30 September 2010

Sep 30

Reference links:
Old Testament

Everyone in the world will someday declare Jerusalem to be awesome. Those who don't will be punished. Reading these verses, it is certainly easy to see how people thought that God's kingdom was near when Jews started settling the land that would later be made the state of Israel.

The reading also declares that those Jews who are currently suffering as captives and prisoners will be restored to prosperity.

The last section of today's reading is a prayer declaring the author's love for Jerusalem. It is clear how much passion the author shows for the restoration of the city. So passionate, in fact, that I can see how he may have come to truly believe that his visions of restoration and revenge were visions from God.

New Testament

Unity will be a sign that the Philippian church is saved. As I think I have mentioned before, if we apply that standard to the modern church, well, it doesn't come out very well.

Most of the rest of today's reading consists of various moral instructions (don't be selfish, be humble, work hard, live cleanly). In the midst of that we have a bit of poetry that is interesting because it is thought to be a fragment of an early hymn.

Psalms and Proverbs

Save those who are unjustly condemned.

29 September 2010

Sep 29

Reference links:
Old Testament

The idea which runs throughout today's reading is that the people are not living up to the standards set for them. They have the outer semblance of worship, but do not behave in ways that are truly righteous. They show no justice and plot evil. God will forgive those who turn to him, but the people do not seem to care.

Today's reading also contains an interesting passage which reminds me of yesterday's description of the armor of the faithful:
[The Lord] put on righteousness as his body armor
and placed the helmet of salvation on his head.
He clothed himself with a robe of vengeance
and wrapped himself in a cloak of divine passion.
New Testament

New book today, and we're back in genuine Pauline territory. Before I get to the usual background, I want to say that the Wikipedia article for Philippians is not very good. It does not have the same level of detail and organization that most of the Wikipedia articles have had.

Note to self: someday, if I have time and remember, I should go back and make it so that all of the Wikipedia articles for Bibles have the same core organization (e.g., discussion of authorship should be in a consistently named section rather than sometimes being in one of "Authorship", "Composition", the general overview, or elsewhere).

So what does Understanding The Bible have to say by way of introduction,
Paul's letter to the church at Philippi, the first church established in Europe, contains important biographical information about the author and his imprisonment (at either Rome or Ephesus). An unusually warm and friendly missive, it includes Paul's quotation of an early Christian hymn that depicts Jesus as the opposite of Adam -- a humbly obedient son whose denial of self leads to his heavenly exaltation.
Pretty straightforward, which makes sense for a pretty short letter.

Paul praises his relationship with the Philippian church and prays for the continued growth of the members of that church. He then talks about the preaching of his fellow believers at the location of his imprisonment. Paul then expresses a death wish (so that he can be with Jesus) that is tempered by his desire to help others and spread the gospel.

Psalms and Proverbs

There are some Bible verses that people quote to each other for comfort. Public service announcement, this should not be one of them:
If you fail under pressure,
your strength is too small.

28 September 2010

Sep 28

Reference links:
Old Testament

We transition from Second Isaiah to third Isaiah today. I noticed a transition, but I actually put it nearly a chapter later than it appears I should have. It's also worth noting the the transition in author was not nearly as noticeable as the transition between Isaiah and Second Isaiah (although the transition in tone most certainly was); I don't know if I would have noticed it if I hadn't known it was coming.

What does Understanding The Bible have to say about Third Isaiah:
But it fell to another anonymous prophet, Third Isaiah, to cope with the grim realities that returning exiles actually encountered. Instead of a gloriously renewed homeland, repatriated Judeans found only a war-devastated "wilderness" and the holy city "a desolation". Assuming Second Isaiah's role as prophetic comforter, this postexilic prophet offered both reassurance of Yahweh's future plans for the covenant people and criticism for their failure to share limited resources with the poor.
Second Isaiah ends on a positive note. He tells of the restored glory of Jerusalem and of the profoundness of God.

Isaiah 56 changes tone a little, but there is a continuity in so far as both chapters 55 and 56 touch upon the relationship of the restored Israel to other nations. One thing that was interesting in the first part of chapter 56 is the introduction of the possibility for non-Israelites to be saved if they commit themselves to the Lord. It seems to me as if the Biblical authors are starting to realize that advocating true monotheism without advocating the possibility of salvation for all puts them into a situation where their God shows irrational favoritism. Instead, Second or Third Isaiah, whichever it is, seems to be leaning towards the solution that is often favored by people these days: God chose to give some people a special role, but he did not reserve his blessings for those people.

The place I noticed the transition was Isaiah 56:9:
Come, wild animals of the field!
Come, wild animals of the forest!
Come and devour my people!
All of a sudden we go from "Everything's great! everyone will be welcomed by the Lord if they commit themselves to him" to "Kill my people!". The rest of today's reading continues the negative tone: the leaders of the people are lazy drunkards and the people worship idols. In contrast to earlier views of history where the good prospered and the evil suffered, today's reading presents a view that is more extreme than anything we have yet seen when it comes to the suffering of good people:
Good people pass away;
the godly often die before their time.
But no one seems to care or wonder why.
No one seems to understand
that God is protecting them from the evil to come.
For those who follow godly paths
will rest in peace when they die.
Good people die, or at least did in the time of Third Isaiah, to be spared the suffering of upcoming evil.

New Testament

We finish Ephesians today. Children should honor their parents and fathers should treat their children well. After that, we get a couple interesting passages.

First is the infamous passage where the author of Ephesians tells slaves that they should submit to their masters and masters that they should treat their slaves well. What earns this passage scorn is the lack of condemnation for slavery.

This is problematic for the obvious reason (slavery is bad), but it is also problematic because for those who accept that slavery is bad, it opens up the doors to the idea that parts of the Bible, even in the New Testament, should be read as only applying to the culture they were penned in. If these instructions about slavery were only given because slavery was an inescapable fact of the author's culture, perhaps the same applies to other passages. Maybe it applies to the passage on marriage from yesterday. Maybe it applies to condemnations against homosexuality.

Now, for those people who already believe that the Bible is the product of the culture it was written in and adjust their understandings accordingly, this is not a problem. However, for those people who like to quote isolated verses or passages in support of particular beliefs or condemnations, opening those doors is problematic indeed.

After that, we have a passage about putting on the armor of God. Obviously, it's a metaphor, but it's a rather funny one.
Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
That said, I do know that some people take the idea against evil spirits and creatures of the unseen world literally, and it scares me.

Psalms and Proverbs

Nothing of particular note.

27 September 2010

Sep 27

Reference links:
Old Testament

Today's reading explores the normal themes of Second Isaiah: God is universal in power but not in favor. The author emphasizes punishment and redemption of the Israelites. All others exist relative to the Israelites and every other country's fate is relative to the fate of Jerusalem.

