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.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Second Kings: Just Get it Over With!

Well, for a number of reasons I haven’t been able to put up a post in about a month. This is partly due to life getting pretty crowded, and the late-but-welcome arrival of nice weather prompting me to spend more time outdoors that I’d otherwise spend writing. But there’s another reason as well: the rest of Second Kings is pretty damn boring. It’s just tough to find anything in the remainder of the book that I really want to write about. But, I’ll gamely give it a go.

So when we left off, Elisha had just died. Which gets attached to a cute little story.

2 Kings 13:20 So Elisha died, and they buried him. Now bands of Moabites used to invade the land in the spring of the year. 21 And as a man was being buried, behold, a marauding band was seen and the man was thrown into the grave of Elisha, and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet.”

So yeah… I guess that’s, what, the third resurrection that’s been pulled off so far? How special! I wonder if people started bringing other dead folks to Elisha’s grave. I imagine it would have been tough to actually get him fully buried after that point, what with the likely demand for further resurrections. But then, oddly, nothing is ever mentioned about it again, one way or the other.

After that, it’s pretty much back to politics and wars. Amaziah becomes king of Judah (and he did what was good in the sight of God), and for no stated reason declares war on king Joash of Israel. Joash (who was one of the many kings who “did what was evil in the sight of God”) beats the everloving shit out of Amaziah’s army, takes him captive, sacks Jerusalem, and loots the temple. Guess God was a little off his defensive game that day. Or had, y’know, some of those famous “mysterious reasons,” for letting the king who worshipped him faithfully get spanked by the one who didn’t. Joash lives out the rest of his life reigning over Israel, while Amaziah is eventually returned to Judah only to be overthrown and murdered by a conspiracy of his own people.

Amaziah’s son, Araziah, becomes king. He’s another who “did what was right in the eyes of God.” His reward? God turns him into a leper. Seriously… the text specifically says that God turns him into a leper. Possibly because, while he was faithful to God himself, he wasn’t doing enough to oppress the people who worshipped other gods or who worshipped Yahweh incorrectly (though that’s only implied as the reason, and not stated outright).

What follows is a succession of kings in both Israel and Judah that are largely uninteresting. Some did “right” and some did “evil” in the eyes of God, some were usurped and murdered, some were not, some were successful in war, some were not. Dry stuff presented in very dry and cursory fashion.

So a few generations down, we run into Hoshea, king of Israel. And he gets spanked by the Assyrians, and forced to pay tribute. But when the Assyrians later find out that he’s conspiring with Egypt to rebel, they just flat out invade and conquer Israel. Hoshea himself is taken prisoner, and the people of Israel are forcibly relocated. So the kingdom of Israel ceases to exist, leaving only Judah as the sole bastion of Jewish sovereignty. And as per usual, after spelling out the exact political and economic reasons why something happened, the Bible then goes on to lay that blame squarely on the Israelites’ failure to worship God properly.

A few years later, the Assyrians are walloping on Judah as well. Hezekiah is king in Judah, and he’s been running a little pogrom of persecuting people who worship other gods and destroying their places of worship. So God likes him well enough to intervene when the Assyrians stage a full-scale invasion. And…

Aggh… fuck it! I’m sick of Second Kings! Sick or writing about it, sick of reading and re-reading it to try and find interesting things to say. It’s boring as shit, and I’m just gonna push through to the end so that today’s post can finish it up and we can move on. Ultimately, it’s just a long and incredibly tedious parable for “If you don’t worship God exclusively, he’ll fuck your shit up. Mostly in ways indistinguishable from normal politics and war.”

So… God tricks the Assyrians into going away. But they come back later and he kills 185,000 of them. Hezekiah gets sick, and God tell him he’s gonna die. But he prays and God changes his mind to let him live another 15 years. He also tells him that Judah is gonna get destroyed in a few generations, and Hezekiah is all like “That’s good. Everything’s fine for me, so fuck my descendants anyway.”

