Monday, November 24, 2014

DJ Jesus teaches prayer

We forget that Jesus' words were actually spoken to illiterate people for whom the message had to be put in memorable terms. In this sense, Jesus was almost a modern rapper, speaking to a beat and a rhyme.

Possibly the best known words attributed to Jesus are those in the prayer known among Christians as either "the Lord's Prayer" or "the Our Father."(1) The gospels of Matthew and Luke offer slightly different texts, but scholars argue persuasively that the Jesus probably said:

hallowed be your name.
Your Kingdom come.
Our daily bread give us today.
And forgive us our debts
as we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us to the test.

One hypothetical version in Aramaic, the Hebraic dialect Jesus spoke, would yield the following in transliteration:

yitqaddas semak
te'teh malkutak
labmana di misteya hab
lemah yoma demah
usebuq lamah hobaynah
kedi sebaqna lehayyahayna
we'al elinnana lenisyon

Note the two- and four-beat rhythm and several simple and internal rhymes. You can almost imagine the disciples repeating it to hands clapping, swaying to the singsong of these words.

1. I borrow rather heavily in this post from John Meier's A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume II, pp. 291-293.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Deeds Beyond Words

We are told that what really drew crowds to Jesus of Nazareth were not his words, but his wondrous deeds. But what did he do that got him noticed? People usually pay no heed to words.

So far, we have gotten a taste of many of the key moral challenges Jesus of Nazareth is said to have tossed out. There is much more out there for anyone who wishes to explore. Certainly, he does not come across like your average clergyman pounding the pulpit about sins of the flesh and coming to church.

That is startling, so startling that churches and clergymen for centuries have done their best to hide Jesus from people, lest they figure out the flim-flam by the professionals of religion.

Jesus did simple things. It is said that the sick and the lame came to him to be healed; he even rose someone from the dead. I will not deal with whether the accounts were accurate, enough ink has been spilled on that one.

Rather, I would like to consider a more overarching question: Can we, living in an empirical age of science, accept the idea of miracles? Here is my answer: Yes.

The phenomenon of a miracle involves divine intervention in a human action that defies all known explanation.

Now granted, when Jesus healed, it is possible that he was using arcane knowledge not known to the hoi polloi (Gr. for “the many”). To the extent that this is true, the healings were not miraculous.

It is also possible that there was some self-delusion, some psychological effect, operating in the minds of the healed. We know that we use a small proportion of our actual mental powers.

But stop to consider the rising of Lazarus, smelling from days of being dead and buried, and propose that there were no tricks.

We are left with a deed that is inexplicable, cannot be replicated and that the observers and storytellers attributed to the hand of God.

Is there any scientific empirical way of detecting whether the hand of God intervened or of negating that it did? No.

Therefore, we are left with the possibility that miracles can, and perhaps have and do, happen.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sex, Sex, Sex

Let’s round out the Sermon on the Mount with the affirmation that—contrary to what many church folks would have you believe—Jesus had nothing to say about abortion, homosexuality, masturbation or premarital sex. But he had a lot to say about hipocrisy.

Indeed, if one were to go by what people get told in churches—and Republican meetings that style themselves as quasi-religious—one would think that Christian morality consisted almost entirely about sex rules. But that’s not what the words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament suggest at all.

In the two topic areas that are most closely related to sexual behavior—adultery and divorce—Jesus once again sets everything upside down for people looking for easy versions of what religious conservatives have accustomed us to think of as “family values.”

When Jesus turns to adultery in this discourse, he specifically refers to the commandment in Ex. 20:13 and Deut. 5:17:  “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

In our time, we call “adultery” the sexual relations between a married person and someone, married or not, who is not the adulterer's spouse; the misdeed refers to disloyalty, disrespect for a vow, disrespect of the spouse, and so forth. Adultery in our time is a matter of sex and psyche. In biblical times, however, adultery was preeminently a matter of property and honor.

Adultery attached primarily to the married woman: she was her husband’s property, but most importantly the vessel of future heirs. Recall that until the 19th century, when the ovum was discovered, it was thought that the sperm was a “little man” containing the entire human being, hence the sin of “spilling seed.” As a consequence, women were thought to be mere vessels.

Moreover, before paternity tests were possible, the only reliable source of lineage was through the mother; this is the reason a Jew is classically defined as the child of a Jewish woman, regardless of the father. For these reasons Lev. 18:20 says “Thou shalt not lie with thy neighbor’s wife, nor be defiled with mingling of seed.” Biblical adultery was sexual relations with a married woman and it was wrong because it imperiled the lineage, property and honor of the husband.

You have heard ... but now I say. This is the classic form of Jesus’ presentation. As we saw with murder in the last post, Jesus now goes to the root of the matter: the lustful gaze and desire. Pluck out your eyes, cut off your hand, he advises in a rhetorical flight.

Here Jesus is a feminist. In modern feminist language, what he’s pointing out as wrong is men treating women as sexual objects. The implicit theology could suggest that all women are wives, perhaps as potential mothers of God’s heirs. The deepest one can draw from this well is a moral theology of male intentions. Men are asked to look into their own hearts.

Nothing is said about women’s intentions or behavior. To Jesus the main point is that women are simply not property.

Likewise with divorce.

“Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a bill of divorce” in Matt. 5:31 is a loose paraphrase of Deut. 24:1 in a passage (1-4) that is really about the re-marriage of divorced and serially re-married spouses. Once again, divorce in biblical Jewish law and divorce today are not the same thing.

At the time of Jesus, there were two prevailing schools of rabbinical thinking concerning divorce: that of Shammai, who permitted divorce for adultery; and that of Hillel, who permitted divorce for the love of another woman or even for bad cooking (do keep in mind the importance of dietary law, or kashrut). The rabbinical question is when could a man divorce a woman. Jewish law only allowed men to divorce women; only Roman law allowed women to divorce men, as well. Jesus almost certainly would not have been addressing Roman law.

Jesus’ answer is quoted saying that a man who divorces his wife is effectively forcing her to commit adultery.

Then there’s an exception appended for what is sometimes translated as “fornication” (in Greek porneia), but more likely is concubinage; that is, if the woman goes to live with another man, she may be divorced. This legal splitting of hairs, however, seems incongruent with the radical responses so far and may reflect the views of the apostles rather than of Jesus.

Fine, but why would a woman be “made to commit adultery”? What is adultery, committed by a man or woman, that it should be so feared?
Again, we are contending with Jesus the Feminist. The economic relations between men and women were such that, merely to survive, a woman would have to woo another man if she were divorced, making of herself into a sex object. What are we to make of this in an age in which sisterhood aims to be powerful?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

On Murder, Revenge, Enemies

Even though we have laid out Jesus' all-encompassing greater command, it is worth considering several of the instances of his adjudications of Jewish norms that various onlookers brought to his attention.


The prohibition in Exodus, "Thou shalt not kill," is expanded in Matt. 5:21-22 to cover any injury of one person to another in any form, even calling someone else a "raca" (fool). When I first heard this explained, the phrased used was "killing the spirit," or how insults have a way of diminishing and snuffing the life of another in an unseen way.

Today we hear often about the lifelong ramifications of a loss of self-esteem. Consider how many adult lives are sadder and more miserable for taunting received in the schoolyard. In the movie "Back to the Future" the protagonist's father grows up to be a milquetoast accountant living in a decrepit little box of a house, never quite living up to his dreams. In the background lurks Biff, the bully who taunted him into submission. The protagonist goes to the past and provides his father a way to defeat the bully, win the girl and, back in the future, to be a successful man for whom Biff works as a flunkie.

Let's up the ante.

Remember comedian Lenny Bruce? He has one routine in which he repeated the infamous "n-word," the racial taunt. He says it again and again for about thirty times. Then he stops. Finally, he says that if President Kennedy (who was alive and in the White House at the time) would just get on television and do what he just did, no child would go home crying because he was called that on his way from school.

