Sunday, September 28, 2014

Jephthah's Bargain

There have been times where I needed to make a decision about something, and so I would sort of leave things to fate.  If such-and-such happens, I would tell myself, I’ll do this; and if the thus-and-such happens, I’ll do the other thing.  In a way, I was leaving the matter in God’s hands; which might sound very pious and worthy, except that almost invariably events always fell out so that I’d wind up having to make the decision for myself anyway.  It was as if God was saying, “Oh no, you don’t!  You aren’t getting out of it that easily!  It’s your decision, YOU make it!”
So I pretty much know better than to try making those sorts of deals with God anymore.  They never turn out they way I expect.
Although they’ve never gone as badly as they once did for a guy named Jephthah.
During the period in the history of Israel prior to the establishment of the Monarchy, the individual Tribes of Israel were ruled by Judges, leaders who seem to have mostly served as arbiters and lawgivers, but who sometimes would lead their tribe, or on rare occasion a coalition of tribes, into battle.
The Book of Judges describes successive cycles in which the people would fall into apostasy, worshiping the local Canaanite gods; then face attacks from hostile nations; then ultimately be delivered by hero.  Samson is probably the most famous of these heroes, followed by Gideon, who has a nice, adventurous story that goes over well in Sunday School.  Many of the Judges get only brief mention.  In the middle of these, though, we have Jephthah, whose tragic story is alluded to briefly by Hamlet, but who mostly gets overlooked.
Jephthah lived in Gilead, the territory east of the Jordan river, and belonged to the tribe of Manasseh.  His father was named also named Gilead and might have been a person of some importance in the region.  His mother, mother, though was a prostitute, and Jephthah bore a social stigma because of this. Gilead seems to have adopted his illegitimate son, but Jephthah’s half-brothers drove him out of the family so that they wouldn’t have to share their inheritance with him.
Jephthah settled in the land of Tob, which I assume was near Gilead, and gathered a group of fellow outcasts around him.  The King James Version calls his followers “vain men”; other translations call them “worthless” or “empty” men, or even "outlaws".  The NIV diplomatically calls them “adventurers”.  His band of mercenaries must have been successful, though, because Jephthah gained a reputation as a mighty warrior.
This is why, when the tribes of Israel found themselves beset by the Ammonites from the East, the elders of Gilead sought out Jephthah asking him to lead them in battle.
Jephthah said to them, “Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house?  Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?”The elders of Gilead said to him, “Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be our head over all who live in Gilead.”  (Judges 11:7-8 NIV)
Jephthah takes some convincing, but once he is assured that the elders are serious about their offer, and the offer is ratified by the populace, Jephthah agrees to become Commander-in-Chief of Gilead. 
Here the story takes an unusual digression, something we don’t usually see in these Bible stories about battles.  The first thing Jephthah does upon taking command of Gilead is to engage in some diplomacy.
Then Jephthah sent messengers to the Ammonite king with the question:  “What do you have against us that you have attacked our country?”
The king of the Ammonites answered Jephthah’s messengers, “When Israel came up out of Egypt, they took away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, all the way to the Jordon.  Now give it back peaceably.”
 Jephthah responds with a rather lengthy message, stating the case for his tribe’s right to possess the Transjordan.  The gist of it is that to begin with, Israel took this particular territory from Sihon, the king of the Amorites, not from the Ammonites, who moved into the region later.  Secondly, that the Israelites had conquered it fair and square.  (“Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you?  Likewise, whatever the LORD our God has given us, we will possess.” (Judges 11:24))  Lastly, Jephthah observes that the Israelites had held these lands for three hundred years now.  “Why didn’t you retake them during that time?”
“I have not wronged you, but you are doing me wrong by waging war against me.  Let the LORD, the Judge, decide the dispute this day between the Israelites and the Ammonites.”  (Judges 11:27)
The king of the Ammonites isn’t impressed by Jephthah’s argument and simply ignores it; or perhaps he likes the idea of fighting it out and letting their respective gods settle the matter.  In either case, the die is cast, and Jephthah advances his forces to meet the Ammonites.
