Thursday, August 4, 2011

REELigion ... My Take on "Captain America" and the Death of Khal Drogo

A couple of weeks ago, my good friend Patton Dodd, editor over at Patheos.com--a very slick, ecumenical web site on faith and religion--asked if I'd begin contributing to a new religion and film blog they're hosting.  I'm a pushover when it comes to seeing my words in print, so I agreed.  Hence, every once in a while, I'll devote my weekly Eat the Bible blogging to this new site, REELigion

This week, I submitted a post on religion--or lack thereof--in the new Captain America film.  Check it out!

But don't just go to REELigion for me; other luminaries in the field--among them Bradley Herling, Martyn Oliver, and Mr. Dodd himself--will occasionally contribute.  And they're all a lot smarter and funnier than I am.  Click here for more

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Exodus 3: Can We Say that God Is Good?

As part of a book project, I've been picking through David Blumenthal's deeply challenging post-Holocaust theology, Facing the Abusing God.  Perhaps I'll get to his argument in a later post, but I've been meditating on Blumenthal's reminder that Maimonides, the great 12th-century Jewish philosopher and theologian, contends that God is without attributes.  More simply, God is so thoroughly beyond comprehension that we may not simply stick adjectives to his name.  We may not say that God is "mighty," or that God is "present," or that God is "powerful," because these modifiers constrain a deity whose being is beyond human expression. 

In making such a statement, Maimonides takes part in what comes to be known as "negative theology."  Simply put--and perhaps too simply put--negative theology starts with the premise that God is so beyond our wildest imagination that we can only say what He is not.  As a consequence, the most effective theologies may deal in negation, paradox, contradiction, and perhaps even in skillfully deployed silence.

It occurred to me, however, that Maimonides's argument is prefigured by a very early Biblical text, Exodus 3,  in which God "introduces" himself to his first prophet, Moses.  Here are the relevant lines:

"But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you," and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am'. He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you."’"

The Divine Name as rendered here is "I am who I am"--an evasive nomenclature if ever there was one--and we likely do not envy Moses his task.  At worst, God's name feels redundant, repetitive, and frankly, dismissive.  Here, I always picture God as the tired executive, lounging back in his desk chair, knees crossed, waving his hand in a slow circle.  He might be talking a little bit like the Godfather, too. 

However, this gnomic utterance--"I am who I am"--is not the only available translation of the Hebrew original, ehyeh asher ehyeh.  In the King James Version of the Bible, Exodus 3:14 names God as "I am that I am."  This rendering has allowed generations of English-speaking scholars to suggest that in this passage, God is defining himself as Being--pure essence. 

But when I teach this text, I always say what my Bible professors taught me: Biblical Hebrew does not make a clear-cut distinction between the present tense and the future tense.  Thus, one may acceptably translate this name of God as "I will be what I will be," a version that gets us back to Maimonides and negative theology.  With this third naming, we learn that we cannot name God; only God can name God.

We cannot say what God is, or what God "will be."  Only He can.

Such heady statements may lead to some downright frightening conclusions.  Because for the purest of negative theologians, God is not "loving," or "compassionate," or "rational," or--most disturbing of all--"good."  God is only "what he will be."  And we are not privy to what this "what" is. Click here for more

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Job 38: "The Tree of Life" and the Voice from the Whirlwind

In my heart of hearts, I consider myself a true cinephile.  My credentials are sterling: I trashed Titanic when it won the Oscar, I claim to understand the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and for many years, I wrote reviews of movies made for teen girls for a newspaper I like to call "the Grey Lady"--The Kalamazoo Gazette.  (Is that nickname already taken?)

So it was with chagrin that I recently realized I had never seen anything by Terrence Malick, the reclusive American auteur.  (I may have slept through Thin Red Line in college, but even I won't count that.) 

And thus, it was with head humbly dipped that I trooped down to the Kendall Square Cinema last week to salvage my reputation and watch The Tree of Life, Malick's most recent film and a newly minted Palme d'Or winner.  (If you don't know what that is, I'm not going to tell you; I'm a real movie guy.)

Tree is a hybrid film.  Half mid-century, father-son drama, half cosmological speculation, it juxtaposes scenes of family life in rural Texas with sublime panoramas of the universe in flux--stars, planets, suns, and nebulous gas clouds.  Brad Pitt--playing an overbearing father of three--shares the screen with a small herd of CGI dinosaurs, if not at the same time.  This idiosyncratic fusion has caused some viewers to walk out of the theater after minutes.  (Though I've got a name for them--pansies.)

Now first, know that Tree isn't nearly so avant garde as those early exiters would have you believe; we're not watching David Lynch here. Nonetheless, any honest effort to interpret the film must reconcile its two major strands: the celestial and the domestic.  But with a little help from the Bible, I believe that it's not so hard a job as you might think.  Here's why ... 

Malick opens the film with a brief quote from the book of Job.  The translation he chooses reads, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" (38:4,7)

He then dives into his tale.  The opening fifteen minutes are dominated by two images: first, a mother (played by the luminous Jessica Chastain, shown above) receiving word that her son, a soldier, has died; second, a stellar explosion that most reviewers read as the Big Bang.  The rest of the film plays out both moments.

