Saturday, September 24, 2011

"Am I My Brother's Keeper?"

It’s the first question asked by a human in the Bible, and one of the most resonant questions of all time. God is a veritable question box in the early chapters of Genesis (he seems far from omniscient in these stories), and the serpent famously asks Eve a challenging question about her allowed diet. But not until Cain defensively poses this question to God has a human made an inquiry of any sort.
God’s response to Cain comes in the form of banishment for the murder of Abel. The answer is essentially that if you don’t consider yourself the protector of your sibling, you can no longer be considered part of the family. However, Cain’s sentence is tempered not only by the mark of protection he places on him but the opportunity to create his own family and to understand the protective relationship from a different perspective. Where that wife of his came from is never answered, but Cain does become a husband and father. God teaches Cain a lesson, but one that gives him the opportunity for redemption, for a new life in a different setting.
And the sibling relationship becomes one of the great themes of the Bible. It is explored over and over again both in the literal sense – in the stories of Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Abimelech and his 69 brothers, Amnon and Absalom, Adonijah and Solomon, and others – and in a broader sense through the fact that all of the nations with against which Israel goes to war are shown to come from a common ancestry, generally well documented. Not until we hit the Romans in the New Testament does a culture seem truly alien (the story of Rome’s integration into the family is post-biblical but certainly no less stunning than the Bible’s stories of familial/cultural relationships).
Many have noted that throughout the Bible, it is the younger son – usually one perceived as physically weaker – who receives God’s favor. Certainly the nation of Israel is perpetually portrayed as weaker than its enemies but stronger in its relationship to God (in the story of Gideon, for example, the Israelite army is forced through a selection process into a position of physical weakness over which it prevails).
As the stories of warring siblings and warring nations unfold, a related topic is brought into play: Our responsibility to care for the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. “Widows and orphans” is the shorthand most often used.
Here is God laying down the law to Moses in Exodus 22: “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you afflict them in any way and they cry out to Me, I will surely hear their cry; and My wrath will become hot, and I will kill you with the sword; you wives shall be widows and your children orphans.”
In Deuteronomy, Moses repeats and elaborates on the requirement, insisting that the Israelites have an obligation to feed not only widows and orphans, but resident aliens and the homeless (the Levites, descendants of Israel who were not given a portion of the Holy Land). In addition, debts are to be forgiven every seven years, and failure to honor this obligation is considered a serious offense:
If there is among you a poor man of your brethren within any of the cities in your land the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your poor brother; but you shall surely open your hands to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs. Beware lest there be a hidden thought in your heart, a transgression of the law, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission is at hand,’ and your eye be evil against your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry out to the Lord against you, and it be a great sin among you. You shall surely give him and loan him as much as he needs, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your works and in everything to which you put your hand. For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore, I commdn you to do this word which says, ‘You shall surely open your hands to your brother, to your poor and needy in your land.’

In Job, Eliphaz the Temanite poetically speculates that failure to care for the needy is one of Job’s sins (although we certainly can’t be sure about the veracity of Job’s supposed friends): 

For you have taken pledges from your brethren for no reason

And taken away the clothing of the naked.

Neither have you given the thirsty water to drink,

But have even withheld a morsel from the hungry.

You have also admired the personality of some

And have transplanted those already settled on earth.

Your have sent widows away empty

And have have mistreated orphans.

Therefore snares are all around you,

And a serious war has troubled you.

The light has turned to darkness for you,

And water has covered you as you fell asleep.

In Psalm 68, David calls God “the father of orphans and the judge of widows,” and in Psalm 82 we are told to, “Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy; rid them out of the hand of the wicked.”
In all, we are instructed more than 40 times in the course of the Bible to care for those who are least able to care for themselves: The widows, orphans, resident aliens and homeless who live among us. Because “widows and orphans” is the shorthand most often used, some may be tempted to identify them as a special class, but the inclusion at key times of resident aliens and the homeless Levites should make it clear that what the Bible is talking about are the most needy and vulnerable among us.

Given that this message of familial responsibility toward all of humanity is so explicit and so often repeated, it has been more than a little disturbing in the past few weeks to hear people in the audience at political debates here in the United States cheer for the idea of letting an uninsured 30-year-old die if he has no insurance, whoop at the notion that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme,”  and boo at the thought of respectful treatment  for a homosexual soldier defending this country in a theater of war. That these reactions came from political factions that loudly self-identify as Christians makes the behavior even more disturbing.
While I try not to make this blog too overtly political, neither my political beliefs nor my moral ones are ever far from me. And when behavior like this erupts at political events, I often wonder whether these supposed believers use the Bible as anything more than a hard surface upon which to thump.

There are many topics upon which the Bible is internally contradictory. But the obligation to care for the neediest in society is not one of these. David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, Malachi, James and many of its other authors repeat the message and reinforce it. And lest anyone try to argue that the Bible extends this charity only toward like believers, get over it. The Bible argues that we are all of common descent; charity is extended without requirement of a test of belief.
“All men are brothers” may be viewed by some as a trite and sentimental statement, but the Bible is quite clear in laying out the idea (through its descriptions of the genesis of nations and societies) and even more clear about our obligations toward each other.

I’ll end with the simple words of the prophet Isaiah: "Learn to do good. Seek Judgment and redeem the wronged. Defend the orphan and justify the widow."

Saturday, August 27, 2011

They Shall Have Dominion ...

The day after a magnitude 5.9 earthquake struck the east coast of the United States, I read this thoughtful article by Rabbi Edward Bernstein of Temple Torah in Boynton Beach, Florida. So, as thoughts all over the east coast turned from the earthquake to an approaching hurricane, my own thoughts, as usual, turned to the Bible.
I had some help. That the Washington, D.C., area was facing a one-two punch of natural disasters had set the political blogosphere and the Facebook populace afire. There were prophecies of doom and of impending salvation based on readings of biblical passages. There were jokes about the founding fathers turning over in their graves because of the sins of the right or the left; there were attempts to label the earthquake fault line “Obama’s fault” or “Bush’s fault”; there was Pat Robertson making his usual pronouncements about the events being signs from God. I got into the act with an observation that the epicenter of the quake was in Rep. Eric Cantor’s district and thus was a Tea Party phenomenon; it was fun for a day or so.

But when I read Rabbi Bernstein’s article, I began to reflect more seriously on humanity’s impact on the Earth. Now anyone who has read this blog knows that I am in no way a believer in the Bible as literal truth. It’s certainly not anything approaching literal history or science. I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic God and have no use for the idea that He sends down specific earthly judgments.
But I do believe in providence. And I believe that the Bible supports the idea of providence. I’m also a believer in a concept of universal law and justice that is not wholly based on biblical teaching but is in part expressed through the teachings of Jesus, Paul, James, Isaiah, Jeremiah and other biblical figures. All those ancient Middle Eastern philosophers were on to something big, in my opinion.

The Sh’ma – the topic of Rabbi Bernstein’s piece – is one place in which the Bible gives us a poetic portrait of humanity’s responsibility for the “behavior” of the Earth. The paragraphs on which Bernstein focuses read (in the translation available online in the JewishVirtual Library:

And it shall come to pass, if ye shall hearken diligently unto My commandments which I command you this day, to love HaShem your G-d, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, that I will give the rain of your land in its season, the former rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil. And I will give grass in thy fields for thy cattle, and thou shalt eat and be satisfied. Take heed to yourselves, lest your heart be deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them; and the anger of HaShem be kindled against you, and He shut up the heaven, so that there shall be no rain, and the ground shall not yield her fruit; and ye perish quickly from off the good land which HaShem giveth you. Therefore shall ye lay up these My words in your heart and in your soul; and ye shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. And ye shall teach them your children, talking of them, when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt write them upon the door-posts of thy house, and upon thy gates; that your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, upon the land which HaShem swore unto your fathers to give them, as the days of the heavens above the earth.

(HaShem, literally “The Name,” is a Hebrew term for God that Jews often use as a way of referring to Yahweh while avoiding other names that are limited to ritual use).

This passage -- part of Moses’ grand valedictory address to the Israelites who are approaching the Holy Land after 40 years in the wilderness – suggests a direct relationship between the Israelites’ behavior and weather events in the Holy Land. We may reject that one-to-one correspondence – I do – and yet, as Bernstein points out, find in it a broader truth: That humanity’s behavior toward the Earth does have an impact on the Earth’s “behavior” toward humanity.
To explore that, we might go back to Genesis 1:26, in which God, having created humanity in His image, gives our species a level of control over the rest of creation:

And G-d blessed them; and G-d said unto them: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth'.

