven, "eating the bread of life with Jesus" (which doesn't make much sense, since Jesus isn't eating that bread, but the idea of being with Jesus is comforting).

3. The rabbis said that God was suffering with the Israelites in Egypt, almost as if he himself were enslaved and delivered. I remember a young seminary student praying to God, "When we hurt, you hurt." And something that often drew me to Christianity was its idea that God became a human being and experienced the same hurt that we do.

Does this solve the problem of theodicy? Not really. God can stop evil anytime he wants, but he doesn't usually, at least not right now. It's a mystery why he doesn't. But the old evangelical mantra of "God will be with you in your suffering" gets me through some rough days.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

YHWH in the Underworld

I checked out the Alan Cooper article that I discuss in my last post, Avoiding a Suffering God; YHWH in the Underworld. Basically, Cooper's argument is that Psalm 24:7-10 is about YHWH entering the Underworld to defeat death. Psalm 24:7-10 is well-known to people who listen to Handel's Messiah over and over (as I used to do). It says (according to my memory):

"Lift up your heads, O ye gates, that the King of Glory may come in."

"Who is this King of Glory?"

"The LORD of hosts, mighty in battle, he is this King of Glory."

Interpreters have applied this Psalm to cultic festivals or God entering Jerusalem after returning from battle. But, as Cooper points out, ancient Near Eastern gates did open by means of lifting. Therefore, Cooper looks for another option. Based on ancient Near Eastern parallels (e.g., Egyptian and Ugaritic literature), Cooper concludes that the Psalm presents YHWH going to the Underworld to defeat death. A herald exhorts the gatekeepers to lift up their heads (stand proud) and let YHWH, the King of Glory, enter. They scornfully respond, "Who is this King of Glory," and are told "The LORD of hosts, mighty in battle." YHWH then does his business and returns to his sanctuary, which is connected to the Underworld.

Cooper sees a continuation of this myth in ancient Christian stories about Jesus going to hell to set free the righteous, thereby defeating death. And, although many scholars would argue that the Hebrew Bible lacks a clear notion of the afterlife, Cooper seems to suggest that we shouldn't regard this scholarly presupposition as iron-clad.

I didn't do a full research project on the descent of gods to the Underworld, but I glanced at wikipedia's article, Descent to the underworld. It is a common theme in the ancient Near East, Greek and Roman mythology, and Asia. Sometimes, a goddess would descend into the Underworld to perform funeral rites (as did the Canaanite goddess Ishtar). Sometimes, a god or goddess would attempt to rescue someone from the Underworld. From my elementary school days, I learned that these kinds of myths were often symbols for the seasonal cycle: winter was death, but spring was life. Maybe YHWH descended into the Underworld to bring life to nature, also known as the spring season, a time of crops and food and celebration.

Some have tried to contrast YHWH with ancient Near Eastern gods by saying that the latter were more concerned about the cycles of nature, whereas YHWH's realm was history. This is true in a sense, but YHWH was also concerned about nature, just like other ancient Near Eastern gods. The Torah has a lot about Israel receiving agricultural blessings: rain in due season, crops, etc. And YHWH in the Hebrew Bible keeps the waters at bay so that life and order are preserved. Granted, the Hebrew Bible applies the "chaotic waters" myth to historical events, such as the threat of Israel's enemies. But one cannot exclude the natural element.

Whatever the Psalm meant in its original context, I like the concept of God being above death. In many of the myths about the Underworld, it's a pretty scary and intimidating place! At Jewish Theological Seminary (where Dr. Cooper currently teaches), I watched an animated depiction of Ishtar's descent to the Underworld for my Akkadian class, and, although it was rather cheesy, the Underworld still didn't strike me as a place I'd want to go! The same went with the cartoon Thundercats, which on one episode depicted an ancient Egyptian view of the Underworld. But YHWH and later Jesus Christ could go there boldly and without fear, with an authority that commanded respect from the gatekeepers of death.

Avoiding a Suffering God; YHWH in the Underworld

Hi everyone! This will be a quick post. My home computer isn't working, so I'm using one at the public library, and I only have 51 minutes left. So this will be fast! Anon15:5 and Elna: I read your comments, but I may not be able to respond to them today. Good comments, though!

At Latin mass this morning, the topic was Jesus suffering on the cross. Philosopher priest talked about various heresies in the early days of Christianity, and how they tried to avoid God suffering on the cross. Apparently, they had the same problem with the concept that Ken Pulliam talked about: based on Greek philosophy, they believed that God was always happy, so the idea that God could suffer was unthinkable for them! And so some said that the human Jesus suffered on the cross, while the divine "Christ" part of him left by then. Or some maintained that Simon of Syrene suffered on the cross in place of Jesus.