A couple generations later, Josiah is king of Judah and he goes whole hog on religious persecution. Not only does he do one of those purges that seems to happen every couple generations where the king tears down the worship places of every god other than Yahweh, but also…

2 Kings 23:19 And Josiah removed all the shrines also of the cities of Samaria, which kings of Israel had made, provoking Yahweh to anger. He did to them according to all that he had done in Bethel. 20 And he sacrificed all the priests of the high places who were there, on the altars, and burned human bones on them. Then he returned to Jerusalem.”

So yeah, human sacrifice again. Mind you, this is after God had already told him (through the prophet Isaiah) that he was going to destroy Judah anyway and that, because Josiah was such a good little toady, God would reward him by making sure he died before having to see any of the destruction.

Josiah is eventually killed by the king of Egypt. We get a couple more generations of kings before the Babylonians bitch-slap Judah into the ground and force them to pay tribute. A few years later, Judah rebels against Babylon, so king Nebuchadnezzar just all-out invades. Jerusalem is burned to the ground, and the temple with it, and a Babylonian governor appointed. Many of the people of Judah (including the king) are taken as prisoners back to Babylon, and the independent Jewish states are gone. This is, of course, entirely because the Jewish people had the wrong religious beliefs and practices.

And that’s it. We’re done with Second Kings. I apologize for the brusque manner in which I breezed through this last part, but I’d really had enough and had long since ceased getting anything out of it. With my next post, we’ll be moving on to the First Book of Chronicles. It is, unfortunately, a bit of a recap of stuff we’ve already read. But maybe that means we can skip through it fairly quickly, and perhaps it will provide some interesting comparisons.

Until next time, y’all take care!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Second Kings: Anniversary! And Murder Most Foul!

Well, this is a rather special episode. Not particularly for content, but because this blog has achieved a milestone: one full year! Yes, May 5 is the anniversary of my very first post in this blog. And here we are, 80 posts later, and only a little over a third of the way through this tome. So thank you to everyone who’s been keeping up so far! And now, let’s jump back in.

We’re in the midst of Second Kings. The next story we’ll relate happens shortly after where we left off the last time. Jehoram, the king of Judah dies and leaves the throne to his son Ahaziah. Joram is still king of Israel, and Hazael the king of Syria is still running about attacking Israel. So Ahaziah and Joram team up to fight the Syrians, and Joram is wounded in the process. Joram goes to the city of Jezreel to recover, while his army remains in the field.

This is the scene as Elisha intervenes in politics once again. This time he sends one of his servants to find the commander of Joram’s army, a fellow named Jehu who is also the son of Jehosaphat (which makes him the uncle of Ahaziah, the king of Judah). Got that? This guy is the servant of one king, and the uncle to another, which is important because he’s about to do them like Uncle Scar on Elisha’s say-so.

Elisha’s servant, on Elisha’s orders, finds Jehu and takes him aside.

2 Kings 9:6 So he arose and went into the house. And the young man poured the oil on his head, saying to him, ‘Thus says Yahweh, the god of Israel, I anoint you king over the people of Yahweh, over Israel. 7 And you shall strike down the house of Ahab your master, so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of Yahweh. 8 For the whole house of Ahab shall perish, and I will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel.’”

There’s a little more to the speech, but you get the gist from there. Some random kid shows up claiming to speak for God and tells Jehu that he’s king now and needs to kill his master the current king. And his whole family. Because of stuff Ahab did. And rather than saying “What are you, a lunatic?!” Jehu just says “Sure thing!” and immediately commences a murder spree.

He starts by gathering up his men and going to Jezreel where king Joram of Israel is recovering from his wounds and king Ahaziah of Judah is visiting. After telling his king that is mother Jezebel is a whore, Jehu shoots him down. Then, for good measure, Jehu has his men shoot down his own nephew Ahaziah.

Then, after murdering both kings, Jehu heads back to the palace where he orders the servants to toss Jezebel out a window, which they do. Then he has his horses trample her to death. Following this, he then sends orders to the people in Samaria who are fostering Ahab’s remaining sons, demanding that they prove they are with him by murdering the boys. Which they do. He also kills all of the remaining officers, allies, and priests who served the old king’s family. Oh, and forty-two member of his own family who he met on the road because they had been coming to visit Jezebel and her family.

