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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Book Review - Tribulation Force

Tribulation Force is the second book in the hugely successful Christian End Times series, Left Behind, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Many of my impressions of Tribulation Force are the same as my impressions of the first book, Left Behind, so you can read my previous entries on that book, Some Early Thoughts on Left Behind and More Thoughts on Left Behind After Finishing the Book, along with the brief review from my 2011 book wrap-up.

Let me start off this review by saying that I was entertained by this book, enough that I'll probably continue reading the series (though not straight through without breaks for other books). And let me also preface this review by admitting that when I first saw the Left Behind movie while I was still a Christian, it seemed reasonably plausible, if not particularly likely to occur any time soon. It wasn't until I abandoned Christianity, read the actual book, and discovered Slacktivist's Left Behind reviews that I realized just how implausible the story is (thanks for making me feel so gullible, Slacktivist).

Even if you believe in Christianity, and even if it's one of the varieties that believes in the Rapture and subsequent apocalypse, the events as depicted in these books are wildly implausible (note that the Slacktivist himself is an evangelical Christian). The first book, Left Behind, begins with the Rapture - every True Christian being taken to heaven, along with every single child younger than their early teens, no matter who their parents. The opening chapters of the first book described all the chaos that ensued from that event - cars crashing head on into other cars after the drivers miraculously vanished, airports littered with wrecked airliners that brave passengers had tried their best to land after losing the flight crew, expecting parents grieving the loss of their soon to be born children. But all of the mayhem this supposedly caused is practically non-existent in later chapters of the first book and the entirety of the second book. Other than a few passing references to increased crime or missing children, the characters in Tribulation Force are living in a world remarkably similar to the existing world.

And as if the Rapture weren't strange enough, everybody still alive got to witness Israel divinely protected from an all-out Russian attack, and then the fire-breathing prophets in Tribulation Force that can't be killed by thugs or armies. But despite these obviously miraculous events, people by and large continue to dismiss the (apparently new) Christians who believe in the End Times as nothing more than religious fanatics. Unless God were intentionally hardening everyone's hearts, this is not the reaction that would happen in reality. Americans in particular are already prone to religious explanations, and practically everyone knows something about the Rapture and the second coming of Christ. Can you really imagine the events from this series occuring without everyone jumping to the conclusion that people like La Haye and Jenkins had been right all along. I think this is a reflection of how the authors see the world now - that their particular brand of Christianity must be so obvious that there can't be any good reason for non-believers to actually not believe.

In Slacktivist's reviews, he'll occasionally write alternate versions of passages, illustrating how the events could have been depicted in the hands of different authors, and it makes you realize just how much better these books could have been. Two of my favorites of these alternate passages are in his entries, TF: Reaching for the cookie sack and T.F.: A new car.

The first of those pages linked to above dealt with a small scene where Buck and Chloe bought a cookie at the airport, from a stereotypical "bored teenager wait[ing] for their order." Rather than simply go with the stereotype, especially in a post-Rapture world where everyone's lives must have been turned upside down, Slacktivist imagined a back story for the teenager, and it was far more interesting and touching than anything LaHaye and Jenkins have come up with so far.

The second of the pages linked to above criticized the following sentence from the book, "Buck Williams had spent the day buying a car -- something he hadn't needed in Manhattan -- and hunting for an apartment." In the book, that's the extent of the description of Buck buying the car. There was no mention of where he went, how many dealerships he had to go to, how much he spent, how the dealer himself was dealing with the recent Rapture. Heck, there was absolutely no mention of what type of car Buck bought, whether it was a compact import, an exotic sports car, or a gas guzzling all American SUV. And the few times later in the book when Buck mentioned to other characters that he'd bought a car, they didn't respond realistically. Just imagine that one of your friends came up to you and said, "I just bought a new car.' What would your first reaction be? I would guess it would be something along the lines of, "Oh really, what kind?" But none of the characters ever asked Buck what type of new car he just bought, so that by the end of the book, the only thing we know about Buck's car is that it's "a car". Now, that may not be the most pertinent detail in the series, but a car can tell you a lot about a person's personality, especially in books and movies when certain types of cars are stereotypically given to certain characters (e.g Dinner for Schmucks, Porsches For Jerks - I wonder if Buck bought a 911). And this is really just symptomatic of the lack of detail (and unrealistic dialogue) throughout the whole series thus far.

I will post a sort of warning, however, if you intend to read this book and Slacktivist's reviews. Read the book first. While Slacktivist's entries are entertaining and often spot on, the constant negative comments against the book will bias you against it from the get go, and make it harder to suspend your disbelief to enjoy the books. And Slacktivist sometimes goes a bit too far, in my opinion, interpreting the book especially harshly when a more charitable interpretation might be more fitting.

Perhaps the most damning aspect of these books if you want to read them for enjoyment is the fact that the two main characters aren't particular likeable. The books are told from the viewpoints of Buck Williams and Rayford Steele, but even reading the story through their eyes and reading their thoughts, they come off as arrogant, inconsiderate jerks. In the first book, I'd chalked it up to them not having been True Christians, and expecting their personalities to change for the better once they converted. But in Tribulation Force, they're born again Christians for the entire book, and they're still jerks. I know heroes aren't supposed to be Mary Sues/Gary Stus. They need to have some flaws to make them believable, but the author needs to be careful to not make the flaws so numerous that the hero is no longer a 'hero'. Like I wrote previously, you don't so much root for the main characters in this book, as just read to see what's going to happen.

There's really only a handful of symphathetic characters - Chloe Steele (Rayford's college age daughter who becomes the love interest for 30 something Buck), Hattie Durham (the flight attendant that Rayford had been leading on before the Rapture), and Chaim Rosenzweig (a chemist who developed a practically magical formula making the deserts of Israel into fertile farmland). Hattie and Chaim were duped into becoming part of the inner circle of the Anti-Christ, before they had a chance to receive divine protection by becoming born again Christians like the book's 'heroes'. Yet throughout the two books so far, the 'heroes' have done nothing to attempt to save their friends. Chloes started off the series as a college girl, the group's token skeptic. But in Tribulation Force, she's slowly morphing into a stereotypical silly girl. In one of the most painful aspects of the book to read, the authors commit the standard tropes of Not What It Looks Like and the Idiot Ball, when Chloe sees a secretary for Buck's company drop by his apartment to drop off some of his things (again with the arrogant heroes - who still makes secretaries run personal errands?). Chloe talks to the woman, and the woman talks about her fiance in just such a way that Chloe can misunderstand it to think that the woman is talking of Buck. But rather than ask Buck a simple question to clear up what's going on, the author's drag on this misunderstanding for nearly half the book, along with a similarly painful episode involving mysterious flowers from a secret admirer.

