Tuesday, October 27, 2009

2 Kings 21: The Jews' Judas

There is no question that the greatest tragedy in Hebrew Biblical history occurs in 586 B.C.E. In this year, Babylonian forces led by King Nebuchadnezzar mount a successful siege of the city of Jerusalem, rout the Judahite army, and ship most of the survivors off to Babylon.

Jerusalem, by this point in time, is the vital center of the last of the Israelite nation-state. Even though it is ruled by a weak king (Zedekiah), it remains the beating heart of ancient Judaism and a brick-and-mortar symbol of the continuing relationship between God and his chosen people. Its destruction throws into question the strength of that relationship.

Further, in the aftermath of the defeat a military detachment led by Nebuzaradan razes the Temple, disassembling the House of God and eviscerating the core of early Jewish religious practice.

How did this tragedy come upon us? How could God seemingly forget his people, throwing them to the Babylonian wolves? And whose fault is it? Can we lay blame? Can we assign specific guilt?

The answer, somewhat surprisingly, is yes. The book of 2 Kings identifies one man who is guiltier than all the rest--though many are blameful--and that man's name is Manasseh. He's early Judaism's Judas, the one who messes it all up for the rest of us.

Now, on a grand scale, the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile are the people's fault. Anyone who has ever read the Bible's early histories knows that the Israelites--despite their reputation--are not particularly adept followers of God. They complain incessantly in the wilderness after the Exodus. They erect altars to other gods, no matter how many times Yahweh demonstrates his monstrous, miraculous power. And they forget the covenant--the breathing contract that connects people to deity. So they basically get a D+ in God-following.

And when they do so, God punishes them. Sometimes he does so in small ways, raining fire or sending famine or starting war. (And yes, these are the "small" ways.) But sometimes he punishes them in big ways, like when he takes down the Northern Kingdom of Israel earlier in 2 Kings: "The king of Assyria carried the Israelites away to Assyria [...] because they did not obey the voice of the Lord their God but transgressed its covenant [...] they neither listened nor obeyed" (18:11-12).

The fall of Jerusalem, then, can be chalked up to similar disobedience; the people are bad, so God takes away their toys, er, nation-state.

However, having laid universal blame on the people of Israel for Judah's destruction, the authors of 2 Kings also point a finger at one person--a really nasty king named Manasseh. He makes his brief appearance in chapter 21.

"Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign" (21:1), reads the text, and we wonder why the Judahites allowed prepubescents to manage affairs of state. "He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord [...] he erected altars for Baal, made a sacred pole, as King Ahab of Israel had done" (21:3). A sacred pole, Manasseh? I have only one thing to say ... when's the party?

Kidding ... a "sacred pole" is simply another pagan worship item, another way we know that Manasseh is lusting after other gods. Now we've seen this lusting before from other bad monarchs; the books of Kings are filled with it. But Manasseh really breaks the bank in verse 7: "The carved image of Asherah that he had made he set in the house of which the Lord said to David and to his son Solomon, 'In this house [...] I will put my name forever." Translation? Manasseh puts a pagan shrine right smack dab in the middle of the Temple, the holiest building in all of Israel and the place where God resides. Bad move.

God lowers the boom in verse 13: "I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down." Now first, I note what a conscientious dish-washer God is--no pooling on his porcelain! I wonder if He's looking for a roommate.

But God continues, "I will cast off the remnant of my heritage, and give them into the hand of their enemies [...] because they have done what is evil in my sight and have provoked me to anger" (21:14). And that's it--the writing is one the wall and apocalypse is upon us.

Well, not quite upon us, because there's a gap between Manasseh's sin and Israel's punishment. The Babylonians will not arrive for another 60 years or so. But the damage is done--so done that when Manasseh's grandson Josiah takes over the throne as a real reformer, his good deeds are not good enough. Despite Josiah's efforts, "Still the Lord did not turn away from the fierceness of his wrath [...] because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him" (23:26).

So there you have it. You've been losing sleep wondering who caused the Babylonian Exile? It was Manasseh. And now you can doze soundly.
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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Conservative Bible Project: Not Just Dumb--Really Really Dumb

Another week, another sign that the end of the world is nearly upon us.

In the last couple weeks, a few good friends have brought to my attention the existence of a group calling themselves the "Conservative Bible Project." Members of the project have decided to produce a new version of the Bible--one that will be free of a liberal bias that project administrators claim has snuck into more recent translations of the text. (The New York Times's Paul Krugman was onto this story last week.)

The Conservative Bible Project has found a home at conservapedia.com, an online, open-source encyclopedia designed to provide members of the right with a haven from the liberal bias of wikipedia. Yup. Seriously. The liberal bias of wikipedia. Suck on that one for a while. ("Suck on that one for a while": a sentence that, for the record, you probably won't find on conservapedia.com.)

In any case, this project is so inane, so backward, so anti-intellectual, so dumb, and so asinine that you have to see it to believe it ... here. Go ahead. You know you want to. Just come back when you're done.

