Monday, December 24, 2007

But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 1:26-80)

I suppose technically, I left off the issue from verse 20, but I figured waiting until the second half to deal with it was good enough. I actually really hoped to be done with my Christmas blogging before Christmas Eve, as I hate to do last-minute Christmas anything, and I still wanted to put up something on my other blog. At least my shopping was done weeks ago.

The story picks up six months later, and another angel appears, this time to a young unmarried (but engaged) woman named Mary. He announces to her that she is going to become pregnant with the Messiah. She asks, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" This tends to present a problem for a lot of people, as it seems that she is expressing doubt, but she isn't punished like Zacharias was. Interestingly, while I had always figured that this was a matter of perhaps tone of voice or some other matter that doesn't come across in writing, I think it may actually be clearer than I gave the text credit. Zacharias asks, "Kata ti gnosomai touto?" which translates to "How do I know this is true?" Mary, on the other hand, asks, "Pos estai touto?" which translates as "How will this be?" I think the difference in the verb used is indicative of the thought processes behind the questions. Zacharias is saying "How can I possibly believe this?" while Mary is saying, "Okay, but how should I be expecting this to unfold?" I do admit however that even if you understand and accept the difference between the two questions, it's not really clear why Zacharias deserves to be punished. It may be that in part, the fact that he was struck dumb was intended as a sign of some sort, which we'll see a bit of here.

The angel makes the statement nothing is impossible for God, but the SAB questions that. I actually addressed that back in Genesis, but to put it in a nutshell, while God is able to do "anything" (what this means is actually open to interpretation, which deserves more discussion) it is in character that He will never do anything that goes against His basic nature, which includes lying and subverting free will.

Mary goes to visit her cousin Elisabeth, who is of course now six months pregnant with John the Baptist. Skipping the Holy Spirit question, which I addressed in the previous post, the SAB finds it funny that the fetus that would one day be known as John the Baptist responds to the presence of the mother of Jesus. Really it is sort of funny, and my own pastor spoke about it briefly this Sunday; John's ministry as the announcer of the Christ began three months before he was even born! (Some anti-abortion Christians will use this verse to bolster their case, which might be one of the best arguments if you think about it.)

The question raised as to whether one should fear God was one I addressed at length back in Joshua, and is the last question to address here. The rest of the chapter deals with Mary singing the praises of God and the Savior she carried in her womb, and then the birth of John which involves the lifting of the curse of dumbness on Zacharias, who then also sings the praises of God.

Friday, December 21, 2007

John the son of Zacharias (Luke 1:1-25)

Luke chapter one is interesting in that it tells the accounts of two supernatural births. I've often mused on the fact that if you look into the fine details of the Gospel accounts, there happen to be a lot of connections between the people of the early church that aren't always as well-known as they should be, starting here where we find out that Jesus and John the Baptist are actually cousins of some sort. A careful examination of the Gospels reveals that actually several disciples were extended family of Mary, but I don't know if the SAB tracks that and has commented on it, I'm sure there's room for some interesting speculation on the matter.

John's parents are described as being "righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless". As is so often the case, the SAB uses this statement to bring up the question "Has there ever been a righteous person?" along with a question I don't think I have yet addressed, "Does righteousness come from following the Law?" Although I have addressed the first question before, I don't think it will hurt to revisit it here, especially in light of the second one. In the question of whether or not there was ever a righteous person, I think one could actually fairly dismiss the verses quoted from Isaiah as possibly being specific to the time and place in which he was writing, but of course, the Romans passage seems much more clear and blanketing, and it's also a pretty well-known Christian doctrine that "all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." How can we say that John's parents are righteous? A lot of the problem in dealing with the Bible is the confusion of terminology and difficulty of exacting translation. Most people understand the gist of what's being said, but the details can be tough to sort out. Being "righteous" doesn't mean that you're perfect, but rather means that you strive to do what is right. What does that imply, and how does that fit with Paul's claim that there are no righteous people? Paul is quoting (with slightly different wording) from Psalm 14, which uses the phrase "doeth good". I admit it's sometimes hard to sort all of this out, but there is doing good, striving for goodness, and depending on God, each of which could be referred to as righteousness at one time or another. I do believe that what Paul is saying and is said elsewhere along these same lines is that there is no such thing as someone who does what is right all the time. Additionally, there is perhaps a uniquely Christian understanding that nobody even tries to do good with the pure motive of pleasing God unless they are divinely inspired to it by the Holy Spirit. This is a strange concept that has many different forms of understanding among Christians of varied theological stripes, and I certainly don't fully understand every position on the matter, nor necessarily agree with all of them. (I don't know if any of this is making great sense, I've got a cold...)

Oh yeah, and as for righteousness coming from following the law, the answer is No. That John's parents happened to be righteous and followed the law is really two different (although admittedly related) facts. There are a LOT of issues in the Bible that can be confusing if you misunderstand the proper chain of cause-and-effect, the most common being the dichotomy of faith vs. works. Here what we see is not people who are righteous because they follow the Law of Moses, but people who follow the Law of Moses because they are righteous. Even in the Old Testament, the concept is there--although not so explicitly stated--of the true following of the law being something that comes from the inherent righteousness of the heart, and not simply out of obligation to fulfill righteousness.

God tells Zacharias that John is to never touch alcohol in his life, prompting the SAB to ask, "Is it OK to drink alcohol?" This is a good topic in itself that I thought I had already addressed, but apparently not. There are a few general guidelines for understanding the Bible's view on alcohol, and I think they are for the most part pretty common-sense. In general, alcohol is a good thing, in moderation. A glass of wine or two at a party, maybe a beer when out with friends? That's just good times; I myself had a couple beers at my birthday party (and was glad to not have to drive home, my alcohol tolerance is apparently way down from what it was in college!) What the Bible says against alcohol fits into one of two categories, of which this story is the latter. One, that alcohol to excess is a bad thing, and can ruin your life; I hope most of us know that to be true and are on our guards. Two, some people, due to the station they have in life, really ought to avoid alcohol altogether for the sake of personal purity. The verse quoted from Numbers 6 is about a person who decides to make a special vow of purity, and it may be that this is another case of God ordaining a "Nazarite" from birth, as He did with Samson. There are a number of interesting similarities between Samson and John that would suggest this.

Several times in this chapter, Luke says that someone was filled with the Holy Ghost. While yes, it may be a bit silly that John was filled with the Holy Ghost as a fetus, we do have to deal with the issue of when the Holy Ghost was given. I actually addressed this in chapter two, which I really don't remember why I did it before this chapter, but there it is. Basically, the giving of the Holy Ghost after the resurrection of Jesus was a special event, but not at all the first time the Holy Ghost was given, with various events going way back in the Bible to even to perhaps Genesis.

Verse 17 refers to "the wisdom of the just", prompting the SAB to inquire as to whether there has ever been a "just" person. I wish I had the Greek knowledge to dissect this verse, as the English translation does not make it clear whether this is singular or plural. If it were singular, I would suggest that it refers to God, who is surely just (at least in Judeo-Christian theology, skeptical opinions aside) but I can't tell. Still, it doesn't matter, because I believe the answer is Yes. While the Bible talks a lot about how there are no "good", "righteous" or whatever sorts of people, and requires some confusing discussion like that which I gave above for righteousness, I don't think the same can be said about people being "just". While yes, the Ecclesiastes passage exists, the book of Ecclesiastes is highly poetic, and is full of hyperbole. Some of it is nonetheless true, but in general, most of the ideas in that book are very abstract, like the claim that there is "nothing new" in the world. Surely there is new stuff every day, but in a sense, nothing is really new. When I post this far too long entry to my blog, it will be a "new" blog entry, but I create nothing, as all I am doing is shuffling around electrons to regurgitate ideas that no doubt exist on other blogs, websites, and even books printed well before I was even born. I think Solomon is saying that it's hard to find someone who is just, and even if you do, they're probably not just all of the time. Ecclesiastes is a good source of wisdom, but I don't tend to think of it as a good source of doctrine, myself.

Zacharias ends up being struck dumb because of his unbelief. Yes, it's strange, and it may seem a little bit unfair, but there it is. I think the real problem is the reconciling of this story with Mary's in the second half of the chapter. We'll see about that.

Friday, December 14, 2007

How say the scribes that Christ is the son of David? (Matthew 1:18-25)

Having finished Joshua, I now intend to turn back to Exodus and do some more work there for a few chapters and then I'll come back to where I left off here after a while and start in on Judges, which is probably the ugliest book of the Bible, loaded full of plenty of sex and violence. For the moment though, I'd been considering going back an correcting the mistake I made before for reasons I do not recall. Two years ago, I did a special Christmas side track and covered Matthew 2 and Luke 2, which was sort of nice. However, I don't know what I was thinking when I skipped over the last few verses of Matthew 1 and the whole of Luke 1, which are closely related to the Christmas story, if not actually part of it. I intend to remedy that now.

