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Genesis 1:2

January 11, 2012

I definitely want to write another post on Genesis before I start back with college. Now we come to Genesis 1:2, but I really think I’ve commented on most of this verse already. I wrote in the last post that “formless and void” (NASB) probably refers to the substance that would become the earth. Just where this substance, covered in water, came from, and from whence that water came, are questions that Genesis, I think, is not meant to answer. This is a creation myth, not a detailed, historical account of the origin of everything. If it was, then the starting place of Genesis would likely have been a theological treatise about the god of verse one. Is “he” omnipotent, or just extremely powerful? Did “he” create these great waters, or did they come from someplace else? And since origins are being explained, where did this god come from? Who is the “us” of verse 26? Does “he” already have a mighty group of servants (Genesis 18:1-2, 22; 19:1, 11, 13, 21-22; 2 Kings 6:17)? Does “he” have any sons (Genesis 6:2; Job 1:6)?

Obviously, Genesis is not an exhaustive history of the origin of the universe. This doesn’t require that it is really just myth, but it does make that interpretation much more likely, in my opinion. I just have to return once more to what I was analyzing in my last post, the so-called “Gap Theory.” Sometimes the verse Isaiah 45:18 is brought up, as if it has anything to say about this theory. This verse has the line that God did not create the earth “to be empty” (NIV/HCSB) or “a waste place” (NASB). This is supposed to argue for an event that caused the earth to arrive at its “formless and void” state of Genesis 1:2. Look closer, however, and this will be seen as nothing but circular reasoning. Those arguing for an event are already assuming a time-lapse; if there is no time-lapse between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, the earth is never said to be empty or a waste place. If Genesis 1:1 is just summarizing the verses 3-31, the act of the heaven and earth’s creation did not begin until verse 3. It is therefore immediately formed and inhabited, just as Isaiah 45:18 says God “formed it to be inhabited” (NIV/NASB).

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Genesis 1:1

January 9, 2012

Now I’d like to start some commenting on the book of Genesis. My knowledge of this book is mostly limited to my own readings. I haven’t read any scholarship on when it may have been written or which parts may make up separate layers from other parts. I don’t know if I even should expend the time to find out, depending on whether there are strong theories with good evidence to support their respective claims. I can assuredly say that there is no Biblical statement of Moses’s authorship, despite what is commonly believed. Whether or not Mark 12:26, Luke 20:37, Luke 24:27, and perhaps other passages refer to Mosaic authorship of Exodus and other books of the Mosaic narrative, that still doesn’t identify the author of Genesis, which comes before that narrative. I also know of no internal text of Genesis that argues for giving the book a date earlier than—really, the Babylonian captivity, although an earlier date for the foundational Hebrew traditions is often postulated. I can’t speak toward the evidence on which such hypotheses may be based, or how much they apply to Genesis’s primary material or the majority of its text.

The first controversial area of Biblical interpretation is, no surprise, found in the first verse of Genesis. What is the time correlation between Genesis 1:1 and the following verses of the 1:1-2:3 passage? Is 1:1 just a summary of this passage? Does it speak of the origin of the already-extant earth of 1:2, or of the fashioning of the expanse and the dry land in 1:6-1:10? Should “heaven” be rendered singular in 1:1 and 1:8 (and Exodus 20:11), but translated as plural in Genesis 2:1, 4? (The Hebrew shameh/shamayim must be ambiguous.) Is there a difference between the Hebrew words bara’ and asah? Why is bara’ used in 1:1 (“created”) and asah used (“made”) in 1:7, 16, 25, 31, and also in 2:2-4 (as well as in Exodus 20:11)?

Yeah, that’s pretty much how it all begins in Biblical studies. So now you want my opinion on the verse? Well, the term “the beginning” (Hebrew re’shiyth) isn’t used again in these passages after 1:1, but both interpretations of the time relationship of the aforementioned verses take that into account. The specific naming of the “heaven(s)” and the “earth” in 1:8, 10, however, does make me think verse 1 is just a summary. On the other hand, the NIV and the HCSB use “heaven” for the first instance and “sky” for the second. The inconsistent translation of shameh/shamayim by these versions is puzzling, but I’m only basing my Hebrew analysis here off of Strong’s Concordance and Lexicon

In the case of my interpretation, why is the earth already in existence by 1:2? I would say that it really isn’t. I think—notice that choice of words—that “the earth” of 1:2 is just a reference to the substance that would become the earth in 1:9-10. As to the rest, I have no claim to being a Hebrew scholar.

