31 August 2010

Aug 31

Reference links:
Old Testament

I am starting to get bored of Job. This happens every time I read it. It starts out super interesting and exciting, transitions to repetitive, and finishes off with me ready to move on. Fortunately, the end approaches quickly.

Elihu continues to drone on about how weather phenomena show God's might. His concluding point seems to be that nature and God contain so much incomprehensible power that Job must be wrong.

After that God speaks. Sadly, the words that the author of Job attributes to God seem to continue on Elihu's latest line of thought. God speaks of all the wonders of nature, asking if Job can equal them. Obviously, Job cannot, so God's continues on and on just to brag, as far as I can tell.

We will see if God's argument improves tomorrow, but so far, I am not buying it. Both the end of Elihu's speech and God's speech seem to imply that because God, as presented in nature, is so powerful, Job's objections possess no value. However, this seems fundamentally wrong (even if you ignore that we have an understanding of nature these days which steal the impotence from these arguments).

Power alone does not justify ignoring the weak. Might does not make right. Yet that seems to be the crux of these arguments: in the face of God's power, Job's lamentations and questions are meaningless. Yet questions from those who are weak or outside the system can provide the catalyst for shifts in thought that increase understanding by leaps and bounds.

New Testament

Mostly about earthly and heavenly bodies, bodies dying and spirits being renewed.

Psalms and Proverbs

Fear of risk has always held people back:
The lazy person claims, “There’s a lion out there!
If I go outside, I might be killed!”

30 August 2010

Aug 30

Reference links:
Old Testament

A whole day of Elihu. Goody goody gumdrops. But I will be strong and see if I can find anything of value from his repetitive and rather predictable speech.

For the most part, Elihu sticks to the standard line that God will punish the wicked and reward the righteous. Not in some abstract future but in ways that are observable in this life. At one point, he says something almost insightful,
“Why don’t people say to God, ‘I have sinned,
but I will sin no more’?
Or ‘I don’t know what evil I have done—tell me.
If I have done wrong, I will stop at once’?
Why does this only earn a label of "almost insightful"? Well, back in chapter 7, Job said,
If I have sinned, what have I done to you,
O watcher of all humanity?
And in chapter 10 he said,
I will say to God, ‘Don’t simply condemn me—
tell me the charge you are bringing against me.
And in chapter 13 he said,
Or let me speak to you, and you reply.
Tell me, what have I done wrong?
And I am sure there are more examples. Point being, Elihu obviously was not listening to what Job was saying (or he forgot since, admittedly, Job said a lot, but he made this point over and over again).

So let's see if we can find something else to redeem Elihu's speech. This part is pretty reasonable,
If you sin, how does that affect God?
Even if you sin again and again,
what effect will it have on him?
If you are good, is this some great gift to him?
What could you possibly give him?
No, your sins affect only people like yourself,
and your good deeds also affect only humans.
That's pretty good, but Elihu does not seem to follow that train of thought very far. Instead, he just declares once again that eventually the good will be rewarded and the wicked punished.

Elihu ends on a particular unfortunate note. He gives examples of God's greatness, but they are all examples of natural weather phenomena that are fairly well understood these days. Oops.

New Testament

Paul claims that if anyone rejects the gospel, it is because Satan has veiled them. I was under the impression that it was God who prevented some people from believing. Perhaps, as in Job, God and Satan are in cahoots again.

Paul also talks about the suffering of those who follow the way of Jesus. This presents an interesting contrast to our readings in Job. In Job, the obvious, common sense answer to the problem of suffering is that the wicked suffer and the righteous prosper. The purpose of Job is to refute this simplistic message.

In this passage, Paul makes it clear that suffering, at least the kind of suffering he is experiencing, is actually a consequence of being righteous. Thus, Paul comes to a different answer on the problem of suffering. Some people suffer because they are righteous but in a world of evil. However, Paul is clearly not trying to address all kinds of suffering in this passage.

Psalms and Proverbs

Today's proverbs are not particularly interesting.

29 August 2010

Aug 29

Reference links:
Old Testament

Job continues on about what a blameless person he has been. It is getting somewhat tiresome. The interesting line in today's reading is this:
If only someone would listen to me!
Look, I will sign my name to my defense.
Let the Almighty answer me.
Let my accuser write out the charges against me.
This, it seems to me, is Job's fundamental inconsistency. He claims that God is all powerful. He  claims that man cannot demand justice from God since God is both prosecutor, judge, and jury. Yet he seems to think that he deserves a clear explanation. If God really is the powerful, cosmic God that Job implies, then expecting a reason is just as futile as expecting justice.

After Job finishes speaking, we get an interjection from Elihu. According to Harris in Understanding the Bible:
Between Job's final challenge to God and God's appearance in the whirlwind that logically follows it, redactors inserted a lengthy speech by Elihu, a character whom the text has not previously introduced. Perhaps scandalized by Job's unorthodox theology, the writer of Elihu's discourse attacks Job for refusing to make things easy by simply confessing his sins (perhaps including self-righteousness) and thereby restoring the comfortable view of God's perfect justice. Rehashing the three friends' arguments, Elihu adds little to the discussion, although he claims to resolve the problem that Job's case presents.  ... After six chapters of Elihu's empty rhetoric, readers may well feel that the opening question in Yahweh's first speech applies to him rather than to Job: "Who is this obscuring my designs with his empty-headed words?"
What we see of Elihu's speech today support's Harris's analysis of it as redundant empty rhetoric, so I will not bother saying anything more about it.

New Testament

Paul calls the Corinthian church a living letter of recommendation on behalf of Paul. Paul then goes on to talk about how the new covenant, with Jesus, is so much more awesome than the old covenant. No one who wears the veil of the old covenant can understand the new covenant. None of this is particularly interesting to me.

Psalms and Proverbs

A nice proverb:
Blessed are those who are generous,
because they feed the poor.

28 August 2010

Aug 28

Reference links:
Old Testament

Job is talking a lot today. In summary: People don't know where to find wisdom. Wisdom is more valuable than anything else. Only God understands how to gain wisdom. Wisdom is fear of the Lord. Job's life use to be really awesome. Now it's not.

What is wisdom? What's the definition? People always go on about how difficult it is to find wisdom and can only come from their source of preference, but I wonder how much of that is just a lack of a good definition.

New Testament

Shorter reading than usual today. Paul talks about his travels and preaching and about how his "Christ-like fragrance" is stinky to non-believers.

Psalms and Proverbs

Decent proverb,
Just as the rich rule the poor,
so the borrower is servant to the lender.

27 August 2010

Aug 27

Reference links:
Old Testament

Today's reading is rather confusing, so I am going to go through it section by section.

First, Job declares his belief that if he could argue his case before God, he would be found innocent. But despite that, God will do what he will do; he controls Job's destiny, both the good and the bad.

Next, Job asks why God does not punish the wicked or respond to the cries of the needly and poor. This is accompanied by many images of how the poor suffer at the hands of the wicked.

Next Job seems to present something of a reversal to his earlier position and declares that the wicked are punished. However, he seems to be arguing that that punishment is death rather than some earthly punishment.

