30 November 2010

Nov 30

Reference links:
Old Testament

Now the Book of Daniel is starting to read more like an apocalypse. We step back in time slightly to a vision Daniel has during the reign of King Belshazzar (the "writing on the wall" guy). In this vision, Daniel  sees four strange beast. The fourth was most terrible of all. This fourth beast had 10 horns; another horn later replaced three of those ten. The new horn had eyes and a mouth and boasted. I will agree with Daniel in declaring that to be one freaky horn. In any case, the beasts eventually have their authority taken away and the horned beast is destroyed. A son of man is then given sovereignty over all nations.

Fortunately for us, Daniel asks a random person what the dream means and that person is able to explain it. The beasts represent different kingdoms. The fourth beast represents a particularly oppressive and destructive kingdom. The horns represent the rulers of that empire. Eventually, this kingdom will be judged and destroyed, and the sovereignty and power of the world's kingdoms will be given to God's holy people (presumably the Israelites in the view of the original author and Christian believers in the view of modern Christians). This kingdom will last forever.

That was weird but, at least, rather amusing.

New Testament

New book! What does Harris have to say?
An important tract directed against secessionists from the Johannine community, 1 John establishes a set of criteria by which to distinguish true belief from error.
Criteria for determining truth is good. It would be nice if these ended up being decent criteria, but I am not going to hold my breath. The discussion of the authorship of this epistle gives insight both into these letters and into the gospel attributed to the apostle John:
Most scholars believe that the same person wrote all three [epistles of John] but that he is not to be identified with either the apostle John or the author of the Gospel. Although some critics link him with the editor who added Chapter 21 to the Gospel, most commentators view the letter writer as a separate party, albeit an influential member of the Johannine "brotherhood". The majority of scholars date the letters to about 100-110 CE, a decade or two after the Gospel's composition.
We also learn that apparently the author of this book was another who believed that the activities he observed indicated the nearness of the end of time.

The book opens with a proclamation that the author and his fellow believers saw and touched Jesus who existed with God before he was revealed to the believers. After that the author claims that God is light, believers should live in the light, Jesus' blood cleanses sin, and everyone has sin which must be confessed.

Psalms and Proverbs

Honest criticism is declared to be be better than flattery, in the end. That last bit is important since people generally seem to resent honest criticism at the time. Also, stealing from your parents makes you no better than a murderer; I am not sure I would go that far, but it certainly makes you a very very bad person.

29 November 2010

Nov 29

Reference links:
Old Testament

Daniel rises high in the administration of the conquerer, Darius the Mede. This causes others to be jealous of him, and they decide to use Daniel's religion as a snare. They get the king, who seems to be as unthinking as the king in Esther, that anyone who prays to anyone or anything other than the king in the next 30 days should be thrown into the den of lions. One wonders if ancient kings were really that "yeah, sure, whatever" about signing laws. Or that the king would not have noticed that one of his favorites, Daniel, regularly prayed to a deity; these officials noticed it, so Daniel was obviously not keeping it a secret.

In any case, Daniel defies the law and is caught. Again, as in Esther, the law cannot be revoked. The king reluctantly gives Daniel to the lions, but Daniel, of course, is miraculously saved. The king gets his revenge by having the men who plotted against Daniel, along with their wives and children, thrown into the den of lions. That's a rather unfair punishment. Maybe, just maybe, killing the plotters can be justified (better to just strip them of their positions, in my opinion), but killing their families is cruel.

The upshot of this is that Darius, like Nebuchadnezzar before him, declares Daniel's God to be totally awesome. Daniel continued to prosper.

New Testament

We finish 2 Peter today. The author declares that in the last days, people will scoff at those who believe that Jesus is returning. The author also revisits the Hebrew idea of the primordial waters out from which the earth was brought. Does he he really believe that cosmology or is he referring to it symbolically?

The author then gives the ultimate cop out for Jesus' tardiness in returning: God's time is not our time. Now, if that had been a consistent message, I would not call it a cop out. However, previous authors who referred to the nearness of the end times sure sounded pretty convinced that when they said (or, if you'd like, were inspired to say) that the end times were near, they meant near in human terms. In any case, the longer God waits, the more people will be saved. But the "give people more time to be saved argument" is rather weak when you consider that birth and death are constantly renewing the population.

The author of 2 Peter also seems to look forward to the destruction of everything. In the meantime, the believers should live peaceful lives. He closes by warning people not be get carried away by erroneous beliefs.

Psalms and Proverbs

Today's second proverb is fairly straight forward:
Greedy people try to get rich quick
but don’t realize they’re headed for poverty.
But the first proverb is one where I cannot quite figure out how the first and the second part are supposed to relate to each other:
Showing partiality is never good,
yet some will do wrong for a mere piece of bread. 

28 November 2010

Nov 28

Reference links:
Old Testament

Today's reading is a great story!

A new king reigns. King Belshazzar has taken over the kingdom from his father and feasts with his nobles, wives, and concubines. At one feast, he chooses to drink from the cups that his father took from the Jerusalem temple. As Belshazzar and his court do so, a mysterious hand starts to write on the wall.

Fearful and trembling, Belshazzar calls his wise men and astrologers, but none of them can tell him what it means. Fortunately, the king's mother remembers Daniel's wisdom. Daniel comes, rejects the king's offer of gifts (which he later ends up accepting), and interprets the message. The king has dishonored the true God in favor of idols. His days are numbered and his kingdom will be divided. That night, Belshazzar is killed and his kingdom conquered by Darius the Mede.

Note that historians have not been able to identify a period of Mede rule over Babylon (in fact, there are strong reasons to doubt it), and the conquerer, Darius the Mede, is unknown. This is considered further support for this being historical fiction rather than history.

New Testament

The author of 2 Peter is not a big fan of legitimate disagreement. In his view, there seem to be people who are right and people who are knowingly deceiving others. Today's reading is all about how evil and terrible false teachers are. Now, there are false teachers in this world (I personally believe Christians are among them), but I see no need to demonize them. Teach people critical thinking skills and let the true teachers and the false teachers be separated based on evaluation of the truth of their teachings.

But I suppose by that criteria, the so called true teachers of religion would be indistinguishable from the false ones.

