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.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Genesis 50: Setting up the Sequel

In this closing chapter, Joseph and his people make the trip out of Egypt back to Canaan to inter Jacob (Israel) in the promised land, thus presaging the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. The key difference here are that this pre-exodus occurs with the blessings of Pharaoh and his people, indeed, the "elders of the land of Egypt" and the "chariots and horsemen" accompany the Hebrews back to Canaan. As to the body of Jacob, they "buried him in the cave of the field of Machpelah, which Abraham bought with the field for a possession of a buryingplace of Ephron the Hittite." Instead of staying in Canaan, though, Joseph and "all that went up with him to bury his father" journeyed back into Egypt, thus setting up the children of Israel for a far more dramatic Exodus.

Genesis 49: The Prophecy of Israel

In this chapter, Jacob (Israel) explains how the tribes will come to be, and provides an explanation for why they come to be what they will someday become. This prophecy makes little sense if it is taken to be about the twelve children, but it makes perfect sense when taken as a story to explain the nature of Hebrew tribes by the time that this national origin myth was generated and put into writing. Reuben will be punished for his sexual escapades, and the tribes of Simeon and Levi will be scattered among the other tribes, because of their wrath, Zebulun shall be a coastal people, and so on. Israel blesses all of his son's

As in the previous chapter, we see here two fundamental themes. Firstly, that the first shall be last, with the demotion of Reuben from the pride of place usually reserved to the firstborn. Secondly, we see here once again the overarching purpose of this book: Explaining the relationships of the tribes one to another, binding together those considered to be Israel's children, and setting them apart from and against foreign tribes.

Genesis 48: The First Shall be Last

In this chapter, Jacob blesses his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh, giving the lesser (left-hand) blessing unto the firstborn, to Joseph's consternation. In this we see the continuance of a subversive and inversive theme of which stretches as far back as Cain and Abel and will continue at least until Jesus say “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” Moreover, we see here yet again the central theme of this book - putting all of the various tribes into their mythical proper places, according to the heirarchy which the biblical authors would prefer to see fulfilled.

Genesis 47: Land o' Goshen

In this chapter, Joseph secures huge tracts of land for his sheparding relatives from the north. Also, Jacob stands before Pharaoh and declares "The days of the years of my pilgrimage are an hundred and thirty years: few and evil have the days of the years of my life been, and have not attained unto the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their pilgrimage." Such beautiful language, and it underscores the point that we expect to have things as well as our forefathers and are disappointed whenever we fall short in that respect. After all, when Abraham was 130 years old, he was still making new babies with his new wife.

The later part of this chapter describes Joe's shrewd dealings as the viceroy of Pharaoh, buying up pretty much everything from the people of Egypt: firstly their monetary savings, then their herds, then their lands, and finally even the people themselves as serfs. Meanwhile, even as Joe is buying up everything and everyone in Egypt, the people of Israel are thriving and multiplying in the land of Goshen.

Finally, in a scene which makes little sense to us moderns, Jacob undergo a testicular testimonial, swearing solemnly to bury his father with his ancestors back in Canaan. I hear this was really quite routine back then, so, um, nothing to see here.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Genesis 46: Jacob journeys to Egypt

Just as Abraham before him, Jacob and all of his ample household (many of whom are enumerated at length herein this chapter) go down into Egypt, there to escape the dearth of famine and renew their fortunes. Also like Abraham before him, Jacob is promised by God that he will be made into a great nation. After the tearful reunion of Jacob with his long lost (and presumed dead) son Joseph, the son arranges for his fathers people to be settled in the land of Goshen, for "every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians."

I'd like to focus just on this phrase for a moment, that is, the idea that a certain lifestyle might be "an abomination unto the Egyptians." Does this not imply that the term "abomination," as used in the KJV's rendition of the Torah, should not be take to denote timeless moral truth which applies at all times and everywhere (e.g. "perjury is immoral") but rather a cultural preference for one lifestyle over another. If so, what does this imply for later uses of the term to condemn, for example, shellfish and buggery?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Genesis 43-45: Sons of One Man United

Joseph continues his elaborate prank upon his elder brothers, who have returned to Egypt and brought their youngest brother Ben with them this time. Joe sets them up in this crib and makes ready a feast, but the brothers are fearful that "he may seek occasion against us, and fall upon us, and take us for bondmen, and our asses." As it happens, Joseph was indeed plotting something quite like that, as he arranges for his silver goblet to be found by Joe's men in little Ben's sack, the upshot of which was that Ben must be given as bondsman to Joe. "Your ass is mine, Ben." was redacted from the manuscripts at some point, but I'm almost sure Joe said it.
Evidently it was by this ruse that Joe meant to take Ben into his household and away from his other brothers, leaving them none the wiser.

