Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice? (Judges 10)

Judges 10 is a short chapter, and one that has few notes. Actually, the two notes given are in the category of Absurdity, and like so many in that category, little explanation is given and I am left wondering what the deal is.

Like a number of the Judges in the book, Tola is one that you might blink and miss. Oops, his story finished while I was writing that last sentence.

Now the judge Jair is someone that the Bible has a little bit more to say about, and so does the SAB. Apparently it's absurd that Jair has 30 sons who ride on donkeys. I'm not sure whether it supposed to be absurd that there are 30 of them (Jair probably was a polygamist like Gideon, although we are not told so) or that they ride on donkeys (a perfectly acceptable form of transportation; even Jesus used it!) I'm left to speculate and frankly have no idea what's odd about the statement. And then Jair's portion of the story is over, and it probably took me more words to describe it than it took to tell it in the first place.

Then, of course, we see a repetition of the same pattern we've seen over and over here. The Israelites turn their back on God, and so God turns His back on them. This time, however, when they get in trouble and call to Him, He refuses to help. Really, it's probably more surprising that this hadn't happened previously. The Israelites' despair will make them turn to another leader who turns out to be a great military commander, but a lousy family man. But that's a story for another day.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Draw thy sword, and thrust me through therewith (Judges 9)

Yikes! If you think politics are ugly today, you obviously have no idea what it was like in previous centuries. Here in Judges 9, we get a taste of dirty politics from a few millennia ago. (Once again, let me lead off with the caveat that we can't assume that God approves of any of this, with one exception that must be addressed. We'll get there.)

Having made a number of very bad decisions in his personal life, Gideon, who already had numerous wives, also gets a concubine in the city of Shechem. This woman bears him a son, which Gideon names "Abimelech", a name which means "my father is the king". This is an odd choice of names for a man who claimed that he didn't want to be king, and also for a man who was famous for fighting off pagans, when "Abimelech" is apparently a common name for local pagan kings.

So after Gideon passes on, Abimelech decides to make his move. He goes to the men of his own city and suggests that they should back him as the next leader of Israel, since he's a local boy. They agree, and he goes off to kill his 70 half-brothers, only one of which escapes. The men of Shechem crown him king. (Here's a fun bit of Bible trivia to throw at your favorite Bible-believer: ask them who the first King of Israel was. A lot of people will say, "David." Then you say, "Nope, guess again!" They think for a moment, then say, "Oh, yeah! It was Saul, right?" Then you can smugly say, "Nope, it was Abimelech, Judges chapter 9." Of course, then they might argue how technically Abimelech doesn't count, and they might be right, but you've had your fun.)

Now, the SAB laughs at the idea of talking trees, and while yes, it's absurd, it's pretty clear from the context that Jotham's story about the king of the trees is a parable; a fable-like story with a moral point. The point of the story is one that we can take to heart today, even: most people want a strong leader over their country, but the fact is that often the set of people who would make good leaders and the set of people who actually want to be leaders don't have members in common. (The side-note about alcohol is addressed here, basically that alcohol is good in moderation.)

After Jotham's speech, we come to the place where we are told God directly intervenes, and therefore must address it. God sends "an evil spirit" to deal with Shechem, and causes a lot of trouble for them, and for Abimelech in particular. This is an odd moment, no doubt, and actually one among many in which it seems very clear that God is doing something evil, which should be against God's character, right? It's my understanding that many Jews have a belief which is shocking to Christians, but I think holds some possible merit: that Satan and other "evil" beings are actually servants of God in a strange fashion. God Himself, due to His own holiness, simply can't do certain things Himself. Thus, He has servants such as Satan to carry out certain tasks, such as tempting evil men to their own destruction, as we see here. This explanation of course would seem distasteful to most Christians, and I expect the Christian point of view would be that this is more of a passive activity on God's part; not so much that He actively sent this spirit upon them, but that He simply allowed it in response to their sin. Either way, the message is clear: Abimelech and the men of Shechem have done evil, and they are going to reap a penalty for it.

The SAB has on odd note about "the men of the tower of Shechem", claiming apparently that 1,000 people are way too many to house in a tower. Well, I have two thoughts about that. One, as the SAB suggests jokingly, I suggest in seriousness that this may have been a really big tower, the text gives no size. (Also, names may be deceptive, as the "Tower of London" is not a single tower, but a palace/fortress comprised of a walled area with about 20 literal towers.) Two, the text mentions "the men of the tower of Shechem", not "the men who lived in the tower of Shechem". There probably was some sort of fortress where these 1,000 people lived that was famous for having a tower, not being a tower. I could be wrong because once again, history is not my best subject, but I believe a tower in those days was not just a defense for itself, but for any walled area nearby, and these people may have simply lived in a walled area adjoining the tower.