As the originators of the project argue, modern translations of the Bible are filled with "liberal" errors, additions, and mistranslations--many of which were promulgated by damn academics. These errors hide the Bible's true conservative message. Thus, project administrators are promoting a ten-step revision process that involves, among other things, "utilizing powerful conservative terms," "excluding later-inserted inauthentic passages," and, best of all, "expressing free-market parables." You heard right: Jesus as free-market capitalist.

It's all so ridiculous that I can't decide whether to laugh or cry. But let me cut through the chatter and tell you the three dumbest things about the "Conservative Bible Project."

First of all, the Conservative Bible is not a new translation, per se. Indeed, in their statement of purpose, the creators champion the work of "English language linguists." What is an "English language linguist," you ask, besides an embarrassing redundancy? Well, let me explain ...

The Conservative Bible Project members are not working with the text in Hebrew and Greek--the languages in which the Bible was originally written; instead, they're starting with the 1611 King James Version of the Bible--a fetish object for fundamentalist Christians. (The KJV is a beautiful, groundbreaking translation of the text, but scholars' research methods have come a long way in the 400 years since its publication, and we have much more accurate Bibles available today.) Then, they are changing words and dropping passages from new translations that do not conform with either the KJV or the aforementioned ten conservative guidelines.

So what do "English language linguists" do? They take texts and arbitrarily fuck with things they don't like ... not based on original-language research or cultural knowledge or archaeological advances, but on personal, political bias. (Sorry to be vulgar ... this stuff really pisses me off.)

Second, project administrators argue that their new Bible will root out "socialistic terminology [that] permeates English translations of the Bible." Such language, they continue, "improperly encourages the 'social justice' movement among Christians." Socialist translations of the Bible? I bet that damn Obama had something to do with it!

But this brief bullet point marks a maddening ignorance of the difference between "socialism" and "social justice." For political scholars, "socialism" basically marks a system of government with increased central (or federal) control. For religious scholars, "social justice" is very different: it's a desire to help the poor, to aid the oppressed, and to fight inequality. So when Jesus says that you should give your coat to the man who does not have a coat, he's advocating for social justice.

Social justice is the ethical core of all the major religious traditions, from Christianity to Islam to Hinduism, and the Conservative Bible Project's efforts to expel it from the text aren't just dumb--they're a little bit evil.

Finally, a brief perusal of the early "revisions" of Genesis reveals this dilly of a change in 1:11: "And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after its baramin, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so." I remember God making light, and day, and even fish of the sea. But does anyone else not remember God creating "baramin" in the beginning?

Well, without getting into stupid detail, "baramin" is a piece of terminology developed by young earth scientists--basically creationists with a pretty new name--to talk about the way God made the earth. (Creationism is the theory that the world was created not by a big bang that occurred billions of years ago, but by God, just as Genesis tells us.) So in inserting the phrase "baramin" into Genesis, project administrators are essentially making the creation story, well, more creationist. That's like stacking the deck when you've already got four aces. Or like changing The Origin of the Species to make it more Darwinian. Stupid.

So I close my post on the Conservative Bible Project hoping that you and I will never hear from them again, but knowing that we almost certainly will ... as for me, I'll get back to serious discussion of the Bible next week. Complete with unnecessary liberal content.
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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Philippians 3: God and High School Football

When Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists in 1801 referring to the "wall of separation between church and state" (in a letter posted here), he could never have foreseen that his argument would someday affect Georgia high school football. But in yet another sign that the apocalypse is near ...

Shortly after 9/11, the Lakeview Fort Oglethorpe High School cheerleaders began painting Bible verses on a big roll of paper through which football players smashed at the beginning of games. For nearly a decade, the practice raised no eyebrows in this majority Christian community of 7000.

However, as the L.A. Times reports, even a Liberty University student could see that the signs clearly violated the Constitution's Establishment Clause prohibiting state sponsorship of religion. (LU was founded by uber-conservative evangelical Christian Jerry Falwell.) That student--also a parent of an LFO high schooler--recently contacted the school's superintendent, who then banned the practice.

Not surprisingly, her decision has enraged cultural conservatives who see the ban as an infringement on their religious liberties. I disagree, but rather than wade into the church-state muck, I'd like to make another argument against the LFO boosters' practice: it's bloody ridiculous, and kind of offensive!

First off, I can imagine a time not long ago when the very act of painting Bible verses on pieces of large paper--and then having a herd of ill-smelling post-adolescent boys tear through it--would have been understood as blasphemous to a fault. Is this really a good way to show Christian devotion?

Second, many of the verses were so bland that they were barely recognizable as Biblical prose. I mean, do you really need a boring verse from Ezra--"We will support you, so take courage and do it" (10:4)--to say "Go team"? I much prefer the following, from the vastly underappreciated 2000 cheer film Bring It On: "I said brrr, it's cold in here; there must be some Clovers in the atmosphere."

Other verses just didn't make sense. Take the Philippians quote shown on the sign above: "I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus" (3:14). God has called you in Christ Jesus to beat Allatoona High? Really?

