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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 5: Torah and the Christian Moral Compass

A hypothetical dilemma I like to present to Christians to gauge their moral compass is to insert themselves into the Pericope Aulterae–the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery–and see how they would have responded to the same question over stoning the adulteress.  If you were a law abiding Jew in the first century who happened to witness this incident outside the Temple between the Pharisees and a rabbi from out of town, on which side would you be?  The responses I get are often very telling.  Usually, the respondents seem to think that knowing whether this rabbi is the Messiah or not makes all the difference.  Some will say, more or less, that a faithful Jew should have observed the Law up until Jesus shows the woman mercy, essentially a doctrine of abrogation.  It’s these Christians of whom I’m most suspicious of their moral values.  Particularly disturbing is when Christians argue against this passage’s disputed status in the canon on the grounds that its absence could potentially mean adulterers would still need to be stoned to death.

I’ll admit, the question is a bit of a trap, but of course, it was always intended to be one.  A little background on First Century Israel reveals that under Roman rule the Jews had already been made to abandon the practice of stoning long before the time of Christ, so presenting him with that question was really no different than asking the same question to anyone else today.  Christians ought not to think that the actions of Jesus in this story equate to some sort of radical fiat that governs Christianity in a way similar to how the Mosaic Law governed Judaism.  Aside from the fact that this was already the direction Judaism was heading, Christians ethicists ought to be able to come to the same conclusion as Christ did even if this narrative were not authentic, or even if it were not in the Bible.

Part of the problem with Christian morality in practice today is that so many Christians hold exclusively to deontological ethics, which is basically judging the morality of an action based on its adherence to rules.  They tend to do this mostly because they erroneously assume that’s the only definite moral theory available.  In the post-modern era, Christians have been overly trained to reject moral relativism, but have largely overcompensated by reducing the Bible from a holy book to a rule book.

This is a problem first because the Bible doesn’t necessarily limit itself to a single moral theory; Jesus was probably closer to a virtue ethicist than anything else.  Second, deontological ethics fosters moral helplessness.  It would help Christians to listen to their atheistic critics when believers make audacious claims such as that there would be no morality without the Bible.  When Christians act like the only thing stopping them from running amuck murdering, raping, or stealing are the commands in a text, that actually frightens non-Christians and isn’t a very impressive statement about the morality of Christians.  Unfortunately, Christians are at times all too comfortable with this moral helplessness when it gives them a license for bad behavior.  Like a Milgram experiment, they may be led to do things that conflict with their natural, God-given moral compass simply because they’ve been told “it’s in the Bible.”  Church history is regrettably littered with such helpless defenses for killing heretics, enslaving fellow human beings, and other oppression, but fortunately virtue has been on the right side of history.

Lastly, the two testaments of scripture are not the clear-cut, absolute rulebook that Christians make it out to be.  The whole Bible is a complex–sometimes contradictory–book of morality and anyone who acts like it’s a simple handbook is either ignorant of its contents or in denial.  Right wing politicians may argue that the Bible should be the basis for US law, yet evangelicals in particular have never been able to fully agree on the application of said Biblical law.  There obviously wouldn’t be nearly so many fragmented denominations if this weren’t the case.  The New Testament doesn’t always provide a convenient abrogation point of an Old Testament law like it does for stoning adulterers, eating unclean animals, sacrifices, or specific Jewish customs.  I’ve previously demonstrated that customs like gleaning which Christians often incorrectly assume were set aside with the Old Covenant were in reality discontinued much later in history by English common law.  Hardliners often try to supply their own interpretive methods to determine which laws are still applicable and which are not, yet scripture itself doesn’t provide any easy to follow methodology, and even those who claim to follow such methods aren’t as knowledgable about the Torah as one would think they ought to be if they truly believed every law could still be binding.  It seems their conclusions are usually just to apply the grace of the New Testament to themselves and the Old Testament for everybody else.

