Sunday, July 31, 2011


At church this morning, the topic of the sermon was growth. The text was Genesis 32:22-32, in which Jacob wrestles with a supernatural being and receives a blessing. The pastor said that we, too, receive a blessing as we grow through struggle, but many of us prefer to stay in the same place because it’s familiar and comfortable to us.

I’ve long been leery of the words “grow” or “growth” for personal development. As I’ve said before on this blog, whenever people tell me that I’ve “grown”, they usually mean that I’m living more according to their standards. Moreover, I’m sick and tired of people grading my growth. Why can’t they just accept me, rather than judging me? In more than one setting, I’ve heard people say, “Well, if you don’t get outside of yourself and move out of your comfort zone, how will you grow?” But, if I’m comfortable where I am, why would I want to grow? Why do I need to grow? People then say, “If you don’t grow, you die.” What the heck does that mean? I can biologically continue to exist, even if I’m not changing a bunch of stuff!

The pastor made some of these points that get on my nerves, but he also said something that highlighted why growth is important: he said that old ways of thinking may not work for us, especially in times of crisis. And the pastor also gave examples of a lack of growth: being resentful rather than choosing to grow from a bad situation.

I once heard a saying that “If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” So, if I find that what I’m doing is a continuous dead end, then it’s good for me to learn other ways of doing things and of looking at situations, and to have people encouraging me along my path. Does that mean that life will be rosy? Far from it. But it may be better. And I may be better. Plus, as the pastor said, a significant part of growth is learning how to cope in times of crisis.

I got to see some of this illustrated in the church service itself. There was one lady who has been looking for a job for months, and we have been praying for her to find work. Well, she finally got a job! She has had to cope through uncertain times, but it is good that she had people rooting for her and praying for her.

Regarding resentment, what can I say? I have it. Christians have told me that resentment hinders my growth. I’m not so sure, because it does enable me to sympathize with others who have been wronged and have resentments, rather than judging them because they’re not happy happy, or because they are unable to perform a self-labotomy and deny themselves the natural feelings of anger when they have been wronged. I wonder what the opposite of resentment is. Is it feeling nothing? Is it compassion and love even for the person who wronged us? I would like to have the latter. But, like Captain Kirk on Star Trek V, I still need my pain! It is what drives me to pray to God, to seek inspiration, and to have compassion for others. At the same time, I have to admit that hating others does not feel right, for, in my case, that does come from self-centeredness and flawed expectations I have of how the world should treat me. It also does not put me in the mood to treat others with love and respect.

Childs on the Covenant Code and Exodus 24

For my write-up today of Brevard Childs' commentary on the Book of Exodus, I will be a little more general than I usually am in my write-ups, since I am a little tired right now. (Although this post will appear on a morning, I'm actually writing it at night.) I have two items:

1. Childs talks about the Covenant Code and compares the laws there with other ancient Near Eastern laws. For him, there are cases in which the Covenant Code resembles other ancient Near Eastern laws, but there are other cases in which the Covenant Code is a vast improvement, as when it values the life even of a thief who breaks into a house during the day-time. In some cases, Childs deems certain laws in the Covenant Code to be primitive, and he rejects attempts by ancient interpreters to rescue them. For example, my impression is that Childs does not like the law saying that a slave-master can beat his slave and is let off the hook if the slave gets up after a day-or-so, since the slave is the master's property. The law also affirms that the slave-master is to be punished if the slave does not get up, and ancient interpreters have held that the master gets the death penalty. But Childs does not buy that, and he laments that the punishment of the slave-master is in the arbitrary hands of the judge.

(UPDATE: See Paul D.'s comments and my responses. Another way to understand Exodus 21:21 is to say that, if the slave survives for a day or two and then dies, then the slave will not be avenged. Some commentaries appear to go with that view, whereas others support the view that the slave in v 21 is surviving the beating. I just checked how Childs translated the passage: "But if he survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged since he is the other's property.")

Overall, however, Childs does not agree with the idea that the progressive New Testament is replacing the primitive Old Testament, for he defends "eye-for-an-eye" as a step up from what other countries in the ancient Near East had (i.e., a rich person could simply pay up after causing damage to someone's person), and he states that Jesus' Sermon on the Mount applies to individuals, not the social order. But, given that there are some things in the Covenant Code that Childs does not like, what's his view on progressive revelation, the notion that people evolved in their moral sensitivity and their understanding of God? The answer is that he does not believe in it, for he sees little indication in the Bible of what can be called progress. Rather, for Childs, different communities can have different standards, and Christians should not casually dismiss the Mosaic law or Jewish interpretations of it as "legalistic". Unfortunately, I did not see Childs really interact with the question of what we should do with the troublesome aspects of the Bible, if we want to regard it as sacred Scripture, as Childs indeed does.

2. Childs documents that Exodus 24 has given exegetes problems---in ancient and modern times. As usual, Childs disagrees with conservative attempts to explain those problems away through harmonization or midrash, as well as the liberal tendency to shatter the text into a multitude of pieces, while making no attempt to put the pieces together to see what the text is saying. In the case of Exodus 24, Childs thinks that the chapter performs an important role: it presents the God who terrified Israel in Exodus 19 as now entering into intimacy with Israel, as elders eat in God's very presence.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Psalm 35

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 35 and its interpreters. Here are three items:

1. Psalm 35:15 says (in my translation), "And in my stumbling they rejoiced, and they gathered together; nuchim gathered together against me, and I did not know; they tore, and they did not cease."

The Hebrew word nuchim means "broken" or "stricken". The use of this word in Psalm 35:15 is odd, for the passage appears to be saying that the Psalmist's persecutors are broken or stricken. Why would the text say that, when its whole point seems to be that the Psalmist is the victim, not his persecutors?

Other versions have something different. The Septuagint says that "mastiges were gathered together against me", and the meaning of mastiges is "whips", "scourges", or "afflictions". The Vulgate has the same idea. In these versions, Psalm 35:15 means that the Psalmist's persecutors rejoiced at his stumbling and brought him afflictions, not that they themselves were afflicted.

W.O.E. Oesterley's approach is to emend the text. Instead of nuchim, Oesterley says we should read ke-nochrim, which means "like strangers". The text would then read, "And when I stumbled they rejoiced and gathered together, like strangers whom I know not". Oesterley's idea may be that the Psalmist felt a certain kinship with his persecutors, for Psalm 35:13-14 says that he mourned for them when they were sick, as one mourns for a friend, brother, or mother. But, notwithstanding the close relationship, the Psalmist's persecutors in v 15 were acting like strangers to him, as they rejoiced at his stumbling and gathered against him. The Psalmist felt betrayed. Peter Craigie similarly goes the emendation route, but he emends nuchim to a Hebrew word that means "oppressors".

Other interpreters---such as Rashi, Charles Spurgeon, John Gill, and Keil-Delitzsch---have tried to derive some meaning from the Masoretic Text as it stands, with the word nuchim. Such interpretations include: nuchim was a word of mockery that David was using for his persecutors; the Psalmist was saying that his persecutors deserved to be beaten; David's persecutors mock the limping Psalmist, even though they themselves are lame or have been smitten by God; nuchim is related to the Arabic word nawicka, which means "injured in mind", meaning that David was saying that his persecutors were crazy; and David used nuchim because he regarded his persecutors as the dregs of society, as Job was snobbish in Job 30.

I personally am not committed to any version, emendation, or interpretation, but I want to propose an idea. In vv 13-14, the Psalmist says that he fasted and prayed when his enemies were sick, but that his prayer returned to him, which may mean that his prayer was unanswered. Could v 15 be continuing that idea by saying that the Psalmist's enemies are nuchim because they are still sick, and yet they continue to mock and conspire against the Psalmist? Even God afflicting them does not hold them back from their wickedness.

V 16 is another puzzling verse. It says (in my wooden literal translation), "With the profane of the mockings of cake, grinding against me his teeth." Oesterley emends la-age maog ("mockings of cake") to la-agu la-ag "they mocked a mocking", which doesn't sound far-fetched. But I encountered many interpreters who try to do something with the Masoretic Text as it stands. The most common interpretation that I found was that there are jesters at a banquet, who make fun of people or things to receive food (a cake). These profane jesters are mocking the Psalmist at banquets. Some apply this to David's flight from King Saul: While David was on the run, jesters at Saul's royal banquets were making fun of him.

2. This brings me to the reference-points of Psalm 35. Many have related this Psalm to David, but there are other interpretations, as well. The fourth century Christian exegete Theodore of Mopsuestia says that David is prophesying the feelings and experiences of Jeremiah, who, like the voice in Psalm 35, was repaid evil for good (Jeremiah 18:20), was slandered (Jeremiah 37:11-14), and wished for disaster to befall his persecutors (Jeremiah 23:12). Others have applied Psalm 35 to Jesus Christ, for Psalm 35:19---they "hate me without a cause" (KJV)---is related to Jesus in John 15:25.

In the orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary, I read the view of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch that Psalm 35 is about Israel in exile: Even though the Jews' presence in other nations has influenced God to bless those nations, Israel's captors continue to oppress them. The ingratitude of the Psalmist's oppressors in Psalm 35:13-14 is read in light of Israel's Diaspora experience. Similarly, Sigmund Mowinckel presents a national interpretation of Psalm 35: When v 20 states that the villains are treacherous against the quiet of the land, that means that Israel's neighbors and oppressors scheme against her. And others hold that the quiet of the land are pious Jews within Israel, who are afflicted by other Jews.

Peter Craigie interprets Psalm 35 in light of an international treaty, which other kings are breaking. Vv 13-14 uses family language when it says that the Psalmist fasted on behalf of his persecutors as one would for a brother, or a mother, and international treaties contain familial language. J. Gerald Janzen, however, states that the Psalmist feels a special kinship with those who are now persecuting him, as if his oppressors are fellow Israelites, towards whom the Psalmist has been loyal in the past.

