Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Interview with "Good Book" author and Slate.com editor, David Plotz

Vastleft: David, thanks for making the time for this chat, which will be posted on Correntewire.com and Bible Study for Atheists.

David Plotz: I'm glad to be here. Fire away.

VL: Shortly after I began BS4A, I heard about your Bible-blogging at Slate, which had started a couple of months earlier.

At the time, I was avoiding outside influences — playing the Bible as it lays.

However, with my Bible blog on hiatus, I decided to make myself “impure” by reading your newly published Good Book, your take on the Hebrew Bible. (Second-edition jacket-blurb opportunity: “I made myself impure for this book.” — Vastleft)

The Bible is often held up as the ultimate guide to, and font of, morality. How do you think it stacks up in that regard?

DP: It depends how you define the Bible. If you say the Bible is entirety of the book, then it does not stack up very well, because there are all kinds of appalling laws, immoral heroes, and divine cruelties. That said, everyone makes their own bible. Every group that uses the Bible as its home scripture emphasizes some parts and deemphasizes others, and if you cherrypick the Bible, you can find marvelous moral principles (see the middle of Leviticus 19, for example). So it depends on whether you think you're allowed to pick and choose, or whether you have to take the whole book.

VL: Were you thinking much about Bible literalists as you read the Old Testament? Didn’t the many unsavory and inconsistent aspects of the book make the literalists scarier than you might have found them to begin with?

DP: It's hard for me, as a Jew, to take Biblical literalists too seriously. Judaism does not have the same fixation on Biblical inerrancy that American Christianity does. There are a few ultraorthodox who are literalists, but Judaism as a whole doesn't take that debate too seriously. That said, it's hard to see how any person taught an iota of science or history can remain a Biblical literalist. The Bible is so full of contradiction and chockablock with impossible events that it requires more than just faith, but a kind of willful divorce from the world, to accept the literal truth of the Bible.

Do I think Biblical literalists are a threat? Not really. But I think the antiscientism they represent is a huge problem in a nation that hopes to compete technologically. So the problem is not the beliefs in the Flood or the Garden of Eden, but the anti-rationality of those beliefs, and how it pervades other aspects of life.

VL: As I mentioned when we first spoke, my atheism used to be a rather private affair, until religion began becoming an increasing force in American public life. That put me on high alert re: the general acceptance of religion as a virtual synonym for morality (remember those hyped "moral values" exit polls?), since it serves to over-empower fundamentalists. Are you fazed by such developments, either on general principles or perhaps by the primacy it gives prominent Christians over members of minority sects (not that that's a strictly new phenomenon)?

DP: At different times I have been more and less fazed by that. During the early Bush years, I was deeply disturbed by it. (My wife, in fact, wrote a book, God's Harvard, that examined some of the implications of that.) Maybe I am gullible, but I think that conflation of religion and morality has subsided significantly in the past couple years. The combination of the Bush disaster, the reinvigoration of the progressive left, the rise of Obama, the economic crisis, and the success of left-wing churches have all undermined the notion that religion and morality (specifically a socially conservative morality) are the same. I think the conservative religious movement that championed that notion has crested, and is receding.

VL: Obama, though, was quite active in promoting his religious cred. Some chalked this up to a defense against "the Muslim smear," but all told there was quite a lot of religion in his campaign.

DP: He did, and he's not shy about invoking religious language and bringing in both the Rick Warren and Jim Wallises. But I don't think there is the same presumption with Obama and his people that religion and decency are the same.

VL: I guess as a skeptic, "presumption" doesn't sit all that well with me. [See note.] Anyway.... Unlike my skeptical starting point, you kicked off your Bible blog by stating “I have always been a proud Jew, but never a terribly observant one.”

In your book’s conclusion (as well as in some interviews, so I don’t think the Spoiler God will strike me down), you acknowledge that your opinion of God changed for the worse in the course of reading the Bible.

I didn’t get the sense, though, that your opinion of religion (yours or Judeo-Christian religious practices in general) was shaken. Is that a correct reading?

DP: I suspect I am trying to have it both ways. I was really disturbed by God, as I wrote, and you can't be really disturbed by God without calling into question a faith built around belief and trust in God. But Judaism, more than Christianity, I suspect, builds in room for the kind of doubt and anger I have about God. There is an honorable tradition in Judaism of Jews arguing and disputing and being contentious rather than obedient. So I try to slot myself in there.