At this point, though, Joe's ruse of making himself strange unto his brothers finally falls through. When Judah offers himself in Ben's place, Joe can't take it anymore and loses it. He reveals himself to all of his brothers, declares them forgiven, and sends them back again to Canaan to retrieve their father.

Usually I have something snarky and sarcastic to say, but these chapters are really quite moving in a positive way. Good story.

Genesis 42: Tricky Joe and the ten brethren

In this chapter, Joseph sets up a prank of Biblical proportions to play upon his ten brothers. He pretends to be an Egyptian native (not hard to pull off as steward to the king) by speaking to them through an interpreter, accuses them of being Canaanite spies come to discover the strategic weaknesses of Egypt, and slams them all in jail for a few days. He also does a little spying of his own, listening in on his brothers as they speak Hebrew to one another on the reasonable assumption that Joseph (who goes by the Egyptian name of Zaphnathpaaneah) cannot understand what they are saying.

Joseph then has his brother Simeon bound and sends the other brothers on their way back to Canaan and their father, complete with stores of food and with a surprising refund of the money which was intended to pay for the food. But this prank is just getting started.

Genesis 41: The Rise of Joe

Pharaoh has a nightmare, Joseph tells him it is a prophecy, and Pharaoh duly puts Joseph in charge of Egypt. Anyone remember how alarmed some Americans were when we found out that Joan Quigley was acting as unofficial White House astrologer? Well, this is far worse than that. In this story, the autocratic head of state makes economic decisions of great national import on the basis of a nightmare and the say-so of a foreign national and ex-con just out of prison. He goes on to make Joe chief royal steward over the entire palace and second in command in the whole of Egypt, even before discovering that the dreams were indeed prophecies after all. Not particularly stunning executive leadership there, Pharaoh. Good on Joe, though.

Also on the upside, Joseph's plan of warehousing grain works out well when the lean times come upon Egypt and all the surrounding lands. We can actually draw a timeless moral lesson from this, if only we studiously ignore the part where they are reacting to their dreams as if they come from something other than one's own mind.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Genesis 40: The butler, the baker, and the Hebrew dreamcatcher

In this chapter, Joseph interprets the dreams of his fellow inmates.

How cool is this parallelism?

"...within three days shall Pharaoh lift up thine head, and restore thee unto thy place."

"...within three days shall Pharaoh lift up thy head from off thee, and shall hang thee on a tree."

Good news for the chief butler, bad news for the chief baker, and our man Joe has the presence of mind to frame both bad news and good in the same methaphorical terms.

As to the interpretation of dreams as divine portents, does anyone (including even devout Christians and Jews) really find it plausible that the process by which our subconsious mind randomly manifests itself during our sleeping hours is a reliable method for the gods to manifest themselves? Seems to me like there might be more than a little potential for confusing one's own deepest desires for the revealed will of the gods. On the upside, though, fewer prayers will seem to go unanswered.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Genesis 39: One Hot Cup o' Joe

In this chapter, we learn that Joseph is blessed in all things, including sex appeal. Just as Dinah and Sarah (and possibly Rebekah) were the targets of gentile royal lust, so also Joseph proves irresistible to the opposite sex. Evidently both the patriarchs AND the matriarchs were all smoking hot. Also, it would appear that our modern American obsession with personal appearance and sexual attractiveness, especially noticeable in television and movies, has a very ancient pedigree indeed. One might say it is rooted in those fabled "Judeo-Christian values" I keep hearing about from the politicians.

In any event, Joseph manages to preserve his virtue by fleeing the house, and then gets smacked with a rape charge, in one of the earliest documented cases of "he said / she said" in a sexual assault trial. Personally, I consider the wife's story to be the more plausible of the two, but as they say "history is written by the winners" and I don't see anyone worshipping the gods of Egypt around here.

Genesis 38: Tamar keeps it in the family

To invoke the KJV euphemism, Judah "went in unto" a certain Canaanite woman, who bore him Er, Onan, and Shelah. To this day, when Englishmen having trouble finding the right words to say, they invoke the name of Judah's firstborn.