Abimelech dies in an odd way. A woman tosses a rock on top of him, and knowing he is about to die, he calls out to his armor-bearer to kill him so that people can't say that he was killed by a woman. Yeah, it's sexist and sort of weird, what can you say? Well, other than the fact that this strange dying wish was apparently a failure. (This bears some similarities to the death of Saul.)

The last note here is on the comment that killing his 70 brothers was less of a crime against them than it was a crime against their father. There are numerous cultural reasons for this sort of statement as I understand it. First of all, it's common in the Bible and in that culture to consider a family to be a collective entity representing the father. Second, and closely related to that, it's considered a very good thing to have many children, and now, Gideon's heritage is essentially gone. Thirdly, even with all the bad stuff that Gideon did in his life, if his story had just ended with chapter 8, his would have been one of the best, at least in this book. Now, it's pretty much especially shameful with this bloody footnote. Murder is an odd thing, I've always said, since the "victim" does not suffer once the act is complete. Those who suffer are the friends and family. Now that everyone in this story is dead and buried, Gideon's children are simply forgotten, but Gideon's heritage is a serious blemish on the face of Israel's history.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The sons of Jerubbaal, which are threescore and ten (Judges 8)

I guess it's fair to say that in Judges 8, we see a fair bit of Gideon's bad side. Clearly the man is a good military leader, but not a real "people person". Well, in general; he does manage to flatter some of the men of Ephraim enough to get them to lay off criticizing him.

Other than that, though, we're not really seeing the best of Gideon as he threatens to beat up the men of Succoth and tear down the tower of Penuel. After he finishes his military campaign, he does that and more. This is an unfortunate tendency particularly among Middle Eastern peoples, and really mankind in general: the tendency to view things in stark black and white, and declare that anyone who does not ally with you must therefore be your mortal enemy. This is an attitude not endorsed by the Bible, but often observed by it.

There's also a little vignette in which Gideon tries to get his son to do some killings, but his son isn't willing to do it. Honestly, I'm not sure what to think of this. On one hand, once again this is wartime, and the context shows that the men were killers themselves, and therefore may have fully deserved the death penalty. On the other hand, I do wonder how old this son was, as the Bible never says specifically, and what exactly was going through his and Gideon's mind. What sort of a man is Gideon, that he wants his sons to do his killing for him? Why does he have 70 sons, for crying out loud? Actually, the thing about 70 sons from "many wives" is that the time frame is not stated, but you might wonder if most of these wives and children came after the military conquest. Is Gideon taking advantage of his status as a celebrity? (My comments on polygamy here.)

Actually, there is an offer made to Gideon to become king of Israel, but he turns it down. Instead, he asks for a share of the plunder from the battle, and uses it to make a fancy shirt. This turns out to be a bad thing, because for some reason, people seem to start to worship the shirt like an idol. The one really good thing Gideon does is try to turn people back to God, but he somehow ends up doing the opposite in the end for many people.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

I break this one breaketh a potter's vessel (Judges 7)

I was thinking that today was not the day to tackle Judges 7, since I was pretty tired and didn't have much time, but I see this chapter has mostly charges of absurdity against it in the SAB, which are usually not so difficult to deal with, I think.

So what is absurd here? First, there's this odd selection of Gideon's army by the manner in which people drink water. I've heard it suggested that there may be some significance to the way in which one would hold a sword while drinking from a stream, and that those who drink "with his tongue, as a dog lappeth" are showing greater alertness for a possible approaching enemy. I could see the value of that, although I have also heard some debates about whether this really makes any sense. My own take on it is from the context of the verses before: God wants Gideon to have a small army, so that He will get the credit. Remember, in the grand scale of things, the purpose of this battle is not just to free the Israelites from the oppression of the Midianites, but to turn them back to faith in God. There were 10,000 men when they went to have a drink, and God chose 300 to stay; that means 9,700 were turned away! I think this was just an arbitrary selection to get the smaller group, which turned out to be considerably smaller.

Verse 12 is also tagged for absurdity, though I think we're talking about hyperbole here, and what we're saying is that there are too many camels to count. There's something else noteworthy about this verse in respects to the issue of the number of Midianites. In this verse, it says "Midianites and Amalekites". It is quite possible that this is actually a coalition of several nations that happens to be led by the Midianites, which would explain the number of them a bit better.

