Friday, March 14, 2003

Exodus 20-24

This section is basically a Cliff Notes version of Leviticus, with God laying out the Ten Commandments and various other laws and penalties.

It made me think of a recent article about patterns of revenge in stateless societies. With no formal system of justice, things tend to spiral downwards into revenge and revenge for the revenge until the violence goes way beyond the original crime. Here's the "money quote":
"A life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth was not, for the tribal people who codified this rule, a recipe for unbridled violence, but rather an attempt to contain it," Dr. Beckerman says.

This is an important thing that a lot of moderns don't realize when they look at ancient law codes. The severity of the penalties -- death for adultery, for instance -- are not due to a tyrannically moralistic state but the fact that the penalties people exact on each other, when left to their own devices, are even more severe. There are societies in the world even today where, if you catch your wife with another guy, you're more or less expected to kill them. This attitude lingered on in the West for a long time -- the hero of Jane Eyre, for instance, isn't seen as especially evil just because he shot his mistress' boyfriend. This was not because of an abstract moral objection to adultery, but because of a natural rage at the injury.

In fact, some legal codes of the day went a lot farther than the Bible on the tit-for-tat scale. As I recall, in the Code of Hammurabi if someone killed your child then one of his children would be killed, and in the Assyrian code if you raped someone's wife then your wife would get raped. (Who the lucky party was who carried out this punishment, I don't know.) Of course, this also reflects the fact that women and children were regarded as property of men, which the OT basically agrees with, but not (fortunately) to that extreme.

If we don't look at things that way in the West today, I suppose it's because we've moved so far away from the lawless state that justice has become depersonalized. Adultery is, for most people, a lot more painful than getting their wallets snatched. But sex is seen mostly as a ''private" matter, which is a distinction I don't think the ancients would have understood. Law isn't really about personal pain any more; it's about abstract concepts like individual rights and property rights. (Although civil law still has that element, as in damage awards for "emotional distress.")

On another note, I thought this was interesting:
When a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged to be married, and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. But if her father refuses to give her to him, he shall pay an amount equal to the bride-price for virgins. (22:16-17)

This is a more pragmatic attitude about premarital sex than you might expect from the Bible, given what is usually taken to be the "Biblical" position on the subject. Not that that mightn't come later; it wouldn't be the Bible if it were perfectly consistent...

UPDATE: Getting back to the subject of revenge, here's another suggestive bit:
Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee.(21:12-13)

The notes explain that an "act of God" basically refers to an accidental killing. If it was an accident, why would the killer have to flee? I can only think it would be to escape distraught relatives who would want to kill him, even if they knew it wasn't his fault.

In fact, though the above article doesn't mention it, one striking thing about vigilante justice in tribal societies is how little intent actually matters. Kenneth Good, an anthropologist who lived among the natives of the South American rainforest and married one of them, wrote that if a woman was raped in that society her husband would usually beat her out of sheer hysteria, even if he believed that she didn't consent. Her fault wasn't the issue; it just drove him crazy to think she had sex with someone else. Or think of Oedipus, whose whole family was cursed for his patricide and incest, even though he didn't know at the time that he was doing them. It's interesting that God seems to be considering intent but also allowing for the feelings of the family.

Thursday, March 13, 2003

Exodus 17-20

Here we have a few different episodes -- Moses draws water from a rock, fights with the mysterious Amelek, and learns to delegate. But the important part of this section is the build-up to the revelation on Mt. Sinai. What's most striking to me about it is the conditions of God's appearance:
...the LORD said to Moses: ‘Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and prepare for the third day, because on the third day the LORD will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. You shall set limits for the people all around, saying, “Be careful not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it. Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch them, but they shall be stoned or shot with arrows; whether animal or human being, they shall not live.” When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain.' So Moses went down from the mountain to the people. He consecrated the people, and they washed their clothes. And he said to the people, ‘Prepare for the third day; do not go near a woman.’

