Christian Bible, Christianity, History, Mythology, Reading Event, Religion

Joshua 5-Judges 2 #2018BibleRBR

“The Angel Appearing to Joshua” (Gustave Dore, Joshua 5:15)

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Eleven: Joshua 5 – Judges 2

The book of Joshua unfolds as a sequence of battles, one after the other, which demonstrates Joshua’s prowess as a military leader and ultimately result in the total settlement of Israel. The most prominent anecdotes include the sacking of Jericho and of Ai, as well as the alliance with the Gibeons and, finally, Joshua’s death. Judges, which is much less unified in its telling, will make it clear, however, that the Israelites were not as clearly successful and progressively advancing as the book of Joshua would suggest. Rather than a regular string of successes, the battles for Canaan were much longer, messier, and humbling than earlier described. The reason for this is probably that Joshua’s legacy is at stake in the first book: a legend is being crafted and perpetuated, and so, with rare exceptions, his total domination and superior command must be depicted without question. It seems Judges, however, is compiled from a great deal of ancient historical documents, without much effort to tell any single storyline, and thus might suggest more factual accounts of this period than the lore of Joshua does.  

Winning: Joshua 5-12 is essentially the recounting of a number of battles fought and won. Some of the most important and memorable battles come early, such as the sacking of Jericho. Over the course of 6 days, the Israelites circle the city of Jericho once and blow their trumpets. On the seventh day, they circle 7 times (the city must have been rather small) and blow their trumpets each time. After the last cycle, Joshua commands that the people shout with all their might along with the seventh trumpet-sounding. This “causes” the walls to fall down. Of course, what is more likely is that Joshua had some men chipping away at a part of the wall the entire time, while distracting the inhabitants of Jericho with the marching and trumpeting, even masking the sound. After Jericho comes the battle of Ai, which is significant because their first attack on it fails. This is blamed on Achan’s stealing gold, silver, and robes from Jericho, something explicitly forbidden. After stoning Achan and his family to death, they attack Ai once more (through some military trickery) and succeed, burning it to the ground and killing 12,000 people in the process. The next big event comes with the alliance to the Gibeons and Joshua’s slaughter of the 5 most powerful regional kings. During this period, Joshua causes the sun to stand still (10:12-14), an event for which there is still no explanation. The next couple of books recount more military successes.

Maps: After the many military successes, over the course of decades, Joshua reaches the ripe old age of 110. He knows he is going to die, so he spends his final days reminding the Israelites of their inheritances, which is to say the lands they shall settle based on tribe (with the Levites inheriting no land because they have been called to be priests). Essentially, we get a summary of Moses’s final words, right down to the reminders not to transgress against god or to revert to the old religions, nor to tolerate others’ gods/idols. Like Moses, he “gifts” the people their lands, tells them to be good, reminds them of their rich history from Abraham to Isaac and Jacob, down to Esau, Moses, and Aaron, and then dies.  The second half of this book, then, is essentially a combination of area map with tribal history; in other words, a synthesis of the old and the new.

Judges: Although we are not far into the Book of Judges, we can already see a difference between it and the previous books, especially its closest relative, Joshua. In this case, Judges is essentially a history of Israel immediately following the conquest of Canaan by Joshua and the Israelites. Instead of being told as a linear story, however, it is a miscellaneous collection of historical documents, most that pre-date the writing of the book by many generations, and the documents are not always related. Therefore, what is compiles is not a unified tale; it also raises questions about Joshua’s unfaltering military leadership (Judges 1 recounts the struggles of many disorganized tribes, fighting solitary to survive; there is no single leader and few alliances). Some historical facts to keep in mind: the Israelites are rising to power in Canaan in-between the Bronze Age (c 2500+) and the Iron Age (c 1400 BC). Their rise takes place just between the decline of the Egyptian empire and the rise of the Assyrians, which is why they had some time to establish themselves in Canaan. It’s also important to note that the Israelites, historically Egyptian, rely on earlier bronze weaponry rather than the more advanced iron, which they would encounter in battles with some tribes, such as the Ai. This is a likely reason why they struggled to win against many the Canaanite tribes, those who may have been in contact with other advanced cultures.

OTHER INTERESTING BITS

The Judges: The so-called judges referred to in the title of this book were essentially minor rules of the various tribes. They were tasked with keeping the peace and pursuing justice. In the bible, of course, there is a direct connection between tribal and godly “judgment.” Each time the people defy god, they are delivered into the hands of their enemy. When they repent, god sends a “judge” (a new leader) to save them. Eventually, the period of judges develops into what will become a formal Kingdom of Israel. 

Jericho: Much like many other sacked cities in the bible, Joshua commands that no one shall ever rebuilt Jericho lest they suffer the consequences (and in 1 Kings 16:34, a king who defies this edict does indeed suffer. As promised, both his eldest and his youngest son are killed). The problem is, Jericho is in an ideal area. Ultimately, the city of Jericho was re-built about 300-years after it fell to the Israelites and lasted into New Testament times. It was then destroyed again by the Persians and the Arabs in the 7th Century (AD). It was rebuilt again by Crusaders about 400 years later and remains there to this day, in Palestine.  

