Monday, August 31, 2009

Biblioblog Top 50 for August

My fall to 86th place in July's ranking (and my apparent inability to think about biblical studies issues without also blogging about them) inspired me to end my blogging sabbatical early. As a result, I have re-entered the Top 50 at #29 for August, rising 57 places over last month.

I will, however, need to redouble my efforts studying for prelims starting with September (tomorrow). Since I work full-time in addition to trying to prep for exams, I was allowed to defer until the end of the semester. That gives me a little more time to read the huge stack of books and brush up on all my Semitic languages while attempting to write a dissertation proposal. It wouldn't be so bad if I didn't keep changing my mind about my potential topic.

The Tension Between Ideal and Real

The ideology reflected in biblical wisdom literature about retribution or the deed-consequence nexus is far too complex to neatly sweep it all into the tidy dogmatism of mechanical retribution (i.e., health, wealth, and power prove one is righteous, their lack proves one unrighteous). Even suggesting that the sages themselves likely believed in the doctrine of retribution (as I did in a previous post) now seems too simplistic. While Job's friends are unwavering in their commitment to retribution, a close reading of the book of Proverbs reveals that the sages were aware of the inequities of real life and held the conflict between faith and experience in unresolved tension. Ray Van Leeuwen explains:

[These contradictions in Proverbs] have come to express one broad worldview which acknowledges the conflict of dogma and experience, yet maintains both (1992, 26 n. 3; emphasis his).

Job is not a polemic against any so-called conventional wisdom that holds to a strictly mechanical worldview where the wicked are punished and the righteous are blessed. However, it is likely that the idea had currency among some groups, perhaps a common superstition as evidenced by Jesus' disciples in John 9.

John 9:1-3 (ESV): As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. [2] And his disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" [3] Jesus answered, "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.

Jesus similarly refutes this simplistic theology of retribution in Luke 13.

Luke 13:1-5 (ESV):  There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. [2] And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? [3] No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. [4] Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? [5] No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."

Wisdom primarily involves proper behavior, navigating life successfully in relation to God and other people. The wisdom embodied in Proverbs provides instruction on navigating both our relation with God and our relation to one another. Righteous living is the utmost virtue. In a perfect world, it should bring blessings, but it may not. Yet, it should be sought more than riches or power. Reading individual proverbs in isolation from each other can lead to a dogmatic atomistic reading where the retributive sayings alone are incorrectly held to represent the view of the sages in general. The sages were aware that in real life the wicked prospered, the unrighteous ruled, and the righteous poor were oppressed.

Proverbs 11:16 (ESV)  
A gracious woman gets honor, and violent men get riches.

Proverbs 16:8 (ESV) 
Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice.

Proverbs 16:19 (ESV) 
It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.

Proverbs 28:15-16 (ESV) 
Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked ruler over a poor people. [16] A ruler who lacks understanding is a cruel oppressor, but he who hates unjust gain will prolong his days.

These examples (and many more could be added to them) reveal that the sages are implicitly aware of the injustices and inequities of life. Even as they teach that one should be righteous because it will lead to blessing, they affirm that one should remain righteous even in the midst of oppression. Ray Van Leeuwen summarizes thus:

In general, the sages clearly believed that wise and righteous behavior did make life better and richer, though virtue did not guarantee those consequences. Conversely, injustice, sloth, and the like generally have bad consequences (Van Leeuwen 1992, 32; emphasis his).

There are other options to explain this tension, but they seem motivated by our drive to resolve logical contradictions. For example, these contradictory sayings or opposing worldviews could reflect dissent and pluralism among the sages. This makes sense in light of the fact that Proverbs is a compilation of sayings, but the book as a whole seems to have undergone a deliberate shaping which suggests this tension was simply maintained unresolved. First teach the rules, then teach the exceptions to the rules (see Van Leeuwen 1992, 32). Proverbs is not an anthology of opinions similar to much rabbinic literature (though I am interested in how "wisdom" shifts in Judaism to equal Torah and wise living becomes equivalent to Torah piety).

The issue is still unresolved. The Bible maintains both an idealism about the value of righteous living and a realism about the injustices of life experience. Perhaps the bottom line is that the workings of God are mysterious and one cannot predict the outcome of life based on a formula.

Proverbs 16:4 (ESV)  
The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.

Suffering could be part of God's plan according to John 9:3.

Jesus answered, "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.

There is more that could be said about the issue of righteous suffering and the implications of the doctrine of transgenerational punishment as hinted at here in John's Gospel. But that will have to wait for a future post.

