Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 16

So, now for the controversial affair with Hagar.

This is where many of the factors I previously described come to a head. In particular, it draws out the conflict between God's promise and Sarai's barrenness. There is a tension here as well, as obviously everyone is thinking about the inheritance of this wealthy man. Will he have a child? Both Abram and Sarai are getting very old at this point, near or past the age of childbearing.

Sarai proposes that Abram have sex with Hagar, her maid, that through her maid she might have children. This is something we will see later in Genesis, but I don't know much about how historically common this is.

This chapter is very important biblically because it is also quoted in the NT (in Galatians) as a metaphor for two different groups of people, those who are children of the Flesh and follow the Law vs. those who are children of the Spirit who follow the Spirit.

One thing that is fascinating about this episode is that there is no part of the bible that explicitly judges it on moral grounds (whether to be the right thing to do or more likely, the wrong thing to do). This has some interesting results, because it has left the moral interpretation of the events largely open to anyone impressing their particular beliefs onto it. I don't think this is the right approach, but it is certainly the common approach.

The reason for leaving out moral judgment, in my opinion, is that the biblical author is presuming that the reader shares his moral viewpoint. This is really the best and most sensible rationale I can think of. I don't think it's for implicitly avowing moral relativism (i.e. polygamy is wrong for me, but it's right for you), and it's *not* because "anything that is not condemned is approved". This is a very common (implied) exegetical argument, that is never exactly stated in those words but is referenced all the time. That is, people use the non-condemnation of Abram's polygamy (and later, Jacob doing the same) either 1) as proof that polygamy is OK (this is less common), or 2) as proof that the bible is anachronistic, outdated and invalid to modern society (this is much, much more common). Naturally, I don't like either conclusion, and not just because I dislike the results. It's because the "means", the interpretative assumption, is incorrect.

This whole "if it's not condemned, then it's approved" line of reasoning is applied to a number of different passages, usually with the expressed purpose of showing that the bible approves of a number of different disagreeable actions by various actors, and then the usual conclusion is the irrelevancy of the bible. It can be difficult to argue against this reasoning because, well, the bible doesn't actually explicitly condemn those actions (at least, in the space of the relevant passage), so it can be difficult to show that the bible indeed implicitly condemns the actions. I will try to show my readers that the bible has a consistent pattern of implicitly condemning actions, and from there extend this principle to other areas such as here, in Gen 16. This is a really important issue because it comes up all the time in Christian apologetics, and it is very easy for people who are not familiar with the bible to get tripped up by these passages when they are stated without proper context.

I can think of several important "not explicitly condemned" actions in the bible that are clearly contrary to the stated ordinances of the Law, which is the basis of Hebrew morality. First, nearly the entire book of Judges. I won't give a detailed analysis here (the Judges section of my commentary should cover this), but I will list a few example verses: 14:2 (marrying outside of Israel), 14:9 (touching and eating from a dead wild animal, and it's even unclean), 17:3-5 (graven image, though arguably verse 6 is a condemnation), 18:27 (theft), 18:31 (graven image). The second example is 1 Samuel 3:3 (the lamp should never go out). I could probably find a few more if I looked carefully, but it's true that most instances of violations of the Law are condemned in some fashion. Having multiple wives is not condemned by the Law, but in a modern context that means very little to a Christian who has to consider the broad re-interpretation of the OT postulated by life in the New Covenant.

Either way, from a logical point of view, critics are actually trying to make an affirmative statement here (the bible supports [X] where [X] might be slavery, polygamy, etc). As such, it is necessary to offer evidence of the affirmative statement, and only listing verses where the practice is mentioned (e.g. Abram's polygamy) does not prove that it is positively supported by the bible. It only proves that it is mentioned in the bible. You might as well say that historians support the Holocaust because they discuss the Holocaust.

Honestly, I wouldn't spend so much time on this issue if I didn't see it raised so often by skeptics and others who are not really versed in biblical hermeneutics. As I've demonstrated, it is not logically sound and also, if applied consistently across the bible, produces logical contradictions (i.e. that the bible supports things it also condemns like touching or eating a dead wild animal). I will now return to the events of Gen 16.

So anyway, both Abram and Sarai are desperate to have a child, so they take to desperate measures. Abram, one can speculate, was not actually told that his son would also be Sarai's child. At least, it's not mentioned so far in the bible. So perhaps he thought that this action was in line with what God wanted him to do. Who knows.

It immediately states that Hagar conceived a child, and things go sour just as quickly. Hagar starts to get perhaps... pleased with her success where Sarai failed, Sarai gets immediately jealous and challenges Abram. Abram prioritizes Sarai over Hagar, and so Sarai starts to abuse Hagar. Hagar (still pregnant) promptly flees.

All of this strife shows that Abram's decision is quickly proving for the worse. Hagar and Sarai are immediately in conflict, and Sarai is angry with Abram even though he simply did what she proposed. So Sarai appears to be conflicted with herself, having suggested for Abram to do something and then getting angry with him when he does. To be humorous for a moment, "that's just like a woman." And of course, Abram is being just like a man. "But you told me to do it! How can you be angry?" But in this case, Abram partially makes up for this by caving to Sarai's pressure and allowing Sarai to dominate Hagar: Hagar was perhaps thinking that by bearing Abram's firstborn son, she would be elevated in power, maybe even above Sarai. But Abram proves his loyalty first to his wife, even though she was barren.

Obviously life would have been simpler, and perhaps easier, if he had never had sex with Hagar. This is another reason why some people think Abram makes a mistake here, because of the short-term consequences. We will see this strife continue in later chapters.

Interestingly, an angel appears to Hagar and tells her to go back. Even though Hagar (and Ishmael) are not in the genealogy of Christ or the Jewish people, they are still important to God so that he sends the "Angel of the LORD" (which is variously interpreted as either an angel, an important angel, or a pre-incarnation of Christ, a Christophany). In my opinion, this shows at the least that God values everyone, even in OT times.

Then Hagar names God, and it's one of my favorite names, The God who sees me.

We also now have an age for Abram: he is 86 years old. This is very old by our standards, though if we presume he will live as long as his recent ancestors, he will live for some time yet.

Bible Commentary - Genesis 15

Genesis 15.... sigh, one of my favorite chapters. Is there a way that I can speak of this chapter to express what it means to me? Probably not.

This really is the turning point in Abram's life.... well, the first turning point. :) I guess he has maybe 1-2 more later on. But I see this as the turning point because of the emotional side. Abram just rescued Lot, overpowered four kings and destroyed their army. He turned down the king of Sodom's reward and proclaimed his devotion to the Lord, that he would take the succor of no man and adhere to the Lord in all things. What an oath! This is the consistent pattern we see in Abram's life, and it really is striking. And here, after all that, God speaks to Abram again "in a vision" (again, note the different means through which God speaks to Abram). So this was a vision that Abram saw, and God says, I am your shield and your very great reward. Abram is torn by this. On the one hand, he honors and trusts God, but on the other hand, he still doesn't have a son. So he is torn between the promised heir and the present lack. This is no doubt why Abram is called the father of faith, because he is going through the same experience that so many do, trying to reconcile the promises of God with the present, and waiting and striving for the fulfillment of those promises.

(Eliezer of Damascus is probably Abraham's chief servant.)

Then the word of the Lord comes to Abram again: you will have a son from your own body. And then God takes him outside to count the stars, and that would be the number of his descendants. Abram believes God, and that power of faith is Abram's righteousness. The dialogue continues. God has already promised him this son, and Abram believes, and now God strikes up on the second key element, which is possessing the land. God tells Abram to bring animals for sacrifice, so that they might establish a covenant. This is a peculiar story, because Abram falls into a deep sleep but then a torch and a "smoking oven" pass through the sacrificed animals. I always wondered how would Abram know that they passed if he was in a deep sleep. I'm not entirely sure other than that verse 17 happens after the deep sleep, so possibly it was a deep sleep, God speaks verses 13-16, then Abram wakes up and sees verse 17. Of course, this story is being told by a writer other than Abram, so the author would not have to rely on Abram's first-hand knowledge.