This passage was famously cited a few years ago by the political provocateur Ann Coulter (I’m never sure how to refer to Coulter, but provocateur seems as good a term as any) in an anti-environmental rant:
God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.’
Giving Coulter the benefit of a great degree of doubt, I will assume this was one of her typical attempts to start a fire by exaggerating a position. But it’s a particularly feeble one, even for her. Coulter is representative of a small, vocal minority that rejects environmental science, using a misrepresentation of scripture to support right wing political/economic ends. I’m pretty sure there’s no implication in Genesis that we should rape the Earth.

Indeed, we are told to replenish the Earth, a command that I think is best read broadly. Although it is coupled with the instruction to “be fruitful and multiply,” I would argue that the injunction to “replenish the Earth” is not limited to promoting the survival of humanity. And while “dominion” is a term implying rule – it shares an etymological root with “dominate” and “domain” – I don’t think it in any way suggests reckless rule.

I share with a lot of religious people a belief that when God placed his creation in our hands, he did so in the sense that we should care for it and protect it as something holy, something to be revered. And in this sense, taking responsibility for human behaviors that have exacerbated global warming is entirely consistent with the Bible.
It’s important to point out that Genesis 1 is attributed by most biblical scholars to the Priestly source, a person or group of writers who worked during the post-exilic period, around 500 B.C., a time when the Jews, recently allowed to return to the Holy Land from forced exile in Babylonia, were rebuilding their cities and places of worship, in particular the Temple in Jerusalem. The God depicted by the Priestly source is one who values law and order; this source is also deemed responsible for Leviticus and the portions of Numbers that are concerned with laws of human behavior.

The Sh’ma, the passage of Deuteronomy cited earlier, is attributed, in contrast, to the Deuteronomist, who is also believed to be the author(s) of the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. This author, who wrote in the years prior to the conquest and exile, was focused on telling the story of the founding of the Jewish nation.
And the second creation story, in Genesis 2, is attributed to the Yahwist source, or J, who wrote something very different, a narrative focused on humanity in which God plays an important role but human behavior is really in control of events. It is through J’s narrative that we learn about Adam, Eve and the serpent; Abram and Sarai’s wanderings; the complex family dynamic of the patriarchs and matriarchs, and Moses’ leadership of the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness.

I know that many people reject this standard scholarship and believe that the  Torah was handed down by God to Moses in its current form (notwithstanding the fact that there is no universal agreement on that current form). For those who hold to this belief, there is a compelling sequence in the events of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3, culminating in the Fall of humanity.
After Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, the whole concept of dominion over the Earth seems to fly out the door. Instead of being overlods, we are told, humanity will be at the mercy of the Earth. The angry God, after condemning the serpent to wander on its belly and Eve to endure labor pains, passes sentence on Adam:

And unto Adam He said: 'Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying: Thou shalt not eat of it; cursed is the ground for thy sake; in toil shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.'

We’re no longer above the rest of creation. We came from the Earth and we will return to be part of the greater whole upon our deaths. Disrespect for the environment – the Earth – is disrespect for ourselves, for our roots and for our destination.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Enemy Within

In the quasi-historical rollercoaster ride that is the book of Judges, the Israelites are forever tormented and besieged by their neighbors – the Canaanites (Deborah), Moabites (Ehud), Midianites (Gideon), Ammonites (Jephthah), and Philistines (Samson) take turns subjugating and oppressing the descendents of Israel who, we are told over and over, asked for trouble by deciding to worship the gods of these nations.

The nations that bedevil the Israelites are portrayed as enemies, but in the grand scheme of the Bible they are not outsiders. All of them can claim a heritage of descent from key biblical figures: The Moabites and Ammonites from the incest of Lot and his daughters; the Canaanites and Philistines from Ham, the disrespectful son of Noah; the Midianites from Abraham and the wife he married in his old age, Keturah. While their lineage sometimes strikes me as a set of “yo’ mamma” insults, it is clear they are cousins of the chosen people and might have remained among the chosen themselves except for a wrong turn here and there.
  Looking at the battles of Israel from a distance, one might interpret the history – as I often like to do – as a metaphor for the individual struggles we all face. Who do we battle with the most? Those who are closest to us. Who do we resent the most? Those in whom we see those aspects of our own character what we dislike. I don’t know whether the author of Judges intended for his or her work to be viewed this way, but I don’t doubt it. As I have written before, the author evidently pulled these stories together from oral tradition, and may well have understood their connection to each other and to our psychic battles.

In one of the curiosities of translation with which biblical history abounds, the Septuagint version of the Bible, on which Orthodox Christian churches base their scripture, has a significant addition – as compared to the Mazoretic text of the Hebrew Bible and most western Christian translations -- to the end of the book of Joshua, which precedes Judges. In the Mazoretic text, Joshua ends with the death and burial of the priest Eleazar. But the Septuagint adds the following:
  "On that day the children of Israel took the ark of God and carried it about among themselves, and Phinehas held the office of priest in place of Eleazar his father, until he died and was buried in his own place at Gabaath. But each of the children of Israel departed to his own place and to his own city. Then the children of Israel worshipped Astarte and Astaroth of the gods of the nations round about them. So the Lord gave them over into the hands of Eglon the king of Moab, and he ruled over them for 18 years."

This extra passage links the events of Joshua explicitly to the story of Ehud and Eglon in chapter 3 of Judges, but also turns the ending of Joshua – which in the Mazoretic version is a sequence of closure documenting first the death and burial of Joshua, then the reburial of the bones of Joseph and finally the death and burial of Eleazar – into an ominous foreboding of the future.

Joshua, whose devotion to Yahweh (usually translated as the Lord or the Lord God in modern English Bibles) never wavered, had, in his final speech to the Israelites, warned them to destroy the idols of the nations they had conquered and not be tempted by their gods and temples. But, as the history makes clear, these conquered nations were never annihilated, and in Judges the Israelites are swayed over and over again by their gods and temples and rituals. If we view, again, the stories of Judges as a metaphor for the individual struggle, we see that we are continuously tempted by those stray thoughts that have remained in our heads despite our efforts to ignore them. To a dedicated twelve-stepper like myself, this is a familiar concept. Alcoholics sometimes speak of the “itty bitty shitty committee” in their  minds urging them to relapse; Al-Anons and Nar-Anons speak about battling the urges to “rescue” their addicted loved ones.
It should be no big surprise, then, that the worst of the many villains in the book of Judges – at least the one whose evils are most elaborately documented – is not from one of these enemy kingdoms but is in fact the son of one of the greatest judges, Gideon. Abimelech, whose story of villainy is told in chapter 9 of Judges, is one of seventy sons of Gideon, born from Gideon’s relationship with a concubine rather than by one of his many wives (concubines were a sort of second tier wife). After Gideon’s death, Abimelech conspires with his uncles, his mother’s brothers, to kill Gideon’s other sons so that he can take over the Israelite nation.  When they carry out their plan, all of the other sons are killed except the youngest, Jotham, who manages to hide from the murderers.

And while Gideon had refused an explicit request to become king, Abimelech has no qualms about assuming the trappings of power. His reign is one of terror inflicted upon his own people. He demolishes the cities of those who politic against him, sows them with salt, and burns down a tower filled with people who have taken refuge there.
Meanwhile Jotham, the one escapee from the mass murder of Gideon’s sons, goes to the city of Shechem – part of the land given to the tribe of Manassah and later the first capital of the northern kingdom of Israel -- and addresses its population with what is credited as the first parable in the Bible, the Parable of the Trees. In this tale, the trees go looking for a king to reign over them. They first ask the olive tree, known as the most useful of all trees in the Holy Land for its fruit, oil and wood. The olive tree refuses the request, because it has a more important role in the world, of providing riches that are used in rituals that glorify God. The trees then ask the fig, which also refuses because its proper role is to produce its sweet fruit. Third, the trees nominate the vine, which says it should not cease its job of providing wine, “which cheers both God and man.” Finally the trees turn to the bramble, the thorny bush that was the plague of the region’s farmers. The bramble happily accepts the kingship, but even as he assumes the role, he warns of the danger that he will spawn fire that will “devour the cedars of Lebanon.”

The message is clear: Beware of the person who is anxious to rule over you. In the previous generation, Gideon has been a reluctant leader throughout his life; his son Abimelech, by contrast,  plots to take power and then uses that power against his own people. (It might be interesting to ask some of our current presidential candidates – particularly those who blanket themselves in scripture – to comment on this parable).
It may not be inconsequential that the Abimelech of Judges bears the same name as the Philistine with whom Abraham makes a treaty in chapter 21 of Genesis, and who later provides refuge to Isaac and Rebeccah during a famine (this latter story is one of several accounts in Genesis of a man who misrepresents his wife as his sister while in exile). This earlier Abimelech, though a foreigner, behaves honorably toward two of the Hebrew patriarchs.  The later Abimelech, though born within the tribe, is a thorough dirtbag. Going back to my earlier interpretation of these stories as metaphors for our internal struggles, we see that the closer we get to the center, the worse the baggage we must deal with.