This is followed by a super short response from Bildad. Bildad seems to just interject with a statement of how God is awesome and humans suck. It seems to add nothing to the text. Job then responds (with what I can only read as biting sarcasm). He seems to reinforce the theme of God's power and majesty brought up by Bildad. However, his disagrees with Bildad in so far as Bildad seems to think that he can draw conclusions from the vastness of God's majesty (humans are maggots) while Job concludes that God's majesty is so great and incomprehensible that there are no conclusions that can be drawn from it.

Job then claims that he will never declare his companions to be right. This seems to be an extreme position. I think that both sides in this argument could learn a lot from each other if they were willing. He then goes on to make points that seem oddly similar to points made by those that he is disagreeing with. Very odd.

New Testament

Paul discusses why he changed his plans about a second visit to Corinth. He seems to want to emphasize that he does not waver in his word without good reason. In the midst of all this, he manages to make a point about how Jesus is the fulfillment of all of God's promises.

Paul then alludes to some sort of recent trouble in the Corinthian church. As mentioned in yesterday's introductory material, some scholars believe that the situation being referred to is what prompted the separate letter that is hypothesized to make up the later part of 2 Corinthians.

Whether or not that is the exact incident referred to, Paul here almost seems to be apologizing for the harsh words that he had for the Corinthian church. He wants them to know that the depth of his grief came from the depth of his love for them. Now that the trouble is over, he wants them to practice forgiveness.

Psalms and Proverbs

Nothing to say today.

26 August 2010

Aug 26

Reference links:
Old Testament

At this point, things are starting to get a little repetitive. Repetition is good for reinforcing a point, but it's somewhat unfortunate when you have to blog about it every day. =)

Zophar once again declares the success and joys of the wicked temporary. He continues to acknowledge that the wicked do prosper and enjoy their lives. However, Zophar believes that they eventually will taste bitterness and ruin. All they have will be destroyed.

Job points out that this is false. The wicked live full lives without regret or punishment. They seem to receive all of the good fortune God has to give. External success cannot be taken as a sign of God's pleasure or displeasure. It is as invalid to conclude that the wicked are actually righteous because they are successful as it is to conclude that the righteous are actually wicked because they experience misfortune.

One part of Job's speech reminds me of how many people deal with the problem of evil and the problem of injustice:
Look, I know what you’re thinking.
I know the schemes you plot against me.
You will tell me of rich and wicked people
whose houses have vanished because of their sins.
But ask those who have been around,
and they will tell you the truth.
Evil people are spared in times of calamity
and are allowed to escape disaster.
Job points out that those who defend a simplistic view of God and his relationship to humanity can always find some examples to support their view. However, if they would fairly consider all of the data, they would see that their simplistic views just do not hold up to reality.

Eliphaz continues to be the most annoying of the three companions. He seems to be trying to throw out different accusations to Job to see which one makes Job flinch. He is fully convinced that Job must have sinned to deserve this punishment. He also brings up the always repulsive idea that the righteous will rejoice at the punishment of the wicked. To me, Eliphaz stands as an obvious example of the self-righteous person. He is so convinced that his world view is correct that he freely condemns others.

New Testament

We start Paul's second letter to the Corinthians today. What does Understanding the Bible have to say about it:
A composite work consisting of several letters or letter fragments, 2 Corinthians shows Paul defending his apostolic authority (Chs. 10-13); the first nine chapters, apparently written after Chapters 10-13, describe Paul's reconciliation with the church at Corinth. ...
Many scholars believe that Chapters 10-13 represent the "painful letter" alluded to in 2 Corinthians 2:3-4, making this part necessary older than Chapters 1-9. Some authorities find as many as six or more remnants of different letters in 2 Corinthians
In short, things are probably going to seem a bit confusing and disjoint at times.

After greeting the members of the church in Corinth, Paul discusses the comfort that God provides to sufferers. Right near the beginning we have a verse that Job may have wished his three companions had known about,
[God] comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.
 Paul then goes on to talk about how trouble has taught him to rely more fully on God's help.

Psalms and Proverbs

Today's third proverb seems to reflect the overly simplistic views that the book of Job warns us against:
True humility and fear of the Lord
lead to riches, honor, and long life.

25 August 2010

Aug 25

Reference links:
Old Testament

Job's friends have a point when they accuse him of going on and on. Despite the good points he has to make, he is distinctly more verbose than his friends.

That said, both of Job's speeches today bring up a key point. Despite the fact that Job's friends may have some legitimate points, this is not the appropriate time for them. Mercy and sympathy need to come before advice and admonishment are appropriate. Job would not feel so bitter against his companions, I am guessing, if they had not started the conversation as Job's persecutors.

Bildad's response to Job shows the increasing distance between the two sides. Job is suffering and asking for sympathy, but all Bildad hears are the accusations against Job just as all Job hears now is the accusations against him.

Bildad does not make any new points in this speech. He continues to hold the position that the wicked will always be punished and are always waiting in fear of that punishment. The wicked will be forgotten with no descendants. Yet, that hopeless fate for the wicked holds no more similarity to reality than it did the first time around.

New Testament

We finish 1 Corinthians today. It's a rather uninteresting listing of administrative instructions and greetings.

Psalms and Proverbs

A good proverb:
Choose a good reputation over great riches;
being held in high esteem is better than silver or gold.

24 August 2010

Aug 24

Reference links:
Old Testament

Job's response to the latest commentary from his friends is a lecture on God's wisdom and power and against those who would presume to know the mind of God (laced with entertaining sarcasm). The most powerful statement comes near the middle of the reading:
Are you defending God with lies?
Do you make your dishonest arguments for his sake?
Will you slant your testimony in his favor?
Will you argue God’s case for him?
What will happen when he finds out what you are doing?
Can you fool him as easily as you fool people?
No, you will be in trouble with him
if you secretly slant your testimony in his favor.
Doesn’t his majesty terrify you?
Doesn’t your fear of him overwhelm you?
Your platitudes are as valuable as ashes.
Your defense is as fragile as a clay pot.
Job is saying that God does not need the defense of humans. Furthermore, God finds testimony that, by human terms, is in his favor to be just as indefensible as false testimony against him.

I like this passage. I have always been annoyed that the attitude that it is better to have a view of God that is naive, ignorant, and clearly ignores reality than it is to have what is, if there is a God, an equally wrong view of God that asserts that he does not exist. Is God so petty that would prefer someone who spreads hatred and intolerance in the names of God and Jesus rather than doing good with no belief in God? The opinion of the author of Job is that those who misrepresent God will be in trouble with God, whether that misrepresentation is positive or negative.

After Job finishes, Eliphaz responds a second time. He unfairly accuses Job of having no fear or reverence of God despite the fact that one of Job's key points revolved around proper respect for God's majesty. I think, perhaps, that Eliphaz is actually projecting his own feelings onto God. Eliphaz resents that Job is not accepting his opinion.

