Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Psalms: Poetry in Devotion

So now we’ve arrived at the Book of Psalms. This is basically a collection of prayers, poems, and songs traditionally attributed to King David. They are frequently quoted for inspiration and, in some interpretations, as prophecies (which seems odd to me since I don’t recall David being attributed any prophetic abilities thus far; maybe it comes up later).

Being, as it is, a collection of over a hundred separate short works without a truly unifying story or theme, the Book of Psalms presents a challenge in how to write about it. But for the sake of thoroughness, I don’t want to leave it out. My first idea was to list each psalm along with a one- or two-sentence summary of the central thought it embodies. But there are about a hundred and fifty of them, so that started to become tedious pretty darn quick. Also, it gets repetitive and vacuous just as quickly, because there really are only a very few themes encompassed within that mass of poetry. These are (in no particular order):

·         Kissing God’s ass (almost every psalm combines this with one or more other themes)

·         Insulting/threatening people with other religions or no religion

·         Asking/thanking God for protection from and/or assaults against opponents

·         Bragging about how righteous the author is

·         Groveling

·         (Interestingly enough) asking God for evidence that he exists and/or gives a fuck.

That being the case, there’s not much I can do beyond recommending that you read them for yourselves. At least to the degree you can stand it. Whatever else you may want to say about the author and his motivations, he is a poet and there is some impressive use of words and imagery in the psalms. I’ll just warn you that there’s only so much that clever language and imagery can do in the face of a hundred and fifty works all pounding the same limited set of themes. It gets really, really tedious and starts to blur together into a mass of repeated phrases and praises, cursing and whining. In the meantime, I’m going to just touch on a few things that stuck out to me along the way, and in the next post we’ll move on to the Book of Proverbs.

And the first thing that sticks out is the second half of the Second Psalm.

Psalms 2:7 I will tell of the decree: Yahweh said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel.’ 10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. 11 Serve Yahweh with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”

The author, theoretically King David, is declaring himself to be the Son of God, and demanding obeisance from all other kings on threat of divine punishment. Christians will sometimes ascribe a double meaning to this psalm, as if it refers to Jesus as well, but there’s no real reason within the psalm to believe that. It’s pretty explicitly the author that’s being talked about.

Skipping down the line…

Psalms 14:1 The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good.”

Christian apologists love to quote this verse when arguing with atheists, because it lets them insult their opponents while pretending they’re making a scriptural argument. But really, this is just a poetic way of saying “atheists are poopyheads!” Which is not the level of intellectual discourse one might expect from the supreme intelligence behind the creation of the universe. Interestingly, this also suggests that even back in David’s day there were people who didn’t buy into the god BS, and they were significant enough that ol’ Davey-boy felt the need to throw out some anti-atheist propaganda.

But in case you miss it the first time (or in the more likely event that you just skipped over it out of tedium), Psalms is glad to repeat the message in Psalm 53. In fact, the first half of Psalm 53 is almost word-for-word identical to Psalm 14. I guess inspiration was running dry.

Alright… fuck… I can’t take it anymore. It’s been more than a month now since my last post, because I just can’t force my way through this mass of poetic nonsense. I’m only a third of the way through it, I’ve stopped reading every word, and I’m just skimming at this point, and even so the tedium is wearing me down. It’s just verse after verse after verse of the same stuff. “Please, God, help fuck up my evil enemies who don’t believe in you even though your backside is the greatest fucking thing I’ve ever applied my lips to.” I’m thinking the only reason Christians think the Psalms are inspirational is because they’ve never had to sit down and read them all. Maybe individually they work, but as a single body they’re tedious as all hell.

I’m sorry. I really wanted to get through this. But it’s just so… damn... mind-numbing! There’s so little that says anything interesting or novel, and I can’t torture myself with it anymore. My recommendation: if you’re interested in the Psalms, just flip the book open to a random location and read a bit, then put it down. Any spot is pretty much the same as any other. So you’ll have the gist pretty quick, and perhaps taking it in small doses will preserve your appreciation for the poetry. Just please, for the love of your sanity, do not try to plow through it from beginning to end.

Maybe later I’ll come back and see if I can work up some enthusiasm for it in smaller chunks. Perhaps I’ll do some mini-posts on single Psalms to mix in with later posts. Actually, here’s something that might be fun: if anyone reads this and wants to suggest a Psalm to get some commentary, I would be glad to take a shot at it. But for now, I’m done with this book. Next up: Proverbs!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Job: I’ll Take That Bet!

This is one of the most famous pieces of work in the Bible: the Book of Job. I’m sure most of us know it in its basic outline. Job is the most faithful of God’s people in all the world, but Satan claims that Job is only faithful because he has a good life. So Satan visits all kinds of horrors on Job in an effort to get him to curse God. When Job remains faithful, God eventually rewards him. That’s the simplistic version that I, and probably many others, got in Sunday School. The story as it actually appears in the Bible is a bit more complicated than that, of course.

For one thing… it’s forty-two chapters long! And the vast majority of that is long-winded, almost indecipherably poetic speeches given back-and-forth between Job and some friends.

But let’s jump in here at the beginning. The book opens by telling us all about Job, who is a wealthy man with seven sons and three daughters. And Job loved himself some God, to the point of offering extra sacrifices on behalf of his kids, just in case they had any nasty thoughts about God when he wasn’t looking. Then, after introducing us to Job:

Job 1:6 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before Yahweh, and Satan also came among them.”