To everyone’s relief, Abimelech doesn’t last long. His reign of three years ends when, besieging another tower, a woman drops a piece of a millstone on his head, breaking his skull (as stated before, women are extremely important figures in the book of Judges). The dying Abimelech asks one of his soldiers to kill him off with his sword, so that he doesn’t bear the shameful legacy of having been killed by a woman. As if he needed more shame than the oppression and murder of his own people.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Older Women

In a society whose first commandment from God was to “go forth and multiply,” infertility must have been a dispiriting burden. Even today, when fertility clinics abound and pharmaceuticals can provide considerable hope for women who desire children, the inability to conceive and bear children can have serious psychological consequences: Feelings of guilt for unknown or imagined sins, questioning of self-worth, devaluing of relationships. In ancient Israel, when the only cure for infertility was a miracle, one suspects the effect on women was exponentially worse.
No wonder, then, that the phenomenon of an aging woman – who has long given up hope for motherhood – finding herself unexpectedly pregnant plays such an important role in the biblical narrative. It happens over and over again, with slight variations, beginning with the 90-year-old Sarah, who laughs (understandably) at the suggestion that she will bear a child. Her daughter-in-law Rebecca, Rebecca’s daughter-in-law Rachel, Samson’s unnamed mother, Hannah and Elizabeth all play out the story of the unexpected pregnancy of a long-barren wife.

The recurrence of this narrative strain constitutes what the biblical scholar Robert Alter calls a “type-scene”. These repeated stories show up in different parts of the Bible, affecting different characters, and with differing details; scholars debate why they are such a common convention. There is the story of a romance sparked by a chance meeting at a well – it happens to Jacob and Rachel, it happens to Moses and Zipporah, it happens by proxy to Abraham’s servant – who is off to seek a bride for Abraham’s son Isaac – and Rebeccah. Tantalizingly, it happens to Jesus and the Samaritan woman (at Jacob’s well!) although in that case it is never taken beyond a flirtatious exchange of dialog. Other type-scenes include the wife whose status is misrepresented as that of sister (Sarah, Rebbecah); the captive youth who makes his reputation through interpretation of a ruler’s dreams (Joseph, Daniel); the reluctant leader called to service by God (Moses, Gideon).

But I’m not aware of a motif that occurs as often as the barren wife who gives birth after many years. As identified above, it occurs at least six times in the biblical narrative. Often it is accompanied by an angelic visitation, an annunciation. Inevitably it serves as an introduction to the career of a notable biblical figure.
To varying degrees, the women in this repeated story have been desperate for children. Rachel tells her husband, Jacob, that she will die if she does not conceive. Hannah, overcome with despair, stops eating and weeps incessantly. Sarah turns to her handmaid, Hagar, and enlists her as a surrogate, to bear a child with Abraham that will legally be Sarah’s. That last one, of course, doesn’t turn out so well; Hagar lords her fertility over Sarah and the resulting conflict leads the pregnant maid to run away (an angel turns her back). But the child ultimately bears, Isaac, is favored over his half-brother, Hagar’s son Ishmael (At least in the Judeo-Christian telling. In Islam it is Ishmael who is the key ancestral figure).

Sarah’s granddaughter-in-law Rachel also ends up resorting to the handmaid/surrogate strategy, enlisting her servant Bilhah; the maid in short order produces two sons, Dan and Napthali. And while we don’t hear of any particular conflict between Rachel and Bilhah, we know that there is an intense rivalry between Rachel and her sister-wife Leah, whom Jacob does not love but who is remarkably fertile, bearing him seven children.
Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, also has a fertile sister-wife, Penninah, who, like Leah, is unloved but fertile.

All of these women ultimately conceive and give birth, and all of their offspring are pretty special characters in the biblical narrative: Sarah’s son is Isaac; Rebeccah’s twin sons are Jacob and Esau; Rachel gives birth to Joseph and Benjamin (she dies in childbirth with the latter); the unnamed wife of Manoah mothers the Israelite judge Samson; Hannah’s son is Samuel; and Elizabeth, many generations later, becomes a mother in old age to John the Baptist. That the Greek evangelist Luke chose to repeat this Hebrew story in the New Testament context shows its lasting and cross-cultural power.
These births are miracles, as an unexpected, late-in-life pregnancy must have seemed at the time and still may seem, despite the availability of fertility treatments today. Surely God took special care in the conception of these children. Thus we have angelic annunciations as a common rider to these stories.

The story of Samson, presented in Judges 13-16, is a peculiar combination of Hebrew biblical conventions and Mediterranean demigod conventions. Samson may be the first – and only Jewish – superhero. In his career he slays a lion with his bare hands, defeats an army of a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass as his only weapon, annihilates his enemies (and himself) by pulling down a temple on their heads. Like the Greek Achilles, he appears to be invincible except for one hidden weakness. For Achilles, it was his unprotected heel; for Samson it is the hair that has never been cut.
But his story begins with the familiar Hebrew motif of the barren older woman. Unlike the other older moms, Samson’s mother is never given a name. She is identified as the wife of Manoah, a man from the tribe of Dan living in the Judean city of Zorah. This unfertile woman is visited by an angel who gives her instructions to raise her soon-to-be-born son according to a law laid down in Numbers 6 for men and women who devote a period of their lives to the service of God: No wine or intoxicants, no unclean foods, and “no razor shall come upon his head.” While these rules are voluntary in Numbers, Samson’s mother is commanded to raise her son from birth in this way, “for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb, and he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines.” (the term Nazirite means consecrated or separated). It's a vow that Hannah will later repeat with regard to her son Samuel.

When his wife tells Manoah about her visitation, Manoah asks God to send the angel back to provide more explicit instructions. God does so, and the angel, after sharing the instructions once again, disappears spectacularly in flame, convincing the couple of his supernatural provenance.
Like the other biblical sons of older women, Samson is a powerful figure, but like them – certainly like Jacob -- he is not without flaws. He has a weakness for exotic women, falling in love and demanding in marriage a Philistine woman (“What, you can’t find a nice Jewish girl?” is a paraphrase of his parents’ reaction) and then, of course the famous Delilah, introduced as a harlot from the Philistine city of Gaza. He also seems to get a sexual charge from being tied up, as evidenced in his repeated ruses to get Delilah to do so.

But it’s the hair that ultimately does him in. Is his uncut hair really the source of his strength, or, as one of my students suggested, is it his belief in the source of his power that makes it so? The story of Samson to a large degree follows the conventions of demigod mythology and so one may be justified in suggesting that it really is the uncut hair that gives him his strength. But the story of Samson's conception and birth ties him to the somewhat more naturalistic conventions of biblical narrative. I say somewhat more naturatlistic because, of course, the Bible is full of the supernatural, including the angelic visitations that mark these repeated stories. But Samson -- a fool for love if there ever was one -- also hews to the biblical tradition of characters with recognizably human traits, behavior that ties these ancient stories to our lives today. The girl-crazy he-man, the heartsick older woman yearning for a child -- these are characters that we could and do come across in our lives every day.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Tales From The Dark Side

One of the more tiresome complaints I hear about the Bible from people who don’t know what’s in the Bible is that, “It’s just a bunch of fairy tales.” I have several problems with that statement, beginning with the disparagement of both the Bible and fairy tales.

Many of us consider the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson to be among the giants of world literature. Their stories – and those of countless other “fairy tale” writers and transcribers – are vibrant, powerful shared memories that connect us across time, culture and technology. There’s a reason we pass these stories on from generation to generation, and that artists in other media continue to seek new ways to interpret and portray them for new audiences.
Unquestionably, some of the narrative portions of the Bible resemble fairy tales and other forms of traditional story-telling: The legends, romances, and fables that often began as oral transmissions and only came to be written down later. The reason for that resemblance is that some of these Bible stories undoubtedly began in just the same way. The Biblical authors – like the Grimms – were documenting for future generations the stories their kinfolk and fellow tribesmen had passed down to them.

That doesn’t discount the worth of the Bible stories any more than it discounts the work of other fairy tale scribes.  The term “just fairy tales” implies a lack of value that doesn’t bear out under any level of scrutiny.

