Thursday, December 22, 2005

There in the way of Ephrath; the same is Bethlehem (Matthew 2)

Shoot. I looked back at my post on Genesis 1:14, and see that I didn't bother to really address the issue of astrology at that time. Honestly, I don't know what that verse is trying to say exactly, but there is some musing in the comments section, as well as an excellent (IMHO) mini-essay on the difficulty of translation, particularly prepositions. I'm hoping people will read that and reflect on it, although it doesn't have anything to do with the topic at hand, which I suppose I should address.

Although I addressed the issue of time frame in my first post on Luke 2, I'm finding it interesting to put this story in perspective. If Herod died in 4 B.C., and Jesus was born in 6 B.C., and the Magi came to Jerusalem about two years after Jesus' birth, then Herod didn't live too long after this story. Jesus' time in Egypt must have been very short.

So, astrology... In verses 2 and 9, there is mention of a "star" that the Magi were following to find Jesus. Oh, the issues this brings up... As far as astrology, a case might be able to be made that these men, not being Jews, were not prohibited from astrology, but that would surely go against conventional wisdom in Christian circles that astrology is just plain bad. I myself am not fond of the astrology column in the paper, think it's a load of crap and have thought so since before I was a Christian. Yet I don't think one can deny that the Bible is saying something here (and perhaps in Genesis 1:14 as well) to suggest that looking up to the sky can tell some people something about what happens on earth. What, though?

First of all, despite verse 9 (which I'm stumped on, as admittedly it doesn't make a whole lot of sense), I think it's sound to reject the notion of the "Star of Bethlehem" being a supernatural light in the sky that was hanging over the manger (or the house where Jesus lived) that could actually be literally "followed" to a specific spot. Aside from the fact that celestial objects don't act like that in general (although of course this could be another miracle), it begs the question: why didn't the Magi go straight to Bethlehem if they were following a "star" that could pinpoint the Messiah's location? No, they head to Jerusalem. If you're looking for a King in Judea, where else would you go? It's the capital. Whatever the signal was that these men had to go, it simply told them to go to Israel. When they got there, they were surprised to find Herod, and not a baby.

What did Genesis say? "Let there be lights...and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years." The "signs" set apart for a moment, the plain meaning here is that the objects which light the sky serve as a sort of calendar; and of course, they do. In numerous sci-fi stories that I have read, it's been used as a plot device the fact that knowing the positions of the planets within the solar system can tell you what the date is, and this is true. As for the "signs", most calendars have important dates noted on them, and perhaps God's is no different. Some have suggested a significant planetary conjunction occurring at the time of Jesus' birth. I have heard it suggested on one hand that this conjunction may have occurred in a manner or location in the sky that suggested to the Magi a significant event in Israel. I have also heard it suggested that the Magi may have been familiar with the prophecies of Daniel, as Daniel lived east in Babylon during his life. If Daniel was well-versed in Babylonian astronomy, which is a reasonable assumption, and he had some special knowledge as to the time the Messiah would appear (which is believed very strongly by Christians, but is too complicated to go over here), then he might have told them to look out for this conjunction as a sign.

Anyway, Herod is worried by these men, who are probably not--as sometimes traditionally pictured--three kings riding alone on camels, but more likely a procession of prominent men with a military guard who have come from east of the Roman Empire, and are implying a challenge to Herod's authority. He goes to his advisors and asks them their perspective on where the Messiah ought to be, and they quote (inaccurately) Micah 5:2, which points to Bethlehem. The SAB has a lot to say about this, so I'll take it one point at a time.
"Bethlehem Ephratah" in Micah 5:2 refers not to a town, but to a clan: the clan of Bethlehem, who was the son of Caleb's second wife, Ephrathah.
Interesting catch, that bit of info, but there are problems with this claim. None of the verses linked to give definitive evidence as far as I can see that Bethlehem actually is a person. Knowing that Bethlehem is a location (and its name in Hebrew sure sounds like a location, and not a person), it is quite likely that the phrase "father of Bethlehem" means that Salma and Hur were co-founders of the city of Bethlehem. After all, despite the fact that there are verses that seem to be referring to Bethlehem as a person, this "person" never has any children, nor does anything else for that matter. Maybe I missed it, but "clan of Bethlehem" is not a phrase that I've seen anywhere in the Bible. Whether a person or not, there are certainly many places in the Bible that are named after people and vice-versa, including Ephrathah herself. Rachel was buried near "Ephrath, which is Bethlehem" hundreds of years before Ephrathah and/or Bethlehem were born.
The prophecy (if that is what it is) does not refer to the Messiah, but rather to a military leader, as can be seen from Micah 5:6. This leader is supposed to defeat the Assyrians, which, of course, Jesus never did.
True, and yet not true. The common Christian approach to Biblical prophecy is that any given prophecy may have different levels of interpretation and fulfillment. The most well-known of such prophecies is the one Jesus talks about in Matthew 24:15. The "abomination of desolation" spoken of by the prophet Daniel in various passages was believed by the Jews of Jesus' time to have been fulfilled in 168 B.C. when Antiochus Epiphanes slaughtered a pig and erected a statue of Zeus in the Jewish Temple. Jesus hints that this prophecy is not yet completely fulfilled, alluding to both the destruction of the Temple on 70 A.D. and an event still future from today that will supposedly happen when the Temple is rebuilt one more time. So Micah 5:2 is prophesying the birth of two important leaders. This explanation also applies to verses 15 and 17-18 of Matthew 2.
It should also be noted that Matthew altered the text of Micah 5:2...
Maybe; I'll grant it's a reasonable assumption. It may be that the scribes and priests misquoted it in the first place. It doesn't matter so much, though, because as I noted, both "Bethlehem" and "Ephratah" are place-names in the land of Judah.

