Thursday, April 03, 2014

tragedy

Yesterday Middle Daughter made fliers for a Student Council-run bake sale. Using ComicSans.

I can't help but wonder where I went wrong. If I were a better father, this never would have happened.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Blogging through the Bible: Tower of Babel

Let me state right up front that I don't have much to say about the Table of Nations.

Following the narrative of Noah's Deluge in Genesis 6-9, the redactor gives us one of the Bible's genealogies, this one revealing a partial family tree of Noah, beginning with his three sons (but not their wives, who also were on the Ark) and following the line of descent from Noah's boys down to the peoples whom the book's earliest audiences would have been familiar with.

As Bible stories go, this is one you'd have to do a lot of study to appreciate, and one you'd need to muster a lot of enthusiasm to find interesting. It reminds me in a way of books like Virgil's “The Aeneid,” or Geoffrey of Monmouth's “History of the Kings of Britain.” In both those books, the authors traced their people's ancestry back to antiquity and made historically dubious claims that their people were descended from the Trojans, and therefore much greater than other peoples.

There's a bit of that at work here. The author of Genesis 10 (possibly the Priestly source, given that the chapter is a genealogy) names three sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham, whom Noah cursed in the previous chapter, is named as the father of several nations that figure rather negatively in the history of Israel and Judah, among them Nineveh, Mizrayim (Egypt), the Philistines and the people of Canaan.

Japheth, for his part, is listed as the ancestor of peoples who lived north of the historical borders of Israel and Judah, what we now would call Indo-European; and Shem, of course, is the big one, from whom come all the Semitic races, including the Hebrews, the Assyrians, the Arameans, and a few others.

Chapter 10 relates the familiar story of the Tower of Babel, which comes from the Yahwist source. I've read some scholars have linked the Tower of Babel to the ziggurauts of ancient Sumeria. Some small basis for that association may lie in the Table of Nations, which mentions that Nimrod, son of Cush, son of Ham, became a mighty hunter and established a kingdom that began in Babel, Erech and Accad, all in the land of Shinar, the biblical name for Sumer.

Erech itself is another transliteration of the Sumerian city Uruk, one of the oldest cities ever built, and home to the mythological Gilgamesh. There is also a Sumerian tale about “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta,” which also relates how languages became confused. Since Chapter 12 relates how Abram came from the land of Erech, it seems reasonable to assume that the author of this passage drew on a storied tradition held in common with Enmerkar and the Lord of Arrata.”

At one level, the story of the Tower of Babel is etiological in purpose; that is, the Genesis narrative includes the story as a means of explaining where all the different human languages come from. But, given its placement – it comes just after the story of the Deluge, and between the Table of the Nations and the genealogy linking Shem to Abram – the author had a deeper purpose than merely explaining why everyone doesn't speak ancient Hebrew.

So what exactly are we to believe has God so worried that he needs to bust humanity up into a bunch of ethnolingiostic groups? Given that chapters six to nine showed God flooding the entire planet, I would argue that it's outside the bounds of reasonable interpretation to claim that God was wringing his hands over the architectural enterprises of the Sumerians.

What the text does indicate is divine concern that human ambition and accomplishment will be unlimited, if God does not confuse human speech. As the story falls immediately after the genealogy of Ham and Japheth and immediately before the lineage of Shem, the implication is that ethnic division is also a point of this narrative, which we will see more of immediately afterward in Chapter 12, the Yahwist account of the covenant with Abram.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Prayer deconstructed

Prayer is one of those fundamental Christian disciplines. If you want to grow in understanding, we're told, we have to pray.

Of course, given that we believe in an all-knowing and loving deity, it's understandable that there is some confusion over the purpose of prayer. If God is all-knowing, are we really telling him something he doesn't already know, or we like a difficult colleague with a knack for stating the obvious. ("Look, the wall is blue today!") If God is all-knowing and loving, isn't asking for something a bit like a 3-year-old asking for the shoes her mother is already getting her?

And if we're praying to gain understanding, then why the heck don't we ever hear God answer us? (Or, for that matter, why do we check ourselves into a hospital once he does?)

