Sunday, March 26, 2017

Bible in a Year: 1 Samuel 18-2 Samuel 8

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks) and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

Last week I mentioned that the fate of the sacred town of Shiloh is a mystery. So are the Urim and Thummim, holy objects that appear in a few Old Testament readings like today's.

This website reads: "The Urim ('lights') and Thummim ('perfections') were gemstones that were carried by the high priest of Israel on the ephod / priestly garments. They were used by the high priest to determine God's will in some situations. Some propose that God would cause the Urim and Thummim to light up in varying patterns to reveal His decision. Others propose that the Urim and Thummim were kept in a pouch and were engraved with symbols identifying yes / no and true / false.... [But] No one knows the precise nature of the Urim and Thummim or exactly how they were used ... They are first mentioned in the description of the breastplate of judgment (Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8). When Joshua succeeded Moses as leader over Israel, he was to receive answers from God by means of the Urim through Eleazar the high priest (Numbers 27:21). The Urim and Thummim are next mentioned in Moses' dying blessing upon Levi (Deuteronomy 33:8). The following Scriptures likely also speak of the Urim and Thummim: Joshua 7:14-18; 1 Samuel 14:37-45; and 2 Samuel 21:1." This site also notes that they are referred to one last time in the Bible, in Ezra 2:63.

The Jewish Encyclopedia has a much longer section on the oracles, as does this site. The objects also mentioned in the Book of Mormon and in LDS theology. The words themselves could translate Lights and Perfections, or Lights and Truth, or Divine Doctrines and Truth. The phrase "light and truth" (Lux et Veritas) became the motto of both Indiana University, where I used to teach, and also Yale University, where I got my masters degree. The Yale shield has the Hebrew words with the Latin phrase. That's where I first learned about these sacred objects once so important for the Israelites, and so I become nostalgic for New England as I write all this.


This week I've been studying 1 Samuel 18 through 2 Samuel 8. Back in Deuteronomy 17:14-20, the narrative has Moses warning the Israelites concerning a king. 1 Samuel reflects both pro- and anti-monarchical viewpoints; 12:17 even attributes the demand for a monarchy to the people's wickedness! The selection, anointment, and then divine rejection of Saul seems to attribute ambivalence even to God. Saul, "little in his own eyes" (1 Sam. 15:17) and afflicted with distress (16:14) nevertheless leads Israel for forty years in campaigns against the Philistines and others.

After David killed Goliath (chapter 17), the rest of 1 Samuel reflects contrasting and intersecting narratives of Saul and David. Saul offered David his daughter Michal, for whom David paid the gory bridal price (18:20-29), but Saul was jealous of David's battlefield success and subsequent fame. Both Michal and Jonathan---who of course is David's dear friend---helped David escape from Saul. At one point David was cared for by the priest Ahimelech, and Saul has the priest and eighty-five others killed in retaliation. We have two contrasting stories where David was in a good position to kill Saul but did not, and Saul affirmed David's greater righteousness (chapters 24, 26).

Among these adventures, we also find the story of David, Abigail, and Nabal; Nabal was foolish and surly and refused to cooperate with David, while the much wiser Abigail assisted him. She became one of his wives following Nabal's death (chap. 25). (I don't know if you're like me in taking some comfort in encountering a family name among the Bible stories: my mother's grandmother was named Abigail, although she spelled it Abagail, and that was also my mother's middle name.)

Samuel died, and his death is announced twice in the Bible (25:1, 28:3). While David went into Philistine country to continued raids with his men against several enemies of Israel, Saul---who was unable to gain direction from God through various means--sought the advice of the spirit of Samuel via a medium. Samuel's spirit only predicts Saul's upcoming death at the hands of the Philistines (chap. 28). While David and his troops continued successful attacks against the Amalekites (chap. 29-30), Saul's three sons (Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua) were killed and the badly wounded Saul took his own life rather than become prisoner of the Philistines (chap. 31).

David was heartbroken at the news of the deaths and the Israelites' defeat. An Amalekite messenger had come to David and falsely reported he had killed Saul at Saul's request--and David puts him to death for slaying the Lord's anointed king.

(As someone with lifelong mild depression, never suicidal but sometimes downcast and always cheered by music, I've had a soft spot in my heart for Saul for a long time. He had no precedent to follow as king, he certainly had no solid person to turn to---Samuel fails utterly on that regard; his pronouncements of God's rejection surely made Saul's condition worse---and Saul spent much of his reign in warfare, a psychologically battering experience to say the least. Here is an interesting article that speculates on Saul's psychology.)

In a series of stories of conquest and unification efforts (1 Samuel 1-8), David achieved what even Joshua couldn't quite do: united the northern and southern tribes.

He mourned Saul and Jonathan, lamenting them in a song that he taught to the people (chapter 1). He was anointed king of the house of Judah (2:1-7). Meanwhile, Saul's son Ishbaal began to reign over Israel and reigned two years, kept in power by the army commander Abner, while David was king at Hebron over Judah (2:1-7). A battle ensued, wherein the forces of Abner were beaten---and in that context we're introduced to Joab, Abishai, and Ashahel, who are David's sister's sons. Asahel foolishly pursued Abner and was killed. For the time being, the other two brothers make peace with Abner.

Civil War between the royal houses of David and Saul continued. Abner aspired to the kingship himself and sought a covenant with David, and the king and Abner made peace. Joab, though, was frustrated with David and went out and assassinated Abner on his own. David pronounced a curse upon Joab and his family but, as we will see in upcoming chapters, David retained him as commander of royal forces. (Joab seems to me a character like Luca Brasi in The Godfather, a faithful ally who is also a really, really dangerous person to be handled carefully.) Though David lamented Abner's death, I wonder if that was at least partly a ploy to keep the covenant with Ishbaal intact. But Ishbaal's own days were numbered; he was slain and beheaded, and David had the brothers who killed him executed (chapters 3-4). This assassination, too, worked to David's advantage.

The ten northern tribes of Israel made covenant with David and anointed him king of all the tribes. He remained seven years in Hebron, then he was able to capture Jerusalem from the Jebusites and established that place as the City of David. Repelling the subsequent attack from the Philistines, David had the ark brought to Jerusalem, where he famously danced before the ark, losing most of his clothes in the process. One man died in the process of the ark coming to Jerusalem, because the ark was improperly carried on a wagon and the man came into direct contact with it (chapter 6).

Glad that the ark was in the city, and likely overwhelmed by his successes and power, David worked through the prophet Nathan to seek God's permission to build a house for the Lord. God declined---God had not needed a house up till that time after all---but God promised to David a dynasty, and a successor to David would build God a house. David's prayer of submission is often cited as a model of humility to the Lord's will (chapter 7). Chapter 8 recounts the way God gave David continuing victories over several groups: Philistines, Moabites, Edomites, Ammonites, and others. Joab was military commander, Jehoshaphat was recorder, Zadoc was priest, and others comprised the king's government that "administered justice and equity to all his people" (chapter 8).

I'm stopping here because I've read my weekly goal, but also because the upcoming 2 Samuel 9-20 and 1 Kings 1-2 have long been called "the Succession Narrative," a hypothesized early narrative that demonstrates both David's legitimacy as king and Solomon's legitimacy as heir (though Solomon was not David's first born, not even close).

