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 Assemblies of God to be a cult, and I would defend it from anyone who would charge that it is. That said, I do understand why someone would make that claim.

There are a number of things about the Assemblies of God 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 Assemblies of God church, where his pastor recently inveighed against Easter and Christmas as primarily pagan celebrations that have corrupted the church.

I've also heard this person and his co-congregants repeat the lie that our president is a secret Muslim and possibly even the Antichrist, while they also rail against having a U.S. Department of Education. Let me repeat that: They dabble in jingoism, repeating the easily discredited lie that Preisdent Obama actually is a Muslim, because they feel that this discredits him; and they want to cut national funding and standards for education. Islamophobia and anti-education stands don't exactly endear them to the rest of society.

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. My own Assemblies of God pastor was vehemently opposed to anything but the outright rejection of gay people.

He would try to portray that as loving the sinner but hating the sin, but the truth is that he only would welcome a gay person if they knew that he disapproved of their being gay and somehow were OK with that. (Compare that to Jesus, who never turned away anyone who wanted to be with him.)

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 Assemblies of God has had for years, and encourages the rest of the world to view the church 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 myself.

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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.)

adam lay with his wife, eve

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.

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 "lying with," as in "Adam lay with his wife, Eve, and she conceived a son."

The most recent update renders this as "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'."

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Blogging through the Bible: Cain and Abel, and beyond

And now it's time for Cain and Abel.

Cain and Abel are the infamous brothers of the Bible. We all know the story: Cain and Abel make a sacrifice, God like Abel's sacrifice but not Cain's, and so Cain becomes angry and kills Abel. Following the murder, God marks Cain and sends him into exile. Somewhere in there Cain has sex with his sister, a man named Lamech kills somebody else, and a bunch of people live improbably long lives.

There's a lot to be said about their story, but what I'm noticing right now is the parallels at work between their story and their parents'.

For starters, God tells Adam not to eat the forbidden fruit, Adam eats it anyway. God warns Cain that his anger is threatening to overpower him and that he must master it, but Cain gives into his anger and kills his brother. (I once heard an interesting analysis on this, that Cain couldn't have known that Abel would die when he attacked him, since at this point in Scripture, no one has died.)

Next, God comes upon the guilty party. Adam and Eve equivocate a bit, but still pretty much come right out and admit that they've done what they shouldn't have. Cain's doesn't do that. His response comes across as more than a little petulant, "How should I know?" he asks God. "Am I my brother's keeper?" You almost expect him to add, "You want to make something of it, tough guy?"

In both situations, God shows that he pretty much knows everything that's been going on. In the case of Adam, he asks rhetorically, "Have you eaten of the fruit I commanded you not to?"; with Cain, he just out-and-out tells him "I hear your brother's blood calling out what you did."

Now here is what's interesting. Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden, and sent to the East. That's also what God does to Cain, sending him East of Eden, into the land of Nod. Also interesting: God cursed the ground for Adam, and he curses it again for Cain. In Adam's case, the curse was that work would become toil and drudgery; for Cain, the farmer, it would cease to yield crops at all.

The author seems intent on setting up the motif of sin and exile, which makes sense given that the theme is expressed later in the Torah and then in the histories, which explain the Babylonian exile as divine punishment for breach of the covenant between God and the Israelites.

A lot of the other stuff that comes to mind with Cain and Abel is pretty standard: Cain is punished either for sacrificing vegetables instead of meat, or for giving only "some" of his vegetables, and not the best and firstfruits, as his brother Abel did. I prefer the second explanation, given the language in Genesis 4:3-4, but the other makes sense thematically as well, when one considers that God dressed Adam and Eve in animal skins after they had dressed themselves with clothes made from plants.

There's also the mark of Cain, which all sorts of people have given all sorts of crazy interpretations to, to justify all sorts of evil things, like racism. It's obviously tied into the mark of Ham, several chapters later. I can't help but wonder if St. John of Patmos had this in mind when he mentioned the mark on the forehead of those who follow the Beast.

Chapter 4 rounds out with Cain's genealogy, beginning with his son Enoch and running down to Lamech and his three sons, Jabal, Jubal and Tubal-Cain. I can't see much point to this genealogy, except that ends in a brief description of each of Lamech's sons and their contributions to society: Jabal was the first nomad and keeper of livestock, Jubal was the first musician, and Tubal-Cain was the first metalworker. All three of these discoveries are defining to human civilization.

For some reason, the genealogist mentions that Lamech had a daughter, named Naamah. This is unique enough to note, but I've no idea what to make of it beyond saying "Hey, there's a woman listed here among the men. Cool." I'd love to know if anyone has an idea why the genealogist thought she was worth including, when clearly the other women weren't considered worth the ink.

