Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Exodus 13: Abortion, Virginia Politics, and the First-Born

Man ... what will a Virginia congressman not say?

At a press conference last week, Republican Bob Marshall explained that disabled children are God's punishment for abortion: "The number of children who are born subsequent to a first abortion with handicaps has increased dramatically. Why? Because when you abort the first born of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children"--this from CBS.

But when Marshall says "nature," he apparently means "God," and Rachel Maddow reports that the congressman cites Exodus 13:2 as evidence for his claim.



The NRSV translates the relevant passage as follows:

"Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine." Marshall's stunted argument suggests, I think, that God's claim in Exodus forbids the abortion of the first-born because these children--even more than others--belong to Yahweh.

Pursuing this rationale to its logical conclusion, may we ask, Mr. Marshall, if God would condone the abortion of "non-consecrated" third-born? But I digress ...

Now, I don't mean to wade into the muddy waters of abortion debate: it's a difficult topic, and I respect sane thinkers in both pro-life and pro-choice camps. But I do want to suggest that Mr. Marshall's anti-abortion claim is scientifically dubious, remarkably callous, and--for our purposes--Biblically stupid.

In the fourteen seconds I've been thinking about this ridiculous story, I've come up with three solid reasons (of thousands) why Marshall is dumb to hang his offensive argument on this slim tack of a Biblical support.

First off, while this Exodus passage seems to indicate God's preference for the "consecrated" firstborn, crucial instances in the Tanakh prove that He actually likes second-born children better. For instance, while Abraham loves his first-born son Ishmael, God and Abraham's wife Sarah prefer the second-born Isaac, and the blessing passes on to the latter.

And while Isaac favors his first-born son Esau, God and his wife Rebekah favor the second-born Jacob, and the blessing again passes to the younger son. Jacob, perhaps detecting a pattern, actually curses his own first-born, saying to Reuben, "Unstable as water, you shall no longer excel" (Genesis 49:4). He loves his twelfth-born, Joseph, who will eventually save his family from famine. And the covenental lineage--which produces both King David and, for Christians, Jesus--derives from Jacob's fourth-born, Judah.

Speaking of David, it is his second-born son from his unseemly-got wife Bathsheba who becomes the third great king of Israel, Solomon. And if you don't mind me getting a little edgy, I'd suggest that God himself aborts the first-born child of that union in 2 Samuel 12:15.

Second, in quoting Exodus 13, Mr. Marshall would do well to remember its context. In this chapter, the Israelites have just been sprung free from Egypt after a series of spectacular plagues have been unleashed on their captors. The last of these plagues is, famously, the slaughter of the first-born. And while Egyptians are Egyptians and Israelites are Israelites, the latter might be a little hesitant to "consecrate" their first-born to a wrathful God who just massacred the first-born population of an entire nation.

Finally, Mr. Marshall forgets a seminal fact in referring his audience to Exodus 13:2: Americans are not Israelites. In this chapter, God makes a historically and nationally specific claim on the first-born of the Hebrews--God's chosen people. And while such claims may be understood as still binding on some conservative Jews--both in and outside Israel--they are not binding on, well, anyone else. Christians--and Marshall is a Christian--take the Hebrew Bible as inspired text, but even the most literal-minded do not follow all of Torah law. In fact, if I had a nickel for every Torah law that Marshall himself does not follow, I bet I'd have something like seventeen dollars, and I could go out for a nice dinner tonight.

So you can make all the jaw-dropping statements on abortion and punishment you want, Congressman. Just don't use the Bible to back them up. Say you were divinely inspired instead.
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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Genesis 1: Vegetarians and the Bible


What do Adam and Eve do in the garden before the fall? Genesis is relatively silent on the topic--at least from the Bible, we don't know much about what makes for a hot night out in prelapsarian Eden.

But wouldn't it have been nice of God to give the first couple recreational activities to keep them busy after the creation? You know ... something like "On the eighth day, God created a sweet bocce court and a small crowd of old Italian men to play with Adam and Eve." And "On the ninth day, God created an indoor ski resort like the kind they have in Tokyo, except with no chair lift lines ... ever." And "On the tenth day, God created a Playstation 3 and an Eden-friendly version of Grand Theft Auto where no cars are stolen, no whores are abused, and no drug dealers are killed."

