Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Minipost: Psalm 137 - Blessed Infanticide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 13, 2015

Song of Solomon: Bible Porn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 9, 2015

Ecclesiastes: Epic Whining

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 9, 2015

Proverbs: Some Won Ton Soup with Your Wisdom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Deep breath.

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

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

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Proverbs: What (or Who) is this Wisdom Thing?

This post represents an important milestone. By starting the Book of Proverbs, I am now officially furthest I have ever managed to read in the Bible. You may recall from my introductory post way back in May of 2013 that my last attempt to read this thing bogged down and ended with Psalms.

Of course, if you read my last post then you know I cheated a little bit this time: I skipped almost two thirds of Psalms. There’s a good reason it stopped me the last time. Namely, that reading through the Psalms is torturously tedious. So I told myself I’d try skipping back to deal with individual Psalms later, and I’ve moved on to Proverbs.

Oh! Another milestone! I’ve passed the halfway mark! We’re on the downward slope now!

Now, Proverbs is set forth as a collection of sayings and essays from Solomon himself, the Biblically declared wisest man who has ever lived or who ever will. What should we expect? I mean, it probably won’t be as wise as the stuff God says himself, because Solomon is only a man. On the other hand, he is the wisest man ever! So it’s gotta be pretty good stuff, right?

Well, the good news is that there does seem to be some good advice in here. On the other hand, there’s some stuff that doesn’t seem so great, and there’s also some total gibberish. But let’s start at the beginning.

The Book of Proverbs opens up with a simple introductory statement that we are reading the proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel. It then goes on to say that to know wisdom, justice, and insight, a wise man must be willing to listen to instruction and continue to learn. Not too shabby a beginning, until you hit the seventh verse:

Prov 1:7 The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

It says a good bit about the character of the god Solomon is describing that he should say fearing him is the first thing you should know. Not love, not understanding, but fear. And I should point out that, logically, one would have to know (or at least believe) this Yahweh exists and something of the brutish nature of his personality before one could reasonably start fearing him. So to say you need to begin at fear has already skipped a few steps.

Although… it occurs to me that he could be saying that the thing Yahweh fears most is people beginning to gain knowledge. That would be fairly consistent with the rest of the Bible, actually, but it seems unlikely to be something Solomon would have believed.

Moving on, though, Proverbs continues as though Solomon is explicitly addressing his son with words of advice. And we do get some good advice about not letting people talk you into doing such unpleasant stuff as murder and theft. Then it just randomly moves into a section that kind of personifies wisdom as a woman that talks to people.

Prov 1:20 Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; 21 at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance to the city gates she speaks:”

What follows that quote is a lengthy first-person soliloquy by this wisdom person about how awesome it is to have her, and how calamity will befall those who reject her. It includes imprecations about how, when bad stuff happens to foolish people, she will laugh and mock them. It’s kind of a weird section – especially in light of the fact that the Bible has consistently mocked and derided the mental and moral capacity of pretty much everything female up to this point. Why would it suddenly embody wisdom as a woman, then?

There’s an interesting theory floating about out there that the original form of this section was about a separate goddess of wisdom (I’ve seen both Asherah and Sophia proposed) who used to be worshipped as a companion to Yahweh, but whose worship was later stamped out by the Yahweh cult. I didn’t dig all that deeply into it, but it makes an interesting theory. It also makes a kind of sense in light of the fact that the First Book of Kings tells us Solomon was chastised by God specifically for the crime of taking up the worship of his wives’ gods. Doesn’t seem like much of a stretch that he might have written some stuff praising them.

On the other hand, maybe Solomon was just being poetic and fetishizing women a bit – he did have a thousand wives and concubines, after all.

Anyway, the monologue by wisdom gets us to Chapter 2, where Solomon takes up monologue about wisdom. And not so much about what wisdom is as about how awesome it is to have. He also talks a bit about his belief that wisdom is given by God, though it’s not terribly clear whether he means that wisdom involves following God’s laws or that God directly puts wisdom into you as kind of a separate thing. But he does say that once you have wisdom, you will understand righteousness and the value of knowledge, and how to avoid evil; stuff like that. It’s all pretty vague fluffy stuff, but it seems to come down to a belief that wisdom is spectacularly awesome (expressed again in a few places by describing wisdom as a “she”), and that it consists entirely of doing what God tells you to do without burdening your head overmuch with stuff like independent thought.

            So then we get into some actual, concrete words of advice. And there’s actually some decent stuff in there (e.g. “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,” “Do not plan evil against your neighbor who dwells trustingly beside you,” “Do not contend with a man for no reason,”). But then, once Chapter 4 goes back to referring to wisdom as “her” we get a really bizarre verse.

Prov 4:7 The beginning of wisdom is this: get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight.”

            Like, what the fuck does that even mean? It starts of like it's actually going to define for us what wisdom is, but then descends immediately into gibberish! It’s word salad, completely devoid of content! This might be excusable if the verses that followed somehow explained what it means, but they don’t even make the attempt. Instead, we get yet another soliloquy about how precious wisdom is, and how if you “prize her highly,” she will “honor you,” and “place on your head a beautiful garland,” and “bestow on you a beautiful crown.”

            The rest of Chapter 5 is kind of self-congratulatory stuff about how Solomon has taught his son wisdom and given him wise instruction, plus a lengthy diatribe against wicked people. That gets us into Chapter 6, which is almost entirely dedicated to a long-winded warning against adultery. Of course, that’s pretty easy advice to give for a man who literally has hundreds of wives and concubines to choose from at any given time. And the framing of the warning is along the lines of warning his son not to allow an adulterous woman to ensnare him, as if the only way a man might commit adultery is if the woman seduces him. The long diatribe also contains this bit of hilarity, in talking about the adulterous woman:

Prov 6:25 Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes; 26 for the price of a prostitute is only a loaf of bread, but a married woman hunts down a precious life.”

            Yes, my friends, the Biblically-declared wisest man the world has ever known, or will ever know, advises us that if we’re so horny we’re thinking of sleeping with another man’s wife, we should just go to a prostitute instead. This might be shocking to you, in light of the expressed morality of the sort of people who claim to look to the Old Testament for rules of behavior. But as I’ve observed before, it’s pretty clear that under Old Testament law, a man is allowed to have sex with as many women as he likes and it won’t be considered adultery unless some other man has a prior ownership claim on her. Solomon’s advice is perfectly in keeping with this idea, so at least it has consistency going for it.

            Anyway, that’s probably enough for now. Proverbs, I think, is going to be pretty tricky to write about for many of the same reasons Psalms was. Even in this bit I’ve skipped over a lot, and I suspect I’ll be skipping a helluva lot more before it’s done with. After all, it’s thirty-one chapters long and I’ve only gotten through six so far. I don’t really want to spend too many posts on it if it canbe avoided.

            Until next time, everyone be well!

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!