Friday, March 29, 2019

Imperialism takes many forms

It is clear, then, that sensitivity to the poetics of ancient historiography complicates both critical scholars’ dismissal of the validity of biblical historiography and confessional scholars’ apologetic approaches and doctrinal convictions. Critical scholarship needs to rethink its imperialistic and anachronistic imposition of modern standards and values on ancient texts. Confessional scholars need to rethink precisely what constitutes the truth of the text that they seek to defend in light of the text's own poetics and perspectives. In this light N. Winther-Nielsen sounds the death knell for the popular activities of proving and disproving the Bible that have prevailed in academia since the Enlightenment. "All current and past history writing will call on our hermeneutical trust, and the days of confessionalist, positivist, or minimalist absolute ’proof' are gone forever. [N. Winther-Nielsen, "Fact, Fiction, and Language Use" in Windows into Old Testament History]

No amount of empirical information is able to accomplish that end. The extent to which deity is involved in events or outcomes can never be either verified or falsified empirically. Our dogged empiricism betrays us. The texts offer a different sort of testimony that we must respect.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 209

Thursday, March 28, 2019

How you read counts

We cannot read the Hebrew Bible as it it were journalistic or academic history such as might be written today. Such reading would compromise the intentions, presuppositions, values, and poetics of the literature and its authors. When we critique the literature, we should critique it in terms of its own guiding criteria rather than expecting it to reflect our own and dismissing it when it does not. When we critique the literature in terms of its emphasis on outcomes rather than events and precise details, it may help us to understand some of what may be considered the foibles of an author like the Chronicler, who, for instance, may have had neither the means nor the inclination to investigate the factual accuracy of some of his sources’ details. The precision of the numbers, for instance, is insignificant—though the general nature of the quantification is not without importance. The integrity of the text is linked to its interpretation of the outcome.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 208

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Who is talking to whom?

Ancient Near Eastern historiography desired to reveal the king to the people and to the deity. Israelite historiography desired to reveal the Deity to the king and the people. Here we have an important reversal similar to that which has been noted in other chapters. In Israel the historiography purports to be communication from the Deity, whereas in the ancient Near East the royal inscriptions serve as communication to the deity. Consequently, the audience is neither future kings nor the gods——it is the people of the covenant: ”Then you will know that l, Yahweh, am God——there is no other.”—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 207

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Facts? Who needs 'em?

The historiography of the ancient Near East, whether represented in royal inscriptions or chronicles, king lists or annals, has by all accounts a polemical agenda that is intended to reinforce the royal political ideology. As in the campaign speeches of our day, facts can be useful, but they are not central or essential. The intention of the preserved records is to serve not the reader but the king. The recorder is trying to provide answers to the question: “Why should you consider this king to be a good and successful king?” In most cases it cannot be determined whether concealment and/or disinformation are part of the strategy, but negative information is uniformly lacking. We do receive negative assessments of some kings, but, as we might expect, they come from later dynasties seeking to enhance their own reputations.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 203

Monday, March 25, 2019

Who needs historians anyway?

Not all cultures think about history the same way. In the ancient world it is difficult to find anyone who could legitimately be identified as a historian or journalist. Their cognitive environment had no need of such professions. In the ancient Near East visible events on earth were reflections of the activity of the gods. Consequently, rather than providing journalists who could seek out eyewitnesses, they needed experts who could interpret what deity was communicating through events (priests and palace officials) and those who could be part of building the documentation that would serve to elevate and legitimize the king (public relations departments for the palace).—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 196

Friday, March 22, 2019

Why humanity?

The roles assigned to humans bind them together in their common plight and bind them to the gods in servitude. Egyptian sources offer no explanation for the creation of humans. Sumerian and Akkadian sources consistently portray people as having been created to do the work of the gods—work that is es sential for the continuing existence of the gods, and work that the gods have tired of doing for themselves.
Enki and Ninmah: servants of the gods: “The corvée of the gods has been forced on it.”

KAR 4: “The corvée of the gods will be their corvée: They will fix the boundaries of the fields once and for all, and take in their hands hoes and baskets, to benefit the House of the great gods.”

Atrahasis: “Let him bear the yoke, the task of Enlil,let man assume the drudgery of god.”