The priest seemed to agree that God could not suffer, for he made clear that the Father didn't suffer, and also that Jesus as God did not suffer (if I heard him correctly). Yet, he also didn't believe that Jesus' human nature suffered while his divine nature did not, for that's the heresy of Nestorianism, which held that Jesus had two separate natures, divine and human, which didn't really have much to do with one another.

Personally, I don't see what the big deal is about God suffering. The New Testament is clear that suffering produces character. God doesn't need that, but I'd expect a loving and compassionate God to become sad at many things he sees in this world. Suffering is an indicator of love, sympathy, and empathy. Evangelicals have often prayed, "May my heart break at the things that break yours, Lord."

So that's my church write-up. For my Fishbane write-up (on Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking), Fishbane on page 80 refers to an article by Alan Cooper, "PS 24:7-10; Mythology and Exegesis," which appeared in the Journal of Biblical Literature 102 (1983) 37-55. Cooper argues that there are biblical passages that suggest that YHWH entered the netherworld. I find this interesting. It reminds me of the Christian idea that Jesus went to the underworld to preach to the spirits in prison. Off the top of my head (since I don't have immediate access to BibleWorks), Psalm 139 says that, if the Psalmist goes to Sheol, God is there. For that passage, God is omniscient! Yet, there are other Psalms that suggest that God is absent from Sheol. Why would God go to the underworld? What would he try to accomplish?

I may get back to this, or I may not. Tomorrow, I'll be covering another Fishbane topic! The HUC library opens in a half hour, so I may read the Cooper article.

Have a blessed Sunday!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

I Kings 2: Mentoring the Wise, A Fresh Start, God's Plan B

For my weekly quiet time this week, I studied I Kings 2. Here are four thoughts:

1. David calls Solomon "wise" (vv 5, 9), even though Solomon later asks God for wisdom in I Kings 3. Why would Solomon ask God for what he already had: wisdom? Plus, David's belief in Solomon's wisdom does not prevent him from walking Solomon through what he should do. In v 6, David tells Solomon to act according to his wisdom, right before he commands him to bring Joab's hoary head to the grave. In v 9, David tells Solomon that he (Solomon) is wise and knows how to handle Shimei, who cursed David years before (II Samuel 16). Still, David feels a need to instruct Solomon to bring Shimei's hoary head to the grave with blood. If David thinks Solomon is wise, why's he hold Solomon's hand?

Also, whatever wisdom David sees in Solomon, there are others who view Solomon as a big-time dunce. Adonijah asks Bathsheba to request from Solomon that he give Adonijah David's maidservant, Abishag, as a wife. Because Abishag was technically in the harem of David (even though David didn't sleep with her, I Kings 1:4), Adonijah was making a claim to the throne. In the ancient Near East, kings inherited the harem of their predecessors (see II Samuel 3:8; 12:8; 16:20), so Adonijah was adding an item to his resume for the Israelite monarchy: "People of Israel, you should support me for king," Adonijah was planning to say. "After all, I'm David's oldest son, and I have one of his concubines!" For some reason, Adonijah thought Solomon wouldn't recognize what he was trying to do, even though King Saul's weak son Ishbosheth years before got upset when his general, Abner, was sleeping with Saul's concubine (II Samuel 3:8)! Sleeping with the king's concubine was more often than not a claim to the throne, and Adonijah obviously didn't think Solomon was politically astute enough to realize that.

But Solomon did recognize it, so, despite his youth and inexperience, he did have a degree of political wisdom. David was right to notice wisdom in Solomon, but David wasn't confident enough to let him figure out everything on his own. For David, Solomon needed to be pointed in the right direction. And, even though Solomon made some astute decisions in the first few days of his reign, he still felt that he was in over his head, so he asked God for wisdom in I Kings 3. After all, one can be smart a few times, but a good king needs to be smart all of the time, for the sake of his people's well-being. There's a lesson here, about how even smart and talented people need training from other people, as well as guidance from God.

2. Commentaries like to point out the political ramifications of David's advice to Solomon: David was advising Solomon to subordinate people who could potentially threaten his reign. Joab and Abiathar were influential and had sided with Adonijah for the monarchy rather than Solomon. They could be a threat to Solomon's reign if Solomon did not deal with them, as Solomon appears to recognize in I Kings 2:22, 26. Moreover, Shimei was a powerful and influential man from Benjamin, who could muster a thousand Benjamites to meet David when David returned to Jerusalem years earlier (II Samuel 19:17). But Shimei was of the family of Saul, so he had a personal vendetta against David (II Samuel 16:8). Would Shimei take advantage of Solomon's inexperience and try to return the kingdom to the house of Saul? In addition to David's desire to avenge himself on Shimei for his cursing (see I Kings 2:9), David was probably thinking of Solomon's political well-being.