But here's just a little more about Jerusalem. David captured the city from the Jebusites during his reign (2 Sam. 5:6-10), in about 998 BC. The word Yerushalayim actually means "city of peace." The city first appears in Joshua 10, and this 2 Samuel passage is the first biblical reference to the word Zion (ziyon), of uncertain meaning but perhaps "citadel". David brought the ark to Jerusalem, thus sanctifying Zion Hill (2 Sam. 6:10-12). Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem on the proximate Mount Moriah, which meant that the name Zion was applied not only to the particular hill named Zion but also the temple mount (Isa. 8:18, 18:7, 24:23, Joel 3:17, Micah 4:7), and eventually all of Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:21, Ps. 48, 69:35, 133:3, Isaiah 1:8, and others. The name Zion came to also apply to God’s people (Ps. 126:1, 129:5, Isa. 33:14, 34:8, 49:14, 52:8), and in the New Testament, for heaven (Heb. 12:22). All this is from a book my grandmother gave me forty-six years ago, the Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, page 914. See my blog notes, here, for more Bible references to Jerusalem.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Bible in a Year: Ruth and 1 Samuel 1-17

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks) and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

We are moving along through biblical history. Here is an approximate timeline:

c. 1800-1600: Abraham and his family through Jacob's children (Genesis)
c. 1600-1200s: Egypt, Exodus, and conquest of the Land (Exodus through Joshua)
1200s-1000: Period of the Judges (Judges, Ruth)
1000-922: The united monarchy (Saul, David, Solomon), (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 Kings 1-11, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles 1-9)
922-722: The divided monarchy (1 Kings 12 to 2 Kings 17).
722 -586: The kingdom of Judah (2 Kings 18-25, 2 Chronicles 10-36)
586-539: The exile
538-332: Judah during Persian rule (Ezra and Nehemiah)

Between the Old and New Testaments:
332-165: Judea during Hellenistic Rule
165-63: The period of the Maccabees and Hasmoneans

The New Testament period:
6 BCE - 135 CE: The Roman provence of Judea

It was also during the era of Hellenistic Judaism and the Roman occupation that Judaism as we know it began to develop, including the fixing of the canon. Rabbinic Judaism developed for the needs of diaspora faith after the Second Temple was destroyed; the Mishnah, for instance, dates from about 200 CE and the Gemara from about 500 CE.


This week, I'm studying Ruth and then 1 Samuel 1-17. If we continue reading from Judges straight into 1 Samuel, we get a more or less continuous narrative, because Eli (1 Samuel 1) is both the high priest at Shiloh (where we left off in Judges with the Benjaminites' rape of the women at Shiloh) and the next-to-last judge of Israel. After Eli, Samuel becomes the final judge of Israel and makes possible the transition of Israelite rulership from judges to kings. We find this narrative continuity in the Jewish Bible, wherein Ruth appears near the end of the canon.

In the Christian Old Testament, Ruth is placed between Judges and 1 Samuel. At this place in the canon, Ruth becomes both a lovely contrasting narrative from the era of the judges (allowing for the marriage practices of the time), and also provides a genealogical bridge to the upcoming stories of David.

The story is familiar to many of us. Three women---the Israelite Naomi and her Moabite daughters in law Ruth and Orpah---find themselves widowed. (The Moabites, whose land was just outside the Land, are biblical characterized as descendants of the union of Lot and his oldest daughter, Gen. 19:37-38.) When Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem, Orpah returns to Moab but Ruth chooses to stay with Noami. There follows a familiar story, with some suspense, of how Naomi and Ruth work together to gain the favor of Boaz, a kinsman to Naomi. Boaz goes along with the plan. Although another kinsman is closer in relation (and thus more eligible to marry Ruth), Boaz fulfills legal requirements and they are able to marry. The book concludes with a reminder that their child Obed was the grandfather of David, and that Boaz was a descendant of Perez (whom we met back in Genesis 38).

I forget where I read that the book of Ruth provides a counterpart to other Bible passages where Hebrew marriages to non-Hebrew women were frowned up. In Ezra 9-10, for instance, the man were ordered to divorce their foreign wives. But in Ruth, a Hebrew man marries a Moabite woman---and they're forebears of King David himself!


One of the theological themes of Deuteronomistic theology is that God is the true Lord and King of Israel. This was established in the Exodus covenant and reiterated in Deuteronomy 29 and Joshua 24. The writer of Judges laments, over and over, that “everyone did as he saw fit” because Israel had no king. But the irony is that Israel had a king—the Lord—and turned instead to Canaanite deities and, at the end, the society degenerated into war among the tribes.

Here are some notes that I took a few years ago, which has significance for this upcoming section of Bible reading. In his book Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1986, p. 115), Brevard S. Childs (whom I had as a professor in 1979) notes that the OT scholar Julius Wellhausen identified a “promonarchial source in 1 Samuel 8-12, specifically 9:1-10:16 and 11:1-5. Those texts affirm the new Israelite monarchy, while 8:1-22, 10:17-27, 12:1-25 “regarded the rise of the kingdom as a rejection of God’s true rain”…and saw it as an act of disobedience which emulated Israel’s pagan nations.” Later, the OT scholar Gerhard Von Rad reinterpreted those passages as complementary rather than contradictory. Following Von Rad but also looking to the canonical shape of the text, Childs believes that the anti-monarchical source “brackets the earlier source at both beginning and end (p. 116), but that the pro-monarchical source still has power because “God is still deeply involved in the rise of the monarchy even when it was not according to his original plan for Israel (p. 116). Thus Israel has to choose for God or against God, whether ruled by a king or not (p. 117).

Even though the anti-monarchical source questions the properness of an Israelite king—because Yahweh is Israel’s true king, and the previous rulership of Israel had been the shofetim (judges)—the career of David becomes significant for Israel’s messianic hope: for instance, Isa. 9:6-7, Jer. 23:5ff, and Psalms like 45, 72, and 110 (Childs, pp. 119-120). Thus, even though the monarchy was not according to God’s original plan, God incorporated the monarchy—and specifically King David—as a “type of God’s kingdom.” (In another example, Childs further argues, with von Rad in mind, that the “succession narrative 2 Samuel 9-20 and 1 Kings 1-2 has not been artificially broken up by 2 Samuel 21-24, but that those four chapters places David’s career in context with the messianic hope of Israel, precisely as David’s speech in chapter 22 echoes Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2: p. 118.)

All kinds of interesting connections there! Of course, in New Testament affirmation, David and his kingdom become precursors and “types” of Christ (the great descendent of David and member of David’s tribe, Judah) and his kingdom.

1 Samuel begins when the ark of the covenant was at the sanctuary at Shiloh. I suppose you could say that Samuel and Jesus are the only two biblical figures whose stories begin prior to their births and extend after their deaths. As the book opens, Hannah, one of the two wives of Elkanah, could not have children and she tearfully beseeched the Lord to let her have a male child, whom she would dedicate to the Lord. Eli, the judge and high priest, blessed her, and the Lord in turn granted her prayer.

(Dr. Laurel Koepf-Taylor, who teaches at Eden Seminary where I’m an adjunct, has written a fascinating book, Give Me Children or I Shall Die: Children and Communal Survival in Biblical Literature (Fortress Press, 2013). She discusses the way that we read the Bible with modern eyes and thus can overlook economic aspects of the narrative, for instance, the fact that in the ancient world a child had economic value. The promised gift of Samuel to God provides God with a replacement leader when Eli’s sons are problematic, and in this “barter,” God opens the womb of Hannah, who because she devoted the “first fruits” to God has an abundant “harvest”: more children after Samuel. See pages 45-46. )

The child Samuel served the Lord with Eli and grew in the spirit (in contrast to the sons of Eli, who were terrible people). The Lord punished Eli and the sons while raising up Samuel to be the new high priest. His fame as a prophet preach through Israel (1:1-3:31).

As the Israelites engaged the Philistines in battle near Ebenezer, they carried the ark with them. But the Philistines routed the Israelites, captured the ark, and killed the two sons of Eli. Hearing the news, Eli himself fell and died. Eli's daughter-in-law went into labor, and as she died, she named the child Ichabod, meaning "the glory is gone from Israel" (referring to the ark) (chapter 4).

But the presence of the ark, set up at the Philistine temple of Dagon at Ashdod, was dangerous for them, causing damage to the idol itself and causing, of all things, hemorrhoids among the Philistines (chapter 5). Some commentators speculate that the ailment was more like a plague of some kind. In a memorable story, the Philistines put the ark on a wagon and let God providentially guide two cows to pull the ark back to the Israelites. The cows did so, and the ark arrived at Beth-shemesh, where its dangerous holiness caused more casualties (chap. 6). The Israelites subsequently took the ark to Kiriath-jearim, where it remained for twenty years (7:1-4).