But I should also say that I am not much of a Jewish practitioner anymore. We often do Shabbat dinners, we do Seders, I send my kids to Hebrew school, I go to synagogue on the high holidays. Those are fundamentally cultural and familial activities. But I don't have any great interest in diving deeper, as my more religious friends tell me I should. I am sure it would be intellectually rewarding, but religion is not important enough to my life to pursue it more. My year with the Bible made me realize that, too.

VL: One thing I really wasn't prepared for was how explicit the OT was about how the Israelites were to barge into other people's land, kill them, and take it over. It seems to fulfill the worst perceptions that anti-Zionists have, no?

DP: That's an unfair conflation, because it merges an ancient religious text with modern geopolitics. There are, of course, lots and lots of Jews who justify their claims to Israel and the West Bank by using the Bible. But most Israelis don't and the Israeli government doesn't. One of the oddest realizations I had while reading the Bible is that modern Israel occupies land that was not generally Biblical Israel. Modern Israel is where ancient Israel's enemies lived. The Biblical demands to kill and occupy are horrifying, and probably the most troubling part of the Bible. (Book of Joshua is hands down the most disturbing Bible book.) But it's succumbing to the literalist fallacy to extrapolate from that that Jews inherently are genocidal and seeking to expel and murder everyone on "their" land.

I guess your question is about whether it reinforces anti-Zionist views, and I suppose you are right that it could. My answer suggests that I think that would be unfair, but it may happen anyway.

VL: I don't mean to claim a certain cause/effect. But it was striking, and IIRC, you noted a time or two how the modern circumstances are reflected in the ancient text.

DP: Fair point.

VL: Thanks for tackling these weighty topics up front. I wanted to make sure that we had time to pick your brain about some large-scale issues. But, as we wrap up, please feel welcome to tell our (generally) religious-skeptical readers why they might want to read your book.

DP: First of all, you should read Good Book so you don't have to read the Bible itself. It's a much funnier, much more irreverent, and much more skeptical than the Bible itself, or than any Bible commentary would be, and it's a way to get a fast Biblical education without having to wade through the Bible itself.

More importantly, I think it's a useful tool for religious skeptics in seeing where the Bible's strong and weak points are. The crudest atheist position — this is a stupid book of mythology and immorality — misses that the Bible is textured and variegated in important ways. Good Book understands that texture, and shows why particular books and stories are appealing or appalling, how particular ideas were popularized and others were discarded, how particular characters were heroicized or villainized. Good Book will help skeptics understand, at an intellectual level, why particular aspects of the Bible have a hold on their fellow citizens. So think of it as a very useful tool for understanding your rivals. And because I am in the middle — neither skeptic nor believer, neither fundamentalist, nor atheist — I'm able to give a much subtler (and more fun!) reading to the Bible.

VL: Thanks again for taking the time to talk with us!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

I'll be back!

Keep the faith, friends. I'll be back when time permits, which won't be until late this summer, I reckon.

Update, 2/25/09: I continue to hope to find the time to pick up where I left off. There are just too many other things on the front burners for me to do a proper job of bible studyin' right now. May the good Lord and my readers forgive me! And you never know when a resurrection might occur....

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Numbers 21

1 And when king Arad the Canaanite, which dwelt in the south, heard tell that Israel came by the way of the spies; then he fought against Israel, and took some of them prisoners.

2 And Israel vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou wilt indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.

3 And the LORD hearkened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their cities: and he called the name of the place Hormah.

4 And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.

5 And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.

6 And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.

7 Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.

8 And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.

9 And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

10 And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in Oboth.

11 And they journeyed from Oboth, and pitched at Ijeabarim, in the wilderness which is before Moab, toward the sunrising.

12 From thence they removed, and pitched in the valley of Zared.

13 From thence they removed, and pitched on the other side of Arnon, which is in the wilderness that cometh out of the coasts of the Amorites: for Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites.

14 Wherefore it is said in the book of the wars of the LORD, What he did in the Red sea, and in the brooks of Arnon,

15 And at the stream of the brooks that goeth down to the dwelling of Ar, and lieth upon the border of Moab.

16 And from thence they went to Beer: that is the well whereof the LORD spake unto Moses, Gather the people together, and I will give them water.