Enuma Elish: To bear the gods’ burden that those may rest.“

In Israel people also believed that they had been created to serve God. The difference was that they saw humanity as having been given a priestly role in sacred space rather than as slave labor to meet the needs of deity. God planted the garden to provide food for people rather than people providing food for the gods.The explanation offered in KAR 4 shows that the priestly role of people was included in the profile, but still in terms of providing sustenance for the gods. The shared cognitive environment is evident in that all across the ancient world there was interest in exploring the divine component of humankind and the ontological relationship between the human and the divine. In Mesopotamia the cosmos functions for the gods and in relation to them. People are an afterthought, seen as just another part of the cosmos that helps the gods function. In Israel the cosmos functions for people and in relationship to them. God does not need the cosmos, but has determined to dwell in it, making it sacred space; it functions for people.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., pages 186–87

Thursday, March 21, 2019

A different point of view

Every account of human origins seeks to address similar archetypal issues. They mirror what we already found in our discussion of cosmology—the accounts focus on functional issues rather than material ones. Order is established through identity. This may sound like an unusual statement to make since all of these accounts make specific references to the materials used for the creation of humans. But the materials mentioned serve to address archetypal issues (connectivity, relationships, roles) rather than to penetrate material ontology (let alone chemical composition). This is not to say that the ancients were speaking metaphorically rather than literally for this goes far beyond a literary or rhetorical device. The accounts address the topic by using archetypes, which express the most important realities in this cognitive environment. Materials are mentioned for their archetypal significance, not for their physical significance. Blood and flesh of the deity signify connection to deity. Clay or dust signifies connection to the land. The connections described by these archetypes offer information concerning the ancient corporate self-understanding.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 180

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Just good managers

In the discussion of cosmology, it is important to observe that the control attributes are not initially set up, established, or invented by the gods. Rather, creation is the process of operating within the parameters of these control attributes, or even manipulating or assigning them. In Enuma Elish Marduk is said to “make his control attributes” (ubašimu parṣišu). This is the only occurrence of parsu as the object of one of the verbs of creation. The parallel in the previous phrase (“rites”) suggests, however, that it should be understood as referring to the control attributes of ritual procedures rather than of the cosmos. The control attributes are carried, gathered, exercised, held in the hand, granted, and organized by the gods, but not initiated by them.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 163

Monday, March 18, 2019

Does it exist?

As I noted when discussing the origins of the gods, in the ancient world something came into existence when it was separated out as a distinct entity, given a function, and given a name. For purposes of discussion I will label this approach to ontology as “function oriented.” This is in stark contrast to modern ontology, which is much more interested in what might be called the structure or substance of objects along with their physical properties. In modern popular thinking (as opposed to technical philosophical discussion), the existence of the world is perceived in physical, material terms. For discussion I will designate this approach to ontology as “substance oriented." In the ancient Near East, something did not necessarily exist just because it happened to occupy space. Tobin captures this distinction between a material definition of the cosmos and a functional one based on order. “When the Egyptians contemplated the created universe through their myths and rituals, they would have been aware that the world around them was not simply a collection of material things. The universe was for them an awesome system of living divine beings. . . . Egyptian creation myth emphasized the fact that there was order and continuity in all things and thus gave the optimistic assurance that the natural, social, and political order would remain stable and secure.”(Tobin, OEAE 2:471).—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., pages 148–49

Friday, March 15, 2019

Job's sufferings

One final consideration in this category that highlights a difference between Israel and the rest of the ancient Near East concerns the issue of disinterested righteousness. If ethical behavior has an exterior foundation, a person behaves ethically because of the consequences—rewards or punishments—that are built into the system, whether by society or by the gods. This is the “Great Symbiosis” that we have identified. Disinterested righteousness is precisely the opposite of the Great Symbiosis. The adversary’s question in Job asked whether Job served God for nothing. Though ]ob’s friends encourage him to take the Mesopotamian path of appeasement (confess anything to restore favor with deity), Job maintains his integrity (see his conclusion in Job 27:2–6); demonstrating that he did possess an abstract interiorized standard of righteousness apart from a system of consequences.

None of the Mesopotamian literature that deals with the pious sufferer shows this dimension of thinking. These individuals can only claim that they have done everything they know to do in terms of ritual and ethical responsibility. They have no basis to proclaim their innocence, only their ignorance and confusion. They make no attempt to call deity into legal disputation—they only plead for mercy. The book of Job therefore stands as stark testimony to the differences in perception between Israel and the ancient Near East as it seeks to demonstrate that there is such a thing as disinterested righteousness.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., pages 119, 126–27

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Stop blaming the pedestrian or bicyclist!