These are deep and complicated topics, and I'm afraid that all I can share are the meager insights I have gathered over the years, like the unwanted scraps of food that have been shoved under the table for the dog to eat. (Note to young readers: Dogs really don't go for gelatin salad.)

Here are some popular phrases about prayer, and what they mean:
  1. "I'll pray for you." Means: That sounds awful. "My child has just discovered recreational pooping, and I'm out of baby wipes." "Oh, wow. I'll pray for you." Please note that they probably won't pray for you.
  2. "I'll pray for you." Means: You're going to hell on a pogo stick. "I don't think C.S. Lewis was anywhere near as good a writer as J.R.R. Tolkien." "I'll pray for you." Please note that they probably will pray for you, with unmatched fervor.
  3. "You should pray about that." Means: Pray about it until you agree with me. "I'm thinking of being a stay-at-home dad, since my wife makes more than I do." "You should pray about that."
  4. "I have a prayer request." Means: Juicy gossip is on the way. "I have a prayer request. I just found out that Heather is pregnant. The poor woman doesn't even have a boyfriend! She's really going to need God to help her through this difficult period."
  5. "I have an unspoken prayer request." Means: This one is so good I'll have to share it discreetly. Come see me afterward.
  6. "I've been praying about this, and I really feel God is telling me ..." Means: If you disagree, then you are disagreeing with God and are headed to hell on a pogo stick. "I've been praying about this, and I really feel that God wants you to come to a hotel room with me." Run.
Hope this helps.

Monday, June 24, 2013

'Anthem'

Like many other students entering high school in the fall, Oldest Daughter has a list of books she is supposed to read this fall.

As I suspect is true for many of her peers, one of the books on her summer reading list is "Anthem."

Written by Ayn Rand, “Anthem” is a hymn to the importance of the individual, set in a dystopic future where a totalitarianism has all but eradicated individual choice and even individual identity. The protagonist is a man named Equality 7-2521, although he later chooses the name Prometheus, because he hopes to return the spark of individual value to a world that has lost it.

“Anthem” is Rand's first work to advance her Objectivist philosophy, which grew in large part as a response to the Bolshevik Revolution during her childhood, and her family's ensuing loss of wealth and comfort. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the dystopia in "Anthem" is a grotesquerie of collectivism. In the course of the story, Equality 7-2521 recounts the various sins he commits: a desire to learn and to understand the world, rather than being content with being a street sweeper, the job that was assigned for him by the committee; singing and being happy, because everyone is already happy in this dystopic paradise, and he should not presume to be happier than his fellows; feeling and friendship and love for specific people, because that means he favors some people over others; and of course, being taller and healthier than others, because difference is wrong.

In that sense, "Anthem" has an empowering message for teens and other young readers who may feel social pressure from their own peers to be something other than what they want to be, or to do things that don't interest them. It is a good thing for people to pursue their own dreams, forget their own identities, and conform to others' expectations for themselves, rather than to forge their own identities and pursue the things that interest them.

But one of the things that irks me about Rand's philosophy, especially as I've seen it applied by libertarians in recent years, is that it rejects the notion of responsibility to one another. (Equality 7-2521 is pretty clear on this point in Chapter 11.) The other thing is that, particularly in books like "Atlas Shrugged," Rand inverts the order of the world and claims despite all logic that it is the wealthy and the powerful who are oppressed and exploited by society, and not the people whose hard work makes their success and fortune possible.

In order for a society to truly function and not come apart at the seams in a generation, it is necessary for us to respect the inherent worth we have as human beings created in the Imago Dei, something Equality 7-2521 explicitly and repeatedly rejects in his grand-sounding but ultimately self-serving essays at the end of the book.

Ironically, as  Equality 7-2521 becomes the the first of Rand's characters to espouse this worldview, he claims for himself the name "Prometheus." Unlike Rand's sympathetic but ultimately unlikeable hero, the original Prometheus was driven by compassion for others and a concern for their welfare that came before his own. By bringing fire from Olympus to Earth, Prometheus earned the ire of Zeus and for a thousand years was tormented daily by an eagle that came to tear out his liver, which would regrow every night so that he could suffer anew in the morning.

