Monday, June 28, 2010

The Bible, the Supreme Court, and the Second Amendment

"Wisdom is better than weapons of war," says the Teacher in Ecclesiastes 9:18. Today's Supreme Court ruling in McDonald vs. Chicago, however, gives an important victory to the weapons of war.

The decision expands upon the precedent set two years ago in District of Columbia vs. Heller, when the Roberts Court ruled that the second amendment--involving the right to bear arms--applies both to groups and to individuals. Though the point is hotly debated in Constitutional and legal circles, today's verdict assures that the individual's right to bear arms will hold on both the federal and the state and local levels. (The Times can probably do a better job of summarizing than I can.)

Now, while neither the Bible nor any other scripture should influence the Court's rulings, it is worth noting that the Roberts Court's general movement on the issue of gun ownership--toward a more permissive stance--is counter to that of Biblical wisdom, which acknowledges the dire need of the "weapons of war" in the bloody present but envisions an ideal, sword-less future.

In the Bible, the nation of Israel is constantly surrounded by real military threats, and weapons are often necessary for self-defense. A famous example comes in Nehemiah 4, when the Israelites take twice as long as they might in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem because every worker holds a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other.

But the sword in the Bible is not only a defensive tool but also an offensive weapon. In Leviticus, God says that he will reward the Israelites with military victories "by the sword" if they keep His covenant: "If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully [...] You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword" (Leviticus 26:1, 7).

That having been said, the Bible often characterizes "the sword" as a necessary evil that will someday fall by the wayside. Also in Leviticus, God suggests that if the first reward of obedience is military victory, the final prize is the end of weaponized strife; he continues, "And I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and no one shall make you afraid; I will remove dangerous animals from the land, and no sword shall go through your land" (26:6).

This in moving toward the famous, peaceful utopia of Isaiah 2:4: "they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, / and their spears into pruning-hooks; / nation shall not lift up sword against nation, / neither shall they learn war any more."

In this pacific future, "weapons of war" are turned into instruments of agricultural production--tools of death are transformed into tools of life. The motion is away from sword ownership, not toward it. And away, it seems, from today's Court decision. Click here for more

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Genesis 3: Is the Fall Eve's Fault?

Last week, I dedicated a blog post to Lilith, Adam's "first wife" according to tradition. This week, I address his "other" wife Eve to deal with a pressing question: whose fault is the Fall?

Most of us are familiar with some version of the opening of Genesis: Adam and Eve live peacefully in the Garden, free to eat of all fruit except that of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (2:17). Eve, however, is tempted by a serpent to transgress God's only command; she eats the fruit, convinces her husband to do the same, and brings an everlasting curse on humanity.

Though both man and woman eat the forbidden food, early Christian writers agree that Eve is the arch-sinner. The author of 1 Timothy puts it succinctly: "Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor" (1 Timothy 2:14). For this writer, Eve's superior sin casts a pall over all female-dom, and scores of early Christian authors take his lead in excoriating women for Eve's misstep.

However, I always encourage readers to treat the opening chapters of Genesis as a whodunnit--to examine the text closely and assign blame more fairly. Yes, Eve trips up. But many modern readers of Genesis argue that she is not so guilty as the Timothy author would have us believe. In fact, she may just be the victim of bad intelligence.

There are a number of ways that modern scholars use Genesis to defend Eve's action, but their work usually starts with 3:3. At this point in the text, the serpent--who is, by the by, never identified as Satan--has already approached Eve and delivered an awkward pick-up line: "Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" (3:2) (If this were a bar, the serpent would get shot down.)

Eve replies, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, 'You shall not eat the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die'." (3:2-3). Eve's got the gist, but she's off on the details. God delivers his famous dietary restriction to Adam in 2:17: it reads, simply, "Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat."

There are two differences between Eve's understanding of God's command and His articulation of it. First, Eve believes that she can neither eat of the tree nor touch it. In reality, God only forbids tasting the fruit. Second, Eve identifies the tree not by its function--as giving the knowledge of good and evil--but by its location: it is the "tree in the middle of the garden."