Hey, look! It’s Satan again! This is, what, his third appearance in the Bible and it still hasn’t told us who the hell he is! And speaking of uncertainty… who or what are the “sons of God?” Is Satan one of them, or are we to take the wording “Satan also came among them,” to imply that he showed up in a gathering of the sons of God even though he wasn’t one of them? And I thought God only had one son. Are these sons of God also one and the same with God just like the most famous son of God? Are these the same fellows who were screwing around with the pre-Flood women and creating Nephilim? This one sentence raises so many questions, and we aren’t even into the story yet!

Spoiler alert: the story answers none of those questions.

Anyway, God notices Satan and asks what he’s been up to. When Satan replies that he’s just been wondering around the world seeing what’s what, God goes “Hey, did you notice Job? Ain’t he just the best?” Satan, though, is unimpressed and says “Feh! He only loves you because he has such a great life. I bet if you let me fuck with him a bit, he’d curse you in no time!” To which God replies “I’ll take that bet!”

So they establish the ground rules of the wager, which are that Satan can do whatever he likes to Job’s possessions, so long as he doesn’t touch Job himself. Then Satan skips on over to the Job homestead, where he arranges to have all of Job’s livestock and servants killed or stolen. Then he kills all of Job’s children by knocking a house down on them. Unsurprisingly to anyone who’s been paying attention to the Bible thus far, servants and children are in the category of possessions.

Job reacts as anyone would: by tearing off his clothes, shaving his head, and praising God.

Sometime later, there’s another gathering of the sons of God, and again Satan joins the crowd.

Job 2:3 And Yahweh said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant, Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast to his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.”

Are we firmly established that Job is an innocent pawn in the game between these two?

Anyway, Satan argues that a man can put up with losing everything he has, so long as his person remains safe. So God tells Satan he can do anything he likes to Job, so long as he doesn’t kill him. With the new rules in place, Satan skips off to afflict Job with painful sores all over his body. And despite his wife’s urging him to curse God and die, Job remains steadfast.

Next we’re introduced to Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. These fellows hear about Job’s misfortunes and decide to go visit him and try to comfort him. They arrive at Job’s house, and then they all sit around silently for seven days waiting for Job to say something.

Finally, Job starts speaking. And this is where the language starts getting very dense and poetic. There’s basically a long conversation between Job and his three friends (with a fifth guy named Elihu cropping up toward the end just totally out of nowhere) that takes up the vast majority of the book. I’m going to do my best to summarize, but I warn you that I’m not a big reader of poetry. So fully expect that I’m going to miss a lot of nuance here.

Also, most of Job’s dialogue is complaining and much of his friends’ arguments will later be declared irrelevant or wrong by God. So… I’m not sure that it matters how much nuance I lose. So this will be a really condensed version.

Job: “I wish I was never born!”

Eliphaz: “You always encouraged others when their lives sucked, so whining now is kind of hypocritical. Anyway, God makes the truly innocent prosper, so you’ve probably done something wrong. You need to just accept this rebuke and turn back to him.”

Job: “No, really, I’m innocent! I’ve always been completely faithful! I just wish God would kill me now so I don’t have to suffer anymore!”

Bildad: “Y’know, your kids probably earned their deaths through their own sins. But if you’re innocent and plead with God for mercy, I’m sure he’ll make the rest of your life all wonderful and stuff.”

Job: “I’d love to plead my case with God. But how can I? He’s too great for me to argue with, and there’s nobody in heaven to intercede on my behalf. And andyway, we know good people suffer and bad people prosper. So what good would it do? If only he’d show up and tell me why he’s doing this to me!”

Zophar: “Listen to you and your whining! You deserve worse than you got!”

Job: “Hey! You’re no better than me! I know as well as you do that God gives favor and destruction where he will, but I’ve done nothing wrong! I don’t see why I should keep silent about it. I’ll plead my case with God, hope that he’ll tell me why he’s done this, and hope for a bit of mercy before I die.”

Eliphaz: “I don’t think you really fear God, or you’d shut your yap and start praying. In my experience, wicked people are miserable even when they seem to prosper, so you’re better off not complaining anyway.”

Job: “Dude, you suck at this consolation thing! If even my friends treat me like this, I really do have no hope!”

Bildad: “I’m telling you, man, bad shit happens to bad people.”

Job: “What the hell is wrong with you? It’s not bad enough that God has destroyed my life, but you gotta keep tearing me down, too? Someday I’ll stand redeemed before God, but you’ll receive his judgment for being such dicks.”

Zophar: “Insulting us doesn’t change anything. God punishes the wicked, perhaps through their children after they die, even if they’re allowed to prosper briefly.”

Job: “Bullshit! The wicked seem to do just fine, and you know it. Why should they care if God punishes their children? They’ll be dead and won’t know about it anyway. He should punish them directly.”

Eliphaz: “OK, look, maybe you really have been completely faithful to God. But you’ve probably been shitty to other people, and that’s the reason you’re being punished now.”

Job: “If only God kept office hours, I could go and convince him that I am innocent of that too. And even so, we know there are people far worse than me who seem to prosper anyway.”

Bildad: “Don’t know why you think that matters. God is perfect, so next to him no mere man can measure up.”

Job: “Oh, big help you are! That doesn’t get me one step closer to knowing what I did wrong. I’m telling you, I can’t think of a damn thing, and I won’t lie and claim I can! I’ve been faithful to God, and kind and generous to my fellow man. Yet here I sit, held in contempt by even the lowest and worst of people because God tore me down. If only God would tell me what I have done wrong, I would bear my punishment gladly!”

Now at this point Elihu jumps in. It’s suggested that he’s been sitting here listening to the whole prior conversation, even though (unlike all the other characters) his presence is never mentioned up until he starts speaking. Just another little example of poor storytelling.

