Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Isaiah: More Prophecy, More Nonsense, More Death

            Well, I’d like to say it’s been interesting reading the last few weeks of reading, but… yeah. The two dozen or so Chapters that follow the point in Isaiah where I last left off mostly consist of oracles: predictions Isaiah makes about the lands and peoples surrounding Israel. They’re largely various forms of Isaiah indulging in poetic revenge-porn fantasies about the differnet nations, races, and cities that are either the traditional enemies of the Israelites or who he just personally doesn’t like, mixed with the occasional predictions of future glory for the Israelites (but only if they repent and go back to obeying Yahweh). Now, I’m not gonna bother trying to research and confirm or debunk every single one of them; this isn’t that kind of blog, and others have done that work anyway. But there are a few things that are worth commenting on.

            Round about Chapter 17, Isaiah predicts that the city of Damascus and the nation of Syria will cease to exist. You may be familiar with Syria and Damascus; they’re in the news a lot lately. Because they still exist something like 2500 years after this prediction was made. Of course, since the passage making the prediction doesn’t bother with trivia like when or how any of this destruction will happen, plenty of people like to argue that it just hasn’t happened yet. But honestly “someday City X and Nation Y will cease to exist… eventually” is so trivial a prediction that any rational person would ignore any claim that it’s prophetic at all. It’s a statement that could be made about literally any city and any nation ever founded, and it will eventually come true.

            In the midst of Chapter 21 we get the prediction that one day Egypt and Assyria will join Israel in the worship of Yahweh. By a strict reading, not only has this not come true, but it’s impossible for it to come true. You see, Assyria stopped existing a couple thousand years ago. Of course, you could pull the popular apologetics trick of claiming that this just means the people who live on the lands Assyria once occupied rather than the actual nation of Assyria. And you could even really make a stretch and claim it actually has come true… but only if you make the assumption that Allah and Yahweh are, in fact, the same god and Islam is Biblically valid. Somehow, I suspect most Jews and Christians would not be willing to make that assumption. But in any case, Isaiah 21:24 further claims that the three nations will worship together and be “a blessing in the midst of the earth,” and I don’t know anyone with a fucked-up enough world view to think that portion of the oracle has come true!

            This is made all the more entertaining by the fact that the book later includes two chapters demanding that Israel not make alliances with Egypt, and detailing all the catastrophes that will befall them if they do.

            Then there’s this little gem….

            Isa 21:11 The oracle concerning Dumah. One is calling to me from Seir, ‘Watchman, what time of the night? Watchman, what time of the night?’ 12 The watchman says: ‘Morning comes, and also the night. If you will inquire, inquire; come back again.’”

            The very next verse starts introducing an oracle regarding Arabia, so that lovely little piece of gobbledygook up there is the whole of the “oracle concerning Dumah.” You know how you can shake a Magic 8-Ball, and get “ask again later” as a possible answer because it’s just a child’s toy with no real clairvoyant ability? Yeah, that.

            A few more oracles, some chapters dedicated to verbally fellating God, more warnings and condemnations of everyone from the women of Jerusalem to the whole of the world… and finally we get to something resembling history/storytelling in Chapter 36. Here, king Sennacherib of Assyria invades Judah, and this section seems to be written in a historical style similar to that of Kings and Chronicles. In fact, it’s a retelling of a story from Second Kings, which is a good thing if you want to have any clue what the context is supposed to be; Isaiah just jumps in right in the middle.

            Interestingly enough, this story is quite literally the exact one where, in my own blog entry on Second Kings, I declared “aw, fuck it!’ and started breezing through to the end out of sheer boredom. It says a little something about what it’s like to read Isaiah that I’m now willing to write about the same story.

            Anyway, Isaiah starts with the armies of Assyria attacking and capturing a bunch of cities from Judah, then starting to lay siege to Jerusalem. It leaves out the bits from Second Kings about how the king of Judah had been suckling at the Assyrian teat, had recently bribed them to attack and destroy the northern kingdom of Israel, and had tried (and apparently failed) to bribe the Assyrians into forestalling the attack on Judah that is the subject of this story. I think, based on trying to piece things together in the various books, that the Assyrians were attacking Judah to prevent them from allying themselves with Egypt against Assyria.

            Anyway, the commander of the Assyrian army (called the Rabshekah, which seems to be a title or military rank), shows up at Jerusalem to demand that Hezekiah surrender and to taunt them for the inevitability of their defeat. He makes a point of saying that their god can’t help them, since Assyria had conquered so many other kingdoms and their gods hadn’t saved them. He also mocks them for trying to rely on an alliance with Egypt for protection. Rabshekah also tries, unsuccessfully, to incite the people of Jerusalem to abandon their king and accept Assyrian rule.

