Monday, June 7, 2010

Seventy Years; Fallible God of the Rabbis?; Mesopotamian ERA?; Joshua 24; New Church

From Sunday, June 6:

I went to the downtown library today to read articles for my comps. Consequently, I didn’t go to Latin mass this morning, but I visited a downtown Catholic church. Maybe I’ll go there next week—I don’t know! The sanctuary was beautiful and smelled nice, but the acoustics weren’t that good. The priest was talking a little about why God permits suffering, and I missed it because I couldn’t understand what he was saying! So I guess that this question must remain unresolved in my mind, for the time being.

Here are five items:

1. I read an article by Michael Fishbane entitled “Torah and Tradition”, and it appeared in the book, Tradition and Theology in the Old Testament. What interested me was Fishbane’s discussion of Israel’s seventy-year exile in the Hebrew Bible, which Jeremiah predicts in Jeremiah 25:11-12 and 29:10.

First of all, Fishbane notes that the concept of a seventy-year exile is not unique to Jeremiah. Isaiah 23:15-17 says that Tyre will have a seventy-year exile, and the concept also shows up in Neo-Assyrian annals.

Second, Fishbane argues that biblical authors apply the seventy years in different ways. One way was to start counting from the date that Jeremiah delivered the oracle: 605 B.C.E. Seventy years from that is 535 B.C.E., which is three years after Cyrus’ decree for the Jews to return to their land. According to Fishbane, this reckoning appears in II Chronicles 36:21-22, which affirms that Cyrus’ decree was the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. So this view states that the Jews’ return to their land in response to Cyrus’ decree marked the end of the seventy years that Jeremiah predicted.

Another way of applying the seventy years was to start counting from 587/6 B.C.E., the date that the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. Seventy years after this places us at 517/6 B.C.E. Fishbane maintains that Zechariah 1:12 holds this position, for the angel in that passage asks God about “these seventy years” in which God’s been angry with Judah. Fishbane seems to interpret that to mean that the seventy years are still going on during the time of this passage, a time after the Jews have returned to their land. Fishbane also notes that the rebuilding of the Jews’ altar occurred in 517/6 B.C.E., according to Ezra 6:15. Fishbane wonders if the author of Ezra is saying that the completion of the altar officially marked the end of Israel’s “exile”, or endurance of God’s punishment.

Then there’s Daniel 9, which takes the seventy years to be 490 years. Higher-critics say Daniel is claiming that Israel’s “exile”—or subjugation at the hands of the nations—will end in the time of the Maccabees. Then there are conservative Christians, many of whom hold that the 490 years ended with the first coming of Christ—though dispensationalists add the modifier that the last week will occur sometime in the future, as the Great Tribulation period that will precede Christ’s second coming.

2. I read a few chapters out of Judah Goldin’s Studies in Midrash and Related Literature. Pages 268-269 slightly confused me. Goldin is talking about how the rabbis disagreed over whether they should prioritize halakhah—the technicalities of Jewish law—or aggadah—legends and theological musings. The nuts-and-bolts of Jewish law are important, but aggadah is what inspires people and teaches them about God.

Goldin then cites Babylonian Talmud Baba Kamma 60b, which likens this dispute to two wives, an old one and a young one. The old one pulls out the man’s black hairs so that he’ll look older for her, whereas the young one pulls out his white hairs so he’ll appear younger. As a result, he ends up bald! He then realizes that he must make restitution for the fire that he caused. And the passage cites Scriptures in which God takes responsibility for the fire that consumed Zion.

What’s this saying? That God is responsible for the partisanship among halakhists and aggadists, which is leading them to downgrade each other and undermine Torah study? Is that implying that God is at fault?

3. I read Martha Roth’s essay, “Gender and Law: A Case Study from Ancient Mesopotamia”, which appears in Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. She quotes the Middle Assyrian Laws, which at one point departs from the male-chauvinist common law of Mesopotamia. It states:

If a widow should enter into a man’s house, whatever she brings with her belongs to her (new) husband; and if a man should enter into a woman’s house, whatever he brings with him belongs to the woman.

That’s pretty egalitarian! At the same time, the Middle Assyrian Laws permit a man to punish his wife by whipping her, plucking out her hair, mutilating her ears, or striking her.

4. I read John Van Seters’ “Joshua 24 and the Problem of Tradition”, which appears in the book, In the Shelter of Elyon.

Van Seters dates this chapter to the exile. He doesn’t believe that it had a liturgical function because it recounts the history of ancient Israel. I’m not sure how he draws that conclusion.

But, for most of his case, he tries to tie Joshua 24 to themes that appear in exilic literature. Joshua 24′s idea that Israel served other gods in Egypt appears in Ezekiel. Its narration of Israel’s history from the time of Abraham through the Exodus shows up in Nehemiah. (Remember that Van Seters thinks that the Abraham story was added to the Exodus by the exilic Yahwist, as a prequel.) While Joshua 24 apparently drew from the Deuteronomist, it’s not Deuteronomistic, for it talks about the plagues, something that the Deuteronomist is pretty general about. So Van Seters concludes that Joshua 24 post-dates the Deuteronomist. He believes that the exile is the correct setting for Joshua 24, for that’s when the Israelites would face the temptation to worship other gods. Moreover, Van Seters sees in the chapter an acknowledgement of household instruction, which (for him) makes more sense during the exile, when the family unit was the Israelite chapel.

My impression is that Van Seters sees something pre-exilic in this chapter: the chapter presents Joshua conducting the covenant ceremony in Shechem, and Van Seters states that Shechem was an important site in ancient Israel. But the chapter itself, and its contents, are exilic. It only nods to a pre-exilic site!

This article interested me because it overlaps with my II Kings weekly quiet time. Yesterday, I read that there are scholars who believe that I Kings 20—a chapter about Syria’s invasion of Israel—relates not to Ben-Hadad the predecessor of Hazael, but rather Ben-Hadad the son of Hazael. The person arguing this said that the chapter doesn’t identify the king as Ahab, even though it does. But he may have meant that parts of the chapter are generic when talking about the king.

In any case, Van Seters appears to go with this view concerning I Kings 20—that it’s a story about what happened under Hazael’s son, who ruled after the time of Ahab. Van Seters dismisses the argument that Joshua 24 expresses concern about Israel worshipping gods “beyond the river” because the Syrians had invaded Israel and brought their religion with them.

5. In my church bulletin this morning, Eric Knapp says that Christians don’t need relics, for they have the living presence of Christ with them. I kind of like this: it accepts Christ’s presence as a given, without resorting to an evangelical or charismatic “God told me this” mentality. Rather, it acted as if we encounter Christ when we come to mass, hearing his word and partaking of the sacraments.

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