Something that has puzzled some scholars is that part of Psalm 35 uses military language, whereas other parts use court-room language. But the Psalmist could have drawn on different metaphors to express his experiences at the hands of persecutors. The Psalmist needs defense from his enemies, as well as wants God to punish them. And the Psalmist also desires vindication on account of those who have slandered him.

3. Psalm 35:10 mentions the bones speaking to God, and E.W. Bullinger launches a discussion about bones in the Psalms. Bullinger then says, "His heart broken (69.20); so our hearts (34.18); but not ourselves (John 10:27-29)." John 10:27-29 is about how God preserves believers, even after death. But I wonder if Psalm 35 is consistent with a belief in an afterlife, for, in v 17, the Psalmist asks God to preserve his soul or life, yechidati, which probably means "my only one". The King James Version translates that word as "my darling", perhaps because the uniqueness of the Psalmist's soul or life makes it special to him. But Theodore of Mopsuestia says that the Psalmist is asking God to preserve the only life he has.

Perhaps the Psalmist did value this life because he thought that it was the only life he had, for the experience of the dead in Sheol did not count as a full "life". I think that I can learn from the value that the Psalmist placed on his life, even if I believe in an afterlife.

Childs on Sinai and the Decalogue

In my reading today of Brevard Childs' commentary on the Book of Exodus, the topics were Sinai and the Decalogue.

Something that I appreciated as I read Childs' comments on the Sinai story in Exodus 19-20 was how difficult the identification of sources actually can be. Childs acknowledges that there are tensions within the story: Moses goes up and down the mountain, sometimes for no apparent purpose; the people are presented as fearfully standing at a distance from the mountain, and yet there are warnings against them coming too close; there is unclarity about whether God dwells on the mountain or only descends there periodically; and the theophany is portrayed as occurring with smoke and fire, on the one hand, and clouds and thunder, on the other. But identifying sources such as J and E is not easy, and grouping together stories by the divine name that they use does not work, in this case. There are doublets that use the same divine name. E supposedly believes that God dwells on the mountain, yet a source that presents God calling to Moses from the mountain (which, for Childs, entails God dwelling there) uses the divine name Yahweh, which J prefers. J is stereotyped as portraying God's theophany with smoke, whereas E's theophany has a rain cloud, yet passages that have a cloud refer to God as Yahweh, and a passage often ascribed to E has a theophany of thunder, lightning, trumpets, and smoke. Moreover, what has been labeled as "J" does not even appear smooth, for J "assumes a burning mountain because of Yahweh's prior descent", right before it "reports the descent for the first time" (page 349). Childs says that different traditions were combined at the oral stage, before there were written sources. But Childs does not dispense with J and E. He believes that underneath the E source is a presentation of Moses as covenant mediator, whereas underneath the J source is a focus on Moses' office as the one who heard from God and communicated God's will, an office that continued with the Tent of Meeting (which was later absorbed into Jerusalem theology). According to Childs, the revelatory office became subordinated to the covenant mediation in the Sinai story.

Childs is a fan of the final form of the text. After describing scholarly debates on the date of the Decalogue, he takes a swipe at scholars when he says that "to the extent to which the scholar now finds himself increasingly estranged from the very substance which he studies, one wonders how far the lack of content which he discovers stems from a condition in the text or in himself" (page 437). And Childs sometimes takes what may be considered a harmonizing approach to the text, or at least an approach that seeks to make sense of the text in its final form. For example, what baffles many scholars about Exodus 19:20-25 is that God tells Moses to warn the people not to push their way to see the LORD, and to instruct the priests to consecrate themselves, and Moses reminds God that the people already cannot ascend Sinai because God warned them previously, and limits have been placed around the mountain. Childs asserts that God does not think that the previous preparation of the Israelites was adequate, and so he sees a need to warn them again to keep their distance. Childs appears to defend the logic of this passage within the story. At the same time, Childs acknowledges that the presence of priests in this passage is anachronistic, since Aaron has not been consecrated yet, and Childs rejects the ancient view that these were firstborn Israelites who were priests. Moreover, when Exodus 19:9b has a strange statement that Moses reported to God what the people had said---when v 8b already said that Moses did that, and v 9a said nothing about the people's response---Childs dismisses midrashic methods that try to make sense of that. Rather, he just says that v 9b is a "misplaced gloss from 8b" (page 375).

From the story of Sinai, Childs draws lessons about the holiness of God and the fact that God's covenant is not a covenant of grace devoid of content. Childs reminds me of people I know who say that there are responsibilities in a relationship with God, and that God called us specifically so that we can bear spiritual fruit---to be conformed to his character. There is a part of me that sympathizes with this sentiment, for, years ago, whenever I heard people plead with others to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior, the question in my mind was, "Okay, I did that, so what's next?" Actually, that's just the beginning! At the same time, I want God to love me simply because he loves me, not because he has the ulterior motive of making me a certain way. I sometimes get the impression that some don't consider God's love to be enough in the divine-human relationship, that God's justification of us out of love would be pointless if we did not embrace a certain lifestyle.

Regarding the Decalogue, I found Childs' discussion of the Decalogue in Christian exegesis to be particularly interesting, for I have wondered what the Christian stance to the Torah should be: Should Christians believe that the Torah was given exclusively to Israel within that particular covenant, or that it reveals God's will for all of humanity, and is thus applicable to Christians? Childs states that the Didache quotes the Decalogue, but he refers to church fathers (i.e., Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian) who said that Christians did not have to obey the Jewish law, except for those parts that were consistent with God's law for all human beings. And Martin Luther essentially had the same approach.

Finally (in terms of this post), Childs discusses on page 438 a complex issue: How can Scripture be particular to its own time, and yet bear meaning for subsequent generations, meaning which is particular for their time? Childs does not believe that Scripture equals the interpretation of it, but he also does not think that the text can mean anything and everything. To be honest, I do not know how he tries to resolve this problem.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Childs' Heart Is in the Right Place, but I Still Have Issues

In my reading today of Brevard Childs' commentary on the Book of Exodus, I read forty pages, plus I reread Childs' "Preface" and "Introduction".

Childs expresses many of the problems I have with the historical-critical method (and I include under this category source criticism and traditio-criticism). He says that many scholars spend so much time talking about their ideas regarding the pre-history of the biblical text---the sources and the development of traditions---that they neglect the text in its final form, which was the canon for the synagogue and the church. Moreover, on page 338, Child states that "American scholarship has tended to impose Ancient Near Eastern patterns upon the biblical traditions with a heavy hand which has only succeeded in smothering the text, or it has fallen back into rationalistic harmonizations and reductionist theories of 'what really happened'" (page 338). Childs states that looking at the pre-history of the text is valuable if it clarifies the text's meaning. At the same time, however, he talks a lot about debates regarding the text's pre-history, and I'm often left scratching my head as I wonder how exactly that information sheds light on what the text is saying. As a matter of fact, Childs in his introduction says that lay-people can skip his sections on form and traditio-criticism "without seriously jeopardizing the comprehension of the exegetical section" (page xvi). Technically-speaking, the development of a tradition should be relevant to what a tradition means. But Childs realizes that many people ask "So what?" when they encounter certain scholarly sketches of the text's pre-history and sources. Those sketches leave many of us still hungry!

And yet, although Childs does have sections on the text's prehistory, my problem is that he does not engage issues involving history as much as I'd like. Yesterday, I raised the question of whether or not Childs believes that there is a historical kernal behind the events that the Hebrew Bible narrates, and if he addresses the question of whether or not the historicity of biblical events is important for faith. So far in my reading, he has not addressed that question in a direct manner. Like Martin Noth, Childs does believe that there may be a "historical memory from the wilderness period" in Exodus 17's story about Israel's battle with Amalek, for the story mentions an altar, "which would suggest an early localization of the tradition" (page 313). But, overall, at least in my reading so far, Childs does not wrestle with the historicity of biblical events.

On page 326, Childs states regarding the story of Jethro in Exodus 18 that "the lines of development begin to emerge clearly in the course of Israel's own reflections on her tradition in the light of the ongoing history of the nation." This may actually be a significant statement, one that reveals Childs' viewpoint regarding history. Childs believes that traditions developed as Israelites reflected. That shows that the traditions before us in the Hebrew Bible do not necessarily reflect what really occurred in history, for the traditions indicate development. This development occurred "in light of the ongoing history of the nation", Childs says. And yet, rarely in this commentary have I seen Childs specify how traditions developed in response to historical events. History does not play a significant role in this commentary, at least in what I have read up to this point. Probably the closest Childs comes to relating tradition to history is when he says that Exodus 12's description of the Passover ritual emerged in Israel's post-exilic period, when the Passover was considered significant, and that it highlighted an "already and not yet" (my words) dimension of redemption. But, often, Childs does not touch on ancient Israelite history. In a sense, this is understandable, for I have read many scholars who dogmatically relate biblical texts to specific historical contexts, when it seems to me that the texts could relate to a variety of contexts. It is possible for scholars to become so obsessed with identifying the Sitz im Leben of the text, that they neglect to focus on the meaning of the text itself. At the same time, when I read about how a tradition developed, I'd like to encounter ideas about why it developed as it did: what were the theological ideas or the historical contexts that led to the tradition's development? I feel at times that historical-critics do not comment enough on the significance of their insights. (Of the people I've read, however, John Van Seters actually does this, for he relates biblical texts to history and the theology of the authors.)

In many cases, Childs' approach to the text is rather synchronic. I talked yesterday about how he is uncomfortable with the historical-critical idea that P came along and added a supernatural element to the parting of the Red Sea, whereas J was fine with saying that God used natural causes (a wind). For Childs, the editor of the text did not aim for one tradition to supersede another, for he presents both of them simultaneously. I came across the same sort of approach in my reading today. On pages 331-332, Childs discusses how many religious commentators had problems with Moses receiving advice from Jethro. Why, after all, would Moses need advice from a foreign priest, when he had access to the very voice of God? Childs says that "the remarkable thing is that the Old Testament itself does not seem to sense any problem on this issue." Childs then looks at Christian exegetes who used Exodus 18 to say that Christians can learn even from pagans (an "All truth is God's truth" sort of idea), and Childs concludes in his theological reflection that we can learn from both divine revelation and also "the wisdom of human experience" (page 335). My problem with Childs' approach here is that part of the Hebrew Bible may have a problem with Moses receiving advice from Jethro, for Deuteronomy 1 does not mention Jethro when it discusses the origin of the Israelite court system. Childs seems to downplay biblical diversity, as well as a possible attempt by Deuteronomy to supersede what is in Exodus.