While reading the book, I used my iPhone to snap pictures of particularly cringe worthy scenes throughout the book. I'd intended to use those photos to highlight those scenes in a detailed review of the book, but there are so many (I took nearly 60 photos) that it would make this review unnecessarily long. Perhaps one day I'll post the detailed review including critiques of all those passages, but I doubt I'd add much more than what Slacktivist has already done. Instead, I'll just quote one passage, since it actually ties in with the book of the Bible I'm reading right now for my Friday Bible Blogging series, the book of Job. This is from towards the end of the book, after Rayford re-marries (in a character thrown into the plot after an "Eighteen months later" jump).

Despite their concern for Bruce, Rayford felt a little more whole. He had a four-person family again, albeit a new wife and a new son.

Because family members can be so easily replaced. I still feel the loss of my grandparents, and it's been well over a decade since I lost the last of them. And it doesn't matter how many new people I've met since their deaths. They were individual people who cannot be replaced. The above passage is almost dehumanizing, thinking of a wife as just a position to be filled.

Since my impressions of Tribulation Force are so similar to those I had for Left Behind, I'll end this review by adapting what I'd already written in my brief review of Left Behind. Tribulation Force wasn't great, but it wasn't horrible, either. The series so far isn't, as Slacktivist said, "The Worst Books Ever Written." At the very least, it gives you some insight into the mindset of premillenial dispensationalists. If you can get past the corny dialog, unlikeable heroes, and lack of detail, and then suspend your disbelief about the implausible scenarios, you can enjoy the books. Like I wrote above, I liked Tribulation Force well enough that I'll probably try to finish out the series.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Friday Bible Blogging - Job 1 to Job 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). All headings are links to those Bible chapters.

BibleWell, once again I've missed my Friday goal, but at least I'm not too late. I plan on not posting this Friday since it's Thanksgiving week, and I'd rather spend my time preparing for and enjoying the holiday. I should be back to normal posting for the first part of December, but then I imagine that Christmas will throw me off again.

This week's entry begins the foray into the Wisdom books. They are sometimes referred to as the Poetical books because of the high proportion of poetry they contain (but this is when taken as a group, as the book of Ecclesiastes doesn't contain any poetry). Biblical poetry is a bit different from the poetry most English readers are used to. It doesn't rhyme, and doesn't appear to have meter (though there's a minority group of scholars who think it may have had meter in older pronunciations of Hebrew). It's poetry comes from its structure - making a statement, and then following it with one or more statements that vary according to certain patterns. These follow on statements are related in some way to the first statement, but it's not always clear which statement is the main theme of the stanza, and which is meant as supporting text. As an example of this structure, consider the first three lines of poetry from Job (Job 3:3).

'Let the day perish on which I was born,
   and the night that said,
   "A man-child is conceived."

The first line mentions 'day' in the first phrase, and being 'born' in the second. The following lines mention the opposite of day, 'night' in its first phrase, and 'conceived' as the analog to born in the second. It's a parallel structure with opposites.

Given the amount of white space on the pages due to the poetry, I'd originally thought that I'd make it through these verses faster. However, I find myself subconsciously studying the structure of these verses at the same time I'm reading them for content, forcing me to actually read them more slowly.

The overall structure of the book of Job is prose 'endcaps' surrounding the poetry that makes up the bulk of the book. The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) notes that there's some debate over whether or not the book was compiled from different sources. The prose/ poetry divide is the most obvious break that could denote different source materials (with the prose portions being older), but scholars have also debated whether some of the poetry portions might be later additions, and whether or not the original order of the verses has been preserved, "but a tendency among scholars to regard the book as a unified whole is becoming noticeable."

Job, Chapter 1

Chapter 1 is the first chapter of prose prologue. Job is presented as an idealized man, "blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil." He had sons, daughters, servants, livestock of various kinds, and was just successful in general. But one day when the "heavenly beings" all gathered together, the Satan and God had a conversation about Job, where God boasted about how upright Job was. The Satan countered that it was easy to be faithful when you've got it so good, and challenged God to "stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face." God agreed to the challenge, and allowed the Satan to do what he wanted to Job, so long as he didn't harm Job directly. So, the Satan killed all of Job's livestock, servants, and even children (though it appears that some of the actions were committed by God himself). And these were mostly violent deaths - raiders putting them to "the edge of the sword", the "fire of God" coming down from heaven and burning them up, and even a wind blowing over a house to make it collapse on Job's children. But at the end of the chapter, even though Job "tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshipped", he did not curse God or commit any sin.

One notable aspect from this chapter was that Job was from the land of Uz. He wasn't an Israelite, though he did worship God. However, as noted in the NOAB, the terms he used for God included 'El', 'Eloah', and 'Elohim'.

The NOAB noted that 'the Satan' was not the same character that many Christians think of when they hear that term. Since it's so interesting, I'll quote that entire footnote.

6-12: The gathering of the divine council in heaven (cf. Kings 22.19-12; Ps 82.1) includes "the Satan," i.e., "the adversary" of Job and other humans (cf. Zech 3.1), not of God; he is not the "devil" of later Jewish and Christian literature (see textual note b). Here he acts as God's eyes and ears on earth. He questions whether Job's righteousness is for its own sake of for the sake of its reward.

Note that the 'textual note' from the NRSV translation read, "Or the Accuser; Heb ha-satan"

Job, Chapter 2

Chapter 2 began with another meeting of the "heavenly beings", and again God boasted about Job. This time, the Satan said that Job would probably give in if things were to happen to him directly, "Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives." So God gave the Satan permission to torment Job physically, just so long as he didn't kill him. And Job was inflicted with sores from head to foot. Now destitute, his wife asked him why he wouldn't just "Curse God, and die", presumably because God would kill Job for such an insult. But Job still persisted in not cursing the Lord, "Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?" The chapter closed with three of Job's friends who had heard of his troubles coming to meet with him, but then mourning as if he were dead as soon as they saw him.

Job, Chapter 3

Chapter 3 begins the poetry. Most of the verses in this chapter are variations on the theme of Job lamenting that he was even born, and wishing that he were already dead. Although it's not an uplifting message, it is rather moving.

Job, Chapter 4

Chapter 4 was the first response from one of Job's friends, Eliphaz. Keep in mind the mindset of the Jews when this was written (and still among many religious people today). They believed that God would reward or punish people based on how good they were. Heck, this has been a theme throughout the Bible up to this point. Job's friends couldn't believe that he was being made to suffer so badly for no reason, or that if he was, that God wouldn't eventually set things right. After describing Job as a basically good man, Eliphaz told him this:

'Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?
   Or where were the upright cut off?
As I have seen, those who plough iniquity
   and sow trouble reap the same.

After going on a bit more in that vein, Eliphaz went on to describe a vision he'd had, where a spirit came to visit him in the night, and told him how nobody can appear pure before God, not even angels, and especially not mere mortals.

Job, Chapter 5

Eliphaz went on with his speech, speaking to the human condition, and how suffering is just an inevitable aspect.

