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!

Edit 9/24/2014: Since writing this, I've been exposed to a branch of Christian apologetics called "presuppositionalism." I won't try to describe it in detail here, but one of the key premises is that they only way to make any claim of knowledge is to presuppose the existence of the Biblical God, and that this knowledge is based on direct revelation from God. This, in turn, is based on their claim that revealed knowledge from God must be true, because the Biblical God cannot lie. I think the story of Micaiah and Ahab demonstrates pretty clearly that this position is false.

By the way, the standard response from presuppositionalists to pointing out that the Bible clearly contradicts their description of God is to state a flat refusal to discuss Bible interpretation with anyone who doesn't already believe it to be true. This contributes to my own belief that the purpose of presuppositional argument is not to demonstrate the existence of God, but rather to shield the believer from questioning.

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!