Who's to say that Jesus's now-archaic "raca" wasn't equivalent to a racial taunt or the many parts of anatomy used to humiliate.

Revenge or Self-Defense

Here comes "the other cheek."

An eye for an eye was a Near Eastern custom. However, when Hammurabi proposed it about two millenia before Jesus tackled it, the idea was progressive compared to "honor" codes that exacted disproportional retribution in response injury or wrong doing. Hammurabi's point was that if your neighbor took an eye, you could take the neighbor's eye but no more; this was better than taking both legs as well.

Yet Jesus rejects it, along with the principle of self-defense.

In an expansion reminiscent of his response on murder, he offers that if someone takes an eye, give the other: he does exactly the same math with cheeks, miles, clothing and money. The intent is inescapable. Not only are his listeners supposed to avoid retribution, but no resistance must be raised against what is seen as evil.

Ghandi applied this principle, albeit in Hindu clothing, in his successful campaign to free his country from British rule in the 1940s. He called it "satyagraha," a term that combines three notions: "satya," or openness, honesty and fairness; "ahimsa," the refusal to inflict injury upon others; and "tapasya," a willingness to self-sacrifice.

"Love does not burn others, it burns itself," Ghandi wrote. "A satyagrahi will joyfully suffer even unto death. It follows, therefore, that a civil resister, whilst he will strain every nerve to compass the end of the existing rule, will do no intentional injury in thought, word or deed to the person of a single Englishman."

Imagine if on Sept. 12, 2001, U.S. Air Force planes had flown to Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden was hiding, and dropped, instead of bombs, parachuted crates with medical supplies, toys for children, books, clothes and food!

Carrying it further, Jesus commands: "Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you" (5:44).

Love Osama and ISIS. Don't just shower them with gifts. Love them.

Love the nagging wife or abusive husband. Love the parent who berates you. Love the president who lies to you. Love the other political party no matter how wrong.

This is the stuff that makes liars of almost all followers of Jesus. Few, if any, believe, much less practice this. Admittedly, it's not easy.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Love First

A very smart young man reminded me, as I was tearing my hair out over how I could blog about the faith’s implicit morality being the sinner that I am (no sarcasm or irony intended), that Jesus’ core moral teaching is not in the Sermon on the Mount but in Mark 12:29-31.

Asked what is the most important divine commandment, Jesus replies:
“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
This is also found in Matthew, but this text seems closest to the original, because it begins with the most revered Hebrew prayer.*

The observation is particularly on point because both of these commandments, often called “great,” are not original inventions of Jesus or the apostles. The first draws from Moses’ first commandment. The second is found variously in Deuteronomy and Leviticus.

The more I think about this, the clearer it is that Jesus was not a moralist, but rather someone who invited people to look at what they knew in a new way. Jesus’ point is to look at those moral pointers that have been set in front of us with new lenses and a new focus, love.

Take the first commandment. A Jesuit of whom I have heard is said to lament that he does not feel as attracted to God as much as he does to women.

Let’s imagine that for a moment. Let’s imagine that we felt about God as we feel about the opposite sex. Let’s imagine that we sought to see God “naked” and in bed with us, becoming intimately one with God in a pleasurable explosion of fulfillment and peace, no longer alone in the universe but in unity with another.

Wow! That’s what ecstatic contemplative monks must experience!

Of course, attraction, lust, sexual intimacy is never as 100% hot as that second or third time when the awkwardness is gone and the rhythm is right. Then sex mellows; if we are lucky it mellows into love.

If we are lucky we find the person with whom, from time to time, we make love. Briefly we experience again that intense connection that brought us together and this reminds us why we have given ourselves over to that other person, quirks and all.

Remember when you were first in love with that special person, how you loved everybody, forgave everybody, saw beauty everywhere? That’s where the second commandment would come in if we could love God as we love the other sex.

Loving one’s neighbor as oneself would be easy if we felt loved, thus loved ourselves intensely and the love just overflowed, like coffee poured out a little too eagerly.

But OK, we don’t, or at least I don’t. I fail miserably at loving God and my neighbor. Every day. Even every hour. Let’s not kid ourselves, this is the reality, even as we keep this goal in front of us.

Maybe we need to make love with God first, then in a similar way build love with others.

* “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” found in Deuteronomy 6:4, and known even today for its first two words as Shema Yisrael שְׁמַע   יִשְׂרָאֵל . (In transliterated Hebrew, with the "ch" pronounced with that Spanish jota rendition, as in "Bach": Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Elocheinu Adonai Ecḥad).

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Higher Good than the Law

Greater minds than mine agree that the gospel is about more than morality. However, we are entering the part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17-48) in which Jesus weighs in on the norms by which the Jewish people—his people, lest we forget—were bound.

In six instances, Jesus rabbinically adjudicates moral quandaries posed by the Torah or law. We might rightly ask what the significance of these ancient rules is to the Western Gentile Christian today. Before attempting an answer, I must offer a caution.

The speaker sets up a dichotomy. On one hand stand “the law and the prophets.” This was understood by first century Palestinian Jews before the year 70 to mean what we now call the Old Testament. On the other hand, are the teachings of “the scribes and Pharisees.” This means the commentary of a particular sect or “party,” of which there were many in Jesus’ day, many more than in modern Judaism.

A common Western, second millennium mistake is to read the text as a sample of Jesus’ quarrels with Pharisees around the years 28 to 35.

In fact, some scholars believe that Jesus himself may have belonged to or been close to the party of the Pharisees. In this interpretation, the original oral sources recounting such disputations were little more than intramural rhetorical fencing such as might occur at a modern yeshiva, or Jewish academy of Torah study, among even like-minded rabbis.

There is more. The gospel text is not quite the same as the oral source. We know it to be edited and written for and by the community at Antioch (located in modern Turkey), where Matthew held sway, some 30 to 40 years after Jesus’ death. The gospel does not offer a transcript of a speech, but a heavily edited set of sayings that were put there to address the concerns of the community from which the gospel of Matthew emerged.

What were those concerns? They were those of the overwhelmingly Jewish early Christian community led by Matthew, probably located in Antioch, (ancient) Syria. The text is playing out a posthumous intramural argument about Jesus’ supposed opinions — call it a “What Would Jesus Say” for the Jewish Christians of decade of the first-century 40s or 50s.

Keep in mind that these Christians were still going to the synagogue on the Sabbath, in addition to their Eucharistic “agape suppers” on Sunday to commemorate the resurrection and their Synaxis gatherings to study the holy books and new good news.

These were the original Christians, the ones the Antiochenes pejoratively nicknamed Kristianoi, which was an equivalent of referring to members of the Unification Church “Moonies.” Christian originally meant something like “Christies,” and in “Oh, here come these Christies, preaching again with their stupid beatific smiles!”

They were also Jews. There is compelling evidence that in ancient Syria Jewish Christians continued going to the synagogue until as late as the 6th century of our era!

OK, back to the gospel text.The gospel of Matthew is really comparing and contrasting two readings of the Torah.

One is Pharisaic—and normative to Judaism since the year 70, we’ll see how and why later—presented as what “you have heard.” The other is grounded in what the community understood to be the real, full, more demanding meaning attributed to Jesus, introduced as “I say.”

Note that, contrary to the often wrongly-used (with veiled antisemitism) terms “Phariseism” and “Pharisaic,” the Pharisees come out looking like pretty good guys.

The Jesus of the gospel of Matthew, speaking on the Mount, calls for the fulfillment of the law, just like the Pharisees. Indeed, there is considerable praise in the speaker’s warning that “unless your justice abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (5:20).

