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.

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?