Background Probability

The Agnostic Popular Front has moved to its new home at Skeptic Ink, and will henceforth be known as Background Probability. Despite the relocation and rebranding, we will continue to spew the same low-fidelity high-quality bullshit that you've come to expect.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

What's up with the 1% - Trends in annual income

Yesterday, I posted very briefly on the topic of whether the very rich are getting richer and thereby driving the mostly peaceful youth uprising we've seen in the streets and parks of major American cities. I am satisfied that the overall wealth inequality in our society hasn't changed that much in my lifetime, at least according to the numbers given in table two of this report. Today's graph is about income disparity over time, and the data are from the same table, which are ultimately derived from the Survey of Consumer Finances conducted by the Federal Reserve Board.

(click to enlarge)

Here we can see two things right off the bat. Firstly, the top %1 are indeed taking more and more money home each year, as the red portion of the chart climbs erratically from 12.8 to 21.3% of the total income. Secondly, the next 19% of earners are holding relatively steady over time, as the overall shape of the entire graph is being driven by the shape of the 1% in red. So maybe the protesters really are on to something when they pin the blame on the 1% for the current state of affairs.

It is unclear to me, however, why people should feel worse off just because some other people are getting better off, although I've heard it is a well-documented aspect of human nature. Next time, we'll look at whether the middle class is itself being squeezed.

Friday, October 7, 2011

What's up with the 1% - Trends in net worth

Last night on TRMS we were treated to this graph of percentage income increases over the years. It made me think, is annual income what this is really about? I had been given to understand that the problem is wealth disparity, rather than income disparity. Maybe, though, I've been misled, so let's look at the numbers.

On the theory that wealth disparity might actually be a major component of the collective angst, I dug into this report to find out how net worth (defined on page 6) has trended since 1983:

(click to enlarge)

The results shown above (taken from table 2 on page 44) were really quite surprising, at least to me. It turns out that the top 1% aren't going gangbusters after all, at least not if the Levy Economics Institute is to be trusted on such matters. Moreover, to the extent that the top earners are getting even wealthier, it is primarily on account of the top 5%, rather than the top 1% which have been trending flat for two and a half decades. So, five-percenters, consider yourself warned. Once the rabble eat the super-rich, you're next.

Tomorrow: Income trends

Monday, July 4, 2011

Celebrate Freedom

On account of my wife's pleadings and our mutual lack of closet space, I had to get rid of a number of old t-shirts this morning. Among them was an old favorite with an American flag pictured waving across the front, and the phrase "Celebrate Freedom" emblazoned thereunder.

I would love to celebrate freedom, but it's difficult to do so when I cannot help but thinking of how many of our fellow citizens we deprive of liberty when compared to other nations whom we condescending think of as less libertarian than ourselves. You can lie to yourself and blithely "celebrate freedom" as if we Americans enjoy liberties that other developed countries are sorely lacking, or else you can get real and do something to address the underlying problems which have lead to our current status as the world's leading jailer.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Happy Independence Day!

Signage at Moore Liquor
Photo credit: Danny Wallace

Today is July 2nd, the anniversary of the date in 1776 on which the Second Continental Congress voted to formally cut legal ties with Great Britain by adopting the Lee Resolution. This momentous event prompted John Adams to write the following to his wife on July 3rd:

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more...
Turns out he was only off by a couple of days, because Americans were so taken with the wording of the subsequent declaration of independence to the British that they pretty much disregarded the fact that the colonies had formally voted for independence two days earlier. A cynic might say that the triumph of style over substance in American self-governance took all of 48 hours, but the full story is just a bit more complicated, but we'll not go into it just now.

According to Professor James R. Heintze, one of the first celebrations of the 4th of July took place two years later, in 1778, as "General George Washington direct[ed] his army to put 'green boughs' in their hats, issue[d] them a double allowance of rum, and order[ed] a Fourth of July artillery salute" from his headquarters in New Jersey.

Which brings me to the problem of rum. I'm a fan of rum, especially Puerto Rican rum, and it seems that we Okies cannot buy any rum on July 4th (because it is Independence Day) or on July 3rd (because it is the Lord's Day). So, if I want to celebrate July 4th in grand Washingtonian style, with a double helping of my favorite rum, I've got to get my ass out to the liquor store today. On that note, I'm off to Moore Liquor, because it seems that they alone are willing to publicly condemn the foolishness and irony of celebrating our national independence by curtailing our individual liberties.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Movie review - The Ledge

Do not read this post if you have yet to enjoy The Ledge. Seriously, turn back now. Here are several helpful links which paint this film as a pro-atheist masterpiece. Click on those, then go watch the show.

Still here? Not to be reflexively contrarian, but I think that after thoroughly enjoying this well-executed and suspenseful thriller, we should take a moment to ponder the following: Does this movie tend to reinforce some of the worst stereotypes which are laid on us unbelievers in America?

Atheists are often portrayed as arrogant and caustic, ever ready to take the slightest excuse to passionately attack any expression of religious faith. Granted, I’m exactly like that myself, but then I’m pretty much of an all-around asshole, as my few friends will happily confirm. I’ve noticed, however, that most of my comrades at the local freethought group don’t take nearly such a combative approach. Unlike me, they are frequently fairly friendly, even in the face of faith-based foolishness. I suppose one could make the argument that the protagonist was in this movie was goaded by unsolicited expressions of homophobia, but the viewer gets the sense that he is pretty much always like this.

We unbelievers are thought of by theistic moralists as sexually unrestrained, indifferent to the sanctity of marriage and the Golden Rule. The protagonist perfectly demonstrates all of these unpleasant qualities by deliberately seducing his neighbor’s wife, in precisely the same way that his wife had been seduced away from him – screwing unto others as he had been screwed, rather than doing unto them as he would be done by.

We are also thought of as Nietzschean, arrogant, and selfish. While this might be true of the hard-core Ayn-Randroids, it is not true of the vast majority of us. The protagonist of this movie, however, acts in the spirit of a Randian leading man, taking charge in every situation and even pressuring one of his subordinates (whom he had brought on and could presumably let go) to into a sexual relationship. There is a reason people get sacked for this sort of behavior nowadays, especially when they don’t prove invariably irresistible to the opposite sex. Had the male lead looked less like Charlie Hunnam and more like the bosses I've known, we might have instantly realized just how creepy his unsolicited come-ons really were.

What just kills me about all this seductive nonsense is that none of it was essential to the plot line. The male and female leads could have fallen in love simply by spending too much innocent time together and not ever realizing their inner feelings until they were mutually overwhelmed. Granted, that’s a bit of a trope, but then the scheming seduction of a submissive female by a dominant male is even more overused and timeworn, as tropes go.

Speaking of submissive females, can I grouse about Liv Tyler’s character for just a moment? She doesn’t seem to have an independent thought in her head. She goes from being told what to do by her crippling addiction, to being told what to do by her pimp, to being told what to do by her church and her husband, to being told what to do by her godless boss and eventual lover. At no time does she take a stand against the flow of events as they pour over her. No wonder she talks to goddamn softly the whole time. I’ve never met a woman quite like this character in the real world, and with any luck I never will.

To sum up, insufferably arrogant and inordinately sexy atheist man seduces unbelievably submissive and similarly sexy Christian woman. Psychopathic jealous husband takes Old Testament commands to heart and does what comes naturally. In the end, everyone gets that which they should have seen coming, and we can all go home happy, with most of our worst stereotypes about men, women, atheists, and Christians more-or-less intact.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Contradiction #30 - Vicarious punishment?

SAB #30

We have in our Bibles a few Bible verses which clearly indicate that children ought not be put to death for the sins of their parents.