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Salt of the Earth

After the Beatitudes, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) Jesus offers a series of comments on a variety of topics, beginning with his view of who and what his disciples are and are supposed to be. In brief, they are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” whose light shines and deeds inspire.

Salt was of inestimable value in a climate in which intense heat spoiled food rapidly. Its grains were valued throughout the Greco-Roman world so much that Roman soldiers were paid in packets of salt, their salarium, from which we get the word “salary.”

Similarly, in the typical first-century Palestinian village, the one-room home in which most people lived had a single lamp. This provided the only household light, even during the day, since windows were small and usually kept covered to keep out the sun and its searing heat.

In verse 5:16, the salt and light are the “good deeds” of the disciples, to be given as signs so that others can see and glorify “your Father who is in heaven.”

Compare this to Christian people and institutions through the modern age.
The false and bland message of Christian respectability, social manners and adherence to civil laws – even when they are unjust – is the sort of salt that long ago lost its savor. The teachings of guilt, prejudice and conflict cast a pall on the gospel’s light, leaving humanity in greater fear, confusion and suffering than before.

No one can savor the salt and see the light, thus many (most?) people disbelieve there even is a Father in heaven. How could there be? Why believe when even the believers have no salt to offer and no light to show the way?

According to the gospel, evangelism is something quite different from marketing campaigns to fill churches and collection baskets for buildings and clerics, incense and chalices, false promises and prophets.

Jesus only speaks of providing an example of faith in action, in other words, good deeds. Do what is good, then shut up; people will get the message.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Blessed are the People

The mystery of Jesus’ fame begins to lift when we first come across the opening of his core message, a series of statements that begin “blessed are,” known as the beatitudes.

They are part of a larger discourse, the Sermon on the Mount, which in the Gospel According to Matthew runs from chapter 5 to 7, and is an attempt to present the essential teaching of Jesus in one fell swoop. The discourse touches on a variety of issues that I will deal with in the next few posts: evangelism, or spreading the message; Jesus attitudes toward Jewish Law; several moral or behavior questions.

The beatitudes alone cover only a few verses, Matthew 5:3-11. They also appear in the shorter Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6). Their original Aramaic text was likely translated by both evangelists/authors and adapted by each to his own purpose.

Matthew has Jesus taking select disciples up the mountain to offer the kerygma (Greek for “preaching” or, theologically, the essential proclamation of the good news); the evangelist has in mind as his audience the core Jewish leadership of the early Jesus Movement.

Luke, on the other hand, has Jesus coming down to the plain to speak to the broader group of all Jesus’ followers, with special reference to Gentiles, even though as a matter of historical fact the audience, whether movement leadership or just plain folks, was unlikely to have included Gentiles.

In each case, the text points to the beatitudes as a unit, crafted with internal rhymes that would make them easy to remember. This was not a literate society, so any preacher had, above all, to be memorable.

There are eight blessings in Matthew and in Luke four, with four corresponding woes. In Matthew, Jesus states that the poor and people who mourn, are meek, hungry for justice, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, persecuted or reviled on Jesus’ account are blessed. In Luke (6:20–26), the poor, the hungry, those in mourning and those reviled are blessed, while Jesus issues warning “woes to you” at the rich, people who now laugh, who now are full and of whom men speak highly.

Matthew’s version is almost certainly the more complete, even though he spiritualizes poverty (“poor in spirit”) the first beatitude.

This is often misunderstood as meaning that “poor” includes wealthy people who spiritually detach from what they possess (or members of religious orders who take a vow of “poverty,” but ratchet up frequent flyer miles nonetheless). Such a reading does violence to the text, which refers to those whose dispossession has put them in a position of servility, as the people mentioned in Isaiah 61:1.

Most importantly, the beatitudes are not imperatives. No demand is made that anyone become poor, hungry, justice-seeking and thus hated, even though the consequences of being blessed or cursed are clear.

Rather, the blessings and woes describe the world under the basileia theou (the Greek often translated as “Kingdom of God,” but it more likely meant “rule [or reign] of God”). The beatitudes are God’s “constitution,” if you will, of the divine kingdom.

The striking and, to my mind, appealing character of the blessings is that they describe nothing less than a total subversion, or up-ending, a revolution in the human order.

Put yourself among those who first heard such words. To them, the world was ruled by an Emperor who was worshiped as a son of the gods, whose power over the known world was near-absolute and terrifying.

Within the land of the Jews, the Emperor imposed his power and might through either a procurator (Judea) or a vassal king (Galilee). Under them were tax collectors, who were essentially ruthless thugs who grabbed what they liked. The tax collectors were allowed to keep a part of what they collected, pass on an allotted quota to the local rulers, who in turn paid off Rome. The Roman Empire was nothing less than a ruthless Mafia protection system.

Our world is somewhat gentler, but not by much, as any day’s newspaper will show.

Yet in a few masterful and kindly phrases, Jesus announces that this society we humans have built is not at all what God has in mind. No wonder the tidings of Jesus’ teachings caught on as a wildfire that the Romans tried to put out!

Jesus offered revolution.

The revolutionary rule of God is not what Christians over the course of history have worked particularly hard to bring about. The churches have become the servants of money while attempting to make “sacred” the human order, instead of become the epicenters of struggle and dissent to usher in the rule of God.

Churches postpone change to the afterlife. But that’s not what the gospel says!

In the gospels, we read “blessed are,” not “blessed will be.” The order is supposed to have started then and there; it was merely announced at the mount or the plain.

The German theologian Romano Guardini spoke for me when he wrote, “Our natural reaction to the Sermon on the Mount is distaste.” He counsels, nevertheless, “it is much better to try and overcome it, than to unthinkingly accept Jesus’ words as pious platitudes ... they shake, palpably, the foundations of the earth.”

Jesus has thrown down the gauntlet.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Who was Jesus?

We don't actually know very much factually about Jesus, the Galilean who came out of nowhere to stun the world, puzzle emperors and become the (often misused) emblem of millions. As I have already said, the most widely accepted fact is that he was executed sometime between the years 26 and 36, probably the year 30.

Jesus was a Jew from a small village in Galilee, likely Nazareth. We don't know exactly whether he was born in Nazareth or Bethlehem. His father, Joseph, taught him the woodworking trade, meaning something akin to today's cabinetmaking; he was not a carpenter in the construction trades sense.

He spoke Aramaic as a native language, could probably recite enough biblical Hebrew for his bar-mitzvah, and he likely knew a smattering of pedestrian Greek, used for business.

Very likely he was functionally illiterate. He may have been able to “read” biblical texts from memory but not likely actually read them, nor much less write.

Although he grew up with several siblings, we don’t know whether they were full, half or adopted kin.

He was baptized by John the Baptizer, a somewhat better attested historical figure, who may have been his first cousin. Both may have been associated with a devout Jewish community known as the Essenes. Some time after the encounter, he became known as an itinerant preacher.

The attention he garnered gave rise to some popularity in Galilee and Judea and ultimately his execution.

After his death, his followers said he rose from the dead and remains alive to this day.

These followers, most of whom were also functional illiterates, dictated or recounted accounts of what Jesus did and said, which found their way into a number of written works called gospels, roughly 20 to 40 years after the events.

Rudolf Bultmann was fond of remarking that the only actual word we have something close to complete assurance Jesus uttered was “Abba” (Hebrew for Daddy).

Jesus was until about 1836, when David Strauss’ Life of Jesus was published, the figure depicted by the evangelists, chronologically Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. Since then, even his very historical existence has been questioned.

A more modern scholar in the search for the historical Jesus, John Meier, has offered a fair compromise portrait that he believes would satisfy Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and agnostic scholars as to "who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he intended."

