Sunday, June 30, 2013

Drawing Back from a God of Unconditional Love?

At church this morning, the pastor's sermon was about God being a God of relationship.  The pastor said that God was sufficient in himself, but God's love overflowed, as God created human beings to have a loving relationship with them.  The pastor also said that many are apprehensive about entering into a relationship with God because they fear losing their own individuality.  But the pastor went on to affirm that God is okay with our individuality----that God wants to use us to help others, with our strengths and weaknesses.

Why would people be afraid to enter into a relationship with a God who unconditionally loves them?  "Because they want to do anything they want, without being accountable to a higher power," Christians may respond.  But if God's love is truly unconditional, that would mean that God loves people even if they do what they want, right?  Why wouldn't anyone want to be in a relationship with that kind of God?  I think that one reason that some might not want to be in a relationship with God is that they don't really think that God's love is unconditional.  Moreover, my impression is that the monotheistic religions do not consistently present God's love as unconditional. 

Nixon in Winter 3

What stood out to me in my latest reading of Monica Crowley's Nixon in Winter was something that Nixon said on pages 71-72, about a speech that he gave concerning the Soviet Union when he was campaigning for U.S. Senate candidate Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey:

"'A speech is a conversation----remember that.  It's important that you connect with the audience even if they have no idea what you are talking about.  It's hard to talk about, say, Soviet reform with people who are not clued in to it as well as you are.  It's hard to bring your arguments down to a level they can understand.  It's not that they're not smart; it's just that foreign policy isn't their bag.  And it's hard to simplify it when it's your bag.  But you've got to do it, or you're going to lose them."

What Nixon tried to highlight to the American people and their leaders during the 1990's was the importance of aiding Yeltsin and the development of a free market economy in Russia.  Otherwise, ultra-conservatives could take over in Russia, launching a new Cold War, which would effect Americans because of the money that it would take to wage it.

Foreign policy is not exactly my bag.  Nixon thought that foreign policy was more interesting than domestic policy, and I can understand why one would feel that way.  There's arguably more to know when it comes to foreign policy----there are more countries, more cultures, more histories, more economies.  When one studies domestic policy, however, he or she is looking at only one country: the United States.  And yet, then again, come to think of it, there's a lot to learn when it comes to domestic policy, too: the policies of the various 50 states, how a proposal would impact different people, a proposal's positives and negatives, and the question of whether or not the U.S. can successfully apply ideas that other countries have tried (i.e., national health insurance).

For some reason, I'm more interested in domestic policy than I am in foreign policy.  I'm not sure why.  Perhaps it's because it affects me.  And yet, even when I was a child and was not entirely clear about how public policies affected me personally, I was still more interested in domestic policy than foreign policy.
At the same time, I do enjoy reading what Nixon has to say about foreign policy, for he's a lucid thinker and an engaging writer.

What Nixon said about trying to break things down caught my eye, too, since that is a challenge for me.  Often, when I make a point, it can easily come across as a bunch of verbiage.  What I need to work on is breaking things down for my audience, which is smart (in fact, smarter than me on a lot of things), but which wants to hear things in an accessible manner.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Nixon in Winter 2

On page 49 of Monica Crowley's Nixon in Winter, Richard Nixon tells Monica Crowley about a recent interaction that he had with George McGovern, who was his opponent in the 1972 Presidential election:

"'Well, I'm sure you know about the McGovern thing,' [Nixon] said...'On the shuttle home, I was reading before we took off and I heard somebody say to Jerry [Rosalia, his security escort for that day], 'I know that guy!'  Well, it turned out to be [George] McGovern.  So after we took off, I had Jerry see if he had an empty seat next to him, and we had a nice talk.  He was thinking about running in '92, damn fool!  But he was always a very decent guy.  He at least had the guts to stand up for what he believed in, not like the current bunch of clowns.'"

I loved this passage for a couple of reasons.  First of all, Nixon was not very positive about McGovern in his memoirs, even though Nixon could speak highly of some of his political opponents.  Nixon considered McGovern to be sanctimonious and lacking in leadership qualities, and he resented McGovern's attacks on him during the 1972 campaign.  I'm pleased to see that Nixon came to have a more positive view about McGovern.  And, according to this wikipedia article, which appeals to an article about McGovern by William Greider, McGovern came to have a positive view about Nixon: "George McGovern, Nixon's onetime opponent, commented in 1983, 'President Nixon probably had a more practical approach to the two superpowers, China and the Soviet Union, than any other president since World War II ... With the exception of his inexcusable continuation of the war in Vietnam, Nixon really will get high marks in history.'"

Second, this passage reminded me of a passage in volume 3 of Stephen Ambrose's trilogy on Nixon, a passage that I loved but did not write about.  Ambrose said that Nixon respected the anti-war protesters because at least they were in the arena, unlike a number of rich people.  Nixon spoke against the anti-war protesters when he was President, but he still respected that they were standing up for what they believed.

Psalm 119: Peh

I have two items for my blog post today on Psalm 119: Peh.

1.  V 132 states (in the KJV): "Look thou upon me, and be merciful unto me, as thou usest to do unto those that love thy name."

This verse stood out to me, even though it is like a lot of other verses that I have read in the Book of Psalms and the Hebrew Bible in general.  The reason that this verse stood out to me is that it brought to my mind a question: Who can receive God's mercy?  I've heard different answers to this question throughout my life.  Some say that God forgives those who sincerely repent----who ask God for forgiveness and make a genuine effort to turn away from their sins.  Others say that God forgives those who simply put their faith in Jesus Christ.  And then there is another view that I have heard even within evangelicalism: that God may have mercy on those who don't repent or put their faith in Jesus.  Have I really heard this view within evangelicalism?  Well, maybe not explicitly (at least not in very conservative circles of Christianity), but I have heard a couple of times from conservative Christians that God shows mercy to the human race by allowing it to exist.  And the human race whom God allows to exist includes people who have not repented or put their faith in Christ.

The Psalmist in Psalm 119:132 says that God is merciful to those who love God's name.  Exodus 20:6 affirms that God shows mercy to the thousands who love God and keep God's commandments.  Psalm 103:11 says that God's mercy is on those who fear God.  Psalm 33:18 states that God's eye is on those who hope for his mercy.  And yet, God mercifully puts up with Israel throughout the Hebrew Bible, even when she is not in a proper relationship with God.

I can understand God's mercy being for those who are on a righteous path----people who may not walk righteously with perfect consistency (since nobody does), but who want to be righteous, and try to be so.  But how can one be assured that he or she is sufficiently fulfilling the requirements to receive God's mercy----that he or she is sufficiently keeping God's commandments, is sufficiently fearing God, is sufficiently loving God's name?  I don't know.  And I've gotten to the point where it's not something that I worry about.  I just assume that God loves me and that God gives me (and many others, wherever they may be on their journey) time and opportunities to learn, to grow, and to get things right.

2.  V 136 states: "Rivers of waters run down mine eyes, because they keep not thy law."  St. Augustine says that there are some versions that say in the second half "because I have not kept your law" (see here).
I found some interesting interpretations of this verse.  In the Midrash on the Psalms, there is a discussion of this verse that refers to Jeremiah 31:15, which says that Rachel is weeping for her children.  The Midrash asks how Rachel could weep for her children, since she did not live to see Joseph's children, and she died at Benjamin's birth.  The Midrash then says that the point of Jeremiah 31:15 is that the prophets are weeping because Israel does not keep God's law.  According to William Braude, the Midrash is probably seeing Rachel in Jeremiah 31:15 as ruach-El----the spirit of God, and thus the prophets who are inspired by that spirit.  But the Midrash goes on to affirm that God comforts the prophets in Jeremiah 31:16-17 by promising that their labor will not be in vain and that their children will come back to their border.

In the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary, I read that the "they" who do not keep the Torah in v 136 are the eyes themselves: the eyes are weeping because they (the eyes) are not keeping God's Torah.  How are the eyes not keeping God's Torah?  According to the Artscroll, the Psalmist's eyes were leading him into sin, as those eyes looked on what was forbidden and thereby incited sinful desire.  This reminds me of some New Testament passages.  Matthew 5:28-29: "But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.  And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell."  James 1:14-15: "But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death."  I John 2:16: "For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world."

I've not been a big fan of weeping for my own sin, or weeping for the sins of others.  It just doesn't strike me as overly authentic, but as a way that certain Christians try to show off how spiritual they are.  But I'm all for me taking a good hard look at myself, the good and the bad.  (Or I want to be for doing that----it can actually be quite scary!  I'm coming to understand more and more with age why that elf said in the Neverending Story that coming face to face with one's true self can lead some people to run away screaming!)  I'm for being concerned about things in the world that hurt other people.  If that leads me to weep, so be it, but what's important is for me to have concern.  Moreover, in the spirit of the Artscroll and those New Testament passages about lust, I try to be sensitive to the slippery slope that lust can put me on, even if I don't impose on myself a blanket prohibition on sexual desire.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Nixon in Winter 1

I started Monica Crowley's Nixon in Winter.  In April, I blogged through Monica's Nixon Off the Record, which is about Monica's time working for Richard Nixon in the 1990's.  Nixon in Winter is about that, too, only it has a far greater focus on foreign policy; plus, it gets into Nixon's reflections on Watergate and other political scandals, philosophy and religion, family, and mortality.

