Looking Back

jg19_29aThe above image is from http://www.thebricktestament.com

The book of Judges is full of isolated stories that all fall under the common theme of the rebellion-oppression cycle:  Israel rebels, becomes oppressed, cries out to God, God raises up a deliverer to free the people, the people forget God and rebel, and on and on.

Amidst the repetition of this cycle are a few reflections of past events in the history of the people of the covenant.  As depicted in the picture above, Judges 19 details the story of a mob seeking to rape the Levite guest of a man of Gibeah, that man handing over the women in the house instead of the Levite guest, the resulting death of the Levite’s concubine, and his decision to cut her into twelve pieces to send to the tribal leaders of Israel.

This disturbing tale strongly resembles that found in Genesis 19 which is the story of Lot protecting his angel guests from the mob in Sodom.  Sodom ends up being destroyed by God through a rain of fire.  Gibeah is also destroyed by fire after Israel sans Benjamin puts the inhabitants of the city to death.

Furthermore, this unified retaliation of the sons of Israel against those who raped their kinswomen bears similarity to the response of the literal sons of Israel in Genesis 34 to the rape of their sister Dinah.

Gideon has a golden ephod forged from the golden earrings looted from the Midianites by the people of the covenant.  Not only does this reflect back upon the early chapters of Exodus and the people’s association with Midian, but more significantly, this resembles Exodus 32 and Aaron having the golden calf forged from the golden earrings looted from the Egyptians as the people of the covenant fled Egypt.

It should be no surprise, then, that the people worshiped the ephod much as their ancestors had worshiped the calf.  In fact, this account may be included specifically to communicate that the people, even now under the law, had made no progress in living out their destiny as the chosen people of God.

For more on Judges 8 and the ephod, see here.

For more on Judges 19 and the atrocities presented within, mosey on over here.

Miracles?

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Do we believe in miracles?

When we read Biblical accounts of strange or impossible happenings we bring into that reading our own beliefs and expectations.  Someone who is naturally a skeptic will interpret miracles through a lens of skepticism.  Likewise, a person who wants to believe will readily accept miracles at face value.  Neither position determines the reality of the miracle itself.

Events such as the burning bush, the various plagues that afflicted Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, manna in the desert, and the fall of Jericho are significant occurrences in the history of the people of the covenant.  Skeptics find means to explain these away as usually as natural phenomena, albeit sometimes abnormal natural phenomena, while eager believers declare these spectacular events as literal fact without any examination at all.

One such event of significance is the occasion of the sun and moon remaining fixed in the sky for an extended period allowing the people of the covenant to continue to slaughter their enemies which is found in Joshua chapter ten.  Though this may appear to be one more instance in the series of miracles listed above, this particular episode stands out as unique.

Unlike the miracles that preceded it, this miracle was astronomical in scale.  Whether describing the movement of the sun and moon or the movement of the earth, this event is clearly bigger in scale than earlier miracles.

Furthermore, as an astronomical event, this happening would have been witnessed not only by Israel and the enemies they slaughtered, but by the entire world.  This means that other cultures are likely to have some record of either a long day or long night depending on where in the world they were located, and in fact, myths do exist in various cultures (at least Greek, Maori, and Culhuacan as far as I know) concerning an extended day/night.

Whether or not these texts refer to the same event is debatable.  And here is the point of this mess of a post:  the path to understanding miracles is a knife’s edge.  One may easily fall into lifeless rationalization on one side or thoughtless acceptance on the other.

The historical-critical method is a tool to be used to increase our understanding of this reality in which we find ourselves.  Equally important to remember is that the historical-critical method is not the creator or definer of truth.

When we explain away all the unexplainable phenomena we encounter, we have not miracles.  If we accept every fantastical occurrence we encounter as fact, miracles become normative and cease to be miraculous.  Miracles only remain miracles in the balance.

For a longer, better, deeper look at Joshua 10:1-15, look here and here.

For a more thorough approach to miracles and the historical-critical method, check this out.

A Better Story

Farhi Jericho

The above depiction of Jericho is from the 14th Century Farhi Bible.

In pursuing an undergraduate degree in literature, I learned a few things about storytelling.  For instance, and contrary to much of modern storytelling, plot is important.  Conflict and conflict resolution, sometimes appearing in cycles throughout a tale draw the observer forward to the ultimate resolution of the primary conflict.  Furthermore, character development is a necessary part of manipulating the observer into caring about the outcome of the conflict, forcing the observer to feel they identify with the protagonist or protagonists more than they identify with the bringers of conflict.

