Archive for the ‘Early/Pre-Christian Lit’ Category

Russian Icon of Isaiah, 17th C.

In case you’re wondering where I’ve been (all ten of you who read this), two weeks ago I broke my leg and had surgery, and was in the hospital for 6 days.

Since coming home I’ve had a lot of opportunity to read our next work, the Book of Isaiah. I’ve read it three times, and read lots of commentary online. It’s hard going, because I’m trying not to have a flip response to it,  e.g., “Well, that was weird,”.

I’m also trying not to be content to just summarize it. There are real summaries available by actual scholars who can read the ancient Hebrew and who have deeper contextual understanding of where and how this book was written.

They can describe differences in rhetoric between proto-Isaiah and deutero-Isaiah (and trito-Isaiah, of course: most reputable scholars agree that three authors wrote the thing). I can’t do that. I’m trying to learn a little bit about that, of course, but I’m also trying to relate to it as a general reader. And it’s tough. (more…)


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Part of the reason I had such trouble with Exodus is evident once you get to chapter 25. Prior to that, it is this enormous human drama: freedom from slavery, the wrath of God, the doubt and determination of his chosen Prophet, and the birth of a nation that endures to the present day.

Then Moses goes up Mount Sinai and God starts placing catalogue orders.

The Erection of the Tabernacle and the Sacred Vessels: Gerard Hoet et. alia., from a 1728 Bible (Wikimedia)

There is an enormous section of Exodus wherein God dictates not just commandments and community laws, but also his instructions for sacrifices and the dimensions, uses, and decoration of the Tabernacle. It’s an unbroken litany of requirements and sizes and color specifications until the end of chapter 31. Like this:

And thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work shall the candlestick be made: his shaft, and his branches, his bowls, his knops, and his flowers, shall be of the same.  And six branches shall come out of the sides of it; three branches of the candlestick out of the one side, and three branches of the candlestick out of the other side:  Three bowls made like unto almonds, with a knop and a flower in one branch; and three bowls made like almonds in the other branch, with a knop and a flower: so in the six branches that come out of the candlestick.

And in the candlestick shall be four bowls made like unto almonds, with their knops and their flowers. And there shall be a knop under two branches of the same, and a knop under two branches of the same, and a knop under two branches of the same, according to the six branches that proceed out of the candlestick. Their knops and their branches shall be of the same: all it shall be one beaten work of pure gold. And thou shalt make the seven lamps thereof: and they shall light the lamps thereof, that they may give light over against it. And the tongs thereof, and the snuffdishes thereof, shall be of pure gold. Of a talent of pure gold shall he make it, with all these vessels. And look that thou make them after their pattern, which was shewed thee in the mount. (25: 31-40)

Then Moses comes down and makes a powdered gold milkshake of the golden calf, and has a few thousand people slain for it, and then– then– we get to read the descriptions all over again in chapters 36-39 when the appointed craftsmen, Bezaleel and Aholiab, start actually making everything. It’s mind-numbing.

Still, I think I get the purpose for this. And I don’t mean for Steven Spielberg’s art directors, who surely found it helpful– I mean for the Israelites.

I can imagine these words being read out to the descendants of the Exodus generation many dozens of decades later, at a time when these objects may still be known to exist, even be on display. The fact that their ancient scripture, handed down from one’s forefathers, describes these precious objects precisely– and marks them out as dictated by God Himself– would be a comforting sign of permanence, a reassurance of the rightness of the patterns of your faith.

And for the Exodus generation themselves, describing these objects to this level of detail offers the practical benefit of providing an inventory, and also a chance to show off a little: see, we are nomads, formerly slaves, and yet we can offer beautiful surroundings to our Lord as a place to dwell among us, with golden candlesticks of marvelous craftsmanship.

However, I’m glad I’ll be moving on to Isaiah soon, once I look in to the matter of the manna.

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Moses by Jose de Ribera (1591-1652). From Wikipedia

I realize that the tools I am equipped with for evaluating a text are woefully lacking. The things they taught me about character analysis in AP English and in my screenwriting courses during college assume certain things about why people tell stories and what an author is “trying to say” through a character that don’t exactly apply, I think, to a work of holy writ.

But, you know, I’ve been stuck here, blogging-wise, for months, and I have to press on. Just take it as read that I’m going to say something stupid, and we’ll all do fine.


If Genesis was the “how people got here” part of the Bible, Exodus is specifically about how some of those people– the Hebrew people– began to become Jews. They enter into a new, sacred covenant with the God who liberated them from Egypt. And He picks a pretty interesting person through whom to work the liberation.

Moses is the most interesting person yet in the Bible. His origin story would nowadays befit a masked comic-book vigilante: born a slave, raised by royalty, he becomes a murderer, a fugitive, a shepherd, and finally, a liberator and prophet.