Hopefully, I covered the issue of verse 14 in my last post, in which I essentially pointed out that despite the note in the SAB, the word "directly" does not appear in Luke 2:39, nor any synonym.

The massacre spoken of in verse 2:16 is indeed not recorded anywhere outside of the book of Matthew, which casts a question of authenticity upon it. The only possible explanation is that Bethlehem, being a fairly small town may have been small enough that this atrocity went largely unnoticed among many others committed by Herod.

The last verse refers to a non-existent prophecy that has pretty much stumped all scholars. Some have suggested a misunderstanding or misspelling of the Hebrew word for "branch" in some prophecies, while others have suggested that the fact that many prophecies refer to the Messiah as being rejected could be fulfilled by having him grow up in a place of ill-repute. I think both of these explanations are more than a little bit of a stretch, myself, but I present them just because they exist.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas, Chanukah Sameach, Prosperous Ramadan, and Happy Kwanzaa.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

All things must be fulfilled which were written in the law (Luke 2:21-52)

I'm a bit bummed because I started this post yesterday to get a head start, but my computer crashed, and I lost it. I always hate writing things twice; I don't even like making drafts and revisions. No matter...

So, after Mary's time of purification has passed--and yes, even in giving birth to the Son of God, she has to go through this as a law-abiding Jew--the family heads out to Jerusalem to present the boy at the Temple and have him dedicated. Luckily, Jerusalem is very close to Bethlehem. Now despite the claim in the SAB that "Males are holy to God, not females" I think there is a misunderstanding of this passage. It's a reference to Exodus 13, of course, and while I see that yes, it's a males-only thing, I don't think that means that females are not of use to God. Call it sexist if you will, but generally, the husband is the head of the household, and the firstborn son will be the chief heir. I don't believe that this means that all the females and other males are of no import, but rather in sanctifying the firstborn son, the parents are in a sense saying that they dedicate their whole family to God. It also has a lot to do with the last of the plagues of Egypt as one can see from reading the Exodus passage, but that's another issue I'll hopefully get to in a few weeks.

Note in verse 24 that Jesus' parents bring two birds as the offering of purification at the Temple. A small detail that tells us something when we look to the passage linked to in yesterday's post: Mary and Joseph were not wealthy.

At the Temple, they meet two interesting people. The first is Simeon, some sort of aged prophet, apparently. The SAB finds oddity in two points mentioned about this man. One, that he was "just", since the Bible says in Ecclesiastes that there is no "just" man. While this was discussed before back when I covered Genesis 6 and 9 in regards to the specific case of Noah, I'll restate it here so that extensive re-reading isn't necessary. There are some characteristics of individuals in the Bible that the Bible explains in ways that seem contradictory, but are summed up by Jesus' statement, "The things which are impossible with men are possible with God." No man is "just" or "righteous" by his own doing, but can be made so by the will of God.