The next few verses, despite being marked as absurd, are really quite clear and straightforward to me. It's made clear that the Midianites have been supernaturally caused to be very afraid of the idea that they are about to be attacked by a massive army. That night, the men arrive with trumpets, pitchers and lamps. Here's how it works: the lamps are inside pitchers so that they won't be spotted coming, and so that once the time comes to reveal themselves, they can whip out their lamps and smash the pitchers, making a sudden blaze of light accompanied by a crashing noise and the sound of 300 trumpets. Normally, an army would not have every man carry a torch or a trumpet, so the Midianites are to be confused by the illusory sights and sounds of a huge army created by just a relatively small group of men. In the resulting confusion and panic, members of the Midianite army either run away or mistakenly fight each other. Gideon's army of 300 hardly have to draw their swords to attain victory! Violent? Yes, but it's war, and these men are an occupying force.

The chapter ends with the capture and killing of two "princes" of Midian; it's a nasty business, yes, but my caveat here is that once again, it's war, and there's also no particular indication that the Bible condones the manner in which they were killed.

Friday, April 11, 2008

This sign shalt thou have of the LORD (Judges 6)

Okay, I've been a bit too busy for this, and I probably still am, but I've just got to keep going, as I would like to finish someday, although at the rate I've managed, it'll probably take me more than 10 years to finish the whole Bible.

Judges 6 has a few tough questions. Right off the top is the question of the Midianites. I was going to say that obviously, the Israelites in Moses' time didn't do as thorough of a job as they seem to have done, but the way I'm reading the SAB note, that's not really the point being made here. The point is, after killing certainly nearly every male among the Midianites (and most of the adult women as well), just 200 years later, they flourish "as grasshoppers for multitude". One of the two passages is definitely erroneous, I'd have to say, unless one admits the possibility (and why not, other than it's a stretch) that the sort of miraculous growth that turned 70 men of Israel into 600,000 men in 400 years during the time of the Egyptian captivity has happened to Midian. Surely at least there is some exaggeration, as I seriously doubt that the Midianites are "as grasshoppers" (although that verse does admittedly talk about a "plague", not a mere natural swarm) since with numbers like that, how would you even know? Most likely, "without number" simply means the Israelites couldn't manage to count them, which could mean anything. Who stops in the middle of a battle to count their enemies?

Some other thoughts that could apply here though are mostly possibilities of mistaken identity. One would probably have to look at it deeper than I am at the moment, but like the Amalekites, the Bible may be referring to more than one group of people as "Midian". Just as the descendants of Abraham through Israel have split into many tribes, Abraham's descendants through Midian may have done the same, and the former group destroyed may have simply been a tribe. (After all, much later we see "Israel" taken into captivity by the Babylonians, but three tribes remain in the land, at that time called "Judah".) It's also possible that this was a completely different group of people who happened to live in the land of Midian; it's not always 100% clear in the Bible when we're talking about national vs. geographical identity. Also, as I noted previously in Genesis 37, "Midian" and "Ishmael" are inexplicably very interchangeable terms in the Bible, perhaps partly due to the fact that these two men were originally half-brothers of each other and Isaac.

Anyway, the SAB expresses disdain for the idea that God would take Israel's side in the war that is about to come. I'm not sure why this issue should keep coming up as a problem. I obviously have a very different point of view as to the way God should act towards His people than the SAB does. I mean, while I have voiced the opinion that I don't approve of the war in Iraq (at least not for the reasons we were given for starting it in the first place) I do think we were justified to a great extent for going to war in Afghanistan. When you're attacked in your own land, fighting back just makes sense. Well, that's my take anyway, for whatever it's worth.

The SAB also thinks it's absurd that God makes fire come out of a rock. For the umpteenth time, we're talking about a miracle here, so pretty much anything goes. That also goes for the miracle(s) of the fleece at the end of the chapter, although more might need to be said about that.

I am perhaps a bit surprised that the SAB doesn't question Gideon's act of "vandalism" (to quote from the Brick Testament link). Surely this is an act of intolerance if there ever was one. At least here we're not talking about warring with a foreign invading tribe of pagans, but with home-grown paganism. I suppose I've addressed this elsewhere in general, but it does raise some interesting questions for a modern believer: If you truly believe your faith is the one true faith, would that give you the right to, say, burn down a Mormon temple or raze a Mosque? Surely it doesn't seem right, (and in my opinion would do nothing to slow the rise of the LDS Church or Islam anyway) yet why not, if God is on your side? Is Gideon's act any more or less just? What about the reaction of Gideon's father? He says essentially that if Baal is such a powerful God, he hardly needs an angry mob to defend his altar. Seems like a clever response, doesn't it? But then, you could say the same sort of thing when someone in the modern day would firebomb a church, couldn't you? This action on the part of Gideon is full of some fascinating moral ambiguity in my opinion.