Eliphaz again tries to give the easy answers: God brings pain and ruin to the wicked. The wicked will constantly feel terror, will be ruined, will be cut down in the prime of life, will lose their homes. The problem with this feeble defense, as the author of Job clearly knows, is that none of this is true. Those who are not godly live long, successful, and probably often happy lives. There are truly bad people who are never brought to justice, who never even have their evil discovered. As before, Eliphaz's easy answers are tempting, but ultimately the data does not support them.

New Testament

Discussion of the post-resurrection body. I don't particularly care. The only interesting fragment is this verse which could be used in making a case that Paul believed that Jesus would return soon:
But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed!

Psalms and Proverbs
No human wisdom or understanding or plan
can stand against the Lord.
Seems appropriate given our reading in Job. I think that one could make a compelling Biblical case that, if there is a God, any human knowledge of him is incomplete and approximate, even knowledge gained from the Bible itself.

23 August 2010

Aug 23

Reference links:
Old Testament

Eliphaz gave the easy, tempting, and wrong answer to Job's suffering. The answers of Job's other friends get increasingly sophisticated. This is important because, although we know that Job is righteous and that, therefore, the reasoning of his friends has a faulty basis, ultimately Job and his friends are developing a theodicy together. As the friends respond, they make some legitimate points that push Job to develop his argument.

Bildad still thinks some wickedness must be to blame for Job's suffering. He blames Job's children. Instead of saying, like Eliphaz, that Job must redeem himself by confessing his sins, Bildad softens the position and says merely that Job must seek God's favor. Eliphaz acknowledges that the wicked do flourish, but argue that ultimately their roots are shallow. Eliphaz argues for a God of ultimate justice, but grants that righteousness cannot be inferred from present fortune or misfortune.

Job responds that Eliphaz seems right in principle, but also points out that God who is prosecutor, judge, jury, and hangman has no obligation to administer what humans would consider justice. God performs miracles and marvels but some miracles and marvels, such as earthquakes and plagues, seem to disregard the interests of humanity. Job is claiming that God is so mighty and wise that there is no point in asking for justice; God, the clever prosecutor, could find some reason to declare Job guilty even if he had done no wrong. Thus, all Job can do is plead for mercy (and, to tie this to his early speech, the only mercy he could imagine for his suffering is death).

At one point, Job says of God's responsibility for the evil in the world,
If he’s not the one who does it, who is?
For many people the answer would be demons or Satan. However, people who give such trite answers miss the fundamental nature of the problem of evil. Even if entities are causing this trouble, God ultimately created them as they are, so this is no more an answer. Job, therefore, arrives at the conclusion that ultimately all good and all bad rests with God.

Job then goes on to make his one request. He cannot ask for justice, but he can ask the fundamental question, "Why?" Job wants to know why he suffers. Why would God create a person, create humanity, if only to let them suffer? Why would God have taken the effort of creation if not to care for what he had created?

The third friend, Zophar, then responds. Zophar again assumes Job's guilt, and in terms more harsh than Bildad. He, it almost seems sarcastically, accuses Job of trying to falsely establish his innocence. Zophar  falls back on the old idea that punishment is clearly the result of wrong doing. God has the greatest knowledges and knows all hearts and so cannot be wrong.

Despite falling back on that, he does address another aspect of the argument not yet addressed. Although Zophar assumes that the good will prosper and the wicked suffer, he does not assume that such prosperity and suffering will be external. Instead, those who open themselves to God will find internal strength and hope and happiness while those who do not will not.

We will see Job's response tomorrow.

New Testament

Paul tries to use logic again. As usual, his reasoning seems suspect. Paul wants the Corinthians to know that Jesus really did die, rise again, and appear to many. (Side note: people often use this mention of Jesus appearing to 500 as 500 independent verifications of Jesus' resurrection. That is wrong. We do not have 500 accounts of the resurrection here. We have Paul's claim that 500 people saw Jesus.)

Here is the passage I find suspect:
But tell me this—since we preach that Christ rose from the dead, why are some of you saying there will be no resurrection of the dead? For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either.
"What is wrong with this?" you may wonder. It seems like a perfectly valid argument of the form "for all X, not P(X), therefore, not P(Jesus). But P(Jesus), therefore not (for all X, not P(x))". However, it seems likely to me that Paul is making a straw man of his opponents arguments. Just because some Corinthians may be arguing against general resurrection of the dead, it does not follow that they believe that there are not specific exceptional cases where the dead can be resurrected.

But even if we grant that Paul's premise is valid. As mentioned above, the conclusion that Paul can legitimately draw is "not (for all X, not P(x))". That is, "there exists an X such that P(x)". But Paul wants to claim that since Jesus was raised from the dead everyone who belongs to Christ will be resurrected. This is not a valid argument.

It's also worth noting that Psalm 8, which Paul quotes to establish Jesus' authority, addresses the glory and authority God gave to humanity, not any particular individual. Perhaps Paul is arguing that Jesus, as the ultimate representative of humanity, is the ultimate vessel of this authority. If so, he is doing a bad job making that argument.

Psalms and Proverbs

Nothing we haven't heard before. I do hope the proverbs are not redundant for the rest of the year.

22 August 2010

Aug 22

Reference links:
Old Testament

The key thing to remember while reading the speeches of Job and his friends is that the prologue has set Job up as righteous. It is something of a tradition to try to figure out what what Job had done wrong so as to justify his suffering, but that defeats the purpose and power of the book. The book of Job expounds upon the observation that suffering cannot always be seen as punishment (for even when suffering comes to one who is not completely righteous, it is often vastly disproportionate to what would seem to be a just punishment). Without the basis of Job's righteousness, this becomes nothing more than yet another overly simplistic theology which does not align with real world data. With the basis of Job's righteousness, it becomes a powerful (if, as we'll see, ultimately unsatisfying) attempt to address the problem of evil and human suffering.

In today's reading, Eliphaz the Temanite responds to Job's despair. He accuses Job of not being strong in the face of adversity and of being guilty before God (and therefore deserving of punishment). Eliphaz focuses on the good that God does in language that is probably not unintentionally reminiscent of the  proverbs. Eliphaz argues that if only Job makes himself right with God, then all will be well again. Eliphaz's argument is comforting, but does it account for reality where both the good and wicked suffer, both the good and wicked succeed?

Job's response defends his right to complain. He does not accuse God of being unfair, but he does maintain that his complaints are no sin. He also points out that his despair is more than he can bear. This passage provides an interesting pairing with 1 Corinthians 10:13 which implies that the trials of believers are never more than they can bear.

There is one line of Job's response that sheds light upon the response of Eliphaz:
You have seen my calamity, and you are afraid.
Eliphaz's explanation is so temptingly comforting because no one wants to believe that they are a slight turn of events away from despair and misfortune. Eliphaz wants to believe that Job is quantitatively different from him. He wants to believe that he would not be like Job in a similar situation but, even more, Eliphaz wants to believe that he would never be in such a situation. This is human nature. People always assume that bad things will never happen to them. "Worse case" scenarios are never really worst case. Job acts as a direct affront to such deeply held beliefs.