(Why wasn't the ark returned to Shiloh? This is a mystery in the biblical record. Ambiguously referenced in Genesis 49:10, Shiloh was the place where Joshua had set up the Tabernacle, where it remained during the Judges period. But did the Philistines destroy the city when they took the ark? Apparently not, because about two hundred years later, a prophet named Ahijah lived in Shiloh (1 Kings 11, 14). On the other hand, Jeremiah refers to Shiloh as a desolate location (Jer. 7:12-15; 26:5-9). Psalm 78:60 says that the Lord forsook the Tabernacle at Shiloh. One of my seminary profs, B. Davie Napier, commented that the loss of Shiloh was apparently too painful for even Scripture to describe.)

Samuel returned Israel to the Lord. He assembled them at Mizpah, where they ceremonially repented to God, allowing them to route the Philistines. Samuel set up the famous Ebenezer memorial (7:14) and made the rounds each year from his home in Ramah to Bethal, Gilgal, and Mitzvah to judge Israel (chap. 7). Samuel’s sons Joel and Abijah, however, were dishonest and unsuitable as judges. Somehow God did not punish Samuel for lax parenting as God had punished Eli, and the Israelites beseeched Samuel for a king. Samuel advised against it, but the Lord allowed it (chapter 9). Samuel found the handsome Benjaminite Saul and installed him as Israel’s first king (not including the wicked and self-proclaimed monarch Abimelech of Judges) (chapters 9-10). Saul had initial success as a military leader, against the Ammonites (chap 11). Samuel still regretted the new monarchy as a sign of disobedience to God, the true king, but Samuel urges the people to follow and respect Saul, and promises to pray for them (chap. 12).

Saul, and now his son Jonathan too, faces another threat from the Philistines. Samuel stipulated that Saul wait for seven days at Gilgal, when Samuel would make sacrifice. When Samuel didn’t show up, Saul presented the burnt-offering himself. At that point Samuel arrived and pronounced a curse upon Saul’s dynasty (chapter 13). This passage always implied to me that Samuel acted in a very petty way, setting up Saul for failure because he (Samuel) disapproved of the new monarchy.

Sadly for Saul, his missteps continue. In another battle, Saul placed a curse on anyone who ate food before nightfall. But Jonathan, not realizing, had already eaten, and some other troops at as well, all of which withdrew divine favor from the battle (chap. 14). In a battle against the Amalekites, Saul spared the Amalekite king, Agag, and the animals of most value—a violation of God’s holy war stipulations---and then he blames the troops. Samuel scolded him and announced the withdrawal of God’s favor. After that, Samuel and Saul never saw each other again (chap. 15).

These chapters always frustrate me—as if both Samuel and the Lord chose Saul and then let him fail. I’m reading through modern eyes, of course, with leadership philosophy and workplace dynamics in mind.

God instructed Samuel to go among the Bethlehemites to find a new king. Interestingly, God gave him an excuse to use, just in case Saul learned of the errand (16:1-2). Samuel met the sons of Jesse, and while the older brothers were promising, God told Samuel to anoint the youngest son, David. David continued to work as a shepherd but also had a role in the king's service, wherein he at first had  good relations with Saul (chap. 16).

The Israelites face another threat from the Philistines, presented by the enormous soldier Goliath who taunts the opposing forces. The story (apparently another ancient narrative edited into the history) reintroduces David, who expressed concern about Goliath’s taunts about Israel and its God. David told Saul that he (David) had killed lions and bears from attacking his father’s sheep and so he could manage Goliath, too. Saul gives David armor, which doesn’t fit. So David abandoned army, and set out to the battlefield with just his sling and some stones. We all know how this story turns out! (chap. 17).

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Landscapes: David Bates

David Bates (1840-1921), "Autumn River Scene: The Brook" (1889). From: Copied under fair use principles.

David Bates, "On the Long Mynd, Church Stretton" (1907). From: Copied under fair use principles.

In the style of David Bates, "The Fallen Tree" (c. 1860). From: Copied under fair use principles. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Bible in a Year: Judges

I’m reading through the Bible this year at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks) and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week, I'm studying Judges. We're moving along through biblical history and are now about seven or eight hundred years after Abraham, in the time between the conquests of Joshua and the rise of David. It's worth noting that Jerusalem, first mentioned by name in Joshua 10, is mentioned in Judges as a city where Jebusites live along with Benjaminites; Jerusalem is not yet completely claimed by the Israelites (Joshua 15:63, Judges 1:8, 1:21), and neither government nor cult is centered there.

The Hebrew word translated "judge" is shofet, plural shofetim. These leaders were non-hereditary chieftains who led Israelite tribes in the years between the Conquest and the beginning of the Monarchy, a span probably of a century and a half or so, although a literal reading of the book implies 400 years (note 1 below). Such a long period of time is unlikely if we date David’s reign as beginning about 1000 BCE and the Exodus in about the 1300s BCE.

The shofetim were champions whom the Lord raised up to help God's people, following periods when the people forgot the Lord, worshiped Canaanite deities, and then suffered God's punishment in the form of foreign domination and military oppression. Twelve such champions are named: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson. The last two judges, whom we meet in 1 Samuel, are Eli and Samuel; it is the unsuitability of Samuel’s sons, Joel and Abiah, to function as judges that precipitate calls for an Israelite king. The biblical text does not generally describe these leaders as "a judge" but uses the verb form: they "judged Israel”.

The Jewish Study Bible's introduction to Judges makes note of differences between this biblical book and other Deutereonomistic literature. The book was edited at some point, probably after the Assyrian conquest of the North in 722 BCE, and now is part of the Deuteronomic narrative (pp. 509-510). But although Judges fits into that overall worldview, Deuteronomy calls for a centralized worship for Israel and is critical of human monarchy for a people properly ruled by God--but Judges has no similar interest in a centralized cult and expresses regret, over and over, that the people had no earthly king to guide them.

The author of Judges perhaps had a point of view about who should be Israel's king. Gordon J. Wenham (Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000) sees evidence of “anti-Saul” and “pro-David” attitudes in Judges. For instance, chapters 19-21 are sharply critical of the Benjaminites, in particular the towns of Gibeah and Jabesh-Gilead. But according to 1 Sam. 11:4, 31:11-13, these are Saul’s hometown and burial place, respectively. Wenham notes that other places in Judges could be “anti-Saul polemic,” and the more praising depiction of the tribe of Judah as well as the story of Othniel seem more pro-David, since of course Judah is David's tribe (p. 70). And the horrifying brutality and with which Judges ends can be read as an illustration of why Israel needs a new kind of leadership and a new way of life in Canaan--exactly what David provided (p. 69).

Judges begins with a dual introduction. The first (1:1-2:5), recounting the conquests by the tribes of Judah and Simeon and the incomplete conquests of Benjamin, Joseph, Manasseh, Ephraim, Zebulun, Asher, Naphtali, and Dan. It is a different picture of the conquest, one of tense cohabitation with the non-Israelites peoples, than we get in Joshua which implies a swift and decisive occupation of the land. In Judges, it is the southern tribe of Judah that has the most success against their enemies.

The second introduction (2:5-3:6) tells of the death of Joshua and the death of his generation. But the new generation “did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and worshipped the Baals” (2:10-11). Thus begins the cycles of apostasy, attacks from the non-Israelite peoples against then, the Lord’s deliverance through the shofetim, and the years of peace that followed. These narratives comprise Judges 3:5-16:31, and refer to the leaders of particular tribes and locales. (Hebrews 11:32 mentions Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah as heroes of faith: why didn't that author include Deborah???)

1. Othniel (3:7-3:11). He was the only judge from the tribe of Judah.

2. Ehud, a Benjaminite (3:12-3:30. He was able to assassinate the fat Moabite king Eglon by sinking a sword into Eglon’s enormous stomach.

