Sunday, October 19, 2014

Simon vs. Simon

He was a sorcerer and a charlatan; he was demonized as the source of every heresy to trouble the Early Church; he loved the most beautiful woman in the world, and it is said he was the arch-enemy of the first pope.  And he had his very own sin named after him.

But who was Simon Magus?

He appears very briefly in Acts chapter 6; a man named Simon in the city of Samaria who boasted great powers.  He was one of many prophets and would-be messiahs who popped up in Palestine during the First Century.  The text tells us that he practiced sorcery and had attracted a wide amount of attention in the region.  He billed himself as “The Great Power” and people attributed his magic to divine power.  Then Philip showed up.

Philip was a follower of Christ who, like many others, had fled the city of Jerusalem fleeing the attempts by the Temple authorities, (and by later convert Saul in particular), to suppress the Church.  He was one of the seven deacons, chosen by the Twelve Apostles to perform administrative functions and organize the Church’s charitable mission while the Apostles themselves devoted their attention to teaching.  (One of Jesus’ original disciples was also named Philip, but this seems to have been a different guy).

The name “Philip” is Greek, so perhaps he was a Greek convert to Judaism who had become a follower of Jesus.  Or perhaps one of his parents was Greek and the other Jewish, as was the case with Paul’s student, Timothy.  Or possibly Philip was just the name he went by among his Gentile friends. 

Philip came to Samaria and began preaching the good news of the kingdom of God.  The text tells us that many were baptized, both men and women, including Simon.

Was Simon sincere?  The text tells us that he “believed and was baptized” and offers no judgment on this, although it does remark that Simon was impressed by the “signs and miracles” he saw Philip performing and that he followed Philip everywhere.

It seems very likely that Simon saw Philip’s message as The New Thing, and rather than denouncing it, as the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem did, he sought to latch onto it so he could incorporate it into his own schtick.  Or perhaps he really was moved by Philip’s preaching, and his initial acceptance of the message was sincere.

The Apostles back at the Home Office in Jerusalem heard about Philip’s success, and sent Peter and John to take a look.

When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.  Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.  (Acts 8:15-17 NIV)

This deserves a little more attention.  Frequently the Book of Acts refers to believers “receiving the Holy Spirit” but does not go into great detail about what this means. It was an intense, ecstatic religious experience in which the person felt full of spiritual power and excitement.  In some cases, the text describes them speaking in different languages, “speaking in tongues.”   The church tradition in which I grew up doesn’t like to talk a whole lot about this aspect of the Primitive Church, because we Lutherans tend to be wary about things like enthusiasm; but other churches, coming out of the Charismatic Movement and other churches of the Pentecostal tradition, make the expression of the Holy Spirit central to their worship.

Whatever the specifics, what Peter and John did had a noticeable effect on the Samaritan believers, and Simon was impressed.  Afterwards, he came up to the apostles with a bag of cash and asked them how much it would cost to teach him the trick.  Bad move, Simon.

Peter answered:  “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!  You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God.  Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord.  Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart.  For I can see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”  (Acts 8:20-23)

Did Simon repent?  According to the text, he backs down, and contritely says “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”   (v.24)  So maybe his heart was in the right place, but he just didn’t fully grasp the Gospel message.  Lord knows that Peter certainly missed the point on more than one occasion during Jesus’ ministry. 

Some historians have suggested that Simon was actually Paul of Tarsus and that the story in Acts 8 is based on disagreements the two had early on, but that the name was changed after the Pauline and Petrine factions of the Church resolved their differences.  I don’t think I can buy that interpretation, though.  The picture we get in Acts 8 of the opportunistic charlatan trying to buy magic powers jibes with neither fanatical Pharisee we get in Saul’s earliest appearances, nor the driven Apostle for Christ we see in the rest of Acts and in his epistles.

The Book of Acts makes no more mention of Simon and we have to turn to other sources to learn what happened next.

In his book Antiquities of the Jews, the Jewish historian Josephus makes mention of a sorcerer working for procurator Felix, the Roman administrator in Caesarea at about this time.  Some Latin texts of his work call the sorcerer “Simon” and identify him with the Simon of Acts chapter 8; but the guy mentioned by Josephus was a Jew from Cyprus, not a Samaritan.  Simon was not that uncommon a name; Peter’s name was originally Simon for that matter.

About a century later, the Early Christian writer and apologist Justin Martyr and later on Bishop Irenaeus added to the story of Simon Magus.  Both men associated Simon with the Gnostics, a sect of Christianity which grew up during the Second Century and which the orthodox Church Fathers considered heretical.