New Testament

Paul continues on about how the gift of prophecy is more important than the gift of speaking in tongues. He then talks about particular rules for making sure that the worship sessions are orderly. As part of this he says the following:
Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says. If they have any questions, they should ask their husbands at home, for it is improper for women to speak in church meetings.
Now, there is some controversy about which (if any) of the Corinthian passages about the proper behavior of women are genuinely Pauline. This passage makes it clear, to me at least, that one of this or 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 must be questionable. As much as there is to dislike in the earlier passage, it makes it pretty clear that women are allowed to prophecy and pray as part of public worship.
But a woman dishonors her head if she prays or prophesies without a covering on her head, for this is the same as shaving her head.
Is it right for a woman to pray to God in public without covering her head?
I cannot see how to reconcile that as consistent with the above passage from today's reading. Either Paul is inconsistent and uncertain about his approach to women in the church (quite possible) or one both of these passages were inserted by later redactors.

Psalms and Proverbs

Nothing particularly interesting to me.

21 August 2010

Aug 21

Reference links:
Old Testament

Book of Job! Let's see what our references have to say about it. According to Understanding the Bible:
A bold challenge to traditional views of God, the Book of Job dramatizes the plight of an innocent man whose tragic sufferings inspire him to question the ethical nature of a deity who permits evil and the unmerited pain of sentient creatures. ...
Although scholars do not agree on when Job was written, the general period of its composition can be inferred from the theological issues it confronts. ... In its questioning of God's right to prosecute a person of exemplary goodness without just cause, however, the book is far more than an edifying study of the hero's fortitude and loyalty under sever testing. The Tanakh's most fully developed theodicy ... Job seems to express the deepest concerns of the postexilic era, when old assumptions about rewards for faithfulness and penalties for wrongdoing had lost much of their former authority.  ...
After Babylon's destruction of Judah, however, when thousands of Torah-abiding people permanently lost family, health, land, and possessions, confidence that righteous behavior could ensure a good life was less easy to entertain. Observing widespread injustice that turned the Deuteronomistic thesis on its head ... the anonymous author of Job could accept neither Deuteronomy's simplistic theories nor Ezekiel's implication that human misery always drives from sin. Combining traditional reverence for Yahweh with an acutely critical intelligence and demand for moral logic, Job's author protests comfortable but outmoded notions about the connection between good behavior and good fortune. ... the writer ... forcefully illustrates his conviction that old theological claims about the certainty of divine justice were woefully inadequate to explain the apparent random and arbitrary nature of human pain.
On to today's reading!

Job starts with an introductory passage where the satan, God's monitor of humanity responds to a challenge from God that Job is a truly righteous man. The satan posits that Job will not be so righteous if he experiences misfortune and God gives the satan leave to test Job.

In modern Christian thought, the satan has evolved into an individual, Satan. Satan, the individual, is seen as God's enemy. Thus, this exchange between God and Satan often seems highly problematic. Even the traditional Jewish view that the satan is God's servant charged with monitoring humanity is problematic to the popular view that God is all goodness and love. The book of Job shows that, in the mind of its author, God is the author of both good and misfortune. There is no separate entity responsible for that which humans consider bad, only God's assistant who carry out his sometimes incomprehensible will. As we will see, this theme will be enlarged upon.

Job first loses his children and his wealth. Although this causes him great grief, he does not curse God. This causes the satan to go back to God and suggest that Job might not be so reconciled if he were to experience bodily harm. As a result, Job is afflicted with painful boils.

Job still refuses to curse God, but he suffers greatly and eventually speaks out, beginning the transition from the prose prologue to the poetic core of the book. Job curses the day he was born and comments upon the release from suffering of those who are dead. Essentially, Job is laying out poetically the problem of evil. Why would a just and good God allow unnecessary suffering? Why would God let people live lives that can only be improved by death?

This poem also gives interesting insights into the author's beliefs about the afterlife. In general, the Old Testament presents the afterlife as nothing. There is no great reward for the good or eternal suffering for the wicked. There is only punishment and reward in this life and then an afterlife of neutral blankness. Popular conceptions of heaven and hell did not develop until the period between the Old and the New Testaments.

New Testament

After going on about how all of the spiritual gifts are important, Paul tells the people of Corinth to prefer the gift of prophecy over all others but love. That's something of a mixed message.

Paul then goes on to describe why prophecy is to be preferred over speaking in tongues in a way that gives useful insight into communication generally:
Dear brothers and sisters, if I should come to you speaking in an unknown language, how would that help you? But if I bring you a revelation or some special knowledge or prophecy or teaching, that will be helpful. Even lifeless instruments like the flute or the harp must play the notes clearly, or no one will recognize the melody. And if the bugler doesn’t sound a clear call, how will the soldiers know they are being called to battle?
It’s the same for you. If you speak to people in words they don’t understand, how will they know what you are saying? You might as well be talking into empty space.
Psalms and Proverbs

The proverbs the last couple days have felt redundant with ones we have read before. Today's proverbs continue that trend.

20 August 2010

Aug 20

Reference links:
Old Testament

We finish Esther today, making it our shortest book (in days) so far. We wrap things up in a somewhat unpleasant way.

The command that was issued in the king's name cannot be taken back. (Hint to anyone who might design a government: bad idea; always leave yourself loopholes.) Because of this, the people of the empire are still free to murder Jews on the appointed day. However, the king issues a new decree giving them permission to defend themselves.

Now, I am guessing the real point of this new decree was to indicate to the people that, despite what the previous decree had said, they should not attack the Jews. I cannot imagine that before getting this permission to defend themselves, the Jews were going to just let themselves be killed.

The Jews defend themselves with great success. However, despite having the permission to take the property of anyone they kill, they do not take advantage of this. I suppose the point of this is to show that the Jews are better than the people who would have killed them.

Up to this point, I am kind of okay with this. If you have a stupid government system that does not allow the king to change his mind, then encouraging self defense is the next best thing. And if people were stupid enough to attack the Jews under these conditions, let them die.

It's what happens next that bugs me and makes me like Queen Esther less than I have so far. After the appointed day, the Jews had killed 500 people in the fortress of Susa (where the king and queen lived) and 75,000 throughout the rest of the provinces (side note: these numbers are one of the things that leave scholars to think this is fictional; such massive killing is unlikely to have gone unrecorded in other sources).

When the day is over, the king asks Esther if there is anything else she wants.
Esther responded, “If it please the king, give the Jews in Susa permission to do again tomorrow as they have done today, and let the bodies of Haman’s ten sons be impaled on a pole.”
How unnecessarily vengeful! Asking to let the Jews kill anyone they want for another day. Now, if this had been phrased as a request for continuing permission to defend themselves, that would be acceptable. But this! This just sounds like Esther is out for blood.

In any case, the purpose of this story (and it was a good story) was to explain the origin of the festival of Purim. Thus ends Esther. Tomorrow: Job!

New Testament

Paul finishes his body analogy by talking about some of the specific roles within the early church. This is followed by one of the most famous Pauline passages: the commentary on love. This passage is so familiar that I have nothing to say about most of it except that, even to a non-believer, it is very lovely.