            After the Rabshekah left to rejoin the Assyrian king, Hezekiah sent his servants to ask Isaiah for help. Isaiah’s response was:

Isa 37:6 Isaiah said to them ‘Say to your master, “Thus says Yahweh: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the young men of the kind of Assyria have reviled me. 8 Behold, I will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land, and I will make him fall by the sword in his own land.”’”

            That just seems like odd and pointless phrasing. Why not just “I’ll cause him to hear a rumor…?” Why does a spirit need to be put in him that would make him hear a rumor. People don’t hear rumors because of spirits, they hear rumors because other people speak them. Ah, whatever.

            Meanwhile, the king of Assyria is besieging the town of Libnah, when he hears that the king of Cush is coming to attack him. And this is where things get a little confusing. Not sure if it’s just that the author of Isaiah is a shitty storyteller, or what. But it apparently, after hearing this rumor, the king of Assyria sends Hezekiah a letter with words to the effect of “I’m still coming to kick your ass.” Is this meant to suggest that God’s spirit/rumor gambit failed to turn him back? ‘Cause that would mean God lied and/or failed to do something he said he’d do. The book never actually explains this, or comes right out and says what is really happening either way. And since the Assyrian king eventually does leave (for other reasons, as we’re about to discuss), I suppose it’s technically true that he 1) heard a rumor and 2) returned to his own land, even though they are unrelated events and not linked as the little mini-prophecy implied.

            Hezekiah goes on another prayer binge after getting this latest letter, and Isaiah delivers God’s response. It’s weird, in that he’s speaking to Hezekiah even though portions of the response are clearly directed at the king of Assyria as if he were present. But the long and rambling response includes a promise to defend Jerusalem, which is accomplished by sending an angel to kill a hundred and eighty-five thousand Assyrian soldiers in the middle of the night. This, finally, convinces the king of Assyria to go home to lick his wounds, where he is eventually assassinated by a couple of his own sons.

            And that will be my stopping point for today. When next we come back, we can get into Hezekiah getting sick, recovering, and being kind of a dick about his own kids as we continue our wondrous exploration of Isaiah.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Isaiah: Predictions of Murder

            Holy shit, it’s been a long time since I wrote in this blog!

            In my (sorta) defense, I worked a lot of 12 hour days since March. And I lost the thumb drive where I keep my writing files. But I also managed to find time to put up several posts in my personal blog, so those excuses don’t really fly. But if you recall where we left off last time (or want to go back and read my previous post), you might see why motivation could be pretty low.

            Isaiah, also, is a bit of a challenge to blog about. After all, it contains a lot of stuff that Christians like to claim is prophetic. Some of it happened. Some of it happened, but in different ways than Isaiah predicted, and some of it has never come true. Plus, there’s good reason to think that the Book of Isaiah wasn’t even finished until after some of the events it “predicts” had actually happened. I can try to research all the claims, but the fact is that I’m neither a Biblical scholar nor a historian, and I kind of have a life outside this book. This blog is really only intended to be the impressions of an ordinary guy reading the Bible. So I think I’m going to have to proceed with the policy of just commenting on whatever I feel needs commenting on simply from a straight reading, and leave it at that.

            Anyway, when last we left off, we were in Chapter 6 of Isaiah, wherein God commanded his prophet to deliberately deceive the Israelites into sinning more so that they wouldn’t repent and therefore God could justify punishing them horrifically at a later date (people find this stuff inspirational?). From there, we go on to a story from the time of King Ahaz of Judah. In this, the northern Jewish kingdom of Israel has teamed up with Syria to start attacking Judah, and Ahaz started losing his shit over it. So God sends Isaiah to reassure Ahaz that God’s totally not gonna let that happen. He even promises to give him a magical sign to prove that he’s speaking the truth, which brings us to one of those passages that is, oddly, held up as a prophecy about Jesus.

Isa 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  16 For before the boy knows how to refuse evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.”

            This is very obviously supposed to be a sign that happens in the time of Ahaz (more than seven hundred years before Jesus’ time) specifically in relation to his troubles with Syria and Israel. I have no idea how anyone concludes it means anything else. I mean, the Immanuel character in this “prophecy” isn’t even supposed to do anything; it’s just predicting that Syria and Israel will cease to be threats to Judah sometime between the kid’s birth and him being old enough to eat solid food. Though maybe this was a case where the lands of Syria and Israel were never actually deserted, and since that makes it look like this was a failed prophecy the NT authors shoehorned it into the Jesus story in an attempt to rescue it. But that’s just speculation on my part. But what’s odd is how Chapter 8 starts out:

Isa 8:1 Then Yahweh said to me, ‘Take a large tablet and write on it in common characters, “Belonging to Maher-shalal-hash-baz.” 2 And I will get reliable witnesses, Uriah the priest and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah, to attest for me.’ 3 And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then Yahweh said to me, ‘Call his name Maher-shalal-hash-baz; 4 for before the boy knows how to cry “My father,” or “My mother,” the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria.’”