Psalms and Proverbs

Today's proverbs praise hard work and honesty.

27 November 2010

Nov 27

Reference links:
Old Testament

Today's reading starts with a the interpreting of a new dream. This is conveyed to the read in the form of a letter Nebuchadnezzar sent to "the people of every race and nation and language throughout the world." This letter praises the God of Daniel and, perhaps more shockingly for a king, advertises Nebuchadnezzar's personal fright and terror and insanity. Such a setup rather defies belief, lending further support to the idea that this is fiction.

The retelling also hints that the author of this story may have thought the world was flat: Nebuchadnezzar's dream involved a very large tree growing in the middle of the earth which reached high to the heavens.

In any case, Daniel interprets the dream of the tree, which is cut down, as the cutting down of Nebuchadnezzar's glory and his subsequent suffering. Not much later, this comes true and, for reasons unspecified, Nebuchadnezzar is claimed to have been driven from human society for "seven periods of time."

After this, the king is restored to sanity, and he praises and worships the Most High (presumably the God of Daniel). Upon regaining his sanity, he wins back his kingdom. Really now? The king runs off in his insanity for a long enough period for her hair and nails to become long, and he just gets his kingdom back when he becomes sane again. My suspension of disbelief is strained, even for fiction.

In anycase, that ends today's reading.

New Testament

New book! We're just plowing through them now (not surprising given that we only have 35 more days to go). Let's see what Understanding The Bible has to say about 2 Peter:
Incorporating most of Jude into his second chapter, a second-century Christian writing in Peter's name attacks false teachers and urges a return to the apocalyptic hope of apostolic times. Explaining the delayed Parousia as God's means of allowing more people to repent, the author outlines the "three worlds" of apocalyptic history.
Well, that's not particularly clarifying. Let's see what else Harris has to say. On authorship and date of composition:
Only a few reputable New Testament scholars defend the Petrine authorship of 2 Peter, which is believed to have been written by an anonymous churchman in Rome about 140-150 CE. The book's late date is confirmed by (1) the fact that it incorporates most of Jude, itself a second-century work; (2) its references to Paul's letters as "Scripture", a status they did not attain until the mid-second century; and (3) its concern with the delayed Parousia, which would not have been a problem for believers until after the apostolic generation. In addition, many leaders of the early church doubted 2 Peter's authorship, resulting in the epistle's absence from most lists of "approved" books well into the fourth century. Not only was 2 Peter one of the last works to gain entrance into the New Testament, but scholars believe that it was the last (eventually canonized) book written.
With as much certainty as one can have with history, it sounds like this book was not written by the apostle Peter, despite the author's efforts to try to establish himself as the apostle.

Topically, once the author has opened the letter and established his credentials, the book will deal with the destruction of the universe and why the second coming has been delayed.

On to today's reading!

Today's reading encourages the believers to live moral, loving lives. This will bring them greater knowledge of Jesus and prove that they are among the chosen. The believers are then instructed to pay attention to the teachings thy have received. To emphasize the importance of his teachings, the author attempts to strengthen his credentials by claiming that he was there when God declared, "This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy." The problem is, the very thing that makes this an example likely to be recognized by his readers (the fact that this incident, presumably, widely known) is exactly what makes it unconvincing as proof that the author was there.

In any case, the author then goes on to emphasize that the words of the prophets came to them when they were moved by the Holy Spirit, and should be given the authority appropriate to such holy origins.

Psalms and Proverbs

Nothing of particular note.

26 November 2010

Nov 26

Reference links:
Old Testament

Today our heroes go from near death to triumph and back around again.

Daniel correctly sees Nebuchadnezzar's dream. The king has dreamed of a statue whose body parts degrade from gold at the top to a mix of iron and clay at the bottom. This represents the declining value and (until the iron and clay mix) decreasing mix of Babylon and the kingdoms that follow it. The final kingdom is hit by a stone from God and the whole statue comes tumbling down. This, according to Daniel, represents God's eventual destruction of these kingdoms with an everlasting kingdom of God. Many times since this dream became scripture, people have tried to show that they were living in the last kingdom and God's kingdom would soon appear. Time and time again, they have been wrong.

This success causes the king to richly reward Daniel, and Daniel uses his new found favor to elevate his friends. However, his friends run into trouble when they refuse to bow down and worship a golden statue of King Nebuchadnezzar. The king orders them thrown into a fire, but they are protected by an angel and come out alive. Based on this, the king decides that their God is awesome, promotes the men, and orders everyone to respect their God.

I do enjoy a good story, and so far the Book of Daniel is turning out to be exactly that.

New Testament

Today's reading starts out with a clear statement of the author's belief that the end times were coming soon:
The end of the world is coming soon. Therefore, be earnest and disciplined in your prayers.
Funny how that hasn't worked out so well. The standard excuse for this is that the end is soon in God's time, not human time. However, one would think that such a caveat would have been mentioned here. Otherwise, a book written by a human author (even if he were inspired) for a human audience would obviously be interpreted as a reasonably human definition of soon (less than thousands of years). Or, perhaps, the inspired author misinterpreted the message given to him, but that opens up a whole host of other problems for believers.

In any case, because the end times are near, people should love and help each other and use their spiritual gifts to serve one another. They should be glad at the suffering they experience for being a Christian (but they should make certain that they are suffering for that and not for doing evil).

The author then describes how elders should care for their flock and young men should obey their elders in the church (an idea so prone to abuse, as we have seen in our own times). People should be humble and watch out for the traps of the devil.

Finally, today's reading with the closing passages of the letter.

Psalms and Proverbs

Proverbs about wicked rulers.

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.

24 November 2010

Nov 24

Reference links:
Old Testament

After all this time (three and a half weeks), we finally finish Ezekiel. It had some good parts, but I cannot say I am going to miss it.

The vision of the restored temple ends with a description of a river that runs through. That river runs from the temple to the Dead Sea and gets deeper along its length. The river will restore life to the Dead Sea and it will become a thriving oasis teaming with life.

The Lord then tells Ezekiel of the new borders of the 12 tribes within the land of Israel. These differ from the traditional borders given back in Numbers.