Which Prometheus would you say is the better, and more moral role model?

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Comments to someone else's post

I'm a few years late coming to this discussion, but in the event you still read these comments, I wanted to add my 2 cents of gratitude for their being written.

I'm a recovering Pentecostal myself. I spent about seven years in the Assemblies of God, from around 1989 until 1996. I do not consider the A/G to be a cult, and would defend it from anyone who would charge that is; but I do understand why someone would make that claim.

There are a number of things about the A/G that encourage people to regard it if not as a cult then at least cultlike. At least when I was a member, there was a tremendous preoccupation with eschatology and the rise of the Antichrist, usually pertaining to how events of prophecy supposedly were playing out in the daily news. This often was accompanied by alarm over generally innocuous or even generally good events, and a fear of the secular world. To this day I can remember the fear of people at my church that their children might attend secular colleges, like the one I was attending, and the harsh, alienating rhetoric about those outside the church.

Admittedly this was my own experience 20 years ago, in one church, but things I have seen since then haven't given me much reason to hope that the church has turned around. I know someone in another state who attends an A/G church, where his pastor recently inveighed against Easter and Christmas as primarily pagan celebrations that have infected the church. I've also heard this person and his co-congregants express concerns that our president is a secret Muslim and possibly even the Antichrist, while they also rail against having a U.S. Department of Education.

One can only imagine how they are reacting to the recent decision of the Boy Scouts of America to allow openly gay boys to participate in Scouting.

Such fear of and disdain for those outside the church walls -- to say nothing of what happens to those who act differently within the church -- does a lot to cement the negative reputation the A/G has had for years, and encourages the rest of the world to view the A/G as a cult.

For that matter, I was a member in good standing for eight years, and there are times I have difficulty viewing it in a positive light.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Blogging through the Bible: Noah and the Great Flood

I first saw this in the Wittenburg Door. No idea whose it is.
Noah's story, told in Genesis 6-9, is one of the most immediately recognized Bible stories.

Coming from a rich vein of deluge stories that includes the saga of Utnapishtim, as related in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha in Greek myth, Noah's story is one in which the world has become so wicked that God decides to flood it, and wipe out not only humanity, but also all the animals, sparing only Noah and his family, and the animals that Noah takes on the Ark with him. Modern creationists have added a lot more detail about the first hibernation, a collapsing vapor canopy that had been letting people live hundreds of years, dinosaurs and fossil fuels, and all sorts of other fun stuff not found in the original story but still useful for making the book sound more scientifically plausible.

Well, OK; if that's your thing, I won't argue with you. But I personally find that the story of Noah presents what is probably the best illustration of the Documentary Hypothesis. Developed in the 18th and 19th centuries by Bible scholars puzzling over some of the disparities in the Torah, the documentary hypothesis  says that much of Genesis is spliced together from two earlier stories, one that used the divine name YHWH and the other that used the more common name Elohim. (In Hebrew, YHWH is the name used exclusively for God; elohim is a more generic term, like the English word god.)

The Yahwist version of Noah's story would go something like this:

When men began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them as they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.” 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.

5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.

Then the Lord said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation. 2 Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate; 3 and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive upon the face of all the earth. 4 For in seven days I will send rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.” 5 And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him.

n the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. 12 And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights. 13 On the very same day Noah and his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons with them entered the ark, 14 they and every beast according to its kind, and all the cattle according to their kinds, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth according to its kind, every bird according to its kind, every bird of every sort; 15 and the Lord shut him in.

17 The flood continued forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. 18 The waters prevailed and increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. 19 And the waters prevailed so mightily upon the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; 20 the waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. 21 And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, birds, cattle, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm upon the earth, and every man; 22 everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. 23 He blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. 24 And the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days.

6 At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made, 7 and sent forth a raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. 8 Then he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; 9 but the dove found no place to set her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put forth his hand and took her and brought her into the ark with him. 10 He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; 11 and the dove came back to him in the evening, and lo, in her mouth a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. 12 Then he waited another seven days, and sent forth the dove; and she did not return to him any more.