Anyway, God establishes the covenant. The reason for walking through the animals is that you are affirming "If I do not uphold this covenant, I agree that what was done to the animals shall be done to me." So you basically affirm that the other party has the right to kill you if you fail on your end of the agreement.

God's promise is affirmed. Abram believes, in spite of present circumstances, and he becomes the father of faith.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 14

I can't believe I forgot to talk about Sarai's barrenness. This was declared back in chapter 11, right at the beginning of the story because it is pivotal in the events that transpire. This is one of the deepest issues in Abram/Sarai's lives right now, for more than three very big reasons. The first has to do with God's promise, that Abram would be a great nation and have many descendants. He is receiving these promises when he doesn't even have a son. The second factor is cultural, and it is perhaps hard to explain to Americans, but it is the deep, deep importance of having sons in ancient Israel. This is still true today in some parts of the work (like China), which is why I specifically say "Americans".

Basically, bearing children is one of the primary roles of a woman in this time, especially sons. It would be considered a curse or severe misfortune to not have any children, and as we will see later it causes a lot of stress in their marriage. What modern readers need to understand is the sense of shame or embarrassment that would come from being a barren woman.

The third factor is economic. This is a complicated issue so I will be very brief. Having sons is a safety net because the expectation is that your sons will take care of you when you are old and cannot support your own herd/farm. Your sons (and in later Israel, daughters as well) inherit your property, and they ensure the continuance of your name and your family bloodline. They also will aid you in labor, in particular when running a farm. Farming is very labor intensive, and it is cyclical. While all the evidence is that Abram and Sarai were primarily nomadic herders, the later Israelite people were clearly agrarian. As such, the agrarian themes and farming patterns recur almost continuously throughout the OT, so it is important to learn them early and recognize them when they appear.

One of these patterns, the one relevant to this discussion, is the importance of children. You need to have children to help run your farm, because they are the labor that will help to plow, sow and reap crops. While many Israelite farmers hire (or sometimes buy) other workers, your children work basically for free since you don't really have to pay them wages.

So, that's the short version of why barrenness matters, both practically and symbolically. It is used in the bible in both ways (as a literal story element and as a symbolic element) quite a few times. Practically it matters because of the stigma and economic implications, symbolically it is even more complicated but I don't have the time to discuss it fully here.

Moving on, I have to admit that my mind is divided. On the one hand, I want to try to move fast through these chapters so that I have a sense of progress, and can give a sense of progress to my readers. To get bogged down so early would make it seem like I will never finish. Yet at the same time, the story of Abraham is truly one of the most inspirational stories in the bible to me, so I hesitate because there is a lot I want to say. I will probably go with my instinct, which is to write at great length about Abraham. It will slow me down, but that's the price of reading Genesis.

So up til now, we have mostly just seen the introduction. The characters are described, and they took a trip down to Egypt (and were expelled back up). In this chapter the story continues in an interesting way, with a war between two coalitions of kings.

To the best of my knowledge, none of these kings have been identified in non-biblical sources, but that shouldn't be too surprising because we haven't even found the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah at all. Also, it might not be clear to the reader (depending on what bible version you use) but Shinar is the Hebrew name for Babylon. Sodom, Gomorrah and Bela are all in the Jordan plains, so it's clearly a regional coalition. Elam and the associated nations are an empire of sorts, ruled by Elam and with the others subservient.

While the battle itself is not described, it says the kings of Sodom, Gomorrah et al fled, and so you know they lost. We also know that because it is a battle of 9 kings, it was probably a (comparatively) very large battle. Then the relevant part happens: they take Lot captive. Captivity would not be a pleasant thing. In the worst case, he would be executed, and in the best case, he would be enslaved somewhere. So when Abram hears this, he goes to rescue Lot. He is also allied with the men who live near him in Canaan, some Amorites.

This is really interesting to me, because at this point one would think that Abram had known of Sodom and Gomorrah's reputation, but he is still willing to fight on their behalf to save his nephew. In Abram's life, he is the forefather of the nation of Israel, but that means that in a biblical sense, he is the only righteous man in Canaan at the time (and then there is Lot, but Lot is in the Jordan plains outside of Canaan). So in that sense Abram is very much like an NT apostle, breaking new ground in the faith. In fact, he is pretty much the first member of the Jewish faith entirely. In that situation, he makes a number of alliances with non-righteous people, like Mamre and to a lesser extent, Sodom and Gomorrah. Similarly, Lot aligns himself much more strongly with Sodom and Gomorrah. All of God's commands later to the Jewish people revolve around purity, both in how they practice their faith but also how they should separate themselves from the people of the world in righteousness, marriage and political affairs. Basically, the idolatry of other peoples would snare the Israelites into practicing the same idolatry, and dangerously undermine their faith in God. Rarely did the Israelites practice such purity and separation, but God speaks of it often.

The life of Abram predates all of these commands, but his life does not predate the spirit of those commands, which is to live in devotion to the Lord. I can certainly understand the pragmatic motivation for such alliances, as Abram clearly needs allies in his new homeland, but I do wonder if this was the right decision in light of what God had spoken and Abram's intrinsic sense of what he should do to honor God. Similarly, many scholars question Abram's decision to lie about Sarai when he went to Egypt, because lying to protect yourself implies a distrust towards God, who is ostensibly Abram's protector; and God proves himself to be Abram's protector by the plagues he unleashed on Pharaoh. So after the plagues on Pharaoh, one would wonder if Abram should be more trusting of God, and again Abram's alliance with Mamre implies distrust towards God who is his protector, and that Abram is not doing the right thing by allying with the wicked people he has more or less come to supplant (and his descendants eventually will supplant the Amorites).

With all that said, we still see the favor of God upon Abram, as Abram routs a very large army (unstated size, but the men under 4 kings including the very powerful Elamites) with just 318 men. This is not impossible (see the movie 300 for another example), but it would certainly be considered an example of the favor of God. Victory in battle is usually a proxy for divine favor, as the victory or defeat of an army is considered the victory or defeat of their patron god. As such, a small group beating a large one clearly shows that the small group's patron god is stronger, because there is no "natural explanation" for their victory. For another example of this, read the story of Gideon in the book of Judges (I'll get there eventually). Abram rescues Lot, but we also read that many other people had been captured and were now freed as well, as well as some material possessions.

Next we see a very interesting element, which is when Abram returns he is greeted by the kings and blessed by Melchizedek, the king of Salem and also the "priest of God Most High". God Most High is considered by some to be a reference to a pagan deity, and also Salem is another name for Jerusalem. It would certainly be very unusual for a pagan like the king of Salem to be a priest of the true God, and yet there's more to the story than just this. Later in the bible, Melchizedek will be referenced in the Psalms (Ps 110) and also in Hebrews, chapter 5 and 6. If you want to read about it at length, you can check out here.

Long story short, Melchizedek is considered either a symbolic representation of Christ, or a Christophany (appearance of Christ himself before his human incarnation). Personally I lean more towards the former than the latter. Given how he interjects into the scene and has a defined role as king of a city, it would make little sense for him to be anything but a human being with a real life and real subjects, because otherwise it would be a challenge for him to have any meaningful relation to the other kings who are present. Surely the kings of other cities would be familiar with the king of Salem.

Anyway, Abram gives Melchizedek a tenth of the plunder, returns the rest to the various kings and to his allies Mamre et al, and then goes home, happy to have rescued Lot.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 13

In this chapter, Abram and Lot are forced to separate due to the great size of their herds.

Alright, so chapter 13 continues with the story of Abram (later to be called Abraham. And if you haven't figured it out yet, Sarai is later to be called Sarah).

So Abram leaves Egypt, as he was forced to do by Pharaoh in the prior chapter. We see that he is (still) quite wealthy, although this is the first time it is openly mentioned that he is exceedingly wealthy.