At volume 4, his work A Marginal Jew has yet to tackle the crucifixion and resurrection, the trickiest parts for a Catholic theologian laboring under the last two popes. Indeed, it has always been far safer to engage in “Jesusology” than Christology. Ask Leonardo Boff, whose Christological work Jesus the Liberator got him drummed out of religious life as a friar and theologian, which the the wags say made him a real believer.

Yeshua bar Yosif must have been in some way remarkable to have drawn all that attention from such unexceptional beginnings. Jesus called the Christ, or Messiah, is distinctively the central figure of faith in the good news, or gospel, told about him by believers.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Christmas in August

Enter one Yeshua or Yehoshua bar Yosif, also known by his Latin name, Jesus. If we had lived in the Rome of his day, most likely we would have first heard about his execution, accompanied by the strange rumor that he rose from the dead.

The execution by order of the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, appointed by Emperor Tiberius in the year 26 then removed in 36, is the most universally accepted historical fact about Jesus.

If we had been Palestinian Jews in Jerusalem we might have heard somewhat more about this Joshua from the hinterlands of Galilee, a woodworker turned preacher. The priests might have said he was a troublemaker, less exalted and poorer people might have been in awe of his oratory or the wonders he performed. But it all would have been in retrospect.

The first thing the people of his time who had not known him ever heard was, “He is risen!”

This startling assertion of faith was how an insignificant craftsman from a small village in a distant region at the edges of the Greco-Roman world came to the attention of the high and mighty, enough to make an emperor ask, “Who is this Chrestus [sic] people are talking about?”

What a startling claim these followers of Jesus made!

Jesus had been killed stone dead in a world dominated brutally by effectively universal one-man rule. The emperor spoke and you obeyed. He had your life and limb in his hands.

Only the citizens born in, or lawfully adopted by, one shining city of marble and stone had a measure of freedom to possess and dispose of the riches of the Earth in the relatively short span of life allotted them. The rest were conquered subjects, servants and slaves, who owed taxes, labor and submission to Rome and its emperor.

And here comes some obscure little country-bumpkin Jew and defies the emperor by rising from the dead? By Jupiter!

That is the essence of the earliest statement of faith:
“Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words ... Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know -- this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men  ... God has made him both Lord and Christ ...” (Acts 2:14-36)
That was the first Christian creed: Jesus is Lord. (Not the emperor.) That's where the good story (which is English for the Anglo-Saxon gospel) about Jesus, the Christ, begins.

We usually begin with a stable in Bethlehem, but that's debatable. According to Eusebius, the earliest Christian historiographer, Jesus was believed by some to have been born in the summer. After much doubting, scholars now lean toward the December birth. Still, in honor of a little boy whose birthday occurs this week, let's have a little Christmas in August.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Wisdom and Waiting

Only one big story and dozens of little ones remains to be told before the Old Testament period is closed. First is the story of the Maccabees, second are the stories of the broad wisdom literature toward the end of the OT.


The four books of Maccabees (also rendered as Machabees) are essentially about the struggle to be a faithful Jew in a Hellenized world.

The context is the period that begins with Alexander the Great, who in the 330s BCE set out to “the ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea,” which meant defeating Persia and Egypt and pressing all the way to India. This empire broke up into three, four and sometimes five parts after his death, with Palestine as part of the Greek Seleucid kingdom. In the middle of this period there is also the Jewish theocratic Hasmonean kingdom. The period ends with the conquest of southern Palestine (Judea) by the Romans in 63 BCE.

Scholars are divided on whether the Maccabees represent a story of the intramural Jewish struggle between Hellenizers and Judaizers, or whether they represent a struggle between Jews and Greeks—thus a story that would foretell the conflict between Jews and Romans.

There were two responses to the essential problem of faithfulness—or how to remain faithful to religious tradition in a social context that pulls, or tempts, the believer away—underlying either reading. One was Hellenization, which included Jews cosmetically hiding their circumcision in the Olympic games, back then played in the nude. The other was traditionalist rebellion, ranging from separation from Hellenized society to establishment of a Jewish theocratic state.

The struggle of the Maccabees to protect Judaism as a faith from assimilation has historical and modern resonance, both in the problem and the solutions, for all the three Semitic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

None of the four books of Maccabees are in the Protestant or Hebrew biblical canons, two are in the Catholic Bible and all four are in the Orthodox. The Orthodox even celebrate the Holy Maccabean Martyrs on Aug. 1 and until the 1960s the Catholic Church commemorated them the same day as part of the St. Peter in Chains feats.

One other modern significance of these books, is their reference (1 Maccabees 4:36 and 2 Maccabees 1:18) to the events leading to the Feast of Lights, also known as Hanukkah, the decidedly minor Jewish feast that occurs more or less at the time of Christmas.


Lastly, as pointer for reading, one would not want to miss the third part of the Hebrew Bible, known as the wisdom literature. These include (in all Bibles) the Book of Job, Psalms, the Book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs.

More disputed are the pseudoepigraphia or apocryphal books, not found in Protestant or Hebrew Bibles, which were included in the Septuagint Greek Bible: Tobit, Judith, the Book of Wisdom (also known as Wisdom of Solomon) and Sirach (also known as Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus).

Each handles problems of the believer in a way that can be useful or inspiring.

A few merit a quick reading and are short enough for completing in one sitting. Quick takes:
  • Job: essentially about the problem of evil befalling a moral man, it includes the instructive final speech of God in which Job is asked where he was when the world was created.
  • Ecclesiastes: a short poetic essay and the one biblical book to explore doubt or disbelief as other than merely foolishness and has memorable passages that have been put into song.
  • The Song of Songs: a surprisingly erotic love poem.
  • Tobit: a short narrative with profoundly advanced psychological insights into the relationship of couples and the role of angels, in addition to offering models of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, filial piety and respect for the dead.
  • Judith: a brave woman defends her faith fiercely.
The 150 psalms offer a ready made prayer book. The psalms offer useful drafts for prayer covering almost every occasion one might wish to address the Almighty.

The literary conceit is that these are all poems of King David, when he went into the hills to meditate on the killing of Bathsheba's husband. In reality, we do not know precisely which ones were written by David and we can surmise that most were not.

Another caution, there are two numbering systems for the Psalms. The most common in the English-speaking world is the Hebrew or Masoretic, found in Protestant Bibles. The Septuagint or Greek numbering deems the Psalms 9 and 10 in Hebrew numbering, as one Psalm 9; the reverse occurs with Hebrew 147, which is split into 146 and 147 in the Greek.

As a sample for your prayer, try Psalm 51 (Hebrew, or Protestant; but Psalm 50, Greek or Catholic) for when you feel you have done wrong or Psalm 23 to express confidence and hope. In moments of despair, try Psalm 22 and be sure not to stop at the first verse, which is widely known and you will likely recognize; go to the very end.

Finally, Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus offer collections of epigraphs and reflections on a broad variety of subjects. Along with the Psalms, these are beyond a one-sitting read.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Messianic Expectations

Contrary to popular Christian folklore, religious Jews did not always expect a Messiah and even today the notion of a Messiah does not dominate Jewish faith. Most of the biblical texts used to suggest otherwise have been re-read by Christians to prove to themselves that Jesus was the expected Messiah.

But it just ain't so. At least not necessarily.

The need for a Messiah did not arise in the thinking of the Chosen People until the period of decline and fall of the two kingdoms that led to the Babylonian Captivity. Things got so bad from the point of view of the just, or Mosaic-law abiding, believer that it was thought that God had to intervene more forcefully and thoroughly with a superpatriarch, superjudge, superking, superpriest, superprophet ... ta-da! ... a Messiah.

The prophets describe elements of what could be a Messiah, as the end-of-time (or eschatological) prophecies in Daniel suggest.

The word Messiah in the Hebrew Bible is Mashiach. It means “anointed one.”