Right after finishing up a genealogy, Matthew jumps right into the story of Joseph's side of the story leading up to Jesus' birth. Joseph was engaged to Mary, who of course was supposed to be a virgin, but he found out that she was pregnant, which tends to be pretty damning evidence. In those days, being engaged was a legal status that pretty much had the weight of being married, and Joseph had the right to have her put to death as an adulteress. Instead, he chose to have a divorce quietly and not shame her publicly. (The Bible calls Joseph a "just man" here not necessarily as a general description of his character, although many take it that way, but rather in the context of the fact that he viewed it his legal duty to divorce Mary when he found her to be pregnant.)

The SAB asks a question about Joseph that seems odd to me, because really, the answer seems pretty apparent. Was Joseph Jesus' father? Yes and no. Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, but he was the legal father. This also answers an unasked but implied question of the SAB as to what the point is of giving a genealogy of Joseph when he's not the father. It's understood by most people that the genealogy of Joseph shows that if there were still a Davidic monarchy in Israel at the time of Jesus, then Joseph would have been the King rather a poor carpenter. As his adopted son, Jesus inherits the royal line of David.

(I do find it interesting that none of the verses mentioned by the SAB there actually mention Joseph by name, but all refer to Jesus as being the "son of David". It's interesting because here there seems to be the understanding that a person's descendant, no matter how many generations down, can be referred to as a "son", while that understanding appears absent elsewhere.)

The fact is that Jesus' lineage through His mother is considered to be important, as there is a complicated bit of prophecy having to do with a curse on the Davidic line. When I do come to the New Testament in full, I'll have a bit of fun going over the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, and explaining the supposed purpose that most Christians give to those differing lists, and reasons why there is both merit and lingering doubts about the explanation. If any reader is really curious, I'm sure there are a plethora of commentaries out there on this matter. In short, Jesus' lineage is supposedly indicative that He is the legal heir of King Solomon but only a blood descendant of David through another of David's children.

Verse 23 concerns an old prophecy from Isaiah. Many people have picked apart this verse as not being a valid prophecy of Jesus for the very reason the SAB lists, that the Hebrew word "`almah" used here for "virgin" could just as well mean "young woman". Although technically true, there are some problems with this. First of all, what kind of "sign" would it be for a "young woman" to have a child? That happens pretty much every day. Secondly, when the Jews in the time shortly before Jesus was born translated the book of Isaiah into Greek, they chose to use the Greek word "parthenos" which is not vague, but clearly means "virgin". They understood that it was a miraculous sign. Thirdly and finally, this is one of those odd places in the Bible where detractors make what I consider to be very strange: "Jesus raised people from the dead, but it's not like he's the only one who ever did that." "Well, Jesus may have driven demons out of a guy, but why did he have to pick on the pig farmers?" "Okay, so Jesus was born of a virgin, so what?" Are you serious?! Matthew meant what he said; does it really matter that the word choice in Isaiah was too nuanced for 20th century skeptics? How often does something like this happen to humans?

The same prophecy says that the child will be called "Emmanuel", which the SAB rightly notes is not a name Jesus is ever called. However it is worth noting that the name is Hebrew for "God with us", which is the very theological concept behind Jesus' incarnation, so this may be figurative speech. Some people have suggested that while people on earth called Him Jesus, the angels refer to Him as Emmanuel. This is an interesting theory, but there's not much to support it as far as I am aware.

The last issue in this chapter is that of whether or not Mary was an eternal virgin. Of course, not being a Catholic, I don't much care. In fact, I've heard many people suggest that other than to fulfill the Isaiah prophecy, there is no real reason for Mary to have been a virgin, and certainly once they were married, Joseph had every right to have sex with her. So why does Joseph wait to have sex with her until Jesus is born? Who knows? However, in defense of the Catholic belief that Mary was an eternal virgin, I don't quite buy that this particular verse is saying that Joseph and Mary had sex. I assume they did because the Bible says Jesus had brothers (although there are other possible explanations for that), but simply saying that a thing didn't happen before a certain point in time doesn't necessarily imply that it happened after that point in time.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom (Joshua 24)

Here in the final chapter of Joshua, Joshua once again calls the people together for a speech. It may be that this is a continuation of the speech from the previous chapter, or it may be at a later time. While Joshua did say in the last chapter that he expected to die "this day", I have discussed before that the word "day" is often figurative, and not necessarily always a 24-hour period. I suspect that rather than saying he was to die at once, he meant that now that the conquest was complete, a new day was dawning for Israel in which it was to go on without him.

Joshua gives a bit of ancient history, sort of summing up some of the important points of the Bible so far. He reminds the people that back in the time of Abraham's fathers, they lived north of the Euphrates ("the other side of the flood") and worshiped pagan gods. The one true God called Abraham out of that culture to give him a promise that would not be fully realized until the time of Joshua, a over 500 years later. After the passage of years, the growing of the children of Israel into a large nation that was ready to truly possess the promised land, and near-uncountable miracles, God had finally brought this nation into being. Joshua reminds them of all of this, and entreats them to always remember what God had done for them.

Verses 12 and 13 are a reminder of two things, one of which is labeled absurd, and the other unjust. They really go hand in hand, and in a sense, the very point of these is the absurdity and unjustness (from a certain point of view) of the actions. God miraculously caused the very forces of nature, in the form of hornets in particular, to drive out the inhabitants of Canaan, and as a result, there are large portions of the land that they were simply able to take with little or no effort on their part. The only thing just about this is that there were moral reasons of one sort or another for driving out the previous inhabitants; the Israelites weren't reaping the benefits of God driving out the Canaanites because they were somehow such terrific people, just a bit better than the previous tenants of the land. Joshua reminds them of this because they need to remember they are recipients of God's grace, not owners of the land in their own right. If they were to become like those whom God chose to destroy and/or evacuate from the land, they could expect pretty much the same treatment. As I have also said before, this came to pass eventually.

I have addressed the two questions raised in the SAB for verse 14 already, but it's worth a brief revisit here. There exist other entities that people in the world worship as gods, whether they be completely imaginary or some sort of spiritual power. The Bible often acknowledges these entities as "gods" because that's what they are, regardless of their powers or lack thereof. When Joshua tells them to fear the LORD, he is pointing out that all other "gods" are inferior to the LORD, and a wise person will give their respect only to Him.

Can people truly choose to give themselves to God, however? The SAB asks "Do humans have free will?" and this is an important philosophical question that people of all religious beliefs have struggled with. Actually, on a personal note, before I became a Christian, I went through a period of introspection during which I was convinced that free will was an illusion, and surely in a materialistic universe there was no room for free will. Although there are some Christian schools of thought that claim there is no free will, it was Christianity that convinced me that people do have free will, something I still believe despite being a Calvinist. I'm not going to attempt to unpack the issue fully, as it's not an easy issue to deal with, but I do need to address the apparent contradictions.

Honestly, there isn't a uniformity of opinion on this matter at all throughout Christendom, and probably not among Jews, either, but I don't know. My own opinion is that there is no contradiction between free will and predetermination, although it's not easy to explain why. My best attempt is usually something like this: I've got a coin in my pocket. Let's assume, as most people will I think, that free will and random chance exist. That means that the coin can freely come up heads or tails on a toss. There, it came up heads. From now on, the result of that toss is fixed. At the moment I did it, anything could have happened. At the moment you read this, only heads actually did occur. For God, who is omniscient, the future is something He has already seen, so while our choices are as free as the tossing of that coin, if not moreso, God already knows the result. Where is the contradiction? I don't see it. I have no plans to go any deeper into this discussion within this blog, or at least this particular post.

A bit of a discussion ensues wherein Joshua warns the Israelites that while they should serve God, it's not going to be easy. While false gods don't seem to care so much what a person does, the LORD " a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins." At least in particular where it comes to apostasy, He won't. The SAB comments on this little exchange that it is unjust, cruel and intolerant. I would only agree that it's intolerant, and I've already given my opinion that intolerance from the right point of view is a non-issue. As for unjust, the context seems pretty clear that God is giving them the land, and He expects a certain level of obedience in return. I think that is just. Some Jews have pointed out that in fact, God does not demand worship of Him, but rather prohibits false worship. While most Christians clearly do not feel this way, it as not an uncommon belief among Jews that being an atheist is okay so long as you live a moral life; it's being a pagan and reverting to immoral pagan practices that is the real problem. As for cruelty, well, that's a matter of opinion.

And so Joshua dies, having been one of the greatest leaders in the history of Israel. He is buried, and shortly thereafter, the bones of Joseph are also buried. (The SAB points out a contradiction as to the nature of Joseph's final resting place, which I actually already addressed in Genesis.) There is something interesting about the fact that these two men were buried at about the same time, as one of them led Israel out of Canaan into Egypt, and the other led them back.

