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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Thoughts on Gun Control - The Hitler Argument

Gun ControlI was talking to a coworker the other day, and the issue of gun control came up. I told him that I didn't have a very strong opinion on the matter, but that I find myself drifting towards wanting to see more restrictive regulations. His response was to bring up Hitler - Hitler took away the guns in Germany, and look what happened.

My coworker is obviously not the first person to make such an argument. If you do a Google image source for 'hitler gun control', you'll get lots of interesting results. Here are a couple examples, with the captions repeating part of the text for people still using text only browsers.

Hitler Gun Control Poster 1

"This year will go down in history. For the first time, a civilized nation has full gun registration. Our streets will be safer, our police more efficient, and the world will follow our lead into the future!" - source

Hitler Gun Control Poster 2

Remember this quote? "To conquer a nation, first disarm its citizens" -Adolph Hitler - source

There are a several points to look at here which I've addressed below.

Are the quotes true?

Simply put, no. This article from The Straight Dope, Did Hitler ban gun ownership?, deals effectively with the first supposed quote, and this article from Snopes, To Conquer a Nation, takes care of the second. There's no record that Hitler said those quotes attributed to him, or anything close enough to consider those as even mangled versions of real quotes. They're completely fabricated.

Did Hitler institute strict gun control measures in Germany?

This gets a little more complicated, but basically, no. Very strict gun control laws were put in place in Germany following WWI and the Treaty of Versailles, long before Hitler came to power. In 1919 and 1920, the Weimar government passed the Regulations on Weapons Ownership and the Law on the Disarmament of the People that in effect banned private gun ownership. In 1928, the Law on Firearms and Ammunition was passed which greatly relaxed Germany's gun control laws. Private gun ownership was allowed, but it wasn't a complete deregulation. People were required to have permits to own guns, separate permits to carry guns, and still more permits for the various aspects of the gun industry.

Hitler's rise to power began with the Great Depression. In 1933, he was appointed as chancellor. Throughout that year, he consolidated power for himself. When the president died the following year, the powers of that office were combined with the chancellor, giving Hitler practically full control of the government.

In 1938, a new gun control law was passed in Germany, now under Hitler's regime, the German Weapons Act. So, how did this new law change gun policy in the country. Here's how Alex Seitz-Wald described it in an article in Salon, The Hitler gun control lie.

The 1938 law signed by Hitler that LaPierre mentions in his book basically does the opposite of what he [LaPierre] says it did. "The 1938 revisions completely deregulated the acquisition and transfer of rifles and shotguns, as well as ammunition," Harcourt wrote. Meanwhile, many more categories of people, including Nazi party members, were exempted from gun ownership regulations altogether, while the legal age of purchase was lowered from 20 to 18, and permit lengths were extended from one year to three years.

However, and this is a big however, the law did prohibit Jews and other oppressed minorities from owning firearms.

So, Hitler loosened up gun control for most German citizens, while extending his already existing policies of oppression of minorities to exclude them from owning firearms.

Did gun control make a difference for the Jews and other peoples oppressed by the Nazis?

Well, it certainly didn't help them, but it's questionable how much differently history would have turned out if the Jews had had firearms. For one thing, the gun restrictions were only one of the many policies oppressing the Jews. And several of those other policies had been put in place before the Jews were banned from owning firearms, so obviously guns weren't used to fight those initial stages. And when the Jewish people did begin to revolt forcibly, it's still questionable just how much more they could have achieved against trained troops if they had had guns. Germany had conquered entire nations and armies - how much hope would there have been for untrained civilians?

John Stewart had a segment on the Daily Show a few nights ago that addressed this very issue. I've embedded the video below. It's very entertaining, if you have the time to watch it.

To quote the most relevant portion (dashes used to indicate either Stewart trailing off or waiting for applause/laughter to die down):

Look, I wish- You can never with certainty know how history might have been different (unless, of course, you have a Delorean with a flux capacitor, but I don't think-). I wish arms used in the ghetto could stop Hitler, but my feeling was, France couldn't. And I'm pretty sure they had guns. Russia- Russia- Russia had kind of a lot of guns, and they couldn't stop Hitler, until you factored in the wind chill. It's an awful lot to put on an oppressed minority when it took the free world five to six years of all out total war to stop that mother #@$!*#. So let's stop arguing these what ifs.

And to put this in perspective of the the modern day U.S., our military is huge. According to the article, The FY 2009 Pentagon Spending Request - Global Military Spending, in 2008 the U.S. alone accounted for 48% of the world's military spending. And this article with slightly newer data, America's staggering defense budget, in charts, shows that in 2011, the U.S. spent more on its military than the next 13 nations put together. So even if the conspiracy theorists were right, and the U.S. were to all of a sudden become a horrible dictatorship, any rebels would be going up against a military the equivalent of practically every single other nation combined. And if it were a dictatorship like Hitler's, with massive popular support, their resistance would be pretty small, indeed.

Are there any analogs in American history for comparison?

America's not Germany. For one thing, we've always had guns. So, can we say that we've put our Second Amendment rights to good use to keep oppression and atrocities from happening in this country?

Well, one of the most obvious examples is slavery. This was a horrible, horrible practice, making human beings the property of other people. And obviously, the slaves themselves weren't allowed to have guns, but white American citizens still had their guns. The white citizens could have banded together, and stood up in opposition to this oppression of their fellow human beings. Granted, there were a few who did this, like John Brown, but they didn't have anywhere near the numbers to pose an actual threat to the institution. And in fact, when the Civil War finally broke out, the ones using their guns to fight against the U.S. government were the ones fighting to continue the oppression. It was the government that was on the side of freedom.

Another example involves the treatment of the American Indians. Ever since the European discovery of the new world, there were a series of American Indian Wars, with the Europeans fighting to take away land from the Indians, and the Indians fighting to defend their land. Now, the Indians were able to acquire guns and fight back against the U.S. But, just as with the few armed uprisings against slavery, they never had enough numbers to be effective against the U.S. As just one example of how tragic these incidents could be, an estimated 4000 Cherokees died during the Trail of Tears, nearly a quarter of their population. But again, there was no widespread support from American citizens to defend these people who were being oppressed.

Since this post was prompted by a discussion of politics surrounding WWII, let's look at another example from this country from that very time period - Japanese American Internment Camps These were nowhere near as horrible as Nazi Concentration Camps, but they still involved the removal of American citizens and residents from their homes, and their relocation to prison camps. And these camps were guarded. There are documented cases of guards shooting prisoners attempting to walk outside of the fences. But again, there was no widespread organized effort to stop the government from this oppression.

As one final example, not including as many people as the previous examples, but much more current, consider Guantanamo. Here is a situation where the U.S. has kidnapped citizens from other countries, placed them in a detention facility without a trial, and then declared that they will be held indefinitely. These are not prisoners of war in any conventional sense. In the 'War' on Terror, there's no opposing government that we can expect to some day sign a treaty with to end hostilities, at which point we'd release the detainees. These prisoners are suspects of crimes. To hold them without due process is shameful. But rather than widespread outrage at this miscarriage of justice, 70% of Americans approve of Obama keeping the prison open (source - Washington Post).


There are legitimate debates to have concerning gun rights and gun control. But let's stop pretending that protecting ourselves against the government is one of them. There is no grand tradition of armed American citizens standing together in opposition to oppression. The peoples who have been wronged have been too few in number to effectively protect themselves, and the rest of the country has either looked the other way, or been part of the majority calling for their oppression in the first place.