What then are we to make of verses described divinely ordained genocide in the Hexateuch, wherein the soldiers are ordered to completely destroy "the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites" leaving "alive nothing that breathes" as they find themselves stabbing eastward into the Promised Land, wiping out city after city along the way.

Moreover, we have the following from Isaiah 14:21-22 (YLT):
Prepare ye for his sons slaughter; Because of the iniquity of their fathers, They rise not, nor have possessed the land, Nor filled the face of the world [with] cities. And I have risen up against them, (The affirmation of Jehovah of Hosts,) And have cut off, in reference to Babylon, Name and remnant, and continuator and successor, The affirmation of Jehovah.
Isaiah 14 is basically one long fuckyoulogy to the late king of Babylon, which seems like a harmless bunch of invective until we get to the part at the end praising YHWH for wiping out all the sons of Babylon.

I would suppose the apologetical approach to this problem is to carve out an exception for divinely ordained genocide, so the rule should be taken to read "Do not kill the children for the sins of their fathers, unless that sin happens to be the sin of being born into the wrong tribe."

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Contradiction #29 - Guided by voices (nigh unto Damascus)

SAB #29

Here are two stories related to us by the author of gLuke. Actually, it is the same story, twice, with somewhat variant details. In the first account, it is said that Paul traveling companions "stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man" while in the second one it is said that they "saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake" unto Saul of Tarsus.

The only possible apologetical approach to this problem is to claim that the verb signifying hearing means something different in each story, perhaps merely "hearing" in the first case but "comprehending" in the second. One could well imagine Paul's companions hearing an indictinct sound like the adults speaking in Charlie Brown animated specials. It would seem that this approach to reconciling these verses is the one favored by the NASB.

The problem with this solution is that the same verb is used in both places and there is no reason from context to believe that hearing with comprehension is not implied in both places. Indeed, I've yet to see any exmaples in the NT in which ἀκούω is taken to mean hearing a voice without making out the words. Even in verses like Mark 4:12 is it taken as read that the listeners are understanding the words and the surface meanings of the parables, but not the profound meanings thereof. Unless such examples prove forthcoming, it is the utmost in special pleading to claim that this word means "hearing a voice without catching the words" in just this one place, given how often it is used throughout the NT to denote hearing voices.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Contradiction #28 - An unforgivable sin?

SAB #28

When I was a kid, I was travelling for some reason with my Dad and his best friend. Possibly they both brought their whole families along, I really cannot now recall the context of the trip. At any rate, they got into a really energetic argument over whether or not there is a unforgivable sin named in the Bible, and if so what it might be. As best as I can now recall, one of them vigorously defended the view that a particular sort of blasphemy is a divinely condemned thoughtcrime (or perhaps spoken offense) which God will never forgive, while the other man maintained that all synoptic references to an unforgivable sin were not really about blasphemy per se but were rather about the total rejection of the Christian gospel.

This apologetic has a certain appeal, because it is difficult to imagine anyone but a confirmed apostate taking excessive joy in blaspheming the most obscure third of the Christian Trinity. That said, the crimes of blasphemy and apostasy have always been listed and punished separately, both in Jewish tradition and in Christian catechisms. The apologetical attempt to cleave them together into a single unforgiveable sin seems hamfisted at best.

Moreover, if the universe is such that there is only one word or deed or state of belief that will earn someone irrevocable eternal damnation, surely a loving deity would make it abundantly clear to his beloved creations what exactly that might be. The fact of widespread confusion on this issue, a confusion that I first encountered so many years ago, militates against the position that an all-powerful being actually wants everyone to be saved.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Contradiction #27 - Touching Reunions

SAB #27

This alleged contradiction hinges on the notion that Jesus' prohibition on touching, which he spoke unto Mary Magdalene in John 20:17, was a general prohibition which applies to everyone in the time between the bodily resurrection and the ascension. For once, I found the apology at Looking Unto Jesus more or less satisfactory, although the Fourfold Gospel reads waaay too much into the Greek.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Contradiction #24 - Does God tempt?

SAB #24

James 1:13 clearly states that "God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man" but we can see several examples in the Hebrew Scriptures in which God directly tempts his followers to do evil things, such as when God tempted Abraham to perform a child sacrifice, or when God tempts David to conduct a census. We also see at least one example of God sending an otherworldly Adversary on a mission to tempt his beloved servant, a mission which was both approved and subtly suggested by God himself.

I've yet to see any worthwhile treatments of this problem, but perhaps I'm not looking hard enough. Suggestions are welcome.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Contradiction #22 - Does God repent?

SAB #22

This one is a theological puzzle about the nature of the Hebrew God, and a doozy to boot. The central question here is whether the God of the Hebrew Bible ever changes his mind and repents of an earlier course of action. Here are four key passages which argue that YHWH never repents. All but the last of these four verses make use of the Hebrew word נָחַם (Strong's H5162) which is the very same word used in loads of other verses to indicate divine repentence, usually accompanied by a changing in course of dealings with the covenant people.

In order to untie this Gordian knot, the apologist must maintain that נָחַם means one thing in Numbers 23:19 and 1 Samuel 15:29 and Ezekiel 24:14, but must be taken in context to mean something else entirely in all those other verses. Good luck with that.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Contradiction #20 - Who is righteous?

SAB #20

The problem here is one of equivocation between at least two meanings of the word "righteous" in the OT. The relevant terms here are Strong's H6662 and H6663, and they are used alternately to describe total blamelessness or to describe righteousness in the everyday sense of the term, that of upstanding character which is nonetheless well short of moral perfection. All an apologist has to do to wriggle out of this bind is to note that Hebrew and Greek words (like any other words) can take on different meanings in different contexts.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Contradiction #19 - New Moon sacrifice?

SAB #19

The problem here is that YHWH himself prescribes two different sacrificial recipies for the same religious festival. The problem with the problem, here, is that any true believer is free to say that God changes the rules for worship however and whenever He wants. Indeed, all Christians are theologically committed to the proposition that God changed at least a few ground rules a bit with each new covenant.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Contradiction #18 - How did Judas die?

The two Bible stories depicting Judas' death contradict each other on various points. The various attempts to cobble all these bits together are actually quite entertaining reading. They all depend upon ignoring the plain reading of one passage in order to forcefully interpret it in terms of the other one.

It should be clear that Judas either died from hanging by his neck or else from a particularly nasty fall. To try to pretend that both of these things happened in a bizarre tragicomical sequence is to say that one's own proposed synthesis takes priorty over a straightforward reading of either text on its own terms.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Contradiction #17 - Jesus testifies of himself?

The next purported contradiction in the SAB short list is between two passages in gJohn: John 5:31-40 and John 8:12-20.

In the first passage, Jesus seems to say that if he alone bore witness of himself, his testimony should not be considered true, but then he goes on to marshal other purported witnesses to the truth of his ministry. In the second passage, Jesus seems to say that even if he does testify on his own behalf, his testimony ought to be believed because of such other witnesses. Taking both statements fully in context, I honestly don't see much of a problem here. The contradiction only holds up if we completely eliminate the context and then take the remaining snippets completely literally. I don't recommend pursuing this one.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Contradiction #16 - When was Jesus crucified?

This purported contradiction is clearest in the NIV, one of the few translations which takes the trouble to translate into our modern time system. At the very least, this shows that the NIV translators were dedicated to methodological consistency in this particular case.

It appears that Jesus was crucified either at 9 a.m. or else sometime after noon. This may seem like a small detail to some readers, but the inerrantist literalist apologist must find some way around it, which means that he must find fault with one or both of the NIV translations of these verses.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Contradiction #15 - Did the Nephilim die in the Noahide flood?