God seems a tad unapproachable, doesn't he? Actually, at the last Alpha the lecturer remarked upon how strange Jesus was to this tradition: God being among people like any other person, visible and touchable. In Exodus, so far, he's appeared mainly in the form of fire: the burning bush, then as a "pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night" (which my study notes claim are one phenomenon: "The Lord, depicted as a storm god, radiates light from within a cover of day only the cloud is visible, by night only the light"). On this occasion Mt. Sinai is "wrapped in smoke, for the Lord had descended in fire." The whole mountain shakes.

I've heard it said by many Christians that Jesus "bridged the gap" between God and humans, so he would no longer appear as a terrifying destructive force. Although nowadays we seem to have the opposite problem -- not if he appears as fire, but whetehr he appears at all...
I guess it's not just me, then

An interesting discussion has broken out over on Josh Claybourn's blog about Christian pacifism, and how to interpret the violence in the Old Testament. Short answer: it's not easy.

BibleGeek has more on what all of Jesus' sword imagery means.
Pax Camassiana

Telford was not happy with the way the Bible discussion was going, and looking back at my snarly post I don't blame him. So herewith, no more criticizing each other's Scriptural interpretations in public. Of course, other folks can still respond however they like... just keep it polite ...
Exodus 13-16

Here we have the famous parting of the Red Sea, Moses' song of victory, and the Israelites moving into the desert and receiving manna from heaven.

While Exodus flowed pretty smoothly up to now, this part really brought to mind the J-E-P theory that the Pentateuch was stitched together from several different sources telling the same story, because it really feels like that. I've been writing up to now as if Exodus really happened exactly like it says, but there is, in fact, a smell of poetic exaggeration through the whole episode with the plagues. The Torah was probably written down several centuries after the event, and it feels sort of like the Iliad. There really was a Trojan war, but that doesn't mean I'm gonna buy everything Homer says.

Nonetheless, there are parts of Exodus that feel realer than others. The most striking part in this section was the description of the manna, which is so painstakingly detailed:
When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground ... The house of Israel called it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.

Clearly the author is trying to describe something with no clear equivalent in the reader's life, and resorts to approximations: "It was like this, but sort of like that..." At the end of the section Aaron puts an omer (2.2 liters) of manna into a jar for posterity, and I wonder if they still had it when the author was writing. Either way, it's a detail that seems to bring the story out of the mythological and into the concrete.
Out of the ruins

Telford gamely defends Yahweh against my criticisms of his behavior in Exodus. First, the heart-hardening thing:
Here I do not see a "hypercalvinistic" fatalism at work, in which Pharaoh's will is utterly manipulated. Instead I see cooperation. Moses' signs proclam that YHWH is friend of the Hebrews. Pharaoh and his courtiers are enemies of the Hebrews, and that makes them enemies of God. So the signs of YHWH's power provoke fear during the plague and resentment afterwards, rather than compassion and joy. Pharaoh's court has set itself against YHWH and YHWH's people, and it will go down fighting rather than concede the obvious – because to them it is not yet obvious!

Well, Pharaoh may not have been a nice character to begin with. But this repeated "The Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart" is explicitly stated to be God's doing so that "Egypt will know I am Lord." Like I said, this didn't even really work anyway, since Egypt went on worshipping its gods, so it's hard to see what drawing out the death and destruction in releasing the Hebrews even accomplished.

Telford also addresses collective sin:
Regarding collective sin, Exodus does show us that Pharaoh's people, and not just Pharaoh himself, approve of the oppression, share in dreading the Hebrews, and rule over the slaves (1:9-14). This sense of collective sin does not wash out individual people, but it does rightly stress human interconnectedness. Sin is not just an individual thing; it is a social thing, because humanity is intrinsically social.

However, his comparisons with American slavery and today's Iraq seem to only complicate the matter. Not all of "the people" did approve of slavery, and indeed, they fought a nasty civil war over the issue. Moreover, not even in Exodus does God say slavery is inherently wrong, just that it's wrong for his chosen people. (More on this later.)