17 Then Israel sang this song, Spring up, O well; sing ye unto it:

18 The princes digged the well, the nobles of the people digged it, by the direction of the lawgiver, with their staves. And from the wilderness they went to Mattanah:

19 And from Mattanah to Nahaliel: and from Nahaliel to Bamoth:

20 And from Bamoth in the valley, that is in the country of Moab, to the top of Pisgah, which looketh toward Jeshimon.

21 And Israel sent messengers unto Sihon king of the Amorites, saying,

22 Let me pass through thy land: we will not turn into the fields, or into the vineyards; we will not drink of the waters of the well: but we will go along by the king's high way, until we be past thy borders.

23 And Sihon would not suffer Israel to pass through his border: but Sihon gathered all his people together, and went out against Israel into the wilderness: and he came to Jahaz, and fought against Israel.

24 And Israel smote him with the edge of the sword, and possessed his land from Arnon unto Jabbok, even unto the children of Ammon: for the border of the children of Ammon was strong.

25 And Israel took all these cities: and Israel dwelt in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all the villages thereof.

26 For Heshbon was the city of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab, and taken all his land out of his hand, even unto Arnon.

27 Wherefore they that speak in proverbs say, Come into Heshbon, let the city of Sihon be built and prepared:

28 For there is a fire gone out of Heshbon, a flame from the city of Sihon: it hath consumed Ar of Moab, and the lords of the high places of Arnon.

29 Woe to thee, Moab! thou art undone, O people of Chemosh: he hath given his sons that escaped, and his daughters, into captivity unto Sihon king of the Amorites.

30 We have shot at them; Heshbon is perished even unto Dibon, and we have laid them waste even unto Nophah, which reacheth unto Medeba.

31 Thus Israel dwelt in the land of the Amorites.

32 And Moses sent to spy out Jaazer, and they took the villages thereof, and drove out the Amorites that were there.

33 And they turned and went up by the way of Bashan: and Og the king of Bashan went out against them, he, and all his people, to the battle at Edrei.

34 And the LORD said unto Moses, Fear him not: for I have delivered him into thy hand, and all his people, and his land; and thou shalt do to him as thou didst unto Sihon king of the Amorites, which dwelt at Heshbon.

35 So they smote him, and his sons, and all his people, until there was none left him alive: and they possessed his land.
#1: Canaanite king Arad (that's a little vague, but apparently he's the king of Arad, not of all Canaan) heard that Israel had sent spies." He takes some of the spies as prisoners.

#2: "And Israel vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou wilt indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities." (This is a lovely prayer: God, because some of our spies were caught mid-invasion, bring us their captors' entire population, so we may kill them all.)

#3: YHWH has no problem with this request. He "delivered up the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their cities," which he promptly renamed "Hormah."

#4: The Israelites become "much discouraged" because of the arduous route they had to take "by way of the Red sea," in order to bypass Edom.

#5: The people again complain about being stuck in this wilderness with shitty "light bread" and no water.

#6: "And the LORD sent fiery serpents (cool!) among the people, and they bit the people (Bit them? That seems kind of lame, considering they're fiery serpents.); and much people of Israel died." (Now, hold the phone here a second. When people belly-ached about needing help slaughtering citiesful of people, God stands and delivers in an instant. When they complain about needing water because he stranded them in a desert, he sics horrible creatures upon them. What kind of message does this send?)

#7: The Israelites, all repentant-like (about wanting some water, not about committing the slaughter), went to Moses. At their behest, Moe prayed to Yahweh in hopes he'd make like St. Patrick and clear up the snake problem.

#8: God tells Moses to "make... a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole." (How to you make a fiery serpent? First, get a serpent and some lighter fluid....) The people will still get bitten, but they'll live. (How about just getting rid of the fucking fire monsters? I suppose that "fiery" might just mean poisonous. A fiery snake would be ridiculous. Unlike a talking one.)

#9: Moses made a brass serpent (I thought he was going to have to make a real one, not that all this desert-roadshow metallurgy isn't impressive in its own right), and stuck it on a pole. After that, serpent bites were no longer fatal. (Sounds like maybe the original of the medical symbol. But that one has two snakes. Maybe one represents disease, and the other represents the health-insurance lobby.)