In one half, Malick delivers the pre- and post-history of that military death.  In the other half, we get a de facto history of the universe, from the first explosion to the primordial goo to early fish creeping onto land to velociraptors to ... well, I could go on. 

It is the book of Job that bridges the gap between the two.

Job, of course, is the story of a man afflicted by God.  After losing his riches and then his children in a string of not-so-freak accidents, Job sits down in a pile of ashes to lament his sorry state.  And the next thirty-five chapters of harrowing debate boil down to a simple question: Why? Job, you see, is a good man, a righteous man, and a man of God.  That his life should be so devastated seems, to him, tragic--or at least tragically unfair.

However, the miracle of the book is that Job, unlike all who suffer today, receives an answer from the deity.  In a passage that many simply call "the voice from the whirlwind," God takes four chapters (38-41) to respond in detail to Job's complaint.  They open with the following verses, from which Malick takes his epigraph:

"Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man, I will you question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements--surely you know!
On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings started for joy?" (Job 38:2-7)

These verses--and the hundred-odd that follow--give Job a God's-eye view of his own suffering.  "Your torment feels big," God seems to say; "Well, let me show you big."  So God takes Job to the beginning of the universe, challenges him with the mystery of life, escorts him to the peak of the world and to the depths of the abyss.  And Job is hushed by the comparison.

Malick, I believe, does the exact same thing with us; he shows us poignant loss and weighs it against the whole universe.  Halfway through, I was ready to retitle the film Job: The Movie; the answers that Malick provides to the thorny questions of human suffering are downright Biblical.

Ah, but are those answers persuasive?  I'll leave that question for another day. 
Click here for more

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Herman Cain, Keith Ellison, Sharia, and the Bible

Have you heard of Herman Cain?  No?  Well, that's fine.  Don't read any further; I'm not sure I want to give him any more coverage than he's already stolen.

Cain, a Republican, is a former Federal Reserve Bank chair and Godfather's Pizza CEO who's been able to grab a few headlines by forming a presidential exploratory committee.  As soon as a Palin or a Romney or even a Pawlenty throws his or her hat in the ring, we'll stop hearing about him. But for now, we must be submitted to his blather.

The latest of which is an interview with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham in which Cain claims that he'd never put a Muslim in his cabinet. Now, Cain will never have a cabinet that doesn't hang on his kitchen wall, but I digress ... here's the clip in full: 



Cain goes on to argue that he doesn't trust Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, himself a Muslim, because Ellison swore his oath of office on a copy of the Qur'an.  The Minnesota Independent delivers Cain's full quote in a recent article: "If you take an oath on the Qur’an, that means you support Sharia law. I support American law." Sharia is Muslim legal thinking--a set of juridical principles drawn from legal speculation on the Qur'an.

(Oklahoma's state legislature recently passed a bill that bans the use of sharia law in state courts. Here's slate.com's recent coverage.  If you're wondering, no one had ever tried to use sharia law in Oklahoma, but legislators wanted to stay ahead of the game. Rumor has it they've also tried to pass bills pre-emptively curtailing efforts to name cricket the official state sport and gayness the official state sexuality.)

Now, Ellison doesn't support the promulgation of sharia in the United States.  Like most American Muslims, he's pretty happy with American law.  But that's not my beef with Cain. My problem is Cain's seeming ignorance of the fact that the Bible also features a very explicit set of legal principles--the Torah--most of which we no longer follow.

His flawed logic suggests that because Ellison swore an oath on the Qur'an, he will necessarily seek to subject all Americans to its strictures. By extension, then, every American legislator who has sworn an oath on the Bible must then be similarly bound to try to pass its laws. 

But I have yet to hear of Paul Ryan proposing legislation that makes chicken farms illegal (Deuteronomy 22:6).  And I don't think that Nancy Pelosi has any plans to make adultery punishable by stoning (Deut. 22:22).  And as of yet, Mitch McConnell has never tried to ram through a bill that mandates the construction of parapets on all new buildings (Deut. 22:7).  But now that I think of it, I have seen him carrying around lots of suspicious blueprints lately ...

Of course, you probably knew all this already, and I'm probably just blowing hot air now. I'll stop, but for the love of dog, I hope Cain will stop talking soon too. Click here for more

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Exodus 28: God Does Play Dice

Last week was my first "off" week from Eat the Bible in nearly a year.  Are you impressed with my resolve? My consistency? My reliable effort? Me too.

But I've got a great reason for my brief hiatus: I went to Vegas last weekend to relearn all the hard and soft lessons that city has to teach. I relearned that blackjack will kill you. I relearned that basketball games are exponentially more fun to watch when you've got money riding on them.  I relearned that table service is obscenely expensive, and obscenely worth it. I relearned that my body definitely doesn't need eight hours of sleep per night.  And then I relearned that my body absolutely needs eight hours of sleep per night.

Katy Perry (image from www.chicstories.com)
But this year, I also learned something new:

I love craps!  I love the crowd of people.  I love making change with the dealer.  I love the sure weight of clay chips. I love the fleeting feel of the felt. I love the absurd "strategies" that other players use to place their bets.  I love the long wagers.