But the thing about him is this: it takes a really long time before he seems convinced that any of what he is doing at God’s command is going to work. He’s constantly asking questions of God. See the dialogue in Genesis 3-4, where Moses beholds God in the Burning Bush. He asks the following questions:

“You want ME to free my people? But I’m a nobody! Are you sure? What name am I supposed to give them, anyway? And what do I do if they don’t believe you sent me? I mean, the trick with the snake is pretty neat, but this sort of thing calls for an orator and I’m not much of a speaker; couldn’t you send someone else? Please?”

But God is insistent: you’re the man, Moses. So our reluctant prophet is packed off, with the help of his brother Aaron, who eventually ends up acting as spokesman. You probably know what comes next: they tell old Pharaoh to let God’s people go, repeatedly. He refuses them, repeatedly. God sends a number of disgusting and bizarre and finally bloody and vengeful afflictions to the Egyptians, sparing the Israelites. And during all of this, Moses is repeatedly asking: do you really want me to go back there again? Isn’t there a better way?

He does eventually settle into his role. He teaches the people God’s instructions for Passover. He gathers up the bones of Joseph and carries them into the wilderness. He parts the Red Sea. He explains the whole “manna” thing to people. He gets some friends to prop his arms up so he can hold up his staff in order to assure victory for the Israelites in battle. But he is, throughout, nagged by doubt. It isn’t doubt of God that’s plaguing Moses (haw haw), it’s doubt of himself.

Also, he’s an angry dude. Witness him coming down from Mount Sinai after forty days and nights of chiseling instructions about the ten commandments and cleanliness and the entire dimensions of the tabernacle only to find his brethren worshipping a golden calf:

And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount. And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.  (32:19-20)

Did you get all that? He makes them drink a powdered gold milkshake. That is some seriously dedicated anger.

And it gets worse:

Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the LORD’S side? let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. And he said unto them, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.  And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. (32:26-28)

So you see, Moses is not a peaceable shepherd of freedom. He’s more like a crotchety midwife for this nation being born in the wilderness. It’s a terrible birth with pain and war, fire and bloodshed. But instead of maintaining love and respect for the birthing process, he constantly loses patience with the entire process, and everyone involved. He second-guesses God, and himself, and his own people.

Ultimately, like a modern midwife, he is there at the start of the family but not of it. Eventually his anger and disobedience proves too much even for God (in Numbers, not Exodus), and he dies within sight, but not within the boundaries, of the Promised Land.

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Oh, hi. It’s been what, five months?

ark of the covenant

Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle, by James Joseph Jacques Tissot

Reading continues apace, although the blogging is way, way, way behind. This is partly for the usual reasons: work, family, long-distance running, laziness. It’s also because I’ve now embarked on the part of the list that contains holy scriptures, stories taken as dictated by the divine in at least three different faith traditions.

So, I’m trying to engage respectfully with scripture wherever possible. I’m trying to rein in my deeply-ingrained tendency to snark on everything, and make an attempt to learn about the people who believe these stories– and the people who may have written them. As I’ve said before, I come from a Roman Catholic background, and was involved in religious education until I was about 13 years old. Since then, I’ve been more or less unchurched (although I consider myself Quaker-curious).  I’ve had to think a lot, in my recent readings, about holiness.

Getting to grips with the concept of holiness is a tough one for most Western people under 40 or so. We’ve been relentlessly marketed at since our infancy, so we’re cynical and untrusting, and furthermore, we’ve been trained to think that “cool” is best. The problem is that “cool” is not enthused or awed or really even moved by anything, unless it’s, like, a totally sweet Vietnamese place near your girlfriend’s work, or the director’s cut of Blade Runner or an original pressing of Blue Monday or something like that. “Holy” is the thing that Burt Ward’s Robin always said in to Adam West’s Batman: “Holy costume party, Batman!” “Holy haberdashery, Batman!” It’s said, like everything else that smacks of sentiment or passion or sincerity, with a smirk.

I think one of the benefits of my religious upbringing was that it taught me to seek out and recognize the sacred and the holy. It is something I have been trying to do every day, although not in a Christianist or Biblically-focused way, per se. For me, holiness is about something being in a higher state than it can be. In humans, for instance, it means putting others first, rather than reverting to the usual animal tribalism.  It can also refer to places or times when one feels connected to everything, as if one is more than a disjointed collection of thoughts and urges.

So the rough-looking teenage boys helping the old woman at the grocery checkout to see her coins properly yesterday were holy. The light on the hills in the morning is holy, and I am sanctified when I see and feel it. The sound of my husband snoring is holy (okay, that’s a stretch, but I’m trying to be less bent out of shape by it).

