Thursday, December 28, 2006

Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned (Ex 21:15ff, capital punishment)

Okay, I've been slacking on this, so let's kill off the year with a post on the subject of capital punishment. As I think I mentioned in my other blog (Hmm, it seems I mentioned it in a post that's in progress and has not yet been posted, oh well.) this is actually one of a handful of difficult subjects for me as my personal views are not fully lined up with the position the Bible seems to be taking. As a good Christian, one generally must defer to the Bible on difficult matters however, especially in a context such as discussing the Bible itself.

The first question that must be answered is the matter of possible contradiction. As the SAB puts it, "Does God approve of capital punishment?" The page given goes on to show verses supporting both the "Yes" and "No" positions. At the moment, I wish to focus on the "No" column, and dispute what has been put there. In the case of Cain, as I commented when I covered that passage, one issue is that God has already doled out the punishment for Cain, and He doesn't want anybody adding to it. Also, while I disputed that there were only four people on the earth at the time of that incident, I would like to say that I don't think the population of the earth at the time of this murder was very large anyway; it may have suited God's purposes to allow Cain to live and raise his own family despite the heinousness of his crime.

Now, as for the famous passage from John 8, it might be an easy way out for me to note that most modern scholars have some question as to whether this story really belongs in John's Gospel, but that's a whole can of worms I'm not planning to open until I get to direct commentary on the Gospels. I think it suffices (it certainly does for me personally) to say that the behavior we see exhibited by Jesus in this passage is consistent with his behavior on the whole, and while it may have been edited in later than the original, it's reasonable enough to believe it to be a true story. But what does Jesus actually say? He says, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." (John 8:7) There's an important thing to notice about this single line that Jesus says to the accusers that most people don't notice. It's not what he says, but what he does not say. He never says, "You know, capital punishment is an outdated concept, and I really don't like Leviticus 20." No, he's pointing out the hypocrisy of the accusers, and it's an important lesson that we all need to take to heart if and when we do apply capital punishment to our own society.

Probably one of the most popular verses in the Bible is Matthew 7:1, but how many people notice that that particular verse is only part of a longer sentence/thought? Jesus doesn't just say "Judge not, that ye be not judged..." but explains what he means in the next verse: "For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." In other words, Matthew 7:1 is not Jesus' way of saying, "Live and let live," but rather his way of saying, "Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," a much more apt metaphor for the John 8 passage. The men in that story brought a woman to Jesus and accused her of adultery, but did she somehow commit adultery all by herself? It's possible if not highly likely that the man that the woman had slept with was in the crowd, and that the others had been involved in a plot to entrap her and make Jesus look bad. After all, Jesus was known for associating with "sinners", but how many of those people would hang out with Jesus once the word spread that Jesus had ordered a woman stoned to death for adultery? On the other hand, if Jesus told them not to stone her, he really would be going against the Law. As so often happened in Jesus' interaction with people trying to bring him down, he circumvented the question by getting to the heart of the matter.

So, in the "Yes" column, the SAB does a pretty good job of cataloguing the various reasons a person could be put to death according to the Law. For the most part, other than murder, these sins break down into two main categories: people who practiced some banned form of religion, and people who practiced some banned form of sexuality. It's always been very interesting to me what extent religion and sexuality are interconnected--in this case being two areas that are considered serious enough to be put to death for--I might consider a piece on it for my other blog. In any case, these are two areas of life that God considers to be vitally sacred and intimate. One might wonder whether it's overkill to put the punishment that high for some of these, especially working on the Sabbath. I think God wants to show that He's serious about these issues, and certainly you can't deny that capital punishment at the very least gets the message across.

Darn it, I'm rambling here, because I don't have so much to say. As I said, I personally am not too keen on the concept of capital punishment. I think one of the reasons that capital punishment was used in those days, and why many punishments seem very harsh to our modern sensibilities is that it really was a product of the times. Not to say that the ancient Israelites were culturally backwards and barbaric, although there is some truth to that no doubt. Rather, as a society without a centralized governmental infrastructure, and being a nomadic people in their early days, they didn't have a prison system. If someone is a menace to society and you can't lock him away, your choices are limited. Exile him, put him in bondage, or execute him; there's not much else, unfortunately. As I may or may not have said previously, but I will be saying a lot as I cover the Mosaic Law, these were laws designed for keeping order in ancient Israel, and I think that numerous misguided individuals who want to call for applying these laws to 21st-century America are missing that living thousands of years later on the other side of the globe really is a significant consideration. As we have the option of punishing without killing, I think it would be preferable to exercise that option. As we live in a society that is pluralistic and not a theocracy, I don't think we have the right to enforce rules telling people how to practice religion, nor would I want to, myself. When we look at the Law, we need to question what the underlying moral principle is, and decide how it applies to us today. The Torah is neither inferior nor superior to any modern law, it's simply different.

Okay, we'll see you next time when I get to discuss the oh-so-pleasant topic of abortion. Happy New Year, everybody.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Neither shall he multiply wives to himself (Ex. 21:10ff, polygamy)

Okay, slavery out of the way, now I'll touch on the subject of polygamy. The first and foremost thing to say about polygamy is actually something that apparently needs to be said repeatedly about a number of moral issues in the Bible. To wit, just because the Bible tells a story about someone who did a thing, that does not imply endorsement of the thing that was done. Out of the twenty verses on the "Yes" side of the page linked to above, that eliminates fourteen of the verses right out. Yes, the Bible features many people who had more than one wife. I think I am allowed to say that Bill Clinton was overall a very good president without implying that I in any way condone either his affair with Monica Lewinsky or his subsequent lying to the American people about that affair, can't I?

Still, I'm left with six verses on the "Yes" side to deal with. Some of them I have already commented on briefly in the past, saying that they're really in the wrong column. The passages from Titus and 1Timothy that talk about a "bishop" being "husband of one wife" are making the point that the most spiritually mature people will avoid polygamy. (Many modern churches also interpret this to mean that divorced people should not be pastors.) The verse from Matthew is a cultural misunderstanding, as these "ten virgins" are not brides, but bridesmaids. They're waiting for him not to marry him, but to escort him back to where the wedding feast is being held.

That leaves me with three to explain on the "Yes" side, and at this point, I'll make a statement that may surprise some: I don't believe that polygamy is a sin. While the verses on the "No" side are applicable to polygamy, many of them are really talking more about the sanctity of marriage and the hurt that is caused by divorce. More pointedly, none of them come right out and say, "Thou shalt not have more than one wife." I think polygamy, like divorce, is an institution that the Bible allows, but never really gives approval for. In a perfect relationship, a man would find himself one and only one wife, and he would marry her and stay married to her until one of the two of them dies. However, we don't live in a perfect world, and men are slime. Boo.

Well, among those three remaining verses, I think there are two categories. The excerpt from 2Samuel is more of a statement of fact than an endorsement. David had multiple wives, some of which he had got from Saul, the previous king. I don't know for sure, but it may be possible that rather than David marrying the wives of Saul, this refers to him marrying the daughters of Saul, which he definitely did. The matter of polygamy still stands, though, and in this case, it's an important one. In Deuteronomy, God set up some rules for the future monarchy, and among those rules was the rule that the king shall not "multiply wives". While this may mean that he should not have an excessive amount of wives rather than an outright ban on polygamy, David had probably somewhere around a dozen wives, and of course his son Solomon was famous for having 700 wives and 300 concubines, so I think both of them--but certainly the latter--qualify as having excess here. (Actually, David and Solomon disobeyed a lot of those rules for kings, if you read through them; and it became their downfall, really.)

The remaining two verses come the closest to endorsing polygamy in the Bible, but I think they need to be looked at in full rather than in the part that are quoted on the polygamy page.

"If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish." -Exodus 21:10

"If a man have two wives, one beloved, and another hated, and they have born him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the firstborn son be hers that was hated: Then it shall be, when he maketh his sons to inherit that which he hath, that he may not make the son of the beloved firstborn before the son of the hated, which is indeed the firstborn: But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the firstborn, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath: for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his." -Deuteronomy 21:15-17

While these two verses allow for polygamy, the main point of both is a provocative one. God is saying to the men of Israel that they are only allowed to take another wife if they can keep themselves from playing favorites. Consider in particular the phrase "her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish." I could be wrong, but I think God is saying that if you have sex with your wife four times a week, that doesn't mean getting a second wife means you can sleep with each one twice a week; you need to keep your first wife's, ahem, "duty of marriage" at the same level. 'Nuff said.

This presents an interesting challenge to the would-be polygamist. Can you not only treat all your wives the same, but keep treating your first wife just as good as you did when she was your only wife? That's a tall order! I'm going to take a tangent into the Quran for a moment, and call your attention to this page. Although I have done it on the SAB forums a couple times, this will be my first time here in the blog: I'm going to defend the Quran in this matter. Note that the first verse is a conditional! A friend of mine, who is not a Muslim (or a Christian, but apparently is as much interested in religion as I am if not more) tells me that some Muslims, and in particular the laws of the country of Morocco, take this apparent contradiction to be an implicit ban on polygamy!

