Tag Archives: exodus

Judges: Second Genesis

The logical epilogue to the Pentateuch should be the book of Joshua, but I’m going to skip over that to the book of Judges.  Sure, Joshua perfectly closes out the Exodus like html tags, with a lesser parting of water for the Israelites to cross over on dry ground (Joshua 3:14-17), and Joshua’s encounter with the Lord outside Jericho (Joshua 5:13-15) corresponds to Moses and the burning bush.  Judges, however, is the book I would argue has the most similarity to the books of Moses, particularly Genesis.  Since both books depict a lawless period, one before the Law was given, the other at a time when it has been largely abandoned, I could go so far as to say Judges could have originated as an alternative to Genesis, so much so that I would call it “Genesis Gone Wrong.”

Specifically, Judges appears to call to mind the accounts of Abraham and Lot in Genesis 18 and 19.  Just as the angels visited the Patriarch Abram near the great trees of Mamre, the angel of the Lord comes to Gideon under an oak in Ophrah (Judges 6:11).  Both Abram and Gideon use the phrase “If I have found favor in your eyes” (Genesis 18:3, Judges 6:17) before offering him a sacrificially acceptable meal.  Lastly, just as Abram tests God’s patience by repeatedly begging him to spare Sodom with increasingly fewer conditions, so Gideon increasingly raises the conditions of his testing, practically quoting Abram in the process (“Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request.” Judges 6:39).  From there the parallels diverge, Gideon goes on to defeat Midian while the hospitality narrative that follows immediately in Genesis doesn’t appear until later in the book of Judges.

Before that, however, we do resume with parallels to the sons of Abraham.  Similar to Ishmael, the son of a foreign bondwoman driven out of his home, Jephthah the son of a prostitute is driven away by his brothers (Judges 11:1-3).  In contrast to Isaac, however, Jephthah vows to offer a burnt offering to YHWH and tragically follows this sacrifice through with his own daughter (Judges 11:30-39); sadly, there is no deus ex machina or ram caught in the thicket here.

The parallels are then interrupted by the account of Samson, but resume again in Chapter 19, which corresponds to the same chapter of Genesis.  Here we find a hospitality narrative that seems to bridge the differences between Lot in Sodom and Baucis and Philemon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  While this story lacks the two gods, it contains similarities to Ovid not found in Genesis.  Although the pair of angels effortlessly find Lot and thus a place to stay, the Levite and his concubine in Judges are not so fortunate.  Like Ovid’s Zeus and Apollo (“a thousand houses they approached looking for rest, a thousand houses were locked and bolted.  But one received them.” Metamorphoses Book VIII), they sit in the city square but nobody will take them in for the night, except for an old man.  What happens next is nearly verbatim from the Genesis story, some wicked men of the city surround the house and demand to sexually violate the visitor.  Like Lot, the owner offers the mob his virgin daughter, but the men wouldn’t listen.  Unlike Lot, however, the Levite does send out his concubine, who is then horribly raped to death.

Even though in the narrative’s chronology the Law has already been given, the Judges seem completely unaware of it.  Ironically, the Patriarchs precede the giving of the Law yet the inhabitants of Genesis seem to follow it intuitively.  While much of the same questionable morality like human sacrifice permeates both books, apologists have a much easier time addressing these moral lapses in Genesis than in Judges.  Divine intervention in the binding of Isaac makes for good Sunday school material, while the difficult story of Jephthah is rarely mentioned in church, if at all.

Although not a “lawbook” like the other four books in the Torah, when weighed against the parallels of the Judges it becomes clear why Genesis is still very much a book of the Law.  The book of Judges is as lawless as the judges themselves, and they seem to only teach us by bad example.  Obviously the Samaritans ignored everything after the Pentateuch, but curiously the Jewish scholars seem to have forgotten most of them except Samson in their subsequent literature, like the Talmud.  This trend continues not just into the New Testament (except for a passing reference in Hebrews 11:32), but also into every other faith tradition that borrowed heavily from the Patriarchs, from Islam to Baha’i and Mormonism.  I think that’s a great loss for them, as the book of Judges serves as an interpretive key of sorts to some of the difficult passages of Genesis.  The sex-obsessed Talmudic interpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah which is so prevalent today, for instance, isn’t quite as convincing when read through the lens of the Levite and his concubine.

