Thursday, December 31, 2009

Hillel Teaches the Alphabet, Word-Play on Genesis 1:31, Qumran and the Temple

This is one of those days when I need to turn off my computer! I’ve gotten myself into a little blogging feud, which you can read in Who or What is a Biblioblogger? By Dr. Hector Avalos, Iowa State University and Prometheus Books is the Premier Atheist Publisher in Our Generation, where, granted, I get a little loopy (though I’m not drunk). This can consume my mind if I let it, and, as long as my computer is on, the temptation is there for me to get the last word. So I’ll write this post, translate some Philo, read Stone’s Fence, pray for some people, and turn off my computer!

This week, I’ve been reading a lot of articles online. I think I’m going to get offline and read a Neusner book, while watching a movie. I’ve taped a bunch of movies, but I haven’t had the time to watch them because, well, I’ve been reading articles online!

Here’s a little write-up on the articles I read today:

1. David Daube, “Rabbinic Methods of Interpretation and Hellenistic Rhetoric,” HUCA 22 (1949) 239-264.

I had a hard time getting into this article, but one thing that stood out to me was a story in a footnote. I’d read it before, by it hadn’t stuck in my mind, for some reason! A Gentile comes to Hillel (a first century rabbi) and offers to convert to Judaism if he only has to keep the written law, not the oral Torah. Hillel accepts him and teaches him the Hebrew alphabet. The next day, Hillel reverses the order of the letters, and the Gentile protests! Hillel responds that, if the Gentile trusts him on the alphabet, why not trust him on the legitimacy of the oral Torah?

This stood out to me because it’s centered on relationships: it says that the Gentile should accept Hillel’s religion because of his trust in Hillel. There’s lots that can be said about this. Just because Hillel’s right on one thing, does that make him right on other things? On what basis should the Gentile trust Hillel on the Hebrew language? Is it just on the basis of Hillel’s say-so? Not exactly, for, if Hillel teaches him wrong, he won’t be able to understand the rabbinic discourses or participate in them. So there’s a way for him to determine if Hillel is right: his application of Hillel’s teachings on the alphabet, as he sees their effectiveness in the world around him.

I wonder if this can be applied to religious foundationalism. Some Christians have told me that they believe the entire Bible is inerrant because parts of it make sense to them, like love, joy, peace, etc., so shouldn’t they trust all of it? But many things have truth and error. Shouldn’t there be a way to validate things, rather than accepting them merely on blind faith?

The rabbinic passage still inspires me, though, because it’s about a relationship, a religion in which a convert trusts his kind master. A lot of my religion is about reading books and evaluating ideas. Mentorship isn’t there so much, maybe because I’ve been afraid to entrust myself to dogmatic fundamentalists. But there’s something touching about looking up to a spiritual person and learning to be like him, to have what he has.

2. Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, “Who’s Kidding Whom: A Serious Reading of Rabbinic Word Plays,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 55/4 (Winter 1987) 765-788.

Eilberg-Schwartz mentions a rabbinic passage (Genesis Rabbah 8:5) that offers a unique interpretation of Genesis 1:31, which says that God declared his creation very good. The Hebrew word for “very” is me-od, which consists of the letters mem, aleph, and daleth. Those are the same letters in the name “Adam,” man, only they’re in a different order. So Genesis Rabbah 8:5 says the passage should be read to say that God declared man to be good.

Eilberg-Schwartz uses analogies to figure out what was going through the rabbis’ minds then they made these sorts of exegetical moves. He says that, for them, Hebrew was the original language, spoken by God at creation, so everything in it had a deep and sacred (if you will) purpose. He also likens the Hebrew letters to elements: even if the letters are in a different order, they’re still the same letters, so they produce the same chemical reaction. What puzzles me is this: Did the rabbis believe that every use of me-od in the Hebrew Bible referred to Adam? I don’t remember if Eilberg-Schwartz directly answered this question, but he seemed to say that understanding the combinations of the letters can help us comprehend certain passages. So maybe me-od doesn’t always equal “Adam,” but knowing that it can sheds light on Genesis 1:31.

Personally, I prefer to believe that God considers all of his creation to be very good, over the notion that he only has a high regard for humanity. The same goes for that one rabbinic view that God created the heavens and earth for the sake of Israel. Why would God make everything if his love were so limited (though, granted, rabbinic views are more complex than I am presenting them!)?

3. William Scott Green, “Romancing the Tome: Rabbinic Hermeneutics and the Theory of Literature,” Semeia 40 (1987) 147-168.

I also didn’t do too well following this article, but, if anything stood out to me, it was Green’s statement that the rabbis lacked a sanctuary after the destruction of the Temple. The Qumran community in the desert didn’t have this problem, however, for many of its members hoped to be reinstated in the Temple as priests. The Qumran community was around while the Temple still stood.

But I wonder how it coped without a holy place? Even if the Temple still stood, the people of Qumran had excluded themselves from it, so what good did it do them? I checked one of Lawrence Schiffman’s books on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and he says that the Qumran community viewed purification rituals as a substitute for animal sacrifice. Apparently, it didn’t set up a separate altar but respected the Jerusalem Temple, even if it thought it was somehow illegitimate.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Keep Hope Alive, Date of Mekhilta, Sifre Contra Romans 9-11, Bad Cola

1. Henry Sloninsky, “The Philosophy Implicit in Midrash,” HUCA 27 (1956) 235-91.

According to Sabbath 31a (from the Babylonian Talmud, I assume), every Jew at the Day of Judgment will be asked if he continued to hope for salvation. One thing I admire about the Jewish religion is that it’s helped Jews to keep hope alive amidst centuries of oppression and suffering. Jews have told me that Christians they know have expressed to them this same sort of admiration. Yet, in the early days of modern Israel, there were Jews who disdained Judaism’s religious “coping” and messianic hopes as passive weakness.

Jesse Jackson often told the African-American community to “keep hope alive.” This isn’t something that I really understand, for I’m white. Not all African-Americans are poor, but there are African-American communities plagued by hopelessness, on account of poverty, racism, drugs, crime, bad schools, family instability, and a host of other problems.

Like Sabbath 31a, Jesus asked if the Son of Man would find faith on the earth when the Son of Man came (Luke 18:8). It’s hard to keep hope alive. I’ve struggled with hopelessness for quite some time. I feel as if I’m going nowhere. And the whole “God has a plan for your life” mantra rings hollow to me these days. Things may work out for others, but is God present in the lives of people with Asperger’s?

How does one find hope in the midst of apparent hopelessness? Many Jews and African-Americans had to endure centuries of hopelessness. Some still do, but certain things have given them hope. For many Jews (albeit not the anti-Zionist ones), it was the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. For many blacks, it was the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. What can encourage people with Asperger’s to “keep hope alive”?

2. Ben Zion Wacholder, “The Date of the Mekilta De-Rabbi Ishmael,” HUCA 39 (1968) 117-44.

Wacholder dates the Mekhilta De-Rabbi Ishmael to the eighth century, whereas others have argued that it’s one of the earliest works of midrash, dating to the second century C.E. Wacholder sees later halakhot in it, believes that its references to imperial iconoclasm and Arabs (sons of Ishmael) fit the eighth century better than the second, and holds that it gets details about the early rabbis wrong. He points out that the eighth century was a time when people produced pseudepigraphic works, so it wouldn’t be shocking if someone created a work at that time and attributed it to Rabbi Ishmael, a Tannaitic rabbi from centuries before. Wacholder also notes that people did not really revere the Mekhilta, which is surprising, if the work represented an early piece of midrash. He also appeals to the later Hebrew style of the Mekhilta.

When I check Strack and Stemberger, I read the comments of Lauterbach, who considered the Mekhilta “one of the older tannaitic works.” Factors for his date include “its early halakhah (which often contradicts the later one), many old legends not preserved elsewhere, and a still unsophisticated interpretation of Scripture, which largely agrees with the ancient versions.” Moreover, Lauterbach offers a reason that the Talmud doesn’t explicitly cite it: it was in the collection Sifre, so it wasn’t known as “Mekhilta.” Still, Wacholder might say that it wasn’t cited much in medieval times, when there were clear manuscripts of it.

People have noted that the Mekhilta could’ve been an early piece that underwent revision over the years. Perhaps that’s why it reflects early and late times, if it indeed does.

3. Eugene Mihaly, “A Rabbinic Defense of the Election of Israel: An Analysis of Sifre Deuteronomy 32:9,” HUCA 35 (1964) 103-143.

Sifre Deuteronomy dates to the third century C.E. Mihaly asserts that Sifre Deuteronomy 32:9 is a response to Romans 9-11. Romans 9-11 says that membership in the people of God depends upon God’s election, not race. For certain Christians, that would explain why God is faithful to his promises to Abraham, even though he’s rejected Israel in favor of the Gentile Christians (though Romans 11 affirms that God still has a plan for “Israel after the flesh”). Paul points out that God chose Isaac rather than Ishmael, and Jacob rather than Esau, even though all of them were children of Abraham. His argument is that physical descent from Abraham doesn’t make one part of God’s chosen people; rather, it’s God’s choice. And, for many Christians, God had chosen the church over physical Israel to be his people.

Sifre Deuteronomy 32:9 disagrees, however, for it wants to preserve Israel’s status as the people of God. It understands Deuteronomy 32:9 and Psalm 135:4 to mean that God made Israel his people when he chose Jacob. Meanwhile, it maintains that Ishmael and Esau disqualified themselves from God’s promise. So, in a sense, Sifre Deuteronomy 32:9 would agree with Paul that physical descent from Abraham doesn’t matter, for Israel became God’s people after God had selected Jacob (not Abraham), who was worthy and had good offspring (though many would say to that, “Yeah, right!”). Only the Israelites were descended from Jacob, so they were God’s people.