Lamech was the man who killed somebody who attacked him, and evidently was worried about retribution from his victim's relatives and friends. When God exiled Cain for killing his brother in a fit of anger, he promised Cain that if anyone attacked him, Cain would be avenged seven times over. Lamech claims the right of seventy-sevenfold retribution if he is attacked.

That, I suppose, sounds to me like a fair amount of self-aggrandizement, in that Lamech feels he can not only invoke God's actions for his own defense, but he also can build upon them. His name, for whatever it is worth, may mean "For Lowering" or "For Humiliation."

Chapter 5 is entirely the lineage of Noah, whose name means "comfort." The people in here lived impossibly long times, though I noticed once that if you do the math, the time passed from the creation of Adam to the birth of Noah isn't that long. It's only around 1200 years.

The genealogy of Noah repeats a few names, like Lamech and Enoch. This Lamech is Noah's father, and this Enoch is the one who famously walked with God and then disappeared at age 365, apparently without dying, to judge by the wording.

This genealogy ends with Noah's three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth. There is probably some sort of comparison being made here between the two groups, but I'm drawing a blank right now on what it could be. Tubal-Cain and his brothers were descended from the "evil line" of Cain, while Noah's sons all descend from the "righteous" line of Seth. (And whoever came up with the idea that people are evil or righteous based on their ancestors was a serious nutter, probably related to the dimwit who conceived the idea that the mark of Cain was black skin.)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Blogging through the Bible: So what's up with that?

In the short time since I posted my most recent post, I've had one essential reaction: Who the heck cares?

My post says nothing original, offers no meaningful insights, and really doesn't reflect any great amount of reflection on my part. For the most part, it's stuff I've heard or said previously, repackaged. Like I said in the post, the creation passages in Genesis are among those passages that have been read, studied and talked about so many times, it's hard to find anything new to say.

But let me ask this about Genesis 1, since I've never heard a satisfactory explanation. Why does God refer to himself in the plural?

I know Christians see this as Trinitarian thinking, since a being who is at once three distinct people and yet cohesively one distinct being, could conceivably refer to himself in the plural. But that's a latecomer to the passage, applied hundreds of years after the text was written, and it's not something the rabbis ever entertained, and the Jewish people owned this story long before Jesus ever the focus of Augustine's meditations.

Elohim is a noun both singular and plural in Hebrew, and so elohim can be translated as Capital God, or as lowercase gods. Without knowing the Hebrew text at hand, it looks like the translators are trying to have it both ways, saying singular God when the text grammatically says plural gods. And as I understand, this story appears to have literary roots in Babylonian creation myths, where there were plenty of lowercase gods running around and helping to create the heavens and the earth.

So what's up with that?

Secondly, what's up with the snake in the garden, in Chapter 3? Yeah, I know that Christians traditionally believe that the snake is Satan, and we've developed a whole extrabiblical mythology found in the works of John Milton, about a war in heaven where Lucifer rebelled and became Satan, the Adversary, and in Genesis 3 is working to mar God's creation.

The difficulty is that the war in heaven and Satan's rebellion is just that, mythology found in the works of John Milton. It's not in Scripture, and if sola Scriptura is our standard, I want this passage to make sense on its own merits.

I'll accept that the world was marred by Adam's disobedience, given that we have the testimony of YHWH to that effect in the Genesis 3 poetry, about women suffering in childbirth and men now facing toil and drudgery instead of pleasure in their work, and about the two sexes fighting for dominion over one another, but what's up with the snake?

Clearly from this passage, Adam did not bring evil into the world, because the snake already was there and working to undermine Adam's obedience to the command he had been given about what fruit to eat, so where did the snake's evil come from? And if Adam had no evil within him, what caused his evil choice?

I read once that in the Hebrew scheme of things, choice never entered into the argument of why there is evil in the world and why we suffer. I think the story is suggesting that our capacity for evil is something innate to us, part of our very design, and not just something that happened. I'm curious to hear the thoughts of others who have given this thought beyond "Adam sinned and paradise was lost." What is the nature of evil in this story, and from whence does it come?

Blogging through the Bible: Genesis 1

Perhaps the best place to start when writing about the book of Genesis is with an affirmation of the authority of Scripture.

Most famously asserted in the Latin phrase sola Scriptura, the doctrine of Scriptural authority in the Protestant tradition asserts that the Bible is the final authority on matters of holiness and salvation. Any teaching that purports to explain how humanity may be reconciled to itself and to God, must square with the revelation contained in Scripture. Tradition, contemporary claims of revelation, pastoral teaching and personal insights, all have to square with what the Bible actually teaches.

