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Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Pentateuch

I have just finished reading, mostly rereading, the first five books of the Bible and wanted to give some general thoughts.

First, I want to point out that it is very hard for me to believe that one could think that every section of these five books were written by the same entity, let alone an omniscient entity. The evolution of the nature of God presented in the five books alone, strongly suggests multiple authors. Religious Tolerance provides a nice discussion of this, including citations to and explanations of conflicting points of view.

Second, I don't think anyone living in twenty-first century America can seriously assert that the laws set out for the ancient Hebrews are to be followed today. Forget about bans on men having sex with other men, there are very strict laws about most aspects of daily living that we reject. Including selling daughters into slavery, punishments for disobedient children, treatment of aliens, etc. Frankly, even if the Bible is inerrant, these laws are not described as applying to all people for all time, but to the Israelites and their obedience will be rewarded by receiving (returning to) the Promised Land.

Third, I do think these scriptures are valuable. Not to answer scientific questions. (See a fine, but not particularly inspired rebuttal of that here.) And not to set out a code of laws to be adhered to today. But to give us insight into how God can work for justice even in an unjust world. Note that much of the most heinous passages deal with making an evil practice less evil. Also, these give Christians insight into core values that were a part of Jesus' life and informed his teaching. Consider, for example, the frequent allowances for the poor and the notion that faith should be infused into all aspects of life.

The Old Testament readings that lie ahead are some stories about Joshua kicking ass and taking names in Canaan. Then some folks stories about tribal heroes such as Samson, Gideon and Deborah. It will be interesting to observe similarities and difference between these characters and the stories we tell about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Babe Ruth and Amelia Earheart.

Day 32 (Fear Not)

[My response to the readings from April 7-9 in the One Year Bible (links to the full readings on the right)]

Pattern recognition is something that humans do. There are millions of helpful applications of this skill, and some not so helpful applications, see e.g., "the man on the moon" and the myth of the hot hand. Indulging this tendency, I note the similarity in today's readings between Moses' message to Joshua and the Israelites as he is about to die and not reach the promise land, and Jesus' message to the Disciples as he is about to die before the Kingdom of God had been established on Earth.
Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, "Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the LORD swore to their forefathers to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance. The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged."
Deut. 31:7-8.
"Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Luke 12:32-34. I don't think there is an intentional parallel, as for example with the author of Matthew tells of Jesus avoiding infanticide to come out of Egypt, but I think these passages are connected by a common tradition. Recognize that both were written after a great tragedy--Deuteronomy after the exile, Luke after the destruction of the temple--and thus, the admonition to fear not and face adversity with courage would have spoken to hearer. Being true to your values and keeping your faith is not the only possible response to adversity. So, I think it is noteworthy if it is a consistent theme in Judeo-Christian writings.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Day 31 (Curses)

[My reaction to the April 4-6 readings of the One Year Bible]

Today I ran across a passage in Deuteronomy that reminded me of the Beatitudes. Chapter 28 begins with just about a dozen verses explaining the blessings that the Isrealites will receive if they "fully obey YHWH, your God." Starting at verse 15, however, it turns ugly, making it clear that there are consequences for disobedience. Among the curses are these at verse 30-32
You will be pledged to be married to a woman, but another will take her and ravish her. You will build a house, but you will not live in it. You will plant a vineyard, but you will not even begin to enjoy its fruit. Your ox will be slaughtered before your eyes, but you will eat none of it. Your donkey will be forcibly taken from you and will not be returned. Your sheep will be given to your enemies, and no one will rescue them. Your sons and daughters will be given to another nation, and you will wear out your eyes watching for them day after day, powerless to lift a hand.
Pretty rough.

As usual, Jesus reserves his curses for people in the Church who follow the letter but not the spirit of the law. Luke 11:39-54. The whole affair starts with Jesus not washing his hands before he eats. He then has separate curses for the fundamentalists and the literalists. For example, "Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone." Ouch.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

One Month

I've completed one month of read the Bible every day. I am on schedule to finish by Christmas, with a little extra reading around the holidays. So far, I've been most engaged by the Old Testament readings. Partly because I am now a lawyer, I think I can appreciate reading the code and searching for meaning behind it. Also, so much of it enriches my understanding of the Gospels, particularly the emphasis on ritual cleanliness.

It has also been good to see the ideological conflicts preserved in the Old and New Testaments. It sort of ratifies my understanding of the Judeo-Christian traditions as a conversation.

I am trying to use the Psalms as an opportunity to meditate, but find that it has been hard to do that. I am very anxious to hear the next bit of Gospel or Moses. I give myself a passing grade on not just using this as a chance to build up ammunition to use against literalists, but I must admit I don't deserve an A on this score.

I think Paul's letters will be more challenging, but actually, we don't get to them for a while. (Not more morally challenging--I just read a bit about when a rape victim should be stoned to death for failing to cry out--but just more challenging because they contain some pretty subtle theology.)

I've greatly enjoyed the feedback and the feeling of progress.

Day 30 (Law & Order : Moses)

[My reaction to the readings for April 1-3 of the One Year Bible]
1 If a man is accused of taking the life of another man, he is not required to testify against himself. 2 Those investigating the accusation must tell him of this right; if they do not, and he confesses, his confession cannot be used at his trial. 3 However, if he testifies as his trial, this confession can be used to challenge his testimony. 4 If the investigators torture the man and he confesses, his confession cannot be used for anything.