I can’t really do much justice to the teachings of Gnosticsim, partially because their precise doctrines varied from branch to branch, and partially because they wrote very little that has come down to us, and much of what we know about them comes from hostile sources like Justin and Irenaeus.  The Gnostics claimed to possess an oral tradition of Secret Knowledge derived from Christ himself in addition to the plain vanilla Gospel taught by the Mainstream Church.  Among other things, they taught a form of dualism where Matter is inherently corrupt and on the Spirit is wholly good and that the only way a fleshly human can attain the Realm of Perfection is through the pursuit of gnosis, or knowledge.

According to Justin and Irenaus, Simon Magus was the founder of Gnosticism. Simon taught the existence of what he called the Ennoia, or the First Thought of God, a divine emanation which took on an existence of its own.  This Ennoia became bound to a human form as a mortal woman of exceptional beauty, who was re-incarnated many times through history.  Helen of Troy was one of her incarnations.  Another was Simon’s girlfriend, who also happened to be named Helena.

It occurs to me that this might have been the origin of part of the mediaeval Faust legend, another dabbler in Dark Arts who desired the Helen whose face did launch a thousand ships and burned the topless towers of Ilium.

The Church Fathers took a dim view of Simon’s girlfriend.  The Third Century writer Hippolytus said that she was a prostitute from Tyre and that Simon made up the Ennoia story to justify shacking up with her.  Oh, and that the Gnostics were big on Free Love.  Damn Gnostic Hippies.

Simon also, it was said, taught that he himself embodied all three aspects of the Trinity, appearing to the Jews as the “Son of God,” mediating for sin; to the Samaritans as the “Father” and Creator; and to the Pagan world as the “Holy Spirit”.

He supposedly went to Rome, where he was opposed on several occasions by Peter.  Finally, according to Hippolytus, Simon told his disciples to bury him alive, promising that he would rise from the dead on the third day.  They did.  But he didn’t.

The apochryphal Acts of Peter, written in the Second Century gives a different version of Simon’s death.  It describes the running duels of Magic vs. Miracle between Simon the Sorcerer and Simon Peter in greater detail.  In order to prove himself a god, Simon levitates high over the Forum in Rome.  Peter prays that God stop him, and Simon plummets to his death.  That pisses off the Emperor Nero, who had bet five bucks on the Magus, so much that out of spite he crucifies Peter upside-down.

That’s the ending that legend and popular tradition gives to Simon.  But I prefer to leave him the way the Book of Acts does:  apologizing for his foolish request and asking for forgiveness.

Simon did leave one other legacy behind him.  Traditionally, the sin of selling church offices, and profiting off the selling of spiritual functions, has come to be called simony.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Goofus and Gallant in the Vineyard

My parents never subscribed to Highlights for Children -- I preferred Children’s Digest because it ran Tintin adventures – but occasionally I would read the magazine when I was little in the waiting room of the doctor’s office.  On for the regular features that use to run in Highlights – (and probably still does; Highlights will exist as long as there are pediatrician clinics) – was a cartoon called “Goofus and Gallant”.

If you’ve ever read Highlights, I’m sure you’ve seen it.  Gallant and Goofus are two brothers; at least I’ve always assumed they are related.  The first panel would show Gallant doing something polite and respectful; say, helping an old lady across the street; and the second panel would show Goofus in the same situation doing something stupid; like taking cell phone video of the old lady getting hit by a car to post on YouTube.

There was no plot to these cartoons; just the salutary example of the Good Boy contrasted with the deplorable example of the Bad one.  Sometimes Goofus would go first, sometimes Gallant; but the strip always gave us this nice contrast between the Right Way and the Wrong Way.

This kind of dualism is a natural way to convey a moral message: Good vs. Evil; Virtue vs. Vice; Minneapolis vs. St. Paul.  It’s not surprising that Jesus used this kind of comparison in one of his parables.

What is surprising is that he did it wrong.

“What do you think?  There was a man who had two sons.  He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing.  He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.” (Matthew 21:28-30 NIV)

That’s not how it’s supposed to go!  He mixed the brothers up!  It’s as if Goofus set the table for dinner and Gallant stuck lima beans up his nose.  How could Jesus make such a mistake?

Maybe because Jesus wanted to convey a different message.

Let’s back up a bit and look at the context.  On the occasion he told this parable, Jesus was teaching in the temple courts in Jerusalem, one of the plazas within the walls of the Temple, but outside the building itself.  There he encountered some of the chief priests and elders of people who wanted to know where the hell he got the idea he could set himself up as some kind of a prophet.  “By what authority are you doing these things … And who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23)

Perhaps they were genuinely curious as to the source of his teachings, but given Jesus’ response, I suspect they were hoping he’d say something they could use against him.