But most of all, I love throwing the dice. Man, do I love throwing the dice.

Most sane people believe that the dice throw in craps is entirely unpredictable--that an impossible combination of gravity, friction, muscle memory, and momentum delivers results that, from our perspective, can only be random. But it takes all of four seconds at the craps table to see that most players believe they have real power to affect the outcome of each roll. Every veteran player has a unique ritual designed to avoid a seven, or hit the point, or pull a hard eight. (Harper's Magazine ran a fantastic feature on this phenomenon back in 2008.)

I now have one too. I like standing on the flat side of the table, to the left of the croupier. When the stick-man pushes the dice my way, I let them sit on the table for a second.  Then I manipulate each die--one at a time--rotating it until it reads the number I want to roll. Then, keeping those numbers up, I brush the dice in a circle around my pass-line chips--once.  Clockwise or counterclockwise?  It doesn't matter; the universe decides. Then I throw, right-handed, all wrist, lightly--a soft line-drive that falls a foot before the backstop and rebounds near the wall.

It sounds insane, I know. Until you hit a streak. Then it feels like magic. Like voodoo magic. And all of a sudden, I am a voodoo-doctor, a dice-throwing hero, raking in cash not only for myself--indeed, not really for myself at all--but for the dozen screaming initiates around me.

My heart's racing right now even as I write.

But I know what you're thinking.  Why do I tell you my black-arts strategies here, on my Bible blog? Because I'm not the only one who loves craps. With all due respect to Einstein, God loves rolling dice too. Wanna know how I know? Read on, my voodoo babies ...

Roughly the second half of the book of Exodus (chapters 25-40) tells of the construction of the tabernacle in exhaustive detail. After the Israelites escape Egypt, God asks them to build this tabernacle--basically an elaborate tent structure--to house both the ark of the covenant and, by extension, God himself. These chapters are full of detailed ritual prescriptions that outline not only the basic dimensions of the structure, but also the specific responsibilities of the priests who will minister to it.

At the head of the tabernacle's priesthood is Aaron, the brother of Moses. Now, God is a deity en vogue, so he takes two chapters to explain the particular outfit that Aaron should wear when working around the tabernacle (chapters 28-29). The description of the uniform begins with the ephod, a richly adorned apron with gem-encrusted shoulder pieces. (God apparently owns a Bedazzler.)  Over that ephod, the priest wears a similarly ornate breastpiece, woven through with gold, blue, purple, and crimson linens.

And then there's my favorite part: God commands that the low hem of the garment should include a ring of gold bells, specifically so that "its sound shall be heard when [Aaron] goes into the holy place before the Lord, and when he comes out, so that he may not die" (28:35). Here, God is treating Aaron like a cute little kitty near a garage door.

But God explains the priest's most mysterious accessory in 28:30: "In the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummin, and they shall be on Aaron's heart when he goes in before the Lord" (28:30). Biblical scholars are still divided over what the Urim and Thummin are. Some argue that they are small sticks; others that they are black and white stones; others that they are small pebbles.  And others still believe that the Urim and Thummin are, wait for it, dice.

Most all, however, believe that the they are oracular instruments that the tabernacle priests use to divine the Lord's intent--probably by throwing them.

Let that sink in for a second.

Sometimes, instead of talking to God, the priests of Israel roll the dice to find out what God is thinking. And the Urim and Thummin are those dice.

Such ritual gambling happens repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible; it is usually described in the English as "casting lots."  Thus, in Leviticus 16:8, Aaron casts lots to identify the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement. In Joshua 18, Joshua casts lots to find out how God wants to divide the land of Israel among the tribes. And in 1 Samuel 28, Saul knows that God is no longer with him because the dice confirm it: "When Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, not by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets" (28:6). Saul must have crapped out.

Divination using the Urim and Thummin seems to disappear during Israel's monarchical period, but it makes a comeback when the Israelites return to the Land after the exile.  Thus, in Ezra 3:63, "the governor told them that they were not to partake of the most holy food, until there should be a priest to consult the Urim and the Thummin."

The presence of the Urim and the Thummin in the early books of the Torah always surprises me.  We usually assume that early in the Bible, God is intimately close with his people. However, the notion that the first priests of Yahweh have to cast lots to discern his intent suggests that even in the Bible's second book, He has begun his inexorable progress upwards into the unreachable heavens, leaving his magic dice behind as a mere trace of his presence.

Now, did I find the Urim and Thummin in Nevada last Thursday?  Absolutely not.  Did I find God in Vegas over the weekend? Unlikely. But do I think He might of cracked a smile when I hit the point for the fourth time in a row?  Maybe.
Click here for more

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Jefferson Bible

The Washington Post reported last week that the Smithsonian will spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars to restore The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, better known as the Jefferson Bible. 

The Jefferson Bible--and yes, we're talking about Thomas, not George and Weezy--is the third president's cut-and-paste job on the New Testament.  Simply, it's Jesus, redacted. 

Jefferson used an actual knife to slice and splice six books--in four different languages--in creating his own version of the Christian Messiah. The "Bible" is that scrapbook--a text unknown to the public until around the turn of the last century.