N.B. Much of my thinking reflected here is indebted to Ray Van Leeuwen's excellent article, “Wealth and Poverty: System and Contradiction in Proverbs.” Hebrew Studies 33 (1992):25-36.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Deed-Consequence Nexus

Continuing my exploration of the issue of reward and retribution in wisdom literature, here is a quote from Michael V. Fox on the so-called "deed-consequence nexus."
Wisdom literature does tend to formulate retribution as an automatic process of cause and effect. Warnings thus formulated are more believable One need not feel God's immediate presence to get the point: Bad deeds hurt you. Rather than excluding divine judgment, the formulation of retribution as a causal connection, which I would call "intrinsic retribution," emphasizes the omnipresence and immediacy of God's justice in human affairs. Since God created a just world and rules it constantly, any deserved consequence can be regarded as divine judgment (thus in Pss 7:11-14; 9:16-17). In other words, God's judgment subsumes natural causality rather than the other way around.
A favorite means of encapsulating the idea of intrinsic retribution is the "pit" topos: "He who digs a pit will fall into it" (Prov 26:27; cf. Pss 7:16, 17; 9:16; Sir 27:25-27). Various images are used to elucidate this principle, such as the net catching the one who spread it (Ps 9:16) and a stone falling down on the head of the one who threw it up (Sir 27:25).
Reference: M.V. Fox. 2000. Proverbs 1-9. Anchor 18A. New York: Doubleday, 91-92.

Wisdom and Reality

The book of Proverbs makes it sound so simple-the righteous will prosper and the wicked will be punished (Prov 10:3). But life doesn’t really work that way, does it? Biblical wisdom literature should be read as educational rhetoric. It says the righteous will succeed in life because the goal is to persuade the pupil to be righteous. It says the wicked will be punished because the goal is to scare encourage the pupil away from wickedness.

Proverbs can’t be universal truths because some proverbs show up in alternate versions saying contradictory things (Prov 26:4-5). Proverbs are situationally-appropriate, not universally applicable. One of the qualities of wisdom is the ability to discern the proper behavior for any given situation. Depending on the circumstances, a different response may be in order.

Unfortunately, that explanation doesn’t work for the issue of reward and retribution. There’s no context-appropriate shift in applicability. The world of wisdom literature seems to present a black and white contrast. Yes, it’s idealistic rhetoric, but what did the sages really believe?

Looking at the book of Job, I’m tempted to say that conventional wisdom held that this retribution formula (or the deeds-consequence nexus, see Fox 2000, 91) was true to reality. The book of Job is fundamentally an extended polemic against mechanical retribution. Job and his friends go round and round arguing over what evil Job must have done to deserve his suffering while he continually protests his innocence. Why compose such an argument against the retribution formula if everyone knew it was only idealistic rhetoric anyway? I suppose one could say that Job’s friends are deliberately presented as caricatures of different aspects of conventional wisdom, but then, what’s the point of the book?

Deuteronomy also presents a similar deeds-consequences nexus when it lays out the blessings that will accompany obedience to the Torah and the curses that will follow disobedience. Deuteronomy and likely much of Proverbs was collected and written with the exile of the Northern Kingdom still in recent memory, making future punishment look all but inevitable if Judah did not repent. Perhaps Job with its more overt representation of God as the agent of this retribution is more of a polemic against the theology of Deuteronomy.

This seems to be to be an as-yet unsolved (and perhaps unsolvable) theological problem. Many people in communities of faith take comfort in these idealistic platitudes in Psalms and Proverbs that tell them everything’s going to be okay if they’re good. Many preachers even take them at face value and teach that God wants you to be wealthy and prosperous. If you’re not wealthy or prosperous, it’s because you don’t have enough faith. If you only had enough faith, God would make you rich.

And yet, we seem to have developed a theology of explaining why the righteous suffer. I’ve heard song lyrics like “sometimes he calms the storm, other times he calms the child.” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

This issue is getting more complex, too complex for one post. I need to finish re-reading Ray Van Leeuwen’s article “Wealth and Poverty: System and Contradiction in Proverbs.” Hebrew Studies 33 (1992):25-36.

Reference: M.V. Fox. 2000. Proverbs 1-9. Anchor 18A. New York: Doubleday.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Random Verse: Sirach 33:1

Yes, it is completely random and unrelated to my last post that I happened to land in Sirach for the random verse. My paperback NRSV with Apocrypha was the closest Bible at hand on my nightstand (of course, I also have 2 ESVs within an arm’s length). I thought it might look suspect so I flipped again, but my conscience demanded that I return and post the very first verse that I’d landed on. No “best of three” allowed.

Sirach 33:1 (NRSV)

No evil will befall the one who fears the Lord, but in trials such a one will be rescued again and again.

While this is a potentially comforting verse and vague enough to be relevant, I’m awarding the point to Randomness because I don’t think this verse is true-to-life. It’s not realistic and could give someone a false hope. There are plenty of examples of evil befalling those who fear the Lord with no rescue in sight. I can say Ben Sira is wrong because he’s only in the Apocrypha, not the “real” Bible.

On the other hand, is this any different than the idealistic platitudes of Proverbs? Take Prov 10:3, for example:

The LORD does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked. (NRSV)

What should we do with these types of statements in wisdom literature? Obviously they shouldn’t be taken as absolute truths, so what’s the point? More anon. In the meantime, any comments or suggestions?

Pun of the Day

From the introduction to Scribes, Visionaries, and the Politics of Second Temple Judea by Richard Horsley:

“We have it in writing, but Ben Sira represents his own teaching as oral and his listeners’ learning as aural.” (p.11)

I’m not sure if it technically qualifies as a pun, but I thought it was a clever turn of phrase. Hopefully, the rest of the book turns out to be just as clever.