Which leads to oddity number two: that "the Holy Ghost was upon" Simeon. If you ask me, the SAB page that notes the oddities of the appearance of the Holy Ghost is missing out on one of the more interesting happenings of this sort, namely 1Samuel 10:10, in which the Holy Ghost comes upon King Saul shortly after he is anointed King of Israel. Actually, this isn't even the first time, as this happens a few times in the book of Judges, to Moses and the elders of Israel and even to Balaam in the book of Numbers. Pharaoh also claims that the Spirit is upon Joseph, but this may not necessarily mean anything of the same sort. Of course, the Spirit of God goes all the way back to the very beginning of the Bible, but the operative question here is what does it mean for the Spirit of God/Holy Ghost to be "given to"/"upon"/"filling" a person. Admittedly, this is not 100% clearly explained in the Bible. However, it is something that is fairly well understood within basic Christian theology. While the Spirit did indeed come before Jesus' resurrection at certain times unto certain people, the idea here of the Spirit being "given" to Jesus' followers is that there will not be an occasional moment of the Spirit coming upon them and causing them to momentarily become more spiritual, but that the Spirit will "dwell in you [which are in Christ Jesus]." Once the Holy Ghost was "given" to the church, all believers supposedly have this Spirit living within them on a constant basis. That's the difference.

The other interesting character that they meet at the Temple is Anna, an aged prophetess. (See? Even women can be prophets. God does have use for women as well.) Anna is rather interesting as she is the only other woman besides Sarah whose age is mentioned. Both Simeon and Anna recognize the child Jesus as being the Messiah, and give praise to God for the chance to see Him.

And now we come to verse 39, a verse I didn't get to yesterday when I was writing my last post. Foolish, I should always remember context is important! Still, I don't think a revision is needed of yesterday's comments, only further commentary. The question is, what's the sequence of events and locations in the lives of Mary and Joseph shortly after Jesus' birth? Did they stay in Bethlehem for a while? Did they spend some time in Egypt, and when? Did they go right back to Nazareth as soon as possible? Were they actually in Nazareth before Jesus was born? There are actually numerous possible ways to answer these that fit in fine with the stories here and in Matthew. First, let me answer in a way that fits with my statements of my last post for continuity's sake. I claimed yesterday that this young couple remained in Bethlehem for a couple years, settling down in a house and living a normal life until the Magi came and God told them to flee to Egypt. The only reason that would contradict verse 39 is if you assume two things that are not explicitly stated there. One, that "all things according to the law of the Lord" refers only to the purification and Temple visit, and therefore represents a small number of actions that last a little over a month. Two, that the sentence overall implies an immediacy of action. On the first matter it may be pointed out that in Matthew's story he indicates several Old Testament passages that are taken to be prophetic of Jesus' childhood. That being the case, "all things according to the law of the Lord" may also refer to the brief sojourn on Egypt, both because it was supposedly prophesied and because it was directly commanded by God in a dream to Joseph. (Interesting parallels here to another Joseph who took his family into Egypt based on God's leading in dreams. That Joseph's family was brought back into the land of Canaan by a certain man named Joshua, who in Greek would be called "Jesus".) On the second matter, it's simply not there. Even if the first part is true and this verse is referring only to Mary's purification, two years later they still "had performed" those things. Luke has left out part of the story, but he's not outright contradicting Matthew. Another possibility that exists if you do make those two assumptions is that the Magi actually came to Nazareth! While one can and should assume that the Magi went to Bethlehem to find Jesus, if He wasn't there when they came, they surely wouldn't have quit after what was probably quite a long journey; they would ask where Jesus could be found, and perhaps someone could direct them to the Galilee region. That's iffy though, and I like my personal explanation better. Other possibilities probably exist.

The chapter ends with a story of Jesus at age 12. Being just short of coming of age, (at his 13th birthday according to Jewish tradition) He and His family are in Jerusalem for Passover. When the family leaves, they don't notice immediately that Jesus is not with them. They find Him at the Temple, talking with a number of scholars about the law. His parents scold Him for getting lost, but He replies "How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?" At coming of age, many Jewish boys at the time apparently go into the family business. While Jesus' earthly father was a "carpenter", He of course was interested in being about the business of his Heavenly Father.

The final verse is indeed an odd one, as is noted in the SAB. "How could an omniscient being 'increase in wisdom?' And how could God increase 'in favour with God?' " Good questions! There are a couple aspects to this. On one hand, theologians are not in 100% agreement on whether Jesus was omniscient. There were apparently at least a few things that He didn't know, so it seems that He was not. How much did He know? Did He actually have things to learn? Maybe. The other aspect of this though is that while Jesus was supposedly born perfect, there was also a matter of Him continuing in His perfection throughout his life. One would assume that he had the ability to sin and do wrong, or else why would Satan have bothered to tempt Him? Even if Jesus is omniscient in knowing all facts, He may have had things to learn through personal experience, and He may have simply increased the wisdom of those he came in contact with, thus vicariously increasing in "wisdom and stature" through others. And thus, He would serve to please God the Father by His actions in addition to the internal goodness that was intrinsic to Him.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son (Luke 2:1-20)

Okay, what the heck. Here's the Christmas edition of the ASAB, as hinted.

