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 http://reallyawakeguy.blogspot.com/2013/10/judges-barbeque.html). 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!

Friday, February 21, 2014

First Kings: Can’t Pick a Winner

Welcome back to our exploration of the First Book of Kings from the Old Testament of the Bible. When we left off, the kingdom of Israel had split in two: Judah, under the rule of Solomon’s son Rehoboam and Israel under the rule of a former servant of Solomon’s named Jeroboam. The means were all political, but the Bible credits God for it.

The first interesting story to follow that split takes place in Israel under Jeroboam, whom the Bible claims God chose to rule Israel with the understanding that Jeroboam would keep God’s laws. Well, no sooner does Jeroboam take over than he decides “fuck that noise!” Concerned that if the people of Israel keep having to go to the temple in Jerusalem (which is the capital of Judah) to do their sacrifices they’ll start wanting to put the old kingdom back together under the rule of David’s descendants, Jeroboam decides to set up his own religious observances. For this purpose he makes up a pair of golden calves to set up as gods (what the hell was the ancient Israelite fetish for worshipping baby cows made of gold?) and puts them up in their own temples with their own altars.

So one day Jeroboam is making sacrifices on his altar as superstitious barbarians are wont to do, when a fellow described as a “man of God,” comes by to talk to the altar. Because why not?

1 Kings 13:2 And the man cried against the altar by the word of Yahweh and said ‘O altar, altar, thus says Yahweh: “Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name, and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who make offerings on you, and human bones shall be burned on you”’”

This annoyed Jeroboam, who pointed at the man and ordered his guards to arrest him, but instead his hand withered up. And the altar was torn down, which makes one wonder how that prediction that it would be used by Josiah for human sacrifices could take place. Maybe we’ll find out later.

Anyway, Jeroboam is freaked out and asks the guy to beg God for his hand to be restored. Which he does, and it is. Then Jeroboam offers the guy something to eat, at which point our man of God reveals that when Yahweh ordered him to come curse the altar he also ordered him not to eat or drink anything while he was there. Then our little prophet sets out to return home.

Next we are informed that there’s another old prophet dwelling nearby who hears about all of this. And he really wants to meet the guy who cursed the altar. So he sets out to find him on the road, and when he does he invites the traveler back to his house for something to eat and drink. The traveler repeats that God has ordered him not to eat or drink anything. But the old prophet is having none of this refusing-his-hospitality shit.

1 Kings 13:18 And he said to him ‘I also am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of Yahweh, saying “bring him back with you into your house that he may eat bread and drink water.”’ But he lied to him. 19 So he went back with him and ate bread in his house and drank water.”

Of course after he’s eaten and drunk is when God decides to inform the prophet that he didn’t give any such permission to eat and drink with the old guy. So on his way home to Judah, God has a lion kill him and dump his body in the road. To make that clear: God killed one prophet who broke his rules because a different prophet lied to him about what the rules were. The liar, by the way, wasn’t punished at all.

So we learn from this story, what? That there’s no clear way to know what God wants, but he’ll fucking kill you if you get it wrong?

Oh, and by the way, after this supposedly clear and unambiguous (and totally not made up by the authors) personal warning that God disapproved of his religious practices, do you suppose Jeroboam gave up his idolatry? Not a bit of it.

1 Kings 13: 33 After this thing Jeroboam did not turn from his evil way, but made priests for the high places again from among all the people. Any who would, he ordained to be priests of the high places.”

Ah well, better luck choosing rulers next time, Yahweh.

Oh, except his luck doesn’t really improve at all. After a charming little story about how God kills one of Jeroboam’s babies and threatens to wipe out all his descendants, we’re treated to brief synopses of several generations of kings in both Israel and Judah. Virtually all of their reigns are described using the phrase “…and [king X] did what was evil in the sight of God…,” even the ones who the Bible claims were specifically given Yahweh’s mandate to usurp the throne in order to make up for the bad behavior of the previous king. God is either deliberately picking shitty kings that he knows are just going to piss him off (which pretty much always results in multiple deaths), or he has worse luck picking winners than your cousin who got his legs broken by a loan shark after losing all his money at the track.