Perhaps something valuable that Childs contributes---in terms of his methodology---is that we can read two different traditions together: that Exodus 18 and Deuteronomy 1 both teach us something valuable. Both traditions were preserved, after all! As I read many biblical scholars, I wonder what exactly I am supposed to do with biblical diversity, from a theological standpoint, and Childs (to his credit) does try to tackle this question. But there are times when Childs seems to downplay biblical diversity. For example, Jethro in Exodus 18 says that YHWH is above all gods, which drew the ire of John Calvin, who concluded that Jethro did not make the full leap into monotheism! But Childs says that this is too literal, and that "there is no vestige of polytheism left" in Jethro's words (page 328). In my opinion, this shows that it's easy to simultaneously accept certain tensions within Scripture---learning from God, and learning from a wise person---but not others. After all, either there is only one God, or there are many gods! What can we do when the Hebrew Bible presents both views? Can we hold to a contradiction in our faith?

I noted above that Childs criticizes scholars who smother the text by referring to ancient Near Eastern parallels. But there is one occasion in which Childs uses an ancient Near Eastern parallel to illuminate the text, and also to correct religious interpretations. Why did Moses in Exodus 17 lift us his hands, resulting in the victory of the Israelites over Amalek? Religious commentators have said that Moses was praying, or was encouraging the troops. But Childs simply states that "In Exodus 17 the hands are the instruments of mediating power, as is common throughout the ancient Near East" (page 315). But overall, in my reading thus far, Childs does not make use of ancient Near Eastern parallels. Could that be because we live in a different world, and ancient Near Eastern mindsets are not our own? We, after all, do not believe that hands channel power (or maybe there are people who do, such as practitioners of alternative healing practices). Childs wants his commentary to be relevant for his age, so he excludes certain things that he does not deem relevant.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Childs on the Red Sea, Manna, and Natural Causes

For my write-up today of Brevard Childs' commentary on the Book of Exodus, I will talk some about his treatment of two topics: the Red Sea event in Exodus 14, and the manna. In Childs' discussion of these topics, he mentions the debate between naturalism (which tries to discern a natural cause behind events in the Bible) and supernaturalism (which accepts miracles in the Bible as miracles, flowing from God's direct intervention).

Regarding the Red Sea event in the Book of Exodus, Childs on pages 220-221 defines the portrayal of this event in J and P. (P, according to Childs, draws some from E.) In J, the Egyptians are coming after Israel, and a cloud turns into darkness and conceals the Israelites. A strong east wind "lays the bed of the sea bare", and the panicking Egyptians flee towards it. The water "flows back into its own bed", and the Egyptians are drowned. According to Childs, J does not present the Israelites crossing the sea, or even moving during this incident, for that matter. P(E), by contrast, has the story that many of us know from such movies as The Ten Commandments: God hardens Pharaoh's heart, the Egyptians pursue the Israelites, Moses (at God's command) raises his staff over the water, the water parts into two walls, the Israelites cross, and the waters close over the Egyptians. Many have maintained that J presents a natural cause for the Red Sea event---a wind---whereas P's account portrays the event as miraculous and supernatural in origin.

Regarding the story of the manna in Exodus 16, what often gets discussed is the existence in North Arabian deserts (and elsewhere) of naturally-formed manna-like food. Childs describes it on pages 282-283:

"There forms from the sap of the tamarisk tree a species of yellowish-white flake or ball, which results from the activity of a type of plant lice...The insect punctures the fruit of the tree and excretes a substance from this juice. During the warmth of the day it melts, but it congeals when cold. It has a sweet taste. The pellets or cakes are gathered by the natives in the early morning and, when cooked, provide a sort of bread. The food decays quickly and attracts ants. The annual crop in the Sinai peninsula is exceedingly small and in some years fails completely. The similarity in the description of the biblical manna and the natural desert substance certainly suggests some historical connection."

Childs refers to different approaches to this information. Some dismiss the miracle of manna by saying that there was a natural cause for it. Some affirm that God can work through natural means. Others are threatened by this information and seek to demonstrate that the manna indeed was a miracle---that it is different from the natural desert substance. (One thing I'd like to note: Childs says that the annual crop of this substance is low in the Sinai peninsula, so wouldn't it have been unusual---if not miraculous---for the Israelites to be sustained by the substance for over forty years?)

And Childs shows that this sort of debate is not modern. Ben Sira 38:5 may be saying that the natural properties of the tree made the bitter water sweet in Exodus 15:22-27, for Ben Sira in the context of that passage is talking about medicines and God's use of physicians. In Ben Sira 38, Ben Sira seems to prefer the notion that God uses natural causes. Josephus seeks to rationalize the story of the manna to make it appear genuine and credible to his readers (Antiquities 3.26ff.). For the Red Sea event, however, Josephus rationalizes in some areas, but not in others. Josephus presents Moses striking the sea with his staff, and he doesn't even mention the east wind. At the same time, Josephus asserts that "Moses chose his route by means of a clever calculation" (Childs' words on page 230). Josephus also mentions a time when Alexander the Great "was offered a passage through the sea", and he "allows that it could have been 'by the will of God or maybe by accident'" (Childs' words on page 230). There were also medieval discussions on whether the manna was natural or miraculous in origin.

On the Red Sea event, Childs disagrees with the historical-critical approach of simply attributing a naturalistic belief-system to J, and a supernaturalistic belief-system to P, as P came after J. Rather, Childs refers to the biblical writer or redactor, who brought both of these traditions together to stand side-by-side, with neither superseding the other. The story of the Red Sea event is about God upholding his divine plan against human opposition to it, and, in accomplishing this, God uses both natural causes and also Moses, who executes God's wonderful feats. Childs looks at the final form of the text.

On the manna, Childs affirms that what is important is that Israel knew the power of God by receiving the manna. Childs says this in the midst of a discussion on pages 300-303 about how to view Scripture: he rejects the harmonization approach of apologists, but also the notion that Scripture merely flows from human imagination. His emphasis is on Scripture being God's human vehicle for a community of faith. Yet, Childs also says that it is for the world.

I do not know if Childs believes that the story of the manna is historical. He appears to accept source critical interpretations of Exodus 16, which hold that it represents a different tradition from Numbers 11. (Numbers 11 presents the quail coming when the Israelites are tired of manna, whereas Exodus 16 says that God brought both quail and manna at the outset.) The way that Childs often handles Scriptural diversity is by saying that we are seeing different witnesses. But is there a historical event behind the witnesses? Or are we just dealing with stories that communicate theological points about God?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Childs Spells Out His Methodology Some More

In my reading today of Brevard Childs' commentary on the Book of Exodus, Childs spells out some of the aspects of canonical criticism that I was discussing yesterday: his view that scholars should look at the final form of the biblical text, rather than just concentrating on the text's different authors and redactional stages.

Granted, Childs is not a fundamentalist, for he emphatically disagrees with scholars who act as if tensions within the Book of Exodus do not exist, out of apologetic motives. Much of what I read today was Childs' interaction with historical-criticism, source criticism, and traditi0-criticism, as Childs agreed with some models, critiqued others, and offered his own model in some cases. As an example of Childs' belief in different sources, Childs acknowledges differences between J and P. J presents Pharaoh's recalcitrance as being in response to the plagues and their removal, whereas P asserts that Pharaoh's recalcitrance resulted in the multiplication of plagues. (On a side note, Childs focuses on this point in his discussion of the hardening of Pharaoh's heart, which, in my opinion, failed to address the problematic nature of God hardening a person.) On page 193, Childs notes how J and P also contradict each other on the Israelites' departure from Egypt:

"According to J the Israelites left at night, whereas P has them depart in the morning. In J the people are unprepared and hastily packed up their unleavened bread. In P careful preparation has been made for the feast throughout the night. The hasty departure is only acted out. Unleavened bread is not an accidental discovery, but part of the prepared ceremony. In J the death of the first-born culminated the long struggle with Pharaoh and resulted in his abject defeat and capitulation. In P the judgment is directed rather to the gods of Egypt (12.2) and Pharaoh plays no significant role."

Childs acknowledges the existence of tensions within the text, but how does he handle those tensions as one who treats the Bible as canon---as a sacred text? On pages 150-151, Childs refers to Moshe Greenberg's approach of identifying major themes in a passage, and of seeing how the themes fit into "the movement of the book as a whole." A theme that Greenberg identifies is "the revelation by God [through the plagues] of his nature to Pharaoh, to the Egyptians, and to all men." (And something that Childs talked about more than once in my reading today was how the plagues story acknowledged the God-fearers among the Egyptians.) According to Childs, by looking at how different sources interact with a broad theme, we can avoid getting lost in "unduly fragmented" exegesis, and we can also highlight different dimensions of the text and "sketch the full range of God's method of showing his power." In essence, Childs appears to be saying that we should keep our focus on broad themes, while allowing the diversity of the text to illustrate them, rather than concentrating predominantly on fracturing the text into different sources and layers.

I can envision this sort of approach becoming boring because it may highlight the same themes over and over: God's sovereignty, God's love, God's justice, etc. And yet, perhaps this approach can be interesting because it can reveal different, nuanced ways of illustrating these themes. Moreover, while historical-criticism can be fascinating because it presents the Bible as a prism rather than a monochromatic document, I often find myself asking "So what?" in response to many of its claims. I wish that, rather than just looking at differences within the Bible, biblical scholars would also comment on the significance of those differences---within religious ideologies. Childs does that on one occasion in my reading today, when he talks about P's ideology behind including the genealogy of Moses and Aaron: P's belief in history as "the ongoing life of the established institutions and offices of the covenant people" (page 116).