So Luke chapter 2 opens with mention of the census tax in "all the world". While of course this is a clear hyperbole of a sort (surely there was not a Roman tax on people living in the Far East or southern Africa) it's not clear to what degree. One could assume that Luke means throughout the Roman Empire, as some translators have assumed (the NIV translates the phrase to "the entire Roman world", although I don't believe the word "Roman" is in the Greek text), but even with that assumption, I have heard that there is no historical record of a tax even of that magnitude. While that is not mentioned in the SAB, the perhaps more weighty matter of the timing of this tax is mentioned. While one might dismiss the above as hyperbole of a sort, Luke seems to be intent on being very specific with respect to the time frame, "when Cyrenius was governor of Syria." This is a well-known issue with this story, and there are various approaches to it that have been taken. The most convincing approach I have ever heard is that some scholars have suggested that Quirinius/Cyrenius actually served two terms as governor of Syria, the first being at the time of Jesus' birth.

(Note that as I think I said before--and if not, I say it now--I'm not highly familiar with the finer points of historical accuracy. This limits my abilities to respond to points such as the one above, but aside from the fact that I don't expect to be able to answer every issue in the SAB, it also presents an odd opportunity to go outside of my usual mode of response at times. That is to say, while most of the points I respond to that are not of an historical nature, and thus I respond to them using only logic and/or common sense, I am forced to respond to these (if I choose to) by doing outside research. I think that's fine, since in most cases, one would not know that these supposed errors exist without outside research to find them in the first place!)

For the purposes of the taxation, for some reason Joseph had to leave the town of Nazareth and come to Bethlehem. Supposedly Bethlehem was prophesied to be the birthplace of the Messiah, so it's good this worked out, and also interesting that God's will is exercised by the decree of a pagan king. (I love to point out to fellow Christians of a conservative political bent that if God's will can be worked out in men like Caesar, Herod and Pharaoh, then surely God would have no problem working with a Democrat in the White House.) The SAB contends that there is a contradiction with Matthew 2. While I may do Matthew 2 after I finish this chapter, I think the response to this is simple. Mary and Joseph (or at least Joseph) lived in Nazareth before the census. The census called them to relocate to Bethlehem. After the census, they decided to stay there, and lived there for a couple years before another temporary move to Egypt. In any case, wherever this "house" that they lived in was that is mentioned during the story of the Magi, it clearly was a place they lived about two years after Jesus was born. While there was no place to stay when they first came to Bethlehem, that doesn't mean they had to stay in the stable for two years.

Of interesting note, the Bible never says that they were in a "stable" per se. Because Jesus lay in a manger, people assume that the surroundings were a barn of some sort, but the actual nature of the structure Jesus was born in is not really known. Some people think he was born in a cave on the outskirts of Bethlehem which may or may not have held livestock. Also of interesting cultural note, as is seen later in the passage and explained more fully in the Old Testament, a woman giving birth would be considered "unclean", and need to be purified. In addition, anything touched by an unclean thing or person tends to also be unclean. Thus, if the inn had given them a room, they would have had to throw out or purify everything in that room that Mary had touched. Contrary to the image of a crowded inn with a kindly innkeeper who says, "You poor young folks, if only I could put you up...Tell you what, I'll let you have my barn!" it's quite possible that there was specifically "no room" for a pregnant woman in labor.

The fact that there were shepherds watching sheep at night suggests that this is not likely to be late December at all, of course. Most likely, it was a time with favorable warm weather, such as spring. I once read a book that suggested there was a significant astrological event that happened in early October of 6 B.C., and perhaps that was the "star" the Magi talk about seeing, and the weather would have been good enough for grazing sheep at night. Who knows?

The shepherds get invited to the party, so to speak, when some angels appear to them and tell them what's going on. They sing a little chorus of praise that ends "...on earth peace, good will toward men." This little song and other verses elsewhere lead the SAB to pose the very apropos question, "Did Jesus come to bring peace?" Some passages seem to suggest yes, while others no. The answer is of course, "Yes and no." How can this be? Well, the important question to ask is, "Peace with whom?" Jesus came to give an offering of peace between man and God. That much is very clear, and I believe that is what is meant by all of the passages mentioning Jesus bringing peace. Perhaps there are some that are clearly saying otherwise, and if so I will eventually get to them when I come to the New Testament. However, there is an unfortunate side-effect due to the fact that the world as it was then and is today is not in general at peace with God. As James says,
...know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.
You see, the problem is that once a person puts themselves on the side of God, then they're not on the side of all the people who are not on God's side. (This is a difficult Biblical issue regarding the many meanings of the word "world", in this case meaning the non-Christian culture around us.) Put that way, it seems rather obvious, but the idea here is that the majority are not on God's side. Even today, only about one-third of the world is Christian. So no contradiction as such, but simply two different sides of the same coin. When you find peace with God, you will find that you will lose a lot of your other peace. (My roommate at the time I became a Christian was very irritated at my conversion, despite the fact that I was never preachy at home.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