As an additional note, let me stress that I'm not advocating armed insurrection to fight these problems. The Civil Rights Movement had its greatest successes through the use of non-violent means, like boycotting and civil disobedience. The most effective uprisings in the Arab Spring were protesters, not armed revolutionaries. Heck, just look at the Wikipedia entry on Nonviolent Resistance for a long list of examples.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book Review - The Magic of Reality

I really wanted to like Richard Dawkins' latest book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True, and parts of it I did, but in other parts I was disappointed.

The good - Richard Dawkins has a knack for coming up with really good, easy to understand explanations for difficult subjects. For example, in the chapter on 'Who was the first person?', he asked the reader to imagine a stack of photos starting with your mother, then grandmother, then great grandmother, and on and on. Each photo would look pretty similar to the one that came before it, but also a little bit different. Go back far enough, and you'll find an ancestor that no longer looks human, but at no point would any photos look terribly different from those around them. In other words, if you picked photos thousands of generations apart, you'd be able to say that there had definitely been change, but going through photo by photo you'd never be able to pinpoint a generation where one species became another. I also liked his explanation of orbits. It's the same explanation I've used to explain it to people. Imagine a canon on top of a tower, with the canon aimed parallel to the ground. When you fire it, the canon ball will go some distance before hitting the ground. Fire it faster, and the ball will go farther before hitting the ground. But remember that the Earth is curved, and that it's curving away from the path of the cannonball. So, the faster the ball is initially fired, the more you'll notice that curvature, making it take longer for the ball to hit the ground than if the world were flat. Fire the ball fast enough, and even though it will always be falling, the curved path it takes will match the curve of the earth, and it'll never actually hit the earth (ignoring air resistance). That's an orbit.

The bad - After skimming through the Amazon reviews, it appears that I'm in the minority on this, but I just didn't like the illustrations. Many were collage-like. The drawings of people especially were rather ugly in my opinion. After reading something like Carl Zimmer's The Tangled Bank and seeing all the wonderful illustrations and photos in that book, you realize just how much better this book could have been with better visuals. Just as an example, here's one of the pictures from the book. (Note that I took the picture with my phone, then adjusted the skew and colors on my computer, so apologies for the less than optimum quality. But the distorted looking face is not due to my manipulations - that's how it actually looks in the book.)

Illustration from The Magic of Reality

After reading Dawkins' previous book, The Greatest Show on Earth, and then this one, it seems like he really does have an axe to grind with religion. Now, as anyone who reads this blog will know, I'm no fan of religion myself, but I also recognize that there's a time and place for everything. I rather like the idea that Dawkins compared the actual explanations for how things work to mythical explanations (including myths from the Bible). But I think he should have stopped there. When he specifically denounced religious stories, those sections crossed over from being The Magic of Reality into The God Delusion for Kids. Just to show what I mean, here's an excerpt. Dawkins had just introduced the reader to the Cherry Tree Carol, a story of Jesus commanding a cherry tree to lower its branches to provide Mary with its cherries.

You won't find the cherry-tree story in any ancient holy book. Nobody, literally nobody who is at all knowledgeable or well educated, thinks it is anything but fiction. Plenty of people think the water-into-wine story is true, but everybody agrees that the cherry-tree story is fiction. The cherry-tree story was made up only about 500 years ago. The water-into-wine story is older. It appears in one of the four gospels of the Christian religion (the Gospel of John: none of the other three, as it happens), but there is no reason to believe it is anything but a made-up story - just one made up a few centuries earlier than the one about the cherry tree. All four of the gospels, by the way, were written long after the events that they purport to describe, and not one of them by an eye witness. It is safe to conclude that the water-into-wine story is pure fiction, just like the cherry-tree story.

It's not that I disagree with Dawkins on this point, or that I think children should be shielded from discussions of religion, it's just that I think it was wandering a bit too far from the main focus of this book. For an example of a book that I think spent just the right amount of effort debunking religion without straying too far from the far more interesting true story, consider Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True.

My final criticism involves wondering just who this book is for. Of course, the explicitly anti-religious sections will turn off many people, but even for the more open minded, I'm not sure this book is attractive enough to convince them to read it. The Amazon description states in part that it's for "readers of all ages," so I assume it's for teenagers and adults, especially those that don't yet understand all the phenomena it explains. But I'm not sure how many of those people will actually read the book. I practically begged my wife and daughter to read even just one chapter from the book so that I could get their take on it, since they're almost exactly the target demographic. But I couldn't convince either one to do so. Granted, that's only a sample size of two, but I fear this book will be more preaching to the choir than expanding scientific understanding to the masses.

But like I wrote before, the good parts are very good. So, if you're interested at all in the world around you but don't remember all the lessons from your school science classes, this is probably a good book to read.

Updated 2013-02-04 Modified parenthetical note about illustration to make it clear that I haven't distorted the image.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Friday Bible Blogging - Leviticus 11 to Leviticus 20

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

BibleOkay, I know this is Monday, which doesn't exactly fit with the title of this series, but I got a bit busy last week.

Chapters 11 through 20 of Leviticus continue on with more rules. Chapters 11 through 16 continue with what, according to the New Oxford Annotated Bible and other sources, is most likely from the Priestly sources. Chapter 17 switched to the Holiness code, most likely added by later scribes (as opposed to coming from another independent source).

Leviticus, Chapter 11

Chapter 11 started off the major dietary rules of the Bible. Although there were a few previously, these get into what most people think of when they think of Kosher foods. For example, "Any animal that has divided hoofs and is cloven-footed and chews the cud--such you may eat," or, "The pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cloven-footed, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you."

This chapter included a few passages that get quoted often by skeptics because of their incorrect descriptions of animals, such as this one saying that hares chew cud, "The hare, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you," and this one describing four legged insects, "All winged insects that walk upon all fours are detestable to you."

It wasn't just about which animals were okay to eat or not. Even touching the carcass of an unclean animal made a person unclean until the evening. Also, different objects (clothes, pots, ovens) were able to be contaminated by contact with unclean carcasses. Some of these were allowed to be purified through rituals. Others were ruined and had to be discarded

Leviticus, Chapter 12

This was a very short chapter (only 8 verses) dealing with a woman's uncleanliness after childbirth, how long she was unclean, and the animals she was to offer at the end of that period. Interestingly this chapter states that a woman is unclean for two weeks after giving birth to a girl, but only one week after giving birth to a boy. Just one more example of the Bible reflecting the sexism of its times.

Leviticus, Chapter 13

The majority of this chapter dealt with skin diseases. Although these are often translate as leprosy, the NRSV has a footnote saying that the precise meaning of the term is unclear, and that it probably refers to a variety of diseases.

The first 44 verses basically deal with diagnosis. There's a fairly generalized form that these verses followed. Once the symptoms are noticed, the person is to go to the priest to be examined. For a few cases, a diagnosis could be made on the spot, but more generally, the priest would re-examine the person after a specified period to see how the symptoms had progressed, and then pronounce a diagnosis. Sometimes, depending on the course of the disease, there might be an additional waiting period.

Chapters 45 and 46 told what a person was to do once diagnosed with a leprous disease. It seems pretty extreme by modern standards, "45 The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be dishevelled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, 'Unclean, unclean.' 46 He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp."