Before the battle, Jephthah makes a vow unto the Lord:  “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph form the Ammonites will be the LORD’S and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:30-31)  And then Jephthah proceeds to kick Ammonite butt.  “The LORD gave them into his hands” the text tells us, and Jephthah devastated twenty Ammonite towns.
Happy ending, right?
You might recall I said that Jephthah is brought up in Hamlet, didn’t I?  Well, Hamlet wouldn’t have mentioned him if he wasn’t tragic.  “O, Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!” Hamlet says to Polonius.  “One fair daughter and no more / The which he loved passing well.”
I’m sure you can see where this is going.
When Jephthah returns home to the town of Mizpah after his victorious campaign, the first one to come out of his house to greet him is his daughter, his only child, who is dancing in celebration. 
When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh!  My daughter!  You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break.”  (Judges 11:35)
His daughter bows to the inevitable.  Since he has made a promise, he must fulfill it.  She only asks her father one thing:  “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.” (v. 37)  And so he does.  And two months later, she comes back.  And then, the text simply says, “he did to her as he had vowed.”
What kind of a God makes demands like that?  Well, strictly speaking, God didn’t; Jephthah made the vow himself and has only himself to blame.  But couldn’t God have intervened and prevented the daughter from being the first one to meet Jephthah?  Maybe.  But if we’re going to go that route, God also could have intervened and prevented Jephthah from making the stupid vow in the first place, or prevented his stepbrothers from kicking him out of his family, or prevented king Sihon from attacking the Israelites three hundred years previously. 
There are places where the Bible depicts God as the micro-manager, fiddling with the lives of his people and laying down precise rules and regulations; but in other places, the Bible seems to show God sitting back and letting people deal with the messes they’ve made by themselves, and try to work out for themselves what he wants them to do.  And this seems to be one of the latter.
This story seems to me like a relic from a transitional period, between a more barbaric era in which human sacrifices were common, or at least not unheard of, and a comparatively more humane one in which sacrifices were limited to livestock and agricultural produce.  The story has some parallels with the story of how Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son, Isaac; and perhaps the Isaac story reflects the same kind of transition.  But more than Abraham and Isaac, I see parallels between the story of Jephthah and his daughter and the Greek legend of Agamemnon and his daughter Iphigenia. 
Did Jephthah have no options?  The Learned Rabbis who wrote the midrash commentaries on the Scriptures pretty much agreed that it is no sin to break a vow if fulfilling that vow meant performing an immoral act.  One midrash states that Jephthah was an ignorant man with an unsophisticated understanding of God, and that if only he had gone to consult Phineas, the high priest at that time, he might have been better advised.  But Jephthah was too proud to go to the priest; and Phineas was too proud to go to Mizpah to visit the Gideonite bastard; and so both men suffered tragedy.
But some interpreters have tried to give the story a happier ending.  Just as the Lord provides a ram as a substitute for Isaac in the story of Abraham and Isaac, (and as a fawn is used as a substitute in the story of Agamemnon and Iphigenia), it’s been suggested that Jephthah also found a way to fulfill the letter of the vow.  The idea is that Jephthah kept his daughter in seclusion rather than allowing her to marry, or that she dedicated the rest of her life to serving God.  Essentially, she becomes a nun; either way, she remains a virgin.
Perhaps this seems like something of a stretch in order to get a happy ending (such as it is), but one point in its favor is that the vow  “whatever comes out … will be the LORD’S, and I will sacrifice it…” could also be translated as “… will be the LORD’S, OR I will sacrifice it;” meaning that Jephthah has the option of either sacrificing his daughter, or dedicating her to the Lord.
The text is vague; it gives no details, other than to mention a tradition that arose from this episode:
From this comes the Israelite custom that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite. (Judges 11:39-40). 
This verse is the only mention of such a custom, either in the Bible or in any other Jewish sources, so perhaps it was a local tradition in Gilead that fell out of practice.  But in this custom, the innocent and blameless girl received more honor than her rash and warlike father.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Sons of Cain Invent Technology