Maybe. Maybe not. I think that, when God talks to Abraham about his seed, he’s referring to Israel, who would bless the nations. That would mean that the seed went through Isaac and not Ishmael, and Jacob rather than Esau, and that Paul is correct when he states that God’s election trumped physical descent from Abraham. Still, God did end up choosing physical Israel, so can Paul legitimately use God’s election to argue that God can dispense with that nation, while maintaining fidelity to his promise to Abraham?

4. William L. Holladay, “Hebrew Verse Structure Revisited (II): Conjoint Cola, and Further Suggestions,” JBL 118/3 (1999) 401-416.

This is another article about Hebrew poety. And it’s about cola. Often, when a poem has cola that parallel each other, they have the same amount of units. But there are times when they do not. One reason Holladay offers is that someone later inserted words to clarify things to the reader.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Gill and Jewish Sources, Patriarchs and ANE Law, Timeless Mishnah, Units in Cola

I read four articles today. Here are my reactions to them:

1. George Foot Moore, “Christian Writers on Judaism,” Harvard Theological Review 14/3 (July 1921) 197-254.

Foot Moore (as the rabbi at DePauw liked to call him) surveys the history of Christian writing on Judaism, from the second to the nineteenth century. Christianity has been negative towards Judaism, viewing it as legalistic. But it’s also looked to ancient Jewish texts to uphold Christianity. You know how Michael Brown tries to show that Christian ideas are reconcilable with respected Jewish texts, in his attempt to bring Jews to Christ? That’s what Christians have tried throughout history, only in a less sophisticated manner. Brown, as a scholar, is knowledgeable about the dates of Jewish texts. By contrast, the people Foot Moore surveys viewed the Kabbalah as older than it actually was.

A disappointment I had with Foot Moore’s article was that it didn’t discuss John Gill, an eighteenth century Calvinist who wrote a commentary on Scripture. Gill often drew on Jewish texts, usually without a missionary agenda. His aim was to understand the Bible, and he thought that the Jews had ancient traditions that could help him do that. He may have been wrong on the dating. For example, how would Maimonides help us understand the ancient Scriptures, when he lived in the thirteenth century? Maimonides and the traditions he seeks to synthesize came long after the time of the Bible. But Gill probably believed that Maimonides possessed traditions going back to Bible days. Perhaps he agreed with the rabbis that an oral tradition went back to Sinai, and the Jews possessed it.

2. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, “Patriarchal Family Relationships and Near Eastern Law,” Biblical Archaeologist 44 (Fall 1981) 209-214.

Frymer-Kensky discusses how stories in Genesis compare and contrast with second millennium legal codes. As I said in my posts, Abraham’s Slaves?, Mechanical Christianity and Holiness School Unveiled, Wife-Sister, Homosexuality, Van Seters and Friedman, Disobedient Son, there are scholars who try to uphold the historicity of the patriarchal narratives by showing how they fit a second millennium context, the time when the patriarchs would have lived (according to Genesis).

Frymer-Kensky presents a lot of good material. You know the story in which Sarah couldn’t bear children and gave her husband Abraham her slave, Hagar, to bear him a son? Second millennium legal codes show that sort of thing happening.

I don’t know whether or not Frymer-Kensky was a maximalist, one who believed in the historicity of the Bible. She says that the patriarchs came before the Torah, so they shouldn’t be judged for violating its commands (i.e., don’t marry two sisters, which Jacob did; if the firstborn is of the less-favored wife, give him the inheritance, a principle that Jacob didn’t follow). She may mean this in terms of the story, not the history, though. She also cites first millennium texts, so she somewhat plays into the hands of minimalists like John Van Seters, who argues that the patriarchal stories in Genesis can easily fit the first millennium B.C.E., which had some of the same customs as the second millennium.

Frymer-Kensky doesn’t believe that the patriarchs adhere rigidly to the ancient Near Eastern customs. For example, Isaac could have made Esau his heir on his death-bed, notwithstanding the fact that Esau had sold Jacob his birthright; but Isaac didn’t do so, perhaps because he chose to follow God rather than his own personal preferences.

3. Jacob Neusner, “Form and Meaning in Mishnah,” JAAR 45/I (1977) 27-54.

On pages 36-37, Neusner says that the Mishnah often conflates past, present, and future tenses, showing that its concern is not really the context of the situation it’s describing, but rather “a world detached from time.”

I don’t entirely understand what he’s saying here. Is his point that the Mishnah describes an ideal world and was never intended to be obeyed in real life? In the article in (2), Tikva Frymer-Kensky said that certain ancient Near Eastern legal codes were like that: they conveyed the principles of an ideal society of justice, meaning they weren’t literally followed. Biblical scholars have said the same about the Torah, for they deem such laws as the Jubilee and the cancellation of debts to be impractical (see my posts, Impractical Laws? and Impractical Laws, Part II).

I don’t think Neusner is making that point, for he talks a lot about obeying the Mishnah. But he believes that the rabbis conceived the Mishnah to be a timeless sort of document, one that portrayed a well-ordered society, which the Jews were to try to approximate.

4. William Holladay, “Hebrew Verse Structure Revisited (I): Which Words Count?”, Journal of Biblical Literature 118/1 (1999) 19-32.

To be honest, the structure of biblical poetry does not interest me, since I’m more intrigued by the theologies and ideologies within the Hebrew Bible, rather than counting beats. But poetic structure is a big topic within biblical scholarship, so I should know about it. This article was about “units.” In biblical poetry, there are cola. A bicola contains two words, and a tricola has three. And two cola are often parallel to one another, expressing similar ideas. But what counts as a word, or unit, in a cola? That’s what Holladay tackles. There are times when certain words count as a unit, and there are times when they are attached to another word, meaning two words count as one unit.

Like I said, it’s not my favorite topic!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Holiness School Unveiled, Wife-Sister, Homosexuality, Van Seters and Friedman, Disobedient Son

I focused more on reading articles today, and that meant me sitting in front of my computer screen a lot, without the entertainment of my television set (since my computer and TV are in separate rooms). So I'm tired and want to get this post written! And, because I try to comment on every item that I read, I have five topics in this post for you to enjoy.

Here they are:

1. I finished Israel Knohl's Sanctuary of Silence yesterday. So who was the Holiness School? According to Knohl, they were priests. Knohl dates the origin of the Holiness School to eighth century Judah. Northern Israel had just been subjugated by Assyria, shattering any sense of complacency within the South. And Judah was rife with oppression and social injustice, as the writings of Isaiah and Micah indicate.

During this time, you had the prophets, who prioritized social justice over the cult, even going so far as to lambaste ritual. And you had the priests, who were in their own little world, worshipping their numinous and transcendent God. The Holiness School emerged within the priesthood as a middle ground between these two extremes, to address the concerns of their time. These reformist priests agreed with the prophets on the importance of social justice, yet they also sought to preserve the rituals. And they tried to reach out to the Judean people by incorporating popular customs into their law. So the Holiness School reflected an attempt by priests to speak to the fears of the people, something they could not do in their priestly Ivory Tower. The Judeans experienced societal instability and feared that their nation would fall to the Assyrians. The Holiness School came forward with a way for them to please God and get their moral acts together, while also preserving the rituals that the priests deemed important.

One issue that deserves more study is whether or not the Priestly School (from whom the Holiness School seceded) believed in morality, or instead concentrated predominantly on ritual. Knohl somewhat equivocates on this issue. He says that the priests held that God had moral concerns before the time of Moses: God established a moral order and sent the Flood to punish violence, after all! And Knohl states that the priests believed that morality was valid even after Moses, but they chose to focus on their numinous God, one who should be worshipped for his own sake, apart from human concerns.

Yet, I get the impression from Knohl that the priests focused on the cult to the exclusion of morality. Knohl's debate with Jacob Milgrom concerns the priestly definition of sin: Milgrom says that it encompasses the ritual and the moral, whereas Knohl limits it to the cult, or sins against God, as opposed to sins against other people. And, interestingly, Knohl defines adultery (which the Priestly Torah criticizes) as a sin against God, on the basis of such passages as Psalm 51:4, in which David tells God that his sin with Bathsheba was against God alone.

But isn't every sin a sin against God? I don't know. In Jewish Yom Kippur liturgy, there's a distinction, for Jews affirm that the Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, but not sins against man, meaning Jews must make restitution to those they have harmed. And, when I did a search under "sin against God" and "sin against the LORD," the focus was largely on idolatry, or swearing falsely in God's name, which are against God. Adultery turned up too, but, as we saw above, Knohl treats that as a sin against God, not others.

Those are just my thoughts so far, and they're subject to correction.

2. The first article that I read was by Samuel Greengus, who teaches at Hebrew Union College. It's entitled "Sisterhood Adoption at Nuzi and the 'Wife-Sister' in Genesis," and it appeared in the Hebrew Union College Annual 46 (1975) 5-31. In Genesis, Abraham and Isaac tell rulers that their wives are actually their sisters so that the rulers won't kill them (Abraham and Isaac) to get at their wives. A biblical scholar named E.A. Speiser tied this with laws found in the Mesopotamian city of Nuzi in the second millennium B.C.E., the time when Abraham supposedly lived. According to Speiser, these laws allowed a man to adopt his wife as his sister, endowing her with status and privilege. Consequently, Sarah and Rebecca were showcased before the foreign kings on account of their status as "wife-sisters."

"But the kings in the story don't know they're wife-sisters," you might say. "As far as they're concerned, these women are just sisters, not wives, or 'wife-sisters.'" Speiser's response is that the authors of the biblical stories didn't understand the ancient "wife-sister" custom: they saw that Abraham and Isaac had wife-sisters, were puzzled because that didn't coincide with their own social mores, and chose to explain it away by saying that Abraham and Isaac lied to save their own skins.

Speiser's aim was probably apologetic: he wanted to show that the Abraham story coincided with the second millennium B.C.E., giving it an air of authenticity and (thus) historicity. But he ends up compromising the Bible in his attempt to uphold it. He may have been part of the school of thought that held that God's activity in history was more important than what the Bible had to say. I don't know.