Statement: You may have a second wife if you can treat both your wives fairly and equally.
Statement: It is not possible for a man to treat two wives fairly and equally.
Conclusion: You may not have a second wife.

Getting back to the Bible, by similar logic it is concluded by many that while the Bible does not explicitly state that polygamy is a sin, it is implied by the Bible that anything other than a lifelong monogamous commitment between one man and one woman is less than God's ideal, and will lead to heartache.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Above a servant, a brother beloved (Exod 21:2ff, slavery)

Ugh, I got well into this post a few weeks ago and lost it in a computer crash, then got busy with other things. Perhaps it's doubly upsetting because I largely feel I've already addressed this topic in previous posts (here and here specifically, if you want to read back), but decided to make a single post focusing on the matter in specific. As I said in my last post an age ago, most of my posts for a while will be much more topical in nature than what I've done before.

There's a lot to say about slavery in the Bible, but one of the important things to note right off the top is the difference between slavery as we tend to think of the term in 20th-century America and the way the Bible describes it in ancient Israel. Modern slavery which was practiced in America for several centuries generally was the kidnapping of people from Africa, shipping them across the Atlantic in conditions not suitable for cattle much less humans, selling them into permanent unpaid servitude in which many were treated as far less than human, and their inability to be freed extended to their children, who would be born into slavery and live their whole lives as nothing more than property. For those with strong stomachs, a frankly graphic portrayal of many of the evils of modern slavery can be seen in the movie .

But as I obviously was getting to, Hebrew slavery was quite different, as one can see when one reads about it. That doesn't mean that it was all fun and games, obviously, but permit me the liberty of contrasting it to the negatives of modern slavery to show it in a positive light before I admit there are some things I would consider as unsavory as anyone else.

Point one: Slavery was largely a voluntary institution in Israel. In contrast to how we think of people being torn away from their home and family to be sold into slavery against their will so that the slave-trader can make some quick and easy cash, Hebrew slaves were selling themselves into slavery for their own well-being. Assumably, a person who was poor and had no means to make ends meet, rather than starving to death would approach one of their wealthy neighbors and ask to be taken on. Probably most people would consider this a good deal if the alternative were starving to death or becoming a beggar. Pay the man's debts and agree to house, clothe and feed him, and he's yours to keep!

Point two: Slavery was not a permanent status in Israel. Yes, you get to keep the guy, but only for six years. For all those people in the early days of America that used the Bible to justify slavery, imagine if they had actually practiced Biblical slavery! You can buy slaves, but you have to make them into free men after six years? That would have changed the slave trade, not to mention my previous point and the next much more interesting one. Which leads me to...

Point three: Not only are slaves not in a permanent state of slavery, but when they are released at the end of their term of service, you are required to pay them! I believe the idea here is that even with all the ways I'm trying to make out ancient Hebrew slavery to be a wonderful, cheery thing, it was not considered a desirable state to be in for the long run, so once someone had served you as a slave, you were required to set him up in such a manner that he really had the chance to go back to being a productive member of society on his own. Once again, try to imagine that in early 19th century America! "Well, you've served me well, these last six years on my cotton plantation here, so I guess your time is up. Here's your share of the proceeds from the last six years of cotton sales, and take a horse, too, since you'll need something to carry all the stuff you'll be packing out of here..." Difficult, but somehow funny to imagine.

So, the positive points aside, I suppose I should get to the negative, but there are also some points that are ambiguous, and probably depend on you personal point of view. For instance, while I said that slavery was largely voluntary, one of the exceptions is notable. If a person is caught stealing, and they can't repay what they stole, they are forced to go into slavery to pay off the debt. It may seem cruel, but in modern times, we throw them in jail. Either way, you're faced with a few years of lost freedom, so I think it's a personal judgment call. Still, I think it beats cutting the guy's hands off, but maybe that's just me.

A lot of the fairly ambiguous problems with Hebrew slavery (although much more abhorrent to our modern sensibilities) have to do with the treatment of women through this institution. Yes, as Bible detractors point out, in those days people would sell their daughters. The reason that I call this "ambiguous" is that things look very different when you compare this practice to the practices of those times and modern times. While we don't like it, women had very little rights in those days, and rather than choosing the man they wanted to marry, their fathers would sell them off to another family. The verses here are making it clear that just because a woman you have bought (and this may not actually be an issue of slavery, but betrothal, but honestly the dividing line is a thin one) belongs to you, you don't get the right to treat her like trash. She is not to go out and perform manual labor. She is not to be sold to a foreigner. You can't marry another woman unless you have the means to continue to support your first wife at the same level you already have been. (I'm not going to get into polygamy here.) By modern Western standards, being sold into marriage/slavery seems like a bad thing, but in the culture of that time (and even the modern culture of many countries today) that's being very generous.

(A friend of mine with whom I was discussing this subject recently pointed out that while many of us would certainly hope that God would create a moral code that was considerably less barbaric than the one ancient Israel got, it may simply have been prudent to work in "baby steps". Culture is resistant to change, and God, rather than flinging them forcefully into a 21st-century sensibility, gave them a strong nudge in the right direction. "Okay, while your slaves and wives are your property, that doesn't mean you're justified in treating them like livestock.")

Somebody pointed out to me in the comments that I forgot to mention the particular status of a slave becoming a "bondsman". At the end of the six-year period of servitude, the slave has the option of signing on for permament service. A man who decided to stay on permanently would get his ear pierced in an odd little ceremony before witnesses. Since this is voluntary, I don't think there is a real problem here. People of a more libertarian bent seem to have no problem with the idea that a person has the right to commit suicide or abuse their body in whatever way they choose to, so why not have the right to be a slave if you really want it? I would assume that this is often in the case of a person who found that being a slave ended up being a better lifestyle for them than being free and having to take care of themselves, as odd as that may sound.

On the positive side of this, even this "permanent" status is not really permanent, I believe. I would assume that a slave in this position still had the chance to purchase their freedom (Did I mention that since most slaves ended up being slaves because of debt, the early payment of the debt entitled them to freedom? I think I missed that as well.) and also, they would still have the right of release that is outlined below in the second-to-last paragraph. Furthermore, as we see in Leviticus 25:10, all slaves are to be set free every 50 years. (I'm putting that in bold because I think it's the most blatantly clear part of the Bible showing that slavery is never a completely permament status, and I don't want it to be missed.) Granted, the lifespan may not be so very long as to be beneficial for every slave to be set free in 50 years, but a big part of the point of the 50-year jubilee cycle is to restore things to families. Although as a permanent slave one may not be very young by the time the jubilee year comes around, your freedom and all of your family's real estate come back to your children at that time.

On the negative side, there are some further complications to this that have to do with the status of women and the way marriage worked in those days. (In addition to people not often understanding ancient Israelite slavery, I think modern "traditional marriage" supporters would not really want to have marriage be the institution that the Bible presents us with.) Basically, if you get married while you are a slave, your marriage is by permission of your master, and since you have no money, the bride-price was certianly paid by him. At the time you are to be set free, your master has the option of keeping the wife he bought for you, because she's his property, not yours. Obviously, this could really suck, and as the Bible points out, the only thing you can do about it if your master does this is elect to stay on as his servant. On the other hand, this fact wold be well known, and I would think that a person would avoid getting married while in servitude because of it. Not nice, but there it is.

One of the much more unsavory parts of slavery is the fact that the Bible does allow a slave owner to beat his slave. However, that comes with a caveat: if you beat the slave to death, you're guilty of murder, and if you beat them so severely that you disfigure them, you are forced to release them early.

Although there are probably many minor points I have not fully touched on, I'm going to leave the topic with just one more observation. The voluntary and temporary status of slaves does not apply to slaves acquired from foreign countries. At least not in the same manner, it would seem. The rules don't seem to be as well fleshed out in such a case. I suspect that the rules for release of a slave through mistreatment or on jubilee years still apply, and while slaves acquired during wartime are almost certainly not in voluntary service, those acquired from gentile neighbors may or may not be. Biblical detractors may be free to think the worst; even the best of this aspect clearly doesn't seem very pleasant.

Friday, September 22, 2006

But this I confess unto thee (transitional post)

Well, after asking for suggestions as to where I might go with my blog both here and at the SAB discussion board, I only got one real response.