Of course, all the usurpations are presented in the usual way of describing the political reasons and methods used, and then saying “but it’s really because God wanted it.”

Meanwhile, Judah and Israel are pretty much constantly at war with each other and with their neighbors. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes poorly. One of the usurpations in Israel does indeed result in the slaughter of Jeroboam’s descendants (after Jeroboam himself died a peaceful death of old age), just as God supposedly threatened. And generations pass (I’ll skip the details because they’re mostly boring and irrelevant) with each successive king just getting worse and worse until we eventually reach the reign of Ahab in Israel.

And that is where this post will leave off, because the reign of Ahab gets more detail than most of the others, and we get introduced to the stories of Elijah who is one of the more famous prophets. So all that will probably be worthy of starting a whole new post to cover.

So until that one goes up, I hope you remain happy and well!

 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

First Kings: Smells Like Misattribution

Alright, so, Solomon has built the Temple, where the name of Yahweh will dwell on earth. When the construction was done, he had the Ark of the Covenant brought to the temple, where it was placed under the giant carvings of cherubim in the most holy inner chamber. Afterwards, Solomon holds this big dedication ceremony that included interminable speeches and prayers. I mean, it just goes on, and on, and on with the usual requests for blessings, and yammering about how every bad thing that might happen is because of curses for turning away from God, and verbally stroking God’s… ego. The whole thing culminates, we are told, with the sacrifice of 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep in the temple courtyard over the course of a week. I suspect the decimal point got misplaced a little there, but I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to speculate on how many places.

Immediately after all of this, God appears to Solomon personally (so add Solomon to the people who’ve seen God in person in spite of claims elsewhere in the Bible that nobody ever has) to tell him how pleased he is that Solomon built him a temple. Of course, the encounter is laden with the usual stuff about how as long as Solomon keeps worshiping Yahweh and no other gods, then Israel will prosper and Solomon’s line will rule forever. But if he ever starts worshipping other gods, then God will fuck him up something fierce along with Israel.

It bears repeating: God appeared to Solomon in person and told him that bad shit would happen to him and to Israel if he ever starts chasing after other gods. Got it? Because…

Later in life, that’s exactly what Solomon does. Because of his foreign wives, of course.

Before the Bible gets to that, it spends some time raving about how incredibly wise and rich and famous Solomon was, and how every king in all the world sought him out for his wisdom and sent him lavish gifts. But by the time we get to the last years of his life we find Solomon with 700 wives and 300 concubines, many of whom are from people that Israelites are forbidden to marry. And of course, Solomon starts serving the various gods of his various wives, and having temples built for them.

So just to summarize. The Bible claims that Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived in all of history (which is questionable to begin with just on the basis of having a thousand wives and concubines). Further, that he was given this wisdom for the express purpose of governing Israel properly. It further claims that God visited Solomon and personally warned him not to muck around with foreign gods or it would result in the destruction of his kingdom. So, in theory, Solomon has actual evidence of his god’s existence, explicit instructions from that god about an action that will destroy Israel, and the explicit mental faculties to avoid taking that action. But he does it anyway. That’s not even remotely credible.

Unless…

All the supernatural aspects here are bullshit, Solomon actually had no reason to believe Yahweh is any more or less real than Ashtoreth, Milcom, Chemosh, or Molech (the gods he’s accused of building temples to), and all of it was just added to the story after the fact to explain why the nation fell apart (for purely human political reasons that the Bible describes in detail and then attributes to God anyway) in a way that let the writers reinforce a religious dogma.

But anyway, back to the Bible story. God has an interesting way of enforcing his dictates.