But in the process of building his new scripture, Jefferson makes real changes to the text, all of which shed light on the founding father's religiosity.  For Jefferson, it seems, Jesus was just a man with a message--not a god with a healing touch.  Hence, in recreating The Life, he excised passages that display Christ's miraculous powers.  Even more, he deleted the resurrection. (It is said that Jefferson didn't want anyone to know about his Bible, because he didn't want to add fuel to critics' claims that he was anti-Christian.)

So, what exactly is Jesus then, if he can't raise the dead--or be raised from the dead?  I'll let you decide for yourself.  Not too long ago, Beliefnet.org posted a full translation of the Jefferson Bible; you can find it here

For my money, Thomas Jefferson's Jesus doesn't look too different from the Jesus of another Thomas, the author of the apocryphal Gospel of ThomasThat gospel, which didn't make it into the Bible, provides unique perspectives on Jesus's message--while leaving out all the miraculous mumbo-jumbo. 

Sorry.  I started channeling Thomas Jefferson for a second.  Enjoy! Click here for more

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Numbers 15: Unforgivable Sins

Bible scholars--and especially those interested in the legal strictures of Torah--often make a distinction between apodictic and casuistic laws.

Briefly, apodictic laws are "thou shalt not" rules; their language does not allow for the possibility that they might be broken.  The most famous example of apodictic law is the ten commandments; for instance, Exodus 20:13 simply reads, "You shall not murder," and that's it.  There's no other alternative.  God has spoken, and the people will no longer kill one another.  The brief, assertive power of apodictic law cannot imagine a world in which God would speak his law and the people would not obey. 

Casuistic law, on the other hand, is more pragmatic.  Instead of "thou shalt not," casuistic law demurs, saying, "thou shalt not, but if thou shall, then ..."  Exodus 21:13 is one such regulation.  If a person kills, the text explains, "if it was not premeditated, but came out by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which a killer may flee."  Casuistic law covers the world of gray areas, liminal zones where "always" and "surely" give way to "sometimes" and "perhaps."

The Torah's apodictic laws envision a perfect--and perfectible--world.  Casuistic laws acknowledge that we do not live there yet.

But Torah makes another legal distinction that's just as important; it also distinguishes between laws covering unintentional sin and intentional sin.

There are plenty of examples of the former.  Leviticus 4 and the chapters that follow it outline the sacrifices a priest may offer to atone for the mistakes the Israelites make without meaning to.  The chapter opens, "When anyone sins unintentionally in any of the Lord's commandments about things not to be done, and does any one of them ..." (4:2), and it continues by outlining rituals of atonement.

This word "unintentionally" sounds like a ringing bell throughout the rest of the chapter: "If the whole congregation of Israel errs unintentionally" (4:13), "When a ruler sins, doing unintentionally any one of the things that by commands of the Lord his God ought not to be done" (4:22), and "If anyone of the ordinary people among you sins unintentionally" (4:27).

This is hedging language that expects humans to try and fail.  It acknowledges the Israelites' good intentions and provides a mode of rectification for those whose intentions miss their mark.  Expiating for unintentional sin requires ritual sacrifice--a sin or guilt offering--but such expiation is possible.

In the Torah, however, it is much more difficult to get around intentional sins.  Indeed, it may be impossible.

Numbers 15 echoes the Levitical codes that cover unintentional sin.  The text reads, "An individual who sins unintentionally shall present a female goat a year old for a sin offering.  And the priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the one who commits an error, when it is unintentional, to make an atonement for the person, who then shall be forgiven" (15:27-28).  You might note, however, that the stray phrase in the second sentence--"when it is unintentional"--is manic.  And it sets up a crucial, even deadly distinction.

The author continues, "But whoever acts high-handedly, whether a native or an alien, affronts the Lord, and shall be cut off from among the people.  Because of having despised the word of the Lord and broken his commandment, such a person shall be utterly cut off and bear the guilt" (Numbers 15:30-31).  Scholars have long parsed that euphemistic adverb "high-handedly" as "intentionally," arguing that this passage from Numbers addresses those who sin brazenly and with full knowledge of their error.

A tallith.
For intentional sinners, no sacrifice will suffice to bring them back to God.  Expulsion from the divine community--a fate perhaps worse than death--is the only and irrevocable result.

For this reason, perhaps, the author concludes his chapter with a reminder, the description of a physical token that might help the Israelites recall both the gravity of divine law and the severe punishments that await those who mean to breach it: "The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner.  You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes" (Numbers 15:37-39). 

It is for this reason that many Jewish men and women still wear a fringed prayer shawl--or tallith--when they worship.  This garment helps them remember the commandments of the Lord, and the potentially high price of breaking them. Click here for more

Thursday, February 24, 2011

1 Corinthians 13: Krzysztof Kieślowski's "Blue"

It's cop-out time here at Eat the Bible.  I've got a great weekly-posting streak going, and I'd hate to break it, but I've been out of town, and I have to start grading tomorrow morning, so a more substantive post will have to wait.