The river and the borders of the 12 tribes make me think that this whole vision is not meant to be read of a temple that is restored in the course of normal history. Most of the 12 tribes were effectively lost after the destruction of Israel and Samaria, and rivers do not just pop out of nowhere. This, along with the vague descriptions of a future prince, make me think this whole vision is not to be taken literally. That said, I am not sure how it should be taken. Perhaps this is an example of mysticism in Ezekiel.

After that the book ends rather abruptly with a description of some city gates. If I did not already know that we were starting Daniel tomorrow, I would have been quite surprised when we started reading it.

New Testament

The author emphasizes that believers are just visitors in this world. As such, they should live proper lives and be honorable in their behavior.

He then goes states that believers should respect all human authority; oh, many are the things that I shall resist mentioning here. The honorable lives of believers should be enough to silence their accusers. Disobedience, it is implied, would only give those accusers fodder.

In kind, slaves are commanded to submit to their masters, even if their masters are cruel. As usual, I find such commands morally despicable. The author attempts to justify this unjustifiable command by quoting what seems to be a hymn about Jesus' suffering.

This is followed by instructions for wives which are annoying, as usual. However, the version in 1 Peter is slightly less annoying than some instances (e.g., the Pastorals), and the emphasis on internal beauty instead of external beauty is fairly nice. The instructions to husbands which follow also do better than most similar pairings.

Psalms and Proverbs

Today's proverb claims that everyone enjoys the success of the godly. Nice in theory, but in practice, I think jealously often dampens that enjoyment.

The second proverb says that confessing since will lead to mercy and prosperity.

23 November 2010

Nov 23

Reference links:
Old Testament

Fascinating. Apparently in Ezekiel's version of the law, the gifts given by the people go to the princes, not to the priests (or in addition to the priests?). The prince, in turn, in required to provide the sacrifices for particular observances. This seems like a dramatic change from the administrative structure laid out in Mosaic law.

Ezekiel provides an update of the ceremonies that are to be observed and the prince's role in those ceremonies. All of this is, not surprisingly, about as unexciting as it was when we read similar instructions in the Mosaic law.

Ezekiel also specifies that the land owned by the prince must be given back to him in Jubilee years. I wonder if that is meant to clarify that the prince's land is also subject to these laws or if it is meant to imply that now, in the restored Israel Ezekiel describes, the returning of land only applies to the prince's land. In any case, the prince can only give away his own land and cannot steal the land of others.

We end today's reading with a brief tour of the temple kitchens.

New Testament

Today's reading is a grab bag.

Warnings to the believers not to slip back into their old ways.  People will be judged or rewarded according to what they do; this could probably be made to tie in with the discussion of faith and works in James. Jesus was the ransom God paid to save believers; still no attempt at explaining why this was necessary. More statements implying the author lives in the last days.

Love each other. Get rid of evil behavior. Believers should crave spiritual milk; this reminds me of Paul's claim that the recipients of his letter were ready for nothing more than milk. Believers are the stones that make up God's living temple and Jesus is the cornerstone. Believers should show others the goodness of God.

Psalms and Proverbs

James, in his criticism of the rich, would have liked this proverb:
Rich people may think they are wise,
but a poor person with discernment can see right through them.

22 November 2010

Nov 22

Reference links:
Old Testament

First off, we get a little more info about the temple:

  • it's east gate must never be used because that is where God's glory entered
  • no foreigners will be allowed in it unless they have been circumcised and have surrendered themselves to the Lord
  • it will be set on a piece of larger land dedicated to the Lord; at the end of today's reading, we get a detailed description of that land.
We also read that most of the Levites are no longer allowed to be priests because they led Israel to worship idols. Only the descendants of Zadok may have that honor. They must wear special linen clothing that can only be worn in the inner courtyard. So that
they do not endanger anyone by transmitting holiness to them through this clothing.

I had not realized that holiness was a dangerous thing to transmit.

These priests will act as judges over the people, must avoid the dead unless one of their close family members have died, and will not own any property. Instead, the priests are to be provided for by the people. (If I commented on current events, I might here express surprise that Glenn Beck and the Tea Party types have not seized upon this as proof that the Bible is socialistic. Oh wait, no I wouldn't; we all know they selectively interpret the world around them.)

After this, we read about the allocation of the holy parcel of land that I mentioned above. One interesting aspect of this is that land is given to the rulers so that they do not have to oppress the people. These princes are, furthermore, told to treat the people fairly.

Not a super interesting day, but definitely better than what we have been getting.

New Testament

New book! We start 1 Peter today. Let's see what Harris has to say about it.
Often compared to a baptismal sermon, 1 Peter reminds Christians of their unique privileges and ethical responsibilities.
... The majority of scholars agree that 1 Peter, like James and the pastoral epistles, is pseudonymous, the work of a later Christian writing in Peter's name. The consensus is based on several factors, ranging from the elegant Greek style in which the epistle is composed to the particular social circumstances it describes. As an Aramaic-speaking Galilean fisherman who had little formal education, the historical Peter seems unlikely to have produced the work's exceptionally fine Greek. Critics defending Peter's authorship note that the epistle was written "through Silvanus", perhaps the same Silvanus who accompanied Paul on some of his missionary travels and who was presumably skilled in preaching to Hellenistic audiences. According to the minority, Silvanus acts as Peter's secretary, transforming his Aramaic dictation into sophisticated Greek.
Regarding the argument that Peter used a highly literate secretary as unverifiable, most scholars conclude that too many other factors combine to cast doubt on Peter's authorship. If Peter -- a member of Jesus' inner circle -- was the author, why does he not reveal personal knowledge of Jesus' teachings, as an apostle would do? ...
A date after 70 CE is indicated because the author writes "from her who dwells in Babylon". "Babylon" became the Christian code name for Rome after Titus destroyed Jerusalem, thus duplicating the Babylonians demolition of the holy city.  
I am guessing a reminder of the unique privileges and ethical responsibilities of Christians will not be that interesting to a non-believer. Let's move on to today's reading and see!