Moreover, characterization of the Bible as “just” anything is ridiculously wrong-headed. To my knowledge, world literature contains no other collection of comparable complexity or inclusiveness. The contents of the Bible range from these folk tales to the complex moral and philosophical writings of the Prophets, Paul and James, encompassing the elegiac reflections of Ecclesiastes, the poetry of the Psalms, the political history of Chronicles, the aphorisms of the Proverbs, the stunning psychological portrait of King David in Samuel and much more.
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately re-reading and examining the books that have in the last century come to be known as the “Deuteronomistic History”: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges,  Samuel and Kings.

Even within this small portion of the Bible, which may have been written  by a single author (the Biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman has posited that that writer is the prophet Jeremiah), the breadth and diversity of topics and treatments are astonishing. Apparently written in a time of great turmoil, when the northern kingdom of Israel had been overrun by the Assyrians and the southern kingdom of Judah was under threat of annihilation by Babylon, the books collectively portray a society rife with conflict and confusion, uncertain whether to put their faith in the supreme god Yahweh or to spread their bets among a pantheon of traditional middle eastern deities. The Jews of the Deuteronomistic history are at war with enemies external and internal – and the internal enemies include both their neighbors and themselves.  The strongest enemies of all are their own psyches, struggling to find meaning in this war-torn landscape.
The history begins majestically, with the long, valedictory address of Moses to his people. This greatest of Biblical figures has been denied the triumphant climax to his career – entry into the Promised Land -- because he failed to follow an explicit instruction from God. Told to bring forth water from rocks for his thirsty people with words, Moses instead struck the rocks with his staff, twice. As a result, he is allowed a brief view of the Promised Land from just outside its borders, but is forbidden to go further and dies in the mountains to the east.
The Israelites are led across the Jordan and into Canaan by his hand-picked successor, Joshua, whose eponymous book can be read as a model of effective project management. Joshua never takes his eyes off the prize – in Biblical terms he looks neither to the right nor the left – and as a result, the conquest of the Promised Land proceeds from success to success, with one brief interlude of failure when one of his followers steals and hides for personal gain bounty that should have been part of a collective sacrifice. But while triumphant, Joshua is incomplete in his victories. At the end, the Israelites dwell ominously in a land peppered with enemy tribes: The Canaanites, Moabites, Midianites, Ammonites and more.
And after Joshua’s demise, things go sour quickly. The books of Judges, Samuel and Kings constitute a roller-coaster ride through a history that careens back and forth repeatedly from spectacular triumph to unimaginable disaster, giving us along the way some of the most memorable heroes and villains in the historical record: Gideon, Deborah, Samson, Delilah, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Ahab, Jezebel, Saul, Goliath, David, Absalom, and Solomon, to name just a few. These are the characters we learn about in Sunday School, but too often our training doesn’t put these stories together in a way that illustrates the wild ride of the Jewish people during this remarkable period.
Other writers of the time addressed the same tumultuous history that is the focus of the Deuteronomist’s account, perhaps none more poignantly than the prophet Hosea. A resident of the northern kingdom, who apparently lived and wrote about 100 years before the Deuteronomist, Hosea fell – madly, head over heels – in love with a prostitute, Gomer. His feelings for Gomer were so strong that he experienced them as a message from God. But Gomer, though she agreed to marry Hosea and bore three children by him, was drawn back to her earlier life. When she left Hosea and her children, he chased after her and purchased her back, unwilling to give up the great love of his life. (The writer Karen Armstrong believes that Gomer was a cult prostitute in a temple of Baal, the mighty Canaanite god, but I think the Biblical evidence for this is questionable). In his writings, Hosea sees his history with Gomer as a metaphor for the Israelite people, torn between worship of Yahweh and worship of pagan gods. Like Hosea, Yahweh is powered by love for these faithless people. Over and over, he forgives them and welcomes them back. But like Gomer, the Israelites can’t stay away from the temptations offered by the pagan pantheon.
Hosea compressed the history of the Israelites into a single story of a faithful man and his faithless wife. The Deuteronomist takes a more leisurely approach,  telling the story through a thousand years of history and incorporating a host of stories that may have circulated among the various tribes of Israel throughout the generations.
Nowhere is the Deuteronomistic history more obviously a collection of stories than in the book of Judges. The eight major stories and several minor ones that constitute this collection are linked in only a rudimentary way to each other. Essentially, the author tells a story, says that its hero or heroine dies, says that the land was at peace (or not) during the central figure’s time, and then talks about the people backsliding before the next hero emerges. Thus Caleb gives way to Othniel gives way to Ehud gives way to Gideon, etc.
The story of Samson, probably the most familiar of the Judges tales thanks for Cecil B. DeMille, resembles a Greek or Roman myth. Samson is a Hercules-like figure of superhuman strength, killing a lion with his bare hands. But like Achilles, he has a weak spot: If his hair is cut, he will lose his strength. Enter Delilah and the tragic conclusion in which the weakened Samson is put in chains before he regains the strength to bring down the palace on both himself and his captors.
Many people are familiar to some extent as well with the story of Gideon and the fleece, but many of the stories in Judges get left out of Sunday School class and with good reason: These are some of the most disturbing stories you will ever read, rife with human sacrifice, rape, torture, and violent murder.
At least one story – that of Ehud – is a comically scatological tale that might have survived because it held the attention of teenaged boys over the generations. The Israelites are under the thumb of a Moabite king, a hugely fat ruler named Eglon. Ehud, who is described as ambidextrous, gains a private audience with Eglon and – having hid a dagger under his clothing against his right thigh – manages to stab the king to death, the dagger disappearing in Eglon’s folds of fat, so that Ehud cannot remove it. As sometimes happens at the point of death, Eglon has a bowel movement – “the dirt came out,” in the words of the King James translators. Ehud then sneaks out a back door. Meanwhile Eglon’s guards notice the foul smell and joke crudely that the king is really stinking up the place ("Whew! Smells like something died in there," you can almost hear them saying), before getting worried after a period of time passes with no activity and opening the door to find their slain ruler. Ehud’s murder ushers in an era of peace for the Israelites, with the usual backsliding after his death. All in all, a story worthy of a summer frat-boy movie.
In other parts of Judges, women are key figures, In a way they rarely are in the Bible. Deborah, for example, is not only a prophetess who serves as a Judge, but a warrior heroine whose battlefield victories against Canaanite foes are punctuated and sealed by the actions of yet another fierce woman, Jael, who lures the Canaanite general Sisera into her tent, lulls him to sleep and then drives a tent spike into his forehead.

Other women, though central to the stories of Judges, are not so lucky in their fates. Jephthah, a later judge who is introduced as the son of a harlot, has a beloved daughter who is his only child. In the heat of battle, Jephthah promises Yahweh that if he is allowed to be victorious and return home, he will sacrifice to Yahweh the first living thing he sees when he enters his front yard. Upon his arrival home, that first thing turns out to be the daughter who has run out to greet him. At her request, Jephthah allows her to go off for two months with her girlfriends to bewail her virginity, but when she returns home he carries out the promised sacrifice.
And in perhaps the most disturbing story in all of the Bible, a woman who is a concubine (concubines being a sort of second-tier wife) to an unnamed Levite, runs away from her husband and returns home to her father. The Levite goes after her, spends several days in the father’s house, and in an undescribed way regains his concubine. On the way home, they stop in the city of Gibeah in the land of the Benjaminite tribe and are offered a bed for the night in the home of a hospitable old man. In an echo of the Genesis story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the locals turn up at the door and demand the Levite be turned out so they can gang-rape him.
Like Lot in the earlier story, the old man offers women -- his daughter and the concubine -- as alternatives to the rapists, and in this story the concubine ends up being handed over to them. After a horrific night, the concubine crawls back to the door in the morning and dies at her husband’s feet. The husband takes her body home, cuts it into pieces and sends a piece to each of the Israelite tribes with the exception of the Benjaminites, sparking a war between the Benjaminites and the other tribes of Israel.
If these horrifying stories have a moral purpose, it is hard to discern. I could come up with something in each case, but, frankly, the morals would be baloney. As far as I can tell, these stories are the tabloid shockers of their day, and I suspect they were retold in the ancient culture in just the same way the Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson murders are recounted at backyard barbecues today. They are told over and over again for the sheer shock value. Eventually, the Deuteronomist collected and assembled them, linking them together in a quasi-historical way as part of the shared history of his culture.
Cautionary tales? Maybe, in part. Certainly Jephtah and his daughter could be a warning not to make solemn oaths without thinking through the possible consequences. Or maybe just a collection of stories, the Hollywood Babylon or Urban Legends of their day.
But given conditions in the Holy Land at the time they were assembled into book form, I think they serve as a portrait of a culture struggling to understand how it found itself in its current condition. What horrors had we perpetrated to justify this onslaught from all sides, you can almost hear the writer asking. Shocking, and shockingly well told, the stories of Judges survive as artifacts of an ancient culture in much the way that the stories of the Brothers Grimm tell us about the psyches of central Europeans on the cusp of the modern age. And our world is richer for it.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Wondrous Book of James

Being forced to select one book of the Bible as one’s favorite would be a sad task, but if I had to do it, I would almost certainly pick the Epistle of James. This brief essay – just five chapters, presented as a letter to Christianized Jews – encapsulates for me the moral lessons of the Bible in a way that no other does.

