Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Isaiah: Predictions of Murder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Isaiah: Lies and Damn Lies Redux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Y’all take care!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Minipost: Psalm 137 - Blessed Infanticide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 13, 2015

Song of Solomon: Bible Porn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 9, 2015

Ecclesiastes: Epic Whining

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 9, 2015

Proverbs: Some Won Ton Soup with Your Wisdom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Deep breath.

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

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

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!