This is followed by one of the "suffering servant" poems. This one will sound familiar to anyone familiar with the Christian mythos because the authors of the Christian gospels borrowed heavily from its imagery. This passage is unique amongst passages that could be read as messianic in that it implies that redemption can come through suffering. Obviously, such a theme would be important to those whose leader had died a shameful death.

New Testament

Exciting! The author of Ephesians uses a phrase that seems to be meant to invoke sacrifice in the Israelite Temple:
[he] offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God.
Then we have a bit about being moral. In the midst of the moral advice, we have this interesting little bit:
This is why it is said,
“Awake, O sleeper,
rise up from the dead,
and Christ will give you light.”
The phrase "That is why it is said" points to some tradition that dates from before this letter. Was it an oral tradition? Or is it from some piece of writing that was considered to be scripture by the author of Ephesians but has since been lost?

After that, we get the famous passage about the relationship between husbands and wives. I think the whole thing is bunk, and, as a non-Christian, I don't need to bother with it beyond that. Sometimes it's great being an evil atheist who does not take the Bible seriously.

Psalms and Proverbs

Nothing of particular note.

26 September 2010

Sep 26

Reference links:
Old Testament

Today we have declarations that the God of Israel is the only God, declarations of Cyrus of Persia as the rescuer of Israel, passages that could be interpreted as foretelling a messiah, declarations of Israel's disobedience, and promises of Israel's restoration. Nothing new really, so I have nothing interesting to say.

New Testament

Today's readings consist largely of a bunch of common sense moral commandments.

Psalms and Proverbs

Today's proverbs are about the value of wisdom, especially in war.

Wow, I don't have a lot to say today. I guess even I am sometimes concise.

25 September 2010

Sep 25

Reference links:
Old Testament

Almost all of today's reading is Second Isaiah writing in God's voice. The impression one gets of God from this reading is that he is a very annoyed individual, especially at idols, which he brings up several times. Other themes God emphasizes are his power and reliability and the fact that he is the only God. Also, Cyrus will save the people of Israel and Babylon will fall.

New Testament

Today, the author of Ephesians emphasizes unity and peace in the church. We also see that the imminent return of Jesus (as implied in the authentic Pauline letters and the gospels) has been replaced with a sense that Jesus will not return until a more distant future:
This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.
The implication here is that Jesus will come once the church is good and ready for it, and not before. This is a rather brilliant way of putting it because it's a standard that you can always push back. No matter how unified in faith and knowledge the church is, it can always be said that there is further to go, pushing Jesus's return off further and further into the future (not that there has ever really been a time when the church could have lived up to even a weak version of this standard, but I digress).

One other point of note, the passage from the psalms cited in today's reading is the last verse of yesterday's reading from the psalms, and it is the psalm that is continued in today's reading. I think this may be the closest we have come to having a reading and a citation of that reading align.

Psalms and Proverbs

I am working on building a house, so I liked today's proverbs:
A house is built by wisdom
and becomes strong through good sense.
Through knowledge its rooms are filled
with all sorts of precious riches and valuables.

24 September 2010

Sep 24

Reference links:
Old Testament

A large part of today's reading is about idols. The author talks about the stupidity and arrogance of those who worship idols saying,
The person who made the idol never stops to reflect, “Why, it’s just a block of wood!
I burned half of it for heat
and used it to bake my bread and roast my meat.
How can the rest of it be a god?
Should I bow down to worship a piece of wood?”
As I have probably said before, by doing this, the author shows a basic misunderstanding of idols and their purpose. In pretty much every case I have heard of, people did not believe that the idols themselves were gods. They believed that the idols were representations of their gods. Representations with power, but, none the less, representations and not the gods themselves. Other than the fact that the idols were meant to be an image of the god they represented, this is really no different than the ark or even the whole temple or the cross for Christians. These too are treated in such as way that could be considered worship of the object itself by those outside of the community of worship.

One sentiment from today's reading that I feel is not applied widely enough:
Yet he cannot bring himself to ask,
“Is this idol that I’m holding in my hand a lie?”
We should all bring ourselves to wonder if that which we hold dear is nothing more than a lie. This is a question that people are generally afraid to ask (and, I would propose, the religious are often most afraid to ask). And if I didn't have a policy of not talking about current events, I might wonder how many present day Christians treat the Bible as an idol...

New Testament

Given that this letter does largely rehash ideas we have seen before, I cannot help but focus on all of the ways it does not sound like Paul's voice. The discussion of Paul's authority lacks his usual defensiveness. The statements are vague and general (as compared to vague and specific, which seemed to be more common).

I am trying to decide whether or not I like this author's writing style. On the one hand, he leans towards longer, more complex sentences. On the other hand, so do I, so I am somewhat use to that rhythm. =)

Psalms and Proverbs

Nothing of particular note.

23 September 2010

Sep 23

Reference links:
Old Testament

It's hard to blog about poetry. Either I can talk about the gist, which amounts to just a few key ideas or I can analyze verses in detail, but then there are altogether too many choices. I suppose you could also analyze the general poetic structure and what not, but that is harder when (a) you're reading a translation and (b) you were never really good at analyzing poetry in the first place...

Today I'll go with the choose-some-interesting-verses approach. From my point of view, the most interesting section of today's reading is this:
“Present the case for your idols,”
says the Lord.
“Let them show what they can do,”
says the King of Israel.
“Let them try to tell us what happened long ago
so that we may consider the evidence.
Or let them tell us what the future holds,
so we can know what’s going to happen.
Yes, tell us what will occur in the days ahead.
Then we will know you are gods.
In fact, do anything—good or bad!
Do something that will amaze and frighten us.
But no! You are less than nothing and can do nothing at all.
Those who choose you pollute themselves.
Here we read God, as portrayed by Second Isaiah, putting up a challenge that he cannot (or, I suppose if you're a traditional believer, chooses not) to meet in modern times. Challenge God today to "tell us what the future holds" or to "do anything—good or bad!" "something that will amaze and frighten us" and we will see nothing. Nothing unambiguously God caused. Nothing amazing. Nothing

Instead, the modern Christian tells us to look inside our heart to see the "obvious" message in the world around us. They hold God to a lower standard than idols to be held to.

New Testament

Most important things first, this bit has a footnote:
You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world.
According to the footnote, the more literal translation of the first bit could be:
obeying the commander of the power of the air.
The second version is way more entertaining.

Side thought, how do people who insist on reading the Bible word-for-word literally deal with the fact that they are reading a translation? And the fact that translations have differed considerably over time? I'm guessing they deal with it by not really thinking about it.

Paul's admirer continues to summarize Paul's theology as he sees it. Today's points are God's grace allows believers to be saved from the punishments deserved by those in a sinful world and the community of the Lord should be unified.

