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.

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.

Leviticus 6:1-8:36 (Tzav)

Here we have more specific rules for the ceremonial sacrifices, and a bit of detail as to which bits are eaten by whom and which are burned to ash. There is also a touchingly numinous scene in which the priests are ordained in a christening of blood and oil, and then they feast on meat and bread for a week. Sounds like a great deal for the priests, who are clever enough to write this book so as to make it appear that their ceremonial scheme for taking bread and meat from those who labor was ordained by God directly through Moses and Aaron.

Leviticus 1:1-5:26 (Vayikra)

In this part of the Holy Bible, we learn that divine command theory and ethical veganism just don't mix. God just loves the aroma of roasting meat, as do His priests, who are appointed the self-gratifying task of having to consume much of the sacrifices. I'd be far more impressed if God just ate the sacrifices Himself. As it is, this looks a lot like a program created by the priests for their own sake, rather than a divinely inspired commentary on the need for personal atonement.
Moreover, it is here that we learn that the more senseless laws that the Levitical class lays down, the more sin and guilt offerings they can expect to be brought to them as sacrifices to God. This might help explain why we will see many hundreds of "divinely revealed" laws in the books to come. From the perspective of the preisthood, the more laws you break, the more bread we take.