Thursday, June 19, 2014

First Chronicles: Department of Redundancy Department (Can’t Even Do That Right)

So, remember at the end of my last post, how I said we might be able to get through First Chronicles relatively quickly because it repeats a lot of what we’ve already seen? Yeah… try one post. Yeah, it’s that redundant. Just to give you an idea: it’s twenty-nine chapters long, and the first ten are spent on genealogies starting all the way back at Adam. Including repeating the genealogy of Saul twice. It’s like the author is just daring you to try and stay conscious while reading this.

So eventually we get an extremely abbreviated bit of Saul’s story (basically, just how he died and David became king). Then an abbreviated story of David’s kingship (more time seems to be spent listing his “mighty men” and their accomplishments in the realm of killing people than on what David actually did with his throne). Nothing new or interesting until we get all the way to Chapter 21. Like much of what’s already passed this is basically retelling of a story from an earlier book, but it’s at least an interesting retelling. Because it starts like this:

1 Chron 21:1 Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. 2 So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army ‘Go, number Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, and bring me a report, that I may know their number.’”

First interesting thing about this: who the fuck is Satan?

Now, obviously, I know who Satan is. He’s the great bogeyman of Christian mythology, with the horns and the pitchfork and the fallen angelness and shit. But this is the first time Satan is mentioned by name in the Bible. And there is no context whatsoever! Just a name, with absolutely nothing to connect it to who or what it’s supposed to be. For all we know, it could be a treacherous advisor of David’s, or the king of another nation, or a spirit, or whatever the hell you might think of that could have some reason to dislike Israel. And it’s not like it’s further explained later in the story, either – that one passage right there is the only mention of Satan and he completely disappears for the rest of the story.

The other interesting thing about that passage is that it’s kicking off a retelling of an event we already read about in Second Samuel. Allow me to refresh your memory.

2 Sam 24:1 Again the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel, and he incited David to go against them, saying ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’ 2 So the king said to Joab, the commander of the army, who was with him, ‘Go, through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and number the people that I may know the number of the people.’”

Notice the difference? It’s pretty fucking critical. We have one book saying God told David to take the census, and the other saying this so-far-undefined Satan character did it. That’s a pretty damn obvious contradiction in our reputedly perfect little Bible, and a pretty damn critical one as well in that it speaks directly to the character of the god being described. Given that God punishes David for taking the census by killing 70,000 people, it makes a real difference whether he’s the one who gave the order or Satan is. I mean, the slaughter is a dick move no matter who gave the order, but it matters for understanding how big a dick move it is.

Well, there’s no clarity to be found within the story. It just outright contradicts the Second Samuel account and moves on without addressing the discrepancy at all. Enter the Internet, because I just had to look up how apologists deal with this. I read through a couple different pages on the topic, and both dealt with it using essentially the same argument. And that argument goes something like this:

The ancient Hebrews who wrote the Old Testament regarded God as the ultimate cause of all things, and everything that happens is ultimately part of his plan (this is just flatly asserted without linking any linguistic research to back it up). So when writing about events, they would attribute them to God as if he were actively causing them, when what they really mean is that he allowed the circumstances surrounding the event to evolve on their own without actively causing them himself. However, when they describe the actions of anybody else using the exact same wording (the one article made a point of specifying that the original Hebrew words used were the same), they really do mean that those people or entities were directly taking the action. So when the Bible says “Satan incited David…” it really means that Satan directly convinced David to take the census. But when it says “God incited David…” it really means that God simply didn’t prevent David from deciding to take the census at Satan’s urging. And because the exact same words mean entirely different things when talking about God than when talking about everyone else, there isn’t really a contradiction. One of the articles made a point of extrapolating this to other situations beside the question of the census, asserting that this also means that God didn’t “harden Pharaoh’s heart,” in the Exodus story, but rather simply arranged the situation and Pharaoh hardened his own heart (even though the text, as we’ve already discussed, explicitly says the opposite).

Wow! I have to admit that I’m impressed. This is a truly magnificent edifice of bullshit! The argument defends the literal truth of the Bible by abandoning the idea that statements about God’s actions can be taken literally. And just imagine the fun that can be had with this apologetic!

-          When the Bible says that God created living things, what it really means is that he allowed evolution to occur without ever involving himself directly.

-          When the Bible says that God wrote the law on stone tablets, what it really means is that he allowed Moses to write the law without participating directly.

-          When the Bible says God parted the Red Sea, what it really means is that he allowed the Israelites to cross during a naturally occurring extreme low tide event without ever lifting a finger.

Holy shit! It turns out that the Bible is really saying that God never did anything! It only appears to claim he did stuff because words have no agreed literal meaning!

Of course, I don’t really think the authors of this particular bit of pig feces meant it to be broadly applied. I’d bet good money that what he really meant is “Whenever the Bible attributes something freaking awful to God, or that I don’t want to believe about him, or that makes it impossible to defend the myth of Biblical non-contradiction, then what it really means is this weird interpretation where God can be said to not have been directly involved in some way that allows him to bear no responsibility even though the text directly credits him. But whenever the Bible attributes to God anything I happen to approve of or think I can defend rationally, well, then you take the words literally.”

It's also worth noting, I think, that both examples the author of that bit of apologetics uses as illustration (David's census, and the hardening of Pharaoh's heart) include the Bible attributing direct quotes of God speaking the relevant action. In David's census, the text doesn't just say that God incited David, it includes the order he gave as a directly attributed quote. The story of the Exodus doesn't merely state that God hardened Pharaoh's heart, it includes quotes from conversations with Moses where God says he will do exactly that. So I don't think this argument holds any water whatsoever.

Yeah, I’m tossing this argument aside. The Bible contradicts itself and offers no explanation. Most likely, the author of Chronicles was uncomfortable with what the Second Samuel account suggested about the character of God, so he threw this Satan character in to absolve Yahweh of some responsibility.

The rest of the story plays out pretty much as we’ve read before. Joab takes the census (but reports incorrect numbers to David because he disagreed with the decision), then David has a sudden fit of guilt. God punishes Israel for the census by causing a massive plague that kills seventy thousand men (and since only men were counted, who knows how many women and children died?). David ends the plague by buying the threshing floor of Onan the Jebusite and building an altar to God on which he made sacrifices. Chronicles differs from Samuel on the number of Israelites counted in the census, and on the amount David paid for the threshing floor, but these are kind of small quibbles. The whole thing is a clusterfuck from beginning to end.

There’s some more intensely dull stuff about who David gave what duties with respect to the resting place of the ark, and him gathering materials for his son Solomon to use in building the temple. But essentially, there’s not much new of interest for the rest of the First Book of Chronicles. The book comes to a close when David dies after having named Solomon his successor.

Next time we’ll be diving into the Second Book of Redundancy… I mean… Chronicles, which picks up with the reign of Solomon. Will this be an equally dull read? Or equally shattering to myths of biblical perfection? I guess we’ll find out! Until then, do be well.

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