James is at once one of the simplest and one of the most challenging books of the Bible. It is challenging because of its simplicity, its directness. He tells us to have unwavering faith, to express that faith through good works, to love without judgment all of humanity, to hold our tongues, to care for the poor and the oppressed.

James is the gentlest of preachers, a soothing voice whose tone matches his lesson of peace. There’s a brief passage near the end where he exhorts against the rich leading lives of luxury and self-indulgence while cheating the poor and hoarding worldly, ephemeral treasure, but it’s like a quick shout to wake us up, after which he returns to counseling patience and kindness in the face of life's challenges.

Because James is so beautifully composed, it’s tempting just to quote one passage after another. After all, no essay about James could present his thoughts more clearly and powerfully than he does himself.

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning,” James writes in the first chapter of his letter. He goes on: “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath, for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of love.”

There are passages of other books that have a comparable beauty – in particular, Paul’s astonishing discourse on love in I Corinthians 13 – but I don’t think that any of the other biblical writers sustained such a powerful expression of love throughout an entire work.

A born-again Christian friend of mine once described the book of James as “rules for living.” I think she is exactly right. I find myself turning to James when I’m vexed about things, when my head is in a bad place, when I’ve had enough. And reading James never fails to calm me down, to provide the loving perspective I need.

More than anything, James is about living with integrity. He tells us to act in ways that align with our beliefs about what is good and right.

“ Who among you is wise and understanding? Then let him show it by good conduct and works he does with gentleness that comes of wisdom.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, this simple message about how to live a good life has generated a fair amount of controversy over the millennia. It was only slowly accepted into what became the New Testament canon as it was codified in the early centuries of the Christian era, perhaps because it mentions Jesus only peripherally. Centuries later, Martin Luther wanted to strike the book of James from the Bible, calling it an “epistle of straw,” with little to offer readers. James also insists on the importance of doing good works in a way that clashes with Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Luther’s doctrine derives from Paul, who in chapter 3 of his letter to the Romans tells us that, “we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” Paul was speaking, of course, about the Jewish law, particularly the dietary restrictions and insistence on circumcision that became barriers to conversion when Christianity spread from Jewish communities to the gentile ones that were Paul’s audience.

In the book of Acts and in some of Paul’s writings, we are told of the conflict between the traveling evangelist Paul, on the one hand, and Jerusalem-based James and Peter, who believed that Christian converts must follow Jewish law as set forth in the Torah. Paul’s flexibility on matters of Jewish law is quite likely a major factor in allowing the rapid spread of Christianity in Europe. It’s doubtful that pagan men would have lined up en masse to be circumcised; the promise of eternal life is a much more attractive message for a proselytizer.

Ironically, Paul’s message that faith, rather than obedience to Jewish law, is the key to salvation -- which was an effort to be inclusive, to make Christianity a universal faith -- has in recent times become its own barrier in those Christian communities that contend it is impossible to “get to heaven” other than through a particular strain of Christian belief.

And if the James of Acts is a stickler for Jewish law, the James of the epistle is bound only by the concepts of truth and integrity.

Who was this James? The most common belief is that he is a brother of Jesus, indeed the brother who became the first bishop of Jerusalem (those who believe that Mary was “ever virgin” call him a kinsman – perhaps a half-brother or cousin). There are two other Jameses in the Gospels – the son of Alphaeus and the son of Zebedee – but they usually are not considered strong candidates for authorship, because the author introduces himself as a “slave” of God and of Jesus, not as a disciple. Of course, there is always the possibility that the introductory attribution of the book is a later addition, designed to give its message more credibility as scripture.

Bottom line is we don’t know exactly who this author was. The text doesn’t really give us any clues other than that the author was knowledgeable of the Hebrew Bible, was apparently addressing an audience of Jews, and wrote beautifully in the Greek language. The name James is an Anglicization of the Hebrew name Yaakov (Jacob), a common name then as now, among Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews as well as in the Holy Land. So it’s probably best to just be grateful that whoever thought these thoughts had the will and the wisdom to write them down, and that others found them sufficiently worthy to preserve.

I won’t say a lot more about James. If you have a few minutes to read, read James’ words rather than mine. But of course, I’ll close with another passage, one that is at the heart of the controversy over James, but also at the heart of James’ beauty and lasting value:

“What good is it, my brothers, if you say that you have faith but have no works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked, short of daily food, and one of you says, ‘Go in peace. Keep warm and eat,’ but you give nothing for the body’s needs, what good is it? So even faith, if by itself and not backed up by works, is dead. Someone will say: ‘You have the faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from works and I will show you from my works my faith. You do believe that God is one, and you do well. As it reads in Deuteronomy: Even demons believe and shudder. O hollow man, are you prepared to know that faith alone, without the works, is barren?”

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Lines In The Sand

Following the fast-paced and stirring narrative of the first half of Exodus, which gives us the familiar story of Moses and the flight of the Israelites from Egypt, the Torah changes pace and tone. The next three-and-a-half books, which constitute the balance of the story of Moses and his followers, alternate between narrative episodes and long, detailed expositions of the Law.

I’ve been wrestling for the past month or so with how I want to discuss the Law with my Bible study class. I read A.J. Jacob’s funny, surprisingly spiritual memoir, The Year of Living Biblically; I moved on to Karen Armstrong’s study of fundamentalism, The Battle for God; I dug into archaeological studies and literary analyses; I dipped a toe into Spinoza and Teresa of Avila; most of all, I pored over the legal passages of the Torah, taking notes and pondering the implications. And I’m not really any closer to a coherent approach than I was when I started thinking about it.

People have been interpreting the Law, arguing about it, trying to follow it, questioning it, going to war over it for more than 3,000 years; I’m unlikely to come up with anything new. I have learned a lot about biblical history and varying interpretations of the Law, but what I face my class with is a collection of topics rather than a single story.

That’s okay, I think. The Law as documented in the Torah is such a vast and varied set of affirmations and strictures, covering everything from ritual sacrifice to sexual behavior to skin disease to inheritance of property, that a coherent summary might be more problematic than my scattershot approach. Well, there’s self-justification for you.

Among the many, many things that it is, the Tanakh is the story of how the Jewish nation came to be. The Law is, of course, central to that, defining in extraordinary detail what it means to be a member of this community and what sets Jews apart from their neighbors and non-Jewish kin. Presented as it is, interwoven with the narrative of the Israelites wanderings in the desert, we can see the Law as the ”lines in the sand” that define the boundaries of Judaism in terms of behavior and belief.

It’s a brilliant construction. The Jews lay down their lines in the sand literally and literarily through the final 3-1/2 books of the Torah. As they make their errant way toward the promised land -- the property that God has promised to them -- they learn the regulations of propriety that will secure their physical and spiritual nationhood. Anyone who doubts the place of the Bible in the canon of great literature need only ponder the sophistication with which this story is presented – the way the narrative strain etches physical lines across the Levant landscape while the legalistic strain etches moral boundaries – to understand the high level of artistry in this text.

Funny thing about that expression, “line in the sand.” We generally use it to designate an absolute boundary, a limit beyond which we will not go. But, in reality, is there anything more impermanent than a line traced in the sand? Winds, water, the shuffling of subsequent feet, all act to muddle the line that has been demarcated; the line may shift, widen or disappear under even minor external pressure.

That, of course, makes it a perfect metaphor for the Law. There is arguably nothing that has caused more strife, internal and interpersonal, than the question of where the boundaries of the law reside. Which laws do we need to observe today? Which are timeless, and which are time-bound? Should they be interpreted literally or do they contain a deeper meaning that can only be understood through probing, questioning exploration?

Although the first ten commandments have been privileged in western culture, the Torah’s list of rule by no means stops with them. The traditional number of commandments, or Mitzvot, recognized in Judaism is 613 (for a concise list of them, see A.J. Jacobs, who took a more expansive approach to the Law in The Year of Living Biblically – looking beyond the Torah to the rest of the Tanakh and even the New Testament – came up with more than 700 that he attempted to follow for a year.