Greengus' argument is that the Nuzi laws have nothing to do with wife-sisters. Rather, they pertain to men who choose to adopt women as sisters. The men get someone who can do menial work, and they can also make money off of her on the bridal market. And the woman gets a family that will protect her.

3. The second article I read was also by Dr. Greengus. It's called "A Textbook Case of Adultery in Ancient Mesopotamia," and it appeared in Hebrew Union College Annual 41 (1970) 33-43. Greengus discusses a court case in ancient Sumeria. According to J. van Dijk, what's going on is this: the woman is suing her husband because she caught him doing the nasties with another man (my paraphrase). Greengus contends, however, that the woman was actually the defendant: her husband was suing her for adultery.

Greengus notes that there is no evidence that homosexuality was a crime in Sumer or Babylonia. The only ancient Near Eastern law punishing homosexuality that he cites is from the Middle Assyrian Laws 19-20 (1097 B.C.E., according to Martha Roth), in which the penalty for sodomy is to be sodomized (sort of an "eye for an eye" deal!).

I'm not sure what to say about that. I just found it interesting.

4. The third article I read was David Carr's "Controversy and Convergence in Recent Studies of the Formation of the Pentateuch," which appeared in Religious Studies Review (1997) 22-31. Carr discussed scholars who dissent from the Documentary Hypothesis, which holds that the Pentateuch was composed of four sources: J, E, P, and D. For most advocates of this hypothesis, D came after J and E. For the dissenters from the hypothesis, however, J came after D in terms of date.

Carr criticizes these dissenters because they don't always defend why we should assume that J depends on D, rather than vice-versa. What intrigued me, though, was something in Carr's description of John Van Seters' position. For Van Seters (a dissenter), J obviously draws from the Deuteronomistic History, for the Golden Calf story and Moses' flight from Egypt parallel details in the Deuteronomist's story of Jeroboam, who set up golden calves and fled to Egypt. Van Seters dates J to the sixth-fourth centuries B.C.E., when nations were producing histories. Advocates of the Documentary Hypothesis, however, tend to date J to the tenth-ninth centuries B.C.E., and D to the times of Josiah (seventh century B.C.E.) and the Judean exile.

What interested me was that a defender of the Documentary Hypothesis, Richard Elliott Friedman, actually resembles Van Seters in an argument he makes, notwithstanding their disagreement on the Documentary Hypothesis. Friedman says that the Golden Calf story is really about the calves that Jeroboam set up. For Friedman, however, the Golden Calf story in Exodus is referring to the event of Jeroboam setting up the calves, not to the story in the Deuteronomistic History (Van Seters' position). So Friedman believes that J came before the Deuteronomistic History in date, in accordance with the Documentary Hypothesis, even though he also holds (like Van Seters) that the Golden Calf story is about Jeroboam.

I hope that's clear...

5. The fourth article I read was Joseph Fleishman's "Legal Innovation in Deuteronomy," which appeared in Vetus Testamentum 3 (2003) 3113-27. Fleishman argues that Deuteronomy 21:18-21 fleshes out and expands upon the law in Exodus 21:17, which is about stoning a disobedient son. Deuteronomy specifies that the son's not merely disobedient, but is continually disobedient, a glutton and a drunkard. Fleishman appeals to Proverbs to explain what a gluttonous drunkard is and why that's bad: basically, he's a person who's concerned only about eating and drinking and nothing else. His goal in life is to party, party, party, all of the time.

That has its downsides, but I don't think it merits being stoned to death! That's why I tend to agree with a scholar whom Fleishman cites yet disputes. She was detailing how the son was not only hurting himself with his gluttony and drunkenness, but also others. Gluttony costs money, and drunkenness can influence people to pick fights, which can result in retaliation not only against the drunkard, but against his family and tribe as well! Fleishman cites Scriptures about the bad effects of drinking, but I think that the scholar hit home for me why the disobedient son was such a menace, who needed to be dealt with (in some manner). He was like a ticking time-bomb, endangering everyone around him! Personally, I think stoning is a little extreme, and I like the concept of a second chance. But he was still a problem for society.

Those are my thoughts for the day! Time for a break.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Temple Scroll and Higher Criticism

On and off, I’ll be commenting on articles that I’ll read for my comps. This evening, I read Stephen Kaufman’s “The Temple Scroll and Higher Criticism,” which appeared in Hebrew Union College Annual 53 (1982) 29-43.

Kaufman says that the Temple Scroll demonstrates the plausibility that the Pentateuch is composed of different sources. The reason is that the Temple Scroll contains different sources: it draws from different books of the Pentateuch to create a synthesis. Obviously, the ancients felt free to use diverse sources when they composed documents. Some have criticized the Documentary Hypothesis and the view that the Gospel authors drew from sources such as Mark and Q, asserting that advocates of these ideas are projecting their own reality onto the ancients. In this case, “their own reality” is defined as scholars composing papers in a cozy Oxford study, using different sources. “The ancients didn’t do things that way,” we’re told. But, for Kaufman, the Temple Scroll from Qumran shows that they did do things that way: they composed documents, drawing from different sources. So why couldn’t the people who composed the Pentateuch do so?

But my impression is that Kaufman is skeptical about our ability to identify the sources in the Pentateuch, for, if we didn’t have the actual books of the Hebrew Bible in front of us, identifying them in the Temple Scroll would be a difficult (if not an impossible) task. There are times when the Temple Scroll quotes the Pentateuch, and there are times when it has its own stuff. We can’t really distinguish sources in the Temple Scroll according to the type of Hebrew that they use (i.e., whether it’s early or late), for the author sometimes writes in older Hebrew and paraphrases the biblical documents into later Hebrew. Advocates of the Documentary Hypothesis say that we can identify the existence of multiple sources on the basis of repetition within the Pentateuch: Why, for example, would a single author need to repeat stuff about the Flood? There must be two sources, they claim. But Kaufman points out that the author of the Temple Scroll is repetitious in the original parts of his document, the parts that don’t draw from the Bible. So a single author can be repetitious, perhaps to emphasize a point. Moreover, there are times when the author of the Temple Scroll interweaves a variety of biblical texts into a coherent whole. So something that looks coherent to us may have multiple sources behind it!

Without the Bible, we’d have a hard time dividing up the sources in the Temple Scroll. We could ”see” multiple sources in what’s by a single author, and a single author in the product of multiple sources! So how can we be dogmatic when we approach the Pentateuch, considering we’ve never even seen J, E, P, and D as documents by themselves?

Kaufman doesn’t throw higher criticism out the window, for he says we can differentiate sources on the basis of linguistic criteria (which I don’t entirely understand), and also ideological tensions within the text. His agenda may be to promote humility.

Tomorrow, I’ll continue my journey through Israel Knohl’s Sanctuary of Silence. Knohl is big on identifying the different sources of the Pentateuch. Stay tuned!

Knohl vs. Weinfeld, Christian Liberty

1. On Christmas day, one way I tried to deal with the Christmas blues was to do my homework, which consisted of translation and reading. So here’s my write-up on my Christmas reading of Israel Knohl’s The Sanctuary of Silence. In this post, I focus on pages 130-132 and 158.

Remember when I was writing that paper on the Deuteronomistic contribution to II Samuel 7 and I Kings 8:1-30? See Dtr/II Samuel 7/I Kings 8 if you want to read my posts in which I was researching for it. My point was that the priestly authors in the Bible believed that God dwelt in a sanctuary, whereas the Deuteronomists sought to get away from such theological anthropomorphism. For the Deuteronomists, God didn’t live in an earthly house, but his name did. I was echoing Moshe Weinfeld’s work on Deuteronomy and the Deuteromistic School when I made that point.

A big theme of Knohl’s book is that the priestly author was also anti-anthropmorphic in his theology. You got a taste of that in my post, Knohl on the Holiness School, Atonement, and God’s Food, where I discuss Knohl’s view that the priestly author tried to avoid any implication that God ate his animal sacrifices, whereas the Holiness author went with the popular anthromomorphic view: that God ate food. Knohl cites other examples in which the priest tries to de-anthropomorphize God. Like the rabbis centuries later, the priest tends to use the passive voice for God to avoid saying that God actually did something. Direct attribution of actions to God personalizes the deity, and that’s a no-no, as far as the priest is concerned. According to Knohl, the priest also doesn’t believe that God directly punishes people for their sins, unlike other biblical authors. In Knohl’s eyes, the God of the priestly tradition is numinous and transcendent, even though Knohl also says that God communicates with humans; God just prefers monologues to dialogues when he does so.

Knohl doesn’t really agree with Weinfeld’s scenario, in which the priest has an anthropomorphic theology that the Deuteronomist opposes. According to Knohl, the priest isn’t comfortable with describing God as living in a house. The priest rarely uses the root shachan (“dwell”) for God’s residence within the Tabernacle, instead preferring the word yaad (which BDB defines as “to meet at an appointed place”). While Knohl acknowledges that the priest uses shachan for God at Sinai (Exodus 24:16), he states that “for PT, the dwelling of the Presence on Mount Sinai is less obviously anthropomorphic than its dwelling in the Tent of Meeting, which leads directly to the association with a physical home.” There are passages in the Pentateuch in which God says that he will dwell (shachan) among the Israelites, and I don’t know to whom Knohl attributes them. But Knohl does maintain that the priest accepted the ”ancient cultic tradition” that God took up permanent residence in the earthly sanctuary; he just holds that the priest “sought to refine that imagery wherever possible” to avoid anthropomorphisms, which bring God down to the human level.