3. Shamgar (3:31), who killed 600 philistines with an oxgoad (cattle prod).

4. Deborah, a prophetess, who judged Israelite form the Ephraim hill country, and who along with Barak of the Naphtali tribe subdued several Canaanite groups (chapters 4-5). Rabbi Telushkin (see note 2) calls Deborah a kind of Joan of Arc for Israel, although Deborah survived her own conflict and made possible forty years of peace. She is certainly one of the notable women of the Bible!

5. Gideon, of the Manasseh tribe who lived at Ophrah. His stories of faith are certainly ones that I learned in childhood Sunday school, and much later I was surprised to learn how “dark” the other Judges stories are (chapters 6-8).

Chapter 9 concerns Abimelech, Gideon’s son, who killed his seventy brothers (with the exception of Jothan, who fled in time), so that he (Abimelech) could set himself up as king of the Manasseh tribe at Shechem. He was not a judge in the sense that God's Spirit raised him to lead the people, but rather he took over through murder and intrigue. His ambitions ended in battle and his death. Rabbi Telushkin notes that Jothan is the author of the Bible's first parable, his story of the bramble.

Back to the legitimate judges:

6. Tola, of Ephraim (10:1-2)

7. Jair, a Gileadite (10:3-5)

8. Jephthah, another Gileadite (10:6-12:7). We perhaps remember him best because of the awful story of his daughter---and Rabbi Telushkin notes that, under Torah law, his vow was actually invalid. From the Jephthah stories, we also get the famous story of shibboleth, during the armed conflict between his forces and the Ephraim tribe.

9. Ibzan of Bethlehem (12:8-10)

10. Elon, a Zebulunite (12:11-12)

11. Abdon (12:13-15). “He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys” (12:14).

12. Samson, of the tribe of Dan (chapters 13-16). His stories are so well known!

After the stories of Samson, the judges are no longer mentioned, and the book ends with a dual conclusion. First, the story of Micah the Ephraimite, who made his own idols, who also had a Levite as his priest, all of which the Danites took from him (chapters 17-18).

The second conclusion is surely the darkest section in the whole Bible, with the gang-rape of the Levite’s concubine by men of the Benjamite tribe, and the Levite’s subsequent dismemberment of the woman. War among the Israelite tribes ended with the slaughter of many Benjaminites. The book concludes with surviving Benjaminites abducting women from a festival at Shiloh, so that they could have wives.

If we continue reading into 1 Samuel, the story keeps going, because Eli (1 Samuel 1) is both the high priest at Shiloh and the next-to-last judge of Israel—and then Samuel becomes the final judge of Israel and makes possible the transition of Israelite rulership from judges to kings.

Fortunately, we get an interlude: the book of Ruth, which I’ll study next week. At this place in the canon, Ruth provides both a happy story from the era of the judges, and provides a genealogical bridge to the upcoming stories of David.

But the stories of Samuel are also great sources of hope---because the Israelites needed help in turning things around. "Never has the Israelite religion so clearly been in danger of dying. Something radical, it is clear, must occur if this fate is to be avoided. And something radical does occur. God sends a prophet, a man named Samuel. It is he who is charged with ensuring that Abraham and Moses' vision not be extinguished (note 3).

Judges also has an overall message that is a source of hope for any age. J. Clinton McCann, who teaches at Eden Seminary where I'm an adjunct, writes, "The people reap what they sow. But just as in Judges God repeatedly delivers the people, so beyond Judges God continues to try. God never fails to be with his people, and God continues to will for them and for all humanity a with-God life. Hence, by demonstrating the destructive consequences of disobedience, Judges calls the People of God in all times and places to the worship and submission that promise life" (note 3).


1.  1 Kings 6:1 refers to 480 years between the Exodus and the fourth year of Solomon’s reign. See "Judges: Introduction from the NIV Study Bible", The Jewish Study Bible notes that this chronology disagrees with a tabulation of years expressed in Judges: about 299 years of judgeship and 111 years of foreign subjugation. As with Joshua, archeological evidence has so far not agreed with either chronology.

2. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, events, and Israels of the Hebrew Bible (William Morrow, 1997), the chapter on the Judges.

3. Telushkin, p. 187.

4.  Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), p. 344.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Bible in a Year: Joshua
I’m reading through the Bible this year at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks), and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week, I'm studying Joshua. The book of Joshua is a difficult book, full of violence and destruction and no moral reflection about the evils of war. To us, ideas of holy war and mass killing are frightening to read about and demand interpretation. One way of interpreting this material, is to realize that in the Deuteronomic theology of the book, the peoples of the Land were so wicked they had fallen under God's judgment, and so the advancing Israelites were not only inheritors of God’s promises but also instruments of God's wrath—similar to the fires of Sodom or the flood waters of Noah. It is a theology for Joshua's time period and not for all time!

The depicted slaughters seem not to have happened at all. One of my books, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, has an introduction that explains some of the difficulties of the account of the Israelite conquest (p. 307). Archaeological evidence points to a resettlement of the land in the period 1200-1000 BCE but not of a dramatic destruction of cities as described in Joshua. More likely is a slow process of settlement of Israelites, either as emerging from the peoples of the Land or immigrating from outside (p. 307). But the book of Joshua envisions a bold new beginning to the people, thanks to God’s help, and since the notion of “objective history” was centuries in the future when Joshua was written, the book provides a theological interpretation of events, probably to give confidence to the exiles about God’s faithful care of his people.

Thus, the moral issues of holy war and slaughter are not the concerns of the Deutereonomistic writer; there are plenty of other biblical passages that uphold God’s will for peace and wholeness for the world---including God's care and love for foreigners. Indeed, "[t]he main thrust of the Old Testament teaching is to show that Yahweh's steadfast love endures forever and that his love is for all kinds of people..." (Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible, p. 305).

Remember that Deuteronomy ends with the people camped on the east side of the Jordan River, and prior to his death, Moses is able to get a glimpse of the land to the west. As Joshua begins, the book’s namesake receives his commission from the Lord, and Joshua subsequently prepares the people for invasion of the land. The Jericho prostitute Rahab shelters and safeguards two Israelite spies, who escaping their enemies return to Joshua with a favorable report. THIS spy story works out better than the spy story in Numbers, which spelled disaster for the Israelites. (Rahab is praised in the New Testament, Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25, and is a different woman than the one in Matthew 1:5.)

Joshua and the people left their camp at Shittim and moved toward the Jordan River, with the ark of the covenant carried by priests leading the way. The Lord parts the waters of the river so that the people and the ark cross in dryness. They all camp at Gilgal, where the new generation of Israelite men are circumcised, and the passover is celebrated (chapters 1-5). One of my books notes that, by this time, the provision of manna for the people is over, and so the celebration of the passover reflects a return to more typical food consumption, into which a festival like Pesach can be practiced.

I'll talk about the Jordan River last, but it’s worth commenting here about the theme of circumcision. Circumcision, now widely practiced as a routine medical procedure, has been a sign of God’s covenant with Israel since Genesis 17. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 118-119). Thus, in the theology of the book of Joshua, and indeed the theology of the God's covenant with Israel, the advance upon the Land is properly delayed until several thousand Israelite men can have their foreskins removed. As a theological theme, circumcision figures in the New Testament epistles as Paul seeks to articulate Christian freedom in the context of Jewish heritage.

Joshua 6-12 are stories of conquest. Gilgal was not far from Jericho, the first stop. The spiritual “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” has been stuck in my mind all week because of the famous story of the city’s destruction (chapter 6). Although God had authorized destruction of everyone in the city, and although God authorized the spoils of war placed in the people’s treasury, one Israelite named Achan kept some of the plunder. In the theological interpretation of the story, the sin of the one created hardship for all, and the first advance upon the city of Ai was unsuccessful. Once Achan’s sin was exposed, he was executed, and Ai was successfully taken (7:1-8:29).