So far, nothing super interesting. After a greeting, the author, who claims to be Peter (presumably, the apostle), praises God . The author assures the believers that they will someday be rewarded for the ordeals and trials they must now suffer. The believers will be rewarded for trusting Jesus even though they could not see him. Finally, today's reading ends with a reference to the prophets of the past.

Psalms and Proverbs

This proverb confuses me:
Income from charging high interest rates
will end up in the pocket of someone who is kind to the poor.
Is it saying that those who charge high interest rates will lose their money to those who are kind to the poor? Is it saying that people who charge high interests do (or should?) be kind to the poor? Is it saying something else entirely? I have no idea.

Alternate translations imply that the person who will end up with the money is not the same as the person who gathers it, but it is still unclear by what means the money will transfer hands. The paraphrase from The Message seems to make the most sense, but that translation is highly interpretive, so I don't know that I can trust it to convey original intent.
Get as rich as you want through cheating and extortion, But eventually some friend of the poor is going to give it all back to them.
Our second proverb is another that Paul might have had a problem with:
God detests the prayers
of a person who ignores the law.
And the third proverbs is a simple, pleasant, and, in this life at least, untrue one about those who do good and evil:
Those who lead good people along an evil path
will fall into their own trap,
but the honest will inherit good things.

Making your case Biblically

What standards do believers have for making a Biblical case? Reading the Bible only reinforces my impression that the Bible can be used to justify many different (and contradicting) theological opinions.

A friend of mine once said that if there was even one verse in the Bible that supported a position, then that was sufficient support for that position. But by that standard, you could justify nearly anything. Certainly, as I pointed out to my friend, if one verse makes a sufficient case, then you could easily amass enough verses to make a very strong case for slavery. You can also justify contradicting positions until the cows come home. (A particularly annoying subset of these easy justifiers are those who argue that if you disagree with their type of Christianity, you are no better than a pagan.)

Other people go to the opposite extreme and say nothing but the most general themes can be taken from the Bible. If something is not a theme throughout the whole thing (or, at least, throughout the whole NT, for Christians), then it cannot be taken as an absolute. This, in some ways, is the more honest position, but it rather leaves a lot on the floor.

So I ask the believers, what are your standards for making a Biblical case that a certain belief is consistent with the Bible? Fellow non-Christians, feel free to comment upon what standards you would and would not think reasonable for a believer to a accept a belief based on Biblical justification. 

21 November 2010

Nov 21

Reference links:
Old Testament

We finally finish the description of the temple complex. Ezekiel would have benefited from some skill drawing architectural diagrams.

After the main description, the glory of God returns to the restored temple. Apparently, the purpose of this detailed description was to make the people of Israel ashamed of their sins:
Son of man, describe to the people of Israel the Temple I have shown you, so they will be ashamed of all their sins. Let them study its plan, and they will be ashamed of what they have done.
I am not quite sure how studying architectural descriptions would make them ashamed of their sins. Maybe because thinking about the temple in general made them ashamed and so God wanted Ezekiel to mention it as much as possible? In any case, I wonder if this description actually ever accomplished that goal.

In any case, Ezekiel is not done with boring descriptions yet. Now that the buildings of the temple have been described, we get to be subjected to a detailed description of the altar and how it was to be used. Goody.

Two things I wonder (but not hard enough to look them up) are: how do these descriptions compare to the descriptions of the old temple and how do these descriptions compare to the actual temple that was rebuilt?

New Testament

The author of the epistle talks about the sorrow and destruction that riches bring. I highly suspect there are modern American believers of predictable political persuasions whose heads would explode upon contemplating these passages too closely.

The author then goes on to encourage the believers to be patient as they wait for the Lord's return. This discussion touches on patience in suffering and also on how believers should not take oaths. Echoing the words attributed to Jesus, the author says that they should, "Just say a simple yes or no".

He also discusses the power of prayer and encourages believers to bring back those who have strayed. Contrast the latter instructions with the statement from Hebrews that those who have strayed can never be brought back to repentance. I suppose you could say that's not a contradiction, but I would be hard pressed to buy it.

And apparently that's the end of this letter. I have to wonder if the original ending was lost since this seems rather abrupt.

Psalms and Proverbs

Today's first proverb seems like one the author of James would have liked:
Better to be poor and honest
than to be dishonest and rich.
Although he might have gotten rid of "dishonest and".

The other proverb is about how it is good to live a lawful life and shameful to live a wild life.

20 November 2010

Nov 20

Reference links:
Old Testament

Further descriptions of the future temple. Or the present temple? I'm not completely sure.

In any case, we can add another day and a half to the completely and utterly useless readings. I wish I had kept track of this throughout so that I could tally how many weeks we would save if we through out all of the word-for-word redundant passages and all of the passages (like today's) which contain needlessly detailed descriptions.

New Testament

Today's reading contains a number of pronouncements against certain behaviors

  • quarrels and fights among believers: which are due to evil desires within
  • friendship with the world: which will make you an enemy of God
  • judging others: because it amounts to a criticism and judging of God's law
  • self confidence, especially in predictions about the future: because you don't know the future
In short, some good advice mixed with some questionable justifications, but nothing particularly mind boggling.

Psalms and Proverbs

Today we have one of those proverbs where I cannot puzzle out the connection between the first and second lines except in so far as both are bad:
A poor person who oppresses the poor
is like a pounding rain that destroys the crops.
I wonder what Paul would think of this next proverb:
To reject the law is to praise the wicked;
to obey the law is to fight them.
I would quibble with the second part of today's final proverb:
Evil people don’t understand justice,
but those who follow the Lord understand completely.

19 November 2010

Nov 19

Reference links:
Old Testament

Reading and writing about the Bible is hard after watching some Cosmos. When I hear about the richness of the vision of universal origins proposed by science (the rich, factually plausible visions of universal origins), the view of the world and the universe presented in the Bible seems so flat, petty, uninspired, and without basis. But in any case, less than a month and a half of the Bible left, so I will persevere.

And with that I bring you... more prophecy against Gog. Goody gumdrops. Once God has destroyed Gog, the Israelites will gather all of the weapons for 7 years worth of firewood. Then they will spend months burying the dead. Birds will be called to eat the dead flesh. And this, of course, is all so God can prove how powerful he is. (If God were really godlike, you would think he would realize he has nothing to prove.)