            What’s odd about this? Well, it’s strikingly similar to the Immanuel sign; a kid will be born and given a certain name, and before he grows out of infancy the alliance of Israel and Syria will have been defeated. It’s just that the name is different, and this time the kid is Isaiah’s own son from banging a nameless prophetess rather than the fatherless son of a nameless virgin girl (dude, Isaiah, women have names. Because they’re people.). Is this maybe just a different telling of the same story? Because it’s pretty damn redundant otherwise. And what is the point of the tablet in the second story anyway? Just to illustrate that Isaiah had picked out the kid’s name before he was conceived? Big deal. We’d picked out my daughter’s name before she was conceived, too. None of this is explained, or even mentioned again.

            Anyhow, seeing as it’s been a long time since I read the Kings2 and Chronicles 2 versions of Ahaz’s reign (and I skipped over writing about it in my blog entries on those books since it was just another blip in the long parade of politicking and wars), I went back to see if there was anything corresponding to all this. When I did, I discovered that (surprise!) the two stories conflict: 2 Kings says Ahaz paid the king of Assyria to come help him, which he did by invading Syria and capturing Damascus, whereas 2 Chronicles says that Assyria took the money and still didn’t help. How does Isaiah address the situation? By claiming that Yahweh sent the Assyrians to wipe out Judah, and then would strike down Assyria for having the unmitigated gall to think they had acted of their own accord instead of as his tool.

            Why would a people who weren’t in Yahweh’s special favor and communication think to credit him for their own decisions? No reason. Just that the claim that this is the case supports the theological point the author is trying to make (that nobody should rely on anyone other than his god for anything).

            The next little bit is kind of tough to get through coherently. It mostly consists of supposedly prophetic passages about stuff that will occur in the future (relative to Isaiah’s time, though since much of it never happened it’s often interpreted to still be in the future relative to our time as well). Much of it is blood-drenched revenge fantasies against the kingdoms of Assyria and Babylon, interspersed with other fantasies of future glory for the Israelite people (after appropriate periods of getting the shit whipped out of them by other people, who are really only acting as god’s instruments to chastise them for their lack of slavish devotion to him and his rules).

            Among the predictions of a glorious future is included the arrival of a new ruler for the Jewish people, who will be a descendant of Jesse (King David’s dad, presumably). And this fellow, it is said, will have an interesting method of ruling:

Isa 11:3 And his delight shall be in the fear of Yahweh. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the por, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”

            So, ummmm… any guesses what the fuck that is supposed to mean? It’s interesting that at such an early date the Bible is already disparaging such ideas as evidence in favor of judging via “righteousness.” Like, what does that even mean? Fuck information, if you’re righteous you’ll just know what’s the right thing to do? How does someone know they’re actually righteous, without any information? If we’re talking about a human ruler (and bear in mind that this passage gives no hints that anything else is implied), this would be a clear recipe for disaster. But of course, I’m sure Christians are convinced that the ruler talked about in this passage is Jesus. And since Jesus is God, and righteousness is doing whatever God wants, then naturally anything he does is righteous by definition. So I guess this passage amounts to “And he’ll do whatever the fuck he wants, and kill anybody who disagrees, and trust me that this is a good thing.”

            But what the hell could it possibly mean to “strike the earth with the rod of his mouth?” I’m at a complete loss there, and every image the phrase might conjure up is pretty disturbing to dwell on.

            Oh, incidentally, other features included in the reign of this fellow are: predator and prey animals living together in peace, children playing in perfect safety with poisonous snakes, and the descendants of Judah and Israel teaming up to kill the everloving shit out of the Philistines, Edomites, Moabites, etc., and plundering the nations of the east. So… peace among animals, side-by-side with genocidal war among humans (with, of course, the author’s people doing the genociding)? Like it matters for shit that you’re no longer afraid of snakes, when God’s chosen people are just going to come murder you anyway? Seems like more jingoistic fantasizing, to be honest: things will be miraculously beautiful for us, while we run rampant over all our old enemies.