Regarding the Deuteronomist, Knohl cites verses in Deuteronomy that reflect an anthropomorphic theology. Many of them have to do with God having eyes, but one of the passages, Deuteronomy 20:4, states that God goes before the Israelites into battle to fight before them. That is slightly different from Deuteronomy 26:15, which says that God’s in heaven. The author of Deuteronomy apparently believed that God could come down to earth, so his God wasn’t utterly transcendent and removed from humanity (the non-anthropomorphic God at his best). But that doesn’t surprise me too much, for Deuteronomy 23:14 affirms that God walks about the camp of Israel.

According to Weinfeld, Deuteronomy is anti-anthropomorphic in its theology because it states that the Israelites saw no form on Horeb, but they heard a voice out of the fire (Deuteronomy 4:15). Knohl retorts that Deuteronomy isn’t saying that God doesn’t have a form, but rather that God didn’t show it to the Israelites, since God doesn’t like graven images.

Personally, I don’t think that Knohl is fair to Weinfeld. I don’t expect a comprehensive treatment of Weinfeld in a footnote, but Knohl shouldn’t act as if Weinfeld bases his characterization of Deuteronomy on Deuteronomy 4:15 alone. Knohl mentions Deuteronomy’s view that God’s name dwells at the earthly sanctuary, but (as far as I can see) he doesn’t really deal with it. And there are other factors that lead Weinfeld to his conclusions about Deuteronomy, besides Deuteronomy 4:15. Throughout the Pentateuch, the Ark of the Covenant is God’s throne. God sits on it when he’s interacting with the priests and goes out to battle. In Deuteronomy, by contrast, the ark is the container for God’s commandments. Deuteronomy appears to be going in the direction of a non-anthropomorphic theology, one that thinks God sitting on a little ark is beneath his dignity. Does that mean that Deuteronomy is totally free from anthropomorphisms? No, but neither is the priest, for Knohl acknowledges that the priest views the Tabernacle as God’s permanent residence on earth.

2. At Latin mass this morning, the topic was freedom. According to philosopher priest, we are free to follow God. It’s not a matter of God holding over our heads an external standard, as God did in Old Testament times, but of us doing God’s will because we want to.

I doubt that he believes righteousness is optional, since there have been times when he’s been big on “this is a mortal sin” and “this is a venial sin.” Mortal sins lead us to hell if we don’t repent of them. There’s nothing optional about obeying God in that scenario!

The priest made me think of something. Years ago, I had to give a Bible study on the topic of Christian liberty. To be honest, I had no idea what to say about it! The people at this church were recovering from their Armstrongite background, in which their former church told people what to believe and do, with the threat of excommunication and the Great Tribulation hanging over their heads if they deviated from the prescribed path. In the minds of these recoverers, Christian liberty meant being a little freer than that. But I wondered how the Bible defined Christian liberty. Some of it includes being free to follow one’s conscience. In the case of the first century church, that meant being free to drink wine, or to eat meat offered to idols, as long as it didn’t cause another Christian to stumble (Romans 14; I Corinthians 8). In Galatians 2 and 5, it means not having to observe the entirety of Jewish rituals in order to appease God. There are also passages about being set free from the slavery of sin (John 8:32-34; Romans 6-7); yet, as philosopher priest pointed out, Romans 6 is clear that we’re to become slaves to righteousness.

In my Bible study, I was a little disorganized, but I raised the question of how liberty fits into church discipline, which has excommunication as an option (Matthew 18). The Armstrongite church disfellowshipped and shunned people left and right. That may be wrong, but is there ever a place for those practices, and, if so, when?

Anyway, those are my ramblings for the day.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

I Kings 7: At the Library

I wrote this earlier today at the library. I'm home right now. Enjoy!

I’m at the library right now for my weekly quiet time. Today, I studied I Kings 7.

What can I say about I Kings 7? I guess I’ll start with the brass sea. I Kings 7 talks about a sea of brass, which contains water and is perched on top of twelve brass oxen. Four of the oxen face north, four face the south, four face east, and four face west. I Kings 7 says that the sea has 2,000 baths of water, whereas II Chronicles 4 states that it has 3,000 baths. Fundamentalists try to reconcile this by saying that the sea had the capacity to contain 3,000 baths, but that only 2,000 baths were actually in it.

I don’t know how much a bath is, and, to be honest, I’m too lazy to look it up right now. Plus, even if I knew how many gallons a bath was, that wouldn’t help me form a mental picture, since the sea of brass was so big. I wonder, though, how much of a difference 1,000 baths make. Let me explain. According to II Chronicles 4:6, the purpose for the sea of brass was so that the priests could wash themselves before they used the altar, which they’re commanded to do in Exodus 30:18-21. That’s why the drawing of Solomon’s temple that I saw in The Biblical World: An Illustrated Atlas places the sea right next to the bronze altar. But if the sea could hold 3,000 baths yet only had 2,000, how far did the priests have to stretch to wash their hands and their feet? The sea would serve them a lot better if it were filled to the brim; otherwise, they’d reach down to wash themselves and end up falling into the sea! So maybe we can resort to another popular conservative Christian explanation for biblical contradictions: scribal error!

Another significant detail about the sea of brass is that I Kings 7:23 and the parallel passage in II Chronicles 4 get pi wrong. According to these passages, the diameter of the sea is ten cubits, and its circumference is thirty cubits. Because the circumference is pi times the diameter, these passages apparently assume that pi is three, not 3.14. I checked Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties, and he gave two solutions in his attempt to uphold the Bible. One is that the Bible is close enough: it’s giving us an approximate figure, not an exact one. His second solution is that, if you take a rod that’s five cubits and go around the circle, you’d do so six times before you came back to your starting point. And six times five is thirty, so the circumference is thirty, in a manner of speaking. So, yay, the Bible is right!

One can point to this as a reason to reject the Bible. I’m not a fundamentalist, but I doubt that the biblical authors were stupid: they had some reason for saying what they did. At the same time, did they know geometry? And yet, even though “it’s close enough” is a pretty bad explanation—especially when we’re dealing with a book that fundamentalists dogmatically assert is inerrant in every detail—I Kings 7:23 is close on how much the circumference would be if the diameter were ten cubits.

Another explanation was one I heard in a class on medieval Jewish commentaries. It’s that the circumference in I Kings 7:23 measured the inner circle, but there was a thick outer rim around it. You had the inner pool, and the surrounding rim. So that’s where the extra inches went!

II Corinthians 7:1 came to my mind in the course of my prayer time. It says that, having these promises, we should cleanse ourselves from the defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. The promises are defined in the previous chapter: being sons and daughters of the Most High. The reason this passage came to my mind was that the priests used the sea of brass to wash themselves before they could worship, and a Christian commentary I read affirmed that we should cleanse ourselves from worldly defilement in order to serve God.

My mind turned to the whole faith vs. works debate. Here’s why: in front of the temple were two pillars, named Yachin and Boaz. Scholars have debated whether or not the pillars actually held anything up or were primarily there for show, but many of them agree that the pillars were communicating a message. Based on a number of Psalms, that message may have gone something like, “Yahweh will establish (yachin) thy throne forever,” and “In the strength (boaz) of Yahweh shall the king rejoice.”

The pillars communicated that God would be eternally faithful to the Davidic dynasty, and also that the king could rejoice in God’s strength (faith). And the pillars could serve as a place where God’s promises became manifest. When Queen Athaliah thought she had destroyed the Davidic dynasty and tyrannized Judah, the Davidic heir, Joash, stood beside one of the pillars (II Kings 11:4). God was faithful to David’s line!

But the pillar was not just a place to trust in God’s faithfulness and strength (faith): it was also a place where the king covenanted to obey God’s commandments (II Kings 23:3). Protestant thought has tended to polarize law and grace, faith and works, largely because Paul distinguished between the two (Romans 4). But, in the Hebrew Bible, the pillars that represented God’s grace and strength to those who believe were a site to affirm obedience to the law, works.

I’m not sure what to say about this. The topic makes me uncomfortable, to be honest. People may say that God shows his grace to those who obey, making grace conditional on our obedience. Others contend that grace motivates us to walk in God’s will, but their implication seems to be (in my eyes) that obedience is optional: God loves us, no matter what, regardless of how we act, but it’s a good idea not to sin. I suppose you can find proof-texts for both outlooks within the Bible. God punished Israel severely when she sinned, but she was always his people. But saying that God’s grace is for the obedient strikes me as probation, not salvation (to echo Felix). Probation is trying not to screw up because you can be tossed into jail, and some view salvation as similar to that: we’re free, but we need to be on our best behavior, otherwise God will toss us into hell after we die. Is there a way to rejoice in God’s strength and faithfulness, while also valuing obedience, with the recognition that God takes morality seriously (meaning it’s not optional)?

As far as cleansing myself from the world goes, I have a hard time with that. For one, what’s it mean? That I have to give up Desperate Housewives? Second, I personally don’t try to become perfect before I worship God. When I started my quiet time this morning, I was not perfect—far from it! I was moody and resentful and a bunch of other things. But as I did my quiet time, my mind became cleansed. Right now, I’m still not perfect, but I feel a little more “in my right mind” (Mark 5:15—I was already clothed!). So it’s not so much a matter as me cleaning myself up to approach God. It’s God cleaning me up as I spend time in his presence.

Does this contradict our text, or what it symbolizes: that the priests needed to wash themselves before they could approach the altar? Maybe. Maybe not. Hebrews 9:14 affirms that the blood of Christ cleanses us from dead works so we can serve the living God. It’s recalling the ashes of the red heifer in Numbers 19, which were put in water so that the Israelites could purify themselves from corpse contamination and worship God at the Tabernacle. Here, at least, the Old Testament purity system foreshadows what Christ does for us through his blood, not our efforts to become morally pure. We cleanse ourselves, though, when we trust in what Christ has done for us, in his grace and love.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas: God Becomes Less Aloof

I just came back from Latin mass and Indian food. Unfortunately, the Indian restaurant didn’t have its buffet, so I ordered a lamb dish. My Grandma sent me money so I can have a good Christmas (or Christmas weekend) dinner, and I spent it on this particular meal. The bonus is that I got to take home my leftovers. It’s also interesting that spicy food makes me sweat. Too bad it’s not cold outside, because then I’d have another bonus—food making me warm!