And then Israel will be restored. This is sounding almost painfully familiar. Although today's reading does have the interesting variation that Ezekiel's God claims that none of his people will be left behind when Israel is restored. This seems at contrast with the many declarations that only a remnant will be restored.

We end today's reading with a list of detailed measurements of the restored temple.

New Testament

The author of James continues to emphasize the importance of good deeds as a demonstration of faith. Unfortunately, he rather weakens his case by bringing up Abraham's willingness to murder his son when so ordered as an example of a "good" deed. The author's point was that faith and actions complete each other, but still, bad example in my opinion.

The author of Hebrews then discourages most people against becoming religious leaders because they will be held to higher standards (by other people? by God? it is not specified). This leads in to a discussion about the importance of controlling what you say, summed up with:
For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way.
Not a bad piece of advice generally although the author starts to wander into the woods a bit when he starts talking about how the tongue is evil and full of poison. That seems to be a bit of rhetorical exaggeration. Like people, the tongue is not all good or all evil.

Today's reading ends by contrasting wisdom from God (peace loving, gentle, willing to yield, merciful, full of good deeds, etc.) with bad wisdom (jealous, selfish, earthly, unspiritual, demonic). Not surprisingly, I think this is, once again, something of a false dichotomy. The very same traits that can be good in some situations (e.g., being willing to yield) can be terrible in others, and sometimes bad traits (e.g., selfishness) can be beneficial.

Psalms and Proverbs

Rotten governments are easily toppled; wise governments are stable.

18 November 2010

Nov 18

Reference links:
Old Testament

Back to visions and performance art. These are much more entertaining than the prophecies of doom. The theme of all of this is the eventual restoration of Israel. Ezekiel has a vision of bones brought back to life. The bones represent the people of Israel whose hope is dead. The restoration of the bones represents the restoration of the people and their hope.

The performance art consists of Ezekiel bringing together two pieces of wood, one which represents Judah and another which represents Israel. This symbolizes the eventual reuniting of the two kingdoms in everlasting peace and prosperity. How nice.

And then we're back to prophecies of doom and gloom against countries we don't care about. Ezekiel's God is really terribly consistent in his unpleasantness. Even his restoration of Israel comes gains a tingle of the unpleasant in so far as it arises from his desire not to let other nations think badly of him.

In any case, the main point of interest for today's gloom and doom prophecies is that they are about how Gog will be destroyed because they will take advantage of Israel in the future. This is in contrast to most of the prophecies which say that countries will be punished for things they have done to Israel in the past or are doing in the present.

New Testament

We start out with some good advice,
Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.
After that, the author goes on about how you are just fooling yourself if you do not take action based on God's word in your heart. Given that I am a big fan of action, I suspect I would like this if I were a believer.

I also like the bit about how people do not hold their tongue or care for widows and orphans have a worthless religion. As an atheist, I have been on the receiving end of many a tiresome lecture from people who think that they are superior to me just because they believe even if they are rude, condescending people who resist helping others as much as they can. Certainly, not all believers (not even all lecturing believers), are like this, but the ones who are could afford to spend some time reading this epistle.

And while they are at it, they might notice the next bit about not preferring some people over other. Judging people based on their appearance and social status is presented as a clear wrong. And if I were in the business of commenting on current events, I might make reference to these verses in a discussion on tax cuts for the rich and welfare for the poor.

This is followed by a short discussion about breaking laws: people will be judged for breaking any of them, not just for breaking all of them. It's also interesting to see a reference to any Old Testament laws as "the law that sets you free." While the laws referred to are not the detailed Levitical laws that Paul rails against, this author's attitude toward the law seems like another potential point of contrast between him and Paul.

Speaking of contrast, today's reading ends with the crux of the contrast between Paul and the author of this epistle.
What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? ... So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.
I certainly would not go so far as to call this contradictory to Paul's view of faith, but it certainly provides  a strong counterpoint.

Psalms and Proverbs

Super short psalm. And today's proverb declares the wicked to be cowards.

17 November 2010

Nov 17

Reference links:
Old Testament

Edom will be destroyed for taking advantage of Israel's misfortune. Israel will be restored. I did like the imagery of Israel as a land which devours its children. It's a depressing image, but a well painted one.

We also get this gem which shows, once again, that God is more concerned with his reputation than with people:
They polluted the land with murder and the worship of idols, so I poured out my fury on them. I scattered them to many lands to punish them for the evil way they had lived. But when they were scattered among the nations, they brought shame on my holy name. For the nations said, ‘These are the people of the Lord, but he couldn’t keep them safe in his own land!’ Then I was concerned for my holy name, on which my people brought shame among the nations.
And this, apparently, is the reason he is restoring the people. To save his reputation.
I am bringing you back, but not because you deserve it. I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations.
God could do more for his reputation if he brought about world peace and gave everyone a new heart as he says he will do for the returned Israelites:
And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.
Also, it's funny how this heart transplant doesn't seem to be considered any sort of violation of free will. Other than the lack of choice, the bit above could be considered to be proto-Christian, but that lack of choice makes a vital difference (unless you're a believer in predestination, but that opens its own can of worms).

New Testament

A new book means it's time for background! Let's see what Understanding The Bible has to say about the Epistle of James:
A Jewish-Christian anthology of ethical instruction, James defines both religion and faith in terms of humanitarian action. 
So far so good. Humanitarian action is generally a good thing. What else does Harris have to say:
Although relatively late church traditions ascribe this epistle to James, whom Paul called "the Lord's brother", most scholars question this claim. The work reveals no personal knowledge of either Nazareth or Jesus, to whose life or gospel the author never refers. ... Scholars regard it as an anonymous compilation of early Christian ethical advice made between about 80 and 100 CE. Accepted only reluctantly by the Western and Syrian churches -- perhaps because of the writer's attack on the Pauline doctrine of faith -- it was one of the last New Testament books to obtain canonical status. 
A collection of ethical precepts and proverbial counsel, it strongly resembles Hebrew wisdom books. Its tone is impersonal and didactic; its advice is extremely general. Without a discernible controlling theme, James present practical exhortation on a series of miscellaneous topics ranging from gossip to the misuse of wealth. 
Although this books lacks a unifying theme, one principle that lends some coherence to the work is James' conception of religion, which he defines as typically Jewish good works, charitable practices that will save the soul and cancel a multitude of sins. The religion God approves is eminently practical
I am a big fan of practical. =)

Finally, on the relationship between this and the Pauline epistles:
James' conclusion that faith without actions is as dead as a corpse without breath seems to repudiate Paul's distinctive teaching. Some commentators point out, however, that James may have intended only to correct a common misuse of Paul's doctrine. 
Today's reading reminds me of "The Secret":
If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do.
Why does this remind me of "The Secret"? Like "The Secret" this verse leaves an out for things not going as expected. If you don't get wisdom, your loyalties were divided. If you don't get whatever your intentions point to, it's because you actually held contrary intentions. It's a perfect unfalsifiable system.