Individual and collective responsibility is a significant biblical theme, which we find here as well as other passages. The Torah: A Modern Commentary has a section about it (pp. 1502-1503). Although collective responsibility is sometimes assumed in Bible stories (here in Joshua and also Deut. 5:9, 2 Sam. 3:29 and 21:1ff),  Deuteronomy 24:16 stresses individual responsibility for one’s actions, which Ezekiel 18 teaches as well, and this “became a cornerstone of Israel’s conception of justice” (p. 1503).

Chapters 9-10 concerns the southern kings uniting against Joshua and the people, while the citizens of Gibeon create a scheme to save themselves. The scheme backfired, resulting in the conquest of that city as well as the defeat of the five kings. To prove God’s providential faithfulness, the story teller tells of the unique day when the sun stood still until God gained the victory over the people’s enemies (10:12-14). 10:16-43 shortens the narrative by providing the names of several kings and kingdoms that the people destroyed, “So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed (kherem) all that breathed, as the Lord commanded (10:40). The conquest of northern Canaan is briefly described in chapter 11, with a similar summary of heroism and providence (11:19-20), and the kings conquered by both Moses and Joshua are remembered (chapter 12). Yet certain areas remained unconquered, though enough land was open for tribal allotment (13:1-7).

13:8-21:45 provide details of land that the Israelite tribes gained. including the trans-Jordan tribes Gad and Reuben and a portion of Manasseh, and including the Levitical cities and the cities of refuge. A helpful site, with a map, is I shared more information from that site here: )

Chapter 22 is a transitional chapter that deals with an altar beyond the Jordan for the eastern tribes. It almost leads to war! But the tribes beyond the Jordan (the Reubenites, Gadites, and half-tribe of Manasseh) assured the other tribes of their intentions, satisfying the other tribes (as well the priest Phinehas, son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron).

The book ends with Joshua’s speech in his old age, and the covenant with God is renewed. Joshua dies at age 110 and is buried in his land, the hill country of Ephraim, as is the priest Eleazar. Meanwhile, the bones of Joseph (carried all this time by the Israelites since the Exodus escape from Egypt) are buried at Shechem (24:29-33). One of my books reminds us that both Joseph and Joshua died at the same age, forming another kind of implied connection.

And yet... the story is far from completed. The next Bible book, Judges, provides us contrasting traditions of a land still unconquered, with ongoing conflicts and difficulties that vex the Israelites from outside and from within.


Here is an article about the crossroads town of Shechem, which provides numerous biblical connections. As that article points out, it is the first town tow which Abram and his family arrived (Genesis 12:6), and it was a place where Jacob and his family lived (Gen. 33:17-20, 37:12-17), so that Joseph fatefully left Shechem to go find his brothers. Shechem was the place where Moses pronounced blessings and curses (Deut. 27:4). The town was a city of refuge, and appears in Judges and Kings; it became capital of the northern kingdom after the division during the 900s BCE. Shechem is the location of Jacob's Well, where Jesus met and talked to the unnamed Samarian woman (John 4:5–6).  Famously, Shechem was the place where Joshua gave his speech to the Israelite tribes, urging them:

Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord (Josh. 24:15, NRSV).


James Tissot, "The Ark Passes Over the Jordan," c. 1896-1902
About the Jordan River: I wrote about the river in my Lenten Bible study Walking with Jesus through the Old Testament (Westminster John Knox Press, 2015): "[T]he river has tremendous significance in biblical history. Water is frequently a symbol of God's life and of God's rescue. God's splitting of the sea in Exodus is one of the most momentous events of Scripture, but read Joshua 3-4 and you'll also see how momentous is God's splitting of the Jordan river... The stories of the Bible [since Abraham] had been building to this moment ... Now they were here---and the river split so they could cross on dry land. The short Psalm 114 connects the God of creation with the exodus and with the crossing of the Jordan" (p. 27).

As I write there, too, Gilgal is mentioned in Micah 6:4-5, with the Jordan River implicit in verse 5. These two verse which encapsulate a lot of history:

I brought you up out of Egypt
    and redeemed you from the land of slavery.
I sent Moses to lead you,
    also Aaron and Miriam.
My people, remember
    what Balak king of Moab plotted
    and what Balaam son of Beor answered.
Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal,
    that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord (NIV)

Gilgal and the Jordan are also mentioned in 2 Kings 2, where Elijah splits the river and is soon taken up into Heaven, after which Elisha inherits his spirit. Gilgal is also the place where Samuel anointed Saul. Jesus was baptized near the place, too. Drawing all these connections together, this place where the Israelites crossed the Jordan brings together several important biblical figures: Abraham and Moses and Aaron and Miriam and Joshua and Jesus, Moses and Balaam and Joshua, Samuel and David and Jesus, Elijah and Elisha and John and Jesus  (pp. 27-28).

And ... certainly "crossing the Jordan" is a spiritual metaphor for eternal life that many of us hold dear.  I've saved a bottle of Jordan River water for many years.

Bible in a Year: Still Thinking about the Torah

I’m reading through the Bible this year at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks), and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

The Torah is such a rich section of the Bible. Although I finished Deuteronomy last week, here are a few more thoughts about the Torah, gleaned from some of my other blog sites.

The author of the "Judaism 101" site writes, "Each week in synagogue, we read (or, more accurately, chant, because it is sung) a passage from the Torah. This passage is referred to as a parshah. The first parshah, for example, is Parshat Bereishit, which covers from the beginning of Genesis to the story of Noah. There are 54 parshahs, one for each week of a leap year, so that in the course of a year, we read the entire Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy) in our services. ... We read the last portion of the Torah right before a holiday called Simchat Torah (Rejoicing in the Law), which occurs in October, a few weeks after Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). On Simchat Torah, we read the last portion of the Torah, and proceed immediately to the first paragraph of Genesis, showing that the Torah is a circle, and never ends.

"In the synagogue service, the weekly parshah is followed by a passage from the prophets, which is referred to as a haftarah. Contrary to common misconception, 'haftarah' does not mean 'half-Torah.' The word comes from the Hebrew root Fei-Teit-Reish and means 'Concluding Portion'. Usually, haftarah portion is no longer than one chapter, and has some relation to the Torah portion of the week."

This is from , which also has the list of weekly Torah and Haftarah readings. This site, , also provides the daily and weekly readings for recent and upcoming years according to how Simchat Torah falls.

Remember that in Judaism, "the prophets" is not only Isaiah through Malachi, but also Joshua through II Kings, or the later and former prophets, respectively. The Ketuvim, or writings, have no formal cycle of readings, although the Five Megillot (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther) are read on particular festivals, and Psalms are found throughout the Siddur (prayer book).

The Torah may be the most ambivalent portion of the Bible for Christians. Some Christians won’t touch the statutes with the proverbial long pole—unless, of course, some of the laws are suitable to prove a point, and the laws become God’s eternal word which other people have violated.

We Christians should remember a few things about the Torah. The first is that much of material was not originally meant to be applicable for us Gentiles (Acts 15, Gal. 3:3-5). These are laws for Jews to do God’s will and to set them apart as God’s people. The distinction you often hear—the moral laws are applicable for Christians but the ceremonial laws are not—is not a biblical distinction at all, because in the Torah, all of life—worship, legal translations, daily behavior, diet, and so on—are of a whole piece. In his love, God has given the Hebrews a precious expression of his will.  God shares this religious heritage with us Gentiles because of his love and this material is part of our religious heritage because of God’s favor (Rom. 11:17-24).(

In contrast to Paul's theology about the law in Romans and Galatians, Judaism has not historically viewed the law as a means of self-justification and self-salvation; the law has been God’s wonderful gift to follow. Paul, however, was adamant that the laws were unnecessary for Gentile converts to Christianity; even more than the moral law, he stressed the law of the guidance of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-26). Now, we see the law through Christ, who fulfilled all righteousness and took the consequences of our law breaking onto himself (2 Cor. 5:21). But Paul upholds the law (Rom. 3:31), to show how Christ’s perfect (law-keeping) life is now a gift of life to us; thanks to Christ, the Torah is precious to us Gentiles, too.