Perhaps the greater problem at play here is that most of the Christians who hold strictly to deontological ethics aren’t really deontological ethicists themselves.  It’s similar to how so many Christians claim to be Trinitarians simply because they consider that to be an essential Christian doctrine, yet they don’t realize the beliefs they actually hold are Modalism or some other heresy.  Ironically, these hardliners will condemn all non-Trinitarians to hell oblivious to the fact that their own beliefs are in fact no closer to orthodox Trinitarianism.  In the same way, while some Christians are quick to condemn others on the basis of the Mosaic Law, these same Christians don’t really abide by it as strictly as such a reading would demand.  A prominent example of this is when fundamentalists refer to “traditional” marriage as one man and one woman, yet most of the laymen have no idea that biblical marriage also included polygamy, concubines, levirate marriage, prisoners of war, and other customs no longer considered acceptable in today’s society.  We also don’t see any Christian lobby equally concerned that wages should be paid daily according to Deuteronomy 24:15.  Despite all the claims of a morality based in the written word, clearly even conservative Christians draw their moral foundation from elsewhere.

Note that I am not referring to legalism here, as is commonly misunderstood in the ethical discussion.  The Pharisees are often confused as legalists by Christian readers, but the historical record reveals they were actually in the progressive, common sense wing of Judaism, in contrast to the literalist Sadducees who tried to hold to the strict letter of the Law.  While it was the Pharisees who presented Jesus with the test, they were ironically the sect that most closely aligned with his conclusion.  But like Jews who confused the past culture being governed in the Law for the Law itself, today’s Christians have similarly mistaken modern American evangelical culture of the last 50-or-so years as God’s eternal design for living.  As loathe as they would be to admit it, they have much in common with the relativists whom they accuse of letting culture define morality.

Instead of forcing the Bible to be read as a rulebook, I recommend Christians see it as more of a document of an ongoing ethical dialogue.  This was a process which was very active during the first century where talmudic wisdom appears in the Sermon on the Mount and other places in the Gospels, and where Paul uses halakhic reasoning in his epistles.  Though the founders of Christianity are mostly overlooked today as a part of Jewish history, the ideas and interpretive methods they shared are nevertheless the reason why Judaism has adapted to modern life despite not acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah or Paul as an Apostle.  While Christians like to think of the Jews as still under the Law, virtually every modern sect of Judaism today has descended from the Pharisees’ Rabbinic school, thus even the most orthodox Jews are not locked into archaic laws like slavery and stoning.  If Christians under grace could only be so liberated, these common sense roots of morality offer a more universal ethic than one dependent entirely on divine mandate.

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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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Nephi’s Ark

Although it takes longer to get to this point in the Book of Mormon, the story of the Nephite oceanic crossing in 1 Nephi 17-18 is in reality Joseph Smith’s analog to the flood of Noah.  An elementary comparison of them both by the casual reader would make them appear of similar quality, yet further scrutiny reveals one is clearly of superior literary quality.  While the Biblical account of Noah in Genesis 6-9 is concise, multi-layered, and complex, the Nephite story is simple, long-winded exposition.

Typical for the entire Book of Mormon, nearly every sentence in this passage begins with “and” (most often Joseph Smith’s favorite phrase, “and it came to pass”), or sometimes the occasional “but”, “wherefore”, or “yea” that were characteristic of his making up the story as he went along.  In Genesis, the narrative is laid out in episodic pericopes, the typical style of the Pentateuch, which is arranged more like building blocks than a linear story.  Noah has no lines of dialogue whatsoever (something Smith would remedy in his “inspired translation” of the Bible), but the bulk of Joseph Smith’s story is another run-on speech in 17:23-51 (and if that weren’t enough, Nephi tells us after the speech that he said even more things that weren’t even written in the book!).