Although the book of Joshua is at times a bit dry, and often an apt example of violence and cruelty in the Bible that seems easy to pin squarely on God, it is also really a great book that people overlook for these reasons, and miss out on the richness of some aspects of it. As the last few months of comments on this book have examined, there are a number of truly deep questions the book raises, and a number of odd examples of flawed people who can be an inspiration to believers throughout history. If a lying pagan prostitute can find faith and lay hold of the grace of God, can't any of us? If a nation of stubborn unfaithful people who had to be sent to wander for forty years in the wilderness can be reconciled with God to become conquerers of powerful nations, what then could we achieve in our lifetimes through the power of God? As Joshua, whose name in Greek would be "Jesus", says to his people and all of us throughout history:
And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve...but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

So man lieth down, and riseth not (Joshua 23)

In Joshua 23, apparently the fighting is over, and Joshua calls the tribes together to give them a speech. The main purpose of the speech seems to be pretty plain: he's giving a review of what the fighting was all about. He reminds them of their victories (and not their failures, perhaps hypocritical, but I'd like to think he was just aiming for a positive note) and admonishes them to stay faithful to God and the law that was given to them by Moses.

The SAB notes that verse ten is both absurd and unjust. I don't know if I've said it before, but sometimes I don't understand such a juxtaposition: how can something be both at the same time? Absurd seems to me to imply that it's just not going to happen, but if it's not happening, how is it unjust? Anyway, I don't think it goes against justice or practicality to have a righteous few overpower an unrighteous multitude. Aside from the Biblical example of Gideon, who defeated 120,000 Midianites with an army of 300 (not 1,000 to one, but 400 to one; still impressive), America has a police force that is about one in 400, and they do manage. Still, I think it's more than likely that we're talking hyperbole here. "One man of you shall chase a thousand" sounds a lot cooler than "One man of you shall chase a lot more than one." If the unjust part is that God is on their side, consider that Joshua is telling them this as a conditional thing. Too many people, especially today, are willing to go to battle in the belief that God is on their side. God doesn't take sides, the best you can do is to join God's side.

The second point brought up by the SAB is a real meaty one, perhaps one of the best questions I've come across yet in the SAB. Is death final? This is a key point in understanding what the Bible teaches, and a difficult one to deal with because admittedly, there truly is contradictory accounting of this matter to be found in the Bible. Yes, this is one of the biggest issues in the Bible that I will readily admit has contradiction behind it, and won't claim to not exist. The real manner in which one addresses this contradiction is not to ignore it, but analyze what's really going on here, as this is a key question that most religions ask.

One very notable thing that most people realize without having to delve too deeply is that the majority of scripture that talks about the afterlife is found in the New Testament, not the Old. Even the earliest citations given by the SAB in the "No" column are really not addressing the issue of an afterlife or "resurrection", but the issue of coming back from the dead or "revivication". Everyone today knows that the latter is a possibility. Most of us in fact probably know someone who was temporarily dead and came back to life after CPR or application of a defibrillator. When it comes to the concept of an afterlife, the first very solid mention of such a thing is probably Daniel 12:2, where the phrase "everlasting life" is used. There are actually some who will tell you that only Christians have the promise of "everlasting life", and Jews just have an outdated moral system that was only created as a foundation on which to build Christianity, but I think that's a seriously flawed theological position. I'm not sure I even fully buy the slightly less offensive position some have that Judaism is just slightly lesser and was meant to come to full understanding with the coming of Christ. No, even as a Christian who believes that full revelation did not come until the advent of Christ, I don't believe that Judaism was in any way inferior; after all, God invented it, didn't He? One way or another, I do believe God gives all people, in one way or another, a path to salvation and everlasting life. This certainly includes God's Chosen.

So why does the general Old Testament view of death seem to be at odds with the Christian one? First of all, I'd like to say that in many places, there can be a danger of overstating the case. In our Joshua passage, I think there is too much being read into Joshua's statement. When Joshua says, "This day I am going the way of all the earth," does it truly imply that Joshua believed there was no afterlife? After all, whether there is an afterlife or not, the statement is true, and it lines up fine with the New Testament view of death which, although not thinking it final, agrees that all living things die. Also, one should note that even with consideration of the afterlife in the mix, death is still final in a sense. Even though Christians look forward to a resurrection, there is understanding that once a person has passed from this life to the next, there is a true dividing point, and there is no natural method of turning back. The Christian who dies will leave their family with an understanding that they will be reunited in Heaven, but most assuredly not on this earth.

More problematic are verses like the one in Psalm 6, which claim that once a person is dead, there is no more knowledge, and no more chance of praising God. While the passages quoted from Job are more like the Joshua passage, and merely state the fact that death is inevitable, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Isaiah passages have a lot more to to say about the nature of a person's awareness being snuffed out after life has passed. It's really quite likely that many if not all of these passages are truly contradictory to the point of view of there being an afterlife. It's a difficult thing to deal with that not necessarily everything that is said in the Bible has the same force of truth behind it. As I have said before, and will revisit in my next post, Stephen gave a farewell speech in the book of Acts that is full of technical errors. I don't think everyone expects that every person who ever spoke in the Bible spoke without error. (In fact, the first instance of someone misquoting information is back in Genesis 3!) While Stephen makes factual errors and/or takes certain liberties in his storytelling, the Psalmists may make errors and/or take some poetic license. I personally find it more than a little shaky when somebody bases a doctrine on a verse in the Psalms. For instance, David wrote Psalm 6, which suggests that he doesn't believe in an afterlife. At the same time, David says of his dead child in 2Samuel 12:23, "I shall go to him," prompting some to claim that the Bible is saying here that all children go to Heaven. While I believe this to be true, I don't base a doctrine on an offhand remark by David, especially when he's not consistent in this matter.

So, to sum up, I do think this is a contradiction. It is however a contradiction only in that not every person who follows God in the Bible has uniformity in their belief in the nature of the afterlife. For the definitive answer, I look to the words of Jesus, which seem to me to point to a definitive "Yes, there is an afterlife."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Until the children of Israel have inherited every man his inheritance (Joshua 16-22)

Maybe I should have covered more material in the last post, as most of the issues, well, pretty much through the rest of the book are repeats of the ones I already covered. We see numerous notes of various Canaanites that couldn't be driven out, a giant or two here and there, casting lots to determine a course of action or division of land, etc. This is really the part of the book of Joshua that's much more on the dry side, being a list of a conquest here, a list of cities there, and I'm going to skim over it pretty lightly for the most part, pausing to comment on notable things.

I think actually, the latter part of Chapter 17 is notable in that it illustrates much more fully the principle of what's going on when conquests of parts of the land fail. The tribe of Manasseh complains to Joshua that they don't have enough land, and Joshua tells them that they'd have plenty if they'd just drive the Perizzites out of it. Manasseh complains that the Perizzites "have chariots of iron", and therefore they can't possibly win. Joshua tells them to buck up and just do the job they have to do, since God is on their side. It seems quite clear to me that the only thing holding back this conquest was the fear of the people.

Joshua 20, while having no notes in the SAB is an interesting one for reasons that I'll probably delve into more deeply when I go back to the Mosaic Law. The "cities of refuge" are a concept that has to do with the laws in Israel about manslaughter. If a person killed another by accident, they could be protected by going to one of those cities according to the law. There, a person would stand trial instead of being subject to vigilante justice from the victim's close relative, the "avenger of blood".

Joshua 21 contains what is claimed to be an error, but while I think there may indeed be an error here, I think the SAB has misidentified the error. Or, that is to say that the error is not here so much as it is in the parallel passage in 1Chronicles 6. If you look carefully at that chapter, there are two things to note. First, that chapter is not about apportioning the land by tribes, but about listing cities given to the Levites, so the precise locations are not so important. Secondly, and this is the real problem, 1 Chronicles as a chapter names every tribe of Israel except for Dan, which is the tribe mentioned in Joshua 21. I suspect the real error is the omission of Dan's name from the list. Whether that was a scribal error or an omission in the original document (which could have been on purpose, actually) we can't say, choose what you like, or give me another suggestion as many people have done.

Joshua 22 discusses Joshua giving an address to the tribes who had land on the West side of the Jordan, and it turns out that all these years (the conquest took somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 years to finish) these tribes stayed faithful in their promise to stand by the others, and Joshua commends them for this. I myself am rather impressed, as I don't get the impression that there was really a lot of unity among the tribes in general.

Well, It looks like I might be able to finish this book in one more post, we'll see when I get to it.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together (Dead Sea scrolls)

My birthday occurred not too long ago, and while some people in my family claim I'm a difficult person to shop for, I don't think that's necessarily the case. This is based on the fact that everyone that gave me a gift managed to find a really good one, and the one person who picked an item on my Amazon wish list was my sister, who got me Robert Alter's translation of the Torah, and it was she who turned me on to Alter in the first place. She also got me a copy of a book by Douglas Adams (not that Douglas Adams) about how in order to properly appreciate the Bible, you have to see the humor in it. Both excellent books. While I did get great gifts from everyone, I of course prefer to focus on the more Biblically-oriented gifts here, and the gift that I particularly wanted to focus on was the one I finally got to enjoy this weekend: Admission to the San Diego Museum of Natural History's exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

It was exciting to get to see this exhibit, but it was also full of few surprises, many of which highlighted the fact that I have repeatedly admitted: that I'm not an expert on history. I thought the scrolls were discovered in the 1890's and dated from the 3rd century B.C. It turns out they date from the 2nd century B.C. and were discovered in the late 1940's. Other than the dates, I did get the details of the discovery (Bedouin shepherd boy throws rocks into a cave and hears the sound of breaking pottery. He investigates and finds clay pots full of ancient parchment scrolls.) and the creation (A pre-Christian highly devout Jewish community living in an isolated city apparently spent much of their time copying and storing important Biblical, non-Biblical and pseudo-Biblical documents.) of the scrolls.

