Numbers 3-Numbers 17 #2018BibleRBR

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Seven: Numbers 3-Numbers 17

How much more wandering in the desert must we put up with? These poor Israelites, no wonder they continue to whine and gripe every few decades. Can you imagine years and years of the nomad lifestyle, in regions of the Middle East where it is nearly impossible to find food and drink? Perhaps it is no wonder that Moses faces a couple of uprisings in this part of their journey, nor that god becomes severely exasperated again with the Israelites griping. Despite a lot of tedious rules and even more tedious moaning and groaning from the people, this part of Numbers also explores important histories, such as the introduction of Caleb and the Judeans, the role of the various tribes within the priesthood (servants, ministers, etc.), and reminders about the superiority (or at least historically retrospective explanations for such) of certain tribes over others, e.g. the fall of the eldest tribe, Reuben.  

Uprisings: Over the course of a forty-year period, Moses and Aaron face two uprisings from the people, most of whom are getting pretty tired of waiting for god (and Moses) to deliver on their promises. The first uprising comes from the tribe Korah and is essentially a religious rebellion. God has favored the Levites and placed them in charge of the church, including anything to do with ministry or the tabernacle. Priests become the most powerful people in the tribe, capable of both forgiving sins and casting judgments, as well as treating the sick, etc. This doesn’t sit well with the Korah people, who feel left out; so they rise up against Aaron but are quickly struck down by god (indeed, god causes the earth to open up and swallow them). The second uprising is a political one, started by the Reubenites. Reuben was the first/eldest tribe and thus would normally hold some kind of honor among the tribes, but as has already been described, they were “prophesied” to fall in stature. Their uprising against Moses and Aaron, here, reflects their attempt to regain stature and some control, perhaps total control, of the tribes. They fail completely and will never rise to prominence again.

Racism, Jealousy, and Pride: One of the seemingly random parts of Numbers occurs in Chapter 12. Miriam and Aaron, though we are to understand it’s probably Miriam, become jealous of Moses’s wife, an Ethiopian woman (Zipporah – Exodus 2:21). We were told earlier that he took for a wife a Cushite/Arabian woman, and here we learn that Miriam, an Israeli woman, finds that problematic. Because of her reaction, which seems borne out of jealousy and pride (that a woman from another culture is wife to the most powerful Israeli leader), god afflicts her with leprosy and forces her out for 7 days. This is an interesting turn of events as, earlier, god had commanded his people not to inter-marry; however, he has also suggested numerous exceptions relating to “strangers” and “ignorance.” In other words, if someone not of the tribe can be taught and is willing to convert, then perhaps an exception can be made. This scenario would certainly apply to Moses’s wife. So, the lesson here must be not to let pride and jealousy control our opinions or actions (after all, god catches them “gossiping”).

Almost to The Promised Land: Moses and Aaron lead the Israelites around for another few decades, and after much disrespect from the Israelites, god essentially promises to make them wander for another forty years before they find a permanent settlement. Naturally, the people get pretty upset about this. While they settle in Kadesh for 38 years, so the people at least have a “homeland” of sorts, they can essentially see “the promised land” is within reach, and yet they cannot get there. One scout from each of the 12 tribes is sent out to explore and to discover if they have indeed reached the “land of milk and honey.” They have come pretty close, but this promised land is already inhabited, and by a powerful tribe; indeed, the people are so powerful they are described as “giants,” next to whom the Israelites seem like “grasshoppers.” Alas, while Joshua and Caleb, the heroes of the northern and southern tribes respectively, argue that the Israelites should push ahead and claim the land, they are overruled, and the promised land remains just out of reach. So close, yet so far away!  

OTHER INTERESTING BITS

Hell Sheol: In this part of the bible, we see the first iteration of hell, which is called “Sheol.” When god strikes down the Korahs’ uprising, he casts the tribes into a pit. This pit is essentially the early Hebrew understanding of hell. It was not the hell many think of today, with a devil and torturous punishments; instead, it is a joyless nothingness, a dark pit where virtually everyone save for a select few, chosen by god, will go after death.