Joseph Smith evidently favored the first 9 chapters of Genesis over the rest of the Pentateuch; it is, after all, nearly the only extract of the Joseph Smith translation widely used in a Mormon holy book (the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price), and he revisited the creation passage again in the Book of Abraham (also in the Pearl of Great Price).  Particularly, he must have drawn on the antediluvian section because, on the surface at least, the civilizations and customs described therein are less specific than in later parts of the Bible, just as throughout the Book of Mormon.  Although Nephi talks at length about keeping the commandments in this story, Joseph Smith appears virtually ignorant of the Mosaic Law; there is no reference nor even a hint of awareness of the Hebrew purity code, sacrifice rituals, or the festivals in the Book of Mormon.  Joseph Smith was a storyteller, so his interest in the Bible was limited to its narratives, but his undoing was in never realizing the law and the lore were irrevocably intertwined.  Although Moses and Sinai are a great distance away, Genesis still demonstrates an awareness of near-eastern customs and traces of Mosaic law appear from the Lord’s creation sabbath onward.

One of the most astounding feats in the Flood story is that across the span of days and months, every event respects the sabbath starting from the seven days from which God sends the rains for forty days and nights (Gen. 7:4), to 150 days of standing floodwater (7:24), and beyond.  On top of that, each month of the flood corresponds to a day of Creation, starting in the second month (Gen. 7:11) when the heavenly floodgates are opened, in contrast to the firmament created on the second day (Gen. 1:6).  The 150 days, or 5 months, then signify the undoing of the 5 creation days of all life on Earth.  Finally, in the seventh month the ark rests, and after another month-day cycle, Noah and his family depart the ark on the next sabbath-month.  It’s incredible how much nuance and significance is crammed into this brief passage.

On the other hand, Joseph Smith’s imitation is uninterestingly devoid of subtlety or deeper meaning.  His intent here, as in his previously written flood narrative in the Book of Ether, seems to be to apologetically fill in the logistic cracks missing in Noah’s ark.  Here he explains in tedious detail the rather unimportant details of God directing him first where to find the ore so he can craft tools to build his enormous ship, how he made a bellows to blow fire, and even how he made the fire (17:11).  This is clearly a 19th century response to skeptics who questioned the logistics of Noah’s ark building.  Despite being a liar and a fraud, Joseph Smith was a pious fraud in the long line of pseudepigrapha authors from antiquity, and many of his fabrications were designed to offer solutions like this to his contemporary critics of Biblical literalism.

While on the voyage, Nephi’s rebellious brothers tie him up for the space of three days (18:11-14), obviously an anticipatory allusion to the burial of Christ, but with nowhere near the double-complexity in the Deluge.  With nothing else to mention in the undisclosed “many days” that followed, Nephi’s ark lands in the American promised land abruptly and instantly establishes a new civilization.  Here, all of Joseph Smith’s apologetic explanations are undone in one fell swoop, as the very next thing the Nephites do (18:25) is find cows, horses, and goats–none of which were indigenous to this hemisphere (Of course, he had already outdone himself in the Jaredite crossing by curiously mentioning elephants).  While most critics point out such flora and fauna anachronisms, it rarely is mentioned how immediately upon landing in the New World that it occurs.

even the church's artistic renditions of Nephi's ship capitalize on familiar images of Noah's ark

even the church's artistic renditions of Nephi's ship capitalize on familiar images of Noah's ark

Like a bad Hollywood sequel made long after the last installment, it’s undeniable to anybody, except the willfully blind, that Joseph Smith’s imitation is substandard compared to the original.  It certainly doesn’t read as methodically as one would think an ancient Hebrew would write, especially if they were chiseling words on metal plates.  It reads more like the first draft of a novel, or more specifically, like the transcription of a story as it was made up in dictation, which of course it was.

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The Hebrew Word for Rape

Rape in the Bible is a very misunderstood subject, complicated by the fact that the Hebrews had no actual word for rape.  It’s further misunderstood when words that don’t actually mean rape are translated as rape in English.  Critics love to isolate English passages like Deuteronomy 22:28-29 in the NIV that suggest a rape victim must marry their rapist, and too many Christians are ill-equipped to defend these passages.  Now, there are already ample word studies on the topic of why this reading is incorrect, so rather than expound on that, I thought I would cover an overlooked subject: how did the Hebrews conceptualize rape without a word to describe it?