Nonetheless, I've been wanting to give you a movie recommendation for a while now: it's the Polish director Kryzsztof Kieslowski's Blue--one third of his epic Trois Couleurs trilogy.  The enchanting Juliette Binoche--and how can a great French actress not be "enchanting"--stars as Julie, a woman grieving the loss of her husband and daughter in a car wreck that she survives.  Her husband, a composer, leaves behind the unfinished score for a choral work celebrating European unity.  The film follows, among other things, Julie's hesitant struggle bring the work to completion with the help of a younger composer.

Why do I bring the film up tonight?  Because I want to drop some culture on your philistine asses, that's why.

Oh yes, and the libretto for the chorale is St. Paul's hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13.  The film's closing scene marks my favorite moment of Biblical intertextuality in all of modern cinema.  Some other day, I'll offer my interpretation.  For now, I'll just give you the link to the last six minutes; the score is breathtaking. Paul's text follows below ...

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13) Click here for more

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Teaching the Bible in Public Schools? Totally Legal!

As I mentioned in a post last fall, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently conducted a survey intended to test Americans' religious literacy.  We didn't do very well, but Americans aren't test takers; we're visual learners.  If Hinduism would just start a YouTube channel ... 

Nonetheless, I was surprised to hear how many survey respondents--fully two-thirds--were unaware that it is legal to teach the Bible in a public school setting.  Granted, there are restrictions: teachers may lecture on the Bible--or on any other scripture, for that matter--as a literary or historical artifact, but they may not do so while promoting a particular religion. More simply, public school teachers may teach; they may not proselytize.

The development and distribution of objective religious curricula do not breach the wall that, we hope, separates church and state.

Two Supreme Court opinions in particular preserve public-school employees' right to teach the Bible.  The first, as Time's David Van Biema notes in a 2007 article, is Robert Jackson's concurring opinion in McCollum v. Board of Education (1948).  The relevant passage reads, "One can hardly respect the system of education that would leave the student wholly ignorant of the currents of religious thought that move the world society for ... which he is being prepared."  Clearly, concision is not one of Jackson's strong suits, but I digress ...

McCollum v. Board struck down an Illinois school system's "released time" program, which set aside space in public schools for religious instruction sponsored by local religious groups.  In banning "released time," the Court--through Jackson--nonetheless affirmed the importance of religious education.  (You can find the full text of the court's decision here.)

A second opinion, by Justice Thomas Clark in School District of Abington v. Schempp (1963), confirmed the exemption described by Jackson:

"It might be well said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.  The Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historical qualities.  Nothing we have said here indicates that such a study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment."

Ironically, this statement comes in the context of a Court decision asserting that "no state law or school board may require that passages from the Bible be read or that the Lord's Prayer be recited in the public schools of a State at the beginning of each school day."  (Again, here's the full decision.)

Simply, while the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the secular nature of the American public school system, it has consistently defended instructors' rights to teach religion--so long as that teaching is unbiased. 

Nonetheless, I wonder about my readers' opinions.  It is legal to teach scripture in public schools, but is it desirable?  Or in slightly different terms, would you approve of your child being taught the Bible in a public classroom?  Or the Bhagavad Gita?  Or, gasp, the Qur'an? Click here for more

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Open Questions: Can the Bible Help Fight Bigotry?

In a very helpful recent post for the CNN Religion Blog, BU Professor Jennifer Knust makes a concise argument that Biblical (and extra-Biblical) views on sexuality are significantly more complicated than some religious figures would let on.  Against more conservative commentators (I suppose), she provocatively argues:

--that the Bible's condemnation of homosexuality is neither as apparent, nor as unequivocal, as we might believe
--that both Paul and Jesus take rather dim views of marriage--and human sexuality as a whole
--that God may have established androgyny--not heterosexuality--as the human sexual ideal 

I've made similar points in this space (okay, not the androgyny one--that was a left-fielder for me), and I'm largely convinced by her claims. 

But her much-commented-upon essay has got me thinking: is she changing any minds, especially on the issue of homosexuality?  Or differently, is anyone who believes that the Bible fully supports heterosexual marriage and thoroughly condemns homosexual relations going to be persuaded by her hermeneutical exercise? 

I'm not sure they will.  So I ask an honest question.  Are you?  And do you think that hermeneutics--systematic Biblical interpretation--is an effective tool for battling bigotry?  Read her article and tell me what you think.  I'd love to hear your response ... Click here for more

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Isaiah 7: The Immanuel Prophecy in Context

Alright, quick ... to whom do the following Bible lines refer?

"Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel ['God is with us']." 

Did you say Jesus?  Oh great!  You were listening in Sunday school!  Gold star!  Problem is ...

You're wrong.

And you thought Sunday school would never lie, didn't you?  Don't worry.  It's still great for all sorts of other things--like matchstick-cross craft projects and learning the words to "Jesus Loves Me."  

And you're not totally wrong--I got carried away.  (I really did love Sunday school.)  If you said that "Immanuel" is Jesus, you've got at least one really important ally: the author of Matthew, who absolutely agrees with you.  Problem is ... he's wrong too.

I'm dropping bombs today.  You should definitely read past the jump ...

So let me explain some things while I'm rocking your world.  Daddy's gonna try to make this nice and easy for you. 


