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?

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