For Latin mass, we had philosopher priest. I went to the Christmas carols thirty minutes before the actual service, and, surprisingly, they went pretty fast! I was expecting to be sitting there stewing in my bitter thoughts, with the time slowly dragging on. But, although I had bitter thoughts, I wasn’t totally in the dumps.

The homily was about how we’re told that we’re supposed to be happy on Christmas, but that nothing on earth can make us truly happy. For philosopher priest, we need a reason to be happy on Christmas, and that reason is that Christ came to earth to save us.

Yesterday, I watched Star Wars movies all day, while I read Israel Knohl’s Sanctuary of Silence. I try to share something from my reading every weekday, so today I’ll explain why the book is called Sanctuary of Silence. For Knohl, the author of the priestly Torah (PT) believes that Moses inaugurated a new picture of God, which differed from what came before. Before, God related to human beings, who were made in God’s image. In the time of Moses, however, when Israel learned that God’s name was Yahweh, a theological shift took place: Israel was to worship God for God’s sake, not on account of any rewards she might receive. God was holy and numinous, and spoke only to a few people. And, when God did speak, there was no dialogue: it was God spoke, and Moses listened! The priest also tried to tone down anthropomorphisms, since his picture of God entailed a being who was above and beyond humans. And what was the “sanctuary of silence”? The priest doesn’t record prayers or Psalms in his liturgy. For Knohl, the priest’s ideal was for people to be silent before a majestic God. Knolh cites Psalm 65:2: to you (God), silence is praise. That corresponds with my latest post on my weekly quiet time, I Kings 6: At the Library: the Israelites weren’t making noise when they were at the sanctuary site, building the temple.

It’s hard for me to see this as a step up, especially when, on Christmas, we celebrate God doing the exact opposite: God the Son left his heavenly abode and became a man, living among human beings. Now, God isn’t removed from us as he once was, for there is a member of the Godhead who was once one of us (and still is, if you believe Christ is a glorified man), who experienced what we have to go through. Christmas is about God becoming less aloof, not more so!

There was a time when I was drawn to the priestly portrayal of God—as holy and pure and majestic. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. In my opinion, that should balance a perception that God is loving, like a friend. As a pastor once said, we can play with the prince and have fun with him and be friends with him, but he’s still the prince.

As far as “loving God for his own sake, not for what he can do for us” goes, I’m open to that, as long as I’m not adopting the Calvinistic mindset when I embrace such a concept, one that expects us to glorify a cold deity “for his own sake” and not care how he treats people. My God is good to me, but he has purposes above and beyond me personally: he wants to benefit all of his creation. And he desires to involve me in that larger picture, in some way, shape, or form.

But the beginning of God’s kingdom occurred when Jesus was born, which is what this day claims to commemorate. So, for all who celebrate Christmas (no, I’m not waging the Christmas wars!), I say, “Merry Christmas!”

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Knohl on the Holiness School, Atonement, and God's Food

I started a book yesterday: Israel Knohl's The Sanctuary of Silence: The Priestly Torah and the Holiness School. I didn't really get what he was driving at as I read Chapter 1, "The Sabbath and Festivals." Fortunately, he gave a summary at the end of the chapter:

We have called the ritual outlook of HS [(the Holiness School)] "priestly popular." The blending of popular and priestly elements is particularly noticeable in the HS firstfruits and feast of Booths passages. Another expression of synthesis is the "Day of Atonement," which combines the priestly purification ceremonies with the strict prohibition of labor and the injunction to practice self-affliction on the tenth day of the seventh month, which was the creation of the popular tradition. (45)

One point he made that somewhat threw me was that Leviticus 16 doesn't specify the date of the atonement ceremony, in which sin is expiated and removed into the wilderness through the ritual of the two goats. Actually, v 29 does mentions the date, along with the requirement that the Israelites deny themselves and do no work. For Knohl, v 29 is the Holiness School's contribution to this chapter. One way he seeks to identify the Holiness School in the Pentateuch is by noticing things that are out of place with priestly ideology, and that accord with Holiness School material. According to Knohl, the Holiness School emphasizes that God's Torah is for the Israelite and the alien alike, a concept that appears in Leviticus 16:29; therefore, v 29 is from the Holiness School, whereas the part of Leviticus 16 about the two goats is from the priests (P).

I wonder how Knohl would address Leviticus 16:2, which states that the priests are not to come into the sanctuary at any time. Doesn't that imply that the "two goats" ceremony is to occur at a specific time each year, later identified as the tenth day of the seventh month (v 29)? Knohl may respond that v 2 just means that a priest can't stroll into the sanctuary anytime he wishes (as did Nadab and Abihu), but that the high priest is to enter the innermost sanctuary according to a very specific protocol. If Leviticus 16:2 were concerned about the exact date of the ceremony, it's odd that the chapter doesn't even mention it until v 29!

After I read page 45, I understood a little better Knohl's point about another issue: whether God eats the animal sacrifices. Knohl states:

PT [(the Priestly Torah)] is very careful not to make any direct connection between the Lord and food; thus it will never speak of "the Lord's food," but rather of "the food of the Lord's fires" or "a fire of pleasing odor to the Lord." This avoidance apparently stems from the desire to refine the idea that sacrifices are God's food. In contrast, HS readily uses the expressions "the food of your God," "the food of his God," "the food of their God" (Lev 21:6, 8, 21, 22; 22:5; cf. Ezek 44:7).

According to Knohl, the Priestly Torah tries to avoid the implication that God eats the animal sacrifices, whereas the Holiness School conforms to the popular understanding: that God eats. This was an ancient Near Eastern idea, for the Atrahasis Epic presents the gods being hungry during the Flood because no one was offering them sacrifices. And why would Psalm 50 emphatically deny that God eats sacrifices, if there were not people who believed that he did?

A question I'll have as I read through Knohl's book is, "Who is the Holiness School"? Were they priests trying to bring priestly rituals to the popular level, by mixing them with the customs of the masses? Were they scribes who believed that it was the responsibility of all of the Israelites to be holy, not just the priests, a key theme in the Holiness writings? I doubt it was a guy off the street who composed the Holiness writings, for the school had to know how to write, and that was something only elites could do, at least at that stage in Israel's history (though this is a discussion in itself, as there's Deuteronomy 6:9 to address). So what elite was it?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Wrapping Up Van Seters' Abraham Book

I finished John Van Seters' Abraham in History and Tradition yesterday. I feel a "nap attack" coming over me, so I don't want to write too much.

Van Seters dates most of the Abraham story to the exilic and post-exilic periods. He thinks that Genesis 15's statement that the Promised Land would extend from the Nile to the Euphrates dates to the Neo-Babylonian period, when Babylon possessed that land. He also says that God's unconditional covenant with Abraham and his descendants in Genesis 15 was crafted specifically to appeal to Jews during the exile: they had just blown the conditional covenant, in which they had to obey God's commandments to occupy the land, so they needed assurance that they were still God's people; God's promises to bless Abraham's descendants on account of Abraham (e.g., Genesis 22) gave them that assurance. Later, according to Van Seters, the priestly author added his contribution. He was responsible for Genesis 17, the circumcision chapter, which encouraged every Jewish family to affirm the covenant by circumcising its newborn boys. The priestly author fits Israel's post-exilic period, Van Seters argues.

Van Seters has problems with the Documentary Hypothesis, which posits four independent sources in the Pentateuch: J, E, P, and D. He supports more of a Supplementary Hypothesis, in which there's a story that later authors add on to. He thinks that J (the Yahwist) handled earlier sources about Abraham, and that P added his stuff to J.

Did I find Van Seters convincing? I didn't look up all of his Scripture references, so I'm not entirely clear about where he's coming from. His statement about the parameters of the Promised Land in Genesis 15 fitting the Neo-Babylonian Period reminded me of a similar claim by Jacob Milgrom, only Milgrom stated the Israel's promised boundaries in Numbers 34 resemble the Egyptian empire of the thirteenth century B.C.E., meaning it reflects a very early source. Numbers 34's boundaries don't go from the Nile to the Euphrates, though.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I just came back from Invictus. Invictus is about the South African rugby team, which Nelson Mandela saw as a means to unite his nation. At the beginning of his presidency, black South Africans viewed the team as a symbol of Apartheid, so they mostly rooted for its opponents. Nelson Mandela himself rooted for its opponents for many years, but he changed his mind once he became President.

His aim was to reconcile whites and blacks. Part of his reason was practical, for he recognized that the white minority still owned the police and much of the economy, so it needed to be appeased. But he also sincerely believed in the power of forgiveness. To his black security guard, who didn't like the idea of working alongside white security agents, Mandela said that forgiveness can free a person from fear. To his daughter, who remarked that the Matt Daimon character looked like the white policemen who threw the Mandelas out of their home, Nelson said that he had to put the well-being of the nation ahead of personal resentment.

Even in his day-to-day life, Nelson Mandela was humble and loving to those around him. When Matt Daimon asked a white security guard what kind of man Mandela is, the guard replied that the previous president didn't know who he was, but Mandela brought him his favorite food from England.

There are many powerful moments in the movie: the black child dancing with the white police officers after the rugby team's victory, Matt Daimon visiting Nelson Mandela's prison cell (which, according to Roger Ebert, actually was Mandela's prison cell), etc. But the scenes that had the most impact on me were the ones in which Mandela walked out into the stadium with a wide smile, hunched over because of his old age, waving as some booed him. That humanized Mandela for me, so I couldn't help but like him.

I didn't know anything about Rugby before I saw this movie, but it looks like football, only without the protective gear. Ouch!

The Trinity in Genesis 18-19?