Er marries Tamar, who is soon widowed because the LORD slays him for reasons only known to God. Onan was then ordered by his father to "go in unto" Tamar and duly impregnate his late brother's widow. He goes in to her alright, but pulls out of her at the last moment, thus spilling his seed and demonstrating to posterity that the ancient Semites knew at least one method of birth control. The LORD, never one for a disobedient smartass, slays Onan for failing to go all the way. And thus down to this very day the practice of coitus interruptus with one's sister-in-law is referred to as Onanism. Wait, wait, that's not what it means?

One might be tempted to think that Onan's story is the only bizarre sexual incident involving Tamar in this chapter of the Bible, but wait, there's more! Judah impregnates his daughter-in-law without ever looking her in the face because he thinks she is a working girl. Maybe it was custom back then never to look a prostitute in the face? Certainly this would open up the field of competition.

At any rate, Judah becomes wroth when his daughter-in-law, the widow of both Er and Onan, starts to show as pregnant. He commands that she be burned alive (seems a bit harsh) but then she provides the proof of purchase which he had given her as a receipt for services rendered. Alas, Judah, you are the dastard who knocked up this hapless woman! Perhaps you should both be burned alive?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Chapter 37: Selling Dreamy Joe

(The following post is not in any way about Starbucks.)

In chapter 37 we start in on Joseph’s story, and we find out that multicolored coats were as fashionable in ancient times as they were in the 1980’s. We also find that God communicates to people through their dreams of all things, which seems to me the method most perfectly suited to providing true believers with as many false positives as possible, very often believing that God is telling them to do whatever their subconscious minds happened to be mulling that night.

Joseph's brothers betray him on account of his dreams and his unfortunate proclivity for prophesying aloud their eventual servitude unto him, and they sell him to some Midianite slavetraders, and make it look to his father as if he was killed by wild animals. (For the record, Reuben wasn't in on any of this infamy, which is why his sandwiches are so tasty.) Joseph is resold to the Egyptians, which is necessary to set up the sequel to this book.

Genesis 36: Putting the tribes in their places

It’s impossible to write about chapter 36 without delving into a bit of history. Biblical Edom was the kingdom to the south of Judah, and may well have been the original birthplace of the cult of YHWH, as noted by Karel van der Toorn, which went on to become the monolatrous (and eventually monotheistic) religion of both Israel and Judah.

Penning Esau (Edom) into the story as the less-favored elder brother of Jacob (Israel), who is identified as the father of Judah (and eleven other tribes) is an ingenious attempt to knit together the sundry tribes of the ancient near east into a single coherent mythical narrative, which not coincidentally puts the Israelite authors in pride of place among all the surrounding nations. This motivation explains why so much time and effort in this supposedly timeless narrative is given over to explaining who fathered whom, which tribes came therefrom, who ruled over whom and where.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Genesis 35: The Curse of Rueben

It little commented or sermonized upon that Jacob's firstborn son Reuben lays with Bilhah, his father's concubine and the maidservant to his aunt Rachel. I have it on good authority, however, from a learned biblical numerologist and part-time hermit, that buried herein these passages is an ancient and potent curse cast upon Reuben such that he would evermore be known primarily on account of his namesake sandwich.

In other news, Rachel dies in childbirth and Isaac dies of advanced old age. We also get a handy list of all of Jacob's twelve sons. Here they are in illustrated form.

Genesis 34: Besotted rapist provokes vengeful two-man killing spree

I've sort of given it all away with the post title this time.

Chapter 34 doesn't naturally lend itself to sermons, but it would make for a fine movie. Prince Shechem became deeply enamored of Dinah, spoke tenderly and sweetly to her, and raped her, though not necessarily in that order if you take the text as chronological. He is willing to do anything to make Dinah his wife, even if that means going to the public square and there persuading all of his men to be circumcised immediately. Imagine what an amazingly motivational speech this must have been! I'd bet it would put even the great St. Crispian's Day speech in its place, though the phrase "hold their manhoods cheap" would doubtlessly have been used to a very different effect by Prince Shechem than by King Henry.

Shechem and all his men are duly circumcised, excited at the prospect of finally getting to select for themselves wives from among the foreskin-phobic Hebrew daughters. Before they are healed, and while they are still presumably bed-ridden with pain and infection, Dinarh's two brother's go on a killing spree throughout the town, putting every man to the sword and taking for themselves all the various forms of property found therein. The Bible itself remains unclear on whether these men are to be considered war heroes, inglorious bastards, or both.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Genesis 32-33: Moving Day (and Night)

Recently,I've had to move my office for the tenth time in as many years, and I'm appalled by the sheer amount of junk I've acquired here at the office. I'm guessing that Jacob could relate to my problem, but on a far vaster scale.