I will bring them again also out of the land of Egypt (Gen 50)

So, Jacob is dead, and his last request is to be buried back in the Promised Land. It's interesting that for so many of these forefathers, despite the fact that they had little or no ties to the land of Canaan personally, they wanted to be buried there, both to be with their forefathers and with their ancestors that they assumed God would bring back there sometime in the future. Joseph mourns for his father, but then he requests to Pharaoh that he and his family be allowed to take the body back to Canaan to be buried at Machpelah.

In much of this exchange, there are hints at an unsteady relationship between Joseph and Pharaoh that foreshadow what is to come. After all, Joseph was put into a position of prominence from out of prison precisely because he was useful to Pharaoh. Joseph must be very careful to promise Pharaoh that he will indeed come back and not stay in Canaan, the land of his birth. The accompaniment of Egyptian servants along the way may be partially out of respect for Joseph's high position, partially for the purpose of protection of the Israelites, and partially out of protection of Pharaoh's interests: to see to it that Joseph and his brothers (who are also on Pharaoh's payroll) return when they are done. Also, they leave their children behind.

Jacob is indeed buried at Machpelah, as the text says repeatedly. The SAB points out that Stephen claimed Jacob was buried in Shechem. Yeah, this is a contradiction, but I think there are a couple things that could be said about it. First of all, Stephen's speech in the book of Acts is a speech, and I don't know that the Bible would be required not only to be correct in every detail, but that every character in the Bible never make a mistake either. Surely there are many places in the Bible where prominent people say things that are quite mistaken. (Peter is famous for this, of course.) Secondly, Stephen is not so much making an outright error as telescoping the details of the story, since Joseph, and probably his brothers as well were buried in Shechem. This mixing of the two parts of the stories is no doubt the source of the error Stephen does appear to make about who bought the grave. In any case, this is not at all the first time we've run up against problems with Stephen's Acts 7 speech, nor will it be the last; just remember he's telling the condensed version of the Old Testament, and he's going to gloss over the details quickly.

After the funeral is over, Joseph's brothers get worried once again that he will take revenge on them, and they tell him that Jacob had commanded that they be forgiven. Jacob is never actually seen making this speech, so you might wonder whether they made it up. It doesn't matter, though, as once again, Joseph assures them that he believes it was all part of God's plan.

Joseph lives to be 110 years old (apparently not an absurd age for the SAB, whose threshold for absurd age lies somewhere between 123 and 137, I may do more research on this) and to see his great-grandchildren. I just realized that I misread an issue from chapter 48 that comes up here, but my response is the same: these prophecies about being brought back to the Promised Land (here, here and here) are not personal prophecies to be fulfilled in the lifetimes of these people, but point to the future Exodus centuries later. Jacob, Joseph, and the other patriarchs all died in Egypt, but God brought the twelve tribes of Israel back to the land in the end.

And the end this is. Genesis begins with the creation of life, and now ends with the death of this prominent patriarch of Israel. The Bible moves on to a new chapter in the history of that nation, and I will take a break.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Fathers of the tribes of the children of Israel (Gen 47-49)

I'm looking forward to finishing Genesis, which ought to be very soon, since there are only a few chapters, and not a lot of SAB comments. As I think I have commented before, I'm not sure where to go after finishing the book, since going straight through makes some sense, but it can also be tedious in some parts. Exodus is good, but there's no denying that the majority of the other three books of Moses don't have a whole lot going for them. I think what I'm going to do is, after finishing a longer book like this, I'll skip ahead somewhere and take a detour through a shorter and more "action-packed" book as a sort of palate cleanser if you will. So before hitting Exodus, I think I'll either do Ruth or Jonah, two of my personal favorites. (Or perhaps I might do Luke chapter 2, as a sort of Christmas special. [Edit to add links to parts 1, 2, and 3.] I'm hoping to put some Christmas stuff in my other blog today anyway.) Any opinions (or comments at all) are welcome.