Another question that I have as I read Childs is the significance of some of the information that he provides. For instance, he refers to Jewish and Christian exegetes (Augustine, Rashi, etc.) who try to answer how the Egyptian magicians found water to turn into blood, when Moses had already turned all of the water into blood. This is of interest to me because I like to see how the ancients addressed difficulties within the Bible, from their own religious standpoints. But I wonder why Childs includes that information. As far as I know, Childs himself does not embrace an approach of harmonizing the Scriptures, so why does he refer to incidents in which ancient exegetes did so? Is it for encyclopedic purposes, or to give us an accurate picture of ancient exegesis? There are times when the ancient exegesis that Childs cites appears to clarify the text or to explain the story, but then there are times when I wonder how certain information fits into Childs' model of canonical criticism.

Moreover, Childs himself at times seems to act as if ancient exegetes (like historical-critics) focus on minutiae while missing the key theme of the text. For example, while ancient exegetes sought to justify the Israelites' spoiling of the Egyptians (one reason being, for some exegetes, that people like Marcion criticized the Old Testament on the basis of things such as this), Childs notes that the Old Testament attempts to make no such justification. Childs states that, "Seen in the light of the whole Old Testament, the despoiling of the Egyptians is another sign of Israel's election which constituted the faith of Israel (Gen. 15.14)" (page 177). Childs may appeal to ancient exegetes because they, too, have a sensitivity to the broader context of biblical passages---within the canon of the Hebrew Bible, or the Christian canon of the Old Testament plus the New Testament. But he may also think that there are times when ancient exegetes neglect broader themes in their focus on technicalities.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Beginning Childs' Commentary on Exodus

I started Brevard Childs' commentary on the Book of Exodus. Childs looks at the Book of Exodus from a historical-critical perspective, as he acknowledges such things as various sources and redaction. But Childs also considers the interpretation and use of the Book of Exodus in the history of biblical interpretation: in the New Testament, Hellenistic Judaism, rabbinic Judaism, Medieval Judaism, the church fathers, Martin Luther, John Calvin, liberal Protestants, etc. Moreover, Childs offers theological reflections on passages in Exodus.

I will need to reread Childs' introduction to this book, but I will save that for later. At this point, I will say some things that I have heard about Childs' canonical-critical approach. My understanding is that Childs does not just consider the historical-critical or traditio-critical meaning behind the texts, for he also considers the text as a whole. Childs is also interested in the use of the Bible for the Christian church, to teach theology, and yet he draws from Jewish interpretations because they, too, look at the biblical text holistically as well as have some theological or homiletical interest in the Hebrew Bible. This is how I understand Childs' canonical-criticism at the present time, and I am open to correction. But, if you do correct me, I will direct people to your comments rather than rewrite this post, or sections of it.

Is this the approach that I see in Childs' commentary on Exodus? Does Childs treat the Book as a whole---in a synchronic manner? He does at times acknowledge the existence of the J and the E sources, or he suggests that an older tradition has accumulated additions. But there are also times when he says that debates on source division do not matter for a particular passage because they are unrelated to the passage's meaning. He appears to be rather skeptical of scholarly tendencies to see a lot of hands in Exodus 3. On page 98, when discussing the story of Moses' near-death experience with an angel, he states that there is a scholarly tendency to focus too much on the passage's possible original meaning (i.e., to account for a ritual), and not enough on the redactor's use of the passage within the story (i.e., to highlight the importance of circumcision).

At some times, Childs is not exactly clear---or at least I am confused. For example, he states that Exodus 3 is about the revelation of the name of YHWH, which differs from the J source's claim that the God of Israel was always known as YHWH, even during the time of the patriarchs, and before then. But Childs also appears to assert that Moses was confirming his own prophetic status by showing the Israelites that he knew the name of YHWH, as well as communicating to them what the name meant (that God will be present, in accordance with ehyeh asher ehyeh), rather than telling them new information. The former notion presumes different sources, one that suggests that YHWH's name was known before the time of Moses, and some that imply the opposite. The latter idea, however, seems to be more of a harmonistic approach (though Childs, even then, attributes Exodus 3 to E), for it downplays the idea that YHWH's name was unknown prior to Moses.

What is Childs' stance on the historicity of the Book of Exodus? I have not read everything that he has written on the subject, but he is not afraid of saying that a passage is unhistorical. For example, "Moses" in Egyptian means "son", but the author of the Exodus story about the Egyptian princess drawing baby Moses out of the water apparently does not know that, for he relates "Moses" to the Hebrew word for "draw out", plus he presents the princess knowing Hebrew! Childs does not seem to believe that the story of Moses in the basket has much to do with the Assyrian story of baby Sargon in the basket, for the Sargon story lacks the motif of genocide. Yet, Childs does not run away from acknowledging foreign parallels to the Moses story, for he mentions the Egyptian story of Sinuhe in reference to Moses' flight, showing that he deems Sinuhe to be relevant. Childs on page 15 criticizes those who bring up Egyptian history in discussing the Book of Exodus. Moreover, Childs also treats the text literarily. He says that Moses' sister in the story of baby Moses is a literary device that furthers the plot, and that there are two midwives in Exodus 1 for poetic purposes. (On a side note, Childs presents reasons that the midwives in the story were Egyptian, not Hebrew, for, if they were Hebrew, Pharaoh would not have been surprised that the Hebrew boys were surviving under their supervision---since Hebrew midwives would naturally spare their own.) Childs notices literary patterns, such as the two Israelites' ungrateful rejection of Moses' help, as contrasted with Jethro's gratitude to Moses for assisting his daughters. So far in my reading, Childs' treatment of the Book of Exodus has not included viewing it as a historically-accurate source.

Childs' approach to the Book of Exodus is Christian, yet he uses Jewish sources, which are from a different worldview---one that takes the text in a different direction from where Christianity takes it. How does Childs do this? First of all, Childs appeals to Jewish (and Christian) sources to answer questions about the text. Were the midwives right or wrong to lie to Pharaoh? (The Christian sources tend to vote "wrong".) Was Moses right or wrong to kill the Egyptian? (Many early interpreters answered "right", whereas later liberal Protestants answered "wrong".) Why did Moses not tell Jethro the truth about why he was returning to Egypt? (Answers that have been proposed include that Moses was modest, or shy about religious matters.) These questions cover neutral territory in terms of Judaism and Christianity, for they focus primarily on the plot of the story. (Yet, Stephen Fraade has argued that there can be ideological implications even in how one interprets plot, explaining the differences between Christian and Jewish interpretations of Genesis 4:26, which features people making some sort of use of the name of the LORD in the time of Enosh.)

Second,on page 25, Childs states that the Exodus was only a prelude to "eschatological redemption", which Israel awaited. This occurred, at least in part, when the Messiah (Jesus) identified himself with the history of Israel by descending into Egypt and coming out a true son. Childs here does not dismiss what Israel understood as her history, and the concept of eschatological redemption is shared by many Jews and Christians. But Childs maintains that Christ fulfills that concept. His understanding of the eschatological redemption is probably different from that of many Jews, but that may not come into play in his interpretation of the Book of Exodus, which largely is not about eschatology (though Childs does acknowledge favorably when Christian interpreters have made eschatological use of Exodus). To see how Childs would interpret eschatological passages in comparison or contrast with Jewish interpretations, a look at his commentary on Isaiah may be profitable!

Third, Childs admits that the New Testament interpretation of the Book of Exodus is not always the same as what the Book of Exodus itself is saying, for the New Testament draws from Hellenistic Jewish and other interpretations. (For instance, Matthew's story of the birth of Jesus resembles the early chapters of Exodus, except, unlike Matthew's story, the Book of Exodus does not present the king fearing a specific individual who would arise and undermine his reign. Josephus, Philo, targumim, and Greek mythology, however, do have those kinds of stories.) In one case, when the Book of Exodus differs from the New Testament's interpretation of it, Childs treats both of them as valid witnesses. Hebrews 11 interprets the story of Moses in terms of eschatological hope, whereas the Exodus story itself lacks this element, focusing instead on the here-and-now. Childs says that Christians experience a clear call to discipleship, yet they navigate their way through sinful emotions and historical accidents. After all, Moses' "selfless act is soon beclouded by violence and nothing of lasting effect is accomplished for Israel's plight" (page 43).

But, while Childs accepts the testimony of both testaments, he still highlights the importance of Jesus Christ. Only in Jesus Christ, he proclaims, do the tensions between eschatological hope and living in the here-and-now come together. As Childs considers the sermon of Stephen in Acts 7, he seems to agree with Stephen's drawing of a parallel between the two Israelites' failure to recognize Moses as their helper, and the failure of much of Israel to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Childs' use of the Book of Exodus is Christian, and it's for the church, yet he utilizes historical-critical and Jewish interpretations for that goal.

These are my impressions so far of Childs' approach, based on my reading of the first 102 pages.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Completing Nelson's Commentary on Joshua

I finished Richard Nelson's commentary on the Book of Joshua.

1. Nelson talks about the distribution of the Promised Land among the tribes in the Book of Joshua, and he dates parts of that story to different times. One historical context that he posits is the "expansionistic reign of Josiah" (page 186). For Nelson, that the Book of Joshua had a southern provenance at some point in its history is evident in its starting with Judah when discussing the division of the Cisjordan (after it talks about Caleb's inheritance). Moreover, in Joshua 18:21-25, Northern Israelite cities (i.e., Bethel) are assigned to Benjamin, which was part of the Southern Kingdom. Nelson states that this reflects a time when "Judah controlled northeast Benjamin and southern Ephraim (Bethel, Ophrah), and such a time is probably the reign of Josiah, "whose reform touched not only Bethel, but included Geba" (page 214).

