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.