1 Kings 11:9 And Yahweh was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from Yahweh, the god of Israel, who had appeared to him twice 10 and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods. But he did not keep what Yahweh commanded. 11 Therefore Yahweh said to Solomon, ‘Since you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and give it to your servant. 12 Yet for the sake of David your father I will not do it in your days, but I will tear it out of the hand of your son. 13 However, I will not tear away all the kingdom, but I will give one tribe to your son, for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem that I have chosen.’”

There he goes again, punishing the son because he’s pissed at the dad. Yay, justice!

Although to be fair, the son who loses the kingdom is kind of a dick.

The Bible goes on for awhile about the politics of who plots to break up the kingdom and why (which are all initiated by human beings, though sometimes human beings claiming to speak on behalf of God). Interestingly, among these descriptions is not one instance of Solomon attempting to make up to Yahweh and/or get rid of the temples to other gods. Almost as if God’s warning never actually took place, or at least wasn’t regarded seriously. And after a reign of forty years, Solomon eventually dies and leaves the kingdom to his son Rehoboam.

Early in Rehoboam’s reign, some of the elders of Israel (led by a guy named Jeroboam, who’s been hiding out in Egypt ever since a priest named Ahijah had promised him that God would give him most of the tribes of Israel to rule after Solomon’s death) come to complain that Solomon had been too harsh and demanding a ruler, and to ask that Rehoboam take a lighter hand. Rehoboam responded that since he was a bigger man than his father (and depending on how well you trust the internet when it comes to Biblical euphemisms, may have been making a joke about penis sizes when he said it), he would be even more harsh than Solomon had been. And…

1 Kings 12:15 So the king did not listen to the people, for it was a turn of affairs brought about by Yahweh that he might fulfill his word, which Yahweh spoke by Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat.”

Once again implying that God controls people’s actions when he feels like it.

So all the tribes of Israel except Benjamin and Judah rebel against Rehoboam and make Jeroboam their king. Rehoboam wants to make a fight of it (supposedly gathering an army of 180,000 men), but God (speaking through a “man of god” named Shemaiah) forbids the people from fighting and they go home instead.

Ironically Jeroboam, whom God supposedly picked to rule Israel to make up for Solomon’s respect to foreign gods, also can’t seem to follow God’s rules or refrain from putting up idols. Yahweh, it appears, is pretty shite when it comes to picking kings who’ll do his bidding.

Anyhow, I think we’ll call this a stopping point for now. It’s going to take some thought to cull the worthwhile stories from the mind-numbing political meanderings of the next portion of First Kings. So until then, everybody be well!

Friday, January 31, 2014

1 Kings: Solomon the Wise-ish

Bible bloggin’ some more, and today we’re getting started on the First Book of Kings. As may be unsurprising to you, this is about the kings of Israel under the line of David. Much like the Books of Samuel, it’s heavy on politics and drama and rather light on religious stuff. So again, I may be skipping a lot of details to avoid getting bogged down.

First Kings opens with David as an old man, too frail to keep himself warm or, apparently, to bang his many wives anymore. So his advisors cast about to find the most beautiful woman they can find to warm his bed, and settle on a girl named Abishag the Shunammite. But we’re told that he “knew her not,” which is kind of euphemistic speech for telling us he couldn’t even get it up for this new and beautiful sex object.

You might ask yourself, “why would they go through this silliness?” After all, if the issue was that they just wanted someone to keep him warm, well, he had loads of wives who could have done that for him. And if you were hoping the Bible would explain it, tough. I had to go dig about on the internet for an explanation. It seems that there was this superstition floating around at the time that the fertility of the land was tied to the fertility of the king. Therefore, if the king wasn’t able to have sex, then the land would suffer and he’d have to be replaced to prevent famine. So his advisors were basically throwing Abishag into bed with David in the hopes that having a nubile young hottie would be exciting enough to overcome his decrepitude. But no dice.

Keep in mind that according to the Bible David was only the second king that Israel had ever had, and for hundreds of years they had gotten by without a king. It seems a little early to have developed such a weird superstition about their king. Probably picked it up from one of the kingdoms around them.