Much of this book so far has been concerned with three categories of property of great concern to those who would someday be considered patriarchs: real property and the demarcation thereof, personal portable property (e.g. goats, ewes, rams, camels, kine, bulls, asses, foals and such like) and dependents (wives, concubines, children, and servants). If you took out from this book the descriptions of whom had acquired which of these possessions, and when and how, you could readily render the entire book down to pamphlet form. In these two chapters, we see Jacob moving all of his people and all of his stuff from one place to another, along with a couple incidental scenes of human and theological interest.

We find out that "Israel" is the ancient forebear of the modern term "wrassle" which is still in contemporary usage today in towns such as Stillwater, OK. In any event, you just have to love a people who denominate themselves as "wrestling with god" because it sounds so damned ambitious, and might allow for reinterpretation and humanistic reasoning some millennia thereafter. Incidentally, the reconciliation of the brothers Jacob and Esau is one of the most moving and realistic scenes so far, and was only slightly spoiled by the relentless focus by the narrator on the various forms of property listed above.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Genesis 28-31: More selective breeding

Isaac send Jacob forth into the world to find a bride, telling him to "take thee a wife from thence of the daughters of Laban thy mother's brother." This Isaac does, not just once but twice.

Jacob works for seven years to marry Rachel, but he is tricked into marrying her older sister Leah instead. Somehow, he doesn't notice this until after consummating the union. I know they didn't have electric indoor lighting back then, but I'd wager good money that I could tell my wife from her older sister even in the dark, and even though their voices sound fairly similar. Perhaps seven years of celibacy makes one a bit overhasty.

Jacob does eventually get to marry Rachel, however, after only seven more years of working for his new father-in-law. As an added double bonus, he also fathers children upon both of his wives' maidservants, firstly with Rachel's maid Bilhah and later with Leah's maid Zilpah. I've heard a good deal about Biblical family values from the politicians and preachers around here, but I'm thinking they need to be a bit more specific as to which bits of the Bible contain the family values which they would like us to emulate.

Jacob works some magic with selective breeding of his father-in-law's livestock using specially prepared almond trees. How this works is a bit obscure, but the practical upshot was that he ends up with loads of sheep and cattle. He tries to sneak away from his father-in-law, but he is pursued. Rachel steals some of the household goods, or rather gods, for reasons unknown, and hides them quite well. Eventually, Jacob and Laban reach a sort of détente, and go their separate ways.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Genesis 25-27: Pericopes of patriarchal progenitorial prowess

Abraham may be "well stricken in age" but that doesn't stop him from taking a new wife (Katurah) after the passing of Sarah, and fathering six more children thereafter. I get now why they call this guy Father Abraham. One begins to get the sense that the point of enumerating all these various offspring (and their respective cities) is to mythically link together the diversity of tribes living throughout the ancient near east, and perhaps more importantly, to put the Sons of Jacob (later rechristened "Israel") in pride of place among all the many children of Abraham.

Oddly enough, Isaac pulls the old "she is my sister" gag on the king of Gerar, just like his father before him. Why didn't Abraham tell his sons that this trick doesn't play well in Gerar? Personally, I think that Hebrew narrators are running out of original ideas fairly early on in a thick book. Maybe they are just into bragging about their super-hot foremothers, who were evidently the envy of kings.

In a familiar tale, Esau sells his birthright for a mess of pottage, because although he was a cunning hunter, he wasn't a good negotiator. In his defense, lentil stew can be really delicious. I'm wondering what the moral of this story is, and supposing that it can't really be about the price of stew. Eventually, Esau takes a wife, and another wife, and they prove to be "a grief of mind unto" Esau's parents. The new mother-in-law says "I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Heth." Isn't that just the way of it with new wives?

Speaking of dirty tricks, we get to see Jacob putting on the goatskins and pulling the wool over Isaac's old eyes. This story has always puzzled me, even when pastors tried to draw something useful out of it. Are we supposed to believe that paternal blessings and curses are magic words that may be chanted only once and thereafter cannot be revoked? "Thy brother came with subtilty, and hath taken away thy blessing," says Isaac, evidently powerless to bless his favored son.