SAB #15

First off, who are the Nephilim of Genesis 6:4 and Numbers 13:33? Evidently, they are a race of misbegotten superhumans, born of unholy unions between mortal women and fallen angels. At this point, the average Bible reader may become uncomfortable on account of the obvious parallels to pagan myths of demigods, but it gets so much weirder if one strays outside of the usual canonical scriptures.

At any rate, the question for the apologist here is how this mythological race of preternatural giants survived the great flood, in which "All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died." I have yet to see a passable reply to this problem.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Contradiction #14 - Who rose first?

SAB #14

This one is too easily dismissed by all but the most dedicated literalist. The apologists reply here is that Jesus was "the first that should rise from the dead" into a new (immortal and incorruptible but nonetheless physical) body, while all the other Biblical resurrections are either spiritual or else mere bodily resuscitations back into original mortal form.

This is a good enough reply, except that it raises the awkward question of what became of Jesus' physical form upon his ascension into the vacuum of space. Presumably, it has been placed in cold storage awaiting Jesus return to the planet Earth. Also, it is presumably being retrofitted with bizarre orally deployable weaponry.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Contradiction #13 - Accursed for lack of figs

SAB #13

This is a fascinating problem of narrative chronology arising from difference between two of synoptic gospels, at Mark 11:19-21 and Matt 21:17-19. These events are narrated as having taken place on the same morning, but while Mark has Peter hearkening back to Jesus cursing the fig tree the previous day, Matthew depicts the event as taking place all in a single morning.

Probably the best way to visualize the problem in its entirety is to visit the CARM page exploring this issue in some detail and including a handy parallel table of events. Upon seriously considering this problem, the innerantist will be forced into fabricating ad hoc solutions (e.g. two fig trees) or else reconsidering whether both of these sources can be taken to be chronologically accurate.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Contradiction #12 - Who bought the field of blood?

SAB #12

Matt 27:6-8 and Acts 1:16-19 seem to be telling very different stories about a certain place called the field of blood. One has only to read these stories side by side to get the sense that something went amiss between the synoptic authors of gLuke and gMatt when they both attempted to explain the mythical relation of this particular field to the literary figure of Judas Iscariot. Two obvious questions arise here: Why is this field called the field of blood? and Who purchased said field?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Contradiction #10 - Who ascended first?

SAB #10

The question here can be put very straightfowardly: According to the Bible who was the first person to ascend directly to heaven? There are three possible answers to be found in the Bible itself: Enoch, Elijah, and Jesus. The Johannine gospel seems to be distinctly at odds with the Hebrew scriptures on this question.

Here is one apologist's reply which I found immensely entertaining, since it relies on the idea that Enoch and Elijah were translated into an indescribable limbo (which doesn't lead to paradise) rather than to the bosom of Abraham wherein righteous Jews are said to abide. J.P.H. is ignoring various Hebrew sources and traditions in a valiant attempt to remain ignorant of the fate of Enoch and Elijah according to the Hebrew Scriptures, which he claims are the revealed and perfect word of God. Seems like he should be trying a bit harder than that.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Contradiction #9 - Zin or Sin?

The problem here is that a story from the Book of Exodus is retold in the Book of Numbers in a totally different setting. Here are the relevant verses and here are the relevant maps: Kadesh Barnea, Rephidim.

Here is a single map to illustrate the distance between these two regions and cities:

I've not yet found any harmonies of these two stories, but I'm guessing that some apologists will fall back on "nearly the same story happened twice" as we've seen in gospel harmonies. Naturally, I'm hoping for a more creative and interesting solution.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Contradiction #8 - David turned not aside

2 Samuel 24:10
And David's heart smote him after that he had numbered the people. And David said unto the LORD, I have sinned greatly in that I have done: and now, I beseech thee, O LORD, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly.
1 Kings 15:5 (KJV)
Because David did that which was right in the eyes of the LORD, and turned not aside from any thing that he commanded him all the days of his life, save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.

This one pretty much speaks for itself. For an apologist to get out of this one, he has to maintain that (somehow) David "sinned greatly" in the matter of the census, but at the same time he "turned not aside" from the Lord's commandments concerning the census.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Contradiction #7 - Unshod and staveless?

This one is a bit unusual in that the alleged contradiction arises from an in-house dispute within the synoptic gospels, that is, between gMark and the other two. Here are all the relevant passages: KJV, NIV.

The author of Mark makes it clear that the disciples are to "be shod with sandals" and carry a staff, while the other two authors seem to have Jesus saying that the disciples can go forth without even such necessaries as these.

I would suppose that a common apologetical approach would be to say that it is understood that Jesus was talking about packing extra staves in Matt 10:10 and Luke 9:3 and that these verses must be taken in light of his earlier insistence in Mark 6:8 that they are to take just one walking stick. The only problem with this approach is that the authors of gMatt and gLuke both dropped the part about wearing sandals in their retelling of Mark's story! Such a deliberate redaction does not argue for reading the later books in light of the former, but rather for ignoring the earlier tradition in favor of the revised version of the story.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Contradiction #6 - Did Jesus Baptise?

The next contradiction is a small conundrum from the Gospel attributed to John. Full context here. All Bible verses are taken, of course, from the one and only perfectly preserved English translation of the Bible.

John 3:22-23
After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized. And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized.

John 4:1-3
When therefore the Lord knew how the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John, (Though Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples,) He left Judaea, and departed again into Galilee.

Prior to reading chapter 4, a straightforward reading of 3:22 would lead most people to conclude that Jesus had both tarried and baptized with his disciples. When we get to 4:2, however, we find that Jesus should not be considered to have been personally engaged in acts of baptism. There are several possible hermeneutical workarounds for this problem.

One solution, suggested by Jerome Murphy-O'Connor (Professor of New Testament at the École Biblique in Jerusalem) is that these two verses were authored by two different people, the later of whom was attempting to put a midrashic gloss upon the earlier account. In an article published in New Testament Studies he posits the possibility of "a Johannine editor, whose specific contribution is to be found in the interpolation at John 4:2." This does not eliminate the contradiction inherent in a plain reading of these two passages, but it does explain how such contradictory passages could end up effectively side by side, evidently situated within the same gospel pericope.

Another solution has been suggested by Calvinist blogger Alan Maricle who claims that Jesus "didn't physically immerse people with His own hands" but rather deputized his disciples to do the baptizing for him. To accept this view, one must take John 3:22 to mean "he tarried with them and [they] baptized" while Jesus merely supervised. The problem with such an attempted reinterpretation is that the verb form of baptise doesn't allow for it. Here, βαπτίζω is used in the imperfect active indicative third person singular form. To quote Dr. Peter Moses, "In this verse we have the imperfect active indicative of baptizo in the third person singular. The imperfect tense shows continual action whilst the third person singular indicates that at this stage Jesus Himself kept on baptizing people."

There are other solutions, to be sure, such as the hypothesis that these two verses represent two distinct phases in Jesus' ministry. According to this model, Jesus personally baptized some of his early followers, and later deputized his inner circle to do the baptizing on his behalf or in his name. It borders on special pleading, however, to attempt to read this transformation of Jesus' ministry into a single pericope spanning John 3:22 through 4:3, describing a single missionary trip from Galilee into Judea.

Of all the possible solutions, I personally find Murphy-O'Connor's hypothesis most plausible, because it explains both the parathetical and paradoxical nature of 4:2, which reads on its face like an editor's note correcting an error in the original text. Of course, such a solution is not available to those who consider 4:2 to be inherent to an innerrant autograph, but it must be noted that (alas!) we simply do not have the original manuscripts.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Contradiction #5 - Baptizing in the Name of _______?