#10 - 13: They traveled from place to place.

#14 - 15: The "book of the wars of the LORD" (I'll bet that's one big-ass tome) describes, "what he did in the Red sea" (other translations describe this rather differently), and then traveling here and there, including around some streams near "the dwelling of Ar," whoever that is.

#16: "And from thence they went to Beer" (at this point, could you blame them?) "that is the well whereof the LORD spake unto Moses, Gather the people together, and I will give them water." (What's that, you're at a well of Beer, and you're talking with God? You don't say!)

#17: "Then Israel sang this song, Spring up, O well; sing ye unto it" (this was during the Peter Green era).

#18 -20: "The princes digged the well, the nobles of the people digged it, by the direction of the lawgiver, with their staves" (well, that's egalitarian!). Then they started schlepping again.

#21-22: "Israel sent messengers unto Sihon king of the Amorites," trying to get a right of passage like they did (unsuccesfully) for Edom.

#23: Sihon refused... and then sent his people "against Israel into the wilderness and he came to Jahaz, and fought against Israel."

#24: "Israel smote him with the edge of the sword," and took his land, all the way up to the border held by "the children of Ammon."

#25: Israelites moved into the cities they took from the Amorites, including Heshbon and its villlages. (Yay! They got to kill a lot of people and take their land. Hooray! So, now they're done wandering in the desert, right? No, really, are we done?)

#26: "Heshbon was the city of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab, and taken all his land out of his hand," all the way to Arnon.

#27 - 28: A proverb is cited — "Come into Heshbon, let the city of Sihon be built and prepared..." (what the heck kind of proverb is this?) because there's "fire gone out of Heshbon...." (I think that means a fire emanated from there, not that it was extinguished). The proverb goes on to describe the path of the flame, which went through Sihon and it burned up "Ar of Moab, and the lords of the high places of Arnon." (Ar, we hardly knew ye! In any case, do make sure you tell your children this memorable and uplifting proverb.)

#29 - 30: The proverb descends into trash talk, telling the people of Chemosh that Moab is fucked, his sons had to flee, his daughters are now captives, and others have been "shot at" and such.

#31: "Thus Israel dwelt in the land of the Amorites." (Apparently, just going to a Realtor wasn't an option.)

#32: Moses sent our more spies, and they displaced more Amorites. (You think maybe King Arad had a point when he arrested those spies?)

#33: "And they turned and went up by the way of Bashan: and Og the king of Bashan went out against them, he, and all his people, to the battle at Edrei."

#34: YHWH tells Moses, "Fear him not: for I have delivered him into thy hand, and all his people, and his land; and thou shalt do to him as thou didst unto Sihon king of the Amorites, which dwelt at Heshbon." (Hooray for goodness! God is serving up more people to massacre and take their land from!)

#35: "So they smote him, and his sons, and all his people, until there was none left him alive: and they possessed his land." (Don't you love a happy ending?)

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Numbers 20

1 Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there.

2 And there was no water for the congregation: and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron.

3 And the people chode with Moses, and spake, saying, Would God that we had died when our brethren died before the LORD!

4 And why have ye brought up the congregation of the LORD into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there?

5 And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? it is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink.

6 And Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and they fell upon their faces: and the glory of the LORD appeared unto them.

7 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,

8 Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink.

9 And Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as he commanded him.

10 And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said unto them, Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?

11 And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also.

12 And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.

13 This is the water of Meribah; because the children of Israel strove with the LORD, and he was sanctified in them.

14 And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh unto the king of Edom, Thus saith thy brother Israel, Thou knowest all the travail that hath befallen us:

15 How our fathers went down into Egypt, and we have dwelt in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians vexed us, and our fathers:

16 And when we cried unto the LORD, he heard our voice, and sent an angel, and hath brought us forth out of Egypt: and, behold, we are in Kadesh, a city in the uttermost of thy border:

17 Let us pass, I pray thee, through thy country: we will not pass through the fields, or through the vineyards, neither will we drink of the water of the wells: we will go by the king's high way, we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed thy borders.

18 And Edom said unto him, Thou shalt not pass by me, lest I come out against thee with the sword.

19 And the children of Israel said unto him, We will go by the high way: and if I and my cattle drink of thy water, then I will pay for it: I will only, without doing anything else, go through on my feet.

