Saturday, July 31, 2010

In the Mail: Elijah and the Rabbis

Today I received a review copy from Columbia University Press of Elijah and the Rabbis: Story and Theology by Kristen H. Lindbeck.

From the publisher:

Through an innovative synthesis of narrative critique, oral-formulaic study, folkloric research, and literary analysis, Kristen H. Lindbeck reads all the Elijah narratives in the Babylonian Talmud and details the rise of a distinct, quasi-angelic figure who takes pleasure in ordinary interaction.

During the Talmudic period of 50-500 C.E., Elijah developed into a recognizable character quite different from the Elijah of the Bible. The Elijah of the Talmud dispenses wisdom, advice, and, like the Elijah of Jewish folklore, helps people directly, even with material gifts. Lindbeck highlights particular features of the Elijah stories, allowing them to be grouped into generic categories and considered alongside Rabbinic literary motifs and non-Jewish traditions of late antiquity. She compares Elijah in the Babylonian Talmud to a range of characters—angels, rabbis, wonder-workers, the angel of death, Christian saints, and even the Greek god Hermes. She concludes with a survey of Elijah's diverse roles from medieval times to today, throwing into brilliant relief the complex relationship between ancient Elijah traditions and later folktales and liturgy that show Elijah bringing benefits and blessings, appearing at circumcisions and Passover, and visiting households after the Sabbath.

I find the development of biblical figures in later religious traditions to be a fascinating subject. I look forward to reading it and offering more of a review here in the future.

Shift: Back to Square One

Isn’t it wonderful when, after doing some preliminary research and writing an introductory paper on a potential thesis topic, you discover you missed an important source that reveals massive additional bibliography on the subject and strongly suggests there’s nothing more to be said?

I am interested in the topic of creation in the Hebrew Bible and had begun exploring it especially through the aspect of Deutero-Isaiah’s use of the motif. I’ve presented a paper on the topic at a regional SBL and discussed the topic with potential dissertation committee members. Only one advisor cautioned me that there might be little new ground to explore on this motif, or at least, it would be a huge challenge to find because of the massive bibliography on the book of Isaiah and creation separately. I have finally realized how self-guided PhD research really is and how much it is on me alone to track down what’s been done and find my own avenue for original research.

Here is the opening to the chapter by Richard J. Clifford I read last night but should’ve read months ago:
Given the many verbs of creating in Second Isaiah . . . , it is remarkable that explicit scholarly discussion on the topic began only in the 1930s. Recent years have made up for previous neglect; there now exist over a dozen articles, three books, and numerous treatments within commentaries and monographs on creation in Second Isaiah. The first part reviews critically some of the scholarly contributions, for several questionable assumptions have crept into the consensus, viz., that the “problematic” is the relation between originally distinct concepts of redemption and creation; that the concept of creation is subordinated to redemption; and that a distinction between creation of the whole and of the individual is operative in Second Isaian hymns and individual laments.[1]
Now it is somewhat gratifying to discover one’s independently reached thoughts on a subject have been anticipated by a scholar of Clifford’s caliber, but that is little consolation when one is attempting to craft a thesis proposal.

So, I’m shifting gears to a different area of research, back to square one with my proposal. Well, not totally square one, I’m shifting to one of my other interests, probably Biblical Hebrew and Translation Studies.

[1] Richard J. Clifford, “Creation in Isaiah 40-55”, Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and in the Bible (CBQ Monograph Series 26), 163-176.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Understatement of the Day

The understatement of the day comes from National Geographic News in an article about their upcoming documentary on the Dead Sea Scrolls. It sums up almost all research ever on the DSS.
"I have a feeling it's going to be very disputed," said Lawrence Schiffman, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University (NYU).
The article places this quote in response to Bob Cargill's comments:
"Jews wrote the Scrolls, but it may not have been just one specific group. It could have been groups of different Jews," said Robert Cargill, an archaeologist who appears in the documentary Writing the Dead Sea Scrolls, which airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel.
I agree with Bob and I think the new consensus is moving more in this direction in regard to the origins of the scrolls. Of course, almost everything's been disputed in Qumran research. I wish I got cable so I could watch the documentary. Oh well . . .

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Scapegoat Ritual in Leviticus 16

Azazel from Collin de Plancy's Dictionnaire Infernal(Paris,1825).
Leviticus 16 presents the ritual requirements for the Day of Atonement. One of the most enigmatic rituals involves the scapegoat sent off into the wilderness for “Azazel” described in Lev 16:6-10:
6 “Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. 7 Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 8 And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Azazel. 9 And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD and use it as a sin offering, 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.
There has been much speculation about who or what “Azazel” was: the main interpretations have been a local deity, a wilderness goat-demon, or a desert mountain. Later Jewish literature, notably the Book of Enoch, understood Azazel as a demon, one of the fallen angels and brings him into its complex mythology of supernatural angels and demons.