One of the biggest surprises for me was the size of the scrolls. When I was a child going to synagogue, our Torahs usually were rather large scrolls, say about two feet high or so, printed in nice, large Hebrew block script. I expected to see something similar, but at least among those on display in San Diego, most were tiny little scrolls just a few inches high with tiny writing in an older Hebrew script that I found difficult to read. Other specimens of Hebrew Scripture from the 10th century that were on display with the scrolls were perfectly easy to read, showing that the written form of Hebrew has changed virtually not at all in the last millennium. (Actually, even the script used in the Dead Sea scrolls is only about as different from modern Hebrew writing as modern English writing is different from scripts about 500 years ago.)

One of the things that of course Christians like to stress about the scrolls is that when compared with the Bible of today, the accuracy of transmission through the last 2,000 years is remarkably good. On the other hand however, some Christians might be a bit shocked to find out that it's not 100% accurate. I worry sometimes, no, a lot of the time that when the church is teaching people that the Bible is "perfect", that they don't explain what they mean by that. Clearly if one is to mean anything by saying that the Bible is "perfect", then perfection is a subjective thing. For instance, the last Bible I owned had a printing error in it (that I found, that is; surely it had more than one!) and I expect that if I had the time to go over my current Bible with a fine-toothed comb, I'd find an error or two there as well. Both ancient scribes and modern Bible publishers are very careful, but they at least are not "perfect".

The Dead Sea scrolls contain quite a number of interesting documents of a few categories. I think a lot of people think that the scrolls are a copy of the Bible, but in fact, there are very many copies of various Biblical books represented in the scrolls, portions from the Book of Psalms being most prominent. Most likely, many copies were made of the Psalms to be used as hymnals. In addition to accepted Biblical texts however, there are a number of apocryphal books found among the scrolls. The book of Enoch is actually one of most popular books among the scrolls, which is a book written as though it were penned by Noah's grandfather. The book was however written in Aramaic, which is a much more modern language than Hebrew, and nobody seems to really believe that it's genuine, nor that it should be an official part of the Bible, although it is quoted extensively in the Epistle of Jude. Enoch talks a lot about the Nephilim, and it may be where some of the more extensive theories about Genesis 6 come from.

The scrolls also contain numerous documents not in the least bit Biblical, although most of them have a distinct Biblical flavor to them, including a document about the coming Messiah that Jesus himself quotes in Matthew 11:5. I've never heard that this passage was a quote before, so it may be that this is a newly-found document; I know they're pulling out fragments and reassembling more scrolls all the time. Also on display was a section of the Copper Scroll, a very unusual document that I found quite amusing, as it seems possible if not likely that the contents of the scroll are some sort of elaborate prank. (I don't know why someone would go through so much trouble for a prank, but the idea amuses me.)

Something else that was interesting was the occasional stylistic choice made by a scribe on how to write God's name. As you may or may not know, in Hebrew, God's name is YHVH, written without vowels. Sometimes, even those consonants are considered to be too Holy to write, and in the Dead Sea scrolls, there were a couple interesting documents reflecting this. One document showed a place where the scribe had replaced the letters with "····", just four dots that the reader was left to understand represented "the Name". In another document, God's name was written in Paleo-Hebrew, an even older writing style that had fallen out of use centuries before the people of Qumran made the scrolls.

Anyway, it was a very interesting display, not just because I obviously have an interest in all things Biblical, but also for the fact that these are handwritten documents made by people who have been gone for over 2,000 years. In addition to my spiritual side, it appeals to my interests in archaeology, linguistics, typography and culture. If you get a chance to see it, it's certainly worth the time and money.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

There were giants in the earth in those days (Joshua 12-15)

Throughout the next few chapters, the notes get rather sparse. A lot of the book of Joshua is pretty much an accounting of which cities were destroyed, how many kings vanquished, and who got the real estate.

In chapter 12 however, the SAB finds one thing noteworthy: giants. Once again, there is little given in the way of explanation, only the icons for absurdity and science/history. Oddly enough, there is nothing scientifically wrong or absurd about the notion of giants, as we know they live among us today. Robert Wadlow came up on a quick Google search as the tallest man to have been verified to have lived, and he was just under nine feet tall, only a few inches short of Goliath. There may indeed have been giants in Canaan, and there isn't even need to appeal to the supernatural to explain them.*

Following no notes in chapter 13, the SAB brings up an interesting question in verse 14 that is of particular interest to me. Does the Bible condemn gambling? I'm going to come down on the side of "No" for this one. The two verses on the "Yes" side are not really very convincing to me at all, although it's still an issue worth considering, as a lot of Christians condemn it. Personally, I would advise against gambling in general, but don't consider it to be outright sinful. I have in the past rather enjoyed a good game of poker, and probably would still, but I think the principle of the Proverbs 28:22 verse is a good one to keep in mind. Get-rich-quick schemes rarely live up to their promise.

It's of particular interest to me because my college major was mathematics, and my final project (I sometimes call it a "thesis", although it's a stretch of the term) was on gambling theory. I was very interested in the mathematical principles behind various casino games, and as an avid Contract Bridge player, the general question of how probability governs card games. In my studies, I came across some interesting facts that not everyone is aware of, namely that the history of religion and gambling are intertwined. You'll find many instances in the Bible of the practice of "casting lots" which is another way of saying "letting random chance make the choice for you". In many societies where they had religion, they had no voice of God speaking to them out of a cloud to give them specific directions, so they'd find some equivalent of asking their God(s) a yes-or-no question and flipping a coin. Some societies used a method of divination that involved throwing small pieces of bone that were the precursors of modern dice. In any case, before such things were used in games of chance, they were common forms of divination.

In chapter 15, there are a handful of notes on various topics. Caleb offers to give his daughter away to the warrior who can successfully destroy the city of Debir, and the winner is his nephew Othniel. While the SAB notes the violence inherent in destroying a city, and we have already discussed that time and again throughout this book, it also makes a few other notes that are not entirely clear, but I think I know what's being implied. The real issues that the SAB has with this story on top of the violence are those of women's rights and incest. Taking the latter first, even in today's culture marrying one's cousin is not illegal, despite what most people seem to believe. The issue that exists with marrying cousins is more of a social taboo in some societies than a legal or even genetic one. The Bible certainly never condemns it as far as I know.

As for the rights of this young woman Achsah, well, arranged marriages for one reason or another were common in those days, and it simply was the case that a woman married the man that her father chose for her. A lot of people take issue with this custom, but in this context, I don't think there's anything to address, since this is simply stated as a fact, neither praised nor condemned by the author. It may be notable however that immediately following this, Achsah comes to her father and asks him to give her a portion of land with fresh water on it, which would be precious real estate indeed in the Middle East. He gives it to her.

I really have to hand it to Steve Wells for his thoroughness for noticing some tiny details at times. I would have never noticed among the ongoing lists of place names the repetition of Eshtaol and Zorah. I checked the Hebrew, and indeed, while the KJV varies the spelling slightly, these two verses reference the exact same names. As Wells has said in his blog, however, contradictions are often very easy to explain one's way out of, and this is no exception: The key is in the term "coast" used in 19:41, which indicates a few possibilities. Looking at only the English, I suspected that there might be multiple cities in Canaan with the same name, and two in the central valley of Judah's territory happened to have the same name as two on the coast of Dan's territory. Looking further into it, I suspected, and it turned out to be true, that the Hebrew term translated as "coast" actually means "border" more or less, and sure enough, according to a map I have of ancient Canaan, the city of Zorah (Zoreah?) is on the border between Judah and Dan. It may be that these cities formed the boundary between the two tribes, and they may have either shared them or simply knew that arriving at those cities implied that Dan's territory was ended.

Chapter 15 ends with the first mention of a tribe of people that the Israelites did not manage to defeat. Why did this happen? Who really knows? Other than the things that I commented on before, something worth noting here is that this lack of victory comes after the Israelites start divvying up the land. Why are they trying to settle all of this before the conquest is complete? I suspect that once they started settling into the land and building it up as their own, they didn't bother to try so much. Go fight the Jebusites? Why? Don't we have enough land already? I don't think that God only wanted to give them land, He wanted them to deal with the previous inhabitants fully, and they didn't. It's really a shame, as it leads to struggle for years and years to come.

* A reader commented on the previous chapter that while nonetheless giants do exist today, there is some belief that certain groups of giants were the result of supernatural breeding of human women and fallen angels. Those who believe this (and I don't consider it outside of the realm of possibility, myself) will remember that it was one of the main reasons that God brought the flood in Noah's time. It may be that the existence of the giants in Canaan is once again one of the main reasons why the people of Canaan had to be exterminated.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Harden not your hearts (Joshua 11)

Well, I didn't have much time today, but when you toss out the main questions of violence and fairness of Holy War as I've been doing, you're not left with much for this chapter. So, I figured I try for a quick one. Actually, the two remaining notes here are both going to relate back to things I've already discussed.

