20 March 2010

Mar 20

Reference links:
Old Testament

Sexist double standards in today's reading! God tells Moses to tell the people that
A man who makes a vow to the Lord or makes a pledge under oath must never break it. He must do exactly what he said he would do.
But that does not hold for women. If a woman under the thumb of a man makes a vow, that man may nullify the vow. The double standard of this law is softened slightly by the fact that the man only has the ability to nullify the vow the first day that he learns of it; if he does not the woman is under the same obligation to keep the vow as a man would be. But still, it's kind of stupid.

God commands the Israelites to conquer the Midianites for their role in the sex and idolatry we read about a few days ago. Each tribe sent a thousand men, and they conquered the Midianites. Let's read the account of the properly Biblical way to wage war (warning, it is primitive and inhumane).
They attacked Midian as the Lord had commanded Moses, and they killed all the men. All five of the Midianite kings—Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba—died in the battle. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword.
Then the Israelite army captured the Midianite women and children and seized their cattle and flocks and all their wealth as plunder. They burned all the towns and villages where the Midianites had lived. After they had gathered the plunder and captives, both people and animals, they brought them all to Moses and Eleazar the priest, and to the whole community of Israel, which was camped on the plains of Moab beside the Jordan River, across from Jericho. Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. But Moses was furious with all the generals and captains who had returned from the battle.
“Why have you let all the women live?” he demanded. “These are the very ones who followed Balaam’s advice and caused the people of Israel to rebel against the Lord at Mount Peor. They are the ones who caused the plague to strike the Lord’s people. So kill all the boys and all the women who have had intercourse with a man. Only the young girls who are virgins may live; you may keep them for yourselves.
That passage contains plenty of morally terrible things to ruminate upon, but I will limit myself to a couple. First, genocide is bad. I do not care if God commanded it. Genocide is not morally acceptable. Second, we have this:
Only the young girls who are virgins may live; you may keep them for yourselves.
I highly doubt that the Israelite soldiers were different than any other soldiers throughout most of history. We can be pretty certain that the virgins, after living through the death of their family and friends, were given over to the soldiers and to become sex slaves. Despicable.

Finally, we notice that Balaam son of Beor was killed because it was, apparently, Balaam's advice which caused the women to seduce the Israelites. Really, Balaam? The same Balaam who blessed the Israelites three times against the wishes of Balak? That came out of left field.

The genocide of the Midianites reminds me, whatever happened to Moses' sons? Last we heard, they had been brought to Moses by his father-in-law (a Midianite). But then we never hear about them. Did they go back with Moses' father-in-law? If so, they (or their descendants) must have been killed in this genocide.

New Testament

The Holy Spirit leads Jesus out into the wilderness where he fasts for 40 days. While there, the devil tempts him in three ways. First, the devil tempts Jesus to feed himself by changing stones to bread. Second, he tempts Jesus by offering him all the kingdoms of the world. Third, he tempts Jesus by asking him to jump off of a high tower so that the angels will save him.

When looking back at this passage in Matthew, I noticed that the order of the temptations changed. In Matthew the order was: bread, jump, rule. (Mark does not describe specific temptations.) The other thing that I noticed was the was that Luke seems to have a much better grasp of the size of the world. In Matthew we read,
Next the devil took him to the peak of a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.
As we all know, there is no peak high enough for anyone to see all of the world's kingdoms from (plus, there's the whole earth being round problem). In Luke we read,
Then the devil took him up and revealed to him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.
The phrase "revealed to him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time" is much more ambiguous than looking around from the top of a mountain. In particular, it is quite compatible with the devil showing Jesus a vision. Luke is doing his job of providing better narrative structure for the gospel story!

After his sojourn in the dessert, Jesus returned to Galilee where his teachings were well received. Then he goes to his hometown, Nazareth. He stands up in the synagogue on the sabbath and reads some scripture and then claims that he fulfills it. After that,
Everyone spoke well of him and was amazed by the gracious words that came from his lips.
Then he refused to do any miracles for them, and the crowd got angry at them,
Jumping up, they mobbed him and forced him to the edge of the hill on which the town was built. They intended to push him over the cliff, but he passed right through the crowd and went on his way.
In addition to having a much more antagonistic tone than the version of this story in Matthew and Mark, Luke's version occurs just after Jesus' baptism and temptation. In the first two gospels, it occurs much later after he had gathered up the disciples and done a bunch of other things. This is all perfectly reasonable if you accept that Luke is basically writing fiction based on the existing legends about Jesus. It is not at all reasonable if you want to believe that the gospels contain consistent tellings of the life of Jesus.

Psalms and Proverbs

I learned recently that the standard translation for the Hebrew נפש (nefesh) is pretty much completely wrong, according to Joel Hoffman (And God Said by Joel Hoffman). It is usually translated as "soul". However, based on contextual analysis, it probably means nearly the opposite: those aspects of life which are physically tangible (body, breath, blood, etc.). This has wider ramifications, which I will discuss when I finish and review Hoffman's book.

However, for now I just wanted to note that the alternate translation makes a lot more sense in today's psalm.
My soul [נפש] thirsts for you;
my whole body longs for you
in this parched and weary land
where there is no water.
Doesn't that passage make a lot more sense if נפש means all that makes up your physical being?

נפש is often paired with לבב (levav) in Hebrew. and we see a form of that word לב (lev) in today's Proverbs reading. לבב is often translated as "heart", but that, again, is not a very good translation. A better definition is "those aspects of life which are not physically tangible" (mind, emotion, intuition, etc.). Again, thinking about the contextually derived meaning makes the passage make more sense.
The Lord detests people with crooked hearts [לב],
but he delights in those with integrity.
"Crooked  hearts" is such a familiar phrase, that we can more or less make sense of it in this context, but the concept implied by לב is actually much richer than that implied by the English "heart".