Just read this about a bike/truck collision. I think the author is right on the money. Here's an excerpt:
News stories about drivers who hit cyclists often implicitly absolve the driver and blame the victim. First, there’s almost always a lack of agency coupled with the passive voice: it’s never “a driver hit a cyclist.” Instead, it’s usually something like “a cyclist was hit by a car.” (Yet you never read about how a shooting victim “collided with a bullet.” Go figure.) Then there’s generally some insinuation that it must have been the victim’s fault, often along the lines of “It’s unclear whether the victim was wearing a helmet.”
and a bit later on:
the story quoted above is under 200 words long. There’s not a single mention of the motorist; instead, the victims were “struck by a pickup truck,” as though it were somehow self-driving. The account also contains no fewer than five mentions of the word “helmet,” yet it doesn’t remind people to drive more carefully or cite relevant motor vehicle code, not even once. The helmet exhortation is especially vexing since the little girl only sustained minor injuries. So, what, are we supposed to believe that if she’d been wearing a helmet the driver wouldn’t have hit her in the first place? Or are we supposed to think a child’s bicycle helmet offers meaningful protection against a Tacoma and that the real mitigating factor isn’t the luck that just happened to be on her side?

It’s almost like, in our bizarre logistical and ethical framework, dying while wearing a helmet is preferable to surviving without one. (emphasis added)


In the ancient Near East the divine rest is achieved in part by the gods’ creation of people to work in their place and on their behalf. A. Millard recognized that the biblical viewpoint represented a stark contrast to this picture in that in the Old Testament the people work for their own benefit and provision rather than to meet the needs of God or to do his work for him. They are commanded to participate in the rest of God on the Sabbath, not to imitate it per se, but to keep it in order to recognize his work of bringing and maintaining order. His control is represented in his rest and is recognized by yielding for the day their own attempts to provide for themselves.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 124

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Gods? What gods?

The first commandment is not just promoting monolatry; it is getting at metaphysical structures another way. Although it does not say explicitly that no other gods exist, it does remove them from the presence of Yahweh. (The Hebrew preposition "before” used in this verse generally refers to location when it has a person as its object. Therefore we should understand it to say "there will not be for you other gods in my presence.”) lf Yahweh does not share power, authority, or jurisdiction with them, they are not gods in any meaningful sense of the word. The first commandment does not insist that the other gods are nonexistent but that they are powerless; it disenfranchises them. It does not simply say that they should not be worshiped; it leaves them with no status worthy of worship.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 120

Monday, March 11, 2019

On the Song of Songs

If two allegorizers [of the Song of Songs] ever agree on the interpretation of a verse, it is only because one has copied from the other—Othmar Keel, Song of Songs, Continental Commentaries, p. 8

A personal god

Is it possible that Abraham's Perception of Yahweh/El Shaddai would have been similar to the typical Mesopotamian's perception of his personal deity? The way in which Abraham and his God interact would certainly suit the paradigm of relationship with a personal god in Mesopotamia. Yahweh provides for Abraham and protects him, while obedience and loyalty are given in return. One major difference, however, is that our clearest picture of the personal god in Mesopotamia comes from the many laments that are offered as individuals seek favors from deity or complain about his neglect of them. There is no hint of this in Abraham's approach to Yahweh. In the depiction in the text, Abraham maintains an elevated view of deity that is much more characteristic of the overall biblical view of deity than it is of the Mesopotamian perspective. On the whole, however, it is not impossible, and may even be likely, that Abraham's understanding of his relationship to Yahweh, in the beginning at least, was similar to the Mesopotamian idea of the personal god. In Mesopotamian language, Abraham would have been described as having ”acquired a god." That he was led to a new land and separated from his father's household would have effectively cut any ties with previous deities (located in city and family) and opened the way for Yahweh to be understood as the only deity to which Abraham had any obligation. By making a break with his land, his family, and his inheritance, Abraham was also breaking all of his religious ties. In his new land Abraham would have no territorial gods; as a new people he would bring no family gods; having left his country he would have no national or city gods; and it was Yahweh who filled this void, becoming "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” ”the God of the Fathers.“ But it is only in Israel, Jacobsen observes, that the idea of the personal god made the transition from the personal realm to the national realm. Van der Toorn adds, "Family religion was the ground from which national religion eventually sprang."—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 113

Friday, March 08, 2019

The uniqueness of YHWH

In the polytheistic religions of the ancient world it was not considered obligatory for individuals to worship the state gods. It might be to their advantage and coincide with their self—interests to do so, but the state god would hardly be offended by their worship of their local or ancestral deities. This observation brings considerable clarity to the centuries—long struggle of the Israelites to understand that Yahweh's status as state God excluded the worship of local gods, nature gods, or ancestral gods. Their native mentality would have seen no conflict. They could willingly acknowledge Yahweh as the national God and as the supreme God. but such conclusions would not require sole worship of Yahweh. State religion was an entirely different issue than family religion. The uniqueness of Israel is that here we can see an attempt to merge those two horizons. Every indication is that they were consistently syncretistic throughout the monarchy pergiod, though the prophets had high hopes that the people would repent of their syncretism and adopt covenant faithfulness to Yahweh wholeheartedly.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 104