Rabbinic Tomb Inscription

Here's an interesting story about a man who found a rabbi's grave in his back yard. The grave may belong to the 3rd century Palestinian amora R. Yehoshua ben Levi. Or it may not. According to legend, Yehoshua ben Levi never died but was taken directly into heaven (like Elijah - with whom he hangs out a lot, again according to legend). There was a bit of a struggle going on between the owner who doesn't want it excavated and the Israeli Antiquities Authority who wants to excavate. Apparently, they've come to an agreement of some kind. Here's the account of how he found the grave.
While digging through the mud he discovered a wall and stone door bearing inscriptions in hard rock with the name of the famous rabbi and the name of the town, Tzipori.

Pilcer said the door to the structure was ajar, and after looking inside he immediately re-covered the site with dirt and built an iron fence around the structure to protect it.

A terra cotta sarcophagus was clearly visible lying in mud inside the grave, said Pilcer.

If the grave does belong to Levi, the presence of a sarcophagus could complicate the issue for some haredim who believe Levi never died because of his attentiveness to the Torah.
The inscription apparently says, "This is the grave of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi ha-Qappar." (source)

Here's some interesting background info on R. Yehoshua ben Levi from the Jewish Encyclopedia.
In legend, Joshua b. Levi is a favorite hero. He is often made to be the companion of Elijah the prophet in the latter's wanderings on earth (Pesiḳ. 36a); he likewise has dealings with the Angel of Death (Ber. 51a). While yet alive, he is permitted to visit paradise and the nether world; and he sends thence a description of what he sees to R. Gamaliel through the submissive Angel of Death (Derek Ereẓ Zuṭa i., end).
More background on the news story can be found at Paleojudaica. Odds are it's not the grave of the famous rabbi anyway. (Remember he never died, so it can't be him.)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Random Verse: Jeremiah 2:9

For your edification, I give you a randomly selected verse from the Book of Jeremiah.
Jeremiah 2:9 (ESV) 
"Therefore I still contend with you, declares the Lord,
and with your children's children I will contend.
I'm thinking of making a "Random Verse a Day" tear-off calendar. Of course, I will select the ones with the least relevance in order to counterweight the usual verse-a-day calendars that only pick the 365 most well-worn and familiar verses in the Bible.

In future posts, I'm widening the Random Verse parameters to include anything in any Bible I have, so New Testament and Apocryphal books will be fair game depending on which Bible I randomly pick up.

Score: Randomness 8-2

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Teaching the Bible in Public Schools

USA Today recently published an opinion column discussing the issue of teaching biblical literature to public school students. Like it or not, the Bible has had a profound influence on history and culture throughout the world. Several of my students taking biblical poetry last semester were English majors, only there to raise their biblical literacy enough to catch and understand more of the biblical allusions in classic English literature. Time magazine ran an article a year or so ago that explored the issue of teaching Bible as an elective in public schools. Their article looked specifically at what was being done in some of the states that had added the Bible elective to their curriculum. Here's an excerpt from USA Today. I recommend reading the whole piece.
"Students who want to do serious study of Western civilization need to know the Bible," says Barbara Newman, Northwestern University professor of English, Religion and Classics. "They need to know the Bible, even if they do not believe the Bible."

Harvard professor Robert Kiely, for one, agrees. In 2006, he participated in an academic survey of professors from many of America's leading universities — including Yale, Princeton, Brown, Rice, California-Berkeley and Stanford. The survey — commissioned by the Bible Literacy Project, which promotes academic Bible study in public schools — found an overwhelming consensus among top professors that incoming college students need to be well-versed in the stories, themes and words of the Bible.

"If a student doesn't know any Bible literature, he or she will simply not understand whole elements of Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth. One could go on and on and on," Kiely told Concordia professor Marie Wachlin and her research team.

"Knowledge of the Bible can be a key to unlocking other subjects. . . especially literature, art, music and social studies," say Chuck Stetson, co-editor of the visually stunning high school textbook The Bible and Its Influence, and founder of the Bible Literacy Project.

And knowledge of the Bible can be a key to understanding much of today's pop culture. Like Stephen Colbert's irreverent humor on Comedy Central. Or Jim Carrey's screwball spirituality in Bruce Almighty. Or the devilishly clever title of the band White Stripes' release, Get Behind Me Satan.

Not surprisingly, students growing up in non-religious homes are often behind the curve. "Many of my students are quite secular and have very little knowledge of the Bible," Northwestern's Newman says. "This is a major disadvantage."

Indeed, Newman says that trying to appreciate biblical allusions in literature without an underlying knowledge of Scripture is like trying to appreciate a good joke when someone has to explain the punch line. You might eventually "get" the joke, she says, but by the time you do, "it's not funny anymore."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Random Verse: Proverbs 30:31

Ironically, today's random verse shows how even wisdom literature can be completely random. It's ironic because I've said before that wisdom literature is often good for single-verse self-contained snippets of relevant and applicable wisdom. That's still an accurate general tendency, but it didn't work today.
Proverbs 30:31 (ESV)
the strutting rooster, the he-goat, and a king whose army is with him.
Randomness 7, Relevance 2

To be fair, Prov 30:31 isn't even a complete sentence. The complete thought is in Proverbs 30:29-31. It's a number proverb.