Psalms and Proverbs

Wow! Long proverbs reading today. The reading amounts to a short poem on the dangers of alcohol. He talks about the terrible effects of too much drink, but then he also says,
Don’t gaze at the wine, seeing how red it is,
how it sparkles in the cup, how smoothly it goes down.
To me, this description reads with the tenderness of a loved one describing his love. The strong passions both for and against alcohol makes me wonder if the author is someone we would now classify as an alcoholic.

22 September 2010

Sep 22

Reference links:
Old Testament

We finish up the part of Isaiah associated with the prophet Isaiah (and it's just more recap of 2 Kings). We then start the part attributed to an unknown author dubbed "Second Isaiah". According to Harris in Understanding the Bible:
In Isaiah 40-55, a new voice is heard, proclaiming to Judean exiles in Babylon that the time of punishment is past and that a new era is dawning, heralded by the conquests of Cyrus of Persia, who will defeat Babylon to become the Near East's new master. Presenting Cyrus as Yahweh's anointed king, the anonymous prophet known as Second Isaiah (or Deutero-Isaiah) prepares his fellow exiles for a radically changed world in which their God will lead them in a new exodus to their homeland. The first prophet to declare explicitly that Yahweh is the only God, Second Isaiah states that the covenant people's historical role is henceforth that of Yahweh's servant, God's vehicle for brining divine "light" to Gentile nations.
It seems like this is going to be a good bit more cheery than the dire prophecies of the historical Isaiah. It also seems like we will start discovering more of the content that makes this book so important to Christians (at least, I have been told that Isaiah's important to Christians, and there are only a few small segments of what we have read so far which seem to justify that importance, so I hope it will become more obvious).

Harris also answers a question that I had when we started reading all of the duplicate information from 2 Kings. According to Harris, it is believed that the editors who composed the joint work inserted the passages from 2 Kings to ease the transition between the prophecies of the historical Isaiah and those of Second Isaiah. Isaiah's prophecy to Hezekiah that Judah will fall to Babylon provides a bridge between the two sections.

Even right off the bat, in today's reading, we can see that the God of Second Isaiah was a much more universal, a much more cosmic God. The God of Second Isaiah sounds much more like the God of modern Christians than nearly anything else in the Old Testament thus far.

In Isaiah 40:12-31, we can see how much the Jewish vision of God has changed. With their emphasis on the vastness of God's power and wisdom, these verses sound almost like they could belong in Job. However, instead of taking that as proof that God cannot care about humanity, like Job does, Second Isaiah seems to take God's vastness as proof that he is aware of the suffering of the exiled Jewish people.

New Testament

Today we read our first epistle that is widely believed to not actually have been written by Paul. I read today's reading before reading the background, and I had forgotten whether or not this letter is considered genuine. Even so, I thought that it seemed suspiciously polished. More like someone writing an essay distilling Paul's thoughts than the more raw, meandering words of Paul himself.

Let's see what Harris has to say:
Scholars believe that Ephesians is a tribute to Pauline thought penned by a later disciple who modifies and updates Paul's ideas to address concerns of his own day. The writer argues that the unity of Christ and the cosmos must be reflected in the unity of the church, whose members engage in spiritual warfare with supernatural evil.
"Spiritual warfare with supernatural evil"? We'll see whether or not this ends up being as wacky and entertaining as it sounds.

Expanding on the authorship debate, Harris presents the following reasons for why scholars doubt the letter's authenticity (note that these points are quotations from Harris slightly modified for a list format):

  • vocabulary: contains over ninety words not found elsewhere in Paul's writings
  • literary style: written in extremely long, convoluted sentences, in contrast to Paul's typical direct, forceful statements; the quietly devotional tone and smoothly organized sequence of thoughts differ from the apostle's usual welter of ideas and impassioned language
  • theology: the absence of such typically Pauline doctrines as justification by faith and the nearness of Christ's return
  • References to "Apostles and prophets" as the church's foundation imply that these figures belong to the past, not the authors generatio
  • The Gentiles' equality in Christian fellowship is no longer a controversial issue but an accomplished fact
  • Judaizing interlopers no longer question Paul's stand on circumcision
  • When Paul uses the term church, he always refers to an individual congregation. In contrast, Ephesians' author speaks of the church collectively, a universal institution encompassing all communities of faith.
Harris finishes by saying:
The accumulated evidence convinces most scholars that Ephesians is a deutero-Pauline document, a secondary work composed in Paul's name by an admirer thoroughly steeped in the apostle's though and general theology.  ... Some scholars propose that Ephesians was written as a kind of "cover letter," or essay, to accompany an early collection of Paul's letters. [booyah! I so said it was like an essay before reading this]
Given that this letter was probably not written by Paul, what is it's value? Based on the summary, Ephesians does seem to be a fairly reliable study of Paul's views. As such, it gives valuable insight into how Paul was perceived by those who came after him. Which of his views were considered most important? Which no longer seemed relevant? The Christian church has been evolving since it's very inception, and this provides valuable insight into that evolution.

So which of Paul's ideas are important to the author of Ephesians? The author of Ephesians seems to emphasize the blessing of being united with God through Jesus. He also emphasizes the idea that the followers of Jesus were chosen for that role. He also seems to want to make clear Jesus' divine status and authority.

Psalms and Proverbs

Prostitutes continue to be bad. Actually, it really tells you something about the times the author(s) of proverbs lives in when you realize that they are always referring back to prostitutes, thieves, drunkards, and gluttons for their examples of disreputable behavior. We have such a greater variety these days.

21 September 2010

Sep 21

Reference links:
Old Testament

All of today's reading is again almost word for word identical to 2 Kings. The main differences comes near the end of the reading. You may have noticed that today's reading is kind of garbled, as if something had gotten mixed up somewhere. Isaiah tells Hezekiah he will recover from his sickness and then immediately tells Hezekiah what sign will show this to be the case. After that, at the end of today's reading, Hezekiah asks Isaiah what sign he could look for. Peeking ahead, it looks like there is no follow-up to this statement. The version in 2 Kings is certainly more coherent. A scholar could probably use that to conclude something about the relationship between the texts.

Today's reading also contains Hezekiah's poem of praise following his healing. I do not think this appeared in the account in 2 Kings.

New Testament

We finish Galatians today. One thing I can say for Paul is that if you agree with his basic premise, he can be pretty persuasive. He cannot make an argument, but he can make a point. Today, when he briefly made a statement that did not refer to God or Jesus, I was even inspired by it:
Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. For we are each responsible for our own conduct.
After spending a lot of time the last few days thinking about how to best present my work to others (performance review season), this verse is a nice reminder about the principles I really like to bring to my work.

Paul closes with some words written in his very own (apparently large) handwriting. He makes one last appeal to the Galatians to resist the teachings of those who want to force circumcision and to emphasize why it is not needed.