I do, however, want to highlight one passage,
When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.
Paul has often implies that believers should not be too critical of those who express their beliefs differently, and should limit what judgments they have to fellow believers. The main tempering of this permissiveness is the warning that people should take into account the needs and limitations of those they interact with. (Paul's discussion of what is and is not proper to eat is a illustrative example).

The passage above takes those ideas even further. Here, Paul emphasizes that even what he knows is partial and incomplete, despite the fact that he sees much more clearly than he use to. This makes clear why he often hesitates in condemning others. Even though he has certain feelings about what is right and wrong, he knows that he only has partial knowledge now.

This is, in my opinion, one of those passages that many modern Christians, especially the type who end up getting attention in the main stream media, do not take seriously enough.

Psalms and Proverbs

Nothing new.

19 August 2010

Aug 19

Reference links:
Old Testament

Esther continues to be a fun and exciting read.

Mordecai mourns the fate of the Jews. Eventually, Esther hears of her cousin's distress and asks him what is wrong. He tells her, and asks her to intervene. Esther, however, is reluctant to take on that role. She knows that going into the king's presence uninvited can mean death.

Mordecai persuades her to take that risk. Perhaps, he tells her, she was placed in the position of queen for just a time as this. He does not fail to add that she too would likely be killed in a massacre of the Jews.

Esther agrees to intervene with the king and, after a period of fasting, does so quite skillfully. She enteres the king's presence and is forgiven. She then invites the king and Haman to a banquet. (Remember, Haman was the official who ordered the killing of the Jews because he was annoyed at Mordecai).  I love Esther's invitation to the second banquet:
If I have found favor with the king, and if it pleases the king to grant my request and do what I ask, please come with Haman tomorrow to the banquet I will prepare for you. Then I will explain what this is all about.
She does not hide that she is buttering the king up, but she reveals it in such as way as to make it seem flattering rather than pathetic. Brilliant!

After that banquet, the king learns that Mordecai once saved his life and decides to honor Mordecai. He asks Haman how the king should honor the man, and Haman, thinking the king means to honor him, answers,
If the king wishes to honor someone, he should bring out one of the king’s own royal robes, as well as a horse that the king himself has ridden—one with a royal emblem on its head. Let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble officials. And let him see that the man whom the king wishes to honor is dressed in the king’s robes and led through the city square on the king’s horse. Have the official shout as they go, ‘This is what the king does for someone he wishes to honor!’
The king has Haman do this for Mordecai, and this after Haman had been planning to kill Mordecai. Haman is mortified.

After that, Esther holds her second banquet. She reveals that Haman is the enemy of the Jews. While the king temporarily walks away in rage, Haman begs Esther for his life. The king comes back and thinks this begging is an assault on Esther and orders Haman killed.

While I think that it is properly literary justice that Haman be killed, I do wish that he was not killed on false pretenses (assaulting the queen). I wish, instead, that his crimes had been seen as enough on his own. But either way, it makes for good story.

What happens tomorrow? We'll have to wait and see.

New Testament

Paul talks about the importance of spiritual gifts. The members of the church in Corinth have received many spiritual gifts, but they come from the same spirit and so are all important. To emphasize the importance of all of these gifts, and to, presumably, speak against those who may have been puffing themselves over the importance of their own gifts, Paul gives an analogy of the human body. Paul is much better at analogies than he is at logical reasoning.

The members of the Corinthian church are like the different parts of the human body. All of them are important in their own way; all of them are necessary. Without all of the different parts, the body would not function. He then extends this analogy to talk about harmony and caring in the church. Since they are all parts of one body, they all share suffering

Psalms and Proverbs
Whoever pursues righteousness and unfailing love
will find life, righteousness, and honor.
As non-religious as I am, I have observed enough to recognize that mature belief calls for balance. Depending on tradition, exactly what is in balance varies. However, there is always balance. Today, we see that is the above proverb.
The wise conquer the city of the strong
and level the fortress in which they trust.
This, I think, is totally the proverb for nerds and geeks. Those of us who consider ourselves wise and have rarely been among the strong. (Ignore, just to indulge us, the difference between intelligence and wisdom.)

18 August 2010

Aug 18

Reference links:
Old Testament

New book! Today we start the book of Esther. According to Harris's Understanding the Bible,
Esther is a strongly nationalistic story in which a beautiful Jewish queen risks her life to help save her people from Haman's plot to annihilate them. This secular tale of heroic resistance to Gentile persecution celebrates the origin of the festival of Purim. ... 
The only book in the Hebrew Bible that does not even mention God, Esther at first glance appears to be an entirely secular tale, one in which human characters seem to act on their own initiative and without specific divine guidance. On closer inspection, however, Esther may represent a fresh and subtle way of representing God's hidden influence on human history. ... 
As a work of historical imagination, Esther interweaves some reliable information about the Persian Empire during the fifth century B.C.E. with an ingenious tale of imminent catastrophe and redemption. Scholars believe that the author may have adapted the historical background ... Attempts to verify specific events in the story, however, have been unsuccessful.
Wikipedia adds the following interesting detail:
The story is also the first time that the word Jew (יְהוּדִי) was used, thus denoting a distinction between the Hebrews, the Israelites, and their Jewish descendants in the diaspora.
Note that this is relative to the traditional ordering used in the Tanakh. As I have noted, both Ezra and Nehemiah use the term, but they come after Esther in the Tanakh.

Probably the most important thing about the book of Esther from my point of view, is that it is a good story. That is quite a relief after Ezra and Nehemiah. King Ahasuerus (a.k.a., King Xerxes), deposes his wife, Queen Vashti, when she refuses to appear before the drunken king and his drunken guests. This, in my opinion, should be any woman's prerogative, even if her husband is the king.

Having sent away Vashti, Ahasuerus gathers up all of the beautiful women of the land and adds them to his harm. He sleeps with them one by one until he finds one he likes well enough to be his king. Interesting but rather disturbing detail:
When it was time for [one of the young women] to go to the king’s palace, she was given her choice of whatever clothing or jewelry she wanted to take from the harem. That evening she was taken to the king’s private rooms, and the next morning she was brought to the second harem, where the king’s wives lived. There she would be under the care of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch in charge of the concubines. She would never go to the king again unless he had especially enjoyed her and requested her by name.
So for most of these women, the best of the beautiful young virgins of the land, this signals the end of their chance at a loving or even at a sexual relationship. Unless they happen to get pregnant in that one night, they will never be mothers. They will live their life out as unused possessions of the king. They probably lived a life of relative luxury, but still, it is kind of a harsh fate for a king to try and throw off so many women.

Can you tell I'm not so fond of Ahasurerus? In any case, the chosen woman is Esther, a beautiful Jewish woman. She hides her heritage under the instruction of her cousin and caretaker, Mordecai. Mordecai saves the king from an assassination plot, but he also angers Haman, the kings official, by not bowing down when Haman goes by.

This bugs Haman, so he decides to kill off all the Jews in the land. Ahasureus agrees, and a degree is sent out that in a bit less than a year, there would be a day when everyone would be allowed to kill Jews and take their property.

Oh no! We'll have to wait until tomorrow to see what happens next.