This contradiction focuses on a fascinating little theological dispute over whether baptisms are to be performed in the name of Jesus (alone) or using the trinitarian formula of Matthew 28:19. Here are all the relevant verses: KJV, NIV

So far, all of the apologetical attempts to deal with this problem seem to hinge on the implicit claim that the author of Acts meant "in the name of" to mean something different than the author of gMatt when he uses the same Greek words. Obviously, this is unwarranted special pleading. Thus far, I've not found any convincing answers to this little conundrum, trivial though it may seem.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Contradiction #4 - Mystery Mom of Abijam

The response to this problem is typically something along the lines of "Maachah is the daughter of Uriel and the granddaughter of Absalom" and this solution hinges on whether the Hebrew word "daughter" in 1 Kings 15:2 should be taken to mean "granddaughter" instead. I checked a couple of Hebrew lexica, and sure enough the word בַּת (bath) is one of very wide semantical extent, and can be used to describe literal daughters, adopted daughters, daughters of a tribe, and essentially any female descendants of a given ancestor, as in C.S. Lewis' coinage of "daughters of Eve" for all human females.

As to the problem of Maacha/Michaiah, the typical explanation is that the latter name is a theophoric honorific, while the former is a given name. The Bible doesn't actually state this, but it does have a plenitude of both throne names and theophoric names, so it's not an implausible explanation. Moreover, it seems likely to me that the chronicler had access to the four books of the kingdoms (Samuel and Kings) and therefore wouldn't have gotten the names just plain wrong.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Contradiction #3 - Father Abraham's faith (and works)

This particular contradiction is so blatant that is needs only be pointed out: KJV, NIV.

No amount of hermaneutical contortionism is going to untie this gordian knot, seeing as the later verses (attributed to James) were written specifically to uphold the doctrine of faith plus works in order to counter the earlier Pauline doctrine of faith alone. Naturally, this has spawned Christian factions on both sides of the issue, entire denominations lined up on one side or the other of this first century debate.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Contradiction #2 - John the Baptist was Elijah the Prophet?

The question here is a bit difficult to frame sensibly, partly because it is unclear what should be taken to mean when someone claims that one prophetic figure is (in some sense) the incarnation of an earlier prophetic figure. It is especially unclear when operating within a worldview that denies reincarnation in favor of another view.

The problem here is both shallower and deeper than it might seem. Let's start in the shallow end, with the sayings of Jesus from two of the synoptic gospels along with angelic testimony from the third:

Mark 9:10-13 (KJV)
And they kept that saying with themselves, questioning one with another what the rising from the dead should mean. And they asked him, saying, Why say the scribes that Elias must first come? And he answered and told them, Elias verily cometh first, and restoreth all things; and how it is written of the Son of man, that he must suffer many things, and be set at nought. But I say unto you, That Elias is indeed come, and they have done unto him whatsoever they listed, as it is written of him.

Matt 11:10-14 (KJV)
For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come.

Luke 1:13-17 (KJV)
But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Taking all the synoptics together, we are lead to believe that John the Baptist is to be identified (in some missional or spiritual sense) with Elijah the Prophet, especially respecting the fulfillment of a prophecy found in the final chapter of the Old Testament. Seems clear enough, that is, until we get to the fourth gospel.

John 1:19-25 (NASB)
This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” And he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” They asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am A VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, ‘MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, and said to him, “Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”

Here we have John the Baptist flat-out denying that he is to be considered either Christ or Elijah in the sense those terms were taken to mean by his hearers. Instead of identifying himself with the prophecy of Malachi 4:5-6 he identifies himself with another prophecy from another prophet. How is this conflict between the synoptics and the Johannine narrative to be resolved?

A favorite apologetical trick consists of a bizarre reversal of the fallacy of equivocation, where the apologist explicitly claims that the same term (or phrase) takes on completely different meanings in similar biblical contexts. Here, the apologetical equivocation takes the following form:

1) "He is Elijah" means one thing in the synoptics
2) "He is Elijah" means something else in gJohn
:. He is both Elijah (sense 1) and not Elijah (sense 2)

This could be made to work, of course, if a good contextual or cultural reason is given (beyond special pleading for the sake of forced harmonization) to believe that we really should take the same phrase in two different senses. In this case, I've yet to see any good reasons given to warrant such semantical sleight of hand.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Contradiction #1 - Yeshua ben Yosef ben _______?

The first of the alleged contradictions is a fairly straightforward question of fact: Who was Joseph's father? I defy anyone to attempt to answer this using only the gospels themselves without the benefit of commentators, exegetes, or would-be midrashic fabulists. Can anyone suss out Joseph's father sola scriptura, as it were?

If one has to resort to lexical legerdemain to explain away this problem, it comes down to how willing we are to entertain pleading for a special treatment of these texts, one which somehow or another avoids the plain meaning thereof.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

R.A. Heinlein and the unsubtle art of the embedded editorial

"Either you love Heinlein, or you hate him. Very few people are wishy-washy on the subject. When is the last time you found somebody who couldn't stand Arthur C. Clarke? Who loathed LeGuin? But when you mention Heinlein in certain circles, you can expect the `How Heinlein Changed My Life´ speech, or the `Why Heinlein Is An Over-Opinionated Hack´ speech."
Britt R. Scharringhausen

I just finished reading Heinlein's final novel last week, and I'm still recovering from it. Not being a church-going fellow, I'm not used to sitting through sermons. As an Asimov fan, I'm especially unused to sermons embedded within what otherwise could have been a perfectly passable sci-fi novel. Consider the following:
Family decay: I think it came mainly from both parents working outside the home. It was said again and again that, from mid-century on, both parents had to have jobs just to pay the bills. If this was true, why was it not necessary in the first half of the century? How did labour-saving machinery and enormously increased productivity impoverish the family?

Seriously? Had RAH ever done a load of laundry by hand (soiled cloth diapers and all) he would have surely realized that working inside the home was at least as laborious as working outside the home until at least the middle of the 20th century. Given that, it made sense to dedicate one full-time worker to all the various tasks associated with domesticity. However, as American homes came to be wired with electricity and filled with all manner of labor saving devices (dishwashers, washer/dryers, various other electrically operated cleaning machines, not to mention pre-portioned heat-and-serve meals) it became possible, if a bit exhausting, to keep house as a part-time job in the evenings. This in turn facilitated the entrance into the workplace of those who had previously been culturally conditioned to full time housekeeping, although it may be said that society and culture lagged behind by at least a few years. Decades, if you are expecting men to fully indulge their inner nesting instinct. To add insult to ignorance, this little editorial passage was allegedly authored by protagonist/narrator Maureen Johnson Smith Long, a woman who had personally experienced the various 20th century transitions which allowed women to transition out of the home and into the office.

Here is another little editorial gem:
'Bread and Circuses' is the cancer of democracy, the fatal disease for which there is no cure. Democracy often works beautifully at first. But once a state extends the franchise to every warm body, be he producer or parasite, the day marks the beginning of the end of that state. For when the plebs discover that they can vote themselves bread and circuses without limit and that the productive members of the body politic cannot stop them, they will do so, until the state bleeds to death, or in its weakened condition the state succumbs to an invader - the barbarians enter Rome.’

The Roman Republic undoubtedly suffered from various systemic problems, but extending the franchise to every warm body was never nearly one of them. If he wanted an historical example to illustrate how universal suffrage leads to collapse under the ever-increasing weight of a welfare state, he should have kept looking. Come to think of it, the best example that comes immediately to mind of this allegedly inevitable phenomenon is 21st century Greece, but surely RAH didn't see it coming that the birthplace of democracy would eventually preside over its dotage.