The best lesson I can take from these stories is that if you send your big hairy brother, the guy who kills wild beasts for a living, into a murderous rage, be sure to hide away in a foreign land for awhile. This is not what I told the kids in Sunday School, but it's the best I've got.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Genesis 23-24: Sarah passes, Abraham haggles, Isaac marries

Sarah dies, and instead of hearing her life regaled in epic poetry, we are treated to a lengthy account of real estate transaction for the "cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre" where she is buried. Abraham makes his chief steward swear that he "shalt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaanites" and this he faithfully does, by means of a most curious method involving thirsty camels.

My favorite verses so far are to be found in 24:57-58 in which a Rebekah is consulted before being married off to a stranger. Good for her.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Genesis 21-22: An evitable child sacrifice

Ismael learns that in the house of Abraham, it doesn't pay to mock the matriarch, as he and his mother are cast out. Hereafter she was referred to as Sarah "Barracuda" for her take no prisoners approach to multiple marriage.

In other news, Isaac is born, grows up a bit, and then is taken by his father to become a human sacrifice. If I can recall the pastoral sermons of my youth, it is important to emphasize Abe's obedience and try to ignore Isaac's point of view. No matter how much mental anguish that might entail for a child to be tied up and placed on a sacrificial altar by his own father, and to see the gleaming blade as his father raises his hand to slice him open, the important thing is to remember that Abraham obeys the LORD without questioning Him or trying to haggle down the price to just an amputation or two. What happened to the guy who just a while ago negotiated down the price of sparing Sodom?

Either this is an historical tale about an actual schizo who followed the voices in his head, or else it is a fable intended to convey a moral lesson. If the latter, the lesson must be this: Obey your tyrant without hesitation, no matter how arbitrary and immoral his commands might seem to you.

Genesis 20 - Theodicy FAIL

Most theodicies (counter-arguments against the argument from evil) run something like this: "God cannot intervene to prevent evil because if He did so it would go against _______" where we can fill in the blank with something we tend to like, such as free will or personal moral development. Here in chapter 20 we find that the God of Abraham wasn't terribly concerned with these philosophical notions, at least not where Sarah's virtue was on the line. Once again Abraham has played the sister card and given her unto a king (Gerar rather than Egypt this time around) because although she may be ninety years old, she is still smoking hot. God himself warns the king against following in the way of Pharaoh:
"I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore suffered I thee not to touch her. Now therefore restore the man his wife; for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live: and if thou restore her not, know thou that thou shalt surely die, thou, and all that are thine."
The king is naturally upset with Abraham for pulling the sister stunt, and Abraham excuses himself by noting that the people of Gerar are probably godless killing machines, and anyway Abe's wife really is his half-sister. (Incest prohibitions will come along later in the Torah.)

The moral of the story is somewhat unclear, however, whether it is to be taken as parable or history, it is clear that the God of Abraham has yet to hear of the free-will defence or the soul-building theodicy, since he steps right in to intervene with revelation and miracles and threats of regicide.

Genesis 18-19: God Hates Inhospitality

In chapter 18 we find Abraham and Sarah at home (with their new and slightly different names) demonstrating their impeccable manners as host and hostess by preparing bread, butter, meat and milk from scratch for three men who seem to pop into the narrative from nowhere in particular. After the extravagant meal, the men inform the elderly couple that they will have a son. Laughter ensues, and Sarah claims it was just the laugh track. Abraham then sends these strange men off to Sodom, which seemed like a good idea at the time.

After this point, a curious thing happens. The all-knowing all-seeing all-powerful creator of the universe starts haggling with Abraham over the conditions of Sodom's utter destruction. Now I've always been skeptical of stereotypical portrayal of Semites as stern negotiators, but here we find the putative forefather of their many nations wrangling over price with the Lord God Himself, bargaining the price down from fifty righteous souls to only ten. Good on him, I say. Too bad Jesus couldn't talk God down a bit at Gethsemane, "Please Lord, take this cup away, maybe I just could just die of thirst instead?"

Anyhow, in the next chapter we find Lot demonstrating his own admirable hospitality by taking in and dining with two angels who have for some unfathomable reason taken upon themselves the form of attractive young men. The locals of Sodom gather around the house and say unto Lot, "Hey! Get those guys out here so that we may get to know them, you know, in the Biblical sense, by which we mean gang rape." Evidently the Sodomites had a very different sense of hospitality than that of Abraham and Lot. Being a proper patriarch and host, Lot refuses this offer, and counters with his own virgin daughters instead. Evidently, Lot isn't nearly as good a negotiator as Abraham. He should have lead off with goats and let the Sodomites haggle up from there.