I always wondered, what is all this business of anointing about? Why would anyone be anointed? Why would this be at all significant?

Anointing is the smearing perfumed oil, milk, water, melted butter or other substances. This was first used to heal or offer relief to the sick. Probably because it did the trick of soothing in some way, it became a valued process used to show honor, and later ritually, to show reverence in religious ceremonies. Kings and priests were anointed.

But why? Because, unlike what the Anglican hymn says of England as a new Jerusalem, the land of the biblical peoples was decidedly not “a green and verdant land.” Indeed, England knew no word for “anointed” until it borrowed the term from the French in the 14th century, for religious purposes.

It was semidesert, an arid land with a few irrigated fertile areas adjacent to major waterways, such as the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates and Jordan rivers. In such a climate your skin dried easily and cracked unless it was kept moist and oily, which was the physical effect of anointing.

The substances used for anointing were not easily available, thus only used for the sick or the very privileged. Today, instead of calling a Messiah the Anointed One, we might say have chosen the Smartphoned One, or whatever privilege we think matches.

Make no mistake about it, the Messiah was supposed to be Superman (as the TV series had it “strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men!”) but one who set right all wrongs for all time.

The great Spanish rabbi Moses Maimonides, writing in the Middle Ages, declared that the Messiah would be someone who would
  • be descended from King David;
  • study the Torah (or divine law) and be occupied with its commands;
  • “impel all of Israel” to follow the Torah;
  • “fight God's wars” until he succeeded and “built the Holy Temple in its proper place” and gathered the lost tribes; and
  • “mend the entire world to worship the Lord together.”
No one would confuse such a personage with a marginal woodworker from the hinterlands executed as a common criminal for disturbing the peace. Yet few would dispute that Maimonides knew his Bible. Therein lies the scandal, to Jews, of saying that Jesus was the Messiah.

However, Isaiah speaks of an unnamed figure referred to by biblical scholars as “the suffering servant,” often thought to be a Messianic figure. This set of images involves redemption through suffering, closer to the manner of one Yehoshua ben Yosif from Nazareth, aka Jesus the Christ.

All of which brings us, in this post today, to the Greek for Messiah, Kristos. The classical Greek Χριστός ( transliterated Kristós, and in Latin, Christus) meant “covered in oil” or “anointed,” a literal translation. The word appears in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible, believed to be completed by 132 BCE.

In the New Testament, the gospel of Matthew ends the genealogy of Jesus with the man himself, “Jesus, who is called Christ” (1:16). This alone should make clear that Christ was not Jesus’ family name, but a title given him by followers long after he walked the Earth like you and me.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The First Bible

The Babylonian Captivity—that long biblical pogrom and Holocaust—had a result that is seldom discussed popularly, even though it affected the Judeo-Christian tradition decisively. Upon returning to Judah, the rabbis began to edit and set down in writing what they believed were the essentials of their faith.

Cyrus the Great of Persia, whose face was for a time on many a modern postal stamp of Iran, the modern Persia, came to power and seized Babylon in 538 BCE, allowing the exiled Jews to begin a return to their homeland. It was at that time that the first five books of the Bible, known scholarly as the Pentateuch, were composed and redacted by the rabbis of the post-exilic era.

You didn’t think that Moses actually wrote the five books “of Moses,” did you? In ancient times, authorship and attribution were not what they are today, after two centuries of copyright law and newspapering.

The development of ancient literature followed a familiar pattern. Someone spoke or enunciated some great thought, story, idea or law. Hammurabi, Socrates, Moses, for example. Collections of their sayings were usually written down by scribes as “the book (or law) of” whoever was the person who had inspired the work.

Hammurabi is not the likely literal author of the famous law code that bears his name, which—incidentally—inspired much of the Mosaic law in the Bible. There is no extant work written by Socrates. The same is true of Moses.

Moreover, because biblical material contained divine ordinances, there was a potent rabbinical revulsion to the idea of setting down the biblical tradition in writing. Deuteronomy puts in God’s mouth the following remonstrance to Moses: “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish aught from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” (4:2)

Keep in mind, of course, that the vast majority of people in biblical times—including prophets, kings and other greats—were illiterate. The biblical texts were told and retold orally for centuries before anyone dared put quill to parchment to leave a written record of such holy things.

It was only in dire straits, such as upon returning to the Promised Land laid waste, with a people who had been forbidden in exile to worship their God, that rabbis dared take up the task of collecting various versions of the same stories and putting them all together, organizing them into books that became known simply as The Books.

That same imperative against adding or subtracting led to the other commonly misunderstood curiosity of the Bible: multiple and sometimes contradictory accounts.

Again, let’s imagine how the biblical writings were told and retold. Let’s, for the sake of imagination, first imagine the first campfires in the long wandering through the Sinai Peninsula.

“Look at all those stars! I wonder how all those stars come to be ...” says one Hebrew man.

“God created them,” says someone, a proto-rabbi, who is respected as knowing things.

“How was that?” a third asks.

Our would-be rabbi sits up and summons a collection of things he has heard and starts the story, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth ...”

You think every biblical storyteller in every campfire of the people leaving Egypt on the way to their Promised land remembered the creation story in exactly the same words or in exactly the same sequence? You think no storyteller borrowed something that came from neighboring cultures, things passed on, like gossip, at a time there was no radio, no newspapers, no Internet?

Imagine, then after the Babylonian Exile, the various yeshivas, or rabbinical schools, with young and old students of the Torah who are trying to put together scrolls containing all the great stories, so no one should ever forget the Covenant and the many miracles that had happened.

They stumble across two or three versions of the story of Noah. Which one is the true and holy one? “I know,” says one young buck, “let’s weave them all in together, that way we preserve everything the spirit of the Lord has conveyed to us.”

That, told roughly and without eyewitness accounts, summarizing the views of many scholars, is how the first biblical books were compiled, written down and edited.

Moreover, they did not instantly have the entire collection of books we know today. There was a fluid collection of byblos (Greek for “books”) regarded as important, including books excluded from some modern Bibles. Nor did they come in numbered chapters and verses. Nor, importantly, did they include vowels, as in ancient Hebrew only the consonant sounds were written.

The canons, or official lists, of books deemed “holy” (or set apart) as divine revelation came centuries later for the Hebrew Bible and more than a millennium later for Christian Bibles.

Only the later texts, from Isaiah onward, came with Hebrew markings for paragraphs and in some cases chapters (these are not always identical to our modern verses and chapters); the Greek Christian manuscripts often lack either one. The Hebrew text was given vowels by the Masoretes, members of the rabbinical medieval school in Spain founded by the great rabbi Moses Maimonides; Greek, of course, always had vowels.

All this work began at a crucial historical moment, when those who revered the ancient traditions of faith feared that unless it was set down, it would be forgotten.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Jeremiah warns Jerusalem

Jeremiah is the prophet who most fits the popular notion of a prophet as someone who runs against the grain, who warns of the results of disobedience and injustice, while, in the 21st century idiom, speaking truth to power, suffering for it.

Like Moses he is a reluctant messenger. In Jeremiah 1:4-8, the Lord appears to him and announces that “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” But Jeremiah replies: “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” So God insists, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’ for to all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.”

 In this way we know of the prophet’s authority. It is not his own.

Jeremiah was from the southern and longer lasting kingdom, Judah. His ministry took place in the late 7th century and early 6th century before our era, from the reign of King Josiah (640-609, through kings Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin (598-597) and finally Zedekiah (597-586), the last king before the neo-Babylonian Empire overran Judah and completed the defeat and exile of the people of Israel.

Throughout most of this period Judah sat uneasily surrounded by three empires the Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian, vying for control of the fertile crescent, an area of fertile land around huge desertic areas of the Middle East, starting in the west from the Mesopotamia in today’s Iraq and Kuwait, arching north to Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus, then south to Jordan, Israel and Egypt. In this unstable geopolitical setting, the little kingdom of Judah attempted to preserve its independence.