 

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The Pentateuch, Part 4: The Levitical Memeplex

The book of Leviticus isn’t widely popular in Sunday schools.  It only has two narratives, one about “strange fire” which results in the death of Aaron’s sons (chapter 10) and the other about a blasphemer being put to death (chapter 24), neither of which are as child-friendly as other Bible stories like Joseph or David.  Most of its content is law, specifically the ones that Christians don’t observe like ritual sacrifices or dietary restrictions, but also more adult themed subjects about forbidden sex or bodily fluids.  Yet interestingly, the traditional starting point for children learning the Torah in the early synagogue was Leviticus, not Genesis.

The Mosaic Law is, to me, the point where primitive Judaism graduates from being an isolated tribal cult to a world class religion.  Although the narrative continues to wander in the wilderness for another 40 years, the text is firmly settled at this point.  Not just in the sense that it describes permanent dwellings (Lev. 14:33-53) and cities of refuge in the promised land, but in how it evaluates the surrounding culture from an objective standpoint.  It is not written in a bubble by a dogmatic authoritarian, but rather the author has evidently taken inventory of his neighboring legal codes and freely borrowed what was good, improved upon what was lacking, and rejected what was bad.  Leviticus is such a fascinating book for comparative religious studies mostly because it is itself a study of comparative religions.

Some of its practices, like the purification periods after childbirth (Lev 12:1-5) were simply commonplace in the surrounding cultures, as similarly prescribed by Hippocrates, or the custom of priests keeping the hides from animal sacrifices (Lev 7:8), presumably for subsistence, which is also found in Virgil’s Aeneid (Book VII 8:96 “The priest on skins of off’rings takes his ease”).  Surrounding cultures had similar laws governing what to do if an ox or bull gored someone to death (Ex. 21:28-32), such as Hammurabi’s code (251) and also the laws of Eshnunna.  Examples like this seem to be borrowed without commentary, just with minor cultural slant.  Comparative study of other laws, however, sometimes reveals a deliberate underlying repudiation of the gentile legal and purity codes.

The controversial “Holiness Code” of Leviticus 17-26 is where we see the most prominent examples of this when contrasted with the sexual permissiveness of Israel’s neighbors.  The Hittite Code of the Nesilim, for instance, condemned intercourse with one’s mother (188), while allowing it with a stepmother if the father was dead (190).  The Levitical code, on the other hand, prohibits both sexual relations with one’s mother (Lev. 18:7), as well as with any wife of one’s father (Lev. 18:8), presumably from polygamy or remarriage.  Prohibiting both would seem common sense today simply because that’s normative, yet ancient societies had to thoughtfully establish their sexual ethics, and it seems these decisions affected the fitness of their cultural survival.  Hence, Judaism is still a living faith whereas Hittite culture is long extinct.

The Zoroastrian Avesta, a text which also happens to intersect with several narratives in the Torah, particularly the Flood, has a clear example of cultural lending and the modification that results:

Ahura Mazda [the Zoroastrian deity] answered:  “The man that lies with mankind as man lies with womankind, or as woman lies with mankind, is the man that is a Daeva [demon]”

compared with Leviticus 18:22:

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”

Scholars still debate which version preceded the other, but the debate will probably remain forever unsettled as the Zoroastrian scriptures have a more chaotic history of preservation than the Hebrew canon.  Proponents of a later, post-exilic origin of the Torah will argue that the books of Moses did not reach their final form until exposure to Zoroastrian influence during the Babylonian captivity (7th century BC), but of course this theory works both ways.  Personally, I lean towards the Zoroastrians borrowing from the Jews for the simple reason that their text complicates the subject with the reference to demonology, and from my own experience, borrowed texts tend towards embellishment, not reduction.  It would be unusual for a culture to have co-opted a phrase like this while deliberately excising the superstitious element, but either way the Jewish version doesn’t rely on such magical thinking.  This is consistent with the rest of the Levitical Holiness Code, which grounds its laws in reality and common sense while its neighbors chose mythos instead.  (As a side note, it amuses me when supposed fundamentalists attempt to insert these elements into the Bible like this)