I'm not sure what the absurd part is about verse 34, although the link next to it would suggest perhaps it is strange that the "Spirit of the Lord" is so likely to lead men to violence. However, if that's the case, I'd expect more likely to icons for violence and intolerance, as have so many times been used elsewhere, and responded to by me as above.

The chapter ends with the fairly well-known fleece story, which I'll admit does seem a bit absurd for a few reasons. First, it's a pretty wacky miracle. Second, it's probably a far less impressive miracle than the one Gideon already saw, at least in my opinion. Third, as the SAB points out, what the heck does it take to convince this guy that God is really talking to him, and why does God put up with his demands for so many miraculous signs? The fact is, this is one of the odd places in the Bible that perplexes me where God really seems to stretch what He's willing to put up with from someone's questioning. Like the Apostle ("doubting") Thomas, who wouldn't believe in the resurrected Christ until He put in a special appearance just for him, Gideon seems to be asking a lot. In any case, whether or not this is okay to do is a difficult question, one that I have addressed to some extent here, but I really don't have any definitive answers. In short, God goes with this, and Gideon is convinced to do what it is that he does in the next section of the book.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

And the sun stood still (Judges 5)

Judges 5 is a familiar scene that we've seen before in the Bible, and we'll see again: Battle's over, and having won, the Israelites sing a victory song. Typical of this sort of thing, there's a lot of poetic language, some of which (such as fighting "stars") the SAB picks up on and criticizes, and some of which (such as God himself marching into battle) it does not. Anyway, my blanket response to most issues here is that this, being a piece of poetry, is not expected to be realistic nor completely accurate. Not that there is nothing that can be said beyond that.

So when God's marching into battle and mountains are melting, you might suspect that we're being figurative, but many of these figures of speech have some meaning behind them. Basically, most of what is going on here is a description of the idea that God was on the side of the Israelites, and therefore nothing could stand against them. This imagery could be the meaning of the claim that the stars fought against their enemies: the idea that when God is on your side, essentially all of nature is fighting for you. There may be another sense in which this is more literally true, however. It is common in the Bible for "stars" to be a metaphor for "angels", which answers a lot of questions. It may be in this case that they are claiming the battle was won with the help of angelic beings, which I know to some isn't much of an improvement, but it makes more sense than the idea of the battle being fought by flaming balls of nuclear plasma in space.

The song talks about Jael, and brings up the real issues that I addressed briefly in my last post. Jael is praised for murder here, and it seems odd, yet this was in the middle of a war. If Osama bin Laden were on the run from the marines and asked you to hide him, don't you think you'd at least consider killing him? Dying instantly in his sleep might be considered a mercy, as based on other cases where enemies were captured alive, you'd think much worse could have been in store for him.

Verse 30 may be a misreading on the SAB's part, but as in a few other places, it's hard to tell, as there is no commentary. The verse talks about dividing the spoils of war, including the conquered women. If you read it carefully in context, you realize that it is not a description of something that has happened, but a description of what the Canaanites imagine would happen if Sisera won.

The last verse presents two issues of a very different nature. First, the Israelites declare that they wish all the enemies of God would die. This does seem rather mean and intolerant, yes, but on top of other things I've said in the past about such topics, note that God Himself does not say that He wishes this, it's the Israelites saying these words, and for the umpteenth time, they're not exactly the apex of virtue.

Lastly, there is some poetic prose talking about "the sun...goeth forth in his might." Aside from being obviously (to me, anyway) more metaphorical, poetic speech, I think the SAB note is reading in something that is not there. The SAB says, "The sun, according to the bible, goes around the earth." This may be so, I have little doubt, but it does not say so here. There is nothing about where or how the sun "goeth forth", only an observation that it does so. And while I think it is not an issue here, it's as good a place as any to reiterate that even in today's culture, in which we know that the earth orbits the sun (which technically it doesn't) it's perfectly acceptable to say that "the sun rises in the east and sets in the west" even though, in fact, it is not the sun rising and setting, but the earth's horizon.