Nixon's points about foreign policy in my latest reading were not all that new to me, for many of them are the same points that he makes in his book, Seize the Moment, which I read and blogged through.  This is not surprising, for Nixon in this part of Nixon in Winter is working on Seize the Moment, as Monica assists him in researching for the book.  I'll have plenty of opportunities to get into foreign policy in my blog posts about Nixon in Winter.  What I want to highlight here is the more personal dimension of Monica's narration.

Monica asks in her introduction why Nixon was so open with her----how he could trust her after being burned in the past.  Her answer is that it was because she was young and did not have an agenda, and also because Nixon knew that he was sharing his thoughts with posterity when he was sharing them with her.  As Monica says, Nixon was telling his story one last time!

There is a tender part of the book in which Monica comes to Nixon's home to work with him on his book Beyond Peace, and they have dinner together.  Nixon wanted her to come because he was afraid that he would slip on the ice and seriously harm himself if he went outside.  When Monica arrived, he looked out the window to tell her to take hold of the railing so she wouldn't fall.  After talking about the book, they had chili (which Nixon said was the only thing he knew how to make) with grapefruit juice.  He also made Monica a non-alcoholic version of a beverage that he liked in Asia.  And, when he tried to open a bag of sesame-seed breadsticks, he had difficulty, and a bunch of sesame seeds scattered on the floor!

Nixon said that he was lonely on account of his celebrity.  His wife Pat had died, and he mostly stayed in his study, while rarely (if ever) going into the other rooms.  While Pat was still alive, he adopted a dog who was wandering around on his property.  Monica tells a funny story about how Nixon was talking to her about foreign policy, and the dog bit off and swallowed the tip of her pin, without Nixon even noticing!

In my reading so far, this book looks like it will be like Nixon: Off the Record:  a lot of technical discussion, yet also some light-hearted moments.  At the same time, my impression thus far is that Nixon's humanity----particularly his loneliness----is more apparent in Nixon in Winter.

John of Gischala vs. Josephus, and the Book of Revelation

For my blog post today on Lee Harmon's Revelation: The Way It Happened, I will focus on Lee's argument that the Jewish rebel John of Gischala was the John who wrote the Book of Revelation, and that this John had Josephus in mind when he was talking about the false prophet in Revelation 13:11-16.  This will be my last formal post about Lee's book, but I may refer to it in future posts.

According to Lee, John in Revelation 13 regarded Josephus as the false prophet because Josephus willfully contributed to Rome's victory when there was a Jewish revolt in Jerusalem in the first century C.E.  Moreover, as I talked about a couple posts ago, Josephus held that the Roman Vespasian was the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy.  According to Lee, John had this in mind when he portrayed the second beast (the false prophet) supporting the first beast.  When John says that the false prophet would do wonders and cause fire to come down from heaven, Lee interprets that in light of "the magical practices of the imperial cult", which Josephus upheld by contributing to Rome's triumph over Jerusalem (page 168).  When John criticizes Balaam in Revelation 2:14, Lee believes that this is John responding to Josephus' claim that Vespasian was the fulfillment of Balaam's prophecy in Numbers 24:17----that a star would come from Jacob, and a scepter would arise from Israel.

Lee's discussion about the false prophet was actually my favorite part of this book.  I struggled with what he was saying about the two witnesses, Daniel 9, and all those Jesuses, as interesting as those discussions were.  But I got goose-bumps when he was interpreting the false prophet of Revelation 13 as Josephus.  He looked like he was on to something.

But do I agree?  I don't know.  One could perhaps argue that the second beast (the false prophet) of Revelation 13 was far more powerful, grandiose, and influential on a worldwide scale than Josephus ever was.  That would be a good point, but that by itself does not convince me that Lee is incorrect to argue that the second beast represented Josephus.  John could have seen the events surrounding the Jewish rebellion in 70 C.E. in exaggerated terms because it was important to him.  John of Gischala had just fought against the Romans, and Josephus was a factor behind the Jews' loss to them.  It wouldn't surprise me that he would portray Josephus as a significant figure among the forces of evil!

It's the whole Balaam issue that perplexes me, somewhat.  For one, the Book of Revelation mentions Balaam within the context of the letter to the church in Pergamum, which is in Asia Minor.  Revelation 2:14 states (in the KJV): "But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication."  I don't see what this has to do with Josephus' application of Balaam's prophecy to Vespasian.  Rather, it seems to relate to what is going on at Pergamum, not Jerusalem.  I think that Lee should have brought Pergamum more into the picture in his discussion of Balaam, even if Lee wanted to argue that John's reference to Balaam was somehow related to Josephus' use of Balaam's prophecy to bolster the idolatrous Roman empire.  Incidentally, while Asia Minor does play a significant role in Lee's book (since the Christian character Samuel is pressured there to honor idols in order to make the contacts that he needs for business), Lee does not talk much about the seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor.

Second, Lee seems to present Josephus as depicting Balaam positively, while John depicts Balaam negatively.  But Josephus himself depicts Balaam negatively in Antiquities 4.  And Josephus' portrayal is similar to that of John: Balaam contributed to the Israelites' idolatry and their sleeping with Midianite women.  At the same time, John (within Lee's scenario) may not have encountered Josephus' negative portrayal of Balaam in Antiquities 4.  Lee seems to portray John as one who is familiar with Josephus' Wars of the Jews, which Josephus wrote prior to Antiquities.  Antiquities may not have been written when John was interacting with Josephus' work.

I'd like to close this post by tossing out some things that I found interesting in my research, and you may find them helpful, too, if you ever want to read Lee's book.

1.  Here are the articles about John of Gischala in the Jewish Encyclopedia and wikipedia.

2.  Lee says that John of Gischala ignored the Sabbath and Jewish dietary laws.  Lee may be implying that this could be an indicator that John was a follower of Jesus, who himself was arguably liberal on Sabbath observance and dietary laws.  I could not find anything about John of Gischala's ignoring the Sabbath, but the passage in which Josephus accuses John of disobeying the dietary laws is Wars of the Jews 7:264, which states (in William Whiston's translation): "for the food was unlawful that was set upon his table, and he rejected those purifications that the law of his country had ordained; so that it was no longer a wonder if he, who was so mad in his impiety toward God, did not observe any rules of gentleness and common affection toward men."

But it seems to me that, according to Josephus, John of Gischala appealed to the law when it was convenient for him.  John of Gischala warned the Zealots that their abolition of the law and law-courts could incur the wrath of the people (Wars of the Jews 4.223).  (See this article, which maintains that the Zealots were arguably undermining the law.)  John dissuaded the Roman Titus from entering Gischala on the Sabbath, providing John with an opportunity to escape at night (Wars of the Jews 4.102-104).  And John made lots of money selling kosher oil to Jews, so they wouldn't have to use Greek oil (Life 1.74-75).  Did John have an ideological reason for disobeying the law?  Or was John simply an impious person who exploited the law whenever he could for his own advantage?  Or was John truly impious or anti-law, at the outset?  Lee himself does not buy all of Josephus' bad-PR about John of Gischala.  On page 203, Lee says that Josephus accused John of plundering the Temple, and yet Josephus also says that the Romans found vast treasures in the Temple when they took it over.  The treasures were still there when the Romans came, in short!  Could Josephus have been incorrect on John's approach to the Torah?

3.  Others have argued that John of Gischala is significant to interpreting New Testament eschatology.  This article, for example, argues that John of Gischala was the man of sin in II Thessalonians 2:3-4!  That's different from what Lee argues!

I'd like to thank Lee for sending me a copy of his book on Revelation.  It's definitely worth the read!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Ambrose's Nixon: Ruin and Recovery 20

I finished Stephen Ambrose's Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990.  On page 586, Ambrose asks questions about Nixon that a number of people have asked: "What made Richard Nixon what he was?  How could a man who had so much talent, brains, ambition, and success feel so insecure, so snubbed, so unrewarded?"  Ambrose goes on to say: "It is not insignificant that with all the words expended on him, Nixon himself has provided the most insightful analysis."  Ambrose then quotes Nixon as saying the following:

"What starts the process really are the laughs and snubs and slights you get when you are a kid.  Sometimes it's because you're poor or Irish or Jewish or ugly or simply that you are skinny.  But if you are reasonably intelligent and if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut performance, while those who have everything are sitting on their fat butts....[When you get to the top] You find you can't stop playing the game the way you've always played it because it is a part of you and you need it as much as you do an arm or a leg.  So you are lean and mean and resourceful and you continue to walk on the edge of the precipice because over the years you have become fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk without losing your balance."