Chapter 47 is pretty straightforward, both the content and the SAB objections are largely a repetition of stuff in previous chapters. As instructed, Joseph's family stands before Pharaoh and tells him that they are shepherds, and what they really need is some good pasture land, preferably Goshen. In verse 11, Goshen is referred to as "the land of Rameses", which some have suggested to be an anachronism, and it technically is, "Rameses" being a name not used until hundreds of years after this time in history. Most likely, this is a reference that was common in the time this story was committed to paper rather than the time it actually happened similar to the references to Philistines and possibly Amalekites and others. Since the SAB doesn't claim an issue with verse 11, it may not have one, but it does bring up an interesting point anyway. I've heard many skeptics insist that if God really "wrote" the Bible, He would be aware of scientific facts that were discovered long after the stories were written as well as future historical events, and the writing ought to reflect that. That is probably true to some extent, no doubt, but note that another objection that is often raised to the Bible is to point out anachronisms! Maybe somebody can explain to me what the Bible could do in this area (as well as others that I won't go into here) so that it could please everybody. But enough of that...

Jacob is asked by Pharaoh how old he is, and Jacob tells him that he's 130, but that he's just a youngster compared to many of his forefathers. You may recall that Jacob's father lived to be 180, his grandfather 175 and great-grandfather 205. The SAB finds the thought of Jacob living to 147 to be absurd, but I'd be curious as to what the threshold for absurdity in lifespans is, since no note is made about Sarah.

Much of the rest of the chapter is concerned with the playing out of the remainder of the famine, and Joseph using the stored food to squeeze every last bit of capital out of the citizens of Egypt, making Pharaoh more wealthy and powerful than ever.

Just before Jacob dies, one noteworthy thing he does is make Joseph swear to bury him back in the Promised Land. The fact that Jacob does die is, in my opinion, not an issue with respect to the promise made by God in the last chapter, as I explained in my last post. The custom of swearing in the manner described here is indeed odd, but apparently it was a cultural thing of the time. As I explained in response to a similar exchange between Abraham and his servant, there is nothing wrong with swearing an oath per se. While I went over it in an older post, the short version is this: the two New Testament verses linked to in the SAB note are taken out of context, both of them saying not merely "...swear not," but "swear not, neither by heaven..." The point is not that making promises or swearing is wrong, but that swearing by something because your word alone isn't good enough is a bad thing.

Chapters 48 and 49 are essentially a long list of blessings that Jacob gives to his family before he passes away. (Despite the note by the SAB concerning Jacob seeing God, it seems very unlikely that Jacob is referring to something new, but rather is more likely referring to what happened way back the first time he saw God.) It's notable that like previous generations, the greatest blessings don't necessarily go to the eldest. In fact, it seems that the biggest blessing is going to the youngest child of the second-youngest son.

Although they are not really called "tribes" yet (oh, wait, I guess they are in verse 28), the SAB takes this moment to note the inconsistency in the naming of the tribes of Israel. It seems like a reasonable enough moment, but a little disappointing, since most educated Christians know that the inconsistency goes farther than what is quoted here, and various lists throughout the Bible will list them differently. I was going to leave it at that, but apparently I can't seem to help assisting Steve Wells in his research, so a quick guess as to where I would find a third list was fruitful: Numbers 1:4. In this list, we see the tribes listed as Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin, Dan, Asher, Gad and Naphtali, which one can see does not fit with the other lists given. If you go down further in that chapter, there's a bit of explanation, but I can't remember where the full explanation is, it may be spread throughout the law in various places. The short of it is that the tribe of Levi is chosen to be set aside as a priestly tribe, and they don't get an inheritance in the Promised Land in the same manner as the other tribes. However, the sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, each form a tribe at that point. So the tribes of Levi and Joseph are special, and it can cause some confusion at times. As for the passage in Revelation that is referred to, there are some theories among scholars as to why Dan is not on the list. Of course, it's not considered to be an error, but rather something of hidden significance.

The last thing to be settled in this chapter is the strange prophecy given in verse 10. Honestly, I don't understand this well (nor much of the rest of this chapter, which uses some strange poetic stuff), but I do know that it is considered by many to be telling of the idea that the Messiah should come from the tribe of Judah. While "Shiloh" is a place, many scholars have favored a different translation here in which the phrase becomes "until he comes to whom it belongs". Whether it refers to King David, Jesus, or someone or something else, I'm not sure how to respond to the note here, because I don't really know what it means. Nonetheless, a lot of issues regarding the validity of Saul's kingship will come up once I get to 1Samuel, so I'll save the discussion for that time.

Almost done!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

O ye children of Benjamin, gather yourselves (Gen 45-46)

Ugh, sorry for not updating, my adoring fans (all three or four of you) but I've been down with a nasty stomach flu. Still, it probably beats spending several years in an Egyptian prison, I guess.