Arguing thus, Paul stayed within the Torah and went back before Moses to Abraham to show how God’s favor touches people through their faith apart from the law (Rom. 4). (Jesus did a similar thing, going prior to Moses to God’s first intentions: Matt. 10:2-9). The question remains for Christians: how does the law still apply? A classic solution is to view the law in three ways: as a restraint to the wicked (the political use), as the law that brings us to Christ’s salvation (Gal. 3:24, the theological use), and then the “third use of the law,” which is to give content to the love of Christ which we display as we’re transformed by the Spirit (Gal. 6:2).

Furthermore, the Torah is foundational for Christians in other ways so obvious that we take them for granted. A Bible explorer will discover interesting “arcs” and connections between the Torah and the New Testament. One is the idea of the covenant, for now God has extended his covenant to include non-Jews (Rom. 3:29-30). Another is the idea of blood for atonement forgiveness of sins (Rom. 3:25). Christ’s blood was shed and now there is no longer need for sacrifice (Heb. 9:11-14).

Still another idea is the faithfulness and righteousness of God, a Torah theme strongly defended in Romans 3 in Paul’s preaching of Christ.

Here are a few additional connections:

The Creation and New Creation (2 Cor. 5:17, Rev. 21:1)
Adam and the Second Adam (Rom. 5:12-21)
The faith of Abraham, in some important ways the key to the whole Bible (Gen. 12:1-3, Rom. 4, Heb. 11:8-22)
The manna in the wilderness and the Eucharistic bread (Ex. 16:1-21, John 6:25-40).
The covenant, the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and the Eucharist (Ex. 24:3-8; Lev. 7:12, 22:29, Ps. 107:22, 116:17, Amos 4:5, Mark 14:22-25 and parallels, 1 Cor. 11:25)
The healing serpent and the healing of Christ (Num. 21:8-9; John 3:14-15)
The condemnation in Deuteronomy of a condemned criminal “hanging on a tree” (Deut. 21:22-23; John 19:31, Gal. 3:13)
The salvation of Noah’s ark (1 Peter 3:20-21)
The role of Moses (Heb. 3:1-6, 11:23-28)
Moses’ shining face (Ex. 34:29-35, 1 Cor. 3:12-18)
The drink offering (Ex. 29:38-41, Lev. 23:12, 13, 18, Phil. 2:12-18, 2 Tim. 4:6-8)
The priesthood of Aaron (Heb. 7:11-14, 9:1-10:18)(20)
The “rest” of the Promised Land (Heb. 3:7-4:13)
The Pascal Lamb (Ex. 12:11; 1 Cor. 5:7)
The two great commandments (Deut. 6:4-5, Lev. 19:18, Mark 12:28-34, Gal. 5:14).

Also: Deuteronomy's authorization of and limitations on role and authority (under the Torah) of the king, which in turn shapes the later prophetic theologies concerning the righteous Davidic king of Israel---which in turn shapes Christians' vision of Jesus. (I found an interesting article about the Deuteronomistic theology of the monarchy:


Back in 2015 (, I took notes from the enjoyable article on the Pentateuch in the New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary. The author, R. W. L. Moberly, discusses issues of interpretation and content. For instance, narrative tensions can be found throughout the various books. Isaac’s blessing of his two sons (Genesis 27) implies that Isaac was near death; but Isaac died years later, after Jacob returns from his fourteen years with Laban (Genesis 29:15-30, 35:27-29) (p. 432). The number of Israelites who left Egypt seem to be a comparatively smaller group---that can be accommodated by twelve springs and by water produced from a rock (Ex. 15:27, 17:6). But elsewhere the narrative describes the group as 600,000 men on food, not including women and children, or nearly two millions people (p. 433).

Another contrast is the status of women: Exodus 20:17 places “wife” after “house,” while the corresponding commandment in Deuteronomy (5:21) places wife before house. Similarly, Deuteronomy 22:22 makes a woman accountable for her actions, although in Genesis, when Sarah is taken into Pharaoh’s harem (and later Abimelech’s), it is Abraham who is accountable (Genesis 12:18-19, 20:10) (p. 433).

Still another contrast is the difference between the Ten Commandments, usually in small details, but notably in the difference between the Exodus and Deuteronomy versions of the Sabbath commandment, where two different reasons for the commandment are given (Ex. 20:11, Deut. 5;15) (p. 433).

The article lists several similar examples, reflecting the different traditions that have been brought together in the writing and editing of what became the canonical text. But I was particularly interested in points made in the section "Genesis as ‘the Old Testament of the Old Testament’" (p. 434-435). The focus is on the fact that, in Exodus 3:13-15, God reveals the divine name to Moses as a new name, and in Exodus 6:2-3, it is stated that the patriarchs knew God, not as YHWH but as El Shaddai. But in Genesis, God uses the divine name (Gen. 15:7, 28:13), and the name is frequently used throughout the book (p. 434).

A possible explanation is that, for the hypothesized writers named as the Elohist and the Priestly sources, the divine name was made known to Moses but not before, while the source called the Jahwist used the divine name all along, in Genesis 2, in Gen. 4:26, and so on. Still, these different traditions were preserved together when Genesis was written. (Another explanation is that the divine name was familiar to the authors and used in the text, even if it is anachronistic: p. 435.)

Moberly writes that the divine name becomes attached to the covenant of Moses and therefore to holiness and exclusivity (as in Exodus 12, where the Egyptians did not know the true God.) And yet, the Lord named by the divine name YHWH is traditionally called the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob---Moses' forebearers. As Moberly puts it, “The one God can apparently be known in markedly different ways. This poses the ancient problem: how should one recognize as religiously authoritative material that is full of religious practices different from or even forbidden by Mosaic torah (compare, e.g., Jacob’s setting up a pillar in Gene. 28:18 with the strong prohbition of such in Deut. 16:22)?” (p. 435).

Moberly suggests that the patriarchs “become types and/or figures of Israel” for instance, Abraham’s journey to Egypt. The Abraham stories aren’t rewritten to reflect later religious realities but they remain authoritative heritage for Israel. Christians, of course, do the same thing in their interepretation of Abraham, Moses, and other aspects of the Old Testament (p 435).

Another interesting point made in the article concerns the Shema, not only Deut. 6:4-5 but also Deut. 6:6-9. Christians tend to ignore 6-9 as Jewish practices. Yet Christians feel scriptural obligations to follow other teachings of scripture (as in the "do this" of 1 Cor. 11:23-26, et al.). It’s just that Christians have appropriated other practices for their own heritage. "Of course, some Christians traditionally have practiced equivalent to those of Deut. 6:6-9, most obviously int he regular recital of the Lord's Prayer and in the display of the prime Christian symbol of the cross---often on a necklace but also over the gates of critics in the historic Christian empire of Byzantium, where they symbolically depicted the identity and allegiance of the place one was entering, just as Deut. 6:9 envisages the working of the Shema doing for Israel's homes (private space) and cities (public space). Deuteronomy does not envisage the recital and display of an equivalent to the Shema, but of the Shema itself. Yet Christians only receive Deuteronomy as part of the larger canon of Scripture… and that makes the difference" (p. 437).

I often fuss about Christians who declare that the Bible shouldn't be interpreted, only obeyed. It's such an uninformed if well-intentioned declaration about the Bible, a book with richness and contrasting viewpoints that reward ongoing study and interpretation. 

A Room of Quiet

I like to discover multi-faith rooms for prayer and reflection; Heathrow Airport has a room in each of the terminals, and I visited the one in Terminal 5 a few years ago.