From the biblical perspective, independence means freedom from the forced or subtly absorbed worship of their neighbors’ gods, allegiance to whom is repeatedly called “idolatry. As we have seen, the Hebrews have been told already: they are to have one Lord, YHVH (variously rendered as Jehovah or Yahweh).

And what does the prophet have to say on God’s behalf of what he sees?

First he is told to remind Israel of “her” faithfulness as God’s “bride.” The notion of Israel’s relationship to God as a marriage runs through all the prophets. This will have consequences after Christ, but let’s not get too far ahead of the story. Second, he decries the behavior of the Chosen People as that of a “harlot” or whore. Third, he calls to repentance, to abandoning of the “unfaithfulness” of idolatry. He concludes warning that, as we would put it, there will be hell to pay for Judah’s misbehavior.

Note that by this time the northern kingdom, the one that called itself Israel and adopted the idolatrous Baal worship, has fallen to the Assyrians. In Jeremiah we see constant contentious dialogues between God and his prophet on one side, and the kings and their priests on the other. In these arguments, the kings’ party makes repeated disparaging comparisons between the purportedly more faithful Judah and the harlotry of Israel. They fail the test when Judah’s own faults, such as allying with the idolatrous Egyptians, which will cause the final fall.

Here, as he tells of God’s wrath “Be warned, O Jerusalem,” are some of Jeremiah’s words in chapter 6
For from the least to the greatest of them, every one is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, every one deals falsely. They have healed the wound of [the Lord’s] people lightly, saying, ’Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown.
Who cannot look at one’s own country, one’s own land and one’s own people and in some sense not feel the finger of the prophet? This is Jeremiah’s powerful, almost ranting style gives rise to the word “jeremiad.”

For his troubles he is persecuted, ultimately imprisoned and freed when the Babylonian army pours into Jerusalem in 586 BCE and he is freed by express order of Nebuchadnezzar.


Into the chaotic mess of the divided kingdoms came the prophets. These were not people with crystal balls claiming to “see” into the future (usually for a fee), as noted earlier, but rather spokespersons and advocates deeply involved in the relationship between the people of Israel (or in modern terms, people of faith) and their God.

In ancient Hebrew the word “prophet” can be transliterated as navi, meaning someone into whose mouth God puts words. The Hebrew for prophet finds its way into the name of the Hebrew Bible, Tanak for Torah (law), Nevi’im (prophets) and Ketuvim (writings).

Note that all the historical books we have finished reviewing are included as Nevi’im. Obviously, many of the judges present prophetic elements, as I noted in the case of Samuel; also, Judaism considered a variety of other figures as prophetic.

The origin of the English word for prophet is closer to the modern faith understanding of the term; it comes from the Greek prophetes, or advocate. The biblical prophet is both a communicator of God’s vision and an advocate for God before us, particularly when we are losing our way. The prophet is God’s gadfly.

Judges and kings were powerful political and military figures, who acted with faith in Elohim, the law and the covenant. However, the prophet was God's reminder of the point of all the ruling, struggling and striving.

Prophets did not derive authority to speak from anything but a faith understanding that God was compelling them to do so. Moreover, the prophets did not represent the prevailing view of their society, much less the opinion of those appointed to power, even with divine ordinance to rule.

The story of the prophets is that of individual people who went largely unheard and disbelieved by their peers and contemporaries. Their inclusion in the collection of books “set apart,” or holy, such as the Bible collection, is a testament to a particularly acute stroke of rabbinical wisdom: God sometimes speaks through messengers we would rather not hear, but that is no reason to silence or exclude their words.

Traditionally, the prophets—each of whom has a biblical book  attributed to him—are divided into major and minor. The original reason for calling them one or the other was the length of their writings.

The major (or longer) prophets are the best well known: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. The Bible also has a beautiful book called Lamentations attributed to Jeremiah but most likely not his. The minor (or shorter) prophets are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

The Talmud, the Jewish post-biblical compilation of rabbinical wisdom, offers a list of 48 prophets.

These include: the patriarchs Abraham through Moses; some of the judges; several prophets who have no biblical book, such as Nathan (who confronted David about his murderous affair with Bathsheba); Elijah (found in the historical books and often mentioned in the gospels) and his homonym Elisha; and, in addition to the major and minor biblical author-prophets, a good number of other individuals.

The Talmud is advanced for its time in recognizing seven prophetesses, Miriam (sister of Moses), Deborah (the judge), Hannah (the mother of Samuel and notably a foreseer), Abigail (wife of Nabal, later of David, advocate against revenge), Huldah (the namesake of one of the gates of Jerusalem, also see 2 Kings 22:13-16), Esther (Jewish queen of Persia whose story is at the core of the feast of Purim) and Sarah (wife of Abraham).

In the next few posts we will explore two of the prophets, just enough to whet the appetite of the reader to explore more on his or her own. In so doing, the reader is commended to keep in mind that the prophets principally emerged at the time of the monarchy (united and divided kingdoms) and the Babylonian-Persian captivity. They will be speaking to the people of Israel in the context of strife, impending catastrophe and eventual subjugation.

Their message goes beyond history or soothsaying, it aims to confront religious complacency, hypocrisy and unfaithfulness to God. Those who embrace faith are always especially in need of gadfly prophets to shake things up a little.

Sunday, April 27, 2014


The Hebrews’ request for a king, to replace God’s ad hoc helpers, makes two political statements: one about the earthly authority of God and another about the place of each Israelite among his or her people.

The request shocks Samuel, the last of the judges.

In prayer, he hears the Lord console him, saying that Israel’s wanting a king instead his judgeship is similar to many earlier acts of disloyalty to the Hebrews’ one ruler, God (1 Samuel 8:7-9).

At God's bidding, Samuel explains to the people what a king means in concrete everyday terms (1 Samuel 8:11-18). An Israelite king would spell then end of the implicit equality among kinsmen and accepted members of the nation.

In ancient times, a king was something in between the modern figurehead in Britain, who reigns but does not rule, and the absolute monarch of pre-revolutionary France or Russia, whose whims were law. The king of biblical times was the primary owner of all in a domain, who was owed taxes, produce, livestock and labor in exchange for defense of the realm.

Despite the security of God’s protection and the relative equality among themselves, the people of Israel want to be more like everyone else. They want to be less dependent on God and ruled under a hereditary monarchy. The reader can tell this spells nothing but trouble.

The great biblical kings we all recall—Saul, David and Solomon—are the three who ruled from about 1030 to 931 BCE (remember that years advance backward in BCE times) over the united kingdom roughly covering a territory that today is Israel and Jordan combined.

Saul is known for his various slayings—also for his failure to slay certain other enemies. David is known for his murderous adultery with the beautiful Bathsheba; shame and guilt later led him to the wilderness, to pen the Psalms attributed to him. Solomon, son of David and Bathsheba, is known for his judicial wisdom, for building the first temple of Jerusalem and for his many wives.

That is not the full story of the monarchy of the Hebrews. Solomon's quarrelsome sons split the kingdom into two.

In the south was the territorially small kingdom of Judah, with its capital Jerusalem; this was home to the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, initially under Rehoboam. In the north, Jeroboam I set up the kingdom of Israel, with its capital city Samaria; here were the later “lost” ten tribes of Israel, who refused allegiance to Rehoboam.

The northern kingdom is the eventual home of Samaritans around the time of a certain woodworker from Galilee. Also in the 1st century of our era, the name of the southern kingdom, Judah, had become latinized to Judea, giving rise to the Roman name for its people, Iudeaorum, or Jews.

But I am getting ahead of the story.