So with the political purging done, it was time for the religious purges. Jehu sends out a proclamation to all the priests and followers of Baal that he’s going to make a huge sacrifice to their god. He gathers them all together in their temple under that pretense, then slaughters every last one of them and burns the temple to the ground.

Now, finally, God apparently has a personal word for Jehu rather than talking through people claiming to talk for him.

2 Kings 10:30 And Yahweh said to Jehu, ‘Because you have done well in carrying out what is right in my eyes, and have done to the house of Ahab all that was in my heart, your sons of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel.’”

Yeah. Murder of an entire family line is what is in God’s heart. What a lovely being.

From here we get a few more generations of kings in both Israel and Judah, mostly “doing what is evil in the sight of God.” Some more political coups, and wars… pretty dull stuff, actually, at least in the way it’s all presented. Things turn briefly interesting, in an entirely inane sort of way, when we come to the death of Elisha.

At this time, Joash is king of Israel, and as usual, Israel is at war with Syria. He goes to visit and consult with Elisha, who is sick abed. Inevitably, stupidity ensues.

2 Kings 13:15 And Elisha said to him ‘Take a bow and arrows.’ So he took a bow and arrows. 16 Then he said to the king of Israel ‘Draw the bow,’ and he dre it. And Elisha laid his hands on the kings hands. 17 And he said ‘Open the window eastward,’ and he opened it. Then Elisha said ‘Shoot,’ and he shot. And he said ‘Yahweh’s arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Syria! For you shall fight the Syrians in Aphek until you have made an end of the them.’ 18 And he said ‘Take the arrows,’ and he took them. And he said to the king of Israel ‘Strike the ground with them.’ And he struck three times and stopped. 19 Then the man of God was angry with him and said ‘You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Syria until you made an end of it, but now you will strike down Syria only three times.’”

How dumb is that? Seriously? Another one of Elisha’s little arbitrary made-up-on-the-fly rituals? And he gets angry at Joash for not doing it right because he didn’t guess the arbitrary number rattling around in our prophet’s little head for how many times to strike the floor?

“Hey, do this stupid thing. No, you FOOL! You guessed wrong, and now you won’t get the result that you didn’t even know was the point of my stupid ritual!”

And then Elisha died. So after a few high notes in the middle of his career, he goes out on a wave of whimsical idiocy.

But anyway, as Elisha checks out, so shall we for the day. And here’s to another year of Biblical fun!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Second Kings: Are You Going to Eat That? (Part 2)

Well, here I am again with more progress on Second Kings. Let’s get to it.

Where were we? Oh yeah, Israel is warring with Syria again. And he’s having a hard time of it, because Elisha keeps telling the Israelite king (who I presume is still Jehoram, though the text doesn’t refer to him by name in this story) where the Syrian armies are camped. It’s kind of unclear why he’s doing this, since in the story about the invasion of Moab Elisha was pretty clear about his disdain for Jehoram. But whatever.

Anyway, some of the Syrians tell their king that it’s Elisha giving away their positions, and that he’s in the city of Dothan. So the Syrian king sends an army to besiege Dothan so he can get rid of Elisha. But the prophet prays for God to strike them all blind, which he does. Elisha then tricks the blind Syrian army into following him to the city of Samaria (I looked it up: we’re expected to believe this army of blind men trekked twelve miles on a stranger’s say-so), where the Israelite king and his army are located. He restores their sight in time for them to be captured by the Israelite king.

Interestingly, Elisha advises the king to give them food and drink before sending them home. Now this is an interesting development: for the first time, God has provided a miraculous defeat of an enemy army without commanding their utter genocide. Is God evolving, or does his personality happen to change depending on the personality of the prophet conveying his orders?

The Syrian king, Ben-hadad (the same guy Ahab once defeated and let go), reacts by regrouping his army and going to assault Samaria. The siege lasts so long that (and remember, God did promise oh so long ago that he would make this happen) people begin to starve so badly that they start eating their babies. Upon hearing of the cannibalism going on in his city, the Israelite king gets pissed and demands Elisha’s head.