Rabbinic interpretation understood Azazel to be a cliff off which the goat was driven to its death.
The Rabbis, interpreting "Azazel" as "Azaz" (rugged), and "el" (strong), refer it to the rugged and rough mountain cliff from which the goat was cast down (Yoma 67b; Sifra, Ahare, ii. 2; Targ. Yer. Lev. xiv. 10, and most medieval commentators). Most modern scholars, after having for some time indorsed the old view, have accepted the opinion mysteriously hinted at by Ibn Ezra and expressly stated by Nahmanides to Lev. xvi. 8, that Azazel belongs to the class of "se'irim," goat-like demons, jinn haunting the desert, to which the Israelites were wont to offer sacrifice (Lev. xvii. 7 [A. V. "devils"] (from the Jewish Encyclopedia).
Of course, all of that may be for naught if this Hittite parallel is correct and the term is connected with a type of offering.
“In the Leviticus 16 ritual a crux has always been the term laʿazāʾzēl rendered in the Septuagint and Vulgate by “as a scapegoat” (followed by the English AV), but replaced in more recent English translations by “for Azazel,” sometimes thought to denote a wilderness demon. Appealing to scapegoat rites in the Hurrian language from the Hittite archives, Janowski and Wilhelm would derive the biblical term from a Hurrian offering term, azazḫiya. This is particularly appealing to me. There were two goats used in the Leviticus 16 ritual. One is designated for Yahweh as a “sin offering” (Heb. ḥaṭṭāʾṭ, LXX peri hamartias) (16:9), and the other is “for Azazel,” but is presented alive before Yahweh to make atonement, and is sent away into the wilderness “to/for Azazel.” The contrast is twofold: (1) Yahweh versus Azazel, and (2) sin offering versus Azazel. If one adopts the first, Azazel seems to be a divine being or demon, who must be appeased. But if one adopts the second as primary, the word ʿazāʾzēl represents the goal of the action. In the system of Hurrian offering terms to which Wilhelm’s azazḫiya belongs, the terms represent either a benefit that is sought by the offering (e.g., keldiya “for wellbeing,” cf. Heb. šelāmîm), or the central element offered (e.g., zurgiya “blood”). If Janowski and Wilhelm’s theory is correct, the Hebrew term would not denote a demon as recipient of the goat, but some benefit desired (e.g., removal of the sins and impurities) or the primary method of the offering (e.g. the banishment of the goat).”[1]
Similar rituals are widely attested in the ancient Near East with examples from Ebla and elsewhere. I'm sure much more could be said about the practice and its ancient parallels. Leviticus 16 and the term Azazel provide a fascinating example of how misunderstandings and speculation sometimes spin off into elaborate traditions that fall far from the likely original meaning of the biblical text.

Harry A. Hoffner, Jr., “Hittite-Israelite Cultural Parallels” in Hallo, W. W., & Younger, K. L. (2003). Context of Scripture, vol. 3 (xxxii). Leiden; Boston: Brill.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Professor Pardee's Promotion

Professor Dennis Pardee at the University of Chicago has been appointed to a named chair in Hebrew Studies.

Dennis Pardee has been appointed the Henry Crown Professor of Hebrew Studies.
Currently Professor in Near Eastern Languages and Civilization, Pardee studies northwest Semitic languages and is a leading scholar of Ugarit, the language spoken by the residents of the ancient Syrian city. He is the author of two–volume scholarly translation of Ugaritic rituals, many of which had been difficult for scholars to access before the publication of Pardee’s translation.
In 2008, Pardee translated the inscription on an ancient stone slab uncovered by an Oriental Institute team in southeast Turkey. The slab provided the first written evidence in the belief that the soul was separate from the body.
Pardee teaches intermediate and advanced Biblical Hebrew, and is a 2010 recipient of the University’s Graduate Teaching Award. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1995. In 2007 he delivered the British Academy’s prestigious Schweich Lectures on Biblical Archaeology.
He received his Ph.D. from UChicago in 1974 and has been teaching at UChicago since 1972.
Congratulations to Prof. Pardee!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Most Misused Scriptures

Those of us well-versed in the art of biblical exegesis – historical-critical style – have all been struck from time to time by a groan-inducing, double-take inspiring, eye-roll instigating misuse of Scripture, too often from the pulpit, unfortunately.

Here’s my top 3 most misused Scriptures.

1. To support how “biblical” American democracy is.
Galatians 5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
2. To quietly contemplate God’s being God.
Psalm 46:10a Be still, and know that I am God.
3. To support the use of the mind and reason in Christian circles.
Isaiah 1:18a Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD
So, what’s the problem? Context. The larger context of these verses do not support the traditional popular interpretations. Galatians 5:1 is talking about spiritual freedom or freedom from bondage to sin, not national freedom or democratic freedoms. Psalm 46:10 is probably my favorite of these. The larger context is about God’s power and v. 10 is meant as a call to fearful awe in the face of that power, not quiet contemplation on God. Here’s Psa 46:6-10 for context. “Be still” is probably better translated with the idiomatic “Shut up.”
6      The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. 
7      The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.   Selah 
8      Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth. 
9      He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. 
10      “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”
For Isaiah 1:18, I’ve heard it applied to support the use of reason in defending the faith, so I really wasn’t surprised to find an apologetics ministry using the phrase as its name or a book on logical thinking titled Come Let Us Reason. The problem is that I’m not convinced the Hebrew root יָכַח really carries the connotation of logic or reason in the usual Western post-Enlightenment sense. The typical Hebrew use is closer to “rebuke” or “correct” or “argue.” It might be close with the sense of “argue”. The verb is fairly rare in the Niphal stem (passive), but I’m pretty sure understanding it as “reason” in a modern philosophical sense is anachronistic.