The remainder of the chapter dealt with leprous diseases of fabrics. This, then, was most likely about mildew and mold. In some cases, the fabric could be washed, and if the leprous disease didn't spread, then the article was okay. However, anything that was pronounced to have a leprous disease had to be burned.

Leviticus, Chapter 14

The first half of this chapter was on the rituals to be performed once a person with a leprous disease has been healed. The first ritual involves "two living clean birds and cedar wood and crimson yarn and hyssop". Only one of the birds is actually killed. The other is dipped in the blood of the sacrificed bird before being set free. After bathing, washing his clothes, and shaving all his hair, the newly cured person can reenter the camp, but still can't move back into his tent for seven days.

Once the seven days are up, there are more rituals. On the seventh day, the person is to shave all of their hair, "head, beard, eyebrows", bathe, and wash his clothes again. On the eighth day, there are more offerings. This time, there are two male lambs, neither of which escapes being sacrificed. There are also grain offerings and oil. The details of these offerings are pretty specific, including which hand to pour what into. There was also a repeat of something I noticed last week, putting oil on the right ear lob, right thumb, and right big toe. There was an alternative version of these sacrifices if the person couldn't afford two lambs.

The remainder of the chapter dealt with leprous diseases of houses and buildings, for once the Hebrews arrived in the promised land. Like for fabrics, this presumably meant mold and mildew. In some cases, a building could be immediately diagnosed. If it was pronounced to be infected with leprous diseases, it was to be torn down and taken to an unclean place outside the city. Other times, people would have to move out of the house for a period of time until the priest could re-examine it. If the house became healed, there was a very similar ritual to when a person became healed, with birds, cedar, hyssop, and crimson yarn. And just like in that ritual, one of the birds was dipped in the blood of the sacrificed bird before being released.

Leviticus, Chapter 15

This chapter dealt with emissions of bodily fluids, and how this made the person unclean. For example, "When any man has a discharge from his member, his discharge makes him ceremonially unclean." Anyone or anything who came into contact with that man while he was still unclean also became unclean. Once cleansed and after waiting seven days, the man would finally be clean again, upon which he offered two turtle-doves or pigeons to be sacrificed.

If a man has a discharge of semen, he is unclean, but also "Everything made of cloth or of skin on which the semen falls shall be washed with water, and be unclean until the evening." This brought up a picture of those investigators going into hotel rooms with UV lights. If the man ejaculated into a woman, then they both need to bath and are unclean until evening.

When a woman is on her period, the uncleanliness is basically the same as when a man "has a discharge from his member". Anything or anyone who touches her also becomes unclean. It is assumed that her period will last no longer than seven days. If it lasts longer, she'll be unclean for seven days from when it finally stops, plus she'll have to offer two turtle-doves or pigeons to be sacrificed.

Leviticus, Chapter 16

For the most part, this chapter dealt with rules for priests. Like I've written before, the stakes were much higher for priests back then. If they didn't follow the Lord's rules exactly, they would die. These were rather detailed instructions to the priests on on what to wear, when to bathe, animals to sacrifice (there were a lot), and other rituals.

There was one passage in particular that caught my eye. Aaron was to take two goats to the tent of meeting. Then, he was to cast lots to determine their fates. When God is but feet away, casting lots seems an odd way to determine his will. Once the lots were cast, one of the goats was to be sacrificed as a sin offering. But the other one, "the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, so that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel." Is Azazel a demon, angel, or another god?

Later on was another description of a scape goat, where the priest would "confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task." This seems a rather arbitrary way to forgive sins.

The final verses prescribed a statute that was supposed to last forever, "In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month," everybody was to fast and do no work at all, for it was a day of atonement. The priests were given specific atonement tasks for the day, as well.

Leviticus, Chapter 17

This chapter is supposedly the start of the Holiness Code (H). This first H chapter was rather short and dealt with regulations on animal sacrifice. It prohibited any slaughterings or sacrifices of animals without taking the animal to the tent of meeting. This was apparently "so that they may no longer offer their sacrifices for goat-demons, to whom they prostitute themselves." This rule must have been intended for when the Israelites were still wandering the desert. There's no way it would work logistically one people begin to spread out.

There was also a repeat of the prohibition against consuming blood, and a directive to drain all the blood from an animal before eating it. At least there was som reasoning offered, "For the life of every creature--its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off."

Leviticus, Chapter 18

This chapter was a detailed list of things not to do, that supposedly the Canaanites had been doing. It started with a long list of people whose nakedness you can't uncover. For example, "You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's wife's daughter, begotten by your father, since she is your sister."

This chapter contains a verse oft quoted by today's bigots, "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination." This was right before a verse prohibiting bestiality.

One rule seemed out of place, like it was inserted in between the sexual prohibitions, "You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord." Unsurprisingly, there's no evidence that the Canaanites actually practiced child sacrifice.

Verse 26 made it clear that these prohibitions were not just for the Hebrews, but also for the aliens who resided among them.

Leviticus, Chapter 19

More rules, mostly unrelated to each other. Many of these were repetitious of rules that had already been given (some even echoing the Ten Commandments). There were a few that stood out for being good, such as, "9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God," and, "15 You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour."

There were also a few that seem odd by modern standards, such as, "27 You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. 28 You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord," and, "31 Do not turn to mediums or wizards; do not seek them out, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God."

There was also a rule that any Christian would recognize, "18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord."

Leviticus, Chapter 20

This chapter started with another mention of Molech. But not only was it a prohibition against child sacrifice, but also a threat to the Israelites that the Lord would punish them if they themselves didn't put to death the people who had practiced child sacrifice. Next were a few verses against mediums and wizards, then a repeat of, "All who curse father or mother shall be put to death".

Next came a list of sexual crimes that were to be punished with death. These included adultery, lying with your father's wife, homosexuality, etc. Although the methods of execution weren't detailed in most cases, this one seemed particularly cruel, "If a man takes a wife and her mother also, it is depravity; they shall be burned to death, both he and they, that there may be no depravity among you."

Next came a list of sexual crimes that apparently weren't as severe, since the punishments didn't include death.

Verses 22 through 26 were general language about following the Lord's commandments.

The final verse of the chapter mentioned mediums and wizards again, this time saying that they should be stoned to death.


I know I let my review of these chapters grow a little longer than most of these entries, but there were so many rules that I wanted to point out. Leviticus is, after all, one of the main sources of The Law. And although there were some good points, reading through these chapters makes it's pretty clear that these aren't the best sources of morality. Aside from the barbaric practice of animal sacrifice, some of the rules are simply arbitrary with no moral reasoning behind them, some allowances and prohibitions are out of line with decent moral guidelines, and many of the punishments are way too extreme for the crime, sometimes too extreme for any crime. These chapters also reveal a different mindset from the modern day. Sin and uncleanliness aren't merely symbolic or affecting only the guilty - they can contaminate anything that comes into contact with them.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Website Update - Reorganized 'God- or Gorilla?' Entries

God or Gorilla PicWhen I first posted the entries in my 'God - or Gorilla?' series, I posted them in both my Books and Skepticism, Religion categories. But just playing around and looking over my site, I realize that the 'God- or Gorilla?' posts kind of clutter those categories if you're just wanting to browse. So, I decided to make a subcategory under books called God - Or Gorilla?, and to move all of those posts into that new category. I left the first post in the 'Books' and 'Skepticism, Religion' categories so that people browsing through those will at least know of the existence of this series. So, if you're really interested in the 'God- or Gorilla?' posts, you can now find them all in one place. And if you don't like them all that much, you don't have to wade through them when reading the other entries.