Context is an essential part of interpretation. That should be obvious by now if you're following the Random Verses series.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Random Verse: Zechariah 14:15

So far, I think only wisdom literature and Psalms are likely to be consistently relevant in single-verse random snippets. The Latter Prophets can definitely be counted on for obscure randomness.
Zechariah 14:15 (NRSV)
And a plague like this plague shall fall on the horses,
the mules, the camels, the donkeys,
and whatever animals may be in those camps.
And what is this plague like, you may ask? Well, for that you need context.
Zechariah 14:12 (NRSV)
This shall be the plague with which the LORD will strike
all the peoples that wage war against Jerusalem:
their flesh shall rot while they are still on their feet;
their eyes shall rot in their sockets,
and their tongues shall rot in their mouths.
That sounds unpleasant.

Let's try a little modern-day pesher interpretation.
It's interpretation concerns the oppressors of the Sacred Land who attacked in days of old with horse and camel and who in our time seek the destruction of the Sacred Land with the help of the Kittim who are stubborn as mules and stiff-necked as donkeys-yes, even they who take the donkey as their symbol of strength though they be stubborn and stupid.
In good pesher-like fashion, the interpretation itself requires interpretation.

Hard to call the point on this one, but it can be read as relevant as much obscure prophecy can.

Randomness 6, Relevance 2

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Random Verse: Ezra 8:5

This one needs no detailed explanation. Its randomness is self-evident. (Plus typing is going slowly with only one hand. Broke my left collar bone playing softball today. Left arm is in a a sling.)
Ezra 8:5 (NLT)

From the family of Zattu: Shecaniah son of Jahaziel and 300 other men.
Like biblical names for baby names? Forget Aaron, Jacob, Caleb, or Samuel - name your kid Zattu. It's biblical, too!

Scorecard: 6-1, Randomness.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Random Verse: Song of Songs 2:9

Song of Songs 2:9 (ESV)

My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag,
Behold, there he stands behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
looking through the lattice.

Hmm...apparently, her beloved is like a peeping tom.

The history of interpretation of the Song of Songs is fascinating. I'd like to do more study of Targum Song of Songs and Song of Songs Rabbah. Many interpreters have gone to great lengths to find some relevant spiritual application for Songs.

Mackie's Musing

My friend and fellow UW Hebrew & Semitic Studies colleague Tim Mackie has started a blog titled "Musing." So far he has 3 posts up dealing with Luke's characterization of Jesus. It would seem that after nearly completing his PhD in Hebrew Bible (are you planning to defend sometime this year still, Tim?), he's moving on to New Testament. I recommend that you head over and see what Tim's musing about.

Noll's Ethics of Being a Theologian

I finally got around to reading K.L. Noll's Chronicle article on the difference between religious study and theology (thanks to my colleague Chris for posting a link to it on Facebook). I know that several others have evaluated this piece recently, but I'm still mulling over Noll for myself and will perhaps respond more fully later once I've read the thorough critiques by Chris Heard and Tyler Williams. I have to admit that on first read, I'm very sympathetic to Noll's characterization of the difference between religious studies and theology. (I've posted before on the issue. Here. And on the related issue of apologetics vs. critical Bible scholarship.) While I continue to ponder the implications of Noll's article, here are a few excerpts that caught my attention.
My encounter with that professor reflects a problem endemic to academe. Most people do not understand what religious study really is. Professors of religion are often confused with, or assumed to be allies of, professors of theology. The reason for the confusion is no secret. All too often, even at public universities, the religion department is peopled by theologians, and many of those theologians refuse to make the distinction that I am about to make.
 . . .
Theology also views itself as an academic discipline, but it does not attempt to advance knowledge. Rather, theologians practice and defend religion. Theology is a set of words about a god; therefore, while theology is one of many objects of investigation for a religion researcher, it is the substance of the scholarship produced by a theologian.

There is nothing wrong with the practice and defense of religion, but it is not the study of religion. The best theologians are scholars who have immersed themselves in many of the same academic disciplines favored by religion researchers. Like good religion research, good theology is generated by the application of sound reasoning to empirical evidence. But there is a crucial difference. The religion researcher evaluates that evidence from within a tradition of secular, academic "wisdom." The theologian evaluates the same evidence from within a tradition of sacred, esoteric "wisdom." The distinction is not trivial and ought to be recognized and honored by religion researchers and theologians alike.
. . .
In other words, the theologian maintains that there exists an irreducible element in religious ritual that we religion researchers cannot hope to comprehend. I expect every theologian to believe this and will never argue with theologians about it.

I was surprised when I read the comments to this article at the Chronicle. Maybe I followed him because I'm sympathetic to his reasoning, but the reactions were defensive and apologetic. I shouldn't have been surprised. My own posts on the subject garnered a similar reaction - objectivity is impossible, you're just as biased as we are, etc.