Wealth is considered one of the promises (in the OT) from God if you obey his commands, so you could probably say that this wealth demonstrates that Abram is favored by God.

Abram and Lot have to separate because their flocks are too large. Of course, being nomadic pastoralists, their flocks almost directly equate to their wealth. Lot moves to the east, probably across the river (although I don't believe anyone knows where Sodom and Gomorrah actually were), and Abram is left in the somewhat less fertile Canaan. This is, of course, the setup for what happens next: the infamous events of when two visitors come to Sodom, and this explains why Lot was present in the city at that time. Some commentators also use it as an insight into Lot's character. In spite of his righteousness, he is allured by visions of wealth into going to the plains of the Jordan, yet because he associated with wicked men (without being wicked himself), it ends up costing him his entire fortune. But we will see more of this soon enough.

The LORD speaks to Abram again (note: no appearance this time, just a message), but while God only speaks to Abram, the content of the message escalates. Before, Abram heard: You will be a great nation, I will give this land to your descendants. Now God repeats that the land is his, but also says that his descendants will number as the dust of the earth: a rather extravagant claim. Abram responds by building yet another altar, again demonstrating his piety and devotion to the LORD. This is consistent with his prior actions.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 12

In this chapter, Abram is called by God to follow him into a new, foreign country.

This chapter starts very abruptly. It continues chapter 11, after a fashion, because it begins the story of Abram, but it does so very suddenly, with "Now the LORD said to Abram". First, when it says "now the...", know that this is one of those Hebrew connector phrases I talked about before. They interject this to make up for how there is no punctuation, and use phrases like this to separate different paragraphs/stories.

Second, one of the keys of the story of Abram is to study the different experiences he has with God. In particular, look not just at what God says, but just as importantly, look at how God reveals himself to Abram. In this case, it says "the LORD said". This doesn't necessarily mean that Abram heard an audible voice, but it means that somehow God communicated this particular idea/instruction to Abram.

Third, note the immediacy of Abram's response. While the story doesn't give a timeline (so this could indicate time compression like I discussed in chapter 3), just after verses 1-3, it says that Abram went forth. However, this is something we will see as a recurring pattern in his life, so it is possibly implied here as well.

So verse 1 is interesting. In some ways it is reminiscent of chapter 1, "In the beginning God created". It begins the story by stating an act of God, which is the driving force for what follows.

In terms of what God says, the command emphasizes leaving the familiar and this implies a lot of risk. Generally speaking, the ancient Mid East was a very family-centric place, as we will learn repeatedly by reading the OT. And in fact, Israelite culture in particular strongly revolved around the concept of the "inheritance", a given patch of land which is cultivated and passed on from generation to generation. So for Abram to give up his country and his father's home certainly seems to draw a strong contrast with the Israelite inheritance. It would also be dangerous to leave the familiar, because of how the family plays a strong role as a support structure. Living in a time when there is no government assistance, no food stamps, no public clinics or emergency room that is free for all to enter, your family plays the primary role of supporting you if something goes wrong, like you get injured or a business venture fails for some reason. So leaving all of that support and going off into unknown lands is a pretty big risk.

But on the other hand is the commensurate blessing, of becoming a great nation and his name being great. And then the last part is an ancient fealty oath, which Abram (and possibly the Israelites when reading this story) would understand. To bless those who bless and curse those who curse is a standard formula for expressing something like allegiance.

This is further regarded by many as the Abrahamic Covenant. Many people consider it to still be in effect, which has resulted in a notable "Bless Israel" community in the Christian world. This community (spearheaded by individuals such as John Hagee) believe that if they "bless Israel" by prayer, financial giving or political support, that they will receive a blessing, as per verse 3.

As I said before, Covenental theology is a whole field in its own right, so I'm not going to go into much depth here. But I will say that my personal opinion towards that viewpoint is hesitant, but not dismissive. It always seemed like this position requires you to latch onto this single verse absolutely, but I don't see how it can be reasonably reconciled with things like the Babylonian exile or Romans 11.

I guess what I will say in response is that this verse only explicitly declares a blessing on those who bless Abram. So it doesn't say anything here about "blessing those who bless your descendants" (though admittedly that could show up in one of the later blessings and I'm just forgetting it). And then there is the broader question of "what is a blessing", and there is the important question of whether it is accurate to interpret this passage literally when it is a formulaic statement of allegiance. And then there is the very important question of "which descendants we should include", when you consider passages like Galatians 3:16 where Paul positively identifies the seed of Abraham as being the Christ. I have never seen a cogent synthesis of all of these issues into the Bless Israel paradigm, but I'm still open to hearing such a synthesis.

We will hit verses relevant to this issue later, so I will probably discuss it more then. All that for just the first four verses... this will be a long post I see.

It talks about Abram's journey to Canaan (both a land and a people). And the Canaanite was then in the land. In verse 7, it says the LORD "appeared" to Abram. The first time, it was the LORD "said". Now he appears. This clearly shows an escalation of divine manifestation. Furthermore, it is getting somewhat more distinct. It describes a specific occasion where God appeared to Abram, rather than a general, broadly phrased message. The message in v. 7 is directly related to the prior message. The previously unnamed "land which I will show you" is Canaan. However, given the expression it is definitely possible that v. 7 shows a compressed conversation. I.e. that God says a whole bunch of stuff, but it is briefly summarized as "this is the land I was talking about." Of course, in my own conversations with God I have definitely seen the Lord use this sort of terseness, so I would not rule it out, yet the structure of ancient writings tends to encourage this sort of brevity, and we will see it often.

Abram's response again immediately follows the appearance of the LORD. He builds an altar at the place where the LORD appeared to him (which reinforces the notion that this is a distinct event, because it occurred at a single place). It isn't stated exactly where this happened, although the previous verse mentions Shechem, which in modern Israel is somewhat north-easterly, in the West Bank territory. Next he camps near Bethel, which is also reasonably near the west bank of the Jordan. He builds a second altar (definitely pious), and then starts traveling south toward the Negev (desert).

"Now there was a famine". This again implies a temporal disconnect. The famine occurs some unspecified time after Abram moves in and builds the two altars. Then Abram moves to Egypt. This is another very common trope in the Bible: fleeing to Egypt for refuge. It happens at least twice more in the OT and once in the NT.

I'm not sure what to say about vv. 11-12. I guess it was common to kill people and steal their wives in antiquity? I have no insight for this part. Then Pharaoh takes his wife for himself, gets struck with plagues, sends her back and drives them both out of the country. How did he know that Sarai was Abram's wife? It doesn't say. This is a strange story and I can find little to draw from it. It obviously shows vast cultural differences between then and now (given that Pharaoh just "takes" Sarai and gives free stuff to Abram in exchange), and it leaves a lot of open questions, but it at least seems pretty consistent, so I'd just take it as an element in Abram's life, something to see his character through, and move on. We can only imagine the famine is over, so in spite of Pharaoh's anger, Abram makes it through pretty well.

It is at first glance very weird that God would plague Pharaoh because he took Sarai. I mean, what the heck? It's the sort of thing I would write more about if I had more time to do this, but I will be focusing a lot on the next few chapters so maybe I will come back and write in some lengthy editorial at a later date.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 11

This chapter can be properly divided into two sections. The first eight verses are the story of Babel, and then the rest is a genealogy of Abram. They should be considered distinct story elements, because they really are. Remember, the chapter divisions were *later* added to the book, and not in the original manuscripts.

You know, the way that Genesis jumped from genealogy to Babel back to genealogy really is quite sudden, which makes me respect the JEDP theory a bit more. I mean, it does sometimes have the appearance of a collection of fragments. But on the other hand, nearly everything that we have read so far has clear logical and historical connections as you move from section to section. It starts with creation, progresses to Adam, then to his children, then on down to Noah, then it gives the Table of Nations as the world is repopulated, and now we see the tower of Babel which is (apparently) the next significant event now that the world is being repopulated after the flood.