New Testament

Paul talks about proper behavior at the Lord's Supper. During that discussion, he drops this bomb of a statement (emphasis mine),
So anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. That is why you should examine yourself before eating the bread and drinking the cup. For if you eat the bread or drink the cup without honoring the body of Christ, you are eating and drinking God’s judgment upon yourself. That is why many of you are weak and sick and some have even died.
Paul just claimed that people who approach the Lord's Supper the wrong way get sick and die. Do any Christians actually believe this? It sounds pretty ridiculous to me.

Psalms and Proverbs

Nothing new.

17 August 2010

Aug 17

Reference links:
Old Testament

We finish Nehemiah today. We get to see another case of applying commands explicitly meant for the Israelites as they were taking over the land of Canaan to the Israelites returned from exile (or, alternately, we see another case that adds to the suspicion that the details of the traditional stories were doctored to apply more closely to the situation of the returned exiles). We also have a couple more passages that make it seem like the point of Nehemiah is to show what a great and obedient person Nehemiah was.

Overall, I was rather bored with Nehemiah. Our next book, Ester, should be much more interesting.

New Testament

In today's reading, Paul tries and fails to make a case that his cultural norms are somehow absolute.
Judge for yourselves. Is it right for a woman to pray to God in public without covering her head? Isn’t it obvious that it’s disgraceful for a man to have long hair? And isn’t long hair a woman’s pride and joy? For it has been given to her as a covering.  But if anyone wants to argue about this, I simply say that we have no other custom than this, and neither do God’s other churches. [emphasis added]
Essentially, Paul is arguing that women should have long hair because... women have long hair. Nice tautological reasoning there.

This is part of an argument that women should wear head coverings in prayer and men should not. I don't buy the argument. Not only, as is not unusual, do I no buy the premises. I also think that the reasoning makes no sense. Paul seems to be working under the assumption that if he strings enough statements together, eventually he will be convincing. There is no actual underlying argument here. Even Harris says, in Understanding the Bible, Eight Edition,
Paul's argument for relegating women to a subordinate position in church strikes many readers as labored and illogical.
That's the problem here. This whole passage feels labored. It seems like Paul is trying to make a logical argument, but his statements follow none of the rules for a logical argument.

Paul should, perhaps, stick to passionate persuasion and leave logic to someone else.

It's also worth noting that Genesis most distinctly has two creation stories. One where man and woman are created at the same time and one where woman is created from man. Paul very selectively chooses the later. A case nearly opposite to his easily could be (and has been) made with the other.

Psalms and Proverbs

Nothing new.

16 August 2010

Aug 16

Reference links:
Old Testament

Once again, pseudo random number generators are being declared holy. After that, more lists.

How many days worth of reading would be be able to skip if got rid of all of the boring lists of people. I'm guessing at least two weeks worth. If we added other random lists (such as the detailed descriptions of the tabernacle and temple), I am guessing we could probably get rid of another week's worth.

Overall, I am still finding this project interesting and valuable, but those lists represent hours of my life that have been utterly wasted.

New Testament

Paul continues to talk about eating habits. Paul touches here upon a very valid point. There is much importance and symbolism in eating and drinking. Both what we eat and how we eat it. A McDonald's burger eaten in the car is an emotionally different thing than a lovingly made meal eaten with loved ones.

Paul spends any points he may have gained today by saying that all idols are demons. Really Paul, really? Demons? Not just fake or perhaps incorrectly worshiped manifestations of the one true God? But demons? That is both likely to breed disrespect and kind of ridiculous.

I think Paul's feelings on what one should and should not eat can be summed up with this statement from near the end of today's reading:
So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
Psalms and Proverbs

Another proverb of questionable morality:
A secret gift calms anger;
a bribe under the table pacifies fury.

15 August 2010

Aug 15

Reference links:
Old Testament

We finish up the summary of Israel's history covering: the conquest of the land of Canaan, the disobedience of the people, and God's repeated mercy. This is followed by yet another list. The people then vow to follow the Law of Moses.

It is interesting how exactly the regulations expressed in the Law of Moses seem to fit with the needs of the time. E.g., preventing marriage between the easily absorbed group of returned exiles and the locals or supporting the priests in the newer and much poorer temple. This, in my opinion, provides support for the scholarly opinion that much of the Mosaic law was actually codified at this time.

New Testament

After finishing his speech about adjusting your behavior to those you live among, Paul also gives us a history lesson. Paul claims that Christ was travelling with the Israelites through their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. He also implies that everything that happened to the Israelites, happened to provide a lesson for Christians of Paul's time.

Claims like these annoy me. Certainly, Paul and his followers should reinterpret the past to get meaning that is applicable to their present situation. But what bugs me is the implication, based on the wording, that this Christ-centric interpretation is the only valid interpretation of those past events. This, in essence, says to the Jews, "Everything you believe about your past is wrong. Here is what it actually means." A more healthy attitude would be, "Everything you believe about your past is valid, but here is an additional level of meaning."

Of course, it's always hard to analyze such subtle issues as wording in a translation. Paul's original Greek may very well have had more of the second sense than the first. In that case, the issue still stands, but the subject changes. Instead of Paul showing disrespect for the interpretive traditions of the Jews, it is the translators. Either way, still annoying.

It's also worth noting that the sexual immorality that caused 23,000 people to die in one day is, as best as I can tell, referring to Numbers 25 (although that says 24,000 people died). Paul fails to mention that the primary source of God's wrath is that the Israelites are having sex with foreign Moabite women and worshiping their God. Paul, it seems, is committing something of a lie of omission by not mentioning that aspect of the situation.

I find it interesting that Paul says this:
And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.
Not only does God choose who he will let believe properly, but then he makes sure that those who have been led to believe are not put into situations that will test their belief beyond their abilities. This seems rather unfair.

Now, I know that one standard answer for this unfairness is that God leads everyone who would believe to believe. Thus, it's perfectly fair because the people God does not lead to belief would not believe even if God did try to help them, and so, since God knows everyone's hearts perfectly, it's perfectly okay for him not to try.

However, I have not really seen anything which makes a Biblical case for that particular theodicy. Everything I have noticed so far seems to imply, like today's reading, that God just favors some people or another for no reason that we are given.

Psalms and Proverbs

Nothing of particular note.

14 August 2010

Aug 14

Reference links:
Old Testament

So, the first part of today's reading, Nehemiah 7:61-73, is pretty much word for word the same as Ezra 2:59-70. Boring!

The rest is not much more interesting. Ezra reads the law of Moses to the people, they paid attention and worshiped the Lord, celebrated the festival of shelters, and then listened to a recap of the adventures of the Israelites from Abraham to the 40 years of wandering.

The idea of a festival where you build yourself a shelter still entertains me, so at least that bit was interesting.

New Testament

Paul discusses how it was within his rights to expect the support of the churches he founded, but he never took advantage of that right. Reminds me of Nehemiah.

Psalms and Proverbs

I do not think I get this proverb:
If you punish a mocker, the simpleminded become wise;
if you instruct the wise, they will be all the wiser.
The second part is pretty clear, but the first part confuses me. I am guessing the author is saying that people learn from seeing others punished? I suppose so although there is much proof to support that punishment is among the least effective ways to regulate behavior.

