Monday, January 25, 2010

The Bible's Best (and Worst) Marksmen

How often do you get to put the phrases "rifle sights" and "New Testament" in the same sentence? Well, for me at least once ... Last week ABC News reported that a Michigan contractor that manufactures rifle sights for the American military--Trijicon--was secretly imprinting those sights with verses from the New Testament. (Trijicon ... kind of sounds like an annual meeting of cereal enthusiasts, doesn't it?)

That means that high-powered weapons firing bullets at Afghans and Iraqis were emblazoned with passages from the Good Book--passages like John 8:12, which quotes Jesus: "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life." Or 2 Corinthians: "For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." What would Jesus do? Apparently, he'd put an Afghan insurgent in his crosshairs. Sick, huh?

The Trijicon mission statement reads as follows: "Guided by our values, we endeavor to have our products used wherever precision aiming solutions are required to protect individual freedom." If I had a nickel for every time I needed a precision aiming solution to protect my individual freedom, well, I'd still be pretty poor ... and wouldn't you just pay to find out what "values" they feel they are guided by?

In any case, the company agreed to stop the practice last week, but only after military officials, foreign governments, and even the Anglican Church vocally objected. The imprints are abhorrent, macabre, and--for me, at least--blasphemous. But they were also Biblically illiterate, because Trijicon picked the wrong Testament: all the best marksmen appear in the Hebrew Bible.

Thus, in honor of my gun-toting, Bible-quoting, sight-making fellow Michiganders, I devote this week's post to the Hebrew Bible's top three "precision aiming specialists."

Coming in at number three is the anonymous assassin of Israel's King Ahab. Near the end of his reign, Ahab joins forces with the Judahite king Jehoshaphat in fighting off the armies of Aram. While Jehoshaphat goes to battle in full kingly regalia, Ahab tries to avoid the attention of the Aramaean archers and fights in disguise; his act of cowardly subterfuge ends up being his demise, for "a certain man drew his bow and unknowingly struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate" (1 Kings 22:34). Crack shot, "certain man"! Ahab dies later that evening.

At number two is Jonathan, son of Israel's King Saul and--if you believe the queer theorists--King David's boyfriend in youth. (More on that in another post.) Saul and David are close at first, and David and Jonathan develop an intimate friendship; however, God eventually anoints David the next king and rejects Saul. Forced to flee from Saul's murderous rage, David leaves the court but keeps in touch with Jonathan through an intricate code requiring precisely fired arrows: explains Jonathan, "On the day after tomorrow, you shall go a long way down [...] and I will remain beside the stone there. I will shoot three arrows the side of it, as though I shot at a mark [...] If I say to [my] boy, 'Look, the arrows are on this side of you, collect them', then you are to come, for, as the Lord lives, it is safe for you and there is no danger" (1 Samuel 19-21). Nice shooting, Jonathan ... and bonus points for your cool, innovative arrow code. Perhaps I'll keep it in mind for when my cell phone contract runs out in May.

But the championship goes to David himself, for his excellent stone-throwing skills in his brief battle with Goliath. You know the story: "When the Philistine [Goliath] drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank in his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground" (1 Samuel 17: 48-49). David wins the title not only for accuracy, but for forehead-collapsing power.

As a side note, the Hebrew Bible's worst marksman is probably Saul, who tries multiple times in 1 Samuel to nail both David and Solomon to his court wall with a huge spear ... and misses wildly every time. Take, as just one example, 1 Samuel 18: 10-11: "Saul had his spear in his hand; and Saul threw the spear, for he thought, 'I will pin David to the wall'. But David eluded him twice." Twice, Saul? Come on.

But maybe he'd would throw more precisely if he had a custom-made sight for his spear ... made by Trijicon.
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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Psalm 22: On Haiti, Despair, and Schizophrenia

The latest reports out of Haiti set the death toll from last week's earthquake anywhere between 50,000 and 200,000. So great is the tragedy that, as the Times reports, neither we nor the Haitians will have an accurate count for some time.

Such numbers do not merely astound; they numb. Our minds may cease to function when forced to comprehend one death; how may we digest one-fifth of a million lost lives? Whether that inability is a flaw or a coping mechanism I cannot say.