20 And he said, Thou shalt not go through. And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand.

21 Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border: wherefore Israel turned away from him.

22 And the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, journeyed from Kadesh, and came unto mount Hor.

23 And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron in mount Hor, by the coast of the land of Edom, saying,

24 Aaron shall be gathered unto his people: for he shall not enter into the land which I have given unto the children of Israel, because ye rebelled against my word at the water of Meribah.

25 Take Aaron and Eleazar his son, and bring them up unto mount Hor:

26 And strip Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son: and Aaron shall be gathered unto his people, and shall die there.

27 And Moses did as the LORD commanded: and they went up into mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation.

28 And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son; and Aaron died there in the top of the mount: and Moses and Eleazar came down from the mount.

29 And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they mourned for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel.
#1: The Israelites came to the desert of Zin and lived in Kadesh. Miriam (Moe and Double-A's sister) died and was buried there.

#2: There was no water, and whiners that they are, the congregation "gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron."

#3: The people chided Moses (actually, it says they "chode" Moses, but that kind of language could really taint this thing), saying they wish God had killed them when he was lovingly murdering their brethren.

#4: Why, they ask, did you bring us godly folks into the wilderness, where we and our cattle are gonna die? (Who do they think they are, Helen Thomas?)

#5: Why, they ask, did you make us leave Egypt "to bring us in unto this evil place," this infertile land bereft of figs, vines, and pomegranates. And water, that, too. (Complain, complain, complain!)

#6: Moses and Aaron "fell upon their faces" at the tabernacle door, "and the glory of the LORD appeared unto them."

#7: YHWH told Moses...

#8: "Take the rod," and while Aaron and the whole assembly looks on, talk to the rock. It "shall give forth his water," so the people and the animals can drink. (Who knew that desert rocks were full of water? Ah, the power of sticks and stones!)

#9: "And Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as he commanded him." (Is this the rod he used in Exodus or a new God rod?)

#10: He took 'em over to the rock and said "Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?" (Apparently, going without drinking water was a viable option.)

#11: Moses banged his rod against the rock twice. A ton of water came out, and the people and their beasts drank.

#12 : YHWH said to Moses and Aaron that because they didn't believe Him, they won't get to escort the congregation to the Promised Land. (Hmm, it seems that all they did was "fall on their faces." Did that annoy the Lord during his nappy time or something, alerting him to the fact that his chosen people were parched with thirst in the desert he waylaid them in? A tough crowd, God is.)

#13: "This is the water of Meribah; because the children of Israel strove with the LORD, and he was sanctified in them." (Yet another location name-origin story).

#14: Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying that you know all the trouble your "brother Israel" is facing... (Edom is the nation of Esau, the brother whom Jacob/Israel cheated out of his birthright).

#15: Moe figures that the King o' Edom must know how the Israelites' fathers had a tough time in Egypt...

#16: "And when we cried unto the LORD, he heard our voice, and sent an angel, and hath brought us forth out of Egypt: and, behold, we are in Kadesh, a city in the uttermost of thy border." (Hmm. The very behavior, crying about their problems, that has sent YHWH into endless murderous hissy fits is what got them this attention to begin with. At this point, though, it's seeming like "chosen people" might be an unexpectedly ominous double-entrendre like "To Serve Man.")

#17: Moses asks the King to let the Israelites cross through Edom, saying "we will not pass through the fields, or through the vineyards, neither will we drink of the water of the wells: we will go by the king's high way, we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed thy borders."

#18: Edom (I'm assuming they're calling Edom's current king "Edom," and the original Esau/Edom is long-since dead, but it's hard to know in a book where some people live several hundred years) said he'd come at them with a sword if they tried.

#19: "And the children of Israel..." (just the messengers, or did they all use a speaker phone?) reiterated their plan to use the highway and said they and their cattle might drink some of their water but would pay for it. They'll just walk through, and that's that. (Is requesting additional accommodations a good way of "getting to yes"? Also this section frequently switches between "us" and "I." I'm not sure if "I" means Moses, as represented by his proxies, or if it means "any of us.").

#20: Edom says no dice, and "Edom came out against him (Moses?) with much people, and with a strong hand."