Lately, I've been wrestling with this issue - separating my approach to the Bible into professional and confessional categories and carefully trying to keep them apart. Perhaps Joel Willitts is right that it's more important to keep them together, realizing we can't separate the scholar from the scholarship.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Elisha as Role Model

Much has been said recently about Elisha and the incident with the bears in 2 Kgs 2:23-25. We have David Ker to thank for that. Others who have weighed in on the issue: Doug Chaplin, Peter Kirk, Matt Page, Tim Bulkeley, James McGrath, and John Hobbins.

It seems that a common assumption for many reading this passage is that Elisha has done something wrong. After all, why else call him a "bad boy"? In the comments to Matt's post, Peter describes Elisha's curse as an abuse of his God-given power. The question has to be asked. If it was an abuse of power, then why did God allow it? Was God constrained to obey Elisha's curse even though the punishment didn't fit the crime or did he respond with a just punishment for their mockery (i.e., unbelief)?

If Elisha is a "bad boy" for this act, then what do we make of the fact that the New Testament seems to consciously model Jesus's role as a miracle worker on the miracles of Elijah and Elisha? There is a consistent pattern in these stories. Many of the miracles from 1 and 2 Kings have parallels in the Gospels. Here are some examples.

Elijah miraculously multiplies a handful of meal and oil into an 3 year food supply for the widow of Zarephath (1 Kgs 17:8-16). Similarly, Elisha multiples oil for a widow to sell to pay her debts (2 Kgs 4:1-7). Elisha also feeds 100 with a few loaves with some left over (2 Kgs 4:42-44). Jesus multiplies 5 loaves and 2 fish into enough to feed a multitude with 12 baskets left over (Matt 14:13-21).

In 1 Kgs 17:17-24, the widow's son dies and Elijah brings him back to life. Elisha revives the Shunammite's son in 2 Kgs 4:32-37. Jesus brings Jairus's daughter back to life (Matt 9:18-26) and revives a widow's son (Luke 7:11-16). Healing is also an important parallel. Elisha heals Naaman, a leper, in 2 Kgs 5:9-19. Jesus heals a leper in Matt 8:1-4.

Both Elisha and Jesus are depicted as having power over the forces of nature. Elisha splits the Jordan (2 Kgs 2:13-14) as Elijah had done (2 Kgs 2:8). Jesus walks on water (Matt 14:22-33). Elisha makes an ax head float (2 Kgs 6:1-7), purifies drinking water (2 Kgs 2:19-22) and some poisonous stew (2 Kgs 4:38-41). Jesus calms a storm on the sea (Matt 8:23-27).

The parallels run deeper than just miracles. After the incident with Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kgs 18), Elijah flees to the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights (1 Kgs 19:4-8). After his baptism, Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights (Matt 4:1-2). The call of Elisha to follow Elijah in 1 Kgs 19:19-21 is described in similar terms to how Jesus calls his disciples (Matt 4:18-22, Luke 9:57-62). Furthermore, the NT associates John the Baptist with Elijah (Matt 11:7-14), so are we meant to understand an implicit association of Jesus with Elisha? That's hard to say since Jesus's ascension in Acts 1:6-11 is very reminiscent of Elijah's ascension in 2 Kgs 2:11-12 - right down to the disciples watching him go and receiving his power (Blenkinsopp 1996, 253 n. 32). The cycle continued as Peter was depicted healing a cripple (Acts 3) and raising the dead (Acts 9).

Finally, we need to understand that not all miracles are good. Sometimes people are healed, sometimes they die. (John's posts emphasized this.) Joseph Blenkinsopp describes these "bad" miracles as "punitive miracles" (1996, 63). Virtually all who are at the receiving end of a punitive miracle have done something bad to deserve it. The difference is in our perspective on how "bad" it was. The Bible's perspective is that bad is bad. Show no partiality in judgment (Lev 19:15). There are examples for all our prophets here. Elijah personally kills the prophets of Baal after the miracle of the fire from heaven to light the altar. We're all familiar with Elisha and the bears, but remember that Elisha also strikes his servant Gehazi with leprosy for his greed after the healing of Naaman (2 Kgs 5:27). Jesus curses the fig tree for not bearing fruit (Matt 21:18-22) - granted it was out of season and the incident seems out of character for Jesus, much like the bears incident. Peter announces death for Sapphira for lying (Acts 5:1-11).

We like to think of biblical law as based on the lex talionis (eye for an eye), but there are many stories where the punishment doesn't fit the crime (for our modern-day sensibilities). The Bible passes a death sentence for many who did no worse than the boys in 2 Kgs 2:23. For example, what about the guy who is found picking up sticks on the Sabbath in Num 15:32-33? The law didn't actually tell him what he could or couldn't do. (It neglects to tell us what exactly qualifies as "work.") They're just starting to figure this "Law" thing out, so give him a free pass on this one, right? Wrong, he's stoned to death. Disobey your parents? That's right - death for you, too (Deut 21:18-21).