Further, though I haven't been able to track down the team's win-loss record over the last eight years, most sources report that they've been mediocre at best. Hence, if Bible verses get you, say, a .500 record, couldn't the cheerleaders just as easily emblazon "CHANCE" on a big banner? Or "COIN TOSS"?

Personally, I'd put a quote from the American intellectual Ralph Waldo Emerson on my banner: "I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation." But I obviously didn't play football.

(Full disclosure, though: the team was 4-1 through five games this year before the ban came into effect, so maybe God was biding his time before jumping on the LFO bandwagon.)

In any case, the L.A. Times goes on to quote a local hairdresser, who says that this whole kerfuffle isn't just about Christian expression--it's about religious expression more generally. "If they wanted to put a big Buddha doll up there, I'd say let 'em do it."

Really? Well, I first laugh envisioning a football team trying to plough through a big Buddha only to bounce painfully off his huge golden belly. Then I want to take the hairdresser up on her offer.

For the next LFO football game, why not use a scripture from another tradition? How about, just for fun, the opening lines of the Tao te Ching? "The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao." That'll show those jerks from Allatoona.
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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Please Don't Eat the Hoopoe: Funny Torah Laws

For Jews, the first five books of the Bible are called the Torah. And though we have no perfect English rendering for this deliciously untranslatable word, scholars usually settle upon "law." Which makes a certain amount of sense, given the fact that a good part of these five books is taken up by a very detailed legal corpus.

It is said that the Torah gives Jews 613 commands, or mitzvot. (And here's a handy web site that lists and thematically arranges all of them ... thanks jewfaq.com!) These 613 laws are more or less binding, depending on any individual Jew's placement within the religious spectrum of modern Judaism--from Reform to Orthodox. For the latter of these, scrupulous adherence to all 613 forms the core of a vibrant--if conservative--spiritual praxis.

Now, almost no one I know--observant Jews included--has been through all 613, because so few read the Torah from front to back any more. And even though I champion Biblical literacy in this space, those who try and fail to make it through Leviticus still have my sympathy.

However, the hardy few who bushwack their way through the legal backwater have a few delightful surprises waiting in store. And while a lot of ink gets spilled writing about outdated Torah laws, or unnecessarily harsh ones, I'd like to stick to a different type tonight--the hiarious ones. Because stuck among the ritual prescriptions, hygiene rules, and priestly codes of conduct are--and I say this with all respect to Jewish readers--some pretty funny strictures. Let me tell you just a few.

But before I begin, let me be the first to admit that the Bible's legal humor derives largely from the fact that our culture differs so completely from that of classical Hebraism. Few to none of these rules would have struck a 8th-century BCE resident of Judah as "funny." (Think of an ancient Hebron resident trying to wrap his mind around illegal internet file sharing.) But I don't live 2800 years ago in Israel, so I'll go ahead and snicker.

Most know that in the Torah, murder draws a death sentence (Exodus 21:12). But did you know that the same law holds true for oxen? True. Further, the Torah even dictates the mode of execution: "When an ox gores a man or woman to death, the ox hall be stoned" (Ex. 21:28). Let me tell you--it's been way too long since I've been to a good ox-stoning, when the ox is really pissed.

Torah law also lays out correct punishment for careless hole-diggers. "If someone leaves a pit open, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restitution, giving money to its owner, but keeping the dead animal" (Ex. 21:33-34). I cannot tell you how many times I've forgotten to cover all my pits after a hard day of pit-digging! But then again, a dead donkey is just as good as a live donkey in a pinch ... especially if dinner's coming up soon. Just use coriander to mask the pungent donkey scent.

Speaking of food, kosher law is amusingly specific from time to time. Now, all my conservative and orthodox Jewish friends know the basics: no shellfish; only eat animals that chew cud and have cloven hooves (cows are just fine); no meat and dairy together (though scholars remind us that this last is really a Talmudic--not a Biblical--prescription).

But some of the exceptions are delightfully unexpected. For instance, we all know that observant Jews do not eat pork. But did you also know that the Torah also expressly forbids the consumption of "rock badger" (Lev. 11:5)? Do you what a "rock badger" is? Me neither ... but do not even think about throwing one on the Weber this weekend. Also specifically forbidden? Hoopoe (Lev. 11:9) and gecko (11:30). And there goes my favorite meal ... sauteed gecko served in a hoopoe bouillon with fried gecko legs on the side.

Later--on a much different note--the Torah goes into some length describing a detailed incest ban. My favorite part? "You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's brother, that is, you shall not approach his wife; she is your aunt" (Lev. 18:14). I love the straight-forward, definitional earnestness of that last phrase. "Holy buckets! My aunt? Let me double check here ... father's brother's wife is ... oh man, I think they're right. Me and Uncle Carl are going to have to have a little talk soon."

There are a few others that make me smile more than I should, but it's late and I'm tired, so I'm off to bed. Besides, I've got to get up early for an ox-stoning.
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