First of all, the SAB notes some cruelty in the fact that Joshua houghed, or hamstrung, the horses. Honestly, I'm not sure what the deal is. Apparently, they were ordered to do so by God, and it was related to the destroying of the chariots. This actually goes back to the issue of Holy War in that God wants to make sure that they keep very little of what the Canaanites leave behind. It seems that chariots were among the things that God didn't want them taking, although we are not told why if this is the case. It may be that God wanted them to fight without what would have been more modern techniques of the time. If they fought with chariots, they'd be tempted to say "Isn't it great we have chariots on our side?" rather than "Isn't it great we have God on our side?" Even with that speculation though, I don't understand this method. If they were to keep the horses for themselves, then they ought to not harm them. If they weren't keeping the horses, why not just kill them as humanely as possible? I may be missing something, I don't know.

The only other thing here is the issue of the hardening of the hearts of the Canaanites. The SAB says, "...God hardens their hearts so that he can have an excuse to kill them." Well, that's right, actually, but it's not quite as arbitrary as it sounds. I discussed it way back in Exodus in the matter of Pharaoh. There comes a time for many people, if not everyone, that God will cause them to be set firmly in the way that they have already chosen. If you really want to hate the Bible, then God will let you; and in fact, He is likely to find a way to make you so strongly hate the Bible that He can use your hatred to bring glory to Himself. The Canaanites were hostile, and God gave them over to their hostility so that the war would proceed according to God's plan. God works that way sometimes, and if you don't like it, He's more than content to let you not like it.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Melchizedek king of Salem (Joshua 10)

It's been a while since I've gotten to post, partially because I've been generally busy, but also partially because I've been looking up the meanings of all the names in this chapter to see if it offers any interesting insight. The only thing that seemed to be directly related to the story in this chapter was the fact that "Lachish" means "invincible", which it apparently was not, since even with outside help from the Gezerites, the Israelites managed to defeat it.

I often do look into the names of the people and places I'm reading about in the Bible, but the thing that got me looking into the names here in particular was the name in the very first verse. Adonizedec king of Jerusalem? Weird and familiar. First of all, this is the first time the name Jerusalem appears in the Bible, but as just about anyone knows, it certainly won't be the last, as this city eventually becomes the capital of the united kingdom of Israel, the divided kingdom of Judah, and eventually the modern nation of Palestine. The name will appear 643 times in the Old Testament and 83 times in the New Testament. It's the city where the Jewish Temple will be built, the city where Christ will be crucified, and supposedly the city from which God Himself will rule the world at the end of time.

But the city was referred to before by a different name, back in Genesis 14:18. At that time, the king of that city was known as "Melchizedek king of Salem", a character of some interest, as he is talked about elsewhere in the Bible. Now, Melchizedek is clearly viewed as a good person by the writers of the Bible, but this new king is an enemy. The odd thing is how similar their names are. "Melchizedek king of Salem" translates to "my king is righteous king of peace"; "Adonizedec king of Jerusalem" translates to "my lord is righteous king of teaching of peace." Although I've never heard any speculation on the matter, the similarities in the names suggests to me that this is not only the same city 500 years later, but that these names are actually some sort of kingly title that has passed down with only a slight change in the intervening time. Maybe that's interesting only to me?

Getting back to the SAB and the matter at hand, this is the chapter where the Holy War really takes off. One of the longest chapters of Joshua so far, while we've only seen two cities destroyed
in the whole of the previous nine chapters, here we see possibly as many as ten cities destroyed (the number is not 100% clear from the writing, but seems to be at least seven). Apparently, when the Israelites made a treaty with Gibeon, the other people of Canaan were upset because Gibeon was one of the major cities of the land, and had some powerful warriors. So five of the Amorite kings decide the best thing to do is to make their own alliance and attack Gibeon before the Gibeonites add their number to the Israelite armies.

Unlike the previous battles, this battle has an extra dimension of provocation to it, as the Amorites make the first move. I think that distinction is important, as my previous claims about this war were that escaping from Canaan was an option for any nation who wanted to not be destroyed, yet when the Amorite armies try to run away, God and Joshua do not allow them to escape. (The SAB actually labels this with an "Absurd" tag for reasons unknown, perhaps because of the odd method God uses of crushing the armies with huge hailstones? Once again, it's clearly a miracle.) I think it would be one thing if one of the Amorite nations said "We don't stand a chance, let's get out of here!" but this is a matter of them saying, "Oops, trying to destroy them didn't work, let's retreat!"

I would like to note for whatever it's worth (which might not be much) that I suspect the language in Joshua 10:10 is figurative. While it says that God was doing all this awful stuff to them, I think it may mean that the Israelites were doing it under the authority of God. It doesn't change much, unless that was what the SAB was labeling as "Absurd"? I think it's the same sort of thing possibly as the wording in verse 14, the SAB note there giving me a chuckle. While I obviously don't agree with Steve Wells' theological position, I do appreciate his humor.

Another thing labeled as both "Absurd" and "Science/History" is the miracle of God keeping the sun from setting until Joshua was done fighting. (The reason Joshua asked for this is not given, perhaps this battle happened on a Friday?) Once again, I don't understand labeling a miracle as "Absurd", but I'm also a bit confused about the other label. Is this a problem with the fact that sunset is a by-product of the earth's movement rather than the sun's? If so, that's hardly a problem, as it's a matter of relative perspective; from Joshua's point of view, the sun did not move, but we would understand that the real meaning is that the earth ceased spinning for a time. If the note means something more complicated, then it probably needs some clarification, but I'll venture another guess.

The scientific angle, even once you accept the idea of the miraculous, implies a possible historical problem. If the sun never went down, then that would be a significant event. Even moreso elsewhere rather than locally, since the earth is round. Surely on this day in history, if this truly happened, the ancient Aztecs were wondering why the sun wasn't coming up. This miracle should have had a profound effect on the entire world, yet there is no written history of the event outside of the Bible that I am aware of. Perhaps that's what the note is trying to point out? The writer of Joshua points out that the miracle was also written about in "the book of Jasher" but the identity and nature of this book is not known today, and anyway, it probably was a Hebrew text as well.

The rest of the chapter is pretty much an account of the Israelite army going and destroying all of the cities that came against them in battle one after the other. The issues raised in here by the SAB are ones I have already addressed in the last few posts. There are a few notable things here going back to the names. Once again, I do find it ironic that Lachish, the "invincible" city fell even with help from Gezer. Gezer may have not so much been an entirely separate city in itself so much as something like a suburb, since Gezer means "portion". Also, while it may be simply a matter of name confusion, the strong possibility exists of a scribal error here. I'm surprised the SAB did not call to attention the fact that the fifth king was "Debir king of Eglon", but Joshua, a short time after destroying the city of Eglon, turns to destroying a city called "Debir". Perhaps the king of Eglon came from Debir, or was named after it, or he ruled over both cities and thus the city was named after him. Or it could be just a coincidence. Or, of course, it could be an error, probably in some ancient transcription of verse 3.

Anyway, a lot more of this fighting in the next chapter and those beyond.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Stand thou still upon Gibeon (Joshua 9)

The story of the Gibeonites has always held a bit of a confusion for me, and clearly not in the same way it holds confusion for the SAB. Back in the day when I read this book for the first time, and didn't have the understanding that I have now of the book, this story always seemed strange. It still does, but in a different way.

Before I had gained my current viewpoint on the nature of Holy war, I thought it was strange that of all the people that lived in Canaan, the one group that would come to be spared would be one that found a way out through subterfuge. While I now am of the opinion that Holy war is not so complete and final as it seems on a cursory reading, it still shocks me that apparently we can add lying to the list of ways to escape the wrath of God, so long as you lie to the right people and really manage to convince them apparently.

The only thing the SAB has to say about this chapter is to claim injustice because the Gibeonites were made to become slaves. This is going to be one of those rare chapters where I completely disagree with every point the SAB makes and/or fails to make. That single accusation is something that I believe will lose its teeth when one fully unpacks the passage, and several other points that the SAB fails to make seem a tad hypocritical to me. We'll see.

Heck, let's skip right to the issue of slavery, why not? While I have addressed the concept of slavery at length before, this does seem to be a special case that doesn't fit the mold of what I discussed there. Here we do not see slavery existing as a kind of unemployment program as I argued in the case of slavery among Jews. This is slavery of citizens of another nation which, as I touched on in the final paragraph of that other post, falls under a different set of rules in a manner that is less than 100% clear. Nonetheless, I think that something is being missed here. The Hivites keep saying, as in verse 8, "We are thy servants." (Note that "servant" is King James-ese for "slave"; the actual word "slave" only appears once in the King James Old Testament, and that one time it appears, it's not the translation of any particular Hebrew word, but a word inserted for clarification.) Sometimes language like that can be used in a figurative sense, but I don't think it is the case here. These people do actually become slaves of the Israelites, and when Joshua tells them of their status, they don't protest, but say in verse 25:
"And now, behold, we are in thine hand: as it seemeth good and right unto thee to do unto us, do."
This of course saved their lives. The alternative to becoming slaves was to have their nation and their cities wiped off the face of the earth. Would you rather be a slave or be dead? That's not entirely a rhetorical question; I'm sure there are people who would answer either way.