Elihu: “You’re all so full of shit! Just listening to you makes me sick! All this blathering on about trying to figure out what Job did wrong, when the truth is God does tell you. You should be searching for his signs. He instructs you in dreams, and through your suffering, and the signs contained in natural disasters. You’re just too ignorant or proud to see it. God is just. If God hasn’t responded to you, it must be because your complaint is unjustified.”

Then, out of nowhere (well, technically, “out of the whirlwind” whose arrival is never mentioned), God starts talking to Job. Here it is! The Big Guy himself! Finally, we’re going to get the explanation! The very reasoning of the divine creator of all the universe. It will be inspiring! It will be so brilliantly insightful that we will be left in awe and wonder, contemplating the breadth and beauty of his amazing plan.

Are you ready? Here’s God’s divine reason for why he allowed all this awful stuff to happen to poor devoted Job!

God: “I’m bigger than you, I’m stronger than you, and I’m smarter than you. Plus, I made everything – including you and a whole lot of beasts that can totally kick your ass. Until and unless you become as awesome as me, you have no right to ask me questions or expect answers. So sit your whiny ass down and shut up!”

There’s a great deal of grandly poetic language that goes with all of this, and a lot of the imagery is quite good and impressive. I suggest you read it, really, starting at Job 38:1. Christians love to focus on the imagery and poetry itself without focusing too much on the message. But at its heart, it is a “might makes right and I’m the mightiest,” argument.

Job’s response: “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. May I have another, sir? Now that I see you in person I see how incredibly impressive you really are, and I’m a worm ever to have questioned.”

God then turns his attention to Job’s friends.

Job 42:7 After Yahweh had spoken these words to Job, Yahweh said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

Remember that Job’s friends had argued that God punishes the wicked and godless, and supports the godly and innocent. We’re told that none of that is true, and in fact it kinda pisses God off to claim that it is.

So after demanding a burnt offering from them, God allows that he will listen to Job’s prayer that he not punish the friends for lying about him. Oddly, no mention is made of Elihu in any of this conversation. Given that Elihu seems to appear and disappear from the story without any references before or after, it makes me wonder if he was an afterthought added in to fill out the arguments sometime after the original story was written.

Anyhow, with all of this done…

Job 42:12 And Yahweh blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning. And he had 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 yoke of oxen, and 1,000 female donkeys. 13 He had also seven sons and three daughters. 14 And he called the name of the first daughter Jemimah, and the name of the second Keziah, and the name of the third Keren-happuch. 15 And in all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters. And their father gave them an inheritance among their brothers.”

So in the end, God gives Job twice as much wealth as he’d had before, along with replacement children who are even better than the children he’d had before. Because, y’know, people are replaceable commodities that way, just like farm animals. What parent wouldn’t gladly trade their children in for a better-looking set?

It’s interesting that in the middle of all the debate between the human characters about God’s motivations, we as the readers already know the reason that all of this happened. Because God was settling a bet with Satan. And that fact is never addressed again after the opening scene of the story. God certainly didn’t cop to it when he finally showed up to put an end to the debate.

All in all, the Book of Job attempts to address a certain formulation of the Problem of Evil: “Why does God allow (or cause) bad things happen to good people?” And the answer it seems to come up with is “You may never find out the reasons, which may be (and even very probably are) quite petty and stupid. But that doesn’t matter because there’s fuck-all you can do about it, so you might as well accept it.”

Phew! That was a long post, and took me a long time to finish it! Job really is a much longer book than I’d realized, and it’s a very difficult read for someone used to more prosaic material. But because it’s a single coherent story, I figured it deserved to be addressed in one post even if that meant a really long one. I hope you think that was the right choice.

Anyway, when next we come back, I’ll be tackling Psalms. That should be interesting, since it’s really just a collection of prayers, songs, and poems with no unifying story. But I think I have a viable idea for how to tackle it. So until then, take care and be well!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Esther: Countergenocide

The Book of Esther is the story of the origin of the Jewish holiday of Purim, and it’s pretty short at only ten chapters. I suppose there’s possibly a little basis in reality for it, but almost certainly it’s had some legendry attached – I just don’t see real people acting in the way the people in this story act.

It’s set in the time of king Ahasuerus of Persia, and starts out with the king throwing a massive party for his officials that literally lasts for months. On one of the days, he summons his queen, Vashti, to come join him so he can show her off to his cronies and have them ooh and ahh over how beautiful she is. But Vashti refuses to come, and of course that pisses off his royal highness. Also, his hangers on claim that an example must be made of her, or else all the wives in all the kingdom will suddenly become contemptuous and disobedient to their husbands. So Ahasuerus strips her of the title of queen with the promise to give her title to someone better (i.e., more obedient). He then sent out a decree to have loads of beautiful young virgins shipped into his harem so he can choose a new queen.

This is when we get introduced to Esther, a Jewish orphan who is being raised by her cousin Mordecai. She fits the qualifications for the king’s decree, and so is taken into the harem and quickly becomes one of the king’s favorites. He eventually gives her the queen’s crown. At Mordecai’s insistence, she keeps her Jewish origins a secret.

Now Mordecai would hang out by the palace gates, and there were these two eunuchs guarding it. And Mordecai overheard them plotting to assault the king.

Est 2:22 And this came to the knowledge of Mordecai, and he told it to Queen Esther, and Esther told the king in the name of Mordecai. 23 When the affair was investigated and found to be so, the men were both hanged on the gallows. And it was recorded in the book of the chronicles in the presence of the king.”