Iraq is even problematic. One of Bush's arguments in favor of war is that it will liberate the Iraqi people. Whether or not you believe him, the fact that he's pitching it that way speaks to a moral sense on the part of Americans that's decidedly lacking in Exodus. If the White House brushed off fears of civilian casualties by saying, "Sin isn't an individual thing, it's a social thing" -- well, aside from totally confusing the press, I don't think it would play well even with the hawks. Distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants is one of the most basic rules of war, and it's a large part of what distinguishes us from terrorists. Yahweh goes out of his way to hurt everyone in Egypt. Even the animals lost their firstborns, for frick's sake.

Telford sez:
It is here that we see the full point of God's grandstanding as announced in Ex. 10:
I could have stretched forth my hand and striken you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been effaced ffrom the earth. Nevertheless I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you my power, and in order that my fame may resound throughout the world (10:15-16).

Now why would the God of one people, Israel, care what the world's other peoples think of him? The reader has long known the short answer (Gen. 12:2-3), and Paul will develop a longer one (Rom. 9-11).

Romans I've already mentioned, but Genesis 12:2-3 says:
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

Seems contradictory -- I will curse those that curse you, and yet everybody will be blessed. But, like I keep saying, this God's fame didn't seem to spread throughout the world until Jesus. One is tempted to bring up a cliche about flies, honey and vinegar...

I've read further into Exodus but I'm too groggy to post more tonight. See you tomorrow!

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Exodus 9-12

This section concludes the previous one: we have the rest of the plagues, and the Hebrews take off into the desert. I have pretty much the same feelings about it as I did in the last section.

Telford mentions in one of his posts that he feels Christians often skip over most of the OT, going right from the Fall to Jesus. Telford is always emphasizing to me (since I am ever impatient about these things) that God's saving the world is a process, going from small things to large. I suppose that's the theory behind him picking one people, the Jews, to get things rolling, and then expanding to the rest of the world when Jesus arrives.

The thing that bothers me about all this -- and this connects to my complaints about collective punishment -- is that it seems to be saying that individuals don't matter. The people who live and die as God spends thousands of years working out his Great Plan are stuck with the luck of the draw. Maybe you're one of God's chosen people, and are subject to all his benevolence. Maybe you're an Egyptian slave girl who, as if a lifetime of oppression weren't enough, loses her firstborn because Pharaoh's heart is hardened. Maybe you're of in the majority of the world that Yahweh isn't paying attention to, worshipping gods that don't exist.

I realize that this emphasis on individualism is a rather modern way of looking at it, but not entirely. Everyone is a self, no matter how interconnected with others. And when people say God loves me, I wonder what "me" means to God. Am I an individual to him, or part of some group? If so, what group? America? My atheist family? The press? Womankind? God's attitude toward me might be rather different depending on how he categorizes me.

Well, I'm sure we'll have an interesting discussion at Alpha tonight...
Make a left when you see the cherubim

Tim Noah gives Congress' ridiculous culinary chauvinism the treatment it deserves, but this line threw me off:
A better idea would be to tear out every page in the Bible that features an Iraqi place name, such as Babylon, Babel, the Garden of Eden, Nineveh, and Ur.

The Garden of Eden is in Iraq? I always imagined it being someplace more ... verdant.
A semblance of order

The blogroll was getting pretty long, so I broke it up into subsets. The categories are ... well, pretty random, and certainly some blogs could work in more than one. But it's my blog, I do what I like!

Monday, March 10, 2003

Exodus 5-8

General: Conan, what is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of the women!
General: That is good.

I brought up this part of Exodus at Alpha a couple weeks ago, because God seems to be doing an awful lot of destruction here and seems to be enjoying it an awful lot. "I shall harden Pharaoh's heart," he says in 7:3, "and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt...The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring Israelites out from among them." And so we move on to blood, frogs, gnats, etc.

What's the purpose of all this? Why does God harden Pharaoh's heart? Telford, at the time, said Paul later wrote something about this helping convert the Gentiles. I don't see where Paul actually says that, but I think he's talking about Romans 9:
For the scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses... What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

I suppose we should deal with this when we actually get to Romans, but in any case, it rather manifestly didn't work. The Egyptians were still pagan at the time Paul was writing; it was Jesus, not the plagues, that converted them.