The men of the city at this point try to break down Lot's door, evidently overjoyed at the prospect of getting to gang rape everyone in the house. The angels then strike the Sodomites with blindness, and hasten Lot and his family out of the city, to the nearby hamlet of Zoar in good time for the Lord to rain fire down upon the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. While escaping, Lot's wife looks back and turns into a pillar of salt, and to this very day the families fleeing fearfully from the cities to the suburbs are referred to as "white flight," presumably in her honor.

After settling outside of Zoar, Lot's virgin daughters devise a clever plan to drug and rape him, because they wanted to have children and, well, their father was the only guy around. Thus did Lot demonstrate his own sexual prowess, in that although he was elderly and drunk out of his skull, he still managed to knock up two virgins, on two consecutive nights, against his will and without his knowledge or consent. It appears legendary feats of virility are becoming a running theme in this book, one gets the sense that the authors really wanted to play up the manhood of their forebears.

Genesis 16-17: The Joy of Sects

In these passages we find the mythical origins of both Islam and Judaism, that is, the very first mentions of both Ishmael and Isaac. Both boys will be circumcised, but only one will be covenanted and featured throughout the rest of this particular holy book. This may cause some degree of animosity between those who claim the one and those who claim the other as their forefather, but we'll overlook that eventuality for now and focus on the creation myths of these two monotheistic sects.

The obvious question arising from the events of chapter 16 is this: If your wife had trouble conceiving, and she encouraged you to instead impregnate her personal assistant (who is on your payroll) would you go ahead with the plan? Even supposing polygyny was the norm, and even given that the first wife okays the plan, it seems more than a bit like sexual harassment to compel one's employees to bear one's children. I can already hear anthropologically trained moral relativists saying that we shouldn't project our modern norms against sexual slavery back to the ancient world, but we are talking about someone who is to this day considered morally exemplary by Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Baha'i. If he were indeed so, surely he wouldn't have leveraged his position of power to get into his servant's pants. That's just the sort of abuse of power we'd expect from Bill Clinton or Newt Gringrich, but never Father Abraham. Contrary to our modern notions of personal liberty, however, we find that being the man on top makes it okay to sexually exploit one's servants, by Biblical standards. Not only acceptable, but actually worthy of angelic support in the wilderness crisis pregnancy center, where Hagar is told that her most important duties are to submit and obey. How uplifting is that, ladies? And unto this very day, the women of Islam are oft encouraged to emulate the wifely submissiveness of their putative forebear.

In chapter 17, we find that the God of Abraham has a bit of a sexual mutilation fetish. I can just imagine Abraham saying "we shall do *what* to the flesh of our foreskins? Didn't you put it there for a reason?" At this point, it is absolutely necessary to quote at some length from Rabbi Maimonides:

"As regards circumcision, I think that one of its objects is to limit sexual
intercourse, and to weaken the organ of generation as far as possible, and thus
cause man to be moderate. Some people believe that circumcision is to remove a
defect in man's formation; but everyone can easily reply: How can products of
nature be deficient so as to require external completion, especially as the use
of the fore-skin to that organ is evident. This commandment has not been
enjoined as a complement to a deficient physical creation, but as a means for
perfecting man's moral shortcomings. The bodily injury caused to that organ is
exactly that which is desired; it does not interrupt any vital function, nor
does it destroy the power of generation. Circumcision simply counteracts
excessive lust; for there is no doubt that circumcision weakens the power of
sexual excitement, and sometimes lessens the natural enjoyment: the organ
necessarily becomes weak when it loses blood and is deprived of its covering
from the beginning. Our Sages ... say distinctly: It is hard for a woman, with
whom an uncircumcised [man] had sexual intercourse, to separate from him."

For once, I am in complete agreement with the good Rabbi, and I would also note that my wife has shown no inclination to separate from me as of yet. At this point in the Bible, I am starting to notice that there is an awful lot of bizarre fetishizing and sex talk in this supposedly family-friendly book. Putting aside the aforementioned nakedness of Noah, here we have God is commanding a 99-year-old man to mutilate and cripple his own penis and go on to impregnate his 90-year-old wife. Really? I've heard that "with God all things are possible" but this seems like an arbitrarily difficult feat of sexual prowess. Why not go ahead and make them sleep in separate beds, too?