Some of you are probably familiar with Matthew 1, in which the evangelist claims that the Immanuel prophecy cited above is fulfilled by Jesus.  That prophecy comes from the book of Isaiah, and Matthew's claim is thoroughly predictable, because he's always trying to prove that Jesus is the completion of Hebrew Biblical scripture.  Immediately before quoting the Isaiah line, Matthew writes that the circumstances surrounding Jesus's birth "took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet" (Matthew 1:22).  

But while centuries of recitation have had the effect of adding substance to Matthew's argument, it frankly doesn't hold up to close scrutiny, especially if you take into account ancient Israelite historical context.  So for all of you who don't want any divided-kingdom history this morning, I'll see you next week, when I discuss Biblical allusions in the new Katy Perry single, "Sexxxy Gurlz of Summer Toun."  But for those of you who want a little lesson, read on. 

Most scholars believe that Matthew cites the Immanuel prophecy more than 800 years after Isaiah writes it, in the middle of the eighth century, B.C.E., during a military conflict that comes to be known as the Syro-Ephraimite War.  This was essentially an instance of civil strife, during which Israel's northern territory--here known simply as Ephraim--teams up with the Syrians to attack the southern kingdom of Judah.

Why?  Well in Isaiah's time, the big imperial power on the block was Assyria, and as Assyria grew in strength, the nations on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean were shaking in their booties--or thong sandals, or whatever.  (So I don't know divided-kingdom footwear.  Sue me.  And then just try to find dividedkingdomfootwear.blogspot.com.  You'll be back.)

So as Assyria blows up, the kings of Ephraim and Syria (Pekah and Rezin, respectively) get an idea: they'll band together and try a pre-emptive strike.  And they'll ask Judah's king Ahaz for help. But there's a little problem: Ahaz isn't buying.  So what do Ephraim and Syria do?  In a huge strategic blunder that more or less secures Ephraim's eventual destruction, they attack Judah. 
 

And here's where Ahaz is forced to make a deal with the devil.  Fearing the total annihilation of the Southern Kingdom, Ahaz enlists Assyria's help in repelling the Syro-Ephraimite forces.  His gambit succeeds, but at a high cost: Judah essentially becomes an Assyrian colony.  (Assyria will wipe the Northern Kingdom of Ephraim/Israel off the map just a few years later, in 722 B.C.E.)

It is this dire politico-military situation into which Isaiah--a Judean--is dropped as prophet.  His task?  To assure Ahaz that the Syro-Ephraimite War will not mean the end of Judah.  Obviously, doing so is no small task.  The wolves are totally at the door, and Ahaz is losing hope quickly.  Thus, Isaiah's first efforts to comfort the faltering king come to naught.  

So God and Isaiah must resort to drastic measures.  Says the Lord, through Isaiah, "Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven" (7:11).  But Ahaz refuses.  He will not, good Jew that he is, put the Lord to the test. So God pushes through a sign on his own: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel" (7:14).

So in context, this son Immanuel (which means "God is with us") likely isn't Jesus.  He can't be some far-off savior, set to arrive nearly a millennium later.  He is a sign Ahaz needs right now, STAT.  So does he come?

Well, yes.  Probably.

Many scholars believe that "Immanuel" is actually a son of Isaiah himself.  You see, God has a habit of sending prophetic signs through Isaiah's wife's birth canal.  She's a lucky one, isn't she?  Isaiah's eldest is named Shear-jashub, which in Hebrew means "A remnant shall return"--a hopeful name through which God promises that Israelite exiles may come back to the holy land.  And in Isaiah 8, Isaiah has another son, and God commands that the boy be named Maher-shalal-hashbaz.  This extremely cumbersome name means "The spoil speeds, the prey hastens," and the text promises that "before the child knows how to call 'My father' or 'My mother', the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria" (8:4). (Damascus is the capital of Syria, and Samaria is yet another name for Ephraim/Israel.)

So Immanuel is probably a third son, whose name promises divine comfort in a time of severe trial--comfrot that will arrive with the defeat of Syria and Ephraim.  (The editors of the Oxford Annotated Bible note an alternate tradition, by which "Immanuel" is Hezekiah, the son of King Ahaz born around this time.)

So frankly, Matthew is stretching--hard--when he claims that Isaiah is talking about Jesus.  So where does he get off?  And how does his long-shot interpretation take hold?  Well, most believe that he takes advantage of the shifty ambiguity of that phrase, "the young woman," and gets extra help from a secret cabal of third-century B.C.E. Alexandrian Jews.  Intrigued?  Me too.  But this is a long post, and you've gotta get back to filing DRM reports.

Let's just call this one a cliffhanger. I'll get to it later, I promise.
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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Lil Wayne on the Bible: "It Was Deep!"

What's poppin'?

You guys know you can count on Eat the Bible for all the latest news and jams from your favorite hip-hop, trip-hop, R&B, and rap artists, right?

Okay.  You can't.  And I don't know what trip-hop is.  However, it sounds like it's at least three times as cool as hip-hop.

But I was reading the New York Daily News this morning--like I do every Wednesday morning--and I stumbled across this scripture tidbit from the music scene.  (I'd imagine that real rap bloggers never use the word "tidbit.")  Rap star Lil Wayne--recently released from a 242-day stint at Rikers Island--claims to have read the entire Bible during his incarceration. 