God would see everything that he had made, and indeed, it would be awesome.

But if we don't know what there is to do in Eden, at least we know what there is to eat. And the menu, my fellow carnivores, is meat-free. That's right, Eden before the fall is a big old Moosewood Restaurant, full of delicious vegetarian options, and Adam and Eve may spend much of their time whipping up delicious plates of eggplant parmesan and nicoise salad.

Here's God to explain: "See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food" (1:29).

This command is for humans, but it turns out that the rule extends to the animal kingdom as well; God continues, "And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food" (1:30). That's right! In Eden, lions and tigers and bears eat legumes and turnips and beets. Oh my!

Said differently, the Genesis authors conceive of prelapsarian Eden as a violence-free zone. Even lions and lambs live in harmony, and never will a panther tear apart a gazelle. Nor, then, will humans kill or eat animals. Interestingly, this peace does not seem to be broken even by the fall--after all, Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, not the forbidden Kobe beef burger.

It does change, however, after Noah and his family emerge from the ark eight chapters later. After God lets the flood waters subside, and after He shows Noah the rainbow, He also increases humanity's menu options: "The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hands shall they be delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything" (9:2-3).

Perhaps I'm just a little crunchy, but this seems a decidedly more depressing fall than the first one. No longer can people and chickens and bunnies and cougars sit down and share a nice plate of babaganoush--predation has been introduced to the kingdom, and things will never be the same. Because in Genesis 9, God opens the slaughterhouse.

But if God allows humans to eat meat in Genesis 9, he certainly does not command it. So perhaps vegetarianism represents a good-faith effort to recover a little bit of Eden--or a slice of paradise.
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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Genesis 2: What Is Death?

Biblical scholars have long noted that the opening chapters of Genesis contain not one but two creation stories. The first is cosmic and grand: God speaks the universe into existence and creates humans (both sexes simultaneously) on the sixth day--a crowning achievement.

The second version of the story--perhaps more familiar to modern audiences--is grittier and more intimate. In it, God molds man from the earth, breathes life into his "nostrils," and creates woman from man's rib a little while later.

When God first speaks to Adam in this second tale, he plays both waiter and schoolmarm, first laying out menu choices and then issuing a dire warning: "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die" (Genesis 2:16-17).

As greetings go, this is closer to "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service" than "Welcome Home," and we can imagine that Adam might be a little taken aback at being scolded right out of the ground. Nonetheless, this is the famous command whose breach leads to the infamous fall. There's just one rule in the garden, and it boils down to the easiest diet in history: do not eat this fruit, lest ye die. (Take that, Atkins, you demanding prig.) However, the first couple can't help but binge, and thence comes "all our woe," in Milton's phrase.

But the allure of the forbidden is real: even Homer eats his soul donut. And we should be lenient in judging our first parents, at least in part because rules, as Douglas Macarthur reminds us, are mostly made to be broken.

But perhaps we might cut Adam and Eve even more slack, because while God's sanction seems simple--eating fruit=death--we may wonder if the naked pair can even understand the terms. Said differently, how can the first humans know "death" when they barely know life? And how can they make an informed decision on the fruit if they don't understand the penalty that will result from their eating it?

Now, I don't mean to malign Adam and Eve as bumbling imbeciles here. Rabbinic authors depict Adam as intelligent from the beginning, endowed with the wisdom of the universe the instant he springs from the earth.

But still ... in these first moments of being, it seems to me that you can fit all that Adam and Eve don't know into one of the less impressive Great Lakes--an Ontario or an Erie. Can they know "death" when they don't know how good cupcakes taste? Or the best way to get across Central Park without taking the subway? Or why Taco Bell isn't "real" Mexican? Or that the filibuster is too often misused by obstructionist politicians?