But if we are unable to get our minds around cataclysm, we nonetheless want to know why it occurs--especially if we believe in a god who loves us, cares for us, and attends to us. World-rending devastation seems tantamount to the absence of God, for why would He ever allow such terrors?

Thus, in times of trial, believers often turn to theodicy--the effort to defend divine goodness in the face of great ills. Or more simply, the attempt to see God's presence in a world with soul-destroying natural disasters.

Nonetheless, theodicy is a daunting--perhaps impossible--task, one that too often takes the form of mindless theological acrobatics. As just one example, take Pat Robertson's heartless claim that Haitians deserved their suffering as a result of a "deal with the devil." This sick rationalization is itself a theodicy. For if Haiti somehow earned last week's catastrophe, then God's justice--and presence--is spared, and we know "why" the earthquake happened. According to Robertson's logic (since retracted), the horrific tremor was no deadly cosmic error but dramatic expiation for past sins.

But doesn't Robertson's theodicy itself seem like a deal with the devil--a deadly bargain that preserves the greatness of God while mortgaging His goodness? Nonetheless, for some it keeps its suasive pull ... for what is the believer's alternative? To throw up his or her hands and chalk another fatal tally for the sublime mystery of heaven? Either option is maddening.

One psalm in particular--Psalm 22--uses poetry to illustrate this madness. For the believer coping with great tragedy is forced into a double bind where he or she must either accept both God and tragedy ... or reject both. Either seems impossible, so the mind careens schizophrenically between extremes and has no time for rest.

The psalm opens, famously, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (22:1) Christians may recognize these words in another context: Jesus speaks them from the cross in Matthew 27.

The speaker continues, nearing despair, "Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? / O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; / and by night, but find no rest" (22:1-2).

These opening verses evoke God's distance; they dramatize points in each person's life during which the divine is far away or even absent. However, the devastating verb "forsaken" in verse one suggests that God is not gone by chance or misfortune, but by intention--on purpose. And how easy is it to put these words in the mouths of those dying under concrete in Port-au-Prince, perhaps at this moment.

However, the following verse turns to hope: "Yet you are holy, / enthroned on the praises of Israel. / In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. / To you they cried, and were saved" (3-4). Even in the darkest hour, believers may hold on to the promise that God is never wholly absent--that though He may punish, He also relents; that while He may chastise, He also restores or "saves."

But on a dime, the psalmist veers back toward desolation in 6: "But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by people." Hope is a thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson reminds us, but the desolate fear that it is only feathers--that it may blow to pieces in a stiff wind.

The wave, though, crests again in verse 9, as the author recalls, "Yet it was you [God] who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother's breast [...] Do not be far from me." But it ebbs once more in 12: "Many bulls encircle me [...] I am poured out like water, / and all my bones are out of joint" (12, 14).

Clearly, this is a man of two minds. Confronting unspeakable loss--for indeed, the poet never fully describes his affliction--his mind swings like a pendulum from hope to despair and back again. And tragedy, it seems, drives him only further into madness.

To face tragedy in this world while believing in a God who should desire to expunge it from this world is to be schizophrenic, to be mad. With its verse-by-verse turns, Psalm 22 perfectly illustrates this addled, addling state of mind. The speaker suffers so greatly--yet trusts so fervently--that he can say with Job, "I do not know myself" (Job 9:21).

Of course, this blog is not for the believer or the skeptic, the schizophrenic or the sound of mind. It is for those who want to ask tough questions and use the Bible to help. But whatever your belief system, keep those suffering in Haiti close to your mind and your heart this week, this month, this year. Pray. Or meditate. Or give. Or give. Or give.
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Saturday, January 9, 2010

Oldest Piece of Hebrew Writing Found at Elah

I come to you this morning with breaking news! Breaking news in Biblical studies! Stop the presses!

Alright, I don't have any presses--just a "publish post" tab. Hell, the New York Times has probably mortgaged their last press. Nonetheless, the news must out.