Okay, just one more bit of blatant sermonizing:
Consider these:

1) 'Bread and Circuses'
2) The abolition of the pauper’s oath in Franklin Roosevelt’s first term;
3) ’Peer group’ promotion in public schools.

These three conditions heterodyne each other. The abolition of the pauper’s oath as a condition for public charity ensured that habitual failures, incompetents of every sort, people who can’t support themselves and people who won’t, each of these would have the same voice in ruling the country, in
assessing taxes and spending them, as (for example) Thomas Edison or Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Carnegie or Andrew Jackson. Peer group promotion ensured that the franchise would be exercised by ignorant incompetents. And 'Bread and Circuses’ is what invariably happens to a democracy that goes that route: unlimited spending on 'social’ programmes ends in national bankruptcy, which historically is always followed by dictatorship.
Historically? Always? This would imply that there are at least a handful of examples of democracies which, having granting the universal franchise, subsequently collapsed under the weight of welfare programs and were thereby replaced by dictatorships. I hereby defy Heinlein's supporters to come up with two or three.

Truly great science fiction authors, such as Asimov and Herbert and Morrow, do not merely sermonize from the mouths of their main characters (though they have all been known to indulge in this on occasion) but rather weave for us a narrative in which the moral of the story is ambiguous and the morality of the characters doubly so, thus permitting the reader to engage in robust ethical reasoning and drawing their own conclusions. Alas, the libertine libertarianism of To Sail Beyond the Sunset doesn't nearly do this. Even on highly controversial matters (e.g. free-love, voluntary incest, the role of women, the limits of capitalism) the reader is provided only one narrow point-of-view, all else is summarily dismissed.

Monday, May 2, 2011


First off, to all of my friends who say it is inappropriate to revel in the death of a human being, I implore you to loosen your codpieces and tighten your circles of moral concern a bit, just enough so as to exclude high-achieving mass-murderers. Those who take their greatest joy in massive exhibitions of suffering and death do not warrant the level of empathy that we extend to other living beings, such as snakes and spiders and streptococcus. You don't need to be a hardcore utilitarian to do the maths on this one. Humanity is better off without people like Saddam and Usama, and this is true whether or not it will ultimately prove possible to civilize, modernize, and liberalize either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Is it not clear that we can save lives in the present by going after the apex of any given murderous organization or regime, as opposed to waging conventional war against countless waves of newly-minted foot-soldiers? Without the meme-machines at the top and the malevolent mullahs who support them, these recruits would never have been recruited.

Morever, for those of us who support the Obama administration, it is clear that the GOP had planned to attack his presidency as soft on terror, while the wingnut fringe has worked to make that position look mainstream by claiming that Obama sympathizes with at least some of the ideology of radical Islamism. They might yet use this strategy, in fact, I sincerely hope they try to fly that old lead balloon. There is nothing quite like vanquishing actual enemies to bolster one's national security credentials.

Finally, we need to look forward here at how many innocent lives will be spared now that the world's foremost network of institutionalized mass murder has lost its greatest single human resource. No one in the movement has the articulation, charisma, intelligence, folk hero status, monetary resources, socio-political connections, training, and leadership experience of bin Laden. While he will be succeeded, he can never be replaced.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Book of Joshua

We covered the Book of Joshua in our Bible study last night, and I'm just going to share a few of my thoughts here. No time for a detailed chapter by chapter breakout this week.

First off, I don't see a morally significant difference between the Joshuaite concept of herem and the Mohammedean concept of jihad. Both are essentially holy wars of conquest, fought in the name of God and justified by the idea of divine sanction.

Secondly, this is a surprisingly earthly book with far more talk of bloody conquest and real estate transactions than piety, and when it does touch upon matters of personal piety it often confounds it with the disposition of personal property, as in the case of Achan.

Finally, we still haven't seen much in the way of moral progress so far. Kill everyone and destroy everything is still the rule of the day, whether applied to entire tribes (Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites, along with the peoples of Jericho and Ai) or when applied in cases of individual justice (as in the destruction of Achan along with all of his wives and children and property). I suppose this is to be expected when morality is reduced to "whatever the priests tell us that God told them" as opposed to having to reason out for ourselves which actions will have desirable consequences.

When it comes down to it, it is really hard to believe that people can read this book, ponder it for a bit, and still somehow come to believe it was ultimately inspired by someone who loves everyone.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 (Ki Teitzei)

Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

What a gloriously disturbing collection of verses are these? Why were they never covered in Sunday School?

Here is the rundown with commentary:

21:10-14 describes how to forcibly subjugate and frequently rape "marry" one of the aforementioned [Numbers 31] virgin girls whom you took captive in battle after killing her relatives. That is, until you grow tired of her and yearn for new captives. Simply divine!

21:18-21 describes how to run the trial and public execution of a rebellious and party-going son. Martin Sheen, take note.

21:22-23 describes a curse which the L-rd G-d puts upon certain dead people because of how other people cruelly killed them. Interestingly, Christians tend to think these verses apply in some bizarro-world way to Jesus of Nazareth, whose divine cursing allegedly brought forth a blessing.

22:5 - God also hates cross-dressers. British satirists, take note.

22:8 - As it happens, I own a home with a flat roof and no parapet, and evidently that's just one more reason for Jehovah to hate me. I've done worse, of course.

22:12 - God loves tassels! Inexplicably, though, he hates Mardi Gras.

22:13-22 - If a girl doesn't bleed from her crotch on her wedding night, the men of the city shall publicly stone her to death. Divine sex tip: Men, try to avoid foreplay and don't be gentle!

22:28 - Punishment for raping a virgin is (wait for it...) fifty shekels of silver and an unbreakable vow of marriage to the rape victim. There is no punishment for raping a widow, evidently. Also, how must it be for the virgin to get the chance to be raped on a daily basis by the fellow who ruined sex for her in the first place? Now where did the first-wave feminists ever get the idea that the Bible is a patriarchal, barbaric, and oppressive document?

23:1-3 - God is a real man's man and refuses to be seen with guys who are less than fully equipped and properly endowed, if ya know what I mean. Also, God loathes bastards and their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandkids, for some reason or another. Probably the sanctity of marriage or some bullshit like that. Also, He is a bit racist when it comes to certain non-Israelites, but we sort of caught the drift of that already.

23:13-14 - Please don't take my word for it, just go read these verses yourself. Right now. Otherwise you'll think I'm exaggerating when I say that these verses commit thoroughgoing Biblical literalists to the odd position that God is angered when He steps in poop. No, really.

23:15 - The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 may not have been unconstitutional, but it was clearly unbiblical. I've got to remember to go book-mining for references to this verse in the sermons and polemics that went back and forth between northern and southern preachers at the time.

23:17 - No whores and sodomites allowed.

23:20 - Confirms certain European Gentile stereotypes about Jewish custom, oddly enough, by specifically commanding that it is okay to screw over goyim (and only goyim) by lending at interest.

24:1 - Whenever the authors cannot think of a rational justification for a new rule, they always whip out "That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD." Wish they'd had invented an abbreviation or one word acronym for that.

25:12 - Women may have their hands cut off for an oddly specific offense. I'm wondering if I go through all of WestLaw or Lexis if I can find any instances of this particular form of physical assault. I'm also wondering whether this law arose out of something that the priestly scribe who wrote it shudders to recall. Given the ban against those "wounded in the stones" this could have been a career-ending injury for him.