In any event, God establishes his covenant with the offspring of Isaac, and provides to them a readily identifiable means of telling their offspring apart from those of other sects, assuming of course that they are male, you catch them in the nude, and you aren't averse to a bit of impolite staring.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Genesis 13-15: In the land of Girgashites, Rephaites, Amalekites, Sodomites, Perizzites, and the like...

The Bible is nothing if not a tribal document, and here we see the distinctions between the tribes drawn to such a degree as to make modern white supremacist racism seem incredibly inclusive by comparison. As to which tribe is considered supreme herein this narrative, the reader is not given unto any doubt:
"Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and
southward, and eastward, and westward... For all the land which thou seest, to
thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever. ... Unto thy seed have I given
this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates,
[land of] the Kenites, and the Kenizzites, and the Kadmonites, and the Hittites,
and the Perizzites, and the Rephaims, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and
the Girgashites, and the Jebusites."

So, one might suppose that all the "-ites" who aren't fit to be called "Israelites" are going to have to go, by whatever means necessary. Perhaps, though, it is overly pessimistic to assume, at this point in the story, that even an ancient tribal deity would ordain and establish war and genocide as His preferred means of settling the Promised Land. Surely the god who would later be described as loving and just and merciful by Christian theologians would never do such a barbaric thing. We shall see.

As to the main characters in the story, Abram and his nephew must go their separate ways, as they have become the very first exemplars of what would much later become known as the prosperity gospel. They are by this point so gloriously blessed that, like rich people everywhere, they just can't stand each other's company anymore. Out of necessity, they invent and implement the concept of exurban sprawl, and that thousands of years before it catches on here in the West. Abram journeys out to the western plains, and there sets up his tents and settlements in defiance of native land claims, thus presaging the Oklahoma Boomers. Lot,
for his part, pitches his tents towards the thriving metropolis of Sodom, where the markets are overfilled and the women are undersexed.

There is also a bit of a war, but it didn't really more the narrative forward.

Genesis 12: Isaac's Mom has got it going on

When it comes to full-on hard-core self-fulfilling prophecy, it's damnably difficult to top the following:

I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing...and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed... Unto thy seed will I give this land.

After committing these verses to papyrus, the Jewish people went on to become the only tribe to ever engage in a truly global diaspora, somehow retain their unique ethno-religious identity, and go on to retake their ancestral homeland. Moreover, the scribes who penned these verses managed to pass on their fundamental religious and cultural memes to at least 7.5 million Bahá'í, 14 million Jews, 1.6 billion Muslims, and 2 billion Christians. Not exactly "all the families of the Earth" but those are damned impressive statistics for a particular collection of ancient memes, the contemporaries of which are today almost entirely extinct.

Back to the story. Abram sojourns around a bit, and ends up in Egypt during a time of desperate need. If this sounds familiar, it is because the story will be retold time and again throughout the Bible. Note especially the narrative elements of Egypt, famine, Pharonic dialogue and dialectic, and that "the LORD plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues," which is a bit of a bloody giveaway that the authors of the narrative (and the Author of the Universe, as some would have it) do not mind heavy-handed heapings of foreshadowing. At the end of this particular pericope, the Pharaoh finally stops sticking it to the prototypical Jewess, and lets her people go.

One really can't blame the poor Pharaoh too much, because Sarai was really quite a "fair woman to look upon" as they say, and while a later Pharaoh was to suffer the affliction of a divinely hardened heart, we can fairly assume that this one was quite naturally smitten with a different variety of personal turgidity.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Genesis 10-11: Setting Tounges A Wagging

Confusion of the tongues by Gustave Doré (1865)

This part provides us with a whole load of begatting, however, (alas) those events are not illustrated in any Bible of which I am currently aware, which makes it into a fairly dry account of which tribes came from whose loins. I defy any pastor to do a homily chapter 10 without dwelling on the only interesting figure found therein: Nimrod. Thanks to him we have the ancient idiomatic expression "as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD" a turn of phrase by which one could render praise. Later extrabiblical folktales were to tarnish his name quite a bit, which may help explain why it is currently considered a term of abuse in American English.

Next we have the old and familiar folktale about the confounding of the languages of man by the gods. According to Josephus, this unprecedented tower was commissioned by King Nimrod, and may well have come in on time and under budget, if only the king wasn't being such an impious tyrant, setting his face and his followers against the gods.