Book Review - Dracula

I wasn't particularly impressed with this book, but it is a classic. Although there were vampire legends going back to prehistoric times, and vampire stories and novels that pre-dated this one, Bram Stoker's Dracula is the book that gave rise to the modern vampire genre and cemented many of the features now associated with vampires, though later film and stage adaptations have modified the image a bit.

The story starts off with a young British solicitor, Jonathon Harker, traveling to Transylvania to help provide legal support to Count Dracula in an international real estate transaction. Specifically, the Count is looking to buy property in England. It doesn't take Harker long to realize that Dracula is not merely a rich nobleman, but by then Harker has been imprisoned in Dracula's castle. The Count does complete his purchase of property in England and relocates there. Once mysterious goings on begin happening in England, it's up to a group of men led by Dr. Abraham Van Helsing to stop Dracula before he can become fully entrenched in his new locale and cause untold suffering.

The book was written in what Wikipedia tells me is an epistolary format. In other words, it was written "as a series of letters, diary entries, ships' log entries, and so forth." Personally, I'm not a huge fan of that type of writing. At times, it can feel contrived, when the author has to include details that wouldn't normally be included in the type of document supposedly being quoted. For example, the description of Dr. Van Helsing from Mina Harker's journal seems much more specific and detailed than something that someone would actually write in a journal.

a man of medium weight, strongly built, with his shoulders set back over a broad, deep chest and a neck well balanced on the trunk as the head is on the neck. The poise of the head strikes me at once as indicative of thought and power. The head is noble, well-sized, broad, and large behind the ears. The face, clean-shaven, shows a hard, square chin, a large resolute, mobile mouth, a good-sized nose, rather straight, but with quick, sensitive nostrils, that seem to broaden as the big bushy brows come down and the mouth tightens. The forehead is broad and fine, rising at first almost straight and then sloping back above two bumps or ridges wide apart, such a forehead that the reddish hair cannot possibly tumble over it, but falls naturally back and to the sides. Big, dark blue eyes are set widely apart, and are quick and tender or stern with the man's moods.

But even with those portions aside, these types of epistolary stories to me just seem distracting and don't flow as well as stories told by a more traditional narrator.

The story also contained an irritating characterization of a scientist that has by now become the stereotype in movies and TV - despite the overwhelming evidence that something strange is going on, the scientist is skeptical of a supernatural explanation simply because scientists dismiss the supernatural out of hand. I'm not the only one who noticed the digs at science. Here's an excerpt from The City in Literature: An Intellectual and Cultural History by Richard Daniel Lehan. I suppose that this is just part of my general problem with Romanticism being a backlash against the Enlightenment.

Warning: Excerpt contains slight spoilers

Dracula's savagery takes on pagan intensity; it is restrained only by religious devices like the crucifix and garlic leaves (connected with the divinity of Christ). Stoker seems to be suggesting, as Richard Wasson has pointed out, that technological progress has cut humanity off from dark knowledge, making civilization increasingly unaware of and hence vulnerable to demonic powers (Wasson, 24-25). As the novel moves toward its conclusion and the death of Dracula, Seward becomes more open-minded and more aware of a balance between the power of cult forces and science, recognizing the limits of the latter. He has seen how vulnerable modern institutions are when viewed through the prism of cult primitivism.

I could go on listing my annoyances with this novel, but instead I'll just link to the Dracula page on TVTropes.org, which lists quite a few of the bad plot devices and tropes used in the story. One of my favorite tropes from that page is something they call the "Idiot Ball", described elsewhere on the site as:

This is generally not a compliment on the writing because the person carrying the idiot ball is often acting out of character, misunderstanding something that could be cleared up by asking a single reasonable question or performing a simple problem-solving action, but that he isn't doing solely because the writers don't want him to. It's almost as if the character is being willfully stupid or obtuse rather than that being the character's natural default character.

I won't include an example here of someone from Dracula carrying the idiot ball because I don't want to spoil the plot for people who haven't yet read the book, but the TV Tropes page gives a good example.

The book wasn't horrible, but I certainly didn't think it was great or worthy of its reputation, either. I suppose it's worth reading because of the influence it's had, but don't expect a masterpiece.

Update 2013-03-06 - Added the Idiot Ball example from TV Tropes, to give an example of what to expect on that page.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Books, A Year in Review - 2012, Part II

Old Book Bindings, from Wikimedia Commons It's taken me a little longer than normal, but here is the second part of my review of the books I read in the last year (or more precisely, from October 2011 through October 2012). Part I was an analysis of my reading habits, while this entry will give a brief review for each book.

As has become my custom, I'll use this space to list my favorite books from the year. While there were several good ones, three stood out in particular. The first was The Night Circus, which created a truly magical setting in all senses of the word. The other two were Out Came the Sun: One Family's Triumph over a Rare Genetic Syndrome and Stealth Fighter: A Year in the Life of an F-117 Pilot. I'm probably a little biased in that I personally know the writers of both of those books, but they were very interesting.

While I was writing the reviews for this entry, a few of the reviews grew a little longer than I'd anticipated. They're more in depth than is appropriate for this collection and deserve their own blog entries, so I'm pulling them out and replacing them with shorter reviews. Expect to see those full reviews on their own in the coming week or two as I polish them a bit more.

Here's a list of all the books reviewed below. Click on any of the titles to jump to that review.

Children's & Young Adult Fiction

Adult Fiction




Guardians of Ga'hoole, Books 1-3
by Kathryn Lasky

I watched the Legend of the Guardians movie that was based on this series and liked it, so when I saw a volume with the first three books of this series combined, I decided to pick it up and read it. If you watched the movie, first, then be aware that there are a multitude of differences between the two versions. Both contain flying warrior owls with their weapons and armor, and have several of the same characters, but the movie is missing many important characters, and the plot lines are a bit different.

These first three books covered just about the same span as the movie. A young barn owl, Soren, falls from his nest and is kidnapped by a patrol of owls from St. Aegolius Academy for Orphaned Owls, or St. Aggie's, where he is made into a slave. He has further adventures and there are more characters, but I don't want to spoil the story for those that haven't read it, yet.

Overall, I liked the stories. They reminded me a bit of Watership Down, but with a lot more fantasy. I'll probably go on to read more in the series, which totals fifteen books (though if they're all on the same level as the first three, they won't take too long to read).


The Dragonkeeper Trilogy
by Carole Wilkinson

These books are set in the ancient Han Empire of China. The main character starts the story as a lonely slave girl, with no parents and without even a name. She works for Master Lan, taking care of the imperial dragons. After one of the dragons dies, she, the remaining dragon, and her pet rat escape and their adventure begins. And of course, the second and third books continue the adventure, but I can't summarize those without revealing too much of what happened in the first book.

My daughter highly recommended these books to me. At the time, they were her favorite books. I liked them as well, if not quite so enthusiastically as my daughter. I haven't read too many stories from the same setting, so that added a bit of interest.


Kaimira: The Sky Village: Book One
by Monk Ashland and Nigel Ashland

I've already written somewhat of a review of this book. I pointed out that although it was supposed to be the start of a series, it appears that the remaining books of the series are never going to be published.