How are we to explain these discrepancies? Some suggest that Eve is just playing fast and loose with the divine word; her changes indicate her moral lassitude. But this is an anti-Eve reading likely generated by later, anti-feminist attitudes.

Many instead attribute these small alterations, ironically, to Adam. Indeed, Eve is not present when Adam receives God's no-fruit interdiction--she has yet to be created. The text, then, allows for the possibility that Adam passes along the command with small but devastating changes.

This line of reasoning goes as follows: perhaps Adam does not trust Eve to understand the severity of God's request, so he beefs it up: she may neither eat nor touch the fruit.

Further, he may not respect her moral intelligence, so he changes the tree of knowledge of good and evil to the tree in the middle of the garden--that one, over there.

Thus, when Eve reaches the crucial moment, she has faulty information. For philosophers, moral decision-making relies on correct knowledge--a correct knowledge Eve does not have in Genesis 3. For example, if Eve were told that arsenic is an artificial sweetener--and not a poison--she could not be blamed for putting it in Adam's drink. Similarly, if she does not know the true nature of the fruited tree, we cannot blame her if she makes bad choices about eating it.

To drive home the point, many artists (see Albrecht Durer's painting above) show the serpent wrapped around the tree. Eve, looking on, sees a living being touching the tree and not perishing--an impossibility given her understanding of God's law.

So when she takes that fateful bite, she may not be succumbing to ethical weakness. She may just be working with bad intelligence.
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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Isaiah 34: Who Is Lilith?

Much like the book of Obadiah, the 34th chapter of Isaiah is a condemnation of Edom, a neighbor nation of Israel that earns God's wrath after years of overt and covert military harassment. The chapter is a prophecy suggesting that the enemy nation will one day be annihilated as punishment for its sins against God's people.

"For the Lord has a day of vengeance,
a year of vindication by Zion's cause.
And the streams of Edom shall be turned to pitch,
and her soil into sulfur;
her land shall become burning pitch [...]
For generation to generation it shall lie waste;
no one shall pass through it forever and ever." (34:8-10)

The rest of the chapter is filled with similar punishments: fire and brimstone, hell and high-water, drought and famine, death and destruction, cats and dogs living together. It's pandemonium.

But the punishments get to sound a little strange in verse 14: "Wildcats shall meet with hyenas, / goat-demons shall call to each other; / there too Lilith shall repose, / and find a place to rest." Wildcats, hyenas, goat-demons, and ... um, Lilith?

Modern readers may wonder what this poor girl did to deserve such bad company. Is the Isaiah author picking on the single ladies of Edom? Jackals and coyotes shall bathe in the blood of children; lions and vultures will scream across the sky; and Carol will be their next door neighbor?

Kidding ... but unlike Carol, Lilith is not tormented by the hellish landscape of post-apocalyptic Edom; she is part of it. For ancient Israelites, Lilith (or sometimes simply the lilit, in Hebrew) is an evil lady-demon who torments infants and young mothers. She is a succubus who, according to legend, kills babies and ruins pregnancies. And she is right at home in this God-forsaken wasteland.

But some know of Lilith as something different: Adam's first wife.

There are lots of stories floating around about Adam's wife before Eve, named Lilith. The nineties women's-empowerment rock spectacular "The Lilith Fair" took its name from her. But many do not know that she is never mentioned in Genesis. (The word "Lilith" appears only in Isaiah 34.)