In any case, the point of this is to celebrate hardship as God's way of testing them.

After that we get to read the claim that
Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens.
This is often used as justification for saying that non-Christians cannot love or do good. Fortunately, most people, even most Christians, realize that such a claim is idiotic.

Psalms and Proverbs

Proverbs about the pastoral life.

16 November 2010

Nov 16

Reference links:
Old Testament

Today's reading is relatively cheery for Ezekiel.

Ezekiel is declared to be Israel's watchman. His responsibility is to declare the coming doom. Following this, we read a repeat of declaration that the righteous will be punished if they turn to sin and the wicked will be rewarded if they turn to good.

The essence of this idea, individual responsibility, is clearly an improvement upon the idea of group guilt that seems to have characterized most of Israel's past. However, taken to the extreme, or even put up against reality, it becomes brittle. No person is all righteous or all wicked. So by this explanation, they will be forever flip flopping between righteous and wicked, marked for destruction or marked for life. And if you believe that these consequences become fixed after death, then it's semi-random whether someone is in a good phase (and lives) or a bad phase (and is destroyed). Taking this idea of personal responsibility too far also seems to defeat the idea of personal responsibility. To have true individual responsibility you have to have some amount of continuity between the past and present.

After a brief interlude about the fate of Jerusalem and those who come to listen to Ezekiel, we read an extended analogy between Israel and a herd of sheep. The leaders of Israel were like bad shepherds who neglected their sheep and let them suffer. God is like a good shepherd who will take care of his sheep.

The analogy starts to fall down a bit when God talks about how he will punish the fat sheep and take care of the thin sheep. These are meant to represent, respectively, the people who take advantage of others and those who were taken advantage of. The analogy falls down because no shepherd would punish his best sheep even if they did crowd out the other sheep. They might, I suppose, isolate them or something, but sheep are dumb creatures and cannot be held accountable for their health. Since humans can be held accountable, the analogy suffers.

In any case, God will eventually bring peace and prosperity to his people again. Since he supposedly gave them that the first time around, one wonders why God thinks things will turn out any better this time.

New Testament

We finish Hebrews today. The book ends with a number of suggestions for good behavior, a warning against being attracted to new ideas, and a revisiting of the core idea of Jesus as the perfect sacrifice.

The suggestions for good behavior include a command to
Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say.
Although a reasonable statement on its own, I have seen this statement used to disturbing ends where churches use it to teach their members that they should obey the church leadership even if it goes against the best judgement of the church member. Any church that teaches that is, in my opinion, immediately suspect.

The book ends with a fairly standard letter closing. Some scholars believe this closing was added to the book to make it seem more letter like (and, perhaps, through its reference to Timothy, to make it seem like Paul wrote it).

Psalms and Proverbs
Fire tests the purity of silver and gold,
but a person is tested by being praised.
This is an interesting proverb. Upon reading, one immediately notices that being tested by fire is generally considered painful but praise is not. Thus, the connection between the two lines cannot be that pain tests a person. Instead, it seems that the emphasis is on the idea of how pure silver or gold responds to fire. Like with these metals, this proverb seems to be saying that flattery is a tool that can be used to reveal the true nature of a person. I am not quite sure I buy it, but the comparison is interesting.

The second proverb highlights the first, although it may not seem so at first:
You cannot separate fools from their foolishness,
even though you grind them like grain with mortar and pestle.
Together, I read these two proverbs as saying that there are tools for testing the purity of a person, but there are not tools for separating out impurities. This says nothing, however, about whether or not a fool can change himself.

15 November 2010

Nov 15

Reference links:
Old Testament

Today we read about how Egypt is like Assyria. Like Egypt, Assyria once prospered. Like Assyria, Egypt will fall. Pharaoh is once again compared to a sea creature that will be pulled onto land to die. This bit contains some gruesome imagery of the earth being drenched with blood. And, apparently, Babylon will be the cause of this destruction. Egypt will join other fallen nations in some pit. You wouldn't think all this would be boring. Blood and violence sells, as they say. But enough repetition makes even those tedious.

New Testament

After our lovely reading from Ezekiel, the first line of today's reading provides an amusing contrast:
Work at living in peace with everyone
The author of Hebrews then goes on to make Esau the villain of the story where Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright. I suppose you can say Esau should have known better, but I think that the original story made no pretense of pretending that Jacob had not unfairly taken advantage of his brother.

Then we get a declaration of how believers have come joyfully to the heavenly Jerusalem and the audience is admonished not to refuse to listen to Jesus or God or whoever the "One who is speaking" is.

Psalms and Proverbs

Some proverbs. Nothing particularly stuck out to me.

14 November 2010

Nov 14

Reference links:
Old Testament

Today's prophecy is all about Egypt. Because Egypt did not effectively held Judah, God will punish them. This despite the fact that it was supposedly a terrible betrayal for Judah to ask Egypt for help in the first place. Part of Egypt's punishment will be 40 years for desolation. Somehow I feel that would be recorded a bit more widely if it had actually happened. So once again (for the umpteenth time) either the prophecy was false, exaggerated, or symbolic. Personally, I think Ezekiel's about as good a prophet as your average political pundit.