Hugh Sidey said the following about his own understanding of Nixon's self-image: "Born clumsy, not very good looking, to parents who were overworked, overburdened, harsh.  Confronted by poverty, by a society that was wealthy and did not much care about him.  Ridiculed in early life and always.  Yet there was a fierce talent beneath all that.  He kept everything----resentment and talent.  He understood that his success depended on him developing his mind and at least to some degree getting along in society.  But he never abandoned his black impulses to lash out at the world which made him kind of lumpy and uncoordinated and denied him warmth and security."

Ambrose characterizes Nixon as one with drive----who kept coming back even after people thought he was through.  Was it an angry "I'll show them" attitude that propelled Nixon's drive?  Perhaps.  The thing is, Ambrose argues that there were downsides to the way that Nixon did things.  For example, the way that Nixon surprised people with his proposals and ideas after keeping them a secret was not conducive to him building bridges with the Congress (which he scorned) and thereby achieving lasting results.  It's hard to completely stereotype Nixon on this, for he did work with people.  As Sidey said, Nixon learned that, his introversion and anger notwithstanding, he had to learn to get along in society.  And yet, Nixon alienated many because he struck them as a glory-hog and as one who did things by and for himself, without a great deal of collaboration.

A part of me admires Nixon's "screw you" approach.  I admire it in President Barack Obama!  Remember when Obama gave his second inaugural address, displaying a salient commitment to a progressive agenda, and then he went on to send in his nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, even though Hagel was being criticized by prominent Republicans?  I loved it!  But Obama has been criticized for not collaborating with the Republicans enough, and for not building bridges with the Congress.  Maybe that sort of approach does inhibit things from getting done.  And yet, I wonder what would have happened had Republicans been included more in the process of health care reform.  Would they have killed it?

Daniel 9:24-27, and the Hardest Passage in Lee Harmon's Book

In my blog post today on Lee Harmon's Revelation: The Way It Happened, I'll be talking about the most difficult passage in Lee's book.  I'll use as my starting-point Daniel 9:24-27.  That passage says the following (according to the King James Version):

24 Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy.
25 Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times.
26 And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.
27 And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate.

A significant number of people who interpret this passage believe that a day here actually means a year, and thus the seventy weeks are 490 years.  You start counting at "the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem".  People have different opinions about what that was, and thus at what year we should start the count.  Was it Ezra's decree in II Chronicles 36:22-23 and Ezra 1:2-4 that allowed Jews to return to their homeland, making the starting-year 538 B.C.E.?  Was it Artaxerxes' decree in Ezra 7 permitting Jews to return to their homeland and to beautify the Temple, making the starting-year 458-457 B.C.E.?  Was it Artaxerxes' permission for Nehemiah to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the city walls (Nehemiah 2:5-8), placing the starting-year at 445-444 B.C.E.?  Or was it Jeremiah's prophecy that Jerusalem would be rebuilt, putting the starting-year at around 597 B.C.E.?

The 458-457 B.C.E. starting-year works out best for a number of Christians, for the count ends up in the first half of the first century C.E., which was when Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again.  For these Christians, Jesus Christ was the Messiah the prince of Daniel 9:25, and the Messiah who is cut off in Daniel 9:26.  There are Christians who even argue that Jesus was the one of Daniel 9:27 who would cause sacrifices to cease, since Jesus, through his atoning death, nullified the need for animal sacrifices.  A number of Christians regard Daniel 9:24-27 as a prophecy about Jesus Christ----more, an exact prediction of when Jesus Christ would come and die.

What if you start your count with any of the other starting-years?  Where do you end up?  Well, they take you to dead ends, as Lee Harmon on his blog discusses in this post.  They're dead-ends in the sense that nothing spectacular happened at those times.  There was no Messianic sort of figure who died in those years.

A number of historical-critics argue that the ending-point for Daniel 9 was intended to be the second century B.C.E., which was when Antiochus IV Epiphanes was desecrating the Temple, prompting the Maccabees to revolt.  The Messiah (or Anointed One) who is cut off in Daniel 9:25 is often interpreted within this scenario as the priest Onias III.  The destruction of the city and the abomination of desolation are interpreted in light of what Antiochus IV did.  This interpretation makes a degree of sense, for Daniel 7-12 does appear to concern the time of Antiochus IV, for a variety of reasons.  The problem is that you don't end up in the time of Antiochus IV when you count off from any of the proposed starting-years, the years decreeing the rebuilding of Jerusalem.  One attempt to solve this problem is to say that the Jews in this case did not keep good track of time: that they didn't know exactly how many years there were between the decree and such events as the Messiah being cut off and the abomination of desolation.  Another solution I have heard is that the 490 years are not literal but are formulaic or perhaps symbolic.  Lee in this blog post offers yet another proposal: that some of the years are concurrent (occurring simultaneously) rather than consecutive (occurring one after the other).  According to this view, the forty-nine years (seven weeks) of Daniel 9:25 are between the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and Cyrus' decree around 537 B.C.E. that the Jews could return to Jerusalem.  The 62 weeks, or 434 years, of Daniel 9:25 are the time between Jeremiah's prophecy of Jerusalem's restoration, which Jeremiah made around the year 597 B.C.E., and 167 B.C.E., which is the time of Antiochus IV.  So the 49 years and the 434 years overlap.  My problem, however, is that I don't understand why Lee starts the count for the 49 years at 586 B.C.E., the year of Jerusalem's destruction.  My impression from Daniel 9:25 is that the count for the 49 years starts from the decree to rebuild Jerusalem, not the year that Jerusalem was destroyed.

Okay, so the 490 years do not fit the Antiochus IV interpretation all that well.  Many conservative Christians would say that the 490 years fits the Jesus Christ interpretation perfectly!  But there are problems here, which Lee discusses in Revelation: The Way It Happened So you start your count with Artaxerxes' decree in 458-457 B.C.E.  The Messiah, according to Daniel 9:25, comes 483 years later, which is 25-26 C.E., the time when Jesus was alive on earth.  The thing is, near the end of these 490 years from the decree to rebuild the Temple, something else is supposed to happen: the destruction of the city and the sanctuary.  There are many Christians who apply this to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.----"Christ fulfilled Daniel 9!", they proclaim, "since Christ was crucified, and later Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed!"  But there is a serious mathematical problem, here.  Daniel 9:24-27 appears to present the destruction of Jerusalem and the sanctuary as occurring right after the Messiah has been cut off, not over four decades later.  If we interpret the destruction of the city and sanctuary in Daniel 9:26 in reference to the events of 70 C.E., then we have more than 490 years: we have 528 years!  But the text says 490 years is allotted for all these things to take place.

In Lee's book, a Christian named Samuel and his son Matthew discuss these issues.  Matthew says that he heard from his tutor that Daniel 9:24-27 was about Antiochus IV's desecration of the Temple, and the Jews' subsequent purification of it.  In this scenario, the events of Daniel 9:24-27 are in the past, and they took place in close proximity with one another, as the text seems to present.  We then get into some speculation: Perhaps the events of 70 C.E. did take place very soon after the death of Jesus, but it was Jesus son of Ananus, the one in Josephus' Wars of the Jews 6:300ff (see Chapter 5 here) who predicted the fall of Jerusalem, four years before it happened. 

I don't think that Jesus son of Ananus would work as the Messiah of Daniel 9, since he doesn't fit the 490 years.  Again, 70 C.E. (or even a few years earlier than that, which was when Jesus son of Ananus preached) is much too late!  In any case, it's when Lee talks about Jesus son of Ananus that things start to get confusing.  Lee disagrees with the view that Jesus of Nazareth in Mark's Gospel was "nothing more than a composite of several wartime historical characters" (page 176), for Paul talks about Jesus decades prior to the Jewish wars; thus, Lee believes that there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth.  But Lee does seem to argue that Mark's depiction of Jesus of Nazareth was, on some level, based on John of Ananus, and Lee lists similarities between the two: they were believed to be possessed by a demon, they preached at the Temple, they "declared woes upon Jerusalem and the temple", they were scourged, and they were silent when they were chastened and when they appeared before an official.  Moreover, Lee appears to be suggesting that there are other Jesuses behind the Jesus of New Testament theology: there is the high priest Jesus (or Joshua) in the Book of Zechariah, who was one of the original two witnesses, and there was Jesus son of Gamala, who could have been one of the inspirations for the two witnesses in the Book of Revelation.  Remember that the two witnesses in Revelation 11 are killed, rise again three-and-a-half days later, and go to heaven, and this is followed by an earthquake.  This sort of thing happens to Jesus in some of the Gospels: he dies, rises from the dead three days later, and ascends to heaven, and Matthew's Gospel mentions some earthquakes going on during these events.  I'm not sure whether Lee's on to something, or if what we're seeing are mere coincidences or floating motifs that are being applied to different people.