The Gibeonite Deception

January 6, 2012

Now I do expect my comments on the façade of the Gibeonites actually to be short. We shall see. Yes, I also find this story (Jos. 9:1-27) hard to believe. I even find it hard to believe that this story was ever written down and passed off as history, although that most certainly did happen. A commission from the Canaanite city of Gibeon comes to Joshua with shabby provisions and wearing shoddy clothing. These Gibeonites tell Joshua that they are from a far country and wish to make a league of peace with him. It really makes little to no sense why anyone would fall for this. First, how hard would it be to find such kind of clothing and provisions? Of course, the Israelites question these emissaries about their true country of origin, but they are convinced that the Gibeonites spoke the truth because of their clothing and provisions. The other pressing question I would expect to be asked is the reason for these people’s concern for a league of peace. I mean, this should have been extremely obvious. They wouldn’t have any reason for a league of peace if they were not of the land of Canaan and instead were from a country so far away that Israel could not be expected to come to their aid in war. Whatever the case, I am happy for the Gibeonites, even though Israel does make them slaves. At least they were not more victims of Yahweh’s purge.

The House of Achan’s Collective Punishment

January 5, 2012

I regret the delay, but I promise I will finish up my comments on Achan, the Gileadites, et al., today. So now I’m going to jump right into the story of Achan. What Yahweh wanted the Israelites to do to Jericho and Canaan was not just massacre for the sake of massacre. Not entirely, although Israel would get that whole city without any pesky Canaanite competition for the area’s resources. The deal was that Yahweh would get “all the silver and gold and articles of bronze and iron” (Jos. 6:19, NASB) for his treasury. However, the story goes that Achan took some gold, some silver, and a cloak/garment. This is summarized at the beginning of Joshua chapter 7 as “the Israelites were unfaithful” (NIV), rather than just Achan. You may notice that I didn’t cite the same translation as before, but all Bible translations use the same sort of language (the NASB’s “sons of Israel” is just a little bizarre). This collective mindset is central to everything else that happens in this passage.

First, Joshua and company fail to receive the right inspiration, apparently, for what battle plan to choose for the defeat of the town Ai. They decide to send only three thousand warriors against a city of twelve thousand total people (Jos. 8:25). Thirty-two of the warriors are killed in battle, and perhaps more important, the rest of their warriors are pushed back from Ai. Joshua and the Israelites take this as a devastating defeat, for Yahweh is the creator of heaven and was supposed to be on their side. Yahweh then informs Joshua that nothing in his plan has changed; he is exacting collective responsibility for the violation of his command by one of the Israelites.

I can’t really blame Achan for thinking it all right to take some treasures from Jericho. What interest did he have in filling up the treasury of Yahweh? And I’m not sure about any incident that the Hebrew scriptures ascribe to the time period of Achan in which he should have become aware of the Israelite god’s far-seeing and mind-reading abilities. And, of course, Yahweh has n0 trouble pointing out the culprit. Joshua then tells Achan to “give glory to… the God of Israel” (Jos. 7:19, NASB). Doing so would not get Achan away from punishment, however, so I think this is an awkward request.

We then read that all of Achan’s possessions, along with his sons and daughters, are gathered together in the Valley of Achor (Trouble). (For some reason, I doubt his wife escaped, though.) Many excuses have been made for this collective execution, but what is fairly obvious is that this was entirely based on the idea that there was a “taint” of rebellion on Achan’s family as well as himself. In other words, Achan was the collective “head” of all of them. Today, the modern mind tends not to think in this sort of terms. Again, as with the people of Jericho, we wonder why a god couldn’t have separated the actions of the father, the elders, the leaders, the culture, etc., from the culpability of the individual. One of the more ridiculous arguments for excusing this judgment for Achan’s children is that they were somehow more likely than the other children of the Israelites to excuse Achan’s act. Never mind that they did not know about it, as far as we’re told. Never mind that the execution of Achan would have created made Achan’s children, and all others in Israel, less likely to try anything similar. And don’t forget that many people interpret the Bible as teaching everyone has an innate drive to sin.