In the aftermath of the flood, it would make a lot of sense that the people would share a common language, and to a large extent live in the same region. Certain elements here are obvious summary statements and should not be interpreted literally. For instance, verse 3. This is not meant to be a literal statement about men saying, at one specific time, "let's bake bricks". It is a summary statement to describe perhaps decades of hundreds or thousands of people collectively deciding to build brick structures in a general area.

That said, verses 5-7 are very interesting and as I have said often before, it is broadly interpreted by nearly everyone to mean nearly everything. Pretty much anyone who reads this passage forms a strong opinion about what it says about God and how he deals with people. The most common negative interpretation is that this shows God wanting to clamp down on human independence and unity: that humans are capable of so much, that he just has to beat them down a little.

The most common conservative interpretation looks at a few key elements. 1) the people are gathering together and refuse to spread over the earth. This is directly contrary to God's command/blessing, which tells man to spread over the earth. 2) building a great tower is indicative of pride, especially when they say "reaches to the heavens". This is an early example of "man as god", the human desire to achieve godhood, in terms of power and greatness. This is a desire that has been acted out for many thousands of years, and is seen today in such things as Kurzweil's Singularity theory and associated dreams. I don't accuse them of doing anything worse than anybody else, but I have to say based on passages like this, that their dreams are most likely misplaced. I don't believe that God is going to open the door to human godhood (immortality on earth, omnipotence, omniscience) anytime soon, and certainly not before human redemption through Christ.

So yeah, the conservative reading takes this not as "hey, let's build a city" and more as "hey, let's challenge God". And it's not that God is offended or something, but the obviousness of God's greater power requires that the human endeavor should fail, lest they continue in their self-deception to their own detriment.

One thing that I find very interesting about this passage is that, while everyone imbues it with a moral connotation, at least in the English translation there aren't any moral expressions (i.e. wicked, evil, good, bad). All of the actions are described in morally neutral terms, which is possibly why this passage has resulted in such divergent viewpoints (God the domineering, humanity the unruly).

That's all I have to say on Babel. Next is the genealogy of Abram, and I think I said this before but Abram is the same person as Abraham. They are two different names for the same person.

From the list of names, we still see the pattern of gradually decreasing ages. While the genealogy of Adam to Lamech showed between 700 and 900 years of age, in this genealogy we see the ages of people shrinking from 500 down to about 120 years. Similarly, the age at which men have their first child decreased from 60-130 years down to about 30 years.

Also, this list is somewhat redundant with the genealogy in chapter 10. However, like I said there this one is a directed genealogy, so it is written with a different purpose than the Table of Nations. In this one, it is written to show the heredity of Abram, how he is a descendant of Shem (the son blessed by Noah).

The rest of the chapter is just setting the stage for Abram's story, by describing his family, his father's family, and where they live. It describes their travel from Ur towards Canaan, before having heard anything from God.

When it says they "came to Haran", it is talking about a town/city they founded that they named Haran after Terah's dead son. It is common in antiquity to name cities after your children. We will see this at least once more in the bible, also in Genesis.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 10

Now we're into the third major genealogy, depending on how you count (Cain to Lamech, Adam to Noah), and this one is much broader than the prior genealogies. Generally speaking, there are two types of genealogies we will meet in the bible. The first, what we saw before, is a directed linear genealogy, which generally scopes out from one person to their descendant. So like the Cain to Lamech genealogy, it only includes father to son relationship between the two individuals. The genealogy here in chapter 10 is the second type, which is a broad genealogy. While all the people mentioned in it are descended from Noah, they are broadly scattered amongst various family lines, so it does not show the focused linearity of the first kind. In computer science terms, the first one is kinda like a depth-first search, while the second is kinda like a breadth-first search.... (that's a joke of sorts...).

... Anyway, there are a lot of names in this chapter. A few of them we will see again, the vast majority we won't. This is the sort of chapter that I think historians absolutely love, but people like me... tend not to get as much out of them. I'm sure that all of the names have incredible significance for those scholars who specialize in various subfields of anthropology, and I'm sure that you can make some fascinating cross-references between the names here and inscriptions on various pillars or manuscripts in other places, but I am not familiar with any of these (rather esoteric) studies. So I won't have much to comment on for this chapter, other than a few of the interesting little remarks that are included.

For indeed, the author of this chapter has written a few interesting tidbits of gossip about various figures and the events of their time, which has produced much discussion in the millennia since then.

Before I get to that... this isn't gossip but it's worth noting: some of the names in this chapter are later used as the names of kingdoms. That's why this chapter is sometimes called the "table of nations", because so many of these individuals are the founders of various nations (or in a more modern sense, tribes/clans). Some of the notable nations here are Tarshish (a coastal city, possibly Phoenicia I think?), Cush (upper Nile region, in southern Egypt/Ethiopia), Mizraim (Northern Egypt, some translations just call him Egypt), Canaan (pretty much all of modern and ancient Israel, with an emphasis on the coastal cities), Sheba (later the origin of the "queen of Sheba" who visits Solomon), Sidon (another coastal city), all of the sons of Canaan (the Hittites, Jebusites, etc), and then of the sons of Shem the important ones are Aram, Asshur and Elam.

Havilah (one of the sons here) is the name of the region mentioned in Genesis 2 where the garden of Eden is. So.... an interesting correlation for all of those "garden of Eden" hunters.

Ok, now on to the gossip. The first to show up is this note regarding Nimrod, the mighty hunter before the Lord. How crazy is that? Nimrod is never mentioned again in the bible, and I have no idea what the significance of this is.

The second is Peleg, because in his day the world was divided. There are a lot of opinions about what this means, anything from references to the continental split of Pangaea to the division of languages that happens in the next chapter. At the end of the day, nobody really knows but that doesn't stop everyone from speculating. Peleg is also in the genealogy of King David, so we will see his name mentioned (strictly in genealogies) a couple times more in both the OT and the NT. However, never will the bible elaborate on what this "division of the world" refers to. As most bibles will note, Peleg is the Hebrew for "division", which means that this division must have been a massive, publicly known event such that someone would name their son "division" in respect for what happened. Or maybe his father was a prophet and named his son prophetically to predict some future division? But now I'm drifting into speculation too.

Anyway, that's all for chapter 10. On to 11 and Babel.

Bible Commentary - Genesis 9

Chapter 9 is the last chapter in the saga of Noah. After this the story will change drastically.

In verse 1, God repeats the "command to man" to be fruitful and multiply. But something is different this time. Instead of ruling over the animals, it says that the animals shall fear man and that man would now eat animals, but not eat their life, that is, their blood. So this is another effect of the curse: it broke the relationships between people and animals. Now instead of harmony, there is acrimony. I've heard some people suggest that the reason God does this is that the flood destroyed most plant life, and therefore Noah and his descendants had to eat meat to survive. I'm not sure if this is true, given a few factors: 1) the dove found an olive leaf, so obviously not all plants were dead and perhaps some fruit could still be found, 2) if there was not enough plant life to support man, then the plant-eating animals would probably die too, 3) if there were only 2 of each animal, then obviously man could not be eating those animals without wiping out entire species wholesale. The exception to #3 is that there were 14 of each clean animal. Side node: calling them "clean animals" is an anachronism, because we haven't yet been told what is a clean or unclean animal. I'm not sure how to explain this other than that the author is trying to emphasize the righteousness of Noah by suggesting that he did not eat or sacrifice unclean animals, which would be a great offense to the legally-minded priests and Levites. Ignoring that point, even with 14 of the clean animals, and perhaps 20 (?) species of clean animals, I'm not sure if that would be a sustainable food source for the soon-to-be rapidly growing human population. So it doesn't seem impossible, just unlikely, and I still think that this is an intentionally drawn contrast to the command given to Adam in chapter 1, which is much more important.

(Another side note: on the subject of anachronisms, some people suggest that the use of the name, the LORD (in Hebrew, YHWH, commonly transliterated into Yahweh or Jehovah) is also an anachronism, since the name is not "given" until Exodus. There are many possible responses to this, but just note the point.)