While this passage ends with yet another ruthless exhortation to wage total genocide, I'm going to skip lightly over that and attempt to end this post on a positive note. This passage has several positive injunctions not to oppress the poor, strangers, orphans, and widows, or even hardworking oxen, and moreover it lays out a rudimentary system of welfare at 24:19-22. So that was a nice change of pace from all the smiting and cursing. Even a blind squirrel finds a tasty nut every once in a while.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 (Shoftim)

Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

At the end of chapter 16, we learn that the L-rd hates sticks and stones (growing trees and graven images depending upon one's translation) for some reason. Presumably it is because he is homicidally jealous of other gods. I'm not even going to get into the whole thing about what it might imply about someone that they are jealous of a mere phallic symbol, such as an Asherah pole. Seriously, I'm not even going to get into that.

In 17, we find that the penalty for idolatry (as with apostasy and blasphemy and Sabbath-breaking) is death, which is evidently a sort of one-size-kills-all solution to lawbreaking in the Israelite theocracy. At least they are requiring multiple witnesses and a rudimentary trial now. Also in ch 17 we get something akin to an outline for theocratic government, in which the priests pass on the laws and sit in judgement in individual cases, while the king faithfully executes the laws he receives from the priests. We are then reminded once again to give various foods and goods to the priests, a class of people who swear that they didn't actually write this book by themselves.

We are reminded at 18:9-13 once again that the ancient Hebrews considered it perfectly plausible to speak of divination, enchantment, channeling, witchcraft, wizardry, and necromancy, not as superstitious attempts to deal with the unknown and unknowable (as we post-englightenment moderns tend to see such things) but rather as genuinely magical practices which connected people to an actual world of demons and ghosts. Also, they are to be considered an abomination to the Lord, which would explain why it was widely considered moral and just to torture to death those accused of engaging in these fictional pastimes. It still is today in some parts of the world, and it must be noted that the Bible itself is still helping people to murder other people on account of these ridiculous and barbarous ideas.

We've already covered the cities of refuge, so we'll skip lightly over those for now.

Chapter 20 has some fascinating instructions on how to go to war. Send home everyone with urgent business at home, such as a new vineyard, house, or fiancee (some really lucky guys might have had all three) and everyone who tends towards cowardice. Thus the army can focus more sharply on the tasks at hand, that is, conquest, enslavement, genocide, and plunder -- not necessarily in that particular order.

We then get yet another divine injunction to genocidal total warfare at 20:16-17: "[O]f the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee ." This is the part where I don't make a tactless comment about an ideologically supremacist tribe waging a war of conquest for the sake of Lebensraum im Osten. Once again, I'm not even going to go there. See how restrained and diplomatic I can be?

Monday, February 28, 2011

Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17 (Re'eh)

Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17

More memetic engineering up front here: Pass on these religious memes you get the big carrot. Fail to pass them on, you'll get the giant stick. We've heard this many times before by now, and it never fails to inspire.
Deut 12 reads like an attempt to centralize religious authority in the cult of the temple (the same folks who would go on to become the Sanhedrin in Jesus' time) and ensure that they don't have to compete with other religious ideas or priests. More carrots and sticks at the end of this chapter.
I'd like everyone to read Deut 13:6-9 just to get an idea of how serious these memes are about protecting themselves from contamination. Any apostasy or idolatry merits an immediate death sentence, and it is ordered here that we take care not to pity the victim nor hearken unto her cries for mercy. No doubt apologist gits and post-modernist twats will see this as an understandable cultural innovation, necessary to preserve the ideological purity cult of YHWH, but it looks like cold-blooded murder to me. I should also point out that this particular passage is inextricably conceptually linked to the first of the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20 (one states the crime, the other states the punishment) and therefore modern calls for posting those verses on government property should be seen as far more sinister than generally supposed. A few verses later, the authors go from murder to genocide, ordering the destruction of entire cities who fail to worship the right god. The various bloody religious wars of both the Middle East and Europe have demonstrated that this principle lived on for centuries after being put to paper in the Torah.
Chapter 14: God loves uni-brows. Who knew? Also, it turns out that some animals are unclean to eat. I think we've covered this material before. I love the line about seething a kid in it's mother's milk. Caught my son doing that just the other day.
Chapter 15 is mostly restatement of earlier law, with a few odd bits thrown in. Curiously enough, the Jews are encouraged to be moneylenders to non-Jews herein this chapter. Personally, I don't mind usury, but evidently it leads to bitterness in some quarters.
Chapter 16 gives us the rough outline of the feasts of passover, weeks, and booths. One gets the sense that the audience is taken to be familiar with how these festivals are traditionally celebrated.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25 (Eikev)

Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

Herein we have the interesting command never to bring certain things into the home, "Neither shalt thou bring an abomination into thine house, lest thou be a cursed thing like it: but thou shalt utterly detest it, and thou shalt utterly abhor it; for it is a cursed thing."

What counts as an abomination in the Bible? Loads of things; including but not limited to the following: shellfish, eagles, osprays, flying creeping things, creeping things that creepeth, gays (but not lesbians), graven images, and so forth. Do check around your home and see if you've any of these things hanging about, and adjust your lack of detestation accordingly, if you happen to believe that this book is indeed a treasure trove of timeless wisdom revealed by a perfectly wise and loving being.

Chapters 8-11 contain a good deal of recap of earlier books in the Torah. I'm thinking that if you want to read the Herbrew Bible, you can start in Deuteronomy and still get by fairly well, because there are several "Previously on the Bible" summary montages, just like in serial television dramas.

This passage closes out pretty much as it began, with exhortation to obey and pass on the correct memes, coupled with an array outsized carrots and sticks.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11 (Va'etchanan)

Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

I may be mistaken about this, but it appears that this passage has the very first instances of full-bodied monotheism in the book so far at 4:28, 4:35-9 and 6:4. Compare these statements of unique godhood to earlier expressions of polytheistism and henotheism at Exodus 15:11, 18:11, 23:13, and indeed within this very passage at 5:7 and 6:14. One definitely gets the sense that Israel is gradually moving from henotheism which acknoledges the other gods as real but inferior to true monotheism which says that there is only one being we can call a god.

In other news, we get a restatement of much earlier law here, including the commandments of Exodus 20 at Deut 5. At 5:17 in particular, we get "Thou shalt not kill." which is just rich, given the various divinely-ordained genocides we've read through to this point in the book, not to mention the occasional bout of divinely-commanded fratricide. Indeed, the command not to kill is followed later in this very passage by this rare gem at 7:1-2:

When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them
So I suppose the rule really should be taken to mean, "Thou shalt not kill of thine own volition and initiative but thou shalt surely kill whomever thy rulers have commanded you to kill." Also, it is okay to covet and steal thy neighbors cattle if thy neighbors happen to be Bashanites. So much for the Ten Commandments, when there is a war of consquest to be waged. Apparently these absolute moral norms that apologists keep going on about aren't all that absolute after all.

Chapter six is fairly standard memetic engineering: Protect these memes and replicate them at all costs and you will be greatly blessed, otherwise you'll be horribly cursed; pass the memes on to your offspring, don't try out other memes, etc.

Chapter seven starts off with an injunction to total warfare and thoroughgoing genocide:

When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them...
The chapter goes on to justify such a conquest of middle-eastern lebensraum in terms of racial supremacy:

For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.