Jesus answers with a question of his own:

Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question.  If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things.  John’s baptism – where did it come from?  Was it from heaven, or from men?”  (Matthew 21:24-25)

He threw the “Gotcha” question right back at them.  John the Baptist had died only a year or two before and was widely regarded as a prophet.  If the authorities agreed that he was a messenger from God, Jesus could reasonably ask why they ignored him.  On the other hand, if they said that John was just a guy with no divine mandate, they’d be going against popular opinion.

Unwilling to commit themselves, they replied “We don’t know.”  And so Jesus said “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”  (Matthew 21:27)

Now, at first glance, this exchange doesn’t seem to have much connection to the parable Jesus tells immediately afterward; but considering who his audience at the time, it’s pretty obvious whom Jesus intended the second son to represent:  the religious elites, the self-righteous ones who uttered pious platitudes, but whose lives reflected neither God’s justice, nor his compassion.  And if the priests saw this pointed at themselves, well, if the funny hat don’t fit, you don’t gots to wear it.

At the end of his parable, Jesus asks these priests, which of the two sons did what his father wanted?  They had to answer, “The first.”

Who, then, does the first son represent?  Jesus tells them, and brings the parable back to the point he made earlier:

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.  For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did.  And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”  (Matthew 21:31-32)

“Prostitutes and tax collectors” are often used in the Gospel as a shorthand for people considered social outcasts for their wickedness:  prostitutes because they lived outside the approved sexual mores, and tax collectors because they were essentially collaborationists, private contractors hired by the occupying Romans to collect taxes, who profited by collecting more than Rome required and pocketing the difference.  The Gospels often lump “sinners and tax collectors” together in the same group.

TO me this parable says two things.  Most obviously, it condemns the hypocrite who talks the talk, but who shows far less nimbleness in the walking department.  Christians like to call this type of behavior pharisaical, although that’s grossly unfair because it paints a simplistic view of what the Pharisees taught and because it lets the Sadducees, who also opposed Jesus, completely off the hook, not to mention the Herodians.  Singling out the Pharisees also lets us pretend that we today aren’t also guilty of obsessing about the letter of the Law while blowing off the spirit.

But Goofus and Gallant are all about compare and contrast.  While the Parable of the Brothers in the Vineyard condemns the hypocrite, it also commends the person who outwardly seems to be ungodly, at least by the prissy, external criteria of the hypocrite, but who nevertheless strives to be charitable, decent and ethical in his personal life.

I have to admit that a lot of Christians have trouble with this.  I was raised in the Lutheran tradition, which emphasizes that we are saved by God’s Grace, not by our own Good Works, and which regards the doctrine of “Works Righteousness” as an anathema.  We like to quote the passage from Isaiah that “… all our righteous acts are like filthy rags…” (Isaiah 64:6)

But I think we make too much of that verse.  My own Good Works may indeed be worthless – for the purposes of buying my way into Heaven – but they have value in other respects.

For one thing, we are told that it pleases God when we do his will, even if we don’t wholly succeed in our attempts.  That in itself is a biggie.  For another, the Good Works that we do are how we respond to God’s love for us.  As James puts it:  “Show me your faith without deed, and I will show you my faith by what I do. … As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:18,26)

But perhaps most importantly, from a strictly practical point of view, doing Good Works makes our world a better place.  You don’t need to believe in the Gospel of Christ to understand that; you don’t even have to believe in God.

I’ve heard some Christians express the perverse notion that Good Works are only virtuous when they are performed by Bible-believing Christians, and that works performed by anybody else, no matter what the intention, is self-serving and sinful.  I can’t agree.  An act which helps my neighbor helps my neighbor and this is true whether I am trying to follow God’s Law or the promptings of my own conscience.  It certainly makes no difference to my neighbor.

“But surely,” one might say, “it is better still to respect God AND to obey his Commandments!”  Well, there is that.  That’s the problem with dualistic examples like Goofus and Gallant; they provide two contrasting examples with no gradations of nuance in-between.  But by focusing on this particular contrast in this particular parable, Jesus is telling us to look at the results rather than what color jersey a person is wearing and if they’re on “our team”.