Anyway, with David being impotent and all, one of his sons Adonijah decides it's time for daddy to step down and let him have the job. So he starts telling everybody that he is going to be the next king, and manages to win the support of Joab (who, you may remember, is the commander of David’s army). This doesn’t sit well with Bathsheba, since David had supposedly promised her that her son Solomon would be king (but I guess he never got around to telling anyone else). Long story short: Bathsheba complains to David, and David steals a march on Adonijah by rounding up a priest and having Solomon anointed king before Adonijah can cement himself in the position.

After that, David had some final instructions to give Solomon in the form of a “fuck you,” to some of his old enemies and supporters. For example: Joab, the commander of his army. You may recall that Joab had committed a couple murders while serving under David? You may also remember how David never did anything concrete about either of them, and seemed content to let Joab go on being commander. Well, he tells Solomon to go ahead and have Joab killed for them now. Because I guess now that David has retired, he no longer has any use for Joab.

Also, some of the people he’d made up with after Absalom’s rebellion, and promised not to kill? Yeah, he tells Solomon to kill them as well. There’s some hairsplitting for you “I totally kept my oath! I’m not killing you, my successor is (on my instructions)!”

David dies shortly thereafter, riding out of this life on a wave of his own dickishness.

There’s a weird little bit then when Adonijah asks Solomon to let him take Abishag (the hot young thing who’d failed to arouse David’s “interest”) as his wife. In a fit of seeming insanity, Solomon has him put to death for making the request. At least, it seems insane if you only go by the Bible, but the internet comes to the rescue again. It gets back to the weird superstitions about kingly manliness as expressed by putting royal penises in female bodies. Supposedly, nailing Abishag when David had failed to do so could be seen as a symbolic victory over David, and would therefore count as a claim to the kingship. So basically, Solomon had Adonijah killed to prevent him from fucking his way onto the throne.

More politics, more killings, Solomon marries the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh. One night Solomon has a dream in which God asks what Solomon would like to have given to him. Solomon asks for the wisdom and discernment to differentiate good from evil and properly govern Israel. And God gives it to him.

1 Kings 3:12 ‘behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you.’”

So bear in mind as the stories play out from here on that (if God and the Bible are to be believed) Solomon is now the wisest man who has ever existed anywhere in the entire history of humanity.

The first evidence of his new wisdom is that classic story of the two prostitutes and the baby (though I don’t recall the version I was told as a kid having the women as prostitutes). They come before the king, and the one claims that the other has stolen her baby to replace one of her own that had died. Solomon declares that since he doesn’t know who the baby’s real mother is, he’ll just cleave the baby in two and let each woman keep half. We all know the result: the baby’s real mother would rather the baby be given to the other woman than killed, while the woman who was apparently so desperate to replace her own dead child that she stole another is for some reason OK with the idea of killing the replacement baby if it means she gets to keep half.

I wonder why no one ever considers how insanely irrational that woman’s reaction is. All we hear about is how clever and wise Solomon was for hitting on that idea for how to figure out who the real mother was.

After that we get a full chapter about who Solomon’s officers were, how great and wonderful a ruler Solomon was, how wealthy he was, and how all the other kings of the world fell over themselves to suck up to him. And from there we get on to Solomon building The Temple.

There are two full chapters dedicated to describing the materials and construction of the temple, followed by a chapter about all the furnishings that went into it. There’s a brief aside about Solomon building himself a palace that was actually a larger building, but the passages really dwell on the temple. I won’t go into the details, but suffice to say that metric buttloads of gold, bronze, cedar, cut stone, and other valuable stuff was sunk into it. But there are a few bits that are worth pointing out for the interest value.