(Originally posted on Daily Kos for the D'var Torah series on Oct 12, 2012)

Like the Book of Genesis, the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey begins with The Dawn of Man.  The two have little else in common.  One has Monoliths, the other has Monotheism.  Both show the First Man experiencing something which opens his eyes and gives him an understanding he didn't have before.  In the case of Adam, it's: "Holy crap!  I'm not wearing any pants!!!"  In the case of the caveman from 2001, it's:  "Hey!  I can use this bone to bash things!!!"  Then he flings the bone into the air and it becomes a Pan-Am space plane on its way to the Moon.  Which is less doofy than it sounds because the caveman's bone club is The First Tool, you see, and by inventing it, he has set mankind on the path to developing technology, which will cumulate in that spaceship.

You get that in a lot of stories about Early Man, like the opening sequence of 2001; the movie The Quest for Fire; the Clan of the Cave Bear novels; Ringo Starr's Caveman.  They usually seem to focus on the discovery of the Important Seminal Inventions of Civilization, like Fire, the Wheel, Animal Husbandry, the Missionary Position, etc.  Perhaps we like these types of stories because we live in a technological society and so technology is important.  Or perhaps because these stories tend to be written by Science Fiction writers, who have an interest in tech stuff.
But the Bible has very little to say about technology.  The Discovery of Fire was of less interest to the writers of Genesis than the Discovery of Sin.  We know that Adam and Eve invented Clothing and Blaming the Woman; we can infer that they also invented Sex, although Genesis is not terribly specific about that either.  They probably invented lots of other stuff too; but Scriptures say very little about these things.
Until we get to the Sons of Cain.
We left Cain taking his unnamed wife and leaving the surviving members of his family to live in the land of Nod, east of Eden.  There he built a city, which he named after his son Enoch. And then we get the first of many genealogies of the book of Genesis.
When I read the Bible, I tend to skip over the long lists of "begats".  I'm sure many people do the same.  And there are a lot of them in Genesis; in fact, you could look at the book as one long genealogy with narrative interruptions.  But every now and then we get a odd little factoid about one of these ancestors, just enough to whet our curiosity.   Enoch, (the other one, not the son of Cain), who "walked with God" and whose passing was a mystery is one of them.  But in the listing of the descendants of Cain we get this passage:
Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah.  Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the fatehr of those who live in tents and raise livestock.  His brother's name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play the harp and flute.  Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron.  Tubal-Cain's sister was Naamah.  (Genesis 4:19-22 NIV)
Okay, first a couple of minor points.  The Lamech in this passage is a different guy from the Lamech mentioned in the next chapter as the father of Noah; just as the Enoch mentioned earlier is different from the one who was the father of Methuselah.  And as far as I know, no Biblical scholars have ever suggested a connection between Lamech's second wife and Japanese giant monsters.
But look at the three sons of Lamech:
* Jabel, "the father of all who live in tents and raise livestock"
* Jubal, "the father of all who play the harp and flute 
* Tubal-Cain, "who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron
In those three sons, the writer of Genesis cites the birth of nomadic herding, musical instruments and metallurgy.  (Their sister Naamah isn't credited with anything specific, but the fact that she is mentioned at all in the genealogy is something noteworthy).
And these innovators come from the cursed line of Cain.  The Bible doesn't mention anyone in the line of Seth building anything interesting until Noah.
Perhaps the reason why Scriptures says so little about invention and technical innovation is that the compilers of Genesis associated that sort of thing with the wicked Sons of Cain.  Their father certainly was no winner.  The passage goes on to say:
Lamech said to his wives, 
"Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words; 
I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. 
If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times." 
(Genesis 4:23-24)
In other words, Cain killed his brother because Cain hated him; Lamech killed some guy just to be a jerk.  And he went on to boast about it.  
Then again, the writers of Genesis probably omitted mentioning technology because they were trying to outline a history of God's relation to His People, not a history of invention.  There are a lot of details which Scripture ignores simply because they are irrelevant to the message the writers wished to convey, such as where Cain got his wife, or what exactly did happen to Enoch, or did Adam and Eve have bellybuttons.  Yeah, people have been speculating about these lacunae for millenia, but the Bible just doesn't say.
So Scriptures isn't necessarily saying here that Technology is by nature Evil.
Then again, the First Tool invented by the caveman in 2001 was an instrument of murder...

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Mrs. Cain

“You’re a Pastor’s Kid,” a friend once said to me; “Maybe you can answer this one.  Where did Cain get his wife?  I’ve never gotten a straight answer.”

“The Bible doesn’t say,” I replied.  “Anyone who gives you a straight answer is Making It Up.” 

I’m not sure if it was the answer she wanted to hear, but I think she appreciated my honesty.  Often when Christians are arguing with skeptics we feel a need to have an answer for everything.  We forget that “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer if we truly don’t know something.  There are a lot of places in the Bible where information is left out; presumably because the writer of that part felt it was unimportant; or perhaps just overlooked it because it was less important than something else, or perhaps most likely, because the writer didn‘t know either.  Cain’s Wife is one of these.

Of course, that doesn’t stop us from speculating.

There are two possible explanations I can think of for where Cain got his wife.  One is that she was specially created for him, as Eve was for Adam.  This, to me, seems overly complicated.  The other is that Adam and Eve had other children besides the ones specifically mentioned in the Bible and that Cain married one of his sisters.

But wouldn’t this technically be considered incest?  Yes, that’s probably a big reason why people don’t like to talk about Cain’s wife, and why Bible skeptics like to bring it up.  The explanation I’ve read is that the prohibition against brother and sister marrying had not yet been established.  Besides, what the hell else were they supposed to do?

But what about inbreeding?  Wouldn’t family members intermarrying that close together result in all sorts of genetic problems?  The Author of Genesis is as silent on the subject of genetics as he is on the name of Cain’s wife.  My own idea is that the first couple generations after Creation still possessed a greater measure of the Divine Creative Force, resulting in a kind of innate biodiversity which made it possible for them to interbreed without the problems of inbreeding.  And if this sounds like the purest moonshine, yes it is.  Like the Author of Genesis, I know little about genetics either; probably even less, since Moses used to herd sheep and would have had some idea of practical animal husbandry.  This is just a piece of whimsy on my part, and I don’t expect anyone to take it seriously.

But did Cain have a sister?  The Bible doesn’t mention one.  If you think about it, though, Adam and Eve lived together, according to Genesis, for something like 900 years.  And although the Bible doesn’t go into details about it, you have to assume they invented sex.  Do you really think they would have stopped at two kids?

The Jewish Midrashic tradition says that Cain and Abel each had twin sisters and that these were the women they were going to marry.  The Midrash is a tradition of biblical commentary which explores the text to plumb deeper meanings.  In some cases the midrashim  are interpretations of the Law or applications of Mosaic Law to situations Moses never dreamed of.  Sometimes they take the form of parables illuminating some aspect of the text.  And, as in this case, some Midrash are stories that expand upon existing Biblical narratives.