The book is set in a future post apocalyptic world, after a three way war had been fought between humans, meks, and beasts. At the time the story takes place, there's a sort of relative peace due to each of the three factions having their own territories, but there's still quite a bit of fighting at the borders.

There are two main characters, initially with no real knowledge of each other. Mei Long lives in China. She was raised in a typical village, but when she was 12, her father returned her to the Sky Village where she had been born - a collection of hot air ballons and hanging buildings connected with a web of ropes. Rom Saint-Pierre lives in what is left of Las Vegas - deserted buildings constantly under the prowl of the beasts, before finding a shadowy underworld, literally underground in a network of tunnels.

The book was good. I especially liked the descriptions of the Sky Village and how the people there got along, even if the engineer in me was constantly screaming of the impossibility (or at least extreme unlikelihood) of such a system. And even if it wasn't the best story I'd ever read, it was still pretty good, and it was disappointing to find out that I'll probably never have the chance to read how the story ends.


The Hunger Games Series
by Suzanne Collins

Unless you've been living under a cave, you hardly need me to tell you about this story. It takes place in a dystopian future in the nation of Panem. While the residents of the Capitol live in luxury, those of the districts live in squalor, being severely oppressed by the government. As punishment for past rebellion against the Capitol, an event known as the Hunger Games takes place once a year. One boy and one girl from each district are offered up as tribute (a few volunteer, but most are chosen in a lottery), to fight to the death in the arena. This isn't exactly gladiatorial combat, however. The arena is huge, and the contest lasts for weeks. It's as much a test of wilderness survival as combat skill, not to mention behind the scenes politics in winning sponsors.

In the first book, we meet Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers for the Hunger Games after her younger sister was initially picked in the lottery. I can't really describe the other two books very much without giving away too much from the first. I'll just say that they continue the adventure.

The series was pretty good, if a little dark and sad. I feel that the third book lost the pace and seemed to drag a bit at times, but overall the story moved along nicely, and had a satisfying conclusion.


by Christopher Paolini

This is the fourth and final book of the Inheritance Cycle, perhaps better known for the name of the first book and the main character, Eragon. At the risk of spoilers for the first three books, this one continues on with the story. Eragon and his dragon, Saphira, must figure out a way to defeat Galbatorix now that their mentors, Oromis and Glaedr have been killed. The same cast is still there - Nasuada of the Varden, Eragon's brother, Roran, Arya the elf, the Urgals, dwarves, and everyone else.

Eragon made a big splash when it was first released, largely because the author, Christopher Paolini, was only 15 years old when he wrote the first draft, and was still only 19 when his parents self-published the book. Although the books have been fairly popular, they're not without their detractors. I've heard them compared to Star Wars with dragons instead of X-Wings, which really isn't a horrible comparison. However, as long as you know not to expect too much, they're entertaining enough. They also touch on a few thought provoking philosophical discussions, such as religion and the meaning of existence.

This final book wasn't perfect. Some of the battle scenes were a little long for my taste, it didn't have as many of the philosophical discussions that I'd enjoyed from the previous books, and a few of the plot resolutions felt a bit too much like deus ex machina. But overall, Inheritance was a pretty good book, and a fitting conclusion to the series. I'd certainly recommend it.

As a final note, I'll add that my daughter read the entire series this year, and she loved it. She read the whole thing in a couple weeks, which is no small feat for a middle school student, especially considering that this last book was 880 pages long. It's surpassed Dragonkeeper as one of her favorites.


The Outsiders
by S.E. Hinton

This book is one of the standards for school reading lists. In fact, it was after my daughter was assigned to read it over the summer that she recommended it to me. The story takes place in the mid '60s, and is told from the point of view of 'Ponyboy' Curtis, a 14 year old 'Greaser' and the youngest of the Curtis brothers. He's taken care of by his oldest brother, Darry, since their parents had been killed in a car crash. Much of the book focuses on the conflict between the Greasers and the 'Socs' (pronounced Soshes, as it's short for Socials). After a group of Socs jumped Ponyboy and his best friend, Johnny, things went horribly wrong, and the rest of the book was about the repercussions. Among the themes this book deals with are stereotypes, class distinctions, and family problems. It's written in a very compelling manner. There's a reason it's a standard in schools.


Anansi Boys
by Neil Gaiman

To quote part of the review from Publisher's Weekly, "Fat Charlie Nancy's normal life is turned upside down when his father dies and a brother he never knew he had shows up at his doorstep. When that brother, Spider, starts to wear out his welcome, Fat Charlie learns that his father was not a man but the trickster god, Anansi, and both he and Spider have inherited some of Dad's godliness. This leads Fat Charlie to explore his own godly heritage in order to be rid of Spider."

This wasn't my favorite of Neil Gaman's books. I much preferred Coraline and Stardust. Anansi Boys was intended to be humorous, but much of the intended humor just didn't do it for me. And the plot wasn't as engrossing as I would have liked. Still, calling a book my least favorite of Neil Gaman's books isn't particularly derogatory. It was decent, and worth reading if you read more than a handful of books a year. It definitely didn't turn me off to Gaiman, and I still intend to read more of his books in the future.


The Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern

A friend loaned me this book, and I'm glad she did. It was one of my favorite books that I read last year. Set mainly in Victorian England, the book focuses on two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained to hone their powers since they were children. Their caretakers bound them to a mysterious competition while they were still very young, but that didn't begin to actually play out until they were young adults. An 'arena' was created for the sole purpose of hosting their competition - Le Cirque des RĂªves, or The Circus of Dreams. This traveling circus appears suddenly in towns without any warning or announcement. One day there's an empty field, and the next day the black and white striped canvas tents of the circus are there, fully set up and ready for customers. However, the circus doesn't open until night fall, and closes again by the next morning. The circus will stay in town for a few nights or longer, before leaving just as suddenly for its next destination. Despite not knowing the full rules of their competition, and without even knowing the identity of their competitor, Celia and Marco strive to outdo each other by creating magical attractions to the circus, but never revealing to the public that it's actual magic. The settings created in the story are truly 'magical', in every sense of that word. It's one of those stories that leaves you wishing its world was real, because you would so much like to visit it. I heartily recommend this book.


by Bram Stoker

A full review of this book can be found here.

Of course, this book is a classic. Although there were vampire legends going back to prehistoric times, and vampire stories and novels that pre-dated this one, Bram Stoker's Dracula is the book that gave rise to the modern vampire genre and cemented many of the features now associated with vampires, though later film and stage adaptations have modified the image a bit.

The villain of the story, Count Dracula, the vampire from Transylvania, has decided to relocate to England to take advantage of new and unsuspecting victims. It's up to the heroes of the story to stop him before he can become fully entrenched in his new locale.

The book wasn't horrible, but I certainly didn't think it was great or worthy of its reputation, either. I suppose it's worth reading because of the influence it's had, but don't expect a masterpiece.


God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
by Christopher Hitchens

This was the first book I read for the year, so I have to admit that my memory's a bit fuzzy on details. But I'll still give it my best shot.

This was the first book I've read by Christopher Hitchens. And now that I've read it, I can understand why his death was such a blow to the skeptical community. The breadth of knowledge and variety of sources he draws from in his writing is truly amazing. And his wit was certainly evident.

This book lived up to its subtitle. It wasn't meant as a treatise on why religion is false, although it certainly provided reasons. This book moved on from that conclusion, and looked at all the harm that religion causes. It even had a section on Mother Teresa (read this article for examples of Hitchens' criticisms against the woman).