For misery does not come from the earth,
   nor does trouble sprout from the ground;
but human beings are born to trouble
   just as sparks fly upward.

Actually, the NOAB notes that the third line above would be better translated as "Humans beget suffering for themselves", that we bring it on ourselves.

Eliphaz went on to describe the good nature of God, that even when he causes or allows bad things to happen, he will redeem people in the end, "For he wounds, but he binds up."

Job, Chapter 6

Job responded to Eliphaz, maintaining his innocence. In this his section, Job is even more explicit in hope that God would kill him to end his suffering, "that it would please God to crush me". Job also berated his friends for not being true friends and assuming the worst of him. To a large degree, it was more of the same theme from Job - lamenting his position and his powerlessness to do anything about it.

Job, Chapter 7

Job continues his personal lament, and also touches a bit on the general human condition.

There's a passage that even mocks Psalm 8.4. The passage here is "What are human beings, that you make so much of them, / that you set your mind on them..." Contrast that to Psalm 8:4, "what are human beings that you are mindful of them, / mortals that you care for them?" Whereas Psalms showed wonder that God would care about humans, Job shows bitterness that God gives humans undue scrutiny.

Job, Chapter 8

It's now Job's other friend's turn to speak, Bildad. He started off with a figure of speech that gets used a few times more in this book, and I found it pretty humorous, "How long will you say these things, / and the words of your mouth be a great wind?"

Bildad's response is similar to that of Eliphaz, except Bildad is not as charitable in assuming that Job is innocent. Most of Bildad's response boils down to saying that God punishes the wicked accordingly, and that if Job is innocent and upright, his current sufferings will be set right.

Job, Chapter 9

Job responds to Bildad, and now there's an even stronger sense of hopelessness. Just consider his first few lines of the chapter.

'Indeed I know that this is so;
   but how can a mortal be just before God?
If one wished to contend with him,
   one could not answer him once in a thousand.

Job went on to describe many of the great accomplishments of God to highlight his power, and then listed all the examples of how lowly he himself (Job) was. I especially liked these lines.

There is no umpire between us,
   who might lay his hand on us both.

Job, Chapter 10

Chapter 10 continues on with Job's speech that he started in the previous chapter. It's more of the same theme - Job's powerlessness, his suffering, and his wish that he'd rather be dead or to never have existed than to have to go on experiencing this suffering.

There were a couple verses that caught my eye, especially for the footnote in the NOAB.

Did you not pour me out like milk
   and curdle me like cheese?
You clothed me with skin and flesh,
   and knit me together with bones and sinews.

According to the NOAB, the understanding at the time was that a man's 'seed' would coagulate into the fetus inside the womb.


So far, the book of Job is interesting. The poetry is actually pretty good, and there are some moving passages. However, I'm only a quarter of the way through, and it's already starting to seem a bit repetitious. I hope it moves on to more themes in the coming chapters.

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.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Response to E-mail - Are America's Hunters the World's Largest Army?

Red Dawn Video CoverI received another interesting e-mail, this one claiming that America's hunters comprise the world's largest army. Here's the closing paragraph, which is the main point of the whole thing.

Overall it's true, so if we disregard some assumptions that hunters don't possess the same skills as soldiers, the question would still remain, what army of 2 million would want to face 30, 40, 50 million armed citizens? For the sake of our freedom, don't ever allow gun control or confiscation of guns.

Apparently, this one's been making the rounds for a while. Here's one example of it online, Fox Nation - American Hunters - The World's Largest Army. As a bonus, you can find an example of treason as the very first comment on that site, though I'm sure the commenter would claim it was meant as a joke (and what's with all these people who claim to be patriots with one breath, and then issue threats against the nation with the next?). For anyone interested in reading the entirety of the version I received, I've put it below the fold.

Now, I grew up in hunting areas. Had I stayed in Pennsylvania for high school, the first day of deer season would have been a day off. In Maryland, in one of my first period high school classes, the kid next to me was always telling me how he'd had to hide his rifle in his truck because he'd forgotten to take it out after going to check his traps in the morning. My dad, brothers, and uncles all used to hunt in our backyard and at my grandmother's property. I have no problem with people hunting.

But the big problem that this e-mail only briefly pays lip service to is that giving somebody a gun doesn't automatically turn them into a soldier. It's insulting to all the actual soldiers in our armed forces to suggest that it does. The U.S. has one of the best trained militaries in the world, and it's this hard work of training and constant drilling that in large part makes our military so effective, not the shear number of guns.

A group of hunters doesn't even rate as a militia - at least militias have some training and drills. Back in the late 1700's when more people actually took the 'well regulated militia' clause to mean a duty of all citizens and not something fulfilled by the National Guard, the government passed the Militia Act of 1792. This act actually called for "each and every free able-bodied white male citizen" between 18 and 45 to be enrolled in the militia. The law even called for musters for some type of training for the militia. In practice, this ended up being once or twice a year. But this minimal training (still more than today's hunters) was completely inadequate. When these militias were put to the test in the War of 1812, they didn't fare well at all. To quote from the first link below, "When war came, the under-trained under-equipped and unready enrolled militia simply was not up to the task. The War of 1812 revealed the weakness of relying upon this unwieldy concept, despite many exceptional and heroic individual successes." And that failure came before the industrial revolution. Just imagine how ineffective private citizens with hunting rifles and shotguns would be against mechanized infantry or attack helicopters.

For comparison, in modern first world nations, Switzerland has the most famous citizen militia. But they get 18 to 21 weeks of initial basic training when they first join the country's militia, followed by annual 3 week refresher courses.

As far as the facts of hunting safety - hunting is fairly safe, but this e-mail is a little exagerrated. Around 1000 people per year are shot in hunting accidents in the U.S. and Canada, but thanks to increased regulations and improved mandatory hunter safety courses, it's getting better. In fact, 2012 was the first year in Pennsylvania in 94 years of records that no hunters were fatally wounded in an accidental hunting shooting (though there were still 33 people shot).

Regular readers may already know that my interpretation of the Second Amendment doesn't line up with the current Supreme Court's. I think the 'well regulated militia' clause makes the intent clear, and that the militia is currently fulfilled by the National Guard. Further, I'm tempted to agree with what the Court said way back in 1876 in United States v. Cruikshank, "The right to bear arms is not granted by the Constitution; neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence. The second amendment means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress, and has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government," or in other words, that the Second Amendment only applied to the federal government, not states. But, times change and interpretation of the Constitution is fluid, so if the current Court wants to reinterpret it, their new interpretation is now the law of the land. But, even if the older interpretation held and the Second Amendment didn't apply to states, I still think there are many legitimate reasons for people to own guns, hunting being high among those reasons. But I don't agree with this e-mail that private citizens come anywhere close to the well regulated militia described in the Amendment, nor that they would provide any substantial defense or deterrence if a modern military were to attack the U.S.