The dilemma remains. What to do with the Bible stories that violate our modern-day sense of ethics or our sense of what God must be like? Do we accept them as products of a different, more primitive time? Do we judge them for not conforming to our standard of "Christian" behavior? I certainly don't have the answer, and I'm not recommending anyone model themselves after Elisha and start cursing people who make fun of you. But the NT stories do seem to model Jesus on Elisha. What should we make of that?

Reference: Blenkinsopp, Joseph. 1996. A History of Prophecy in Israel. Revised and Enlarged. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Random Verse: Jeremiah 49:23

Jeremiah 49:23 (ESV)
Concerning Damascus:
Hamath and Arpad are confounded,
for they have heard bad news;
they melt in fear,
they are troubled
like the sea that cannot be quiet.

I think we've established the fact that the majority of Bible verses aren't really "verse of the day" material.
Randomness 4, Relevance 1

Bizarre Bible Stories: 2 Kings 2:23-24

Update: Matt Page has posted his thoughts on this passage along with links to many of the others who have taken up David Ker's challenge to post their 2 cents worth on this bizzarre story.

The story of Elisha and the bears has long been on my mind for the next installment of the Bizarre Bible Stories series.
23 He [Elisha] 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 the LORD. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys.
It is a personal favorite of my good friend Tod who also happens to be blessed with baldness. I've given more thought to the story today after reading David Ker's post and James McGrath's humorous follow-up. David challenged his readers to explain what they would say if they had to teach or preach this passage in church. James responded by giving several unique angles on the text that one could use to bring some relevance and application out of it.

I appreciate David's approach, but I disagree with some of his conclusions. By situating the success or failure of Elisha's mission as a prophet within the larger framework of Israel's failure to keep the covenant, he effectively neutralizes Elisha as a biblical "hero."
Ethnic hatred. Religious conflict. Revenge culture. Supposing for a moment that this story is historical, I think the narrator is the key figure. First, as I mentioned before, he is establishing Elisha as the inheritor of Elijah’s power as a prophet. Second, he interprets the attack of the bears as a sign of God’s judgment. But in the wider context of the book it’s clear to us that the author is showing that there are no heroes on either side. If there were, Elisha’s efforts would result in the nation’s repentance and victory over its enemies. Such is not the case. Israel’s breaking of the covenant results in dispersion and destruction and the end of the national hopes of a king like David to rule forever in Jerusalem. [emphasis added]
I don't follow this reasoning. If Elisha were the hero, then Elisha's efforts to bring repentance would have succeeded? Yes, 2 Kings 2 is establishing Elisha's credibility as a prophet, but I don't think the author is showing "there are no heroes on either side." The Deuteronomistic History is fairly consistent in holding to the existence of a remnant that remains righteous and committed to Yahweh despite what the rest of the Israelites are doing. I also disagree with David's suggestion that the correlation between the bear attack and Elisha's curse was mere coincidence.
In the petty squabbles of minor kingdoms, God doesn’t take sides. The correlation of Elisha’s curse and the youth’s misfortune is purely coincidental. This is a huge point to get our heads around. He doesn’t care which football team wins. He wasn’t making a statement with 9/11 or the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. Although the narrator of this story sees a correlation between the events, God doesn’t. Again, back to the wider context of the book, God’s people have broken their covenant with him and are reaping the consequences.
The appeal to coincidence feels too much like an attempt to find a rational explanation for a bizarre turn of events. In the world of the narrator, words had power - real power, almost magical power. They believed curses were effective. All we have to observe is the text, and the immediate context is filled with displays of Elisha's supernatural power. The perspective of the text on this last event is the same - God listens to Elisha and acts on his behalf, even if his motives seem a bit self-serving. I liked the perspective of the NET Bible here in their notes on 2 Kings 2:24-25.
A curse was a formal appeal to a higher authority (here the Lord) to vindicate one's cause through judgment. As in chapter one, this account makes it clear that disrespect for the Lord's designated spokesmen can be deadly, for it is ultimately rejection of the Lord's authority.

The two brief episodes recorded in vv. 19-25 demonstrate Elisha’s authority and prove that he is the legitimate prophetic heir of Elijah. He has the capacity to bring life and blessing to those who recognize his authority, or death and judgment to those who reject him.
Rejecting or mocking the LORD's anointed (Elisha) was the same as rejecting or mocking Yahweh himself. That is the take-home point that I would use for a Sunday School class. Still, it is a bizarre story. I recommend you head over to read James McGrath's 11 different angles on this text. Here's my favorite.
The fill in the gaps approach: Elisha not only cursed the youth but smeared them with honey, knowing that there were bears in those woods. He later repented of having done such a horrible thing. He had been having a really bad day.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Random Verse: 1 Kings 12:16

This one has ramifications (out of context, of course) for the application of the Davidic covenant to Israel. After the death of Solomon, Israel didn't care to have anything to do with David's house anymore.
1 Kings 12:16 (ESV)
And when all Israel saw that the king did not listen to them, the people answered the king, "What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, David." So Israel went to their tents.
I can think of a number of directions to go with this sentence - "We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse" - but I don't think they'd be correct applications of the verse. Not everything in the Bible is a "word for us today". Some of it is just part of the story of what happened back then. Since I don't think this verse is applicable and relevant apart from its place in the biblical narrative, I'm leaning toward Randomness for this point.

