Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Esther: Countergenocide

The Book of Esther is the story of the origin of the Jewish holiday of Purim, and it’s pretty short at only ten chapters. I suppose there’s possibly a little basis in reality for it, but almost certainly it’s had some legendry attached – I just don’t see real people acting in the way the people in this story act.

It’s set in the time of king Ahasuerus of Persia, and starts out with the king throwing a massive party for his officials that literally lasts for months. On one of the days, he summons his queen, Vashti, to come join him so he can show her off to his cronies and have them ooh and ahh over how beautiful she is. But Vashti refuses to come, and of course that pisses off his royal highness. Also, his hangers on claim that an example must be made of her, or else all the wives in all the kingdom will suddenly become contemptuous and disobedient to their husbands. So Ahasuerus strips her of the title of queen with the promise to give her title to someone better (i.e., more obedient). He then sent out a decree to have loads of beautiful young virgins shipped into his harem so he can choose a new queen.

This is when we get introduced to Esther, a Jewish orphan who is being raised by her cousin Mordecai. She fits the qualifications for the king’s decree, and so is taken into the harem and quickly becomes one of the king’s favorites. He eventually gives her the queen’s crown. At Mordecai’s insistence, she keeps her Jewish origins a secret.

Now Mordecai would hang out by the palace gates, and there were these two eunuchs guarding it. And Mordecai overheard them plotting to assault the king.

Est 2:22 And this came to the knowledge of Mordecai, and he told it to Queen Esther, and Esther told the king in the name of Mordecai. 23 When the affair was investigated and found to be so, the men were both hanged on the gallows. And it was recorded in the book of the chronicles in the presence of the king.”

Just gonna leave that quote there. We’ll come back to it later.

OK, so all of that was just setup for the real conflict of the story. There’s this dude, Haman, who is the king’s most favoritest official ever. So much so that he gives orders that everybody is supposed to bow down and pay homage to Haman whenever he goes by just like they would for the king. But Mordecai won’t do it. So Haman gets pissed. But, being a monumental asshat, Haman isn’t content to punish Mordecai for it. No, he decides that he’s going to destroy all the Jews in Persia because this one dude won’t bow down to him.

So Haman goes to the king and tells him that all the Jews refuse to obey the king’s commands, and so they should be destroyed. He also offers to pay 10,000 talents of gold into the king’s treasury if he’s allowed to destroy the Jews. So the king gives Haman is signet ring and tells him to write up the orders and send them out to all the governors. Haman does so, and for some reason specifies that all of this is to happen on one specific day nearly a year from the date the orders were issued (the text says the orders were drawn up on the thirteenth day of the first month, specifying the purge to happen on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month).

Apparently the whole thing wasn’t even kept secret. There were public decrees about the upcoming purge, resulting in much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Weird.

But Mordecai has himself an ace in the hole: Esther.  So he asks her to intercede with the king. At first she’s reluctant, on the argument that anyone who enters the king’s chamber uninvited is supposed to be put to death, and the king hadn’t invited her. For some reason, this hadn’t been an obstacle when Mordecai needed her to tell the king about the plot in that section I quoted above. But now, with dramatic tension needed, it suddenly becomes an issue.

Mordecai overcomes Esther’s objection by telling her that if she doesn’t help, God will just find some other means of saving the Jews and will kill her instead. This is a pretty standard religious tactic, actually.

So Esther agrees to try and prevail upon the king. She goes to visit him, and he’s so happy to see her that he refrains from having her killed.

Est 5:1 And the king said to her ‘What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given to you, even to the half of my kingdom.”

Now, that would seem to be the answer to the problem right there. The king just offered half his kingdom! Take it! Or at least ask for Judah back. Then all the Jews can move there, and there would be no more left in Persia for Haman to kill. Bam! Problem solved!

Oh, wait, I forgot what book I’m reading for a second there. This is the Bible, where a plan like that suffers from an insurmountable flaw that renders it wholly unacceptable: nobody has to die.

So no, given the option of requesting half the kingdom, Esther settles instead for requesting that the king and Haman come to a private feast she prepared for them. At that feast, the king again offers her half his kingdom, and she again skips right past that to ask for the king and Haman to attend a second feast the following day, where she promises she’ll finally tell him her real request. What’s with all this coyness? The text never indicates Esther’s reasoning for all this.

After this first feast, Haman goes home feeling really full of himself. But he passes Mordecai by the gates, and of course Mordecai refuses to bow as usual. So Haman, head swelled with self-important rage, goes home and orders his servants to build a gallows from which he intends to hang Mordecai.