13 August 2010

Aug 13

Reference links:
Old Testament

I am reading Jane Austen's Persuasion and, since I am not a Christian, I can say with out guilt that is is vastly more interesting and instructive than the vast majority of the Bible. This includes today's reading which consists largely of more lists.

Nehemiah describes his virtue in refusing to put more burdens on the people during his years as governor of Judah, his devotion in working on the wall of Jerusalem, and his faithfulness in resisting his enemies. Both the things described and the wording make it seems like Nehemiah is mostly using this document to count up the points God should award to him and deduct from his enemies.

After that, a long dull list of the people who returned from exile.

New Testament

Paul talks about whether or not one should eat food sacrificed to idols. It is okay, but because some weak minded folks might be led astray by it, it should be avoided. Independent of the religious content, this seems like sound advice with respect to personal relationships: don't lead the people around you into temptation. However, I think that such cautiousness can be taken to the extreme. If you never do things because someone might be led astray by them, then you will live a very limited life since almost anything can be a source of weakness to someone.

Psalms and Proverbs

Nothing of a particular note.

12 August 2010

And now I'll actually review the books

As mentioned in my last post, I recently finished two books about the Bible. Karen Armstrong's The Bible: A Biography and Stephen L. Harris's Understanding The Bible. In this entry I am going to actually review the books.

Armstrong is quickly becoming one of my favorite non-fiction authors. This is because, in addition to writing about interesting topics, she is a truly superb story teller. In this book, Armstrong weaves together history, the revelations of Biblical scholarship, and the Bible itself to form the story of the Bible's writing and canonization and the different ways it has been perceived throughout history.

At a high level, all of the content in this book is in the Harris textbook, but this book is a much more interesting read. It also has a different balance. Where Harris mostly focuses on the origins and content of the Biblical texts and spends very little time on the process of canonization and the subsequent history of the Bible, Armstrong spends time on all of those things. Overall, Armstrong's book was a quick, entertaining, and educational read. If you read only one book about the Bible, I recommend this one.

The limitation of Armstrong's style is that it does not allow for much detail. She limits herself to the most generally agreed on claims of Biblical scholarship and does not spend time discussing different theories or their merits. When there are legitimate differences of opinion within the scholarly community, she limits herself to the common kernel (e.g., when discussing books with a disputed date of composition, she limits her claims of composition date to a general period).

To get those sorts of details, you are going to need a textbook. The textbook I have read and am recommending is Harris's Understanding the Bible. However, I do not think that it is particularly special. I chose it because it covers both testaments in one volume, was well rated on Amazon, and was available at my local library. Any textbook that meets those criteria will probably meet your needs.

The text includes some chapters of overview and some chapters providing historical background. However, the bulk of the text is devoted to a discussion of each book of the Bible plus the Old Testament apocrypha. Although you will certainly get more out of this book by reading the whole thing, these core chapters are structured so that each can be read on its own. For each book, there is a discussion of the historical circumstances surrounding the composition, the date (or possible dates) of composition, a discussion of authorship, a discussion of literary genre (where appropriate), and a discussion of the content of the book. Harris provides some justification for why scholarly opinion has settled as it has, and he provides an extensive bibliography for each chapter that can be used for those who want to examine the different views in more depth.

One of the most useful things I got out of both of these books was the overview of Jewish thought, especially how it evolved after the Hebrew canon was closed. I think that people who have not been educated otherwise often assume that Jewish thought stopped after what was recorded in the Bible. I know that people who use the New Testament as their main reference on Jewish thought at the time of Jesus have an unfairly negative view of the Jews of the time. Learning a little about the actual history of Jewish thought shows how many of the tenants of Christianity which people now claim were novel innovations actually followed quite directly from the thoughts of the Jewish contemporaries of Jesus and his followers.

Finally, a quick note for those who know me in real life: I own both of these books and would be happy to lend them out (although I am still actively using the Harris book for my project).

Some books need pre-review notes

As part of my project to blog my way through the Bible, I have been reading books to educate myself about the Bible. At the same time, I have been looking for books that I can recommend to others since I know that not everyone enjoys reading text books (weirdos =P).

I have finally found two books that I can recommend. The short, sweet, easy to read book is Karen Armstrong's The Bible: A Biography. As far as I have found, there is no book that really gets the depth that I want without being a textbook, so I am also recommending a textbook: Stephen L. Harris's Understanding The Bible.

Before I get into the details, I want to explain in a bit more depth why I think every Christian should read these kind of books. (I assume that non-Christians who find the Bible an interesting topic of study do not need this persuasion.)

If you are a Christian, you probably read the Bible in a primarily devotional manner. You see the books as applying to you and your life. You interpret the books of the Bible in light the whole (e.g., seeing the Old Testament as pointing to Jesus). This is all well and good. If the Bible really is the work that you think it is, then these are proper ways of reading it.

However, there is value in understanding the Bible from literary and historical perspectives. The advantages are both of principle and of practicality. The advantages of principle are pretty simple, and you probably either agree with my perspective or not: If you are basing your life on what you read in the Bible, you have a duty to understand when and why it was written. Otherwise, you are basing your beliefs on a weak foundation and quite possibly lying to yourself.

The practical advantages are, I think, less controversial. Understanding the literary and historical origins of the Bible helps readers in a number of ways. Understanding the history behind the Bible and its composition helps it make more sense. For example, Ezra and Nehemiah are clearer when you know about the Bablyonians' exile of the bulk of the people of Judah.

Understanding the literary forms used in the books of the Bible open your eyes to the subleties of those literary forms. The apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelations are easier to understand if you know about the genre they belong to. The wisdom books make more sense if you understand the larger tradition of wisdom literature (both Jewish and non-Jewish).

Knowing the origins of books of the Bible can clear up confusing or contradictory passages. For example, knowing that the last chapter of Romans is generally considered to be a genuine Pauline fragment from a different letter makes the awkward seam at that point less confusing.

One more thing for the Christians before getting onto the reviews. If you worry that reading these books will threaten your faith, you shouldn't. These are not books written by atheists or skeptics. They are written by authors who respect the Bible. They do not try to push a non-believing agenda. Both, especially the Harris book, often go out of their way to reconcile the best research with belief. That said, these books are based on the best contemporary research. They clearly point out that many traditional beliefs about the Bible and its origins are flat out wrong. If you find books like that, honest, respectful books that may challenge particular beliefs, to be threats to your faith, then I would urge you to consider the possibility that a challenge may do you good.

This is getting rather long. I'll put the reviews themselves in a separate post.

(Note also that I have decided to start linking to books and, since I would always link to Amazon any way, I am using Amazon associate links.)

Aug 12

Reference links:
Old Testament

The rest of chapter 3 is more lists thinly veiled in prose. After that, we read about how the enemies of the Jews are threatening to violently oppose the Jews rebuilding the wall. In response, Nehemiah has half of the men stand guard and arms the men who are not currently on guard.

Which is interesting and all, but I am more interesting in what I noticed today: the Bible is referring to them as Jews! I know I am a little slow since that apparently started back in Ezra. But that was still an interesting discovery.