            This seems as good a point as any to call it a day on this one. Hopefully I’ll be able to put the next post up in less than the six months it took me to get around to this one. If you’re still reading, thank you for your patience. And, until the next time, be well!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Isaiah: Lies and Damn Lies Redux

            The Book of Isaiah is one of those supposedly prophetic books of the Bible. It’s famous for predicting the Jewish exile in Babylon, despite the fact that the oldest known copy of the text has been dated to more than a century after said exile ended. But whatever. It’s also supposed to have some predictions about the Jewish Messiah (spoiler: Jesus), though that’s fairly heavily disputed. But let’s dig in and see what the thing actually says.

            The book starts off with a section that identifies itself as:

Isa 1:1 The vision of Isaiah, the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jothan, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.”

            Clearly, we’re not talking about a single vision here, since the time period it mentions spans somewhere between thirty-two and one hundred three years depending on how much of Uzziah’s and Hezekiah’s reigns were actually included. It’s unlikely Isaiah spent all that time in a trance (or even alive). And anyway, he’s recorded as talking to some of these rulers in Second Kings, so we know he spent at least a little time conscious and interacting with the real world.

            What follows is a screed berating the people for their immorality. Of course, the claim is not that Isaiah is doing so, but that he’s relaying the words that God spoke directly to him in his vision. It’s typical of the sort of fundamentalist rants we get in America nowadays about how we’ve turned away from God and now he’s going to destroy us all, only rendered in a more poetic and long-winded fashion. In the middle of this rant, we get this interesting tidbit:

Isa 1:11 ‘What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices’? says Yahweh; ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? 13 Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations – I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. 14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.’”

            On the one hand… didn’t God himself require those sacrifices and feasts in the laws he gave Moses? Did he not, in fact, declare that he adored the smell of burning flesh? Didn’t he declare that nobody must ever appear before him empty-handed? Didn’t he say these sacrifices would be a statute forever, and that nobody could ever alter the laws? Why yes, yes he did. Now Isaiah is telling us that God doesn’t know where all that shit came from and he hates it, so people should stop following those laws based on his (Isaiah’s) say-so. Boy, it must be tough following arbitrary laws when they can be arbitrarily changed by any ol’ bugger who claims to speak for the otherwise silent and invisible lawmaker.

            On the other hand… this is followed up by saying that instead of just burning more animals the people should try applying a bit more justice and charity instead. Isaiah seems to be trying to push his theology in the direction of saying it’s pointless and stupid to burn animals on an altar to make up for being a douchebag if, in the end, you keep behaving like a douchebag. So... incremental improvement.

            Chapter 1 concludes with more about how Jerusalem and Judah collectively suck balls compared to how awesome and wonderful they used to be. So God is going to strike down the kingdom and return it to the much better days when it was run by judges. That’s kinda funny, because the Book of Judges bitched about how much everything sucked without a king to keep everyone on the straight and narrow. The grass is always greener, even if you’re God.

            Chapter 2 is short, and pretty much just apocalyptic yammering about how someday God’s totally gonna just take over the show of running the world in person. And on that day everybody in the world will bow down and exalt him, and all that stuff. I think this is the first time that kind of thing has shown up in the Bible, though it seems like pretty standard rhetoric among fundamentalist Christians these days.

            Continuing on, Isaiah talks about how, in the meantime, God’s going to be working on destroying all the wicked, cruel, and greedy people of Israel until only a purified group of righteous folks remain. This is also pretty standard for modern days, but not quite as unprecedented in the Bible since Moses sure liked to go on about the horrors God would enjoy inflicting on people who rejected him. Though Isaiah seems to focus a little more on social justice issues than mere obedience to the law. He has a real objection to people gathering wealth to themselves rather than seeing that their fellows have enough.

            There’s also an odd bit of argument that suggests that people will behave unjustly because God has stopped supporting them as punishment for… behaving unjustly. It’s circular and weird, and kind of undermines the idea of free will yet again.

            Later, Isaiah compares Israel to a vineyard that, despite all the care its gardener (God) has taken to ensure it bears good fruit, produces nothing but junk. Basically, the analogy is to make the argument that God will be justified in destroying the Israelites just as the gardener would be justified in tearing up the vineyard. I think it’s an equally valid interpretation to suppose that God’s just a shitty gardener, but that’s not the one the author is going for obviously.

            Now, to give credit where it’s due, I totally sympathize with the social justice stance Isaiah is taking. It’s just kind of a shame that he has no better argument for it than “So cut that shit out or God’s totally gonna bust you up.” I suppose, in a highly religious society, that might seem like a good argument to make… until Isaiah’s vision in Chapter Six completely undermines everything he had said or ever would say. In fact, I would go so far as to say that that this undermines the trustworthiness of the entire Bible. Because in this vision, God issues Isaiah the following order:

Isa 6:9 And he said ‘Go, and say to this people: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” 10 Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.’ 11 Then I said ‘How long, or Lord?’ And he said: ‘Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and Yahweh removes the people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. 13 And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terabinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.’”