But let's get back to Daniel 9!  Samuel in Lee's book interprets Daniel 9:27 in this manner: we have the final week of the seventy weeks, and this is seven days, or actually seven years.  The first three-and-a-half years are the events of the Jewish war around 70: the abomination of desolation and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.  The second three-and-a-half years are when Jesus restores the Temple.  Samuel refers to a saying that appears on the lips of Jesus in John 2:19: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (this saying appears in a slightly different form in Mark's Gospel, which is earlier; see Mark 14:58; 15:29).  Samuel interprets this to mean that Jesus would rebuild the Temple three years (remember, a day equals a year in Daniel 9) after its destruction, which is similar to how he sees Daniel 9:27. 

There are two questions that one can ask.  First, wasn't Jesus in John 2:19 referring to his own resurrection on the third day, with the Temple representing his body?  But that was in the Gospel of John, which was later than the Book of Revelation, and was also later than the setting for Samuel and Matthew's conversations in Lee's book.  Samuel does not know about this.  According to Lee, Samuel does not even know the stories about Jesus' bodily resurrection or appearances.  These stories would first appear in the Gospel of Matthew, which has not been written yet.  (The child Matthew has not yet grown up and written it.)  The Gospel of Mark, after all, simply ends with the tomb being empty, and the women not telling anyone because they were afraid.

Second, Matthew in Lee's book asks: If Jesus were to rebuild the temple three or three-and-a-half years after its destruction, why hasn't he yet?  The setting for Samuel and Matthew's conversations is nine years after the destruction of the temple.  Samuel replies that he doesn't know, but he speculates that the city may have been rebuilt in heaven: it's already built, but it hasn't come down to earth yet!

At this time, I'd like to quote the hardest passage in Lee's book.  It's on pages 179-180:

"Where did the Gospel of John come up with this idea, this alternative interpretation of rebuilding the Temple?  Well, in a curious way, it parallels Revelation, which hints at an oral tradition, and some of Paul's writings also compare our bodies to the Temple of God.  Note that Revelation actually specifies precisely three and a half days (years?) before the resurrection of the three priests, which better fits the vision of Daniel, if his 'rebuilding of the Temple' depicts the resurrection of the body of Jesus.  Daniel divided his final 'week' into two three-and-a-half day/year periods.  Jesus, the peasant prophet, and Jesus, the resurrected priest, come together to tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth, each contributing three and a half years/days to perfectly fulfill the final week of the prophecy of Daniel, and John, Revelation's author, can safely forget about the restoration of the Temple promised in Daniel and Mark from then on."

I've read this paragraph a number of times, and I still don't get it!  Lee's still a talented writer throughout the vast majority of this book, however.  And, even if I don't understand that one paragraph, I enjoyed reading his discussion on Daniel 9:24-27, and the tangents where that led him.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Ambrose's Nixon: Ruin and Recovery 19

For my blog post today about Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990, I'll use as my starting-point some things that Stephen Ambrose says on pages 574-575.

"Bu 1990 [Nixon] had successfully created an impression that the only thing he and his Administration had ever done that was wrong was Watergate, and that Watergate was not much more than an inexplicable break-in followed by a badly managed but completely understandable attempt to cover-up...So many believed him that his version became the standard version of Watergate.  By 1990 people born after 1965 asked of Nixon, 'What did he do that was so terrible?'  They read about Jack Kennedy and the womanizing, about Bobby Kennedy and the wiretapping, about Lyndon Johnson and his use of the FBI; they had lived through the Reagan Administration and Iran-contra; they were living through and paying for the savings and loan scandal.  No wonder they wanted to know what Nixon had done that was so terrible...He was not, after all, remotely like Hitler or Stalin, a man to be forever loathed.  Americans want to be proud of their Presidents, and Nixon was one of them.  He had done some good, some bad, as they all had."

When the Watergate scandal was going on, people told Nixon that history would look kinder on him years down the road.  Nixon replied by saying something that Ambrose considered a fine example of Nixonian realism: that it depends on who writes the history!  But Nixon himself, in his memoirs, does not appear to have that Nixonian realism when it comes to history, for he says that history will judge harshly those who persecuted him with respect to Watergate.

How does history judge Richard Nixon?  I agree with much of Ambrose's assessment on pages 574-575.  Whenever I go on Youtube and watch a clip of Nixon, or listen to an except of one of the Nixon tapes, or watch a scene from Oliver Stone's movie on the 37th President, I see plenty of pro-Nixon comments in the comments-section.  They praise Nixon for his kindness, or his humanity, or his brilliance, or his policies.  I see this among Republicans, but also among many on the Left, who think that Nixon was a lot more progressive than the Republicans of today.

But my impression is that Nixon is not completely out of the dog-house!  All sorts of political scandals remind people of Nixon, and not in a good way.  Consider, for example, the IRS's recent treatment of conservative groups, which has been likened to Nixon's attempts to use the IRS against political enemies.  Plus, stories come out about Nixon that don't present him in a favorable light.  The charge that Nixon sabotaged the Paris Peace talks in 1968 for political gain, and thereby prolonged the Vietnam War, has been around for a while, but the charge has been highlighted more than a couple of times in recent time.  It's hard to post something positive about Richard Nixon, when one could easily challenge me by appealing to what Nixon supposedly did to the 1968 Paris Peace talks.

Lee Harmon on the Two Witnesses

In my post today about Lee Harmon's Revelation: The Way It Happened, I'll be talking about Lee's discussion about the two witnesses of Revelation 11.  Who are the two witnesses?  In Revelation 11:3-13, we read the following about them (and I will be using the KJV because it's in the public domain):

3 And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth.
4 These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth.
5 And if any man will hurt them, fire proceedeth out of their mouth, and devoureth their enemies: and if any man will hurt them, he must in this manner be killed.
6 These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy: and have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues, as often as they will.
7 And when they shall have finished their testimony, the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit shall make war against them, and shall overcome them, and kill them.
8 And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.
9 And they of the people and kindreds and tongues and nations shall see their dead bodies three days and an half, and shall not suffer their dead bodies to be put in graves.
10 And they that dwell upon the earth shall rejoice over them, and make merry, and shall send gifts one to another; because these two prophets tormented them that dwelt on the earth.
11 And after three days and an half the Spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet; and great fear fell upon them which saw them.
12 And they heard a great voice from heaven saying unto them, Come up hither. And they ascended up to heaven in a cloud; and their enemies beheld them.
13 And the same hour was there a great earthquake, and the tenth part of the city fell, and in the earthquake were slain of men seven thousand: and the remnant were affrighted, and gave glory to the God of heaven.

Lee's extensive discussion about the two witnesses occurs on pages 113-121.  I'll use as my starting-point something that Lee says on page 121:

"Moses and Elijah, Peter and Paul, Ananus and Jesus----how did these pairs get so tangled inside John's swirling head?  Undoubtedly, the original inspiration for the two witnesses of Revelation has been found in the Jewish priests, Ananus and Jesus.  Yet for common first-century Christians, many of whom probably fled Jerusalem before any of this happened, it appears that the Christian heroes Peter and Paul reaped the greater benefits of the story, as the legends grew for both their miracle working and evangelical abilities.  The tradition of their martyrdom under Nero became widespread in the late first century."

I can't say that I entirely understand what Lee is getting at here, but allow me to detail the similarities Lee highlights between the two witnesses and the various pairs that got "so tangled inside John's swirling head":
Moses and Elijah: The two witnesses are prophets and perform some of the miracles that Moses and Elijah did.  Moses turned water into blood, and Elijah stopped the rain.  Elijah, like the two witnesses, ascended to heaven.  Moses could have, at least according to the Assumption of Moses.

Peter and Paul: Both performed miracles, like the two witnesses (though, as far as I know, there are no stories about Peter and Paul turning water into blood, or stopping the rain).  The two witnesses are killed by the Beast, and there are stories about the martyrdom of Peter and Paul by the Roman emperor Nero, whom Lee contends was the Beast of Revelation 13.  The two witnesses were left unburied for three-and-a-half days, and Lee refers to a statement by the sixth century figure John Mahalas that the corpses of Peter and Paul were left unburied.  The two witnesses ascended to heaven, and there's the notion that Peter and Paul ascended to heaven: Paul in II Corinthians 12:2, and Peter in the early second century Apocalypse of Peter.  Plus, there's I Clement's statement that Peter after bearing witness was taken to "the well-deserved place of glory", and Paul "to the holy place" (in whatever translation Lee is using).  Lee also mentions the story in Acts 14 about Paul getting up after having been stoned and left for dead, as Lee sees a similarity between that and the two witnesses' resurrection.  Lee believes that the two witnesses are killed in Jerusalem, whereas Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome.  Lee speculates that, if John was referring to Peter and Paul when he was talking about the two witnesses, John could have moved their deaths to Jerusalem out of a conviction that prophets perish in Jerusalem.