Meanwhile, the king finds himself unable to sleep. So he orders his servants to bore him to sleep by reading from the court records (I guess they didn’t have a copy of Leviticus or Numbers sitting around). One of the bits they read is the record of Mordecai uncovering the eunuchs’ plot to attack the king. And the king is all like “Wow! That was totally awesome of the Mordecai dude to do that! How did I reward him?” I’ll reference you back to the quote I placed above, where it says that these proceedings all took place in his presence in the first place. I rather have the impression that the king is a complete mental deficient, or at the least doesn’t give a flying fuck about running his kingdom. Either that, or he’s just a plot device that people struggle over controlling, rather than an actual character.

Anyway, when his servants inform him that he’d done nothing to reward Mordecai, he decides that’s something he has to fix right away. So when Haman shows up for work the next day, the king asks him how he should reward a man he intends to honor. Haman assumes the king is talking about him, and so he comes up with all this elaborate shit about dressing the guy up in royal clothes and parading him around town with people proclaiming how much ass he totally kicks. And the king is like “Right! Do that for Mordecai!”

So this is already shaping up to be a shitty day for Haman, but it only gets worse when he goes to the feast with Esther and the king that night. Esther finally gets around to telling the king what her request is: that the king spare her life and that of her people, because some wicked person has conspired to have them destroyed. And the king’s response is “Gosh! What evil person would do something like that?” as if he hadn’t personally given Haman permission to do exactly that. And Esther names Haman. When Haman throws himself at her couch to try and beg for mercy, the king thinks he’s trying to attack the Queen and so orders him to be hanged from the very gallows Haman had made for Mordecai.

Then, the king regretfully informs the Queen that any orders issued under his name and seal can’t be repealed even by him. Because that’s not totally one of the dumbest fucking rules that can exist in a kingdom. Not that it’s likely to be a real rule; it’s probably just a plot device to make it necessary for there to be shitloads of bloodshed to resolve a problem that could easily be solved without it. What the king does do is give Esther his signet ring and permission to give whatever orders she deems fit in place of rescinding the previous orders he’d allowed Haman to issue.

So Esther and Mordecai get together and pen a proclamation that, on the day when they are supposed to be slaughtered, the Jews are allowed to gather together to defend themselves (because I guess otherwise they just would have waited in their homes to be slaughtered?). But not only were they allowed to kill their attackers, the proclamation also gave them permission to go after their women and children and to plunder their goods.

Like, what the fuck?! You see what I mean about the Bible’s preference for bloodshed as the solution to all problems, even if it requires the most moronic plot contortions imaginable to allow it to happen? We’ve seen several opportunities to resolve this issue turn up in the course of the story, and the one that’s settled on is just to issue two sets of orders that essentially demand genocidal civil war between two factions in the kingdom. No ruler capable of rolling out of the puddle of his own drool would run his nation this way!

So anyway, the appointed day rolls around and the slaughter commences. All of the king’s governors and officials side with the Jews, so it’s kind of unclear exactly who would have been trying to carry out the original orders to exterminate them. Nonetheless, the Jews kill 75,000 people (no mention is made of any Jewish casualties). Then Mordecai sends out letters to all the Jewish people ordering them to keep an annual feast in honor of this day, and that’s the feast of Purim (named for the lots, called Pur, that Haman had cast to decide what day to carry out his attempted genocide).

So that’s the story of Esther. In my opinion, it reads more like a “If you mess with the bull, you get the horns,” kind of parable rather than an accurate portrayal of historical events. But who knows? In my brief research, I haven’t found a definitive conclusion either way.

Next time, we’ll get into a Book I’ve really been looking forward to: Job! Until then, be well!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Nehemiah: Nothing to See Here

This is gonna be short.

The Book of Nehemiah is a quick ten-chapter book about, you guessed it, Nehemiah. Like Ezra, it kind of does this weird back-and-forth between third person and first person. Most of it is first person, though, and the third person bits are kind of slipped in subtly here and there almost as if by accident.

Nehemiah is cupbearer to king Ataxerxes. Presumably the second Ataxerxes, not the first, since this book appears to take place around the same time Ezra was in Judah. At least, Ezra gets mentioned as being present at some of the ceremonies at the end of the book.

Anyway, Nehemiah hears about how the Jews who returned to Judah are all despairing because the walls of Jerusalem are broken down. So Nehemiah asks the king for leave to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls. The king gives him permission, and letters to the governors to provide materials.