Facebook now has a feature where you can see what you've posted in the past on this particular day. Six years ago today, I posted that I was visiting the United Nations headquarters in New York and had  discovered a wonderful multi-faith room for meditation and reflection. Here is a description of the room:

Ghost Sign: Vandalia, IL

This 1960s photo is from the "Vandalia Memories" page on Facebook. It's the old railroad warehouse that once stood along Sixth Street side the depot (which is in the background). The warehouse was fazed a long time ago, and the depot burned a few years ago. A childhood memory of mine is noticing the C of the Coca-Cola trademark, on the left side of the billboard that mostly obscures those cursive letters, as we took Sixth Street into downtown Vandalia. You can barely see that C in this old picture. Why do children notice and are fascinated by certain things? Even when I was a little kid, I liked things that were old, from times before my own.  

Friday, March 3, 2017

Vandalia History

I received my author's copy on March 3, 1992, twenty-five years ago today, woot!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Bible in a Year: The Biblical Priesthood

Here is some notes I took for another blog post a few years ago (

One of my div school teachers was the Old Testament scholar Brevard S. Childs. In his book Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1986, p. 115), Childs writes about the biblical priesthood, which pertains to these sections of the Bible I've been studying lately. Childs notes that in Ex. 28-29 and Lev. 8-10—where we find much information about the biblical priests—Aaron and his sons are consecrated to an eternal priesthood. Also, the Aaronic priests performed cultic rites while Levites were responsible for maintenance of the tabernacle (e.g. Num. 1:47ff) (p. 145, 150). But, Childs notes, we don’t find that distinction in Deuteronomy, which describe “Levitical priests” who have cultic responsibilities.

But other biblical passages also show interesting variations. Childs cites Wellhausen’s research that we find no Aaronite clergy in Judges and Samuel. For instance, Eli is the chief priest but he is from the Ephraim tribe. When we get to Chronicles, we return to the separation of priest and Levites that we saw in Exodus and Leviticus(pp. 145-146).

Wellhausen explains the discrepancies in terms of the time period of the material. He argued that Ex. 25-40, Leviticus, and Numbers are post-exilic, while Deuteronomy is pre-exilic (i.e., late monarchy, from the time of Josiah) (p. 146). Childs addresses and untangles these issues with a canonical approach. Whatever was the historical development of the Israelite priesthood, it is background history and never entirely clear or recoverable form the biblical materials, and thru resist historical reconstruction (pp. 149-150, 153), “Rather, the post-exilic form of the Israelite priesthood has been made normative” (p. 153), that is, the priesthood described in Exodus and Leviticus, where the priests not only sacrifice but also intercede for the people. Moreover the Levites are set apart because of their “zeal for Yahweh” (Deut. 10:8, 12:19ff, 18:6ff, 33:8ff), in contrast to the Aaron and his sons who worshiped and love Yahweh but also sinned (Ex. 32, Lev. 10:1-3) (p. 150). Meanwhile, the Chronicler depicts the priests and Levites in conformity to Leviticus and Numbers, as we see not only in Chronicles itself but also in Ezra and Nehemiah (Ez. 6:18, 10:5, Neh. 11:10) (p. 151-152).

Childs’ untangling of these layers of biblical tradition made me think of a book I like by John G. Gammie, Holiness in Israel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1989). Gammie provides interesting information about the process of ordination whereby the priest was made holy (Ex. 29). Those steps are worth looking at, as well as the different priestly vestments described in Exodus 28-29). Gammie notes that the priests’ conferred holiness made them particularly susceptible to the uncleanness of the dead, which had to be deal with in prescribed ways (as in Numbers 19, and discussed in Lev. 21); thus the rituals of Lev. 22. (p. 31). He also writes that, in the Torah, Aaron and his sons are so holy that even Moses cannot enter the place of God’s glory; only they and the ordained priests could do so (Ex. 27:21, 28:40-43, 29:29, 40:34-35, Lev. 18) (p. 34-35). But nevertheless, “their holiness is derivative” to God’s holiness, and is certainly not inherent (p. 36).

Gammie notes that “the priestly theology of holiness can be summarized by the twin notions of separation and purity,” wherein distinctions are maintained between clean and unclean animals, as well as by separation of holy persons, holy times, and holy places. Nevertheless, as we know from Leviticus 19, “humanitarian conduct” was a deep part of priestly holiness too, so that the distinctions of cleanness and purity, addressed through ritual, “were deeply rooted in a world view that unflinchingly affirmed that the holiness of God requires a highly ordered and just conduct with one’s fellow human beings, as well as a scrupulous maintenance of personal purity” (p. 44).

Sacrifice was an accepted ancient religious rite that people would have assumed to be necessary. Most ancient cultures had sacrifices. According to scholars, Israel’s sacrifices differed in that God did not need the sacrifices for his own nourishment (some gods required sacrifices in order to stay strong), and Israel strongly connected sacrifice with having a right heart and a right motive. The rituals were connected to true religiousness and morality or else the rituals meant nothing. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, Jewish sacrifices came to an end and have never been revived.

Gammie asserts that Leviticus 19, Amos 5, Micah 6, Ezekiel 18, and Job 31 are “high points of Old Testament ethics,” and thus it’s regrettable that Lev. 19 is so rarely discussed in this regard (p. 34). Thus we shouldn’t envision sacrifices only within the scope of cultic rites pertaining to purity (which ended, after all, when the Second Temple was destroyed) but within the overall context of Old Testament concerns for justice, rightness of heart, and service to others (p. 34).

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Bible in a Year: Deuteronomy 7-34

I’m reading through the Bible this year at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks), and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week, I've been studying Deuteronomy 7-34, thus concluding the book and also the Torah. But Deuteronomy is also the beginning book of the so-called Deuteronomistic History, the hypothesized source that extends through 2 Kings. So we're ending the section of the Bible most sacred for Jews and also opening to what Jewish Bibles name "the Former Prophets."

I wrote a lot about the book last week. The Jewish Study Bible introduction points out that significant aspects of Judaism derive from Deuteronomy, like the tzitzit, the teffilin, the mezuzah, the Shema, and of course the covenant itself (p. 358). Deuteronomy is written as Moses’ reiteration of the covenant, the mitzvot, and final admonitions as he and the people stand on the plains of Moab just outside the Promised Land—a land that Moses, the last of the generation who fled Egypt, will not enter. The word Deuteronomy means “second law."

The Deuteronomic Code of chapters 12-26, much longer than the Book of the Covenant in Exodus, includes laws (some new, some found in other Torah books) about the destruction of Canaanite holy places (ch. 12), apostasy (p. 13), food and tithes (ch. 14), sabbatical year (ch. 15), annual pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Pentecost, and Shavuot, ch. 16), and many other laws about Levites, cities of refuge, rules of warfare, murder, livestock, and so on (chs. 29-30). While some laws (especially Deut. 13) seem cruel (and were not known to have been carried out), many laws reflect justice issues protecting people’s rights and encouraging social interdependence (chs. 32-33).

Deuteronomy likely existed independently of other law codes and narratives that we now find in the other four Torah books. The narrative of Josiah’s reforms (2 Kings 22-23) is a key to its origins and eventual canonical shape. (Josiah was king in 641–609 BCE). The book may have originally consisted of the laws of chapters 12-26 along with an introduction and an oath of loyalty (chapter 28) (Jewish Study Bible, p. 358-359). The king hoped to renew the covenant and preserve religious and social traditions in light of a dual threat: the Assyrians, who had already conquered the northern Israelite kingdom, and also the growing threat of Babylon to the east. Among Josiah's reforms, sacrifices were restricted to one site instead of several: previously sacrifices were made at Bethel, Mitzpah, Gilgal, Mount Carmel, and other places, but Deuteronomy 12 authorizes one place, i.e. Jerusalem (p. 357).

When Babylon did indeed conquer Judah in 586 BCE, material of Deuteronomy was likely added to the “Deuteronomistic history” of Joshua through Kings, and all of it expanded with other traditions. Then, in the period after the Exile, Deuteronomy was added to Genesis through Numbers, which already form a unit from Creation to the outskirts of the Land (pp. 357-359). Further transformation of the text reflects the needs of the post exilic Second Temple period, including the unequivocal monotheism of the Shema (pp. 360-361).