So Joseph is overcome with emotion, and he orders all of the Egyptians out of the room, beginning to weep so loudly that apparently a lot of people outside hear him. All alone with his brothers, he no doubt switches to speak to them in their own language, astonishing them with the proclamation "I am Joseph." Apparently, they say nothing, being completely dumbstruck. He repeats himself, and assures them that he is not going to take revenge on them, but that he believes it was all a part of God's plan to save the family from the famine. He invites them to come and live in the land of Goshen, and Pharaoh gives them some wagons to bring back all their belongings. Joseph gives them a lot of stuff to bring back with them, and tells them to be quick about it, and not stop to argue or get worried about their fate.

They go back to Jacob, and give him the news that not only is Joseph alive, but that he has a high position in the government of Egypt. This apparently causes Jacob to have something like a heart attack, but he revives, and agrees to come back to Egypt to see Joseph "...before I die," no doubt facing the fact that his life can't be too much longer (he's 130 years old, after all).

At the beginning of chapter 46, Jacob stops in Beersheba to give sacrifices to God, as his father and grandfather had done. There, God speaks to him in a similar manner that he had spoken to Abraham in chapter 22; in both cases, there is a difficult journey to be taken ahead that will have a happy ending. Yes, God calls Jacob "Jacob" rather than "Israel", and you can decide to take that as a serious problem and contradiction to earlier verses, but as I have said, I don't have a real problem with this personally. A new issue here, however is the promise God makes in verse 4 that he "will also surely bring [Jacob] up again." The SAB points out, quite obviously correctly, that Jacob dies in Egypt. Well, there are two possible explanations, and I personally would lean toward the latter myself. Firstly, it may simply be the fact that Jacob's body would eventually come to be buried back in Canaan. In the bodily sense, Jacob indeed came back up from Egypt. The other likely possibility is that when God claims immediately previous to this claim that He "will there make of [Jacob] a great nation", it should be clear that He's talking about the distant future, and when He says He will bring him up again, He's referring to his descendants. After all, it's a recurring literary method throughout the Bible to refer to a nation by the name of its king or patriarch. (A third option occurs to me as I finish this paragraph: it may be a spiritual concept that is being conveyed here, but it's hard to say. The fact that God promises to go into Egypt is very interesting, as most deities of that ancient period were considered to only have power within a limited geographical boundary.)

Most of the rest of chapter 46 is essentially a "roll call" of the family. The SAB points out some things that need some clarification. In verse 11, three sons of Levi are listed, but in Ezra 8:18, another son, Mahli, is mentioned. So who is Mahli? A peek at Numbers 3:20 verifies the answer to be the most likely one in such matters: Mahli is Levi's grandson, and any descendant of Levi could be called a "son of Levi" by Biblical conventions.

In verse 21, we have a long list of the sons of Benjamin, a list that does not agree with other lists given elsewhere. There are a lot of things that could be said about this, one of which, like the previous point, is that grandsons are sometimes called sons. That doesn't clear up the whole list by far, though. There's a lot of stuff to get into in 1 Chronicles, which is a rather daunting book to slog through. (I salute Steve Wells' perseverance in checking all this stuff out!) In any case, in addition to Ard and Naaman being grandsons, we can see that Shupham and Hupham (which can easily be transliterated from Hebrew into Shuppim and Huppim) are children of Ir, who himself is a son of Bela; this implies that these "sons" of Benjamin are actually great-grandsons! (It's slightly possible that the "Huppim" in the Genesis passage is the same, but that might be a bit of a stretch; Benjamin doesn't seem anywhere near old enough for great-grandchildren.) The KJV concordance notes that Jediael is "maybe the same as 'Ashbel'," but gives no explanation of this. Perhaps it's because Ashbel is only missing from 1Chr. 7, and that would be convenient, I don't know. Interestingly, "Aharah" means "a following brother", and may not be meant to be a name at all. Clearly, the whole matter of genealogies can be rather confusing, and various genealogies in the Bible can be edited in different ways for different purposes. For instance, the Numbers 26 passage probably refers particularly to families within the tribe of Benjamin that had a large number of fighting men within them. I really can't begin to make a whole lot of sense out of 1Chronicles, I admit. (As to Benjamin's supposed age, I addressed that in the last paragraph of yesterday's post.)

Summing up in verse 27, the author claims there were 70 people in Joseph's family (not counting women, I think?), but Stephen, in the book of Acts, claims there were 75. Not at all obvious this one, but there is an explanation for it. Stephen, as many in the days the New Testament was written did, quoted from the Septuagint, in which five more descendants of Joseph are named for some reason. Since Joseph didn't come with his family out of Canaan into Egypt, I suppose that technically, neither number is correct. (Also, without knowing the numbers of wives and/or get the picture.) Robert Alter points out that 70 is probably just a nice round number.