The book wasn't without its faults. At times, it seemed that Hitchens was prone to hyperbole. For example, on page 99, in reference to the Ten Commandments, he wrote, "It would be harder to find an easier proof that religion is man-made," and just a few pages later on page 116 he wrote, "But the case of the Virgin Birth is the easiest possible proof that humans were involved in the manufacture of a legend."

Overall though, the book was very good. If someone asks you, 'so what if religion isn't true, what harm can come from somebody believing it, anyway,' just direct them to this book.


The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb
by R. Crumb

A full review of this book can be found here.

This book was very interesting. It was the complete Book of Genesis illustrated as a graphic novel by the noted artist, R. Crumb. And when I say the whole thing, I mean everything, even the begat sections. If you've read the Book of Genesis in the Bible, of course you'll already be familiar with the text. But it is interesting to see the illustrations by Crumb. It adds a new dimension to the stories, though obviously influenced by Crumb's interpretation of the book. If you have the time, this is an interesting way to read the Book of Genesis.


The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus
by Lee Strobel

I can't really review this book in depth, because I only read a bit of the beginning. I received this book at the same time and from the same friend that loaned me More Than a Carpenter. I intended to do a similar review, and was taking notes as I read it to help me down the road when it came time to writing the review, but I got bogged down in the effort and ended up not finishing the book.

From the little I had read, I wasn't terribly impressed. First, from skimming through it, I noticed something that has been noted in several other reviews I've read of the book - it was very one sided. He only presented the views of apologists and Christians, and none by skeptics or atheists. This was especially irksome because Strobel had touted his journalist credentials and said he was going to do his investigation with a journalistic approach. And granted, I know there can be problems with false balance, but at least make the attempt.

Here's an example from Strobel's interview with Craig Blomberg (I only made it partway through that interview before abandoning the book). Blomberg offered several unconvincing arguments I'd heard before. But when he dismissed the Q hypothesis as "nothing more than a hypothesis", and Strobel simply accepted that statement without asking Blomberg any questions on it, or even noting in the book that there were quite a few respected Biblical scholars who would disagree strongly with Blomberg, I knew that Strobel wasn't going to give a balanced presentation.

For a more detailed review of The Case for Christ, check out The Rest of the Story, a review by Jeffery J. Lowder. For my part, I think I'll try to give this book another shot in the future, but without taking such detailed notes so that I don't get bogged down again. From what I have read of the book, due to its bias, I can't recommend it to someone sincerely interested in this topic unless they also have quite a bit of other knowledge on the subject or are planning to read other sources offering alternative viewpoints.


The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True
by Richard Dawkins

A full review of this book can be found here.

I really wanted to like this book, and parts of it I did, but in other parts I was disappointed. When Richard Dawkins is at his best, he really shines. He just has a knack for coming up with really good, easy to understand explanations for difficult subjects. But it seems to me that he has an axe to grind with religion. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of religion myself, but when Dawkins strayed into attacking religion in this book, it seemed to be going outside the scope of what the book should have been about, and distracting from the book's main message. I wasn't a huge fan of the illustrations in the book, either. Still, the good parts were so good that if you're interested at all in the world around you but don't remember all the lessons from your school science classes (or are too young to have yet had all those lessons), this is probably a good book to read.


Stealth Fighter: A Year in the Life of an F-117 Pilot
by Lt. Col. William B. O'Connor USAF (ret.)

This book was actually written by my next door neighbor, so I may not be the most unbiased reviewer. But I have to say that I liked this book very much. It follows one year in the life of O'Connor (it feels a bit odd referring to my neighbor so formally). He was a USAF fighter pilot who had flown quite a few planes over his career, but had never been in a combat situation. As he wrote, it's not that pilots want for there to be wars, but they don't like being left behind when their comrades go off to put their lives on the line.

At a point in his career when he wasn't exactly expecting it, O'Connor was assigned to fly the F-117 Stealth Fighter. Though fighter is somewhat of a misnomer as the aircraft was used almost exclusively to drop bombs at ground based targets, and especially laser guided precision bombs. It was while he was still with his F-117 squadron that the Kosovo War broke out, and O'Connor finally flew in combat, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross.

There were several aspects of the book that made it interesting to read. Probably the most obvious are the insights into the F-117, including the aircraft itself, along with the tactics used in flying it (as O'Connor pointed out, stealth is just as much about tactics as technology). I found it amazing the precision achieved in coordinating attacks - sometimes having to be at an exact location within a window of mere seconds. There was also the description of the Kosovo War, and the frustrations from the warfighter when the targets and operations were based more on politics than tactical concerns. And then there was the look into military culture, and fighter pilot culture in particular.

If you're interested in military history or aviation, this is a very worthwhile book to read.


Out Came the Sun: One Family's Triumph over a Rare Genetic Syndrome
by Judith Scott

This is another book where I may be a little biased. This one was written by one of my high school English teachers. When Scott and her husband decided to have their first child, their joy at being new parents was quickly tempered when their daughter was diagnosed with an extremely rare genetic disorder, Partial Trisomy 13. The geneticist told them that their daughter would likely never even walk or talk. Despite being devastated by the news, they did about all they could do, and soldiered on in raising their daughter. Luckily, Emily's achievements exceded the geneticists initial expectations. By the end of the book, she was even going to school on her own.

The book was just as much about Scott as it was about her daughter. It described the strains put on her and her family, and was very honest in the telling, sometimes brutally so. She discussed her eating disorder as well as difficulties in her marriage. As a parent myself, I tried to empathize with Scott. There were some small ways in which I could, but to be honest, their challenges were so much greater than anything my family has had to face, that it's difficult to relate to what they must have gone through.

Scott's story was no Hallmark movie. There was no miraculous ending where Emily's condition magically disappeared. She will continue to face hard challenges throughout her life. However, it's gratifying to see how the family has coped. Scott and her husband even went on to have more children. For a frank look at what it's like to raise a child with developmental problems, I recommend this book.


City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction
by David Macaulay

This is the second book I've read by David Macaulay. The first was Castle, which I reviewed last year. This book was nearly as good. It used Macaulay's trademark style of elaborate ink drawings with short descriptions on each page. This time, he turned his attention to a Roman city - how the Romans decided when and where to build, then how they would plan and layout the city, then the actual construcion of the city, and finally what it was like to live there once the city was built. With so little text, the book won't take you long to complete, but you'll definitely enjoy the time you spend on it, and you'll probably learn a thing or two in the process.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Friday Bible Blogging - Leviticus 1 to Leviticus 10

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

BibleLeviticus continues on with the story of Moses and the Israelites. However, it focuses more on rules than the narrative, dealing with quite a few that have to do with animal sacrifice.

Leviticus, Chapter 1

Chapter 1 started right off with describing animal sacrifices. To give a taste of how these sacrifices worked, I'll quote the entire set of instructions for one particular type of sacrifice.

3 If the offering is a burnt-offering from the herd, you shall offer a male without blemish; you shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, for acceptance in your behalf before the Lord. 4 You shall lay your hand on the head of the burnt-offering, and it shall be acceptable in your behalf as atonement for you. 5 The bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord; and Aaron's sons the priests shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 6 The burnt-offering shall be flayed and cut up into its parts. 7 The sons of the priest Aaron shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. 8 Aaron's sons the priests shall arrange the parts, with the head and the suet, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar; 9 but its entrails and its legs shall be washed with water. Then the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt-offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odour to the Lord.