Nehemiah returns and inspects the walls, doing it in secret because the local officials are apparently pissed that he's there to try and help the Jews. Long story short, he gets the wall built, and has the Jewish people in the surrounding areas agree to send one tenth of their population to live in and to guard the city. Even though there's all kinds of rumors that their neighbors intend violence, nothing ever comes of it.

In the end, we get the rededication of the new temple and walls, a new agreement signed by the chief men to follow the Mosaic laws, and a repeat of the bit from Ezra where they forced the Jewish men who's married foreign wives to abandon those women.

A lot of the book is taken up with long lists of names, some of which are redundant with the same lists from Ezra. Many of the events are also redundant with the events of Ezra. But the thing that strikes me most that is similar about the books? Both are the only books of the Bible I've read so far that purport to be first person retelling of events, and neither one of them contains a single supernatural event. Or even something that could be reasonably interpreted as contact with God in any form. Both authors are very quick to credit human actions and emotions to God, but neither one describes anything even vaguely like a manifestation of that being

Just found that interesting.

Anyway, like I said, short. The next book is Esther, another short book, and hopefully I'll get through that one pretty soon.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Ezra: Racist D-Baggery

Ezra is kind of a weird book. It starts out in third person, then in the middle starts being told in first person as though it were the personal account of this Ezra person, and then it switches back to third person. There’s no reason given for the transitions at all. So… yeah.

Anyway, the book starts off in the first year of the reign of King Cyrus of Persia (which by this point was in command of Babylon, where the captive Israelites had been carted off to after Judah fell to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar). This is about 70 years after the fall of Judah, and as supposedly prophesied by Jeremiah the Israelites are about to be released from captivity.

So the Book of Ezra starts out with Cyrus’ declaration that the Jews are to be released and allowed to return to their homeland to rebuild the temple of God. This apparently was part of his overall policy of allowing all the Babylonian captives to return to their homes and return their religious icons that Babylon had been in the habit of looting, but that policy gets no mention of the Bible. It talks only of the Jewish people, as if they and their god were specially singled out. It also claims that in his proclamation Cyrus credits Yahweh for giving him his kingdom and calling on him to rebuild the temple. Thing is, there’s this thing called the Cyrus Cylinder which is an original declaration by Cyrus, and it explicitly credits the Persian god Marduk for his victories and for the order to restore all the other gods to their various homes. So the Bible may have a… creative interpretation of the proclamation.

There’s also a funny bit where the book gives an inventory of the vessels being returned to the Jewish people from the original temple.

Ezr 1:8 Cyrus king of Persia brought these out in the charge of Mithredath the treasurer, wo counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. 9 And this was the number of them: 30 basins of gold, 1,000 basins of silver, 29 censers, 10 30 bowls of gold, 410 bowls of silver, and 1,000 other vessels; 11 all the vessels of gold and of silver were 5,400. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up, when the exiles were brought from Babylonia to Jerusalem.”

See the problem? Hint: the Bible is bad at math. 30+1000+29+30+410+1000 = 2,499. Not 5,400.

All of Chapter 2 is spent on listing everybody who returned (I think by town), and they’re all listed as “the sons of X…” followed by a number. So presumably this dull recitation doesn’t include any of the women, as usual.

Anyway, the exiles return to Judah and start rebuilding their temple. They get as far as building an altar for sacrifices and laying the foundations of the temple before they are approached by some of the people who’d been living in the area since the Jews were spirited away. As you may recall, after conquering Israel and Judah, the kings of Babylon sent some Israelites back to teach the people who were living there in the Israelites’ place how to follow God’s laws in the hopes that it would make life easier in that land. Anyway, these people approach the newly returned Jews and say “Hey, we’ve been worshipping your god here while you were away, and we’d like to help you build his temple.” And the Jewish people told them to fuck off.

After that, the locals start interfering with the building, intimidating laborers and bribing officials to slow down construction. Eventually Cyrus is succeeded by other kings, and the folks who are interfering with the construction write a letter to the new king Ataxerxes complaining that the Jews plan to rebel once they finish rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls. So Ataxerxes issues orders to stop the construction, and authorizes the governors in Judah to use force if necessary to prevent it.

This stops construction for a bit, until Ataxerxes is eventually succeeded by Darius. The under the urging of a pair of so-called prophets named Haggai and Zechariah, the Jews just start building again. When the new governor asks who authorized it, they say that king Cyrus had commanded them to rebuild. This is technically true, it just ignores the fact that king Ataxerxes had countermanded the order. But the governor writes to king Darius, whose scribes find Cyrus original proclamation, and so Darius orders the governor to allow the construction to continue. So the temple gets finished, and is dedicated with the usual bloodlettings and burnt sacrifices.