What happens in chapter two of the book of Joshua is a mess.  Plotwise, events progress too quickly.  The spies show up at Rahab’s house, but Jericho PD immediately know where the spies are.  Somehow Rahab knew the king would send someone to investigate, so she preemptively hid the spies on the roof.  For some reason, the messengers from the king of Jericho don’t bother to search the home of the suspected spy harborer and are easily tricked by Rahab into leaving the premises.  All of this takes place in the first seven verses.

Admittedly, conflict exists, but that conflict is shown to be minimal.  As mentioned, the spies are hidden and in danger of discovery, but the messengers of the king, having journeyed to Rahab’s house, don’t bother to search where they are, but instead spend multiple days pursuing no one in the reaches outside the city.  We see minimal conflict and unbelievable resolution.

Really the only character development that occurs for the spies is the expository information we are given in verse one that the two men are spies of Israel.  These spies don’t even receive names.  Later, in chapter six, we do see that the spies kept their promise to spare Rahab and her family.  We also learn, over the course of events, that Rahab is a prostitute, that she is a traitor to her people, and that she believes the LORD has brought and will bring success to the people of Israel.  Nevertheless, while we know some of what these characters did, we never know who they are as people.

In our reading, we easily identify the spies and Rahab as the protagonists of this story because they seem to be the focus of the material.  We are wrong.  From a literary perspective, the spies are not people at all in this story but are merely a plot device.  Rahab may receive more focus than the other characters in this tale, but she is not a protagonist in the traditional sense.  As a prostitute, a deceiver, and a traitor to her people, she functions more as an antihero than a protagonist.

If this story is viewed as the tale of the noble Rahab who aided the just Israelites in their holy quest to conquer Jericho, it’s a literary disgrace.  However, taken as a later justification for Joshua sparing and marrying Rahab (as stated in the Talmud) or more generally for the inclusion of a Canaanite group among the people of Israel (which was forbidden), this tale makes a little more sense.

For more on Rahab, look here.

For a Jewish take on Rahab, look here instead.

Eyes

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The concept is nothing new to us.  We have all felt the desire for vengeance.  Even when level-headed, we have seen the value of retribution to regain a just equality between offender and offended.

Deuteronomy 19:21, returns to this idea previously expressed in Exodus 21:23-25 and Leviticus 24:19-20.  Juxtaposed, the three read in the English Standard Version:

Context:  a group of men hitting a pregnant woman

Exodus 21:23-25:  “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

Context:  the giving of the law, this section covering taking life both human and animal

Leviticus 24:19-20:  “If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.”

Context:  giving false testimony with the intent to cause harm to another person

Deuteronomy 19:21:  “Your eye shall not pity.  It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”

Numbers seems the odd book out in the Mosaic tetralogy.  Nevertheless, Numbers 35 does address the scenario of blood vengeance, with someone seeking the death of a killer on behalf of the killed.

This system may seem barbaric to twenty-first century westerners (with people cutting off each other’s body parts all the time), but we may be over-simplifying the system.  With cities of refuge established, people had a place to flee, a place of safety to await fair judgment.  The avenger of blood was not permitted to follow the accused into the city, so as long as the accused remained in the city, there was safety.

One thing that this system does well that our system does less well is the limitation of vengeance.  By establishing a system of retribution, the Israel could potentially effectively control the vengeance taking place.

Furthermore, while some sects have insisted on a literal interpretation of the text, Rabbinical Judaism takes the view that these instructions were hyperbole and that reparations for offences were to be made financially.

Whatever view one may have of this system of justice, remember that a form of this system is still in place today.  Sharia law, the standard in a number of Muslim nations, maintains this practice of exacting punishment for a crime that is the equivalent of the crime itself.  For example, this.

For a Jewish view of the “eye for an eye” law, click here.

For a Jewish take on manslaughter and cities of refuge, clack over there.

For a Jesus spin on the whole matter, clunk this.

The Top Ten Commandments

Moses Letterman

In addition to the better known list of commandments given to Moses on Mt. Sinai chronicled in the book of Exodus, a second list of commandments is presented in the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy.  No, this is not a list of commandments eleven through twenty.  However, the two lists are not quite identical.

Both lists:

cover the LORD’s preeminence,

prohibit the use of idols,

forbid the misuse of the name of the LORD,

remind the people to observe the Sabbath,

command that honor be given to both father and mother,

outlaw murder, adultery, theft, and lying,

and tell the people not to get too attached to their neighbor’s stuff.

So what is the difference?

While both lists address the Sabbath, they base the command to observe the Sabbath on very different grounds.

