Monday, January 4, 2010

Uniting the Dual Torah, Habakkuk's Oppressors, Good Night and Good Luck

Here are three items for today:

1. I read more of Jacob Neusner’s Uniting the dual Torah: Sifra and the Problem of the Mishnah. His footnote on page 79 was helpful in terms of illuminating to me what he’s getting at. He says that the Sifre (third century C.E.) tends to subordinate the Mishnah to the written Torah, allowing that to set the agenda. The Jerusalem (c. 400 C.E.) and Babylonian (c. 500 C.E.) Talmuds, by contrast, allow the Mishnah to set the agenda.

I’m not entirely clear as to what Neusner believes the Mishnah is, at least not yet. That may mean that I should pay more attention to what I’m reading. He says that the “Mishnah’s authorship aims at a free-standing topical program”. Maybe that clears things up a little. The Mishnah concerns halakah that is based on rituals outlined in the written Torah—except, perhaps, for prayers, which are discussed elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. It doesn’t justify each and every one of its laws with Scripture, but it’s aim is still to show how Scripture is to be applied.

2. I read Marvin Sweeney’s article on the Book of Habakkuk in the Anchor Bible Dictionary. Something that confuses many readers of the book is the identity of the people Habakkuk complains about. Is he mainly complaining about oppression within his own nation, or that done by the Chaldeans against Israel? As Sweeney notes: "The primary issue is to explain why Chaldea is used to correct oppression in 1:5–11 but then becomes the oppressor in 1:12–17. Johnson notes that 1:5–11 does not portray Chaldea in a positive light. He therefore concludes that the establishment of Chaldea should not be viewed as a solution to the oppression described in 1:2–4."

Moreover, Sweeney states:

"The third major problem presented by Habakkuk 1–2 concerns the identity of the oppressor presupposed by the woe oracles of 2:5–20. Because the crimes specified in these oracles are localized, some scholars suggest that the woes were originally directed against an internal Judean group, such as the ruling class of Jerusalem (Otto 1977; Jeremias 1970), before being reapplied against Chaldea by later editors (cf. Jer 22:13–23, where Jeremiah condemns Jehoiakim for such crimes). Others maintain that Chaldea was the intended subject of these oracles (Janzen 1982; Peckham 1986). In this respect it is important to recognize Coggins’ observation (1982) that Habakkuk may represent a different prophetic tradition from that of Jeremiah. Prophets are known for using local imagery to condemn international crimes (e.g., Amos 1:3, 11, 13; Isa 10:14; Nah 3:5–7). Furthermore, statements in the woe oracles suggest an international situation, such as the references to peoples and nations (vv 6a, 8a, 10b, 13b), the earth, humankind, and the sea (vv 8b, 14, 17b), and the violence of Lebanon (v 17a). A supporting example is Nebuchadnezzar’s report that he took Lebanon from an unnamed ruler and transported its wood back to Babylon to build a palace for the ruler of heaven and earth (ANET, 307). Such an act well suits the crimes mentioned in these oracles, which speak of extortion and plundering nations (vv 6b–8), unjust gain used to protect one’s house (vv 9–11), bloodshed to build a city (vv 12–14), and the rape of a land (vv 15–17)."

For Sweeney, things that appear to certain readers to describe internal oppression (i.e., unjust gain to protect ones house, bloodshed to build a city) can apply to Babylon’s atrocities against Israel when Babylon tried to build a palace. That, even though the motifs in other prophets often refer to internal oppression. In this case, at least, Sweeney moves in the direction of seeing consistency in the book, rather than dividing it into sources and editorial layers.

3. I just watched Good Night and Good Luck, George Clooney’s movie about Edward R. Murrow’s stand against Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. I wish there were a movie that conveyed the complexities of the time period, rather than harping on a message of “McCarthy was bad.” Indeed, reputations were ruined because there were plenty of people in America at that time who’d be suspicious of a person accused of Communist sympathy or loyalty. But the movie isn’t entirely correct when it states at the beginning that numerous people were afraid to challenge McCarthy, for many in the liberal media did criticize him. Even the movie accidentally makes that point, for it presents McCarthy saying that he’s had to be tough against all the opposition he’s received, and that was before Edward R. Murrow even launched his criticisms.

One scene that baffled me was when the George Clooney character was asking his staff to disclose anything that the right-wing could use against them: membership in Communist organizations, attendance at parties, etc. They wanted to be ready once McCarthy and his loyalists retaliated against Murrow’s broadcast! One of the people on the staff said that his wife used to attend Communist Party meetings. I wondered why she did that. Was she out to overthrow the U.S. Government? Was she just curious? Was she looking for a date, like Jim Carrey in the Majestic, when he attended a Communist meeting? Was this during the 1940’s, when America was on Stalin’s side during World War II? Remember Joy Gresham’s remark on Shadowlands (the one with Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis): In the 1930’s, there were two groups: the Fascists, who wanted to destroy the world, and the Communists, who wanted to save it. Then there’s the Barbara Streisand character on The Way We Were: she was a Communist, yet she had a picture of FDR hanging on her wall. She wasn’t out to overthrow the U.S. Government, even though I’m sure there’s documentation that Communists had that agenda at certain points in time.

During the Red Scare, some of the accusations of Communist loyalty were false or misleading. Still, our decoding of Soviet cables through the Venona project indicates that there were Soviet spies in the U.S. Government. And yet, were all American officials who cooperated with the Soviets die-hard Communists? Alger Hiss (if he were a spy) distrusted the Soviets at Yalta. And, at the library this past Saturday, I saw a book about Harry Dexter White, which said he only desired peace. I’m not sure what his agenda was in cooperating with the Soviets, according to the book. Was it to ensure that the U.S. didn’t have all the power?

I wish there were a movie that depicted McCarthy in his complexity, as well-meaning, yet sometimes right, and sometimes wrong.

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