I guess I'm not too surprised, as I didn't expect too many people to be interested enough to chip in even two cents worth. What did surprise me was that numerous people suggested I simply give up the whole thing, as it was a waste of time. Well, I was actually not surprised at that, but surprised at how many people don't see the illogic behind it, at least as I think I do. If indeed the Bible is a document that is so full of problems that a comprehensive reading of it will lead one unmistakeably to see it's nothing but junk, then I'd think someone wanting to convince me out of believing the Bible would want me to keep up the work until I inevitably become Steve Wells' ally in debunking Christianity.

Well, I do think of Steve as my ally, as I said previously, and not just for the reasons I set out before, but because he was the guy who gave me my one and only constructive suggestion. You can go back to the previous post and read it in full if you want, but in summary, he suggested I drop the sort of narrative format I've used up until now and write individual posts on the most difficult issues of the Bible first. I responded that selfishly, I'd like to pace myself, as trying to respond to the hardest stuff all at once would surely be wearying for me, and make me look far more foolish than I'm sure I already do to many reading here.

I am, however, going to take his advice in a partial manner, and switch styles for most of the rest of Exodus through Deuteronomy, focusing smaller posts on individual issues from the law. Hopefully this looser style won't make me get sloppy and skip over more stuff than I did before and have to keep tracking back.

Yet now that I have announced this, I am going to use this post as an occasion to track back, and in the interest of fairness, dig out the issues that I was unable to address fully in the preceding chapters, partially to admit once again that I don't have all the answers, and perhaps to allow somone who might have the answers on those issues to comment. If someone knows of ones I missed, please let me know. Actually, it's getting late, and it's Friday, so I'll add the list on Monday, either editing the post, or putting it in the comments section.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

He asked them, saying, Whom say the people that I am?

While it seems that the large majority oif the traffic I receive to this blog is coming through links from the , and doesn't really care about the "blog-ish" nature of my posts here, there may be some people who are enjoying reading this as a daily offering of opinion on the Bible. I don't know. Either way, I'd like to get back to work on completing a bit more of the Bible, as I've only gone through one and a half books of a much, much larger work.

I haven't posted here in over a month for a number of reasons. I've been busy, and while I've taken some time to post occasionally on my other blogs, I've let this one languish in the midst of my overwhelming time constraints. The other reason has a lot to do with why I've let this one in particular languish: Exodus gets a lot more boring for the most part from here on out, and throughout the rest of the books of Moses, while there is some amount of plot, it's mostly long lists of laws and their related punishments and procedural applications.

Don't get me wrong, if I keep this up, eventually I expect to cover the whole Bible, but as I've said before, I don't feel it's necessary to tackle in a straight linear fashion from beginning to end. After all, most people don't read it that way. Anyway, what I'm thinking is that in order to revitalize this a little, I could switch to another book that was a little more interesting. Judges comes to mind as very jam-packed with action, but it's honestly a very difficult book to address, due to excessive sex and violence throughout the book. Eventually, covering that cook is going to be largely a droning repetition of "The Bible records this, but does not condone it." Ruth is one of my favorite books, but the SAB has virtually nothing to say about it, so it leaves me with little to say if I'm focusing on replying to objections. I considered spicing it up with Song of Solomon, since who doesn't enjoy reading ancient Hebraic erotic poetry? Still, it seems sort of gimmicky.

So, in the end, I'm going to appeal to any readers I may have: PLEASE post comments to give me a good suggestion! What do you think I should do? Jump to the New Testament? (I was considering Matthew, but it seems like I need to maybe hit all four Gospels simultaneously with a harmonization. I don't know.) Do some Psalms or Proverbs? A prophetic book? What might be nice is if Steve Wells would let me know if he has stats on which pages on his site are most popular, and I might start there. I don't know, just give me a suggestion or two so I can feel a bit more enthusiastic about moving forward.

Friday, July 28, 2006

And received in the same year an hundredfold

Partially by coincidence and partially by design, this is the anniversary of the first post of this blog, and the 100th post as well. I suppose I'm happy to hit this milestone, but would have been a bit happier to have had something more like 200 posts right now, but I guess I've been busy this last year.

Thanks to Steve Wells for being good sport about this, and I hope I've been civil enough about it myself, not engaging in unfair attacks on him, and being honest in stating that I don't know the answer to every question that the SAB raises.

Just as the atheist blog I have been occasionally guest-posting on, Goosing the Antithesis, doesn't completely share my values, but has in its mission statement, if you will, something that I can partially agree with ("We attack Christians who claim to monopolize epistemology and values..." I tend to do that as well, believe it or not.) the SAB has something of value in the purpose it serves. To quote from "About the SAB":
Millions of such Bibles are published and distributed each year by believers in their tireless and tiresome effort to propagate their beliefs. Consequently, nearly everyone, whether believer or skeptic, has at least one copy in his or her possession. Among these Bibles will be found many different versions, but all have one thing in common: all are believer- friendly editions that support, promote, and defend the Bible.

The Skeptic's Annotated Bible attempts to remedy this imbalance. It includes the entire text of the King James Version of the Bible, but without the pro-Bible propaganda. Instead, passages are highlighted that are an embarrassment to the Bible-believer, and the parts of the Bible that are never read in any Church, Bible study group, or Sunday School class are emphasized. For it is these passages that test the claims of the Bible-believer. The contradictions and false prophecies show that the Bible is not inerrant; the cruelties, injustices, and insults to women, that it is neither good nor just.
It is my very purpose (other than the already stated one of self-imposed (near-)daily Bible reading) in writing this blog to also remedy such imbalance. While I do not intend to show that the Bible is a bad book that should be disdained, as Wells begins to say in this last paragraph and continues throughout the rest of the page, I think it fosters a healthy, thinking faith to not put one's head in the sand in regards to what is in the Bible. The footnotes in a Bible should focus on both the good and the bad.

In the book of Revelation, John meets with an angel who is holding a book. The Angel offers the book to John, and oddly enough, tells him to eat it.

And I took the little book out of the angel's hand, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter. (Revelation 10:10)

Now, the "book" spoken of here (probably a scroll, actually) is probably not actually the Bible, but it's always seemed to me to be very appropriate symbolism. To the Christian, the Bible should be sweet in your mouth. Once you really start to dig in, though, and you think you've really digested it, if it doesn't give you a bit of indigestion, maybe you missed something.

Unlike Wells, who thinks there is more bad than good in the Bible, I think there is more good. Yet, I cannot honestly say that there is no bad. Sometimes, it's that bad that we really need to focus on in order to understand the deep things God is trying to tell us. Is it really better to have a gang of perverts rape your virgin daughters than your houseguests? Is it really a good thing that some young men were mauled by bears for taunting a prophet? Should believers respond to questionable religious activity with physical violence, and then respond to capital crimes with complete forgiveness? There are definitely many, many questions that we should be asking ourselves about this volume that forms the structure of our faith. If we truly have faith, then we should expect to find answers.

I am hoping to find ways to make this blog a bit more accessible. I've noticed that some blog websites have tools that allow you to organize and index things within your blog to make it easier to find topics from the archives. While some of those tools that I think I would like to have are not available here as far as I know, I am trying to come up with something of my own. one thing I do have is a complete list of all posts here (site no longer available). That unfortunately is not set to automatically update, so it may not always be up-to date. On the other hand, most of the recent posts should always be available on the sidebar. It may not matter, though, as the great majority of the traffic I receive seems to come through the SAB itself, from links on appropriate pages.

Thanks for reading, all three or so of my devoted fans.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom (Exod 20:18-26)

After the declaration of the Ten Commandments is complete, the people get a bit freaked out. Apparently, they find the overt presence of God in the area to be a bit much for them, and ask Moses to relay messages to them rather than having God speak directly to them. Moses tells them something that is an interesting turn of phrase,
Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not.
So, don't have fear of God, because He's come here to give you fear. Huh? You can't get out of this one by referring back to the Hebrew, since both words are from the same root. What you do have to appeal to in order to understand this is that "fear" in Biblical terms has different shades of meaning. You can fear something in that you can be terrified of it, or you can fear something in that you can have respect for its power. While it would be nice to have separate words for these different concepts in the Hebrew and in the English, we really don't. (The Amplified Bible inserts the word "reverential" before the second instance.) Oh well.

Then God starts to tell Moses some laws, which is largely the beginning of God dictating the whole of the Mosaic law that will be committed to paper over the course of the rest of this book and the three following, interspersed with commentary about important moments in their journey to the Promised Land. The Mosaic Law is admittedly fairly tedious reading, is often repeated (note the first thing God brings up is concerning idolatry), and isn't arranged in the sort of organized fashion we expect in modern times from legal documents, but it is important to a full understanding of the Bible and the nature of God. It's also full of SAB marginal notes that I'll have to address, so no skipping for me.