            In case you missed it, that is God giving direct orders to Isaiah to lie to the Israelites and teach them bullshit about what God wants, so that they will continue doing stuff that pisses God off so He can feel justified in punishing them. He specifically tells his prophet to prevent people from understanding His wishes, because if they were to understand and start behaving, he would have to forgive them instead of killing the fuck out of ‘em. And God apparently wants to kill the fuck out of ‘em way more than he wants anything else.

            And that, my friends, is it for the Bible. Because even if the god it describes really exists, everything in it could be a lie specifically told to deceive you into pissing that god off so he can justify fucking you up. And it would be that way because that’s what God wants. What teachings are true? What are false just to create an excuse for punishment? There’s no way to know. By the Bible’s own admission, everything in it is suspect.

            Really, this isn’t even the only place in the Bible this happens. We've seen it before. At this point, the only thing that justifies reading any further is the fact that this book is such a cultural phenomenon. So when I calm down a bit, I’ll get back to dragging through Isaiah. But for now, I think it’s time for a break.

            Y’all take care!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Minipost: Psalm 137 - Blessed Infanticide

            Remember when I said I might come back to Psalms to do mini posts on individual ones? Well, here’s the first of those.

            Many atheists love to quote the line “blessed is he who dashes your babies against the rocks,” from Psalm 137 as a refutation of the claim that the Bible is a perfect moral guide, because it’s an obviously morally repugnant verse. But Christians love to protest that verses like this are taken out of context. So in the interests of fairness I thought I’d give this psalm a full once-over to see what possible context could possibly justify the verse. Here’s the full text of Psalm 137:

Psalm 137:1 By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. 2 On the willows there we hung up our lyres. 3 For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4 How shall we sing Yahweh’s song in a foreign land? 5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! 6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy! 7 Remember, O Yahweh, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!” 8 O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you what you have done to us! 9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”

            OK, so based on that it looks like this is a song about the Babylonian Captivity, when the Hebrew kingdoms were conquered and many of its citizens forcibly taken to live in Babylon. Those events were described both in Second Kings and Second Chronicles. The Psalm starts out as a lament for their current situation, and then it morphs into a deranged revenge fantasy about murdering the children of their captors.

            Nope. Sorry, the context still doesn’t justify it. Murdering children because you’re pissed at their parents ain’t cool, no matter how much the Bible seems to think that punishing people for the actions of their ancestors is justified. Well, in some places, such as the multiple times God orders genocides against people’s because stuff their ancestors two centuries back had done. In others, the Bible tells you that killing people for the sins of their fathers isn’t allowed. Because the Bible can’t really get its shit together long enough to give any consistent moral message.

            And heck, even within the context of the Bible itself, this is a shit attitude this Psalm is expressing. You see, according to both the Kings and Chronicles accounts, God caused the Babylonians to conquer Judah in order to punish the Israelites for not worshipping him properly. So this Psalm is a revenge fantasy about killing children because their parents did the bidding of the god the writer supposedly worships. It makes no fucking sense whatsoever!

            So yeah… I’m gonna go with the conclusion that atheist condemnation of this Psalm is fully justified.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Song of Solomon: Bible Porn

            So… what would be the last thing you’d expect to find in the Bible. If you answered “an entire book dedicated to passion between two lovers,” then the Song of Solomon will be a surprise for you. Written as a back-and-forth between a bride and her groom (with occasional interjections from a chorus of onlookers), the Song of Solomon is all about two romantics eagerly praising each other’s attributes. And from the very first line (sung by the bride), you can tell that this isn’t about chaste and virginal affection.

SoS 1:2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine; 3 your anointing oils are fragrant; your name is oil poured out; therefore virgins love you. 4 Draw me after you; let us run. The king has brought me into his chambers.”

            What follows is a rather heated bit of poetical romance. Some of it is quite fanciful, some of it is subtle (and not-so-subtle) double entendre, and some of it is… well…

SoS 4:5 Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that graze among the lilies.”

SoS 4:11 Your lips drip nectar, my bride; honey and mikl are under your tongue; the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.”

“SoS 4:16 Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, let its spices flow. Let my beloved come into his garden and eat its choicest fruits.”

SoS 7:1 How beautiful are your feet in sandals, O noble daughter! Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand.”

“SoS 7:6 How beautiful and pleasant you are, O loved one, with all your delights! 7 Your stature is like a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters. 8 I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its fruit. Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples, 9 and your mouth like the best wine.”