20 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. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

18 The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. 19 These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled.

It is interesting how well and how easily this reads; if you look at the original story and cut out the parts that reference YHWH, you'll find an eminently readable Elohist version of the story.

The documentary hypothesis was developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, and these days is pretty much taught as a given in seminaries and other university settings, though I won't claim that it's universally accepted. There are a number of Bible colleges that still contend that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible.

What else to say about this passage that hasn't been said a billion times? Structurally it repeats the theme of sin and divine judgment, although in this case, people aren't exiled from God's presence as Adam and Eve were, nor from the company of other humans, as Cain was. This time it is a final and absolute judgment, where the entire planet is drowned. (The writer of the Petrine epistles also tells us that Noah steadfastly warned the people of his age about the impending judgment up until the day the flood came.)

What is interesting is that in this case, we see the divine judgment also acting as a means of renewal or redemption. The language used in the blessing of Genesis 9:1-5  mirrors the blessing found at the end of Genesis 1, another Elohist passage. In both cases, God blesses the people, tells them to be fruitful and multiply. and tells them what they can eat. In Genesis 1, God allowed people to eat any plant; here, he allows them also to eat animals. Se we see (in a sense) a sort of eucatastrophe, in which the undeniably horrible catastrophe of worldwide flood brings about something good, namely a return not to Eden but to something similar or approximate. It's as though the wickedness of humanity has been washed away from the earth -- essentially what the author of the Petrine epistles talks about when he refers to the earth as having been baptized in the days of Noah.

I do find it interesting that the Yahwist material is what refers to the sacrificial animals, which (admittedly) makes sense since it was the Levite priesthood that became most closely associated with Temple worship, and it was Moses the Levite to whom the Name was revealed in Exodus 3:13-15. The Elohist material simply refers to two of every kind of animal coming to Noah to be loaded onto the ark, while the Yahwist material has Noah being told to go out and fetch the animals, including the clean sort that will be required for sacrifice.

Beyond that, this passage of the Bible is sandwiched with two odd anecdotes. The first is the sons of God and the daughters of men, and the Nephilim, their offspring. The second is that odd incident with Noah getting drunk and his son Ham seeing him lying naked on the floor of his tent, and getting cursed for it, just like Cain did. They're both odd, though as far as that goes, the Nephilim story takes the cake.

The passage talks about the sons of God, which often gets used to refer to angelic beings, as in Job 1. It also gets used as a euphemism for the righteous, those who walk with God and seek justice. Jesus himself even uses the term to describe those who work for peace, in the Beatitudes.

I regret that I've heard a few people say that the opening verses of Genesis 6 describe a situation where the descendants of Seth are marrying the descendants of Cain. What's troubling about this? For starters, it completely misses the entire notion of personal accountability for one's own actions, and claims that righteousness (being a "son of God") is dependent upon one's ancestry. That's just messed up, and goes against the teaching found elsewhere in the Bible, like the book of Ruth or the teachings of Jesus himself.

The other explanation is that we're supposed to assume that angels were having children with human women, like a bunch of Greek gods running around raping young women so that they could have heroic children like Perseus or Heracles. Whether it was this or the commingling of racial lines, it's pretty clear that God didn't like it, since it's right after this is reported that we read God decided to wipe everyone out. (Or maybe it was that the people revered the Nephilim as heroes.)


niv

I've been reading some of the updated New International Version translation of the Bible over at Bible Gateway, and it keeps amusing me.

The NIV is one of the most popular translations among contemporary evangelicals because of its readability and the generally conservative bent of its translators. Like just about every other translation in existence, every now and then it gets minor tweaks and updates to reflect changes in the English language.

When the NIV first appeared in the 1970s. It was updated in 1984. and more recently in 2011. Older NIVs euphemistically referred to conjugal relations as "laying with," as in "Adam lay with his wife, Eve, and she conceived a son."

The more translation renders this "made love to his wife, Eve," and for some reason it makes me titter. I keep picturing Adam telling his wife, "Come on, baby. Give me some of that sweet lovin'."