But Nelson argues that the Levitical cities in Joshua 21:1-42 must reflect a late date, for that section reflects the post-exilic practice of elevating the sons of Aaron above the other Levites (whereas the Deuteronomistic History did not distinguish among the Levites). Moreover, Nelson states that "there is no period after Solomon in which a single political structure would have actually controlled all the territory described here", but, because archaeology tells us "that many of these towns were not settled at the time of the United Monarchy", we cannot date the list to that time (pages 237-238). Nelson considers the list to be late and utopian, like Ezekiel 48's distribution of the land.

2. In Joshua 22, there is the story of the Israelite tribes in Gilead building a replica of the altar, which drew the anger of the Israelites in the CisJordan. But an understanding was reached between them, and Gilead was affirmed to be part of Israel. According to Nelson, xenophobia against the Transjordan probably emerged as a result of the Assyrians "adding further alien elements to the Ammonites and Moabites already present", as part of their "ethnic exchange policy" (page 250). Nelson states that Ezekiel 47:13-48:29 reflects the view that the Transjordan is not a part of Israel, for Ezekiel 47:18 distinguishes Gilead from Israel. Consequently, Nelson contends that Joshua 22 concerns questions that confronted Israel after its restoration: "Could Yahwists who lived outside the holy land participate in temple sacrifice or were they unclean (v. 17)? Were the offerings they brought products of an unclean land (v. 19)?" Joshua 22, like Psalm 60:7 and 108:8, affirms an inclusive view regarding Gilead.

3. There are passages in Joshua in which Israel is said to have conquered all of the land, whereas other parts suggest that there is more land for Israel to take. Deuteronomistic language actually appears in both kinds of passages, and so Nelson proposes that the Deuteronomist had a complex ideology on Conquest, which he inherited from Deuteronomy:

"According to Deut. 7:1-5, for example, the nations are to be wiped out, yet at the same time are to be carefully avoided. Deut. 11:22-25 asserts that the complete achievement of the conquest would depend on obedience as well as on divine promise." (page 259)

When obedience is placed into the equation, success becomes tentative!

For Nelson, the Deuteronomist presented the Conquest as total in order to glorify YHWH and to argue that the land indeed belongs to Israel, but he shifts gears to prepare the way for the Book of Judges, where the Israelites are religiously influenced by the Canaanites---resulting in Israel's ups and downs in the course of the book. We see this sort of thing elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible: "In the book of Kings as well, the historian admits the continued presence of alien elements (1 Kings 9:20-21), yet faithfully asserts that Yahweh dispossessed them (1 Kings 14:24; 2 Kings 15:3)" (page 260).

4. On page 269, Nelson is discussing the pledge of allegiance that the Israelites make to YHWH in Joshua 24. (Nelson says later, on page 277, that there is nothing in Joshua 24 about God's obligations to Israel, for God has already fulfilled his side of the bargain through his past actions on her behalf.) This occurs at Shechem, and Nelson notes that Shechem is often associated with loyalty to YHWH. In Genesis 35:2-4, for example, Shechem is where Jacob buries the idols that his family has forsaken. I wonder if Genesis 34 (the story of Dinah) could be relevant to this, since that is about the possibility of Israelite intermarriage with the Shechemites---which did not occur. Intermarriage can lead to idolatry, but Simeon and Levi kept that from happening when they slaughtered the Shechemites and took possession of the area themselves.

I thought that this book was all right, but I particularly enjoyed the introduction, for that was where Nelson argued that the Conquest was not historically accurate, and yet the Book of Joshua played a significant role in the theology and identity of Israel. Usually, when people make those sorts of claims, they sound rather hairy, for I wonder how stories that did not happen could provide inspiration for anyone. But the Israelites believed that they did happen, according to Nelson. And the stories inspired Israel to praise YHWH and to reassure themselves when they were unsure that the land was in their grasp---and even after they had lost the land.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Building on the Rock

At church this morning, the sermon was on Matthew 7:24-29, in which Jesus contrasts those who hear his words and do them, with those who do not. The former are like those who build their house on a rock, with the result that their house withstands storms and floods, and the latter are like those who build their house on sand, with the result that their house is destroyed in storms and floods. The pastor said that many back then chose to build their houses in the cool valleys---on sand---because building them on the rocky hills was laborious. Ordinarily, those with houses in the valleys had no problems, but their houses were destroyed when there was a flood once every generation.

The pastor talked about how building houses according to standards results in a good house, and that we have to live in the house that we build. The pastor also said that, when we obey the words of Jesus, we are solidifying ourselves for trials that will come. And the pastor remarked that the Sermon on the Mount contains good material on which we can live our lives, for it touches on our lives, as it discusses such topics as revenge, worry, and forgiveness. The pastor had "saving money" in that list, but the only thing in that sermon that appears to be related to that is when Jesus told people not to lay up treasures on earth.

I'm curious as to how following the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount can enable one to withstand storms successfully. I wonder if my faith has helped me to do that, especially when I get overly bent out of shape when the Little House episode I want to watch is not playing on YouTube! I'd have a hard time in situations where the future is uncertain. I think, though, that being in relationships with people who have experienced trials and survived them is helpful. In saying this, I'm not nodding to evangelicalism's emphasis on communitarianism, for the vibe I get from evangelicalism is that God doesn't like me if I don't have a bunch of friends. Rather, I'm saying that relationships are helpful. Something else that's helpful is gaining wisdom. The Bible can be a source for that, but some may find other sources to be more helpful---such as devotionals, or twelfth-step literature, or self-help books, or Dr. Phil, or Oprah.

Is the Sermon on the Mount good material on which I can build my life? I think that it can be. Feelings or passions such as hatred, lust, and worry can lead a person into bad places. But, if the Sermon on the Mount leads me to beat myself up over not being perfect---and to worry about my eternal destiny---then it's not good material on which I can build a house. After all, I have to live in the house that I build.

Benjaminite Joshua Stories, Cherem Loopholes, Sun and Moon Standing Still

I'm continuing my way through Richard Nelson's commentary on the Book of Joshua. I have three items for today.

1. On the story of Achan in the Book of Joshua (Joshua 7), Nelson states: "Because wicked Achan is so clearly identified with a notable family of Judah (v. 1), and because Achor forms part of the border between Judah and Benjamin (15:7), the story of Achan's grave in 'Taboo Valley' probably began its life as an anti-Judah polemic by Benjamin." In its present context, however, its goal is to "discourage misconduct." Indeed, Nelson thinks that Benjamin played a role behind the origin of parts of the Book of Joshua. On page 111, he says regarding Ai that "The imposing ruin on the road between Jericho and Bethel would be a natural focus for a Benjaminite conquest tradition once such stories began to develop." And, a few days ago, I discussed an article by Moshe Weinfeld, which affirmed that Joshua 10 contains stories from the tribe of Benjamin because it focuses on Gilgal, Ai, Jericho, and Gibeon, which were in Benjamin's inheritance (but I can't find where Gilgal is said to belong to Benjamin). Were these Benjaminite stories intended to glorify Saul, who was from Benjamin, by giving Benjamin a prominent role in the Conquest?

2. An issue that came up throughout my reading today is loopholes in the cherem. Deuteronomy presents God commanding Israel to slaughter everyone in Canaan, and forbidding her to make any agreement with the Canaanites. Yet, the Israelites make an agreement to spare Rahab and the tribe of Gibeon. Nelson acknowledges that the Deuteronomist has a hand in these stories, through Dtr's later additions, but Nelson thinks that the stories initially functioned as etiologies to explain the existence of the Rahab tribe as well as the Gibeonites and the lowly servants in the temple. Nelson states that the story of the Gibeonites taught Israel how to deal with the remaining Canaanites: to tolerate them, yet to distrust them (for the Gibeonites lied) and to subjugate them. Nelson may think that the Deuteronomist was making the most of passages that contradicted his notion of Conquest, and he says that the Deuteronomistic layer of the Rahab story portrays her as a convert.

My impression is that John Van Seters' approach is different: Van Seters believes that Dtr wrote one layer of the Book of Joshua, and that the subsequent Yahwistic layer featured Rahab, in according with J's universalist viewpoint. I do not know for sure what Van Seters says about the Gibeonites, but perhaps he thinks that Dtr had a nationalistic belief in a complete conquest, but that J tempered that with his more universalist outlook. Nelson, however, appears to take at face value the biblical stories about Canaanites existing in the time of Solomon, and, like many scholars, he dates the Deuteronomist later than that, at least to the time of Josiah (and, by the way, Nelson alludes to more parallels between Joshua and Josiah, such as both of them tearing their garments out of concern for their people, and both of them holding a covenant ceremony). So Nelson can envision pre-Dtr stories cropping up to explain the continuing existence of the Canaanites, a situation that was especially prominent in the time of Solomon.

3. On pages 143-145, Nelson discusses different ideas about the sun and the moon standing still in Joshua 10. Did Joshua command the sun and the moon to do this in order to prolong the daylight so that Israel could continue the battle? Was Joshua inviting the sun and the moon to assist him in battle, as heavenly bodies did (Judges 5:10; Habakkuk 3:11)---plus, the sun and the moon could smite people, according to Psalm 121:6? Were the sun and the moon blocking escape routes, since the sun was over Gibeon and the moon was over the Aijalon valley? Were the sun and the moon standing still a means to symbolize and induce victory, like Moses holding out his arms during Israel's battle with Amalek (Exodus 17)? Or were the sun and the moon standing in awe at YHWH's glory (Habakkuk 3:11)? Personally, I think the view that they stood still to give Israel more daylight makes most sense. It sounds practical.

Within Joshua 10, we see Joshua commanding the sun and the moon to stand still, as well as the statement that the LORD hearkened to Joshua by making them do so, as if Joshua called on the LORD, not the sun and the moon. According to Nelson, we see here an occurrence of Deuteronomistic redaction: "Because calling upon heavenly beings falls considerably outside the horizon of deuteronomistic orthodoxy ([Joshua] 23:7, 16; Deut. 17:3; 2 Kings 23:5, 11), the redactor (presumably DH) has directed Joshua's speech away from sun and moon and toward Yahweh."

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Psalm 34

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 34 and its interpreters. I have two items for today.