Image Source: IMBD

Here's the full text of the e-mail that prompted this entry. I've eliminated the multiple fonts, sizes, colors, and highlighting, and cleaned up a few horrible formatting issues, but otherwise left it pretty much as is.

Interesting slant on AMERICA'S HUNTERS --- Pretty Amazing!

A blogger added up the deer license sales in just a handful of states and arrived at a striking conclusion:
There were over 600,000 hunters this season in the state of Wisconsin ..

Allow me to restate that number: 600,000!

Over the last several months, Wisconsin's hunters became the eighth largest army in the world.

(That's more men under arms than in Iran. More than France and Germany combined.)

These men, deployed to the woods of a single American state, Wisconsin, to hunt with firearms, and NO ONE WAS KILLED.

That number pales in comparison to the 750,000 who hunted the woods of Pennsylvania and Michigan 's 700,000 hunters, ALL OF WHOM HAVE RETURNED HOME SAFELY.

Toss in a quarter million hunters in West Virginiaand it literally establishes the fact that the hunters of those four states alone would comprise the largest army in the world. And then add in the total number of hunters in the other 46 states. It's millions more.

________ The point? _______________________________________

America will forever be safe from foreign invasion with that kind of home-grown firepower!

Hunting... it's not just a way to fill the freezer.

It's a matter of national security.


That's why all enemies, foreign and domestic, want to see us disarmed.

Food for thought, when next we consider gun control, whether you agree with it or not.

Overall it's true, so if we disregard some assumptions that hunters don't possess the same skills as soldiers, the question would still remain...

What army of 2 million would want to face 30 million, 40 million, or 50 million armed citizens???

For the sake of our freedom, don't ever allow gun control or confiscation of guns.



Friday, November 15, 2013

Friday Bible Blogging - The Book

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index.

The Skeptic's Perspective, Cover
The Skeptic's Perspective: An Atheist Reads the Bible
by Jeffrey Lewis
$9.99 from Lulu.com
Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.
Have you been following along with this series, and found yourself hoping for a professionally printed and bound copy to put on your bookshelf? (No? Just me?) Well the wait is over. I've collected all of the entries for the Pentateuch and the Historical Books, and compiled them into the first volume of a multiple-part series, The Skeptic's Perspective: An Atheist Reads the Bible.

As with my other book, I'm using the print on demand company, Lulu. I've just this week completed all the work to put the book together on Lulu, and am eagerly awaiting my copy of the book. For this reason, I've made the note on the product page that this is a proof copy version. Now, I was pretty careful to try to make the book correctly, but until I get the review copy in my hand, I can't promise that it's perfect. So, if you'd prefer, you can wait until I look over the hard copy and change the product page to the release version. But, if you're trying to get an early start on your holiday shopping, and you trust that I haven't screwed things up too badly, you can place your order now for everyone on your Christmas list (everyone, that is, who would appreciate a Christmas present written by an atheist).


Yeah, yeah. I know that I'm probably going to be the only person to order this book. Unlike my previous book that I really do think has broader appeal, I don't foresee a huge market for this one. And I probably shouldn't write something like that on the page where I'm trying to convince people to buy the book, but it's the truth. Really, I just wanted a nice copy to put on my bookshelf, and with print on demand companies it's just as easy to make it available to the whole world.

Friday Bible Blogging - Midway Reflections

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index.

BibleHaving completed the Pentateuch and the Historical Books, I figured I would take a hiatus this week on doing actual reviews, and instead pause to reflect on this project thus far. (In fact, as I'll announce in my next post, I'm creating a print version of this series, and this post began as the afterword to the first volume of that collection.)

It's rather interesting reading the Bible anew. When I was still a Christian, the preconception that colored my interpretation of the Bible the most was believing that it was divinely inspired in its entirety. This led to a couple other preconceptions - that everything in the Bible was true, and that the Bible was a coherent work, with a unified message and theme throughout. I never believed in an overly literal interpretation - I knew that the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis couldn't have been true on that simplistic level of believing the universe was created in six actual twenty four hour days, but I believed that there still had to be some truth to the story, and that perhaps it was an allegory or a figurative story. And I believed that the Bible was free of contradictions - anything that seemed like a contradiction must have been a misunderstanding on my part.

But once you abandon that first preconception, all those other expectations about the Bible fall away, and you can begin to read it for what it is - an amalgamation and collection of different legends, stories, oral histories, and other writings from a wide range of authors over the span of centuries. I'm going to repeat myself here, and quote something I wrote in my summary at the conclusion of Chronicles. And while this passage was specifically about Chronicles, it is largely applicable to all the books I've read so far.

...there are multiple levels of interpretation when reading these stories. One is as a skeptic, thinking of the people who believe these stories literally, and seeing all the reasons why they couldn't be true. But moving past that and ignoring those problems, I can try to read this as I would other mythology, and try to see it through the eyes of the people who wrote it, and what it says about their mindset. Perhaps what I find the most interesting level, however, is trying to discern the kernels of truth, and how these stories could have developed. There is real evidence for some of these kings and some of these events, so we can be pretty sure that some of this did actually happen. But then there's the Chronicler's interpretive gloss on the whole thing, trying to rationalize why it all happened. And then there's some myth and legend added to it all as well.

And when you take each book on its own, without trying to force it into some larger narrative that's supposed to tie the whole Bible together, you can appreciate the message that each particular writer/editor was trying to convey.

Taken all together, the books of the Bible are a bit of a mixed bag. There are some parts that really are quite good, but then other parts that are boring, tedious, or even offensive to a modern reader. And then there are all the 'scars' in the books that have come from combining multiple previous sources. But given the Bible's nature as a collection of only loosely related books, that's to be expected.

With all that said, I have to admit to being a bit surprised at my younger self for reading the Bible so credulously my first time through. I'm going to repeat myself again, this time from my summary at the conclusion of Deuteronomy.

I can also say that I almost feel a bit embarrassed to admit that I'd read through the entire Bible once before, but that it didn't shake my faith. As I described above, it seems obvious to me now that the Bible isn't a divinely inspired book, and that it doesn't present a particularly praise-worthy god. I wonder just how I could overlook all those problems the first time I read it. Perhaps it's because I was younger, and hadn't really learned to read critically, yet. Perhaps it was the indoctrination and the fear of God, and not wanting to question the reliability of the Bible out of fear that I'd be punished or end up in Hell.

I started this project without a clear idea in my mind of how exactly I was going to approach the summaries of each book. I suppose I began from a more adversarial position, looking for the flaws in the books. And while those are still clear and I'll continue to point out some of them in the coming reviews, as this project has progressed, my focus has shifted to trying to enjoy the books the same way I would any other mythology.