Still, it remains a mystery to me as to why the oath the leaders of Israel swore to the Hivites were binding, seeing as they were made under false pretenses. The men of Gibeon made a rather elaborate deception (almost too elaborate, sometimes I wonder how close to verbatim Biblical dialog is recorded, as I read about these guys going, "Look, our bread is moldy! Moldy, I tell you! We live really really far from here, we swear!!!") in order to get Israel to make them a promise that they had no right to make.

Joshua records that they didn't ask God whether or not to believe the men, which is really the lesson of this story for believers. They didn't ask whether it was alright, and then when it turned out they had been deceived, it ended in trouble for everyone. The SAB doesn't call out the Hivites for this lie as it did the lie of Rahab, and this lie led to strife between Israel and God, the leaders and the people, and between the Gibeonites and their neighbors, as we will see in the next chapter. In the midst of this trouble, Joshua is essentially forced by his oath here to escalate the war as the Amorites go into offense mode.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Howl, O Heshbon, for Ai is spoiled (Joshua 8)

Well, I'm finding myself with very little time this morning for posting, but then I realized I have very little to say about this chapter, so I'll probably say it at great length anyway.

Contradiction is a funny thing, because I have my own standards for what I consider to be the difference between a "minor" contradiction and a "major" contradiction. Some people like to accuse me of hypocrisy for this, and I suppose like my standards, it's just a matter of personal opinion. For instance, despite my generalization of the average Christian's lack of criticism of the Bible (my first post), just last night I was at a Bible study at which we were studying Joshua 4, and somebody in my group said, "Hey, what's the deal with the fact that the priests set foot on dry land here? I thought the point of this was that they were on dry land the whole way through?" There's another one to add to the SAB, perhaps, although hypocrite that I am, I personally chalk it up to figurative language. (Either the verse in chapter three is meant to point out that they're not wading, or the verse in chapter four is meant to point out that they were no longer standing in the river; I think it's likely to be both.)

Apparently, this chapter of Joshua is loaded with contradictions, and I'll let you judge for yourself if they are major or minor, or indeed if they are contradictions at all. After all, it's not like I can stop anyone from having a personal opinion. As for me, I'm admittedly not certain on many of these, as they are a bit technical. I'll give a few suggestions and musings and move on.

Let me give the SAB summary of this chapter in a nutshell: Joshua leads his army against the city of Ai. Much violence and cruelty ensues, and it is claimed that the city was completely destroyed, never to be inhabited again. However, archaeology tells us that the city was already destroyed hundreds of years before Joshua got there, and other parts of the Bible say that the city was eventually inhabited. Contradiction with scientific findings, contradiction with itself, and not really a very pleasant story anyway; the Bible seems to be batting .000 here.

First, let me address the easiest point, one that will come up in Joshua again and again. Verse 28 includes the words "...for ever, even...unto this day." I have absolutely no problem with anything in the Bible that contradicts a statement like this, because supposedly this book was written by Joshua himself. If the city was reestablished after Joshua's death, then he would have had no reason to know such a thing. I think this phrase even crops up in other parts of the Bible, and I'm pretty sure we already saw it in Joshua, just not in a place worth commenting on.

I sort of wonder--although it's probably just me being a smartass and not admitting it to myself--how the SAB can say that the conquest of Ai was cruel right after they say it didn't happen? Of course, I suppose the SAB is operating under the assumption that most of this stuff never happened, so what can you say? The SAB really isn't required to be as consistent as one would expect the Bible to be, I'm reading too much into it.

So was the city of Ai already destroyed before Joshua got there? For the hundredth time, I'm no expert on science, history, or the subject where the two intersect: archaeology. There are a few things I could say about the subject, though. I don't know what techniques were used by archaeologists that dug up Ai, but it could be that Joshua destroyed another city in the same general area. Another thing that I find notable about the article the SAB links to (which I really should read, since I am fascinated by archaeology) is a passage that explains why the evidence is so damning to the Joshua account, and yet poses a new question in my mind.
The work of Kathleen Kenyon produced similar results in her excavation of the city of Jericho. Her conclusion was that the walls of Jericho were destroyed around 2300 B. C., about the same time that Ai was destroyed.(my emphasis)
Why is it that these two cities were destroyed for unknown reasons "about the same time"? All of this is speculation on my part, and will be taken as complete crap by skeptics, but is it possible that somebody is misdating either the ruins of these two cities or the date that the Israelites entered Canaan? As the article says elsewhere, "The actual truth about the battle will probably never be known."

I'm not going to delve into the issue of cruelty in any depth here, partly because war is simply cruel and violent by nature, and the meaning of this war is something I've already covered in detail. I will note that I don't think hanging the king's body from a tree is particularly cruel. I've often said that I don't much care what happens to my body once I'm gone; I'm not going to be using it anymore. As for the supposed irony of offering a "peace offering" to God in the midst of war, it should be noted that the purpose of the peace offering was to represent the peace between the Israelites and God, not the gentiles. No there would be no peace between Israel and surrounding nations for quite some time.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Achar, the troubler of Israel, who transgressed in the thing accursed. (Joshua 7)

So now we come to the topic of Achan. Yes, the title of this post is a correctly copied verse from 1Chronicles, and I'm surprised this typo was not noted in the SAB, as Bible critics love to point out scribal errors, which this might be, although it could also be a matter of several hundred years' difference in Hebrew dialect. It is notable that achar is the Hebrew word for "trouble", and the names Achan and Achor that are found in this passage are forms of the word.

The first thing noted in this chapter is that the Israelite leaders rip their clothes, fall face down on the ground and put dust on their heads. This is noted as being absurd and intolerant, and I don't know why it was marked with either. This sort of behavior may seem strange to modern readers, but it was common practice in those days, and in fact may still be among modern Orthodox Jews, though I am not sure about that. It's just a way to show extreme sorrow. As for intolerance, I'm stumped as to what that's supposed to mean

Unless it's referring not to the actions of Joshua and the elders, but to the situation they find themselves in that causes them to be upset. God allowed them to suffer their first defeat at the city of Ai because (as it turns out) one person had done something wrong. As I said in my previous post, whatever this "accursed thing" was that Achan stole is not specifically named (unless it's the garment and precious metal mentioned in verse 21, which is possible if not likely), but the language used to describe it indicates that whatever it was, it was something of some pagan significance that he had no right to have in his possession. Why is it such a big deal?

The Apostle Paul said "A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump," a saying similar to the modern "One bad apple ruins the whole bunch." This is the point of the extremes of Holy war. The people and culture of Jericho had to be completely destroyed, and Achan saving some item he'd taken from the city was simply not acceptable.

In fact, shocking as it seems, it was apparently so very unacceptable that Achan along with his family and possessions were stoned to death and then burned. It's my personal opinion that God decided to have Achan punished so particularly severely in order to make him an object lesson for the rest of the nation. Just as the very first battle they fought in Canaan was won in a particularly spectacular manner to impress upon the people that God was with them in power, so the first transgression was punished in a spectacular manner to impress upon the people that while God was with them, He wasn't going to allow moral compromise.

As for the question of who Achan's father was, that's a simple matter that I've touched on before with other individuals, but I'll repeat here since it's so simple. The word "grandfather" never appears in the Bible. It was customary, whether by culture or by linguistic necessity, for any male ancestor to be called the "father" of a person. Twice in the chapter, Achan is referred to as "Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah". While he is once referred to as the "son of Zerah", this labeling is customary despite the fact that Zerah was actually his great-grandfather (or great-great-great-etc., sometimes genealogies are telescoped).

Friday, November 02, 2007

Thou shalt utterly destroy them (Joshua, Holy War)

Often I try to imagine what the world would be like if the Holocaust had not happened. Six million Jews slaughtered by Hitler's Third Reich, not to mention several million others including Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses and the disabled. It was a horrible time in modern history, but one of the things that's perhaps really disturbing about it is that it really wasn't an isolated phenomenon. While it seems to have happened with remarkable frequency and severity to the Jews, history is replete with eras in which one group decided to make a concerted effort to annihilate another. But at the risk of violating the somewhat well-known rule of debating that "The first person to mention Hitler in a debate automatically loses," I'm going to focus on the Holocaust to illustrate a point.

If the Jews had risen up in the early '30s, before the Nazis came to full power, and had killed all members of the Nazi party and any other known anti-Semites, then the Holocaust most likely would not have come to pass. However, in such a preemptive strike, who would have sympathy for the Jews? Although their actions would essentially have been in self-defense, they would probably have been seen as monsters for having killed far less people than the Nazis eventually came to kill. History judges what happened, however, not what would have happened.

The various tribes and people that lived in the land of Canaan before the Israelites eventually attained complete conquest of the land had some problems of various types that were a danger on numerous levels. Not to say that they were Nazis, but God needed to deal with them. As I said in an earlier exchange, there is probably no explanation that will convince some people who are just going to see mass killing as evil no matter what the reason is for doing it. I'll admit that it certainly strikes me as one of the more unsavory aspects of the Bible, but I do see the justification for Holy War.