1. I read an excellent article by evangelical biblical scholar Karen Jobes, "Got Milk? Septuagint Psalm 33 and the Interpretation of 1 Peter 2:1-3", which appeared in the Spring 2002 Westminster Theological Journal. I will not detail every element of her argument, but I will talk about her main idea, as well as the thoughts in her article that I found profound.

The King James Version of I Peter 2:1-3 states: "Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings, [a]s newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious." Many interpret the "milk of the word" to be the Gospel or the word of God, for I Peter 1:23-25 discusses regeneration through the hearing of the word, plus "milk" elsewhere in the New Testament is a metaphor for elementary doctrines (I Corinthians 3:2; Hebrews 5:12-13). Another thing to note is that "If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious" seems to imply that the people in the audience need to prove that they are saved by ceasing from evil and desiring the milk of the word.

But Karen Jobes' interpretation of the passage overlaps more with what the New International Version has: "Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good." The phrase that the KJV translates as "pure milk of the word" is to logikon adolon gala. Logikon, which the KJV translates as "of the word", is actually an adjective, which Karen Jobes argues can mean "spiritual" or "rational". It is the same word that appears in Romans 12:1, where Paul exhorts the Roman believers to offer their bodies as spiritual sacrifices to God, which is their reasonable (logiken) service, or worship. Jobes believes that I Peter 2:1-3 is encouraging Christians---who have already experienced God's goodness---to continue to feed on Christ, and an essential aspect of participation in this new reality is forsaking such things as malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander. The word of God is important in Jobes' scenario, but experiencing the living Christ is even more significant.

And this particular interpretation of I Peter 2:1-3 actually overlaps with the passage with which I Peter 2:1-3 interacts, namely, Psalm 34:8, which exhorts people to taste and see that the LORD is good. As Jobes notes, Psalm 34 here does not refer to the word of God, but rather to experiencing God---in terms of God's deliverance from shame (v 6), affliction (v 7), and want (vv 10-11). (I Peter 2:1-3 diverges from Psalm 34:8, however, in that I Peter 2:1-3 says that the Christian audience has already tasted that the Lord is good, whereas Psalm 34:8 encourages people to do so.) Moreover, I Peter appears to interact with other aspects of Psalm 34. Both talk about the fear of the Lord (I Peter 1:17; Psalm 34:9), as well as the importance of forsaking evil, especially wrong speech (I Peter 2:1; Psalm 34:13-14). Jobes also shows that I Peter uses the Septuagint of the Psalm. Psalm 34:4 in the Masoretic Text says that the LORD delivered the Psalmist from all of his fears, megurotai, whereas the Septuagint translates that as "sojourning" (paroikion), since it sees the root g-w-r ("dwell") in the Hebrew word. The Septuagint may have in mind David's various sojournings in his flight from Saul, for the Psalm itself is linked in the superscription to the time when David was in Philistia, or it may be speaking of the Jewish Diaspora. But I Peter 1:17 uses the same Greek word as what the Septuagint uses for "sojourning", as it exhorts Christians to live out their sojourning in the fear of God.

I enjoyed Karen Jobes' article (as well as wrote her a message telling her so) because it demonstrates that the New Testament's interpretation of the Hebrew Bible is not always arbitrary eisegesis that disregards the contexts of passages. Rather, there is a system and a logic in I Peter's use of Psalm 34, and, in a sense, I Peter is faithful to what the Psalm is actually saying, even as I Peter applies the Psalm to a new setting. Regarding the message of I Peter, according to Jobes' interpretation, there is a part of me that likes it from a religious standpoint, and a part of me that dislikes it. I identify with the notion that there are things that can hold one back from intimacy with God---such as malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander---and that I should let go of those things, not in order to earn God's favor, but because I am already loved by God, who is good. I have problems, though, with prioritizing experience of God over Scripture, for I do not know how to experience God; I can, however, try to trust the Scripture's message that God is good. At the same time, there are plenty of things in Scripture that appear to contradict God's goodness, and I would feel better interacting with a living God rather than an inflexible book.

On a related note, E.W. Bullinger has a gem. Psalm 34:5 says that people looked to the LORD and were radiant. Bullinger says that the radiance did not come from looking at oneself or one's surroundings, but from looking to the LORD. This is something that I have heard for years, so, in a sense, it's old news to me. And yet, there is a degree of reason to it, and I should try to follow it, since I know that looking at myself and my surroundings can lead me to despair!

2. Another good article that I read was Anthony Ceresko's "The ABCs of Wisdom in Psalm 34", which appeared in the January 1, 1985 Vetus Testamentum. Psalm 34 is an acrostic, which means that its lines are arranged alphabetically. Psalm 34 is missing a vav, however. Ceresko wrestles with the question of why Psalm 34 was arranged according to an acrostic format. Was it for the purpose of helping people (such as students) to memorize the Psalm? Was it to demonstrate skill? Was it to imply completeness? The answer on which Ceresko settles is that arranging thoughts according to an acrostic format allowed one to wrest order from the disconnectedness of life. Indeed, Psalm 34 is about affirming the existence of a righteous order even though the afflictions of the righteous are many, and it's also about how God takes care of those who need him, even when the most self-sufficient animals on earth, lions, are struggling to find food. And, as John MacArthur and others note, Psalms 25 and 34 close with a line that begins with peh, which is not the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The Psalms do so because peh is the first letter of the root p-d-h, which means appears in Psalm 25:22 and 34:22, and means "ransom". These Psalms close by affirming God's ransom of those who are in trouble.

Ceresko is not the only person to seek a spiritual meaning in an acrostic. E.W. Bullinger says that broken acrostics occur in certain Psalms that are about tribulation, in order to highlight the vicissitudes of life. Maybe Bullinger has in mind that the world makes a degree of sense, and yet there is just enough evil to sully the natural and moral order of things. Other scholars, however, have attributed broken acrostics to scribal errors, or, in some cases, to an incomplete stage of the Hebrew alphabet.

The orthodox Jewish Artscoll on Psalms says that the acrostic in Psalm 34 communicates that everything God has made is good, from A to Z (or, actually, from aleph to tav). Both the Artscroll and the Midrash on the Psalms bring up the story of David pretending to be a madman before the Philistine King Achish, which is the setting that the superscription applies to Psalm 34 (only the superscription calls Achish "Abimelech"), and which appears in I Samuel 21:12-15. According to a Jewish legend, David was struggling to understand the place of madness in God's beautiful creation, for he could not see anything valuable in insane people ripping apart their clothing and being mocked. Then David ran into a situation where he was in Philistine territory, and the Philistines knew that he was the David who killed a lot of Philistines. David was afraid, and so he pretended to be insane so that King Achish would send him away rather than capturing or killing him. The Jewish legend says that, at this point, David understood that even madness could have a place in God's creation, for pretending to be mad is what saved David's life! The lesson here may be that there is order in God's creation, even when we do not see it.

Do I believe this? A teaching in twelfth-step recovery groups is that nothing and nobody are in God's world by mistake. The purpose of this teaching may be to give alcoholics or addicts peace-of-mind from their worries, which can easily drive them to their addictions. Such a teaching is valuable because it says that we don't have to run the entire show. But such a teaching can also have its drawbacks. I think of the scene in Uncle Tom's Cabin in which the slavemaster's wife is telling her household about her pastor's sermon, which affirmed that God placed everything in its proper order. Her idea was that God was the one who instituted slavery. A belief that everything in God's universe has a purpose can lead to the trivialization of evil. The Psalmist in Psalm 34, however, does not trivialize evil, but he hopes that God will deliver him from it.

I listened to some sermons that waxed eloquent on Psalm 34's statements that God is good, and that we should bless and praise the LORD at all times, not only when things are going our way. A pastor was saying that, if we don't have a significant other, then that's because God knows that it's not the right time for us. This is appealing, but I'm not sure if I buy this. I see plenty of people who have significant others, and the time is obviously not right for them! How else would you explain the existence of divorce, or men who pick up women and then dump them like yesterday's garbage? Moreover, why should I assume that there is a great cosmic reason behind why I don't have a girlfriend? Perhaps I don't have a girlfriend because I have difficulty socializing, as a person with Asperger's. But maybe God has a reason for Asperger's. I do not know.

At the same time, I think that it's important for me to be grateful for what I do have. And, I will admit, right now may not be the right time for me to have a girlfriend. But I am not ruling out ever having a significant other!

Starting Nelson's Commentary on Joshua

I started Richard Nelson's commentary on the Book of Joshua. I have three items.

1. Nelson does not believe that the Book of Joshua presents an accurate account of the Conquest, for the same reasons that many biblical scholars reject the historicity of the Conquest (see here). But he does maintain that the Book of Joshua contains what people thought happened to their ancestors---which contradicts the usual platitude that says that the biblical authors did not intend to write history, but something else entirely (e.g., an allegory, though I rarely hear what the alleged allegory is supposed to represent). In the early Iron Age, there were two groups of people, according to Nelson:

"In the lowlands was the established, elitist culture of the city-states with their kings and chariots. At the same time, an alternate social system was developing in the highlands. This was an egalitarian, rural village culture, without the social stratification that comes with being organized as a state. It depended on a largely self-contained economy based on farming and herding." (Page 4).

This community in the highlands was Israel. According to Nelson, the people who became Israelites may have been pastoralists who settled down and pursued agriculture, or perhaps they came from the Canaanite city-states. But their material culture overlaps with that of Late Bronze Canaan---and even the "epigraphic finds utilize the Canaanite alphabet" (page 3)---so they most likely were indigenous to Canaan, rather than people who came from the outside, as the Book of Joshua depicts.