A side comment makes it sound like the conquering of Tyre we heard so much about did not go so well:
Son of man, the army of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon fought so hard against Tyre that the warriors’ heads were rubbed bare and their shoulders were raw and blistered. Yet Nebuchadnezzar and his army won no plunder to compensate them for all their work.
Generally plunder is the first order of business, so Babylon could not have been particularly successful if they did not even achieve that much.

In any case, because the attack against Tyre did not generate enough plunder, God gives Egypt as a replacement gift. A God who would give women into slavery to pay those who helped him seems rather a monster. Then again, we have strongly established that Ezekiel's vision of God is angry and vengeful; cruelty and depravity should come as no surprise.

New Testament

The list of faithful folks ends with a list of names without comment. I am surprised to see Samson there since seemed to be more as an arrogant jerk than a good example of faith. I am also surprised to see Jephthah there; I guess sticking to your word enough to murder your daughter is a good thing in the eyes of God?

I would also like to point out that one of the examples of faith is Barak (worked with the prophetess Deborah back in Judges). Hmmm, something familiar about that name? Oh yes, the president of the US, whose name people thought made him sound too Muslim, is named Barack.

In any case, for some people faith resulted in triumph, in others it resulted in torture. But none of these faithful received what was promised to them. But that's okay because Jesus also endured hardship, and God's discipline is good for people.

I find the author's discussion of discipline to be rather limited. On the one hand, he makes a good point that discipline is necessary for raising children. However, he neglects to mention a key point: discipline is only effective if there is a clear connection between the punishment and the wrong which caused it. If the person disciplined cannot understand the connection between the two, then the discipline effectively becomes abuse.

By that understanding, much of the so called discipline of God starts to look abusive rather than fruitful and educational.

Psalms and Proverbs
As iron sharpens iron,
so a friend sharpens a friend.
I take this to mean that friends should push and challenge each other. However, there is also an implication that you should only do this with friends who are of the same caliber as you. If, for example, you try to have an iron debate with a talc friend, neither of you will benefit.

13 November 2010

Nov 13

Reference links:
Old Testament

Really? Nearly a whole day's worth of reading continuing yesterday's already long prophecy again Tyre? Why, oh why?

What did Ezekiel have against Tyre? Given that much of the prophecy describes Tyre's glory, I am thinking that Ezekiel and/or the exiled people of Judah suffered from jealously of glorious, beautiful, powerful Tyre.

We also read a short prophecy against Sidon and a declaration of Israel's eventual restoration.

New Testament

We continue with the who's who of Biblical characters, including a rather lengthy recounting of Moses' acts of faith.

Psalms and Proverbs

A quarrelsome wife is annoying and unstoppable.

12 November 2010

Nov 12

Reference links:
Old Testament

Only 50 days left! Which is good, because I am getting bored. Bored of Ezekiel at least.

Today's reading doesn't really have much new. We start out with yet another description of Judah's sin, this time couched in a somewhat incomprehensible metaphor about cooking soup. So, being cooked like soup on the fire is bad, but other than that, I don't get it. It seems like there are statements about the soup pot mixed with seemingly independent statements of Jerusalem's murderous ways. In any case, the upshot is that God is going to punish Jerusalem.

After that, Ezekiel is forbidden from publicly mourning for the death of his wife just so that God can make a point about how the exiles will mourn for those who were left behind in Jerusalem and will die. And apparently Ezekiel had lost his voice? Or will lose his voice? And then he'll get it back.

The rest of the reading is prophecies about the destructions of various other nations. Ezekiel's God certainly seems to find violence to be his most useful tool.

New Testament

Musings on faith and various Biblical figures who showed faith. It's passages like this that really clarify why many Christians seem to be familiar with such a thin slice of the Old Testament. The New Testament brings up certain people and certain stories. As a first approximation, these are the ones that people are familiar with.

Psalms and Proverbs

A proverb against being annoyingly cheery in the morning. =)

11 November 2010

Nov 11

Reference links:
Old Testament

Today we get a graphic description of Jerusalem and Samaria as two sisters who prostitute themselves even from their youth. Even after God marries them they continue their prostituting ways.

I know this is supposed to be a condemnation of Samaria and Jerusalem, but what does God expect is going to happen if he marries prostitutes?  Sudden reformation?

The upshot of the sin of these sister cities was that both they both earned God's anger and destruction.

New Testament

Today we finally finish (at least for the moment) the discussion of Jesus as the ultimate High Priest. To close this discussion, the author of Hebrews declares that the purification that came from Jesus' sacrifice allows believers to go into the presence of God.

But the author then goes on to say that anyone who deliberately continues to sin after receiving this purification cannot be saved by any sacrifice. In other words, they are lost to God's punishment (and, as our OT readings make clear, that sucks). There are no second chances in this view.

Because falling off the wagon is so terrible, the author of Hebrews reminds his readers to keep their trust in the Lord strong.

Psalms and Proverbs

I think the upshot of today's proverb is that you should be cautious with those who make risky financial decisions:
Get security from someone who guarantees a stranger’s debt.
Get a deposit if he does it for foreigners.

10 November 2010

Nov 10

Reference links:
Old Testament

Today is all anger and destruction. There is not even a single thread of hope. God's mad and he's going to punish all whom he thinks deserve it. I don't really have much more to say. This may be the most concentrated presentation of God's anger we have seen all year, but it is certainly nothing new.

New Testament

Today's reading makes it clear that although he considered animal blood purifying, he did not consider it capable of taking away sins. I am not quite sure what distinction the author is making between those two (I can guess, but the text does not provide much clue).

In any case, the text continues to hammer on the same point: that Jesus' blood was adequate where the blood demanded under Mosaic law were not and that Jesus cancelled and replaced the old covenant.

Psalms and Proverbs

Prudent people prepare for danger. Simpletons don't.

09 November 2010

Nov 9

Reference links:
Old Testament

I find it odd how Ezekiel refers to Israel rather than Judah. Maybe since the kingdom of Israel had fallen, the author feel Judah can lay claim to the name? Or maybe the distinction between the two is not important to the author?

In any case, men of Israel have come to Ezekiel for a message of God. God's answer contains what  seems like an odd (or at least oddly translated) turn of phrase coming from God,
a land I had discovered and explored for them
"Discovery" and "exploration" don't really seem like the right words for a supposedly omniscient God to choose.