Ananus and Jesus son of Gamala: These guys are priests who are mentioned by Josephus.  They were around during the first century Jewish uprisings in Jerusalem against Rome.  Josephus' telling of their story is in Wars of the Jews Book 4.  Lee, on page 120, notes a similarity between them and the two witnesses: "Curiously, just as [Revelation 11:]13 says, this earthquake did occur at the 'very hour' the Idumeans murdered, ridiculed, and left the two great priests, Ananus and Jesus, unburied in the streets of Jerusalem!"

Ananus and Jesus son of Gamala are significant in terms of Lee's interpretation of the two witnesses.  On page 203, Lee, thinking that the John who wrote Revelation was the John of Gischala who was a leader of the Jewish rebellion against Rome, says that Josephus depicts John of Gischala spying on Ananus and Jesus son of Gamala and passing on secrets to the rebellious Zealots.  Lee says: "Josephus seems to blame John's deception for the deaths of these two priests, but in reality, John pulled all stops to show his allegiance to them, even immortalizing them as the two great witnesses of Revelation."

Revelation 11:9 says that "they of the people and kindreds and tongues and nations" will see the dead bodies of the two witnesses.  Lee interprets the phrase "every tribe and language and people and nation" as God's people, since Revelation 5:9 uses that expression to refer to those whom God has purchased.  God's people are the Jews, according to LeeLee seems to argue in a couple of places that, at the time that Revelation was written, there was not a firm line separating Jews from Christians.  Lee says on page 291: "A million Jews from all over the empire congregated in Jerusalem, where, in John's mind, they beheld the death of the two witnesses (priests) and then suffered in the war against the beast."

Here are some points that I want to make in response to Lee's arguments:

1.  So who exactly are the two witnesses, according to Lee?  Are they characters who are based on Moses and Elijah, Peter and Paul, and Ananus and Jesus, or can they actually be identified with Peter and Paul, or with Ananus and Jesus?

2.  Like I said, as far as I know, there are no stories about Peter and Paul turning water into blood, or shutting up the heavens, which is what the two witnesses did.  Perhaps one could argue that there could have been traditions like that, since there were a lot of miracle stories out there about these towering Christian figures, and so maybe there were other stories circulating that we do not know about.  Perhaps.  Come to think of it, maybe Peter and Paul could work out as the two witnesses, if we allow John some latitude as a writer (which John exercised if he put their deaths in Jerusalem, when their deaths actually occurred in Rome).

3.  I have questions about associating the two witnesses with Ananus and Jesus son of Gamla:

a.  As far as I know, Ananus and Jesus son of Gamala did not turn water into blood, shut up the heavens, or spit out fire from their mouths against their enemies.  Perhaps one could argue that John associated them somehow with bloody water or famine that occurred during the rebellion, or that the fire from their mouths symbolized their preaching, or the disaster that came upon Jerusalem because many Jews did not heed them.  Lee should have discussed this a bit more in his book.

b.  I have not read Josephus as extensively as Lee has, but what I am finding in my perusal of Book 4 of Wars of the Jews, wikipedia (see here), and Lee's book is that Ananus and Jesus were opponents of the Zealots, on some level.  That's why they were eventually killed.  I think that Lee should have gone into more detail about why John would consider their message to be so righteous, especially since Lee also appears to argue that the martyrs in Revelation consist of some of the people who died while rising up against Rome.  Is John in Revelation for the uprising against Rome that occurred in the late first century, or (like Ananus and Jesus son of Gamala, it appears) against it?  (UPDATE: Sometime after writing this, I looked through Lee's book again, and I also perused the speeches of Ananus and Jesus in Book 4 of Josephus' Wars of the Jews.  It appears that Ananus and Jesus' concern was to protect the Temple from the Zealots.  Does that mean that they were against any rebellion against Rome?  I don't know.  Jesus son of Gamala in his speech seems to praise the value of liberty from the Romans.  One could apparently be anti-Zealot and still support some sort of uprising against Rome.  I still think that Lee should have gone into a little more detail about why John in Revelation would consider Ananus and Jesus' message righteous, as well as their stance on the Romans.  But the situation was more complex than I presented it here.

c.  According to this Josephus' Antiquities 20.9.1, Ananus ordered the execution of James, the brother of Jesus.  Would John portray Ananus as one of the two witnesses, after Ananus had done something like that

d.  Something that the Peter and Paul interpretation has going for it is that the Roman emperor Nero, the one Lee argues was the Beast, killed them, and Revelation 11 says that the Beast killed the two witnesses.  But the Idumeans killed Ananus and Jesus.  How would Lee explain that, especially since this narrates that the Idumeans were on the side of the Zealots, who were anti-Rome?  That said, I don't have thorough knowledge about what the Idumeans did during this conflict.  (UPDATE: On page 40, Lee narrates that the Idumeans initially joined the Zealots, but "when the exhausted Idumeans finally realized that Ananus had not really been a traitor and they had been duped into helping the Zealots, they packed up and went home."  Still, the Romans were not the ones who killed Ananus and Jesus son of Gamala, whereas, according to Lee, Nero is the Beast, and the Beast in Revelation 11 is the one who kills the two witnesses.  Perhaps one could argue that the two witnesses are based on Ananus and Jesus, on some level, but that there is not a perfect match between them.) 

e.  As far as I know, there are no legends that Ananus and Jesus son of Gamala got up and ascended to heaven three-and-a-half days after their deaths, which is what Revelation 11 says about the two witnesses.  Lee speculates that John may have depicted the two witnesses as doing this "perhaps in competition with Josephus", who ends Ananus and Jesus' story with their shameful deaths (page 118).  I can't rule this out, entirely.  This might work if you grant John some latitude as a writer: John was telling the story differently from Josephus.  But, again I ask, what about the message of Ananus and Jesus son of Gamala did John like? 

f.  I have issues with how Lee goes from identifying "every tribe and language and people and nation" with God's people, to arguing that those from around the world who saw the corpses of the two witnesses (and presumably mocked them) were Jews who beheld the death of Ananus and Jesus son of Gamala.  God's people are the good guys in the Book of Revelation.  The ones who mocked the two witnesses at their death are bad guys.  I have problems associating the two with each other.  Moreover, while there are many scholars who would agree with Lee that there was not always a solid line separating Jews from Christians, I have a hard time interpreting the martyrs and God's people in Revelation as anything other than Christian, since there seems to be so much in Revelation about their devotion to Jesus.  I have my doubts that John in Revelation understood the martyrs and God's people as non-Christian Jews.  But perhaps there are angles that I am not looking at adequately.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Ambrose's Nixon: Ruin and Recovery 18

For my blog post today on Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990, I'll quote something that Stephen Ambrose says on page 532.  The topic is the famous world leaders Nixon knew.

"Sometimes, these men said things to Nixon they never said to anyone else.  Ike, according to Nixon, felt that 'the U.S. restraint of Britain, France, and Israel when they were trying to protect their interest [in 1956] was a tragic mistake.'  Nixon felt Eisenhower's actions were a mistake, and often said so, but Ike did not----or at least, not to anyone other than Nixon.  To this author, and many other interviewers and friends, Ike vehemently defended his policy."

Ambrose's sarcasm is an enjoyable aspect of his Nixon trilogy.  Of course, there are plenty of writers who are sarcastic, yet I don't enjoy reading them as much as I do Ambrose.  The reason is that Ambrose is not just sarcastic, but he also tries to be fair and balanced in his depiction of Richard Nixon.

In that passage from page 532, Ambrose is quoting what Nixon said in The Real War.  Ambrose cites page 79 of The Real War, but, in my edition of The Real War, the passage that Ambrose quotes is on page 86.  Nixon essentially argues that it was disastrous for the U.S. to have pressured Britain, France, and Israel to back off from Egypt after Egyptian President Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal, which Nixon says was the source of a lot of trade and oil for Europe.  According to Nixon, the reasons that the U.S. pressured those three countries to back off from Egypt were that the U.S. was condemning the Soviet Union for suppressing a revolution in Hungary (implying perhaps that the U.S. didn't want to look hypocritical by supporting an invasion), President Dwight Eisenhower was running for re-election touting "peace and prosperity", and "the anticolonial movement [was] gathering force."  But our policy had disastrous consequences, according to Nixon.  Britain and France became less willing to play a significant role in the Middle East and other countries.  Nasser of Egypt looked at the U.S. with contempt and became more hostile towards Israel, and also to a number of Arab countries.  And "radical workers set fire to Kuwait's wells and pipelines."  Nixon states that "Years later Eisenhower was to reflect that the U.S. restraint of Britain, France, and Israel when they were trying to protect their interests in Suez was a tragic mistake."