As Judges 5 (the Song of Deborah) indicates, there was conflict between the Israelites in the highlands and the Canaanites in the lowlands. For Nelson, the Book of Joshua served to unify the Israelites and give them an identity. It allowed them to celebrate YHWH as their Divine Warrior and to lay claim to the land of Canaan, even as outsiders, for "It is common for traditions of national origin to speak of immigration from another place, as Israel itself was aware (Genesis 10; Amos 9:7" (page 5). The Conquest in the Book of Joshua also reflects ancient Israel's xenophobia, and the Book of Joshua long resonated with Israelites because their possession of the land was continually at risk---due to Canaanites and foreigners. During the time of the monarchy, the Book of Joshua provided Israel with a "unified narrative of origins" (page 5). And the Book of Joshua continued to be relevant even during the exile, as it reminded Israel that God gave her the gift of land, which she forfeited through her disobedience.

According to Nelson, the Book of Joshua also served an etiological function, in that it offered a story that accounted for aspects of ancient Israel's life: the presence of a foreign Rahab clan, ruins of Canaanite cities, a tomb of Achan, etc. For Nelson, the people who created the Book of Joshua drew from traditions uncritically to produce a narrative.

2. On page 29, Nelson argues that the Deuteronomistic contribution to Joshua 1 portrays Joshua using royal concepts, perhaps "to create parallels between the figures of Joshua and Josiah." YHWH's charge in Joshua 1:1-9 resembles David's charge to Solomon in I Kings 2:2-4. Joshua is also to meditate on the law of the LORD, like the ideal Deuteronomic king (Deuteronomy 17:18-19), and the uncompromising obedience to him by the eastern tribes, his responsibility for the military success of Israel, and the legitimation of his authority by the LORD's presence also echo biblical stories about kings. The idea here may be that the Deuteronomist wanted to promote Josiah, and so he added details to the respected story of Joshua in order to make Joshua into a Josiah-like figure.

3. Nelson's textual critical model appears to be to look at the MT and the LXX and to eliminate additions that each seems to have made. There are things in the LXX that are not in the MT, and vice versa, and Nelson may presume that the simplest text was the early one, whether it is in the LXX or the MT.

An example of Nelson's methodology occurs in his exegesis of Joshua 5. Joshua 5:11 affirms that the Israelites ate unleavened cakes and parched corn, but the MT ties that to the Passover, whereas the LXX does not. Nelson treats the part about the Passover as an addition. Joshua 5 still has a Passover, for v 10 mentions it, even in the LXX. But the connection between the Passover and the unleavened bread is something that the MT adds to Joshua 5, according to Nelson.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Completing Writings and Speech in Israelite and ANE Prophecy

I completed Writings and Speech in Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy. In this post, I will talk about two essays: Karel Van Der Toorn's "From the Oral to the Written: The Case of Old Babylonian Prophecy", and Martti Nissinen's "Spoken, Written, Quoted, and Invented: Orality and Writtenness in Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy". I have two items:

1. The two essays provided evidence for the existence in other ancient Near Eastern countries of the sort of scenario that Philip Davies posits for ancient Israel: that prophecies were spoken, written down, and then sent to the king, who had them archived. (According to Van Der Toorn, Old Babylonian prophecies were usually spoken within the sanctuary, and they were written down for the sake of confidentiality, not so much preservation. The idea was to ensure that primarily the king would have access to the prophecy. Moreover, Nissinen states that some prophecies in Assyria were deemed worthy to be preserved permanently, for they were transferred to the tsuppu format, which was used for long-term preservation. Nissinen doubts that all prophecies were so preserved.) In the process, some of the oracles were organized, collected together, and redacted, according to the creativity of the scribes. And, as John Van Seters notes in his contribution to this book, the written prophecies could serve kings soon after their archival. For example, Nissinen states that the Assyrian king Esarhaddon (seventh century B.C.E.) appealed to prophecies collected in archives to validate his own legitimacy as king, allowing those oracles to be relevant beyond their immediate historical situations.

Both Van Der Toorn and Nissinen address the question of whether the prophecies in their written forms were exact replicates of how they were when they were spoken. Both of them do not think so. Nissinen states that we may be able to date more reliably the prophecies of ancient Near Eastern nations than we can for the Hebrew Bible, for, in the case of the Hebrew Bible, all we have are the books in their final form, whereas we can observe earlier phases for ancient Near Eastern prophecies. But, overall, we do not have access to the original prophecies. When the prophecies were transferred into written form, they were adapted stylistically, so they could be suitable for the king's court. In some cases, there were written variations of the same prophecy.

And, according to Van Der Toorn, the concept of divine dictation of prophecy emerged in Babylon in 1200 B.C.E., but, ordinarily, Old Babylonian prophecy allowed for interpretation of the divine word on the part of the prophet and the hearers of his message, so long as the spirit of the prophecy was reflected. Van Der Toorn states that "The notion of a literal inspiration (and the views on inerrancy it eventually entailed) was first applied to texts that existed in written form only", but prophecies were primarily spoken (page 233). They were written down so they could be communicated to the king---and, although Van Der Toorn does not say this explicitly, he may have in mind a concept that Niels Peter Lemche talks about: that access to the king was highly restricted. Consequently, the prophet could not be in the presence of the king himself, and his prophecy had to be written down and delivered to the king for the king to hear it.

2. Van Der Toorn discusses two examples of prophecy that stood out to me because they reminded me of prophecies in the Hebrew Bible---at least loosely.

An apilum was a prophet who interpreted signs. On page 228, Van Der Toorn talks about an apilum who had a negative message for King Hammurabi of Babylon. Ishme-Dagan was the king of Ekallatum, a city in upper Mesopotamia, and he was bid-ridden in Babylon. The apilum is upset that Ishme-Dagan has "appropriated the temple treasures of Marduk to buy peace with Elam." The apilum first denounces Ishme-Dagan at the palace gate of King Hammurabi, then at the lodging of Ishme-Dagan, and he does so publicly. The apilum's goal was to increase "the pressure on Hammurabi to dissociate himself from Ishme-Dagan" (page 228). This reminded me of the Bible because the king is criticized. I've heard and read that most prophecies in the ancient Near East supported the establishment. But this example demonstrates that this was not always the case.

On pages 230-232, Van Der Toorn talks about an occurrence in Mari. King Zimrilim of Mari was about to conclude a treaty with the king of Eshnunna, but, through the prophets of Terqa, the god Dagan expresses opposition to the treaty. Dagan says that the Eshnunnan king's friendship is feigned, and the god "promises peace through conquest, which is not the same as peace through alliance." This reminds me of the biblical prophets' skepticism about alliances. The analogy is far from perfect, but that was what was in my mind as I read this part of Van Der Toorn's essay.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Floyd and Redford on Oral Tradition and Written Tradition

I'm continuing my way through Writings and Speech in Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy. I read Michael Floyd's "'Write the Revelation!' (Hab 2:2): Re-Imagining the Cultural History of Prophecy" (which, incidentally, doesn't talk much about Habakkuk 2:2), and most of Donald B. Redford's "Scribe and Speaker".

1. Michael Floyd is essentially arguing against a scholarly model that says that ancient Israel went from being an oral culture to one that had more writing, which corresponded with developing complexity in its society (e.g., diversification of social roles, hierarchization, etc.). According to this model, an aspect of this progress was secularization, as scribes downplayed traditional religion in order to make sense of the world rationally. Floyd narrates that Julius Wellhausen viewed such a development as negative, for he preferred the time when prophecy was oral and dynamic, rather than the time when prophecy was written down---either to record what for many years was orally transmitted, or in cases in which the prophecy immediately became a literary product (as occurred in later years).

Floyd disagrees with this model, and his goal in his essay is to demonstrate that reality is more complex than the model presumes. He argues that people pass on information or stories orally even in societies that have writing, that literacy does not necessarily imply technological advancement, and that we're not even sure that scribal schools taught students how to read---for they may have simply instructed them in such subjects as ethics. Although Floyd agrees that scribal schools in ancient Israel were late, he contends that writing in ancient Israel went back as far as the tenth century B.C.E.---on the basis of clay seals, a few inscriptions and documents, the ancient Song of Deborah's reference to scribes mustering the troops (Judges 5:14b; cp. II Kings 25:19; II Chronicles 26:11; and Jeremiah 52:25), and the long scribal tradition in other ancient Near Eastern nations. (Like Giovanni Garbini, Floyd apparently wonders why we should assume that ancient Israel was that different from her neighbors!)

Floyd does not think that scribal activity necessarily entailed the existence of schools, for people could have learned writing "through apprenticeship in nonacademic settings where it would have been used for nonacademic purposes" (page 136). As Floyd states, "In the public spheres scribes worked in the areas of international relations, civil administration, military deployment, law courts, religious cults, trade and commerce, etc., and in the private sphere they provided domestic records and facilitated personal correspondence" (page 136). Floyd also takes issue with the characterization of the scribes as secular, viewing that as the projection of Enlightenment ideas onto history. Moreover, if the scribes were secular, Floyd points out, then the mantic interests of ancient Near Eastern scribes as well as the scribal concern about prophetic writings in ancient Israel are quite odd indeed.

2. The subject of Donald Redford's essay is oral tradition and writing in ancient Egypt. There were three issues in this essay that stood out to me. First of all, what evidence is there that oral tradition even existed? Whenever someone asserts that the Bible contains ancient oral traditions, some ask, "Says who?" Redford does not defend the existence of such traditions in the Hebrew Bible, at least in what I have read so far. But he does refer to evidence for oral tradition in ancient Egypt, as documents talk about telling about the great deeds of the king and storytelling. Some of the statements about oral tradition in ancient Egyptian documents reminded me of parts of the Hebrew Bible---which talk about parents teaching their children about the deeds and laws of the LORD, as well as wisdom. Word-of-mouth played a role in ancient Israel, and/or among exilic and post-exilic Jews.

Second, an issue that has come up repeatedly in this book is whether and how one can identify oral tradition in the Hebrew Bible. Scholars have portrayed oral tradition as less sophisticated and organized than what is written. But, as Redford notes, oratory in Egypt entailed organization and sophistication.