I have already commented on sacrifices, which I also considered to be a good answer to the issue of burnt offerings, so all that remains is the note on the "nakedness" of priests serving at the altar. Um, yeah, I guess it is sort of a funny concept, that if they go up high people might be looking up their robes. What's the question?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

He commanded you to perform even ten commandments (Exod 20:12-17)

In the transition between commandments about God and commandments about interpersonal relationships, we find the fifth commandment:
Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
This is an interesting commandment for numerous reasons. First of all, its place within the list is interesting. Many have suggested that the commandments are in order of importance, and in the case of the last five, most likely even atheists would agree. However, even if you accept something important about God that trumps other issues here in the material world, one may well wonder why honoring your parents is considered more important than even avoiding killing. It's been said that there exists an issue here that parents, while not God, are representing a God-like authority over their own children. Very often the New Testament writers use the relationship between a child and parent as a model of the relationship between a believer and God.

As the Bible comments on itself in Ephesians 6:2, this is the first commandment that comes with a promise attached to it. It may be that the promise is a special supernatural blessing given by God, but on the other hand, there may be a perfectly natural explanation for this promise that parallels the explanation I gave for the curses mentioned elsewhere. Reject authority, and you and your children will have trouble as a natural consequence. Obey authority, and things will go well.

Now, the SAB has two comments on this verse, one that's vital, and the other that's, well, just sort of odd. How should parents be treated? The answer is pretty obvious; one should honor one's parents. The difficulty comes in the interpretation of the verses that seem to suggest otherwise. The two verses that have the infamous quote by Jesus of "Who is my mother?" is a toughie, really a matter of personal interpretation. Jesus spent a large portion of his ministry working on identifying himself with the people he was ministering to, and to God the Father. I tend to think that those verses are his way of saying that his family is bigger than just his blood relatives. The "Let the dead bury their dead" quote is one often misunderstood. The man Jesus was talking to did not have presently dead parents, but was saying essentially, "I'd like to follow you, but I think I'll wait until my parents have passed away, is that okay?" The answer was, "No, not really." Of course, as misunderstanding goes, few verses are as often misunderstood (and with good reason) as the "...hate not his father, and mother..." verse. The standard explanation, which is definitely true in part at least, is that one's love for Jesus should be so strong that all other relationships should seem like hateful ones in comparison. I think it's possible that there may be more to it than that, however, to be generous to the skeptic who can't quite buy this explanation. The Bible has a confusing way of describing the life of the Christian in terms of a series of love/hate relationships. We're told that we can't love the world, but we're told that God loved the world; what gives? The fact is, there are people in the world who are loved by God, and should be loved by you, but at the same time, they do things that are not lovely. If the people you love are keeping you from realizing your full potential, then you'd be better off hating them than loving them. This even goes for your parents.

Is it OK to call your father (or anyone else) father? Wow, what a question! The fact is, I have actually met a guy who took Matthew 23:9 fully literally and did not call his biological father "father". I don't think there is a call to take it that way, though. The point of the passage in Matthew is not that titles are somehow inherently evil, but that people shouldn't be looking to show off with fancy titles. Does anyone really think that Jesus is advocating referring to your biological father as "dear old Mom's sperm donor" or some such nonsense? I'll admit, this is a confusing issue, but I don't think it's meant to imply something absurd.
Thou shalt not kill.
This one seems very straightforward. But of course, it's not. The SAB points out numerous verses that seem to place a stamp of approval on killing. The first thing to note is that it appears that the SAB has avoided one of the usual pitfalls in misunderstanding this verse. It's my understanding that in the Hebrew, the word for "kill" is clearer, and means something more akin to "murder"; the implication is that this commandment doesn't apply to things like killing animals for meat, killing attackers in self-defense, or killing enemy combatants in war. Instead of dragging out no doubt hundreds of verses that would deal with those issues, the SAB brings up a handful of very pertinent ones that are likely among the most troubling.

The Exodus 32:27 passage is troubling because these are Israelites killing fellow Israelites, at a point in time just a little over a month after our current moment we're studying in chapter 20. In Numbers 15:35, just a short time later, we see another instance of Israelites killing Israelites. In both instances, there was no act of aggression on the part of the person(s) attacked, and the attackers were ordered by God Himself to do the attacking. (The third verse cited on that page could conceivably fall under the heading of war, but I'll address it further when I get to it, as there are special circumstances there.) There's no getting around it that this is more than a bit disturbing. I used to know a guy who, when cornered on a debate concerning the Bible would often retreat to: "Do you think it's right to stone a man FOR GATHERING STICKS?!?!" It was seldom apropos, but a good question nonetheless. The fact that both of these things happened in the very early days of Israel being established as a nation seems significant to me. I think that this was a time when God was in the process of teaching the nation as a whole that He was serious about His devotion to them, and He wanted them to be serious in their devotion to Him. So, He made examples of a few key people at this early time; it's the only way it makes sense to me. These people seem to have just heard the Ten Commandments spoken to them by God Himself, and yet there they are, breaking most if not all of them just a few days later.
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
It's interesting to me that the SAB gives this one the thumbs up. A lot (well, some, at least; I don't know what portion) of atheists are against the idea of sexuality between consenting adults being considered wrong. Attitudes towards sexuality are hardly universal among either atheists or Christians. "Is it wrong to commit adultery?" the SAB asks. The answer is a very clear "Yes," although admittedly, the term "adultery" is never very clearly defined, and must be gathered from contexts. The verses cited by the SAB are really stretching. Numbers 31:18, while sounding rather offensive to the much more feminist culture we live in, is not adultery. It's fair to assume that if they were going to sleep with these women, they would be married to them. As for the verses from Hosea, the prophet Hosea was ordered by God to marry a woman who was an adulteress. This is not the same as ordering him to commit adultery at all. (Why was he ordered to do so? Like a number of the prophets, he was made to live out an allegory in his life. Check out the book, it's one of the easier prophets to read.)
Thou shalt not steal.
Is it wrong to steal? Once again, I think this one is clear. The verses brought up by the SAB to suggest the Bible supports stealing are all matters of people taking back what rightly belongs to them. I discussed this some back in a previous post.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
This tends to be interpreted as "Don't lie." If you read it carefully, it's not so broadly about lying so much as it is about slander. Still, it's reasonable to treat it as though it were about lying in general. The SAB asks Is it OK to lie? As I said way back at the beginning of the book when this question first surfaced, lying is wrong in general, but there are cases in which lying may be justified, such as in order to save a life.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour'swife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.
Last one! Coveting is a bit set aside from the other ones in that rather than an action, it's about the way a person thinks. If you're breaking this commandment, nobody but God will know. Why is it included at all? And why are there passages that seem to command coveting? Well, most obviously, one can look at what is being coveted and realize a fundamental difference. Coveting somebody else's stuff vs. coveting to be a better Christian? There's a clear difference there. The command talks about coveting things that do not belong to you, whereas Paul is talking about things that do belong to the Christian. He's saying, "This really is rightfully yours, so be excited about God giving it to you!" On a less obvious note, the Greek word that is rendered "covet" here is never rendered "covet" in any other passage. Generally, it refers to being zealous about something, and in fact, is the root word for zealous; in both places the Greek is zeloute.

Oh, and slavery is a side-issue that I have already discussed (and discuss again in a later post in greater detail.)

Monday, July 24, 2006

The ten commandments, which the LORD spake (Exod 20:1-11)

So God speaks, and tells them the Ten Commandments. (I'll refrain from using quotes now, as I will mean Exodus 20:2-17 by the phrase from now on unless I need to return in the future to the discussion of my last post.)

The first phrase in verse two is debated most often as to whether or not it is one of the commandments, perhaps by itself or part of the first commandment.
I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
Well, grammatically, it's not a command, is it? As a child, it occurred to me that while it isn't grammatically in the form of a command, it does imply something of a command, that being that God is demanding recognition as God. For this reason, some people like to group it as part of the first commandment, which seems to be on this subject. (Actually the first three or four commandments are largely about God and who He is and what sort of respect He demands from His people.) My personal take is that this verse serves the same sort of purpose as the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution. God starts out the list of commandments by stating who He is and what He has done for this nation of people. This is to make sure we remember why these commandments hold force. Some people don't find it a convincing argument, but in a sense it's true: God makes the rules because He is God. In the specific case of the Israelites, He has not only created them, but He has worked a series of miracles to redeem them from their state of slavery. So because of who God is and what God has's a list of important rules, starting with
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Not as straightforward as one might hope. Sure, it's a simple statement, but when you unpack it, the inevitable question arises: "Other" gods? How many gods are there? Well, in the most important sense, there is only one, but there are other ways to approach the question that I have already addressed. So what else?
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
This is a big one, and once again, we are presented with many issues. Some people take this in a fully literal sense, that you can't make images of any kind whatsoever. The SAB points out that if this verse is meant in that way, God is contradicting Himself. I suspect that what's really going on here is a grammatical construct that doesn't translate well into English, like a double negative (completely acceptable in many other languages). The issue here is not the images themselves (although admittedly the Hebrew word here is never used in a positive manner in the Bible) but the way in which they are responded to. One has to always remember that God is our creator and our redeemer, and never mistake a hunk of metal for Him.