On the one hand, this seems like a singularly stupid reaction – after all, it isn’t Elisha eating babies, and it isn’t Elisha besieging the city. On the other hand, the king supposedly has seen Elisha miraculously defeat Syrian armies by himself just recently, so it has to be galling that he’s just letting his own people starve when he could theoretically throw miracles at the Syrians some more.

Anyhow, Elisha bars his doors against the people who are sent to arrest him, and tells the leader that there will be plenty of food tomorrow (but that said leader will not get to eat any of it).

Sure enough, in the morning the Syrian army has completely evaporated. We’re told because God had made the Syrians hear the sound of a vast army coming at them in the middle of the night, and got so scared that they ran off and left all of their stuff behind in their camp. If I were that easy, one has to wonder why the fuck this God guy didn’t do it before people were reduced to eating their own fucking children.

Oh yeah… because he wanted them to. Said so all the way back in Deuteronomy 28.

Anyway, when the people realize what’s happened, they stampede out the gates to loot the Syrian camp, and in the process trample to death the poor schmuck that Elisha had said wouldn’t get to eat of the food.

Let’s see… side story about a seven-year famine… not terribly important.

Then Elisha travels to Damascus in Syria. When the king, who is ill, hears that Elisha is in town he sends some dude named Hazael (that name should be familiar if you’ve read my previous posts) to inquire whether he will recover from his illness.

2 Kings 8:10 And Elish said to him, ‘Go, say to him, “You shall certainly recover,” but Yahweh has shown me that he shall certainly die.”

Yeah, prophet of God, instructing Hazael to lie. These prophets seem to be increasingly untrustworthy sorts.

Elisha then goes on to burst into tears, and tell Hazael about how God has told him that Hazael will become king of Syria and do all kinds of shitty things to Israel. So Hazael goes back to king Ben-hadad and tells him the lie he was instructed to tell, then later smothers the king and claims the throne for himself. I suppose this could count as Elisha fulfilling the instructions God gave (to Elijah) to anoint Hazael king of Syria.

Then we kind of get into some dense politics, which is made all the more confusing by the fact that at one point both Israel and Judah are being ruled by different men who are both named Jehoram and are both referred to by that name and by the name Joram. The Bible is critical of both, in any case, because they worship other gods beside Yahweh (in the case of Jehoram of Judah, the Bible lays the blame on the fact that he’s married to one of Jehoram of Israel’s sisters).  Under Jehoram’s rule, the cities of Edom and Libnah revolt and become independent of Israel.

At any rate, I think this is going to be a stopping place for today. We’re going into a portion of the book heavy on politics and successions (and very short on theological stuff), so I’ll need to put some thought into how to relate the stories. Until next time, you all be well!.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Second Kings: Miracle Men

Today we start of the Second Book of Kings. I’m sure great wonders are in store for us, just like every other book so far. So let’s dive in, shall we?

The very first story is a real thriller. Ahab’s son Ahaziah is king and has a nasty fall that injures him badly enough to confine him to bed. He sends messengers to Ekron to ask their god (Baal-zebub) whether he will recover. Naturally, this pisses off Yahweh, so he sends Elijah to turn the messengers back with the news that Ahaziah is going to die because he tried to consult with another god.

When Ahaziah hears about this, he sends a company of fifty men to bring Elijah back to see him.

2 Kings 1: 10 But Elijah answered the captain of fifty ‘If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.’ Then fire came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty.”

OK, so, mystic murder of fifty-one men because Elijah didn’t want to go to the king. Well, actually a hundred and two men, since Ahaziah sends another company and Elijah does the same thing to them. Then Ahaziah, apparently a very slow learner, sends a third company of fifty men. But the captain of this group begs Elijah to spare his life, at which point an angel tells Elijah to go with the captain to meet the king.

So he does, and repeats the exact same message about how Ahaziah is going to die because he tried to consult with another god instead of Yahweh. Then Ahaziah dies, having reigned only two years, and his brother Jehoram becomes king.