Among the things I learned from Jacobs was the term “cafeteria Christianity”, a derisive label used by some fundamentalist Christians to describe those whom they see as selective about which of the biblical laws they attempt to adhere to. At the end of his book, having spent time with fundamentalists and more liberal believers, both Christian and Jewish, Jacobs makes the – I think accurate – observation that, “everyone practices cafeteria religion. It’s not just moderates. Fundamentalists do it too. Otherwise they’d kick women out of church for saying hello.”

Although Jacobs’ efforts to follow biblical law are a stunt designed to generate a best-selling memoir in the vein of his earlier book that focused on an attempt to read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, Jacobs found himself surprised by the spirituality that emerged as he became more conscious of his behavior and its consequences. Even the most puzzling of laws – an early one he deals with is the stricture against wearing clothes made of more than one kind of fiber – forced him to confront himself, his preconceptions, his wilfullness, his snarkiness. At the end of the year, he found himself a more thoughtful, tolerant person, and bit reluctant to loosen up his behavior.

He says this about picking and choosing amongst the biblical laws: “Cafeterias aren’t bad per se. I’ve had some great meals at cafeterias. I’ve also had some turkey tetrazzini that gave me the dry heaves for sixteen hours. The key is in choosing the right dishes. You need to pick the nurturing ones (compassion), the healthy ones (love thy neighbor), not the bitter ones.”

I think everything Jacobs says here is right. We all cherry-pick the Bible, whether in reading the Law or the stories, focusing on the things that support our own beliefs and conceptions. The Bible has often been used as a weapon, a blunt object with which to beat on opponents, and no part of the Bible is more easily weaponized than the Law. I am guilty of it; so, most likely, are you.

As much as I love exploring this amazing text, I know that I am much more likely to focus on something like the Sermon on the Plain or the Antitheses or the story of Ruth, which I find support my political and moral views, than I am on the apocalyptic Olivet discourse. I may find it troubling that others focus on the prohibition of homosexual behavior but don’t call for the public stoning of those who choose to wear cotton-polyester blends, but in essence we are doing the same thing. I like to think that I’m cherry-picking those things that stress inclusion and love, as opposed to exclusion and hate, but so be it.

In terms of the Law as defined in the Torah, I smile each time I read about leaving the grain at the edges of the field for the poor, or welcoming and comforting strangers; I want to rush past the passages that place restrictions on the diseased and the maimed. I may find it troubling that others focus on the prohibition of homosexual behavior but don’t call for the public stoning of those who choose to wear cotton-polyester blends, but in essence we are doing the same thing. I like to think that I’m cherry-picking those things that stress inclusion and love, as opposed to exclusion and hate, but so be it.

But it’s important to understand, I think, that even some of the Laws that seem harsh to us today may have advanced compassion and humane behavior in their time. Exodus 21:23, for example, gives us the famous formulation, “And if there is a mishap, you shall pay a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise.” Tit for tat. But, of course, what this law does is put limits on retribution – taking an eye for an eye also means that one cannot take a life for an eye, or an entire city worth of lives in retribution for one life. If one compares this law to the vengeance that Simeon and Levi took on an entire city over the rape of their sister Dinah, on e can see it as perhaps a necessary setting of bounds (of course, this interpretation doesn’t do much to explain the various slaughters that take place with God’s apparent asset later in the Bible, but that goes back to that shifting sands thing).

The laws of the Torah include things that almost everyone can agree on – “Thou shalt not kill” seems like one of these, although, again, God seems not to mind taking some liberties with that when it’s convenient – and some that make almost no sense to us today, such as the many regulations around animal sacrifice, or the fact that it’s forbidden for a farmer to plant two kinds of seed in one field. But whether they adhere to our contemporary common sense or not, all of the laws serve to set boundaries, to define what is allowed and what is not, what is good and what is not.

The British scholar and author Karen Armstrong, in The Battle for God, suggests that the Bible’s documentation of the law – which historically almost certainly did not happen in the time of Moses but during the decline of the southern kingdom or even during the Babylonian captivity – was a “response to the dislocation of exile … the text of the Law had become a new ‘shrine’ in which the displaced people cultivated a sense of the Divine Presence. The codification of the world into clean and unclean, sacred and profane objects, had been an imaginative reordering of a shattered world.”

I know that many, many people believe that biblical law was handed down from God to Moses, just as described in Exodus. My own belief is that biblical law is a searching, heartfelt attempt by humans to define what God would want them to do, to set down an ideal of human behavior as well as to describe a set of rituals that might help them move closer to that ideal. Although at their best and most inspired, the laws are timeless and transcendent, they are often not at their best and most inspired. Many are time- and culture-bound.

I often say that one needs to read the Bible at multiple levels: Historical, Cultural, Ethical, Spiritual. Reading at any one level distorts the meaning. This is nowhere more true than in the documentation of the Law.

The lines in the sand that these early Jews set down have been blown around, distorted, trod upon, hidden, exposed and reformed for 3,000-plus years. The history of Judaism, that most intellectually challenging of faiths, is one of probing, digging, teasing, challenging, questioning the law in order to expose deeper and more eternal truths. The Bible is not a closed book designed to be thumped on and used as a weapon; it is an open-ended text, inexhaustibly rich in meaning, but dense and defying of an easy understanding. It’s worth the challenge of wrestling with it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Library of Questions

Timothy Beal, a Bible scholar and professor at Case Western Reserve University, has written a fine article in the Huffington Post on the extraordinary complexity of the Bible, as well as the problem of those who insist on a literal reading of the text yet seem to have little comprehension of its inconsistencies and multiple points of view.

To provide an example, Beal focuses on the creation, two versions of which are familiar stories to most of us: Chapter 1 of Genesis, in which God generates the universe through speech, and Chapter 2, in which he is a hands-on craftsman, planting a garden and fashioning animal life, including Adam and Eve, with his hands. Beal points out a number of other brief creation stories, in Job and in at least two Psalms.

Acknowledging and exploring these contradictions, he argues, is at the heart of a real understanding of the Bible and its importance:
"The Bible canonizes contradiction. It holds together a tense diversity of perspectives and voices, difference and argument -- even and especially when it comes to the profoundest questions of faith, questions that inevitably outlive all their answers.
"The Bible is not a book of answers but a library of questions. As such it opens up space for us to explore different voices and perspectives, to discuss, to disagree and, above all, to think. Too often, however, that's not what happens."
Most of us were introduced to the Bible as young children. We were told stories that match the general outline of biblical narrative, but which often leave out "adult" details that make the stories compelling, and relevant to our lives today. We learned about Jacob sleeping on a stone pillow and having the vision of the ladder to heaven, and about Joseph and his coat of many colors, and about Moses leading the Hebrews across the Red Sea to freedom, but not until much later in our lives -- if ever -- did we know about the psychologically complex characters who populate these stories, their motivations, fears, jealousies, mistakes and triumphs over, in most cases, their own weaknesses of character.

For many people, it seems, a child's version of the Bible suffices. And if this provides them sustenance and hope, I'm somewhat okay with that. But to limit one's vision in this way is to deny oneself the richness and challenge of the complete story. And I fear that failing to understand -- or at least acknowledge -- the complexity and contradiction in the Bible is one of those things that leads to intolerance and a general misunderstanding of what the Bible tells us about our relationship with God and with each other.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Power Plays and Pity Parties

Although Exodus begins in the fertile Nile Delta, where the land has been made rich by flowing water, we sense immediately a drought of sorts. It’s a spiritual drought, marked by the absence of God, who has been off the scene since the Israelites Egyptian adventure began back in Genesis. God, who was directly present up through his wrestling match with Jacob, has kept quiet throughout the Joseph story and now, through the Egyptian captivity. In the final chapters of Genesis and the first two chapters of Exodus, we get a sparse reference here and there to God, but no intervention by God.

Finally, at the end of Exodus 2 we learn that, “The children of Israel groaned because of their labors and cried out; and their cry came up to God because of the labors. So God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Then God looked down upon the children of Israel and was made known to them.”

Really? It’s as if God’s attention had been diverted elsewhere for the past several hundred years. What was He doing? Maybe trying out that creation thing on another, far away planet to see if He could get it right? We’re not told, but all in all, it’s a rather strange passage, suggesting that the covenant had somehow slipped God’s mind all these years.