Idolatry is a topic that has many layers to it, and causes a number of people to get squeamish about certain things. A Jewish friend of mine once remarked that He didn't understand why Christians worshipped the cross, and to him, it looked like idolatry. I pointed out to him that as a child being raised in a synagogue, it often seemed to me that if someone from the outside were to watch us as we worshipped, they might get the mistaken impression that we worshipped the Torah, which is kept in a fancy box in the front of the congregation, taken out and paraded around, people don't touch it with their bare hands, but occasionally kiss its cover. This is the fine line between worshipping and revering. There is nothing wrong with having respect for things that we know are important to God. Among some sects of Christianity, this comes up in discussions of the distinction between idolatry and .

What about that last bit concerning God punishing children for the sins of their fathers? Does God really do that? Well, I discussed it some back here, but there is more to be said, I think. It really is an issue that has to do with the whole of the first three commandments, and the statement that God is "jealous". Is it okay for God to be jealous? I'm a bit surprised that it hasn't come up yet, nor is it commented on here, but many people have a big problem with God's "attitude", if you will. Why does God care so much about whether or not people worship Him? Well, it's because, for whatever deeper theological reasons that I won't go into here, since it could be a post unto itself (and maybe will be some time), following God is the right thing to do. Not following God and listening to His commandments is a recipe for disaster. God is jealous not in the sense that he feels put down by people who don't worship Him, but that He knows what's best, and He is sad for us when we make poor decisions, including not following Him. So back to what I had said before about punishing children for their parents' mistakes and tying it in here, not only will people who do not follow God find troubles in their life (and afterlife) as a result, but they will lead their children in their ways. Children of abusive parents tend to grow up to be abusive parents themselves. Children of alcoholics tend to become alcoholics. And here, I think the implication is that children of idolaters will tend to be idolaters.
Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
Hmm, no comment from the SAB, so perhaps it's taken as clear? This is a deeper one than most realize, though. It's not about swearing per se. It's about using God's name in any way that is short of the full respect God demands. As I said before, a "name" is often synonymous with a reputation. If you use God's name as a curse word, then you are equating God with something base, which is wrong. But you are also in trouble if you go around telling people that God has said things He has not, and you misrepresent God in any way. The full implications of this commandment are tough to fully fathom, I think.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
The SAB has quite an interesting bit to say on this commandment. As for whether the Sabbath must be kept, I point back to a previous post, but as for the question of interpretation of "days" and the scientific implication thereof, I plead artistic license. While I argued throughout the early chapters of Genesis that I don't think it entirely logically inconsistent to assume six literal 24-hour days, I also don't think that this passage demands that interpretation.

There is a passage in the New Testament in which Jesus refers to the prophet Jonah being swallowed by a whale (fish?), and I have heard pastors point to this and say, "See? Jesus is saying that Jonah was a real person, and really was swallowed by a whale!" I don't buy it. If you're going to assume that every time Jesus (or somebody else of authority in the Bible) mentions a person or thing, that implies an endorsement of that thing as being real, then we're back to the problem of the first commandment, in which God mentioning "other gods" would therefore be confirming the truth of polytheism. Just as I could refer to myself cutting down a tree "with the might of Paul Bunyan", so could Jesus refer to a well-known myth of Jonah, and God could refer to the allegory of a six-day creation. It's all in the matter of making a point, not necessarily driving home a tangential factoid.

These four commandments are the ones dealing with our relationship with God. Tomorrow, I will hopefully get through the ones dealing with interpersonal relationships.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The words of the covenant, the ten commandments (Exod 20 intro)

Wow. There's a lot that could be said here. In a very straightforward way I could answer just the issues the SAB brings up with this chapter (ignoring the cross references to the Book of Mormon) and call it a day. But of course, I'm not going to do that. This is a very important chapter of the Bible, if for no other reason than it's commonly believed to be so.

Which is definitely one of the issues that needs to be discussed. Some people have suggested that what we commonly call the "Ten Commandments" are not the real Ten Commandments. Well, it depends on what you mean by "real". In one sense, it is true, and important to note that the words "Ten Commandments" don't appear in this chapter of the Bible. You can judge for yourself how vital that is to their understanding, but for myself, I think the vital aspect of this passage isn't about the label one puts on it, but its context. "Ten Commandments" is a phrase that, while the Bible lacks it in this immediate context, still refers to this passage. I'm a firm believer in the concept that usage determines meaning, and when a person says the phrase, 99% of the time, they are referring to Exodus 20, even if they aren't fully familiar with the ins and outs of the content of it. (Check out this post in Steve Wells' blog, which I just discovered the other day. If you're wondering about the claim made in the title of the post, my short answer is that Jesus wasn't attempting to name them all.) Arguing that it is not acceptable to refer to this passage as the "Ten Commandments" is just a non-issue, as far as I'm concerned.

As to the numbering of the commandments, I think that's also a red herring. Although my preferred understanding is essentially in line with the Protestant numbering system (and I'll use it to refer to the individual commandments in the future), I don't think numbers matter so much as understanding them well. Is there one commandment to not covet, or is there two? I don't care; so long as you understand that coveting is considered wrong, you can subdivide it into eight coveting commandments (Don't covet your neighbor's (A) wife, (B) house, (C) land, (D) manservant, (E) maidservant, (F) ox, (G) donkey, (H) various other possessions that are none of the above). There are various commandments and sub-commandments here, and the numbering of them is not important, only the meaning. Jesus of course claimed to have summed up all of God's law in two commandments (Matt. 22:36-40).

Tempting though it may be to just leave the accusations towards the Book of Mormon dangling here (I don't personally believe in the book, nor in the faith built upon it) there is something that I think should be said in the book's defense. Steve Wells' commentary on the Book of Mormon adds two categories that are not found in the Biblical commentary. Those two categories are "Plagiarism" and "Changes in the BOM". I can find no commentary on the nature of these two categories, but as far as I can tell, the former is concerning passages in the Book of Mormon that completely synch up with passages in the Bible, while the latter is passages that have been changed from the original version of the BoM. I'm not sure what to make of the latter category, as some of the changes quoted seem rather minor, but I can see that some are indeed significant. The former category is one I have a big problem with. Sure, as skeptics, we can approach the BoM as nothing but a cheap knock-off off the Bible, and as such, we can point out some striking similarities and call it "plagiarism"; but if the BoM is really in essence written by the same God that wrote the Bible, then can't it be chalked up to similarity in writing style? I've got reasons for doubting the validity of the Book of Mormon, but its similarity to the Bible is not one of them.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking (Exod 19)

Exodus 19 is the lead-in to the Ten Commandments passage, which I haven't decided how much detail I'm going to go into regarding it. It will probably take more than one entry, but whether it might be worth going really deep and making three, four, maybe even as much as ten, that remains to be seen. I suppose I have to decide what role I am to play in relating that information.

Here in this chapter, though, the first thing the SAB notes is God's promise of favor to the Israelites. I suppose one could see this as unjust and intolerant, as the SAB labels it, but at the very least, let's not forget that this is not arbitrary. If you read the whole verse, you see an "if" in it--this is a conditional state for the nation of Israel, contingent upon their fulfilling their part of the contract. If they do fulfill their part, they will become "a kingdom of priests", which is an odd turn of phrase. I think this is something that has to be taken figuratively to some degree, because reading all of the Mosaic Law makes it clear that only certain people can literally be priests. Defined very loosely, though, a priest is someone who is qualified to act as an intercessor between God and man, and the purpose of the nation of Israel according to Christian theology (and probably many branches of Judaic thought as well) is that all the other nations would see the special relationship between God and Israel and come to know God better by observing them. In this sense, every observant Jew is a priest.

Now God gives some warnings that nobody but Moses is allowed on Mt. Sinai. Penalties for breaching this law are severe; any man or animal that touches the mountain will be put to death. The SAB has an interesting speculation on this, one that I myself have considered in the past. Maybe Moses is going up on the mountain and meeting with nobody at all, and he figures that the best way to keep his cover from being blown is to keep everybody off of the mountain. If this is so, it doesn't seem to make much sense to punish animals as well, but perhaps it's just Moses' paranoia? I think the real problem with this is that the supernatural aspect is still apparent, and would need to be explained away. There's the column of smoke, which apparently at this time sits on the mountain, and there is the voice of God, and a show of power of some sort that the people experience. Still, an interesting thought no doubt.

The SAB also notes that Moses tells the men to not have sex for three days. I'm not sure why this is sexist, since there is no statement that somehow having sex will make them unclean because they touched a woman. Frankly, I have no idea what this is about, because no explanation is given.