Next week will be back to the normal reviews, starting on the book of Job.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Texas Science Textbook Adoption - Reminder

Stand Up for Science TexasIf you haven't already seen it, go read my entry, Texas Science Textbook Adoption. To summarize, On November 22nd (a week from tomorrow), the Texas State Board of Education will have their final vote to adopt the currently proposed textbooks and other instructional materials for high school biology and environmental science. So far, everything appears to be going relatively well, but there are a few idealogues on the board who have thrown a wrench in the works before. So, please contact your school board representative and urge them to vote in favor of sound science. Links on how to take action are included in that entry.

For anyone interested, I've posted my letter to my representative, Marty Rowley, below the fold.

Subject: Upcoming Textbook and Other Instructional Materials Approval

Mr. Rowley,

You may have already received a form letter sent to you on my behalf by the Texas Freedom Network. However, with the importance of the issue at stake, the adoption of the proposed textbooks and other instructional materials for high school biology and environmental science, I wanted to make sure to write you personally.

I am a resident of Wichita Falls, and so you are my representative on the Board of Education. While you made a few statements during your campaign indicating that you had some personal doubts over the science of evolution, I would trust that as an elected official, you would rely on the input of the appropriate experts in a field to inform your decisions. This has been done throughout the current textbook adoption process, with qualified scholars and educators confirming that the proposed instructional materials conform to the required Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills and are based on established, mainstream science. Please, ensure that our children have the best possible tools in place to receive a quality education by voting to adopt the proposed textbooks and other instructional materials on November 22.

Jeffrey R. Lewis
Wichita Falls, TX

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Follow Up to a Follow Up - Morality

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismA couple months ago, I posted a few entries about a conversation I was having with a creationist in the comments section of his site (see the end of this post for links). A real life conversation I had recently reminded of that online conversation, so I went back to look at it again, and decided that I liked my last comment enough to repost it here, to hopefully allow it to be read by more people. For background, my comment was prompted by this question from the creationist:

Therefore, if you'll permit one more question: By what objective standard of morality are you appealing to when you express that those things are wrong?

Here was my response:

As far as objective morality, this is a topic that's been debated ever since there's been philosophy, so I doubt you or I will say anything that hasn't already been said. In other words, I don't foresee this as a very fruitful discussion, either, but I'll briefly indulge your question.

I don't think there is an objective morality. Morality is based on values, which are in the realm of the subjective. I know some people have tried to make a case for an objective morality based on science, such as Sam Harris in his book, The Moral Landscape. And while I haven't yet read the book, I don't understand how he could get there. Rather, I think you must start with givens that come from our human values, for example, that causing pain is wrong, or that increasing positive emotions is good. You start from your givens, and build from there. And sometimes, single actions can cause conflicting effects, so you have to weigh the good and bad consequences. For example, I already wrote that one of my givens is that causing pain is wrong. But sometimes, the beneficial effects of causing pain outweigh the negative ones, such as spanking a misbehaving child to improve their behavior or keep them from repeating a dangerous action, or putting criminals in jail as a deterrent to crime. But all this weighing and considering is subjective. It depends on how much you value the positive aspects you want to promote, or how much you oppose the negative aspects you want to curtail. While I only spanked my daughter a handful of times because I thought inflicting physical pain was a pretty big negative that needed a very substantial positive to justify it, I know other people who spank their kids on a daily basis, and have even heard of people that whip their kids with switches.

I can guess that you think God is a source of objective morality, but I wouldn't agree, even if Yahweh existed. I'm sure you've heard of the Euthypro Dilemma [Wikipedia], which I think sums up my stance pretty well. Appeals to God's authority like Divine command theory are merely dictating obedience to authority, not true morality. And I can further guess that you might accuse me of trying to put myself above God, but how can you truly be considered to be a moral agent if you abandon the up front work of trying to determine what's moral and fall back on a divine version of the excuse 'I was just following orders'.

I'll use an example. I can think of no inherent reason why homosexuality is immoral, yet Yahweh obviously doesn't like it. Now, just imagine that we were having this conversation 3000 years ago, before Jesus supposedly came along and told people to stop throwing stones. If I found out that somebody was homosexual and had engaged in homosexual acts, I'd be in a quandary. The Law makes the punishment quite clear, that they should be stoned to death. But according to my own moral compass, I'd think that stoning the person to death would be horrible - I'd basically be committing murder, since the person had done nothing wrong. So, do I attempt to follow my moral compass, or do I abandon my moral compass in place of obedience and a selfish fear of being punished by Yahweh. Is it more moral to do what you think is moral, or what you're told?

To add one small point to that, I think the Christian interpretation of the New Covenant completely does in any argument for objective morality. If the just and right thing to do 3000 years ago was to stone a homosexual, but the just and right thing to do now is to judge not lest ye be judged, then it shows that there never was a single proper reaction to learning that someone was a homosexual. It makes morality the whim of God (and also removes the attribute of unchanging or immutable from the description of God).

Related Posts on This Site:

External Entries That Inspired the Above:

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Friday Bible Blogging - Esther 1 to Esther 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). All headings are links to those Bible chapters.

BibleI apologize for this being the second week in a row where Friday Bible Blogging has become Saturday Morning Bible Blogging, but that's just the way the week went. I spent a bit too much time on other people's websites during my lunch breaks this week, so I just didn't have time to get this entry done in time. But at least it's less than a day late.

The book of Esther is another short one, just ten chapters long. And it happens to be the last of the Historical Books, marking another milestone in this series.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) had some interesting notes on this book. For one thing, there appears to have been some debate during the Bible's history as to whether or not this book should have been included as part of the Canonical literature. It's never alluded to in the New Testament, and it wasn't one of the scriptures contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Additionally, it never once explicitly mentions God. This debate occurred among both Jewish rabbis and in the early Christian church, but eventually, it was accepted by both groups by around the 3rd of 4th century AD (though even as late as the sixteenth century, Martin Luther stated he wished it had never been written).

The book focuses on the story of its heroine, Esther, who became queen of Persia, and used her position to the advantage of the Jews living there. Due to a variety of literary devices (and more than a handful of historical inaccuracies), the majority consensus among Biblical scholars seems to be that this book was written as a piece of historical fiction. In fact, I even read one account stating that it should be considered a comedy. It appears to have evolved over time, so that the version we have now incorporates an explanation for the origin of the Jewish holiday, Purim, that probably wasn't in the original version. And Purim itself appears to be a Jewish incorporation of a Babylonian or Persian holiday.

Esther, Chapter 1

The story starts off with a banquet, which turns into a recurring theme in the story. This particular banquet is hosted by the King of Persia, Ahasuerus (most likely the historical king, Xerxes I). At the same time, Queen Vashti gave a separate banquet for the women. I won't list all the historical accuracies in this book, but I'll note this as just one example. There is no record of a queen Vashti, especially not as a king's first queen. Xerxes' first queen was Amestris.