“By their fruit you will recognize them,” Jesus says in another place,  (Matthew 7:20)  That’s how you can really tell Goofus from Gallant.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Say the Secret Woid

Judges chapter 12 records an odd little sequel to the tragic tale of Jephthah and his daughter.  It has little to do with that tragedy and nothing to do with the daughter, and all things considered comes off as a bit anticlimactic.  If I were writing Jephthah’s story as my own fiction, I would have combined the two stories to integrate them into a single narrative; but the Bible is sometimes sloppy that way.  But I have a fondness for minor and irrelevant stories, especially if they are the source for an obscure factoid.  So let me present the story of Jephthah and Ephraim.
Shortly after Jephthah’s victory over the Ammonites that came at such a personal cost, perhaps as he was still mourning the loss of his beloved daughter due to his rash vow (Judges 11:30-40), the men of Ephraim come to him with a gripe.  Ephraim was another of the tribes of Israel, bordering Gilead on the other side of the Jordan River.  They’re sore at Jephthah because he didn’t let them join in on his raid against the Ammonites. 
The men of Ephraim called out their forces, crossed over to Zaphon and said to Jephthah, “Why did you go to fight the Ammonites without calling us to go with you?  We’re going to burn down your house over your head.”  (Judges 12:1 NIV)
Perhaps this isn’t the worst reason anybody’s ever gone to war, but it has to rank up there.  The text deosn’t say exactly why the Ephraimites are throwing a hissy fit over someone else’s battle, but I’m guessing it’s envy.  When Jephthah defeated the Ammonites, he took twenty of their towns (Judges 11:33) and doubtless came home with a lot of loot.  His men were mercenaries, remember?  I’m guessing that the Ephraimites were mad because they wished they had gotten a cut of the swag.
It might also have been a bit of snobbery; the text tells us that the Ephraimites insulted Jephthah’s men, saying “You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh” (Judges 12:4).  An earlier verse in the text tells us that Jephthah’s army was largely composed of “worthless” or “empty men”, outcasts like himself.  How dare these losers presume to make war on our enemies without us!
Several years earlier, the Ephraimites had made the same complaint to Gideon when Gideon had defeated the Midianites, (Judges 8:1)  So it could simply be that the Ephraimites were just buttheads. 
Jephthah answered, “I and my people were engaged in a great struggle with the Ammonites, and although I called, you didn’t save me out of their hands.  When I saw that you wouldn’t help, I took my life in my hands and crossed over to fight Ammonites, and the LORD gave me victory over them.  Now why have you come up today to fight me?”  (Judges 12:2-3)
My study Bible commends Jephthah for attempting diplomacy first.  My own reading is that he was pretty pissed.  At least I would be in his position.  We weren’t told earlier that the Ephraimites had been asked to help, but it makes sense that the tribal leaders of Gilead would have done so.  In any case, Jephthah doesn’t have time for this crap; the Eprhaimites had their chance to join the Coalition of the Willing, and they passed on it.  So that’s their tough tacos. 
This is roughly the same reply that Gideon gave the Ephraimites in Judges chapter 8.  In the previous instance, the Ephraimites backed down.  This time, they’re spoiling for a fight; and so Jephthah lets them have it.
As in the previous campaign against the Ammonites, Jephthah’s men kick butt.  Not only does he send the Ephraimites running, he sends some of his forces to seize the fords of the Jordan. The tribe of Ephraim came from the other side of the river, you’ll remember. 
So when the fleeing survivors of the Ephraimite army try to escape, they come up to Gileadite checkpoints at the fords.  The sentries would ask anyone who came to the fords if he was an Ephraimite; and if the guy said no, the sentries would reply, “Okay, then say ‘Shibboleth.’” 
The word “Shibboleth” in Hebrew meant “torrent” or “floods”, an appropriate password for a river ford.  (Or it can also mean a sheaf of wheat, but under the circumstances the other interpretation seems more appropriate.  But the point of the password was that the Ephraimites spoke with a regional accent that was different than the Gideonites.  When an Ephraimite said “Shibboleth”, it came out sounding like “Sibboleth”.  And in this way, Jephthah’s forces were able to cut off the fleeing remnants of the Ephraimite army.
This kind of password has been used on other occasions.  Perhaps the best known version is the word “Lollapalooza”, which was used by American troops serving in the Pacific during World War II to test unidentified persons.  Since the Japanese language doesn’t really differentiate between the “R” sounds and the “L” sounds, the reasoning was that a Japanese spy trying to say the word would come out something like “raraparusa”  Whether this worked for American. GI’s as well as it did for Jephthah, I couldn’t say.
But the word “Shibboleth” is still used today in some circumstances to refer to code words, catch phrases and shared values one is expected to use in order to be accepted by a particular group. A politician might pay lip service to “Limited Government” or “Family Values” or “National Security” in order to please his base, even if his actual policies would work to the detriment of the values he espouses.  (And to be sure, every political faction has its own cherished buzz words which it expects its leaders to invoke).

Personally, I find it hard enough trying to pronounce “Jephthah.”

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.