After 4 days, the score is Randomness 3, Relevance 1.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Random Verse: Num 16:31

Today's random verse is Numbers 16:31 in the NLT.
He had hardly finished speaking the words when the ground suddenly split open beneath them.
Kind of meaningless out of context, isn't it? On the other hand, it's so vague and context-less that it could be quoted as a warning of judgment for just about any occasion. The full context is Korah's rebellion and v. 31 is where they get punished. Since we're not likely to find this one emblazoned on an inspirational poster at the Christian bookstore, I'm giving the point to Randomness.

Running Score:  Randomness 2, Relevance 1.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Random Verse: Ecclesiastes 10:12

Due to wisdom literature's more universal relevance and appeal, a random sample verse in books like Ecclesiastes and Proverbs has a higher chance of being relevant and applicable to daily life. Especially in Proverbs, one is less likely to be ripping a single verse out of context since the entire thought is often encapsulated in a single verse. Ecclesiastes 10 is more like the so-called "sentence literature" of Proverbs 10-29. ["Sentence literature" defines that type of wisdom literature where the interpretive context is usually a single verse, often consisting of a single sentence.]

Random Verse for Today:
Ecclesiastes 10:12 (NRSV)
Words spoken by the wise bring them favor,
but the lips of fools consume them.

I'm not really excited about the NRSV's rendering here. I decided to randomly pick not only the verse but also the translation from among those on my shelf. The NRSV's commitment to gender-neutrality by use of third person pronouns seems to have added some ambiguity that's not in the Hebrew text. I had a moment of confusion over the pronoun reference on first read. Are the lips of fools consuming the wise or are they consuming themselves? On the second read, I realized it was probably the latter but looked it up in Hebrew anyway. Hebrew's ability to mark gender makes the first option completely impossible grammatically (in English it is unlikely but possible).

My literal translation:
Words from the mouth of the wise (masc sg) are gracious,
but the lips (fem pl) of a fool (masc sg) consume him (piel fem sg w/ 3 masc sg suffix).
Of course, there's still the problem of lack of concord between the plural subject and the singular verb. I recall reading an article about that issue once upon a time. I think it was by E.J. Revell and dealt with number agreement in prose. My cop-out answer is that perhaps the poet feels less bound by the constraints of formal grammar.

I liked the NLT for this verse for its far greater clarity on first read over NRSV.
Wise words bring approval,
but fools are destroyed by their own words.
After two attempts, we have a tied score. Relevance - 1, Randomness - 1.

Discovery at Ramat Rachel

Biblical archaeology news of the day: they found remains at Ramat Rachel dating back to the time of King Hezekiah.
The most recent dramatic archaeological find in Israel is that of a luxurious administrative center from the period of King Hezekiah, over 2,700 years ago. The center was discovered in Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, just south of Jerusalem

. . .

Prominent among the findings unearthed at the site are a tremendous amount of imprinted pitcher handles. Researchers assume that jugs of oil and wine, as well as other agricultural produce, were amassed here as taxes to be given to foreign rulers.


The administrative center at what is now Ramat Rachel included a complex of palace buildings that was active from the reign of King Menashe through that of King Zedekiah, at the end of the First Temple period, and for at least 200 years after the return to Zion and through the Hellenistic period.
(via Agade)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Random Verse of the Day

After reading several of David Ker's recent exegetical sketches, I've decided to do a little "bibliomancy" every day and post an Old Testament verse selected randomly by the flip-and-point method. The point of the exercise is to see how effective the method is for producing edifying and relevant verses, ripe for immediate application.

Today's random verse:
Ezekiel 6:5 (ESV)
And I will lay the dead bodies of the people of Israel before their idols,
and I will scatter your bones around your altars.
Day 1 results:

Randomness 1; Relevance 0

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Why I Need a Kindle

The list of books from my wish list now available for Kindle is growing steadily. An earlier listing I made of biblical studies books available on Kindle is here.

1. John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament
2. The ESV Study Bible
3. Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism
4. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament

Now it would be really cool if the IVP Bible Dictionary series was available for Kindle. For now they're not, but I saw an update from IVpress on Twitter that said IVP is in the process of making their publications available on Kindle. I don't know if that included the dictionary series. The volumes I want the most are Pentateuch and Wisdom Literature.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What happened to Clayboy?

I just tried to follow a link from Technorati back to Doug Chaplin's blog and found that it's no longer there--replaced by a hacker's calling card. If it was a completely random hack, then that's some pretty bad luck for Doug. I hope all is back to normal for his blog soon.

The next thing to do . . . export a backup of Biblia Hebraica from Blogger.

Update: Things appear to be mostly back in order at Clayboy as of this morning.