Afterwards, we get a story about Elijah and Elisha traveling together. They stop in three different cities, and before leaving each one Elijah tells Elisha to stay behind but he refuses. Also in each one the prophets tell Elisha that God is about to take Elijah from him, to which he responds that he already knows and they should keep quiet about it.

After these stops they travel on to the Jordan river, which Elijah causes to part by smacking it with his cloak. They cross the river and leave behind some fifty prophets who’d been following them, heading off alone into the wilderness.

2 Kings 2:11 And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.”

So yeah, Elijah has been physically picked up and taken alive to heaven. Elisha picks up Elijah’s cloak, which had fallen off when the whirlwind came, and marched back to the Jordan. He smacked the water with the cloak and made it part again so he could cross back over to where the prophets are waiting for him. They want to go look for Elijah in case the whirlwind dropped him someplace still on earth (or maybe because “Elisha murdered him and buried him in a shallow grave,” seemed like a more plausible story than “Chariots of fire carried him in a whirlwind up to heaven,”), and do so over Elisha’s objection. But their search is fruitless, so instead they start asking Elisha for miracles like making the local water more palatable.

From there we move on to this charming little tale:

2 Kings 2:23 He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” 24 And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of Yahweh. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. 25 From there he went onto Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria.”

Dude! Not cool! That’s some weapons-grade insecurity (not to mention psychotic assholery) there, sending bears to maul children for making fun of your baldness. And then he just travels on as if it ain’t no thang.

Next is a little story about how Jehoram (king of Israel) gets together with Jehosaphat (king of Judah) and the king of Edom to go put the smackdown on the Moabites because they stopped paying a tribute of sheep to Israel after Ahab died. They persuade Elisha to help them out, and so God engages in his usual method of divine intervention: helping his followers kill the fuck out of a whole mess of people. But then, after bitchslapping the Moabite army around and destroying the Moabites’ farmland for shits and giggles, we find the combined army marching on the Moabite capital.

2 Kings 3:27 When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him 700 swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom, but they could not. 27 Then he took his oldest son who was to reign in his place and offered him for a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel. And they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.”

Well how do you like that? Cornered by an Israelite army that showed every indication of wanting to kill every last one of his people, the king of Moab sacrificed his son in a desperate bid for his own god’s intervention to save them. And from his perspective, it certainly must have seemed as though it worked, because the Israelites were driven off.

Now I’ve heard Christians mention this tale as an example of how awful the Moabites were and therefore how they deserved all the genocidal attacks from God’s followers. To this I respond: read up on Jephthah (Judges 11:30 – 11:39, which I covered in my post titled “Judges: Barbeque!” at He did the exact same fucking thing (only under less desperate circumstances), sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering to God in exchange for victory in battle. And he’s considered a hero in the Bible. The only difference between him and the king of Moab is which tribal figment of imagination they were sacrificing their offspring to. But as I’ve mentioned before, the choice of gods appears to be the only discernible difference between heroes and villains in this book.

After this, Elisha starts doing something very odd for one of Yahweh’s Old Testament prophets: helping people in ways that don’t involve killing anyone. We get a story about how he miraculously gave a poor widow a vast supply of oil to sell in order to pay off her debts and avoid having to sell her sons into slavery. This is followed by him raising from the dead the son of a Shunammite woman who had given him shelter (though there are some weird sexual overtones to the method he used – whereas just praying was good enough for Elijah to raise the dead, for some reason Elisha has to lie down on top of the boy and kiss him on the mouth a few times to get the same result). After this he purifies a stew that had accidentally been prepared with poisonous ingredients so that it could be eaten safely. And then, in a time of famine, he multiplies a supply of barley and grain to feed a hundred men with food left over. He cures Namaan (a favorite of the king of Syria) of leprosy, and punishes his own assistant with leprosy when the guy tries to con Namaan into paying for the cure. Finally, he… umm… makes an axe head float to the surface when one of his servants accidentally drops it in the water.

What’s interesting about Elisha’s miracles is that they don’t ever seem to include prayer – just weird little rituals seemingly made up on the spot, like throwing a stick in the water to make the axe head float, or tossing flour in the poisonous soup. It looks more like wizardry than anything else. Also, there’s no explicit command from God for him to do any of it. He just seems to wander around tossing off magic at his whim (and other than the bit with bears mauling small children, doing so in ways that really aren’t terribly consistent with the character of God thus far displayed) and occasionally crediting God for it.