Seven days into this party, the king summoned the queen so that he could show off her beauty. The queen refused, which infuriated the king. This was in keeping with the attitudes of the time where women, even queens, were to be subservient to men. In fact, one of the king's advisors even says, "For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands.."

So, Vashti was de-crowned, and forbidden to see the king again. The advisor believed that "when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, vast as it is, all women will give honour to their husbands, high and low alike."

Esther, Chapter 2

A search was begun for a new queen. Of course, she had to be a virgin, though the NOAB notes this was partly for the practical reason of ensuring the royal bloodline. This is where the book introduced its title character, Esther. Like many Jews during the Babylonian exile, she went by two names - her Hebrew name, Hadassah, meaning myrtle, and her Babylonian name, Esther, derived either from the name of the Babylonian goddess of war and sexual allure, Ishtar, or from the Persian word for star, or possibly from both.

Esther's parents had died when she was young, so she had been raised by her uncle, Mordecai. She grew into a beautiful young woman, so she was chosen as one of the candidates for the new queen. After a year of "cosmetic treatment, six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and cosmetics for women", she was ready to be introduced to the king. She followed the advice of the eunuch in charge of concubines, and obviously made a favorable impression upon the king, as he picked her to be his new queen. And with the wedding, there was another banquet. Throughout her entire time in the palace, Esther kept her Jewish ethnicity a secret.

At the end of the chapter, Mordecai learned of a plot against the king's life. So, he told Esther, who in turn "told the king in the name of Mordecai". The men were found, tried, and executed by hanging on the gallows. According to the NOAB, this wasn't a rope and noose hanging like you might see in an old Western, but a particularly nasty form of execution - death by impalement.

Esther, Chapter 3

Chapter 3 introduced the villain, Haman. Haman was a descendent of King Agag the Amalekite, an enemy of Mordecai's ancestor, King Saul. So, the story was introducing an old ancestral conflict between Haman and Mordecai from the get go.

Haman was a high official, and expected everyone to bow down to him, but Mordecai refused to do so. The story isn't clear if this is because of the ancestral conflict between them, or simply because of Mordecai's pride. At any rate, this angered Haman, but rather than take it out on just Mordecai, Haman "plotted to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus."

Haman went to Ahasuerus, and told him lies about the Jews being a disruptive people that refused to follow the king's laws, convincing the king to give him the money he needed to fund an attack on the Jews. Haman sent out letters to all parts of the nation, "giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods."

Esther, Chapter 4

When Mordecai learned of the plot, he "tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry." When Esther learned of the plot, after a bit of back and forth trying to figure out logistics (since she couldn't leave the palace and Mordecai couldn't enter it), she began communicating with Mordecai by sending messages back and forth through one of the eunuchs. Mordecai wanted Esther to approach the king to help the Jews, but Esther was afraid for her life, for "if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law--all alike are to be put to death." But Mordecai eventually convinced her to at least try - if she didn't, she would probably be killed, anyway, once somebody learned that she was also a Jew.

Esther, Chapter 5

Esther went to approach the king, and fate smiled upon her as the king summoned her as soon as he saw her. When he asked her what she wanted, she invited the king to a banquet, and asked that Haman also attend. At the banquet, the king asked her again what she wanted, "Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled." But Esther delayed her true request again, asking the king back to another banquet the next day.

That night, Haman left the banquet "in good spirits", but his mood was soured on the way home when he passed by Mordecai. He continued on his way home, and called for his wife and friends. He began bragging about his reputation with the king and queen, and went on to complain about Mordecai. Their group came up with a plan to punish Mordecai - building a gallows fifty cubits high that very night, and then Haman would approach the king the next morning to request that Mordecai be executed on it.

Esther, Chapter 6

As I've written before, I think the NOAB is a fantastic resource for understanding the Bible. But, in describing the next two chapters, I think it got a little over-enthusiastic, "This masterpiece of ironic narrative uses alliteration, repetition, understatement, and reversal..." Having read these sections myself, I'm not sure I would call it a 'masterpiece', though it is good compared to what I've read of the Bible up to this point.

At any rate, by another quirk of fate, the king came down with insomnia that night, so "he gave orders to bring the book of records, the annals, and they were read to the king." The record of Mordecai informing the king about the plot on his life was read, and the king decided that he had to do something to honor him. So, still ignorant of the personal conflict between Mordecai and Haman, the king summoned Haman to ask for advice on how to honor somebody. But, in a scene that could almost be on a sit-com, when the king asked Haman about it, he never mentioned by name who was to be honored. And of course, Haman jumped to the conclusion that the king was talking about him (Haman), and so he told the king that the man should be honored by wearing the royal robes, donned with a royal crown, and led around on horseback through the city by one of the king's officials. When the king said, "Quickly, take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to the Jew Mordecai who sits at the king's gate," you can practically imagine a TV show cutting to Mordecai to watch his jaw drop in reaction.

Haman honored Mordecai in the manner he had suggested to the king, then in a bit of foreshadowing, "hurried to his house, mourning and with his head covered." While he was still discussing this new turn of events with his friends and family, the king's eunuchs arrived to take him to Esther's next banquet.

Esther, Chapter 7

This was the chapter where Haman finally got what was coming to him. This time at the banquet, when the king asked Esther what her request was, she finally told him. Interestingly, it was the third time he'd made the request, which according to the NOAB, is a common motif in folklore. Esther explained the edict that had gone out under the king's seal against her people. When the king asked who it was who was responsible for this, I again see it in my mind's eye as a scene from TV, only this time from a soap opera, imagining Esther pointing at Haman with an evil eye while and a dramatic sound effect as she shouts, "A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!" The king left "in wrath" for a minute while "Haman stayed to beg his life". He threw himself on the couch where she was reclining, and when the king returned, he mistook Haman's begging for an attack, exclaiming, "Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?" With that, the kings guards immediately grabbed Haman and covered his face. According to the NOAB, this covering of the face may have been to "protect the king from ritual pollution by association with a condemned criminal". They took Haman out of the palace, and executed him on the very gallows he'd had built for Mordecai.

Esther, Chapter 8

With Haman dead, the king gave his signet ring to Mordecai, and put Mordecai in charge of "the house of Haman". But the decree against the Jews was still outstanding, and according to this story, at least (though there's no historical reason to believe this to be the case), "an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king's ring cannot be revoked." So, the previous decree couldn't be revoked, but a new one could be written, authorizing the Jews to defend themselves. (I wonder if they would have just allowed themselves to be massacred, otherwise.) The decree was sent out to all corners of the kingdom, and "In every province and in every city, wherever the king's command and his edict came, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a festival and a holiday."

Esther, Chapter 9

With the new decree from the king and the Jews now prepared for an attack, nearly everyone was afraid of them, or even allied themselves with them. But there were a few groups with so much hatred for the Jews that they still went through with the attack. "So the Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them." The chapter listed the numbers slaughtered in several cities. And to make the revenge against Haman even more thorough, his ten sons were captured, executed, and their bodies hung on public display, while the Jews in one region, Susa, were allowed an additional day of slaughtering their enemies.