The mere absence of the word in their language is seen as a problem for the skeptic, and tries the faith of some believers too.  After all, how moral could the Bible be if the writers didn’t even know what rape was?  This line of questioning presupposes that one must know a word before one can understand a concept, which is patently false.  In my own experience, I’ve been surprised to learn that terms I didn’t even know existed for concepts I had discovered all on my own.  But, you may ask, shouldn’t an exhaustive penal code like the Mosaic law be able to categorize sex crimes more specifically?  Again, words aren’t necessary for differentiation as long as context is clear.  After all, a lot of people couldn’t tell you the difference between a misdemeanor, larceny, or felony, but they could still comprehend that in concept these are all illegal.  The significance of technical terms like “involuntary manslaughter” or “third degree murder” may not be known by everyone, yet they still know the conceptual difference between accidental killing and murder.  And despite the limits of the vocabulary, the Mosaic law does extensively itemize sexual offenses, both consensual and involuntary.

Single language speakers often fail to understand how little languages overlap, and that nuances present in one language may be lost in translation.  For instance, it’s common for English speakers to state that the Greeks had multiple words for love, which is an inaccurate understanding of language; if the Greeks had considered agape to be “love”, for instance, then they would not have considered eros to be “love.”  Greco-Roman society probably would have been just as amused by our linguistic inability to parse eros from agape as we are of the Hebrew language limitation of separating sex as rape from sex as making love.

But just like the Greeks had a word for them (ask your mother if you don’t know what I’m talking about), did the Hebrews identify rape without actually calling it out?  Could they have skirted around the subject euphemistically?  I believe there’s evidence to suggest such a literary device, similar to  Oscar Wilde’s “love that dare not speak it’s name.”  There appears to be a unifying trope that runs through the three rape narratives in Scripture, starting with the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34.

Before proceeding, however, I think it’s noteworthy to point out that in all three cases, not only does the rapist does not marry his victim, but instead they all receive some of the most brutal retribution in the Bible.  After Dinah had been violated, but before two of her brothers killed every man in the city, the deed is mentioned as “a thing that should not be done.”

Now Jacob’s sons had come in from the fields as soon as they heard what had happened. They were filled with grief and fury, because Shechem had done a disgraceful thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter—a thing that should not be done.  Genesis 34:7

This phrase is echoed in the epilogue to the next rape narrative, found in Judges 19.  Literarily, the book of Judges is essentially Genesis gone wrong.  Jephthah fails to be Abraham, Samson pales compared to Joseph, and in this passage indisputably similar to the story of Lot, Israel has become the new Sodom.  While some additional gory details escalate the incident to which this phrase refers to beyond just rape (the phrase has some additional words as well), it is telling that it appears in the same situation.

Everyone who saw it said, “Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Think about it! Consider it! Tell us what to do!”  Judges 19:30

The last case in our study is the infamous rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13.  This passage once again heavily mirrors Genesis, with allusion to Joseph (a victim of a false accusation of rape) in the similarity of Tamar’s cloak.  Tamar’s plea in the middle of the act itself includes this exact same verbiage:

“Don’t, my brother!” she said to him. “Don’t force me. Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing.  2 Samuel 13:12

While I can’t say with certainty that this was a common Hebrew circumlocution for the concept of rape, that’s what it seems to be within the confines of Scripture, at least.  Terminology like this suggests that absence of the particular word was not due to ignorance or moral deficiency as in the skeptic’s accusations, but rather that the ancient Hebrews were just as repulsed by rape as we are today.  Far from being a white elephant in the room that nobody wanted to talk about, it shows that not only could they not utter it, their method of describing it was in terms of something so unimaginably awful it should never be done.

Tamar from 2 Samuel 13

Thamar by Alexandre Cabanel

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