Adam's Lilith is actually part of Jewish midrash--later rabbinic stories inspired by Biblical narratives. Louis Ginzberg, a famous 20th-century compiler of midrashim, tells the story of Lilith in his book, Legends of the Bible:

"To banish [Adam's] loneliness, Lilith was first given to Adam as wife. Like him she had been created out of the dust of the ground. But she remained with him only a short time, because she insisted upon enjoying full equality with her husband. She derived her rights from their identical origin [...] Lilith flew away from Adam, and vanished in the air. Adam complained before God that the wife He had given him had deserted him, and God sent forth three angels to capture her. They found her in the Red Sea, and they sought to make her go back with the threat that, unless she went, she would lose a hundred of her demon children daily by death. But Lilith preferred this punishment to living with Adam. She takes her revenge by injuring babies [...]"

Thus Lilith is banished, and God gives Adam Eve--a more submissive partner. And his first wife is free to harass toddlers ... and haunt Edom.
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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Sharron Angle, the Bible, and Deborah

People outside Nevada are just getting to know Sharron Angle.

But if the political winds continue to blow in her favor, Angle might just unseat the most powerful man in the U.S. Senate this fall. On Tuesday, Angle bested a field of better-known, better-funded Republicans in the Nevada primary, winning the chance to take on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in November. (Here's today's story from the Times.)

Angle gained momentum when she wrested the valuable "Tea Party" mantle from her opponents. During her career as a state legislator, she became famous (or infamous) for her far-right positions on Social Security (phase it out), Medicare (privatize it), the Department of Education (abolish it), guns (more!), and abortion (publicize its links to breast cancer). (!!?!) (The Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life non-profit, has unsurprisingly endorsed her.)

Angle's web site is remarkably uninformative, but her facebook page gives a decent summary of her platform. Time will tell if her extreme positions will energize or alienate voters, but for the moment, Angle is enjoying a moment in the sun.

Angle, a longtime educator who began her teaching career in a one-room Christian school, was inspired to go into politics by the Bible. In 1977, Angle barely survived an operation to remove a tumor from her spine. During recovery, a friend came to her claiming to have had a vision of Deborah. Said Angle to the Las Vegas Review Journal, "Deborah was really the first woman politician."

Angle took her friend's vision as a sign that she should get into politics: "When you see God move in these kinds of ways, you see God is real [...] All of a sudden I was changed. My life had a purpose."

Deborah is arguably the most powerful woman in the Bible. She is a "prophetess" or judge whose story is told in (surprise) Judges 4. In early Israelite history, judges aren't simply jurists--they are potent secular leaders who guide the nation in the years before the establishment of the monarchy. Deborah is the only female judge; however, she not only legislates but helps lead the Israelite army against an enemy invader named Sisera.

Now, I don't agree with most of Angle's political views; they actually seem pretty crazy. But I absolutely love her choice of Deborah as a Biblical role model. It's spicy and literate. Click here for more

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Isaiah 21: The Fall of Babylon

In the Bible, prophecy is a thankless task. Though we generally think of prophets as sweet-ass Dumbledores who can tell the future, Biblical prophets have a less flashy role to play. Most often, their job is to rain on the Israelites' parade.

Prophets are like the ref who calls back the game-winning touchdown on a holding penalty. When things seem to be going well, they step in and point out that no matter how much fun we're having, we're also breaking the rules.

Therefore, it's not surprising that prophets are chastised (almost all of them), thrown to the lions (Daniel), threatened with death (Jeremiah), hunted (Elijah), and occasionally killed (John the Baptist) just for doing their jobs.

But every once in a while, a prophet gets to deliver a message that the Israelites want to hear. Like in Isaiah 21.

From the eighth to the sixth century B.C.E., the nation of Israel is a small raft buffeted by big winds. Imperial world powers amass at its doorstep, besieging the tiny nation and occasionally lopping off pieces of the state. First the Assyrians then the Babylonians relentlessly attack Canaan, and in 586 B.C.E., the capital city of Jerusalem falls, along with the Temple of the Lord.

That year marks the beginning of the Babylonian Exile, a nearly five-decade span during which time the remnant of Israel is forced to live away from the Promised Land. But as time passes, rumors spread that the Babylonian empire is weak; the Persians are rising and the enemy of Israel is itself in danger.