#21: Edom having refused to give them access, "Israel turned away from him." (Literally, the Israelites take a different route, but ever since Jacob finagled the birthright away from [slightly] older bro Esau/Edom, Israel has "turned away" from him/them in another sense, though Jacob did try to give him a consolation gift, which he graciously refused. Since then, the only reference we've encountered is that Edom is "amazed," and not in a good way, along with other peoples whom God is screwing on the Israelites' behalf.)

#22: The Israelites left Kadesh and, er, "came unto mount Hor." (You can't make this stuff up, folks.)

#23: YHWH spoke to Moses and Aaron "in mount Hor, by the coast of the land of Edom, saying..."

#24: "Aaron shall be gathered unto his people (apparently "gathered" means buried): for he shall not enter into the land which I have given unto the children of Israel, because ye rebelled against my word at the water of Meribah." (Wow, in some subtle way, Aaron expressed his concern that the Israelites whom God dragged into the desert were dying of thirst. The great and merciful Lord who torched two of his kids for lighting unauthorized incense summarily now condemns his personal Ari Fleischer to die).

#25: "Take Aaron and Eleazar his son, and bring them up unto mount Hor:" (hey-o!)

#26 "And strip Aaron of his garments (hey-o!), and put them upon Eleazar his son: and Aaron shall be gathered unto his people, and shall die there."

#27: "And Moses did as the LORD commanded (not a peep... certainly not his brother's keeper): and they went up into mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation."

#28: "And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments (hey, what happens in Hor stays in Hor), and put them upon Eleazar his son; and Aaron died there in the top of the mount: and Moses and Eleazar came down from the mount."

#29: "And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they mourned for Aaron thirty days..."

Yet another S&M lesson, like when Yahweh made Abraham debase himself to the ultimate extreme rather than protest the most loathsome of directives.

The people speak up about their dire thirst. God gives them what they need. And then He goes a-killin'.

YHWH wants us to suffer in silence. If we're deprived of even the most fundamental of Maslow's needs (like, say, poultry), we must be patient until God ponies up with the goods. If we doubt or complain, He'll give us what we ask for... and then heads roll.

So, it's true, isn't it? God is a Republican. He wants those in need to shut up (or else!), until good fortune trickles down upon them.

The Christian Scientists have it right, it seems. If our children have cancer, we shouldn't do anything about it. At the last minute, all will be well.

Impatient boys sometimes miss milk and honey!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Numbers 19

1 And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying,

2 This is the ordinance of the law which the LORD hath commanded, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke:

3 And ye shall give her unto Eleazar the priest, that he may bring her forth without the camp, and one shall slay her before his face:

4 And Eleazar the priest shall take of her blood with his finger, and sprinkle of her blood directly before the tabernacle of the congregation seven times:

5 And one shall burn the heifer in his sight; her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall he burn:

6 And the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer.

7 Then the priest shall wash his clothes, and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he shall come into the camp, and the priest shall be unclean until the even.

8 And he that burneth her shall wash his clothes in water, and bathe his flesh in water, and shall be unclean until the even.

9 And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up without the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of separation: it is a purification for sin.

10 And he that gathereth the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even: and it shall be unto the children of Israel, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among them, for a statute for ever.

11 He that toucheth the dead body of any man shall be unclean seven days.

12 He shall purify himself with it on the third day, and on the seventh day he shall be clean: but if he purify not himself the third day, then the seventh day he shall not be clean.

13 Whosoever toucheth the dead body of any man that is dead, and purifieth not himself, defileth the tabernacle of the LORD; and that soul shall be cut off from Israel: because the water of separation was not sprinkled upon him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is yet upon him.

14 This is the law, when a man dieth in a tent: all that come into the tent, and all that is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days.

15 And every open vessel, which hath no covering bound upon it, is unclean.

16 And whosoever toucheth one that is slain with a sword in the open fields, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.

17 And for an unclean person they shall take of the ashes of the burnt heifer of purification for sin, and running water shall be put thereto in a vessel:

18 And a clean person shall take hyssop, and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it upon the tent, and upon all the vessels, and upon the persons that were there, and upon him that touched a bone, or one slain, or one dead, or a grave:

19 And the clean person shall sprinkle upon the unclean on the third day, and on the seventh day: and on the seventh day he shall purify himself, and wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and shall be clean at even.