Psalms and Proverbs

Nothing of particular note.

20 September 2010

Sep 20

Reference links:
Old Testament

One thing that seems unique about Isaiah's visions (so far in our OT readings) is the directness of God's rule. It seems like in most of what we have read, God's interventions have been temporary and/or indirect. In Isaiah's vision, God will rule directly over the people. For example,
Your eyes will see the king in all his splendor,
and you will see a land that stretches into the distance.
There the Lord will display his glory,
the splendor of our God.
After those visions, we get an account of when the Assyrians attacked Judah. As far as I can remember, it is nearly word-to-word identical to the earlier account in Kings.

New Testament

Paul tells the Galatians that they should live according to the impetus of the Holy Spirit. As he has before, Paul starts from a basic assumption that I disagree with. His point assumes that human nature consists of two separable parts: the sinful nature and the nature inspired by the Holy Spirit. All that is good comes from the former and all that is bad comes from the later.

But human nature cannot be cleanly separated. Some things are not clearly good or bad. It sometimes depends on the context. Is my questioning nature which helps me understand the world and makes it impossible for me to believe any god good or bad? Some situations are truly ambiguous. Would you kill a child to save the planet? Furthermore, often that which is bad is a good quality taken to excess.

Paul's model of human nature is wrong, and bad models can lead to bad decisions. Humanity still has a lot to learn about human nature, but we can do better than this.

Psalms and Proverbs

I like this one, even if my beliefs about what constitutes truth probably differ from that which the author intended:
Get the truth and never sell it;
also get wisdom, discipline, and good judgment.

19 September 2010

Sep 19

Reference links:
Old Testament

Today I am struck most by the overall structure of Isaiah, especially in today's reading. Isaiah alternates between visions of destruction (for Jerusalem, Egypt, Assyria, complacent women, etc.) and visions of the Lord's reconciliation with his people. Those cycles contrast relying on human strength and God's strength implying, obviously, that the former brings destruction and the later prosperity.

In the midst of all that we read this,
The moon will be as bright as the sun, and the sun will be seven times brighter—like the light of seven days in one!
For the record, I think that would very bad.

New Testament

Paul says: Circumcision cannot make one right with God. Only faith can. Why in the world are the Galatians believing these lies? They certainly don't match up with what Paul teaches (despite rumors they may have heard otherwise).

Paul also makes a reference to yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough. Both the kingdom of heaven and the teachings of the Pharisees were compared to yeast in the gospels. I wonder whether Paul got the yeast imagery from the traditions about Jesus he was familiar with or if yeast was just a common analogy at the time. Since the letters of Paul were written before the gospels, if yeast were not a common analogy, we would have reason to suspect that yeast imagery was part of the early tradition surrounding Jesus.

Psalms and Proverbs

Today's proverb is about respecting your parents.

18 September 2010

Sep 18

Reference links:
Old Testament

No unifying thread today. Just a bunch of one line thoughts.

I wonder if this is where the phrase, "You've made your bed, so now you have to lie in it" came from:
The bed you have made is too short to lie on.
The blankets are too narrow to cover you.
Apparently it's God who gives farmers knowledge about farming. Funny. I thought it was trial and error that developed farming techniques.

I wonder if Paul was inspired to talk about clay vessels by this verse:
How foolish can you be?
He is the Potter, and he is certainly greater than you, the clay!
Should the created thing say of the one who made it,
“He didn’t make me”?
Does a jar ever say,
“The potter who made me is stupid”?
Note however that Isaiah, unlike Paul, does not imply that the potter can use the created vessel however he wishes.

Also, various blessings and curses. Making alliances with Egypt is bad.

New Testament

Paul continues to talk about why the law existed in the first place if it is so useless now. Apparently, it was a temporary guardian. So because the law was like a guardian, the people who accept Jesus are like children of God. Or something like that.

Paul then mentioned his great concern for the former gentiles in the church. After that we get a typically Pauline bit of exegesis. Paul, as usual, stretches our credulity when he tries to use examples from the Hebrew scriptures to illustrate his point.

Today he does this by comparing people to Abraham's two children: Isaac, the son of his wife and Ishmael, the son of his concubine. Paul states that
The first woman, Hagar, represents Mount Sinai where people received the law that enslaved them.
Right... so Hagar represents Mount Sinai and the law and, symbolically, the Jews who still follow the law. Despite the fact that by Jewish tradition it is Sarah, mother of Isaac, who is the ancestor of the Jews. In short, Paul is just taking a story about a slave woman and a free woman and tearing it away from the original context to make his point.

And people complain when atheists quote from the Bible without, they claim, providing the proper context.

Psalms and Proverbs

Don't hang out with drunkards and gluttons.

17 September 2010

Sep 17

Reference links:
Old Testament

The first part of today's reading consists mostly of a prayer/psalm of praise for God and the judgment he will bring (both good and bad). This text further emphasizes the theme of justice for the downtrodden. Overall, this part of the reading definitely has a number of lines that I can see being brought into modern prayers.

Today's reading also contains what I believe is a fairly well known verse that expresses a sentiment that seems to hark back to the deuteronomic vision of history (the good will prosper and the wicked suffer):
But for those who are righteous,
the way is not steep and rough.
You are a God who does what is right,
and you smooth out the path ahead of them.
As we are well aware by now, this sentiment is in direct contrast with the idea developed elsewhere, especially in Job and the New Testament, that the righteous do sometimes have a "steep and rough" path to tread. I would say that the New Testament authors, especially Paul, sometimes even go so far as to imply that being on the steep and rough path is a sign of righteousness.

After that, we switch back to Isaiah's standard gloom and doom. The message here is that the Lord's anger will serve to purify the Israelites and Jerusalem. Through suffering, their sin will be purged. Both this and the preceding section help me see why many Christians seem so fond of Isaiah. I had been quite confused on this point when Isaiah was mostly going on about the downfall of long gone kingdoms.

Speaking of which, the reading ends with some gloom and doom against Samaria. It does have this highly amusing bit:
What sorrow awaits the proud city of Samaria—
the glorious crown of the drunks of Israel.
What great imagery!

New Testament

Paul continues to describe the hopelessness of
those who depend on the law to make them right with God
Paul then tries to make an argument by quoting several pieces of scripture. As usual, when Paul tries to make an argument instead of just declaring what he believes to be so, it comes across as somewhat incoherent and certainly not convincing. I like Harris's description of Paul's attempt to support his view on faith and the law using the Hebrew scriptures:
In support of his appeal to biblical authority, Paul finds only one additional relevant text, Habakkuk 2:4.
So let's see what Paul has going for him. A verse from a minor prophet and a particular interpretation of Abraham's call by God. From this, he tries to conclude that
The agreement God made with Abraham could not be canceled 430 years later when God gave the law to Moses. God would be breaking his promise. For if the inheritance could be received by keeping the law, then it would not be the result of accepting God’s promise. But God graciously gave it to Abraham as a promise.
Now, it is true that God's promise to Abraham was phrased as unconditional and the promises given with the law of Moses were conditional. However, I do not think that one can conclude from that that the two were incompatible. Certainly, hundreds of years of Jewish thinkers (and, now, thousands of years of Jewish thinkers) do not think the two scenarios as obviously incompatible as Paul wants his readers to think.