The "Obama is the Anti-Christ" Video

I've been ignoring the crazy Youtube video that claims the Bible predicts Barack Obama is the anti-christ because the guy is clearly a crank, but others have felt compelled to offer thorough debunkings. I saw it bemoaned first at Hevel, then discussed a bit on Twitter. Rather than spend my own time debunking what has already been debunked, I refer you to Anumma who offers a good critique and links to other critiques.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Review: Oliver Stone's Alexander

Alexander: The Director's Cut
2004. Directed by Oliver Stone. Starring Colin Farrell and Angelina Jolie.

I finally got around to watching Oliver Stone's 2004 historical flop - Alexander. I'd hoped the Director's Cut would somehow be better since I'd heard the original was perhaps one of the worst films ever made. I normally quite enjoy historical period movies like Gladiator, Troy, 300, Braveheart, Kingdom of Heaven, Spartacus, and Ben-Hur. I expect them to take a fair amount of creative license with historical accuracy in favor of stylized entertainment, but Alexander was just . . . lame.

Alexander was depicted as rash, impetuous and foolish. It was hard to believe that he'd be able to conquer anything, much less most of the known world of the time. The battle / action sequences were rare and focused mainly on Alexander foolishly rushing headlong into battle. Clearly, enacting epic battles and showing off Alexander's military skill was NOT intended to be the focus of the movie. The conquests of Asia Minor and Egypt are narrated quickly, and we first see Alexander on the eve of Gaugamela. The battle scene was chaotic and neither side was depicted with any particular military or fighting skill. It ended with the sense that Alexander had lost, even though the Persian army had turned and fled and Gaugamela is considered a turning point in Alexander's conquest of Persia. The next scene, then, was something of a surprise, seeing Alexander's victorious entry into Babylon after a battle that was portrayed as a disaster. The rest of the movie plodded on with too much corny dialogue and too much non-linear story-telling (i.e., filling in the back story by jumping back in time 10 years every 15 minutes or so). Apparently, the movie was intended to be a character drama focused on Alexander, but Colin Farrell's Alexander is no charismatic military leader. He's a weak alcoholic moping around feeling sorry for himself because he can't be with his boyfriend or escape the apron strings of his mother. Speaking of his mother, I kept wondering why they had Angelina Jolie deliver her lines with a fake Russian accent. Oh well . . . if you've made it through life so far without watching this movie, consider yourself lucky and don't bother with it. Watch 300 or Gladiator instead.

Was There Really a World-wide Flood?

Does the biblical account of the Flood involve the whole earth or only part of it? I don't have an answer to the question, but an article written a couple of days ago offers some journalistic speculation on the issue and indirectly addresses the problem of the relationship between science and religion. I happen to think it might be pressing the point too far to attempt to harmonize any biblical account with the conclusions of science since the Bible is not, after all, attempting to give a scientific description of anything. Here are some excerpts from the article.
In the first place, skeptical geologists propose that for such a flood to have occurred, we would find a similar stratum throughout the world covered with pebbles, sludge, boulders, and other elements. It is curious that this layer cannot be found, even more so when the flood narrated by the Bible had taken place in a time as recent as 3000 B.C.

Neither can be found the strata of fossils, with different animal and vegetable species occupying specific soil layers. According to flood logic, the animal remains of all species before the big flood
(including the extinct dinosaurs) should be found today in only one stratum, without any distinction. But paleontology completely contradicts these suppositions.

Yet these examples appear to be only the tip of the iceberg comprising the arguments that refute a global flood. Even so, much of such reasoning is refuted with equal grace by the “pro-flood” scientists.
The article actually gives a fairly balanced view on the issue. I think it's fascinating that so many cultures have some kind of a flood myth. Something must have happened to create that kind of cultural memory. But is that proof that the Bible's version is exactly what happened? Not exactly. Even so, faith requires believing something that can't necessarily be proven empirically anyway.
With respect to non-Biblical myths about a purifying flood, these can be found in the Hindu, Sumerian, Greek, Acadia, Chinese, Mapuche, Mayan, Aztec, and Pascuanese (Easter Island) cultures, among others. Several of these stories appear to possess surprisingly similar common
factors. Among the most repeated themes are those of celestial announcements ignored by the people, the great flood itself, the construction of an arc to preserve life from the flood, and the later restoration of life on the planet.

A clear example of this similarity is provided by pre-Biblical Mesopotamian history of the flood in which the god “Ea” warned Uta-na-pistim, king of Shuruppak, about the punishment that awaits humanity for its serious moral degeneration. Uta-na-pistim received instructions from the god to construct a craft in the form of a cube with eight floors, and said that it should include in it a pair of each species of animal, plant seeds, as well as his own family. Thus, Uta-na-pistim survived the several-day-long deluge, released a bird to verify the proximity of dry land, and made an animal sacrifice to the gods.
(Via the Agade mailing list)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Biblical Studies Carnival 44

Biblical Studies Carnival is up, hosted by the #1 biblioblogger for the last 5 months, Dr Jim West. It's mildly entertaining, to say the least. In other blog news, the Biblioblog Top 50 for July is also posted. As expected, I've fallen out of the top 50 to #86, due to my all-but-non-existent posting in July which you can expect to continue for several months at least.