Judah had 20 kings: Rehoboam, Abijah, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Jehoram, Ahaziah, Athaliah, Joash, Amaziah, Uzziah , Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon, Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah.

Israel had another 20 kings: Jeroboam I, Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Tibni, Omri, Ahab, Ahaziah, Jehoram, Jehu, Jehoahaz, Jehoash, Jeroboam II, Zechariah, Shallum, Menahem, Pekahiah, Pekah and Hoshea.

Jumping Jehoshaphat, that's a lot of strange names!

Their stories are hugely complicated and best read directly in the Bible (from Samuel through the II Chronicles). I only add the usual caution: treat these narratives as epics written to advance rabbinical or theological points about the relationship of the Hebrews with God, rather than as a straightforward newspaper history of two ancient kingdoms of little importance in their own day.

I'll summarize all of them in three paragraphs.

Israel existed as an independent kingdom until about 720 BCE, when it was absorbed into the Assyrian Empire, which itself was absorbed within a century into the Babylonian Empire (located in modern Iraq). This is when the mass deportation of Hebrews, known in retrospect as the Babylonian exile, first took place.

Judah was able to remain independent until 586 BCE, until its alliance with the Babylonians’ enemy, Egypt, prompted the Babylonian invasion and eventual first destruction of Jerusalem and the temple—both are noted in the book of Lamentations, attributed to the prophet Jeremiah.

In religious terms, Israel abandoned traditional faith with the acceptance of the worship of Baal, an agrarian fertility god. In the broader Semitic mythology of the Mesopotamia, Baal reigned as “master” over other gods, much as Zeus ruled the Greek set of deities. Judah remained steadfast to the God of Abraham, referred to as Elohim, but entered into dubious exchanges of ideas with Egyptians, who also offered the temptation of false gods.

Sunday, April 20, 2014


With Joshua, we enter the phase of heroic figures who “judge,” in the sense of living, encouraging or defending the virtue of justice. Biblically, this means the “righteousness” of the people of Israel when they obey divine ordinances, in particular our running theme, faithfulness.

Joshua is best known for the battle of Jericho. Archeologists have found the actual Jericho of the Bible and evidence of the city's destruction. The question that has been widely debated is when. The archeologist Kathleen Kenyon notably placed it about 100 years before the Hebrews' migration from Egypt, yet argued that this did not show the biblical narrative was “false.”

Yet the story of Joshua and most of the judges is not so much about particular battles as it is about the conflictive relationship between the Hebrews and the people already settled there.

Philistia or Palestine?

However, Joshua’s conquest story has a contemporary resonance that is often taken out of context.

Among the Canaanites were folks such as the people of the region eventually called Philistia, the Philistines, whence we get our terms Palestine and Palestinian. Although the biblical Hebrews were returning to land they claim as ancestral and divinely given to their first patriarch, the Canaanites saw them as invaders—much the way pre-1948 inhabitants of roughly the same territory, Palestinians, see modern-day Israelis.

However, there are many problems with attempting to draw modern geopolitical lessons from the biblical narrative.

Not the least of these is that Abraham, to whom the land is given by God, was almost certainly born in what today is Iraq. Also, Palestine and Palestinian are terms that do not apply to quite the same land or people as Philistia and Philistine. Thirdly, the descendants who might claim due inheritance would literally include the heirs of Abraham's first born, Ishmael, by the handmaiden Hagar; these people, called “Ishmaelites,” are today’s Arabs.

Luckily, the Bible is not about who is right or wrong in the modern wrangle between ethnic and religious cousins in the land called Israel or Palestine. Instead, the tales are the recalled collective memory of the troubled relationship—in the poetic wisdom books of the Bible it is called a courtship and a marriage—between the Abrahamic God and the people of Israel.

Epic Cycles

Besides Joshua, are 15 other judges appear in the Bible: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Barak, Gideon, Abimelech, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, Samson and Eli. Each of the judge narratives has a similar epic cycle.

The people of Israel start off in obedience to the Lord. They fall into disobedience and idolatry (to understand what is meant by this, consider our own modern idolatry of the dollar and its moral effects). This straying from God leads to the defeat and enslavement of Israel. Then the people cry out to the Lord for help. God calls a judge to bring about deliverance. Finally, Israel repents and returns to faithfulness to the Lord.

Note that there is a woman among the judges: Deborah, a prophetess, counselor, warrior and wife (of Lapidoth) in Judges 4 and 5. She leads a successful counterattack against the forces of Jabin, king of Canaan. The story ends with a triumphal song to Deborah well worth reading; think of a troubadour recounting a great tale of a recent heroine.

The sequence of judges ends with Samuel, which begins with the beautiful and prophetic-style story of his calling (1 Samuel 3). (I recommend that you read 1 Samuel chapters 1 and 2 as well. You see here a perfect example of portentous birth narratives, very useful to keep in mind for when we come to a certain baby born in Bethlehem.)

At the end of Samuel’s ministry, comes a crucial political transformation among the Hebrews concerning how they understand authority and earthly power. Up to Samuel, the people have relied on God to send leaders, lawgivers and rescuers; they were God's people, the Lord was their God and ruler.

Now they want to be more like their neighbors, as we shall see.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Rescuers, Leaders and Spokespersons

There’s an old story told about a man on the roof of his house in a flood. He refused the help of a guy in a canoe, a family in a raft and the Red Cross in a helicopter, saying each time that God would save him. After he drowns, he’s at the Pearly Gates lamenting that he had not received the divine help he expected. Then God says, “Hey, I sent you a canoe, a raft and a helicopter and you refused each one.”

Pretty much the same are the story arcs of God’s rescuers and spokespersons to the ancient Hebrews as they enter and conquer Canaan. Up to Moses, we have patriarchs. They were literally the successive fathers of the descendants of Abraham.

By the time they get back to Canaan, the promised land, the Hebrews (600,000 people says the Bible, 600 families say benign scholars) are no longer only the lineal descendants of Abraham. There are marriages to people outside the tribe and converts to the faith.

Induction by marriage is illustrated by the story of Ruth, the Moabite woman who married Naomi's son Mahlon, the eventual grandmother of David and ancestor of Yeshua. Conversion is depicted in the story of Rahab, the harlot enlisted by Joshua as a spy, who is later welcomed as a member of the Hebrew people. Both Ruth and Rahab are particularly significant since identity at birth as an ancient Hebrew or a modern Jew was, and still is, passed on by the mother.

These stories indicate the Hebrews’ emerging self-understanding as a confederation of tribes under the rule of God, rather than a blood-related ethnic or national group. At that point, the Hebrew people are bound in belief in the one deity whose name is set apart, referred to by title, Adonai (Lord), and respected by obedience to the law that God gave. They gradually take on the name Israel, meaning “one who is triumphant, or prevails, with God.”

Once the Hebrews have received from Moses the first foundational commandments, God sends them three kinds of people to lead them: judges, kings and prophets—which I now describe in a quick sweep of the next eight centuries, with details left for later.

The judges ruled roughly between the 12th and 10th centuries BCE, beginning with Joshua, Moses' successor, chosen as the one to lead the Hebrews into the Promised Land. There were 16 divinely appointed judges, who served as unelected and nonhereditary leaders who had judicial and military authority.

Then come the kings, 9th to 6th centuries BCE, first in a single united kingdom, then in the two kingdoms, both of which enter into crisis and are eventually overrun.

During the decline of the monarchy there emerge the appearance prophets who warn, cajole and ultimately lament the great biblical disaster that was the fall of the kingdoms and the subsequent Babylonian captivity. At the end of the captivity (around the 5th century) comes a restoration of at least the faith that binds them as a people, a reality expressed in the first compilation and draft of the written Hebrew Bible.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


On the way to Canaan, at Mount Sinai (or Horeb), Moses receives the first foundational divine laws we know as the Ten Commandments. These are deemed the most essential ethical principles of both Judaism and Christianity; it is worth halting the story to review them.