As a side note, passages like that which start out today's reading make it very easy to see how the Christian church ended up, for so many years, being anti-semitic.

I wonder what the Jewish believers thought of Paul's letters. It seems that often when Paul refers to the Hebrew scriptures, he is stretching the credulity of one who is familiar with them. I assume it must be even worse for those who are actually knowledgeable about them (such as Jewish scholars).

The converted gentiles, like many (sadly, that probably should be most) modern Christians, would not be familiar enough with the Hebrew scriptures to see how weak Paul's case really is and how much he is picking and choosing to prove his point. (And if you allow yourself to start picking and choosing, you can use the Bible to justify nearly any position.)

Psalms and Proverbs

Nothing of particular note.

16 September 2010

Sep 16

Reference links:
Old Testament

After an an extended prophecy against Jerusalem, we read a prophecy that is, oddly enough, against a specific individual. Isaiah says that Shebna, the palace administrator, will lose his position to Eliakim son of Hilkiah. Both Shebna and Eliakim were mentioned back in the books of Kings. There, Eliakim is the palace administrator and Shebna the court secretary.

This means that, for once, we may have a prophecy that was actually fulfilled (although making predictions about the current political climate can hardly be called prophecy). However, the Lord's hurling away of Shebna seems to have been merely a demotion from palace administrator to court secretary which does not seem as dramatic as Isaiah makes it sound.

This is followed by a long prophecy against Tyre and a prophecy about the destruction of the earth. When the earth is destroyed, God will hand out punishment and rule on Mount Zion.

Now, I know we haven't gotten to Daniel or Revelations yet, but from what little I know of them, this mini-apocalypse of Isaiah seems much more tame. Which is to say, there is nothing which causes me to suspect the author was writing this while on drugs. 

Side musings: Given that most of Isaiah's prophecies did not come true, why were they included in the Bible? Maybe those choosing the canon thought they would still come true. Maybe they thought some of them had come true. Maybe they interpreted the prophecies symbolically.

But maybe something else is going on. Maybe Isaiah was included because of the twist he gave to the story of Israel. Isaiah, in addition to emphasizing the idea of God's justice, also emphasized the idea of God's universality. This was something that had been largely absent from the other writings that were contemporary with Isaiah in subject or composition. Isaiah's vision of a God who punishes all nations, not just the Israelites, was probably a welcome take on the past for those living in a world where the idea of Yahweh as the most powerful tribal God no longer cut it.

Maybe what's important about Isaiah isn't its relationship to actual historical events, it is it's relationship to the evolving Jewish understanding of their God.

New Testament

Paul recounts some of his common themes: the inadequacy of the law for making one right with law, crucifixion of the self, reception of the Holy Spirit through faith, the adoption of believers as children of Abraham.

Psalms and Proverbs

Nothing of particular note.

15 September 2010

Sep 15

Reference links:
Old Testament

Isaiah predicts more doom and gloom. Today mostly about Egypt and Ethiopia and Babylon, plus some ambiguous messages about other places.

The most exciting part of today's reading is the bit where Isaiah wanders around naked to make a point:
In the year when King Sargon of Assyria sent his commander in chief to capture the Philistine city of Ashdod, the Lord told Isaiah son of Amoz, “Take off the burlap you have been wearing, and remove your sandals.” Isaiah did as he was told and walked around naked and barefoot.
Then the Lord said, “My servant Isaiah has been walking around naked and barefoot for the last three years. This is a sign—a symbol of the terrible troubles I will bring upon Egypt and Ethiopia. For the king of Assyria will take away the Egyptians and Ethiopians as prisoners. He will make them walk naked and barefoot, both young and old, their buttocks bared, to the shame of Egypt.
New Testament

Paul's version of his relationship with the folks in Jerusalem is distinctly different from that of Acts. In particular, Paul describes himself as only having briefly interacted with the leadership in Jerusalem until after he has been preaching for 14 years. Acts, on the other hand, made a big deal of how Paul, right after his conversion, met the apostles and then went around with them.

Acts also makes it sound like Barnabas already had an established reputation with the Jerusalem church while Paul implies that Barnabas was accepted by the apostles in Jerusalem later. While some of these discrepancies could be explained by different perspectives, it is hard to accept these two accounts as consistent.

Paul emphasizes his vision of Christianity's independence from Jewish law. Not only was following Jewish law unnecessary for those who had come to believe in Christ it was, in some circumstances, hypocritical. To me, Paul's discussion of the Jewish law in today's reading just serves to emphasize the diversity of early Christianity. In particular,
But when Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong. When he first arrived, he ate with the Gentile Christians, who were not circumcised. But afterward, when some friends of James came, Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision. As a result, other Jewish Christians followed Peter’s hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.
Paul paints this incident as an example of clear hypocrisy and giving in to fear on Peter's, but the fact that so many prominent people followed this alternate view point makes me think the case was not as cut and dry as Paul wants his readers to think. When modern folks talk about getting back to the true roots of Christianity, they should realize that even the early Christians had a diverse set of beliefs.

Psalms and Proverbs

A proverb praising discipline of children, particularly of the physical sort.

14 September 2010

Sep 14

Reference links:
Old Testament

Isaiah prophecies against Moab. Isaiah prophecies against Damascus. Isaiah prophecies against Ethiopia. Erika wonders if she is going to be able to get through Isaiah without losing her mind...

Isaiah's God is a vengeful God. The language of destruction and desolation are repulsive. The violence goes beyond the requirements of justice to the extreme of revenge. These sounds more like the words of Isaiah, the man living in uncertain and fearful times, than any God worthy to be called such.

Also, Eglath-shelishiyah is an awesome place name.

New Testament

We start a new letter today: the letter to the Galatians. According to Harris in Understanding the Bible:
Like the letters to Corinth, this letter to the Galatian churches reflects Paul's ongoing struggle with opponents who challenged his apostolic authority and his "gospel" that believers must live free of the Mosaic Law. An angry declaration of Christianity's independence of Judaism, Galatians vigorously defends Paul's doctrine of salvation through faith. The letter also proclaims Paul's independence of Jerusalem's Christian leadership. 
This uniquely Pauline gospel [that only faith in redemption through Christ can obtain salvation] revolutionized the development of Christianity. By sweeping away all Torah requirements, including circumcision and dietary restrictions, Paul opened the church wide to Gentile converts. 
Paul has a twofold purpose: (1) to prove that he is a true apostle, possessing rights equal to those of the Jerusalem "pillars" and (2) to demonstrate the validity of his gospel that Christian faith replaces works of law, including circumcision.
It is important to remind ourselves just how much these ideas about salvation are uniquely Pauline. Many of the standard ideas of Christianity came from Paul's interpretation of his knowledge of Jesus. Given that the gospels, which were written after Paul's letters, have very little overlap in things like the finer points of salvation, it seems reasonable to assume that in Paul's time and after, there were multiple competing Christian traditions (the difference between the gospel of John and the synoptics presents yet another potential competing tradition).