I don't want to get into a major research project about why Eisenhower pursued the policy that he did with the Suez Canal, but, after reading here and here, it seems to me that there were a variety of reasons: Britain's inefficiency in terms of the attack, Egypt's legal claim to the Suez, Eisenhower's desire for the conflict to be worked out in the United Nations, Eisenhower's anti-colonialism, and Eisenhower's fear that the aggressive move by Britain and France would rally more and more support for Nasser in the Arab world.

Why did Nixon think that Eisenhower later regretted his policy on the Suez Canal, when Eisenhower himself defended that policy?  Was Nixon lying?  I have my doubts.  Was Eisenhower's stance on the Suez Canal complex?  Perhaps.  Nixon said that Eisenhower asked him "Why couldn't the British and French have done it more quickly?" (see here).  Eisenhower may have had problems with the inefficiency with which the British and the French acted, but I don't think one should disregard the other problems that he had as well with their invasion: its colonialist air, how it could rally the Arab world around Nasser, etc.

I think that what we see here is that memory can be a tricky thing.  People have remembered me saying things that I did not say.  I have remembered them saying things that they don't remember saying.  They remember saying things to me that I don't remember.  Personally, I believe that my memory is quite good, but it does seem to me to be the case that people's memories are filtered through certain narratives that they hold.  In my opinion, Nixon believed that he was right about the Suez Canal, and so he "remembered" Eisenhower coming around to that same position.

Josephus on Signs; Giants from the Abyss

I started Lee Harmon's Revelation: The Way It Happened.  Some months ago, I read and blogged through the sequel to this book: Lee Harmon's John's Gospel: The Way It Happened.  See here for my posts on that.  And see here for Lee's excellent blog, The Dubious Disciple.  I'd like to thank Lee for sending me a copy of Revelation: The Way It Happened.

I'm going to play by ear how I blog through this book.  I do want to cover the broad themes of Lee's book, but I'll probably blog about tidbits here and there that interest me.  If that ends up overlapping with the broad themes, that will be good.  If it does not adequately do so, then I'll write a post about Lee's book that is more comprehensive.

Here are two tidbits for today:

1.  On pages 53-54, Lee says the following about the first century C.E. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus:
"In discussing the signs of the times, Josephus describes a light shining in the Temple, as well as a star like a sword, pointing to Jerusalem (probably Halley's comment in 66, which many Jews understood as foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem).  At one point, a heifer being led to sacrifice gives birth to a lamb in the midst of the Temple.  It is Josephus who first relates the story of the voice from the Holy of Holies saying, 'We are departing.'  But he implies that the common perception that the 'Day of the Lord' has arrived misinterprets these signs."

The idea that Josephus believed in those kinds of supernatural phenomena somewhat surprised me, for I assumed that Josephus was a fairly level-headed historian.  I learned in a class, after all, that Josephus often sought ways to rationalize away certain miracles in the Bible!  But it turns out that Josephus does talk about the signs that Lee is discussing, and much more, in Wars of the Jews, Book 6, Chapter 5.

Josephus is criticizing Jewish figures of the late first century C.E. who were holding out hope that God would deliver the Jews from the Romans.  Josephus' point was that there were signs that Jerusalem would be destroyed.  Josephus also applied to the Roman Vespasian the ancient oracle that someone from Israel would rule the earth, noting that Vespasian was made the emperor when he was in Judea.  Earlier in his book, Lee argues that John the Revelator had Vespasian in mind when he was writing about the first horseman of Revelation 6:2----who looks so much like the conquering Jesus, yet most likely was not that.  According to Lee, John probably regarded Vespasian as a false Messiah because Vespasian was considered by some to be the prophesied Messiah, plus Vespasian, like Jesus, performed miracles (see my posts here, here, and here).

I don't know a whole lot about Josephus' eschatological views.  But he does appear to be applying to Vespasian some Messianic prophecy.  One question I have is: Why did Josephus believe that God willed the destruction of Jerusalem?  Put differently, what, according to Josephus, did Jerusalem do that so offended God?  The New Testament says that Israel rejected Jesus.  Within rabbinic literature is the idea that Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Jewish infighting.  What was Josephus' view?

2.  On page 89, Lee is discussing Revelation 9, in which weird scorpions are coming out of the abyss amidst smoke to afflict human beings.  Lee cites Cassius Dio, a second-third century C.E. author who wrote a vast history of Rome.  In Cassius Dio 66.23.1, we read (in this translation): "Thus day was turned into night and light into darkness. Some thought that the Giants were rising again in revolt (for at this time also many of their forms could be discerned in the smoke and, moreover, a sound as of trumpets was heard), while others believed that the whole universe was being resolved into chaos or fire."  The context for this passage is Cassius Dio's discussion of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy, which destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The wikipedia article on Mount Vesuvius says that it erupted in 79 C.E.  That is when Lee dates the Book of Revelation.  For Lee, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius is significant in understanding a number of the cataclysmic events in the Book of Revelation.  Lee says that John could have seen the eruption from Patmos, yet Lee speculates that John may have been closer to the event (though Revelation 1:9 says John was on Patmos).  Lee also argues against the eruption occurring on a Tuesday, thereby allowing it to have happened on a Sunday, the Lord's Day, which was the day that John was in the spirit (Revelation 1:10).  In terms of the importance of Mount Vesuvius to understanding the Book of Revelation, I think that Lee is on to something, even if John happened to be viewing the event from Patmos on a Tuesday.  As far as I know, John doesn't say that he viewed the entire vision on the Lord's day.

Who were the giants whom Dio Cassius was talking about?  As far as I can see, Dio Cassius does not say.  But this article refers to giants who tried to overthrow Zeus, and some of them had feet that were serpents.  Giants are different from scorpions, right?  Yeah, but I still think that Lee and others who have interpreted Revelation 9 in light of the giants in Dio Cassius are on to something.  In both, you have rebellious figures coming out of the abyss in smoke.  Lee brings up other considerations in his discussion of Revelation 9, such as the idea that Nero----the oppressive Roman emperor who died in 68 C.E.----would lead Parthians from the east in an attack on Rome (see here).  Does not Revelation 16:12 refer to the kings of the east?  And Lee interprets the Apollyon of Revelation 9:11, the king of the Abyss, in light of the portrayal of Nero as Apollo.  For Lee, John's point was that demonic forces would be instigating Parthia's hordes, led by Nero.  Again, Lee and others who hold this particular interpretation are probably on to something!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Ambrose's Nixon: Ruin and Recovery 17

For my blog post today about Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990, I'll quote something that Stephen Ambrose says on page 509.  The context is David Frost's 1977 interview of Richard Nixon.  Frost is reading to Nixon statements that Nixon made as President in a conversation with John Dean, implying that Nixon was ordering hush money to be paid to Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt (see here for the YouTube video of Frost doing this).  On page 509, Ambrose narrates:

"'Let me stop you right there,' Nixon cut in.  'Right there....You were reading there out of context, out of order.'  He insisted that because he had refused to grant clemency, he was not submitting to blackmail.  And he claimed that no money had been paid to Hunt 'as a result of a direction given by the President for that purpose.'  The last clause stuck in his mind; he used it again thirteen years later, in his book In the Arena, when he wrote that his accusers never quoted his 'that would be wrong' statement about clemency, and 'ignored the even more crucial fact that no payments were made as a result of that conversation.'  He did not deny that money was paid (within six hours, in fact) after his talk with Dean; he simply denied that it was paid as a result of that talk.  In other words, Nixon told Dean to see to it that the money was paid, quick; Dean saw to it that the money was paid, quick; but the money was not paid 'as a result of that conversation.'"

The passage from Nixon's In the Arena that Ambrose is quoting is on page 34.  There, Nixon states regarding Hunt:

"The most politically damaging myth was that I personally ordered the payment of money to Howard Hunt and the other original Watergate defendants to keep them silent.  I did discuss this possibility during a meeting with John Dean and Bob Haldeman on March 21, 1973.  In the tape recording of this meeting, it is clear that I considered paying the money.  I should not have even considered this option, but the key facts were that I rejected offering clemency to the defendants as 'wrong' and at the end of the conversation ruled out any White House payment of money to the defendants.  Moreover, those who made this accusation ignored the even more crucial fact that no payments were made as a result of that conversation."

I've said before on this blog that I found Nixon's side of the story on Watergate in his memoirs to be rather muddled.  In my opinion, however, his side of the story in that one passage of In the Arena is crisp and succinct.  Nixon is essentially arguing that, while he did consider paying hush money to E. Howard Hunt, he ultimately ruled it out, and the money that was paid to Hunt was not due to what Nixon said in the March 21, 1973 conversation.

Is Nixon correct on this?  You can read the March 21, 1973 conversation here.  I didn't read the conversation from beginning to end, but I'll leave it here for your and my reference.  I read near the end, and I'm not clear whether or not Nixon ruled out payment of money to Hunt.  (UPDATE: see here and here for Nixon's response to Frost's questions about the money.)