God then goes on to recount (once again) how the terrible lack of fidelity shown by the people of Israel. We also learn that the only reason he did not crush the Israelites sooner is that he didn't want it to seem like he had made a mistake bringing them out of Egypt.

Throughout this we read repeated statements that obeying God's regulations would have given the Israelites life. This is interesting since Paul goes on and on about the insufficiency of the law on its own. Now, Paul's take was generally along the lines that the law could not be kept rather than a claim that it was insufficient (although, if I remember correctly, he sometimes veered near that territory). However, in today's reading, God implies that it was perfectly reasonably for him to expect the Israelites to keep his regulations (that or God's implying that he's a major jerk for trying to hold people to regulations they could never follow).

God finishes his review of how terrible the Israelites were by emphasizing that they are still terrible. However, he strikes a hopeful cord by stating that when he brings them back from exile, they will worship him properly. This is the thread of optimism that runs through Ezekiel. There is always the hope that Israel will be restored, exile ended, and then people will worship God correctly and prosper. How different reality has been from that dream (although I suppose there is some minuscule possibility that it could still happen; however, I am guessing that sacrifices will no longer be so popular as the Ezekiel supposes).

Also, the brushlands of the Negev will burn.

New Testament

Today we read what I have always consider a particularly repugnant explanation of the necessity of Jesus' death: As the blood from animal sacrifices was purifying, Jesus' blood was even more purifying. It provided the ultimate purification and thus no more sacrifices were needed. The idea that God considered animal blood to be magically purifying always seemed like a primitive holdover.  Thus, a God who demands human blood (from a very specific and special human, but human blood none the less) seems even more primitive.

Psalms and Proverbs

Nothing of particular note.

08 November 2010

Nov 8

Reference links:
Old Testament

Today's reading starts out with God asking a good question:
Then another message came to me from the Lord: “Why do you quote this proverb concerning the land of Israel: ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, but their children’s mouths pucker at the taste’?
Yeah! Where did people get this crazy impression that children will be punished for the sins of their parents? Oh wait, it was from God himself!

At least God is willing to change his mind on the matter:
As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Lord, you will not quote this proverb anymore in Israel. For all people are mine to judge—both parents and children alike. And this is my rule: The person who sins is the one who will die.
He's still fixated on death as punishment, but it's good to see he's making progress. It's interesting to see what sort of man is considered punishable by death:
he worships idols on the mountains, commits adultery, oppresses the poor and helpless, steals from debtors by refusing to let them redeem their security, worships idols, commits detestable sins, and lends money at excessive interest. Should such a sinful person live? No! He must die and must take full blame.
This certainly sounds like a pretty terrible person, but other than the under defined "commits detestable sins", I would not say that it seems punishable by death. But then again, I suppose death is your main option when you don't have institutional prisons.

In any case, you can tell from the length of his example that Ezekiel is preaching a pretty radical idea when he says that only the guilty person deserves to be punished. However, as part of making his point, Ezekiel seems to fall back upon the simplistic idea prominent in the histories that the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked punished. However, that black and white vision is tempered by the idea that an individual can turn away from sin and back to righteousness and have his past sins forgotten. Of course, that sword cuts both ways: righteous people who turn wicked will have all their good deeds forgotten.

Ezekiel also illustrates the transition from group culpability to individual culpability.
Therefore, I will judge each of you, O people of Israel, according to your actions, says the Sovereign Lord.
It makes sense that individual responsibility would take root once the people were separated from their kingdom and the temple. Without centralized religious and government institutions to enforce behavior, it is much harder to accept the idea of group or cross generational responsibility for sins.

The rest of the days reading is a funeral strong. The section header added by the translators implies that it's a funeral song for Israel's kings.

New Testament

A description of temple ceremonies and the limited access to the innermost room of the temple, the Most Holy Place, is followed by a declaration of the inadequacy of that system.

Psalms and Proverbs

Sound advice: Don't abandon your friends (or your parents' friends). They may be able to help you when your family is too far away to help.

07 November 2010

Nov 7

Reference links:
Old Testament

Today we continue the personification of Israel and add in the surrounding nations, especially Sodom and Samaria. Like Israel, they all are terrible, sinful places. Amongst other things we read,
Sodom’s sins were pride, gluttony, and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door.
I would like to note that the standard popular assumption about Sodom's source of sin is not mentioned here. Moving on, after talking about how much all of these nations suck, and will be (or have been) punished, God says that he will restore Israel and her sisters, and nations like Sodom and Samaria will be brought under Israel's covenant.

The representation of Sodom and Samaria as Israel's sisters who will one day be restored like Israel seems like Ezekiel's attempt to deal with the deep contradiction between the idea of a universal god and a god who pays so much attention (both good and bad) with the single nature of Israel. Ezekiel tries to reconcile this contradiction in a way that retains Israel's importance.

Following the graphic but comprehensible comparison of Israel to an adulterous wife, we read a comparison of Israel to a cedar tree planted by an eagle which turned to another eagle for water. This one requires a bit more head scratching (not surprising since it was described as a riddle). Fortunately, we receive an explanation: this is all about the puppet king of Israel breaking his oaths with Babylon and turning to Egypt for help. Since the oath was taken in the Lord's name, he is super mad about this. However, I would think that the first oath, even if it was made in the Lord's name, was probably coerced. Like the oath of Jephthah which caused him to sacrifice his daughter, I would think that the Lord should show a bit more understanding of the circumstances.

New Testament

Today is when we get hit on the head with Hebrews equivalent of platonic duality. Jesus is the ultimate high priest. He ministers at the real tabernacle in heaven and all of the duties of the temple priests on earth are but a shadow of this perfect worship.

As usual, the author of Hebrews stretches credulity. His scriptural justification for the idea that there is a perfect tabernacle in heaven: God's statement to Moses that the tabernacle must be built following God's directions exactly. To this my reaction is, that's the best you can do?

After that we get a rather long passage describing the new covenant. It should sound familiar because it's from Jeremiah.

Psalms and Proverbs

Only one good proverb today:
The heartfelt counsel of a friend
is as sweet as perfume and incense.