There's also the question of the Egyptians' collective guilt. Telford said that Egyptians as a whole participated in oppressing the Hebrews. From what I know of Egyptian society, I have a little trouble seeing how most Egyptians could have participated; most were peasants, and many were themselves slaves. They were not in a position to object to Pharaoh's commands.

Still, it raises an interesting question: how guilty is a person for "going along"? For the most part, we don't expect everybody to be a hero. Countries like South Africa and former Communist nations have found it's better to forgive people for passive compliance, because otherwise you're indicting the majority of the population. Collective blame can also lead to torturous justifications for violence, as was on display after the 9/11 attacks. Charles Murtaugh noticed last year that both the far left and the religious right seemed to be forming a theodical explanation of the attacks. Jerry Falwell blamed it on our hedonism and Noam Chomsky blamed our imperialism, but both essentially said America's wickedness brought the attacks upon us. And if the victims were not active plotters in the thing, it was New York, after all, capital of hedonism and international capitalism.

So collective punishment is not a game I want to get into. But one thing about Christianity -- an admirable thing, really -- is that it demands that you don't just "go along." Being good is about what you do, not just what you don't do. Last month I linked to this article about Bono, and he had some very sharp words about his current cause, fighting AIDS in Africa:
There should be civil disobedience on this. You read about the apostles being persecuted because they were out there taking on the powers that be. Jesus said, 'I came to bring a sword.' In fact, it's a load of sissies running around with their 'bless me' clubs. And there's a war going on between good and evil.

No wonder he gets along with Jesse Helms and Orrin Hatch -- spiritual warfare, baby! But seriously, reading this tugged at my conscience, just as reading Jesus' uncompromising statements about helping the poor tugged at my conscience. I've long wanted to help the disadvantaged, and have done so in a spotty way, but I feel like I could do more. Telford assured me that "it will happen," but things don't happen by me sitting around. I don't have many vices, but the big one is sloth. I've come to realize that more and more lately. It's easy for me to disappear into my own mind, and hard to engage with the world. Will I be one of those that history judges harshly?
The SoCal Godblogger mafia expands!

I just found myself of the blogroll of Brasilianista Aspirante, a blog by an L.A. grad student and aspiring "Brazilianist" (whatever that is exactly). She's an Orthodox Christian (of the Serbian branch, apparently) and likes Gerard Manley Hopkins. Wow. I haven't read Hopkins since college, I really should get back to him.
Exodus 1-4

Looks like Telford got the jump on me -- three posts already! Fortunately, though I haven't posted yet I did the reading last night, so I should be able to catch up. (And on the "smoothing it out" score, I can report that Exodus goes down very well with Ben & Jerry's Coffee Heath Bar Crunch.)

First, a technical point. It may be foolish to dispute a professional on this, but I feel Telford must be mistaken here:
God may want to invite Pharaoh to relent with as little force as necessary, and on the most favorable terms. Yet all the signs harden Pharaoh's heart, so perhaps it is better described as a matter of truthtelling. The sequence of events certainly reveals the heart of Pharaoh (and remember, it is hardly soft; this king is already guilty of genocidal infanticide).

Unless there's some other infanticide here that I missed, aren't these two different pharaohs? The Pharaoh who orders the mass infanticide that Moses narrowly escapes, and who gets mad when Moses kills the Egyptian, is declared dead at the end of chapter 2. After all, the whole reason Moses can go back to Egypt is that everyone who had it in for him is dead, right?

On another subject, it's funny that Telford thought of France and the U.S. in regard to Egyptian resentment of the Hebrews, because I did too. Although I didn't quite think the same thing. Actually, the first thing I thought of was Daniel Drezner's post last month objecting to the idea that France owes us for saving them back in WW2. "First of all, what's the statute of limitations on such gratitude? Surely we Americans owe a debt to France for their invaluable assistance during the Revolutionary War -- not to mention the Louisiana Purchase. How much does this place us in France's debt?"