In the following chapter, Israel goes after Ai once more, and this time has no problem taking the city. However, no miraculous victory ensues, as is told about a later battle in Joshua 10:11-14. And for some reason, all of the threatened peoples of Canaan have not yet united against this massive force of more than a million Israelites. Joshua instead uses a strategy of ambush, which I, of course, have trouble believing Ai would fall for. Perhaps the strategy was more sophisticated than told by the passage. This time Israel gets to keep “its spoil and its cattle” all for themselves (Jos. 8:2, NASB). Someone didn’t want to risk another Achan, I guess.

I hadn’t expected this post to get this long. I always say that, don’t out. Well, I shall try not to be any longer in denial of the length of my topics, but I promise I shall finish my comments on the next chapter within the next twenty-four hours.

Genocide for Idolatrous Canaanites

January 2, 2012

Okay, so you know my view of Yahweh’s command in the book of Joshua to massacre the Canaanites. I think it does not come down to a question of a god’s right to issue such an order, but rather the wisdom of that order, including its correlation with the god’s other goals, and the possibility the humans could create any effectual protest for those commands or actions against their society. (That assumes that they are at least somewhat united in social interests.) B y a correlation of the order with the god’s other goals, I am referring to the Bible’s claim that the god Yahweh created humanity and wants to see humans happy. This goal seems to be completely opposed to any order of genocide.

The clearest text of the specific orders the Israelites were to effect is given in Deuteronomy 20:16-18. Here’s the translation of the NASB, courtesy of biblegateway.com:

Only in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you, so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the LORD your God.

The character Rahab seems to know of or suspect these rders from her statement in Joshua 2:13: “give me a pledge of truth, andspare my father and my mother and my brothers and my sisters, with all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” This is preceded by an acknowledgement (vs. 10) that the Amorites of Sihon’s and Og’s kingdoms were “utterly destroyed.” And so it came to pass in Jericho, according to Joshua 6:21. The Israelites also did the same to all the rest of the Canaanites that were targeted in the initial conquest under Joshua. (Why Joshua, the servant of Yahweh, didn’t destroy the rest of them is not explained, except for Exodus 23:29. And yet, even if there was a practical reason for this restraint, why doesn’t it defeat the purpose of not risking their living beside Israel and supposedly corrupting them? Joshua’s plan for eventually disposing of the remaining Canaanites is also not given.) It only makes sense to me that a powerful god could have organized means to convince the Canaanites to change their ways, perhaps by more actual miracles and, if necessary, proof that the other gods were not worthy of any worship.

Another element of the wisdom of this order is the practical reason for the slaughter of the children as well as the adults. Why would this slaughter be necessary? If the slaughter was intended to judge idolaters, the children could hardly be held responsible. If repercussions are feared from these children when they are grown, why not just make sure they are also aware of the importance to the Israelites’ god and society of not worshipping other gods?

The Anti-Canaan Command of Yahweh

December 31, 2011

There are three more stories from the book of Joshua that I would like to comment on. They are all somewhat interconnected, so we’ll see if they can be covered fairly quickly. They are 1) the Israelites’ annihilation of Jericho and the other Canaanite cities, 2) Achan and his family’s execution for Achan’s taking of Canaanite goods, and 3) the Gibeonites’ covenant of peace with the Israelites. These all have to do with the god Yahweh’s command (Deuteronomy 20:16-17) to the Israelites to kill every man, woman, child, even the babies, and to destroy all the cities and all the property of the Canaanites, except the treasures that were supposed to be dedicated to Yahweh (Joshua 6:24).