The chapter went on to describe burnt-offerings from the flock, and burnt-offerings of birds. The bird offering included a couple grisly details. The priest was to wring off its head by hand. And in verse 17, he's directed to "tear it open by its wings without severing it."

Leviticus, Chapter 2

Chapter 2 covered grain offerings, including those "baked in the oven", "prepared on a griddle", or "prepared in a pan". These offerings were to be unleavened. Although a portion of the offering was to be burned, the remainder went to feeding the priests. Interestingly, for an offering intended to be burnt up, "You shall not omit from your grain-offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt." Apparently, the Lord doesn't like bland grain smoke. The end of the chapter covered grain offerings of "first fruits".

Leviticus, Chapter 3

This chapter was back to animal sacrifice with sacrifices of well-being. It covered offerings from the herd, offerings from the flock, and offerings of goats. It contained details on what to do with livers and kidneys, along with entrails and other parts of the animals. As elsewhere in the Bible, it prohibited the Hebrews from eating fat or blood.

Leviticus, Chapter 4

Chapter 4 discussed sin offerings for people who have sinned unintentionally. The specifics of the sacrifice were different depending on who had committed the sin. The first was for an anointed priest. This continued the theme of people being guilty for other people's actions, "If it is the anointed priest who sins, thus bringing guilt on the people, he shall offer for the sin that he has committed a bull of the herd without blemish as a sin-offering to the Lord." The other categories included the whole congregation of Israel - requiring a bull, a ruler - requiring a male goat without blemish, or an ordinary person - requiring a female goat or sheep without blemish.

Leviticus, Chapter 5

The first set of sacrifices presented in this chapter covered a variety of sins, from failing to testify when you know something, to touching unclean things, unclean people, or uttering rash oaths. The preferred sacrifice for these case was a sheep or goat following the procedures from the previous chapter. However, if people couldn't afford a sheep, they had the alternative of offering two turtle doves or pigeons - one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. If they couldn't afford even that, they had the option of giving an ephah of choice flour as a sin offering.

The closing verses covered unintentional sins again, but apparently a different class of sins, though it's not entirely clear how they're different. Or maybe these are sacrifices in addition to those already described. At any rate, these require guilt-offerings of a ram without blemish, "convertible into silver by the sanctuary shekel" in one case.

Leviticus, Chapter 6

Chapter 6 started with robberies, frauds, or other deceptions. First, the guilty party was to add one fifth to the cost and pay it to the victim. Then they were to offer a ram as a guilt-offering, after which they were forgiven. It's interesting to note how quickly one was forgiven of their crime - no jail time or even community service. In fact, those types of punishments don't appear at all in this book.

Next, God gave Moses specific instructions for Aaron and his sons on how to perform rituals, including burnt-offerings, grain-offerings, sin-offerings, and the offering for the day that Aaron was anointed. These were supplemental to the rules already given, covering the undergarments and vestments the priests should wear, how and where to eat their portion of the sacrifices, and other details. It seems a bit odd that these supplemental rules would be given removed from the other rules pertaining to those rituals. Perhaps this is another relict of this book being compiled from various sources.

Leviticus, Chapter 7

This chapter contained more details on sacrifices and offerings, some of it supplemental to information already given, some of it new. It started with guilt-offerings and sin-offerings. It then moved on to offerings of well-being. These could be for a variety of purposes, from thanks-offerings to votive offerings or freewill-offerings. They were to include different kinds of cakes of leavened or unleavened bread, sometimes mixed with oil. Depending on the purpose of the sacrifice, there were different rules on how and when the priests could eat their portion.

There was a brief digression into dietary regulations prohibiting the consumption of fat, blood, or flesh that had touched an unclean thing, or from eating of the sacrifice of well-being while unclean. The punishment was severe - being cut off from your kin.

Then it was back to more details on the sacrifice of well-being, and how to divvy out the portions, along with a description of an elevation-offering.

Leviticus, Chapter 8

Chapter 8 moved back into telling the narrative, describing the anointing of the tabernacle and tent of meeting. It was largely repetitious of previous passages that had described what was to be done, but now describing it as it was done. This included Moses washing Aaron and his sons, then Aaron putting on his priestly garb, then anointing the tabernacle, tent, and accessories with oil, then anointing Aaron with oil, then Aaron's sons putting on their garb, then a bull as a sin-offering, a ram as a burnt-offering, a second ram as the ram of ordination, some grain offerings, more sprinkling of oil and blood, and finally cooking and eating their portions of the offerings. Verse 24 caught my eye, "After Aaron's sons were brought forward, Moses put some of the blood on the lobes of their right ears and on the thumbs of their right hands and on the big toes of their right feet; and Moses dashed the rest of the blood against all sides of the altar." At the end of the chapter, the Lord told Aaron and his sons to "remain at the entrance of the tent of meeting day and night for seven days, keeping the Lord's charge so that you do not die..." Like I've written before, it seems that being a priest back then was much more dangerous than today.

Leviticus, Chapter 9

It was now the eighth day, and there were more sacrifices - "a bull calf for a sin-offering and a ram for a burnt-offering", "a male goat for a sin-offering; a calf and a lamb, yearlings without blemish, for a burnt-offering; 4and an ox and a ram for an offering of well-being to sacrifice before the Lord; and a grain-offering mixed with oil." There were several verses detailing those sacrifices. And then, at the end of the chapter, the Lord finally revealed himself to the Israelites, "23 Moses and Aaron entered the tent of meeting, and then came out and blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. 24 Fire came out from the Lord and consumed the burnt-offering and the fat on the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces."

Leviticus, Chapter 10

This chapter started with a bit of excitement. Two of Aaron's sons decided to present their own offering of fire to the Lord, but this wasn't one of the offerings that God had prescribed. So, "fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord." Their bodies were carried away, and Aaron and his sons were instructed not to mourn nor leave the tent, lest they be killed, too.

Then it was back to normal instructions and actions. The priests were told not to drink wine or strong drink when entering the tent of meeting, and to teach all future generations the Lord's statutes. Then were a few more offerings.

Moses discovered that the priests had not eaten the goat of the sin-offering, and was upset with them for not following the Lord's instructions. Aaron responded, "See, today they offered their sin-offering and their burnt-offering before the Lord; and yet such things as these have befallen me! If I had eaten the sin-offering today, would it have been agreeable to the Lord?" to which Moses agreed.


If you put yourself in the mindset of the ancient Hebrews, these chapters don't seem so strange. Their conception of God was different from what most people think of today. The sacrifices weren't merely symbolic. God lived in the tabernacle, and he was literally consuming the sacrifices. The smoke from burnt-offerings would float upwards to God in Heaven.