We end today's reading with a very interesting passage. Nehemiah condemns those who take advantage of their fellow Jews. Furthermore, he tells them to no longer charge interest on borrowed goods and to return the lands that people gave up in exchange for help through the hard times.

One reason this passage is interesting is the ideas it presents: people should not take advantage of each other, and they should take care of each other in times of hardship.

Even more interesting is the fact that Nehemiah does not quote the scriptures to support his position. This is odd considering that Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy all contain the provision against charging interest to other people of Israel. This, to me, gives strong support to the scholarly opinion that even the Torah was not yet in its final form at this time or, if it was, it was not commonly accepted as authoritative scripture yet.

New Testament

I have a question that may sound snarky but which I mean sincerely: How often do Christians actually try to follow Paul's advice about abstaining from marriage? In today's reading and yesterday's reading, Paul makes it pretty clear that marriage should rank below singleness in the preferences of a Christian. How often do Christians even attempt to decide firmly not to marry and try to control their passion? Certainly, there are some churches that teach the opposite of this, where the single members of the congregation pushed to get married as quickly as they can find a suitable partner. Are they just flat out ignoring these passages?

Today's reading also shows that Paul clearly expected the end times to happen very soon, probably within his lifetime.
The time that remains is very short. So from now on, those with wives should not focus only on their marriage. Those who weep or who rejoice or who buy things should not be absorbed by their weeping or their joy or their possessions. Those who use the things of the world should not become attached to them. For this world as we know it will soon pass away.
Psalms and Proverbs

Three proverbs today! This one's my favorite:
Good planning and hard work lead to prosperity,
but hasty shortcuts lead to poverty.

11 August 2010

Aug 11

Reference links:
Old Testament

New book means overview time! Let's see what Understanding the Bible has to say:
Appointed governor of postexilic Judah by Emperor Artaxerxes, Nehemiah oversees the rebuilding of Judah. After promulgating a version of the Mosaic Torah compiled and edited during the Babylonian exile (perhaps the final form of today's Pentateuch) the priest Ezra institutes an atonement ceremony. A report of Nehemiah's reforming zeal, enforcing Sabbath-keeping and the ban on foreign marriage, concludes the book. 
Harris also says,
Originally combined with Ezra, the Book of Nehemiah enlarges our picture of conditions in postexilic Judah and Jerusalem.
The Wikipedia article expands on what it means to say that Ezra and Nehemiah were originally combined,
A work ascribed to Nehemiah, but bearing in some canons the title Esdras II. or Esdras III., having been attributed to Ezra on the ground that Nehemiah's self-assertion deserved some punishment (Sanh. 93b), or because, having ordinarily been written on the same scroll with the Book of Ezra, it came to be regarded as an appendix to it.
Based on this, I think the situation is that Ezra and Nehemiah were often considered one book because of their closely related subject matter and the fact that they were often written on one scroll, but neither tradition nor modern scholarship ascribe both to the same author.

Onward to today's reading! Nehemiah shows great concern for the fate of Jerusalem and gets permission from Artaxerxes to go and rebuild Jerusalem. Because Nehemiah has found favor in the king's eyes in his role as cup bearer, Artaxerxes gave him permission and resources to carry out his plan.

Quick side note, Artaxerxes is both fun and difficult to type. Artaxerxes! Artaxerxes! ... And now back to our regularly scheduled program.

Nehemiah goes to Jerusalem and finds the city in shambles. His plans to rebuild the city wall meet disapproval from Sanballat, Tobiah, and Gershem who appear to be officials of some sort. Despite their disapproval, Nehemiah gathers people to start rebuilding the wall.

What follows is essentially yet another list, this time disguised as prose. The people working on the wall are listed in conjunction with what part they were working to rebuild. Although, as I said, this is essentially a list in very thin disguise, it does include some interesting details. First, the different gates and towers in the city walls had interesting names. As a sample: the Sheep Gate, the Fish Gate, the Tower of the Ovens, and the Dung Gate.

Also interesting is that women, at least some women, were working side-by-side with the men:
Shallum son of Hallohesh and his daughters repaired the next section.
New Testament

Today talks about marriage. Marriage is for the weak. If people were awesome (like Paul) they would remain unmarried (like Paul). But since people are weak, they are allowed to marry lest they do even worse things.

This reading then goes on to talk about the relationship between spouses. The most interesting thing about this passage is the near absolute symmetry used in the language describing the relationship of a woman to her husband and a man to his wife.
But because there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband.
The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs. The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife.
A wife must not leave her husband. But if she does leave him, let her remain single or else be reconciled to him. And the husband must not leave his wife. [implied symmetry]
If a Christian man has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to continue living with him, he must not leave her. And if a Christian woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to continue living with her, she must not leave him. For the Christian wife brings holiness to her marriage, and the Christian husband brings holiness to his marriage.
Don’t you wives realize that your husbands might be saved because of you? And don’t you husbands realize that your wives might be saved because of you?
Because the letters known to be genuine Pauline letters often stress equality, as above and in other places such as the well known Galatians verse, the lack of such equality in the pastoral letters are one of the many strands of evidence that lead most scholars to believe that they were not written by Paul.

Psalms and Proverbs

Not a bad proverb:
Haughty eyes, a proud heart,
and evil actions are all sin.

10 August 2010

Aug 10

Reference links:
Old Testament

We finish Ezra today which means that it is the second shortest book we have read so far (by number of days spent reading it).

Ezra ends with the destruction of families and yet another list (of those people whose families were destroyed). When we left Ezra yesterday, he was dramatically mourning the fact that some of the returned exiles had married the locals. On the advice of Shecaniah, who had not been introduced as anyone of note as far as I can tell, Ezra tells the people to divorce their pagan wives and send away any children they had by their wives.

I think this is pretty terrible. First, families are being broken up, and it is likely that the members of many of these families loved each other. Second, women and children, the weakest members of this society, are being sent away from their source of support. Now, the women who had not had children may have been able to find new husbands without too much difficulty, but the women with children may very well have been seen as a burden by potential new husbands. Even if those women did remarry, it is likely that many of those children pretty much lost out on everything since they would not necessarily share in the inheritance of their new family.

And all this because of Ezra's mourning. Note that Ezra did not get any sort of explicit vision or message from God. He was just using his own interpretation of the law (which he may very well have been the one to compile) and applying it to the people who had returned to Judah.

At least the text makes it clear that not everyone supported these cruel actions:
Only Jonathan son of Asahel and Jahzeiah son of Tikvah opposed this course of action, and they were supported by Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite.

New Testament

Christians should not sue each other in courts judged by non-believers. Furthermore, they should not be bringing suit in the first place; they should just accept the injustice done to them and take comfort in knowing that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

This passage also implies that not only will everyone eventually be judged, but it will be the believers themselves doing the judging. I do not believe we have seen this idea in our readings before and it brings up some very interesting issues about the idea of judgment.

Paul also discusses how sexual sin is particularly terribly because it is done to the body and the body of a believer is part of Christ.

Psalms and Proverbs

Nothing of particular note.