You may think I'm splitting hairs here--that this level of Biblical speculation is stupid. But I'm not alone in asking the question, do Adam and Eve really know what death is? Even John Milton--the great English poet who composed the Renaissance midrash Paradise Lost--wonders if Adam can get his mind around the notion of his own demise. In a conversation with his wife in Book IV of that great epic, Adam recapitulates the divine sanction--an "easie charge," he calls it--and proves his own thanatological ignorance (look it up!):

"of all the Trees
In Paradise that bear delicious fruit
So various, not to taste that onely Tree
Of knowledge, planted by the Tree of Life,
So neer grows Death to Life, what ere Death is,
Som dreadful thing no doubt" (IV, 421-426)

Adam, Milton guesses, does not know "what ere death is," and though he infers that it is "dreadful," he cannot confirm his surmise. So when his wife and he eventually eat of the fruit, they cannot possibly know what's coming next. So perhaps the original sin is a little more forgivable than we first thought.
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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Jeremiah 31: A "New" Testament?

As many of you know--but some of you may not--I'm a college Bible professor in New York City. And February brings with it, along with a mild freeze that local media outlets hyperbolically describe as either ear-splitting or downright fatal, a new university semester and a new crew of Bible students.

That semester began last night, and I always open my courses with a couple of terminological caveats. First, I explain that I will not be using the traditional abbreviations B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, or "the year of our Lord") for dating historical events. First, they're Christocentric, and one need not be Christian to study the Bible--or to remember dates, for that matter. Second, they're imprecise; according to most modern calculations, Jesus was probably born between four and six years before Christ ... though as Sarah Silverman reminds us, Jesus is magic, and he could be born before he was born if he wanted to be.

Second--and perhaps a bit more controversially--I tell my students that I will only infrequently refer to the two "halves" of the Bible as the "Old Testament" and the "New Testament." I will instead opt for "Hebrew Bible"--or "Tanakh"--and "Christian scripture." (Some of my Christian students are actually surprised to hear that the Old Testament is the Hebrew Bible are the same thing.)

Why? Well, for Jews, there is nothing "old" about the Tanakh. The Hebrew Bible is an intact, living corpus, made vibrant and "new" with each reader. According to Christians, the New Testament fulfills or completes the Hebrew Bible, but for Jews, there is no need. Hence, I emphasize that Christian scripture is a fascinating reinterpretation of Jewish scripture--but not a necessary one.

That being said, early Christians were not just being assholes when they started referring to the Tanakh as "old." They did have Biblical precedent, provided for them by the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, who forecasts the need for a new testament in the thirty-first chapter of the book that shares his name.

For both Jews and Christians, testament is roughly synonymous with "covenant," the name the Bible gives to the pseudo-contractual relationship developed between the Jewish people and their God. The covenant begins with Abram/Abraham in Genesis; in exchange for loyalty and worship, God will give Abraham many descendants and a land in which to put them.

God reaffirms the covenant--this time with Moses and all the Israelites--in Exodus and seals it with the promulgation of the Torah law. According to this expanded covenant, Yahweh will bless the Israelites if they keep and follow the Torah and worship Him as the one true God. This covenantal relationship gets off to a rocky start in the wilderness outside Egypt, but it persists nonetheless and eventually flourishes in the monarchy of David, sometime around the tenth century, B.C.E.

However, after David, it's all downhill. David's son Solomon takes hundreds of wives and concubines, and finds time in what must have been an exhausting sexual schedule to start worshiping lots of other gods. His apostasy causes the kingdom of Israel to split in two, beginning a dissolution that will end with the defeat of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians and the destruction of the Southern Kingdom by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.--right around the time Jeremiah was writing his prophetic texts.

Jeremiah, then, looks out on the sad state of affairs in Israel and assumes that the Jewish/Hebrew people have so thoroughly fouled up the covenant that it is dead and defunct. Unwilling to despair, however, Jeremiah pleads to God for a new covenant:

"The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of Egypt--a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jeremiah 31: 31-33).

For Jeremiah, this passage describes a significant re-evaluation of the old covenant, but one that maintains continuity with most of the old covenant's features: a focus on the people Israel, who will have an exclusive relationship with Yahweh confirmed by an internalized but still important Law.

For early Christians, however, this passage opened the door for a much more radical re-evaluation of the notion of covenant. Indeed, Christians understand the Jesus movement as a necessary but thoroughly innovative re-envisioning of the relationship between God and humanity--so innovative that it requires a brand new set of books to describe it ... the New Testament, or, alternately, the New Covenant.
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