I read more of John Van Seter's Abraham in History and Tradition. I hope to finish the book today or tomorrow. It has a lot of his (and others') ideas about the layers within the text, and that's not always easy for me to follow.

What caught my eye yersterday was something he said about Genesis 18, in which three visitors come to Abraham. He notes that 18:1-5 alternates between the singular and the plural when it talks about Abraham's visitors, and that some have suggested an interesting solution: the "original story had to do with the appearance of three deities, traveling incognito, to an elderly couple who offer them hospitality and are rewarded for it. This story was then presumably reworked by the Yahwist under the influence of monotheism to make it appear that the three really represent one deity" (202). For this view, Van Seters cites such luminaries as Gunkel and Von Rad.

Van Seters doesn't care for dividing Genesis 18 according to the singular and plural references to the three visitors. He thinks that such an approach has taken liberties with the text, and that the division does not reveal "clearly structured, self-contained units." The unity of the story is disrupted, as when the Documentary Hypothesis applies its knife to the Pentateuch.

I'm not in the mood right now to read the text in Hebrew to see the singular and plural references, nor do I have the time this morning to do so. I will say that I recall a medieval Jewish commentator who said that Abraham primarily talks to one of the three visitors because he was the head of the group, so addressing the one was the same as addressing the three. That's why Abraham alternates between talking to one of the visitors and talking to all three of them. Another Jewish interpretation (if I understood it correctly) actually distinguishes God's visit to Abraham in v 1 from the three men's visit later in the chapter. In this interpretation, the three men are angels who speak for God, so they're not God himself. The rabbis and the medieval commentators had to contend with the Christian Trinity, for which Christians deemed Genesis 18 a strong proof-text.

When I was at Harvard, I had to read the Sodom and Gomorrah story for my Hebrew class. My instructor asked me to explain Genesis 19:24, which states that the "LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven" (NRSV). Why did this verse have two LORDs? My response was, "Well, from a Christian perspective, it could be talking about the Trinity." Church fathers used this verse to argue that there was more than one LORD, meaning Jesus was God along with the Father. And I wanted to boldly uphold Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, which I considered a bastion of liberalism and heathenism. So I responded as I did.

At first, I heard snickers from the class. Then, the instructor replied that the verse could be emphatic: it really wanted to stress that the LORD sent down fire and brimstone out of heaven! That's a rule in biblical study: You have to read the text in light of its historical context, not in light of later Christian doctrines. The former approach assumes that the text is the product of human authors, who didn't know about the Trinity, since the concept was developed centuries later; the latter treats it as the product of a divine author, who was aware of the truth of Christianity even when Genesis was written. This is my summary of the ideological battles behind textual interpretation, but I realize that the situation is a little more complex than that. After all, Van Seters refers to Gunkel and Von Rad, who were Christians and historical-critics at the same time. Somehow, they managed to read Genesis 18 in light of the Trinity within the rules of historical-criticism!

In the course of the discussion, a student from Episcopal Divinity offered thoughts that buttressed my point. In Genesis 19:13, the two men say that they are about to destroy the city. The text seems to alternate between the two men destroying the city and the LORD doing so. Were the two men the LORD? They left behind the third messenger in Genesis 18, and he was probably the LORD because he negotiated with Abraham over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. When Genesis 19:24 says that the LORD rained fire from the LORD out of heaven, are there three LORDs: two on earth and one in heaven? The one in heaven would've been the one who'd just negotiated with Abraham in Genesis 18.

Nowadays, I don't like to read the Hebrew Bible in light of Christianity, but I must admit that it's tempting to do so when I look at Genesis 18-19! I wonder how historical-critics approach these chapters. Do they say that angels speak for God in the Hebrew Bible, so, when angels do something, that's the same as God doing it? But then many Christians would say that the Angel of the Hebrew Bible was actually Jesus Christ!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Van Seters on the Documentary Hypothesis

I continued through John Van Seter's Abraham in History and Tradition while I watched Commander in Chief, which stars Geena Davis, Donald Sutherland, Zach from Saved by the Bell, Peter Coyote, Claire from Heroes (on one episode), and others. Lynette's mom from Desperate Housewives is also on it, though she doesn't bake her special marijuana brownies! (She has a gambling problem, though). And she dates Orsen Bean, Loren from Dr. Quinn, who's on Desperate Housewives this season. I like the West Wing a little bit better, but Commander in Chief is still pretty good. Too bad they never released the final five episodes!

Van Seters doesn't care much for the Documentary Hypothesis, which divides the Pentateuch into four sources: J, E, P, and D. One way scholars have tried to distinguish J from E is to say that J uses the divine name "Yahweh," whereas E prefers "Elohim." The problem is that there are cases in which "the alternation in the use of the divine name has resulted in the complete fragmentation of otherwise unified stories and episodes" (127).

This is something I noticed in high school, when I first learned about the Documentary Hypothesis and wrote a paper against it for my Bible Lit class. There are times when the division of sources makes sense and you can isolate two stories about the same topic (e.g., creation, perhaps the flood) that stand pretty well on their own. But there are also times when a source doesn't make sense by itself but needs the details of the other source for the story to be coherent, and that's where the Documentary Hypothesis fragments unified stories. I wonder, however, if that throws advocates of the Documentary Hypothesis, leaving them speechless. Couldn't they just say that our Pentateuch doesn't have all of E (to use an example), but that the people who combined J and E drew from E without quoting all of it?

Then, there's the question of why J and E have parallel stories in the first place. Why do J and E both have similar stories about (say) Abraham? Biblical scholar Martin Noth proposed that both of them are relying on a common source: the Grundlage (G). But Van Seters is skeptical. He asks why J or E departed from the Grundlage, since their accounts differ from one another, notwithstanding their similarities.

I could be wrong, but my impression of Van Seter's view on the composition of the Pentateuch is that he believes J offered the foundational story, and later writers added to it. For him, that's a better way to account for the unity and diversity in the Pentateuch.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Abraham's Slaves?, Mechanical Christianity

1. For my comps, I’m reading John Van Seter’s Abraham in History and Tradition. His thesis so far appears to be that the Abraham story was written in the first millennium B.C.E., not the second millennium. People who believe in a historical Abraham tend to go with the latter date, since it’s closer to when Abraham supposedly lived (according to the Bible).

Thus far, Van Seters is arguing that Abraham doesn’t fit the profile of a nomad, the sort of person he would have been had he lived in the second millennium B.C.E. My impression is that Van Seters thinks the first millennium B.C.E. author is trying to portray Abraham as a nomad, but he doesn’t truly understand nomadic life, since it’s so far removed from him, being in the previous millennium and all. Consequently, the author includes anachronisms in his story. We encounter some of the usual debates in Van Seters: Were camels domesticated in the second millennium B.C.E., as the Abraham story narrates? (Van Seters says “no.”) What stood out to me was something Van Seters says on page 18: Why would a genuine nomad like Abraham need slaves (see Genesis 12:16; Genesis 14:14-15), when ”Such a slavery-based economy is not part of the nomadic way of life because it has no need for a cheap labor force, and there is nothing in the second millennium sources to suggest that nomads retained slaves as part of their social way of life”? According to Van Seters, “Slave ownership has its place in the settled urban economic system of antiquity with its stratification of society and its large private households, its royal and temple estates.” For Israel, that existed in the first millennium B.C.E., not the second, so the Abraham story reflects a first millennium context.

Personally, I don’t care much about the maximalist/minimalist debate. As I’ve said before, even if the maximalists are right and the Bible has historical accuracies, that doesn’t prove the Jewish or Christian religion, for the biblical authors’ interpretation of events remains unsubstantiated. Still, I can somewhat understand the maximalist agenda, for, if the events did not happen, that can jettison the legitimacy of the biblical authors’ interpretation of them. For maximalists with a religious agenda, there needs to be a historical Abraham for the religious significance of Abraham to be valid, and so they try to argue that Abraham could have existed against minimalists who say he could not. Do the maximalists prove their religion? No, but they hope to establish a prerequisite for their religion being true: the historical plausibility of the stories.

I don’t know enough to refute Van Seters, though there’s no shorter of conservative scholars who are out to overthrow minimalist arguments. But I’m not sure if the existence of slaves in the Abraham story is an anachronism. For one, the Egyptians gave them to him, and my hunch is that they were the sort of society that would have had slaves, even if Abraham’s tribe was not. They may have figured that Abraham would find some use for them. But, second, maybe Abraham did use them for certain labors, such as tending his flocks and herds.

That said, I’m not going to try to refute everything Van Seters says. The old fundamentalist James may have tried that, and he was a real digger for information. The current James, who doesn’t have a lot of time on his hands and isn’t interested in buttressing biblical inerrancy, won’t be excavating the world in an attempt to defend maximalism. All I’ll say is that there are people who do that, so what I read in Van Seters may not be the end of the story.

2. For Latin mass this morning, we had the priest who speaks about love. He was saying that we should prepare to meet our God this coming Christmas. He didn’t mean “die,” but he was making a point similar to what I said in yesterday’s post, I Kings 6: At the Library: in the midst of your own plans, be sure to remember God. But I had mixed reactions to the priest’s advice on how to do that. He urged us to examine ourselves. He also said that “counting our blessings” is selfish, since we should focus on sharing our blessings with others. And he urged us to remember the lonely, people who’d be happy to spend a few minutes with us.

On self-examination, I don’t care for that, notwithstanding II Corinthians 13:5’s command that we examine ourselves, whether we be in the faith. What’s the purpose of self-examination? “Oh, I have weaknesses, so I must not be a true Christian”? I don’t need that in my life!

Over my Thanksgiving break, I took a look at my old prayer journals. I was amazed at how hard I tried to be something I was not. I was supposed to pray for my enemies and their well-being, and so I did so, even though I hated their guts. I had to desire the conversion of non-believers, and so I prayed that people might become Christians. I asked God to take away my lust.