This particular tale really makes one wonder why Allah is allowing the all those ludicrously tall structures to remain standing in Dubai. Can anyone gaze upon the Burj Khalifa for more than a moment or two without immediately recalling the artistic depictions of Babel? Possibly the Arabs are just pious enough as a people to get away with these architectural shenanigans without having their language split apart into various mutually incomprehensible dialects.

Speaking of how languages naturally evolve into dialects, why is it that the science of comparative linguistics is not constantly under attack from the religious right? Not unlike the clever biologists, these cunning linguists are making scientifically testable claims about the gradual evolution of new forms over aeons, and in the process directly contradicting the literal interpretation of how these forms arose suddenly via divine intervention. I'd expect that the Biblical literalists should at least try for equal time in the science classrooms wherever modern linguistics are being taught in lieu of ancient folktales. Perhaps a disclaimer sticker on undergraduate linguistics books? Probably I'd best stop giving them ideas now.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Genesis 6-9: God Poureth Forth Mighty Wrath, Noah Poureth Out Strong Wine

I don't bother overmuch with those who maintain there is ample scientific evidence for a truly global inundation, because doing science means following the evidence to conclusions rather than dragging the evidence along to wherever you were hoping to arrive. That said, what we have here is a mythic parable about the wrath and power and mercy of God. The key passage is this: "And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark." If we had to define the term "overkill" using only one ancient myth, this story would be the way to go.

I've always wondered why a putative God would use a natural disaster to get His message across. I mean, wouldn't it be quicker and easier just to magically kill all the offending humans, as God allegedly did with the miserly and dishonest Ananias and Sapphira? Surely the use of a global flood (whether metaphorical or literal) sort of sets the unfortunate precedent that any given massive natural disaster will be assumed to be divine retribution? For that matter, why not just zap all the offending humans into nonexistence and leave the animals alone?

Now this is a more-or-less universally familiar story, at least up to Gen 9:17, wherein God promises never again to destroy all life with water, and provides the rainbow as a symbol of his friendship with men. Presumably, though, the Lord has an infinitude of other means at His disposal (including everything listed in Death From the Skies) and thus this covenant ought not be particularly reassuring to the theologically inclined.

After this point in the story, things get a bit more obscure and obscene. You have to read this bit for yourself or else you'll think I'm just making it up:

And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

So Noah goes to a great deal of personal effort to make a bit of wine (this is the guy who built the entire Ark after all) and then he overindulges and finds himself laying around naked in his tent. I'm not saying anything negative about Noah here. It's his tent, after all, and it's not as if we Americans never lay around the house naked drinking wine. Evidently, though, the ancient Hebrews considered nakedness to be a Very Big Deal, so much so that Noah immediately curses his grandson (who was nowhere on the scene during this story) when he discovers that his grandson's father has seen him naked. Maybe it's because Noah is more than 600 years old by this point, and his body hasn't held up so well over the centuries. Maybe it's because the authors of the book wanted to dishonor the Canaanites early on in the narrative. Either way, it seems a bit extreme to lay down a perpetual curse upon so many tribes on such a *ahem* flaccid pretext as one's own nakedness, exposed entirely by accident, to someone other than the object said curse.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Genesis 4-5: The Parable of Cain and Abel

A friend of a friend once knew a telepathic gorilla, who thought it was plainly obvious that the story of Cain and Abel was a parable about the interaction between the sons of Cain (agriculturalists) and the sons of Abel (herders) and how it all went down in the Fertile Crescent between those two competing modes of human existence. The gorilla is reported to have said "The Semites were telling their children, 'God is on our side. He loves us herders but hates those murderous tillers of the soil from the north.'" This is about as much sense as a gorilla has ever made, in my experience, when doing Scriptural exegesis.

In particular, the gorilla's take on this makes sense of the question that will occur to most modern readers , "Why does God seem to arbitrarily prefer shepards to tillers?" If you think you can best the telepathic gorilla on this point, I'd be interested in hearing other theories.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Blogging The KJV

So, it's the four hundredth anniversary of the finalization of the original 1611 King James Bible, which would eventually supplant earlier translations of the Bible into English. Accordingly, this seems as good a year as any to read through the KJV, as suggested by Bruce. I'm going to have a go at this here on this blog, and my friend Paul is also posting a few of his thoughts here.