Although Christians like to look at the Bible as having a unified message, it is important to realize that the authors themselves came from diverse backgrounds and would, most likely, often have disagreed with each other, even if you only consider the authors of the New Testament books.

On to today's content! Paul admonishes the Galatians for following a different gospel than the one he preached (more proof of competing traditions) and defends his authority. Here we see Paul claiming that his authority comes directly from Jesus and is independent of (but approved by) existing authorities.

Psalms and Proverbs
Commit yourself to instruction;
listen carefully to words of knowledge.
Random musings today. People often think they are committing themselves to  knowledge and instruction when, in reality, they are actually only committing themselves to knowledge and instruction that match their preconceived notions.

I have had people reject what I have to say about the Bible just because I am an atheist. That's just dumb. I may be an atheist, but I am also someone who has spent 8.5 months reading and learning about the Bible. I have under my belt what is probably the equivalent of two semesters of Biblical introduction classes. There is a ton I don't know, but I have learned a lot, and it disappoints me when people dismiss what I have to say just because they think they only need to listen to those who share their same conclusions.

13 September 2010

Sep 13

Reference links:
Old Testament

After a little bit of pleasant poetry of praise, we get prophecies about the destruction of Babylon, Assyria, and the Philistines. Now, some might consider those to be properly fulfilled prophecies. So let's be generous for a moment and assume that all the specifics which were not fulfilled were poetic license. In that case, Isaiah was just predicting that kingdom he did not like would fall. Guess what, they did! As has pretty much every kingdom that existed at the time. Kingdoms rose and fell all the time back in those days. In other words, despite all of Isaiah's verbosity, the results come as no surprise to anyone. This is especially true given that there were probably about 200-300 years between the writing of the earliest strata of Isaiah and the fall of Babylon. Even in modern times, a lot of countries have risen and fallen in that amount of time.

New Testament

Paul closes his letter. This statement is interesting:
Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves. Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith.
This verse says, essentially, that if you have doubt, you have failed. I wonder how many people on the edge of losing their belief were pushed further because of this verse.

Psalms and Proverbs

Repeat! We already know not to move boundary stones.

12 September 2010

Sep 12

Reference links:
Old Testament

Isaiah predicted that the Lord would use Assyria to destroy many nations and then he would destroy Assyria. He would cause most of the people of Israel to be killed off. Now, I know it's generally considered an auto-fail to invoke Hitler as an analogy, but one cannot help but be reminded of the Holocaust.

Isaiah then goes on to discuss how the remnant that remained would turn back to God. A "new Branch" will initiate a period of justice and peace. It is from this passage that we get the famous vision in which dangerous creatures coexist peacefully with domesticated ones (such as children and lambs).

This section is generally considered a prophecy yet to be fulfilled because world peace for man and nature obviously hasn't happened yet. Even those Christians that believe Jesus is the "new Branch" mentioned in Isaiah cannot claim that the specific results of that have occurred yet. Combine that with the fact that the prophecy is very geographically limited to the area surrounding Israel, and you can see why religious tension magnifies so much of the political tension in that region today.

New Testament

Paul continues to rant. I continue to not care.

Psalms and Proverbs

Don't eat with stingy people because it's not fun.

11 September 2010

Sep 11

Reference links:
Old Testament

Isaiah, in his chat's with the Lord, decides to write Maher-shalal-hash-baz on a signboard. According to the footnote, that means "swift to plunder and quick to carry away". For some reason, he seems to think this significant that he got two honest men to witness this event. Isaiah the goes on to name his son Maher-shalal-hash-baz as a sign of the impending doom of Damascus and Samaria.

In any case, Isaiah then predicts that Judah will be overwhelmed with a mighty flood, covering the land chin deep. Except for the flood's not really a flood. It's a metaphor for the king of Assyria.

Isaiah has been warned to fear the Lord, but for those of Israel and Judah who do not heed that warning, the Lord
will be a stone that makes people stumble,
a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem
he will be a trap and a snare.
Cheery, ain't it? This is followed by instruction not to consult the dead and then a prophecy of the Messiah.
there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles, which lies along the road that runs between the Jordan and the sea, will be filled with glory.

The people who walk in darkness
will see a great light.
For those who live in a land of deep darkness,
a light will shine.
You will enlarge the nation of Israel,
and its people will rejoice.
They will rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest
and like warriors dividing the plunder.
For you will break the yoke of their slavery
and lift the heavy burden from their shoulders.
You will break the oppressor’s rod,
just as you did when you destroyed the army of Midian.
The boots of the warrior
and the uniforms bloodstained by war
will all be burned.
They will be fuel for the fire.

For a child is born to us,
a son is given to us.
The government will rest on his shoulders.
And he will be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His government and its peace
will never end.
He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David
for all eternity.
The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
will make this happen!
As we probably all know by now, this is considered by Christians to be a prophecy about Jesus. I suppose so, if you take the bit about governing to be metaphorical and ignore the fact that he was not accepted as the Messiah for the Jews. Also, you have to take into account the fact that the authors of the New Testament had reference to the Old Testament and could work their details to fit the specifics of Isaiah's prophecy. But other than that it's completely convincing.

Then a bit more about anger and punishment and all that good stuff.

New Testament

Paul continues his boasting. He shares, with no detail, a vision he had of God where he was taken up to the "third heaven", whatever that is. Paul then goes on about how God's grace works better in his weakness than in strength, so Paul is glad to be weak.

Psalms and Proverbs

Wealth is fleeting, don't wear yourself out trying to get it. 

10 September 2010

Sep 10

Reference links:
Old Testament

We get something a little different today. That's nice.

Isaiah tells of his vision of the Lord. In that message, he is charged with delivering a message with the people. The passage is familiar. The Lord says,
“Yes, go, and say to this people,
'Listen carefully, but do not understand.
Watch closely, but learn nothing.'
Harden the hearts of these people.
Plug their ears and shut their eyes.
That way, they will not see with their eyes,
nor hear with their ears,
nor understand with their hearts
and turn to me for healing.” 
This passage is quoted several times in the New Testament to describe Jesus' reception by the people of his time. A couple observations about this message. Based on the quoting, only the "Listen carefully" line and the one following are what Isaiah is supposed to say to the people. The rest is God's commentary to Isaiah.