The sister Abel was promised, Aclima, was the more beautiful of the two and Cain wanted her.  Their father Adam suggested they both offer sacrifices as a means of letting the Lord decide.  When God favored Abel over him, Cain’s jealousy deepened into murder.

The apocryphal Book of Jubilees, thought to be written around the 2nd Century BC, tells a similar story.  Here, the girl the two quarrel over isn’t a twin but their younger sister, named Awen.

Another midrashic version says that Abel had two sisters – that they were triplets –- but that Cain only had one.  Abel felt that he should get both, but Cain argued that, being the older brother, he should get the spare.  How the sisters felt about this doesn’t seem to be mentioned.  However many sisters Cain and Abel had, the one Cain married is the only one who gets mention in the text; what might have happened to the others is unknown.

Cain took his wife and went out into the Land of Nod, which means “Wandering”, so it doesn’t necessarily mean a geographic designation.  Referring to sleep as the “Land of Nod” is an unrelated pun.

According to Genesis, Cain eventually settled down long enough to build a city so that his son, Enoch could have a home.  Presumably, that’s where his wife ended up.  Legend, however, insists that Cain himself was doomed to wander the earth, and wanders still.

If you look up at night and look at the full moon, the shadows on its face might resemble a man with a bundle of sticks on his back.  Or it might look like a rabbit; but in medieval folklore it’s a guy with some sticks, and this burdened traveler is Cain, cursed to wander through all eternity.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Mark of Cain

In his comic book SANDMAN, writer Neil Gaiman sometimes used a couple of characters who had earlier appeared in a couple of the horror anthology books published by DC Comics in the ‘70s.  Their names were Cain and Abel, and like their Biblical namesakes, they pursued a rather dysfunctional sibling relationship (when not introducing ghastly horror stories with ironic comments filled with ghastlier puns).

In Gaiman’s re-working of the characters, they really were the Cain and Abel of the Book of Genesis… after a fashion.  They were personifications of the First Villain and the First Victim; the central characters of the First Story, which gave them a special role in The Dreaming, the land ruled by Morpheus where Dream and Reality are largely interchangeable, as the keepers, and as the tellers, of stories.

Perhaps the story of Cain and Abel was not the very first one ever told, but it is certainly one of the familiar ones.  Adam and Eve had two sons:  the firstborn was Cain and the second Abel.  Cain was a farmer who tilled the soil; Abel raised livestock.  Some scholars look on this story as a metaphoric account of the rivalry between nomadic shepherds and settled farmers.

But when each brought some of their produce to the Lord as a sacrifice, the Lord looked with favor upon Abel’s sacrifice, but not on Cain’s.  And this bugged Cain.

Why didn’t God like Cain’s sacrifice?  The text doesn’t specifically say.  The explanation I’ve always heard is that Cain just brought some “fruits of the earth” he had grown while Able brought “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.”  In other words, Abel brought the nicer offering, suggesting that his gift was more sincere.  That’s the only clue the text gives us.  It also could be that Cain had a grudge against his brother that went further back and the deal with the sacrifices just brought it all into the open.

Whatever the cause, Cain let the resentment fester; he gnawed on his grudge and incubated his hatred until it drove him to an act of violence.  He lured Abel to a remote, lonely place and killed him.

Later on, when God confronted him, Cain tried to pretend he knew nothing about it.  You’d think that his parents would have told him that never works.

The LORD said “What have you done”  Listen!  Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.  Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brothers blood from your hand.  When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you.  You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”  (Gen 4:10-12 NIV)

There are two ways of looking at this curse, (as there are with most curses mentioned in the Bible):  the obvious interpretation is that God is punishing Cain by laying down divine vengeance on his head.  This is the “God is a Vindictive Jerk” theory, and there are passages in Scripture which seem to support this point of view.  But you can also interpret the passage as saying, “Your action has tainted the earth, and so as a result, it will no longer be as productive.”  Just as they tell us Virtue is its Own Reward, so does Evil also carry its own reward and the consequences of our actions come back to bite us in the butt.  Cain found that Karma is a pain.

And here an interesting shift occurs in the story.  Up to this point, the story of Cain and Abel has been the story of a family; (because at this point the population of the Human Race can be counted on the fingers of one hand).  But with this next part, we see things in the setting of a greater society.  Cain complains that his punishment is too much to bear, because everyone who sees him from now on is going to want to kill him, out of vengeance for what he did to Abel.  We’re now looking ahead, to a time where humanity has grown beyond Cain’s own generation; and to one of the big problems a society faces:  how to break the cycle of revenge.  The Lord decrees that anyone who kills Cain shall suffer a seven-fold retribution.

God places a mark on Cain, to identify him,  so people will know not to kill him.  We don’t know what kind of a mark this was.  It’s been interpreted as a scar on his brow; or a brand, the way some cultures would brand criminals to identify them.  Other traditions hold that Cain was marked with bright red hair.