Just gonna leave that quote there. We’ll come back to it later.

OK, so all of that was just setup for the real conflict of the story. There’s this dude, Haman, who is the king’s most favoritest official ever. So much so that he gives orders that everybody is supposed to bow down and pay homage to Haman whenever he goes by just like they would for the king. But Mordecai won’t do it. So Haman gets pissed. But, being a monumental asshat, Haman isn’t content to punish Mordecai for it. No, he decides that he’s going to destroy all the Jews in Persia because this one dude won’t bow down to him.

So Haman goes to the king and tells him that all the Jews refuse to obey the king’s commands, and so they should be destroyed. He also offers to pay 10,000 talents of gold into the king’s treasury if he’s allowed to destroy the Jews. So the king gives Haman is signet ring and tells him to write up the orders and send them out to all the governors. Haman does so, and for some reason specifies that all of this is to happen on one specific day nearly a year from the date the orders were issued (the text says the orders were drawn up on the thirteenth day of the first month, specifying the purge to happen on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month).

Apparently the whole thing wasn’t even kept secret. There were public decrees about the upcoming purge, resulting in much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Weird.

But Mordecai has himself an ace in the hole: Esther.  So he asks her to intercede with the king. At first she’s reluctant, on the argument that anyone who enters the king’s chamber uninvited is supposed to be put to death, and the king hadn’t invited her. For some reason, this hadn’t been an obstacle when Mordecai needed her to tell the king about the plot in that section I quoted above. But now, with dramatic tension needed, it suddenly becomes an issue.

Mordecai overcomes Esther’s objection by telling her that if she doesn’t help, God will just find some other means of saving the Jews and will kill her instead. This is a pretty standard religious tactic, actually.

So Esther agrees to try and prevail upon the king. She goes to visit him, and he’s so happy to see her that he refrains from having her killed.

Est 5:1 And the king said to her ‘What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given to you, even to the half of my kingdom.”

Now, that would seem to be the answer to the problem right there. The king just offered half his kingdom! Take it! Or at least ask for Judah back. Then all the Jews can move there, and there would be no more left in Persia for Haman to kill. Bam! Problem solved!

Oh, wait, I forgot what book I’m reading for a second there. This is the Bible, where a plan like that suffers from an insurmountable flaw that renders it wholly unacceptable: nobody has to die.

So no, given the option of requesting half the kingdom, Esther settles instead for requesting that the king and Haman come to a private feast she prepared for them. At that feast, the king again offers her half his kingdom, and she again skips right past that to ask for the king and Haman to attend a second feast the following day, where she promises she’ll finally tell him her real request. What’s with all this coyness? The text never indicates Esther’s reasoning for all this.

After this first feast, Haman goes home feeling really full of himself. But he passes Mordecai by the gates, and of course Mordecai refuses to bow as usual. So Haman, head swelled with self-important rage, goes home and orders his servants to build a gallows from which he intends to hang Mordecai.

Meanwhile, the king finds himself unable to sleep. So he orders his servants to bore him to sleep by reading from the court records (I guess they didn’t have a copy of Leviticus or Numbers sitting around). One of the bits they read is the record of Mordecai uncovering the eunuchs’ plot to attack the king. And the king is all like “Wow! That was totally awesome of the Mordecai dude to do that! How did I reward him?” I’ll reference you back to the quote I placed above, where it says that these proceedings all took place in his presence in the first place. I rather have the impression that the king is a complete mental deficient, or at the least doesn’t give a flying fuck about running his kingdom. Either that, or he’s just a plot device that people struggle over controlling, rather than an actual character.

Anyway, when his servants inform him that he’d done nothing to reward Mordecai, he decides that’s something he has to fix right away. So when Haman shows up for work the next day, the king asks him how he should reward a man he intends to honor. Haman assumes the king is talking about him, and so he comes up with all this elaborate shit about dressing the guy up in royal clothes and parading him around town with people proclaiming how much ass he totally kicks. And the king is like “Right! Do that for Mordecai!”

So this is already shaping up to be a shitty day for Haman, but it only gets worse when he goes to the feast with Esther and the king that night. Esther finally gets around to telling the king what her request is: that the king spare her life and that of her people, because some wicked person has conspired to have them destroyed. And the king’s response is “Gosh! What evil person would do something like that?” as if he hadn’t personally given Haman permission to do exactly that. And Esther names Haman. When Haman throws himself at her couch to try and beg for mercy, the king thinks he’s trying to attack the Queen and so orders him to be hanged from the very gallows Haman had made for Mordecai.

Then, the king regretfully informs the Queen that any orders issued under his name and seal can’t be repealed even by him. Because that’s not totally one of the dumbest fucking rules that can exist in a kingdom. Not that it’s likely to be a real rule; it’s probably just a plot device to make it necessary for there to be shitloads of bloodshed to resolve a problem that could easily be solved without it. What the king does do is give Esther his signet ring and permission to give whatever orders she deems fit in place of rescinding the previous orders he’d allowed Haman to issue.

So Esther and Mordecai get together and pen a proclamation that, on the day when they are supposed to be slaughtered, the Jews are allowed to gather together to defend themselves (because I guess otherwise they just would have waited in their homes to be slaughtered?). But not only were they allowed to kill their attackers, the proclamation also gave them permission to go after their women and children and to plunder their goods.

Like, what the fuck?! You see what I mean about the Bible’s preference for bloodshed as the solution to all problems, even if it requires the most moronic plot contortions imaginable to allow it to happen? We’ve seen several opportunities to resolve this issue turn up in the course of the story, and the one that’s settled on is just to issue two sets of orders that essentially demand genocidal civil war between two factions in the kingdom. No ruler capable of rolling out of the puddle of his own drool would run his nation this way!