Ignorance: Among the many laws outlined in this part of Numbers (aren’t we done with those yet?) is another mention of how to treat strangers. This has become a common theme in the last two books of the bible, so we should probably take it seriously as a major philosophical tenant. In this case, god tells his people that the ignorance of strangers will be forgiven because, after all, they could not know any better. An interesting thought to kick around, particularly when we hear people making arguments about who will be “saved” or not (this is often reduced to who is or is not baptized, with “strangers” to Christianity getting the severely short end of the stick).

Heroes: Earlier, we were introduced to Joshua, a military hero from the northern Israeli tribes. In this section of Numbers, we are introduced to the southern tribes’ counter-part, Caleb. He hails from the Judean region, which has an interesting history (and future – including pending civil war), as one of the direct descendants of Israel (Jacob). Caleb and Joshua both wanted to enter the Promised Land and take it from the giants when all other tribes resisted. They lose that argument, but god rewards their faith with honor (a long and powerful succession).   

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Leviticus 14-Numbers 2 #2018BibleRBR

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Six: Leviticus 14-Numbers 2

99% of what happens in this part of the bible is simply a listing (and re-listing, and then some rephrasing, plus more reminders, and then some emphasis of the same) of rules, laws, and commandments. There is a whole lot of repetition, possibly because the priests are working from multiple source documents and possibly because they think the important rules really bear that much repeating. Who knows? There are also subtle differences in the way the repetition occurs. For example, the first occurrences tend to be simply lists of laws; then, the second occurrences are reminders of the laws plus what happens when someone breaks a particular law (Death? Ostracizing?). Finally, there are a couple of chapters that reiterate the most important of all the laws, which is to say the commandments, with a last segment reminding the people that, hey, if they cannot get their society to follow through, god will abandon them all, make them weak, turn them into cannibals, and other neat and interesting punishments. I’m all for listing as a rhetorical device, but some of these books are just out of control. 

Molech: Why does this name sound familiar? Ah, yes, MOLOCH! “Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!” (Ginsberg, Howl, 1955-56). Anyhow, in the biblical story, Molech isn’t a demonic personification of capitalism. God is pretty clear about this Molech dude. Who is he? It seems he was a particular pagan god, one who required the most personal and difficult sacrifices from his followers: their children. So, when god commands his people not to spill their seed for Molech, he is telling them to cut it out with the child sacrifice, already. Some folks listened, some didn’t. The priests who wrote this section were probably concerned about misunderstandings about the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. Perhaps people, especially new converts to monotheism, used the story of Abraham to justify their continued practice of this ridiculous ritual. The Israeli priests, however, make it clear multiple times in this book that the point was Abraham’s willingness to obey god; after all, the sacrifice never actually happened. God intervened at just the right moment to save Isaac’s life. Burning children at the stake? No good. (But witches and wizards, on the other hand… hop to it!)

Troublesome Laws: This second half of Leviticus continues with its list of laws, rules, and commandments. Some of them are guidelines for the priests, including how to “treat” leprosy and other ailments (the treatments for which sound a lot like witchcraft, which is ironic, considering). There are also a lot of rules regarding fasting, keeping various Sabbaths, treatment of strangers and debtors, etc. Some of the most recognizable are the ones we still talk about today, though, like Leviticus 18:4 & 20:13 which forbid man from laying “with mankind as with womankind.” This is often cited, along with the passages from Genesis’s story of the angels in Sodom, as proof that god forbids homosexuality. I read it differently, though. In the case of Genesis, the violation seemed to be against an ancient custom that protected house guests. In this case, my reading suggests this is less about homosexual relationships than it is about disrupting gender normatives. For man to submit as if he were a woman seems much more in line with other gender rules and customs outlined in the Old Testament. In other words, I see nothing about same-sex love or relationships per se, and instead see a law that reinforces patriarchal social systems. This section also deals with that law that bans wearing clothes of mixed fabrics (Lev 19:19), shaving one’s head, carving one’s skin (tattoos), killing witches, and others which have been largely abandoned. Some that continue to be treated as moral misdeeds include: incest, bestiality, bigamy (or at least the kind that deals with holding relationships with members of the same family simultaneously), and sacrificing children.