20 But the man that shall be unclean, and shall not purify himself, that soul shall be cut off from among the congregation, because he hath defiled the sanctuary of the LORD: the water of separation hath not been sprinkled upon him; he is unclean.

21 And it shall be a perpetual statute unto them, that he that sprinkleth the water of separation shall wash his clothes; and he that toucheth the water of separation shall be unclean until even.

22 And whatsoever the unclean person toucheth shall be unclean; and the soul that toucheth it shall be unclean until even.
For Christ-knows-what reason, we're getting another helping of details about animal sacrifices, with more specifics about unblemished animals and who is officially unclean at various stages of the rituals.

The phrase "the water of separation" is introduced, pertaining to a purification process.

"Separation" was previously used to describe the Nazarites, who separate themselves from the general population via particular grooming regimens, and such.

Not sure exactly what sort of separation is implied here. Separating the living from the dead, perhaps?

Anyway, let's leave the red heifers to their fates and pick up the narrative in Numbers 20....

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Numbers 18

1 And the LORD said unto Aaron, Thou and thy sons and thy father's house with thee shall bear the iniquity of the sanctuary: and thou and thy sons with thee shall bear the iniquity of your priesthood.

2 And thy brethren also of the tribe of Levi, the tribe of thy father, bring thou with thee, that they may be joined unto thee, and minister unto thee: but thou and thy sons with thee shall minister before the tabernacle of witness.

3 And they shall keep thy charge, and the charge of all the tabernacle: only they shall not come nigh the vessels of the sanctuary and the altar, that neither they, nor ye also, die.

4 And they shall be joined unto thee, and keep the charge of the tabernacle of the congregation, for all the service of the tabernacle: and a stranger shall not come nigh unto you.

5 And ye shall keep the charge of the sanctuary, and the charge of the altar: that there be no wrath any more upon the children of Israel.

6 And I, behold, I have taken your brethren the Levites from among the children of Israel: to you they are given as a gift for the LORD, to do the service of the tabernacle of the congregation.

7 Therefore thou and thy sons with thee shall keep your priest's office for everything of the altar, and within the vail; and ye shall serve: I have given your priest's office unto you as a service of gift: and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death.

8 And the LORD spake unto Aaron, Behold, I also have given thee the charge of mine heave offerings of all the hallowed things of the children of Israel; unto thee have I given them by reason of the anointing, and to thy sons, by an ordinance for ever.

9 This shall be thine of the most holy things, reserved from the fire: every oblation of theirs, every meat offering of theirs, and every sin offering of theirs, and every trespass offering of theirs which they shall render unto me, shall be most holy for thee and for thy sons.

10 In the most holy place shalt thou eat it; every male shall eat it: it shall be holy unto thee.

11 And this is thine; the heave offering of their gift, with all the wave offerings of the children of Israel: I have given them unto thee, and to thy sons and to thy daughters with thee, by a statute for ever: every one that is clean in thy house shall eat of it.

12 All the best of the oil, and all the best of the wine, and of the wheat, the firstfruits of them which they shall offer unto the LORD, them have I given thee.

13 And whatsoever is first ripe in the land, which they shall bring unto the LORD, shall be thine; every one that is clean in thine house shall eat of it.

14 Every thing devoted in Israel shall be thine.

15 Every thing that openeth the matrix in all flesh, which they bring unto the LORD, whether it be of men or beasts, shall be thine: nevertheless the firstborn of man shalt thou surely redeem, and the firstling of unclean beasts shalt thou redeem.

16 And those that are to be redeemed from a month old shalt thou redeem, according to thine estimation, for the money of five shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, which is twenty gerahs.

17 But the firstling of a cow, or the firstling of a sheep, or the firstling of a goat, thou shalt not redeem; they are holy: thou shalt sprinkle their blood upon the altar, and shalt burn their fat for an offering made by fire, for a sweet savour unto the LORD.

18 And the flesh of them shall be thine, as the wave breast and as the right shoulder are thine.

19 All the heave offerings of the holy things, which the children of Israel offer unto the LORD, have I given thee, and thy sons and thy daughters with thee, by a statute for ever: it is a covenant of salt for ever before the LORD unto thee and to thy seed with thee.

