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.