Monday, December 24, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 21, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 14, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 13, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 10, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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