There are many many other texts taken completely out of context and badly misused by preachers. This is just a small sample of three that consistently have bothered me over the years. For more bad exegesis, there’s plenty to peruse in Scott’s Youtube channel with crazy preachers like Steven Anderson, John Crowder, Paula White, Jack Van Impe, and more.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bible Study Magazine Subscription Drive

If you're an avid reader of this blog, you might be interested to know that I've contributed a couple of pieces for Bible Study Magazine's Nov/Dec issue. You can join their growing subscriber base of 14,000 for the low low price of $14.95 for a year's subscription. From their website:
Get into the Word with Bible Study Magazine, a brand new print magazine! Six times a year, Bible Study Magazine will deliver tools and methods for Bible study, as well as insights from respected voices in the church and biblical scholarship.
Take advantage of our special introductory price! By subscribing now for only $14.95 per year, you will receive a new issue of Bible Study Magazine every two months. This special introductory price won't last long, so place your order now!
My contributions include a "Cutting Edge" article on the Joseph story and a brief piece about the names of God in Genesis. I went ahead and subscribed myself. The magazine looks like a great resource to recommend for people in the church who want to improve their Bible study habits.

Oh, and the magazine is published by Logos Bible Software, so I was compensated with Logos 4 products. As soon as I figure out how best to make use of it, I'll post some reflections here. (I've been a Bibleworks guy for the last 6 years or so, but BW 7 hasn't been updating right after I switched to Windows 7. I still might upgrade to BW 8 in the future. You can't have too many Bible software programs, in my opinion.)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

14th Century BCE Akkadian Chicken Scratches Found in Jerusalem

I'm a bit late on this news that broke while I was on vacation, but apparently the big archaeological news of the week was the discovery of a 14th century BCE cuneiform tablet found in Jerusalem. 

From the Jerusalem Post:
Hebrew University excavations recently unearthed a clay fragment dating back to the 14th century BCE, said to be the oldest written document ever found in Jerusalem.
The tiny fragment is only 2 cm. by 2.8 cm. in surface area and 1 cm. thick and appears to have once been part of a larger tablet. Researchers say the ancient fragment testifies to Jerusalem’s importance as a major city late in the Bronze Age, long before it was conquered by King David.
The minuscule fragment contains Akkadian words written in ancient cuneiform symbols. Researchers say that while the symbols appear to be insignificant, containing simply the words “you,” “you were,” “them,” “to do,” and “later,” the high quality of the writing indicates that it was written by a highly skilled scribe. Such a revelation would mean that the piece was likely written for tablets that were part of a royal household.
Now this find has little bearing on biblical archaeology per se, but since it was found by Eilat Mazar's excavation in Jerusalem, a biblical tie-in somewhere in the article was required. The article closes with this completely unrelated tidbit.
In February, Hebrew University excavations led by Mazar in the Ophel area found ancient stone fortifications dating back some 3,000 years to the time of King Solomon and the First Temple.
Archeologists said that the 70-meterlong and 6-m.-high wall indicated that there had been a strong central government in Jerusalem at the time, which had the manpower and resources to construct large-scale fortifications.
Also, a quick perusal of the 400+ as-yet-unread posts in my feed reader reveals that several other blogs have also commented on these Akkadian chicken scratches. There may be more, but here's what I've seen so far: Christopher Rollston, Robert Cargill, Jim Davila,  Duane Smith, Todd Bolen, and Chip Hardy

Friday, July 9, 2010

Focus . . . What Do YOU See?

Not long ago my wife was browsing the Westminster online bookstore and did a double-take at the logo for the "Learn about God" series published by Christian Focus. Here's a screen shot of what she saw:

Notice anything unusual about this logo? My wife called me over and asked what I thought about it. Of course, I hedged - "I'm not sure...what do YOU see?" - until I was sure we were talking about the same thing. Not sure yet what you're looking at? It's better bigger.

What? You see two stick figures holding hands? Maybe two fencers facing off?

This week she emailed Westminster bookstore to draw their attention to this ambiguous logo. They've since removed it from the website.

Now I can only speculate what the designers at Christian Focus were thinking, but I find it hard to believe that no one ever studied the logo - black against a white background and didn't realize - hey, that looks like . . .

On the other hand, the logo is small and against a colored background on the covers of their books. It doesn't jump out until it's black and white and big.

So far, most of the friends we've polled have immediately seen what we saw. A few didn't see it right away. I guess that explains how they've gotten away with using the logo since this series was published in 2008.

If you still don't see it, look at the outline, not the figures. Oh and I was driving today on a little stretch of road known as Hwy DD. Seriously - double D.