Strangers, Debtors, and Neighbors: Some of my favorite philosophies from the bible are reiterated in Leviticus. They coincide with many of the primary moral and ethical laws reflected by the Ten Commandments (which are retold/rephrased multiple times in this section). These include “love thy neighbor as thyself” and do not hold grudges (Lev 19:18), loving strangers as thyself (Lev 19:33-34), and acting charitably to all, including servants, debtors, and the poor. Leviticus 19:10 explains that at each harvest, a portion is to be left to the poor, and the customs of the 50-year Jubilee explain that debtors are to be regularly forgiven and society “refreshed” twice every century. What a thought!

OTHER INTERESTING BITS

Papa Priests: In this part of the bible, which essentially is written by and for priests, we see regular references to priests’ children. This means they have families. So, what is it with the Catholic law requiring priests be celibate and single?

Scapegoats: The origin of “the scapegoat” is reveled in Lev 16:26. Essentially, two goats are brought to temple for sacrifice. One is actually sacrificed, while the other, the “escaped goat” is returned to Azazel, the demon of the wilderness. Essentially, the goat that escapes is the one that takes man’s misdeeds with him back to the origin of sin, where they belong.

Culture-Building: Much of what happens in Leviticus is more evidence that the priests are outlining rules for establishing a clear and separate culture. These laws about what to wear, what to eat, when to worship, when to relax, and how to care for one’s self (e.g. avoiding tattoos, avoiding shaving one’s hair) reflect opposition to other cultures’ traditions. The Egyptians, for example, did often shave their heads and “curve” their beards. Other nearby people marked their skin with tattoos, cuts, and piercings. Like circumcision and other traditions, choosing not to do these things is an active way to create societal customs for themselves and their descendants.

Exodus 33-Leviticus 13 #2018BibleRBR

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Five: Exodus 33-Leviticus 13

I’m going to be honest and say that I probably won’t have much to write as we work our way through the Book of Leviticus (the Third Book of Moses). The same will probably be true of Deuteronomy, too (although, if I remember correctly, some interesting things happen in the next book, Numbers, so let’s hang on for a few days!) Leviticus is essentially the rules, laws, and instructions of the priests, written by post-Exilic priests for future generations of priests. The book is incredibly detailed, often repetitive, and downright boring, for the most part. We get a few brief and fleeting glimpses at “story,” where Moses interjects some order from god to be given to Aaron and his sons (two of whom, to their serious detriment, are not paying close enough attention); otherwise, the majority of time is spent on what colors certain draping should be, how an altar should be built, what candelabra should be made of, and where to place them, how priests should distinguish themselves from other men, what clothes they should wear, etc. It’s really a snooze fest.

Giving: One of the more interesting bits left in the Book of Exodus comes near the end, in Chapter 36. The narrator has described how the Israeli people have given whatever they can of themselves, their fortunes and, most importantly, their talents, in order to help create the first physical church (tabernacle). Each man is called to do what he can, and no more. Indeed, in Exodus 36:6-7, we learn that, when enough has been given so that the tasks can be completed and there is surplus for the future, god has Moses tell the people to stop giving. In other words, “enough is enough.” I respond to both lessons, here. In the first place, be charitable with your time and talents in efforts meant to benefit the greater good, one’s neighbors and community, etc. In the second place, know when enough has been given and be content (and honest) enough to say so. Do not continue to ask too much of others when there is no longer a serious need.