It raises a few questions, I think. Are we looking at a god who’s softening a bit, or stories representing an evolution in how the authors (who most certainly were not the ones who wrote the oldest books) regard the role of their imaginary friend and what he expects of his adherents. Perhaps further reading will provide insight, but with a new war with Syria on the horizon I think this may be a good place to stop for today.

Until next time, you be well!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

First Kings: Lies, Damn Lies, and Prophecies

Well, here we are again, and in today’s episode we have the activities of Ahab, king of Israel in the time of the prophet Elijah. We should be able to skip through these pretty quickly.

Immediately after Elijah took Elishah as his apprentice prophet, Ahab gets involved in a war with the king of Syria Ben-hadad. Note that this is not Hazael, whom God instructed Elijah to anoint king of Syria. And we’re explicitly told that God gave the Syrian army into Ahab’s hands (i.e. God helped Ahab win). The details of the battles aren’t really important, but in the end Ahab has defeats two Syrian armies and has the king cornered in the city of Aphek (where, apparently, a wall fell on 27,000 of his men – that must have been one fuck of a wall!). Ben-hazad buys his freedom by giving back to Israel some cities that Syria had previously captured from them and making a trade agreement for letting Israelite merchants into his cities.

Apparently, even though God never instructed Ahab to kill Ben-hazad, he’s pissed that Ahab spared his life. So he sends one of his prophets to inform Ahab of his displeasure in a psychotic little story that starts thusly:

1 Kings 20:35 And a certain man of the sons of the prophets said to his fellow at the command of Yahweh, ‘Strike me, please.’ But the man refused to strike him. 36 Then he said to him, ‘Because you have not obeyed the voice of Yahweh, behold, as soon as you have gone from me, a lion shall strike you down.’ And as soon as he had departed from him, a lion met him and struck him down.”

So God has a lion kill a man for refusing to hit one of his prophets… because I guess people are just supposed to do whatever the hell a man calling himself a prophet tells them to or fucking else. Of course, for all he knew the instruction to hit the guy was a test to see if he would actually hit a prophet and he might be killed for doing that, but I suppose he guessed wrong.

Anyway, our little nameless prophet friend finally finds someone willing to hit him. And apparently this was just to add some verisimilitude to his disguise when he approaches Ahab claiming to be a soldier from the battles with Syria. There’s a brief little conversation in which the prophet essentially tricks Ahab into judging that it’s a bad thing to let a prisoner escape whom one’s commander has given into your charge by claiming that he was a soldier who’d accidentally done so during the battle. But I guess it’s not all that surprising that the prophets’ stock and trade would be trickery and deceit.

Of course, this is followed by judgment:

1 Kings 20:42 And he said to him ‘Thus says Yahweh, “ Because you have let go out of your hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction, therefore your life shall be for his life and your people for his people.”’”

Yeah… so basically God is declaring that, because Ahab didn’t kill a guy who he was never explicitly told to kill, God is going to kill Ahab and his subjects as well. Because that’s totally not the behavior of a psychotic douchebag at all.

Then we get a quick side story about how Ahab wanted some dude’s vineyard. But since the guy wasn’t willing to sell it, Ahab’s wife Jezebel framed him for blasphemy and had him executed so that Ahab could take over his land. This brings Elijah back to the story, to deliver God’s threat that because of this Ahab and all of his descendants will be wiped out. And after receiving the threat, Ahab puts on a great show of sorrow and repentance. And so…

1 Kings 21: 28 And the word of Yahweh came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying 29 ‘Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because h has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster upon his house.’”

So we go from “I’m going to punish you and your family horribly for the crimes you’ve committed,” to “OK, since you kissed my ass enough, I won’t punish you. I’ll only punish your family for the crimes you’ve committed.” Somehow, God managed to find a way to make his original unjust judgment even less just. Although, really, it kind of reads like the writers of the Bible were thinking that Ahab did a bunch of stuff they hated and seemed to get away with it, whereas bad stuff happened to his son, so they just went back after the fact and made up a story to make it look like the bad stuff that happened to the son was really Ahab’s punishment.