It’s a little rusty, this holiness detector, but I’m working on making it function properly.

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Once upon a time I was a public school teacher. When you are a public school teacher, you are generally also what’s known as a “mandatory reporter”. This means that if you suspect child abuse, you are legally obliged to report any evidence to the appropriate authorities.

During this close re-reading of the Old Testament, I am pretty well convinced that if God were the father of one of my public school students, I would be reporting his omnipotent ass to the DCFS ASAP.

Here are some choice nuggets from Genesis:

  • He places his children in a garden, naked and unsupervised. They are to work for Him, tending the garden (2:15)
  • He then leaves a tree in the middle of the garden that they’re not meant to touch; if they do, “[they] shall surely die” (3:4)
  • When they actually eat the fruit, it contains a mind-altering substance (“and the eyes of them both were opened”- 3:7)
  • In return for eating the fruit which He left out in the open, He curses them and evicts them from the only home they’ve ever known (3:16-24).
  • When He gets bored by/angry with his children, He drowns all but a few of them (Chapter 7), who have to build a boat from scratch in order to survive his wrath.
  • To Abram/Abraham, He gives riches, land, and Isaac, a cherished son– whom He then asks Abraham to sacrifice like a sheep. Just before Abraham goes through with it, God says “Psych! I just wanted to see if you’d obey me.” This is sociopathic.

We won’t even get in to Exodus– dicking Moses around for hitting the rock instead of speaking to it is kind of OT God’s “I TOLD YOU NO WIRE HANGERS, EVER!!1!!” moment. And we won’t touch the Book of Job here, either, because I’ll be covering it in more detail later.

It’s manifest to me that Old Testament God is not a loving father. He’s a nasty, petty, capricious tribal deity. I’m glad we don’t see much of Him anymore.

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Having been raised and educated in a religious school, it’s pretty surprising to me when I talk to people about the Bible and discover that outside of the story of Christ, the only Bible stories they know are from Genesis.

There are 66 books in the King James Version of the Bible, or 73 if you’re reading from a Catholic version. In both of these, Genesis comes first, and in its short chapters it contains the great bulk of Bible stories from the Old Testament most people are familiar with:

  • The Creation
  • Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden
  • Cain and Abel
  • Noah and the Flood
  • The Tower of Babel
  • Abram/Abraham and Isaac
  • Lot and Sodom and Gommorah
  • Jacob and Esau
  • Jacob’s Ladder
  • Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors
  • Joseph and Pharaoah

Most people with a passing familiarity with the Bible would probably also mention the story of Moses (seeing and hearing Charlton Heston in their mind’s eye the entire time)– but that’s the next book, Exodus.  Taken together, these two books have a definite narrative arc: Genesis goes from the creation of the world to the establishment of the twelve tribes of Israel in Egypt. Exodus traces the nation’s enslavement in Egypt, their liberation by Moses, and their wandering towards the promised land.

Together they make up the “how did we get here?” portion of the Israelite story (Deuteronomy and Numbers, for the most part, cover the “What do we believe?” and “How shall we live?”– but we’re not going through the entire Bible in the BOAT reading list.) The Old Testament, as a whole, deals with the trials and tribulations of the nation of Israel.

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I read the Bible very often at school when I was young. It was a Catholic school, so the translation was not the King James Version, but some neutered edition for children that avoided very hard words and skipped all the sex, incest, and bloodthirstiness.

The nuns drilled it into us that the Bible was the greatest book ever written, that it contained the word of God and must be treated with respect according to protocols more elaborate than the Flag Code.

You shouldn’t stack other books on top of a Bible. You shouldn’t write in it, except to write your name on the inside cover. You shouldn’t fold down the pages, or tear them, or use inappropriate bookmarks with cartoon characters on them (Sister Raymond Mary said this while eyeing my Snoopy bookmark pointedly), or store other papers inside of it. You shouldn’t stand on it, sit on it, let it get wet or dirty or lie on the floor, or use it to prop something up. Above all, you shouldn’t let it get dusty. Because that means you’re not reading it. Har har.

I have several Bibles in the house now. One’s a St. Joseph Textbook Edition from the 50’s that was my Dad’s when he was in high school. One’s a KJV with the words of Christ in red ink that was my husband’s grandfather’s. And one is a paperback KJV I bought a while ago when I was into reading the Bible and the Apocryphal Gospels. I’m not observant anymore. And intellectually, I know they are just books.

However, I’ve made notes in the margins of all my other books, and highlighted passages, and used receipts and index cards as bookmarks. I can’t bring myself to write in my cheap paperback KJV. I can’t dog-ear the pages, either. It has a ribbon for a bookmark. And when I put it away at night, I make sure it’s on top of the stack of books on my nightstand.

Nuns. They get to you.

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