In that commentary, it sounds as if God is instructing Isaiah to do what he can to prevent people from understanding. Furthermore, he seems to want to prevent people from turning to him for healing. That seems decidedly at odds with the idea of a loving God.

Next interesting bit is this passage:
Later, the Lord sent this message to King Ahaz: “Ask the Lord your God for a sign of confirmation, Ahaz. Make it as difficult as you want—as high as heaven or as deep as the place of the dead.”
But the king refused. “No,” he said, “I will not test the Lord like that.”
Then Isaiah said, “Listen well, you royal family of David! Isn’t it enough to exhaust human patience? Must you exhaust the patience of my God as well? All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign.
Conventional wisdom is that wanting to test the Lord is bad. That the Lord, being tested, will refuse to submit himself to such human weakness and folly. Such conventional wisdom makes sense to an atheist because people need to somehow validate that God never seems to respond in ways that can be objectively verified.

But this passage provides a counter to such conventional wisdom. Ahaz is admonished for not testing God. Now, one could claim extenuating circumstances (he was, after all, asked to test God). But still, it is an intriguing challenge to conventional wisdom.

Immediately following that is a famous passage. The New Living Translation gives it as this:
All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’).
However, as other translations point out and as Joel M. Hoffman's And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning goes into at length, the word translated as 'virgin' almost certainly did not mean virgin in the original Hebrew. The NET Bible site has side-by-side comparisons of several translations and an informative translators note:
Traditionally, “virgin.” Because this verse from Isaiah is quoted in Matt 1:23 in connection with Jesus’ birth, the Isaiah passage has been regarded since the earliest Christian times as a prophecy of Christ’s virgin birth. Much debate has taken place over the best way to translate this Hebrew term, although ultimately one’s view of the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ is unaffected. Though the Hebrew word used here (עַלְמָה, ’almah) can sometimes refer to a woman who is a virgin (Gen 24:43), it does not carry this meaning inherently. The word is simply the feminine form of the corresponding masculine noun עֶלֶם (’elem, “young man”; cf. 1 Sam 17:56; 20:22). The Aramaic and Ugaritic cognate terms are both used of women who are not virgins. The word seems to pertain to age, not sexual experience, and would normally be translated “young woman.” The LXX translator(s) who later translated the Book of Isaiah into Greek sometime between the second and first century b.c., however, rendered the Hebrew term by the more specific Greek word παρθένος (parqenos), which does mean “virgin” in a technical sense. This is the Greek term that also appears in the citation of Isa 7:14 in Matt 1:23. Therefore, regardless of the meaning of the term in the OT context, in the NT Matthew’s usage of the Greek term παρθένος clearly indicates that from his perspective a virgin birth has taken place.
In short, the author of Matthew quoted a badly translated version, but he didn't know that it was badly translated. The fact that a Biblical author failed to quote the Hebrew Scriptures correctly does, however, discount the plausibility of certain forms of Biblical inspiration.

New Testament

Paul continues ranting without substance. I am sure that he feels very strongly about what he is saying, but it sure does not give me much to say.

I do find this bit at the end interesting:
When I was in Damascus, the governor under King Aretas kept guards at the city gates to catch me. I had to be lowered in a basket through a window in the city wall to escape from him.
This is interesting because there seems to be a discrepancy between this version of Paul's story and the version told in Acts.
After a while some of the Jews plotted together to kill him. They were watching for him day and night at the city gate so they could murder him, but Saul was told about their plot. So during the night, some of the other believers lowered him in a large basket through an opening in the city wall.
It could be that Paul was escaping from both the governor and the Jews, but it seems odd that neither passage mentioned both groups.

Psalms and Proverbs

Kings' dinners cannot be trusted.

09 September 2010

Sep 9

Reference links:
Old Testament

Isaiah continues on about the sins of Israel and the punishments that will be brought upon Jerusalem. There are some interesting metaphors, including one comparing Jerusalem to a woman who has her beauty stripped away and another comparing Israel to a vineyard which only yields bitter grapes.

However, it seems to me that what is most interesting is how generic this prophecy is so far. This is pretty much a generic prediction of punishment. Especially once you go down the road of interpret metaphorically, it could apply to almost any country or city that has fallen. Examples like this are why non-believers are unimpressed by arguments from fulfilled prophecy. For reference, here are some criteria for what would make a good prophecy as determined by Richard Carrier in Sense and Goodness Without God and stated by Luke at Common Sense Atheism:
  1. The prophetic text clearly envisions the sort of event alleged to be the fulfillment. (The prediction should not be so vague that a wide range of events would “fit” the prediction.)
  2. The prophecy was made well in advance of the event predicted.
  3. The event actually happened.
  4. The event predicted could not have been staged by mere humans.
  5. The event should be so unusual that its apparent fulfillment could not be explained as a good guess, and could not have been inevitable.
  6. The source of the prophecy should not have been edited to produce a selection bias. (That is, we should be fairly confident that compilers didn’t just make a hundred predictions and throw away their 99 documents which made false predictions and keep the one that came true.)
By these criteria, Isaiah clearly fails to provide a convincing prophecy. So far in Isaiah, (1) clearly does not hold. We do not have data to judge on (2) and (3). Isaiah's prophecies, if they came true, probably would fulfill (4). Countries rise and fall relatively frequently, especially in the ancient world, so no points on (5). Since we know Isaiah was edited, we can not judge either way on (6).

Of course, it could be unfair to interpret this as prophecy as all. Maybe Isaiah actually intended this to be a rhetorical warning about all that would happen if the people of Israel failed to follow the ways of God. That makes the passage more reasonable, but, in a way, less interesting. It becomes little more than rhetoric. Good fiery rhetoric, but rhetoric all the same.

New Testament

Paul talks about false apostles or, as my translation would have it "super apostles". What a great phrase! Super apostles! You can almost hear the fanfare and the cheers.

I find it interesting that, in today's reading at least, Paul makes no attempt to convince the readers why these apostles are false. He seems to take it as good enough that they preach a message he considers incorrect. Paul could provide reasoning showing why his preaching is right and theirs is wrong. Instead, he just states that they are deceitful and wicked. This is just an argument from authority, and such arguments are fallacious.

Psalms and Proverbs

Don't move ancient boundary markers. I know you're thinking about it. But don't do it. It's bad. Also, competent workers will rise to high positions.

08 September 2010

Sep 8

Reference links:
Old Testament

We start Isaiah today. It's been hard reading up on background on a new book everyday, but fortunately Isaiah, at 66 chapters, will last us awhile. We may even end up having to review background info!