Many denunciations have been written of the Bible’s recorded actions of the Israelites to the Canaanites. So too, many apologies have been written to defend the Israelites and the orders of Yahweh. I will not attempt here a full analysis of this issue and construct my own detailed argument against the appropriateness of this command. My argument might actually be able to be sufficiently explained now, since it is quite brief and is mostly a response to the other arguments I’ve heard about this issue. The argument that a god’s command can make anything “right” and “just” is an argument that I find perfectly reasonable, actually. It all comes down to utilitarianism. If there is no other god opposing the wishes of the first god, the superior power and intelligence of the god makes submission to its will the most reasonable thing to do. Submission might not be morally obliged, but there is no moral reason to oppose the command. Any “intrinsic” value of the human lives involved would be negated by the value that could be placed on what the god could do. You might argue that the god should use its abilities in coordination with human society, but that would be a decision for the god, not a human choice.

In fact, that the god should use its power in peace with humanity is exactly what I’d argue, since I take a pro-human position. This is where the tension is created between the genocidal command of Yahweh about the Canaanites and the love for humanity exhibited in other passages of the Bible. It is completely within Yahweh’s rights to issue said command; however, there is more at issue than just the god’s obligations. We also must consider the wisdom of this command and implications for the welfare of humanity. In other words, reason does not dictate the obligations of gods should be the sole criterion by which humans evaluate gods’ commands. Therefore, it is completely appropriate that a command of genocide by a god would offend our moral sensibilities. This post is getting a little long (for me), so I think I’ll stop for now. I just want to remark on the slightly-amusing nature of the preceding paragraphs, which treat gods are an intelligible class of beings. Such is theology.

The “Day” of the Book of Joshua

December 27, 2011

Now that I’m finished with the book of Joshua, I will go back to some of it and give my thoughts. The first thing to ask about any piece of writing is, “When was it written?” For the book of Joshua, I don’t think it’s a helpful question to ask, “Who wrote it?” My guess was that it was compilers of traditions, molding those traditions to meet certain criteria, using traditions that had already been compiled by others. That’s completely speculation on my part, and I don’t know if there have been any good studies on this question. Even if we knew the answer, however, what would it really tell us? The time the book was written, on the other hand, would tell us much.

The book of Joshua uses the phrase “to this day” quite often. This is an internal statement of when it claims to have been written. The references where the phrase occurs in the narrative are as follows: Jos. 4:9, Jos. 5:9, Jos. 6:25, Jos. 7:26 (x2), Jos. 8:28, Jos. 8:29, Jos. 9:27, Jos. 13:13, Jos. 14:14, Jos. 15:63, and Jos.16:10. Most of this has to do with location names and ethnic groups. The more interesting references are Jos. 4:9, 6:25, the first usage in 7:26, and both occurrences in 8:28-29. Joshua 4:9 tells of landmark stones that the people of Israel set up in the midst of Jordan. I would expect these stones to have supposed to have been visible above the water. I suppose the reference to their still being there could just be of any set of stones in the river in that area, and those stones could have given rise to a legend about Joshua and his followers setting up stones after they crossed the river on dry ground.

Another possibility is that these stones were made later on as a hoax, and those stones had been placed in Jordan near the time the book of Joshua was written, or else they just stayed visible. I would expect a serious hoax to use stones with writing on them, and I’m not sure how long writing would last on stones in a river, even above the water level. There are two reasons I think the latter scenario is silly. First, the idea of a hoax seems very much like something from the fourth century CE or after. Second, and most important, raising up tall stones that are visible in the Jordan River, without being on dry ground within the river bed, seems to be an impossible task, and so it is implied to be in the book of Joshua. The three uses I mentioned in 7:26 and 8:28-29 only have to do with “heaps” of city ruins or stones. I don’t know long it would take back then, whenever “then” was, for a heap like these to be coved by other things, or how long an honest estimation from a chronicler would date such a heap, so that he or she could think a heap at the time was from all the way back in Joshua’s day.

Finally, the reference in Joshua 6:25 is the most interesting. Here seems to be a claim that the passage was written in Rahab’s own time. Perhaps this is a reference to her descendants, but descendants are never, as far as I know, traced by maternal ancestry in the Hebrew scriptures and traditions. So is this claim to Rahab’s continued presence in Israel just an anachronistic fabrication, “poetic” license, or an honest, historical record?