A comparison comes to mind with another nation seeking living space for its master race, claiming "God with Us" as it marched forth, but it would just be tactless to put that to paper, and so I'll stop right here.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 (Devarim)

Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

Here at the beginning of Deut we realize pretty early on that this book is a redaction of ealier material, because it covers much of the same ground, with minor changes along the way. Note that the D author writes Moses' father-in-law out of the narrative at 1:14, wherein Moses alone takes the credit for the scheme to delegate authority originally credited to Jethro in Exodus 18. The rest of this passage is essentially a recap of earlier books, which has described the fearfulness of the Israelites to conquer the land, their wanderings in the wilderness, defeats of Hesbon and Bashan, and the hardcore genocidal reality of total warfare, as depicted at 2:34 "And we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Numbers 33:1-36:13 (Masei)

Numbers 33:1-36:13

Chapter 33 makes out wonder why God never revealed that sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words, since an illustration would have really helped things along here. Thankfully, someone eventually got around to drawing us a crude map which pretty much lays it all out. The chapter ends with an admonition not to forget about the the importance of thoroughgoing ethnic cleansing when invading the Promised Land. Otherwise, they would end up with something like the Gaza Strip, which would be unpleasant for all concerned.

More mapmaking in chapter 34, and a list of tribal chieftans. [Zzzzzz.]

In chapter 35, the L-rd eschews the idea of an outright prohibition of blood fued and personal vendetta ("Thou shalt not kill, even if...") and instead sets up a system by which those who kill without malice aforethought can flee to selected cities. Sounds like it would make a fantastic reality tv show, and the KJV even provides us with a working title for the pilot at 35:12 Refuge from the Avenger. Probably we should work in manslayer somewhere in the subtitle. It is also in chapter 35 that we discover that suburbs existed back then, and that they stretched out for a thousand cubits or about .28 miles. This sounds like an easy enough commute, whether on donkey or on foot. I wonder what rush hour looked like.

Finally, chapter 36 closes out the book with a surprising affirmation of female choice, "Let them marry to whom they think best; only to the family of the tribe of their father shall they marry." Okay, so it's not that wide a range of choices, but at least these particular women had some say in marriage. Of course, had their fathers remained alive, it would have been another matter altogether.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Numbers 30:2-32:42 (Matot)

Numbers 30:2-32:42 (KJV)

In chapter 30 we find that male and female vows (even vows unto the L-rd) are not created equal, because the women is subject to the authority of her father or husband. Of such vows, the KJV says that "her husband may establish it, or her husband may make it void." So, one may well suppose Paul's famously misogynist writings are just another thread in a long rabbinical tradition of sexual inequality and female subjugation.

Then we come to Numbers 31, possibly the most barbaric chapter in the entire Torah. It is here in which we have Moses thundering at the soldiers for not being more thoroughly genocidal, "Have ye saved all the women alive? Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD!" Moses then provides very specific instructions on whom is to be killed and spared alive, "Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves." Keep for yourselves? To what end, one may well ask. The exegetical key here is that they are virgin girls and there is already a Biblical procedure in place for sexually enslaving "marrying" captive women and thereby multiplying one's tribe all the more fruitfully. The overall message of this chapter can be summed up thusly: "Kill everyone, destroy everything, but keep the young girls for raping and the cattle for eating. Oh, and don't forget to give the priests their share of the booty." Some claim that this represents timeless wisdom from a perfectly moral transcendant being, but it might easily be mistaken by an impartial observer to be naught more than ethics of a barbarous people bent upon regional conquest.

After such gory details as these, chapter 32 is a bit of a bore, laying out the logistics of making war, the obligations of military service, and which tribes eventually ended up with which bits of land. Do not fear, though, there are many more stories of all-consuming holy war yet to come!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Numbers 25:10-30:1 (Pinchas)

In this passage, G-d Himself duly praises Phinehas for his innovative and efficient combination of coitus interruptus and double homicide, and to mark the occasion, He rewards him with a promise of a lasting priesthood. Evidently, when it comes to whoring about with idolatrous shiksas, there is no need for a trial and we can commence forthwith to the vigilante death penalty phase. Jewish boys, take heed that none of the lasting priesthood of Phinehas are lurking thereabouts before you allow a gentile cutie into your backseat, even if she does claim royal ancestry.

Chapter 26 is mostly census data. Timeless, profound, divinely-inspired census data. Chapter 27 contains an interesting bit of Mosaic case law on how inheritance works for the ancient Hebrew. It goes well beyond primogeniture and may be the progressive bit of the Torah so far. Speaking of passing on to the next generation, it is also in this chapter that Moses passes authority to Joshua. Chapters 28-29 contain even more details on how to feed the priests, and a few other ritual matters. Ungh.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Numbers 22:2-25:9 (Balak)

Numbers 22:2-25:9

This passage is (hands down and by a wide margin) my absolute favorite Biblical passage so far this year. It has a bit of everything: communal punishment via divinely ordained plagues, double-homicide as atoning sacrifice for whoring about, an angel wielding a sword, dozens of dead animals in high places, a prophet of dubious pedigree hired to pronounce curses which come out as blessings, and the Lord G-d Himself talking out of Balaam's ass.

There is so much good stuff here that (like a mosquito in a nudist colony) I just don't know where to begin. Just for the sake of argument, though, let us begin with Phinehas son of Eleazar, double murderer and biblical hero. Here is the story in a nutshell: Israel goes in for foreign women and their gods (Baalpeor) which greatly angers the L-rd and brings down a plauge. Our hero Phinehas takes it upon himself to rectify the problem by sneaking into the tent of one of his fellow tribesmen, catching him and his shiksa wench in flagrante delicto, and running them both through with a javelin. This double-homicide greatly pleases the L-rd, who relents and stops the plague, which to that point has killed 24,000 people. Two idolatrous fornicators isn't a bad price to pay, I suppose.

Here also we have the fascinating character of Balaam, a prophet of questionable provenance hired by Balak to curse Israel but who instead blesses her not once but three times, and then for an encore he prophesies a great leader for Israel and the conquest or destruction of the people of Moab, Sheth, Edom, Seir, Amalek, Ken, Asshur, and Eber. Did I mention that en route to his misfired attempts at cursing he has an argument with his donkey and an encounter with an angel of God? You've really got to read this part for yourself, because if you don't you'll be missing out on one of the few bits of the OT which really reads like something right out of Æsop.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Numbers 19:1-22:1 (Chukat)

Here we have the ritual law of the red heifer, a ritual which went by the wayside long ago, but which some folks are trying to bring back in Jerusalem, just as soon as the controversial third temple can be built. Because of the implications that this has for certain versions of Christian eschatology, this long-forgotten tradition, practically irrelevant to most self-identified followers of any of the Abhrahamic faiths, has taken on a whole new life in Jerusalem, at the crossroads of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Ian McEwan to unpack the details in a recent lecture at Stanford:

[P]rophetic believers are certain that Jesus will return at the height of the battle of Armageddon but his thousand year reign which will ensure the conversion of Jews and Muslims to Christianity or their extinction cannot begin until the third temple is built. And so it comes about that a cattle breeding operation emerges in Israel with the help of Texan, Christian fundamentalist ranchers to promote the birth of the perfect unspotted red calf and thereby we have to assume bring the end days a little closer. In 1997, there was great excitement as well as a good deal of press mockery when one promising candidate appeared. Months later this cherished young cow nicked its rump on a barbed wire fence causing white hairs to grow at the site of the wound and earning instant disqualification. Another red calf appeared in 2002 to general acclaim and then again later disappointment. In the tight squeeze of history, religion and politics that surround the Temple Mount, the calf is a minor item indeed but the search for it and the hope and the longing that surround it illustrates the dangerous tendency among prophetic believers to bring on the cataclysm that they think will lead to a form of paradise on earth. The reluctance of the current US administration to pursue in these past six years, a vigorous policy towards a peace settlement in the Israeli/Palestinian dispute, may owe less to the pressures of Jewish groups than to the eschatology of the Christian right.

