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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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Cliché-anity

I find myself relating less and less to fellow Christians, sometimes when I survey the comprehension level of those around me I start to wonder if we even belong to the same religion.  Among Evangelicals in particular, I see Christians more aligned with American folk wisdom than with anything resembling Biblical Christianity–even when they’re quoting from the Bible!

American Christianity seems to have become as predictable as the the Republican Party agenda: a few rehearsed talking points on some controversial wedge issues, gut feelings, and a lot of denial.  Difficult situations are met with common canned responses like “God is in control”, “Everything happens for a reason”, or when stumped by a theological question that they can’t explain, they defer to Isaiah 55:9 (“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways”).  It doesn’t matter to them if the context in Isaiah has nothing to do with the divine nature of Christ or the destruction of the Canaanites, it’s a catch-all stock answer for anything they don’t understand.  They know little of the sophisticated philosophy presented in Job, Ecclesiastes, or the prophets, and favor catchy sound bites instead.  Ignorant of centuries of complex theological development within the Judeo-Christian traditions,  they reduce Christian thought to a dumbed-down catechism of clichés, a phenomenon that I’ve coined as “Cliché-anity.”  While this might be expected among lay adherents of any faith, it troubles me to see it prevalent even among the clergy and church leaders.

Too often, Evangelical Christians view the Bible as a revelation in itself.  This is problematic, because it dilutes the claims of the Bible to the level of any other religion claiming its scriptures as direct revelation from God, such as the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon.  While this approach may not be as noticeable a problem among believers in the Bible, or even between believers of other religions, it’s absolutely meaningless for nonbelievers.  In this manner, the Bible is only authoritative to those who already believe it, therefore expecting anyone outside of a Christian worldview to accept it as truth just because it says so is a logical fallacy, and goes completely against why the Bible was written!

A prime example of this is how Evangelicals generally seem unable to express Christian exclusivism except by reciting John 14:6’s “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  This is so ingrained in the Evangelical mindset that I can already hear some readers starting the fire to burn me at the stake just for criticizing it, as if I’m denying the Bible is true or promoting universalism.  However, this reliance on textual citations for truth claims is actually a greater disservice to absolute truth.  Atheists, for instance, are prone to compare this statement with any of Muhammad’s claims in the Qur’an, and dismiss them both as competing fairytales.  After all, if Jesus can be the only way to heaven just because he says so, then Muhammad’s requirements to believe in him as God’s prophet would have to at least be equally considered, if not equally valid.  This usually forces the Christian into the unnecessary position of having to discredit Islam to prove Christianity true.  It becomes even sillier when Christians try to use this prooftext methodology to refute the faith of Catholics, Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, who also accept Biblical authority.

Probably the best expression of Christian exclusivism that I’ve heard in the last decade came from Asia Bibi, an illiterate peasant Catholic in Pakistan, who has been sentenced to death under her Islamic country’s draconian blasphemy laws simply for defending her beliefs in saying, “My Jesus died for me what has Muhammed done for you?”  No chapter and verse citation, no verbatim memorization, yet she demonstrates the essence of the gospel’s exclusive claim to salvation better than any of the learned Evangelicals, who would probably dismiss her just for being Catholic.  Perhaps she would have been accused of blasphemy either way, or even if she had said nothing at all, but I can’t help but think her accusers were more offended by this statement because it cannot be cancelled out by a competing Islamic claim: if Christ is indeed the Savior, then no claim Muhammad could make can trump that.

I wouldn’t say that all Christians who use this canned response don’t really understand the concept of salvation in their religion, but it does leave me wondering.  If their grasp of truth is entirely dependent on the claims of a text and nothing more, then their religion could easily be changed simply with the introduction of a new text.  This helps explain why Mormons and Muslims are so successful at converting today’s Evangelicals.

Unfortunately, there is no quick remedy for this problem.  Actively learning or re-learning one’s religion more thoroughly is certainly harder than it was to acquire a set of clichés.  My first suggestion would be a complete overhaul of the way Christians perceive the Bible as God’s Word.  Too often the doctrine of divine inspiration is mistaken for divine revelation, which the Judeo-Christian scriptures are not.  Unlike Muslim, Mormon, Baha’i scriptures, etc. that claim to be directly revealed, the revelation of Christianity is not in a book but rather the revealing of God himself.  The Christian concept of inspiration is not what gives the scriptures their authority, they would still be true even without that doctrine.  There were no Muslims until Muhammad started to recite the Qur’an, there were no Mormons until after Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon, but there were Christians before any of the New Testament was committed to writing.  The revelation of God in Christ and the truth of Christianity are indeed recorded in the Bible (in case you were doubting my faith in the written word), however both would still exist without it.  Nothing is true just because the Bible says so, as is the common misconception, but rather the Bible is true because of what it contains.

Make no mistake, I am not proposing that Christians abandon the Bible, since (as I hope to explore in greater detail) many of the common Cliché-anity catch-phrases have no connection whatsoever to Biblical Christianity anyway.  But this over-used method of reducing the Bible to a collection of proof-texts can certainly turn believers into doubters if they miss the overall point of scripture because they’re unable to pinpoint a specific text to support a doctrine.  Ultimately, it leads to losing battles with outsiders about the absolute truth of Christ, and major and minor doctrinal squabbles within the church.

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So this is Seer Stone

seer stone

Joseph Smith's Seer Stone

Since it seems everyone else in the world has a blog (or two), including my 3-year old nephew and the homeless guy who lives by the back dumpster, it’s been long overdue for me to start one of my own.

“What is Seer Stone” you ask?  Anyone familiar with Mormonism in any way–even if only through the South Park episode “All About Mormons”–already knows that seer stones were commonly used by Joseph Smith and other early Mormons to receive their revelations from God.   This blog will not focus solely on Mormonism, although it will heavily document another project of mine in the works pertaining to the Book of Mormon.  The actual point of Seer Stone, however, is really to critically analyze a wide range of scriptures from various world religions, to uncover how different believers determine their canon, how they view revelation and divine inspiration, and  how they determine what makes a writing scripture.

Most people, even religious people, don’t understand the fundamental differences between how different religions see their own scriptures.  Fundamentalism, for instance, has given Christianity a flawed understanding of its own scriptures, which has made Protestantism particularly vulnerable to Mormon proselytization (but more on that later).

Who am I?  First of all, I’m an amateur theologian, not a scholar, so this blog won’t delve too deeply into archeology or original languages (except for the Book of Mormon, which sorry, was originally written in English).  If you haven’t guessed by now, Seer Stone will not be pro-Mormon; if you’re that closed-minded to criticism then that’s your cue to exit now.  It will not, however, be aggressively anti-Mormon; in fact, I hope to illuminate some of the literary value that Mormons overlook in their agenda-driven ambition to want to believe the Book of Mormon as a literal, historical, or scriptural account.  While every topic will be covered from a Christian perspective, I anticipate many Christians will find some controversial topics challenging or even uncomfortable.  Some other topics I hope to cover on Seer Stone may include:

  • The Apostle Paul and the Buddha’s last words
  • Moses and the Baghavad Gita
  • Harmony of the Gospels (I wish I had tracked this on a blog when I did this project before)
  • Harmony of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles
  • Questionable books in the Christian canon
  • Source material of the Qur’an
  • and, hopefully, any topics by request.
So even if you’re not a Mormon enthusiast, if you’re interested in any religion or even atheism, there should be something to interest you or discuss here.

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