I’m not saying Ahab wasn’t clearly a shitty person. Just that God’s behavior was even shittier.

But it gets better.

After three years of peace, Ahab asks Jehosaphat the king of Judah to help him out with a war against Syria to take back the city of Ramoth-gilead. Jehosaphat doesn’t want to join up unless Ahab consults about what God wants them to do. So Ahab consults with four hundred prophets of God, who all tell him that God says it’s OK to go to battle because he’s going to give the city into Ahab’s hand. But Jehosaphat isn’t satisfied and asks for a second opinion (or a four-hundred-and-first opinion). So they bring up this guy, Micaiah. And at first, Micaiah gives the same advice. But when Ahab makes him swear to tell the truth, Micaiah admits that it was a lie and Ahab will actually be killed and Israel left without a king. Then he finally tells the full details of his prophecy:

1 Kings 22:19 And Micaiah said ‘Therefore hear the word of Yahweh: I saw Yahweh sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; 20 and Yahweh said, “Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?” And one said one thing, and another said another. 21 Then a spirit came forward and stood before Yahweh, saying “I will entice him.” 22 And Yahweh said to him “By what means?” And he said “I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.” And he said “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.” 23 Now therefore behold, Yahweh has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; Yahweh has declared disaster for you.”

 As it turns out, Micaiah was right and Ahab does in fact die in the battle (along with the usual casualties, of course, who wouldn’t have had to go to war without those lies).

So what are we supposed to get from this story? Either Micaiah was lying, and just got lucky about the outcome of the battle - in which case the other four hundred prophets were wrong and/or lying. The other option is that Micaiah was telling the truth, in which case God is in fact the kind of guy who lies (or sends spirits explicitly instructed to lie on his behalf – a distinction that makes no practical difference whatsoever) in order to start wars and get people killed. In either case… how the fuck does anyone ever justify believing a damn word any so-called prophet says?!

After all, according to this story, even in the (highly unlikely) circumstance that a prophet is faithfully reporting the exact message that an actual existing God is conveying to him, God could be fucking lying!

Say… isn’t the Bible supposed to be the God-inspired writing of his prophets? Just play with that thought a little.

And remember… all of this farce involving deceiving four hundred men who, so far as the text shows, were faithful prophets into becoming false prophets (a capital offense under the law at the time) and tricking Israel into going to war (causing unknown casualties among both peoples) was all supposedly aimed at killing one man: Ahab. Something God could have done with less effort that snapping his fingers if he’d wanted to. This is just going out of his way to be an asshole about it.

Anyway, the death of Ahab pretty much brings us to the end of First Kings. There’s some trivia about Jehosaphat ruling in Judah and Ahab’s son Ahaziah inheriting the throne of Israel, but nothing all that exciting is said about either. So it looks like next time we’ll pick up the Second Book of Kings.

Until then, be well!

Friday, March 7, 2014

First Kings: Bummer for Baal

Let’s see… we were about to start talking about Ahab and Elijah, right?

Now, the Ahab we’re talking about was a king of Israel, not a whale-obsessed ship’s captain. Just so we’re clear. And we’re told that Ahab did more evil than all of the people who came before him, because not only did he allow cults to other gods to flourish like his predecessors did, but he married a Sidonian chick named Jezebel and converted to the worship of her god Baal.

So because Ahab was so awful, God sent his prophet Elijah to inform Ahab that there would be a three year drought. Then God sent Elijah into hiding (presumably so Ahab wouldn’t retaliate) in the wilderness east of the Jordan, where he had ravens bring him food every day. But after a bit, because of the drought, Elijah ran out of water to drink and God sent him to the city of Zarepath. There, he met a starving widow and her son, whose nearly exhausted supply of food God multiplied so that she could feed Elijah as well as herself. But even with their food worries taken care of, tragedy still lingered in the form of the son coming down sick and dying. But fear not, for Elijah was on the case:

1 Kings 17:20 And he cried out to Yahweh, ‘O Yahweh my God, have you brought calamity even on the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her son?’ 21 Then he stretched himself upon the child three times and cried to Yahweh, ‘O Yahweh, my God, let this child’s life come into him again.’ 22 And Yahweh listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.”