Everyone agrees there are ten, but not every compilation of the texts at Exodus 20: 2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21 breaks them up the same way.

The first three commandments (or two, in some counts) are about the relationship with God. The first is a call for total and primary allegiance to Adonai (Hebrew for “Lord”) above all other gods, without the distraction of graven images. Failure to do so is subject to “visiting the iniquity” of those who forsake the jealous God, while faithful obedience is rewarded by “steadfast love.”

Then there’s the demand to respect God's name, which we discussed earlier in the power of naming. In some circles this is interpreted as a prohibition on writing the holy name (YHVH, rendered in modern translations as Yahweh or Jehovah to fill in the vowels that biblical Hebrew didn’t use).

However, it is probably more aptly seen as a command not to think you can have God in your power, in your pocket, or on your side); in the biblical understanding, to name something was to have power and control over it. Note how Adam is given dominion over all creatures and told to name them; this is not entirely dissimilar to parents’ power in naming their child. Also implicit in not using the name in vain is the prohibition against perjury, or stating a lie when calling upon God as a witness—the essence of an oath.

Last in these rules concerning the relationship with God is making holy (or setting apart) "the Sabbath" or "the Lord's Day." The Sabbath, or Saturday, was understood as the seventh day, when God rested after creation. Christian sabbatarianism shifted the day to Sunday, the day the resurrection of Jesus is commemorated. This has been variously interpreted as having something to do with going to church or to the synagogue, but in the biblical text neither is explicitly involved.

The remaining seven (or eight) commands are about the relations between humans, starting with that of child and parent. The “honor” due a parent is not defined. Instead, a good-for-you sort of reciprocity is implied: the child who honors a parent will live long and in turn be honored as a parent. In various other biblical, rabbinical and ecclesiastical takes, there is a parallelism seen in honoring one’s biological parents and honoring God, the ultimate parent of all.

The imperative against killing is specifically against murder (retsach in Hebrew). The word is used in reference to what was done to Abel, whose brother Cain slew him out of jealousy (Genesis 4:8). It also appears when Moses slays an Egyptian in reprisal for killing a Hebrew slave (Exodus 2:11-12). However, it is not used biblically for killing in war and the Bible draws a clear distinction that exempts killing as the due consequence of a crime; indeed, capital punishment is biblically mandated for a variety of wrongdoings, including murder.

Adultery, the subject of the next commandment, meant sexual relations between a married woman and a man not her husband—both before Sinai (Gen. 12:17 and 20:3) and later under Mosaic law. The prohibition concerned abusing property rights in two respects: first, by taking from the husband his wife, his alone to enjoy sexually; secondly, by introducing the possibility of the husband’s inheritance ending up in the hands of a child sired by another man, effectively stealing it from the husband’s heirs by blood.

Catholic moral theology expanded adultery to cover all sex outside sacramental matrimony; in the Protestant view, it generally means sexual relations in which at least one participant, male or female, is married to someone else.

Christian interpretations notwithstanding, the property element in the ancient biblical understanding of adultery is confirmed in the very next command against stealing, which was also understood to include stealing the freedom of another Hebrew for personal or commercial purposes.

Next comes the command barring false witness against a neighbor, which calls out once again the prohibition against perjury; neighbor means anyone with whom a Hebrew might come in contact.

The two (or one) commands against coveting are the only ethical principles concerning relations between people that prohibit a certain kind of thought, emotion or disposition. There are arguments as to whether the word “covet” is an apt translation. The Hebrew is chamad, rendered in English also as “lust” and “strong desire.” The medieval Spanish rabbi Maimonides offered the prevailing widespread interpretation that the prohibition keeps the believer a safe distance away from theft, adultery and murder.

At this point, I cannot help but repeat a biblical study joke that unites the two verses, whether counted as one commandment or two. One prohibits coveting one’s neighbor’s house, manservant or maidservant, or his ox or ass. The other prohibits coveting the neighbor's wife. Some wags suggest that there is no difference between a neighbor’s ass and a neighbor’s wife.

Rounding up with a little more seriousness, it should be understood that these commands were presented as the “quid” of the quid pro quo between God as liberator from Egypt and the Hebrew people: I took you out of bondage, now these are my rules.

These were not understood by the ancient Hebrews—or by Jews today—as universal moral rules. In the Jewish understanding, Jews are bound to the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, along with 603 other laws in the Torah, including some of considerably lesser moral significance, such as dietary laws.

Gentiles, in effect almost all humanity, are only bound to the Seven Laws of Noah (also known as Noahide Law), which combine the six ordinances given by God to Adam at Eden (Genesis 2:16-25) plus one added in the covenant with Noah after the Flood (Genesis 9). They prohibit idolatry, murder, theft, sexual immorality, blasphemy and eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive; in addition, the law commands the establishment and maintenance of courts to provide legal redress for wrongdoing.

In the Christian understanding, the Ten Commandments were subsumed into faith in Jesus Christ, who professed not to abolish the Law of Moses, but to fulfill it. Granted, as we shall see, the Christian faith is not at heart a matter of rules.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Exodus and Return

Two things happen to these tribes of Israel founded by Jacob. Both are emblematic of the relationship with God that the biblical tradition has in mind for them—and for everyone. The first is the departure from “home”; the second is the difficult way back.

In what the Bible recounts as a “boys will be boys” kind of prank, Jacob’s older sons, born of Leah, gang up on the penultimate brother, Joseph, who is “cooler” than they are. He is, incidentally, also the first born of Jacob’s second wife, Rachel. Joseph is sold into slavery.

Do note that slavery in ancient times, and in the Bible, was considerably more benign than the utterly dehumanizing “peculiar institution” of the antebellum U.S. South.

For the most part, ancient slavery was a temporary indenture that functioned as a form of debt payment: the slave had to make up through labor the value of the debt plus some profit. Another avenue into slavery was war: slaves were the human booty of conquest and served the victors. Many famous figures of antiquity were at one time slaves; for example, Aesop the fable writer, Spartacus the rebel and even St. Patrick of Ireland, who was captured and enslaved for a time.

But on with the story.

A famine comes and Jacob’s family flees to the renown granaries of Egypt, where an important aide to the Pharaoh gets them into trouble. Turns out this important man is Joseph, who has worked himself out of slavery and is now playing a revenge prank on his kin. After getting his fun, Joseph recognizes his kin as kin and helps them establish themselves in Egypt.

Eventually, over many years, the kin reproduce and settle in and there are too many Hebrews in Egypt. Many are enslaved and mistreated. One of them, Moses, grows up to lead their departure from the place where once they were received with hospitality. Moses is guided by God in the first theocratic (or divinely ordained) revolution.

The story in the book of Exodus also leads to a long wandering in the desert. During that period God's law (which is much, much lengthier than the Ten Commandments given at Sinai) is given. Eventually, they return to the land of Canaan, which had been bestowed to Abraham and his descendants.

We don't know for certain that Moses was a historical figure or that the exodus event actually happened, at least not exactly as the Bible tells it—let alone as portrayed in film by Charlton Heston. Modern archaeologists can find traces of a “Hapiru” (Hebrew?) tribe that left
Egypt over the course of a century around 1200 BCE.

Historically true or not, the exodus out of the Promised Land is an archetype of the human experience. We leave the home of our parent for often frivolous and wrongheaded reasons, unintended consequences follow and thereafter we seek to return, if only by forming a family of our own in a new home. We think we know better and cast faith aside, only to discover that there was some wisdom there and we return, changed and perhaps taking a new measure of faith, to the home of our beliefs.

This is where the Hebrew people find themselves as Moses dies, leaving Joshua to lead them back into Canaan.