That changes in a spectacular way in chapter 3, when God makes a physical reappearance, not to the enslaved Israelites but to Moses, who is off in Midian working as a shepherd for his father-in-law, Jethro (who was briefly introduced as Reuel before being renamed). Although in previous appearances – walking in the garden where the evening breeze cooled his skin, visiting Abraham in his tent, wrestling with Jacob over a long, troubled night – God seemed to take a human form, this time he appears in the famous burning bush. Actually, we are told (at least in translation) that an angel of God appeared, but then it is God’s voice that speaks to Moses.

It is interesting that in a story dominated by the element of water, God takes a form that may in some ways be considered the opposite of water. And since fire can be quenched by water, it’s not necessarily a superior element. In some ways that sets the tone for the subsequent chapters, where God seems to be impressive but not all-powerful in the eyes of those who witness his appearances and his actions. What we see is a God struggling to assert his authority.

Moses is afraid to look at the sight – all in all, a sensible reaction when confronted with a fiery, talking plant – but not afraid to argue with the instructions that emanate from the vision. Moses repeatedly questions God’s order that he return to Egypt to rescue His people, reiterating that He became aware of their suffering when He heard their cries. Famously, Moses argues that he is “weak in speech and slow of tongue,” leading many generations of biblical scholars to speculate that he had a speech impediment. If so, that handicap doesn’t stop him from spending the rest of his career delivering long speeches.

Moreover, Moses says, why should either the Israelites or the Pharaoh listen to Moses? It’s a reasonable question, compounded by the fact that at this point in the story, we haven’t even been told that Moses knew his own heritage. As readers, we know that Moses was the child of a slave from the tribe of Levi, but does Moses know this? He was nursed by his birth mother, but later raised in Pharaoh’s court by his adoptive mother. God tells him that Aaron the Levite, his brother, will speak for him, and it’s said in a way that suggests Moses knows Aaron, but when and how did he learn that Aaron is his brother?

Omissions like this have inspired scholars – the rabbis of the Midrash,as well as Josephus, Philo and many others – to attempt to fill in the gaps. Perhaps the most famous of the retellers, Cecil B. DeMille, acknowledges these sources in the opening credits of his film, The Ten Commandments, which, among other things, includes an elaborate episode in which Moses’ true parentage is revealed to him on the night of the first Passover when both his birth mother and his adoptive mother show up. In fact, the first couple hours of the film are based almost entirely on elaborations external to the Bible, including Moses’ return from a military campaign in Ethiopia (in one ancient story, Moses actually reigns as king of Ethiopia after fleeing Egypt and before heading off to Midian) and the sinister plotting of his rival Dathan, who in the Bible itself only appears in Numbers 16 when he leads a rebellion against Moses and is swallowed up by the ground, but who in DeMille’s version, as well as some Midrashic writings, is the witness to Moses’ murder of the Egyptian. DeMille also portrays Dathan, in the form of Edward G. Robinson, fixated on the nubile girlfriend (Debra Paget) of young Joshua, nubile girlfriends of biblical figures being an important fixture in DeMille’s oeuvre.

It takes a couple of miracles – transforming Moses’ shepherd’s staff into a snake and back, turning Moses’ hand white with disease – as well as the promise of Aaron as a mouthpiece before Moses is convinced to take on God’s mission, but then he travels back to Egypt with his wife and sons. Along the way comes another strange, mystifying encounter with God, in which He appears, presumably in human form, to try to kill Moses, the man he has just appointed as his messenger. He is stopped from his deadly mission only when Mrs. Moses, Zipporah, performs an impromptu circumcision of one of her sons – with a sharp stone! -- and flings the bloody foreskin at God’s feet (many interpreters suggest that “feet” is used here, as elsewhere in the Bible, as a euphemism for the genitals). That episode, ignored by DeMille and by most retellers of the Moses story, has been argued over for three millennia, with no consensus on what prompted God’s murderous impulse.

Back in Egypt, Moses connects with Aaron and the two proceed to meet with a very accessible Pharaoh. Was Pharaoh so available to Moses because they were raised together? It seems likely, but is never addressed directly, and anyway, Pharaoh seems also to be directly accessible to the slave overseers when they come to complain about their hardships.

Thus we enter into the story of the ten plagues, where God’s spectacular series of natural disasters is met not with awe and submission, but with resistance and prevarication. When Aaron repeats the miracle God first taught Moses, of turning a rod into a snake, Pharaoh’s magicians easily replicate the transformation with their own sticks. They do the same with the first two plagues, turning water to blood and causing frogs to spring from the water, only getting stumped by the third plague, variously called an infestation of lice or mosquitoes.

The Israelites, for their part, are just as resistant to Moses as Moses had predicted they would be. And Pharaoh’s hard-headedness is epic. I love his reaction to Moses’ first exhortation to “Let my people go.” The Egyptian god-king is defiant, and seems to be insulted that Moses would suggest there is a power greater than his own: “Who is He, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the lord, nor will I let the people go.” The words are spoken with peerless arrogance by Yul Brynner in DeMille’s film, and they resonate because they seem such an appropriate reaction from a figure who has been raised to believe he is the supreme power. I never ceased to be amazed at the Bible’s spot-on depictions of human attitudes and reactions: These stories, set thousands of years ago, show us people whose behavior we might encounter on any given day. Hosni Mubarak’s reaction to the protests of the Egyptian people is, after all, not that far removed from Pharaoh’s reactions to Moses and to God’s plagues.

The entire episode of the plagues is presented as a power play between God and Pharaoh, a clash of the titans. Each time God ups the ante with a new horror, Pharaoh suggests he will comply with God’s wishes, but then either tries to negotiate terms or simply changes his mind before the Israelites can make their way out out of Egypt. Even after the final plague, when all of the Egyptian first-born, including Pharaoh’s son, are killed, Pharaoh’s submission is only temporary. He allows the Israelites to leave, but then sends an army after them, leading to the astonishing parting of the sea to provide safe passage for the Israelites and sudden death to the pursuing troops.

If Pharaoh’s arrogance becomes predictable and tiresome after a while, so does the complaining of the Israelites. Despite their delivery from servitude, it’s seemingly a matter of only hours before they start asking what God has done for them lately. Over and over again, God provides sustenance – water from a rock, manna from heaven, multitudes of birds for roasting – and over and over again, the Israelites keep up their complaints and rebellions. Their self-pity and ingratitude are, again, recognizably human traits that help to connect us three millennia later to the story. Gratitude is a notoriously short-lived feeling for many of us, something we have to work at sustaining beyond the immediate circumstances that inspire it.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about the efforts of archaeologists to unearth evidence of the Egyptian captivity and the Exodus. There is precious little to suggest that either occurred in anything like the form described in the Bible. That’s fine with me. It doesn’t detract from the importance of the Moses story, which lies not in history or in the recounting of miracles, but in the very human ways that the characters respond to their circumstances, questioning and challenging even the most persuasive evidence, changing their minds with lightning speed, forgetting the goodness that has been visited upon them, focusing their thoughts not on the events surrounding them but on their own delusions of power and entitlement. It’s not the magic of an unearthly God that connects us to Exodus, it’s the fact that God’s creations haven’t changed at all in the ensuing time.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Water, Water Everywhere

When did God create water?

That’s kind of a trick question. If you read the creation story in Genesis 1, it seems water was already in existence when God began his six days of work: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”

Water appears to be a precursor to the creation of life, a necessary condition, just as the scientists tell us.

In the second creation narrative, the one attributed to the author J, in Genesis 2, water also appears to be sort of already there – at least it’s not made clear that water was ever “created”. We are told that “the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground. But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.” In other translations, it’s called a spring or a fountain, but in any case we see water bubbling up from the ground to sustain life.

We are told that a river runs through the garden, branching into four as it leaves – the well-known Tigris and Euphrates of Central Asia, and two others, the Pishon and Gihon, about which scholars have puzzled and argued for millennia.

The power of water to both sustain and to destroy life flows as a theme throughout the Bible, most dramatically in the stories of the Flood and the Exodus.

Both the Flood narrative and the Exodus narrative begin with portraits of fertility. In the former we are told that God’s original creatures have propogated according to instructions. Chapter 6 of Genesis begins, “Now it came to pass that men began to exist in great numbers on the earth, and daughters were born to them.” How daughters were born to men is not elaborated upon, but we are immediately plunged into an even stranger narrative stream: “So when the sons of God saw the daughters of men were beautiful, they took wives for themselves of all they chose.” Sons of God? Hmmm. Did John the Evangelist not know about this passage when he called Jesus the “only begotten” son of God? Who were these other sons? Who were their mothers?