Rules, Rules, Rules: Each book of Leviticus so far focuses on a set of rules. Leviticus 1 outlines rules for sacrifices; Leviticus 2 outlines rules for offerings of meat, bread, and fruit; Leviticus 3 gives rules for offerings of peace (as well as a permanent ban on eating fat or blood); Leviticus 4 contains the rules for “sin offerings”; Leviticus 5 outlines the rules for “trespass offerings” and Leviticus 6 does the same for atonement for lying and thievery. Leviticus 7 tells priests how to accept offerings of Thanksgiving and essentially describes the way that priests are to be fed and maintained, which is to say, by the congregation. Significantly, a lot of the rules outlined in all of these chapters seem to do with the actual cooking of foods so as to avoid illness or disease, although that is never explicitly stated. It seems some common-sense rules for hygiene are here steeped in the language of mythology, perhaps to get people to embrace clean eating habits without question. There are also plenty of rules for which animals are “clean” and which are “unclean,” but in this case the language is referring not to literal cleanliness, but what is pure or not, worthy or not, of god’s favor. It’s likely that these rules were designed to distinguish the Jewish people from neighboring tribes and to give them customs of their own, to create a permanent sociocultural identity.

Leviticus 8-10 deal specifically with priestly practices and orders, giving Aaron and his sons as examples of what to do and what not to do. Leviticus 11 lists all the animals that can be eaten (are “clean) and those that cannot (“unclean”) and, again, the rules seem rather arbitrary. Perhaps nearby tribes liked to eat cows, so the new Israeli priests decided they would do the opposite. Leviticus 12 outlines what women should do after giving birth, and Leviticus 13 explains how priests should treat people who come to them with different diseases.

OTHER INTERESTING BITS:

The Women: After giving birth, women are to be treated as “unclean” for a rather lengthy bit of time. If the child is a boy, the mother is unclean and secluded for 33 days. If the child is a girl, the mother is unclean and secluded for 66 days. In either case, after she’s done her time in seclusion, she then needs to sacrifice an offering to god in order to rejoin society. Who says gender prejudices haven’t been deeply, culturally ingrained for millennia?  

Bad Priests: Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu decide they are going to honor god in their own way, rather than following the lists and lists of rules they’ve just been given by god via their Uncle Moses. They approach his tabernacle fire with a censer of incense, which is not a sanctioned practice. Their punishment? Execution. Turns out, priests better be sure to know the rules, and follow them!

Funny Food: There are so many rules about animals (for sacrifice and for eating), it seems almost impossible to keep it all straight. This is probably why so many people today, who follow the bible religiously, basically eat whatever they want. Who can keep track? The rules probably were rather arbitrary, as I mentioned above, but here are some stand-outs: Some things that are okay to eat include locusts, beetles, and grasshoppers! Yum! (Lev 11:22). You’ll want to avoid eating tortoise, lizard, and snail, though. Sorry! (Lev 11:29)

#2018BibleRBR Daily Reading Plan: February

Here is my daily reading schedule for February. As mentioned in the original post, this month the reading plan is Leviticus 1 through Deuteronomy 4. As always, feel free to read ahead, fall behind, or jump around.

I’ll be back again every Sunday with my thoughts on that week’s reading. On February 28th, I’ll post a wrap-up for the month plus the reading plan for March.

The Reading Plan for February: 

  • Feb 1: Lev 1-4
  • Feb 2: Lev 5-7
  • Feb 3: Lev 8-10
  • Feb 4: Lev 11-13
  • Feb 5: Lev 14-15
  • Feb 6: Lev 16-18
  • Feb 7: Lev 19-21
  • Feb 8: Lev 22-23
  • Feb 9: Lev 24-25
  • Feb 10: Lev 26-27
  • Feb 11: Num 1-2
  • Feb 12: Num 3-4
  • Feb 13: Num 5-6
  • Feb 14: Num 7
  • Feb 15: Num 8-10
  • Feb 16: Num 11-13
  • Feb 17: Num 14-15
  • Feb 18: Num 16-17
  • Feb 19: Num 18-20
  • Feb 20: Num 21-22
  • Feb 21: Num 23-25
  • Feb 22: Num 26-27
  • Feb 23: Num 28-30
  • Feb 24: Num 31-32
  • Feb 25: Num 33-34
  • Feb 26: Num 35-36
  • Feb 27: Deut 1-2
  • Feb 28: Deut 3-4

I look forward to sharing my thoughts on the stories and literary elements of the Bible, as I see them, and I am especially eager to hear what you all find in your own explorations. As a reminder, this is a secular reading of the bible as literature, so any/all respectful thoughts and opinions are welcome. In my opinion, the more perspectives we have, the better! 