But there was another issue as well: David wanted Solomon to have a fresh start spiritually. In I Kings 2:31-33, Solomon says that Joab's murder of two innocent people was on the house of David and Solomon. In a sense, by allowing Joab to live, David and Solomon were partakers of his guilt, even though Joab killed the men without David's knowledge. Solomon put Joab to death, therefore, so that David and his house would be clear of guilt and have peace from the LORD. (David was most likely dead when Solomon executed Joab, so did he receive a posthumous peace?) There may be a lesson here about dealing with the past in order to have a fresh start.

3. In I Kings 2:28-31, Solomon's hit-man (if you will) Benaiah kills Joab while Joab is clinging to the horns of the altar, which is within the tabernacle. Benaiah does so in obedience to Solomon. Was Solomon right to order this? Leviticus 21 and Numbers 19 go out of their way to keep human death away from the sanctuary, mandating ritual purification for those who touch a human corpse; while animals were slaughtered for sacrifices in the tabernacle, human death could defile God's holy place. Exodus 21:14 may be sensitive to this belief, for it commands that a presumptuous killer be removed from the altar before his execution. Yet, Solomon has Joab killed while Joab is still clinging to the altar, thereby defiling the sanctuary with a human corpse.

Did Solomon want to appear decisive before Benaiah to gain his respect? Did Solomon's disrespect for God's sanctuary in the early days of his reign desensitize him to God, making him the sort of person who later apostasized to please his foreign wives? C.S. Lewis once said, “Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible” (see Randy Olds' post, Good and Evil at Compound Interest). God was giving David's house a fresh start spiritually, a chance to get rid of a murderer who was bringing guilt on the monarchy of Israel. Yet, Solomon failed to acknowledge and correct a character flaw that he had---a disrespect for the things of God---and this seed grew into a poisonous plant later on in his reign.

4. Solomon removes Abiathar from the high priesthood. Abiathar is from the house of Eli, which God cursed in I Samuel 2. In fact, I Kings 2:27 states that Solomon's removal of Abiathar fulfilled God's curse on the house of Eli. In I Samuel 2:30, a prophet tells Eli that God had promised that Eli's house would serve God forever, but Eli's sons pretty much blew that promise through their sins.

Abiathar's replacement was Zadok, who, according to I Chronicles 6:4ff. and 24:3, was descended from Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron. Phinehas had a special place in God's heart, for Phinehas killed a couple of idolaters in his zeal for the LORD, prompting God to promise him an everlasting priesthood (Numbers 25:11; Psalm 106:30-31). For a while, Phinehas had control of the sanctuary (Judges 20:28), but it somehow got removed from his family and fell to the family of Ithamar, another son of Aaron, from whom Eli was descended (I Chronicles 24:3). Now that Abiathar has been removed by Solomon, the priesthood has returned to the house of God's favored priest, Phinehas, since Zadok is a descendant of Phinehas.

This is kind of weird. God promised Eli that his house would serve forever, but years before, God also promised Phinehas an everlasting priesthood. Eli's sons blew God's promise to their house, so God got to go with his original promise, the one to Phinehas, depending on how you read that. In Numbers 25, God technically didn't say that Phinehas would be high priest, but that he'd have an everlasting priesthood. Yet, where was the line of Phinehas when Eli was running the tabernacle? It didn't seem to be around! What kind of priesthood is that? In a sense, the house of Phinehas got back the priesthood when David appointed Zadok to be co-priest with Abiathar (II Samuel 8:7).

It's kind of like the deal with Saul. In I Samuel 13, Saul disobeys Samuel's instructions, and Samuel says that God would've given Saul an eternal dynasty had he simply obeyed; instead, God will seek out a replacement for Saul, a man after God's own heart (vv 13-14). David looks like God's Plan B! Yet, was he God's Plan B? God had promised years before that the scepter would not depart from Judah (Genesis 49:10), which was David's tribe, whereas Saul's was Benjamin. Moreover, God evidently had a special concern for David's family, for he was involved in the life of David's ancestors, Ruth and Boaz.

Historical-critics would probably see different voice in the Hebrew Bible, and that's a possibility. But can there be a lesson here? Tim Keller liked to teach that what appears to be God's Plan B is actually his Plan A. After Jacob disobeyed God and got sent away from his family to be with his relatives in a faraway place, he married Leah and became the ancestor of the Messiah. Was Jesus Christ God's Plan B, a result of Jacob's mistake? Tim Keller said that the lesson here is that nobody can ruin our life, not even us! Even if we make a mistake, God can redeem that for his purposes.

That could be. I don't think that should be an excuse for carelessness, though, since mistakes can have serious consequences. The sins of Eli's sons had ripples on his descendant Abiathar decades later. But God still has a plan, and his Plan B can be redemptive, like his Plan A.

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