Years later, I don’t practice this mechanical form of Christianity, but I aim for some of the same ideals, even if I don’t shoot as high. I’m not going to pretend that I love my enemies, but I try to remember that God loves them, and that I have no right to undermine them. I don’t really pray for others to become Christians anymore, for faith is a personal choice. I guess that, if I follow that command in any manner, it’s when I pray that God might convince people that he loves them, giving them peace and hope. And God didn’t take away my lust, but I realize that I should regulate it, since it can lead to bad consequences. So I’m no longer seeking to adjust myself to a list of “do this, don’t do that, be this way, don’t be that way,” but I feel I’m more authentic now than I was then.

On counting blessings, I don’t go through the phone book of all my blessings and say “thank you.” I think I should say a blessing over my meals, but I don’t try to make myself feel better by counting the ways in which I’m better off than others. Maybe, in a stray moment, I’ll express gratitude over having a place to live, but I don’t list all of my blessings in my prayer times. But I do thank God for good days. For example, yesterday, I felt good. I had a good quiet time, people were nice to me, and I watched a good show on TV, Commander-in-Chief. That day was a blessing, so I expressed gratitude, not to fulfill an obligation, but because I looked at the day and realized it was good. 

Is counting blessings selfish? I once worked with people with mental retardation, and I had a spiritual advisor. He said that some people exploit others’ misfortunes as a way to make themselves feel better. He referred to the saying that “I didn’t appreciate my arms, until I saw someone who lacked one,” or something like that. I think I should appreciate what I have, but can I thank God, especially when there are many who don’t have certain blessings? Counting blessings can lead to a theodicy problem.

As far as comforting the lonely goes, I’m not sure how I’ll do that this year. I don’t always know what to say to people over the phone. Maybe I’ll figure out something!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

I Kings 6: At the Library

I'm in the library right now, and my eyes are bigger than my stomach---metaphorically speaking, that is. There are all these books that I want to check out, but I have so little time to read them, since I'm reading for my comps.

One of the books I'm looking at is Harvard professor Harvey Cox's The Future of Faith. He talks about how many people nowadays see themselves as "spiritual" rather than "religious," and he offers some personal anecdotes, so his book may be an enjoyable read. The other book is by another person at Harvard, humanist chaplain Greg Epstein. His book is entitled Good without God.

For some reason, I've been hungry for writings that are skeptical about religion. I became a "follower" recently of such blogs as "Why I De-Converted from Evangelicalism" (Ken Pulliam), "Debunking Christianity" (John W. Loftus), and "Common Sense Atheism." What intrigues me is that these are people who were once Christians, yet they decided to chuck their faith. I think there are many reasons that I like them: my own hostility to Christian dogmatism, my belief that life is more complex than Christian apologists like to argue---more than that, my impression that the Bible is more interesting, complex, and stranger than Christian apologists often present, in their attempt to sanitize the Bible by explaining away the hard stuff. I'm not interested in trading a Christian dogmatism for an atheistic brand, but I think that atheists are more sensitive than a lot of Christians to how strange the Bible really is. Atheists see that as a reason to chuck it; I view it as an opportunity to explore it as I make it a part of my intriguing and unpredictable spiritual journey.

And speaking of weekly quiet time! What do I make of I Kings 6? I approached this chapter thinking, "This is just about the dimensions of the temple---big deal!" I leave it wondering if I understand anything!

The chapter has a lot of tensions. It uses the Phoenician names for months (vv 1, 37-38), and commentators like to point out that the Israelite temple resembles the sanctuaries of Phoenicia. (I remember that Byker Bob said he mentioned this to some Christians when he was a non-believer!) Yet, v 7 stresses that the temple was made of unhewn stones, and that no tool was heard while the temple was being built. Why's this important? Scholars are puzzled as to why the Torah prohibits the use of tools in the construction of altars (see Exodus 20:25; Deuteronomy 27:5), which may be the basis for I Kings 6:7's statement. But some say that the Torah wants to distinguish Israelite worship from the of the Canaanites, who used polished, hewn stones for certain objects of worship. So the Israelites absorb foreign customs, even as they try to reject them...

...if they're even trying to reject them! Some interpret I Kings 6:7 to mean that the Israelites hewed the stones away from the temple area, meaning that they worked in silence when they were at the temple site. The Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary compared this to a Sumerian account, in which a man building a temple insisted that there be no noise in the construction area. Perhaps this is all about reverence. Be quiet and respectful when you're doing something sacred, such as constructing a temple at the site of the sanctuary (Habakkuk 2:20).

Some think I Kings 6:7 says the temple was built of unhewn stones; others say it means the stones were hewn away from the temple construction area. Option 1 makes more sense to me when I look at the Hebrew. But the problem is that I Kings 5:31 and 6:36 refer to the use of hewn stones in the construction of the temple. So the chapter seems to make a big deal about the stones being unhewn by a tool (possibly in accordance with the Torah), right before it mentions hewn stones! What's going on here?

The things I got out of this chapter are certainly time appropriate, with Christmas coming up this week. My Armstrongite background says that Christmas is a pagan holiday and that Christians shouldn't observe it in honor of Christ, who dislikes paganism. After all, does not Deuteronomy 12:30-32 tell the Israelites not to observe the customs of the Canaanites in their worship of the LORD, but to follow the Torah, neither adding to it nor subtracting from it? Yet, the Israelites borrowed from other nations. They understood their God in light of foreign mythologies, such as the story in which a god triumphs against the chaotic sea. In the Solomonic temple, we encounter the concepts of cherubim guarding the god, of a sea at rest, of pomegranates that may represent prosperity; these are ideas that appear elsewhere in the ancient Near East.

There are two things that come together to make a good lesson, in my humble opinion. First, there's I Kings 6:1, which dates the temple 480 years after the time of the Exodus. Scholars debate whether or not we should accept this figure, since a later date for the Exodus seems to fit history a little better. I was intrigued by the insights of E.W. Bullinger and Jimmy Swaggart (whom I don't put in the category of "scholar," but there are many gems in his study Bible). They note that there were more than 480 years between the Exodus and the construction of the temple, but that I Kings 6:1 is not counting certain years in its calculation: the years in which the Israelites were under foreign oppression in the Book of Judges, as punishment for their sin. According to Swaggart, the point here is that God forgets our sins, and also that sin is a waste. God chooses to count the time that Israel was a free nation, rather than getting bogged down in the sordid details of her history.

Second, there's vv 11-13. I Kings 6 describes the temple, vv 11-13 interrupts its grand account, and then the chapter resumes its description. Essentially, vv 11-13 is God telling Solomon that he'll dwell in Israel's midst if Solomon obeys God's commandments. God's not going to dwell in Israel's midst because he's impressed with a fancy building, for his desire is that Israel love God and neighbor---the important aspects of religion. Here Israel is, getting caught up in her plans on what to do for God, absorbing some foreign customs and rejecting others as she builds the temple, and God stops Solomon to give him a brief reminder about what's truly important: God and what God stands for.

God focuses the attention on himself: the one who freed Israel from Egypt and loved her and imparted to her his righteous standard. He doesn't want Israel to forget that. I'm reminded of a post I read on Lawson Stone's blog, "Stone's Fence" (see my blogroll). He said that his wife was at a conference, and he was going there to meet her for lunch. His problem was that the conference rooms all looked alike, so he couldn't find the one in which his wife was. He ended up waiting in the wrong conference room! His spiritual lesson was that many religions have common lessons and ideas, but only Christianity has Jesus, the one he loves and who loves him. That's what I see in I Kings 6: Israel borrows from other cultures even as she tries to remain faithful to the Torah (somewhat), and God reminds her not to forget him in all her religion. After all, God's the one who loves them.

This year, I'm not going to make a big deal about Christmas, though I may watch a few Christmas movies. I don't know to what extent borrowing from pagan cultures is okay, if it even is okay. But I hope to keep in my mind the God who loves me. In my mind, that's what's important!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Origen the Arian?---Not This Time!, Origen on Soul Sleep

I completed Henri Crouzel’s biography of Origen yesterday. As I read, I jotted down page numbers with things I could discuss on this blog. I have ten of them! This morning, I’m not in much of a mood to write, so I’ll focus only on two topics that stood out to me:

1. One of Crouzel’s agendas is to rehabilitate Origen’s reputation, since Christians who came after Origen labelled him a heretic. According to Crouzen, some accused Origen of being an Arian, one who believed that the Word who became Jesus Christ was a creation of God. The position that became orthodox, by contrast, holds that the Word has always existed. Origen used the Greek words ktizein, ktisis, and ktisma for the Word, and these words carry the connotation of creation. Crouzel argues, however, that their meaning was much more fluid before the Trinitarian controversy, for Pope Dionysius affirmed that “The expression ektisen, as you know, does not have a single sense” (175). Consequently, ktizein can mean “create,” but it can also refer to the Son’s eternal generation from the Father, in which the Father is eternally the source of the Son. For Crouzel, Origen meant the latter, so he’s orthodox.

This stood out to me because I’ve been interested in Arianism for the past year or two, as my posts Good Nimrod, Justin the Arian?, Projecting, Tertullian the (Semi-)Arian?, and Eusebius and Arianism indicate. Proverbs 8:22 was applied in early Christian circles to the Son, who was equated with Wisdom, yet the Septuagint for that passage states that God ektisen (created) Wisdom. Is that evidence for Arianism from the Septuagint, the Bible of early Christianity? Crouzel would say, “Not so fast!”, for ektisen could have meant other things besides “create.”

I wonder how the “orthodox” side in the Nicene controversy handled ektisen in Proverbs 8:22. Crouzel states that terminology became tighter at that time, but my impression is that the orthodox would have to posit fluidity in the word in order to save it from becoming an indisputable Arian proof-text.