Reflecting on the Gospels, he noted, deeply, "It was deep!"  To which I can only respond ... no, Lil, you're deep!  I wish everyone would read the whole Bible. The Daily News reports that he also plowed through Confucius, along with biographies of Jimi Hendrix and Vince Lombardi. 

Myself, I need more Lil Wayne Bible commentary, so I have contacted his press people to see if I can set up an interview.  (I'm not kidding.)  I'm sure I won't hear back, but if I do, I'll get the interview up ASAP, and Eat the Bible will become about six thousand times cooler than before.  In the meantime, here's a little Lil for your Wednesday morning.  Much love ...

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Job 30: President Obama on Tucson, Evil, and Hope

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I chime in tonight to comment on President Obama's moving, scripture-laced speech (copied above) at the memorial for the victims of the Tucson shootings. The president devoted much of the talk's opening movement to poignant eulogies for each of the six slain; he then issued a call for national unity and serious conversation in the wake of the tragedy.

But near the midpoint of his speech, the president tried to address the utter horror of our national loss by paraphrasing a passage from one of the Bible's direst books, Job:

"Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, 'When I looked for light, then came darkness'. Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath." (ABC News has posted the entire transcript here.)

Defying those who would too quickly attribute the tragedy to violent political rhetoric, or permissive gun laws, or breakdowns in our mental health-care system, Obama instead acknowledged that some of this world's evils spring from a blackness that remains maddeningly inexplicable.

Of course, that is the story of Job, a man beset by seemingly source-less ills, bereft of property, servants, and family for reasons he cannot discern. In the opening pages of the book that bears his name, Job loses his wealth, his household, and every one of his ten children. The three-dozen-odd chapters of poetry that follow feature Job's laments--his soul-wrenching cry, "Why?"

Job 30--from which President Obama read tonight--gives us the man near the utter depths of his despair:

But when I looked for good, evil came;
and when I waited for light, darkness came.
My inward parts are in turmoil, and are never still;
days of affliction come to meet me.
I go about in sunless gloom;
I stand up in the assembly and cry for help. (30: 26-28)

Expecting, yearning after, craving for the sun, Job receives terror and loss ... and is afflicted.

As are we, after Tucson. And though God speaks to Job in the book's final chapters, delivering a terrifying testament to God's own sublimity, he refrains from "explaining" Job's devastation. Job, as we, are left without easy answers.

Nonetheless, God finally praises Job's speech. Addressing him in 42:7, God claims that Job, even through his provocative lamentations, has "spoken of [God] what is right." To throw one's hands up in the face of indecipherable evil is, perhaps, "right" in God's eyes. For there are ills in this world that defy human explanation.

So I appreciate the president's allusion to Job in tonight's speech. It bespeaks humility and self-effacement in the aftermath of real, horrifying evil. And it lays the groundwork, I believe, for a future that ultimately awaits Job: restoration, reconciliation, and hope. Click here for more

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Haggai 2: God Will Make You Rich

How do you know that God loves you?

And don't punk out and say, "the Bible tells me so." Is it because you're happy? Is it because the work you do for your temple is fulfilling? Is it because you are content when you're at church? Is it because you just feel blessed?

Or is it because you're rich? This last answer--though it may feel blasphemous to many Jews and Christians--isn't so uncommon as you might think ...

Max Weber, the father of modern sociology, argued in his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that early American Christians measured God's love in terms of their own material wealth. Simply put, they knew God liked them because they had cash.

Having no other way to measure the divinity's response to their actions, American Protestants knew God was smiling on them when their bank accounts grew. (For Weber, this theory explains why Protestants are such good free-marketers--and why the predominantly Christian United States has generally enjoyed economic success.)

Weber's characterization of Protestantism finds a modern analogue in the "prosperity gospel" preached by some contemporary evangelicals, among them Atlanta's megachurch baron Eddie Long. The first title that appears in Long's online church bookstore is Think Like a Billionaire, Become a Billionaire.

Bishop Long drove a $350,000 Bentley and lived in a $1.1 million home. Or at least he did until he got caught up in a homosexual sex scandal late last year. But I digress ... according to Long and others like him, God wants to bless his faithful followers with money, with fast cars, with big houses, with cool stuff.

(Benjamin Anastas develops a fascinating critique of prosperity evangelists in a recent Harper's cover story.)

Now for many, Weber's Protestantism and the prosperity gospel are explicitly anti-religious. Jesus claims that it is easier for a camel to pass through a needle's eye than for the rich to enter God's grace (Matthew 19:24), and the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah frequently argue for a form of social justice that encourages charity--not hoarding.

However, a financial or material understanding of divine blessing is not without scriptural precedent. Indeed, the prosperity gospel may find a compelling proof text in an unlikely corner of the Hebrew Bible--Haggai.

Haggai is one of three significant post-exilic prophets whose works are included in the Hebrew Bible. The others are Malachi and Zechariah, and this trio prophesied to Israelites who returned to the Holy Land after the fall of the Babylonian empire.