Verse 6 and 7 is another poetic passage that emphasizes the importance of blood as life, repeats the statement that man is made in God's image, and repeats the command to multiply and fill the earth. This is more of the repetition that is used to support the JEDP theory (or alternatively, the oral traditions that underly the bible).

In verses 9 and onward, we see another covenant. I didn't mention this before, but covenants play a very, very big role in the literary structure and theology of the bible: literary structure because they are used to logically segment different portions of the bible and theology because the covenants form the structure around which the bible is narrated.

To be brief, these covenants are essentially legal agreements between God and the people who he speaks to: the last one was with Adam/Eve (the Adamic covenant: God granted them dominion over the earth), this one is with Noah (the Noahic covenant), guaranteeing there will be no further floods to destroy the earth. We will see several more covenants later in the bible. When I say "legal agreement", what I mean is that scholars have found structural similarities between the covenants in the bible and Hittite suzerainty treaty forms from the 14th and 13th centuries BCE. Or, according to the JEDP, they generally draw analogies to 6th or 7th century Assyrian legal forms. Either way, it is clear that the Pentateuch was regarded by the author as much a legal work as theological: more accurately, the author is framing the theological discourse in a legal manner. A proper discussion of this is outside of my scope, and we haven't gotten to the most important covenant yet anyway.

Next, we see a rainbow mentioned in the covenant. In fact, the rainbow is the "sign of the covenant" as it says. Note the symbolism: the word rainbow (or the literal Hebrew is "bow", but in context it refers to a rainbow) will appear another three times in the Bible. One of the three times it is used to describe an angel and the other two times it is used to describe God (i.e. there is a rainbow surrounding him). In all of these cases, the rainbow is a symbolic reference to this covenant, which is essentially a covenant of mercy. I say mercy because this is a one-sided covenant (God making an agreement with man without requiring anything from man) and it is a promise not to bring a world-destroying flood upon the earth, no matter what happens. So it is God promising to relent from disaster, which is mercy. Therefore when rainbows are mentioned in the future about God, they are essentially referring to his mercy attribute.

The other thing that's cool about the rainbow is that it is created by the vaporous clouds most closely associated with rain itself. The way I interpret this is that God's wrath is building, it starts raining and it's like God is thinking to himself, "I am going to flood the earth again!" So it keeps raining, but then the rain causes a rainbow to appear, and suddenly God is reminded of his promise, so he relents. It's like this symbol of restraint is built into the tool of wrath itself, and so not only does it remind God of his promise, but it reminds men on the earth that whenever it's raining hard, they can look for the rainbow which is the symbol of mercy and they can know that God will relent. So that's why I really like this passage.

Next is the infamous "Noah getting drunk" story. A lot of people teach various principles from this, but let it suffice to say that this is an instance of a pretty severe indiscretion on Noah's part. I don't pretend to have an explanation why he does it, and the bible would not support any such explanation.

What I will say is that the two different responses of his children (telling others or covering their father) show the strong cultural importance of respecting your elders that existed at the time (and doesn't exist nearly as much in America). It would be pretty much abhorrent in their society and culture to act disrespectfully towards one's father, and as we will see later in the bible, the Law of Moses establishes a death penalty for being unruly towards your parents. Yeah, death.

The other important thing to know about this story is that up through much of the 19th century and possibly into the early 20th century, many people considered Ham to be the forefather of black Africans, and they used the "curse of Ham" as a justification of slavery. In hindsight it is easy to disregard this theory, and scorn those who would believe it, but I really think above all else what this shows is the human propensity towards finding biblical evidence to support what they already believe or want to believe, rather than allowing a study of the bible to form and shape their thoughts. For instance, using this passage to support slavery but then ignoring other parts like the book of Philemon, which clearly speaks out about slavery, is a sure sign of an intellectual bias. And yet such biases can be very pervasive and subtle, so rather than scorn those who used the bible to support slavery, I take this as a lesson to 1) the importance of having solid exegesis, and 2) the importance of always questioning our own beliefs to ensure that we, too, do not slip into the same groupthink, biases and subtle preconceptions about the issues of our time. The various churches that supported slavery are used as an example today by those who are not Christian as a major criticism of religion, and in a limited sense they are quite right. To repeat these mistakes of the past is something that every single Christian has to strive to avoid.

Lastly, Noah dies and we move on to the next epoch of the bible.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 8

Too tired to say anything clever today. Just the facts.

God remembered Noah, showing that even through a period of wrath that God does not forget those who are his.

A wind passes over the earth. This word "wind" is again the wind/breath/spirit that we saw in chapter 1 and 2, and again it has the underlying symbolism of "bringing forth life". I didn't mention it in chapter 1, but there when it says the "Spirit of God was hovering over the waters", Spirit = Ruach, which is the same as here. So in chapter 1 it also had the significance of God bringing forth life, and what we see here is God causing a wind to pass over the earth to dry off the water. This allows life to return to the earth from the ark.

Note that there is a Mount Ararat in modern day Turkey, but scholars are divided as to whether it is the same mountain. In my opinion, it probably isn't, but research into the subject is difficult because there is an ongoing Kurdish insurgency in eastern Turkey (and northern Iraq is not much more stable) and the modern-day Mount Ararat is off-limits to westerners for that reason. So it is difficult to investigate, but that does not prevent various groups or individuals from periodically claiming they have discovered Noah's Ark resting somewhere in Turkey. Realistically, if it really were exposed to open air, it would have biodegraded long ago, being constructed from wood and all that. So at this point, even if there really is a historical Noah's Ark, the chances of finding it are low, but the allure of finding it keeps people trying.

Another interesting note is that this chapter is where the dove = peace symbolism originated. In particular, a dove bearing an olive leaf/branch is directly descended from the dove bearing an olive leaf to Noah, and it symbolizes the peace between man and God (because God relented and ended the flood). The reason why an olive leaf is significant is that it shows the trees are now above water, and therefore it would be safe to depart.

Personally, I always wondered why he had to send out a bird and couldn't just go out and look himself. I'm not certain about the answer, but perhaps it is due to the continuing stormy conditions at the time or something. The best I can say is that the great flood is such an extraordinary event that one can only presume conditions after the flood are not necessarily relatable to modern life. It was definitely a spectacular meteorological event, and perhaps Noah was also concerned about more flooding occurring or something. Either way, I'm just guessing.

Gen 8:20-21:

Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21The LORD smelled the soothing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man

I love this passage. What I love about this is that in chapter 6, before the flood, we see God "regret" that he had created man. And what we see here is Noah worshiping God and reminding God why he created man. And the result is that God swears he will never again bring a great flood upon the earth. I just think that this is such a strong statement answering the questions I raised back in chapter 6, regarding the purpose of creation. God remembered Noah, and then here, Noah remembers God. This is so awesome, and this is why God says that Noah was righteous.

Definitely one of my personal favorite nuggets.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 7

Hi everyone. Last chapter, we saw the condition of the world during the lifetime of Noah, and after explaining why the flood is necessary, we see God speak to Noah and declare to him how to escape the flood: by building a large boat.

One thing I forgot to mention in the last chapter is a moderately popular theory amongst some theological circles, which is that the flood (what we will see shortly) was the first time in world history that water fell from the sky. The basis of this claim is Genesis 2:6, where it says that "a mist used to rise from the earth and water the whole earth's surface". By implication, some scholars claim that this means there was no rain from the sky until the flood occurs when the "floodgates of the sky were opened" (Gen 7:11).

The only problem I have with this theory is that it relies entirely on inference. The bible does not say that water *only* rose from the ground, and it doesn't say that the flood is the first time water fell from the sky either. Given that early Genesis has a strong tendency towards omitting what the author perceives as irrelevant content, I think it's absolutely possible and perhaps even likely that it could have been raining for thousands of years and given that it isn't important to the storyline, be left out.