Unlike just about any other passages in the Book of Numbers, the red heifer is seemingly entangled in matters of contemporary international foreign policy. This is, of course, utterly staggering to the average rationalist, who would expect the theory and practice of ritual sacrifice to have been firmly relegated to the dark ages by now.

Also, in this passage we have the miracle of a stone producing water, which Moses accomplishes by means of his magic wand, er, staff. In the days of Moses, conjurers had not yet realized that it is not the size of one's rod which counts, but rather the quality of the wood.

God gets angry at Moses and Aaron because Moses didn't cast an audible spell as divinely ordered, but instead went straight on to striking at the rock. So, once again we see the theme that magical rituals must be followed carried out precisely, or else we may expect divine retribution. Later in this passage, God kills Aaron in retribution for their failure to perform the miracle of the waters in the proper way. Well, at least no one gets burned alive this time.

Speaking of casting magical spells in bizarre ways, check out Numbers 21:4-9. The people complain (again) and the Lord send poisonous snakes. The people repent (again) and the Lord sends Moses a new spell which operates as anti-venom. You have to read this particular passage for yourself to get just how paganish it sounds.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Number 16:1-18:32 (Korach)

Herein we have the first egalitarian uprising in the Bible, in which Korah (great-grandson of Levi) and many of men of renown (altogether two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly) rise up against the autocracy of Moses and Aaron, declaring that "all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them" which sounds to me an awful lot like the idea of a priesthood of all believers which would later be adopted by many Christians.

Evidently, the God of the Moses isn't ready for anything like a universal priesthood yet, and He responds by opening up the Earth and swallowing up Korah and "all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods" who "went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them." Now this sounds unpleasant enough, but the 250 princes of the assembly are burnt alive by God Himself, "there came out a fire from the LORD, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense." Just as in the case of Nadab and Abihu, if you offer incense in the wrong way, God will burn you alive. Catholics, consider yourself warned.

Chapter 17 has yet another affirmation of the divine ordination and unquestionable authority of the Aaronite priesthood, which has become a running theme by now, especially in Leviticus and Numbers. The following chapter lays forth (yet again) instructions for bringing the best food to the priests to eat, or else redeeming it with hard currency.

"All the best of the oil, and all the best of the wine, and of the wheat, the firstfruits of them which they shall offer unto the LORD, them have I given thee. And whatsoever is first ripe in the land, which they shall bring unto the LORD, shall be thine; every one that is clean in thine house shall eat of it. Every thing devoted in Israel shall be thine."

I should point out here that the two major competing hypotheses for the Torah are (1) The Creator of the entire Cosmos inspired this book or (2) The Hebrew priests compiled it based on traditions and myths adapted over time to serve the needs of the priesthood. If the former hypothesis were true, we might expect all manner or timeless wisdom and insights into how to live well. If the latter, we might expect a good deal of talk about how important it is to respect the priesthood, never to question their authority, and to bring loads of food and money to them. I leave it to the reader to decide which sort of writing is more dominant in this book.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Numbers 4:21-7:89 (Naso)

Numbers 4:21-7:89

Here we have another chapter with nothing but census data, preserved from time immemorial down the generations to provide you with wisdom and encouragement in your walk with God. Then we get to a few bits about ceremonial cleanliness, and how to provide (even more) sacrifices to the priests in a novel situation which is somewhat difficult to briefly explain.

Then we come to 5:11-31, which looks to be a ceremony which combines ritual actions, audible incantations, the and medical administation of an oral abortifacient, all in an effort to punish a wife suspected of marital infidelity. I'm going to break from my personal preference to quote the NIV here, because it is significantly more comprehensible than more literal translations from the Hebrew:

If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children.

Wow . . . just . . . wow. Try teaching this one to the fourth-grade sunday-schoolers sometime. In any event, it makes sense that people who thought that magical spells and potions like this really worked would take the threats posed by witches and wizards so damn seriously.

After this, we get the details of undertake the vow of a Nazarite, to separate oneself unto the LORD. Personally, I wish we'd bring this one back into contemporary usage, if only so we can spot hardcore religious fundamentalists at a fair distance by their unusually long hair. If we can appeal to the Torah for the Ten Commandments, well, why not the Nararite vow as well? It is somehow less timeless than the proscription of seething a kid goat in it's mother's milk? G-d forbid!

Chapter 7 can bascially be summed up in these lines: “[T]hey brought their offering before the LORD… And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Take it of them...and thou shalt give them unto the Levites." The chapter provides a very detailed list of all sorts of things that are considered worthy to give unto the Levites. I will remind the reader again at this point that the two most popular competing hypotheses for the authorship of this book are (1) the Creator of the Cosmos and billions of galaxies or (2) Levitical scribes redacting Levitical traditions justifying Levitical authority and Hebrew supremacy. Dear reader, I leave it to you to make the call, after reading the material yourself.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Numbers 1:1-4:20 (Bamidbar)

Numbers 1:1-4:20

This book leads off with a census of the tribes, which is preserved here for all generations to enjoy, purportedly as timeless and inspired wisdon revealed by G-d Himself. There is also the curious verse at 1:51, wherein we learn that it is a capital crime to attempt to sneak a peek at the Man Behind The Curtain.

We learn in chapter 2 how the marching shall commence, which tribes are arrayed where relative to each other and the Levites in the center. Instructions are also given here (in Drosnin's skip code) for the proper handling of the Holy Hand Grenade.

In chapter 3 we find once again that the Levites are to be given pride of place in all things, which is precisely what one might expect from a book written by priests in an attempt to secure their preminence and livelihood. Here is a shining example of self-serving "divine revelation" to the Levitical authors of the Torah:

3:48 And thou shalt give the money, wherewith the odd number of them is to be redeemed, unto Aaron and to his sons. 3:49 And Moses took the redemption money of them that were over and above them that were redeemed by the Levites: 3:50 Of the firstborn of the children of Israel took he the money; a thousand three hundred and threescore and five shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary: 3:51 And Moses gave the money of them that were redeemed unto Aaron and to his sons, according to the word of the LORD, as the LORD commanded Moses.

In other words the priests shall get theirs whenever you celebrate the joy of a firstborn. Now is that some Revealed Truth, or what?

Chapter 4 is mostly concerned with matters of interior decorating, and God has to be very specific in these commands, having already ordered the Israelites to kill of all their gays. Did I just type that out loud? Sorry.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Leviticus 9:1-11:47 (Shemini)

In chapter 9 we have Aaron demonstrating that he learned well how to do sacrifices from the instructions given in the previous chapters, serving as a model priest for the members of the Aaronite priesthood who edited these books together.

In chapter 10 we have a strange incident involving "strange fire" offered before YHWH, offered by the Aaronic priests Nadab and Abihu , who are summarily and divinely burned to death for their offering. Evidently, this particular brand of incense was not a "sweet savour unto the LORD" as are the offerings of cooked meat. The rabbinical and clerical exegesis of this passage offers every possible spin on the story, from Nadab and Abihu perishing in righteousness having conscientiously done their duty, to them perishing justly as a result of divine retribution for their vanity or even idolatry.

Here is a useful place to start reading about them if you want to know more. The lesson appears to be that unless you perform your priestly duties precisely in accord with the levitical codes, you may be smitten by G-d Himself. Interestingly, Moses commands Aaron not to mourn the passing of his sons and commands Aaron's surviving sons not to mourn their brothers, "lest wrath come upon all the people." Evidently, God protests family funerals, just like the WBC.

Finally, in chapter 11 we have a collection of dietary laws delineating what is kosher and what is abominable. Interestingly, G-d considers coneys, hares, swine, and shellfish are all to be abominations unto His people. Why then did He create them to be so darned tasty? Only G-d knows.