Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Genesis 32: Jacob and the Vampire

For the love of God, no: this is not a Twilight post. I would never sink so low in my efforts to make the Bible hip and relevant. (But tune in next week for my snarky take on scripture references in Courteney Cox's career-reviving sit-romp, Cougar Town!)

But you don't need me to tell you that vampires are currently en vogue. There's the Twilight series--in book and film form--there's the CW's Vampire Diaries, there's talk of a new Buffy movie, and Broadway producers will bring an all-fangs reboot of Rent to the stage early next year. (Just kidding on the last one.) Entertainment Weekly even reports that Will Smith has recently signed on to produce and star in The Legend of Cain, a film that re-imagines the Bible's first murderer as a vampire. More to come on that, surely. For myself, I'm hooked on True Blood, the sexy HBO camp-noir series that takes place on the Louisiana bayou.

But sad as Will Smith and I are to say it, there aren't really any blood-suckers in the Bible. However, there's one mysterious being that is nearly vampiric, and he wrestles with Jacob on the shores of the Jabbok in Genesis 32.

Many of you know Genesis 32 as the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. The third patriarch, on his way to meet with his estranged brother Esau, meets an angel at the riverside and wrestles him. Can you see the painting now? Jacob has flowing auburn locks, and the angels wings are only slightly askew? Neither can best the other, so the angel breaks Jacob's hip and gives him a very important new name: Israel.

The only problem with this version of the story? In the Bible, there's no "angel." Here's the opening: "Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him" (32:24-25). The Genesis author will only call him "a man" and say no more. Indeed, Jacob himself is curious, demanding that the wanderer reveal his name. But the man refuses, and the mystery deepens.

For me, there's always been more menace than miracle in this dark stranger. The story continues: "Then he [the man] said 'Let me go, for the day is breaking'" (26). This little roll in the mud has gone on a little long, and both fighters may want to grab a Luna bar before going their separate ways. But why is the "man" so concerned about daybreak? We presume that a member of the heavenly host would not be afraid of morning, so why is the WWE wannabe so eager to avoid the sun's rays? The text reveals nothing.

Jacob, of course, obliges, agreeing to let the man go in exchange for a blessing. He gets one, and the man slips away before sunrise. In the postgame press conference, Jacob tries to call the man God's messenger--or perhaps even God Himself: he calls the place "Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved'" (v. 30). However, this line always sounds like wishful thinking to me, and I'm not sure that Jacob knows what just happened to him; he can only guess.

Harold Bloom, in his Book of J, is suspicious of this strange "man"; he even goes so far as to argue that there's more demon than divine in Jacob's fellow wrestler. I can't help but agree, for this is an extremely dark movement in the Torah narrative. And I always think I catch a glimpse of the "man" licking his fangs as he slinks off into the shadows.
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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tim Tebow NCAA '11 Bible Verse Contest

Good afternoon, dear readers. These are the summer doldrums: the mercury has topped ninety for the last seventy-three days, humidity is so high that it's making a walk to the subway feel like a scuba dive, and I don't feel like doing my usual Tuesday Bible entry.

But a weekly post is a weekly post, and I am a man of habit. Hence, in place of more rumination on the complexities of Judeo-Christian scripture, I'd like to propose a thoroughly mindless contest. It goes like this ...

College football season is nearly upon us. (Okay, not "nearly," but it's just a couple months off, and fans like me are chomping at the proverbial bit.) And followers of the game know that one of last year's shining stars--Florida QB Tim Tebow--was not only an expert hurler but also a bit of a Bible thumper. Every game that he played, Tebow would write a Bible verse in silver marker on the black stickers he pasted under his eyes to fight off the sun's glare. Some favorites?

Hebrews 12: 1-2: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God."

Ephesians 2: 8-10: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life."

And that old chestnut, John 3:16. Here's a full listing of the 2009 season's verses.

Just a while back, EA Sports released its newest college football video game, "NCAA Football 11," and Tebow was once again put on the cover. However, in place of Bible verses, game designers put Florida Gator logos on the eye blacks--for what may or may not be obvious reasons.

However, this is a wrong that I'd like to see righted. I demand historical and cultural accuracy in the photoshopped images that adorn my Playstation 3 games ... thus the contest.

I'd like you, fair readers, football fans, and Bible fanatics, to propose appropriate, funny, or thematically relevant Bible verses for EA Tebow's scripture-less eye stickers. Contest winners will receive the undying adoration of the two other regular "Eat the Bible" readers--and the love and respect of yours truly. Just go ahead and post your ideas in the comment box below.

And just to prove I'm not a spoil sport, I'll lead off. Are you listening, EA Sports?

Isaiah 22: 17-18: "The Lord is about to hurl you away violently, my man. He will seize firm hold of you, whirl you round and round, and throw you like a ball into a wide land." Click here for more

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Bibles, Belief, and iPhone Apps

A few months ago, I noticed that a hard drive-full of Bible-related programs had sprung up on the iPhone App Store. Some were expected: for example, a free, searchable version of the King James Bible. (It's awesome, and other translations are available for small fees.) Others were not, such as BibleThumper--an app that delivers weird, off-key, or random scriptures out of context. Kinda cool.

Now, I thought that this flurry of iBible content was unworthy of serious analysis when I first stumbled upon it. But then the New York Times put it on their front page last Saturday. To think: I could have scooped 'em.

In the article, Paul Vitello notes a variety of apps that provide ammunition to those arguing for or against Bible-based belief systems. Thus "Fast Facts, Challenges, and Tactics" gives strategies for Christians "reasoning with an unbeliever." And "The Atheist Pocket Debater," promises to provide Nietzsche bombs to throw at the devout.

But what is most startling (if unsurprising) about this tit-for-tat is that it seems to be occurring in the very shallow end of the intellectual pool. One app for believers is entitled "One-Minute Answers to Skeptics"--as if a minute suffices to illuminate the complexities of a spiritual tradition thousands of years old. A piece of advice to believers everywhere: if it takes less than sixty seconds to justify your faith in God, you should stop eating the crayons from your favorite Italian restaurant and open Aquinas.

But stupidity isn't confined to the camps of the devout. The aforementioned "Pocket Debater" lists the following as a compelling rationale for unbelief; Vitello summarizes, "because miracles like Moses’ parting of the waters are not occurring in modern times, 'it is unreasonable to accept that the events happened' at all. 'If you take any miracle from the Bible' it explains, 'and tell your co-workers at your job that this recently happened to someone, you will undoubtedly be laughed at'."

Atheists who believe that "I've never seen the East River parted" is a solid argument against religious faith should take a running dive into said body of water... the really dirty part.

But this latter argument is especially irksome to me and anyone else who takes the Bible seriously. Does the "Pocket Debater" truly believe that Hebrew scripture stands or falls based on whether or not Moses actually cut a body of water in half?

Devout and skeptical readers of the Bible--from Augustine to David Friedrich Strauss--have long acknowledged that the text can be read on a variety of levels--that it is polysemantic. The historical reality or unreality of the Red Sea story has nothing to do with its figural, moral, ethical, social, or religious meanings--all of which are of crucial importance to Christians and Jews everywhere.

Whether or not God helped Moses split the Red Sea so the Israelites could stream out of Egypt, the tale illustrates the miraculous willingness of Yahweh to liberate his people. Said differently, the story delivers hope whether or not it is historically real.

As I tell my Bible students all the time, just because a story isn't true doesn't mean that it isn't true.

Besides, "Pocket Debater," you can't prove to me that Moses didn't do miraculous things, so shut your trap. I saw Elijah in a piece of toast last week. Click here for more