The Bible and Science: The story of Joshua making the sun stand still had such an influence in early history that 2500 years later, opponents of Copernicus’s revelation that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the reverse, used it to “refute” him. What really happened? Some have suggested that the sun simply wasn’t shining as brightly that day, which gave the Israelites an advantage (and was remembered, instead, as a day of perpetual sunshine). Others suggest a random refraction of sunlight, similar to what happens for half of the year in very northern parts of the globe, such as Alaska; but how/why that would have happened is unknown. Apparently, no one has solved this particular mystery just yet.

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2018 Bible as Lit, Christian Bible, Christianity, Mythology, Old Testament, Religion, The Hexateuch

Deuteronomy 17-Joshua 4 #2018BibleRBR

‘The Children of Israel Crossing the Jordan” (Gustave Dore)

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Ten: Deuteronomy 17–Joshua 4

Deuteronomy closes with Moses reminding his people of all the good god has done for them and of all the laws that must be kept if the people are to honor god and stay in his favor. Failure to keep god’s laws could result in anything from plagues to banishment to total annihilation, so the last few chapters are, much like the last couple of books, reiterations of all the laws and customs, as well as who is responsible for what (such as the priests acting as leaders, doctors, judges, etc.). At the very end of the book, after Moses has shared his final wisdom with the Israelites and prophecies blessings and curses, god tells him to go up on Mount Nebo, where he can see all the land that will become Israel. Here, Moses dies alone with god, who buries him. God raises up Joshua to replace Moses as leader, and Joshua begins the work of preparing his people to cross the river Jordan and invade Jericho.

One God: As in the previous chapters of Deuteronomy, one of the most prominent messages is that the people of Israel must commit to serving and worshiping only one god. As such, anyone who worships other gods or idols, such as the sun and moon, must be put to death. The priests who are compiling this part of the bible are clearly struggling to deal with some continued interest in polytheism; including strict laws and severe punishments for such dual-beliefs, along with assimilating important traditions into this new faith, is a surer way to gain full compliance with the laws of Yahvism (monotheism – Abrahamic). On the bright side, it takes 3 witnesses to prove someone is guilty of worshiping other gods, so at least a single spiteful neighbor would be somewhat prevented from easily settling a grudge (or stealing his neighbor’s wife/land/cattle/daughter, etc.)

Good Laws, Bad Laws: Deuteronomy reinforces some of the laws pertaining to gender constructs, family obedience, clothing, and sexual encounters. For example, Deuteronomy 21:11-13 tells us that a woman taken captive can be taken as a wife after thirty days, but she cannot be enslaved or made a prostitute. That’s pretty cool. In addition, Deuteronomy 22:25-26 explains that rapists will be put to death. Hoorah! On the other hand, Deuteronomy 21:21 notes that “stubborn” or disobedient children should be stoned to death by the city, and that “cross-dressing” is an abomination (22:5). There are a whole bunch of other new laws outlined in this part of the book, as well as reminders about old standards. Some are logical and some are, well, weird.

Song of Moses: Deuteronomy 32:1-43 is written as a poem, often referred to as “Song of Moses.” Just before Moses is to die, god tells him that he should translate their history and laws into song, which he would then share with his people, who could then teach it to their children and grandchildren, etc. In many ways, this is perhaps the earliest iteration of a didactic “hymn,” a song that praises god while incorporating instructions from god. The Song of Moses relays the entire history of the Israelites, including their escape from Egypt and their 40-years’ wandering in the desert. There are reminders of faithfulness and faithlessness, as well as promises of blessings to the future faithful and curses to those who lapse.

OTHER INTERESTING BITS

Equal Punishment: Deuteronomy 19:21 gives us the famous passage about punishing people for transgressions. “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” This chapter also outlines some caveats, however, including the difference in punishing someone who accidentally kills another versus the punishment for intentional murder. One interesting element is the punishment for bearing false witness. Essentially, whatever the person bearing false witness hoped to accomplish, so shall be his punishment (e.g. If someone falsely claimed that a neighbor stole his goat in hopes that he himself would get a free goat or the cost of it returned to him, that man would instead have to pay up the same to the person he falsely accused.)

12 Stones: Early in the book of Joshua, 12 priests are called to stand in the river Jordan and hold back the waters while the Israelites cross it (similar to the parting of the Red Sea). These priests then each take a stone and place them in a “circle of stones.” This is a tradition older and more diverse than is represented in the story, here. Like the stones of Stonehenge, the practice was used by many cultures and for thousands of years before Joshua’s time, usually as a way of depicting the calendar (one stone for each month). It is likely that the circle of 12 stones described here was already in place in this location (Jericho was an ancient city, probably established around 5,000BC, well before the Israelites got there) but reframed by the priests to suit this story. Yahvism would have otherwise rejected the practice as repugnant to their monotheism.