Nevertheless, the claim that the flood is the first time the world experienced rain makes for good moralizing, as people imagine Noah's disbelief at being told water would fall from the sky, that he had to build the boat by faith, not knowing what would come, and that everyone around him thought him insane for building a boat to protect against something unknown. (This last one is actually pretty realistic. Even if they were used to rain from the sky, building this massive boat to protect against a worldwide flood seems very extravagant and would definitely appear foolish.) So I have some skepticism towards this theory also, even though the lessons drawn from it are usually pretty reasonable.

Now, for chapter 7. God first tells Noah that he will bring a pair of every animal onto the ark, to save it from the floodwaters. This brings me to another point I forgot to mention about the last chapter, which is the effect of human wickedness on nature. While it may seem almost tautological these days to assert that bad human behavior is destroying the planet, this is not always evident in the past, before the mechanized destruction of species that began sometime around the 18th to 19th centuries. What this passage tells us clearly demonstrates otherwise, as human wickedness results in the destruction of nearly all animal life on the planet. In my opinion this is clearly related to the mandate found in chapter 1, to rule over the earth and subdue it.

This leads into the broader issue of human dominion which I cannot address due to space constraints, but to summarize for this passage, humans were given authority over the earth to do good. However, they chose to do evil and since they hold authority, their evil resulted in broad destruction over the earth. While some skeptics may say that the flood came from God and not man, it is clear from chapter 6 that the flood is the result of human wickedness on the earth, so in truth it really is caused by man. We still have this power today, and that's why there is so much destruction on the earth today. In the extreme, some environmentalists just want all humans gone from the earth, but in truth we really just need to return to balance and peace with God, and then peace with the earth will follow.

In a similar vein, the obedience of Noah results in saving a pair of every animal as well, so even though the sins of a generation destroys nearly all the animals, the righteousness of one man preserves a remnant of them.

Some non-literalists question the possibility of having a pair of every animal, as they claim X number of species of elephants and so forth. This is again interpolating a modern viewpoint about the technical term "species" being equivalent to "animal" here, when the original Hebrew is not nearly as strict, as an "animal" could reasonably correspond to any level of the biological tree, whether that be genus or phylum or whatever biologists use today to differentiate creatures. Given the pendulous fluctuations in so-called modern biology, you'd think naturalists today would be more lenient to the ancients who were not gifted with our modern debates and acrimony. Anyway, that's not something I care about, so I will move on.

From verse 7, we discover that the righteousness of Noah results in saving not only himself, but his entire family of dependents. This gets back to the issue of authority/dominion. Since he was (in accordance with the culture of the time) the authority figure over his wife, children and their dependents, then his righteousness or wickedness would spill over into their lives. In this case, him walking with God results in them being saved from the flood as well.

Another thing to note is that before the flood, the animals were at peace with man. It is stated in chapter 1 that man only ate fruit and vegetables from the trees. It is only later (in particular, after the flood which we will see later) that man begins eating meat. Before the flood, there is no warfare between man and animal because they lived in harmony in accordance with the will of God. This is not directly stated, but it is easy to infer from all of the animals peacefully walking into the ark and neither being afraid of Noah nor attacking one another. So it is possible that none of the animals would attack each other before the flood. This implies that there were no carnivores before the flood, or more accurately, that the "carnivores" as we understand them today simply didn't eat meat then and somehow got by on a different diet. Or as Isaiah 11:7 puts it, "and the lion [ate] straw like the ox". While Isaiah 11:6-9 is a forward-looking prophecy, it can be reasonably applied as a backwards-looking statement regarding pre-flood Eden.

The rest of the chapter is a description of the flood and the ark and it possesses quite a bit of specific measurements about the flood's duration and scope. Unlike the description of the ark, these are observations and not directions, so they aren't exactly the same "kind of numbers". Nevertheless, one can reasonably wonder how the author would have this level of detail. There are really just three answers: he made it up (what most naturalists say), God told him (what most evangelicals say), or it was passed down from generation to generation (I have no idea who says this). The last one is probably the least likely, though given the oral culture of the time, it perhaps not completely out of the question. Ironically, if one looks at the larger story (the flood as a whole), then it becomes increasingly likely to be an oral tradition, so perhaps I shouldn't write off option #3. It's just that maintaining an accurate level of detail over hundreds or even thousands of years is very difficult. Even written tales get corrupted gradually, and oral traditions tend to be much more malleable.

Of course, this comment does not just relate to Gen 7. It can be equally applied to all of the events in early Genesis (before chapter 11 or so), which everyone agrees (including conservative scholars) was written long after the events it describes. So to anyone who ascribes to biblical literalism, you have to deal with the difficult provenance issue: how can a story be passed down for so long with no mistakes? The answer invariably falls to something like #2, God told the author what to write, and what he was told was perfectly accurate.

My perspective is that this whole debate over literal accuracy is, at least with respect to the numbers, arguing a whole lot over a whole little. I don't really care if the water was 15 cubits over the mountains or 30 cubits or whatever. The broad strokes are important, but the specific details that get fought over so much really don't impact the interpretation of the chapter.

Anyway, that's all I can think of. We will continue with the flood story in chapter 8.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 6

Alright, what better way to spend a long weekend than by analyzing Genesis chapter 6? I can think of nothing. :)

So now we are past the genealogy of chapter 5, and the older, obscurer stories about Adam and Eve and Cain and so forth. In fact, in a certain fashion the genealogy acts as a conclusion and recap of those older stories, as it points out in 5:1, "This is the book of the generations of Adam.". Also note that since the genealogy goes from Adam to Noah, it can be thought of as a transition from the life and events of the former (which encompasses Cain/Abel/Seth who are his sons) to the events of the latter, which is primarily about the flood.

Chapter 6, then, begins very logically with describing the background events that precipitated the flood (uhh, pun not intended), and from there describes the story as it transpires. One thing to note is that I don't get the same sense of elided content here that I did in the earlier chapters. While there are certainly gaps in time, the difference is that here the gaps are noted, while in the earlier chapters it seems that certain things are just omitted completely (such as who are the people that Cain feared and where they came from). So there is definitely a tonal shift, which can be explained in a couple different ways, but I won't go into more detail as the story itself merits plenty of discussion.

The first thing I will discuss is right at the beginning, this whole deal with the "sons of God" and "daughters of men" and so on. Once again this is a highly debated subject, so I will perforce just offer a brief overview. Much of the debate is around the identity of the "sons of God", with the most well-known theory that they are fallen angels (i.e. devils) who came to the earth, had sex with mortal women, and this resulted in half-human, half-angel children who are here called the "Nephilim". Here I am going to quote Wikipedia which gives a solid overview of the issue at hand:

In 1 Enoch and Book of Jubilees the Genesis 6 text was developed into a complicated mythology of fallen angels. The 3rd century BC Book of Enoch turns the "sons of God" into fallen angels, referred to as Watchers, who came to earth and had children with human women, resulting in a race of half-angel, half-human beings known as the "Giants" (Nephilim). The view is found in Philo and in Josephus Antiquities 1:73 (or 1:3.1).In the 1st century CE Rabbi Shimeon ben Yochai pronounced a curse on any Jew teaching the Enochite interpretation, and, later Trypho the Jew rejected the interpretation. This was followed by Rashi and Nachmanides. Some commentators on Luke 20:34-36 believe that Jesus was also familiar with the Enochic interpretation, and can be counted with Shimeon ben Yochai, since Jesus rejected that angels could marry and in the same passage equated the "sons of God" with humans.

So this is actually a historical interpretation, dating back several thousand years and many people still believe it today. I can see why this approach might be popular with (orthodox) Jewish scholars, just purely based on analyzing this passage in isolation but things are more complicated if you also include the NT as canonical, because as Wikipedia notes, Jesus states in the book of Luke that angels are "neither married nor given in marriage", which has the obvious implication that they are either incapable or unwilling to have sex. Beyond that, there are other obvious (and unanswered) questions about the nature of angels and that, if they are non-physical beings, how sex could even be possible for them with physical humans. These points are not addressed in the bible (in fact, the true nature of angels can only really be derived by inference as there are very few direct statements about angels made anywhere in the bible).