For centuries there was a widespread belief that God marked Cain by turning his skin dark, and that Africans are the descendants of Cain.  This was sometimes used as a justification of slavery in America.  (That, and the Curse of Ham, which is another story for another day).

This is why the early American black poet Phillis Wheatley, in her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America”, alludes to Cain in her plea for acceptance:

Some view our sable race with scornful eye, "Their colour is a diabolic die." Remember, Christians, Negro's, black as Cain, May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

The Mark of Cain has been popularly regarded as part of God’s curse on him, but the text suggests that rather it was a mercy, a mark of protection.  In a sense, it was both:  Although the Mark, whatever it was, served to protect Cain by warning others not to kill him, it also set him apart from society.  No matter how numerous mankind would become, no matter how far he should wander, he could never take refuge in anonymity.  His crime was written on his face; everyone would know who he was and what he did.

And so Cain leaves his parents, taking his wife with him, which brings us to another question:  Where did Cain get that wife of his, anyway?

That’s coming up next time.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

God Hates Figs?

Biblical scholars tend to be suspicious of passages in the Gospels that dovetail too neatly with Church Doctrine.  “Did Jesus really say that?” they ask, “Or did the Gospel writer or even a later editor invent it?”  And I have to admit, they may have a point.

But there’s a flip side to this reasoning too.  By the same logic, a passage that’s embarrassing to a respected figure, or conflicts with some aspects of established theology, is more likely to be authentic, because presumably the Early Church Fathers would have edited it out if it weren’t firmly established.  It’s sort of like Tertulian’s famous statement, Certum est, quia impossibile - It is certain because it is impossible.  Although in this case it’s more a matter of “It’s certain because if they had made it up they would have invented something less weird.”

If there’s any truth to this theory, then certainly the most authentic passage in the Gospels would have to be the story of Jesus and the Fig Tree.

The story is found in Mark, chapter 11.  Mark is kind of like the Cliff Notes Gospel; it’s the shortest of the four, and it’s pretty fast-paced, going from incident to incident without nearly as many of the parables and discourses which we find in the other Gospels.  Both Matthew and Luke follow the same outline as Mark, often quoting it word-for-word, which leads most scholars to believe that Mark was written first and that the other two Synoptic Gospels used it as a framework which they supplemented with additional material.

But there are a couple places where Mark digresses from his straightforward narrative to mention a side-incident which seems irrelevant to the main story.  The Fig Tree Story is one of these.

Jesus and his disciples have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  They’re staying, however, in the nearby town of Bethany, perhaps with Jesus’ friends, Mary and Martha and Lazarus, because the hotels in Jerusalem are always booked up on the holidays.

While leaving Bethany the next morning to go up into the city, Jesus is hungry and sees a fig tree in the distance.  But when he goes to the tree to check out if there’s any fruit on it, he finds nothing but leaves.  This pisses him off.  “May no one ever eat fruit from you again,” he says.  (Mark 11:12-14)

And that’s where Mark leaves it for the moment.  He goes on to describe Jesus driving the moneychangers from the Temple.  And come to think of it, this might be why he’s so hard on those moneychangers; he’s hungry and the whole fig tree thing put him in a bad mood.  After a busy day of Occupying Temple Mount, he and his disciples return to Bethany for the night.  The next day they pass by the fig tree again, only now it is withered.  “Rabbi, look!” Peter says, “The fig tree you cursed is withered!”  (Mark 11:20-21)

The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 21:18-21, also tells this story, but in Matthew’s version, the tree withers immediately.  It’s more dramatic that way, and from a plot point of view tightens up the narrative better, but I think I prefer Mark’s telling.)

Jesus responds by telling his disciples to “Have faith in God” and that if they believe hard enough, they’ll be able to do all sorts of crazy stuff like making mountains jump into the sea or forgiving sins.  But the story has always left me dazed and wondering what the heck that was all about.  Probably much the way the Disciples must have been.

This is not the moral I was expecting.  I would have expected him to say something like “So too will perish those who bear not Fruits of Righteousness” or something along those lines.  Nope.  Instead he talks about Faith and the Power of Prayer.

Why did Jesus curse the stupid tree?  A pious impulse wants me to say that it was a sinful fig tree and therefore deserved to be cursed.


Yes, that seems just as stupid when I type it out as it does in my head when I think it.  What’s more, Mark comes right out and tells us that the reason the fig tree didn’t have any figs on it was because it was the wrong season!  (“… When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs.”  Mark 11:13)

So then the question becomes, why did Jesus expect there to be figs in the first place?  My study Bible tries to finesse this by noting that fig trees in that region normally begin to leaf out around March or April, but do not bear figs until their leaves are all out in early Summer.  So maybe Jesus, seeing that the tree already had a lot of leaves on it, thought that it might have some early figs too.  I’d say that was grasping at straws, except that you won’t find straws on a fig tree at that time of the year either.  Jesus still comes off seeming like a jerk for cursing a perfectly innocent fig tree that was minding its own business.  I don’t have an answer for that.  This is the story we have.