But with how most people conceive of God in this day and age, these types of sacrifices make no sense. There can be nothing that an omnipotent god would gain from the offerings. I could perhaps understand some symbolism behind the offerings, giving up what is precious to the offeror, but there's nothing in these verses to indicate that these offerings are symbolic. And it's especially immoral to kill animals, and then waste portions by burning them. I know that we still kill animals for many purposes in the modern age, but at least we do our best to use every portion of the animal, to make it go as far as possible, reducing waste and hence the number of animals that must be killed. The type of waste prescribed in the Bible guarantees the slaughter of more animals.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

NRA President Unwittingly Supports Gun Ban

Gun ControlI've written previously about gun control in the entry, Thoughts on Gun Control. I looked at the stats I could find of people killed by gun violence, and concluded that there's just not enough evidence to support outright gun bans, but that I wasn't opposed to gun control laws. Since then, I've come across some articles that have given me reason to think more about the issue, but I still can't call myself informed enough to have a strong opinion. However, I do recognize that there's a problem with gun violence in this country. The gun homicide rate in the U.S. is 10-20 times higher than other industrialized nations, depending on how you define them (source - Politifact). Something needs to be done.

So the other day, I was listening to NPR, and Melissa Block was interviewing David Keene, president of the National Rifle Association. The interview can be found online at NRA Head: Registry Of Gun Owners Would Be Very Dangerous. She brought up several methods of gun control, and Keene dismissed them all as ineffective. Regarding restrictions on high capacity magazines, Keene said the following.

It sounds like a good idea. The fact is that it doesn't make very much difference. It takes anybody who's familiar with any of these firearms maybe a second to change the magazine. They're also very difficult to restrict. There are millions of them out there. They cost virtually nothing to produce. There are no serial numbers on them.

Here was Keene's response to background checks on ammunition sales.

So you know, when you talk about regulations, and when you talk about laws to get citizens to do one thing or the other, you have to ask yourself, what would that accomplish? Would that prevent this kind of shooting? And there's no reason to believe that it would, so why would you do it?

About 2/3 of the way through the interview, Keen said this.

Well, the fact of the matter is that unless you're talking about the confiscation and elimination of firearms, none of these things are going to make much difference. They haven't made much of a difference elsewhere, and they aren't going to make much difference here.

We live in a country that is so far out of line with the rest of the industrialized world in terms of gun violence, and the head of the premier gun organization in the country says that the only thing that can be done to reduce that violence is to eliminate all firearms in the country. What message does he want me to take away from that?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Friday Bible Blogging - Exodus 31 to Exodus 40

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

BibleChapters 31 through 40 are the final chapters of Exodus. They deal mostly with the details of the construction of a sanctuary and its accessories for worshipping/housing God. There was a brief interlude for the story of the golden calf, and a second trip by Moses to the top of Mt. Sinai for the making of the second set of stone tablets.

Exodus, Chapter 31

Chapter 31 continued with instructions on the Tabernacle, with God calling out by name the artist who was to work on it, Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur.

Next came some instructions on keeping the Sabbath holy and sacred, including a command to put to death anybody who worked on the Sabbath.

In the last verse of this chapter, God gave Moses the famous "two tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God."

Exodus, Chapter 32

This chapter contains the story of the golden calf. Moses was taking so long up on top of the mountain that the Israelites decided to make their own god. They gave their gold to Aaron, who melted it down and made a golden calf for the Israelites to worship. God was furious, and was going to kill all of the Israelites save Moses, until Moses convinced God to spare them. When Moses got down to the bottom of the mountain and confronted the Israelites, he was so mad that he threw the stone tablets and they were broken. He had the calf ground up and mixed with water and made the people drink it (the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) implies that that may have been a type of trial by ordeal). Then came a particularly bloody passage. He called on the sons of Levi, and told them to take their swords and "each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbour." At the end of the slaughter, he told them that they'd ordained themselves and "brought a blessing on yourselves this day". The chapter closed with God sending an unspecified plague to punish the Israelites.

Exodus, Chapter 33

God gave the Israelites instructions to continue on to the promised land "flowing with milk and honey". However, I have to admit to being a bit confused - the continuity was hard to follow. At first, God said that he would not go with them, because "I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people." But a few verses later after talking to Moses, God said, "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest." But immediately after that, Moses seemed to still think that God was refusing to go with them, when he said, "If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favour in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us?" After that, God said, "I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name," which I assume means that God will go with them. It's possible my confusion comes from the NRSV translation, but my guess is that it's confusing due to mixing various earlier sources.

The closing verses of this chapter presented a very anthropomorphic God with real body parts when God told Moses, "...while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen."

Exodus, Chapter 34

Since the stone tablets had been destroyed, it was time to make them again. God started off saying in verse 1 that He himself was going to write the tablets again, but in chapters 27 and 28, He had Moses do the writing. Most of this chapter was a repeat of rules and commandments that had been given previously with the first two tablets, though not with exactly the same wording.

There was an interesting passage, that whenever Moses went in to speak to the Lord (presumably in the Tent of Meeting), his face would glow afterwards.

Exodus, Chapter 35

This chapter got into explaining all the details of building the Tabernacle, Tent of Meeting, and all the associated accessories. It was largely repetitious of the passages where God explained how to build those things in the first place, but with names given to some of the people performing the work.

Exodus, Chapter 36

This chapter continued on with the details of making the sanctuary, and was also largely repetitious of previous chapters.

Exodus, Chapter 37

More details on the making the sanctuary and accessories, more repetition.

Exodus, Chapter 38

And more details and repetition, along with the tabernacle itself.

Exodus, Chapter 39

More details, more repetition, including the clothing for the priests.

Exodus, Chapter 40

Now that everything was made, the Lord gave Moses final instructions on how to set everything up and to properly consecrate and anoint everything. "Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle." And from then on, the Israelites used the cloud as their signal - when it covered the tent of meeting, they knew that God was in the tabernacle and they stayed put. When the cloud raised up, they continued on their journey.


The book of Exodus felt a bit divided. Around half of the book was a narrative, detailing the story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt. But then the other half was all rules and instructions. Although this book didn't seem as disjointed as Genesis, you could still sense in places that it came from more than one source, and that this book was a result of mixing together those sources. For the most part, Exodus continued on with the conception of God from the end of Genesis - less anthropomorphic than the God strolling through the Garden of Eden, but still a physical god who made his presence manifest. Also in keeping with Genesis, this book doesn't present a particularly good god. He caused a great deal of suffering of innocent people, and the rules he gave the Hebrews weren't all the best examples of morality. Through the first two books, the Bible has presented a god to worship out of fear, not a god of love.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for December 2012

Top 10 ListI'm back. I realize it's been a few weeks since I've posted anything, but what with the holidays and then getting hit hard with the flu, I just haven't had time. Anyway, I'm feeling better now, and I'm back into the normal routine of things, so expect new blog posts to be forthcoming. I should be back on track with the Friday Bible Blogging this week, too.

Since December's over, it's time to look through the server logs and see what pages were most popular on the site. There were no only two small surprises. The blog entry, Response to an Editorial by Ken Huber, made it to the top spot for the first time. And another blog entry, Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Appendices, Part II (And the End of The Book), made it to the list for the first time. In fact, that's the first of any of the installments from my God- or Gorilla? series to make it onto the top 10 list.

So, without further ado, here were the top 10 most popular pages on this site last month.

Top 10 for December 2012

  1. Blog - Response to an Editorial by Ken Huber
  2. Autogyro History & Theory
  3. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  4. Blog - Texas Board of Education - Bad Results for Science Standards
  5. Blog - Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  6. Blog - Running AutoCAD R14 in XP Pro 64
  7. Blog - Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Appendices, Part II (And the End of The Book)
  8. Blog - Casio EX-F1 - First Impression of the High Speed Video
  9. Programming
  10. Factoids Debunked & Verified

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