25 November 2010

Nov 25

Reference links:
Old Testament

Happy Thanksgiving for those of you in the US! Today I am thankful that we finally finished Ezekiel (and many, many more non-Bible related things).

Today we start the book of Daniel. Let's see what Understanding The Bible has to say about it (from the introduction to apocalyptic literature as well as the section on Daniel).

First off, it's an apocalypse:
As a literary category, an apocalypse is a written description of dimensions or events ordinarily closed to human view, such as the invisible realm of heaven or the future course of history. In the Hebrew Bible, only Daniel is a fully apocalyptic work, although there are apocalyptic elements in [other books of the Hebrew Bible]. ... 
Unique as it appears to some readers, Daniel belongs to a long literary tradition that produced many similar apocalyptic works. ...
Apocalyptic literature typically is concerned with eschatology -- speculations about "last things." ... The belief that people will experience an afterlife, typically through resurrection of the body, is a by-product of the  apocalyptic movement
Harris also points out that pseudonymous books became more prevalent after the time of Ezra since the age of prophecy was considered to have ended at that time. Daniel is a pseudonymous work:
Pseudonymity was a device that allowed apocalyptic writers, such as the author of Daniel, to review past history as if it were prophecy and then to predict the imminent outcome of the issue or crisis that had inspired the work. While such practices today might be regarded as dishonest or fraudulent, in the Hellenistic world both Jewish and Greco-Roman authors commonly wrote pseudonymously to honor an ancient luminary, presenting what they believed would be his views were he still alive. Some New Testament writers, presumably with no thought of forgery, penned sermons or epistles in the name of apostles such as Peter or Paul. 
The Book of Daniel is attributed to Daniel who is described as
A devout Jew serving a foreign government, [he] becomes one of several Jewish trainees whom King Nebuchadnezzar selects to be educated in a Babylonian wisdom school. ... Although earlier biblical writers had warned against practicing the mantic arts -- interpreting omens, portents, and dreams, and forecasting future events -- the author of Daniel implicitly identifies his central character with the professional class of of Babylonian wise men. 
Harris then goes on to point out and discuss a number of characteristics of apocalyptic writing including their concern with all nations, not just Israel; their view of the parallel worlds of matter and spirit; their division of history into the imperfect present and a future age of perfection; their insistence that people are either good or evil, with no in between; their belief in predestination; their emphasis on believers being saved to the exclusion of all others; their lack of tolerance for competing beliefs; their belief in a violent God; their preoccupation with the afterlife and what happens after death; and their use of mythical and symbolic language.

On the date of Daniel's composition, our reference has this to say,
The Book of Daniel purportedly was written during the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century BCE when its author was successively a member of the Babylonian, Median, and Persian courts. But scrupulous examination of the text reveals that it was composed centuries later, between 167 and 164 BCE when the Jews were suffering intense persecution by the Macedonian-Syrian ruler Antiochus IV. It is chronologically the latest-written book in the canonical Hebrew Bible. This fact, together with its striking differences in form and style from the prophetic books, may explain why Tanakh editors did not include it among the Prophets but instead placed it amongst the Writings. Daniel is not a typically prophetic work but seems a deliberately literary creation whose main character embodies and reflects the long tradition of Israel's sacred literature.
And that's probably enough background. I suspect I am not going to be particularly fond of Daniel but it should be interesting. On to today's reading!

This story gets off to a good start. The king of Babylon decides to choose from the men brought from Jerusalem strong, smart, healthy, good looking men to be trained in the the ways of Babylonian wisdom. The king's emphasis on strong and good looking men did make me wonder for a moment if we were going to be embarking on a different sort of literary journey, if you know what I mean.

In any case, Daniel and several others are trained up in the ways of Babylonian wisdom. I imagine that Ezekiel would scoff at such a thing being considered an honor. Daniel and his friends avoid defiling themselves by getting special permission to be fed only vegetables and water.

Over time, Daniel and friends are trained and join the ranks of Babylon's wise men. This may seem like a good thing, and may well have been, but, eventually, this role becomes problematic. The king has a disturbing dream and asks his astrologers to interpret it. But he wants to know that their interpretations are true, so he also asks them to state the nature of the dream. The king figures that a true wise man could see the dream as well as interpret it.

However, the king's astrologers could not do that and so he ordered that all of the wise men of Babylon be killed. This, in my opinion, was rather stupid of him. Why spend all that time training up wise men if you're going to kill all of them when they fail you even once? In any case, Daniel and friends pray that God will reveal the king's dream to them so that they can be spared.

In many ways, this story seems to allude to the story of Joseph: a man is raised from captivity to become a wise man and interpreter of dreams. In the process, he receives special treatments from those who are to oversee him. Obviously, there are many differences, so this is not a straight reinterpretation of the Babylon story, but it seems that the reader is meant to be reminded of Joseph and the idea of God's giving prosperity to his chosen people in a strange land.

New Testament

Some confusing stuff in today's reading, especially for someone who is stuffed and thus not thinking at her best.

The reading starts off straight forward: believers are encouraged to sympathize with and love each other. They should keep from speaking evil and do good. It then goes on to discuss how it is good to suffer if that suffering is for Christ because Christ also suffered. This attitude toward suffering seems to be summed up in this statement:
So then, since Christ suffered physical pain, you must arm yourselves with the same attitude he had, and be ready to suffer, too. For if you have suffered physically for Christ, you have finished with sin.
I read this whole discussion not as saying that Christians must or should suffer for their faith or even that it is particularly virtuous to suffer. Rather, I read it as saying that if they do suffer, then they should take on the attitude taken on by Christ and, by doing so, will learn much.

In any case, in the midst of this, we have the confusing passage I referred to. Maybe it will make sense when my brain is on, but for now I am befuddled.
So [Christ (upon suffering a physical death?)] went and preached to the spirits in prison— those who disobeyed God long ago when God waited patiently while Noah was building his boat. Only eight people were saved from drowning in that terrible flood. And that water is a picture of baptism, which now saves you, not by removing dirt from your body, but as a response to God from a clean conscience. It is effective because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
First part, Christ went and preached to someone. It seems that this someone are the people who did not make it on the ark. The people, other than Noah and his family, who in that story caused God to decide to murder nearly all of humanity. That part is kind of confusing. Even more confusing, is the comparison of the flood to baptism. Did the flood baptize the survivors (Noah and family) or did it baptize those who had been sinners and did not make it? I haven't the foggiest.

In any case, the authors tells believers they should be finished with sin, as mentioned above, and live a good life. This may surprise some of their former associates, but they will have to face God for their own actions just as believers will have to face God for their actions.

Psalms and Proverbs

Today it is the stubborn who are destined for trouble while those who fear to do wrong are blessed.