I have a hard time understanding the relevance of clemency to the discussion, but Nixon obviously did deem it to be quite significant in determining whether Nixon was blackmailed.  Nixon said that Hunt was not blackmailing him because Nixon wasn't granting Hunt clemency.  I should also note that H.R. Haldeman (if I recall correctly) said that paying money to the defendants would not be obstructing justice, since they were pleading guilty anyway.  But my understanding is that the whole idea behind paying the defendants money was to keep them quiet----so that they wouldn't bring down others in the Administration or hurl accusations at them.  Is that obstructing justice, according to the law?

Concluding Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist

I finished W.A. Swanberg's Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist, which is about six-time Socialist Presidential candidate Norman Thomas.

Swanberg closes the book with Thomas' death in 1968.  Swanberg says that Thomas appealed to people's better angels and got some results, as Thomas persuaded more and more Americans to oppose the Vietnam War.  This highlights what I like about this book: that it's about how a person who is concerned about social justice can make a difference.  Thomas wrote letters to prominent people and debated them in public.  He wrote a column and gave speeches.  He was not the ablest politician, but he spoke up for what he felt was right.  He praised and criticized Republicans and Democrats, for his commitment was to what he thought was right.

Many of us, including myself, don't have some of the assets that Norman Thomas had.  Thomas was born into a family of relative privilege and attended Princeton, so he had connections with the Establishment.  He was able to get an audience with Presidents and foreign leaders.  In his later years, he was regarded as a national institution.  But many of us, even without such connections, can still make our voices heard.  We can write to our public officials, who in many cases respond to their mail.  (I've often gotten responses, and sometimes I have not.)  We can write letters to the editor, which, believe it or not, are often read by more people than are actual syndicated columns.  (I've read this in a couple of sources, plus I've gotten feedback in the past about letters to editors that I have written.)  We can blog.

And, like Thomas, we don't have to hitch ourselves to the entire agenda of a political party or a candidate, for we can simply stand for what we believe is right.  And we can praise or criticize our public officials according to whether or not they act according to our understanding of what is right.  I feel that President Barack Obama and the Democrats are better for the country than the Republicans are, but I don't have to be shy when there are elements of Obama's health care plan that I do not care for.  Sometimes, highlighting problems can be a path to encouraging a solution.  At the very least, it can be an educational experience.

In terms of what I didn't like about the book, I'll admit that I found Swanberg's discussions of the disputes within the political Left to be tedious and boring.  Yet, it was essential that Swanberg include that topic, for that was a key element of Thomas' life.  I also felt that Swanberg should have been clearer on what Thomas' stances were regarding private property and religion.  My impression was that Thomas in the 1930's was for some private ownership of property, while only certain industries would be nationalized under his program, but later Swanberg says that Thomas moderated his position to support some private ownership.  So was Thomas for private ownership in the 1930's or not?  On religion, I was unclear about whether or not Thomas believed in God.  Swanberg says a couple of times that Thomas lost his faith, yet Swanberg also quotes Thomas' denial that he (Thomas) was an atheist.

Overall, however, I found this to be an interesting book.  Swanberg's affection for his subject is evident from the stories that Swanberg tells.  Swanberg himself, like Thomas, was a person with Socialist ideas who later moderated his positions.  Yet, Swanberg presents a three-dimensional look at Thomas, respecting the man while not writing a hagiography.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Peace with Oneself, Others, and God

My pastor's sermon at church this morning was one of my favorites that I have heard him deliver.  (I talk about my favorite sermon of his in my post here.)  It was entitled, "It Doesn't Have to be That Way."  The pastor's point was that we don't have to be at war with ourselves, we don't have to be at war with each other, and we don't have to be at war with God.  This was relevant to me this week, for I was having a few days when I was remembering my bad social experiences in the past, and I was thinking to myself: "Man, it is not possible for me to be at peace with most human beings!"  Remember Nate Fisher's desire on Six Feet Under to be at peace with a woman?  Well, that's how I feel about the vast bulk of humanity!

As I think about my pastor's sermon, I don't recall what specifically he recommended that people should do to be at peace with themselves, each other, and God.  He told a story about a guy who was depressed and went to church, and going to church reminded this guy that he belonged to God and that he didn't have to handle his problems alone.  I suppose that this is true in my life, in a sense.  Whenever I feel internal desolation, I pray more, and that helps me.  While I still may have a problem being at peace with myself, with many others, and with God, I'd be worse off not praying through my problems, than I would be praying through them.  That's just my opinion.

A lot of what my pastor was focusing on was attitude.  I should be at peace with myself because God loves me.  I should be at peace with God because God loves me.  I don't remember what attitude he said we should have to be at peace with other people.  Perhaps I'll get a copy of the CD for this sermon so that I can listen to it again.

Ambrose's Nixon: Ruin and Recovery 16

For my blog post today on Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990, I'll discuss something that Stephen Ambrose says on page 488:

"On the subject of [Richard] Nixon, [Henry] Kissinger said, 'He was very good in foreign policy [but] he was a very odd man....He is a very unpleasant man.  He was so nervous...He was an artificial man in the sense that when he met someone he thought it out carefully so that nothing was spontaneous, and that meant he didn't enjoy people.  People sensed that.  What I never understood is why he became a politician.  He hated to meet new people.  Most politicians like crowds.  He didn't.'...[William] Safire reported that at the recent Vladivostok summit, Kissinger had sought to tout [President Gerald] Ford at Nixon's expense, saying that Nixon 'would never look [Soviet leader] Brezhnev in the eye.'"

Is Kissinger accurate about all of this?  Ambrose in volume 2 of his Nixon trilogy says a couple of times that Kissinger probably was projecting onto Nixon some of his own insecurities.  Moreover, on the question of whether or not Nixon liked crowds, I recall reading in Bruce Mazlish's In Search of Nixon about an incident in which, when Nixon was in a group with a few people, he was rather quiet, but he lit up like a light-bulb when a crowd came to see him!  Mazlish attributed that to Nixon's narcissism.  But who among us wouldn't appreciate the adulation of a crowd?

I can't say that Kissinger was totally wrong in his description of Nixon, however.  From what I have read for My Year (or More) of Nixon, Nixon was shy around new people.  He was introverted.  He liked to plan.  He didn't particularly care for surprises, in which he would be upstaged or caught off guard.

Ambrose himself talks about the introverted, aloof side of Nixon's personality, particularly when he depicts Nixon as alone during the Watergate scandal.  Technically, Nixon was not alone, for Nixon had his friends such as Bebe Rebozo and his family, as Ambrose narrates.  But Nixon was keeping certain things to himself, according to Ambrose.  Moreover, Ambrose talks a couple of times about Nixon's bad jokes, which may indicate a social awkwardness on Nixon's part.

Did Richard Nixon have Asperger's Syndrome?  Many people with Asperger's, or who know something about Asperger's, can look at some of Nixon's characteristics and see some overlap with Asperger's.  Nixon loved order.  He was socially-awkward.  He tended to ramble on and on about subjects that interested him.  Kissinger said that Nixon did not look Brezhnev in the eye, and there are many with Asperger's who have difficulty with eye-contact.  (I should note, though, that Joan Hoff in Nixon Reconsidered narrated that, when she met Nixon, Nixon looked her straight in the eye.)

But I have my doubts that Nixon had Asperger's.  When I watch YouTube videos of him, or listen to the Nixon tapes that are on YouTube, or read about Nixon's interactions in books, he strikes me as socially competent----not dazzling, mind you, but competent.  He is able to joke and to come up with quick come-backs.  He can even banter a bit.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

A 1988 Presidential Debate (Among Primary Candidates)

On YouTube, I watched a 1988 Presidential election debate that was moderated by Tom Brokaw.  Or, actually, it was two debates: it alternated between a debate among the Democratic primary candidates, and one among the Republican primary candidates.

It's definitely worth watching!  Here are intelligent people engaging in a wonkish discussion of the issues.  Usually, they're tactful and respectful to each other, and, when they have an opportunity to ask another candidate a question, they are simply giving the other candidate a chance to express his point-of-view on an issue, rather than attacking.  But there are some attacks: Al Gore asks why Dick Gephardt voted for the Reagan tax cut, Al Haig quizzes George Bush about Bush's possible role in Iran-Contra, etc.

There are also some surprises.  Pete Du Pont is defending his proposal for private Social Security accounts, which George Bush, Bob Dole, and Jack Kemp attack.  This was ironic, considering that Bush's son, George W. Bush, would be a major proponent of private Social Security accounts as President.  Then there was the exchange about school choice between Pete Du Pont and Pat Robertson.  Du Pont is defending school choice, and Robertson responds that he's for it, too, as long as it does not discriminate against the poor and minorities.  I was impressed by Robertson's sensitivity to this issue, since it has been widely held that the religious right originated from an attempt to defend private schools from policies against racial discrimination.  But I probably shouldn't be too surprised by what Robertson said, since he did spend his early days in ministry in the inner-cities.