I should add that some individuals proffer some very elaborate theories about the Nephilim and suggest that some of the "spirits of the Nephilim" survived the flood, becoming either modern-day demons (i.e. evil spirits that inhabits the souls of men and take over control of their bodies) or have somehow reformed their bodies and attempt to control world events by entering positions of power. To the best of my knowledge, none of these theories are supported by any biblical evidence or reasoned analysis. This does not prove them false, but it does render them almost completely apocryphal, hence my skepticism.

What is clear from this passage, however, is that "the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." This is the genesis of the flood (pun not intended... again). We already saw this process of gradually increasing wickedness displayed by the generations of Cain and now we see the wickedness come to fruition in what is described here, the complete depravity of man (I do not mean this in a Calvinist sense).

When we see the LORD grieved in the next verse, and that this grief results in him wanting to wipe out man from the earth, it really raises a lot of deep issues that I don't have time to address. I will mention the issues so that an interested reader can find out more, but I won't offer a full discussion. The most immediate is the question of whether natural disasters are the result of man's sin. What the flood makes clear is that it is possible, but it offers no convincing evidence (in my opinion) that every natural disaster results from wickedness. This is especially the case when you consider the particular structure of the OT and it's repeated emphasis on material blessings and curses related to obedience, which largely subsides into the NT.

Next is the broader and subtler question of why the men are turning to "only evil continually". This is obviously a very strong expression and it's not clear to me why they have turned to evil like this, why they have turned to evil, and what (if any) core differences exist between the people of that time and people now. In the broadest sense, is it really an intrinsic human characteristic to turn to evil?

Lastly, and perhaps the most subtle of all, is why does the evil of men's hearts cause grief to God, such that he would be *sorry he created man*? Once again it is using very strong language, and while at first glance my question might seem tautological, I do think there is substance here. In particular, I think it raises the question, well, "why did God create man", such that these actions and thoughts of men would cause him to regret his creation? These are substantive issues, but I have other things to talk about for this chapter, so I will say no more.

An exception is found: Noah. What could be in the heart of a man so that he is the single named exception for the pervasive wickedness that is described in the preceding verses? This, too, is not addressed. But what we know is that it's possible to live righteously even in dark times, and also it says that Noah walked with God. So in my opinion the key is walking with God (partnership, unity, shared experience).

God then announces there will be a flood to wipe out the wicked from the earth, and gives Noah astonishingly detailed instructions on how to construct the ark. To my recollection, this is the first place in the bible where we see the word "cubit" (it won't appear in all translations, some will change it out for imperial or metric units). The cubit is a Hebrew unit of distance, which is approximately 1.5 feet. But more important than the numbers is the shift in tone we are seeing. As we get further into the Pentateuch, especially Exodus/Deuteronomy, you will see that specific measurements for the construction of objects is extremely common. In fact, it feels like nearly everything is given measurements. So the existence of measurements of the ark is significant to me in that it thematically relates it to the later construction of the tabernacle, ark of the covenant (how interesting, it's the same word), and various utensils and structures for the Holy Place. Since Noah is here given direct prescriptions for how to construct the ark, and it leads to the salvation of his life, so is later Moses given prescriptions for how to construct the holy objects, which leads to the covenant and the salvation of his people. Just as Noah is chosen from amongst all the people in the world, so is Israel chosen from amongst all the nations of the world.

I think the life of Noah can partially be thought of as foreshadowing the covenant with Israel, but more broadly I think it helps to establish a pattern for how God operates in the world. This is only one example so it doesn't (and can't) show the full pattern, but it shows us part: it shows us that God will not forget the people who walk with him, and that even if the entire rest of the world turns to evil, he works out the salvation of those who follow him. That's what I see in the story of Noah.

That's all I have to say about this chapter. The story continues in chapter 7, so more will be spoken about it then.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 5

Well, I had a lot to do today, definitely feel tired, but I should think about doing some laundry. I guess it's - oh, hi there! Sorry, I didn't see you come in. Sit down, sit down, good friend. I was just about to start reading Genesis 5... let's see.... ah, here it is. Right after Genesis 4, but critically, before Genesis 6. Excellent, excellent.... let's see what it has to say... wait. This is a genealogy.

That's right everyone, we hit our second* biblical genealogy. As such, it's a good time to give an explanation or overview of what genealogies mean to the Israelites, because we will see a lot more genealogies before this endeavor is done. Many more genealogies, indeed. Then I will give some specific insights into this particular genealogy.

As we will learn, genealogies are quite an obsession amongst the Israelite population. There are several reasons for this, some perhaps cultural of the time and some uniquely related to biblical principles. One of the most direct rationales is that people in the ancient world just care a lot about children and contrariwise, care a lot about who their ancestors are. In modern times, this is not as true in the western world, but even today there are large segments of Asian populations that practice ancestor worship, or less directly, "respect of their elders". From some brief discussions I've had with Nigerian friends, I have come to understand that this is true to an extent in Nigerian culture as well. So that is the "respect" aspect.

Another aspect is that many people consider ancestorship to be what determines a given person's traits. For instance, if you have a lot of criminals in your family, then you have bad blood. Particularly before the rise of modern genetics, many people considered social traits or status to be inheritable. So if someone is the son of a thief, they are likely to also be a thief. This philosophy is what popularized eugenics in the 19th to 20th centuries, with the notion being that if we just sterilize or kill everyone who has unwanted social traits, they would be removed from the gene pool altogether. As we will see, the Israelites did not espouse or practice eugenics, but they highly valued their ancestorship, literally to the point of naming their entire nation after a single figure (Israel is an alternate name for Jacob, the grandson of Abraham).

A further point about confirming your genealogy is that it confers a sense of legitimacy and legacy, which is enshrouded in such principles as the hereditary monarchies of Europe, where titles and properties have been passed down from father to son for hundreds of years. Usually these titles are dependent on proving your relation to some distant figure who earned some particular merit in some time or other. Even in America, which rejected any sense of hereditary titles or royalty, we still have a subdued concept of "good families" and "bad families".

Now I will discuss the uniquely biblical aspect, which is the covenant with God. I will only mention this briefly, since it hasn't been mentioned in the text yet, but it is nevertheless anticipated by this genealogy, so it deserves a few sentences. God will later establish a hereditary covenant with Abraham to bless him and his children forever, if they follow some set of rules. This covenant is confirmed and expanded in scope during the time of Moses, most famously captured by the so-called Ten Commandments. To the Israelites, the Commandments were only one side of the proverbial coin. The other side was God's promised blessings of obedience. But the entire coin was given not just to those living at the time, but to their children. See where this is going? The children would have to be descendants of Abraham to receive the blessing. And thus (in addition to everything written above), Israelite genealogies were born. :) The genealogies of every tribe was critical as well because you had to prove membership in a certain tribe in order to have an inheritance (property) in the land of Israel. There were also certain familial lines that were ascribed certain responsibilities and privileges, so again there was value in establishing your ancestorship. I will discuss this more when it comes up, later in the Pentateuch.

That's the general importance of genealogies. Now I will discuss some of the notes of specific interest related to this genealogy.

First, there is a parallel in the names between Cain's genealogy in chapter 4 and Seth's genealogy here in chapter 5. Different people interpret in different ways. The most plausible interpretation I've heard is that it emphasizes the difference in character between the two family lines by giving them similar names and highlighting the behavior (Lamech emphasizes Cain's threat of retribution, Enoch emphasizes obedience and partnership with God). But perhaps an even simpler explanation is that, since the various generations were born around the same time as each counterpart, they were probably named similarly due to cultural patterns of the time, i.e. they are not intentionally similar, but just happen to share names that would rise and fall in popularity over the centuries.