Haggai was written in 520 B.C.E., eighteen years after Cyrus of Persia issued the edict allowing exiled Jews to return to Israel. Haggai's main goal in his brief book is to compel the Israelites to rebuild the temple, destroyed by Babylonian invaders with the rest of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.

The prophet's first efforts to persuade the Israelites to do so come in chapter 1. He writes, "Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?" (1:4) The Israelites have homes, Haggai exhorts, but God does not. The temple must be rebuilt so God, too, can have a "house" in the restored nation.

But the Israelites are slow to act. Some among them, it seems, remember the glory of the first temple--built in splendor by King Solomon--and know that "Temple, Part II: The Re-Templing" could only be a thin (and unworthy) reflection of its opulent predecessor (whose construction is described in detail in 1 Kings 5-6).

So Haggai eventually decides to hit the Israelites where it hurts: their stuff.

He channels God in Haggai 2: "Before a stone was placed upon a stone in the Lord’s temple, how did you fare? When one came to a heap of twenty measures, there were but ten; when one came to the wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were but twenty. I struck you and all the products of your toil with blight and mildew and hail; yet you did not return to me, says the Lord" (2:15-17).

Said differently, when the temple lies in ruins, God punishes his people by destroying their material possessions. This passage in chapter 2 reiterates a point made earlier in the book: when God is homeless, "you that earn wages earn wages to put them in a bag with holes" (Haggai 1:6).

If, by contrast, the people do their religious duty and rebuild the temple, God will allow them to prosper--to reap measures, to draw wine, and to earn and save money!

And Haggai, it seems, sees this ball get rolling; the Israelites eventually respond to his prophecy and begin their work, and the second temple will be finished by 515 B.C.E. When the building begins, God starts to reward his people anew: the Lord asks, rhetorically, "Do the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree still yield nothing?" (2:19). And the answer is "no." So God concludes, "From this day on, I will bless you" (2:19). With stuff.

And Bishop Long and early American Protestants as well, perhaps ...
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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Genesis 4: Cain's Sacrifice

In the beginning, as you all know, God creates the heavens and the earth. Over a brief seven days, the Lord of the universe builds the world and populates it with plants, animals, and, well, us. If only all of my weeks were so productive.

And God is pleased with his work. A humble but concise self-promoter, he deems his creation "very good" (1:31) upon finishing the job, and sits down for a nice foamy latte. With whole milk. He's earned it.

But it takes fewer than three chapters for this above-average planet to play host to the first murder, as the third earthling, Cain, kills the fourth, his brother Abel.

How does something so "very good" go so very wrong, so very quickly?

And what, in this fledgling utopia, could drive Cain to homicide with such startling speed? The answer to this question has something to do with sacrifice, but that answer is not so simple as some would have you believe.

The Genesis author introduces both brothers by their occupations: "Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground" (4:2). Simply, Abel is the meat guy and Cain handles the crops. Hosting dinners, they can deliver nutritious, low-carb meals. And they'll cater your wedding for a very reasonable price.

When it comes time to give gifts to the Lord, each brother delivers the products of his labor--Cain "an offering of the fruit of the ground" (4:3) and Abel "the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions" (4:4). The Bible does not explain why the brothers feel the need to bring gifts to God; indeed, no such command has been given. And I always want to give both men credit for their politeness.

But politeness aside, the Lord only looks with favor on one of these gifts: "And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard" (4:4-5). Now, God does not punish Cain for his "regardless" offering, but Cain is angry nonetheless, and this anger--most believe--drives him to murder his brother, alone in the field.

But why does God prefer "firstlings" to "fruit"? It's a real mystery, but a consensus interpretation suggests that the Lord's choice is related to the early Israelites' vocation.

The first Hebrews--or so the theory goes--were themselves pastoralists. They, like Abel, were "keepers of sheep." Hence, God's "regard" for Abel's gift not only confirms the rightness of the Israelites' own sacrifices, but it also sanctifies the very practice of herding.

For many years, this explanation has made sense to me. But over the holiday break, I've been reading Jon Levenson's The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son--an innovative, accessible account of Biblical sonship and sacrifice. Levenson argues, cogently, that this standard reading of the unacceptability of Cain's sacrifice is wrong.

The early chapters of Genesis, he argues, seem to show a preference for agriculturalists like Cain. Indeed, in chapter 2, God asks Adam to "till" and "keep" Eden, effectively making him the first farmer. And as I've suggested earlier, both Adam and Eve--and presumably Cain and Abel--are vegetarians. So God's preference for Abel's meat is a bit idiosyncratic given its narrative context.

But for Levenson, this idiosyncrasy is both inexplicable and totally beside the point. We, like Cain, are not supposed to dwell on God's motivations--which must necessarily remain beyond our understanding. We will never know--indeed, we cannot know--why God likes prime rib and not eggplant. We can only remember to prepare short ribs the next time Yahweh comes for dinner.

What we can worry about is the only thing we can control--our reactions to God's action. Said more simply, Cain's sin is not giving a second-rate sacrifice. Cain's sin is killing his brother. Heck, God says it better than I can, so maybe I'll let Him have the last word:

"Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it" (4:7).
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