So anyway, the appointed day rolls around and the slaughter commences. All of the king’s governors and officials side with the Jews, so it’s kind of unclear exactly who would have been trying to carry out the original orders to exterminate them. Nonetheless, the Jews kill 75,000 people (no mention is made of any Jewish casualties). Then Mordecai sends out letters to all the Jewish people ordering them to keep an annual feast in honor of this day, and that’s the feast of Purim (named for the lots, called Pur, that Haman had cast to decide what day to carry out his attempted genocide).

So that’s the story of Esther. In my opinion, it reads more like a “If you mess with the bull, you get the horns,” kind of parable rather than an accurate portrayal of historical events. But who knows? In my brief research, I haven’t found a definitive conclusion either way.

Next time, we’ll get into a Book I’ve really been looking forward to: Job! Until then, be well!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Nehemiah: Nothing to See Here

This is gonna be short.

The Book of Nehemiah is a quick ten-chapter book about, you guessed it, Nehemiah. Like Ezra, it kind of does this weird back-and-forth between third person and first person. Most of it is first person, though, and the third person bits are kind of slipped in subtly here and there almost as if by accident.

Nehemiah is cupbearer to king Ataxerxes. Presumably the second Ataxerxes, not the first, since this book appears to take place around the same time Ezra was in Judah. At least, Ezra gets mentioned as being present at some of the ceremonies at the end of the book.

Anyway, Nehemiah hears about how the Jews who returned to Judah are all despairing because the walls of Jerusalem are broken down. So Nehemiah asks the king for leave to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls. The king gives him permission, and letters to the governors to provide materials.

Nehemiah returns and inspects the walls, doing it in secret because the local officials are apparently pissed that he's there to try and help the Jews. Long story short, he gets the wall built, and has the Jewish people in the surrounding areas agree to send one tenth of their population to live in and to guard the city. Even though there's all kinds of rumors that their neighbors intend violence, nothing ever comes of it.

In the end, we get the rededication of the new temple and walls, a new agreement signed by the chief men to follow the Mosaic laws, and a repeat of the bit from Ezra where they forced the Jewish men who's married foreign wives to abandon those women.

A lot of the book is taken up with long lists of names, some of which are redundant with the same lists from Ezra. Many of the events are also redundant with the events of Ezra. But the thing that strikes me most that is similar about the books? Both are the only books of the Bible I've read so far that purport to be first person retelling of events, and neither one of them contains a single supernatural event. Or even something that could be reasonably interpreted as contact with God in any form. Both authors are very quick to credit human actions and emotions to God, but neither one describes anything even vaguely like a manifestation of that being

Just found that interesting.

Anyway, like I said, short. The next book is Esther, another short book, and hopefully I'll get through that one pretty soon.


Monday, August 4, 2014

Ezra: Racist D-Baggery

Ezra is kind of a weird book. It starts out in third person, then in the middle starts being told in first person as though it were the personal account of this Ezra person, and then it switches back to third person. There’s no reason given for the transitions at all. So… yeah.

Anyway, the book starts off in the first year of the reign of King Cyrus of Persia (which by this point was in command of Babylon, where the captive Israelites had been carted off to after Judah fell to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar). This is about 70 years after the fall of Judah, and as supposedly prophesied by Jeremiah the Israelites are about to be released from captivity.

So the Book of Ezra starts out with Cyrus’ declaration that the Jews are to be released and allowed to return to their homeland to rebuild the temple of God. This apparently was part of his overall policy of allowing all the Babylonian captives to return to their homes and return their religious icons that Babylon had been in the habit of looting, but that policy gets no mention of the Bible. It talks only of the Jewish people, as if they and their god were specially singled out. It also claims that in his proclamation Cyrus credits Yahweh for giving him his kingdom and calling on him to rebuild the temple. Thing is, there’s this thing called the Cyrus Cylinder which is an original declaration by Cyrus, and it explicitly credits the Persian god Marduk for his victories and for the order to restore all the other gods to their various homes. So the Bible may have a… creative interpretation of the proclamation.

There’s also a funny bit where the book gives an inventory of the vessels being returned to the Jewish people from the original temple.

Ezr 1:8 Cyrus king of Persia brought these out in the charge of Mithredath the treasurer, wo counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. 9 And this was the number of them: 30 basins of gold, 1,000 basins of silver, 29 censers, 10 30 bowls of gold, 410 bowls of silver, and 1,000 other vessels; 11 all the vessels of gold and of silver were 5,400. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up, when the exiles were brought from Babylonia to Jerusalem.”

See the problem? Hint: the Bible is bad at math. 30+1000+29+30+410+1000 = 2,499. Not 5,400.

All of Chapter 2 is spent on listing everybody who returned (I think by town), and they’re all listed as “the sons of X…” followed by a number. So presumably this dull recitation doesn’t include any of the women, as usual.

Anyway, the exiles return to Judah and start rebuilding their temple. They get as far as building an altar for sacrifices and laying the foundations of the temple before they are approached by some of the people who’d been living in the area since the Jews were spirited away. As you may recall, after conquering Israel and Judah, the kings of Babylon sent some Israelites back to teach the people who were living there in the Israelites’ place how to follow God’s laws in the hopes that it would make life easier in that land. Anyway, these people approach the newly returned Jews and say “Hey, we’ve been worshipping your god here while you were away, and we’d like to help you build his temple.” And the Jewish people told them to fuck off.