Why did the Gospel writers include this curious story?  Perhaps as a demonstration of Christ’s Divine Power over Nature.  Or perhaps to illustrate his words about the Power of Prayer.  But I think it was something that stuck in Peter’s mind because it was just so dang freaky.

Backing up a little, the Gospel of Mark is traditionally ascribed to John-Mark, a young man who served as an assistant to the Apostle Peter in his later years.  (We know Peter had a secretary, because of the two Epistles credited to him, the Greek in the first one is much better than the other.  Since Greek wasn’t Peter’s primary language, it’s believed that he had an assistant polish up his prose).  If this is true, than Mark’s Gospel would have been based on Peter’s reminiscences.

This would explain how Mark, who was not one of the Twelve Disciples, nor is ever mentioned by name in any of the other Gospels, got his material; and why Matthew and Luke defer to Mark’s version of the story in their own Gospels.  Modern scholarship has cast doubt on the Peter-Mark connection, though, noting places in Mark’s gospel where he gets details of Galilee geography wrong; mistakes that presumably Peter would not make.  Then again, it’s possible that Mark did not set down the final version of his Gospel until after Peter’s death; (most scholars date the Gospel after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70); and so Peter would have been unable to correct these goofs.

But supposing tradition has it right about Peter and Mark, I can picture Peter telling stories to his own disciple about his experiences.  “I remember this one time … man, it was the freakiest thing … we were leaving Bethany and there was this fig tree…”  He would have told about the things that stuck most in his memory.

What strikes me the most about this story, though, is not the demonstration of Christ’s Divine Power over Deciduous Plants, but glimpse we get of Jesus the man, with human needs and human frustrations.

The Church has traditionally taught that Jesus was True God and Also True Man.  So how can he be both?  I don’t know.  How can light be both a wave and a particle?  From observation we know that light acts like both.  And the Doctrine of the Dual Nature is one of the ideas Christians have developed to explain this aspect of Christ.  The way Luther explains this is that if Christ were merely a man, his sacrifice would be insufficient to redeem all humanity; but if he were merely a god, (if that makes sense), then his life on earth would be meaningless; he’d just be a poseur pretending to be one of us.

Christians tend to put more emphasis on the “True God” part, though, because Christ’s humanity can make us uncomfortable sometimes; as in this story.  He knew hunger; he knew aggravation; he got frustrated when his disciples missed the point; he got sarcastic when his enemies tried to trap him in word games; he wept when his friends suffered bereavement; he crashed in the bottom of a fishing boat when he’d had a long, tiring day; and there were some times when the world got too much for him and he just needed some time by himself.

Here he got pissed off and yelled at a tree.  As someone who frequently yells at inanimate objects myself, I can wholly empathize.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Underground Movement

It was not my intent to bring up the Gaza Crisis in this blog.  The task of bringing Peace to the Middle East lies far, way far, out of the purview of these little pieces, and much farther out of my competence.  But my mind has a way of making weird connections: whether this is a talent, a curse, or a really annoying habit, I will leave as an exercise for the reader. 

When reading about the system of tunnels dug by the Palestinians in order to circumvent the Israeli blockade of Gaza and, according to Israel, to launch attacks within Israeli borders, I couldn’t help but recall that this was not the first time Israel experienced tunnel warfare.

When David first became king over the tribe of Judah, he ruled from the city of Hebron; but as he consolidated his power and brought the other tribes of Israel under his rule, he decided he wanted a stronger citadel for his capital.  He chose Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was a city on top of a high hill in the mountain region of Judea, whose naturally steep sides were augmented by built-up terraces, making it easy to defend.  It’s thought that Jerusalem might have been the same city as Salem, the city ruled by Melchizadek in the time of Abraham.  If this is the case, it might have been regarded as a holy city even before it became the City of David.  Indeed, tradition holds that the top of the hill, overlooking the city of the Jesubites, was the Mount Moriah mentioned in Genesis 22:1-19, where Abraham was told to sacrifice his son Isaac.

I had always assumed that it lay in the northern part of Judah, because of the way the political boundaries of the region later fell out; but originally its location was within the tribe of Benjamin, the tribe King Saul came from.  So choosing this location might have been a way to mitigate any sense of favoritism the other tribes might have perceived regarding David’s native Judah.

More importantly, although the territory around Jerusalem belonged to the tribe of Benjamin, the Benjaminites had never managed to conquer the city, and it remained in control of the original inhabitants, called Jebusites.  So the city itself was not part of any of the Twelve Tribes, and if David could conquer it, he would have a capital independent of any tribal affiliations.