The last note here is that God warns Moses to make sure nobody tries to sneak in and see God, because doing so will cause them to die. This is something that is mentioned a number of times throughout the Bible, and no explanation is given for it either. I don't think the "cruelty" tag is appropriate, nor really the "injustice" one, although I'd grant the "absurd". The fact that seeing God will cause one to die is generally presented not so much as God being mean and demanding privacy or whatever Steve Wells might be guessing, but rather a supernatural thing, that the mere act of laying eyes upon God in his full glory would be too much to take. It's another thing I don't fully understand, and certainly won't try to give an explanation for it.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Why art thou alone? (Exod 18)

Exodus 18 is pretty easy, because the notes here are mostly ones that have already been covered, I think, very well in this blog. The issue of the correct name of Moses' father-in-law is addressed here, while the question of the number of Gods there are is addressed here. The only other note given here is on the matter of an apparent lack of greeting for Moses' wife. There are a lot of things that could be said for that, such as the concept that this may be a cultural thing, but I think the best thing to point out is that the Bible does not say that Moses ignored his wife; it only makes special note of his greeting for his father-in-law. It may be that he did kiss his wife, but the fact that a man should kiss his wife is so commonplace as to be not worth mentioning. I don't know that I've ever mentioned kissing my wife in any of my blog entires, but if you assumed that mean that I never do, then you'd be quite mistaken. (FYI, I've never kissed my father-in-law.)

There is some interesting stuff here about Moses being advised to delegate some authority, which he does to apparently good end. One thing that's interesting about it is Moses' mention of "the statutes of God, and his laws." This is before our story has included any mention of God's law other than the Passover law. Is this story out of sequence, or has Moses already learned much of the law that is later formally presented, or is Moses assuming he alone knows what God wants? One could speculate endlessly.

Friday, July 14, 2006

I will make the wilderness a pool of water (Exod 17)

Chapter 17 is a pretty easy one, so as I often do in such cases, I'm going to complicate things with my own comments on what I suggest the SAB might want to say.

First of all, it seems like verse 2 ought to be added to this page, although only if Wells is trying to be comprehensive in his citations. I think a lot of the time, he's just looking for a few good examples, but I'm not sure. It should be noted that he has mistakenly put Genesis 22:1 and 2Sam. 24:1 on this page, which I don't think he meant to. This verse would fit just fine, though. I suppose that since I therefore have not addressed this issue, I ought to here. I think the issue is not whether God can be tempted per se, but whether people will try to tempt God. One of the hard things about this concept is that "tempt" and "test" are largely used interchangeably, with some confusing results. God's certainly not going to be tempted into sin, which is the way we usually think of "tempting". However, God is certainly able to be tested; the only question is whether or not it's appropriate to do so at any given time or in any given manner. For some reason, throughout most of the wilderness wanderings of Israel, the kind of testing/tempting they were doing was inappropriate, while there are examples both of people testing God with positive results, and God actually ordering the people of Israel to test Him! Although the word "test" is not in that verse, the concept is pretty clear there, and I think Wells ought to consider adding it to the test page.

Really, I don't understand this well. I once heard a pastor who said that all testing of God is forbidden in the Bible except for what we find in Malachi 3:10. The guy was a great speaker, but I think he had forgotten Gideon, who doesn't really fit under this heading. (This is also akin to the story in Luke 1 which I really should have included in my "Christmas edition", in which one person gets in trouble for asking a question to an angel, and another person does not.) My only thought is that it has a lot to do with attitude. The Israelites were essentially saying, "Oh my gosh! Moses has led us out into the desert to die, and God doesn't care about us!" While people like Elijah tested God with an attitude more like, "I'm so certain that God is with me, that I'm willing to give him a test to show you!" This is only speculation on my part, but it makes some sense in that God seems to value faith very highly.

Now, Moses goes with the leaders of the tribes to this place where there is this rock that God says, "I will stand before thee there..." which I assume to be somewhat figurative; perhaps the pillar of smoke mentioned previously stopped at the rock. Moses hits the rock with the staff, and water comes out of it. "God is such a clever guy!" the SAB says. Yes, I suppose He is. Apparently, this is absurd to Steve Wells, but he doesn't explain why. I guess it's another case of anything miraculous is absurd. This is definitely meant to be a miracle, and aside from the obvious fact that it's supernatural for rocks to spew out water when hit, the fact that this staff is used is often an indication in the Torah that miracles are involved.

Shortly after this (although it's not clear, since the Bible isn't much on sequential storytelling) the Amalekites come to attack the Israelites. Apparently, the SAB deems fighting back against this attack to be cruel, unjust, and intolerant. Am I to take it then that they should have just let themselves be attacked?

Something miraculous seems to happen in this story. Moses goes up on a hillside, and holds up his staff. So long as the staff is over his head, the Israelites keep winning, when he puts it down, the battle turns on them. This may indeed be a miracle (remember what I said about the staff?) in which case it needs no further explanation. I do notice however that most of the miracles that Moses performs during his ministry are following an order from God to do them. No such order is mentioned here, and I wonder if it might have been a psychological morale-booster for the troops to see Moses holding up the staff? It's a possibility.

God tells Moses to write the story down "in a book," presumably this one we're reading now. I find this verse in itself to be an odd one, and it may be a Hebrew idiom that we don't fully understand, but God says essentially, "Make sure everyone remembers the Amalekites, because I'm going to make sure everyone forgets them." Huh? Sort of the reverse of Jesus' statement in Matthew 26, where He says the woman with the ointment will be remembered forever, but Matthew fails to tell us who the heck she was. (It may have been Mary, as a very similar story is told in John, and Mary is named there.) In any case, as I mentioned way back, Israel indeed had to keep fighting generation after generation of Amalekites, and yes, most of the time they had to do it without Moses' help.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Our fathers did eat manna in the desert (Exod 16)

Something that the SAB doesn't mark as absurd, but most people reading the Bible in modern times find quite absurd is that fact that immediately after dancing and singing about how great God is and what a wonderful thing it is to be freed from the Egyptians, the Israelites start complaining. "Hey Moses, where's the food?" they ask him. I think it's weird that these guys were about to embark on a journey to a foreign land and didn't think to pack some snacks. As the SAB says later down in the chapter (I'll get to it), the journey from Egypt to Canaan was about ten days. Did they really not have enough to last ten days? Did they really expect Moses to feed all 600,000 of them?

Moses points out to the people that in complaining, they really were complaining to God. The SAB calls this intolerance and injustice, and while I don't agree that these are the issues, I'm not sure which icon(s) would go better here. The point is taken, however, that this sort of claim is used from time to time by religious leaders to manipulate. I would like to stress, however that one might claim manipulation with truth for a good cause is acceptable. For instance, if I were to say to a young person thinking about dropping out of school that people who have had more schooling tend to make bigger incomes, that would be manipulative, but I wouldn't think it morally wrong, intolerant, or unjust at all. In this case, Moses is reminding the people that they've only gotten this far by the grace of God, and they shouldn't take it for granted. Whether you see God in a positive Judeo-Christian light or as an oppressive, capricious supernatural tyrant, this stands to be good advice.

Well, this is where God makes the manna for them. "Manna" is a funny word; the Israelites didn't know what the stuff was, so they called it "What is it?" Of course, modern scholars generally are in agreement with the SAB on the matter, claiming that this mysterious substance was an excretion of certain small insects that fed on tamarisk trees in the region. (An interesting note, but I'm not sure if there is supposed to be an issue with the matter.) The miraculous side of the manna was no so much in existence, then, but rather in its abundance, as there was enough for everyone, and how it kept, namely that it would not last overnight, excepting on Fridays, when it would last for two days. Many scholars believe that the fact that it spoiled was to teach the Israelites to depend on God for daily provision, and the reason it kept on Fridays was obviously so that they would learn about the sabbath.

Ah, the sabbath. That's a hot-button issue. Really, I think the wrong icon is used here, and I'll explain why. Really, there is a matter of interpretive differences that make the true divide between the pro-sabbath and anti-sabbath camps. (Well, there really isn't an "anti-sabbath" camp, just sort of sabbath-neutral.) If you'd like to read about Christians that say, yes, we still ought to keep the sabbath, I'd point you to my friend Newbirth, who has a blog focusing mainly on the topics of low-carb dieting and sabbath-keeping for Christians. For just a lay person in the church, she's done a lot of thought and research into the matter. But as for the Bible...

The SAB gives a page of supposed contradictions concerning the sabbath, and while the items in the "Yes" column are indeed on the mark, I think many of the items in the "No" column are misunderstood. The Isaiah passage is reminiscent of the issue of animal sacrifices I discussed way back in Genesis. Basically God is saying that the Sabbath is something that the Israelites should do to honor God, but they are doing it in a hypocritical display of false self-righteousness, and as such, He despises it. The two passages quoted out of the Gospels, like many others one could find, are not a matter of breaking the keeping of the commandment to observe sabbath, but the breaking of traditional interpretations of the implication of sabbath. It's rather akin to the exchange in Matthew 15, in which Jesus responds to the Pharisees' rebuke about omitting a traditional hand-washing ceremony by pointing out that they don't honor their parents because of man-made traditions. While Jesus did break a few sabbath traditions, I don't believe He ever broke the O.T. sabbath law.