One of the main features of the temple is a pair of ten foot high carved cherubim with ten foot wingspans, covered in gold. There are also smaller carvings of cherubim all over the temple, along with carvings of bulls, trees, flowers, fruits, etc. Now, who remembers the Second Commandment? Here’s a refresher:

Ex 20:4  ‘You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

So yeah, the temple dedicated to God, the most holy place in the world which is supposedly his earthly dwelling, is also a giant monument to pissing on one of his central commands. But then, as we mentioned way back in Exodus, those very commands are contained in an ark which is also carved with cherubim in violation of this exact same command. Because God’s law is God’s law, except when he (or the voices in your head, or your “inner conviction,” or your priest) tells you to do something else.

And when the temple is completed, the “glory of God” takes up residence without saying a thing about how the temple mocks his commands, so evidently he approves of it.

The other thing to mention is that the account of the construction of the temple contains the infamous Pi passage. For those who don’t know, it goes like this:

1 Kings 7:23 Then he made the sea of cast metal. It was round, ten cubits from brim to brim, and five cubits high, and a line of thirty cubits measured its circumference.”

Some people like to make a big deal out of this passage, because anyone who’s passed even the most elementary of geometry classes knows that a circle ten cubits in diameter would have a circumference of 31.4(159265… etc.) cubits. Given hand measurements, maybe thirty-one-and-a-half, or even thirty-one, would have been reasonable estimates. But thirty is just poor. Personally, I don’t think the passage provides enough information to make a precise judgment, since “round” and “circular” are not necessarily the same thing and cubits were kind of imprecise measurements in that time period anyway. About the only real conclusion one can make from passages like this is that only idiots believe the Bible is a science textbook.

And with that, I think we’re about done for today. We’ll work a little more on First Kings in the next post, and until then I do hope you’ll all be well!

Monday, January 27, 2014

2 Samuel: Manufactured Crises

It seems that in my outrage over God declaring public rape of his wives as David’s punishment for what he did to Uriah and Bathsheba, I kind of forgot to comment on an additional punishment. Remember how it was learning that Bathsheba was pregnant that prompted David to murder her husband? Yeah, God made the baby suffer a seven-day illness, and then killed it. No Biblical punishment is complete if innocent children aren’t killed, after all.

So over the next several years, God’s “punishment” to David plays out. It starts with one of David’s sons, Amnon, raping Tamar, who is the sister of one of David’s other sons Absalom. The Bible isn’t exactly clear on the relationships, but I assume Tamar is described as Absalom’s sister and not Amnon’s sister because they had different mothers. Which still leaves us with Amnon raping his own half-sister. David hears about it and gets angry, but apparently didn’t do shit to punish Amnon. So about two years later, Absalom murders Amnon in retaliation and then flees into exile.

Skipping a lot of details because it’s just pure politics and family drama, David eventually invites Absalom to return to Jerusalem. Once back home, Absalom dedicates himself to conspiring to take the throne from his dad and eventually manages to stage a successful coup. David flees Jerusalem, leaving behind ten of his concubines “to keep the house.” As decreed by God, Absalom ends up publicly raping all of those concubines to show all of Israel that he’s defeated David.

After a short exile, David’s loyalists eventually defeat Absalom’s army in battle and Absalom is killed against David’s orders. David then makes such a huge show of mourning for Absalom that the commander of his army Joab had to take him aside and say “Hey, there’s a bunch of people out there who just fucking died in battle for you, and a bunch more who risked dying on your behalf. And now they’re all starting to think that you’d be just as happy if they’d all died so long as the guy they were fighting for you against got to live. How about you show them some gratitude, you fuck, before they abandon you completely?” So David made a half-hearted show of listening to his people for a bit, but fired Joab anyway.

But don’t worry about Joab. He eventually got his job back after murdering his replacement for not carrying out David’s orders quickly enough.

Oh, you remember those concubines that David abandoned to get raped? He locked them up in a house by themselves, and other than providing them with food and shelter he basically ignored them for the rest of their lives.

Ninety percent of the rest of the Second Book of Samuel is just more politics and war. David forgave a bunch of the guys who’d rebelled against him under Absalom. Some dude named Sheba exploited arguments between the tribe of Judah and the rest of Israel to try and declare himself king, but his people eventually sold him out to save their own asses.

