Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Pentateuch, Part 1: Migratory Patterns

I’ve resolved to blog more consistently this year, which means I’m ready to start a series of a textual analysis of the Pentateuch.  Actually, I’m not sure I’m really ready for this, the more I study the Torah the more amateurish I feel about it.  While I’m sure I’ll never be studied enough for my own satisfaction, I do feel confident nevertheless that I’m capable of dispelling some of the common misunderstandings about the writing processes of the Torah.  From my experience, most Christians don’t seem to acknowledge a writing process is indeed involved in the creation of scripture.  But even if they may admit to that, it doesn’t necessarily mean they intellectually understand the ramifications this has for the interpretive process.   Yet Christians both learned and ignorant have high esteem for the Books of Moses, some to the point that they believe it contains a rulebook for the ideal civilization, even if they don’t really follow that in practice.  Hopefully in the next few weeks I can impart some of the theories and conclusions I’ve made from my personal study, and help you see these books in a radically different way.

One interesting feature of the Pentateuch as a whole is that the entire text has a migratory pattern that reflects the internal migration within the narrative.  The ante-deluvian stories share many similarities to Sumerian creation and flood myths like the Epic of Gilgamesh.  After the call of Abraham from Ur, however, the text becomes more apparently self-reliant: there are three interdependent sister-wife narratives within the book of Genesis  (Gen. 12:10-20, Gen. 20, Gen. 26:1-11) and incrementally fewer references to outside source material with each passing patriarch.  By the time we get to Joseph the book has a decided cultural identity, but upon the Exodus traces of multi-culturalism resurface.  The rescue of Moses from the Nile has similarities to exposure narratives of the Assyrian legend of Sargon and others, coincidentally right before this exiled prince would end up in the land of Midian, later to be part of the Assyrian empire.  Returning to Egypt as a prophet, the text shares some similarities with ancient Egyptian stories: in Se-Osiris and the Sealed Letter, an Ethiopian magician turns a sealed roll into a serpent (similar to Aaron’s rod in Ex. 7:9), and also casts a spell of darkness on the land for three days and nights (Ex. 10:22); a lake is parted in the Golden Lotus.

When Moses gives the Law on Sinai, the text itself is in between Egypt and the Promised Land.  The Ten Commandments echo the Negative Confessions from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, while the influence of the surrounding legal systems of Babylon’s Hammurabi, the Hittite Code of the Nesilim, the Persian Avesta, and others is undeniable.  It’s also interesting to note that the Hebrews acquired the punishment of stoning while wandering in the Arabian desert, where this method is still in effect to this day for the same sins, although the Jews seem to have discarded it after settling in the Holy Land.  While the Qur’an was a book of rules written by an authoritarian seeking inspiration in a dark, desert cave with little outside exposure, the Law of Moses is clearly written from observation and experience.  Aside from the more familiar “thou shalt not’s”, it includes a great deal of casuistic legal rulings that demonstrate the experience of a lawgiver who had settled cases himself from morning till night (Ex. 18:13).  Occasionally, contextual narratives are joined to the rulings to give insight into the case process (Lev. 24:10-16, Num. 15:32-36), but other times the reasons are frustratingly lost to the ages, such as the prohibition on boiling a kid goat in its mother’s milk (Ex. 34:26, Deut. 14:21).  Nevertheless, we can see these were not arbitrary rulings dictated by a single-minded tyrant, there is no attempt to hide or disguise the writing process and rely solely on a claim of divine inspiration to demand blind obedience, as the writers of other holy books have done.

The narrative doesn’t just move through time as it progresses forward, it also visibly moves through space.  It has a timestamp and a location stamp that corresponds perfectly to where the text ought to be at a specific time and place.  Parallels to contemporary literature sometimes make the more hardline fundamentalists uncomfortable, and they react either with outright denial or the insistence that the Bible was always the original source that other cultures borrowed.  This obsession with primacy is really just to satisfy the fundamentalist’s psychological need for closure, but they really need not be so threatened at the thought of the Biblical authors borrowing from another source.  That fact certainly discredits the Rabbinic tradition that the five books of Moses were dictated to a single author in their final form except for the last chapter of Deuteronomy, however, anybody who understands the process of how a book is written and edited can reconcile that process with the doctrine of divine inspiration.  A believer who can’t do that simply has a flawed understanding of what divine inspiration actually means.