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Exodus 13-Exodus 32 #2018BibleRBR

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Four: Exodus 13 – Exodus 32

As we wrap-up our first month of reading the Christian bible as literature, we come to the end of the second book, Exodus. We do have a few chapters left, but those will be included in the first week’s discussion for February. This part of Exodus deals with the infamous “parting of the Red Sea,” as well as the whiny (yes, they are!) ex-slaves and God’s perpetual care for his traveling Israelites. Hey, at least the almighty fulfills his promise (until he kills half of them for worshiping a golden calf, anyway!) The latter part of the chapter gives us a preview for some of the upcoming books. Lots of rules, including the supreme 10 Commandments but also those for founding and designing a church, clothing for priests, and even how to ask god’s opinion on important matters.

God’s Grace(?): God had promised to lead the Israelites out of Egypt someday, and the day arrives. After “hardening” the pharaoh’s heart so that he could continue to punish the Egyptians and prove his own power, God finally allows pharaoh to consent to the Israelis’ exodus. Moses guides them out and, for forty years, they’re on the move. During all this time, God leads them by cloud during the day and by fire at night. When the Israelites are thirsty, they whine about to Moses, and Moses calls on god, and god comes up with a plan. When the Israelites are hungry, they whine about it to Moses, and Moses calls on god, and god comes up with a plan (hence the “manna from heaven” story). The pattern is repeated over and over, and at a certain point you wonder how long god can remain patient with them. Of course, it’s important to remember that these were slaves who had relied completely on a certain system. They were told exactly what to do every day and, in return for doing it, they were housed and fed. They never needed to worry about finding or making their own food, so perhaps it is understandable that many of them might wonder if they never should have left at all. When Moses goes up the mountain and sits there with god for forty days, writing down the commandments and other laws, the people grow restless. The Israelites convince Aaron to create an idol, a golden calf, that they can worship. Aaron thinks he is helping keep the peace while Moses is preoccupied, but since one of god’s supreme laws is, essentially, “forget about them other gods, already,” this doesn’t go over well. God has Moses ask who is a true follower (to which the tribe Levi steps forward), and then Moses has the Levites  go forth and murder their brothers, neighbors, and friends. 3,000 people are slaughtered for worshipping that golden calf. So, for 40 years, god guides them through the desert, and then he encourages a mass murder over a little golden bull. Yikes! 

God of War: Exodus 15:3 tells us that “The Lord is a man of war.” This couldn’t be more obvious than in the early part of Exodus, when god continues to force pharaoh to deny him. It’s almost like a game, with god playing both sides in order to up the ante. He does it again in this latter part of the book, when he “hardens pharaoh’s heart” (again!) so that pharaoh will raise up an army to go after the Israelites. Ostensibly, this is because he regrets letting his slaves go; and sure, building an empire on the backs of slaves only to find that, one day, all of that labor is gone, would be a problem. Yet, as the story goes, pharaoh is never responsible for these vindictive actions. God himself causes pharaoh to come after the Israelites so that he (god) can prove once and for all that he is the supreme power, the almighty, and either convince the Egyptians of this or wipe them out (as he does in the story of the Red Sea). Man of war, indeed.

Laws: Exodus lays the foundation for some interesting laws. One of the most relevant, contemporarily speaking, might be the treatment of “strangers.” In Exodus 22:16-28, god relays to Moses the laws regarding sex, witches (Eek!), bestiality, religious worship, treatment of the poor, and antipathy for lenders/usurers. Most importantly, in my opinion, is the fact that god commands all Israelites to treat strangers well, because the Israelites were strangers in Egypt, once, and yet god cared for them. The law is repeated again in Exodus 23:9, as if to emphasize this matter above the others that are listed only once (lying, the Sabbath, etc.) In our current political climate, I find this attitude about how we should treat strangers in our midst quite refreshing. Do not abuse them, do not condemn them.