            So, yeah. Song of Solomon, everybody. Not much more to say about it, other than that it may just have been the wisest of the books attributed to him. Cold showers may be in order before moving on.

            Next up is Isaiah, which is listed at sixty-six chapters. Something tells me we’ll be awhile in getting through that one! Until next time, be well!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Ecclesiastes: Epic Whining

            Here we are again, back in the saddle of my Bible blog. Today we’ll be diving into the twenty-first book of the Old Testament: Ecclesiastes.

            Ecclesiastes seems to be an essay written by an author who introduces himself as “the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” By which I presume we are to infer that the author is Solomon, and that we should therefore strap ourselves in for some mind-blowing wisdom. And wisdom is one of the themes threaded throughout the essay, so I guess that’s consistent.

            Apparently, Ecclesiastes is considered highly quotable, since quite a number of lines and motifs from it are referenced throughout popular culture. You might, for example, recognize such staples as “There is nothing new under the sun,” and “To everything, there is a season.” There are more, but I suspect one would have to read the entire essay to pick up on all of them.

            Anyway, the book starts out on kind of a bleak note with another famous phrase “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” This continues into a lamentation about how temporary and kind of pointless human lives are in a world of unchanging permanence where everything that happens now has happened before and/or will happen again, and nothing genuinely new ever happens.

             From there, the narrative moves into a kind of autobiographical story about the author’s quest to find out what purpose men should have in life. It starts with his pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, which the author proclaims himself to have acquired to a degree surpassing all who came before him. But lest you think this is egotistical, he goes on to proclaim the pursuit to be vain and merely “striving after wind.” His final conclusion about the pursuit of knowledge?

Ecc 1:18 For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”

            That’s sentiment with which I’m fairly certain many beneficiaries of modern medicine would disagree. And one which, unfortunately, seems to infect the mindset of many modern Christian denominations.

            So, having dispensed with the value of seeking wisdom, the author moves on to seeking pleasure. He goes on about the masses of wealth he acquired, and the gardens he planted, and the many slaves that he bought, sold, and bred (seriously, he really does, talking about them in the same verse with his herds and flocks) and the many concubines he bedded. He claims that, while he indulged himself shamelessly, his wisdom remained as great as ever (leading me once again to question just what it is that he thinks wisdom entails), but in the end he concludes that seeking pleasure is just more vanity.

            After this the author returns to the subject of wisdom and foolishness. And in his ruminations on the subject, realizes that wise men and foolish men all die and are forgotten eventually. In this section, we see kind of a prototype of the lame apologist argument that the temporary nature of a material life means that it must be meaningless and valueless. So, again, the author concludes that all is vanity with the added proviso that now he hates life.

            The author moves on to a new subject then: labor. And here he kind of bitches a moans that all the products of one’s work and wisdom might somehow end up benefitting somebody else after one dies, and that this is for some reason a bad thing. Basically, his complaint is that the products of the labor or righteous men could end up going to sinners, and the products of sinners could end up going to righteous men, so neither one of them really benefits. Naturally, he concludes that labor and its products are also vanity.

            Chapter 3 opens with one of the most famous passages in the Bible: the bit about how “to everything there is a season.” You may be familiar with it from the song “Turn, Turn, Turn,” by The Birds, which faithfully reproduces the words nearly verbatim. But it also gets referenced pretty routinely in other media.

            From here, the essay starts getting pretty self-contradictory. There are passages that say the dead are better off than the living, but later a passage that says it’s “better to be a live dog than a dead lion.” Other passages lament that wisdom and foolishness are equivalent since everybody ends up dead anyway, in the midst of multiple other passages that claim it’s better to be wise than to be foolish. And, ironically, passages that claim only fools throw out a lot of words while the wise say little, but the author who claims to be wise beyond everybody else is presenting a rambling, wordy, contradictory, and redundant spillage of words.

            It’s difficult, really, to tease out just what it is that the author is trying to say overall. I thought maybe it was just me, but I did a little research and it seems that there really is a lot of confusion as to just what the overall message of Ecclesiastes is supposed to be. Many readers can’t even agree if it’s supposed to be an optimistic or a pessimistic book. This has led some to speculate that it’s not even supposed to have a coherent message at all, but rather intended to provoke the reader into thinking about the topics on which it touches.

            If that’s the case, though, I think it’s rather unfortunate that the author chose to phrase so many of his statements in very definitive terms (even the ones he contradicts). Some of them really do come off as him giving specific advice on how to live one’s life, and some of that advice is rather unfortunate indeed. Such as:

Ecc 8:2 I say: Keep the king’s command, because of God’s oath to him. 3 Be not hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand in an evil cause, for he does whatever he pleases. 4 For the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him, “What are you doing?” 5 Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing, and the wise hear will know that proper time and the just way.”