This, then, is the explanation for Purim, and why it was celebrated somewhat differently in different regions. As far as the etymology of the word, it's because "Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them, and had cast Pur--that is, 'the lot'--to crush and destroy them."

The chapter closed with charging the Jews to remember these events and to continue on with the celebration of Purim "throughout every generation".

The NOAB notes that the previous chapter may have been the original ending of this story, and this chapter and the next were tacked on later. One obvious point in favor of this is the plot summary from verses 24 and 25 being slightly different than the story just told.

Esther, Chapter 10

Chapter 10 was a brief post script, just a few sentences long, extolling the power and deeds of Ahasuerus and Mordecai. It's a bit interesting in a book where a woman was the heroine, that it would close praising the men from the story, and not her. It seems to be a little bit of a reminder to keep women in their place.


Due to its origins as a short story, rather than being cobbled together from different sources or different oral traditions, Esther had a coherence lacking in other Biblical books. And reading Esther knowing that it was probably originally intended as fiction made it a bit easier to enjoy and look past the slaughterings typical of Biblical stories. No real people were dying here - they were props like in a Hollywood action movie. It's not quite so off putting to have an intentionally fictional story with so much killing, as opposed to people revelling in slaughter in a story that they believe to be real.

With the historical books now behind me, next week will be on to the Wisdom books, starting with Job.

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.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Texas Science Textbook Adoption

Stand Up for Science TexasI haven't written about the Texas School Board in a while, but it's time to, again. On November 22nd, the school board will have the final vote to adopt the currently proposed textbooks and other instructional materials. Now so far, things appear to be going the right way for our students' educations. Despite some school board members appointing creationists and other idealogues to the textbook review panels, and those idealogues making recommendtions against sound science, the publishers haven't made any changes undermining science education. There's still full support for evolution and climate change, the two big controversial points for the extremists.

If the final vote approves the recommended materials without any last minute shenanigans, then our students will at least have good science textbooks. But, given the school board's past behavior, it doesn't hurt to send the members a gentle reminder to vote properly. If you would like to send such a reminder to your representative, the links below provide you the means to do so (and please remember to be polite).

Links to Take Action:

Links for More Information:

Links to Past Entries on This Site Related to SBOE or TEA:

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for October 2013

Top 10 ListWith the end of October, it's that time again when I take a look at the server logs to see how the site's been doing. As far as overall traffic, it's similar to the previous month, i.e. pretty high compared to what it had been. Depending on which measure you want to use for traffic, in some ways (unique visitors, visits) October was busier than September, but in other ways (pages, hits) it was a bit lower.

I had three pages that made the list for the first time - Gamera II Human Powered Helicopter Sets New Record, Chick-Fil-A, Bigotry, and Rights (though it was close last month, and I included it in a special edition Top 13 list), and Response to E-mail: One Nation Under Wal-Mart?.

I've noticed a few pages that made the list, I suspect, because of recent news events - Gamera II Human Powered Helicopter Sets New Record probably related to Aerovelo winning the Sikorsky Prize, Obamacare Lives (A Discussion of the Individual Mandate) probably related to the rollout of the Insurace Exchange websites, and Texas Board of Education - Bad Results for Science Standards probably being related to the upcoming Texas science textbook adoption vote.

I am greatly relieved to see my Autogyro History & Theory page back in the top 10.

Anyway, here were the ten most popular pages on this site last month.

Top 10 for October 2013

  1. Blog - Gamera II Human Powered Helicopter Sets New Record
  2. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Blog - Chick-Fil-A, Bigotry, and Rights
  4. Autogyro History & Theory
  5. Blog - Email Debunking - 1895 8th Grade Final Exam
  6. Blog - Obamacare Lives (A Discussion of the Individual Mandate)
  7. Blog - Texas Board of Education - Bad Results for Science Standards
  8. Blog - Response to an E-Mail Supposedly Summarizing Dr. Charles Krauthammer's Views on Obama
  9. Blog - Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  10. Blog - Response to E-mail: One Nation Under Wal-Mart?

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Friday Bible Blogging - Nehemiah 1 to Nehemiah 13

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). All headings are links to those Bible chapters.

BibleNehemiah consists of 13 chapters. Like I wrote last week, it was originally combined with Ezra into a single book, Ezra-Nehemiah. While many portions of Ezra were told as a first person perspective through Ezra's eyes, many portions of this book were told through Nehemiah's eyes. Also, similar to Ezra, the original versions of this book contain passages in multiple languages, which is lost on someone reading an English only translation. This book continues on with the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and as with Ezra, it's a bit difficult to figure out the chronology.

Nehemiah, Chapter 1

Chapter 1 introduced the title character of this book, Nehemiah. At the time, he was a cupbearer to the King of Persia. He learned of the surviving Jews back in Judah their troubled state, so he prayed to God to bless the Jews, of course confessing the sins of the people in his prayer.

Nehemiah, Chapter 2

With his proximity to the king, Nehemiah decided that he might be able to do something to help the Jews. He approached the king with the request, "If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favour with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors' graves, so that I may rebuild it." This was at his own peril, as it could have been interpreted by the king as mixed loyalties. However, the king granted the request, along with a few related additional requests once the first one had been granted, giving Nehemiah royal support in rebuilding Jerusalem.

Nehemiah visited Jerusalem to see for himself the condition it was in, and it wasn't good. After his inspection, he approached "the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest that were to do the work", and told them, "You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burnt. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace." And the people agreed.

Of course, there was opposition from outsiders, accusing the Jews of "rebelling against the king".

One thing I found interesting that began in this chapter was the colorful names for all the city gates. It wasn't simply, 'the northern gate', 'the southern gate', or anything so plain. The names mentioned in this chapter were "the Valley Gate past the Dragon's Spring", "the Dung Gate", and "the Fountain Gate". In subsequent chapters, we also learned of "the Sheep Gate", "the Fish Gate", "the Old Gate", "the Water Gate", "the Horse Gate", "the East Gate" (so one gate had a boring name), "the Muster Gate", "the Gate of Ephraim", and "the Gate of the Guard".

Nehemiah, Chapter 3

Chapter 3 got into the details of the repairs to the city walls - listing by name who repaired what. It included the multiple gates and towers in addition to the sections of the wall. The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) noted that the list of people here indicated that the population was "considerably smaller than it had been before its destruction."

Nehemiah, Chapter 4

Chapter 4 started with a bit more mocking from outsiders opposed to the Jews rebuilding Jerusalem. Apparently, the Jews were about halfway done with the wall at this point, so it still wasn't a very effective defense. So, when the "Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites" moved on from mocking to actively plotting to attack Jerusalem, Nehemiah stationed troops at their weakest defense points. When their enemies abandoned their immediate plans to attack Jerusalem, Nehemiah split the Jews into two groups - half on full time guard duty, and the other half doing the actual work. But even the half doing the manual labor kept their weapons on hand at all times.