And the author of Isaiah is eager to forecast Babylon's fall:

"Then the watcher called out:
'Upon a watchtower I stand, O Lord, continually by day,
and at my post I am stationed throughout the night.
Look, there they come, riders, horsemen in pairs'.
Then he responded, 'Fallen, fallen is Babylon;
and all the images of her gods lie shadowed on the ground'.
O my threshed and winnowed one,
what I have heard from the Lord of hosts,
the God of Israel, I announce to you" (21:8-10).

Finally, God gives the prophet news for which the people yearn. The Babylonians will be defeated, and the exile will end. And the Isaiah author tells truth. For Babylon does fall in 539 B.C.E., and by the end of the century, many Israelites will return to the land they thought they had lost forever.

Now, most contemporary scholars do not believe that this is a "true" prophecy--that it is written before 539 and actually tells the future. The chapter was likely written after the event, a celebration of the accomplished fact.

But the Isaiah author probably doesn't care; he finally gets to speak some good news.
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Friday, June 4, 2010

LeBron to New York? The Bible Commands It, Says Bloomberg.

New York City is mounting a promotional campaign of Biblical proportions in an effort to woo LeBron James--the best player in the NBA, and a soon-to-be free agent--to the City that Never Sleeps. Or to New Jersey. Either one would be fine. Mayor Michael Bloomberg recorded the following video message to make his case:

Bloomberg ends his plea with a campy Bible reference: "As the good book says, lead us to the promised land. And that's a quote from the King James version!" (For those of you who've been living under rocks since the Jordan era, "King James" is LeBron's nickname.)

Watching Bloomberg, the elvish king, slavishly pander to a 25 year-old phenom from Cleveland is funny enough, but what's funnier? "Lead us to the promised land" is not a quote from the King James Bible. It's merely a rough paraphrase of the Exodus narrative, in which Moses leads the Israelites to Canaan, the "place which the Lord hath promised" (Numbers 14:40). I hope Bloomberg's PR guys are better than his Bible scholars, or else LeBron's heading to Chicago. Click here for more

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

John 1: Nancy Pelosi and "the Word"

The blogosphere is aghast today that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told the Catholic Community Conference that her favorite word is "Word." Here's the clip:

Pelosi's getting religious here, but she sounds a little ridiculous to me--in no small part because she says "word" twelve times in less than a minute and keeps looking at her (silent) audience expecting them to acknowledge just how clever she is.

But Pelosi has a Biblical point to make. Her "Word" is the Greek logos, which appears most prominently in the opening verses--or prologue--of the Gospel of John:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it [...] And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (John 1:1-5;14).

For the John author, the "Word" is Jesus. (And for the record, John writes "Word" only four times to the Speaker's dozen.) Pelosi's point--it seems--is that she takes Jesus as her inspiration and her model.

But John's vision of Jesus is special--it is what theologians sometimes call a "high Christology" because it depicts Jesus as very powerful, eternal, and immutable. Said differently, if Luke's Jesus is born in a stable in Bethlehem, humbly and lowly, John's Jesus is never "born"; he is always already present. He is the creative principle of the universe. And he floats over the face of the deep when God, through him, builds the cosmos. He is extremely high.

Pelosi's critics take issue with her pontificating because it implies that she creates policies that Jesus would support. Critics on the right believe that her positions are not at all Jesus-like; critics on the left argue that in a secular state, Jesus (or Moses, or Muhammed, or Lao Tzu) should not be a model for legislation.

I personally believe that Jesus would like quite a few of Pelosi's signature bills--most notably a health-care overhaul that will eventually give 30 million more people insurance. But I take issue with her implication that the Word serves as her inspiration.

Indeed for John, Jesus as Word is wildly beyond comprehension and imitation; it is only when Word becomes flesh that we can draw near. Thus, Pelosi can pass very good bills based on her understanding of Jesus's example. But she can as soon lobby for Word-based legislation as she can fly.

And that's the Word. Click here for more