At this point, seven chapters into the ten-chapter Book of Ezra, we finally get introduced to Ezra. He’s this scribe who’s studied the law of Moses, who was also apparently somewhat in favor with king Ataxerxes (since this portion of the story explicitly takes place after the completion of the temple during the reign of Darius, this can’t be the same Ataxerxes who ordered the construction to stop before Darius was king. The Bible, in its usual clarity of writing, makes no effort to distinguish between the two). Ezra is also apparently a direct descendant of Moses’ brother Aaron, and therefore eligible for priesthood.

Anyway, for some reason Ataxerxes sends Ezra to Jerusalem to teach the people God’s laws, even going so far as to authorize him to appoint judges to enforce those laws (which, frankly, seems like a really weird thing to do. Most kings send governors to enforce their own laws, not the laws of some foreign god). The Chapter starts out speaking of Ezra in third person, then provides a supposed transcript of the letter in which Ataxerxes orders him to Jerusalem, and then immediately after the letter the chapter finishes out with talking in first person as though Ezra himself were writing.

Another fucking geneology of people who went with him.

So anyway, Ezra makes the journey safely, and presents all the wealth and offerings and shit the king had sent with him to the priests at the temple. And afterwards…

9:1 After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, ‘The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites the Jebusites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. 2 For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the people of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost.’ 3 As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled fair from my head and bears and sat appalled. 4 Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice.”

Racist much?

The book goes on to cover the lengthy and histrionic prayer Ezra sends up to god recounting his deep shame for how disgracefully his people have behaved and how thoroughly they deserve to be punished for their evil deeds in marrying whom they chose.

And then, suddenly, we’re back into third person for the final chapter. And in this chapter, Ezra and the priests basically round up all the Jewish men who had married outside their race, and force them to divorce their wives and disown any children they had by them. Because Ezra and the priests were fuckers. Religiously motivated racist douchebaggery is still racist douchebaggery.

And that brings us to the end of Ezra. There’s really no overt participation in the story by any god, just people acting like tools on the basis of their past pronouncements. Next up is the Book of Nehemiah, who I’m sure we’ll find is just a swell guy. Can’t wait!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Second Chronicles: Shoring Up the Image

Holy crap! It’s been more than a month since my last post! I’m slipping!

Well, Second Chronicles has been a little bit of a challenge. Like First Chronicles, it is a retelling of stories we’ve already read. As such, it’s tempting to jump back and forth between the Chronicles version of each story and the Kings version, comparing every little detail. But let’s be honest: this isn’t really that kind of a scholarly exercise. I’m not a historian; just some dude with a life of his own trying to read his way through the Bible and share his thoughts on what he reads. So I’m gonna try and get this done in a single post, and just highlight a few things that I think get at the general theme of the similarities and differences.

Second Chronicles starts with the reign of Solomon, and follows the story up through the destruction of Judah and the kidnapping of the surviving Jewish people to Babylon. But where First Chronicles tells abbreviated versions of the stories it covers, Second Chronicles fleshes out the stories it tells a great deal compared to the writings in Kings. It does this at the expense of ignoring Israel altogether and focusing almost entirely on the stories of the kings of Judah.

It seems that the general thrust of the expansions of the stories in Chronicles is to make God come off a little better than the impression given in the Kings accounts. For example, Chronicles tweaks the story of Solomon building and sanctifying the temple in Jerusalem. In both accounts, Solomon holds a massive ceremony to dedicate the new temple, which features a long speech about prayer and blessings and stuff. In both books it’s essentially the same, but you can see by comparing 1 Kings 8:50 to 2 Chronicles 6:39 where the Chronicles account goes off the rails. In First Kings, Solomon proceeds from that point to invoke a blessing on the people and enjoin them to be true to God before moving on to perform the burnt offerings part of the ceremony. In Chronicles, he instead ends the speech by inviting God to take up residence in the temple, and “fire came down from heaven” to consume the burnt offerings. Just a little touch added to make it look more like God was an actual participant in history.

Chronicles moves on through the rest of Solomon’s reign, covering basically the same territory as the Kings account. We get the Queen of Sheba story, and the waxing eloquent on the vast wealth of Solomon and Israel under his rule. Chronicles leaves out the bit about Solomon falling into idolatry near the end of his life due to the influence of his many foreign wives and concubines, as well as God’s declaration that he would split Israel after Solomon’s death as a punishment for that faithlessness. Kinda glossing over the whole “punishing the son for the sins of the father,” aspect of the original story.