I thought of this in regard to Egypt's debt to Joseph for saving them from famine a generation earlier. How long does the debt run? My feeling about the Egyptians' mistreatment of the Hebrews was that it's bad in itself, not because the Egyptians owe something. As Telford says, the real problem is envy: the Jews are a minority that's doing too well, and multiplying like rabbits. Certainly the Pat Buchanans of the world know the feeling.

But anyway, the really interesting thing about this part of Exodus is the character of Moses that emerges. He has a strangely in-between life, nursed by his Hebrew mother but adopted by Pharaoh's daughter, who gives him an Egyptian name. Despite this largesse, he identifies so strongly as a Hebrew that he kills an Egyptian for beating a Hebrew slave. Thinking of Moses living in Pharaoh's court I can't help thinking of Moll Flanders growing up in the house of the wealthy man who took her in off the street. She was never allowed to forget that she was basically an inferior being who lucked out, thanks to her benefactor's generosity. She was treated as almost one of the family -- emphasis on "almost." I wonder if Moses felt the same.

Moses certainly shows signs of what we might call an inferiority complex when God starts talking to him via the burning bush. He raises all sorts of objections and what-ifs to the plan, wondering how it could possibly work. Even with those out of the way, he's so terrified of public speaking that he gets Aaron to do all the talking for him.

Moses' and Aaron's partnership is one of the most interesting things about this story. I don't think it was unusual in those days for an oracle to have an interpreter, such as the Greek Sibyls, who apparently chattered incomprehensible things that were translated by someone else. I expect that a lot of those people were actually schizophrenics who got opportunistic PR people attached to them. But Moses and Aaron remind me more of the way family members often end up specializing according to temperament. For instance, when I or anyone else in my family is out with my brother-in-law, we let him do the stuff that requires gregariousness -- asking directions, haggling with salespeople, that sort of thing -- because he's so much better at it than anyone else. If you want advice about clothes or other aesthetic matters, ask my sister. When it comes to researching arcane facts, everyone turns to me. I get the feeling Moses and Aaron had a similar thing going on.

The result of it is that while Moses ultimately runs the show, Aaron has the greater visibility. From the point of view of the average Hebrew, it must have seemed like Aaron was leading them as much as Moses. I wonder if God intended leadership to be divided that way, to keep people from investing too much in one person. In the age of the god-kings, that could certainly lead to trouble, as it can today...

Sunday, March 09, 2003

Watch this space

The lecture subject at the last Alpha session was the Bible, and why we should read it. I have read parts of the Bible in years past, and sometime around the start of this blog I started reading the New Testament. I read all the way through First Corinthians, and had a brief exchange with Telford about part of Acts. But I fell off the habit when it became apparent that Telford wasn't going to be available for further discussion. For me, taking the Bible straight is kind of like taking vodka straight. As Victor Erefeyev put it in the New Yorker a few months ago, "The Russian gulps his vodka down, grimacing and swearing, and immediately reaches for something to 'smooth it out.'"

OK, so it isn't quite that bad. But whenever I hear Telford -- or just about any other Christian, for that matter -- talking about the Bible, it sounds like a different book from the one I've read. There's also a whole lot of context that I just don't know. So I really don't like to read the Bible without someone to bounce it off of.

Meanwhile, this year our church has started a daily Bible reading/journaling program. I have not been doing it but Telford has, turning some journal entries into blog posts (see here and here, for instance), though lately he's fallen behind. Talking it over at church today, we decided to combine these two projects by having me join the Bible reading schedule, and discussing it on our blogs. That gives Telford extra incentive to keep up and me something to, er, "smooth it out."

The reading schedule is somewhat peculiar. Every day covers two chapters, plus a Pslam and/or a proverb. It alternates between Old Testament and New. They started with Genesis, then moved to Luke; now they're in Exodus, and next will move to Acts. I'm bummed I missed Luke; it would have been interesting to discuss, and Acts, which I read just recently, seemed rather tedious and confusing. But maybe it will be better with help.

So starting tomorrow I'm going to plunge into Exodus, and I hope a fruitful discussion. If anyone else wants to join in, of course, feel free.