Thursday, March 07, 2019

The why of it all

The basic premise of this belief [that the gods have needs] was that the gods had existed for long ages prior to the creation of humans and with no plan to create such beings, Nevertheless, they needed food, clothing, and housing and, since they were gods, were accustomed to certain amenities. Various myths build different scenarios, but eventually the gods tired of providing for their own needs. The solution was the creation of humans to provide food (sacrifice), housing (temples), and clothing for the gods and to engage in activities that would pamper the gods. This was the religious obligation in the ancient world. As stated in šima milka, a piece of wisdom literature from the second millennium BC, “Do not mock a god whom you have not provided with provisions.“ By taking care of the needs of the gods, people had a role in enabling the gods to continue to bring order to the cosmos.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 98

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

We're all control freaks

The gods’ needs were not cared for just so that the people would be graced with good harvests. The temple was the control center for order in the cosmos, and that order had to be maintained. The deity needed to be cared for so that his or her energies could be focused on the important work of holding the forces of chaos at bay. The rituals, therefore, served not simply as gifts to the deity or mechanical liturgical words and actions. The rituals provided a means by which humans could play a role in maintaining order in the cosmos.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 90

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Divine presence

We may conclude that the image functioned in the cult as a mediator of the divine presence. It was the means by which humans gained access to the presence of deity. As such it represented the mystical unity of transcendence and immanence, a theophany transubstantiated. Jacobsen therefore sees the functioning image as an act of the deity’s favor: “The image represented a favor granted by the god .thinsp;.thinsp;.thinsp;a sign of a benign and friendly attitude on the part of the community in which it stood.” Berlejung provides a useful summary of our study: “A cultic statue was never solely a religious picture, but was always an image imbued with a god, and, as such, it possessed the character of both earthly reality and divine presence.” From deity to people, the image mediated presence and revelation. From people to deity, the image mediated worship.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., pages76–77

Monday, March 04, 2019

Faithfulness? What's that?!

Faithfulness is one of the most frequently affirmed attributes of Yahweh because of his covenant relationship with Israel. In contrast, it is difficult to find any such affirmation for the gods of the ancient Near East. Words that convey loyalty are never used of the gods in that way. The gods have no agreements or promises to be faithful to and no obligations or commitments to fulfill.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 70

Friday, March 01, 2019

But is it right?

Believe in educators carrying weapons in school? Read this and weep.
The videos, instruction, and repetition play a trick on my mind, though. I start to think in terms of students and attackers, those I would protect and those I would kill. The latter are strangers— unnamed, faceless adversaries like the targets. My daydreams are no longer of classroom visits, sporting events, and kids making out in the halls. They are all adventure stories, and I am always the hero. An attacker is never one of my students. I never have to shoot one of my students.

The training encourages this result. Everything about its vocabulary is designed to dehumanize our aim. The instructors’ military language—“soft targets” and “areas of operation” for schools, “threats” for shooters, “tactical equipment” for guns—rubs off. On the final day, a pep talk analogizes students with lambs. We are the sheepdogs, charged with protecting them from the wolves.

I am aware that this is changing my way of thinking. I enjoy how I feel. It is a potent energy, a righteous virtue that seems completely earned. The training reassures me of my decision-making ability.

The other recruits are undergoing the same shift. During downtime we discuss guns: which we plan to buy next, what ammo our districts will provide us, and how that ammo impacts a body. We have become gun nuts almost overnight.

But, when an actual threat happens, it isn't whom they expect:
I drive home in a devastated silence. I thought I knew Jason well, but I had never imagined him perpetrating a threat, or owning weapons. It was like something from TV, where newscasters narrate the steps leading up to a school shooting, how everyone had missed the signs. I imagine the shoot-out it could have been.

Riding through the dense countryside, I finally face the question that I had avoided from the beginning: was this right?

My decision to be armed in school had been made in the aftermath of yet another high-profile school shooting, and I had thought, “This is how I can keep my kids safe.” The training had done its work on me, too, lifting me out of my habit of cynically questioning everything. I felt reassured that of course, this is righteous. But now it was no longer a theoretical question of protecting kids at any cost. The faceless target at the shooting range, so absurd in its proportions, had a face: Jason, whom I wanted so badly to help. (emphasis original)

<idle musing>
Sorry folks, but violence is never a righteous option. You can rationalize it all you want, but like this person, at some point it will stare you in the face and you have to decide whether to be honest with yourself (and God) or not.
</idle musing>