I respected each candidate in these debates, for various reasons: Michael Dukakis' technocratic emphasis on balancing the budget, Dick Gephardt's defense of his vote for the Reagan tax cuts (he said that he feared that a recession was coming, and he also noted that the tax cuts went to the middle-income, too), Al Gore's criticism of the Reagan tax cuts as unequal, Jesse Jackson's description of the plight of the working poor, Paul Simon's support for government spending to bring people jobs, the other Democratic candidates' criticism of Simon's plan as pie-in-the-sky, Bruce Babbitt's lament about a company that paid its workers less while giving management huge bonuses, the Republican candidates who were concerned about human rights abuses in the Soviet Union, George Bush's humor and defense of Oliver North, Pat Robertson's sensitivity to the needs of the elderly when it comes to health care and nursing homes, the Republicans' debate over whether Social Security truly was solvent (Robertson and Du Pont said that it still had plenty of IOUs, while Dole and Bush said it was solvent), and the list goes on.  You can probably tell that I can admire one candidate for defending a certain position, and another candidate for attacking that very same position that the first candidate holds.  That's because I don't believe that issues, policy proposals, and people are totally right or totally wrong: in many cases, they have their advantages and their disadvantages.  There are plenty of shades of gray and dimensions of reality. 

In any case, you can watch the debate here.  Enjoy!

Ambrose's Nixon: Ruin and Recovery 15

For my blog post today on Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990, I will quote what Stephen Ambrose says on page 432.

"'How can you support a quitter?' [Nixon] bitterly asked Ziegler.  He told a story about the time he was running a one-mile race in school, and there were fifty yards left and only two competitors running, with nothing at stake but next to last place.  Still, he sprinted those last fifty yards."

President Richard Nixon did not want to resign from the Presidency during the Watergate scandal.  As he said in his resignation speech: "I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body."  But he said that he was resigning for the good of the country.

I wrote a post a few months ago about staying the course and quitting.  In my opinion, there are times for me to stay the course, and there are times for me to quit.  What would I do if I were running a race, there were only two competitors left, and there were "nothing at stake but next to last place"?  Well, maybe I'd quit out of sheer exhaustion, but I would hope that I would finish the race.  Why?  Because there is self-esteem that comes from finishing what one started, even if one does not win.  And there is a possibility that others would respect me for finishing what I started.

Psalm 119: Ayin

For my blog post on Psalm 119: Ayin, I will focus on v 128.

My literal translation of the Masoretic Text for this verse is: Therefore all precepts of all I made straight; every way of deception I hated.

The phrase "all precepts of all" is rather awkward.  Keil-Delitzsch interpret this to mean that the Psalmist declares to be right every single commandment of God, whatever that commandment may concern.  Maybe that works.  I wouldn't be surprised if there are some religious interpreters who regard "all precepts of all" to be an affirmation of the sufficiency of Scripture: all of God's precepts are relevant to every situation and contain all that we need for a fulfilling and righteous life.  I think of II Timothy 3:16: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:  That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works" (KJV).  The thing is, I don't believe that Scripture is necessarily sufficient for a fulfilling and righteous life, though it does contain good principles.  Some people may need medication, or guidance from a human being.  Even in Scripture, there is a view that there is more out there than the Scriptures to profit us: there is the church, for example.  And, even in Psalm 119, the Psalmist wants more than Scripture: he desires God's direct guidance and God's deliverance of him from peril.

Leslie Allen refers to an idea that was proposed by Mitchell Dahood and J.H. Eaton regarding "all precepts of all."  The Hebrew word for all is "kol", which contains the Hebrew letters kaph and lamed.  If you take the kaph and attach it to the end of "all precepts of", what you have is "All of your precepts."  What do you do with the lamed, then?  The lamed goes in front of the following verb, yisharti, and serves as an emphatic lamed.   This may work.  An emphatic lamed can come before a verb (see here).  I should also note that the Septuagint for Psalm 119:128 does not have "all precepts of all."

How should one interpret the Hebrew word yisharti in Psalm 119:128?  My literal translation renders it as "I made straight", and the reason is that the piel of y-sh-r (which is what the verb is in Psalm 119:128) often means to direct, or to make straight (see Proverbs 3:6; 11:5; 15:21; Isaiah 40:3; 45:13).  But this doesn't seem to make much sense in Psalm 119:128 because what exactly would the Psalmist make straight or direct?  God's precepts?  Why would God's precepts need to be made straight?  They are already straight, aren't they?  Or is there a sense in which God's precepts become straight when they are applied----when they are brought from the abstract into the concrete and thus can manifest their straight nature and their straightening abilities?

Keil-Delitzsch say that yisharti means that the Psalmist is declaring God's commandments to be right, or straight.  Perhaps that works, but isn't there a difference between declaring something to be straight, and actually making it straight?  Maybe.  Yet, to go postmodern here, there is a sense in which perception is reality: that something is truly straight when people recognize and regard it as such.  If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?  If a commandment is straight and nobody recognizes that, is it really straight?  Well, one could perhaps argue that it's straight in God's eyes!

The Midrash on the Psalms says that the idea in Psalm 119:128 is that David is shedding light on God's commandments before God's children.  This interpretation may be saying that David makes straight God's commandments by teaching people what they are: people are more likely to find God's commandments to be straight when they learn what they are and how to follow them.  In a similar vein, Edward Cook's translation of the Targum on the Psalms for Psalm 119:128 says that "I have harmonized all the commandments whatsoever."  The commandments may look confusing and contradictory, but the Psalmist makes them straight by harmonizing them.

I should note that the piel of y-sh-r does not always mean to direct or to make straight, even though it mostly does.  Proverbs 9:5 refers to passengers who go straight on their ways, using the piel of y-sh-r.  Perhaps Psalm 119:128 is not saying that the Psalmist is making anything straight, but rather that his walk is straight----meaning right.

The Septuagint for Psalm 119:128 has the verb in the middle, which would mean that the Psalmist directs himself, or makes himself straight or right.  Augustine says that the Psalmist is made straight or right because he loves and clings to God's precepts.  By loving what was right, Augustine contends, the Psalmist becomes straight, or right.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Michael Reagan's "Mexico Held Back by Corruption"

I was looking through some conservative Townhall columns yesterday, trying to decide which ones to read.  One that I chose to read was Michael Reagan's Mexico Held Back by Corruption.  Here are some of my favorite passages from it:

"What the heck is wrong with Mexico?  It’s got everything it needs to be a prosperous First World country.  It’s got a $1.7 trillion free-market economy -- the 12th largest in the world.  It’s got 116 million of the hardest working people on the planet.  It’s got its own oil, gas, silver and other natural resources. It’s got beautiful beaches and ancient ruins to attract tourists.  So why is Mexico such a mess?  Why are its wages so low and its per capita income a third of ours? Why is its unemployment rate so high?...And, most import to us, why do so many of Mexico’s poorest citizens have to leave their families, become criminals and sneak across the U.S. border just to get a decent-paying job?"

Reagan's answer to that question is the corruption of Mexico's government.  Reagan also says:

"Mexico’s people are equally blameless. They’re not the source of their country’s economic ills or our illegal-immigration problem.  The Mexicans who cross into the USA looking for work are doing what most people I know, including myself, would do if they were trapped in a politically corrupt country.  It’s time for Washington to stop arguing over the length or height or strength of our border fences, or how many years our 11 million illegal immigrants must wait in line to become an American citizen.  It’s time for Washington to address the root cause of our immigration problem -- the mess that is Mexico."

I find this article to be a breath of fresh air, specifically because it is an attempt by a right-winger to empathize with the plight of Mexicans who come to the U.S. in search of a better life.  Unfortunately, I do not see that often enough in right-wing circles.  I hear right-wingers complain that Mexicans come into this country to take our jobs and mooch off of our government benefits, and these right-wingers seem to assume that having strong border security is the end-all, be-all, cure-all to the problem of illegal immigration.  They don't appear to think about the crushing poverty in Mexico that makes Mexicans want to come to the U.S., in search of opportunities for themselves and their children.  I commend Michael Reagan for at least acknowledging this issue.

Unfortunately, Michael Reagan did not go into detail about how the U.S. could help or influence Mexico to become a country where people don't feel as if they have to come to the U.S. to live a quality life.  He doesn't think that simply giving money to Mexico is the answer, and he may have a point on that: if the Mexican government is corrupt, then it might squander money that the U.S. gives it.  Michael Reagan suggests that the U.S. should talk tough against the Mexican government, the same way that Michael's father, Ronald Reagan, called the Soviet Union an "evil empire".  But what good would that do? 

I liked Michael Reagan's point that Mexico has the resources to become a first world country.  My impression is that a lot of countries that are classified as Third World (not that I know for sure if Mexico is in that category) have or had lots of resources.  The problem has been human greed, as people come in to plunder those resources.  God made a bountiful earth, but it is human beings who have fostered systems that relegate people to grinding poverty.  Is there a way to address this problem?

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