5 A man is not guilty of murder unless a jury finds no reasonable doubt of his guilt. 6 Even if he is found not guilty of murder, the family of the victim may go before a judge and jury and demand that he pay them what the life of the deceased is worth. 7 If it is found that it is more likely than not that the man killed the deceased, he shall pay an amount set by the jury and reviewed by the judges. 8 If the jury has found a man not guilty after he was in jeopardy of losing his life or liberty, he can never be convicted, even if he publicly confesses to the murder.

9 This is the Law of the United States.
It's been a long time since I took the bar, and I don't practice criminal law, but I think this is right. Compare the specificity and need for cultural context in the above with these passages from Deuteronomy on negligent homicide; murder; standard of proof; unsolved murder. What this all means to me is that the Hebrews had a very complex legal system. In many ways more harsh than our system, for instance the death penalty is available for everything from murder to speaking out against your parents, but in some ways more lenient, I suspect the conviction rate for criminal offenses would drop radically if prosecutors had to produce two or three witnesses for crimes. Perhaps the best example from today of the difference in law is this family law passage:
5 If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband's brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. 6 The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.

7 However, if a man does not want to marry his brother's wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, "My husband's brother refuses to carry on his brother's name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me." 8 Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, "I do not want to marry her," 9 his brother's widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, "This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother's family line." 10 That man's line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled.
From this we can see . . . uh, no, I won't even try.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Day 29 (Libertarian Hebrews)

[My response to the readings for March 29-31 in the One Year Bible]

Today Deuteronomy gives some guidance on what the king of Israel should be like. For example, "The king . . . must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them,. . . must not take many wives, . . . must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold, . . . and [must] not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left." Full excerpt here.

Then from Luke we get a little anti-Rome stuff (demon named Legion sent into some pigs which were only kept for selling to the Romans), a reminder that Herod killed John the Baptist, and this little bit about decentralized church polity:
Jesus Sends Out the Twelve
When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. He told them: "Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. If people do not welcome you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave their town, as a testimony against them." So they set out and went from village to village, preaching the gospel and healing people everywhere.

I consider this post to be quite big of me given my feelings toward Rand Paul and my frequent professional battles against the Goldwater Institute. But, nonetheless, there is some Biblical support for small, decentralized government.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Day 28 (Rich Woman Poor Woman)

[My response to readings for March 26-28 in the One Year Bible]

Luke retells the story of the woman anointing Jesus' feet with oil. There are some mistakes in that sentence. I don't know if Luke told it first. Also, I struggled with the verb. Did she wash his feet in oil? Anoint sounds too liturgical, caress or message both sound too sensual. What would you say?
When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
That bit is similar to the other story. The switch comes in how the story is used. When this came up in an earlier Gospel, the disciples focused on "wasting" the money that could be sold to the poor. Here, the Pharisees take another shot at Jesus for associating with low lifes.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner."
In the other story, Jesus scolds the disciples for scolding her and points out that she is showing him kindness and his time is short and the vibe turns into a suggestion that maybe she's preparing Jesus' body for burial. By contrast, here, we see classic Lucan Jesus calling out the Pharisees who think he didn't hear there nasty little comments. He tells a quick parable about those who are forgiven much are more grateful than those who are forgiven less. He then forgives the woman for her sins and says, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."

The next paragraph lists the names of several rich women who helped Jesus. They were
Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod's household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
They full reading of both passages is here.

From Deuteronomy with have this great passage about YHWH God of the oppressed, but also this reminder that the Bible can advocate some pretty extreme violence as well.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Day 27 (No God but God)

[Response to March 23-25 in the One Year Bible]

One of the basic beliefs of Islam is that "[t]here is no God but God, and Mohamed is his prophet." Searching the Hebrew texts one finds that particularly early on, the position is that the Hebrew god is the best of all the gods. Indeed, as I explored when I began the story of Moses, some work was done to reconcile the worship of El Shaddai with the worship of YHWH, namely YHWH assures Moses that he is also El Shaddai. Much of this is lost on Christian readers when our translators chose to "preserve" the original meaning by "God" for El Shaddai and "LORD" for YHWH and "Lord" for a generic person.

Today includes an interesting passage at the beginning of Deuteronomy that discusses the shapeless nature of the Hebrew god, AND provides later on a verse supporting the notion that not only is YHWH the best God, but he is the only God. Here.

Side note: Deuteronomy begins with an account of Moses' account of what has happened so far. It is interesting because in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers much of the narration and laws come from the author relaying God's words in direct quote. I find it an interesting transition.

Oh yeah, and some more in-your-face miracles reported by the author of Luke here.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Day 26 (Jesus Coming Out)

[My reaction to the readings for March 20-22 of the One Year Bible]

Readers will recall that in Matthew and Mark, it was a big deal for Jesus to control his introduction to the world as Christ. In fact, there are a handful of suggestions that Jesus only revealed his nature to the disciples. Now consider this from Luke 4.
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."
Well, okay then. Not exactly secretive. Jesus does tell a leper to keep his healing quiet, but to nonetheless go to the priest and give the appropriate offering that we've already covered from Numbers.

Another story in today's Gospel reading is the story of some guys who can't get their buddy to Jesus, so they cut a whole in the roof. They lower the man down to Jesus, obviously to be healed, but Jesus decides to make a bit of a show.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said, "Friend, your sins are forgiven."

The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, "Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?"

Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, "Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...." He said to the paralyzed man, "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, "We have seen remarkable things today."
Very confrontational. "Hey, you guys over there, you got a problem? Well, watch this."