OTHER INTERESTING BITS:

Joshua: The book of Exodus is our introduction to an important character, Joshua. He is the first military leader for the Israelites and ultimately succeeds Moses as leader. This highlights the pre-eminence of the tribe of Ephraim, of which Joshua is descended. It’s also interesting to note that Joshua (Jehoshua) is twice translated as Jesus in the KJV (as in Acts 7:45).

Red Sea: There has been some debate about where the Red Sea really is, but perhaps the most compelling argument is that it is actually the “Reed Sea.” The original term, yam suph, translates from the Hebrew as The Sea of Reeds, and probably refers to an area near the Gulf of Suez (a much smaller body of water, similar to the Red Sea, but only 30-miles wide rather than 150).

Cherubim: Where do depictions of cherubs as chubby, childlike angels come from? The bible actually has no description for these creatures, save that their wings are described multiple times. The idea that they would be cute little cupids is probably ridiculous, considering how important their role as guardians seems to be. For example, it is the cherubim who protect the Garden of Eden, the Ark of the Covenant, and later, Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6:23-24). So, I bet they were pretty darn fierce.

Roll the Dice: In the lengthy (and boring) list of rules for priests and churches laid out in this part of Exodus, two words appear without explanation: Urim (“lights”) and Thummim (“perfections”). Unlike some of the other items, which are clearly described as types of furniture, clothes, incense, or whatever, these are simply mentioned. It seems they might be tools of divination. The two items, perhaps a type of stone, are used to interpret god’s opinion on important topics. Sort of like rolling dice, or shaking a Magic 8 ball, the Urim and Thummim act as “yes” or “no” answers in questions only god can answer. Saul uses this approach in 1 Samuel 14:41 and 28:6, for example, when trying to reach his important decisions. The NSV translation of 14:41 is the clearest description.

Genesis 43-Exodus 12 #2018BibleRBR

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Three: Genesis 43-Exodus 12

This week’s reading brought us to the end of Genesis, the first book of Moses, and into the second book, Exodus. In the conclusion of Genesis, we see the decline of the tribe of Joseph (or the death of Joseph the person, depending on how you’re reading the book). We learn some important information about the relationship between the Hebrews (Canaanites) and the Egyptians, most importantly the extreme prejudice that the Egyptians have against Israelites (43:32 tells us that Egyptians will not eat with Hebrews, “for that is an abomination” and that the Egyptians look down on farmers/ranchers, which is the primary occupation for the Hebrews). That said, alongside this prejudice, we see that this particular Egyptian pharaoh is willing to bend traditional prejudices because he relies so much on Joseph and appreciates what Joseph (or the tribe of Joseph) has done for his land and people, including keeping them fed during the 7-year drought, and keeping the pharaoh rich. 

Egypt and Israel: Historically, the end of Genesis and this beginning part of Exodus are interesting in that they illustrate some of the history between the Egyptians and the Israelites. A caution, though: unlike many of the major historical events described in Genesis, which can be corroborated with historical documents from other cultures, most of what happens in Exodus is documented only in the Bible. Still, we learn that, around the time that the tribe of Joseph falls, there is also a transition in Egyptian leadership. A new dynasty seems to rise with Ramses II (there is about 400 years between the end of Genesis, when Joseph dies, and the beginning of Exodus, when Moses is born) and the Egyptians, battling numerous insurrections and attacks from surrounding areas while simultaneously expanding their empire, are charged with being less and less “tolerant” of the presence of Hebrews in their lands. The close relationship between the tribe of Joseph and the earlier Egyptian king(s) has been long forgotten. As such, the bible suggests the Hebrews were enslaved in order to prevent them from rising up against Egyptian leadership. Again, it is only in the bible that the record of this slavery exists (and it should be noted: it was not the Hebrew slaves who built the pyramids. I have heard this suggestion many times and often took it for granted, but the pyramids were actually built about 1,000 years before Joseph entered Egypt).