After that, the locals start interfering with the building, intimidating laborers and bribing officials to slow down construction. Eventually Cyrus is succeeded by other kings, and the folks who are interfering with the construction write a letter to the new king Ataxerxes complaining that the Jews plan to rebel once they finish rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls. So Ataxerxes issues orders to stop the construction, and authorizes the governors in Judah to use force if necessary to prevent it.

This stops construction for a bit, until Ataxerxes is eventually succeeded by Darius. The under the urging of a pair of so-called prophets named Haggai and Zechariah, the Jews just start building again. When the new governor asks who authorized it, they say that king Cyrus had commanded them to rebuild. This is technically true, it just ignores the fact that king Ataxerxes had countermanded the order. But the governor writes to king Darius, whose scribes find Cyrus original proclamation, and so Darius orders the governor to allow the construction to continue. So the temple gets finished, and is dedicated with the usual bloodlettings and burnt sacrifices.

At this point, seven chapters into the ten-chapter Book of Ezra, we finally get introduced to Ezra. He’s this scribe who’s studied the law of Moses, who was also apparently somewhat in favor with king Ataxerxes (since this portion of the story explicitly takes place after the completion of the temple during the reign of Darius, this can’t be the same Ataxerxes who ordered the construction to stop before Darius was king. The Bible, in its usual clarity of writing, makes no effort to distinguish between the two). Ezra is also apparently a direct descendant of Moses’ brother Aaron, and therefore eligible for priesthood.

Anyway, for some reason Ataxerxes sends Ezra to Jerusalem to teach the people God’s laws, even going so far as to authorize him to appoint judges to enforce those laws (which, frankly, seems like a really weird thing to do. Most kings send governors to enforce their own laws, not the laws of some foreign god). The Chapter starts out speaking of Ezra in third person, then provides a supposed transcript of the letter in which Ataxerxes orders him to Jerusalem, and then immediately after the letter the chapter finishes out with talking in first person as though Ezra himself were writing.

Another fucking geneology of people who went with him.

So anyway, Ezra makes the journey safely, and presents all the wealth and offerings and shit the king had sent with him to the priests at the temple. And afterwards…

9:1 After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, ‘The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites the Jebusites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. 2 For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the people of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost.’ 3 As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled fair from my head and bears and sat appalled. 4 Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice.”

Racist much?

The book goes on to cover the lengthy and histrionic prayer Ezra sends up to god recounting his deep shame for how disgracefully his people have behaved and how thoroughly they deserve to be punished for their evil deeds in marrying whom they chose.

And then, suddenly, we’re back into third person for the final chapter. And in this chapter, Ezra and the priests basically round up all the Jewish men who had married outside their race, and force them to divorce their wives and disown any children they had by them. Because Ezra and the priests were fuckers. Religiously motivated racist douchebaggery is still racist douchebaggery.

And that brings us to the end of Ezra. There’s really no overt participation in the story by any god, just people acting like tools on the basis of their past pronouncements. Next up is the Book of Nehemiah, who I’m sure we’ll find is just a swell guy. Can’t wait!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Second Chronicles: Shoring Up the Image

Holy crap! It’s been more than a month since my last post! I’m slipping!

Well, Second Chronicles has been a little bit of a challenge. Like First Chronicles, it is a retelling of stories we’ve already read. As such, it’s tempting to jump back and forth between the Chronicles version of each story and the Kings version, comparing every little detail. But let’s be honest: this isn’t really that kind of a scholarly exercise. I’m not a historian; just some dude with a life of his own trying to read his way through the Bible and share his thoughts on what he reads. So I’m gonna try and get this done in a single post, and just highlight a few things that I think get at the general theme of the similarities and differences.

Second Chronicles starts with the reign of Solomon, and follows the story up through the destruction of Judah and the kidnapping of the surviving Jewish people to Babylon. But where First Chronicles tells abbreviated versions of the stories it covers, Second Chronicles fleshes out the stories it tells a great deal compared to the writings in Kings. It does this at the expense of ignoring Israel altogether and focusing almost entirely on the stories of the kings of Judah.

It seems that the general thrust of the expansions of the stories in Chronicles is to make God come off a little better than the impression given in the Kings accounts. For example, Chronicles tweaks the story of Solomon building and sanctifying the temple in Jerusalem. In both accounts, Solomon holds a massive ceremony to dedicate the new temple, which features a long speech about prayer and blessings and stuff. In both books it’s essentially the same, but you can see by comparing 1 Kings 8:50 to 2 Chronicles 6:39 where the Chronicles account goes off the rails. In First Kings, Solomon proceeds from that point to invoke a blessing on the people and enjoin them to be true to God before moving on to perform the burnt offerings part of the ceremony. In Chronicles, he instead ends the speech by inviting God to take up residence in the temple, and “fire came down from heaven” to consume the burnt offerings. Just a little touch added to make it look more like God was an actual participant in history.

Chronicles moves on through the rest of Solomon’s reign, covering basically the same territory as the Kings account. We get the Queen of Sheba story, and the waxing eloquent on the vast wealth of Solomon and Israel under his rule. Chronicles leaves out the bit about Solomon falling into idolatry near the end of his life due to the influence of his many foreign wives and concubines, as well as God’s declaration that he would split Israel after Solomon’s death as a punishment for that faithlessness. Kinda glossing over the whole “punishing the son for the sins of the father,” aspect of the original story.