But conquering the city would not be easy.  The Israelites at the time of Joshua had never managed to displace the Jebusites, and generations of Benjaminites had done little more than occupy the surrounding territory.  When David brought his army to besiege the city, the Jebusites mocked him:

The king and his men marched to Jerusalem to attack the Jebusites, who lived there.  The Jebusites said to David, “You will not get in here; even the blind and the lame can ward you off.”  They thought, “David cannot get in here.”  (2 Samuel 5:6 NIV)

They did not add, “Now go away, before we taunt you again!” but the thought was implied.  Nevertheless, David captured the fortress of Zion, and his attack is described briefly in a single, peculiar verse:

On that day, David said, “Anyone who conquers the Jebusites will have to use the water shaft to reach those ‘lame and blind’ who are David’s enemies.”  That is why they say, “The ‘blind and lame’ will not enter the palace.” (2 Samuel 5:8)

The phrase translated here as “water shaft” is an obscure one in the Hebrew, and some scholars have suggested that David was really talking about grappling hooks.  Possibly to avoid the image of David being played by Adam West and climbing up the walls like Batman, most translations favor the interpretation that David and his army entered the city through an underground shaft the Jebusites used to access their water supply.

The line about “who are David’s enemies” is also a bit peculiar.  The King James and some other translation renders the phrase as “whom David hates”.  The NIV’s interpretation assumes that David is being sarcastic; and that the bit about the ‘blind and the lame’ being barred from entering the palace refers to the Jesubites and is not intended as a prohibition against the handicapped in general.

An interesting point which I didn’t know was that the city David seized and claimed for his own did not occupy the top of the hill, but the hill’s southern shoulder.  The hill’s peak wasn’t built up until the time of Solomon, who used it as the site for his Temple.  (Which perhaps explains why Abraham didn’t mention the Jebusites in the story of him and Isaac in Genesis 22).

Some centuries later, King Hezekiah expanded the city further.  It was during his reign that the northern tribes of Israel, which had broken off into an independent kingdom following the reign of Solomon, were conquered and absorbed by Assyria.  The new city walls built by Hezekiah, incorporating the Tyropoeon Valley to the west, (the ‘Valley of the Cheesemakers’, whom Monty Python’s Brian assures us are blessed), accommodated an influx of refugees from the Northern Kingdom.

For a time, Hezekiah paid tribute to the Assyrians, but he also prepared for an eventual Assyrian attack.  In addition to the new walls, Hezekiah’s embarked on another project, mentioned only briefly at the end of the section Kings describing his reign:

As for the other events of Hezekiah’s reign, all his achievements and how he made the pool and the tunnel by which he brought water into the city, are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Judah?  (2 Kings 20:20)

That phrase, “…are they not written…?”  is a formula that the Books of Kings use at the close of each king’s reign, evidence that much of the material is probably taken from official court documents that no longer exist.  But this one mentions a pool and a tunnel made by Hezekiah which is not mentioned elsewhere in Kings.  The Second Book of Chronicles describes this piece of engineering in greater detail:

When Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come and that he intended to make war on Jerusalem, he consulted with his officials and military staff about blocking off the water from the springs outside the city, and they helped him.  A large force of men assembled, and they blocked all the springs and the stream that flowed through the land.  "Why should the kings of Assyria come and find plenty of water?" they said.  Then he worked hard repairing all the broken sections of the wall and building towers on it.  He guilt another all outside that one and reinforced the supporting terraces of the City of David.  He also made large numbers of weapons and shields.  (2 Chron. 32:2-5)
It was Hezekiah who blocked the upper outlet of the Gihon spring and channeled the water down to the west side of the City of David.  He succeeded in everything he undertook. (2 Chron. 32:30)

The Gihon was spring on the east side of the hill, outside the city walls.  The name means “gusher”, and it was also the name given to one of the four rivers of Eden.  The Gihon might have been the entrance to the route David used to capture the city.  But Hezekiah had the spring diverted and a tunnel dug to bring the water to a pool inside the city.  This pool is called the Pool of Siloam, and was the site of one of Jesus’ miracles (John 9:7).

The tunnel still exists, and in 1880, archaeologists found an inscription at the Pool of Siloam commemorating its construction:

Now this is the story of the boring through; while the excavators were still lifting up their picks, each toward his fellow, and while there were yet three cubits to excavate, there was heard the voice of one calling to another, for there was a crevice in the rock, on the right hand.  And on the day they completed the boring through, the stone-cutters struck pick against pick, one against the other; and the waters flowed from the spring to the pool, a distance of 1000 cubits.  And a hundred cubits was the height of the rock above the heads of the stone-cutters.

The tunnel was excavated by two teams of diggers, working at either end, on a course which snaked for something like 1770 feet.  Despite its circuitous route under the city, the tunnels were planned so well that there are only a couple inches of difference where the two tunnels meet.

The tunnel was intended as a secure source of water for the city in the event of an Assyrian attack.  Which eventually happened.

Sennacharib, the king of Assyria did invade Judah, capturing several cities and besieging Jerusalem.  2 Kings chapters 18 and 19 tells the dramatic story of this siege; how the Assyrian commander mocked Hezekiah and tried to stir up revolt among the trapped people of the city; how Hezekiah prayed for deliverance, and how the angel of the Lord came and slew a huge number of the Assyrian army, forcing Sennacherib to withdraw.