That same essay points out that the book, in effect, has Moses speaking to each new generation. The long monologue delays entry into the Land, which Moses himself cannot enter—and the fact that the Torah itself closes outside of the land has the effect of keeping readers outside the land, too (p. 359). There is a story arc connecting us back to Genesis. Abram was promised the Land to his descendants (Genesis 12), but Abram (Abraham) himself only owned a small area of land as a grave for his wife. Moses does not even have that, and he is buried in an unknown location in Moab near Beth-peor (Deut. 34:6). “Ancient editors have deliberately defined the Torah as a literary unit so as, first, to accommodate the addition of Deuteronomy and, second, to sever it from its logically expected fulfillment. The possession of the land is diverted instead into the next literary unit, which is to say, into the future. So profound a reconfiguration both of the patriarchal promise and of the overall plot is conceivable only in light of the historical experience of exile, which profoundly called the possession of the land into question. Had possession of the land remained central to the covenant, Israelite religion would have collapsed. The fulfillment of the Torah is thus reductional redefined as obedience to the requirements of covenantal law rather than the acquisition of a finite possession” (p. 359).

Deut. 1:1-4:43 is the first discourse of Moses, reviewing the historical circumstances and urging the people to obey the Lord. Deut. 4:44-28:68  is Moses’ second discourse, which contains the “legal corpus” of chapters 12-26. Moses recounts the Ten Commandments (chapter 5), expounds on the first commandment (6:4-25). This week, I've studied:

Chapter 7: The war of conquest and the special status of Israel
Chapter 8-10: Moses urges the people not to be proud and self-centered as they live on the land; God has shown many past mercies, even when the people broke the covenant; and so obedience is required for living in the land.
Chapter 11: Additional reminder to practice and teach God’s commandments, for the sake of blessing and not of curse.

The Deuteronomic Law Code for the people’s future
Chapter 12: Sacrificial worship in a single place of worship (rather than multiple places)
Chapter 13: Loyalty to the Lord rather than idolatry
Chapter 14: Clean and unclean animals, and the tithe of produce
Chapter 15: Laws relating to slaves and the poor: economic justice
Chapter 16:1-17: The Passover and other festivals, which also have roots in justice and in God’s blessing.
Chapter 16:18-17:20: Laws concerning courts and an eventual king
Chapter 18: Priests and Levites
Chapter 19: Criminal laws
Chapter 20: Laws of war
Chapter 21-26: Various laws

Chapters 27-30: The renewal of the covenant
Chapters 31-34: Moses’ final words, Moses’ song, his death and burial, the people’s grief.

Among these laws are major social concerns: protection against false accusation (Deut. 5:20, 19:15-21); protection for women (Deut. 21:10-14, 22:13-30); protection of property (Deut. 22:1-4); everyone should get the fruit of their labor (Deut. 24:14, 25:4); everyone should have a fair trial (Deut. 16:18-20); people should not be oppressed if they are in property or disabled (Deut. 23:19, 24:6), and other protections and guarantees. My NRSV Harper Study Bible has a list of all these social concerns with references to several Torah mitzvot (p. 274).

This week I studied a book I really love, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible (New York: William Morrow, 1997). Here are a few of his insights.

Commenting on Deuteronomy 6:4-9, he writes, “To study Judaism is a moral imperative, because to be good one has to know what one’s duties are and what goodness entails… and this requires study” (p. 489). I wish more Christians considered study as an imperative! So many of us Christians have a high opinion of the Bible as God's word, which in effect substitutes for actual knowledge of Bible content. We also get our views about society from our politics--as if being a Christian and a Republican or Democrat were identical--rather than studying biblical commandments and social models to inform our world views.

Deuteronomy 16:20 reads, “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue” (NRSV). Telushkin writes that the emphasis on "justice" in this sentence reflects God's will expressed in the Torah. He notes that although this mitzvah is particularly directed at judges,  “‘Pursuing justice implies that one should become personally involved when hearing about an injustice that one is capable of ameliorating” (p. 492).

Deuteronomy 21:15, 17 et al. stipulates that certain advantages go to the firstborn son---and yet this is not borne out in biblical stories. Think of Bible heroes who were not firstborn sons: Isaac, Moses, David, Solomon and Joseph (the eleventh son). Also, think of Bible heroes who weren't sons at all!  “As in the case of polygamy, it is clear that although the Bible occasionally acquiesces in a deeply rooted tradition (such as favoring the firstborn), when it find such a tradition to be morally dubious, it finds a way to make its disapproval known” (p. 498).

Deuteronomy 22:6-7 et al. adjoins the humane treatment of animals. Telushkin notes that we find this compassion right away in the Bible: Genesis 24, when both Eliezer and Rebecca express concern for camels. Although humans are allowed to eat animals beginning with the end of Noah’s flood, kindness toward animals is urged throughout the Torah, as in Leviticus 22:28, Deut. 25:5, Jonah 4:11, and elsewhere (pp. 500-501).

“Most people associate biblical law primarily with rituals. Few are aware that one of the Torah’s 613 laws obligates homeowners to make sure that their roofs are safe.” referring to Deut. 22:8. He likens this to putting a fence around a pool: we're being faithful to the Bible when we ensure that our homes are safe places!

Telushkin notes that some Torah laws are problematic, notably those regarding rape. “Torah law is much less severe regarding rape than modern sensibilities would expect. Although the Torah never adopted the sexist view that a sexually abused woman was in some way ‘asking for it,’ it also did not impose a particularly harsh punishment on the rapist” (p. 505). But the violent responses of family members in Genesis 34 and 2 Samuel 13 reflect “considerably less equanimity” toward rapists than we find in the law itself (p. 505). It is a horrible crime that requires justice and support for the victim.

Regarding the charging of interest (Deut. 23:20-21), he notes that Jews are forbidden to charge interest on loans to follow Israelites though not to foreigners, but the Torah warns against harassing people who are laid in paying, and being cruel to people in need (Deut. 24:10-14, also Lev. 25:35-36). The rabbi comments that Shakespeare’s Shylock is a slander toward Jews.

The Torah contains a traditionally numbered 613 laws. A rabbi friend of mine tells me that about 300 can still be followed today, and all are studied and reflected upon. Here is a site that lists them: The 613 laws of the Torah are set forth and discussed in Telushkin's book (pp. 513-592 and passim), and in William J. Doorly, The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook of Biblical Law (New York: Paulist Press, 2002).

Here are the parshiyot, Torah readings, and haftarot readings.

Va'etchanan                  Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11                  Isaiah 40:1-40:26
Eiqev                            Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25                Isaiah 49:14-51:3
Re'eh                            Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17              Isaiah 54:11-55:5
Shoftim                        Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9                Isaiah 51:12-52:12
Ki Teitzei                     Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19              Isaiah 54:1-54:10
Ki Tavo                        Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8                  Isaiah 60:1-60:22
Nitzavim                      Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20                Isaiah 61:10-63:9
Vayeilekh                     Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30                Isaiah 55:6-56:8
Ha'azinu                       Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52                II Samuel 22:1-22:51
Vezot Haberakhah        Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12               Joshua 1:1-1:18(Joshua 1:1-1:9)

In my own reflections on these scriptures, I think of an odd connection: Deuteronomy and Revelation. Deuteronomy concludes the Torah with a stirring call for Jews to keep faithful to the commandments and to remind future generations of God’s mighty works of salvation. Meanwhile Revelation concludes the New Testament with arcane and impenetrable symbols that invite all kinds of wheel-spinning speculation about the end times.

And yet Revelation also calls future generations to faithfulness. Revelation proclaims God’s mighty work of salvation, too (7:10, 11:15, 19:6), and so, in an analogous way to Deuteronomy, we know that there is no ultimate reason for us to lose heart. In the Christian affirmation, although Christ’s final victory lies in the future, that victory is assured. In a variety of ways, the Old and New Testaments affirm God's own faithfulness! So we can follow God with confidence.