Crouzel’s discussion here also piqued my interest because it reminded me of a thinker I read in a historiography class. His view was that we interpret history in light of what came after, and that may give us a skewed picture of the past. That’s what Crouzel says was going on with later critics of Origen: they interpreted his use of ktizein according to their understanding of the word, in their context, shaped by the outcome of the Nicene controversy, when it could have meant something different to Origen.

2. Under my post, Hit Over the Head with Canon, Origen on the Devil’s Salvation and Soul Sleep, Byker Bob asked me for more information about the Thnetospychites, who believed that the soul died with the body and came back to life at the resurrection. It’s similar to “soul sleep” or “conditional immorality,” which is held by Armstrongites, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even some mainstream Christians. Origen opposed this position, however.

There’s more detail on Origen’s position on page 239, and, to be honest, I have to guess what he’s driving at. The source is ComJn XIII, 61 (59), 247-230. My impression of Origen’s argument is this: I Corinthians 15 says that the body must “put on” immortality, which implies that immortality is not something that’s inherent to it. But it doesn’t say that about the soul, so it must be inherently immortal.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Loftus on How to Increase Your Blog Traffic

John W. Loftus has a post entitled How To Increase Traffic to Your Blog or Website. I’m putting it here so I’ll have access to it, in case I ever want to become big.

Davies on Canon, Afterlife, an Internal Jesus (Who Gets Hungry)

I finished Philip Davies’ Scribes and Schools yesterday.

My impression of his argument is that he believes the canon of the Hebrew Bible was roughly determined in the Hasmonean Period, when Israel was eager to establish a national identity against the Hellenizers, who wanted the Jews to absorb Greek culture. For Davies, the biblical ideas of a monarch and Israelite dominance over foreign aggressors would especially resonate in the time of the Hasmoneans, after the Maccabees had defended their culture from Antiochus Epiphanes, achieved independence for their nation, and set up a priest-king as ruler. Davies acknowledges that there was a Jewish culture before the Hasmoneans rose to power, for the Maccabees were obviously fighting for certain beliefs and customs in their battles against Antiochus; he also doesn’t assume that the biblical books originated during the Hasmonean Period, for he dates the Torah to the Persian Period, when the Jews entered the “Promised Land,” established a temple state, and had to distinguish themselves from the people already in the land, issues that the Torah highlights. But Davies seems to think that the Hasmonean Period was the time when Jews consciously turned their focus on their national culture and the scribal class made decisions about which books to emphasize and preserve. They had to at that time, for Hellenizers were challenging Jewish culture with an alternative way of doing things! The Jews had to sit down and decide what their culture actually was and would be.

At the same time, not everything was set in stone, for some even after the Hasmonean Period believed that Ben Sira was inspired. Yet, Josephus acts as if the Jews had a canon of twenty-two books in his day. And, although Davies acknowledges the possibility that Jubilees may have been authoritative in certain circles of Judaism, his tendency seems to be to treat canon as somewhat official after the time of the Hasmoneans. He disputes those who argue that the Qumran Temple Scroll was intended to replace the Torah, for example, seeing it as something like Tatian’s Diatessaron, an attempt to harmonize the four Gospels. The implication is that the Jews viewed the Torah as canon, so their aim was to interpret and harmonize it, not to replace it. Davies also doesn’t associate the rabbinic disputes as to which books defile the hands (i.e., are inspired) with an attempt to determine their canonicity. For him, canonicity was roughly determined centuries before, during the Hasmonean Period.

This is my understanding of Davies’ position. I may be inaccurate in some areas, for scholars are nuanced, and it’s quite easy for me to miss what they’re getting at.

I thought about the issue of the afterlife, for some reason. In my eyes, the lack of a rigorous conception of the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible has been an indication that it’s largely pre-exilic, since the nations of the ancient Near East (except for Egypt) also lacked a rigorous conception of the afterlife: people went to Sheol, and that was it! Here, the Hebrew Bible mirrors its ancient Near Eastern neighbors before Israel’s exile, meaning we should understand it against the backdrop of Akkadian and Ugaritic sources rather than Greek ones. Some have suggested that the Jews got the idea of resurrection from the Persians. If that’s the case, then it’s odd that the Torah wouldn’t explicitly mention it, if (as Davies argues) the Persian Period was when it was composed.

At the same time, there were die-hards against an afterlife even in the Hellenistic Period. Jesus Ben Sira was one of them. The Book of Ecclesiastes was another one, if it dates to the Hellenistic Period. This had puzzled me whenever I’ve sought to incorporate things into a scheme of progressive revelation, in which God reveals to his people a conception of the afterlife when he feels they are ready. A concept of the afterlife existed in the Hellenistic Period, and prominent Jewish people rejected it! Qoheleth was still puzzled about why life is so short and futile, even though there was a concept in his day that could have solved his dilemma—one that claimed there was life beyond the grave! Maybe it took a while for God’s people to become “ready” for that idea.

Now for Henri Crouzel’s Origen. As I read Crouzel yesterday, I was reminded of something a friend once told me. He was an older gentleman, and I tutored him to help him read better. He said that his pastor told him there’s a Jesus inside of every Christian, and that Jesus gets hungry, so we need to feed him by reading the Bible, going to church, etc. Origen was saying something similar. It’s an odd concept. I mean, Jesus is in heaven, so how’s he inside of every Christian? Yet, the Bible talks a lot about “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Shopping for Churches, Odd Psalms for Corporate Worship, Imitatio Dei

As an ice-breaker before I get into my write-up on my readings, I want to share a post by Rachel Held Evans: Finding Our Notch in the Bible Belt. It’s about her search for a church at the time that she wrote the post. She wanted one that cares for the poor, creates an environment that encourages intellectual honesty, stays out of politics, and allows women into leadership positions. I like her following statement:

Often I am told that my expectations are unrealistic, that church isn’t about getting what I want out of it, but rather about putting more of myself into it. I’ve been told that to search for a church that “fits” is to subject the Church to consumerism, to put my own needs above those of others. While I believe this sentiment is true to an extent, I also believe that in order to really contribute to a church, one must be able to embrace its mission and priorities. Staying in a church out of guilt isn’t good for the church or the individual. I’m slowly beginning to embrace the idea that my desire for spiritual and intellectual fulfillment can be reconciled with my commitment to follow Jesus as faithfully as I can.

That’s my struggle over attending an evangelical small group or church: I don’t have the agenda that evangelicals want me to have! I’m not a salesman for Jesus, and my faith is not a group activity. I have my own personal relationship with God, and I honestly communicate through my blog and other avenues what I think about Jesus, both my positive and negative reactions. I don’t parrot an evangelical script or encourage people to sign on the dotted line. Those who criticize “shopping” for churches are probably authoritarian anyway, since they’re critical of people having a choice and voting with their feet. Personally, I don’t understand why evangelicals would want people to attend their church and small group if they’re not passionately committed to the evangelical agenda. If it’s to learn about the love of Jesus and to study the Scriptures, that’s good, but people should be free to grow at their own pace, without a lot of pressure.

That little rant aside, let’s turn to my readings:

1. For Philip Davies’ Scribes and Scrolls, Davies suggests that the Psalms may have been for private devotional reading rather than liturgy (pages 133-134). The reason is that many of them relate to the religious life of the individual. I can’t exclude the possibility that they were used in temple worship, since there are plenty of Psalms about praising the LORD, and I see praise with instruments as communal. But I’ve often had trouble imagining certain Psalms in a temple service, particularly ones in which the Psalmist says he’s been delivered from death at the hands of his enemies, or asks God to smite those who afflict him, or challenges the oppressive authorities. I mean, how many church attenders are there who’ve been delivered from rapacious oppressors who have sought to kill them? But I can envision a person reading these Psalms as an expression of David’s pain as he fled from Saul and Absalom. The reader would celebrate God’s goodness and think that, if God could deliver someone from these serious problems, then God could help him out with his comparatively lesser difficulties.

This is my honest struggle with the Book of Psalms, and it may reflect my ignorance. There are plenty of people in the world who do have to deal with oppression, even of the fatal sort. And I’m not entirely familiar with the Psalms of other ancient Near Eastern countries, so I can’t say whether or not their corporate worship had Psalms about deliverance from well-to-do oppressors. It’s just odd that those Psalms would be a part of corporate worship, and I can’t pin-point why. Perhaps I wonder why society would officially criticize those types of oppressors in a worship service, while simultaneously allowing them to do their dirty deeds. Anyway, now that I’ve written myself into this pit, let’s go on to my reading of Henri Crouzel’s Origen.

2. On page 97, Crouzel essentially says that the concept of imitating God is a Greco-Roman concept and is largely absent from the Hebrew Bible. A professor of mine once said the same thing. Indeed, the concept of imitatio Dei is more heavy-handed in the New Testament than in the Old. Jesus’ sermons on the mount and the plain exhort us to be like God in our treatment of the wicked. The epistles have a lot about treating others as God has treated us, and of imitating God and Christ.

In the Old Testament, we have the concept of being holy as God is holy, so that may count as imitatio Dei, in a sense. I always thought that the parts of the Torah about treating the poor and stranger well because the Israelites were strangers in Egypt was another example, since Israelites are presumably to have the same compassion for the vulnerable that God had for them. But it may not relate to imitatio Dei, for those passages don’t explicitly mention imitating God. The concern of the Torah is largely “Do this because I own you, for I delivered you from Egypt and you are mine.”

I wouldn’t die over this view of imitatio Dei, though. I could be wrong. But, if my professor, Crouzel, and I are right, then the New Testament reflects its cultural context. I wouldn’t say that means we should dismiss it as the work of mere men. I think God communicates with people where they are. He may have wanted to impart to people the idea that they could become like him, but he waited until the predominant cultures had the vocabulary for that sort of concept; otherwise, he’d be coming out of the blue with something incomprehensible. Perhaps there’s progressive revelation going on here: he wanted his people first to know that he was God and was over them, before he told them they could become like him. After all, there are Bible passages about humility preceding exaltation.

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