Many commenters have interpreted this to mean that an epidemic broke out among the Assyrian army, which is certainly a common enough occurrence in times of war, especially during a siege.  Assyrian documents do record Sennacherib’s campaign against Israel and Judah, but don’t mention any defeat at Jerusalem, whether by disease or divine intervention.  It seems likely to me that Sennacherib withdrew for his own reasons – perhaps because the siege was taking longer than he expected, perhaps because of losing too many soldiers to disease, perhaps because of reports that Hezekiah’s Egyptian allies were on their way – and intended to return another time to finish the job.  As it happened, two of his sons later assassinated him, and so he never got the chance.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Other Shoe -- Ruth conclusion

The Other Shoe
(Ruth conclusion)

After Ruth has left Boaz, he goes to the town gate; a common meeting place since everybody passes by sooner or later. He finds the kinsman he mentioned earlier to Ruth, the one who is more closely related to Naomi's family than himself and whose rights and obligations take precedence over his own, and invites him to a friendly meeting. Boaz also snags ten elders of the town, older men respected for their experience, to serve as formal witnesses.  

He tells the nameless kinsman (and he never is named; interesting point) that Naomi has a piece of property belonging to her late husband Elimelech that she wishes to sell. Since the unnamed kinsman is Elimelech's closest relative, he has first dibs on the property. 

Where did this property come from? It's never been mentioned before? My NIV commentary has two possible interpretations (not necessarily the only ones):   First, that Naomi owns the land but is so destitute that she is forced to sell. It was the duty of the kinsman-redeemer to buy any land in danger of being sold outside the family.  Or, that Naomi does not own the land -- it had been sold by Elimelech before the family left for Moab -- but by law she retains the right of redemption to buy the land back. Lacking funds to do so herself, she is dependent on a kinsman to do it for her. It is the right of redemption that Naomi is "selling". 

A better question is, how did Boaz know Naomi was entering the real estate market? The account doesn't mention him talking to her. Possibly Boaz had done some research and learned about the existence of the property because he was interested in Ruth. Or possibly he and Naomi did cook up this scheme behind Ruth's back. The text doesn't say. 

The kinsman is all in favor of buying the property, until Boaz drops the (heh heh) other shoe:

   "On the day you buy the land from Naomi and from Ruth the Moabitess, you acquire the dead man's widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property." (Ruth 4:5 NIV) 

This makes the deal less attractive. That meant any children he sired by Ruth would be entitled to a portion of his estate. (Whether any anti-Moabite prejudice has any bearing on his decision is not mentioned). In any case, the kinsman declines the offer. "You redeem it yourself. I cannot do it." 

To make the deal official, Boaz and the kinsman do an interesting piece of business with the kinsman's sandal. The text explains that this is a custom in old times, no longer in practice, to seal the deal in property transactions. (The fact that the writer feels a need to explain the practice to his readers is another piece of evidence suggesting a latish date of composition).  The Nuzi Tablets, Akkadian inscriptions from the 2nd millennium BC, mention a similar custom and this tradition might be what the prophet Amos refers to when he writes: "They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals." (Amos 2:6 NIV) 

But there's another possible reason for the shoe transaction. I've mentioned the Levirite law which required a man to marry his dead brother's widow in order to preserve the dead brother's line. (Deut. 25:5-6). The passage has an interesting addendum:

However, if a man does not want to marry his brother's wife, she will go to the elders at the town gate and say, "My husband's brother refuses to carry on his brother's name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me." Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying "I do not want to marry her," his brother's widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, "This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother's family line." That man's line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled. (Deuteronomy 25 7-10 NIV) 

So perhaps the transaction with the sandal was a face-saving way to follow the forms of the Levirite law without publicly humiliating the putz (which might persuade him to marry Ruth after all!) Or perhaps it was just what the text says, a common formality in real estate transactions of the time.  In either case, the kinsman does not gain the stigma of being called “Unsandaled.”  But then again, neither does he gain the recognition of even having a name.  

And yes, through all this Ruth is being treated like a piece of property. Not only that, but she's being treated like an unwanted piece of property.  All I can say is that the Levirite law was intended to protect the rights and interests of the woman, who in that culture had no legal rights except as a wife.   Also, had Boaz approached the Nameless Kinsman saying "I'd like to marry the widow of Elimelech's son, is that okay by you?", then the kinsman might suspect he was playing a fast one with the property attached to her. The matter of the property had to be dealt with first. 

Now that that is settled, Boaz is free to announce his intention to marry Ruth. The witnesses all offer their best wishes: 

"May you have standing in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. Through the offspring the LORD gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah." (Ruth 4:11-12) 

The mention of Tamar and Judah is an interesting one with parallels to this situation; it's an earlier example of the Levirite law in effect (although before Moses codified it). It's also one of those stories you won't hear in Sunday School. We’ll be getting to it in a future essay.

Boaz and Ruth are married and she gives birth to a son, thus completing the joy of Naomi, now no longer bitter. The son, Obed, becomes the father of Jesse, who becomes in turn the father of a kid you might have heard about: King David.