So the story moves on through the splitting of Israel in two kingdoms (Israel under Jeroboam, God’s hand-picked ruler who immediately turns to idolatry; Judah under Rehoboam). Same story as before. And we go through Rehoboam’s reign to his son Abijah, and from him to his son Asa who enacts a lot of reforms that basically amount to persecuting adherents of any other religion. The story of Asa gets expanded in Chronicles to condemn his making an alliance with Syria to prevent Israel from invading, rather than “relying on Yahweh,” to prevent the invasion. God declares that Asa’s punishment for this is to have more wars (which means, essentially, that God punishes Asa by causing a lot of other people who had nothing to do with his political decision to die violently, which I’m sure we can all agree is the very embodiment of perfect justice). And the expansion leads on to this little gem as well:

2 Chron 16:12 In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa was diseased in his feet, and his disease became seere. Yet even in his disease he did not seek Yahweh, but sought help from physicians. 13 And Asa slept with his fathers, dying in the forty-first year of his reign.”

So yeah, in the context of Asa just having been punished (well, others punished on his behalf) for failing to rely on God for war, this is a rather strongly implied condemnation of his decision to see physicians to treat his illness. And while that may have been a bad idea for the state of medicine at the time, people who read this silly fable as unchanging wisdom for all time would certainly be drawing horrifically bad medical advice from this passage in modern times.

Let’s see… we next get an expansion on the reign of Jehoshaphat, complete with the usual grossly inflated numbers for the size of his army and crediting his sending priests about to spread the worship of Yahweh for the increased prosperity of the kingdom. We also get a repetition of the story about God sending a spirit to lie to his prophets in order to trick Ahab into going into a battle where he will die (See my post titled “Second Kings: Lies, Damn Lies, and Prophecies,” for details). This one is pretty much unaltered from the original telling, so I guess the author was still comfortable with the idea of God and his prophets lying to people.

Jehoram, Jehoshaphat’s son, gets a major expansion. In Kings his tale was just a run-of-the mill “he did what was evil in the sight of God, and then he rested with his fathers,” story. Chronicles expands him into a fratricidal tyrant (he literally killed all of his brothers after assuming the throne) who is eventually punished by God by having his family stolen by invaders and his bowels destroyed by disease so that he dies in agony.

The story moves on to Jehoram’s son Ahaziah. The Chronicles story doesn’t really expand on the Kings version, but does manage to get many of the few facts it does relate different. If you recall the Kings version (it’s covered in my entry titled “Anniversary! And Murder Most Foul!”), Ahaziah’s uncle Jehu was commissioned by God (through the intermediary of one of Elisha’s servants) to kill all of Ahab’s direct descendants. So he murders Joram (the king of Israel, Ahab’s descendant) at Jezreel, and also has his men shoot down Ahazael (who was visiting Joram at the time) as he tried to flee the ambush. Then Jehu goes on to murder all of Joram’s family (including the children). After that, he kills forty-two of Ahazael’s family that he meets on the road. In the Chronicles version, Jehu slaughters Joram and his family, then kills Ahaziah’s family on the road, and only after that do his men track down Ahaziah hiding in Samaria and bring him back to Jehu to be executed. So the deaths occur in different scenes set in different places and in a different order. Y’know, in the manner Biblical perfect consistency.

Skipping generations, we get to an expansion of the story of Uzziah (also called Araziah in the Kings version). The Kings version only said that he did what was right in the sight of God (except for not destroying the worship sites of other religions), and that God made him a leper in his old age for no stated reason. Chronicles comes up with a reason: Uzziah tried to burn incense in the temple himself, instead of leaving that to the priests. I’m sure that was a reason that must have made sense to the guy writing the book.

Anyway, those are just a few illustrations of differences between Second Chronicles and Second Kings. The general thrust seems to be to add stuff that makes some of God’s decisions seem less arbitrary, the punishments more the fault of the people receiving them instead of their ancestors, and God himself less absent. Like Second Kings, Second Chronicles runs up to the destruction of Judah and the Israelites’ captivity in Babylon. It ends after the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, which controls Babylon, when the Persian king Cyrus decides at God’s urging to rebuild the temple in Jerusalam and to release the Israelites to return home.

Phew! Hopefully we’re done with redundant books for a while! At least reading new stories should help to maintain interest, and I’ll be able to pick up the pace of postings. We’ll be picking up next with the Book of Ezra which, clocking in at only ten chapters, should be a pretty quick read.

Until next time, be happy and well!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

First Chronicles: Department of Redundancy Department (Can’t Even Do That Right)

So, remember at the end of my last post, how I said we might be able to get through First Chronicles relatively quickly because it repeats a lot of what we’ve already seen? Yeah… try one post. Yeah, it’s that redundant. Just to give you an idea: it’s twenty-nine chapters long, and the first ten are spent on genealogies starting all the way back at Adam. Including repeating the genealogy of Saul twice. It’s like the author is just daring you to try and stay conscious while reading this.

So eventually we get an extremely abbreviated bit of Saul’s story (basically, just how he died and David became king). Then an abbreviated story of David’s kingship (more time seems to be spent listing his “mighty men” and their accomplishments in the realm of killing people than on what David actually did with his throne). Nothing new or interesting until we get all the way to Chapter 21. Like much of what’s already passed this is basically retelling of a story from an earlier book, but it’s at least an interesting retelling. Because it starts like this:

1 Chron 21:1 Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. 2 So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army ‘Go, number Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, and bring me a report, that I may know their number.’”

First interesting thing about this: who the fuck is Satan?