The remaining two verses are admittedly a bit more vague. Paul does sound like he's saying the sabbath is not important. While various people interpret these passages to simply not be saying what you might think they are saying about the sabbath, another possibility that many non-sabbath-keeping Christians point out is that many of the O.T. laws (including the sabbath) were imposed on Jews alone, and not the gentiles. In Acts 15, the early church agrees that there is no need for a gentile convert to Christianity to keep the Mosaic Law, and the sabbath is not specifically mentioned one way or the other.

Coming back full circle to the original issue, the SAB points out that there is something absurd about taking forty years to complete a ten-day journey, and indeed there is. Of course the real reason this happened according to the Bible is that it was due indirectly to the murmuring. The Israelites chose not to go into the Promised Land at the appointed time, so God essentially said, "Okay, then we'll wait forty years and try again when you're really ready." The full explanation is to be found in the book of Numbers.

Monday, July 10, 2006

And they sang praises with gladness (Exod 15)

Exodus 15 is a tough one to reply to for numerous reasons. First of all, this is a song that the people are singing, so one could simply dismiss the entire thing as unimportant from a theological standpoint. Second of all, the chapter is largely a review of what we have just seen in the previous chapters, so it's going to be hard sorting out what's a repetitious issue and what is truly new. Thirdly, as this is by form a poem, there may be some use of poetic language here that clouds the meaning. Why does all this make it hard to give responses to? After all, all of those are excellent excuses to not have to respond at all, case closed. Well, I think that choosing any of those approaches that would be an easy out that I don't think would be fully satisfactory to most skeptics. Those issues will come up, and I think they are valid excuses, but I don't want to gloss over a difficult passage too simply.

So, the Israelites are singing a song of praise to God because he just killed a bunch of Egyptians. Sounds twisted, no doubt, but I think an important factor to remember is that said Egyptians were in the process of trying to hunt them down and kill them. I think we can forgive them a little rejoicing in such a case. Maybe all readers won't agree, but when you've been enslaved as a nation for 400 years, and your slave masters try to kill you as you make your escape, which you made with permission, you might be a little more than relieved to see them die.

Is God a "man of war"? My answer (and did you expect a better one?) is: it depends. God definitely has a preference for peace over war. Throughout the Bible, I see God as trying to get people to get along with each other, but it's part of His nature that He views it as far more important that they get along with Him specifically. War is an odd thing, though. In many ways, the rules change in the midst of war. For instance, it's generally accepted that if you shoot a man just because you don't like him, you're a murderer, but if you shoot a man because you're a soldier and he's an enemy combatant, you're a hero. And rules change on levels that are beyond the personal; borders get redrawn, international trade breaks down, and history is written by the winning side in the end. I think it may be the case that war makes the rules change all the way up to God's level, but it may also be that God's rules are different to begin with, and if so, I still think that's acceptable. (See first paragraph here, and entire post here on the parent-like relationship God has towards us.)

Most of the talk of violence in this chapter boils down to a single subject, that being that God is known for perpetrating acts of violence upon people. I think the answer to this is pretty much what I've already given here; the reasons that the Israelites have to rejoice are the same reasons God has to do what He does. As a side note, while the Bible doesn't point out the absurdities of many of the described actions of God other than the "nostrils" reference, it should be noted that this chapter is poetic through verse 21, and much of the language is taking poetic license as a result. God doesn't have arms, hands, or nostrils, but apparently it was thought better to visualize Him with them for purposes of retelling the story.

Also, note that a careful reading of verse 15:9 should indicate that this is Pharaoh's "lust", not God's. While God at times does violent things, I don't believe he "lusts" for violence. The issue of the number of Gods was addressed by me in full in a previous post.

Perhaps because this is the first mention of dancing in the Bible, the SAB takes a moment to ask the question, "Is dancing a sin?" While there are certainly some Christian denominations that express the sentiment that it is, I don't think you'll find any clear condemnations of it in the Bible itself. The three verses quoted by the SAB to indicate that dancing is a sin are actually pretty easy to explain. Exodus 32:19 is a verse in which Moses sees dancing and gets angry, yes, but in context, dancing is not the only thing happening. Chiefly, Moses is angry about the calf, but the dancing in this case may be akin to the issue of the Matthew verse. In Matthew 14:6-8, we see someone dancing, and while the Bible does not specifically point out the evil of this young woman, the SAB is right that there is something inherently wrong with the dancing here. Essentially, most scholars are of the opinion that this girl is doing a striptease for her stepfather. As for Galatians 5:19-21, dancing is not mentioned specifically, so I'm not sure why it's there at all.

Other than a parting thought which might be covered under the violence umbrella above as biological violence, the SAB finishes the chapter only noting the apparent absurdity of a tree being put in some water to make it palatable. I'm not sure why this is absurd. It may have been a miracle, but it might also have been a perfectly natural effect. Whatever tree this is, we do not know, nor what the effect was. Perhaps the water was okay, but just tasted bad, and this tree had a sweet taste to it, or even some sort of fruit that they made a punch out of, who knows? Anyway, I'm not sure what the real issue is here.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The LORD is a man of war (Exod 14)

Finally back from a long hiatus, most of my work situation has been properly arranged, and I am going to try to spend some time posting on my blog. While my other blog is going to be focusing on the separation of church and state here in the USA, here I will be conversely be focusing on the establishment of a theocracy in the Middle East, of course, as once the Israelites leave Egypt, the nation of Israel really begins, despite having no land to settle on for quite some time.

Most of the issues pointed out in this chapter have to do with Pharaoh's heart being hardened, which I addressed in a previous post. In the midst of all of this heart-hardening, I think the SAB missed something that they might want to mention. Namely, that God instructs the Israelites to camp in such a manner that they feign being vulnerable. The plagues are not quite enough for some reason; God wants to destroy the Egyptian army and embarrass the nation of Egypt.

If the SAB is looking for absurdities, and likes to mark miraculous occurrences as such, then they've missed one of the biggies. God causes the sea to become dry, and the Israelites cross over it that night. Note that there is no talk of "parting" the Red Sea (although there may be a hint of it in verse 29), but rather the wind blows all the water off to one side. This act is not considered an absurd concept as a miracle, but having chariot wheels fall off is. Also, in the midst of this, the SAB notes as an absurdity (I think it's supposed to be a contradiction, which seems to make more sense) that there are horses still available for the Egyptian army, since they were all killed in Exodus 9. I stand by essentially what I said before, which is that the verse in question says beasts that were in the fields were struck down. Most likely, the army's horses were kept in stables, and thus many of them if not all may have survived the plagues.

As a side note, it would be an interesting discussion to examine why these miracles, done by God, had to be preceded by a small action on Moses' part. If God wanted to allow the Israelites to walk across the bottom of the sea on dry ground, does He really need a waving staff to make it happen? I can think of a few reasons for God having Moses do this, but I'm not going to give appreciable time to it in this blog unless I come to text that seems more clearly to beg the question.

So God drowns the Egyptian army. The SAB marks this as cruel and/or violent, which I suppose is deserving enough, but it should be noted that there is something that's just naturally cruel and violent about war. Remember, these are not just a few Egyptians out for a leisurely Sunday drive, but an army, and no doubt their aim was not exactly a kindly one. In a way, this was an act of war upon Israel and upon God. God destroyed the army to put a final end to it, and Israel was finally a free nation.

Monday, June 12, 2006

And he said, Take now thy son (Exod 13)

I think this may be covered in more detail elsewhere in the Mosaic Law, but God wants the people to "sanctify" their firstborn sons to God. Here, it's not entirely clear what that entails, and I'm not going to bother to look it up elsewhere, just because I'm feeling lazy. The only thing I care to respond to at this point in time is the issue of sexism in verse 2. There may be a number of reasons for this, including a number of ones that indeed would be considered sexist no matter how I put them. I'd like to suggest a couple that I don't think are quite so sexist.

First of all, it seems to be hinted heavily that much of what is set upon the ancient Israelites as law was given to be in contrast to the pagan nations they intermingled with. In this particular case, I believe that this may be at least in part a response to the killing of baby boys by Pharaoh. The Egyptians kill the baby boys of the Israelites, God kills the baby boys of the Egyptians, and in order to remember that God avenged their blood and saved future generations from genocide, they have to remember to "sanctify" their sons that would have been killed if they had not been saved from their Egyptian captivity.