Rather than disproving the Bible, as the skeptics jump to conclude, the migration of the text is a strong testimony of its authenticity.  This book has indeed travelled through the cultures and periods that it claims.  On the other hand, fraudulent holy books like the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon are easily disproven by how they do neither.  Muhammad’s Qur’an does not have a linear concept of time, and all the Biblical characters simultaneously inhabit a continuous, mythical present.  His book never left the Arabian desert until his followers did.  The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, is more careful to tell a linear story but fails to visit any other culture except the one Joseph Smith imagines; he doesn’t dare attempt to give specific cultural details until his characters have safely stepped outside of the Holy Land, and history.  Even then, the animals and technological advancements he depicts contradict with what we know factually about pre-European America.  The only conclusion available is that both these books are frauds, and no amount of belief in them being divinely inspired can change that.  Quite the opposite, the Bible’s authenticity is reinforced by comparative study, and could be trusted without any belief in its inspiration at all.

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Glean on Me

Marking the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, prominent Republicans like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Paul Ryan have unashamedly toed the typical GOP line against welfare.  In a now-infamous video, Marco Rubio asks, “After 50 years, isn’t it time to declare big government’s war on poverty a failure?”  While offering no immediate policy solutions to support his vague platitudes, he nevertheless embraces the conservative agenda to relentlessly cut funding to the social safety net.

It’s a popular sentiment among conservative Christians to think that social programs like food stamps or unemployment benefits could simply be eliminated and churches and charities would naturally fill the gap.  Of course, it should be self-evident that this isn’t true, otherwise the church would already be doing it and we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.   Even if it were possible (albeit unlikely) for the church to rise to the occasion, it’s a high risk to experiment such a cruel stress test when it seems inevitable that millions would probably become homeless, starve, or die in the process.

The problem for right-wing Christians who hold this belief is that it doesn’t reflect a Biblical  attitude towards either the poor or charity.  Today’s charities aren’t able to meet the overwhelming need because they’re any less efficient, but because charity alone has never been able to meet this need.  The Mosaic Law prescribed a social safety net to assist the poor in several ways that went beyond charitable giving, like the cancellation of debts every seven years (Deuteronomy 15:1-6) or leaving remains in the field and on the vine for the poor to glean (Deuteronomy 24:19-22).  While the Bible never intended for the poor to subsist solely on charity, Republicans expect today’s poor to do so without any fields to glean, while burdened with student loan debts that can’t be forgiven, not even in bankruptcy in most cases.

Gleaning, or collecting leftover crops, is a foreign concept to industrialized America, a custom that many Christians mistakenly assume was abandoned with the new covenant.  But Jesus and his disciples were poor and gleaned for food (Matt. 12:1), and the custom continued much longer than most people today would think: it didn’t actually end until after wealthy English landowners succeeded in having it outlawed in 1788 (Steel v Houghton).  Did Christians misinterpret the law all through church history for over 1700 years?  It seems to me that this precedent in English common law is really the only reason why Christians today don’t believe gleaning is a right, not for any real exegetical reasons.  For all their Biblical values talk, the right-wing Christian only really seems to care so far as it doesn’t conflict with modern conservative values.  This conservative knee-jerk reaction to welfare is as modern a development as the private property laws that outlawed gleaning, and every bit just as unChristian.

Of course, we’re no longer an agrarian society, another reason why the custom of gleaning is no longer a practical solution to help the hungry now.  However, the religious right loves empty talk about wanting to govern America with Biblical principles, so I challenge them to find a modern equivalent to gleaning.  I no longer give them a free pass to claim things would magically be better if the country were run on their interpretation of Christian values (which conveniently, they never have to prove) while they reject any Biblically prescribed welfare system.  Yet it seems all conservatives ever do is try to repeal programs that help the poor while not intending to replace it with anything.  Even after I explain to them that charity couldn’t possibly be a replacement, I have never been able to get a conservative to propose any alternative.  It seems they don’t even have bad ideas to offer.

We need more than the vague, empty rhetoric that characterizes the Republican party.  People who don’t really have any specific idea what they’re doing cannot be trusted to decide public policy, and certainly not to eliminate the social safety net when they have nothing to offer in its place.  The Republican base lets their leaders campaign purely on opposition, but that’s a loser strategy.  They will always be losing elections and trying to undo their opponents policies if they can’t come up with workable ideas of their own.   If not to help the poor, the GOP needs to do this for its own selfish libertarian sake, or else they’ll just become more unappealing and irrelevant.

thegleaners

The Gleaners, Jean-François Millet. 1857

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