A professor at the University of Haifa--Gershon Galil--has successfully translated what scholars now believe to be the oldest piece of Hebrew writing. (Here is the Jerusalem Post's coverage of the story.) Archaeologists working a site in the Elah valley--where David is said to have slew Goliath--unearthed 3000 year-old pottery fragments with carved inscriptions in a very archaic version of Biblical Hebrew. (The photo on the left makes it look like a delicious piece of toast.) The text reads as follows, according to Galil's translation:

1' you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].

2' Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]

3' [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]

4' the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.

5' Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.

Though this is not a Biblical passage, it does feature recognizable aspects of the early Israelite religious practice that would become Judaism ... among them an incipient monotheism--"you shall not do it, but worship the Lord"--and a healthy advocacy of social justice--"Protect the poor and the slave / support the stranger."

But why should we care? Well, this find confirms the possibility that parts of the Bible could have been written as early as the tenth century, B.C.E., during the reign of King David. (Interestingly, this is Harold Bloom's speculative hypothesis in The Book of J.)

Traditional Bible readers (Orthodox Jews and some evangelical Christians) believe the Tanakh's claim that Moses wrote the Bible in the fourteenth century, B.C.E. However, no linguistic or archaeological evidence supports such a hypothesis. Thus, in recent years, modern scholars have been persistently revising that number forward; many contemporary researchers have recently argued that the oldest parts of the Bible were written in the sixth or seventh century, B.C.E.

However, Galil's translation allows us to move that date back once more, to the time of the most successful monarchy in ancient Israelite history. Click here for more

Monday, January 4, 2010

War on Christmas: Dispatch from the Front

One of the unfortunate results of the American right's continued whining about the so-called "war on Christmas"--which apparently rages on--is that now saying "Merry Christmas" feels like a lame political statement ... as if my run-of-the-mill December greeting were verbal support for a flagging holiday under siege.

For the record, I only ever said "Merry Christmas" because "Happy Holidays" required a tricky double-aspirated "H" ... a tough feat for the linguistically lazy. (And frankly, "linguistically lazy" is a little tough too.) This year, the kerfuffle got so bad that upon wishing a passerby "Merry Christmas" on Christmas Eve, I was self-righteously corrected: "No, Merry Christ-mas," he said, giving the second word a long "i." Sheesh.

As if a horde of Fox News broadcasters and Republican Congressmen hadn't given me ample reminder that Jesus's favoritest festival is under attack. (Here's Fox's Bill O'Reilly's covering the ongoing assault just a month ago. And here's Stephen Colbert's spot-on riposte.)

But the conflict begs the question: if the right worries that Christmas isn't as important to Americans as it used to be, how important was it to early Christians? How important is it in the Bible? Well ... less important than you'd think.

So here it is, my post-Christmas pop quiz, delivered two weeks after the holiday only to avoid seeming a little too Grinch-ly: how many of the gospels actually mention the birth of Jesus, the event that Christmas supposedly commemorates? a) 1 b)2 c)3 d)4 e)5

If you answered "e," you're right! ... Kidding. There are only four gospels.

And of those four, only 50% of the four mention Christmas--that's right, the correct answer is "b." Surprised?

You shouldn't be. Because the birth of Jesus, at least for the authors of Mark and John, isn't the starting point of the Christian message. Unlike Luke and Matthew (who combine to give us our version of the Christmas story), Mark and John begin with the baptism of Jesus.

Why? Well, for these two evangelists, the real action doesn't start until Jesus starts preaching--when he begins his public ministry. And he doesn't begin his public ministry until he is baptized. And he isn't baptized until sometime around his 30th birthday--baptism only becoming a mainstream Christian ritual years after Jesus's death.

For these two Scrooge-like gospelers, God officially lays his holy imprimatur on Jesus at the river Jordan--when John the Baptist does his water magic, the skies open, and God claims Jesus as his divine spawn. There are no shepherds, no singing angels, no mangers, no Magis, and, sorry Glenn Beck, no Christmas sweaters.

Humbug indeed.

So Bill O'Reilly and Mr. Beck can get a jump start on their "war on Christmas" coverage for next year with this little scoop: the battle began not with Barack Obama and the liberal ay-leets, but with Biblical authors, nearly 2000 years ago.
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