So there you go. Miraculous resurrection. God defeating death via Elijah long before doing it via Jesus. And in such a sweet setting – a heartfelt plea for the life of a young boy, answered with a miracle. What a refreshing change of pace!

After three years of drought, God sends Elijah to go have a word with Ahab. Apparently in the meantime, Jezebel had ordered all of the prophets of God killed so they couldn’t compete with the prophets of her own god, but Ahab’s servant Obadiah had hidden a hundred of them away in caves and provided them with food and water.

Elijah confronts Ahab and demands that he gather “all Israel,” along with 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah at Mount Carmel. And for some reason, even though Ahab clearly regards Elijah as just a troublemaker, he does as he demands.

When everyone is gathered at Mount Carmel, Elijah proposes a challenge between Baal and Yahweh (for some reason, even though the prophets of Asherah are invited, they aren’t included as part of the challenge). Each of them will prepare a burnt offering to their god, but they won’t set it on fire. Instead, they are to pray to their respective gods to light the fire for them. The prophets of Baal go first, and even though there are 450 of them there praying and entreating their god, the offering fails to light. Elijah spends his time mocking their efforts, at one point suggesting that maybe Baal isn’t answering because he’s off somewhere taking a dump.

Then Elijah makes his offering, and when his preparations are done he takes the extra step of completely soaking it in water. I guess he was worried about the artistic merit score from the Russian judge, and was hoping to pick up extra points on technical difficulty.

When Elijah calls out to God, a fire descends from heaven so hot that it not only consumes the offering, but destroys the altar and evaporates all the water that had puddled around it. Everyone watching is stunned, and falls down to worship God. Then Elijah, magnanimous in victory as all of God’s prophets invariably are, orders the people to seize the prophets of Baal and kill them all. After this, finally, the drought ends and the rains come.

Don’t we ordinarily consider it a bad thing to engage in human sacrifice as a means of ending droughts? Or for any reason, really? I guess it just really depends on which god you’re sacrificing to.

When Jezebel hears about all this, she sends a messenger to Elijah to let him know she intends to have him killed. Why she didn’t just send several people with orders to actually kill him instead, I have no idea, but he responds to the gracious warning by fleeing like a little bitch. Which seems like odd behavior for someone who supposedly has unequivocal proof that God s on his side and just successfully ordered “all of Israel” to murder hundreds of Jezebel’s prophets. What is he scared of? Couldn’t he just order those same people to murder her as well?

But anyway, Elijah flees into the wilderness, where God has an angel feed him while he journeys to Mount Horeb. There, Elijah whines to God about how he’s the only guy in all of Israel still loyal to God and everybody wants to kill him. You’d think lying straight to God’s face like that would have consequences, but apparently it doesn’t work that way. Instead, God sends Elijah to go anoint some guy named Hazael to be king of Syria and Jehu to be king of Israel (and why, exactly, would anyone in Syria care who a disenfranchised priest of an Israelite god tells them should be king?), and to anoint a guy named Elishah to be prophet after him. Yes, there will now be a pair of prophets named Elijah and Elishah. Good luck not getting them confused.

Then God promises to use those anointed fellows to kill shitloads of Israelites until there are only seven thousand left. Because mass murder remains the one-size-fits-all solution.

Anyway, Elijah finds Elishah, who agrees to follow him and marks the occasion by sacrificing a couple dozen of his family’s oxen (I’m certain they were thrilled at the spontaneous destruction of that much wealth). The Bible then takes a break from following Elijah for a bit (without mentioning whether he carried out the orders to anoint new kings in Syria and Israel) to go on at length about some of Ahab’s wars with Syria. Since there are some stories worth repeating covered in that aside about Ahab, I think the transition here is a good place to take a break for now. We’ll get into those stories next time.

Until then, be well!