            That reads a lot like “The ‘just following orders’ defense is totally legit.” Or worse, a direct order to do whatever a king orders you to do, even if you know it’s wrong. If the author really was Solomon, then this is clearly a self-serving passage, and unfortunately a generally worded command of the sort that has helped to justify oppressive notions like “Divine Right of Kings,” for centuries.

            In the end, the author does seem to advocate generally for taking pleasure in simple joys of life, though on little more justification than “because God wants you to.” There also seems to be a rather epic amount of whining that this is the case, since the author seems to think it's poor reward and kinda pointless. But this is a book that is clearly open to a great deal of interpretation. I highly suspect that another reader could easily come away from it with a far different impression than I have. So, like many of the more abstract books of the Bible, I’m going to have to advise you to read it for yourself and see if it says anything of value to you. For me, though, I can’t say that it did much.

            Next stop on our magical tour of the Bible: the Song of Solomon.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Proverbs: Some Won Ton Soup with Your Wisdom?

            So we’re continuing on with Proverbs, which is supposed to represent the wisdom of Solomon in print form. And, in case you need a reminder, the Bible claims that Solomon is the wisest man who ever has or ever will live. That’s a lot to live up to. So let’s keep going and see how well it holds up to the hype.

            Anyway, when last we left off, Solomon was advising (among other things) that going to prostitutes is an acceptable way to avoid adultery. And then there are several chapters of long soliloquys about wisdom again, once more personifying it as a woman. These seem even more explicitly to be treating wisdom as a goddess than the previous ones. For example:

Prov 9:1 Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars. 2 She has slaughtered her beasts; she has mixed her wind; she has also set her table. 3 She has sent out her young women to call from the highest places in the town, 4 “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!” To him who lacks sense she says, 5 “Come, eat of my bread and drink the wine I have mixed. 6 Leave your simple ways and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

            That sounds an awful lot like describing a goddess with her own temples, offerings, and priesthood, doesn’t it?

            Anyway, once we get to Chapter 10, we hit the main thrust of Proverbs: the actual proverbs, which will pretty much occupy all but the last two Chapters of the book. If you want to get an idea what it’s like, well, try to imagine that someone opened a couple hundred fortune cookies and taped the fortunes down into the pages of a book. Complete with the occasional baffling mistranslation.

            The vast majority of the proverbs are simple pithy sayings taking up only a single verse, usually in the form of “X does/is like Y, but A does/is like B.” Usually these are written by way of contrasting some form of good or wise behavior with some form of bad or unwise behavior. Let me just pick a representative excerpt to kind of give you the general idea.

Prov 10:4 A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. 5 He who gathers in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps in harvest is a son who brings shame. 6 Blessings are on the head of the righteous, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence. 7 The memory of the righteous is a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot. 8 The wise of heart will receive commandments, but a babbling fool will come to ruin. 9 Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but he who makes his ways crooked will be found out. 10 Whoever winks the eye causes trouble, but a babbling fool will come to ruin.”

            That’s just a little sample. And really, you could open Proverbs anywhere from the start of Chapter 10 to the end of Chapter 29 and read pretty much the same thing. The details vary, but not as much as you might think; like Psalms, there are a limited number of themes and a good deal of redundancy. But Proverbs is vastly more readable, so I was actually able to read through all the way to the end.

            The general themes are: Laziness is bad, adultery is bad (and generally a woman’s fault), fools are awful people who deserve to be beaten, wives who talk back are just about the worst thing in the world, don’t fuck with kings, good things happen to the righteous and bad things happen to the wicked (contradicting Job), honesty is good, fear God, yadda yadda yadda. There are so many proverbs, really, that any attempt to encapsulate them all would be fruitless. I suggest just reading them yourself. None appear particularly insightful, but I suppose that it’s just possible that, for the time in which they were written, they might have been revelatory grains of wisdom. But given the two-line compare and contrast format, each individual proverbs couldn’t have been anything other than shallow sayings anyway. Most just seem like “everybody knows this” kinds of things, but maybe we only know them because they were written down here. Who knows?

            But then there are some whose inclusion is just baffling. Such as…

Prov 12:17 Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness utters deceit.”

            Yes, Solomon, thank you for telling us the definitions of “speaks the truth,” and “false witness.” Or maybe you were going meta and decided to define “tautology” for us? This needed to be written down? And how about…

Prov 12:19 Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment.”