Third, which did the ancients consider to be better---oral tradition or written tradition? In ancient Egypt, writing had the advantage of solidifying and recording the past, allowing it to be a precedent for later generations; oral tradition, by contrast, was not deemed to be fully reliable, although Egyptians fully respected the power of the spoken word. James Crenshaw, however, refers to Plato's Phaedrus 274b-278b, in which Plato argues (in Crenshaw's words) that "a written text cannot choose its readers", and that, "Once put in writing, a text is subject to manipulation by literate interpreters" (page 43). According to Crenshaw, that's why oral prophecies were circulated within prophetic circles: to restrict who could handle and circulate the tradition.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How Were the Prophecies (Especially the Anti-Establishment Ones) Preserved?

I've been thinking about some of what I wrote yesterday in my post on Writings and Speech in Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy. In the ancient world, people who were full-time scribes generally needed someone who would sponsor them---who would finance their scribal endeavors. This could be the royal establishment, or the priesthood. But my question yesterday (and in other posts that I have written) is this: How could prophets in the Hebrew Bible write prophecies against the establishment? Not only would the establishment refuse to sponsor them if they did that, but it would also crack down on them.

The solution that I proposed yesterday is that the prophetic books themselves were exilic or post-exilic---which was after the passing of the establishment that the prophets criticized. In the exilic and the post-exilic periods, the establishment consisted of people who were friendlier to the ideas of the prophets, for they witnessed what they believed to be the confirmation of the prophets' words: destruction of their nation, presumably on account of their sins.

The same can be said for the Northern prophets, such as Hosea. In the North, Hosea probably got little support, for he criticized the establishment there. But, after the destruction of Northern Israel in 722 B.C.E., supporters of Hosea came South, where they found a more receptive audience. In the South, supporters of Hosea could find sponsors for their scribal production---a writing of the prophecies of Hosea.

The question that occurred to me, though, was this: Were the prophecies first written down when there were actual sponsors? Were the pre-exilic prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel first written down after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.? Were the prophecies of Hosea first written down after the destruction of Northern Israel in 722 B.C.E.?

As I thought about this, I had my doubts, and my reason was that certain pre-exilic or Northern prophecies appear to have been updated. Why would these prophecies be updated at the literary level, if they were first written down in Israel's exilic or post-exilic period? If these prophecies were first written down at this time, couldn't they have been written down with the update seamlessly incorporated into the text, instead of the update looking like an update (i.e., out-of-place, disrupting smooth transitions, etc.)? The fact that the update looks like an update tells me that the update was added to a previously written text.

I'm trying to think of an example in which a pre-exilic text was updated with an exilic or post-exilic insertion, or in which a Northern text was updated with a Southern insertion, but none is coming to mind. The Deuteronomistic History is considered by many to be from the time of Josiah, and that was updated during the exile. But this does not prove my point, for Josiah was a righteous king who would have sponsored the first edition of the Deuteronomistic History. The Book of Amos condemns the nations and Northern Israel, and then there is a passage in Amos 2 that criticizes Judah and predicts the fall of Judah and Jerusalem---and that is deemed to be a later insertion. But that, too, doesn't prove my point, for Amos could have been written down in the South, where the establishment was friendlier, and then the part about the fall of Judah and Jerusalem could have been added during the exilic period.

I thought also about Ezekiel's prophecies about Tyre (see Ezekiel 26-29): he predicted that Babylon would decimate Tyre, and, when that didn't happen, he said that God would give Babylon Egypt instead (which historians say also did not happen). According to many scholars, Ezekiel composed the second prophecy after his first prophecy failed to come to pass. But my point is not proven here, either, for these prophecies both could have been made during the exile. Someone wrote down the first prophecy during the exile, and someone wrote the second prophecy later during the exile. This is not necessarily an example of a pre-exilic prophecy with an exilic update.

An example that may work, somewhat, is Isaiah 6. According to R.E. Clements' essay in this book, Isaiah 6 was part of Isaiah's eighth century memoir, but it was updated after 587 B.C.E., which accounts for the parts about destruction. But Isaiah, as a part of the establishment, could have had access to the resources to write his own memoirs---though he perhaps would have wanted to keep his activity a secret in order not to upset the establishment that he was criticizing!

So I can't think of a good example of my point, but I'm going to proceed anyway and ask how some of the authors of this book interact with the issue of the preservation of pre-exilic (particularly pre-exilic anti-establishment) prophecy. James Crenshaw says that prophetic communities preserved and orally transmitted the prophets' words. But Crenshaw says other things as well. For example, on pages 38-41, he speculates that the prophets could have found sponsors in the very establishment that they criticized. Kings may not have liked the prophets, but they wanted divine protection in times of peril, and so they could have sponsored the prophets, whom they believed were sent from God. Or a prophet may have had support from elements of the establishment, as Jeremiah did. Priests may have recoiled from prophets' criticism of the cult, yet they could have still sponsored those prophets because of the prophets' support of the king, "under whose beneficence [the priests] found shelter"; or the priests may have seen the prophets as advocating the purification of the cult by "elevating ethics above ritual", rather than criticizing the cult itself (pages 39-40).

Philip Davies, if I am understanding him correctly, believes that pre-exilic prophecies were preserved for archival purposes. The example that he cites to support this point is II Chronicles 21:12, in which Elijah is said to have sent Jehoram a letter. John Van Seters does not think that this example is sufficient to support Davies' scenario, but I recall seeing a similar argument in Karel Van Der Toorn's Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. On pages 182-183, Van Der Toorn cites Amos 7, in which Amaziah the priest of Bethel sends a message to the king about Amos' words, which outrage Amaziah. For Van Der Toorn, that message could have then been preserved in the sanctuary for archival purposes, although it was clearly anti-establishment.

John Van Seters talks about Assyrian archives at Nineveh, published by Simo Parpola, and he states that only prophecies in favor of the king were preserved there. The prophets in Assyria were associated with the Ishtar cult, which supported the monarchy. But Van Seters also states that "A prophetic opponent of the king would belong to a different cult" (page 87). I do not know, however, if this cult would have had the resources to sponsor prophecy against the monarchy.

Van Seters makes another interesting observation on pages 86-87. He states that collections of prophetic oracles could have been used to support the establishment, as was done for Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal of Assyria. Similarly, Van Seters mentions Isaiah 7-8, and he affirms that salvation oracles "could be treated as covenants between the god and the king and set up in the temple." Does Van Seters believe that something like this happened with Isaiah 7-8---which states (at least in part) that God will protect Jerusalem from the Syro-Phoenician alliance?

I've been rambling here, but I think that my rambling has captured important and interesting thoughts in this book, as I have considered how its contributors address how pre-exilic prophecy was preserved---even prophecy that was anti-establishment.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Re-Starting Writings and Speech in Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy

I started Writings and Speech in Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy. I actually read and blogged through this book over a year ago, but I did not think that I captured the essence of the book---in either my reading or my writing. As I look back at my old posts, I think that I absorbed more of the book than I thought, but I'll still reread it because (1.) it won't take me that long, since I'm reading 100 pages a day, and (2.) maybe I can solidify my understanding of certain issues in this particular reading. An issue that I have visited and revisited on this blog is writing and prophecy. Since people in the ancient world may have needed sponsors in order to be scribes, how did the writings of the anti-establishment prophets manage to survive and get written? This book actually tackles that question.

My impression, at this point, is that the prophetic books were organized in Israel's exilic or post-exilic period. As far as I can tell, every author in this book so far assents to that point---even those who think that parts of them were written before the exile (such as R.E. Clements, who argues that Isaiah wrote a memoir, which we can detect within First Isaiah). That means that anti-monarchic, anti-cultic prophecies that were made before the exile---prophecies that probably would not be tolerated by the establishment---could have been written down during or after the exile, after the establishment had been destroyed or humbled, and the prophecies had been validated by events. The purposes of prophetic books could have included archiving or explaining the past (i.e., how Israel got to be in exile), religiously edifying and offering hope to the masses, or scribal education.

But how were the anti-establishment prophecies preserved? James Crenshaw argues that they were preserved orally by prophetic schools, for we see the importance of prophetic schools in the preservation of prophecy in such passages as Isaiah 8. But Philip Davies is skeptical about this. If a prophetic school preserved prophecy, then why is there such a dearth of legends about the literary prophets (i.e., Isaiah, Ezekiel, Obadiah, Joel, etc.)---the sorts of legends that we see regarding Elijah and Elisha, which many scholars have said reflect transmission within prophetic schools? On a similar note, Davies asks, why are many of the literary prophets unmentioned in the biblical historiographic books, if there is a long line of transmitted oral traditions about their sayings?

Davies does not appear to dismiss the possibility that parts of what we see in the prophetic books go back to Judah's pre-exilic period, however, for his thesis is that oracles (maybe even pre-exilic ones) were preserved in the sanctuary and collected together into books, some well-edited (such as the Book of Jeremiah), and some not well-edited and thus confusing. These oracles then were elaborated upon by scribes, who sought to clarify or give coherence to them, or even to assign them to certain times in Israel's history. But Davies seems to be skeptical about the oracles being passed on within prophetic communities. Regarding the anti-establishment element of prophecies, Davies posits that scribes made social critiques by putting their own concerns into the mouths of ancient prophets---so that they wouldn't get in trouble for directly attacking the establishment. At the same time, Davies maintains that elements of the prophetic writings manifest an establishment viewpoint---particularly in their support for an Israelite empire---and this comes from a scribal imprint.

A question that recurs in the book is whether or not we can identify oral elements in the prophetic writings. John Van Seters criticizes Robert Culley and Susan Niditch's argument that we can, but I got a different impression from Culley's essay from what Van Seters got. Granted, Culley and Niditch contended that an oral prophecy for the purpose of performance may have certain characteristics---such as repetition---yet they also appear to argue that written prophecy can imitate oral style. That coincides with Van Seters' argument that written prophecy can imitate oral techniques, and that prophecy can be written down and yet be orally performed. Van Seters may be right in his interpretation of Culley and Niditch, for he is an experienced scholar. But, if Culley and Niditch are indeed saying what Van Seters says they are saying, then they are undermining their own arguments by some of the points that they themselves raise.

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