Back in Genesis 15, God talks to Abram about the future of his descendants. He tells him that while He's going to give the land of Canaan to them, "the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full." What does this mean? In some way that God has not explained, because the people of Canaan are quite evil, God intends to punish them, but He is giving them a last chance of about 500 years to clean up their act. Among several points I want to make about Holy War, the first is this: God never sends His people off to war without giving some sort of warning first.

Here in the book of Joshua, as I have already noted elsewhere, the people that the Israelites were coming in to the land to destroy knew about the plagues in Egypt. They knew about the crossing of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptian army. They knew about a handful of battles that were fought during the wilderness wanderings. They knew about the crossing of the Jordan River. Whatever sort of warning God may have given them 500 years previously (which I speculate about, but don't know for sure), God has been sending a clear, urgent message for the last forty years to these people: God's vengeance is coming.

So one might ask, "What is the use of a warning like that?!" Well, compare the forty-year warning that was given to the Canaanites and went unheeded to the forty-day warning given to the people of Nineveh by Jonah: "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown." Not the most uplifting sermon ever preached, but it had an effect on the people of Nineveh that was highly disappointing to both Jonah and the SAB, apparently:
"So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them."
As a result of this act of mass repentance, there did not follow an act of mass destruction. I suggest that it should be considered a great likelihood that if any of the cities of Canaan had reacted in the manner that Nineveh did, they would have been allowed to remain in the land. It worked for Rahab, after all. The fact is that while the God of the Bible is a vengeful God, He would rather forgive the repentant than inflict suffering on the unrepentant.

Another option that I think few people consider is the possibility that God would have allowed them to simply evacuate. After all, there were a few incidents in their wandering in the desert in which they went to war against a nation that simply wouldn't get out of the way. They would politely ask if they could just pass through on the way to Canaan, and not only were they denied passage, but the nation that they had made the request to decided to fight them just because they were there.

One of the main issues in respect to turning the land of Canaan into the nation of Israel was that the Israelites needed to have the land all to themselves. If they were to take the land, but leave the inhabitants in it, then they would have to deal with the mixing of their culture, which was a new culture that God was building from the ground up. While I once again admit that I don't know so much about ancient history, I am of the understanding that when Persia defeated Babylonia, Persia became very Babylonian; when Alexander conquered Persia, he adopted much of the Persian culture and integrated it into Greek culture; when the Romans overthrew the Greeks, the Greek culture and language remained dominant despite the fact of Roman rule. The Israelites needed to conquer Canaan without becoming Canaanites in the process, and really, the only was they could guarantee that was to make sure there was not a single living Canaanite left in the land.

God repeatedly tells the Israelites that they are not to allow the customs of the people of Canaan to be an influence on their own culture. These people were sexually immoral, practiced human sacrifice, worshiped idols, and were generally violent and unkind. Because the Israelites didn't completely cleanse the land of the former inhabitants, eventually they, too, fell into these practices, which is probably the biggest shame from the point of view that considers Joshua's Holy War a good thing, because in the end they killed thousands if not millions of Canaanites and still fell into the trap that Holy War had been designed to protect them from.

Another thing that Holy War is intended to protect the Israelites from is actually much more closely related to the musings I put forth at the beginning. Case in point: Israel's first King, Saul, was ordered by God to go to war against the Amalekites and totally destroy them. He almost did it, but the notable exception was that Saul took King Agag captive. After all, what difference could one guy make? Well, a few hundred years later, when the Israelites were subject to Persia, there was a man by the name of Haman who devised a plan to wipe out the Jews. Many people compare Haman to Hitler, but Haman wasn't German, he was an "Agagite", that is to say, a descendant of the man Saul failed to kill on God's orders. As I said, history does not judge what would have happened, but I strongly suspect God knows. Yes, Holy War is at times a matter of self-defense.

Something else to be considered as almost a side note, but I think an important one, is that God is not partial. The same way God gave the Amalekites about 500 years to shape up or ship out, He gave Israel 500 years (from the coronation of Saul to the Babylonian invasion was just a tad over 500 years). Eventually, after living in the land for a few centuries and failing to be the nation He wanted them to be, he sent the Babylonians and the Persians to carry them into captivity toward the east. There are some who have done far more extensive studies into the significance of the stretches of time that Israel was in the land and out of it; you might do a Google search on the subject to find a complicated theory on how a handful of verses in the Bible map out a complicated calculation that predicts the reinstatement of Israel as a nation in 1948, but it's out of my scope here. The main point is that while God gave the land of Canaan to the Israelites, and had them kill off the former inhabitants, it was with the understanding that they would strive to make Israel, to borrow a familiar phrase, "one nation, under God."

So yeah, Holy War is far from a beautiful thing, but my understanding is that God gave many opportunities for the people He set the Israelites on to avoid His wrath. They knew it was coming, they knew that they needed to repent, they had ample time to do it, but they freely chose instead to stand up to God and His people. God wins in the end, though. God always wins, and to refuse to accept that and put your lot in with the enemies of God is essentially suicide.

On top of all of this, something that even I myself had always missed when it comes to the book of Joshua is that the issue of Holy War has application in our own lives today, thousands of years later. The Bible makes it clear that God's wrath is still coming. God will eventually deal with all nations and all individual citizens of all nations. You have the choice to play the part of the Israelites in this scenario or play the part of the Canaanites. Are you going to clean out the sin in your life through the power of God, or are you going to go into the walled city of your pride, shut the doors and think, "When the wrath of God comes knocking, I'll just pretend I'm not here or something." Or maybe you'll be the sort who, when you hear God's people are passing by, will pick up your weapons and go out to attack them? Or maybe you'll be someone like Achan, who will march with the Israelites, but not be as devoted to the cause of righteousness as you appear to be? There are many parts to be played in this drama, a drama that gets played out daily in our modern world in a more abstract, spiritual manner. I hope you'll make the right choice.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

On the seventh day, which is the sabbath, in it there shall be none. (Joshua 6)

Joshua 6 is the first chapter of Joshua to have a lot of notes in the SAB, but the interesting thing about the chapter to me is something that doesn't appear in the notes, at least as of the time I write this. Perhaps this will be another response that will result in additional notes added to the SAB rather that existing notes taken away. We'll see.

First thing, and most obvious to anyone at all familiar with the story of Joshua and the battle of Jericho is the manner in which the battle is to be conducted. I won't go into full detail, as one can easily read it and see, as the SAB points out, that it's an absurd matter of the Israelites repeatedly walking in a circle around the city. Yes, it's absurd, but once again, this is intended to be a miraculous battle, so that the victory can be clearly God's, and not the Israelites.

The thing that makes this odd even from a miraculous standpoint, however, is a handful of particular details. First of all, the Levites were to lead the march. What makes this odd is that most of the time, the Levites didn't even go to battle. When Moses takes a census to find out how many soldiers they have as they begin their journey, the Levites get skipped. I'm pretty sure that it's widely accepted that it was part and parcel of the whole concept that the Levites received no land in Canaan because they also were not required to fight for it. Here, not only do they participate, which is odd enough, but they lead the way. As a second point, which may be almost like a sub-point of the former, they lead the way while carrying the Ark of the Covenant, which is also very unusual. The Israelites got in trouble for trying to use the Ark in battle in 1Samuel 4, and lost it for a time. The command to carry the Ark into battle like this was peculiar to this specific battle, was was pretty much peculiar all around.

The third and last point I want to make about this battle is one that I'm surprised so few people seem to notice. From the first time I ever read the book of Joshua, it leaped right out at me. They march around the city once for six days, right? Verse three ends with, "Thus shalt thou do six days." Pretty much everywhere else in the Bible, a phrase like this would be immediately followed by a reminder of the sabbath, but here? "...the seventh day ye shall compass the city seven times, and the priests shall blow with the trumpets." Not only is God having them break the sabbath, but He's having them do the most work they've done all week! Now, of course, I don't know for sure that this last day was the sabbath, but the point still stands that certainly at least one of these days was a sabbath day spent marching and carrying the Ark, not your standard sabbath activity.

Oddly enough, I don't have anything to say about these points other than the fact that this battle plan, which was given to Joshua by God, seems very inconsistent with a lot of other scripture, even to the point of violating Mosaic Law, and I don't know why. I'm sure someone out there has an answer to this, but I don't personally. (I suspect the thing about the Levites and the Ark has to do with my point farther up in that it emphasizes God's role in the conquest of Jericho, but sabbath-breaking?)

(A side note of no particular value: When I was reading through this story on the SAB, it apparently was the first time I'd read it in the King James. I thought "rereward" must be a typo. Turns out it's an archaic term that means something like "rear guard", which is the term most modern translations use.)

I am at this point going to skip over the issues of violence, injustice and intolerance in this chapter, and I vow to make my next post the one where I finally address the issue of Holy war as a general topic for the whole book, and pretty much the Bible as a whole, as the topic comes up from time to time throughout the Old Testament. I'm not going to ignore the tough stuff, I just want to make sure I give it its due. There needs to be a whole post dedicated to the issue.