I think the relationship between Judaism and other ancient near east religions is best understood through memetics.  A meme is basically a piece of information that is copied from one person to another, like stories, songs, laws, recipes, etc.  A collection of memes that are passed down together like the Torah are considered a memeplex.  A memeplex self-replicates and preserves itself, demonstrably in the way that a religion spreads.  The memeplex fittest for survival ultimately preserves not only itself, but also the culture that promotes it.  It would be easy to say that the middle eastern culture that prohibited eating foods like pork and shellfish that posed a serious health risk, and also enforcing stabilizing sexual policies that reduced promiscuity and maximized procreation, might have a natural selection advantage over its competitors that was purely accidental or coincidental, if it were just a coincidence.  However, as we’ve learned, memes have a guiding intelligence behind them and the endurance of the Torah through the ages is not an accident of evolution, but rather a deliberate effort to overcome the weaknesses that brought other cultures to decay.

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The Pentateuch, Part 3: A Passage to India

I’m about to expose a hole in my textual migration model of the Torah.  Not that I think this disproves or diminishes what I’ve already established, but rather it’s an aberration I can’t seem to explain.

When Moses approaches the burning bush, God commands him to take off his sandals (Ex. 3:5) because he is standing on holy ground.  There’s no similar act elsewhere in the Bible except for when Joshua encounters the commander of the Lord’s army (Joshua 5:15) in the conquest of Canaan, which is clearly written to parallel the Mosaic cycle.  Removing shoes in reverence seems to be a rather irregular custom for Judaism in general, depending more on surrounding culture and circumstances.  From my own experience touring Hindu temples in India, it seems more characteristic of the far east than the near east.

While that’s possibly an unprovable hypothesis, I think there’s a very clear comparison to Hinduism in the book of Exodus.  Coincidentally after the episode with the golden calf that corresponds to the Hindu sacred cow, Moses and YHWH have a near face-to-face conversation with striking parallels to the most popular and important sacred text of India, the Bhagavad Gita.

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”

And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.  But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

Exodus 33:18-23

In the Bhagavad Gita, prince Arjuna consults his chariot driver on the battlefield, who he then discovers is really the supreme deity Krishna in disguise.  From the text according to Gandhi:

[Arjuna said] “Thou art indeed just as Thou hast described Thyself, Parameshvara.  I do crave to behold now that form of Thine as Ishvara.  If Lord, Thou thinkest it possible for me to bear the sight, reveal to me, O Yogeshvara, Thy imperishable form.”

The Lord said:  “Behold, O Partha, my forms divine in their hundreds and thousands, infinitely diverse, infinitely various in color and aspect.  Behold the Adityas, the Vasus, the Rudras, the two Ashwins, and the Maruts.  Behold, O Bharata, numerous marvels never revealed before.  Behold today, O Gudakesha, in my body, the whole universe moving and unmoving, all in one, and whatever else thou cravest to see.  But thou canst not see Me with these thine own eyes.  I give thee the eye divine.  Behold My sovereign power!”

Bhagavad Gita 11:4-8

For civilizations so far removed from each other, these are incredibly close in form if not in context or content.  Both address the problem of God’s invisibility, while they interpret it differently and present widely different solutions.  Frankly, I’m at a loss to explain it with any certainty, but I will offer some suggestions.  First, while not assuming the priority of either narrative, it seems likely one is a polemic of the other.  The incident of Moses seeing God’s back seems to interrupt the narrative, and theologically has frustrated apologists ever since, almost suggesting it’s a later interpolation.  Still, it’s difficult to explain a possible detour to India in the migration path.  At some point these two cultures must have come into contact with each other, or with an intermediary such as Egypt.  It’s almost unthinkable, not just from a literalist perspective, to assume Hebrew culture made it as far as India and incorporated that influence into their national epic, so it seems more plausible that the Bhagavad Gita was the traveling text in this instance.  Unfortunately, I’m hardly an Egyptologist, so I wouldn’t be able to  determine the relationship between those two cultures as easily.

Such is textual analysis.  While many times it provides insight, at times like this it raises more questions than it answers.  If anybody more knowledgable in these subjects (or not) has any input, it would be welcome.

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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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