Repeating Patterns: When Jacob and Joseph reunite, Jacob asks Joseph to bring his own sons so that he (Jacob) might bless them. Joseph brings Manasseh and Ephraim before their grandfather and places Manasseh on the right (to be blessed first, as the elder brother) and Ephraim on the left (to be blessed second, as the younger brother). But Jacob crosses his arms and reverses the order. We’ve seen this before! In the culture of ancient Israel, the firstborn is supposed to be the most important, but just as we saw Isaac blessed above Ishmael, and Jacob before Esau, and even Joseph favored above his many older brothers, here we see Jacob actively raise Ephraim above his elder and declare that his will be the blessed life. Why? Some say this is an example that these traditions are man’s, whereas god is not constrained by or concerned with them. I would also suggest that, again, these narratives are being written after history has happened, so the priests had the benefit of knowing which tribes did actually succeed. If historically the tribe of Ephraim was stronger, more successful, or longer-lasting than that of Manasseh, then it makes sense to write Jacob’s blessing this way. 

Reverse Engineering Tribal History: As with many other points in the books of the bible, when names of individuals are listed and their histories/personalities/prophecies are given, we find that what is actually happening is a historical record of the people that has been reconstructed after the fact and written to coincide with the biblical narrative. For example, Genesis 49 gives us Israel (Jacob) speaking to his children on his deathbed. He lists them in order of age (tribal significance) and prophecies their rise or fall, depending on their documented actions to that point. Indeed, what is fascinating about this is that the priests responsible for compiling the bible stories and histories into narrative form took the history of these tribes, with Jacob as the primary patriarch (after Abraham) and reverse-engineered those histories as told through the mouth of Jacob, in prophecy. It is, then, a magical element of biblical storytelling, on the surface, but more importantly, a historical record of the Israelites in Canaan and Egypt at the time. 

OTHER INTERESTING BITS:

Exodus 7: I have read the Book of Exodus so many times, and have seen countless film and television adaptations of the Moses story. In my recollection, it is always Moses who is acting the part of “hand of god” (god’s empowered agent). In actuality, though, Moses is extremely humble and shy, and only whispers to Aaron what to do. It is Aaron, then, who performs every action. I don’t know how I forgot this! I blame it on Hollywood. 

Exodus 8: The 10 plagues brought by god were once claimed to have been the result of a near collision between Venus and Earth. No  one could find an explanation for how all those crazy things (darkness, lice, storms of hail and fire, etc.) could happen, so why not an astronomical event? Turns out that was total hogwash – but nice try! (Astronomers were not amused). 

Moses: Does the story of a unique boy, given up as a baby only to eventually rise to great prominence sound familiar? That’s probably because ancient folklore is riddled with these stories, from the story of Cyrus in Persian legend to the Roman legend of Romulus, and of course the Greek tales of Perseus, Paris, and Oedipus! So, one theory is that the story of Moses was adapted by Babylonian priests from the legend of Sargon of Agade, when the priests were writing the Hexateuch. 

Passover: Speaking of borrowing/adapting stories from various cultures. Passover was the most important agricultural festival after the time of Moses, and was likely a pagan holiday at first (just like Christmas and Easter). Priests writing the book of Exodus likely assigned this most important festival to coincide with one of the most important themes in early Israeli legend: the exodus. 

I’ll be back next Sunday, January 28th, for my last post of this month! On January 31st, the reading list for February will be posted (with perhaps anything else I want to add that I didn’t get a chance to in these end-of-week reviews). 

Interested in other posts in this Reading the Bible as Literature journey? Click here and follow #2018BibleRBR on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram. 

Genesis 25-42 #2018BibleRBR

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Two: Genesis 25-42

This second week of reading Genesis continued to provide rich history and rich stories of characters that turn out to be more than they appear. Last week, I mentioned my annoyance with the Bible writers’ propensity for listing lineages in quick succession. This practice has always bothered me because it seemed indulgent and unnecessary – we never even hear many of these names again, anywhere in the bible (okay, maybe one time, a name gets dropped in Jeremiah or something, but seriously). For that reason, I have always read for the fun and fascinating parables and stories, like those of Jacob and Esau, Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob wrestling the Angel, Joseph and his coat of many colors, and Joseph’s interpretation of dreams. All of these occur in this portion of Genesis, but a closer, researched-based reading this time has also revealed much more.