I will address the issue of what is "the accursed thing" mentioned here, although it's a discussion that might belong best in the next chapter. A lot of other translations make it clearer, and in the Hebrew, I think they use a word that is very clear despite being translated differently by the King James elsewhere. This thing that they are not supposed to touch is actually something that had been dedicated to the pagan gods of Jericho. It probably wasn't a specific thing, but just whatever might be found in the temple in that city. Food, livestock, incense, wooden idols, who knows? The only thing they could take would be items made of metal that would have to be melted down and remade into something else. Why was this important? Interestingly enough, it was related to the issue of Holy war. If the Israelites were to utterly destroy the people of Jericho and their culture and customs, then certainly any religious artifacts could not be spared.

After the city is destroyed, Joshua pronounces a curse on it. Now, as this curse comes from Joshua, and I am not sure whether or not he's considered a prophet in the usual sense, I don't know that this curse has any force behind it other than to scare off the people of his own day. There's no record here that God told anybody that the city should not be rebuilt, although He may have and it simply was not recorded. It appears to be simply Joshua saying something on his own. Nonetheless, I did notice that one of the other responders to the chapter has something to say about the matter that might be interesting. Unfortunately, the link doesn't work anymore, so I'm not sure what he's talking about. Maybe I'll follow it up.

Wish me luck for my next post. Or don't. As you wish.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The foolishness of God is wiser than men (Joshua 5)

Oh, I gotta tell you, I've actually been looking forward to this one a great deal. The SAB marks Joshua 5 in two places with the "Absurd" icon, and indeed, this chapter is full of weirdness. This is as excellent a place as any to put forward my personal theory on God's modus operandi when it comes to the Jewish people: God wants the Jews to be "weird" so that other nations will notice them, and thus notice God.

As I said before, there was already a certain amount of fame that preceded the Israelites into Canaan. The people of the land heard about the plagues on Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and a handful of battles that had been fought while they were wandering in the desert. Imagine an inhabitant of Canaan hearing about all this.

So those Israelites? The ones who came up out of Egypt few years back? They're headed this way! What's more, the trick they did with the Red Sea? They did it again with the Jordan River! The river just stopped, and they walked across on dry land! And then get this: they set up camp and all the men gathered together and cut the tips of their penises off! I'm telling you, those guys serve a God who is powerful, and apparently friggin' batshit insane!

Seriously, these guys are being watched, I have no doubt, by people from all over the region who want to see what craziness they will do next. These are a people who, along with their God, mean some serious business, and everybody knows it.

This is an important prelude to the whole issue of Holy war, which we are about to start into, and get up to our necks in throughout this book. This bizarre behavior, this series of miraculous events, it's all a way to send a message to the people of Canaan. It's a message that unfortunately very few of them understood, like Rahab did. Time's up for you people, and you now have to choose from three options: repent, evacuate, or die. While it is not my intention at this time to yet delve into the morality of the book as a whole, I think one thing that should be noted is that those nations which came to be destroyed were all forewarned, and as we later see in the case of Nineveh, God spares those who repent.

With all the miraculous happenings that center around the Israelites, however, one might wonder at the sort of "anti-miracle" that occurred to them. Indeed, it took them 40 years to complete a journey that conceivably could have been done in ten days. Now there are various aspects to consider like the fact that with such a large group of people, travel is difficult; everyone is forced to go the speed of the slowest member of the group. Furthermore, one must remember that they had to make a pit stop to pick up the Law, which must have taken some time to write down. That's hardly enough to slow them by a year, much less forty.

I don't like to say things that will come across as insulting to Steve Wells, who strikes me as a very intelligent and dedicated individual for all the work he's done with the SAB, which as I have said, is really quite an impressive body of work that I actually admire. It's no secret that there are a lot of Christians who haven't put half the time into studying the Bible that he has. Still, there are occasional points in the SAB where I wonder what Wells is thinking. Why do the Israelites wander in the desert for forty years? Because God made them do it as a punishment. It's a pivotal moment in the story of the Exodus that you could hardly miss, (and Wells doesn't miss it, but puts the same note on that passage) and it seems it would be difficult to miss the meaning, either. It's neither absurd nor technically flawed that this should have happened; if any of the SAB's icons really should go there, it might be "Cruelty", but there are certainly worse punishments than having to walk around aimlessly for several years.

Another "anti-miracle" that happens in this chapter is that right after the crossing and circumcising, they celebrate the first Passover in Canaan, at which point God ceases to bring them manna, telling them that they have now moved in, and they will eat off of the land as inhabitants.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge (Joshua 4)

Well, I was going to combine chapters four and five, since chapter four only has one note on it, but then I realized that to do it justice, I ought to devote a whole post to that single note. It's one of the odd things about the Bible and people who believe in it to those who are on the outside of that group, a group referred to by some as "God-fearing people".

I thought I had actually already addressed the issue, and actually, it seems I did, back in Exodus right after the presentation of the Ten Commandments. It was there that Moses said that odd phrase (which the SAB did not give a comment concerning, but I did):
Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not.
It's this strange admonition on the part of Moses--that seems almost internally contradictory--that really in some ways summarizes the idea of having "fear of the LORD". The whole idea of needing to be afraid of God is that it is a fear that should inspire you to make right moral choices.

Here at the end of Joshua 4, this moment at which God brings up the topic is right after He has performed a fantastic miracle for the people of Israel as a final warning both for the Israelites and the people of Canaan with whom the Israelites will soon be coming into contact. In my opinion, this is just the period on the end of a warning that God has been speaking to the people of the Middle East for about forty years. The warning is essentially: God's judgment is heading this way, don't you dare fail to take it seriously.

This all goes way back to even before the Exodus, actually. Back when God first promised the land to Abraham and his descendants in Genesis 15, He told Abraham that there was an appointed time for the Hebrew people to return from Egypt "...for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full." The people of Canaan were given over 500 years to shape up or ship out, so to speak, and they refused to change their ways because they didn't "fear the LORD". But I'm veering into a subject for a few posts from now, let me get back on track...

"Should we fear God?" the SAB asks, calling it contradiction. I say there is no contradiction. The answer is a resounding "Yes!" None of the verses given in the "No" column of that page explicitly says that we should not fear God. I suppose the intention is to suggest that the concept is implied in 1 John 4:18, and maybe a case could be made for it, but I tend to think that the real issue is that John does not make clear the object of fear in that verse. (I could be wrong; Greek is a subtle, nuanced language, and I've been wrong about such things before.) I think it is as Moses said, that having fear of the LORD casts out fear of anything else.

Still, the non-believer often looks on the idea of "fear of God" as a distasteful thing. In a sense, I agree; at least with the concept as they no doubt are understanding it. There's an ugly side of religion, even (and perhaps especially) Christianity, wherein people are motivated to belief in God chiefly due to the fact that they've been convinced that not believing in Him will lead to a hearty smiting, if you will. "Why do you follow Jesus?" we ask an imaginary believer, who responds, "Well, I don't want to end up swimming in a lake of fire with little red demons poking me in the ass with pitchforks!" That kind of belief, while it might indeed save a person, is not pretty. It is my belief that the best kind of faith is a faith built on a foundation of love. Perhaps the best illustration I can think of is that for me, to not be a Christian would be something like spitting in the face of my mother. While even she, in her own imperfect way, gave so much of her life for me and my sister, God in His absolutely perfect way, gave His entire life for me. The only fear in that love is the fear that I would take lightly the gift of His blood shed on the cross. For most Jews, the feeling is essentially the same, without the cross part.

Yet there is fear, as I have said, the Bible admonishes repeatedly that we should fear God, that fearing God is good for us, that it leads to wisdom, righteousness and salvation. What of that? As I said in my post about Moses, at least one modern version of the Bible renders a translation of "reverential fear". This is the real key to understanding the concept, whether the translation is technically correct or not. It is part and parcel of proper fear of God that, unlike something such as fear of spiders that makes one recoil and pull away, this fear is such that makes one draw closer. True, genuine and fully understanding fear of God realizes who and what God is, knows that running away is not an option, sees that God is a being of love and compassion (even at the root of fearsome things that He does such as send His people to wipe out a handful of nations from the land of Canaan), and grows closer to God in reverence, awe and respect.

In C. S. Lewis' novel The Horse and His Boy, part of the Chronicles of Narnia, there is a scene where a talking horse named Hwin meets God, who in that fictional world is personified by a great and ferocious Lion named Aslan. At first, she is scared, but then, while her fear does not go away, it changes subtly and she approaches Him to say,
"Please, you're so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I'd sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else."
As is so often that case, I think Lewis encapsulates it well. The fear of God is indeed fear, but in a way that is not at all ugly.

My own father, interestingly enough, only spanked me once in my entire childhood, and it actually made me respect him all the more. The pain was nothing; I don't even remember it. What I do remember was his look of disappointment because I had done something that was wrong and I knew it. I feared my father, but not because he was going to hurt me. He never spanked me before, nor after, and when he did it, it took me by surprise. I was afraid of him; afraid of being a disappointment. And this fear was not because I thought he would reject me if I disappointed him, but actually because I knew he would not. That's the kind of fear that one needs with God.