Exodus 20:11 reflects back upon the LORD’s creation of… well… creation.  The people are reminded that the LORD took six days to create the earth, the sea, and everything else.  Following this, the LORD rested on the seventh day.  This is the reason given that the people of the covenant should also rest on the seventh day of the week.

Deuteronomy 5:15 also reflects back, but this time upon the exodus.  The people are commanded to keep the Sabbath day because the LORD stretched out his arm and with his mighty hand brought his people out of slavery in Egypt.

Though these are clearly very different motivators, Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 are addressed to different audiences.  In Exodus,  the people of the covenant have a creation mythology that dictates their worldview making it the ideal motivator.  For the people in Deuteronomy, the exodus has in some ways supplanted the creation mythos with the exodus itself, after multiple generations, becoming mythologized.  This makes the exodus an ideal motivator for the people as they prepare to enter the land of promise.

For more on myths and the Ten Commandments, go here.

For an atheists view of the Ten Commandments, go here.

This Post is NOT about Balaam’s Donkey

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In the book of Numbers, God is presented as a military commander with the people of the covenant as his army.  First, God commands Moses to take inventory of military assets, that is, the people.  Having taken stock of the resources at hand, the members of the army are assigned designated areas within the military camp according to their divisions, battalions, and companies or their tribes, clans, and families.

God’s presence is represented by a cloud that hovers over the tabernacle.  When this cloud moves, the people of the covenant pack up their gear and move out following the cloud.  This is a clear image of a military commander, and specifically a valiant military commander as God goes moves in front of the people rather than behind.

At one point, spies are sent to search out a new territory (the land of promise) in order to gauge the strength and number of the inhabitants, the viability of the land for produce, and the fortification of the cities.  Those spies who returned with a report that stirred up rebellion were executed by God.

And speaking of rebellion, Korah, Dathan, Abiram and those under their command rebelled against their superior officers, that is, Moses, Aaron, and the priests.  God’s response was one of zero toleration, killing not only the leaders of the rebellion, but all participants.  Following this, others began to rebel in response to God’s killing of the first rebels.  These, too, were put down.

Then, and perhaps most obviously, the people of the covenant engaged in military conquest of Arad, king Sihon, and king Og.  After being met with aggression, the people of the covenant decimated their opponents, taking their lives and their land.

While in Exodus and Leviticus, God is portrayed more as king and judge, clearly in Numbers God is portrayed as warrior general.

Oh, alright.  Here are some posts on Balaam and his donkey:

A Jewish perspective

A Christian perspective

Meribah

water from a rock

Only twelve verses are given (Numbers 20:2-13) to the account the waters of Meribah at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin.  Of those, ten tell the story of the thirst of the people of the covenant, their complaining, the petition of Moses and Aaron for the provision of the LORD, Moses striking a rock producing water, and the resulting stream being named “the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the LORD, and through them he showed himself holy.”

This story, with verses eight and twelve missing, closely resembles the story in Exodus 17 where the people of the covenant – having escaped from Egypt, having received manna from the LORD – complain of thirst.  As in Numbers 20, Moses seeks the LORD and strikes a rock that pours forth water.  That place, too, was called Meribah “because of the quarreling of the people of Israel”.

Those two missing verses, however, make all the difference in the world.  Verse eight is a command from the LORD for Moses to “tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water”.  Moses strikes the rock twice, after which the rock gushes water.

This leads into verse twelve in which the LORD rebukes Moses for his unbelief and his failure to display the holiness of the LORD.  Moses is told that as a consequence, he will not lead the people of the covenant into the land the LORD has given them.

Was Moses wrong to strike a rock in pursuit of water?

“No.”  There was precedent.

And…

“Yes.”  Not only did Moses disobey a direct command of the LORD, Moses in producing water from the rock by his own means, took the glory due to the LORD for himself.  He did things his own way apart from the LORD which is rebellion.

1 Samuel 15:23 states that rebellion equals divination or witchcraft.

Exodus 22:18 and Leviticus 20:27 provide precedent for the death of Moses under these circumstances.  Certainly, by this point in the narrative, the LORD has brought about the deaths of many who have disobeyed his instructions including Korah from four chapters back.

So, Moses deserved death.  The punishment Moses received is to live knowing that he will not reach his goal, that someone else will bring his people, the people to whom he has dedicated the previous forty years, into the land of promise.

 

To read a post (with pictures) about the present day wilderness of Zin:  click here.

To read another take on why Moses wasn’t allowed to enter the Promised Land:  click here.