            This is one of those proverbs, of which there are quite a number, that seem to be more in the realm of wishful thinking rather than insightful observations on reality. I also find it immensely ironic that it should be included in the pages of one of the most enduring lies of all time.

Prov 13:19 A desire fulfilled is sweet to the soul, but to turn away from evil is an abomination to fools.”

            Can anyone tell me what the second clause of that proverb has to do with the first? Maybe it’s being a bit pedantic of me, but this kind of sentence construction is generally supposed to be used to draw a contrast between related concepts. The concepts in this sentence have nothing to do with each other. There are several proverbs that do this.

Prov 14:1 The wisest of women builds her house, but the folly of her own hand tears it down.”

            Is this meant to suggest that even the wisest women are so foolish that they inevitably destroy what they work for? More sexist bullshit?

Prov 14:5 A faithful witness does not lie, but a false witness breathes out lies.”

            Yes, Solomon was so impressed with his earlier tautology that he had to repeat it. See what I mean about redundancy?

Prov 15:10 An oracle is on the lips of a king; his mouth does not sin in judgment.”

            The king is always right? How convenient for Solomon, given that he was a king and all. Surely this proverb could only have been pure in motivation. In the verses that follow it, there are several proverbs reinforcing the notion that kings are inherently wise and just, and should be obeyed and/or appeased.

            Anyway, this goes on and on through Chapter 29. Chapters 30 and 31, the last of the book, purport to be the words of different people.

            Chapter 30 opens by identifying itself as “the words of Agur, son of Jakeh, the oracle.” It also seems to be a collection of sayings, though in a different format than those attributed to Solomon. Agur doesn’t restrict himself to single pithy compare/contrast verses, often taking several verses to make a point. Here’s a small sample of the fare:

Prov 30:20 This is the way of the adulteress: she eats and wipes her mouth and says, “I have done no wrong.” 21 Under three things the earth trembles; under four it cannot bear up: 22 a slave when he becomes king, and a fool when he is filed with food; an unloved woman when she gets a husband, and a maidservant when she displaces her mistress.

            As you can see, Agur continues the trend of treating adultery as a female-initiated thing.

            That construction of “X is like Y, X+1 is like something similar to Y,” followed by a list of X+1 things, is repeated often throughout this section. It seems to be some kind of poetic convention, as I’ve seen it once or twice in the Bible before this. But Agur makes use of it far more than any of the other authors I’ve encountered thus far.

            Anyway, it’s just one chapter and, like the rest of Proverbs, combines some insightful sayings with a mixture of gibberish and biased judgment.

            The final chapter of Proverbs introduces itself as “The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him.” Wouldn’t that mean it’s actually the words of Lemuel’s mother, and in the typical casual sexism of the Bible Lemuel is just taking credit? By the way… King Lemuel is never mentioned anywhere else. Nobody seems to know for sure who he is. One theory is that Lemuel is just another name for Solomon, which would make the true author of these words Bathsheba. But whatever.

            The Chapter starts out with several verses admonishing the king to not give power to women, and to stand up for the rights of the poor and needy. There’s also a bit in there about refraining from strong drink for himself, but rather to give it to the poor so they can drown their sorrows. It’s a weird mix of healthy and unhealthy advice.

            From there it continues into discussing the wondrous virtues of a good wife. It’s a tad sexist, as might be expected, but many of the values it expresses (industriousness, generosity, kindness, providing for one’s family, etc.) are fairly laudable. It’s the only extended portion of the Book of Proverbs that lauds virtues without also condemning everyone who falls short of them.

            But now I have to single out a weird translation nitpick:

Prov 31:21 She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet.”

            OK, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, now, does it? There’s no reason red clothing would ward off snow better than any other color. But this line has a footnote attached to it, and if you follow the footnote it informs you that the line can also be translated as “clothed in double thickness.” What the fuck, translators? Given the choice between “scarlet,” and “double thickness,” as a description of clothing that would ward off fear of snow, you went with “scarlet” as your primary translation? In what way does that make any fucking sense whatsoever?! No cookie for you!

            Deep breath.

            So anyway, that gets us to the end of Proverbs. It was actually a fairly interesting read, and there’s some good stuff to be gleaned from it. Though I must admit that it falls far short of what I might expect of the writings of the wisest man who ever lived. It makes a lot of assertions about how people ought to behave, but its reliance on two-line fortune cookie style platitudes and/or weird poetic conventions means it rarely provides reasons behind the advice it gives. Rather, it leans heavily on simply insulting anyone who might reject any of the advice and occasionally recommending violence against them.

            Next up: Ecclesiastes. It’s a short book, so if we’re lucky we can toss it off in a single post. Until then, y’all be well!