So the story moves on through the splitting of Israel in two kingdoms (Israel under Jeroboam, God’s hand-picked ruler who immediately turns to idolatry; Judah under Rehoboam). Same story as before. And we go through Rehoboam’s reign to his son Abijah, and from him to his son Asa who enacts a lot of reforms that basically amount to persecuting adherents of any other religion. The story of Asa gets expanded in Chronicles to condemn his making an alliance with Syria to prevent Israel from invading, rather than “relying on Yahweh,” to prevent the invasion. God declares that Asa’s punishment for this is to have more wars (which means, essentially, that God punishes Asa by causing a lot of other people who had nothing to do with his political decision to die violently, which I’m sure we can all agree is the very embodiment of perfect justice). And the expansion leads on to this little gem as well:

2 Chron 16:12 In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa was diseased in his feet, and his disease became seere. Yet even in his disease he did not seek Yahweh, but sought help from physicians. 13 And Asa slept with his fathers, dying in the forty-first year of his reign.”

So yeah, in the context of Asa just having been punished (well, others punished on his behalf) for failing to rely on God for war, this is a rather strongly implied condemnation of his decision to see physicians to treat his illness. And while that may have been a bad idea for the state of medicine at the time, people who read this silly fable as unchanging wisdom for all time would certainly be drawing horrifically bad medical advice from this passage in modern times.

Let’s see… we next get an expansion on the reign of Jehoshaphat, complete with the usual grossly inflated numbers for the size of his army and crediting his sending priests about to spread the worship of Yahweh for the increased prosperity of the kingdom. We also get a repetition of the story about God sending a spirit to lie to his prophets in order to trick Ahab into going into a battle where he will die (See my post titled “Second Kings: Lies, Damn Lies, and Prophecies,” for details). This one is pretty much unaltered from the original telling, so I guess the author was still comfortable with the idea of God and his prophets lying to people.

Jehoram, Jehoshaphat’s son, gets a major expansion. In Kings his tale was just a run-of-the mill “he did what was evil in the sight of God, and then he rested with his fathers,” story. Chronicles expands him into a fratricidal tyrant (he literally killed all of his brothers after assuming the throne) who is eventually punished by God by having his family stolen by invaders and his bowels destroyed by disease so that he dies in agony.

The story moves on to Jehoram’s son Ahaziah. The Chronicles story doesn’t really expand on the Kings version, but does manage to get many of the few facts it does relate different. If you recall the Kings version (it’s covered in my entry titled “Anniversary! And Murder Most Foul!”), Ahaziah’s uncle Jehu was commissioned by God (through the intermediary of one of Elisha’s servants) to kill all of Ahab’s direct descendants. So he murders Joram (the king of Israel, Ahab’s descendant) at Jezreel, and also has his men shoot down Ahazael (who was visiting Joram at the time) as he tried to flee the ambush. Then Jehu goes on to murder all of Joram’s family (including the children). After that, he kills forty-two of Ahazael’s family that he meets on the road. In the Chronicles version, Jehu slaughters Joram and his family, then kills Ahaziah’s family on the road, and only after that do his men track down Ahaziah hiding in Samaria and bring him back to Jehu to be executed. So the deaths occur in different scenes set in different places and in a different order. Y’know, in the manner Biblical perfect consistency.

Skipping generations, we get to an expansion of the story of Uzziah (also called Araziah in the Kings version). The Kings version only said that he did what was right in the sight of God (except for not destroying the worship sites of other religions), and that God made him a leper in his old age for no stated reason. Chronicles comes up with a reason: Uzziah tried to burn incense in the temple himself, instead of leaving that to the priests. I’m sure that was a reason that must have made sense to the guy writing the book.

Anyway, those are just a few illustrations of differences between Second Chronicles and Second Kings. The general thrust seems to be to add stuff that makes some of God’s decisions seem less arbitrary, the punishments more the fault of the people receiving them instead of their ancestors, and God himself less absent. Like Second Kings, Second Chronicles runs up to the destruction of Judah and the Israelites’ captivity in Babylon. It ends after the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, which controls Babylon, when the Persian king Cyrus decides at God’s urging to rebuild the temple in Jerusalam and to release the Israelites to return home.

Phew! Hopefully we’re done with redundant books for a while! At least reading new stories should help to maintain interest, and I’ll be able to pick up the pace of postings. We’ll be picking up next with the Book of Ezra which, clocking in at only ten chapters, should be a pretty quick read.

Until next time, be happy and well!