That's it. Sola Scriptura does not mean that the Bible should assume primacy in matters of mathematics, genetics, history nor even poetry. The books are understood best in the cultural linguistic context in which they were written, and in the original sense of the letter.

In this vein, it is important to remember that the earliest chapters of Genesis were not written as a textbook account of the origins of the world. The ancient culture that produced the book of Genesis wasn't looking for the source of the hibernation instinct common to lower animals, an explanation of the fossil record, nor were they carefully detailing how God created the cosmos ex nihilo.

Contemporary readers may find those things in these stories, but the people who told these stories told them for the same reason we tell stories today: to instill cultural, religious and personal values; to provide a sense of identity; and to ponder the deep mysteries of life. That is the sense that I want to explore these stories.

Beyond that, the opening scenes of Genesis are interesting for a few reasons, one of the most obvious is the structure.

To begin with, there are the famous two creation stories in Genesis. I know some people point this out as a flagrant contradiction, since man is created on the sixth day in Genesis 1, and is listed as first in the created order in Genesis 2; and I know other people argue that it's nothing of the sort. Blah, blah, blah.

The first chapter of Genesis regularly refers to "God"; the second regularly refers to the "Lord God." A lot of times we don't notice this sort of thing, because we automatically see these both as names of God, who admittedly has a hefty roster of names. Still, more than a century ago, a Bible scholar noticed that this particular variant continues all the way through the book of Genesis (and beyond), with the writer sometimes using the Hebrew elohim, and other times using the Tetragrammaton, YHWH. If you remove these passages from one another, you're left with two complete, parallel passages, one about Elohim and the other about YHWH.

What can I say about these passages that I haven't already said a million times before in a million different blog posts? Well, for starters, I guess, the Elohim passage is more transcendental than the YHWH passage. By this I mean it describes God as creating the world by the power of his word -- in contrast to a similar Babylonian myth, where Tiamat and Marduk brought the world into being through their conflict -- and we're given a sense of the inherent goodness of the world that God has created.

That admittedly doesn't sound very groundbreaking or original a thought. In traditional Christian thinking, after all, the events of Genesis 1 take place before the Fall of Man, when evil entered the world. But if we look at the Elohim account on its own, separate from the YHWH passage, the text gains a new import. It's not a meditation on the world that was, the world that Adam screwed up and cost us forever; it's a meditation on the world that is, a good world teeming with life in the sea, in the sky, and upon the ground, and each facet of that world, each river, each stream and vernal pool, each blade of grass illuminated in the afternoon sun, and the sweet crunch of each apple, was created by God for us and for our benefit. Not in a world that was lost, but in a world that still exists.

There's a lot that can be made of this, both good and bad, in terms of humanity's dominion over the earth. A few days ago when the subject of factory farming briefly surfaced, an acquaintance of mine remarked that he really doesn't give a toss about the chickens that lay eggs or provide us with drumsticks on a Tuesday evening, since they are animals and exist to give us meat. That's an extreme though common view that has some roots in this passage, though it's worth noting that this passage expressly does not authorize killing animals for their meat, and though I can't say I think much of anyone who sees his authority as bestowing the right to do whatever he wants to those under his authority. Kings who oppress their subjects usually find their kingdoms collapsing under them.

In that vein, it might be worth noting that the Genesis 1 creation account follows a structure of two sets of three days. The first day brings light and day, the second day brings sky (the Hebrew cosmology here indicates that the sky physically separates the water on the earth from water above the sky, and that rain comes when God opens doors in the sky -- something I've yet to hear a convincing creationist argument address, though I digress) , and the third day brings dry land and plants.

The second cycle of three days follows the pattern of the first cycle of light, sea and sky, and dry land. On Day Four, God creates the sun and the moon to maintain the light from the first day; on Day Five, he brings forth birds to fly through the sky and sea creatures to move through the waters under the sky; and on Day Six he creates land animals and he also creates man.

This is significant because the first cycle lays the ground for that second cycle to build upon. Without the light, there is no use for the sun, moon and stars. Without the sky and the waters, there is nowhere for the birds or the sea creatures to live. Without dry land, there is no space for animals. And of course, all this leads the way for humanity, men and women, the pinnacle of the created order. A king who oppresses and exploits his subjects poisons the source of his power and military might; a human atop a ladder who insists on kicking out the steps below him, will have no way to get down safely when the ladder begins to fall.