It gets stranger. God reacts to all of the breeding by limiting the life of the offspring to 120 years. But the Bible goes on to tell us: “There were giants [Nephilim is the Hebrew word, and it may not translate exactly to “giants” but that’s how the King James translators saw it] on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men of old, men of renown.” Damn. I didn’t learn about those giants in Sunday school, nor was I taught about these sons of Gods jumping human girls.

People have been puzzling about this little episode for millennia, and I’m not going to be able to solve the mystery now, but I note it as one of those inconvenient passages in the Bible that can throw conventional notions of its narrative way off course.

At any rate, we are told that God saw that these humans were wicked: “every intent of the thoughts within his [man’s] heart was only evil continually.” And, as we know, he decided to destroy His creatures, with the exception of Noah, who “found grace in the presence of the Lord God.” We had been introduced to Noah in the genealogy of Chapter 5; he is a tenth-generation descendant of Adam.

The story of Noah, the ark, and the great flood follow this odd prelude.

Last year, when I taught my church class about Genesis, I skipped over the story of the Flood, not because I didn’t think it was interesting – in fact, I find the story of God’s regret to be one of the most fascinating episodes of the Bible -- but because I was eager to get on to the patriarchs, especially Jacob, whose wrestling match with God I saw as an overarching image of the Biblical narrative as a whole.

For now, let’s note that God’s chosen vehicle for destruction is water, that primal substance that, according to the narrative, was already there when He began the work of creation.

I want to compare that tale of mad procreation in Genesis to the opening of Exodus, where we read about the progeny of Jacob in Egypt. We read in Exodus 1 that, after Joseph’s death, “Then the children of Israel [the new name God had given Jacob after the wrestling match came to a draw] increased and multiplied, and became numerous, and grew exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them.”

These fertile humans came to the attention not of God, but of the Egyptian god-king whose land they were evidently overrunning. Now this was not the pharaoh who took such good care of Joseph, but evidently his son – at least it’s a “new king over Egypt.”

Like God in Genesis 6, the god-king of Exodus 1 decides he can’t tolerate the situation. He first enslaves the Israelites, then decides to kill off their male children. Failing to secure the cooperation of the Hebrew midwives (we are told there are only two to service the astonishingly fertile Israelite population – no wonder they didn’t have time to pay attention to Pharaohs’ command! Actually, we are told the midwives refused to obey the god-king’s command because they feared God, and that God took care of them – “dealt well” with them, the Bible says – as a result. It’s the only time God is mentioned in the first few chapters of Exodus, until he makes his spectacular return in the burning bush.), so the king enlists the entire Egyptian population in the task of throwing male babies into the river.

For the second time, water becomes the means of destruction. This time it’s more selective, but the power of water as both life-giver and life-taker continues its strong presence in Exodus. As we all know, the Hebrew baby Moses is put into an ark (in another echo of the Noah story, the same word is used to describe both vessels, despite an enormous difference in scale) and set into the water by his mother. And as Noah was saved by his refuge in the ark, so is Moses saved when he is rescued by the maids of Pharaoh’s daughter. By extension, the entire Israelite population is saved by this second ark, since Moses’ survival ensures their own.

Through a clever subterfuge engineered by Moses’ sister, the baby’s birth mother becomes his wet nurse and the child survives to be raised as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter. The Bible tells us that it is his Egyptian adoptive mother who gives him the name Moses, for an oddly Hebrew reason: “Because I drew him out of the water.” Scholars tell us that an etymological link between the name Moses and the act of drawing someone from the water would indicate that Pharaoh’s daughter was familiar with the Hebrew verb “mashah”, which means just that. Are we to understand that this young woman was fluent in Hebrew? Since Moses is a well-known Egyptian name meaning “birth”, isn’t it more likely that she gave him his name for purely Egyptian reasons? Many scholars have pondered this, but the Bible says what it says. Just another one of those mysteries that keeps the academic world busy.

The astonishing economy of Biblical narrative allows Moses to grow up in the Egyptian court; murder an Egyptian whom he sees abusing a Hebrew slav;, flee the country; take refuge with a Midianite priest; marry the priest’s daughter; and father a child all by the end of Chapter 2.

That narrative economy leaves so many gaps that an entire industry of Biblical scholars and commentators – not to mention Cecil B. DeMille – have spent millennia filling in fanciful details. In The Ten Commandments, everybody’s favorite Bible movie, DeMille acknowledges drawing not only on the Bible but on the Midrash, and the writings of Philo and Josephus to flesh out his story. Even so, I’m pretty sure the romance with Anne Baxter – which features my very favorite piece of Hollywood Biblical dialog, when Baxter, as the princess Nefretiri, confronts Moses with the line, “Oh Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!” – was made up by screenwriters in Southern California.

Various stories over the millennia have posited that Moses led a successful military campaign against the Ethiopians as a service to Pharaoh; that he wandered southward to Ethiopia in his early exile and for a time became that country’s king (in Numbers he is said to have a Kushite wife, while in Exodus the only wife mentioned is the Midianite Zipporah); that he was a renegade Egyptian priest who raised an army of lepers to battle the Egyptians; even that he was schooled in magical arts by his father-in-law, Jethro, hence his ability to turn his rod into a snake and transform the Nile into a river of blood. Jonathan Kirsch in his Moses: A Life provides a good survey of the extra-biblical Moses legends from various sources.

One of the most interesting Moses speculations comes from Sigmund Freud, in his book Moses and Monotheism. This work, published in the last year of Freud’s life, posits that Moses was not an Israelite at all, but a follower of the monotheistic religion briefly imposed on Egypt by the Pharaoh Akhnaton. Further, Freud argues, this original Moses was murdered by his followers in the Egyptian desert and replaced by a second Moses, a Midianite priest and follower of the god Jahve.

Freud speculates on the similarity between the Egyptian god’s name, Aton, and the Hebrew word Adonai, translated as “My Lord”, one of many terms for God, as well as the Phoenician or Syrian god Adonis, although he quickly drops the topic saying he has no scholarly way to make a connection.
Freud also connects the Moses narrative to other classical stories dealing with the exposure of infants to the elements in an effort to kill them, and their miraculous salvation (Romulus, Cyrus, etc.) In particular, he cites the purported autobiography of the Babylonian King Sargon, who reigned in the 28th century BC and whose story is a startling parallel to that of Moses:
The most remote of the historical personages to whom this myth attaches is Sargon of Agade,
the founder of Babylon about 2800 B.C. From the point of view of what interests us here it would perhaps be worth while to reproduce the account ascribed to himself:

" I am Sargon, the mighty king, King of Agade. My mother was a Vestal; my father I knew not; while my father's brother dwelt in the mountains. In my town Azupirani it lies on the banks of Euphrates my mother, the Vestal, conceived me. Secretly she bore me. She laid me in a basket of sedge, closed the opening with pitch and lowered me into the river. The stream did not drown me, but carried me to Akki, the drawer of water. Akki, the drawer of water, in the goodness of his heart lifted me out of the water. Akki, the drawer of water, as his own son he brought me up. Akki, the drawer of water, made me his gardener. When I was a gardener Istar fell in love with me. I became king and for forty- five years I ruled as king.'

Similarly, he links the Moses story to other well-known stories of royal children hidden away from danger and raised in obscurity by commoners, although in the case of Moses, the story is actually a reversal of the pattern.

Back to the main topic. The power of water continues to be an overarching topic in the story of Moses. That his story begins in the fertile Nile delta, a place like no other in the Near East, sets the stage. Water was the reason for Egypt’s rise, and yet the periodic flooding of the Nile also held great danger. Water gives, water takes away.

In the land of Midian, he meets his future wife, Zipporah, at a well, in a manner similar to the way that Abraham’s servant encountered Rebekkah, and Jacob first laid eyes on Rachel (and Jesus later had that intriguing encounter with the Samaritan woman). Wells were evidently the meet-cute spot of the ancients, which makes sense since they were one of the few places women could appear in public.

Sent back to Egypt by God (who then tries to murder him in one of the Bible’s most mysterious episodes), Moses turns the Nile into a river of blood in his first attempt to convince the king to release the Hebrews.
The parting of the sea to provide safe passage for the Hebrews and death to the Egyptians pursuing them probably needs no further introduction.
During the 40 years of travel in the wilderness, Moses twice brings forth water from rocks – on the second occasion, his hubris in striking the rock with his rod results in God’s banishment of Moses from the land of milk and honey that has been his lifelong goal. Moses dies in exile, and his burial spot is unknown.

Drawn from the water that is a pre-condition of life, the events of the Moses story are bound up in water as creator and destroyer. Freud saw the image of flowing water in these stories as a metaphor for the passage through the birth canal (fertile delta, anyone?). Through these stories birth was given to a great religion, and an endless stream of creative interpretation.