Nehemiah, Chapter 5

There was a crisis among those who had returned to Jerusalem. They complained to Nehemiah:

We are having to borrow money on our fields and vineyards to pay the king's tax. Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children; and yet we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.

In other words, the wealthy among those who had returned were taking advantage of their less fortunate neighbors. And not just that, but they were even charging interest against loans to other Israelites. And that part about daughters being ravished meant they were doomed - prior to that they could still be bought out of slavery, but once they lost their virginity, they were stuck with the man they were with. Needless to say, Nehemiah was not happy with their behavior, and had them all take an oath to "restore everything and demand nothing more from them".

There seems to be a message in there somewhere for the religious right.

There was one other passage from early on that chapter worth mentioning, "With our sons and our daughters, we are many." The NOAB points out that the latter part of that phrase is better translated as "we pledge". In other words, they were using their children as collateral for loans, explaining the passage about slavery in the subsequent verse.

The closing of the chapter was a bit of boasting from Nehemiah about what a good governor he was "because of the fear of God".

Nehemiah, Chapter 6

Chapter 6 contained a couple attempts to eliminate Nehemiah. The first was an actual attempt on his life. The leaders of the alliance who were going to try to attack in the previous chapter tried to lure Nehemiah out of the city for a meeting in one of their villages, where they planned to 'do him harm'. Nehemiah saw through their treachery, and refused to meet them, even when they tried goading him with false accusations of preparing to revolt against the king.

The second attempt was against Nehemiah's holiness. Shemaiah son of Delaiah claimed that men were coming to kill Nehemiah, and tried to convince Nehemiah to hide in the temple. Since only priests were allowed in the temple and because Yahweh was so vengeful, Nehemiah could have been killed for such a transgression, or at least stricken with leprosy. But Nehemiah saw through this ploy, as well.

There was some boasting at the end of the chapter that struck me as a bit, "And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem; for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God."

The end of the chapter also introduced Tobiah and hinted at a power struggle between him and Nehemiah, where Tobiah was more interested in establishing alliances with powerful families in the surrounding areas, while Nehemiah wanted to build, according to the NOAB, "a community based on Jewish kinship".

Nehemiah, Chapter 7

This was mostly a repeat of the genealogy from Ezra 2. Although there were slight differences, it was mostly the same. This was a way to frame the story and tie it back to the earlier portion.

Nehemiah, Chapter 8

The chapter started with the people telling "Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses..." Interestingly, this is one of the few times Ezra is presented as a contemporary to Nehemiah. As I wrote last week, it's difficult to follow the chronology in these books. It seemed that Nehemiah took place later than Ezra, so maybe the few mentions of Ezra contemporary to Nehemiah were later additions.

Anyway, "the book of the law of Moses" was brought forth. According to the NOAB, this was mostly likey most the Pentateuch, and probably contained Deuteronomy. The priests read from the book, and the people listened and worshipped God. There was an interesting aspect to the reading - a group of men "helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places... They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading." It's unclear if this helping was translating the Hebrew into the common language of Aramaic, or if it was more interpretation.

The end of the chapter also described that the people had celebrated the festival of booths.

Nehemiah, Chapter 9

Chapter 9 is basically one long prayer from the Levites, given in front of all the assembled Israelites. It contains all the elements you'd expect from such a prayer - praise to God, confession of how awful and wicked the Israelites had behaved, and requests for forgiveness and future blessings. The last verse of the chapter calls it a "firm agreement in writing", so apparently it was a contract or covenant with God, not just an oral prayer.

One of the verses that caught my eye here was early in the chapter, before the prayer was actually begun, "Then those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their ancestors." This was another example in Ezra-Nehemiah of the the Jews separating themselves, and the refusal to mix or assimilate with outsiders. Of course, the religious reason is to avoid temptation from false gods, but it does seem almost isolationist.

The NOAB also pointed out an interesting textual issue. Verse 6 states, "And Ezra said...". However, Ezra's name wasn't included in the surviving Hebrew manuscripts - it appears to be a Greek insertion.

Verse 36 was also noteworthy, "Here we are, slaves to this day--slaves in the land that you gave to our ancestors to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts." But in the rest of this book, the Jews haven't been treated particularly bad as a group.

Nehemiah, Chapter 10

The chapter started off with a list by name of all those who signed the "sealed document" described in the previous chapter. The rest of those assembled pledged to "enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God's law..." The chapter went on to describe further obligations that the people were putting on themselves, i.e. voluntary pledges not required by the law. These included such things as providing wood for the burnt offerings, taxes, etc.

Nehemiah, Chapter 11

Chapter 11 began with an interesting scheme to repopulate the newly rebuilt Jerusalem, "Now the leaders of the people lived in Jerusalem; and the rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of ten to live in the holy city Jerusalem, while nine-tenths remained in the other towns." Most of the remainder of the chapter was listing who lived where, and the responsibilities different people had.

Nehemiah, Chapter 12

This chapter continued on with listing people and their responsibilities, focusing on the Levites and priestly duties, and then moving on to more practical duties, like guards at the different gates, people in charge of the storage rooms, etc.

Nehemiah, Chapter 13

The chapter began by bringing up an old grudge, "it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, 2because they did not meet the Israelites with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them..." For a supposedly forgiving God, he's not very forgiving of this transgression that happened generations previously.

After serving his time as governor, Nehemiah returned to the king. After a time, he returned to Jerusalem to check up on the city, and discovered that they'd slipped. Tobiah had a room "in the courts of the house of God." Nehemiah was furious at this, and threw all of Tobiah's furniture out of the room. Of course, this is written from Nehemiah's view. But if it's describing real events, and you consider it from another point of view, it appears that the Levites accepted Tobiah as legitimate, and didn't see a problem with him staying in the temple. This hints at the politics taking place in Jerusalem at the time.

At that visit, Nehemiah also discovered that people weren't paying their taxes to support the temple, and so the priests had had to go back to work the fields to support themselves. So, Nehemiah set everything right, appointed new leaders, and returned back to the capital.

In a separate trip back to check on Jerusalem, Nehemiah discovered yet more transgressions. People were working on the Sabbath, and marrying foreign women. Nehemiah even got a bit physical with them over that latter sin, "And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, 'You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves...' "

But Nehemiah set everything right again, including running off "the son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite". And he concluded with a refrain that he'd used multiple times throughout this whole book, "Remember me, O my God, for good."


I've already covered the broad strokes of Ezra-Nehemiah in my introduction to Ezra last week, so there's not much to add here. I was struck by the isolationist attitude, especially the heartless way that women and children were driven off from their houses in Ezra, but the books were mainly just a summary of rebuilding Jerusalem following Babylonian exile.

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.

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