20 And the LORD spake unto Aaron, Thou shalt have no inheritance in their land, neither shalt thou have any part among them: I am thy part and thine inheritance among the children of Israel.

21 And, behold, I have given the children of Levi all the tenth in Israel for an inheritance, for their service which they serve, even the service of the tabernacle of the congregation.

22 Neither must the children of Israel henceforth come nigh the tabernacle of the congregation, lest they bear sin, and die.

23 But the Levites shall do the service of the tabernacle of the congregation, and they shall bear their iniquity: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations, that among the children of Israel they have no inheritance.

24 But the tithes of the children of Israel, which they offer as an heave offering unto the LORD, I have given to the Levites to inherit: therefore I have said unto them, Among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance.

25 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,

26 Thus speak unto the Levites, and say unto them, When ye take of the children of Israel the tithes which I have given you from them for your inheritance, then ye shall offer up an heave offering of it for the LORD, even a tenth part of the tithe.

27 And this your heave offering shall be reckoned unto you, as though it were the corn of the threshingfloor, and as the fulness of the winepress.

28 Thus ye also shall offer an heave offering unto the LORD of all your tithes, which ye receive of the children of Israel; and ye shall give thereof the LORD's heave offering to Aaron the priest.

29 Out of all your gifts ye shall offer every heave offering of the LORD, of all the best thereof, even the hallowed part thereof out of it.

30 Therefore thou shalt say unto them, When ye have heaved the best thereof from it, then it shall be counted unto the Levites as the increase of the threshingfloor, and as the increase of the winepress.

31 And ye shall eat it in every place, ye and your households: for it is your reward for your service in the tabernacle of the congregation.

32 And ye shall bear no sin by reason of it, when ye have heaved from it the best of it: neither shall ye pollute the holy things of the children of Israel, lest ye die.
"And the LORD said unto Aaron...." Well, that's new, isn't it? I don't recall YHWH ever talking directly with just Double-A.

Anyway, He says that Aaron and his father's gang "shall bear the iniquity of the sanctuary," and he and his sons "shall bear the iniquity of your priesthood." So, they'll take the blame for any sins against (or in?) the sanctuary, or committed by the priests. Priests committing sins? Not very likely.

There's a lot of old news about the role of the other Levites and the priestly ones among them, the Aaronids, such as who's allowed in what parts of the tabernacle (lest they die), whom God gave to Aaron as a gift, and who gets to chow down on the sacrificial meat from the meagre flocks of the poor suckers that God is stranding in the wilderness to rot for 40 years.

Though the Levites don't get an inheritance per se, at least no land, they get an awesome royalty stream. "Every thing devoted in Israel shall be thine. Every thing that openeth the matrix in all flesh, which they bring unto the LORD, whether it be of men or beasts, shall be thine: nevertheless the firstborn of man shalt thou surely redeem, and the firstling of unclean beasts shalt thou redeem."

So, they even get the firstborn humans, though they must allow the old buyback "redemption" program. That's firstborn males, though, isn't it? Girls sometimes "open the matrix," no? But so far I'm under the impression that they won't do as proper gifts to God and Aaron.

Oh, and the Levites get the tithes, which are part of the overall pile of fauna and flora (often specifically the first and best stuff) that the Israelites are to bring to the tabernacle, presumably to give thanks for the Lord's mercy in dragging them into nowheresville, where nearly the entire first generation will die — frequently directly at YHWH's hand, via plagues and fire.

It is surprising that this kind of lifestyle is praised by conservatives. Yes, it's pleasingly authoritarian and militaristic, but what rightwinger advocates all-powerful governance, unfulfilled promises of an "ownership society," and punitive taxes? I suppose if the tax burden stopped with the 10% rate, it wouldn't be too offensive to the Steve Forbeses of the world, but all those other offerings add up, no?

Perhaps the promises of real-estate stolen though genocide will come true, and it will be a happy, moral ending. Maybe in another book-a-half of the Pentateuch we'll find out...?

Friday, March 28, 2008

Slow pace vobiscum

Once again, my apologies for slow productivity here.

I'll do my best to get Numbers 18 up this weekend, but odds are I'm going to be keeping a slower pace here in upcoming months. I do hope your faith in this endeavor remains strong, as we, to quote Mark Vonnegut, "help each other get through this thing, whatever it is."