Hexateuch: Although many treat Joshua as the beginning of the second division of the Bible, which contains 21 books that make up “The Prophets,” others consider Joshua the sixth book in the “Hexateuch.” It is likely that the source material for Joshua is the same as the material for the first five books, known as the “Pentateuch,” and that it was written/compiled by the priests at the same time; thus, treating Joshua as the end of the first section rather than the beginning of the second section, makes a whole lot of sense.     

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2018 Bible as Lit, Christian Bible, Christianity, Mythology, Old Testament, Religion, The Pentateuch, The Torah

Numbers 35-Deuteronomy 16 #2018BibleRBR

Gustave Dore, “Moses Descending Mount Sinai”

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Nine: Numbers 35-Deuteronomy 16

We have reached the fifth and final book of the Pentateuch – and the last of the books of Moses. Numbers closes with the Israelites reaching the promised land and the borders of the new nation being described. There is also a description of how the land will be divided (by lots) and in the differences between city-dwellers and suburbanites. Laws of marriage (intermarriage), inheritance, and the jubilee are reiterated. Deuteronomy picks up where numbers leaves off. I honestly have little to write, this week, because most of what happens in this section is a recounting of all that has happened so far, from the perspective of Moses. He is essentially on his deathbed, reminding the people about where they’ve been, what they have gone through, and what has been promised to them, so long as they remain faithful and obedient to their god and his commandments.

One God: Up until this point, the Israelite god is described as the true or supreme god, but there are quite a few concessions to the beliefs of others. The lingering cultural beliefs in multiple gods, and respect for the many nearby nations who do still hold those beliefs, had been begrudgingly tolerated while the Israelites were encouraged to focus on their own god, learn the new ways of this religion, and establish new laws and customs that would define them in contrast to the nations surrounding them. At this point, however, Moses firmly establishes that there is one god, and that all other beliefs in other gods are wrong, even an abomination worthy of death. The people are charged with teaching their children this most important law and are warned that the worship of other gods or idols, even be it a family member, will be punished severely. If anyone tries to turn your faith, god says, they shall be put to death.  

Poor Moses: Listen, Moses (and his brother, Aaron, before he died) has a lot to deal with. He has spent decades leading these poor, tired, sometimes cowed and sometimes rebellious people through the deserts. From land to land, to place to place, Moses must keep control, keep god’s temper in check, and punish his people severely when they go too far. And now, as the people finally reach Canaan and begin preparing to settle themselves in a homeland, Moses finds himself a breath away from death. God certainly has a twisted sense of humor! Instead of spending his last days in a restful retirement, though, Moses “lectures” to his people, restating the important historical events of their time and reminding them about the key laws that he brought down from Sinai. A leader and a servant to the very end.  

Deuteronomy: This is the first book in the Old Testament that comes not from the J, E, or P sources, but from a fourth source altogether. Legend has it that the book was found in a Temple sometime around 621 BC (2 Kings 22:8). The book was bound and presented to the young king, Josiah, who was so impressed by it that he treated it as prime law. This reinvigorated Yahvism, which was on the cusp of extinction; instead, this minority sect ascended to become the official religion of the land, named so by King Josiah himself. From thence, Yahvism would become Judaism, and would then disseminate further into Christianity and Islam. Quite the lucky find!  

OTHER INTERESTING BITS

Lebanon: Since this book and the end of Numbers spends time outlining the borders of what would become the physical land of Israel, it is interesting to consider what this land actually was. It seems Lebanon was the area of Canaan contained within two mountain regions. It remains, to this day, one of two nations (the other being Israel) that is not primarily Muslim. In the description is also the city of Azzah, which scholars believe is now Gaza. It turns out that this area was probably Greek by ethnicity, and its ancestors likely came from either Crete or Cyprus (which became Caphtor). The evidence for this includes a description of its people as uncircumcised as well as “People of the Sea,” which is how the Greeks were described.

God the Father: This part of the text (Deuteronomy 8) suggests explicitly for the first time that followers should think of god as a “father,” and to be reminded that he both fed and watered the people, as well as punished them when they acted wrongly. This is also a lesson for the future, or a promise that those who remain righteous will be rewarded but those who do not will be destroyed.

More Laws: Not really. A number of laws and customs are reiterated, but they have been shared many times and in many places up to this point. Rules for which foods can and cannot be eaten are restated, laws about the 7-year release of debts are given again. Reminders about the body (e.g. do not tattoo yourself or cut your hair), about tithing and sacrifice, and about offerings are given again. The most prominent new message, though, seems to be the one about monotheism and god’s wrath. It is stated many times in this part of Deuteronomy that followers of other religions should be destroyed without pity. This is an important departure from the way rival religions had been treated in the previous books.    

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2018 Bible as Lit, Christian Bible, Christianity, Mythology, Read-Alongs, Reading Event, Religion

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)

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2018 Bible as Lit, Christian Bible, Christianity, Mythology, Read-Alongs, Reading Event, Religion

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.

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2018 Bible as Lit, Christian Bible, Christianity, Mythology, Read-Alongs, Reading Event, Religion

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. 

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2018 Bible as Lit, Christian Bible, Christianity, Mythology, Read-Alongs, Reading Event, Religion

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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