16 January 2010

Jan 16

Reference links:
Old Testament

The night before Jacob and Esau meet, Jacob encounters a man and wrestles him till dawn. As dawn approaches, the man touches Jacob's hip and wrenches it out of its socket. Jacob still does not let the man go and demands a blessing. After asking Jacob his name, the man replies with his blessing,
"Your name will no longer be Jacob," the man told him. "From now on you will be called Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have won."
Jacob wrestled with God! God seems to walk around in human form fairly often (now, before Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, in Eden). God in this human form was matched evenly by Jacob (unless God let Jacob win). As we progress through the Old Testament and through the new, we see God becoming more abstract. God is more concrete for authors describing events far in their past. God is more abstract for authors describing events nearer to their present. (Note for those who think God == Jesus, I am referring specifically to God the Father, not Jesus.)

In any case, Esau welcomes Jacob. But Jacob is still wary of Esau. Instead of going with Esau back to Seir (as he was invited to do), Jacob goes to Succoth and finally settles near Shechem. As far as today's text tells us, Jacob snubs his brother and never visits him.

We read a terrible story today about Jacob's time in Shechem. Jacob and Leah's daughter Dinah is raped by Shechem, the local prince. He falls in love with her and wants her for a wife. Shechem's father, Hamor sees this as a good idea; he thinks that arranging more marriages between Jacob's people and his own will facilitate the absorption of Jacob (and his wealth) into the city of Shechem.

Jacob's sons pull a cruel trick on Shechem and Hamor. They say that they will give Dinah if all the men of the city of Shechem are circumcised. Shechem and Hamor  agree, and everyone is circumcised.  Two of Jacob's sons, Simeon and Levi, slaughter all the men in the city while they are still weak. After that, the rest of Jacob's sons take all the women and children as captives and loot the wealth and animals.

Jacob gets angry at his sons,
Afterward Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, "You have ruined me! You've made me stink among all the people of this land -- among all the Canaanites and Perizzites. We are so few that they will join forces and crush us. I wil be ruined, and my entire household will be wiped out!"

"But why should we let him treat our sister like a prostitue?" they retorted angrily.
And that's the end of the story. This is a weak condemnation of an atrocious horror. Without God's command, without the excuse of war, Jacob's sons murdered the men of a city and took their wives. Jacob seems more concerned with his reputation than the moral implications of what his sons did (admittedly, Jacob's concern is valid). Weak condemnation in a situation like this makes claims about the Bible's unambiguously good and moral nature suspect.

New Testament

Another prophecy supposedly fulfilled! Let's look at it in context. Today, Jesus claims that John the Baptist fulfills a prophecy from Malachi 3:1.
Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, and he will prepare your way before you.
This one, in context, is more acceptable than usual. However, it does not fit completely. For example, this bit seems out of place:
[The one who follows the messenger] will purify the Levites, refining them like gold and silver, so that they may once again offer acceptable sacrifices to the Lord.
Like in yesterday's reading, Jesus continues to come across as vindictive. In addition to saying that towns that did not repent after he visited them will be worse off than Sodom and Gomorrah, Jesus also prays
Oh Father, Lord of heaven and earth, thank you for hiding these things from those who think themselves wise and clever, and for revealing them to the childlike. Yes, Father, it please you to do it this way.
Now, I imagine this passage gets used for advocating for a childlike faith and the like. In the context of the rest of today's reading, though, what sticks out is that Jesus is thankful that God hides information that could save people from hell.

Psalms and Proverbs

Today we come to a passage many Christians like to quote at atheists.
Only fools say in their hearts,
"There is no God."
They are corrupt, and their actions are evil;
not one of them does good!
Most often, when I have had this passage quoted at me, it has been to "show" how obviously God must be real because only fools deny God's existence. I will interrupt my normal commentary to present a little advice: do not quote this passage at atheists. Doing so will put the conversation on the wrong foot. It is a useless statement. The atheist does not believe in God and does not believe in the Bible. Therefore, quoting what the Bible says about the foolishness of those who do not believe in God will not change an atheist's mind.

Furthermore, realize that if you are a Christian and you quote this passage at an atheist, you are calling the atheist a fool, so do not deny it. You might try to hide behind the excuse that it is God, not you, calling the atheist a fool, but by choosing to quote this passage, you are endorsing its contents.

Also of note, if the first verse of the psalm reflects badly on atheists, the rest does not reflect well on Christians (or anyone else).
The Lord looks down from heaven
on the entire human race;
he looks to see if anyone is truly wise,
if anyone seeks God.

But no, all have turned away;
all have become corrupt.
No one does good,
not a single one!