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
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.
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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, 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