Repeating Storylines: Have you noticed that there is a lot of repetition in the bible stories? In last week’s reading, for example, we learned about the family lines of Cain and Abel. If we look closely, their ancestors are very similarly named. In addition, this week’s reading demonstrated a repetition of the “overpopulated land” story. In this case, Esau and his family leave because the land won’t support both his and his brother Jacob’s families; we saw this exact issue with Abraham and Lot. These are just two examples of something that happens quite frequently, even in retelling from perspectives (i.e. the biblical narrator telling of events, for example, and then one of the biblical characters re-telling the entire thing, nearly word-for-word, to another character). So, why does this happen? History explains that there were actually three early versions of Genesis, one each (E and J) as written by the two Israeli tribes (northern and southern), and another (P), written later by priests. In an effort two coordinate the E and J texts, the writers (editors) of the P text often duplicated material in an effort to explain (in reverse chronology) some important historical features that were “priestly concerns,” such as record-keeping, major historical events, geography, etc. They also edited the two earlier text with additional legend to explain some of that history. (The earlier texts were once thought to have been written by Moses, hence why the KJV still lists the first 5 books—known as the Pentateuch—as “Books of Moses,” but now there seems to be consensus that these were written much later, and by many people, during the time of the Jewish exile.)  

People As Places/Tribes: Another fascinating feature, related to the above editing traditions, is the fact that names, especially of important and first-born individuals, or familial relations (e.g. sons and brothers), often represent much more than just a single character in the story. This begins right away, in sections of last week’s reading. For example, the word Elohim, translated, means “gods,” not “God,” and a translation from the Hebrew word for “Adam,” means “mankind,” rather than “man.” So, what we now think of as “God created Man,” because of the tendency to translate this way, might actually work better as, “the gods created mankind” (or, when god brings the animals to Adam to be named, might more accurately be: “the gods brought all the animals to humankind.”) So, how did one man and one woman populate the earth? Well, if we are really talking about “womankind” and “mankind,” then it makes much more sense, and is more historically and biologically accurate.

The names Cain and Abel probably represent the relationship between the tribes of Elam and Sumeria. The names of Noah’s sons probably represent the geographical tribes of Arabia, Persia, Assyria, etc., and their languages (semitic or not). In this week’s reading, we see similar historical naming as representative of tribal affairs in the story of Jacob and Esau. The story of Jacob (Israel) and Esau (Edom) is one in which the younger brother (Jacob/Israel) usurps the role and benefits of the elder brother (Esau/Edom), despite tradition and with god’s blessing. Similarly, the Edomites, historically, rose to power and became a strong civilization first, but the Israelites, a younger tribe, would eventually rise and displace the Edomites. In this way, and in many other examples too numerous to outline, the Priest’s edition of Genesis seems to personify, in biblical characters, entire histories of civilizations, including their rise and fall, as well as natural disasters (such as the flood, which likely did happen but may have been borrowed/adapted from other cultures: see the Epics of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis).

OTHER INTERESTING BITS:

Chapter 27: Jacob tricking his father to bless him, rather than Esau, demonstrates both Isaac’s devious personality (allowing him room to “grow up” and accept god, which he later does) and represents the cultural histories of two tribes, the Israelites and Edomites.

Chapter 28: Jacob is “blinded” ironically in the situation with Laban, just as Jacob took advantage of his blinded father. This is perhaps when Jacob begins to become a better person, worthy of the blessing/covenant bestowed upon him.

Chapter 32: Jacob wrestles with a man, whom is taken to be an angel or some version of god. This seems to represent Jacob’s life-long struggle with god, after which he becomes “Israel” and also a better man, accepting god and the struggle, rather than fighting it any longer.

Chapter 37: Why is Joseph so favored, in such a large family? He is Jacob’s 11th son, and yet Jacob treats him with great favor, even giving him a “coat of many colors.” It’s important to remember that Jacob was Rachel’s first-born (Gen 30:22), and Rachel was Jacob’s favored wife (the one for whom he gave up 20 years of his life in service to Laban).

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