Second, the lifetime of each person on average goes down from generation to generation. There are a few exceptions (the most notable being Methuselah), but that is the general trend, as the age at death descends from Adam's 930 years to Lamech's 777 (some scholars also think 777 signifies perfection or completeness since he is the seventh generation from Adam).... on that note, I should point out that 7 is a very important number in the bible, and the bible uses numbers to signify different concepts. In fact, I should add a section on numerology to my introduction, since numerology really is important to the bible. *notes to self*

Third, it is possible to look at the meanings of the various names and try to derive some information about the lives of these generations. Sometimes the translations are a bit hard due to the obscurity of the words, but I have a good friend who did a study based on the names and came to some interesting conclusions about how the lives of one generation impacted the next, and how that impact was memorialized by the names chosen for their children. I won't go into it myself, but it's something to look into for those who are interested.

Fourth, just a minor note that when you count the years until Methuselah's death and correlate that with the ages of his children, you will see that Methuselah dies exactly in the year of the Flood, which is coming up in the next few chapters. Lamech, the next closest, dies 5 years before the flood.

Fifth, the chapter repeats that Adam was made in the image of God and gives a solid recap of Genesis 2 in the first two verses.

Sixth, note that the name Noah is a reference to the curse, that this burden on the people causes them to seek comfort. I don't have much else to say here, but it just shows that the curse is weighing the people down then, just as it weighs us down today.

Seventh, the mystery of Enoch. This is another subject I will only address in passing, because Enoch is referenced a couple more times later in the bible and because his disappearance, being "taken" by God, is mentioned so briefly and therefore offers so much perplexity to those who try to understand why he was taken and how it relates to us. This foreshadows the life of Elijah, as Elijah will be similarly "taken" as he is swept up into heaven in a burning chariot (I'm not making this up, that's what's going to happen :) ).

So, with that said, what's clear is that being taken to heaven is directly related to "walking with God", a figure of speech that implies relationship, closeness and friendship from one to the other. After walking with God for hundreds of years and growing in stature and wisdom, God takes Enoch from the earth. What's not clear is why God would want to take him, rather than leave him on earth. This is where the speculation begins. In my opinion, God takes him because God has some greater heavenly assignment for him than what he had to do on the earth. Of course, the "normal" pattern for being taken from the earth is death, but for whatever reason there just seem to be some people who overpower death through their relationship with God. What we have to remember is that, while comparatively normal, death is part of the curse. So, while I fully admit that many godly people die, it still seems reasonable to ask, through the process of redemption and atonement, can one overcome death? In a very meaningful sense, that's what Jesus does, and that's what Enoch and later Elijah do as well. So there is certainly a precedent for it, but what's equally clear is that there is no defined process to overcome death (sorry Ray Kurzweil, I don't think your futurism is going to pan out) and that even for those who are close to God, many of them are not taken (for instance, Noah dies, Elisha dies, David dies, Moses dies, etc). Even Abraham, the archetypal friend of God, dies.

So this is a subject I still think about, and scholars continue to posit a wide range of theories to reconcile these events with related biblical doctrines.

Eighth, this is a minor point but the Lamech mentioned in this chapter is *not* the same person as the Lamech mentioned in chapter 4, who is the descendant of Cain. This Lamech is the descendant of Seth, and is a different person entirely. All of the others in the genealogies are similarly named, these two people happen to have the same name, but this is probably just a coincidence.

With that, I will conclude and move on to chapter 6!

*I glossed over Lamech's genealogy, which is in chapter 4. I suppose I should have mentioned it then, but I was busy with other things.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 4

Phew, hopefully this chapter will go faster than chapter 3. That was definitely a long one.

In chapter 4 the story takes a fairly large turn. By now, it has mostly passed over the lives of Adam and Eve who, while still alive, no longer play a major role in the story. As such, we are now reading about the lives of the first children on earth, Cain and Abel. The names Cain and Abel mean "received" and "breath/empty" respectively, though there are other various interpretations proposed by various scholars.

Lot to say here... first I will describe the "historical allegory" analysis, and then give a brief synopsis of my theological analysis.

The historical allegory plays up the farmer/herder tensions implied in this chapter. They take Cain to represent the "farmers" of the fertile crescent and Abel to represent the "herders" of the same region. Remember what I said about tensions over water? That's what is coming into play in this analysis. There's a lot of history to this, which I will mostly skip over. But suffice to say, there have been some transitions between herding peoples and farming peoples, and those transition periods are a euphemism for war/killing/displacement. Just think of Mexican immigration into the US, except instead of there being some degree of racism, imagine the Mexicans all had assault weapons and decided to just kill the people who wouldn't give them money and food. That is the simplest equivalent of what a "transition" in the ancient world looks like. Many scholars like to say that these tensions are imprinted in the story told here. In this case, the Israelites are nomadic herders, so it "makes sense" that they would be the group that pleases God, and also the aggrieved people. Ironically, the punishment of Cain is to be displaced from the land and be forced to "wander the earth", in keeping with the historical allegory of Israel displacing some erstwhile tenants of the now-Israeli countryside.

The standard theological analysis tends to be a lot more nuanced and complex. A lot of the discussion hinges around the question, why did Cain's offering not please God? Many people say many things, but in my opinion none of those interpretations have much weight of evidence behind them. At the end of the day, I don't think anyone presently on earth can give a definitive answer as to why Cain's offering did not please God.

But the rest of the story is still quite informative and I will explain the salient points according to my personal opinion. For one thing, it shows that even just one generation after the sin of Adam and people are already murdering each other. This is why I know that solutions to the world's problems are not going to come from people just... spontaneously deciding to act nicely and work together. The moment your relationship with God is broken (like Cain's clearly is), you really are a candidate for being mastered by sin, so to speak. It really is a life and death struggle between each person and sin, and the only way to be victorious is to get a little help from your one true friend.

Similarly, we see that the descendants of Cain become even more violent, as his seventh generation descendant kills another man and proclaims that (to paraphrase) if Cain avenges himself a little, I will avenge myself MUCH. The biblical pattern is that God is the avenger of wrongs, so both Cain and Lamech are wrong in their approach.

Another aspect is how God is questioning Cain. Again, as with chapter 3, God asks questions for us to know the questions, not for him to know the answers. Cain ironically replies "am I my brother's keeper?" This is doubly ironic because the answer is yes, and because he was using it as a way to say, "how would I know where he is?" when he had murdered him. So it was a lie, and if only he knew the true answer to the question he had just asked, perhaps he would not have committed the crime that forced him to lie like that.

Another aspect is that committing a crime in a certain way will put you under a curse. This is true of sin generally. Whenever you commit a deliberate sin, it will bring a corresponding curse until the sin has been atoned. In this case, Cain pours blood into the ground through murder, and the curse is that the ground is now closed to him and to farming. So it's an instance of "the punishment fitting the crime". Such curses are permanent, but are canceled through repentance and atonement. These concepts will be explained later.

Lastly, we have the perplexing question of "who is Cain being protected from?" This is another critical instance of the Bible clearly eliding out some elements of world history, because while Cain and Abel are the only described human children, Cain is already questioning God about how "whoever finds me will kill me." So from what I've read, scholars usually take two approaches to this. The first is the more obvious, that there are other people around the world, who are either unmentioned descendants of Adam/Eve, or are possibly unmentioned people who God independently created but were not considered important to the main storyline here. The second is that Cain was referencing the people who would *later* be born through Adam, Eve and their children. Since Cain presumably lives some hundreds of years, this is not unreasonable, but it does seem very peculiar that he would be speaking in fear of people who did not yet exist at the time. Perhaps God had been speaking to them about the future rise of the human population, yet such discussions are (once more) not recorded in the Bible, so we are again drifting off into speculation. My personal preference is for theory #1, in keeping with the Bible's tendency to focus on what is salient and to ignore a lot of the trivial details.

At this point, I would like to remind all of my readers to check all of their modern, scientific preconceptions at the door and remember that you are not reading a modern, scientific book. :) I would say more, but explaining the Hebrew mindset is difficult. I will just leave it as an exercise for the reader to learn more about the difference between modern and ancient mindsets.