Jacob and Joseph are finally reunited, and Joseph tells his family to tell the Egyptians that they are cattlemen, "for every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians." This is an odd thing to tell them, as it's not quite clear what the purpose is, nor does there seem to be any extrabiblical collaboration for this statement. Perhaps due to the fact that the Egyptians are either agricultural or urban, they have a hard time accepting nomadic shepherds? In any case, it may help them to acquire the land of Goshen in some way.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

And his brethren also went and fell down before his face (Gen 42-44)

Once again, no commentary from the SAB on chapters 42 or 43, and I'm not sure I have much to say either. Basically, Joseph is now in a position of authority, and he has a run-in with his (half-)brothers, who don't recognize him. They bow down before him, and he remembers the dream he had had about his brothers' sheaves of wheat bowing before his sheaf; no doubt this is the fulfillment of that dream. For whatever reason, (perhaps to get even?) he pretends not to know them, and makes things difficult for them, accusing them of being spies, throwing them into jail, and sending them back to Canaan with Simeon locked up in prison. He tells them that Simeon will not be released, nor will they get more supplies until they bring back Benjamin. (Possibly, Joseph is worried that they have killed Benjamin as they tried to kill him.) On the way back, they discover that their money has been restored to their sacks, and their father refuses to let them go back with Benjamin. This refusal is actually rather oddly insensitive, as Jacob's wording of the refusal is such that he is suggesting Benjamin is his only son, and he cares not for the fate of Simeon rotting away in an Egyptian prison, nor the nine other sons standing before him.

Eventually, though, they run out of food (although apparently not all kinds of food), and they have no choice but to go back. They decide that they dare not go back to Egypt without Benjamin and double the money they had brought before. When they get there, Joseph invites them to his house for lunch, which makes them suspicious. Certainly it's not customary for every foreigner that comes to Egypt looking for food to be invited to a meal with the viceroy of Egypt? Thinking it might be a chance to pull them aside and accuse them of stealing, they make sure to point out that they have brought back the money from last time. They are assured the money is of no consequence, and Joseph seats them around the room in order of their age, which surprises them since they still don't know he knows them. The author notes that the Egyptians, Joseph, and the brothers all eat in separate groups, as Egyptians find Hebrews to be an "abomination", perhaps a hint of what is to become of the relationship between them in the future.

Finally in chapter 44, they are sent on their way with provisions, but once again, they are given back their money, and Benjamin is given a silver cup as well. Joseph lets them get a head start, and then sends his servants after them to accuse them of stealing, but only the cup, which they are to claim Joseph uses for purposes of divination. (In Robert Alter's notes on 44:1, he points out that there is a sort of nightmare logic in this repeated returning of their money to them. After all, the great burden of guilt they carry is that they sold their brother into slavery in Egypt for some silver, and now they find that try as they might, they can't give their silver back to Egypt!)

The servants catch up to them and insist that they have stolen the "magical" cup. The SAB has issue with divination, and I would too, but there's no indication that Joseph really does perform divination with the cup, only that he wants his brothers to believe he does. The brothers are indignant, and certain that they are innocent, so much so that they insist that whoever holds the cup can be put to death, and the rest can be slaves. (This is another interesting allusion to their guilt over Joseph.) Joseph's servant accepts their claim of innocence, but suggests a lesser sentence: that only the person with the cup should become a slave, and the rest go free. The cup is found in Benjamin's sack, and the brothers are very distressed, because they know they can't possibly go back to Canaan without Benjamin. (Once again, this may be a testing on Joseph's part to see if his half-brothers will show any loyalty to his full brother.)

When they return to Joseph, Judah pleads that all of them ought to be put into slavery. Perhaps this because he knows there's no use going back without Benjamin, but it may also be because he realizes that it's himself and the other nine older brothers who have the real guilt here. Finally, Judah pleads that he himself would be taken, rather than the youngest, explaining the whole story of how Benjamin is his father's favorite child (Yes, as the SAB notes, Benjamin is not a "little" child or "lad", but an adult, however I think Judah is emphasizing the fact that Benjamin is the youngest, and thus the most vulnerable of the lot of them. I'm well into my thirties, and my mother occasionally refers to me as her "baby", somewhat to my wife's distaste.), and to go back without him would cause him to die of a broken heart. Judah, the brother who first suggested selling Joseph into slavery out of jealousy, now suggests that he himself should go into slavery to save his brother. As we will see in the next chapter, all of this finally becomes too much for Joseph.