Harris's Understanding the Bible has this to say about the composition of the book:
Although traditionally regarded as the work of a single prophet, scholars believe that the Book of Isaiah is an anthology of prophetic literature that spans almost the entire era of Israelite prophecy, from the mid-eight to the early fifth century BCE. Most scholars divide the book into three different parts, each representing a different historical period and a different author.
Scholars have long wondered what principle guided ancient biblical editors when they combined the work of three different prophets from three different periods of Israel's history onto a single scroll. Some recent commentators suggest that the editors wished to illustrate the entire spectrum of Israelite prophecy in a book that they placed at the head of the prophetic collection. In its edited form, the Book of Isaiah represents and incorporates the three principal themes or concerns of Israel's prophets: warnings of divine judgment, promises of forgiveness and reconciliation, and responsibilities of restoration. ... The book as a whole thus served as a pattern or model for future generations, illustrating the nature and consequences of covenant-breaking, as well as the willingness of Israel's God to save and redeem a repentant people.
Let's just cover the first part for tonight:
Most of Isaiah's genuine sayings, embedded amid later prophetic and editorial additions, express advice to Davidic kings during the Assyrian threat and warning of judgment against Judah for its sins.
Harris reminds us of the historical context of this part of Isaiah. The historical Isaiah was active during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.  Assyria was powerful. They had taken over much of the region. During Isaiah's lifetime, Assyria would conquer the kingdom of Israel.

And that's probably enough for now. On to today's reading! Since it's poetry, there's a pretty low content to word ratio, but I am okay with that. ;-)

The content in the first chapter of today's reading boils down to this: the people of Israel/Judah/Jerusalem have rebelled against God. They live sinful lives and disgust God by donning the clothing of tradition without following its deeper meaning. Isaiah says that the people should:
Learn to do good.
Seek justice.
Help the oppressed.
Defend the cause of orphans.
Fight for the rights of widows.
If the people turn to God and live righteously, he will make them clean again.

The second chapter presents a vision of future judgment and world peace.

New Testament

Paul defends himself and his authority.

Psalms and Proverbs

Another proverb about not securing other people's debts.

07 September 2010

Why is an ultimate meaning meaningful anyway?

Everyone wants their life to have meaning. That much is obvious. 

Or is it? I suspect that a lot of what people mean when they say that they want their life to have meaning is that they do not want to end up with regrets: regrets about what they did or did not do; regrets about having wasted time; regrets that they did not fulfill their potential.

The search for meaning then, is the search for ways to minimize the chance of regrets. But having found an awesome meaning, there is still the chance that you may eventually come to see it as worthless. You may realize that it is wrong. You may realize that it has no worth. You may just get tired of it.

It seems the only way to defend against this fear is to find your One True Meaning. Your absolute meaning. But one of the terrifying things about a world without God is that there is no absolute meaning. Every meaning is relative to some context: yourself, your culture, our world. 

But even if we could figure out an absolute meaning, is it really that great? Consider this thought experiment. An all knowing computer, one that can be said to have the best interests of yourself and all of humanity in mind, gives you your life's purpose. Would you suddenly be satisfied?

Personally, while I would not reject the meaning from this omniscient being, I would not accept it just because that being was omniscient. A meaning from outside of yourself is not your own meaning until you choose to internalize it and make it home. 

Now, I know some people will counter that their God is not only all knowing. Their God is loving. Their God is Love. But so what. The hypothetical meaning provided by God is still a meaning from outside of yourself.

Even for an absolute meaning, if you have to internalize it before it actually becomes, well, meaningful to you, then there is always the chance that it could lose its significance, like any meaning of your own manufacture. Yes, it might be the right meaning for you. It may be the meaning that brings you the most happiness, but really the fact that some all knowing being gave it to you does not make it any more significant than any meaning you found on your own; it just shortcuts the evaluation process. 

In short, I don't think that "all is meaningless" is necessarily a negative conclusion. It is better to acknowledge now that permanent satisfaction cannot be grasped, that even the best of meanings can become meaningless, than to have it hit you full force when that satisfaction is lost.

The meaning of meaning

I promised some thoughts on Ecclesiastes and the idea of everything being meaningless. I now present them to you.

First, let's look at the way different translations deal with what was, in the New Living Translation, communicated as "meaningless". We will take Ecclesiastes 1:2 which lays out this idea. Here's what we get from our comparisons:
  • NET: "Futile! Futile!” laments the Teacher, “Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!
  • NIV: "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless."
  • NLT: "Everything is meaningless," says the Teacher, "utterly meaningless!"
  • BBE: All is to no purpose, said the Preacher, all the ways of man are to no purpose.
  • NASB: "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity."
  • NRSV: Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
  • NKJV: "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher; "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."
  • MSG: Smoke, nothing but smoke. [[That's what the Quester says.]] There's nothing to anything--it's all smoke.
These varied translations make it clear that the idea being conveyed in the Hebrew is more complicated any of those words convey. There are subtleties of meaning. All of the aspects above are, so it would seem, present, but none of them alone captures the essence. That same page also has this translation footnote (passage references removed for brevity):
The noun הֶבֶל is the key word in Ecclesiastes. The root is used in two ways in the OT, literally and figuratively. The literal, concrete sense is used in reference to the wind, man’s transitory breath, evanescent vapor. In this sense, it is often a synonym for “breath” or “wind”. The literal sense lent itself to metaphorical senses: (1) breath/vapor/wind is nonphysical, evanescent, and lacks concrete substance thus, the connotation “unsubstantial”, “profitless” or “fruitless”, “worthless”, “pointless”, “futile”, (2) breath/vapor/wind is transitory and fleeting – thus, the connotation “fleeting” or “transitory” and (3) breath/vapor/wind cannot be seen thus, the idea of “obscure,” “dark,” “difficult to understand,” “enigmatic”.
I bring this up to point out that, while "meaningless" is a perfectly acceptable translation, it seems to me the author is really trying to emphasize that everything is impermanent. The world is ever changing. Everything you work for in this world will someday be gone. It is futile to grasp it, to try to hold it in place.

Another aspect of this is that the world is uncertain. The future, like the wind, cannot be controlled. Attempts to control the future will result in failure and unhappiness. We do not know which way the wind will blow, so we should not make plans that depend on it behaving in the way we wish.

So where does that leave us. Everything is transitory, uncertain, changing, you could even say meaningless (in so far as meaning implies some sort of absoluteness and stability). But joy can still be found in the present moment. There is joy in what life is even if that is disappearing even as you enjoy it. But that joy comes from seeing things as they are, not as they could be.

When looked at this way, the message of Ecclesiastes is no longer that life is meaningless, in the sense that there it has no value and is not worth living. Instead, the message is much more akin to Buddhist ideas of impermanence and mindfulness. While still not satisfying to those who want their lives to have some sort of fixed cosmic meaning, this interpretation of Ecclesiastes presents its message as liberating rather than depressing.