Now, obviously, I know who Satan is. He’s the great bogeyman of Christian mythology, with the horns and the pitchfork and the fallen angelness and shit. But this is the first time Satan is mentioned by name in the Bible. And there is no context whatsoever! Just a name, with absolutely nothing to connect it to who or what it’s supposed to be. For all we know, it could be a treacherous advisor of David’s, or the king of another nation, or a spirit, or whatever the hell you might think of that could have some reason to dislike Israel. And it’s not like it’s further explained later in the story, either – that one passage right there is the only mention of Satan and he completely disappears for the rest of the story.

The other interesting thing about that passage is that it’s kicking off a retelling of an event we already read about in Second Samuel. Allow me to refresh your memory.

2 Sam 24:1 Again the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel, and he incited David to go against them, saying ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’ 2 So the king said to Joab, the commander of the army, who was with him, ‘Go, through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and number the people that I may know the number of the people.’”

Notice the difference? It’s pretty fucking critical. We have one book saying God told David to take the census, and the other saying this so-far-undefined Satan character did it. That’s a pretty damn obvious contradiction in our reputedly perfect little Bible, and a pretty damn critical one as well in that it speaks directly to the character of the god being described. Given that God punishes David for taking the census by killing 70,000 people, it makes a real difference whether he’s the one who gave the order or Satan is. I mean, the slaughter is a dick move no matter who gave the order, but it matters for understanding how big a dick move it is.

Well, there’s no clarity to be found within the story. It just outright contradicts the Second Samuel account and moves on without addressing the discrepancy at all. Enter the Internet, because I just had to look up how apologists deal with this. I read through a couple different pages on the topic, and both dealt with it using essentially the same argument. And that argument goes something like this:

The ancient Hebrews who wrote the Old Testament regarded God as the ultimate cause of all things, and everything that happens is ultimately part of his plan (this is just flatly asserted without linking any linguistic research to back it up). So when writing about events, they would attribute them to God as if he were actively causing them, when what they really mean is that he allowed the circumstances surrounding the event to evolve on their own without actively causing them himself. However, when they describe the actions of anybody else using the exact same wording (the one article made a point of specifying that the original Hebrew words used were the same), they really do mean that those people or entities were directly taking the action. So when the Bible says “Satan incited David…” it really means that Satan directly convinced David to take the census. But when it says “God incited David…” it really means that God simply didn’t prevent David from deciding to take the census at Satan’s urging. And because the exact same words mean entirely different things when talking about God than when talking about everyone else, there isn’t really a contradiction. One of the articles made a point of extrapolating this to other situations beside the question of the census, asserting that this also means that God didn’t “harden Pharaoh’s heart,” in the Exodus story, but rather simply arranged the situation and Pharaoh hardened his own heart (even though the text, as we’ve already discussed, explicitly says the opposite).

Wow! I have to admit that I’m impressed. This is a truly magnificent edifice of bullshit! The argument defends the literal truth of the Bible by abandoning the idea that statements about God’s actions can be taken literally. And just imagine the fun that can be had with this apologetic!

-          When the Bible says that God created living things, what it really means is that he allowed evolution to occur without ever involving himself directly.

-          When the Bible says that God wrote the law on stone tablets, what it really means is that he allowed Moses to write the law without participating directly.

-          When the Bible says God parted the Red Sea, what it really means is that he allowed the Israelites to cross during a naturally occurring extreme low tide event without ever lifting a finger.

Holy shit! It turns out that the Bible is really saying that God never did anything! It only appears to claim he did stuff because words have no agreed literal meaning!

Of course, I don’t really think the authors of this particular bit of pig feces meant it to be broadly applied. I’d bet good money that what he really meant is “Whenever the Bible attributes something freaking awful to God, or that I don’t want to believe about him, or that makes it impossible to defend the myth of Biblical non-contradiction, then what it really means is this weird interpretation where God can be said to not have been directly involved in some way that allows him to bear no responsibility even though the text directly credits him. But whenever the Bible attributes to God anything I happen to approve of or think I can defend rationally, well, then you take the words literally.”

It's also worth noting, I think, that both examples the author of that bit of apologetics uses as illustration (David's census, and the hardening of Pharaoh's heart) include the Bible attributing direct quotes of God speaking the relevant action. In David's census, the text doesn't just say that God incited David, it includes the order he gave as a directly attributed quote. The story of the Exodus doesn't merely state that God hardened Pharaoh's heart, it includes quotes from conversations with Moses where God says he will do exactly that. So I don't think this argument holds any water whatsoever.

Yeah, I’m tossing this argument aside. The Bible contradicts itself and offers no explanation. Most likely, the author of Chronicles was uncomfortable with what the Second Samuel account suggested about the character of God, so he threw this Satan character in to absolve Yahweh of some responsibility.

The rest of the story plays out pretty much as we’ve read before. Joab takes the census (but reports incorrect numbers to David because he disagreed with the decision), then David has a sudden fit of guilt. God punishes Israel for the census by causing a massive plague that kills seventy thousand men (and since only men were counted, who knows how many women and children died?). David ends the plague by buying the threshing floor of Onan the Jebusite and building an altar to God on which he made sacrifices. Chronicles differs from Samuel on the number of Israelites counted in the census, and on the amount David paid for the threshing floor, but these are kind of small quibbles. The whole thing is a clusterfuck from beginning to end.

There’s some more intensely dull stuff about who David gave what duties with respect to the resting place of the ark, and him gathering materials for his son Solomon to use in building the temple. But essentially, there’s not much new of interest for the rest of the First Book of Chronicles. The book comes to a close when David dies after having named Solomon his successor.

Next time we’ll be diving into the Second Book of Redundancy… I mean… Chronicles, which picks up with the reign of Solomon. Will this be an equally dull read? Or equally shattering to myths of biblical perfection? I guess we’ll find out! Until then, do be well.