Later, there’s a short bit about how there was a three year famine in Israel. And only after people have been starving for three years does God mention to David that he’s causing it because Saul once attacked a bunch of Gibeonites (if you recall, the Gibeonites were the people who sold themselves into slavery to the Israelites under Joshua in order to avoid genocide). So David has to go make peace with the Gibeonites in order to end the famine. And the Gibeonites demanded that to make up for the deaths amongst them at Saul’s hand, David needed to give them seven of Saul’s descendants to kill. This seemed totally reasonable to David, apparently, so he did it. And totally reasonable to God, apparently, since he ended the famine.

Let’s see… then there’s another war with the Philistines, in which the Israelites killed four giants (one of who was named Goliath – what a coincidence!). David came so close to getting killed in that war that his commanders refused to let him go into battle anymore. This is followed by David composing a really long song that mixes a lot of sucking up to God with a lot of blowing his own… horn.

This is immediately followed by a passage that is attributed as being David’s final words. Which is kind of weird, because David isn’t dying anywhere in Second Samuel. His last words are just randomly thrown into the middle of stories about stuff that isn’t even happening near the time of his death. What excellent narrative structure!

This is followed by listing all the heroic dudes who served David, and some of their exaggerated accomplishments.

All of that before we finally come to something that includes God being an active participant in the story.

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.’”

There is no reason given, either before this passage or after, for why God is angry at Israel. Nor is it explained exactly why ordering David to count them is somehow a punishment for them. Now, there’s a rule way back in Numbers about how the priests are supposed to collect a tax whenever they take a census and no mention is made of David collecting that tax, but whatever. It’s never explicitly referenced as the reason for what happens next after David has the census performed (and for the record, the result is 800,000 men of fighting age in Israel and 500,000 in Judah, which can only be hilariously overblown numbers for the population at that time).

2 Sam 24:10 But David’s heart struck him after he had numbered the people. And David said teo Yahweh, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But no, O Lord, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have done very foolishly.’ 11 And when David arose in the morning, the word of Yahweh came to the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying 12 ‘Go and say to David “Thus says Yahweh, three things I offer you. Choose one of them, that I may do it to you.”’ 13 So Gad came to David and told him, and said to him, ‘Shall three years of famine come to you in your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days of pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me.’”

So consider what we’re being told here. God is pissed at Israel for no stated reason. So he orders David to perform a census in order to manufacture a bullshit reason to punish them. But of course, God’s manufactured reason for punishing Israel is because David did what God ordered him to do! This passage could have dispensed with all of that story and just said “God pretty much just wants to fuck you up, whether you obey him or not, but sometimes he likes to put a thin veneer of reason on it just so the true dumbasses among you can think there’s a justification for it.”

Now, David’s response was that he’d take either of the punishments that doesn’t involve him being defeated by other men (basically, the famine or the pestilence), and he’ll leave it to God to decide which it will be. Which I kind of like to think of as David just throwing his hands up and saying “Fuck it! You’re gonna do what you’re gonna do, so just get it over with! All I ask is that you do your own dirty work, so everyone can see that it’s you being a douchebag!”

So God picks the pestilence, and kills 70,000 people.

God acts through an angel, who’s dispensing death from by the threshing floor owned by some guy named Araunah. The prophet Gad tells David that he can end the plague by building an altar at the threshing floor. So David buys the threshing floor and some oxen to use as a burnt offering from Araunah for fifty shekels of silver. Then he builds the altar and sacrifices the oxen, and the plague ends. And with it, so does the misnamed Second Book of Samuel.

The Book was longer than the number of posts on it would suggest, but most of it is pure politics and I kind of skipped over it in the retelling. Maybe an extreme obsessive might be able to construct theological meaning out of all that stuff, but it just didn’t seem worth it to me.

Take care until next post!