Another possibility, which is not so far removed from the above, nor entirely free of sexism, is that God is simply following a societal standard. I think many of us find it distasteful at times, but it seems that God was sometimes in the practice of doing things in a manner that was according to the times. If something was outright sinful, He'd demand it stopped. If something was less than ideal, but not *evil*, then he'd allow it to continue at times. A case could be made for polygamy being within that sort of domain. It's not bad enough to outright ban, but not really God's ideal, either, so it's neither banned nor sanctioned. One thing that ought to be noticed, however, is that when the time was right for it, God would sometimes throw in exceptions.

Now this sanctification of firstborn males also seems to apply to livestock, although in this case, there's a very straightforward application given right here: they have to be killed by breaking their neck. The SAB notes this as violent, and I would agree and disagree. The issue of sacrifice aside (which I have addressed many times previously) it occurs to me that if you are going to kill an animal, breaking its neck is probably relatively fast and painless. So while one might find sacrifice in general barbaric perhaps, I'm not sure what would be a better method, other than perhaps beheading the animal, I don't know.

In response to all of this, and as an observation on verse 15, the SAB says, "The Lord killed so you should too". Well, yeah. We're talking about animal sacrifices here, and God saving an entire nation... Maybe it's just a matter of perspective, but I don't see a great problem here.

In verse 17, there is mention made of "the land of the Philistines", which causes some concern. Once again, not being fully aware of the historical backdrop of all of this in full, I can only take the SAB's claims about the Philistines on faith at this point, not knowing where to research this info. Something I can say, though, is that aside from the possibility of an anachronistic label used intentionally as I felt might be the case elsewhere, there is something going on in the language here that is worth noting. The Bible does not say, "that God led them not to the land of the Philistines" says "that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines". Wherever the Philistines may have been at this time, it may be that going through that area might have been nominally convenient as a route to their final destination. God felt that it would be best to go a different route, however. The "land of the Philistines" at this time may not have been Canaan, but an area near Canaan.

The final note that is given for this chapter is the "absurdity" of God appearing as/in a pillar of smoke and/or flame to lead them through the wilderness. Once again, there is no explanation as to why this is absurd, so I'm not sure how to respond. Unlike many of the previous times something was called absurd, I really have no idea what the problem is here.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.

Just a quick note to point you to the first of several guest-posts I will be making over at "", an atheism blog on which I have been a fairly regular reader and commentor. I have no idea why they invited me to post, nor why I accepted the invitation, but there it is.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Blessed are the barren (Exod 12)

There are a lot of issues brought up in chapter 12, but since I think I've covered a great number of them in previous posts, I may be able to get through a great deal of this if not all. Also, for those of you keeping score at home, read carefully because I'm going to admit that I think there is something legitimately wrong with this chapter; how important the problem is up to the individual reader to decide.

The first few issues of this chapter are ones that I either covered in the last post or in the comments attached thereto. What is the point of all this blood being smeared on doorposts? Well, I think the central place to find this answer is in verse 13, where God claims He will spare the houses that have the blood on them. This is part of the ongoing theme of God overlooking the sins of those who cover their sin with a sacrifice. In this case, it's a national sin of Egypt, both that they held the Israelites as slaves, but more importantly that they killed all the Israelite baby boys several years back. I'm guessing the fact that this is a national sin is the reason why this plague, unlike many of the previous ones, is a potential threat to everyone in Egypt, even the Israelites. It may be that all the Israelites put the blood on their doors, and none of the Egyptians did, but I tend to think that there may have been exceptions on both sides, the results being dead Israelites and living Egyptians, since God says His criteria will be the blood mark.

Now sticking to this issue and jumping down further in the chapter, to verses 29 and 30, this is where I have an issue. I will admit that Christians actually are surely the most guilty of overassuming this sort of thing, but I think that sometimes when the Bible says "all", it's not being as precise as it ought to be, and this is illustrated twice in these two verses. Firstly, the cattle are killed. The SAB points out that the cattle were already "all" killed twice in chapter 9. I addressed it a bit there, but it's evident that only cattle left outside were harmed in the first two plagues that killed cattle. I would think that it's safe to assume (if one accepts the assumptions that I have already made about firstborn humans) that any cattle inside a house with blood on its doorposts would survive the night.

And so the verse that I have issue with here is verse 30, which claims "...there was not a house where there was not one dead." This is clearly not true in the broadest sense, as of course there were numerous Israelite houses with nobody dying. On top of that, there are some important issues demographically. Skeptics often read this verse and say, "There goes God killing a bunch of defenseless babies..." In fact, while surely many babies were killed on this night, I believe among those killed, a minority were infants. Ah, I'm mingling two issues here, but they are interrelated. Let's give some hypotheticals. Imagine an Egyptian house in which there is a man and a woman with no children, and the husband is not the firstborn of his family; result: no deaths. Imagine a house in which there are many children, but what with infant mortality being a reality, the firstborn son has already died years ago; result: no deaths. What if they have only daughters? No deaths. What if the firstborn has grown up and already moved out? No deaths. That adult child may die in his own house, or it may be that only children were affected, I don't think we know for sure, but if only children are effected, it may be that any children over a certain age (perhaps 13?) were spared. Lastly, in response to the claim of killing babies, I would venture that a very small portion of the houses with a dying child lost an infant. After all, if you have more than one child, the firstborn is probably at least a year old. Not that killing toddlers is so much better, but I figure you might as well be clear. In summary, blood or no blood, I think many houses were spared, and among those not spared, most lost an older child.

So, back up to verse 13, the SAB asks "How many gods are there?" While I addressed some of the issues raised on that page previously, I didn't address them all, as that page is actually quoting numerous passages that have multiple ways to understand them. The majority of them fall under the same classification as this verse, that is, verses that explicitly refer to other gods. The answer is, of course, that there is only one God. So why all the stuff in the other column? There are at least three approaches, and any or all of them can be suitable.

First, the literary approach, for lack of a better name. What do Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Jessica Fletcher, and Batman have in common? They're all detectives. Does the fact that they are also all fictional characters make them any less so? Zeus, Odin, Osiris, Quetzalcoatl, Vishnu and Buluku? They're all gods, whether or not there is an actual existing entity behind each name.

Secondly, the sociological approach. Some say that a "god" is anything you give reverence to, whether it is a supposedly intelligent supernatural entity or an abstract concept. If the most important thing in your life is being rich, then money is your "god". If the most important thing is getting laid, then sex is your "god". If you want to serve Ganesh, then Ganesh is your god, whether or not Ganesh actually exists.

Thirdly, there is the spiritual approach. Suppose you decide that the world was not created by the God of the Bible, but by a superpowerful being named "Asdfgh". Maybe you made up Asdfgh, or maybe someone told you about Asdfgh and you believed. You're going to devote your life to worshipping Asdfgh out of great reverence for him/her and his/her creative and sustaining power. Who's to say that Asdfgh is not a real being, despite the fact that what you believe about Asdfgh is completely false? Generally, this goes somewhat hand-in-hand with the second approach, but with the added fact that the thing worshipped is real, albeit deceptively so. Perhaps Asdfgh was a fallen angel who told some humans he/she deserved worship. Maybe somebody dreamed Asdfgh up, and a being, wanting to lay claim to the worship Asdfgh was receiving, stepped in to claim it. Spiritually, anything could conceivably be possible. The implications of this are huge, though, and somebody may bring up some of them in comments, who knows?

In verse 14, an important question is raised, which I am going to give as short an answer as I can, since my last one was probably way too long. "Must Christians obey Old Testament laws?" Once again, the answer is "Yes and no." In all of those passages quoted, I would say that the "you" referred to is the nation of Israel. Despite the fact that Jesus came and fulfilled the law (as they say, that's an odd claim for numerous reasons), there is much of it that remains in effect for Jews. Gentiles are not required to become Jews to follow Jesus. However, there are some rules that God wants everyone to follow, and admittedly, it's not always 100% clear to me where the dividing line is.

How many days is unleavened bread to be eaten during Passover? That's an easy one. Seven days. The passage in Dt.16:8 says "Six days thou shalt eat unleavened bread: and on the seventh day shall be a solemn assembly to the LORD thy God: thou shalt do no work therein." I see no reason to assume this passage is saying that the seventh day is a day to eat leavened bread, especially since it follows so close on the heels of verse 3. I may have mentioned it before, but if two passages seem to contradict each other and are right next to each other in the Bible, you're probably misreading them. (Here's one of the best examples.)

I have already addressed the issues of stealing, population explosions, length of the captivity, and slavery, so all that remains is the objection on verse 43 and following. I don't understand it, though. Okay, so a foreigner (et al) cannot eat of the Passover, so what? It's a Jewish religious observance, and I would assume that if a person really wanted to partake of it, then they would convert to Judaism, get circumcised, and then there would be no problem, would there?